Letters Home #20 Thank You

For two weeks I've been reluctant to write, though not for a lack of ideas. I figured the best way to spend my last days in Arnhem was to set aside the demands of my thoughts to be organised into words and sentences for the simple pleasure of time with friends and family.

So right now I’m a little backed up with questions and a general lack of fluidity.

I guess I’ll have to wait and be satisfied with small portions.

In the meantime, thank you for reading these letters. Thank you for writing back with your own experiences and encouragement. From the very first week this process has been the thing that's made it possible for me to undertake the adventure, it’s been that to which I’ve turned every time I felt like turning back.

Moving forward I have some ideas for a book I’ll be working on in the coming months. Its about broken hearts and cross-cultural relationships. I hesitate to say much more, but I hope it will be helpful for those who long for cultural belonging.

I plan to have an outline and a draft of the first chapter by March/April.

I’ve also accepted an opportunity to work in Alice Springs as a Children’s Councillor next year, specifically with children and families who have been or are at risk of being separated. That starts at the end of February.

I’ll be in Sydney from next week until I travel to Mexico for the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in January. I’ll write again from there.

Wishing you all a happy and nourishing holiday season.

 A photo of me and some kids looking for birds.

A photo of me and some kids looking for birds.

Letters Home #19 Ambivalence

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 A rock at Gali.

A rock at Gali.

A few years ago I attended a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. At the end of the seventh day I concluded that to spend another minute with myself, when I could otherwise be surrounded by friends and family - was at best absurd, at worst it demonstrated a pathological urge to prioritise my own spiritual seeking over the love of those who love me. 

It was midnight when I knocked on the door of my teacher. “I’m done,” I said. “There are more important things in life than meditating for my own good.”
My teacher showed no signs of surprise nor was he taken aback. “So,” he replied, “You’re dealing with doubt?”
Caught off guard I dug in my heels. “No,” I spat. “Not doubt. I know exactly what I need to do. I need to go home and be with my friends and family. I’m wasting my time.”
“In my experience,” he said calmly, apparently indifferent to my defensive urgency, “Your friends and family will be right where you left them. But you have an opportunity now to take advantage of the rare gift of time alone. I suggest you spend the next three days cultivating a state of mind that once returned to your family and friends will be more capable of giving and receiving love.”

I looked at him. What kind of cult is this? I thought.

Nevertheless for each of the next three days I sat silently in a room two metres by one metre for stretches of two to three hours at a time, ten hours in total per day. I desperately observed the manifest contents of my mind and body, praying for some conclusion to rush in and explain the mess of wandering thoughts and physical discomfort.

No such conclusion arrived. When it was over I felt proud for having seen it through, but no more certain as to whether it was the right thing to do. My family and friends were as I’d left them. As to whether I was more capable of giving and receiving love, I was not. It took me many months to reconcile myself with the world of giving and receiving, so stark was its contrast to the undisturbed solitude of hermetic life.

Now, three weeks before the end of my time in Arnhem, again I feel desperate for conclusions. Where is the secret wisdom to heal my wounds? What solution have I found for the intractable problems of life in remote communities? I want a cause to fight for. But I haven’t one.

Yesterday began the funeral of a twelve year old boy who died sniffing petrol. His body was carried into a temporary shelter for a ceremony of songs and dances, in his wake women threw themselves repeatedly on the ground. One man struck himself in the head with a machete. Others drew close to dress his wound and provide comfort. They didn't panic. He’d simply been moved by grief.

Meanwhile last week I took eight kids to the Gold Coast on a surf camp, generously sponsored by Surfing Australia. For four days we lived and played in a state of the art facility, helped by phenomenal coaches who celebrated the kids’ every attempt to have a go. There was none of the usual teasing or shaming that so often levels the barren playing fields in community. The kids went to bed early. They ate three meals a day. By the end they were glowing. On the last day a local group of Indigenous kids visited and performed a traditional dance to welcome us to their country. Then everyone hung out and surfed together. The local kids were polite and well adjusted teenagers. In the wash of the ocean they had found some common ground on which to stand in both worlds.

That night our kids curled up on couches together. Instead of rap music and scary movies they watched YouTube videos of traditional songs and dances from their homeland communities. A few stood up to dance along. There were tears in my eyes. 

When we returned I felt convinced that the only way for kids in remote communities to improve their lot is to leave. To find their place in a global market of sub-cultures where every interest is catered for. Is that not the unprecedented gift to humanity of the free world stumbled upon in the West?
Then came another voice. Who are you to presume to advise a person to set aside the past for the promise of a future with no guarantees? You cannot speak for that which knows by what criteria to demand certain destinies of the hearts of human beings, let alone know what substance is safeguarded by those committed to the preservation of ahistoric traditions. Look around! Somewhere in the mess between an ancient way of life that no longer sustains itself and a way of life that doesn’t fully understand, a bunch of beautiful people are growing old together!

Oomph.

Over the past five months I’ve come to know something of the breadth and depth of human suffering. I’ve glimpsed behind the eyes of every child what is also behind my own, a spark, occasionally buried so deep. I’ve come to see that trying to understand is helpful in and of itself. But trying to understand is not the same as drawing conclusions. Its merely a way. A path guided by fragments of stories scrawled in forgotten languages on scraps of paper.

Letters Home #18 Fragments

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  Fragment  (Photo Credit: Mahra Villis, Nov 2018, Arnhem Land, NT)

Fragment (Photo Credit: Mahra Villis, Nov 2018, Arnhem Land, NT)

#18 Fragments

I could tell by the way I pulled grapes three at a time from their stems that something was unsettled in me. Over and Over I caught hold of the rattling fragment, desperate for some clue as to its origin. But each time I saw only a partial and misshapen memory or prophecy.

Seeking relief I sat down to articulate my disjointed thoughts. But immediately I felt tired and resolved instead to lie down and take note of my dreams. My phone rang. It was my neighbour. A poor man. He called to suggest I invite him for dinner. For all I know he had nothing to eat. But in that moment I admit I thought it better he be motivated by hunger to feed himself than disturb my puzzling over fragments. And what’s more, privately, I cursed his resignation to state-sponsored dependancy. I snapped a passively embittered excuse about all the work I had to do and put down the phone.

I dreamed I’d purchased a gun. A two-metre-long fully automatic matte black assault rife. For what possible purpose? I asked, staring remorsefully at the unboxed instrument.

The next morning I prepared a small bag for a planned overnight trip with seven children and my adopted sister to her country, a valley called Gali. She hadn’t been in twenty years. Fifty years ago her family moved to the township. Before that they lived in Gali for untold generations.

Before that, when the world was still a dream, a duck flying eastward to salt water carved the valley with each flap of its enormous wings. In its wake a river flowed and pooled in several places, one of which became a resting place for the spirits of her ancestors. 

She called out to them as we approached and turned to introduce the children. Tears were streaming down her face.

All around that sacred place we were under strict instructions not to so much as break a stick. The children obeyed with a reverence that would be entirely unfamiliar to their classroom teachers. It was unfamiliar to me. In all the time I’ve been here and all the places I’ve visited, I’d never seen it before.

Upstream we gathered wood and river sand for a damper fire. We built two more fires at either end of our camp to ward off snakes and spiders. For tinder we tore strips of stringybark.

As soon as the first cups of tea were poured a thick purple cloud drew across the sky. Drops of rain burst playfully on everything, we took them in. Then came a downpour. We huddled together in the awning of a tent, soaked with mirth, sipping sweet tea. “Yapa,” I called, using the Yolngu word for sister. She joined us after working to cover the fires with hunks of bark. “I think this place is happy to see us.”
“Yew!” she replied, brushing back wet strands of grey hair with her hands.

By sunset the rain had eased. We ate and drank our fill of damper and tea then built up the fires and prepared the children for bed. Lightening continued to flicker when everyone was safe inside their tents. I sat alone, listening to the padded drip of raindrops on the damp forest floor.

“Leave me here with the billy and a few tea bags,” my sister joked the next morning as we prepared to leave. Half-joked I think. In her smile I caught a glimpse of my unrest.

Again I tried to pin it down.
But
All I know is
Small portions - and
Scattered pieces of truth.

So I keep wandering, holding the thoughts that cross my mind to the world before my eyes. And I let that tear me apart. And the fragments I pick up and turn over and over and describe them to you. I hope they shed some light.

 The Valley at Gali, Nov 2018.

The Valley at Gali, Nov 2018.

Letters Home #17 Exegesis

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This week I started a new project, called Exegesis. Its inspired by everything I’ve been doing or trying to do. But before I get to that; a short story.

**

An old man shuffled with several heavy books down a quiet street. Two under his right arm, two under his left, one pinched in his right hand. He stopped briefly at a bench to ease and consider his burden, then continued on his way. As the old man struggled a young man watched, eventually he approached and offered to help. The old man was grateful and together they walked a few blocks to the old man’s apartment. Once inside the young man set the books on a side table and helped the old man into a chair. “I hope you don’t mind my asking a question,” the young man ventured, sensing himself in the presence of wisdom.
“Not at all,” replied the old man, still catching his breath.
All of a sudden the young man was self-conscious. It seemed absurd to lay at the feet of a man he’d never met a question he’d always wanted to ask.
“So,” said the old man, noticing the young man’s hesitation, “What is it you’d like to know?”

Unbeknownst to the young man, in a time gone by the old man was called an exegete and a homilist. He’d expounded, proclaimed and edified. Teased, pruned and tamed the verses of ancient stories whose lines frequently overgrew the sweet nectar between them. All so that others might more easily wander the garden of their genius.
But the ancient stories were predicated on the notion of Truth. And time, in its propensity to select and reject from the catalogues of ideas throughout human history, rejected Truth. Its reasons were clear. Nothing, it said, could occur contrary to the laws of nature. And besides, that there were a multitude of denominations laying claim to Truth was unequivocal evidence that whatever it was in their stories that sustained them, it had little to do with objective reality.
So the old man had been stripped of his reverie. However, unlike some of his colleagues he made no appeal to a higher court. Nor did he dispense with his verses. Instead he gave one final address to his congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “There is no greater sacrifice than a sacrifice for Truth. This we learn from Abraham, who for Truth was willing to bind his only son Isaac to the alter. So terrifying was his faith, the sages tell us, that the angels in heaven cried and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. Years later, as an old man, Isaac was blind and vulnerable thus to deceit. Permit me to offer an equally terrifying interpretation of this story. For the sacrifice a man makes for Truth is to denigrate all ideas but his own. To the vast majority of humankind he says, ‘I have sacrificed your ideas for Truth.’ Therefore he cannot even consider them. He is forever prejudiced. And like one who stares openly at the sun he will stare so hard at Truth that when he looks away he will be unable to see beyond its imprint. Such a man is blind. And his children will be blind as well.”
Muffled voices rippled through the congregation and threatened to boil over.
“My friends! Please, let me finish!” The old man struggled to quiet the room, it was quickly filling with unbridled emotion and unfortunately his final words were lost on many. “Let us not hold so tightly to our verses that we prevent even the tiniest drop of nectar from reaching our tongues. For it is the nectar that sustains us, and we should continue to know its taste. The same stuff flows in other stories, but not in all of them. So I implore you to look upon your work as I look now upon my own, knowing that it has barely begun.”
With that the old man left his post. In the proceeding years he set about studying the collected literary effort of humankind. What he learned frequently changed his mind. 

The young man looked in the old man’s eyes, a pair of alpine lakes crowded by fleshy peaks and valleys. 
“I’d like to know what makes a good story,” he said.
Genuinely interested, the old man replied, “What do you mean by good?”
The young man thought for a moment.
“I suppose I mean true,” he said, "But not the kind of truth arrived at by reason. Nor the kind of truth with a capital T. I mean the kind of truth contained in stories. The kind of truth arrived at by exegesis.”
“And what makes you think the truth of a story can’t be validated by reason?” the old man prodded.
“Because stories have an internal logic. They can make sense without being reasonable.”
“Then perhaps, young man, your question is about the difference between sense and reason.”
Again the young man took a moment to think. He hadn’t framed his question in that way before. Now it seemed too fundamental to pursue. He was lost for words.
“Perhaps,” the old man said quizzically, “It will help you to know this story. Its about a wayfarer, who visited a city rumoured to house an enchanted well. When he arrived in the city the wayfarer enquired at an inn and in exchange for two pints he was given a map. But after following the map for an hour he concluded it was erroneous. What did he expect from an innkeeper? the wayfarer thought. So he visited a fancy hotel, where, in exchange for a room he was given a second map. After another hour he concluded that the second map was a fraud. What did he expect from a hotelier? he thought. Then the wayfarer happened upon a street urchin, who told him in no uncertain terms that such a well did not exist. But what did he expect from an urchin? 
The wayfarer decided to visit the library, where he made copies of every map he could find and spent several days following them all to no avail. Eventually, exhausted, he determined to enlist the help of others. So he stood outside the fancy hotel and sold his maps for a dollar apiece, to cover expenses. Later that day a couple to whom he had sold a map walked by and he overheard the husband say, ‘That map was hogwash!’ to which his wife replied, ‘What did you expect from a peddler?”
The young man was wrapt with the fable but appeared confused. “I’m not sure that answers my question.” he said.
“Well,” came the reply, “What did you expect from a story?”

**

So, back to the project. Simply put its a series of group sessions focused on the exegesis of canonical stories in popular Western culture. Beginning with The Lion King. During the sessions I play twenty to thirty minutes of the film at a time then facilitate a discussion about its underlying significance, which I make poignant by using language from the kids’ vernacular.

For example, here is a snippet of truth contained in The Lion King:

To be a good king (adult) involves a lot more than simply getting one’s way all the time. A good king keeps the circle of life in balance and maintains a peaceful home. A good king is brave, but that doesn’t mean he goes looking for trouble. Being brave means overcoming shame. In that effort it helps to be light hearted, let things go and remember that all the great kings of the past are on your side. 

A king who wants nothing but to get his own way is like Scar, who acts out of jealousy and hatred. He relies on three hyenas who spend all of their time teasing, lying and playing the fool to do his bidding. Their loyalty is based solely on the fact of their being fed.

To be king is the right thing to want, what’s important is how one gets there.

 How one gets there.

How one gets there.

Letters Home #16 'Bedtime Stories'

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 Waiting for a billy to boil.

Waiting for a billy to boil.

Half of the brain is dedicated to vision, which means the best time to tell stories is bedtime, when there’s more room to process information beyond what’s apparent. Which might also explain why people faced with complex problems tend to think for a few seconds with their eyes closed. Whatever the case, bedtime is a good time to imagine. So this week we took seven kids to Yalakun for an overnight camp.

Yalakun is a beachside outstation, two hours by four-wheel-drive on sandy, unsealed roads. Its home to a solitary Ranger and knowledge holder whom everyone calls 'the old man'. There’s an old schoolhouse - no longer in use - two bungalows, a simple shade shelter and four outhouses. In the centre of it all is a big white cross. Its a hundred meters from the cross to the beach, where we sat under the setting sun, with bellies full of kangaroo tail and damper, listening to the old man. He spoke of the land and surrounding clan groups, of the crocodiles and their habits, of the best times to fish and of the sandflies that come out when the wind dies down. 

When he retired the rest of us stayed by the fire with a billy and the rising moon. From what I could tell the chatter was light hearted, though of course I couldn’t understand. One by one the kids went to bed until there were only two. Then the conversation took a more serious turn. R— was talking. She was telling a story, that much I knew. I lay on my back and relaxed into the rhythm and cadence of her words. Occasionally a brief debate would ensue, but for the most part she talked and everyone listened.

I imagined she was telling a sacred story. Tracing the features of the land in the movements of ancestral beings, casting the silhouettes of animals into the stars and teaching how to navigate by their eternal presence. I couldn’t know, but I felt deeply the company of ancient knowledge and the comfort of family. 

When the billy hissed I made to stand up but R— put a hand on my knee. “Waku,” she said, “Will you read this aloud?” In her other hand she held a mobile phone, its light reflecting the undersides of her features, the tops of which were lit by the moon.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up and taking the phone. I straightened my back and cleared my throat, then I looked at the screen. At the top of the page was the heading, Book of Revelation, Chapter 7.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely surprised.

In Gapuwiyak one of the more unexpected, though not uncommon sounds is amplified Christian rock music. It blasts every weekend from huge speakers outside some of the houses. This week it started at seven o'clock in the morning on three consecutive days from a house at the end of my street. On the fourth day I learned that an old woman who lived in the house had passed away. The music was part of her palliative care. After she passed the roads were closed for the hearing ceremony, the first opportunity for the family to grieve. All of the women sat in the yard of her house while the men, their foreheads smeared with white paint, gathered nearby. They walked towards the women in a tight group, singing and playing clapsticks. When their song was finished the women started wailing and throwing themselves repeatedly to floor. They hit themselves with rocks and sticks in places on their bodies corresponding with their particular kin relationships to the deceased. When I asked why they hit themselves I was told that it helps to stop thinking and start crying. After the ceremony everyone sat together, listening to Christian rock. A huge white cross leaned on the wall of the house. 

Most of the adults here went to Sunday School as children. The devout sit every night in fellowship circles, praying and reading scripture, while others partake in the regular vices. There’s no longer any formal religious education so kids learn mainly at bedtime. They fall asleep to stories about God. Which all goes to say, I wasn’t surprised to be holding that phone. I read chapter seven aloud. Its part of a highly symbolic, apocalyptic story, written by someone called John at a time when Christians were under increasing pressure to worship their Roman emperor instead of their God. This is what it says.

“I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea, 'Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.' Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’ Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes - who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Amen!” 
I handed the phone back to R— then stood up and fetched the billy. 
“Gnama,” I said softly while pouring the tea, “What does that mean to you?”

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Letters Home #15 'Birthday'

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 The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

#15 Birthday

Last week, on the day after birthday, I was floating on my back in water cold and deep between rock-ribbed walls in an ancient gorge. Once more round the sun, my brother likes to say. Once more round the sun.

I celebrated with a few friends to the tune of Paul Kelly. We played a game with four-inch needles and pot of ink. When it was my turn I told a story about something I’d seen and wanted to keep. A snake. I drew it on the back of an envelope. Then again on my skin. Then with one hand she held my arm and with the other she dipped a needle in the pot of ink and poked at my skin.
Deeper water is calling him on
"Does it hurt?" she asked. 
“Yes,” I said, “in a good way though, not like a stubbed toe." 
A stubbed toe is loud and clumsy, annoying and difficult to accept, impossible to understand. Whereas from the very start the pain of a tattoo is forgiven, endured with grace and understood to be necessary. When it was over she smeared my skin with cool salve and asked what I thought. I said I liked it very much and I wanted more.

This week I'm back in Gapuwiyak. On the first day of school I took a group of kids to the lake. R— was there too - my adopted mum. We gathered nuts and seeds and feathers and leaves and put them in a basket. She showed me a tree whose bark makes a poison that catches fish, and another with ironwood suitable for clapsticks. Pointing to a third she said, “This tree is the tree of my tribe. The tree of your tribe. When someone in our tribe passes away we sing a song about this tree falling down. One day, waku, when you hear that song, you will know if all this is meaningful for you.” 

The next day it rained for the first time in months. The air outside was cold and perfumed. A butcherbird landed on a branch in my yard with a worm in its beak. The rain brought worms to the surface, I thought, and I suppose the butcherbird too. In the yard next door a pair of lorikeets hung from the branch of a mango tree and took turns with one of the first ripe fruits of the season. Meanwhile an old story was coming to an end. The story of a petrified infant with its eyes tight shut and no one around. 

“Where was the last place you saw it?” Tallulah asked, seated again on her moroccan pouf.
“In a softly lit room with some friends,” I said, “then again the next day in a gorge, after that in my mother's arms. And I smelled it one day in the rain.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Complicated, but also clear, sort of floral, with an earthiness and a wetness too. It was beautiful and I remember thinking I should take time to enjoy it, how soon it would end. Somehow that made it smell better.”
Tallulah smiled. She picked up one of the cloth bags on the glass table to her right and loosened the drawstring. Inside was a book, which she held in one hand and whose cover she opened with the other. “Take this,” she said, “its a book of poems by a man I think you’d like. Its called, Deeper Still.”
Tallulah turned to a page and took a deep breath, she paused, and slowly closed it again. Her fingers brushed its cover the way one brushes the hair from a child’s face to better take them in. She put the book back in the cloth bag and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said.
“Thanks.” 
I stood up and locked eyes with her. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was dreaming. “Who are you?” I asked her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Never mind.”
I put the cloth bag in my shoulder bag and slung it over my shoulder. After a final exchange of grateful smiles I walked out through the beaded curtain, through the kitchen and onto the street.

Letters Home #14 'House of Tallulah (Part 2)'

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Tallulah sat in half lotus on a cherry red moroccan pouf in a modest room at the back of the cafe. Odd stools and chairs, covered with candles, crowded the walls. There was a window to her left, a bookshelf to her right, behind her a large wooden chest and beside her a small glass table. Her pouf was in one hemisphere of a round mat, woven with threads of dyed pandanus, in earthy tones of green and orange. I sat in the mat’s other hemisphere - also on a pouf. 
"So, what are you looking for?” 
Her eyes were soft but offered no place to hide. They followed mine to the bookshelf, where I’d turned for time and inspiration. I read a few spines. Sacred Geometry and the Body, 24 Recipes for Grounding, Love Matters.
I paused, lost in a moment of contemplation. She noticed.
“Are you looking for love?” she asked.
“Um,” I replied, remembering something. “Actually I’m looking for the sound of my own voice.”
“I see,” she said. So, you’re not looking for love?”
“Well —” I paused and gave it some thought. “I mean I’m not not looking for love."
“When was the last time you had it?”
“Love?” I said casually, as if surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “When looking for something, it helps to know the last place you had it. Like a clue.”
“Um.” I hadn't prepared to think about love. Suddenly my stomach dropped and filled with dizzy butterflies. They were slightly nauseous. I winced and moved my hands to hold them.
“Something the matter?” Tallulah asked.
“There’s a pain in my stomach,” I said. The nausea crept to my back and shoulders then into my cheeks. Tallulah didn’t seem concerned. She paused and said softly, “Stay with it.”
I must have looked confused because she offered an explanation, “Sometimes,” she said, “when the voice is hidden, the body does the talking. Listen. What’s it saying?”
“Its saying its in pain.” I said through tight eyes.
“What kind of pain?”
“Like a puncture,” I said, “like my stomach's been punched and a sickness is oozing from the wound.”
“Mm,” Tallulah fell silent. Meanwhile the ooze dribbled into my hips. I tightened my grip and winced again.
“Its like I’m sick,” I said.
“What do you mean by ‘sick’?” she asked.
“I mean something isn’t right, like an illness. Or a disease.”
“A disease,” she echoed.
“Yeah, like I’ve caught something in my stomach. Its making me sick. Ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life?” She asked. 
I was a little surprised by my admission but took it as permission to confess. “Yes. It makes doing things hard. I can’t be totally happy or friendly when there’s this feeling making me want to do nothing but curl into a ball and go to sleep and not wake up till its gone.”
“It makes you want to curl into a ball?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my stomach.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
“Try what?” 
“Curling into a ball.”
“Now?”
“Well from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a pain in your stomach thats ruining your life and it wants you to curl into a ball. I wonder what would happen if you did what it wants.”
“Um.”
Tallulah smiled, “Only if you want to,” she said.
“Okay.” I agreed.
She unfolded her legs slowly, stood up and moved her stool outside the mat. She opened the chest behind her and pulled out a white crocheted blanket. “If you like,” she said, "I’ll put this blanket over you when you’re in a ball. If you feel as though you need to speak, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay too.”
“Okay,” I stood, awkwardly. I moved my stool and lowered to my knees. She seemed assured and that was encouraging. I lay on my side and wrapped my arms around my legs. The pain in my stomach pressed against my thighs. It turned over and oozed up my sternum, behind my tongue. “Ready,” I said.
Tallulah moved towards me and draped the blanket over my body so that I was completely cocooned. “I’m going to light some candles,” she said.
“Okay.” 
The lights went out. I could hear Tallulah lighting candles. Eventually she stopped and one of the stools creaked under her weight. I closed my eyes. The pain was most acute a few inches above my bellybutton. It sucked at my skin and spread out towards my sides. Then it rolled over and tugged at my jaw. It tucked itself behind my bellybutton, rising and falling with my every breath. Suddenly it sharpened and my stomach gurgled. An image flashed into the speckled blackness behind my eyes. It was a crying baby, covered in purple and white blotches, with clenched eyes. Its umbilical chord was intact and flailing. The baby was floating in a room, faintly red, but no one was holding it. No mother or father. Only a few shadows moving about in preparation. The baby was silent. Its eyes clenched tight.
“I see a baby,” I said.
“A baby?” she echoed.
“A newborn. Its afraid — its frozen with fear. Its eyes are clenched tight.”
“What does it need?”
“Um,” I started to shake. Tears welled in my eyes. They were clenched. 
“What does it need?” she repeated.
“Love,” I cried. “It needs love.”
Tallulah was silent. So was I. I sat up and put the blanket to one side. Her eyes were soft, but offered no place to hide. “I’m looking for love,” I said to her eyes. They blinked and smiled.

(not) the end.

Letters Home #13 'House of Tallulah (Part 1)'

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House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs. Two streets from the main drag. Two streets from foot traffic in a town of thirty thousand, it relies entirely on patronage by people who know where it is and what they’re looking for. Most are looking for the same thing. Along with the usual caffeinated beverages and baked artisanal treats, House of Tallulah is the only cafe in Alice Springs, possibly the only cafe in the northern territory of this great southern land, that also serves directions

I’d arrived in Alice a few days earlier. Fourteen hours by bus from Arnhem. I was hungry for professionally prepared food and thirsty for a varied blend of civil refreshments. My friend Reuben picked me up. He's a cowboy - but he doesn’t ride horses. He plays chess. Which isn’t to say he lacks any of the rugged qualities for which cowboys are known. Reuben combines practical knowledge of the task at hand with an eye for craftsmanship, sense for adventure, stylish garb and a cracking wit. We grew up either side of the same leafy street in suburban Perth. Reuben introduced me to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Fifteen years later he sent me to visit House of Tallulah. “Ask for directions,” he said.

The cafe operates from a powder blue weatherboard bungalow set back thirty paces from the street. Framed portraits clad the bungalow in Christian iconography and idilic scenes from turn of the century rural dreams. A concrete footpath leads to a single front door. To the right of the path is a tall whitewood. To the left is a patch of verdant lawn large enough for two cars. The eight alfresco settings are composed of odd vintage chairs and makeshift coffee tables. Cutlery stands in salvaged tins of diced tomatoes next to short stacks of recycled paper napkins. Everything, the portraits and weatherboards, the lawn and tree, the handfuls of creamy white blossoms cast across the path by gusts of spring wind, everything is stonewashed in desert glare.

 House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

I walked inside, into a long rectangular room with a bench down one side. On the bench was a coffee machine and cash register. Also a glass cake stand full of blueberry muffins and ready-to-toast breakfast sandwiches. A doorframe at the back of the room led to a stainless steel kitchen and at the back of that another doorframe with a beaded curtain. Behind the bench stood three women. On the right was Liza, five-five and forty something with curly black hair, full eyebrows and leathery skin made soft by beauty cream. She wore an assortment of chains around her neck and a red silk singlet. From one of the chains hung a kookaburra’s tail feather. Her wrists were stacked with bangles and beaded bracelets and she wore a single pendant earring, a three dimensional plastic moon. On the left was Charlie, cropped grey hair and a four inch mohawk. She wore a silver ring on her right thumb and her square frame was dressed in ripped Levi’s and a tight grey t-shirt printed in bold texan typeface with the words ’NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’.

Between Liza and Charlie, taller by a whole two feet, stood Tallulah. Everything about her was exaggerated. Her saucer-sized eyes were wide set and filled to the brim with coffee brown. She had high cheek bones and ears like conch shells. They poked through shards of maple hair that fell beside her neck and grazed her clavicles. The neckline of her camel blouse stretched shoulder to shoulder and sat low enough to reveal the creases in her underarms and a few curly maple hairs. It was embroidered with small candlesticks in threads of red and purple. They spread over her bust and cascaded to her midriff where her blouse was cut short and showed the olive skin of her belly. An oversized ruby pendant dangled from her bellybutton. Beneath that was a forest green chiffon skirt and a pair of cradled hands. Her wrists were tattooed with black and grey bands ranging from one to four centimetres. They ran all the way to the middle of her upper arms. Each a patterned mix of cross-hatch, swirls and strange letters in alien script. She wore pendant earrings, one of which was a three dimensional plastic moon. The other was a birthday candle. 

“What can we get you?” said Liza, with a smoker’s voice, rasped by inflammation at the back of her throat. I blinked - lost for words. Liza cocked her head. The thick mascara around her eyes crumpled with hints of scepticism. I turned to Tallulah. She was smiling impossibly wide, when she blinked back I swear I heard her lids collide. “Um,” was all I could manage. 
“Coffee?” asked Tellulah. Her voice was high pitched and playfully sarcastic.
I blinked again.
“Food?” she toyed with me. A chortle fled through Charlie’s nose. I shook my head. “Hmm,” she paused for effect, “How about directions?”
“Um,” I mumbled. The game was finished. Tellulah glanced at a clock on the wall behind my head. It had a porcelain face and black enamel roman numerals pointed to by plastic candlesticks. Ten o’clock.
“Perfect,” she said and stepped back, moving towards the end of the room and out from behind the bench so that she stood facing me. I looked at her bare feet. Each finger-length toe wore a gold band set with a different coloured crystal. I stared long enough to consider the shape and colour of each one. Tallulah watched me. She lifted her toes and gave them a wiggle then set them again on the floor. I looked at her face. I though she was about to laugh. But instead she blinked and said, “Come on, sweetheart.” Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

I started after her but was cut short by a tap on my shoulder. It was Charlie. “Works best if we get this out of the way,” she said, calmly handing me a laminated piece of A5 recycled paper. At the top, in bold purple print was handwritten the word ‘Directions’. Under that, in the middle of the page, was written ‘$120’.
“Um,” I managed.
“No pressure,” said Charlie.
“Um,” I felt in my bag for my wallet and pulled it out. Charlie was holding a wireless EFTPOS machine.
“Cheque, savings or credit?”
“Uh, cheque, thanks.”
I typed my four-digit PIN and pressed ‘Okay’. Transaction approved. I walked in.

(not) the end.

Notes

All of the characters and events in this story are fictional.

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Letters Home #12 "A Way Out"

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It feels necessary to preface this letter by saying that it deals with a very sensitive theme. I realise that maybe you didn’t sign up for very sensitive themes. So I want to emphasise that it’s purely allegorical. It’s about what it feels like to consider giving up on a dream. And perhaps it’s also about the origins of ritual and prayer. This is as far as I ever imagined I’d go. What’s on the other side I don’t know. I hope you’ll find out with me. Okay, that said, here goes...

#12 “A Way Out"

This week there was a knock at my door, which was open. I said to come in. I sat opposite with my back against the wall and my knees bent so that my feet could be flat on the floor, but my toes were raised and my arms curled around my shins. The back of my neck was long and I looked down. I wore old clothes, clean but stained. My beard was unkempt. The man who came in wore stiff leather soles and his steps made a sound when he walked to a chair and arranged it across from me no more than a meter and sat down. His breathing was slow and deep. I heard it but I didn’t lift my head. 

He didn’t talk straight away. Instead he waited, long enough to draw my attention. I raised my head to see him. He was on the generous side of sixty. His hair and beard a neat collage of greys and blacks. His eyes were my father’s, bright blue - but set back so as not to be piercing. He wore a faint smile and relaxed shoulders beneath a tailored coat and trousers made of thick, durable fabric the colour of charcoal. He appeared to be wearing a uniform for a profession requiring some labour but with no risk of getting dirty.

He had my mother’s hands. Soft long fingers, skin made thin by worry. They were clasped in his lap. His right thumb kneaded the back of his left hand. “Who are you?” I said.
“That all depends.”
“Why are you here?” this time desperately. He was a fantasy, that much I knew.
“I’ve come to get you out.”
“Out of what?”
“Well clearly you’re in something,” he said, “your beard is longer than you like it to be. Your neck is stiff and you’re sitting on the floor with your arms curled around your shins.”
I took his point. “Okay,” I said, “fair enough.”

Next to the man stood a brown paper bag. He leaned over and drew from it a rope, two thirds of an inch thick, flaked ten or eleven times to form a coil. The rope itself was made of a dry fibre with a soft sheen. It had a golden appearance. We both stared and he turned it over to reveal its working end, knotted with a series of tight coils perpendicular to the bight, followed by a dinner-plate-sized eye. The man stood up. My feet flattened. I let go of my legs and pressed my back to the wall. Without turning he lifted one of his feet and stepped onto the chair. His movements had a choreographed grace about them. They were slow but efficient. When he was standing on the chair he looked up and I followed his gaze to a hook in the ceiling. I’d never noticed it before and tried to remember it. By the time my attention was back on the hook the man had tied the rope’s standing end with an elegant slipped buntline hitch. He stepped down from the chair, releasing one turn at a time, until the rope was entirely uncoiled and suspended. He sat down and stilled the rope with his left hand then retrieved it to his lap. We stared at each other. From the ceiling hung a noose.

“So?” said the man.
“So, what?” I replied.
“Its a way out.”
“Out of what?” I asked, forgetting. The man cleared his throat before he spoke. “Look,” he said, “you’ve come a long way. But its time to check in with reality.”
I blinked. He continued, “This dream of yours,” he said, “to find your voice and tell your stories and reconcile the warring parts of yourself. To speak for the complexity of things — its all just a dream.”
I stared. I wanted his help. I searched for something to hold but my memory had been replaced by that of a goldfish and each time I blinked the past disappeared.
“I —“ said with uncertainty, “I can’t remember why I’m here.”
“Never mind,” he said, “This is about the future.”
“Um —” The man grew impatient, his right thumb pressed hard into the back of his left hand forming a bow wave in the skin, which broke across his knuckles, over and over. I felt weak and small. Without an answer. I feared to find disappointment in his eyes. I feared his hands would become arthritic. I wanted to help him. For him to help me. I wanted to be out of what I was in. I was tired and torn.

“Help me!” I cried in defeat.
His hands stopped. He leaned forward and put one of them on each of my shoulders. He stood me up and slipped the noose over my head. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Better,” I lied.
“Its only a dream,” he said. I looked in his eyes. They were my father’s. But something was missing from them. Time slowed. I looked at his hands. They were my mother’s - and yet, his mouth - I’d not noticed it before. His lips were so thin. They came to a point and the skin around them was dry and scaly.
“Who are you?” I asked his mouth.
“That all depends,” he said. His teeth were small and sharp with spaces between them. I glanced past him to the window. It was dusk. 

“I have to light a fire,” I said, “every day at dusk. And read a poem. To help me remember.” 
I reached for an old piece of paper in my pocket. Discoloured at the creases. I opened it slowly, and read it aloud.

A Prayer to Remember 
(Say these words each day at dusk before a fire.)

To something unknown and unnamed,
Something transcendent and powerful.
Something by which I am guided, and
In whose presence I am humbled.

Please.

Forgive me the days
When I don’t recall,
That a little confusion
Is part of it all.

Help me to trust
In a future unknown,
Nourished by fruits
Of the seeds I have sown.

Help me remember
The garden my heart,
The word my salvation
The water my art.

Whatever is hated,
May it be understood.
Whatever is evil,
May it give way to good.
Whatever is broken,
May you see it repaired.
Whatever is stolen,
May you see it is shared.

Please keep me protected
And in return — 
I’ll consider each moment
A lesson to learn.

I’ll take care of my body
With stretching and rest,
In all of my work
I’ll give of my best.

I’ll try be a friend
To all who I see,
No matter their baggage
Or how they treat me.

I’ll try to keep sacred
The rights of our kind,
To reep what we sow
And seek what we find.

I’ll try to remember
That I’m not alone,
Whenever I’m lost
I’ll follow you home.

(pause)

As for my dream
I’ll be unmoved by doubt,
For I know in my heart
There is no way out.

I took a full breath and looked up. The man was gone. I was out. My neck was stiff and my body ached. But my shoulders relaxed and I felt like I’d cried. I walked outside and gathered a few sticks. The air was cool and a gentle wind brushed my legs. I broke the sticks so they were all the same length. The scent of them filled my nostrils and I made a point of breathing deep. A small bat flew circles over my head chasing mosquitos. In the distance I heard clap-sticks, yidaki and singing. A funeral had begun. It would continue for the next five days with a series of rituals, songs and dances. All of the deceased's family members would participate. When it was over they’d feel comforted. Everyone would know that the spirit of a loved one was safely on its way to the earth from whence it came.

lit my fire. While it burned I thought of all the men, women and children saying prayers to remember. I smiled and felt grateful for the wind.

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Postscript 

Tomorrow I’m leaving for ten days vacation. God knows I need a break. My destination, Alice Springs, the home of a dear old friend and kindred spirit.

Letters Home #11 "Shame"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

 In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

On the day of my first hunt I loaded into the back of a tall and boxy work horse called a troopie. Almost always white, troopies have two and a half seats in the front and a pair of bench seats in the back. The bench seats run down the sides of the cab, so for passengers in the back of a troopie the natural place to look is not the road ahead but the person across the way.

Across from me sat four men I’d never met, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes scanning. Their bodies rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road. Our eyes would meet and we'd smile and after a few such instances the man across from me spoke three words into the silent cab and everyone turned. “Where you from?” he asked.

It was an obvious question. But I hesitated long enough to notice the wind brush the hairs on the back of my neck. I reached my hand to touch them and felt shame for not knowing what to say. I smiled apologetically - I needed more time.

Suddenly the troopie braked hard and the bodies inside lurched sideways. Someone called out, “Witi!”. We turned and saw a large wallaby hop across the road behind us. In a flash one man handed another the rifle and he got out and took a few quiet steps to a nearby tree. By then the wallaby was forty metres away. The gun fired, louder than I expected, the wallaby jumped and a red mist stood where it had been. I raced towards the body with another man. When we got there he made sure it was dead and looked for his knife. I had one in my pocket so I handed it to him and he slit the animal’s throat and told me to hold it up and let the blood. I gripped its tail, warm and muscular. I pulled back its head and the last of its life spilled on the floor. Then I laid it down and the man removed its stomach and intestines and handed me back my knife. We were thrilled.

At a river we rested and washed the blood from our bodies. The wallaby was hung and butchered, each man was given his portion and more to take home. We cooked on an open fire and ate in two small circles, carving the meat on flat stones and dabbing it in salt. As it was my first hunt I was offered pieces of kidney and sections of bone containing sweet marrow. Also the end of the tail. 

“Where you from?” someone asked. I wanted to say that I’m not from anywhere. But I didn’t. We finished eating and washed again then said words of thanks to the land. We needed to find another animal to feed the families waiting at home. So we set off for a place known to buffalo, one of which can feed five families for a week.

The buffalo was pale grey with hints of blue and pink. Its horns grew straight out of its head, turning at their ends towards the sky. It took four bullets to bring it down. We approached the body with sharp knives and an axe and surrounded it like lions. We took turns and worked quickly to skin the hide. I used my hands to separate the muscles and make cuts along the seams of its rear leg. Beads of my sweat dripped into the flesh and mixed with warm dark blood from a severed artery. At one point I looked to the animal’s head. I wanted to see its eyes. But they were glazed and lifeless, indistinguishable from flesh. Eventually I managed to free the limb and hoisted it between my shoulder blades and carried it to the troopie.

When the work was done we sat in the cab, silent with exhaustion. The dusk light was golden and it lighted the four bodies across from me. I could see their bones and muscles. I could feel the warmth of their blood beneath my skin. I lowered my eyes to my legs then lifted my head and looked in the eyes of the man opposite. “Where you from?” I asked his eyes.
“Me?” they blinked.
“Yes.”
He hesitated. The light was fading now and his body was a shadow but his eyes were bright and some of that light seemed to come from inside. I spoke again, this time with my eyes, “Did you travel a long way?”
He didn’t answer. I fell silent and flexed my hands, they were coated in dry blood. I squeezed my tired thighs. “I was born in South Africa,” I said. “Though I grew up in Perth and more recently I lived in Sydney.”
His eyes listened. His body rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road.
“Truth is I don’t feel as though I’m from any of the places I’ve been,” I continued. “My great grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the twentieth century. I'm part of a language group called the Hebrews, destined forever to dwell in the lands of others.”
“Soon we’re going to stop and pray,” he said, this time with his mouth.
“Okay,” I said. But I needed more time. My eyes widened and moistened. My chest rose and tightened at the back of my throat. Through baited breath I said, “I know my ancestral stories and dreams. I read them and try to understand what they mean.”
His eyes were bright and some of that light was from the moon. When we got out to pray, I prayed for forgiveness.

With love,
Daniel

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Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

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Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

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Letters Home #9 "Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

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Letter #9 “Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

B— is a burly man with a wide gait and steel barrels for hands. His belly is a barrel. So too his chest. And like many men who spend their lives with raw materials, B—’s chest is full of a coarse humour that to some would seem insensitive, but to those with a sense for it is the very softness of his skin. For its well known that men of tools trade in a secret currency of quips and slangs who’s value is measured by the extent to which they draw smiles from life's harshness. A man is rich who can make another man laugh. And in that regard B— is a baron. He is known around town as the Dusty Welder. A name he chose. Its on his business cards and embroidered into his orange and blue workwear. The Dusty Welder travels the country from Ulladulla to Arnhem Land, educating young and old in a trade he loves.

In Gapuwiyak B— trains a group of rustic makers called the MEP Buffalo Boys. MEP stands for Miwatj Employment & Participation Ltd. An organisation that formed in 2013 to carry out the federal government’s Community Development Program by creating paid opportunities for local men and woman to learn service trades and contribute them to community. The men involved are called Buffalo Boys. They are respected and stand tall even with heavy loads. 

I met B— in a spacious, open air workshop strewn with rudimentary inventions. A sofa made from car seats on two short stacks of steel rims. Several buffalos with bodies made of barrels, heads, horns and legs from scrap, a couple of pot belly stoves and a locomotive oven. In the centre an oversized workbench laden with tools and pieces of kit. B— wore a broad grin when I walked in with Mahra (my friend and colleague), to see him about a turtle and a fish.

B— spent many years boiler-making to industry specifications. One day he put down his tools, picked up the little barrel in himself and said something like, “How about it, kid?” Then he turned back to his tools. This time to play.

After some customary lines of comic courtesy we got down to business. I described the picture in my head and B— ran it through a series of cogs and pulleys in his own. He picked up a piece of chalk and started drawing on the workbench. “Okay, what we do is find a big piece —“ He stopped mid-sentence. As if he’d forgotten something and then remembered something else. He turned and said, “Follow me.” 

So we followed him around the workshop, searching for bits of metal to make it happen. With every find his passion and enthusiasm grew. He’d already started working when we left.

Some people grow up inside and outside. Their affections weather along with their faces. Their memories gather in catalogues, they become worldly, sought out for advice in matters of life experience. People like B— have a child forever behind their eyes, for whom an ageing exterior is a daily surprise. They can never be worldly. But they can be wise. Because wisdom is not a matter of experience so much as a matter of perception.

The following week a group of students visited the Buffalo Boys to collect the frames. B— had prepared a few speeches and the Boys shared their work and activities. There was laughter and pride and the kids returned with a new entry in their list of things to become.

Since then we’ve worked around the clock to get these things made. To make the fish I attached lengths of wire to the frame to form a body. Onto that I laid strips of steel mesh. For the tail I used a piece of old fence. Then a layer of paper mache on the front and rear, ready to paint with student designs. The mid section will remain exposed and house the bottom-halves of plastic bottles. Each fitted with a small LED light and a coin cell battery. The turtle is also underway. Mahra is working on it with help from some students. As part of the project we’ve run weekly workshops, staged a pop-up recycling plant and various design studios. Its been a lot of fun and everyone is looking forward to parading our wares in ten days time.

Its tempting to draw grand conclusions from this story. To reflect on the value of community arts and project based learning. To say something about shared visions and the shared responsibility of carrying them out. Perhaps its the educator in me. Craving a lesson. Or the child making affectations. Its tempting to frame things that way. But the wise thing to do is draw only the story and have it speak for itself.

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Postscripts
You can follow the Dusty Welder on his Facebook page.

Letters Home #8 "Alone"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

For context you might want to read/listen to previous letter #7 "Don Quixote".

Letter #8 “Alone"

Since my adoption into Yolngu kinship, I call Rose gnama, which means mother. She calls me wakū, which means son. One day we were sitting together and she said, “Wakū, when you are alone, there are different ways of knowing things.”

Its hard to be alone. Though not for feeling lonely. In solitude an open heart makes intimate friends with anything from alley cats to fence posts, from dreams to an afternoon breeze. It learns the moods of these things and marks the passing of time by their ageing features. Their presence becomes a source of comfort - and should tragedy strike, out of the deepest empathy it suffers their misfortune. In time they become like flesh and blood. So its hard to be alone.

In my last letter I made poems from a wellspring of grief that opened in me. My feelings were wet and flowing. After writing I dreamed a wildfire had burned through my yard in the night and in the morning when I went outside I found the level of the ground lower by several metres. Where once there was only short dry grass, now there was a lush garden. I know to water that garden regularly with wet and flowing feelings, drawn from the cracks in my heart. 

And now I sit by a small fire each evening. A ritual that begins in the afternoon. After work I collect sticks and make a bundle of tinder from a dry vine that grows along my fence. I place the bundle on yesterday’s ashes. Then I crack each of the sticks to the same length. I love that part because a cracked stick gives off a fresh scent and in that regard every stick is unique. With the fire built I go inside to work a while at writing. I rise again at the first hint of dusk and take my notebook outside with a cup of tea to welcome the evening. I’ve two logs for sitting on, in case of guests. Some days I light a stick of sandalwood to keep the mosquitos at bay, on other days - to save money because sandalwood is expensive and I haven’t got much - I dab my bare feet with a mixture of eucalyptus oil and rubbing alcohol and that works too. Then I jot down observations and write little songs until last light, when a pair of tiny bats fly circles after mosquitos over my head and I cheer them on. When they’re gone, I light my fire.

One night I was joined by three kids who walked past and asked if they could visit. Two were around six years old and one was ten. I knew them from school and welcomed the chance to test out my second log. While we sat their mother went to play cards. Its a common pastime, circles of card players are dotted around town. By day they sit under mango trees and by night under street lights. The game is simple. Everyone is dealt two cards. The highest score is ten, made by adding the value of the cards. A seven and an eight makes five. There are two rounds of betting. Winners walk to the shop. Losers go home hungry. The kids and I traded magic tricks and they taught me a few new words of Yolngu Matha. Eventually the younger ones were called to bed and it was just me and the older one. We sat silently together for a long time. He’s a good kid. We tore strips of bark from the logs, to make them smooth. And we gathered dry grass from around the fire to clear a circle. Eventually I called it a night and said he was welcome to join my fire the next day. He hasn’t come back.

That’s the thing about time alone. Its a private freedom in which a well watered heart makes room for new connections. And no matter how many times the heart sees an evening sky, or sips tea to the breeze, or learns to let things go - it feels everything as though for the first time.

So I wrote this song.

Now I’m not the first to sing it,
Nor will I be the last,
A thousand hearts before my own
Have seen these words go past.

Seen them enter in a twilight spell
Come floating on the breeze,
Watched them leave through broken promises
And prayers said on the knees.

They are the bible waters
That came flowing from a stone,
And we learned to treat them kindly
Lest we die all on our own.

And we learned that they are beautiful
We learned their power too -
When we threaded them through syllables
We made them feel anew.

For no matter how familiar
Is the background to our pain,
There is no heart that will not break
Again - and again.

So let us greet the dreamer
As though he were a friend,
May we learn to be forgiving
Any harshness that he sends.

May we keep our gardens watered
May we whisper to our stones,
May we never stop remembering
All the things we learn alone.

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Personal Note #7 "Don Quixote"

You can listen to this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Today I’m in Arnhem Land, in a town of a thousand people, in what was formerly a high school science lab. Now its home to a three metre square frame of welded rebar shaped like a turtle, resting atop a pair of old bicycle wheels. Its shell is a layer of steel mesh that will soon house three hundred plastic bottles and three hundred LED lights. Tomorrow it will be joined by a fish, currently a few hundred meters away in a metal workshop run by kind men with rough hands who call themselves Buffalo Boys. The sculptures are a community art project aimed at addressing the critical issue of litter. Next month, at the town festival, they'll be part of a nighttime parade down the main road. Next week, having completed all of my placement hours, I’ll be a fully fledged Art Therapist. Which begs the question, 'How on earth did I get here?'

I was born a python snake in a rocky part of Africa.

After high school I struggled to keep up with a world that was bigger than I expected. Three years into a Law degree I was barely treading water, tormented by a future that was leaving me behind. 

Though I enjoyed the company of others, from an early age I felt better off alone. It was something about my nature.

Too proud to ask for help I found ways to stay still - mainly drugs and alcohol. Also bitterness and resentment for life’s broken promises. I disguised those feelings in a claim to know better than the small minded expectations of a world I didn’t need.

One day I met a turtle. We had a lot in common. She had a beautiful shell that made me feel safe and protected. For a while we followed the sun together. 

I found a balm in her beating heart. The most powerful drug I’d ever taken.

But she migrated a great distance to lay her eggs. Which was devastating for me. I tried to make her stay but the only way I knew was constriction. 

After she left I felt tightness everywhere. My skin began to crack and dry and then it came off altogether. Underneath I was sensitive to every touch. 

It was the fiercest pain I’d ever known. A darkness so thick I could barely breathe. When I closed my eyes I’d see daemons scratching at my chest. So I made my skin into a hard shell and crawled inside.

I wore that shell everywhere, added every skin I shed. I longed to be a turtle. But of course, I was a snake.

I started out at law school learning common law and torts,
Then spent some time with bankers and learned to read reports.
I spent some time with hippies and learned to stretch and play,
I spent some time with Buddhists and learned the silent way.
I spent some time with artists, made meaning with my hands,
I spent some time with activists and learned to make demands.
I spent some time with clowns and learned to play the fool,
I spent some time with handymen and learned to use their tools.
I spent some time with teachers and learned to set more goals,
In the time I spent with preachers, I learned about my soul.
I spent some time in therapy and found a way to heal,
Sometimes I still have trouble - discerning what is real.
I still don’t feel quite worthy, of love’s divine embrace,
I haven’t ceased my striving to make something in its place.
Nor have I stopped from searching for a balm to heal my sores,
But boy am I more interesting than I ever was before!

Now my shell’s grown heavy and I have half a mind to set it down. But when you’ve been a turtle for so long, a snake is quite the adjustment.

So I wrote myself a note.

Its to anyone who’s listening, in a crisis of their own,
If you’re stranded in uncertainty and feeling so alone.
If it seems as though you’re drowning and you don’t know what is real,
If darkness is the colour of everything you feel.
Know that you are capable of rising to this task,
Start by thinking of yourself as someone you can ask.
All it takes is one small step don’t worry bout the end,
Consider it a mystery what waits around the bend.
With every step you’ll feel more brave the daemons will grow small,
Eventually they’ll disappear, they won’t be there at all.
And looking down you’ll realise your feet are on dry land,
And the daemons in your nightmares are now gold dust in your hands.
Then you’ll have a story and your eyes will fill with tears
As you tell the people gathered how on earth you made it here.

Postscripts

Next week I’ll be telling new stories. Starting with that of the Buffalo Boys.

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Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

This letter is available to listen to on a Remote Voice podcast. Here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #6 “The Light Side"

Watching the sky to the east, it appears as though the day begins when the sun arrives, and similarly, that the moon rises when the sun sets. However, from a stellar distance we'd see that the sun and the moon stay relatively still, while the earth spins between them. Thus, like figureheads on the prow of a cosmic ship - like sea lions lazing on a galactic shore, it is we who turn to the sun each morning, and each evening we turn to the moon. 

I dreamt up that analogy late one afternoon under a purpling sky. What a beautiful image, I thought. Like a proud cat I arched my back and gave a little purr. Then a chorus of birds erupted into song. Like tiny angels. I closed my eyes. It was all I could do amidst the cacophony to keep myself from expecting to hear the voice of God. In the back of my mind a deluded sage rehearsed his reply. Stay humble, he thought, but also measured and assertive. We wouldn’t want God to think that of all the great poets to receive his message, this time he’d chosen one without a spine. Suddenly the chorus gave way. And from the north a sound rippled through the silence towards me. I opened my arms to the heavens, ready to take my place among the ascended saints - then it hit me - like a bucket of cold water - a raucous cackle. A Kookaburra laughing. I felt shame gather in my cheeks and pool in my eyes. Then erupt from my mouth in a laugh of my own. O Kookaburra! I thought, now you’ve seen me naked! And what can I do, but laugh?

In my last letter I wrote my way out of the impulse to start a revolution. Nevertheless, with my feet on the ground, there remained a need for bilingual education at Gapuwiyak School. So I spoke with some Yolngu teachers and organised to run bilingual lessons during my time with the students. They were thrilled. And the balanda teachers I spoke to had long harboured thoughts along bilingual lines but hadn’t the time to know where to start. So in the end, the best response to a grand problem was a small gesture. 

On the day of our first bilingual session, walking down to the lake, one of the elder Yolngu teachers, Kath, took me aside for a word of advice. We’d planned to have the boys build a traditional shelter called a warro. And for the girls to wrap mud babies in paperbark and learn traditional ways to care for the young. Like a big game of 'house'. Afterwards the students would turn the game into storybooks for future reading practice. With regard to the game, said Kath, we should try and make it funny. If its too serious they won’t understand. I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I followed her lead. 

As planned, the girls made mud babies and wrapped them in paperbark. They built a small nursery and put the babies to sleep. But when a curious dog approached, Kath took the opportunity - with a big smile - to pretend that one of the babies had been snatched by a dingo. She rallied the girls and they rushed to the boys, who by then were under their shelter, painted like warriors with chalky clay. Laughing, the girls relayed the terrible news, and together we searched for the baby. It was eventually found. But it hadn't survived. So together we mourned. And next week we’ll hold a pretend funeral. The children can’t wait. Funerals are a deeply significant part of Yolngu culture so it will be a wonderful opportunity to continue the serious task of continuity. 

Comedy has a way of bringing light to the darkness, making some things easier to see. Which got me thinking about a problem I’ve been puzzling over since I arrived in Arnhem Land six weeks ago. Litter. Its everywhere. In a previous letter I called it the shrapnel left by the bomb blast of modern life. Bottles, bags and various bits and pieces line the streets. Many subscribe to the belief that a population accustomed to biodegradability will take some time to adjust to plastics. But watching people walk by huge bins and brightly coloured signs, I'm beginning to think that any ignorance is more likely the turning of a blind eye. Out here the shop is closest thing to a pub. And some of the problems people face lay at the feet of a diet replete with soft drinks and bread. So it could be that picking up litter would mean taking a good look at insidious lethargy and poor health. A difficult task. But there’s a way. 

Next month there’s going to be a big festival in Gapuwiyak. I joined forces with another artist and we devised a plan to use plastic bottles to build giant animal sculptures with the kids, who loved the idea. Then parade them on the night of the festival. To get started we got out some wheelbarrows and turned up the reggae, then danced our way around town collecting bottles. Our good humour attracted welcome attention from the Buffalo Boys, a group of men who spend their time turning scrap metal into everything from bench seats to barbecues. We enlisted their help to fashion the frames. Its become a collaboration. Who knows, perhaps these sculptures will be the good hearted gesture that makes staring down the bottle that little bit easier.

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Letters Home #5 "Speechless"

Notes
If you'd like to get in touch to share your response or thoughts about this letter I'd welcome your feedback. Here are my contact details.

Okay, here goes...

Letter #5 “Speechless"

Each day before setting the sun exhales a warm breeze, to brush from the sky any lingering clouds that a few lost souls might navigate by the stars. Then the crackle of burning grass rises from fires in front of every home. And the street lights, stationed to preside over vacant patches of territory like soldiers of the Queen’s Guard, flicker into resolute attention. Its in the uncertain, in between stretches of shadowy dust that a mix of humble glow and determined incandescence do their best to share responsibility for lighting the way. 

In Arnhem Land the saying goes that foreigners are either missionaries, misfits, mercenaries or madmen. Which am I? Perhaps I’m a missionary. I come with books about history and talk passionately about ways we can work together for a better future. I frame the world in stories and revere the depth that lurks between their lines. I’m forever seeking the answers to an endless list of questions I scribble on pieces of paper that I stuff into a hand stitched shoulder bag, patched in places with the discarded artwork of children under ten. So I could be a madman. Yet I’m also a misfit. I enjoy the solitude out here, space to think and feel in my own time, far from crowds and traffic and banal conversation. There’s no pressure to fit in where a little strangeness is expected. As for a mercenary, well… 

The other day, in preparation to teach a group of kindergarteners, I approached one of the Yolngu assistants who sits in on every class. Like many Yolngu women in their late forties, B— is overweight, diabetic and moves languidly on skinny legs and bare feet. She is humble to the point of timidity - but when I asked her for a quick chat - I saw in her eyes that she is also fierce. I told B— that I wanted to try something different that day. That I would sit the kids in a circle and give them each a piece of paper and some crayons. Then I would tell them that they were going to hear a very special story. At that point, when their little minds were tickled with anticipation, I’d give B— the signal to begin telling the children about her life as a young girl in Gapuwiyak. B— was initially shy about the idea, but it didn’t take much in the way of encouragement to get her on board and together we walked into the classroom.

In the story she told, B— was a young girl playing by the lake. Her favourite game was to gather some mud from the bank and fashion it into a little baby doll, then wrap the doll in paperbark and carry it around like the mother she would one day become. She’d carry it home to a nearby shelter she shared with her parents and siblings. It consisted of a raised platform of sticks suspended between four trees. There was a small fire underneath and a ladder to climb to and from the landing, on which spread out a few beds of soft paperbark beneath a slanted roof. When B—’s family had to leave town to visit some nearby kin for a ceremony, or to gather seasonal foods, they would burn the shelter to the ground. And when eventually they returned, her father, brothers and uncles would build it again. That was less than fifty years ago.

By the end of the story the children were rapt. They asked B— questions and were given explanations for some of the details. Most of them seldom hear stories like that one. I suspect because its hard for people to talk about the old times. So much has changed. So they settle for a fire every night, and they search for somewhere to store the past in houses made of stone.  B— drew a picture of her story on the board and invited the children to do the same. Which they did. Then one by one they carried their pictures to me and I patiently asked them questions about what they’d drawn. Only then, when the children were telling me about their work, were the first words of English spoken. Up to that point everything had been in Yolngu Matha, the language children speak at home and in the playground. The language of their parents and grandparents, the language of their world. 

In the seventies a team of linguists arrived in Arnhem Land to learn that language. Their efforts resulted in the production of an entire body of literature, made up of people's stories, along with an entirely new alphabet to store them in print. They also developed a method of instruction to teach a generation of Yolngu people how to read and write a language that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I think sometimes we forget that we had to learn English at school to be able to read and write - that literacy isn’t the same as learning to speak. And sometimes we forget that no matter how many classes we took in French, the only people to learn it had to go to France. Important things to remember in Arnhem Land. Because there hasn’t been bilingual education here since the turn of the century. So children can’t read or write the language that they speak. And beyond the school walls no one speaks English, so they can’t really speak it either. I mean they can ask for a glass of water. But they can’t describe what it feels like to be unable to read letters from their grandparents or write letters to their future children. What it feels like to live in the shadowy dust between worlds, where a dying language struggles to be understood, with every laboured breath.

I can tell you what that looks like. One day I saw it, sitting with a teacher and some children. It was World Indigenous People Day and she was trying to teach them about goko (honey). She said, “We have fifteen words for goko, each with a story to tell. You can use the stories to find the goko in the bush.” The children smiled and listened. Most of them no longer learn this sort of thing from their parents. Then the teacher wrote the fifteen words for honey on fifteen pieces of paper and handed them to the children. Their expressions flattened. They no longer understood. I watched the teacher take a deep breath and plead with the children to concentrate. A dog started barking and over the noise they could barely hear her. She cried, “Someone needs to know these words! Each one has a story to tell!” But the children couldn’t help her. Then a man arrived. He had clap sticks and he tried to teach the children to dance. He told them it would help them learn the words. But the children were too shy and the dog wouldn’t stop barking, they couldn’t feel the rhythm and the words blew away. Then the teacher turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so helpless. And angry too. Enough to take up arms and join the resistance. I went home and read the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Mandawuy Yunupingu, the entire History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory and various articles on the related politics. Then I wrote down step by step instructions for how to organise a socio-political movement to bring back bilingual education. By the time I’d finished it was late at night. I was sitting in a candlelit room clutching my marching orders between clenched fists, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. I made it to Track 3: Dress Rehearsal Rag.

"It’s come to this, 
Yes it’s come to this,
And wasn’t it a long way down, 
Wasn’t it a strange way down?”

Full of taunts and tenderness that song is written to a man on the verge of suicide. Its a chilling reminder of just how quickly a broken heart begins to lust for blood. When the song finished I shivered and chuckled to myself. How close I'd come to joining a war. Then I folded my marching orders and held them to the flame. 

I may be a missionary, a misfit and a madman, but watching that paper burn I made a promise to myself that I would not become a martyr. But instead remain a dreamer, with stories to tell.

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Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

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Letter #4 “Interrelated" 

On the night before I left Sydney I sat with my mum in her living room. My mood was depressed. Hers was a typical mix of ease and angst, comfortable in her own skin yet tortured by the fear that her children might be suffering. She asked me a question I’d been asking myself. What did I hope to get out of this trip? I said that for as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for the sound of my own voice. That I hoped to discover which of the contradictory stories I tell myself about who I am and what I’m doing is true. That it would save me a lot of time spent turning down paths for the sake of strangers who scrawl their directions on the inside of my head. At which point she seemed a little less at ease. But to her credit conducted no further investigation. Instead we simply sat together, in the silent wake of my confession.

Early in the piece there were times I’d wake from a restless sleep full of frightful dreams to a feeling of intolerable dread. Periods of hell that lasted several days. At first I suspected a delayed reaction to so rapidly adjusting my diet and climate. Then I suspected a virus or some other contagion. But neither diagnosis accounted adequately for what was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact I knew it well, felt it for as long as I could remember and most acutely in my stomach. As the phantom pain of a severed cord that once nourished and nurtured me. Only this time it wasn’t food I was going without. It was nourishment of a kind sought by the soul. That voice beneath the surface we take for self. By now I’d run far enough to know that this time I’d do well to turn around and listen. So I did. And there I found a dreamer, holding a pen, longing to tell his story. I gathered him in my arms and carried him to a desk and chair. While his fingers tumbled sentences I made him cups of tea. And when he finished a page I read it back to him and listened for his suggestions. We sat together, the way we’re sitting now, grateful to have found a way to be heard.

And I’ve made progress on other fronts. I set up a new workshop space for high school kids who aren’t managing regular attendance, called it ‘Young Artists’. We meet Monday and Tuesday afternoons to hang out and paint whatever’s on hand. And there’s plenty on hand. I chose an area of the school formerly occupied by discarded building materials. Sheets of corrugated iron, concrete boards, pieces of timber and decommissioned wheelbarrows. There’s also a picnic table for those preferring to sip cold water and shoot the breeze. I seek out the kids who’ve taken to scribbling insolent tags on walls and doors. I say to them, "Practice here as much as you want, because honestly, the way you write 'Fuck You’ is pretty amateurish.” They laugh. We both know I’m not going to solve the graffiti problem, but at the very least I’m hoping to improve the graffiti standard. And deeper than that, I’m hoping to provide a space for these kids to play out the tension between the kind of individualism they see on the internet, and the kind of interrelatedness they’ve inherited.

Since my official adoption by a Yolngu family I’ve caught a glimpse of that interrelatedness. Before I describe it let me just say, I am by no means an expert in Yolngu kinship. My only hope for this incomplete account is to communicate something of its staggering sublimity.

"Ngarraku gnama dhuwal R—.” 
“My adopted mother is R—.” 

Strange as it may seem, that simple phrase connects me to a living system of information so complex that comparing it to the whole of the internet is an oversimplification. When I tell it to someone that person knows immediately by what familial title I’m to be called. Examples include Wawa, which means uncle; Mukul, which means aunty; Yapa, which means sister and Wakū (pronounced wa-ko), which as it turns out, means son. Confused? I was too. But then I learned about an important aspect of the system. That is, upon adoption I was assigned one of eight possible skin names. You can think of a skin name like a tribal affiliation. But children are not born into the same tribe as their parents. Instead they’re assigned a skin name on a rotating basis. And marriages are predestined by lore and custom to take place between particular tribes. So assuming I were to marry according to lore and custom, its effectively possible to know the set of people who would make up my kin and in-laws. Hence there are people in my network that call me Bapi, which means father. Again, its worth emphasising that we don’t really have English words for the kind of kin relationships that exist in Yolngu culture. But for the purposes of this account I’m going to talk about the relationship between Gnama and Wakū using the English words mother and son. As in Western culture, mother and son interact in a customary way. Son is nurtured by mother, who in turn fulfils an obligation to guide and instruct. That includes passing on specific knowledge that son needs to know. And the way that knowledge is passed on is through song, story, dance and ritual. In Yolngu culture as in Western culture, there are songs that mothers traditionally sing to their sons. However, where things differ is that in Yolngu culture the songs that mothers sing are not generic. To understand what I mean you need to know two details about Yolngu personhood. First, every Yolngu person is related to a specific geographic location, determined by the moment during pregnancy when the spirit of the person is said to have entered the body. Thus, when a mother sings to her son, she sings from one specific place to another. Hence the term ‘songline'. Her songs may include information about the history of the place, where it is, how to take care of it, and the kinds of things that might be sought there. Second, every kin relationship is mapped onto specific parts of the body. For example, Gnama relates to the heart and belly. Thus the songlines weave psychosomatic connections between people and places. So much so that sons relate to the land of their mothers in the same way they relate to the mothers themselves. Mind blown? I hope so. Its a lot to take in. So Yolngu people keep track of it all through a host of rituals and ceremonies. For example, they might paint colours and patterns that symbolise particular kin relationships on specific parts of the body during ceremony. Along with other kinds of information, such as relationships with totem animals, elements and groups of people. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now its enough to consider what it might be like for a teenager born into a network of cosmic interrelatedness to listen to songs from the canon of Western pop-culture. Its no wonder they’re responding well to the offer of a space to hang out and paint the walls.

Young Artists is a refuge. And so far its working. As are my formal classes. I’ve made sure to focus them entirely on place, using maps as a scaffold for various kinds of learning. As you might expect given what I’ve described in this and previous letters, nature and arts based education are no brainers out here. That anyone considers it remotely appropriate to apply a national education standard in a place so self evidently unique is at best an absurdity. At worst it runs the risk of repeating the mistakes made by assimilationists in the early part of the twentieth century, who lined people up for a standard mix of force-fed information and washed it down with some superficial accolade. If we only turned around and listened, we’d realise that a disinterested child is more likely the result of inaccessible content than an inability to concentrate. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever put down a book and said something like, “I just can’t get into it.”

To which I’d respond, “If that’s the case then one of two things is true. Either the writing is of a quality incapable of conjuring sufficient depth of field. Or you don’t have the cultural capital to turn the descriptive language into a meaningful reality.”
Then you might say, “What do you mean?”
And I’d say, “Well, to find a text interesting, its not enough to simply know how to read. The author’s words create a world that you can actually get in to. But the author can’t describe every aspect of that world. He or she assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of prior understanding to the table. To fill in the gaps. If you don’t have that prior understanding, the world the text creates will remain out of reach. It will lack meaning.”
“But some books are read by lots of people across cultures and contexts. How is that possible?”
“Because people are far more alike than different. There are lots of things that overlap cultural boundaries. The more boundaries a thing overlaps the closer it gets to being universal. But the list of books that approach universality is a lot shorter than the list of books per se.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is kids need to read and write about things they’re interested in. And their interests have a lot to do with culture?”
“Yes.”
“So, what are Yolngu kids interested in?”
“They’re interested in place. They love being on country, making things with their hands and physical activities like sport and hunting.”
“Great. So we should get them to read and write about that!”
“Not so fast.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re not used to reading and writing about those things. They’re used to dancing, singing and painting about them.”
“Does that mean we need to consider alternative approaches to teaching literacy in a Yolngu context?”
“Yes.”
“Sounds challenging. Where do we start?”
“We start by understanding what literacy is at the deepest possible level of interpretation. That way we can create the substructure on which a contextualised form of it can be built.”
“I’d rather not think so deeply about things.”
“I know.”
“So what is literacy at the deepest possible level of interpretation?”
“Its the abstraction of meaning into recognisable symbolic representations arranged relative to one another in space and time.”
“Please explain.”
“Okay. You can’t read a sentence if you don’t know what the words mean. But you also can’t read it if the words aren’t in the correct order, with adequate space between them.”
“So we should begin by teaching kids to abstract information into symbols?”
“Yes.”
“Then arrange those symbols in ways that make them readable?”
“Exactly.”
“And to make things meaningful we should relate everything to nature, art and physical activity?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“If only there was an art form that used symbols to represent features of specific places in nature. Something that also lent itself to physical activities. Wait a minute… maps!”
“Yep."
“We could create maps of this place! Then add symbols to represent its features and inhabitants. We could go places and visually represent our journeys. Eventually we could even write stories about them, turn them to into maths problems and science experiments! And we’d end up with beautiful artworks that reflected our learning. Would that work?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to try it. Because the price we pay for dumbing down our language to the point where it can be understood by people we’ve not sought to understand, is a lack of depth. And I’m tired of teaching the dazed and confused."

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Postscripts
Since writing this I caught wind of a program called Learning on Country, which uses 'both-ways' education. It looks really interesting. I'll find out more and write a post about it soon.

Letters Home #3 "Remote Voices"

Notes
Thanks to everyone for your continuing support in reading these letters. I've posted a collection of photos relating to this one at the end of the post.

Letter #3 "Remote Voices"

The other night I dreamed I was in a park, waiting to see a man about a horse. It was a white horse and I planned to have my photo taken with it. But when the man arrived I saw that the horse was emaciated. Through its white skin I could see every one of its ribs. I gathered some hay and went to offer food to the horse. But the man stopped me. He said the horse was on a strict diet. I implored the man to let me feed the horse but he was adamant. I said he was abusing the horse, that I had no choice but to call the Police. An officer arrived but he was unable to help. So I went with him to petition the superintendent. He too was unable to help. So I met with the lawyer, who tried to make a case but eventually had to give up. Thus I found myself standing in the hall of the President. I was nervous but pretended not to be when I barged into his office and sat down. The President was a fat man with an oversized monobrow pasted to his forehead. He sat behind a large wooden desk. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the President but I told him that something ought to be done. He responded calmly and somewhat assured. He said the problem was more complex than I knew, that I hadn’t every side of the story. I was unsatisfied, but I’d reached the end of a road and I woke up.

On my second day in Gapuwiyak I met Judy Davey. Judy was one of a handful of pioneering missionaries to arrive here in 1969 with enough saw milling equipment to start a town. She was sent by an organisation called Methodist Overseas Mission (MOM), one of two organisations that many people hold responsible for some of the darkest social policies in Australia’s history. In the first half of the twentieth century, efforts to ‘protect’ and ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal people achieved stolen children and terrestrial alienation. Yet for all the tragedy that lies at the feet of MOM - and there is no shortage of it - by the time Gapuwiyak was established the missionaries were in principle committed to non-interference with Yolngu tradition, self-determination and claims for land rights, and they preached a contextualised brand of Christianity that allowed Yolngu to appropriate tenets of the faith from their own frames of reference. I don’t intend to go any further than those principles down the rabbit hole of validity. Suffice to say that Judy told me Gapuwiyak was established in response to fears that BHP, who were mining further north, would make their way into the area. That representatives of 7 or so clans, with homelands stretching 30km in every direction, shared with missionaries a vision for a self sustaining centre for commerce and spirit that would send a message to the mining juggernauts to keep their distance. Several town elders corroborate Judy's story. And so it was that 30 people from a disparate set of distinct groups came together to mill timber, build roads and maintain supplies of water and power. In exchange they received food, tobacco, medical care, protection and education. 

According to Judy, in the early days of Gapuwiyak all decisions were left to a group of community elders. That included the allocation of jobs, the resolution of disputes and the transmission of lore and custom. The missionaries refrained from interfering in traditional ceremonies, of which funerals in particular were a significant part of people’s lives and still are today. In fact, on the day I arrived in Gapuwiyak a funeral ceremony that had been going for two weeks was coming to an end. The sound of clap sticks echoed day and night from the ceremonial grounds in the centre of town. It was too soon after my arrival to presume an invitation but I look forward to satisfying the curiosity summoned by the sound of those clap sticks. Like Judy I came to Gapuwiyak in response to a call to serve this community. In my first four days here I’d already come up with at least that many revolutionary ideas. And on the night before my first day at Gapuwiyak School as a volunteer arts educator, enlisted to run various art projects for community development, I went to bed positively enchanted. That same night I dreamt of the white horse.

The next day only 30 of the 220 children enrolled were in attendance at Gapuwiyak School. The day started with a school-wide march in the streets. Two Yolngu teachers corralled the students and played call and response with slogans beckoning more to attend. Through a loudspeaker they pleaded with a silent town, imploring parents to send their children. It was a demonstration that I’m told takes place twice per term. And during each school day a team of Yolngu Attendance Officers are on alert to dissuade children from leaving during recess and lunch. Inevitably though days end with fewer than they begin, leaving fingers to point in many directions, each a story to tell.

Having left Gapuwiyak in 1975 Judy returned in the late 1990s. By then things were very different. Though they welcomed her with familial affection the people were largely unemployed and disaffected. The growing town had attracted new infrastructure but local people were never trained to sustain it. Changes to building regulations in the wake of Cyclone Tracey meant civil works were completed entirely by FIFO contractors. Only the General Store remained a source of stable employment. For others it was enough to collect 'sit down money' from Government leases. In Judy’s words, whereas before she was here to build a town and church, when she returned in the '90s her mission was of a different nature. This time she was a symbol of the past. Here “to rise up the old memories and spirits [and say] this is what your fathers were like, this is what your grandfathers… a reminder of what was done in the past. A reminder of where the community had come from. A reminder of what could be achieved.” 

Judy’s story is call to remember that what brought people together here was never easy access to food or state of the art facilities. It was never token pleasantries exchanged from behind thin veils of proclaimed respect. It was the shared responsibility of carrying out a shared vision. So what’s the vision now? The windscreen is foggy at best. But clues lie in the rear view mirror. In the stories that stretch from the present moment to the distant past, remote voices of grandmothers and grandfathers, their triumphs and mistakes, their hopes and dreams.

When the early missionaries arrived in Arnhem Land they carried a story. A story that remains deep in the fabric of our Judaeo-Christian culture to this day. The story goes that following the great flood the people of earth proceeded to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven. But their efforts were thwarted by God, who scattered them into nations with different languages, each unable to understand the others. The early missionaries interpreted the story to mean that no heavenly tower would ever be built until everyone was the same. Later missionaries like Judy began to see their tower for what it really was - a problem more complex than any one interpretation can resolve, a white horse. After all, from God’s perspective the story of Babel is a warning not to attempt the hubristic task of heavenly infrastructure.

In contrast there is one of the histories of Gapuwiyak as dreamed by the Yolngu. In that story two men were walking from Yirrkala when they saw a small pond with a little bit of water but not enough to drink. They walked to a nearby site of sacred men’s business and found a tree suitable for yidaki (didgeridoo). They chopped it down and painted it beautifully. Then the two men danced and one man was singing and one man was dancing. They sang about the Wurran bird. Then they saw the Wurran was flying to the small pond and was carrying a small fish but there was not enough water in the pond to put the fish in. So the fish started talking to the men and said “Can you get the yidaki and put it in the middle of the pond.” The two men slammed the yidaki down in the middle of the pond and gapu (water) began coming up through its middle. It kept coming until their was a huge lake of water. The men, the bird and the yidaki are still there today. From a version of the story published by Brendon Ganambarr

The two stories, together with that of Judy Davey, begin to paint a composite picture of Gapuwiyak. Its a complex history through which no simple story can chart a course. And yet, perhaps a simple story is the first step towards a shared vision. So I wrote one. And together with two Yolngu teachers, we translated it and told it to the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The story goes...

A long time ago
Near a big lake
There were some people,
Yolngu people
And Balanda people,
They needed to build a town.
The Balanda people were good at building
And the Yolngu people knew the history of the lake and how to find food,
So they decided to work together.
But there was a problem.
The Balanda people spoke English
And the Yolngu people spoke Yolngu Matha,
So even though they were standing together they couldn’t speak.
It was becoming dark so the people lit a fire. 
Suddenly a bird landed nearby.
It was a big black bird and it made a loud sound.
The Yolngu people saw the bird and called its name, “Wak!"
The Balanda people saw the bird too and called its name, “Crow!"
The people looked across and they understood -
To work together
They must first learn each other’s names.

With that I enlisted the help of a man called P--- to commence teaching me Yolngu Matha. I’ve no idea how far I’ll get. But as far as the question of how best to serve this community, it’s the way forward. And in the meantime I’ll continue to work diligently to provide the young people here with every opportunity to express themselves in the only universal language that no one understands. Art. 

And of course I’ll keep writing about it in English.

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Background Reading

Davey, G & J (2014). 'A Brief History of Gapuwiyak 1969 - 1975' unpublished pdf, accessed from Gapuwiyak Art Centre Archive, July 2018.

Dewar, M. (1995). ‘The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land’, The Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Canberra.

Kadiba, J. 1998. ‘The Methodist Mission and the emerging Aboriginal Church in Arnhem Land 1916 – 1977’, Thesis submitted for Doctor of Philosophy through the Faculty of Education, Northern Territory University.

Future Authoring

This is the five year plan I never wanted to write. It extends into the distance, so expectedly its clearest in the shortest term. It begins with the next 7 months, the most significant period of community service and professional development I’ve known to date. I’m here in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in north east Arnhem Land, as a volunteer through Gapuwiyak School for the rest of the year. During that time I’ll run small to medium sized art projects with young people in the community. I’ll also complete the 75 hours of practicum placement I need to finish my Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy. In exchange, Gapuwiyak School is providing me with rent free accommodation and materials. I’m responsible for living and travel expenses. 

The projects I help develop and facilitate will centre around providing spaces and opportunities for kids to hang out and express themselves. I'll collaborate with other members of the community and organisations such as the Gapuwiyak Arts Centre. 

Personally I’m interested in ways that mapping processes can strengthen connections to place and nature. At the moment I’m recording found sounds at specific locations in given geographical areas, interpreting those sounds in a visual language, then arranging (mapping) the interpretations according to their relative geography. The process translates well into collective, project based iterations, that result in geographically accurate representations of subjective encounters with place. In February this year I successfully ran the first iteration in Sydney, with primary school students at Nicholson Street Public School, as part of a broader project to build an orchestra with all 175 students using recycled materials. I’ll run the second iteration with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. Then, having been selected to participate in the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico, I’ll run a third iteration of the idea in January 2019. Arquetopia is an internationally established, non-profit arts and cultural foundation with a social scope that emphasises critical thinking through artistic practices. Their academic international residency programs are the largest in Latin America, with an array of contents anchored in a solid structure of collaborations with prominent cultural institutions, renowned experts and notable artists. Participation in the residency program will ground my work in an institutional framework. I’ll meet three times per week with Arquetopia’s academic staff and the project participants will be students from the local University.

That's the plan until February 2019. Along the way I aim to produce written work and a podcast that appeals to an audience of people interested in the kinds of stories and insights that arise from my work. In that way I aim to sustain a unique and multifaceted career as a writer, with a special interest in education, nature connection, place, culture and community.

So, with the support of my loving family and friends I’ll suffer the burden of my dreaming, defeat the troublesome companions that are my weaknesses, rise to meet the best I’m capable of and share it all in words and pictures. If you’d like to read and see them, please subscribe to receive weekly letters and updates using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you’re on mobile). 

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 Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Letters Home #2 "Soft Landings"

Notes
This is the second letter of its kind. You can read the first one here.
Also, thank you so much to everyone who sent replies of support and encouragement to my first letter. Your words were a balm on my heart and mind.

You can see photos relating to this letter here

Letter #2 "Soft Landings"

Let me just say that change out here is constant. But not time. Time bends and warps, and sometimes it stretches to eternity. Days begin instantly, they burst forth from sunrise like supernovae. Then they cruise at 34 degrees forever. Until sunset, when every colour from blazing red to the deepest violet spreads out in slow motion across an infinite horizon. Light speed sunrise and technicolour sunset, and eternity in between. 

Writing my last letter I felt as though I were sifting through shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. After sending it I wept. For the confusion and helplessness I was feeling. For the grief I could see in everyone’s eyes. I wept for the hungry and the sick and the lost and especially I wept for the displaced. For those of us, maybe all of us, who somewhere deep down feel as if we haven’t been home in generations. Then I picked myself up and went outside. There was a fire on the beach. A group of five people from the Czech Republic were visiting Djalu and they brought food to share. So we all sat together. Djalu, Dopiya, M--, T--, Vernon, a couple of kids and some unfamiliar faces. Dopiya said it was like old times. I thought to myself how odd, that a group of Czechs, some baked chicken, a teary eyed Jew and boiled potatoes on Thai-made blankets - how that could possibly bring back memories. But I too felt nostalgic. As if I were remembering something older than any of my actual memories. I looked around at the fire-lit faces and listened to the hum of crisscrossed conversations and I realised, we were all there for the same reason. To remember what we ever did with eternity before there wasn’t enough time in a day. And that night I slept like a baby.

The next day a group of young boys decided to show me a place 5km west of Wallaby Beach, where Crocodile Creek meets the sea. W-- (11), J-- (9), P-- (11), N-- (10), G-- (5) and me (28). Before setting off we gathered several of the straightest stems we could find and fashioned them into spears. I packed a knife, lighter and water bottle. J-- walked next to me, a little behind the others. Earlier that day we’d made a game of drawing a diagram of the body with Yolngu Matha labels. That’s the language group out here. J-- was still in language mode and patiently pointed out to me the different sights in his native tongue. Soon we came to a place he identified as the home of a big crocodile. G--'s brother was famously bitten by this one. So spears in hand we starred down the last known whereabouts of the great lizard. Like old times, they say. Turns out G--'s father died last year. It was a suicide. J-- said he was a good man. He also said his grandfather was killed by a bus because he was drunk and didn’t see it coming. J-- said when he grows up he’s not going to drink. He wants to play footy instead. I suggested he consider going to University. He agreed. By the time we reached the river mouth we hadn’t caught any fish. So instead the boys collected longbums (a crustacean with a 10cm triangular shell), lipids (river snails) and mud mussels. They gathered dry grasses and a few sticks and with my lighter made a small fire, into which they tossed our bounty. By the time the fire had burned down each of them had assembled in front of his folded legs an apparatus consisting of one flat rock for the bottom and one for the top - to crush and de-shell the various critters. A little lemon juice would have been to taste but on the whole everything was delicious.  

When we got back I felt as though I'd extended the patch of earth around me on which I knew my feet to have stepped, and I could breathe. I felt as though I’d slipped beneath the surface of this place and found there an innocent human experience of discovery and survival. I tried to stay in touch with these feelings during each of my remaining days at Wallaby Beach. And for the most part I managed. I finished my Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Dopiya painted it with a traditional cross-hatch pattern. I now carry it with me.

So it was that 10 days into a journey barely begun, I packed my suitcase full of questions and said goodbye to Birritjimi. My charter flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) was scheduled to leave early the following morning so I spent one night in town at a Motel. Djalu’s son, Vernon, planned to meet me there with a care package for his two kids. They live in Gapuwiyak with some family. Yolngu kinship, an elaborate constellation of lineage and location, is a thing to behold. Its common for kids here to call 4 or 5 different people mum and dad. Other aspects of Yolngu culture require life support from numerous intersectional community organisations working hard for continuity. Some organise traditional dances, ceremonies and tours for visiting Balanda. Others take a different approach, such as Yolngu Radio, a highly successful initiative to broadcast local music, news and ‘history’. That’s the English word Yolngu people use to refer to myths and stories. As if telling them is an act of remembrance. Its impossible to know the trajectory of the struggle for continuity out here, so close to town. Because on the one hand, watching mobs dance on the beach in front of groups of Balanda risks falling into the realm of token spectacle. But on the other hand, the owner of the Motel I stayed in, Travis (45), told me that the dancing and chanting he witnessed at a Welcome to Country in Yirrkala was so powerful he’d remember it for the rest of his life. My hope is that someday our children, or their children, will hear or watch or even sing along to any one of the thousands of ancient stories that criss-cross this country. And when they do, I hope it makes them feel at home.

Vernon never did meet me at the Motel. But I arrived in Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) on July 20, 2018. Its a village the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake. The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly colours bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow. Its a two bedder with a spacious kitchen and an open plan, south facing living space. Its walls are pale blue with powder blue window frames and skirting boards. The main bedroom looks over a sprawling rear garden with three large trees, a perennial, gum and possibly a Kimberly Rose. There's also a fire pit and a hills hoist. Around the side is a shed, car port and a storage container housing some spare furniture. Not that I need it, back inside there’s a large timber dining table, several bookcases, a plush satin sofa and two deeply set arm chairs. The washing machine can hold 8.5 kilos, only 2 more than the dryer. A selection of non-stick cookware and cutlery stay behind the white laminate kitchen cupboards. There’s also a blender, toaster, kettle and twelve-strong cupcake tin, which slides easily into the electric oven. The bathroom has a mirror and medicine cabinet, as well as a shower equal to the task of blasting the red dirt from beneath my finger nails. I’ve not yet met my western neighbour. But to the east lives O--. She runs a women’s group. There are problems here and O-- is frustrated by what she perceives to be an uphill struggle to guide the community towards something like the integration of Western values of education and self determination. Why? Its a question I’m carrying around. Maybe Yolngu culture could stand on its own here. The possibility seems less remote the more remote I go. At the same time, globalisation is here too. And its a flood. Even the strongest swimmer runs the risk of drowning in its hazardous waters of nihilistic overconsumption and pathological self obsession. Everyone needs some basic skills in navigation. So maybe that’s what we’re doing here. Myself, O-- and the 30 or so Balanda that work as teachers, medics, community developers, employment consultants and aid officers. Maybe we’re here to learn together just what kind of ship is going to keep us all dry.

School starts on Tuesday. I’ll run several art projects of varying scale as a volunteer this term. Some will centre around ideas I brought with me. Others will be in collaboration with various members of the community and calendar. People like Trevor, who runs the Art Centre. Every Saturday Trevor makes coffee for anyone wanting. Its a caffeine watering hole and today, alongside a band of enthusiastic folk, I had my fill. Among them was a woman named Judy Davey. In the 1960s Judy was one of a handful of Methodist missionaries who bushbashed their way to this place with enough gear to mill timber, and started this town. She’d not been back in over a decade. But low and behold she was here for a visit. So I asked her if she’d do a recorded interview with me. She agreed. Trevor suggested we do it in the Art Centre. So we did. But that’s a story I’ll save for another letter.

Postscripts 
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