#30 Letter to Youth

One day someone is going to tell you to believe in yourself, even though you don’t know what that means exactly. After all, in the first place you mightn’t be so sure of what you are, never mind what it means to think of yourself as something to believe in. So here’s a bit of background. You are the last in an unbroken string of human beings stretching back 200,000 years (1). If that seems like a long time, it’s because it is. And here’s the good news; things are better today for human beings than at any other time in the 200,000 years we’ve been around, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

You might be asking, how do I believe in myself? Its a good question, and many of the people who came before you asked a similar one. They didn’t always ask out loud, but as you’ll come to understand, people do a lot of things without being able to say what it is exactly that they’re doing. Often people are trying to make things better for themselves, and for their families and communities as well. The biggest challenge to making things better is change. Because everything is always changing, kind of like the weather.

Now, there are lots of people, the earth is big, and there isn’t one way to do things. Different people have different ways of finding food and building houses, different ways of speaking and even different versions of better. So one thing we’re always working on is ways to be free. The thing to remember is this; no matter how different people seem, everyone has a place. Even you.

Part of your place is where you come from, the rest is where you’re going, in the middle is your adventure. It will cause you some pain to realise that the place you come from is not as good as it could be. That’s part of growing up, its partly why you try to make things better and partly why you are something to believe in. You’re going to have to leave that place. If you’re lucky, the people there will encourage you. One day you will return.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. You’re young, and there is no need to rush these things. Time will have its way of telling you when to move and in which direction. If you’re ever lost, sit down and listen. Take note of what is calling your attention, gather those fragments together and organise them, which might mean you write them down. Or draw them, or turn them into something that speaks to you. Then let that go, which might mean giving it away, lest you confuse yourself with it. Remember you are the process by which the place you come from turns into the place you’re going, you are not any of the things you find along the way, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

From time to time you might encounter groups of people working together to try and solve particular problems. These are causes; and you might like to get involved. Beware of causes that demand self-sacrifice, which are all causes that believe people are the problem. They are wrong. People are not the problem; people are things to believe in. Which isn’t to say that people should always be believed, because as you’ll come to understand, people are always telling stories. 

As they get older, like people, stories get shorter. Two of the oldest stories are also two of the shortest. They are as follows. First, things were better before. Second, the world is coming to an end. Pay close attention to people who tell such stories, there is a reason they're always told, partly as conditions for improvement, partly as conditions for freedom. See, just like you, freedom is something to believe in. Its not a place, its a process, just like you. Its a way forward, a course negotiated between sets of opposing values, which we call the two hands of our body politic.

The right hand is cautious, it holds onto the past, places freedom in the individual and maintains firm boundaries. The left hand keeps those same boundaries flexible, places freedom in collective responsibility and reaches for the future. Both hands are necessary, each protects the other from its particular tyranny, each reminds the other that neither is the head. We make sure neither writes the word truth with a capital T, nor makes people the problem. Such is the nature of our freedom machine, and it works pretty well.

In fact, much of what you’ll come to know will emerge from dialogue, so it helps to have friends you can believe in. That requires learning to play, and the best way to play is fair. Here’s how it works. All games have rules, even though you mightn’t know exactly what they are. You’ll know when you’ve broken a rule because the person you’re playing with looks at you funny, or maybe even tells it to you straight. That’s okay, learning the rules is part of playing the game. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is making up the rules as they go, ensuring only they get to decide who’s playing fair, it might be that person is playing a different game to you, one that only they can win. People like that can’t be trusted. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is breaking all of the rules all of the time, it might be because that person is also playing a different game to you, one that involves breaking the rules all the time. People like that can’t be trusted either. If you are either of those people, you will find it hard to make true friends. Either your fiends will be scared of you, or they will want to be you. You’re better off playing fair.

Lastly, things are always more complicated on the ground. Its why people keep their feet there. Its where you’ll be most of the time, stumped by ordinary complexity. Then you should know not only that you have a place but that you have a family too. Even if you don’t. I know that’s confusing. But the most important thing is to find someone in whose eyes you see something of yourself, and in whose fears you see something of your own, and to let that person be vulnerable in your presence to the complexity of on the ground experience. There is love in that, and love is something to believe in, just like you.

Its Pretty Big  (2018)

Its Pretty Big (2018)

(1) This line references a quote by Dr Jordan B Peterson. The full quote is ‘you are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers dating back 3.5 billion years.’ That line, along with Dr Peterson’s delineation of the psychological significance of paternal resurrection as mythological trope has been of profound significance for me in my own understanding of culture and identity.

#29 Wolves Underwater

They say the ground is a thin line between skies. A narrow bridge. The water either side is impossible to grasp because it moves unpredictably and occasionally with intent to test the integrity of the bridge. Or to steal the innocence of small boys - who, having taken only a few steps - are still unable to speak up.

It would be remiss to lay all the blame on water. Its often other people who betray the illusion that everything is okay. Some of everything is not okay, and I suppose that’s okay, so long as its understood. 

But back to innocence. What tends to happen is this: following its removal, innocence descends, and among creatures at the bottom of the sea it transforms into a wolf. A similar thing happens to cats who run away. Wolves are hungry, but like small boys they know not how to speak. All they have is hunger and for having grown up in the water they know to unsettle things. Which is what they do.

On the surface that looks like children possessed by uncontrollable ferocity then suddenly silent and passive. We call that unregulated. Or acting out. But he’s a good kid, we say. Whatever that means. These days we recognise in the first place good kids need somewhere safe. Perhaps we give them a story about keeping their cool the next time sub-aquatic canine monsters fiddle with their circuitry.

If all this seems a bit abstract consider that sub-aquatic canine monsters are far likelier to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than kids in safe places who keep their cool. Because one day around 13 that monster knocks on the safe place door and says to the boy, “Wanna see with my eyes?”

The boy barely knows his name at this point. And the wolf’s eyes are supernovae. So he agrees, and besides, everyone’s doing it. Then years later when a natural conspiracy leads the wolf down memory lane he finds himself outside the house where he used to be a boy, and the weight of what went wrong is enough to press coal halfway to diamond. The remainder has to be performed by hand. So you can forgive a wolf for opting out.

Anyway there’s another road. Its the second half of the first story. See, the wolf replaced stolen innocence. Its a fragment of overcompensation for a moment of weakness when words didn't speak up. Think of it like a voice box gone rogue. Or a lost piece of personality. Try to forgive its aggression, not much separates aggression and assertion, only more time to figure things out. And more than anything, what was stolen from that boy was time. And now he’s haunted by a sub-aquatic canine monster in a world that tries to fight monsters with deep breaths and safe places.

That’s only half the story. The rest is how to fight. How to walk a narrow bridge. And let me tell you, it pays to have a guide dog. So here’s the plan for small boys. “Let’s go find that wolf and see if we can’t make a guide dog out of him.”
Naturally upon hearing it they will generally look confused. So start with the first part. 

What I’m trying to say is this: 
The ground is a thin line between skies,
The only way to cross that bridge 
Is to speak up.
Wolves are no substitute for guide dogs,
But perhaps they are a first step,
Because after all,
Innocence should be protected.

Subaquatic Canine Monster  (2018)

Subaquatic Canine Monster (2018)

#28 On Freedom

When I was younger I heard three stories, each in two parts. Perhaps you’ve heard them too. Its likely. Or at least versions of them in your own words. Perhaps you’ve heard about times before, when things were harmonious. About catastrophes that scarred everything and everyone. Perhaps in your midst there are witnesses to attest to the truth of these tales. Or others steadfastly committed to original words.

It was from the latter that I heard the first story. Set in a time before anyone whose ever lived can remember. About two ancestral beings who were naked and vulnerable but without knowing, so they weren't afraid. They lived in perfect harmony. And then something catastrophic happened. An evil entered and brought with it knowledge of a kind that tore everything apart. Even now upon those who’ve not forgotten what their ancestors came to know, scars remain.

The first part of the second story concerns a group. At one time slaves to a tyrannical ruler of an empire so vast as to make escape all but impossible. The lives of the slaves were difficult; yet they survived and multiplied. In their midst was a single determined voice with the power to set everyone free. Which it did.

The first part of the third story is more recent. Though fewer in number with each passing year, still among us are people who witnessed the events. Its also about a group, who for reasons unfathomable to naive conceptions of human nature, were systematically herded and exterminated by an evil that possessed an entire nation. 

As with the first two stories, the third is unforgettable. And many years later, in annual rituals of retelling, the descendants of those affected recall with bittersweet joy that their ancestors were set free by the power of belief in a transcendent voice, and the possibility of freedom. Each year they reaffirm their commitment to continued existence in spite of forces still intent on their enslavement. For all too aware are the not so naive that we remain capable of terrible cruelty; that without awareness we remain unafraid; and that without fear we remain deaf to the knocks of evil at our doors.

Maybe you’ve heard these stories. Or similar ones. About ruined childhoods, natural worlds destroyed by unnatural forces. Stories about you. Maybe you’ve seen first hand or met those who can attest. I once met a woman who inhaled longing, and when she exhaled decried the indelible marks left by her past between her ribs. I learned from her that memory is a complicated means of producing something other than facts. Stories mainly. At least in part. Often inter-generational.

These days we store the past at the tips of our fingers; we reminisce in high definition. But still, even as storage in the cloud replaces stories of before, we retain a lament for the catastrophe of prolonged exposure to the slings and arrows of time in the sun, or the moments that change everything forever. We continue to be reminded that no matter our admiration for advances in meteorology, the weather is unpredictable. And we resolve to relish moments and savour fleeting joys. We consider it wise to be grateful for what we have.

That’s as far as the first parts of stories can take us. Then come the second parts. And to be sure, without them, we would drown in unpredictable weather. The second parts are more terrifying than the first parts, more difficult too. And the reason for that is the second parts of our stories demand that we move on. That we shoulder the burden of past catastrophes as if they were matters of our individual responsibility. Perhaps more than any other, the reason the second parts are so terrifying, is that we write them ourselves.

When I was younger I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who expected me, having heard the stories of my ancestors, to write a good story of my own. The details were not important, but some general rules applied. My story should start small. And aim high. It should include others, but only with constructive intentions. At its core should be family, surrounded by community, supported by society to which is owed service, and from which nothing should be assumed given. All of the characters should strive to do good by one another, particularly in times of need. And as for my own character, he should lead the way; respect the past; be true to his word; aware of his capacity for error; guided by a transcendent voice; and sustained by unwavering belief in the possibility of his freedom.

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

#27 [Instructions] On therapeutic relationships in education

Last week I defined the role of educators. Demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; encourage its pursuit. Of the three, the second, provision of instruction, comes most naturally. Most teachers give generously of their time, spirit and knowledge. Its the backbone of the vocation. We’re a giving bunch.

So, how best to give? That’s the question.

The story goes that a man without food was close to a river. Another man approached and offered to catch him a fish. The first man was grateful and gladly accepted. With a full belly, that night he slipped into a deep sleep. He dreamed he was on a building site, surrounded by trucks loaded with bricks. There was a cement mixer and beside it a pile of yellow sand. The man was enthused. It had been years since his last employ and he longed to work again with his hands. So he looked for a shovel with which to load the mixer. But he couldn’t find one. The doors to the trucks were locked and without a knife, he was unable even to unload the bricks, which were bound with plastic straps. The man scratched his head. He woke up hungry, and his dream left him unsatisfied.

Its nothing new to say of fishing that men and women should be taught the skill rather than gifted the catch. Nor to apply that same principle to education. At least in theory, students are assessed on what they can do themselves. Teachers prepare them to demonstrate by means of assessment what knowledge they’ve acquired in the course of instruction, and provide critical feedback to identify areas in need of improvement.

But things are more complicated on the ground, in particular with regard to factors external to the teacher-student relationship, which affect the capacity of each to play their part. On the tragic end of the spectrum of externalities is what’s called complex trauma. A tangled milieu of symptoms from prolonged exposure to abhorrent behaviour in the early stages of childhood development. Students affected find regulating their emotions exceedingly difficult. Their nervous systems are continually haunted by unresolved encounters with threats to their safety and stability. They struggle to focus and socialise, often they act out. In school terms they require Special Education. In real terms they require something beyond the mere provision of instruction.

One way of thinking about what that something is, is therapy. The treatment of disorder and dysfunction sought by or for the disordered and dysfunctional. in simple terms, therapy is the process of reordering. Putting things together; organisation for functional expression. In poetic terms therapy is the way home. Over the years common threads in stories of recovery have been woven by various professionals into formalised approaches. All of them recognise a paradox in the common goal; that every one is different, and yet there are commonalities in patterns of individual development. 

So the teacher faces a challenge. How to differentiate their approach to cater for the varied needs of individuals who to differing degrees are affected by externalities that threaten to disorganise their capacity to pay attention to content on which one day they will be examined. Oomph.

The story goes that long ago, in a time before anyone who’s ever lived can remember, a time best understood as a dream, the sun and the moon made a seed. The seed lay on the ground, and was watered by the clouds. Soon it sprouted two small leaves, attached to a stem. The sun and the moon watched the small plant grow towards the sky, until one day, big enough to know, the plant opened its eyes, looked around and immediately became terrified by the height to which it had grown. “Oh no!” Cried the plant, “I’ve so far to fall!”

Hearing distress the wind arrived to offer some help. “What’s the matter?” Asked the wind. Just then a bird flew by, catching the attention of the terrified plant.
“Oh wind, I cannot possibly live this way. If only I were a bird! I’d have no need to be afraid.”
“Very well,” said the wind, and transformed the plant into a small bird.
The bird was thrilled, fascinated by its newfound perspective. It flew to new places far from home. In one such place the bird found a forest of enormous trees and landed on one of their branches.
“Oh my!” Said the bird. “How scared this tree must be!”
In reply came the voice of the tree, slow and deep. “Dear bird,” it said, “how old do you think I am?”
“Um—“ said the bird, “maybe three?”
“Ha!” Laughed the tree. “I am one hundred years old!”
“Wow!” Said the bird.
“But that’s not all,” the tree continued, “I am a tree. And trees are three hundred million years old! For three hundred million years we’ve been learning to stand tall.”
The bird was stunned. Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew through the forest. The tree swayed, and the bird fluttered from the branch, then landed again.
“Wind!” Called the bird.
“Yes?”
“I need your help again. I want to be a tree! They’ve been learning to stand tall for three hundred million years!”

What does it mean to demonstrate understanding? To be an old tree surrounded by frightened birds of nervous flutter. In that question, suspended between pillars of knowing, are stories about setting examples. When I first started working with children I thought it was their example that I should follow. The wide-eyed way they went about their games and activities, the freedom with which they expressed how they were really feeling. But as I’ve grown so I’ve leaned that wide-eyed wonder comes in different forms. And there are times to join in the fun, and times to stand back and concentrate on standing tall. 

The word that I think most aptly describes the relationship between the tree and the bird, between teacher and student, therapist and client, between those who give and the whole world; is forgiveness. And to forgive is to withhold. The prefix for- is an injunction on the root word give. To forgive is to give not. Which is different from not caring. Anyone in a position to forgive is likely to care. And perhaps only a caring person can forgive. Perhaps only a person for whom it doesn’t come naturally can create an empty space between themselves and their students, into which the latter might grow. And all the while demonstrate a capacity to remain standing, by caring for themselves. 

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

#26 On Course (Back from Mexico)

We need everyone for the third, to gather. But not before the first two. Sit, listen, then gather. Impressions mainly. Whispers. Fragments. They must be taken in, listened to. But not believed. Belief is not understanding. Belief is a matter of fact, followed inevitably by ideology. The trouble with which is the nature of truth; an emergent property not contained in any one part of the story. Truth resides between lines, not in them.

Use simple terms to gather fragments. Avoid relative ones. Strive for clarity, which is to say master description. Clarity is more easily understood. To which end it helps to remember that words are in reference and among other things, we are trying to understand each other. We are also trying to answer three questions. In simple terms they are: survival; coexistence; existence. Put another way they are: How to survive and thrive? How to organise and live together? Where are we and how did we get here?

I gathered that by paying attention to the subtext of stories across cultures. Always they served those three categories of problem. Questions of a nature which ought be suspended in disbelief. Between pillars of knowing. Between internal logic and lived experience. Where a way appears to begin with why? And ends with what happened? The answer is a story to be understood. Which brings us to education.

The role of educator is to demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; and encourage its pursuit by students with a shared interest in the given subject. Personally, the subject of my interest is the way home. An antidote for the lost and alone; the anxious, a method for the self expressive; the artist, and a philosophy for anyone interested.

The way home has six rooms - possibly seven. Walls and floors of simple terms with windows to stories and paintings featuring thousands of words. I recently showed a group of students around to determine whether or not I’m onto something. Turns out I am, because their work spoke for its selves. Unexpectedly the way home was also a place to hang out and make friends. Which was really cool.

Over four weeks I demonstrated my understanding in two lectures on the history and continued use of the way home. I provided a set of instructions (poetic, to allow for truth) And encouraged the students to articulate their findings in their own words. We shared an interest in home; in connecting with place; in facing anxiety and being heard. And in the end we held an exhibition.

My friends Alex and Kate filmed the whole thing and in the coming weeks I’ll share a video to illustrate what on earth I’m on about.

In the meantime a note on politics. First of all, assuming every fragment is political erases private space, and contrary to popular belief, that’s not a good idea. The only basis for effective politics is to assume we need everyone to gather and tell their stories. Which ought be understood. Not believed. Inevitably people will congregate around certain stories, warmed by their light, warned by their darkness. But such stories should never concern the state. Only their free exchange in between. Which leads to a story with a focus on economic transactions.

And finally, a generalised claim to distinguish between categories of political perspective. Those who locate responsibility in the group; and those who locate responsibility in the individual. On the ground, with regard to what ought be done about real issues, things become complicated. But who knows? I’m trying to understand.

We did it! Me and the students from ARPA following our final Exhibition  Caminando con la Naturaleza .

We did it! Me and the students from ARPA following our final Exhibition Caminando con la Naturaleza.

#25 Escuchar

The second step is to listen. Which is to say take note of invitations to be interested. Concerning ideas; often they appear old at first, couched in forgotten language. But persist. They return often, to be remembered.

If that seems complicated, consider the question - Is this Art? To which you might say, Who cares? And fair enough. But it matters to my friend Alex from the United States. He’s a kind man. A comedian. He has a knack for making light in any situation. We met in residence at Arquetopia, together with his girlfriend Kate, they planned to film a series of short videos in which Alex would look confusedly at works of art, then ask in an Australian accent, “Is this ah-t?”
Given I was the closest thing to a custodian he’d encountered, Alex gauged my approval. I said it sounded interesting, even offered to consult on matters of authenticity.

Here’s an idea. What something means has a lot to do with you. Or more accurately, what somethings means has a lot to do with what you’re up to. Because what you see is mediated by what you want - by what's driving you. Sometimes its obvious, like when you want to eat. Then what you see means food or not-food. Sometimes its less obvious, like when you want to do the right thing. Then what you see means choice. And maybe there is no right thing. But maybe there is. Maybe there are right motivations - good intentions and bad ones. All with competing interests. Which means the world appears a complicated place.

When it comes to art, some things mean beauty. At least to people driven by beauty. And because beauty is beheld in their eyes, some things mean ugly too. And some things mean so much to so many people that its tempting to think of them as truly meaningful. But what’s more likely is that those things relate very closely to motivations held very deeply in the hearts and minds of many people. 

How else to understand what took place in Puebla during a festival the other day. When thousands of men, women and children walked the streets with dolls of the baby Jesus clutched to their chests. Beautifully dressed, some in bassinets. So driven they were by devotion to the image of a perfect child. Perhaps - like so many - they were motivated by a deep desire for the return of sacred innocence left behind in childhood. Or by the anxious hope that every parent tucks into the future of every generation. Or by the desire to do right in a world that makes more obvious its demands for sacrifice than its offers of redemption. Who knows.

One thing is for sure. We learn from times when things were more difficult. When we were slaves to forces beyond our control. When only in the private space did we know the taste of freedom. And to this day that space is best understood by deference to the feminine. That aspect of our nature which makes room, and which therein sustains small hands still unable to hold it all.

One day, in the backseat, on our way home from class, Daniela and I talked about abortion. Its an imprisonable offence in Mexico. Everyone knows someone trying to make it work for the sake of children dearly loved by families rooted in old ideas. “Es complicado, she said.
Si,” I agreed.
“What do you believe?”
Mi opinion?
Si.
Es complicado,” I offered, tapping my translator. “Hay diferentes tipos de prisiones.”
Si,” she laughed. “But Mexico is very Catholic.”
Si,” I said, “I think — el papel del estado — no es morales. Es libertad.” The last word, freedom, hung in the air like an old idea.
“In Australia?” She asked.
“We try to keep estado and religion — apartado,” I replied. “Es importanto. But complicado.”
“Ah,” she managed, with a hint of longing. “Is your family Catholic?”
“No, Judio.”
And you?” She asked.
“Um, soy conectado — its easier, mas facil — to be conectado — when its not law.”
Si,” she agreed. “Mi familia es very Catholic. It was hard to — talk to them — that I don’t believe. But is better now. — And for me is important to know where I come from.”
Si,” I said, tapping at new words. “— en los raises sin aire, but sin ellos sedientos!
Si,” she smiled.
In the roots is no air, but without them we are thirsty.

This painting is in the old Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, it depicts Saint Augustus hearing the words  tolle lege , which means  take up and read .

This painting is in the old Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, it depicts Saint Augustus hearing the words tolle lege, which means take up and read.

#24 First Step

The first step on the way home is to sit down. By that I mean to understand. Which is to say look up at things, the way a child looks up at an adult. Open to the possibility that the adult is in possession of something the child needs to know. But unsure what that is, so the child satisfies rapacious curiosity with an endless string of questions. 

Thus the child sets an example of what it is to understand. To see from below. To avoid looking down on things lest they be consumed in shadow. The example is fair - but for adults altogether insufficient. Because there are things children haven’t the capacity to look at without being irrevocably traumatised. So adults must look elsewhere for examples of mature naivety that leads to understanding.

Tucked away through a set of old wooden doors, between two shops filled with knock-off antiques, on an unassuming street in the historic part of town, is a place called Gym Puebla. Its owned and run by a man formerly called Mr Puebla. These days its hard to understand a word he says. Each one rises on rusty wheels and pulleys from an iron belly, greased by meat and moonshine. In his chest they squeeze between walls of dried muscle and scrape against the back of his grunt-worn throat.

Gym Puebla is a ruin. Mr Puebla is an old king. Every morning - after working out - he rinses his face with tepid water and combs his hair with brylcreem. Then he stands for a while in a corner of the gym where a wooden frame houses an image of Mary seven feet from the ground. A lace curtain ensures she never learns that her neighbour is a scantly glad fitness model, nor sees any of the other pieces of motivational material on the white stone walls. Only a boxing ring, some barbells, a poster of Schwarzeneggar and Mr Puebla, who rattles mumbled incantations at her feet, and marks himself humbly in the sign of the cross.

Most days around 5pm another man visits the gym. His modest frame is athletic and woven with playful tension, belying the age his spectacles reveal. They call him the Little Clown - or at least Mr Puebla does - for he makes his way as a street performer, karaoke musician and occasional shoe shiner. He also gives instruction in Lucha Libre, which literally translated means free fight.

Each week in the town's arena, a company of heroes, underdogs, gladiators and villains don masks and backstories in pursuit of what they’re fighting for. Sometimes pride, sometimes revenge, sometimes love and sometimes honour. Always drama. The kind that pokes and prods at dormant pools of fettered emotion buried in the crowd. Exorcised and hurled in the direction of masked men and women, who by some calling have chosen this to be their art. They thrive on it and survive on it. Just like their fans.

My first Lucha training session with the Little Clown involved rolling around the perimeter of the ring, then to and from its centre in a formation called estrella, which means star. Suitably nauseous he proceeded to demonstrate for me and my friend a series of holds, trips and reversals. Each required one of us in turn to lead by subtle or exaggerated gesture, then to hand over the reigns and respond to the other’s desire. The result was a dance, the outcome irrelevant, success was measured in how.

Years ago I became obsessed with unmasking myself. I tried speaking for the voice most afraid in me, convinced by its pain that it was the most real. Or the voice most unafraid, convinced by its courage the same. I tried opening my heart, but I didn’t know how. And closing it, but that was a lonely road. I tried hiding my masks in locked drawers in dark rooms where no one could find them. But from the shadows they haunted me, and without them I had no control. So I gathered my masks together under the glow of a single flame. And I tended their cracks with oil and their coats with polish. I made sure I could see out their eyes and breathe freely through their mouths. Then I practiced them with others, as if the whole world was on my side.

At the end of the day, in the privacy of my own home, I sat down. By that I mean I understood. Which is to say I looked up. Naive, curious, full of questions. The way a child looks up at an adult. And I knew that answers were never sought in the first place. Only examples.

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)

#22 Mexican Impression

I arrived after dark in Mexico City with one word of Spanish. That night I slept to the drone of a language tape, but the next morning I knew not one word more. En route to breakfast I looked up thank you and good morning. “Buenos dias,” I said to the short round woman made of heart and muscle. 
“Buenos dias, senior,” she replied, showing me to my seat. 
Then she said something else. I heard café, so I said, “Por favor.”
Five minutes later she returned with coffee and a plate of eggs with refried beans. “Gracias!” I played my final card.
“De nada,” she smiled. 

After breakfast I retreated to my room to write a few lines about how big the world is, how everyday people cross unimaginable distances, how once it was all within walking distance. 

Even now some distance lingers between strangers. It shrinks to a sense of relief when a shared language emerges. But where none exists it takes a sharp breath into vacuous space, all anxieties of being misunderstood expand to fill it completely. 

Around midday I decided to make an adventure of finding a cafe-bookstore I’d read about. To get there I’d have to cross the plaza Rio de Janeiro, and the enormous replica of David in its centre. Off I went.

Hundreds of years of traffic had softened the cobblestones that led to the statue. Even the soil that lined them, sparsely planted with trees and shrubs, claimed not a patch so old. In the distance I saw David. He stood in a fountain. Between us a man was sitting on the floor. His legs outstretched, his shoes beside him. Behind him his hands, arms straight, a posture reserved for short spells of relaxation. I considered he might be homeless. His clothes were dusty but I wasn't sure. For all I knew he simply preferred old stones to damp grass. And given my uncertainty - and honestly, either way - I tried to make no impression. When he spoke I pretended not to hear. I didn’t want to embarrass him with pesos if really all he wanted were directions.

I found the bookstore. Once inside I made my way bashfully down foreign spines to the English section, then to the cafe section, where the host greeted me with a question about whether I’d be sitting alone. Or so I assumed and said, “Si."

He made a gesture that I understood to mean a choice between inside and out. In response I attempted some physical comedy by sticking out my hand as if to feel the air temperature - but before I could retrieve it for laughs my obliging host understood me to have pointed to my choice.
“Perfecto,” he said, encouragingly.
Somewhat embarrassed I followed his lead and reached for the corner seat. But all at once a woman stood very close. She held a pot of tea and her smile said she had the same idea. She was gorgeous. Her long black hair was curly. Constellated freckles spread to a fade from the bridge of her nose to the swell of her cheeks. A storm raged green and blue in her eyes and each hairline fibre of iris muscle was a bolt of lightening. 
Her lips moved very fast. Probably in good humoured apology - at least four sentences worth. I smiled. My hands made clear the seat was hers. She protested - or perhaps she suggested, given our shared taste in position, we might sit and get to know each other - but valiantly I declined and hurried to another table.

Two coffees and a chapter later I rose to use the bathroom. She was still there when I returned, but further away.

**

Days later, with my Spanish somewhat improved, I traveled to Puebla. There I met former Mr. Puebla and joined his gym. A shoeshiner lit my boots on fire. I made some friends, and I found a tailor to repair an old blazer I purchased at a church market. 

More on that one day.

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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.

Sharing is Caring

I've told this story a couple of times in the past week and many times since I first encountered the phrase 'sharing is caring' on a preschool playground in 2016. At the time I wrote a blog post titled 'Understanding the Law: Sharing is Caring'. It was a satirical legal commentary that attempted to unpack the problems with practical application of the 'sharing is caring' principle. I've included the original post at the end of this one. In the meantime here is the story I wrote in response to the problem. I also feel it holds particular relevance given that next month I'm heading up to Arnhem Land to volunteer in the remote community of Gapuwiyak. I hope to learn from local art makers and educators up there and contribute to the community by supporting arts education. I'm sure I'll learn a lot more about sharing and exchange over the next 6 months. 

Spider

One day Spider was wandering the bush in search of a web. He was searching because he didn’t have a web of his own. Suddenly he came across a beautiful web between two trees. He crawled up and found that another spider called Leaf Curler was already there. “Excuse me,” he said, “Can I have this web?” Leaf Curler looked confused.
“This is my web,” it said.
Spider responded, “Yeah, but... sharing is caring.”
Leaf Curler was stunned. Sharing was caring. So it gave up its web and moved on.
Spider was happy in his new web. But after a while he became hungry. He didn’t have any food so he went out in search of something to eat. Nearby he found another web with a juicy fly stuck inside. He crawled up and reach for the fly but was stopped suddenly by the web’s owner, a spider called Jumper.
“Hey!” shouted Jumper, “That’s my food!”
“But I’m hungry,” pleaded Spider.
Jumper looked confused, “Well you can’t have my food,” it said.
“But,” said Spider, “Sharing is caring!”
Jumper was stunned. Sharing was caring. So it gave up its fly and moved on.
Spider took the fly to the web he had taken from Leaf Curler. He rested happily and ate his fill. After a while Spider became lonely. He didn’t have anyone to play with so he went out in search of some friends. Nearby he spotted Leaf Curler. He went over and asked, “Hey, want to play with me?”
“No way!” shouted Leaf Curler, “Not after you took my web!”
Disappointed, Spider moved on. He came across Jumper. “Hey Jumper,” he said, “Want to play with me?”
“No way!” shouted Jumper, “Not after you took my food!”
Spider was hurt by this. He was lonely and wanted to play but no one would play with him. Had he done something wrong? Sharing was caring after all. Spider needed some guidance. He decided to visit someone older to ask for help. Because sometimes older people know things we need to know. The oldest spider in the bush was Golden Orb Weaver. Spider told the Orb Weaver about his problem, how he was lonely but no one would play with him. The Orb Weaver listened carefully.
“Spider,” she said eventually, “You did not have a web of your own, so you took one, because sharing is caring. You did not have food of your own, so you took some, because sharing is caring. Now because you have taken these things you are no longer welcome. What you must learn is this. Sharing is caring, but, sharing is giving, not taking.”
Spider was stunned.
He thanked the Orb Weaver and left.
In a nearby tree Spider began to build his own web. It wasn’t easy. It required some skills he didn’t have and he needed some help to learn these skills. But eventually he was able to build a web. Then he waited for some food. It wasn’t easy. It required patience and he wasn’t so patient but eventually he learned and caught some food. Now with a web of his own and food to eat he saw a little spider wandering nearby, hungry and lonely. “Hey,” called Spider, “Would you like to share this food with me?”
The little spider was surprised but gratefully accepted the offer. After sharing the web and eating his fill the little spider asked, “Why did you share this web and your food with me?”
“Well,” replied Spider, “Because sharing is caring. But sharing is giving, not taking."

The End

Spider,  (from Arthropod series) 5/8, 2017, 20cm x 13cm, ink on card

Spider, (from Arthropod series) 5/8, 2017, 20cm x 13cm, ink on card

 

This is the original post from 2016

Understanding The Law: Sharing is Caring

The Facts

Adam and Jaimee were playing one day in the school playground. Adam was on the swing. Jaimee wanted to go on the swing but there was only one. So she asked Adam, "Can I go on the swing?"
Adam replied, "No."
Jaimee really wanted to go on the swing so she sought the assistance of Ms Simons, the teacher on duty. "Ms Simons, Adam won't let me go on the swing," she said.
"Did you ask nicely?" replied Ms Simons.
"I did," said Jaimee. And so it was.
"Okay, let's go and see what's going on."
And with that Jaimee led Ms Simons to the swing.
"Adam, do you think you might give Jaimee a turn on the swing?" said Ms Simons.
"But I want to go on the swing too," replied Adam.
"But Adam, its important to let others have a turn with the equipment in the playground. Sharing is caring, remember?"
Reluctantly, and after a little more coaxing, Adam agreed to let Jaimee have the swing and he went off to find something else to play. The next day in the playground, Jaimee was on the swing. Adam really wanted to go on the swing, so he went up to Jaimee and said, "Jaimee, can I go on the swing?"
"No." said Jaimee.
"But sharing is caring!" Adam decried.
Alas, Jaimee could not be persuaded. So Adam sought the help of Mr Bell, the teacher on duty that day. "Mr Bell," he said, "Jaimee won't share the swing!"
"Did you ask he nicely?" asked Mr Bell.
"Yes, I did,"
"Well let's go and see what's going on, shall we?"
They walked over to the swing.
"Jaimee, do you think you might like to share the swing with Adam?" said Mr Bell
"But I'm not finished swinging," said Jaimee.
Adam cried, "Sharing is caring, Jaimee!"
"That's true," said Mr Bell, "Sharing is caring, Jaimee, and its important to care for our friends here at school. How about you let Adam have a turn on the swing?"
Reluctantly, and after a little coaxing, Jaimee agreed to share the swing with Adam. A few days later, in the classroom, Adam noticed one of the other children drawing with a most wonderful pen. It was adorned with feathers and from its end the ink ran all the colours of the rainbow. Adam liked drawing, and rainbows, so he decided to have a turn with the pen. He went up to the child who was using it as said, "Can I use that pen?"
"No, its mine from home," said the child.
"But sharing is caring," responded Adam.
And so it went. Adam noticed things he liked and wanted and went about acquiring them by way of the Law, Sharing is Caring. For Adam, this Law meant he was able to get what he wanted from others, for they were obliged to care for his wants and desires. For Adam, sharing meant taking from others what he wanted.

Legal Commentary

Intuitively this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle of Sharing is Caring. Yet the intentions of the teachers in attempting to apply the Law were sound. So what went wrong? How did sharing come to mean taking?

One way to better understand how it happened is to consider on whom falls the burden of proof. In the case of Adam and Jaimee, it was for the one without the swing to prove that the one with the swing was not sharing. Thus sharing becomes a course of action available only to the one without. However, it is the one with who is ultimately the sharer, the person responsible for performing the act of sharing. So there exists a fundamental separation between the desire for action and the will to act. The former is linked to wanting what the other has, and the latter is imposed on the one who has it rather than arising from his or her own volition.

The solution is simple. It requires a shift in perspective and a corresponding amendment to the Law. The phrase 'Sharing is Caring' fails to capture the essence of what is involved in both sharing and caring. In practice this Law defines sharing as taking and caring as acquiescence. But what if the terms were redefined? 

Consider the following: Sharing is GIVING not TAKING.

Teaching Sharing is Giving not Taking (Creative Arts Workshop)

In groups of 7 children,
Each child is given a paintbrush or crayon of a different colour (one of seven colours),
Each child is also given a blank piece of black or white card.
Seated in a circle the children are told the following story:

A long time ago there were no colours. Everything was black or white. It was peaceful but also a little boring. One day a group of children were sitting in a circle and their teacher gave them each their own special colour. The child with yellow was only only one who could give yellow to the black and white worlds. The child with blue was the only one who could give blue to the black and white worlds. At first the children began making colour marks in their own worlds with their own colours.

Allow some time for the children to draw with their own colours on their own pieces of card. After a while return to the circle and continue the story.

Now there was some colour in the worlds of the children. But each child only had one colour. The child with yellow noticed that the child with blue might want some yellow in her world, so she went over and offered him some yellow for his world.

Get the corresponding children to act out this part of the story, using the words, 'would you like some ______ in your world?'.

The child with red noticed that the child with green might want some red in her world...

Again, have the children act out this part of the story. Then allow some time for the children to go around offering their colour to others. And so on.

At the end of the activity collect all of the worlds and display them on one board. Return to it from time to time to retell the story of the children who gave colour to the world.

Turtle

This past week I've been telling a story about turtles. Its inspired by a Native American motif I came across that relates the pieces of the turtle's shell to the twenty eight days of the month and explains their occurrence by a fall from grace. I wove in some seasonal themes and the concept of hibernation. At bush school we usually follow this story with some clay and invite the kids to make little turtles. They can draw shell designs in the clay with sticks and then make hibernariums for their turtles to rest in. We also play predator/prey type games in which the kids have to embody turtles looking for food, when the hungry eagle swoops in the kids have to curl up into their shells or else get eaten by the predator.

Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Long ago turtle's shell was smooth as stone. Like today he lived in small ponds and swam around in search of food. It was summer and there was plenty to eat. Turtle would swim around looking for insects and crustaceans. Occasionally he would poke his long neck out of the water and take a look around. On one such occasion turtle noticed that some of the trees were losing their leaves, it was windy and the air was growing cold. There were less insects and crustaceans about. Winter was coming and soon there would be no food to eat. In the distance Turtle saw Heron, a large bird with long legs, preparing to fly north with the sun. Turtle approached Heron and asked if he could accompany her on her journey. But how would she carry him? She asked. Turtle had an idea. He fetched a stick and asked Heron to hold it between her feet. Turtle gripped the stick with his front claws and held on tight. Okay, he said, I'm ready. So Heron flapped her wings and took off into the air. Higher and higher she went, all the while Turtle held tight to the stick. When they were quite high Turtle looked down. He'd never been so high up before and was shocked by the bird's eye view! So shocked in fact that in his surprise he let go of the stick and began falling to the ground. His heavy shell hit the ground with a loud crack, splitting into many pieces. Heron flew down after him. When she landed she found Turtle in a great deal of pain. He was too injured to fly and would have to remain in the pond while his shell healed. So Heron helped Turtle find a safe place in the pond to rest. She soothed him until he fell into a deep sleep. Turtle slept so long that when finally he woke the sun had returned and it was spring. Turtle's shell had completely healed. Every crack was now a scar. Together they made a beautiful pattern.

So it is that every winter Turtle recalls his misadventure and chooses to rest cosily in his shell, recover his energy and emerge just in time for spring.

A Story about Resilience

This story was inspired by two encounters. The first was with a comment by Dr Jordan Peterson, he said during one of his lectures, "You are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and a half billion years." Those words struck me to my core. The second was an encounter with the parent of a child who was suffering from attacks of anxiety. I see this a lot and I suffer from anxiety myself from time to time. Its really hard. There are lots of people out there developing tools to help. Some of them might even work. But at the same time, like all technology, tools come and go, not everyone can access the same ones and its important not to mistake the tools for the solutions. I think the actual solution has more to do with accessing the quality of human beings that for thousands of years has given rise to tools. We are resourceful and resilient by nature. We have to be. But we forget. And it helps to be reminded. And the best way to be reminded is for someone or something to hold a mirror to that part of ourselves which is the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and half billion years.

So, with that in mind I wrote this story...

Once the sun and the earth made a seed. The rain watered the seed and it sprouted two leaves, then a stem and then two branches. The sun and earth watched the seed become a little plant. One day the plant woke up. It looked down and got such a fright! Oh no it thought, I am so far from the ground, what if I were to fall? The plant was very worried. So worried that it stopped growing altogether. The sun and the earth were worried too, for they watched the plant refuse to grow. So they sent the wind to help the plant. The wind listened to the plants worries and suggested that perhaps the plant would be better off as a bird, for birds can fly and so there would be no chance of falling over. The plant agreed and so the wind transformed it into a bird. The bird flew a great distance until it came to a large forest. The forest was full of enormous trees. The bird was amazed by the trees. It landed on a branch high in the canopy. Oh dear said the bird aloud to the tree, you must be terrified! The tree responded to the bird in a low and gentle voice. Dear bird, it said, how old do you think I am? Maybe three? Said the bird. And how old do you think trees are? The bird was confused, what do you mean? Well, said the tree, I may be three but I am a tree and trees are 300 million years old. And for all that time we’ve been learning to stand without falling, and all that we’ve learned is inside every one of us. So you see dear bird, it is my nature to remain standing. The bird was amazed. It thanked the tree and flew back to its home. When it arrived the wind was waiting. It asked the bird how things were going now that it could fly. The bird replied that things were great but would the wind please transform it into a tree? They’ve been learning to stand for 300 million years!

Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm

Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm