#31 Follow Your Heart

One day someone is going to tell you to follow your heart. Then you might turn to me because I helped you once. You might ask me what it means. The truth is I’m trying to understand too, so maybe we can work together on this one.

First, of course, we need to know what your heart is. Then what it means to follow. From what I remember, home is where the heart is. And from previous working I know that home is a way from where you began to the place you’re going; your place. You find it by trying to understand; gather those fragments which catch your eye like whispers. Then follow them home; which isn’t a place.

You’re looking at me funny. Is it something about the way I give instructions? The way I play with words? You know sometimes truth is merely the light that shines between the lines of things. Truth is something you let in; a complex task. You look confused. I didn’t mean - should I explain another way? Start with the rules, walk you through definitions, hand in hand, what do you say?

Not convinced? That’s okay, take a look at this picture. See the heart in the corner with the chain around it, held by that small child with soft feet all but floating on the damp ground? He’s moving toward that tree full of snakes. But the ground isn’t damp at all, its cracked and dry and those people with pleading expressions can’t seem to penetrate it. See?

Images like that are old and confusing. Took me a long time to learn how to read them. But you’re young, let’s try something else. I learned this technique from people who study theories of mind. They say most of the mind lurks beyond and beneath, accessible only by way of imagination. Here’s how it works; take a look in this basket. I gathered these things from the bush. When something catches your eye, reach for it - place it here in this space I cleared for you. That’s it, keep going. When you’ve finished I'll help you describe what you’ve made with questions, and I'll repeat your answers back to you. You’ll be amazed how your choices reveal the parts of you that know all along!

You’re smiling now. Are you happy I came? You know I’ve been learning all these things for you to help you on your way. Maybe you remember me from long ago, when I was further away. I remember you. The way you were scared to try new things but tried them anyway, often after much coaxing, how proud you were! And I remember the first time you lost something important. You were so small but that didn’t shrink your grief, only your capacity to hold it all. I was certain you’d be crushed by the weight, so I tried to help. I tried to explain. 

Now here we are. What is that you’re holding? I hadn’t noticed your hands before, your feet, they barely touch the ground. Is it food? I can’t see, hold on - let me - where did you find it?

You know, I heard a story the other day, a good story, about a snake that guards something precious. The snake is so good at guarding the precious thing that no one ever sees it, not even the snake. Then one day someone visits and tells the snake to follow his heart. But the snake doesn’t know what that means. He starts looking everywhere but he can’t seem to find it.

Heart  (2019)

Heart (2019)

Preparing for Nature Play

In preparation for a nature play workshop next week I’ve been putting together some stories and resources to share. The process has been an opportunity to clarify and reflect on the knowledge and experience I’ve gathered. Its been humbling to be reminded that so much of what I know comes from other people, and I realise I’m guilty of forgetting that sometimes. Some of those people who informed the content of this post include Sam Crosby, Erik Erikson, James Marcia, Jordan Peterson, John Piaget, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James Gibson, Jon Young, Paul Shepard, Louise Chawla, Carl Rogers, Jordan Silver along with countless children and their parents over many seasons of growth and change.

Anyway, returning to my preparation, I wanted to present some information to the participants about affordances in nature play spaces. The word comes from affordance theory, which is a psychological theory about the way we perceive objects. Affordance theory reconciles a purely phenomenological set of presuppositions with a purely objective one, because it claims that while objects exist outside of subjective experience, they appear to people in terms of what they might afford. In other words, what we see is not merely objects in space but more like tools or options or invitations, depending on our constitution and state of consciousness - depending on what we are interested in. That also means we don’t merely see in space but we see in time as well, because our interests change.

This is significant for nature play because of its emphasis on nature connection, which we define as a significant human-nature relationship. Thus the elements in a space designed for nature play are akin to a set of potentials for human-nature relationship. The quality of that relationship depends on the degree to which the various elements can invite and hold people’s attention, combined with the capacity of those people to pay it. But because people naturally pay attention to what they’re interested in, an environment which affords for the subject matter of people’s interests will inevitably give rise to relationships and connection. Note however that real connection cannot be enforced or constructed. It arises spontaneously for each individual from subjective faculties of experience, which is why its so important to encourage and allow for play. Play involves the free exchange of attention and information with affordances in an environment.

So the question is: given that connection takes place in the course of play in relationship to elements in the environment, what kind of elements should be included in a space if the goal is to maximise the potential for nature connection?
Possible answers tend toward those elements which are maximally interesting to the play circuitry of a maximum number of people over a maximal amount of time.

In that regard there is a category of affordance which never runs dry; that is all affordances conducive to the formation of stories. The reason for that is stories are a human universal. We are captivated by them - especially children - and they are the mechanism by which relationships between person and object are mediated. To understand what I mean recall that people perceive objects in terms of what they are interested in. People do not see the objects themselves, rather they see what fits (or doesn’t fit) with whatever direction is being compelled by their interests. And here’s the kicker. People organise themselves in line with their interests through stories. They tell themselves stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’re doing. Those stories form the aspect of their psyches which mediates between interest and object, often referred to as ego. In other words, people are always telling stories and always acting them out.

Children, for reasons probably to do with premature identity development (which eventually shrinks the set of possible stories to act out because of commitments to particular values, and decreases the degree to which aspects of the self might be projected onto objects because of an internalised frame of reference), tend to act out stories with greater freedom. (As a side note, its often the goal of therapy to provide conditions necessary for the formation of new stories where old ones have become rigid and oppressive so as to enable the individual to move on, and in the course of that process individuals often need to return to child-like states of mind).

Which all goes to say that the best kind of nature play spaces are full of elements which afford play action. Over time and guided by others I’ve developed an index of what those affordances are. Though not exhaustive, it serves as a resource of information.

Of course, the question then became for me: how to share that information with others? How to communicate it in a way that captures their attention? That’s when my mind was blown by the realisation that I would need to create a space in which people could play and tell stories with the information I had - in the direction of their interest, which in this case would be somewhat shared; that is, to include nature play in their learning spaces and programs.

The ‘space’ I’m referring to is a page. A diagram. And who better to ask for advice on such things then my brother Jordan, architect and similarly obsessive space cadet. Jordan pointed me in the direction of John Hejduk, who over the course of his career developed an ideosyncratic set of symbols for the elements of actual and imagined spaces, along with corresponding stories and poems. I was immediately struck by the style of Hejduk’s work and so took a similarly inspired approach. The result was this image (below), which is now part of a larger and growing set of resources I plan to use as an accompaniment to the workshop I deliver next week and beyond on nature play.

Index of Affordances (2019)

Index of Affordances (2019)

#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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#21 The Return

I returned from Arnhem with fragments of truth and soon after tried to separate them from their stories. But the need to prove I’d learned something made ugly and disfigured what was beautiful.

Soon I became entangled in questions about how to live and how to honour the past. In my head two stories turned over and over.

The first was about a man named Murayana. A strong man and a good hunter who traveled by listening for the sound of the didgeridoo. One day Murayana came to a place and gathered the people there for a ceremony of song and dance. Afterwards he became their leader. But as a leader Murayana was greedy and lazy. He took too much for himself and treated the people like slaves. Eventually they sent him away.

The second was the story of Noah. Noah was a righteous man who walked with God and was distinguished in his generation. One day God told Noah that a flood was coming and to build an ark. Noah listened. The ark held his family and all living things, and so ensured their survival.

One day I dreamed I was in a fine house I didn’t build, doing work I'd been assigned. It was cold and there were others but I paid little attention to them. After a long day I was handed a bowl of food. I sat in a dark room on a sofa beside a man who appeared weak, facing a television that was turned off. Like me the man added vegemite to his bolognese. 
Having finished I rose to wash my plate and went outside for fresh air. 
In a warm, sunlit courtyard was everyone else. They were smiling at a man who appeared strong, who thanked them for listening to some words he had prepared. I sat to one side feeling left behind.

I wonder whether anything ever happens one day. In those stories that seems the phrase most difficult to understand.

Meanwhile the adventure continues. Today I travel to Mexico City for a few days, then to Puebla for five weeks. I’m facilitating a project with ten students from Puebla University for the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency. My plan is to have the students create maps of their town, but instead of significant landmarks the maps will note significant encounters with sound, arranged geographically. I’m hoping that something akin to a voice emerges. Also that participants experience a change in affect, that they feel more connected. Each week I’ll meet with academic staff to evaluate the process and articulate what it means.

Along the way I'll write stories to you. 

Thank you for listening.

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Note: The story of Murayana comes from Arnhem Land. I first heard it when I found an old recording from a project that took place at Gapuwiyak School in 2005. After that I asked some of my friends and family for more details. What I’ve written here is only a fragm

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.