Letters Home #12 "A Way Out"

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

#12 “A Way Out"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(pause)

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

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

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

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Postscript 

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

Street Art Project

This is a summary of an arts project I completed this term (term 2, 2018) at Wenona School as part of Design School (co-curricular creative arts for junior school students).

The project involved two groups of 15 to 18 students over 9 weekly 2 hour workshops. The aim of the project was to explore the world of street art and for the students to express their ideas in tags, paste-ups and murals. It was a rich learning experience with a lot of development potential. In this post I follow a description of the project with some general comments and insights.

What happened...

To begin I showed the students some videos about street art, emphasising its relevance to freedom of expression, breaking out of the gallery and as a mouthpiece for young people. Then each student was given a 'wall', a piece of plywood 600x200 on which to experiment each week with different processes. The idea was that their designs would be layered on top of each other to reflect the way street art builds on itself (a concept called succession).

The processes I introduced included tagging (repeating an alias or phrase in a personal font and style), paste-up (creating works on paper and sticking them onto a wall) and mural (using spray or poster pens to create backgrounds and imagery).

I encouraged students to come up with original concepts that reflected their interests, ideas and messages for others. And along the way I introduced them to concepts such as succession, tag-up (only covering something with something better), scribble (the vandalism end of the street art spectrum) and cross pollination (collaborating or tagging with others).

After 8 weeks the completed walls were photographed and I rendered the images (with artistic direction from the students) onto found photos of actual walls in the world. Conceptually its street art in the digital world, treating found images of walls on the internet as the public spaces on which to make digital street art.

In an unexpected twist around week 6, some students noticed three cubby houses in an area of the school grounds called Woodstock covered with chalk scribble by students in K to 2. Their discovery presented an opportunity for a real world project based extension.

With my help the students measured up the cubbies and designed a series of murals. Then together we submitted a proposal to the school offering to install the murals as a way of addressing the scribble problem and demonstrating to the younger students that "street art isn't scribble and scribble isn't street art". The school approved the proposal and the murals were installed by the students in the final week of term.

All of the walls, photographs and a video presentation will be exhibited at a co-curricular creative arts showcase in term 3.

Some general comments and insights

Street art represents a way of communicating that comes naturally to these kids. Its all about memes, snippets of text and images that express something about themselves or send a message to others. From the idealism and depth of "Love is Who We Are" to the unapologetically insider "Yawn Now" and the popular swath of variations on "Unicorn". The students were able to create a map of their interests and self concepts. They were also able to locate themselves on the maps of their peers by creating transferrable tags or memes to share with others. By the end of the project several students had new nicknames and one had even devised a concept for her own brand of Lemonade, which she plans to give away for free at the exhibition next term (her tag was a Lemon). And the process of 'painting' the images on actual pictures of walls in the internet was a futuristic expression of the street art process that opens up new possibilities for how to inhabit and navigate digital spaces. The popularity of games like Minecraft show how these kids love to construct their worlds in the digital space and they are very good at it. Last year during the Architecture project one student designed her whole building in Minecraft. Suffice to say its difficult to know how to integrate tech into these spaces sometimes but this time at least it felt very natural. I hope to build on this project in the future by distilling what happened into a more streamlined process and use the new space to add elements such as the possibility to travel the digital world in search of walls, the social impact potential of the kids' memes and collaborations with photography for digital street art with older students. There are obvious links to my favourite subject - mapping - which which will no doubt be drawn out in future iterations.