Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

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

Letter #6 “The Light Side"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last day at Bush School for a while...

Today was my last day at Bush School for 8 months. It feels strange to leave something I feel so connected to. At the same time it feels like leaving is part of my responsibility to the community and the work. Its time to make space for others and return with new things to contribute. I'm grateful to everyone for showering me with love and well wishes and for taking the time to reflect with me on the impact this experience is having on their lives. If you're one of those people and you're reading this I hope you will check in here from time to time. I'll post updates and discoveries, letters and essays. In the meantime, thank you. Through Bush School I've had the great fortune to nurture my own connection to nature, to practice what I preach, to listen to the birds and tell their stories. I've learned to be a guide, a friend, a colleague and a leader. I've shared many moments of wonder and deep connection - which I carry with me and which keep me warm. With love and gratitude, Ranger Dan.

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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.

Word from the Fronts

Its a windy time. The freshwater eels are waiting for enough rain to fall so they might begin their migration, the turtles are searching for shelters secluded enough to be suitable for hibernation, and both are finding their tasks tougher than usual given the frantic urban environments that seem to have snuck up on them in the night. I'm feeling the call to migrate and to hibernate somewhat simultaneously.

On the Street Art front, the project is in full swing. In week one the kids came up with personal tags and designed graphic fonts on their 'walls' using posca pens. We watched videos about street art and had some good conversations about why people take to painting things on public surfaces. One reason that came up was that art is generally only accessible to people who can go to galleries and then its up to the galleries to decide what's worth seeing and what isn't. So there's a rebelliousness to street art and a freedom which the kids resonated with. At the same time we spoke about the difference between street art and scribble. Its not about vandalism, its about communication. These kinds of conversations arose informally during the process of 'making graffiti' on small pieces of plywood. In week two I handed out spray cans. The kids loved it. I later found out that even with masks, its technically out of bounds to let kids use spray paint. So it was a case of forgiveness rather than permission. The next week I told the kids that we couldn't spray paint anymore. The whole thing was really cool because without really meaning to, we had broken the rules, which complimented the theme of the project really well. Next, in week three, I got out some 80gsm paper and sharpies and we made paste-up stickers to go on the 'walls'. They turned out great and the kids are really connected with their work. This week came another unexpected turn. In the K to 2 playground there are these three wooden cubby houses. They are riddled with chalk scribbles and look pretty awful. So I took the street art crew down there and we measured up the cubbies and they came up with mural designs for them. Then I had the idea to prepare a proposal on behalf of the kids and send it to the school requesting permission to paint the murals on the cubbies in response to the problem of the scribble. Its very real world in terms of process. One of the kids even suggested we submit a selection of works and invite the K to 2 students to decide which one gets the commission. So next week I'll prepare the presentation with them. I'll post a copy here too.

On the bush school front I've been exploring symbolic language using a scavenger hunt type game where each kid gets a scroll on which is drawn a set of symbols. Each symbol refers to something he or she has to find to complete the challenge. Some examples include 'something yellow, something wet, something spikey, something beautiful, something warm etc.' Its a great process because the kids pick it up really quick and very soon they can read and remember the symbols. I know that because a week later when I did the same activity with one of kids, I only kept one of the symbols the same, and she remembered what it meant. Basically in this activity the kids are reading. Reading language and also reading landscape as made up of language. There is so much to explore here in terms of mapping but I'll save that for another post in which I plan talk in more depth about mapping processes and nature connection.

On the didge front I'm excited to say that I've confirmed a trip to Arnhem Land to participate in the Rripangu Masterclass with Djalu Gurriwiwi. I'll be heading up there in July to spend a week with Djalu and his family, make a didge and learn with him. Afterwards I'm planning to spend some time in the area working with kids as part of a placement for my Art Therapy qualification. Its going to be an adventure, and a break from the work I've been doing with bush school and design school. The process of making this decision has been a source of a lot of learning for me. I've been thinking a lot about indecision and dissatisfaction, so expect a story with that theme soon.

Return

Its an honour to share this video, produced by Dani Fine from We The Tender Hearted with music by Jordan Wainer. Dani and I spent some time in the paperbark forest when she visited from the US in December. I had the opportunity to share what goes on there and some of my process as an educator and storyteller. The full interview is available on the We The Tender Hearted website.