Letters Home #9 "Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

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

Letter #9 “Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters Home #8 "Alone"

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

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

Letter #8 “Alone"

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wrote this song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Personal Note #7 "Don Quixote"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wrote myself a note.

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

Postscripts

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

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