#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.

Letters Home #17 Exegesis

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This week I started a new project, called Exegesis. Its inspired by everything I’ve been doing or trying to do. But before I get to that; a short story.

**

An old man shuffled with several heavy books down a quiet street. Two under his right arm, two under his left, one pinched in his right hand. He stopped briefly at a bench to ease and consider his burden, then continued on his way. As the old man struggled a young man watched, eventually he approached and offered to help. The old man was grateful and together they walked a few blocks to the old man’s apartment. Once inside the young man set the books on a side table and helped the old man into a chair. “I hope you don’t mind my asking a question,” the young man ventured, sensing himself in the presence of wisdom.
“Not at all,” replied the old man, still catching his breath.
All of a sudden the young man was self-conscious. It seemed absurd to lay at the feet of a man he’d never met a question he’d always wanted to ask.
“So,” said the old man, noticing the young man’s hesitation, “What is it you’d like to know?”

Unbeknownst to the young man, in a time gone by the old man was called an exegete and a homilist. He’d expounded, proclaimed and edified. Teased, pruned and tamed the verses of ancient stories whose lines frequently overgrew the sweet nectar between them. All so that others might more easily wander the garden of their genius.
But the ancient stories were predicated on the notion of Truth. And time, in its propensity to select and reject from the catalogues of ideas throughout human history, rejected Truth. Its reasons were clear. Nothing, it said, could occur contrary to the laws of nature. And besides, that there were a multitude of denominations laying claim to Truth was unequivocal evidence that whatever it was in their stories that sustained them, it had little to do with objective reality.
So the old man had been stripped of his reverie. However, unlike some of his colleagues he made no appeal to a higher court. Nor did he dispense with his verses. Instead he gave one final address to his congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “There is no greater sacrifice than a sacrifice for Truth. This we learn from Abraham, who for Truth was willing to bind his only son Isaac to the alter. So terrifying was his faith, the sages tell us, that the angels in heaven cried and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. Years later, as an old man, Isaac was blind and vulnerable thus to deceit. Permit me to offer an equally terrifying interpretation of this story. For the sacrifice a man makes for Truth is to denigrate all ideas but his own. To the vast majority of humankind he says, ‘I have sacrificed your ideas for Truth.’ Therefore he cannot even consider them. He is forever prejudiced. And like one who stares openly at the sun he will stare so hard at Truth that when he looks away he will be unable to see beyond its imprint. Such a man is blind. And his children will be blind as well.”
Muffled voices rippled through the congregation and threatened to boil over.
“My friends! Please, let me finish!” The old man struggled to quiet the room, it was quickly filling with unbridled emotion and unfortunately his final words were lost on many. “Let us not hold so tightly to our verses that we prevent even the tiniest drop of nectar from reaching our tongues. For it is the nectar that sustains us, and we should continue to know its taste. The same stuff flows in other stories, but not in all of them. So I implore you to look upon your work as I look now upon my own, knowing that it has barely begun.”
With that the old man left his post. In the proceeding years he set about studying the collected literary effort of humankind. What he learned frequently changed his mind. 

The young man looked in the old man’s eyes, a pair of alpine lakes crowded by fleshy peaks and valleys. 
“I’d like to know what makes a good story,” he said.
Genuinely interested, the old man replied, “What do you mean by good?”
The young man thought for a moment.
“I suppose I mean true,” he said, "But not the kind of truth arrived at by reason. Nor the kind of truth with a capital T. I mean the kind of truth contained in stories. The kind of truth arrived at by exegesis.”
“And what makes you think the truth of a story can’t be validated by reason?” the old man prodded.
“Because stories have an internal logic. They can make sense without being reasonable.”
“Then perhaps, young man, your question is about the difference between sense and reason.”
Again the young man took a moment to think. He hadn’t framed his question in that way before. Now it seemed too fundamental to pursue. He was lost for words.
“Perhaps,” the old man said quizzically, “It will help you to know this story. Its about a wayfarer, who visited a city rumoured to house an enchanted well. When he arrived in the city the wayfarer enquired at an inn and in exchange for two pints he was given a map. But after following the map for an hour he concluded it was erroneous. What did he expect from an innkeeper? the wayfarer thought. So he visited a fancy hotel, where, in exchange for a room he was given a second map. After another hour he concluded that the second map was a fraud. What did he expect from a hotelier? he thought. Then the wayfarer happened upon a street urchin, who told him in no uncertain terms that such a well did not exist. But what did he expect from an urchin? 
The wayfarer decided to visit the library, where he made copies of every map he could find and spent several days following them all to no avail. Eventually, exhausted, he determined to enlist the help of others. So he stood outside the fancy hotel and sold his maps for a dollar apiece, to cover expenses. Later that day a couple to whom he had sold a map walked by and he overheard the husband say, ‘That map was hogwash!’ to which his wife replied, ‘What did you expect from a peddler?”
The young man was wrapt with the fable but appeared confused. “I’m not sure that answers my question.” he said.
“Well,” came the reply, “What did you expect from a story?”

**

So, back to the project. Simply put its a series of group sessions focused on the exegesis of canonical stories in popular Western culture. Beginning with The Lion King. During the sessions I play twenty to thirty minutes of the film at a time then facilitate a discussion about its underlying significance, which I make poignant by using language from the kids’ vernacular.

For example, here is a snippet of truth contained in The Lion King:

To be a good king (adult) involves a lot more than simply getting one’s way all the time. A good king keeps the circle of life in balance and maintains a peaceful home. A good king is brave, but that doesn’t mean he goes looking for trouble. Being brave means overcoming shame. In that effort it helps to be light hearted, let things go and remember that all the great kings of the past are on your side. 

A king who wants nothing but to get his own way is like Scar, who acts out of jealousy and hatred. He relies on three hyenas who spend all of their time teasing, lying and playing the fool to do his bidding. Their loyalty is based solely on the fact of their being fed.

To be king is the right thing to want, what’s important is how one gets there.

How one gets there.

How one gets there.

Letters Home #16 'Bedtime Stories'

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Waiting for a billy to boil.

Waiting for a billy to boil.

Half of the brain is dedicated to vision, which means the best time to tell stories is bedtime, when there’s more room to process information beyond what’s apparent. Which might also explain why people faced with complex problems tend to think for a few seconds with their eyes closed. Whatever the case, bedtime is a good time to imagine. So this week we took seven kids to Yalakun for an overnight camp.

Yalakun is a beachside outstation, two hours by four-wheel-drive on sandy, unsealed roads. Its home to a solitary Ranger and knowledge holder whom everyone calls 'the old man'. There’s an old schoolhouse - no longer in use - two bungalows, a simple shade shelter and four outhouses. In the centre of it all is a big white cross. Its a hundred meters from the cross to the beach, where we sat under the setting sun, with bellies full of kangaroo tail and damper, listening to the old man. He spoke of the land and surrounding clan groups, of the crocodiles and their habits, of the best times to fish and of the sandflies that come out when the wind dies down. 

When he retired the rest of us stayed by the fire with a billy and the rising moon. From what I could tell the chatter was light hearted, though of course I couldn’t understand. One by one the kids went to bed until there were only two. Then the conversation took a more serious turn. R— was talking. She was telling a story, that much I knew. I lay on my back and relaxed into the rhythm and cadence of her words. Occasionally a brief debate would ensue, but for the most part she talked and everyone listened.

I imagined she was telling a sacred story. Tracing the features of the land in the movements of ancestral beings, casting the silhouettes of animals into the stars and teaching how to navigate by their eternal presence. I couldn’t know, but I felt deeply the company of ancient knowledge and the comfort of family. 

When the billy hissed I made to stand up but R— put a hand on my knee. “Waku,” she said, “Will you read this aloud?” In her other hand she held a mobile phone, its light reflecting the undersides of her features, the tops of which were lit by the moon.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up and taking the phone. I straightened my back and cleared my throat, then I looked at the screen. At the top of the page was the heading, Book of Revelation, Chapter 7.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely surprised.

In Gapuwiyak one of the more unexpected, though not uncommon sounds is amplified Christian rock music. It blasts every weekend from huge speakers outside some of the houses. This week it started at seven o'clock in the morning on three consecutive days from a house at the end of my street. On the fourth day I learned that an old woman who lived in the house had passed away. The music was part of her palliative care. After she passed the roads were closed for the hearing ceremony, the first opportunity for the family to grieve. All of the women sat in the yard of her house while the men, their foreheads smeared with white paint, gathered nearby. They walked towards the women in a tight group, singing and playing clapsticks. When their song was finished the women started wailing and throwing themselves repeatedly to floor. They hit themselves with rocks and sticks in places on their bodies corresponding with their particular kin relationships to the deceased. When I asked why they hit themselves I was told that it helps to stop thinking and start crying. After the ceremony everyone sat together, listening to Christian rock. A huge white cross leaned on the wall of the house. 

Most of the adults here went to Sunday School as children. The devout sit every night in fellowship circles, praying and reading scripture, while others partake in the regular vices. There’s no longer any formal religious education so kids learn mainly at bedtime. They fall asleep to stories about God. Which all goes to say, I wasn’t surprised to be holding that phone. I read chapter seven aloud. Its part of a highly symbolic, apocalyptic story, written by someone called John at a time when Christians were under increasing pressure to worship their Roman emperor instead of their God. This is what it says.

“I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea, 'Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.' Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’ Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes - who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Amen!” 
I handed the phone back to R— then stood up and fetched the billy. 
“Gnama,” I said softly while pouring the tea, “What does that mean to you?”

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Letters Home #14 'House of Tallulah (Part 2)'

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Tallulah sat in half lotus on a cherry red moroccan pouf in a modest room at the back of the cafe. Odd stools and chairs, covered with candles, crowded the walls. There was a window to her left, a bookshelf to her right, behind her a large wooden chest and beside her a small glass table. Her pouf was in one hemisphere of a round mat, woven with threads of dyed pandanus, in earthy tones of green and orange. I sat in the mat’s other hemisphere - also on a pouf. 
"So, what are you looking for?” 
Her eyes were soft but offered no place to hide. They followed mine to the bookshelf, where I’d turned for time and inspiration. I read a few spines. Sacred Geometry and the Body, 24 Recipes for Grounding, Love Matters.
I paused, lost in a moment of contemplation. She noticed.
“Are you looking for love?” she asked.
“Um,” I replied, remembering something. “Actually I’m looking for the sound of my own voice.”
“I see,” she said. So, you’re not looking for love?”
“Well —” I paused and gave it some thought. “I mean I’m not not looking for love."
“When was the last time you had it?”
“Love?” I said casually, as if surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “When looking for something, it helps to know the last place you had it. Like a clue.”
“Um.” I hadn't prepared to think about love. Suddenly my stomach dropped and filled with dizzy butterflies. They were slightly nauseous. I winced and moved my hands to hold them.
“Something the matter?” Tallulah asked.
“There’s a pain in my stomach,” I said. The nausea crept to my back and shoulders then into my cheeks. Tallulah didn’t seem concerned. She paused and said softly, “Stay with it.”
I must have looked confused because she offered an explanation, “Sometimes,” she said, “when the voice is hidden, the body does the talking. Listen. What’s it saying?”
“Its saying its in pain.” I said through tight eyes.
“What kind of pain?”
“Like a puncture,” I said, “like my stomach's been punched and a sickness is oozing from the wound.”
“Mm,” Tallulah fell silent. Meanwhile the ooze dribbled into my hips. I tightened my grip and winced again.
“Its like I’m sick,” I said.
“What do you mean by ‘sick’?” she asked.
“I mean something isn’t right, like an illness. Or a disease.”
“A disease,” she echoed.
“Yeah, like I’ve caught something in my stomach. Its making me sick. Ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life?” She asked. 
I was a little surprised by my admission but took it as permission to confess. “Yes. It makes doing things hard. I can’t be totally happy or friendly when there’s this feeling making me want to do nothing but curl into a ball and go to sleep and not wake up till its gone.”
“It makes you want to curl into a ball?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my stomach.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
“Try what?” 
“Curling into a ball.”
“Now?”
“Well from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a pain in your stomach thats ruining your life and it wants you to curl into a ball. I wonder what would happen if you did what it wants.”
“Um.”
Tallulah smiled, “Only if you want to,” she said.
“Okay.” I agreed.
She unfolded her legs slowly, stood up and moved her stool outside the mat. She opened the chest behind her and pulled out a white crocheted blanket. “If you like,” she said, "I’ll put this blanket over you when you’re in a ball. If you feel as though you need to speak, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay too.”
“Okay,” I stood, awkwardly. I moved my stool and lowered to my knees. She seemed assured and that was encouraging. I lay on my side and wrapped my arms around my legs. The pain in my stomach pressed against my thighs. It turned over and oozed up my sternum, behind my tongue. “Ready,” I said.
Tallulah moved towards me and draped the blanket over my body so that I was completely cocooned. “I’m going to light some candles,” she said.
“Okay.” 
The lights went out. I could hear Tallulah lighting candles. Eventually she stopped and one of the stools creaked under her weight. I closed my eyes. The pain was most acute a few inches above my bellybutton. It sucked at my skin and spread out towards my sides. Then it rolled over and tugged at my jaw. It tucked itself behind my bellybutton, rising and falling with my every breath. Suddenly it sharpened and my stomach gurgled. An image flashed into the speckled blackness behind my eyes. It was a crying baby, covered in purple and white blotches, with clenched eyes. Its umbilical chord was intact and flailing. The baby was floating in a room, faintly red, but no one was holding it. No mother or father. Only a few shadows moving about in preparation. The baby was silent. Its eyes clenched tight.
“I see a baby,” I said.
“A baby?” she echoed.
“A newborn. Its afraid — its frozen with fear. Its eyes are clenched tight.”
“What does it need?”
“Um,” I started to shake. Tears welled in my eyes. They were clenched. 
“What does it need?” she repeated.
“Love,” I cried. “It needs love.”
Tallulah was silent. So was I. I sat up and put the blanket to one side. Her eyes were soft, but offered no place to hide. “I’m looking for love,” I said to her eyes. They blinked and smiled.

(not) the end.

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.

Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

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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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Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

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Letter #4 “Interrelated" 

On the night before I left Sydney I sat with my mum in her living room. My mood was depressed. Hers was a typical mix of ease and angst, comfortable in her own skin yet tortured by the fear that her children might be suffering. She asked me a question I’d been asking myself. What did I hope to get out of this trip? I said that for as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for the sound of my own voice. That I hoped to discover which of the contradictory stories I tell myself about who I am and what I’m doing is true. That it would save me a lot of time spent turning down paths for the sake of strangers who scrawl their directions on the inside of my head. At which point she seemed a little less at ease. But to her credit conducted no further investigation. Instead we simply sat together, in the silent wake of my confession.

Early in the piece there were times I’d wake from a restless sleep full of frightful dreams to a feeling of intolerable dread. Periods of hell that lasted several days. At first I suspected a delayed reaction to so rapidly adjusting my diet and climate. Then I suspected a virus or some other contagion. But neither diagnosis accounted adequately for what was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact I knew it well, felt it for as long as I could remember and most acutely in my stomach. As the phantom pain of a severed cord that once nourished and nurtured me. Only this time it wasn’t food I was going without. It was nourishment of a kind sought by the soul. That voice beneath the surface we take for self. By now I’d run far enough to know that this time I’d do well to turn around and listen. So I did. And there I found a dreamer, holding a pen, longing to tell his story. I gathered him in my arms and carried him to a desk and chair. While his fingers tumbled sentences I made him cups of tea. And when he finished a page I read it back to him and listened for his suggestions. We sat together, the way we’re sitting now, grateful to have found a way to be heard.

And I’ve made progress on other fronts. I set up a new workshop space for high school kids who aren’t managing regular attendance, called it ‘Young Artists’. We meet Monday and Tuesday afternoons to hang out and paint whatever’s on hand. And there’s plenty on hand. I chose an area of the school formerly occupied by discarded building materials. Sheets of corrugated iron, concrete boards, pieces of timber and decommissioned wheelbarrows. There’s also a picnic table for those preferring to sip cold water and shoot the breeze. I seek out the kids who’ve taken to scribbling insolent tags on walls and doors. I say to them, "Practice here as much as you want, because honestly, the way you write 'Fuck You’ is pretty amateurish.” They laugh. We both know I’m not going to solve the graffiti problem, but at the very least I’m hoping to improve the graffiti standard. And deeper than that, I’m hoping to provide a space for these kids to play out the tension between the kind of individualism they see on the internet, and the kind of interrelatedness they’ve inherited.

Since my official adoption by a Yolngu family I’ve caught a glimpse of that interrelatedness. Before I describe it let me just say, I am by no means an expert in Yolngu kinship. My only hope for this incomplete account is to communicate something of its staggering sublimity.

"Ngarraku gnama dhuwal R—.” 
“My adopted mother is R—.” 

Strange as it may seem, that simple phrase connects me to a living system of information so complex that comparing it to the whole of the internet is an oversimplification. When I tell it to someone that person knows immediately by what familial title I’m to be called. Examples include Wawa, which means uncle; Mukul, which means aunty; Yapa, which means sister and Wakū (pronounced wa-ko), which as it turns out, means son. Confused? I was too. But then I learned about an important aspect of the system. That is, upon adoption I was assigned one of eight possible skin names. You can think of a skin name like a tribal affiliation. But children are not born into the same tribe as their parents. Instead they’re assigned a skin name on a rotating basis. And marriages are predestined by lore and custom to take place between particular tribes. So assuming I were to marry according to lore and custom, its effectively possible to know the set of people who would make up my kin and in-laws. Hence there are people in my network that call me Bapi, which means father. Again, its worth emphasising that we don’t really have English words for the kind of kin relationships that exist in Yolngu culture. But for the purposes of this account I’m going to talk about the relationship between Gnama and Wakū using the English words mother and son. As in Western culture, mother and son interact in a customary way. Son is nurtured by mother, who in turn fulfils an obligation to guide and instruct. That includes passing on specific knowledge that son needs to know. And the way that knowledge is passed on is through song, story, dance and ritual. In Yolngu culture as in Western culture, there are songs that mothers traditionally sing to their sons. However, where things differ is that in Yolngu culture the songs that mothers sing are not generic. To understand what I mean you need to know two details about Yolngu personhood. First, every Yolngu person is related to a specific geographic location, determined by the moment during pregnancy when the spirit of the person is said to have entered the body. Thus, when a mother sings to her son, she sings from one specific place to another. Hence the term ‘songline'. Her songs may include information about the history of the place, where it is, how to take care of it, and the kinds of things that might be sought there. Second, every kin relationship is mapped onto specific parts of the body. For example, Gnama relates to the heart and belly. Thus the songlines weave psychosomatic connections between people and places. So much so that sons relate to the land of their mothers in the same way they relate to the mothers themselves. Mind blown? I hope so. Its a lot to take in. So Yolngu people keep track of it all through a host of rituals and ceremonies. For example, they might paint colours and patterns that symbolise particular kin relationships on specific parts of the body during ceremony. Along with other kinds of information, such as relationships with totem animals, elements and groups of people. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now its enough to consider what it might be like for a teenager born into a network of cosmic interrelatedness to listen to songs from the canon of Western pop-culture. Its no wonder they’re responding well to the offer of a space to hang out and paint the walls.

Young Artists is a refuge. And so far its working. As are my formal classes. I’ve made sure to focus them entirely on place, using maps as a scaffold for various kinds of learning. As you might expect given what I’ve described in this and previous letters, nature and arts based education are no brainers out here. That anyone considers it remotely appropriate to apply a national education standard in a place so self evidently unique is at best an absurdity. At worst it runs the risk of repeating the mistakes made by assimilationists in the early part of the twentieth century, who lined people up for a standard mix of force-fed information and washed it down with some superficial accolade. If we only turned around and listened, we’d realise that a disinterested child is more likely the result of inaccessible content than an inability to concentrate. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever put down a book and said something like, “I just can’t get into it.”

To which I’d respond, “If that’s the case then one of two things is true. Either the writing is of a quality incapable of conjuring sufficient depth of field. Or you don’t have the cultural capital to turn the descriptive language into a meaningful reality.”
Then you might say, “What do you mean?”
And I’d say, “Well, to find a text interesting, its not enough to simply know how to read. The author’s words create a world that you can actually get in to. But the author can’t describe every aspect of that world. He or she assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of prior understanding to the table. To fill in the gaps. If you don’t have that prior understanding, the world the text creates will remain out of reach. It will lack meaning.”
“But some books are read by lots of people across cultures and contexts. How is that possible?”
“Because people are far more alike than different. There are lots of things that overlap cultural boundaries. The more boundaries a thing overlaps the closer it gets to being universal. But the list of books that approach universality is a lot shorter than the list of books per se.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is kids need to read and write about things they’re interested in. And their interests have a lot to do with culture?”
“Yes.”
“So, what are Yolngu kids interested in?”
“They’re interested in place. They love being on country, making things with their hands and physical activities like sport and hunting.”
“Great. So we should get them to read and write about that!”
“Not so fast.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re not used to reading and writing about those things. They’re used to dancing, singing and painting about them.”
“Does that mean we need to consider alternative approaches to teaching literacy in a Yolngu context?”
“Yes.”
“Sounds challenging. Where do we start?”
“We start by understanding what literacy is at the deepest possible level of interpretation. That way we can create the substructure on which a contextualised form of it can be built.”
“I’d rather not think so deeply about things.”
“I know.”
“So what is literacy at the deepest possible level of interpretation?”
“Its the abstraction of meaning into recognisable symbolic representations arranged relative to one another in space and time.”
“Please explain.”
“Okay. You can’t read a sentence if you don’t know what the words mean. But you also can’t read it if the words aren’t in the correct order, with adequate space between them.”
“So we should begin by teaching kids to abstract information into symbols?”
“Yes.”
“Then arrange those symbols in ways that make them readable?”
“Exactly.”
“And to make things meaningful we should relate everything to nature, art and physical activity?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“If only there was an art form that used symbols to represent features of specific places in nature. Something that also lent itself to physical activities. Wait a minute… maps!”
“Yep."
“We could create maps of this place! Then add symbols to represent its features and inhabitants. We could go places and visually represent our journeys. Eventually we could even write stories about them, turn them to into maths problems and science experiments! And we’d end up with beautiful artworks that reflected our learning. Would that work?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to try it. Because the price we pay for dumbing down our language to the point where it can be understood by people we’ve not sought to understand, is a lack of depth. And I’m tired of teaching the dazed and confused."

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Postscripts
Since writing this I caught wind of a program called Learning on Country, which uses 'both-ways' education. It looks really interesting. I'll find out more and write a post about it soon.

Letters Home #2 "Soft Landings"

Notes
This is the second letter of its kind. You can read the first one here.
Also, thank you so much to everyone who sent replies of support and encouragement to my first letter. Your words were a balm on my heart and mind.

You can see photos relating to this letter here

Letter #2 "Soft Landings"

Let me just say that change out here is constant. But not time. Time bends and warps, and sometimes it stretches to eternity. Days begin instantly, they burst forth from sunrise like supernovae. Then they cruise at 34 degrees forever. Until sunset, when every colour from blazing red to the deepest violet spreads out in slow motion across an infinite horizon. Light speed sunrise and technicolour sunset, and eternity in between. 

Writing my last letter I felt as though I were sifting through shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. After sending it I wept. For the confusion and helplessness I was feeling. For the grief I could see in everyone’s eyes. I wept for the hungry and the sick and the lost and especially I wept for the displaced. For those of us, maybe all of us, who somewhere deep down feel as if we haven’t been home in generations. Then I picked myself up and went outside. There was a fire on the beach. A group of five people from the Czech Republic were visiting Djalu and they brought food to share. So we all sat together. Djalu, Dopiya, M--, T--, Vernon, a couple of kids and some unfamiliar faces. Dopiya said it was like old times. I thought to myself how odd, that a group of Czechs, some baked chicken, a teary eyed Jew and boiled potatoes on Thai-made blankets - how that could possibly bring back memories. But I too felt nostalgic. As if I were remembering something older than any of my actual memories. I looked around at the fire-lit faces and listened to the hum of crisscrossed conversations and I realised, we were all there for the same reason. To remember what we ever did with eternity before there wasn’t enough time in a day. And that night I slept like a baby.

The next day a group of young boys decided to show me a place 5km west of Wallaby Beach, where Crocodile Creek meets the sea. W-- (11), J-- (9), P-- (11), N-- (10), G-- (5) and me (28). Before setting off we gathered several of the straightest stems we could find and fashioned them into spears. I packed a knife, lighter and water bottle. J-- walked next to me, a little behind the others. Earlier that day we’d made a game of drawing a diagram of the body with Yolngu Matha labels. That’s the language group out here. J-- was still in language mode and patiently pointed out to me the different sights in his native tongue. Soon we came to a place he identified as the home of a big crocodile. G--'s brother was famously bitten by this one. So spears in hand we starred down the last known whereabouts of the great lizard. Like old times, they say. Turns out G--'s father died last year. It was a suicide. J-- said he was a good man. He also said his grandfather was killed by a bus because he was drunk and didn’t see it coming. J-- said when he grows up he’s not going to drink. He wants to play footy instead. I suggested he consider going to University. He agreed. By the time we reached the river mouth we hadn’t caught any fish. So instead the boys collected longbums (a crustacean with a 10cm triangular shell), lipids (river snails) and mud mussels. They gathered dry grasses and a few sticks and with my lighter made a small fire, into which they tossed our bounty. By the time the fire had burned down each of them had assembled in front of his folded legs an apparatus consisting of one flat rock for the bottom and one for the top - to crush and de-shell the various critters. A little lemon juice would have been to taste but on the whole everything was delicious.  

When we got back I felt as though I'd extended the patch of earth around me on which I knew my feet to have stepped, and I could breathe. I felt as though I’d slipped beneath the surface of this place and found there an innocent human experience of discovery and survival. I tried to stay in touch with these feelings during each of my remaining days at Wallaby Beach. And for the most part I managed. I finished my Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Dopiya painted it with a traditional cross-hatch pattern. I now carry it with me.

So it was that 10 days into a journey barely begun, I packed my suitcase full of questions and said goodbye to Birritjimi. My charter flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) was scheduled to leave early the following morning so I spent one night in town at a Motel. Djalu’s son, Vernon, planned to meet me there with a care package for his two kids. They live in Gapuwiyak with some family. Yolngu kinship, an elaborate constellation of lineage and location, is a thing to behold. Its common for kids here to call 4 or 5 different people mum and dad. Other aspects of Yolngu culture require life support from numerous intersectional community organisations working hard for continuity. Some organise traditional dances, ceremonies and tours for visiting Balanda. Others take a different approach, such as Yolngu Radio, a highly successful initiative to broadcast local music, news and ‘history’. That’s the English word Yolngu people use to refer to myths and stories. As if telling them is an act of remembrance. Its impossible to know the trajectory of the struggle for continuity out here, so close to town. Because on the one hand, watching mobs dance on the beach in front of groups of Balanda risks falling into the realm of token spectacle. But on the other hand, the owner of the Motel I stayed in, Travis (45), told me that the dancing and chanting he witnessed at a Welcome to Country in Yirrkala was so powerful he’d remember it for the rest of his life. My hope is that someday our children, or their children, will hear or watch or even sing along to any one of the thousands of ancient stories that criss-cross this country. And when they do, I hope it makes them feel at home.

Vernon never did meet me at the Motel. But I arrived in Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) on July 20, 2018. Its a village the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake. The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly colours bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow. Its a two bedder with a spacious kitchen and an open plan, south facing living space. Its walls are pale blue with powder blue window frames and skirting boards. The main bedroom looks over a sprawling rear garden with three large trees, a perennial, gum and possibly a Kimberly Rose. There's also a fire pit and a hills hoist. Around the side is a shed, car port and a storage container housing some spare furniture. Not that I need it, back inside there’s a large timber dining table, several bookcases, a plush satin sofa and two deeply set arm chairs. The washing machine can hold 8.5 kilos, only 2 more than the dryer. A selection of non-stick cookware and cutlery stay behind the white laminate kitchen cupboards. There’s also a blender, toaster, kettle and twelve-strong cupcake tin, which slides easily into the electric oven. The bathroom has a mirror and medicine cabinet, as well as a shower equal to the task of blasting the red dirt from beneath my finger nails. I’ve not yet met my western neighbour. But to the east lives O--. She runs a women’s group. There are problems here and O-- is frustrated by what she perceives to be an uphill struggle to guide the community towards something like the integration of Western values of education and self determination. Why? Its a question I’m carrying around. Maybe Yolngu culture could stand on its own here. The possibility seems less remote the more remote I go. At the same time, globalisation is here too. And its a flood. Even the strongest swimmer runs the risk of drowning in its hazardous waters of nihilistic overconsumption and pathological self obsession. Everyone needs some basic skills in navigation. So maybe that’s what we’re doing here. Myself, O-- and the 30 or so Balanda that work as teachers, medics, community developers, employment consultants and aid officers. Maybe we’re here to learn together just what kind of ship is going to keep us all dry.

School starts on Tuesday. I’ll run several art projects of varying scale as a volunteer this term. Some will centre around ideas I brought with me. Others will be in collaboration with various members of the community and calendar. People like Trevor, who runs the Art Centre. Every Saturday Trevor makes coffee for anyone wanting. Its a caffeine watering hole and today, alongside a band of enthusiastic folk, I had my fill. Among them was a woman named Judy Davey. In the 1960s Judy was one of a handful of Methodist missionaries who bushbashed their way to this place with enough gear to mill timber, and started this town. She’d not been back in over a decade. But low and behold she was here for a visit. So I asked her if she’d do a recorded interview with me. She agreed. Trevor suggested we do it in the Art Centre. So we did. But that’s a story I’ll save for another letter.

Postscripts 
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Letters Home #1 "Infinite Dyad"

Notes
In case you're not sure what I'm up to, I'm on an adventure beginning in Arnhem Land with a 10 day didgeridoo masterclass with Djalu Gurruwiwi in Wallaby Beach, then I'm heading to the remote community of Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) to volunteer in the school there, complete my Art Therapy placement and develop some ideas I have for an art education project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments - which I will pilot at the Arquetopia international art educators residency in Mexico in January.

For photos and sounds relating to this post go here.

Letter #1 "Infinite Dyad"

So far this trip has been an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. I’m staying in Wallaby Beach, a settlement of twenty houses (shared between five or six large family groups) and a store, which sells soft drinks and chocolate, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. The houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. They are all in disrepair. Djalu Gurruwiwi, the man I came here to meet, lives in number 9. I am staying in number 5. T--, one of his daughters, lives between us in number 7. I share number 5 with two, sometimes three, twenty-something year old boys. There is no fridge, no working stove and the bathroom is several smells from clean. One night there was a dinner plate sized frog in the toilet. I’ve been into T--’s house, which is tidy, if not clean. She takes pride in it, though there isn’t anything she can do about the black mould that spills along the joins in the ceiling boards. And I’ve been into Djalu’s house, which is neither tidy nor clean. Surrounding all the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Ten pieces to a square meter - mainly packaging for food and drink. You must understand, these houses are ugly and the people in them are as poor as their condition. And you must also understand that these houses are nestled in paradise. The ocean is a stone’s throw from the front door and glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile. The kids tell me a big one lives nearby, it was spotted walking the beach at 6am last Thursday. Whomever saw it would have witnessed a three metre lizard walking past an old bicycle lying half submerged in an iridescent ocean. Earlier this year Prince Charles flew to this place to meet Djalu Gurruwiwi and have him play Yidaki (didgeridoo) into his chest to help heal an ailment. When Djalu and others tell the story they are most impressed by the fact that Prince Charles was the only member of his party to take off his glove when shaking Djalu’s hand.

Everyone here consumes a lot of sugar and packaged foods. Some people drink two litres of soft drink every day. And the older people smoke a pack of cigarettes in the same time. It costs $30 for a taxi to the supermarket in town. Thats a $60 round trip for anyone without a car. At the moment that includes Djalu, his wife Dopiya and the six or seven people that live with them in number 5. Most days the kids go hunting for fish with spears fashioned from the stems of young trees. The old people don’t hunt. The people in the middle can hunt but their demographic seems the most troubled out here. They appear caught between worlds. A few work at the mine, some spend their days playing out American hip-hop stereotypes (to the dismay of the older women who protest against identifying with 'negro culture') while others wander aimlessly between the shop and their homes, drinking soft drink and waiting for footy training. I’m told that twenty years ago the people in the middle would light fires and cook food every night. The old people would come and sit and tell stories and the young people would dance. These nights loud electronic music blasts continuously from number 6 and the old people stay indoors. In the morning the young people tell me which of their older cousins was drinking. 

There are some exceptions to the disillusionment. Two of Djalu’s sons, Larry and Vernon, both intend to continue teaching history and playing Yidaki. They play in bands that tour the region, fusing traditional styles with reggae, afro-beat, hip-hop and rap. They plan to take on the task of welcoming balanda (white people) to Wallaby Beach after Djalu passes away.

And there’s the kids. Like everyone else, they know every song, rhythm and dance. One boy, W-- (11), took it upon himself to be my teacher. One night he came to get me from my room and led me to the beach. He had built a small fire and placed a rock next to it for me to sit on. Next to that was an overturned wheelbarrow that acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours we played ‘bunngul’ (dance ceremony) - in much the same way that city kids might play ‘house'. He taught me the songs and dances and explained to me their meanings. At one point a Dolphin approached. W-- got to his feet and asked that I hold the end of the Yidaki towards it, then he played the traditional Dolphin song over and over. Afterwards he sat me down on the rock and played Yidaki into my chest. Then he shared a story with me, a dreaming, about Yidaki. It was the same story he had been told by Djalu. The next day W-- gave me a Yolngu name, Mutjatjal, which means rainbow python snake. It was all a game, like house. 

The kids here are tremendous athletes. They play throwing games a lot, pegging stones at birds, throwing spears, skipping rocks. They have amazing hand eye coordination and agility and they love sport. Especially Australian Rules Football. Everyone does. Its tribal. No other way to describe it. Game day is a celebration. Those who play for Baywarra (the local team) are revered and forgiven. One night I was talking with T-- (66). She was opening up to me about some of her hopes and dreams for the community, about the trials and tribulations of her life and faith. At one point she spoke of a dream she had a few nights previous. It was full of powerful symbols. She interpreted it as an omen that Baywarra would win the league this season. She hoped desperately that it would be so, as if her very future depended on it.

If this all seems a bit confused, trust me, I know - and remember that I have very naive eyes. One day we went out hunting for Yidaki. Djalu, Dopiya and their daughter, M--, together with a group of 6 balanda including R--, who comes up once a year from Victoria and has a Land Cruiser. We stopped at a stretch of bushland Dopiya seemed to know well, got out and began walking around, knocking on the young trees with the butt of an axe. When Djalu, Dopiya or M-- heard the right sound we’d chop down the hollow tree and cut it to length, then load the raw Yidaki logs onto the Land Cruiser. After a few hours of hard work we drove to a nearby stream and had a swim, lit a fire and cooked some meat that someone had brought. As we sat by the stream Dopiya munched the root of a plant she'd identified as edible from a distance of about 20m while tying together a bunch of leaves that she would later use for weaving and rummaging in her bag for another cigarette. Djalu nibbled on trail mix - the hardest food he can eat - and M-- spread jam and butter on slices of Helga’s. 

On a personal note, I’m doing okay. It hasn't been an easy adjustment. I’ve found it difficult, sad and painful. I’ve been awe struck and overwhelmed. Mostly overwhelmed. I’ve sought refuge in my books and research, taking recordings and illustrating sounds, reading philosophy and daydreaming about poetry. How alien those things seem out here, and yet, how familiar. I suppose I feel most of the time like an alien, with alien interests speaking an alien language, landed here by alien spaceship to do some alien research before returning to my alien planet and alien friends. Its lonely work. But on Thursday I’m heading to Gapuwiyak, to my school placement. I’m looking forward to having a stove and the familiar routines of a school week. I’m looking forward to working with the kids there, making some friends and further developing my ideas. In the meantime I’m going to finish making the Yidaki I started yesterday, hang out with the kids, light a fire at sunset, learn some more stories and take big sips of small joys.

I’ll write again when I’m in Gapuwiyak.