#31 Follow Your Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart  (2019)

Heart (2019)

Letters Home #15 'Birthday'

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The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

#15 Birthday

Last week, on the day after birthday, I was floating on my back in water cold and deep between rock-ribbed walls in an ancient gorge. Once more round the sun, my brother likes to say. Once more round the sun.

I celebrated with a few friends to the tune of Paul Kelly. We played a game with four-inch needles and pot of ink. When it was my turn I told a story about something I’d seen and wanted to keep. A snake. I drew it on the back of an envelope. Then again on my skin. Then with one hand she held my arm and with the other she dipped a needle in the pot of ink and poked at my skin.
Deeper water is calling him on
"Does it hurt?" she asked. 
“Yes,” I said, “in a good way though, not like a stubbed toe." 
A stubbed toe is loud and clumsy, annoying and difficult to accept, impossible to understand. Whereas from the very start the pain of a tattoo is forgiven, endured with grace and understood to be necessary. When it was over she smeared my skin with cool salve and asked what I thought. I said I liked it very much and I wanted more.

This week I'm back in Gapuwiyak. On the first day of school I took a group of kids to the lake. R— was there too - my adopted mum. We gathered nuts and seeds and feathers and leaves and put them in a basket. She showed me a tree whose bark makes a poison that catches fish, and another with ironwood suitable for clapsticks. Pointing to a third she said, “This tree is the tree of my tribe. The tree of your tribe. When someone in our tribe passes away we sing a song about this tree falling down. One day, waku, when you hear that song, you will know if all this is meaningful for you.” 

The next day it rained for the first time in months. The air outside was cold and perfumed. A butcherbird landed on a branch in my yard with a worm in its beak. The rain brought worms to the surface, I thought, and I suppose the butcherbird too. In the yard next door a pair of lorikeets hung from the branch of a mango tree and took turns with one of the first ripe fruits of the season. Meanwhile an old story was coming to an end. The story of a petrified infant with its eyes tight shut and no one around. 

“Where was the last place you saw it?” Tallulah asked, seated again on her moroccan pouf.
“In a softly lit room with some friends,” I said, “then again the next day in a gorge, after that in my mother's arms. And I smelled it one day in the rain.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Complicated, but also clear, sort of floral, with an earthiness and a wetness too. It was beautiful and I remember thinking I should take time to enjoy it, how soon it would end. Somehow that made it smell better.”
Tallulah smiled. She picked up one of the cloth bags on the glass table to her right and loosened the drawstring. Inside was a book, which she held in one hand and whose cover she opened with the other. “Take this,” she said, “its a book of poems by a man I think you’d like. Its called, Deeper Still.”
Tallulah turned to a page and took a deep breath, she paused, and slowly closed it again. Her fingers brushed its cover the way one brushes the hair from a child’s face to better take them in. She put the book back in the cloth bag and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said.
“Thanks.” 
I stood up and locked eyes with her. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was dreaming. “Who are you?” I asked her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Never mind.”
I put the cloth bag in my shoulder bag and slung it over my shoulder. After a final exchange of grateful smiles I walked out through the beaded curtain, through the kitchen and onto the street.

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.