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 #8 "Alone"

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

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

Letter #8 “Alone"

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wrote this song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Personal Note #7 "Don Quixote"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wrote myself a note.

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

Postscripts

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

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Cadence 100bpm

Words spoken with cadence imprint themselves on the heart. Part practise, part meditation, this video explores that idea, particularly as it relates to spoken words. Instructions: Say the poem aloud in time with the metronome.

The poem is called The Unattended Lover

Cadence 100bpm, 2018, scrolling text with metronome, 2m51s

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