Letters Home #12 "A Way Out"

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

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.

Subscribe

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.

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.

Subscribe