#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)