Letters Home #19 Ambivalence

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

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 #16 'Bedtime Stories'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

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?”

Subscribe

Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

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

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

Subscribe

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.

Subscribe

Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

Notes
If you'd like to receive these letters by email, subscribe here.

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."

Subscribe

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.

Photos and sounds from Birritjimi

These photos and recordings were taken over the past 10 days at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach) in Arnhem Land, NT, visiting Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family, learning about Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Yolngu culture.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) where I'll be posted at the school as a volunteer, running some art projects with the kids, completing my placement for an Adv.Dip. in Art Therapy, writing, reading and researching mapping processes and connection to place. I'll also be developing a new project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments, which I'll run with 10 University students in Puebla, Mexico, as part of the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency program in January 2019.

If you'd like to receive my weekly letters please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

Surrounding the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Like pieces of shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. Why? Its a question I've been grappling with since I arrived. A question that I think holds a mirror to the shadows of our modern experiment and a window to the grief and sense of loss that pervades the complexity of this place. 

Paradise, an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. The ocean here 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.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Dopiya paints Yidaki in layer upon layer of simple movements over their surface. Like the stories that criss-cross this landscape, every stroke is a trodden path.

I'm currently reading Jeff Malpas' Place and Experience. Its a work of philosophy that speaks to the deepest aspects of our human experience of place. Reading the work I was struck by this passage, which I feel is a wonderful compliment to the images of Dopiya painting Yidaki.  

The complexity of place is mirrored in the complex process of triangulation and traverse by which the topographical surveyor builds up a map of the region being surveyed. No single sighting is sufficient to gain a view of the entire region, multiple sightings are required... The delineation of place can only be undertaken by a process that encompasses a variety of sightings from a number of conceptual ‘landmarks’ and that also undertakes a wide-ranging, criss-crossing set of journeys over the landscape at issue. It is only through such journeying, sighting, and re-sighting that place can be understood.
— Jeff Malpas, 2018, 'The Obscurity of Place' in Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography 2nd Edition, first published 1999, Routledge, London.
Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

One night, one of the kids (11) took me down to the beach. He'd prepared a small fire and placed a rock for me to sit on. An overturned wheelbarrow acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours he taught me some dances and songs. We played 'ceremony' in much the same way that city kids might play 'house'. One of the songs was called Gapu (water). In the dance, cupped hands are thrown over alternating shoulders, stepping in time with the pulse, washing the body with imaginary water. The next day when we were down at the beach having a swim, we sang the song and danced it in the shallows.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Next stop, Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella). If you'd like to receive my weekly letters and updates, please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

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.