An irony of a kind: I make what living I do with words, with speaking, yet my handwriting is a marvel of economy. Or was, before fine motor skills began obeying the passage of time. I’m careful with words, mainly, and careful about them, and for their sakes.
We’ve flown underneath the down under. Hobart it is, Tasmania. Any further south and its penguins and calving glaciers. It’s the edge of someone’s world, to be sure. It’s the middle of someone else’s. The conscience of the tour ranges back and forth across those mythic, poetic soundlines.
Here every event, every departure taken and every curtain raised is preceded by what gets generally called a ‘land acknowledgement’. There are a few recurring items; “elders past, present and emerging”, “traditional lands of the _____ people”. The fact of the thing puts them way ahead of us at home, psychic acres ahead, to our considerable detriment and to the proper unsettling of whatever conscience there is on the matter. I’m a rank outsider, to be sure, and in my outsider status I wonder what goes on in what gets called ‘the settler mind’ when a historical wrong of such proportions is formatted and scripted. Better than nothing? Better than it was? Must be. Is there any remembering going on, I wonder? Is it a kind of a franchised memory instead, an authorized, risk-free kind of nod to errors in judgement of bygone days? A script for the conscience? A prescription? A para-conscience? Is it a prelude to a change more seismic, more structural? A recent referendum here went resounding, inelegant and parsimonious ‘no’ on that detail, and that one word seems to have left hurt in many places.
So we unload and sound check and read aloud the love letters to all that doesn’t last, night after night building the mountain to climb it and report, to climb back down again and disassemble the thing. And we do all of that in someone else’s world, at its centre, at its edge.
This thing was born in anglo North America. Why people from one of this world’s many sides come to Nights of Grief and Mystery seems to mystify them as much as me. We don’t fix things, or solve them or absolve them. No promises. We’re witnesses with a taste for nuance, not much more. People have been flying incredible distances, unsalvageable distances, to see these shows. Sometimes they tell me why.
Sometimes they’re death trade workers. I fret after the terms of their employment, and their hearts, once they consider my take on matters terminal, but they rarely do. In the foyer afterwards, in the book signings lines, they seem at full capacity, and no amount of caveat from me seems to stick.
Yesterday I was in the airport’s departure lounge – a clearing house more than a lounge – with a musical thanatologist, a calling that I don’t remember existing when I started in the trade. He’d flown in, seen the show the night before, and then had slipped wordlessly out into the streets afterwards, concerned as a musician might be that any casual banter might dispel whatever magic we’d managed together. His work with the harp had utterly dislocated his former life – you could see it in him – and had been blessed outright by the 25th generation descendent of Rumi. And he’d intuited kinship with what I’ve been doing, and so he came. And the spun glass of his heart unspun a bit yesterday, as he leant me a taste of what that kinship meant to him, doing Rumi proud in doing so.
The night before, as the signing line assembled, I was asked if I could speak for a few moments with a young man in a wrap around wheelchair. His debilitation reminded me of ALS patients I’d meet in my days in the trade, with all conceivable emotion and portent coming in and going out from the eyes. These instant conversations can degrade into dispensations of feel good affirmations and wretched high fives. This man was real in his depth and in his affliction, his sojourn all but unknowable to someone ambulatory and ordinarily troubled. I looked for a line or a thread or a strophe, something to get us out beyond the one-way murmurs and the faux understandings. I asked if with the help of his eye-activated keyboard he wanted to say something to me. He did, it seemed. It took his family ten or more minutes of gearing and booting up, more strain on everyone.
Imagine trying to focus yourself so resolutely that your eye movement faithfully brings forward what is in your heart to say. That’s the position this young man was in, and he was flailing a bit with the emotion, the grief and mystery of the night, and me beside him, the whole foyer of people orchestrated around this moment. Eventually he thanked me for my work, arranged a few words of favour for the night, wished me well. I did likewise. A kind of blessing rippled.
In the show’s wake, back at the digs, I asked a generous local organizer what she thought of the evening. She waved in the air for a moment, then said, “Oh, there are no words.” As a word guy I contend with that possibility most days. Do words fail us? Fail certain moments? Or do they know their home ground, and respect a few boundaries? Maybe, on occasion, she’s right.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom