A second word added to the phrase.
When last we spoke I was living and working in the Gibson desert among the Ngaanyatjarra people, and a decade of boisterous business would pass before I encountered stillness on my road.
Numerous people in the Warburton Ranges community could describe the first white face they had ever seen, usually in their childhood or youth. First contact in the desert was not 1770, or even 1870, it was in the early 20th Century. These warm and kind folk loved teaching their language to a young fellow like me, and I will always think of this as the great privilege of my life. Ngaanyatjarra is a phonetic language, which meant that eventually I could sit with the older women and men and read for them whole chapters of the translated Bible which I only partially understood. They laughed uproariously at my mispronunciations, and spilled over with affirmation when I got it right; delighting in the faith we shared. “Yuwa, yuwa, waylkumunnu!” These were times of immense joy and humour. It was the most extraordinary experience to live way out there in Western Australia at the age of 18. The isolation of Warburton, or Mirlirrtjarra, was intense and thrilling, the absurd heat somehow invigorating, the arid landscape evocative, the people enthralling. The opportunities and responsibilities I was gradually given were remarkable, and friendships made then have proved life-long. Beyond all of this I witnessed a spirituality quite different to my own in it’s simplicity and depth of expression, and yet it was my own.
For ten years I came and went from Central Australia, returning often to build on numerous communities. I studied agriculture, completed a Carpenter’s apprenticeship, joined a vibrant church in Tamworth, laughed a great deal and played lots of music. In these youthful years I think I was “being”. To be, to be engaged in life, to have your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. To discover that homes can be built, destinations reached, plans laid, one’s character expressed, decisions made and relationships formed; this was a rewarding and happy chapter of life.
Stillness arrived out of nowhere at a particular moment which has the same clarity in memory as the mini-van in which the revelation of being first grabbed my attention years earlier. One evening on my own, far from home, I wrote the simple word “quietness” in my journal. I can find it still on my bookshelf, more than thirty years on. My Favourite Fiancé and I were more than two thousand kilometres apart. Having announced our engagement barely a fortnight earlier I had immediately set out on a long planned trip to Alice Springs and then Warburton over several weeks. It sounds a bit mad, I know, but providence allowed us the opportunity to individually and deeply work through our rather rapid decision to marry. (We were engaged two days before our first date – a story I may one day tell). I was travelling, building, meeting good friends and once again hearing and speaking beautiful Ngaanyatjarra words. I was also love-struck, lonely perhaps, excited by the future ahead of us and beginning, just beginning, to sense the responsibility coming rapidly my way when we would become an instant family of five. It was a season of change, of transitions far bigger than I knew: exactly the sort of liminal moment into which deeper truths can fall.
To be honest it was not stillness that I first encountered, but the notion of it. The word written in my journal was inspiration of some kind, divine I think, but it ran contrary to the flavour of my life which was bright, constructive, and often rather loud. In another six months or so we married, then moved our little family onto an isolated farm which I was employed to manage. We lived on a river in an ancient fibro house in which our bedside glasses of water would freeze over during the night. There were snakes everywhere, and I dazzled my young family with my bravery, shooting them with my rifle. We had such a time! It was exhilarating, it was hard, it was complex, it was marvellous. In all this excitement there had also come challenges and times of loss such as we all share; but stillness was something quite different. Something I recognised, but which remained unknown.
A calling, a thirst, but for what, exactly?
And that’s how it remained for years: a goal, a desire, something forever catching my attention, but rarely holding it. A desert mirage.
There is more to tell.