Kurta, yirringkarra-rni!

The desert is green.  GREEN!  So easy on the eyes, verdant, full of life and promise.   Soaked clay pans, full to the brim, glint upwards like so many bronze mirrors.  From the air the country is mesmerizingly beautiful; so absorbing that I am startled by something stranger yet: in the distance great sheets of water; salt lakes, blue and white, as far as the eye can see.  And now and then the prize, so rare, something I’ve scarcely ever seen: rivers running in the wilderness!  My God, what a sight!

“Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.  Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs”  (Isaiah 35).

Days later I am traversing the green desert by road on our way to Blackstone and Easter Convention.  Travelling squeezed across the front of a Landcruiser with two aboriginal men brings back many memories, and I realise how long it has been since I’ve done such things.  I instinctively reach for the seatbelt, “Wiya wandi”, I am cautioned, “slow one-ba, you don’t need ’im; we just goin’ steady.”  And yet as soon as we are settled in the car I am prompted: “Maybe … you can press that button now?” – lock the door!  I want to laugh at the contradiction (perhaps you did?) but incongruence reminds me that I am a guest here, I am treading on holy ground, and there are ways unique and too wonderful for me to understand.   I feel safe; I am in good hands as we travel through country that no one knows better.  It is a privilege to have every water hole and windmill pointed out; along with the necessary details of whose country we are passing, what happened here at some past time, who lives where and how they are related to each of my companions.

It saddens me to realize how readily I have allowed our worlds to separate.  Black and white touching, but rarely merging.  How often does a white person travel in an aboriginal car?  When have I needed a black man’s help?  The white fella travels through Central Australia equipped for every contingency – I’ve done it myself – with shovels, jacks, water tanks and antennae bristling from every corner of our vehicles.  We must have all been Boy Scouts: Be Prepared!  And why not?  It can get tough out here pretty quickly.

But today the pretence of my independence has been shattered.  My wheelchair-bound waltz through Blackstone Community is a Divine Comedy demolishing my self-sufficiency and bringing me gloriously close to my brothers.  The church ground is not far from the where I am camped; I can see the bough shed fronting the corrugated-iron and steel-mesh chapel from my window.  But the distance is nigh on impossible.  More than once I have found myself stranded in the hot sun, waiting on the road for rescue from a passerby.    

“Kurta, yirringkarra-rni!”

“Brother, I need your help.”

And while this is a personal reflection, I think I am not alone.  Indeed I was somehow reassured to listen to an aboriginal friend tell me – more than once – that everyone was staring at him “… really strange, pushing this white bloke’s wheelchair around the store doin’ his shopping.  Hey! What’s he doin’ that for?”

Occasionally a moment of transcendence comes to most of us, perhaps when our eyes are unusually opened, or because we are caught in events too big for our own comprehension. It gets a bit like that when you are walking (or wheeling!) on holy ground……….

A Blackstone man spoke in church. Although my thin grasp of Ngaanyatjarra gave me the gist of where he was going, I was missing much of it.  Suddenly his speaking became so evocative that I felt I knew exactly what he was saying, without knowing the words. Hearing his spirit rather than his thought.  My spirit was deeply moved. 

At dawn on Easter Sunday we gathered in the bough shed to sing and remember the power of resurrection.  Tiny, hopeful drops of rain fell on us in the pale gold of sunrise.

Later the church met around the Lord’s Table – something that hasn’t happened here in years.  Surrounded by the tangible distress of community life, knowing well the depths of sadness in the lives around us, and dealing with the uncertainty of my own life; there came nonetheless an experience of extraordinary confidence, knowing beyond knowledge that there is order, purpose, hope and victory in and above everything.

This afternoon storm clouds broke over Blackstone.  Lightning flashed, a torrent fell, kids ran wild, and the earth released its amazing aroma of renewal.  In the sky a rainbow arch of promise embraced the community.

Honestly, I am immersed in things unique and too wonderful for me!

Cry Like a Girl

Sorry girls, but let me try and explain…

Last week I found myself in tears as a young Canadian couple took the gold medal in the Ice Dance with an utterly mesmerizing performance. I know nothing at all about figure skating, but it was immediately clear that something special was going down. Extreme, extraordinary, romantic! The cameras swept the audience finding face after stunned face, and more than a few eyes as red as my own. I was a bit surprised at my reaction, but secretly pleased to discover that I had a soft side after all.

When I wept for Ozzie Gold in the aerial skiing the following day I was a little more surprised at my reaction. When I cried over the speed skating, the slalom, and the biathlon I felt frankly unnerved. But it took an outpouring of emotion over the bobsled – (the bobsled? really?) – to awaken me to the thought that perhaps this wasn’t about the Winter Olympics at all. Maybe, just maybe, it’s me…

Blokes are deep, as you know. I just didn’t realise I was! Last week I wrote about the raw joy of humour in dark moments. The tougher it gets, the louder you laugh. But unexpectedly I am learning that the pain that so refines laughter also distils tears. There is a well of sadness in me that is getting awfully close to the surface. All it takes is a memory, or a smell (what is it with smells and emotions?) or a simple phrase in conversation. In an instant I can feel I’m working on two levels at once: heading one way on the surface, but pulling in a different direction deeper down. Like a rip in the surf.

So, back to the bobsled. By sheer coincidence I happened to meet a young man from Canada this week, a bobsledder no less. Built like a truck, he kindly mowed my lawn and caused me to reflect that there is nothing intrinsically heartrending about bobsled. I know well enough what my tears are all about. A favourite poet captures it with a raw tenderness that has stayed with me since school. (When I say favourite poet, it’s pretty much a two-horse race for me: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Spike Milligan. I imagine you will know who this is).

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I know also that I mourn for more than just myself. Within my own sadness I hear the tears we all shed; a communal grief. I cry for everything that is not as it should be. I weep especially for those close to me, and most especially for those who grieve because of me.

Joy and sorrow are so very different; and it’s too simple to think of them as mere opposites. Nor are they inseparably bound in each other as some suggest. I think there is a joy that knows no sorrow; and there are sorrowful people for whom life holds no joy. Laughter connects improbables, but tears are shed when life is all too predictable. Humour is very abstract; it deals with the highly unlikely and the downright impossible. Sorrow, however, is grounded in loss: the most concrete reality I can think off.  Joy and Sorrow.  One comes naturally to me; it’s as simple as breathing. The other I must befriend and learn to understand. One is public: the bigger the audience the better! The other is intensely private. One is a familiar companion, the other a stranger in my home; but not unwelcome. I’m grateful for both.