A story for the times
It is long before Vincent is born, and the people who live this side of the water are always saying, 'When I get to the other side', as if everything will be okay then. But they never go. They never pack their bags and get on the boat and go. They stay there, looking across the water, day after day, thinking it must be better over there, there on the other side. Their own side is beautiful, a paradise. But they don't want their own paradise. They want that one over there.
It's always been this way, or so it seems. It was a story created a long time ago. No one remembers who first told it, but the ones who heard it, they told it over and over, and now it's become true. The story is stuck to their cells, their skin, their hair. They live in that story, that story is them.
Every day they say this: One day. They are sure things are better over there, and once they get there, everything will be fine. One day. Meanwhile, they are stuck here. Meanwhile, their country is dying for lack of attention, and them with it. Their eyes are always drifting across the water, while the world in front of them lies unnoticed, forgotten.
So disconnected are the people now, everything is starting to die. The trees, the flowers, the insects, the birds, the animals, the fish, the rivers, the oceans, the land. All dying. The creatures and the elements have heard the story too, the story of across the water. Unlike the people, though, they don't believe it. 'It's not a good story,' they say to each other. But it drains the life from them, all the same.
The story has no words like 'here' and 'now'. It has no gurgles of laughter like water has, as it trips over rocks on river beds and sandy ocean floors. It has no big relaxed sighs like the trees have, as the winds move through them on a warm day. It has no songs of sweetness like the birds have, as they glide across the sky.
All this story has is that place over there, across the water, a long way away. And as the people gaze at it, day after day, they forget the trees and the birds and the rivers and the skies. They forget themselves. They forget life.
And life, seeing itself forgotten in this place, slips away, and waits for the people to make a new story.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT DAY, 26 MAY 2031
'This is Aboriginal land and you are welcome. Look around and learn, in order to understand Aboriginal people and also understand that Aboriginal culture is strong and alive.'
So begins Acknowledgment Day celebrations for 2031 at Uluru, country of the Anangu people.
As is custom, the Preamble to the Constitution is read out. Following that, local Anangu woman, Nita Arnguli, teacher Beth Cahill and student Vincent Kapiwaru share stories.
Each year we remember some of the new stories of this century, and recall some of the people who have helped us create them. This year, we go back to the end of the first decade, when a critical mass of us finally recognised the extent of our collective destruction of nature and culture. At the time, several voices rose above the panic and confusion, and grounded us in what was not a comfortable reality.
James Thornton, the international environmental lawyer, said that rather than talking about climate change, we should talk about culture change. He reckoned back then that what we needed was a movement similar to the Renaissance of the late Middle Ages, the time that gave birth to humanism.
Sir Ken Robinson, the renowned educator, lamented the loss of our innate creativity, through education systems that were no more than factories making future workers. All kids have tremendous talents, he said, and we squander them. Ken reminded us that each one of us is unique, with unique gifts to offer the world.
Patrick Dodson, greatly loved and admired Elder, said we must imagine a renewed nation, and also called for a renaissance. He saw it underpinned by Indigenous culture and spirituality, with its thousands of years of connection to this land.
Of course, as we all know, Patrick went on to become the first co-chair of the Council of Elders of Australia, a role he played for ten years with great dignity, wisdom and love.
Back in 2012, the settler people of Australia finally made their peace with their Indigenous brothers and sisters, whose land had been taken, in ignorance, and with cruel intent, 200 and more years ago. A blink in time, but long enough to interrupt the natural order and unbind what had been bound for so long, the people and the land and the seas and all the creatures.
With the Constitutional amendment, and the settler peoples' acknowledgment of those past wrongs, came the discovery of what had been lost, what was missing, what needed to be restored. The people talked to each other over many days and nights, and began to recover the knowledge.
There was much work to be done and together they made a plan. Not a plan for seven minutes or seven years, but a plan for seven generations, for their children's children, and theirs too, and so on, stretching over time and seasons, cycles and songlines.
And in their plan, they wrote of hope, their hope that they would all one day come home to themselves and to country. They wrote of the belief that they are all connected and that to harm one was to harm all. And they each stored that belief in the palm of their hand, a pulsing reminder. We are all connected. To harm you is to harm me.
They mapped out the work that needed to be done over the next 200 years, the most important work, the true work. They made it into what we now simply call the Plan. Five things, all connected, criss-crossing, a web of life, no less. Five things, counted off on their fingers and thumb, one, two, three, four, five; stored safely in their hands.
Make peace. Heal country. Nurture talents. Design new tools. Bring everyone along.
One, two, three, four, five. Counted off on fingers and thumbs, right hand and left hand joining briefly at the fingertips as they remembered each day what they must do, all of them.
They each had their role, their gift to the whole, and they set about doing this, day after day. Gradually making Australia new. And we continue on, feeling for the pulse in the palm of our hand, counting off on our fingers and thumbs, remembering and doing the important things.
So, friends, on this 26th day of May, in the year 2031, we mark time once again, like we have every year since 2012, the year that brought the beginning of the new story between the ancient peoples of this land and the settlers, with their memories of other ancient lands. The year of Acknowledgment, as it has come to be known.
Let's now do as we also do each year and hear the stories of two of our people, Beth and Vincent, who live here in desert country.
I came here to teach in 2014, around the time the Plan started. I was 21. My family was puzzled when I announced straight after I qualified, that I was leaving the city and going to the desert. They were worried, I know. It was hard to explain. They thought there was something wrong with me. But they were so ravaged by decades of chaos in their lives — welfare, drinking, smoking, bad food, dying young. I wanted to get out. I had tried to stay, but it wasn't going to work. I would have got swallowed up in the alcohol too.
Why was I different? I don't know. Some spark, like a piece of sapphire that miraculously turns up in the deep earth, found by someone who is not greedy. One of my teachers wasn't greedy; she found this spark in me and helped me find my talents. She nurtured them in me and did the same for many others. Only a few stayed the course. In those days, many didn't have the strength.
Let me talk about Vincent. He is 11 now. When I first started teaching him, he was one.
As the other teachers and I learnt more about creativity and how to nurture the children's talents, their learning happened more quickly. We were seeing evolutionary leaps. It was like the Earth was relaxing and playing with us, now that we were finally getting it about everything being linked.
Vincent was the first of the children to make the conscious connections about time. He quickly came to understand its three levels and how to give attention to each. He is able to be in one dimension and sense the other two dimensions within the same moment. In the old schools, children used to lose this ability by the time they were seven.
Through this endlessly, infinitely creative way we now work with the children, Vincent has been able to hold the knowledge and store it in his whole being.
It makes him well. And strong.
Beth helps me see my talents. She watches me doing things on my own, she watches me with the other kids. She opens up the whole school to me and to all the other kids. Take your time, wander around, take it slow, go fast, do what comes naturally, she tells us.
At my school, we've got lots of stuff to muck around with. A big sportsground with running tracks, an oval with a special ground for here in the desert. It feels soft and smooth — like grass, Beth says. I've seen grass on the screens.
We have music, dance, drawing, painting. We learn English, our local language and computer language. We do lessons in maths, science and technology. We learn stories about trees and flowers, insects and birds, the animals, the fish, the rivers, the oceans, the land. And all the connections.
Like Beth said, I've learned about the three layers of time. I can live in the different times at the same time. Material time — here and now, eating, drinking, moving, resting, being with my people. Timeless time — when I'm using my talents, making things and helping others. Deep time — past, present and future all connected. We say this is spirit time. Everything held together. There's no fear in this time. Just love.
All this, Beth and the others are teaching me. They are letting me grow into myself, like a river growing into the ocean.
Country is strong. I am strong.
That's my story.
After early careers in palliative care nursing and social policy, Lea McInerney now works as a freelance facilitator and writer. She recently completed a diploma in professional writing at RMIT. She is the Winner of the 2011 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award: Australia 2031. This is her winning essay.