Even if the Sky Falls

1-IMGP6654Please allow me introduce Esperanza. Here she is at the window when the train pulls into Maho  Junction en route from Colombo to Batticaloa. My window seat on the train and hers in the station align perfectly every time. This is the place where the train reverses direction and proceeds backwards for the rest of the journey, reflecting the interchangeability of backward and forward movement in the Batti rota. You never really know when you’re making progress or what it would look like if you were.

Since I last reported here in February I’ve made three extended trips of about a month’s duration each in Batticaloa. At Monkey’s Tale work on the Out-of-the Box curriculum inches along at the pace of a snail whose inscrutable meanderings defy prediction, but it hasn’t quite come to a standstill. For that I’m much obliged to Kula and Theva who show up faithfully every day when family obligations, religious holidays and more profitable work opportunities don’t intervene. Out-of-the-Box funds are a bit stretched  and, as you know, money talks or people walk. We were running on empty let last year when an unexpected windfall came in the form of a grant from the Bishop Chong Community Trust in Toronto, facilitated through the good graces of its prescient chairwoman, Susan Crean. We can say with some confidence that work on the fabled ‘out-of-the-box’ box nears completion thanks to His Remnant’s timely intervention.

Esperanza looks out at me and nods as if to say, “You see, all’s well Po. You worry too much.” Just a nod. No wink. She usually has something to say before the train judders and jolts backwards, heading down line in the opposite direction. The last time she cautioned me, “Life’s a show, Po, and the show must go on.” Then she winked and closed the curtain.

I spend considerable time on the rotunda at Monkey’s Tale babbling to myself about the subtleties of a fool’s errand and complaining to the crows when they will listen, which isn’t often. Fish guts or chicken bones help. Occasionally there are other callers: the toad residing in room one, the magpie robins in the mango tree and, on rare occasion, the dwarf kingfisher. These charmed and elusive creatures would usurp the playbill entirely were it not for the regular intervention of reality with requests from friends to conjure up another proposal for this or that scheme at the Butterfly Garden or Monkey’s Tale, something upbeat and original to keep the dream on drip feed a little longer. Nobody, including myself, wants to admit the Garden has seen its day as it once was.

1-IMGP7295Toad sits by the door at Monkey’s Tale late one moody afternoon anticipating an evening’s frolic in the garden. A red laser beam flashes through the keyhole when his gaze and mine meet.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than spy on  toads?” he asks.
“Not that I can think of, Toby. Bit grumpy tonight, are we?”
“Not at all. No regrets. No doubts. Fine time for a frolic actually.”
“Surely regrets and doubt are what life’s all about?”
“And a frolic in the rain. That’s what it’s about tonight.”
“You know what they say: ask for rain, you’ll get mud.”
“And you know what I say? Bring it on! The mud. The flood. The ark. The dark.”

As night closed in he hopped off the porch into the garden jungle. It started to spit. Then splatter. Then sluice down. “Remember Po”, he croaks in the distance, “even if the sky falls there’s always a tiny hole to get out through”.

16.1  What’s it all about, Toby?

He won’t say it outright, but Toby’s been sitting in solitary long enough to have a thought or two on the subject of loss and the dwindling of dreams. It’s a matter of knowing how to wade through the remains, or wait it through, without losing heart, finding ways to hunker down and maybe even enjoy hard times, or a least learn from them. New visions will come, new vistas and possibilities. Everything has its day then the tide turns and runs another way. But don’t hold your breath. Change follows its own rules and takes its own time.

For the Butterfly Garden, which has all but closed down completely, the time has come time for retreat and reflection. Here’s the way Toby put it when he appeared in a dream disguised as an old gypsy fortune teller, Tabitha by name, whose warts and raspy croak gave the old boy away. I’d just arrived back in Bangkok from Colombo. It was my first night there, my first sleep. We were sitting across from each other in a cavernous room sparsely illuminated by the stub of a candle flickering on the side table. Tabitha took my hands in hers calmly reassuring me of everything I already knew, but refused to accept. These are her words as they echo in the vault of memory, received on my own part with sadness and tears.

I have been reflecting deeply on the Garden, struggling to understand its precarious financial position and what can be done. I repeatedly get images of letting the earth lie fallow – a natural death so to say – and of not really trying to take control of this situation but rather allowing a peaceful end to this phase of the Garden’s story.

 It is not one of failure or of lack of caring but rather seeing that it has fully served the organizational and artistic purpose for which it was created. Those presently working there would find other paths for their lives. The space would remain holding all the positive energy, memories, stories, artistic culture, children’s laughter and creativity embodied in its history.

1-G-6Then slowly, in perhaps six months to one year, I sense you could bring people together as mentioned in the ‘Paapam Parliament’ you propose and remember all the things learned in the garden, its creative role in the community, reflecting on the needs of children postwar going forward. There will have been a time of sadness at an ending, but if the proper rites of passage are performed then I think everyone who has been part of the Garden will feel at peace with the ending of an era but also with the possibility of rebirth in another form at some point in the future. Those who truly care about the vision of the Garden will come out to support it while others who may have just needed a job or benefited in other ways will have moved on. 

Also with a group of people and an organizational culture that has been largely dependent on foreign funding since its inception it is difficult to move into a model of self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Creating something newer, smaller, building on the foundation of the garden and its cultural memory from a strictly local perspective is much easier to accomplish.

The candle guttered and the room disappeared into the dark but Tabitha’s words travel with me as I sit in the cloudy hills of Chiang Mai sifting through remnants of the Garden’s rich and ebullient history wondering which way to go next? It’s not easy but I think I’m ready to let go of the single-most transformative and enduring experience of my life, a twenty-year pilgrimage – or hallucination, perhaps – on the Garden Path in Sri Lanka. I know this will entail saying farewell, perhaps for the last time, to the dearest of friends and disposing myself to receive whatever comes next, even if it is the silence of the tomb. At the end of this day, however, I remain convinced of one crucial point.

Many people, especially the children and youth of Batticaloa, have contributed to spinning the pure magic of the Butterfly Peace Garden during days of disaster and depletion. Out of this crucible of dread, with the encouragement of a dedicated administration and devoted animators, they summoned the Dream of the Garden as a sign of hope to rally the children of Batticaloa.

Now these children have grown up. They have taken their place in the community. They are teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, bankers, businessmen and women in many professions. They are also farmers, masons, mechanics, weavers, toddy tappers, tuktuk drivers, carpenters and artists. Many are now fathers and mothers themselves. They are beautiful and full of the dreams and vitality that belong to youth alone. I can’t help but think the Garden’s is in good hands if this generation of butterflies become custodians of its future. That is why I am proposing the idea of the Paapam Parliament: to make way for this possibility.

A chorus of croaks echoes through the night. “If you need a Speaker for this Paapam Parliament Po, I’m your man.” Now that’s a good sign! Toby’s already on the job, in position to serve as speaker with all the basso profundo authority he can muster.

From the dust of dreams denied a new star rises. A star is light we can follow. It constellates within the intergalactic ferment of communities in creative collaboration during times of crisis, transition and change. Wise women and old horn toads tell us that when we frame adversity as challenge we become more flexible. We learn from it, move on, and grow.

16.2  The Paapam Parliament

1-DSC03614A favorite word for ending meetings in Batticaloa is “paapam”, which means “let’s see” in Tamil. The idea behind a “Paapam Parliamant” is to invite all those who made the Garden what it was in its prime back to see how we can find a way forward. The Garden has crashed but it’s not kaput. All is not lost. We can ask old butterflies back to read the runes of what remains. What will come of this labour of love? Paapam… let’s see.

The Butterfly Garden in its prime was a work of art composed and arranged by many hands, young and old. Its marginality, originality and imagination attracted supporters far and wide. That is how it survived on its beggarly alms rounds among international donors. But then the war went away, the tsunami went away, the donors went away and with that good will went away. Or so it seems. Now the beggar’s bowl is empty but the beggar blunders on. Even empty the bowl holds itself.

Art allows us to lose and find ourselves at the same time. In its early formative years we summoned image, story, theatre, music, song and ritual to propagate and renew the life of the Butterfly Garden. We convoked formal and informal talking and listening circles (parliaments) where we opened our hearts, declared our minds, resolved contentious issues and nurtured the long-term process of community wellbeing through art with children being the prime movers behind the whole process.

The question is this: why don’t we apply traditional Garden artwork and heart work principles to the current impasse? Maybe the ceremonies of innocence have drowned in mind-numbing bureaucracy? Maybe we’ve forgotten how we did it, being so long out of practice? Maybe it’s an anachronism and no one needs parliament now that we’re wired up to smart technology? Maybe it’s just too messy and takes too much time to pull together?  Or maybe we’ve grown too old and cynical to care when there’s no immediate payoff in financial terms? Chasing the elusive butterfly of happiness is exhausting. Maybe we’re just plain exhausted.

ScreenShot2088Let’s ask ourselves what a risen and renewed Garden would look like? Let’s go back to our roots. By recognizing our predicament in an open and well-informed forum, one where participants know the history and affirm, if not embrace, the poesis behind Garden Path praxis, we can recoup the vision and renew the vitality of Butterfly Peace Garden and Monkey’s Tale Centre from inside out.

This is what the Paapam Parliament is all about. It’s about letting the past be past and getting started on renewal for the future. Let’s see how we can turn things around at the Butterfly Peace Garden to meet the needs of contemporary post war children in Batticaloa and throughout the country. Let’s see how we can promote reconciliation, ecological awareness and better understanding among young people through play. Let’s see how children once again can show us the way to compassion through creation in the midst of chaos and collapse of the old structures.

Above all, let’s be broadly inclusive about inviting back all those who made the Garden what it was in the old days. The Paapam Parliament, a general assembly of Garden sympathetic souls will be open to all “stakeholders”, including management, animators, children (ex-butterflies), and friends from the Garden’s twenty-year history.

No fairytale foreign agency will come to the rescue of the Garden anymore providing for all contingencies and needs, whims and wishes. No hero will arrive from outside to save the day. The salvation and sustainability of the Butterfly Garden and Monkey’s Tale will come from within the Batticaloa community itself or not at all.

The first step is to enlarge the frame of reference, opening up the playing field to a diversity of approaches and ideas that might make this transition possible. By recognizing the roots of the present dilemma we can create a strategic plan for renewal within the Garden based on a mixed economy that balances small income-producing entrepreneurial ventures matched with funds from external Garden Path partners who share the same values.

To get started we can form a Paapam Parliament steering committee to plan and organize such an event, not immediately but within the next six months to a year, as Tabitha recommends.

16.3  Now and Forevermore

Devil Monkey Series ImageIn the Garden’s early years there was a Professor of Political Science and International Relations from Ottawa teaching at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland who recognized that what we were doing with kids at the Butterfly Peace Garden was different from programs offered to kids in other war zones around the world. The Garden was special, probably unique. We didn’t know that but he did, so he promoted, protected, and taught us about the significance of what we were doing.

Under chaotic conditions the Garden cultivated courage and compassion in war-affected children through play, image making, poetry, art, music, and prophetic theatre, by which we mean homegrown theatre that evokes the capacity to outwardly manifest the interior aspirations of the heart. This formed the core Heart Work of the Butterfly Peace Garden just as it had done with physically challenged children at the Spiral Garden in Toronto. We provided a sanctuary for the child’s imagination and intuition during times of conflict, disaster, disappearance and systematic human rights abuse, and we made this approach public in our apparitional clown theatre.

Being a poet, rebel, and serious clown at in his own rite, Kenneth Bush intuitively connected with what was going on in the Garden. He saluted and celebrated our efforts abroad, staunchly protecting the Garden from evildoers and do-gooders alike. Not surprisingly he was harder on the good guys, claiming that bad guys were easy to read whereas with humanitarian heroes you never knew quite what they were up to. In 2001 we appointed him Foreign Minister for the Democratic Anarchy of the Butterfly Peace Garden of Batticaloa (DABFoG) in perpetuity.

He was my coach too. Though I was never much of a hockey player Kenneth taught me to stick handle and skate through blistering hot sand in withering tropical heat to score a few goals for the Garden. He was fast, daring, tough, and when need be, a wee bit rough. Only after the game had played itself out was he all sweetness and light, laughter and a jig. Till the jig’s up, that is. Then it’s back to the front of course, for the battle never ends.

Kenneth’s penetrating gaze could perceive and assess a complex social situation back to front, inside out, in a heartbeat. This gift accounts in some measure for the turbulence and passion of our man and, at the bottom of it all, his kindness, for he saw we all have our soft spots and we all have hard lessons too to learn from life.

On Saturday April 16 Kenneth died unexpectedly in Ottawa at 54 years of age. He was born on Halloween, 1961, a scary guy for sure. I still can’t believe he’s gone from our world when we need people of his caliber more than ever. I’m thinking of the recent massacre in Orlando when I say this, finding myself in tears again. And I’m thinking of an old Chinese wisdom, “Today as our hands part we do not know in what year we will meet again.”

I saddens me to confess that I hadn’t talked to nor heard from Kenneth for three years when I received news of his passing. I tried to contact him many times over that period but never got a reply. Not one. To this very day I don’t know why. Why no phone calls, text messages, Skype visits or e-mail? Nothing. “Sometimes no answer is an answer,” he told me once. “So what was the question?”

Monkey's Tale Logo 1Ken was a tough teacher but he made learning easy and fun, just like the kids he met in the Butterfly Garden when he visited Batticaoa on many occasions over the early years. We dedicate the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum to him and to the children of the Butterfly Peace Garden. Our Monkey’s Tale logo, which was lifted from the one and only Mystery Painting he ever did, also serves to remind us that our very capable Foreign Minister, Dr. Kenneth David Bush Ph.D. (Cornell), represents us in the highest celestial councils of influence and authority, now and forevermore.

16.4  Easy Rider East

Toby returns from his night out in the rain with a new job. He debriefs while along hopping the verandah on his way to bed in the dining hall drainpipe.

“Got a job last night, Po.  Three month teaching gig with World University Services of Canada. WUSC for short.”
“Great! What are you teaching?“
“Art. I’m a Creative and Behavioral Specialist in Soft Skills Development.”
“Really? Very impressive! I didn’t know that.”
“Neither did I till now.”

1-KKK Painting Selection 2009 228 copyWhat I found out the next day is that Toby’s going to teach one part of a Motorcycle Mechanics Course, the art part, to a class of about forty boys from back-country Batticaloa. The course lasts three months. Several days are dedicated to augmenting hard skills – for example, learning how to strip down a bike and put it back together from scratch – as opposed to augmenting soft skills, which is? Whatever Toby’s does.
“So what exactly do you do?”
“Same thing every night. Get lost in dreams. Find find my way home.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re not supposed to. It’s called Art. A lot of these kids have had a hard go. They’re lost.”
“How’s art going to help?”
“Getting lost in order to find yourself: classic definition of art.”
“How do you teach that?”
“I don’t. We do Mystery Painting together. We make Puppet Ladders. Masked Theatre. Story Stone narrations. Conversations with the Story Snake. Voila! What’s lost is found. Or at least the kid’s got a better idea where to look for it. You’re not just Mohammed, Mahesh, or Mohan, the motorcycle mechanic. You’re an original!”

Toby made a run with the local WUSC field rep, Jeyakumar, to have a chat with boys in the class at Sarvodaya one fiercely hot day. Somehow it’s against grain for a toad to find himself out and about at ten o’clock in the morning, brutally exposed to the reality of mid-day heat, not to mention gearboxes and grease, brakes and clutch pads, gas tanks and spark plug gizmos scattered all over the joint. Not the kind of place you’d usually find a self-respecting toad.

1-12But Toby’s says he’s doing it because he likes the pluck of the lads and because Esperanza winked at him last time at Gal Oya Junction and then she actually said something. She said, “What the heck Po, give it a go!” A wisp of Mona Lisa lingered in her smile as the train pulled out of the station. Then she confided in a urgent whisper. “Wear your shades, Po. These are bright kids, full of dreams and dread. Deepen the mystery for them. Make them laugh and love themselves a bit more. Remember, life is short but art is long. ”

All I can say is you’ll never catch a respectable toad out and about in broad daylight like this without his wellies and shades. Wellies in case it rains and shades if it doesn’t. Toby quizzed the kids about art and it’s relationship to motorcycle mechanics. Where do the two meet? Anything in common? The boys looked a bit puzzled having a toad road test them.  Their blank stares told the tale but they were good sports and played along and, after an awkward silence during which Toby performed headstands while twirling a hula hoop to loosen them up, answers spilled out like bonanza beans.

1-DSC00895“Can’t ride if a bike if it’s broke.”
“When you ride, nowhere you can’t hide.”
“Get on a bike and take a serious hike – to the moon and back.”
“Say goodbye to the world. Going. Going. Gone!”
“Nobody can find you but you can find them.”
”Wind her out free as wind.”
“Beware of toads crossing roads at night.”
Sounds like art to me, wouldn’t you agree? Every single answer applies equally to art and motorcycles. Then came the clincher.
“Whatever you do with your heart, that’s art.”
Toby was sold.

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics,” he said.
“Somebody already wrote that book, Toby.”
“Details, details Po. But I do have a few doubts about the job.”
“Like what?
“Well, you know, these kids are all Tamil and I don’t speak Tamil. And when I do it sounds like a load of toad twaddle. And time’s a little tight too, I mean for performing the miracle expected of me. Then there’s all the up and down travel for an old toad, and the prep and the finishing and all that bother. Who’s going to do all that? We’re talking art here. That means you don’t know what you’re doing one minute to the next. Ever. And it all happens anyway, so why fuss? But I do. I  fuss. You know what I mean?”
“What can I say, Toby, but paapam? Paapam, you know? Let’s see.”

16.5  Gone Fishing

No money, no honey. No rattle in the piggy bank. A familiar story but one we’ve overcome many times along the way through contributions made by generous and thoughtful friends like you. And here I go launching yet another fundraising campaign to finish what I started and get myself, my archives and the Out-of-the-Path Curriculum (one, possibly two, of four units) back to Toronto where I intend to establish the Garden Path Foundation as a not-for-profit organization. Not certain where exactly I’ll set up shop when I get there. Most plausible destinations, unless fortunes shift dramatically for the better, will either be the Chong Home for Creative Seniors with Karen Montesanto in Hamilton, a residency with the Seeds of Hope Foundation unpacking the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum, or a live-in locker at Queen West Storage.

Hard to believe it keeps coming down to this but it is the Stupid School after all, where Economics 101 is not on the course list; in fact it’s on the Index of Forbidden Books. So if you do have a bit of spare change and wish to pass it along I’m trying to raise enough to underwrite the return expedition to Canada this fall. I’ve already made a good start with donations of approximately $800 from family, friends and colleagues of Kenneth’s, given in his memory, to be used for Out-of-the-Box and Garden Path exigencies. I thank Kevin Bush, Kenneth’s brother in Ottawa, and everyone who has contributed.

One shocking discovery I made when I researched the record of my Garden Path website reporting to those who donated to the Out-of-the-Box crowd funding campaign last year is this: there have only been 30 hits on the site since it went up in May of last year. That’s right, 30! This number totally astounds me since I send out personal e-mails with the Garden Path link www.thegardenpath.ca to each donor (152 in all) with every update, and there have been sixteen updates during the last year. I’m sure I must have logged on at least 30 times myself.

I’m beginning to worry that no one will read this update either. These days everyone’s busy. And distracted. The whole world’s distracted by distractions from the distraction of distractions. That’s the game. And words are a distraction. Especially too many of them.  I know. That’s why people twitter and tweet these days. Even the president of the United States twitters and tweets. I don’t know how how to tweet, birdbrain that I am.

I don’t understand these things, nor do I care to, but if anyone out there in Cybercity knows what the opposite of “gone viral” is (… “gone spiral”… “gone gaga”… “gone belly”… or, as they say here … “dingdong”…) please let me know. 30 hits must surely be a noteworthy negative record worthy of kudos and reward. If you wish to make a contribution please drop me a line and I’ll forward banking details.

1-IMGP6655 copyEsperanza wasn’t at her window at Maho Junction when I last road the rails to Batti. There was a note however, passed along by the chai walla during our stop. ”Gone fishing out to sea” was how it read. The word “sea” was crossed out and replaced by “see.” Then the final “e” of “see” was scratched out in favor of “a” once again, as in “sea”. Dear Esperanza. Guess I’m not the only one out to sea on a fishing expedition.

PoHo
Chiang Mai, Thailand
June 16, 2016