Wings & Flying

Of wings and flying

Throughout history people have always wanted to fly. It is synonymous with freedom and the the ability to rise above the confinements of life. As we soar we begin to perceive and experience the world differently. This blog is about that personal flight of discovering who we are and what we want to be. Our true potential is never realised until we ‘fly’. So let me begin with the story of how I began to find my wings.

Swanton_Lodge

Swanton Lodge, Sydney 1985

The old Steinway upright grand stood neglected in a corner, a derelict among derelicts. What had once been described as a ‘timeless instrument’ was now a repository for thousands of dead cockroaches and cigarette butts, jammed in between strings, immobilising every hammer and hinge. Broken shanks, tattered felts, missing dampers and loose strings dangling at awkward angles. Panels had been shattered by violent fists in drunken brawls. The forlorn piano awaited its final performance – a swansong consignment to the tip.

The idea. I had walked away from a previous life and found myself working as a street chaplain in the deep-end of the world of homelessness, addiction and mental illness. This was foreign territory and I wasn’t sure how I was going to connect with these people of the street.  Taking in the surroundings of the depressingly sad and gloomy hall of the drop-in centre I noticed the old piano and an idea began to take shape. Unbeknown to me, this decrepit old building was soon to become my university and its endless waves of rejected humanity would prove to be my professors teachers and tutors. This was the real University of Hard Knocks.

Three weeks later. The innards of the disemboweled instrument littered the large table in the centre of the room. A thousand broken bits and pieces, a musical jigsaw puzzle awaited restoration. Herbie_BillIn the background in its usual place against the wall, the denuded cabinet and frame waited their turn for attention. Gone were the cockroaches and cigarette butts. For the first time in years the strings were free to vibrate, tingling in anticipation of being able to sing again. A small, faceless audience began to slide into the seats around the wall, half obscured by a thick blue mist of tobacco smoke, watching the one-hour daily performance on central stage from a discreet distance, pretending to be disinterested but stealing curious glances at the strange act nonetheless. Each day the distance diminished in fractional increments as curiosity exceeded wariness, until the bolder trailblazers finally approached the table to enquire what was happening. The new ‘padre’ was highly ‘sus’. These people were survivors, living on the street and off their wits. The first rule of survival was, ‘trust no-one’, and the invitation to trust was regarded with extreme caution. But with the subtlety of time the magnet of a salvage operation was too strong to resist. The day-centre began to take on the appearance of a boardroom, with chairs pulled up around the central table – the chairman gluing shafts of wood together, and the members making comment and asking questions, even venturing to give advice. Slowly, a gap was being narrowed and bridge was being built. One enterprising person even returned with bits of spring wire, felt and hammers, rescued from a another abandoned piano in a remote laneway. Over the months a gentle tidal ebb and flow of fragile humanity took their place at the table and declared their interest in the old piano.

Four months later – the Opening Performance. On this day, the centre had never known such excitement and anticipation in all its weary years. The mechanism was locked into place. Every hammer and hinge worked like new. A dozen new white keys stood out like capped teeth against the ageing ivory.  The tuning hammer slotted into each nut and turned until every string tensed true to its note. Never had piano tuning sounded so good. Repaired panels were polished and restored. The three pedals were connected and the top lid was finally slammed shut with a dramatic flourish as the repairer was about to become the performer. The hush was broken as the melody began to flow. This was their piano, back from the dead – a musical Lazarus. What the pianist lacked in technique and accuracy was offset by passion and joy. He began to sing. The stunned silence was tangible. No-one had thought about singing. It was as if they had forgotten how to sing through the insane years of despair and hopelessness, that is, until Barry burst into bawdy song. No matter what the melody, he knew a risqué version. Diminutive and hopelessly enslaved to the bottle, his voice was true and incredibly powerful. He came from a musical family and his two kid brothers were world-famous rock idols, so music was in his alcohol sodden veins.

SophieNormAs on an invisible cue, people coughed, cleared their smoky lungs and tentatively searched for a starting note. Beautiful Ivan, a priest who had been seduced by the sacramental wine, stood leaning on the edge of the piano, totally captivated, as tears rolled down his cheeks. Ray dragged himself onto his crutches and began an inebriated dance on the grubby floor. Herbie’s face broke into a toothless grin as he hummed to himself in his native Hungarian. Alma, crotchety as the crotchets that reverberated from the walls and dangerously lethal with her walking stick, turned her weapon into something softer, gently tapping the rhythm on the floor. Sophia, her frail life stolen by wartime pack rapes, lived on, staring with lifeless black eyes from beneath the shawl that shielded her face. Those sad, sad eyes flickered into life once more.

Finally, Norman Windsor, cousin to Her Majesty (so he reliably informed me), ceased writing yet another letter to Buckingham Palace and, with dignified step, approached the piano to bestow the royal stamp of approval on the event. Like so many who sought refuge, a meal, and a bed at the ‘Lodge’, his home was the street. The stroke of a bureaucratic pen had determined that most residents of the “mental institutions” of the day could fend for themselves. So together they drifted alone through the streets, confused and broken. Their lives were shattered and had lost potential and purpose, not unlike the old piano. But they were real people, not much different to any of us – twist of fate, an accident, chronic illness and pain, a genetic predisposition – made the subtle but significant difference. But beneath the tattered exterior, the stamp of each personal Steinway remained, longing to be valued and restored, hoping for the melody of harmony and happiness once more.

  group

Apart from the ‘piano man’ who is obviously alive and well, most, if not all, are long since gone and forgotten, buried in destitute graves.  But these were real people and these are their actual names. Each had a long and difficult story. These candid shots are the work of a young New Zealand backpacker who lived in the Lodge with them for a year. He won their trust and earned the right to photograph them and then presented me with his album of prints when he resumed his wandering. We are still friends after all these years

.The-Boys

And so began a journey of discovery which still continues. From the highly qualified position of my privileged loft I began with the altruistic motive of wanting to make a difference. I wanted to change others. If the truth be known I probably wanted to make them more like me. I had answers. My intentions may have been noble but I had never even taken the time to discover what motivated me. These wonderful people opened my eyes. I was too busy trying to help them fly when I never really checked to see if I had wings. Looking back I realised that they were there but I wasn’t actually flying. This little video illustrates what I mean.

I know that I wanted to fly, but life had a few surprises in store. There were leaps of faith into the unknown and a few more episodes of being out of control to be had. But like these ducklings I had an early inkling of the joy of flying and the course of my life was being challenged. Once you realise that you have wings, that you are born with potential, nothing will or should stop that deep desire to go where you have never been before. To discover your wings is to recognise your worth and potential. To fly is to rise above those things that weigh you down and begin to realise that potential.

8 Things I learned in these early flying lessons

 1. No one person is more valuable than another. When we discriminate and make value judgements on the inherent worth of others we actually depreciate ourselves. That stops us from flying.
  2. People are not objects, or clients, numbers on an electoral roll. From the greatest to the least there is not much that really separates us. At times we become very busy in separating ourselves from one another, but on the inside our needs and fears are much the same.
  3.  The inescapable paradox of relationships is that we are all very different while being very similar at the same time. It took me a long time to get my head around that one. I assumed that people would be reasonable and do it my way. My logic and viewpoint was unbeatable.
   4. Those who know it all, who have the answers, who have discovered the truth and have ‘arrived’ will never be able to fly. They are intellectually overweight.
5. Privilege does not equate with worth. Some of the greatest acts of kindness and selflessness I have seen have come from those who are the least privileged.
6.  Difference does not equate with worth. Just because some does not think as I do, or does not look or act like me does not make them any more or less valuable.
  7. It is not really our place to change other people’s lives into something we desire. That is something only they can choose to do. The person who wants to change the world is actually saying more about themselves than those they want to change.
 8. It is more important to accept and to listen than to control and ignore.

In this age of inbuilt obsolescence we are not very good at fixing things. We just buy a new one. Today we would dispose of the filthy piano and replace it with something electronic and plasticky, or, worse still we would feed piped music through a mobile phone. But you can’t treat people that way. We are not disposable or replaceable. We are programmed to explore, to go beyond, to let go and a discover our potential. That is flying. We should all experience it at least once.

Them_and_us
Friends enjoying the sunset, Monkey Mia, Western Australia

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Wings & Flying

  1. I seem to remember hearing about that piano, but never realised the significance. Enjoyed reading every line

  2. I am privileged to have known you and Sally. You are both very special people and have helped so many people over many years. As I struggle some times I still draw inspiration from you. Thank you.

    • I was privileged to work with you to John in the same cause. You were and still are a highly valued friend

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