A topic of discussion amongst many of my friends and I lately has been about how our own art, in all forms whether it be creative writing, visual, musical, fine – oh just fine! – can teach us, the artist, the writer, the musician, a thing or two.
I know that that super long sentence just confused you, much like how you tripped over the repetition of the word ‘that’ just then, so I will provide an example to help develop my idea for discussion.
Have you got your cup of tea? Okay good.
One day at school, I was sitting in class and my mind kept drifting off so I chased it out the window and sat with it a while until it finally decided to talk. A recent visit by an environmental organisation had sparked a meaningful interest in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I couldn’t help thinking about these poor birds who when they died, were found sprawled in some kind of open autopsy and the cause of death was clear: a stomach riddled with garbage items such as bottle top and cigarette lighters doesn’t leave anything left to the imagination.
So whilst my mind and I were having this talk, we got so excited we just had to write about it. I tucked my legs under my desk, ignored my school work and wrote The Man And The Bird. I was so involved in it that I didn’t realise that the whole hour had gone by until the bell rang. That’s when I also realised, as you will too, that I was the teacher in this situation. The students were all staring at me waiting to be let out for lunch – eek! And that could be why I don’t teach anymore!
The Man And The Bird was recently shortlisted in the Solo Hothouse Theatre Monologue Competition in Albury and so coming back to my point about artists learning things about themselves from their art; to actually see my writing come to life for the first time, was not only amazing but also a deep and personal learning experience. It was like looking at a picture of myself and thinking, ‘ohhh, that’s what I look like’.
The Man And The Bird
One day, a man was sitting in the park, eating a hamburger. After he had finished, he threw the plastic bag and styrofoam container on to the grass. A bird, which had been floating along the nearby river, suddenly appeared on the edge of the picnic table.
Why, dear man are you so wasteful? You will not go to the sky after death because you are not kind to animals, the earth, nor fellow mankind.
Of course I will go to to the sky after death. You are a misinformed, bird.
And what do you expect from the sky after death then?
The sky, after death, is where I will spend eternity doing the things I enjoy.
The bird shook her feathers and then left to feed her young.
When the man died, the bird met him in the sky.
What are you doing here, bird?
I choked on the plastic you left behind.
Well that was silly, wasn’t it bird? Why were you eating the plastic?
I didn’t mean to. My chick was choking on it and I pulled it from her throat but it became lodged in my own and I died.
The bird hopped through the clouds and on to a river where she floated along with the current at a relaxing pace and that is how she spent her time in the sky, watching the world go by.
The man trod behind the bird in to the clouds. The clouds turned nimbus and were metallic in taste and they hung heavy on his tongue.
He felt something crunch under his foot – a plastic water bottle. More crunching noises. Crunch – a styrofoam container. Crunch – a plastic ice-cream wrapper. Crunch, crunch, crunch – empty chip packets, soft drink cans, shampoo containers.
The man turned quickly. A bottle flicked up under his foot, a ton of straws came tumbling down on top of him, spiking him in the face like cold drops of sticky rain. A plastic bag whipped up towards his shoulder, then on to his face where it lay like a star fish, plastered to his nose covering his eyes and cheeks.
He heard a long scream, aaaagghhh, and realised that it was a sudden wind rasping against the plastic bag on his face – his throat tightened as he fought for breath – the scream he heard was the wind carrying his muffled cry for help.
Then suddenly, everything stopped. The plastic bag sea-sawed to the ground. The bottles lay quiet, the straws still. The ice cream wrappers lay calm.
The man dropped down in to the mess and sat amongst the rubbish, his head in his hands. His eyes began to weep sticky tears. ‘What have I done?’
A plastic soft drink bottle lay at the man’s feet, its blue plastic lid with even lines dinted in stripes around it angered him. He kicked the bottle and it flew up and lodged in between two other bottles, forming a triangle.
The man began picking up all the ice cream wrappers and empty chip packets and put them in to an oil drum he had found. Then he began piling up all of the plastic water bottles together. He did the same with the styrofoam cups and containers. The plastic bags either got folded and put in to a pile or they were used to carry other pieces of garbage.
The man stacked and packed the garbage and used nylon rope to tie it all together. He covered it all in plastic bags and found old tinted plastic outdoor restaurant blinds to make a roof – he had built himself a house made from rubbish.
A few thousand years later in the sky, the man looked around at the town he had built out of rubbish with his own two hands. There was a house for him to live in, a bench to sit on while he rested, and even roads and walkways that led to other buildings he had created out of rubbish. As a final touch, he planted a plastic tree next to the bench, made from old soft-drink cans and plastic coat hangers.
The man sat on the bench and thought about how proud he was of his efforts. He looked around, expecting someone to share this moment with him, but there was no one. Not even the bird.
The man felt anger rise in his throat and he started stomping his feet on the newspaper floor; but, instead of hearing a crunch – there was a huge splash. He fell straight through the newspaper and landed in a river.
He got straight to work and made a boat out of large plastic water containers so that it would float. The man covered it with various empty chip packets for decoration and lined the inside with old bits of linoleum. He found an old plastic tarp and ripped them in to sails and he used rubber thongs from the pile he had collected, to rim the outside of the boat. He even found an old plastic figurine and placed her on the bow of his boat.
Finally, the boat made from rubbish was ready to be launched. The man would surely now be worthy of floating forever on the river and watching the world go by, as the bird could. The man thought he might then be able to find a paradise somewhere.
There was one thing that still bothered the man though. He had used the bottles to create his small town. The tarps and linoleum for his boat. He used the empty chip packets to decorate, the nylon rope to tie the plastic bottles together. The plastic bags were used to make flags and to help him carry and sort the rubbish. But, there was nothing he could do with the styrofoam. Oh well, he thought. That is not my problem.
The man left the styrofoam stacked in a pile by the corner of the wharf building he had constructed then set out to find the bird. The wind blew strong for his departure.
Five million years later, when the man returned, the plastic town still looked the same. Save for a few plastic bags that had been forced upon the plastic shore. The pile of styrofoam was still sitting in the corner.
The man moored his boat against the wharf he had made from tires and old trampoline beds. He coughed hard as he stumbled on to land, as a windswept sailor does. He scratched his temple in worry, flicking dirty skin in to the water. A finger nail snapped off under the bristle of his beard. The man hadn’t found the bird. He hadn’t found anyone on the river. He coughed again, hard this time, and specks of red splattered his palm.
The man decided he needed to do something with the styrofoam. There was no point sitting around in his city waiting to show the bird when he knew that the bird would be disappointed if he didn’t find a use for the styrofoam. He would never find people and a paradise. He packed it all on to his sturdy boat and unmoored her from the tire post.
The man sailed past the city of plastic that he had built with his own two hands. His own two red speckled hands. He searched the river and even the high seas to try to find a use for the styrofoam, but nothing ever appeared. No one ever appeared.
Until one day upon calm waters, he passed the bird.
‘I’m sorry bird’.
‘I’m happy that you understand now. I saw your city of plastic. It is part of you now.’
The man coughed and a flake of red plastic flung out of his mouth and on to his palm. He tried to flick the plastic and a fingernail snapped off.
‘I am like the plastic. I am eroding so slowly over millions of years but I don’t know where I will go. I will remain sprinkled amongst the land along with my city and my regret.’
‘This is who you are now, you live in the sky. You are breaking down and there is nothing that you nor I can do about it. Good luck.’
The bird floated away down the river.
The man saw the bird every five million years or so. They would nod as they passed each other on the river in the sky. He kept the pile of styrofoam upon the bow, searching for a use for it.
Then one day as the bird saw the boat approaching on the river. She peered over at the deck of the man’s boat.
But – the bird couldn’t see the man. She could only see the pile of styrofoam.
Back To The Point
This story has been called quirky; it has been described in the positive as being influenced by Eastern philosophy; it has been delicately delivered as not appropriate as a children’s book; but, for some reason, its best description so far is as a monologue. A shortlisted monologue! The adaptation from page to stage seemed to be a goer.
So the other half of it is this: I had recently returned from an amazing experience of living and working as a volunteer in Indonesia when I went back to teaching and found myself writing The Man And The Bird. Life wasn’t all aces at this time for TLG and a lot of perspectives had come to an axis of shitfire.
When I saw the talented actor perform my monologue, I saw more than an environmental issue. I realised that the story held an allegory about my own mind.
Bear with me here.
What I learned was that I had faced the truth about who I was after being in denial for so long about the things I hated about myself so I decided to own up and take responsibility and clean up the mess I had made. Or the mess that maybe I hadn’t wholly made but was somehow a part of. I tried and tested the new me on the waters and looked for someone to acknowledge me for my efforts but there was no one. I had to learn to rely on myself for once. I went searching for a while, like a kid who has made a crappy homework project because they rushed it at the last minute, for someone to congratulate me on my effort. But there was no one. And a bird somewhere, told me that it wasn’t good enough.
So I continue to float around this world with my baggage secretly tucked under my wing, knowing that it will never go away and that it is a part of me and I accept that it is there and I move on. That way, I still get to enjoy the scenery.
Not sure if I lost you there, tell your mind not to worry and it will catch up some time. After all, this is what I have learned about me from my art, and what you learn from the way you have read my story, might be a whole different kettle of fish.
Or flock of birds, rather.