For Nat, in his 9th year.
Follow Rossi Street to its terminus and you’ll find an unexpected fold in the land. It marks one possible end of the town of Yass. A geological circumstance—a fault—swallows the river and on either side the lolloping hills of the Southern Tablelands become momentarily strenuous. Precipitous slopes with rocky striations like ribs on an indrawn breath.
Remember when we walked here? You, your sister and me.
The afternoon light was beginning to pick the colours and patterns from the river stones as we jumped from rock to rock across the stream. The murmur of the river on its bars. The tiny finches in stop-motion animation through the tea-trees. The smell of tumbling water and settling mud—for me the smell of youth.
We met a holy Fool astride a rock in the flow. You’ll not remember this because you ignored him, busy with exploration. I talked with him a while, while you yelled periodically to ‘come and look’.
Drunk and drug addicted, he’d fallen many years past and damaged his brain. A photographer, he waited in the river for the sun to set so he could take the river’s portrait in the dark. He pointed out the composition. It made sense to both of us. He told me about the time he photographed the face of God in the clouds above the Catholic church in Yass. Afraid to look, he pointed the camera with his face averted. A Moses for our times.
Eventually your insistence drew me from him and we skipped across the water, finding our path from rock to rock. Leaping and clinging. A complex of thrilling moments: the moment when I conceive of myself transferred from this place to that, conceiving of where my foot must fall and the trajectory my weight must follow so that I land securely. And then my body realises my imagination of itself. The moment when my mass passes the point at which I can change its course and I am leaping, wilfully abandoning my island refuge. Suspended in the air between certainty and uncertainty. And then the moment when my foot kisses the next rock, a lightening quick set of subtle adjustments as muscles absorb and distribute forces. The body rejoicing in capacity. The thrill of faith accomplished. And all of it drenched in river noise, blanketing out the world and making the inner life more present to mind.
In your imagination you are an explorer trailblazing. You take pride in showing me where to jump. You boast of your skill in path-finding. As did I. We make a picnic beside a deeper water hole. I talk about Banjo Patterson, a native son of these hills. I sing Waltzing Matilda and you both sit and listen. As always, I choke up a bit on the final verse. Australia’s version of ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ but about a sheep. The anthem of a quieter, probably more profound, revolution. I can’t sing it without hearing and repeating the invitation to become a pilgrim in search of that promised land: to come waltzing matilda until we find each man under his olive tree and vine, or coolibah tree and billy. The great blessing of this land is to make sojourners of us all.
We pick our way across the river one last time and then make our way across the top of the cliff back towards the car. The little girl has fallen in the river. Not every leap lands. She wails and decries this as the worst day of her life. I’m pretty sure that isn’t true. Notice: suffering robs us of perspective and destroys all memory of blessedness.
And then we come to a place where you and I have a disagreement about how to proceed. You are adamant that if we walk a little further up the hill we will intersect with the original trail we followed down. I am perfectly sure that we need to continue further along the side of the hill. We argue about it.
Your moment is frustrating: a stage of social development in which you are increasingly conscious of your own capacity but constantly thwarted in its execution. You are a pathfinder. You are full of theories about the world. You have desires and projects but so often you do not have the autonomy to pursue them. You are dependent on my final assent or my provision of resources. It’s often unfair but, on balance, it probably keeps you alive. As we argue, we are in one of those moments.
I am very confident that you are wrong. I could simply override your will and coerce you to walk my path. In many of these circumstances I would do that. I’m still far better at calculating all the externalities of decisions. Even if you never see it, even if all you remember is the frustration and bitterness at me, those moments of imposition are still frequently better than not.
But on this occasion, God be praised, I decided to wager with you instead. We are both confident in our assessments. So let’s price that confidence. We will go your path, but if you are wrong you will give me $10 and vice versa. How great is your confidence? How much do you value your decision? I have given you a signal of how confident I am in my rightness. I watch you calculate and then accept. I am still sure that you are wrong.
It is only another 20 or 30 metres through the tall grass, over the curve of the hill, and we are back on the track from where we had started. You are the rightest little matey in Australia. You seek my face with a grin but also some trepidation. You’re not sure how I will react to being so publically wrong. Honestly, most of the time I’d have been humilitated and sulked. But with a roar of laughter and a shout of praise that came from a full heart, I called to you. “Well done son!” And I caught you up in a hug. “You backed yourself even when I leaned on you, you stuck to what you knew was right. I’m so proud of you.” And from you the full smile breaks out. You are proved to be a pathfinder.
It’s not often that I am conclusively proved wrong when I’m convinced I’m right. When it happens, it’s usually painful. I experience it as diminishment—a little mini-death—because my life is heavily invested in knowledge and cultural capital. I experience it as shame, because I do not want the stain of death and frailty to appear on me. Mortal foolishness, how I long to be freed from these patterns of thought, and by God’s grace, one day I will.
The memory stays with me because on that hill above the river, the glory of God passed me by—just the outskirts of his ways, mind you. But he was there as you gave me a taste of joyful wrongness.
The man curved in on himself can only experience wrongness as a threat. He lives lonely in his will-to-power. But breeze-brushed, sun tousled, in the success of the children we love, the heart is caressed and gently pried open to love beyond itself. When we love beyond ourselves, the success of those we love—even at our own expense—is not diminishment but satisfaction. The consciousness of my finitude and mortality does not sting with shame when I taste it while drinking in the knowledge of your growth and flourishing. When you are right, I am well.
Here, then, is a first sip of the draught that we will drink on the day we face our Lord’s judgement. On that day, rightness will belong to Him alone. Learn this, son: if you can only experience being wrong as diminishment of your life, then that Day will be your true death. But if you have learned the secret of loving beyond yourself—of loving him beyond yourself—then there will be no shame in being wrong, no fatal diminishment. That sour will be so mingled with the sweet that it will only enhance the taste of his vindication. Only the roar of laughter, only the shout of praise: “You are our pathfinder!” I gladly repent me of my doubts and my foolish certainties. I am so joyfully, gratefully, wrong.