Creativity and Spirituality with Joel McKerrow

The Helplessness of the White-Saviour.

I was fifteen when I first saw a woman struck hard across the face. She was in the marketplace in Port Moresby, PNG. I had sat down, an inquisitive teenager and how I loved talking with people and hearing their stories. This day, it was her husband or her partner, who walked over and, ignoring me in mid-sentence, he grabbed her ear and smashed her face with his fist. I still remember the blood. I still remember her being dragged away by the other women in the market. I still remember staring at the man who was double my size and double my age and I a tall, lanky red-headed, freckly white boy who could do nothing. I froze. A fly in a web. The man laughed. He turned and walked away. I shook for days.

What I remember most: The utter helplessness.


The very same trip I was in Madang. In the hotel there was a girl. A pretty girl. The same age as I. A national. We talked. Every night we talked. Looking out at the world and the ocean and part of me wanted to kiss her. I never once saw her during the day. So all I remember is moonlight white on brown skin. Her face always slightly hidden. She always slightly hidden.

On the final night of my stay I sat listening to a CD on my discman and I saw her out by the water looking out to the sea. Next to her was a man fishing. I watched for a while until he left. I came to her slowly. She would not look up at me. Not this night. Tears streaked down her face. I hoped it was because I was leaving the next day. It was not.  Not really. The tears were there because she had to stay. The tears were there because every night she would go from our conversation back to the reason she was there at the hotel. The fisherman. A French man. The chef of the hotel. She was this mans play thing. A sexual object for him to rape every night. This was her story. She could not leave. It broke me.

I had not known this. Not until this final night as her story spilt out intermingled with the tears. Both stained my skin. I tried to rub them away. They would not leave. My brain tried to rub her away. Literally, I did not remember this experience. It was not part of my conscious memory bank. Not until a few months ago. Twenty years later. I walked on the sand by the sea, with a warm breeze and a familiar smell and a song that played through my headphones. It was the very same song that I had played her that night. I had given her my headphones and let her listen to the CD in my discman, to a song that I felt would help. The fractured attempt of a fifteen year old boy to comfort a girl going through something he could never understand. Now twenty years later and the song and the ocean and the smell it all opened the shadowed doorway of memory and this girl came tumbling out and I fell on my knees in the sand weeping for her. I could see it all once more. I could feel it all once more. I remembered the rage. How I wanted to destroy that man. I remembered crying myself to sleep that night.

What I remember most: The utter helplessness.


It is amazing how an event one cannot even recall can shape them so decidedly. I have no doubt that both these experiences of utter helplessness shaped my passion for doing what I can to help people. In both the good and the bad ways. My heart for justice and for walking alongside people in their woundedness. My rescuing, knight-in-shining-armour self who takes on his shoulders burdens too heavy. I have helped a lot of people in my life. But I must acknowledge that much of this help that I gave, that I still now give, is so that I do not have to feel such helplessness again. I am still making up for the boy who froze in the market place. For the boy who liked a girl he had just met and left her as a sex slave. I help so that I do not have to feel helpless again. It is amazing how an event one cannot even recall can shape them so decidedly.

And I wonder if this is not the case for all of us rescuers. All of us with our saviour-complexes. All of us who try to help the world. I wonder if this is not the same for all the men who try to save the damsel in distress. Are we not just trying to save ourselves from the helpless. Do we not fear it so much that we do anything to run from it. That we would name them as helpless so we don’t have to feel helpless. That we would not have to feel so small. So we stand tall. We talk too loudly. Walk too proudly. Set our posture as larger. The desire to stand out. Stand up. Stand proud. We take up too much space. Demand that the world look at our glorious monuments. Demand that they build us our monuments. Shrines to the white-saviour, to the Knight-in-shining armour, to the rescuer. Look at me helping all these poor wretched souls, look at how we bought these savages into civility, look at how men run the world. This is me. I am too big for my boots. Take up too much space. Stand out. Stand up. Stand proud. But perhaps it’s time to take a knee. Stop trying to rescue the world when I am just trying to rescue me. Time to not be seen. To sit in the dust with those who sit in the dust and just listen. Learn. Trust in the dignity of a strong people who have weathered more storms than I have smelt. Let them teach these ignorant eyes what determination really means.

Friends, I have hurt too many people trying not to feel so helpless. To each of them I say, I am sorry. I am not sure if I can ever be rid of this motivation. I wonder if it is a thorn in my flesh for the rest of my days. The stains of her tears cannot be wiped away. But even so, I shall do whatever I can to lessen the grip of such motivation upon me. Starting with remembering her. Starting with forgiving myself. Starting with lowering myself and not believing I have all the answers and all the solutions. Starting with allowing myself to feel incapable again. I am allowed to be incompetent at many things. I do not have to succeed. I do not have to change the world. You do not have to change the world. Let us embrace all that we lack and find a grace within it.

Please join me there, all you competent peoples. All you rescuers. All you achievers. Remember when you were helpless. Do not deny it. Do not run from it. Embrace it. There is much we may learn from it.

My name is Joel McKerrow.

I was fifteen when I first saw a woman struck hard across the face.

I was fifteen when I left behind a girl who was a sex-slave.

I am now thirty five.

These things do not leave us.


Photo by Candace Smith Photography.


Something that we might call God.

There is a restlessness,
A disquiet on the inside.
A whisper.

There is a fire. Or at least a flame.
The chase for God or something that we might call God.

There is a hoping. A knowing
that gnaws
and claws
and still it holds you.

Rekindle her. I beg of you.
Choose this presence over your pageantry.
Listen to the silent stories,
the ones hidden between
the lines you let them read.

This is not a problem to solve.
This is not a life that you have to have together.
Your surrender,
it may be the best thing you could do right now.
A peace in a sea of confusion and calling.
And don’t they say that grace
makes beauty from the ugly.

So begin with the beauty and the beautiful.
Stare at it like you stare at the flame.
The day will come when you shall find yourself
once more burning.

Look deep into the world
and the word shall look deep into you
and somewhere in the stare between,
this is where she waits, God.
Or something that we might call God.


How to Break Free (nearly)…

His business suit gives away his profession but not his calling, not his burning, not what the little one inside desires.

His beard is a shift and a hollow. The first place that brown becomes grey and it tells him these years are waning on and on through the starch light of history.

His beard is a shift of ageing. I know this ageing, like he knows this ageing. His beard gives it all away. Tells me that five fingers grip his spine and twist it backward and he cannot feel this, but his face knows it.

He wears fluoro green socks. Beneath the cuff of his suit I see them. Fluorescent green and a splash of red. His rebellion against the system, against the office, against the ageing. The history of a man who never spread his wings and couldn’t see the the ocean through the window.

But I wonder how many times it called him. I wonder how many times he stood on its edge and felt the surge wrap around bare ankles, green and red socks tossed wild onto the beach behind him. To stare to the horizon like he’s about to dive in. But he stops. Turns a weary shoulder away from the waves. He is tempted to leave the socks behind, but in the last moment he snatches them up, puts them on his feet, trudges up the sand and onto the path and down the road and into the train and I see him sit there now dreaming of sailing ships, one hand folded neatly over the other. Composure.

The train slows and I know that he exits and he walks to the building and into the lift and into the office and to the desk to turn on the computer and catch a glimpse of himself in the black computer screen and the shift of his ageing beard shall scare him. And he shall spend the day counting the money of rich people wishing he could see the ocean from his office.


No One Even Notices

She leans in close. They touch.
The light globe explodes in a million cliches.
No one even notices, except the couple,
who do not yet know if they are lovers or friends.


On the Death of my First Love.

On the pavement outside the restaurant we spoke of how life changes and the moments that make us and how we have changed and still yet remain the same. She remembered being babysat at our house and she remembered my eating of a tomato sauce sandwich and the sauce dripping down my cheek.

I remembered years later. My eighteenth birthday. Rebecca and her had picked me up from my house and we drove down to the beach and the storm gathered out at sea like a curious puppy learning of the loudness of its bark.

We had stood at the edge of the ocean, where it kissed the cliff face. Next to the lighthouse. We stood looking out to the sea and we dared the puppy dog storm to come at us. She listened and came bounding. And what else can you do in such a moment, but dance. We danced. Wild. Unrestrained. We screamed and we yelled. The storm barked so loudly. Thrashed wildly. And we three wilder and wilder still. Limbs like storm. Body jerking. Barking. And somewhere in the loose movement I let myself go. I lost all sense of the tightness of my skin and I let the storm come in.

It was the first time I ever did that. The thunder crashing and the wind whipping and the lightning striking and the ocean pounding and the three of us screaming. Dancing. Everything was alive that night. Filled with a life and a luminosity. Including myself, I was alive. Everything was screaming that night, including myself. Everything is always wind and storm and wouldn’t we always be the brave ones to turn and face into the surge and bellow back.


Rebecca died. Many years later. The first girlfriend I ever had. My first teenage love. In her sleep. Not long before her wedding. She died.

We remembered this too, standing there outside the restaurant, her child eating burgers, tomato sauce dripping down his cheek. We remembered where we were when heard she had died. I had taken all the photos I had of her, including one taken of the three of us that wild night. I laid them out on the floor all around me. I wrote her a letter that I could never send. I could not get to the funeral, so I buried her inside me instead. Wouldn’t we always be the brave ones to turn and face into the surge and bellow back.

My old friend tells me how she has just split with her husband and she feels a widow at thirty three. I let the tears come. Held her arm. Wouldn’t we always be the brave ones to face into the surge and bellow back. Wouldn’t we.

The cliff face is still there. I stand on its edge whenever I go home. Looking out to the ocean. So I go there that night after talking with my old friend and I scream at the top of my lungs and then I begin to dance.


Speaking of God

I am speaking of God
and of disappointment
and the sacred who can feel so far away.

I am speaking of anger
and frustration
and a faith broken, scared, running.

I speak of shame.
I speak of comfortability. The ignorance. And,
haven’t we all walked this path before,
you know the one, it weighs heavy on each of us.
This draw toward living for ourselves,
giving ourselves,
to the bland sameness
of day in, day out and
the falsity of possession. The seduction.
The wide path
and the many who walk upon it.

But the many they miss each other,
and they pass each other lonely.

Somedays though, I hear it,
an offer, the invitation,
a small gate and a narrow road. A new way and
the few who walk this path. The few and the holding. The giving. The crumbling. The freedom. The painful. The costly, but nothing ever more worth it.

Still we are walking. Still we are choosing,
and this choice is our freedom
and this choice is our finding,
and this choice is our beginning.

I am speaking of God.


I doubt I ever saw you God…

I doubt I ever saw you God,
sometimes, in the dark night, I doubt you,
when the fire is so low and
I am more darkness than light,
more ash than flame,
more ember than burning.
I have demanded your face and it never came.
I have demanded the undeniable and you deny me still.
I have demanded and you have not
listened to my demands. Or have not
paid heed to my demands. Or will not
pay homage to demand.

So I burn them, my demands, I set fire to their stipulation
and as the flames catch alight inside, once
more I think I see you.


Imagination in a World of Fear

Fear demands a certain reading of reality. It forces anything unfamiliar to be named as dangerous. To take a stranger and paint them. To take a culture and blame them. And isn’t this world thick with the dripping paint of our prejudice.

A paint by numbers. Number one is white and privilege. Two is orange. Three is black. Four is privilege. Five is immigrant. Six is homeless. Seven is Muslim. Eight is conservative right. Nine is progressive left. Ten is red.

I have never been great at staying between the lines. Neither is my daughter.


Ursula was neither. Ursula Le Guin. She died two days ago. Her book Earthsea was monumental. Her writing was monumental. She was monumental. She painted over the lines that separated literature from fantasy from science-fiction from social-critique.

In 2014 she was given the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards. She said this,

‘Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.’

Realists of a larger reality. Painters outside the margins. This is who we are. This is who I desire to be. May imagination set us free from the constraints of our bigotry and our bias. May we see things that are not yet and name them as reality. The deeper reality. Beneath the fear. Beneath the ice of winter, when all is thought lost, the seed still waits for the spring. Our imagination is our hope and our hope denies the current ordering. Imagination calls us to a new reading of reality. That I may look at our world with Kaleidoscope eyes, to see the things we have forgotten, to remember freedom. That I may look at people with these same eyes, to see that behind the face of each person is a nuanced and complicated and messy splash of rainbow.

No more paint by numbers.

I have never been great at staying between the lines.

Neither is my daughter.

Neither was Ursula.

My hope is that you too would struggle with the same.


Winter.Summer.Autumn.Spring. (A new Year’s Blessing).

For the winter that has been, may you look now to see the seed that lay beneath the snow.

For the winter that is to come, may you trust that you are strong enough, and if not on your own then held in the hands of the beloved.

For the summer sun that warmed you, give thanks. Even when she scorched you, give thanks. Even when the fires came, give thanks.

For the summer sun that shall be, may you turn your face toward her, believing that you are truly deserving.

For the autumn that swept through, may you see how the shedding of leaf and skin is, in the end, our only way to grow.

For the autumn calling out ahead, may you come to trust the slow wind and the way it wraps around you.

For the spring that began, know that new things are like babies, the stumble and fall is their only way of learning how to stand.

For the spring that waits for you, be patient, hold onto hope, do not yearn so much for her that you miss this moment. The one right now. She will always be there waiting. Always. Always waiting. Always.



Do Not Despair Dear Friends


There is too much pain here. Have you seen it?
Or not seen it as much as felt it. Let the broken wrap around you like chain.
Like heavy chain. Like Sorrow. There is too much sorrow here.

It gets under your skin and changes the way you feel
and it gets under your eyes and changes the way you see.
A dark lens and everything seems hopeless these days.

Everything seems hopeless.

The little girls taken as sex slaves;
The suicide behind detention centres fences;
The black man shot; the little boy washed up on the beach;
The wife beaten; the president and his grabby hands;
The incarceration of colour;
The starving children, always the starving children.

Despair is an absence
and I feel useless
in the blank face of it all.

And yet, my daughter still makes me smile
and my son makes me laugh.
Yet the girl who was raped, she would not stop tickling her brother,
the both of them lost in joy.
Yet the girl with aids and with scabs in the streets of Kampala
she could not stop her giggling in the face of the fire
that burned through her body.
Yet the boy whose family had just been killed he still loved
to play paper, rock and scissors.
Yet they chase each other daily
through the bombed out buildings of a broken city.
Yet they fly kites. Yet they dance. Yet they dream.
Yet the mothers still sing and I have heard their song and it sounds like hope and revelry.


I do not understand it
but joy still resides there, somewhere,
between the spaces of suffering
and amidst the affliction,
and beneath the hurting
and within the wretched.

Where joy should not be
there she thrives
more vibrant than anything.

So if they, those fractured friends, if they may smile in the face of it all,
then I too must find a place of gladness,
lest I deny them the delight they have to feel.

To honour who they are
I too must appreciate the way the sun rises always with colour;
I too must find the flowers growing like hope in the gardens;
I too must savour the taste of these words on my tongue;
I too must let my children draw me in;
I too must hold hands with delight and kiss the lips of extravagance;
I too must revel in this existence
and believe that the God who created this world
did not make it bland, nor tasteless.

She made it full. So full. So very full.

Beauty is everywhere.

Beauty is everywhere.

Beauty is everywhere.