What Can We Do Once We Lose Our Freedom?

We started gmail and we surrendered the final shred of privacy. We used the net and opened ourselves to every hacker, most of them those we elected. We read of the twin towers and were alarmed; we saw the beheadings and were rattled. Those we elected rattle us often and hard and by reflex and in all sincerity and – as in the case of asylum seekers – in the sincere anxiety that we might unelect them. Once thoroughly rattled we allowed our governments to suspend habeas corpus. We are each of us now, all citizens, all merely Mohammad Hanifs, awaiting the knock on the door of our terror police.

Terror has triumphed. As it usually does. Terror wins when we pay heed – as we need to; it wins when we panic – as we need not.

So what can we do once we lose our freedoms?

I saw an odd movie a score or more years ago in which an Orwellian change had occurred and citizens were forbidden to own books. Books were collected and burned. Publishers were taken away for re-education. The Good Book says: ‘Of making books there is no end.’ But this was an end.

A few resisted, silently abandoning the cities, coming together to meet in the forest. Here each escapee became a talking book. One became ‘War and Peace’, another recited ‘Animal Farm’. Those whose mental muscles were less hypertrophied recited ‘Ozymandias’, or ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, or the Twenty-third Psalm. All these texts threatened the regime that murdered thought. All reciters risked death but inherited life.

Back here in my real life. I resolve to read poetry every day. I’ll rescue myself and succour others.

Manny the Marathon Man

Manny Karageorgiou ran 42.2 kilometres yesterday, racing his oldest foe. At 58 years, Manny is the youngest of the Glorious Ten who have competed in and completed every single Melbourne Marathon. ‘Forty two kilometres’ – it rolls off the eye easily, but it’s a long way to travel on foot. My car gets tired over that distance.

Manny ran with the most reluctant consent of his oncologist. He delayed his stem cell transplant so he could keep faith with the Ten. This GP consented more readily despite the rib that fractured as it filled with tumour, despite the remaining bones waiting for fracture in the merest trip, bones brittle and chalky from the medicines and radiation. The GP consented; who could say ‘no’ to that beautiful face, a child’s face, appealing, smiling through the pain and fear, gentle, mild even before the cancer, tenderer than ever since the rib broke, as Manny sought to comfort his fearful wife and his children.

They came around, the family. They ran the late kilometres with him, the bitter second half of the marathon, they ran, a caravanserai of love and hope and tearful joy, along the endless steppes of St Kilda Road. Manny’s son ran the whole distance at his side. Pana, as Manny calls him is a strapping footballer, vigorous and fearless. Afterwards he would say, ‘I don’t know how anyone could run another marathon after experiencing the pain of the first.’ But Manny has run the Melbourne Marathons thirty seven times. He has outrun the Reaper. So far.

Why does he run?

He runs for faith, he runs for pride, he runs to be humbled, he runs for the self-glory of mortifying his flesh. He runs because he lives. He runs for all of us.

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Mending the Broken Runner

Spring months are the cruelest, mixing memory and desire. And I have felt the sun soft on my skin, have woken with birds that called me, watched the young and the not young but not broken, all at their running, running, running. And I have felt self-sorrow, sincerest of emotions, and I have felt the creeping entry of a green stranger. And I have resented and I have envied those runners, their unforgivably beautiful limbs, their light and loping tread. In short I became that miserable creature, the broken runner.

Yesterday I drove with daughter and grandboys to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. All was as ever it was; emu browsing, shy wallaby, slow wombat, delicate birds, hills, hills, hills, bouldered beaches and the odd ‘mountain’. Only in Australia, and perhaps the Netherlands, would you grace Bishop and Oberon as mountains. But when you run them your legs cry out and the mind, the mind has mountains.

There was Mt Bishop. We drove past and I told the kids, I used to run up there, all the way to the top. Unable to see the top, too small, too low in the car, the kids made no response.

This morning I awoke and the cabin slept. My knee felt OK. There were the car keys, here were running clothes unrun-in for five months, no family duty called, no excuse. Five minutes’ drive to the track saved me twenty minutes’ running dull bitumen. Here was the track, sandy, scattered with leafmeal, meandering into bush. My legs smiled and snuffed the battle with delight.

And I was running. And nothing hurt. And my lungs kept up with my legs. I ran carefully, judiciously. I avoided rocky footfalls, I paced myself, I spared the left leg and I climbed.

I climbed the twisting turning tilting track, gently, gently, enquiring ever of the knee, feeling no angry response.

The track was mine, mine alone, mine this domain, this splendour, these rugged crags, that ribbon of silver of tidal river, the dull green of bushland, the sweeter green of spring growth, the dead trees white, trees blackened by the fires but shooting green, greening too the great denuded gorges scoured by the floods.

All this juice and all this joy, all for me, a message, a consolation, hope in dried tubers.

The track softened beneath my gladding feet, the gradient gentled, the summit sighted.

There at the summit, the track ended at that same old tumble of broken shapes and abrasive surface: Snack Rock. Slowly I climbed those last metres, transferring weight, o so cautiously, sparing the knee, old man’s knee, unwelcome stranger’s knee, imperious ruler for five months of my youngering spirit.

I offered a line of thanks and ate my apple. I took my first selfie. I photographed the terrain.

And down I ran.

Now, descending, pain pounced and grabbed the rear of the injured knee. Small pain this, the same as I feel on the bike, pain of no portent. And as on the bike, brief of tenure.

Down, down, down, through avenues of wattle unnoticed earlier by the runner with head bent on the ascent. The wattles arching over me, an avenue of honour, reminding me, reminding me of the day I ran into a bunch of hockey players blocking the path ahead of me. This was a serious run, a timed solo marathon to qualify for entry to the hundredth running of the Boston Marathon. A cry from their leader, “Guard of Honour, Guard of Honour!”; and the hockey guys fell into two lines, raising sticks above my head, applauding me as I ploughed on.

There is honour in the long run, a tearful thankful joy, a discovering of the self. I felt all those, all that old knowing, all those strong sensations. And something else, something new – signs of life.

Sour Dough Lady

The grandkids are baying for bread. The bakery looks promising – lots of crusty artisanal breads, the right smells, ladies in aprons waiting to serve. It’s not a premises certified kosher, but bread this good ought to be kosher. I need to rule out forbidden ingredients.
” Can you tell me which of your breads is vegan?”
” What?” Apron lady frowns as if I accused her of something.
I produce a placating smile and rephrased the question:” Do you have any breads without animal fats?”
Now apron lady knows I am out to trap her. “NO!”
The monosyllable is accented, Eastern European.
A super nice smile, lots of friendly teeth:” Do you think I can have a word with the baker? There’s a tribe of flour-annointed blokes in white hats and aprons baking away behind the shop assistant.
“Why?”
“Why what?”
“Why you want baker?” The floral apron is an iron curtain.
“I think the baker might have more…information.”

Information, informant, the lady shop assistant knows these things. She knows these things from the days of queuing for bread. This customer has reached the front of the queue. No information is necessary. Buy or go!
“I tell you already – NOT. You not speak to baker. I KNOW.”
“Thank you.”
I go.

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The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”

Riding Home to a Wardrobe Full of Shoes

2330 hours. Riding the pushbike home from the hospital for sick children on a Sunday night, racing dreamy trams through the Central Business District, through the drowsing city as it winds itself down from weekend revels. The streets drain visitors to their dormitory suburbs; those on foot, inner city dwellers, are mostly students, mostly Asian.

The bike affords a view at street level. On every city block there is one figure seen seated on the footpath, male, his back supported by a shopfront, before him a placard, his testament of poverty, of need. Before him an upturned cap solicits alms. Peering from the bike across the emptying asphalt, between unclad legs, I see the bearded face of the seated man, mute, impassive, staying put.

The unclad legs are of groups of Asian girls who wear spring frocks shorter than the precipice high heels dictated by fashion. The legs pass; the beard, the placard, the face remain. No alms fall into the money hat.

On the next block the same slow tableau.

Red lights arrest me at the third block. I can hear the girls’ soft laughter as they pass. The face of this man is not seen: his head slumped, he sleeps, sleeps on the cooling street, sleeps before the hat. No-one comes near.

The green light releases me from indecision. Riding now, racing trams once more, leaving behind me undischarged my impulse of munificence, I ride hard, ride towards my home where warmth, a shower await, where I have a wardrobe full of shoes. Those high heeled extravagances speak to my own blessed feet as they depress the pedals. How many are your shoes? I count them as I ride.

I count ten pairs of shoes in my warm home. I have only two feet. Ten pairs plus all the running shoes, those retired from marathons but still serviceable, and the new pair in lapis blue waiting for a runner whose running days are done.

Twenty eight shoes for my two feet.

We are two bearded men who write our testaments, two of us tired from fetching our daily bread. I ride to my home. Mon frere, mon semblable, sleeps already, on the street.

Beyond these city blocks lie the docks and the silent cold sea. Across the cold waters, homeless, locked from sight, from our hearing, locked away in distant islands of poverty are the thousands who will never, ever – on a government’s solemn vow – come into our comfortable home.

Dalia Died

A friend wrote the other day to tell me Dalia died.

I met Dalia in 1972 at the nursing home she ran in Wattle Glen. You descended from the bitumen into a silvan retreat, the buildings concealed behind flowering native shrubs. A quiet path led to a doorway. Through the door you entered a different world: smells assailled you, disinfectant, cooking smells and behind them, always, the smell of urine, the smell of the elderly and incontinent.

Dalia greeted you, her voice musical, her fetching smile stretched over an uneven lower lip, the more fetching for assymetry, her accent French and very pleasing. The bushland at the entry and the greeting upon entering, these redeemed you amid the oppressive smells.

Dalia moved with you from patient to patient. Almost all of them were women, aged, their men long dead, their families generally distant through geography or choice. This young doctor, oppressed by bodies that did not work, by diseases medicine would not cure, by alienating disfigurement and by disfiguring debility, by drooling helplessness, dementia, strange behaviours, this doctor nearing quiet moral panic, redeemed, redeemed always by Dalia. Dalia would proceed to the bedhead, cradle the neck of her charge, sing to the patient the glad news of the coming of the doctor: Here is Doctor to see you, darling. You remember, this is Doctor Howard. He comes to you every week.

Dalia was not alienated, never distanced. Dalia embraced her guests, kissed their foreheads, fixed their pillows, fussed over painless areas of red skin that she would not allow to break down. Dalia spoke to her speechless, apparently demented patient, as if she were wholebrained, fully alert, fully human. Only after taking doctor aside, out of hearing, away from the presence of the stricken, would Dalia allow any concession to incompleteness.
A secular person, she recognised tenderly the spiritual yearnings of her charges, old women born in an earlier age when churchgoing was a norm and a religious outlook sustaining. Poor Thelma, she weeps, she weeps because God has rejected her. She wants to die, she prays for death, and because death does not come, she believes her God will not have her in his heaven.

Now death has come for Dalia. She was ninety two years old.

Dalia left Wattle Glen and our paths did not cross again until a few years ago, when our respective writings brought us together. The accent was still there, the smile, the relentless action of her critical mind, unwilling to yield on any of her concerns. And all her concerns were for humans. I read her memoir, a work of humbling honesty, of emotional privation in Belgium in the middle years of last century, of falling in love, of the ending of love, of emotional collapse, of recovery, of growth, of a thirst for learning. Hers was a life of learning, of ever journeying in her wisdom towards greater wisdom. I thought of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca”.

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

Ultimately Dalia became a therapist. I thought how fortunate were her patients, what gifts of life she brought them from her lifelong travels to Ithaca.

Dalia became a little unwell a few weeks ago, persisting in her vigorous ways until her last days. When abruptly her blood pressure fell due to a prolapsed heart valve, she asked the doctors to perform the operation they’d ordinarily reserve for one decades younger. When they explained the risk of technical success with accidental brain damage, Dalia elected to die. She accepted a trial of hero molecules for twenty-four hours; when these duly failed, she embraced morphia, chatted with her loved ones and went to sleep, rich with all she’d gotten on the way, and arrived at last in her Ithaca.

Her believer friend, the young doctor of 1972, prays his God will give her rest. At this Dalia would smile her crooked smile and pat me on the head indulgently and forgive my wishful thinking.