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.

Singing Man

Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
‘Hello Hugo.’
‘Hello Howard.’
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
‘Bye Hugo.’
‘Bye Howard.’

Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’

‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘

‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’

We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’

Robert Hillman’s Review of Carrots and Jaffas

Identical, red-haired twin boys are born to Luisa and Bernard Wanklyn, who live in Melbourne. The year is somewhere in the fairly recent past. Since we’re in Australia, the twins are naturally nicknamed Carrots and Jaffas, the only alternatives being Bluey and Ranga. Luisa, the mother, is a native of Argentina; Bernard was born in Australia. When the boys reach the age of ten, Wilberforce Reynolds, an addled one-time addict, makes an attempt to steal them from their parents. There’s a bleak irony there – ‘William Wilberforce’ and ‘Henry Reynolds’ being the names of emancipators. Indeed, Wilbur Reynolds is acting out of a grotesquely misconceived impulse to redeem a life of ratbag behaviour by making a gift of the two boys to Greta, an Indigenous woman of the Flinders Ranges who played a role in raising white Wilbur many years past. Greta’s own two sons had been taken from her in the 1950s by men with the legal authority to do so. The two red-haired boys will compensate her, so Wilbur hopes. But Wilbur manages to steal only one of the boys, Jaffas. The agony of Jaffa’s parents is matched in its intensity by the agony of the twins, each left yearning for the touch of the other.

The impression the reader will be left with after a quick reading of Howard’s novel is of a drama constructed around an appalling crime and its widening repercussions. Hearts are torn out, and in the broader community, people who hear of the abduction on the news put a hand to the head and murmur: “Dear God!” But the story told here is far more thoughtful, far more involving than that. As it was bound to be. This is Howard Goldenberg’s first novel, but two works of non-fiction precede it, “My Father’s Compass”, a memoir of Myer Goldenberg, Howard’s dad, and “Raft”, a book that records Howard’s engagement as a doctor with Indigenous Australians in remote communities all over the continent. Each of these earlier books is distinguished by the vernacular philosophy of a thriving intellect, and by a quality of observation that yields one poetic insight after another. If we speak of intensity of feeling, insight and quality of enquiry, Carrots and Jaffas is of a piece with those earlier works.

The broad strategy of the novel, in my reading, is to allow the story to unfold through five movements – Birth, Growth, Catastrophe, Healing, Reunion. With this strategy in place, Howard gives himself the liberty to riff on the themes that brace his story: the binding force of love; the rigour of grief; the perseverance of hope; the will and the wherewithal to imagine the life we hope for, and especially, what we expose ourselves to when another human being becomes more crucial in our vital life than our own wellbeing. (We might think of Bacon’s Hostages to Fortune lines: “He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune” but we should cheer Bacon up a little and subvert his meaning by saying: “Anyone who loves has given hostages to fortune.”)

Out of these themes emerge the book’s two arguments. The first establishes the enigma of individuality, taking in the sources and purpose of human individuality, and the second demonstrates the stubborn persistence of those forces in the world that oppose evil.

Let me return to love, the great emphasis in everything that Howard writes. Here is the mother of the twins experiencing the growth of love for her newly born, prematurely born children:
Luisa laughed the laughter of tenderness and body fluids, of manic collapse, of sleepless necessity.
On an impulse, or in forgetfulness or in simple exhaustion of thought, Luisa picked up both babies at once…offered each baby a breast. Both sucked….two small heads swiveled and searched, bony limbs extended, antennae into the void. One arm, flung outwards, came to rest on a brother’s shoulder. Gazes locked, spines unarched, mouths resumed sucking, smoothly, to satiety.

This conveys the growth of love of a mother for her children, and also the dependence of each twin on the other. Carrots and Jaffas cannot satisfy themselves individually; both must be satisfied together.

Later, Bernard, the father, in his quest to grasp what being the father of two children who can barely be differentiated involves, quotes from a poem on the subject of identical twins:

“The twins retain/intimate knowledge of each other,/ Theirs alone-/Of mind and body and being –/a knowledge preceding speech,/Transcending speech: Knowledge subtle as song,/Deep as the womb,/Pure as echo./Identical twins: One? Two? One?”

I wrote an endorsement for Carrots and Jaffas before its publication, and said this, amongst other things: “Howard Goldenberg’s story of identical twins, violently parted at the age of ten, reveals the hunger that dwells in all of us to stand distinct in the gaze of God.” To achieve that distinction in the gaze of God is our human struggle; to demonstrate that we cannot be packed by the gross; that we are marked with an individuality that honours, in its way, the teeming variety of life in the world. Think of Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty” in which God delights in “All things counter, original, spare, strange…”But for Carrots and Jaffas, that struggle for originality is over at birth, or even at conception. The gaze of God is the gaze of the identical twin. The suggestion of Howard’s book is that the mystique of the identical twin is closely related to the mystery of divinity in our lives. We are unlikely ever to know what the identical twin knows, and unlikely ever to know what God knows. But one thing we can know is this: God is Himself, Herself an identical twin.

Wilberforce Reynolds parts Carrots and Jaffas. He hadn’t meant to. He had intended to steal both boys. It is a feature of acts of violence that they often do even greater harm that the perpetrator intended. Wilbur’s hope is that he will win the approval of a woman, Greta, who suffered the theft of her own two boys. In Archie Roach’s haunting song, “Took the Children Away”, Archie says: “You took the children away, The children away. Breaking their mother’s heart, Tearing us all apart, Took them away.” Those who took away Indigenous children decades ago knew that they were causing grief, but felt that a greater good justified the harm. And this is also Wilbur’s rationalisation.

My head will be right, doing this good thing…it’s the right thing to do, to bring kids, to steal them and replace kids stolen from blackfellers.

Howard makes very clear that Wilbur’s failure of imagination re-enacts the failure of imagination of those who had conceived the scheme of parting Indigenous parents from their children so much earlier. Jaffas, after his abduction, cries out in his anguish: “Run! Run back to Carrots! Run!” and we think of Leah Purcell’s song, ‘Run, Daisy, Run!’

Jaffas finds himself in the care of Greta and the white Doctor Burns up in the Flinders Ranges, the oldest place on earth. The creation of each of these characters are amongst the finest accomplishments of the novel. This Healing movement of the book sees Greta revealing to the traumatised Jaffas stories of the land, of her country, while the Doc contributes tales of scientific discoveries, of Indigenous distress, of the land as understood by a white man. Neither the Doc nor Greta know the true story of Jaffas abduction; Wilbur had spun a plausible tale to explain why he was leaving the boy with Greta. The Doc begins to suspect that Wilbur’s story is rubbish, and he wonders whether Wilbur’s real motivation has something to do with Greta’s past. He asks her, one day, about that past:

My boys, they take my two boys. Never come back. I reckon they big fellas now, fathers. Maybe grandfather. I never see them. Maybe they die, maybe they just lost….That what happen. That what they do. Steal ‘em…

But back at Jaffas home, his brother is tearing himself apart with grief, while his mother, Luisa, torments herself with stories of the unspeakable things done to other abducted twins by a certain Doctor Mengele during the Second World War. The strong suggestion is that Luisa, herself a one-time victim of hideous violence under the Junta in Argentina, will go mad if she is never to see Jaffas again. I spoke earlier of those forces in the world that oppose evil, and of their power. While Luisa is losing her mind, guarding her remaining son with a maniacal determination, Greta and the Doc are painstakingly rebuilding hope in the abducted Jaffas, mending, healing. In the oldest region of the earth, the aged (and Doc Burns is no longer a young man, nor Greta a young woman) dispense hope and love to the young.

Howard Goldenberg’s novel brims with suggestion, as a novel should. And the suggestion I want to make a big deal out of is this: that love, human love, is the finest accomplishment of the imagination. Maybe it is too easy to use a word like ‘evil’ and expect that everyone agrees about what evil is. But we do know what ‘wrong’ is. It is wrong to snatch a child from the street and drive away on some mongrel errand. It is wrong to wrench children in their thousands from the embrace of their parents on some state-sponsored mongrel errand of larger scale. It is wrong to gather people in their millions into camps, reduce their existence to wretchedness, then murder them. To do wrong requires no imagination at all; merely malice or egocentricity. To do good requires imagination. The Doc and Greta imagine the path to recovery that Jaffas might follow, then urge him along it. Their imagination stands in strong distinction to Wilbur’s crude lack of imagination.

Howard Goldenberg’s book is itself the product of a fine, creative imagination, and of a big heart. Like all such works of literary art, Carrots and Jaffas adds a welcome something to our chances in the world.
Robert Hillman is the renowned author of sixty books, including “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif ” (Wild Dingo Press). His most recent works are the celebrated novel, “Joyful” (Text, 2014), and a young adult novel, “Malini” (Allen and Unwin, 2014)

Robert launched Carrots and Jaffas at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 with his speech above. 

Phone Calls from my Dead Brother

My brother Dennis

My brother Dennis

This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.

Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.

Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.

Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”

Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
“Alright Doff.”

That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.

***

I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.

Outrage at Whitegate

A few weeks ago someone cut the water supply to a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs. The ‘camp’ belongs, by ancient practice and by government fiat, to a local clan of Aboriginal people, heirs to a tradition of tenure that goes back beyond white settlement, beyond the dawn of written history. Whitegate is far from how we might imagine a camp, being neither an attractive resort nor a place of refugees. Whitegate Town Camp is not in any sense a place of temporary habitation. It is habitat, it is country. It belongs to the Hayes clan as the clan belongs to Whitegate.

Governments wish to take over the camp, ostensibly to modernise and improve it. They seek to unseat tenure and replace this with long leases. The longest paper lease imaginable would be but momentary in the context and the conception of the Hayes family. Such paper devalues and threatens a connection which is inalienable in nature and beyond secular legal conception.

So someone cut the water supply. Just possibly the government is not responsible. Responsible or not, government could quickly supply water but this has not happened. Nor has repair of the camp’s long defunct solar generation. Whitegate, long a garden of neglect is now a wilderness, occupied by human Australians. Other Australians, notably whitefella writer-artist Rod Moss, supply water and burnable fuel for heating and cooking.

In the present historic moment of human barbarity it is noteworthy that none of the parties to the conflict in the Middle East – not even Assad’s Syria – has ever cut water supplies to its foe. Such an act seems to be beyond human imagining. Except in Alice Springs.

Actions to protest this barbarism will take place in coming days and weeks, actions that are notably harmonious in nature and intent, ‘Aboriginal way.’

How have we fallen so low?

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Worst of Times, Best of Times

Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.

In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.

How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?

Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.

The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.