When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse
One or two days after posting Tearful in NYC, I visited Ground Zero. The skies lowered and wept as I meandered lost through the plaza. A day of such dimness, of visual images blurring, of persons indistinct, of sounds muffled, of voices softened as if retreating from the pressing silence.
I arrived at Ground Zero unburdened by foreknowledge or expectation, carrying only the vague apprehension of linguistic hyperbole: ‘Ground Zero’ is – or used to be – the expression for the epicentre of an atomic explosion. The original ground zero was a location in the Nevada Desert in the Manhattan Project during WWII. What were the Americans of the new millennium claiming – in this place, in this moment – for New York City?
The plaza was gray. Not the gray of the rainy weather, a gray in any weather, charcoal coloured, the colour of the burned, the colour of char. A rectangular shape rose before me in the gloom, formed by four bulky walls a little above waist height. Stencilled into the steel upper surface of the walls were the names.
I read Japanese names in their staccato syllables, I read the flowing polysyllables of the subcontinent, I read Mayflower names, names from Arabia, Hispanic names, Jewish names, names of all the tribes of modern America. Where a person had more than one forename, all additional names were duly inscribed. Those multipartite names claimed their solemn space.
I walked the walls and read the names, pausing here, stopping there, where the stenciled lettering was unclear, my gloved fingers wiping away the obscuring water. I felt the call of the names, their need to be seen, to stand distinct.
I didn’t want more than my first glimpse of the space enclosed by the walls, the space that fell, tumbling with the eye to a depth beyond sight. Water cascaded with a muted rushing from the interior of these walls, falling, falling to the unseen depths. The walls wept mutely, immutably, for the names.
More meandering brought me to the entry to the Museum. Young women in skyblue tops stood smiling in the rain. ’Welcome sir. Thank you for coming here.’
An hour later my wife arrived, together with my sister and her husband. Both the latter have resided in New York City since 1978. My brother-in-law has become an American patriot. On the day America found itself under attack, he found himself aroused, engaged, American. ‘I saw the footage, the destruction. I ordered my team at the hospital to be ready for casualties. I expected casualties in the thousands. But they never arrived. The injured were few, the dead too many.
‘I walked down to towards the World Trade Center. The air was thick, you could feel it. Ash, grey, soft, floated and fell onto every surface.’
Listening, my mind in Hiroshima.
‘You could smell the air. A smell of burning.’
Listening, my mind in Auschwitz.
We descended a long way into the museum. Here, in darkness dimly lit, tortured steel relics, visual images, sound recordings of speaking voices told the story. One wall showed faces of watchers looking upwards: hands flew to cover shocked mouths, frantic hands flew to clutch at anguished heads. These were civilian faces, firefighter faces, police faces – human faces facing the immolation above of humans. A nearby wall panel recorded verbatim reports of horrified watchers as people emerged from above, pausing in agonising premeditation, before leaping from the fire engulfing the upper storeys.
One said, ‘ I saw a man leap, tumbling end over end. I looked away. He took so long…’
Another reacted differently: ‘A woman appeared at the window. She waited for a time, preparing. Then she leapt. I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to watch. I felt she had the right to claim me as a witness.’
Around a corner I stumbled upon a tall colour photograph of a building of immense height standing out against a blue sky. The camera captured one, two, three bodies, each separated by a good distance from the others, all three falling from that great height. The bodies were black against that brilliant sky.
At every turn, my eyes, my eyes smarted and teared.
We spent hours in the subdued spaces underground: Ground Zero is apt, no quotation marks, no hyperbole.
My red rimmed eyes smart. Tears fall. A victim of homeland security in the United States, I cannot blame the state of my eyes solely on the State of Siege. My blephs were reddened and my tears prone to fall before leaving Australia.
What is blepharitis?
In general I know –itis. -itis is my stock in trade – be it stomatitis, be it balanitis*, be it appendicitis – if it’s inflamed, it’s an –itis. My own inflammation is blepharitis. Blepharitis is the inflammation of an organ that has no known name: search as we might in medical dictionaries and in general lexicons we will find no blephs. But blepharitis, which is the inflammation of that part of your eyelid which is neither external skin, nor internal membrane, but the terminal edge of the lid, hurts in a niggling and mildly miserable manner. The seat of the problem is a scaly deposit, a scurf, somewhat like dandruff, that forms on the edge of the lid. With every blink that scaly stuff scratches the surface of the eye. The eye responds with perpetual tearing.
There is no cure for blepharitis.
My grandson Toby – known in this blog for his flirtations with danger and for his love of this grandfather – witnesses my tears as they swell to a fullness and fall. His insect features tighten with concern. He approaches, leans forward, pulling me down towards him,
studying my face anxiously. His rodent digits grab at my arms to arrest me: ‘Are you sad, Saba?’
His love makes me laugh for joy. My mirth augments the tearing. A full waterfall of affection and my blepharitis is somehow sweetened.
My son-in-law Dov, a rising genius in ophthalmology, advises me: ‘There’s no cure, but there is treatment; you need to dip a cotton bud in diluted baby shampoo then scratch away at the scaly stuff at the edge of your eyelids. I invite my readers to try this: most enjoy the practice quite as much as vaginal douching performed with sandpaper.
On the eve of my trip abroad, I decant some baby shampoo into a urine-less urine specimen jar. I seal the jar and pack it carefully in a nest of socks in my suitcase. On arrival in the United States I open my suitcase and read the enclosed:
NOTICE OF BAGGAGE INSPECTION.
To protect you and your fellow passengers, the Transportation Security Administration is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As part of this process some bags are opened and yours was selected for physical inspection.
My suitcase has been selected! I feel honoured. Glad to protect my fellow passengers in this manner, I rummage for a pair of socks. My fingers report something unexpected, the tactile sensation of something cold and viscous and gooey, not unlike cooled semen. Sticky soggy socks everywhere swim in baby shampoo manufactured by Johnson and Johnson. The urine jar itself is fragmented, shards of plastic dripping yellow.
The shampoo treatment suspended, my blephs scale, my eyes smart and redden and weep. Without Toby’s loving concern blepharitis is no fun at all.
My oldest friend is named John Baikie Wanklyn. Johnny calls me Doff and I call him Johnny, and sometimes, Wank. We have been friends since the summer of 1950. We first met outside the front of his father’s shop, the Leeton Furnishing Company. At least that’s how I remember it: I was playing with something inconsequential, a little stick, perhaps a toy car too, on the concrete paving. An area of dark and pleasant shade thrown by the large verandah. I became aware I was no longer alone.
Did Wank walk up and say hello? Or did I wander along and join him? I don’t know. I was playing alone and then I was no longer alone. My mind holds the scene like a dream. And like a dream there are no borders to the image: my mind sees the cracks in the concrete where my fine stick ploughs and throws up a narrow furrow of dust. There is the deep shade and beyond the shade the great heat. I know that heat in my skin. Whenever I leave the coast in summer and move inland that dry heat greets me and welcomes me home.
An additional element in the scene is our smallness in the world. The shaded area would be about five metres by, say, about twelve metres. That area encompasses two fine figures of children of four years, the margins seeming distant from us as we play. One of us asks the second his name. The second asks the same question of the first.
‘It’s my birthday next week,’ says one.
‘It’s mine the week after. I’ll be four.’
The two resume playing until a parent calls one of the children. That child and his parents and elder sibling are going to visit the Harrises. The other child – this feels like me – goes home and finds his parents are taking him visiting too. He is cleaned up and taken along. And discovers he is at the Harrises where he plays with the Harris girls and another visitor, the new boy from the Leeton Furnishing Company. The three families drive down to the river and picnic there. The Murrumbidgee is the great fact of life in the area; it shapes our Huckleberry years.
The dimension of time has a distinct character: we meet in January of 1950; we part in June of 1955. In the course of those spacious years a pavement is laid in our lives. He is Johnny, I am Doff, we are friends. In that space we accumulate experiences together that fade in detail but burn in memory, in their texture, in their felt quality, in their great mass. By the time of our parting those few years account for more than half of our lives.
We shared enough for it to remain enough. Enough for Wank to refer – thirty years later – in conversation with a friend, to his ‘brother.’
The friend, confused, says ‘Who’s this brother Howard you speak of, John? I thought your parents only had the two children, you and Julieanne…’
‘That’s true. They did. But Howard Goldenberg is the closest I’ll come in this life to having a brother.’
One night in 2014 a bad dream disturbed my sleep: John Wanklyn had died. I awoke crying aloud, ‘Wank is dead!’ I wept: I’d never see him again. A moment later I was smiling. Of course I’d see Wank again; Annette and I were to drive to Albury to visit John and Christie next weekend.
Am I Wank’s best friend? Is he mine? We have never spoken on the matter. I know I’ve never addressed it. There is no need. The questions have no weight. They would be as strange to us as to blush or nudge-nudge at the word Wank. Neither of us has ever had a friend like the other. There can be but one first friend.
Jewish education called us from Melbourne and tore our family from Leeton. The tearing was painful for me. I saw before me a great gulf open. I kissed my friend goodbye. Wank looked at me, confused by an unexpected act.
We wrote to each other, signing our letters, ‘Your old school chum, Wank’, ‘Your old school chum, Doff.’ We managed to see each other a couple of times a year, inserting the other into lives that were changing fast. The visits continued until my barmitzvah.
Johnny and his parents came to Melbourne for the celebrations. He had never been in a synagogue. I saw my friend holding the unaccustomed cap, I saw the strangeness to him of prayers in Hebrew, I saw the strangeness of Melbourne Howard to Leeton John. I saw it and I felt it all painfully.
Years passed without further visits. Through the letters that our mothers wrote I knew the events of Wank’s life and he knew about mine. The two women loved each other. Their letters, always in blue ink and lovely copperplate, continued into old age until one declared her handwriting no longer ‘respectable.’
In 1967 a phone call came from Wank in Sydney where he was studying Pharmacy. As I was not at home, Johnny left a number. I was in residence at Queen Victoria Hospital in my fifth year of Medicine. Mum rang and gave me Wank’s number. But I misplaced it. I thought of it from time to time. And the years passed.
The Jewish Sabbath doesn’t finish until nightfall on Saturday. It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in the ‘nineties when Annette and I left Melbourne for the drive to Albury. It was midnight as we reached the border at Wodonga. I drove slowly, my eyes searching for something needed. There it was, black, silent, broad, gleaming in the moonlight – the Murray. It wasn’t the Murrumbidgee, river of Leeton days, but the river knew me and I knew it. We drove the few remaining minutes through quiet streets, turning left as directed at the Siamese restaurant. One turn to the right then we parked, got out and knocked. A giant – he’d have filled his father’s verandah shade outside the Leeton Furnishing Company – emerged from the house. He swept me into his arms and kissed me. Later we sat, Wank and Chrissie and Annette and I, speaking softly for children asleep. Wank said, ‘I kiss my boys and I just knew it would feel right to kiss you too, Doff.’
It was a hot summer’s day. A boy was playing alone and was no longer alone. Neither boy has been alone since.
Melatonin and the Meaning of Five Lives
– written in the high season of jetlag
Why would I wake after only four hours of sleep? Here I am, sleepless in Pittsburgh. It is 2.00am and for five days now I have slept too little. There is nothing to stop me sleeping: the house is quiet, snow falling outside hushes the world. Sleep is an ambition unrealised.
My mind has nothing useful to do other than to keep me from sleep. My mind visits my home in Diamond Creek. The date is December 7, 1974. I see it all in the dark from my bedroom upstairs in the house of friends in Pittsburgh.
Around 7.00 am
I am first to waken. I wash my hands and a noisy clanking in the pipes threatens the precious sleep of the children. Steam emerges when I turn on the hot tap. I turn it off. I pay no heed to the meaning of noises in the plumbing, to steam from the tap. These are practical concerns; I wash my hands of practical concerns. I remove my wedding ring to recite my morning prayers and go to my work, leaving the children unkissed, leaving the ring on the dresser, leaving Annette as she prepares for the day.
Around 8.15 am
The receptionist says: ‘Mrs. West is on the line. She says it’s an emergency.’ I take the call. Lynne says, ‘Howard. I think you’d better come home, straight away. There’s been an explosion at your house.’ I don’t come home straight away; Lynne West is an excitable person and I have a patient sitting before me. More patients wait in the waiting room. I see these patients and I drive to my house.
Around 8.10 am
The house exploded.
Around 9.15 am
I do not witness the explosion but Lynne is eager to regale me: ‘I heard a loud boom from your house and I looked over and a huge cloud of smoke came out of the roof. And the walls fell down.’
But before encountering Lynne and her tale of smoke and thunder I turn from the unmade road into our dirt driveway at 36 Deering Street. Lying flat on the ground to my left are the brick walls of my home. Before me the driveway leads to an empty carport. ‘Empty, ergo Annette is not at home, the children are not at home. Ergo I have lost nothing but bricks and mortar.’ And, as I will discover later, a wedding ring.
Until I married I disdained rings on men. Worse than effeminate, in my regard they were affected. A judgement made before I married. This ring was different: slender, of unostentatious white gold, engraved on the inner surface with words of love from Annette, words for my eyes only.
Around 10.05 am
I run Annette to ground at her sister’s house. She has dropped our firstborn at kindergarten early, as she always does. Earlier Annette sat in the armchair, breastfeeding the newborn while the older two watched Sesame Street on a couch in the same room. I ring Annette and tell her she is homeless. That we have been so since shortly after
Annette and the children left home for kindergarten. Punctual as always. Not only early, but early for early, as I was prone to point out irritably, in Annette’s overturning of my native tardiness.
Annette joins me at the wrecked house. We find two goldfish still alive, lying in the few milimetres of water on the surface of the kitchen table. That flimsy table is one of the few sticks of furniture that still stands. Paintings hang at angles from the walls, canvas gashed by flying debris. The dining table lies in heavy fractions, its geometry denuded. Ancestral bedroom furniture has collapsed. Of the wedding ring no trace.
My mind is fixed on the hot water service that exploded. Emplaced on the slope beneath the house, the hot water service – that ticking bomb – stood directly beneath the armchair where Annette sustained our baby with her milk; one metre removed from the suckling pair were the Sesame Street watchers, sitting in pleasant terror of Cookie Monster. Lynne West’s ‘smoke’ was the steam released by that bomb.
Annette is upset: unlike me she never held in her imagination the thought that arrested me for one second or perhaps two: that my loved ones are lost. Annette is a mother of children and she knows, as I will continue to refuse to know, that a family lacking a home is a frail thing, that we have lost our anchor upon this earth.
Our son, aged two and a half, knows something. Prior to December 7 he is a highly verbal person. From that time, for the next six months, Raphael will not speak.
I lie in the dark, useless to myself, tossing in all this unusable time. But unwelcome consciousness wastes nothing. It takes me back thirty-nine years in time. There were questions that Annette faced in those first few seconds, questions that my son asked in his mutism.
In the simplicity of 1976 I asked nothing. Now the darkness asks me:
What does it mean?
Why has this happened – this loss?
Why has this happened – this being spared from loss?
What, as our lives were spared, are our lives for?
What will you do with, how will you use this time?
A novel experience, this guilt, this sense of time debt, the debt unserviced, accruing, unpaid. The infant at the breast, her elder brother, their big sister, each of them has employed the time, each has grown and grown, grown and learned, grown and created a family. Throughout all Annette has been their home.
What have I not attended to?
I must listen to the pipes. When the pipes, the pipes are calling I must listen. I must not wash my hands of practical matters. The practical reality was shrapnel of exploding wine bottles stacked next to the suckling chair, next to the Sesame watchers. Those jagged fragments were flung with force from floor through the ceiling into the roof space. Grenades of glass shattered the room of milk and sesame and soft infant flesh.
I must learn from the steam. Steam, as Lynne might put it, is smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The steam warned me: get your loved ones to safety, far from the fire.
Why live? Why us? These teasing whys tease. Abstruse abstractions, they distract from the concrete, the practical.
And Annette? Annette is where truth is writ plain and practical. The truth lies with Annette.
These musings are, as I suggested at the beginning, the children of the muse melatonin. I am in foreign territory here, lost, perhaps even found, somewhere between memory and regret.
As if to answer the questions of the dark, questions I never spoke aloud, my host passes me ‘The Descent’, a poem of William Carlos Williams:
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat –
Since the world it opens up is always a place
A world lost, a world unsuspected
Beckons to new places
And no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
One night when I was about thirteen the local police called my father to examine a body that had been found in the park. The woman (the girl?) was eighteen. She had been raped and strangled. Dad returned, a great sadness in his face. His voice was drained. He said, ‘Her only crime was being a woman.’
I did not understand.
I met a young woman recently who has been treated over twenty years for depression and anxiety. She’d been given medications as well as psychological therapies and psychiatric help. She still sleeps poorly and takes sleeping tablets as well as Valium when she’s anxious. She tells me she spent years drinking a bottle or two a night, ‘closed away’, later using cocaine, ecstasy and ice. She hears the ticking of her fertility clock, she wants children but she feels unready.
Diffidently I asked about abuse. She trusted me enough to confide, ‘I was raped when I was thirteen.’
‘Was it a relative?’
‘No, a school friend one year older than me… I looked for him recently on Facebook and I wrote him a message. I’ll email you what I wrote if you’re interested.’
I was interested.
I’m not sure if you remember me but just wanted to touch base after so many years and confront something which happened when we were at school together.
Remember the night we went to one of your female friends place and another one of your mates came along (apologies but their names don’t spring to mind).
Anyways, the events of that might have haunted me since and, well, finally I’ve managed to build up the courage to message you and speak up.
It saddens me that what happened has affected me so much and for so long.
I honestly thought that you were a friend back then and you and your friend took something away from me and I have never forgotten and it has affected me all this time.
My dignity was taken away and diminished.
I still have vivid images in my mind of being extremely intoxicated even to the embarrassing point prior to what happened that I had been sick on your jacket which I wore as it was cold. After this I was too ill and had to go to the spare room to sleep it off and at that point both you and your friend had taken advantage of the situation of me being passed out drunk and you both fucked me.
I will never forget also to this day that your mum, and I understand her being your mother defending you and your friend in saying that neither of you would ever do such a thing.
Saddens me that I was the one apparently untrue to the situation in yours/your families eyes.
The next morning my mother and brother had picked me up and they saw that something was not right. I had blood on me and looked a mess and was taken to the doctors but I was too shocked and embarrassed to admit to anything.
XXXX this was probably not the best way to do this via FB and just understand I’m not wanting anything from you nor an apology or anything but just feel that this is something that I’ve had to stand up to and to give me peace of mind after so many years.
I understand violence born of anger or fear. What is it in a male that allows him to hurt a woman or a child by calculation? I know this violence, I see it and I treat its fruits; but I don’t understand it. That people live and re-live and suffer and endure I do know. Some suffer beyond endurance and slash or die. I know some few who manage to create an enlightened response. This young woman said, ‘I changed cities to change my life.’ Soberly she added, ‘I think I am making progress.’
She found work in the justice system. And she found a sort of spiritual greatness that shows in these closing lines to her old school friend:
I would however like to ask you to always watch over your daughter, nieces if you have any and younger family members so this never happens to them.
Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.
Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.
Travel has always been thus.
If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.
The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:
May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.
Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.
Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.
You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)
An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.
Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.
One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.
I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.
I am not insured, just assured.
I wish us all safe travels.