Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
Dumat’ji
 

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

 
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.
 

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee
 

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee
 

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee
 

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
 

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
 

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
 

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

On the Main Road

Friday afternoon, the eve of the sabbath. Riding home from my shift in the Emergency Department at Alice Springs Hospital I would have missed her if I’d been abiding by the law. Luckily I was riding along the footpath when I came upon her. She looked about fifty but I reckon her true age at mid-thirties. Her large face seemed inflated, her eyelids puffy, her lips swollen, her natural flabbiness accentuated by deforming scars and oedema. The face was bronze in colour. Her gaze was inward – even when I was abreast of her, when I addressed her, I was absent to her. 

In all our minutes together we were never more than ten metres distant from people passing in cars and on foot. But in our leaden ballet we would dance alone.
She was shorter than I and a good deal heavier. The weight differential would matter when I’d struggle to lift her. I was a metre from her when I first registered her human presence. A slender tree at my right shoulder obscured her from sight. Abrupt movement caught my eye, a straining, forceful jerking of her thick neck and thorax as if she sought to escape. In fact the opposite was the case. 
The woman’s hands worked to adjust a cord that looped once around the tree then twice around her neck. I saw the cord and stopped. With all in place she suddenly slumped. Don’t! Don’t do that! – these were all the words I found. I flung my bike aside and threw myself towards the woman. She grunted but did not speak. My arms about her did not arrest her fall. The cord tightened. I remembered the knife in my lunchbox. As I groped frantically in my backpack she thudded suddenly to earth at my feet.  
A white cord floated down after her. The cord was a lengthy bootlace, the sort you pull on to tighten your running shoes. That slender tie would never support ninety kilograms of self nihilation.
Lying on the earth her silent body did not move. Was she breathing? A wave of alcoholic air reaching my nostrils answered that question. Was she conscious? I spoke. No response. I shouted. No answer. I placed my right thumb into the small bony notch above her eye and pressed hard. This truly painful stimulus evoked no movement, not a flinch. On the Glasgow Coma scale I reckoned her score at eight of a possible fifteen.
As I crouched in all my clinical perplexity an Aboriginal woman appeared at my side. Gesturing in the direction from which I’d been riding she said, The hospital is just back that way. Did I smile as I thanked her? I don’t know.
My lady was alive, breathing, intoxicated, apparently unconscious. In the long seconds since slumping she had not moved. What harm had her spinal cord suffered in that violent moment when the bracing cord arrested her fall? I could not know. My phone: where was it? Fast fingers delved and delivered from my pocket. I rang triple zero. The voice asked, Police, Fire or… Ambulance! I shouted. Ninety seconds after giving location and clinical details the siren sounded behind me. The vehicle pulled up alongside my waving, jumping body. A tall woman blonde woman alighted. She would have been in her thirties – like our patient, and unlike her. I answered her questions. A friendly smile lit her face as she said, Big shock for you, I’d imagine. This time I did smile. After a shift in Alice’s Emergency Department I’d become inured to shocks. The paramedic crouched over our patient and I heard her say: Hello girlfriend! as I mounted and headed home for the peace of Shabbat.
   

Letter to the Young Person Who Pinched my Book

 
Dear…..,

I forget your name. We met only once and it was a couple of years ago. You were a new waiter and I was an old coffee drinker. I ordered, you brought me my coffee (strong latte, in a glass, steamed milk on the side) and I opened my new book. The bright cover caught your eye. You made some remark and I was surprised: not everyone would be interested in the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

I was just back from working at the foot of Yulara. The city hummed and throbbed and clanged around me but the red earth still glowed within me, the emptiness, the stillness and the silence still called. I opened my book. For a paperback it was pretty pricey, around seventy bucks. But for an art book it was a steal. There on the cover were two aged Aboriginal women, proudly holding their distinctive animal sculptures. Like Yeats’ ancient Chinese in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ –

    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, 

    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

(Writing at a time of conflict, Yeats sees ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. By ‘gaiety’ Yeats means the creative drive of the artist.)

 

 

Forgive me, I digress.

 

 

I lingered over the images. My women weavers, or sculptors, all come from the fantastically named Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjanjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities. Have you ever come across such challenging place names? I’ve worked in those desert communities and still I struggle to say them right. In the pages of my book you’ll have learned the great secret of the weavers’ ‘desert’ country: with the changing seasons the desert erupts in blooms. You see colours unimaginable in the landscape and you find them again in these flimsy frail pieces of woven whimsy.

 

 

It was time for me to go. I rose and went to the counter to pay. Somehow you materialised at my side and somehow I parted with the book. As a loan. I left, delighted to share in the city’s grey morning all that gaiety and light.

 

 

When I returned to the café the following week, you weren’t there. I never saw you again. I never saw my book again. What happened? Did you leave the job for a better one? Did you leave town? Did your mum get sick, back in Sweden? I don’t imagine you saw the book and whispered to yourself, ‘I think I’ll pinch that.’

 

 

And what prompted me to part from a new book and lend it to a new waiter? Was it the coffee? I’ve done madder things after drinking coffee. Was it some small kindness, some act of courtesy, some swirl of skirt or flash of dimpled smile?

 

 

I don’t remember how or why. I don’t remember your name, I scarcely remember your face. I do remember my feeling of unexpected pleasure when you showed an interest. I hope you have the book still in Sweden or Iceland, and the Tjanpi women weave gaiety into your life.

 

 

 

About Tjanpi

Katangku kuruntu kulira kunpu palyanma Making Strong works with a Strong Heart

Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi) was initiated by NPY Women’s Council in 1995 in response to an expressed need by Anangu women for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment.

 

Coiled basketry was introduced at workshops held in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Within two years, artists were making a quirky range of sculptures as well as baskets, and by 2000, weaving had spread right across the NPY region.

 

A Run in the Desert

The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’

The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.

You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.

IMG_0842
***
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.

I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.

***
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.

And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.

australianphotography.com

australianphotography.com

Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.

Continue reading

Adam the Original

 
Years ago I had the privilege of working in partnership with a Brownlow Medallist. Dr Donald Cordner was the scion of a family as distinguished for Medicine as for football. I learned many things from Donald: it was he who transformed me from a sluggard to a mechanism for perpetual motion. Like my father he personified a thirst for a meaningful life both within and without medicine. 

Donald captained the Melbourne Football Club in its fertile years of recurring premierships. Of the Medal he spoke seldom and little. I remember one datum: the Charles Brownlow Medal is awarded to the player voted by the umpires as the FAIREST and the best. Over the twenty years we worked together that described Donald Cordner: he was the best at everything he put hand or foot to; and he personified honour.

 

Like Donald, Adam Goodes captained his club. Like Donald he saw a role for himself in community service. Like Donald, Adam Goodes is a leader, a man of vision, of substance.

 

In 2003 we saw Adam receiving the first of his two Brownlow Medals. Although he shared the distinction that year with two other champions – one of whom captained the club of my own allegiance – it is the image of Goodes that lingers. More particularly the choice of his companion. Alone among the great young men, Adam brought his mother along, the sole parent who raised him and his siblings. Goodes’ mother contrasted with the other companions, generally blondes, frequently trophy females with cleavage.

Mrs Goodes looked what she is, an Aboriginal matron. Nothing fashionable – read, ‘mutable, evanescent’ – just his Mum, the woman Adam Goodes chose to raise to public honour.

 

When I looked at this man, this original, I saw one who stands for family, for loyalty,  one who knows his roots and is proud. Like his ethnically distinctive medallist forebears, Robert Dipierdimenico and Jim Stynes, Adam is Australia incarnate. He reminds us of our inextinguishably diverse makeup. That diversity, for most Australians, is our glory; for some an intolerable truth. When those persons boo Adam Goodes, they boo their community, they boo themselves.

  

 

The Rubaiyat of Zoltan Klein

A Book of Verses beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness –        And, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

I accepted the invitation to the launch event of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ without curiosity. But as the series of emails from the Event Manager mounted I sensed I should look a bit spiffy for the launch. So I wore my English Schoolboy Blazer. The addition of my backpack subtracted from the elegance of my outfit and together with my skullcap ensured I would look quite as odd as usual.

At the last moment I invited a friend, an art impresario held by all to be ineffably elegant.

The security man at the door, a gym giant in Armani, consulted a guest list longer than the Pentateuch. A show of expensive teeth: “Your names, gentlemen?”

“We are both Howard Goldenberg”, I said.

“Thank you sirs. Please take the elevator to the Second Floor.”

A disembodied voice from the rear of the elevator was heard: “Hi Howard”. It took a while to identify our host Yossi (also Zoltan Vinegar) Klein, obscured as he was by a cluster of tall, expensively draped women, mounted on very steep heels. Taller than all others in the lift a wide man with an interesting face stood next to Yossi. He did not speak.

The lift released us into the highly geometric womb of Cox Architecture, a space as inventive and unexpected in its proportions and planes and shapes as Federation Square. I had not previously heard of Cox, but I was given to understand its iconic condition.

Filling the space, throngs of elegant females and stylish males kissed a lot of air as they greeted each other with little shrieks and harmless hugs. I noted my companion and I were not the most expensively dressed persons present. Wine was sipped, quite exquisite looking entrees were served and everyone accepted a copy of ‘Bread, Wine and Thou.’

Eventually Zoltan took a microphone and spoke. For a time no-one noticed, for Yossi is, as his surname suggests, not tall. After a bit all fell silent. He spoke informally, disarmingly, unpretentiously. He said, “I wanted to create a literary magazine on the themes of food, wine and culture.” Those were precisely the words he used when he spoke to me a year earlier in ‘Batch’, the Kiwi coffee shop where he and I had sighted each other without speech over years. On that occasion Yossi said: “I’ve read your writing on Aboriginal Australia. I want you to write a piece on Aboriginal Cuisine for the first Number of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou.’ I can’t pay you.”

I accepted the commission and wrote something and turned up in my blazer and kippah and backpack. It must be clear from the harsh tone of my introductory remarks that I felt uncool, unfamous, outranked by the figures of beauty. But as Yossi spoke all that fell away. This man in his forties spoke of his dream and its fulfilment, the magazine – really a handsome book – that we held in our hands. Yossi opened with a joke about his Jewish mother. It was a good joke and we all laughed and Yossi relaxed. He thanked a legion of first names, burnishing each name with his deep appreciation. As Yossi spoke one hundred and fifty smart people from the uppermost echelons of food and wine stood, arrested. Cynicism and self-consciousness fell away. We were human together as Yossi stood, naked in his feeling. He said he was overcome. His voice cracked with emotion.

Later a Very Great Man accepted the microphone. He sat down and whispered, exercising the powers of greatness and of near-inaudibility over his audience. Just as Howard Goldenberg alone had never heard of Cox Architecture, neither had I recognised the Greatest Chef in the World, the tall wide man of the interesting features who rode the rising elevator at Yossi’s side.

  
The room worshipped. Upon completing his remarks the man folded Yossi in an embrace that hoisted him from the floor. Evading believers*, he strode from the room, disappearing into the night.

That this personage should have descended to Melbourne for Yossi was felt to be an enormous compliment to our host. As I listened to the chef speak of his career at length and in breadth I felt increasingly the greatness of Yossi. And when you read Yossi’s magazine I think you will feel the same.

Although ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ is accessible on-line, I urge you, do not go for the virtual book; for modest moneys you can acquire the real volume. Collectors will treasure this, the first edition, a thing of truth and beauty.

IMG_6132

* I stole this lovely phrase whole from Les Murray’s ‘ A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’.

“I’m just a boy whose intentions are good; Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

A photo in the current issue of The Monthly shows Bob Hawke and John Howard seated together at a public event to honour the memory of a deceased Prime Minister. Their old faces deeply creased, their bodies close, Hawke’s right arm entwined with Howard’s left, the picture of two old men united in deep sympathy – and in Hawke’s case at least – showing characteristic demonstrativeness, as his hand gently grasps Howard’s thigh. The image arrested me. I thought of Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli:

‘There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies…
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes…’

In the same issue of the magazine I was arrested by an equally unexpected image: Noel Pearson the leading Aboriginal intellectual seated close to Tony Abbott, our Prime Minister. Pearson looks past the PM, gazing severely into the distance; Tony Abbott, smiling tightly, looks upward to Pearson’s face. I spent some time interrogating their expressions. In Pearson I found depth, a sober realism. In Tony I saw yearning. I wondered how it was the PM appeared to be the supplicant, the client, while the man from disadvantage wore such self-assurance.

Tony Abbott is co-author (along with predecessor PM’s and a succession of underlings) of our World’s Worst Practice towards human beings who arrive in Australia by boat and seek asylum. That policy is cruel by calculation; it is calibrated torture. Our practice is a precise antithesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, would-be-good Tony knows this and only by a sustained effort of moral contortion and will can he manage to unknow it.

Along with Morrison, Ruddock, Howard, Beasley and Rudd, Tony Abbott is an avowed believer. He belongs to a claque of believers who perpetrate this unchristian – indeed antichristian – policy. How do they all do it? What do the believers believe?

In Tony’s case the face I see is an innocent face. He gazes towards his grownup interlocutor, his expression seeking approval: he seeks a word or a sign: “Good boy, Tony, you’ve done well.” Like a small boy Tony seeks affirmation. By means of sustained effort he has gained this, successively from the ghost of Bob Santamaria and from Cardinal George Pell. From such firmly formed personages Tony learned notions of goodness. He would be good and thereby be approved.
The child looked for affirmation from John Howard and the Liberal Party. He sought our approbation too and, in opinion polls and at the last federal election we gave it. We became complicit in sustaining the ego structure of this needy child. Patently we no longer show approval to this immature person. He locks himself inside a tightening circle of insecurity, looking to spouse, offspring and advisors, some of them women, to whom he seeks mothering.

On Mother’s day I will muster all the compassion I am capable of and try to think kindly of Tony Abbott, the child leader who just wants to be good (just so long as we’ll approve).