I have a letter to send to my sister and her husband in New York City. It’s a large envelope crammed with pages I’ve selected from the papers. It’s stuff they’d have heard about, stuff they might like to read about in greater detail. I slipped in a note: Here’s the News and the Olds. (News refers to the Aussies thrashing England in the Ashes, Olds will tell them Bob Hawke is dead.)
I ask the Postal Lady for stamps to New York by airmail. Postal Lady weighs my envelope: 64 grams, say the scales. Thirteen dollars sixty cents says Postal Lady. It will be delivered in twenty to twenty-five days.I wonder whether the postie walks to New York. That’s airmail? Yes. Everything is held up. Thirteen bucks? Wow! It is a lot, says Postal lady. Hold on, I’ll check. Postal lady gives her computer further instructions.Thirteen dollars, sixty, replies that avaricious device. Is it a problem of weight, or the size of the envelope? Weight, says Postal Lady, adding, If you can make it ten grams lighter it will come down to six dollars. Righto, I’ll get rid of something over at the counter, then I’ll come back to you. Over at the counter I remove two pages of Harvey Norman and Frydenberg’s Big Plans for the Budget.Three dollars something, says Postal Lady. I pay, rejoicing as one does who has just found a bargain at Harvey Norman. Do you mind if I ask you something? Are you Doctor Howard Goldenberg? I am. I thought so. You were my doctor when I was a baby in Diamond Creek fifty years ago. Really? Lucky me! I must say it’s hard to recognise you in the mask. Postal Lady removes her mask. I’ve changed since I was a baby. My mum says you told her I was the most beautiful baby you’d ever seen. I suppose you said that to all the mothers. (I suspect I did say just that.) I’d like to see a photo of yourself as a baby some time. I’ve got one here.Postal Lady starts interrogating photo archives in her phone. The queue of customers in the Post Office grows longer. It’s in here somewhere, Doctor. Further search. Matthew, Postal Lady’s colleague, gives her a Look. Postal Lady, engrossed, doesn’t notice. Found it! Here, look Doctor. Doctor looks at the photo in black and white of a newborn baby. She is in fact the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.I say those words once again. Postal Lady says, You’d remember my mother better than me. I’ve got a photo somewhere here…I’m sorry I’m detaining you…I look around. The post office is filling with customers. Matthew looks over towards the second half of the PO’s workforce, but lingering as his look is, and withering withal, Postal Lady is oblivious in her quest for a snap of Mum. I decide there’s a problem in this office and I am that problem, and I can solve it by removing myself. Look, here’s my phone number. Send the photo to me, later, to my phone. I leave by the side door that gives onto one of Melbourne’s famed little lanes. The lane buzzes as throngs drink and dawdle in the bright sun. I wind my way quickly into a second lane. A voice behind hails me: Doctor! Doctor Howard! I turn. It’s Postal Lady. Look, this is Mum, here. She points at the pleasant, forgettable face in black and white of a young mother. I try to recognise her, but memory fails before visions of civil unrest in the Post Office.
Deploring has long been a favourite sport of mine.
Bankers, paedophiles, turners of blind eyes have all earned my opprobrium. I’ve deplored racists and people who speak or act violently, and in common with many others, I’ve greatly enjoyed deploring politicians. I’ve deplored climate change deniers and I’ve deplored people who criminalise asylum seekers. A good deplore always left me feeling righteous. As my wife points out I’m particularly good at seeing myself as righteous.
In recent times deploring has lost some of its gloss. It’s become like tenesmus, which is the medical term for the condition of dissatisfied defaecation. The instinct is blameless, the urge is strong, but the act feels somehow incomplete.
Hillary deplored deplorables to her cost. It turns out the deplorable are not few and they live next door or across the street, or among your friends.
Covid has seen an outbreak of deplorables and of deploration, both in epidemic proportion. Anti-vaxxers, rioters who confront police, those who piss on the Shrine and expose the many to the risk of contagion; attenders (not attendees – no-one forced them to attend) at an illicit engagement party, worshippers at a proscribed religious service likewise incur my white-hot rage.
But my rage no longer satisfies. Why? Firstly, I have to distinguish between the act which I deplore and the actor. Further, I need to recognise that the deplorables are people, and what’s more they are people in the plural. They are my fellow citizens, these hundred who congregate to pray, thesethousands who block streets and provoke police officers. I can’t help wondering who these people are and reflecting on the honest thoughts and the genuine fears that prompt many of them to act in these harmful or misguided ways.
In my work I meet plenty who declare their certainty of conspiracy (big pharma, the government, George Soros – which means – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – the Jews). Others teach me the science; this week a seventeen-year old girl told me, ‘I know Pfizer impairs female fertility. I know I want to have children but I want to be safe from Covid too.’ (I told her I too had heard that report, but only here in Lightning Ridge, where I’m presently working, had I heard it. The remainder of female humanity doesn’t know what this child knew – and now unknows.) How can I deplore her for the primal fear of childlessness? What profit is there in contradicting those convictions that are religious in their depth?
The common theme among my patients is fear. It’s honest, sincere fear, invariably magnified and feeding on itself and its cesspool of ‘information’. How can we help frightened people by name-calling?
I have no respect for those people who decline vaccination and cry Apartheid! Their thinking is sloppy and they enjoy playing the victim. Less innocent too are those who behave lawlessly. But with the exceptions of the clearly malevolent minority (I include here members of bikie gangs, violent anarchists, Nazis earnestly working towards overturning democracy and restoring Whitest Australia), no-one gets up in the morning and asks, How can I do the most harm today? What is the most foolish trending opinion I can embrace?
Rather I see people who embrace such folly as attracted to the ‘glamour’ of free thinking, the ‘heroism’ of rebellion, the ‘courage’ of free speech. They evoke in me feelings that range from compassion (in my consulting room) to outright condescension (like the people of biblical Ninivehthey know not their right hand from their left).
But we are divided. We do discriminate between the vaccine-willing and the others. We grant freedoms to some and deny them to others. I can see no other choice, but I can see no long-term future in this discrimination. There is a limit to people’s acceptance of curtailment of their liberties. The fabric of community is only as strong as our leaders’ capacity to inspire.
Where are the inspiring leaders? They do exist. At the outset of the pandemic I held great fears for the most vulnerable communities in Australia. Even more than residents in Aged Care, I feared for outback indigenous communities. People who obeyed an ancient cultural imperative to wander through ancestral lands would surely catch and succumb to the virus, as they did in early colonial times to smallpox. But this did not eventuate. The traditional leaders, elders, listened to respectful advice that was appropriately conveyed. They became convinced and they carried conviction with their people. People listened, followed and were safe.
My friend Colin begs to differ. I’m pleased to oblige:
Howard. G’day and thank you for sharing.
To “deplore” is surely the most respectful way to demonstrate that one differs from another’s point of view.
Deplore – to express or feel deep grief in regard to.
In certain quarters this word came to be reviled after it was used to register dismay at public political rallies. The rallies became places where lies, insults, routine mocking of opponents and outrageous motivation of crowds chanting “lock her up” in respect of a political opponent who 5 years later has not been charged with anything. There was no crime. This from a man who now has 16 Civil legal cases underway against him and a further 16 Criminal cases underway. A man who has instigated or influenced 60 appeals against an election result, all of the appeals dismissed, sometimes with a Judge’s comment, “don’t waste the court’s time, there is no evidence”.
History teaches us such “leadership” emboldens ill informed and bigoted people to behave inhumanely. Seeing ill informed led astray, firstly to chant insults and later to attack the seat of Government leaves me weary, bewildered, numbstruck and sighing with grief. Politicising a virus is a masterstroke of machiavellianism.
If we see a small child randomly pull blooms off flowers, or hurt a small brother, or for good measure swing the cat about by its tail and then tell lies, we rightly deplore it. And try to correct it. If in the process “our rage no longer satisfies” maybe it’s because we think our voice no longer counts and have given way to misinformation or that no one is listening. There are voices the misguided listen to. They are not by any stretch “reflecting on honest thoughts”. Rather they reflect on dishonesty of a spectacular nature. If these thoughts and actions are “religious in their depth” this is called heresy, not that I’d suggest burning at the stake. But failure to act in a firm manner gives leeway for deplorable behavior such as pissing on a shrine.
Relying on people getting the correct message via the frightful spectacle of seeing grandma, a friend, neighbour or workmate suffocate to death with covid is not enough. Mandating compliance saves any argument(s).
No jab, no footy.
No jab, no coffee.
No jab, no Bali.
No jab, no work.
Doing so doesn’t mean “we grant freedoms to some and deny to others”. It’s not unlike the freedom to drive a car once learned and tested. And when that’s achieved other layers are added, such as wear a seat belt, don’t speed, and for heaven’s sake get off your phone while driving at 60kph and if you’re 15m aloft fixing the tiles put up a safety harness. Please. For a variety of reasons, one being it’s cheaper for society to do that than pay for a lifetime of care for a paralysed worker. This is not “discrimination” but boundaries for the greater good.
I should be home by now. Work at the clinic has kept me late. I tear off my mask, race down the stairs, tear across the road, chase the tram and leap aboard. It’s peak period and the tram’s pretty full. I find an aisle seat, sit down and breathe. I reach into my bag – no mask. All around me everyone wears the mask of the good citizen.
My breathing feels like an offense. I turn my back on the person at whose side I’m seated. Facing the aisle now, face turned down toward my shoes, breathing surreptitiously, I’m disturbed by a voice:
I turn to the voice, which comes from behind a mask. The voice sounds again: Why aren’t you wearing a mask?
When I tore off my mask, I ripped the hearing aids from my ears as usual. This happens: masks and aids are both secured behind my ears so the removal of the one often occasions the other. The speaking voice isn’t hard to hear however. My interlocutor is her own megaphone. Humbled, I reply, I’m afraid it’s not with me. I must have…
My reply is cut off. You have to wear a mask. It’s the law. I’ll give you a mask.
My antagonist-turned benefactor gropes in a handbag, gropes some more, shuffles contents without result. A second woman, seated facing her, opens the bag on her lap and produces a ziplock full of pristine masks.
I always carry spares. WE’RE BOTH WORKERS IN HEALTH! Take a mask.
I take a mask and fit it. Thank you, I say. Her fellow-worker-in-health resumes operations: You never answered me, WHY don’t you have your own mask?
The questioner and her mate look about 55-60 years old. Wide faces, good complexions, fair skin, hair well-groomed. All is handsome but smiles are lacking.
A tramful of now very interested passengers gazes in our direction as I lean towards the workers-in-health and speak slowly and softly, enunciating clearly but confidentially: Have you never made a mistake? Apparently not, for my sweet reason evokes not compassion but derisive snorts.
Conversation takes an abrupt turn as the women address a second malefactor. WHERE’S YOUR MASK?
The question is not directed to me, but beyond me, to one not yet seen. I crane and glimpse the smaller form of an adult male of Chinese appearance. This person declares: I DON’T HAVE TO WEAR A MASK.
YES YOU DO. IT’S THE LAW.
I DON’T HAVE TO.
The workers in health decide greater volume is required to help their quarry’s understanding:
IN THIS COUNTRY WE KEEP THE LAWS. MAYBE BACK IN INDIA YOU DON’T HAVE TO. HERE EVERYONE HAS TO WEAR A MASK!
It’s time for me to rejoin the conversation: In this country we don’t accept racism, not even among Workers in Health.
A young man strides down the aisle and joins us. He looks like he’s in his early twenties, slim, elegant in his black suit. His voice is another that needs needs no megaphone: YOU TWO ARE MISTAKEN. THE LAW DOES NOT REQUIRE EVERYONE TO WEAR A MASK. SOME PERSONS ARE EXEMPT.
Health’s blood is up. Health is not ready to yield: What’s his exemption?
Blacksuit offers further legal advice: YOU HAVE NO LEGAL RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT INFORMATION. THIS IS NOT HEALTH CARE YOU’RE PRACTISING HERE: YOU’RE JUST PRACTISING BIGOTRY.
Health falls silent. The Gang of Two turn to each other and shrug. Two stops later the mask refuser leaves us. Health loses one pitbull a few minutes later. Now alone, the remaining worker in health suddenly finds her kindle demands her attention. For the next twenty minutes she does not look up or across the aisle. When I descend she’s still silently absorbed.
Once home I open my backpack. There, with my hearing aids, is my mask.
A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton.
Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.
The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.
Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it: bumi putra – sons of the soil.
Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.
Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.
The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.
Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.
And this is Naidoc Week.
The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.
My Fellow Australian Citizen dismounts from his bicycle at the intersection. Here, where the bike lane ends, trams, cars and pedestrians converge. Some turn at this intersection, others race through at speed. It’s a tricky crossing, the roadway here unsafe for a cyclist.
My fellow Australian Citizen wheels his bike carefully along the footpath. He finds himself following close behind a Fellow Australian Citizen (FAC) who. oblivious of man and bicycle, is engrossed in her phone conversation. FAC, male, decides to alert her to his presence: Pardon me, he says. FAC, female, looks up, sees her fellow citizen, looks angry.FAC, male, feels he’s interrupted the other’s conversation. He apologises: Excuse me, he says, I am sorry. FAC, female, speaks. He thinks he hears, You don’t belong here.
Does she mean, you and your cycle don’t belong on the footpath? Pardon me? – he asks.
YOU. DON’T. BELONG. HERE.
FAC, male, is no longer in doubt.
I ask FAC, male, How did you feel, once you understood her meaning?Water off a duck’s back. I tell FAC, male, I feel sick. Sick and sad. Like I did when they decided Adam Goodes didn’t belong. FAC, male, explains: Sticks and stones. Back in Rwanda one half of our population decided the other half didn’t belong. They equipped themselves with machetes. I survived and I ran. My family went into hiding. To this day they hide in a safe house. They’re still after me. I ran to Australia and Australia gave me asylum. I stayed, I worked, I studied. I graduated and I became a citizen.
A hopeful thought: I ask, What did she look like, your Fellow Australian Citizen? Ordinary. Nothing remarkable. I persist: Describe her for me.FAC, male, is puzzled: She looked like anyone else: mid-forties, perhaps. Light brown hair, slim, medium height. (What I want to know, what I’m hoping to hear, is she’s Aboriginal. If she were indigenous she’d be within her rights. Rude perhaps, but within her rights, certainly.) I mean what was her race?Oh. She was caucasian.
Fellow Australian Citizens have rallied in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, in a time of danger, risking greatly, searching, trying to find a way of showing how black lives matter in this country too.In this country citizens are feeling conscious that we might not belong here, not by ancient right. We arrived here in the last century, or two or three. We are new here.We lack the legitimacy of antiquity.
The First Australians might reasonably challenge us. They might say, you don’t belong here. But they don’t say that. Instead they say, let’s share country.
I’ve heard them, I’ve heard it everywhere that I’ve travelled to work – in the Pilbara, in the Kimberley, in the Ngaaanyatjarrah lands, in the Adnymathanha lands, in my home country of the Wiradjuri, in Bigambul country, in the country of the Darug, the Yamaji, the Arrernte, the Warlpiri, the Bininj, the Nangiomeri, Marimandinji, Marithiel, Maringar, Mulluk Mulluk.
These dark times are also times of hope. Times of searching of a nation’s soul.But at that crossing, at that intersection where Fellow Australian Citizens meet, hope slackens. Fear, feeding on a deep ignorance of the nature of an immigrant nation, flickers into hate. Elsewhere in this country, fear flickers into hate against Chinese Australians. And there’s always the Jews to hate too.