Love

I realise I have written little in this blog that does not touch on death in some way or other. I have written less of love. Probably I write of death as one preparing for that moment of truth. I write myself toward it and around it as one not yet in it. The pursuit, neither morbid nor frivolous, is the necessary (if deplorable) corollary of growing up. If I write little of love it is because I dwell within it and have done all my days. But the third day of December arrives every year and it reminds me.

Here then, conceived on December 3 2017, is a love story.

My wife is married to a pleasant enough man. I’ve known him for a long time, and although I admire him generously, yet I concede he is not perfect. My wife has put up with imperfection, with hopes incompletely realised for 48 years. On December 3 this year she gave her spouse a card, upon which the following words appeared:

This is my wish for you…

 

Comfort on difficult days,

Smiles when sadness intrudes,

Rainbows to follow the clouds,

Laughter to kiss your lips,

Sunsets to warm your heart,

Hugs when spirits sag,

Beauty for your eyes to see,

Friendships to brighten your being,

Faith so you can believe,

Confidence for when you doubt,

Courage to know yourself,

Patience to accept the truth,

Love to complete your life.

 

 

Better than the average Hallmark homily, I thought. And indeed the name I read beneath these lines was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But the platitudes of the great philosopher were not penned by my wife. I opened the card and read her handwritten message.

I won’t share those words beyond this: my wife commanded herself to love me for a further 48 years. I did a little weep for joy and for thanksgiving. And the words remained in me, resonating, lighting the damp and darkened world about me. We drove to the country to lunch as the guests of our recently widowed friend. Aged in her mid-nineties, our host prepared our meal with dogged independence and perfect accuracy. We sat in her sylvan retreat and we shared her sorrow. For the first time in our long friendship our host’s beloved was absent. Only love abided.

Outside the window the green world was soaked by unseasonable rains. Behind and above the green the world was grey. Suddenly my wife started: ‘Look!’ she said. I turned and looked and there, a glory of gold and green, sat a king parrot, nibbling the widow’s birdseed.

Love lit my night. I recited my morning prayers and read the Shema with its credo. Immediately following the words of that key formula of faith was a concrete Commandment. And the command was love.

I opened the novel* that my men’s book club will discuss tonight. The editor wrote: If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely of love, the many forms love takes…’a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart… a force that comprehends them both.’

 

 

 

 

*’Stoner’, by John Williams

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Paint Me As I Am

A poet sent me this poem. It is a poem I could never write. It is the poem of a spirit stronger, freer and bolder. When a poem as true as this comes my way I feel I know the poet, I’d recognise him by the beauty of the poem. I marvel at the freedom he claims and I rejoice for him, while holding my breath as he skelters along life’s unseen edge. My timid spirit prays, ‘o let him not fall off the edge.’ 


Paint Me As I Am


Why don’t you paint me as I am?             

Running and reading, with waves and

Sand tangling in my hair.

With fire in my hands. 

Paint me as a surfer, catching opportunities like a wave.

 

Paint me without dark paint, for I am not

only shades of grey.  

Paint me somewhere else, where dew moistens leaves

and the chilly air circulating around me that

makes every fibre of my being feel alive.

 

Paint me with my wrinkles, for those are signs of me laughing.

Paint me so my tears and scars don’t show.

 

Paint me with my nightmares but most of all, paint me with my dreams.

                           – Miles, aged 11


Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

Hope

By Colin Hockley*

Long ago a callow and bewildered newcomer to Melbourne was taken by a friend to see the strange sight of Australian Rules Football. The game was held at an ugly stadium in the unfashionable Western suburbs. The day was wet, cold and blustery. In places the ground was ankle deep in churned mud and a bleak wind howled across the ground sending the ball and players scurrying into a pocket of the oval. A lonely and much abused man in white armed with a whistle made sense of this activity as flags stood horizontal and ragged above a grandstand resembling a wartime bunker.
It was all very confusing and brutal. Red faced men clutching beer cans yelled unlovely insults at the players and the incredibly thick skinned man with the whistle who laboured away in the winter mud bringing some order to the confusion. He was universally referred to as “yer white maggot”. There seemed to be several players named, “yer poofta”. 
His friend insisted that cold beer added to the experience. Wanting badly to fit in he drank some. Within minutes, after receiving directions, he raced off to find a toilet. This was a tin shed easily located by the stench of urine awash on a concrete floor. Those not drinking beer, or buying more beer, or shuffling in the urine, or insulting anyone on the playing field were standing in an endless queue for hot chips. 
Oddly however, an understanding of the game crept in and colonised his physiology. Quite soon, rather like a lot of others, he fancied he was smart enough to understand the beauty of the game. Over time, things improved. The chip queue got a little shorter as the chips became more expensive. Less beer was drunk. The habit of public drunkenness came to be frowned upon, resulting in slightly less smelly and wet underfoot toilets. 
His now adopted team struggled to achieve success. They played in a poor part of town filled with the working class and migrants. Money was scarce to pay good players. Those who stayed did so because they loved that bleak Western suburb and it’s rusted on, passionate supporters. Now and then the club caught, by accident, a player of great talent, or foolhardy bravery. Rusted on supporters can trot out the skill, acts of courage, loyalty and exploits these rare players to each other endlessly. Highlights of recent triumphs or a long ago game are wired into them with a passion. 
Tragedy is writ large. Shocking injuries, the worst a dashing, handsome young man rendered quadriplegic in a collision. Another left blind in one eye. There were many missed moments of magic as great prizes ran away with Lady Luck, and on occasion, the White Maggot played his part in our agony. 
But what seduced him besides the sheer athletic wonder and courage of the players was the ethos, rooted in an indefatigable failure to accept defeat. Strong men with bodies like Greek Gods and minds of steel playing, in the words of one of their champions, “a game of hurt”. Even to win hurt. To see them in the rooms after, huge ice packs strapped to the parts of their bodies that must train and fight again next week and the week after. A win is a happy thing. Grown men lustily sing a silly song of victory. Winning flags and scarves flap recklessly out of car windows, strangers shake your hand in the street on seeing your club colours. We have no enemies. Only pity disguised as friendliness.
Defeat means harder training, meetings focused on strategy, disappointed and demanding supporters, eager younger players wanting to knock you off your perch in the 1st team. In defeat, the supporters always say, “next week” and at season’s end, “next year”. And everything changes. The home ground changes. The name is tweaked. Coaches come and go. Presidents change. Sponsors run away and hide. Dreams come and go. Years pass. Decades pass. Membership rises and falls, like a politicians popularity poll. The rusted on grow older and they cling to the “nearly” moments, the “robbed” incidents and the past champions who blessed us with hope.
Hope. 
Hope.
Hope.
It’s a simple word, wonderful and life affirming. 
Whatever the cause hope always triumphs over experience. 
The name of my football team was hope. 
After 60 years the planets lined up. Hope was ascendent. Great decisions were made by the right people. Players of immense talent emerged. A coach blessed with, not merely the knowledge but wonderful leadership skills landed like an angle on the blighted place. Melbourne, the cornerstone of which is this game, sniffed something magic in the air. An agony of injuries brought them, not undone, but gave them added fight and inspiration. 


Man Love abounded. Tears fell like spring showers. 
Unlikely, indeed, impossible heroics happened. He of the rusted on and the other lot, the come lately stood in that great Colosseum where dreams are made and lost. As the players ran out onto brilliant green in the sunshine, their colours dominant, flags flying, their noise creating tremors shaking the vast concrete floor. 70,000 voices, only ours, could be heard. The silly song roared. It seemed the blue sky with its scudding clouds shook with the chanting. A small bewildered boy lay wide eyed in the arms of his bedecked father beside him. 
The game had yet to begin. His body tingled all over and there was quivering in his midriff. Tears and snot ran unheeded. He could have gone home at that moment and died happy. But with 99,981 people in his way he was wedged in, immovable, right on the edge of claustrophobia. This was their day. Their moment. His moment too. At the end, no one left. Not a single person raced for the car park or the train. They just stood and sang some more, over and over.
Hope.
That triumphed.
*Colin is a close and beloved friend and Western Bulldogs supporter.

How to Recruit an Ordinary Australian, How to Torment Her, How to Drive her to madness 

Sitting watching Eva Orner’s movie, ‘Chasing Asylum’, I fully expected to be appalled. I anticipated I’d feel the old outrage. I feared I’d see things that would shock me.What took me unprepared was the vision of Australian workers on Manus and Nauru as they disintegrated before the camera. Three in particular found the courage to expose themselves before the slow, careful camera of Eva Orner. Two of the three were young women. The camera never revealed them full face, their names were not mentioned. Like their charges who subsist behind Boat Numbers, these are humans without names. Their voices told us what was happening to the people seeking asylum; but it was their hands that gave them away. Nail-bitten fingers worked continually. A writhing was seen, a slow dance of agony. Voices hesitated, speech fell away as the young women spoke. I watched these young people as they struggled to shed a burden that will never leave them. The third beanspiller was not young. A former prison guard, he was a man in his fifties, a man surely innured by his past experience. He spoke to the camera of what he saw. He recounted carefully and precisely his attempts to bring about change from within the system. How he spoke to superiors, how he complained of wrongdoing, how anonymous threats to ‘shut up’ mounted, until he feared for his life. Finally he fled his island. He returned home and lay low. For some time he did not speak of what he’d seen, what had happened to his detained charges, how he had been threatened and lived alone in fear. Finally he decided he could keep silent no longer: “I was brought up to know right from wrong. I couldn’t live in silence.” The man’s face worked as he spoke. He struggled for composure but grief and pain defeated him as he wept his honest tears.    

Elsewhere in my life I have a colleague, a mental health worker, who has been engaged in the repair of a wounded offshore worker damaged deeply by trying to protect and support detained refugees. Hired by the government, that worker can never safely return to the work that is his vocation, which is to care for vulnerable people. He is now counted among the vulnerable. Innocent casualties, these, like the mates of the former detention worker who told me of two fellow guards who attempted suicide, one successfully.

What are we doing? What have we done.? What price do we demand of our own people? How we disgust ourselves!

When, at some time in the next century, I become leader of this nation I will do some things urgently. Apart from what ever I do to abate our present cruelty, apart from preparing for the Next National Apology, apart from prosecuting the Prime Ministers and their Border Control Ministers for crimes against humanity – apart from all these necessary steps, I will seek out these whistle blowers and offer them honours in the highest echelon of the Order of Australia. But I will not be surprised if they decline any honour offered in the name of a nation that betrayed itself. 
Chasing Asylum is screening now. See it and learn where our taxes are going and what is being done in our name. 

http://www.chasingasylum.com.au/

Maranoa Writer

In the Maranoa I met Billy Dodd, author of ‘Broken Dreams’ (UQP). I met his life. I recount his story to an able-bodied listener, who recoils on hearing how, three days before Billy’s eighteenth birthday, he came to fracture his neck and became quadriplegic. It’s the sort of shiver we feel as we recognise ourselves. As a child I dived into unplumbed streams. It was a normal action, part of the exuberant membership of the mad organism of many limbs without a brain that is a group of boys at play. We dove, we surfaced, we swam, we shouted, we splashed. Everything worked. We never thought on it. 

But here in the singular house of Billy Dodd I do think on it. Alone of the houses in Ann Street in his Maranoa township, Billy’s is not a Queenslander. That is, the structure is not elevated above flood level; it squats, its threshold at street level, hospitable to a wheelchair. Billy is glad for my visit. Although he is the town’s literary celebrity the rhythms of his life are slow. His partner is devoted and admiring, her child attentive and respectful, but the days are many, the years long.

‘How old are you now, Billy?’

‘Thirty three.’ A smile moves across his face. His chest plays its rise and fall. Nothing else of him moves.

That’s fifteen years. Fifteen years to look back, so very many to look ahead.
From across the street Billy’s house looks small. From the corner of the parlour where he reclines in his motorised conveyance the quiet rooms yawn. The spaces feel too large.
‘I’ve started to write another book.’

‘Good on you, Billy. What’s it about?’

‘About my father, my family.’

‘How’s it going?’

‘Well, I’m taking a bit of a break…’
We talk about his family, about his father’s example, his standards. Billy’s admiration outlives the old man, who never reached oldness.
Billy’s partner speaks, ‘Tell him what else you create, Billy. The paintings.’ She fetches some paintings, done by mouth, like all of Billy’s acts and works. After only a few weeks the paintings do not stand clearly in memory.
‘A cup of tea?’ The lady – Billy’s wife, as I discover – smiles her offer. ‘No thanks, no. I’m on duty, just sneaked out of the hospital, due back now. But thanks…’

Awkward, uncomfortably conscious of advantage, of my spontaneous mobility, I feel some need to redeem the situation, to rescue the moment. I speak: ’ Where can I find a copy of your book, Billy?’

‘Take this one there, on the table, it belongs to the school across the road.’
I take the school’s copy and I take my leave, running away from Billy’s empty spaces. I liked him, I liked the woman and the child. Perhaps that’s why I ran.
I read the book that evening. A short book, written in unvarnished narrative fashion, a book of real energy, written with drive. The voice is young, it speaks of family and friends, of ordinary wildness. In his retrospect Billy marvels quietly at his own transmogrification, shedding few tears. The energy of the telling contrasts with the slowness of our meeting.
And yet there was energy in the house: the child, proud of his painter-writer-stepfather, loves him. The woman, large and kind, ordinary, extraordinary, loves him too.

The lack was my own. I alone felt heaviness, defeat.