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.

“Daydream Believer: Rats dream of a better future”

You may scoff, human reader, but I, Rattus rattus – also known as black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, old English rat – I have my dreams.
 

I dream of a time without scoffing humans.

 

I dream of Old Hamelin, my home town, Hamelin to which I shall not return, not until the burghers beg forgiveness.

Meanwhile I live in the cleft of the rock, together with the lost children of Hamelin.

 

I dwell in Xanadu, of which you can only dream:

 

…that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see me there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

 

I have a dream

 

that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 

 

I dream with smiles

On my rodent lips;

I dream my dreams

Of sinking ships.

 

 

 

The rat dreams:

 

 

All day in the one chair

 

From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged

 

In rambling talk with an image of air:

  40

Vague memories, nothing but memories.

 

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 

 

Writing as Healing

The mother of identical twin boys sent me this story by Ranjava Srivastava.

 

“Losing my twin baby boys for ever changed the way I treat my patients.

I will never know the kind of doctor I would have become without the searing experience of being a patient, but I like to think my loss wasn’t in vain.

‘My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me.’
Around this time 10 years ago, I was poised to start my first job as an oncologist when personal tragedy visited in a way that would forever change the way I would practice medicine.

I had returned from my Fulbright year at the University of Chicago, blessed with only the joys and none of the irritations of being pregnant with twins. Landing in Melbourne, I went for a routine ultrasound as a beaming, expectant parent. I came out a grieving patient. The twins were dying in utero, unsuspectedly and unobtrusively, from some rare condition that I had never heard of. Two days later, I was induced into labour to deliver the two little boys whom we would never see grow. Then I went home.

If all this sounds a little detached it is because 10 years later I still have no words to describe the total bewilderment, the depth of sorrow and the intensity of loss that I experienced during those days. Some days, I really thought my heart would break into pieces. Ten years later, the din of happy children fills our house. But what I have found myself frequently reflecting on is how the behaviour of my doctors in those days profoundly altered the way in which I would treat my patients.

An experienced obstetrician was performing my ultrasound that morning. Everything was going well and we chatted away about my new job until he frowned. Then he grimaced, pushed and prodded with the probe, and rushed out before I could utter a word. He then took me into his office and offered me his comfortable seat. Not too many pregnant women need a consultation at a routine ultrasound.

“I am afraid I have bad news,” he said before sketching a picture to describe the extent of the trouble. I thought for a fleeting moment that my medical brain would kick in and I would present him with sophisticated questions to test his assertion that the twins were gravely ill. But of course, I was like every other patient, simultaneously bursting with questions while rendered mute by shock.

I was well aware that doctors sometimes sidestepped the truth, usually with the intent of protecting the patient. I knew he could easily get away with not telling me any more until he had more information but I also knew that he knew. I read it in his face and I desperately wanted him to tell me.

I asked the only question that mattered.

“Will they die?” 

“Yes,” he said, simply holding my gaze until his tears started.

As I took in the framed photos of children around his office he probably wished he could hide them all away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmured, his eyes still wet. 

Until then, in 13 years of medical training, I had never seen a doctor cry. I had participated in every drama that life in bustling public hospitals offers but never once had I seen a doctor cry.

My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me. Yes, the doctor’s expression said, this is truly awful and I feel sad too.

“You are sure?”

“There is a faint chance that one lives but if you ask me, things look bad. You know I will do everything I can to confirm this,” he said.

The obstetrician had told the unflinching truth and in doing so almost surgically displaced uncertainty with the knowledge that I needed to prepare myself for what lay ahead. I had test after test that day, each specialist confirming the worst. I think I coped better because the first doctor had told the truth.

Two other notable things happened that week. Among the wishes that flowed, another doctor wrote me an atypical condolence note. His letter began with the various tragedies that had taken place that week, some on home soil and others involving complete strangers. “I ask myself why,” he wrote, “and of course there is no answer to why anyone must suffer.”

Until then, everyone had commiserated only at my loss – and I was enormously grateful – but here was someone gently reminding me that in life we are all visited by tragedy. All the support and love in the world won’t make you immune to misfortune, he was saying, but it will help ease the pain.

Finally, there was the grieving. I lost count of the pamphlets that were left at our door to attend support groups, counselling sessions and bereavement seminars but we were resolutely having none of it. My midwife called me out of the blue – it was a moving exchange that taught me how deeply nurses are affected too. But I didn’t need counselling, I needed time. I valued the offers but I knew that my catharsis lay in writing. I wrote myself out of suffocating grief, which eventually turned to deep sadness and then a hollow pain, which eventually receded enough to allow me to take up my job as a brand new oncologist. How I would interpret the needs of my patients was fundamentally altered now that I had been one myself.

Cancer patients are very particular about how much truth they want to know and when. I don’t decide for them but if they ask me I always tell the truth. A wife brings in her husband and his horrendous scans trigger a gasp of astonishment among even the non-oncologists.

“Doctor, will he die from this?” she asks me.

“I am afraid so,” I answer gently, “but I will do everything in my power to keep him well for as long as I can.” 

It is the only truthful promise I can make and although she is distressed she returns to thank me for giving her clarity. Sometimes honesty backfires, when the patient or family later say they wanted to talk but not really hear bad news. I find these encounters particularly upsetting but they are rare and I don’t let them sway me from telling the truth.

Oncology is emotionally charged and I have never been afraid of admitting this to the very people who imbue my work with emotion. I don’t cry easily in front of patients but I have had my share of tears and tissues in clinic and contrary to my fears, this has been an odd source of comfort to patients. In his Christmas card, a widower wrote that when my voice broke at the news that his wife had died he felt consoled that the world shared his heartbreak.

It can be tricky but I try to put my patients’ grief into perspective without being insensitive. It’s extraordinary how many of them really appreciate knowing that I, and others, have seen thousands of people who are frightened, sad, philosophical, resigned, angry, brave and puzzled, sometimes all together, just like them. It doesn’t diminish their own suffering but helps them peek into the library of human experiences that are catalogued by oncologists. It prompts many patients to say that they are lucky to feel as well as they do despite a life-threatening illness, which is a positive and helpful way of viewing the world.

I will never know what kind of a doctor I might have become without the searing experience of being a patient. The twins would have been 10 soon. As I usher the next patient into my room to deliver bad news, I like to think that my loss was not entirely in vain.” 

……… 

I read this story with alarm. It made me feel anxious because I have and love a pair of identical twin boys. I felt involved because, like the writer’s doctor, I am a doctor who cries; and like the writer, Dr Srivastava, I am a doctor who writes. Finally we two are products of the same medical school (Monash) – Dr Srivastava graduated at the top of her class, in the present century, I graduated at the opposite end of my class, in antiquity (1969).

A final point of commonality was her reassuring remark that ten years after her doctor wept her home is full of the noise of happy living children.

I found the piece helpful. Dr Srivastava identifies and untangles the strands of her experiences with surgical deftness. Her doctor weeps, her colleagues show support and care and empathy and she heals. As a trained observer, the writer dissects her experience of grief, lays out its anatomy and reflects upon its organs and parts.

Like the writer, I find relief and understanding in the act of writing. I suspect that a part of this relief results from word search. The writer is obliged to seek the precise word for the experience. In my case this forces me to test and taste a number of words. Perhaps a dozen words might work more or less passably, but the acts of searching, of choosing, of trialling, help me to clarify what my feelings were not quite like. I mean I discover what I mean. Perhaps this functions as a working through, a self-conversation, something between analysis of an experience and re-imagining it. In my case too, the pleasure of words is an aesthetic joy that comforts me.

Medicine is a pursuit conducted with the living in the shadow of death. It is a pursuit packed with anxious questions: what is wrong with me, will I die, what can be done, will it hurt, how much, how will I know the answers, when will I know? This crying doctor feels the patient’s fear and his own and has to know the border that divides the two. My fears are for the patient, of the patient, of failure, of failing a person of flesh and feeling. My fears include the terror that strikes me when I see my patient slipping away, the knowledge of my mortal inadequacy.

The writer who lost her twins precisely names the elements in her emotional experience. With remarkable poise she traces the costs and the benefits of the loss. So coherent are her reflections I could feel myself learning as I read. I learned about her life and her work, how the two are not the same but never severable. I learned more of how a doctor feels, who she is, who I am.

Orpheus and Eurydice in the Yidinji Lands of Babinda

I have taken this story verbatim from the free brochure produced by Babinda Information Centre Volunteers and funded by the Cairns Regional Council. 

The volunteer who gave me my copy, a gracious and helpful lady a good deal older than I, told me: The authors wrote this a very long time ago. They were a man and a woman who became knowledgeable about the local tribes. They both passed away many years ago.” I acknowledge my debt to those writers. I trust I have violated no-one’s copyright. I will be pleased to receive any information that will put me in contact with the heirs of the authors. 

More fundamentally, I acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and thank them for welcoming me here. I swam in these beautiful waters, enjoying them among the descendants of the original inhabitants. Mothers and fathers of brown kids and pink kids joined tourists, backpackers, Asian tour groups and an old white doctor, cooling upstream of all and danger and loss.  

“A long time ago, when the Yidinji tribe lived in the Babinda Valley, there was a tremendous upheaval that created these unusual shaped “Boulders” with their foaming, rushing waters. In the tribe was Oolana, a very beautiful young woman. Also in the tribe was Waroonoo, a very old, wise and respected elder. It was decided these two should be given in marriage to each other and so it was done. Some time later a visiting tribe can wandering through the valley and as was the custom of the friendly Yidinji, they made the strangers welcome, inviting them to stay. In the tribe was Dyga, a very handsome young man. All eyes were upon him for his grace and beauty. At first sight Dyga and Oolana fell in love.

 

“So great was their strong attraction for each other they arranged to meet secretly. Knowing full well their desire for one another would never be permitted they ran away. Oolana knew she could now never return as she was rightfully married to Waroonoo. They journeyed well up into the valley, spending wonderfully happy days together as they camped under Chooreechillum*, near the water’s edge.

The two tribes had been searching for them and it was at this spot they came upon the the two lovers. The wandering tribesemen seized Dyga, forcing him away 
(re)calling how they had been shamed and would never return and how they would travel far away and never return. The Yidinjis had taken hold of Ooolana and 
were dragging her back, forcing her to return with them to the rest of the tribe. Suddenly she broke away and violently flung herself into the gentle waters of the creek, as she called and cried for Dyga to return to her here, but the wandering tribe had gone and with them her handsome lover.

Would he ever return? Just at the very instant Oolana struck the water, a tremendous upheaval occurred. The land shook with terror and sorrow as Oolana cried for her lost lover to come to her. Her anguished cries spilled out as rushing water came cascading over the whole area. Huge boulders were thrown up and she disappeared into them. Oolana seemed to become part of the stones as if to guard the very spot where it all happened.

So to this day, her spirit remains.  Some say that at times her anguished calls cry out calling her lover to return – and that wandering travellers should take care

lest Oolana call them too close to her beautiful waters, for she is forever searching for her own lost lover, and this must always be.” 

Upstream the waters are wide and gentle. Downstream a little and around a bend the river narrows, the waters deepen and rush between mighty boulders that are 
grey and silent and solid and powerful. Leaping suddenly downward in great foaming furrows, the green waters crash from a height into a pool that roils and

froths in endless turmoil. “Very many have drowned here”, reads the notice. (“Caution, slippery kocks”, reads another notice, the capital ‘R’ helpfully altered to a ‘K’.) In the words of the copper in ‘Point Break’, pointing over his shoulders at the wild waters off Bells’ Beach where Patrick Swayzee has preceded them, “It’s death on a stick out there, mate.” 

 

Upstream where all is tranquil a young mother sat on the steps at the water’s edge, watching her children swim. She said, “It’s true. In my own lifetime in Babinda very many have drowned down there…very many. But only men drowned. Never a woman.” 


* Choorechillum, Queensland’s highest peak. Its whitefella name is Mt Bartle Frere.