Love and Treachery

In the movie, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, the grown-up Christopher confronts his father who has commercialized the son’s persona: ‘You weren’t writing a story, you were doing research.’

A.A. Milne feels the force and truth of his son’s accusation. Lifelong the son would refuse to accept any of the vast proceeds of the stories and poems that grew from a father’s love of words and a boy.

Two years ago a friend confronted me in pain and in anger: ‘When we talked I thought we were

speaking as two friends. But you were there as a writer.’ I felt the force of his pain and the truth of my treachery. In time my friend gave me the great gift of forgiveness but a feeling of shame lingers.

My mother used to read the Christopher Robin stories to me when I was very young. Oddly I don’t recall reading them to my own children, but when my first two grandchildren were aged about three I’d push them to my mother’s house, where we four would eat cakes and pastries and I’d read aloud

the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young.’ My mother and I felt strangely moved. The children seemed to enjoy the ritual; they certainly enjoyed the cakes. The lines, Do you have a rabbit/

I do like rabbits/But they didn’t have a rabbit/Not anywhere there… always lumped up my throat.

I did not need to turn and look to know Mum’s eyes were misting as I read.

I imagine those lines will always bring back to those grandchildren some primordial sensation, some thrill or echo of my ancient loves: my love of words, my mother’s love for those words, our love of the

sharing, our love for those cake-stuffed tenderlings whom I held on my knee.

Those children are bigger now. Soon they will be grown up. And they’ll watch their grandfather the word lover as he plunders life and writes his loves, and struggles with his traitor’s heart.

The Lady in Seat 22 F  

Somehow the airline separates me from my wife. They allocate Annette seat number 21 C and they give me 22 B. Arriving at Row 22 I find seat B occupied by a young mum with a baby on her lap. The baby is asleep. The young woman explains: ‘The cabin attendant switched me so my Mom and I can sit together. Do you mind?’

I don’t mind at all.

The cabin attendant appears at my elbow. ‘Seat 22 E is free. Do you mind sitting there?’

I don’t mind at all.

I take my seat between a youngish man and a younger woman. He’s a muscular nugget. His fair facial bristles catch the morning sun and glow gold; she’s slim, no whiskers, café au lait skin. The man busies himself with his keyboard. I open my paperback. The lady smiles, says, ‘Hello’. I catch an accent, try to place it. Guessing she’s a Latina I prepare some Spanish. ‘De donde estais?’

‘Not from Espain. Not from any espanish speaking country. Try to guess.’

‘Slovenia?’

The smile widens. She shakes a lot of wavy hair: ‘No.’

‘Turkey?’

More hairshaking. She’s laughing now.

‘One more try.’

Guessing wildly I try Portugal. She laughs a merry laugh. ‘No. Saudi Arabia.’

Golly. No head covering, light brown hair, pretty conventional western dress.

‘She proffers a child’s hand: ‘My name’s Amy.’

Golly.

‘Hello, Amy. I’m Howard.’

‘What is your country, Howard?’

‘Australia.’

I give her time to absorb the incredible. Then, ‘You are Muslim?’

‘Yes, of course.’

I remove my cap, lean forward, reveal my yarmulke: ‘I’m your cousin.’

The smile widens. She’s delighted: ‘You are a religious man. I pray every day five times. I am estudent.’ She names her university in Los Angeles, a name not known to me.’ When in Saudi Amy wears her head covered, ‘only my face you can see.’

Amy tells me of her two brothers and her sister who are back in Saudi Arabia, with mother and father. A second sister is studying in LA with Amy. She points to a rich head of darker hair that crowns a quite ravishing face in a nearby row,

I spend some time pondering the life of a young Saudi woman on a US campus. A woman who dresses western and prays every day five times. Pretty brave, I suspect. And incidentally, pretty easy on the eye.

‘Amy, why do you take the risk of speaking candidly like this to a strange man?’

The head lifts and she regards me, smiling a little as to one who is naive: ‘Instinct.’

Back to my paperback. The young bloke types something about a baseball match. The young woman takes out some study sheets. I sight some highlighted terms familiar to me – homeostasis, perception, adrenergic flight/fight response. The head of wavy hair bends over the notes, a child-size finger traces the lines, her lips frame the foreign words.

‘What are you studying?’

‘Clinical Psychology. And what is your profession?’

‘I’m a doctor.’

‘That’s good. Maybe you can tell me what is homeostasis.’

I tell her what I understand by that term, the neologism I encountered first in 1965, a word that widened my mind.

Amy nods gravely and thanks me.

After a while Amy sets Clinical Psychology aside. She looks at my book and asks:’ Is that a good book?’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘But you do not know?’

The book won a Pulitzer. A close friend pressed it on me, saying: ‘Read it if you want to know DR.’

Do I like it? Not much. At least not yet. The plot, yes; the characters, yes yes yes. The style, not much.

Homeostasis is simpler to explain than ‘I think it’s a good book, but I do not know if I like it.’ A deep breath and I essay some literary criticism: ‘This book won America’s top award for literature. I think it gained attention for its unusual style of writing and for telling the modern history of the Dominican Republic in the story of one unfortunate family. The writing is bright, the story is dark. The language is lively, plenty of street talk. Every third word is nigger, every fourth word is fuck.’

I pause. No shock registers on the estudent’s face.

‘The characters are vivid and their story is dramatic. So, yes, I think it is a good book, an important book. Even ‘though I do not enjoy it much. Yet.’

‘You read many books?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Tell me please what books are good for me to read. Books you do like.’

She couldn’t give me a pleasanter task. The flight from Los Angeles to New York takes four hours. That might suffice. I speak of my favourite of all books written in the twentieth century. This is the book I read at Amy’s age ( I’m guessing here she’s as old today as I was fifty years ago): ‘The Leopard, an Italian novel of an aging aristocrat – you know? (Amy nods) – he sees the life he has known and loved, a life of privilege, passing. He knows that life will be lost.’

Amy remarks, ‘Life in my country is also changing… Slowly.’

Next I speak of Anna Karenina. ‘This is also an old book, more than one hundred years, written by another aristocrat, Leo Tolstoy. It tells the life of a woman who disobeys the rules of her society and obeys only her passion. She loves a man who is not her husband. I like this book very much; I respect Anna’s courage but I am angry at her too. I am angry because she turns her back on her son, a small boy.

‘It is an important book, one of the earliest books to give a woman strength, courage to make choices and to follow her own path.’

I watch Amy for signs of disapproval or discomfort. No sign of either.

‘Although I don’t entirely like Anna, the character, I like the book. The author shows us life. Like Shakespeare, he knows the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. He knows them and he shows them. He is not the judge, he gives us the life.’

‘And one more. This is maybe America’s most beloved book of the Twentieth Century. I love it very much. It is called, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is written by a woman, Harper Lee. The story is told in the voice of a small girl who lives in a town in America’s south at a time when many white people showed no respect for black people. The girl’s father is a lawyer who tries to save a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. You read this book and you love the father and you love the child.’

Amy asks me to write the names of the books she should read. It dawns on me I’ve recommended three books that challenge old norms. The books subvert male dominance, they chart the passing of feudalism and ancient authority, they show the rule of equal law.

I have lots of questions. Amy answers them readily. No she doesn’t go out with men (‘I am a good Muslim’), but she had been engaged to marry a man whom she chose. That was back in her home country. Later the engagement ended, the free decision of both. No hard feelings, no honour issues. It occurs to me Amy has found in Seat 22E a Father Confessor. I wonder about her vocation: I don’t know anyone who works in mental health who enjoyed an easy childhood.

The aircraft’s engines keep up a steady hum. Conversation is hushed and most passengers sleep. As Amy sits at the side of one of my deaf ears, there’s no lip-reading and I miss some of her speech. When I ask, ‘What work does your father do?’, I miss her reply. She repeats : ‘He’s a general in the Air Force.’

Golly.

She adds, ‘My mother is a school teacher.’

‘When you finish your studies will you return to your country?’

‘I will visit. My older sister has two babies. I must see them. But my life, I think maybe here in America. And my sister Sara, she is here.’

My mind races from question to question: Is Amy the right sort of Muslim – by the lights of the current President – to be admitted to the USA? What does Daddy the General think of Amy’s choices – dress, spouse, profession, place of residence? All her choices bespeak independence but in reality she must be completely dependent on Daddy. Amy has none of the bearing of the rebel – there’s nothing defiant in her speech – yet her Americanness must challenge Saudi norms. I think too of the engagement of the Saudi’s military – especially the Air Force – in the nasty war in Yemen. A Saudi general would be a serious man.

These are questions this old man does not ask. Meanwhile the estudent has put away her study notes, buried her head in a blanket, tucked her legs beneath her and, by some miracle of youthful calisthenics, made herself comfortable enough to sleep. For the next two hours the Princess of Araby slumbers in Seat 22F. She awakens as we descend, smiles, shakes my hand and asks, ‘When will I meet you again, Howard?’

Once Upon a Poem 


Once, when two persons were walking together at day’s end, the elder of the two remarked on the sunset. He spoke and said:

 

the sky is burning

in my mind

 

Once Upon a Story

 

Once, when two were walking on the beach the younger saw a rock that looked like Leviathan and she said:

 

Last night I was here and that rock wasn’t a rock.

Last night I saw it move from the sea. It moved up the beach and it came towards me. It was a whale. It chased me up the sand and I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop running until I got home.

 

Once Upon a Song

 

Once, when two walked together a song drifted towards them. The song had no words. The sounds of the song reached them from somewhere higher or darker or hidden. The sound surrounded them. The flapping of wings, the whoosh of flight, made them think of birds. And the drift and drone, the rise and fall, the start and pause, mad them think of a breathing. Perhaps a person. Perhaps their planet.
Once and Always

 

The poem and the story and the song came and went, went and came, always different, ever the same. The song and the story and the poem bound the younger to the elder and both of them to all who came after and to all who came before.

 

Sometimes the two remembered or wondered or dreamed or knew: the song and the poem and the story had been there before they were, before the sunset, before the rock. Perhaps song, poem and story had brought the sunset and the rock and the flapping wings into being.

 

The two knew they could exist only in a world of story and poem and song.

 

 

 

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.

 

An Outbreak of Bibliophilia

Children, like humans, thirst endlessly for stories. My own seven grandchildren, who range in age from twelve-year old Jesse to two-year old Ruby, love stories. They thirst for story as we elders hunger to give story.

‘My son,’ remarked Rabbi Joshua to Rabbi Samuel (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin), ‘More than the calf yearns to suck the cow longs to give suck.’ How do I know this maxim? That story dates back to the commencement of the academic year in March, 1965, when I purchased the latest edition of Samson Wright’s textbook of physiology. I opened the great tome and found at the foot of an otherwise blank second page the above quotation. The sole yarmulke wearer in the class, I was the only one of 120 students likely to have knowledge of the Talmud. But the passage was new to me. And I was astonished to read the quotation and its attribution in this secular text.

What have the lactation urges of the cow to do with human physiology? Everything, it happens: that interrelation of forces, that feedback loop, that mutual energising is the very stuff of homeostasis, which operates also in markets, in the climate and in the biological relationships between humans. The sage Rabbi Joshua nailed a great truth. But I fear I wander.

The entire purpose of children is to satisfy the need of humans to regale them with stories. The reason children don’t run away is their reciprocal story hunger. The reason we don’t chuck teenagers out is the promise they’ll one day employ their disturbing sexual organs to create grandchildren for us so we can resume storytelling. And that’s what happened: my adult children used their sexual organs for the pleasure of their parents, creating seven grandkids.

All seven served their grandparents well, occupying yearning arms and longing laps, snuggling in and subsiding to the song of the story. Then they learned to walk. Two of seven, both of them boys, took to their heels and never stopped running. In time, although those two learned to read, they never took it to heart; it is in motion that they find themselves, one in organised sports, the other in disorganised sport. (Readers of this blog will recall this boy and the rescue of his fingers when trapped in a bathplug.)

Their bookish grandfather gazes upon the boys and sighs. He calls them to the couch for a story but the call of their balls is louder. Off they run, to soccer, to cricket, to mayhem.

What will become of them? What will become of grandfather?

Later the ball-players have returned home. Grandfather wanders to the toilet. Before him, on the floor, lies a cornucopia of books; the disorganised sportsman comes to a stop in this place. And in this sanctum he reads.

Blogging On

I wrote a post a few days ago expecting it to pass with a yawn. That it did not is a surprise. That it might matter is an astonishment. That I’ll persist is the fault of the addressees below:

Dear palmerglassbox,

I am gratified to bring a ray of sunshine twice a week, but I am concerned about the other five sunless days. Please ask your doc to measure your vitamin D levels.

Dear Lionel Lubitz,
I like the idea of opening you (plural) up. It is ages since I performed a laparotomy. Thank you for your unhyperbole and for the teasing notion that the blog can annoy you (again plural). Someone’s taking notice.

Dear Susanne at Bilingual Options,
Your response delights me because you delight in the stories that delight me most, those about family. As one very familiar with the grandrats (Susanne is the model for the speech therapist in Carrots and Jaffas, and my twin grandsons were her patients), you know well their suicidal energies. And as for wordpress, it conquers even the mightiest intellect. Only my daughter can be its blogmeistress, and that by virtue of her power of persistence (in her childhood, read ‘stubbornness’.)

Welcome kaisywmills, who like Janus, has two faces, one feminine, the second bearded.

Claire McAlpine, bloggist and book critic, says blog on. Same to you, Claire, and more so. Your blog and your reviews bring good books to our attention.

Thank you Sulfen for what I take to be encouragement. It is no chore to write, the contrary in fact; my fear is creating a chore for the reader.

And Kerryn, who wrote so thoughtfully: Kerryn, when you encourage me to tell stories, you give my inner minstrel voice to sing. And your suggestion for a story about the bloke in my wedding photo is irresistible. (Watch this space.) Further, if, dear Kerryn you were born on New Year’s Eve about 35 years ago, you might have been delivered by me; and in that case you have met that man, you knew that face: he is my forever friend, my former partner in the medical practice you attended in childhood.

And dear Louis De Vries – the publisher all writers dream of and none can deserve – we know where the readers are: they are all reading on tablets, which were invented to bankrupt you, to frustrate me and to allow people to read in the dunny.

Dear Miriam Abud,
How delightful to find you finding me in this way. Suddenly the invention of the computer is justified, the existence of the internet worthwhile. The thought of anyone settling down to half a dozen of my writings thrills and amazes me. That it is YOU fills me with smiles of pleasure. I’ll keep going. And I think the radio would bring out all that is boring and pompous and opinionated in me. But if it would sell books…

And you, Helen, in urging more poetry you open a mare’s nest, a can of sperms, and a mix of metaphors. My own verse is largely limited to medical referral letters where, because they are confidential and hence unpublishable, the verse does least harm. On the odd occasion I post the verse of true poets, women – generally young undergraduates – drool and swoon, a pleasant surprise for an old gent. I suspect poetry drives many men away.

Hello, misssophiablog, welcome to this blog. I am impressed that yours has a FAQ section. Golly. When I need fashion advice I’ll turn to you, Courtney.

Hello Spot, your remark, ‘in the outback you give us another window on the world’ is unexpected and brings the sudden thought that a casual smartarse blogger might actually be some sort of postman to another person waiting for a letter, any letter. Suddenly, all this might be serious. Or significant. Thank you and golly!

Hello dear Faye Colls,
No writer could ever earn your unwavering loyalty. You are a warm and kindly spirit. Fair dinkum.

Dear Dear Bruce,
In your steadfast attention to my musings you create a blog of your own, revealing a soldier of the law who defended the weak to his own cost. You show us your wounds of honour, your human vulnerability. In all your humility you lift us up.

Dear Hilary Custance Green,
As well as having the very most remarkable and unforgettable and rhymable name an author or a blogger could desire, you write most thoughtfully and I should say, faithfully. Everyone should read your new novel, which I will buy in the UK in January – despite Amazon’s best efforts to sabotage you – and which I’ll review in this blog. Please ensure Foyles stocks the book.
I have just received your remarkable (and generous) review of Carrots and Jaffas. You have expressed my purposes so adroitly and divined my approach so comprehensively, you’ve actually deepened my understanding of my own book. Thank you, quite humbly, HCG. (in my trade hcg is the acronym for human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is the substance in a woman’s urine that tells her she’s pregnant when she pees onto a stick. You have elevated HCG to a more refined level.)

Dear Nick Miller,
Like you I find myself thwarted by wordpress. I’m all the gratefuller for your close attention to the blog, as to all of my writing. Carrots and Jaffas would have been a much poorer book without your criticisms.

Gerard Oosterman, hello, and thank you for commenting. Your own blog is masterly and you seem to have conquered wordpress. Bravo! (note to readers – chase up gerard’s blog: it’s a ripper!)

Dear I L Wolf, dear Margot Mann (in fact, beloved MCM), dear Glitchy Mind, dear Claire Word by Word, dear the chattyrachel, dear M. Talmage Moorhead (a name to rival Hilary’s), dear mannyrutinel, dear amandalyle, dear fictionistasan (intriguing monniker), dear M. Funk l PHOTOGRAPHY, dear Greg Mercer, MSN, dear jackiewilson, dear bluchickenninja – you all liked a blogpost that ran the risk of becoming a fishing expedition for compliments. You forgave me and you wrote. Thank you all.

And dear DovTheRov, you make me larrf, Thank you for the encouragement. You write a mean weekly newsletter. How many rabbis can make a minyan smile?

In Hebrew we have an expression: “acharon, acharon chaviv” – last mentioned, most beloved. Thank you Rachel, thank you, thank you.

Yours, twice weekly, I’m afraid.