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?’

Goodbye My Friend

We are saying goodbye to Mannie today.

Mannie, my friend.

Mannie, whose loved ones weep today.

Manny, one sole man, who ran and ran.

Mannie whose race is finally run.

Mannie’s roots lie in Greece.

Mannie was true to his roots.

Those roots brought forth shoots who live and grow and bear fruit. The shoots are the children of Mannie and Demitra. When the young couple named their shoots they were visited by the muses: they named their children not Lucy but Alithea; not Robert but Panayioti; not Susan but Leni. The names carry meaning, love of course, and destiny.

Mannie did not give his children easy names, Aussie names, names to hide behind. He gave them what he received – a culture, a tradition, a history of beauty and pride.

Everyone knows of the feats of Manuel Karageorgiou, Mannie, who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and the second and the third and …

Manny was one of the eight. Eight glorious souls who had lived and toiled and wrought in every Melbourne Marathon from the first to the latest. Forty consecutive marathons. Foolish.

I want to suggest to the non-runner reader what Mannie’s folly entailed. Physiologists have identified an end point of energy. And adult human can run about 32 kilometres, then energy reserves are exhausted. After that the runner faces a wall. The runner digs into a core of belief and runs a further step. There remain ten kilometres, ten thousand steps. The runner digs further, drawing on pride, on mystic need, on love, on some truth in the soul. And the runner runs on, runs through a wrecked body. The runner now is pure spirit.

And then there are the final, agonising, ecstatic one hundred and eighty steps. The runner crosses the line and then the race is run.

A few paragraphs ago I began listing Mannie’s Melbourne Marathons. I stopped after three. Were I merely to list the forty your eyes would glaze, your mind would wilt, you’d leave the track that Mannie and the Eight would not leave.

My Greek friend always dreamed of running the Athens Marathon, a homecoming profound beyond imagining. But Mannie never allowed himself to run Athens because it clashed with Melbourne. And Mannie owed the event his presence, his being. Mannie would not desert his friends of the Eight.

I’d like you to visit www.howardgoldenberg.com and look up posts that tell of three of Mannie’s marathons. You’ll find them dated October 2014, 2015, 2016. And then read https://howardgoldenberg.com/2017/10/23/its-not-how-long-youve-got-its-what-you-do-with-it/ from October 2017.

I’ll reveal here some of Mannie’s medical history, normally a forbidden act. But Mannie as we know was not a normal man:

While on an early morning training run before the Melbourne Marathon a few years ago I sensed a solid bulk of human flesh approaching in the gloom. The flesh developed a face and the face shot a me smile through the mist. Mannie recognised me first.

Here he was, I knew, fresh from his bone marrow transplant. Preposterous – Mannie understood – to run a marathon with that illness, outrageous, with those therapies. He’d visited me the previous week to talk about running again. ‘The specialist says I shouldn’t run. Howard, is he right?’

‘I suppose he must be Mannie. One fall and your bones can break, so easily.’

It was a broken rib, cancerous, we both recalled, that uncovered Mannie’s diagnosis.

Mannie looked at me. Mannie knew I was no cancer expert, just a runner. His look was a plea; he wanted a reprieve.

I said I could tell him what was the safest course. But then I told him about my mother:’Late in Mum’s life her health was shattered by strokes, but the spirit of the wanderer that had taken her to the bright and the dark ends of the globe, burned still. My sister and I were going to fly to Uluru. Mum wanted to come. She said, “If I stay at home I’ll die one day anyhow. I’d sooner go and see and find and know; and if I die doing it, I’ll have seen the rock. That would still be a good deal for me.” Mannie thanked me and left.  You know what Mannie decided.

I referred before to Mannie’s folly. I’ve seen marathons. I’ve seen and felt the interest and the indifference of spectators. I’ve seen the fellowship of running. I’ve felt the loneliness of the Malta plains. I’ve seen the splendour and I’ve seen the blackness: both were present that day in Boston. I thought I had seen it all, until I ran a marathon with Mannie. An entourage ambushed him – a son, a brother, a younger leviathan figure, a clutch of attractive young women (I wondered who they were. I learned they were girlfriends of nephews of Mannie.) This phalanx of nonrunners surrounded Mannie, they spread widely across the road. Mannie was one runner among thousands, but he alone moved in this stream of flesh aching with love. They ran and ran alongside their hero – the older man, the fat man, the glamorous girls. They tasted fatigue but they would not leave him, not until he reached the next plank in Mannie’s platform of love; and this, of course, was Demitra. ‘DEM!’, he cried, and they kissed. And Demitra held their grandbaby. Mannie stopped. He held that chubby child close and inhaled her. And then he ran on.

I have written of a human, a person. I have written of him chiefly as the operator of a pair of legs. A person is more than that. More than a disease, more than his diagnosis. But in Mannie the runner I see the human and his fate. This man faced Nemesis and outran him for year after year. And when at last – five kilometres into the fortieth marathon, after Mannie stumbled and fell, then arose bloodied – it was Demitra who stepped from the footpath, who took his hand and led him away.

“..Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

Farewell, Mannie. We will not see your like again.

Mannie’s family have let it be known they don’t want floral tributes to mannie. They’d prefer us to donate to the Myeloma Foundation in his memory. And of course, in his honour.

Silent Singer

 
The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
 
 
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
 
 
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears  of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”  
 
 
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
 
 
 
 
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk

From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.

 

Mother’s Day – or Mothers’ Day or Mothers Day

This announcement was born as a boast but I make it today as a confession: I DON’T BELIEVE IN MOTHER’S DAY.* I don’t honour it, I don’t observe it (unless with quizzical disdain), I don’t respect it, (excepting as a smart marketing exercise. What began as a means of selling greetings cards in the off-season found eager recruits in floristry and in restaurantry – as well as in cafetery and lingerie. Mother/s Day has all the hallmarks of Hallmark and the hallmarks of the pulsing of empty cultures in new countries and guilty sons in the pub, at the footy, at work, at play – at living outside extended family.)

Climbing down from my lofty position of cultural oversight into the kitchen of my own life, I can identify a serious gap: my mother and I have not spoken to each other for almost five years.

I have dreamed of her. I have dreamed she dreams of me. Mum died in June 2009 and I miss her. I do not mourn for Mum: I grieve for my loss, for the delight of her company. Mum always made me smile. Always. In her breathless dying week I watched as Mum suffered one particularly horrifying attack: she gasped at air. It went on and on, as her lungs filled higher and higher with the fluid that would drown her at week’s end. I called a nurse, Nurse squirted a diuretic into Mum, the breathing slowed and Mum pulled off her oxygen mask, grinning: “You thought I was going to croak, didn’t you, darling? Well” – Mum was cackling now in the hilarity of the merry joke that was all her existence – “I didn’t, did I?”

In my kitchen of now, I fry tomatoes and eggs and red kidney beans with onions fried in oil with garlic and smoked paprika and cumin. I serve this and avocado bathed in fresh lime juice and garlic-infused olive oil on a mountain of fresh bagels and specialty breads. All is prefaced by a glass of orange juice squeezed by my grandchildren. We serve this to the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother. Everyone gives gifts, festoons and cards (handmade, unHallmarked) to the old ladies. And I watch, a non-combatant. I look at my mother in law, fulfilled, filled with years. I come in, in from my chill principles, and I celebrate with them all.

*I’ve always felt the same away about Fathers Day and Valentines Day too.

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New to the Country

A thin teenage boy limps into my consulting room. His file gives his age as fourteen. He accepts my offered hand and shakes, his narrow face opening into a shy smile. His English is slow, studied, like his gait. Mum, accompanied by a three-year old son, enters with the bigger boy. She is trim, confident in English, smiles readily. This reversal in facility with English is curious: more commonly the parent’s tongue limps in the new language while the child’s races ahead and translates for the parent.

I examine the painful foot which is swollen and tender at the top of the instep. The diagnosis eludes me. “I don’t really know what has made this foot sore. But I can try some treatment which I think will help.”
Fourteen-year old appears happy with this. Mum says, “Thank you.”
The three year-old wanders quietly around my consulting room, locates all its fittings and gadgets, investigates their workings and adjusts all to his satisfaction.

I guess from the family’s surname they come from Vietnam. The older boy confirms this.
I hand the boy a prescription and prepare to write a letter for him to take to his own doctor.
Mother, smiling, shakes her head: “He doesn’t have a doctor.”
“I can write a letter for your clinic and you can take your son there. Will that be OK ?”
“Yes”. Another smile.
The letter written, the family rises to leave.
Mother turns to me. “He has been here in Australia two weeks only. Until now he was in Vietnam. And we have been without him.”
“How long have you been apart?”

“One year and a half a year.”
“Did you miss each other?”
The boy nods. Mother says, “We miss very much. Now happy. Now family all together.”

She thanks me and heads for the door, then adds:”You are the first doctor he sees. Thank you for being so kind.”
At the door, the three-year old folds his arms across his upper trunk and bows.
Mother says: “In our culture that means he show you respect.”

****

Another consultation, this one in 1971. I take a phone request to visit a patient in Altona who has a fever and is unwell. I make my way to the address, which turns out to be the migrant hostel. The sun is setting as I park my car in the enormous parking area. Ahead of me in the gloom I sight squat oblong buildings that proliferate wherever I rest my gaze. All have the same design. My instructions are to proceed to “Room Number Seven”.
But number seven in which building of these many? I cannot know. (Mobile phones have not yet been invented.)
Dismayed, I look around. I see buildings that are anonymous and many. Of residents I see none. Continue reading

Robert Hillman’s ‘Gurrumul’ – Review by Howard Goldenberg

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman  Publisher: ABC Books

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman
Publisher: ABC Books

If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.

By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.

No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.

“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.

Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in  practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.

When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.

To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.

In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”

Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.

Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.

Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.

In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.

Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.