Jogblog, 1

Around 1980 I came across a supposed distinction between a runner and a jogger. A runner, I was pleased to learn, was one who could beat one kilometre every five minutes. At that stage I could run the 42.2 kilometres of the marathon at a rate just quicker than 5-minutes a kilometre, finishing in three-and-a half hours or less. To be classed as a fast runner, you had to beat forty minutes for the 10K. Over the next fifteen years I raced a dozen 10K’s, finishing always in 42 minutes and 23 seconds, precisely. I was consistently not fast.

 

 

Running not fast, I’ve barely outpaced packs of semi-wild dogs on hot dusty outback tracks; I’ve chased my childhood along the perimeters of Leeton, where I lived my halcyon seed time; I’ve outpaced skinny dogs in Old Havana and reproachful cats in Israel; I’ve skidded on the black ice in New York City and plodded through the silence of snow falling heavily about me in Mount Kisco and Pittsburgh; I’ve run past the legendary spud farmer Cliff Young, and side by side with the heroic Manny Karageorgiou, who never stopped for Death until Death stopped for him. I’ve trained at Olympic Park as Cathy Freeman whizzed past me. I’ve run in the Rockies with Rob DeCastella, in Alice Springs with Steve Monaghetti, and in NYC behind the gracious Juma Ikaanga. I know I’ve dogged the heels of greatness.

 

 

Running alone on the scorched desert floor beneath The Breakaways out of Coober Pedy, on the abrupt slope of The Gap at Balgo, climbing the Snake Track at Masada, in the darkness before dawn at Uluru, I’ve encountered my sole self, arriving – it seemed – but moments after the Creator completed the work.

 

 

In the dark of a starless night in midwinter, following a road in the hills of the Diamond Valley, my feet traced the sole marker of my way, the luminous white median line on the bitumen. No sound save for my footfalls and my breathing. No hum of motor, no bark of guard dog, no lowing of cattle; just me, the sharp intake of breath, the slap of my foot. In that world of black I shivered not for the cold but for desolation. Then – a sound? – impossible. But heard again, approaching me, low, rhythmic, utterly unaccountable, utterly real sounds. Hairs stood rigidly erect. Then a collision! My legs registered some mammalian presence as I leaped into the air. A thoroughly startled wombat, a speechless runner, silence restored.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

 

The mother of my brother-in-law was a midget dynamo who’d survived Belsen. When I entered her orbit in the mid-70’s she reproved me for my waste of a life: “Marathon running is somehow disordered”, she said. She spoke with the moral authority of one who knew too much. I listened but I kept running. I considered her words as I ran marathons, some of them alongside my brother-in-law, her only child. I recalled the legend of Pheidipides of Marathon. I came to see my life as the marathon, a passage through time and space, blessed and made rich by encounters with those who make the passage with me, and before me, and who will jog on after I have passed. 

 

 

Rejoice my brethren. Ours is the victory.  

I Read the News Today, O Boy

I read this news report today. You probably missed it as mainstream news media don’t print this sort of news.
“Mourners are streaming to the central Israel city of Tira to comfort the family of a nineteen year old woman killed by ISIS. Lian Zaher Nassser was one of 39 people killed by an ISIS gunman at a New Years celebration at an Istanbul nightclub.
She was laid to rest at a funeral attended by thousands on Tuesday, just over a week after another Israeli woman, Dalia Elyakim, was buried. 

Nasser, an Israeli Arab, was on holiday in Istanbul with three friends, one of who(m) was injured. Elyakim, killed in the Christmas market attack in Berlin, had been travelling with her husband Rami, who was badly injured in the attack.

In the Nasser family’s sorrow, it found help from an unexpected source – ultra-orthodox Jews. The parents wanted to get their daughter’s body back to Israel as quickly as possible, but ran into difficulty as she was not insured, and in the end enlisted the help of the Haredi-run rescue organisation, ZAKA. ‘ZAKA is an international humanitarian organisation that honours the dead, regardless of religion, race or gender,’ said the organisation’s chairman Yehudah Meshi-Zahav.”

People react differently to this sort of report. For some the news comes as a salve, a corrective to the bad news tsunami. Others read it and say, ‘Yes, but…’

Working at the Children’s Hospital recently I treated a child who wore a pink hijab. She did not look mid-eastern, nor African. Her surname was unusual. I wondered a bit then hazarded a guess:’Are you from Albania?’ Her dad was amazed. ‘How did you know?’ 

Then, ‘Where do you come from, Doctor?’

‘Australia. I was made here – with all Australian parts.’

I removed my whimsical hat, exposing my yarmulka.

The father practically whooped with delight:’ You are Jewish! How wonderful!’

Then, ‘Do you know the story of my people and your people during the Second War?’

I admitted I knew it but dimly.

Father filled me in: ‘Albania was one of the few nations to give Jews shelter. We hid them and protected them. And after the War, the Jewish Holocaust Centre here – in this city of Melbourne – honoured my people.

And do you know, Doctor, our mosque was Melbourne’s first?’

Some will read this and feel the salve. Some will react, ‘Yes, but…’

 

People Tell Me Things, People Show Me Things

Coles opens at six in the morning. The usual early checkout lady is here, speaking her accented English. (As if I do not, as if we do not all, declare our origins whenever we speak.)
‘Are you from Israel?’ – I ask.

‘Where should I be from?’

She’s Israeli alright.

I tell her my wife and grandkids and I estivated in Israel just a couple of weeks ago.

‘To visit Israel is wonderful’, she says. Her voice works fractionally harder on ‘visit.’ Her emphasis is to teach me something undeclared: to go there and stay is not so wonderful.

Her busy face looks up at me: ‘Do you really want to pay $7.90 for this celery? Organic?? You don’t look so rich. Go, get normal celery, two dollars fifty.’

I obey.

‘That celery is better. Sometimes organic is not organic.’ Her face, usually set too dour for conversation, opens. The checkout lady finds time this morning to soften our transaction, to confess whatever it is she has been carrying for this long time: ‘To live in Israel is hard. The stress, the bombs, every day – the stress.’

 

 

 

***

 

 

Grey day. Not cold, just damp, a case of Melbourne having weather instead of a climate. Striding along Collins Street to keep an appointment, I sight ahead of me in the gloom a lone figure sawing away at a violin. The sounds, initially thin, fill and broaden as I near the performer, a slender young woman. Closer now, and the sound is rich and spacious under the leaden canopy of wet cloud.

The violinist stands alone in her parallelogram of space as Melbourne’s skulkers scuttle to shelter.

I chuck a coin into her empty violin case, thanking her for beautifying this unbeautiful day.

 

Further down Collins Street, I stand in the drizzle awaiting my appointed meetee. A thin man approaches, veers towards me and slows: “Wanna buy a diamond ring?”

Seventy-year old ears don’t pick up such fine print.

Did he ask for money? He looks like he could go a feed.

My hand locates the ten dollar note in my pocket.

Uncertain, I ask: “What did you say?”

“Do you want to buy a diamond ring?”

The thin man flashes a thin silvery band before clenching his hand around the ring.

“What? No thanks. I don’t need a ring. Thank you.”

The man peers. He is shorter than I am. He sights my kippah.

“Are you a Jew?”

“I am.”

“That’s good”, he says. Reassuring me. “You wouldn’t have a spare dollar…?”

My ready hand finds the ready note and produces it. The man palms the note, opens and considers it, then says, “You wouldn’t have another ten, would you?”

“Piss off!” Smiling.

The man extends a skinny arm. His paw pats my shoulder –

“Thanks sir” – then slopes away up Collins Street.

 

 

 

***

 

 

Two young coppers stand at the corner. Both wear guns. Sundry hardware hangs from their belts. One of the two carries a slim metal cylinder in his gloved hands. The latex gloves are sky blue, the shiny cylinder. He walks to the wheelie bin and drops the cylinder delicately before turning to join his friend and a tall, thin, older man. The thin man gangles and sways. He is grey, all grey – his hair, his beard, his bushy eyebrows, even his track suit pants. (Is there any garment more expressive of neglect than track suit pants? Apparel for vomiting in!)

 

The young officer walks up to the thin man, takes the older man’s arm gently in his hand and leads him to the Police wagon. The second officer opens the door to the mini-cell that is the prisoner’s compartment. Tenderly the officers hand the man into the interior. They protect his head from the low sill of the cabin, they bend his legs, then straighten him up before belting him in and closing the door carefully. The young men could not handle Mister Thin more tenderly if he was their grandfather.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

My patient used to be a copper. He works now for the Council, in Security. He injured his spine at work a couple of months ago and as his spine is about sixty it heals slowly. In the course of those months I have come to know him moderately well. We have established a routine: he comes in, he sits down and complains a little. I listen, examine and record. Then I complete tedious worker’s insurance forms. While I write the security officer confesses. He tells me how certain police of his former acquaintance would be a little ungentle while interrogating a suspect. He winks. He tells me how acquaintances would visit brothels where favours were expected and received. ‘Police and brothels, bad combination.’ He winks. I am to understand he is giving me his confession.

 

 

 

***

 

 

People tell me things. I remember the man who told me how brutally the hospital staff manhandled him when all he did was threaten to cut someone’s throat. The patient told me how he planned to go back to that hospital with a bomb. I asked my patient not to tell me things like that. I told him I have to report conversations of that sort to the police.

 

My patient told me he would ‘fucking kill those bitches who work for you.’ Those bitches were young women. They left my employment.

 

I wonder what prompts my patient to tell me these things. I wish he did not.

 

 

 

Taxi Driver in Jerusalem

The cab driver’s clothing smells of cigarette smoke. He looks about seventy but I tell him he is too young to smoke. He asks, ‘You are doctor?’His throaty voice is the ashtray of a thousand smokes.

I confess I am a doctor and the driver changes the subject. He drives with dash and confidence, like the tank commander he used to be, a few wars ago.

 

He detects my foreigner’s accent in his own language and asks: ‘From which country you come?’

‘Australia. You?’

‘Here. Born here, in this city. Only here.’

‘Here’ is Jerusalem.

The driver starts to sing a love song to his city, the song of a faithful son sung to a mother. 

I listen to the words and as the singer’s voice thickens I take a peek. Tears glisten on the driver’s cheeks as he sings his song.

‘All my life in this city. I live in the house I born. Never leave, never change address. This my one home.’

 

The song ends as we approach our destination, the fruit and produce market. ‘You maybe visit other places, maybe Tel Aviv?’

‘Yes, we’re going there in a couple of days.’

‘I take you. Only 260 shekel.’

The price is fair. We agree. I give him the address and he will pick us up at 8.30 am.

‘I am best taxi in Jerusalem. My mother tell me I am best. Not my wife say this.’ A hoarse smoker’s laugh.

 

Eight-twenty we sit at the kerbside, two old tourists and two thirteen-year old grandchildren and four suitcases and sundry packages. Eight-thirty, still sitting. Eight-forty, a bit restless. I call the best taxi driver in Jerusalem. The recorded voice invites me to leave a voicemail. I do so. Eight-fifty, no driver, a new voicemail with a bit of an edge to it. At nine, no driver and my voicemail is choicemail. I end with, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’

 

A man pulls up in a brand new cab, a squat little vehicle with a raised ceiling, a sort of minimaxicab. Yes, the driver will take us to Tel Aviv. His price? ‘Two hundred forty. Is OK?’ Is more than OK. The cab smells of new car. The driver hums with the pleasure of his new vehicle and the vehicle hums up and down the great hills that surround the city and the driver tells us what we are seeing. Hill follows hill, hills unfolds into yet more hills and every hillside is dotted with dwellings and farmland. Yaakov – that’s our driver’s name – gives a quick history of every community. ‘This one settled by Hasidim from Rumania, that one is collective, built by kibbutzniks, you know, communists? This one – you see minaret? – a Muslim community. That one a “moshav”, cooperative farm, Palestinians and Zionists together, in one community. Down there, old tank, burned out, from the first war.’ And so the drive goes on, every hill telling a story, the same old stories, sad stories of conflict, stories of hardship, of failure, of success.

 

Yaakov’s phone rings, a woman’s voice. He listens and answers: ‘Yes, we arrive soon. I meet you at the beach. Yes, I drop customers, I come and we meet.’ Yaakov smiling, the smile a grandfather smiles on his way to a picnic on the beach with his daughter and the grandchildren.

 

The land flattens, the traffic slows and thickens, green gives way to cement, here is Tel Aviv, sparkling by its beaches, the light a blaze. We alight and pay and take Yaakov’s card. We will ride with him again.

 

The best driver in Jerusalem is forgotten. Two days later my phone rings. A voice thick with smoke says, ‘I miss your call. You want me?’ It takes me a moment to recognise the voice of the lachrymose singer of Jerusalem, his mother’s pride. Not his wife’s. I remind him of our arrangement.

’O yes, something happen. Family…’

I remind him of my family. I remind him he has a phone and our number.

‘Yes. Sorry for that.’

I ask, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’

The man’s voice, softer now, says, ‘No.’

I tell him he has shamed his city. ‘Do better next time.’

 

Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears. 

She Would Not Look at Me

Only three days following the fall of the twin towers the Israeli author and journalist David Grossman wrote a thoughtful piece that was reprinted in The Age. The first and always casualty of terror – he wrote – is trust. You do not trust your fellow citizen, you feel you cannot afford to. Your neighbour of yesterday might be your enemy of today. Community is the casualty.

In the happy isle in which I live and move and work, terror and war and conflict are seldom seen. Insulated as we have been we could afford still to trust – long after other communities had been rent apart into fractions and fractious factions. So it is that when I go to work at the hospital for sick children, one half of my children come from homes where the first language is not English. There is a bridge of trust between us, where we meet and work harmoniously. Fifty percent of the non-anglophone families are Muslim. The parent looks at me, sees an oldish man in a skullcap. That adult thinks whatever she thinks but receives and returns my asalaam aleikum courteously.
Sometimes cautiously, often gladsome, the adult moves towards me across our bridge of trust and we meet. Minutes later, the old man in the yarmulka is no longer an infidel, a foe: he is just a person who understands the child’s illness and who cares about that child and can help. My guest sees in the Jew a fellow human.

Now the children of Abraham are locked in cousin conflict again. My first Islamic parent identifies himself as Ibrahim. He smiles at his cousin’s greeting and returns it.
Later a tall dignified woman, taciturn, her head veiled, her face exposed, meets the doctor who will treat her child, with evident displeasure. She has no smile. Her daughter’s earache, which has been distressing, is easily diagnosed and will be readily relieved. I know I can help her and within minutes I have. The child is five years old. She does not speak,a mutism that can be explained by shyness, by a lack of English, by illness, or by family custom. But her mother, face tight throughout, spares few words and no smiles for the doctor. After I have explained the nature of the illness, its treatment and its happier future course, there is no thaw. I express the hope and the belief that the child will be soon well, insh’allah.
No smile.
There is a war.
The bridge is broken.

Ruby My Love

Crossing the world to meet Ruby, to feel her feel, to smell her smell, to catch her smiles, to hear her voice – her voices actually; meeting this newest granddaughter after she and I have waited for each other for three months; holding her close in her crying moments, in her moments of calm, watching her slow smiles of pleasure as she fills a nappy; hefting her little body, laid prone along my forearm; bathing with her slippery-smooth pink body on my lap; whispering, crooning, humming, singing silly sweet nothings to a bundle whose gaze meets mine only fleetingly.
With her barely four kilograms, this small potentate holds me hostage: she reduces me with a cry, with a smile she plenishes my wrinkled life with freshness.
All this, in the Festival of Spring in the holy land, where Ruby and we, her suitors, estivate.

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