My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

I’m probably posting this too late.

I want to tell you about a documentary movie my wife and I saw a few days ago. The movie overwhelmed me.

My wife and I arrived a few minutes early and we took our seats. We were the first to arrive. We watched trailers of a number of forthcoming films in which an individual or a group achieves redemption through performance of music.

Then our movie began. Within minutes the story is told: a black man who travels to Central Australia finds groups of women choristers, all of them Aboriginal. The women used to sing ancient Lutheran hymns, not in German but in their own (far more ancient) Aboriginal languages. The man revives the choirs, brings them together, trains them and flies with them to Germany where the ladies (whose massed choir somehow includes two men) perform and triumph. Simple story, simply told.

The choirmaster drives from Alice Springs to the settlement of Hermannsburg (126 kilometres), from Alice to Areyonga (214 kms), from Alice to Docker River (673 kms), to meet and recruit his singers. Arriving in one remote community after dark, he feels his way to the little church by torchlight. The church is empty. Addressing the camera cheerfully, the would-be choirmaster says, I wonder how many will come. I wonder if any will come. A handful gathers and embraces the rebirth of their old songs. We see these women, clearly inspired and energised. Something, some memory, stirs them.

We watch these joyous women, mostly old and fat and jolly, in their singing and in their joyous being. We witness the joyfulness of these ladies, the exultation that flows from them and between them as they join together in song. We hear them tell their stories, stories of massacre, of confiscated children, stories of loss and of love. We watch and we tremble with formless stirrings of our own.

We watch the singers clothe their corpulent selves in their gowns of earth colours (I mean earth browns and earth reds), we see them congregate at Alice Springs airport for the unfamiliar enterprise of commercial jet travel. They land in the cold of Germany and discover Lutheran churches vaster and more ancient than they have known. Congregations materialise and the choristers master their nerves and they give voice. The local Lutherans are overcome: here is their old time music brought back alive and pulsating in tongues they do know. And yet they do know.

The locals weep, the choristers weep, and two old Jews seated in the cinema – the sole patrons in this screening –  weep too. My eyes moistened with the first sung chords and never dried, as I vibrated to the passion and the glory. What is this alchemy of sound, of treasured memory, of lost ceremony regained, that lets loose these springs of cleansing tears?

I realise I’ve probably spoiled the movie for you. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the movie will end its so brief season any day now. But if you do manage somehow to catch ‘The Song Keepers’ remember to bring along a hankie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhEh3kmBSxI

Jun 21, 2017 – Uploaded by MIFF

The Song Keepers Australia | 85 minutes Central Australia’s answer to The Buena Vista Social Club, The …

The Song Keepers – Trailer – YouTube

 2:43

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUFXbQAX9Z4

Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

Dir. by Naina Sen, Australia, 2017. 84 min | Documentary Four generations ofsong women that make …

Johann Appleseed

He stands in the mall, an oddly striking figure. His right foot perches before the left, the heel resting on pavement, the sole raised at angle of forty-five degrees to the horizontal. The man looks as if captured in the act of tapping a foot to music. But the foot does not stray from its perch; and where is the music? Listen carefully and you hear a sighing, a musical sound in time with his breathing. Look closely: held between fine fingers that protrude from fingerless grey woollen gloves is a silver harmonica. The man is playing. Or is he merely respiring – breathing in, breathing out through the instrument?  My friend Rod is a local. He traverses the mall every day.  ‘I don’t think he’s playing music’, says Rod. ‘Or if he is, it’s one single note.’
 
 
The man’s appearance is unusual. His hat is of classic design, early American Puritan I guess. Johnny Appleseed's name that comes unaccountably to mind. That old apple-planting, godbothering American pioneer, an early conservationist, a beloved and mythic figure in his own lifetime and since. Doubtless it's the headgear: the high peak of the hat is a tall cone, the brim a wide downsloping verandah . The colours of the felt shift subtly from mouse-grey to a junior navy blue to a peacock green. The effect strikes me as quite beautiful. The man himself is slim and he stands a full head taller than I. The hair of his head and his beard is turning from jet to silver. He looks as if he might command a fleet or conduct an orchestra.
 
 
The man stands singularly alone. I mean not simply that he is unaccompanied, nor that he neither receives nor seems to need notice: I mean there is in his solitude a seeming self-sufficiency that contradicts his act of his busking. For surely he is busking, this man who stands and plays music in a public place. But if he is busking, where is a receptacle for coins or notes? No cup or box or instrument case on the pavement before him, no hat either. That rainbow remains on his head. I stand at a distance, observing, wondering. I approach and wait for a hiatus in the sounds that emerge from his instrument. There is no pause. Neither is there a meeting of eyes. I step a little closer, not close enough to offend, but too close to ignore. I stand in silence while the musician plays on in near silence. I have time sufficient to study the sounds he makes. I hear more than Rod’s single note, at least three. The sounds flow and merge like the hues of his hat. While I wait I admire the close-fitting leather vest that clings to his lean frame. At length, a pause. I ask, ‘Do you mind if I speak to you?’
The man looks down towards me, an expression without a smile. He speaks: ‘For what purpose?’
‘I am puzzled. I see you standing in this public place, you play your instrument as one might who is busking. Yet you provide no container for a passer-by to show appreciation…’
‘Yes. ‘
‘Would the offer of money offend?’
‘No.’
‘But you do not encourage it.’
‘Nor discourage. If a person wishes to show appreciation, a conversation must first take place. As is occurring at present.’
The man’s old-fashioned formality has seduced me into unconscious imitation.
‘Would you object to telling me your name?’
‘Possibly not. What is yours?’
“Howard.’
‘Good morning, Howard. My name is Johann.’

He pronounces it unexpectedly as Jo-Han.
‘Isn’t it really Yo-hahn.’
‘Yo-hahn, yes.
‘Dutch?’
‘Yes.’ A smile, good teeth, (a little yellowed) emerge from the shrubbery of his upper lip. It’s a nice smile. ‘My parents, from the Netherlands.’
‘Do you live in Alice, Johann?’
‘Yes. For five winters now.’
‘And before that?’
‘I wandered. I carried my swag from place to place, I slept where I chose, under the stars. I came to Alice Springs and it was good place and I stayed. I do not expect to find a better. I do not need a better.’  
‘Do you play here every day, Johann?’
‘It provides my breakfast. I meet here interesting people from many places. I enjoy conversation. As is occurring at present.’
 
 
Johann accepts some money gravely. And no, he has no objection to being photographed or filmed.

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

Garland Makers

Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.

 

 

The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.

 

 

The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:

 

 

‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –

Your daughters carrying water, working with you

Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’

 

 

Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”     

“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”

     

 

I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.

 

 

My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:

 

 

‘Daughters

who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms

picked at dawn.’

 

 

 

Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.

 

 

 

In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.

Reverend Horton Heat and…

Sheltering from the rain where the tram meets the train it occurs to me I’m at a hub, the locus of the hurrying many. A good spot to promote your goods or your services or your gig. At my feet, on a patch of dry asphalt, a sort of yellow mound takes my eye. The mound turns out to be a pile of magazines, the strong yellow blazoned with bold script in magenta. It’s intended to catch the commuter’s eye.
 

When it comes to reading material I am my mother’s son. The printed word always lured Mum from the world of people and food and things: if it was legible Mum would leg it.

Me too. This was readable material so I read. I read CHOPPED. None the wiser I peered at the words in a smaller font. These are the words I read:

 

REVEREND HORTON HEAT

 

THE MEANIES

 

Hmmm. I guessed these were musical groups, bands, we used to call them. There was more:

 

Guantanamo Baywatch. Clever. I liked it.

 

Puta Madre Bros. Rude, naughty. I liked it.

 

Drunk Mums. Why not? 

 

The Cherry Dolls. Chris Russell’s chicken Walk. Ho hum.

 

The Pinheads. If you have that originality you aren’t one.

 

West Thebarton Brothel Party. I recalled the two occasions I went window shopping in a brothel. That was Hong Kong, not Thebarton West.

 

The Shabbab. Shepparton Airplane. There’s a ring to these.

 

La Mancha Negra. What can that mean? Probably nothing. Word stuck, word-drunk, I always want to decode the metaphor. A mistake: listen to the music.

 

The Reprobettes. Pretty literate. A snob, I am mildly surprised.

 

Flour. Hmmm.

 

Amyl and the Sniffers. Naughty again, very naughty. I am enjoying my morning’s reading. 

 

Racing on (I hear my tram approaching) – Slim Customers. King Puppy & the Carnivore. Thee Cha Chas. Was that three or thee? The eye wants to see what it wants.

 

Tape Wolves. Red Brigade. Do the members of this group know much about the Red Brigades?

 

Itchy Scabs. I love it.

 

The team pulls up as I read: Double Yad. Golly. I feel no doubt at all the namegiver intends this name. Understands the acronymic coupling of the Hebrew letter yad. Knows it to be the abbreviated form of the Ineffable Name.

 

My God!

 

 

Phone Calls from my Dead Brother

My brother Dennis

My brother Dennis

This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.

Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.

Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.

Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”

Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
“Alright Doff.”

That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.

***

I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.