Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor Archbishop Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive are saying: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

After a few hours in Wollongong

Wollongong, NSW

Where have I seen these faces before; in a dream after I had prayed the Akathyst to the Holy Mother; in an aeroplane on my way to Estonia; double espresso; vegetable fritters with corn salsa; a small glass of cold water; Katina and the little ones in Tathra; I miss them after an hour; but now I can write one-hundred and forty-four words; a dark haired woman with a column of silver rings rubs her left eye; Geraldine is that you; a little child is crying; a young Mother bends down to whisper into her big ear; it doesn’t help; keep focused Michael, confess to the black wall; “[w]e need to search for our soul” (Carl Jung); the people’s heads are bent like a crooked elbow; mesmerized by their gleaming mobiles; wasting hours which turn into lost years; “I won’t have coffee with you,” Sophia once said to me; “you can’t kill time”; she was usually right; I will need to start for home soon; it is still raining; “Here Comes the Rain Again (Eurythmics); thirst will never lie; “I thirst” the GodMan cries out (Jn. 19:28); dig for water and not for oil; I should translate Stephen’s poem; all in good time; we must keep our promises; a girl in white jeans runs across to the escalator; a good metaphor to note down; she has forgotten her name somewhere on the floor below; where have I seen these faces before; candles and waxes; boiled cinnamon; paraffin; let him who is without song cast the first stone; Josephine Baker, the Black Pearl; “Art Deco”; playing truant in the spaces between the parables; you needn’t have taken from me; freely I’d given to you; your response in expanses of pain; a long walk into the nearest city; press your bleeding nose on the window pane; “But the beauty is in the walking, we are betrayed by destinations” (Gwyn Thomas); Wollongong Central; His Boy Elroy; Jamaica Blue; Max Brenner; a handsome old man with an aluminium walking cane; he is taking his first steps; not long from now he will be born again; I still miss you Father; I wish we had kissed one last time; I was in the clouds when you were treading earth; “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason” (Pascal, Pensees); Kant from the purely rational structure to actual moral content; has it anything to do with thinking about one’s own thinking; surveillance cameras everywhere; who doesn’t understand; Big Brother inside your head coming soon; DARPA brain implant program; Eric Arthur Blair; Philip Kindred Dick; Margaret Eleanor Atwood; you are one of the latter day prophets Roger Clarke; the young man with the spiky hair behind the counter calls for Tony; we all know what he likes to drink; anonymity lost for the pleasure of a coffee; Argus Panoptes; a heavy-duty headache like a tight tourniquet; Panadeine Forte versus Panamax; too much noise everywhere; but sometimes it can be soothing; like the white noise in the Kiama Leisure Centre; during the Paleozoic era dragonflies grew to ‘monster size’; if a dragonfly cannot fly it will starve; dragonflies mate in mid-air like the clouds; they will divide us into groups; the poets will have to be silenced; only they know the real names behind things; “It’s the words that sing, they soar and descend” (Pablo Neruda); another drink please; a long black; and a banana & coconut crepe; I am still here; where have I seen these faces before; they ricochet like a Jack Storm reflective mirror; hackers breach US nuclear plants; Battle for Mosul; G20 Hamburg; “Round/ Like a circle in a spiral/ Like a wheel within a wheel”  (Bergman & Bergman); The Persuaders; Hawaii Five-0; Mission Impossible; in Greece when I was a little boy they were repeats; like the regime of the Colonels; dictatorships same old, same old; truth and political realism not compatible; Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527);  there was nothing new to ‘shock and awe’; except for the finger on the button; make sure there is petrol in the car; petroleum from the Greek “rock” and “oil”; separation technology; philosophers must keep their feet warm; Schopenhauer wearing a wool beanie with earflaps; my Mother-in-Law knits fabulous woollen jumpers; a family of four sit at the next table; the Father staring into space; the Mother trying to get his attention; I smile; life continues; joyful sorrow; a group of grandmothers; a wisdom; once they too, played with baby dolls; King Arthur; the wizard Merlin; Geoffrey of Monmouth; my little Jeremy is so brave; our Eleni sings like a nightingale; George is capable of so much he needs to find his way; “Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or to usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky” (Rabindranath Tagore); where have I seen these faces before; 3.49 PM; in an hour or so they will close; I love you Katina; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnpRZHqqPq8; you are my enduring truth; I have lost so many friends; where have they gone; we must allow each other to grow; I am a stranger here; I have always been a stranger; what does ‘perfect stranger’ mean; sometimes our cherished Dylan T., repetition is fine; you were too harsh on Tennyson; stress, accentuation, force; we are all Pentecostal to one degree or another; we speak in tongues; “mia pista apo fwsforo me dwdeka diadromous” (Lina Nikolakopoulou); you make me smile when I could almost split my sides; don’t confuse the Jesus Prayer with OCD; Saint Sophrony thank you for caring after me; Tolleshunt Knights; Tiptree the scent of jams trapped in rimed snowflakes; the tongue is a mighty organ; “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (James 3:5); it begins as a bud; Powell & Pressburger; The Tales of Hoffmann (1951); Offenbach would have been pleased, methinks; the family next to me still here; the Father like those above, bent over the mobile; the Mother comforting the infant; life goes on; I smile, once again; my long black done; fractal patterns; the Mandelbrot set; Zeno of Elea; Lake Baikal; southern Siberia; largest freshwater lake in the world; Blade Runner (1982); Ridley Scott; genetically engineered humanoid replicants; Archytas of Tarentum; architect of robotics; the bird and the rattle; 64 squares in an 8x8 grid; opening, middlegame, endgame; Benjamin Franklin “The Morals of Chess” (1786); will the bookstores be open; how beautiful a real book between the hands; at home beneath my lamp Dumas’ The Three Musketeers; I catch another name Bethany; it is a wonderful name; she has ordered a mocaccino; they have a picture of my pelican at the fish shop down by the Kiama wharf; such a proud and beautiful animal it was; the last picture I took before the camera dropped into the water; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Steve McCurry; Diane Arbus; two young friends walk past hand-in-hand; they are laughing and licking on ice creams; one is a girl with a short haircut and a large green bag; idealism for a season is good; [Donald] Bruce Dawe; “I would never want to come back, knowing I could never be this lucky twice”; Australian poets have always been so hugely underrated; 25 minutes have passed; it is all relative like an itch behind the ear; the days go quicker now; the nights can take a little longer; “Only because you loved me I was born, so my life was given” (Maria Polydouri); triptychs; Francis Bacon (1909-1992); images reveal themselves “in series” he said;  titles from Ballarat International Foto Biennale (2017); Bones: A Body Of Work; Peaches And Scream; Hidden In Plain Sight;  Edmund de Waal; my third reading of The White Road a pilgrimage of sorts; “[t]o make something so white and true and perfect, that the world around it is thrown into shadows”; 200 Crown Street; Princes Hwy; Smith Street; writing is difficult; poetry is even more difficult; committing oneself to reality and not to the absurd, even harder; identity and language are never too far one from the other; like Duchamp and modern art; greatly misunderstood [he was] and for this reason, the cult of vulgarity; shadows are difficult to escape; like fingers dipped deep in honey; all surfaces are covered; I must not drink alcohol today; “[w]hat begins with pain, ends with pain”; a great truth dear Gabor M.; we all lead double lives; that’s not the real problem; the only thing which really matters is the outcome of this titanic tension; look for saints in their eyes; ignore the devils for now; Hannibal ante portas; okay, that’s it; pay the bill; and make sure to wipe your mouth; goodnight, Little Briar Rose.

Kingsgrove on the stroke of midnight

Sydney, NSW

Singularity on the keyboards; cyborgs dancing without soul; eaters of electricity; he lifts his spirit like a heavy weight; Sisyphus does not let go of hope; technology delivers at a great cost; the makers of new-fangled dreams; lost in a sandstorm without a compass; a lone saxophone brings you home; moonless nights; Mother of God ‘I am lost’; clouds blowing in the west; what fear this fear; the sky alight with fire; not prepared for the revelation; an ancient fish bursting through the shallows; tentacles of water; mazes built from rusted steel; our beloved Ellul where are you; save our ship SOS; the pain of a broken friendship; a grand piano out of tune; strands of hair in the sink; the eye more easily deceived than the ear; truth will stand no chance; except for theatre; graffiti and poetry; and mouth to mouth; here in this house where philosophy bruised my fingers; properties lost in translation; like the Filioque; and proceeds from Love; the three child saints playing hide and seek in the kitchen; the last seal opened on our deathbeds; identity revealed through suffering; life is not meaningless; the whole thing is context; “Green how I want you green. Green wind. Green branches” (Federico Garcia Lorca); I touch the walls rekindling the past; byzantine icons in the other room; fragrant resin dripping from gilded brows; Patmos rising from beneath the chief sea; the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; hordes pressed against the fences; they search for the righteous priests; “May your priests be clothed with your righteousness” (Ps 132:9); the terrible Mark brings the great sore; who loves you when you stretch out your hand; Father when did you die; as you enter to your left; an iron bed by the window; sanitary walls painted grey; you will find the poem beneath the pillow; outside tall trees and little birds; Francisco Goya (1746-1828); “Disasters of War”; lead white canvas primer; to be burnt in order to become charcoal; here in this room where I first saw the dream; the outer darkness; the sword of Damocles hanging over my head; it is okay brother and sister we are forgiven; the Trisaghion hymn; they will find out; then you will truly live; time to sleep it is 1.58AM; “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou); temptation is the only constant; grace comes and goes; like the hands on the face of a clock; “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be” (Douglas Adams); time to sleep it is 2.11AM; I have heard that before; hickory dickory dock; we all like Mr Spock; top draw to the right; letters unopened from previous journeys; a broken London Clock; Miriam where are you; here are the tickets you said; Salamis Lines; Limassol to Patmos; radiant rings will speak of status; “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21); drones carrying prophecy; attacked by rogue  eagles; time to sleep it is 2.20AM; lucid dreaming; Freud psychopathology; Jung archetypes; Saint Joseph protect me; make me part of your dream; give me your breath; “Now my five senses gather into a meaning all acts, all presences” (Judith Wright); an old man in an electric wheelchair; a new-born in a layback stroller; for a brief moment their vision intersects; at that instant it is done; deliciously cynical; as beautiful as the Aegean; on Marrickville and Illawarra Roads; the tips of an angel’s wing brush the hairs on the forearm; and all this by the grace of God; “I have a world apart that is not among men”  (Li Po); though drained of life; call no man good; and he will be crushed and twisted; to be set straight before the final journey; share with me your greatest poem; burnt to fine powder; sunk in the black residue; “Who knows how to drink pain, and live?” (Gwen Harwood); Natalya Estemirova; Marie Colvin; Anna Politkovskaya; Mother is whining and coughing; these irritating noises will one day be missed; like the Great Vespers in the Cathedral of Kazan; Moorefields Road; Clemton Park; King Georges Road; Jacob’s vision at Bethel; rapid-eye movement (REM); “I got dreams to remember” (Otis Redding); Citalopram; Paroxetine; Clomipramine; fiant pilulae et pereat mundus; Thomas Szasz The Myth of Mental Illness; anti-coercive psychiatry; the roots in the lake; a straw-coloured moon; the Bucharest poem, dear Mother; here in these hallways where I grew taller; black-and-blue heart and knees; in these rooms I determined that life must go on; from this front door I left a layman; returned a priest; left again in a thousand pieces; “If we were humble the Lord in His love would show us all things” (Saint Silouan the Athonite); I saw my Father here for the last time; Cartoon Corner in the afternoon; toasted banana and peanut butter sandwiches; football training across the road; the Lion that devours in my bedroom; the ancient Dragon from the deep in my bedroom; Revelation 21 on the left wall; melodies unto a lovely madness; intricate gold sculptures; three-dimensional space; I envy how you run through the fields; it is now at last time to sleep 3.17AM; Jeremiah please pray for me; “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Polonius, Hamlet); which hat then do we put on today; the four winds hat; the pilgrim’s hat; “Hit the road Jack and don’t cha come back/No more” (Percy Mayfield); a blind sewing mistress; reading Braille by the stars; the sightless will lead the sighted; Oum Kalthoum keening before the Great Sphinx of Giza; there are four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly; Prometheus defies the gods three times; outside the horn blast of a car is getting louder; we have underestimated Baudelaire; “Always be a poet, even in prose”; words made right on the stroke of midnight; I am the restoring drops of rain caught beneath your collar.

 

At Kiama Blowhole

10 April 2016

Kiama, NSW

William Oscar McClleland, aged 28 years, drowned off Blowhole Point, October, 9, 1897; the incontestable beauty of a full-rigged ship; “Does anyone know where the love of God goes | When the waves turn the minutes to hours” (Gordon Lightfoot); pirates wore eye patches to adjust the volume of light; a young Mother walking with her two children which will soon pass her; a man in a red cap and a yellow shirt is counting down the minutes to his second resurrection; two fishermen in a small boat are glad to be alive; The Old Man and the Sea; an old angel in white sneakers is on house cleaning duties; the parkland is strewn with flight feathers from the morning take-offs; “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” (Douglas Adams); Kiama Lighthouse white group flashing 28,000 candelas; Mount Pleasant Lookout 3 miles; Fox Ground 6 miles; Garry Moore Parisienne Walkways; Picasso loved the circus; “Poetry is what I do in real life” (Les Murray); “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen 28:12); are there any coffee shops open; the seeds of berries; I must finish H.E. Smith’s Mark Twain; thank you serendipity for Robert Lax’s Circus of the Sun; Al-Sheikh al-Akbar The Meccan Revelations; Musa my dear friend, we are all of the book; Shalom Shabbazi ‘Shakespeare of Yemen’; Jung on myth and dreams; gili, gili; Oodgeroo Noonuccal formerly Kath Walker; Schopenhauer on reality but do not tell the children; the only sure thing with suffering what we make of it during the early hours of the morning; endurance derived from “the ability to last”; Pink Floyd shine on you crazy diamond; one awful trigger after another; do not give in to the cigar; “We hire people who can get inside the head of a customer” (Apple); they have, and they will; Peking toffee apples; inside humble exteriors of churches in the little village of Arbanassi hang titanic lightning bolts of colour; Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky); diptychs and icons; take a look inside Tasos Leivaditis’ large overcoat; the dance of the dervishes; the search for truth begins and ends with tears; philosophy can lead to bad pride; theology often enough to hubris; love as best you can and go about your business; why is everybody getting tattooed; the “mark” had many significations in the old world; Ink; Vladimir Nabokov loved pencils; a waterbird with a foot missing; commercial interests versus environmental concerns; the polar ice caps are melting like big blocks of butter; Immanuel Kant the categorical imperative and the inherent value of moral agency; I have an ongoing compassion for the Prince of Denmark; “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive” (Marcus Aurelius); political correctness does not like to be questioned; totalitarianism; fascism; New Atheism; ‘the invisible hand’ of Adam Smith; the ‘hand of God’ and Diego Maradona; my right arm is racked with arthritis; Ottmar Mergenthaler’s linotype machine was hot metal; “Rivers team with fish, and water’s clear. People spend their time inventing names for things they see” (Michael Sharkey); Dante Alighieri godfather to Petrarch and Boccaccio; 12… 1234… 12… 1234; saints above this might never end; it is getting cold; where are the socks; hide your true self; Superman starring George Keefer Brewer; “What’s My Line”; I have always liked Jack Lemmon; we are for the most engaging in dramaturgy and stagecraft; an essay on market forces and mechanization; we must be sure to distinguish between the two; one is economics and the other power of steam; like the gap between tenor and soprano; David Brooks transfigures the rooms of cities; Elena Shvarts birdsong escaping from a cage; here lies our beloved father, husband and grandfather Athas Xiros “This place you loved so much”; Sydney to Kiama 159 kilometres; no exit; kiosk; bus parking; Jack Gibson and Mick Cronin were born here; luxurious accommodation with a great cocktail bar; Charmian Clift Mermaid Singing completed in Lent; “Call me Ishmael” Moby-Dick or, The Whale; “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down | Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee” (Gordon Lightfoot); where there are no biological clues it cannot be trusted; “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it” (2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000); where are you Jacques Ellul; absolute efficiency; The Chicago School of Economics; a marshmallow can hit the earth with the force of a hydrogen bomb; “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off”; Google and Facebook feed on the desire for reputation; identities are bought and sold through brands; “We are the hollow men | We are the stuffed men | Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw” (The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot); Oskar Kokoschka and his life-size Alma Mahler doll; what if robots become better parents; oh Lord, what if baby robots are better children; beyond the stuff of dreams and more terrible than nightmares; Vladimir Tatlin goes straight for the bones; the great humility of Saint Francesco of Assisi; Wumen Huikai The Gateless Gate; blood pressure on the rise Zan-Extra; Eleni’s violin is missing the D String; jazz the arranged combination of accented downbeats and upbeats; byzantine chant and southern spirituals; the true joy of the mystics; “I will soothe you and heal you. I will bring you roses. I too have been covered in thorns” (Rumi); the high tides of the Bay of Fundy; as mysterious as the Caves of the Taurus Mountains; that is correct, Guildenstern, death is not a boat; honey bottled on the lips; the master of the seas Captain James Cook could not swim; bamal; gura; guwiyang; postcode 2533; are you still here; difficult to live nowadays; people have stopped loving; “Starry starry night” Vincent

The unspeakable violence which men can do

“He stood at the window of the empty café and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (1992).

 

Most of my memories growing up in the Reno are happy ones, but given the amalgam of humanity a few were not so pleasant. Things I saw or heard which would leave a lasting and sad impression on me such as the too often ruinous fallouts of gambling, prostitution, and heavy drinking. One of these experiences however, was wholly terrifying for a young child, and it would haunt me well into my adult years. It would be as a result of this happening that I would find it extremely hard to forgive those who would take advantage of children, especially if this was sexual abuse. As consenting adults we are more often than not deserving of the consequences of our relationships and we should fight against that ‘self-righteousness’ which would squarely place the blame on the other, but when it comes to children it is far better that we lose all that we possess than it is to harm even one of these. It is also very difficult for me to understand why otherwise very good and sensitive authors would feel the need to describe such violation graphically. It never made any proper sense to me. 

Next door to the shoppe was the ‘neighbourhood’ fine food delicatessen.[1] It was only a small place but packed to the rafters with just about anything and everything that could have been considered even remotely edible. Owned by a hardworking Greek-Albanian couple with three children, it complimented the Reno in its longevity at least. The eldest of the three siblings T., who had a remarkable gift for drawing and went about barefoot paying no regard for weather, was my very first best friend. Together we would explore the foreboding nooks and crannies (and not rarely the roof tops too) of that long stretch of King Street, Newtown,[2] running all the way south to Saint Peters. Along this wide expanse of our exploration which included fabulous toyshops, colourful haberdasheries, bloody butcheries ankle deep in sawdust, cagey pawn shops, together with that brilliant splattering of old generation milk-bars and queenly bakeries with the best pink iced finger buns this side of earth, were the numerous pubs. Big and brawny, the beating heart of the street they were. One of these, the Sandringham Hotel (The Sando),[3] was to figure prominently in our lives. Most pubs or ‘hotels’ as they were also known, would rent out rooms. Committed bachelors and widowers would spend large parts of their lives in those popular establishments as borders. One such person, someone we referred to as Uncle A., would hurt us.

During our late afternoon expeditions up and down King Street, which would afterwards conjure up lively images in my mind of two latter day Huck Finns, we looked out for the jovial Uncle A. The middle-aged man with his unruly mop of reddish hair would be frequently seen having a drink near the main entrance to the pub. What drew us to him were the Superhero comics he would invariably be reading. One evening T. and I were out playing past our curfew (which to the ongoing chagrin of our parents was a much too regular occurrence) when we decided to play “chasings” down to the hotel. Normally this would be in our billy-carts, but this day it was on foot. Uncle A. seeing us and second-guessing our fascination for his marvellous magazines asked us to meet him “round the back”. He invited us to his room and brought out a large cardboard box. It was stacked with those colourful thin volumes which illustrated the improbable stories of our larger-than-life superheroes: The Flash, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and all the rest who made their way into the 1960’s through the Great Depression and World War II.

He cleared some space and dropped the big box onto the kitchen table. What he almost immediately started to pick out were not the comics we were excitedly anticipating. He had placed “comics” in our hands which had real people in them, and what straightaway struck me was that these people were not wearing clothes. And the pictures too, were without colour, the pages were like those of a newspaper. I started to feel uncomfortable and scared. A child has crystalline discernment. This nasty man had thrown pornography into our hands. Something is not right here. There is the throbbing feeling of an outer darkness.

The little boy sees him place the long serrated blade onto that kitchen table next to his yucky magazines. The man runs his tattooed and nicotine scarred fingers through the little boy’s neatly cropped hair. He mutters unfamiliar words under his intoxicated breath. The little boy looks again at the sharp blade which only moments ago had been depressed hard into his throat. Has he cut me deep? Daddy, am I bleeding? He is terrified, even more than that time when he was run after by the angry dog. It was an Alsatian, he was later told. A heavy hand grabs him from behind the neck. The other older boy, the one without the shoes, is perfectly silent. Maybe he thinks this is some kind of game. The room reeks of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The table has a leg missing and is propped up by a piece of broom-stick. In a twisted connection to identity everything in this small dirty flatette appears to be broken. Laws count for nothing here. These things I can still remember. Sometimes almost entirely clearly and other times only loosely in bits and pieces.

I am sobbing and have wet my pants, yet amazingly still enough in “control” to be scanning about the room for any avenue of escape. One of the bonuses of growing up in the inner-city tributaries, we did not panic or frighten too easy. But I knew nothing of death until that hour at the Sandringham where I would receive one of my earliest lessons into the more brutal and violent realities of life. Uncle A. had taken my friend by the hand and led him into another room. I could only just hear the voices but have a distinct memory of running water. The door behind me had a number of locks, for some reason perhaps in his haste and panic, only one or two of these were securely fastened. All I had to do was unlock those bolts near the door handle. They were within my reach. Michael, do not make any noise. Quickly! A few moments later I am sprinting as fast as my legs can carry me up King Street. Our parents have to know of T. being in danger because of the “big bad man.”

The police came to the café in a hurry but they were not in uniform. They were the ‘plain clothes’. These were the famous detectives. One of these was a striking looking silver-haired woman. Could this have been the legendary Shirley Morgan with whom I would incredibly work with some twelve years later as a probationary constable?[4] With the permission of my parents the two detectives helped me into their unmarked car and we sped down to the pub. By this time safe myself, I was more concerned for the safety of my best friend. I have forgotten how we managed to get into Uncle A.’s room, but not what we saw once we entered. There was no one in the kitchenette. We heard voices coming from what turned out to be the bathroom. T.’s clothes were lying on the wet ground and my young friend was in the bath-tub. The semi-naked Uncle A. was on his knees. His hands were deep in the soapy water.

And for the second time that night, the sense of an awful and overwhelming dread.    

The rest is not too clear, and maybe it is better that way. I do remember however some time later, going to the “big building” and thinking it odd that the detectives would bring our soiled underwear (mine and T.’s) into the court in plastic bags. For some reason I felt unhappy when I realized what the police had brought with them. I suddenly felt ‘unclean’… and responsible. It would take a long time and countless nightmares for me to comprehend these confused feelings and to be rid of them. Michael, you must remember these happenings are not you. Do not multiply the ghosts. Long afterwards having read Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel poet who emphasizes childhood experience and memory in his work, I discovered that it was possible to write of these things without getting completely ‘fixed’ on them.[5] There exists in Tranströmer’s literature a rich trove of insights for those who are engaging with developmental psychology and particularly with the innateness and environmental influences question.[6] I do not know what happened to Uncle A., but we never saw or heard of him again. I was seven years old at the time and T. was eight.[7] Many years into the future a Sydney based rock band The Whitlams would write an ode to the pub “God Drinks at the Sando”… but for two little boys it was where they would come face-to-face with the devil.

 

A few weeks later and my first brush with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Make sure the doors are locked, Michael… 123… knock… 123… knock… 123… knock. Surprisingly, it would take some time for me to realize why the skin of the middle knuckle on the index finger of my right hand would invariably be sore and broken.

“I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armour.” (T.T.)

 

Years earlier I had been sexually assaulted by my Nanny. In lots of respects adults have continued to shock me, in very good and very bad ways. I mean for their limitless capacity to routinely express undreamed-of acts of compassion, as for their day-to-day devastating acts of unspeakable violence.

We may carry the memory of the damage which was done to us, but it is not who we are. And to the extent that we move forward and build and create and share a little of the Light which has been revealed to us, the perpetrators hold on us is increasingly weakened and diminished. And for those who have practised the great and often enough difficult art of forgiveness, the victory itself is greater and goes deeper than the memory. It will take a little time and some heavy loads of endurance, but the ghosts can be surely quietened. 

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time” (Saint Francis de Sales).

 

[1] Similarly to the Reno, the small delicatessen went through a number of transformations throughout the decades. It is now a busy newsagency run by a lovely Asian couple.

[2] http://www.newtownproject.com.au/welcome-to-the-newtown-project/about-newtown/

[3] http://www.sando.com.au/index-old.htm

[4] My initial posting as a junior trainee was at Newtown Police Station, just a few blocks down from the Reno! It was one of the more well known divisional stations with an improbable bag of ‘colourful’ characters.

[5] http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19009

[6] http://www.psychologistworld.com/developmental/

[7] I literally bumped into T. some thirty years later outside a church in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He was leaving after a baptismal service just as I was about to attend one. We embraced warmly, but too much time had passed. There was little to say.