These are your terrifying moments of cleansing

Shellharbour, NSW

What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away. This terrible nauseous pain which goes by many names and which in reality answers to none. But, no, your heart must never turn to stone, not even for an hour, for that would be an hour where you would stop loving, where you would lose all capacity to forgive or ask to be forgiven. No, you must never ask for your heart to turn to stone, not even for an hour. Not even for the time it takes to suck in your breath. And so, suffer all of the calumny, the blood-letting rejection, and in the night close your eyes to the horror vacui of your rooms. As tempting it might be to stop the pain, to dry up the flow of tears, to wipe away the bad memories which become increasingly beastly by the minute, do not ever wish for your heart to turn to stone. What to do when you want to pray but cannot? When you would wish for your heart to become ‘dumb’ and turn to stone if only for a short hour that the pain could go away.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

“Self-portrait” in Paphos, Cyprus, 2016. MG Michael Family Archives.

But this pain like an old guilt does not easily go away. Both have changed you and for a season you will only exist and move about in the shadows. That's why think on those whom you might have comforted on their deathbeds when you whispered into ears straining for light [for their eyes had now shut]: “Let go, it is good, now is the time to leave.” Remember the unmerited grace you have received which has covered the multitude of your iniquities. Be grateful there is water in your home and you will not thirst tonight when your throat burns. Get up, wash your face, and write a loving message to your enemy. Like an Armenian flute suspended over the Syrian Desert. In a little while feel the heavy load upon your heart start to lift, even for a moment. And for now that is enough. Begin again. Like the free-flow juice pressed and crushed from the grape. These are your terrifying moments of cleansing, one way or another, you have earned them. Do not waste them.

The shadows, too, for a while, do not be afraid of them. They would not exist if the light was not after you. It is after you. You cannot outrun it. These prayers have nothing to do with the rubrics as does this pain which has little to do with the nerve fibers. There are the spaces of the entering into your becoming, the unveiling of your true self. From here, out of these all-consuming green fires, you will step out to greet the world.

The early years at Kingsgrove North High School

Gerringong, NSW

I was in my first year of high school in 1974 when Gough Whitlam’s Labour Party retained government to afterwards introduce the country to the Australian constitutional crisis (the prime minister dismissed by the Governor General after a weeks-long deadlock over the passage of appropriation bills). It would have seemed highly unlikely that one day this legendary political figure and the young boy would cross paths. Around thirty years later we were invited to speak at the Mass Historia conference organized by Melbourne University, the Prime Minister was a keynote speaker and I presented a paper on the “cosmic villains” of the Apocalypse [1]. We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation and had our photograph taken. Father and Mother were very proud. The year Whitlam was returned to office (and Richard Nixon would resign over Watergate), was a defining one for me as well. I was a young boy with an offbeat name reaching outside the boundaries of his old world.

Childhood friends from my infant and primary schooling days at Newtown Primary [2] would be left behind, Bill, Claudio, Danny, Manuel, Milko, Peter, Rodney, and Carmen the black gazelle who never lost a race. Yet I looked forward with excitement to the new start at Kingsgrove North High School. [3] Given that during the 1970’s KNHS like most other outer suburb schools was not too welcoming of those who were not ‘true Australian’ the first years would be a test of character. After all, this was not the multicultural mixing pot of Newtown which I had been used to and where I was in the company of my ‘own kind’: the Greek, the Turk, the Italian, and the Yugoslav. There was at least one way for us boys to be accepted (it would never be so easy for the girls), if we were good enough to grab the opportunity. It was to play football, rugby league[4] I had played a few games of this contact sport in primary school, but to the absolute mortification of Mother, who thought it a game played only by “those barbarian Australoi!

I knew that to survive in this new environment and enjoy my secondary schooling, I had better make the school football team. We understood that ‘wog footballers’ were ‘honorary Australians’ and the better a player you were, the more honorary you would become. I do not believe most people have understood the extraordinary achievement of the Greek-born George Peponis who rose through the junior rugby league ranks to play First Grade for Canterbury Bankstown and then go on to captain the Kangaroos in a domestic Ashes series against Great Britain in 1979. He was one of my heroes, not only for his background and professional success as a medical doctor, but also because in the juniors I had played for the same club, the Saint George Dragons. [5] Here I would often do battle with the great Terry Lamb who played in the same junior competition with the Chester Hill Hornets. At KNHS I was elated when my name was read out together with those of my future teammates by our moustachioed history teacher who was moonlighting as the coach. I was not passed the ball during the trials so I tackled to the point of collapse. Defence became the key component to my game and this experience taught me to never stop looking for other ways. Each season I improved wolfing down rugby league ‘how to’ books and putting in lots of extra training, often tackling a truck tyre late into the evening until my shoulders were covered in deep blue marks and bright red ridges of stinging welts.

I loved the raw physicality of the sport and the courage it demanded. There was nowhere to hide on the football field. It was a game of gladiatorial dimensions. I also embraced its inherent capacity for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’. Mateship was another of the great ideals of the game but came with a different set of consequences. Six years later when I would ask our coach for a reference contemplating a career in the military, he would write in one place, “Michael is a fierce competitor; he hates the thought of defeat.” Playing through to the school’s First Grade team and ultimately winning the prized Year 12 Best Player trophy, I was touted by some talent scouts as a player with a future in the game. We had some strong teams during those years and we contested and did well in all of the major competitions, Buckley Shield, University Shield, and the popular televised knock-out the Amco Shield. I would later be invited to trial with the Cronulla-Sutherland club after having had surgical repairs on a broken and badly dislocated right elbow. But this was a number of years after I had left high school and not being a naturally gifted player like some of my other team-mates who went on to play in the then ARL, it was much too late. Though the dream would die, the memories and friendships lived on, each to their allotted time.

After the initial distressing experience which included the cacophony of racial taunts and days of silent treatment, high school would become enjoyable. Within three years I would make my first appearance in the school’s First Grade team and gain selection in a number of school boy representative sides. Even my ‘troublesome’ and hard to miss name, the target of endless attempts at humour, Michael Michael, became the playful ‘Mick Mick’. I had graduated to the ranks of ‘honorary’. Earlier on it would have helped if I had known of such estimable writers as William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford! Later I would come to realize that this unhealthy exaggeration of my personality and self-esteem was ultimately more detrimental than it was good. For afterwards when my depression and OCD really kicked-in living through the wreckage that these twin demons will normally bring into relationships, any form of rejection by friends or colleagues would be magnified a ‘thousand-fold’ and border on the unbearable. I had come to believe that I would be liked and remain popular wherever I might go. It would be one of the great shocks in my life when I would discover I was wrong. One of the most heartrending lessons I would have to learn was that not everybody would like me; that not everybody would want to become my friend; that friends would find fault with me; and that sometimes even those whom I loved and who in turn had professed love for me might one day walk away.    

My entry into Year 7 was with class 1L. I look back on that class photo with those expectant smiles and wonder how many of us would not change a thing to be at the place where we are today. In another classroom down the lime colored corridor was one more young boy with a background similar to mine, my closest friend during the next six years (and ball playing prop to my hard-hitting second-row), Andrew N.

Postscript In 1974, given my future research interests, The Six Million Dollar Man first airs in the United States on the ABC network; Robert M. Pirsig publishes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the first extra-terrestrial message is sent from Earth into space; the Universal Product Code (UPC) is scanned for the first time to sell a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

And I am re-looping Terry Jack’s sickly-sweet Seasons in the Sun not yet understanding why.