The Old Man from Bucharest

September 12th, 2011

Bucharest, Romania

A sharp glance to the left and there he was, my old man.

Earlier today on my morning walk I noticed a charismatic looking old man sitting on the steps leading down to the Piata Romana train terminal. As my eyes fell on him I straightaway felt that pleasurable warmth we might feel when we see a loved one coming nearer from the distance. “Hullo old man”, I whispered to myself, “we two have met before.” He was tall, thin, with a frowzy silvery beard, and ascetic in his appearance. I would guess his age somewhere in the seventies. He was wearing a long brown coat which fell below the knees and which reminded me of a huge poster I had once seen in Istanbul of Turkmenistan aksakals. Walking on I decided to take a seat at the nearby bus-stop before heading to the hotel for a late breakfast and a change of shirt. Within a few minutes I sensed a welcome presence approaching to share my bench. A sharp glance to the left and there he was, my old man. Thereupon I also noticed the eyes; a dark shade of green and a little sunken. They were peaceful, comprehending eyes. I felt them looking into me, through and past the boundaries of my flesh. As I have felt before with the elders of the desert. We stayed together, the old man and me, for the better part of two hours. We sat quietly observing the world and listening to the stories. Now and then we turned to look at each other. He then left disappearing into the busy street. Who was he and where did he go, Michael? I would think our phlegmatic Irishman Samuel Beckett would have liked this picture. We are all waiting. The not too easy task is to identify things and to give them their name.

N.B. The image in this entry is not of the old man in the story. After much searching online this striking photograph I have added here is amazingly close. My beautiful "old man" would not permit for me to take his photograph. MGM

Draft for a little story after a chance encounter

An old man stepped out into the bright light and headed towards Piata Romana. He looked about with the gaze of the barn-owl and walked off into the direction of the bus-stop where others were also waiting. His disorganized flowing silvery beard and his balding head did not detract from the compelling loveliness of his countenance. Though he could have done with a good scrubbing and his clothes were in need of a wash, there was yet this ‘cleanliness’ about him that you would not have considered him in any manner soiled. The younger man with the laptop in his hands, next to whom the old man from Bucharest sat to rest, was also balding but was clean shaven for his time had not yet come. The old man was carrying a small suitcase. “They usually do” the younger man thought to himself, “…these types of fellows seem to always be carrying suitcases and do not go for shoe-laces either.” The younger man, the one whose time had not yet come, peered into the suitcase which was held together by two large luggage straps. He spotted a fleece blanket of different colours and a gold-leaf trumpet. He also thought he could make out a plume of white feathers. The old man and the younger man exchanged glances, each accepting and recognizing the presence of the other. Their eyes scanned the crowd with their heads moving in unison left to right, up and down, precisely as the moment would require. Now and then their attention was lost to a robin or to a leaf from the black locust. And the old man and the younger man would look at each other, acknowledging the beauty in the world which goes by many names. The younger man offered the old man a Romanian pretzel; he took it without saying a word except to nod his head in approval. The old man from Bucharest with the disorganized flowing silvery beard reached into his torn coat and pulled out a small monumental tree. He then jumped to his feet and with episcopal dignity lowered his head and touched his chest with his right hand. The younger man did the same. But the old man did not leave until the younger man took off his shoes and offered them to the outstretched hands which, from the wrist up, were covered in thick white down.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin

August 30th Monday, 2011

Brasov, Transylvania

One of the more popular gifts and souvenirs shops which tourists to Brasov will visit. You can see MG's reflection on the window. MG Michael archives

One of the more popular gifts and souvenirs shops which tourists to Brasov will visit. You can see MG's reflection on the window. MG Michael archives

I would like to experience a winter liturgy in this faraway place. Brasov must be even more charming when arrayed in her Carpathian white. I remember particularly the winters in Jerusalem, and Berne, and Rome, and London, and Istanbul, and in the north of Greece when without ever realizing it, I was starting to fall apart. Yet winter remains my favourite season. Maybe it is the heavy downpours when the rain writes its poetry on our roofs, on our umbrellas, on our heads, or the hot baths we might take which take on the guise of wombs and arks. Perhaps, too, it is those wonderfully unguarded moments when lightning strikes to be followed by the peal of thunder, when “clouds collide” as the ancients once believed. Impossible things become possible again. “You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance” (Ps. 68:9).

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin on the east side of the city square, Brasov. MG Michael archives

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin on the east side of the city square, Brasov. MG Michael archives

Most of our departures are tinged with a certain kind of sadness. ‘Departure’ is at the centre of our most beautiful music and has inspired some of our greatest art. This strongly felt emotion is not always connected to the specific attachment of a place. More often it is the onset of nostalgia “the desire to be at home”, which for von Hardenberg was the essence of philosophy. Other times we know that things which we desperately want to hold again, are even now out there somewhere, but they are forever gone; or as Nabokov has written when reflecting on a similar awareness, “[t]he pity of it is that I’ll never find them again – never.” If it was possible I would stay here in Brasov for at least a fortnight. I am forced to leave sooner than I would have liked. Built in 1896 the ‘hidden’ Cathedral Church [it is lined up with other buildings] on the east side of the city square, Piata Sfatului, with its imposing Eastern Orthodox iconography and richly gilded panels, the frankincense ignited into the air by the burning charcoal, and her venerable old priests who come and go like veteran angels in a city that I had never known existed, is rekindling warm memories in my heart. It is overwhelmingly beautiful once inside that you could have stepped into a huge ‘gold box’. Moreover, it is noticeably silent for it is a consecrated space given over to intercession after the example of the Holy Theotokos, in whose honour the Catedrala is dedicated. Planted on the door to the Assumption of the Virgin on a weathered piece of green paper is a prayer: “Bless all the Christians who will go over the threshold of this holy church with the patron of ‘Assumption’, devoted to the Heavenly Almighty Father, Son of God-The Saviour and to the Holy Spirit, enlightener of our mind and souls. Joy to those who come, peace be with those who remain, blessing for those who leave!”

Yet the world still waits outside and prayers can sometimes take a long time to be heard… like an echo from the other side of the world. Reality can quickly set in. I must hold onto this overpowering mood which I cannot properly describe, except to speak of it in terms of a sweet surrender. Today as well, similarly to that agonizing evening before leaving Australia for Tolleshunt Knights all those years ago, and in one or two other places, I hold in my heart an irresistible love for those who might have brought pain into my life. It is during such merciful times that we come to the wonderful, almost maddening realization that a lot of what is good in us we owe to our “persecutors”. They teach us patience, endurance, and the practise of forgiveness. It is now, days like these, that we can let go of large loads of built-up pain but also ourselves to ask forgiveness of others. We are in this dance together. Afterwards it is good to quickly move on, to not exaggerate the moment, or to go too deeply into it. This is a glorious afternoon made all the more tremendous by this increasing sense of resignation in me which started sometime after our first child was born. The busy main square, the Council Square, is bathed in a downpour of golden sunlight; a busker is playing a beautiful tune by the spiral fountain. I have my writing pad; a collection of Mircea Eliade’s short stories; some cigarettes; and I am waiting on my second espresso. And though Dracula’s Castle is just ‘up the road’ to remind me of the other side, I do feel happy. Whatever might happen tonight or tomorrow and however long this all-consuming fire endures, for in my life it has come and gone in dribs and drabs, I have by the grace of God been loved as deeply as I too have loved. It is enough. If for some moral philosophers Life is the highest good, then surely it can be argued that Love is its highest measure.

On the road to the endodontist


Last minute reminders to Katina; we need a new coffee machine; keep in mind to turn off the lights; one last check of the email; I should not have sent the last two; we can make the same mistake for a hundred years; One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967); Gabriel Garcia Márquez; Macondo; do not leave without directions; I must not get lost in Sutherland; on the road to the endodontist; do not lose sight of the metaphor; drive past the laundry at Kiama; the car is low on fuel; laminate the picture of the pelican; Princes Highway, Acacia Road; turn left into President Avenue; then right into Glencoe Street; will he take the tooth out; let the jaw, dear Lord, not be infected again; too soon since the last time; a physical pain difficult to decipher; maxilla; mandible; horseshoes in the mouth; Sutherland Library; restricted street parking; 24/7 external book-return chute; Saint Nicephorus the Leper (d. 1964); heal our hearts from their deformities; the beauty of the flesh invariably deceives; jaws which fly; jaws of the poets; jaws of life; I will probably lose another tooth; to go along with my diminishing sight; and the loss of hearing; each day closer to that binding perfection; the end of words; solitude in wait after the last sleep; Seamus Heaney (1939- 2013); Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (2000); “For every one of us, living in this world/ means waiting for our end”; in Corelli’s on King Street, Newtown; across the road from the Reno Café; now in another of its incarnations: ‘Veganism is Magic’; a big cup of hot chocolate; fig and coconut balls; a long glass of orange juice; playing with glass marbles on the streets with Theo; cat’s eyes; corkscrews; clearies; I have lost another friend; who is to blame; what does it matter when we are walking on bones; “If not for flesh’s pretty paint, we’re just a bunch of skeleton working hard to deny the fact of bones” (Christopher Kennedy); thank you Lord, for returning my little tribe from Arizona; it will be very difficult to be apart; the soul unites more truthfully than the flesh; Stefan Lochner (1410-1451); blue-winged angels; illuminated manuscripts; how I love this song; “Now you will see the colors change/ And the mountains come together one to one; Angels as mortals will be embracing you/ Your enemies will speak to you lovingly”;; an  eager waiter behind the cake display pointing to the caramel slice; his ginger goatee curled up like an old manuscript; two young lovers to the right rubbing each other’s backs making a wish; a man with snowy hair is adjusting his headphones interpreting the white noise; the bubbly middle-aged waitress walking past with five red plates nestled on the crook of her left arm; outside an old man with a tweed flat cap pauses to smoke and to make signals; a woman dressed in blue with yellow socks is walking her well-informed mongrel; it pauses to take a [the] piss; a young man in a long brown coat is attempting to set sail; Italy at risk of new financial crisis; Israel and Gaza trade heavy fire; Cuba calls on US and Canada to investigate ‘sonic attack’ claims; peace comes with selective resignation; “Teacher, teach yourself” (St. John of Kronstadt); “Now is the day of Good Will/ Let us not be mean” (St. Isaac Syrian); Hesy-Re first known dental practitioner (2600 BCE); dental fillings in China (700 CE); the first book about dentistry published in Germany (1530); of the relationships of all forms of energy; thermodynamics; “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3); Paco de Lucia; Al di Meola; John McLaughlin; mellifluous; ethereal; syzygy; “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”(Khalil Gibran); the right heel digging into the left ankle; my nose itches like a forgotten transgression; new shoes too tight, darn it; keep your letter, already it is He and not I, who can do the forgiving; it is enough I have let you have the last say; the untold beauty of endurance; distance cycling; raindrops hitting the pavement like lost poems; “Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby” (Langston Hughes); walking with my friend John C. Havens on the edges of the Pacific Ocean; Sailfish; Bigeye Tuna; Black Marlin; pigment; binder; solvent; Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929); Vija Celmins (b. 1938); Sonia Boyce (b. 1962); “Creativity takes courage” (Henri Matisse); my toes are cold; I can blow on my fingers; but I cannot blow on my toes; few actions are as awesome an improvisation; phenomenology; hermeneutics; perception; all songs take us back to the beginning; like a goodbye letter written on the keys of a piano; I remember you playing “Starry, Starry Night” in Tel Aviv; primordial light; cosmic dawn; dark matter; “They do not compete, the bird and the wind” (Margarita Michelena); synergistic phenomena; Oxpeckers and Zebras; MH 370 search to end on May 29; Dow drops nearly 400 points; Ebola outbreak in Equateur province, DRC; I will have to live with this ‘thorn in the flesh’; it is done now; too many trips downstream to smash the boat; hidden waters; springs underneath a tree; holy wells; each day I understand more of how ‘this’ could end; the one who ‘opposes’ and who goes by different names; is not in ‘place of’ but ‘against’; The Preaching of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli (1450-1523); “Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon.” (Rev. 13:11); alphanumerics; we discern suffering and we hurt; mind and body are united; consider the implications of dualism and AI; Sutherland Library; restricted street parking; 24/7 external book-return chute; The Elephant Odes (1996); “I praise your strength, your ambulant/ astrologies”; Judith Beveridge (b. 1956); wood, rags, or grasses; pulp and the mulberry bark; a paper cut little envelopes on the fingers; Vasilis Tsitsanis; Manolis Chiotis; Giorgos Zampetas; to my left a family of three in a black sedan accelerating to their destiny; tap three times top right steering wheel; wheel; deal; Lucile; multiple points of entry; increasing vulnerability; uberveillance multiplying like a deadly virus; the space inside your head the ultimate poster; The Technological Society (1954), Jacques Ellul; I am sorry to say; all else is deception; disguised lies; or wishful thinking; and that’s okay, sometimes; home at Kingsgrove for the night, where I was born numerous times; getting up in the early hours of the morning; scratching the walls even now looking for the clues; Mother still folding ships from white paper napkins; they are multiplying next to the television set; surrounded by the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’; Codex Sinaiticus; Codex Alexandrinus; Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus; quantum mechanics; quantum field theory; quantum gravity; William Hartnell; Patrick Troughton; Jon Pertwee; before you go to bed for the last time; may this thought cross your mind; my life belonged to the land of miracles; let us swim in our neighbors’ pools;  The Swimmer (1968); Burt Lancaster; wings, everywhere I see wings; leaves dropping from citrus trees; the dusky knight butterfly; one of the great memoir titles; Give Dust a Tongue; John F. Deane (b. 1943); Tasawwuf, beyond reason; “God is love and God is the beloved”; Dikhr; cyclical movements; planetary cycles; whirling and spinning; Acacia irrorata; Eucalyptus eugenoides; Livistonia australis; there are times when light and darkness are indistinguishable; the electron gains energy; we glow, we are all bioluminescent; “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7); bunji; unna; kaya; Albert Namatjira; Dorothy Napangardi; Rover Thomas; angels with huge quills; ink wells of cirrocumulus; thunderstorms of epic poetry; okay, till next time; fold the blood away, Michael; glorious cherry.


Random Thoughts (2)


It hurts too much to truly love, more deeply than the greatest betrayal, so we define love in the most absurd and mundane terms, forever failing to understand its ‘terrifying’ and unyielding power.

Do not put off the giving of your charity or the forgiving of your enemy for the day after tomorrow. With the blink of an eye your universe could go dark. And an opportunity forever lost to carry some small piece of light over to the other side.

You will be robbed of many things, childhood dreams and secret labors. The goal however was not the result of these things, but the response to these losses. This was the real purpose which deep down you always knew.

It is all too normal to oftentimes confuse romantic love with fleshly desire. There is common ground between the two, the longing and the lust. More truthfully it is the fear of dying alone in those depressing places which we dread too much to ponder on.

Hunger and thirst are the primary movers [and then afterwards the Creator if we should find some spare moments to reflect upon the divine], all else are choices with which we seek to define ourselves to the world for its crowns of dust.

We are by our nature both political and religious beings, it is how we are ‘wired’ and as much we might try to wash these innate inclinations away, it is not possible so we scrub and scour and still the ‘stains’ will remain.

Every time we silence our true voice we die a little more, like a beautiful song drawing quickly to its end.

If you have two friends rejoice daily. If you have three weep and fall to your knees. Blessed, blessed that you are.

Next to war there is no greater destructive consequence than our idolizing of other human beings, the ‘personality cult’. The elevating of another person to ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’ status is not only the beginning of the destruction of that person, but also reduces the giver of that status themselves. And is not the cause of all war the personality cult in the first place?

I will see light to the extent that I walk in the Light; I will walk in the darkness to the degree that what I do contradicts the truth which has been revealed to me. And it is the accumulation of these contradictions which can ultimately become our greatest ‘stumbling block’.

We are to be judged with how we have responded to the Light with our conscience “bearing witness” to the integrity of our thoughts and actions (Rom. 2:15). So be delighted enough to allow for each heart to discover its own path and its own way home. But you must remain faithful to that which was set aside only for you from the beginning.

The most beautiful things will remain hidden, the flower with the heavenly aroma hidden in the rocky cleft of the highest alp, the greatest poem forever lost in the draw of a demolished bedroom, the profoundest music not put down on paper, the most incomprehensible sacrifices seen only by guardian angels.

Your brother and sister, your next door neighbor, despite the violence and the suffering which we witness each evening on our television sets, they are by their very nature good people. There are far more ‘righteous’ people in the world than there are ‘unrighteous’. Have you asked a stranger for a cup of water and have been given a cup of stones?

Enlightenment is not a mysterious process available only to an elect group of people. We have without need complicated it with the passing of time. The first and perhaps most challenging step towards enlightenment, is to desire it in the first place. That is, to find ‘meaningfulness’ in that very moment.

I know how deeply you are suffering, but hold on a little more. This, too, it will pass. You have travelled far to reach this place and measured many distances upon this earth. For the present, for now, this is where you must be.

Nothing is insignificant, all acts and all things, touch upon the eternal.

I am neither more decent nor any more devout than you. And so I must all the time remind myself of this apocalypse by committing it to words.


The Happy Pub

Bucharest, Romania, August 23, 2011

Humour has saved me more than once. Next to prayer it has been indispensable in helping me get through some of the more difficult days and has more than once stopped me from bayoneting myself on self-pitying introspection. “Humour” writes one of the most beloved Christian apologists C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside.”[1] It is important whatever our circumstances to try and find something of the amusing even during the testing times. The positive effects of humour on our disposition and temperament have been well proven. Discernible elements of humour are certainly not absent from our religious literature, including the New Testament itself often through its use of “exaggeration or hyperbole”.[2] 

Happy Pub | Restograf - Restaurante Bucuresti

Happy Pub | Restograf - Restaurante Bucuresti

If we look deep enough the realization of the absurd will almost always bring a smile to our face. And, yes, there will be things for when this approach might not be the right way, but then context is rarely wrong. On the other hand affected ‘piety’ in religious folk is terrible. I have seen it destroy people’s joy for life and compassion for their neighbour. It is comical in men who attempt to suppress their natural reactions and responses to things. Conversely, it is especially sad in women who grow unfriendly and cold. I have not forgotten a telling admonition from one of the monks at Saint Sabbas [Mar Saba] monastery in Palestine, the iconographer eremite Father Theophanes. A pilgrim was taking an inordinately long time in the ‘hellishly’ hot midday hours of the desert prostrating before the icon of the patron saint. The tall and imposing middle-aged monk with the deep-set dark eyes, who bore a striking resemblance to Fred Gwyne of ‘Munster’ fame, turned to me and whispered: You know, brother, it’s the ‘piety’ which gets us in the end.

-Is the devil ‘pious’? I whispered back.

-Is he ‘religious’? The monk responded.

-Does worship of the ‘self’ count as a ‘religion’?

-It could I suppose, what do the books say?

When it comes to the overly zealous pilgrim, it could with some small qualification, be as simple as those famous words of the incomparable Miss Piggy, “Never eat more than you can lift.”  

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters