In Europe, it’s nice to walk into an empty church when, rather than priests, there are only stain glass windows, a small red light like the eye of a cyclop, the worn, watery grey silk of flagstones, and maybe a sparrow or two, circling. In the silent crowd of empty pews, the smell of candles and incense, the cool silence, you can sit and feel strangely safe in a land of time where minutes are no longer made of seconds and each heartbeat is a bite of eternity. Here death feels like window with an animal feeling behind it of, simply, life flowing on – one knows not where. When animals die, they bend into death with that resigned, knowing expression in their eyes.
Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg church door, because pope Leo X was selling passports to heaven for vast quantities of money. Somehow it feels strange that Protestant churches feel so cold when they are the ones who rebelled because the sacred was being desecrated.
Walking into a church in Australia is mostly like walking into a scout hall. But everywhere else you go, seems sacred in some way. You only have to step into the bush or look up at a ghost gum down the street and feel you are in Notre Dame. Any tree seems to gaze back at you if you stare at it long enough. The sky is wider than the Egyptian goddess Nut and every time you tip your head back, its baffling immensity is strangely comforting. Twice I was walking with a friend outside of Melbourne and I stopped as if someone had touched my arm to listen to the quiet – it felt exactly like being in a church. I told my friend and we walked on a few steps and met a sign explaining this was sacred aboriginal territory. Maybe we are mystical animals, rooted in the sacred.
Can a woman be friends with a man? Really friends? What if he’s married or in a relationship? What if she’s married or in a relationship? Friendships can be passionate. Our friends touch our identity like lovers touch our naked body. We are intimate with a true friend.
Does the phantom of desire, the fantasy of feeling attractive or not attractive pervert friendship with men? I find myself running to the looking-glass before meeting the most platonic male friend. I probably do that with women too because I am vain and French, but, still, I do it more with men.
What could be more attractive than breaking our heart laughing about some ridiculous situation that doesn’t seem so scary because our friend understands? Why does the common humanity factor often stop working in a relationship like a marriage or a de-facto partnership? Sometimes we are something to somebody and they are something to us, but we are not ourselves to each other. Why do we stop confiding in them after a while to turn to our ‘best friend’? Why does a woman fear her husband or partner having a very close woman friend? Why does a man fear his wife or partner swanning off to have heart to heart chat with her own male best friend? I have recently discovered Love my Way, that brilliant series on Australian life. It explores these questions thoroughly. When Frankie and Tom try to continue their friendship, Lewis, Frankie’s husband needs all his humour to cope. Katie, Tom’s girlfriend, has an abortion to take revenge on his deep connection with another woman. Yet the friendship, in fits and starts, in sudden bursts of light, in rantings and epiphanies lives on.
You can see how hard it is, but they do manage it. Friendship seems to be the goal. The inner connection is the elusive pearl that, as Kerouac says, is sometimes handed to us. We never know when, we never know how or who will do it. But we have to accept the gift, however hard the claiming of it is. The Tao says ‘we have a duty to those with whom we have an inner connection.’ This can happen with a dog, a woman, a tree, a particular sky, a child, an old lady and, yes, even a man.
My mother used to say: ‘Man! The hereditary enemy!’ She was part-Spanish, part-Russian, part-French. Man, for her, was part-beast, part-dragon, part-husband and always potential lover. ‘Men’ were described with a different vocabulary that seemed honed just for ‘Them’. She would sometimes say to prove her point: ‘Even a man could understand that!’
I have been living in Australia for 9 years now. Australians treat me like a human being which is the best thing that ever happened to me. And, to my surprise, they treat men like that too.
Men are not treated as wild beasts. They are not seen as tigers on the prowl, burglars on the loose or dangerous maniacs. My mother would not approve. She had gallows humour and was the most un-politically correct person I ever met. Her rules seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale. They pop up unexpectedly in my mind. ‘Never wear a watch after five o’clock! ‘ she would say like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Or ‘Never shake the hand of a woman over seventy-five, always kiss it!’ Or ‘Remember! A husband is no longer a man!’ and her oldest friend Pilar told me ‘Love, is like the shroud, it falls from heaven.’ Spanish people mix death with everything. Even the French call orgasm ‘the little death’. My mother called a sneeze ‘a tiny death’. ‘Oh, the sneeze, it suspends all our faculties!’, she would exclaim sensually before adding: ‘It startles us out of the world!’ But she didn’t need a sneeze to accomplish that. She was in another world on a nine to five basis. As if it were her business to be single mindedly beyond the pale.
Yet my mother’s best friends were men. One was an alcoholic Jesuit translator of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus, another was a gay film director, another an inexhaustibly cultured hunchback antique dealer, another a very old White Russian guitar player called Mr Shadinov and the last I can remember was an Irish man who could read signatures in a clairvoyant way.
Women don’t seem to have that many men friends in Australia. Men, here, are treated with less suspicion but more separateness than in France or Spain. I wondered why. Is it because they refuse to believe Plotinus who wrote that “Man-kind (The hyphen is mine) is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.”
Is it an error to take Men for human beings instead of another kind of animal altogether? Are women sitting ducks or bowing Kiwi birds (two extinct species) in their company? If women become aware of this, as my mother was, could they have a chance at real communication with the other half of the population on earth?
We are asked for results. If we don’t come up with them we are branded. It starts at seventeen. What are you going to do at Uni and what job do you have in mind and, by the way, do you have a boy friend or girl friend? Some of us just don’t know – yet. How many of us have the courage to hover? How long can we hang on without knowing? Yet we also need a plan, some sort of road map for the future to materialise. In other words – a balancing act between two conflicting tendencies.
Later when we lose a job, a marriage, the same questions are asked. We have to be plugged at 220 volts into the very next thing. There is no gestation time where the new shoots can grow, where inklings can become possibilities. Like with grieving that time should be given to us. But so often it is not. I met someone today who had the courage to hover.
A young woman of seventeen, who is preparing her VCE like every other seventeen year old around her. She told me she had no idea what she was going to do next. I was impressed. She let the owl in her hover.
One of her parents has a very grounded job, the other a more philosophical one. Could this leave her somewhere in between? Most people are together because they have common beliefs. If you stay together after the first sexual flame has simmered, a common belief is the cement that keeps you going. This girl’s parents belief must work for them to stay together with such different endeavours. As a witness to a mystery, this must give their daughter a tendency to stay at one remove from the fray.
One of my dearest friends is Irish. Her name is Helen. Helen and I spent hours in small French cafés trying to find a person’s animal. It took a very long time, but we eventually found an animal that fitted exactly when we worked at it long enough. I had a gay friend with long legs, a fattish tummy and slim ankles. He was a deer. My father was an elephant. Once I went to the Brunswick zoo and spent hours staring at one. He turned round and stared back at me. A stranger approached me and said: ‘That elephant seems to like you.’ I am sure the animal in us must know when to hover and when to launch into action.
Could that girl’s animal be an owl? It’s hard to be sure without Helen. But that was my conclusion.
A dwarf goose is a migratory bird with a different agenda. Instead of returning to its birthplace, it returns to where it learnt how to fly.
Writers seem to behave the same way, they return to where they lost their grip on this world. As if true words could only be plucked from the unknown.
* In Australian museums, each piece of art has a date underneath the artist’s name. This date does not indicate the artist’s birth but the day he or she arrived in Australia.
Catherine de Saint Phalle.
Identical blog in French : ‘Oienaine.com’.