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.
I live in a dead-end – at first it was only a street with the advantage of being near a park. But I soon realised this sweet pocket was a village. All the neighbours know each other. The first thing you hear in the morning is children laughing, mothers calling out ‘careful!’ and ‘Hold my hand!’, the tinkle of bicycles bells or the bark of a dog. Many of my neighbours have become friends and I have grown to love this tiny bit of Australia. Well, a lobby of community gardeners are menacing to pull out the concrete, cut off the bike path, erect high wire fences, build compost bins, sheds and dig 84 plots for their gardeners. In other words annex a beautiful piece of public land.
Norm Gallagher and Mick Lewis went to prison to stop the park from becoming a Kleenex factory. Fred Hardy was the one to get the unions involved and put a black ban on what was to become the Hardy Gallagher Reserve. To them, we owe this beautiful park that the people of Melbourne enjoy. Here is Nature AND Memory. Community Gardens are grand when they beautify but not when they destroy what it already beautiful. Jane Garrett, former Mayor of the City of Yarra; now State member for Brunswick and Stephen Jolly councillor for the City of Yarra showed up at a rally organised by the Friends of Hardy-Gallagher Reserve on Australia Day. I never thought to say that about politicians but the proof of their common sense and humanity was in the pudding, right there, defending parkland for the people – for the 99%.
These gardeners have tried to take over public parkland for their private use for years. They have been pushed to the tail end of Fitzroy and Princess Hill until they butted into the shores of Brunswick last year. They are trying again in 2011 and 2012 after the 2010 public protest which was in all the newspapers.
I have been told that parks are not legally protected. If one can get enough residents to agree, one can make use of parkland in another way than listening to the wind in the trees, speaking to strangers under the wide open sky or picnicking on the grass a book sliding from lazy fingers; one can cut the trees, dig up the grass, put in wire fences and make a concentration camp for vegetables. The will of certain individuals, by playing with council boundaries and different wards, can prevail over the will of the people by making a land grab on public property.
The word community in community garden is misleading. Private plots and fences are not a community activity but a push for more private land. The drive behind the project is quite surprising. From where and what does this passion stem?
Gardens are very precious. They sometimes seem to be our last refuge. A guy called Robert Pogue Harrison wrote a book called Gardens. He speaks of ‘homeless gardens’. He says ‘gardens are to agriculture what poetry is to prose’ and that gardens ‘are not bound up with our our biological survival’. In other words, they are an expression of our soul. Homeless people go missing and let themselves die when their gardens are uprooted. These community gardeners are not homeless. Many of them live in Carlton and have gardens themselves. Another inconsistency: to be eligible for community gardening one must be a low income family and have no garden.
They suddenly reminded me more of farmers slicing up the land in defiance of Aboriginal traditional ownership. The two ways of life in balance then, still seem to be in balance now. One was about progress, property and power, the other was turned within. It is hard to hear Aboriginal philosophy, its whisper is lost in the louder trends of society. It speaks of other voices. It refers to our soul.
Walking in parks is its own reward. Parks are our Aboriginal Cathedrals, they can’t be cut up and sold into plots. They belong to all. The parks of Melbourne are the last remnants of that spirit which, ever so subtly, gives Australia its grandeur. The parks are the big garden of the people.
The first time I went to the opera was in Naples. An old Englishman, sitting behind me, bent forward and whispered in my ear: ‘Wake me up when they start fighting’. I must have been about nine. I liked him on the spot, so when Carmen’s lover got slaughtered I duly shook his knobby knee. Then, to our relief, Carmen finally shut up and died too. I never saw the old Englishman again but something passed from him to me, some unexplainable companionship that stayed like a stone in my pocket. The strange friendships of my childhood were flashlights in the surrounding darkness of school and home life. They led me on, protecting me and guiding me, a bit like dwarfs or witches in fairy tales. Maybe we are all dwarves and witches to each other at certain times of darkness in life’s forests.
I had another shot at Carmen at the Opera Garnier in Paris at about twelve and didn’t like it all over again.
Then, in my early thirties, a friend invited me to see Othello in the Arenas of Nîmes. Arenas, whether in Rome, Arles or Nîmes, always feel ominous to me, as if the suffering and fear packed in them so long ago were still hanging around. When I was about four years old, my father took me to the Collosseum. I was violently sick. I remember quite clearly the stench of beasts and bloody limbs. It could have been my father’s narrative skills of course, but surely a place like that would be saturated with its own past. (As I am writing this I made myself a coffee, after I drank it, there was a wolf inside the cup.) However, I did not refuse this third venture to the opera.
As my friend Samir dragged me to this cultural spree, I tried not to think that the gladiators had walked through the same mangy openings in the rock or that the lions and wolves had used that very rock to sharpen their claws on their way to their human snack. I also knew how Othello ends: he kills her. So with that and the wide open jaws of the enormous arena that engulfed us all, I was not planning to enjoy myself. It was a balmy Mediterranean night. The velvet belly of the sky hung low and the crowd of spectators were basking in an educated, whispered quiet before the singers started roaming on stage in Shakespearian angst. I was busy missing my old Englishman.
Yet, towards the end, when Desdemona has no hope in hell of having breakfast the next morning, something made me sit up on the cushion thoughtfully covering the stone step of the arena. The scene was pretty banal. Desdemona was with her lady in waiting gently moving around stage as she sung something quite as ordinary as: could you hang that cloak here, fold those dresses, take that sheet away and please fill the chest with this pile of clothing. Suddenly I knew she was not giving a course in housekeeping. Her song wafted straight into me. I felt with absolute certainty that this was her adieu, not only to her favourite lady in waiting but to life itself. Tears ran down my cheeks. Thanks to my friend Samir, I had understood opera at last. On the wings of music, emotions that are not our own, invade the privacy of our heart and widen our perceptions.
From then on, opera whispered secrets to me in the dark of a crowd about pain and fear and sudden stormy joy.
I was at a recital again the other night. It was about men dying under the sea in a submarine. Not so long ago either. I closed my eyes and let the waves cover me. It’s rather easy to imagine being under the sea in a concert hall for some reason. The lapping of subsiding voices, the metal instruments, the darkness behind your eyelids, the liquid of the composer’s exquisite music which, for me in some crazed way, contained silence, a silence only knowledge of suffering can bring. But then, the words of accompaniment, the choir, broke it all for me. Why couldn’t the music stand alone just as those men had been alone under the sea, waiting for death? What else but a form of silence, a wave of respect can greet so recently bodyless souls? Words seemed brash interruptions and the singing felt heroic and insensitive. The intelligentsia’s loud ovation jarred for me and only the music, so seemingly powerless in view of such a human disaster, stayed as a mysterious consolation.
A week later, when I went to listen to Twelve Streets Till Home playing at the Brunswick Hotel right near were I live, I discovered something else.
Their singer, Lucienne Shenfield’s bitter sweet voice rose above the noisy giggles of her girlfriends, above the rumble of the pub, above my own suddenly silent breathing. Unexpectedly her young sound became very old and wise, welling up like a river. There was nothing more to wrestle with, just hearing it made me understand that separate people at two ends of the city were soothing death, despair, undiluted pain because they sang or played their notes, because music is a sacred act somehow, somewhere, sometimes.
The only song I can sing is Ten Green Bottles on the Wall. I don’t feel cut out to understand high-tech, contemporary music that makes you sometimes jump out of your skin or rattles your teeth as if you had slipped under the wheels of a tram.
I didn’t expect to feel both encompassed and displaced – to such an extent – by Parlour Tricks, David Chisholm’s new work in progress.
I was suddenly ravished, as if the notes took me away to some genius loci I knew but had forgotten from long-ago. Was it the baroque instruments touching the notes with more tired gentleness, more restless passion than modern instruments? The sound slips you into that semi unconscious yet fully aware state that makes you hear more than listen. Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry also takes you down the music, down into Hades’ world of no return – unless it is suddenly Spring – such an exquisite reminder of the stormy fickleness of life’s joys and griefs. And the powerful, gentle Jessica Azsodi, with her sunny smile and desperate vibrato conjugated Spring and Mourning so well.
The story’s resolute lack of narration whispers back its presence – like a stranger in a petrol station, turns around to show the face of a true brother. Parlour Tricks plucks you out of its world to plunge you in your own memory of feeling until the music becomes your life and Persephone’s life writ in a strange baroque language of sound where the mythical past and the present meet as she goes down under.
The soprano Hana Crisp, who sang Sea Song, woke up Ophelia and swam with her to the surface of feminine longing. In every woman a drowned Ophelia has given up, but Sea Song sings her back to consciousness. This music has all stories sown in its hem, in a great swish of sound it brings them forth to our sleeping hearts and awakes us where we were no longer breathing, no longer thinking, no longer feeling.
The Song of Prayer is about yellow dressed women (such a reminder of the yellow star) forced into prostitution, then forced straight into convents – both prisons. It visits their lost pain, treads back into their unseen suffering. It awakens a community of feeling with what has been done to others. Touching the past reels in the present in a new way. These women are not alone, we are gathering the flounces of their woe; we no longer drag them in the dust of our forgetting, but lift them into our experience and hearts. Medieval chimes have us step lightly, as we are drawn, deep within, to understand. Yet the harpsichord, the viola da gamba and baroque violin, joined by a clarinet tripling bass and contrabass clarinets, stitch our present into their mourning, into their yearning as David Chisholm’s music swells with compassion.
She was so far, yet, sometimes, she was so near. Intimacy can be like a river. We are all rivers running past each other, until we find ourselves – suddenly, unexpectedly – in the same waters. She was one of my oldest, dearest friend’s sister. But my friend is burying her now in far away France. Her name meant ‘light’ and her death has indeed quenched a true light.
After reading my friend’s email saying things were worse, I emailed back my concern and love. The very next day I was hearing her message on my answering machine: everything was over. I phoned straight away and heard the rough velvet of her voice husky with hurt. ‘It doens’t suit her to die!’ she cried. Her sister led an organised, composed life of luxury and quiet elegance.
Her political bent was to the right (how immediately one accepts to use the past tense!), while my friend’s is to the left. My friend’s passionate love for her sister had catches in its breath. But they were linked like some sisters are by something I have always dreamed of – an inner, yet nearly physical belonging. Words, opinions, rich husbands versus artist/architect partners, enormous houses in the country versus small flats didn’t matter. What mattered was what wasn’t said. And that is what I hope my friend will retrieve in a stronger, deeper way.
I never thought it would affect me so much. I, the by-stander who only saw her friend’s sister on off chances, off the cufff so to speak and always because of her sister. Yet, I also had a strange, distant inner connection to this woman. Her eyes would sometimes settle on me and I knew we were understanding the same thing. Once we liked a film in common called White Hunter, Black Heart. It is supposed to be a clumsy film, but we both got it, it moved us, hit the same nerve in us both. I remember her once wiping her perfect kitchen bench top and smiling at me. Her smile said ‘Hello, I know you.’ Gazes, a film, a few visits to her house in the country, a visit to my apartment in Paris, a dinner in a restaurant that her husband paid through the nose for us all, snatches through the years – hardly anything at all really. Yet, when I knew for sure that she had died, that she was dead, yes, really, truly dead, hours later, before going to bed, I needed to call a friend here in Australia to tell her and I sobbed at her. I felt embarrassed with myself. Who was I to claim grief?
Yet, passing ships in the night and human souls have stranger connections than meet the eye. Suddenly all those inner, fleeting, and, yes, spiritual, because wordless, conversations, came back to me. Human souls can’t always say it here, in this world, with these habits, these strange behaviours we seem to adopt for this earth, but they can feel a kinship anyway. At least I did, even though we had no interests or values in common.
Even though she was a valuable person, someone too precious to lose, who has gone. Until we go too.
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?