Today I cleaned.
I re-ordered bookshelves and desktop, making room for new research materials. I bundled up all the books that were in need of another home, and hung them out on the front fence for passers-by. I tucked away my recent workshop notes and discarded a pile of advertisements for printers and office chairs. I filed the dreaded tax papers and, then, in desperation, I cleared out my wallet.
I know! It was procrastination and avoidance.
The new book is coming along in fits and starts, but it likes to hide from me at regular intervals. I try to chase after it, running to keep up, but sometimes it just gets away, and so I apply myself to something else as I lie in wait for it to return. Hence, the wallet purge!
Amid the bills and receipts, the forgotten shopping lists and library reminders, I found treasures. There was a holy picture of the Santo Niño de Atocha – the one given to me by Ricardo on the plane to Barcelona. There was a florist’s gift card from eighteen years ago, when I was trying to realign myself after the death of my mother. There was a verse, sent to me almost two years ago by a fellow peregrina in Tucson, Arizona. And there was a tatty piece of paper I have carried for years, maybe decades. On it are lines in my own handwriting – recognisable, but somehow changed – that continue to call to me.
Now, as I’m grappling with a story that has, at its heart, the landscape of my childhood, I wonder how I will ever come close to those words. Perhaps I’ve carried them all this time because I knew that one day I would try to write about my experience of this land, in the same way that Marcus Clarke did. If I’m really honest, though, I think I carry them because I believe they’re perfect, and I don’t know of many things that are. Least of all, me! So from the depths of my battered red wallet, here is a piece of perfection.
In Australia alone is to be found the grotesque, the weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learnt to walk on all fours.
But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hieroglyphs of the haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue.
Last night I had to consider other monstrosities and distortions, when about one hundred people gathered at an event that was billed as a conversation about pilgrimage between me and Monsignor Tony Doherty.
I think it would be fair to say that most of the people in the room were, or had been, Catholics. I think it would also be fair to say that everyone there was reeling from the barrage of information that is surfacing about the extent of abuse – of sinning – that has occurred within the Catholic Church. Words like “horror” and “disgust” were in the air, and with cause.
Tony and I decided it was not possible to avert our gaze from what was happening out in the world. He spoke of his sorrow and distress, and then we went to the book, choosing to discuss my amigo’s story of the childhood sexual abuse and suicide of his brother. Mostly, as I commented in the previous post, conversations about the amigo have focused on my battle with desire. But last night, amid the pain and shock, we were able to honour his story, and the story of his brother’s suffering – and I was once again humbled and grateful for the trust he placed in me when he told it to me.
At night’s end, I felt changed. I remain appalled and enraged about the unimaginable suffering of so many at the hands of clergy, but I’d been reminded that it’s only by facing up to darkness, by looking squarely at it, and expressing our grief and abhorrence, that any kind of change can occur – and that then, we might be able to offer solace and support.
It had been a tough day for other reasons, too. I’m currently wading through the “Bringing Them Home” report on the stolen generations. The first-hand testimonies are heartbreaking and shameful. Fresh in my mind was “Devil’s Dust”, the two-part TV drama about James Hardie’s handling – or total non-handling – of the many who fell ill and died from exposure to asbestos while working for them.
So much suffering, and such unwillingness to take responsibility. Why the stubborn refusal of some in power to do the simple human thing of looking people squarely in the eyes and saying “sorry”?
I don’t understand why it is so hard. I don’t care about the legalities and the reputations and the money. I can’t understand. I don’t think we can ever be fully at home – in ourselves, with each other, or on this perplexing and mysterious land of hieroglyphs and wilderness – until we are able to do, privately and institutionally, what my amazing sinners did: to look directly into the eyes of another, to admit to shortcomings and fault, and then to begin to create change from that position of humility.
Hard but beautiful, that humility. And within it, surely, lies hope.
At the end of last night’s discussion, a lady called Eve Cazalet came to say hello. She said she was into her third reading of my book, which was gift enough for this first-time author, and then she handed me an envelope. When I opened it, I saw that she had inscribed a translation of selected lines from Antonio Machado’s poem – my amigo’s favourite. His road gift to me, given again after we had remembered him in conversation. A circle closed with a soft click.
Thank you Eve. Cleaning and purging might well have been avoidance, or perhaps it was a natural response to horrors, but you and Marcus Clarke both reminded me that there remain glimmers of perfection. I will look out for them.
Thank you to everyone who came last night, and loud applause to Garry Eastman and the Garratt Publishing team for making it possible. Deep gratitude and admiration to Tony Doherty for his honesty and generosity.
It means “grace” as well as “thank you”.
A postscript on 22nd November…
Some of the comments on this post are particularly long, generous and thoughtful. If you can find the time to scroll through to the end, you will find gems. Gracias to the amazing sub-scribers. I’d never considered it before – but you are scribing when you comment. Isn’t that lovely?