Australia Flashes 1

Travel

“I hate travelling and explorers.”

These words, the opening words of Levi-Strauss’ Triste Tropiques have been lying in wait; now they leap out and ambush me, mockingly as I think about journeys, travel, detours and interruptions.

Missed Connection

I am on a tram from the city, heading out to Northcote. Behind me two academics are discussing grants, who gets them and who doesn’t, how to pitch a project. One of them is disgruntled, kvetching about a colleague who suddenly has started embracing their Jewishness, excavating family history and writing about the holocaust. He says “I’m a good Jew as Jews go not religious mind you but gotta track record, been doing this stuff for years, and they knocked me back. Again.” “Suck it up Sunshine” says the other bloke. During this exchange a man shuffles into the seat next to me, talking as he comes, talking as he goes. Torture, he says, on the other hand what about torture, in and out of the hospital, that’s me in and out, schizophrenic they say, they say it’s a diagnosis, well maybe who’s to say but that’s no excuse to torture a person, they’ll use any excuse the government, any excuse, on the other hand who’s to say I’m not Australian, whose business is it, don’t have to tell the world where you come from, they’ll get it out of you in the end, what about the camps, detention camps they call them, well what’s legal if it comes to that, what’s a holocaust, tell me about diagnosis me mum they diagnosed her as leukemia they got into her bones they said things in her bones, on the other hand how can you save a person when it’s in the bones, and there’s no flesh there’s no fat skin and bones, they say I’m a bob short you can say a slice short of a sandwich but that’s no reason to torture a person the government they want to get into yer head, want to put everyone in camps so they can say things in peoples’ heads but on the other hand where are you going to find food skin and bones it’s a good day today sun shining well I hope you have a nice evening and look out for yerself, yeh it’s a nice evening.

I have turned my head to look at him during some of the speech, he is addressing a point in space, seemingly unaware of my presence. I turn back. We sit next to each other each looking straight ahead. Nice evening, I assume, is simply part of a stream of consciousness, which will last the entire tram ride. But as it turns out “look out for yerself” is in fact the termination of a speech at once public and private. Yerself is me. I turn to look at him, to reciprocate, but a fraction too late, just as he himself turns away, gets up and lopes off the tram.

Blown Through the Air

Falling asleep in the air, surfacing in San Diego, creepily hot in mid winter. The garden is confused: fruit trees blooming, lettuces wilting, chickens discombobulated, facing with befuddlement the question: To lay or not to lay today? today is it winter or is today not winter not today?

Leaving Australia as temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees. On the East coast of the U.S. in grubby smouldering cities where only sometimes snow flitters fitfully across the landscape there are four inches today.

Wild fires are breaking out in Australia and in California. How wild I wonder? Raging yes, but unrelated to the domestic?

It’s a bit like sex in the grass, breakfast in bed, says J, it sounds like a splendid idea. Nevertheless he brings me a tray with coddled eggs (Holly’s eggs: Creamy saffron yolks) demure in pastoral china, and a slice of toast festooned with two thick slices of Fat Dave’s bacon. Succulent, salty. Lula Mae stopped laying this week, the day that Holly started. They coordinate the rationing of human pleasure.

I have been a trifle chookless while travelling. Though In Hawaii at Hanauma Bay where I went snorkeling there were wild chickens on the beach. Not very wild, wild once perhaps for a while after escaping domesticity, now semi-naturalized on the beach, not exactly cuddling up but certainly making do quite well with peckings and pickings from human picnics. In Austinmer, on our way down to the beach for an early morning swim, Sarah took me by some chickens to whom she ritually throws her apple core, broken into pieces. In Melbourne each morning I would let Helen’s chickens, making an almighty ruckus as soon as light filtered into the world, out of their coop. After I left and temperatures soared she put ice cubes in their water and posted photos of them sheltering under the shade of the lime trees. And an image of the dog standing, just standing motionless, in the heat in the fish pond. Dazzle the water nymph, wrote Rosa.

So much to do. Pruning in particular—fruit trees, roses, grape vines—and searching for missing library books, buried under dust and piles of other books and mountains of accumulated fines. There is one I cannot find, Notes of a Native Son. I had begun to think of this book as mine I’ve had it so long, renewing it each year. Perhaps someone nicked it, or I left it somewhere like at the hospital or perhaps it has gotten mixed up with gardening books, I’ll check again today. Or perhaps not. When a book goes missing this is usually what I do: buy a replacement cheap and take it into the library, mock-mournful shame-faced, and the nice librarian Jimmy always says, you know we don’t do this you have to pay the fine on-line, and then he takes the book I offer and looks it over, quizzical, as though it’s a novelty for him and a vaguely wondrous event, to hold a book in his hands. And then he says, OK, this time, but it’s the last time. But this time I feel in my bones that eventually James Baldwin will turn up at home and I shall keep him, or it, that library book that has spent so many hours in my hands, made grubby with breakfast stains. After travelling with a kindle, its lightness—while in motion—has now become unbearable, hence this compulsion to pay the fine, as though then the book will materialize. Partly through superstition (paying the fine will magic the book into the world again; but also via an irrational though tenacious inkling that my heroic fine will keep the doors of the library open) I bow to institutional punishment; but I also bow down in homage to the world of books, of solid three dimensional sticky objects that sometimes carry you away on a fluid flowing stream, a river into which you can dangle a foot and despite what the philosopher says you can return and do it again and again it is the same river, you can find yourself again, albeit differently. Like Inside Llewyn Davis which we saw last night. That gasp of recognition as he encounters the man in the suit in the alley again, or is it for the first time, or the second time, and gets his balls kicked in. You think for a moment it may turn out differently, better.

In homage too to Baldwin. How he manages words and how they correlate or not with feelings and how feelings infiltrate and stoke the fire of politics. The fire. “Stranger in the Village” is, at any time and in any place even though of course time and place are specific and matter, an extraordinary essay, in its evocation rather than description, of what today is endlessly in so many contexts called “otherness.” A fire that burns through thickets of sentiment. Exile: what does it feel like, where does it feel, how to think it?

In Australia there is much provocation to think of exile and asylum. Thousands of asylum seekers confined in Detention camps, on and off-shore. One government after another, Labour included, passing the buck. A sticky sensation of guilt and shame adhering to my Australian passport.

But this sensation was not everything. The Australian sojourn was simply marvelous: a passport to pleasure. It came at the right time: Bondi Beach in summer, Fitzroy street, friendships renewed, gardens native and otherwise to walk in, long conversations, spicy Asian food, the bats the black bats swooping through an indigo sky, all this worked better than any drugs.

I got better and better. But was blindsided by others getting iller and iller. I guess this happens when you are away and return and see how everyone is older and not quite as young as we all once were. I felt a niggling sense of shame that I—who make such an habitual hue and cry about not-being-well—should be so well when others all around me were teetering like skittles, battling with demons of pain and separation, incomprehensible medical diagnoses and imminent death. I remind myself: there is no hierarchy of suffering. If I write in order to combat the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that chronic illness can foster, I write for other reasons too, some merely neurotic, some to do with the pleasure afforded by any addiction, and for some reasons (though reason seems far too grand a concept) to do with a sense that putting into words this thing called illness (yes I call it thus even though there are therapeutic regimes that advise rethinking it as “wellness opportunity”) produces a materiality, albeit chimeric and diaphanous, something that can spark recognition, something that can be passed from hand to hand, blown through the air or kicked from one place to another.

Well, that’s the hope.

I had an immunoglobulin infusion the day after returning, blood tests still looking good, feeling fine, but of course it’s a just a matter of time before the symptoms return. Kipps asked me if I’d finished the book. I think he does not know what a holiday is. Lucky for me he works so hard. As expected the ball is in my court, but the choice is more clear cut than often: Continue without drugs for as long as six months if this good runs lasts that long, or start back on a low dose of revlimid with or without the ritoxumab. Certainly I would opt not to do the combination. Too many infusions and all the stuff that goes with that. But Sheila, wonderful Nurse Sheila, said that it would be possible to do the revlimid off-protocol so I wouldn’t be tied down by endless testing and could arrange labs with her and be able to travel. It’ll cost something but not a lot. The simple truth is this: I don’t want to think about it now. Am going to put it off for a month but then will probably opt for what Kipps sees as a pro-active move and the possibility of staving off the next big treatment for longer.

In future posts I will sketch some vignettes of this Australian escape. For if obsession is potentially curative so too is travel. Obsession narrows the gaze and travel expands it. Though they are not as antinomous as it might at first appear. Travel, good if you can get it, is a way of interrupting and shaking the quotidian. Recharging and reshaping.

I take heart from Pamela Brown, ironically wry and curiously lyrical. In her latest book of poems, Home by Dark, which she gave me over cups of tea in a café at Edgecliff station, she writes

 Like Michael said,

Now we’ll spend

The rest of our lives

Watching our friends die

But, and elsewhere, she also writes

 This is my quotidian

But it’s not everything

strawberry/fetish

Last night (wed 24th april, 2013) was a party to celebrate Milane who died four nights ago. She loved a good story, a wicked joke, a gathering of friends. And so we gathered, a small party hosted by Nina MacConnel and Tom Chino. All of us shell-shocked, seized in passing moments by grimness, but mostly there was conviviality and the sharing of food and drink, particularly gin and tonics, Milane’s favorite.

There was a gift for each of us. Before she died Milane sorted through her photos and there was a little bundle for each of us with our name on it. Moments forgotten: Memories returned. There I was in a celebrating group at a Christmas party at Bookworks, the bookshop Milane once owned, there in the Getty Villa garden, a trip made when the renovated Villa opened. At book signings. When we left the party that night Tom and Nina gave each of us a large white paper Japanese lantern to take home and light for Milane.

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 In our garden, hung on the fence where apples are espaliered, close to the chicken run, the lantern has refused to stay put. It dances wildly, a white ghost cavorting in the dark swell of the night.

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Milane had a gift for gift giving, and an eye for things. She took great pleasure in choosing just the right thing. Around my garden there are various Milane manifestations, but the one I love the most is a cement dove, a garden ornament migrated from another era, cast aside I imagine at some swap meet where her anachronistic beauty caught Milane’s eye. I love to hold the dove, her solidity fits perfectly into the shape of a hand, her lines are simple, her proportions just right. I knew Milane was dying when she gave me a clay icon of Ganesha that she had brought many years ago from India. She told me that his dharma is to place and remove obstacles, and also that he is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as the Patron of Letters during writing sessions. As part- Elephant he likes to eat flowers, fresh ones every day, she told me. At first, and for a while after Milane died, I did make an offering everyday of fresh flowers, but the punctiliousness of the habit has waned, the offerings sporadic and whimsical. Like my efforts at writing, at meditation.

The dove sat for several years on a rock in the white garden (so grandly named, more for aspiration than actuality, all kinds of colors creep in, some muted, others garish like the scarlet and orange nasturtiums). Then came the chickens. In their frenzied searching for bugs, in their rampaging destruction, they knocked the dove to the ground and she broke in two. Distraught, I was ready to send the chickens to the pot. But Milane cocked an eyebrow and laughed. We jambed the two pieces together and wedged her high up in a corner of the bower where the grapes and wisteria grow. In summer you cannot see her, but she is there, and in winter when the foliage dies back, when the garden mutates, you can see her there, up high, looking down at the chickens.

Nina’s chickens were asleep that night, the night of the party. I imagined them dreaming of Milane, carousing together in their sleep, a communal feathery dreaming. I hold Nina responsible in part for the coming of chickens to Herman Avenue. Steve, sensing a whiff of chicken desire in the air, had been waging a gentle campaign that began by the mysterious monthly appearance in my letter box of Backyard Poultry. Gorgeous full page spreads of birds: the silver spangled Hamburg, white feathers adorned by black crescent and V-shaped spangles; the Bearded Buff Laced Polish, creamy white and golden buff laced together, sporting an extravagant feathery top knot; The Mottled Houdan Bantam – lustrous greenish-black feathers, with one of every two or three tipped in white. My dreams were infiltrated by Porcelain Bearded d’Uccle Bantam cockerels from Belgium, Black Breasted Red Aseels from India, and Old English Creoles. And then, almost every time I saw him, Steve would suggest that I visit Nina and take a look at her chickens. So eventually I succumbed and Nina invited us to lunch. Us was me and Helen Barnes. She and Jeffrey were continent swapping: while Jeffrey was visiting Australia she had travelled from Melbourne to keep me company in San Diego. I had a bone marrow biopsy scheduled for that morning and had forgotten what an ordeal it can be (forgetting is part of the game, selective memory a survival device). It took a long time and then there were all sorts of bureaucratic hospital diversions and waiting and waiting and waiting. So by the time we got to Nina’s—stopping by the farm to see Tom and gather some vegetables from the farm stand—it was long past the lunch hour. But the sight of the chickens was restorative, to see them roaming, pecking, zigzagging around, following one trail only to be distracted, tempted by a posse of insects over there, a potential worm in the woodwork over here. To examine their coop, how the perches were composed and food distributed, how their shelter organized—all of this was inspiring.

And then there were the eggs. The eggs did it. Helen and I watched spellbound as Nina conjured from the eggs an omelet, so effortlessly, breaking the eggs with one hand, flicking a wrist and twirling a fork and then on our plates: yellowness, the taste of yellow in our mouths.

The transmutation of matter. How an egg becomes something else. You look at an egg, there it sits on the kitchen counter, self-contained, perfect in its ovality. Perhaps it is a deep speckled brown, maybe pale blue or green. When you crack the shell, break the oval perfection, you release into the world a magical potential.

At the party on the 24th of April I could not eat much. Nausea was settling in. Stomach cramps. I could not resist Nina’s couscous and Tom’s vegetables, the mellow spices that tickled the tongue but did not obscure the taste of Chino carrots and peas and fava beans. But when it came to the desert I could not manage a single spoonful. I was sitting next to John Alexander who was entertaining our end of the table with hilarious stories of gardening mishaps. At one point he looked quizzically at me and said “what about strawberries. How do you like them?” Oh I like them I said. “How about I bring you a plate just of strawberries, no cake or cream?” It almost broke my heart to say no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want those strawberries that come from the garden of the gods. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t imagine the taste. It wasn’t that they made me feel sick. It’s just that there was a nausea right through me, not just in the stomach. John’s hilarious stories had made me forget for a while, or rather the story telling and ripples of laughter had absorbed the ukky sensation.

I do not think I would have felt this way if they were other sorts of strawberries. But Tom’s strawberries are something else. For several years the grad seminar I taught on Gardens and Public space, a peripatetic seminar, would visit Chino’s farm and Tom would fire up the tractor, load everyone on the trailer and off we would go on into the fields. But before that we would sit at the trestle table where the workers have their lunch and discuss the reading and someone would present a paper. And Tom would send out two large bowls heaped with strawberries. Sounds of ecstasy, inappropriate sounds of swooning. I thought then that you would have to be on your deathbed to ever refuse a Chino strawberry. In the field Tom would stop occasionally and encourage people to pick from the plants in the field, strawberries for instance. And he would talk about the culture of strawberries, the particularities of the plant, selection for this region, how they grow, how they need to be nurtured. I have pages and pages of notes from Tom’s field discourses. He talks too about water, where it comes from, the price of water in San Diego, this virtually desert region, how he uses expensive domestic water on the strawberries because the municipal farm water contains too many salts. You might think of this as coddling but Tom, I imagine, thinks of it as farming.

Farming is work, practical, you get up each day at 4 am and by the end of the day you have to balance the books. You have to weigh up what comes in against what goes out and figure out how to make a living. The process is practical yes, but there is something mysterious, alchemical about the way in which water—clear liquid that flows, that has no color—is transformed into scarlet heart-shaped succulence. Water, labor, knowledge:

The condensation of a process into a succulent jewel.

Clear liquid that looks like water drips into my veins during infusions and some kind of transmutation happens, equally mysterious to me. Even when you check the science it doesn’t all add up. Even the oncologists say, we don’t really know exactly how it works. Drip by drip by slow drip it disappears into my body. A week later my lab results change, many of the danger flags disappear.

Saying no to those strawberries last night at Milane’s party felt to me for a moment like the approach of death. I wanted to howl for Milane. I thought to myself: she would never have refused a strawberry. Her ALS, once diagnosed progressed fast, but she continued to party with friends, a few at a time. Not long before she died, when speaking was difficult, she wrote on her writing app (a version of an old W.C.Fields saying), “Who put tonic in my gin and tonic?”

A few weeks later. I am beginning to emerge from that nauseous miasma, there is a shout at the back gate, and there is Alex Kershaw, a graduate student from Australia. A little sheepish looking, the way Australians sometimes are when performing an act of generosity. A self-deprecating shrug that says, Oh it was just something that fell off the back of a truck. He is bearing a cardboard box, in which gleam vegetable gems: round yellow and green striped squash, purple cauliflower, candy red radishes, and strawberries, deep scarlet strawberries. Around the vegetables he has tucked a Humboldt Fog cheese, a slab of dark spicy chocolate, a pack of organic Yerba mate.

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Immediately I picked out a strawberry and bit into it. As that strawberry dissolved in my mouth, the juice dribbling down my chin, I knew it was a Chino strawberry.

The chickens, too, love strawberries. Though love is too tender a word to describe what happens when a chicken encounters a strawberry, and they are not particular, any strawberries from anywhere will send them over the moon. It’s the color red that attracts. Never go near them in open-toed sandals if your toe nails are painted crimson, or they will dive bomb, pecking mercilessly. They play dirty football with spoiled cherry tomatoes or mushy squished strawberries. We always keep the hulls for them, they go beserk when tossed the green bits with juicy red entrails slurping out.

Today, I will feed Ganesha some flowers. My daily ritual is to rise early, feed the cats, let the chickens out of their house as the sky lightens. They hear me approaching and set up a mighty hullabaloo, hurling themselves against the door and scratching at the wire window. As I open the door they come flying down from their roosts and cavort down the ramp, fluffing and huffing and preening. Then I make a pot of tea and bring it back to bed, set it over the tea candle warmer, and sip as I write on my magical writing machine, the Mac Air. This is a ritual. It sets me in motion for the day. Later I will meditate. Really I should start the day by meditating, but I’m greedy for writing opportunities, for using that early morning energy before it dissipates. As I describe this early morning ritual it takes on a life, seems orderly and calm. But the truth is there are many mornings when I can’t rouse myself, the chickens remain in prison, many mornings when I can’t get writing, read a detective novel instead, or feel sorry for myself, or find distractions like email or the newspaper which reveals all sorts of hyperlinks, passages into other worlds. And then of course there are too many other things to do and so meditation slips away. I’ll do it tomorrow…

Between habit and ritual a thin line: between therapeutic and spiritual practices, between the gracious and orderly lighting of candles and the compulsive repetition of obsessive desire, between routine and observance. Many ritualistic practices—from the quotidian and idiosyncratic to those more formally prescribed—serve to preserve the way things are, to protect us against change, transformation, difference, grief. And yet, and yet … there is always the possibility of something mysterious happening. Rituals might be ways of channeling and bolstering obsessive impulses, but also they are often mechanisms for structuring pathways and passages, for enabling transformation. Lighting lanterns to guide the dead in their journey, to ease the transition from one state to another, not merely for those who are passed but for those of us who remain. Making a pot of tea in order to write. Sometimes though the pot of tea is not enough. And so today I will feed Ganesha some flowers.

Gifts circulate, chemo too. And in the circulation: transformation. Of course gifts seldom come without ramification, and chemo comes with myriad fluttering strings attached. This we know. If I offer flowers to Ganesha it is in the hope that he will, in eating them, keep Milane alive even though she is no longer here. The flowers are at once food and fetish and gift, not unlike the strawberry. Superstition, ritual, faith. In offering Ganesha flowers, day after day (punctuated by desultory periods of neglect) I believe that the gods in general will be appeased. Of course I also hope that Ganesha in particular will preside over a writing session and kick my ass into gear.