You do not have to be good, but you must not murder

I have these first two lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, on my brain.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert,


I repeat the first line in my head, like a mantra.

‘You do not have to be good.’

The notion that I must be good is one I struggle to overcome.

It’s funny how when a celebrated person dies, people everywhere in the world of social media go out of their way to send condolences or to express their sorrow.

Mary Oliver was 83 years old. She’d had a reasonable innings as far as longevity is concerned and she herself talked of a level of acceptance of death that was exemplary.

But we, the living left behind, must incorporate the news of her death along with the deaths of all those other celebrities, the ones who lived lives beyond our reach except through the media and screen.

The ones who seem timeless. Their names pop up regularly, in books or film, in the news or we follow them hot with desire to know more, and imbue them with a timeless quality as if they are superstars who will never die.

And then they’re dead.

Jacqueline Rose wrote an essay on celebrities. She talked of how we adulate them and enjoy seeing our stars elevated, idealised.

But if they so much as make a mistake – as most do. They’re only human after all – somehow, we get pleasure from watching them fall.

Something to do with the degree to which their shame mitigates our shame.

Mary Oliver’s words might also speak to those celebrated people and others in positions of authority to let them know, that they too, do not have to be good.

At first, I thought Mary Oliver’s words were directed specifically towards women but then I told my husband about her death, this poem in particular, and he resonated to the notion as well.

 He too suffers from what he calls an inside ‘judge’, one who is forever telling him that whatever he does it’s not good enough.

This inner critic most of us recognise in one way or another.

How does the man who murdered the twenty-one-year-old student visitor from Israel in Bundoora last week feel?

What does his inner critic say?

Thoughts about this beautiful young woman dead at twenty one for no reason other than she got off a tram in Bundoora and he was there.

As far as we know he was a stranger to her. He chose her.

On Facebook, I follow Destroy the Joint’s listing of all the women in Australia who die at the hands of men, mainly at the hands of men who knew them, mainly at the hands of their partners, ex or current.

More than one woman murdered each week in Australia.

No wonder we women believe we have to be good, to keep ourselves safe. If not a partner then a stranger could pick upon us, more likely though only if we’re young and beautiful and fit some stereotype of a woman ‘who’s asking for it.’

Was the man who killed her, one of those involuntary celibates, the men who rail against the fact that no woman has chosen them for sex. These men hate all women who have deprived them of what they see as their God-given right, to have sex with a woman of their choosing.

That she should choose not to share her body with such a man inflames him more.

Such men are troubled, troubled in their deep and wounded narcissism which tells them they have the right to take the life of another because she has not given them what they want.

No wonder Mary Oliver urges us to get past this notion that we do not have to be good, even when there is such pressure on us as women to be so, in order to satisfy the cravings of men who might otherwise kill us.

If this is an extreme position, I intend it to be so. I intend to make the point that no one has the right to take another person’s life from them just because they’re offended, no matter how deeply, or in their minds how justifiably.

I feel such a depth of sorrow for this young woman from Israel and for her family.

She was on the phone to her sister in Israel just off the tram when the man struck and although I don’t yet know the full details, I understand it was a brutal attack.

What madness assailed this young man. It seems the police have found DNA traces on the clothes of the young man they’re questioning as I write. And if indeed he is charged and after due process found guilty, what madness assailed this young man to the point he saw fit to destroy a young woman’s life.

This idea that women must subjugate themselves to the desires of men is deeply embedded in the patriarchal, and before I continue on this rant any further, I want to write another take on how much we do not have to be good.

It comes in the form of Anthony Browne’s Piggybook. A children’s story.

 Mr Pigott lives in a nice house along with his two sons Simon and Patrick and his wife.

In this nice house, Mrs Pigott does everything. She cooks and cleans. She washes dishes and makes beds. The two boys and their father call to her to hurry up with their meals before and after they go out to their very important job, in the case of Mr Pigott, and in the case of the boys, their very important school. While Mrs Pigott, after she has made bed, washed dishes and prepared food, is the last to leave for her work.

One day when the boys come home from school, they find Mrs Pigott has gone, leaving only  a blunt message:

‘You are pigs.’

 Over the next several pages of this beautifully illustrated book, we watch father and sons morph into pigs who struggle to cook for themselves. The meals they cook taste awful, so they order take away.

They do not clean after themselves, or wash clothes or change the beds and in the end the place is turned into a pig sty. They have no food left and must scrabble round the floor for scraps.

Finally, Mrs Pigott strides through the front door, this time a towering woman who now has the respect of her husband and sons. They begin to help with the dishes, make the beds, clean and keep house while Mrs Pigott goes outside to fix the car.

And so ends the moral of this story, which challenges gender stereotypes and the unfairness of the distribution of labour, based on one’s assigned sex, but also simply based on the notion that one only has to be good, while others can do as they please until the one who has been so good, such a martyr to the family, says ‘no more’ and walks out on the job.

Then the rest are left to recognise their needs and struggle with their vulnerabilities.

In order for change to take place they must agree to share the load instead of expecting to stay forever more like a baby in her mother’s care.

I suspect in the mind of the young man who murdered, he was like a tyrannising enraged infant. Only trouble is, he was not an infant.

Infants are helpless and can be overcome. They cannot murder.

Grown adults of any shape size or description, when gripped in rage, out of their sense of injustice or of entitlement or of whatever else drove this man to murder, are not so easily stopped, not when their victim is taken by surprise and is physically weaker.

I weep for this young woman. I weep for all of us that we live in a world where this type of cruelty continues, still unchecked, because we have not yet tackled the inequalities of our society.

An antidote to violence

My desk is a mess of distractions. To one side a tub of Yoplait yoghurt, from a company which – so the label tells me – arrived in Australia in 1982, the year my first daughter was born.

Yoghurt was still a foreign substance then, before it became a dietary staple. My typical breakfast.

My eyes then settle on a newspaper article I cut out of The Age last week, a report that every day last year 238 women were killed across the globe. This number narrows down to six women every hour.

The article does not make comparisons with the number of men killed each day but observes that 58 per cent of those female deaths occurred at the hands of an intimate partner or relative.

I expect many of the men killed would be killed by others, not an intimate partner, but you never know.

I doubt any one has made a comparison. Why bother?

We all know about family violence, one of my preoccupations these days given a childhood under its shadow, though in my childhood we thought such murderous behaviour on the part of our menfolk was the norm.

When I was a young social worker starting out in the world of families and the troubles they encountered, the question ‘Is your father violent?’ was commonplace.

Violence is a marker of something more pressing. I suppose because too many people die at the pointy end of it.

Further away in the back of my mind I have half an ear cocked for the sounds of the puppy chewing on something unacceptable down the hallway.

I’m on puppy duty this morning, as I have been these past few weeks since the arrival into our household of Tilly, the labradoodle. I’d never have thought we’d come into possession of such a dog.

She’s belongs to our daughter who sees a value in the company of such animals that many of us lack.

Strangely these past several weeks I’ve found myself feeling soothed by the presence of this small fleece covered creature, who reminds me of my childhood dog, Peta.

Peta came home one day after she had followed one of my brothers after school to our back door, and she stayed.

It was hard convincing our dad this dog should stay, which legend has it was the reason we called her Peta. Peta with an ‘a’, to trick our father into thinking she was a boy.

Several litters of puppies later and my father knew the truth, but by then Peta was established as part of our family. At night, she slept in the woodshed.

A couple of women who lived up the road together in a tiny Victorian cottage, worried every time they saw our sleek Peta chase another car up or down Wentworth Avenue. They offered to take on Peta’s care and agreed to pay the cost of her de-sexing, so that my parents, most especially my mother, would be spared the agonies of what to do with yet another littler of unwanted pups.

My mother reckoned it was more humane to give Peta away and have her neutered. Too many babies could kill her.

This at a time when my mother secretly went to the parish priest and asked his permission to go onto the contraceptive bill. She had just given birth to her eleventh child, a still born daughter, at 43 years of age and was worried that if she fell pregnant yet again, it could kill her.

I don’t know whether the priest gave his permission, but through the fog of my memory, I can see a contraceptive pill packet on my mother’s dressing table and so I believe she decided her life was worth preserving.

I have no memory of what happened to Peta’s puppies only a sense they disappeared soon after birth. I did not understand the responsibility of a pet ownership back then. Not many did.

Dogs and cats roamed the neighbourhood and many travelled collar-free even though they clearly had homes.

Not like today, when you see a dog on the street without a lead and you know to stop and render assistance.

A dog on its own in the suburbs of Melbourne is a dog who has escaped its confines and needs rescuing. A dog who might otherwise be in trouble.

The traffic whizzes by on Riversdale Road and no dog has a hope unless it’s on a lead or has been trained to stay off roads.

Hopefully this puppy will learn to know the difference between a road and a footpath and soon.

I can feel my eyes dropping. It’s been three weeks of six o-clock starts almost every day and it takes its toll. I need a kip.

Like the puppy spread out on the cool bathroom tiles after a hot night, I’ll just go off to doze a while and then have energy enough for the rest of the day.

And energy enough to tidy my desk.