A child in transit

There was the time, many years ago, when I woke one morning to a dream. One that was murky and unsettled in the way of dreams and the only thing that remained were the letters of one word. PHALANX.

At the time I had no idea what it meant. I was not even sure it was a word.

I took it to my analytic session the next day. Mrs Milanova sounded intrigued. It was indeed a word and she was surprised I did not know its meaning. A line of men, usually a term used in war.

Vintage engraving of a Macedonian Phalanx. The phalanx was a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar weapons.

It’s not a word we encounter often in the everyday speech of our lives and in later years I came to imagine I first saw it in my eighteenth year when I studied books like Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin. 

Phalanx is a word that must have featured often in Virgil’s many discussions on the antics of the armies, the language of battle.

Dreams are like that. I wake with a start and Mary Oliver’s poem comes into my head ‘One day you finally knew what you had to do…’

Get up and now despite it being the first day of holidays.

Get up now because your youngest daughter is about to travel in a car with family friends and drive for seven hours and all day long she will be there in the back of your mind in the way each of your children are there in the back of your mind when they travel far from home. Whether in a car or on a plane or boat.

The sensation is the same, at least until they reach their destination, and your mind can settle into the usual stuff of life. 

A child in transit is a scary thing. A child who might not reach her destination. A child who takes themselves far from you. As each child must.

And Mary Oliver’s words come back to me: ‘though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice’. 

Their bad advice on how to live your life, for Mary Oliver on how to save your life. Your ‘one precious life’. 

There’s not a lot to it in the scheme of things, this one precious life. Not a lot to hold onto but it’s the most you have in life, this one precious life. 

Use it wisely. Whatever bad advice those voices throw at you. Whatever admonitions come your way.

In school holidays I read the Scarlet Pimpernel in advance of my year ten days and took notes at the end of each chapter as a refresher for when we would study the book in the year to come. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing man who saved the lives of those hapless royals in fear of the guillotine. 

I tried to imagine the world of these people, alongside the images of those old hags who sat knitting beside the guillotine, teeth rotted in their mouths as they crowed with delight whenever a royal head fell to the ground at their feet. There was much trampling of horses’ hooves in the night, and many clandestine meetings behind the backs of those who sought their revenge. 

It taught me about the confusion you can encounter between good and bad.

Why should I identify with those flamboyant royals with all their money when the peasants were starving? But I did. 

Around this time my mother began her special pleading for my father. He was troubled, she told us. He’d had a latch key childhood. A terrible time with parents who were never there for him.

Mother Mary John’s pronouncements came into my head. The colours yellow and purple when placed together signify an unhappy childhood. It became a secret code in my mind and I used these colours often in my childhood illustrations, a hint to passers by, a hint to the nuns and priests that I too had endured an unhappy childhood but I was nothing like the royals in The Scarlet Pimpernel. 

Their fate was worse unless the Scarlet Pimpernel could save them. I was more like the wretched peasants hell bent on revenge against those who had wronged them. Hell bent on letting those, including my father, know how much I had suffered. Only I could not let my father know these things. His vengeance was greater than mine. He smashed into walls. He stripped himself naked to punish us with the sight of his unclothed body. He cursed ny mother as a whore. He threatened to be rid of us all, one by one beginning with my mother, going through me and my sisters and ending up with my brothers.

And my brothers could hardly form a phalanx against him, strong man that he was.

We could only do our best to survive our one precious life. 

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.