Paul Kelly and the lighthouse in the sky

Peter Hudson - 'Words and Music. Portrait of Paul Kelly', 2007. Oil on canvas over board, 170 x 180cm, Art Gallery of NSW
Peter Hudson, Words and Music: Portrait of Paul Kelly, 2007. Oil on canvas over board, 170 x 180cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

At a gathering recently I heard a rendition of Paul Kelly’s song ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’. It brought back the moment, more than ten years ago, when I first heard Kelly sing it in a pub in Torquay, on the coast southwest of Melbourne.

It was the height of the summer holidays when I was struck down by a sadness I could not name. A rental holiday shack in Anglesea was not a convenient place for a dark night of the soul; it was crowded with the sleeping bodies of our teenagers and various friends bunking in on the lounge room floor. One night I ended up curled up in the car, weeping in the wee hours. In the morning, my bewildered husband suggested a drive along the Great Ocean Road.

Stopping at Airey’s Inlet, we discovered that the Eagles Nest Gallery housed a cheerful exhibition of artworks depicting lighthouses. At first, I was uneasy – lighthouses were under a kind of suspicion in my mind, associated in my childhood with a religious outlook full of certainty.  Shaking off my resistance I entered the gallery.

The works were in wood, glass, oil, pastels, embroidery, charcoal and ceramics.  Most were by local artists, with a connection to Airey’s Inlet. There were so many ways of seeing a lighthouse; some were straight and sure with the white tower of strength topped by the red cap of a lifesaver. Others were delicately drawn with architectural accuracy.

Playful lighthouses were surrounded by motifs of fish and flowers, some bending and scooping upwards in trajectories of joy, some standing firm above a flurry of waves. A single black and white photograph, magnetic to the eye, showed the small white pillar of a lighthouse, stark against the huge dark sky; one small vertical amid parallel lines of gathering cloud and billowing seas.

Unassumingly in a corner hung exhibit number one. A painting by Juri Tibor Novak. His picture suggested the lighthouse aloft. There in the small rectangular frame, the lighthouse was suspended in mid-air. It sat on a round foundation, a rock in the middle of the sky above the sea. It did not hover with uncertainty, it simply claimed the space and waited there, whimsical and solid, softly coloured above the flat horizon. Something expanded in me. The lighthouse aloft began to inhabit a space in my chest.

That same night we were booked to hear Paul Kelly back along the coast. The beer garden of the Torquay Hotel was packed with young people. The band and Kelly unfurled onto the stage. His darting head and silver shaved hair gave off a shimmer; with beetle black eyebrows he conducted the band and the audience.

We knew his songs, singing the words of ‘Deeper Water’ from start to finish. Kelly grinned to the band and immediately taught us a new song, complete with parts. We were in a pub with a bunch of 20-somethings and we were all singing the same song. Kelly’s pace was intense, no wasted moments. The songs themselves were spacious and resonant. I watched a couple in their 30s, entranced in the evening light, their faces utterly still with a peculiar expectant beauty.

At the end, the musicians re-grouped. Instruments aside they stepped forward, heads close around one microphone for the last song. Kelly sang the first line then sang it again as the audience settled into the surprise of a capella from a rollicking band of blokes.

All the more surprising to recognise the words of the 23rd Psalm. The words were familiar and re-cast all at once; the Shepherd, the pastures green, the valley of shadow, the cup running over. There was a new refrain running through: ‘I will meet you in the middle of the air.’ The old invitation was here offered with a new cosmology.

The songs met us in hope and in despair in ‘the middle of the air’. There was a space of yearning there. That space is where the artists, songwriters, and psalmists send us. That is the place we can be met.

At the end of the night, I returned to the tiny holiday shack. In my mind’s eye, the lighthouse hovered on its boulder over the flat horizon. I no longer felt alone in my sorrow. I felt I had been heard and met.

Reposted from Eureka Street.

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JULIE PERRIN IS A MELBOURNE WRITER, ORAL STORYTELLER, AND ASSOCIATE TEACHER AT PILGRIM THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF DIVINITY. SHE KEEPS A WEBSITE, AND HER MOST RECENT BOOK IS TENDER. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

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