Keeping Vigil

‘Are you alright?’ The text message comes in late at night at the very end of the decade. I don’t understand my friend’s concern until I recall telling her our campervan road trip plan. For the Christmas break, we were heading to Wangaratta, Corryong, Canberra, and back home via the coast. Now, apart from Wangaratta, every destination in our plan is either on fire or surrounded by it. We turn tail and head back to Melbourne.

Hours after we arrive home a call comes in. My 94-year-old mother has had a major stroke. There’s a long evening in Emergency at Box Hill Hospital and after midnight we sleep in a nearby street in the campervan.

That night curtained off from the street, I enter the cocooned time of vigil where nothing else matters and everything matters.

The following day the medical staff tell me that my mother will not recover. Her Advanced Care Plan is our guide, for she can longer speak or move the right side of her body. In the instance of brain damage, my mother has documented that the only intervention she would want is pain relief. The staff assume she can hear and speak to her with quiet respect, explaining each small action and intention.

While I stay by my mother, I glean only the edges of the news; already the horror of the fires has been at full stretch. In the quiet room where my mother lies, I think of people trying to sleep in unfamiliar environments, refugees from the fires.

When we were on the road we’d been checking with friends in areas under threat. One loses her house in Mallacoota; another finds thousands of dead birds on the beach at Lake Tyers. An extended family member is in the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. We don’t try to contact him except to cancel our plans to visit.

I spend long hours sitting with my mother. While she sleeps, I try to rest. Periodically I check the numerous messages on my phone. When I gaze out of the window, there is smoke across the horizon. 

I think of the people who will be in burns units, the agony of the fires written into their flesh. I imagine the ones who will be speechless having witnessed trauma they have no words for. Very few will have the luxury of a peaceful space in which to come to terms with loss.

Mum’s room is filled with flowers picked from home gardens and handwritten cards delivered by people who come for brief visits and take their time alone with her. When my brother calls from overseas, he tells me he’s going to sing her a song. I place the phone next to her ear and leave the room so she can listen alone. 

The people in the fires will not have the privilege of saying farewell. They’ve had little warning to leave behind a life, a livelihood, beloved animals, and landscapes. I think of the caregivers in forests and animal refuges. Creatures are gone now in unthinkable numbers.

My friend from Mallacoota tells of a bloke who lives out of town and runs a refuge for injured animals. He had to leave his land, not knowing what might happen to the wallabies and wombats, the eastern grey kangaroo and many birds he feeds out of money eked from his pension. When he flees, he sets up water and feed, and against the prevailing wisdom, leaves the door and windows of his caravan open.

Returning, he finds his caravan rimmed by a patch of unburnt forest. The sky is yellow tinged with amber. The bush is silent. Waiting at the caravan door is a small band of creatures, inside is the eastern grey kangaroo. They have made their way back. Just before the fires, he released three wombats. When reports come back to him of a couple of wombats in the vicinity of their release, he beams with contentment.

Last Spring, in northern New South Wales, rainforests were on fire. Mount Nardi in World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park burns. Leah White reports on the ABC Science Show that ‘Terania Creek rainforest itself burned for the first time in 1,120 years. Hundreds of brush box and other rainforest trees, many over 1,000 years old, have fallen in flames, their bases eaten out by fire’.

I text my friends who grew up in the northern rivers area. They are bereft.

Eco-philosopher Thom van Dooren teaches at Sydney University and lives in the Blue Mountains. In 2019, when I first speak to him, he describes the task of bearing witness to species extinctions. I talk to him just weeks before these unprecedented ravages of fire erase forests and habitats.

Thom quotes his mentor, the late Deborah Bird Rose. In this age of the Anthropocene, she urges us not to look away but to tell the stories of the creatures who are disappearing.

Rose says you can only miss what you love. She describes the emptiness and possible cynicism of a world denuded of creatures: ‘The emptier Earth becomes, the emptier are those who remain alive. That emptiness may produce a particular gaze, a “mere life” gaze that refuses to live fully because it refuses to face all this death’. With powerful understanding of the interconnectedness of the human and more-than-human world, she says, ‘Without them there is no us’.

In a piece titled ‘Instructions for Life’, the late poet Mary Oliver describes bearing witness in seven words: ‘Pay Attention. / Be Astonished. / Tell about it’.

From a bedside surrounded by kindness, I keep watch by my mother. The medical, nursing and palliative care staff are acutely observant. They do not turn their backs on us.



Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.



Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus

Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995.png
Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995. Christof Collection of the Diocese of Broome. This painting was the theme image for Catholic celebrations of NAIDOC Week 2019.

HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:

‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTMLEPUBPDF)


From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.

The article can be accessed here.




Faith: Love doesn’t come in specific sizes and shapes

He is a man fully present to himself. In the botanical gardens he wears a neat, close-brimmed hat and weaves through the crowd following a child. Deftly he catches her up, bringing her back into the gathering for the wedding ceremony. He is bearded and his body is compact, perfectly formed and compellingly small. He has such gravitas and is utterly himself. Later you will meet him and his partner, the mother of the doll-like child. While you are making introductions he will beam up at this woman who is beautifully round in ways that redefine the delights of a shapely waist and abundant breasts.

Her dress has a firm bodice and flares confidently in a full-skirted flounce. The floral fabric speaks happiness wrapped close to the heart of this woman. Her gaze carries such warmth that you feel immediately cosied. She gleams. Her dear friend is getting married. They did their doctorates together in a far place, and she has come to witness this wedding. Now we have seen the brides arriving and we are filled with delight.

That night you will see the man and the woman dancing. There is a live band, the music calls and people dance on the deck. The man has removed his hat and from behind you notice his upturned head and the fringe of hair that circles it. As the pair twirl you see them in profile, a picture of rapture so binding that you want to hold this moment, let the sweep of their love suffuse you. 

There is an easy grace in their dance-hold. They are not new to this posture and they inhabit it with the familiarity of old dance partners. This couple are young, perhaps in their 30s – yet old enough to have arrived into themselves in this way. Their physical difference might have once isolated them, made them “other”, the non-standard versions of shape and height. Here, now, they are so clearly content that their wholeness speaks love for themselves as well as each other.

So much is lost when beauty is homogenised to replications of tall men and slim women. It is also damaging. Celebrating only narrowly defined ranges of human loveliness is a form of un-love and a silent erasure. Constant exposure to the supposed perfection of celebrity stereotypes is designed to find us wanting. Jesus of Nazareth often responded to people whose lives were enacted outside the embrace of communal approval. He spoke with them and named them as faithful. By implication the harmful other-ing of their communities was faith-less. His censure to gendered power and religious entitlement remain provocations to this day.

[Reposted from The Sydney Morning Herald]



Before Good Friday

A few years ago, just before Easter, I pulled into the supermarket carpark. It was mid-afternoon on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. I had been stuck in a one-way back street behind a truck revving impatiently. It was not the ideal lead-up to my observance of Easter.

Through my car radio came the mellifluous tones of Lucky Oceans’ afternoon show on Radio National. Lucky introduced an album by Sam Baker called Pretty World. The back-story is that Baker was in Peru in 1986 on a train blown up by the Shining Path Maoist group. He was forced to witness the death of a 14-year-old boy beside him. His own permanent injuries meant re-learning the guitar, so he could fret with his right hand. Brain damage resulting from the injuries meant he had to ‘go picking for words like you’d pick fruit in an orchard’.

All of this is present in his song ‘Broken Fingers’. There is a certain heaviness in the emphasis and pronunciation, the words don’t come easily. You can tell they are sung by a man who has to hunt for words. Sam Baker was surrounded by a crew of supporting artists, friends willing him into making his music again. The album is his tribute. It invokes the memory of the boy and names Baker’s own loss. The lyrics are simple and eloquent:

These broken fingers
some things don’t heal
you can’t wake up from the dream
when you know the dream is real.

Sam Baker’s song takes hold of me. Suddenly I am weeping in the supermarket carpark. Some things don’t heal. There is a respectful knowing that doesn’t try to force healing or hope on people. I do the shopping slowly, with a new sense of gratitude.

In my childhood, I periodically heard preachers insisting on a kind of victorious Christianity. As if barracking for Jesus put you on the winning team where nothing could touch you. It felt like denial.

In the evening, I participate in the foot-washing ritual our church holds every Maundy Thursday. The night recalls the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Later that same night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, they abandoned him.

Prayers are spoken by candlelight in the darkened church. I am offered water for my feet, and fragrant oils, then towels to enfold them. I am offered wine to drink and bread to eat. In the quiet darkness I remember people who carry wounds that don’t heal.

This story is one of 60 collected in Tender: Stories that Lean into Kindnessby Julie Perrin and forthcoming by MediaCom Education. Previously published in The Sunday Age faith column and Spinifex Blessing.

You are also invited to the book launch:

Tender invite.jpg



Mary at Christmas

When Mary came to our house on Christmas Day she smelled of smoke and found it hard to walk. She had a croaky voice and a deep laugh. Our young children circled shyly around this strange new person as she sat on our loungeroom sofa. Mary kept saying thank you for inviting her and apologized for being emotional when tears came to her eyes.

I had not wanted Mary to come. My husband was her Volunteer Guardian and was resolute about inviting her for lunch before we went off to our big shebang with the extended family. He said living in a Special Accommodation Rooming House was lousy at the best of times, worse on Christmas Day. I did not feel a corresponding sense of grace. I said the children would not cope, I said Christmas was a family day, I claimed it was too complicated. My husband said it was simple – she had nowhere else to go. I got angry, I said I couldn’t bear it. He said it was only for lunchtime and he would do whatever it took – he wasn’t giving in.

We ate on our laps in the loungeroom because Mary couldn’t come to the table. Once I could see the kids were okay I let myself sit near her. I was cautious and curious to be near an adult who would speak with the honesty of a child. There was a strange magnetism about her acute directness; she was straight up. The children stayed close by her and held out their toys to show her. ‘Thankyou for having me,’ she said again. I felt like blushing.

When Mary said ‘I gotta go,’ I showed her to the loo. But still she didn’t stay long. ‘I need a lie down, I have to go back.’ Mary wanted to say goodbye to the kids, ‘Can we come in the car?’ they asked. My husband drove Mary back to her Rooming House in St Kilda. On the way home she asked to stop in at her local Milk Bar – they’d let her borrow two dollars and she wanted to pay it back.

Mary died later that year. She never made fifty. She’d had a life full of hardship and been ripped off and abused in more ways than I could begin to imagine. My husband keeps a framed photo of her – she’s wearing a pink cardigan and smoking. I always think of her at Christmas; Mary, so unlike the Christmas card version of her namesake. She was not young or beautiful, she did not gaze heavenward with her hand on her heart. I think of her as a gravelly voiced angel messenger announcing, ‘Do not be afraid.’