The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly in what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

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I can do this

Hello? Hel-loooo?? Is anyone out there? Anyone??

Well, I’ll just leave this here and see if anyone notices.

So look, when I wrote my last post – over 15 months ago! – I had no idea it would be my last post for a while. In fact, that post was the first I’d written in some time so when I wrote it I felt like perhaps I was back. But I wasn’t. I was just making a guest appearance in a show we’ll call “The Silence of Len’s Blog”. (It doesn’t rate that well but it keeps getting renewed.)

So where have I been hiding? What have I been doing? Well, for the first time since I started freelancing back in May 2013, I worked consistently for over a year – moving from employer to employer and project to project without a break. Some months I was juggling multiple projects, even multiple employers.

Given how much sitting in front of a computer and writing I do in my professional life, I find it hard when I’m working to spend my free time doing exactly that: sitting in front of a computer and writing more.

But I have been writing. There’s been a truckload of poetry, mostly scribbled into my notebook, but also typed into my phone (and in some cases shared via Twitter).

I’ve also handwritten a lot of little micro-fiction pieces into my writer’s diary, using its weekly prompts. I’ve viewed these as small writing exercises to keep my mind fit creatively. Like doing daily sit-ups but for writing. But I also entered three of my favourite pieces in the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Contest last year, and one piece even made it onto the long list.

So writing was on my mind a lot last year. And in fact, the whole time I was working I told myself that the moment I’d get some free time I’d start working again on a project I last worked on in 2013. It started life as an idea for a screenplay. Then I thought it was better suited to a novel, then maybe a novella. But recently I’ve realised it will be best written as a memoir.

The only problem is, I’m not working at the moment and while I’ve kept myself busy doing other things, it’s been three months and I have spent bugger-all time on my project.

It’s made me question whether I really do want to write this thing. I’m a big believer that if you want something you will take steps to get it. If instead you make excuses and create obstacles for yourself, you probably don’t want what it is you say you want.

So why this post now? Well, three recent events have conspired to motivate me.

Firstly, I attended an excellent introductory course on writing memoir, taught by the amazing Lee Kofman. I may write more about this in future, but for the moment suffice to say I had a huge epiphany about my idea as a result of her incredible skill as a teacher and mentor. I left the course that day feeling very positive about what I needed to do.

Secondly, I saw the film Hidden Figures, about three women who epitomized the “stop talking about it and just get out there and do it” ethos that fuelled much of the rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s. After seeing what these three women achieved, I came out of the cinema feeling anything was possible.

And lastly, my very talented 19-year-old niece was recently published in a magazine. Her article was about a deeply personal subject and while I very much admired how well-written it was, what really blew me away was how completely honest she was. How brave she had been to put herself out there in the way she had, acknowledging it was difficult but that she had to do it, to do her subject justice. And I realised if she can show such courage, I can, too.

These three very different experiences all left me thinking and feeling the same thing: Yes, I can do this. And, more importantly, I want to do this. So this post is to announce it to the world. Not that I’m back as a blogger. But that yes, I want to do this. And I can do this.

And I will.

 

Note: I haven’t yet sought permission from my niece to share her article but I will ask and, if granted, I’ll update this post with a link.

Faster. Better. More, more, more.

For those of you who don’t know, I work in IT. I’m a technical writer, but I’ve also worked on an IT helpdesk in the past and I’ve done some BA (business analysis) work.

I kind of fell into IT in a fit of career opportunism that, now that I think about it, characterises a lot of my professional choices. But I did go on to study IT and just over ten years ago I completed my Grad Dip in Information Technology (and did really well, too).

My point is, I not only work in IT, I’m qualified in it. So you could be forgiven for assuming I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, through-and-through IT gal. But you’d be wrong – because I’m a fraud. And I’m not saying that in some kind of impostor syndrome self-outing; I really am a fraud.

Let me explain. When I was a teenager, I defined myself in opposition to my older brother. It kind of went like this: he did science subjects, I did arts subjects. He liked heavy metal, I liked the new romantics. He was into computers and I was absolutely, definitely not into computers.

My brother and my dad, who also loved computers, spent many hours together discussing and doing stuff with them. I had no idea what, but it seemed to make them very happy. And regularly, it seemed to me at least once a year, they would be very excited because it was time to upgrade. I would sit back and observe with a quizzical expression as they enthusiastically took the computer apart and rebuilt it with newer, faster internal ‘bits’.

The 286 became a 386, and then a 486. It made no sense to me at all.

The computer, they would explain, would now start up a full three minutes quicker. They thought this was amazing, while I thought someone was having a colossal laugh at their expense.

Faster! Better! More, more, more!!” I would tease them.

286 model 0 computer

Meanwhile, when I was thirteen, I declared loudly and proudly that, “I will never use a computer!”

(Those are the exact words I used. I’d love to say that this was a one-off moment uncharacteristically lacking in foresight, but in the same year I also declared I would “never shave my legs!” …so yeah, nah.)

The reason I thought I’d never use a computer was because I was going to be a writer. And writers used typewriters; everyone knew that.

I had a kick-arse typewriter. Every press of a key produced a very satisfying ‘clack’ noise. It was solid and it was loud: clack clack clack! The more clacks, the more words you were writing – the better you felt about yourself. A computer keyboard’s muted tap tap couldn’t possibly compare.

1964 Brother typewriter

Needless to say, eventually the typewriter was put out to pasture and by the mid-90s I had my own laptop, the size of a small briefcase. There was no ‘computers are king’ epiphany or anything, it just sort of happened.

Fast forward twenty years and I find myself not only working in IT but feeling quite at home among IT people. Even though I feel like a bit of a visitor in their world, I overwhelmingly feel that IT people are ‘my peeps’, perhaps because the original IT people I hung out with – my brother and my dad – were, literally, my family.

But I still find myself scratching my head when people get excited about new technology releases. I still can’t understand why anyone would line up to get the latest iWhatever. When I finally bought a smartphone a few years ago, I chose the model that was ‘three models old’ because it would do for my needs and was cheaper. And the iPad I bought back in August 2010? Yeah, I still have it.

This is partly because I have an instinctive anti-authoritarian bent that makes me want to give the finger to big companies who try to force me to upgrade by making their two year old products obsolete. I get Moore’s Law, but I also kind of resent what it means in practice, i.e. that technology is new for a millisecond and then you blink and it’s out of date.

But I also hang on to old devices because the prospect of upgrading just doesn’t excite me. Faster, better, more more more still seems ridiculous to me. Whereas if I was a true IT convert, you’d think I’d be evangelical by now.

This is why I know I’m a fraud. I just don’t have an IT person’s responses to technology. I even seem to miss the obvious cues when things start to fall apart.

I was genuinely stunned when my Mac died quite suddenly in April last year. Then my brother asked me how old it was and…okay it was from 2007. So yes, at that point, it made a lot more sense.

(A close friend told me recently that a woman on the Apple helpline recently told her daughter, “I see you have a vintage computer.” It was from 2008.)

Clearly I’m not going to change any time soon. My IT instincts are not getting any sharper through some kind of professional osmosis. And I think the Universe has realised this and is taking matters into its own hands.

I say this because my phone has spent the better part of the last year begging me to update its operating system and I have spent the same amount of time resisting. About a month ago things finally came to a head when my phone’s camera stopped working.

My response: You mean I can’t take photos of my dog anymore? Oh no – this has to be fixed!

Did I update my iOS? No, I did not. What I did was make plans to buy a new phone. Just like a non-IT person would.

But then a few weeks ago, as if the Universe had issued some kind of “iPhone heal thyself” edict out of exasperation, my phone came to life in the middle of the night and initiated the iOS update by itself. I woke up at 2am and seeing light emitting from my phone, picked it up and in my slumber had the wherewithal to click “Continue ” (as requested by said phone). I had no idea what was going to continue but it felt like the right thing to do, notwithstanding, or maybe because, I was half asleep.

Glowing Apple logo on Apple iPhone

When I woke up the next day, my phone was working as if it was brand new. No more problems with the camera.

Does this midnight miracle make any sense to me? No it does not. But you know what? I’m okay with that.

Just so long as I can take photos of my dog again.

Gus the cairn terrier, standing by his bed

 

The March of Shame

An exceptionally beautiful and heartfelt post from The Irate Greek on the refugee crisis in Europe. I had to share.

The Irate Greek

Source

They are people, like us.

They are young, they are old, they are men, women and children, they are lawyers or masons or doctors or barbers or plumbers or computer engineers. They are people, and they are coming.

Their countries fell apart, their houses were destroyed, their neighbours died. They lost friends and relatives, they lost their loved ones, they lost a limb. They fled. They took trucks or buses or cars or bicycles. They walked. They were smuggled, assaulted, abused, kidnapped on the way. They crossed a border, or two, or three. They were detained, arrested, beaten. They were parked in camps. They were told to live a life without a future, they were told to wait until their country is fixed, they were told to wait with no end in sight.

And then they came.

Of course they came.

They got on those rickety boats to cross the sea. Some of them were…

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Put to shame, and other postscripts

It’s amazing what can come up in conversation. When I visited good friends in Athens a month ago, we were talking about what we take with us when we travel. Do we travel light? Or do we take an outfit for every possible contingency? Naturally, I brought up my packing list, the one I’d so lavishly praised in a blog post just before I left for Greece. I praised its virtues exuberantly.

My friend said that he, too, had developed a packing list that the whole family uses when travelling, and brought it out for me to see.

What can I say? It was a long, comprehensive, laminated list that could be used multiple times: things that weren’t relevant could be crossed out; things to be packed could be ticked off. There were even blank lines for miscellaneous things only relevant to each specific trip to be added. Then you can wipe the whole lot clean and start again.

I was floored. “Oh my God” I stammered. “I’m so impressed. That is so impressive…”

I had been put to shame.

Later, over dinner, the conversation turned to food and I mentioned my favourite meal was a traditional Greek casserole of green beans and potatoes (known as φασολάκια με πατάτες – fasolakia me patates). My friends’ teenage daughters can’t stand this dish, I was told.

I turned to one daughter and said, “Aaah, that’s because you haven’t tried my fasolakia me patates!”

“Yeah”, she replied, “That’s what you said about your list, too.”

Gotta admit, she had a point.


When I wrote about the difficulties in conversing with my friends and family in Greece, little did I realise I had a secret weapon in my possession that would help me out.

This is the first time I’ve travelled to Greece with a smartphone, you see – not because I haven’t been to Greece in a long time (I was just there in 2013), but because I was a late adopter as far as smartphones are concerned.

In any case, I very quickly realised that, thanks to my iPhone, I could reach into my pocket and pull out my own instant translation service. Google Translate became my new best friend.

iPhone screen shot from Google Translate

Not only was it useful when I desperately needed help expressing myself, I also used it when reading about the political situation in Greece – in fact, I’m still using it for this purpose. I am able to copy words straight from news websites or from Twitter and paste them into Google Translate. Within seconds out spits a translation.

It has been incredibly helpful. I’m now pretty fluent in the language of the current political landscape in Greece. Unsurprisingly, given the timing of my visit to Greece, the first word I looked up was διαπραγματεύσης – diapragmatevsis. It was in every news report on TV and all the articles I read online.

It means ‘negotiation’.


Another word I learnt when in Greece was δημοψήφισμα – demopsifisma: ‘referendum’. In the last post I wrote, I said I was hoping for Greeks to vote ΟΧΙ – ‘NO’ – in the Greek referendum of 5 July 2015. Author Christos Tsiolkas recently wrote an article about the aftermath of the referendum for The Monthly (Greek Tragedy). In it he writes about experiencing “political hope” and “political optimism” in the immediate wake of the referendum. These were feelings that swept up an entire nation (or at least the 61.3 per cent that voted ‘NO’). Feelings that I experienced, too, when I was in Greece in the week preceding the referendum, as well as immediately after.

The tragedy of what followed and what continues to be played out is that the Greek prime minister’s tactic of using the referendum result as a means of strengthening his negotiation position spectacularly backfired. Greece’s people may have rejected austerity but Greece’s lenders had not.

Meanwhile, the flower of political optimism and hope that had begun to grow in the hearts of the Greek people was not only weeded out; the garden it grew in was completely concreted over.

On my last day in Athens I visited the Acropolis, which I hadn’t been to in over twenty years. It was a glorious day and the marble of the Parthenon and the other buildings glimmered in the sun. The Greek flag fluttered against the backdrop of the city and the blue sky.

Greek flag - fluttering in wind

Over more than two millennia, the Acropolis has withstood countless attacks by Greece’s enemies, including being bombed in World War II. It’s still there though, and, while it is obviously damaged and worn, it’s still breathtaking in its magnificence.

I’ve written before about the lessons of history regarding the strength of the Greek people, and when I look at my photos of the day I reflect on this again.

I think of the Acropolis and its buildings as symbols of the resilience of the Greek people, who may be down now, who may be worn and damaged, but who will never be out.

Parthenon of Athens

Once more into the breach: back with a different focus

I can’t tell you how happy this post, from my good friend Mike, makes me. It’s great to hear his voice in a public realm again. Looking forward to hearing/reading more.

Watching the Deniers

Hi there.

About a year ago I shut down “Watching the Deniers” (WtD) and took an extended break from writing and the climate change debate. So to anyone who used to follow the blog welcome back.

I started WtD in 2010 and maintained it for more than four years. During that time I was welcomed into a  broader community of writers, activists, scientists and researchers interested in climate change. During these years I had the great privilege of meeting many of these people, and feel some pride in having made a small contribution to the conversation.

But such commitment can come at a cost. The considerable effort to to research, write, edit and publish original content can be both time consuming and exhausting. After four years of “being in the trenches” I felt exhausted. I thought I’d take a few months off and recharge and get back to writing.

However…

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When in Greece – part 2: In the midst of a crisis

In January 2013 I visited Greece and was shocked to find how badly things had deteriorated because of the financial crisis.

The first thing that relatives asked me when I arrived in Greece four weeks ago was, “What do you think of our situation now? How do you find us?”

While they all told me that things were much, much worse, to my eyes things seemed to be about the same. I know unemployment has gone up, amenities seemed even more worn out and damaged than before, and there were slightly more shops closed in the heart of Athens. But otherwise life seemed to be going on much as it had before.

The main change I saw in Greece, or in Greeks, rather, was that many people seemed to be suffering from crisis fatigue. Whereas the crisis seemed to be on everyone’s lips in 2013, this time round I found that only about half the people I talked to spent their time obsessing about the financial crisis, while the rest had switched off. They avoided news and current affairs shows, newspapers and online news outlets – because they found the news too depressing and too distressing. For many, it was just too hard to continue with the crisis at the centre of their lives; they had become worn down to the point of emotional and mental exhaustion by it. So they were opting out.

Even as negotiations began in earnest ahead of Greece’s 30 June deadline for its first payment back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many people refused to keep abreast of what was going on. The rest, meanwhile, continued to obsessively scan the television for the latest reports.

Talking to people it seemed to me that they had gone through several of the stages of grief in relation to what had been happening to their country, Greece, including shock, anger, resentment, grief and, for many, acceptance.

The media reported that €3billion was withdrawn from banks by Greeks in the week ending Friday 19 June, with €1billion withdrawn on that particular Friday. But I saw no bank queues that week.

In fact, I only saw bank queues from Saturday 27 June onwards, once the Greek prime minister had called a referendum for 5 July on the question of whether the people accepted the bailout terms put in an ultimatum to the Greek government by the so-called Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.

Even still, while the media showed photos of the same long queues over and over, I only ever saw relatively short queues of between five and ten people. People who seemed calm and good natured, not panicked or desperate, as portrayed in the traditional media.

While much has been written about the limit of sixty euro a day that can be withdrawn by locals from ATMs, on social media OXI campaigners have pointed out that the capital controls don’t affect the thirty five per cent of the population living in poverty because they don’t even have the luxury of a bank account.

I can’t help think that if money is running out in banks, maybe it’s because the people who withdrew the billions of euros before the referendum was announced are hoarding it.

A lot has been written about the politics implicit in the referendum and the economic consequences of voting no or yes. In Greece, the traditional media is aggressively supporting the NAI or ‘yes’ campaign, while the OXI or ‘no’ campaign is running hot on social media.

People I know have expressed a variety of opinions. Some say that either way they’ll be hungry in the next few years, so they might as well vote ‘no’ and get the Troika off their backs. Others say they know that more pain awaits if they accept the bailout terms offered, but they fear Greece leaving the Eurozone and a return to the drachma. They say it’s better the devil you know, than uncertainty.

As a very wise woman once explained to me, people are only motivated by two emotions: fear and love. All other emotions can be traced back to these two.

I have no doubt that everyone voting in the referendum will think they are doing the right thing for their country and their future. I also have no doubt that for many the motivating emotions will be fear of what will come next mixed with love of their country.

I personally hope that Greeks vote a big fat ‘OXI’ – ‘no’. But it’s easy for me to have an opinion because I’m an outsider. I’m all care and no responsibility.

As I write this, the polling booths have closed and soon we will know the result. Either way, in the tradition of Greeks who pass on “good” wishes, I wish Greece and Greeks, Καλἠ μαχἠ και καλἠ συνἐχια – a good fight and a good continuation.