"Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created." St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises
Even this, Ignatius? When all are in retreat in their homes, when consoling and desolating spirits vy for the attention of every moment, when truth is in short supply and what truth we have is despair,
even now can we catch divine movement behind a face mask, hear the Spirit call beyond garden walls, see will and purpose despite ailing hope, even now can we notice Christ animate the soul though it flags and fails?
As the changing but constant expectations of a year that no-one chose keep knocking and the day of the Lord lingers and tarries from my watch-post, I long
to take this one quietly, on the bench, with Saul and the others who couldn't run the race. No shame in being worn out when the swift themselves are flagging and the flags are all at half-mast or lower. No prizes for laps of honour, least of all in a mask. Preserve breath, preserve what energy you have left, I say.
I say. Though my words burn and I would be better served not to speak but to hear. A voice like a whisper, like fire, like a victor: My yoke is easy. My burden is light. No shoulders strong enough for burdens today; even then, there is grace.
First you will learn about smiles, how much you smile, what's contained in a smile, what's implied in the different degrees of smile: in a curl of the lip at a funny thought, in the mouth's outstretched corners to greet the close acquaintance, in the sardonic phrase, the empathic moment. All these things you will learn when they cannot be seen.
And eyes. You will learn about eyes. How readily you can recognise eyes across a courtyard or carpark, how much you can guess of a heart or a day from the eyes poking out above the nose.
And breath. You will learn about breath. You will taste it, smell it, absorb it all day. You will choose your words and your silence to preserve moments when you can simply breathe. You will long to stand in the garden beside your office and do nothing in that afternoon air but take off your mask and breathe.
And faces - you will catch, in their absence, the beauty, the wonder of faces, the heart-catching, God-splendoured glory of faces. You will long for the faces that you loved and despised, will search the room for these faces, will wish that these faces could transfigure their otherness straight into yours. You will cover your face and stifle your breath and halve your smile in hope of the day, to work for the day, when all of our faces are back.
What the day brings is anyone's guess: Students in masks, temperature checks at the front gate, But what else? Prognoses and rules change by the minute; What yesterday was harmless today may destroy. Brave new day that has such features in it. And so, the day lying open Like a box, like a question, I rejoice to see vermilion horizon That smiles on the locked-down and the risen alike.
Being a neighbour is fraught at any time, but in a time when suburbs, states and families are being isolated from one another, it is even harder. As an Australian, being part of an island nation has much impact on how we view our own place in the world, and in this time of reminding myself continually that “no man is an island”, I have turned to this theme for the third and final installment in my video poem series, “And who is my neighbour?”
It’s been a delight to collaborate with Asher Graieg-Morrison who has supplied music for each of these films. Check out his rich and textured work here.
I wrote this poem yesterday for the third installment in a series of videos about being a neighbour. As I wrote, I was contemplating the prospect of my Melbourne suburb being the next to go into lockdown. Little did I know that today the whole city would be put back into lockdown. So I’m posting the poem today, as my city prepares for six more weeks inside. I look forward to sharing the film with you when it’s finished. Stay safe.
Curtains are borders between me and the street. Next door is an unseen checkpoint away; Other postcodes have police blockades And I count the days until my home is the same.
By the bay we watch Numbers, statistics, localities named. Quiet suburb whispers its fears. No scapegoat to name, only
The innate mistrust of the island state That says, "I choose who comes here." How did this come here? What conspiracy brings us cheek to cheek
With the airborne griefs that plague all humankind, save us? This happens Only on TVs, never in 3d Where it reaches out with power to grab.
And does it console to know that, Somewhere, over oceans, others suffer Far worse than us? Hardly. I must view you up close to take comfort in your distance.
When I open curtains, my neighbour crosses street, Crosses seas, to land at my doorstep, breathing, "It's coming; you're next. The only place left Is our father's house, and we must share."
I’m looking forward to sharing a number of videos of poems from my upcoming book Les Feuilles Mortes in the coming weeks, including several from my friends and readers across the world. Here is the first, a letter written in quarantine to my young children.