Sydney School of Arts & Humanities
Helping writers to write and publish their work
No 4 September 2021
What is courage?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way for Jenny
No 3 July 2021
BURMA-MYANMAR MARTYRS’ DAY
by Sao Khemawadee Mangrai
It has always been a pleasure to go to the markets in Sydney. My husband, Sao Hso Hom - or Hom for short – drives me and two of our daughters every fortnight to feast our eyes on beautiful fresh flowers and equally beautiful fruits and vegetables. Especially those vegetables which the Shans and Burmese like to cook, such as the tender shoots of pumpkin, choko and mustard.
Hom parks the car on the rooftop of the shopping centre and we go by lift towards the sounds of sales assistants beckoning buyers and the sight of vegetables, fruits, meat, and cakes for sale. We literally elbow our way out of the thickening crowd and go straight to where the food shops and restaurants are situated. Asian food is served hot, and we often choose a favourite, rice noodles, before we part ways to do our shopping. I usually buy fish, meat and groceries, and in July, in anticipation of Martyrs’ Day, I buy double the amount of pork, chicken and vegetables to cook for our gathering in honour of those who have lost their lives in military coups in Burma.
Martyrs' Day is especially significant in our family. In 1947, when Hom was a boy, his father, Sao Sam Htun, was shot in a meeting, as he sat alongside General Aung San who was assassinated in a military coup. (* Fn) General Aung San died immediately and Hom’s father, who was wounded in the stomach, died from loss of blood in hospital the following day. So, although Martyrs’ Day falls on 19th July, we hold our gathering on 20th July. But this year, due to the pandemic lockdown, there’ll be no larger community gathering for us, just offerings in the sharing of merits before our altar at home.
19th July was designated as Martyrs’ Day when the Burmese Government proclaimed it a national holiday. The official ceremony is held at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum with the laying of wreaths at the respective martyrs’ tombs by their families whose names are given to those responsible, a month ahead of the day.
After laying wreaths, sharing merits and paying respects, the families and the representatives of previous ruling governments would proceed to the Town Hall in Rangoon, now called Yangon, where several monks would be invited to partake of some food and share merits with the living and the dead.
This commemoration has been reverently and respectfully carried out every year since 1947 when General Aung San, and others including Sao Sam Htun, Minister for the Frontier Areas, were gunned down. Sao Sam Htun’s body was transported back to his state, Mong Pawn, and his ashes were later taken down to Rangoon to be entombed.
In 1983, North Korean-backed suicide bombers arrived in Rangoon in anticipation of the South Korean President’s visit to Myanmar, it was reported after the event. The terrorists were dropped off in the delta and they swam across the Pazundaung Creek, and North Korean embassy hid them in the precinct. One assassin was stationed on the hill overlooking the Mausoleum, the hill that proudly held the world famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
It is customary whenever foreign delegates visit Myanmar that the agenda includes a visit to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum. That morning the South Korean President and his wife had attended a tea ceremony at the Japanese embassy and some tea had spilt on his wife’s dress. So, they had to be chauffeured back to their embassy to change her dress before proceeding to the Mausoleum.
Hom’s brother, Kai, who was editor-in-chief of the government news program, was assigned to follow the South Korean President’s entourage. The motorcade was led by the ambassador whose car had the South Korean flag flying. When an assassin saw the car with the flag close to the Mausoleum, he detonated a bomb which brought the building down, killing a number of South Korean cabinet ministers. Since the President was late in arriving, he escaped. The Burmese dignitaries also escaped as they had walked out of the building to greet the South Korean President. Hom’s brother Kai escaped, as well.
The government rebuilt the Mausoleum in preparation for Martyrs’ Day ceremonies but it’s hard to know who is being paid respect as the remains were replaced in new tombs, and presumably mixed up. Hom’s brother has kept attending the ceremony every year in the absence of Hom. Sometimes in his absence, others in the family have attended as well.
The officials who plan the yearly ceremonial attendances may have forgotten the eldest son, Hom, as the years have gone by. It is now over 70 years since the ceremony first took place. At times when the ceremony has been televised, we have seen photograph captions which mistakenly show the Chief of Mong Pawn as Sao Khun Myat, instead of Sao Sam Htun, and his eldest son’s name, Sao Hso Hom, left out, as if he does not exist.
Have the Burmese forgotten the history? Or have they intentionally rewritten the history of how General Aung San fought against the Japanese and British to gain Burma independence? How he endeavoured to bring eight different ethnic groups to unite and to form the Union of Burma? There are actually 135 ethnic groups, and Sao Sam Htun represented the frontier areas. As for his son, my husband Sao Hso Hom, he was kept in custody for five years – with no leniency shown him out of respect for who his father was – before he was released, after which time we were able to make our way as a family, first to Fiji and then to Australia to live.
I don’t know any longer what Hom feels about all these atrocities against the Burmese, Shan and other ethnic people, against himself, and about his father’s assassination. I watch him sometimes just to try to comprehend what memories he’s held in his mind. What does he feel when he remembers suddenly becoming an orphan as a boy? Does he feel sorry for himself? Does he miss the moments when he had to sit beside his father at the State meeting? Did he yearn for fatherly advice or comfort?
This year, as usual, we will offer food, pray for his father, and share merits with all living beings and the dead, on 20th July. But due to lockdown we will do it quietly at home.
In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency. It seized control on 1st February this year, following a general election which General Aung San’s daughter, Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party had won by a landslide.
The military atrocities continue, the people remain oppressed. I pray every day, ‘What can be done to relieve their suffering?’
Martyrs' Mausoleum, Yangon
*Fn Wiki: Bogyoke Aung San (13 February 1915 – 19 July 1947) was a Burmese politician, independence activist and revolutionary. General Aung San was the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces, and is considered the ‘Father of the Nation’ of modern-day Myanmar. He was instrumental in Burma's independence from British rule, but was assassinated just six months before his goal was realised.
Copyright: text Sao Khemawadee Mangrai; photos Wiki.
Sao Khemawadee's life memoir 'BURMA MY MOTHER' is available on Amazon Books.
No 2 May 2021
Jenny Sheldon might have rarely asked the question
once but now knows the answer better than most.
Courage is writ large in I Will, her inspirational memoir
penned with the help of writer and friend, Sharon
Jenny was in her mid-40s and teaching Drama at Lismore High School in June 2007 when she experienced spasms in her right hand.
She was taken to hospital, where doctors found she'd
had a minor stroke. Jenny was kept in for observation
and was looking forward to going home the next day.
But then ...
'It happened overnight. I had a massive stroke. I
almost died. Now I couldn't move on the right side
of my body and I couldn't speak. I didn't know where I was. I was muddled and frightened.'
Many will not know Jenny’s fear of being trapped inside their body, a dark tunnel with no way out.
But little by little for Jenny something would stir deep from within the darkness. As she sought to rebuild her life – to move, to write, to drive, to speak – she would tell herself 'I will'.
Because for Jenny, where there is a will, there’s a way.
She had help from Jean, her favourite nurse, who came to her one night when she was teary and depressed and, '…held my hand … an angel [who] watched me throughout the night'.
Pivotally, there would be her singing. Her former choir Voices in the Roar brought it back into her life. It became the 'spoonful of sugar' that kept her going, she says.
Always there’d be her loving family and a band of devoted friends. They would all help Jenny go into battle.
For Jenny, her lance was an iron will, her 'plume of feathers', the singing, the family and friends, and the angels in her life.
It was fear versus courage. Which would win?
Jenny will tell you the story in beautiful prose. You don’t so much read the words as glide along with them in all their crests and troughs.
It holds lessons for all, about health, about relationships, about the things we might take for granted.
For where there’s a 'will' for Jenny, there’s a way for us too.
Sydney School of Arts & Humanities would like to thank Catholic Voice for permission to republish this article by Don Smith published earlier this year. Jenny Sheldon continues to give presentations at community functions and her memoir is available on Amazon Books https://www.amazon.com.au/s?k=I+Will+jenny+sheldon&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss
LODGE OF SPIES
A short story by Robert Carrick
The Lodge seemed a dull place, innocuous. A blond brick assisted-living facility, it was wedged between a sprawling nursing home and the first line of independent living villas perched on hillside steppes above a bushland reserve on Sydney’s lower north shore. Aptly named, it existed for the sole purpose of providing residency for the thirty-seven living souls who called it home. All those who lived there knew deep down, that they were in transit. Some came and went within a month, some lived there for years, but, eventually, everyone moved along the road from independent life to dependency. It was just a matter of time.
My later life has indeed, been a triumph and I must not lose sight of that, Florence told herself as she looked in the mirror, pinning her ruby-studded silver brooch carefully to her yellow cardigan. The mirror was positioned at wheelchair height in the small lobby of her ground floor unit, No. 10.
She wheeled herself to her front door, turning the handle to open the door ajar. Then she picked up a rope attached to the handle and backed the wheelchair up until there was enough clearance to open the door, before thrusting herself into the hallway. Once through, she pulled the rope on the handle on the other side to close the door before setting the wheels in motion towards the dining room.
Although it was only 5 o’clock, Bob Taylor and Jim Reece were waiting for her at their regular table. As always, Bob was wearing a crisp white shirt, a navy blue yachting jacket and a red cravat. Jim by contrast was decked out in a gaudy yellow and green Hawaiian shirt that somehow seemed to match his grey moustache and the remnants of his Brylcreemed hair.
‘Evening, Florence,’ they chimed as she rolled into the room.
‘Hello boys, did I keep you waiting?’
‘I always hope you’ll be running late and then we won’t have to eat so early. Whoever thought we would be eating dinner at 5 pm?’ Jim complained as the catering staff plonked down the meal trays, knowing that the meal service was all that stood between them and knockoff time.
‘It’s not that the food is all that bad, it’s just not too bloody good either,’ Bob said as he sawed his way through a rubbery minute steak that was submerged in an ocean of barbeque sauce. ‘It’s like hospital food. It sounds all very Michelin Star on the menu but in reality is more Harry’s Cafe De Wheels.’
‘With a touch of nursing home for good measure,’ added Jim.
Bob had been at The Lodge for just over a year. Florence figured Bob was in his late eighties and mentally he had his good and bad days.
‘I was a senior executive in the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra, you know,’ he said.
‘I know,’ said Florence and Jim together.
‘How do you know that?’ Bob asked. ‘That’s classified information.’
‘Well, that would be because you told us yesterday,’ Jim said.
And the day before that, thought Florence.
‘Well, I’m telling you both this for a reason. In my time I was the head of ASIO.’
Jim’s moustache inverted momentarily before declaring, ‘Well, Bob, I guess you know a spy when you see one!’
‘Precisely, Jim. I’m telling you both this because we have a spy in our midst.’
‘Jim, you are a dark horse. You were here long before me. I’ve been here for three years and I thought I knew everything about you. Are you a secret agent?’ Florence asked with a smile.
‘No, not Jim, don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about our new resident next to me in No. 12.’
‘Really? Who is this person and when did they move in, and why are they not here for dinner?’ Florence was keen to know more.
‘I know it’s a woman because I can hear her through the wall, on the phone, making conference calls at 3 am,’ Bob explained.
‘3 am! Bob, you are being unnecessarily suspicious. Maybe she has relatives overseas,’ Florence suggested.
‘Or reporting into her handler more like it. I may be old but I’m not paranoid and I know a spy when I see one. I was the head of ASIO …’
‘We know!’ said Florence and Jim together.
Florence changed the subject and entertained them with a story about painting in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park with her friend Dorothy, and before long they were done with the coffee and mints and it was time to retire to their rooms for the evening.
‘Good night boys. And Bob, keep our new resident under surveillance. I want a full report tomorrow evening,’ Florence said as she turned away.
She wheeled herself back to her room and pushed the buzzer to summon the night nurse to help her get ready for bed.
She managed to shimmy out of her skirt and top and into her nightie before Hashem arrived to lift her onto her bed. She knew Hashem was a sweetie, but it irked her that she now required his help. It hadn’t always been so.
In her eighties, both of her legs had been amputated above the knee due to poor circulation. Despite this horrific setback, to the astonishment of her family, friends and health professionals, the experience ignited a steely resolve within Florence to return to independent living. She arranged to have her unit modified so that she could access everything she needed from her wheelchair. In one of her rehabilitation sessions, the occupational therapist produced a short timber board with tapered ends and covered in smooth high-gloss varnish. Florence was quick to realise its potential and soon mastered the technique of using the board to slide out of her wheelchair and into her lounge chair, in and out of cars, her commode and, ultimately, her electric scooter. She felt as liberated as a teenager. She had her ‘surfboard’, her wheels, her dignity and, ultimately, her freedom. She remained fiercely independent for over a decade and used her time to visit the residents of the centre and nursing home. Her view was that despite her disability, there were others that were worse off. Her later life had indeed been a triumph, was the third-person description of herself she carried into the outside world.
Hashem gently helped her to wriggle along with the board and onto the bed and pulled up her sheets and blankets.
‘Radio tonight, Florence?’ he asked.
‘Thanks, Hashem, Talkback on 2GB, please. I have to keep up with what the cab drivers are getting fired up about. It helps me to stay in touch.’
Hashem turned on the radio for her and disappeared, leaving her in the thrall of the talkback radio host and a throng of cab drivers who were all fired up about climate change.
I could get fired up about climate change, she thought as she switched off the radio. In the silence, her mind wandered back to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and soon she was walking along a narrow bush track with Dorothy, before arriving at a rocky outcrop of sandstone where they set up their easels. She drifted off beside Dorothy and her paintbrushes as they began colour matching the tones of the Australian bush from their vantage point above the sparkling emerald blue waters of Cowan Creek.
The nurses during the day were always more businesslike than Hashem who, during the evenings, seemed to have all the time in the world. Nurse Emily had Florence up, showered and dressed before 9 am and left her with her breakfast on her verandah at the rear of her apartment. Out of nowhere a large brush turkey appeared, looking rather menacing with its angry red head, yellow collar and jet-black feathers.
‘Shoo!’ Florence told him. It was difficult not to feel jealous of the bird as it took off. What I would give to be able to run off like that, she thought. Then she remembered that she could still run about, if not with legs, at least with wheels. Florence took her empty breakfast bowl to the sink then wheeled herself out through the building entry to the scooter storage area. With a little assistance from the nurse in reception, she was soon trundling off to the village cafe to join the small group of regulars who came to sit and chat in the morning sun.
‘Morning, Florence, your usual?’ Joe the barista asked.
‘Just black English Breakfast tea for me today Joe, and one of those little orange and almond cakes too, please.’
‘Pure decadence,’ Joe said with a smile.
Florence drank her tea and chatted with the usual suspects before heading off to do the rounds of the site’s landscaped garden. Then she pulled up and chatted with a young male nurse who helped her to wriggle across her board and into her wheelchair. She did her best not to think too much about the future and, instead, concentrated on connecting with the people she knew, even if some of them no longer seemed to know her. Having eaten the cake, she skipped lunch and stayed in the common room until it was time to scooter back to her apartment to get ready for dinner. She brushed her hair, put on a little foundation and some rouge and applied some red lipstick. Not bad for an old girl of ninety-five, she thought as she pulled on her cardigan and pinned on her brooch. Florence wheeled herself into the dining room right on 5 pm.
‘Evening, Florence,’ said Bob and Jim. She was about to reply when she noticed an elderly woman seated at a table in the far corner of the dining room.
‘Just a minute, boys,’ she said, before wheeling off to meet the new resident.
The woman was possibly eighty-something, bespectacled and smartly dressed in a grey pleated skirt and a tweed jacket. Florence couldn’t help but think that she looked very English.
‘Hello, I’m Florence. I heard we had a new resident and I am guessing that it’s you. Welcome to The Lodge!’
‘Thank you, my dear, very kind. My name is Denise Jensen and, yes, I'm in room No. 12.’
'Well, don’t be shy. Come and join us for dinner - we don’t bite,’ Florence said, hoping that Bob was going to behave himself.
‘Thank you for the invitation. Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.’
‘You’re more than welcome to sit with us. Come on.’
Florence wheeled herself back to the table and Denise sat beside her.
‘This is Bob Taylor and Jim Reece. Boys, meet Denise Jensen, our new neighbour.’
‘Nice to finally meet you, Denise,’ Bob said. ‘Look, sorry to intrude, but before we start, I would like to clear something up.’ Florence had a sinking feeling that Bob was going to ask an inappropriate question, and he didn’t disappoint. 'I just need to ask … are you a spy?’
The question seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before Denise laughed.
‘Bob, you are half right. In the war, I worked with British intelligence as an analyst, you know, cyphers and codes, that sort of thing.’
‘Vindication! I know a spy when I see one. I used to be an executive in the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra, the head of ASIO, you know!
‘We know,’ said Florence and Jim together.
‘How do you know? That’s classified …’
Florence cut him off and changed the subject and soon the four of them were chatting about taxi drivers and climate change over the remains of a very average mixed grill.
‘I’ll push you back to your room,’ said Denise, at the conclusion of the meal.
‘That would be nice.’
When they arrived back at the door of Florence’s apartment, she took Denise’s hand. ‘I’m sorry about Bob, he’s a lovely man but he’s losing it,’ she explained.
‘No harm done at all - we’re all old. It’s lovely to meet you. How about tomorrow night you come over to my room for a pre-dinner drink? They don’t allow alcohol in the dining room, I’ve been told, but I have a nice bottle of single malt scotch whisky stashed in my top drawer.
‘That sounds delightful, Denise. I’ll need to come over about 4:30 pm though so we can be at dinner at 5. The hours here take a bit of getting used to.
‘Wonderful. I’ll see you then.’
Florence retired to her room and found herself watching a sitcom on TV. I just wish I understood the damn jokes, she thought as she buzzed for Hashem to help her to bed.
Shortly after, Hashem was tucking her in, then left her in the company of the talkback radio host, who was on a rant about gender equality.
I could fire up about gender equality, she thought, as she dozed off to the sound of railing taxi drivers.
Nurse Emily woke her up with start at 8 am. Florence wriggled along the board and into the chair and, aided by Emily, did the rounds of her ablutions before ending up in her easy chair with a view of the back garden. It was a wet day and thunder grumbled in the distance, quickly followed by the sizzle of raindrops as they danced on the corrugated perspex roof of her verandah. After the harried pace of the previous day, she lapped up the opportunity to settle in to read the Sydney Morning Herald from front to back as the rain came down. She decided to skip lunch and, instead, wheeled herself into the common area lounge to watch a rerun of Roman Holiday. As soon as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn graced the Spanish Steps, she dozed off and only regained consciousness in time to see the last of the credits dissolve into advertising.
‘What time is it?’ she asked one of her fellow movie buffs.
‘Three o’clock, dear.’
‘Thanks.’ Time to get ready for drinks with Denise, she thought.
Florence wheeled her way back into her unit where she shook herself out of her skirt and into her favourite green linen dress. She buzzed for Hashem, who popped in to zip her up at the back. She then pulled on her yellow cardigan, pinned on her brooch, wheeled her way around to the door of No.12, and knocked.
‘Coming, Florence …’
Denise opened the door and stood aside as Florence wheeled her way in, before she bent over and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
‘You look a picture, my dear. So, how do you take your whiskey?’
‘Straight with just a little ice,’ said Florence as she looked around the room. The units at The Lodge were so small there was no space for more than a small number of the most personal effects. The only item apart from a crystal vase on the desk which held a variety of orchids was a monochrome photograph of a young soldier, positioned on the wall between the television and the doorway.
Denise poured Florence a stiff drink and added some ice which she retrieved from her little bar fridge before pouring herself what appeared to be a double shot with no ice.
‘Your husband?’ Florence enquired, absorbing the portrait while sipping the whiskey.
‘Yes, Bryce. He was killed in Central America helping the Americans in the 1950s. Were
‘Yes, my husband Edward was an accountant. I was his second wife and I ended up being the mother for all of his children although not all of them were mine. He died before I lost my legs, thank God. He would have been so upset to see me now.’
‘Nonsense! He would have been immensely proud of your fortitude, Cheers! Drink up - to us!
‘To us!’ Florence took another swig.
‘Do you smoke?’
‘No, well, I used to years ago but, no, and they won’t let you smoke in here.’
‘Bugger the lot of them, I say.’ Denise produced a packet of Dunhill and a matchbook from her drawer. Florence smiled, thinking, That’s something my sister Kate would have said.
Denise pulled out a cigarette and lit up, drawing the smoke back deep in her lungs, withholding it as she walked to the open screen door where she exhaled and watched the smoke as it vaped away through the grille. She held her wrist at an elegant angle, turned, and made direct eye contact with Florence. Only then did Florence realise that Denise had dark grey-blue eyes, and she felt as if they were boring a hole in the back of her skull.
‘Sooty Shearwaters migrate from Norway to the Falkland Islands in the northern winter,’ Denise said, without flinching.
Those words sent a shiver through Florence that started from the base of her spine and evaporated through the hair follicles on her scalp. Beads of sweat broke out on her brow as she drained her glass, ice and all, leaving nothing but a chill in the pit of her stomach. Regaining her composure, and with a deep breath, Florence responded.
‘Bullers Albatrosses lay eggs in the Snares Islands in the summer. I’ve been waiting half a lifetime to say those words.’
‘Do you have it?’ asked Denise.
‘Yes.’ Florence unpinned her brooch and passed it to Denise. ‘What you are asking for is tucked inside the cavity at the back of the brooch. I always assumed it was some kind of microdot. Do you know what it is?’
‘I can’t tell you and you don’t need to know. However, the time may soon come when you can find out more under the Freedom of Information Act.’ Denise examined the brooch momentarily before slipping it into a leather briefcase on the floor under her bedside table. ‘If Bob really was the head of ASIO I’m surprised he didn’t know about you. I admire your spycraft,’ Denise said.
‘He would only know me as an asset, not as a person. Bob would only recognise my alias.’
‘Which is what, exactly?’
‘Blue Bandicoot. And yours?’
‘Deliciously British as mine is quintessentially Australian. Let’s have another dram and toast the Commonwealth.’
Denise poured another two doubles and they laughed as they clinked their glasses together and threw back their drinks.
‘It’s time for me to get out,’ Florence announced.
‘I’m sure that the Australian Government, if they could acknowledge your existence, would thank you for your service.’
‘Will you be staying long?’
‘Everyone here at The Lodge is in transit. Some stay for years or months and some, like me, just a few days.’
‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you. Good evening, Spotted Mallard.’
‘Goodbye and good luck, my dear Blue Bandicoot,’ Denise said, opening the door for Florence to wheel herself out into the hallway.
My later life has indeed, been a triumph, Florence thought, as the door clicked behind her. And with that, she pointed her wheels towards the dining room and pushed off to go to dinner with the boys.
Copyright: text Robert Carrick & Sydney School of Arts & Humanities; photos Wix.
No 1 January 2021
THE TIDE’S IN
Our first feature for the new year offers a whole new perspective on appreciation of our planet, thanks to guest contributor, Rossella Venturi. Here she brings a fresh approach to the subject of what we can learn from the sea.
Six months ago, leading up to Sydney’s winter, I plunged back into the immense joy of swimming, my passion coinciding with the end of a COVID lockdown and the reopening of ‘Swim & Go’ measures at several beaches and pools. Soon after, I had a very aquatic conversation with a famous New York City swimming academic whom the Italian independent magazine Sirene (meaning ‘mermaids’ in Italian) had commissioned me to interview.
Professor Steve Mentz , 53, is a very welcoming, very simpatico American ‘aquademic’ who lectures on enticingly liquid subjects such as ‘Blue Humanities’ and ‘Watery Thinking’.
The ocean was freezing here in Sydney, especially so for me. Yes, I have been a swimmer all my life, but I grew up in Italy and I am used to swimming in the warm Med! Swimming in open ocean in winter? No, thanks very much.
Yet 2020 was the first year I felt an absolute necessity to keep swimming, even in winter, even in the freezing Pacific – along with having dozens of other so called ‘unprecedented’ experiences that year. I bought my first wet suit ever and splashed into the water. Bliss, brrr.
It was only after talking with Professor Mentz that I better understood why my urge to swim became so intense in the period of immense general uncertainty due, above all, to the pandemic but not just that.
Our conversation, adapted for publication here, courtesy of SireneJournal.
As we are Facetiming, Professor Steve Mentz in New York and I in Sydney, his words begin to reveal to me why I’m getting keener and keener to immerse myself in the ocean. Every day, every minute, for as long as I can.
‘Today we need swimmers more than warriors,’ he says. ‘We need people who feel at home in the water, in between the fluid instability of the waves and the currents.’
We are looking at each other on our laptop screens, he from the Atlantic and I from the Pacific, my hair still a little wet from diving into the waves at Coogee Beach early that morning. We confess to each other that for us as swimmers, the social distancing and the domestic confinement during the pandemic lockdown have been hard but not as hard to bear as the dryness, the distance from the salty sea.
Steve lives in Branford, Connecticut. His home overlooks a bay. ‘I usually swim every day from May to November,’ he tells me. ‘My personal and academic passion is everything that is vast, blue, and saline.’
A Shakespearean scholar, he has also poured the immensity of the ocean into St. John’s University in New York where he teaches literary theory, the history of the sea, and ‘Blue Cultural Studies’. This is a subject that, as soon as he pronounced it, I’d immediately decided I’d like to be there already studying. Particularly in these uncertain days, as we all try to trace new routes.
Steve wrote At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, trawling every drop of the sea from The Tempest to Othello. He organized exhibitions on ancient navigational instruments from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, from nautical charts to sailors’ prayers. He travelled the world delivering lectures about 'Oceanic Thinking' and 'Swimming into the Blue Humanities'. And he recently published Ocean (Bloomsbury Academic), a delightful book which is a jazzy and erudite history of our planet, for once seen exclusively from the sea water. It blends the origins of the oceans, the aquatic visions of Emily Dickinson, cyborgs and why New Yorkers today are rediscovering the sea in their vertical city. It looks as though everywhere, these days, people are discovering the joy of open water swimming.
For Steve, swimming and thinking are roughly the same thing. He discovered it as a child while counting laps in the pool every day as he trained in chlorinated water. He rediscovered it some ten years ago when he started to take one stroke after another in the Atlantic. Today he is convinced that long swims in the open sea are the most formidable meditation for us humans, to ponder the challenges of environmental crises.
‘Meditation and water are married forever,’ Melville wrote in Moby Dick.
But to Steve, swimming is also a practice of resilience. ‘Immersed in an element that is constantly moving, quite a fragile condition to be in, we learn to reach a relative equilibrium among the waves, the winds, the currents, knowing it won’t last.
‘Our planet is becoming increasingly unstable and less and less safe,’ he continues. ‘The glaciers are melting; the oceans are rising and lashing the coastlines. We humans must adapt to this growing impermanence and re-imagine how to live in the critical era we call the Anthropocene’.
That’s why Steve thinks that today, more than ever, we need people who can float, sail, trace routes in precarious situations, and repair the boat on which we are sailing.
‘We need sailors and swimmers more than soldiers and emperors, Ulysses more than Achilles. Maritime literature is the greatest archive of stories for surviving and heading forth in the storm.
‘Sailors know that continents are just transitory intrusions upon the liquid surface, and this planet, seventy per cent of which is made of water – more or less similar to our bodies – should be called “Ocean” not “Earth”.’
Professor Steve Mentz knows Sydney well. The last time he visited was in pre-COVID October 2019. After lecturing at the University of Sydney, he headed off to Shelley Beach, Manly, with a small group of colleagues and students, and had his first close encounter ever with a giant Australian cuttlefish.
‘Half a metre long, it floated over a prairie of seaweed, its body similar to a baguette – and it advanced by swinging imperceptibly, moving like a Halloween ghost. For a few minutes it let me swim with it. Until it stopped and, instead of turning around, it went backwards starboard, its tail now where its head was before. Then it disappeared among the sandstone rocks.
‘But as I watched, mesmerised, it swam in a sort of K-shape movement, and I thought: “I lay my hope in a humanity that can imitate the cuttlefish’s enigmatic and fluctuating way of redirecting itself.”’
Steve Mentz also reminds me that when we are down there underwater, we are both intruders and witnesses.
‘Being in the presence of a creature that is not like me is one of the ways I teach myself to live better in this world. To engage generously and kindly and not destructively. To experience and collaborate with a different point of view.’
Swimming is also crucial for Steve’s writing. He says he wrote Ocean in between freestyle strokes. He would throw himself into the water and each time he’d emerge with an idea for the next chapter. ‘Because when you’re in the water, following the rhythm of your breath, your mind takes you to places you don’t expect. You start to perceive everything from an offshore perspective.’
It’s the Blue Humanities approach. ‘We are a swimmer-speculative community,’ Steve explains. ‘Historians, nautical engineers, writers, navigators, artists and poets investigating the relationship between us humans and the ocean.
‘Few things in the world are as inebriating as becoming one with the rhythm of your strokes through breathing, to “feel the water”, to use an expression I have learnt from the great Murray Rose,’ he tells me as we say goodbye to each other.
Facetime off, I reach the Murray Rose Pool near Double Bay and dive into harbour water protected by shark nets. And yes, to put it in the words of the title of Murray Rose’s autobiography, now more than ever Life is Worth Swimming.
Copyright Rossella Venturi
Photos Rossella Venturi & Graeme McGlone (beaches & ocean);
Youtube Abyss Scuba Diving (giant cuttlefish)
Arts & Humanities Degrees -
Essential to Education
Fiction by David Benn
It wasn’t Harrison’s vocal level that made me go to the old bookshelf in the small dark office at the front of our terrace house. Rather, it was the tone of his voice.
COVID-19 Shakespearean Book Launch
St. Thomas's College, Kerala
I was invited to a very special book launch in India this month, one which chronicled the tragedy of our times while also raising hope for the future. The book's theme was two-fold - the effects of coronavirus and Shakespeare's approach to such pestilence.
The Bra Boy of Bondi Icebergs
The coronavirus presents all kinds of dilemmas for humankind. Some life-changing, some trivial. In this issue, Jim Piotrowski uses a light-hearted approach to consider some social effects on relationships as well as the craft of writing, in a distinctly Sydney short story. Read more
Brexit has been dominating the airwaves for the past three years and talk of hard and soft borders bandied about in a willy-nilly fashion. Few understand what the terms actually mean for Northern Ireland and Ireland. Read more
CREATIVITY, ART & LIFE
Viewing the extraordinary artistry of sanctioned graffiti on a recent trip to Valparaiso in Chile, I was struck again by one version of the concept of geomancy. Is the formation of hotspots of creativity in time and space random? Read more
A COMMITTED LEFTIE
A Committed Leftie Scholar, writer and book reviewer, Michael Wilding chats with Italian journalist, Rossella Venturi, in her last Author Interview in a series she's working on. Read more
Issue No.3 2018
TOM KENEALLY: LOVE, LIFE, WRITING
Australia’s great grand patriarch of writing, Tom Keneally, remains as ‘common man’ as ever in his outlook on life, regardless of so many honours bestowed and worldwide glory gained. Read more
Issue No.1 2018
WRITER'S DREAMS, EDITOR'S KNIFE AND SELLER'S RACK A candid interview with the Director of Sydney School of Arts & Humanities, Dr Christine Williams, by South Indian poet and academic, Syam Sudhakar Read more
LUKE SLATTERY DOES JUSTICE TO 'MRS M'
To Slattery, the story of early colonial Sydney is a still-relevant social experiment, so much so he wrote two books about it. His latest, Mrs M, is a fictionalized story of emancipist Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth. Read more
WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?
Our first Impressions article for the year – and with it an acknowledgement of the great legacies left by writers who have influenced our lives and our ideas so significantly – and, so often, unobtrusively.
Issue No.4 2018
SEEKING HARMONY FROM COMPLEXITY
Nicky Gluch's memoir, just published, is set in Israel in 2013-14. It will explore how the experience of living and studying there led Gluch to pursue a musical career. Read more
Issue No.2 2018
BANKING MISCONDUCT: JUSTIFICATION FOR CHANGE In a fresh approach to the snags for the unwary being uncovered by the current Royal Commission into the financial services industry, one group of Economics thinkers has proposed an innovative proposal. Read more