To Hellfire Pass and Back, Hallelujah

Soundtrack, a very broken Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen,
performed by  Jeff Buckley

img_7472I’ve never been one for war memorials, I’ve been to one Dawn Service, never felt I wanted to go to Gallipoli. But something in me jumped at the chance to take a trip to the River Kwai, it just seemed right somehow. I didn’t really even think about what it would be, just knew I had to go. It seemed like a good reason for having found myself in Thailand.

You might question my soundtrack recommendation for this post, but it seems so right to me, the rough, broken emptiness of the empty Hallelujah of Cohen crying for meaning. And performed by Jeff Buckley, the spaces between the guitar strings become the spaces in a disillusioned heart full of longing. For me, the sun-baked jungle mountains reached out to sons of a sun-burnt country whose faith was formed in suffering in a sun-parched Judea, until it resonated with a very hot agonised human thirst for meaning. I hope you’ll come to agree that the Hallelujah respects the spirit of those men, who, although broken, dying, tortured in body, mind and soul, even in death, still remained human, remained Australian, and endured.

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Our journey to Hellfire Pass started at the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi where almost 7,000 graves attest to the 15,000 total POW deaths, and signal the some 100,000 Asian civilian deaths, lives that were lost building the infamous Thai-Burma railway between 1942 and 1943. Such a short time for so much death.

Standing among the graves of unknown soldiers I felt moved to sing Amazing Grace. Wandering I saw a crocheted poppy, symbol from last Remembrance Day. A friend of mine made several of those and here I was seeing one in Thailand. How far our simple acts of love and compassion can reach.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

People from our group found the graves of some for whom they had come to pay respects. Already moved, we moved on to the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. Bombed and destroyed and rebuilt it doesn’t seem to meet the size of David Niven, but the agony is bigger, somehow in every rail, in every sleeper, every rivet.

I had to go and look at the locomotives, two original rails re-laid, somehow they made it more real.

I love that in South East Asia there seems to be this habit of building temples near sites of suffering and death. As though prayer and stillness could ease the souls, the grief, the pain. I like it at the very least as a sign of respect and reverence.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I’m not even sure now how much I knew about Hellfire Pass before yesterday. We got to the museum, which is so fitting, and the thing that struck me most… a sign that said: there are no artefacts in this museum. The men who suffered and died here brought nothing with them to leave behind.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

Warned about the number of stairs (121) and the “rough” track I headed off down the path to Hellfire Pass.

The rail bed is immediately impressive. Yes it’s been cleared and maintained as a memorial, but the engineer in me says this was a well built railway line. Cut into rock with blood. And the scenery is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

img_7548

I was walking along thinking how impressive it was, how incredible the feat of construction. The roughness of the cliff, cut back in to make the railway line level along the mountain side. It’s rough going even now but what stopped me, brought me up short, were the occasional sleepers still buried in the path. And I remembered again that this was built by men, POWs, by hand. Men brutalised. Feed starvation rations of plain rice, eating insects for protein. Digging through granite at the point of a gun.

And it is impressive. But then I came around a bend and saw the actual Hellfire Pass. And my immediate thought, “It’s an empty tomb.”

img_7565

It was called Hellfire Pass because the Japanese forced work 24 hours a day. And as the pass was dug, the conditions and the flames of the fires that lit their work by night, were as close to hell on earth as the men could imagine. And it wasn’t imagination, they were living and dying it.

At that point I started to understand how it was that the war in the Pacific came to a place where it could only end in the otherwise unthinkable use of nuclear bombs.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

It seemed kind of kitsch, but I felt I had no option but to take my hat off in awe, in horror, and in wonder. Awe and wonder, at the brokenness of hell, at the empty tomb filled with gut wrenching despair and loss and suffering.

And Mary stood alone outside the empty tomb and wept

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

I was humbled in the presence of such great spirit.

img_7619Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

After the mist this morning we went to Saiyoknoi Waterfall, where there is no water. But the fallen leaves were being burned and created an eerie, supernatural sense of not being alone in these mountains even today. The tree roots, reaching out like some kind of skeletal being, one still shackled. Still reaching for god and home and meaning. Poppies and flower offerings for peace, on a Japanese loco, in the smoke and the sun and the drought.

Hallelujah

But I was still despairing about humanity. How can people have a future in a world of so much reckless hate? How can we have a future if it’s all happening again? Do we even deserve a future? I wandered off alone, unable to cope with other people.

But inevitably it was back in the van and we were off again to another rock cut railway with wooden trestles and I despaired.

The POWs working this section were herded each night into a cave so they couldn’t escape. And in that cave today: Buddha, incense, prayers for peace. I don’t know why, but it made me pause and wonder, maybe, maybe, maybe, is there some hope for humanity?

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

My mother, the woman I thought I didn’t know

I am lucky to have been mothered in my life by two strong, beautiful, capable women. It took a long time for me to let myself discover in my stepmother a woman and friend that I love and respect. Until now I’d not discovered my mother as a person: she died in 1980, very much still my Mummy. I am lucky now to know and love these two priceless women. It’s wonderful that the human heart can morph, can love without limit or competition or comparison.

There’s a woman in my life I barely knew. Never got to know as a woman, as an independent person. Never got to separate the Woman from the role of Mummy.

Some may say I’m too much in my head, but it was feminist philosophy that hit my triggers, called challenge to my resounding clanging shut bronze defensive doors with many many locks. They said that the most important relationship for a woman to recover, to find herself, to discover human intimacy, to identify herself as a subject in her own right not an object relative to a man, is with her mother. No way. I checked the locks and bars. No mother needed here.

But here I am some eighteen months later, after a long-lost friend of hers telling me how much I am like her, after many more feminist nigglings “Before any woman, before you can see yourself as a person, you need to see your mother as a person, a subject in her own right, an individual not a role, a woman is a woman first, a daughter, wife, mother only thereafter”. After an uncle sharing photographs I didn’t have. Nauseated by endless feminist fiction where the daughter reconciles with her dead misunderstood mother. After visiting her grave and feeling almost nothing, after fleeting thoughts and questions I quickly suppressed. After all that niggling like a buzzing mosquito, on Saturday afternoon I found myself crying in the front bar of a pub. Hugging strangers. Telling all who’d listen that my Mum was there in ’54. Proud to have been born in Footscray. Bulldog Premiers. Singing under my breath the old words, words she held more dear than any hymn. It felt like it was time, not just for the Bulldogs but for us.

So here I am trying to identify for myself the woman, my Mum. To look at footsteps 36 years faded, and find a person. A woman.

I know she was loyal – perhaps to a fault. Loyal to her beloved Bullies, to family. Loyalty reciprocated by friends, even after her death. Fierce loyalty that could look a lot like stubbornness. She wasn’t shy, afraid to stand up for what she thought was hers, or afraid to speak her mind: I sure learned those traits young.

She was active in trying to get me the best. No pre-school near our home? She formed a committee, and it opened the year after I started primary school. No primary school near our home? She drove a parents’ council so one was built, opening for my Grade 6, just over a year before she died. She sewed my Barbie clothes when we couldn’t afford to buy them. She worried if the new high school would be good enough for me.

She loved food, and friends and wine. To party. She was vibrant. I think she laughed. Yes she laughed, I remember she laughed at other mothers’ horror when she brought me to my ballet concert covered in charcoal from my school concert chimney sweeping debut. Cleaned me up and sent me out to be a queen. She struggled with weight, but I remember soft enveloping hugs. I missed those hugs. She loved apricot – the colour, the fruit, jam, especially apricot flowers. And purple, I mean who has a purple toilet? I guess it was the 70’s. She didn’t drive and was afraid of water. She was afraid a lot I think, and isolated. She found a sister in my Aunt. She wrote ILY randomly through the calendar of 1980 on dates after she knew she would have died.

She was the queen of lists, she would have been dangerous had she lived to wield a spreadsheet. She worked as a book keeper then shop keeper. She could budget. On holidays we played cards, 500 and canasta. She had a home she loved, with simple treasures – glass reindeer, a trio of dalmatians, albums of Pat Boone and Johnny O’Keefe, Elvis and Bill Haley & the Comets. She loved Christmas planning, laying out the presents months in advance. She hated ironing. She was passionate in love and temper and joy. She beat herself up when she thought she didn’t meet her own standards. She and my Dad took turns to hold me when I had nightmares.

She was fallible, but aren’t we all. She wore pink, had manicured nails. She loved me. She laughed so hard she cried when I dropped the tablecloth out the apartment window and it caught on pipes halfway down.

bulldogs-1954Her mother died in Footscray. She and I were both born in Footscray Hospital. Her Dad was a life member at Footscray. Their blood ran red, white and blue. So I stood, tears flowing, in a Queensland bar surrounded by strangers, singing Son’s of the ‘scray, the red, white and blue. 62 years after she screamed herself hoarse when they last brought home the flag. And I think I met a woman with blue eyes, a voluptuous love, and a loyal generous heart.