LAST SUMMER, I re-read Bernadette Brennan’s book about Helen Garner, which ends with HG describing her reading-aloud group. I coveted it: I’d had such groups before my husband died, and I missed them. They’d filled our home with the cadences of stories; words bouncing off walls; voices rising, rhyming and falling as we grappled with vocabulary and concepts bigger than daily life.
So in early February, I put out a call, and the responses were overwhelming. Yes. Yes please. Four of us decided to meet every second Tuesday evening, selecting works that we mightn’t have tackled alone – chunks of the Bible, Shakespearean sonnets, psalms. We were astonished by minds and texts that had survived for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Then, in late May, S suggested something new. Next time, might we consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart? Immediate enthusiasm – and, unusually on my part, some nerves at the prospect of giving voice to a text.
The Uluru Statement opens with these words: We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the Southern sky, make this statement from the heart…
I felt uncertain about articulating that ‘we’ into the night air. Perhaps it’s my experience as an actor that makes me superstitious about taking on the voice of another person. Words on a page, read silently, sit outside of me at the discrete distance of a foot or two. Would speaking the Statement aloud make its words an embodied part of me, singing through my cells and my blood? And if so, would that be disrespectful? Was voicing that ‘we’ yet another appropriation?
I didn’t mention my concern. I’m not sure why – perhaps insecurity about being seen as a bit woo-woo. I readied the room: turning on a heater, lighting candles (there should be flames for reading), filling water glasses. Outside, kookaburras laughed their last into wintry air. Inside, for once, there were no cooking smells and none of the usual white noise of advertising or lifestyle shows from neighbouring flats. All was ready. I stood at the window, myself reflected back at myself against an inky sky.
I heard S and T talking in the stairwell as they climbed, and when I opened the door, there they were, mid-sentence, with A at the back, smiling wide. We jostled in the confined space. We don’t otherwise socialise as a group, so there’s always a settling period. My husband would have referred to it as peeing on the trees – establishing territory. Perhaps I was the only one who felt it, but it seemed to take longer than usual to settle. Maybe we were all uncertain about approaching the Statement.
EVENTUALLY, A PAUSE; S asked if we should begin. I recall it – the deepened silence, the attention, the breaths drawing in as S picked up her glasses. She read slowly, so slowly, beginning with that ‘We’ that was not us, but which, as she read, became more and more present to us. We seek, we call, we believe, we seek, we seek… We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
The invitation hovered.
Eventually, A said that he had been braced for demands but was struck only by grace. There was no posturing, only facts, tender provocation, and then that offer. After another pause, A took a turn to read. I focused on the language this time. Two hundred and fifty people had collaborated to craft the Statement: full of pain but without inflicting pain in return, full of the dignity of hard-won truth that does not need to shout or boast. How, I marvelled, could such clarity and economy have been made by ‘committee’? There must have been deep listening and patience, so much respect. The sentences were precise and direct, yet also poetic. Of the land, they wrote that they were peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors.
‘THITHER?’ I SAID. ‘Who writes “thither”? Who puts poetry into a call to action?’
Perhaps, said S, it’s the poetry that that makes the Statement so powerful and unique. We’ve damaged our hearing by focusing on obfuscation and doublespeak and the white noise of weasel words. How can we hear the call of country when the national conversation is focused on the value of ‘real’ estate – on ownership? No one person lays claim to the Statement. No one person is ‘author’ or ‘copyright holder’. It’s not owned; it’s from the collective heart, for the common good, and beauty is intrinsic to that.
We discussed how, at the beginning of the pandemic, we’d been buoyed by the seeming unity of the national cabinet, and how that particular campfire was turning to ash.
But there was the Statement, on the table in front of us: We invite you to walk with us…
T SPOKE SOFTLY. ‘I was born six years after the last of the massacres,’ he said. ‘It was at Coniston, in 1928.’
History suddenly felt very present. Then had become now, pressing on us, demanding that we try not to step back from the future we were being offered, from that ‘we’.
BACK IN FEBRUARY, Nardi Simpson wrote for Griffith Review of a ‘speak/listen trade’. She talked of how a conversation might live on beyond its moment. She spoke of ‘word gifts’ she wished to give, but she cautioned that writing things down ‘complicates things a little’. This is what happens, she wrote, ‘when you try to keep things forever’. And she noted that a future listener’s role – a listener, not a reader, I noted – in a speak/listen trade is personal, silent, reflective.
On that June night, as S read, I realised that by listening to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we’d been given a gift bigger than Shakespeare or Dante. We had been offered a chance to walk our way home.
After the others left, I didn’t rush to snuff out candles or clear glasses. I could feel the Statement in the air – or perhaps in my veins.
‘We have been invited to walk together,’ I whispered. Then, in the changed, charged stillness, a question rose.
Who will ‘we’ be, and who will our children be, if we don’t?