Lengthy Poem Contest


What do Nikolai Gogol, the Dalai Lama and
Jeff Bezos have in common?
by Beata Stasak




Mykola held his gun close to his chest, proudly. “I’m ready, Aunty. Wish me luck!”
On his phone, he showed me the practice ground in Lviv where recruits from all over the world had gathered,
ready to face Putin, who’d decided to take over their birthplace
which they’d since left for a better life elsewhere.

I put down the phone, closing my eyes to remember
the small boy that I had taken to the theatre in Berlin.
It was the first time for him. We saw Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Taras Bulba’.
Little Mykola was entranced by the big muscly man onstage
who carried gunpowder in a dangling horn for the Turkish pistol in his cossack outfit.

All the way home, Mykola pretended to be fighting
the Poles on the Ukrainian steppe,
watching out for the tsar who was coming to get him.
After he’d bumped into a few passersby
 who were left wondering why this tiny boy
was swinging his invisible pistol at them,
I took his hand firmly into mine.

“Do you know that you were named after the author, Mykola?”
“Is my middle name Taras?” he asked excitedly.
I patted his unruly blonde head gently.
“No, but you come from the stock of brave Ukrainian cossacks.”
She saw his disappointment, adding: “Nikolai Gogol was born in Kyiv,
just like you and me. His Ukrainian name was Mykola Hohol.”

“I remember the museum that we visited on Kyiv’s prettiest street, Aunty.
When we last visited home.”
I sighed: “Another Ukrainian author who refused to write in Russian.
He was exiled to Siberia for his defiance.”
When we went to the metro, Mykola started to jump around again,
brandishing his invisible sword.

I pushed him firmly onto the seat next to me.
“Let me tell you a story about our famous Hohol Dostoyevsky,
the father of all modern Russian literature.”
“Was he a fighter too?” Mykola asked impatiently.
I smiled sadly: “He was born in 1809.

All he wanted to do was write, and he moved to St Petersburg,
the imperial capital. He wrote in Russian as he was ordered to.”
“So he betrayed us Aunty?” Mykola jumped up from his seat
to enter the train which had arrived.
I rushed after him: “Don’t push! Let the older people go first.”

I looked apologetically at a stern old German lady as I finally caught him,
taking him onto my lap so that she could sit next to us.
She shook her head when she heard us talking in Ukrainian,
taking a book from her bag to read and not paying us any more attention.

“I’m happy that my father got a job in the mine in Australia, Aunty,”
he whispered cautiously.
I nodded, smiling: “The sun will always shine on us there.”
As we left the metro and entered the cold autumn street,
a  bitter wind blew against our exposed faces.
I wrapped a loose woollen scarf around Mykola’s thin neck.
“You don’t want to catch another cold.”

“Why did my parents name me after that Hohol or Gogol, Aunty?”
he asked as I pushed his beanie down.
I sighed: “He was an outsider, Mykola.
He was forced to leave his Ukrainian soul behind in order
to become a celebrated Russian writer.
He eventually lost his mind, dying tragically in 1852.”

“Am I going to go mad too?” Mykola asked me with a serious look.
I laughed, pulling him out of the wind and into the side street where we lived.
“Of course not, silly! That only happens when you lose sight of who you are.”
“I’m a Ukrainian cossack Aunty,” he thumped his little chest proudly
 as he tried to match his little steps to my strides.

“Of course you are,” I winked at him, opening an old wooden door
to let him in before me.
“Have you come to seek peace, my beautiful one?”
A calm voice in an orange robe asked me at the Buddhist monastery gate,
which was hidden behind bushes. I stopped, confused. I realised that
I’d passed the street where I lived while lost in my memories
after my WhatsApp call with Mykola.

“I’m sorry. I was thinking of my nephew who’s fighting
in the Ukraine now. I used to look after him when he was young.”
“Please join us for breakfast,” an older, balding Australian
pushed his robe down to cover his sneakers before leading me
to a simple shed hidden among the bushes.

I nodded to him as I watched him close a gate.
“Are you a new Australian Dalai Lama?”
He giggled: “You’re funny. I’m a biologist.
My name’s Mike. It’s nice to meet you.”
I took his soft, outstretched hand and shook it warmly
with my calloused, tanned one: “I guess that working in a laboratory’s
easier than growing vegetables.”

He winked at me: “It’s stressful trying to find
the elixir of life, trust me.”
We entered a big hall with rows of wooden tables.
People of different nationalities from all walks of life
sat around sharing bowls of water, rice and steamed vegetables.

An old monk who did look like the Dalai Lama, smiled at me kindly,
offering an empty seat next to him. “Welcome,”
he said simply, pushing a bowl of rice in front of me.
Mike moved to a table at the back where a girl next to
him was holding a phone up to his face: “Your university’s not mentioned here.
But Google says the Founders of Altos are about
to find out how to reverse the process of cellular ageing.”

A lady on the other side of the table chipped in: “I work in a bank.
That startup is the most cashed up. Jeff Bezos is one of the investors.”
Mike poured coffee into his mug, looking around shyly.
“Sorry, I can’t live without it.” He took a big gulp and smiled.
“I’m more interested in reversing illness.
Neurodegenerative, diabetes and cancer, to increase health span.”

“As a biologist Mike, what do you think? Is this new startup close to
a fountain of youth for life?” The monk next to me asked quietly.
Everyone bowed their heads, concentrating on eating.
Mike nodded toward him respectfully: “One of the most important tasks
in biology is maintaining a constant internal environment
in the face of external pressure to change. If a source of cellular stress is detected…”

“You mean like in the Ukraine now where civilians lack food,
water and even oxygen as they’re trapped under the rubble
from Russian bombs?” I burst out, wiping away tears.
I felt the monk’s warm gaze on me. I looked into his eyes,
calming down as he spoke: “For the individual, death is inevitable.
Accident, infection, predators or rivals will get you in the end.
Am I right, Mike?”

Mike bowed his head: “Yes, those external pressures and potential internal ones
like activation of cancer causing genes, can get to you.
Like everything else in biology, the process of ageing
is regulated by natural selection.”
“So we’re all doomed, one way or the other,”
sighed the lady who worked in the bank,
taking a bowl of water to her lips.

Mike shook his head: “Not totally. Yamanaka Shinya of Kyoto University
discovered four gene regulating proteins which serve to
return a cell to it’s factory setting. So cells under stress are constantly reset
for protein manufacturing, often pressing the self destruct button
to blow up the cell that’s becoming diseased. The problem is,
the older we become, this reset mechanism slows down until it stops working altogether.”

A gong echoed outside and everyone got up.
The group at the end of the table stayed behind to clean up.
A thin girl adjusted her orange robe as she picked up plates.
“I’m studying evolution at uni. Lots of things about ageing
make sense from this perspective. Genes can have an effect
in old age as long as they are looked after during youth.
Repairs need not be perfect, just successful enough to keep
the show on the road.”

The lady from the bank laughed: “I don’t think that Jeff Bezos
would agree with you. An elixir for eternal youth would be attractive
to a man who has everything!”
The monk waved at me, indicating to follow him outside
to a small monastery surrounded by a manicured garden.
I watched his small, thin figure move cautiously along the stone path,
matching his steps to his breathing, It seemed that every step
was an awakening to inner peace as his feet kissed the earth.
Finally, he sat under an old eucalyptus tree, prayer beads in his palm.

I watched him as I knelt at his side: “People dream about resetting
the clock of life. To get a fresh start after they destroy the world.
Resetting back to the factory setting and starting over again.
Is that even possible?”
“You heard our biologist.
Resetting the clock is a natural process in our bodies.
The reproductive cells which create new generations
get a fresh start each time, when returned to factory settings.
But you also heard that anti-cancer mechanisms
and immune systems need to be in tiptop condition
 for the first decades of life.”

He looked at me kindly and smiled: “Most people who retreat
here are ones who’ve stared death in the face.
Mike’s had prostate cancer
and that lady from the bank is recovering
from brain surgery. They’re all survivors.”

For a while, the monk was lost in inner contemplation.
I focused my mind on the black cockatoos munching
on macadamia nuts nearby and the budgerigars, as they fed on nectar.
The monk pointed to a shiny green beetle next to his feet,
climbing up the strap of his sandal.
“If only we could all learn to disturb the earth
no more than a falling leaf or passing cloud.
But those Russian soldiers just want to kill my people.
I hate them so much.”

He was quiet for a while, before replying.
 “I’m both the young Ukrainian child killed by a Russian soldier,
and him forced by politics and the regime into a life of killing.
I’m both the scared family hiding in the basement
in Mariupol and a bomber pilot trying to destroy the city.
I’m the injured parrot and the cat that slyly attacked it.
I have no separate self; everything I do, all of us do,
affecting the suffering of others.

Suffering means feeling anger, fear, intolerance and false hope
as well as bodily pain. These are man’s enemies rather than other people.”
“But why? How can that end suffering?”
I shouted, impatient and angry with the monk
and the world, for just continuing like nothing was happening.

The monk took my shoulder gently,
looking into my eyes with understanding and kindness,
so that I bowed my head as he patted my head.
 “Suffering’s inevitable but it can be ended by the right actions
and awareness. Human beings need to embrace the present moment,
looking neither forward nor to the past, but dealing with things as they are.”

I glanced at my phone as it vibrated with an incoming message.
“I have to run. The trucks are coming to pick up the rhubarb for market
and I’m not ready.” I bowed toward the monk who was focused on his beads,
before rushing to the gate where Mike was on duty: “I hope that you found
what you were looking for.”
I shrugged: “He might be a follower of the Dalai Lama
but he has no idea of what suffering is.”

Mike smiled sadly: “He lost all of his family in Tibet at the hands
of the Chinese soldiers who took over his country. Anyway,
I have a gift for you from him.” He handed me a wristwatch
where each number had been replaced by the word now.
I looked at him, confused: “I don’t wear a watch anymore.
I have a new I-phone that does everything.”

Mike nodded as he closed the gate behind me.
“I thought the same before I came here. I constantly bought new gadgets,
but it was just a way of covering up my own unhappiness.
Time here has taught me that my inventions should bring healing to the world,
not merely for profit.”
I said proudly to him: “Well, I grow vegetables for people.”  
He gave me a thumbs up before he prepared to disappear into the bushes.
“If you wear your new watch, it will remind you to stop and look into your life.
Then ask yourself what you’re running from.”

“How old is that monk?” I asked, thinking of the paper thin
shrivelled hand that had touched me.
Mike came back to the gate to whisper quietly: “Over ninety, for sure.
He doesn’t even realise that he’s preparing for another journey.
He believes that there’s no birth or death, only transformation,
moment by moment like passing clouds.”
“Another displaced person on this earth who believes in living forever,”
I smiled at Mike.
He shook his head: “Aren’t we all?”

When I reached the farm, Isla, the farm hand was sitting beside
the pile of rhubarb that we’d picked last night. She skillfully
cut it to the required size, fitting it into the delivery boxes.
She pushed the scarf back from her face, pointing to the completed stack in the corner.
“I nearly finished it while you were away on your run.”
I bent over, puffing as I took my EarPods from my ear: “I’m sorry Isla.
I was talking to my nephew in the Ukraine again and then I visited the Buddhist temple
to find some peace, like you do when you pray to your God.”

She nodded, handing me a box to sit on: “You know, before Ukraine there was Syria.
I lost all my family when Russia bombed our city and the Russians are still there.
eleven years of Russia’s forgotten war killed 700,000 women and children,
leaving seven million refugees. And the world doesn’t care.”
“I’m so sorry, Isla.” I sat next to her, hugging her tight: “It’s awful, war.”

I liked this Middle Eastern woman. She worked hard without complaint,
to feed her two little children whom she’d escaped with, sending
what she could to her brother who was stuck in Syria.
Suddenly, she dropped her knife and covered her face with her dirty gloves.
“My brother’s family was killed yesterday.
His three little children and his wife.
He said that while he went to search for food among the ruins,
a Russian bomb fell on their house.

They’d had no food for days!” She managed to compose herself
and continued to cut rhubarb: “You know, you Ukrainians have
the whole world on your side but for us, there’s no one.”
I sighed, thinking of people like Isla who’d fled Syria
in 2016, holding her newborn baby in her arms.

She’d spent years stuck in a detention centre as an unwanted criminal.
Her Syria was gone and her people were gone.
To cheer her up, I asked: “Isla, do you know what Nikolai Gogol,
the Dalai Lama and Jeff Bezos have in common?”
She shrugged: “Gogol was your writer, the other’s a spiritual leader
who lost his country too and the last one is the richest man in America.
I guess they’re all respected around the world for who they are, right?”
I looked up, thinking about her reply.

She smiled with her lips while her dark eyes just stared
into some empty space without life.
“You know, if you still matter to the world, if the world cares
who you are, you might lose everything
but you never lose your human dignity.
Us Syrians are beyond that now…”

There was nothing else to be said.
Maybe the monk was right, the real enemy lies inside us,
not outside us…we humans are our own worst enemies…