death

Golden

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The heat keeps on, pressing my skin, the continuity is a reminder of where I was just a few days ago. Though time stretches strangely in strange times, makes it seem like I am remembering an epochal, ancient past or a current, fleeting dream.

I was revisiting a place I knew well, my childhood home was not three miles away. A landscape that I love: beech woods, fields and lanes, buildings of red brick and flint. Too many cars but enough space. I could walk once more in the woods, sheltering from the heat and collecting my thoughts. The woods have always been a place to think, to re-order myself. I get the same sense of grounded wonder in a cathedral, a similarly cool and elegantly spanned space. The beech woods and the cathedral create a modicum of awe that sets the tone, then leave us alone, content to let private reverie occupy our attention. With hindsight, I have understood that this, in part, in distant childhood years is what my father was offering me, all three of us, on our baffling day trips to see dams and bridges. Look at the grace of this structure, look how it achieves itself so effortlessly. Look.

Once my thoughts had been reordered on the short walks of this recent visit, I went back to the newer, harder to navigate terrain – smaller and infinitely more vast. A hot room, my dad so thin, the rugged, narrow mountains of his knees rising sharply from his shallow body. The sheer, spare cliffs of his beautiful face. The heat, the heat. The creaking of wooden floors and the electric fan rumbling like thunder edging the unfamiliar horizons. Space stretched too so that the horizons, for some time, were met in this narrow view.

The heavy victorian gothic of the hospice building did not do as a good job as the beech trees of keeping the unusual heat at bay, at least on the sunny side of the building. But it held us all gently, kindly, kept us together and cared for us as we said goodbye to my father over a rapidly changing week this June. Over days that included his birthday, which was also the day he accepted that death was coming, then ordered a gin and tonic for himself, his partner and for me. And only a few days later, Father’s day. The day he died.

After he died, when it was time to leave, I found it hard. I wanted to stay in that dark wooden interior, the gentle embrace of ancient luxury repurposed into a kind of universal love for those suffering at the end of their lives and those suffering at the end of another’s. The care that enclosed me and my siblings, and dad’s partner, had also enclosed him, keeping us all together. It was hard to leave him there, though he had gone.

My dad was an architect, a rock climber, a diver, a sailor, a lover of songs sung with heart. In these later years, for the ever-present joy of sport, he played croquet, one of the most entertainingly vicious games there is – schadenfreude is almost written into the croquet rule book.

He loved with a big and generous heart, if not always with the quickest sense of another’s needs. But he cared deeply and with great, throat-catching emotion about those he loved. He believed in his family. He believed with atheist conviction in the true importance of fairness, liberty and equality. He was a great thrower of parties and a marvellous host.

Sometimes in his time at the hospice he asked us to leave him. It was hard for one of the gifted hosts of the world to be unable to attend to and join his guests. I knew he wanted us with him but it was difficult to rest when his thoughts were on us. So we spent time in the beautiful grounds, in the woods, and in the rooms provided for us – the people visiting a loved one. In that time, my daughter sent me a link to a film she has made as a choreographer and dancer. It is a beautiful piece called Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair. The piece is dedicated at the end to my father, Philip Allison.

That is in itself, a form of golden repair. A way of making the cracks and scars beautiful. To know, from his actions and from evidence of photos and papers on his work table, how much pride he had in his grandchildren, how he looked for ways to support them in their reaching for value, how he sought ways that he could nourish them in their claims to a life of beautiful meaning. And to see that love and respect come back to him. To watch my daughters becoming magnificently themselves with his love and support even as I watch him slide quietly away.

This is a common time, a universal time. We have all said goodbye to someone we love. And we all stumble through helping each other to navigate the sad days and long nights of goodbye. And so many people, in our sadness are pouring their own gold to help make the repairs. Letters and memories, messages from people who loved dad or who care about us. They offer such kindness. I am thankful for all of it.

I would also like to particularly offer my deep gratitude to the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed for their beautiful humanity. I will be trying to think of a way to fundraise and support their work.

dedicated to

I send my love to my brother Joe and my sister Thea. I am so glad we were there together with dad.

And Lilian and Phoebe. Beloved

And Pierre

Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair
Sue Ryder

Waiting for the birds

It’s morning, the day is my friend, I inhabit it calmly. Not badgered by lists and plans that require me to stretch it beyond its natural limits. The day doesn’t always respond kindly to this rough usage, it becomes withdrawn and places its wonders before more receptive eyes.

Standing just now in the kitchen, clearing the draining board, I stopped to look with a modest measure of longing and hope at the empty bird feeder that two days ago I hooked up on a bare branch. It is, I fear, a difficult spot for the birds to find, over cement, between two houses. But I can see it both from the kitchen window and here where I sit to write. I was out all yesterday and haven’t seen any birds today. But the lady who sold me seed said they will find it, and if they don’t, I’ll move it.

Third reminder

As I gazed upward to the bare branches where it hangs, there was a third reminder this morning of the ravages of grief. An album of songs written about it was featured on the background radio, for those grieving, for loss. One song was called My Heart Goes Out To You.

Second reminder

Two days ago, my eighteen year old daughter lost a friend. Earlier this morning, the second reminder, she came in to my room and we sat on the bed and talked about death. Lots of it, lots of versions. Our final absence from life, how we deal with the death of others. I asked her to try to come to terms with death, to think about it often, to disempower the fear of it. As with many teenagers, as with my younger self, she has often been afraid of dying, of losing a loved one and of the grief that follows. We talked about how rehearsing these fears can make it feel as if one has predicted, as if a premonition made one know that the news of a death was due.

We talked, because she feels an ache in her heart for the parents of her friend, of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I feel a fierce love for the passion and care that my daughters bring to life, their concerns for the world, their anger at injustice. But perhaps our sympathy, in respecting the boundaries of emotions, in not claiming them for ourselves, is the more useful gift than empathy that can drown us. We are no good to others if we let a taste of the pain they suffer consume us as well.

We talked about the waste of living life in fear of death. We decided that was like going on a dream holiday and ruining it by spending the whole time fretfully imagining the plane ride home.

The impetus for writing Twice the Speed of Dark was an experiment I did with caring about death. I was struck, like many, by the difference between the news response to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the contiguous relentless and mostly ignored deaths from terrorist bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wondered about the people who were dying in market place bombs and bus bombs. In real time, (though not able to account for every death) I wrote portraits, to imagine the victims in life, to try and understand the reality of their death. The gifts of this process was an awakening of a kind of love for strangers and the marvellous discovery that what I wanted to be was a writer. But it was gruelling. It made me so sad to dwell on loss, to think about the dead and the families that would mourn them. I kept it up for a few weeks, but there was no conclusion and I had to stop. Even when I came to write Twice the Speed of Dark around the same idea, I could find no satisfactory conclusion. (The book centres on a woman grieving for her child. I came to understand that there was no coincidence in the timing. I began writing it a year after my step brother died suddenly. A year after feeling and observing the harrowing of grief in my family.)

First reminder

Today is Holocaust Memorial day, the first reminder of grief. It is easy to become overwhelmed by what that means.

In my early twenties I read a book of poetry by Kevin Gilbert, an Aboriginal born into the Wiradjuri nation. He was an artist and activist as well as a poet. My sister bought me the book when we were together on a trip to Australia.The poems are full of ferocious, political soul fury, and heavy with loss. They made me cry.

Appropriately, it came to mind this morning. I have an associated memory of when I first read the poems, a moment of angry self-admonition. A harsh but perhaps reasonable insight suddenly that no one needed my tears. I couldn’t do anything to help the aboriginal people by showing how deeply I felt their pain. Yes, perhaps this is harsh. But I am fine with a bit of harsh now and then, it can be useful. Because there is some truth in it. The emotions of others matter, but not because I can feel them too. In this political context, perhaps I have no right to feel that pain, perhaps it is an indulgence. I don’t know for sure. It felt a little as if I was taking away something more, taking emotions that were not mine, and making them mine. Really what I needed to do was give. Give strength or love, if it would be useful. Particularly in this context, that of politics as well as soul, give actions.

I think as I have got older that I see it slightly differently. Sympathy may sometimes be a more useful and even respectful response, but it is possible to have empathy for us all. For the human animal. For the sisterhood and brotherhood of people without the delineation of creed or nationality. For the faltering glories and harrowing failures that will exist as long as we do. It’s for all of us to carry that.

And for those dealing with personal losses, my heart goes out to you.

There are still no birds, it would’ve been nice to finish this by describing the first arrival, a sparrow maybe, or a starling. But I still gaze, with my small measure of hope and longing and wait until they come.

Kevin Gilbert – http://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A33538

Twice the Speed of Dark – https://unbound.com/books/twice-the-speed-of-dark

Strangers

https://unbound.com/books/twice-the-speed-of-dark

“Filigree ghost patterns of love and grief had crept across Anna’s hollowed insides, like lichen, like salt crystals blooming on the innards of a calcified cave.”                                                   Twice the Speed of Dark, chapter one

My funding has got to 64% almost entirely at the hands of friends and family and people who know me. I am stunned by the good will and generosity. It leaves me with 36% to find, mostly from people who will only be interested because they like the sound of the book rather than they want to support its writer. It has always been clear to me that this point would come, I just thought it would come later and be a much much bigger chunk of the total. So I feel in a very good position to face a somewhat daunting task.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to make my book, which features a lot of death, sound more appealing. It is, it turns out, impossible to describe one’s own book as uplifting or life-affirming without feeling a little bit disgusted with oneself, however much of a handy short-cut that would turn out to be. But it would also be slightly inaccurate.

I am not quite sure how I would describe the positive feeling that Twice the Speed of Dark may hopefully provide. But here is where it originates. Before I knew I wanted to write books, I was an artist. One day, thinking about the discrepancy between the way the news reported the deaths that occurred during the Boston Marathon and those that occurred with grinding regularity every other day in Afghanistan and Iraq, I came up with the idea of writing, in as close to real time as I could manage, portraits for the people from those places who only appeared in the news as a tally of casualties. So as an art project I started writing a blog, where I would take a news event, time and date, number of casualties, and write a short portrait of each of them, so that I might understand, in a way that the news didn’t explain, what their death might mean.

I kept at it for a couple of months. It was often sad and a little gruelling, even though I didn’t get any where near to covering all of the killings that happened. But what it also did was awaken a huge sense of love and empathy for the strangers around me. The first time it hit me I was going down the long escalator at Victoria underground station. I was idly looking at the people coming up in the opposite direction and it hit me hard, these ordinary people, with their rich and varied lives, they would be the ones hidden in that cold tally of deaths.

Love for a stranger is a curious thing. By definition it has to be unconditional. Perhaps it is a love that remains powerless, I am not sure what it would compel me to sacrifice. But at that moment, feeling a surge of connection to my fellow travellers, knowing with all of my heart that we are the same whatever differences life had made of us, it felt like a strong and mighty good thing. I just don’t know what handful of words describe that feeling and how I would incorporate it into a tempting sales pitch.

This art project became Twice the Speed of Dark, and it is Anna, the book’s central character who writes the portraits in an act of caring and accounting for the lives of distant strangers. This love for strangers is part of what helps Anna to free herself from the burdens of grief.

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