Top ten tips for responding to a mourner

Today I bundle under my new doonah cover, bought for its primary colours in a nod to the need for cheering up. My husband has taken our daughter to the playground, which she was unimpressed about, sensing perhaps that mummy’s retreat to bed reflected more than a sore throat (although there is that of course, too – the low immune response of grief taking its daily toll). Or perhaps she was just hungry. Who knows. She left the house swathed in a red and white check sheet which her father also used to wear as a boy, both generations emulating superheroes ready to fight off the baddies. She is my little hero, but sometimes I need a break. I feel the need to apologise for this to the gods that be, in case they think I no longer deserve her.

It has been what, three weeks? I can’t tell – since my sister died. I have started to feel guilty for still feeling bad. Shouldn’t I have moved on by now? Shouldn’t I be getting on with things? I read about one woman’s explanation, several years after losing a child – she still misses her everyday, but sometimes she is happy. I know losing my sister cannot be compared to losing a child, but I felt like I knew the sentiment.

I have begun to dig in a little, not wanting to forget my sister, not wanting to be happy just yet, as it would somehow dishonour her, mock my own grief, belittle her importance to me. I get angry at people who want to cheer me up, as if they are saying, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course that is not what people are saying – I know that. But that’s how it feels. The best responses are when friends don’t ask, how are you, but ask, how was this week – acknowledging the context, the different set of benchmarks you are operating within. But we in the West encounter death so rarely nowadays, that we don’t know how to sit with it; we don’t have the experience to know what a mourning person might need.

I don’t want this to sound like a complaint – I have received love and kindness from numerous sources, and I am lucky for this. Perhaps it is just the nature of grief, that you cast about, looking for something to fill the gap of the love you have lost. I do think it is also the lack of some kind of acknowledging ritual, or a period of mourning, something to dignify this loss, something to socially ‘see’ it.

The other thing that happens is, some people seem to think you should be less sad if the person who died had been ill or are elderly. Like it should be easier to lose someone who clearly was on the way towards death anyway. And maybe there is truth in this – the grief for Ally is for me somehow cleaner than it was for dad, whose death was a shock. But I want to scream to the world (and I think I and my siblings did this at her funeral): just because Ally was disabled does not mean I miss her less now. She was a whole person to me, right to the end.

When someone dies, you lose everything of them and you together. You lose the person  who you knew as a child, as an adult; you lose your history with them even if you still have your memories. You lose their complex presence inside your life, your skin, your flesh and mind. You don’t even know exactly what warmth they provided until it is gone. I suppose this is why I am drawn to quantum physical explanations of the soul. Because the loss feels so very very physical.

I have wonderful friends and loved ones taking care of me right now. Drawing on their sweet actions, I offer the following advice to people wondering how best to relate to a mourner in their lives.

Even if you have little experience with grief yourself, I hope the following will give you a few simple ‘ins’ so that seeing a mourner does not make you feel helpless.

Tips for responding to a mourner

1. When you hear of the loss, even if belated, I recommend that you send a card, call and/or better yet, send a small caring gift or token. Don’t SMS – or if you do, follow it up with something more tangible – eg even just an email, if it is a loving one, preferably more than one line.

2.  If the mourner does not return your calls, you can send an email or a card or persist in trying to call. Keep trying. It’s just that they don’t have any energy, but your thoughtfulness in persisting will make them feel loved.

3. A physical gift or token as I mentioned above, can be really appreciated. It could be chocolate, your favourite relaxing tea blend, or perhaps a massage oil. Whatever it is, as long as it is something you have thought about and want to share with the mourner – as long as it represents that you care – it doesn’t matter what it is or how small.

4. The mourner might not want to talk about it. That’s not about you, it’s about their process. I recommend occasionally offering subtle openings to talk about it if they want to – even if they said they don’t – they might change their mind half way through your conversation, once they have dealt with the initial discomfort of being re-submerged in their loss.

5. If you can, attend the funeral. Even if you think, I didn’t know the person who died all that well, it is a much, much appreciated show of support at a time when the mourner is feeling a great rent in their usual fabric of love.

6. Your mourner might still be feeling up and down, occasionally sad, depressed or angry, for many months and years. Give them a bit of rope, but you should not have to be on eggshells around the mourner, and if they take their anger out on you, it’s best if you tell them that is what they  are doing – they should not do that and if they feel angry, they need to find ways to let that out. It is never OK to let a mourner make you their doormat.

7. Be aware that some of the mourner’s moods are not about you; you don’t need to (nor can you) fix them; all you need to do is be present and acknowledge the pain. Often your mourner is just looking for permission to feel whatever they are feeling, even after time has passed, because our society denies the mourner that permission. But you can support the mourner with the permission to grieve, and you may find the mourner starts feeling better sooner as a result.

8. I think I want to reiterate that point: it is not your job to make the mourner feel better. Don’t take that on. We tend to try to fix things in our society, but grief cannot be fixed. It has to be lived through and loss has to be integrated into who we are after someone has died. It is up to the mourner to tell you what they need, and it is up to you to make sure they are not milking you dry emotionally.

9. If a mourner doesn’t know what they need, you might be able to suggest things (like time off – the main things we need are time and permission). If you think the mourner is becoming maudlin (ie re-traumatising themselves for no benefit), try distraction, fresh air, sun and light exercise. Bringing up politics and things happening in the wider world can also provide perspective, and anything which gets the mourner laughing is good for them. But don’t force these things – just bring them up gently, into conversation or activities. Let them take effect rather than didactically (or self-importantly) telling someone to get out of their rut.

10. Hugs, physical touch, and checking in as time passes – these should all be top of the list really. I think this is why I talk about gifts – most of my close friends live a long distance away, so gifts are a substitute for visit and touch.  If you live near a mourner, try to squeeze in a few drop-ins more than usual, and check in as time goes on too, even just a phone call here and there. Hugs generate oxytocin and connection, which the mourner desperately needs. And checking in is a great way of letting the mourner know you care, and that they are still allowed to be sad if they need to be – you acknowledge this each time you offer your open arms or ears.

Thank you to all the excellent souls who have done all of the above for me. You know who you are. xxxx

 

Grief and pain

The pain has hit.

Today was the first day I did not think to myself, ‘I can’t believe she is gone.’ Now that the buffer of shock has dissipated, the pain can be felt, as if the body was waiting for the mind to be ready to handle it. Just.

Grief feels like a weight on my chest, a nauseating swill in my gut. Today it hit me in the car driving to the shops with my darling husband and daughter. I felt like I could not move my head, or get up from the chair until it let me. It hit again later, when we got home – luckily it was nap time for my little person, so I went to bed and slept for two hours, then got up and waited for the lead to leave my system whilst I watched my husband do all the chores and play with our daughter.

I wanted to know why this happens. When Dad died, the Internet was still in its unreliable infancy. This time, I could ask Dr Google.

Scientists have documented the following physiological impacts of bereavement:

  • neuroendocrine activation (cortisol response)
  • altered sleep (electroencephhalography changes)
  • immune imbalance (reduced T-lymphocyte proliferation)
  • inflammatory cell mobilisation (platelet activation and increased vWF-ag)
  • hemodynamic changes (heart rate and blood pressure)

This explains why I feel exhausted but can’t sleep when I would normally like to. Why my fuse is short and my heart shakes. Why I have been fighting various lurgies and allergies this week. Why my stomach clenches as if something terrible or wonderful is about to happen – or I am about to throw up. The heart genuinely aches; the body is truly labouring with less air and under more strain. Doing the daily chores feels like acclimatising to high altitude mountain climbing, because you essentially are doing exactly that.

According to the research, these physiological responses are greatest in the early months after bereavement. In spousal bereavement or the loss of a child, the survivors experience increased mortality (particularly if they are elderly and so have less immune response in the first place): dying of a broken heart is real.

I wonder why the sorrow waited until now, when I am preparing to get back to work on Monday. Unfortunately, you can’t dictate to your body or your spirit a clear schedule; a project management approach to grief.

There are websites which provide advice about living with and through the physical pain of grief (I won’t list them here, but just google grief and you will see loads of heartfelt advice and suggestions). Practcal advice includes having massages, eating well, snuggling, and listening to sympathetic music. The advice I will try to take regarding working – instead of making to-do lists, make a list of everything you got done at the end of each day; say no to things you don’t have the capacity for; get more sleep if you can, and exercise.

When my dad died 15 years ago, I was very hard on friends whom I didn’t feel responded the way they should have. I was young, and they were young, and I was sensitive and in shock. Everyone responds differently – as one website suggested, one should not expect to get the reactions one wants, but be open to forgiving and accepting this. I was not, last time around. I want to be this time, because I know my own pain last time made me lose more than I needed to when my dad passed away.

I have received some beautiful and really interesting replies about my soul searching posts. People have given me their own insights and I am hugely grateful. Does anyone else have any ideas, or experiences to share? I am so intensely curious – what do you think happens after death, based on your experience? And if you don’t think there is a ‘soul’ or ‘energy blueprint’ after death, how do you find meaning for your life?

I may have seized on quantum physics and the soul as a way to avoid feeling the full terror of there being no point at all to each individual life. If you have a different solution to this, please share it.

 

 

 

 

Quantum physics and the soul

Today I woke up sick with a cold. It is as if my body, upon hearing me think about starting back to work today, had other, more realistic ideas.

I am watching comfort DVDs and eating the chocolate which came courtesy of Julie Lovell. It feels surreal, using the old tricks of the trade to ease my way through depression for this particular affliction.

I have been resisting thinking of my sister as a phenomenon of the past, the way I spent years not thinking of her as disabled, but simply as an individual of different characteristics to most. That was until she herself described herself as disabled but not in a defeated way, simply as a matter of fact, an aspect of her reality to deal with. But she is not here to tell me, in her straightforward way, ‘Well, being dead….’

I can’t feel her any more.

Those first few days, as I wrote in my previous post, I could feel her confused soul, seeking its way forward. But after that, I have felt not so much nothing as very distinctly that she is not part of the world I inhabit any more. There is a coldness to it, and maybe this is an artefact of numbing myself to the reality, or maybe it is because she has passed into a different realm of unknowability, or maybe it is because, as I am starting to believe, she no longer exists as Allison but as a set of frequencies unattached and unaware of itself.

After my last post, I googled ‘quantum physics and the soul’ and discovered that I am not the first person to theorise the soul as a set of coded frequencies. Several physicists – one at Cambridge University, one at Princeton, and one at the Max Planck Institute – have theorised similarly that this is possible. (This one is the most similar to my thinking about wave-particle duality and the potential for the soul to continue as a set of frequencies).

I wonder if the soul has no mass, in which case, it could theoretically continue forever unless interrupted. But I also think that such a post-death collection of frequencies would be unlikely to be self-aware without the physicality of a body / matter, and therefore would not be capable of directing itself into another existence, unless it is the soul of a great meditative practitioner whose brain frequencies have been altered through years of practice to actually incorporate some sort of directive awareness. If the soul has mass, then it exists in space-time like the rest of us and cannot continue indefinitely, except perhaps in its wave-aspect. Hmm.

I have started reading Tibetan Buddhist texts on what happens at and after death, and the theories are similar to mine and those of the quantum physicists, except that they are far more detailed. The Buddhists theorise that the ‘soul’ is shaped by the life of the person (which makes sense – the brain is elastic and shapes itself according to genetics, environment and experience). They believe that good karmic works during life set the soul up for a positive rebirth. In quantum physics, you could describe this as the soul’s set of frequencies having a predisposition to connection (in life, known as ‘compassion’), which means that the soul is drawn to similar frequencies or quantum states. Potentially, this could be a new life. The soul blueprint is absorbed and imprinted in that of the physical being it has joined, so you would have no idea of it but in this way, knowledge is imprinted and continued and evolves with each physical iteration.

OK now I can see I am sounding crazy. But the fact is, if there is a soul, there must be a material explanation for it. Otherwise it is just crazy talk. We should never rule out anything that might be possible simply because of the prejudices of the times we live in. We would still think the earth is flat and the centre of the universe if we did that.

The Buddhists talk about different realms which the soul enters after physical death, and possible ‘reincarnations.’ These depend on how well the soul can direct itself after death, and how trained for connection it is. In gross material terms, I can imagine a swirling soup of soul space, except I know this isn’t what it would look like because that would have been detectable. In quantum physics terms, I think it more likely that the soul (perhaps I should call it a quantum blueprint? There must be a less loaded term…), if eternal in its wave aspect, writes itself into the quantum layer and yet can interact with matter, and possibly is attracted to matter, and so may at times iterate in the physical world.

Where is this leading me? To other worlds? To other universes? If the soul can exist, does exist, at a wave level, then it could feasibly exist everywhere, at all times, massless, echoing throughout the vacuum, a potentiality encapsulated in the DNA of the sub-atomic multiverse. What then makes it a physical reality? Does it have an inherent attraction to physical form? To – life? I don’t want to ask the question,’ why’? because this goes in the wrong direction – it starts to assume without proof that there is a choice behind all of this. Better to ask, ‘what’ and ‘how,’ at this point.

Do we encapsulate all possible selves within us? Is this what it means that we are all interconnected, that we are everyone’s mother? Outside of spacetime and inside spacetime simultaneously? I used to hypothesise as a child, that Jesus taught us how to access eternity right now, in a moment. Perhaps this is what I meant? That eternity is living within us?

This is contingent on the soul having no mass. If it does have a mass then that could explain why it is attracted to matter at some point, rather than continuing indefinitely. Perhaps it does both? Perhaps it has Higgs bosons and wave aspects simultaneously?

Perhaps I am just looking for an explanation for what is really just a projection of my own mind, desperate for a way to sublimate its loss?

Here I am stuck. Any ideas, any other amateur quantum physicists out there?

 

 

 

 

Religion and death

It is at times of death that religion has its greatest potency.

It had been a long time since I had been to mass. As I listened to the liturgy during my sister’s farewell, I could hear the rhythms of the service in a way I had not as a regular attendee. I heard the constant beats – death, hope, death, resurrection, death, death, death. In the midst of life we are in death. In the midst of death we are in life.

I often think about religion and faith – most often when I am driving and my mind has some time to itself. But on Tuesday at my dear sister’s funeral, I thought about religion in a new way. As something you can only really think seriously about at a time like this, when the veil between us and the enormity that humanity is part of is at its thinnest. I thought, This is when I should think about religion. This is what religion is for – to prepare us for death.

Buddhism is quite overt about this. It has specific meditations where you visualise corpses, skeletons, and remind yourself that all is impermanent. For great practitioners, their final days are spent in a meditative spell, attempting to refine the subtle mind to the point that reincarnation is as conscious a choice as possible.

Christians live in the reality of death and the possibility of hope, through Jesus. I heard the words about sin and redemption and it sounded to me just like the kind of faith that would be born from a culture struggling to assert a moral hold on itself. Christianity offers hope in death. Imagine. What a thing.

Hinduism, like Buddhism, celebrates rebirth and enjoins us to merit during our living years. I don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to speak about their after-death beliefs, but from my reading of theology and history (especially the excellent book, a History of God, by Karen Armstrong), I know that many faiths embrace mystery and remind us of the unknowable.

Islam, Judaism and Christianity each have mystic practices which acknowledge, through rules and symbols, that God is beyond naming.

I have been through the common journey from devout Catholicism to agnosticism in my life. But for years there has been something hopeless about my materialist worldview, something spiritually bereft which I dismissed as hankering after the community of faith rather than a reflection of some hidden truth I was missing.

Upon reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, my views changed and crystallised again. She gave me a way to understand faith as an attitude towards life, and acceptance of mystery in the world we know and do not know. Whether this is hopeful, I don’t know, I couldn’t say.

When my sister died, I had no butterfly on the windowsill moments. I did not feel her leaving me peacefully, farewelling me to go to a better place. I had a very strong feeling that she was confused – that perhaps she did not even know that it was over for her. I spoke to my husband about this, and we cried together. I tried to explain what it made me think – how I could explain this sensation in the material terms I thought about the world. Perhaps people’s souls are the electric frequencies, the patterns of us, which are left even when we die. Our bodies cease to work, but the brain frequencies that made us who we were linger in some sort of sub-atomic way, like a code, like an electric version of DNA for the soul, but far more fragmented, and much harder to observe scientifically. Music resounds with certain frequencies in our head, which is why we experience dissonance and consonance the way we do, and the same is true of stories. Why not then, personalities?

In my nascent theory, this then is the soul – a lingering pattern which eventually, perhaps brokenly, perhaps in perfect form, rejoins the life energy of the universe (wince) for want to a better term – I am still working on that. (Please don’t think I am falling into a mind/body dualist position, which is such a moronically gross concept that I don’t want you to think I am going there.)

The soul is as close as we get to experiencing the unknowable.

In those days after my sister left us, I felt that I could sense my sister’s soul’s confusion. In the hours after she left us, I felt strongly the lack of a cultural ritual which would have let me stay with her body through the night and into the next few days, before her final farewell. We should be able to sit with our loved one, and be as involved in preparing them for disintegration as we want to be. But that is a topic for another essay.

This sensation triggered my theorising. I spoke to my Buddhist monk friend about it. He is the closest I could get to an expert on dying.

He said, ‘I don’t know if it [my feeling] is real or not, but it is all so interrelated, and maybe people who are close to the person who has died can feel it more. I don’t know, but it can definitely help to just keep sending them calm, peaceful thoughts that it is OK to go.’

‘And even, um, information?’ I asked, not wanting to sound stupid. ‘I am not sure she knows she is gone.’

‘Yes, that can happen when people pass away with problems or lack of clarity in the mind, or drugs in their system. I have seen it a lot and it is really, really common.’ This was a relief. Even if it was not true, it was something I could do for her. And who knows? No one can definitively prove there is no such thing as a soul lingering, clinging to familiar matter, waiting for the all-clear to go.

So over the next few days, I sent my sister calming thoughts and most importantly, the information that she had died: that this next journey was hers. Gradually, the sensations grew less urgent, and when the funeral directors collected her body form the morgue. the sensations stopped all together. I do not know what was real or not. As my monk friend, said, It is all so interrelated.

So this is my theory of the soul, and I am still working on it. I can say that some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for death is necessary for me. I don’t know what form it will take. All advice welcome.

 

 

Grief and Joe Hockey

Grief is like the ocean. It comes in waves – some seem angry, some wash ashore with peace in mind, some seem to be trying to return to the centre of the world as if they could reverse the tide and tug of the moon above.

I miss my sister. It might seem strange to miss someone who could not speak for the last two years of her life. I missed her then too, but now I miss her in the bleak, dreary fashion of knowing I can never sit and hold her hand and feel her kiss on my cheek, or see her questioning glance.

I miss hugging my sister. She was the best hugger in the world, I think, even after her time in the aged care home meant she could no longer raise her arms in response. I miss her smell, of clean clothes and familiarity. I miss her orbit – when I entered it on my short visits to Brisbane, I felt I had come home.

Coming home is an instinctive laying down of burdens, shedding the external skin and putting on a far more comfortable layer. Even if we play roles with our loved ones, they are roles so ingrained we need not think how well we are playing them. This was my peace with Ally.

Not that it was easy to visit her. Every time I left her I felt a tearing sensation, and would cry a little, grieving the relationship we could not have, the life we did not lead. Some of this I blame on bad luck, illness. Some I blame on the system, because that is where the blame squarely rests.

There is a lot of futility in the disability system of Australia. My sister suffered a mini stroke when she was in compulsory transition care which caused or at least significantly sped her demise. Let me explain, because it will seem unreal to those of you with no experience of the system.

Ally kept having falls, and she could not be cared for at home by my mum any more. She could still speak, eat, walk (with a frame or stick). She suffered dementia, but she had periods of lucidity every day and in her own reality, she was mum’s carer, not the other way around – and in many real ways she was, giving my mother purpose and meaning.

Finally the disability system accepted that she really needed external care (after years of trying to get my sister an adult lifestyle package to prevent social deterioration, the system responded to a crisis which, who knows, may not have been so severe if they had acted sooner.) But to go into a care group home, she would have to first stay in transition care for several weeks – for some unknowable reason she could not go straight fro her own home.

When my mother and older sister took her to the transition home, Ally said as clear as a bell, ‘Don’t leave me here.’ My mum tried to tell her it was a holiday.

Ally started getting a rash and the carer gave her Phenergan, which was contra-indicated with Ally’s medication. Let me repeat this: the carer, whose job was to care for Ally and take care of her meds, gave her something which she would not have given her if she had been doing her job with a basic level of duty of care, and THEN (we believe) LIED ABOUT IT. Ally went into a deep sleep from which she never recovered. Days later she awoke, but could no longer eat or talk. We entered into a series of complaints, mostly concerned that this would not happen to others. The carer either deleted or did not enter the Phenergan in the record she was supposed to keep. The complaint unit is a part of the disability department itself. We never stood a chance.

Ally could still walk and move her arms and try to say mum. But time spent in the under-resourced and unsuitable system of aged care soon took care of that. After several months she lost even these abilities.

Finally a year later we got her into a beautiful group home for high care needs, with excellent care workers. Ally revived – she would never regain significant physical functions lost to neglect, ignorance and a broken system. But  she started to sign with her hands, try to help with her care, go on outings, and generally engage in living.

But the lack of movement which resulted from the aged care meant that the fluid gathered on her chest and would not disperse. It was a matter of time before pneumonia would carry my sister away with it.

I hoped for a few more winters. I got just one.

It is natural to feel angry when someone you love dies. I don’t feel particularly angry as I write this. Mostly I feel tired. There are things we can do, things we can fix. What our politicians have forgotten: the reason to keep somone alive and well is not how productive they can be in material terms, but because we love them. Our politicians forget how senselessly unproductive so much of being human is. Grief itself seems a useless by product of attachment to an economic rationalist. Love too, a useful emotion only insofar as it creates a will to breed for the labour force.

But humans are not like that. I think it is time our treasurer Joe Hockey loved someone whom it is absolutely economically irrational to love; someone like my sister Ally. I mention Joe not because I don’t know that disability services are a state matter, but because for me he represents all that is ahistorical, morally bankrupt and dogmatically obtuse about the economic irrationalism of our times.

That said, I could do an impact evaluation for you, showing you the lives Ally touched, the people she inspired and the value this created for the economy. I could really do that. But why? If you have ever loved someone, you know that all the other stuff doesn’t matter.

If the system denudes us of love, derides us for our essential humanity, then it’s time to overthrow the system.

Let my grief come, let it wash over me, salt my skin with the tears of loss, chafe my soul clean. I grieve someone who could not speak, or swallow, who could not walk or  move her arms. I grieve someone who could love, right to the end. When his time comes, will Joe Hockey be able to say the same?

 

 

Farewell to Ally

Eulogy, 28-7-2015

Although I write words for a living, I don’t have the words to describe how I feel about my sister. I’ll try my best. I loved her and she was a part of me, and she always will be.

Ally was there from my very first days, and she decided to be the best big sister ever – and as we all know, Ally stuck to her word.

I learned how to be in this world from my sister Allison. She was upright in her sense of right and wrong, and judged herself by the same high standards that she held for others.

From Ally, I learned how to be good (even if I have not always heeded the lesson). I learned that it is more important to be kind and humble than rich or famous. Ally’s role models were the brave yet humble women of history, the ones who helped behind the scenes – Mother Teresa, Saint Bernadette, Our Lady. My role model was Ally, who served as a kind of summary of all the virtues for me, a shortcut to God.

Debbie and Dave have talked about what an inspiration she has been to everyone who met her, and what a bossy little sister she could be. As we grew up and Ally got sicker, in some ways it seemed that our roles reversed. But on an important emotional level, Ally was (and will always be) my big sister. You see, I knew she was always there, a blanket of goodwill, shielding me from the greater sufferings of the world – with Ally as my big sister, I could take love for granted – what a privilege – I would never know the absence of someone willing to fight in my corner until their last breath.

Indeed it was from Ally that I learned how to love. Love big, love wide, arms open to hug the world.

From Ally, I learned how to dance in shopping centres, how to be silly in hospital wards, how to laugh loud in the wrong parts of movies and not care what people think, and then discovering that they are laughing with you.

Ally, you have left a gaping hole in my life where the rainbow used to be. But I promise to colour my world brightly, a riot of colours, a veritable burst of sunshine on every day no matter how grey.

Whenever I or others visited or called Ally, she would always ask, ‘Have you been behaving?’ Ally, I promise you that the answer will always be a resounding, ‘No.’

Ally-boot, this is our lament, this is our lovesong, this is our leavetaking. On behalf of all of us here today, thank you for spending your time here on Earth with us, helping us to be our better selves, showing us how to delight in the now, reminding us to think of others first, embodying Christ in everything you did, right to the end.

Wherever you go next, I know that you will share your love and radiance; you will pepper the ground with flowers wherever you walk; music will emanate from the air around you; and all will be dancing with you to your songs. You can smile now, if you want. The boat is all set to take you across calm waters now honey. Go with our blessing and our love, Ally.

Blood on Tony Abbott’s hands

Maybe not yet. But calling the tragic events of Sydney yesterday “politically-motivated violence” is like asking people to start racial riots.

This was an act of a crazy guy. A nut job. A sociopath with a criminal history.

Calling this politically-motivated violence is like calling the Cronulla riots an act of patriotism.

Criminals, not terrorists.

But our prime minister’s words will light the keg. There will be racial riots again in this town. MORE PEOPLE WILL BE HURT and it will be our prime minister’s fault.

My question is: where did he get the gun? There seem to have been a lot more guns around in violent crimes in the last two or three years. Could the prime minister perhaps do and say something useful about that, rather than torching the tinder and watching us burn?

 

 

Discrimination

Something pernicious is afoot. It’s not a conspiracy; except that it is.

As many of you will know, I research for a living. I spend many of my waking hours talking to people and then thinking about what they said, what it tells me about their views of themselves and the world, and what that might mean for my clients.

In my early “career,” I worked as a policy adviser in the Office of the Status of Women (another Whitlam legacy, already dismantled). So the term “structural discrimination” is not unknown to me.

So why has it taken me months, possibly years, to remember those two words and apply them to some of the equity issues I see arising in the social research I do?

Naturally my ageing brain should take most of the blame: those two words have probably been thoroughly buried under mounds of appointments I have missed and kindy costume days I have failed to remember (luckily, my daughter dresses as if every day is a dress up day).

But you know, for fun, I like to read about the history of neoliberalism (I don’t get out a great deal). I enjoy big words. I like abstractions. Give me a pithy phrase to explain why it is so hard for minorities or women to take advantage of opportunities, and I will use it ten times in the next ten minutes.

So why did it take me so long to remember that unintentional barriers to government services, employment, and justice are not just oversights by well-meaning people; they are actual, real instances of “structural discrimination”?

Here is my theory.

I could not remember those two words, “structural discrimination,” because we don’t talk about discrimination at all any more. On the rare occasion that one of the Human Rights Commissioners is on the evening news, just seeing the word “Discrimination” in their job title makes me sub-consciously cringe.

Implying that one social group could dominate another, is to contradict the fundamental rhetoric of neoliberalism: that everyone can make it on their own merits, and if they don’t it is their own fault. Structural discrimination does not happen; people simply fail to sort themselves out.

The word discrimination, like feminism, has fallen out of common usage as the neoliberal agenda has gained ground. (An interesting aside about neoliberalism: despite the rhetoric that greater labour market flexibility will lead to greater prosperity, in no single country has this been found to be true for the common man or woman. By contrast, corporate wealth has most definitely increased. See? I did read the first few chapters of Piketty).

People don’t want to feel like victims, which is fair enough. But it denies a simple truth: sometimes, we are.

Of course, you can turn yourself from a victim into a fighter pretty bloody fast. But that does not change the fact that bad shit happens to good people. Sometimes it is unavoidable: a car crash, a cyclone. When it is the result of discrimination, it is totally avoidable: a government service offered only in English; a continuously renewed contract which runs out just before you (publicly) announce you are pregnant.

But you can’t avoid it if you don’t name it.

“It” is discrimination. “It” is accepting that you cannot always win on your own merits. Sometimes the cards are stacked against you, and you need someone to change the deck.

It helps to name things for what they are. That way organisations, politicians, and well-meaning people who may simply not have thought about it before, are confronted with the consequences of their in/actions.

So come on, friends. Let’s do some naming.

1. The Gang of Breastfeeding Nazis Calling Themselves Community Health Workers

I find it interesting that the last 15 years have seen the decision not to breastfeed equated practically with child abuse. There are some (actually fairly minor) health benefits proven to be associated with breastfeeding (See “Is Breast Best?” for a great summary). But what about the economic, psychological and societal benefits of having women back in the workforce if that is where they want/need to be? Something is going on here. When government-supported services for new mothers push you towards a choice, on slim evidence that it is actually worth stopping your career for, then I think you have to question what is happening. I blame no one. I have not done the research. But I question it. I certainly question it.

2. Career Opportunities Which Require You to be Single and Childless

Never overtly, and often not even intentionally. But if an opportunity has no flexibility about working near or from home, when the work would lend itself to it; if an opportunity means you lose your childcare, or you cannot do the childcare pick up or take care of your ageing relatives for extended periods because you have to be away; then the providers of the opportunity may be structurally discriminating against you. Even if they don’t mean to do it. Even if they would be horrified to hear those words applied to them.

3. A Tertiary Education System With Uncapped Fees

Since Whitlam’s passing, we have all been keenly mourning Australian society as we knew it. Good-bye, meritocracy; hello uncapped fees. This will structurally discriminate against poor people and retain power in the hands of a few.

4. A Petrol Excise That Disproportionately Discriminates Against Poor People

That was a classic, wasn’t it? Joe Hockey trying to explain that rich people would be more affected by a petrol tax, because they had more cars; as if he had never heard the concept of proportion. The Treasurer of the country.

5. Negative Gearing

Housing prices and rental prices will always be too high for many because of a tax system structured to discriminate in favour of the middle class and against those trying to get in.

I could go on. But over to you. Name it.

The role of art in a post-religious world

The first time I tried, and failed, to remove myself from God, I was 10 years old. I lay on the carpet, playing with the dust motes in a shaft of light which came in through a sneaky gap I had made between the heavy, dark pink drapes my mother kept closed all year around. i wondered if they were atoms; if I was seeing the smallest building blocks of matter. I dared myself. There is no God. You don’t believe in God! The world tipped sideways (I rolled on to my back and pushed myself up). It was the scariest thing I had ever thought, and I had not left the living room.

My next crisis of faith was when a documentary came out about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was 11, just shy of my Confirmation, which is a Catholic event where you, as an adult, confirm the faith that was first confirmed on your behalf when you were a baby, your godparents speaking for you.

At your Confirmation, the bishop asks you, “Do you reject Satan?” And you say, “I do.” They really ask you that, in front of the parish. You stand up in your white dress with a red sash across your chest, representing the Holy Spirit, and you say that you reject Satan and turn faithfully to the gospel. You will have no gods but God. You believe in Jesus Christ our saviour. “I do.” “I do.” “I do.”

On the day of my Confirmation, I first encountered the dilemma of hedging your bets. I wasn’t sure about God, ever since that documentary (it had been on Channel Seven, which should have been enough to discredit it, as we only watched the Channel Nine News). My parents sent me to bed before I could see it, but I had seen the ads, I had heard the introductory statements. “Was the face of Christ really imprinted on the Shroud of Turin? (Yes, that is a real thing, not something from a Tolkien novel. Where do you think fantasy authors get their ideas?) “Jesus spoke Aramaic.” “These Scrolls reveal the shocking truth, buried for hundreds of years, about the man we know as Jesus.”

None of this should be especially confronting. Yes, Jesus was a Jew, and he spoke the local dialect. But – hidden scrolls! A secret language! What did they reveal?

I knew what they revealed. Jesus was not God. Jesus was just a man. I went to bed, scared.

On my Confirmation, I could feel the lie on my tongue, a physical presence. If there is no God, I reasoned with myself, then I am not going to go to hell for this. I did not want to disappoint my family (Allison), and I did not want to be embarrassed by refusing the bishop’s blessing. Things were a bit muddled – I saw myself, just like a Christian hero, refusing to proclaim my faith, prepared to be ashamed publicly for it. i wasn’t an idiot. I knew I had it the wrong way around – you can’t be a Christian hero if you don’t believe in Christ.

But this is what it is like, when you become post-religious. You still have all the trappings; the inner quest, the need, the longing for closeness to the divine love, the love which encompasses and frees.

Frankly, I had never felt that love. I was 12 years old. I had no idea what love like that would feel like. I tried to imagine it, there on my knees, eyes shut tight. I felt it as a warmth, a smile in my direction from a consciousness as all-enveloping as night time.

I lay in bed in the room I shared with Allison. I thought about eternity. It made no sense, unless it was actually about right here, right now in this very moment, that eternity was possible. And eternity would be like ecstatic fusion with Jesus. It could happen at any moment, that was the main thing. And hell? If God is love, I surmised, then hell would be spending eternity – a forever, timeless moment – feeling how you had isolated yourself from love.

You can work things out for yourself, even when you are 12 years old. I am pretty sure I figured out the meaning of life one night, as I lay in half sleep. But I was too comfortable to write it down and by morning, it was gone.

Later, in my teens, I returned to God with a vengeance which I wreaked upon myself as punishment for all of that disbelief. While other ninth graders wrote Led Zeppelin and Metallica in heavy black Nikko on their canvas backpacks, I wrote “Life is God” on the outside flap, where everyone could see it, and “Individuality” on the inside, so long I had to squish the “ity” together at the very end. I was a missionary, just like the boys smuggling bibles into communist China: Springwood High was my China.

One day, as I waited outside the library with my friends, three twelfth grade boys found my bag and saw the slogan. They pulled it down and kicked it around on the ground, laughing. I looked straight ahead. My friends, nervously grinning, looked at me. After the boys left, we did not talk about it. Even now, when I do not believe in God, when I have developed a certain fondness for my young, evangelical self, I have never forgiven myself this sin.

Art in a post-religious world. Art in my post-religious world. Art is all I have left. It is the last remaining passage into mystery; the only breath left uncounted. When I hear a piece of music which touches me, I go beyond my emotions and my personal pathos, and I head out into the love that god was meant to be; that all-encompassing pain of knowing you are everyone’s mother, that every single bogan and arsehole in the world is just like you.

As I have said before on this blog, the art I am most familiar with is creative writing. When I read a book that I feel grateful for, it is because the writer has connected me through themselves to the world, but without creating a physical presence in my life, a presence which would demand and require. Instead, the writer lets me be. It is always a surprise, which adds to the gratitude. If you expected it, you would be disappointed.

When else do we get a sense of connection so deep that it transcends our individual selves? Churches are peaceful places. But they only create a sense of un-belonging for me now; a quaint reminder of something I will never have again. In short, they hurt to be inside.

Art (not all art, but some art, the stuff which you recognise as a gift) on the other hand, is not there for me, it is there for everyone. It is where the individual and the group meet, the ultimate fusion of the human condition.

I think that God is the result of society’s need for cohesion in the face of bigger enemies. She has an actual place in our brains, which scientists sweetly call the God-spot, an evolutionary result of needing to balance the survival of the group with the survival of the self. Humans’ two greatest assets, the key to our dominance – our reasonably well-timed selfishness and selflessness. The group and the individual, always in tension with each other.

Now, as religions fade and politics is a sham of self-interested groups, as public spaces become advertising arenas, art unbounded is so very, very necessary. The things we need to pull the pendulum back to the group: community gardens, where we can play out our natural animosity and find our collaborative pecking order. Libraries, where we can feel glad we pay our taxes. Parks, where we can sit with strangers and not feel the need to kill each other. And the excess; the unnecessary; the stuff that makes us laugh and delight. Art. Places where we are safe from the self (our own or other people’s) are shrinking. We need to breathe air into our souls that we didn’t pay for. We need the gift of art to be preserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping alone

I sleep alone. I am beautifully, deeply, very married to a man who doesn’t take it personally. I tell people that it is because he is a snorer and I am a light sleeper, both of which is true. But as we all know, there can be more than one truth which relates to an event, either causally or by correlation.

(I never lie. I prefer to call it “summarising.”)

There was one time I remember when I slept with another person. It was 20 years ago and it lasted more than one hour, less than three. It was so completely unexpected – that is not the sort of thing I do. I was the person who could not casually allow a girl or boy friend to crash on the other side of my double bed when I was at uni and everyone sought to be as casual as possible about everything, even big things. (I lacked perspective). I would let them in to my bed, determined to be relaxed, then lie, stiff, alert; for what? A move towards intimacy if it was a boy friend; a call on my duties as hostess if it was a girl.

I don’t remember falling asleep, of course. I remember waking up. I looked up at the ceiling of Frankfurt airport. My friend sat peacefully, my head on her lap, looking around, not in any particular hurry. Multiple miracles: that she was still here, when I had tearfully farewelled her only hours ago, she for the US, me for Australia, our year of desperation (student exchange) over. The things I felt: total and deep peace. I was so completely and surprisingly safe. Wonder: I was completely and surprisingly safe, asleep in the most vulnerable position I could imagine – asleep, in a public place, at the end of happiness, at the beginning of 48 hours flying “home.”

I thought I would curse myself for wasting my last hours with my friend asleep. But I have never regretted it. This miracle. This gift. So many things have faded, but this has not. The sheer, pure wonder and the feeling of waking up, unharmed against all expectation.

I wonder at people who can sleep next to the person they love, every night. I wonder if they wake feeling such deep nourishment every day. I wonder about what I am missing.

I think I should perhaps try again. But I tell myself, and it is true, causally, correlatively, there is never a good time in our busy lives to conduct an experiment which involves losing nights of sleep.

My husband now has a snoring machine, and I have tailor made ear plugs from a cheery audiologist who wished me good luck. Last time we travelled, I slept in the same room and it was ok. It was OK. There was an alertness, but still.

I try not to think about this in terms of progress. And I try not to think about what buried bones make me so alert in my sleep. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. I try not to think.

It was so unexpected: waking, seeing the ceiling, then realising what I had just done. Wonder at myself. Love for her. I only saw her once again in my life. I googled her, but there is no trace. I do not think I will ever see her again.

It was the result of a strange combination of utter exhaustion and bonus time. A gift. Extra, spent in a miracle. Sleep like that is pure luxury: in broad daylight, in public, with someone you may never see again and love desperately because of it. There is nothing of need or functionality about it. It is pure excess, which is why it stays with me, year after year, as close as I have to an experience of mystery, of total surrender, of encompassing peace. Of god.