In Praise of Mists and Shadows.

A silt-stained river runs through the stolen land on which I live, and lately a joke the locals tell about it runs through my mind. BirrarungThe Yarra. That River of Mists hulking towards the sea? It’s the only river in Australia that runs upside down. The clear water’s underneath.

Two springs ago I attended a wedding. The groom’s mother had been unwell for some time and passed away just three evenings before the ceremony. I barely knew the couple then but knew through my own experience of loss a fraction of what they might be feeling. Instead of a spring wedding, we gathered in remembrance. It was the first truly warm day of the changing seasons, and as we stood on the north bank of the Yarra’s canal in the city I sent quiet prayers for his family as they held the day’s strangeness, togetherness, and distance.

Six months later, on the first cool weekend of autumn, the wedding was rescheduled. It was a day rich in love and tenderness that palpably filled the air. As the ceremony concluded, we threw colored confetti over the bride and groom and it felt as though his mum hovered amongst us — colorful, joyous, and free. That, as Alice Sebold writes in The Lovely Bones, her spirit truly did “bob and weave and laugh with us,” in the space between the living, as the oxygen we breathed.

Our procession moved through the city crossing the Yarra at Princes Bridge. We arrived at the reception venue at Southbank, found our table places and began to eat, drink, and dance. As evening sunk into night I came up for air from the dance floor and walked towards the high concrete balcony overlooking the river. Looking across the water, which is only ever blue in the dark as it reflects the city’s lights, my eyes spanned the canal towards the north bank resting on the exact spot we met to remember the groom’s mother the previous spring.

How right it felt to have crossed the river together that day and look back across its shadowy water, to remember the unknowable depths those closest to the family had waded through to stand together in love and celebration on the other side.


(Photo by Kyle Larson / Kyle Larson Photography / © All Rights Reserved)

From where the Yarra’s headwaters gather northeast of Melbourne, it takes three days for rainwater collected in the highlands to reach the sea through Boon Wurrung land at Port Phillip. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where a river begins. The water snaking through Melbourne gathers in the hills as a result of rainfall in the mountains, and that rainfall gathers as the effect of evaporation from the sea. Aren’t oceans where rivers end, not begin?

Three days after the wedding, I found myself at the reception venue again. This time to toast a friend’s divorce. Crossing the river again that night, I imagined the depths she too had swum through towards freedom and the possibility of new life. The water flowing beside us as we celebrated her bravery would have gathered in the hills the day of the wedding. Now as we sat amidst the concrete behemoths of Southbank it would be passing us towards the home of all healthy rivers, the sea.

The streamlined canal we see in the city is a shadow itself of the former river. Since colonization the water has been re-diverted, land reclaimed, and the riverbed quite literally blown up. It has been bridged, sailed upon, de-snagged to increase its smoothness and now re-snagged to slow the process of erosion which that original de-snagging sped up. Its billabongs have been severed to form lakes like that in the Royal Botanic Gardens, where eels still slither like living rivers themselves through the water table beneath the earth. Birrarung’s current powered the city’s first elevators, while its curves and meanders through Abbotsford once formed the backdrop for the colony’s first asylums, now the backdrop for some of the city’s most wealthy residents.

Tony Birch’s Ghost River recalls a tale of two boys whose days are as meandering as their river. It tells of the arrival of bulldozers, diggers, and cranes that demolished their Deep Rock, once home to the tallest free dives in the world, now leveled and home to the slowest freeway in Melbourne. The fact our city is so indebted to this river is enough to make you wonder if when Lord Melbourne foisted his namesake upon the land, he quietly pondered the etymology of his own name. Melbourne in Old English is Mileburne, a “mill stream,” a waterway used to power something else.

If you are reading this and live in Melbourne, the last drink of water you had is likely from the river’s catchment, the upper reaches of which have been closed off to protect our drinking water for over a hundred years. In my almost decade living here, I have swum in Birrarung’s waters once, yet I’m baptized by it each day as I shower. If the body is 70 percent water and we drink to replenish it, then perhaps blood is not thicker than water at all. Perhaps the Yarra is what unites us, and you and I are brothers and sisters in a faucet communion. By this reckoning it might be fair to assume that Birrarung, by way of being one of the few entities that has both enveloped my body externally and trickled through the blood-red darkness of my insides, knows me better than I know myself. That indeed this water does not belong to me, but as the Wurundjeri and neighboring Kulin nation tribes knew and know; I belong to it, that it and I are one.

(Photo by Kyle Larson / Kyle Larson Photography / © All Rights Reserved)

That silt-stained river and the joke the locals tell about it brings a smile to my face, and if I am looking, within it lies an invitation. An invitation to explore the fabled clarity of depth that lies beneath the surface of the Yarra. An invitation to explore the clarity of depth that might lie beneath the surface of myself. Those depths of interior life that my friends who lost loved ones by way of death and broken promise had to wade through to reach the other side.

In Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows the author explores how darkness, shadow, and nature influence and are interwoven in Japanese design. In a memorable passage Tanizaki focuses on a room he describes as having the potential for architecturally “vexatious problems” to arise: the toilet. He writes:

“… the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation… Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection.”

The essay unfolds and Tanizaki venerates shadow, soft light, dimness, and depth throughout. His work grows like a fractal praising the space his culture’s architecture and even its food has allowed for the darkness of the unknown, the inevitable mystery in each room of life.

From the wood grain and lacquer of his ideal bathroom furnishings, to the paper shoji doors diffusing light between rooms, and the inky swirl of soy sauce in a dark resin bowl. Tanizaki contrasts this traditional allowance for shadow and depth with the way Western bathrooms have tried to annihilate it completely. Our white tiles, pristine surfaces, and surgically bright lights illumining every inelegant fold of flesh or stray hair. That Western bathroom I am so accustomed to: flooded with downlights, sharp lines, and towering angular mirrors, set to the tune of a monotonous fan like the one in my bathroom. The fan that sucks out some of the only mists that still hover around my experience of the River of Mists itself, the soft condensation suspended mid-air after a hot shower.

When settlers came to Australia, we brought ideals, flora, and fauna. In the blink of an eye we have rendered parts of this land unrecognizable, building a new architecture that has done its best to exile tribes who have known this land most intimately for up to 65,000 years. Early paintings of the Yarra depict its water as blue and clear or right side up, and Maya Ward the river pilgrim echoes this, recalling the way the water once ran clear down to falls at Queens Bridge, a site of cultural importance to Kulin tribes and the separation between salt and freshwater before they were TNT’d away.

However in Kristin Otto’s Yarra she reminds us that “Australian rivers are noted for their turbidity… and the Yarra is an Australian river. The colors of the Yarra are the colors of our country, literally, being suspended earth from the upstream and middle-stream banks.” That golden-brown mud with the slightest tinge of ochre is the color of this land, and I cannot help wonder if the cornflower-blue surface of the river and the editing of Birrarung’s color in those early paintings might have foreshadowed the editing of color in the population itself.


(Photo by Kyle Larson / Kyle Larson Photography / © All Rights Reserved)

One of the great modern explorers of what it is to be human, the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung excavated this idea of the need to allow space for the unknown, the shadow in the architecture of our own psyches, our souls. Jung defined the “shadow self” as either an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego is unaware of or the entirety of the unconscious itself. For Jung, the shadow is our dark side, a side each of us possesses. It is the side I most wish to ignore. It is my selfishness and jealousy, my judgmental nature, egotism, schemes, and plots. It is an archetype that, if gone unchecked, may have a free hand in the life of its host, projecting and realizing its own potentially calamitous desires as it goes.

At first glance the shadow could be easily dismissed as merely negative, turbid, unclean, but as with the Yarra, Jung believed that, if we are to go out beyond the shallows, we may find unplumbed clarity in the depths. Jung describes this lifelong process of accommodating our shadow in four repeating stages. First, the shadow appears; we then encounter it and begin to merge with it. In these initial stages, he acknowledges the shadow presents “a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared,” as they embark on that perilous descent into what Jung uses another watery symbol to describe: “a deep well.”

But I want to talk about possibility and hope and clarity, the kind of which could lie within us if we would grant ourselves time to sit with it. Jung himself held firm that “after the inevitable descent” into the shadow “an ascent will always follow.” That once we have begun to integrate it into our conscious, we would start “to travel [up] through healing spirals,” becoming stronger and more whole. That by knowing our darkness, not simply our light, we become more fully able know ourselves and one another. He called this final stage “enantiodromia,” a Greek word meaning “opposite running course,” which follows the principle that the extreme abundance of one energy will inevitably produce its opposite.

This turbid river is a mystery in plain sight, and so are we.

We can spend our lives in the shallows. We can move through our days veiled, our faces a mere précis of features rather than the nuanced topography of scars, wrinkles, tears, and smile lines, which in part tell our stories and speak of our depths. We can seldom take time to know ourselves and each other, for it requires the Herculean effort of diving beneath our own surfaces. Hercules — that Greek god made human — who, in recent adaptations of the original myth, crossed the most foreboding river of all, the Styx, the liminal waterway between life and death itself for love. Perhaps in exploring our shadows, our interior lives, we may find that we ourselves are the ones who need ferrying back to life from time to time.


(Photo by Kyle Larson / Kyle Larson Photography / © All Rights Reserved)

What shadows did my friends encounter when they lost loved ones, got married, or dared to believe in a life where a more complete love could exist? How dark was the water they sunk into? How long cast the shadow of their experience, and when did they begin to ascend in healing spirals? What lives of richness are yet to unfold before them? And if I can be brave like they have been, facing my own shadows both personally and historically, what wholeness of a new future might unfold before me? I hope my friends’ abundance is manifold, and I hope yours and mine can be too.

Kristen Otto says “the appearance of the Yarra water is something people have been dealing with for a long time. It was once known as one of the filthiest rivers in the world.” Yet it has sustained, and continues to sustain, the oldest living civilization on earth as well as us blow-ins, too. She proposes “most of us have spent our lives confusing turbidity with dirtiness and wondering why our messy natural bushscapes weren’t Derwent colored-pencil sketches. We are only just getting used to being Australian.”

If we are only just getting used to being Australian, and we have been in this place for such a fraction of time, and if time is a place, and our species has existed within it for a fraction, could it also be true that we are only just getting used to being human? Perhaps this river, if accepted as-is, loved as-is, even praised for its shadows, might allow me to become more comfortable with my own turbidity and my humanity. It might encourage me to descend and trust in a more whole ascent on the other side. For as Maya Ward knew under the shadow of night during her walk from the mouth of the river to its headwaters, “there are undercurrents between us, dark and swirling and muddy.” That the hearts of others, perhaps even our own hearts, are like “secret underground watercourses that run somewhere below,” and that we can “trust what is turbid will clear when the time is right.”

Lovers of real-life magic will take heart in knowing that in parts the Yarra really is clearer underneath. That, as Kristen Otto writes, “fresh and salt water do actually layer themselves in the lower reaches of the river: the fresh — that is, the warm, muddy water flowing down on top, and the heavier seawater flooding in clear below. You can see it in the wake of big ships in the Port of Melbourne as their propellers churn up clear water from the bottom,” and from time to time police divers report seeing “two meters of good visibility underneath half a dozen of suspended sedimentary darkness.” As the Yarra reaches its own extremities at the mouth of Port Philip, not only is the joke on us as Birrarung turns upside down, but sometimes it becomes back-to-front as well, entering its own enantiodromia as the weight of king tides push its flow in reverse, on an opposite-running course towards Dights Falls.

Ultimately, the River of Mists inclines towards the sea. Its end culminates in the waves that were its, and our species’, beginning, the waves that, if they continue to rise, may be our ending, too. Fresh water becomes salt water, the line between light and shade, clarity and turbidity becomes blurred, and what once flowed more or less in one direction is received and enfolded by the endless approach of the waves. Should those waves continue to rise, I hope I will have lived in the light of knowing my shadow, and being honest in the shadows of my experiences. I hope that you will have too.


Note: a week after presenting this essay, a landmark court decision in Australia saw Birrarung, The Yarra, returned to the traditional custodians of the land — the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

Note: This essay first appeared on On Being.

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Memoirs of a Griever.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden muses that the legend of the Sakura blossom reminds us to savour life when we can. Such fragile blossoms seem too frail to be on the front-line of changing seasons, battered with high winds, heavy rains, and moments of scorching sun, but I did not design the trees, or direct them as to which order might be safest to bloom in. I do, however, remember the way they looked at Nara last year sitting delicately on the dewy ground, carpeting the nearby temples. I recall how they hung on the branches of trees lining the Philosopher’s Walk and, in my minds eye, I can still see a lone tree framed by Kanji on the shore-line of Lake Biwa-Ko; petals bending in the breeze, quivering on the tightrope of colour drawn between scarlet, and white – the liminal space between rich, red, blood filled life, and brilliant light.

My father died suddenly the evening I arrived back from Japan to view the cherry blossoms during Golden Week, and I have wondered for a long time how strange it was that the last two weeks of his life might be such a memorable two of my own; a fortnight dedicated in it’s entirety to taking time to appreciate the goodness in life. It has been exactly one year since I received the phone call, the one each of us who are lucky enough to love, and be loved, will receive at a handful of points in life, and I feel compelled to share my experience of what this loss has been like.

Firstly, I must acknowledge how profoundly fortunate I am to have been born into a loving family. This has been the most phenomenal gift, and start to my life, which was achieved by no work of my own. I write on no one else’s behalf, and draw on the strength of other brave individuals who have mined this most ubiquitous, yet strangely still taboo, of topics, in some ways to provide insight which may ameliorate the anxieties of another experiencing a similar grievance, but also in many ways so that I can do the simple act of laying my dad to rest. I was unprepared to do so a year ago, and remember thinking how surreal it was as we threw rose petals, and sprigs of rosemary onto the coffin in the back of the hearse, but now; I do feel ready, and am hopeful that by doing so I will be further opening myself up to experiencing what life after death could feel like. I remain convinced that it has the potential to be more wonderful, and I do mean more “full of wonder,” than I could conceive.

As Memoirs of a Geisha unfolds the young Chio, having been bought into slavery by the matron of the geisha house, and unceremoniously told of her parents’ death, kneels in a pulsing, foetal heap of tears on the hard wooden floors of of the okiya. As the scene peels open, Chio describes a poem at the local temple in her village called “Loss.” The poem “has three words, but the poet has scratched them out…” for “you cannot read loss, only feel it.” In writing this I have struggled to find a structure for the narrative to follow; because grief has no structure, and it cannot be read. It is as C.S. Lewis sights in A Grief Observed that “in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?” henceforth, this piece will be structured by feeling. If it feels disorienting as you read, that’s because loss is disorienting. If it feels confusing, that’s because loss is confusing. If it feels uncomfortable, that’s because loss is uncomfortable, but as I have found, and as I am finding on my best days, if I can sit with the disorientation, confusion, and uncomfortability of loss long enough, it can lead me to a greater appreciation of life, and that the spiral C.S. Lewis describes can indeed bend towards the sun.

So let’s give it a red hot go.

To paint a picture: my father was one of my best friends, and the person most like me on the planet; it’s probably for the best there aren’t two of us anymore, for that matter. He was funny, and generous. He lived his life from an earnest, genuine heart, and because of this he got away with saying the most incredible things, leaving people incredulous, and amazed as he went. He shook hands with rat-bag Prime Ministers, and rat-bag school pupils in his life. He walked endlessly, until the end, and championed anyone he came into contact with. He chose simply to believe in people, especially those closest to him, and I am unfathomably lucky to have had my own personal, cheerleading mercenary for a quarter of a century. He was intelligent, and swore in a way that would make sailors shiver, and run for the sea. He never lost a child-like interest, and curiosity in the world, and though he was deeply imperfect, just like the rest of us, he grew into the most wonderful human being who co-laboured with others to build the most fantastically real relationships. The one he and I built has been one of the greatest sources of strength in my life, and the most sincere, and at times hilarious, condolence in his death. I have too many stories of our friendship, and foe-ship, to list here, and the knowledge that in order to get to know the legend of my dad you would have to invest in getting to know me, makes me feel both proud, and rich. I walk around each day feeling like I am a keeper of the most sacred treasure chest of memories, a weight which I am humbly delighted to bear, and which fills my sails with encouragement.

Shock.

I woke up from a jet-lag nap on Mother’s Day 2014 and, hearing the tone in my beautiful Mum’s voice, had a gut-chilling feeling that it was the call I’d always dreaded; the call that tells you that the person who isn’t on the phone, can’t call again. I remember walking up the hallway and asking my housemate if she could take care of my life for the next half-hour because my dad; the lively, fit-as-a-fiddle man with an all too affectionate propensity for short-shorts, had just died. What I thought I was going to achieve in half an hour, I still feel foggy on, none the less, I made it to the living room, sat on the couch, and began to cry as my housemate called my best friend, and boyfriend at the time, who both came over immediately and sat, and stayed with me. This was the greatest gift. When you are in shock your ability to think logically, make decisions, and comprehend is practically non-existent. I didn’t know if I needed people around me, I didn’t know if I was hungry, or what time I should go to bed; but my friends being there meant I didn’t have to know. I am so, so thankful for the knee-jerk reaction of loving kindness my friends showed me that evening.

The following morning I posted an obituary on social media. The intent was simple; if I repeated the information once, I would hopefully save myself having to say the words over, and over again with each person I encountered; the response was overwhelming. My boss dropped off flowers, and a chocolate brownie to my door within the hour. My friend Cam called, and came over that evening with wine, and food. Dani drove by and gave me an enormous book to read with a note that said “if you want to escape for a while, here’s some reading material.” Another friend had flowers delivered from her shop, while another wrote a beautiful card and left it in my mailbox, and acquaintances from across the globe who had experienced similar losses contacted me with condolences, and camaraderie. One housemate took “carer’s leave,” from work, while the other offered to help with any financial burdens. My best friend took the day off work, and I remember being so thankful that it was unseasonably warm, and sunny as we sat on the white, plastic furniture outside of a milk-bar on Lygon Street, eating lemonade icy-poles.

None of these people “knew,” what to say at the time. Mostly I was met with blank looks or repetitions at slow intervals of the “f,” word; but they were there. We spend so much time in Western culture trying to articulate the inarticulable, and missing the mark; I’m a writer – I should know. But in Judaism, during the mourning week, or “shiva,” there is a tradition that when tragedy strikes a family, someone will go and sit with the family of the deceased, or tragedy stricken person. They go, and they sit. Nothing is said; nothing needs to be, but the simple act of sitting quietly, speaks volumes. I am so thankful for my friends who came and sat with me. In the midst of the deepest, and most acute sense of absence I have ever felt; they were present. In the midst of death; they were life.

Shock lasted for months. I am quite certain it was the only way I was able to do things like fly to New Zealand, get up in the morning, and go back to work, which I would not recommend doing two weeks after the event if you can do so unless you are fortunate as I am, and happen to have very supportive work environments. Shock allowed me to change the tense of the way I spoke about my dad from present, to past, which was completely disgusting the first time I did it, but was quickly followed by a sense of relief that although I now had to begin saying “my father was…” I could always say that “I am my father’s daughter.” This little linguistic tool, although nerdy, and minute, was the first inkling I had that although much had changed, and would yet need to change; there would be some things which would remain rock solid, and immovable. As I write today, I am still my father’s daughter. Thankfully, I am also my mother’s daughter and this is for the best, because dad would have gone completely bonkers years ago were it not for her.

Life’s Unfixables.

Sir Isaac Newton stated “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” which, when applied to relationships, highlights grief as a result of deep love. In life many of our problems can be solved by applying an equal, and opposite reaction, or set of actions. We lose a job, we can find a new one. A relationship crumbles, we can, with time, move towards another, and in many ways I have felt a growing sense in the last year that how we deal with life’s “fixable,” problems helps to set us up for life’s great unfixables. I have experienced grief in the past which I have been to, and continue to go to, counselling for. I’ve had shitty break ups, I’ve lost jobs, dreams, and friendships, and I have needed to grieve these life changes appropriately. I am now convinced that the help I received, and sought, in these earlier dealings with grief laid a foundation to begin accepting that most unfixable of problems; death. In death, we cannot replicate the individual, and even if we could, knowing it wasn’t them, would it still be a desirable option? For me, certainly not. I don’t want another dad, and I don’t want Diet Dad, or Dad Zero knowing that it would always be but an imitation of genuine, classic Dad-a-Cola.

I have encountered in the last year a number of people who have wanted to try to “fix,” this problem, or make it go away without pause for reflection to realise that my particular problem is unfixable by normal measures of mending, and exists precisely because someone has gone away. Conversely, I am so lucky to have a handful of people in my life who didn’t stop caring at the “I’m sorry for your loss,” messages. I have people in my life who unflinchingly refer to my dad by his first name, Vic, and it makes me smile every time they do it. These are the people who can laugh at my highly inappropriate, but wickedly funny, dead-dad jokes. They are the people who lean in to listen when my voice quiets, and cracks as I speak about the myriad ways in which I miss him. These people are unafraid of walking with me through the mess of life, and are comfortable enough to let my dad’s stories live on in our conversations long after his life ended. Whether they are aware of it or not, these human beings normalise my story, and subtly invite me to feel whole in their presence; whole as a person who, for the rest of their life, will be learning how to miss, and remember someone.

Knowing that we can’t make things better by cloning a lost loved one, we could perhaps then deduce, and in my own experience it has proved to be true, that the event of death can only be soothed with time, and gentleness, by the growth of new life. New life in one’s experiences, a greater appreciation of the life which exists before our eyes, and a deeper understanding of life as a gift, not an entitlement. In these 365 days since dad died (and thank Christ it wasn’t a leap year), I have grown to love this life more than I imagined possible. To relish in my ability to experience it, and to throw out the window time, and time again, which I believe I will forever need to practice, my desire to “achieve for achievement’s sake,” anything much from it. My father spent the last decade of his life earning next to no money, and these were the years he dove into the riches of love which could accumulate between family members. They were the years he did more work for the community he lived in helping, quite literally hundreds of individuals along the way. To me, this is an inheritance infinitely more meaningful than a sum of money. If “rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts,” and “ the only gift is a portion of thyself,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson shouts from the pages of history, then I am a lucky woman to have inherited a portion of my dad’s humanity who lives on in my own.

Tiredness, and Scheduled Crying: Together, at last!

When I actively decided, in a Victorian Era-esq manner, to give myself an entire year to make grieving dad my number one priority, I did so with some hopes in mind, and imposed as little pressure as possible on myself to attain them. I hoped to accept, and acknowledge dad’s death as much as possible, figuring this was a healthy first step in my modus operandi. How can one lay a new foundation if they won’t even acknowledge the old house has been bulldozed? so to speak. The reason I wanted to acknowledge this new reality when I could was so I could increase the likelihood of doing the very thing dad invested so much effort into in the first place; ensuring that I would have every opportunity to enjoy this life as much as humanly possible, it’s full spectrum of experiences, and emotions included. I wanted to learn how to enfold this experience into my personhood in a healthy way, and hopefully become a bigger person because of it; someone who could be happy for my friends’ relationships with their parents, encouraging them to make the most of them while they had the chance, and I wanted to be able to remember my dad, and laugh at times; not just remember him and want to cry. My dad was so funny, and as I write, pausing with closed eyes to recall his exact way of laughing, with tears in my eyes; I smile. To me this is a miracle considering I still remember the visceral reaction I had when the funeral director announced “the facts,” that my dad was dead, as I sat in the front row wanting to punch him, and that in the months following, whenever I remembered anything dad did, I was overwhelmed with tears, and monumental tiredness.

I had no map of how to move towards these hopes, and people were quick to offer unhelpful sentiments like “nothing prepares you for losing a parent,” which, by the way, is a crock. Your relationship with the individual in life will prepare you for the loss of the human in death; so get cracking. Stop reading this rubbish and go call your parents / spouse / kids / best friend. Hell, get outside and spend time with your pets. Although map-less I began, when we were in New Zealand my mum’s doctor said something which became my mantra: “eat well, get enough exercise, and take the time to laugh.” It sounds simple, but I can’t encourage you enough to do it, and to apply it to life when you’re not in crises, too. If you are eating well, you increase your likelihood of staying physically healthy and, as Kat Daley says “a healthy body is a good place to store a world weary mind.” If you are getting enough exercise, you’re more likely to be sleeping well, which is vital when you’re experiencing such a profound sub-conscious restructuring of emotions, bearings, and patterns of life, and if you’re taking the time to laugh, you’re doing something unbelievably brave; you are protesting against sorrow by remembering, even if only in small moments, that the world is still good, and there are still things to smile about.

This choice to prioritise grieving hasn’t been a particularly easy one, and in some ways the sudden death of a loved one feels like you are served your own death sentence. In the weeks after it happened I could just manage three-days work a week, and needed to be in bed by 9pm every night only to wake the following morning after a full 10 hours and, when the softness of dreaming was rinsed by reality, feel utterly exhausted again as I cried my way through tasks like making breakfast, showering, and putting on clothes. I have missed out on countless events and opportunities because of my decision to let myself feel the full weight of grief related exhaustion, and to take time to allow myself space for “scheduled crying.” However, I’m not someone who believes easy work can be made of a complex task, and vice versa; I make a conscious, effort to make easy jobs no more difficult than they need to be, too, but to mourn fully has been the best choice for me, and in light of how I feel most days now – full of laughter, surprised by hope, warm in heart, and appreciative of the human experience, compared to how I felt most days in the immediate months after dad’s death, it has been a no-brainer.

One of the most frustrating things about intentional grieving was people who seemed all too keen to suggest that perhaps I was “depressed.” Although grief can exhibit many of the same symptoms as depression, and the two words share similar meanings in their etymology in the way they physically depress, or weigh down the person experiencing them, the distinction lies in the fact that the griever is profoundly sad for a lengthy duration because of a specific, traceable event, or reason which seeps through many of the cracks of daily life, dulling it’s hue. From the other side of the coin, and having never experienced depression myself, I can only imagine how face-palmingly infuriating it must be for someone who is depressed, to be confronted by well meaning individuals who are all to quick to suggest that perhaps they are just “very sad.” We must expand our lexicon of thought, and care to better accommodate our fellow humans processing the less-glossy, not-magazine-worthy aspects of life. We have put a man on the moon, invented the internet, and some clever so-and-so dreamed up the croissant, yet still we live by such disengaging binaries? Surely someone can create an app to help us do this already, hop to it, Steve Cook!

Birthdays, Father’s Day, and Christmas; oh my!

My usual celebratory occasions have been fraught with emotional land mines in the last year, which is also part of why I was adamant to give myself a full calendar year to see what these days could look like without his presence. My brother’s birthday was in July (thankyou for going first, Andrew), followed by two consecutive Super-bowl Sundays of Sadness™; my dad’s birthday on the 31st of August, and Father’s Day on the 7th of September. Christmas was scary for me, too. I had trouble adjusting to the idea of saying my “family,” were coming to visit when my family looked so strikingly different to how it had the year before. The alternative to stuttering “my f-f-family are coming to visit,” was to say “my mum, and my brother and his fiancé are coming to visit,” which made me want to immediately shout “BUT I DID HAVE A DAD! AND HE WAS A GREAT ONE! IT’S JUST HE CAN’T MAKE IT TO CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR BECAUSE HE’S BUSY BEING DEAD!” which, as you can imagine, makes for poor festive chit-chat around a table of acquaintances. This made me question what underlying prejudices I carried about what a “broken,” family looks like, after all, aren’t all families, by proxy of being the cumulative effect of broken people, in some way broken? And doesn’t that brokenness make our humanity more beautifully human? I have recently begun to feel more okay about calling my family, my “family,” but I will keep calling them that until it sits right in a new way again, because for me it is validating, liberating, and because they have all seen me naked and loosing my shit (both proverbially, and literally when I was in nappies) over the years; and because I love them.

I took time to think about, and prepare for each of these days before they arrived which, for me, was wise. It allowed time for scheduled crying (now a hobby of mine) and extra sleeping so that when the days rolled around I could enjoy my housemate cooking pancakes on my dad’s birthday, followed by dinner with friends, and that for father’s day I was able to feel both sad for my loss, and happy for my friends’ relationships with their dads too. I was so lucky to have passing conversations with other people who had lost parents who let me know that yes, dead people could still have birthdays, and that yes; it would be a good idea to do something nice to commemorate his life. I can’t encourage you enough to allow yourself space to go gently with these occasions, I found time and time again that although the occasions themselves were hard, I was lucky enough to have supportive people around me, and that the looming, dreading, fear of the day was the hardest part.

The Afterlife.

I don’t really believe in heaven in a “pearly gates / place you go when you die,” sense, and sometimes wonder if this heaven is a fabrication for people who aren’t pausing to appreciate this life enough as it is. I understand though that it is, in part, because of my privileges that I can say this. I have functioning body parts, five senses, a tertiary education, speak English, am white, and have gainful employment, and had I not won the genetic, socio-economic, born-in-a-peaceful-country-to-a-loving-family lottery I might be imagining the most beautiful heaven for myself and, because I am only human, possibly a pretty un-beautiful hell for my oppressors; although this is likely simply an unsavoury quirk of my character, and not a uniform path of thought, or need for belief in all people I perceive to be “oppressed.” Instead of heaven as a place we are moving towards, I believe heaven is something we can invite into this life by choosing how to live, and love one another; it’s why “heavenly,” is one of my favourite adjectives. This being said, I certainly believe in the afterlife; that is the life each of us enter after the life of someone we love has ended.

One of the most jarring things about grief is that in the midst of death, we become acutely aware of life happening all around us. Perhaps our new eyes to see this contrast all the more illuminates what we might have been waltzing through all these years without noticing. It is said that people who are “missing,” one sense have a heightened level of another, for example; a blind person may have uniquely strong hearing and perhaps, when juxtaposed with our heightened sense of death, our sense of life becomes stronger too. In a recent essay musician, and party-enthusiast, Andrew W.K. muses that death holds a mirror up to life, while Plato himself ponders that death, which we fear to be the greatest evil may, in fact, be “the greatest good.” In my walk with grief thus far, I have found that with time, gentleness, and openness – these statements have proved to be true, and I hope that I can continue to look into that mirror of death, beholding my experience of life for what it is, which is something I find to be breathtakingly beautiful. This opening of my thoughts about life and death has made me want to, on every occasion I recall it, turn directly to my dad to thank him. I can’t thank him for it physically anymore, so on my best days, I try point out the beautiful things to others, and to thank them for being beautiful, too.

Time and time again in life I come back to John Donne’s sentiment that “each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” Until recently I have wholeheartedly agreed with this, blindly professing to feel a sense of reduction in my own life experience on account of another loss of human life. This is very noble of me (and probably a little lofty if I’m completely honest) however in recent weeks, I have found myself disagreeing with old J.D. In spite of the gaping loss of my dad, and though grief has certainly changed me, and I hope it continues to do it’s work in me in healthy, and sustainable ways, the part of my life which does at times feel diminished is outweighed by a sense that my experience of life also feels enriched.

So, what’s it like now?

The process of grieving is never “finished,” nor is it something we “achieve.” We can recover from it and, if we want to, with the help of others we can move towards new life; but it will always be shit that my dad is dead, and that’s completely okay. At this time in my life I struggle with wanting to know my family as closely as possible, while still experiencing the grace that it is to not have to work too hard at relationships with people who, quite miraculously, choose to love and forgive me no matter what. I struggle with understanding that everyone I love is going to die some day, and that I have no idea when that day might come, and I wrestle with trying to not allow that to propel me too far in either direction of disengagement, or overbearing engagement with those I love. I spend time thinking about how best to embrace the liberty of setting my own boundaries of how I will define my happiness, and how I will feel proud of myself at the end of the day, knowing I had two parents who never wanted me to be anything but myself, and to be that to the fullness of it’s daily expression, whether that be riding a camel through the centre of the desert on an adventure, or simply gathering the energy to drag myself out of bed. I cope with knowing this is the longest I’ve gone without talking to my dad, and knowing I have a long way to go without him yet. I cope with dishes, and laundry, and trying to get to work on time, attempting to buy appropriately ripe avocados, and being a good friend / sister / daughter / employee, and a million other things; and I have no idea what you are trying to cope with, so I am beginning to learn to not be so quick to judge the actions of others. I am re-learning to believe that good surprises can, do, and have happened in my life after a handful of major events in the last few years having been such bad surprises, and I am learning how to talk freely with others about my dad’s life, without letting the ending of it eclipse the bigger narrative of who he was, and ever will be. I cope with being extremely sad about wondering who will send me National Geographic magazines, stickers, and handwritten letters for my birthday, and I balance that by understanding how lucky I am to have had a relationship with my dad which allowed me to be the recipient of these gifts in the first place.

Two weeks and three days before dad died, a woman who works near me mentioned how much her life had changed since her own father had passed away. She said she felt so unprepared, and then she told me how much practicing mindfulness and meditation through yoga had helped her to find a place in who she was for the loss of her dad. I didn’t tell her my dad had died just a fortnight after this timely, out of the blue, conversation for a very long time – it just never really came up, but when I did she grabbed me by the shoulders, and looked me square in the eyes and told me I should write about it when I felt like I could. She said it was fucked, because no one talks about this thing which is going to happen to everyone, and then she said the most wonderful words to me, that “grief is an incredibly difficult process, which takes time, because it is learning to get to know someone who has always existed as an external, physical being, as a purely internal being.” When the human form passes away we are left with the imprint of the person inside of us, and allowing space to look inside of ourselves is an incredibly difficult task at the best of times, let alone when our insides are wracked with hurt. It’s a process which takes roughly a lifetime, I suppose, but one I am committed to engaging with so that the memory of the people I love, and lose, can live on.

In Melbourne now, the last of autumn’s golden leaves on the trees which line my street are falling while, in Japan, the last of spring’s sakura petals will be scattered along the ground. Eventually these fragile phenomenon will be crushed into the mud, becoming an invisible part of the fertiliser which helps the visible tree to find strength, grow, and bloom again. They are birthed from a cycle of life, and when they die they continue in that cycle. Nothing stays put; everything repeats (there’s a Pocahontas song about this… “a circle, a hoop that never ends,” anyone?). In my 365 days that the earth has moved around the sun, and in the 365 times the moon has risen over my sky here in Australia I have learned, just as Chio does, to appreciate the good in life. To savour it, to relish in it when it comes my way, and to remember it when it seems so far from where I find myself. I have learned that although loss truly cannot be read, it can be shared, and that in this process of sharing, new life, new laughter, and new love can grow.

I am thankful for my dad; for his life, and for his death, which has caused me to love this life more than I knew I could, and I hope that someday, with grace, gentleness, and kindness towards yourself, this may be your experience too.

The Golden Ticket.

I wish I had a way
to give out Golden Tickets
to the folks at the chocolate shop
in Sydney today.

They’d be hidden under the coasters,
but not too hard to find,
and they’d hold keys of compassion
to un-coil our wound-up minds.

They’d have honest words to say
to the hurting Middle East,
and all four points of the compass
would work to foster peace.

Oh I wish I had those Tickets,
they’d unlock that door post haste!
And fill our hearts with kindness
to transform Martin Place.

The sky scrapers would be temples
where we’d laugh, and dance as one
with people from around the world,
as gathered daughters and sons.

The road would be re-paved
with the names of those who simply did nice things
and we’d cast those ordinary names in lights
as our happy hearts world sing.

There’d be no more war or crying,
there’d be safety for each child,
and grown-ups from all walks of life
would feel their souls beguiled.

I’d have Tickets enough for all!
For the atheist, Catholic, and Jew
and the same for all our family
who live by Islam too.

There’d be Tickets to give the Buddhists,
for the agnostics and Baha’i,
and our Golden Flags of Freedom
would light up the darkest sky.

But today… it’s all just headlines;
we’ve forgotten the truth at hand,
for it was fear who took us hostage,
not a foreign face from a distant land.

Daffodils, sunsets, and uneventful nice days.

God, thank-you for the sublime luxury
of a day filled with boredom,
where grief neither glued me to my bed-sheets
nor propelled me into a frenzy
of fast paced amusement,
for it’s haphazard plain-ness
and for the way it will be forgotten
as one of so many plain days
I’m graciously given.

Thank-you for the daffodils
the ones, my heart, with pleasure fill
and the times I’ve been privy to pick them
whether running through a field
with a lover in the rain
or walking along Twin Oak Drive
grabbing bunch after bunch
with my memory.

And thank-you once more
for this evening’s sunset,
whose dripping, golden peels of light,
pastelled with orange, pink, and indigo
give me the promise 
of another night’s stars,
and the hope of a new day.

Bennie.

My favourite new game
is watching which raindrops
will fall on the wires
of our clothesline
whose yellow,
plastic-coated pin-stripes
reverberate
humming inaudible notes
that I can see.

And now I understand
that when you’re staring out
at “nothing,”
the fool isn’t you,
it’s me.

For Bennie; the all-seeing, one-eyed cat.