Monday, October 14, 2013

The Spaces Between

Like most shamans, I live in magical space all the time, for better or worse. And like most of us, I fluctuate between being more in the physical world, and being more in the non-physical world. And like most of us once again, I am probably more sensitive than most people to places that are between worlds.
Modern neo-Pagans tend to refer to certain dates as times when the walls (or "veils") between the worlds are particularly thin, and/or the space inside cast Circles as places that are between the worlds. Living between worlds (which I recently tried to describe to a bunch of modern Pagans as being similar in perception to a double-exposed photo), I can see places everywhere, many times a day, which are between worlds, and also times which are between times.

Time-wise, the spaces between are not midnight, which you might expect as its role in nominal day-changing, or midday, as you might expect because it marks the transition between morning and afternoon. No, the times between are dawn and sunset.
As to places, all of my life, back to my very earliest childhood memories, I have always looked through windows. Windows are for standing at and gazing out of. Doors too are for standing at and gazing out of, but windows are more powerful than doors. When I still worked in Sydney decades ago, I used to go to a particular café in Macquarie Street most lunchtimes, not just for the food but for the view of the Botannical Gardens. The café had lovely arched windows facing the park, and an al fresco area. I quite regularly took friends and colleagues there. I was regularly asked why I sat indoors "when there was such a lovely view". That was precisely why I sat indoors. If I sat outside, the view was quite tolerable, at least for an inner-city view. But if I sat inside, the view was framed, I could see a progression between one place and another, I could feel that as the equivalent of a shift between one world and another. That greatly improved the view: not only was it aesthetically pleasing, but it was just plain powerful as well.
When I was on the other side of the continent, I was particularly friendly with one of the local Aboriginal Elders. We were friendly for most of the time, but in my last months there, the friendship ramped up. He'd turn up and sit on my front porch most mornings before either of us had to get to work, I'd make tea for both of us, and we'd watch the day start in those long, comfortable, timeless Aboriginal silences. We watched the world, and we listened to it. To the breeze, to the birds, to insects, to the distant shouting of children.
Many of his people, who despite cars, houses, sociological problems and money, were essentially still embedded in their tribal spirituality, lived in the Dreamtime most of the time, pretty much as I live between the worlds most of the time, especially the very young and the very old. In fact, the two states are very closely analogous. Dreaming Stories were at once tales of long-ago-and-far-away, and immediate, playing out here and now. Changes of season, changes of weather, changes in nature, all reflect changes in the Dreaming. I never asked, but I'm pretty sure John also saw the worlds overlaid, like a double-exposed photographic frame.
Doors and windows are the places that I find myself in most often, where it is incredibly easy to see across and through. Other places are where land and saltwater meet, on beaches, cliffs, rocks, tidal lakes or estuaries. Less so but still effective are places where land and freshwater meet: streams, rivers, dams, pools, man-made canals and moats, irrigation channels, plumbing and drainage systems etc.
I find magic in places that have been ruined, also. Fallen houses, burnt-out remnants of cars rusting into the ground, toxic wastelands, they all have a ruination that is beautiful, and carries you between their magnificence and their ugliness, between life and death, between the physical and the non-physical.
Valleys are both above ground and under ground, thus are especially places that connect one to the Underworld, as are volcanoes and remnants of dead volcanoes such as granite plugs and volcanic chambers. Places of wind, such as hills, coastlines and even the concrete tunnels of streets that catch and channel the wind, are also places that the Elements meet, both sky and earth.
For some time I've worked with a local landcare group, who look after a particular nature reserve. It is infested with exotic weeds and going there is a constant battle against plants that simply don't belong. Still, there is always a huge temptation to down tools and simply stay, and look, and feel. A wind crosses the nearby lake, then rises up the earthen embankment, giving us a place between three elements. The land is buckled and ridged, giving us land that is both above ground and below ground. And a long time ago artificial steps were hewn out of raw bedrock, both manmade and natural paths through the magical and psychological landscape. It is a very, very magical place, and when a member of the Landcare group died, we commemorated him there, later raising a permanent memorial to him. Two or three of the group still comment on feeling his presence there, in some places much more than in others.
Recently a young girl asked me to clear her brother's home. I have no intention of discussing the entity that may or may not have been present there publicly, but what I will talk about are the parts of the house it preferred. It preferred the staircase (neither upstairs nor downstairs), both the hallways (neither one end of the house nor the other), a little-used doorway into a room that is only used for storage (both in the home and not a part of it), and windows (both inside and outside). It had, arguably, been sensed in the garden shed, too: both a part of the home and not a part of the home.

All these places, and more are between places, and powerful shamanically for jumping.

A few days ago I went to Sydney. My blanket dislike of all cities is legendary, that one in particular since it is the only one I ever lived in - and when I grew a brain, I immediately moved out of it. I don't visit cities easily or willingly.

But I did have an intercontinental friend who was going to be in Sydney for one day only before flying out to her home continent, and there was no question of missing catching up with her. I am between cars at the moment, so the trip down to see her involved an intercity train.

Every time I do any long-distance driving, I see the road not as a scar across an ancient landscape, injuring it (as some other occultists do), but more as a grey, insubstantial ribbon laid across the landscape. Sooner or later, the landscape and life it is teeming with will reclaim it as man ceases to use and maintain it: the bitumen will crack, it will get covered in dust, and sturdy, indifferent plants will force their way up through the cracks, helping wind and water to erode it. This may take centuries or tens of centuries, but the only certainty we have in life is that it will happen.

The spaces between towns are not the spaces between worlds, but just like towns, country areas contain many spaces between worlds. Sometimes they are man-made, like a gateway or cattle-grid that has become overgrown, or a line of fencing that leads into a shallow lake, an eroded gully running down towards a creek, or a corrugated iron shed, abandoned, rusting and falling down, or a path curving around the edge of a hill and out of sight.

More often they are natural: fissures leading to cave-systems large and small, both flowing and dry riverbeds wending their way through the landscape, rows of consecutive hills like the vertebrae of an immense creature slumbering under a thin layer of rock and soil, large weathered granite plugs in a flattened, eroded landscape or, dramatically, large, almost perfect granite spheres, often in "family groups", that have been fired out of long-extinct volcanoes at enormous speeds high into the atmosphere, cooling into spheres in the atmosphere, then becoming misshapen only slightly on landing.

These places become alive: the spirit of the land condenses thinly everywhere, but more thickly at such places, just as water in the atmosphere condenses more readily on a chilled surface than on a warm one.

On my train trip, I was travelling through a lush, over-watered coastal landscape, where the tree-trunks are thick and swollen with water and the trees are close together because the subsoil is moist fairly regularly, as opposed to the red, "barren" landscapes of my heart, where trees rarely stand much taller than a couple of humans, and are rarely thicker than a forearm, and where there is not enough water in the soil to nourish those dry, thin, wiry trees if they grow close together, so they space themselves decently apart.

For some of the trip, the sallow, brackish waters of the Hawkesbury curved through the coastal hills, mirrored by the curve of the railway. It lay in the landscape, quiescent, its course through the landscape carved between the hills by the force of its very body as it endlessly sought out the sea. Its muddy, grey-green waters were alive even though they were quiet, biding their time and silently watching everything that went past. I got a sense of immense power.

There are places on that train journey where rather than skirting around a hill or climbing over it, the train will plunge through it in a short tunnel, then emerge again. There is one place where the train does that, then crosses the water on a metal bridge, then goes through a tunnel on the other side again. I like to drop into a light trance, and allow myself to feel the different energies of earth all around me, water below me and so forth, just for those few moments.

When the city is reached, it is necessary to leave this train and catch another to the airport. This means descending from the grubby city air into a network of tunnels, and walking underground. Surrounded entirely by artificial surfaces, artificial light and artificial air, this is an odd experience.

It is made even odder if you reach out and try and feel the land-spirits. They are not there. Instead there is something alive, but it doesn't feel healthy, it doesn't feel comprehensible, and it really, really doesn't feel Australian. It's easy to say that the land is screaming because it doesn't want to be full of concrete, sewerage, people, machines and electrical cables, but that doesn't feel accurate, either. The land is not screaming. It is terribly, terribly quiet. No one talks to it, no one listens to it. The feeling was not unlike the "hollow" feeling you sometimes get in your body at times of loss.

And yet, walking through those tunnels is still a magical experience. You have the sense, as with most tunnels, of leaving "normal" spacetime and entering a different reality, or perhaps more accurately, entering a bardo between normal space-time and the Otherworld. And you have the same shift of consciousness when leaving those tunnels, too. Yet the earth around you is dead or dying or transformed utterly to something its own spirit doesn't even recognise.

What is interesting is looking at the people you encounter, walking through those same between-spaces. Some of them have hunched, defensive body-language, most of them look sick (but that's true of city dwellers on the surface, too), but what stands out is that the huge majority of them have no comprehension at all that they are in a special place, a magical place, a place between worlds. Me, I never tire of places between the worlds and I never take them for granted: I enjoy and take notice of even the "special" windows and doors in my own home, which I experience many, many times a day. I cannot imagine having my senses so dimmed that I wouldn't even know - perhaps it's like being blind or deaf, you try to compensate with your other senses and you can certainly get by, but there is always that one form of perception which is a lack in life.

Two and a half, nearly three years ago, a friend of mine started asking me to dragonboat regattas (and lots of other events in lots of other areas of his life, too, but let's stick with dragonboats for now). There are regular annual regattas that take place in more or less natural watercourses: Dobroyd Point, Darling Harbour, the Hawkesbury, Tacoma, the Beachcomber. These recur every season. Then there are several per season that all happen at the Penrith dragonboat regatta centre.

When I was travelling to regattas with this particular guy, we'd get up at around three, to be dressed and have the car packed for a 4.00am start to the trip, we'd get to the regatta centre at about six-thirty, and sleep in the car, curled up trustingly next to each other, for an hour and a half before we got out and got the day started. Don't ask me why - he seemed to want to do it that way, and also really, really wanted my company. Once when a regatta coincided with something else in my life (and I came only as a supporter, not a participant) and I declined the invitation, he was terribly disappointed and I never heard the end of it.

I vividly remember the very first time I went with him to the regatta centre. It was in largely flat country, with flattened houses and the odd rounded hill. From perhaps a kilometre away you could see the approaches to the regatta centre: low rolling hills with bands of native trees growing on them ... but something was very wrong. Driving over to the parking on "the island", it got even creepier. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that the eye could detect that was wrong, but the place was as-spooky-as. I just couldn't get comfortable, in such a wrong-feeling landscape.

Time went on, and I kept going to regattas. I loved regattas - the whole team accepted me, and I quickly formed personal friendships amongst team members, independently of him (which when he died later, was invaluable in my healing - many of the team members as well as many of his other friends sought me out privately later to tell me the kinds of wonderful things he'd been saying about me behind my back, stuff I wouldn't have minded hearing directly from him, but which definitely helped me heal afterwards). I also became useful to the team very quickly: I'd mind their kit when they were on the water, once when a mother couldn't get care for her kids I unofficially babysat all day, and so forth. I didn't go for that reason: I went firstly because my friend made it perfectly clear how much he wanted me there, and secondly because I ended up enjoying it anyway - although if he had stopped wanting me there, I would have welcomed being able to sleep till normal hours on regatta days!

After I'd been along to a few regattas at the centre, I began to work out why it felt so creepy. The land didn't feel alive. There was nothing to it - it was solid yes, but it seemed empty, somehow, lacking in some vital essence, not quite present there.

Then there was a regatta at which two Buddhist monks performed a ceremony to do with calling water-spirits from the water and into the actual boats. I dropped into a light trance, and followed the ceremony. I couldn't understand the language they were using, but I could understand the energy. And they were trying to evoke a water-spirit from dead water, and nothing was rising to their call. It was terrible, it was very sad to watch.

Afterwards that same day, remembering how I'd thought the phrase "dead water", I went for a walk around the island. I saw cormorants fishing and ducks paddling. I saw a fish that a cormorant caught in the water. I saw a heron fishing. I saw a shoal of baitfish, their flanks shining just below the surface. And I saw water-weed. The water was clearly not dead in any conventional sense - it supported life. But it was clearly not alive in a spiritual sense. Not just myself, but the two Buddhist monks evidently sensed it, too.

Driving home, I asked my friend about it. I told him that the whole landscape felt empty of spirits to me, and that the hills didn't feel like hills and the water didn't feel like water. He told me this: that it had been built for the Sydney Olympics a decade earlier. The original landscape had been bulldozed lock, stock and barrel, and all the soil, plants and rocks trucked out of there. Then they trucked in a whole lot of soil and rocks from somewhere else, sculpted the watercourse, the island and the pretty surrounding hills, and planted grass and trees.

That was my D'OH! moment. Of course. There were no ancient land-spirits in the land because that wasn't a land, just a land-shaped construction made of earth and stone instead of bricks and mortar. There were no water-spirits in the water, because that was no more a natural watercourse in the landscape than my old tropical aquarium had been a natural watercourse in my home: both had abundant plant and animal life, but neither had wild water-spirits living in them.

You cannot make nature-spirits live where you want them to. You can invite them, you can shape the environment in such a way as to make it inviting, but if they don't want to live there, you cannot force them. In Australia, which is the continent which has had its present geology the longest of any continent on earth, we have a lot of land-spirits. Sensitives can find places, overseas, where nature-spirits are present. In Australia, it is hard to find places where they are not present. In the first fifty years of my life, I found no such places, Then in the last three years I have found two: man-made tunnels under a city, and a man-made water-feature in the landscape. And because I and every other Australian are used to moving through an intensely populated landscape, we find it creepy to walk through places that have no spirits, whilst people in less well-populated landscapes find it creepy to walk through places that do have spirits.

And this is why I wouldn't and couldn't live anywhere else, although there is perhaps one other country I would like to see one day. Empty land just feels awful. I prefer my land alive, I really do, and I love visiting the spaces between.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Dropping into trance the evening before a Full Moon, I went to a place between dimensions, between elements, the coastline. Where the sea meets the earth is the domain of both Earth and Water. In spirit-body, I walked along for a while, feeling the cold of damp sand under my feet, seeing the stones, dying seaweed and broken shells on the sand.
At the top of the dunes, Earth and Water meet Air, so I climbed the crumbling sandy mountains punctuated with that dry salt-resistant sand-grass that characterises many of our beaches, and walked along the ever-changing crest of sand.
Half-buried in the sand, I saw an iron-bound wooden classically styled "pirate chest", one corner pointing to the sky. I pulled it further out of the sand, so that I could open its simple hook-latch. It was full of golden coins, large and heavy. I dug around in them, and close to the bottom found the real treasure, a solid mass of deep-pink rose quartz probably almost the size of my head.
Carefully, I covered it with the coins again so that the quartz would not touch the wood, and reburied the box in the dry sand with my hands. It belonged here, in the place between elements.
One of my patron-gods is Hephaestos, the crippled smith-god. Hmmm ... perhaps that's why I have had perpetual ongoing knee injuries since 1984! I kept walking along the dunes, and he joined me, limping companionably alongside me. I am used to the company of gods - many people find their energy overwhelming, but in the final analysis many of them are simply my friends, and he is one of those.
After a while we had walked enough, and I fell behind to follow him, because I knew he would lead me somewhere. I found that we were walking through the informal or poorer quarter of what felt like an older city, with grey-bleached wooden buildings on either side of a very narrow cobblestoned street with their higher floors overhanging the street itself, too narrow for horse and coaches, only just wide enough for two people to walk abreast if they were friendly, or one person mounted on horseback.
The cobblestones were erratic and uneven underfoot, I had to make sure I wasn't going to trip. I could smell woodsmoke and coalsmoke and hot animal fat and a hint of sewage. I kept following Hephaestos. We turned right, pushing aside a curtain of raw animal hide, and entered a comfortingly dark room. Along one wall was a table. Out of a wooden dish, Hephaestos picked up a shred of smoked eel (okay, something brown - don't ask me how I knew it was smoked eel, I just knew), and pressed it to my lips. It wasn't for eating - it was a kind of blessing or benediction. I tasted its smoky, fatty richness as exactly a blessing. Next, he picked up an iron cup, and put it to my lips. It was full of cool water, another blessing and benediction.
He then showed me the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was out at the time, the place was messy, with tools and wire and paint and diagrams everywhere. There were also, sadly, dirty clothes everywhere, it has to be said. I got to flick through one of Leonardo's current notebooks, got to see the mind of the master in action, even though I couldn't really read the archaic font, the early dialect of Italian, or even my own tongue in mirror-script. This was a marvellous moment.
Then Hephaestos went to work. I realised this was his workshop, and there was a small forge in the centre of the room. He pumped the bellows until the coals burned more brightly and burst into white flame, then inserted the blade of a half-made sword with his bare hands, not with blacksmith gauntlets. Drawing it out red, he placed it on his anvil, and hit it with the hugest hammer. In the fire, in water to temper, in the fire, on the anvil to be beaten.
And I became aware that I was the sword he was making.
I am the sword of a god.  I have been forged in the fire of a god. I have been tempered in the water of a god. The strength of the steel is my strength. The hardness of the steel is my hardness. The sharpness of the blade is my sharpness. The Ancient Crippled Smith has walked beside me for decades: the I that exists now, am his creation, his child, and his companion. There have been times when I have been in god-form and he has tried out being human. Currently, he is in god-form and I am trying out being human, but never forget that I am the sword of a god.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gladney's Story

I have a friend called Gladney Oakley, a dear friend whom I knew for years before he died something like twelve or fifteen years ago. He was one of those quiet, deep people who are real-world mystics: in and of the world, but bringing a quiet gentleness to it, and working under the radar. The kind of person who never sought publicity or acknowledgement (as, sadly, I do), but just went about the business of improving the world in a calm silence. He is still with me and around me on a regular basis - he is, in fact, one of my favourites in my tribe of non-physical friends.
He's been hanging around me for a while today, and reminded me of a story he once told me when my daughter was a baby, so probably twenty years ago.
The story was of a man, and I always strongly suspected the man was him, but he never said so or gave the man a name.
The man was born, and grew up. He had a wife and a couple of kids, and ended up with a house, a dog, a garden, and a few backyard hens (okay, so he told me this story at some stage after I started keeping backyard hens).
He and his wife had the odd fight, but they rubbed up well enough against each other to describe the marriage as happy.
He got irritated with his kids occasionally and yelled at them unjustly, but the kids always knew that he loved them.
And the dog just adored him all the time.
All in all, he had every reason to consider himself a modest success in life.
The man had never been inclined towards mechanical maintenance, paying professionals to look after his car etc. In particular, he hated his lawn-mower. He was always running it over rocks and ruining the blades, or flooding the carby, or getting grass into the fuel tank when refuelling, or otherwise harming it. And the lawn-mower returned his lack of understanding with active malevolence. In particular it kept breaking down even when he hadn't neglected or harmed it, just out of spite.
As the years passed, he grew to loathe it more and more, until after many years he got a hold of an old-fashioned scythe and scythed the worst of the grass down. He also partitioned his land up into a number of very small fenced sections and kept his hens penned up in one section at a time until they over-grazed the section they were in, removing every trace of green from the ground before he moved them on. This lessened the amount he had to mow with the mower that hated him.
But much though he wanted to love his hens, he just couldn't look after them properly. Not being a very manual man, every chook-shed he built for them collapsed in high winds, just when the hens needed their shelter most. He neglected his fence-line, and his hens were always finding holes and gaps, squeezing through, wandering out onto the suburban road, and getting hit by cars. He had no idea, either, that you needed to treat them for worms and birdlice infestations, and they were itchy and sickly all the time.
Frustrated by these two areas of ineptitude in his life, he sat down one day when his grand-children were asleep and all was quiet, and lit a candle. He dropped himself into a trance, fronted up to his secret inner soul, and made a deep and serious promise.
He vowed a permanent and sacred vow that in his next life he'd get the small-machine thing right, and be able to maintain his mower and any other machines that came his way.
He grew old, as we all do, and as we all do, he watched his children and grandchildren grow into capable adults. There came a time when he was no longer needed in the world even by those who loved him, and his body was getting just too old and uncomfortable to live in any more. So one night, he put himself to bed, fell into his last sleep, and dreamt his last dream. He never woke again, and when his old wife was asked about it, she said she found him with a contented smile on his face, the smile of a man who had lived a good life, done what he had to do, and died a good death at the right time.
Somewhen, not very far away, a little baby boy was born. He grew up greatly loved - his young mother said that when she first met his eyes a few moments after the birth, he looked at her with the compassion and wisdom of a saint or a very wise old man. But after that moment, he was just a little baby boy, and did all the things baby boys did and none of the things they didn't do.
As he grew, he turned out to love first dogs, then all animals, then all of the world. As a young man he was sometimes selfish, but as time passed he left behind the friends and lovers who brought drama into his life, and stuck by those who were as peaceful as he was. In time he married, then bought a small house on a bit of land. He put up a shed in the backyard, and put a few laying hens there - he had wanted hens all his life, he didn't know why. He put up another shed, and put a lawn-mower and some tools into it.
He took an interest in machinery, and learnt to look after his own machines, repairing and servicing his own car, lawn-mower and so forth, even fixing things like toasters. Everyone in the neighbourhood started bringing him machinery - completely untrained, he still seemed to be able to fix anything no matter what. His special forte was lawn-mowers - he could take a rusted wreck and make it purr like a kitten as it flattened jungles into velvety lawn.
But his hens! The poor little things. He didn't seem to be able to store their supplementary grain in such a way as to dissuade the rats. He couldn't prevent them from growing ill, or escaping and being injured. He had the best of intentions, but although he was regarded as the nicest man anyone who knew him had ever met, he just couldn't have happy hens no matter how hard his tried.
But his lawn-mower was always perfect!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Moving Around

Like many shared-interest groups, the Tarot community is friendly bunch of miscellaneous people, an every so often I might make the effort to travel to meet up with people. Last year I met up with someone whom I'll call, for convenience, Lutestring. She packed a few decks from her collection that I wanted to see, jumped on an interurban train, and came up to my part of the world.
We went out to lunch, pored over the decks we had brought, went back to my place afterwards. I was sharing the house at the time with a guy who cleaned roofs for a living, and as it was a day with good weather, he was up on a rooftop somewhere in the city where she had come from. When she came back to mine, she would have met up with his animals, a dog and two cats.
During the day, the range of conversation would have covered him to some extent, especially as once she came back to my place there was a risk of them meeting. She was delightful, he was delightful, and I could really see them as a couple. Both of them were single at the time, I was happy to encourage them gently together. I made some comment to the effect that if she stayed a bit longer he'd turn up, and I'd drive her back home later so as to save her the train trip. It turned out that she'd had her roof professionally cleaned recently, and it was actually cleaned by him and his offsider.
He rang me about something-or-other during the afternoon, and during the conversation I mentioned that I had a guest, someone I thought he'd probably like if he met her. I said it was a previous client of his. I could hear him smiling down the phone as he said he'd try to get away a little early.
As time passed, though, Lutestring wanted to get back home, so we got into the car and set off. We were barely three kilometres from home when I saw a skinny figure on a small red motorbike heading towards my home - it was him. I offered to turn around and go back home, but she was happy to continue onwards to her place.
When we got onto the freeway and the driving became faster but boring, we talked, and I smelled a burning-oil smell that in that particular car always caused me a degree of angst but didn't cause me any mechanical difficulties before I parted with the car.
Her place was in a suburb of Sydney called Wahroonga: grimy, older, with quite a few fairly sad-looking trees. We found her house, which was a treasure-trove of Tarot decks, fabric, books, and old stuff. She was a market-hound - I liked her even better. At about the time we arrived my mobile rang: it was him, at home, asking where I and the guest were. When I said that she had wanted to get back home and I'd driven her down to Wahroonga, he sounded disappointed, as he had every right to be if he'd left work specially. 
Eventually, after a very nice cup of tea, I decided that I probably needed to go home, so I said farewell to her and her big, fluffy cat, and drove home. When I walked in the door he was still awake, something of a minor miracle at that stage of his life. He made me a cup of tea as soon as I walked in without even being asked - some people are treasures - and asked me about my day: where we'd been, what we'd said and done, how it was.
Amongst other things, I talked about her house, and he remembered cleaning its roof immediately: he referred to it as a "crumbling mansion", a humorous and affectionate term that I've been using for her house ever since. He talked about the pitch of its roof and the type of its tiles, and about how she was a delightful woman.
As the months passed I neglected Lutestring. My housemate was seriously ill, and getting sicker. He worked fewer days and spent more days in bed, often unable to toilet himself or shower himself without help, unable even to open the fridge sometimes, he was so weak. And you've got to give the man points: every day he felt even the slightest vestigial strength he'd go over to Kanwal to his ex's place, to work on building decking on her house for her, no matter what the consequences for his health would be in the days following such a heroic effort. He'd do anything for anyone, no matter how sick he was, if he could move at all.
Over this period of time I spent much more time at home: he really needed professional nursing, but he was never going to ask for it, and he needed at least my amateurish help to get him fed, hydrated, cleaned and toileted. I not only didn't see Lutestring, I didn't see a whole raft of people.
Last year, I'd had a vision of myself doing a private death ritual for him on the 3rd April. I told a couple of people I'm close to about it in around December or January - I never mentioned it to him at all. I just told him that he had a date for the 4th April - we were going to watch sunrise together that day.
On the 2nd of April, he haemorrhaged badly. I rushed him to hospital, and one of the staff offhandedly told me I did the right thing to drive him in, as if I'd waited that extra twenty minutes or so for the ambulance to turn up he would have bled out. So if I had been less attentive, I would indeed have found myself doing a death ritual on the third. After a few days he came home, and had one night and one day at home, talking about making a will, who he wanted to get what, how he wanted his animals cared-for and where he wanted them living (more to the point, where he didn't want them living), and so on.
The second night, he haemorrhaged again, and didn't survive beyond the 14th, despite the high level of care he received. I texted his stepdaughter over and over trying to get her and her sisters there, and I kept telling him that I expected the girls to walk in at any time, but they apparently didn't get any messages from me for all of the twelve hours that I was whispering to him they'd be turning up any minute, and when my eyes were constantly at the door. I thought that was all very sad for him.
Eventually the inevitable happened, and a part of the inevitable happening was that I no longer had to be at home all the time in case he needed me, I could start to go out sometimes just for fun, and I could even sleep deeply and sleep all night, without having to listen for subtle sounds of distress through the walls.
And Lutestring got in touch! We arranged a couple of times to meet, and both times things came up, but eventually I made it down there to meet up with her on her territory. We lunched at a lovely place that was part-café, part second-hand shop, laughing and talking. I didn't want her to ask after my flatmate, so I told her what had happened pretty quickly, and her eyes filled with tears, especially when I explained the circumstances of when I last saw him.  
She told me that when he cleaned her roof, he'd told her about winning the costume prize for his Green Man suit - he was intuitive enough to realise she'd understand immediately - and I told her about the night he won it, coming home on an impulse instead of sleeping in his car down there, letting himself in at four-ish in the morning, coming into my room and perching himself awkwardly and self-consciously on the edge of my bed and telling me about the night, showing me the prizes, telling me about the four women who had made passes at him (and whom I'd brutally said would have dropped him like a shot as soon as the suit came off!). Then the conversation turned, as it does, to other things.
Afterwards, she dragged me through her favourite op-shops. I loathe and detest shopping, but I can just tolerate open-air markets and op-shops. In the first one I drew a blank, but in the second I did very well indeed: lots of candlesticks, and two carved wooden fetish-figures that looked Papuan to me: a male one that looked a lot like my late housemate and the other one female and looking a lot like me! The contrast in their physiques in particular matched us. I had to buy them, and they were only 50c each, a quarter of a cup of coffee for both of them.
I was glad that at lunch I'd had a coffee made the way he liked them, and a slice of carrot cake, his special treat. The whole day he was never far away, laughing, smiling, being in her mind or mine with his humour and his gentleness. I even told her his doorknob story, because I felt that he would have told her if he'd been there.
When Lutestring and I meet up again, it could be on her territory or mine, but I know we will again, and I know we will laugh and talk. It is good to be free of looking after an ill person, free to move around and do things for myself without worrying or being called back by emergency phone calls. And it was also good to meet up with someone as gentle and kind as Lutestring. There can never be too much gentleness in the world, and that's why I'd originally recognised potential for the two of them: they are both incredibly gentle people.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's Almost Time - an exercise in love

You know, it's almost time. Time for me to be selfish, time for me to put aside the promises to, and expectations of, others. For almost a year I have been doing what physically present people needed of me both in my immediate surroundings and at a distance. For almost a year, checking in with my non-physical people (guides, ancestors, "angels" whatever that means, Patron Gods) both in private meditations and in group meditations, when I have no question to ask, I invariably ask how I am tracking, what I am meant to be doing. And the answer always comes back in exactly the same words: "You are already doing everything asked of you. You are already doing everything required of you."
And people in both groups will have heard me say that these words always, especially in the last six to eight months, filled my heart with the deepest sadness. One of the meditation-Kylies, when I said that, said I "shouldn't" feel sad about being on the right path (whatever it is that the word "should" means to her); and when we talked privately some time ago, one of my brothers said that perhaps I felt sad about already being on track to do the things asked of me and required of me, because it was my lot in life to be the strong one, to be the one capable of doing all the necessary but bitterly sad things. He said this quietly and with a warmth: he was talking from soul, not from mind.
But perhaps I have completed all I need to do of these right-but-sad things. Or perhaps I haven't completed all I need to, but perhaps I have completed all I am willing to complete. After all, as Slessor says:-
I saw Time flowing like a hundred yachts
That fly behind the daylight, foxed with air;
Or piercing, like the quince-bright, bitter slats
Of sun gone thrusting under Harbour's hair.
So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
Perhaps I am not as strong a vessel, after all, as the Otherworld requires me to be.  Perhaps I seem to be, just as long as I have my support-systems intact around me, but as soon as that Bony Knife runs me through, cuts away at the structures I enjoy having around me (perhaps more than need to have around me - I seem to actually need very little), perhaps I quail at the enormity of the task. I know that I am proud of every grey hair I have, every wrinkle I have. I have earnt every single one of 'em. Time tracks through me, and I track through the world. People come and go. People I love very much, respect very much, like a lot or a little, or don't like at all, come and go. They are tracking through the world, too, drowning in the quince-bright, bitter slats of that harbour-heavy weight of time, or as warmly wrapped and enfolded in its bed as I might be in my literal bed, wrapped in warmer layers than the weather would seem to need for my emotional comfort.
It really doesn't matter whether I like someone or not. It really doesn't matter whether they like me or not. What matters is that we live to our purpose, that we learn what we need to learn, we do whatever we have time to do before breathing stops being a viable alternative.
But sooner or later the bony knife runs us through, sooner or later the blade cuts and the bone is revealed. On such a day, a good result might be to wake up later, still breathing. Or perhaps that isn't the best option for some of us: perhaps some of us are really only successful when we no longer have to wake up still breathing.
If we are talking physical bodies, in the last few months I have "lost" more than a usual number of people, people for whom continued breath no longer seemed to be a viable alternative. Two of them were guys about the same age. They had never met, but they had both heard me prattle on about the other one, and they both passed on their regards when they knew I was going to see the other one. I had known one of them since 1978, I had known the other since around 2007. I "lost" Mr 1978 first, and when I came back from Adelaide, Mr 2007 spent a moment concerned about me. Only a moment: he watched me carefully, and saw what I saw, that the ending had been right and fair, and that my managing to be with Mr 1978 at the time was also right and fair. We both realised that the death, after a horrible illness, was a relief firstly to Mr 1978 then to me as the only friend he was asking for at the end. He had donated his body to a teaching-hospital for the education of up-and-coming doctors, and he owned next-to-nothing. All his relatives were overseas. I left Adelaide with the thin, salty taste of his skin on my lips and the smell of his rather foetid last breaths in my nostrils. I left having respected his right to atheism, not having done ritual for him.
I never mentioned it to Mr 2007 and I never knew whether he noticed or not, but a week or two later Mr 1978 seemed to join my tribe of non-physical helpers. I started quoting things I barely remembered him saying, I started talking about the volunteer-run workplace where we met all those years ago and people who had been close to him but completely unimportant to me, I started to think like an electrical linesman rather than a ground-hugging wombat-woman. Mr 2007 was amused.
 "Skulker, take heart," I thought my own heart said.
"The flood, the blade go by - Time flows, not you!"

Vilely, continuously, stupidly,
Time takes me, drills me, drives through bone and vein,
So water bends the seaweeds in the sea,
The tide goes over, but the weeds remain.
In the process of thinking about a recently collected group of "my people" today (those people including Mr 1978, Mr 2007, Miss J, Mr S and Little Miss P, some of whom are recently dead, some of whom are alive), I came to think of love. People have different ideas of love. I was doing a workshop just this morning, working with a motley group of mostly women, and a surprising number of them had expressed as a part of their goal statement that they "wanted love".
I cannot imagine being without love. I love and I am loved, not always by the same people, and that is exactly how it should be. The stand-out woman in the workshop whose only goal was love and who could not think of another goal no matter how hard she tried, Miss R, didn't realise that in the time of today's workshop alone, she revealed that she was, in fact, intensely loved. She mentioned children and grandchildren, she mentioned devoted animals, she mentioned long-term friends, she mentioned friendly neighbours. That is exactly love.
Real love, true love, is something we share with many people. If we are the seaweed, love is the tide that washes over, through and around us again and again, just as time does. Real, deep-down, honest love does not demand. Real love, true love, is about appreciating the uniqueness of the other being, and just wanting them to be as happy as possible, with or without us. If they are happier without us or with other people, love accepts that joyfully.
Pair-bonding is not always about love. If someone says "I love you" with the expectation that the person will reply "I love you too" and feels disappointment if they don't, then that is not love, that is ownership, that is a transaction where the first person expects the second person to "pay" for the statement of love they received with a statement of equivalent or greater value, ie "I love you too".
Likewise, if you look for someone to love (or think you have found someone to love), but one or the other person expects that their lover will give up time with others, or give up favoured activities, or do work on their decking, or whatever, in order to demonstrate or prove their love for the first person, then that is again a trade, a mark of ownership. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, if both people are entirely happy with that.
But a real love is this: I can tell you I love you, and I do not expect you to say you love me back. I do not even expect you to love me back silently. If you grow to dislike me and keep away with me, I am entirely okay with that, because I don't own you and therefore don't need you to do anything for me or prove anything to me. Even in the face of your potential dislike I can still love you, keeping my physical presence away from you so as not to cause you discomfort. What you think of me is your own business and weighted, usually, in your own perceptions of my behaviour whether or not you have taken the time to check the origins and reasons of that behaviour.
What I think of you is my own business: and I can safely say that if I have passed more than a certain time calling you friend and hugging you or just smiling warmly at you and enjoying your company, I already love you. And that love, being love and not ownership, will not change. I may come to know you better and see aspects of your character I don't enjoy, but the love will always still be there, as you have the right to be a complex and difficult person if you need to be, and I respect your right to be who you are and to change as you need to change. All my life, I have never tried to own people I love, although I have on occasion tried to own people I lusted after.
There are another five weeks of that workshop to go before I finish working with those people. It will be interesting to see how that particular lady's idea of what love is may (or may not) have changed by the end.
And as I said, it seems to be time for me to put aside changing relationships.

Time, you must cry farewell, take up the track,
And leave this lovely moment at your back!
In the last few months three people who are or were important to me have died, and another few have sustained serious injuries and/or developed a major illness. When I went to Adelaide to spend some time with Mr 1978, I deeply regretted that he had no relatives or, apparently, other friends in Australia that he was interested in seeing at the end of his life: we had had a long and enjoyable friendship, but in the last decade I was more important to him than he was to me, which is why he asked for me instead of reaching out to New Zealand and Scotland for his few remaining blood-relatives, which is why he asked for me instead of the people he had spent his time with more recently.
And once the logistics were sorted of getting over there, I was happy to spend his last conscious hours with him, reminiscing about all the things we'd done and all the fun we'd had, because I still felt a love of him and was keenly aware that he felt more love of me than I felt of him, but a pure love, a love untainted by ownership or expectation, untainted by wanting public acknowledgement or by wanting the other person to change their behaviour to demonstrate love. Even in the deeply painful end-stages of cancer he was a gentle soul who had asked for me in the hope that I might choose to spend time with him, but with no expectation that I had to spend time with him if I didn't want to. Now, that is love. We had never been a couple, and we never would have been. But that is a greater love than any sexually-based couple ever had.
Sadly, when Mr 2007 died more recently of a completely different illness, it came to two successive midnight haemorrhages: each time I got up and got him to hospital, when a sounder sleeper probably wouldn't even have heard the feeble sounds of his distress. After receiving extreme treatment for the first, he came home to spend one night and the following day in bed, too exhausted to be able to raise a glass of juice to his lips or go to the bathroom without help. All of that day, being too weak to actually do anything, he talked instead. He had always been a fairly open talker: far more inclined to open and continue conversations than I am, he nevertheless allowed me to keep my treasured reputation as an extrovert, whilst he continued to pretend to be an introvert.
This single day at home was different. He'd previously told me enough stories to match the volume of Shakespeare's Complete Works if not the style: this one day he was focussed, whilst utterly convinced he'd still regain some body-condition and get a donor organ and a new lease on life, he was focussed on the "what-ifs" centred around if it didn't happen. He hadn't made a will, he wanted to make a will because one of his family was likely in his opinion to do the wrong thing by his other family members. I promised to rustle up the forms and a couple of witnesses the next day. (I have access to any number of lawyers just in the general course of my life).
He asked me to fish out a couple of his most prized possessions, telling me that "if anything happened to him" I was to float them on an outgoing tide in a nearby saltwater lake. He told me that if he didn't get a chance to help his friend Mr G in his upcoming legal hearing, I was to face them and tell them exactly what he had said about Mr G. And so on and so forth. He talked long and earnestly, but with vitality in his feeble, spidery hands and bone-blanked face. I gave him a foot-massage, something I'm really very good at, and for that time he was silenced and I saw the last signs of true relaxation that I'd ever see in him. Sadly, as soon as I finished and packed up my oils and towels, he pulled back on exactly the same dirty socks he had been wearing before.
I had hoped he'd last some weeks or months. In the event, I never got forms for a will the next day. I had an early night, but got woken not by him calling - he was too weak - but by the sounds of him leaning against my bedroom door as he was too feeble to get back to his room. Another haemorrhage. I don't know what time it was, but this time instead of driving him I followed his youngest daughter's advice of ambulancing him, and followed in his car. I can't talk-and-drive - I just can't handle an unfamiliar car at speed in the dark and simultaneously manage a mobile phone. As soon as I got into the hospital with him and fended off staff questions about recent health-stuff, he said not to call the family until he stabilised. Bugger waiting, I thought, and tried to call the same daughter as soon as I was out of his sight. There wasn't enough signal, so I texted her about getting the whole family there as soon as possible - I knew she lived in a different town, but I also knew they had very local relatives who could be there quickly.
He just wouldn't let go of my hand (which bothered me - he usually tried, over the last couple of years, to maintain a veneer of independence), but every time he did, I'd text again. I wanted them or some of them there - he needed to see them desperately, and I was pretty sure they would want to see him also. The next hours were heartbreaking. The staff wouldn't wait until family members arrived - they sedated him and intubated him (lungs, and oesophagus-with-traction). I sent a couple more texts. I sat by a bed talking to him, telling him the girls would get here any time soon. I asked questions, and he answered with tiny little flickering squeezes of my hand. Eventually I sang quietly to him, the two songs we used to sing eccentrically to the rhythm-section of our dodgy washing-machine, and that he used to dance to around the overgrown backyard in his pointy style as we both sang to the spin cycle.
I went away so that the staff could work on him, promising to come back, and got a text from the daughter saying she'd just woken up and what was wrong, I replied telling her to look at the first of the texts, it was all there, and could she get the local family members here quickly please. I never saw him again.
Time leaves the lovely moment at his back,
Eager to quench and ripen, kiss or kill;
To-morrow begs him, breathless for his lack,
Or beauty dead entreats him to be still.
The family absolutely were hurting, and apparently honestly didn't believe that I'd texted her as soon as I could. I still have the messages in the sent items folder on my phone, but you know what? It really doesn't matter. They lashed out in their pain, and I know about pain, having experienced bits of it over the last more-than-half-century. I didn't want "his stuff" such as it was. I really did want to honour his last wishes. His family were more than welcome to everything that wasn't to go into the lake. I'm not sure how I felt about broken windows and coffee-tables, and screams and bruises, and losing things I'd owned for twenty or more years because they were obviously his belongings (even a yellow crystal ball bought at Moree with my brother - Mr 2007 loathed the colour yellow!) ... but these people were in deep pain. If they wanted to scream, I wasn't going to scream back. If they wanted to hit me, I certainly was never going to hit back.
Because I loved two of them - the mother and the daughter that I knew best, the one I'd been texting, and I deeply respected his love of the other two daughters, the ones I didn't know so well. Due to those events, they have obviously formed the opinion that I was bad, and they seem to have convinced mutual friends of ours of that, too, so at least at the moment none of them seem to like me at all any more, which just brings me back to the subject of love. I've known all or most of them as long or longer than I'd known Mr 2007, and no matter what happened, I still loved them. I absolutely recognised their emotional agony at a father and ex-partner dying, made worse by their genuine belief that I hadn't tried hard enough to get them there.
I recognise that the mother has had different periods of time where she's felt less than comfortable around me over the years, but we've always come back to a friendship from that. And I'm completely comfortable with the kids. But at the moment I'm the one who kept them away from a dying man, and kept some of his things (according to his wishes, but they weren't there at the time).
I don't have to ever see them again, and hopefully that will help them heal. But the fact that I am capable of loving them regardless of how they don't love me, is not going to change. They are free to feel as much dislike, rage, even hatred as they like - an open, honest love that isn't ownership and doesn't ask for return is not going to be bothered by that, at all.
.....  whose agony implores
Birth to be flesh, or funeral, to be ghost.

Out of all reckoning, out of dark and light,
Over the edges of dead Nows and Heres,
Blindly and softly, as a mistress might,
He keeps appointments with a million years.
And this is exactly what he will do from now on, along with everyone who passes out of the physical world into the non-physical world. For the first couple of weeks I found myself doing what I did in the last months of his life: following "him" around bathrooms and kitchens turning off dribbling taps everywhere (he had been much too weak to manage conventional plumbing for a while), listening to his deep voice rumbling through the walls as he talked to the cats (who are glued even more to my side every moment I am in the house), turning off the kitchen radio which used to belong to my daughter but which only he turned on.
He has been slowly pulling away as I adjusted to solitude again, but when Miss J was injured suddenly the other day, he was suddenly and urgently in my ear, urging me to text her, to ring her. I'd introduced them ages ago, and he was quite ridiculously fond of her. A few hours after he badgered me, I found out about her accident and what hospital she was in, and once I knew that, he faded into the background again. He seems to have joined my background tribe of non-physical people, something Mr 1978 didn't do in his capacity as an atheist, just pulling up for work when others of my tribe are less suited, and fading away the rest of the time.

I and the moment laugh, and let him go,
Leaning against his golden undertow.

I've come back from this death faster than from many others. I know I did what I could to make his last seven or eight months as painless and stress-free as possible. In the last few months, I slept lightly, so that if he needed help at night, I would hear and wake up. I tried to honour his last wishes, although I was utterly unable to have his body donated for the use and education of medical students, or have those few special items floated into the lake. I have had others die on me over the years, and when I was in my twenties and probably my early thirties as well, I was less-than-graceful when dealing with the deaths of those I loved.
I'm finding now that even just in this year, not only am I behaving very well towards the ill and dying around me, but with each one I push it that little bit further, and am that little bit more helpful to them. It's not about being kinder or more loving, although I'm sure they appreciate that - it's about being helpful. Helping them lift drinks to the mouth when bony wrists are too weak. Helping them toilet or shower when they are too weak to do it alone. Waking up quickly and uncomplainingly when someone makes the quiet sounds of distress in the night.
And like love, helpfulness is something you do because it feels right at the time, and because it gives you pleasure to be able to make someone else's suffering just that little bit easier. It's not a burden or something you do in the hope that someone does it for you later - that is the trade or barter model of so-called love, described above. You do it just because. I could never be a nurse, or any kind of personal carer. I just don't have what it takes to look after strangers, but people whom I love, people who make the world a better place by their wit, humour, smile and conversation, I can find infinite depths of warmth for them and can deal with all the misfortunes their bodies may have fallen on.
Only a suicide chooses the time and manner of our going, and I don't think I am a suicide. The rest of us deal with whatever we have to deal with whilst we still have a physical body, and deal with a whole raftload of other issues when we no longer have a physical body, including being able to multi-place to watch over all of those who might need us as they adjust to a world without us. Grief sits lightly on me, these days - I accept the naturalness of death, and the continuity of existence beyond it, so there is really very little to grieve for except, perhaps, (selfishly) a hole in your own physical life. But life is so short - we can put up with a hole here and there.
"Fool, would you leave this country?" cried my heart,
But I was taken by the suck of sea.

The gulls go down, the body dies and rots,
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts. 
I remember being a pre-schooler when my Kid Brother was a baby, and my Baby Brother wasn't even born yet. I remember thinking of a memory of being a man wearing an uncomfortable, hot, prickly suit, carrying a briefcase in my right (wrong) hand, and walking along a hot city pavement. That's all I remembered at the time. I was still young enough to think my mother could be a mother, so I went to her with the obvious question: What is it like to be dead? I doubt I had even heard the word dead before, but in the face of this memory, I asked. And she told me it was like being asleep, only without the dreams. From that moment, I knew I could never talk to her. About being dead and alive, an adult and a child, male and female, alone and surrounded.
It's the deaths I remember, mostly, but fragments of some of the lives, too, like walking down the road in a suit. Like walking through a deciduous forest in Autumn, looking for just the right fallen log. Like riding a motorbike, something I've never done in this body, and cornering to the left.
The idea that when you die everything will end is just patently false - doesn't everyone know that? Doesn't everyone remember at least fragments? Weep for the sudden rupture in life that a death causes, yes. But then say goodbye and hello again, whether they are an elder, a tragic young death, a stranger, a friend, a family member. You can hear their voice through the walls or find taps you are perfectly capable of turning off properly dripping. The cats will follow them crossing the room with their eyes, and will mew in conversation and reach up their heads to be scratched.
You are never alone, least of all when you are alone. This is when members of your tribe are all around you - not all at once, but whoever is available and appropriate for the moment. Feel them. Listen to their quiet thoughts inside your head behind your louder thoughts. Allow yourself to feel their fingers stroking your head as you drift towards sleep.
And remember or write down the dates, and on each anniversary light a candle and send its soft, warm light to that person, to remind them that you will still know them next time, and that you remember now.
(Lines of poetry were taken from Kenneth Slessor's triple sonnet "Out of Time".)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Gun Control?

What can I say? It's a rainy Saturday, and while I do, actually, have better things to do than sitting at home with the TV on, that is how I've chosen to spend my time. Chosen to spend it relatively dry.

And what a great day of viewing it's been, too. My attention has been mostly caught up with visiting neighbours, sad dogs who don't get so much running since I no longer smoke and even less on rainy days like today, and playing a fascinating (to me) pseudo-historical computer game that challenges short-, middle- and long-term memory, something which I think all people grapple with and which I in particular need to keep working on. At least, that's my excuse to be addicted to the computer-game, and I'm sticking to it.
Saturdays, we get treated to a lot of current affairs and documentaries on ABC-1. I enjoy them. I also enjoy having them on as background-noise.
Today has been interesting. I very much enjoyed something on technology to help the paralysed communicate with others which was out-and-out fascinating, but what outraged me and drove me here was a documentary on gun control in the USA. Again, this with the disclaimer that I only heard it as background noise over other activities and thoughts, with an occasional glance over my shoulder at the screen.
A lengthy portion of it was grabs from an interview with an American gun club executive, as well as hardly less lengthy grabs from gun salesmen, legislators, parents of shooting victims, hunters and the like.
The American gun club executive talked and talked. He was a real worry. He said that since he had children in his house, he couldn't feel safe unless he had a loaded gun within an arm's reach at all times. Why, I felt like asking. I remembered sharing a house in the early 1980s with a very rare kind of Australian, one who actually had a gun. He kept it loaded, too, and upright in his wardrobe. Highly illegal - they are supposed to be stored unloaded, and in a locked safe. And we found out why - his gun fell over, accidentally firing as it did so, and a bullet penetrated the wall between our bedrooms, lodging in the ceiling of my bedroom. He was not at home at the time: he came home to a virago who yelled at him a lot and made him do the right thing - which consisted of getting the firearm out of the house until such time as he bought a safe.
The American talked about a possible burglary (which hadn't happened to him yet) where two people might break into his house when he was home with burglary on their minds and nine mill handguns in their pockets. He said he sure-as-hell didn't want to tangle with them if all he had to "defend himself" with was a nine mill handgun, so he had this. I glanced over my shoulder: it was a long, long thing, menacing, heavy, looking like something you might find in a war-zone. The interviewer probed: his house had never been burgled. And yes, the gun wasn't a luxury, it was an absolute essential. For self-defence. To be in his home, close to hand and loaded at all times - after all, what use is an unloaded gun? The burglars who hadn't burgled him yet wouldn't be gentlemanly enough to give him time to look for a gun that wasn't within reach, much less to load it, so it had to be convenient at all times and loaded at all times.
I kept wondering about the kids in his home, what they were learning from him. Were they learning that the whole world was dangerous, were they learning fear and suspicion and a lack of trust? The whole world isn't dangerous: fear and suspicion should only be responses to specific situations, not a lifestyle thing.Were they learning that their daddy approved of killing anyone he didn't know? Were they learning that visiting other people's homes might cause them to be shot? Were they learning that violence is okay? Were they learning that peace is about firepower, that is, about armed ceasefire, not peace? At best, from an upbringing like that, they would learn that what Daddy fears and says, never happens. At worst, they will never question it, and will grow up fearful, suspicious, and believing it is okay to kill strangers if they make you feel a little nervous. Is that how we want our children to live, in fear? And do we want them, after a childhood of fear, to believe in killing anyone who makes them afraid as adults?
He had four handguns in his car. I kept thinking about road-rage incidents. I had one of my own just recently where the rage was mine, in fact if completely surpassed rage and went to blind, red-eyed, end-of-line extreme fury. I won't bore you with that the guy did to deserve that kind of fury, except that it was horrible and he should never been on the road. If I were a gun-carrying-kind of girl there is NO DOUBT I would have pulled it on his car at the very least, and shot out all four tyres (you can change one but four is a problem). And if the tyres didn't scream enough and bleed enough to satisfy me, I would probably have started shooting off his fingers, one by one, just to hear the screams and see the blood. He's just lucky I didn't have a length of wood with a few rusty nails sticking out of it in the car. And me, a pacifist who hates guns. What about someone like the guy in the documentary, who kept talking about the damage that the pacifists were doing to his country - what would he have done if we had swapped places for that moment? The other driver was an idiot and a dangerous idiot, but his dangerous driving didn't kill me, and my dangerous rage didn't kill him. The shooter's dangerous rage and dangerous shooting would have killed him in an instant.
I have a friend who is a nomad from a nomadic family. I have known the whole lot of them since the late 1970s. In that time, their wanderings firstly as a family then as individuals, have centred roughly around Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland. When I met my friend all those years ago, she and I were both only teenagers, and she was just back from a couple of years in Auckland. She was constantly spooked by our Australian policemen. I asked her why, once. Because they had handguns in holsters hanging from their belts, she said. She was terrified of being shot or witnessing a shooting - it just seemed so strange to her that law enforcement had only violence as its tool against "the baddies". She calmed down, eventually.
I am in my fifties, now, and I have never seen a copper take their gun out, even in situations where I witnessed someone being arrested - we just don't have a culture of shooting. It would never have occurred to a cop to draw their weapon as a routine thing. In New Zealand the culture was even more anti-shooting - the cops didn't even carry guns because gun-crime was so rare. Sure, there were armed units that could be called on if needed, but they were badly underworked. And in New Zealand far fewer people own guns proportionate to the population-numbers. In America, I believe there are two and a half guns for every American.
There is a place for guns in Australia. In 2007 I drove twice through the area between Cobar and Wilcannia in NSW a week or so apart. The terrain there is fairly flat - the horizon as about twelve kilometres away, therefore, in all directions. The road is a thin grey ribbon through a rumpled sheet of red earth, punctuated by saltbush and the occasional stunted gum. There was a feral goat plague: a goat every one and a half square metres as far as the eye could see, picking at the last of the leaves on the stripped saltbush and standing up trying to get the lower leaves on the gums. And for every female goat, because it was breeding season, one or two tiny kids were also in her metre-and-a-half, barely born, far too small to be weaned yet. This was over a distance of hundreds of square kilometres, between and on both sides of those two towns.
Goats have completely ravaged the bushland and wiped out whole ecosystems, driving Australian native animals to extinction through starvation, and plants to the very edge of extinction. That was the first and only time I have ever wished I owned guns and knew how to use them: if I'd had one, I would have been stopping, and picking off all the breeding bucks and childless females. And if I had hit a mother by mistake, I would have "wasted" another bullet or two making sure her offspring were dead, not letting starvation and exposure do it for me. It's the only compassionate thing to do. After all, they don't understand that their population is a menace to the environment, as humans do.  And humans, knowing that humans are a menace, still perpetuate the species and bemoan deaths, and beg for pain relief! The only decent thing you can do for the environment it to reduce species that are out of control like the goats in that area - but do it quickly and kindly, making sure as few as possible suffer an instant longer than they have to.
Some weeks or months before I saw that documentary, a science programme that I usually enjoy ran an item on gun-related behaviour. In particular, they tested male hormonal levels before, during and after playing with "toy" guns (games consols) and "real" guns. When handling toy guns, there was some upswing of testosterone, similar to that when viewing visual pornography, but when handling real guns, their testosterone levels were completely off the scale. The conclusion most educated laymen would draw from that is that most males see guns as a huge turn-on, more than pornography. During today's documentary, the gun-club executive said something like (and I paraphrase): Every time there has been a gun-based massacre in America, sales have spiked. He seemed to see that as a Good Thing. Bearing in mind the testosterone-rush revealed in the science show, I saw it as a bad thing.
What is wrong with the psyche of a nation, where the deaths of beloved family members of a great many families produces a surge of rapaciousness, and people go out to buy guns? Some would, no doubt, be individuals who would be concerned that the same thing might happen to their loved ones tomorrow, and might have some misguided belief in "protection", that two deaths is somehow better than one. But the rest? They get turned on by the idea of mowing down others in a hail of bullets? How sick is that?
An executive of an American gun-selling company had something just as grim to say,  and said it in an unctuous voice rich with greasy self-satisfaction (and again I paraphrase): During the recession, our sales boomed. What a shame the rest of America's economy can't run itself as well as the gun industry can.
Did he not think? During the recession, tens of millions of Americans were as-miserable-as. And the totalitarian nature of their society made them feel so powerless that they ate dry bread for a month so they could afford to buy themselves a gun, to make themselves feel just a little less powerless. Sir, having your business boom during a recession is not so great, if it has ties to power, powerlessness and testosterone. (Brothels boom in recessions and times of war, too - people go hungry, but use sex to allay fear).
I was talking to someone here in the house an hour or two ago after seeing the documentary, someone who has lived on that gloriously gun-supplied continent (which I haven't). We talked about how, when Australia had the Port Arthur Massacre last century - our last - almost our whole civilian population cried out against guns, and handed in their privately and legally or illegally owned guns. We haven't had an event like that since. In America, faced with a massacre, people go out and buy more guns. And keep having more massacres - I seem to hear of yet another one almost every other month. Which country is healthier?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Final Journeys

There are good friends, people whose company I delight in now, and then there are very good friends, people whom I might see only every few years, but who have lasted the test of time. As a general rule of thumb prone to all kinds of exceptions, the more decades I have known you, the better I love you. Of course, there are johnny-come-latelies whom I love dearly, and people I've known most of my life that I'm uncomfortable with, but those exceptions are very rare indeed.
Between 1977/8 and 1981, I used to volunteer at 2MBS-FM doing all kinds of things, and I still have some very fine friends that date from that time. (I've changed my name legally since then so the station won't have a record of this name, but the people I still keep in touch with will.) I will identify one of my friends by the initial Q, carefully chosen because it will not identify him.
Q was great. He wasn't the person there that I spent the most time with, on or off the Chandos St premises, and he wasn't one of the blokes there that I might have [gasp] slept with. But unlike many of them, he ended up being a long-termer.
He moved interstate when my daughter, now facing down her 21st birthday, was a pre-schooler. He had spent quite a lot of time with us when she was a baby - he even changed a nappy once. I used to joke that he'd make someone a marvellous mother some day.
I moved out of the city when I was pregnant, and time and attrition being what they were, we saw less and less of each other. However, by then he was already a long-termer, and thus a friend for life. We kept in sporadic touch: the odd postcard, phone call, letter, and later on when it had been developed, email. We had a history of really only telling each other the big, important things in life.
Late last year, he told me he had cancer of the pancreas. At the time I was dealing with not one but two seriously ill people, so I more or less put him on the backburner, to my shame. Time passed without my even really realising it, and he became sicker and sicker without saying anything else to me. The next news of Q that I had jolted me to the core, was only a couple of weeks ago (I suppose - I've always had a loose grip on time): a nurse rang me to inform me that he was being transferred into a palliative care unit, and that I was the only person he ever asked for. This was later that same day after I woke up after a dream of standing frozen with fear-of-heights on one of those huge inter-city cable-supports that carry electricity long-distance around the grid and look like giant robots - and he was an electrical linesman for most of his working life!
I immediately consulted with my finances. I didn't have enough cash to hire (or borrow) a car and buy the fuel it would have taken to drive there, although I love long-haul driving. I also didn't have enough cash to buy plane tickets, which would have been a similar travel-budget but would have allowed me much more time with him and would have necessitated at least some budget for accommodation - you can sleep in a car, borrowed or hired, if you're like me and can sleep anywhere.
I just couldn't see how I was going to get there. I knew I couldn't. But I had to. But I couldn't. I moaned to friends. Sadly, they were broke friends and had nothing to offer except sympathetic ears which was all I really wanted or expected when I moaned. I moaned on Facebook as my need-to-get-there-can't-get-there crisis got worse, and very quickly a certain Facebook and real-world friend offered me money to get down there.
This threw me into a dilemma: I couldn't honestly offer to repay it as I'm working just enough to survive (I seem to be happiest that way), so I didn't want to take it. I had to argue myself into accepting the offer, spelling it out to them that it would have to be a gift rather than a loan as I didn't know when I'd be able to give it back, and also arguing to myself that during my affluent decade - yes, I definitely had one - I thought nothing of throwing large lumps of money at friends who might have needed it for something (bills, sometimes, and I financed holidays, and even part-financed a fledgling jazz musical that never got off the ground for various friends). If I could give money away without strings when I had it, why wouldn't I accept it when I needed it from someone who thought they could afford it and liked me enough to want to help me out?
Put like that, I couldn't worm my way out of accepting help. And I really, really needed to fly interstate. I looked online at the prices of a few of the budget domestic airlines, and decided how much I needed, and consulted with the Generous One. A couple of days later, my bank account was suddenly stuffed with dollars. A few hours and an online booking later, my bank account dropped significantly. I got the best value ticket price there and back from Virgin, but I hadn't reckoned with their online booking fee, which seemed to be calculated only when you committed to pay. Never mind - in the meantime the Predictable Bit of my income had come in, I had paid my rent, and I wasn't going to need groceries if I was away from home. A few more dollars - not many more - to play with. But that was okay - I could sleep on a hospital chair and save on accommodation!
Work was a problem when choosing my dates: I work a day here and a day there normally, and while I was trying to line everything up, I was offered an extra day's work that I really couldn't afford to turn down, stymying me and putting back my departure date. But from last Friday morning to this Monday night, I was utterly free, so that's when flew. An early enough morning-flight that in order to check in before the flight I had to set my alarm for 4.00am (which I never do - I object to round numbers, so I set it to 4.02am). Shower, dress, pack the last-minute stuff, jump on a bus, a train, another train, and I was there early enough to check in for my flight. I was planning to fly back late Monday afternoon so that I could sleep in my own bed and be ready for a day's work on Tuesday. 
As I did the commute down to the city airport, I had time to really think. It had been a good twenty-five years since my last flight, and if it would be a similar time to my next, I would be lucky to even fly again in my lifetime. I'm an Earth-person, really wedded to the ground under my feet. Ironically, my memories of flying previously were memories of pure joy: I hate sleeping "upstairs" anywhere because I am too far from soil and bedrock to be comfortable and relaxed, I have a fear of heights when I am in any way connected to the ground - cliff-edges, staircases, high buildings and the like are torture to me, and my muscles are reluctant to work on the second rung of any ladder and lock up permanently on the third. Yet in my twenties I absolutely adored hang-gliding at Kernell and the few flights I had taken in my lifetime were also wonderful. I figured that this was because I had a grave lack of trust in things that might - or might not - collapse under me, but when I am supported only by the air, there is nothing to collapse. Commuting down, I decided that as this trip might be my last chance to fly and as I had booked window seats both ways, I was really, really going to let myself enjoy the flight.
On the flight out, check-in was crowded but uneventful. After that I drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, drank more coffee, and got ushered into a plane. My seat was just behind the left wing, which was great: I would get a good view both above and below me, and I would be able to see the ailerons working as well, which pleased me. Sadly, the left ailerons were rather dented and battered, which didn't. We had a very long taxi out to the end of one of the runways. Safety demonstrations haven't changed in all the time since I last flew - the only thing that had changed was that now lifejackets are hidden under the seats instead of above them. After that, the pilot spoke to us, telling us that we were going to swing out over the Pacific Ocean, then make a right-turn over land.
My fear of heights seems to be specific to this body, associated with no particular memories. My fear of drowning isn't: I have long-ago-and-far-away memories of being drowned at least twice: once when I was thrown off a riverboat and once when someone held me by the shoulders in shallow water. Water is for drinking, cooking and showering in - I dislike baths and if I find myself having to swim (which I regard as a safety-skill not a pleasure), I make quite sure never to immerse my face, snorkel or no. I surruptitiously felt around under the seat, making sure I could find the life jacket.
We reached the end of the taxi-way, did a left turn into the runway, then the pilot throttled up and we started racing over the tarmac. I could hear the salamander (magical Fire Elemental) in the engine closest to me, roaring with sheer pleasure at being able to feast on all that air and all those hydrocarbons. I could feel sylphs (Air Elementals) sliding around, under and over the surfaces. It felt much like "borrowing" the body of something big and ferocious in meditation, feeling its muscles powering up for the kill.
I was waiting for the sensation I could remember from previous flights: that instant when the rear two wheels pick up off the tarmac. As an Earth-person I am rarely ungrounded: the only times I ever get ungrounded are when I get totally immersed in books, and pretty much as soon as I stop reading I am fully plugged-in to the Earth again. I understand that at the beginning of meditations and magical work other people need to ground - but it boggles my mind having to do so, with its implication that they live bits of their lives ungrounded. I really can't imagine it. And aside from reading, the only times I get ungrounded are in those very rare flights. That instant when physical contact is broken with the earth is a rare and precious moment for me, one to be savoured.
And it happened. It was every bit as delicious as I remembered. The nose of the plane went up, and I watched the ground fall away from beneath me. That, too, was delicious, not terrifying. I think I might take up parachuting in my old age! Buildings became smaller, the beaches scallopped the coastline, growing smaller and more detailed like intricate fractal art. And then we were out over the ocean.
I had a quiet chat to the salamander in the engine closest to me, telling it to keep on firing up the engine and to talk to its buddy on the other side of the plane. I had a quiet talk to the sylphs all around, asking them to be gracious enough to keep bearing the weight of the plane for a while. Magic works - we didn't crash into the ocean, and I never had to grapple with my lifejacket.
Looking down at the sea, I felt my horror of drowning recede. The air was clear, and I could see the different textures of the water's surface: where it was shallow, where it was deep, where it might have been over a shoal of fish, where it might have been roiling with invisible, unbroken waves. Fascinating. Then the aeroplane banked, which I saw as you might in a computer game, without feeling it, and we came in over land again.
It looked as it does through google-earth, and it looked entirely different to how it looks through google-earth. Through google-earth, you see the buildings, the vegetation, the rocks, all that stuff. You don't see depth. Through a plane window, you see all of that, but you see heights and depths as well. The courses of the rivers are embedded in the land deeply to some distance on either side - they aren't embedded in high-altitude photos. Little towns are connected to each other by little ribbons of trees following the roads through agricultural land - the overall impression I was left with was how little of our supposedly wildest continent in the world was still wild. The land has been thoroughly harnessed to produce meat for McDonalds patties and grain for McDonalds buns. This thought occurred to me with some sadness. The idea of wild versus domesticated land had previously occurred to me via out of body work and via google-earth, but it really hit home with the physicality of air travel - obviously, even at those altitudes I was still grounded to some extent.
I enjoyed every moment of the short flight, so engrossed in the view from the window that I wasn't even aware when the attendant came along to offer me a coffee. She persisted, though, and I refused and went back to my view. We passed a stage where there was some cumulus cloud far below us, dense and white, and with huge vertical columns being forced upwards by thermals from the heated ground below. And between us and the cumulus, some scrapings of thin cirrus clouds, below us but a lot closer. I was aware and thankful, again, for sylphs: supporting us under the wings, and simply playing for the sheer enjoyment of it in the cirrus.  All too soon, over agricultural land the plane started powering back and dropping. I loved the low-gravity feel of each drop in height, then the substantial thump of wheels on tarmac, the roar of reverse-thrust jets slowing us down, and the taxi to the docking-point. I was suddenly grounded again.
In an airport I had never visited before in a state I had only ever driven through at high speed avoiding the capital city, I found my luggage without difficulty, then went in search of a smoking-spot and a coffee. Replenished, I had to find a given hospital. This took me time: eventually I resorted to the time-honoured technique of asking a taxi-driver. He gave me what I needed to know. I took pity on him and asked for his rough quote on how much it might take in cab fare: his eyes lit up. My heart sank. I had little enough money for food and unforeseen costs. He was quite civilised, though, and told me where I needed to go and what I needed to ask for to access cheaper public service infrastructure to take me close to (but not right to) the hospital.
An hour later I was dumped in a leafy street, and started walking. It took me a long time to work out that I had walked in exactly the wrong direction, turn around, and retrace my steps. Hospital receptions are the same Australia-wide, it seems: a nurse with a computer terminal gave me long and complicated instructions on how to get to the palliative care unit, which I supplemented every time I caught the eye of someone wearing a name-tag. My luggage bumping behind me and my carry-on laptop heavier and heavier on its shoulder-strap, I ended up where I needed to be in the early hours of the afternoon.
Q was asleep. He looked like crap-on-legs. The only medical technology he was hooked up to was a pulse-monitor on a finger and a single tube into an arm-vein for his hydration needs: he evidently wasn't on the edge of death yet, as far as technology was concerned. I pulled up a chair and sat quite near him, and held his hand. After what seemed like quite a long time he woke up, smiled thinly at me and tried to speak. Nothing came out. So I talked. I talked quietly and evenly, long-term memories of things we had done together: the Mike Willissee incident at the 729 Club on Sunday in our 2MBS days, drunken Sunday Afternoon Tennis, slow-waltzing up and down a staircase together to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington when I was younger than my daughter is now, a sex-free weekend away sharing a hotel room in the Southern Highlands, him teaching me the only possible way to make meat pies edible and how many inside-out pies I've eaten since. When I ran out of shared memories, I picked up a two-day-old local newspaper and read aloud to him, with my own brand of unique political commentary added in. I regretted not bringing a Pratchett book with me to read from.
All this time, he drifted in and out of morphine-induced dreams. I like to believe that when he was conscious he knew who I was the whole time, but I doubt it. He certainly seemed grateful to have a friendly voice making steady, calm noises with occasional bouts of laughter, whether his eyes were clouded and distant or whether they were focussed on me, following me carefully. After that first attempt at speaking to me he never tried again, and no one ever heard him say anything again.
I escaped a couple of times for fresh air, a nurse made me coffee (she said I was doing her job, so it was a fair trade), and the sun set - or at least, the room got darker and colder. When he started shaking, I got a blanket off the table, doubled it up, and wrapped his skinny little body up carefully. His bag of saline got replaced, and a shot of morphine went into the thingie hanging below it. The nurse told me he'd probably sleep most of the night, and there was nothing more I could do. I didn't go away: instead, I slept in the bedside armchair, my big purple winter-wrap being used as a blanket. It was a fitful night: I tended to wake several times an hour spontaneously, as well as when staff came in to check on him. In the morning, I was woken by more coffee, this time poor quality instant coffee, but what the hell - it was wet and hot.
The second day was more of the same, except that I was smelly and itchy from not having showered and changed my clothes. I really don't think Q noticed. His dreaming spells became longer, and his periods of consciousness became shorter and even cloudier. Did I get recognised? I don't know, and I don't think it matters all that much. By now I was here for my own benefit: he could die with or without me, but earlier in life I was a bit ungracious to dying friends, and treating him properly was a part of my making amends to them.
I never saw a doctor (and I wasn't his next-of-kin anyway), but at some stage a very kind nurse I hadn't seen before came by, introduced herself as the one who had rung me up weeks ago, and told me he was now in a coma he was unlikely to ever emerge from. I didn't comment, I just thanked her for her tact, and made to leave. She allowed me to use the nurses's station internet connection to get onto Virgin and change my flight time (for another fee), then I left the hospital.
I wasn't all that sad - I was much sadder when I first heard. In fact, I had had the sensation that he was more-dead-than-alive from the moment I walked in: the moments when his eyes were open and actually focussed and aware were moments of effort on his part, dragging him back to his body. My primary concern was for myself, now - I became aware of how desperately I needed to shower and lie down. Thank the gods for pubs-with-rooms-above, I say.
After a fabulous shower and a change of clothes I ate the best pizza of the last fifty years, made at that same pub. The crust was so thin that it had the texture of crackers topped with prawns so fresh that they were nearly swimming, the garlic was treated properly - that is, it was treated as a separate ingredient and not a spice - and the tomato base was obviously someone's Italian grandmother's secret home recipe. Perversely for those who colour-code wines and foods, I opted for a glass of Merlot, though after the first sip I'd wished I'd gone for the Cab Sav. Never mind - at least it was red.
The flight home was interesting. Remember I brought my internet-booked ticket forward also on the net? I had scribbled the new flight number, time and reference number in the margins of my original paperwork. So I rocked up at the airport in plenty of time to check in. Reached the head of the queue, and told the guy that I was booked on the flight to Sydney at something-o-clock. He told me there wasn't a flight at that time, and had I booked with another airline? I suggested that his own website would be reluctant to book flights with other carriers, and he looked again. Nope, I was booked nowhere. So I told him what flight I had come in on, and he looked it up. Yes I was there and I had paid for the return flight, but there was no trace of a return seat for me. I threw myself on his mercy and asked him to get me on a plane back. He offered me a flight an hour after the flight-time I had booked online, and again, a window seat. I accepted. So he told me what departure gate to take, and told me to be there in time for the original flight-time! I offloaded my bag, and was at the proper gate at the earlier time, getting my carry-on and my body scanned. Waiting, waiting.
Then there was an announcement, telling everyone boarding flight number whatever at gate X, to go to Gate Y, right down the other end of the airport! A planeload-ful of people sighed, stood up, and went on the long walk to the other end of the airport. It took us ages to get down there, and only one of their scanners was working. Even though we had just been scanned we had to go through it all again, with only one scanner. It was after takeoff time before we had all boarded. Then the pilot made an announcement that he had decided to refuel, and it would be another twenty minutes. It was a lot longer than that. After the refuelling was completed he said that he had done a walk-around and discovered damage to a tyre, so could we all disembark in an orderly fashion so that the engineers could change the tyres. We did so. By now the smokers amongst us were all collected in a nervious little pile of twitching people, sniffing each other's breath and clothes for any trace of Queen Nicotine that we could get. Then after a wait, the staff got us back in.
Again, I appreciated that delightful moment when the tyres left the ground, and the rapid rise away from the earth. This time there was a lot of cumulus cloud around, and the pilot cleverly navigated a route through it so that the windows didn't white-out, but instead I got a grandstand view of the constructions of the cloud, the towering columns of twisting shapes from the inside of the cloud-layer as well as when we rose above it. We came back to Sydney not from the ocean but over the Blue Mountains, and once again, it amazed me how clearly I could sense heights and depths of mountain ridges and valleys. Landing was uneventful; my bag didn't come out on the right carousel but on one that apparently was dedicated to a flight from quite a different part of the continent, and before I knew it, I was on the simple surface commute towards my home.
It occurred to me, that just as I was probably taking my final journey on a plane, Q was taking his final journey in this body. Farewell, old man. In my strange, perverted, non-sexual way, I loved you.