Feelings of Grief

Feelings of grief
Breaking over me
Wave after wave like the rolling sea
These feelings of grief

Grief is a strange beast. Stalking you during the day, it may pounce at night when the lights are out, or leap out from behind a photograph in the hot sunshine.

Time without end
I’m gonna miss you, my friend
How do you suppose this world will ever mend
Or this heart play again?

There are times when you just can’t wrap your head around how the sun can still shine, how people can still laugh, and how your heart can even keep beating.

I go about my day
There’s always somebody to pay
They just won’t go away
Nor will these feelings of grief

And yet there are times when you almost forget. When life goes on. When you work, and play, and even find a little joy, before the grief comes crashing back down like a tsunami of overwhelming heartbreak.

Feelings of grief
Blinding me with tears
Everything that’s dear, piece by piece disappears
And all that remains are these feelings of grief

Seeing a photo of my cousin today, taken only a few weeks before his death – so close and yet so achingly far – my 8 year old was struck afresh by the huge, monstrous incomprehensibility of it. How can someone be at dinner with us one moment, and then gone the next? It is something I have wrestled with for years, and it never gets easier to comprehend. Without religion, it is a struggle to find something to hold onto at moments like these.

Looking up at bright stars one night, while she grieved, I told her that some people believe that the dead are up there among the stars, looking down on us, caring for us and thinking about us. She found some comfort in that. She imagined the stars as holes in the sky that our loved ones can look through, to watch us and share in our lives. Grieving is both harder and easier now that I am trying to help my daughter through it as well. I find some comfort in comforting her, but ultimately we keep coming back to the same thought: death sucks. Big time.

All I have, feelings of grief
Grief

Feelings of Grief, by Paul Kelly
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Footprints on my heart

There is a lovely old idea that no-one truly dies until their influence on the world has ended. Until the clock they wound has wound down. Until they are no longer remembered. Until their footprints have been erased. We all affect the world around us, in ways both large and small.

My cousin, Chris, died unexpectedly on the weekend. We are a large and somewhat distant family, and Chris was one of the few who was in touch with almost every relative, no matter how remote. He worked hard to create a family tree going back hundreds of years, and talked to every branch of the family, trying to piece together all the information. His influence will not fade in a hurry.

Chris has left electronic footprints that are both comforting and disturbing. Facebook is still telling me about comments he left on my wall. Gmail suggests his email address to me. My phone prompts me to call him. These reminders are poignant and yet sharply painful. I can’t bring myself to delete him from my contacts. A friend of mine died of cancer last year, and his contact details are still all over my electronic memory.

It is a knife to my heart every time something brings up his email address or phone number, and I realise that’s one email, one phone call, that I can no longer make. Remembering loved ones who have died is an important part of living and cherishing their memories, but this is a particularly painful reminder, because it prompts me to connect in a way that is no longer possible.  Still I can’t bring myself to delete those contact details. It feels too final.

My 8 year old is struggling with grief. This is her first truly personal encounter with bereavement, and she is bewildered by the pain. With all my experience of grief, I still don’t know how to comfort her. She wants to know when it will stop hurting. Truth to tell, so do I.

The electronic footprints are difficult, but the truth is that Chris’s influence is all over our lives, and so many others. He will be sorely missed, and the hole that his death leaves in the world will never close. Each flare of pain is somehow precious, as if it brings my heart a little closer to his. Rest in peace, dear friend. Your footsteps echo in my heart.

Trapped!

Christiania bike
Freedom on wheels

This week I am chafing against the enforced sluggishness of my physio’s ruling. “Stay off the bike for a week,” he opined.  “Give it time to recover.” With a rather unhappy knee, I also don’t have the option of long walks, so I am stuck with driving everywhere. Once I did this as a matter of course, but now that I am used to riding everywhere, I find the car almost unbearably stifling. (Literally so in this weather – a pleasant 28 degrees outside turns the car into a solar oven. Hopelessly poor design.)

Every time I pull into a car park I am struck by the number of other people doing the same – even in the relatively quiet suburban shopping strips that I much prefer over vast chasms of commercial despair. (What? That’s not what you call Chadstone?) Cars come. Cars go. Cars zoom along every street and byway. Cars take us round the corner to the milkbar. A few blocks down to the supermarket. Down the road to the railway station. Vroom, vroom, vroom, in air conditioned, almost hermetically sealed comfort, with the stereo booming.

This is what we do. It is very nearly who we are. Surgically connected to our cars, so that we are completely  incapable of doing without them. Yet it utterly disconnects us from the world. I still pass the same crossing supervisors every day – but they never see me. You don’t realise from inside a car, but it’s quite difficult to see people inside cars these days. All you get is reflection. It’s no good waving at someone you know on a bike, or standing at a pedestrian crossing – unless they recognise your car, they’ll have no idea who you are, if they even see that you are waving. All they’ll see is shiny glass and metal.

Visiting a friend in the UK some years ago, his car air conditioning was automatically on, even though the outside air temperature was 22 degrees Celcius. Open vents would have been delightful – we were driving in the Yorkshire countryside, so there wasn’t much pollution to worry about. But air conditioning was a matter of course, even in the north of England where it rarely reaches a temperature we Aussies would consider hot.

Here, temperature-control (or climate-control as it is hyperbolically known – would that it truly were) is the norm in most new cars. We want our environments strictly controlled, heedless of what we lose in the process. That sense of connection with the world is fundamental to our understanding of it, and our connection with the systems that sustain us. I recently heard David Suzuki argue that the greatest mistake environmentalists have made is in depicting the environment as distinct from us. “We are the air. We are the water. We are the earth. What we do to them, we do to ourselves,” he declared.

On a bike I understand that at a visceral level. I can feel the air pumping in and out of my lungs. The weather becomes a creature with which I interact, instead of a remote concept that I never really encounter directly. I am forced to plan for wet weather, hot sunshine, or frosty mornings. Yet none of them, barring the occasional freak hailstorm that comes bearing golf balls, are enough to stop me from riding. I have friends who happily ride through snow in a European winter, where cycling for transport is a normal way of life.

A huge percentage of our car trips are less than 5km. Most of us could be doing them on a bike trivially easily. Of those who physically can’t manage that, many would be fine with an electric bike. For the longer trips, a combination of cycling and public transport would usually be fine (although I won’t deny that the public transport network could use a wash and brush up). We could so easily be a cycling culture, but we are puzzlingly resistant.

Cars enslave us, and the puzzle is that we happily let them. I can’t wait for my knee to recover so that I can be free again.

PS. My knee injury is from too much kneeling on hard floors, so don’t go blaming my bike! :)

PPS. This was written some time ago, so please excuse the mismatch with the seasons. My knee is now fine.

Why labels matter

My last post, on gay marriage, generated quite a few comments. Many people, both on and off-line, seem to feel that the label is irrelevant. “Give them the same legal rights, by all means,” people said, “but why do they need the actual word “marriage”? It’ll be easier not to give it to them, and it really doesn’t make any difference.”

Indeed, this is a persuasive argument. If there is no material difference, then what does a label matter? The trouble is that I don’t think we are very good at recognising what constitutes a material difference. The human mind is a remarkably strange and pliable beast. It can be persuaded of all sorts of things without the active intervention of the conscious being that we like to believe is in control.

Psychology experiments abound with evidence of this. For example, one study asked people to remember as many words as possible out of a long list. If the list contained just a few words related to old age (words like “wrinkle”, “grey”, and “stoop”), participants would leave the building moving measurably slower than if those words were replaced with neutral ones. Just a few words, out of many, changed the way people moved. Words have power. And in this example, as in many others, the power is entirely subliminal. The people in the study did not report feeling any different. Their physical reaction was entirely under the radar of their conscious minds.

How much more powerful are the subtle linguistic signals of the social world? Call someone stupid and they will start to believe it. Praise children for their caring, and they will display ever more of it. Even the precise type of praise matters – praise people for being smart, and research shows quite clearly that they will become more cautious in their work, and more likely to cheat, as “being smart” is something they perceive as outside their control. Praise them for their effort, and they will work even harder, achieve even more, as their effort is clearly something they can control. And none of these reactions are in any way conscious.

Indeed, these subconscious impacts are very effectively rationalised away by our conscious brains. Douglas Adams provides a very good example in “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.” Richard has just jumped into a filthy, urban canal and found himself unable to swim:

Dirk: “Do you always go swimming in the afternoons?”
Richard: “No, I usualIy go in the mornings, to the swimming pool on
Highbury Fields, just to wake myself up, get the brain going.
It just occurred to me I hadn’t been this morning.”
Dirk: “And, er – that was why you just dived into the canal?”
Richard: “Well, yes. I just thought that getting a bit of exercise
would probably help me deal with all this.”

Dirk goes on to prove, to Richard’s consternation, that he had hypnotised Richard, and ordered him to jump into the canal upon hearing the words “My old maiden aunt who lived in Winnipeg.” Dirk’s instructions went on to say that Richard, normally a good swimmer, would then find himself unable to swim.

Unable to access these instructions, Richard’s conscious mind found good reasons why he would jump into a filthy canal, and why he couldn’t swim (cramp).

Of course, this is a work of fiction, but it is a perfectly realistic example of the way the mind works. Given a subconscious prompting of which our conscious brain is entirely unaware, we will happily explain it away with reasons that we believe with utter conviction – but that are entirely false.

The things we do, and the words we choose, send messages to ourselves, our children, and our society, all the time. Choosing to deny marriage to gay people sends a loud, clear, and appalling message that we believe them to be lesser people. That gay parents are inferior to straight ones. That gay relationships are less real, less valid, and less worthy than straight ones.

That we’d really rather not admit that it is just as normal, healthy, and rational to be gay as it is to be straight. For those of you who cringed at that last sentence, I give you this lovely summary (seen on twitter):

Homosexuality is found in over 500 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?

I believe that legislating to make gay marriage legal will, over time, drastically lower homophobia in our society. Of course, I can’t prove it just yet. But I’d love to have the chance to try.

Straight talking

Some things are difficult to explain, simply because they seem so profoundly obvious. My post on climate change felt rather like that. I found it hard to express myself, because it all seemed so fundamental, so clear, that it was difficult to grasp why or how anyone would need it explained. Nonetheless it sparked a fairly vigorous debate.

Legalising gay marriage seems, to me, to be a very similar topic. It feels obvious to me that anyone who who believes in equality, fairness, justice and compassion would argue that there is nothing to debate. If we disallow gay marriage, we tarnish ourselves and our society.

The tired old argument that “marriage is between a man and a woman” isn’t actually an argument at all. It is a statement of history. Sure, we used to discriminate. We used to discriminate on the basis of race, of gender, and of postcode. Once the statement was a little different. Once people would have said “marriage is between a man and a woman of the same race,” with just as much emphasis and strength of feeling. Possibly more. Yet now we recognise the fundamental insanity of that statement. Love does not recognise skin colour or genetic makeup.

Denying gay couples the right to marry does not protect marriage. This unattributed quote, seen on twitter, sums it up beautifully: “So, let me get this straight…Charlie Sheen can make a “porn family”, Kelsey Grammer can end a 15 year marriage over the phone, Larry King can be on divorce #9, Britney Spears had a 55 hour marriage, Jesse James and Tiger Woods, while married, were having sex with EVERYONE. Yet the idea of same-sex marriage is going to destroy the institution of marriage? Really?”

Legalising gay marriage is no threat to my conventional, heterosexual marriage. But maintaining discrimination is a threat to my children. Whether they grow up gay, straight, or endearingly twisted, I want my daughters to grow up in a world where people are treated fairly and equally. Where people are valued for their minds and their hearts. Where their sexuality is their own concern, and of no interest to anyone outside their private lives.

We are not teaching our children that right now. We are teaching our children that gay relationships are somehow less deserving, less valid than straight. In doing so, we damage and divide our own community, just as much as we did when we discriminated on the basis of race. (I am rather naively assuming we don’t do that anymore – but we have at least achieved something when no-one, not even Andrew Bolt, wants to admit to doing it.)

Similarly, the argument that we could recognise gay relationships in a legal sense, without actually using the word marriage, is a decoy away from the real issue: equality. We could do that. It might even be an easier fight. But what would it achieve? We don’t gain anything by locking gay relationships out of marriage, but we lose a lot. Don’t give me dictionary or religious definitions of the word marriage. Give me, instead, the dictionary definition of equality.

It is time to state firmly, loudly, and unequivocally, that all people are equal and valued, whether gay, straight or kinky. The true measure of a couple’s relationship is in their love and commitment, not in their sexuality. One day we will look back and be appalled that this topic was ever debated, just as we look back on racial segregation with horror. Let’s bring that day forward.

*Australian MPs are consulting their constituents about gay marriage right now. Email your MP today.

Cave Party!

There are probably times in everyone’s lives when we want to crawl into a cave and not come out until the crisis is over. Whether it’s a health issue, problems with work, or difficulties with family or friends, sometimes things get overwhelming and we just want to shut the world out… at least most of us do. And then there are extreme extroverts.

Extroverts, as you probably know, get a real energy boost from being around other people. Extreme extroverts are utterly dependent on this energy boost. In times of crisis we may want to select our power base carefully – not all energy sources are equal – but we still need it. Which leads to a strange situation where we crawl into a cave, but want to take a carefully selected group of friends in there with us.  It’s no good shutting yourself in without supplies. It would be like building a bunker and not stocking it with food. We would wither.

The trouble is that when you’re in cave mode, it can be difficult to gather that crowd of supporters. Just when we need our friends the most, we find it hard to call for help. Even extreme extroverts can get to the point where we haven’t got the energy, or perhaps the emotional capacity, to say “I need you”. So we crawl into the cave and whither away, until the problem goes away, or someone who knows us well (and is unafraid of the dragon guarding the entrance) crawls in there and hauls us out.

And praise will come to those whose kindness leaves us without debt,
and bends the shape of things to come that haven’t happened yet.

Neil Finn, “Faster than Light”.

It makes me wonder whether even introverts would benefit from a support team in their cave in those darker moments. It seems somewhat anti-darwinian that we have this inability to call for help when we most need it. In my case, at least, it can lead to escalations and complications in situations that could have been resolved quite simply. Being alone in my cave is a rapid route to total perspective loss.

Caves are remarkably dangerous places. Problems grow, breed, and become ever more toxic in the dark. There’s nothing like telling your deepest darkest fears to a friend for making them shrivel back into molehill form (the fears, not the friends).

It’s not surprising that one of the warning signs of depression is social withdrawal. It is to some extent both cause and effect – a vicious cycle of social withdrawal making recovery harder, leading to further withdrawal. Even when friends know the signs, true depression can be almost impossible to break into.

Many of us, though, have a cave mode that is not actually depression, simply a withdrawal from overwhelming circumstances. Friends who recognise that withdrawal and invite themselves into your cave can be the difference between collapse and recovery. It’s dangerous to rely on the psychic abilities of your friends, though. Much better to learn to recognise the warnings signs yourself.

Next time you feel yourself slipping into cave mode, ask yourself whether there is someone who should come with you. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to take my own advice. Cave Party!!