You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

of the Death of a Lady's Man

I had plans to spend New Year's Eve the same way I usually do, keeping out of the heat as much as possible, and writing up my Year in Books blog post. But something very dramatic happened that changed not just the day's plans, but an awful lot of my life. Around 4:30 am on December 31st, 2016, I found Mr CJ dead in the garden. This is the story of how that came to be.

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I've spent the last several years as a carer for Mr CJ. He had been sick for seven and half years, slowly declining all that time.

It started with a headache that wouldn't go away, no matter what. Some months of hospitals and testing later, it was discovered that he had arthritis in his neck, featuring a growth spur that was pressing on the nerves as they exited the spinal column at that point. That meant chronic pain in his head, neck, arms and shoulders, limited mobility in his arms and hands, and reduced sensitivity in fingers that limited his dexterity. We slowly got used to this new life, revolving around visits to doctors and hospitals, keeping track of meds, and living with endless pain.

Then three and a half years ago, he had a short stay in hospital with pneumonia, and it was discovered that he had emphysema. Yes, he was a heavy smoker. The lung specialist thought it likely that he had lung cancer, and if he did, he'd probably only have around six months to live. It took more than two months to get through all the testing that confirmed that he didn't have cancer, just emphysema. It gave us a long time to think about the idea of him dying soon. But he hung in there, huffing and puffing and inhaling enormous quantities of Ventolin and other medications. Before long he could not lie down at all, as he couldn't breathe lying flat. He slept in a chair. He basically spent most of his life in his chair. But he was still really happy with his life in a lot of ways.

He really loved this place we have been living in, this house in Nimbin. Nimbin was a wonderful experience for him. It's like very few places in this country in that Aboriginal people are respected as traditional custodians here, and have higher status in the community than white people. He'd spent a lot of his life, especially the early years, copping shit pretty badly just for the fact of being Aboriginal. All that was turned around here. He was respected when he walked down the street in Nimbin, and addressed as Uncle. Not that he did a lot of walking down the street, especially toward the end when he could only manage to walk about 25 metres at a time, but word had spread and everyone knew who he was. I don't think he ever dreamed that he would experience such a thing in his lifetime, and it meant a hell of a lot to him.

It was only about six months ago that another spell in hospital revealed that he had congestive heart failure, a complication caused by the emphysema, and also two blood clots, which meant he had to take blood thinners forever to reduce his risk of stroke. His legs swelled up because his heart wasn't pumping the fluid around properly, and often developed cellulitis, requiring antibiotics. By now he was taking up to 20 or so  tablets of all different kinds daily, as well as three different kinds of puffers for his lungs. We knew he didn't have too long to go, but whether that was a few weeks or months or years, we couldn't know.

He had one thing on his 'bucket list.' He wanted to go to Sydney to see this brother, and he wanted to drive. We did it. Later, the doctors said it was a wonder that he survived the trip, and made him promise never to drive more than a hour or two away, ever again. He promised. He had done what he wanted to do.

There was a bit of excitement two months ago when he died for 31 seconds while having a cardiogram, but was revived. We all wanted to know, what happened, but there were no reports of seeing his ancestors or a white light. He just remembered hitting his head on a monitor as he was jolted into consciousness. The funny thing is, he seemed to really perk up for a while after that. I used to say the shock must have done him good. He became more wakeful and generally involved with things, his mood was positive, and everyone said he was looking well.

Everything seemed normal in his last few days, if this abominably hot weather we have here in the summer can be called normal, which I maintain it is not. Around 10 or 11 pm on the night of Friday 30th, I found him looking around the kitchen in that expectant way. I made him a toasted cheese and tomato wrap. He sat in his chair, eating it and watching The Big Bang Theory on DVD. I went back to sleep.

When I woke up, I didn't know what time it was, but it felt like the early hours of the morning. He wasn't in his chair. I needed to know where he was at all times, in case he'd fallen over or passed out, which had happened several times. I got up and looked out the window, and he wasn't in his chair on the verandah, either. I looked all over the house. It seemed impossible that he could just not be here anywhere. I looked in every room again. Finally I went out into the garden, and there he was, lying flat out on his back, with his head on the wormwood bush, looking so peacefully asleep, like he'd fallen over and passed out again. But this time, he didn't wake up. For all the wondering how much longer he would live, it seemed impossible that it could be today, now. I bent down to listen to his breathing. There was none.

The thing to do in such a situation, of course, is to call for an ambulance, so that's what I did, post-haste. And this is where we get to the bit that I wish, of all the things that happened that day, could have been different.

The people who answer the phone for these emergency calls have a certain script they have to follow. He told me to do CPR, and how to do it, which I knew well enough in theory, though I'd never actually performed it before. And so I started doing CPR, pushing hard and fast on his chest, then breathing into his lungs, and hearing and feeling my own breath come out of them in the exhale. It was hard, really hard. He was lying in such a spot in the garden that he had the concrete path running along one side of his body, and the fishpond on the other. I had to get up high above him to push down on his chest with my weight, and then get down low beside his head to reach his mouth to do the breathing. A lot of scrabbling around with my bare legs on the rough concrete. My knees were scraped, and stung for the rest of the day. The palms of my hands grew blisters from pushing against his chest. Did I mention that it was unreasonably hot? Even at this traditionally bitter pre-dawn hour. I don't think the temperature had dropped below 27 degrees C the entire night that night. I can't think of another occasion where I put so much sheer physical work and effort into one short block of time in my life. Did I say short? I don't know how long I was going on like this, but if felt like a long time, and I know that it must take an ambulance the better part of half an hour to get from Lismore to Nimbin, even with sirens and lights and high speeds. I kept telling the guy on the phone that there was no point me doing this, he was already gone. He kept saying "You've got to give him the best possible chance." So now I know what their script tells them to say when they get these calls. I was terrified when I heard something crack, but the guy on the phone said that that meant I was doing it right, and to keep going. So I kept going. I kept fucking going. Sweat was running off me in rivers. I didn't think I'd be able to keep going, but I had to, because the man on the phone was telling me to. I wondered what would happen if I collapsed. I kept going. It was hot and hellish and horrible and so violent. That's what I hate the most about this part of the story. It was such a fucking violent way to treat his body, when he had only just finally attained the peace he so deserved. I wish so much that I could have just sat in the peace of the quiet of the night and been present with him at this most sacred moment. I knew, inside myself, that that's what I should have done. But instead I followed instructions. The air smelled of fresh wormwood.

It was a great relief to just stop when the ambos arrived and let them take over and hook him up to their little electronic machine. I knew he was gone, but it was a whole new level of real to actually see the flatline running across the little screen. A moaning noise came out of me when the ambo said out loud, "Yes, he has passed," and I didn't understand why, because I already knew he was dead, and why should it make a difference for him to say it?

Immediately I rang his brother to tell him, he's gone. I held the phone out over his body so his spirit could hear the cries. That was when our housemate, Sister F, came out, alerted by the lights of the ambulance and the noise. And I told her too, he's gone, he's gone, he's gone. They put a white sheet loosely over his body.

The light of day was just starting to break by now. One of the ambos got a proper look at me, and it was clear from his reaction that I didn't look so good. He said I needed to drink some water right now, and Sister F brought it to me. Then they all went out the front of the property to wait for the police to arrive, and I was alone with him, and had that precious moment of peace that I wished I could have claimed from the start. I lay down on the concrete alongside him, and I held his hand, like I had through so many painful tests and procedures and long dreary hospital hours, and I got to hug him without causing him pain by doing so, for the first time in seven and a half years. I breathed in the scent of the crushed wormwood, now stained with his blood, and I let my eyes drink in the sight of the deep peace that his face wore. He had wished to die at home, and not in a hospital. He got to die lying on this good earth, in the garden he loved, under the stars. It was just so beautiful, beyond any words, so I took photos.

It just so happened that a local elder, the Secret Keeper of the Bundjalung nation, upon whose land we dwell, had been living in the shed in our backyard. He heard the whole thing, and he waited. When Sister F first asked me if she should go and fetch him, I said no. I didn't want any more people coming along, I just wanted to be quiet with him. But a while later I realised it was the right thing to do, not for me or for him, but for the land, for this land that had carried his pain for all this time and now held his spirit and was witness to its passing. He came striding through the grass and the dawn light, dressed in his totem colours and carrying a stick that is sacred for reasons that I will likely never be privy to, speaking to the spirits of the land in their own language, this man's own mother tongue, the language of the Bundjalung. I recognised one word - bugelbeh - it's all right. It was so beyond real that it was like being in a scene from a movie.

I'd always imagined that if or when this happened, the ambos would just load him straight up in their ambulance and take him away, and that would be it. So I wasn't at all prepared for what came next. Firstly, if they attend a DOA, the ambos have to call the police, wait for them to arrive, and hand it over to them, without disturbing the body any further. It took at least a couple of hours for them to arrive, I think. I sat by him the whole time. An enormous bruise started spreading out over his chest - that had been caused by me doing CPR. He started to cool down - though not by much, as air temperature was near 30 degrees C anyway, and he slowly started to stiffen into rigor mortis. When I wondered what might be a good way to mark this event with ritual, I thought of how he would always buy a beer for his loved ones and ancestors on the dates of their memorials, have a drink with them, and then pour their beer onto the earth. I don't drink beer, but it just so happened that I had a bottle of Pink sparkling wine in the fridge, for the first time since last summer. And I knew what to do - I would have a drink with him. I got the Pink, and opened it, and poured a little of it into his mouth, and drank my toast to his spirit. I drank the bottle over the course of the morning. God knows what the coppers thought of me polishing off a bottle of champers amid all the goings-on, but I felt they knew better than to be judgemental. They were pretty good. They did their job.

There was a lot more waiting for a special forensics guy to come out and declare that this was not a crime scene, and then more waiting again for the doctor to come on so he could sign the death certificate. There was a statement to be made and recorded in the little notebook and initialled on every page, and a form with which to identify the body. Then some more waiting for the 'contractors' to arrive, which was how the police referred to the undertakers. Sister F and I found this rather hilarious, in a very noir kind of way.

There was one really amazing thing that happened while the waiting was going on, and that was the ants. First, there were just a few ants crawling on his feet. Nothing unusual there, that's what happens to any feet that happen to stand still for more than about 30 seconds around here. It was quite surreal to see them swarm and for him to remain still, and not brush them away and kick his feet to shake them off. Then more came, and more, and they climbed higher and further across his body. It was Sister F who first noticed this, and the highway they had formed between their nest on the other side of the house and his body. She called out, "Look, the contractors are here!" They had already begun to take him, tiny drops of sweat and blood at a time, into the earth, where they lived. It was wonderful to know this had happened, as he would have loved to just be buried right there in the backyard, if only that weren't completely unacceptable and illegal. They swarmed for about an hour, concentrating on the juicy bits, and then just faded away once they had collected what they came for. Many blessings were given upon the ants for their work.

The sun was high in the sky by the time the human contractors arrived, well on its way to reaching its daily high of over 38 degrees C, and it beat down horribly upon them in their shiny little black suits, as they wrestled to fit a 90+kg corpse into a body bag without falling in the fishpond. When it was all done, it was near midday. His body had lain there on the earth, crushing the wormwood bush, for around eight hours, and I could finally go and lie down. There would be a smoking to do after sunset, and then a New Year to ring in.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

of Treasure Found - the 100-year-old Autograph Book

It's not often that I get the opportunity to mark a centenary, but this is such an occasion, so I want to share something special with you.
I've had this book for about nine years or so now. A friend of mine found it in a rubbish skip on the street in Five Dock, an inner western suburb of Sydney. He knew it was precious and saved it, but he didn't know what to do with it. It was when I showed him my altered book art that he decided that I loved old books enough to appreciate such a treasure, and he gave it to me. I don't know what to do with it either, either than love it and be amazed by it.
One hundred years ago, at Christmas in 1916, this book was presented to Dorothy Wickham Bate for Music. The latest date I can find recorded in the book is 1936. For twenty years, Miss Bate kept this book with her, adding new friends and memories to it regularly. I don't know why she stopped keeping it - there are plenty of blank pages still left - or where it was in all that time from 1936 until my friend found it, or how it ended up in a skip on the street after all that.

The book has been printed with beautiful decorative motifs, lines and spaces for autographs.
Dates are scattered randomly throughout the book. Miss Bate has used this book by opening to a random page each time rather than keeping a chronological order. A Mr Fred T. Berman, B.A. of Five Dock skipped ahead to the last page as early as February 5, 1917 to write thereupon "The end crowns all: /And that old common arbitrator Time / Will one day end it. / For tho' the day be ever so long, / At the last it singeth to evensong." Some of Miss Bate's friends signed just their names and the dates.
Many wrote short poems or passages; most of these have some religious flavour or moral lesson, while a  few are humorous.
"Once I had money and a friend
On whom I set great store,
I lent my money to my friend
And took his word therefore.
I asked my money of my friend
Naught but words I got.
I lost my money and my friend
Pursue him I would not.
But if I had money and a friend
As I have had before,
I'd keep my money and my friend,
And play the fool no more." - unsigned

"It is hard to find a friend
It is hard to find a hope.
It's harder still to find the towel
When your eyes are full of soap." - D. Bate 1916

"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own." - Miss Burwood, 1921

Some have drawn original artworks, little sketches and cartoons.
Most exciting for me to discover were a few extraordinary inclusions, such as a white envelope lying loose between the pages, not fixed in. On the front is written 'Autobiography. Miss Nobbs (Five Dock)' and on the back flap, 'N. Brailey, 14 Elizabeth St., Five Dock, 2046.' Inside is this photograph of two women in military-style uniform standing in front of a van, a S.D.C.A. St. Andrews Hut Tea Canteen, whatever that is exactly. The logo bears a motto - 'FOR HEALTH AND FREEDOM' and the van is apparently sponsored by a National Emergency Fund. It is parked in front of the arched doorway of a stone church. There are three typewritten pages fixed together with an old stud. The heading says 'AUTOBIOGRAPHY of JESSIE NOBBS, and memories of old FIVE DOCK.' That is a story in itself, of course, and I plan to share this precious document more fully with you in another post.
In 1916, of course, the Great War was raging, on the other side of the world perhaps, but very much at the centre of people's lives. Women and girls of all ages were called upon to knit socks and other comforts for soldiers on the front. In those days of trench warfare and footrot, I imagine that a fresh, new, dry pair of hand-made socks would have seemed like manna from heaven. A pair of Dorothy's socks made their way to a Sergent Henri Hiver of the 264th Regiment d'Infanterie, and he sent her this letter of thanks, written with exquisite penmanship and barely coherent English.

He provided his address...
...and she sent him a postcard in return, bearing this 1829 image of Como, Sydney.
It sailed to France but failed to find him, and was returned still in its envelope, where I found it, loose between the book's pages. I cried.
 
Someone has made a note of a 2nd Lieutenant Robert S. Lasker of the Royal Air Force, who was killed in May 1918.

And there is this amazingly odd, very utilitarian postcard that must have been issued to soldiers serving overseas. Lew Nicklaus was able to send word on September 9, 1917, that he was quite well and had received his parcel.
If there are any descendants or relatives of Miss Dorothy Bate looking around on the Internet for traces of their ancestors, it is my hope that one of them will find this post with their search engine. Wouldn't it be wonderful to find a rightful home for this most precious treasure?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lady Demelza in the Big Smoke of Sydney

  Oh, dear Reader, it's so exciting - I'm in Sydney, and just thrilled to bits to be here.
 It's been several years, and I'd forgotten how much I love this city, which is surprisingly much, given that I can't stand cities generally. Somehow, there's some magical effect here in Sydney that protects me from all the distress of sensory overload and allows me to just delight in the teeming humanity and the heights of human culture.
  Maybe it's because this was my first home. At least, the first one I remember. I was born in Melbourne, but my parents moved to Sydney when I was just a year old. I was eight when we left, so that's some pretty formative years that I spent here. So maybe there is some ghost of my childhood spirit, or a guardian angel from my early childhood that still dwells here, and makes this city so marvellous for me. I was actually just feeling really daunted about the trip here, thinking I would be overwhelmed as I usually am by travel and by cities. And then I arrived and all the magic came pouring back to me. Somehow, here in Sydney, the crowds are not overwhelming, the traffic is not unbearable, and the pace is just exciting rather than terrifying. I was even excited to discover that my hotel has a light well. Imagine, living in a place where there is need to build light wells! It should be terrible, but somehow, I'm delighted.
I will never be able to explain why this seemed so beautiful to me when I discovered it on the way to my room.

  I know that Sydney must have changed a lot since I was a tiny kid, but it feels the same. It smells the same. The dirt and the graffiti and the stone walls look just the same. Even the buses are the same blue and white as they were when I rode on them with my mum more than thirty years ago.
Just below my hotel early this morning

  Today is also the first day in several years that I have woken up to being a free and independent agent. Mr CJ is in the care of a family member, and I have three days off from being a carer. Oh my goodness, the freedom is just thrilling. Me, Sydney, a good pair of shoes and nobody needing me - the world is my oyster, as they say. Off I go!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

of Washing Up, Interrupted by Unexpected and Astounding Beauty



One of my biggest frustrations in the pursuit of blogging is the failure of a photographic image to match up to reality as I perceive it. I see something, and I want to share it with you. So I take a photo, but when I look at the image I have captured, it doesn’t look at all like what I was seeing. And so I can’t share the experience, and I give up on the fledgling blog post. I have tried a few different devices in my search for verisimilitude, and I don’t know if the better camera is producing a ‘better’ image or not, to me, it’s just another version of the image that’s not the one I saw.
I went to start doing the dishes a little while ago, (as one must, repeatedly, apparently) and I was struck with one of those moments that I wanted to share with you. Beauty can always be found in the most unexpected and unappealing places, even in the dirty dishes in the sink.
There was a bowl. It had been filled with peaches and cream, and then when it was empty, filled with water and left in the sink. And a butterfly had landed in it, and just stayed there, lying flat, no doubt stuck to the water by the opalescent, shimmering scum of the cream on the surface of the water.
Well, it probably would technically be a moth if I bothered to find out which it was. But it was so beautiful, I have to call it a butterfly. It was so beautiful, I wanted to share it with you. So I got my camera, and took some pictures, and they look absolutely nothing like the butterfly and the bowl of creamy water that I could see. But something as unexpected as the butterfly itself happened – the photos are beautiful images too, even if they are different to what I saw. I could see that. So I’m sharing them with you anyway, even though they are not the beautiful sight I saw in my kitchen sink tonight.
These are taken with the flash,


… and these are without the flash. Just more versions of something I didn’t see, but all beautiful.


I stared at the butterfly for so long. It’s like I was trying to fill my eyes up with the perfection of its beauty while it so fleetingly existed, to imprint it in my mind that I could always recall it and thus hold the experience forever. I tried to understand what about it made it so perfect and so beautiful, but the nature of perfect, fleeting beauty is not to be understood, but marvelled at. I marvelled. There were the delicate brush strokes of a fine Chinese brush flowing along the wings, the antique hues of sepia, earth and umber. There was the silk-shiny sheen, shaded by the muffled, faded, matte patches on the underwings where the top wings would rub against them. There were the countless layers of geometric patterns in the wing design and the shape of the creature’s body itself, unfolding as I stared, like a shifting kaleidoscope. I could see the antennae as being like rows of eyelashes, rather than unaugmented prongs, and I could imagine how it felt to feel things through them. Time and space fell away and the whole universe revealed itself, floating in a bowl in the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
I had to tear myself away, eventually, as dishes won’t wash themselves, it turns out, no matter how beautiful the butterflies may be. I really meant to wash all the dishes, sacrificing the beauty of the butterfly to a fate that was already foregone. But somehow I managed to wash all the dishes except that one bowl, and it’s still sitting in the sink, full of creamy water and beautiful butterfly. I know it can’t stay – but I can’t bring myself to be the agent of its demise. I’m hoping that Mr CJ will disturb it with his next dirty dish, and I won’t have to witness it. I’ll get up in the morning, and it will be gone.
I wanted to share it with you. I can’t show you or tell you exactly what I saw, but I can share with you that it was beautiful, and that it was awesome, and that will just have to do.

Monday, 23 May 2016

of the Vintage Crockery Collection

I have begun photographing my collection of vintage crockery before I take most of it off to a collector in town. Of course I wish I could keep them all, because they're so beautiful. But it's time for a Decluttering, so off they go.

I found all these pieces in op shops. As you can imagine, there have been countless beautiful treasures I have found since I let my blog lay fallow. Today, let's start catching up with some plates.

Johnsons of Australia


Midwinter by Stonehenge, England

Johnson Brothers, England - there are three different sizes of this one. I love that they are oval rather than round.

Two small plates from Japan

Tiny dishes. Top two - England, bottom - Japan

England

Two more from Japan

Burgundy Rose by British Anchor, England

This pair is unusual for the difference of just one small motif between them. Johnsons of Australia
 
Classic scenes. Left - Crown Lynn, New Zealand, right - Swan Inn by J Broadhurst & Sons, England

Mikasa, Japan

Sunday, 15 May 2016

on the Proper Disposal of Old Journals


I used to keep journals. I kept them lovingly, faithfully and well. Journalling was an important and cherished part of my life. I discovered so much of myself through my journals. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Because my journals were so important to me, I’d keep them every time I edited my possessions in order to move house. By the time I turned 30 I’d collected a big, heavy pile of journals. It might not look so big to some – I’ve often read writers’ accounts of having piles of old journals stacked from floor to ceiling in their attics or cellars. I’m guessing that these are mostly the kinds of people who have houses with attics and cellars and get to stay put in them for long periods of time. But me, every fucking time I moved house or even re-organised the one I was living in, I’d have to pack the fucking things up, lug them about from here to fucking there, and find somewhere to bloody well store them again. You can tell how frustrated I’ve become by this by all the fucks.
Baggage - extremely literally
 
It was around this time that I pretty much stopped journalling. I was just too daunted by the thought of more fucking heavy books to carry around with me when next it would come time to pack. I couldn’t bear it. And so I stopped writing. Yep, that’s pretty sad.
I first started thinking about (shock, horror) getting rid of at least some of my journals a few years ago when I was packing up to move up from Victoria. I thought long and hard and deeply. I even googled ‘should I get rid of my old journals?’. Most of the pages that Google offered me were blog posts written by people wondering the same thing as me. The verdict was pretty clear. Nearly everyone who commented on any of these pages said no, no-one should ever dispose of one’s journals, because one day at some point in the future there just might be someone who would benefit from reading those journals or some part thereof, and it would be a terrible disservice to the future of the human race for one to willfully prevent such a thing from happening. So I packed the fucking things up again. And still didn’t produce any more.
And now, I want to keep a journal again. The dread of the pile of accumulated journals growing heavier hasn’t lessened, so I had to ask myself again, well, how about if I got rid of at least some of them? And so, of course, I had to ask Google as well. Google has certainly changed its mind on the subject.
This time I found people considering the content of their journals more closely when questioning the proposition of getting rid of their own journals. Many confessed that they discovered that their early journals, at least, were full of a lot of stuff that they didn’t really have any interest in holding onto any more. This post here by Erin Kurup is a great example. I love how she came to this realisation -  "They were negative, whiny, obnoxious, phony. And you know what? I knew the words were fake as I was writing them. I remember deliberately choosing what to record based on what I believed the record I thought I was supposed to write would look like."
Many people told of sorting through their journals, throwing out the things that they didn’t need to keep a record of any longer, and keeping the things that were still important to them, now, at this time. They reported that they were glad they did it.
So I dug my suitcase full of old journals out from their dusty storage corner. I started at the beginning, with my earliest ‘serious’ journal. I started it when I was nineteen years old and embarking on a very intensive journey of psychotherapy. I’d been told that I could cure my depression by working with this psychotherapy, so I worked it very hard. And all these years later, well, yes, I’m glad I did it. It didn’t cure my depression but it gave me some decent tools for managing my emotions. The journal from this time is very much a therapy journal, very much a torturous exploration of why on earth I might be so fucking miserable – or scared, mostly. So many of the sentences in it start with “I’m scared.” It details the crappiest bits of my relationship with someone who has since passed away. There is really no need for there to be a record of all that stuff. I don’t need to keep it any more.
So I tore all those pages out. I kept some things, like the art therapy pieces that were the most special to me.

 
I also kept the pages on which I’d recorded my dreams. I’ve always found it a very powerful practice, to record and pay attention to my dreams. Reading them long after I’ve forgotten them, they are still speaking to me. Some of the smaller journals are dedicated entirely to dreams. It looks like I’m going to have to keep those ones for the time being.
By the time I got to the end I’d removed at least 90% of the pages from the journal. And as for the proper way to dispose of old journals, this was widely discussed in the blog posts I read. For me, it could only be by burning them. Fortunately I have a proper fireplace where I can do such a thing. And whoooosh, off they went, up in flames.
And then I picked up the next journal, in chronological order, and continued.

Friday, 6 May 2016

on the Pursuit of Happiness


I came across this quote by Australian writer Hugh Mackay last night. It struck a chord with me, and I’ve found my thoughts returning to it throughout the night and this morning. It articulates my own feelings on the subject quite well.
 
"I don’t mind people being happy – but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying 'write down 3 things that made you happy today before you go to sleep', and 'cheer up' and 'happiness is our birthright' and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position – it’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say 'Quick! Move on! Cheer up!'. I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word 'happiness' and to replace it with the word 'wholeness'. Ask yourself 'is this contributing to my wholeness?' and if you’re having a bad day, it is.”
 
The western world has a culture of trying to be happy, trying to find happiness, to follow our bliss or however you want to put it. But in spite of all this freedom to do so, we’re not getting any happier than our ancestors, who never had a cultural construct in which to question whether or not they were happy with their lives, and whether they might have other options, or what they should do to make themselves happier.  Life was just what it was, and they got on with it. I believe they were better off for it.
I’ve had clinical depression for nearly 30 years. I had two major nervous breakdowns before I left my teens, and another in my mid-20’s (which was most certainly partly caused by trying to follow an idea of happiness, and being bummed that it didn’t work). I had a huge breakthrough when I just gave up thinking of happiness as something that’s important. I don’t even ask myself or wonder if a particular course of action will make me happy or not – it’s not even a criterion for decisions. And I can affirm that life is definitely better and easier this way.
This is an attitude that gets me a lot of criticism from people who are strongly engaged in a philosophy of ‘positivity’ and are into searching for happiness. They think I might be depressed because I fail to pursue and find happiness. I know that’s not true. Depression is a constant – it’s just the state of my brain, probably, I think, as a side effect of having epilepsy and autism. Just faulty wiring. How I deal with depression and the rest of my life is another matter – that’s an active, continuing process and function. It turns out that trying to be happy really doesn’t help at all, and just wastes a lot of energy that could be put into making life as it already is easier to deal with.
It’s not that I don’t feel happiness. I often feel happy. I recognise that I’m feeling it and I appreciate it. I do feel sad more often – that’s part of clinical depression. My point is that I no longer measure the balance or deliberately try to change it. I just get on with life anyway.
Gratitude is a buzzword I’m hearing a lot of people go on about lately. Apparently, we can all make ourselves happier by reminding ourselves to be grateful. It’s pretty much an industry in itself these days, where you can buy a blank book that says ‘Gratitude’ somewhere on the cover, which is supposed to make it somehow more useful in making life ‘better’ than a plain blank notebook would be, or attend a ‘gratitude’ workshop for a fee. I can see that this would have benefits as a cognitive training exercise, for some people who are unduly obsessing on needs or desires and forgetting to recognise or acknowledge all the wonderfulness along the way. But it’s become oversimplified in the process of commercialisation into an equation where basically, more gratitude equals more happiness, and therefore, if you don’t have enough happiness, you must be in need of more gratitude.
I experience gratitude deeply, profoundly and frequently. Several times a day, I’ll spontaneously need to have to take a second to take a breath and allow the intensity of the feeling of gratitude to wash through me. I don’t need to make myself do this, it just happens. A lot. Common triggers include lying down in a comfortable bed, reading excellent writing, the taste of food, the kindness of others, and the beauty and sheer marvel of the natural world. This happens consistently, regardless of whether I’m in a good or a poor mood or state of mind. I sometimes wonder whether I have a need for God in my life partly out of need to ascribe some agent of existence toward which I can direct my gratitude. I often read that people tend to forget God until they’re in trouble and need help, and then they pray. I find the opposite happens to me – I can forget God for a while, until I’m confronted with something, usually a phenomenon of nature, that overwhelms me with wonder, and then I need God to have something to be thankful to, and to rationalise the thrill, not the misery, of existence. So I know that a lack of gratitude is not the cause of my depression.
I think people find the nature of my illness confronting. They don’t want to believe it exists, perhaps, so they try to define clinical depression as a lack of something – sufficient pursuit of happiness, or whatever – on my part. I’m not buying it. If you want to follow happiness, and you’re not hurting anybody else in order to do so, well off you go then, whatever floats your boat and bakes your potatoes, mate. I really can be happy for you, truly. But if you’re trying to tell me how to fix life with happiness, you’re wasting your time. I’ve already tried out that particular philosophy, and I know that I’m better off without it.