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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No country for old men

Grief is like an ocean. And as in Solaris we're never certain how deep, how fast moving or how near the shore we are. Lately I've been led to think about death and dying, those that die young and those that die too soon. I find myself at sea at odd moments.

The first time I was aware of this happening as an adult was at a performance of 'Boy from Oz' - twelve years ago, pre-Huge Ackman with a more talented but less photogenic and less marketable lead. I come from a musical family - musicals rather than musical, one brother met his wife when he was a Nazi and she a nun in The Sound of Music. Perhaps simply as a point of difference I don't like them, Gang Shows, Hair, JC Superstar, Bye Bye Birdy, Cats etc, I do not like them, green rooms and ham.

But a parent and a sibling were in town when Boy from Oz was on so we went - I was promised Boy from Oz maraccas if I behaved. I only knew Peter Allen's smashhits and didn't know the Judy Garland/Liza with a Z back story. Oh and Peter Allen was gay! There's a Peter Allen song Tenterfield Sadler about his grandfather, a sadler from Tenterfield. I'd never heard it before but it threw me into the ocean. A wave of grief reached out and dragged me in.

My father's father died when I was about eight. He was a dairy farmer with huge strong hands. He died of some heart and lung thing when he was about 67. When he was too weak to milk he worked at a milk treatment station which was where I thought he made the Milky Bars he always semed to have. Years later I discovered the factory made milk powder and those compressed milk powder biscuits - no chocolate - he must've bought them from a dairy.

So I'm sitting in a darkened theatre in Chinatown sobbing for my lost grandfather because of Peter Allen's music.

I think too of my mother's father - he drowned when she was about 15. He was a lawyer but also an outdoorsy bloke, a-huntin' and a-fishin'. At the later notorious McLaren's Falls he slid off a rock, hit his head on another and drowned. At my mother's boarding school the gels were lined up:

"All those gels with two parents step forward, you gel, where do you think you're going? Your father drowned an hour ago, as you were, gels"

"Thanks, ma'am"
or something along those lines.

This lawyer/angler has been a spectral presence ever since. The tall rich grandfather who left us with lesser lives. My grandmother's descent into madness may have not happened or may have happened differently if he'd been more careful with his feet. The gloom of the English farm labourer has had Irish and Scottish melancholy and dourness added to it and so we're small sad people given to mawkish sentiment in tawdry spaces.

And when the ocean reaches out for us we're drawn back into the depths - the overwhelming "S/He is gone-ness" of our loss and losses and the losses of others. Another day when you go to bed a different person than who you woke up as. A sadder lonelier person - not waving but drowning and much much too far out. Some lifelines are attached to rock and some to driftwood. You don't know until the tide tightens the rope and you feel a solid end, an answer, the rope sings like a guitar string or bowstring and you are attached. Or like Ahab you are tethered to your own White Whale and drown chasing yourself.

Alone we are born and die alone, but if by chance we find each other and our love becomes a warm embrace or a safe harbour, 'Arisaig' in language, and not a funeral pyre then we can be whole for a time. I'm learning about transmutation and the clensing creative power of flame.

Old brickmen would talk about firings "answering". They'd taste the brick earth to determine if it was likely to answer and then tend the flame feeding and starving it through the burn. The clamp kiln would heat up and be held at the soak temp for as long as necessary. Then the waiting. Only when the kiln was unpacked would you know how many underfired bricks (doughboys in Sydney) you'd have and how many overfired ones (clinkers). If you'd hired an itinerant brickmaker he may have long gone before the kiln was cool enough to touch. You'd hope for at least a third usable bricks but a skilled stacker and burner, with an eye for the weather could get you more. If the clay answered.

There were critical periods in the production process. The moulded bricks would need to dry stacked in rows or hacks, inclement weather could destroy them if no shelter was available. This assumes that time, energy and means were available to process the clay- a year exposed to the rain and frost in England - then pugging by foot or horse powered mill, removal or grinding of extraneous matter, the addition of sand or water when necessary - a complex process requiring the skills of an alchemist. The tasting of the earth led to many old brickmen getting mouth or throat cancer.

The transmutation of earth and water to treasure through fire is seen to replicate the pathway to spiritual growth - I found out on Monday. Base metal to gold = the psychotherapeutic journey or dance. Clay to brick, or porcelain. And who doesn't love the wheel-throwing scene in 'Ghost'?

My grandmother lived at Takapuna years later. My youngest uncle was at home with her until boarding school. She was fascinated by the sea and one night took him by the hand to walk across to Rangitoto over the silvery yellow path laid by the moon. He didn't go. She didn't do the physical walk but all her life has had moments too far from the shore and with her path less substantial than it seemed when she set out.

She's done the full catalogue of NZ mental health from being an "odd child", having "turns", "nervous breakdowns", depression, manic depression, bi-polar disorder, pre-senile dementia but now is in the protective cocoon of dementia. Lost to the present she enjoys bright colours and pretty things and, I hear, always welcomes visits from stangers. Some real, some she gave birth to 60 or more years ago but she's mostly meeting them anew. When I last saw her she was mostly connected to the present and to the past in the usual ways. I did find out that the local community assumed she was drunk all the time though she rarely drank. I met a man who worked in her bank where she was a figure of fun. A newly discovered distant relative hoped my uncle wasn't related to the drunken old woman with the same surname, his mother actually.

My sense is that she is now happy in a way that she wasn't for the first 35 years I knew her.

When someone descends into madness there is grief in those left behind and sometimes in the mad there is grief for the road not travelled and the plans not fulfilled.

I've been told it's all fear, fear of the past is sadness or guilt, fear of the present is anger and fear of the future is fear. Mad, bad, scared, sad and glad. More glad would be good.

Back to Martin Luther King:
  • Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.
    • Stride Toward Freedom : the Montgomery Story (1958)


merc said...

"She was fascinated by the sea and one night took him by the hand to walk across to Rangitoto over the silvery yellow path laid by the moon. He didn't go."

Anonymous said...

You write beautifully Tony and its of truths.

Fresh Local said...

I feel in me the electric fizz of the family madness. It vibrates in my blood. I'm pretty sure it stays at a sub-clinical level and is manifest in neuroses rather than psychosis.

At times when stories emerge you can see what it's like for others. The uncle who stayed longest at home is the most successful in material terms. He has constructed a solid safe life to ward off the uncertainty and fear of life as a frightened child.

I've seen the shimmering pathway over the water - it looks solid but evanescent. Rangitoto has its own demons.

merc said...

Sleeping volcanoes represent the fullest potential of most terrible aspect of the devouring Mother.

merc said...

Arrrr, Mother Archetype, archetype. No actual person. Archetypal theory fascinates me.

Fresh Local said...

I think we're born with archetypes of the ideal that we expect to encounter and can be disappointed that we end up with what we get rather than what we deserve.

I associate archetype with Jung but now realise the master/apprentice pathway that I knew as Freud/Jung/Reich/Lowen is an erratic continuum of my own making. Where do I squeeze in the Morenos, Fritz Perls or Carl Rogers? And what were the links from my mentors back to Europe?

At Mirek Smisek/John Wineera's Te Horo Pottery there are firebricks impressed 'Vulcan'. Vulcan was a NSW manufacturer of fire and other refractory bricks.

merc said...

My step Grandmother lived near the Limpopo Valley for 40 years, met Leaky. She gave me 4 ancient stone hand tools to hold as a very young child, then would show me books with photos of cave paintings. I have inherited an ancient stone carved head from her. She also introduced me to De Chardin and Rodin and Christianity (I was raised by wolves).
It is dawning on me more and more, these influences set me on an arrow path.
Symbols are everywhere and we can read them.

Fresh Local said...

An arrow path? There's a Rupert The Bear story where someone wants a nice boat for Xmas and gets an ice boat - much confusion sorted in the end by the Rupester. Or Rupe-meister, R-Man?

I like the probably apocryphal story of the 28th Maori Battalion walking through newly liberated Italian towns hailing the locals with "Kia ora!" The bemused townsfolk would either look at their watches or point to the town clock if it had survived.

merc said...

Maori pronunciation is very similar to Italian, A E I U O.
I have seen Maori living in the Basque country and talking with Italians, it is uncanny. Would need to face to face on this.
Hehe, you are a fine reader...some poets crave them.
To me BTW, the arrow never reaches it's destination.