Thursday, April 4, 2013

Keeping One's Head

Attitude is a chosen thing, or not. In this last 3:00 a.m. morning in Perth, as I prepare to leave for Sydney I resonate still from yesterday’s revelations, if not from the last 300 years or so of Oz. In the Swan Valley is a memorial to the aboriginals. A cut off head was sent to London, put on exhibition. Years later it was brought back. In the heat and the haze and the sweat and the physical hardship of this country the details matter not much; it is the larger sense I get of the testosterone-laden belligerence of the glaring atmosphere underneath the hearty “hey mate” that has me slightly on edge whenever out from under the cool shade of the cottage I’ve spent exactly ten weeks protected in, until my plane goes, today.

Last night’s outing for dinner was an ongoing example of attitudes chosen, or not. M’Lady and I were driven by daughter Linda right up to the outdoor restaurant’s entrance so that I would not have to use my wheelchair. In my neck-brace and moving gingerly I possibly appear the aged senior to her 91 year-old sprightliness, as she gets out of the car before me and holds open my door. We head the four or five steps toward the patio and this big-bellied unkempt fellow barges past and begins a shouted and foul-mouthed tirade at Linda’s shiny aquamarine Mercedes as she backs it up and begins to nudge it forward. She stops, slides down the passenger window, inquires after the problem, and he carries on about women drivers and her nearly backing into his parked car. She responds with something obvious and drives off, and I note the fellow’s female partner, at a nearby table, looking not sheepish but seemingly ready to do battle too. Instantly I am reminded of the incident in Blackheath when with my friend Justin almost a year ago in Oz. A woman and her man took up a handicap-parking space without an evident sticker, and were ready physically to deck my 6 foot-something wheelchair-pusher, and possibly roll me over the cliff! (Stories are more fun to read when overly-dramatic, ha!) Thing is, something there is in me that sifts through such negativity for a long time. It feels as if my psyche is bruised and battered and the hate and hurt touches my soul. People’s attitudes can be so mercurial. And reactive. Insensitive. And self-serving. 

Or not. They clearly can be chosen to be accommodating and accepting too.

M’Lady exemplifies exercising choice. The restaurant was fraught with physical difficulties. Tables were too close to very noisy traffic. Almost everywhere loud-speakers drowned out comfortable conversation. So we moved inside. Standing clumps of people did not easily move aside, despite our ‘seniority’. The far corner table had a small reserved sign on it, and the other perches were for six or more, so we moved back outside. But the chairs were so voluminous that M’Lady, imbalanced on the edge, could barely get her chin to the table. So we moved back inside. We sat at a table for six and waited. At last Nancy observed that it was a publican house and one goes up and orders the meal. She goes, brings back menus, takes back our orders through the clusters of big-looking people, and then comes back apologetically. One “has to pay first.” Since I had from the outset insisted I pay I get up, take my card, and make my careful way to do the transaction. 

Eventually we eat. Throughout the great-tasting-food much of the music is a blare, the beery-sounds of groups of people overtly raucous, the intense air a slick sheen of sweat, the hygiene of the tables suspect, and the congestion of people a throng and threat of being bumped. Given the noise and stifling heat, we decide to move outside again for desert. This time I dig out some cash and Nancy goes again to make the orders. Brings back a number-stick. We find a table against a wall and she perches like a little girl with her lemon-curds and whey and entirely eats the pie, all the while smiling, cracking jokes, and marvelling at the traffic of life’s busy whiz and big bustle by.

Ah, that’s how one keeps one’s head. One makes life interesting! Attitude; choose it, or lose it. Ha!

The following, written on the plane when leaving Oz, now submitted, October 2013


Letting go takes practice. I lost my Jaguar. I was three and had a white wind-up one for my birthday, a bit smaller than a shoe-box. Soon afterward, it disappeared. My mind has never quite given up speculation. What if...? And so forth. We keep losing things, arriving at last days, seeing people for the last time, being somewhere and knowing you'll never return. And slowly one learns non-attachment. Yet even more slowly, one learns simply to love. There is a period when doing without seems so hard, so harsh, so cruel, so wistful, so wishful, so unendurable. But as we grow older and we lose our budgerigars, our dogs, our friends, our parents, our first loves, we come to realize that the objectification of the self as connected with a thing, end even as the self connected with another, is not concomitant, but a realm in which one begins and ends with the self, independent of others. One survives. And the loss of another, though painful and hard and even unimaginable, is not necessarily the loss of self, though the diminishment of the self goes without saying. When my friend dies I shall be poorer for it. Any friend.

Letting go allows for the reality of things. Holidays must end. Weekends must end. We love and we lose and we forego and we cannot always necessarily return. Thing is, not to prevent the self from loving fully and completely in the meantime. Perhaps the most intense experience I had of that much in recent years was with Vic Peters, a man I met while I was researching ALS for the role in 'Tuesdays with Morrie'. Vic died within two years of my knowing him, but we found friendship and love for each other that was magical. Then too, along with my seventh decade, there have been several friends who've lost their lives recently. And it all has resulted in my loving, and letting go. The paradox is, letting go allows one to love more deeply, for there is no product in mind, just the process. And the hurt when the other dies is sweeter for the depth of the love one has experienced. I recall weeping deeply over Simon Brink's death. Tonight I shall have dinner with his brother. And when I think of the miles I've travelled and the people I'd hoped to hug, but who cannot make it to see me, I have to let go of that longing too. Opportunity is not fickle. Miss the turn off and one travels onto other pathways.

Leaving M'Lady Nancy and her daughter and son in law today was hard. Ten weeks has given us a bond. And given our respective ages and the circumstances of our respective physical conditions, we all know that the cost of seeing each other again is a lot less likely than it might have been when we were younger. Time runs out for each of us. We are on journeys, and we each reach destinations. This plane as I type will reach Sydney.

Non-attachment is not the absence of feeling, the inability to feel emotionally; it is the commitment of the self to the moment without being attached to an outcome. It allows one to hug the puppy, but not to want it; to ride in the new Mercedes, but not to covet it; to see the beauty, but not to own it. It allows things to be. And should one have the puppy, the nice new car, the vista of beauty, it allows for a complete appreciation and care and love and nurturing and responsibility for things, but mitigates that pain of dependence, of interdependence, of feeling incapable of self-sufficiency. The subtlety is distinct, yet difficult to achieve. Our minds play on the items we lost, even as children, never mind the people we lost, especially as adults. Being bereft is natural. Feeling hurt is natural. But non-attachment is hard won. It takes losing a great deal, and yet still being able to love. As the Buddha says, pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Easy?      

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Side-stepping Slander?

Aware that our dinner conversations are reaching an end, M’lady asks about my views on the people we’ve met over the past ten weeks, the observations I might have. “Tell the truth now,” she winks. Well, as is my bent, I refrain from the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Were I to write it out my ‘truths’ would still be open to misinterpretation. Were I to speak them in confidence, the further removed from the conversation the less precious the intimacy becomes, and eventually, even years from now, words get put into my mouth, such as that, “Richard thinks that...” gets reported. And a great deal of damage can be done. Then too, what ‘truth’ can I, really, truly, presume to tell? I am but human full of impressions gained on the constructs of my own petards. I have no desire to be hoisted.

We have met Alice, Bert, Candy, Danielle, Evan, Frank, Gretta, Hans, Ingrid, Job, Kirsten, Liam, Monica, Neil, Obadiah, Penelope, Quincy, Rick, Sonia, Terry, Ulla, Vern, Winston, Xavier, Yolanda, and Zoe. Which of them dare I explicate from my point of view? What ‘truth’ can I tell? Privately, never mind publicly!

No, rather than reveal specific impressions I am one for generalities. I am one for viewing the world from the multiplicity of lenses provided for me by learned professionals. And then there are my own feelings about the matter too. It matters not that Terry is a professor and Bert is a ditch digger, I preferred the time I spent with Bert; the rapport was more instinctive, the feeling between us was more natural. The one I could easily befriend; the other I could but encounter. And so on. But already I’ve broached a cardinal point of mine; I’ve mentioned their names! A good thing that in this essay neither a pompous Terry nor an authentic Bert truly exists. No, better to stick with generalities. Were it otherwise, a puffed up Terry might be hurt; and to be deflated, in my experience, is certainly not necessarily to change.

My taking time here to review The Johari Window, Kohlberg’s Moral Paradigms, Graves’ Spiral Dynamics, Maslow’s Hierarchy,  Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Jung’s Shadows, etc., is not my intent (whew!) Suffice to say that through such lenses we may perceive the workings of mankind, or not. Without such an education the vast majority of us are more given simply to go with our gut instincts. As Sancho sings of Don Quixote, “I like him; I really like him!” And he little knows why, but he remains loyal. The problem arises for us not so much about the instant ‘liking’, or even during the tests that naturally arise to our ‘always’ liking someone once we ‘get to know them better’, but in what happens to us when we dislike someone, instinctively, or worse, grow to dislike a person as we observe them, or even more-worse yet, our dislike of someone because of what we’ve heard about them. Without ‘thinking tools’, we just ‘feel’.

Compassion would give us 1001 reasons why a person is who she harmfully is; why a grown man is still an immature boy; why a hurt soul is entirely self-absorbed. Compassion will give us excuse for the chatter-box, the slanderer, the drug-abuser, the... and the list goes on. Exercising ‘love’ without attachment will allow us to give care and energy and even time toward another. But to give truth? Now that takes something that I, for one, simply ought not to presume to do; after all, how can I be expected to see the universe from another life’s point of view?

And in my experience, to talk of others is to invite far too many misrepresentations. No, I try to find something absolutely clear and positive to say, if I have to. “I liked his laugh. I thought it kind of her to offer a seat. I liked the way he asked how you were doing.” But if you press me, I might say, “What an interesting person!” Ha! Truth is as truth is seen, and even then, who dares claim truth to be inviolate? Not me! And that's the truth, ha!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


The sandwiches were delicious. So was the cake. And one of the gifts, especially, was a real surprise, caringly selected and carefully kept until the day of M’Lady’s 91st birthday. Given to her by her 27 year old grandson, it was an authentic Sinclair crest silver brooch, found on his recent trip in a Tartan Store in Edinburgh.  Nancy wore it with pride throughout the day. Gratitude for each gift, and toward each of some 28 persons for coming to her party, was abundant. And she circulated as best she could, ensuring that each felt acknowledged, especially the children. The food and the cake had been supplied by her two daughters and two sons in law (each now in their 60’s.) The drinks had been supplied by herself. There were actually twelve bottles of champagne. Perhaps one or two are left?

And keeping track of who gave what, for Nancy, was important. I observed her going and jotting things down on the notepad she keeps at the edge of her desk. Each box of chocolates, each curio, each flower arrangement, and each card shall be acknowledged in the mail. And though Nancy is now email literate, her acknowledgements will come by way of a post-box letter. It is her way.

But the greatest gift of all was the handing out of The Book. Nancy did not tell the company that the sum total for the 55 books was nearly $9,000.00. Admittedly, that included four leather-bound ones with gold imprint (one for her, one for me). But if we take off the almost $2,000.00 for those four books it leaves $7,000 divided by 50, which is? $140.00 for each book. “Can I have two of them?” one person asked.

“I’ve never been to a book launch before,” Nancy began her speech, as she hefted one of the leather bound tomes, “and so I thought perhaps we should step across the way and launch this thing in the bilabong!!” (Nancy has a delightful habit of using exclamation marks in her writing, sometimes as many as four!!!!) Then she explained that the idea for her Memoirs began almost 20 years ago, soon after she met me on Denman Island, Canada. I’d just completed my first novel and was interested in her war-stories and so our correspondence stayed committed and full. But I’d not had the time to devote to her book, given the distance between us and the theatre and teaching that I was always doing. And then, in 2008 her neighbour, Christine Hogan, suggested Nancy do an interview with her on tape. Over several months Nancy did the five tapes, but that only took her up to page 75, the end of the war, and the beginning of her marriage. “Richard took the tapes to type-up after his two day visit here last June,” Nancy said, “But who would’ve thought that over 350 pages were still to come? And those added pages were all accomplished in just the last seven weeks!!!” Yes, Nancy handwrote, I typed, and we found over 2,000 photos and documents to support the text. A publisher was secured, a ten day turn around (including the leather books) promised (since Nancy’s birthday was on the Easter weekend Monday they had to be ready by Thursday!!) and viola! “And so these two special leather ones are for each of my two very special daughters, Linda and Fiona,” Nancy explained, “and the rest are for each of you, my family and close friends, that you may know your history, your lineage, and respect where you came from, be proud of who you are, and preserve the traditions of hard work, taking care of yourself, and giving love to others.” And with that she began handing out the books; hefting heavy one after heavy one.

“It will become my Family Bible,” said one of her grandsons. The comment was genuine, a true gift of itself. A guest, unrelated to the family, looked up at me and said, “What a lot of exclamation points!”

450 pages, each a unique layout, and over 90 years of a fascinating life, and the nits will yet pick, ha!!!   

Birds Of A Feather?

The corellas are not quite pure white. They have some pink and golden green, but at first glance they appear quite pristine. And then, as they flock to the free feed-fountain of replenishment, one notes their individuality. The baby one drew the most observation. All puffed up and wailing with a need for constant attention, it intruded on the sounds and serenity and calm and peace and conversations of others that might’ve been more settled. Their feeding was as close as any of the birthday tables that stood around, and the chairs and food-stuffs were at least protected by the real people, but the corellas, such marvellously big white and wild Australian parrots, much like birds of a feather, stayed flocked together. And they grew braver as the afternoon wore on. More of them came to join in the party.

Birthday parties can be like that. Sometimes there are so many others each focused on their individual needs that one is not quite sure just who the birthday-recipient is. And especially when the newest very late comer arrives, nudges over the others at their perches, digs in, and sets up a monologue of the latest escapades involving his/her own life, well, the other birds do tend to get their feathers ruffled. And we do what we can not to look too long into each other’s eyes, lest the uplifted eyebrow, the roll of the eye, the pursed lips may give away the aside that is brewing, if not boiling. Interesting how some birds are so brusque, so insensitive, and so non-aware. Here and there a healthy or frustrated squawk from some other animal tries to break the pattern, but then the perpetrator of the main story continues, as though the babble and the occasion and the gathering was entirely all arranged just for themselves.

Presents at birthday parties can have a most ‘obligatory’ sense about them. Especially after the seventh box of chocolates, or the obvious lines in a card. And the problem with commercial cards is that one might receive two of the same kind; same picture; same sentiments. Add that to the same kind of box of chocolates and something of the magic gets lost in the revelation. Such are the risks we take when opening gifts, let alone in giving them. How does one keep up an excitement over ‘more’ of the same?

Some of the corellas stayed on the outskirts; they did not feel bold enough to venture toward the main centre occupied by the other birds. They scrabbled for slim pickings, the left-overs from the feed, the unwanted by others. Some birds seemed shy. Some seemed no more than observers. Some appeared impatient to be elsewhere. Some appeared rooted in their own idiom. Off to one side were magpies, more wary of the crowd. Across the way were spoonbills, sacred ibis, a kookaburra, and a throat-bejewelled wattlebird. Crows made the most awful sound, entirely without care for others’ comfort.

Champagne, beer, wine, spirits, and another round of mixture of all and for all kept the party lubricated. A large birthday cake (beautifully inscribed and adorned with maraschino cherries) was forgotten about atop the dining room dresser. Only some 6 people were left of some 23 by the time it was remembered, and the sparkler was then lit, and we sang a waning happy-birthday tune, and the cake was handed round, but the effect was one of ‘an also’, rather than a specialness of moment. Nancy bore all with a dignity and decorum and grace and smiles, but when everyone had gone, and we were left with the remnants, there was a debriefing that was naturally disappointed with the outcome. Like those corellas, people each were at an event very much seen from their own point of view. Oh well, there’s always next year. Or is there?