Thursday, November 24, 2011

Peter, a Tribute

A long time ago
before TV or computers
when girls picked dandelion flowers
in exchange for boiled sweets
and boys wore mud
when the paddocks were alive
with laughing kookaburra
and the train echoed up the valley
rattling its way to the end of the line
broody charismatic men in shirts
with sleeves rolled up
their voices low and guarded
barely noticed the busy four year old
with the wide smile and chubby cheeks
John Lennon specs perched on his nose
a spirited and carefree abandon
propelling his little bare legs forward
on the verandah boards
at Villa Bereguardo
where they all gathered

then one day, without warning
weeks, perhaps months later
sure of his devotion
silently he left
committing himself permanently
to the painful belonging
of his family’s enduring  memory

Peter Perversi 24/11/50 – 8/9/55
61 today

‘The morning glory
which blooms for but an hour
is in essence no different
to the giant pine
which lives for a thousand years’

A Zen proverb

Monday, November 21, 2011

Books and Forgetting

As a kid I wasn’t read to.  When I became a parent I understood why! I wouldn’t have had time to read to seven kids either, let alone inclination. Anyhow, when I was about 10 I had a book shoved under my nose by my mother. Read this, she insisted, dismissively.  I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t concentrate, wasn’t interested, or maybe I couldn’t read.  They Found a Cave was the book, and recently, to my surprise, I recognized its sepia tones on my sister’s bookshelf, picked it up, flicked thru it, felt a cold and unwelcome contraction of my heart muscle, and returned it to the shelf.  I recently tapped its title into google. The book’s about the lives of four orphans, their relocation and battling the baddies.  I wasn’t an orphan but it sure felt like it.

Not surprisingly, my book destiny never really passed go! What reading I’ve done over the decades has got me by tho.  Although I didn’t finish high school, I must have read at least one book because I won a competition in third form sponsored by Actil Cotton Mills.  I shamelessly plagiarized the entire text, adding a sample of cotton I secretly cut off a sheet (and got belted for it later!) enhancing it with meticulously traced pictures of machinery from books like they were my own. I won a set of bed sheets!

I must have read books at Business College for two years, but if I did I don’t remember, and besides I don’t have to because I’m an ace typist, administrator, and sometimes an all round smart-arse when it comes to meetings and noteworthy events at which I can demonstrate  my knowledge of Mr Pittman’s weird shapes and symbols, those that impersonate words, are lightning fast to record and code-named shorthand. 

During a theatre costume diploma, the technical and history books I read, and you guessed, barely remember, relit a fire in my belly, and my inner aesthete and costumier was reborn, along with my passion for sharp scissors (and knives!) .  All those corsets, doublets, trunkhose, frockcoats and codpieces are now buried and communing with moth balls in tea chests in the shed, but not forgotten. 

In the corridors of academia for a year, I read some Foucault and Flaubert, but don’t ask me what they said. 

I’ve now become a bookworm, greedy for horizontal time with my favourite authors.  I have a book bucket-list from here to Africa, and only half a life-time left to make a mark.  I’m not complaining.  I’ve gladly and willingly retreated into the ranks of the obsessed-by-words movement, and whilst it probably does little to cultivate the soft heart of my social animal,  half a century of forgetting behoves half a century of remembering.   Should I not answer the phone or door, well, it’s not personal, I’m just busy, right!   So if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with the page and to borrow the only useful term I remember from uni I intend to ‘faire et se taire’ ( ‘shut up and get on with it’ Flaubert).

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Juggler aka The Coffin Lid

I’m handed a torch at the front desk and enter the ‘Dying Art’ Exhibition. The darkness is punctuated by tea-light candles, illuminating shrines, highlighting and accentuating urns and shrouds, and creating silhouettes of the dozen or so eco-coffin lids standing upright at intervals throughout the room. My eyes adjust to the light as I flick on the torch and move through the space, reading inscriptions, viewing lids decorated with interpretations of end-of-life, images of nature, the human form, abstract and the obscure, all personal to the artists commissioned.  I move slowly in the extraordinary atmosphere, conscious of my breathing, aware, overcome by something I now struggle to put a name to; reverence, grace? Silently, I say a prayer.   It is at once an uplifting and sobering experience, an intricate and intimate web that I am willingly drawn into, and absorbed by, like a moth to a flame.  Tears come as I gaze down upon the infant's coffin, my Carla, and almost immediately I become one with an overwhelming sense of beauty, fragility and mystery.  I feel I've died and gone to the holy land.  At no time do I recall ever feeling so moved by an exhibition.    

At auction later in the evening I successfully bid for the coffin lid depicting the unicycling juggler, seen above. It landed like a long lost relative in the palm of my hand the moment I set eyes on it.   It is the work of artist, Kellie O’Dempsey. There’s something vaudevillian that speaks to my sense that once upon a time I moved across Northern Africa with the gypsy caravans, performing for my supper, and also reminds me of my stilt-walking days.   The juggler's skill is to work with rhythm, timing and focus to keep all her balls in the air; this I see as symbolic of keeping in check our emotional, social, practical, intellectual and spiritual life, maintaining a balance, an equilibrium, and a homoeostatis for the everyday.   The subject of the artwork is looking down, inward, trusting her intuition, confidently navigating her path on the wheel of life, getting on with what she does best. I love this piece not for its lofty, far-reaching and grand style but for its wonderful distinction between the earnest and the whimsical.

Death as a subject is often way too inconvenient a truth for the masses, but how I see it is you can’t have life without death.  It's everywhere.  Why not mention its name, talk about it?  I feel proud and grateful I'm involved in a social change movement that honours life by fearlessly naming death and which acts courageously to demystify its place in our lives.  I’ve installed the lid at home, just inside the front door, as a reminder of impermanence, that now is the new tomorrow. 

No, I haven’t recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness!

How do you view death?

Thursday, July 28, 2011


She’s severely intellectually disabled. Every day she wanders about the centre clutching bangles and the lid of a jar into which she’s placed wooden beads, red, green, brown, blue. She drops them frequently, and comes to you to retrieve them from under the cupboard or somewhere she can’t access. Voluntarily, or not, I don’t know, she constantly shakes her right hand, holding a bangle, as you would a tambourine. In her profile folder, it cites food and drink as her interests. Should you leave your lunch lying around, as I did one day, it’ll be gone in an instant. She's non-verbal and I find it excruciatingly difficult and excruciatingly sad knowing how to engage her. There’s lots of clients like her. When she’s happy, generally after a good lunch, she’ll produce a kind of maniacal laughter. The first time it happened I was a bit scared, wondered what was going on. Now that I know there’s a lightness of being inside, I rejoice with her. Up until today, there’s been no reason to consider her sadness. Mostly there’s enough of your own going on to spend too much time thinking about anybody else’s. She was sitting out in the sun with her back to me when I went up to her to try and encourage her to come inside and participate in the music session. As I squatted down, I noticed tears gently falling down her pink cheeks, her nose running. I took her hand, and said the first thing that came into my mind. “Are you sad T?”. Stupid, I know, it was obvious, what did I expect, an answer? I offered some comforting words, went and got the tissues and returned to her side. A couple of times as I dabbed her eyes and nose, she seized my hand in hers and held it tightly to her face. I was overcome with feelings of tenderness for her. Now, some hours later, I’m reflecting on the cruelty and the tragedy and the pathos. Most of us can choose the path of our sadness - speak it, write it, dance it, take it to bed. Not here!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Welcome to Drearysville!

If only someone had warned me! I’d have taken my name tag off the front table in the front row on day one, and replaced it down the back and brought my knitting, or done sudoku, anything but this. There’s 30 of us, crammed hip to jowl into a small room, a whiteboard that serves as a computer screen, and a change of guard up front every hour. I’ve become a terminal clock watcher, counting down the minutes to morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea and finally home. This has been the longest week of my life. The room smells of boredom and escape, a dank stale kind of smell, like old socks, one that cripples the learning neurons. Every now and then I hear what’s being said, but mostly I’m at the beach or the central desert or the bush or thinking about what’s for tea.

OH&S, IT, HR, EEO, EAP, XY& bloody Z. What on earth happened to good old-fashioned common sense, you know, look right, look left and look right again. It worked, I haven’t been run over, just run down by the stupidity of an age that considers the economy more important than its people. I’m being forced to undergo this trial by bureaucracy because I must bear in mind the risks, and lordy, there’s thousands of them, like a spillage or a cord across the floor, and don’t forget to wear the right shoes and bend your knees when you’re lifting, and did you know how much carelessness costs the country and how crushing litigation can be and make sure you’re respectful and supportive and fill out all the right forms. We’re all 30 years plus, not 14. I resent being treated like a child. Didn’t I read somewhere that if you value efficient, empathic, professional, calm and compassionate people you model it. A travesty!

Friday, June 3, 2011

For Frank

Why don't they open the blinds in the morning I think, pulling on the string to let the sun in. Such a small mercy, surely it's not too much to ask.

He’s dozing, sitting in the wheelchair on the cold linoleum floor, mouth open, complexion grey. His mop of grey hair looks like it hasn’t been combed in days. My sadness comes in a rush, and that familiar lump in the throat, again. Just as quickly I suppress it. I touch his shoulder, ‘It’s Catherine’. Opening his eyes, he beams me a big toothless grin. To him, I’m another relatively good-looking woman visitor he’s eager to impress.

‘How are you’ I enquire. ‘I’ve got pain here (pointing to his shoulder) and here (upper arm) and here (his back)’. It’s been this way for years, decades even, this chronic and acute arthritic hell. Gently I smooth his hair out with my fingertips.

‘You wrote two books’ I prompt, changing the subject. ‘One about the war, the other …’ I falter, not knowing how to describe it. ‘Did I?’ he responds, incredulous. ‘Perhaps I could bring it in next time and read to you. Would you like that’ I ask. ‘I can read’ he responds angrily. This is true. Sometimes when I remember, I’ll take one of his cards off the shelf. He’ll hold it close to his face and read the sentiments, over and over, for endless minutes. What he is thinking or feeling is impossible to tell.

This year he’s 92. He’s adamant he’s not. He was an absent dad, a man of great passion and intellect, a philanderer, a real charmer and a ruthless bully. I’ve been scared of him most of my adult life. He intimidated the heck out of me. Now, however, I love him with a bursting heart. Is this thing called Alzheimers a gift from the creator that brings forgiveness and acceptance to the table. I am grateful, for I finally see him.

Thanks Dad.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The business of death

Practising for death, with kite, in the heart of the Olgas …..
or, Waiting for the Vultures!

The woman at reception is on the phone and gestures for me to take a seat. As I pass the plump couches, on the way to empty my anxious bladder, a seated, shiny bald-headed man of 40-something flashes me a wide smile. Friendly, I think, smiling back. When I return, the woman I’ve seen in the carpark has joined him. I feel self-conscious, and chilly in my should-be-wool-but-cotton attire, and very hick under my Edward Scissorhands do! Why does everybody in the city use a hair dryer? I sit down. “I was horrified, her make-up was all wrong, I barely recognised her” the woman is saying. I’m triggered. Mum used to dab at her lipstick, the embalmer had plastered it on. It wasn’t her, and it was shocking. I empathise. We’re at the home of one of Melbourne’s original independent funeral homes because at some stage in the past few months we’ve made application for employment and we’ve been invited to an ‘information session’. Later we learn we’re 3 out of 8 invitees who’ve turned up. He’s a salesman, she a legal secretary. I have little doubt that, like me, they’ve been touched by death. We talk freely about our interest in entering the industry, our hopes and dreams. I belong.

We’re led down a maze of passageways, past the auditors, and into the boardroom. The walls are a museum to its Irish Catholic founding fathers and staff, past and present. The table, larger than my bedroom. A potted history is presented and any notion we may have had about securing a role that befits the importance of our ego is quickly quashed. In no uncertain terms we’re advised that all newcomers enter the industry through the same door, FDA (Funeral Director’s Assistant). Washing and preparing the hearse, driving the hearse, sweeping floors, assisting at funerals, transferring the deceased, assisting at viewings and rosaries, handing out pamphlets. “Some who come are too precious” states our informant, “Are you all prepared to do this?”

Despite there being no current employment opportunities, I am grateful for and humbled by the experience, and say a little prayer that in the future my wish be heard. This is the landscape of service, these are the places and spaces where I know I am at my most authentic.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How to make a dog's breakfast!

This is how it was supposed to look!

I’d made it once before. Trying to emulate my favourite dessert, sago and raspberry pudding, I’d given my first attempt 7 out of 10. This time I was aiming much higher; I wanted it to look as good as the one you buy, and taste even better. I’m a confident cook, proud of my personal success rating in the kitchen, some would even say cocky! Despite my inflated view, I had to concede there was merit in reading the directions on the pack of sago. Reflecting on that evening a week later, all I remember is reading the first three lines , water, tapioca seed and sugar, and feeling a little puzzled about the ratio of water to seed, pressed on regardless. At this point in proceedings, easily distracted, I abandoned the directions.

First sin, disregard!

So I boiled the water, and threw in the tapioca seed. Gazing down into the steaming pot, wooden spoon in hand, it occurred to me, in a blink, I’d committed the second sin. The sago had instantly cooked on the outside, leaving it raw inside. It resembled a pot of clag with hundreds of half-sucked homoeopathic pilules floating in it. Idiot! The third sin was the brown sugar. Isn’t that what the recipe said? My intended virginal dessert had now taken on a muddy appearance. Fugly! Remembering I hadn’t added the expensive coconut cream paste, I ladelled it into the mix. The mixture, now hideously murky and coagulated and spewing its fury into the atmosphere like the grey heaving geysers of Rotorua, had suffered its final assault. In an attempt to resuscitate what was, in hindsight, clearly already dead, I took it off the stove, sprinkled liberal lashings of vanilla essence on its surface, put the lid on, said a prayer, and left.

A couple of hours later, bowl of lightly cooked raspberries at the ready, and half-anticipating a miracle, I peered into the pot. It was, undeniably, irredeemable! I spooned the now dumpling-like, speckled, tea-coloured sago mistake into the raspberry sauce with a curse. The dish resembled the insides of a cow!

2 out of 10!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Just Being

Through Byron Hospice, for 4 hours every second week, I sit with him in the loungeroom of the home he built for his second wife, 20 years ago. He wonders, repeatedly, how much he'll miss his wife, how she's going to manage when he’s gone.

In this funereal atmosphere, steeped in coffee-coloured light, today I carefully turned the pages of his photo albums, awakening memories long held, names long forgotten.

He is a canvas to grief, and has grown weary, like chrysanthemums left too long at the graveside of the beloved. He is open and honest, a gracious model for conscious death and dying.

Occasionally, during the interminable minutes of emptiness, a spotlight is cast sharply on my mind’s aversions. I watch with horror, disappointment and acceptance at what happens under my skin! Sitting still, doing nothing, a deep and abiding restlessness. TV blaring, irritation, boredom, a neurotic mind that screams ‘turn it off’. Silence, a desire to fill it with clever chatter. Sometimes, during his reflections on his life, I’m triggered to speak, have the final word, offer similar experience from my own life’s narrative. I turn my mind’s eye to his hand in mine.

Just being!