Life Is A Funny

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This is not my aunt: she would have had at least three blankets.

Life is a funny.

I’ve used this phrase as a tag in a few posts before, but never explained exactly where it came from. So sit back, relax, and I’ll tell you the tale.

Many years ago, my aunt attended a course on Taoism.  She and a group of other students, eager to unravel the mysteries of The Way (or maybe the universe, or human consciousness, or life, or all or any of the above), gathered weekly to hear the words of their teacher — who in my mind’s eye I have always pictured as a wizened and possibly sparsely bearded old man of Asian origin, seated serenely above his students, imparting his esoteric knowledge.

I don’t know if that’s what he really looked like. All I can really remember with any veracity about the story of my aunt’s Tao lessons was that the room in which they were held in was completely and utterly freezing. Positively Arctic. I can’t quite recall if there was a small and ineffective electric radiator involved, but I do know that my aunt would sit with her fellow truth-seekers, shivering beneath a blanket, listening to her Tao teacher speak.

And one day, when that Tao teacher was asked a particularly difficult question — I’m not certain exactly what that question was, but it may have had something to do with the nature of suffering, or whether there is life after death, or what the surest path to enlightenment might be, or perhaps even why the room was so ridiculously cold — the old man paused, and for a few moments he said nothing at all.

But when he spoke again, he answered with this phrase:

Life is a funny.

Just like that.

little things

Life is a funny…and it’s the little things that sometimes count for the most.

He didn’t say, “Life is funny”, nor did he suggest that “Life is a funny thing“.  Rather, he said that “Life is a funny”.

And ever since then, when anyone in our family has encountered something mystical, or unexpected, or insurmountable, or baffling, we have returned to my aunt’s Tao teacher’s simple (though admittedly unusual) phrase:

Life is a funny.

Because, when you think about it, life really is a funny. There are many things we can’t explain or begin to comprehend during our time on this Earth: from uncanny coincidences, to sudden and unspeakable tragedies, to moments of transcendent and miraculous grace, and to each and every instance of serendipity.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, not least because our family is setting out on a journey into the unknown with my dear Dad, who is experiencing some significant health issues at the moment. We don’t know what the future will hold — we never do, never can and never will. The only certainty, as always and for all of us, is that the journey will end with the final step every human being must take.

I’m not intending to be at all fatalistic, here — far from it. If anything, discovering that my father is ill has brought life and all that is important to me into sharp focus, and I’m grateful for that clarity, harsh though its light might be. Because despite the ultimate inevitability of death, I think the essential thing to remember is that we can embrace life, with all its weirdness and wonder and pain and joy.  To recognise that despite the monotony or banality we occasionally ascribe to our existences, our lives are perhaps much more eventful (and delightfully so) than we think they are. To know that it doesn’t hurt to keep hoping for the best of the unexpected, even if we don’t always get it.

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This little, ephemeral, life…

Life is transient, and it is also far more ephemeral and fragile than we sometimes allow ourselves remember. But accepting and absorbing this unadorned truth somehow enables us to strip away the superfluous and to focus on what really matters, what makes us who we are at the very core of our beings.

I don’t believe the response to life demanded by such an acceptance to be as simple as “it is what it is”, though I have been known to use that phrase often — sometimes ridiculously so. I have come to realise that these words only indicate a level of understanding, but they fail to communicate a sense of engagement.

I do believe, however, that living life fully requires making considered choices about how we spend our time.  I’ve written before about the challenge of living creatively, of becoming human beings rather than humans doing, and I suspect facing up to the inevitability of our mortality demands a direct and deliberate response from each of us — a response that is as fiercely positive as we can muster.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to turn everyone in my acquaintance into a parade of Pollyannas singing Que Sera, Sera in the face of the slightest adversity. All I’m suggesting is that we use this fleeting time we have together to the best of our abilities, to live in alignment with whatever First Principles guide us, to be our best selves.

Much of life is unpredictable. Parts of it are downright incomprehensible. But it is also, sometimes, miraculous. And it is always — always — mutable.

And that’s why, in the face of ever-changing circumstances, I choose to draw comfort from the curious words of an old Taoist:

Life is a funny.

At the Going Down of the Sun…

ANZAC

There was once a man who loved to sail…

It’s Anzac Day here in Australia today — the day we commemorate the continued service and sacrifice of our armed forces, the day we remember those who gave their lives to make this country the safe haven it is today.

For me, Anzac Day is a solemn occasion. It brings to mind of the sharp scent of rosemary, the sound of harbourbound fighter planes overhead, and the comforting feel and weight of the two brass buttons from my grandfather’s naval dress uniform that I took into every exam at the end of high school and throughout university.

I have no memories of my grandfather speaking to me of his war service: not of surviving the bombing of Darwin, not of the time he spent at sea during the war in the Pacific, not of being one of the first Australians to set foot on Japanese soil after the signing of the surrender in Toyko Bay. And yet, the photograph I have of him on top of my piano is one that was taken at sea during that awful time, and it is of a slim young man leaning casually against the ship’s rail, immaculately dressed (as always) and smiling — and reminding me of my younger brother more than I’d like to admit.

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…he was my Grandfather…

Somehow, the sight of that photograph often prompts me to imagine what he and his mates went through — a bunch of blokes thrown together as the crew of a small ship on a vast ocean, facing a determined enemy. In all honesty, however, I know I can’t really imagine what it was like. Not the exhaustion. Or the feeling of being constantly threatened. Or the battles at sea. Or the kamikazes. And even though I will always be proud of his service, my overwhelmingly emotion is one of relief that he came home.

That he had a family.

That I got to know him and love him.

And as I write this, I am acutely aware that in a matter of days it will be the 25th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

Anniversaries are strange things. At first they often feel so raw we wonder whether we will make it through them, and worry that the sorrow and anguish will never go away. Because loss literally makes our hearts ache — and I suspect Queen Elizabeth II was absolutely right when she once told her young grandsons, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

But even as time goes on, anniversaries can fill us with a welter of conflicting emotions, and can sometimes surprise us with the  intensity of our residual grief. Only two years ago, I used this space to write about my grandfather when those feelings crept up on me once again. And, perhaps because I am at heart a reader and writer, then as now I tend to draw comfort from the words of fictional characters whenever grief rears its shaggy head. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Albus Dumbledore offers these comforting words:

Ddore dead do not

…and he’s never really left me….

To have been loved deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.

Elsewhere, Dumbledore also reminds us that the ones who love us never truly leave us, and that even when they have the continue to influence us in our everyday lives — in the thoughts we think, the decisions we make, even in the turns of phrase we use.

I try to pass those funny little things that my grandparents said on to my own children.  My Welsh grandmother, for example, used to say “Golly Gosh!”, which my kids, for reasons known only to them, find utterly delightful. My globetrotting gypsy grandmother was famous for asking, “Where’s Beulah?” every time she hosted a dinner party — referring to an imaginary kitchen maid who supposedly shot through every time guests arrived, leaving Grandma with all the work. And my grandfather? Well, any success, no matter how big or small, was always celebrated by him as being a “true triumph”.

I am grateful I can refer my children to the words of their ancestors as well as those of Albus Dumbledore when they are in need of comfort, though there is one other thing I told them when they were small that they have latched onto: that when someone we love dies, we see them again every night because they are up with the twinkling stars. They reminded me of this only recently when, after we finished reading The Hobbit together, we sat down as a family and watched all three Hobbit movies. Not surprisingly, both my girls have become particularly fond of Tauriel, the Sylvan Elf who does not appear in the book, but who has a minor role in the movies.

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…and he never ever will.

When Thorin Oakenshield and his company of dwarves have been imprisoned by Thranduil, The Elvenking of Mirkwood, Tauriel has a discussion with Kili, one of the younger dwarves about Mereth Nuin Giliath, the Feast of Starlight.

“All light is sacred to the Eldar, but the Wood Elves love best the light of the stars,” Tauriel tells Kili, who says he always thought starlight was cold, remote and far away.

But Tauriel, it seems, has a similar view of the stars to mine:

It is memory, precious and pure…I have walked there sometimes, beyond the forest and out into the night. I have seen the world fall away and the white light of forever fill the air.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

At the going down of the sun, the twinkling stars shine.

Tout Pret

write it out

The sanity-saving act of putting fingers to keys…

It feels like forever since I’ve posted here, and it’s such a relief to have my fingers back on the keys, tapping away so I can make sense of it all.

A fair bit has changed for me in the past six weeks or so: I’ve started a new job and taken on a volunteering role in addition to the work I already do. And although I’ve managed to keep my employment within school hours (which as any working mother will tell you is about the closest thing you’ll get to a modern day miracle), I have missed being here, in my small patch of cyberspace, and have found myself yearning for just five more minutes than I actually had so I could bash out a blogpost.

And because I didn’t have those extra five minutes, the school uniforms got hurriedly ironed instead. Or I threw together some lunch for the next day at the office. Or I quickly sipped a life-saving cup of tea before I jumped back into the car to pick up whichever child from whatever sporting practice/birthday party/school event/playdate they happened to be at.

But I still wanted to be here, sharing the musings of the Daydream Believer.

I’ve often joked with my mates that I’m not a very pleasant person to be around if I haven’t been writing something — writing anything. And the more time I spent attempting to adjust myself and my (occasionally uncooperative) family members to the new set of circumstances I had brought to bear on our world, the less time I spent putting words on a page.

Any words. On any page.

I could feel myself starting to unravel a bit. To come unstuck. Maybe even a little unhinged…

And I knew that meant I had to prepare.

Preparation works for me. It’s why I make lists — on the backs of envelopes, in notebooks, on my phone, even on the back of my hand. It’s why I have a bullet journal (and by this I mean a battered book I lug everywhere and in which I scrawl utterly irreverently, not some sort of pristine Pinterest-worthy portfolio with natty colour coded tabs). It’s why I menu plan. It’s why I write out timetables for my kids. It’s why I have a small filing system in my kitchen to keep track of everything from permission forms to potential holiday plans. It’s why I mentally review my to do list in bed each night. It’s why I allocate time to thinking things through and planning them out.

think

I reckon there’s one in every family…

Preparation is also, perhaps, in my blood. The motto of the clan into which I was born is “Tout Pret” — which means, of course, “all ready”. And while I do realise that our family words probably have more to do with a well-honed Highland propensity to fight off (just about any) invading force rather than a simple willingness to get the domestic drudgery done, recent family history does seem to indicate that we still possess a tendency towards preparedness and — consequently — to getting things done.

And so here I am: back on the page, still trying to making sense of it all, but knowing that I I made the plans and made the time to be here, now — with my words.

As always, it’s doing what you have to do before you do what you want to do.

what you wanna do

It’s doing what you really want to do…

It’s being true to my self and to what I believe.

It’s coming home.

It’s in my blood.

Tout Pret.

Without a Word

nijinsky-faun

Nijinsky as the Faun

I have been forever fascinated by how humans can convey the depth and width of their emotions without uttering a single sound. You may think it odd that someone like me, who relishes and cherishes the written word, would value such expression so highly – but, quite simply, I do.

I love watching people dance. I’ve written before about how my children do, too. And while I don’t mind a bit of a boogie myself from time to time, there are some things — ballet, for example — that I believe are best left to the experts. To those rare individuals who are disciplined enough to dedicate their lives to honing their skills and their selves to the point that they bare their very souls on stage.

On Saturday night I was fortunate enough to witness one such individual dance, when Alexandre Riabko took to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in the title role of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky.  It was a powerful, masterful performance, vividly depicting Vaslav Nijinsky’s life inside and outside of dance via a series of memories and hallucinations as he descended, finally, into madness.

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Descent into madness…Alexandre Riabko as Nijinksy.

Watching Riabko inhabit Nijinsky’s interior world, as other dancers recreated his recollections — of being the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, or of the Faun in L’apres midi d’un faune, or of Petrouchka, or of learning his ballet steps with his brother and sister  — was mesmerising. But as other dancers began to give form to Nijinksy’s delusions and as his complex relationships with his lover and employer at the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, and with his wife, Romola, visibly unravelled, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy.

nijinsky-sheherazade

The Golden Slave…

The image of Nijinsky returning again and again to something like second position, arms outstretched, as though trying to find his centre and a sense of safety in the midst of his increasing confusion was heartbreaking, particularly when juxtaposed with the transformation of his memories of Diaghilev — performed with all his usual elegant line and length by Andrew Killian — from sensual lover and suave mentor to sinister impresario.

No footage of Nijinksy dancing is believed to have survived — Diaghilev, apparently, would not allow him to be filmed — but during the two and half hours he was on stage, Alexandre Riabko had me completely and utterly convinced that he was channelling the spirit of the man whom many regard as being one of the greatest interpreters of the artform to ever set foot on a stage.

I left the Sydney Opera House deeply saddened by the tragedy of Nijinsky’s tale — he never again danced publicly from the time of his final performance in 1919 until his death, after spending years in and out of asylums, in 1950 — but I was also, ultimately, uplifted by the sheer intensity, beauty and bravery of the performance I had just witnessed.

And I suspect that feeling — one of great admiration tinged with sorrow — would have stayed with me for the remainder of the weekend, had I not had the pleasure of attending a Greek Orthodox wedding with my family the following day.  My daughters had never been to a wedding before, and they were entranced by everything about the experience from the singing at the wedding ceremony to the table settings at the reception. But what really captivated them — and me — was the dancing.

Watching the wedding guests encircling the dance floor, every one of them tracing the intricate steps of a Syrtos, was every bit as mesmerising as the ballet had been the night before.  Here were women — some in sensible sandals, most in spectacular stilletos — and men following in the footsteps of those who had come before them. Here was a sure-footed groom, leading his radiant bride. Without uttering a single word, the dance spoke of tradition, of continuity, of community, of family.

And as the long line of dancers wound their way around the room, I found myself thinking of each of their bodies as a living link to the past, stretching all the way to the present and then onwards, ever onwards, as they danced into the night, celebrating with the newlyweds and wishing them a lifetime of happiness in the future.

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A long line of tradition and celebration…

We Did It: The Communist Approach to Vacation Planning

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It’s all about the polka dots, peeps — Rosie the Riveter and Minnie Mouse know fashion.

Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity will know that I am a planner.

A sometimes fasitidous list maker.

An occasionally ridiculously anal nth degree detailer.

But then, there’s the other part of me (which The Bloke has been known to attribute to my left-leaning political stance) that quite enjoys the long view. The Five Year Plan, for example. The kind that might be set down in a notebook (red, of course) along with an outline of how the means of production and communal — er, sorry, I mean family — income might be channelled into attaining whatever Big Goal I have determined will best serve the Common Good.

And while it may be true that I studied Russian history at university and have copies of The Portable Karl Marx and The Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution and A History of the Soviet Union (Final Edition) — amongst other salacious titles — on my bookshelf, The Bloke has insisted that these be hidden behind an armchair so as not to offend the sensibilities of my in-laws.

I’m totally OK with that.

Really — I’m broad minded.

(And — for the sake of my inlaws’ sanity — I’m not Communist either).

Which is probably why our most recently completed Five Year Plan abandoned any remotely leftie sentiments and culminated in a family vacation to the cultural heartland of capitalist consumerism: Disneyland!

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Maybe Walt was a kindred spirit too…

Seriously, we had a ball.

Yes, I might have planned out each day of our holiday (as best as I could) in advance, making sure we took advantage of Park Hopper Tickets and Magic Hours and Fast Passes and every other trick and time-saving contrivance I could research and/or think of, but as a result we saw and did just about everything we wanted to — and still had time to shop for souvenirs.

Because those Disney dudes know that it’s all about the merch, my friends!

(Though I suspect even Rosie the Riveter — who, as a wartime icon of American feminism and women’s economic power — could have told you that, despite pre-dating the die-hard Disney era by a decade or more).

So, despite my somewhat communist approach to vacation planning — or perhaps because of it?! — we have returned to the Great Southern Land with multiple sets of mouse ears, numerous magnets and keyrings, several caps (Star Wars ones, of course, thanks to Lucasfilm being aquired by Disney for the bargain price of $4.06 billion back in 2012 — which may or may not equate to about two week’s worth of ticket sales to the park), along with three new lightsabers (two of them custom built) and Mickey Mouse only knows what else.

And now that this Five Year Plan has been completed — which probably revolved more around Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop being just the right age to revel in the magic of the Happiest Place on Earth than anything else — I can honestly say that I’m so glad we did it.

The Common Good, I think the whole family would agree, was well and truly served.

They might even let me come up with another Five Year Plan…

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Main Street USA, all decked out for Halloween. Planning ahead meant, to misquote the most famous Disney Princess of recent years, Elsa of Arendelle, “the crowds never bothered us anyway”.

 

Drinking White Wine in the Sun…

I…really like Christmas…it’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it…

I’m one of those people who really gets into Christmas. I look forward to it — can’t get enough of decorating the tree, wrapping presents, creating table centrepieces and playing carols.

Every year we pick a different colour theme to use throughout the house, from the wreath on the door to the baubles on the tree, not to mention the wrapping on the presents beneath it. Somehow it seems to make Christmas fresh and shiny and new each year, and we know from the colours exactly which year it was whenever we look back at the photographs.

But yesterday I got a text from a very dear friend proclaiming that she is already over Christmas — that she can’t wait for it to be through.

And I realised, not for the first time this Christmas, that I’m one of the lucky ones.

Every single one of my living blood relatives resides in the same city as me. Just about all of our marriages are all still intact, some of them after more than forty years. And while I wouldn’t describe the vast majority of my family members as normal (whatever that means), we still all speak to each other…well, most of the time, anyway.

I do know just how lucky I am. I’ve celebrated Christmas thousands of miles from home and family members, and spent my childhood celebrating it twice as a result of my grandparents’ divorce — or three times if we made the long trek up the Pacific Highway to do it all again with my relatives in Queensland too.

Looking around at my circle of friends I see so many dear ones who have made Australia their home, and who still have family elsewhere. I know that at Christmas their thoughts will inevitably turn to England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Poland, Austria, Brazil…and I also know that however much we love it, Australia is a long way from most other places.

Wherever you are and whatever you face, these are the people who make you feel safe in this world…

I can’t take away the distance, or whatever dysfunction might affect your family situation this Christmas. But it is my fervent hope that you get to celebrate with the people you love, who mean something to you, regardless of whether they are related to you or not.

What I can do is share with you my favourite Christmas song.  It’s not a carol — but a beautiful, irreverent, heartfelt piece by the inimitable Tim Minchin. For me, it captures the spirit of Christmas in Australia, and sums up the way my family celebrates each year.

I can’t watch it through without tearing up.

But if you’re on your own this Christmas, or if your family situation is fractured or somehow faulty, or if you’re nine thousand miles from the people who dared to bring you into this world and gave you the courage to roam it, or if you are lucky enough celebrate Christmas surrounded by the people you love, or whatever your circumstances are — this is for you.

And me? The Bloke? Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop?

We’ll be seeing my Dad, my brother and sister-in-law, my nieces and Mum…we’ll be drinking white wine in the sun…