Life Is A Funny

little things 3

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.

little things 2

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.

nkjdzi1447190740

…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.

starlight

…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.

Rise

Iman B&W

Iman…supermodel, entrepreneur, wife, mother, photographed here in 1977 by Francesco Scavullo.

About eighteen months ago I started following someone on Facebook — a celebrity, no less. I am not usually one to click the Follow button simply because someone is famous, but there was something about what this person was posting — consistently — that often made me stop and consider. Or smile. Or laugh out loud.

That person was Iman Abdulmajid.

Of course, in the light of her (monumentally) famous husband’s death a month ago, the quotes and thoughts that Iman posted over the past year or so no longer surprise me: she knew, even though the world did not, that her husband of more than two decades was dying of cancer.

Looking back, the posts now have an added poignancy that I don’t think the passage of time will take away. In the week before her husband’s death, for example, she shared quotes like, “Life isn’t about avoiding the bruises. It’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it”, and a thought from the poet Rumi: “Do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

But during the past year, in between sharing incredibly beautiful fashion photographs and promotional material for her husband’s Blackstar album, there were also thoughts that made me chuckle, such as “Sometimes you have to burn a few bridges to keep the crazies from following you”.

Overwhelmingly, however, there were messages of hope, of faith, of gratitude, and of determination to overcome. And the majority of the thoughts she shared she tagged with a single word: Rise.

Iman & DB

Iman and the inimitable Mr Jones in 2003, from a Tommy Hilfiger campaign styled by Edward Enninful.

It’s a powerful concept.

Rise, every day. Rise, above adversity. Rise, to the challenge — whatever it is.

Rise.

And, just as her husband appears to have made very conscious decisions about his approach to death, Iman seems to be approaching the transition to life after his passing with the same hope, faith, gratitude and determination to overcome that she has displayed over the past year.  Today, she posted a quote from Rune Lazuli: “Each tear is a poet, a healer, a teacher.”

Despite her grief, which must be as raw as it is real, there is true graciousness in the way Iman has responded to her husband’s passing. There is also humility, intelligence, and — like her husband — a considerable amount of style.

There is, I suspect, a lot I could still learn from Iman Abdulmajid — not least of which is to rise.

 

 

What a Piece of Work is Man

RememberWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, lines 303-307

Today marks the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

I have lived more than half my life without him, but there are days when I feel his loss as acutely as I did all those years ago.

My grandfather’s passing is, for me, inextricably linked with Shakespeare, specifically with Hamlet, which I first saw performed the day he died. So much of what the play explores resonates with me, then and now — the grief, the family torn apart, the musings on life and how to live it, or indeed whether to live it at all.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are among Shakespeare’s most famous. More than four centuries after he wrote them they are known the world over, often quoted and occasionally parodied. Keenly observant of the mind’s workings, Shakespeare never allows Hamlet to shy away from confronting his inner demons, and his words provide insights that are surprisingly fresh and relevant today. And yet, when life — or life’s sudden, unexpected end — overlays these monologues with memory, embroiders them with poignant and painful detail, Hamlet’s orations become imbued, for me, with much deeper meaning.

Who was my grandfather, the quintessence of dust I lost more than two decades ago?

He was but a man.

He was of average stature, but with a presence so immense that its absence left a gaping hole. His smile lit up any room, his laughter filled any void.

He was a passionate sailor, a successful businessman, an avid tennis fan, and a hopeful punter.

He valued honesty, loyalty, persistence and discipline.

He believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of a decent cup of tea to solve any problem.

He enjoyed words — reading them, writing them, hearing them. He was a prolific and witty correspondent; his handwriting was simultaneously elegant and bold. He gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus. He taught me to appreciate brevity.

Grief TolkeinHe served his country in the Royal Australian Navy as a Petty Officer Writer. He survived the bombing of Darwin, he was present at the Japanese surrender in Toyko Bay. He seldom spoke of the war.

He was handsome, charming and dapper.

He was twice divorced and thrice married. He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, many of them aimed (understandably) by my grandmother and many more, I suspect, directed by himself.

Above all, he was a man of love. His hugs were like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a winter’s day. He was bighearted. He was generous to a fault. He was a blazing sun, full of love and light.

During his life he was not an angel, but I’d like to think that he is one now.

Innocence Lost

It has been one week since the Sydney siege.  I’m not entirely sure what it is that I want to say in this post.  But the best thing, I suspect, is just to begin writing and see where it ends up.

As I watched coverage of the horrific events unfolding in Martin Place it brought back many memories of my years working as a legal secretary in Sydney’s CBD.  The names being bandied around by the various media outlets were so familiar.  All part of what was literally my old stomping ground: walking — and, occasionally, running as fast as my (usually) high heels could carry me — to Martin Place Chambers in the Reserve Bank Building, to the Land and Environment Court opposite State Parliament on Macquarie Street, to so many other places.  The Supreme Court.  Frederick Jordan Chambers.  Even to Selbourne Chambers.

Katrina Dawson worked at Eight Selbourne.  She was the same age as me.  She was a mum, like me. One of the barristers on her floor was someone I knew when I was growing up.  He and I lived on opposite sides of the railway line in the same leafy north shore suburb, both played the violin, both got exactly the same TER in our HSC in the same year.  I can’t begin imagine what the past week has been like for him, losing a colleague — and, no doubt, a friend — in such unimaginably tragic circumstances.

I was at the gym when the identities of those who died in the Sydney siege were being released.  First Tori Johnson’s handsome face appeared on eight of the ten television screens in front of the treadmill I was running on, along with the information that the other victim was a lawyer and mother.  I averted my gaze from the TV in front of me, hoping that when the female victim’s identity was confirmed that it wouldn’t be someone that I knew, but the next screen over was continuing the media’s saturation coverage of the situation, and the screen after that too.  It was impossible to avoid, and as much as I wanted to, I found myself unable to look away.

I didn’t know any of the victims of the Sydney siege personally — not those who lost their lives, nor those who had their lives changed irrevocably over the course of seventeen awful hours.  But like most Sydneysiders, I feel a very Sydneyreal sense of grief, a sharp recognition of the traumatic nature of an ordeal that no one — no one — should have had to endure.

I don’t yet know how to make sense of how our city has changed, or how we will deal with our collective loss of innocence.  But I suspect that after the floral tributes have faded, after the messages chalked on footpaths have washed away, and after the hashtags stop trending, we will all need some time to reflect, to hold our loved ones closer, and to do our best to honour the memory of Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson by doing the one thing they cannot do any more.

We must live.

As fully as we possibly can.