Reading Dad's Journals

My beloved Dad kept journals for many years. He died in 2008. And now I have to read them…

Category: culture

6 gifts from Dad, 6 years since he died

My dear friend Shane was a solid support for me in the years after Dad died; he’d call regularly, and listen to me as I struggled or thrived. He was very present and generous, plus unfailingly sympathetic. Then his Dad Frank died. I drove across country to the funeral, and we celebrated the times of a simple man who’d lived a good life, respected in church, happily married, and whistling to himself contentedly right until the end, eating nothing but desserts.

Shane called me about a month later and said ‘I know I was there for you when your Dad died, but I’m ringing to say I actually had no idea what it was truly like did I?’ I kinda laughed and replied ‘I feel as though I went to live on another planet; the exact same style as this one, but for people who’ve lost their fathers. I’ve just been living there alone, waiting for my friends to join me one by one… So welcome, I guess.’ We laughed a sad laugh together, and another layer of our bond was laid down- the silver lining from our losses.

Now another close friend Pete is sitting beside his father as he approaches death; I’m holding them both in my thoughts, although I’ve never met his Dad. And again I’m readying a welcome to the new planet, the slightly blue planet, the sometimes-triggering-small-child-lost planet.

Today is the sixth year since my Dad passed on, and they definitely get easier. Not easy, but easier. This morning I went for my usual neighbourhood walk, listening to music while admiring people’s gardens, and I began to think about what Dad’s taught me since he left. I’ve certainly learnt about Resilience, and that Time really does heal all wounds, but here are my top six gifts from Dad, and I hope they resonate for you, dear readers who’ve lost loved ones, or inspire you to reflect on your own:

1. Acceptance/surrender/gratitude– It’s a cliché, but it’s true. We are all dying, and grief is as much of a guarantee in life as the good fun stuff like weddings, babies, and birthdays. The struggle for acceptance of loss can be short or long, easy or strong, but at some point, Life goes on without your beloved. You laugh again, you cry less, you stop thinking about them every day. Now, I reckon I only check in with Dad once a week or so, maybe less if I’m really busy. I’ve accepted his mortality, and thus my own. To surrender to that means I pay more attention to every day, every pleasure, every sunset. It means I have an up-to-date Will, that I take good care of my health, both physical and mental, and that I’m grateful for almost every day, even the shitty ones when I have to do my tax, or go to the dentist.

2. Family– This means ‘Family of Choice’ too, not just blood. My incredible cousin Jo was the rock that I leant upon to get myself through the first month, and so too my aforementioned ‘brother’ Shane. My ‘sister’ Kat continues to connect me through our history of dancing 5Rhythms, and through our creative journeys. My ‘ex-step Mum’ Suzanne feels closer than ever as the years progress, united as we are in our love for Ben, her son and my youngest brother; long term friends here in Australia know that today is ‘Dad’s day’ for me, when I retreat a little, and pay my respects. Dad was always the one ringing around, spreading the news and the tidbits, staying connected, and thereby connecting us all. Dad taught me about phone calls to family across the globe, and about making time to visit old friends, and I have a much greater appreciation of staying in touch with my widespread ‘family’ since he left.
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I still miss his fortnightly phone calls, and the sound of his cheery hello down the line though.

3. Food, esp raspberries– I have vivid, multiple memories of Dad fussing about the presentation of a dish, or the laying of the table (including napkins with special ring holders). I remember his small exclamation of delight as he tasted something he was cooking, or the playful rigmarole of trying out a new restaurant. Fish, cheese, wine: Dad’s favourites. And Indian of course, which remains a strong family tradition (you can guess what we’re having this evening can’t you?). He also loved raspberries, as do I. In fact, we scattered some of his ashes around the raspberry canes growing in his garden in Victoria, and although I’ve done the research, I haven’t yet tried to grow my own, despite wanting to. But I will. Nothing joins family and friends like good food, and for that Dad, I salute you.
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4. Being alone– I’ve always been independent, have often lived alone, and have travelled solo too. But when Dad died, I fell into a pit of loneliness from which I never thought I’d climb out. I slept with the light on in the hallway for at least 6 months, and had terrible nightmares that gave me insomnia. 3-5am is a lonely time to be awake, and no amount of Facebooking helps. In my deepest times of sadness, I met myself as a small child, lost and wandering, missing her Dad. Somehow we settled down together for a cup of make believe tea, and have been friends every since. Solitude now seems to be a privilege; contemplation and reflection are too, and every time I sit safely in my clean home or at the unpolluted beach, pondering life’s mysteries and gifts, I realize how happy I am to be alone, blessed with only temporary loneliness. Thanks Dad.
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5. History– You can’t change it. But you can change how you feel about it. And can be mindful of the new history you choose to create as you move through your present. My relationship with Dad wasn’t perfect- nor was his own relationship with himself or his other children. But losing him has given me the opportunity to focus on all the good stuff, and let go of the bad. I still know it, and lived it of course, as do my brothers, but I am responsible for how I react to it, and what I dwell on. So rest easy Dad; I’ve finally learnt to forgive us both for all our differences and clashes, even while I now struggle here sometimes with my wilful, moody fourteen year old son! Who, by the way, seems to have inherited your ‘card sharp’ tendencies, which I believe you got from your Mum… Not to mention your sense of humour and good story-telling…

Me and son Alby, July 2014

Me and son Alby, July 2014

6. Energy– When Dad died in Kauai, we had him cremated. We took turns to hold his warm, heavy, strangely-humming box of ashes as we drove to the sea. At sunset, we held a small ritual farewell, and threw some of his ashes into the ocean, so that he could keep travelling the world. We put ashes on his trees in Canada, and into the water that lapped at his garden. We three children each took some of him home to our lands: America, Norway, and Australia. He’s in the pond of the Japanese Gardens in Adelaide, and here at the beach near Byron Bay. He’s still moving, transforming, and growing. For me, he’s in the sunset colours, or beneath a beautiful piece of music. He’s in a leaping whale, a rustling tree, the grin of his grandson. He’s everywhere, in everything, yet also far beyond being tied into any one form. He echoes through the tears I cry sometimes, especially today. He giggles in the funny stories I tell, or sighs with me just as I fall asleep. He’s everywhere, in everything, an eternal energy added to every other lost parent, son, friend, and even foe.

He’s larger than he ever was; so big, he’s become a slightly blue planet, the welcoming-small-child-lost-then-found planet, home to us all, one by one.

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Was that Failure, or just Change?

For weeks, my diary had been marked ‘Nov 10- Day of the Dead’. Capital letters, and in pen, not pencil. I told friends about it; tried to cajole my teenage son into going; turned down other invites for that day; I was committed. In a previous post here, I’d written about how important I believe it is to remember and celebrate our ancestors, which is a significant national day in many parts of the world.

So I drove to my local park at the appointed hour, and was greeted by the fresh smell of incense, and the bubble of a hot urn for free herbal teas. Various brightly dressed people were putting finishing touches to the information display, and there was a sense of reverence, provided by the experienced organisers:

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I wandered, preparing myself to decorate a cloth flag, or to peg up an image or some words that would convey an essence of Dad. Other visitors were propping photos of their lost loved one among the exposed roots of the fig tree, and I leaned closer in to see their faces:

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And then a voice inside me said ‘No, I’m not doing this today. I want to go home.’

I took a deep breath, straightened my shoulders, and headed towards the pottery table, where I could mould a raw symbol of my love.

The voice got louder: ‘I am so not into this right now. And I’m SO not fucking playing with clay!”

Another deep breath. An attempt at self-negotiation: how about if I take a few steps back, snap some photos for my blog, and just relieve the pressure for a moment?

Good idea Gabrielle; no protest from within.

A quiet circling of the site, shooting from different angles, and then a soft advance toward the main tree branch again…

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…‘If you take one more step, or stay one more minute, I am going to have the biggest tantrum you’ve ever seen, including crying hysterically while flailing my arms and shoving off well-meaning mourners. I don’t want to share, and I don’t want to care. Get me outta here now!’

O………K…………. Looks like we’re leaving then.

I tried not to skip toward the car. But it was hard not to.

I tried not to drive away with a screeching of hot tyres. But it was hard not to.

It was impossible not to smile with relief.

So did I fail? Did I disrespect Dad by not staying? Was I cowardly?

I realized I just wasn’t ready. Intellectually, I love the idea, and want to make it a national holiday, but emotionally, I couldn’t cut it. Not that day anyway.

So I came home early, to my son’s surprise, and wasn’t in floods of tears, also to his surprise. We played cards, laughing and teasing, then cooked a delicious roast dinner together. Dad would have loved that, and I could almost feel him smiling as we two giggled and cooked.

Every day can be Day of the Dead: using the furniture we inherited from loved ones, or passing their photo in its special frame on the wall. A laugh or an attitude can be handed down across generations, while of course physical appearance is a direct link to our past. I can choose every day to acknowledge Dad, and to give him more attention if I feel like it, such as on his birthday. He would love me to listen to myself, and to not go through with something ‘because I’m supposed to, or because it’s what others expect.’

He would be just fine about me driving away from the park, and would have assured me I wasn’t ‘failing’.

Thanks Dad x

The sweet smell of Essence of Russell

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I grew up in England from age 7-20. My reality was hugely influenced by the politics of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, including massive unemployment and youth disenfranchisement; read about it in one of my favourite posts HERE.

Comedian and actor Russell Brand is ten years younger than me, but with a similar experience it seems. Anyone who uses Facebook will surely have seen the link to his 10-minute interview by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight?  PLEASE WATCH IT HERE.

The interview has inspired me to postpone my plans for today until I get this post done, as I cannot help but respond to the essential truth I hear and feel in what Russell is saying. We KNOW the real difference between wrong and right, and we must find the courage to accept it, then act on it, without excuse. Mr Brand articulates this perfectly, while acknowledging the path that led him to his sweet truth. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own political values, even though it’s Sunday, and I’d anticipated a lazy day avoiding housework, ignoring to-do lists, and perhaps only achieving a walk on the beach.

To elaborate: we have just had a federal election in Australia, where voting is compulsory. I knew the Liberal (Conservative) party was going to get in, as did we all. I cried all the way home from voting, knowing that my country and its marginalised citizens were shortly to be governed for at least three years, and possibly six, by uncaring, narrow minded, selfish bigots. Led by a sexist man who doesn’t believe in Climate Change. I cried on and off all day. So did many of my friends, according to their Facebook posts.

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Yet Russell hits it on the head, when asked by what authority he is entitled to talk about politics when he doesn’t even vote:

“I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.”

He doesn’t vote, and never has, because he sees it as tacit agreement in the authority and worth of the political system he is being offered, and which he knows is wrong.

I know that people all around the world are fighting for the democratic right to vote, and that this argument is the main one used effectively by Australian friends who defeat my yearning to not vote. Of course I agree that everyone should be able to vote for the party they choose. Just as I agree that women should be able to vote, drive cars, wear whatever they want, and be paid the same wage as men for the same job. That children should be safe to go to school, and that everyone everywhere has access to fresh water, sewerage, electricity, food, healthcare, and employment.

But the majority of the Western world has all those things, and we’re STILL NOT CONTENTED. Massive inequities continue, all at the cost of the environment, and the poor. For example, I don’t understand how any American politician can vote against ‘Obamacare’; there’s a reason to never vote again right there. But it’s essential to understand that Russell and I are not commending political apathy. As citizens and consumers we each have tremendous power, and need to realize that.

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His interview has just given me renewed strength. Please watch it HERE if you haven’t already. As long as I obediently participate, I am validating our essentially flawed political system. As long as I accept that I am powerless to create the change I really want to see, and that the world really needs, I remain complicit in global destruction.

“You ask me what right do I have [to create a different political system]? I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.”

Russell’s final words fired me up! He’s not calling for complete Anarchy. But he is calling for a revolution that prioritizes the environment, the redistribution of wealth, and the valuing of the disenfranchised. Whether you do it for your children, for refugees, for endangered animals and biodiversity, or for the memory of your grandmother, please join our Revolution.

Red tape liposuction

I haven’t blogged for a couple of months because my life expanded so much that I myself was almost squeezed out. I felt like an A4 page whose margins were set too wide on the formatting palette. The causes of the spread? I was successful with my arts grant so had 6-weeks to make a new puppetry show, which included 2 short films, and I decided to move 2500kms interstate. I therefore had to pack up my home of 4 years, including all my worldly possessions like Grandma’s tea set, Dad’s 3 art deco vases, and various antique glass-framed pictures.

I had to give notice on the most stable job I’ve ever had (five years of teaching Pilates in the same gorgeous studio), including leaving many wonderful clients, colleagues, and the greatest boss. Most importantly, I had to say goodbye to the friends and connections I’d established during 6 years in Adelaide, which meant a certain amount of grieving and letting go.

To say it was a big couple of months is an understatement.Image

Something had to give. And I’m afraid it was you, my dear Blog readers. And Dad’s journal reading. Also my short story writing. As well as my work on my book of interviews. Heck, even my Morning Pages journal got dusty, or else only had pages torn from it at midnight to make lists of stuff I had to do so I could actually get to sleep.

Instead, I worked long and hard creating a new solo puppetry show called ‘Puzzle’. It only runs for 12 minutes, but is easily the hardest thing I’ve done. At one point I had a panic attack for a few hours, trying to step up to the challenge of incorporating critical feedback, and struggling dismally. Thank god for my three wise friends, who could listen to me rant and wail, making gentle suggestions through my distress, and pushing me to push myself. We all knew I’d get there in the end, but it was indeed like a labour and birth re-enactment.

Simultaneously, I culled over 6 packing boxes of papers into just one, burning and cleansing. That felt so good. Who needs bank statements from 2004? Or those mouldy university notes from 1995? Sure, the essays are good, and the topics interesting, but really… Am I ever going to ‘need’ them again? Well I hope not, because I’ve burnt them. I got on a bit of a roll actually, and became the Cull Queen. Old daily diaries, folders of magazine clippings, defunct product manuals, unimportant red tape archives- all gone. So liberating. Love letters from irrelevant exes, boring photos I was keeping from a sense of duty, even old show programs and flyers. I knew I was treading a fine line between being pragmatic, and being callous, but seeing as the only victim was me, I went ahead anyway. I’ve thus been ‘administratively liposuctioned’. I highly recommend it. It can come at the cost of some sleep deprivation, but provides the perfect opportunity if you’re avoiding working on a new project, or packing up your house. And yet you can trick yourself into believing that it’s kind of connected to those activities, so it’s OKAY TO CONTINUE LATE INTO THE NIGHT. Image

Now I’m in my new home, my new show merely awaits its promotional packaging, and I feel bureaucratically trim, taut, and terrific. I have survived the big pack, the big quit, the big farewell, the big drive, the big hello, the big unpack, and the big ‘starting all over again’. So here I am: I’m back, and I’m delighted xx

Four years of waiting

My father Lawrence died in October 2008, aged 73. He had kept meticulous daily diaries, plus more personal journals. Three weeks ago, a box finally arrived which contains the journals. I’m calling it The Box. His writing spans relationship breakups, childhoods, romances, world travel, family losses, and his most private thoughts and responses. I have to read them. But I’m scared shitless of what I’ll find. This Blog is going to follow and support me in this process, and document the journey. I hope to use it to feed the book I am working on about losing my Dad, and to exchange insights and comfort with others. I will also try to be funny. So I’ll be back, and look forward to your comments as we go…

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