Reading Dad's Journals

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

Category: writing

Trigger me to write, why don’t you?

It started with a cracked brown jug. Under a grey sky, chirping birds, and a homework deadline. Or did it start with the flowers I put in the jug? I guess it’s hard to trace back the precise moment an emotion is created; slowly expanding down neural pathways, triggering related connections, sparking life into old circuits. Whatever the moment, it came into focus on Dad’s old jug, sitting on my timber shelf above the sink. I’d inherited it from his home in Canada, and this was only the second time I’d actually used it:

jugBlog

It can be an insignificant moment, putting flowers into a vase. Some people do it every day, like florists for example. Or nurses in hospitals. Just an ordinary act: trimming the stems, removing an errant leaf, perhaps adding a pinch of sugar to the water.

Or it can be profound. The first bunch of flowers received from a new beau. A souvenir wedding bouquet for the lucky bridesmaid who caught it. A spontaneous gathering of wildflowers by a visiting grandchild. These posies seem more important, more valuable. Worthy of a grander vase perhaps?

My flowers smelt beautiful; Singapore lilies, mixed with various green leaves. They looked perfect in Dad’s old jug, and it felt good to dust it off. Then I thought about how often he’d used it, taking it down from the top shelf behind the door in his long kitchen. I remembered filling it with water, and once, with homemade lemonade that was a bit too tart, but I was trying to cut down on sugar.

I remembered peeling off the bubble wrap that had delivered it to my door in Australia after he died, praying that it wasn’t chipped or broken. I’d double bubbled it for the drive from Adelaide, and had kept it in the car with me and the meowing cat all the way up North to our new home.

Now the jug sits on my table, full of flowers, and I’ve been filled with memories of Dad. I haven’t written this blog for ages- months and months; I’ve been wondering if its time had finished? But this entry feels easy, a nice gentle return to the blogosphere. A reminder that inspiration can come from anything, at any time, and all we have to do is be open and ready for it. Plus, we need a good soundtrack:

http://youtu.be/RzMHMWjVZc0

 

It’s good to be back! Now what’s the last thing that jogged your memory about a lost loved 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

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

My aunt Wendy says grief is selfish, yet I will still cry for Nelson.

Here is my aunt’s full quote, as left as a comment on my last post:

“… I think grief is less to do with the people themselves whom we’ve lost, more about what we’ve lost in terms of our childhood, youth, a supportive relationship, etc. So essentially I think grief is selfish, but that’s ok – we have to be, to some extent, to survive. Grief is the price we pay for loving and being loved.”

This stopped me in my maudlin tracks. She’s a smart lady, my aunt; one of the elders whom I wish I could spend more time with and learning from as she heads into her mid-seventies. But she’s in a small Welsh seaside town, and I’m here in Australia, so Facebook and occasional emails are the main communication channels. I would describe her as a political animal: a feminist, a peace activist, a vocal advocate for the rights of the marginalised everywhere.

This blog refers a lot to my sadness at losing my Dad; while the rawness of it has eased, it remains ever-present, on my trusty clipboard of grief.

But Wendy’s comment shone a different light on my world, which is the best you can hope for when writing I think. I have indeed lost everything she mentions, plus the physical comfort of his voice at the end of the phone, or the smell of him when we hug hello at an airport somewhere in the world. And it IS incredibly selfish: it’s all about MY loneliness, MY challenges in living without his support, my sadness at his lack of influence on my child, his grandson.

But MY world is all I know. It’s all I have. It surrounds me completely. So when something in it is torn away, it hurts. And yes, I will survive, no doubt, although I did briefly come close to not wanting to.

So what about when we lose someone who is not just of our personal world? Someone who is a symbol of hope and justice for millions of people?

When I was 14 or 15, my Mum told me we had to stop eating any food from South Africa. I had to stand there embarrassed beside her in the fruit shop while she confirmed from where the grapes had been imported. And the mandarins. And the apples. Then in 1984 The Specials released ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, and the opening chant cut through my sullen teenage rebellion. Suddenly my infuriating Mum became a cool political animal after all, just like her younger sister Wendy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgcTvoWjZJU

I still love this song.

Now the great man is moving toward leaving us. He’s lived a long, challenging life, and achieved the unthinkable. He means so much, to so many, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The collective grief we will feel on his death will be both universal and selfish; in general terms, we will have lost an inspiring advocate for equality and human rights, who has been a presence in our world since the 1960s. We will also each have a personal connection to that which resonates within us about him, ripping a tear in our unique emotional fabric. Even if it’s just the memory of forbidden seedless grapes and a ska song.

So it is with the loss of a parent. While perhaps my brothers have cried less than me, we each mourn in our own way. Communication builds a bridge between suffering humans; it may be a blog entry, a stilted conversation, or via the pages of a journal. It may unite people across oceans, and evoke support and understanding from complete strangers, such as I’ve experienced here on WordPress.

Profound communication may be achieved in the smallest of actions: our household went without certain fruit in England to let Nelson know that we supported his anti-apartheid movement. It may be a letter you write to a politician, or a march you attend, or a cake you bake. It may be in an unexpected form that reflects who you really are, and what you really think:

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Aunt Wendy is right: grief IS selfish. But so is Love. And one is indeed the price of the other. Thus while I may stumble at the cost, I will pay, over and over.

Dad was worth it, and so is Nelson Mandela.

Have I got time to process this breakdown before leaving for work?

I’ve been struck lately by how much time it takes to process emotions. I don’t just mean the ‘I’m annoyed at the parking inspector/check out chick/bank teller’ ones. I’m talking about the ‘my partner is having an affair/my parent just died/my teenager has been trying meth/my loved one has cancer’ ones. The BIG ones. The ones that hit you in the guts like a sledgehammer. Or squeeze your heart like a boa constrictor. The ones that make you fall down and weep, or lose your breath and sleep and appetite.

We’ve all had them, for a variety of reasons. We’ve all processed them, to a greater and lesser extent. But goodness they take a lot of energy. No wonder our shoulders hunch and spines bend as we age.

A dear friend has just suddenly lost her Dad, on top of a big year already which saw her deal with her dog being run over, buying a new house, fighting a lingering flu, and being a single parent while working full time. She sent her friends an email letting us know about her Dad, and notifying us of her need to withdraw for a while… Fair enough. I have no idea how she copes with all the pressure she’s under, and I’m too far away to really help.

When my Dad died suddenly, I think I was traumatised. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight, certainly couldn’t function at work, and took 4 weeks off. Only when 6 months later I realised that all my food was still tasting like sawdust, that I felt like I had a smiling mask over my numb blank face, and still couldn’t sleep with the light off, did I take myself to the doctor.

Three tests later and I was registering ‘high’ for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression. That felt like another blow; that somehow I’d ‘failed’ to cope, and that I was weaker than everyone else who’d lost their dads…

It took me another 9-12 months to get out of that, and back to ‘normal’. It was hard, scary work, and my friends were wonderfully supportive and understanding. But I also have the time. I live alone with no dependent children; I can reduce my teaching and performing work to suit me; I am not weighed down with a massive mortgage or credit card debt.

Another friend just separated from her partner of 17 years, and has majority care of their son while working four days a week. How does she find the spare hours to write in a journal, or go to the therapist, or beat pillows in a counselling session?

One of the greatest gifts I was given during my ‘official depression’ came from my fortnightly therapist, who was small and twitchy like a sparrow. She talked to me about my grief for Dad, and my options for managing it. She told me this:

“Imagine your sadness around losing your Dad is like an A4 clipboard. You can choose to hold it right up in front of your face, and not be able to see anything else around you.

Or, you can spend a lot of time and effort pushing it away, keeping it at bay, but then you will have a lot less energy for anything else you want to do.

A third option is to just tuck it under your arm, or sit it beside you in your favourite chair. This way, you know where it is, and you can keep it safe. When you need to, or when you feel like it, and you have the time and space, you can allocate it some attention. Maybe ten minutes, or an hour, or even a whole day. But then that’s it; you tuck it back under your arm or down beside you, and get back to what you were doing.”

Brilliant.

I’ve written before here about my belief we need to have a day to honour our dead that’s socially-condoned; perhaps we all need to make the time to honour our sorrow, abandonment, betrayal, fears, and shock as well? I know we’re all busy, and that the dishes won’t wash themselves (although I have been leaving mine a bit lately!), but attendance to emotional crises and their ripples is important. What do you think?Image

Different people find different affirmative ways: meditation, spirituality, faith, exercise, therapy, art. And we all know the negative ways, including denial, workaholism, and alcohol abuse.

My Dad invested hours and hours writing his thoughts for 15 years. I do the same, and credit The Artist’s Way for guiding me. I also dance 5Rhythms, which calms my soul like nothing else. I want to encourage you all to find the time, make the time, swap the time, steal the time… Whatever it takes to help you feel more at peace with your dramas, and to honour their effects on you. I know I love having my ‘clipboard of Grief’ with me, and how to give it attention when I need to.

With love, gabrielle

‘I’m not a chicken. But why did I cross the road?’

Well, I crossed because he waved me over. That old man driving the dated sedan, with flower head hub caps. And his simple, chivalrous gesture brought tears to my eyes. I tried to gulp them down, re-absorb them somehow. Damn body fluids, always overflowing. He just opened his hand, palm up, and glided it across the dashboard as if I needed help choosing the best direction to cross in. And there he was: my Dad, doing the same thing to pedestrians for as long as I could remember.

In the seventies, he did it to the sound of the Bee Gees, or our favourite childhood movie soundtrack:

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In the eighties I always had ‘Wham’ in the tape deck, and then The Clash or The Cure as I experimented with the dark side. The nineties was classical radio, or one of my younger brother’s mixed reggae CDs, and always not too loud.

He gestured through France, England, the US & Canada, and here in Australia.

As I sit at home now in Adelaide, I’m realising how much reading this first journal of Dad’s is stirring me up. I admit I’m only half way through the first of seven, and it’s exhausting. Not easy topics: relationship difficulties, possible child custody arrangements, a sick parent, frustrating family dynamics, more relationship difficulties… And most telling? Dad’s struggles with expressing himself, with communicating honestly, with being ‘heard’, and being brave enough to confront others.

Shall we cross over to my journal stash from The Artist’s Way for a moment? Can you see where I’m going with this? They are full of the same damn complaints!

Dad and I are similar chickens:

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[Here we are on New Year’s Day 1996, in Sydney, dressed up to go to the races. I love this picture best because it caught Dad when he wasn’t quite ready, so his smile is 100% genuine, not the slightly ‘posed’ one I often teased complained teased him about in photos]

We drive the same: a little fast, confident, generous to pedestrians, and ruthless in our use of the horn. We can each tell a good story, holding our audience, working our way skilfully to the punchline. We both love to laugh, and eat good food. I’d like to think I’ve inherited his entrepreneurial mind, although perhaps I’ve applied mine more to the arts world than to business? We were good friends, and I loved spending time with him…

BUT it is confronting to realize that I struggle with the same interpersonal issues. That I too have had so many experiences of not ‘being who I am’, or asking for what I want, or of not feeling ‘heard’ and understood by my partners. [Hell, I don’t even understand myself sometimes, so how can anyone else?]

In the real world, I know I come across as direct, confident, and honest. I am all of these things, it’s true. But reading Dad’s diary fills me with flashbacks (or are they flashforwards??) as I recognize my own complaints about myself in his curly handwriting, 20 years on.

A friend of mine commented here that diaries are a time travel machine; a portal to another world. He’s right. I feel both taken back to the past, yet onward into my future as well. So much of Dad’s life was a background to my own, even while mine was also a background to his for him. And in twenty years forward, I don’t want to be struggling with the same relationship difficulties, a sick parent, or frustrating family dynamics. I really don’t.

I’d like to be crossing roads in the sunlight, enjoying fresh adventures, content within myself about who I am, and what I’m feeling. I’d like to smile and say thankyou to drivers who give me right of way, and I’d most like to know that I’m loving and loved.

*Sigh*

This diary-reading business is not easy. But then neither is this living-business either sometimes (first world problem, I know).

So what challenging traits do you think you’ve inherited from a parent, and how have you changed them?

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