Elly McDonald

Writer


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Eulogy for my father Pt.2 – one year on

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My father died a year ago this week. He died on my parents’ bed, at his home, with his head propped against my solar plexus, supported by my crossed legs, as I stroked his arms. At the bottom of the bed our family was arrayed: my sister, my mother, my brother-in-law – my brother-in-law attendant throughout.

My father labored some hours to die, spewing black bile in repeated bouts.

“Tastes bad,” he murmured.

“Amazing how hard the body holds on to life,” my brother-in-law said, quietly.

After my father’s body gave up, I checked under his jaw for a pulse, checked my finger under his nostril for breath. I scooped the black bile out of his mouth and throat with a damp washcloth, cleaned his teeth and gums, before the palliative nurse, who we’d met just once, the previous day, arrived belatedly.

“I forgive you everything you’ve ever done wrong, for this,” my sister told me.

That’s how it was.

I wrote my father’s eulogy two days before he died.

After I delivered my eulogy at his commemorative celebration, a packed event at a local community hall, I realized I’d left out something important.

I talked about my father’s sense of humour, his way with words, his way with people. I talked in code about what an argumentative cuss he could be, a dinner table bigot. I talked about his vast curiosity. I talked about how much we loved him, and how much he loved our mother.

I left out something so obvious it blinds me: I left out my father the carer.

When my father was diagnosed with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer 11 weeks before his death, his immediate response was ‘So now would be a good time to buy a new car?”

He bought a new car the next day, for my mother. The car she’d been using, the one with seats that were too low, he instructed should be for my use.

When his GP responded he wished all his patients were like my dad, Dad laughed “What, dying?”

Expecting to live six weeks or less, my father spent the next weeks immersed in ensuring financial and administrative matters were in order, that the family would be cared for.

He could barely eat, just crackers, tea and packet soup. He ate a stale Cherry Ripe. Then he hunched over a garden border bed and threw up, painful retching that raised his shoulders, thin strains of pink-strewn chocolate residue. I stood close by his side with my hands soothing his back.

When he was finished, when he straightened, he whispered to me, “That’s what I did for my Mum.”

He held bowls to his mother’s lips as she threw up, dying of cancer.

My father lived twice as long as expected after diagnosis. His mother held on for four years. My father was at university in Melbourne when his mother was first diagnosed. He thrived in Melbourne. He had close friends and exciting prospects. He was doing some tutoring, some teaching at his old boarding college. He had offers of work abroad for foreign governments, offers of postgrad study.

Instead, he returned to the country town where his parents lived, where they lived somewhat unhappily together, on the border of South Australia and Victoria. His parents lived with his sister and his mother’s sister, who kept house and nursed his mother.

He helped nursed his mother and he worked in his father’s shop.

Every weekend, as soon as he knocked off work at the shop, he leapt in his 1950s jalopy and drove as fast as he could – which was fast – to Melbourne. A bit over five hours. There he went on pub-crawls with his mates and bet at the racetracks. Then Sunday night he drove the 430km back to Mount Gambier.

After his mother died, after he’d married my mother, moved to Brisbane, had two infants, my mother would complain about him staying out late after work playing cards with his mates. I don’t know how frequent this was. I do know that before I was 18 months old we’d moved to Mount Gambier, stayed at his parents’ house, then moved to Adelaide, where we lived the next 11 years. Every couple of weeks my father would drive to Mount Gambier – about 5 hours, about 430km – to spend a weekend with his father and his disabled older sister, taking care of what needed taking care of.

Which was a lot. My grandfather had glaucoma and was blind. My father’s much-older sister had crippled legs and cognitive impairment, a legacy of polio in about 1920 compounded by some illness undetermined: meningitis, encephalitis, Murray River Fever. Something fearful.

Their house was huge, built in 1910. Maintenance was massive.

When it was obvious my grandfather and my aunt could no longer manage there, obvious even to my grandfather and my aunt, my father bought them a smaller house a street away. He arranged the sale of the big house. He fought court battles when the sale fell through and he stood accused by the erstwhile buyer of misrepresentation (the buyer claimed Dad had filled the bathtub with books, so the buyer couldn’t see the poor condition of the tub).

My parents, my sister and I were now living in Melbourne. When my grandfather had cancer and was dying, my father drove up and down that highway constantly. He was due the evening my grandfather died. Freak thunderstorms lit up lurid skies. My father decided it wasn’t safe to drive, better the next day. My grandfather lay in his bed in his new home and kept asking, “When will Angus be here?”

In his last days my father confided he was certain his father’s longtime doctor had given him a morphine overdose that last night, at my grandfather’s request, the both of them expecting my father to arrive for the death.

My father felt he’d failed his dad.

After his father’s death, my father bought a small house a short walk from the home where he’d retired with my mother and moved his sister in there. He supported her living in that house until she needed round the clock care. No facility was willing to take her – “special needs” – so he donated generously till a local aged care home relented.

When she died, he cried. He released yellow balloons at her funeral. He said, “That’s over. The Great Obligation.”

My father financially supported his mother’s sister, who’d nursed his mother through her dying years and remained to keep house after my father married and moved to Brisbane. He ensured his aunt could continue to live independently, in her own flat, through to her death.

I believe he provided some financial support for others in his father’s 11 siblings’ families.

When my mother’s mother died and her father went the full King Lear, my father provided what care he could. When others in our family periodically went mad over the next decades, he supported us.

When I struggled financially, which is to say, my late 20s, early 30s, and pretty much always past age 40, my father played pater familias and ensured I was not homeless. I resented that mightily.

When I had bouts of depression after his death, when I thought life tasted sour, my sister said, “You can’t check out. Not after all the effort he put into keeping you alive.”

Fair point.

Here is the eulogy I didn’t deliver, the eulogy to my father, the carer.

Thank you for my life.

Angus with Elly


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Review: Grace (2017) by Paul Lynch

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_6Let’s get this out of the way straight up: Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is a tour de force. Not everyone will love it. Let me tell you why I do.

A young man, still a teen boy, stands on an open road in defiance of an oncoming speeding vehicle. The year is 1845, the place is western Ireland: the first year of an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine. The vehicle is a horse-drawn carriage – six horses, galloping, the coachman whipping them faster.

They think they own the place, says the boy.

Afterwards, as he lies in a ditch, his head aching from the coachman’s boot, he delivers his manifesto:

He says, I am not stupid in the least. Don’t you see what’s going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-doers who don’t give a fuck what is happening to the ordinary people. You saw that village yesterday and how prosperous it was, untouched by this curse. The arrogance of that driver. This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered. Do you know what I think? Those who are starving on the roads still believe deliverance is going to come. But who is going to deliver them? Not God and not the Crown and not anybody in this country. The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want to believe in. It is hope that carries you along, keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend upon others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are no rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this. If they have left us to fend for ourselves then we will do just that. We should meet it standing up. I believe that if I want that goddamn carriage to slow down or get off the road I can make it happen. I really believe this. Either I win or they win. There can be no other. I will make it happen, for how else am I supposed to live? What is happening now is no different to the end of the world, the only difference is that the rich can continue to live without affliction. The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.

About a million people died from starvation and starvation-induced illness during the four years of the famine. A million more emigrated. Two-fifths of the population were reliant on potato crops that failed; countless numbers took to the roads, hoping to find food and sustenance, some kind of salvation. The wanderers on the roads, the beggars, the walking skeletons, prefigure our cultural nightmare of a zombie apocalypse. Grace is the story of people who strived their hardest to live, asking all the time, what kind of life is this? 

Grace Coyle is 14 when her mother cuts her hair and shoves her out of their cottage on Blackmountain in Donegal. “You’re the strong one now,” her mother tells her. Go find work. Come back in a year.

Grace’s younger brother Colly runs away to join her; Colly is a resourceful, pragmatic presence supporting Grace in her quest to survive. Another ally is Bart, the young man standing in the middle of that road. For me, Bart is the most compelling character in the story.

There is love, of sorts, between Grace and Bart, as far as two young people scrabbling to survive can experience love. There are moments when “She knows they are ancient and young and will never die.”

But this is not a love story. This is a story about how the very determined insist it cannot happen to them – they will never die – and yet circumstances and history mow them down and sweep them away. It’s a story about how, to survive, we need to believe we are exceptions, and yet when the great winters, the great hungers, come, belief in itself is insufficient.

They walk past a young woman delirious in a ditch, the woman smiling now as the snow gives last drink to her lips. The snow gowning her white for the slowest of country burials. The woman becoming part of it all, she thinks, that is the sky and the earth locked together in white and forgetting. You do not look but keep walking onwards. This feeling she has. It is not that she tells herself she is different. She knows she is different from all these others on the road, that what she sees around her will not happen to her also. That she will make better choices. So why would you even look at them, they have made their choices and you made yours, they aren’t even people, just sitters and starers with their cramp hands held out like the grabby hands of the dead. They want what you want and would take it out of your hand or even kill you for it so why would you even begin to give them a sympathetic look?

Grace is identifying as a survivor, identifying with the strong. Yet when snows blanket everything and everything is hunger, she is categorically not among the privileged.

Watching such men in the coffeehouse and watching such men on the street and she thinks that these people have been born clean, born into a higher position, while all the rest of us on earth were born into a lower position and such a thing is all down to who you are and where you come from and the luck of the draw and there is nothing you can do about it but take it back off them, because a fish cannot become a bird but there is nothing to stop a fish from wearing a bird’s feathers.

Grace wrestles with the limits of transformation, with who she needs to be to survive. Earlier, she asked, “a fish cannot become a bird, or can it? Maybe it can.” Later, she asks

Tell me this, do you think that everybody in the world is born fixed into their position?

I don’t know about that. It is certainly the case that everybody takes the same position in death.

It seems to me that a fish cannot become a bird and that the bird will attack the fish if it tries to fly. Perhaps that is the natural order of things. But why must that be so? I just saw men belonging to a farmer beat to death a poor man with clubs. They dug a trap to catch him like an animal, or like a fish if you think about it – pulled him like a fish from a pond. Poked his eyes out with their beaks. Things have gotten worse now. I think it would take some kind of magical effort for the fish to leave the water–

[…] Finally she asks, do you think he was just unlucky? Do you think he made his own luck?

The transformations Grace rolls through are many, and none of her own volition. From a young girl on a mountain, she becomes a boy named Tim, a cattle drover; a developing woman betrayed by her menstruation; the target of would-be rapists; a bandit, the pirate queen of Connaught; Deirdre of the Sorrows, Grainne loved by Diarmuid; a zombie; a corpse; a miracle of God, penitent; the girl who says no; the girl who can say nothing, nothing, no word in the face of what she’s seen; the one taken by the pooka, the fairies, returning home to find centuries have past and she a ghost, unrecognized; the mother who brings new life, at the cost of letting go of the old, forgetting.

More than once, men ask Grace, “What are you?”

Throughout her journey Grace is accompanied by ghosts, mostly ghosts who help sustain her. In the end, the ghosts must go, and with them, memory.

The novel is deeply concerned with memory. Colly frets about its nature. He frets about the relationship between the soul and memory:

Like, when you die, where do your memories go– if the soul doesn’t have a memory box, how can you remember your life when you die, where do memories go–

Grace wonders

About her own soul, all that has been put in it, wonders how a soul can be of the same essence when you are changing a little bit every day, when you are no longer the same person, because you are not the same person at the end of the year as you were at the start of it, and sometimes you change during the day, depending on certain events. And if that is the case, and you die at one age rather than another, would your soul not be completely different?

The tragedy of sweeping cataclysms is that those who do not live do not get to become who they might have been. The inventor. The engineer. The philosopher. The political activist. The writer.

Colly frets about how the soul relates to the body. Is the soul embodied? Does it take its form from the shape of the body? Does the soul then change as the body changes? What if the body is radically malformed?

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Paul Lynch, the writer, cares about soul and memory. In interviews he speaks of how the Great Hunger left survivors traumatized, unwilling or unable to speak of what they knew. He speaks of the legacy of trauma in Ireland.

That’s one summation of what he tries to do here: he tries to speak of the legacy of trauma left by the Great Hunger, and of the social changes, including changes in the role of religion, and changes to the heritage of supernatural belief, resulting from the Great Hunger.

I think he does this extraordinarily.

I understand from researching Paul Lynch’s previous writings that Grace is a sequel of sorts. Now I feel compelled to find his first novel (Grace is his third), which tells the story of Grace’s father: Red Sky in Morning.

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I opened this piece by saying Grace will not be loved by all. Against my usual practice, after finishing my reading I googled reviews and articles on the internet. Many are rave reviews, particularly those written by professional reviewers and authors. Yet, many reader reviews online about Grace are negative. Mostly, the complaint is that the story is too unremittingly grim. Readers, apparently, can’t handle grim. Others complained there is no story. These are people presumably unfamiliar with the picaresque genre, who can’t relate to themes unfolded episodically within an overarching narrative. Some readers complained the language is impenetrable. The more highbrow critics complained the characters are stock Irish stereotypes. The most highbrow critics complained Lynch’s language reads like a parody of Irish literary modernism.

Some critics writing for major newspapers took Lynch to task for language overworked, overwritten, deliberately obscure. I found some critics for major newspapers lacking in credibility: two of them misidentified characters – one a character at the book’s start, one towards its end – which undermined my confidence in their readings.

The reviewer for the New York Times started her review by quoting P.G. Wodehouse:

To twist a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine, and “Grace”, his third novel, reveals an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering. Through its young heroine, we experience all the indescribable horrors of the Irish famine. Lynch goes where only famished dogs should go, and it’s a measure of his skill that he keeps us with him all the same.

Oh my. A backhanded compliment. Never mind that it references what for me was the most touching moment in the book and makes a joke of that. Never mind that it foregrounds a review of a book about famine with reference to a twee humorist. The suggestion that suffering as a subject is unseemly, that such suffering is indescribable, is hostile and to my mind bizarre. If this book were by a black author, about American slavery, would Katherine Grant write this way? If it were a book about the Holocaust, by a Jewish author, could she write this way?

But I digress.

Lynch’s writing is without doubt deliberately, perhaps provocatively, poetic. His language in places is blank verse. His imagery is dense, his grammar as if translated from another language. He drops in Gaelic phrases. He drops allusions to Gaelic myth and folklore that might elude a reader unfamiliar with this heritage. It is difficult to read, and sentences, paragraphs, demand re-reading.

Paul Lynch says his writing is intuitive and yet he rewrites sentences up to fifty times. He seems to ask, if I value language to the extent of rewriting up to fifty times, is it so hard to reread that sentence more than once?

He seems to ask, if people lived these experiences, and couldn’t speak of them, and if I write them, if I write and rewrite and try to honour the experiences of the dead, is it so hard to bear with the grim, and see it through?

Paul Lynch does not believe that a novel set in an historical time is necessarily a genre novel, “historical fiction”. He believes his historical novel has contemporary relevance. His novel addresses the Irish Great Famine and also every other famine, pestilence, genocide, holocaust that has reduced humans to animals and reduced life to survival.

Is it so hard to remember?

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Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage

The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.

That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.

Mayhem.

… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.

Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.

Rausing’s account is many things.

If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.

But someone died, early one morning or late one night.

When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?

The story, its centre, can be schematised:

Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.

Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.

Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.

Should I say more?

I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.

The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.

When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.

She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.

Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.

Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.

Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.

In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote

One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.

Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.

In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.

The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:

Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.

It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.

The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.

Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.

One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?

Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.

Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?

Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?

Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.

The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.

Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.

Mayhem is

Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.

I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing


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Review: Idaho (2017) by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho_Emily_Ruskovich_Elly_McDonald_WriterOn a mountain-top in rural Idaho, a mother kills her 6 year old, in a seemingly impulsive, reflex action. She “waived her right to a trial, entered a plea of guilty, and, in a hearing that lasted twenty minutes was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. During this hearing, the judge seemed to find her lack of self-regard unsettling, her adamant plea of guilt unusual. He pressured her to give an explanation, but she only said she had committed the murder of her child and she wished to die for it.”

Thirty-two years later, word in the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center is that Jenny told the judge: “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.”

Word in the women’s prison is that during the sentencing, Jenny’s “husband didn’t look at her, not once.”

lacuna

ləˈkjuːnə/

noun

plural noun: lacunae

  1. 1.

an unfilled space; a gap.

  1. 2.

ANATOMY

a cavity or depression, especially in bone.

Jenny is, simultaneously, the lacuna at the heart of this book, an emptiness of the heart; and Jenny is the heart of this book. Jenny is Schroedinger’s cat: When you open the box, the cat is either alive or it is dead; when the box is closed, reality is unknowable, paradoxical possibilities exist.

”Wade,” she says, “You break my heart.”

And you break mine,’” he answers.

By no coincidence, stray cats, missing cats, feature as a narrative motif, and Schroedinger’s cat is referenced.

After poetry class in jail, Jenny writes a note to her cellmate:

D says this poem in I’ams almost whole way through. Where meter breaks free (see where I circled the phrases he pointed out), imagine a voice breaking too. Form and content intertwined. (People seem to know what I-am means. I assume “first person point of view.”)

Later, she reports: “An I-am is a pair of syllables. The first one soft, the second loud. It’s the rhythm of the human heart, which is also the natural rhythm of human speech.”

Idaho is a meticulously crafted text, thesis material in its density but highly readable. It’s a narrative of paired ‘syllables’, a narrative of people bonded as pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling, cellmate with cellmate. Every heartbeat of this story reminds us it takes two. The pair at the centre of this story are twin enigmas: the mother, Jenny, because like Christ before Pilate she refuses to explain, or even speak; the father, Wade, because like his father and his grandfather before him, Wade has younger onset dementia, his memory disintegrating while he’s physically hale, his life expectancy no more than his mid-50s, the awareness of darkness and death his life-long shroud.

Yet, the song of the heartbeat is I AM: the assertion of self.

The uber-I AM is of course God, G-d, Jehovah: the Old Testament God who declaimed I AM THAT I AM, who instructed Moses on a mountain-top, who ordered Abraham to kill his child. At one point a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Ann and Wade on their mountain (Iris Mountain, a mountain seeded with wild irises, Iris in Greek mythology being a female messenger of the gods). I don’t think that’s coincidence, either.

Jenny pushes away I AM and has chosen self-abnegation: “I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish” – not even this wish. For Jenny, “Silence is something she can bear a little better than a failed attempt at saying what she means.”

Wade has lost much, is losing everything. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps most dramatically enacted in a wilderness, on a wild mountain, and it is the human way to make meaning even out of absences and silences, to try to reconstruct significant events.

Idaho is constructed as a series of first person narratives, and through those first person points of view we see how driven the human heart is to construe events so that, ultimately, we, the storytellers, the first person narrators, are at the heart of the matter, at the centre of the story, and the story becomes ours.

And so it is that Jenny’s story is appropriated by the woman Wade marries after Jenny makes herself an absence, a woman who in her imagination projects such a vivid, sensual scenarios that ultimately she feels herself to be the sole custodian of this family’s story:

She knows from [Wade’s] casual gestures, from the simplicity of his smile, the absence of pain, that she has inherited his family wholly now, that nothing can bring them back.

For the first time, she knows for certain that they live only in her.

This woman, Ann, is a good woman, believes herself to be a good woman. Yet eventually she convinces herself that she is the reason the child was killed, convinces herself that she is guilty, through a kind of lovers’ telepathy, an osmosis through the medium of music. She believes herself guilty, too, of the death of a fawn, merely by her touch:

Had she known, when she reached out afterward, so softly, with just one fingertip, that she could do it harm? […] she thought of wiping the fawn with a wet cloth. But the cloth had a smell, too, of detergent. And so there was nothing she could do. […] Periodically that evening she forgot it, and then when she remembered, her fingertip tingled at the memory of that white spot, like peppermint. She thought of those woods at night. Wade had mentioned seeing a mountain lion before, not up here but down at the river, leaping right out of the water. So they were around. Coyotes, wolves. All those dark branches and dark trunks of trees and the fawn moving in the dark. Invisible except in one place, one white spot: Ann’s fingerprint moving through the woods like a point of light. Here I am!

Jenny is appropriated, too, to an extent, by the cellmate her comes to love her, who sees Jenny as her saviour and who, through a Cyrano de Bergerac act of ventriloquism,* eventually procures Jenny’s ‘freedom’.

Paradoxically, this cellmate is driven to violence by the paranoid perception that her previous cellmate had appropriated her history:

“It’s fitting that I stabbed her with her own mirror. That’s what they call in my poetry class ‘dramatic irony’.”

He says, in a dull tone to mock her, “You mean because she was stealing your childhood.”

“Childhood, soul, whatever you want to call it.”

“A person can’t steal someone else’s childhood.”

(But they can. Killing a child steals that childhood.)

When this cellmate, Elizabeth, again encounters the ex-cellmate she stabbed, Sylvia, she looks at her as a dominant, abusive partner looks at their object of abuse and wonders, ”Who is she now, without Elizabeth?”

Who is Wade, without his children?

Who is Ann, the second wife, if not a young woman with an empty life who found meaning as a medium channelling the ghost of someone else’s tragedy?

And who is June?

June is the other gaping absence in this tale.

When the six year old was murdered on a mountain, her nine year old sister, June, saw, and ran, like a fawn in the dark woods. She has never been seen since, except as a series of photographs issued every few years through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, showing how that nine year old might look at 11, at 13, at 15, at 20. Ann has commissioned an artist whose vocation it is to construct ‘living’ images of absent children, to paint how June might look at different ages, in different contexts, living different personae. Is this another appropriation?

There is a character, Eliot, whose function is both to provide a living link to June and to show how hollow, how filled with the breath of hope, Ann’s life was before June’s sister’s murder.

Eliot has his own story – or he thinks he has. He tells his story often, dramatically, to assert his I AM. Then one day, his girlfriend throws in a different interpretation, and Eliot cannot live with it, can no longer live with her:

But with a casual shrug of her sholders, Ivy had changed his story. She changed the people in it. The intensity had not followed him – he followed it. […] He had become a passive player in the opening scene of his life.

And if Ivy could make him feel that in one careless instant, what else was she capable of taking away?”

At the heart of Idaho, our own private Idahos, is the question, can our stories hold? Can we ‘own’ our stories? Can we clutch them to ourselves, can we protect and keep them private?

Elizabeth’s injured ex-cellmate finds herself through music, through a reconnection with the piano.

Elizabeth wonders, “If music can live in Sylvia’s fingers for sixteen years without ever revealing itself, are there things that live in Elizabeth that time won’t touch, that nobody can take away?”

At the novel’s end, when it might appear Ann has given ‘back’ Jenny’s life, there’s a disturbing final paragraph. We think we know this story now. The basics were never in dispute:

“My wife has killed my daughter in the truck. My other daughter is scared. I need to get to her.”

It was the lack of ambiguity that made William stumble. […]

So Wade tried again. “My wife has killed my daughter.”

He was about to say it a third time when William managed a reply. […] “I understand. You’ve told me what happened.”

Do we, as outsiders, ever know the story?

In the novel’s last lines,

Jenny says, “On a different part of this river, I saw a mountain lion leap right up, right out of the water. It was the only time I ever saw one.”

“I know that story,” Ann says. “I didn’t know you were there, too. Wade told me.”

“He did?” Jenny smiles, surprised. ‘What else did he tell you?”

Ann isn’t sure what Jenny means. Jenny seems not to be sure, either. She laughs a little, for the first time.

0812 tm emily ruskovich rabbits

Emily Ruskovich with rabbits

 

*Elizabeth’s act of written ventriloquism follows many years of literary ventriloquism, with roles reversed, with Jenny attending poetry class as Elizabeth’s proxy and handing in assignments written by Elizabeth under Jenny’s name. There’s so much in this novel to connect and unpick.

 

 

 

 

 


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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.

Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.

Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 max graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.

A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.

His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,

People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.

Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.

Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.

The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.

Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”

Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.

This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)

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She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.

I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.

2B8BCD3200000578-3205754-image-a-78_1440145510505

This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.

She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.

2B8813D500000578-3205754-image-a-69_1440145485446But

But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.

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Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.

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Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?

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You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.

(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)

French_collaborator_12

(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?

I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)

These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:

One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”

Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:

“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.

“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.

“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”

These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.

Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.

The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.

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(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)

 


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W for War

Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley

The office is divided
by corridors: this side
that side
In the centre a common meeting ground
Reception
With its wall-size red logo
W for War
The foot soldiers tramp
through the common area
primed for hostilities
ready to do damage
and die. Metaphorically.
They know so little.

Grunts – writing exercise 2014

Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.

One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

I wrote him a poem, at his request:

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘90s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

That, I think, is a truer beginning.

But let’s loop back just a little, again. Let’s set it in context. First, my boss. I’ll call him Mark (not his real name). Mark was a beacon of integrity in a muddy media landscape. He advocated for transparency in media planning and buying deals. Once, I could have explained to you what that means. Now, I don’t really remember how media buying worked, if I ever did at all. Mark spoke at international conferences on media transparency, quality media planning, media futures (the digital age – the media environment that now surrounds us). He was 39, from Newcastle, handsome, married – to Annie (not her real name) – and he had two young children. Unusually for the English, he had perfect teeth, a blinding white smile. He was Mister Clean.

Then, there was me. I was Becky Sharp, as in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Becky. I was on the make, an out-of-towner who’d landed in London as winter fell, in mid-recession, no contacts and no money and who, appalled, clawed and clambered her way out of a lowly hole up several higher rungs towards the glamour of Park Lane. I’d walked out on workplaces where it seemed to me I’d been scorned and mistreated, out-faced people who’d tried to exploit me, slapped down what seemed like an endless array of bored married men, clients and colleagues, who seemed to assume I was cheap meat. Previous to London I’d lived for a decade in Sydney’s Kings Cross, in a lane known as Blood Alley, in honour of a gangster shoot-out in the ‘20s. I swear I had more men proposition me in London workplaces than ever propositioned me on the Golden Mile. Mad Men, indeed.

To get my current job I’d sat out of the workforce for three months, from when I first interviewed – when the managing director stared at me and said, “You really don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?” – till several months later, when the CEO, Mark, hired me. Now I had the title ‘Marketing Director’, a salary nearly two and a half times my starting salary in London five years before, and an office to myself with a window view through green trees towards Hyde Park, where I could watch the Regimental Changing of the Guard. Did I hold it against Mark that the process took so long? Truthfully, I did.

Mark supported and encouraged me when I bought my perfect apartment. I panicked and thought I should mail the keys back to the mortgage holder at once. Mark didn’t understand that. You have a good job, he said. You earn good money now.

I did have a good job, and I earned danger money – salaries in advertising and media agencies were high in recognition that the business was cut-throat. Time at the top could be brief. ‘Success’ was contingent on bringing in business and servicing that business so outstandingly that clients were retained, despite constant churn. Mark and I were a team focused on bringing in business. His responsibilities were infinitely more complex than mine, and he had more at stake.

… Or something about the poison of gossip, running like mercury through corridors in glamorous West End offices. I’m thinking of the First Emperor, in Ch’in, whose tomb – legend has it – is lethally protected by a moat of mercury.

Black Cat Crossing – writing exercise 2014

Mark was right. I was close to friendless in that workplace. Close to but not totally. Kate, Anna, Tara, Sarah and Robbie were kind. Notice it’s girl allies, mostly. (The male office manager was also decent.) I don’t doubt I was an affront to my male colleagues, and I was Australian. I was bolshie – aggressive and odd. I claimed to know dead rock stars.

Worse, I was 36 and lonely. I’d been so disorientingly lonely in the past few years that I’d done foolish things. Once I got off a bus outside Selfridges to follow a man in a well-cut coat because I fancied his coat, or what I thought it represented. I shadowed him some way up Oxford Street before I lost him in the winter crowds. I wondered just what I would have done if he’d stayed in sight. Would I really have propositioned him, as I’d planned to?

I’d phoned and written to a man I’d flung with in 1992 for several years after he’d moved on. Fortunately that was resolved by 1997. I’d met him at media events, twice, and we were cool. Thank you, Seumas (not his real name).

I’d formed an attachment to a man who liked me back. But this was a man who, when we first got to know each other, over champagne cocktails, told me the best thing that’d ever happened to him was meeting his wife. That man – let’s call him Amiel (not his real name) – might have been, briefly, open to an affair. But I’d told him it would be a very, very bad idea for any married man to get involved with me as I find painful to let go, and I’d make his – this hypothetical man’s – life hell.

I’d spent 10 wretched weeks living at a Cold Comfort Farm in Kent with an alcoholic depressive in conditions so unhygienic I’d had repeat bouts of food poisoning.

I tried a dating agency, and was temporarily imprisoned by a cult leader (now there’s a story!); lonely-hearts columns, and met a man who turned nasty after one date when I was out and couldn’t pick up the phone next time he rang; and going to public functions, where I met a Young Conservative who suffered what looked like anaphylactic shock when he learned I was 10 years older than him. There were others.

I bought a vibrator in a sex shop off Leicester Square and was followed out into a side street by an Irishman who whispered he could give me the “real thing”.

I’d had one-night stands with a few – a very few – men who were what I considered sluts: men who were promiscuous and single, or reckless with their relationships. None of them men I worked with.

I’d formed a crush not long after starting in my current job, on the man who headed the Social Committee. That’s right, the one who wanted to be Dead Michael in Blue Face. My first week, some colleagues had drinks after work and as he’d said good-bye he’d touched my cheek then kissed me. I was touched-starved. That was all it took. His private office was one up from my private office. One afternoon I went to his office, talked shop, and my hand had momentarily touched his knee. He’d looked shocked.

Down the line, I heard the office gossip was that I’d stroked his penis. Apparently that – direct quote – is what he’d told them. I was also told by a director, to my face, that I was having an affair with Mark. Colleagues froze me out of social contact. The one time I went to the pub with workmates at the table where I sat a colleague jutted his jaw at me and challenged, “Mark’s wife is a really nice person.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Mark is a really nice person. Of course he has a really nice wife.”

I didn’t get it.

I went to a corporate event – Robbie Williams performing in Hyde Park – and sat behind the actress Felicity Kendall, beside Mark and his family. Mark’s wife got up and walked away, taking the children. Mark followed. I went to the bar. People I’d worked with previously stared at me and sniggered. I still didn’t get it.

I should have got it. I was not blameless. Somewhere after “I’m your only friend in this place” and me buying my apartment, Mark and I became close. I think this is because we were both, essentially, at risk. The agency was working on an extended pitch, a new business pitch that absorbed six months of effort. We had a major client which was merging with other companies to form a megacorporation. Our part of the business up for grabs was valued at, from memory, close on UKP100 million. It mattered. If we could win this business, it would vindicate Mark’s business strategy: quality bespoke planning, over what we in the business called “gorillas with calculators” – media buying leveraged on high volumes.

If we didn’t win this business, Mark was out.

It would be fair I think to say Mark was the target, the mark, and I was collateral damage. Mark had his enemies, certainly. I’d picked up a few of my own, on a petty spite level. The more under threat we felt, the closer we became. But never that close.

There was a very brief period where I felt as if I were romantically in love with Mark and he might have been mildly infatuated with me. But Mark was a man who loved his wife and kids and I wanted to protect him. I was careless in letting my feelings show. I was careless in words I said that could be construed wrongly.

I have a few memories, and I value them:

Mark offering me a CD of classic torch songs he’d got as a freebie from a client. Me declining it. Him nudging the CD off his desk into a bin. “Oh well,” he said.

Me sitting in a stalled train, thinking about Mark, floating away in a golden gauze reverie. The man seated opposite waking me by asking, “What are you thinking?” Me smiling wordlessly and shaking my head.

Meeting Mark on a railway station platform. Walking towards him. Romantic movie style.

Mark detouring on our way back from presenting to a prospective client in Surrey, showing me the Porsche showroom where his dream Boxster awaited. (It’s still waiting.)

Mark stretched out on the leather sofa in our office, his ankles crossed, his hands behind his head. “No one would believe it of me,” he smiled.

You know where this is headed. We didn’t win the business. The gorillas beat us out. That morning, the entire staff waited in the open plan section of the office and watched Mark through the glass of his ‘private’ office as he waited for the phone call. You’ve heard the expression “still as statues”? We were statues. We waited hours. Then the phone rang, Mark picked up the phone, a brief conversation, he put down the receiver. Then he kicked his desk bin, the one where our love songs were trashed, and he kicked it, hard.

Mark exited that day. That week, a new junior employee was moved into my previously private office and I walked out. The managing director, Robbie, and one of Mark’s allies, Tara, came to my apartment to talk me into returning. I lay on my sofa and looked out the window at the green leaves of a tall tree. It couldn’t work.

Robbie “had a word” with corporate senior management to arrange for me to have a more generous severance payment than my contract specified. I think he persuaded them a pay-out would pre-empt legal action on my part. Legal action had not occurred to me. I’m grateful to Robbie for trying to make things better. I spent a large part of the pay-out on designer fashion purchased at the West End boutique where I took a casual job. The rest formed the core of my pension fund, my superannuation, such as it is.

Last week I heard a radio discussion about personal sledges on the fo♣otball field. I sent a text: LOL you think appalling things aren’t said in corporate environments? Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

The radio team read that twice: Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

W for War.

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Easter Uprising 2017: on being Christian – a sequel to Buddhist Thoughts at Easter 2014

Last night, on Good Friday, I spent too much time responding to a meme posted on Facebook that read “Religion makes fools of us all”.

I was irritated that people feel a need to post atheistic aphorisms on the second most important date in the Christian calendar (after Easter Sunday), and on the Jewish Passover.

I was also frustrated by the terms of debate. What was meant by “religion”? Did it refer here to religious institutions, or to spiritual beliefs and practices, or to faith? If religious institutions, was it directed primarily at Christianity, or a catch-all statement? If Christianity, did it target traditional Roman Catholic Church dogma? Church abuses? If dogma, did it reflect an accurate understanding of the history and doctrines of church institutions?

What I found was people who claimed atheist positions decrying what they perceived as church positions. If I, as a Christian, disputed their interpretations of church positions they told me I was wrong, that my understandings of Christianity are faulty.

I have many faults. Christianity has many faults. The Christian Church has many faults – indeed, Christian churches have many faults. Religious institutions have many faults. Religion generally has many faults. Mea culpa.

But I cannot let stand attacks against religion that are attacks against straw man positions. Dust in the wind we may be, but straws flying loose in hot wind are ridiculous.

What I do NOT believe:

I do not believe in an old white bloke with a long white beard perched On High in a Celestial Firmament.

I do not believe that said old white bloke stretched out a finger and pronounced LIGHT and then created Earth and the universe in seven days.

I do not believe that when I die I will ascend to fluffy clouds and play a harp throughout eternity.

I do not believe that when I die I will descend to a place of fire and brimstone to undergo eternal torment supervised by demons.

I do not believe I will be bodily resurrected on a day of judgement that will see the apocalypse of John’s Revelations.

I do not believe I will meet my dead loved ones – or any others dead and departed – in a conscious after-life.

I do not believe in the laws or prophesies of the Old Testament a.k.a the Hebrew Bible.

I do not believe the literal truth of the Christian gospels.

I do not believe everything the apostle Paul taught. I do not believe Paul always taught in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, whom he never met.

Things I am not sure I believe:

I’m not sure a man named Jesus (or the Aramaic version of) who lived and died as described in the gospels actually existed.

If he existed, I’m not sure the accounts of his last days, trial and execution are historically accurate. Scrub that: I’m pretty sure they’re not.

I’m not sure of the nature of God. Currently I have a concept I embrace, but it’s just that: a concept. Any ‘God’ is beyond human capacity for conceptualisation.

Here’s what I do believe:

Religion is valuable, even essential, and spiritual belief and faith are innate in humans.

Religious belief has brought at least as much good to the world as it has harm.

All ideologies are subject to corruption and abuse. Secular ideologies have within a short recent period caused immense destruction, comparable to the destructions caused across centuries under the banners of religion.

Love is what matters most, is ultimately all that matters.

God is love (my concept, within my limited understanding).

God is the context, the ground of being. God is cause.

In first century Judea, a wandering healer who is remembered as Jesus practiced in Galilee.

His followers believed this man they called Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of Elijah and Isaiah.

This man they called Jesus, who they wrote about after his death, changed history and changed the way human beings view(ed) their responsibilities to one another.

I believe people of religious faith have more in common with each other, in terms of their worldviews, than they might with people who don’t understand and relate to religious faith.

I believe the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are spiritual cousins.

I believe the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, are compatible with the foundational teachings of the man we know as Jesus.

I believe nothing is lost, everything changes.

I reject any argument that defines a religious faith as a belief in the literal truth of religious texts. That argument attempts to define all religious people as fundamentalist. We are not. Nor are we all members of a church that claims an infallible authority as its earthly head.

Archaic language taints understanding.

To “sin” is a medieval archery term meaning “to miss the mark”, “to fall short”.

To “repent” is to “turn away from”.

“Mercy” is compassion and forgiveness.

“The Church” is the people, the followers of Jesus’s teachings. It is not a building or an institution. The term “church’’ originally meant heralds sent out to spread news.

“Gospel” means “good news”.

“Saints” originally refers to all followers of Jesus’s teachings, not only those formally designated “saints” by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, “the communion of saints” – the coming together in companionship and mutual affirmation of those who follow Jesus’s teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven” is a state of mind, a state of peace, compassion, integrity.

“For what does your Lord ask of you? To act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8. That’s all there is. (Yes, Micah is a prophet – it’s the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament I reject, not the wisdom teachings.)

Specifically, in relation to the Easter narrative:

As I experience faith, religion provides a spiritual source of strength, support and consolation, which I will term ‘Jesus’, which I can access (pray to or find companionship in) in times of brokenness: those times when I feel frailties, failings, inadequacies (“sins”) threaten to overwhelm me and disable me from choosing kind and just attitudes and taking constructive action. This is not secular, a psychological strategy. This is a spiritual practice. The crucifixion is a metanarrative reminding me there are no depths, no despair, I can sink into where Jesus has not gone before me, where Jesus will not meet me, and from which he has not, metaphorically, risen – and with this spiritual guidance, I can ‘rise’ too.

This is not just me, and not some pathetic, vulnerable “them”. We are all us of broken, in some ways, at some times. There is nothing shameful in being broken. We can heal and grow, though “God”. Our “reborn” self can be a fuller, wiser, kinder self.

I was not born a miserable worm, a piece of smeared shit the Old Man On High looks down upon and scorns. This is not what “Original Sin” (a term I have never heard used in my church) means to me. In so far as there might be “Original Sin”, it is the recognition that we are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate: we are genetically encoded with specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I embody genetically-programmed weaknesses but they do not define me. I am also in a state of grace, always already loved. In the words of the baptismal service, “We love, because God first loved us.”

I can celebrate “God” in the world through loving kindness and service. Loving kindness and service are “God” in action, “God” being in the world. We bring forth “God” in the quality of our interactions with others.

Which brings us to the thorny question of the Trinity, for those who care. The Triune God: Father/Son/Holy Spirit as one being (concept). What if we see the Trinity as a metaphor for inextricable relationship – what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”?

We make sense of our lives through stories. The religious tradition into which we are born is a metanarrative, framing our own stories, helping us understand and shape our stories. Atheists deride religions as “fairy tales”. It’s true religions intersect with the domain of poetics and metaphor. Are poetics and metaphor not “true”? What about the extraordinary art humans have created to express their religious experiences – visual art, music, architecture, writing? Is the only truth the materialist dogma?

It’s undeniable religious institutions, religious dogma and religious fervour have caused immense pain and damage over millennia. On the other side of the ledger, if you ask “What has religion ever done for us?” you can get a Life of Brian-esque liturgy: literacy, schools, hospitals, the evolution of social welfare (e.g. through the Minsters); the principles that drove many of the nineteenth-century Progressives (Abolitionist, prison reformers, asylum reformers, attempts at equitable profit-sharing); a social code nominally based on humans’ innate value, including the value of the most marginal (Jesus made a point of hanging out with the most despised and those usually excluded: madmen, foreigners, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions); the primacy of compassion, love, forgiveness… And that’s just the Christian contribution.

The question I ask of people who post atheist memes is this: “Is it so hard to recognise there are many forms of religious experience and understanding, some of them very sophisticated, some very personal, born of ancient traditions, and they have validity in the lived experiences of their adherents?”