Tag Archives: loss

Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

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A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

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When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

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To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

A Curious Thing

Last night I dreamed of my father. We were sitting together on the couch, talking. He was sharp, warm, funny: it lasted for several minutes before a part of me observed how wonderful it was to hear his voice, and that awareness triggered the realisation that I was dreaming as Dad has been dead for over two years.

Maybe I’ve been listening to Kate Bush a bit too much lately. Wiley, windy moors and a dead loved one at the window. Loved you, hated you. Bad dreams in the night.

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It’s been two weeks, every day. The mind is a curious thing.

I so looked forward to today. So much to do, so much time to do it without the distraction of work (or my wonderful child) but I am distracted beyond any possible focus: anxious/unsettled, unable to complete the simplest of tasks.

I have just joined a gym and love the exercise which is aiding the recovery from my Achilles surgery. I have a challenging musical poem to write for the online course I am doing. Also a piece of original speculative fiction that has been percolating for an age until last week, while aqua-jogging in the pool, I found the change of voice and perspective that has sent it forward to where it needs to be, waiting with great promise. And, most pressingly of all, my computer continues to splutter and freeze, threatening to give up the ghost so I really need to go and replace it ASAP.

But I can’t get the words from my dream out of my head.

dreams2To top it off I am also being plagued by an earworm, waking the last two mornings to Joan Baez’s version of the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. I heard it the other day on the awful radio station they constantly play at work, the music so tired it reminds me of being locked in a rest home waiting for the inevitable. It’s a format beloved by decaying Baby Boomers; ‘the Breeze’, songs you’ve heard at least a million times played in a never-changing purgatory of ‘60s/’70s smaltz. Yes, there’s good stuff and ‘classics’ amongst it but every Monday they play ‘Monday, Monday’…stopped into a church, alooong the wayyyyy…sigh. There’s always Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba, Paul Simon etc et al. Resigned sigh. No escape from the tired familiarity.

Yes, all fine music but it’s the lack of surprise that saps my will.

That said, I’m obsessed with my earworm today as it’s the only way to escape the uneasiness of last night’s dream. I’ve never had any interest in the Baez version; too much syrup for a song which plays to racist sentiment (as I saw it). I have heard the Band do the original and it seemed to be more honest and nuanced/less of a celebration of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and hate.

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But like all great music, it has a surface reading and an unfathomable depth. The lines about choppin’ wood that finishes with “but they should never have taken the best” is what has won me over. I’m playing the song again and again just to revel in the poetry of the image.

About six weeks ago I met a man who could have been my father’s twin. Not as he was, confined with all the others to a secure facility waiting for the Alzheimer’s to end. Nor as he was in the ten or so years before that as he was consumed from inside, forced to avoid direct questions to conceal the growing confusion. But as he was twenty years ago when he was sharp and funny, engaged, playful. This doppelganger had my father’s eyes, face, hair, skin, manner of speaking…a distinctive mix echoed nowhere in the family or anyone I have met. We struck up a marvellous conversation as waves of (hidden) emotion surged through me. I hoped I wasn’t being creepy but grief is often an unexpected ride, and not having had a good chat with my Dad in many, many years I clung on for as long as I could.

I wouldn’t have thought too much of this encounter if not less than an hour later I had met someone whose address was on a street bearing my father’s name: Christian and surname, spelt just the same as Dad’s. At the time, it was hard not to laugh, to feel a little touched. I wished Dad had been alive to tell him there was street named after him.

Later, when work had finished, I googled the address just to make sure I wasn’t being totally wishful. Dad’s street was a cul-de-sac, around the corner from where I was working, attached to a street with, er… my name. Yip.

I was very amused: a playful joke worthy of my father.

Today we are experiencing mad, extreme winds. I can see the white horses galloping across the Bay from my salt-caked windows.

It is time to walk down to the water, listening to the ghost of Cathy and the death of Dixie, and make good my escape.

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A Small Crikey

I remember you. You did me last time. You were a Boys’ High boy, right? I was a Girls’ High girl. Remember?

Ah, Ker-istchurch, I thought. The place where everyone is supposedly obsessed with where you went to school (as if that question is never asked in any other city), but which now, post-‘quakes and stalled rebuild, brings forth very different questions.

Ah, Ch-rist…church, that lame cover-up of a sweary/blasphemy word employed by children from other cities (something I didn’t learn until I left Crikey).

Ah, Ker-ikey, that place I tried to escape 20 years ago, moving to Auckland where every second person seemed to have a link to my hometown causing me to often remark (with a nod to Disney), ah, it’s a small Christchurch…

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Chch Boys’ High

Yes, I remembered you, Miss Bryndwr. You pointedly said that you liked Boys’ High boys, and looked for my reaction. I countered by asking of your home suburb, an area I found hard to place as, like all suburbs in Christchurch, it has no defined boundaries and is a general area (to quote Wikipedia).

Although you were sitting down I could see that you were as tall as an Amazon; ever-smiling, Yarpie-forward, confident and chatty, the dead-spit of another aggressively charming young South African from my past.

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Where I waited with Adele

Adele, who I met on a poetry course 10 years ago, who took a shine like a half a bottle of wine, sent me poems outside the course detailing her perfect man, who asked me to accompany her to long-forgotten foreign movie, who, when the class photo was taken on the final day of the poetry course slipped her arm around my waist, pulled me close, smiling wide with a look of conquest. Adele, who I awkwardly stood beside outside a downtown strip bar waiting for her father, who turned and said, my father, he is very protective of me.

Adele, the last teenager I ever went out with.

Miss Bryndwr, although you could have been Adele’s twin (in looks and manner) you were full of far more interesting conversation. Yesterday, we talked about the school you left for university. You went to a different Girls’ High than the one I knew, whose most noted old girls were heavenly creatures made famous in a film by Peter Jackson (no Hobbits allowed).

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Bad girls contemplate moider

I have so many memories of those old buildings that loomed over Cranmer Square, the solid brick, beautiful and foreboding.

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Old Girls’ High

But we didn’t talk of my visits there in the ‘80s to rehearse plays when I was a Boys’ High boy, or in the ‘90s attending theatre workshops when the school had flitted to flash new grounds at the top of Hagley Park on the banks of the Avon.

I wanted to know about the controversy when the head mistress was sacked by the board and the girls rebelled in support of her. It’s always good to get the story from those involved and not rely on press releases and spin.

I won’t repeat what you told me in confidence but it involved that awful ‘quake, death and hubris. Suffice to say you gave me faith in the power of the young to pick through the rubble and do what is right.

When I was your age, Miss Bryndwr, I had trouble interacting with people old enough to be my parent. They were an enemy to be opposed. Such a silly, puerile dichotomy; your attitude is so refreshing. Even when you looked at me and said with pride, my father, he is very tall, 6 foot 6. A giant!

But this was not the most significant conversation I had yesterday, nor the one that has made me write these words. I had other great interactions (students are so much more interesting than when I was at university) but the one I will sketch was with the last stranger I talked to.

She was also very tall, but thin, and as I gathered my equipment to walk over to her, a colleague said that she was dressed rather like Where’s Wally?

By now I was tired and didn’t really want to talk, but I’m meant to engage as part of customer service so I asked her about the book sitting on her lap. It was about Fukushima and she was reading it because the Japanese have put great resources into studying the psychological/developmental after-effects of the disaster (nuclear, ‘quake and tsunami) on their children.

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Aftermath in Japan

A student of child development with an interest in the effects of the Chch ‘quake, she is stymied by the total neglect of this area in New Zealand, so she looks to Japanese research to get an insight.

Our discussion left my conversations with Miss Bryndwr (and Adele) for dead. As someone who grew up in Chch, I have a lot of despair, anger and grief around the subject and have to check myself whenever it comes up. Yes, there’s a lot of positivity and creativity happening, but you have to fight to bring that forth. So much cliché is trotted out by those with little idea, and so much of the rest of NZ seems to have grown bored with the subject.

I did not unload my stories or frustration onto Ms. Not-Wally (it’s often like that, the hunger to talk, to seek understanding, mixed with a fierce need not to have to engage). Instead, my exhaustion and silence gave her space to say that although she wasn’t from Christchurch, she was in the CBD when the big one hit, one block from the Square, smack bang amongst the worst of it (as if any of it could be graded).

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Seconds after the earthquake

She described none of the event and I asked no questions, instead she told me of the frustration she felt about people’s need to offer up their anecdotes whenever the subject comes up. How she gets tripped to tears by the most unlikely things, loud sounds or unexpected movement which suddenly bring back the panic and fear.

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Japanese rescue worker sent to Chch to help

After I completed my task and our conversation ended I had to leave the floor for a good 10 minutes before I could recompose myself and put away the grief.

Ker-istchurch. I need to be near you, I need to be amongst you. I need to say everything and say nothing. I love the hope. I ache with despair.

As I said to Ms. Not-Wally, as a historian, I know we will have little idea what has happened to Christchurch for a good 20 or 30 years.

There is hope, but not in neglect.

I know children are facing far worse in this world as I write this. Corralled and pounded with explosives throughout the night, or as they play. Unlike an earthquake, it is criminal and deliberate. I can only imagine what will become of them in the future. It is not my home but I feel great anger, despair and compassion.

I have another job, quite different from the one I was doing yesterday. Both were impacted by the ‘quake. When the Tsunami/’quake that devastated Fukushima struck about 3 weeks after the Chch event, I was working in Nelson with a television crew from Christchurch, doing the job of a colleague who never made it out of the collapsed CTV building. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they watched the images off the satellites: the silence and disbelief as they relived their ongoing trauma in the most awful way.

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Collapsed CTV building

The children of Chch were not hit by explosives, but they have lived through thousands upon thousands of aftershocks. It is not over and no one knows when it will end.

Ker-istchurch, my home that still looks like a warzone… full of untold stories and stories untold.

I just don’t know what to say.

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People of Christchurch, filling the gaps

A Close Shave

I’ve just shaved for the first time in a long, long time. In fact, if I work it out, it’s more than 20 months since I’ve scraped a razor across my face. I didn’t have a thick 20 month-long beard to remove as I trimmed it every week to keep a short stubble: whenever it went beyond a week I would start to pull at (and out) the lengthening hairs whenever lost in thought.

But today, the last day of the year, I feel an overwhelming need to cut off the long hair I have been growing for over a year, and attacking the constant beard seems a less drastic (or mad) option.

I have never liked shaving. It’s an unrelenting chore that by its nature causes rashes and bleeds at the very time you need to be most presentable (just before a date or work).

I know it’s over 20 months since I was last clean-shaven (I despise that phrase which implies that the natural expression of an adult male is somehow ‘dirty’) as I last shaved on the day of my father’s funeral. It wasn’t an easy shave, either, as I had not shaved since my mother’s funeral 4 months before that so there was no razor in my travel kit.

My ‘clean’ face was achieved with the help of a very blunt and pink Lady Shave that my sister had brought with her from Australia. It was a horrible task but, given what was going on at the time, somehow necessary as I was MC-ing the funeral and didn’t want to offend anyone with my choice of personal grooming. That said, more than one relative asked me why I had shaved as apparently I “suited a beard,” looking “like George Clooney” to some elder relatives and/or “like Keith Urban” to the teenage daughter of my sister’s friend.

Such flattery went down well and only encouraged my desire not to bow to the pressure in Western society for men to have faces like pre-pubescent boys.

While it may seem that facial hair is ‘all-the-rage’ with a story on the internet yesterday stating that beards were ‘cool’ again the actual stats indicate that only about 9% of men in Western society are game enough to sport facial hair. Razor companies rely on this consistent statistic (and pressure). No politician can succeed in the West with a beard while the opposite is true in many non-Western cultures, and the moustache has been relegated to the realms of irony or a tidy one-month ghetto of fund-raising.

Am I being reactionary, shaving mine off as soon as they are deemed acceptable? Nope. It’s about me and personal choice. Yes, it’s a substitute for shaving my head, but it’s much more than that.

I shaved because I wanted to blog about my weekend in Christchurch, how my body is still sore and my mind full of experience and reflection, and shaving is always a good way to wipe away the sludge and get motivated. But the physical process of doing something so mundane and unremarkable took me back to that sunny day in April 2012 when I last shaved.

You see, my father never went past a day or two without shaving. As children growing up in Christchurch my sisters and I often begged him to grow a beard or moustache, just once, just for fun. Why couldn’t he? It was only temporary and could easily be removed. He never did.

I don’t say this with sadness but I was never close to my father.

It was hardly a unique situation, most people say the same. But we had a greater distance as Dad was an Englishman born in another age – the Roaring 20s – when George V was on the throne, Hitler was a no-body and every mature man in the West had either a beard (Windsor or less regal) or a moustache (Charlie Chaplin, handlebar or fine).

His father, who died in 1946, had fought in WW1, and I imagine he kept his thoughts and emotions even closer still. Dad said that on a full moon my grandfather would be silent for a week. I can only imagine why.

Dad died 66 years after his father following a long, awful illness that took him 1hour before Good Friday last year. It wasn’t a peaceful end so it was a great relief to see his body at rest. As I helped lift his withered (but still unexpectedly heavy) body into his coffin his stubble grazed across my soft inner arm: he had not been shaved in over a week.

Being Easter weekend, we had to keep him in his coffin for over a day before he could be cremated. In that time we dressed him with clothes, photos and significant objects to keep him warm and amused, talking to him just as we did when he was lost in the Alzheimer’s he hid for so long by always making a joke. I gave him a Best Bets and $10 for a flutter (while his father was a great gambler, Dad stuck to the gee-gees). Twice, I polished the coffin with the soft wax provided to bring up the beautiful grain but I did not once think to shave him.

Yes, his stubble appeared to get longer but it is a myth that our hair and nails continue to grow after death. It is an illusion caused by our skin shrinking.

Today is the last day of the year, the final day I can say that my father died last year.

I did not intend to write this today any more than I intended to shave.

I am just thankful that, unlike my distant English grandfather, I was never forced into the trenches to cower from, and kill, strangers: that, unlike my remote father, I did not have to face the results of such trauma while a silly dictator with a ridiculous moustache sent his minions to drop bombs in my father’s garden.

And that this morning, I chose to shave my face and not my head.