Death through the eyes of a child

The God of Mud: a cartoon
The God of Mud

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(Reposted from 2015) In which I try to come to terms with Death by comparing Ruby’s God of Mud with Death as described by Steve Jobs.

When Ruby (not her real name) was very young, she used to share her insights into life, the universe and everything. I wrote down 79 of these as found poems. Hang on to your hat — here comes one of Ruby’s revelations.

Ruby’s God of Mud is not unlike death as explained by Steve Jobs:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

The God of Mud

We don’t want anybody dying
(says Ruby)
because the people get sad
and make a noise —
“Oh, oh, oh, we want granddad!”

The god of mud kills people
when they need to be killed.
She eats them
then spits them out.

And if she didn’t kill people
she’d be sad because
she’d have nothing to do.
So that’s why she kills people.

I’ll draw her for you.
The god is a giant,
curly hair, ears, earrings.
She’s a stick person and an island.

She’s got a person in her mouth
(not happy) and she spits her out.
The person looks like a normal person
but her vagiva is gone

and her eyeballs fall out
into the god’s mouth.
She goes chew, chew, chew.
She is a horrible, horrible, horrible god.


Image is my attempt to replicate Ruby’s much better drawing. Poem by Ruby (not her real name) McAlpine. Both cc by-4.0

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My year of being old

Photo of eclipse of the sun
Is old age a kind of eclipse? Can I bear that analogy?

bootcamp2015-small 2(Republished from 2016)  In which I look ahead to the final task in my year of being old: coming to terms with death and dying. Yeeouch.

 

So, I’m putting myself through a DIY boot camp for the bonus years, achieving one goal every month. I’m booting myself into action, establishing habits that are likely to preserve me—and my brain and my family and the national budget—in the best possible state while I live.

The final task is what it’s all about: I must come to terms with old age and dying. Whew, big ask, huh?

In one sense, the whole year is dedicated to precisely that unprecise and probably impossible goal. However, I’ll be forced to focus strongly on death for an entire day shortly, when I attend this workshop:

Life, Death and Transformation

One of my sisters told me about a Tibetan meditation on death, when for almost an hour she visualised herself dying in a remote place like a desert, and then vividly experiencing the gradual decay of her body. This sort of guided meditation, I expect, will be part of the workshop I attend.

My sister said that ever since that day she has never worried about whether she looks old or young. She still looks marvellous, but it seems she just let go of that understandable desire to look younger. I too would like to become less attached to my anachronistic self-image as a younger woman.

Why am I booting myself into such a morbid experience?

Well, it’s clear that most of us have highly successful mechanisms for denying, downgrading, dumping and downright rejecting death. We’re not going to die, oh no! And we’re not ever going to be old like that pathetic person over there who can barely walk or see, oh no!

Possibly the human capacity to blank out the end of life is a healthy thing. I don’t know. But that capacity is sustained by self-deception and bizarre thought patterns, which (to me) are not so pretty.

I would like to try another possibility: knowing deep in my bones that I will die one day, maybe tonight, maybe in 25 years, maybe sometime in between. I would like to be able to accept that fact, to understand what death involves, to feel the honest grief and loss, and somehow to be OK about the entire incomprehensible terrible wonderful bundle of life and death.

That’s what I’m expecting from a workshop on Life, Death and Transformation.

It’s hard work letting go

Of course this day will be hard work in every sense. Such understanding cannot be delivered on a plate. If it was easy, we would all think like Buddhist nuns and monks, I suppose. Or at least we would think rationally about our own life cycle instead of subconsciously regarding ourselves as exempt from the processes of dying and death.

With any learning, the more effort you make, the greater the rewards. And this is a different kind of knowledge.

Must I write any more about my year of being old?

I’m a writer, doh! But I hope that after this year, I’ll stop brooding on the topic and revert to being myself — not defined by age, exempt from internal ageism. Whether I write anything more, ever, about my boot camp feels more and more improbable. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been very, very real to me.

This was all about death. But I feel that I have again been writing into life.


 

Never mind the words you forget: you’re learning new words every day

WordItOut-word-cloud-2353870.png

This morning I was a tad shocked when not one but two words eluded me. First I failed to retrieve eclipse, then half an hour later, arnica escaped my tongue. Total eclipse of the brain! Quick, fetch the arnica!

Then common sense prevailed. OK, these are not unusual words … but on the other hand, I rarely use them.

I was reading the newspaper when it struck me that over 77 years I’ve never stopped learning new words (and nor have you, at whatever age). Deployment, I read, ordnance: not words I learned at my father’s knee, I assure you. Superfoodsmitochondria, microbeads, urban runoff, nutrient pollution. Bitcoin, geopolitical, cryptocurrency, alpha-numeric codes… The newspaper every day is peppered with words that did not exist in 1940, words that we now use without a second thought.

New words: space invaders that keep us young

By lunch time I’d used dozens of neologisms and technical terms without blinking. The sort of words we learn when they become necessary or common. I had done a kettlebell superset workout and 100 incline push ups, among other torturesI’d listened to a podcast with my decaff flat white. I’d enquired about a markdown app for my iPad Pro that sync nicely with the WordPress blogging platform, and toyed with some source code. I had directed a body corp member to section 4 of the Unit Titles Act.

You too are a word-learning machine

Take heart! Unless you live solo in a tech-free ice cave, you cannot help but learn new words every day. “I can’t stand that word blog,” one of my friends said the other day — OK, but you just used it, I thought.

Next time you forget a word, don’t catastrophize. It’s not automatically a sign of anomic aphasia or even mild cognitive impairment, let alone Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s more likely just a sign that your glorious brain is chock-a-block full of words, and some old friends are being pushed to the back of the closet by these brash (but interesting) newcomers.

PS Writing others into life

Several readers have told me that this post was hugely reassuring to them. It reframes a fear into pride. I’m glad if by writing today, I can help others to perceive that their verbal is very much alive.

After a gross Amazon review, set your novel free!

fixing-mrs-p-cover-small

So, I wrote an “inspiring, comical, feminist” (to summarise a radio review) chook-lit sort of novel about happiness in the earthquake epoch. That’s Fixing Mrs Philpott. Yes, it contains a few sex scenes, but most novels do, don’t they? Then I got distracted and failed to solicit those first few crucial reviews, leaving the book to languish unnoticed on Amazon/Kindle.

Uh oh, not entirely unnoticed. Along comes this email from a guy I’ll call Ron. Wallowing in apologies because he has written a “smart-alecky and flippant” review that “must have hurt your feelings.” Well, I’ve been communicating with readers for the last 40 years. This is generally a source of delight, but not everyone likes my books, and I have encountered the occasional idiot with a personal agenda. However, he did astonish me: how stupid can you get? A. to write such rubbish and B. to confess to it. In the end I’m laughing … and I pity him.

He thought my feelings would be hurt. No, but I’m annoyed because Amazon reviews are hard-won and influential, especially those stars.

My tragic reviews data for Fixing Mrs Philpott

customer-reviews

Only a tiny minority of readers write a review. Half of my reviews for Fixing Mrs Philpott consisted of a single thoughtful, genuine review. The other 50% was squandered on — let’s call a spade a spade — sexual harassment.

What do you do with an inappropriate review?

I don’t know what’s best — what would you do? Nothing, if it’s one of 20 reviews. But because it’s one of only two (tragic, I know) here’s what I did:

  • smiled an evil smile
  • clicked “Not helpful” and “Report abuse”
  • made Fixing Mrs Philpott (Kindle edition) FREE on Amazon for the next 5 days.

Thank you in advance, dear reader-writer

I know you’re probably a writer as well as a reader. And that therefore you understand this situation. I was going to say, you have much more understanding than Rob — I mean Bob — sorry, Ron— but that goes without saying.

Forgive me for venting. This is not my problem alone. And if I had 20 reviews, it would not be a problem at all.

Meantime I do hope you enjoy reading this novel. It’s about happiness and I hope it brings you happiness. (Did I write into life? But of course!) I love giving it away free and I’ll do it whenever Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) allows.

 

 

 

Mindful moments: stand, drink water

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(First published in 2015) In which a poem and song about the Christchurch earthquakes help me to take a mindful moment when I drink a glass of water.

One of my boot camp tasks is to increase the number of genuinely mindful moments—when I’m fully aware of what I am doing and feeling and thinking and sensing at at the time. Sitting and meditating is easy by comparison. Both are a pleasure—but it’s difficult to snatch that quick flash of mindfulness in a busy day.

Paradoxically, mindfulness comes easier when it’s a habit. My son Geoff, for example, aims to be mindful in two situations: every time he walks through a door and every time he takes someone’s blood pressure. One is a moment of transition, the other a moment of stillness.

At Capital Choir we are singing a powerful new song — music by Felicia Edgecombe, words by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Here’s the poem.

After the tremor

after the tremor the neighbour
after the terror the stranger
after the stranger the doctor
after the doctor the soldier

after the soldier the looter
after the looter the vulture
after the horror the ruins
after the ruins the kindness

after the kindness the sirens
after the sirens the silence
after the silence the weeping
after the weeping the comfort

after the toppling the creaking
after the shaking the shaking
after the shaking the questions
after the rage and courage

after profound desolation
after the nurse and the undertaker

we stand and we drink from a glass of water

— (c) Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

See that last line? The people of Christchurch know what a privilege this is. The poem forces us through a relentless sequence of events and feelings experienced by Christchurch people during the last few years. The horror began with a massive earthquake that shattered the city, but that was only the start of hell time.

We stand and we drink from a glass of water.

Stability. Water. We take them for granted, most of the time. For older people, stability and water are even more precious. Sometimes when I stand and drink from a glass of water, I try to think of nothing else. I look at the water—what an amazing modern blessing, clean clear water running out of a tap! And the glass—perfect, it works! I’m standing firm and straight and steady. The ground is firm. God I’m lucky!

These are mindful moments, refreshing, stabilising. A flash of awareness incites gratitude. And how much time do they take? None, because we have to drink water anyway—especially when we are older.

After the tremor: the song

Image from The Art of the Dresden Gallery (1907) by Julia de Wolf Gibbs

Photos of Christchurch before and after the February 2011 earthquake

 

Travel blogs and travel talk

marrakech-gare
Marrakech Gare: going places!

Travel blogs: hugely popular for good reason

Travel blogging is a brilliant way to keep a travel diary, manage your trip photos, and keep family and friends up to date with your adventures. Also, you only have to write about each memory once — one post and it’s done — but you can edit at your leisure. You can write into life with this genre.

There’s room for every kind of travel blog: visual, verbal, mundane, philosophical, private, public, chatty, literary, jokey, romantic — it’s all good. A travel blog can quadruple the pleasure of a trip.

Travel conversations are not so easy

These after-the-trip conversations are inevitable. When you return from an exotic place, you are obliged to talk about it. Friends ask about Your Trip (especially in New Zealand, where every country except Australia is a fairly long way away). Or you have an urge to talk about it anyway, bursting to share all your strange and marvellous experiences.

But how? Travel talk can be such a pleasure, but it can also go seriously wrong. Half your audience has already been to the same destination, and the other half has been there in spirit thanks to TripAdvisor and Facebook.

Is there a taxonomy of travel talk? I have been watching how others do it, and I hope to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

A. Travel talk that I enjoy

  1. Personal experiences combined with insights into broader topics.
  2. A story steeped in joy or excitement or delight or drama or fear: strong frank personal feelings.
  3. People who travel with a specific purpose: how did things pan out?
  4. A story about people.
  5. An amazing fact that I have never heard before.
  6. Stories that grow and grow in response to the listener’s questions.

B. Travel talkers who drive me nuts 

Hello B-team. I’m glad you had an adventure and I wish you all the best, but let’s set a 5 minute limit.

  1. The bore who tells you 1,000 (dubious, random, context-less) “facts” about a place.
  2. The know-it-all who believes that spending 5 minutes in a place gives their every opinion the ring of authority.
  3. The full-time cruise traveller who compares tours, not places.
  4. The super-generaliser.
  5. The person who forgets you used to live there.
  6. Mr and Mrs Cost-a-Lot, Mr and Mrs They-Can’t-Make-Chips, and their friends.

After my next holiday in Kuala Lumpur I’d better prepare an executive summary so that I don’t lapse into category B.

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This blog post is reprinted from Old Lady Laughing, which nobody ever read. My own photo, cc by 2.0

The toxic tentacles of OSANP (one strange and nasty person)

A dancing octopus
A glorious dancing octopus. Tentacles are its only common attribute with OSANP. Photo by DaugaardDK CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My problems are never original. They are always in some sense generic, typical, almost universal. So when I write about them, it’s not because I expect you to be surprised or impressed. No, I expect you’ll recognise them.

Joy of the day — dancing!

Today is exciting and joyful because it’s the first of our 3-day dance season in Wellington. I’ll walk to the theatre at 4.45 (in 2 minutes) buying two bananas on route, ready for warm-up and tech rehearsal at 5.30. Hang out with friends while we organise our costumes and props and do panicky little rehearsals of tricky bits. And then dance dance dance our socks off, disoriented by lights and thrilled with our usual appreciative (ahem, discerning) audience. This year we — four groups of Crows Feet from four centres — do Climate Change, which is inspiring and entertaining too. Youngest dancer is 40, oldest is me at 77.

climate-image 2

For this weekend, I must banish an infuriating (and common) problem to the back of my neck.

The curious case of the non-voluntary volunteers

I’m chair of a small body corporate (i.e. group of 5 owners who share an old 6-apartment block). I’ve been on the body corp for 31 years without ever hitting an insoluble problem. In that time we have gotten rid of two white-collar criminal members, legitimately and without fuss. I’ve had the occasional hissy fit but our finances, admin, and property have been managed successfully for 3 decades by the owners, mandatory volunteers, amateurs obliged to cooperate in a professional job of work. We have almost always managed to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law. I’m proud of what we have accomplished.

Until now. Two years ago, by sheer chance, all the apartments except mine were sold to new owners. Three of the owners are great people, cooperative, generous with their ideas and time. The other one (who bought two apartments, aaarrgh!) is one of those OSANPs.

Curse of the year — the body corporate OSANP

OSANPS are not quite the same as other people. Alien in a suit. CC0 from Max Pixel
OSANPS (one strange and nasty persons) are not quite the same as other people. CC0 from Max Pixel

It’s a law of nature: every body corporate gets one of these people doled out to them at some point. All my body corp- friends have had their own versions, and I wondered why we were spared. Then the gods noticed their error and threw us a right humdinger.

It’s taken time to realise that this person lies by default, often with seemingly pointless lies that are spotted instantly. Makes promises, forgets and denies promises. Desperately wants to rule. Abuses and bullies anyone who opposes him. Has a contempt for the law and two abiding values: money and power. (Sound familiar?)

Yes, he’s a case study but what good does a fancy label do?

No more Mrs Nice Guy

Now I get it. He’s non-comprehensible. He’s almost like another species. He’ll never change no matter what we do so I’m getting tough.

He has recourse (through the very Act he despises) — he can take us to the Tenancy Tribunal, mediation, or the High Court. Meantime I want us to appoint a professional manager, just for starters.

And then… There will be ructions but A. we will have professional support and B. there would be ructions no matter how nice I am.

And then… I will get my life back. I will have room for the creative activities that are my lifeblood. I will revert to my baseline of steadiness and joy. That’s the plan.

Wish me luck. And tell me, have you been there, done that too?

And now… on with the dance!