The other night, I went to see Jackson Browne in concert. As is usually the case these days I went with some close friends who, like me have walked the Jackson-Browne journey for many years. The venue was the old State Theatre in Sydney, a beautiful space crafted in a peculiar blend of Gothic, Baroque, Nouveau and Deco that seems to lift you out of time when spending those few hours within its walls.
Over the last forty-plus years, I have seen Jackson Browne in concert in excess of twelve times that I can remember. It’s been a bonus that he has visited Australia so many times; one of his sons, Ryan, now in his late thirties, lives here.
The first time I saw him live was in about 1977 just after the release of his fourth album – The Pretender – and just before Running on Empty.
Of course, to most people reading this, these album names don’t mean much. Jackson Browne’s music floated in and out of the mainstream, never staying too long. Occasionally, a song on the radio like Doctor My Eyes, Take it Easy or Running on Empty might jog a memory, but the gold I have found in a generation of being a part of Jackson Browne’s music has been hidden in the beauty of lyrics woven impossibly through often unusual and far-from-mainstream melody lines.
But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it just so happened that for me the beauty paralleled the path of my life.
As a confused but arrogant teen, in those moments of silence in time alone, I related viscerally to These Days and the words written by a sixteen-year-old Jackson Browne:
These days I sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend;
Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.
And in the turbulence of late teens, identity crises and the mystery of discovering and losing love, the poignant Love needs a Heart gave me a place of troubled understanding:
Love won’t come near me,
She don’t even hear me;
She walks by my vacancy sign.
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind,
I wish that heart were mine.
It’s been said that the career of Jackson Browne was the reverse of Dylan’s, starting out deeply personal and moving through to politics and activism. I think that’s pretty simplistic as much of the attraction for me was JB’s ability to bare his soul honestly and deftly and to recognise our connectedness and social responsibility.
The mass market sees a differentiation between the personal and the political, but Jackson Browne doesn’t. There is a strong connection that has flowed through his lyrics that has only strengthened as he has matured. For Ev’ryman was released in 1974 and hints at the notion that, although each of us has our own journey, the truth is that we’re all in this together:
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place
To get it together,
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
And find something better.
But all my fine dreams,
Well-thought-out schemes to gain the motherland,
Have all eventually come down to waiting for Ev’ryman.
Although I have always given assent to the numerous environmental, social and political causes that JB actively works for and espouses, it’s really only been in the last decade or so that for me the penny has finally dropped: To truly believe means that activism is not an option; it is a natural outflow. It is not good enough to merely argue a case. It is not good enough to merely sit on my hands, pray and hope, because those things just shuffle my responsibility off into the ether. I must invest my life, time and money in what I believe to be true, otherwise I clearly don’t believe it. Activism is simply accepting my responsibility and “acting” on it.
One of the real, refreshing beauties that I have appreciated in Jackson Browne’s music and lyrics is a tolerance of those who may not see what he sees – a rare quality amongst activists. He sees that part of his responsibility is to “stand in the breach” on behalf of others. In fact that is the title of his most recent album – Standing in the Breach:
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bend our backs and hearts together standing in the breach.
You don’t know why it’s such a far cry
From the world this world could be
You don’t know why but you still try
For the world you wish to see
You don’t know how it will happen now
After all that’s come undone
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone
Through all these years of following his career and in some strange way building a relationship with a man whom I’ve never met, I came to a realisation the other night as I contemplated the fact that he would be turning seventy this year; to countenance the loss of this “brother” who has walked alongside me spiritually and given voice to my feelings and contemplations, is more than sobering. I realised my gratitude and the fact that those who walk the truth-seeking path need such poets to give voice to the multitude of feelings and frustrations that accompany such a walk.
In many ways the music and lyrics of this man have been my soundtrack, to use a well-worn cliché. But unlike others who have become jaded or burnt-out or have just plain shuffled off the scene, Jackson Browne retains the innocence and poignancy that he had way back when I first started listening to him a generation ago.
I have lots of friends who are teachers. We have some interesting conversations from time to time, often about specific kids and their challenges. Most of the time we speak empathically about the kids involved and their struggles academically and socially but occasionally we diverge into the area of parenting and protectionism.
Most of us will have seen those posts on Facebook that talk about all the things that those of us who grew up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s experienced and survived: drinking from garden hoses, riding in cars without seatbelts, riding bikes without helmets, going out to play in the neighbourhood for hours on end as long as we were home before the street-lights came on, and the one that had me reminiscing, hitch-hiking.
I had actually almost forgotten about it, but a flood of memories came back. Before I was old enough to drive – so in my mid-teens – hitch-hiking was the quickest and easiest way to get around. Many of the things that I did socially involved getting to places that weren’t particularly well serviced by public transport, so hitch-hiking was the mode-de-jour. Granted, my mother didn’t particularly like it, but it was so very convenient. I’d walk a block to the main road, stick a finger out (Note: always the index finger; never a thumb as they do in America), and usually before too long, a complete stranger would stop, there would be a brief exchange of the direction each of you were headed, you’d jump in and get part or all the way to your destination. But I digress.
My son made a comment about my generation that did all these “dangerous” things without dying or, in the case of the garden hose, without even getting sick. He said, “Yeah, well you guys may have done all that but how come you became the ones who made the crazy rules that robbed our generation of the same freedom?”
It was true. My generation was the one that changed the rules and started getting very protective about our own children. Why? What happened? Most of the stats don’t show that the world is any more dangerous now, so why the generational knee-jerk?
OK, seat-belts in cars I can understand. I can kind-of understand bike helmets, especially considering that my youngest son was saved from almost certain death by one. But I wonder if we have become somewhat over-protective when it comes to the next generation, and if that could be doing them a profound disservice.
Many of the rules and practices could be construed as sensible, like the aforementioned seat belts and helmets, but as far as the practices of and towards our children are concerned, have we gone too far?
I hear of parents who send their kids to school with water bottles (presumably because they could contract typhoid from the school bubblers) and hot/cold packs to keep their gourmet lunches at the right temperature; many of these same parents will insist upon whom their children sit next to in class, indeed will insist on which particular class or teacher their little ones have.
Perish the thought that kids should leave their water bottle, gourmet lunch or homework at home. If that happens, they’ll be on their smart phone texting mum or dad to bring it up to school, which mum and dad obligingly do.
Now, I am a parent too, and yes, I’ve raced something to school that a child had left at home. I get that. But there seems to be something much deeper going on here.
Most educators will acknowledge that one of the key elements in learning is the ability to make mistakes, to understand that they were mistakes and then to learn from them so that they don’t happen again.
Obviously, this shouldn’t apply in life-threatening situations, such as wearing seat-belts in a moving vehicle, but there are some areas where I believe we have overstepped the mark on what we think is looking after our kids.
I may seem like a grouchy, old man, but how will a child ever learn not to leave things at home if she/he is continually bailed out by a parent? How will a child learn the depth of application required for excellence if everyone gets a ribbon for just participating? Moreover, how will a child learn to discern good work from rubbish if everything they do gets unqualified praise?
Let me say, I’m all for encouragement. But we shouldn’t confuse encouragement with flattery. For instance, if a ten-year-old brings home a piece of art that they’d created at school and shows it to you, most of us, myself included at one time, would say, “Oh Joey, what a beautiful piece of art. How wonderful! You must be very proud!” or words to that effect.
Now, the piece involved is, in reality, a confused mess of colour, completely lacking in an obvious subject. Such a response on my part is probably irresponsible, because there is now no way for that child to discern the difference between that response and the equal response given when they actually may create something good.
This is flattery, not encouragement, and it ultimately causes difficulty for a child because they gradually become inured to praise, and unable to see the value in “lifting their game”; furthermore they come to expect praise for any level of effort. It could well be that over-encouragement has been a contributor to the “entitled” generations that are so complained about by employers: “Hey, I’ve been here for six weeks! Where’s my pay rise and promotion?!”.
So what should I do when Joey shows me the art?
I read a study recently that talked about this phenomenon. The suggestion would be when they bring something to you that doesn’t have any observable merit other than the fact that they did it, the first thing you should do is look at it and, in a positive way, ask questions about it. “So, you did this in class, huh? And what did the teacher ask you to do?”
“Uh-huh,” you respond. “So, tell me about this piece…”
Eventually, you ask them how they feel about it, whether they might have done it differently if they’d had more time, whether they like art, etc, etc. By the end of the conversation, hopefully Joey will not only have a better grip on how to do better, but also feel affirmed in his ability to do so, knowing that his parent loves him.
Over-encouragement – flattery – or misplaced encouragement is a form of protection. We don’t want our kids to feel bad, so we tell them that what they do is great, even if it isn’t. But this protection will ultimately hurt them.
I often joke about the “soft-fall”, rubberised playgrounds that will see us with a whole generation of adults with broken bones and fractured skulls because they never felt what it was like to land on hard ground and therefore didn’t learn to fall safely. I know it’s a long bow, but it is a kind of metaphor. How can we expect our kids to be resilient if they never get a chance to learn resilience?
The son of a friend of mine is the coach of an under-fourteens football team and to encourage the kids, he awarded points each game throughout the season: Three points to the best player, two for next best and one point for third best. He ensured to the best of his ability that he was even-handed in awarding the points. One of the parents called him and told him in no uncertain terms that his son hadn’t been awarded enough points and what was he going to do about it. It was a real quandary for him. He was just trying to be genuinely encouraging, yet here was a parent who expected that his son deserved unmerited encouragement.
I heard recently that Australia has overtaken the U.S. as the most litigious society in the world, and from what I hear, a good chunk of that is parents suing schools, councils, sporting associations, etc., because little Katy tripped on a tree root a broke her wrist, or Alvin didn’t make the first-grade team, or the Principal wouldn’t let Emily go up a year even though she was clearly a very bright child.
I know, I know, I’m a grumpy, old man. I also know that for those of us with kids, they are our most precious assets. We want the best for them; we want to be their champions; we want to ensure their success. But we need to be careful that in our zeal we don’t keep them from the very things that will help them to be successful.
Let them encounter the troubled kid in the class who might be a bit disruptive – it will help them fit into society more graciously and productively knowing that it takes all kinds. Let them fall down and graze their knee; eventually, they’ll learn respect for how hard the ground is and when to walk instead of run. Let them go without lunch for a day; most kids will share anyway, or a teacher might spring for a couple of bucks at the canteen; they might even be upset with you for not dropping everything to take their lunch to school; but eventually they’ll learn not to forget.
Just about all of the teachers that I know love kids. They want to support our kids, most of them believe it is their calling, so let them do the teaching with our support and encouragement. They have a tough enough time wrangling thirty kids every day without having to wrangle a dozen parents as well.
We have a responsibility to let our kids learn resilience and understanding from everything and everyone that they encounter, so that they can become resilient, understanding adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves, because they’ll be running the country soon and if it all turns sour, they’ll be looking for someone to blame; and it just might be us.
– Matt is a father of three boys and a grumpy. old man, so is well-qualified to write on this subject.
“The greatest Ottoman victory of the First World War,” began on the 25th April 1915. Over the course of the eight-month campaign, over one hundred thousand lives were lost. Through this battle, the tiny new nations of Australia and New Zealand, who were disproportionately represented, were stunned into self-awareness, with the pride of our youth sacrificed on the altar of British military arrogance and foolishness.
That day – Anzac Day – was officially commemorated the following year; this year marks the one hundredth anniversary. It has become, at least here in Australia, our Holy Day, having so much more significance in our national psyche than Christmas, Easter or any other religious or non-religious festival. It was our national crucifixion without the resurrection.
Combine this with the desperate defence of our own shores during the war in the Pacific against Japan which began less than thirty years later and we found ourselves very rapidly with an entrenched understanding of who we are based on tenacity, rigour, perseverance and the ability – at least in WW2 – to fight and win.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, that in this century, we have endorsed successive governments’ cruel and inhumane treatment of those who have been attempting to seek asylum in our country. We have seen them as invaders; perhaps those in power have tapped into that which is so much a part of who we are and distorted it, so that we have come to believe that these desperate people, fleeing for their lives, are actually our enemy – illegals. In fact, Facebook posts from some of those private contractors who have been entrusted with the “care” of those imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru have at times called their charges just that – the enemy.
Or am I drawing a long bow?
Ever since I was a kid, Anzac Day was where we showed our respect and gratitude to those who gave their lives so that we all might share in the freedom in which we now stand.
What a tragedy that those who are fleeing injustice and persecution – in many cases at significant risk for them and their families – are treated as the enemy when they arrive at our shores.
It is a sad, terrible irony that at the same time we commemorate the fight for freedom, we imprison those who are fleeing regimes very much like those that our forbears fought. Have we really become that selfish?
I have no desire to hijack Anzac Day to have an opportunity to jump on my own soapbox. I too, honour those who have fought on our behalf. My own father was such a soldier in New Guinea.
But freedom is given to us not so that we might be selfish, arrogant and hateful, but rather that we might show mercy, compassion and grace to those who are not blessed as we are. In the words of William Shakespeare: Mercy “blesses him that gives and him that takes. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”
This Anzac Day, let us remember the values for which our forbears fought and be gracious with our freedom, so that we may give thanks with a clear conscience.
The doctor said that everyone responds differently to radiotherapy. It’s not very comforting to hear that; it means that the yardstick by which I might gauge my progress is somewhat bigger than a yard and with indistinct measurements. However, four weeks into what will be a seven-week program, I feel that at least I have a kind-of rhythm going. The best part of it, I am discovering, is walking out of the Friday treatment (treatments are daily Mon – Fri) knowing that there will be respite on the weekend; and not just from the monotony of the daily trek to hospital, but from the more intense side effects; a weekend lets one’s body take a breath, as it were, although fatigue seems to be gaining momentum with a general energy shortfall getting larger by the day.
So far, the prognosis is good with everything going to plan. But, of course, cancer is a waiting game, with the tap-on-the-shoulder, if not anticipated, always lurking. The reality is, however, that apart from getting plenty of rest and eating well, I can’t do anything about it, so I tuck it away, do what I do, and keep moving. Thanks for your support, love and prayers.
For those of you who have been following this blog, you will know that I have committed to document the process of grief, having lost my wife, Ngaire, in the middle of last year. In a couple of weeks I will be saying, “the year before last.”
While what I have written is far from exhaustive and therefore shouldn’t be used as a road map for the process of grief, it is nonetheless the documentation of my story. I have tried to be ruthless, open and honest so that those who follow this blog may be able to relate and glean as much as possible. From the feedback that I have received, this has largely been the case.
Time marches on. When it turned 2014, I remember the melancholy of knowing that this would be a year in which Ngaire never existed. Now, as 2015 looms, I no longer have that same melancholy; now it is a given and an understood sadness that she is gone and that life goes on. In the process of living through grief we gradually begin to assimilate the loss and incorporate the sadness into the rest of life.
I actually believe that this incorporation gives fullness to those other aspects of life – love, hope, joy – that we may not have seen or felt before. Certainly that has been my experience.
In a post earlier this year I brought up the subject of moving on. It is timely for me to revisit this with a quote from it:
“I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, and about which many people have strong opinions. I have seen people, including myself, who have been hurt and angry when someone close has begun a relationship with another, sometimes within a time frame that may be considered too soon. From my pondering [here is something] to consider:
In looking at my own judgement of others in the past, I realised that, even though it may not have been conscious, I had made an assumption of, “How can they just forget their wife/husband like that?” It is almost as though I had felt them to be discarding or cheating on their spouse.
One thing I hadn’t allowed, is that the journey of the bereaved person is one of which I had no context to help me even remotely understand. The depths plumbed by a grieving spouse are simply beyond those who haven’t been there. Plus, how that person deals with and processes the pain of their life is entirely their business and I have no right to judge them.
For me personally, I know that I will always carry my love for Ngaire with me and… hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.”
The reason that I said it was timely is that I now stand in that future relationship. I am at peace to say that in this, my relationship with Ngaire is not only respected, but also known and honoured. Indeed, I am blessed to have found love with someone who was/is a close and treasured friend of Ngaire’s and mine; but it’s not that straightforward is it?
There was quite a degree of “navigation” before we reached this point. For the purposes of this blog, I should just refer to the places that I went in my heart and head in order to be OK about taking this new step. After all, I’ve been documenting the journey of grief, and the ability to finally reach that point of moving on is crucial.
Of course, I haven’t done this before, although I have read and half-read a few books on grief, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this current passage into the “new land” is the last one on this journey.
There will always be moments – birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Day – and in February when our first grandchild will be born there will be particular poignancy, because I know how much Ngaire was looking forward to grandkids.
But this is as it should be. Much of who I am, and all of my boys, are a memorial to Ngaire. She lives on in us, especially in her boys.
I have used numerous metaphors over the last year and a half to try to explain the feeling of loss after Ngaire died: standing inside half a house staring into the void where the other half had been, having a leg amputated, even disembowelment. Overlaid on all of this was my struggle to understand how much of who I was, was because of her influence. I would ask questions like” “What would she think? Would she like this? Would she approve?”
All were a regular part of gradually understanding and coming to terms with losing her and in recognising, to some extent, the degree to which her validation and opinion was important to me in how I lived life day-to-day.
Such questions are good and helpful in the process of loss, but I am discovering that they are not helpful in the process of moving on.
When I first contemplated the idea of moving on, I actually went to Ngaire’s grave. I have found it a helpful focal point for our discussion over these months; when I say “our discussion”, I realise that only one of us is speaking, but it has been helpful.
In these last days, I have seen that there are two Ngaires in my mind. One is the Ngaire who lived with me and loved me. It is this Ngaire who would have struggled with me moving on, because the thought of me with someone else would have been devastating for her.
The other Ngaire is whom I now see as the “altruistic Ngaire”, that Ngaire extant in another dimension, free from the bounds of earthly constraints, and only wanting the best for those of us left behind.
Of course the latter Ngaire is the only one with whom I could “converse”; the former has gone, and while I felt validated by what I imagined the latter would say in her desire to see me happy, loved and fulfilled in a relationship, I felt a strange discomfort about this.
You see, through this process of grief, I have had to relearn some simple things, the control of which I had abdicated to her or her opinions. Things like buying clothes, birthday presents, even a new car, now had to be done from my perspective and informed by my opinion; because, although I trusted and admired her taste and opinion, the reality is that she is no longer here. To continue making choices from that perspective is ultimately unhealthy.
In the same way, the choice of a new love is not hers to make.
I will always love Ngaire, but I have discovered, in a good way, that the rest of my life is not to be determined by what I might perceive her opinion to be; it should be determined by what I think, floated on the wisdom of those whom I love and trust, here and now. With regard to that, my boys are very happy too; they love my new “special someone” and have done for a long time.
This is hard stuff and no one tells you about it, except to use terms like, “when you’re ready.” It is a different type of saying goodbye, where your feelings stay the same, but your way of operating changes.
That is how it is, and I can honestly say that I feel happier and more at peace with myself. In fact, I haven’t felt this happy for a long, long time; and that’s coming from a guy with cancer.
But this “moving on” is not just about a new relationship, it is about becoming at peace with my voice and my heart making and affirming decisions about my future.
The past informs all of our lives, but we can’t live there forever. Grief requires us to live there for a time, but there is a point where we need to heed the call of the present. It is time.
I often wonder what it would have been like to lead a life in which everything went to plan. It’s pretty clear now that I’ll never know.
Many people think that life is all about following a belief system that explains or even “pre-explains” everything that happens to us. To a large extent I think I was one of them, but I don’t believe in that way of thinking or “believing” any more.
In the millions of possibilities with which we are presented each day, it is the mistakes, the unexpected and the surprises that really inform us and help us to grow.
A couple of nights ago I was presented with just such an opportunity. After a delightful evening with a dear friend, we had finished dinner in East Sydney and just left the restaurant. This part of town is a strange mix of history, eateries, old terraces, the homeless and addicted. As we approached my car, an older lady was using buckets to water some plants on the footpath out the front of her small terrace-house.
We made a comment about how beautiful her flowers were and, as she turned and stood upright to face us, I found myself being reacquainted with an old enemy.
It was not the dear little lady but rather that from which she suffered. She began straight away to tell of her difficulty in carrying buckets of water because she had emphysema.
However, I didn’t need her to tell me that she had lung disease. I recognised those familiar symptoms: the bluish tinge of the skin on her hands and around her lips (cyanosis) from lack of oxygen, gasping for breath before her sentences were completed and the depression which appeared at the base of her throat with each inhalation, the increased fatty deposits from long-term use of cortisone that make the face seem broader and “puffier”, and finally, as I watched her speak expressively with her hands, the curved fingernails – a phenomenon known as clubbing – from a lack of oxygen to the extremities.
Her name was Evelyn and she had lived in the same house for forty-five years. She spoke of the great difficulty that she now had in doing simple tasks like watering her plants because no one understood how difficult it was with her breathing difficulties. I wanted to tell her that she had no idea how well I understood, in having walked a very similar path watching my own wife’s ability to breathe inexorably diminish to nothing over the last ten years of her life.
I thought better of it. Evelyn had no need of someone to tell her how this would end. Ultimately, that would have been the message, should I have shared my understanding with her, and she would have been well aware of her destiny.
Rather she needed someone to listen and validate the life that she still had, now. So we listened to her tales of letters to the local paper, of the goings on with council over her garden beds on the footpath, of her full-sized Constable reproduction (which she showed us), hanging in her lounge room and a beautiful collection of life treasures that flowed from her lips and were strangely moving, including that she wouldn’t remember us next time she saw us; the stroke of twenty years before had rendered her unable to remember new things that had happened since then.
It was a beautiful meeting. My dear friend, who regularly visits a number of her friends who live on the street, said that when she first began walking this path of befriending and helping homeless folks, she was frightened that she wouldn’t know what to say to them. But she soon realised that all she needed to do was listen.
This shows love more than anything. One of the greatest ways to validate a life and show them that they are loved is simply giving them the time to listen to them.
I wanted to give Evelyn something before we left so I asked if I could shake her hand. I really wanted to hold it and somehow tune my spirit to hers; she commented on how warm my hand was – as hers were so cold – so I put my other hand on top. She laughed, and I think that somehow I felt life flowing from me to her.
Things that we don’t plan are often those that have the most profound effect on us, like that half hour with Evelyn. On another night, with a busier mindset, we may have walked right past her.
For those of us who live in the Western World, plans and dreams are often synonymous. Following your dreams is almost a mantra of the post-Christian west. But as I mentioned to my boys recently, “Don’t hold on to your dreams too tightly, because they might have you missing out on love, and that’s what we’re really here for”.
The thing that whacked me in the face was the Radiation Oncologist’s statement:
“We’re here to talk about treatment options for YOUR cancer…” (capitals mine, because that’s how it sounded in my head).
Through the whole process of tests that had brought me to this point, perhaps the one thing that I had been keeping at arm’s length was ownership of this condition/disease/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is that it is my cancer and me owning it has made it much more manageable and, if not pleasant, tolerable.
In my prior visit to the urologist, he told me that although the cancer was contained and not elsewhere in my body, I was in for some interesting times ahead. I also began to realise that none of these medical professionals were offering guarantees or even calculated guesses at what my revised longevity may be. That was a little sobering. So what was it? Five years? Ten years? Could I hope for fifteen?
As I sat in the car afterwards with a dear friend, feeling a little shell-shocked, I considered this lack of guarantee, and had something of an epiphany:
None of us has any guarantees.
We live in a world that reminds us constantly that our lives and our futures are the stuff of choice, ambition and dreams, when reality is far from this. Sure, we live longer than ever before thanks to hygiene, medicine and diet but we are still subject to the unexpected, unexplained or incurable.
Strangely enough, I found that understanding quite comforting. The only difference for me is that I have something inside me now that has been identified as a potential killer. So, there is a little less “unknown” for me.
In any case, the doctor was confident and thorough and, after lists of all the statistics, side effects and costs, left me with hope that this thing is completely treatable and beatable without radical surgery. There will be potential ongoing consequences, but that’s OK; at least I’ll be alive, hopefully for many years to come.
But I’ve been thinking about this problem of guarantees.
I spend most of my days in the world of the mass media – particularly promotions and advertising, which has at its core the premise that, if you can make people feel something, they will buy it, or watch it, or identify with it. It’s almost never about information, but about how that product is going to make you feel; it might make you feel more important, manlier, more feminine, have more value or more sex appeal. It is a subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) form of manipulation in which all of us are well practised, since the time we first cried to elicit sympathy in order to get what we wanted.
One of the things that the media has taught us quite well is that we are the most important person in the world. In fact, an insurance company had a campaign not so long ago with that as a tag line: “The most important person in the world: You”
With so much around geared to telling us how important we are and how in control we are, we could be forgiven for thinking that happy, trouble-free immortality is just one purchase away. Of course, we are only in control if we have made the correct purchases; if we haven’t then we are doomed to be inadequate fringe-dwellers until we do.
As a yardstick, I often consider what someone from a different, simpler culture would make of these social straightjackets that we insist on wearing. For example, what would the rice paddy worker from Cambodia make of my desperate need to have the right brand of jeans, toothpaste or hair gel? (For those of us who are fortunate enough to have hair).
In our free-market, capitalistic world it seems that we have allowed options to muscle out contentment and gratitude to the point where, in our abundance, what we don’t have is always more important than what we do. It’s how this system, which is really perpetuated by our feelings of inadequacy and not ever having enough, fuels itself.
Cobbled in with all of this are my choices, ambitions and dreams. Like most of us, they relate generally to family, love, and friendships; but of course, there is a critical element in all of those things in order for choices, etc., to become functional; that element is time.
With a cancer diagnosis, suddenly time becomes the most important factor. Everything in our lives that we plan or dream about is framed around the sleeping assumption that we will have time for it. When an external factor – like cancer – overrides our choices with regard to how much time we may or may not have, all of those choices, ambitions and dreams become very focussed and rapidly prioritised. All of that is to say, the journey of what does and doesn’t matter becomes a little easier.
To learn to live with an understanding that there are no guarantees for how long any of us has on this planet is actually very freeing: a refocussing on how to live and love well and how to leave behind the things that encumber.
That’s a nice little media-style catch-phrase to finish with: LIVE, LOVE, LEAVE BEHIND. “Matt’s Three L’s for the next stage of life.”
Just to fill you in, I hope to begin a combination of internal and external radiotherapy in a few weeks; that will last for six weeks. After that, I hope to be cancer-free. I’ll keep you posted.
“What are you scared about the most?”
It was a question that cut to my core. Innocuous, it would seem, as something that we all ask of those that we know; but given the right context and timing, it cut to my core.
“So, what are you scared about the most?”
It’s a pretty normal question, a conversation starter, or a “getting–to-know-you” group question, but this time, because it was asked the evening after I had received the diagnosis of the presence of a moderately active cancer in my prostate, it was particularly pertinent. That I received this news two days after we commemorated the first anniversary of Ngaire’s passing wasn’t lost on me either.
After the initial blow subsided, the clouds cleared and I, again stood looking into this seemingly bottomless abyss of the unknown and unfriendly. It seemed strangely familiar and not quite as fearful as I remembered it. In fact, as I talked to a friend about it later in the day, it dawned on me that there was actually treasure to be found here. However, I will have to climb down into this hole; at some point, I will have to leap across the gap, and I will get to the other side.
There is a pretty good success rate with this type of cancer. For the sake of those who love me, I’ll do all I can to make sure that I’m in the positive percentage. Nonetheless, it is quite sobering knowing that I have “the worm” inside me: that which could end my life is resident within.
The reality that we tend to ignore rather well in our society, is that we are all terminal and, as C.S. Lewis said, “Death has a way of focussing one’s attention.”
So, what am I scared about most? Oddly enough, it’s not that I might die, or the numerous unpleasant procedures involved; it’s my mental health.
Since a couple of years before Ngaire died, I found myself gradually sliding from being my normally robust, buoyant self into being frequently depressed, anxious and fearful, particularly through the long hours of the night. To even contemplate the possibility of entering that darkness again, having been free of it for many months now, is more frightening than anything else.
As always, there is tremendous strength drawn from the love of my friends and my boys; I am grateful beyond words.
Well over a year ago, I committed to document Ngaire’s journey towards a lung transplant; within a few months she was gone, having never made it that far. The documented journey became the path of grief and so many aspects of relationship and love lost, all the way through into the open space.
So now it’s time to head off into the woods again – pop on the boots, tighten the belt and strike up the hiking song……whatever. I may not be the Happy Wanderer, but I hope to walk this path with a great degree of peace. Thank you to those who are walking with me.
Stay tuned for updates.
Yesterday marked exactly one year since Ngaire died. For those who have followed this blog, you will know what a journey it has been.
At the start of the day our small family went up to Ngaire’s grave for a time of reflection. I took the page of notes that she hurriedly wrote in her shaky hand just before she was sedated that final time: words of love to us four of her boys.
From the middle of the day, we had open house for any of her friends and family who wanted to share in remembering her. It was a beautiful time and the sheer number of people who came is a testament to how much she continues to be loved. I shared a short message with those who were there and a number asked if I would send it to them. So here it is:
“It is one year since Ngaire died. Even now, to say that is still a little confronting.
Nonetheless, a year has passed and in my mind it is harder now to go to a cohesive portrait of her in my mind. Mostly it is just bits and pieces of smiles, laughter, cheekiness, her moments of fear, sadness, enduring love. I have one picture in my mind that recurs when we were in our late teens; I was sitting on a couch in her parents’ home; she ran into the room and jumped onto the couch, bouncing on her knees and smiling cheekily at me. That’s it, just a moment, seemingly of little consequence, but it outlives all the other moments as a benchmark of who she was to me.
As I wander in my thoughts, perhaps the thing that is most missing in our household since she left is just that: her zest for life, her verve and passion to not waste a day. Very often it would be her motivation that would inspire me to action, and over the past year it has often been a battle with self to cover the everyday things of upkeep and maintenance – both of self and home. That being said, we haven’t totally fallen apart! Life for each of us in our family has moved into new phases, and a fresh vision of the future is often itself inspiring and motivation enough.
Yet, her spark is missing; and it was a very bright spark as so many of us who loved her will confirm. Even in her last days and weeks, when it was so challenging for her to even move, she would spend much of her conversation affirming and inspiring. One of her greatest strengths was her ability to empower others, to let them know that they were loved and that what they thought and felt was of value. In this ego-driven, self-protective world, such a person is rare and a great loss.
So, at this point I find myself reflecting on her legacy, what Ngaire Susan Wills left for posterity, as it were. I am tempted to say her art, because she was a very fine artist and illustrator. But that was not who she was. Though she loved beauty and had the constant eye of an artist, that is not what most of us will remember her for.
Her legacy is what she planted in each of us who knew her: Ihave value; I am loved; I have great potential unrealised; I am of tremendous value to others, especially those who love me; I matter.
To some degree or other, Ngaire lived those truths in her relationship with almost anyone she had more than a two-word conversation with, which is virtually all of us here. We can all recall those moments where Ngaire was calling us up into our true selves.
Now that she is gone, that is what remains for me: that cheeky girl bouncing on the couch who faithfully loved as a wife, mother and friend. And one of the key ways she showed herself faithful was in her desire to validate and empower others.
I firmly believe that I would be far more constricted in my ability to love as a father and friend had Ngaire not been the great encourager in my life, and so I will continue that legacy. May it be perpetuated in our family and amongst you, our friends, from generation to generation, so that there will never be a doubt in any mind that each has value and that they are loved.
So I would like to raise a vote of thanks to Ngaire Susan, for all that she deposited into our hearts, and for that spark which we all have the opportunity to continue to fan into flame.”
At that point we all applauded Ngaire.
It would be a very brave person to say that grief is desirable. Such thinking is anathema to the “feel good” world in which we live. The idea that suffering is not something that we should avoid at all cost, borders on the absurd in our success/merit-based society. In our thinking, suffering is the symptom of failure, injustice, inequity or weakness; those who suffer deserve our pity, right? Or, if we believe that their suffering is self-created, they should surely receive our derision and pity.
For me, being in suffering has afforded a most wonderful change of perspective.
From even before Ngaire died, I found myself in a world where I became aware of people beginning to make decisions based around my and my family’s well being. Kindness, love, consideration and thoughtfulness towards us, was something that grew to be normal; and I had to learn to receive it, which is not all that easy.
Because of that, I have in many ways discovered greater levels of intimacy than I have really known before: I am experiencing richer and stronger bonds in my relationships with my boys; likewise, in a number of my friendships, I am enjoying a level of loyalty and inter-commitment that I once only theorised about. I have realised the potency and beauty of being a part of a small but vital, loving community.
I am not convinced that I would have had my heart open to receive in quite the same way, if I had not been on the “way of grief.”
Growing up and living in a world that rewards achievement and places value in all kinds of social status, means that we learn what is and isn’t acceptable socially; accordingly, receiving from others is not something that many of us do well.
Yet, for those of us who follow Jesus, it is what we must do. If we don’t, then our beliefs will lead us deeper and deeper into a morass of self-defeating efforts to be good enough, which will eventually destroy us or at best, leave us jaded and bitter.
Grace is not something we can earn; it is a state in which we must simply be.
In spite of the fact that most Christians may say amen to that, over the considerable number of years that I have been a member of this “club”, I have observed a different reality.
I am reminded of something that I read the other day, written by Richard Rohr:
“Switching to an “economy of grace” from our usual “economy of merit” is very hard for humans, very hard indeed. We naturally base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance, or worthiness of some sort—it can be called “meritocracy” (the rule of merit). Unless we experience a dramatic and personal breaking of the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit, it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of its rigid logic. This cannot happen theoretically, abstractly, or somehow “out there.” It must happen to me.”
There’s a point – “the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit” – a system that we adhere to and perpetuate.
Go to any party and what’s the first thing that we will say to someone that we’re meeting for the first time?
“So, what do you do?”
It’s a question that helps us identify where this person fits within our cultural context – their worthiness, if you like.
Sadly, in many churches, it’s not all that different. Go to any Sunday service and may well have a similar context for a visitor to our gathering. It may be the same question, using the same value system, or we may frame it differently. We may say, “So where do you fellowship?”
Their response will let us know whether their cultural framework approximates ours, and therefore, whether or not they “fit” with our value system.
If what they think is nothing like how we do things at Happy Town Church, then we’ll probably politely show them where the tea and coffee is, and move on.
It’s quite normal and the same everywhere in society. Our friends and those with whom we like to surround ourselves, generally think like us and are usually in a similar socio-economic group.
We build sanctuaries of like-mindedness and create frameworks of exclusion, which by their very nature don’t allow us to truly receive or give. We may even truly believe that we are “saving the lost”, when all we are really doing (as we did to ourselves) is make people fit into a cultural framework that gives them a sense of value. The more that we “do” to fit into this framework – meetings, small groups, committees, etc – the more value we have. Sadly, those who aren’t prepared to fit this framework are often viewed as fringe-dwellers who are not really “walking with the Lord.”
We shape our beliefs to fit what we want our lives to be. We have made theologies out of how God wants us to be happy, prosperous and comfortable. We shape “mantras” that help us to get handles on God, so that he can fit into our lives and therefore, we can have the lives that we want.
But, in all of this following of our dreams, at the back of our minds is the ache that maybe this isn’t how it was meant to be.
Jesus said things completely contrary to that, things like:
“In this world you will have trouble.”
“Whoever loses his life, will find it.”
“He who would be greatest, must serve.”
From my not-too-distant past, I can tell you how we Christians spin interpretations on those very confronting words of Jesus’, so that we become “faith-filled overcomers” of our situations, thinking that it is the outcome of success for us that is the proof of what we believe. It becomes a lifestyle of denial that doesn’t allow that pain and suffering is anything but bad, never allowing us the freedom simply to be, to feel, to love, and to be loved. It is a theology that equates “successful” faith as that which fulfills my dreams – one that is no longer centred around God’s purpose of oneness and unity, but around the needs of my ego – which is the opposite. Somehow we have written theologies that pretty well say, “God wants me to be happy”, when maybe God really just wants me to be real – that in the Universe there is everything from the budding of a flower to the catastrophic destruction caused by a supernova, vaporising millions of worlds in an instant; my dreams need to be understood in that context.
Of course, the God-wants-me-to-be-happy theology can never work, so our lives become more and more a search for which speaker might approximate the truth more closely to how we feel at any given time; which “teaching” dangles the carrot that is a little sweeter from our point of view. We may tarry for a while at those places which call us up to a “higher place”, then move on to another conference, a deeper understanding – all the while feeling inside that there must be a magical ring, the key that will unlock the secret – never realising that God is in all life, not just the good bits.
He is in that which we deny, as much as that which we pursue, the prayers that are unanswered as much as those that are, the people with whom we disagree, as much as those whom we worship….
So now I find myself in a place that is one of rest, where it is possible to hold the good and the bad in balance, only attempting to change that which is naturally altered by love, though I confess to being far from competent in that. My litmus test is my behaviour when in traffic and so far I’m not doing all that well!
What I have learned is what I may have touched on before; that most of our attempts at theology are about us trying to get a handle on the God who refuses a handle. Life will always throw something up to break our perfect mould.
Maybe these are the ravings of someone who has been hurt and is reacting negatively; or maybe God is infinitely bigger than the tiny box in which I had him; or maybe this is what the mystics call the second half of life. As Richard Rohr says of the spiritual journey of the second half of life:
“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have—right now. This is a monumental change from the first half of life…holding life’s sadness and joy is its own reward, its own satisfaction, and your best and truest gift to the world.
“Strangely, all of life’s problems, dilemmas, and difficulties are now resolved…by falling into the good, the true, and the beautiful—by falling into God.” *
* From Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr