Radical Gratefulness

Gratitude has become trendy with the positive psychology movement. You can always find something to be grateful for – be grateful for your breath, a pretty flower, a kind word. While I agree with the sentiment, I wonder whether the next generation who hear this mantra will grow up like I did, having to eat everything on my plate because I had to think of all those starving children in India. I am quite sure none of my Indian friends ever benefitted from the extra mouthful of cauliflower or cabbage I forced down my throat and it created a very skewed relationship with food for me which has lasted a lifetime. Waste not, want not…

Don’t get me wrong, gratefulness is a beautiful state and I do believe that we need embody it much more than we do. My gripe is the glib statements that often sound forced and obvious.  What I have been grappling with is what we do when things go wrong in our lives. How to be grateful when truly terrible things happen. This is what mean by radical gratefulness.

When I watched Peter die, struggling to take his last breaths, in those moments, I felt grateful. Not for the intense sunny morning that seemed so incongruous with what was happening, nor for the 20 or so years I had spent with him, but for those awful moments where I watched him suffer and that I could be there to share them with him. As my dear friend Janet said at her husband’s funeral, ‘Today is a beautiful, terrible day.’

Ten years later, I sat with Roger as he took his last breath and once more, I was grateful to have had the honour to sit with him in that beautiful, terrible moment. To bear witness to someone’s final moments is to be filled with deep sorrow, pain and beatitude. Radical gratefulness is the only way I can describe this. It is the experience of two opposing feelings in visceral communion through grace.

And so it was this week when I experienced a major setback. It was my fault – I missed a crucial date, and it has cost me dearly. My first reaction was to be annoyed, frustrated, and to be honest, gutted. But as time went on, I was able to find my way back to radical gratefulness. I didn’t accept the ‘it happened for a reason,’ ‘something better will come your way,’ comments, although I truly appreciated the love and empathy I received. No, I forced myself to look at the situation deeply, accept it fully, and be grateful for the lesson I have learned about my chronic inattention to detail. It simply matters, and I’ve stopped making excuses about being ‘the big picture thinker’.

I can now say with conviction that I am grateful for the mistakes I’ve made, for they have enabled me to learn and grow. As Alex Elle explains eloquently, ‘Gratitude practice isn’t about pacifying our painful or challenging times —i t’s about recognizing them and finding self-compassion as we do the work.’

Wings of Desire 1987

First released in 1987, Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire is a love poem to a city which at the time was riven in two. Viewing it now, feels like watching archival footage of a Berlin I knew back then but which no longer exists. It also features real archival footage taken just after the war, when ‘Trümmerfrauen’ or ‘rubble women’ cleared streets, cleaned bricks, and helped reconstruct the bombed city.

The scenes depict many of the iconic places in the then West Berlin. The angels in the film sit atop the Victory Column on a golden statue of an angel. It is from there that they observe the city beneath them. They also congregate in the State Library, a stunning modernist building which reminds us of an ocean liner. There are images of Anhalter Bahnhof (railway terminus) in ruins, as well as Potsdamer Platz, the centre prewar Berlin, which until unification, was a deserted and muddy no man’s land butting up against the Wall. In addition, we see local nightclubs of the 1980’s and hear the post-punk, emotionally intense music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Most of the movie was shot in black and white which gives the film a dreamlike quality echoing the story of the angels who watch over preoccupied people as they go about their lives. Adults are unable to see the angels, but children can, and so we lament the loss of childlike wonder and children’s openness to possibilities beyond logical understanding.

The angels are poetic creatures who bear witness to humanity but are unable to participate in physical experience. This is amplified by the script, which was cowritten with Peter Handke, a well-known, if controversial, Austrian poet. These angels can only assume the meaning of human experience as they document their words, but they cannot feel them. When one of the angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist, he decides to trade his immortality to feel something real. Through his own actions, the fallen angel invites us to be amazed at the singularity of our own existence and be in awe of feeling the full extent of our humanity. After all, he has chosen to eventually die for the privilege to become fully human. At the end of the film, Damiel states, ‘I know what no angel knows’ and we are to understand that this knowledge, with all its complexities, ought to matter most.

Falling ill

When I am well, I take my health for granted. I forget about the aches, lethargy and depression that beset me every time I go under. I rush about my days as if I were invincible and eventually illness strikes as if from nowhere.

Two long weeks ago, I visited my daughter in Canberra. She mentioned she was ‘snuffly’ but forged on in the way her mother always did. By the next day she was much worse and by the time I left, she was bedridden. I now wish I had set a better example when she was younger.

It had occurred to me that I might have picked up the bug, but I put it out of my mind. After all, I was feeling fine. Did I slow down or take better care? Hardly! I kept running until I felt that rug pulled from under me. Predictably, I landed with a thud.

The first few days were a guessing game. Covid? Flu? A cold? After a process of elimination, it turned out to be nothing more than an ordinary common cold. Except that there was nothing ordinary about it. I coughed for nights on end, hardly slept and my energy levels were depleted. It went on for days and more days, then a week and now I’m three days shy of a fortnight.

What is fascinating is how quickly it affected my mood. I’m usually all smiles, cheeky, irreverent, and able to find humour in most situations. I consider myself buoyant. Within a few short days, I could feel myself sink. Then I was struggling to stay afloat. Dark thoughts descended and seemed to pin me to the bed. Although I knew it otherwise, it felt as if I would never get better. I thought about people with serious illnesses who spent years plagued by pain and I wondered how they ever found the tenacity to go on. Would I ever find my inner strength, or would I go under? I hope I’m never put to the test.

Yesterday, I finally rounded the corner. I had energy to complete some simple tasks, my mood lifted, and I found beauty at my doorstep – a purple rose in bloom, a parrot in the yard, a gleaming shaft of light. Slowly, the fog lifted and my body has fought off the intruder.

Driving without a phone

I was in a hurry. It takes three hours and fifteen minutes to drive to Canberra and I had precisely three hours and twenty-four. Doable but it was cutting it fine. I couldn’t get stuck behind a cattle truck, come across road work or, dare I say it, hit a roo. I threw everything I needed to stay the night into the car and did my final check. Keys, wallet but where was my phone? I ran back inside calling ‘Siri’ but there was no answer. Frantic now, I began turning bags inside out. I was wasting precious minutes. It occurred to me that I might have left my phone at work. Could I drive back to the office and take a different route? No, there wasn’t time. I had to jump in the car and leave.

I was beginning to sweat. Waves of panic came over me. What if I were to break down? The sun was reaching the horizon and the roads were empty. What would I do in an emergency? Then I remembered the long stretches in the journey where there was no reception. My phone was useless in these dead zones, so why should I worry now? I thought back to journeys of the past. I often drove long distances then and mobile phones only existed in our collective imagination. My cars were much less reliable and from time to time, they did break down. The difference was that I remembered many more phone numbers back then and I probably carried a small address book, just in case.

This time, I could only remember my daughter’s number.  It happened to be fortuitous as I was driving to her place. She had managed to get last minute tickets to a show and knew I’d be up to the challenge of getting there. But I knew she would be tracking my journey on her phone and would worry that I hadn’t left yet. So, when I came across a public phone in a deserted small town, I called her. Of course, she didn’t answer. A strange number was most likely a scam caller, so I called again and again. Finally, she picked up.

‘Your phone is at work,’ she said. ‘How are you calling me?’ Clearly, she is too young to have ever relied on phone booths.

The next couple of hours did have their moments. Thunderstorms, pouring rain, potholes and road works all slowed my journey. Still, I arrived with twenty minutes to spare, and we made it to the theatre in time. I could finally relax. By the time I was to return home, I had embraced the experience. I didn’t miss my phone once.

The following day was a Sunday. Could I wait until the next day to retrieve my phone? I thought about it. I really did. But the truth is, I enjoy the many benefits of the twenty-first century and nostalgia for simpler times has its limits, even for me.

Bev at the club

Bev pulled down hard on the steering wheel. Her tyres squealed as she drove into the carpark. It was a snap decision. What would it matter if she arrived home twenty minutes later? There was no-one to meet her anyway.

She locked the car and shuffled across the to the club’s entrance. Her legs had swelled in the heat and the humidity made her gasp for air. It was sure to be cool inside and a cold drink would be welcome.  As Bev neared the glass doors, they silently slid open releasing a rush of air towards her. She was feeling better already.

At the bar she ordered a midi of shandy. One drink and she would leave. That’s what she told herself.  Today was going to be different to every other time swung into the carpark at the last moment. Yet her heartrate was already up, and she felt the familiar agitation build. Bev was saw flickering lights from the room behind her reflected in the mirror behind the bar.  Then there were the enticing beeps, chimes, and whirs of those spinning wheels. Her fingers drummed the beat on the counter. She only had twenty dollars left until her pension arrived on Thursday. This time she’d resist.

Photos on my phone

Fifteen years ago, I had to remember to take a camera if I wanted to take a photo. I may have remembered to take it along to special occasions or when we went on holidays. I chose my subjects carefully and tried to take the perfect photo in one shot. Before digital cameras, the roll of Kodak film often sat in the fridge for a year or two before I remembered to have it developed. The result was either joy at remembering a forgotten moment or the disappointment of a badly executed composition. Usually, it was the latter.

Now that we all have a camera in our pockets, it is easier than ever to take bad photos. The only difference is that we don’t have to print them. We now store these along with the thousands of other photos on our phones, computers and of course the cloud. We keep it all because we can. We have photos of wi-fi passwords, breakfasts we have consumed months ago, screen shots of travel arrangements and of course thousands of photos of pets and the occasional human.

By the time we have several thousand photos, culling becomes a chore best avoided. There’s always something more important on the to do list.  Who wants to spend hours making one decision after another? Generally, this task is only attempted when we are running out of memory on our devices. Even then, people will go to great lengths to avoid pressing the delete button. The number of photos slowing down a device is often the excuse for buying a new phone or iPad with bigger memory and better camera to continue our bad habits.

I have recently updated my computer and decided it was a good time to do some digital culling. I deleted thousands of files and even made a start on the photos. My worst offenders were images of work-related PowerPoint presentations that reminded me of my good intentions to revisit them. Of course, I haven’t looked at them. Not once. This was followed by random photos of cute dogs, hundreds of photos of my daughter at graduation, catching each expression milliseconds apart. I do it because it is easy; just a slight push on the glass screen and I have a memory that is less likely to fail than the memory stored in my mind. At the same time, I realise it is another version of mindless consumerism. I can now outsource remembering to my phone.

My friend Lizzie once gave me some advice when I felt overwhelmed with my (lack of) filing. The piles of paper were screaming at me every time I entered the room. I felt shame and a good measure of embarrassment whenever I glanced across at the papers. She suggested spending no more than 15 minutes on the task each afternoon. It worked. Slowly the pile began to recede and as I acquired stamina, I could face twenty minutes or even half an hour to get it done. The problem I have always faced is all or nothing thinking. Either I sort through the lot, or it isn’t worth starting. Yet the reality is that deleting 5 photos is better than deleting none.

Currently, I still carry 5 838 photos and 132 videos in my pocket. What about you?

Country life

Seven years ago, I moved to a small country town in the Central West of NSW. Initially, I had preconceived ideas and prejudices which have mostly turned out to be, well, preconceived ideas and prejudices. I had no idea what it would be like. I freely acknowledge that each town is different and, honestly, some I really wouldn’t want to live in at all. However, if you choose the place carefully, it is a delight to live out west.

Millthorpe, where I chose to live, is a gem of a town. It is located between Orange and Bathurst which makes it a much sought-after address. It has quaint cottages which give it that old-world charm and the functioning railway station makes it one of the more accessible villages to reach. Our hatted restaurant, Tonic, attracts people as far away as Sydney and weekends can feel a tad busy down the main street. On weekdays, however, the place reverts to a sleepy little village where people walk dogs, chat to one another, and enjoy the slow pace. People look out for one another here and no one is considered an outsider. It is genuinely one of the most welcoming places I know.

While most shops and amenities are further away, it doesn’t take long to get to them. Traffic is mostly non-existent. I drive 20 minutes to get to work which for most people in the city is considered a short commute. My drive is scenic and I am blessed to be surrounded by nature. Whether it is cows on a hill, frost on the grass or swans in a dam, the bucolic charm never fades.

Another thing I appreciate is the quietude. I am one of those people who needs oceans of silence each day. I can listen to bird song, the rustling of leaves or the occasional bark but I don’t cope well with traffic noise or loud people. Here, my nights are dark, silent, and restful. Now and then, there is a storm with heavy thunder and lightning, but I find that a welcome release.

When there are no clouds in the sky, the stars are so much brighter than in the city. Even the moon seems bigger. It comes over the horizon as a large, illuminated ball breaking through the purple, orange and pink sky that heralds our sunsets. Dawn and dusk are magic in the Central West and makes even the most unsentimental among us gasp in awe.

While I know that I will probably not stay for ever, the Central West will always have a place in my heart. I love the quirky, earthy humour of the locals, the defined seasons, my gorgeous worker’s cottage. This is a place where I have felt more accepted than anywhere else I have lived and I have made life-long friends in a short time. It is the place where I have been given the freedom to write, where I have found love and where my soul has been given time to heal. Looking back, it is hard to understand why it took me so long to make the move.

Visiting Jean

Jean in 2015

Jean, my 94 year-old mother-in-law lives in a nursing home. She has been there since 2019. Like most elderly people, she didn’t want to go, nor does she want to stay. It was the lot of her own mother, and she prayed it would never be hers.

Jean was doing really well, living on her own and managing with her daily routines. Then came a fateful slip on the tiles which landed her in hospital with a broken hip. The pain was unbearable. She did not want to live, and we did not think she would make it. She survived the long operation but never regained the confidence to walk nor her will to keep living. Yet she is still with us, four years later.

As a young person, Jean went deaf before she reached twenty. Throughout her long life, she has learnt to cope with hearing aids, learning to lip read and pretending to understand when she was too embarrassed to seek clarification. This has led to many amusing and some quite unfortunate misunderstandings. One I remember well was when Jean came to visit us from Albury. We had made all the arrangements over the phone, but she never arrived in Sydney. We worried that she had made a mistake and alighted at the wrong station. Finally, we phoned her. She was at home drinking a cup of tea with a biscuit, completely unaware that we were expecting her on that day. As far as she was concerned, she was coming the following week and had not heard us confirm the date over the phone.

Her hearing impairment led to a secluded life lived in the bosom of her family. Jean did not have friends and found social gatherings difficult. As much as she loved going out to lunch, she enjoyed it most when she was on her own or with one other person. Since arriving in the nursing home, she has refused to leave her room to eat in the communal dining room. The social expectations are beyond her.

I used to call Jean weekly the way my husband did, but I stopped about three years ago when she could no longer hear me on the phone. I began writing letters instead, but they too have fallen by the wayside as I find it difficult to come up with new things to say. Most weeks are routine and don’t leave much to report. I now manage a letter every three to four weeks. I also try to visit three times a year – not much, I admit, but all I can manage as I live more than 400km away.

This time, I arrive mid-afternoon. I walk into her room and find her in bed. Frail and sunken, I am shocked at the sight. Her skin is translucent with purple bruised arms.

‘I’m not feeling too well,’ she tells me, ‘so I decided to stay in bed.’ Fair enough, I think. She only has two choices – stay in bed or sit in the armchair. Life has been reduced to this.

Jean perks up with my visit. She tells me news about her granddaughters, the new house her daughter Diane is building and the sale of the house that used to be her home.

‘I was upset at first, she says, ‘but I don’t care anymore.’ With the next breath she asks, ‘But where will I go, when I leave here?’ I cannot answer, so I say nothing.

As dinner time approaches, she begins to speculate what will be on the menu.

‘I hope it is crêpes,’ she says. ‘I had them once and they were lovely.’

When a nurse comes to check on her, she repeats her wish for crêpes, hoping that this will get back to the cook.

‘It doesn’t take long to cook a crêpe,’ she says, as if the cook could easily accommodate her wishes.

When dinner arrives, she is disappointed. It is meatballs with mashed potatoes. ‘I don’t want that,’ she says and asks for the soup on the tray. I watch her spoon her soup with gusto, making loud noises as she eats. I don’t remember her ever making this sound before.

‘Let me look at those meatballs,’ she says, and I bring them to her. ‘I’ll only eat the sauce,’ she says but then tries to cut into the meat. I offer to help, and she accepts. There is no way that she would have managed the cutting process on her own. Then, while telling me that she really doesn’t want to eat, she polishes off the meatball and seems to enjoy it.

‘What’s for dessert?’ she asks.

After dinner, I look for a nurse to help her move up in the bed. She has slipped down, and her toes are hitting the footboard. She has to be lifted out of bed for it to be remade. The process takes all the energy she has.

Once back in bed she points to a single red chrysanthemum in a small vase on her dresser. ‘Dianne brought it from her garden a week ago,’ she tells me. ‘It was twice as big and such a vivid red. Now it is wilting.’

The sentence hangs between us as we share the same thoughts. She looks at me, shrugs and smiles. Neither of us needs to say another word.

The heart

A beating heart keeping us alive. From the moment we are born, a steady rhythm. Providing a cadence to our emotions, whether joy, love, fear, or anger, each has its own beat and the heart keeps score.

Last week, I was reminded of this on a visceral level when a doctor voiced concerns over my daughter’s heartbeat. Dread flowed through our veins, finding its way to both of our hearts. Tests and speculations began. An undiagnosed hole in the heart? Arrhythmia? Will she need a Pacemaker or other device? Long days of waiting for an ECG then a 24-hour Holter monitor. More waiting for results.
In my worst moments I imagined losing her. I envisaged a hole in my heart in the place she currently occupies. As mothers we know our children never really leave our bodies, we carry them within us forever more. I thought about the hole in her heart where her father’s love once flowed freely, a hole which can never be surgically repaired and will ache for a lifetime. I also remembered a robust young boy I taught years ago, full of life and laughter who collapsed on a basketball court unable to be revived as his heart stopped mid-flight. I will never forget the funeral held in the very same hall, filled with teenagers coming to terms with mortality for the first time. Nor will I forget the grieving mother and my own heart breaking at the sight of her. A life shrouded in sorrow and an abyss tearing her heart asunder.
Then, the much awaited call came through. My daughter was instantly relieved by the doctor’s news. She may have an unusual heartbeat, but it doesn’t pose any danger. If necessary, she can take medication in the future, but for now she can relax. Her heart is functioning as it should.

As for my heart, the tightness releases the moment I hear the news. No matter the distance, our lives remain intertwined.

Two mothers

Taking a shortcut through the back lanes of Adelaide, an Aboriginal woman approached me holding two paintings. It was late afternoon and she looked tired as if she had been waiting for someone for a long time.

There was a hopeful look in her eyes, but her body language radiated defeat. I stopped, knowing full well that she was going to ask for money, but I couldn’t walk away. I needed to bear witness to this woman’s story. She began by telling me about her son whom she needed to visit, a good man, now in need of money to pay some bills. What I heard was a plea from one mother to another. It didn’t matter how old her son was, as his mother she would do anything for him in the same way I would do anything for my daughter.

She offered me one of two paintings she had completed; I could choose. She wanted a fair exchange, her pride demanded that. When I told her that I had no cash – who does these days? – she suggested an ATM not far from where we stood. I assured her I’d return but she walked with me anyway, making certain that the exchange would take place.

It was hard to choose a painting, they were so different to one another. One was of animals on an ochre background while the one I eventually chose, was painted in vibrant colours and depicted meeting places and possibly a ceremonial site in the centre. I felt the one I chose was the more feminine and would remind me of her strong character.

The painting and that tiny glimpse into her life is now hanging in my bedroom. Mother to mother, I think of her often and wonder how she and her son are getting on. And I wonder whether she knows that she has touched my heart.

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