The meaning of death

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Flowers found blowing in the wind from the Karoola Cemetery

A couple of weeks ago an elderly man knocked on the front door and handed me a leaflet with the title “Millions will attend – Will You?” Inside, an invitation to the Memorial of Christ’s death at a Good Friday service and a meeting of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the era of social media it’s amazing how anyone still knocks on doors as a way of getting out their message. A neighbour says when they call he tells them he’s a Satanist. It’s one way of ensuring they don’t come back.

I told the caller I don’t believe in organized religion, that I do my own thing and that it is personal to me.

“Well, if you decide to come along, just ask for Leo,” he said, leaving the leaflet that also carried an invitation to a special Bible talk on “A Promise of Perfect Family Happiness”.

I don’t believe in perfect family happiness, or even the promise of it, so his god was not for me.

My father died on Easter Saturday ten years ago and although the date is different every year, that’s the day I think of him. Which is contrary and wrong, and of course I remember him at other times, too. But Easter Saturday is when his memory rises most in me.

It is a bit odd that I know more about the attitudes towards death of famous men who are dying than I knew about my own father’s who seemed immortal. Like playwright Dennis Potter, who, when approaching death said in a televised interview, “We’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s eternity in a sense, and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only.”

Lessons on death, too, from comedian Billy Connolly whose TV program Billy Connolly’s Big Send-Off was a masterpiece in life and death lessons. In the end, the 71-year-old comedian who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease mused: “This is death…” Then, breathed out… leaving just silence and no breath.

Last year I had a cancer scare that proved to be nothing more serious than a stress related illness. I stopped doing things for a while to absorb the reminder of my own mortality. I felt little anxiety about death – it happens to us all – just that it might be a bit soon.

It’s not something families tend to talk about openly until someone has died. Having raised the subject on Facebook since then, clearly there’s a death conversation to have. Jillian wrote that ‘Death is evidence of life. You cannot have one without the other. My husband died suddenly when I was 30 and our sons were 2 and 9. Life goes on.’ While Jane wrote that she and her husband are more afraid of getting old than of dying, not having children to look after them as they age. And Grant said, “consider how much more scary endless life would be”.

When Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell invited a panel of five young people aged between 9 and 13 to talk about death last year, these were some of the answers she was given:

– The only thing we know is that everyone is going to die.

– Death is the end of your life.

– You will never see them again. Sometimes to reassure yourself you can think about them and you can feel that they’re there, but they’re not coming back.

– Death is when you don’t live.

– Death is like saying goodbye forever and you never say goodbye again.

And adults think death is difficult to explain to children…

Discussions about death have been made possible by the Death Café movement established by Jon Underwood in London a couple of years ago. Death Cafés aim to create an environment where talking about death is natural and comfortable. “We don’t claim to have answers,” explains Underwood. “We provide a place for people to come and explore their own attitudes to death and dying if they want to.”

And they do it with cake and tea.

Death Cafés are now a social franchise with 3000 participants in over 400 cafes. The only rules: the conversation happens on a not-for-profit basis that doesn’t lead people to a product, course of action or conclusion, and respects other peoples’ views and confidentiality.

Discussing death then becomes a useful way to ask what’s the best way to use the time we have left, instead of simply repeating our lives as we age, and being oblivious to the obvious. In this way, end of life care becomes as important as praying to god.

In Australia, a feisty Port Kembla community group has determined to take back the responsibility that most of us leave to someone else – to care for their own dead. An award winning documentary, Tender, was made about the group’s fight to arrange community-based funerals. You are invited to host a community screening in your area by emailing info@scarlettpictures.com.au

In Hobart, architect Robert Morris Nunn and Julie Payne, in their expressed desire to improve the process of dying, have put a proposal to the Calvary Hospital board to establish an independent hospice that would “help celebrate life in the midst of death”. (Tasweekend Jan 31-Feb 1 2015)

So, this past Easter, I have remembered my father, reflected on death, and reminded myself to have those important conversations about dying – while looking on the bright side of life, of course.

First published in Tasweekend, 11 April 2015

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Keep the letter alive

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From the days when friends sent letters…

According to my teenage niece ‘grammar’ is when the teacher picks her up on using the word ‘like’ too many times in a sentence. I know what she means, but next birthday I’ve resolved to give her Strunk’s The Elements of Style and hope some might rub off.

Sadly, grammar is as out of fashion as handwriting; texting proves that you can be understood without being good at either.

Australian English has always been a looser version of the English language. I’ve always loved our ability to shorten and make casual words we use regularly or for which we have a fondness. For example, I love how redheads are called ‘bluey’, sandwiches are ‘samos’ and parmi nights are all the rage.

But grammar matters. I wish it were still taught, and, as a writer, feel indebted to Mr Kitchener for banging it into us in English. Monday afternoons will always be remembered for the slog of double grammar. It taught us to respect the structure of the written word, to order our thoughts, play with rhythms, organize paragraphs, and how a sentence could be altered just by switching a clause and a predicate, although I still don’t understand why a dangling participle is such a bad thing…

A recent review of the Australian Curriculum found undergraduates possessed “at best a rudimentary knowledge of English grammar”, had “learnt nothing of English grammar at school” (to the point where even identifying the parts of speech in a sentence is beyond them), and that “their grammatical errors were routinely left uncorrected in their essays”.

When it comes to handwriting I also crave that it matters more. I’ve kept drawings from my niece as a toddler before she even knew how to write her own name – scrawled, tenuous letters that can’t find a straight line, hesitant and broken tracks of crayon, patiently awaiting practice. But since those baby steps I’ve never received a letter – only short emails, written, mostly, in text speak.

I want to urge: get off the computer! Leave your desk. Go outside. Sit under a tree. Pick up a pen, a pencil, a scrap of paper or journal – I don’t mind – but use your hand, your whole hand. Not two thumbs. Tell me a story with all your heart and soul and let it leak through your hands and all your fingers, spill and splutter onto the paper, go back and check or don’t. Just use your hand and make it flow.

A friend who works at Australia Post says only 3% of mail posted these days is by personal letter – a figure that floored me. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed it on 730 with Leigh Sales. It’s well known that Australia Post’s letter arm profits have been plunging for the past seven years, and that the cost of a stamp is set to rise to $1 for letters as email replaces physical mail.

How I will miss that feeling of first seeing the postman turn into the driveway then running to the postbox to check what’s arrived. These days there are envelopes but rarely letters. It’s hard to imagine ever waiting on two deliveries a day in the UK.

While worrying about the possible demise of the book, the handwritten personal letter has caught me by surprise because if people aren’t writing letters to each other – and I mean letters, not cards – something human is lost.

There are good arguments for re-acquainting ourselves with writing letters, apart from Oz Post profits.

* If you agree with Edward Snowden that ‘there is no such thing as privacy’ – emails can be read by anyone and our phones tracked – a handwritten letter is safer and more intimate territory, free from the metadata police.

* As a writer, I know that when I start a story, doing it by hand, away from the computer always gets me in the zone. It’s different to putting thoughts straight onto a keyboard. Writing by hand connects to something more primal, more human, a step closer to our sub-conscious.

* In years to come you will find slips of paper inside books, notes scrawled in a journal that will stop you in your tracks and take your thinking into another place. The computer is a void that devours rather than gives.

The upside according to Oz Post is that 25% of parcels are delivered by posties, so just because the letter is dying, doesn’t mean the postie has to die. But this means we are sending things not thoughts.

My grade 3 and 4 teacher Rita Miller taught me how to write using cord cursive. “They don’t teach it any more,” she told me when I called her to refresh my memory of how she taught us to write. “If they do teach writing it is abbreviated script. My grandchildren say ‘Print to me’ because they can’t read linked-up writing.”

I remember now how Rita taught us to make our letters flow, how we’d concentrate on one letter, get that right, and move on to the next. Music was played over the school’s public address to classes from grade 6 down to 3. We’d write in time to the music, doing waves and hoops to a march time beat.

Every now and then Rita does a few hours’ relief work at the Low Head Pilot Station, an historic maritime museum dating back to 1805. I can see how she watches the children who visit, how she’ll ask them kindly to write in the visitors’ book. They’ll take hold of the pencil with their fist and she’ll think how ungainly it looks, how it must ache to write like that, and yet understand because how would they know otherwise?

Always the teacher, Rita thinks at least they might be taught how to hold a pen properly.

First published in Tasweekends, Saturday Mercury, 2015

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My Grade 3 teacher Rita Miller (at Low Head in March 2015) taught me how to write and hold a pen