Tuesday 3 April 2018

I'm not a fan...

Don’t you think it’s weird that mourning
sounds exactly the same as morning.

One is a reaction to an ending
and the other is a brand new start.
In one, a light extinguishes
and in the other, the sun rises to chase away the night.

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of either.

But as dawn breaks on our new reality without you,
it’s a harsh truth that life goes on.
So, we get up.
We carry on as
we carry you along
with us in our hearts.

Drink the double-shot of reality to kickstart the day as we
brace for the platitudes that are supposed to make us feel better...

“The early bird gets the worm!”
“They are in a better place now!”

Bitch, I don’t want the worm and
who the fuck knows where they’ve gone?
And what place was better than being right here,
with us?

But we can’t say that, can we.
We are supposed to smile and nod.
Extend our palms
gratefully receiving these tidbits of tired old bullshit
just because people can’t take a second
to think something original.

They say they don’t know what to say
but here I am, not knowing how to even breathe.

Words have no meaning,
they are lumps of sound
stuck in other people’s throats
as they stare at me blankly, saying “Let me know if…”

Seems like my emotions might be inconvenient.

Gratitude for platitudes is surely
the hardest pill to swallow
when you’re raw and hollow and
all you can feel is a howling depth of sorrow.

Something irreplaceable has been
ripped away from you and
you’re torn up inside but expected
somehow to hide your true feelings.

Why is it that some people disallow grief to show his face?
We all know him - he’s a constant in this race
that we call life.

He’s the counterpoint to joy,
the balance of desolate emptiness to the feeling of being brimful of butterflies and sunshine.
You see, maybe they were onto something when they exclaimed “GOOD GRIEF!”
because grief is the price of loving with your whole being.

We run up a great debt through the act of relating.
Through all the highs and lows -
the frustrating and placating,
the intimating and fornicating,
the instigating and conversating -
our intimacy is tallied up.

Our love runs a tab,
unwittingly, you see,
because we all forget that we’re not actually immortal.
Then the end comes and we are called to account.
Your debt is in arrears, sign here and pay in tears.

So every salty drop is a mortgage of love.
I give it willingly,
for what you meant to me
cannot be matched by any earthly sum.

And so, just like every other morning,
I have to get up and face this mourning.

But, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of either.

Kath Teeboon

Copyright: the author asserts her moral right to be recognised as the creator of this work. Do not reproduce without express permission.

Monday 2 April 2018

My friend, grief

We’ve met a few times before, grief and I. 

Sometimes, it’s been a passing hello on the street. Occasionally, it’s been a short stay. Other times, grief has taken up residence in my soul. This time it’s the latter. 
The return of an old friend.

Late at night, grief comes knocking. When I answer the door, he stands there apologetically with two full suitcases and a carry bag. A long stay, then. 
Who is it this time?

In the first hour, denial is a friend to me. She shoos grief away and shuts the door. Assures me that he has the wrong address and she’ll see about finding him somewhere else to stay. It is all a terrible mistake. 
She’ll sort it out. 

But in the spare room, grief is quietly unpacking his belongings. Settling in. Putting on the kettle. Patting the dog. Making himself at home. As he knocks on the door to hand me a cup of tea, one look says it all. 
So it’s true, then.

Organisation rushes in, pushing grief into the corner, demanding the phone calls be made. Messages must be sent, she cries. There are people who need to know and we must step into the role of responsible one. She thrusts the phone into my hand and my fingers blindly dial; a voice that I’m sure isn’t mine calmly speaks.
News breaks, and grief’s empire spreads. 

Yet he still sits quietly in the corner. Apologetic that his presence is such a bother. A crumpled black suit hangs loosely from narrow shoulders. He’s a man who is called to do his job but does not enjoy the process. He does it because nobody else can. 
Nobody else will. 

Wailing and howling, sorrow arrives. Never one to shy away from expression of feelings, he takes over the place. This is his show, after all. He’s the star here. Let there be no death marked without sorrow. Let it out, he says. Let it go. Feel the pain; that sharp, burning, nauseating pain from your very depths. 
Let me out. 

I reach out to grief and take his hand. Nod my head and pull him into an embrace. I feel his boney shoulders tense and then relax. Welcome back, friend, I whisper. You are not reviled here.
You are the price I pay for love. 

Insomnia creeps in and takes over. Tonight will be a night for staring blankly at the ceiling, kicking off the duvet, compulsively checking Facebook. She sits heavy on my chest, bearing silent witness. Somewhere between witching hour and dawn, she slips out. 
Uneasy sleep takes me.

Grief shakes me awake just as birdsong starts. For a brief, blissful moment, I am unaware. Then his face comes into focus and he hands me a taste of my new bittersweet reality. It all comes rushing back, and for a moment I am breathless. Behind him, denial, organisation, sorrow, and insomnia sit and wait. 

They’re all here to mourn you. 

Kath Teeboon

Copyright: the author asserts her moral right to be recognised as the creator of this work. Do not reproduce without permission.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

On redirections and reconstructions...

Yup, I'm back.
"Plan for the best, prepare for the worst" - I forget exactly where I first heard these sage words but it has become a core part of my philosophy for life. I remain extremely optimistic (sometimes disturbingly so) under most circumstances but I always always have an exit strategy for all situations. And I mean all situations, including "I'm sure this surly 350lb gentleman sitting next to me on the bus will move when I need to get off, but just in case..."

Right now I am going through a complete redirection of my life. Due to personal circumstances I have left Taiwan and I am now back in New Zealand, building a new life for myself. I don't want to get into the nitty gritty details of it all, suffice to say that the reason I went to Taiwan didn't quite pan out as hoped but it's really nothing worthy of drama and fireworks - it's just one of those things that happens. Life is messy and it rarely goes to plan - occasionally it even goes skipping wildly off the rails and ploughs straight into the middle of a muddy field. And although I'm not a massive fan of my plans and best intentions being completed turned on their head, I am a fan of staying positive and remembering that as long as life is going then exactly where it is going is just detail and details can be worked out.

So what now? I work out the details of starting again. Happily I have a network of amazing friends that have just been fabulous through all of this, both in Taipei and back here in Auckland, so a lot of the blanks are being filled in a lot faster than I could ever have hoped for. One of the major blanks that I'm hoping to start filling in again on a regular basis is of course this blog, which has been much neglected whilst my life was "Under Reconstruction". I appreciate all of you who have stuck with me and not deleted me off your blog rolls or unsubscribed in the last few months of complete radio silence! It will take a bit of time to get back into the swing of things but I'm sure once everything settles down I'll be back to more regular posting. Keep watching this space...

Thursday 31 May 2012

Before I go to sleep: Review

Before I go to sleep
SJ Watson
Published in 2011
Published by Transworld Publishers
ISBN: 9780552164139

What are we if not the collection of all our memories. What is the point of life if not to collect these golden (and occasionally not so golden) snapshots and home movies that play in our minds. Surely the reward for age is that feeling of warmth that washes over us when we recall the day we met a cherished friend, or spent the afternoon chatting with our now deceased grandparents. Albert Camus famously once said that “Life is a sum of all your choices.” Our past shapes us in all sorts of different ways, making us the person we see staring back at us from the other side of the mirror. What would life be if we lost the ability to recall this past?

Christine is an amnesiac. Every morning she wakes up to find a strange man in her bed and the shocking realisation that she is at least 20 years older than she thought. An accident in her late twenties has rendered her ability to store newly created memories useless and so every single day she struggles to make sense of the life she has been living since that day. An old scrapbook of photographs and the patience of her husband, Ben, are what buoys Christine through these terrible mornings until one day she awakes to find a disturbing entry in the daily journal she has been keeping as part of her rehabilitation: Don't trust Ben.

The race to discover the truth about her relationship with Ben is what gives this book its punch – is Ben truly untrustworthy or is it purely Christine's inability to remember anything that has caused her to question him? It's a fast-paced thriller that keeps the reader engaged and wanting more, but it's not only the question of Ben that keeps the pages turning, it's whether Erica will be able to recover her ability to remember. Memory is a mysterious and ethereal concept that has a hold over all of us and the thought that we could maybe lose it, as Christine has done, is horrifyingly gripping. And it's not just a great premise for a work of fiction – this novel was inspired by those who deal with these challenges in real life. If this subject of amnesia interests you, I would recommend that you seek out Forever Today: A memoir of love and amnesia by Deborah Wearing.

I would recommend this one for the summer reading list – nothing helps a long wait in the airport terminal better than a good bit of fiction in your hands. It's not perfect and there are times when your suspension of disbelief will be stretched (especially if you've got anything more than a passing interest in memory disorders and neurological capabilities) but if you can put that to one side and just enjoy the journey this book will take you on, I doubt you will be disappointed. We all need a bit of escapism from time to time, after all!

Friday 2 March 2012

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer: Review

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Published in 2009
ISBN: 0316069906

Can you handle the truth? It seems that I can't.

For a long time, I have been bothered by this vague notion that the fact that I eat meat does not entirely jive with the fact that I am not only an animal lover but one of those people who refuses to even kill a cockroach. This isn't for any religious or ideological reason. It's just that I am a huge softie. I want to adopt all stray dogs. And cats. And some of the squirrels in our local park. Of course I can't do this. I am bound by the necessary constraints of a thing called reality (and the protestations of my incredibly patient husband) which dictate that one large dog within one smallish apartment is quite enough.

Reality bites. But I had no idea exactly how hard it would bite me when I borrowed this book from the library. I mean, let's all be honest. Those of us who choose to eat meat rationally know, somewhere in a dark corner of our minds, that an animal had to die for us to be tucking into the juicy steak/ bucket of deep fried wings/ meat pie in front of us. Obvious stuff. Even further back, we probably acknowledge that given the world population and the existence of places called 'meat works' that this process is not likely to be very gentle or even totally humane. But for me, this acknowledgement was pushed way way back behind lots of disused boxes and debris to the darkest annex of my mind called Denial. Cognitive dissonance - the process of two totally opposing views living side by side in one person's headspace. Something has to give.

So why on earth did I decide to read this book? Or at least, attempt to read it because I should be very honest with you all right now: I could not finish this book. I guess it was because I wanted to face the truth. To test my meat eating. To see if I could handle the facts of where our meat comes from.

Test result: Abject failure.
Real life result: I can no longer eat chicken that has been processed through a meat works.

The big problem is that the people I live with are avid carnivores and I need to be able to continue to at least cook with chicken. My proposed compromise on this issue is that I am going to attempt to change the source of the chicken meat. Living, as I do, in a country where I don't speak very much of the language, certainly not enough to engage in any meaningful debate about the whys and wherefores of the origin of any meat with any shop vendor, this is not going to be easy. However, my plan is to try to get my meat from the traditional markets. They have live chickens at the market and they will kill them for you on the spot. Although this may not sound like much of a compromise to some people out there, trust me if you had read the description that I had of how chickens are slaughtered on masse, you might change your mind.

You see, in all honesty, I still want to eat meat. I enjoy it (don't judge!) But now I want to eat meat in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to the animals that end up on my plate. So a quick, individualized kill at the market seems to me, at this stage, to be a better death than one at the processing plant. And I should be woman enough to look my future chicken soup in the eye before I eat it right? We shall see how I really feel about this when I scrape together the courage to actually do this in a few days.

Although I do feel bad that I wasn't able to finish the whole book, but I think that as far as what it's aim was: to make its reader seriously consider their relationship with the food they eat, it succeeded. I'd like to think that Mr. Foer will forgive me for not making it to the last page in light of the adjustments I am making in what and how I eat.

This isn't one of those books that you can recommend or not. It's something that I feel probably every single person should read, at the very least so that they an make some informed decisions about what they put in their mouths every day. It is a hard read, but Jonathan Safran Foer is an excellent writer who makes the topic engaging, thought provoking and best of all, not preachy or guilt inducing. I couldn't handle the whole truth but I don't regret that I have been exposed to it.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: Review

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
By Beth Hoffman
Published in 2012
Published by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-349-00018-3
(Great Britain edition)

Some of us jokingly worry about turning into our parents.  It might sneak up on us one day as we are scolding our kids, or during a conversation with friends all of a sudden something will pop out of our mouths that sounds exactly like them.  The echoes of our parents' influence may be unexpected, but for most of us it wouldn't be unwelcome.  But for CeeCee Honeycutt, recognizing echoes of her mother within herself is her worst nightmare, and something which has haunted her every day since she read in a book that psychosis may be inherited.

CeeCee has grown up as the sole caretaker for her irretrievably mentally ill mother.  Her father, unable to face up to the realities of his marriage, has retreated into his work and is barely ever home, leaving CeeCee to bear the brunt of her mother’s unstable moods and wild antics.  Old before her time and robbed of her childhood and all semblance of normality, CeeCee turns to her beloved books and her elderly neighbor, Mrs Odell, for solace and a place of respite.  But when she is twelve years old, her already chaotic world is thrown into further disarray when her mother makes a dramatic exit from her life at the beginning of the summer holidays.

As a result, CeeCee is uprooted from all she has ever known and whisked away to Savannah, Georgia, by her Great Aunt Tootie.  CeeCee's new world could not be more different from her old life.  She has been transplanted into the warm, pillowy comfortable place dominated by a cast of fabulous female characters.  It is within this world that CeeCee starts her slow journey towards recovery from the damage done by her childhood and learns the simple joys of friendship and stability.  

Although CeeCee's life with her mother reads as a gritty portrayal of what it is like to live with a mentally unbalanced parental figure, her life in Georgia reads more like a fairy tale, a young girl's fantasy escape story writ large.  Life in 1970s Georgia isn't perfect, and the racial issues of the time do make an appearance, but more as side concerns to the main storyline.  While some may find this optimistic turn of events to be problematically unrealistic, I personally found it fitting.  After the brutality of CeeCee's life in Ohio, the magic of Savannah was welcome relief and an utterly charming place within which to spend some time.  This novel achieves a balanced mix of opening pathways into conversations about the serious issue of mental illness while at the same time allowing for a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Monday 6 February 2012

Taipei International Book Exhibition 2012

If there are two words that excite my soul it is "Book" and "Exhibition" being uttered in the same sentence. Last year I wasn't paying close enough attention and I missed it, so this year I was determined to go. I set up my Google Alert in March last year. It worked.

Not knowing quite what to expect I bowled up with fellow book enthusiast, Catherine. She had horror stories from the previous year of having to beat a path through rabid credit card reps so we had decided to combine forces. Luckily for us, this year there were no such reps so we were free to browse in relative peace - you know, as much peace as an exhibition hall can really offer.

As awesome and fantastic as a whole hall filled with books sounds, in reality I find it a little disorienting. There's something about the bright lights and people thrusting pamphlets into your hand that can really put a bookworm off her stride. After two and a half years of living in Asia, you'd think I would be better at the whole "crowd" thing but the truth is I'm not nearly as good as I should be. Especially where buying books is concerned. It's a sensory overload - there are just so many books and not nearly enough time.

Which is not meant to sound like a complaint - it's really not. The opportunity to look at so many English language books all at the same time was really magnificent and there were some really fabulous displays of stationery and arts and crafts related stuff. I ended up purchasing Solar by Ian McEwan and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, two books which have been on my "Strongly Desired" mental list for quite some time. I think next time I will set aside more time for this whole experience. I think it's something I'll do in stages next year and now I know what to expect, I can go in with a clearer idea of what I want to achieve.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Favourite Sentences VIII

Butterflies sailed across the open field, and the air was tinged with the sweet smell of peaches and warm earth. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, letting the scents travel through my body. I was in the middle of an accidental kind of happiness that made me grateful for having a nose. 
From Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Beth Hoffman
Page 234

It's summertime and joy on the page. I absolutely love the way that reading this made me feel.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Buddha in the Attic: Review

The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published in 2011
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-70046-9

I purchased this book myself for the purposes of book club. 

What possesses someone to pack up everything they own and move to a country they have never been to before, especially when they don't speak very much of the language nor understand very much of the culture of their destination country? Necessity? A dream of a better life? Wanderlust? Love? For the group of young Japanese women in this novel it was a bit of everything. They were to be married to men who they had only heard about through written letters and a single photograph. Leaving their lives, their families, their culture and their comfort zone, they set out across the ocean for America. When they arrived the reality that faced them was devastatingly different to their hopes and expectations.

Through first person plural narration, Otsuka presents the collective experiences of these women, divided thematically by significant events – from their first night as wives to childbirth to their removal from the towns and cities along the Pacific coast during World War Two. As a result of this narrative style and thematic organization there isn't a traditional plot with a beginning middle and an end. Rather the experience of reading the stories of many comes to be almost like a meditation on lives past. The choice to present this material in this way is a wise one, I think, as to do anything other than present the simple facts could create a potential emotional overload for the reader. This is not only because of the number of different perspectives and stories but also because of the confronting nature of the content within.

I remember very clearly the first time I discovered that Japanese Americans and Canadians had been removed from their homes and livelihoods during the Second World War when I read Obasan by Joy Kogawa for a postgraduate trauma literature paper. I'd had no idea that this kind of thing had happened and to be honest, I was shocked by what I learned. It hadn't mattered if these people had lived there half of their lives, or if they had been born there and were therefore citizens – in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coastline and housed them in war interment camps inland. Like I said – it's confronting stuff. But let's forget for a moment all of the why's and the wherefores of this decision. Let's hold off on the pointing of fingers and the placement of blame and guilt and focus on what it is that Otsuka is telling us to do – to listen to the voices that couldn't be heard back then.

These voices are not only of the Japanese who were interred but also of their neighbors who were very much affected by their removal. The last chapter is written from the perspective of these neighbors which shows that at first they were worried, upset and guilty about the way the Japanese had been treated. But as time passes and new stores open in place of Mr. Harada's grocery or the Imanashi Transfer, and the Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry notices fade and blow away with a stronger breeze than usual, so too do the feelings and the memories. People move on. It seems cold but it is after all, human nature to let go of things that do not continue to affect you on a daily basis. Especially when your country is about to become involved in the worst war this world has ever seen.

Otsuka's novella is an attempt to reestablish these lost stories and assure their place within the narrative of America's history. As the title suggests, it is time for it to be taken down out of the attic, dusted off and examined, honestly and with an open heart and mind. As with many novels that deal with subjects of uncomfortable moments in history this is not an uplifting read. It presents us, the present day reader, with a slice of a time gone by told through the imagined voices of those who experienced it. It's a tale of belonging, of inner strength, of cultural struggles and of real life. It's a timely reminder of how far we have come in this world, but also, perhaps, how much further we have yet to go.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Sunday Salon: Making peace with Kindle

The Kindle... The end of all real books???!!
"You kids with e-readers! Get off my lawn!"

That's basically what my 2009 post about the digital revolution in reading sounded like. I was the crochety old lady who was more than happy with her good old-fashioned paper books, thank you very much. All this gumph about new-fangled devices for reading, I huffed. I had no need for such shenanigans.... Did I?

By early 2011, I had softened considerably. It wasn't that I was against e-readers you see, I just preferred the entire reading experience. I'm one of those people who unashamedly sniffs books. I buy notebooks when I have no need for them. I like the way paper feels between my fingers. The clinical diagnosis, were I to get one, would likely be Severe Paperphilia. A diagnosis I embrace wholeheartedly - but the question that kept nagging in the back of my mind was, did my love affair with paper necessarily have to be so tightly linked to my love of the written word?

This question was answered at the end of last year, when my beloved husband bought me an iPad for Christmas. This gift came at a time in my life where reading for pleasure had become nearly non-existent due to the required reading necessary for the thesis which had taken up nearly all of my time and severely depleted my reading mojo. It was also a matter of timing - when I was thesis-free (that is, out of my house) and had the mental space for reading I was typically on some form of public transport or at a loose end somewhere. I had fallen out of the habit of carrying a book with me in my bag, for some reason but now, the iPad would be with me pretty much all the time.

Casually, I downloaded the Kindle App. I looked up. Checked behind me. No-one was screaming. I didn't hear any bookstores bursting into flames in the near vicinity. Excellent. Now, to find something to read. I downloaded Book of Mercy - an appropriate title, given my feelings about this whole foray into digital reading.

It was brilliant - not just the book but the whole experience. From click-to-buy to ready-to-read took all of 10 seconds. This is no small thing when, living where I do, the acquisition of books is not an easy task. The closest bookstore with a reasonably decent selection of English language books is a 15 minute bus ride away from my home and the one with the best selection is over an hour away by bus in Taipei. Ordering books online is easy but means waiting for two or more weeks for the books to arrive. Given this, I'm sure you can see why the immediacy of this appeals so much!

My swagload of real books (Image credit: Kath Liu)
Aside from that, the thing I worried about the most was the reading experience. Would it feel cold? Would it be uncomfortable holding an electronic device in my hands rather than a book? It certainly wasn't the same, but there were a couple of unexpected benefits, including the dictionary search function which helped me out on a few occasions as I read Game of Thrones. Highlight a word and its definition helpfully appears at the bottom of the screen. Further, I could add notes or highlight without feeling like I was committing the carnal sin of writing on a book. In fact, the only major downside was the constant distractions from email, Facebook and Twitter notifications. When you're deep into a dramatic moment, the last thing you need to know is that Bob Jones "Liked" your photograph. Easy solution: disconnect from the internet.

So there it is. Who knew. The Digital Dissenter has been turned and having access to e-books has shattered my reading slump. I have embraced the positives of this new way of reading and ceased worrying about my beloved physical book - I reckon those babies are going to be around in this world for a lot longer than I will, and I ain't planning on going anywhere for a good while yet.

And just to make sure, I bought myself a swagload of real books - and delightedly sniffed each and every one of them. Bliss.