Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speaking of Grief, short version

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed[1]

This sentence still strikes me as the most honest attempt to encapsulate grief of any I have read. Not so much for its sentiment, but for its insistence that the speaker has not being prepared for death. This is something one learns when one mourns: nothing prepares you for it.

Almost nine years ago, my sister Mary died in Toronto, at the age of fifty-two. For many days after the news of her death reached me in London, I lay in bed unable to do anything apart from cry. One of the most terrible things about grief is that it fades with time no matter how hard we hold onto it. And we do hold onto it. Letting go of our grief is like saying ‘yes’ to the death of the person we are mourning. By holding onto it, we think we are holding onto the person we love. But how wrong we are.

When Mary died, I remember thinking that I would never be happy again. To my ears now, this idea sounds melodramatic and slightly mad. The awful truth is that one does, for want of a better word, ‘get over’ it. One does begin to enact the rituals of everyday life.

Towards the end of his essay about the death of his wife, Lewis does come to a sort of acceptance of his loss, when he says, ‘I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.’[2] Over the years, I have come to a similar place. I can smile when I think of my sister and I can talk about her without crying. And strangely I feel as close to her as I did in the early stages of mourning. I am reassured by this trick of perspective, or is it time passing. Maybe it is simply a version of the madness inherent in grief that enables us to the see so clearly the absences in the world.

The paradigm shift towards acceptance happens despite ourselves. And the constant surprises that fall onto one’s path on the landscape of grief remind you that grieving is a process. It is not a state that remains solid and fixed. The forces of life are so much stronger than the pull of loss. And this is actually what ‘getting over it’ means: the grief eventually loses out.

At Mary’s funeral the thought I couldn’t shake was: ‘I don’t know how to do this. I need Mary to tell me how.’ She had always been there to advise me about every aspect of life. Once she was gone, I had to do what people in films or in Nancy Drew stories do, I had to think, ‘what would Mary do?’ And, oddly, it sort of worked. I would be faced with an invitation to a party and, rather than stay home and cry on the sofa, I would think, ‘would Mary want me to go?’ Invariably she would.

I so remember after my sister’s death the sense that the world as I knew it was no longer recognisable. Words I had been using all my life felt empty and meaningless. My sister was appearing to me at night and giving me instructions. She was so like herself in my dreams that when I woke I could barely believe she was no longer alive. I could not understand her presence in my life, the fact that she was so much there and yet absolutely not there.

It has taken me these nine years to process my loss and to see it as something worth writing about. I have realised that grief is both universal and terribly specific. Talking about death and loss should be part of life. I want to be able to pass on a vocabulary of grief to my daughter. Some day she will no doubt find herself mourning the death of someone close. Some day she may find solace in CS Lewis or perhaps in something yet to be written. I hope she can find the words, and use them to navigate her way through the terror, the confusion, the sense of utter loss and desperation that comes from losing something that has in essence become part of oneself. I don’t want her to say, ‘no one ever told me grief felt so like fear.’ I want her to know it feels like fear and so many other things, unnamed things, unwritten things. Things that will be specific to her and yet linked to every person who has loved someone and watched them die. 

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, London: Faber & Faber, 1961.
[2] Ibid., p. 48.

This shortened version of a longer piece I wrote about grief was published in September 2014 in the Hope Paige Medical Magazine. 

The Sleeve Notes: Sleeptalking

Original 1974 
Album Cover
Sleeptalking is a non-fiction short story written for Hannah Griffiths’ now defunct website The Sleevenotes: Writers On Records. It was published there in the summer of 2004. The site took the form of an online anthology where writers used a memory of one particular song as the springboard for a short story of around a thousand words. 
Here is a link to the song I chose: from Keith Hudson's 1974 album 'Pick A Dub'. Below is the piece I wrote. It's all true. And reader, I married him.


It was our first night together, and I was woken from the shallow sleep that comes with a new lover.
   “I’ve got the biggest and the smallest,” he said with a childlike smugness. His eyes were closed tight and his face was immobile in the semi-darkness of my bedroom. Light from the street outside cast a greenish glow across his mouth and I could see a glint of moisture on his slightly parted lips.
   I’d never had a sleep-talker before. I wondered if it was like those hypnosis shows on TV, so I asked, “the biggest and the smallest what?”
   The reply came without hesitation, “Record collection. My record collection is the biggest and the smallest,” he said and then rolled over, presenting his back to me. I gazed at it wondering who this man was that I seemed to be falling in love with.
   The next morning when I questioned him about what he meant exactly, his face blanched with embarrassment. He had no recollection of having exchanged words with me in the night. I told a few friends about our nocturnal conversation and we laughed at the obviousness behind the size of a man’s vinyl collection and the measure of his virility.
   The next time we met was at his flat. He had offered to throw some food together, which was his way of inviting me over for dinner without actually using those words. I arrived nervous and expectant, and the first thing I noticed was the wall of vinyl.
Choose a record, he said casually, while I open the wine.”
   ‘Shit,’ I thought. ‘I’m a small town girl from Ottawa, Canada, and here I am being asked to choose music by someone from London, England’. This particular June evening was hot, stiflingly hot, and Reggae sprung to mind. But then I panicked. Suddenly all the songs I ever liked and all the albums I had loved in my life abandoned me. Reason, too, abandoned me. I felt this was the most important moment of my life. One of those rare defining moments that I would look back on later. I could smell my sweat over the garlic being fried next door.
   I wondered whether to put something on that had changed my life when I heard it for the first time — Nina Simone singing House of the Rising Sun, or Jimi doing his version of All along the Watchtower, or Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Or should I try and second guess him? But this was only the third time I’d ever met the guy. I didn’t even know his last name, let alone his favourite songs. I was bound to choose the one album an ex-girlfriend had given him which he kept for sentimental reasons but didn’t really like.
   He came in with a glass of wine. “I won’t be a second, I’m just soaking some mushrooms.” Maybe he was feeling a similar kind of tension around our supper ingredients.
   “No problem,” I replied, adding, “You’ve got a lot of records.”
   “Yeah, I know, but not as many as I’d like. You can never have enough.” There you had it: the biggest and the smallest.
   Oh, hell.’ I was now getting angry. ‘Go with the moment,’ I told myself. ‘It’s a hot June evening, you’re falling in love, you’re having mushrooms soaked for you. Stop trying so hard, just choose something, Goddam it. Anything!’
   My hand reached for the ‘H’ section (yes, of course it was alphabetical) and pulled out the record wedged between Freddie Hubbard and Mississipi John Hurt. I slipped it out of its sleeve. The opening notes of Augustus Pablo’s melodica rang out and I knew from those first five chords that I had done the right thing.
   Jason popped his head ‘round from the kitchen, “Good move.”
   Keith Hudson wasn’t an obvious choice. I could have gone for Tubby. That would have been just as summery, sexy and confident. Or Lee Perry. That would have been a touch more playful. But no, Keith Hudson was the man for the job: subtle, strong, exactly right. Those lilting opening sounds on Pick-a-Dub defy anyone not to be in love. The elegant minimalism leads you on until you just can’t take it anymore and then the drums and the bass take over with a soulful passion. For several moments I stood suspended in the loosely contained chaos of pure musical joy.
   Jason entered the room and looked at me. “I’ve put the rice on. Won’t be long til’ we eat.” He sounded distracted. I knew he knew what I was feeling.
   “Great.” I wasn’t taking in what he was saying. Our real conversation was running parallel to our words.
   “So you like Reggae?”
   I nodded. We fell silent and listened.
   I had noticed the way people reacted to music in London. In Ottawa it was the background to other things. Here it was an activity. It defined you. It defined you so much that every time I opened my mouth and some smart ass guessed I wasn’t American, they would then come out with, “I guess you like Bryan Adams.” Luckily there were plenty of non-smart asses who would hear my accent and mumble something about Neil Young, which at least went somewhere towards making me feel OK about being from the most boring country on earth.
   Sitting on cushions on the floor we eventually got round to eating. We ran out of booze at about eleven and fuelled the rest of the night with music until the sun came up. We dozed for an hour or two until I dragged myself off to work, he to a wedding.
   As I sit and write eight years on, I now live with Jason. In idle moments I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I had chosen Blondie or Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles — or any number of musicians I adore — in that moment on that hot summer night. But fate guided my hand. The fate of two people, young, letting go, just seeing what happens.

Review of 'My Fathers, My Mother and Me'

LFF: My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s documentary of his return to Friedrichshof, Otto Muehl’s free-loving commune, where he grew up with his mother
Paul-Julien Robert approaches the political through the personal in his documentary My Fathers, My Mother and Me. The story begins with his birth in 1979, a time when fall-out from the Second World War was still very present for many Austrians. But the film does not tackle the post-war Austrian psyche and instead reveals Robert’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s decision to raise him in a commune under the leadership of a megalomaniac leader, Otto Muehl.

In 1972 Muehl, co-founder of the Viennese Actionist Art movement, set up Friedrichshof with a handful of like-minded politicos and artists who espoused the destruction of the bourgeois nuclear family, the sharing of all property, free love, the collective education of children and the attainment of ecstasy through the destruction of “body armour” (an idea he took from Wilhelm Reich). All fairly noble aims, but from the archive footage Robert weaves throughout the film, we see the manifestation of these ideals as not so benign.
In one scene Muehl orders a withdrawn child to perform in front of hundreds of members of the commune. Muehl bullies him into playing a harmonica while a live band chivvy him along with bizarre jazzy circus music. The child begins to cry and Muehl barks at him to “Sing! Dance!” The child sobs. Eventually Muehl pours water over the boy while he dejectedly puffs into a mouth organ, tears streaming down his face.
Not only is this scene a devastating example of Muehl’s abuse of power, but it is made more resonant because we are watching it with Robert and his mother. In showing her this clip, Robert appears to be asking her “How could you have been complicit in this?” Throughout the film, Robert quietly levels questions at his mother, who takes them with equanimity and sometimes humour. She is likeable, intelligent but perhaps a bit distant. At this point in the film, her composure starts to crack and emotions begin to surface in her face. Robert, who felt abandoned, betrayed and confused as a child by his mother’s choice to raise him in Friedrichshof, is finally being heard.
The real story in some ways is the story of Robert’s mother, Florence. In 1975 as a woman of twenty-six, she was searching for a new way of living that rejected the patriarchal society of the 1970s when married women couldn’t even own property. Seen in this light, an attraction to an extreme alternative seems only logical. But like so many of these alternative communities, the limits of conventional society were re-enacted by a surrogate father figure who manipulated his followers. In 1991, Otto Muehl was arrested for having sex with minors and jailed for almost seven years. None of this is in the film, nor does it need to be.
Towards the end of the film Robert and his mother attend a gathering of parents and children who had lived at Friedrichshof. Two middle-aged women stand at a lectern and apologise to the children present for preventing them from having normal lives on the ‘outside’, and in some cases actually causing them physical, emotional and mental harm. The two cry as they speak. We are told in a voice-over that Robert’s mother blacked out at this moment and when she came to she had no idea why she was not in her house in France.
In their final conversation in the film, Robert’s mother admits to a sort of defeat. She tells him she had felt insecure as a mother and maybe if she had had more children she could have undone some of her mistakes. Then very quickly she adds, “But just because there were problems with Friedrichshof, you mustn’t idealise the nuclear family either!” And this is the heart of the film: to what lengths will we go to create what we think is a better world? Can naiveté excuse our mistakes? What are the responsibilities of a mother to her child and how can conflicting desires be reconciled? Robert’s need to understand, rather than condemn is admirable. At times his calm demeanour seems to hide a simmering rage at his mother’s gullibility, but mostly there is an unquenchable curiosity as to what drives people to relinquish responsibility while seeking deliverance from societal norms. And at what cost.

Review of Andrew Bujalski's 'Computer Chess'

LFF: Computer Chess

Charming, funny and humane - Andrew Bujalski continues the mumblecore tradition with a film about the members of a 1980s chess tournament
Patrick Riester as Peter in Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski’s new film, Computer Chess, is a nostalgic nod to a more innocent time when computers took up entire rooms, men wore clip-on ties unironically and women went nowhere near anything that plugged in unless it was a vacuum cleaner. Bujalski gets the period details obsessively spot on, but the costume drama precision is almost a red herring as he is doing a lot more here than recreating a slice of history. He is talking about our relationship to technology and his relationship to cinema.

The film, set circa 1980, takes place in a faceless motel where two conventions are happening simultaneously: the computer chess programmers who are pitting their computers against each other in a chess competition, and a couples therapy group whose members re-enact their own births and aggressively rip apart loaves of bread whilst aiming for orgasmic enlightenment. In a sense both camps are just as uncomfortable in their own bodies, and both are seeking transcendence.

The geeks cushion themselves from the world with their rational intellect while the self-helpers eschew empirical knowledge for feelings. In one excruciating scene, a couple invite Peter (played brilliantly by Patrick Riester) to their room for sex. Peter’s malaise contrasts with the touchy-feelies who pretend to be at home in their skins when really they are just using their openness to get it off with strangers. The clash of mindsets is hilarious but slightly disturbing for the complete misjudgement the swingers display for the gawky, virginal Peter. This scene also gets to the core of what Bujalski seems to be saying. Neither of these two extremes has the answers to the questions brought up in the film: What is a soul? What is love? And what is it to be human? He doesn’t come out and say it, but the impression is that Bujalski feels the answers to life’s Big Questions lie in a crucial interface between heart and head.
Computer Chess shares much with the mother of mumblecore, Bujalki’s 2002 film Funny Ha Ha and its successor Mutual Appreciation (2005). It is lo-fi, loosely improvised, people move awkwardly, connections between humans are fragile and often misunderstood, intellectual fluency is stunted by introversion and yes, there is mumbling. As in his previous films where characters sit around Rohmer-style in rooms talking about life, the nerds in Computer Chess do the same only with lines like, “Chess is not war, it’s victory” and “is there a difference between real artificial intelligence and artificial real intelligence?” When one character tells a bunch of fellow spliff-smoking competitors that the future of computers will be in “dating”. One of the others asks, “What? Computers dating each other?” It’s played for laughs but we are reminded how far we have come in accepting computers into our lives. We started out shaping them, but thirty or so years later they are shaping us.
The lone woman in the nerd camp, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz) is referred to throughout as the ‘Lady from MIT’ (women really have come a long way since 1980). She has the detached intelligence of Funny Ha Ha’s Marnie (Kate Dollenmeyer) albeit in a bad haircut, huge specs and terrible Lady Di blouses. As with his previous films, Computer Chess uses mainly non-actors. Gerald Peary who is fantastically deadpan as Pat Henderson, the chess convention leader, is a film studies professor, film critic and author. The stiltedness of many of the performances adds to the feel of a pre-internet period before we happily revealed all on Facebook. It reminds us of a time when privacy existed, and when people who worked with computers were the minority. We are all geeks now and live our lives publicly through our computers.
The visual aesthetic of the film with its long takes and sometimes monotone lectures on the finer points of programming along with shots of men sitting on hotel sofas brings to mind the cinema verité of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesmanand John Casavetes Husbands. Bujalski and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, shot the film with analogue, Sony tube cameras made in the seventies, which could be seen as taking the nostalgia a bit far, but it elegantly adds to the period tone: the grain, the high contrast, the blurred edges, the weird light. Towards the end of the film a scene suddenly switches to colour while we follow one computer chess conventioneer Michael Papageorge (Miles Paige) out of the motel. Sound intermittently drops out of sync and in a few instances the screen splits in half. It’s all seemingly random but it works. Bujalski is having fun with the technology just like the computer whiz kids he is portraying on screen. Underneath the geeky exterior with its obsessive historical accuracy, lies a charming, funny, humane film. Maybe just like nerds in real life, when they stop talking about zeros and ones, start talking about love, and take off their specs, they are actually kind of cute and very funny underneath.