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Pushing our way out of the gritty concrete hues of Shanghai on a bus with 47 others. Mainly kids. Kids sleeping, kids talking, kids laughing, kids crying, kids eating, kids fighting, kids listening to ipods and ipads. Kids and their parents. Parents cracking open beers, parents staring out the window whilst stroking little foreheads, parents handing out watermelon or chips, parents flicking off iphones, parents umpiring tiny people's warfare, parents flicking on iphones, parents catching up.
It is an annual trip to Anji and its bamboo forests. We are new to it.
After the first bathroom stop, on our 4 hour drive, a 6 year old Scottish girl with long brown tresses, porcelain skin and large blue eyes exclaims, "I want to sit with Freyja for the rest of the trip". Freyja seizes this exceptional opportunity and is deeply bonded to her side for the rest of the weekend. Like a sister from another mother, they sit together all Bambi-like - gangly and long limbed - with perfectly round peepholes. Erin offers Freyja a thick pink headband with a large red heart on it to wear and her deepest friendship since we came to Shanghai is planted.
Out the window we pass through the endless collection of grey skyscrapers onto flat plains and swamplands with occasional clusters of towers. The sky is a dirty white. We are used to this. Then we start to climb a road through the bamboo forests. It is enlivening. The bus picks up speed as we dodge our way around tiny roads on the edge of perilous cliffs into deep ravines inside the endless green. I catch a moment where the mothers on the bus look down as we screech around the one lane corners, rolling there eyes and furrowing their brow and then continuing their conversations. As if to say, "One centimetre to the left and we could have fallen down that crevice. Slow down, there are children on the bus". But with an effortless expats-of-china ease, they let it go.
It is the endless green that is enrapturing.
We arrive at dusk. Each family has a little bamboo style chalet in the trees, around the pool. The pool that is like a fresh stream river. Cold and full of leaves and insects. It quickly becomes a source of endless fun for one and all and comes in handy on Sunday morning when Nick is completely immobile from the night before. So hungover he cannot speak at all until he emerges from this pool, throws up, and then is surprisingly able again.
This is not to mention the actual fresh stream on the other side of the chalets. Soft velvety cool water gently travelling down the mountain. Demanding a certain quiet as only nature can do.
On Saturday we all go white water rafting through the river of the village. All 46 of us, me not included. Which was handy because Elvy did not find it funny (even slightly), so I was able to collect her half way down the river and together we watched the others gurgle, churn and fall through the centre of town back to our bus.
We went for a gentle stroll up the hill with the little kids. I walked up to see Freyja freely chatting to a couple I had not yet met. "This is mummy", she reached for my hand, "Her dad just died before we came here". The couple and I meet eyes and smile awkwardly as Freyja continues.. "He fell out of bed and then died in hospital". I turn around and look for the others in an attempt to lighten the load. Freyja scrunches her face up and sighs. "Its been a tough year for mummy and me... I really miss him... but not as much as her." Freyja looks up at me. The couple look at me softly. We introduce each other.
It makes me curious that Freyja still wishes to discuss dad's death with everyone. She is still processing it. I am still processing it. Maybe until I stop processing it she will keep reflecting it. Whatever the instance I don't mind her openness and would rather this than her feel closed inward around this story. And she reminds me that it is still the foundation from which my perspective and experience lays. It is still underneath everything. A place still unravelling.
The highlight for all was probably the BBQ party. Archie DJ'ed kids music for hours and all the kids were dressed up. They sat at the long table clothed in plastic in their rayon outfits munching on sausages and bobbing to the tunes before running wildly, as the sun hid, in fits of ecstatic freedom.
I happily clambered around with my camera until suddenly a random pop song from last year came on and a I felt a rush of grief wash through me. It's not done. It may never be done. It is ok. I accept it. But the loss, the slippery nature of the memories and the enormous importance of my father is not done.
"Oh come on Liv what'd you want - me to live til I was 90? Nah, that was never for me. I had seen everything already from this life. It had to come to an end. You can respect that can't you?". I can hear him gently plead in my mind. I stare into a quickly darkening wall of trees. Still. I nod internally. Aha. Yes. I can.
"Everything comes and goes Liv. Don't wish it any other way. It's pointless", he is still going. "All the love we had. All the time we spent, it's all still there. I am still there in you - in the people you meet and the stream that you stand in. Do you get it?" Tears well and then they resume backwards. The song ends. Elvy is calling for me. I turn around. Yes, dad, I get it.
when you photograph you - is it for you or is it for me?
is it to show or is to keep?
are you awake or are you asleep? .. i mean that is too rhymey and not what i mean.. is this for proof or is it a dream?..
oh bugger i am trapped in this amateur rhyme.. i will try to break out and try to refine..
we went to the water town and we saw lots of this.. the flowers were beautiful.. but the crowds did persist
they were littered with people standing to pose
our littlest daughter was the favourite unknown.. they would grab her and pull her .. into their rows
i mean not that i mind, how could i say? as a photo flaneur i love it .. it's home to me.. here on this day..
but it's not just this day, is it? .. it's the culture at large.. our global electronic screen-based discharge
now now be clearer .. what do i mean? i mean is it possible to wipe the slate clean? clean from the bridges and roads deep within .. and find just ourselves defined and separate therein ? this toy mirror we carry and pull out all day, we click it and look at it and then put it away.. but is it a trick to think when you see you that you only see you and you don't also see me?
a little indian yogi teacher i go to - says -
' When people find and recognize the soul within themselves, they realize that the soul is the Creator of all things, the author of the universe itself. They know that the world belongs to the soul - the world is the soul.
'We can find and recognize the soul even while we are alive on earth. And through finding the soul, we become immortal. But so long as we fail to find the soul, we must endure great suffering.
'When we perceive that the soul is divine - when we acknowledge the soul as the master of what was, what is, and what will be - all fear is dispelled. We rejoice in that perception, since it makes us immortal.
'The soul is the breathing behind breathing, the sight behind sight, the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thought.
' The soul has existed from before the beginning of time.
'They who know the soul, realize that all is one. They realize that diversity is an illusion, and unity is truth. Those who see only diversity, and cannot see unity, wander from death to death'.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:4, 12-15, 17-19
I saw Justin on the beach in Koh Samui. He had a large tattoo of Hanuman on his back, Shiva on his front and Ganesh on his arms. Hanuman symbolises devotion and surrender, Shiva is the creator and destroyer and Ganesh is the remover of all obstacles.
I like that quote (pictured above) from the book 'Good Grief' by Deborah Morris Coryell. In relation to understanding Shiva, poet Rabindranath Tagore says "Death is not putting out the light. It is extinguishing the lamp because the dawn has come".
Pulsing, burning, heavy heat that stops you moving, thinking, standing... helped me understand what home away from home is.
When we left Sydney we sold everything and left nothing in storage. No sense that we were now temporarily away from anywhere in particular. By the time we leave here, our youngest daughter Elvy will be more Chinese than Australian. And the curious question of whether we ever move back to Australia or anywhere long-term again is precariously uncertain. Like everything I guess, but this is a more honest and less coveted truth. So what is home now in this slippery collision of place and people?
Unbeknownst to me, one way of me feeling home is the white hot sky weighing down on a landscape, bullying its people into a enervated carefree status. It is opening my eyes in the salty water and watching the rippling reflections on the sand. It is noticing that noone around me is moving fast, noone is hurrying. Things are simplified. Its a lull.
再见, arrivederci, au revoir, さようなら, ลาก่อน, byebye
"What's that thundering sound out my window, mama?", Freyja says as her eyes open into circles.
"Oh, that's just a group of young kids downstairs letting off a box of fire crackers again. Go to bed, plenty more over the next couple of weeks", I tiredly mutter.
15 days and 15 nights of firecrackers shooting off at random intervals. Each night with a different aspiration for 2015. The night dedicated to money was aggressively bright. More shooting than showering. More light than dark.
But anyway, I am just a fleeting outsider and everything I see, at its essence, is about endings and beginnings. The disappearing moon and the rising sun. Becoming a plant that is uprooted from nature and potted again temporarily. Watering and feeding our family so we can be healthily repotted every few years in different locations.
On Chinese New Year we were invited to a potluck dinner in a neighbour's apartment. A medley of international families nestled in the lounge-room swallowing whole dumplings, olives and gruyere cheese, whilst excitedly chatting about the best international schools, how different cities of the world rate against each other and how to buy groceries that are not toxic.
Our kids disappeared into the bedrooms. Climbing the walls of this new nomadic terrain. Delighting in the coming together of other small people who also share this uprooted lifestyle. As expats we now see each other as the familiar. All the guards are down. We are now intrinsic to this subculture whose commonality is their tight placement between beginnings and endings.
Two beginnings. Two eves of the new year.
peering through the looking glass.
all the reflective surfaces an intimate family brings.
my delicious sister.
staying with my obi-wan kenobi uncle in san fransisco. dad's older brother. handsome and wisened. and his brainy mystic children. my curious cousins.
when dad died all his family came in to claim us. just as our feet left the ground. they magicked chairs under our bottoms as we fell backwards and pushed the dining table towards us.
so we all sat together. we were not orphaned. we were not bearing it alone.
this collective bearing is maybe why i wanted to write this blog. maybe because from china i wanted to not feel 'separated' and maybe because i wondered if this topic of death and grief was a little snowed in.
i certainly noticed a draft around me when dad was dying. a cool breeze as some armoured themselves for the subject. it felt like they saw death as a burden too heavy to hear, carry or consider. that they were frightened to talk of such a thing - for fear they might manifest it. well, this is a very curious thing - considering we will all die. it felt so tight that it made me want to talk about it louder. give it some air.
and strangely i felt most alone in my sentience with dad's death. when time stood exactly still and quiet, not daring to tick, as we shared our infinite gratitude and respect for one another in our last goodbyes. in the godly hours where the veils were dropped as we sang to our father until his final breath. and at my endless pride and drop-to-the-ground honouring of his grace and joy in the manner of his death. it really was the most beautiful, crisp and clear thing i have ever witnessed. here in this place, i feel a tad lonely. it seems the most common word associated with death is 'tragic'. perhaps this is felt more so - when the topic is snowed in, made taboo and unacceptable.
i like what oliver sacks wrote recently in the new york times about his own oncoming death...."it is the fate - of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death". if we were to all live the same life, the same age, the same way - yes - anything different would be utterly tragic. but with this acceptance of our authenticity perhaps we can allow ourselves to live and die without needing it to be predictable, understandable, the same, normal, standard, neat, contained and measured?
"don't fear darling," dad said to me as i fretted over him when he first came into the spinal unit. "accept. its all perfect. you will see."
So, what about the grief over this next 4 months leading to christmas?
I know that's confusing. This blog is behind. I am trying to catch up. Much like the burden of the grief. It holds you in a tight embrace and gently rocks you back to the past, present, past, present... I am still trying to catch up to now.
It has been deliriously slippery.
I wouldn't guess this to be grief. I feel whole most of the time. Light. Clear, even.
But then I have this sudden overwhelming sense of constriction. I cock my neck side to side, trying to wring out these new wooden splinters floating around in my body. I feel out of whack. I wonder if I have a strange disease. A serious disease. I never pin it to the grief.
After moving house and setting up life in the French Concession, I took a weekend away to stay with close friends in Hong Kong - without the kids - in a desperate attempt to loosen up. On the way back, my visa was declared expired and I was detained at Shanghai airport for 8 hours. By the time I left, I felt a million times better. For me, it took this separation of 8 hours to release a lot of sadness. I think I cried for 7 of those hours.
This is an insert from my diary
8th December 2014.
I am stuck in Pudong Airport. Apparently my visa has expired. I belong nowhere right now.
There is an announcement at either end of this marble airport. It's echoing. First in Chinese, then in English. "Please hold the handrail and mind your step". They are not in unison, they overlap/repeat/echo and loop again.
A woman in heels trotts behind me - the length of the room - from one speaker to the other.
The lights from the ceiling splash over the marble floors.
I am sad. Every part of my body feels weary from the sadness. One by one, three men come down the escalator to my right, at the end of the room. All bald men. From this distance, clouded by a mess of tears, I see Dad.
He is the first bald man, until the second comes down the escalator. The second seems to be looking at me. My face is liquid. Why did he have to die like that?
And then he turns, a longer nose, a narrower head. Not Dad. Not Dad at all. Just some man. Walking my way. Past me.
I crawl into my giant cashmere poncho like a cat.
The phone rings. Nick is trying to resolve my visa crisis. I am indifferent. Expressionless. Limp. Zapped.
Floating in this infinite sadness of my grief, the whole story, the death. All of it. All of it nailed in more by images of seemingly care-free people.
I have a headache. I am thirsty. Here on this plastic seat in this middle ground. People arriving, queuing, leaving. The uniforms, the beeping, the announcements, my dehydration, the assault of fluorescent lighting and the sanitised surfaces remind me of the intensive care unit. The hospital with Dad.
I did not ask him anything when I had those last days. I just wanted to make him comfortable. Which was not easy. The only way he would be comfortable was to die. So I wanted him to die.
Now I want him not dead.
I hear his words in my head as he comes to visit us in Shanghai, "Wow Liv, what a fabulous life you have". Always the Pollyanna. He would be impressed and I would be comforted by his reassurance.
Another phone call from the British Embassy in Beijing, "I am sorry you are in this terrible misunderstanding", a man says to me. "Its okay", I reply, deadpan. Nothing more. I don't have anything more.
A flood of bags on wheels trail behind me, in a sprawling line of arrivals. It's the perfect place for me to be as this release of sadness rushes out. No identity, no belonging. Stuck behind the gates, unable to arrive.
A series of Chinese officials come to look at my passport. They tilt their heads quizzically. They ask me questions in Chinese. I cannot stop crying. I shake my head, shrug my shoulders. "I don't know", seems the only answer right now.
Let me sit here indefinitely.
"Please hold the hand rail and mind the step. Please hold the hand rail and mind the step..." Even this mantra is making sense to me right now. Detained in the "Processing Area". Feeling it finally, while people all around me are walking by.
"Don't worry about the visa", an old policeman says to me as my flat, smeared face stares out. "No", I say. "My father died. I don't care about the visa".
Suddenly swarms of peole arrive again. Wheeling, humming, dragging, moving, rolling, grappling and slurring. So many people, this time, it feels windy behind me and I can no longer decipher the announcements I had adjusted to. An orchestra of arrivals. A blur; a mass of wheely bags and their owners.
Tears and tears empty out till my brain is pounding. His face when he heard his predicament. The upturned smile and furrowed brow. His nod as he accepted such a fate. Just the slightest moment. No-one else saw it but I caught it - a flash of disappointment. To be suddenly paralysed from oddly falling in your own home, in the middle of the night.
"Just two days ago I was running up a mountain and a bunch of walkers asked me how old I was", he excitedly told me. "They said I was like a 25 year old, not a 65 year old." Beaming now. "That's how I felt too."
The bouncy Chinese policewoman sitting next to me hands me a warm metal-tasting water and offers me the lunch in her bag. I decline. I have nearly been sitting here 6 hours. My eyes are hot and swollen.
The Chinese policewoman says, "I know how you feel. My grandfather just died". I internally shake my head. Not the same. Then she taps me. Keeps tapping. Pointy fingers as I weep. I look at her. Her face is kind but her fingers are urgent, anxious. "Please stop", she says in broken English. I shrug and heave and weep again. "At least you have him in your heart", she offers. I nod. Internally thinking - Nope, that's not enough right now.
And the sun goes down outside, the fluorescent lights amp up and the wheely orchestra is yet again whirling behind me. People on the move. Arriving and departing. Me stuck - thirsty and hungry - a sighing, heaving, questioning sack. Sadness is always amplified by the questioning of it all.
Clop clop clop. Murmur murmur. Wheel wheel. All in different notes. Deep loud plastic. Light smooth subtle. Scraping urgent metal.
Nick is on his way. I have nearly finished an entire box of strawberry flavoured strepsils. Maybe it's another reason my head hurts.
Roll, walk, stomp, drag, clomp, pull, chatter, shout, mumble, stomp, roll. The bloody announcement can be heard again as fewer and fewer people scamper behind me.
The bouncy woman is back. Trying very hard now to crack through - cheer me up. She asks me about the animals in Australia. I try not to be rude but I don't want to stop the purge. It took me so long to get here. I have not been sad but I have been tight, cramped, contracted and stiff. This is my opportunity. She is still next to me as I write. She tilts her head into my view, leaning over the page. "How do you know your husband?," she says. I laugh. Such a big effort to reel me back.
I am being pulled back in, dragged towards the soundtrack of rolling and wheeling. The woman asks if I am a writer. Her name is Song. She has a huge smile with large teeth. Her face is wide and her black hair is pulled back into a bun with a blue net over it. She tells me her life is short, so she wants to be happy every single day - and she is. I congratulate her on this. I tell her she is good and kind and I appreciate it, but I don't need to be happy everyday. Today I am not happy and that's okay.
Now we are talking about travel and Hainan chicken. She will not leave. She is concerned. She will stay even as I write. She keeps leaning over my book with her teeth. More stories of food. I have now been sitting her for 7 hours. My poor kids. I miss them.
Nick is trapped on the other side of customs - unable to come into this halfway station. A perfect metaphor.
As the wheels swan past it feels like a Kaufman version of "Gravity". Stuck in grief, with this random Chinese woman at my side reeling me in. I want to keep drifting but she will not allow it and I cannot help thinking it's Dad in her right now. Pushing her my way, persuading her thoughts, tempting her steps my way. He was a happy-every-single-day type too. That would, no doubt, be a message from him. Her big smile reminding me now of joy. Of here, of this. Not that. Him smiling at me through her. And wow - I have a neck again. It's no longer lost inside my shoulders. I feel lighter and now I can see Nick coming towards me...
Did you want to build a snowman?
Or ride your bike around the halls?
Level 21 is taken over by pent-up kids in Elsa outfits. We are still at the beginning of the journey. Living in the business hotel for a couple of months. Nick outta town while I have the help of a non-English speaking ayi wearing slippers, singing buhao and frying up our feeds.
Any person spotted within the giant hotel with a kid is like long-lost family. “Wanna set up a playdate?”, we ask one another before we introduce ourselves.
“Lets meet on the 10th floor in the business lounge. We can let the kids whack the keyboards and eat the chalky biscuits while we sip warm water from tiny paper cups and look out over the city.”
“Hey, and tomorrow morning lets meet on the 21st floor. Bring your scooters, they can ride around the corridors, we can keep them quiet”.
“Wanna playdate in the pool? In the buffet lounge? In our bedroom? In the foyer? We have an enormous clothes closet - could be fun?”
“Yes. Meet you there in five”.