Being better

I spend my days waiting to get better. I must be patient because it is long and slow and uncertain in coming. The concept of better is tenuous in any case. It doesn’t refer to a final state of wellness but rather something relative and elastic, a state of health in which no further treatment is required or of any use, and even the passage of time will aid no further. It’s likely to be a state of mind as much as it is of physical health. It’s when I understand and accept that this is as good as it will get, even if it means I’m no more than semi-functional.

It’s a generalised sense of waiting, or anticipation, much as you might anticipate a long sought holiday sometime in the middle distance. Within that, there is the more specific and urgent passage of time between engagements, between treatment and doctors’ appointments, waiting for each to come up and go by. Breaks have been few and far between, but I have about three weeks coming up in which I’ll get away from all of this limbo.

I think of myself as semi-functional these days, though perhaps that is harsh. My eyesight is failing, but that can and will be fixed. A resolution to my hearing loss is less certain, and maybe I’ll have to accept it. There’s no clear solution to my problems with speech either, though perhaps time will help, and when my missing teeth are replaced, it will be different. There is a treatment to fix the issues I have opening my mouth wide, but the contraption required costs $1500, and I won’t be doing that. Perhaps exercise will help, but I doubt it will ever be as it was.

On the other hand, I am walking much more freely. My hip is not nearly as cumbersome, though I still have no feeling in my right hip, quad and into my pelvis because of the damage done to my nerves there. Curiously, it affects my muscle definition. My left quad looks carved from marble, like an ancient statue of an Olympic athlete poised for action. Clearly defined are three layers of muscle in taut relief. My right quad has no definition at all, even though it has been worked as much as the other.

My general fitness is much better. The last couple of months have been good to me in that regard. I’ve walked much longer and further than before and pushed myself harder. As a result, my body has toned, and the shape has returned. The muscle I lost from my shoulders and chest have come back. This time last year, I looked like a rugby player. Today, I have the build of a swimmer with the trunk of a woodcutter.

I work hard to build and maintain that. Six months ago, I was capable of very little – so tiny that it was disconcerting. Now I do push-ups and crunches daily and am steadily improving. In this regard, I feel pretty functional – and probably have it over most men my age.

Many of the indicators that worried me have recently improved considerably. My resting heart rate when sleeping was around 80. Now it’s about 70, and I hope to get it down into the low sixties, where it was before all this treatment. I’m sleeping much better than before, though I dream too much.

Then there’s my face. It’s not so bad, considering, and much better than I expected. I still retain a form of attractiveness – a strong jaw, high cheekbones, clear, direct blue eyes, good hair, and the bearing and attitude of forthright honesty. All the same, I’m marked. My nose is slightly askew, and the surgery and the missing teeth mean that the right side of my mouth has a small sneer. There’s still some swelling, though it’s barely discernible, but curiously, my left cheek is puffier than it was before, perhaps as some referred swelling. It used to be more sharply defined with the hint of the concave – now, my face is less oval and more round in general, though I’ve slimmed down. I’ll never win beauty contests, though I still look pretty youthful.

The time will come when the waiting is over. It will be a relief and a release from a state I’m eager to end.


The best thing that happened to me last week was catching up with an old friend when I was in Sydney on Monday.

We had arranged to meet up at the Coogee Pavilion after work, near where he lives. I reckon we hadn’t seen each other for about ten years, though we occasionally catch up occasionally and are FB friends. I hadn’t had a proper conversation with him in all that time, and there was a lot to catch up on.

He arrived a few minutes after I did with a big smile on his face and embraced me. He’s a 6’3″ Swede, blonde and fit. We’re almost exactly the same age and have much in common in history, experience and attitude. We’re old-school types, honest and forthright and like a good laugh.

He knew all about my cancer from my FB posts. He was curious, naturally, and sympathetic. I ran through the story deadpan.

To my way of thinking, he has just about the perfect life. He was like me before, a traveller and a seeker of experience. He was in no hurry to settle down and lived the good life while achieving a lot. About a dozen years he finally married and then had a daughter. He loves his home in Coogee and is one of those odd types who go for an ocean swim every Saturday. His wife joins him.

He picks his work now, contracting himself out as a project manager. He’s top-notch, calm and exact. He told me his wife was the primary breadwinner, and they had everything they needed. He’d just returned from a trip to Sweden to visit his parents.

That’s how I expected my life to go if you’d asked me fifteen years ago. I lived well, eating out, travelling OS every year, meeting interesting people, and challenging myself with work. I was doing well and had a rich life – lucky, really. I was in no hurry to move on, but I definitely wanted to settle down with someone who understood and loved me. I wanted children. I imagined a comfortable life. I reckon I might have been ripe for it about the same time my mate married, except my life had diverged unexpectedly and in an unwelcome direction by then.

I felt a little wistful seeing my friend again. He had what I wanted – perhaps, what I should have had. They’re lost years for me, compounded by the cancer I suffered through. I have a deep-seated sadness over that – over what might have been. It’s full in me, but it’s remote because I can’t go back and change it. I accept the way it is.

Swings and roundabouts. I don’t know who I’d be now had I continued down that path. I am this person instead. Either way, I’d have gotten sick.

What I’ve got now is an awareness I might not have needed otherwise. Being sick with cancer is a big reason for that because the nearness of death highlights the things you have and don’t have. I don’t know how it happens, but I know that my friend can be an inspiration still for what can be. The years I lost are gone, but I can claim and make use of the time that’s left to me.

Resisting the matrix

Now that it’s Saturday morning, I can look back on the week with a feeling of acceptance that was absent throughout it.

A lot happened. I was in Sydney for the start of it and it was interesting and a good diversion and I came back with my head full of conflicting ideas. Through the midweek, there was the sobering medical news, which culminated in confirmation that both my hearing and eyesight has declined, and I have a cataract thanks to the radiotherapy.

Towards the end of the week I experienced frustration with work. I had returned from the conference with a clear idea of the way forward that was at odds with the prevailing thinking. The more I looked at it, the more certain I became.

No part of me is a dilettante. I’m rational and logical, but I’m also passionate and committed. I want to be in the thing I do. I have great faith in my powers of analysis and have learned to trust my talent. It may sound immodest, but I stand by my judgement because I have looked deeper and with a critical perspective.

For a moment I was caught up in what I concluded. I was in a position to influence, but not change things. I’m as near as anyone to being a subject matter expert, but my expertise is secondary to the status quo. It’s easier to do nothing than it is to do something.

Logically, I sit here today as near as certain that my take is correct, but I’m almost certain that nothing will change. I spent much of the week examining the issue and driving the point. I was busy with calls and emails and speaking to people. I could not accept doing nothing: and this is why.

I had a sense of righteous certainty that translated into frustration and mental agitation. I had been drawn into it, as I’m prone to be, by wanting to achieve something that was right and the challenge of overcoming the obstacles in my way. I admit, there is much of the purist in me in those moments – the evangelist that will brook no contradiction. The idealist in me takes over from the pragmatist.

I will continue to prosetlyse my case, because it is the right thing to do, but I have come down from my high horse. By the end of the week I felt discouraged and cynical. I felt sour with the belief that nothing would change, no matter the overwhelming case to do so. I questioned my purpose. Then, randomly, the thought occurred to me: I’ve been drawn back into the matrix.

What does that mean? It’s the realisation that this isn’t really what I want to do. This is not the person I want to be. I’d been caught up in the battle, unable to see past it.

It’s fine to care and to be passionate, but I know well in the scheme of things that the outcome of this little battle means nothing. And I knew in that moment that there’s something personal in this: I don’t like to be thwarted, not when I’m right. But then, it matters little really. And I remembered, as I stepped away, this is not the life I choose.

There is food for thought in the months ahead. I’m almost certain that this isn’t the place for me long term, but I have to be patient in the meantime and accept what I cannot change.

There are likely changes ahead, as mooted a couple of weeks ago. Things are restructuring and there’s clearly a cost-cutting drive in progress. For every three people who leave, only two are replaced. Those remaining are placed under unreasonable pressure. New managers will likely bring different priorities and agendas. There may be opportunities there, but just as likely are dead-ends.

I’m well regarded professionally, but I suspect also seen as someone insubordinate to titles and policies (which is true – I aim to be honest to myself and speak out when I think it’s due, regardless of audience. I think that’s as it should be.) From a distance, I seem a hard man. Closer, an affable and considerate colleague. I know I have some strong advocates in the business who value my perspective, work ethic and ability. And, in my area, there’s no one who comes close to my level of knowledge.

How much does that count? Probably quite little. No one is irreplaceable, even when it’s damaging to do so. The water closes over very quickly and soon it’s as if you were never there. It’s the way of things.

It’s good to remember that. The world moves on. So do you. I’m never going to be less than committed, and I don’t want to be, but if I’m to continue in this line of work it’s probably with an organisation better aligned to my values and energy. The question to be answered is if this is the line of work for me still, and if there’s anything else I can do?

I’ll know the answer to that in the fullness of time. Now, it’s time for coffee with a friend.

Staying the course

Sometimes I feel as if my whole life now is about my condition and everything else is pretend. I’m busy with treatment and seeing specialists and otherwise mitigating the symptoms and trying to get stronger. The rest is filler.

At those times, I feel stuck in a melancholy loop I can’t escape. I realise the true state of my condition and what it means for my life, as it is. There are moments it feels unreasonable and unfair. As in the cliche, I even wonder ‘why me’? It passes very quickly, but I know I’m marked forever now.

I get told quite often how strong and resilient I’ve been. There’s admiration for how I’ve survived and seemingly pushed through the pall of darkness that accompanies a diagnosis of cancer.

I’m genuinely modest when people express their respect. What other option did I have, I wonder. All I’ve managed to do in the end is to survive. Each day, so far, I’ve woken up.

But when I feel the all-consuming nature of my condition, I begin to understand more. It’s like the curtain is thrust aside for a moment, exposing the ugly reality. The trick has been to keep the curtain closed because to reveal what’s behind it does no good. Resilience is needed to stay the course and to keep going when those moments come, and when the hum of what lies behind the curtain cannot be ignored.

My hyperbaric treatment has finished, which means I can resume a more normal routine. As I keep proclaiming, I get stronger and fitter all the time, and am powerfully motivated to continue the trend. I’m often reminded, however, of what I don’t have.

I’m back home after a couple of days in Sydney for a conference. It was a very busy time and I was involved in, or initiated, a number of important discussions with partners and vendors. My mind went a million miles an hour figuring things out and putting them together. Out of that came a lot of questions.

I felt driven and productive, but I was also reminded of my limitations. Speech is more difficult sometimes, especially when I’m tired. I become harder to understand at those times, though I think there’s a minor impediment always. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to articulate complex concept’s intelligently. You become self-conscious, hyper-aware that people are hanging off your every word. In places where there’s a lot of background noise, such as a conference, you feel people straining to understand you, leaning in and occasionally asking for you to repeat yourself. Sometimes you can see in their eyes that it’s gone past them altogether.

I feel like screaming then: this is not me! Often, I’m speaking to people who know nothing of my medical history and I wonder what they make of me. I want to explain to them apologetically that I’ve had cancer and unfortunately one of the side effects is how it’s made speaking more difficult. It will pass, I want to tell them, an aberration – please excuse me.

To be clear, unless I’m tired, I’m easily understood in quieter environments and good with simple language. It’s words with multiple syllables I sometimes struggle with.

The other side of that is my hearing. If I’m hard to understand in noisy environments, then it’s true also that I find others hard to understand. Very often these days I practically give up on hearing all the conversation, relying instead on the bits and pieces that make it through to me, and the visual cues you pick up along the way.

The other thing is my eyesight, which has markedly deteriorated. I can still see fine, it’s just fuzzier than it was. I wonder at the timeline of this as I’ve only recently noticed how much it has declined. It will be because of the radiotherapy. I’m getting my eyes tested today.

Yesterday, I had another appointment with a plastic surgeon. This was a senior guy who had the manner of a senior surgeon – that is, I felt like a case rather than a human being.

He examined me, tut-tutted a little, then said I had not healed up as well as he had hoped. He suggested to me an experimental procedure if I was open to it? Basically, they remove fat from some other part of your body – probably my belly – and apply it to the affected area, inside my mouth. The idea is that it will spur growth and recovery. I agreed to it – what else was I to do? It’s only a day procedure.

He was sceptical about further surgery, which was welcome news, except that it means I’m stuck with the current constraints. There’s a piece of bone jutting into the side of my mouth that effects my speech. There’s another hard piece of bone in my cheek – which has no equivalent in the other cheek – which I think prevents me from opening my mouth wide. Both were placed there by surgeons in the major surgery last year (using bone from my hip), and must serve some purpose. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, but clearly they’re staying.

He said my speech may improve and that some of the swelling may diminish. He suggested I consult a speech therapist. It wasn’t completely convincing. Otherwise, he suggested some contraption to help me open my mouth wider.

From what he said, it’s clear that the healing has a fair way to go. They won’t do anything of significance in any case until it’s properly repaired. He explained that the radiotherapy basically zapped the skin and bone to just this side of dead. It was necessary to kill the cancer, but the fallout was everything I’ve been experiencing.

Bottom line is, as I’ve said before, there’s a way to go yet. I just have to be patient and accept it.

PS as I’ve written this I’ve had a call from the optometrist inquiring why I’m booking an eye test so soon after my most recent? I explained that I’ve had cancer since then and my eyesight has deteriorated. There was a pause then, quite familiar to me now, as that was digested and she formulated the appropriate response.

I understand and I’m sympathetic, but I hate this. On the one hand I want people to know to explain my symptoms – to excuse them, as such, and set them aside – but on the other hand I don’t want to be pitied or made to feel different or special. I don’t want this thing to define me, yet the reality is that it is the defining fact of my present existence.

End of the day, this is something my body has suffered, but the man inside that body remains. I’m strong and smart and determined. I’m hard at it, and perhaps there’s even a harder edge to it these days to prove I’m no different, to defy the common narrative.

It’s an interesting journey.

Travelling north

I’m writing this from my hotel room at the Hilton in Sydney. I’m up here for a conference, due to commence in about 45 minutes.

I was in the back of a taxi by 7am to travel to the airport – just short of an hour from my place. At that time of the morning the light is feeble, with the sun not long risen, and the traffic relatively sparse.

It was a familiar experience. Sitting in the back of the car watching the streets and suburbs go by as the city slowly rouses to a new day is a unique experience if you have the leisure to enjoy it. There’s an additional edge to it when you’re on the way to the airport and know that soon you’ll be in a different place altogether.

I bore myself every day lately staring at the ceiling from inside my hyperbaric chamber, but it’s much different when you’re in motion and have a destination in mind. It was a pleasant trip, even with the jangling, repetitive Indian music in the background.

The airport was chaotic and I was glad that I only had carry on luggage.

Every trip away I set myself to go with the smallest possible bag, stripping things to the bare essentials. There’s a Spartan pride in achieving that, but mostly I give it up halfway through wondering what the point of it is. I get more spacious bag then, squeeze a few extras into it and leave enough room for anything I might pick up while I’m away.

This time I’m only gone for a night and so it was the smallest bag I packed – a change of clothes, a toilet bag, a few odds and sods, and that was it. I took my iPad, but not my laptop.

I was surprised sitting in the airport lounge that such frugality is uncommon. Many travellers had full on bags, clearly exceeding the published limits, but ultimately allowed. Some had more than one such bag.

While I was there, a traveler sitting a couple of seats away took ill. He was placed on oxygen, and eventually we were cleared out and a screen was wheeled in to hide him from prying eyes – like a horse that was to be put down, I couldn’t help thinking.

Ill health seems to be following me these days.

The flight was uneventful. I had a window seat and looked out the window with my headphones on. It was a pretty site.

The clouds seemed to have divided into separate rows at 45 degrees to the direction we were taking. It was very distinct so much so that I wondered how they were formed. They fluffy types, through which I could see the earth below.

We passed over townships and hamlets, over cleared land and low hills covered in thick scrub. Roads intersected here and there, as did creeks and rivers taking their winding course, and once a gorge.

What a mighty land, I thought. I think this every time I fly out of the country when it takes hours until we reach the far shore, after traversing all manner of strange and beautiful land below.

It’s rare I think it on the hour flight from Melbourne to Sydney, but as I looked down at these passing scenes I realised there were so many places in my own country I would never get to, and so much I would never see up close.

In the distance. I wondered if it were an illusion initially. Beyond the striped clouds was a pale blue I thought might be some trick of the light. I don’t ever recall travelling so close to the coast on this trip, but obviously our route was more southerly than normal, for as we went on it became clear that it was the ocean.

Beyond was a bank of low, thick cloud that looked like a great shelf of ice – as if the Antarctic had been towed north. It was a majestic sight.

I must go now. Pretty myself up for the conference and gird my professional loins for the serious conversations ahead. I have to change my pants, from jeans to bloody chinos with a jacket. Dress code is smart casual, which is the Muzak of the fashion world. I’d rather wear a proper suit than look like a dad trying to look hip. Needs must, however. I’ll be back.

Walking on

As I was leaving the hosp[ital this morning after my treatment, I stood at the lift doors when they opened, and a man started to exit. When he realised it wasn’t the ground floor, he stepped back, confused, and I entered, brightly asking, “going down?”

It was hard to judge his age. I tend to do it taking myself as a reference point, but even given my recent travails, I’m more sprightly than many and certainly look a good deal younger than all but a few of the same age. Considering that, I’d estimate he was around my age or a couple of years older.

He was thin and bent, clutching at the handrail in the lift for support. He had wispy grey hair and a thin grey beard. He turned to study me as the lift doors closed. “You sound jolly for a man leaving hospital,” he said.

There was no judgement in the comment, nor even curiosity, really. In part, I think it was a reflection on his own condition compared to mine – he had a walker – but he took some reassurance from it also, I think, as if to say, good onya mate.

I don’t know if I was jolly – or if I could ever be described as jolly – but I was feeling pretty bright. I hadn’t realised until he said it, but I saw myself as he must have, seemingly healthy and full of vigour, a friendly tone to my voice, striding into the lift after him. “I’m jolly because I’m leaving the hospital,” I told him.

I got on at the second floor, and it took no time to get to the ground floor. We exchanged a couple of extra pleasantries and wished each other a good day. I was fairly certain that my day would be better than his, and perhaps the weeks and months ahead also. Not for the first time, I blessed my good fortune. There’s nothing like visiting a hospital to appreciate how many desperately sick people there are.

It was cool, but the sun was out. On impulse, I turned left instead of right as I left the building and walked down to the French restaurant near the corner. I ordered a flat-white to go, and the tall, slender French girl served me, smiling and friendly as she has been each time I’ve visited. I left and started towards the station.

I have headphones on while travelling on the train and to and from the station. With noise reduction switched on, I feel like I’m in my own little world, which is welcome in the cold mornings. I occasionally listen to music, but mostly it’s an audiobook I listen to pass the time. That was the case today.

It’s a well-worn route by now – this is my seventh week of treatment. Next week is my eighth and final week. I’ll be very grateful for the end of it, but the best part is when I’m heading home. Mostly I listen to my book and whatever thoughts in my head pass through without lingering long. For some reason, it was different today.

I thought of the man in the lift. I saw him as an individual and hoped his story would end well. Often, coming and going from the hospital, I’ll see patients in their robes, attached sometimes to a wheeled contraption, outside taking in the fresh air and activity or, alternately, having a cigarette. I always feel fortunate that that’s not me. Thinking of the man today, I felt grateful for what I have.

I don’t know how or why, but I then recalled, very vaguely, a woman I went out with many years ago. She had cottoned on me after getting all the details of my birth and doing my chart – she dabbled in that stuff. Her analysis proved that our stars were almost literally entwined. She proclaimed us a great match, which was the primary reason she had latched onto me. It was in the stars. Needless to say, it wasn’t.

Then, as I passed by a street, a nagging memory came to life. I’d gone out with a cute lawyer for a while and should have made much more of the relationship than I did. Walking to and fro all these weeks, I felt sure she had lived around here, and suddenly. It was the street I was passing where she lived.

I remembered her again. She was intelligent and attractive. A good type. I knew I should make a go of it, but I was coming off a recent disappointment, and my heart wasn’t in it. She’d have been good.

I walked on. That’s life. You walk on.


The routine these days is pretty simple. I’m up early and out of the house by 7am. I get the train to Prahran, where I walk to the hospital. I’ll be there for about two hours before the return journey begins. I hope to be on the 10.30 train and home at around 11.

Once home, I fire up the heating and sit in front of my desk to do my allotted hours of work. Unfortunately, that’s where I run into trouble.

It’s hard to adequately describe my almost complete disinterest in work these days. It was different a few months back when I worked fewer hours and was full-on trying to fix a project going off the rails. I grumbled a bit, but I was pretty engaged. It was a decent challenge, and I felt some ownership of the outcome. Finally, though, the project was fully implemented, and outside a few housekeeping issues, we’re in BAU – and it feels so fucking mundane.

I probably felt this before but put it to one side. It was different when we went into the office because there were other distractions and because you would work with others on these things. I still work with others, but the connections are much weaker. And the big thing is that I’ve survived cancer. A lot of things seem a bit pale after that.

The challenge now is to hang in there. It might get a bit more exciting in a month or two when some new projects come online, but until then, I have to push myself. I know this isn’t the long-term answer, but I just need to get through to January for now, which is when my LSL kicks in. All bets are off after that.

There’s a possibility that things might change before then. Both the head of the department and the head of digital have either left or are leaving. No replacements yet. That comes after a new CEO started a few months back. It means that many things could change, and some undoubtedly will.

There may be a new broom going through the place generally, but regardless, you can be sure that the new appointments will have their own agenda and priorities and possibly new direction. What we do, how we do it, and who does it may change. A restructure is possible, but at the very least, I expect there’ll be a review.

Out of this, there’s the possibility that people will choose to leave or be asked to. New management like to put their stamp on things. What that means for me, I’m not sure.

I’ve been around for a while, as has my TL, and that probably makes us a little vulnerable. But maybe all that happens is that we get switched from Marketing to IT. I’m not too concerned. If they want to offer me a package, then I’ll consider it, depending on what the number starts with. Then again, they may be wary of giving the guy with cancer his marching orders. I reckon it will become more apparent by November. They’ll want it sorted by Christmas.

Next week I’m going to Sydney for an AI conference. Given how rampant Covid is, I gave reasonable consideration to pulling out – but it’ll be good to get away, and it might be interesting. It could be good networking also.

While I’m there, I’m catching up with an old workmate I haven’t seen for over ten years. Had we lived in the same city, we’d have become great mates. He’s Swedish and was head of practice when I was in IT Consulting. We’re very alike – independent-minded, like a good time, affable, amiable and hard nosed. He’s married now, has a young daughter, and lives in Coogee, where we’re meeting. It’s where I lived when I was a bub.

Maybe I’ll have a chat with him about work. He was always a great advocate for me and a very generous character. It will be good to have a few beers with him.

Take a ride

Thinking more about religion, I’ve always been quite mistrustful of the Catholic church while having a sneaky admiration for the ritual and ceremony with which they did things. Church should be a place of spiritual mystery, somewhere believers could go and be immersed in the lore of the religion. In this place, they give themselves over to a higher being.

Confession is part of that, I think. Enter with us, give yourself over, and open up for a chance of absolution…

I don’t know when it happened, but the Roman Catholic church cottoned onto the principle many centuries ago while the Protestant church quite deliberately set itself apart. Minus the frills and the mumbo jumbo of Latin liturgies, austerity was a more direct route to God, or so it went.

It was a reaction to the greed and intolerance of the Catholic church that had Luther nail his theses to a church door all those centuries ago. The church theocracy was out of touch with the devotion of the common man, caught up in its persecutions and building an empire of God within Europe and beyond. It had moved beyond the simple teachings of Jesus and become a thing unto itself, powerful and wealthy and corrupting its nature to sell indulgences to those who could afford it.

It’s no wonder that Protestantism caught on among the poor and powerless, the devout who were denied a simple passage to heaven because they couldn’t afford to pay for it. It led to bloody war back then and division since.

I am no theologian, though I find theology interesting. I’m not even a believer. I have a simpler view of devotion because I’ve slipped the ties of religion.

I have a visceral – even sensual – reaction to the trappings of the Catholic church, but not for a minute do I believe it truly reflects the life of Christ. Can you imagine if Jesus was among us today that he’d wear the robes of a priest?

The Jesus we know from the bible was humble and generous. He shunned wealth and lived simply. He was kind, gentle and self-sacrificing. He didn’t go about in finery. He didn’t seek power, though he might have had it. Instead, he preached tolerance and peace. He embraced the poor and the powerless. He healed the sick. He accepted one and all.

What is the true message of Jesus Christ? From my outsider’s perspective, it appears that the church is all about faith and devotion, but the message and meaning of Jesus are lost along the way. Go to church on Sunday, sing your hallelujah, and come out feeling good about yourself.

In a just world, what need is there for a fine church around you to show your devotion and belief? Belief should be something private, held close in your heart and sincerely felt – and I say that as a non-believer.

I think that misses the point of religion as it’s used today. It’s on bumper stickers and t-shirts, and God has his own 1-800 number. There’s nothing shy or personal about it. That’s a cynical view, but then I don’t know how many good churchgoers and Christians I’ve come across who are nasty pricks of the worst type. They say that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel – well, I think it applies equally to the self-proclaimed religious, though often it’s the first stop.

Back when I looked at it, I was drawn to the Franciscans because they seemed nearer to God. Unlike other orders, it seemed they preached and lived by principles closer to the teachings of God. They took a vow of poverty and sought to do good for others.

Still, it’s a tad histrionic to a plain man like me. You don’t need to be a signed-up Christian to do good things, and much of the Catholic church seems outlandish. I think it’s perverse, if not destructive, that priests take a vow of chastity (and the cost of that is clear). I can think of nothing worthy of sacrificing your God-given individuality, though I suppose that’s the point – the same way that nuns become brides of Christ, servants of church and God. I pity the sacrifice.

Like so much, it’s marketing, particularly the Catholic church. Tradition, ritual, mystery and lore – it’s a rich mix that should signify something of meaning. Yet, Jesus was not one for these accoutrements. His message was simple and intimate. The church has added layers to that until true meaning is lost in the ceremony. It’s a theme park – you pay your money, you take your ride, and at the end of it, you’re blessed by God.

I wonder what he thinks of it.

Why belief?

A couple of months ago I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and really enjoyed. I’d bought the book and tried to read it about 30 years ago but then set it aside, deterred by the dense prose and the many digressions. I had no problem with that this time, and found many of the digressions exploring religious sects and controversies of the time utterly fascinating. It led me to believe that these are things I should know more of – like so many things I should know more of.

By chance, it appears that much of my recent reading has a religious aspect. I made mention a few weeks back of a novel I was reading of 1950’s Ireland that touched upon the religious divide. I’m reading a book now that is similar, set in Ireland during the troubles post WW1. (And another set during the English reformation).

This is fascinating to me from many angles.

To start with, to read of these things from within an Australian society that is modern and secular to the point of being irreligious, is a foreign experience. Religion has played no part in my life. I’ve never been to a church service that wasn’t a funeral, a wedding or a christening. I have an intellectual and historical interest in it, but feel nothing holy.

It’s never really played a part in our public life, either. There have been powerful religious voices, and our most recent PM tried to bring Christianity into the conversation, but it’s never taken here as it has in other place’s. I think that comes down to the nature of Australians – we don’t like to be lorded over or told what to do. And, somehow, we lack that holy need – the thing that draws man to god. We’re practical and independent and believe in the things we can do. It’s both a positive and a limitation.

Whether it’s by nature or nurture, I take a cynical view of the religious infrastructure and am wary of its power. Throughout history there’s been a long tradition of corruption in the church. Popes have feathered their own nest and sponsored violence, while cardinals and the like have acquired wealth and influence in the service of their own ambition. Then there’s the terrible and cynical abuse that priests have perpetrated upon their vulnerable brethren.

It’s a broad brush, I know, and there have been many devout and sincere holy men doing their best to uphold the true meaning of their belief. Often times, through history, they’re the ones who have been persecuted by the church. I’ve spoken to church leaders and found their faith endearing, even if I couldn’t share it.

I’ve wondered if that made me cynical, or if it came down to individual belief. I’m a democrat to my core, and by that I believe in equality and frown upon privilege. We each are deserving of an equal chance, but I believe in individual responsibility. I don’t need or want anyone telling me how to conduct myself, and I won’t believe in something I can’t.

My view is that you don’t have to be a churchman to be a decent human being, and wearing a cassock or a collar to do right by your fellow man. You don’t need a book or teachings or belief in a higher being to be a good man, it should be innate. By my observation, some churchgoers are the least charitable.

Ultimately, I just can’t believe it. I don’t doubt the historical basis for any religion, just the meaning given to it. We crave a higher meaning to give purpose and shape to our lives, and so we invent – or conflate – something we can humble ourselves before.

I’ve never felt any such need. I would be pleasantly surprised to find there is a God – I’m not against the idea. Given what I’ve gone through lately, I’d vote for a heaven also. I don’t judge anyone for their belief, though I do their actions. What you choose to believe in is your business.

But now I’ve digressed. If it wasn’t already clear, I’m an atheist who’d happily be an agnostic. I don’t believe in the church and am sceptical of organised religion generally. I was christened a Protestant, though by blood on my father’s side, I’m Catholic – Irish Catholic.

This I find interesting reading some of these books. If my family had never left Ireland all those generations ago I’d have been a Catholic and doubtless drawn into the troubles. Though I care less about the religious divide, as a democrat I feel sure I’d have become involved on the republican side. I don’t care where it is, I’m almost always going to take the side of the oppressed – and fighting for home rule seems the most worthy of causes.

It’s a curious thought, and an easy view to take sitting comfortably in secular, sophisticated Melbourne when nothing is on the line. I accept that. It’s easy to rage. To do is a different thing, and nothing more than a hypothetical in this environment.

If it counts for anything, we debated Australia becoming a republic at the dinner party last week. The boys were for it, the girls ambivalent or against it. I was predictably fierce. It will come.

What lies ahead

So much has changed in recent years, in the world and in my life. By necessity we’ve been made to adapt. I don’t remember more uncertain times than those we live in now, with Covid, climate change, and political turmoil becoming the standard we must bear up against. In so many ways, the outlook is bleak. The carefree days of my youth seem far away. But then my youth is past too, and besides all the global currents swirling about us, there is the personal. In my case, it’s cancer, though it goes beyond that.

Life is forever changed and I don’t know when or if it will settle into a new way or if it will remain forever changing. The best we can do is to shape our life to find pleasure and comfort where it still remains.

This morning I woke without having to rush out the door to the cold and dark. I had my coffee, then I read in bed. This is a small thing but gives me pleasure. It feels civilised and even normal. It’s good for me.

I feel myself very much in a state of transition because of my health. As I get better, the demands on me will become less and I will be able to do more. My outlook has shifted, though it remains unclear which way satisfaction lies. My claims are small for now.

I want to live like this, I know. I want to wake leisurely and approach the day slowly. I imagine a life where I read more, not just for pleasure, but for elucidation. There’s so much I don’t know and I want to expand into the space that reading opens to me. With reading comes thought. They are intertwined. I want to read and I want to think.

There are other things and they are similarly small, and familiar. It’s been years since I travelled properly. I must get back to it. It is another way of being opened up, and another way of thinking.

I’m sure writing will play a part. For the last couple of months I’ve been hard at it after doing nothing when I was ill. It serves an important purpose for me. It’s a way of exploring my mind and of bringing the things held inside me to the surface. It’s easy to argue that it’s another way of opening up. Though it’s hard work, and sometimes torturous, it gives me pleasure.

I don’t want to be alone doing this. I feel ready and able to open myself to that also, and there appear possibilities. What makes it difficult is that I’m not one to compromise. I don’t need companionship. I’m independent and self-sufficient without even trying – perhaps, too much so. It must be a meeting of minds and hearts, as well as bodies. It must be true and real. I want, as one long ago girlfriend described it, someone to steal horses with.

I can be assure of that when I get a dog again. I missing having a partner in crime.

Work, career, money – that’s more difficult. I may want something different, but I’m not in the position where I can change careers so easily. I have to figure this one out. So much of it is banal to me, but I need to make a living – and it’s more important now than ever before.

On the way back from the hospital yesterday I passed by a terrace house for sale in Greville street. I stoped to check it out. It appeared lovely – just my sort of home. I had a moment of sadness knowing I was on track for this until everything turned bad. Now it appears far out of reach – it is far out of reach.

I walked away refusing to accept that. I couldn’t stomach the melancholy reality of that defeat. I must find a way, I thought. And that’s true in many ways. I’ve been corralled by circumstance towards a certain path, but I refuse to take it. I must find a way of changing that, and I’m clever enough to do that.

There’s a lesson in that my illness has made me see more clearly. What makes me different? If you prefer, what are my strengths?

This was one of the party games we played the other night. Describe yourself in three words. Initially, we started with one. Mine was ‘formidable’. After some thought my three words were intelligent, independent and resilient.

Others may see it differently, and it’s hard to narrow it down to three words when each of us is an admixture of attributes all blended together.

These seem the essence of me, however. I might say I’m kind and generous or Im thoughtful and sensitive, that I’m strong or I’m proud, imaginative and creative, articulate and inquisitive, and so on. I think it boils down to this, though: I will keep going, and keep going my own way. And I’m smart.

These are the attributes I have to exploit. I can’t just accept them – I have to use them.

There’s not much I can do about the world about me except lend my weight and my voice when it’s called upon. To find a way forward for myself is a matter of finding pleasure where I can and designing a life around it. To make that possible, I must position myself as a thought leader. I’ve done things all my life, but now it’s time to guide others to do things.

All of this is conjecture still. There’s a lot to play out, and much dependent on my recovery. I’m approaching the last quarter of my life, however. If not now, then when?