Spit in the eye


A mate and I have been joking about me setting up a meth lab if I get the wrong news this week. I’m no Walter White, and I don’t have a family I need to provide for, but it seems to me that the only sensible response to such bad news is to be bold. If they tell me I’ve got the big C and this is the prognosis, the last thing I want to do is eke out my remaining time timidly. In the face of such a stupendous prognosis, I think you must act stupendously.

I don’t know what that would be necessarily, though I’m pretty safe in saying I won’t be cooking meth. And, even if it is Cancer, it doesn’t have to be terminal – and I’ll do everything in my power to fight it off. But doing the same thing as I’ve always done, counting down to the last day? No way.

They’re brave words, and in reality, it would be a lot tougher than making a few grand statements. Presumably, there would be physical constraints – the illness itself and the treatment for it. And, quite possibly, financial obstacles also. But, I won’t go quietly.

I hasten to add, I don’t think this is something I’ll need to contend with – not yet, anyway. It’s probably foolishness, but I feel more confident all the time that it’s just a papilloma, and the sooner we get it out of me, the better.

It occurred to me in considering all this – and I’m doing a lot of thinking! – why does it take something huge like this to act? Why, when it’s almost too late, do we grasp that to live with meaning that we must act?

I’m hoping this is a wake-up call for me and a shot at a second chance. If I get clear of this, I must try to live a life of purpose. Like most people, I’ve ambled along through life, taking it for granted. I’ve had some great adventures and unforgettable moments and experienced wonder along the way, but so have most people. Unlike most people, I don’t even have the comfort of a close family to make me feel I have achieved something important.

What I’ve become aware – or been reminded of – is that everything has an end date. You know it, but it’s so far away, so vague, that it never registers in you until such a time as this. You realise that everything you see, everything you do, everything you hear and feel, will one day become null and void. On Saturday, walking Rigby, I passed by a construction site, and the aroma of freshly cut timber filled my nostrils. It’s a great smell, but I was conscious that I may not get the chance to experience that much more again.

I’m one of those people who would live forever if they could, from curiosity as much as anything else. I think about the things I’ll miss once I’m gone – the science, the music and literature, the books, the sense of an open world still to be fully discovered. It almost hurts to think these things would go on without me.

I’m probably being melodramatic – that’s what you get with an imaginative sensibility. I think I’ll be lucky. I’ll get that second chance and the opportunity to fully appreciate everything I’ve mentioned – and in a way, that would be a gift.

I can’t commit to anything yet, and though I’m quite relaxed, there’s also a tense expectation in the background. I think I know what I need to do if the news is good, but until I get it, I can’t believe in it too much.

Maybe today.

Body and soul


I want to add this: I feel a form of dissociation in this illness, my mind from my body.

It’s my body that ails, but the I who writes this – the mind if you like, even the soul, the intelligence, the ‘me’ – is a hapless passenger within the body. That ‘I’ can’t live without the body, but I feel separated from it. In this state, I recognise how powerless I am, and with that comes a sense of helplessness. I’m like an observer of my own decline, frustrated that I can do little to prevent it.

This existential split may well be accurate in some way – our body is a vessel animated by the spirit that guides it (though, without complete control) – but it’s foreign to our everyday understanding of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, we accept that what we see is us.

It’s particularly odd for me, I feel, as I’ve always felt such a strong sense of physicality. I’ve felt the brute force in my muscle and bone and considered it a part of my identity. Like many kids, I yearned to grow tall and strong, and when I did, it seemed the vindication of my will and proof of my power. When I was younger, and at my athletic peak, there was something splendid about it, though now I might call it preening vanity.

I’ve felt my strength, nonetheless, in my broad shoulders and chest, in what I could do, in how I could impose myself. Yet, now, no matter that I look as robust as ever, that body ails, and I look upon it.

It now seems so empty – and so illusory. However, the truth is that if my body fails, I can’t separate myself from it. ‘I’ will fail with it.

It brings to mind another dream not so long ago. I am on my deathbed when someone comes with a proposition. They can take my mind and everything that makes me who I am – my memories, attitudes, experiences, and so on – and give it eternal life in the cloud. For all intents and purposes, I will go on, even as my body gives way.

I’m sceptical of it in the dream. Who doesn’t want eternal life? But what is life without the physical means to give it expression? And, is it truly me, is it truly life, when all that is left of me are those intangibles?

It’s an interesting philosophical question, just as at this moment it’s an interesting experience. The body, at least, allows for a sensory experience of the world about us. Without that to interpret, how much of our true identity continues? And, without hope of physical affection, does that not make us a different proposition?

Is there an answer to this? Probably not. I am the mind that ponders these thoughts and conjectures possibilities. There’s no doubt – I think – that it’s my curious mind that defines me as an individual. Right now, it’s that mind that tries to make sense of the gulf I feel between mind and body – and must accept that without one, the other is pointless.

Always gone


I got a message last night from Donna at around 7 saying that her mum had just passed. It wasn’t a surprise. We’d spoken on Friday. At that point, her mum had stabilised and was showing some promising signs. She was still in an induced coma, however, and couldn’t breathe by herself;f. As Donna updated me, I kept thinking about mum and her last days. You want to believe, but the best evidence I had was in my eyes. No matter what anyone told me, I knew mum was on the way out. I asked Donna what her gut feel was. She hesitated before answering that she didn’t think her mum would make it out of hospital.

I haven’t spoken with Donna yet. Last night she was with her family, and this is a deeply personal time. I dropped her a line to tell her I was available anytime to talk if she needed that and any help I could provide.

I remember when mum died. It was entirely expected, and when I heard, I just felt a deep sadness that she was gone. I was like an automaton that morning. The reality is that when someone dies, there’s much that needs doing. I spent most of the morning on the phone, updating family and friends and speaking to the funeral directors.

Some people cried when I told them. Others were quiet and sympathetic. I was controlled. It was in me, but I had set it aside. I remember I heard the news at about 7am on a Saturday. It was too early to call any but the closest of relatives. I made those calls then headed up the road, wanting to get out of the place. It was sunny and blue-skied. I went to a cafe that was empty of people and had coffee and a light breakfast. Then I returned home and to the business at hand.

In the afternoon, Donna turned up on the doorstep. I was so grateful to her. I was by myself. I’d done most of the things I had to do, but I had no one to talk to. That evening we ended up having dinner at the Thai restaurant around the corner from where mum had lived. We’d been there so many times before over so many years. It had been a favourite. It seemed apt to be there again, though in very different circumstances.

Donna and I exchanged messages this morning. She said how she had been preparing for this moment and how, more than anything, numb she felt. I told her that that’s how I was pretty much all the way to mum’s funeral. I was so busy. I had to do everything. It was easier to keep busy and postpone my grief, though I felt sad.

Then, the funeral came and went in an explosion of movement and colours, tears and laughter and memories, and a house afterwards cluttered with post-wake debris. That’s when it hit me: I felt desolate.

I don’t know what the current arrangements are, but I hope to attend the funeral in support of Donna. Unfortunately, Covid restrictions may prevent that, as well as my medical situation potentially – I see the specialist tomorrow and may be straight into hospital after that for all I know.

For Donna, her life has changed now. She has already said how her mum’s relationship was the most important in her life, and now her mum is gone. I feel for her. I know what it’s like to have such a strong presence stilled, a voice now unheard. She’ll think of so many things she’ll want to share with her mum, and the instinct to call and chat will remain strong for ages to come (I still remember my mum’s phone number).

It’s a hard thing to get your head around, that someone who has always been there will never be there again.

Every day counts


A couple of week’s ago, Donna’s mum went into hospital with what appeared to be heart-related issues. She ended up having surgery. It seemed to go well initially before her mum began to struggle. She was rarely conscious and struggled for coherence when she was. Ultimately, she was put onto oxygen.

Throughout, Donna was worried, naturally. With lockdown, she couldn’t visit her mum as she would have normally, and she had the age-old problem of getting information out of the doctor. We were on the phone with each other every couple of days, and she was updating me by text whenever she could. Then, last Thursday night at 9.30, she received a message from the hospital saying she should come in.

Messages like that are ominous. It’s hard not to believe the worst. She sent me a message as soon as she got it, and I thought, as she did, that maybe it meant this was it.

Donnas’s mum is 83. At some point, it will be it, but she’s had a fair go. That doesn’t make it any easier. Losing your mum at any time is hard, and it will be particularly devastating for Donna. It will turn her life upside down and loosen the remaining family ties, I expect.

I won’t say this is a triggering event for me, but it certainly brings back memories of my mum and the loss I suffered. As we spoke, I would reflect on that, and Donna – fully conscious of my loss (she loved my mum) – would draw on that. This is something we could share.

It made me think about the stages of life we all go through. There’s a stage when all our friends are getting married. Then there’s the stage when they have their first child. After that, we go through the big anniversaries and milestones together – the 40th and 50th birthdays and the random momentous events outside of that. We’re at the stage now when our parents begin to pass away. Cheeseboy lost both of his in the last 9 months. Donna’s mum is ill now, and her father already gone.

This is something I thought about, feeling a little cheated. My mum, a healthy, energetic type who might have lived to a hundred otherwise, was instead denied life prematurely by the big C. I feel as if I was robbed of ten years at least – crucial years as it turns out, years that might otherwise have been filled with love and affection. But death is a part of life.

At some point, the stage will be when friends and acquaintances themselves begin the final stage of life. I remember my grandparents and how they would check out the death notices and obituaries in the newspaper every day. It seemed awfully morbid to me, but I imagine there must come a time when it becomes very relevant. They’ve long since gone. One day it will be my contemporaries. One day it may even be me.

In the meantime, Donna’s mum is hanging in there. She’ll be in hospital for a while, and there’s a chance she may not make out of there. She survived the latest crisis, though, and, last time I heard, was on the improve. I’m hoping for Donna, but I’ve heard the story before. A terminal relapse is not uncommon, but on the other side of that, she could live another ten years. Every day counts.

Emotional scurvy


It rained yesterday afternoon, and the sky was dim and dark long before night fell. The evening was standard for me. I had some dinner and flicked through the TV stations before settling down to watch a couple of episodes of Mare of Easttown.

It was only just on 10 when I finished watching, and I thought I’d go to bed and spend an extra hour reading. I was due for a new book, and there was nothing in my bookbag, so I went into my study to survey my bookcase. I had it in mind to return to an old favourite for a change.

I looked through the shelves, assessing options. You want a book to suit your mood. Sometimes that’s serious fiction; sometimes it’s something more escapist. I plucked one book from the shelves and considered it a moment before recalling I’d recently caught a glimpse of the (poor) movie made of it in the seventies. I put it back, leaving until the memory faded.

The books on these shelves are my very favourite books. To look at it is to be reminded of times past when you first discovered them – even to recall the occasion when you bought them. You remember the many times you would spend hours in the cloistered environs of a good bookshop, gathering books to buy. There are stories about the stories.

Abruptly, I felt a sense of fury. Standing before all that richness, they appeared to me so many lost moments and promise unfulfilled.

I would read, back then, as if I was an explorer searching for and discovering new wisdom – new to me. I felt enriched by the experience, as if with every book I read, something was being added to me. It seemed a noble thing and, naively it seems, I thought it must mean something. Would it make me a better man? Perhaps not, but it should make me a more rounded one – or so I thought.

All those fantastic hours engaged with a book felt lost to me. They were gone, of the past, and no longer relevant, as was the ethos that led me on. I read more than ever now, but without that glow of enlightenment. And what came of it? Nothing, it seems, not even anyone I can share it with or hand it down to, as I inherited my grandfather’s books.

I went to bed and read a book I found under the bedside table. Throughout, I had this lingering sense of discord. Not dissimilar to the other night, I wondered what the point of living was? You consume to live, whether it be food and beverages, fancy furniture or car, and programs like Mare of Easttown – but where was the higher purpose? Does such exist, or is it just a fantasy?

The funny thing is that as all this goes through my mind, there’s a motif that recurs to me repeatedly. It’s the sense of disconnect I feel between the public and private me. I see myself with others, and I’m always in control, not just of myself, but often the discourse generally. I’m smooth and easy, as if from habit, a strong, resilient, seemingly confident character, turning the conversation whichever way. It’s the person people have come to know and expect of me, and perhaps even admire, but so often these days, it comes to me as something strange.

That control comes easy to me. I don’t need to think about it. I know the tropes and the behaviours are instinctive. It’s not false, but nor is it absolutely true. Why I wondered, does it return to me so gratingly all the time? Is it that I want to relinquish control? But then, I knew, I would try to take it back. Was it exhausting being that way? No, not really. So what? And I thought, it’s because underneath all that there’s a vulnerable human being, but no matter how I ache to do so, I can’t seem to express it.

I’m at a disconnect with myself, and I realised as I lay there I’d become bored with myself – and wouldn’t I be? Nothing is happening.

I don’t believe there’s a meaning to life. If you’re happy to live a safe and happy life, then good for you. It’s not my thing though, never has been. As always, in these moments, I find myself drawn to the edge. It’s what I miss, and the absence of it has been exacerbated by Covid because there’s been nothing to fill the void.

What I need is to live more rawly. I would do that before when I travelled the world, which was a necessary antidote to domestic life. That sense of discovery, and the unpredictability of it, was like a tonic to me. Of course, none of that is possible presently.

And women. There’s a lot to unpack there, but in former times, when I read books for what I could learn from them, women were so much a part of my life. Not one. Sure, I miss the flirtation and all that, as I’ve said before, and the spontaneous and unlikely encounters. Right now, what I miss now is peering into another’s eyes and seeing possibility there. That, and more primitive, life-affirming moments – the teasing sense of anticipation, the first kiss, the amorous fumblings and the snap of elastic on a pair of panties, the moment that you know that yes, I’m here, this is happening, isn’t this good and soon following the absolute surrender to the moment.

Options are limited, but I need the things I do to have some value – to feel as if they’re a part of the journey. Because of Covid, or perhaps not, it feels as if that journey has paused, or I’ve been waylaid. I need to get back to simple experience – not life as observed on a TV screen, but life felt and experienced in the raw. Without it, I feel as if I’m experiencing a kind of emotional scurvy.

Night thoughts


I lay in bed last night with lights out trying to sleep and wondered if I might not be better off giving it all away – job, lifestyle, easy habits, lazy routines. It triggered a reflection – where did it go wrong? And so my mind went back, searching for the moment when I went left instead of right?

They were dire thoughts and the product of pain. My whole mouth ached and throbbed, and I wondered if I would manage to sleep at all. Chronic pain is diabolical because it attacks the mind as much as it does the body. It makes pessimists of all of us. When you can’t get away from it comes to cloud your mind and judgement.

I shouldn’t speak too loud, for I managed to sleep soon after, and mid-morning the day after, I feel better than I have for some time. By now, generally, I can feel the ache resonate through my jaw (it seems to have spread), building towards something I can only manage with painkillers. Today, I have awareness, but it merges into the background if I turn my mind from it. Let’s hope it stays that way and continues to improve.

The day after, I still find myself pondering the scattered and hysterical thoughts of last night. I recognise their provenance, but I still wonder if in extremity there is some wisdom to be gleaned?

Work has been on my mind for many months and the source of anger, frustration and disappointment. To some degree, I’ve also been working under duress – from the psychological impact of my despair and battling the combined physical ailments dragging me back.

The simple thought came to me last night: if it causes you so much unhappiness, why do you keep doing it? It seems a very sensible, clear-headed question to ask. The obvious and conventional response is if not that, then what? I can’t afford to live without working, and who’s to say the next job – or any job – will improve my state of mind? It was a tempting notion last night, though, and it is today also. The answer is: I don’t know.

When you’re feeling crook and having such thoughts it’s easy to get into a depressive spiral. It’s very easy to wonder where it all went wrong. How did I get here? And so, very thoroughly, I went back in memory to find where I took a wrong turn.

It’s very easy to nominate some of the big-ticket events, even though not all of them were in my control. There were things that had a catastrophic impact on my wellbeing – mum’s sad death, being embezzled, the loss of my family, and homelessness ultimately. But mum would have died no matter what decisions I made, and I’d likely have lost the other half of the family just the same. As for the others – who knows?

To my surprise, I happened upon a decision I made back in 2004. I was contract consulting at the time and had just come off a job where I had travelled to Hong Kong and NYC to implement a new finance system for a client and remotely supervised the roll-out in Auckland, Singapore and Dublin. I was lauded for the successful completion, and my name must have gone around the traps, for soon after, I got a call from the head of a consulting firm offering me a job – in Brisbane.

To put it in perspective, I wasn’t the conventionally ambitious type, but I was hungry – hungry to do it my way, have fun, and maintain my individuality. I was a bit of a machine and hard at it, and I wanted riches and fame, but I was also focused on living well and enjoying the journey along the way. I wanted only to do interesting things, to soak up life and experience, and learn. Paradoxically, for a guy without a formal qualification, it was a philosophy that had served me very well.

I probably ummed and ahhed and debated the decision, but it seems to me my mind was made up pretty early. It seems surprising now, but I thought I was making the sensible decision. Sensible! I’d never had any concern for that! I figured once I got into a permanent consulting role, I’d be set. I thought it would underwrite my career from that day forward. It was, I figured, the strategic move – but it was also the conventional move, and that wasn’t my thing.

In reality, I left my family and friends for a (dull) city where I knew no-one, the job was boring, and I suffered under the constraints that professional services place on you – every billable minute, every mercenary concept, and a conservative mindset. I wasn’t made for that – I was better being free-range.

I returned after a year and was glad of it. My career didn’t suffer from it – I went on to flourish and make many more dollars doing things my way before I crashed and burned. You could argue it was no more than a blip in the scheme of things, but it was the wrong call, and I wonder what might have happened had I chosen to stay?

Back in 2021, perhaps I face a similar choice. It feels closer than you think. I have 7 weeks of leave up my sleeve, and just the thought of tossing it in and getting myself right, body and soul, before the next challenge, is enticing.

Stages of life


I finished a book last night, which I think must be the best historical fiction novel I’ve read. Augustus, by John Williams, is the story of the Roman emperor by the same name. It’s told from multiple points of view in letters and diary entries and feels as authentic as anything you’re ever going to get in this genre. I’ve read a few books like this in the past, and though some are entertaining, they generally feel a bit contrived and as if the author is putting words into the mouth of these famous characters.

Williams is doing the same, except that it reads as if these are genuine documents, and each voice unique and individual. It helps greatly that Williams – who also wrote Stoner – is a very good writer. He’s dealing with the historical record – the murder of Caesar, the civil war with Marc Antony, the various controversies and conspiracies of the age – but to re-imagine it so vividly, and with such convincing realism, is a great feat.

If you like this sort of stuff then you should do yourself a favour.

Near the end of the book, Augustus is ruminating in a letter to a friend as he feels his life coming to its close. He reflects on the people he’s known, the friends he’s had and lost, the great moments of history he was part of. He writes as a man, as Octavious perhaps, as he started, rather than the great emperor Augustus history knows him as.

There’s a passage there which feels very true and wise, and resonated with my experience of life to this point:

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”

― John Williams, Augustus

I certainly experienced and felt the full force of the first stage, that as a young man. It’s all about adventure and questing and insatiable appetite and curiosity and proving yourself. Life is a wondrous mystery.

I’m in the middle of the second stage. Parts of life feel tragic. I look back upon my earlier days, and I’m amused by my naivety, though impressed by my idealism and sensual gusto. I wonder at the value – and futility of it all. I’m much more measured, looking at things from the outside rather than within them. I question the point of it.

I look forward to the final stage as described here – seeing life as a comedy. I can believe in this. I feel as if it’s close now and as if I may already have experienced some of this. It would come as a relief to shed the burden of the belief I carry – though that seems harder to believe. It seems to me that if this stage is true, then it explains why they say the last 20 years of life are often the happiest. It’s a letting go.

I don’t think I can ever completely let go – and I don’t think I want to. But then, I’m still in the middle stage.

The thinking man


By chance, I happened across the following quote by Blaise Pascal soon after posting yesterday:

“The human being is only a reed, the most feeble in nature; but this is a thinking reed. It isn’t necessary for the entire universe to arm itself in order to crush him; a whiff of vapour, a taste of water, suffices to kill him. But when the universe crushes him, the human being becomes still more noble than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and the advantage that the universe has over him. The universe, it does not have a clue.

“All our dignity consists, then, in thought. This is the basis on which we must raise ourselves, and not space and time, which we would not know how to fill. Let us make it our task, then, to think well: here is the principle of morality.”

It’s relevant to what I wrote yesterday, how it is thought, awareness,

I write this, yet even in the hours since I wrote yesterday, I have felt the tingling allure of instinct alone. There’s a rawness that is seductive. It is in thrall to age-old reflex and knowledge that feels pure at times: I feel, and I do as I feel.

In times like these, part of it is that it seems unfiltered, uncensored, and therefore more untainted and honest. There’s a physical form to it, at least my experience of it – though I am a sensualist. I can feel it in my bones and muscles, in the stretch and exertion, the strength and bounce, the latent power in me that, in the end, goes beyond the body.

There’ve been occasions that I’ve felt as if I should return to that self – to the animal inside me. When you’re as thought-addled as I am, something as simple as just being can be intoxicating. And on those occasions, I recall the sense of living – being – within my sensations, shining with my pure self and feeling it all the way to my pits.

I always used to say that my life was ruled by a combination of ascetic thought and excessive indulgence, and it would take turns.

What Lawrence wrote of in his book was not addressed directly to that excess (though I think he knew it well), but rather to the pathway to it. The Australians he wrote of possessed the shining health of working beasts – uncomplicated, casually indifferent, possessed of an easy strength, and without the burden of history. That was then perhaps, and explains why in that war and the one that came after the Anzacs were such good soldiers (I am reading a book of Australian war correspondence currently, which is why this analog comes to mind). It seems to me the characters in his book were an extension of the diggers in the trenches – happy warriors with a ruthless, intimidating edge.

Not all of that is true any longer. Nor is there much use for such a character these days. This returns us to what Pascal said and what he claimed as the basis of morality: thought. It’s thought that elevates us beyond the beast of burden; it’s thought that makes a world for us, now and into the future.

To give way to instinct and passion is tempting, but it’s the thinking man this country needs now – as many other countries do also.

Holding back the tide


I’ve just returned from the cafe, where I had two flat whites as I contemplated the world. It’s a lovely morning. It looks like being a lovely day. I headed to the cafe on restless impulse, wanting to break the workday routine. It’s surprising I don’t do it more often now that I’m working from home. I might grab a take-away coffee a couple of times a month, but much less often do I sit down to enjoy one.

I followed on a few work conversations on my mobile while I was there, and otherwise took the time to touch base with people I hadn’t spoken to for a while, sending them messages. Mostly though, I just sat there watching the comings and goings in quiet thought.

It’s something I’m quite adept at. I know many people need to be doing something to feel occupied, but I’m happy to just sit there. There’s always a lot going on in my head, and I’m happy – perhaps too happy – to indulge it.

As I walked in the sunshine towards the cafe, I reflected on how I was still fit and relatively healthy, and to the eye presented a robust figure. For some reason, I thought of a time, 20 years into the future perhaps, when I’m not quite so robust, and when the clothes I wear today would hang off a reduced frame. Though, perhaps not.

It doesn’t seem a happy thought, but there wasn’t much emotion in it. It was more a reflection on the nature of time, of how things change, about transition. It’s in-line with a lot of similar reflections lately, though from a different angle. It seems random, but I think this came to mind today because of my dad, who I spoke to yesterday.

I don’t know how true it is that you grow into your parents. In theory that would mean in 20 odd years, I’ll be the man my dad is today. I’m not sure how true that is in reality. We look alike, more or less, but otherwise, I’ve always been a bigger, more muscular version of him, and though there are other similarities in character, our personalities diverge.

With that said, I remember him as a man of constant motion, not busy but measured, as well as a man of constant motivation. There was a point to everything he did, and his activities directed to an outcome. He had a successful business career, but the abiding mental picture I have of him is bustling around bare-chested and in a pair of shorts busy in the garden, or with some piece of home maintenance.

I hardly see him these days, but the picture presented by his words – and on those few occasions I do see him – is starkly different. Objectively, and statistically, you’d think he has only a few more years in him.

I asked yesterday about his health, and he filled me in, though without complaint. He’s a practical man who doesn’t believe in self-indulgence. He’s getting by well enough, except that for a few years he’s been beset by a range of ailments. He has auto-immune complaints generally, which include chronic arthritis in his legs. He had kidney stones removed last year. He also has Sjogren’s disease, which sounds nasty. He’s not nearly as active or mobile as he used to be, though he remains mentally agile.

You listen to such things and can’t help but wonder if it’s a forerunner of what you, as his son, can expect. Maybe, but I tend to regard it as a warning. It pains me to see him like this, and it feels wrong, though I know that’s how life goes – how time takes us from one state to another. I’m making active efforts to become fitter and healthier lately, and it seems to be working, and it’s fear of that decline that drives it.

When the sun is shining, as it is today, when you feel fit and well, when you’re at your ease sipping on a second flat white, it all seems very distant – and somehow surreal. How does one thing become another? Gradually, is the answer, in ways you hardly notice at the time until one day you look in the mirror.

My ailments have settled down. I feel better, and look it too, and the physical signs are improving. I expect that will continue. From here on in it seems sensible to be more mindful of many things that once you accepted without a second thought. It seems that’s one thing you learn as you go along, though every day has something new.

But there is now. And in the next month I’ll be having lunch with dad, and tomorrow night I’m having cocktails in the city and on Saturday off to a steak restaurant. Things might change, but we always have the moment.

Magic and wonder


I read this morning that the author and naturalist, Barry Lopez, had died.

I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the years. He was a luminescent writer with a keen eye and an open heart. He’s known for his writing on the natural world, but he also wrote more conventional stories. In either case, his prose was sensitive and drew you close inside the essence of the tale.

I think this happens when you have an extreme sensitivity to the world about you – not as something you travel through, but exist within. As a naturalist, he was drawn to detail and understanding context, and the result of that was naturally spiritual.

When you realise that everything has a life and purpose, that the world around us and we within it co-exist within layers of dependencies, then you begin to see a depth of meaning that eludes most of us, most of the time.

I was always found his writing illuminating, and often enlarging. He had a way of showing the wonder in enchanting things. He was one of those writers I would occasionally set aside midway through just to contemplate what I’d just read – to feel it full in me and abundant, to capture some of the truth of it and hold it in me for a while. And that was true for his stories as well as his naturalism.

He was 75, which seems relatively young, but I envy how he saw things, and the delight it must have filled him with.

By chance I’m reading a book by another naturalist right now, Richard Nelson.

He shares with Lopez a lovely lyrical gift of seeing and describing that is almost spiritual. It seems to me to be truly close to the natural world is a humbling and spiritual experience, and it’s there in their words. There’s a weight of meaning that is the very opposite of superficial. In all cases, a forgotten virtue – respect – is essential.

Reading this book, I’m reminded of the years I would go camping with my step-father and hunt for game. Mostly, we’d be far from civilisation. We’d stop in places where we were the interlopers and surrounding us raw nature. I would feel it every time I heard the call of an animal in the night, or see their tracks in the morning, or see the great gusts of cockies fly through the air before settling to cackle at us. The nocturnal thump and scrape, the movement in the bush felt as much as seen. And the owls in the trees looking on, hooting at their desire, and the wedge-tailed eagles majestic high in the blue sky as they circled and swooped.

We visited some out of the way places – out past Narrabri in the hills, the back of Bourke in red soil country, in scratchy brush and drought lands and places green and rugged. Just being there felt eye-opening, because it was a life very foreign to what I knew and understood in the city. I was a sensitive kid, and I felt these things, sitting in the fork of a tree overlooking it, or later by the fire with the scent of wood smoke in the air and deep night beyond the circle of light. Often it felt wondrous and bigger than anything I had ever understood.

There’s a morality to that world you can touch when you’re awake to it. You fit into it. That’s very present in the words of Lopez and Nelson, and most naturalists I’ve read. There’s an innate humility when you realise that life is all around you. I wonder if part of my problem is that I’m feeling an increasing disconnect from that sense of morality.

We live in an age of rampant hubris, and when our arrogance has become so extreme that we are destroying the environment we are part of and killing our future. This is what happens when you feel you are above all life and the environment is there to serve you. This happens when there is no balance or perception, when life is consumption, without magic or wonder.