The mysterious mower and human kindness.

It ended up being a fairly late night last night, and a fairly early morning this morning, and a fairly big day. I’m pretty tired, and I’m sitting here on my lounge listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and drinking beer and looking forward to the fact that tomorrow’s Friday, and sometimes four hundred-odd words seems a lot to write for this blog. According to the document on my computer entitled Blog topic plan, October, I should be writing something specific – but I’m tired, and drinking beer, and ready for an early night and a weekend.

So I’ll write about something else instead.

I got home just after six, tired and hungry and ready for my day to end and my evening to begin. When I pulled into my driveway, I discovered that there was a man in my backyard, mowing my lawn in the evening sunshine.

My first thought was to worry that I’d inadvertantly asked Andrew the Mowing Guy to come and attend to the admittedly rapidly growing lawn, in which case I’d very quickly have to find the money that such a job usually costs. My second thought was to worry that Andrew the Mowing Guy had simply taken it upon himself to cut my grass, in the knowledge that I’d very quickly produce the money that such a job costs. My third thought was that Andrew the Mowing Guy sounded younger than this man looked.

It turned out that the mysterious mower was my next-door neighbour, whom I’ve met only once, when his wife’s shirt blew off their clothesline and over the fence into my yard. He’d been about to mow his grass, he told me, when he noticed that mine needed cutting too. So he’d popped over to cut it.

There’s something quite stunning about human kindness. I actually found myself getting teary. For no reason other than to be nice (he wouldn’t even accept a cup of tea or coffee, let alone a beer, and he brushed off my overwhelmed thanks), my neighbour cut my grass, just because it needed doing. Just because that’s what neighbours do for each other. Just because he’s a gentleman, and a good guy. And when he’d finished, he just walked off, without even giving me a chance to stammer my thanks again. My hunch is that if I’d not caught him in the act, I would have got home to neat grass and not a trace of evidence as to who to thank.

Sometimes the darkness of human nature seems to defeat me: we live in a world where refugee camps are bombed, where torture and death are a searing reality in the lives of so many, where cruelty is such an everyday reality it often goes unnoticed. But we also live in a world where people still look out for each other, still extend a hand of friendship or assistance just because we happen to have humanity in common, where neighbours mow each other’s lawns just to be nice.

Not a bad world to live in, really.

Laughter in a Holden Commodore.

One of the very mixed blessings about now living a way out of town is the drive home. It’s brilliant unwinding time; I can think, I can listen to music, I can plan what needs to be done. Sometimes, I find poems or Haiku or story ideas formulating themselves in my head; at other times I simply delight in the beauty of the countryside I’m driving through.

Sometimes, though, the drive can be an absolute pain. I can take as long to drive the eleven kilometres to the outskirts of Newcastle as I do to drive the remaining twenty-five kilometres home. Sometimes it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and I don’t get out of second gear – although of course city dwellers will, I’m sure, challenge me on my country-driver categorisation of a traffic jam. Either way, it’s the part of the drive I often find tedious.

Today I was chaffing at the bit, just slightly. It hasn’t been the easiest two days at work, and I was tired and wanting to be at home. I was a bit grumpy and I’d almost been run off the road by an idiot in a four-wheel drive who I’m sure was a nice guy just having a bad (driving) day, and it was starting to seem quite unreasonable that all these other selfish people wanted to use the same road as I did when I just wanted to get home quickly.

Until, stuck at one of the most protracted red lights on my drive home, I noticed the couple in the car behind me. A young couple, in a beat-up Holden Commodore. I don’t know what had been going on previously – I’d glanced in my rear-vision mirror to see them talking, pointing out to each other interesting things out of the windows. This time when I glanced back, the man was laughing – helplessly, leaning back in his seat, head thrown back, laughing with complete abandon. The woman had a look of half-amusement, half-indignation on her face and I took it that he was laughing at her; this was confirmed when she threw out a hand and gave him a good-natured shove, flattening him against the passenger-side window. He kept laughing, and she managed to maintain dignified composure for a heartbeat more before conceding defeat; she too started to laugh, and they shared that humour until the light went green and I had to send my attention back to the road in front of me. As I did, I was smiling.

That was all: nothing spectacular, no epiphanies, no psuedo-profound thought; nothing other than two people who like each other enough to laugh at each other, a joking shove absorbed in good humour and not the cause of violent retaliation, and human love in a Holden Commodore.

I’m glad I saw it. And I hope that those two have many more years of disinhibited laughter, mock indignation and joking shoves. The world’s a bit brighter because of it.

Light in a circle of hell.

I’ve spent the day (for work, I hasten to add) at the Magistrates’ Court which serves my local area. Tomorrow, I think I’d rather spend the day in the first circle of hell. Or any circle of hell, really.

Unless a Magistrates’ Court is in fact one of the circles of hell.

These are some things I witnessed:

  • men wearing open-collared shirts and stiff new suit trousers and Converse runners and bad tattoos, their bravado as ill-fitting as the formality of their court attire.
  • women thinned and wizened and aged before their time by hard living and alcohol and weed and too many children and not enough money and the weight of the world on their skin-clad shoulders.
  • a young woman, huddled into her defendant boyfriend, shoulders hunched against the over-heated stuffiness of the air-conditioning and her face tight with tension. She kept touching his hand in her lap, as though to remind herself that he was still there.
  • a conversation between a defendant and his solicitor – “How can I explain to the judge why you did that? You just lost control? And you regret it now, of course?” – while his mother watched anxiously in her best clothes, twisting the strap of her green leather-look handbag around and around in her fingers. Later I watched her coming out of one of the courtrooms, alone but for the solicitor. “Six months,” she kept saying, as though that would somehow force this new reality of her life to make sense. “Well, it was a serious offence,” he said gently, and his face was tired and his eyes were sad.
  • a child, a little girl, barely more than four, playing quietly in the waiting area while her mother waited to have her own charges heard. (“What am I looking at? Four to eight months? Jesus, can’t you get me off?”) She alone of all of us was an innocent, untouched by the world’s darkness, looking people in the eye – the most alive creature in that place – and yet when her mother’s frustration erupted in a push that cracked the little girl’s head against the wooden doorframe, she was completely unperturbed by the sudden and – to her – unprovoked assault. Already, this little being is impervious to the violence which will almost certainly mar her life.

I left the courthouse reeking, in my mind, of the stench of human misery, human despair, which clung to my skin. Now, after a hard workout and a shower and a glass of juice and Beethoven’s first symphony on the CD player, I’m trying to remind myself that there’s light in all the darkness I saw today. The gentle, tired sadness of the solicitor and the innocence of the child, the love of the mother and the girlfriend, whatever idealism or determination which keeps the Legal Aid solicitors at their battered formica tables in the windowless, unadorned room they’re allocated. And there’s light in the fact that each of those human souls trapped in that place – whether they left under their own steam or in the back of a prisoner transport van – is a sacred manifestation of the Divine, loved beyond their capacity to understand by a Creator they may never know, but Which holds them, passionately, in the safety of Its arms.

And there it is. That’s the light in the darkness I was looking for.

Suicide Prevention Day, small things, and a little flicker of light.

I was going to write a post on a whole different topic tonight – it involved liquorice – but today is World Suicide Prevention Day, something I (to my slight shame) only discovered when I logged into Facebook just now.

World Suicide Prevention Day.

I’m tired, and it’s only Wednesday but it’s been an incredibly long week, and despite my best intentions, a book and wine happened, and so my washing-up is still piled on my sink, and my laundry is still in a pile (depending on your definition of the word “pile”) on my bedroom floor, and as of tonight there’s a smell in my fridge, and all I want to do is sleep for a month, and I can’t think of anything profound or meaningful or inspirational or beautiful to write on a day which, it turns out, is deeply pertinent to my experience, my narrative, my life.

Because I was on that cliff face, watching the waves beneath me dash themselves to pieces against the patient rocks, and feeling the sun on my face and the breeze playing with my hair, and knowing that I should stay alive for so many reasons, and desperately not wanting to. Desperately wanting to cast myself to the waves, the rocks – I craved the peace of freefall and I wanted my life to end, because for me there was no way out of the brutal and life-draining and spirit-withering and identity-stealing and terrifyingly secret captivity of a violent marriage.

I didn’t step off the edge of the world, and most days now I’m glad of that. And I hold quietly the knowledge that my reason for not stepping off the edge of the world was small – minuscule, in the scheme of a life: Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, the silvered polyphony, four- and five-voice harmonies weaving around each other in painful, exquisite beauty. One day, I’d like to thank Mr Palestrina.

It’s the small things. So often those big, broad, sweeping reasons to live – family, love, friends, beauty, hope itself – are too abstract, too far away. People for whom you would walk through fire without a second’s hesitation: in that depth of darkness, they are no longer real. Nothing is real inside that utter bleak, dreary, soul-destroying lack of hope. It’s the small things which are exactly the right size to cling onto: one stranger’s smile; an adored and adoring animal waiting at home; a coffee date; a football match; a beautiful Mass setting to be sung that bleak and sunny morning, that I didn’t want to miss out on.

It’s the small things. And we can be small things too.

Reach out. Don’t be scared to ask the question: Are you ok? Does he hit you? Are you thinking of suicide? What’s wrong? So often we don’t even have to have an answer – most people don’t need others to sweep in and fix things for them. Most people just need someone to notice. Someone to step inside the darkness with them, and to have the courage to stand witness to it. To wait with them within it.

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. St John’s gospel doesn’t say that the light barges in and saves the day, and beats the shit out of the darkness, and they all live happily ever after. It just says that the darkness doesn’t win. And the reality is, you only need a flicker of light to remind the darkness who’s boss.

Shall we hold that light for each other?

Biopsies and being human.

I had a biopsy today, on a lump in my breast, at a clinic which specialises in breast disorders. The less said about the procedure itself the better (although the terms “benign” and “we’ll see you in four months” were ones I was pretty happy to hear), but it was an interesting experience.

After you see the specialist, you’re invited to put on a mint-green or rose-pink cotton robe, washed to gentle softness, and sit in the “procedure waiting room” with other people preparing for biopsies or ultrasounds or mammograms. It’s a small room, with two rows of chairs facing each other against the walls, and nothing to do or look at other than three dog-eared (presumably out-of-date) gossip magazines. But that doesn’t bother me – I’m always prepared in these situations: I had my book, and I settled down happily to read.

What I didn’t expect to find in that small procedure waiting room was collegiality. But I did. Each woman, entering the room in her cotton robe, made some comment – some self-deprecating, some funny, all of them respectful and kind – about our attire. “Ooh, green suits you better than it does me!” “Oh, how embarrassing – if I’d known you were going to be wearing the same outfit, I’d have got changed!” “What did you do to get to wear a pink robe?” Women facing potentially unpleasant medical procedures also swapped compliments and stories and comparisons. I heard about one woman’s last mammogram, during which she couldn’t stop sneezing; I heard about another’s struggle as an optimist living with a pessimistic husband; I heard about another who would be having her elderly and ill dog, a faithful companion of seventeen years, put to sleep this afternoon. As each of us was called up for our procedure – and the results to come after it – the others wished her luck, and she left the room bolstered the no-nonsense good cheer of women with whom she had formed a brief and transient camaraderie.

I don’t know what these women were in for, but the idea that one of them might have heard the word “malignant” rather than “benign” is something that crossed my mind: one of these women with whom I had a brief connection today may be about to face one of the biggest hurdles of her life. I’ll never know, and by tomorrow I’ll have forgotten their faces, and they’ll have forgotten mine. That doesn’t matter. What matters was that in a clinical place, facing potentially life-and-death uncertainty and questions, we also reminded each other that we were not alone.

It’s nice to be human, sometimes.

The choice to stay.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I think you can possibly see that this isn’t going to be a light and fluffy post. Because sometimes things are too hard. Sometimes it is just all too heavy, and all too bleak, and all too hard, and all too much effort. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it, but sometimes the darkness has a bloody good try, and sometimes it all but succeeds. Sometimes those things that are supposed to keep you tethered to life just aren’t strong enough. They’re just not loud enough in your head, or large enough in your heart.

I wish I could say something profound. Something that people will read and be inspired by. Something that can bring light to those who can’t see any, and strength who can’t find any of their own. Something to stop someone stepping off the edge of the world, or into traffic. Something to stop someone standing calmly on the level crossing watching the train coming closer…

But I can’t. Anything I can say here would be trite. True, but trite. And meaningless when life’s that dark, that hopeless.

All I can say is this: I didn’t do those things. I wanted to. I came very close to it. But I didn’t. Because of what it would do to people I loved. Because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the world with more suffering than I found it. Because I didn’t want to miss out on singing Palestrina on the brightness of one Sunday morning. And now – I’m really, really glad I didn’t.

Losing myself, and finding myself.

The saddest part of most of my weeks occurs when the choir finishes singing the anthem at Evensong on Sunday evenings. This is the point at which the singing for the week ends, and I must now wait five whole days before I can sing with my choir family again, for Friday evening’s rehearsal.

Today I got to introduce my wonderful parents, who are visiting me and who attended services at the Cathedral, to my choir friends. I’ve got used to the literally incredible fact that I have friends, but it’s not a reality that I ever take for granted. Still, today I saw my friends through fresh eyes as I watched them engage with my parents, and was reminded afresh of just how blessed I am to have such warm, loving, vibrant, caring people in my life. People who care for me and allow me to care for them. People who love me and allow me to love them. People with whom I can have silly, joyful fun, with whom I can have serious conversations, who allow me to be quiet when I’m not up to talking but let me know that they’re there for me anyway. These people have, sometimes unknowingly, been light for me in some very dark times. They have extended to me the hand of God at times when God has seemed a long, long way away.

Every day I am grateful for the blessings with which I have been showered. It’s just that some days I am more profoundly aware of my blessings than on others. Today is a day of that profound awareness and I am grateful for my friends.