Today would have been my uncle’s birthday

My uncle would have turned 68 today. But a few weeks ago, he died.

And I miss him, terribly.

He was a very special person, not just to me, but to many people. He was a priest in the Roman Catholic church, and Dean of Theology at Otago University, but eventually, he left the church and moved beyond christianity altogether. He had studied and worked in liberation theology, but he finished his doctoral work just as John Paul II was starting to entrench his hold on the church. In addition to that, he was gay, and at times, it must have seemed that the church in which he had been reared hated him.

The word ‘erudite’ was coined for him. He was fluent in Latin, and he gloried in the intricacies of it. He thought about the nature of a language and a society that held all nouns and descriptions in tension, until a final formative verb. (Latin places the active verb at the end of a sentence, after all else has been conjured into thought already.) Part way through his life, he went to live and study in Rome, where he completed his PhD in moral theology at the Lateran. So he became fluent in Italian too. In later years, living in Paris, he added French to the suite of languages that he spoke.

He read and thought about great literature. I have his copy of War and Peace, given to him as the prize for coming top of 6th form English. We talked about literature often, rejoicing in great books and great authors. He introduced me to A. N. Wilson as a biographer, and we formed our own very exclusive A. N. Wilson Appreciation Society. He loved word play, and clever constructions, and he would save them and share them with me, and with my husband. He had a quick and dry wit. When my husband and I muttered that our university’s list of distinguished alumni was perhaps not all that distinguished, he paused for a moment, and quirked his eyebrow. “My university,” he said, “has a list of distinguished alumni. It’s divided into two categories: Saints, and Popes.”

He was someone whose approval I sought, someone I admired. He was the first person to suggest that perhaps I should carry on to doctoral work, the first person to think that I had the capacity of mind to study at that level. He encouraged me and inspired me. In recent years, I think that I delighted him when I started to argue with him, to make him think new thoughts.

I loved seeing him. One of my earliest memories of him dates back to a Christmas when I was about four. My brothers and I had been given popguns, so we lined up at the gate on Christmas afternoon, ready to pop him when he arrived. We were so pleased to see him. And all through my life, whenever I knew I was to see him, my heart would skip a little for joy. “I’m going to see Tony!” it would sing. That sense of joy never wore off. The last time I saw him, really saw him, to talk to him properly, as I was leaving I reminded him of that wonderful scene in War and Peace, where young Rostov is coming home through the streets of Moscow, and the carriage seems to go so slowly, and he will never get there and he can’t wait, and then he reaches home and the greetings are wonderful. It was always like that, seeing Tony. In War and Peace, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right or full enough to Rostov – he always looks for more. But for me, seeing Tony, it was never like that. It was always enough.

He was a micro manager, making sure that everything was just so. A few years ago, I came back from Australia for a family party, and stayed with him a night, before running some errands in the morning. He had my morning carefully mapped out, leaving me a note about what time I should leave the house, and which way I should drive to my first appointment, and how I should get from there to his workplace where we were meeting for lunch. He left for work, but then an hour or so later, rang me up to make sure that I was following his instructions. I chose to see this as a manifestation of his love for me.

I loved and admired him so much, and I know that he loved me, and was so very proud of me. He was a twin, and he and his twin brother always thought that someone in my generation ought to have twins. He was so delighted when my twins were born, and then two weeks later, I got word that my doctoral thesis had been passed. He had no children of his own, so he rejoiced in his nieces and nephews, and I know that he thought of me as the daughter of his soul. He was for me, my third parent.

I saw him a few times in those last weeks. The third last time I saw him, it was just him and me, sitting in his home, drinking coffee, and talking – politics, life, literature, children, family, ideas, love. Soul food for both of us. The second last time I saw him, we were down in Wellington for a school event, so afterwards, we all went to his place. My daughters sparkled at him, telling him stories, performing, making him laugh. It warmed us all, him and me and my husband, to see them being so wonderful. And the last time was on the afternoon of the day he died, when I left the girls at home, and raced down the road, just to be there, to hold his hand and talk to him, even though he was unconscious by then. I could not be there when he died because I had to return home to my children (my husband was overseas at the time).

I saw his body one last time, when we closed the coffin that his twin had made for him. By then he had gone.

He had his funeral organised, down to who was speaking, and what they should speak about, and how long they should speak for. No religion, but a great deal of reflection, and beautiful music.

I have some tokens of him: a book he gave me for my 5th birthday, books he gave me just a few months ago, some beautiful needlepoint he made, music we listened to together. And the ache in my heart, for a beloved friend taken too soon. My family’s hearts are aching today, on his birthday. Tony always used to call me or send me a message a few days before his birthday. “Remember that it’s Terry’s birthday on the 15th.” Terry will be grieving today, for this first birthday alone. My parents are grieving too: Tony was their great friend. As he was to all his family, a brother and friend of the mind and soul, and the spiritual centre of our family.

Some thoughts have comforted me in this time: Anne Else’s beautiful image of a boat moving slowly away, Philip Pullman’s account of a spirit dissolving into the atoms of the universe, a self-constructed imagining of Tony’s soul journeying up Te Ika a Maui, to the last pohutakawa tree, and there disappearing into the winds and sea and sky. Not that I believe in souls. But somehow, the image comforts me.

He is gone. He wrote a last testament, which I read at his funeral. I have added it to this post, and if you feel so inclined, having read this far, you might care to download it and read it. It contains the wisdom of a life lived in love and mind and reflection, and his final thoughts about what this life is all about.

Tony Russell’s Testament – pdf – 74kb

Alas, without me for thousands of years
The Rose will blossom and the Spring will bloom,
But those who have secretly understood my heart –
They will approach and see the grave where I lie.
(Deccan tomb inscription)

Anthony (Tony) James Russell
15 November 1945 – 28 September 2013

Travel report: Visiting the margins

As we drove up to Edinburgh, we saw a sign saying, “Lindisfarne 5m.”

Lindisfarne!

We knew about the holy island and the monastery that had been founded there. We knew a little of its history – that a beautiful book of the gospels had been made there, that it had been raided by the Vikings in 793, that this raid was one of the first made by the Vikings, so it was utterly shocking, that the monks had eventually fled, carrying the body of their saint with them, that they had found refuge in Durham, and in time, returned and re-built the priory.

We had no time that day, but driving back, the tides were just right. Lindisfarne is an island of sorts, accessible over a causeway at low tide, but cut off from the mainland twice a day.

It was a beautiful day, blue and sunny, with just a hint of a breeze. We drove out over the causeway, and reached the margins of land and sea. The priory has long since fallen into ruin, but the walls remain, and a few graceful arches.

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory

(Image from Wikimedia Commons. Description: walls without roofs, arches, green grass, soft blue sky.)

I found myself thinking about the marginal existence of the people who had lived there, not quite on land, not quite on sea. The air was very clear, and the sea blue out to the horizon. I felt that I could see forever. I wanted to stay there and think, even meditate, which is not something that comes naturally to me. I am a perpetually busy person, always with something to do, and even when I sit down to watch TV, I tend to pick up my knitting. This place made me want to stop, just for a few hours.

Looking out to sea at Lindisfarne

Looking out to sea at Lindisfarne

(Description: low sea scape, land on the right had side, part of the island on the left, very blue sea, no waves, still and clear)

I suppose that Lindisfarne is not always so peaceful, and that often as not, wind and waves are howling. But on the day we were there, it was glorious.

Also, there were no Vikings.

LIndisfarne harbour

LIndisfarne harbour

(Description: small shallow beach, almost a harbour, fishing boats and cars, stone building on the left, green grass in the foreground, sea stretching to the horizon, no Vikings)

On reading Adelaide

Adelaide, by Kerryn Goldsworthy

I’ve just finished reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s book, Adelaide. I first started it early this year, but then put it down as paid work took control of my life. I have spent most of the year gulping down great wodges of fantasy and historical reading: all twelve Poldark books and the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games books. Some of this was very satisfying, but eventually, it all started to feel like too much chocolate. So I picked up Adelaide again.

What a wonderful book. I read the first few chapters at speed, learning some of the history of Adelaide. But then I slowed down, enjoying Kerryn’s way with words, and the images she describes, and her sense of livingness and presence in Adelaide. I read the last three chapters very slowly indeed, just a few pages each night, because I didn’t want to finish the book. It is part history, part memoir, part reflection on living. Kerryn cleverly, and very sensitively, writes an account of being Adelaide, not just knowing its history, or its tourism high points, but what it is to be part of the city.

This passage especially spoke to me, as I find my life more full than ever in the provincial city where I live now.

…it’s hard to believe that when we were young, so many of us thought Adelaide had nothing to give us; that being left off some touring star’s itinerary, because the profits from a smaller population weren’t big enough to cancel out the nuisance of adding an extra leg to the tour, was enough to make us feel that our city wasn’t good enough for us either. I now think we were simply projecting, mistaking ‘Adelaide’ for what was in fact the sketchy thinness, so far, of our own young lives reflected back at us.

Yes. Just so.

Kerryn’s book has made Adelaide come alive again for me. I want to visit Adelaide again, to see again the friends I made while we were there, to feel the hot sun on my skin, wander through the glories of the Central Market, contemplate the statues on North Terrace, understand the city a little more.

Just today, word has come that we may be able to visit there for a week or two in January. I am so very pleased.

General fail

Miss Eleven the Younger was not feeling very well today, so she came to work with me. Usually I would just have worked at home for the day, but I had to give a lecture today, and Mr Bee had a couple of meetings. She sat very quietly through the lecture, playing Minecraft on my iPad, which alas, was evidently far more entertaining than my lecture for the students sitting behind her. And she practiced cartooning, using the stamps she got for her birthday to add words. All in full view of quite a few students.

These stamps.

Tasteful and discreet stamps

(Description: page of stamps, saying *lol*, Love It, OMG, oh deer..! (sic), Fuck Off)

Oh deer indeed. Fail #1.

I had also managed to leave my lecture notes at home. I had all the slides ready, and I was very confident about what I wanted to say, but even so, it was a challenge. However, it all seemed to go well enough, and when I got home and reviewed the notes, it turned out that there was nothing I omitted. Fail #2.

Stuff… happens.

Generations of cakes

We spent last weekend in Taranaki, celebrating my mother’s birthday. It was one of those birthdays that ends in a zero, so it was a big affair: extended family members gathered for lunch, and an afternoon of celebrating. This has been a sad year for my mother’s family, so it was good to gather for a happy reason.

I made and decorated a cake. And my lovely Ms Thirteen made and decorated a cake. Take a wild guess as to who made which cake.

Cakes!

You guessed right.

I used the recipe I use for Christmas cakes, which I got from my mother, and she from her’s. My Mum used it for our wedding cake. So it is a Recipe of Significance. Also a Recipe of Deliciousness.

My daughter used an excellent yoghurt chocolate cake recipe, which has been in our family for over thirty years now. Each year I ask my girls what cake they would like for their birthday parties, and each year they say, “Yoghurt chocolate cake, Mum.” I make the cakes, and they decorate them. Luridly. They are happy cakes.

As were my mother’s fingernails, which Ms Thirteen painted for her, in an interesting shade of purple.

It was a happy day.

********************

I mentioned the sadness in my mother’s family this year. Ray, and Ele, you might know of, or even have known, my uncle who died in March: Bernard Murphy. Or if you don’t know him, you might know his sons, Steve and Dan, who are also champion dog triallists. He never bragged about his own wins, but he was so very proud, loudly so, of his sons’ achievements. Most of the last few months of his life were spent in hospital, but he was home for a stretch of about 12 days or so, during which time he competed in the Whangamomona dog trials.

What Transit?

This is what the Transit of Venus looked like from my backyard in Greenhills.

Transit of Venus

(Description: grey cloudy sky behind tree)

I didn’t see it at all, and given that my next chance to see it is in 2117, my guess is that I won’t be seeing it at all ever.

On the other hand, my brother saw it in full glory in Brisbane. He had a set of welding glasses – the proper sort – and he spent a good part of his day on the roof of his workplace, looking. More than just looking. He dragged many of his colleagues up there to take a look, explaining to them what it was all about, and why it is so important in the history of New Zealand and Australia. Some of them really didn’t care at all, but others were intrigued, and keen to learn more, and still talking about it hours later. My brother was buzzing about it, when he rang me to brag tell me about his day.

Oh, go away, I said. Laughing. I’m so pleased that he had that experience, and that he was able to share it with his colleagues.

I enjoyed all the stories on the news last night, about people watching the Transit in various places around New Zealand. The best story came from Tolaga Bay, where people were on the beach and gathered at the local school, and everyone was excited about it. What a great way to get kids enthusiastic about science, and history, and our world. Fantastic stuff.

My parents gave me that sense of joyful curiosity about the world when I was a child, and I am busy passing it on to my daughters (see for example, one of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote, about a total eclipse of the moon). It’s great to see children and adults all around the country being excited about science.

A fairy tale

Once upon a time, a guy asked a girl, “Will you marry me?”

The girl said, “No!”

And the girl lived happily ever after and went shopping, dancing, camping, drank martinis, always had a clean house, never had to cook, had sex with whomever she pleased… did whatever the hell she wanted, never argued, travelled more, had many boyfriends, saved more money, had all the hot water to herself, watched chick flicks, never wore that fracking lacy lingerie that went up her ass, had high self esteem, never cried or yelled, felt and looked fabulous in sweat pants, and burped, swore and farted all the time.

The End.