The loss of a loved one hits you like a cricket bat.
Square in the face.
And it hurts.
It hurts big time.
It's multilayered at the best of times, but your best coping strategies are well and truly stretched when you live in another country. The distance between your souls is far apart, but you hang on to the knowledge that you will see each other again.
...and that's before death hits.
You can cope with the distance, because you talk regularly on the phone, exchange emails and know that when money permits, you can travel to see each other.
There's always that future time when you know you can sit in the same room catching up in a way that phone calls never seem able to do. Reminiscing with each other - enjoying the sound of their laugh or the wry look they give you. Each facial expression reminds you of another time that you managed to share special time together.
You learn to live with seeing each every 2 years, or once a year if you're lucky. So you make it really good when you do.
And best of all, you always know that there will be next time.
Until there's not.
My father died 4 months ago and I still feel like I've just been hit with that cricket bat. It's not such a fresh wound. The bruises have gone. I now look like anyone else, but my eyes still water with the pain. Cricket bats are painful bastards.
Now, my comfort comes from a picture by my bed, a jumper and a poncho.
Some days, just knowing the poncho and jumper are there, is enough.
I was lucky enough to be able to rush to South America where he lived to spend time with him before he died. A surreal time with loss and liminality using each other to balance.
I think they knew each other well.
'Loss' seemed more of a fragile character.
She knows that I was wary of her, but also that she would need to become my friend soon enough. We danced around each other, eyeing one another for 12 days.
We didn't speak much.
'Liminality' on the other hand was more of a friend to me in that time.
She was quite down to earth, but kept disappearing on me. I didn't know where she would go, but every time she did, Loss came forward trying to sneak her way into the room.
Once she even picked up the cricket bat by the door, but put it down again when I looked at her.
I knew I was only putting off the inevitable.
And the inevitable came after I'd flown home.
Unfortunately, Loss decided she wanted to play cricket...another 4 times.
To experience 5 significant deaths in 4 months has felt more like a round with Mike Tyson, than a cricket match.
It's probably not a surprise to learn that I've decided to not play cricket for a while.
I'm happier at an away game drinking tea, watching from afar.....at least until my injuries heal.
If the captain asks me if I want to play again, I know what I will say.
"Yes, but as long as my dad can watch over me from the sidelines"
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST PRECIOUS OBJECTS?
It's the house-on-fire question isn't it?
'What would you grab if you only had a few minutes to get out of your house?
There's the obvious ones like family photos and your beloved pets. I'm also likely to grab practical things like my computer drive, passports, credit cards, clothes etc. They are all the obvious items that I think we'd all choose if we had to make a quick decision.
But what about the other objects around your home?
I'm talking about the ones that tell a more detailed and multilayered story of your life - their meanings not fully tangible to other people, but are imbued with a rich personal depth that reveal the story of your life.
For me that meaning comes with a personal experience.
The object triggers so much more than what appears on the surface.
There's also certainly something wonderful about finding an object in the ground and piecing together its story.
EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE YOU
From an early age my parents took us travelling. Where possible, time wise and financially, we spent holidays camping in the outback, learning to 4WD, learning to like our own company, learning to appreciate and respect the ancient Aboriginal culture that forms the foundation of Australia. And when more money and more time permitted, we backpacked overseas. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to grow up learning about the world through the eyes of the people we met on our travels.
But these experiences were not always ones I’d like to repeat. In India our train was held up for several hours by bandits in the middle of the night, other passengers telling us to hide as we would be easy targets.
In Egypt I remember our taxi being stopped by the police. As foreigners we were viewed as potential drug traffickers. The doors were forced open and the police started to pull the panelling off the doors as they searched for narcotics. As a 10 year old sitting in the back seat, I started to giggle – mainly through fear, but very quickly stopped when mum’s face showed me the seriousness of the situation. On not finding any drugs our taxi was allowed to continue.
There’s something about taxis actually; they seem to feature quite heavily in my experiences of other countries. It was 2am and we’d just settled back into the taxi after stopping for tea. We were travelling to Kipling Camp in northern India, where we were hoping to see tigers.
The thick jungle-like vegetation made for a fairly monotonous journey that was, until a man walked out into the middle of the road. Our driver slowed down and rather than waiting for the window to be wound down, the man opened the front passenger door.
Something wasn’t right.
Our driver’s face told us all we needed to know.
He was scared.
Dad managed to pull the door shut again and quickly reached around to us in the back and told us to lock the doors. The driver was frozen with fear, but managed to move off again with Dad repeatedly telling him to drive, getting slightly more frantic each time he didn’t move.
As we drove off and looked behind us, we saw about another 10 men walk into the middle of the road from the bushes all carrying machetes.
Who knows what might have happened, but I don’t think they were expecting foreigners. The split second look of shock of the man’s face when he opened the door was enough of a delay to save us.
LISTEN TO OTHERS with KINDNESS AND ACTION
It is these situations that have made me look at the world differently. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is their own. We are all human. Our diversity is what makes us unique, but it’s also what makes a whole.
In 2005 I spoke to a man in Syria, who said:
How do you reply to that kind of comment?
How do you answer the woman also in Syria, who during the Iraq war walks straight up to you out of the blue and asks, ‘do you like Iraqi people?’
...or the woman in Vietnam that says ‘we are sick of people coming to look at us after the war’.
How do you cope with the racist attitude of a couple in the northern territory who are happy to give the man next to us a lift down the road, until they realise he’s Aboriginal?
You respond in the way you know how...
For me it’s about sharing people’s stories, whether it’s a man on the other side of the world or the local artist who crafts items from driftwood she finds on the beach.
People’s stories like this are replicated all over the world. Our social history gives us a place and a soul; otherwise what else are we other than just creatures with no connection to each other?
Our stories need to be shared, witnessed and honoured.
We make communities this way and as we start to understand each other's lives, we can support one another through the tougher times.
A FEW OF MY OBJECTS
On my window ledge, there's a polystyrene figure that I carved when I was going through a tough time. It reminds me of my strength and the growth that comes from these challenges. I have dried Eucalyptus and Wattle leaves which remind me of home in Australia. Then there's the cute soft toy duck I bought when I travelled overseas on my own for the first time. I just liked it at the time, but now it feels like one of my first acts of adulthood and of branching out on my own.
So, which are your favourite objects?
Which ones tell the tale of your life?
I've been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don't have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I'll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So....lovepat it is.
So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?
It's quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you're leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure - was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.
But what if you can't go home?
I heard the most amazing play on BBC's Radio 4 this week. 'Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The Fernhill Philosophers'. In it the Eritrean character - a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, "Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live".
It's a powerful statement isn't it? 'Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.'
Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.
It's beyond painful....
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you're in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.
We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we've walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.
But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, 'same same, but different'. We are the same but we are all different too.
We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can't make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece.....and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.
We need each other.
Whomever we are - what ever country we come from - and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we're that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. We can't seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there's a connection - a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.
It's much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into 'the bigger picture'. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.
You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people's eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them 'not like me' and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don't understand......the.....the..... The list is endless.
All I ask of you is to pause.
Open your ears and eyes.
Open your heart.
Be the shift in persepective.
None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.
The next day I found myself driving to the site with an old Aboriginal man as my passenger. I wondered what on earth I was going to talk to him about as we were worlds apart. There I was, a young non-indigenous woman from the city, him, an old Aboriginal man from the country. We drove in silence. I wasn’t frightened by the silence, but it made me think about other times I’d been ‘out bush’ with my family on 4WD holidays.
I started to talk about my love of the bush and camping in the middle of nowhere. We passed a dead roo by the side of the road, the smell hitting our nostrils, making me screw up my face and smile. I made a comment about the dangers of roos by the road at sunset, when he began to recount an amazing story about having to drive along a country road at night without working headlights. The lights had died on route and the only way he could see well to drive was to stick closely behind the well-lit road-trains (large trucks) which frequent country Australia. But, this didn’t work for long. The road-train must have hit a kangaroo, because suddenly a dead kangaroo came flying out from under the truck and landed on his car! We talked about kangaroos, camping trips, camp fires, watching the sun go down over the desert, and about his life as a feral goat catcher.
Arriving at the art site, I got on with work and he sat in the shade. We occasionally acknowledged each other throughout the day and again shared silence over lunch. At the end of the day I put out my hand to shake his and said, ‘thank you’.
He took my hand, said nothing, and shook it in the usual manner, but as I went to release my grip, he wouldn’t let go. He continued to hold my hand firmly for what felt like ages, placing his other hand on top of our hands. Finally he looked up and smiled at me. ‘Thanks love’. Two simple words, but it was a special moment that confirmed we’d had a good day together.