Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.
I read this poem at my father’s funeral last year. I like to think he would have approved although we never really discussed death. I know he once said to my daughter, quite out of the blue, that he wasn’t afraid to die, but that was pretty much all he ever did say.
I wonder, does the poem make sense? Do you cry for the person or for yourself? And if it’s feeling sorry for yourself, why can’t we just stop being so pathetic and get on with things like we’ve all been told? … It doesn’t quite work like that, does it?
Anyway. I like the imagery of it. The quiet birds in circled flight.
This was one of my Dad’s favourites.
If you know the film you’ll understand its message.
He understood it too.
Rest in Peace, Dad.
What makes some events stick in your memory and yet others just fade away? Often it’s the unimportant things, or sometimes things you’d rather forget, that remain while stuff you really want to treasure, like the gems your children do or say as they grow up, just fades away.
Here’s one of those unimportant things that still seems strangely vivid…
We’re heading up MG Road, Anneke and I: East Fort, Chalai Market, towards Secretariat and then Napier Museum. Two kilometres down, two more to go. It’s late morning on that shadeless street; the sun is searing. The air is thick from four lanes of grinding, honking lorries and buses, taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes. We need to almost shout and yet not breathe too deeply. Amongst all the workaday traffic an out-of-place, anonymous limousine pushes past and later, a multi-axelled, foreign-tourist-gawping coach.
She’s vibrant, smart, pretty and tanned. The boys stare. The girls pretend not to see. I wonder if they think I’m her father, if they notice me at all.
It’s July, hot and incredibly humid. Our skins glisten with sweat. We should have taken a bus but there’s so much life out here; so much to see and drink in.
We’re picking our way over gap-toothed, ankle-twisting pavement. Past rough, hand-made wooden beds, fake watches and felt reindeer, sarees and brass goddesses. The smells.
We’re just chatting, wondering about everything unfamiliar around us.
And then, out of the blue, “So what brings YOU here?” she asks, catching me completely off guard.
“Huh? Oh. Well. You know… I wanted to do something meaningful, did a Google search, found Sebastian, read their story and now I’m here!”
“That’s not what I meant. Why HERE? Why Trivandrum? Why NOW?”
I look at her. I don’t really know you. What will you think? Who will you tell?
“Oh… It’s a long story.”
And like a ricochet, “What was her name?”
I’m knocked aback.
“How d’you know there was a woman?”
“OF COURSE there was. There ALWAYS is! Though I did wonder if it might have been a man!”
I smile and start to speak but she doesn’t really hear me: it’s her story she wants to tell.
I have in front of me a photo of a little girl from El Salvador, a real little cutie. She’s eight years old and Plan-uk are suggesting I sponsor her now that my previous little girl is eighteen. Plan is a children’s charity, working with some of the world’s poorest, and not connected to any religious organisation, political party or extreme ideology. Just protection and ‘building a better future’: health, education, equality, empowerment.
When I sponsor her my money goes to her community, not directly to her family, so there’s no bitterness or rivalry between sponsored and not. I get a personal connection with her – we’ll exchange a few photos, drawings and letters which, I can tell you, are absolutely wonderful to receive.
The details tell me that she is one of three girls, living in a house made of adobe with a shingle roof and an earth floor. Water comes from a river, they use a pit latrine and the nearest health clinic is thirty minutes away. But she doesn’t go to school “because she has an impairment”. “She is suffering an impairment that affects communication”.
I look at her smiley face, hands thrust into pockets of her skirt, skinny legs ending in shoes much too big, and just think “how could I not?”
All educators know that Enquiry (sic) is a “jolly good thing”. They also know that teachers must model the attributes they want to encourage in their students, else the kids will think it’s just some kind of “do as I say, not as I do” mumbo jumbo game. Like advice on not smoking from Fag-Ash Lil, or sex education from Syphilitic Sid. I made those up, in case you’re wondering, but you get the picture: you need to exemplify the virtues you’re trying to instil.
So, I look at myself and wonder how I could model enquiry. If I had a class of kids, how would I do that? What interests me? What gets MY juices going? And the answer comes back: … or rather it doesn’t. There’s silence. I can’t really think of anything. And so I have this conversation with myself:
Surely there must be something? Something you could find out about? Research? Enquire?
No. I’m too old, too forgetful, too disinterested, disillusioned, couldn’t really give a toss, stupid, thick.
That can’t be right!
It is. I can’t think of anything.
Go on, make some effort, try…
Hmm. Umm. (Five minutes later) I suppose there’s Bitcoins.
Bitcoins? Are you serious?
Yes! How do they work? What’s the advantage of them? Can you make money from them? I’ve always wondered.
OK, so on a scale of one to ten, how interesting would it be to find out about Bitcoins?
… well, about four. Maybe two. OK, not very interesting but I could find out and it would be “Enquiry”.
And you would know about it for five minutes then forget whatever you learnt.
So what’s the point?
And there’s the point. It has to be a self-motivated enquiry for it to be at all meaningful. You can’t just “do enquiry”. Enquiry on its own is half the picture. Not even half. It is meaningless without self-motivation. I could go through the motions but would I really care? Nope.
I used to be curious as a kid, making things, trying things out, experimenting, asking questions, wondering. I remember a book I had: “10 Things Every Good Boy Can Make” or “The Everyday Boy’s Book of Hazardous Popular Hobbies” or some equally captivating title. Didn’t matter – a red hardback with gold writing. I pored over those pages! Boy, did I? But not all pages were equal – the ones thumbed the most were of radios, triode valves, dipole aerials, variable condensers, cat’s whiskers, 90-volt dry cells, 6-volt lead-acid accumulators … exciting stuff to a farm kid in the early 60’s. And planes and kites… Nothing in school compared, except perhaps the projects I did on Canada and Australia. The fact that I can still remember those and little else must mean something.
Where did all that curiosity go? Did familiarity breed contempt? Can I blame my mother? Has mundane life simply smothered it? Was it unrecognised, unloved and unfed? Something you grow out of? Is it possible to rekindle it? Rejuvenate it? Resuscitate it? Bring back that sense of childhood wonderment? So many unanswered questions …
… so much irony.
My house renovation is coming along slowly. It’s unbelievable that eight weeks have passed already – there doesn’t seem to be a lot to show for all the time I’ve been spending on the place. The biggest task has been the removal of the paint from the walls in preparation for plastering. I’m not wholly convinced that it’s as necessary as the plasterer tells me it is but he’s the expert and should know better than me. It’s very time-consuming and I’ve tried to apply a bit of technology to speed things up. My belt sander works but eats belts at an alarming rate and produces so much dust so quickly that my vacuum cleaner simply can’t cope. My friend’s Dyson overheated and stopped working after ten minutes… not a good sign! I’ve tried loads of things including blowing the dust into a dustbin full of soapy water. The bubbles would trap the dust… or so I thought. Okay, okay, I should have seen it coming… a roomful of bubbles and just as much dust! You learn from failures they tell me.
In the end I’ve just had to resort to scraper, wire brush, wet and dry sandpaper, abrasive sanding pads, industrial “Scotch Brite” and lots and lots of water. Very messy. Very slow. Hard work, but no dust!
…for want of a better title.
I wrote back in January (January!) that I’d decided to postpone my return to Asia by six months to find and buy a house. Since then, life has been manic!
I’ll cut to the chase – everyone knows how time-consuming and stress-inducing this process is and we all have our own personal tales – but I’ve found a place, had my offer accepted, and in a week it should become mine!
It needs a lot of work. Nothing structural, but lots of repairs, modernising and decorating. It needs a completely new heating system. It needs much, if not total, rewiring. And the carpets, decorations and furnishings are all out of the 1950’s – they’ve got to go. But I like the place, it’s got a homely feel; it’s obviously been loved.
It’s nothing fancy – just a very solid, plain-looking, mid-terraced, ex-council house. It has three bedrooms, all a reasonable size, so potentially three lodgers. It’s in a decent location and looks out onto a big green at the front. The bathroom is titchy so that’ll be a bit tricky, but there’s a downstairs toilet albeit without a hand basin (hmm!). There’s a separate small sitting room which I can make mine. The kitchen is small too but it’s off a good-sized lounge – so there’s potential for making a lounge-diner-kitchen area. It’s got a larder! I love larders! It all needs ripping out and re-fitting, of course, but it could be good. The garden is a manageable size and I understand there’s a 15yo lad next-door who might just be looking for some pocket-money for grass-cutting and tidying-up duties. There’s a greenhouse with all the panes intact, and two brick stores – perfect for bicycles, a tumble drier and chest freezer. There are lots of problems but they all have solutions.
I spent a couple of hours there the other day, without the estate-agents or owner hovering over me. I explored the nooks and crannies and got to know it better. Till then I’d had half a mind to pull out but I left feeling a lot happier that it was the right thing to do.
I stumbled across a site which presents your political and social leanings on a graph. See http://www.politicalcompass.org/test. Out of curiosity, I thought I’d give it a shot. Six pages of questions later, this is where I stand:
I’m a communist anarchist, it would seem. There’s every chance that I didn’t understand the questions or the implications of my answers but I feel I’m certainly somewhere in that quadrant. With Mandela and Gandhi for company, I’m not going to complain!
My original plan was to set sail for Nepal or India or Cambodia in April, to do voluntary teaching again for many months, maybe years, if it all worked out. I feel driven to go – it’s what I must do and it’s something that I can do.
When I go off again I’ll need somewhere to store my few possessions, a place I can stay a few weeks each year, and somewhere I can have post sent to. I’ve exhausted all the goodwill of family and friends. I don’t want anyone to feel obliged to put me up or help me out; I’ve already overstepped that line. This is my biggest dilemma – not having a base here in the UK.
The alternatives are expensive, especially when you’ve no money coming in. I’ve been worrying about long-term storage and considering things like living in a caravan, a van, a shed and so on. Coming back to the UK for 6-8 weeks a year would make a huge dent in my savings – the dent is already big enough when just staying with family and friends!
I’ve been reducing all my material possessions and trying to keep costs down by not owning a car and by living in a house-share. Everything I now own (apart from my two bicycles) is the room I’m sitting in! But reducing stuff is not the whole answer – I will still need some storage space, and the problems of where to stay and where to have mail sent to persist and worry me.
My income is not high – I only work three days a week – but I get by. I could probably find work for five days if I made a real effort but my heart isn’t in it. In fact working three days to earn some money and then having four days to recover and please myself is a pretty good balance, so long as I don’t spend any money during those four days! And this way I get to help out at the local Primary school during my time off which I enjoy hugely. Somehow, after two and a half years in Asia, my outlook on life has changed. I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about my old lifestyle and hard to readjust. And always in my heart is the unsettling desire to return and do more.
Luckily I do have some savings which could be used as a reasonable deposit on a small house. Buying now seems as good a time as any. There are a number of pros and they might just about outweigh the cons:
- a foot on the property ladder as house prices inexorably rise
- some income, if I buy to let
- a place to store ‘things’
- a fixed address for mail
- a cheap place to stay on any short returns to the UK
- somewhere I could have family/friends stay over perhaps
- a constant worry/responsibility
- maintenance costs
- takes time to find and buy
- time and expense to do up
- management costs when renting
- rental void periods/ variable income
But delaying also has some other advantages:
- more time with my grown-up son and daughter!
- more time with my elderly parents
- can expand projects I’ve been helping with at school
- more time to help with RSCON4 conference (coming up in May)
- more time to sort out where I’m going in Asia
- since Nepal visas limit you to five months per calendar year, I could have a block with several months in 2013 followed by more in 2014
- can save a bit more cash (thankfully my employer is happy to allow me to stay longer)
- can finish off some projects at work
- it’s especially busy at work right now – delaying till we’re past the hump will allow more effective training of a successor
- chance to consult GP about some minor medical issues
- I’m sure there are other reasons but… old age, you know…
At the moment it feels the right decision.