Harper’s Bazaar magazine asked me to write something on grief for their August issue. This is what came out – some reflections on a year of mourning, with echoes from my recent blog posts.
Sometimes I play a stupid game with our iPod. I put it on shuffle and ask Matt to send me a song. I know it’s ridiculous. I know ‘shuffle’ is a piece of apple software – an algorithm – rather than the ghostly hand of my husband reaching out to send me a sign. I know in these moments I’m a mad woman clutching for evidence of something beyond death. But it’s surprising how often something meaningful comes up. Of course it does. It’s our iPod. It’s full of music and memories. What’s a little more strange is the raft of new albums Matt bought in June last year, just days before he died. He never mentioned them. Just downloaded them and left them there for me to find. This morning I played the iPod game and the track that arrived was Bill Callahan’s ‘Riding for the Feeling’ from the Apocalypse album. It’s one that Matt bought in his last download session. I hadn’t heard it before, but the first lines, as they came through the speakers, stopped me in my tracks:
It’s never easy to say goodbye To the faces So rarely do we see another one So close and so long
It’s a really beautiful song. As I listened, it made me think of many things. I saw my son’s joyful face as he flies along on his bicycle … my husband emerging from the waves after a surf or a swim, drenched and happy … and my daughter on a swing giggling, ‘Higher, Mummy, higher.’ All of them ‘riding for the feeling’. It also made me think about goodbyes, and how hard they are. There is an intense, bittersweet longing that comes now with a farewell. I say ‘I love you’ a little more frequently, a little more easily. And thinking about goodbyes, I was reminded of a piece of writing, “The Light that Shines When Things End”, featured on one of my favourite blogs. It starts with these words: ‘I hope that in the future they invent a small golden light that follows you everywhere and when something is about to end, it shines brightly so you know it’s about to end.’ I like the idea of this light — of being able to consciously appreciate the final moments of something for the last time. But the thought of it also terrifies me. If it had shone on that last morning with Matt, I know I never would’ve been able to let him go.
Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. All this leaving is never-ending.
This week is the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death. Anniversary feels an odd word to use in this context. His death date is one of pain. There is nothing to celebrate. We have endured a year without him. We are still here. Yet somehow it feels important to acknowledge the day. I plan to greet the sun at the ocean’s edge and will be hoping for clear skies that night so that the kids might look at the star named for their Dad (by a very thoughtful friend: thank you Vanessa) through the Observatory telescope. I hope we are able to ride the big feelings the day will bring us. I know we’re still learning how to say goodbye to a face we were lucky to see, so close and so long. And I suppose whether there there is a small golden light or not, it doesn’t really matter. Bill Callahan is right: when goodbye comes, it’s never easy.
Hachette Australia has announced a new Prize for emerging writers, set up in memory of my husband and their former CEO, Matt Richell. Established in partnership with The Guardian and The Emerging Writers’ Festival, The Richell Prize is an exciting new initiative designed to offer financial and practical support to some of the very best unpublished writers working in Australia. It is a fitting legacy for a man who found such joy in nurturing writers and whose untimely death last July devastated so many of us in the book industry. Our hope is that through this annual Prize, many exciting new voices and authors’ careers will be launched and, as Matt’s family, our gratitude to the people involved is boundless.
Writing requires great courage, a leap of faith, intense dedication to the craft and the support and encouragement of others. If you feel you are ready for this support, please take that leap and submit your work to The Richell Prize. You could win $10,000 prize money to assist you with your writing, as well as a one-to-one 12-month mentorship programme with a Publisher at Hachette Australia, to help you shape your manuscript. The Prize also includes the opportunity to have a portion of your work published in The Guardian and attendance at their Guardian Masterclass series.
All the details on how to submit to The Richell Prize can be found here. So please, be brave. The Richell Prize is actively looking for new writing talent and this could be the start of your exciting new career.
You can also read more about The Richell Prize on The Guardian here.
** I would like to personally thank Hachette Australia, The Guardian, The Emerging Writers’ Festival and Razor/Joy for making this Prize possible. I am also immensely grateful to Simpsons Solicitors for assisting The Emerging Writers’ Festival with the administration of the Prize.
These days I am so full of feelings. It’s as if someone has turned a dial to amplify my emotions — good and bad. I feel them reverberate more deeply within myself. Moments of love and joy make me soar and tingle. Moments of pain and sorrow make my chest ache and tears pour uncontrollably. I feel my feelings more fully.
Last night I caught a ferry to Circular Quay. I saw the Vivid Sydney lights turn a city already bright and dazzling into an amplified version of itself – all colour and movement. Flickering patterns, spotlights, imagery illuminating this city on the water. I drank French champagne in a bar then went to a Sufjan Stevens gig at the Opera House – a Birthday present to myself.
I woke this morning still thinking about the music – the experience of the concert. Five musicians moving about the stage, playing an array of instruments, and Sufjan Stevens’ incredible vocals. More lights and imagery beamed onto panels hanging like stained glass windows behind the musicians, and all of it illuminating a dialogue on life and death I feel as though I have been having with myself in various guises these past ten months. It was mind-bendingly, heart-soaringly good. I feel so privileged to have been there; to have experienced this moment of internal illumination. Sometimes, when the emotions are running high, it seems it doesn’t hurt to turn the dial a little louder.
Last night my gaze fell upon a poetry book sitting on my shelves. It’s a book a friend gave to me a couple of years ago and it’s been resting there for a while. The thing that caught my attention was a yellow post-it note sticking out from between its pages. I’m pretty sure the last time I looked at the book there was no yellow post-it note. Intrigued, I turned to the marked page and this is what I found.
All You Who Sleep Tonight
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above —
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
— Vikram Seth
Thank you, my mystery post-it-note-sticking friend.
I’ve been thinking about the scheduled executions of the two Australians in Bali and about how wrong it is that we could ever find justification for taking another’s life. I believe in justice and a penal system that protects the values of our society, but knowing what death and intense grief bring, I do not understand how we could ever inflict this pain intentionally on others, no matter their wrong-doings. A death penalty forms no part of my values system. I fundamentally oppose the idea of it and would like to state that #Istandformercy. I am just one small, insignificant voice but tonight, if I could, I would tell the families of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan that I, along with the majority of the world, share their tears. And if all our small, insignificant voices could unite, perhaps our combined roar of protest would somehow reach the ears of those who need to hear it most.
We performed a vanishing act a few weeks ago, leaving the house and the cat, packing the car and driving all day under a Simpsons-esque sky until we arrived, finally, at my Dad’s house.
His place sits on a peninsula of land stretching out into the Bass Strait. It feels a million miles from our life in Sydney. In this house there are no check shirts hanging in the wardrobe with sleeves still rolled, no half-read books waiting on the other side of the bed, no clippers lying redundant in the bathroom drawer, no scrawls on the calendar in my husband’s distinctive handwriting. Instead there is a big sky overhead and grass to lie on. There are cows in the field at the end of the garden and swallows nesting in the eaves of the house. There is an ocean to paddle in and a clock that ticks beside the bed – the same clock that stood beside my grandmother’s bed in a different house – in a different country. In this home we are with loved ones and connected to our family story, stretching wider and further than just the three of us. There is comfort in that.
On Christmas Eve, I check on the kids before going to bed with a sleeping pill. My grandmother’s clock ticks beside me – too fast, like my heartbeat. Time is passing. Life is passing. I turn the light back on, frightened by the darkness and the questions that occupy my mind. How does someone just vanish? How do you wake beside them in the morning, drink coffee with them in the sunshine, talk to them on the telephone at lunchtime, then … nothing. How does someone just disappear? One moment alive. The next, gone. How do we bear this life if the people we love the most can be ripped from us at any moment? One wave … one car accident … one heart attack … one bullet. How do we bear the fragile impermanence of it all?
Sometimes it feels as though Matt wasn’t the only one to vanish. Sometimes I wonder if I vanished with him that day. Sometimes I feel invisible even to myself. Who am I? It’s a question that haunts me now, along with another often repeated refrain: Where are you?
Boxing Day arrives with a strange, fiery glow. It’s the sort of light that promises something special for those fitful enough to greet it. I slip out of the house and run down to meet the tide, the sky torn in two by storm clouds and shards of dazzling light. Half-way up the beach I am stopped in my tracks by a beam so bright it holds me captive. Back at the house I move down to the fence and let the air dry my skin. The wind moves the long grass in the fields beyond like a mother combing her fingers through a child’s hair. The swallows dart and swoop from swaying trees. When I turn back, three fat galahs breakfasting on the lawn take to the sky with indignant squawks. All around is movement. All around is chaos.
In these quiet days of contemplation, hiding from the violence rotating on the news, it’s hard not to feel adrift. Chaos is confronting. I’m learning to seek out the smallest anchors. Simple moments in the day to cling to, to counter the fragile impermanence: watching a boy in his pyjamas throw paper planes across a lawn still damp with early morning dew; sitting on a bench looking out over a perfect break; hurling a tennis ball over and over for an enthusiastic dog; lying in bed next to my children listening to them breathe; turning my face to the sun; watching clouds drift across an endless sky; listening to the high electric whine of a cicada; laughing with my sister in the way only she can make me laugh – with my belly aching and tears squeezing from my eyes. I find each anchor and cast it out, allowing it to tether me to this moment – to this life. Allowing the weight of it to hold me here when the alternative sometimes feels preferable.
This morning I read these words by Anne Lamott in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:
There is meaning in focus, concentration, attention. I now notice almost every single bird that flies by, as well as every single butterfly. I pay attention to most plain old butterflies, not just the ones in tiaras or argyle socks. Butterflies and birds are like one perfect teaspoon of creation.
I find my meaning now in small moments of concentration and awareness, in trying to ensure I am really present. Those early days of numb shock have faded and somehow I find my senses heightened. Close proximity to death has made me feel more alive. Odd, I know.
And yes, I also know how lucky we are. To be here in this house. To have family to nurture us. To have the option to vanish like this over the summer holidays. And it’s been good to be somewhere else – necessary even – but soon we will pack the car and drive back to Sydney. Soon I will put the key in the front door and step inside our house with all its familiar scents and furniture and books and clothes and sadness. Soon I will step back onto the streets of my old life. And soon, I hope, I might just remember the answer to that question: who am I?
Soon, I hope I might start to reappear.