Fires, grief, stories and sense making

I have been reading Gary Hughes’ account of his first week after the fires in the Weekend Australian Magazine (March 7-8). A moving and intelligent account of the dislocation of a disaster like that. I cannot find a version of that article online, but here is his account of fleeing the fires. It is no wonder the guy has won Walkley awards. His account reminds me of the paralysed dislocation I felt after the Canberra fires. Minute in comparison, but with palpable comparisons. My family and friends were spared during those fires, although my father and sister on the other side of the town put out embers near the family home with the rest of the neighbourhood.

The many layers of grief, of letting go, of coping, surviving and thriving are fascinating, layered and complex. And these events are never in isolation. My mother died two days before September 11, burning trade centres another nail in a coffin on the day we were planning her funeral, compounding the fractures and disassociation. It took me a year and a half to find space to begin to grieve for her, sometimes grief takes time. I was unpacking grief when the 2003 fires came to Canberra and added a new sense of heartbreak and disconnection, opening up to then become self protectively numb again. It was nice to hear of seasoned survivors speaking of the anger after disconnect, it’s not personal, it’s almost physiological.

Six months, a year, after the fires I was in a workplace with a man who had lost his home while out fighting fires to save other people’s homes. He was still affected by the fires (of course) and there was a heightened consciousness and degree of conversation about the fires that stirred conflicting feelings. It assisted in spurring on an irrational anger every time a person mentioned their elderly parents. I was in a workplace where most of my colleagues were decades older and a number were struggling with roles of carers and the finite span of their parents. Every time they complained or expressed a fear of their parent’s mortality I wanted to yell across the room “Fuck you, my mother’s dead.” I can only imagine how hard this would be if you lost a parent younger and had to endure peers bitching about parents when you’ve lost one and would love to be in the position to bitch. My unexpected rawness providing new levels of understanding for friends who had lost parents in highschool. The anger was powerful and passed easily if I considered it to be a physiological response, passing through like running water and nothing personal. All of this flows through my mind as I see a new crimson sky in Victoria.

I was speaking to a friend about the numbness and trauma she and friends had been experiencing in Victoria, to be so close and while not personally touched by the fires, psychologically touched and rattled. I remember how rattled I felt by the Tsunami not that long ago, similarities and dissimilarities and sense making processes and how I control information flow.

Sometimes I don’t want to know anything, I will protect myself and close my eyes. Sometimes there is such a hunger to know and consume information and details, be hypnotised by the details and draw on them to make sense of it, make sense of the world, normalise events and contextualise the experience… lay down a map, like sketching a figure, look at the proportions, sketch out the physical space, sketch out the interior space, situate it in an environment, both current and historical. Processes like these spontaneous essay. Connecting this incident to the other stories I know can be life affirming, but also rattling as old wounds become re-energised, if they have not had the time grieve and flow like water through the consciousness so that they are not personal anymore.

I think of people who have been through so much more, people my father helps in war torn Africa who have seen more siblings die than live, witnessed, survived or perpetrated atrocities. I think of people in Afghanistan who have never known peace. I think of the layers of tragedy and grief, of complex survival systems, coping mechanisms, ways of thriving and how they intersect, bump into each other. It’s messy, difficult, magnificent and poignant, how humans love, lose, care and rebuild. That we live and love, make beauty and stories, imagine and will still dance (be it in words, bodies, sounds or sights) is magnificent. Our resilience and fragility is inspiring.

I am filled with admiration. I love how the world develops layers as I grow older, each year, each experience (my own or explored through one of the arts) is a piece of filo pasty, a layering that makes the world more interesting, more complex and extraordinary. As I get older, people become more extraordinary. I am able to see and imagine more layers to their filo pastry. The magnificence and brutality of the world. I cry more at the movies, in sorrow and joy. At times I feel more jaded, less attuned than I did a handful of years ago… but that is a self protective facade, brought about because I feel more, feel a greater complexity and my imagination can draw more lines in the air. Although I am not thrown into the air by my passions the way I used to, my passions have more nuance and depth, they are not diminished (though they are more manageable).

To draw on the wonderful Michael Marshal Smith’s Only Forward. When the wave has crashed, when the storm passes, as it will. What joy when we are able to bring ourselves fully into the present, bring our integrated selves with us and detangle our fragile selves from the barbed wire of the past… how extraordinary to have all those experiences like a magnifying lens to bring to our present selves and wonder at the world around us.

There is so much to learn, so much to remember, so much to make sense of when an extreme event happens (be it love or disaster).  Gary Hughes’ essay was a lovely point of reflection, moving and powerful. His words moved me and took me here. Our words, stories and sense makings are important.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: