Sailing is like writing. It allows me to pause. Facing into the wind is like facing the page on the screen. Extraneous story lines, which would twist me this way and that, often criss-crossing in contradictory ways, become irrelevant. I empty myself to welcome in something new, the winds that are blowing right now, ready to take me forth in a new direction
We three old sisters are stuck in the marina after limping back to our berth, because of an overheating engine. Two drive shaft mechanics are on their way. At first a flickering caress on my skin – the wind cares to know me, wants to play with me, cool then warm, ebbing and flowing like everything else around me. An idea gently teasing, taking my attention so I will bring it forth and make it into something.
Our summer sailing holiday, squeezed-in between busy work schedules, is being highjacked, and now a brutal sun flashes down between the dodger and bimini. Fortunately the boat swings away from the sun, and the breeze reasserts itself. The fine hairs on my arms and face shiver to be approached in this new way by the wind.
Our father, the ancient mariner, died last year. This is his boat and this is our first sailing trip without him. There is so much space in the boat now he has gone.
The four of us went sailing together every year until he died. It could be tortuous, pausing as he cranked his legs up and over the life lines, creaking and yawing up and down the companionway, resting and dozing, but we loved him, and he loved the sea and these were his precious last years.
He could have died last year at sea, but I think he was too scared. When it approached, it scared him. He rowed himself ashore to bathe his scrawny body in the sun, like when he was young. He had forgotten the importance of hydration. He was ninety-three. It was frightening, the cold and the tremors that followed. I held his penis over a milk bottle as he shivered on the front bunk under three duvets. Raewyn pointed out that the pasta Gillian and I cooked in salt water may have pickled his kidneys.
Writing about it now is my way of getting real, of remembering the curve the winds were making back then.
I didn’t want to remember how old and discouraged he became, but those last memories are strong, because I could see that old age was so unacceptable to him. The determination of his body to waste away was stronger than his will to remain young. He thought his will was the stronger of the two.
Words are sacred. They have a lot of power, they call forth angels and demons, they help us dig deep. They tell our stories and keep them alive. They make up the worlds we live in.
But writing now exposes the abyss between what I know and what I clearly do not. I do not know where he has gone. I don’t have words for my feelings of loss. He was there in my life long before words shaped anything for me. The fabric of him and me is beyond the reach of words. Something in me is taking a long time to know that he has gone and I can’t seem to make sense of the me without him.
He was with me for a long time after he died, radiating warmth and love. I could find him easily then. That he should be more present to me after death didn’t make sense but then his death didn’t make sense. That’s the thing. At his funeral we all said goodbye, but it is taking a long, long time to understand that goodbye. Now he is really gone and I am adrift in the void of his absence.
Ever so gently rocking and sliding and bouncing in the harbour. So many years with him bouncing around in this boat. The sea and its wind is so accepting of our situation.
Death and resurrection
Its now three years since my father died and tears no longer well up in the same way. I no longer miss him so keenly – his physical death has been accepted by me. I’m still curious about what happened to him.
I am ready to think more carefully about the matter. When I remember him, I seem to be keeping him alive and I’m not convinced it’s just the memories of him I’m keeping alive. Is there a difference?
To answer this I need to understand more clearly who he was, or in fact who any of us is? Who is the ‘me’ in which my Dad appears to be resurrected?
When Dad died he was buried and his physical body was returned to the earth. But he was so much more, and so am I. I am a never-ending bubbling up of thoughts and feelings, emotions, ideas, plans, dreams and desires. I am more a mental whirlwind than a physical body. My individuality is mostly mental, reflected in the physical. So the most relevant questions are: Where does all this mental stuff come from, what kind of world does it inhabit, to whom does it really belong, and where does it go when some-one dies?
The contents of my mind simply appear to me. A thought pops up uninvited, a feeling suddenly colours my perception. Curiously the space of all this mental stuff isn’t easy to locate. When I’m imagining an overseas holiday, where exactly has my mind gone? No-one knows.
I find Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious very useful to this investigation. He suggests that there is a collective unconscious mind, full of all sorts of archetypal ideas from which our mental lives are built. Buddhist philosophy talks about the Alaya storehouse consciousness, which contains a record of all the patterning of life going back forever. This information is available to us if we focus with the power of a good question.
Much of what bubbles up into my personal consciousness may come from sources much deeper than my personal library of memories. I am connected to all other human beings via this vast subterranean web of information.
I would like to say that this ocean of information in which we live is alive. (Just what life is continues to elude precise definition.) It may even be organised in a kind of structural way similar to our material world. Of course I really have no idea. All I know is that it is a rich pool from which my experience is shaped.
At the end of the day I have nothing but my experience and all my experience arises in my mind. I don’t have access to anything my mind hasn’t put together. This is the nature of experience. Even the experience of physical objects has been constructed by my mind. We know that physical objects are mostly empty space in which electrons zoom around (another mental concept).
I have been shaped and am still being shaped in part out of the many ideas, memories and sensibilities that came from my father. In the present moment thoughts bubble up that have his stamp on them, that reflect him to me, and shape my attitudes to life. Other people are alive to me in a similar way. Does this mean he is still alive?
It is clear that my identity, my sense of self, is created by what goes on in my mind. If I am in large part my thoughts and desires and feelings then when he fills my mind, he has been given life. We are all given life through the minds of others. None of us fully dies, but we go on living through all the people we have touched.
If we are our experience, if there is nothing but experience, then the content of our experience – my thoughts and feelings – is alive, so my Dad is alive when I remember him, and even when I don’t.
A lot of his influence may not be consciously recollected by me. I see now that my life is a composite, a rich smorgasbord of so many fragments of different beings, bubbling up for expression.
So there is now the problem of a location for my Dad. Has he become like the wind, blowing through all the minds that resonate him, but with no individual place of residence.
I would like to take these ideas one step further into the rather mysterious realm of information, which seems to have the similar characteristics to my Dad, of manifesting in different places, in this case magazines, books, computers, TVs but without an identifiable home. Information is a rather ethereal concept.
My current physical existence is based on my mind’s ability to construct a space-time person. Space and time are the modes through which the information that defines me is currently being expressed. We could say some of this information is conveniently stored in the DNA. I am similar to a book which is the mode through which its content/story/ideas are expressed.
When the physical body dies, the information that I identify with ‘me’, doesn’t necessarily die, it just loses this means of expression. Similarly the story isn’t the book. Just what the story and my Dad are in pure terms, remains a mystery. It’s the same with energy. We see what energy does, how it manifests, the laws it obeys, but what it is in itself remains elusive, beyond our grasp. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. It may be the same with information.
I may never get a handle on what exactly the information that defines an individual is. Information, like all fundamentals, remains a total mystery. But that’s okay. I have given my Dad a life that transcends death.