Iain (M) Banks and grief for those we’ve never met.


You know, Iain Banks died the other day. As with most people reading this, I never met the guy. As with many people who love his books, though, I feel deeply sad that the mind that created them is gone. It’s strange and hard to believe, in that all too familiar way of death.

(Aside: I really wish people would quit dying so that I wouldn’t find myself writing about this kind of thing all the time. If you’re alive and reading this: do me a favour and stay that way? I mean, even if I don’t like you all that much I’d almost certainly rather you just stopped being a douchebag than kicked it. Let’s all just stay alive. It’ll be great. And if it’s not great.. well, then we can go back to the way things are now, no hard feelings.)

Engaging with being affected by the death of people you don’t actually know is strange, at best. When someone who you know and love dies.. it’s horrible. Nauseatingly, achingly, violently horrible. One of the few things you have to cling on to is the rituals we create around death- the gathering together of loved ones, the funeral, the community. These places we create where we can fall apart.

That space where we grieve those we love is essential. If I used words like ‘sacred’, I’d use it here. It’s not a place to intrude upon. I do not want to intrude there.

At the same time, though? This culture of ours is one where we will never meet many of the people who influence us. It’s one where we can communicate to many more people than we can communicate with. And in a few cases, we can invite many thousands of people into our imaginations. Into our minds.

It’s never complete. It’s never like knowing or loving a person. But in a genuine way, creating stories is always sharing a part of who you are. If you’re exceptionally good at it? It can feel like tasting, in a small way, the flavour of a person’s mind. Not of what they are like, but of what it must be like to be them. Experiencing, in a way that you never could on your own. That wonderful, familiar, utterly alien sense of anotherness.

You don’t find out what a person is like. But you do- maybe, a little- get a sense of what it might be like to be them, from the inside.

After Banks’s death, Brendan O’Neill wrote an article decrying any expressions of grief from members of the public as “death watching”, and accusing those who speak of their impending mortality of being nothing more than “trendy”. O’Neill- who, by the way, seems to make his living as a contrarian- sees any way of dying that is not purely private as fashionable nonsense. And mourning for anyone outside your private circles? “Glory-seeking”.

Obviously, I don’t agree. We have the absolute right to privacy in our final days if that is what we wish for. We also have the right to be as public as we are able- and continuing to engage with others until the day we die does not take one jot of our dignity away from us. It’s our life. If talking and sharing make it meaningful to us, then who are we to take that away from someone for their final days? Who the hell are we to tell someone what to do with their last weeks on earth?

And who are we to say that grief for those who we’ve never met, but who we knew of, whose work we loved, who allowed us glimpses into their imaginations, isn’t real?

Iain (M) Banks was an astounding writer. His work wasn’t just absorbing and entertaining. He wrote books you’re sad to finish, characters that you miss terribly after the final page, worlds and places that you feel could be just there, around the corner. Where you knew there were thousands more stories waiting to be told around their corners. Imaginary spaces that felt as alive, as real, as rich as the one we live in.

It’s hard to believe that the mind that created all of that could end. Could truly end- not be backed-up, not live in a substrate or turn out to have been just one small part of someone far greater. Just end. Hard to believe that there isn’t any longer a life at the centre of it all.

I didn’t know Iain Banks. I’m not his friend or partner or family or loved one- not even an acquaintance- and I would never claim a fraction of the grief that they are feeling now.

But he wrote wonderful things. I will miss that.

 

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Thatcher’s Dead, Why She Was So Hated, Misapplied Death Etiquette, And How To Villify Without Being Misogynist.


Apologies for the lack of in-depth posting this week. I spent the weekend off in Limerick with the Dublin Roller Derby girls, am doing a couple of talks this week for DIT LGBT‘s Rainbow Week, and have a very loved friend visiting from the US. That, and I have a day job these days!

In the meantime, Margaret Thatcher died and the internet exploded with feels. The occasional sad feel, a lot of happy feels, another bunch of disappointed feels that the happy feels weren’t being appropriately decorous about the whole thing. Everyone ate jelly and icecream. People Said Things.

A few important things people have said, which should fulfill all your Thatcher’s Dead Week needs:

Why Are People In Britain Celebrating The Death Of Margaret Thatcher?

If you’re younger or not from anywhere that she royally fucked over, you might wonder why on earth the death of an old lady and ex-Prime Minister would have people dancing in the streets all over the UK. Sovreign Domain have written a good 101 on Thatcher’s attacks on poor people, POC, and, er, Argentina, as well as her friendships with fascists, racists and paedophiles. A couple of excerpts:

When she was elected in 1979, Her government more than doubled unemployment through extreme Monetarist policies… Over two million manufacturing jobs were ultimately lost in the recession of 1979-81. By 1983, manufacturing output had dropped by 30% from 1978. Employment in Britain has never fully recovered.

she personally gave the order to sink the Argentinian battleship Belgrano when it was  far outside of the ‘Total Exclusion Zone’ declared around the Falklands. In doing so she over-ruled the Navy’s own rules of engagement in sinking a World War 2 vintage battleship that had offered little threat against the modern Royal Navy.  The sinking of the Belgrano seemed to be more of a political gesture than a military necessity, designed to show her strength and resolution, needlessly killing 323 sailors.

…Thatcher’s culture of using the Police as paramilitary shock troops against the people of Britain started with the heavy handed and overtly racist policing that helped contribute to the Brixton and Toxteth riots and was developed in the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5.

Check out the rest if you’re not familiar with her or need a recap.

Margaret Thatcher and Misapplied Death Etiquette

Still, though. There were plenty of people who weren’t exactly saints in their lifetimes, and it’s still considered impolite to speak ill of the recently deceased. Right?

In this case, maybe not.

Thi

s demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. “Respecting the grief” of Thatcher’s family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person’s life and political acts. I made this argument at length last year when Christopher Hitchens died and a speak-no-ill rule about him was instantly imposed (a rule he, more than anyone, viciously violated), and I won’t repeat that argument today; those interested can read my reasoning here.

But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.

Thatcher was a person, but she is also an idea which has harmed millions of lives. Who do we owe more respect to- the bully or the bullied?

A Feminist Guide to Celebrating Thatcher’s Demise

You’ve read the 101, or you lived through Thatcherism and have been waiting to crack open the bubbly for years. I ain’t going to argue with you if you feel the need to raise a glass to her demise or join your local street party.

You should probably keep a few guidelines in mind, though. Since you know your intersectionality and your feminism, you’re probably aware that the ways in which we demonise and insult women can be pretty darn misogynist. If you’re wondering about the best way to villify her? Look no further, for the Angry Women of Liverpool have put together a quick guide for all your non-gendered vulgarity needs:

We should be careful about how we vilify her, because patriarchy does make it so much easier to vilify women as women, in ways that are harmful to all women rather than just the villains. That said, give her credit: she was vilified for far more than just her gender, and there are many very good reasons why Thatcher holds such a special place in the nation’s gallbladders. She was the one who turned on the tap for all the neoliberal free market shit we’ve been wading through for the past three decades. Why vilify her for being a woman when there’s her role in privatising services, destroying industries, breaking unions, starting wars, atomising communities and, lest we forget, stealing milk from babies.

…What’s wrong with calling Thatcher a venomous, putrid crust of syphilitic smegma on the chode of the universe? Or if you don’t like the vulgarity, go for the surreal: Thatcher was a wax-encrusted elbow-joint of the highest order. Be creative.

Here’s the rest.

 

Ask a Mortician


So because I am cool like that, I decided to spend a good hour or so of the first day of my 30s embracing my inevitable demise by watching everything that Ask A Mortician has ever uploaded. Never have I found the whole grisly, putrid, ashen, exploding-casket business to be so adorable, funny, interesting and wonderfully human. Never have I contemplated the transcendence of vultures. Or at what time of day I would probably get cremated.
If you’re not of a particularly triggerable by death disposition? Check ‘er out. Sometimes she has a cat. Also, cheesy 80s theme tune!

Abortion and journeys.


I wrote this yesterday morning. Meant to post it yesterday but after no sleep at all, got home and crashed out. Here it is.

I’m sitting drinking tea and eating overpriced breakfast in Prestwick airport. Lady Gaga is playing on speaker somewhere. It’s 5.40am.

I didn’t sleep tonight. Did you? I couldn’t. Not just because I knew I had to get up before 4am, or the loud drunk people in the hostel room next door, or because I’d just said goodbye to the Ladyfriend until the next visit and the bed felt terribly cold and lonesome. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking of Savita. And I couldn’t stop thinking of all the Irish women lying awake tonight for early morning flights to the UK, while thousands around the country mourn and rage. I wonder how that feels. I hope that today of all days, they know that Ireland is waking up to the love and compassion it’s been hiding all these years.

I’m lucky. I’ve never had to make that journey. I’m lucky. I have the choice.

I don’t know about the details of Savita’s life. I’m sure I’ll find out more over the next days and weeks. But right now I want to ask a question. Did Savita have a choice? And what about the women who don’t?

Savita’s choice was denied her because by the time she made it she was in an Irish hospital with doctors who chose, for some reason, to inform her that she was “in a Catholic country”. Catholic countries have no compassion for dying women. But did she have a choice to start with?

Irish women, we have choice. Those of us who can afford it, at least. We can take our early-morning flights and make our escape. Many migrant women don’t have that choice, can live in Ireland for years knowing that if they need to leave, they can’t. I wonder how that feels. Knowing that life in the home you’ve made for yourself is a Russian roulette if you don’t want to be pregnant. Or if you’re pregnant and have a non viable fetus. Or if you’re pregnant and have cancer, or anything else short of the immediate threat of dying. Or even that. Knowing that as you lie dying, your doctor might just tell you where you live and leave. Leave, while you cannot.

Our country says that to migrant women. They made their beds, we say, as we force them to lie in them even to the death.

I don’t know the details of Savita’s life. But this isn’t just about Savita. She is one of the unlucky ones. She’s the one we’ve heard about. Savita is dead, and I can’t believe that she’s alone. Savita’s life is one part of our story of absolutes, lack of compassion and the devaluing of so many lives in the name of morality.

Sitting here in a UK airport before dawn this morning, I wonder about the rest of that story.

Just another post about loss.


These days it feels like I only seem to write around loss. Somehow of all the things I have to say, this most personal and painful is the one I choose to share. Maybe that’s because it’s become so familiar. So ordinary. Joy is too intimate, but pain and loss? I can share those.

Yesterday night I took a late train home, three hours in those exquisitely uncomfortable seats with my shoulders gradually getting more and more tense and painful. I took a train home from the funeral of someone I’ve never met, and on the way I learned that someone I love will probably not live past the week.

I get home just before midnight. My love is in the kitchen making dinner. The lights are off, she’s lit candles. My friends- oh, my wonderful friends- have left a bottle of wine and a stack of notes in the living room. We sit together on the balcony, we eat, we drink our wine and look at the stars. What stars we can see, anyway, here in the city on this warm summer night. For those short few hours we make this quiet, dark space our own. It feels okay. It feels safe.

We said goodbye an hour ago. She has to fly home, and I miss her before she’s out of sight. We had planned to take a flight together tonight, but tomorrow morning I take another train to visit my family and to say goodbye. Goodbye, for real this time. I don’t know what to say or what I will do. I don’t know how to say a final goodbye. I never know how.

What do you say, when you know it’s the last chance you have to say it? What is meaningful? What does that even mean? How do we make sense of goodbyes with no “see you again”, no good wishes for the future, no next time?

I ain’t got any answers.

The things we remember


It feels odd to be writing about this. I haven’t even started writing, and already it feels very odd. Like I’m trespassing somewhere that isn’t mine.

Ten years is a long time. Ten years ago this evening, I was sitting in my living room watching Buffy when the phone rang. It was Friday, I was alone in the house. I remember where I was sitting, in the armchair next to the window. Sitting sideways over the arms of the chair to face the screen. I remember answering the phone. I don’t remember who it was, but I do know that she asked me if I was sitting down before she’d tell me what had happened.

I remember the shock, the disbelief. The total lack of any real emotion for the next few minutes. I remember making some phonecalls to pass on the news. I remember that I only really broke down after that. I remember my parents getting home, my friends coming over. Deciding to drive to Dublin the next morning. Not knowing what I was supposed to do, but needing to be near to everyone else who had known him.

I remember the next week- all of us sleeping on floors, on couches. Needing to be close to each other. Veering wildly between giddy and bereft. I remember it snowing outside a church.

I remember going home. The strangeness of spending my days in places where nothing had changed, knowing that everything had changed forever. I remember the next couple of years as we struggled to deal with knowing that there was nothing we could trust in utterly, that nobody was entirely safe. I remember..

I remember all of that.

I wish that remembering all of that didn’t make it so fucking hard to remember you.

 

p.s. pluggity plug plug.

Anniversary rekindling


Today is the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. All the cliches apply. I find it hard to believe that it’s been so long. I find it hard to accept that she is really gone. Most of the time everything is fine, but sometimes I still get hit right in the guts, left breathless, dizzy and sick by the reality that she is gone and she will never again be. I suppose that we all do.

Something I’ve been reading, over and over, in the past few weeks is this passage from I Am A Strange Loop. It’s a beautiful secular way of articulating what survives of us after our own death.

In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

The slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being–truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig–is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

On this note, I’d like to share some things with you. Namely two posts I wrote this week two years ago in my old blog. One was barely hours before she died, and the other was a few days later. Neither has been edited, except to remove names- sorry about initials repeating.

So this is the second night in Killarney. My granny lost her swallow the other day, she can’t eat or drink anymore. We’re all here.

It’s strange.

I was really upset before I got here, after I heard. Having a really lovely day with lovelypeople and hating everything about it because I couldn’t do anything about the fact that someone I love immensely, fiercely, doesn’t get to have days anymore, never mind good ones, with Good Company and Silliness and Fun. And there’s not a thing I can do about it.

But then I got here, and the house is full of people. Me and J and my aunt M and D&M and my cousin A. And M, for an hour or two in the evenings. And constant streams of visitors.

My family are being so good to each other. I was so scared that this would make everything blow up, all the tensions that have been simmering for the past few years, but everyone is being so kind to each other. We’re letting each other be, and deal in our own ways.

And people keep cooking. The house is now full of stew and ham and pie and really good cake, and really good wine.

So that is good. There is good food, and my family are being so good to each other, and there’s a lot of us here, and that is not only comforting, but a whole lot of fun. We’re not being awkward about it. We’re making horrendous puns and talking about things and being silly and serious and it’s all very genuine.

And then there’s my granny.
She’s so tiny. You can see her bones under her skin, stretched tight. Her breathing is shallow and it’s loud, the sound fills the room. Her skin is cool, and it feels so, so thin.

I don’t know what else to say about it.

So, yes. Some of you know this already but I’m PSAing it, just for informationey purposes. I didn’t want to tell many people before now- it felt too personal, too intimate at the time. Too bare.

Last Sunday I got a phonecall from Jacqui saying that I should get to Killarney the next day, that my granny had lost the ability to swallow and that it would only be another few days.
This, by the way, is my mother’s mother, a.k.a. Mary Casey (officially O’Riordan, but she was always known by her original, not her married, name). She’s the one who’s had Alzheimer’s for the past decade or so.

So I got here on Monday evening. I was here, and my parents, and my cousin A and his parents, and my aunt M. My granny was in the front room of her house, on a water drip and on morphine, and she was so, so peaceful. We spent the next day with her. It was beautiful.

She died at 2.20am on Tuesday night. J was with her when she died. She didn’t suffer, she just.. stopped breathing. J called us all in, and we stayed with her all night. We called the rest of her kids who weren’t here- except for my aunt A, but I’ll get to that. We called my second cousin G, the undertaker, who granny had soundly briefed years ago on precisely what was to happen when she died. we made tea and we sat on the bed with her and we hugged each other and we hugged her and it was quiet and unhurried and sad and so, so peaceful.

At about half five or six, Ger took her away to his funeral home to do whatever it is that he does. Me and A went to bed, got a few hours of rest, everyone else stayed up.

Ger brought her back at 7.30 on Wednesday.

She was waked last night and the night before. Yesterday, there was a steady stream of people through the house to see her for over four solid hours. Hundreds of people, and so many of them were so moved, so many. She knew everyone, did Mary Casey.

Late the night before last, I got a chance to go into her when it was quiet and everyone had left, to sit with her for a half hour or so and to say my goodbyes. I’m so grateful for that.

Today she went to the funeral home in Tralee. We drove her around Killarney first, before heading out the Tralee road. J talking about the time when she lived in Tralee and worked as a nurse in the mental hospital in Killarney, when her sister was sick with TB in Tralee and she cycled from home to work, then back to Tralee, then back to work, then back to Tralee, all in one day. And we’re driving through that road, framed with mountains topped with snow and rivers of clouds between them, cold winter sun shining on us.
It’s a good day for her to go home.

And I love her, and I miss her. She was one hell of a lady, was my granny, was Mary Casey from the Top of the Rock in Tralee.

I still miss her, and I still love her. And along with everything else, love is a reflection of how much of her is a part of me, how much of her uniqueness lives on in my mind and my memories and all the little ways in which I would not be who I am were it not for her. And my granny? She was, and is, loved by an awful lot of people.

One more thing before I go. Over the summer I wrote a post about something very similar to what was talked about in the quote from I Am A Strange Loop above. I want to post it again here- I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence.

I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.

I miss you.

mary073