Earlier on this year I mentally promised myself that I would take a break from blogging from the middle of December until the end of January. That was at the same time that I started blogging once a week instead of feeling some kind of self-imposed pressure to blog two or three times a week. The internet is a wonderful place but I think it can turn your brain to mush. Also the number of books I have piled by my bed unread is becoming ridiculous. Before I start this post properly I just wanted to thank you for bothering to read this blog this year. Some of you have left really great comments: insightful, critical, generous and mocking (sometimes in a single comment). Thank you. I am constantly guilty of reading blogs and not leaving comments so I appreciate the extra effort it takes to leave a response. I hope you have a chance to have a break over the Christmas and New Year period, and I look forward to meeting up with you again in February 2014.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I’m writing to let you know how I think I’m turning out at 40. With any luck this will make sense.
It’s a complicated story the story of yourself, and it never seems to sit still, but across the slowly shifting surface of the self there are some things that remain more or less constant, and allow our character to be described. Although any description of the self must include contradictions.
I read something recently about Julian Assange that captured this. The writer was saying that a lot of people commenting on Assange’s case couldn’t seem to hold two things in their heads at the same time about two separate actions that he (a) took, and (b) is alleged to have taken (he created Wikileaks; he has been accused of rape). Those other writers couldn’t seem to understand that one person could have done something good, and something bad. Most of this reporting, our writer complained, portrayed him as either all bad or all good and dismissed or attacked whatever was contrary to that.
Whether or not anything about Assange is true (I personally believe he is a fictional character), the writer’s point is correct. People are contradictory and so is life. In life you have to hold at least two competing, contradictory and equally valid things in your head all the time about yourself, and others, and the world. Life is beautiful and rich and wonderful, and ugly and threadbare and terrible, but most of the time it is a smudge of those things: a black and white scuff between the two extremes.
I have a hard time accepting this. I would like to be right. I would like everyone to agree with me. I would like the world to be a better place. But I can also see that it is only my version of a better place, and hell can be another person’s version of a better place. I see but can’t seem to accept that suffering is part of life. I can understand your death, Dad, but I can’t accept it for either myself or my mother. I can understand my friend’s death, but I can’t accept it for myself, my friends or his family. It’s not fair, and it’s even more unfair that fairness is not part of the equation in life.
Where do we turn for help with all of this?
I wonder if it has been my mistake to turn to heroes, because heroes don’t exist. They exist in the frame of popular culture and tradition but not as real people. King or Bobby or Christ are boiled down to an essence: I Have a Dream, Affirmation Day, Sermon on the Mount. Those phrases ring, they make the bell of my heart sing, but they are the distillation of a rampant idealism and not life as it is lived. We remember the speech and forget the murder sometimes. People can violently disagree with the most apparently beautiful things. Is all speaking with passion a kind of arrogance to those who disagree? Did the murderer hear I Have a Dream and feel his skin crawl?
I find the end of year tricky at school. Emotion is heightened, and there are always many farewells. I think it was ballet that set me off on my emotional end-of-year roller coaster this time.
We went to Eleanor’s end-of-year ballet recital and one of the numbers by some of the senior dancers was to Pride by U2. The dance number was good, but it was hearing an old U2 song turned up loud that got me.
The first concert I ever went to was a U2 concert at Athletic Park when Athletic Park existed and had not been turned into a retirement village. The internet tells me the concert was on Wednesday, 8 November, 1989 and it was leg one of U2’s Lovetown Tour. The Wellington concert featured The Holidaymakers, and B.B. King as warm up acts. Before the warm up acts someone played a tape of early Beatles songs through the P.A. The crowd was more responsive to the Beatles tape than either The Holidaymakers or B.B. King. I spent a lot of time in 1988 hating the fact that The Holidaymakers were number one for six teeth-grinding weeks with their sappy cover of Sweet Lovers, but by November of 1989 they were well and truly past their use-by date and it must have been pretty amazing for them to play at Athletic Park and meet U2 and B.B. King. I don’t know that B.B. King would have enjoyed his New Zealand tour. New Zealand has become a lot hipper since, but in 1989 I don’t think we were ready for a blues legend. In 1989 I think we preferred a Beatles tape or U2 to B.B. who?
James and I went to the Lovetown concert together. We walked there from his house in Aro Valley. I remember that the closer we got to Athletic Park the more beer bottles and cans were sitting on the fences of the houses en-route. At the actual gates to Athletic Park there was a huge group of people milling around many of who seemed to be in leather jackets with gang patches. The ground was literally carpeted in empty beer cans. Apparently for a lot of people getting absolutely hammered was a crucial part of the pre-U2 experience. In 1989 I was 16 and drunks just seemed weird to me. Not to mention it was 1989 and getting alcohol was a lot more difficult and the legal drinking age was 20.
I have mixed memories of that concert. The music was incredible. It began with the long intro to Where the Streets Have No Name. SOOOOOO exciting. And it ended with 40. At that time I had no idea what 40 was about but it is a very fine way to end a concert. As P.J. O’Rourke noted: a few thousand people singing anything is incredibly moving. I see now that the song is about Psalm 40. If you’re Christian then that is about being saved by God. If you’re not, then I suppose it can be about wanting to be saved in general. The mixed memories I had about the concert were not about the music, they were about being John-Paul at a concert. What should John-Paul do at a rock concert, John-Paul wondered? I sensed the expectation to be into the music. This involved being out on the flat grass in front of the stage and dancing. Although there was this idea that I should be on the flat grass in front of the stage and dancing I am actually more like the person who wants to sit in the stands at the back and soak it all in. Inevitably I ended up standing between those two zones doing some awkward dancing as I shouted the lyrics “how long… must we sing this song…” I sang that un-ironically, although a part of me must have been dying for the encore to end. James and I danced like teenage boys. We ignored each other, and bobbed up and down semi-rhythmically. If one of us had caught the other’s eye it would have been disastrous. More disastrous than it was.
In 1991 I went to see Rattle and Hum at the Embassy with my uni friends. I think that the movie Rattle and Hum is widely regarded as a mistake. I loved it. This is an understatement. It nailed me to my seat and made my blood hum clean and fast. This – I thought – is rock’n’roll. This – I thought – is what being alive is like. I was so excited by this that I went to the next rock movie the Embassy played which was The Song Remains the Same. Unfortunately the song did, pretty much, remain the same, and that song involved Jimmy Page playing his guitar with a violin bow with all the treble turned way up for a very. Long. Time. I seem to remember James leaving the theatre to have a lie down in the foyer. I began to wonder if it was actually possible for too much treble to make someone’s ears bleed (it might be, but I established that the human ear can take two hours of punishment without hemorrhaging. That much I know).
After that U2 released Achtung Baby and proved they could reinvent themselves. I owned that album on cassette briefly. Unfortunately I left it in the fully dodgy spacies in the Regent and it was gone when I went back for it. I think that was the last time I cared about U2. They’re still going of course, 30 plus years on from their original rough, raw passion, in shitty clubs in Ireland and into the far depths of middle-aged stolidity. Are the guys who wrote Pride going to be my generation’s Rolling Stones? I’m not sure why this bothers me. I think it’s that contradictions in life thing again. U2, like me, like you, have changed… get over it. They were one kind of thing, and then another kind of thing, and they’re sort of both of those things now, but a bit older and slower. And?
I sense that the moment you become complacent you’re done for.
I felt awfully conflicted reading the cards a few Year 13 students gave me. On the one hand I felt humbled, and grateful, and sad to see them go (very sad), and on the other hand I felt excited for them and all that lies ahead for them, but also like I need to do a better job. You have to keep pushing yourself. You have to. If you’re a teacher it’s important because there’s always someone in your class who needs more help, and if they don’t get that help then you are either, for the struggling students, shortening their odds on reduced life choices or, for everyone, not letting them into the secret that life can be full of beauty, and wonder and resistance to the executioners. Resistance to people like John Key who can’t remember what they felt about the Springbok Tour, and can’t say anything anyone will remember about the death of Mandela (thank you Pita Sharples and David Cunliffe for actually representing New Zealand). If you’re in U2 it’s important to keep pushing because there’s always someone in your audience who needs you to make their blood run fast and hum again, and remember who they were again, and keep on going and believing in silly things like freedom, and peace and equality. If you’re phoning it in then get out.
It was the last day of school on Thursday. On the last day of school there is a final assembly and all the prefects for the next year are announced. The enthusiasm that the students embrace this with is wonderful. Why not clap, and shout and do standing ovations? I was so happy with the choice for head girl for 2014 that I actually did an 80s power grab of happiness (clench your hand in a fist in front of your face and then pull the fist down = 80s power grab). It’s actually how I feel most days in my classroom. I feel 80s-power-grab-of-happiness because of my students and their humour, intelligence and sense of justice for their sisters, brothers and the world. The impulses in us are good. They remain good.
Mum and Dad. I feel good. I need to work harder at most things, but I can. I learnt when my first child was born that love is infinite, and when my second child was born that love doesn’t diminish in size when it is divided. There is enough for everyone.
That’s a good thing to know at 40.