There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body, mind; no colour, sound, or smell;
no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight,
no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end
to ignorance; no old age and no death;
no end to age and death; no suffering,
nor any cause of suffering, nor end
to suffering, no path, no wisdom and no fulfilment.
The Heart Sutra
Want to see nirvana, don’t want to die yeah
Nights, Frank Ocean
The wind. From the south. I drove out to the south coast to take the Christmas tree to the tip and the sea was aquamarine, the waves high but ragged, the white spume spitting and flailing in the wind as the waves bent their backs and dived into the rocks. Wellington has turned yellow and red: lawns and fields mustard or hay bale coloured, and all the gutters and corners and footings of the fences choked with the brilliant plum red of pöhutakawa needles.
I hate the sea. It is alien and poison to humans. Its action, its sound, and its depths are all emblems of indifference. I hate it.
After my drive to the tip I came home and I walked down to the park at the end of the street where football was being practiced. There was a lot of shouting and running and kicking at high speed. It looked very slick and well organised, although there was no opposition so this probably helped considerably. At the far end of the park you can look out over the Berhampore Golf Course across Island Bay and see a triangle of the sea under the horizon line and between two hills. I looked at it – the sea – but the wind was strong, and the dead grass of the golf course, combined with cleared, rough ground of an old pine forest wasn’t cheering.
I finished a book about the 2011 tsunami that hit Töhoku in Japan. It is called Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry. I bought it because Parry wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about the tsunami a few years ago that is one of the most powerful, disturbing and upsetting things I have ever read, and it has stayed with me vividly ever since I read it. The book contains that piece, and sets it in a wider frame.
I suppose there are three things that make the book so good. Firstly, Parry is enormously knowledgeable and perceptive about Japanese society and sympathetic to it. He says things about the Japanese and their society that are incredibly perceptive while not falling into one of two common traps: (1) giving everything Japanese a sublime, inexplicable timeless power beyond explanation, or (2) being hyper-critical and cynical about the way the society works and wanting to correct it. Secondly, he presents the grief, and anger, and loss palpably. It is awful. As grief and anger and loss are. Finally, he allows for the possibility of the supernatural to exist, and for the tsunamis damage to reach down into people’s souls and bring things into existence which should not be possible. He does that without judgement.
I’m travelling to Dunedin tomorrow to go to the funeral of Uncle George. Not my uncle but my great uncle I suppose. My Gran’s brother. We sometimes visited him when I was a child at his house with his wife near Dunedin Airport in the 1980s and perhaps into the 1990s. He seemed a humourous, easy-going man; not at all like his sisters, but then his life was quite different. Being the youngest by quite a stretch for starters, and a boy, and becoming a Presbyterian minister. He was a contemporary of Lloyd Geering although that only occurs to me now. What he thought of the heresy trial I don’t know. What does it matter how we interpret Jesus? How we interpret his death and the fact or myth of his resurrection? Can people exist in some way once their physical form has perished? Whether we believe in the resurrection of Christ can we not say that he has a life beyond death?
Going to Dunedin, then. I will stop in at some places. It feels like going home; to a place I never lived. I will try to go to Clinton. Where my father was raised by his aunt and her husband. I will try and find the house that some people say isn’t there anymore.
In his book Parry describes the work of a Buddhist priest in the area where the tsunami struck. An area where the ghosts of the dead roamed through the hearts and minds of the living:
The effort of the exorcisms was too much. Friends were beginning to worry about him. ‘I was overwhelmed,’ he said. ‘Over the months, I’d become accustomed to hearing the stories of survivors. But all of a sudden, I found myself listening to the voices of the dead.’
The description of what he went through haunts me. Especially the ghosts of the children. 18,000 people were killed by that tsunami. It was a massive, blank and annihilating intervention into life. It was in fact the fate we all have but given real tangible, dreadful form.
My father was sent to live in Clinton with his Aunty Mary and her husband Bill. My father was born in 1929 and was living with them from 1935. I don’t think Mary’s life turned out how she planned. At 19 her mother died and she took over the family of eight children. She is often described as serious or hard.
Her husband Bill suffered a stroke in the 1940s and died in 1951. He was buried in Clinton Cemetery. One of Mary’s brothers lived in a shed out the back of her house for decades. He died in 1954 and was also buried at Clinton Cemetery. It may just be my feelings about the sea, but when I read the last sentence in her little biography in the family history it chilled me.
When Mary died in 1963 she was, in accordance with her wishes, cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.