Death’s Dateless Night

St David’s Cathedral, on the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets in Hobart, is a building I see almost every day and, consequently, have become immune to its presence.

Originally it was a replacement for the wooden St David’s Church that was erected in St David’s Park over the grave of Lieutenant David Collins, and which blew over in a gale a few months later. Construction of the second St David’s Church commenced on the present site in 1817. When Hobart was granted city status in 1842, St David’s Church became St David’s Cathedral.

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The foundation stone for the current cathedral (the third St David’s Church) was laid in 1868, and the building was designed by the Victorian architect George Frederick Bodley. It was completed in 1874 and the old cathedral was pulled down. The final stage was the construction of the cathedral tower, which was completed on 1936, 68 years after the works started.

But I digress.

Much as I love finding out the history of Hobart’s old buildings, I wasn’t there on Tuesday night to look at the cathedral. I was there, as were a lot of other people, to hear the magical music of Paul Kelly and slide guitarist extraordinaire Charlie Owen come to life as they performed their Death’s Dateless Night show.

As I mentioned in my last post, this tour is a tour of the album, Death’s Dateless Night, a collection of songs that PK and Charlie have sung at funerals over the years. They are accompanied by PK’s daughters Maddy and Memphis Kelly, on backing vocals.

Not having been to a show at the Cathedral before, I was advised to arrive early to avoid getting stuck behind a pillar and not being able to see. We stationed ourselves at a bar across the road before 6pm to suss out the crowd.

  • Rookie Mistake Number 1: Believing that the doors would open at 6.30 as advised on the website.
  • Rookie Mistake Number 2: Not seeing a crowd outside the closed Murray Street door, assuming that this was because it wasn’t 6.30 yet, and assuming no one was waiting. They were waiting. Inside the Cathedral, having gone in the Macquarie Street door long before 6.30.

Ooops.

We found a pew, sort of behind a pillar, but which gave us a relatively unimpeded view of what we hoped would be PK’s mic.

We sat and waited for an hour, admiring the pillars, until the support act, a lovely duo called Sweet Jean, took to the stage. Sweet Jean is Sime Nugent and Alice Keath, who was one of the guest vocalists on PK’s Seven Sonnets and a Song album that came out earlier this year. Slabs has played some of their material on his radio show.

I enjoyed their music and it set the scene really well for the main story.

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Our view. We could just see PK!

The first “act”, as PK called it, was a play through of the Death’s Dateless Night album, minus Track 7. I couldn’t figure out which track had been missed, but it all made sense later on.

The standout for me was “Good Things”, written by PK and Charlie’s former band mate Maurice Frawley. I felt Charlie’s intense guitar during this track really captured a sense of grief for the loss of his friend. (Maurice Frawley died in 2009.)

The ‘folk song from the British Isles’ (“Let It Be”) has never been a favourite Beatles track of mine, and though I appreciate the work that PK, Charlie, Maddy and Memphis put into this, I’m still not a fan. Nevertheless as versions go, this wasn’t bad.

PK mentioned that he had seen Leonard Cohen work up close, and his version of “Bird On A Wire” was very moving, coming so soon after Cohen’s death.”Angel Of Death” was the end of Act One.

The second part of the show was a selection of mostly older material that PK had chosen because it fitted the theme. First up was two of the Sonnets from Seven Sonnets and a Song – “Sonnet 60” and “Sonnet 73”. Before Sonnet 73, PK pointed out all of the guitars and instruments Charlie had played on the new album, including his Bakelite guitar, which he used in this track.

Later: “Everyone’s so quiet in here,” said PK.

“It’s a church,” whispered someone in the audience.

“I know!” PK replied.

Next up was a Tex, Don and Charlie song, which I wasn’t familiar with, called “Postcard From Elvis”. It appears on their 1993 album Sad But True. This was followed by “Pretty Place”, originally on PK’s 2001 album … Nothing But a Dream. He spoke of how the title was inspired by Banjo Clarke, and the Pretty Place was where he used to go to get away from everything. (I googled Banjo Clarke. He was born in 1923 at the Frelmingham Mission in Victoria, on his family’s ancestral land and his mother was originally from Bruny Island.)

A concert of songs with the theme of death was never going to be complete without the one PK song that never fails to make me cry, “Deeper Water”, and this time was no exception. I was in tears from the very first riff. A song of love and of loss. Dammit I don’t even like the song, but I’m drawn to it like the people in the song are drawn to the deeper water.

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Spring and Fall from 2012 is one of PK’s albums I’m not super-familiar with, so I didn’t recognise the track “Time and Tide”, but he told the story of its origin, around a campfire in the Kimberleys. The one new song he played was the poem “Life Is Fine” by American poet Langston Hughes.

So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love-

But for livin’ I was born

The next track needed no introduction – well actually it did, because it’s not a track that immediately comes to mind as a funeral song. PK explained he’d been asked to play his Christmas song “How To Make Gravy” at the funeral of Melbourne AFL player Rob Flower. It’s one of his best-loved songs. This rendition, with Charlie’s guitar, gave me a new appreciation of this song, especially towards the end, where the guitar amplifies the protagonist’s fear that his brother is going to steal his wife while he’s in prison, how gutted his is that he can’t be with his family at Christmas, and he’s so very sorry for what he’s done and for hurting his family. I could hear the anguish in every note. This song made me cry too.

It wasn’t quite the end though, and we were treated to a solo performance of “Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air”. The missing track from the album. And then, an encore, “I Wasted Time”, with the appropriate words:

I see old friends at funerals now and then

It’s down to this – it’s either me or them

Charlie returned to the stage for another moving track, “They Thought I Was Asleep” (from Foggy Highway), and Maddy and Memphis reappeared for the last song of the evening, a real oldie, “Cities of Texas”.

And then they were gone.

It was a serene, contemplative evening. Unlike many other PK shows, there were no loud talkers and no drunken calls to “play To Her Door” – although I didn’t expect there would be. There was an air of solemnity about the show, and complete respect for the artists and their music.

I am grateful to have shared in this experience. Thank you PK, Charlie, Maddy and Memphis. And thanks Slabs for buying me tickets for my birthday!

Challenge 4: Facing Fear – Days 8-14

I’m not going to write about everything I do this month, but I have done something outside my comfort zone every day this week. Some weren’t very far out, baby steps, so I think maybe i need to start ramping it up a bit in the second half of the challenge.

Activity 8: Introduce myself and talk to someone new at school

Following on from saying hello to new people at school last week, on Monday I had an opportunity to introduce myself to one of Kramstable’s classmate’s grandmother. We were waiting in the classroom to go with the class on a walk to an off-site program, so I went over to her and said hi, introduced myself, found out who she was and told her who I was before the teacher introduced us.

After my experiences of the last few days I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll always feel uncomfortable doing this, but that it’s a lot more uncomfortable to be in the same place as someone and not know who they are, than it is taking this step.

So far it’s been ok because it’s been one-on-one interactions. I’m not so sure about doing this in a more populated environment, such as a party, meeting, “networking” event or conference. I remember attending a work conference with a colleague some years ago and was amazed at how she simply walked over to people, held out her hand and introduced herself. I was tagging along like a terrified shadow, too scared to say anything.

I mentioned this to her at the time, and told her how impressed I was that she was doing this and how easily she was doing it. She told me that she was terrified, but had made a decision to meet people because that was the point of being at the conference in the first place, so she basically took a deep breath and just did it. I did not.

Perhaps I need a conference to go to so I can ramp this challenge up a bit.
Nooooo!

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 2/10

How I felt doing it: Nervous and a bit awkward.
How I felt after doing it: Glad I’d taken the initiative before the teacher introduced us.

Would I do this again: Yes.

Activity 9: Call someone about something I would normally email them about

We got a letter from the council a few days ago about some work they are planning in our street. It’s not exactly clear (at least to me, non-town planner with plan-reading skills of approximately zero) exactly what’s proposed and why it’s changed from what we understood the original plan to be. There was a contact name in the letter if we needed further information, who we could call or email. I was going to email, since that’s normally my easy way out of dealing with an issue, but decided to actually speak to the person instead just to challenge myself a bit.

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 4/10
How I felt doing it: Nervous, but I was asking for information, not asking for anything to happen or be changed, so I talked myself out of the nerves. Sort of.
How I felt after doing it: Annoyed because the contact person wasn’t the person that could answer my questions so I had to call the “expert” the next day.
Would I do this again: Well I have to don’t I?!

Activity 10: Request at work

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 7/10
How I felt doing it: Nervous because I couldn’t slot the point I really wanted to make into the conversation.
How I felt after doing it: Annoyed because I didn’t say what I wanted to say. So I didn’t complete the challenge.
Would I do this again: I will try again.

Activity 11 Make an appointment I’ve wanted to make for ages

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 2/10
How I felt doing it: A bit nervous about making the call, but the lady I spoke to was very nice.
How I felt after doing it: Relieved at having made the phone call but still anxious about the actual appointment.
Would I do this again: Yes.

Activity 12: Go on a school excursion with 100+ kids

I’ve been on heaps of school excursions and they’re always fun, but I always get a little bit terrified of going because I become responsible for other people’s children, who I don’t often know very well. It’s scary trying to keep a group of 25-30 kids together while you’re walking to the venue and crossing busy roads and, while the teacher is ultimately in charge, you’re there to help them and make sure nothing goes horribly wrong.

This time was particularly scary as it was a reasonably long walk to the venue and it was a huge day with hundreds of kids from schools all over the place there. It gets easier to manage days out as the kids get older, but this was the biggest thing I’d ever been involved with.
I really needn’t have worried so much. I had a group of eight kids to watch over, I had another parent with me and the teacher floating between groups. So it was pretty chill in the end. All I had to do was gently guide the kids back on track if they looked like they were drifting away and make sure they didn’t wander off. It all went smoothly and I’m not sure what I was worried about.

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Maybe it’s just a little stage fright that comes with being made Responsible (and charged with reporting back to the teacher if any kids misbehave). Maybe it’s the same excitement/nerves I get before I do anything a bit unusual and isn’t really fear at all.

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 3/10
How I felt doing it: I had a great time. I didn’t lose any kids. I learned stuff.
How I felt after doing it: Glad I did it.
Would I do this again: Yes.

Activity 13: Write a post about a difficult subject on my blogT

his was one of my standard posts about a book I’d read as part of my 24 books in a year goal. It was Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, and I focused on the subject of death and how she wrote about how no one speaks about it.I wondered if I should post it because it’s not a comfortable subject. But it’s my blog and it’s about what I’m learning – so if what I write doesn’t connect with anyone, that’s fine.

Fear-ometer rating pre-challenge: 4/10
How I felt doing it: Worried I might be writing about a touchy subject that might be upsetting.
How I felt after doing it: Wondering if anyone had actually read it.
Would I do this again: Yes.

 

Activity 14

Completed

On contemplating death: Book 21/24

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington (2014)

Book 21 - ThriveBefore I read this book, I knew of Arianna Huffington in connection with the Huffington Post, but that’s about all. I found out more about her on Gretchen Rubin’s “Happier” Podcast (Episode 65)  when she was talking about her new book The Sleep Revolution, which follows up on the information about sleep she presented in Thrive.

In the podcast, and in a similar interview with Dan Harris on his 10% Happier podcast, Ms Huffington speaks of having a wake-up call when she collapsed from exhaustion after working 18-hour days as well as being a mother to her two teenage daughters, and woke up in a pool of blood after fracturing her cheekbone and cutting her eye. This lead her down a path to reduce the stress in her life, cut back on work and sleep more.

In Thrive, Ms Huffington says that “over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power”. She says this can work in the short term, but over the long term she sees money and power by themselves as being like a two-legged stool, which is eventually going to fall over. Many successful people, she says, are now falling over.

She says that the way society has defined success is not sustainable, either for individuals or societies, and that to live the lives we truly want and deserve, we need a third measure of success that goes beyond money and power. She calls this the “Third Metric”, which is made up of four pillars: Well-Being, Wisdom, Wonder and Giving.

The book is made up of four sections about those themes, and Ms Huffington explores these themes through examining research, scholarship, her own personal experiences and experiences of others. Like in Big Magic, I didn’t find a lot of stuff that I hadn’t read about before, but I found the discussion in the chapter about Wonder on death and dying to be particularly moving and thought provoking, so I’m going to write a bit about what she says on this subject.

As we know, we’re all going to die. Whatever we believe happens to us after death, our life as we know it will eventually end.

Ms Huffington writes: “The closer death comes, the deeper we bury it, desperately putting machines and tubes and alarms and railings between us and the person stepping over to the other side of the mortality line. The medical machinery has the effect of making the person seem less human and therefore his or her fate less relevant to us . . . It allows us to not think about it, to put it off endlessly like something on our to-do lists we never quite get to.  . . . Rationally we know we’ll get to it – or run smack into it – eventually. But we figure we don’t need to deal with it until we really have to.
Why should we think about our death now? she asks. What good would it do us?

“A lot actually. In fact there may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death. If we want to redefine what it means to live a successful life, we need to integrate into our daily lives the certainty of our death. Without no ‘dead’ there is no ‘alive’. . . . As soon as we’re born we’re also dying. The fact that our time is so limited is what makes it precious.”

Everything we accumulate in our lives, power, money, success, will be no more permanent than we are, she says (you can’t take it with you) and, while you can leave an inheritance to your children, you can also pass on “the shared experience of a fully lived life, rich in wisdom and wonder,” which seem to me like much more significant things to leave behind. “To truly redefine success,” writes Ms Huffington, “We need to redefine our relationship with death.”

She goes on to say that research has found that avoiding the reality of death leads people to hold onto customs and beliefs that contribute to stability (which makes sense to me). This includes identifying with groups based on race or gender or other attributes. It’s suggested that holding onto a group in this way can lessen our fear of death, because the group has an air of permanence, even if we we the individual are impermanent.

However, Ms Huffington writes, this holding on can be one explanation for things like racism and for ways in which we “demonise outsiders to glorify our own group.” She describes how the research (by Professor Todd Kashdan) found that mindful people who were willing to explore what’s happening in the present, even it it’s uncomfortable, tend to show less defensiveness when their sense of self is threatened by their own mortality. Professor Kashdan concluded that “mindfulness alters the power that death has over us”.

I found this to be one of the most interesting and powerful sections of the book, I guess because death isn’t something I think about too much. I was particularly moved by Ms Huffington’s description of the last day of her mother’s life, which she describes as “one of the most transcendent moments of [her own] life”. She writes that she keeps coming back to the lesson “don’t miss the moment”, which was her mother’s personal philosophy. The present moment, she writes, is the only place from which we can experience wonder.

She writes of maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity, and says there are three basic practices that help her live more in the moment – the only place from which we can experience wonder:

1. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for ten seconds whenever you feel tense, rushed or distracted. This allows you to become fully present in your life.

2. Pick an image that ignites joy in you. It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting that you love – something that inspires a sense of wonder. And any time you feel contracted, go to it to help you expand.

3. Forgive yourself for any judgements you are holding against yourself and then forgive your judgments of others. Then look at your life and the day ahead with newness and wonder.

“The only thing people regret,” she quotes English Poet Ted Hughes as having said, “is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” This brought to my mind several articles that have been published on the regrets of the dying, where on their death beds people don’t regret not working hard enough, but regret not having lived a life that was true to themselves and not having been braver, loved more, spoken up more and so on.

When I think about it, this is one of the reasons I’m doing the #yearoffear challenge – to start to get braver and do things I’ve been scared of doing, so that I don’t have as many regrets when my time comes.

That’s pretty heavy stuff! But I also got a lot more out of this book than just contemplating my own death; I even got a couple of new ideas for my #yearoffear challenge – so I’ve added them to the list.

Recommended.