On words and silence

I’ve got rather practiced, this last week, at removing words from things. I submitted a couple of pieces of writing to the Pilgrim Hill Arts Festival, which had a maximum word count requirement of only 500 words per piece, meaning I needed to lose some 300 words from one piece, and almost 700 from another—and still keep the original integrity. And then I helped my husband cut down words from one of his university assignments to get it under the required word count.

Just. Of. That. Really.

You don’t realise when you write a first draft, the everything-goes-in, write-it-as-you-speak-it without a single care about numbers or saying things “right”, that half the words you use are really, really just…unnecessary!

It reminded me of my favourite joke from childhood…the man walking past the fish shop:

A man walking down the road stopped when he saw the fishmonger admiring his new sign outside his shop, saying “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today”.

“Why does the sign say ‘fresh’”, the man asked, “Would you be selling it if it wasn’t?”

“Good point,” said the fishmonger, as he grabbed a cloth and rubbed out the word ‘fresh’, then stepped back to look.

“Also, ‘Here’?” the man asked him. “Where else would you be selling the fish but in your shop?”

After thinking about this for a minute, the fishmonger said, “That makes perfect sense!” So he altered the sign again to read “Fish Sold Today.”

No sooner had he finished this the man spoke up again. “You really don’t need ‘Sold?’ either. You weren’t planning on giving it away!”

“Right again,” said the fishmonger, and crossed out ‘sold’.

The sign now read “Fish Today”, which puzzled both the man and the fishmonger. They stood staring at it for a moment, until the man said, “You don’t really need to say ‘today’, do you? I mean, you won’t be selling it yesterday…isn’t that bit obvious?”

“You’re right!” said the fishmonger, as he rubbed out the offending word, leaving one word on his sign: ‘Fish’. “Thank you so much for your help, sir. I’m so thankful you stopped by.”

“No problems at all”, the man smiled as he turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way, you don’t need to say ‘fish’, either. You can smell it a mile off!”

I loved this story as a child. It took me years, though, to realise how much I’d grown to resemble it. We cut out words all the time, and we think it justified, consider ourselves stronger, somehow, for our verbal leanness.

Somehow, slowly, I’d cut out unnecessary words from my communication, until all that was left was a silence filled with an expectation that other people knew what I was not saying.

I learned eventually one very powerful truth:

People don’t know what’s happening inside of you unless you tell them.

Speak up. It’s important that you do. Your words matter. All of them, even the little ones you’d deem unnecessary, they’re all part of the bigger story. Even just really. All of it matters.

If for no other reason than just because…





On Dreams, and Taking my Dead Dad to Queensland

I wanted to talk about my dad, and got sideswiped by my mum last week. It happens some times, I guess. Parents can be like that…even if they have dementia, or are, as in my dad’s case, dead.

Here’s something they don’t tell you when you’re young—when you’re young enough to think that you’ll be young forever, and young enough to think that your parents are terribly, terribly old (in the decades before they actually reach that fated state)—nobody tells you that your parents will be with you, in some form or another, for your whole life. Or, as far as I can tell, longer than they’re actually necessarily here.

(To my kids…I’m sorry!)

They stay in memory. They stay with who you are, in myriad little decisions, little thoughts each day. They’re there in your self-talk, in the way you speak to others, in the way you see yourself even. It can be good or bad…sometimes both…

I still have, strictly speaking, both my parents. My mum, as I wrote last week, is in an aged care facility where they take excellent care of her. My dad—as he has always been—is a little more complicated.

My dad died five years ago. He died quite suddenly, a matter of only a few days after he’d been unwell on a Friday, and we’d made the transition in our minds to “Dad is elderly now”, and began to think about how we’d handle the next few years. “The next few years” ended on a Tuesday morning, and that was that. There was a funeral, and a cremation, and some weeks after Christmas the funeral home presented me with a white paper carry-bag containing the photo I’d given them of Dad, and the presentation they’d made of it, a candle, and a rather heavy plastic box that apparently contains his ashes.

Much happened in our family in the weeks and months after Dad’s death. Most of it good, much of it pivotal. I’m not the most organised person (or, at least, I had a lot to organise at that time), and the white paper carry-bag stayed on my bedroom floor with a few bits of other paperwork. And then the paperwork got dealt with, but Dad stayed there. And then, after a while, he migrated to the back of the cupboard, and he’s been there ever since.

It’s not much of an ending, really. And I guess this is really the key behind my (lack of) decision: I wasn’t ready for an ending.

Dad hadn’t been ready for an ending, either. Dad had dreams—big ones, that had sustained him for twenty years or more. In a way I think it was the loss of his dream that eventually killed him.

Dad was going to move to Queensland.

To be slightly more accurate, Dad was going to marry a lady called Helen and move to Queensland with her. He met Helen soon after he moved to Western Australia, some time in the 1990s. They were friends on and off, she had boyfriends on and off (none of them were my father), and, from what I can tell, a sad and quite complicated life. She didn’t want to marry my dad, annor did she want to move to Queensland, but Dad was an optimistic soul*, and kept the dream of Helen and Queensland alive for many years, and these dreams are the ones that sustained him.

I wanted Dad to move back to Tasmania, to be closer to family in his latter years, and he came to visit a couple of times, which we all enjoyed. He was restless though, unable to settle, because of Helen, because of his dream, because of Queensland.

He came to visit last one August, he’d stay for six weeks, he said, then go back home to Western Australia. He had plans. Helen. Dreams. Queensland. He had to get things sorted, get ready to go.

It was down here in Hobart where everything changed, in the yellow fluorescent-lit basement of JB Hifi. He ran into an old acquaintance from Western Australia, simply by chance, an old flame of Helen’s, apparently, who told him the worst news possible: Helen had died some years before. She wasn’t ever going to marry my dad. She wasn’t ever going to move to Queensland.

Three months after this my dad was dead too. Heart failure. I’m pretty sure it was the death of his dream that killed him.

Now, some astute readers will be saying by now, “How come, if he was so convinced he was going to marry this woman, he could not know of her death? And not her recent death, her TWO YEARS AGO death?” to which I would reply, “he was a VERY optimistic soul”**.

Dreams are, more than I’d ever realised, life-giving. Similarly, the loss of a dream can be quite literally a death to the soul.

I’ve had a few of my own dreams die these past few years. A few big ones I’ve allowed to die a natural death, and in their place new dreams are slowly rising again, perhaps healthier ones, or more true ones. And also, in these past few years, I’ve seen childhood dreams, long dead, miraculously rise into fulfilment and hope.

The lesson for me, I guess, is we need to keep a loose hold on all our dreams, both the living ones and the dead. We need to be free enough to dream, comfortable enough to allow our dreams to die, and have enough faith to understand that sometimes the dead are, miraculously, resurrected.

My dad is very dead, and—aside from in a theological sense—I’m not expecting a physical resurrection of him any time soon. But Queensland remains, and a little part of my dad’s dream lives within me, in the part of me that loved him. And so, in a couple of week’s time I’m going to pull the white paper carry bag that contains Dad’s remains out of the back of the cupboard where it’s been buried, and my husband and I will pack him in our suitcase and take him on our interstate holiday.

We’ll stay the weekend, enjoy the sunshine, find some nice beaches, find somewhere nice, somewhere that Dad would have liked—it’ll have to be near the water, he always loved the water—and we’ll fulfil Dad’s dream for him, and leave him in Queensland.

Parents stay with you, long after they’ve died, it seems. I don’t know what I think about how much the dead can see or experience of life back here on earth, but I do believe that when we meet God face to face all that is broken and wronged within us is made whole again, and that the Dad that I’ll see, eventually, in Heaven, will have a very strong grasp again on reality.

I hope he likes Queensland.


*some would say more “lost touch with reality” rather than simply “optimistic”, but who am I to judge?

** some would say more “lost touch with reality” rather than simply “VERY optimistic”, but who am I to judge?