Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Beads

My grandmother had a string of rosary beads.

They were made of small round pearl-sized black onyx, held together with links of what looked like silver but was probably an alloy of some kind.  I would sit at her feet with my head on her knee and watch her rolling those beads between the thumb and forefinger of her papery, wrinkled hands while she prayed each night.

Fascinated by all questions without answers(as I am now), I remember asking her what a rosary necklace was for.  To pray, she said.  It brings you closer to God. I didn’t really know much about God, beyond Sunday school communion sessions with naughty boys who would throw spitballs and play kiss chasey at “recess” or that place, church, that we were forced to attend and spent a good deal of time trying not to laugh and then being spanked later because of it.  God was a man on a throne with a white beard and sandals (probably) and maybe he was a bit kind sometimes and patted you on the head with a ghost-like hand you never felt or sometimes would punish you if you did something bad like eat the Nutella right out of the jar and then smooth the remaining goo up the sides so that, from the outside anyway, it looked like you hadn’t touched it… The fact that one could be closer to Him with a single string of rosary beads spiked my curiosity to no end.  It seemed too good to be true.

Planning to harness this power for myself, I asked how to use a rosary necklace.  She told me that you start at the beginning and work your way around to the end; each bead holding a prayer you must say with your heart.  The thing is, I couldn't see where the end was.  All the beads looked the same to me, endlessly going round and round and round as necklaces do. I knew how to say prayers.  I knew them in three languages; one I never even understood!  And I knew how to really mean it too. I knew how to make wishes and have hopes and give my heart fully; because I had been doing that my whole life; even if my life was only 8 years young by this stage.  Sometimes I wish I had never learned how to do that – give the heart.  I still haven’t seen what kind of good that brings.  I suppose nothing you do brings good or bad.  I’ve seen that with my own eyes, in fact.  I know that to be true.  There is no plan or rhyme… Heart or no heart; prayer or no prayer; beads or no beads.  Things just happen; it shouldn’t work like that but it just does.  Out of all the faiths I'd had challenged this is the one this year that has had the greatest impact.

My grandmother explained that you may indeed say the same prayer for each bead, but when I saw her mouthing the words in a whispered Italian that I could barely understand I noticed that her prayers were different.  Not all, but some.  I said the ones I knew with her sometimes, mumbling myself into a deep meditative trance where the words didn’t even matter anymore and the room disappeared from all around me and God wasn’t even there and all I could feel was my head on her knee vibrating with each word and nothing else.  She’d keep going until her voice was hoarse and broken and there was nothing left to whisper and prayers were done and the beads were gone.  It always made me so curious, how she knew she’d gotten to the end. I wonder why I never asked.

I tiptoed into her room many times when she wasn’t there and picked up those beads, watching them intently, wishing their secret power to be bestowed onto me, not even knowing what that secret power could be.  A conversation with God, maybe?  What would I even ask?  So in awe was I of something I couldn’t even see… a possibility, a hope.  I don’t even know.  I tried to sit there and pray, like my grandmother did but never got past the first or second bead.  It was too hard. I didn’t feel that sense of reverence or meditation I felt with my head on her knee. I wanted so badly to believe, but couldn’t…  In the end, I put them back, disappointed that their power would not ever be something I could behold.

She kept up the prayers until she died. I didn’t always sit and listen, by this stage I had episodes of Charles in Charge to watch on the tele or net balls to shoot in my backyard.  Summers were long and hot and there were endless seas to sail and adventures to undertake. Sometimes I would listen though, noting when she stopped.  Always at the end, whatever that means. Sometimes though, she would stop suddenly, I’m tired, she’d say slowly – but she wasn’t talking about sleepiness. There are many kinds of tired, and this kind was the tired that meant that the soul, or whatever it is that exists beyond neurons firing (if anything), was ready to go.

When I was 24 and my grandmother had been gone for over half my life I visited Vatican City, in the heart of Rome.  By this stage I knew that God was not a man in a throne or anything at all really.  Sitting and praying at my grandmother’s knee was a dusty memory well and truly hazed by nostalgia by then.  In fact praying at all was not something I ever contemplated. By the time I set foot in the Sistine Chapel I had seen a million churches, pondered my way though a hundred galleries and walked across cobblestones older than a thousand Melbournes.  I was hoping to see something as nice as Notre Dame there.  I only really had one objective here and that was to buy a set of rosary beads.  Not for me though. I don’t think that any amount holy water (and trust me, there’s been a lot of it in my life) could have prepared me for the supreme calm and beauty I felt in that space. It was a holy moment, even if God or my grandmother wasn’t involved.
I separated myself from my companions and walked for a while staring at the magnificence that was truly the greatest piece of wall-graffiti I have ever seen.  Perhaps I’m understating it a little.  It is beyond amazing and even if you don’t believe and I’m by no means an advocate of doing so but I defy you not to be humbled by such a space of tribute, despite all the money and the pain and the cruelty that went into it.  For the first time in a long time, and not since may I add, at 24 and exhausted beyond belief after missing the world’s most packed train and arguing with a taxi driver and waiting in the Universe's longest line on the first day of trade after the New Year in Italy, I started praying.  I don’t even know why.  The words came back as if from a 16 year old memory lapse and I walked in silent contemplation saying the words that I thought I had forgotten a long time ago. I guess you don’t really ever forget your foundations, even if you don’t believe in them anymore.

And I guess, like knowing when to stop all things, I just knew when to stop praying.  The words ended and it was over.  I went and bought the rosary beads and just sat for a while and stared and wondered.  Sometimes you just know when things should end.  They end at the end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Inside every one of us beats a little heart.  It pumps blood around the body.
Ba boom.
Ba boom.
It’s just a little thing.  The size of a fist or palm but it does an important job.
Inside that heart are lots of fleshy things; like ventricles and aortas and bits of bloody membrane.
And cells.
Inside those cells there’s all this other stuff I learned about in Biology, back in high school but don’t care too much about now.
It’s not important anyway.
The Doctors that look inside the heart never talk about the important bits, like feelings and love.
It’s like those things are not medical enough, so they don’t get included in those expensive textbooks or serious Doctor/Patient conversations about heart disease.
But those feelings are as real as the mitochondrion, aren’t they?
Perhaps a microscope powerful enough to see feelings hasn’t been invented yet.
But they are there.
You don’t need a microscope to feel the feelings.
You just feel them.
That’s how I know they are really there.
That’s how I know they are as real as the right coronary artery.
You feel them; as real as a heart beat.
Ba Boom.
Sometimes the heart dies.
I know this because my father’s heart died and then he died too.
The Doctors said it might be genetics or a high cholesterol diet will do it and no exercise and if someone takes a gun and shoots you right in it…
Well, that’ll kill the heart dead and then you die too.
Because the human can’t live without a heart, you see.
It’s very important.
It’s essential.
There are lots of ways to kill a heart though.
You can squish the feelings right out of there.
You can take an emotional hook and just pull all the good things out of someone else’s heart and then you can do what you want with it.
I know that can happen.
It can even happen with your friends.
That’s why you have to be extra, extra careful with feelings.
You won’t find this in a textbook.
It might not even be on Google.  I don’t know.
But it’s like we’re all Doctors doing operations on each other.
We should be taking a Hippocratic oath – but one about looking after each other's feelings.
Some people do terrible things to others by accident and other people still, will take a lot of pleasure in making sure that your feelings are good and hurt.
Or not care too much because they believe for every life there must be a death, or they have a misconception that they are justified above all others, even if it’s you, or me or whomever.
They are not very nice people.
But it doesn’t matter.
The point is…
There are many ways to kill a heart
And just because I am still here doesn’t mean I didn’t already die.