Remembrance/Gratitude/Praise Tag

We have recently come from a village where each family makes incense. I remember the dark room with a fire that scents each fist of incense sticks with lingering wood smoke. Through a doorway on the street we walk into a temple. Here is a coil of incense burning on an altar. It burns before a statue, the image of a teacher or temple guardian. Temples lie behind the street facades. A parallel world exists behind the financial exchanges of cafés and shops. These red and gold shrine rooms offer a different kind of exchange. A stick of incense, piece of fruit, bar of chocolate or can of beer is offered. These gifts are to give thanks, and the giver asks in return for a blessing. This particular statue, may be an unknown teacher to me, but a little gratitude feels necessary. Today, we are all alive and well. We have much to be thankful for. It feels important to be in right relationship with ‘the unseen’. I bow my head, light incense, give thanks, say a prayer and ask for my own blessing. We may be away from home, but hope that our ancestors and guides are with us on our journey. I trust they are keeping a protective eye on us.

Forty five minutes outside Hué, (the old capital city of Vietnam), lies another city. ‘The City of Ghosts’ is not inhabited by the living, but the dead. It is an eerie and extraordinary place. We have already passed war cemeteries with uniform graves, cemeteries full of tombs decorated with cement curlicues, rice paddies with a small family tomb in the centre, and large gated roadside family tombs. This, however, is in another league. The City of Ghosts boasts family mausoleums in a bigger league. The grandeur, ambition of construction and decoration super cedes most houses. These multi-coloured mosaic tombs are now rumoured to be costing up to $300,000. Set on a beach, built with concrete on sand, the layout of plots is un-gridded. Unlike the meticulous division of paddy fields and farmed plots, the edge of each mausoleum randomly butts up against the next, without formal pathways. I am told that refugees exiled as ‘boat people’ in the 1970’s, no longer able to return, send money from western incomes to older family members who save for these grand memorials. The designs represent the faith, décor and architectural styles of their patrons. There are Buddhas, Confucian symbols and crosses. Some are themed in blue and white – willow pattern style. A Virgin Mary is nestled in an alcove. There is a Vatican shaped cupola. Dragons and bears guard doorways. While family gatherings to remember ancestors are an essential part of life in Vietnam, there are few signs of life as we scramble around endless memorials in the rain. It is definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been, and it made me feel strangely uncomfortable and empty.

As a child, on Christmas Eve, my father produced a cardboard box from the attic filled with wooden shavings. Hidden underneath were small glass baubles. Each one was scratched, with wire fixings that had a tendency to break. We had a set of fairy lights with small tasselled Chinese lanterns on each bulb. Their seasonal arrival, and exquisite detail fascinated me. They would work at best intermittently. In the corner of the vicarage living room we dressed a tree with these and balding strings of silver tinsel. An angel cut out of metal with sharp treacherous wings would be precariously placed on top. Presents, family, food and Christmas Specials on BBC1 had to be fitted around my father’s church work schedule, and my mother’s general state of mind. When other households were sitting down to eat or watching the Queen full of sprouts and turkey, we might be eating a bowl of soup; but then eat a special dinner much later. I enjoy the concept of a Victorian idyll, as long as it’s optional. An unexpected gift came today from our generous local creative florists, so now we have some traditional greenery to acknowledge the season and it brought with it some genuine Christmas Spirit.

The Old River Lea is tidal. Beyond Stratford further downstream it joins the River Thames. Before they dammed the river as part of the London Olympic park developments, bream used to swim up here to spawn every spring. History intersects with Hackney via old pathways and water ways. Roman fragments have been found in the neighbourhood over the centuries. Hackney Marshes – land reclaimed in the 1940’s is bisected by an ancient thoroughfare – the ‘black path’. The ‘Middlesex Filter Beds’ were made to clear the water of cholera as part of the ambitious plan to pump and pipe water around the city. Despite knowing this and passing a London ‘mile stone’ at the boundary of South Millfields, it still feels incongruent to find what looks like a piece of archaeology. It is made of stoneware, a handle decorated in blue and white glaze. Is this the remaining piece of an eighteenth century picnic mug? Did it travel to what was a delightful country spot in a Hackney carriage? What will they find here in the future – micro shards of a plastic lighter worn smooth by tumbling water over grit and stones? Maybe the pair of spectacles Terry dropped here eleven years ago will be preserved in the mud for future treasure seekers.

I made a donation for a white poppy knitted in sparkly wool. I lost it before I could commemorate it with a photograph. I wanted to make a gesture of remembrance that spoke to peace. The red poppy leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable, that it can be easily bound up with jingoism, or mistaken for my support of a specific cause. Often in family constellations where the silence of those returned from conflicts or genocides are played out by the next generations. I feel our world wounded by the failings over and over again to recognise and hear the consequences for those at the receiving end of violence and also for the perpetrators. All of this undigested grief continues to play out in our collective unconscious. I want to say sorry for harm caused by me, by my forebears, by my nation. I want to apologise for gaps in my empathy and understanding. I don’t know how to land these words, which seem hollow. I have only my awareness to offer to the graves marked and unmarked of complex histories, as I listen to the voiceless.

Floral tributes tell me about family and class of both who is left behind, and who has died. There is a fashion too for depictions of hobbies done in flowers. In the manner of celebration cakes, displays of cats, football teams, cars and musical instruments are popular. I imagine my own funeral. There is a cardboard coffin in a camper van, a ram-shackle procession. I love floral letters, imagine them hand-held, lined up to spell something irreverent perhaps – to give passers by a laugh, or food for thought. I imagine the cost, (keep it to the minimum) then a pithy epitaph. LOVED. Does that say everything that’s needed? It is both adjective and verb, the final stamp of a well-lived life. Or better still, use one letter shorter, LOVE, a command, inspiration, a name, the sum of everything that matters.

Halloween is being marketed to us by corporations who want to sell mass produced synthetic costumes, plastic buckets, cheap chocolate grown where rainforests used to grow and sweets which encourage obesity. We are being sold images of this American confection through film, TV and social media. However, scratch the surface and you will find Samhain – the old Celtic festival to mark the end of harvest and the passage into winter. This has been celebrated for centuries on these isles. All Souls Day (the first of November) has been glued onto the old roots of this festival. I sense the profusion of “trick or treating” and dressing up in gothic styles as a response to our hunger for a connection with the circle of life and death. We yearn for a relationship with the ancestors – which we will soon be. Borrowing from the tradition of ‘Los Dios de los Muertos’, the ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico, a family film like ‘Coco’ (Pixar/Disney 2017) does just that in a way that includes children. “The English experience of death is apologetic. In Mexico it’s a celebration of the person who’s passed on.” (Stephen Wright, artist) After placing offerings for my ancestors, on Saturday I will be slipping on my skeleton suit and dancing at ‘Golden Delicious’.

Tony, Pan-like with his goat legs and horns dances on the beach. Our feet crunch on the stones to the beat. The elements put on a show as the sun sets. Big wide sky swirls above us blue, pink and gold like a lava lamp. The sea is still, coated with a petrol blue lacquer. The pier is crusted with jewel bright lights, which melt colour into the sea as the sky darkens. We dance around a fire, watching the elemental performance. The flames breathe in the light salt air and bless us with wood smoke. Tess plays a track which speaks to me. I suck on spaciousness, loosen my limbs, feel gratitude for the beating of my heart.

On the brow of the hill where the view is attention seeking is a simple bench. “In memory of Alan Holden 1924-2011…expertly monitored butterflies and helped create the nature reserve for all to enjoy,” reads the plaque. Eight years since his death, and here lie fresh flowers. The living rush about, send texts, busy themselves with infinite to do lists. This eight-years-gone man has time to remind us to sit awhile. I remember a holiday free from the tyranny of digital means. We sat on a bench on a hill to watch the passing of sunlight across a valley, and the movement of goats. We called it ‘goat tv’. I stop and remember at this place of remembrance that other view where we stopped and sat.

Pavement shrines spring up on the streets outside the formality of churches to signify an unexpected death, an accident or a brutal ending. On this particular corner the end of the working week is announced with a gathering. A member of this club has died. His end is celebrated like any Friday with Wray and Nephew over-proof rum. A Jamaican flag, his name, a photo have been taped round the tree where they meet in honour – RIP it reads. Flowers and candles are placed here to remember him. A balloon is now slowly exhaling. Is this the Jamaican tradition of Nine Night happening here, on the street corner?