Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Sacrifice the children to the Chqondidi (Big Oak)


Moonshine razor rivet screams choke on copper smoke

that

Hide, for an instant this man-beast-bird

Gibbet, that hangs, cradles

Low plucked fruit, out of season child

 

That

Pulsed his way to this idol world of chqondari. Of men who will never

Feel the tug of lips on breast, or smell the sweet scent of hair like the white daisies out- side our

Door.

 

Did they notice his bow-mouth tremble?

Did the singe-blonde flop of his baby curls scorch their souls

As they lit the fire beneath?

 

Acrid tears tear my eyes as I will my

Salt slit womb  to poison the life

Within.

 



A Mother’s Sacrifice
 
They came on  Saturday. The priests of the idol. With their robes and their chanting.  And they waited, like hovering eagles. And they held out their clawed hands, for my token.
My white pebble covered in ochre dots, one for each member of my family, spiralled into the centre, where the last dot, golden like the sun, flashed  as it went, into a basket woven from reeds by the river.
 
My river .
 
The river where I sang to my son every day, where I had sung to the moon each night and watched my belly grow until he came to me, my boy.

 ‘How many?’ his father asked, eyes cast down. Early spring daisies littered our front garden and as my baby sat on one hip, I felt the child within me stir. My heart tightened with their reply.

 ‘Three’

‘It will be an honour if we are chosen,’ this man murmured and scuffed with his foot, at a stick and snapped the head from one of the flowers.

Watching the priests leave, I felt the heat of my son’s cheek against my shoulder. He had been unwell. A spring fever. The feverfew and lavender had only soothed, not cured.  His skin burned and I saw tiny red flowers start to appear. His tongue was swollen and the colour of raspberries. I hurried inside. The spirits needed to be welcomed. Once in,  I covered the walls with red cloth and sang to him as he lay restless and hot in his cot.

 ‘Lullaby, lullaby,
Violets opened Roses’ petals lullaby,
I’ll meet batonebi’s aunt with pleasure, lullaby,
I’ll see her in as a godsend guest, lullaby,
With a carpet on the floor, lullaby’

As he drifted in and out I took, from my special place, the dagger. I tied the 5 red stones I had taken from the river, to the handle, and hung it on the wall opposite his bed. I remember I was singing all the time. ‘Lullaby, Lullaby’

Later that day, my husband came back. Shaking his head, he placed my token on the red cloth I had covered in flowers and sweet wine. My boy had been chosen.

Guests started to arrive before I was ready for them. Some bought eggs, some, flour, some dried fruit, but they all bought wine and they all looked at me with pity in their eyes. Hushed whispers accompanied quiet toasts and gifts were left by the fire place. Dolls made from sticks, beads, shells. I remember the men starting to sing, long low baleful sounds that cut through the night air and drifted up to the sacred space where the Oak Tree and the priests were waiting.

My boy’s fever broke in the early hours as the cock crowed. The red Sunday dawn bought with it the box with wheels. He had to go swaddled, in that, through the village, up to that place. I don’t remember who made the box. I think it was the boy’s father and I felt he had done so with a heavy heart. Watching my son sleeping peacefully in the early morning light I knew I had to  stop this from happening.  I had to save him.

I had heard of a man, a man far away, who had cut down the old Oak, with an axe that had glinted so brightly in the sunlight, that the people had been blinded by it.  I begged and begged my husband to help me, to save our boy,  begged him to find this saviour,  to tell people about this man, but he beat me and I fell on the hard stone floor. Curling around my belly as he kicked me again and again I knew it was over.

I don’t remember much else, only the bitter taste of the tincture I had shared  with my son.  He, before he was put, seemingly asleep on the cart, opened his eyes and kissed my nose. ‘Deda’ he whispered, as I swaddled him tight.

I followed the cart to the sacred place.  As the moon broke from behind the midnight clouds, I watched the priest put him in the cage.  

The oak groaned.
I smelt the burning of his flesh. The oak sighed.
I heard him scream. The oak swayed.
 
The eagles circled.
 
This story is based on factual information about the ceremonies held by the Druids before  Christianity arrived in the Megrelian region where the Martvili Church stands. Research suggests that St. Andrew, one of Christ’s apostles travelled here in the 1st century and stopped the practice of sacrificing a  one year old child every year to appease the Druid gods. The child was chosen by a lottery system. The Oak Tree  that housed the copper gibbet (depends on who you read – could be in the shape of a man or an eagle) was cut down by St. Andrew who then used the wood to build the first church on the site. He sent out word that the barbaric  practice  of sacrificing children was no longer to take place but  this met with some resistance as oak trees continued to grow and this was used as evidence that the gods needed appeasing.  In response he commanded that all the oak trees be pulled up and placed upside down against the walls of churches. Acorns were planted to show that natural trees are not evil. The practice of up- rooting oak trees continued, along with other ceremonies, songs and rituals, as part of the Chvenieroba festival up until the 1920’s when it was banned by the Communists.
 


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Nino Chooses White Floating Trousers


Father Andrew,

Kind smiling eyes in a

Brown walnut face

Spends time,

Telling me about St. Andrew

And his good deeds.

 

He calls me Nino,

My baptism name.

 

I unnerve him

In my earnestness.

 

I think, mistakenly that

My spirit is soothed and

As divisions open in my

Soul

 

My white floating trousers

Offend darting, covered women

Who brush, with twigs, and pick with bitten fingernails

The wax from tiny, hand made candles, that drip

Foetid liquefying mounds of prayer.

So,

One darts forward and ties, around my hips

A blue sarong, the colour of my eyes.

 

My sex now covered I can confess

I craved, for an instant, the anonymity of these

Walls.

 

Should I immerse, plunge?

Should I leave behind the hot fire of my joyful defiant life?

Should I enter the cool nunnery of conformity?

 

My throat constricts.





During the summer of 2011 I was baptised, in the river at the foothills of Mkskheta and took the name of Nino.  It was the day before I was due to fly home and the weather was about to change. I could smell the rain coming. We drove, at speed, because we were late, to a church nestling in a grove of cedar. We were late because he had been filming for one of his documentaries. The rest of the choir were all there, as was the priest, all waiting. After a conversation with the church father where I felt both curious and full of emotion, we all drove down to the river.

 

The entrance was gated, locked and guarded. There was an electricity station at the side of the river and no one could enter. My companions smiled smugly and there was a lot of gesticulation going on. I felt surprisingly disappointed. Perhaps this was more important to me than I first thought. The priest I had been talking with at the church earlier arrived and spoke to the guard who, shaking his head and pursing his lips refused to let us through the gate.  I could see that things were going to get more interesting when the priest started to talk into his mobile. He passed the phone to the guard, who listened for a few short seconds, then started to nod enthusiastically.  He then opened the gate and shouted blessings at us as we passed through.  The joke, whether it was true or not, was that the priest had a direct line to the patriarch, who had, in one word cemented my decision.

 

We all drove down a track to the river where, after I had changed into a full length black skirt,  black blouse and covered my head entirely in a head scarf, I stepped into the freezing water where my soon to be god-father and the priest were waiting. There was no doubting that the total emersion, the sacred oil, the ritual of chant and the intention in that moment, in that space and that time, was full of honour. There was also no doubt that the natural and complete expressions of love shown afterwards at a supra at the Armazis Khevi Restaurant were genuine and there was no doubting the pride everyone felt at the conversion of a foreigner to the orthodox religion. I however, did not feel any different.  I was glad I did it, but not for the same reasons they were. So why did I do it?  

 

I did it for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to make getting  married to him easier. He had proposed the previous February.  Secondly, I kind of figured that if Armageddon was going to happen it would be good to be a member of one of the most fearsome religions in the world. Seriously though, I was already completely comfortable with my own system of belief and did not, and still do not believe in divisions and borders between faiths. I guess I did it for the experience but, unlike some before me,  I did not experience a cleansing revelation or an epiphany. This was, mostly, I think, because I have worked very hard over many years to become accepting of difference, and am able to embrace  diversity and people  without judgement.  Did I lie to them?  Not at the time, no. Did I lie to myself? I don’t think so. Am I sorry that I did it now? Yes. But only because of the feelings of bitter disappointment in how a community that had welcomed me with such open arms when I was conforming to their expectations, turned their back on me when I was hurting and questioning what they claimed to underpin the very essence of their teachings.


In the end, I returned the passport that gave me my official status as a member of the Orthodox Church, to my god-father with a note saying that I could not be part of any religion that excluded, judged, damned, stripped the voice from and intimidated anyone who did not conform. In whose eyes am I a member of the Georgian Church?  Certainly not mine.

When it's my time I would like to be buried in a quiet English Church of England grave yard, preferably under a shady tree. No keening and highly ritualised toasting for me thank you. If anyone wants to scatter wild flower seeds above me I would be most grateful.





The Land Beneath




Thank you, Misha

For the new road to Martvili.

 

Past travellers speak of attacking, rutting, gouging terrain. Now

This scold’s bridle muffles land of

Blubbing streams, cracked hazelnut groves, skeletal corn fields and

 

Abandoned ancient cobbled stones that watch, side

Lined as salient ornate filigree balconies, bridges from the past,

bristle with resentment.

 

Underneath, Misha,

Patriarchal land, scattered with golden fleece promises

Calls the beasts from wooded places

and they come, one and all.

 

Cows, ducks, goats, cocks, chicks,  dogs, horses, pigs, bears, wolves. They are set on

Reclaiming the old road and, oblivious to your ideology, Misha, they will beat and tear

With brooms and chairs and nettles and with righteous anger,

The new road down.

 

They do not care for your future, Misha.

The beasts of the land return

Reclaim the teeming earth.

 

 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Severed Exhaust


Unstable, hot metal sheets

Swaddle  Chanistskali  bridge.

Rivets tear at river’s bend as we,

All sat up and keen to arrive

Push forward over sheer drop cracks of space beneath.

 

Broken water rumples and cocoons tumble stones  from

Distant cousin mountain- tops.

 

Egg pebbles skittle as boys who,

Brown from acres of sky, haunch, squint, push hard against echoing white light,

Pluck up stones,

Lob them.

 

Our car, already lacking suspension

Passes, at some speed toward the far side when the

Rear-end arches to meet the vicious scalpel cut that

Slices, just under me, the exhaust

Clean

Off.

 

 

We were heading towards Martvili Monastery. The previous night I had sat, until late, at our host’s table,  with Nino, asking hard questions  about the legend of St. Andrew who, in the 1st century had stopped the Druid ritual of sacrificing a baby, one a year, every year, to appease the  gods.  As a mother, I could not imagine the horror of being  chosen, and being expected to be grateful for it, through a form of lottery, to bring my child, my baby, to die hung from an oak tree,  in order to bring prosperity to the region. I wanted to know more. So many Georgian songs are connected with the ritual of child birth and protection against evil forces it was fascinating to be able to see for myself the place where, according to Christian propaganda, these rituals took place.

 

Only one hour into our 3 hour journey, the car now sounded like it belonged on a formula one race track and the exhaust fumes filled the inside so that, even with the windows wide open, I felt sick. I knew it was bad, and dangerous but, the driver, who had picked up the severed exhaust pipe, reassured me that it was not. I became increasingly anxious and insisted that we turn around and return to Zugdidi. Curiosity about ancient rituals at the monastery was not a big enough force to risk my life. I had my own son back at home that I wished to see again. The irony of the situation did not escape me, I had survived the white mini-bus ride only to potentially be killed by a mad Georgian driver in a hire a day taxi! Pretty soon the other passengers realised I was  distressed and so it was decided to stop at the very next garage and get the missing exhaust piece welded back on.

 

This happened pretty quickly. The stopping I mean, not the welding, and at this point nature called so my companion and I set off to find the facilities.

 

Imagine a lean-to. Imagine a lean-to with an ill-fitting slatted door painted with a cross. Imagine a lean-to with an ill-fitting slatted door perched on a semi-concrete block with a hole punched into it. Imagine the concrete block perched over an open hole.  Imagine the heat. Imagine the heat combined with the smell and then imagine being inside the lean-to, squatting, having taking a huge breath before you went in and hoping against hope you have enough air in your lungs to last the time it takes you to pee. Bear in mind you have been holding your bladder for the last hour.

 

There was no way I was going in there.  My companion, made of sturdier stuff and with a bigger lung capacity than me, did.

 

Lean – to

 

Ramshackle shack.

Holy door swings

On rusting crooked hinges.

 

My friend,

Braver than I

Enters.

 

Frown of concentration lines her face and

Trying not to breathe more than once

Like a swimmer deep diving she

Gulps air, rushes in

and

Squats.

 

Quick, quick!

 

I pee round the back.

The gaping hole,

Yawning chasm

Of shit

Stares at me from

Underneath the

Crumbling concrete

Block as I, distracted, am

Stung by a nettle that

Lurks there.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Five unexpected apples in my bag


You, who say you have never worked

But make a small living from song,

Release the bitter pulp of societal scorn

That hangs you low on the gnarled branch of disappointment.

Make a balm for the passion that burns in your soul.

 

Your head need not now dip and bow,

The weight of swollen water and gorged  promises

Need not keep limbs and will from grace

To stifle childhood song.

Feel now your spirit, grow your groove, be your song.

 

Grief claims you.

There is no more sun.

Tears linger, swell, pool, gush, invade, serenade

The others, who cannot see through this darkness instead

Pour wine into your glass, pray for your release.

 

You, flit from branch to branch taking berries,

Peg the washing out.  Chirruping you take

Thorny gossip, sunshine sheet whip it

Fold it, knead it, bake it.

Your song lights the hearth.

 

 

And now, bitter sweet you. So long you have been at the top of the tree

Giving shelter, throwing sprigs westward

Back home.  Never quite here, never quite there.

Your fusion fronds seek new silks and dawns.

Deepen your roots.  Stay still. It will come.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiPBugdXRfo&feature=youtu.be



My Cath Kidson ruck sac was already heavy. I had bought it from the airport on a whim. It was in the sale and I knew I would need something that could hold not only my things, but things for others, English tea for a start, and tubes of bubble mixture for children, post cards of iconic UK places, chocolate bars.
That first afternoon in Zugdidi we went to hear a  choir of women sing.  The heat left ripples like snail trails on pavements. I was glad that the concert was being held in a local air-conditioned art gallery. I had no idea how important this performance was to them. We were late and they were waiting. Wearing  blue velvet dresses and open-toed  sandals   their nervous smiles flashed broken and missing teeth smattered with gold.
From Azerbaijan and classed as refugees, during Communist times, the women were seen as being the best choir in the region. Nino had set them a challenge, to perform, for me, an English visitor, songs that belonged to them, to their culture, their roots and to no longer perpetuate the propaganda machine of Stalin’s time when territorial and cultural integrity was ignored. Nino told me that these women had no confidence in this task and that it had been some months since her request. This performance  therefore was ground breaking for them. Recently denied their certificate of authentication by the Folk Lore Centre in Tbilisi, the women were down-hearted wore and air of disillusion.
The air bristled with expectation.  All the seats in the small gallery were taken. I sat in between Nino and Eliso, who was quietly whispering constant translation. Sitting next to her was a Georgian woman who was clearly suffering. Her pain was palpable. Dressed in immaculate style, her garish rings slipped from her bony fingers and she talked. She talked loudly, she tutted, she shuffled, she opinionated, she dominated and her pain sat around her, encircled her and repelled others.
As the choir sang there were increasingly hostile glances directed towards her, then the shushing started then irritable foot shuffling and then, finally Nino got up and spoke to her, asked her to be quiet.
As if there was not enough pain in the room.
I tried to focus on the women singing,  the sharp sounds of discordant harmonies both soothed and grated. Moving through each of the pieces the women grew in confidence and we travelled together through traditional  love songs, and then a joke songs which involved  a lot of gesticulation and word play. This was interspersed  with increasingly distressed  glances at the woman still chatting on the front row. There was a new song based on a poem by a local woman as well as a soul soaring song calling for Jesus and the Nightingale to join together and work  as one,  to save us all.  As I watched their eyes, their bodies, I  saw, set against the white backdrop of the gallery, the ghosts that haunted them.
The ghosts stayed with us as we walked to Mzisadari’s cafĂ©.  A poor place full of working men and cigarette smoke. Haunted memories clung on despite the huge over head fans that tried, but failed to keep the air from becoming putrid.  We sat at the back, at a long table piled  with misshapen apples, melon slices and Chvishtavi, baked cornbread with cheese.   With no performance to distract them the focus was to now on the ritual of the supra. One toast followed another, to God, to the land, to friendship, to the sons, now lost, to the daughters, the kargi gogo’s who watched us from the shadows, their dark eyes cast downwards when ever they thought I was looking. It was time to  drink,  to sing and to eat. The glares, previously reserved for the poor woman in the gallery soon turned my way  as I tried to disguise the fact that I was avoiding  food I knew would upset me. Rich with cheese the Khachapuri would have me doubled with stomach ache later, strong dark meat in walnut sauce would give me heart burn.  I tried to compensate by eating lots of salad and fruit and was truly relieved when the toasts slowed and the singing started. This was swiftly followed by dancing. As the women started to spin and twirl like swans in a forever state of emotional release  I too was able to escape from the confinement of the table, of my conscious self and release my own ghosts. Poverty, betrayal, grief, loss, widowhood, distrust, disappointment and pain were replaced by joy in companionship, connection through song, determination in friendship and freedom in dance. Just for one moment, one twirling, swirling, joyful moment I was part of that.
Later on, preparing to leave, I picked up my heavy, helpful and necessary Cath Kidson ruck sac and noticed some apples  that had been put inside. Apples, like guests, are gifts from God.
They had no idea that they had already given me so much.



Saturday, 20 September 2014

Today I drank Water from the Well





Cool, cool garden.



Dappled sunlight

Gives refuge to

Lush hanging green

Red grapes,

Kiwi, hard and bitter on the vine.

Apple-peach

Plump, star flower topped fill

My mouth, seek corners with her nectar

 

that flows inside

Connects me to this land.

 

Nana fills,

With glistening life,

My cupped hands.

 

I drink.

 

Her kind eyes crinkle and this garden

Sighs.

 

This beautiful peaceful garden belonged to a family of academic women in Zugdidi. Their house was full of white cool spaces, dark elegant furniture and floors so wide and polished I wanted to lie down and press my cheek to their soft wisdom. Artists, others, social misfits and the persecuted had always been welcome in this house, a tradition started by their father, who invited any ragamuffin, Georgian or otherwise, to stay. They were fed, cared for and gave space to create, heal and grow.  This generous practice continued under the caretaking eye of his wife and was upheld by his daughters who were all professional women in their own right.  A teacher, a musicologist, a lawyer, none of them married or marred by child-birth, burdened by constant compromise, or confused by their purpose in life.  I was struck by their grace.


When we arrived, the heat of the day softened by gentle breezes caught in  vines that that swirled over trellises already full of passion fruit and grapes, red and green, disappeared and we crept into the back parlour where a dark haired child slept under a sheet.

 

Instinctively we whispered, and I felt lulled by the soft plosives the Georgian language leaves behind in the silence of a darkened room and wished only to rest, close my eyes and soak up the soft sounds these women made.

 

Listening to their  talk, catching their eyes and with  no shared language between us, only a woman's understanding, I sensed that they knew my story already. Some- how it didn’t matter. There was a union here. A trust, a connection and I felt my eyes prick with tears. The relief I felt surged through my body, and for the first time in a long time I wished I spoke Georgian. I really wanted to hear their stories.

 

I realised that the woman moving around the kitchen was their mother. Nana.  Her hands were knarled and  deft as she stirred the  Pelamushi, the  sweet sharp smell of red grape juice mingled with the green breezes from outside as she  turned the stove top concoction into a solid pink blancmange- like dessert for later. I could see her watching me from the corner of her eyes and they crinkled with patient curiosity, or heat, or both, and I wished for a time when we could see one another squarely.

 

There was a meal, not intended to be a supra until it was made into one by the arrival of M.r Polikarpe Khubulava, a 91 year old Chongouri player famous for, amongst other things, the scandal of having had not one, but three wives, two of which were still alive and who is known in many circles as a ‘real lover of women’. He was also a folklore expert and had taught many choirs (all male) through generations of oppression by various invaders to Georgia, many songs now nearly lost lived in his memory and tripped from his tongue quite unexpectedly.  I  learnt of his distress and pain that evening as he told us of how he had not qualified for a certificate of validation from  the  head of the Folk Lore Centre in Tbilisi.  Apparently the songs his choirs sang, whilst worthy of study and reference, were not worthy of official recognition. This is something that is happening all over Georgia to provincial choirs and has a terrible knock on effect on the salaries people such as him receive. It also prevents opportunities for choirs to travel abroad and teach the songs that have sustained the spirit of Georgia over many centuries.

 

Pulikarpe Khubulava

 

He drove himself

91 years old

To this house.

 

Sat, thin legs

Broad shouldered still. Wept, drank sweet red wine.

 

He

Sang the notes,

Missing for generations, whilst Nino

Pen poised, toes curled, ears pricked

 

Asked hard questions.


Unifying romantic notion unravelled.


'Who will sing my final song? he asked right back at her.
'Three egoists took my funeral lament with them when they died
Refused to teach me those precious notes'


'How will my soul rest now?'

 

Throughout the evening’s meal, smattered amongst conversations about the enormous original paintings on their walls and songs sometimes accompanied by the Chonguri, sometimes not, I saw the dark haired child watch his mysterious aunts. The old man soon had him tending to his every need, slipping chicken and bread, salad, wine, water, dark meat, this, that, the other onto his plate conducted by an eyebrow or flick of the finger.  


The jug of wine dwarfed the child but he, with great precision, love, and some finesse poured the crimson cordial ever-so-carefully into grandfather's crystal glass, the only sound a  soft chink of crystal on crystal and the  slight inward breath of one of his aunts. Smiling the boy-child in a house full of incredible women sat,  gazing with utter adoration, at the one man in the room.

 

My Mysterious Aunts

 

My mysterious aunts

Always have guests when I am there.

 

They arrive quite late

On hot summer nights

And ask for a

‘Cupp-a-o-tea’.

Bring their own blue and white cups

Huge and delicate.

Dig deep into  over- sized bags

Root for ‘sweetandhers’

Say 'No thank you' to our black bitter chai.

 

My mysterious aunts sit,

Drink petal soft

Scented wine for

Hours with grandfathers who ask

Me to pour

Crimson cordial into

Tall, crystal, glasses.

 

My mysterious aunts

Sing me lullabies in

Ancient tongues of my (Megrilian)

Ancestors

That soothe and ease my eyes

Tired from picking

The red- sour berries
Now turned to jam.

 

My mysterious aunts

Move without sound towards the dawn, and

When their voices drop to whispers

I can hear the Nightingales

Sing.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

White Mini Bus


White Mini Bus

I remember

the story of a

Beautiful Woman who,

with her unborn child

and one by her side,

Drowned.

They fell into a ravine on a mountain-

pass.

 

Entombed in a mini-bus.

 

I had dreamt of

Her

Last.  Gasping.  Breath.

 

The final clutch of sodden fabric that

Ripped as her first born was

Sucked

Into the frothing swirl.

 

I follow her route.

I sit in her space.

 

I give my journey to God.

 

 

Travelling through Georgia in the heat of a June day on a white mini bus awakened  such a deep fear of death by drowning in me I had to physically hold my own hand to stop myself shaking.  English guide books state quite clearly that people die in car accidents all the time here and the public mini buses ought to be  avoided at all costs. Even my Georgian companion was concerned when we were talking about the best way of travelling from Batumi to Zugdidi.  It took about 4 hours and was fairly terrifying in places as we hugged tiny roads that meandered above rivers which all looked surprisingly  fairly benign.

 

When the woman in the poem died it was at the most intense time of my relationship with him and his choir. The shock of it and the tragedy of it hit him hard. They had sung together and I had been trying to learn a song she had recorded. She had the most beautiful and haunting voice, rich and mountainous full of black grapes and ochre soil.

 

I found the way he dealt with death, the way they all dealt with death really disturbing. I am no stranger to loss, my own father died when I was 22 and I know how it destroys everything, rips things apart until when you finally begin to feel again, albeit it wave after wave of grief, at least you do feel… something. The grief never subsides but life grows around it but those crumple buttons, the scent of a cherry cigar, a particular song on the radio, transport me back to that moment when I knew he was going to die and I screamed to the heavens, ‘take me instead’ . I know death will not be  bargained with.

 

Death is never far away in Georgia. There  is a complete submission to the eventuality of it, in theory at least, the soul goes to a better, higher  place and those left behind have an elaborate and fascinating set of rituals designed to keep them connected to the dead in order to remember them and  honour them. Georgian families gather at the grave to eat, drink, toast, share stories, cry, laugh and accept their loss at key points in the calendar. The names of the dead are included in the supra toasts as well. I guess it depends which culture you come from and what your own experience of death is as to how comfortable you feel with all this.

 

One time, when all 12 of them were staying at my house it was a day off from the gruelling schedule of  concerts and workshops. For me, a quiet day where I knew all the rules as rituals was really necessary.  I wanted to use the washing machine, walk the dog. I had not seen my son for a while as  the tour  had kept me away and I was happy to be home. He was only 13 at the time and I was aware that there was some interest in how ‘manly’ he was with some well-intentioned but un-welcome ‘male role modelling’ going on. Thankfully my son was content to keep himself to himself most of the time in his converted loft room.  His sanctuary.

 

On this particular afternoon I was suddenly aware of a change in the atmosphere in the house. Everything had gone very quiet and grey somehow, like steel. He called me downstairs and when I got into the kitchen they were all there, all holding a glass of red wine and standing solid, unmovable. I knew they were uncomfortable with something but was perplexed as to what was going on. Then the toasts began, just quiet toasts, respectful toasts, not full of bravado, or ego but full of pain, loss, hurt and displacement.

 

This toast was for a fallen member. A man who had died in 2009. They told me he had been the best of them. He left behind a young wife and two very very small children.  I had been to his grave in Tbilisi. It was a haunting and haunted place and I had felt like an intruder there. That same sense of intrusion permeated my home. On this anniversary they did not want to be there, I did not want them to be there with their eyes full of pain and forever grief. Not because I did not care but because I felt like I was never going to be allowed to. Their grief was not private, nor was it public, it was exclusive and dismissive of mine.

 

I did try to understand, I really did but I guess it’s the mystery of the circumstance of death that I feel so uncomfortable with, the embracing of it combined with the guilt of celebrating it that kept my face turned to the open window on that 4 hour mini bus journey across Western Georgia. I had a sense of it then, the only foreigner on the bus hiding behind my sun glasses and scribbling  into my notebook, why, instead of cursing my inability to insist on a safer mode of transport, or at least praying for the miracle of a seat belt, I found myself thinking, if you can’t beat them, join them.