on being an outsider, the ancient art of bell ringing, and the enduring relationship we have with our parents even after they die
When people close to us die, we are left feeling unanchored, adrift. When it’s a parent, it doesn’t seem to matter that we are adults; we are sliced away from our history all the same.
Writer and scholar Miranda Morris reminds us that there is light even in the darkness of death. Miranda, who immigrated to Australia in 1973, talks of being an outsider, the ancient art of bell ringing and the enduring relationship we have with our parents even after they die. Indeed, it was only after the death of her parents and a mystical experience with bell ringing that Miranda was able to slip into the gentle grace of belonging in her adopted homeland.
‘‘I’ve been here forty years now, and for a lot of that time I’ve felt as if I’ve been living in two different places.’’
‘’The first thirty years that I was here in Tasmania I felt as if I hadn’t really left Switzerland. I just hadn’t gone back. I was seventeen when I left home to go to London and then came over here for the adventure. So I always had this feeling I wanted to go back to live in Bern for a length of time so I could complete that part of myself. It was mainly to do with my parents and also to do with language, of not being able to speak Swiss-German anywhere else.’’
Miranda and I chat on Skype. She’s in Hobart, sitting in her living room with rows of books behind her. It’s early evening and soon Miranda and the other tower captain of the Hobart Bellringers will be heading over to St David’s Cathedral. Earlier, a storm had ripped through the last stop before Antarctica and they’re concerned about the state of the full-circle swinging bells.
Miranda has cropped silver hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a child-like smile. I can easily imagine her younger self leading inner-city kids in adventure play on bomb-damaged sites in late 1960s London. Because I have known Miranda online for a few years, I can also see how her meticulous side would have thrived as a researcher for museums and as a nonfiction writer. There is a quiet perseverance in Miranda: she helped to push through gay law reforms in Tasmania and finished a PhD in Philosophy in 2010.
‘’I’ve had several phases of outsiderness that have accentuated questions of belonging. I guess the run up to the major ones was changing schools and trying to fit in.’’
Miranda talks in a considered manner with a softened English accent that she inherited from her parents and the country where she spent the first eight years of her life. Her parents moved from India to several places in England, then Switzerland. By the time she was eight, Miranda had changed schools four times and knew what it was to be an outsider. Occasionally during emails or conversation she slips in Swiss-German sayings from her years in Bern where she went to primary and secondary school.
She helps us to understand, without actually saying it, that there is a middle ground between being an outsider and belonging.
”The move to Switzerland was certainly the biggest case of outsiderness I have known. Being suddenly flung into a school where nobody spoke a word of English, and trying to adapt to being new, learning a language from scratch and different ways of learning and being, but at the same time having to drop the Swissness at the front door to our flat, because my mother was determined that we should retain our Englishness.
”Belonging to Switzerland happened more after I left. I was freer somehow to enjoy and value the language and place after I was released from the Anglo-centrism of my home.”
Miranda moved from Bern to London, then she and a friend road a BMW motorbike from Europe to Nepal. From Nepal, she flew alone to Tasmania. Like so many travelers all over the world she ended up staying. Despite the geographic beauty of Tasmania, Miranda never felt she belonged until recently.
In the decade leading up to her parents’ death, Miranda had felt more of a pull to return to Switzerland and had planned to move back, at least temporarily. This was driven by two separate desires: to be with her parents and to feel a ”sense of completion” of her Swiss self through language and country.
A serious car accident interrupted this process. Miranda arrived in Bern shortly before her father died from complications associated with the accident. Then she stayed on to help her mother before returning to Hobart.
Miranda highlights not only the challenges of looking after an aging parent from half a world away but the divide we feel when we’re pulled between two countries and the difficulty of linking the mind with the physical reality.
”During that time I was living even more in my head. My mother would get lost and phone me and I’d have to find out where she was. Or if she needed a plumber, I’d have to get one for her. In my mind I was so in Bern that I was very divided. In my head, I was more over there but still trying to live my life here.”
Miranda returned shortly before her mother died and stayed to sort and clear her parents’ flat with her sister. This process of undoing gave Miranda the opportunity for self-transcendence she had been seeking: she able to close the loop that had opened up when she left Switzerland. By the time the flat was empty, she says, it felt strangely like the day they moved in 50 years earlier.
But it was when Miranda returned to Tasmania that the unexpected happened.
”When I came back I felt such a sense of peace and homeliness and that grew into a feeling of total belonging about two or three years ago.”
Living several time zones away from family complicates our perspective, not only of home and aging but of life and death itself. Even with instant technology and social networking, vast distances still crumple and rip the edges of being and not being. Until I talked with Miranda, I thought I was the only person who had this particular blurring of reality.
”When you live so far away you never know whether they’re going to die or not before you see them again and in some ways they’re already dead when they’re alive, and in some ways they’re stIll alive even when they’re dead. When they actually died I felt they were here with me.
”They had come from Switzerland to visit me in this house several times. I still have a sense of their presence here and have some of their belongings around me now.
”I’d felt a lot of anguish after my father died so suddenly. I was very very exhausted from trying to look after my mother. But when I got back to Hobart and went to bed, I just felt this calm in me, just infusing me, the whole of me. So I went from being anxious and exhausted to this whoosh of calm that just felt like him.”
Miranda’s relationship with her father continued, particularly through her bell ringing.
”It happened again when I was bell ringing on his birthday. I had been struggling to ring this particular method for years. I hadn’t even realised it was his birthday.
”That day I’d been to see the father of a friend who’d just had a stroke and was in hospital. I still hadn’t realised it was my father’s birthday. Then, when I went to bell ringing, I managed to do this method perfectly and I had this sense that my father was in me, that he infused me. It was a sudden inner glow that moved through me. There was an ease about doing that method. I wasn’t tense. I haven’t been able to do it ever since.’’
Miranda continues to find community and belonging with her bell ringing buddies, most of whom have a religious affiliation only with the bells.
”We are an eclectic group, hard to define. Because of the nature of bells it attracts people equally for intellectual and emotional reasons. Ringing has deep history. The magnitude of the bells can be awe-inspiring: the space required to ring them, the frames, wheels and ropes as well as the physicality of managing them, learning to balance them so as to control the order of ringing.
”My belonging here can be attributed to the nature of ringing itself. It is interdependent and interpersonal in that you are always interacting with what the the others are doing, the band as a whole is only as strong as its weakest members so there is lots of encouragement.
”We see each other at least twice a week, convene at a bookshop cafe after Sunday ringing, and a pub after practice nights and the conversations are always creative. We have linguists and tip shop workers, Burger King staff and med students, sailors and music teachers, technicians of astronomy equipment, software developers, bursars and parliamentary officers, biotechs, botanists and drama students.”
Not long after our talk I emailed Miranda to find out whether the huge bells had survived the storm. Miranda replied from a silent retreat, saying that she had been contemplating belonging and that the bells were fine.
If you’d like to be wooed in a writerly way by the interesting thoughts and subtle tones of Miranda Morris try murmurs of mole.