Archives for the month of: October, 2013

I found much to connect with in David Sedaris’s recent reflective piece in The New Yorker, ‘Now We Are Five’ (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/10/28/131028fa_fact_sedaris).
Sedaris’s sister, Tiffany, died in May this year, at the age of 49. She committed suicide, and although Sedaris had not communicated with her for 8 years, her death provoked a profound sense of loss.
‘A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born.’
Until May, Sedaris belonged to a family of six siblings. Now, there are five.
‘”And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,'” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”‘

My sister died in January this year. Amidst the multi-faceted and infinite aspects of felt loss, I was unexpectedly struck by how diminished our sibling group has now become. The experience of going from five of us to ‘just four’, felt much greater than the loss of an individual. We seemed to have lost something indefinable that had hitherto made us the family that we had been.

‘Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives–we’d had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris.’

So too has it been for my family. We probably still do it, that pulling away, but there is always a coming back, even if unpredictable and transient.

The poet and physician Dannie Abse believes that ‘Men become mortal the night their fathers die.’ When the generation that appears to separate you from your own mortality is removed, it is a defining life moment, not merely in terms of the experience of losing a parent, but also in terms of what it means for the living and passing of one’s own life.

The death of a sibling is momentous for other reasons. Yes, it does indeed make you aware yet again of the fragility of life. It also challenges your sense of self and identity, especially that significant part of you that has always been bound up in ‘family’, much of which disappears along with the sibling you mourn.

CQ

Currently on until November 3, I spent an entire afternoon over the weekend at a screening of a series of short animated documentaries.
I love comics and comic books (I learned today that sales of ‘graphic novels’ (I dislike the contrived term) have increased by 1000% over the last decade). Animation offers me something similar, as a transformative medium whose creative power and ability to engage its audience has the capacity to uniquely blend the imaginary and the actual to create, perhaps somewhat paradoxically and surprisingly, a heightened reality of sorts.

Thus it was for the short documentaries that I just experienced.

There were 12 films in all, of varying lengths, themes and formats. I had previously seen some of Tony Donoghue’s work on ‘Irish Folk Furniture’, which has at its theme an Ireland of the past, as represented by neglected and disused traditional furniture, which is restored to a new, but no less grand, splendour. A wonderfully succinct, considered, and funny piece.

The remaining 11 films were new to me. Topics included the harrowing difficulties facing families following recent immigration changes in the UK (‘Visa’), and the experiences of children such as Ali,who fled Afghanistan but his parents were left behind (‘Drawing for Memory’), and Rachel, whose family managed to escape her country of origin only to be subjected to detention centres in the UK and a forced return to her homeland (‘From A to B and Back Again’). These are truly sad stories, but they are also stories that can be shared, most particularly through the medium of animation, as the participants, who so want their experiences to be heard, can retain their anonymity throughout and thus feel ‘safe’ to speak.

There was also a fascinating piece on sleep paralyis (‘Devil in the Room’), and a very considered film on loss, based on the real experiences of five people who shared their feelings on losing something precious and how it had informed them about living (‘Good Grief’).

I was particularly moved by ‘SPD and Me’. In this work, the director Matthew Brookes, who suffers from Semantic Pragmatic Disorder, which is part of the autism spectrum and mainly affects comprehension and reading, shares his experience of coping with his condition. At the end of 4 minutes, you do get it, and you at least partly understand what SPD is and how it has challenged him. Four minutes in any other medium is very unlikely to achieve something similar…

CQ

It has been 28 years since they last performed in London, and last night, during their current one-off tour, I saw them at the Roundhouse London.
Although it feels like I grew up in the era of the Rats, I had never before seen them live.

It was just great.
Ageing (quasi)punk rockers can still produce magic. A glorious performance of passion, talent, individuality, and anger.

The anger is perhaps a little more subdued these days. But, as I listen anew to the lyrics of the songs – Banana Republic, Someone’s Looking at You – it strikes me that anger, just like all emotions that we experience, can have a positive and creative impact.

Growing up in Ireland, anger was judged as a fundamentally ‘wrong’ emotion, to be suppressed at all times, often with tragic consequences.
Perhaps this is not unique to Ireland. A young non-Irish work colleague this week told me that he also believes that anger is always ‘wrong’ and destructive.
I contend that no emotion is fundamentally wrong. We feel what we feel. To repress or to suppress any is unhealthy. Problems arise only in how we deal with them, not in the fact of feeling them.

And so, I am grateful to Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, who used anger positively to create music and words whose meaning transcends time and nations.

From Someone’s Looking At You:

‘You may as well
shout it from the roof
scream it from your
spit it from your mouth
It could fall on deaf ears to indulge in your fears
There’s a spy in the sky
There’s a noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line
And for every paranoid’s desire…

There’s always Someone looking at you.
S-s-s-s-someone looking at you…
They’re always looking at you.’

CQ

I have read two books by Irish authors recently: Kevin Maher’s The Fields and Roddy Doyle’s Guts.
In Doyle’s book, there is an overt cancer theme throughout. For Maher, it is more of a subplot.
What struck me about both, was how the authors used humour.
I laughed out loud, which is very unusual for me, when reading most of Guts. I wondered afterwards how Doyle worked humour around such a serious topic – bowel cancer, unsurprisingly. Humour is not a flippant or reductionist tool in Doyle’s hands. Rather, it invites you in, seduces you into joining the ‘party’, and you feel welcome and involved. The banter and asides, which are all-pervasive throughout, facilitate an expression and a sharing of stuff that might otherwise be unbearable.
Jimmy, who has just been diagnosed, tells his father the news in the pub:
‘— Are yeh havin’ another?
— No, said Jimmy. I’m drivin’.
— Fair enough.
— I have cancer.
— Good man.
— I’m bein’ serious, Da.
— I know.

— Jesus, son.
— Yeah.
— Wha’ kind?
— Bowel.
— Bad.
— Could be worse.
— Could it?
— So they say, said Jimmy.
— They?
— The doctors an’ tha’. The specialists. The team.
— The team?
— Yep.
— What colour are their jerseys?’

In The Fields, the protagonist’s dad has a lymphoma:
‘And Dad, fair dues to him, plays down the whole cancer thing like it’s a very very long and serious life-threatening cold. He doesn’t even use the word ‘cancer’. Ingeniously, he calls it, ‘my neck thing’…
…They don’t know where it came from, but Dad suspects it might be because of the new microwave…
When he walks through the kitchen after that he kind of ducks when he passes the microwave. Just in case it’s still spewing out cancer-causing rays that might start cooking his few remaining healthy cells.’

Both books are works of fiction, and although they deal with very serious topics, these very believable stories of interconnected lives that have been interrupted by illness and impending mortality leave you feeling uplifted and hopeful.
The magic of Irish humour, really…

CQ

An article in today’s Guardian got me thinking about loneliness (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/21/loneliness-result-britain-economic-model). The journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, rightly criticises the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s assertion that loneliness only afflicts the elderly.
Chakrabortty supports his point by referring to the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, which is a drama documentary of a 38 year woman who died alone in London, and whose death was undiscovered for three years. No one reported her missing, and no one looked for her during those three years.
I live in the same city, and deliberately opted for its anonymity many years ago, having left a homeland where everyone appeared to know everything about everyone else…

I saw Dreams of a Life twice when it was first released. I was overwhelmed by the pathos of the story, and I suspect I went to see it a second time to reassure myself that I had missed some sort of explanation first time round. Of course I hadn’t. This story cannot be explained away.

Dreams of a Life tells the story of Joyce Vincent, who died in her flat in Wood Green towards the end of 2003. We assume that she died around Christmas as she was found, almost three years later, surrounded by wrapped presents.
Her body, which had ‘melted into the carpet’, was discovered in January 2006, and was too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death. She was discovered because bailiffs broke down the front door as she was over £2000 in arrears with her rent. The TV was still on.
No one appears to have missed her. No one reported the smell coming from her flat or the TV blaring non-stop since her death. Joyce Vincent had somehow slipped through our lives.

A shockingly disturbing, almost unbelievable, but true, story.

A captivating and compassionate docudrama by the director Carol Morley, who did not apparently set out to answer the question of how someone ‘disappears’. Yet Morley does attempt to piece together Joyce’s life to some extent, although clearly there are blind alleys and no-go zones, depicted by post-it notes that crop up throughout on an investigator type screen. There is a strong feeling of trying to make sense of Joyce’s death by piecing together her life.
The film is seductively crafted, vignettes of re-enactments of Joyce as a child and as an adult (mostly silent) against a backdrop of interviews with friends and colleagues and journalists who reported the story initially. Morley interviews friends and colleagues of Joyce, some of whom she tracked down through personal ads and social network sites, people who were close to her at different points in her life. They all need to explain her death, or rather the apparent insignificance of her departure from their lives. The triumph of the film is that it makes Joyce’s death a story. It retraces a path from her death, backwards, to explain a life.

In the end, there is no clear explanation as to why Joyce was forgotten by so many people. She was beautiful and popular. Yes, there were times spent in women refuge centres, suggestions of violent boyfriends, and of abuse. But nothing that explains away the fact that she disappeared and that no one missed her presence in their lives.

In his article, Chakrabortty states that Britain has witnessed a rise in people living alone, from 17% in 1971 to 31% today. This increase is occurring not in the elderly, but in those of working age. A doubling of the divorce rate since the 1960s probably contributes to the observed increase.

And loneliness is bad for your health: ‘excessive loneliness pushes up your odds of an early death by 45%.’

Much to consider…

For now, from Maya Angelou’s Alone:

‘Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.’

CQ

I am so looking forward to this upcoming conference in Cheltenham November 23-24 (http://www.medicineunboxed.com/2013-voice/).
Themed ‘Voice’, the conference promises to encompass ‘a mosaic of the subjective, individually complex and disparate voices that resonate within medicine’. Speakers include the writer Lionel Shriver, the psychologist Richard Bentall, the composer Eduardo Mirando who works at the crossroads between medicine and science, the poet and philosopher Raymond Tallis, poets Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion and Jackie Kay, the artist Bobby Baker… to name but a few in a very intriguing, diverse, eclectic and fascinating programme.

It promises to be great…

CQ

The BBC foreign correspondent Helen Fawkes has ovarian cancer. She was first diagnosed 12 years ago and had been in remission until recently. She has now been told that she has incurable disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01j9ghq).

Twelve years ago, once chemotherapy had been completed, Fawkes wrote a list of 10 things she wanted to do on the back of an envelope. One of the items was to become a BBC foreign correspondent, which she duly achieved. When she was told the diagnosis of recurrent and incurable cancer, she initially focused on the unfairness of it all. Yet, alongside the upset and the anger, she also became determined to live her life that remained to the full. She has written a 50 item to do list, which she prefers to call a list for living rather than a bucket list…

As she ticks off the items – things that celebrate being alive, mostly experiences shared with those dear to her – Fawkes finds that the list has made her excited about life. Now finding herself in a situation where control and structure have largely been eroded, she sees the list as a way of prioritising her time, of minimising regrets, and of helping to ensure that the time she has left is spent truly ‘alive’ rather than on autopilot.

Fawkes questions whether such an approach to life, as in living it ‘to the full’, is inherently selfish, or whether it might in fact be spiritual. There is no simple answer, but I do concur with the psychotherapist Philippa Perry, who suggests that there is something of the shopping list about bucket lists, a sort of consumerist approach to buying one’s way out of feeling what one is feeling…

The artist and senior TED fellow Candy Chang created a thought-provoking visual piece of work around the notion of what we really want to do and to achieve with our lives (http://www.ted.com/talks/candy_chang_before_i_die_i_want_to.html).
Chang turned the exterior of a derelict house in her neighbourhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard, where passersby were invited to complete the line, ‘Before I die I want to…’
Within 24 hours, the board was filled with hundreds of messages. The idea has now moved to many other countries, where it has been just as popular. Clearly, people do stop to consider what they would like to do, or perhaps what they dream of doing ‘someday’. Whether this translates into an actual ‘doing’, particularly before one becomes aware that death is much closer than anticipated, is another important and as yet unanswered question.
Chang sees life as ‘brief and tender’. She sees death as an intrinsic part of how we live, and believes that preparing for this inevitable event can not only be empowering, but can also serve to clarify our lives as we live through them.

CQ

I happened upon this BBC Radio 4 drama today. Written by Morwenna Banks, who is best known for comedy such as Absolutely, this is an intense and very moving portrayal of the experience of living with cancer, breast cancer in this instance. Lizzie, wonderfully played by Olivia Colman, initially has a cancer ‘scare’, which appears six months later to have been a mistaken dismissal of a malignant tumour as benign. She proceeds to chemotherapy, and to much else, including sickness, hair loss, and all the attendant anxieties and terrors that inevitably accompany her, her family and her best friend Jen.

I was surprised how moved I was by this fictional story. It felt real, believable, and so very sad. Yet there is a redemption of sorts too, and so it does leave one with a reassuring and plausible sense that life is challenging, difficult and sometimes tragic.

And so you just get on with the whole business of it, really.

Go listen…
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03d836p

CQ

I have come across two events over the past week where links between poetry and science or medicine have been initiated.
Firstly, appropriately at Keats House, I attended the launch of a collaborative project between poets and scientists (http://www.poetry.gb.com/BiomedicalScience). Eleven poets teamed with 11 scientists to create poetry that reflected on the life/work of the latter. At the event, both the poet and the scientist of each ‘team’ spoke about their respective experiences throughout the collaboration. The resulting poetry is wonderfully rich and evocative. It was also very moving to hear the scientists speak, and so poetically, of what the experience meant to them.

Secondly, today I came across a piece in a recent New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2013/10/14/131014ta_talk_singer) on poetry and medicine. John F. Martin is a ‘cardiologist, transatlantic academic, specialist in gene therapies for treating heart attacks, clinician, and published poet.’ I guess the ‘poet’ element is last mentioned in order to heighten the impact of this apparent incongruity. There have indeed been clinicians, such as William Carlos Williams and Dannie Abse, who were also published poets. But they are in the minority. I have not yet come across Martin’s poetry, but I will now seek it out.
Apart from his own poetry, Martin has also initiated an annual poetry competition for medical students both at UCL and at Yale School of Medicine. This project arose out of his concerns that ‘medical students are at risk of becoming “intellectually brutalized”…conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.’
The competition is now in its third year, and I have been reading the work of past winners. Impressive. My favourite is Encounters with Death, by Kevin Woo (Yale University, 2012):

‘In the First Year
I gazed upon a body overtaken by Death
The fingers, withered and cold
Eyes as gray as the stainless steel casket
Call her Cadaver, they explained, and learn
Her lines, her edges…
…And in the First Year, I dissected Death.’

There is a separate stanza for each year, of four.

‘In the Second Year
I memorized the signs of Death
A lung, scarred and emptied
The nodes of Osler revealing infection within…
…And in the Second Year, I pathologized Death.’

‘In the Third Year
I saved a man from Death
His heart, so worn and weary
That it had surrendered its rhythm…
…And in the Third Year, I conquered Death.’

‘In the Fourth Year
I had a conversation with Death
Of what do you remain afraid, Death asked
That you might know Death only by dissection, as pathology, to be conquered?
And I learned that Death
Was a companion along the journey of humanity
Along which we travel
I smiled, because I understood
At last
And in Fourth Year, I accepted Death.’

A most impressive journey in just 4 years. For most of us it takes a lifetime, if we do even manage to arrive.

CQ

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”

CQ