Archives for category: Uncategorized

Currently running, this festival ends on March 6. The venue is spectacular – a series of underground tunnels just by Waterloo station. The festival features a wide and diverse range of innovative theatre, comedy, music and dance. The emphasis is on new and emerging talent – ‘the next generation of creators’ –  which lends an exciting and ‘happening’ edge.

Last night I saw ‘The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity’ by Clout Theatre. The theme is suicide. Which may not sound like a great night out. But it was. Very much so. I am still thinking about it 24 hours later. Not in a sad, mournful, tragic sense, but partly in a quizzical ‘what was that all about’ sense as well as a ‘looking back in laughter’ sense. At times, it was skittishly funny.

Three characters, all ‘dead’ as a result of suicide, constitute the post-event support group. The performance takes us on a journey – absurdist at times – that veers off on many different paths (sometimes inexplicable but I think that that is actually the point). I was absorbed throughout, electrified by the energy of the actors, jolted (not uncomfortably) by the thematic pirouetting, impressed by the depth of the imaginative leaps, and totally seduced by the courage and fearlessness that the script and actors displayed throughout. Also bizarrely flattered that Clout Theatre believes that people like me might ‘get it’.

I think that I did, but am still reflecting on this. For me, the play highlighted the absurdness of the human condition.We desperately try to control ourselves and our destiny as much as possible. A pointless exercise. In the end, we are all fragile, vulnerable and completely out of control. Which may actually be ok.

 

CQ

Advertisements

Today is December 1. It feels auspicious somehow, and I wanted to mark it with a poem. Choosing Derek Walcott’s Love After Love was an easy decision – it is good to be reminded to love ourselves, something too easily ignored and forgotten.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

I welcome the recent increase in the number of films where older people, particularly the ‘older than old’, have taken centre stage. I missed Advanced Style, the documentary film that followed elderly (over 60, some in their 80s and 90s) stylish women in New York. The film was well received, and a Guardian review shared some insights into the positive effects that can accompany ageing:

“Ageing has, for these women, brought with it a kind of liberation. “We all want some kind of approval,” says Lynn Dell Cohen, “but I think you have to like yourself first.”

“I am not afraid,” says Carpati warmly. “That’s what age can do for you. It gives you a freedom! I don’t care. I must sound outrageous to you, do I?” she says. “I’m free.””

I did see Iris, also a documentary centred on the fashion world. Iris Apfel is a 93 year old New Yorker, and the film follows the ‘geriatric starlet‘ as she continues her life as a prominent fashionista today. The film was directed by Albert Maysles, himself 88 at the time, which perhaps partly explains its upbeatness as it delivers the message that old age can indeed bring fun, laughter and fulfilment. Iris herself contributes in no small way to this. She exudes vitality – even as her body fails her a little – and continues to love living. I suspect that she ages as she has lived, embracing life.

More recently, I saw Ping Pong at the Royal Society of Medicine Global Health Film Festival. Filmed pre and post the 2010 Veterans Ping Pong World Championships hosted by China, this documentary follows seven participants, variously aged between 82 and 100. Some have played ping pong for most of their lives, for others it has been a hobby discovered in old age. For all, it is a hugely immersive, enjoyable, and sustaining part of their lives. During the competition, there are inevitably winners and losers, participants who are much more competitive than others and a modicum of aggression, a human attribute that transcends age, but in the end, all ultimately pulled together with grace and with their shared love of the sport. It is of course significant that the seven characters are ‘older than old’. One cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of their strokes, skill that seems to defy physical frailty, and even more so their sense of humour. We are invited to laugh, not at them, but with them. This is a film about old age, and to a certain extent inevitably also about mortality, but more so, it is a celebration of living while alive.

Last weekend, during the London Irish Film Festival, I saw Older than Ireland, a documentary film featuring Ireland’s centenarians. There are approximately 300 people in Ireland over 100 years of age. The film interviewed 30 of these. It is a gem. Largely driven by the interviewees themselves, the film is funny, moving, poignant, and real. The director Alex Fagan (who created the wonderful The Irish Pub a couple of years ago) joined for Q and A after the screening. Much of the film is hilarious, mainly as the centenarians speak so disarmingly freely and directly. They invite us to laugh as they share anecdotes and stories. This is a feel good movie, yet there is also a palpable sadness at times, and Fagan commented that most of the participants mentioned the loneliness of old age.

I have written previously here about The Lady in Number 6, another inspirational film that featured Alice Hertz Sommer at 109, a pianist and the oldest Holocaust survivor. I have also spoken about the loneliness of old age, exemplified by Timothy O’Grady’s I Could Read The Sky (both a book and a film), and Michael Haneke’s Amour, which celebrates the transcendence of love.

There are of course many more.

As life expectancy continues to increase generation on generation – by 2030 it is estimated that there will be four million people over 80 in the UK – it is good to see representation of this fact within the arts, particularly as the ‘older than old’ population is a relatively recent phenomenon and one with which we have little insight and experience to date. The arts are perfectly positioned for helping us understand and appreciate this experience, thus serving to pave the way for a welcoming of the elderly towards the centre rather than the periphery of our lives.

 

 

In an era where stories of illness are increasingly being shared via social media, this conference is timely. It promises to be fascinating https://epatientsconference.wordpress.com/

ePatients: The Medical, Ethical and Legal Repercussions of Blogging and Micro-Blogging Experiences of Illness and Disease

Queen’s University Belfast, 11-12 September 2015

Call for Papers – deadline April 3, 2015:

‘We welcome paper proposals dealing with ePatient accounts from a variety of countries and cultures which address the following questions:

What does the rise in social media (“web 2.0”) participation by patients tell us about the ways in which the growing influence of e-patients is challenging the power structures of traditional healthcare and, as a result, proving contentious?
In what ways might social media narratives of illness be seen as a useful source of information for medics? What, conversely, are their limitations?
How do patients influence their online followers, and vice-versa?
What are the ethical issues involved in documenting ‘the public deathbed’?
What are the potential legal consequences of publicly chronicling the clinical experience?’

I just came across this poem (thank you KH…). It is one of those gems that must be shared.

Moving and beautiful, some consider that it is about unconditional love.

For me, it speaks of forgiving, accepting and welcoming one’s self — learning to love it, and to treat it, and life, gratefully and kindly…

 

Love After Love

 

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life

I had my first experience of a Death Cafe event last night. Conceived approximately three years ago, the cafes are spaces where people come to ‘drink tea, eat cake and discuss death’ (http://deathcafe.com/). The aim of the movement is to facilitate an openness and awareness of death, thereby enhancing the quality of our lived and finite lives.

Although it was more supper and wine on the menu last night than tea and cake, the event lived up to and exceeded any expectations I might have had. It may seem odd to those who rarely dwell on the inescapable and shared fact of our immortality, but being in an environment where people openly shared their thoughts and fears, and non-fears, on the ultimate taboo subject was enlightening and refreshing. And not in the least bit depressing…

Over the past few days, I have read some interesting and diverse pieces on death and dying.

Firstly, a systematic review by Lehto and Stein on death anxiety (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/66464/?sequence=1). Death anxiety in this context is ‘a term used to conceptualize the apprehension generated by death awareness.’ An all-pervasive anxiety, I suspect, which seems to have been heightened by the technologically advanced and led world we currently live in, where anything is or should be possible, including immortality, or at the very least an indefinite postponement of death.

The aim of the study was to identify factors that contribute to or are significantly associated with death anxiety. Lack of robust data on the topic limited the power of the review to draw definitive conclusions, but, unsurprisingly, important antecendents of death anxiety appear to include ‘stressful environments and the experience of unpredictable circumstances’, as well as personal experience of a life-threatening illness/event, and with death and dying. At my table last night, we pretty much all reported such life experiences to some extent, although the apparent levels of anxiety appeared to vary within the group. A complex issue.

I also came across the writer Jenny Diski’s recent musings on death and dying (http://www.berfrois.com/2013/12/jenny-diski-on-night-and-more/). In an amusing piece titled ‘Dirty Dying’, Diski considers her personal relationship with thinking about death:

‘I’ve never understood about boredom…But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives.’

While currently re-reading Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness, I encountered this thought-provoking reflection from a 30 year old man dying from leukemia:

‘I don’t think people are afraid of death. What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their lives.’

Which brings me to what I most enjoyed, and which both reassured and liberated me, during and subsequent to  last night’s Death Cafe event: there was no evasion, no avoidance, but instead, for those moments there existed the real possibility of talking about death in a welcoming and open environment, where people chatted, shared and laughed about lives that include death as a (mostly) welcome and also essential component of how we live. That is not to say that everyone present was accepting and comfortable about the prospect of their own death and dying and that of their loved ones. At times, there was an almost palpable sadness and grief. But that was ok, and it was also ok to talk about such feelings. Accepting death does not preclude grief and the profound sense of loss that one experiences for those who are no longer physically present in one’s life.

I end with Pablo Neruda and his succinct conclusion on the topic in the poem A Dog Has Died:

‘There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him.

and that’s all there is to it.’

CQ

Becoming a mother ‘forced’ me into considering holidays, something that had never really featured much before then. I suspect that I had feared them a little, struggling at their end with the inevitable return to a working life that I enjoyed less and less.

Now, a change of career later, I no longer dread Monday mornings or post holiday blues. However, a recent one week break – and it was my first for a year – disconcerted me, and I have found it difficult to re-establish an equilibrium since.

The location of the holiday probably explains much. Living in the very busy and wonderful London, a week on a small island off the west coast of Ireland whose inhabitants (Irish speaking) number less than 150, was a complete contrast. Getting there was a 12-hour adventure in itself, but served a useful function in the transition from here to there.

Once we arrived, to a little cottage surrounded by hens and glorious views, there was little to do, except walk, swim, and just be. I have never before felt so rooted in the present. The island itself is quixotic. I am not sure whether it lives in its own present, or past, or a combination of the two. No matter. I was seduced (as was my 15 year old daughter) by its ability to ignore much of what dictates our lives elsewhere, and to carry on in a world where issues are immediate, people-centred and non-materialistic (at least to a current Londoner).

Inevitably, there is a tendency on my part to romanticise it all. I was immediately struck by the acute contrast between my city existence and that of the islanders, but I can also appreciate the harshness of their environment, and their desperate need to eke enough out of the summer months to last their winter isolation.

Yet I remain discombobulated. This partly results from a sense of belonging that I felt there, speaking Irish and being in a place and a time that is not reproducible in London, a city where it can be difficult to stop and to just be.

I came across a piece on mindfulness today, a topic about which I know little. As various stresses and sources of unhappiness creep back into my London life, I liked what I read, for example considering unhappiness as a black cloud that one observes with friendly curiosity as it drifts by. Much of what it proposes is based on building a capacity to catch negative thoughts before they spiral out of control.

My Irish background and upbringing served me well in terms of the notion that fear can spiral into something hugely dangerous and uncontrollable.

Which brings me to poetry. Poetry always seems to finds the words and a way of expressing when I cannot.

Michael Gorman, from his poem The People I Grew Up With Were Afraid:

‘The people I grew up with were afraid,

They were alone too long in waiting-rooms,

in dispensaries and in offices whose functions

they did not understand.’

‘Our mother’s factory pay-packet

is sitting in the kitchen press

and our father, without

humour or relief, is

waiting for the sky to fall.’

The poet Wendell Berry, in the poem The Peace of Wild Things, helps to connect my currently disparate worlds, and concludes with an optimism that I will attempt to bring to my tomorrow:

‘When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.’

I like this, from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

The Greeter

He’s not the Reaper, but he does stop by

To say, to everything that’s ever lived, “Nice try.”

Robert N. Watson

I saw this tonight, and really enjoyed it. Even though the subject matter – illness, death, difficult relationships, loss – may appear ‘heavy’, I am glad I experienced it.

Melanie Spencer’s play is not perfect – it felt slightly too long and would have benefitted from deleting some scenes – but it effectively deals with very tricky life events imaginatively, sensitively, and with an appropriate, and important, dose of humour.

Daisy is almost 16. She is off school in her GCSE year, as she has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus). She lives with her dad, Peter. Her mum died from cancer just 18 months earlier.

Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Daisy and her dad, which is mostly fractious and involves much shouting (and non-listening) and storming out scenes. Peter still grieves for his wife. Daisy feels not understood by her dad.

Daisy’s best friend Alice loyally visits her pal regularly at home, updating her on school work and on school gossip. Theirs is an affecting and touching relationship, which holds much that feels real and raw, and full of teenage-appropriate angst.

As Daisy embarks on a course of low dose chemotherapy treatment, her dad calls on his wife’s sister Diana for help. Struggling to make ends meet, he cannot take the time off from work to accompany Daisy on her hospital visits. Diana, who appears to have had some mental health issues, is initially reluctant, but rises to the occasion, and ultimately thrives on this new challenge, and purpose, in her life.

There are many issues here, including serious illness, death of a parent/spouse, grieving, loss, mental illness, and not least, the challenges that teenagers face, which are so greatly enhanced by the arrival of serious illness.

I particularly loved the ending. It was open-ended enough to allow you to consider and to personally reflect on much of the stuff you had experienced, but also poignant and touching, and importantly spotlighted on teenagers, whose story it ultimately is…

CQ

The discovery of the remains of Richard III has not in itself particularly interested me. However, two loosely or otherwise connected issues, which are independent of whose DNA we are considering, do intrigue me.

Firstly, the finding does serve to reinforce the fact that we humans ‘survive’ for an indeterminate length of time following death. I am not sure whether I find this reassuring or whether it fills me with terror. I suspect that, by shattering my belief in absolute physical finiteness, apart from whatever genetic legacy I endow my child with, the prospect of my lingering somewhere indefinitely is not a happy one.

Particularly if that somewhere is a concrete edifice.

My second thought on the issue stems from a memory the report stirred. I instantly recalled Catherine O’Flynn’s novel What Was Lost. Like Richard III, whose body was lost for all those years, O’Flynn’s story centres on an unfound body. In O’Flynn’s fictional narrative the body is that of a little girl. We discover, some time after her disappearance, that she has been entombed in the foundations of a shopping centre.

The protagonist implicated in the case, although not directly responsible for the child’s death but a witness to it, had the following to say when questioned:

‘Do you know in Germany in the Middle Ages, when they tried to build the church in Vilmitz, the builders couldn’t finish the job? Whatever they put up in the daytime fell down at night. So they took a child, gave it a bread-roll in one hand, a light in the other, and set it in a cavity in the foundation, which they mortared shut. The building stood firm after that…There are entombed children all over Europe bringing prosperity, security, happiness.’

An intriguing fictional construct, one which made me wonder about Royal Souls, and Richard III’s contribution to the well-being of a certain Leicester car park…

CQ