Archives for posts with tag: Life

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Today, I got up late. It’s Saturday, and there was no urgency. I can take a later yoga class instead of my usual early morning one. I could have stayed in bed all day in fact, and probably no one would have known.

There is a great freedom in that. To cliché it, “my life is my own.” Pretty much.

It also means, however, that no one really witnesses my life. Especially this chapter in it, this new adventure in a different place and country.

Our lives are the sum of so many moments, the trivial and the not so. All the small things – which matter to me hugely – that constitute my every day aren’t really worth relaying to someone else, later. And so, these days, for the most part I am the only person who “sees” the micro and the macro that threads together my personal narrative.

Mostly, I am pretty content just witnessing myself witnessing me.

But there are times, too, that it feels as if I am looking for proof that I actually exist, that I am here / have been here / did that… Which is probably why I am drawn to writing, a potential affirmation of my existence. A record, of sorts.

Maybe that’s what diaries are all about. A witnessing, a proof to ourselves that yes, we do actually exist.

A few years ago, I saw (twice) the film Dreams of a Life. It tells the true story of a young woman who is found dead in her London apartment two years after a last sighting. She was found accidentally. No one had reported her missing. She literally disappeared, and no one noticed.

I am good at being alone. I like it. But I also thrive on being in the company of others. And I am happy to report that I am gathering “others” in my new land.

In Buddhist teaching (which I am currently studying and getting much from), the notion of the “no self” is a dominant one that challenges the delusion of cherishing the small, individual self. Our perception of our “selves” and others is merely a thought. Perhaps we fight that notion of “ourselves” being no more than a succession of thoughts by doing things, by chronicling them, by having others witness them, so that we can be truly reassured that we do indeed exist.

Of course, the presence of others need not necessarily equate with a witnessing. We all encounter many people every day, but how often are they truly present to us, and we to them?

As always, I look to poetry for further considerations.

First, Norman McCaig, from his poem Summer Farm:

“Self under self, a pile of selves I stand

Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand

Lift the farm like a lid and see

Farm within farm, and in the centre, me”

 

And second, Morning, by Yannis Ritsos (translated from the Greek by Nikos Stangos):

“She opened the shutters. She hung the sheets over the sill.

She saw the day.

A bird looked at her straight in the eyes. ‘I am alone,’ she whispered.

‘I am alive.’ She entered the room. The mirror too is a window.

If I jump from I will fall into my arms.”

 

CQ

 

 

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I have just seen the documentary film Mountain, a meditative consideration of the rocky and often snow-covered peaks that loom large and magnificent throughout our landscape.

Jennifer Peedom’s shots are extraordinary from the outset, almost dizzyingly so. The camera shifts vertiginously from one sequence to the next, the act of the image-capturing itself a marvel how was it even done?!). The text, narrated by Willem Dafoe, and co-written by Robert Macfarlane and Peedom, is understated, and as such aptly complements the sublime images it accompanies. There are many silences, which facilitate a pause, a breath-taking moment to consider the majesty and beauty of what is being revealed.

The film is a 76 minute wonderment. I now realise that I have never really used the word s‘awe’ and ‘sublime’ appropriately before.

Beyond the sheer physicality of the film, Mountain left me a number of things to reflect on.

Firstly, I was struck by something Dafoe said early on:

“The mountains we climb are mountains of our minds”

I guess that this analogy refers to the extraordinary psychological challenge that those who set out to scale the highest mountains face, and one that surely matches if not exceeds the physical demands.

But the words made me think too of the sometimes near impossible goals that we set ourselves in our – non-mountaineering – lives. These ‘climbs’ and ‘scalings to the summit’ are often invisible to others, and as a result too infrequently applauded or even acknowledged.

I have never climbed a mountain, nor really aspired to. Yet I am utterly compelled by the attempts and feats of others to do so. I have read pretty much every book, and seen every film and documentary on climbing Mount Everest, for example.

I tend to seek out ‘me’, and my story, or at least components of it, in pretty much all of the fiction/biography/poetry/cinema that I experience. Consciously or otherwise, I have an innate self-selection process that draws me to stories, whatever the medium, where I might find personal resonance.

And so it is with the sublime, and the almost impossible stories of scaling the heights, of getting to the top. I am somewhere in those stories, though my climbing is psychical. The truth is that I am way too fearful to attempt the most novice of physical climbs. But nonphysical challenges hold much less fear for me. I get the adrenaline, the euphoria that these physical risk takers experience – ‘the risk is the reward’. So too for me, but in an infinitely more limited physical microcosm.

Secondly, Mountain gives us more serious issues to consider. It encourages us to question why we feel the need to control our environment, to ‘conquer’ it, to make it ours. Getting to the top of Mount Everest does not actually equate with owning anything. In fact, seeing as we do the queues lining up the ascent, you begin to wonder what exactly humans are trying to achieve. My own theory is that we struggle to cope with the unknown, the unattainable, the inexplicable, particularly as so much more is known and explored that it was, say 100, 200 years ago. Uncertainty, a not knowing, has become an anathema to humanity. And thus, we distract ourselves from such uncertainty – which ultimately equates with our eventual nonexistence – by seeking to conquer. If everything is ultimately within our grasp, perhaps mortality might become so, too. A fallacy, undoubtedly, but the illusion somehow fosters a sense of safety.

Thirdly, Mountain encourages us to consider the beauty, and fragility of all our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means and feels to be alive, to truly notice our lived experiences, and to be grateful for such awareness. There is a beautiful moment in the film when Dafoe refers to the risks that extreme climbers take on. We truly live when death becomes an almost reality – so close, we can almost feel it.

It is at that moment that we are most alive.

 

CQ

I went to an interesting event called ‘5×15’ this week. It was my first experience of this regular happening, which consists of five 15 minute talks by well known/prominent-for-diverse-reasons people.

This week’s featured Roz Savage (who holds world records for ocean rowing and is an active environmental campaigner), Gavin Francis (a GP and writer; his most recent book is Adventures in Being Human, a landscape of the human body), Raj Kohli (the highest ranking Sikh officer in the Metropolitan Police), Isy Suttie (comedian, writer, songwriter and actress), and Andrew Solomon (writer and lecturer, and author of The Noonday Demon, amongst other books).

Both the speakers and the content were wide-ranging, diverse and entertaining. The 15 minute time limit is a good tactic – just long enough to build on a single idea or theme, without overburdening the listener with too much detail. There was much of value, and many points raised have lingered. Much to consider and to reflect on.

One thought has particularly stayed with me. The first speaker, Roz Savage, worked for 11 years as a management consultant, which she hated but struggled to find a way out of. She delved into self-help books looking for a solution, one of which recommended the task of writing your own obituary; two in fact: one that reflects the life you will probably lead if you stay in the same predictable trajectory, and another that reveals the life you could lead if you chose a path that feels more meaningful and rewarding, albeit one that may require much courage and determination, and an openness to failure. It did not happen overnight, but Roz slowly and steadily revised her trajectory, choosing the second path, making the necessary changes that could and would allow her to lead a more meaningful, purposeful, and rewarding life.

I am now distracted by this obituary idea. It feels important to resolve. Do I truly believe that I am right now living the most present, meaningful and authentic life that I possibly could?

Or not…

 

CQ

 

The Irish poet died on Christmas Eve 2012. He would have been 60 on New Years Day 2014.

It thus feels appropriate today, on the last day of 2013 and the eve of the day of the poet’s birth, to share one of his poems, and one of my absolute favourites.

Life

Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.

Kill in just wars

for its survival.

Wolf fast-food

during half-term breaks.

Wash down

chemical cocktails,

as prescribed.

Soak up

hospital radiation.

Prey on kidneys

at roadside pile-ups.

Take heart

from anything

that might

conceivably grant it

a new lease.

We would give

a right hand

to prolong it.

Cannot imagine

living without it.

Dennis O’Driscoll

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I saw this play at the weekend at The Roundhouse London, as part of its current The Last Word – ‘London’s first ever spoken word festival.’

And what a truly magnificent representation of the power and magic and beauty of words Wasted is. The energy, passion and dynamism of the three performers was also hugely impressive.

Written by the so very talented Kate Tempest, I have thought much about the play since, and have read and re-read the text. Wasted is word-dense, each word carefully chosen to create a piece of art that is thought-provoking, moving, sad, disturbing, funny, and all the while gripping and enthralling.

The three characters arrive on stage and address the audience directly. Immediately, one feels involved, drawn into the stories of their lives, a witness to something significant and vital:

“We wish we has some kind of incredible truth to express.”

“We wish we knew the deeper meaning.”

“But we don’t.”

“We don’t have nothing to tell you that you don’t already know…”

They speak of the city, their home, and the despondency that it and living their lives there has fostered:

“Deserted playgrounds, tramps singing on the street, bleeding gums outside the pub, takeaways and car exhausts and bodies till you can’t see bodies.”

“A city where nothing much happens except everything.”

“Where everyone is so entirely involved in their own ‘nothing much’ that they forget about the everything happening elsewhere.”

It was not always so. The trio remember their teen years, when they ‘lived without fear’, then later ‘got wasted in raves and felt Godlike.’ But as the years pass (they are now 25) “Our eyes got dimmer and our dreams got flattened”, and we “forgot what we was living for.”

They mention Tony, both individually and as a group, who, it appears, died 10 years earlier:

“So you’re lucky. Coz if you was still here, you’d have a habit, or depression, or anxiety attacks, or all three…”

Seeking change and epiphanies that don’t happen, all three are drowning in the reality of their current lives. They also realise that they no longer have anything to say to each other, only a shared and ‘wasted’ past – “we spend life retelling life and it’s pointless and boring.”

Many phrases – “All of us, regretting the decisions we never had the guts to make” – resonate and leave much to consider.

I have not yet decided how the play concluded for me. But then, there can be no definitive conclusion or ending. This is a story about life, about the challenges inherent in living it, and about the choices you can make, or choose to ignore.

“…your dreams are more than just something that came before you shook them off, your dreams are worth pursuing…”

“But you’ll never fly until you’re prepared to jump.”

“Your life is much more than getting wasted.”

CQ

… died suddenly over the Christmas period.

I had not realised until today.

I so love his work, and will return to it in more detail at a later stage.

I quoted from his poem Life in my last blog.

Now, I leave you with more of his words, from Nocturne:

‘Time for sleep. Time for a nightcap of grave music,

a dark nocturne, a late quartet, a parting song,

bequeathed by the great dead in perpetuity.’

CQ

I recently saw Paul Cox’s film The Life and Death of Van Gogh, and during my reading around the director I came across his memoir Tales From The Cancer Ward.

In February 2009, Cox first developed symptoms that quickly led to a diagnosis of liver cancer, for which the only possible hope of cure was a liver transplant. Tales From The Cancer Ward is a diary-like account of Cox’s experience of his illness and of living a waiting life on a transplant list.

The initial part of the memoir was written retrospectively. Cox then recorded events and his thoughts as they happened:

‘There might not be a final page, but I can’t let all this happen to me without doing something constructive.’

He also used the new world in which he found himself as an opportunity for self-exploration:

‘I have been trying to unwind the clock, to find the very core of my being. To find out who I really am.’

Cox is a shrewd observer of himself, and of others. When speaking of the medical consultation at the time of diagnosis he comments:

‘There was no eye contact, which worried me more than all the potential bad news.’

I have mentioned before how serious illness can sometimes heighten, even enhance, the experience of living, as reported for example by Dennis Potter and Philip Gould. Cox had a similar experience, as if ‘another dimension has been added.’ From his ‘newly acquired vulnerability and raw emotional state’ he began to respond to others differently, and became much more responsive to their kindness. He also acknowledges the importance of love in his life:

‘I’m still here because I probably started to love more.’

Cancer, once diagnosed, is always there and present:

‘It has become my constant companion.’

‘It’s hard to escape the thought of cancer and that creeping sense of loss.’

He struggled with the side effects of chemotherapy and, like Christopher Hitchens, wondered at the time if the treatment was in fact worth it:

‘I become convinced that if you have to live like this to keep yourself alive, it’s better to have no treatment.’

Of one medical encounter Cox comments:

‘He is not as knowledgeable as the experts but more human.

It’s humanity, warmth and tenderness I need more than expert advice at this point.’

Yet, humanity does not necessarily involve tears:

‘As I say to others who tend to cry over me – your tears are of no use to me.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward is about more than illness. It is also a political book, and Cox shares many of his passionate and strongly held views. He believes, for example, that ‘artists must protest’, as he is convinced that they have within them the power to change the world.

For Cox, ‘Life isn’t merely for living, but what we live for.’ For Cox too, this purpose lies through art. He quotes Oscar Wilde:

‘When I get out of prison, the only people I would to be with are artists and people who have suffered. Those who know what beauty is and those who know what sorrow is.’

He speaks openly of fear, the fear of losing his life, and of the force that makes us cling to life, and our refusal to accept mortality.

I thought of a poem I recently came across, Life by Dennis O’Driscoll:

‘Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward also contains many of Cox’s dreams, which he reports in some detail. For him, dreaming is ‘the most powerful religion of them all.’

Cox’s memoir depicts the author’s personal attempt find out who he is, to get to the core of himself, in the midst of crisis, as well as a seeing and contemplating of what he has personally learnt as he tries to create a reality out of the unreality that surrounds him.

Post transplant, and well, his final words are:

‘Life is beautiful’

CQ