Archives for posts with tag: Living

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…




I listened to ‘How to Have a Good Death’ on BBC Radio 4 last night ( Hosted by Dr Kevin Foy, the programme aimed to explore how death, despite its universal certainty, is such a taboo subject, and as a result, discussions around dying tend to be avoided. The programme also specifically addressed the current controversial Liverpool Care of the Dying Pathway (LCP) and its implementation.

Contributors included Dr Kate Granger, who I have spoken about previously ( Dr Granger is a junior doctor who has incurable cancer. She has broken with convention and chosen to openly and publicly (including on twitter) speak about her experience living, and dying, with terminal disease.

Recent years have seen a dramatic improvement in the care of the dying. As discussed on air, death is ‘complicated’ and requires its own specialty, Palliative Medicine. I have my own views on this, which I will come back to another time, but I do wonder whether we have over medicalised dying as a result of such specialisation…

Contributors also included the originators of the LCP. Whatever one’s views on the pathway, at the very least it serves as a platform from which issues around death and dying can be openly addressed and discussed, which potentially facilitates those affected having a say in their own dying process.

The prospect of death and the certainty of our mortality fills most people with fear. We tend to speak less about what we fear most, which epitomises how we deal with the subject of death and dying.

Which is why I welcome programmes such as ‘How to Have a Good Death’. I may not fully understand the concept of a ‘Good Death’, but I embrace opportunities that expose us to the taboo subject of mortality, and which challenge us to stop and consider our own dying, and even perhaps ultimately accepting it…


I am currently re-reading Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne: How To Live (subtitled A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer), which has reminded me just what an accessible and enjoyable book this is.

For now, I am going to focus on one of the questions posed:

1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death

Early on in his life, Montaigne was obsessed by death, in fact he was so obsessed by the thought of losing his life that he was unable to enjoy life itself.

In his 30s, Montaigne experienced the loss of many of those close to him, including the deaths of his best friend, his father, his younger brother, and his first born child. All of these losses served to re-inforce the undeniable reality, but more so the fear, of death.

Montaigne had an epiphany when he was 36, following a riding accident. He recovered, but was utterly changed by the ‘near-dying’ experience. Thereafter, he lived his life differently:

‘If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.’

This maxim – ‘Don’t worry about death’ – became Montaigne’s means of living, a rebirth of sorts where he could experience life without the constant shadow, and fear, of death.


In 2011, Susan Spencer-Wendel, a journalist and mother of three young children, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given a prognosis of 3 to 5 years ( As her disease progressed, she has chosen to spend her time making the most of every moment. She made a list of things she wanted to do, including trips with each of the people she loves. She has now written a book, Until I Say Good-bye, which procured an advance of $2m, plus film rights for a further $2m, and which has facilitated achieving most of her goals thus far, as well as allowing her husband to give up his job and look after her.

Even now, as she becomes increasingly incapacitated and dependent, she continues to ‘do’, and to live.

People deal very differently with the fact that death is going to happen much sooner that they had anticipated. We are all going to die, but mostly we live our lives denying this. Faced with a life-threatening illness and no hope of cure, there seems to be a spectrum of coping strategies. At one end of the continuum are those who ‘make the most’ of what time is left. At the other end are those who socially die at diagnosis. Perhaps the majority lie somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong as to how we deal with our dying, although how we ‘manage’ it does have an impact on those left behind. Susan Spence-Wendel’s husband made an interesting observation:

“It may sound strange, but living with joy isn’t easy. It’s hard. You make your decisions about how you approach things. Susan works at being happy.’

On the flip side, it is also very difficult to witness the unsharable suffering of those who socially die well before physical death.

I believe that how we have lived our lives reflects how we live our dying. and pretty much determines how we deal with the knowledge that death is at once undeniable and soon.


I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.


I have been thinking lately about how we live, and how we die, and how our lives are/are not shaped and affected by the only truth we can pretty much all agree on…some day, we will all cease to be alive. It is a corporate thing, and no one is exempt.

It still amazes me how profoundly we ignore and refuse to acknowledge, even believe that fact. Yet, or so it seems to me, an acceptance of our mortality, the fact that we will die tomorrow, potentially imbues today with something wonderful, even (and forgive this evangelical tone) magnificent. It gives today so much more potential and possibility that need not depend on a yesterday, or a tomorrow, just a nowness of being.

I return to Philip Larkin, and probably my favourite of his poems, Next, Please (Collected Poems, Faber, p.51). He challenges our constant looking to the future, our sense that things will be better tomorrow, and our stoic belief that some day our luck will change…

‘Till then, we say’

He alludes to our belief that one day – the nebulous tomorrow –  it will all come good, the ship will eventually dock and unload

‘All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.’

In true Larkin style, the poets ends by attempting to shock us out of our delusional state:

‘But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.’

I end on the words of Noah and The Whale from an excerpt from the lyrics of their song L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.:

‘On my last night on earth, I won’t look to the sky

Just breathe in the air and blink in the light

On my last night on earth, I’ll pay a high price

To have no regrets and be done with my life.’