Michaela took these pictures in Stirling the other day.
I like them as they tell some kind of story.
A friend of ours gave us a book to read the other day. Nothing unusual about that, we are blessed with friends who know what moves us, and love to share things they have discovered.
However, this friend is from a different generation- she is almost 80 years old, and has lived a life of adventure. Her father was a famous movie producer/director, who fled from the Nazis and lived his life in England. She grew up in a privileged world, against which she rebelled, becoming an author, a book editor, and eventually meeting her husband, who had been a pilot in the war. They then spent much of their married life living aboard boats, making their last voyage out to St Kilda when her husband was almost 80. Sadly he died about 6 years ago. Since then our friend has travelled the world- Australia, China, India to name but a few of her destinations. In her deep grief she has decided to live life to the full.
Strange then that she is a firm advocate of euthanasia- the right to choose when and where she wants to end her life. Our friend is a firm atheist and humanist, and brings a fierce integrity to her understanding of death.
Or perhaps it is not strange at all. Perhaps the strangeness is to be found in our own attitudes towards death.
The book she gave us is this one;
Marie de Hennezel is a gifted psychologist who works as part of a remarkable team of doctors and nurses in a hospital for the terminally ill. In this eloquent book, she shares her unique perspective on what life and death really mean – and explores how talking about death, and facing up to it, can actually help us lead more abundant lives.
The men and women who come to the palliative-care unit do not always know that they are dying. It is de Hennezel’s aim to bring them and their loved ones to this knowledge, and then to encourage them to live each day as fully and serenely as possible. Through insight and humanity, and the unforgettable people she helps, we learn how precious the final days of a person’s life can be and how deeply moving it is to share these moments with someone else.
In an age where people hesitate to talk about dying, Seize the Day lends us the strength to confront the mysteries of death, gives us hope and celebrates the courage of the human spirit.
It is a beautiful book, full of life, grace and deep love of humanity.
Though I walk in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. So says the psalm that we always hear at funerals. It has often occurred to me that when those words were written, the culture that sang them had no concept of an afterlife. By this I mean that the Old Testament makes no mention of life after death- it was not part of their religion, their culture or their understanding. Yet when we hear the words of Psalm 23 at funerals, we are using them precisely to give us hope of life beyond.
I make this point not as criticism- I too hope and believe that we are spirit as well as body.
However, it is worth thinking again about how our culture has sanitised and compartmentalised death almost as if to pretend it will never happen.
We come to believe that death can be defeated- by healthy life style, good eating, expensive health care. There is so much to distract us from the fullness of what life can be- all that entertainment, electronic isolation etc.
What Marie de Hennezel reminds us of is that we can choose whether we LIVE or not, but we can not choose whether or not we will die. And that to understand this makes us live in a way that transcends the temporal.
Our friend, approaching the end of her life, is putting her affairs in order. But she is very much alive.
Thought it was time for Norman McCaig’s poetry…
I often talk to people who tell me that they struggle with poetry. It is as if someone contorted the language it was written in and mixed it into some other dialect- more rarefied, pretentious and elitist. Thinking about it, perhaps this is exactly what was done to it at school…
Perhaps too they have read the wrong poems. Or even never really read any at all. Or (even more significantly) they have never written any.
I too struggle with reading some poetry- this may be because it is never instant. Poems are all about the gift of slow reading- immersing yourself in the opaque ink bath, knowing that some stain will remain. Poetry is about feeling more than understanding. It needs time, and most of us have little patience for time.
Back to Norman McCaig. Here are two of his poems. Think of them as two love poems, at desperately different parts of life.
In which poem was love the strongest?
TRUE WAYS OF KNOWING
Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little,
Our easy reciprocations. You let me know
The way a boat would feel, if it could feel,
The intimate support of water.
The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can’t know how it is lovely?
Is it sad that you can’t know, except by hearsay
(My gossiping failing words) that you are the way
A water is that can clench its palm and crumple
A boat’s confiding timbers?
But that’s excessive, and too little. Knowing
The way a circle would describe its roundness,
We touch two selves and feel, complete and gentle,
The intimate support of being.
The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that’s in
A stone that’s in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.
The hospital smell
combs my nostrils
as they go bobbing along
green and yellow corridors.
What seems a corpse
is trundled into a lift and vanishes
I will not feel, I will not
I have to.
Nurses walk lightly, swiftly,
here and up and down and there,
their slender waists miraculously
carrying their burden
of so much pain, so
many deaths, their eyes
still clear after
so many farewells.
Ward 7. She lies
in a white cave of forgetfulness.
A withered hand
trembles on its stalk. Eyes move
behind eyelids too heavy
to raise. Into an arm wasted
of colour a glass fang is fixed,
not guzzling but giving.
And between her and me
distance shrinks till there is none left
but the distance of pain that neither she nor I
She smiles a little at this
black figure in her white cave
who clumsily rises
in the round swimming waves of a bell
and dizzily goes off, growing fainter,
not smaller, leaving behind only
books that will not be read
and fruitless fruits.
I have been thinking about death recently.
This was no blinding flash of my own mortality, more something glimpsed through the eyes of friends and their families.
Firstly, three of my Aoradh chums lost their mothers. All women of deep faith, gone to meet their maker. To watch close friends go through the pain of losing a parent so unexpectedly, and to watch them mourn with grace, has been an honour. Blessed are those who mourn.
Then today I spent a while talking to another friend, whose 88 year old mother also died a couple of days ago. My friend is not a person who openly celebrates her faith, but her mother was a devout believer. This is the story of her death;
My friend rushed down to be at her mother’s bedside after an unexpected call about an admission to hospital. This involved several hours of anxious driving, but her mother was still very much alive and alert to greet her daughter.
So it was that my friend was able to spend several hours sitting at her mothers bedside. Her mother faded visibly however and as she weakened the words were fewer, until behind her oxygen mask my friend heard her mother mouthing some words. All she could make out were ‘glory’ and ‘God’.
My friend and her brother called the hospital chaplain, who administered last rites.
As the Priest uttered his final words, she died.
This was no fairy tale- after her passing there was an all too familiar eruption of family disputes about the funeral plans, the will, and who was to blame for what.
Death waits for us all.
Yet most of us still regard it as some distant foreign country – Botswana perhaps – we are aware of it’s existence, but have no plans to go there.
Typified by another story from the week gone by. Another friend – a fantastically vibrant and active 80 year old, recently back from her travels in the far East – had a mild stroke. She is home now, a little weaker down one side, but making a good recovery. Michaela called to see her and she was on good form, but appeared very glad to have a visitor.
She said something rather interesting- that it was mostly her younger friends that have been in touch. Those in an older age range almost seem traumatised by the imminence of death, brought closer by the frailty of a peer.
She is an atheist, a signed up member of Exit but she has strong views of dying well.
Because there is such a thing as a good death.
Mine might be near or far, but I pray that either way I will meet it with courage and hope for the next adventure.
I am reminded of this post, and this poem;
Life still flickers
I have heard it said that
Dead men walking
Blown by flies
But life still flickers
Faint but strong
Vibrating these hollow veins
And the voltage you make
Is a current
Wired to the nape
Of my neck
Because this thing we are
Is more than just
So much more than just
Mixed from mud
This is a poem about death, written in around a simple story I heard recently. I am also reminded of this.
“The ocean goes on for ever”
Said the ripple
Just learning how to be a wave
Learning how to catch the reach of the wind
How to rise like an athlete at the drop of a flag
And to skim over the skin of the sea
Fringed by the speed of movement
But the ringing horizon was a
Crystalled panning lens
That one day found the edge
Of a jagged shadow
Against which wave after wave
After wave after wave
“What is this terrible thing” cried the ripple
“That would turn us white then end us?”
So an older wave shouldered close
And offered some compassion;
“Have no fear now little one
Let’s roar and make commotion
For what you are is more than wave
You are made from mighty ocean.”
Yesterday was my father in law’s birthday.
Or would have been.
To remember his death in April of this year, Mary suggested we took some flowers to a place he loved. I am not really keen on those displays of flowers tied to lamp posts and benches- the ones that droop and rot into a mess of green plastic. But Mary had a much simpler idea.
So we went to a bridge over the River Eachaig, next to the lovely Uig Hall- a fine, still place where the river runs strongly around a meander and over a weir before disappearing towards the Holy Loch then the Clyde and finally the deep blue sea.
We stood in silence on the bridge, Michaela, me, the kids and Mary. That kind of stillness that is enhanced by the gentle noises around, and the feelings of pain and loss within. The whole world folds in for a while.
Then Mary threw her flower, along with a little note, into the river.
Taken by the current it moved off. Followed in line by Michaela’s, William’s and mine. It was unbearably sad, but lovely at the same time.
Emily was last to throw in her flower, and as she was standing nearer to the bank, the current took it around the meander and almost out of sight, before it snagged on the bank- a flash of yellow amongst the floating leaves.
This upset Emily- so much so that she wanted to go and fetch it somehow, although this was not practicable.
For me, this spoke volumes.
The river moves on and by, to a distant destination. But no matter how strong the flow it is hard to let go.
It is right not to let go.
Because blessed are those who mourn…
I sat in my office this lunchtime, thinking about death.
There is a lot of it about.
Not me of course. I will last for ever.
For most of us, death is a foreign country- one which we are unlikely ever to visit- Moldova or Uzbekistan.
So much of what we do is focussed on avoiding it, delaying it as long as possible, pushing it into the background.
It is no way to live.
So I wrote this poem…
Something is going to kill me
In the end it will polish me off
This machine comes with built-in obsolescence
And already my bearings run rough
Perhaps my blood will turn orange
Or my bones will powder like chalk
My brain is sure to malfunction
And my feet will forget how to walk
I may be squashed like a bug by a lorry
Or an elm tree will fall on my skull
An arrow of misfortune will stick me
As I am gored by a runaway bull
Perhaps we live love then fertilise loam
And this heaven-talk is really moronic
Or perhaps there is something aerodynamic in me
Shaped to go supersonic
I have not posted any poetry recently.
This is partly because I have not written any recently- these things tend to come in batches. I have also been busy writing some other stuff.
I thought it time to post an old poem though…
For my day job, I work with people who have mental health problems. In one of the towns where I manage staff, there have been a spate of suicides recently. This time of year, when the days are short and stormy, and the nights are dark and cold- it can be fatal for those of us for whom life already is hard.
Each and every time this happens, the impact on the whole community is dreadful.
Because life is precious.
A few years ago, we lost someone I knew well- another victim of a life caught up in alcohol use. I watched him slowly washed away- work, family, home, cognition- all that he had been- and each and every role dissolved, until all that was left was his fragile humanity.
And this was beautiful. He would have given away his last penny. He would have shared his last sip and last drag of rolling tobacco.
And one day, we broke down his door because he had not been seen for a while. And what was left of him had become part of the bed he died in.
I was one of the few mourners at his funeral, and wrote this poem;
Brothers and sisters, life is short
A magical, miracle thing
That marches by- at first all shiny buttons
Then ragged worn, battle done.
So, in drab but polished municipality
I watch as a man is laid to rest
As his empty husk is processed- be it kindly
And hear a minister talk of faith and love
And speak some tender words to family
Who gather to say goodbye to a man they hardly knew
And I am grateful
Thankful that in this weary way
We humans still value dignity in death
For life is precious
Light flickers, then goes dark
Neville lived and now is gone
And father, lover, brother, son
Soldier, husband, drinking man-
Will be seen no more.
And as the blue velour curtains close
I think of the man entering eternity
Leaving few ripples, no disturbance
Needing no fanfare to his passing
Just sadness for a gentle soul
Time gone, now in everlasting
© Chris Goan
On Neville’s funeral 22.9.04
A few weeks ago I watched this film.
I had already read the book, but this was one of those few occasions when the film some how took the raw material of the words and took them further. Like taking a charcoal drawing and turning it into a canvas laden with rich oil paint, in wonderful colour.
The film tells the real story of a young man from a privileged but dysfunctional background who turns his back on the modern culture, and decides to live a simple life- one of vital experience, deep relationships and particularly, one of absolute one-ness with the world and it’s wild places. He found his way into the Alaskan wilderness, where his ideals were tested to his own destruction, and he perished alone in an abandoned bus miles from anywhere.
This tragic event is somehow recorded in a way that is life enhancing, and beautiful. In his beautiful life, but tragic death, we are fed little slices of hope.
Life is so fragile, but those who really live- who transcend the narrow half lives that many of us fall into- these people, they seem to have found cracks through which has filtered something eternal, and somehow, more real.
Almost as if the Kingdom of God shines like a shaft of sunlight on the opposite side of the valley.
I was speaking to a friend of mine today who is a policeman. We were discussing the case of a missing woman who walked into the hills locally over a year ago now. No trace of her has ever been found. He told me that this is not such a rare thing in Scotland. People walk into the wilderness, perhaps to escape their demons, perhaps to celebrate them. Some perhaps are looking for an end to life, others it comes to as a surprise.
Not so long ago some forestry workers found a tent as they were clearing an area of forest. Inside the tent was the skeleton of a man who had lain there undisturbed for around 10 years.
Life is fragile.
But life is beautiful.
Lets not waste it.