I wrote the first words of ‘On Living and Working’ six years ago today, drinking tea and sitting on a high stool in the cafe window of London’s Wellcome Collection, a museum exploring the intersection of life, the body, science, and culture.
As I finished the first post a call came in to say that my father-in-law had died.
We drove to his home that evening, curving our way through the rush-hour traffic, and sat in the kitchen drinking more tea and preparing ourselves to enter the small ante-room where he had spent the last weeks of his life.
The dead are so incredibly, shockingly still.
In the absence of the ongoing micro-movements that animate even someone who is sleeping, in the absence of breath, there is a perfect, uncanny silence. And it is the absence that reveals just how alive it is to be living. No flutter of the eyelids, no flexing of fingers or toes, no gentle rise and fall of the chest, none of the tiny cues that a person is present that I find my own eyes searching for. Just silence, and an absolute stillness like the stillness of stone, but strange and unsettling and sacred and exquisite and perfectly, unarguably real.
In the jarring realness of absence, in this space where his warmth and movement and presence had been only hours before, I am brought into a fresh encounter with life’s unlikeliness, its strangeness, its fierce beauty, its transience. I am thrown back into life by my contact with not-life.
And I see how often I forget that I am actually alive. How readily I act as if I am not fully here: deadening myself and numbing myself and absenting myself and distracting myself. As if finding myself living in this brief shining flash of consciousness is too much to bear. Or as if I will always be alive.
But here in this quiet room I see that one day I too will be this still, as will everyone else I love, and everyone else they love, and everyone else they know. And another day, in the unimaginably far-off future that will still come too soon, everything will fall into stillness and this grand experiment that we call life will itself be over.
Somewhere I always know this. But when it fades into the background, when I am ‘had by’ this knowledge, its shadowy presence can easily act as an encouragement to go to sleep, to exist as if some of me or all of me is already dead. It’s simpler that way, quieter. Apparently. And though living this way actually scares the hell out of me, the fear loops back on itself, fuelling and feeding the addictive numbness with its guileful promise of safety.
So it’s better to know the truth directly, I think. To keep reminding ourselves how different we are, even in our most humdrum everydayness, from absence.
To be human is to live in this dance between remembering and forgetting ourselves, being awake and asleep, being present-in-life and dead-to-life. At least, that’s how my life seems to be. But there are practices of presence, and remembering, and truthfulness that we can take up if we so choose – practices of art and body, movement and song, contact and attention that can help us return to the intense realness of life when we have lost our way. We can choose to stare directly into the unbearably bright light of our own ending so that we have a chance of being here, right here, while we are actually here. To be like fierce angels, heralding the sunrise. To be alive, before it’s too late.
On this 6th anniversary I’m grateful for words and language, for writing and speaking and those of you who read and listen to the many forms this project has taken since it began. And I’m feeling grateful for Sidney, my father-in-law, for all that his way of being showed me, his way of singing and hoping his way through, and for all that he taught me in his leaving.