All that he taught me by leaving

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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.

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

Rest

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It has been hard to write these past two months. The familiar flow of words and ideas have slowed to a trickle. My body has not moved into the work with the grace and flow with which I have become familiar. It’s as if some kind of gridlock has taken hold, with each part – mind, heart, body – pressing against the movement of the other.

It has been tempting to try to force myself into action, to believe the inner judgements and slurs that whisper into the vacated spaces. You’ll never be a writer this way. You’ve run out of anything to say. You’re not brave enough, smart enough, honest enough to do this.

But this time, I am not so convinced by all the inner chatter as I once might have been. This time, I’ve been waiting – patiently, quietly – to see what wants to write itself through me.

We make production and consumption the highest measure of value in our culture. But we are part of nature, born of nature, and we are subject to its cycles just as much as a field, or a tree, or a river.

I am remembering that fields must lie fallow in order to be fertile,

spring must turn to summer and autumn to have any chance of returning,

and human beings must rest and nurture themselves – often – in order to flourish.

Photo Credit: kirilko Flickr via Compfight cc

The restorative possibilities of practice

It’s been a full few weeks, more full than I expected, and I have found it difficult to write. Any practice can be like this, crowded out by what seem to be the demands of the moment. And I notice, each time that I let a practice that’s important to me slip, how easy it is to take up the story that I’m someone who used to write consistently. And sometimes, that’s the simple truth.

But, this week, I’m in a position to set aside much of what has been pressing on me these past months, and already I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. These are stories which, I see from this vantage point, have me brace myself, grit my teeth and push harder, often long before I’ve caught on to what’s happening. I see how easy it is to be carried along by it all, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

In the space that this week is offering me, I’m reminded not only how easy it is to let go of regular practice, but also precisely how much such practice can support me. Writing, drawing, meditation, walking, playing music, kick-boxing and prayer are all ways I get to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

So I’m grateful for this week, in which I can practice remembering that there are many ways to be in the world, in which I have a chance to recover something of what’s been out of view, and in which I have the opportunity to dedicate myself anew to practices – including writing here – that are often so life giving not only to me but also to those whose lives my presence affects.

Photo Credit: anieto2k via Compfight cc