The Old Grey Goose

Just 13 days after the fateful phone call, the old grey goose – aka my mother-in-law – passed away.

As I texted a work colleague:

Thanks a lot, we’re all in good shape. Kids are getting there and Eleanor and me feel grateful we all saw her fully alive the other weekend and that she’s subsequently gone so quickly and gently. A decade too soon; but how you’d want to go if you had aggressive cancer: I’ll be in and just fine tomorrow. The old grey goose has flown off to her final peaceful resting place. It’s all good.

As I wrote to her after we saw the weekend before last:

Dear Hilary – as you said as we left your room today, there is so much I also want to say; but your energy is precious and I don’t want to take more of it than I should.

I just wanted to tell you – as I said to Eleanor in the car – that you looked very beautiful today; you had a kind of luminousity, your hair is lovely and the warmth and light you have brought to all our lives shone out from you and touched us all very deeply despite the pain and weakness in your body.

We will all remember this weekend very positively; I am so very glad we came.

Love

John

I had a good old cry after sending it – something the kids have never seen before; but I think made us feel better.

She was a wonderful woman with a central place at the heart of all our lives.

All too quick; but I think it’s what she wanted – the old grey goose valued her independence more than anything, and never wanted to be a burden. She is at rest.

Great love and great compassion

  

I’ve just finished the Dalai Lama’s ‘How to see yourself as you really are.’ And a penny has dropped… 

Some of the Buddhist ideas: notably Karma, the cycle of returns and the idea that we are all constantly living and reliving; these are not for me. 

But I do like the concept of ‘impermanence’. Recognising nothing stays constant; and none of us live forever, is in some ways the sum of all fears. But it also means bad times will pass, and that tricky situations generally resolve. ‘Impermanence’ tells me I sometimes work too hard and worry too much. 

But the key insight for me came about two pages from the end. And it’s this – very simply put in the Dalai Lama’s own words:

It is important not to become inclined towards solitary peace, because by aiming merely at liberation for your own sake, you lengthen the process of attaining altruistic enlightenment directed to others’ good – the ultimate goal.

By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude, and this attitude is difficult to overcome later, when you train in great love and great compassion. 

Consequently, it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.

Perhaps an easier way to swallow Karma (whilst dropping the reincarnation bit) is this: in every action we take, or person we help or hinder, we create ripples in the world. Mostly small ripples of course, but when added up, we can all do a lot of good – or ill.

Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings – a simple word or deed could help another ‘sentient being’ towards happiness; or push them closer to anger, hurt and despair.

I’ve sometimes thought that one person can’t make much of a difference… And so, given who I am, perhaps one day writing a half decent book, would be about the best contribution I could make to mine and future generations.

But shrinking into one’s self is not taking the Dalai Lama’s point – “By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude.” and “it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.” 

I do believe that everyday kindness, care and compassion can make a difference. And since I have maybe as many as 20,000 days left; that’s a lot of help (or hurt) I could dole out. But ‘impermanence’ says I could have a lot fewer days, so best to get on with it.

‘Great love’ and ‘great compassion’ are worth aspiring to. Solitary peace, however beguiling, is not the point of life.

Sacks and Seneca

  

A very autumnal feel to this week; in lots of different ways. It’s back to school for all of us: big school for one; a new class for the other; and very soon a whole new place of work for me.

As the kids accelerate forwards, I’ve been mostly looking back this week; at eight years of corporate memory. I’m methodically archiving, filing and mostly deleting my electronic back catalogue. No-one else is going to be that interested. Little that has been done before works exactly the same way again. 

But what sticks – looking at the better part of a decade of pronouncements, presentations, reviews, restructures and change programmes – is that many things have got a whole lot better; but the fundamental issues have hardly changed at all. 

And perhaps that’s the lesson, as I move onto the next; and next week clock up another year closer to 50… most of the big things in human affairs stay pretty much the same over the sweep of history.

A wise associate of mine, sent me the later life and closing thoughts of Oliver Sacks yesterday, from the New York Times; here:

The joy of old age (no kidding).

And 

My own life 

I replied:

“These are incredibly moving. This is how I want to live my older years and then ‘rise, satisfied, from the banquet of life’ as Seneca had it. This is the most important and defining thing of all – how we face death and then make the most of life.”

Easier said than done of course – and shame on me; the ‘banquet of life’ is Aristotle’s quote: 

“It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.”

But Seneca’s reflections ‘on the shortness of life’, precised here, are timeless too:

 Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. 

But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. 

Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.   

Wise words.

The Houses of Parliament

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Every morning, close to the end of my cycle to work, Westminster Bridge looms ahead. Hardly Mount Ventoux the Tour de France killer but still a thigh sapping incline, before the crest and lethal descent…

Why a lethal descent? Two lanes into three, accelerating downhill, buses cutting across from the inside to the right turn filter, rubble trucks, taxis, motorbikes and assorted cyclists of all abilities – plus three lanes of fast oncoming. Every morning I look at it and think: if I am to day today it will be here. RIP.

Still I’ve survived it for over a decade, so chin up. And a daily reminder of how trivially it could all end helps with Nietzsche’s injunction to ‘live as a work of art’ and Sartre’s to ‘own’ our uniqueness. Wise words.

But the best bit of briefly reprising Tommy Simpson’s epic climb of Ventoux, is the cresting of Westminster Bridge as the Houses of Parliament emerge from the brow of the artificial hill.

What majesty, what poesy, what flights of fancy in decor. Low spring sun glints off the leaded windows and lights the gold adornments. Summer breezes flutter the Union Jack proudly. Even winter fogs progressively reveal its Victorian aspect and evoke ‘pea soupers’ of the Industrial Age.

Turner saw the original burn (his painting from the Tate above) but what a Phoenix rose from those ashes. It cheers me every day and keeps me pedalling in sun, rain or showers.

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Good Honest Pain

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Funny, I do find there’s a big big difference between ‘good honest pain’ and the dolorous pain of disease or decay.

A nice deep cut, bruise or surgical scar is a healthily smarting demonstration of the body’s marvellous healing powers. Tooth decay, anything fungal or worst of all tumours, are sickening symbols of decline and fall.

The knife and needle used to scare me, but not these days. Having had various bits lanced, excised and chopped out, you can kept your creams and ointments – nothing beats the clean cut of surgical steel.

Darkness

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What a spectacularly rubbish week. The kind of week which makes you almost believe there are Greek gods toying with your life.

No-one died, no one got hurt, but the needless jostling of egos and the triumph of the selfish over the selfless leaves me flat as a pancake. Awful.

Clive James explains, forewarns and laments a good deal of what has driven my week in his poem Leçons des ténèbres:

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

I hope that a time will come when those who have made my week so dire come to contemplate alone the ruins of their faces – and might come to wish they’d also played it straighter in more cases and not just when forced to.

Faith has indeed been broken far too casually. My challenge is not to lessen myself in how I respond.

Winter

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A bit like being winded by a whack in the solar plexus, this poem takes the wind out of your sails – and leaves you gasping.

Clive James’s wit and humour of have always been rapier sharp. But here, his acute observations on his own chronic decline are both a curse and a redemption.

If I appear to be on a morbid streak, I’m not really. But this interminable winter has made me reflect on the seasons of life. I’m ready for another spring in my summer years, so good the sun’s out today.

Holding Court

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

CLIVE JAMES
(First published in the Times Literary Supplement)

Dead Mum or Dinosaurs

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I was debating with a friend yesterday whether he should feel any more concerned by the beliefs and values of his dead mum as the behaviours of dinosaurs. Both belong to the past; we live in the present. And soon we’ll be down with the dinosaurs – extinct.

We were on the topic of ‘self limiting beliefs’ – ideas we carry around which help us ignore reality or choose not to tackle the big questions in life. And the big question we were discussing was: how much to save for old age and how much to spend in the middle years.

I’m persuading him (especially if he’s reading this) that save, save, save and worry, worry worry are to be finally and fully vanquished. (Paradoxical that, as I bow to no man in my capacity to worry about the future). But he’s just about ‘home free’ financially and just ain’t rational to keep on saving when your days are numbered.

Just because your folks were thrifty until their last breath, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Life is for living. We’ll all be dead before we want and it behoves us to get on and enjoy ourselves if we can afford to.

I’ve often worried much more about the years to come than the ones I’m living. So I’m with the dinosaurs, get munching those leaves and worry less about the meteor.

The 3 Big Questions in Life

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There are only three questions that really matter in life… So said Britain’s oldest man on his 109th birthday.

They are:

1) Where did I come from?
2) Who am I?
3) Where am I going?

He died yesterday at 110. One short of the classic superstitious cricket score 111 aka ‘Nelson‘ when unlucky things are believed to happen. A pretty good innings though.

He said he knew the answer to 1) and 2) but not yet to 3). I’d be ok on 1). And pretty good on 2) too. But 3) is always the undiscovered continent until you get there.

Rights Gone Wrong

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Rights are all well and good, but sometimes they lead you to the wrong places. Generally I’m with John Stuart Mill:

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

That’s the classic case for ‘negative liberty’ – i.e. freedom from interference if you’re doing no harm. And it has travelled time well; Governments: know your limits. But what Mill says before this is important too:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

And it’s this innocuous final phrase which is the tricky one: ‘impeding their efforts to obtain it.’ Does ‘impeding’ include dodging your taxes, turning a blind eye to inequality or using ‘rights’ to justify a bad status quo? As Mill said:

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Not that he was a pacifist:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

“A man who has nothing which he cares more about than his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

But as America reels from another terrible school shooting, with the prospect that the 2nd Amendment will be wheeled out again to justify inaction, surely historic rights are causing contemporary wrong.

Times change. It’s the 21st century not 1791. Give Governments too many powers and they abuse them. Give citizens guns and they do too. Two wrongs don’t make a right in a modern democracy.

I can’t help quoting Mill one more time:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Surely it’s time for change on the right to bear arms.