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The novel’s title quotes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘On Receiving an Account That His Only Sister’s Death Was Inevitable’. Miriam Toews writes this poignant and unflinching tale based on the autobiographical details of her own family life. She writes with humour that sounds almost flippant about their family dynamics and troubles. She captures the senses of paradox that comes when dealing with difficult circumstances that co-exist with the common rituals of everyday life. Hence when a family member is sick, there can be a heightened intimacy, and yet provisions must still be bought, meals cooked, and cars repaired. There is a sense of melodrama in the unfolding story. She brings dark humour to the tragic circumstances her central protagonists find themselves in. “Now I couldn’t think or write. My fingers hated me. I was afraid that when I went to sleep I’d wake to find them wrapped around my throat.” Two sisters grow up in a family already carrying sorrow. One sister longs to end her life, the other, lives with anxiety and responsibility of care, which this creates. My own mother had a strong death urge, so I identified with the care-taking narrator, and the tension, which a preoccupation with suicide places within their relationship. Through descriptions of domestic details, and the unfolding narrative, I empathised with the complexity that comes from loving someone for whom depression is so bleak that annihilation is preferable; and how that desire affects everyone around them. Miriam Toews treads lightly around what might be considered a taboo theme. She describes all their ‘puny sorrows’ with grace and tenderness.

In ‘From Here to Eternity’, Caitlin Doughty, American mortician, “travels the world to find the good death.” From her experience running a funeral home in California, she says, “We have fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy and ritual around death.” She is a passionate advocate for more connected, healing processes around contemporary funerary rituals. Her aim is, “to reclaim meaning and tradition in our communities.” In search of alternatives, she visits Belize where the question (posed by Luciano, local death attendant), “Hey, what do you want when you die?” is a part of every day conversation. She witnesses a spectrum from the more esoteric practices of mummification and living alongside the dead bodies of family members in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, to the low environmental impact experiments in ‘recomposition’ in North Carolina, USA. In beginners Spanish, I learned the question, “Donde son las momias?” At the time I wondered when I might need to use it. In this book, I discover several places where mummification is practiced and this phrase might come in handy. Doughty explores cultures that offer “tasks beyond the lonely, interminable silences” after the death of a child for example. Looking for inspiration to the community open pyre in Crestone Colorado and the ‘Dias de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) tradition in Mexico, she finds customs that could be adapted as an antidote to a western secular ‘denial of death’. She is an entertaining and forthright travelling companion who isn’t afraid to shine a light into what might be considered taboo.

In his memoir ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, Paul Kalanithi writes with elegant clarity about his journey from euro-surgeon through cancer toward death. He writes with poignancy looking back at his life. First through literature, his family life, then medical training and neuro-science, he is “Seeking a deeper understanding of a life of the mind.” He struggles as a “Physiological-Spiritual Man” (Walt Whitman) to find a way, “that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts and heart beats.” A cancer diagnosis brings a different perspective to his life’s purpose as “the future I had imagined…evaporated.” He sees with new eyes as he experiences being the patient after years of being the doctor. He grapples to find, “What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” He seeks to act “as death’s ambassador,” to show us in both medical and human terms, “Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.” Kalanithi is unflinching in his portrayal of the feelings which make him afraid, frustrated and joyful. He says he “started in this career, in part, to pursue death; to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking.” This is a book about the responsibility those who care for us hold, and as a reminder for all those who will die. (If you think that’s not you, think again). He writes, “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis I knew that someday I would die but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

‘A Little Life’ is an epic tale by Hanya Yanagihara. It documents the lives of a small circle of close male friends, over four decades. I began it with trepidation, wondering if I would be bored with the lives of four American students, who at first seem unremarkable. The story slowly wriggles beneath the surface of the characters to discover their emotional struggles. As their lives interweave, what unfolds is a detailed depiction of the repercussions of both physical and emotional abuse. The novel explores shame graphically. With relentless detail it describes pain and suffering. Sometimes it goes beyond the bearable as a reader, but that’s the heart of what Yanagihara is trying to show. She takes us into the landscape of survival and of disability. It is a remarkable telling, ambitious in scope, sometimes too dramatic. I wanted the protagonists to make different choices. It’s an excruciating read, but it stayed with me, and I wanted to know how it would play out. Through reading to the end, I found an empathetic understanding of the link between abuse and shame that I had known but never really ‘got’ before. It also delivers a visceral examination of self-harm in the wake of trauma. It twins inner misery with outer lives that are against type, which makes an interesting paradox. I think Yanagihara also explores the criteria to measure success – outward achievements, overcoming physical wounds, or the capacity to endure – and how best to respond and relate to those who hurt. It is not for the faint-hearted.

‘A Manual for Heartache; How to Feel Better’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink, illuminates, a process of recovery, in not too many words. After her brother’s traumatic death, Rentzenbrink felt ‘stuck’ in grief. Looking beyond the content of her story, she finds what we all share. She explains, “all loss – from the untimely death of a loved one, through to the loss of innocence, all the way to having a bag stolen – feels as though it is specific to us, but is actually universal.” What she does brilliantly is describe nebulous territories like depression, shame, grief, and gradual recovery in metaphors that resonate. “Grenades come in all shapes and sizes,” is how she describes the impact of different deaths and traumas. And of crying, “Give in to tears, think of it like bleeding a radiator.” Although a self-confessed ‘Pollyanna’, I found her willingness to expose her vulnerability comforting. “I realised how many of us look as though we’re navigating life in an apparently successful or even happy way, yet are weighed down by burdens and exhausted from the effort of hiding our sadness.” She articulates “the pursuit of distracting ourselves from our pain, so chaos and destruction often follow in the wake of the first wound.” She also reveals how touching into her pain allowed a shift to happen. “And in daring to look again on the most painful scenes from my life, I also reconnected with the warmer, sweeter memories that had been trapped in the no-go area.” Rentzenbrink’s perspective is reassuring, but not prescriptive. She sees the holes in secular society, reaches for a meaningful weaving between grief and love, and ends by offering questions for the reader to consider.

Oxford old and new co-exist like parallel worlds. I feel how Lord Asriel and Lyra took shape in this city, where the ‘Schola Metaphisicae’ is only a short walk from the Modern Art Museum. It is a place where ideas are currency. Wren and I take a conversational journey of ideas from death to art and back again via welding. We enjoy animals and patterns in the tapestries of Kiki Smith. “How imperative it is at the moment to celebrate and honour the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth,” says Smith. Wren and I speak of the need to follow subtle impulses in order to manifest creative ideas in our unique ways. We met through a shared enquiry of metaphysics. (A philosophy which examines the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter.) Today Wren shares an invocation from the 7th Dalai Lama, which inspires me. “Help me to make myself into a jewel, able to satisfy all the needs of the world, able to manifest as best suits each and every occasion.” Later I head off to look at repositories of fossilized ideas and values. These lurk under the scent of formaldehyde, dust and mothballs at the Natural History Museum. With another friend, I see ‘Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits’ by Nyema Droma at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The young modern Tibetans portrayed find identities constructed through work, sexuality, what they choose to do, alongside more traditional cultural identities. Finally, a conversation in the Eagle and Child introduces the study of architectural decay and the world of academia. As I return to London, my head is full of ideas.
www.modernartoxford.org.uk/event/kiki-smith-i-wanderer/
//vimeo.com/302077088

We stand in a South London garden, on this cold bright day. Back to back gardens are sandwiched between two terraces of houses. We burn sage and drink mulled cider and apple juice. We stand a little awkward at first, despite the warmth from the cider, but willing. Bunched together between raspberry bush, which is pinned to wall on the east, and the thin afternoon sunset, which leans over the wall on the west, we make shadows. To wassail means ‘to wish you health’. Wassailing is usually carried out on the new or old twelfth night (5th or 17th January). There are different traditions, sprung from Anglo Saxon ones. They involve cider and singing, with an exchange of blessings, walking either from orchard to orchard, or house to house. Today we have been invited to reclaim this old custom that connects us with the seasons. We offer our ‘wassail’ to the apple tree in this garden as a simple acknowledgement, in return for its benevolence later in the year. This is done by pouring a libation (drink poured as an offering) of cider, mulled with apples and spices at the base of the tree. Then we doff our hats and sing. We sing to the cherry and rowan trees too. It’s a short, rousing refrain and it feels good. The youngest member of the group is particularly delighted. We sing once more for good measure.

Oh little apple tree
We have come to wassail thee
Will you bear some fruit for me
When the season changes.

 

Chekhov’s plays are long. They usually involve a family who are suffering at the hands of political circumstances. Things generally don’t go well. This new play based on Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at the National Theatre has been re-imagined by talented poet Inua Ellams. The action has been transposed to the Biafran Civil War 1967-1970. It is a clever re-telling of a family trying to find happiness in the crucible of conflict. The colonising interests of the UK and France are implicated for their financial involvement. There are unpalatable historical consequences to acknowledge. It also has unpleasant resonances of current global issues around power, in territories rich in fossil fuels. All this plays out through a classic Chekhovian plot of drawing room family dynamics. Three sisters are displaced from their preferred home in Lagos. They grapple with relationships on the cusp between arranged marriages and modern influences. Each character has different motivations, and responds to trauma differently. At a familial level it’s about hope and its subsequent loss. At a global level it’s a valuable history lesson about the entanglements that burden populations as long term consequences of colonial powers playing ‘divide and rule’. The cast give us fine portrayals of different responses to life under siege, bearing the unbearable weight of hunger, violence and sorrow.
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/three-sisters

‘The Red Hand Files’ is the blog of singer/song-writer Nick Cave. A series of questions are asked by members of the public and he replies in letter form accompanied by an image. It is a Maverick, entertaining and profound collection of musings. His answers are sometimes deep, often funny and always candid. They are brilliant nuggets of prose irrespective of your interest in the music of ‘the Bad Seeds’. I happen to love the pulsing beat and ‘Hammer House’ organ of ‘The Red Right Hand’ (theme tune of Peeky Blinders). The question he asks which underpins this compulsive call and response of blog writing is “Are you there?” The questions are themselves funny, sad, meaningful and ultimately reflect the questioner, spanning sex, death and music. From #42 “With song writing we enter the imagination, that wildest of erogenous zones, where intense obsessive yearning can be like a roaring in the heart and loins both”. He reveals not only his wit, but his Christian framework and dedication to transcendental meditation, which support him in his own profound enquiry around grief. #44 “For most of my life I have felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me.” I particularly love #6 “…if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love, and like love, grief is non-negotiable.” I found myself spontaneously tapping out a question and hitting send before I could censor myself. I await his reply.
www.theredhandfiles.com

“Have you been good?” she asked, as I silently observed on the train. A small child is nodding in return. “Are you sure? Father Christmas only comes to children who have been good.” This young girl is being asked to pass an invisible test with an absent judge of unqualified criteria. My childhood was littered with these impossible benchmarks. I tried to be good. I wanted to be good. At home, at school, in fairy tales, at church I was surrounded by Christian morality. I absorbed the quest for goodness. As I grew older, the promise of being ‘a good girl’ seemed less achievable. I wanted to be a good girl in order to be loved. However, being a good girl did not always bring me my desired outcomes. I flirted with being a bad girl, but ultimately found the weight of shame and guilt too difficult to sit with. I chose ‘goodness’ as an independent act of rebellion from a society that espouses goodness, but rewards compliance. I remain as an adult mired in the socialisation of trying to be good. Instead I often find myself trapped by feeling not good enough. My naïve attempt to be a good girl in order to have my needs met, has left me disempowered. My inner child set the bar at perfection. By her standards, I have failed. Please Santa, parents, grand-parents and teachers, can we foster a different ideal? I love you unconditionally and I will show that I love you by my actions and words, because of who you are.