A certain slant of light
It’s all I have to bring to-day
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
- Emily Dickinson
I spend too much time planning, so that sometimes even when I am in the middle of some very pleasant experience I start to plan another pleasant experience so I can start looking forward to it right away. Another thing I do has a lovely name although it is not lovely – catastrophizing – imagining the worst case scenario so that an ambiguous email becomes someone I’ve offended, no phone call becomes a terrible accident, a cough becomes lung cancer. What will I be like if I am ever anyone’s mother?!
The other night I woke up and the moon was shining so bright it looked like daytime. There were patches of sky a shade light enough to resemble mid-afternoon (I thought: what do you call night when it’s not dark? How do you mark night if it’s not dark? What delineates night from day in midsummer in the northest of the northern hemisphere when there is no darkness? It was night. And it wasn’t. I almost took a picture and posted it somewhere public because a moment, once carefully curated and a filter added, hardly feels like a moment any more unless it’s been ❤ed. The thing is, it is a moment. It is) and even though it was 3.30am I seriously considered getting up and going for a walk or cracking on with my to do list because what if I look back at this moment in midwinter and bitterly regret not making the most of it?
You need to learn to relax, said an ex-boyfriend way back (I wonder if he has learned to stop telling people what to do). I guess some of these things are products of being a normal human worrying machine; others are part of a desire to enjoy life while I have it. I am lucky because there’s so much to enjoy these days. I have everything I need; there’s a midsummer feel in the air, more than enough light to go around. We are spoilt for light.
Because of where I work, I’ve thought a lot about Stephen Sutton recently, about the cognitive shift required by the dying – and those around them – towards seeing life in terms of quality and not in terms of how much time you get. I read the teen fiction wonder The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, thanks to my rad colleague Dan, and one of my favourite bits was when Hazel thinks about her recent plane journey. It will be the last one she ever takes, and she feels robbed that she won’t live to have this experience again:
“I would probably never again see the ocean from thirty thousand feet above, so far up that you can’t make out the waves or any boats, so that the ocean is a great and endless monolith … it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and better again. That is probably true even if you live to be ninety – although I’m jealous of the people who get to find out for sure.”
I’d never really thought of it like this, that the desire for more life – if you’ve had a good life – probably never disappears. Of course it’s so much harder, seems so much more unfair, when someone is young. It’s a similar wisdom to Cheryl Strayed’s in this heartbreaking letter where she explains how she found it freeing to accept that people’s lives are different lengths, they just are. We have to adjust our expectations (part of grieving, I suppose) that everyone will get long lives, accept that what we get is what we get:
When my son was six he said, “We don’t know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages.” He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was 45 years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at 89, my mother at 63, my mother at 46. Those things don’t exist. They never did.
I wish everyone I love could live forever. I wish they all got that, and I wish I never had to miss them. I hope I can rustle up the grace and strength, when I need it, to understand that this can’t be the case.
One of my favourite moments in television ever was in the last episode of Breaking Bad (SPOILER ALERT – LAST EPISODE OF BB ABOUT TO BE RUINED!!) when Skyla asks Walt why he did it, did all these terrible things, and he said: “I liked it. I was good at it. I was really … I was alive.” Suddenly we see a dying man’s behaviour in a new light. I loved that so much.
Of course, for a while after someone dies, we feel reminded to live. We were working hard to support Stephen at Teenage Cancer Trust last month and I thought of him a lot, in hospital, 19 years old, knowing it was the end of his life, and thought of how much someone in his position would give to have a tough day at the office, a stuffy commute, a pint, an argument, a slant of light hitting the pavement and their face too. Just to have a regular day, to do normal stuff. It’s very hard to feel appreciation for your life every second because you soon forget to, and the washing machine gets blocked or the baby cries all through the night or someone is a right twat at work. But how good. How good to live.
Part of the skewed logic behind catastrophizing is that if we worry enough, we will kind of pre-empt bad things happening – not that we will stop them, but we will somehow be prepared for them. I spoke to some friends of a friend recently, sisters, whose dad is very ill, and when they asked if my parents were well, I said yes they were, but that sometimes I worried about a time when they might not be. “Don’t think about this”, they both said immediately, with the kind of authority that comes from people who know. Their faces when they said this stuck with me. So I have decided to take their advice.
Part of being wise is sometimes to not think, to not dwell, just to feel. Perhaps life is a tricky balancing act of being aware of finity, of mortality, but not letting its inevitability swallow you up. So instead one must do the things those awful life lessons prescribe us to on postcards and in jpegs, in sentences stuck awkwardly up against each other, supposedly meaningful in their variety: dance like no one’s watching, count the seconds ticking past when you’re sitting quietly, read, plant something, inhale June and July and their trees, be alive, be really alive.
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