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Before You Die

Looking for a good book to read in order to distract myself from the discomfort of existence, I came across this article, “7 of the best books to read before you die.”

I’ve seen these articles before. “The top ten places to visit before you die.” “Fifty great films to see before you die.”

It struck me that the words “before you die” under these circumstances might be somewhat superfluous. I would be intrigued by an article entitled “7 of the best books to read after you die.”

Titles might include “What Was All That About?” “Letting Go of Past Lives.” “Bardo for Beginners.”

Perhaps these words are simply a helpful reminder that we will indeed, die, and therefore any activities that we wish to undertake must precede this unpredictable event. In which case they are not entirely superfluous – they communicate a sense of urgency, a feeling that life must be lived now.

What are we to do in the face of this slow emergency?

What happens in that strange indefinable period of time between birth and death, where the only thing that is certain is that it must end?

The modern world offers a bewildering choice of ways we could spend our time. This is where lists could be potentially helpful. However the drawback is that they might suggest a discrimination between the meaningful and the mundane.

Navigating a period of extreme grief in which simple tasks are often all I can manage, the feeling of the breeze across my face in the morning often the highlight of my day, this idea makes me sad. Is a life without adventure a waste of time? Must we continually extend ourselves in order to experience depth? Is there a case for just being?

When I was at school we did a lesson involving woodlice. This stuck in my mind because living in a damp old house woodlice were pretty frequent guests. I also liked the word “exoskeleton” and the way this protected them even if you dropped them on the floor.

We put these creatures into what was referred to as a “choice chamber.” There was a dry section and a damp section. And then a control, which had nothing in it at all.

Maybe the control section is like just being. Protecting us from overwhelm. Without that we don’t really have a choice because we just get buffeted from desire to aversion and back. The emptiness of the control provides us with the clarity to discover what kind of louse we really are. Emptiness may not be entirely comfortable, but at least it’s honest.

7 Things To Do Before You Die:

Look at a blackbird
Look at its shiny eye
The way it jerks its head from side to side
And bounces and sings
A tiny clown
Visit the corner shop
Speak to the people there
See the grooves in that man’s face
The way he walks
His cheerful manner
His expression when he thinks no one is watching
Smell the air on an autumn night
Smoky and crystalline
Damp moss and crisp leaves
Bringing in hallowe’en
And the yawn of winter
Touch the fur on a cat’s back
Soothe your fingers with its greasy softness
Feel its sinuous spine
Curling against your hand
Listen to the laughter of an old friend
The familiar chimes of a shared history
Warmth and love
Taste water in a state of thirst
A primal quenching that has no equal
Lay down on the ground under a summer sky
Touch its vastness
Air on skin
Deep space
Know that you are all of these things and more
Ephemeral as dust
Blessed to breathe breath
Even in a crisis
Such as life is

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Autumn Self

My autumn self is walking
Not knowing where it is going
But feeling
The outstretched arms of orange trees
The empty expanse of a damp cold field
Reaching inside to a place that is tender
An aching seed of shaky surrender that says
This is it then?
This isn’t half bad
Or half good
Don’t try and be the one you think you should
The gaps between things are trying to tell you to slow down
Stop even
Breathe in the Saturday afternoon gloom
It’s only going to get worse after all
So why not start small?
Admit that success is a tiny fire in the heart
Nothing more
Nothing to roll over and die for
And this dull absence of everything you want
Is simply the vacuum from which all is created
Even as long as you have waited
It was only ever the beginning
Of endlessness

Pompeii

Sun warming fresh ground after rain
Scent of cypress, earth and ancient stone
Above the old city the volcano steams divertedly
While tourists wielding selfie sticks
Search for a piece of the past to place in the present
I am in my head, not feeling
Only the grooves of cartwheels on huge cobbles
The oddly familiar frescoes
Mosaic floors
Tiled counters and gardens made for beauty and refreshment
Theatres inviting grand gestures
The smell of Autumn fires
And the wind in the tall trees
Tell me that I am human like so many before me
Trying to lead a good life
Making mistakes
Enjoying the simple pleasures of light and cool water
Bathing in public
Food, friends, noise, geometry,
Silence
Reclining away from the crowds with a lover
In red rooms with painted birds
So soon to grow old
Searching for meaning
Or its absence
In the body of another
Shadowed by green mountains
Temples honour the unseen magic of gods
Pillars piercing sky
Breeding acorns, marble, ivy
And always the faint taste of the sea

funeral poem

distracting myself with ceremony
plans and more plans for more futile future events
i mourn in january
a bleak month at the best of times
and this is not
the best of times
online is a whirl of colours
flat, seductive, dry, unyielding
you invented computers, so it seemed to me
the huge monster in the factory spewing out paper
with green lines and holes,
you showed me how to handle money, spend sensibly
while splashing out on those you loved
and always buying the best
you told me exams were fun
you never seemed to have to prove yourself
to anyone
you loved the finer things in life – good food, good whisky
and a good wife
you are not in that box
but you are in this room
in every single one of us
those whom you met, and loved and gave life to
we will not forget your tears of laughter
your joyful spirit
your madcap breakfast concoctions
marmelade on bacon
your deep sonorous voice singing Nellie Dean in the kitchen
you will not speak at my wedding
you will not meet my children, hold their hands
there will be no granddad gordon for my unborn folks
but they will find you in the way i tell jokes
play with words
flirt with waiters
raise my eyebrows
sing jazz
and as i live i will try to learn from you
how to give and give
without expecting anything in return

Wandsworth

On the eve of my big trip to the States I take a walk to my beloved common to say goodbye to the ducks, and feel genuine sad joy at leaving them, knowing that if I return there are some reliable sources of happiness awaiting me.

Back home ostensibly packing, sifting through notebooks decorated with unsent letters to old non-boyfriends, inexplicable cartoons and provocative notes from dharma talks, I find a poem I must have written by the pond in Winter.

I just keep breaking through
more walls
falling through floors
a hard no becomes
soft gel mush
weeping waterfall
proximity of dogs is bewildering
missing you
in the perfection of a duck’s beak
the cold clear evening
never to be shared
and still believing
in love like a wise warrior fool
clinging to the skimpy
edge of a crescent moon
reclining into dusk

Wandsworth Common

no struggle

trying not to think of you
is like trying not to think of a tiger
seeing an image of you is like bathing in fire and ice altogether
life continues to emerge day after day
like a persistent wildflower
neither beautiful nor ugly but in the eye of the beholder
drenched in futile plans and dreams
lost chances that were not really chances
lost hopes that evaporate into silence
trying not to love you is like trying not to love the ocean
empty hours filled with waves of longing
work is done or not done and nothing changes
moments of joy punctured by the memory of loss
trying not to miss you is like trying not to miss what is missing
drawing a neat fabric over the cracks left by your absence
doing a fine job of it whatever it is
and sometimes breaking into wet folds like a deep egg
coming together again for the sake of continuity

let me explain

let me explain
i’m a warrior
non-violent
bleeding in all the right places
heart, womb, mouth
heavy and light
i like the warm days
and the cool nights
sweat on your back like daisies
smile of a dragon
don’t believe in nothing
for a reason
everything happens
or doesn’t
but i’m a warrior
still and moving
forward and back
hot train on a spiral track
can’t be found underground
but flying
open and wide
free as a moon
balancing on the dark tide
i’m a warrior
woman all over
brighter than pools
of rock faced sea
just being what it fits me to be