Suicide In The Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go

Siegfried Sassoon

Everything is just borrowed

Everything is borrowed.

I came to this world with nothing
And I leave with nothing but love
Everything else is just borrowed.

The Streets

 

Some days, maybe when I’m feeling a little low and tired and vulnerable I weigh up my life, the success and the failures of it and try to use some kind of moral weighing scale to ask if there’s evidence of my having done good, of having been good. I can rustle up a list of the shitty things I’ve done over the years, times I’ve said and done things which I cringe about now. At times I was stupid, selfish, cold and lost. And yet there are other times I can think about my trying to be a good person, to be the “best” version of me, of my being kind and thoughtful and generous and open. Which me is real? Which me is the one I should focus on and advocate for, which me should I promote?

In truth I’m a complex mix of dualities, I’m good and bad, kind and cruel and I’m making choices all the time, some days I should make better choices.

I believe I arrived here in this world with core aspects of me already in tact, aspects shaped by past lives, by journeys I’ve had and by my star sign and by the cosmos. I arrived here at the appointed day and hour to undergo a journey and there were lessons I needed to learn from being around the people who I spent my formative years with, family, friends, teachers. I didn’t arrive as a blank slate, I’m on a mission of learning and I’m being shaped by everything that happens to me, much of it is unconscious and affects me in ways I cannot comprehend.

As I grow older I’ve less and less desire or interest in the consumerist culture we are encouraged to participate in. What matters is connection, relationship with people, experiencing emotion as part of feeling alive but also knowing this is finite, I will die. Life was underway before I arrived and it will continue after I have gone and I try to remember this everyday, not because I’m morbid but because I hope it supports me to make better choices, it opens up my ability to see beyond the immediate and to question whether in the sum total of my life, will this thing that I’m doing, saying, wanting, denying, ranting about, will it really matter.

But you didn’t…

Merrill Glass

Remember the time you lent me your car and I dented it?
I thought you’d kill me…
But you didn’t.

Remember the time I forgot to tell you the dance was
formal, and you came in jeans?
I thought you’d hate me…
But you didn’t.

Remember the times I’d flirt with
other boys just to make you jealous, and
you were?
I thought you’d drop me…
But you didn’t.

There were plenty of things you did to put up with me,
to keep me happy, to love me, and there are
so many things I wanted to tell
you when you returned from
Vietnam…
But you didn’t.

 

It wont be “me” who dies

Because I’m around death so much of the time my own death is never far from my thoughts. Maybe it is a little self-absorbed and possibly narcissistic but that isn’t my intention, I’m not thinking about how terrible it will be for the world when I am gone but rather I consider my death in its wider sense, in whether or not it is the end, about it being the driving force in much of what we do in life, I think about the philosophy of life and death and belief in an afterlife and I think about death in the “what’s it all about Alfie?” kind of way.

I am not the only person who thinks about death, not now and not ever, loads of us are at it, wandering round graveyards, listening to dark songs and looking at memento mori and doing Thanatology – yep there is indeed a science of studying all aspects of death which means it is not weird, it is an actual thing. There are aspects of the world that seek to prepare us for death or at the very least to reflect on it. Religion is perhaps the most obvious one but art in all its forms is a prompt too and so death is an aspect of much of the music I listen to and the art I look at and the poems and literature I read. I was looking at a copy of Gustav Klimt’s “death and life” , admiring the separation between death and life he depicts and I had recently read about how art work in medieval churches was designed to encourage or perhaps force people to reflect on their life and to prepare for death and what follows, thinking about that, looking at Klimt’s work and thinking about something I had heard the art historian and Nun Sister Wendy Beckett say about art and its role in preparing us for death, I had a head filled with death, death all the way. I wondered whether or not art depicting death could help to prepare me for my death and whilst thinking about that I realised, it won’t be me who dies. This me, here now, typing this isn’t the one who will die. This person here now can contemplate and reflect and mull it all over but this person cant rehearse for the death of the future me no matter how many Smith’s songs I listen to or paintings with skulls I look at.

My thinking about my own death now is a kind of game, like acting, I can think and write and perhaps cry but I’m still alive at the end of it and can have a cup of tea and a custard cream and think about something else after pondering death.

I cant really prepare for my death because I don’t truly know the woman who will die, it is not the me here now, I hope she will be many years older than me, I hope she will have more laughter lines around her eyes, I hope she will have been a happy wife and perhaps a grandmother and will have managed to give up eating dairy and will have built on the life this “now me” has had. I can think about how this “now me” would like to believe she would react if she were dying but its nonsense, this “now me” is playing at thinking about dying, not in a trivial way but in a way removed from full reality. “Now me” wont be there, “future me” will be. The essence of “now me” will be there, I may look similar, sound similar and act in similar ways but I wont be this me, thinking about my death now is no different than when I was a child and I used to think about what I would be like when I grew up. I didn’t succeed at guessing then, my predictions then were far removed from the reality and in thinking about my death and how I will deal with it I expect not to be able to guess now about what will happen then.

When the future me, the slowed down, older, more fleshy and wrinkled me is dying she will look back at this me and think how ridiculous to have pondered the unimaginable, to have thought about it and tried to plan and prepare and not be afraid and to face it. I expect she will understand why I thought about it and why I considered it and the role it played in my drive to comprehend myself and the world around me and the people I interact with and she will probably think kindly of me for having done this.

 

 

*Image of the Miles Moulson monument at Undercliffe Cemetery Bradford

Aubade

Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

No one can build the bridge on which you and only you must cross the river of life.

When Nietzsche said the thing about the bridge he was philosophising in the same vein as Sinatra when Sinatra sang “I did it my way” although Nietzsche said it first, and perhaps more eloquently but Sinatra had a better tune and he said it in Vegas, but I’m quibbling, the core message is the same: you have to find your way to live, to do life your way. There has to be a time when you start to make your decisions and your mistakes and you take responsibility for them equally. Only you know how to get your life right, how to do your journey the way you are supposed to and it cant be an extension of someone else’s life, it cant be their second life, their chance to have another bash at it by telling you what to do and yet, even when we know this and we sing the song and we say we are doing it our own way it is not possible to always consistently do it our way. We have to compromise, we have to consider others and we are policed and regulated by other people every day. Not just the laws and rules that govern but the social expectations, the views other people have of how we should be doing it, the way the current system(which many of us accept is making us ill) controls us socially and culturally and so we never truly have the freedom to build our own bridge, we’re dependent on other people for much of the planning permission and the materials.

When I talk with people who are dying there tend to be two camps, there are the people who take the approach of “I’ve lived and I’ve made mistakes and I didn’t always get it right but it’s done”, then there are the people who say “if I had my time again” or “If I’d known then what I know now”.

In both groups people talk about having “worried” what other people thought of them and this affected their decision making, how can it not when we are communal animals, we live amongst our own and have to adopt customs and rules which ensure we cooperate with the group, but there are rules and expectations and instructions from those around us which seem petty and conformist and controlling beyond the bigger picture of governing society. Rules about who we marry or what music we listen to or where we travel to or the job we do or the area we live in or what clothes we wear or whether or not we wear red lipstick. These are all things which people who are dying have told me they wish they had had the courage to break free from and make their own decisions on rather than taking the route of doing what was expected or insisted on by the people they cared about.

The tyranny of other people, the need for approval and the reflection of us in their eyes traps us in a way we don’t readily think of but was nailed by John Paul Satre in his 1944 play No Exit in which he opined “hell is other people”. We want to be liked, we want to be accepted and to find what in modern parlance we term our “tribe” but at the same time we wan to be ourselves and to live a life in which we feel free to be authentically us, whatever that is, sometimes its just to break out of the straightjacket of expectations and convention and to surprise ourselves and those who think they know us.

Years ago I worked in a service supporting people with dementia, in the day centre we had various groups and sessions, our work was based on the research of Tom Kitwood and his model of person centred care. One of the groups I supported in was a beauty group, it was simple stuff, basic hairdressing and manicures but it was enjoyable for the woman who attended. We had a selection of nail varnishes and some of them were nice, safe, run of the mill colours, pale pinks and corals, but randomly thrown in the mix was a bottle of sassy bright red, racing car red, a sexy vampish colour that had probably been donated by one of the staff. An elderly woman I worked with, who was what I thought of as very conventional in her navy blue slacks and cream fine knit sweater with short grey, permed hair came to the group one particular week and when I laid out the selection of nail varnishes like a pink colour chart she bypassed the safe colours and picked the red. Nails filed and painted she kept admiring them when she picked up her cup for a drink or when she held her cutlery at lunchtime or just occasionally in that way we do when weve had our nails done, just holding out a hand and checking it out and feeling a little bit pleased about it. Sad thing was, when it was time for home her middle aged daughter arrived to collect her, when she saw her mums nails she seemed shocked and angry, she took me to one side and said “please clean my mothers hands, shes not the kind of woman who wears red nail polish”.

I cleaned the nail varnish off and it was never mentioned again but the experience stayed with me all these years, whilst dementia is a cruel illness which takes away many of the aspects of who a person is it also liberates some people from the restrictions of who they are or who they are expected to be. There are all kinds of emotions and judgements tied up in a woman choosing a nail varnish she wouldn’t have usually worn and what this meant to her and what it meant to her daughter and what her daughter thought it might mean to the world. The small compromises we make for the sake of other people and for the way we want to be and be seen in the world still constitute choices, we are still selecting and rejecting so I’m left wondering are we still doing it our way even when we make a choice to do it someone else’s way?