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 her middle aged daughter arrived to collect her mum, she was enraged, she took me to one side and said “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 more than 15years, 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?

 

Skip and a mallet

When my son was much younger than he is now I asked him what would happen to my belongings when I died, my son, who has always had a dry and very caustic sense of humour replied “it will involve a skip and a mallet”. My house was, is, filled with a mish-mash of charity shop finds, old unwanted and pre-loved ornaments, trinkets and pictures, these things were found in charity shops after they were evicted from family homes, they were unwanted and so in my mind they were unloved and I’m a sucker for a social outcast or reject.

There is a lot of clutter in my home, a lot of charity shop gems and a great number of books, I think I hoard books, we didn’t have many books when I was a child, my father had a leather bound set of Dennis Wheatley books he kept on glass shelves that we were not permitted to touch, other than that we were not a book owning family but we are a book reading family. I cannot bear to part with my books and in places in my home they are taking over, I’m not sure my collecting would meet the DSM standard for hoarding but its not healthy and I struggle to throw things away, I have a war-time, frugal mindset instilled by my grandma in which I try to avoid throwing anything away which might have a useful life. And so this means my home is full, it is full of things which matter only to me and the task of clearing it out when I die will fall to my son. I could grow very sentimental about this but in reality, I don’t want to face the task of clearing out my home so why would my son want to do it.

I have a sense that some of the things I own are imbued with power, or potency and so are “magical” in some way. I don’t want to throw some things away because I would miss them, other things I might “need”, some things I think it would be bad luck, bad karma to throw away. Some things I couldn’t bear to part with, photographs of people I love, cards from people who love me, knick-knacks with sentimental value, I don’t own anything of any material value. The things around me represent me, they represent my inner being, be it my soul or my mind, the kitsch, cluttered, eclectic, useless assembly of things tell visitors who I am but they also remind me who I am. In the same way the ancient Egyptians buried symbolic items with the Pharos or my Romani ancestors burned and destroyed the belongings of the deceased , we all understand the symbolism, the potency of the “things” we surround ourselves with, I am not unusual in equating “me” with my things, indeed this is part of all cultures in varying ways, the things we own define us but today this is the witchcraft of capitalism, our current system tells us that we are judged in accordance with what we own, owning the right things, be they the right new things and the right old or antique or vintage things.

The sense that some things have a potency beyond their financial value is evident in our collecting our children’s milk teeth or locks of hair or, in the case of my nan, keeping her gallstones in a jar after they were removed. My Nan kept the chunk of my hair that was cut off when I had my first “proper” hair cut at a hairdressers when I was 7years old, the pony tail was tied in an elastic band and stored in a drawer in one of her cupboards, it was still there when we cleared out her home some thirty years later following her death, I don’t think this was an item she would have remembered she had but at the same time I also don’t think she had forgotten she had it either. My Nan keeping my ponytail reminded me of the Victorian custom of memento mori, and particularly the taking of locks of hair from a deceased loved one to make mourning jewellery, a way in which to keep the person close, to remember death and loss and to signify ones grief and love to the world.

My maternal family are of Romani descent and one of the traditional customs after death which is not often enacted today is that all belongings which can be reduced to ash must be burned and all belongings which cant be burned must be smashed and broken, partly this is so the deceased can have their possessions in the next life but partly it is designed to prevent “marime” or contamination from whatever ailed the deceased. This is a complex custom and one which results in there being nothing to hand on from generation to generation, this lack of tangible inheritance may well be the reason for the longing deep within my psyche to seek out things without a home and cherish them creating my own version of a cabinet of curiosities, I have no inheritance from my family but I have created one for my son curated from the discarded belongings of other people and its small wonder he is less than excited about having to fit it all into his home after I am gone. The things I own will doubtless be returned to charity shops and will begin the cycle again but I like the idea of that, I’ve collected the things which stir my soul and appeal to my eye and my spirit, my mismatched collection of tat would not appeal in its entirety to anyone else and so it seems only right that its scattered and separated because it is uniquely mine and when I’m gone the purpose for which it was assembled will also be gone.