“What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and your feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly back up, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed…For a joke you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling!
It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.”
ANNIE DILLARD, The Abundance
It is frighteningly easy to sleepwalk through life. And I realised, recently that this is perhaps my greatest fear (aside from something awful happening to loved ones). That death will come like a thief in the night and I won’t be ready. I will have let the days slip by too easily and not paid attention to the things I ought to have. These short days that add up to my one, wild and precious life.
And it is troubling to think that how much time has passed since I last wrote here. And when I think back over that now lost time, I am aware of the things that have made me drowsy, the things that have caused me to waste valuable minutes, hours and days and those which have made life more luminous and bright, and caused my heart to swell and thrum within me.
Watching a few seasons of a certain medical drama, for instance, was definitely a waste of time and I even felt it to be so whilst I was doing it *…and yet! In The Abundance, Dillard writes of the dangers of drowning in your own spittle or waking up dead in a small hotel, ‘watching TV while snow piles up in the passes’, realising too late, that you were never truly awake, that there were real treasures to behold- like the Moray Eel (I’ll let you look that one up). I can quite well imagine my last words being ‘but-’ whilst simultaneously thinking of all the things I didn’t get round to doing because I was too afraid to try or wasn’t quite ready for it. And even if we are actively trying, there is a battle going on- our attention is constantly being fought for. We are surrounded by voices that demand to be heard, that seem urgent, pressing – like the latest news, fashion, gadget… but actually deliver little in reality. At the end of this deluge we are left feeling more hopeless, fragile and small.
Each of us, though, can identify things that are life-giving rather than life-sapping, that make our souls rise up and sing, make our whole being pay attention and be present, even as time whistles past. For me, these are:
Time spent creating something new
The writer Kurt Vonnegut, says:
“The arts…are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
How easy it is to create something new as a child. Every day my daughters make works of art. A den. An inky tattoo on their arms. A card for someone they love. But how hard we have made this creative process as adults. We have dulled our imaginations, become fearful and self-conscious, always getting in the way of our creative potential. Perfectionism is a particular disease of mine and is a quality I don’t want to pass onto my children (except maybe when they tidy their rooms). It has meant a lot of blank canvases and pages in the past. Just think of all those thoughts and ideas that were never expressed because of it. What a waste. When I do something for the fun of it- like writing a poem for a friend for instance, zest and gusto, complete absorption and attention to the world (all the ingredients Ray Bradbury says are essential to being a writer) follow. And so does that childhood joy.
Time spent in nature
When my mother and father retired to Abergavenny, they bought a house that had wonderful view of the Sugarloaf mountain in South Wales. Almost everyday my father would open the door and say, ‘Just look at that! And so totally underserved, such grace!’ And my father was right. We are surrounded by such treasures that we had no part in creating- the birds of the air, the wildflowers of the field, the jewels of the night sky. How often we take these wonders for granted. But sometimes we are astonished at what we see, and:
“…suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.”
MICHAEL MCCARTHY, The Moth Snowstorm
And along with experiencing this heart-bursting joy, I would also add humility. To be standing on top of a mountain or in front of a large expanse of sea, land or sky, I realise how small and insignificant I am. I gain perspective and lose myself. My soul is quiet within me. There is something wonderfully liberating about this.
I am extremely fortunate to live by the sea. Each week I run with my friend Catherine across the cliffs, past an ancient castle and down through the woods- currently carpeted with the vibrant green of wild garlic. Some of the best times in my life have involved sharing time outdoors with friends and family. Wild swimming in lochs and rivers, music around a campfire, bothies and bike rides and kayaking on the sea.
How we must fight to keep this gift. Governments have reduced our beautiful meadows, lakes, forests and plants into economic assets and resources. Nature is framed in monetary terms. To save the natural world, we need to remind ourselves and our children how marvelous, miraculous and fragile it is. We need to remind ourselves it is a gift. In the past 50 years, we have lost over half of our wildlife in the UK. This is startling. This should wake us up. We look after the things we love. We protect the things we love. If nature continues to be treated as a resource, it can be used, disposed of, thrown away.
Time spent with loved ones
I am not going to regret ever spending time with my children. How unique and inspiring their perspective on the world. Yes, they are also tiring, and whine a little and have tantrums at the worst possible times, but this all this pales in comparison to how much delight and aliveness they bring to my life.
And friends. I don’t need lots of friends or acquaintances, just a handful of great ones. The kind of friends that make you laugh, that spur you on to be your best self, that are cheering you on, that delight in your joy and mourn when you mourn and are there for you, when you didn’t even know you needed them.
Time spent reading
Unless it is a really terrible book I never feel like I have wasted time reading. As George R.R Martin says: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”
Here are some of my favourite books (in no particular order and I’ve probably forgotten so many dear ones):
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B White
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
- The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde
- The Little Snake by A.L Kennedy
- The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
- Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley
- Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
- Child Wonder and The Burnt Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen
- Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
- Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
- The Drivers Seat by Muriel Spark
- The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Book of Proverbs- Bible
- To the Lighthouse and Orlando by Virginia Woolf
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
- The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson
- The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Twelfth Night and Othello by William Shakespeare
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
- Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- Grief is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
- Traveling in a Strange Land by David Park
Time spent learning something new
“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within the span of his little life by him who interests his heart in everything.”
Learning helps me to keep moving forward, to evolve, to grow, to flourish. Without learning, I feel myself begin to stagnate. The possibilities of my life, diminish.
Time spent traveling
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I have been fortunate up till now to live in a time where I have had the freedom, ease and opportunity to live and travel- to parts of Europe and beyond. These experiences have made be braver, more open, humble, curious and respectful of people from other countries. It has made my life richer and more vibrant. I have good friends on the other side of the world and we have and continue to exchange ideas and books and a whole array of treasures, that I never would have discovered on my own. I am saddened by what is happening in the UK at the moment. I am clinging onto hope that the politicians will wake up before it is too late, to save all that is being lost…
And so, to the end. And with it- a reminder to myself to live abundantly, attentively, with my eyes wide open. So if you catch me sleepwalking…please wake me up!
* I am in no way condemning T.V here (and has been the only thing I can manage sometimes at the end of a long day). There are many series I enjoy and have loved discussing with friends. It is more when T.V becomes a distraction or an excuse for the thing I know I should be doing, the thing that is better for me. Like finishing my book….for example.