Our spirit lives on

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Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death.  Next year will mark another one and the next, the following one; and so on. According to Eastern tradition, one year marks an important point in the grieving process.  It signals the changes in a person after a year of reflection, grieving and changes. So what have I learnt about myself in this year?

First, was that my father’s life is still a positive force, alive and inspiring to me and to those that knew him.  It is said that the dead give the living the gift of their lives.  My father’s life was that of absolute determination in the face of the most daunting obstacles and winning despite them.  I felt ready to move on and become a real adult by trying to emulate my father’s courage, his honesty and earnestness.  These were his real gifts to me. For the first time, I felt truly grateful to have had him as my father.

This morning I wrote a haiku to mark this occasion.

I saw the sunrise today,
Wrote my father in his diary,
Simple, direct and honest- like the man.

 

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The life of a spider

For many weeks, I have been watching a spider in my garden.  There is almost a zen like quality in the way the spider makes its web, busy but methodical.  Then when winds and rain bring the web down, it starts again (I wrote a blog about that).  That spider gave me a lot of hope!

I watched it getting bigger, swaying like a trapeze artist in its web when the wind blew, or (as I imagined), relaxing in its delicate hammock, enjoying the last of the evening sun. In some comical moments, I would imagine it reading a book and I would be envious of its carefree and contained life.  I would water the plants around it, treading carefully so as to disturb it. Once I accidentally touched the web and it scampered off into the cranny of the wall, frightened.

Now I have to confess, I am not a spider lover- I used to be terrified of them. I still think I wouldn’t want to meet another one that I had seen once that was the size of my hand or the tarantula I saw in the Amazon forest.  But this orange-brown one had landed from somewhere, lonely and singular, and I had become its admirer and human friend.

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Then as the days went, while it got bigger, it started staying more and more in the wood of the surrounding wall.  It would come out occasionally and I went once or twice to see how it was doing.  The web started getting more tangled up but it seemed the spider had retired into meditation.

Yesterday as my son and I were clearing up after a thunderstorm, we found it on the decking, dead and dried.  The web had gone too.

I wondered how good it would it would be if humans also lived like that.  Enjoying the days of youth, eating what was local, making and living in a self build home, flourishing and then to die in contentment without leaving a trace.  The perfect minimalist life style!  A life without the complication of wills, money, inheritance, family beds, and pollution and waste.

There is so much I’ve learnt from my spider friend- thank you and farewell!

Inspiring quotes from the departed

This year we have lost many wonderful amazing human beings who made this planet a better place- my father being one of those. He was a maths teacher and lived his life the way he wanted to, despite threats and ridicule, helping the poor and disadvantaged. There are many like him, who have died unknown.  Their legacy lies in themselves, while the luckier ones also achieved fame (see the quote from Stan Lee below).  Regardless of whether you achieve fame or not in the end, I think the greatest achievement is to live your life in your own way, using your talents to help others.

Here I have selected some quotes from more famous people to reflect on, and to provide inspiration for the year ahead.  These humans weren’t perfect because no one can be and you may not like them but what they say is an enduring testimony to the power of inspiration. Some quotes will make you even think about fame in a different way. Let me know if any of these appeal to you or if you have other inspiring quotes from people who passed away this year.

“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then… even thought impossible.”
– Sir Roger Bannister (UK athlete and neurologist, who broke the human speed record)

“Every guy in the world would love to be Mr Macho, but I am camp and you cannot lie to the public. If you’re yourself, they’ll either love you or they won’t.”
– Dale Winton (UK TV presenter)

“Because you run against each other, that doesn’t mean you’re enemies. Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.”
– George HW Bush (past US president)

“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
– John McCain (US senator)

“Every time I go to a comic book convention, at least one fan will ask me: ‘What is the greatest superpower of all?’ I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way.”
– Stan Lee (US creator of many superhero comic characters)

“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
– Aretha Franklin (US singer)

And finally these great words-

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
– Professor Stephen Hawking (UK scientist)

How my father’s death made me rethink social media

My father died two months ago and I am still coming to terms with his passing.  There were many personal issues for me which were separate from those of my siblings, and I realise I have to deal with these in my own way and in my own time.  The pain of these thoughts and processes are present with me each moment. Although I am trying to get back to work, immersing myself in new projects and also practising mindfulness, the sad thoughts still manage to infiltrate and I am forced to acknowledge the rawness of that pain.

But what has equally been painful and saddening has been to find out how many ‘false friends’ I had on social media.  Now don’t get me wrong. I have consciously had under 85 friends on Facebook, rooting out people who didn’t seem to respond to my posts, whose posts I didn’t relate to, and who knew me for less than five years.  I thought I could manage to take in the stories and posts of these 85 people and posted thoughtful and relevant comments on their posts.  I have friends from all over the world and it is easy to keep in touch via Facebook this way. I thought I had the perfect system not to get drawn into the dangers of Facebook with my more or less perfect set of friends.  I also chose not to show my birthday, and instead people who remembered would automatically wish me.  This happened and I was reassured. I was also careful not to post many photos of my father who was deteriorating in health and of other family members who might be sensitive to the exposure.

However, when my father died, for the first time I posted a photo of me and him together as a cover photo along with a very short tribute poem for him, and his birth and death dates. I didn’t want to announce, ‘My father is dead’- I felt this was a much better and personal way.  That cover photo got 34 ‘responses’ with 24 ‘likes’, three ‘sad’ and 10 ‘loves’ and 18 comments.  I did not post that photo to get ‘likes’ or ‘loves’- it was my way to inform my ‘friends’ some of whom who had met my father.  What I wanted was some show of genuine love and support for me, even some words of condolences to acknowledge the passing of my father, who was also a very brave man who had helped many.  But I realised that people had only looked at the photo, did not bother to read the poem and clicked on ‘like’ buttons- out of the 34, only 12 had read the poem and realised its significance.  They wrote their condolences and I thanked them- this should have alerted the non-responsive ones but none came forth.  They’d done their like and that was the end of the interaction for them.  I felt sad that for someone who had helped so many, how few remembered his passing. I’m ‘friends’ with one person and her mother on Facebook. When they both wished me happy birthday last month, I wrote a private message to them to say that my father had died (giving them the benefit of doubt in case they hadn’t noticed).  The mother wrote back to say how sorry she was and said that her daughter was too busy to write to me.  Too busy to write eight words, “I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing” ?!  And I had thought these were my genuine friends.

In Japan and many other Buddhist countries, people do not celebrate anything for a year after the passing of a close relative.  As Buddhist, I have decided to have a ‘Facebook fast’ for a year. I have deleted my twitter accounts.  I have posted couple of times on Instagram, photos of the sky which my father used to love as way of remembering him.  I use Linkedin as it is for work and have posted a few things only recently. Now having had the realisation about how false this sense of friendship on Facebook and social media is, I realise why I am not getting any ‘likes’ and not even my so called friends asking me why I haven’t posted for so long.  So I am not just mourning the death of my father but also of friendships and kicking myself for not realising how shallow social media is, no matter how careful you try to be.  I have started talking to people in a more genuine way, listening respectfully and carefully to them. Who knows I might get some genuine friends now?

Behind closed doors

Last week was half term. It was also the week that my neighbour left her flat, I think, forever.  She is 41, with a loving family and two children- aged 18 months and 6 years and dying of cancer. I first came across her, bubbly bouncy and very French.  I used to talk to her, waiting for the lift or seeing her somewhere in the building.  I remember her being pregnant with her second child, pushing the young baby, and then being a working mother.  Then she sort of disappeared.  I was busy and sometimes I passed by her door, thinking perhaps she’d left but I never knocked on her door to say hello.

Then one day, a courier left a parcel for me with her. When I came back home, I knocked on her door to get the parcel.  The person who opened the door was no longer the bubbly, bouncy woman I had known- a thin, tired woman appeared, barely struggling to get to the door. But again, I didn’t ask.  Bizarrely I am ashamed to say, I even thought, perhaps she is on a diet or something (not that she was fat anyway).  I thanked her and left with my parcel.  But something didn’t feel right. So a couple of days later, I emailed her to ask her if she was okay.  Then she told me that she had cancer.  Then over the next two years, I began to email her, sending her little gifts or books, things for her children and asking her mother about her.  I knew she had an aggressive form of cancer that was spreading fast, so I didn’t knock on her door as I didn’t want her to come to the door.  Over the two years, it was like a yo-yo, sometimes she looked good and positive, sometimes thin and tired.  I continued to pray for her.  I wanted her to win over this terrible disease and I never doubted that she would.

Then two weeks ago, I got this email-

“I went to the oncologist last Friday with my husband and was told that they could no longer offer any treatment. My last chemo did not work and will cause more suffering at this stage to continue with the current or new treatment. I have therefore decided to spend some time in France with my family for now.”

I emailed her to say, I’d like to take a photo with her before she left but she said, “when I come back”. I realised then that she didn’t want her photo taken and also that she was saying good bye.  And that all memories don’t need photos.  So I emailed her a sketch I made many years ago during of my time working and living in France-

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She thanked me and that was it.  Last week, when I saw the furniture and removals van, I stopped to ask her husband who was at the door.  He said she was resting and they were leaving soon.  I wished him well and asked to be in touch.  I don’t think I will see her again.  But her door, soon with new occupants, will remind me, why we must knock on doors and ask how people are.  Ask when things look not quite right, help and encourage people- you never know how short time you have with them.

what happens to our work when we die?

The short answer: Nothing much.Santa.jpg

The long answer:

Recently I attended the memorial service of an architect.  While it was sad that she wasn’t with us, it was wonderful to find out about her life outside the profession.  It seems she was a well loved mother, grandmother and neighbour.  She was constantly doing creative and ‘crazy things’ in the home and with her family- those are what made her so special.  Very little was said about her professional work.  It has been said, ‘No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business’ and as we age, perhaps our external world becomes less important than our internal world.  We are all creative beings and until the day we die, we are always creating.  If we are not creating external works like writing, painting, photography or design, we are creating things inside our head. My father who suffers from dementia is constantly creating wonderful fantasies in his head all the time. Once I used to rush to ‘correct’ him but now I go along with his stories, it is so much more fun.

We constantly devalue our lives inside the home while we value the life lived outside.  Our feelings, achievements and success are all linked to external things.  Social media also has enhanced this tendency for external validation with ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and other symbols. But way back in 1935, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág wrote ‘Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework’. The man who thinks he does more or better work than his wife, swaps places with her and then gradually realises the value of house work.  I remember this story so well as a teenager when I came across it and thanks to a friend who reminded me of this book again, I have started to value my life inside my home and also inside my body.  I have started valuing things I do in the community where I live, the conversations I have with my children and family, with friends and neighbours.

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While David Shrigley’s ‘Memorial’, a gigantic stone slab featuring items from a grocery list such as paper towels, bananas, tampons, etc. erected in New Yorks’s Central Park, might be a step too far to celebrate the mundane, it does highlight the lack of attention to our everyday in a subtly clever way.  Last week, I also met with an Australian designer and as we talked, we discovered we had much more in common that we thought.  It wasn’t about work- our lines of work were very different- but the sharing of our personal lives and things we did.  After all, our creativity is unique, but our humanity is common.  That is what lives on after we die. Santa’s memorial involved not only the usual food and speeches but also a disco just ‘because that’s the way she would have wanted it’.  Wonderful- many thanks to Santa for sharing her life with us, even in death.

The winter of our lives

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This weekend I have been helping a neighbour design an ‘Order of service’ booklet for her husband who died suddenly.  She is quite distraught and as a result, unnaturally disorganised.  She gave me a pile of photographs and three pages that she wanted typed into the booklet.  Sitting down with her, we went over the photos and writing, editing out things that need not be there.  I also found a suitable printing service that could do the printing at short notice.  I have never done anything like this before- normally these things are done by the funeral service but she had left it too late.  But I am grateful she asked me because it helped me to find a new perspective on life.

The thing that struck me while laying out the pages that someone will be doing this for me too someday.  What would they put in that booklet about me?  What if I could do that now?  After all no one knows when they could die.  So I after having finished her booklet, I am now trying to put together something for myself.  How do I want to remembered?  As a creative person, as non conformist, as a mother, as a friend, daughter, etc.? What music would I like to be played?  What special photos would I use and who would be in those photos?  It has been said that the best way of getting our creative selves out of procrastination and into production is to imagine our own funeral or write our obituary.  I come to realise that the best way to set our life goals might be to make our own ‘Order of service’ booklet.  No one needs to see it- it is there for your eyes only.  As a goal setter, it may be a sombre; but yet the clarity and the simplicity it provides is truly creative. Try it!