For the record, I list some books below that have educated or entertained or enlightened me as I nervously anticipate the final stage of life. Happy reading! Links are to the Amazon page for each book.
Please share your own favourite books about these topics, and tell us what they gave you. (That’ll be your good deed for the day.)
This list is short, because I quickly realised that it could become e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. Please share your favourite fiction and poems that sustain or enlighten or entertain you, because of some association with death and aging.
Memento Mori. Muriel Spark — Loved it. A mysterious caller announces to each character in turn, “Remember you must die.” Rrright! How do you respond? Call the police? Explode? Run away? Or agree… Beneath a feather-light, frivolous treatment of death lies a timeless message for us all.
Tomorrow I’ll bus to a little town two hours north of Wellington for the inaugural Manawatu Writers Festival. An impressive programme includes more than 40 sessions over four days. I was asked to speak at the official opening and to run a workshop, and am delighted to be part of this boutique writers’ festival.
This event is special because the population of Feilding is a mere 14,000 — on the other hand, it’s only 20 minutes from the provincial capital of Palmerston North. At least three writers’ groups are active in Feilding.
In my workshop I’ll be asking participants about their main source of joy as writers. I know what will happen: each individual will have a definite answer — and their answers will be varied in the extreme.
I’ll also ask them to state what spoils the joy of writing, for them personally. Then I’ll ask everyone to place the kill-joys on a wonky chart on a scale between unchangeable and changeable, and external and internal factors.
What would you say were the greatest enemies of your own joy in writing?
We know what a bucket list ought to be, right? It’s a list of wonderful things a person decides to do before they kick the bucket, i.e. before they die. They WRITE THEIR BUCKET LIST, thereby making it real, making it part of the life they will live.
Most people write their own bucket lists.
Most people decide what goes on their own bucket list.
Most items are things that the writer really would like to do.
The expiry date of most bucket lists is the expiry date of the person.
But Jenny is different. She decided to ask her friends what she should aim to do before her 50th birthday. Some nominated things that Jenny might normally do, like cycle all the NZ national cycleways — mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, trail running and dancing are as natural to her as breathing. But at least half the suggestions were right outside her comfort zone: friends challenged her to do things that would never have occurred to her otherwise, like “go blonde” or do a 10-day silent meditation course.
After culling duplicates from the ensuing list, she did her darndest to achieve all 50. Pretty awe inspiring, especially as she achieved almost the entire list in a single year.
Kite surfing YES
Kayak Cook Strait CHEAT (kayaks on the ferry)
Visit 50 Huts YES
Cycle all NZ national cycleways YES
Groovy dance event (Pole Dancing) YES
Vipassana 10-day silent medication course YES
Wrist flower arrangement YES
Catch a cray in the Cook Strait (went diving and Raymond caught one) GOOD TRY
Breaker Bay Beach in Breaker Bay style YES
Read a book in a week YES
Water ski (next year in Lake Wanaka) ORGANISED
Hillary Trail YES
Dating young for fun PASS WITH A PUSH (online, no dates)
Scooter the Bays YES
Buy a corset and wear it YES
Tie a fly YES
Go commando for a week YES
Stay in bed all day and read a book YES
Qualify for the mile high club (NO LUCK)
Drink a bottle of absinthe with friends YES
Go blonde YES
Hot stone massage YES
Learn to surf (trial session at Lyall Bay beach) PASS WITH A PUSH
Snorkel Island Bay Reserve YES
Toy boy (given a plastic male Barbie called Ken) CHEAT
Hot air ballooning YES
Listen to a live messiah YES
Listen to a male kiwi boom (a kiwi whistling in the dark) YES
Go out for high tea by bike in frocks YES
Learn a new craft YES
Clay shooting (NO LUCK)
Artistic roller skating YES
Roller Derby YES
Make a margarita YES
Read Tristram Shandy (began it, but boring) SERIOUS SHAMEFUL FAIL!!
Wear a daffodil in your hair all day YES
Wear a wedding dress (a red one) YES
Wear a veil 30 minutes in Courtenay Place YES
Re-learn how to touch type FAIL
Visit D’Urville Island YES
Do the Karapoti classic MTB ride YES
Learn Spanish (30 hours on Mango, WCC Library) YES
Tour on a tandem (no luck — friend too small) GOOD TRY
Try a Chalkie event YES
Make a pavlova YES
Ride a snow bike (fat bike) YES
Make real pasta YES
Learn to parapont (attempted on the Remarkables) PASS WITH A PUSH
Organise my sons so they all visit me on the same weekend YES
Go to Antarctica (job interview at Union Glacier) FAIR ENOUGH
Other things Jenny tried
Setting off a PLB (personal locator beam) in the Landsborough (5-day hike and raft adventure)
Hitching with my bike in a bike box
Try a dry suit (it leaked)
Walking on bonker curved stilts
Tango in the moonlight
Won best dressed at the Kapiti MTB (?) race and 3rd woman in my age group
Flicked my (?) into back wheel and broke spokes. Had to single gear last 10km out of Heaphy Track.
First tooth implant
Be in American TV commercial running at midnight with sparklers to 2am
Leave a child behind on a school trip to swimming pool
First mole map of my body and first eye exam
Have reflexology on my feet
Bring another bucket!
Phew! I feel tired just looking at that list. And excited. And inspired. Are you?
What will she do when she turns 60? or 70? Can’t wait to find out. She has already written her best self into life.
(Reposted from 2015) In which I eagerly and fearfully spend a whole day meditating on death. On purpose. For fun.
At last the event I had wanted and feared: a full day dedicated to contemplating my own mortality. It turned out to be quite jolly.
To be precise, I was booked in for a day’s retreat on Life, Death and Transformation, under the guidance of a remarkable of pair of leaders. Hilary Lovelace has decades of experience in nursing the dying, and Stephen Archer as a trained Buddhist monk has been on close terms with his own death for years. I was very impressed: they were wise, clever, honest, funny and kind. And non-religious: I prefer that.
Here’s the blurb:
The purpose of this workshop to explore how freeing up our relationship with death can become a transformative force for healing and well being.
What did I hope to achieve?
Let me see. Perhaps to look my own death straight in the eye without flinching. Perhaps to own the knowledge, deep down, that yes, my death is inevitable.
And why in the name of goodness would anyone desire such a thing, you ask?
Not sure. I just see it as accepting reality, not just intellectually but emotionally, which in this case is extremely difficult to do. I need help!
Anyway, it’s the flip side of accepting that I may live another 25 years. Without this bucket of cold water, a healthy energetic oldie like myself could slide into magical thinking. I might believe I am sure to live all those bonus years, instead of just quite likely. I might believe that blueberries will banish the grim reaper.
Most people keep awareness of their mortality safely at bay until they drop in their tracks. It’s too scary. That’s OK, I’m not criticising. What would I know, anyway? Do whatever makes you happy.
But for me, a “good” old age (which is not a bad old age) needs a supplement: awareness that it will end some day, nothing surer. Have I got that awareness yet? No way.
Writing puts it in perspective
If I just went to the workshop without writing about it… it might fade away rapidly. By writing about it, I figure out what I’ve learned. I’ve been writing into life…
(Reposted from 2015) In which I try to come to terms with Death by comparing Ruby’s God of Mud with Death as described by Steve Jobs.
When Ruby (not her real name) was very young, she used to share her insights into life, the universe and everything. I wrote down 79 of these as found poems. Hang on to your hat — here comes one of Ruby’s revelations.
Ruby’s God of Mud is not unlike death as explained by Steve Jobs:
The God of Mud
We don’t want anybody dying
because the people get sad
and make a noise —
“Oh, oh, oh, we want granddad!”
The god of mud kills people
when they need to be killed.
She eats them
then spits them out.
And if she didn’t kill people
she’d be sad because
she’d have nothing to do.
So that’s why she kills people.
I’ll draw her for you.
The god is a giant,
curly hair, ears, earrings.
She’s a stick person and an island.
She’s got a person in her mouth
(not happy) and she spits her out.
The person looks like a normal person
but her vagiva is gone
and her eyeballs fall out
into the god’s mouth.
She goes chew, chew, chew.
She is a horrible, horrible, horrible god.
Image is my attempt to replicate Ruby’s much better drawing. Poem by Ruby (not her real name) McAlpine. Both cc by-4.0
(Republished from 2016) In which I look ahead to the final task in my year of being old: coming to terms with death and dying. Yeeouch.
So, I’m putting myself through a DIY boot camp for the bonus years, achieving one goal every month. I’m booting myself into action, establishing habits that are likely to preserve me—and my brain and my family and the national budget—in the best possible state while I live.
The final task is what it’s all about: I must come to terms with old age and dying. Whew, big ask, huh?
In one sense, the whole year is dedicated to precisely that unprecise and probably impossible goal. However, I’ll be forced to focus strongly on death for an entire day shortly, when I attend this workshop:
Life, Death and Transformation
One of my sisters told me about a Tibetan meditation on death, when for almost an hour she visualised herself dying in a remote place like a desert, and then vividly experiencing the gradual decay of her body. This sort of guided meditation, I expect, will be part of the workshop I attend.
My sister said that ever since that day she has never worried about whether she looks old or young. She still looks marvellous, but it seems she just let go of that understandable desire to look younger. I too would like to become less attached to my anachronistic self-image as a younger woman.
Why am I booting myself into such a morbid experience?
Well, it’s clear that most of us have highly successful mechanisms for denying, downgrading, dumping and downright rejecting death. We’re not going to die, oh no! And we’re not ever going to be old like that pathetic person over there who can barely walk or see, oh no!
Possibly the human capacity to blank out the end of life is a healthy thing. I don’t know. But that capacity is sustained by self-deception and bizarre thought patterns, which (to me) are not so pretty.
I would like to try another possibility: knowing deep in my bones that I will die one day, maybe tonight, maybe in 25 years, maybe sometime in between. I would like to be able to accept that fact, to understand what death involves, to feel the honest grief and loss, and somehow to be OK about the entire incomprehensible terrible wonderful bundle of life and death.
That’s what I’m expecting from a workshop on Life, Death and Transformation.
It’s hard work letting go
Of course this day will be hard work in every sense. Such understanding cannot be delivered on a plate. If it was easy, we would all think like Buddhist nuns and monks, I suppose. Or at least we would think rationally about our own life cycle instead of subconsciously regarding ourselves as exempt from the processes of dying and death.
With any learning, the more effort you make, the greater the rewards. And this is a different kind of knowledge.
Must I write any more about my year of being old?
I’m a writer, doh! But I hope that after this year, I’ll stop brooding on the topic and revert to being myself — not defined by age, exempt from internal ageism. Whether I write anything more, ever, about my boot camp feels more and more improbable. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been very, very real to me.
This was all about death. But I feel that I have again been writing into life.