How we talk about death

Skeletons dancing
English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

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In which I look back over the relationship of Death and me, see a pattern, and get overly personal.


Me and Death

“I can’t wait to die!” I was about seven when I horrified my mother Celia with this thrilling idea. “Because it’ll be such a great adventure! I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Rachel Taylor, 5 years old
A happy, normal little girl

“I can’t wait” didn’t mean that I really was in a hurry to die. I wasn’t that sort of kid. On the contrary, my personality was summed up for all time by a family carer who knew me very well:

“I can’t believe it was Rachel who became a writer. She was just a happy, normal little girl who used to blow her nose on the sheets.”

For this morbid childhood fascination, you could blame the Anglican church or my career choices. One of my ambitions was to be an explorer in deepest Africa and I saw death as the ultimate uncharted territory.


Death of an aunt

Death had touched our family already, which was perhaps another reason for Celia’s horror at my casual regard for death. Our four grandparents were very much alive, but Celia’s sister Lesley died of tuberculosis in her thirties. Her story was heartbreaking: she was young and bright and dramatically beautiful with a dashing RAF officer husband and a baby girl as cute as Sailor Girl.

Aunty Lesley’s tragedy fascinated me at an impressionable age, and I would visualise my family and fans weeping around my deathbed saying how beautiful and clever and above all how saintly I had been and oh the loss to the world.

In my child’s mind, not a jot of awareness of my mother’s grief. I just didn’t get it, not at all, not a bit. I’m sorry about that, but then again—I was just a kid.

Death of Katherine Mansfield

New Zealand postage stamp with portrait of Katherine Mansfield


When I discovered that Katherine Mansfield had died of tuberculosis, the romantic appeal of death was intensified. Yes, death had a glamour—but I was constitutionally ill-suited to the pale and melancholy look I aspired to. I would suck in my cheeks and gaze into the distance and do my best to loll and droop—but within seconds I would revert to smiling, healthy, and (terrible thought) normal again.

Real death versus literary death

Parker-HulmeRound two with death happened when I was 14. Two ex-classmates, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, committed a murder that sent a massive wave of salacious excitement through the country and affected me in ways I still haven’t resolved. This event shattered the cognitive dissonance that had enabled me to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh murder stories for entertainment. A literary murder was neat and tidy and thinkable. A real murder was unthinkable, fraught with guilt, panic, and pain.

Getting serious about death

In my poetry and other writing, death is a frequent protagonist or bystander. But hey, let’s not attach too much significance to this: I’m a poet, and death is one of our standard topics. At one point, it even seemed de rigueur for woman poets to die young for the sake of credibility.

However, I have a confession.  I did waste a few months planning my own suicide, and the go-dead date was getting close. Luckily I snapped out of the mind-set that had made this plan seem so wise, so thoughtful, so ingenious, so altruistic. A counsellor told me exactly what to do instead. I have learned that this syndrome is not uncommon, and it seemed to serve a purpose at the time.

Death at one remove demands a light touch

Look at those stories, so frivolously told! I am amazed at the way we can joke about death — as long as it’s not close to home. It must be a survival mechanism.

Don’t worry: I do know that death is not funny, not glamorous, not literary, not trivial, and usually not kind to others.

I’m glad I waited.

How about you? What episodes shaped your early attitudes to death?

The boot camp challenge that I expect to fail

Real musicians can sing and play at the same time.
Sing and play at the same time — from memory? Yeah, right!

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Reposted from 2015. Ukulele kindergarten: In which I embark on a learning challenge that is bound to fail, and experience irrational joy and relief.

Learn a new skill (this year and every year): this task is a pretty significant one, and you know why! For years scientists have told us that a powerful key to keeping an active healthy brain into old age is to carry on learning new things.

And by ‘new’, they mean new, not just updated. For example, doing crossword puzzles is surely an excellent brain exercise, no argument there. However, after doing a few hundred, you are probably not acquiring new skills even though you continue to accumulate new words and new allusions. Cryptic crossword creators have rich, agile minds — but they tend to play variations on a bunch of well-established cognitive exercises, which their followers know well.

Learning a new dance doesn’t count

In one sense, I learn something new every week at Crows Feet Dance Collective rehearsals. As each new dance is developed, we learn new choreography. Indeed, we often have to unlearn steps and sequences and start again as our evil leader casts aside the brilliant in favour of the better.

Yes, we do have to be mentally agile, and we do learn a completely new repertoire every year, and we do experiment with different genres. Besides contemporary dance, we venture into ballet, pop, tai chi, line dancing, hula — anything goes.

But, but, but … is new choreography new enough to maximise the agility of my mind?

Yes, but I’m on a boot camp, I remind myself. Learning a new dance seems like cheating.

My inner sergeant major won’t have a bar of it.

Bring out the ukulele

OK, change of plan. Long ago I learned how to play three chords on a ukulele at a winter workshop for beginners, run by members of the celebrated Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. On my wall is a Certificate of Awesomeness, asserting that I can sing and play the ukulele at the same time.

OK, I did learn a teeny weeny tiddly amount. I even sang on stage with ten others while playing the odd chord, some of them correct, some of them in time. I certainly had fun. But apart from that single event, the certificate is an outright lie.

History bite: my formal musical education started and ended when I was eight. I failed spectacularly: after a year I couldn’t even point to middle C. I do love singing and I can sort of sight-read intuitively in a choir, as you do. But nobody would call me musically gifted!

So to advance my ukulele skills will be an honest challenge, a hefty challenge.

Early this year a tiny local ukulele group sprang up. We are the Ukulaliennes. We meet, um, every umpteenth Monday night, i.e. once in a blue moon.

My original learning goal for the boot camp was to sing and play a song all by myself without looking at the score. I thought, maybe, ‘You are my sunshine’? A doily could do that one.

(I forgot to say that I can’t even learn my own poems off by heart. Even after scores of public readings, I’m lost without a book in my hand.)

The challenge morphs into one that I will fail

Enter my 12-year-old granddaughter. That girl always has a new project. This time, she proposes to learn French in the hour we spend together every week. So we found a very cool French pop song and decided to get that under our belt. Just singing, mind you.

Je veux by Zaz

Then a stupid stupid idea popped into my busy brain: why just sing it? Why not play the ukulele too? Je veux has only got four (ukulele) chords and the tune is repetitive…

I committed — and then the horror began: one of the four chords is the dreaded B flat.

Last night, see me scrunched over like Gollum, every muscle bolted tight, forcing the forefinger to flatten, twisting the ukulele neck this way and that, and failing and failing and failing to hear any sound that resembles any chord, let alone the correct chord.

I will fail. I will try hard, I will persevere, and I may even find a cheat’s workaround, and I will still fail.

And I believe that will be very good for me. 

Ukuleles should be fun. To hell with the sergeant major.


Let the sabbatical begin!

I was feeling anxious for no apparent reason. I checked in with “my” cognitive therapist.

We decided I was feeling a big fat lack in my life of a big fat writing project, the sort that brings me not mere pleasure but sustained joy, the sort of project that makes me leap out of bed every morning with excitement… My life had a schedule but no hierarchy of activities: it was pretty, but shapeless. Everything I did was interesting, even fun, but no one activity took precedence.

That was true, so I have dropped my new online teaching project with a thud. Making video courses was a rebound project — something interesting to do after selling my business and getting another novel published — not a true-love project. I loved the learning … liked the making … but hated publicising. It was starting to feel like work (the dreary sort) not play.

True-love writing projects brew for some time before forcing themselves to the surface of a writer’s mind and the foreground of a writer’s day.

I decided not to hunt for a true-love project, but to wait patiently. To enjoy the novelty of a creative vacuum. To quote Skip To my Lou, My Dharma, “Let’s just see.”

So I’m starting a self-imposed sabbatical on Thursday with a trip to Brisbane and a long weekend with my sister and brother-in-law.

My cat has got the pip. Don’t you love her sunshine tips? I’m bound for Queensland, but hey, she says, there’s plenty of sun right here, what’s the problem?

From prodigal daughter to retirement planner


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(Reposted from 2016)

In which I overcome a lengthy financial sulk and agree to think about money.


Shoved to the bottom of the boot camp list: Get my finances in order.

No argument, this is high priority. This hypothesis has been repeatedly researched and proven: to be happy, people do need money. Not heaps, but sufficient. In fact, when you Google any such phrase as “retirement planning” or “happy retirement”, all results are about money money money. You know and I know that money doth not a happy retirement make, but clearly it helps.

So a few months ago my sergeant major locked me in a room with a financial advisor. A nice, intelligent, friendly, experienced, helpful, trustworthy financial advisor called John, which is a nice, friendly, trustworthy sort of a name. John discussed my situation and gave me some forms, which I took home and threw into a corner.

Wah wah wah! Don’t make me think about money!

I don’t want to think about money. In my experience, sums have a habit of working out OK. When I earned $2,000 per year, that was sufficient. When teachers’ salaries rose to the princely sum of $8,000 per year, that was sufficient. In the years when I earned virtually nothing, virtually nothing was also sufficient, because the IRD would kindly give me a tax refund, which would generally be sufficient for a while.

“Sufficient”: the concept is beautiful. I love this well polished fairy tale, which comes straight from my inner Smugilla.

Financial autonomy in la-la land

Even living in a caravan, I felt happy to be in charge of my own finances. Long ago, I left a paid job for a precarious writing career — took a terrifying leap off a cliff into financial fog — and I wallowed in it, panic attacks and all. Nobody made me do it.

Mind you, when I say “in charge”, I do not mean I had control of my finances. However, we had a comfortable arrangement, my money and I. We agreed not to bother each other but to get on with our separate lives. I managed by living in the wop wops and frequenting op shops. God knows how my money managed, popping in and out of pockets. I didn’t want to know.

Poverty by choice is not poverty

Chosen poverty is a world apart from enforced poverty, especially as I had a profession to fall back on in tough times. Chosen poverty gives a sense of satisfaction and pride. I wouldn’t dream of comparing that fey life style with a genuine poverty trap, because I had the euphoria of creative satisfaction, and because (to labour the point) I somehow always had sufficient money.

In my fifties I slipped out of a poet’s garret and back into the real world. Yet my money habits persisted. To this day I maintain a vague, inconsistent, optimistic attitude of wilful ignorance.

The sergeant major advocates retirement planning

Thanks to my mother’s example, I have always intuitively tailored my wants to fit the money available.  A movie? Sure. Bunch of daffodils? Go on, lash out. Mysteriously, my income has covered my outgoings for decades. Whatever I want, I get. I’m frugal in some ways, extravagant in others, and frankly, I enjoy both.

That’s Smugilla talking.

What folly. What arrogance. It has to stop, says the sergeant major.

He insists that I plan for retirement. He claims that in my 80s I will have less opportunity (and inclination) to earn money when the need strikes. What nonsense! And he says I can anticipate some nasty expenses, for example for health.

I can’t see it myself, can you? But for the sake of peace I have finally succumbed to his nagging.

The financial plan, coming ready or not

I do admit, grudgingly, that it might be a Good Thing to track my spending and possibly even start a budget.

I do see that just leaving money in the bank at 1.25 per cent interest might be a bit silly — not convinced, mind you.

So next week a team of wild horses will drag me kicking and screaming into town to receive my personal financial plan.

I’ll probably hurl it into a corner for a few months before I read it.

Discipline, dance and dangerously high expectations: what a way to treat old people!

At TEDx 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand, the remarkable Billie Jordan explained how and why she formed the Hip Operation Crew, the oldest dance troupe in the world, average age 80.

Her dramatic story highlights the unwitting cruelty of agism: society has extremely low expectations of old people. You’re expected (required?) to slow down and pull out of the flow of life. Your useful working life is over, and your reward (or punishment) is to retire from living, out of sight, out of the way … without actually dying. This may be meant kindly, but it is totally demoralizing and a kind of abuse. “We should increase the pace, turn it up full throttle,” says Jordan.

Why Jordan cares about how older people are treated

Traumatised by the Christchurch killer earthquake, she moved to Waiheke Island where she felt isolated and depressed, and worse: she had an intense fear of dying. Nobody expected anything from her. She felt worthless. She saw no future for herself. It was like being … very old.

She empathised with the old people she saw, rounded them up for flash mob duty. Then she decided to set an impossibly high goal. She announced boldly that she would form the local old people into a dance group and send them to the world championships of hip hop in Las Vegas. And by gum that’s exactly what she did. “We made this pact. If anyone died during a dance, we would step over them and carry on dancing.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies in action

Her demanding style and high expectations horrified the locals at first, and transformed the dancers. They stopped talking about the past and all their talk is now about the future.

Of her 22 dancers, four use mobility aids, five have had open heart surgery, all have arthritis, six are deaf, one is blind and five have dementia. “It’s manageable,”says Billie drily.

Do watch Billie Jordan, once, twice, three times. She may transform your view of old age. This is compassion in action: relentless. And funny.

The Hip Operation is not a casual class, it’s not passive entertainment, and not everyone can stand the pace. It’s a sort of boot camp for the elderly. As for the dancers who commit and carry on, their doctors say they’re happier and healthier than they’ve ever been.

How about you? Do you think society expects too little or too much of older people?

Jury comments on “Want to write a book? Stop talking about it.”

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Want to write a book? Stop talking about it. Entirely. That’s what author Euny Hong says.

I instantly knew what she meant — Yes! I’ve met dozens, hundreds of all-talk-no-action non-writers. When I hear “I’m going to write a book,” I don’t leap with joy. I say, “Uh huh” in a mildly interested tone.

In reverse, I feel uneasy when people ask me, “What are you working on now?” Over the years I have learned to make my fob-offs more gracious than “Butt out!” But still I squirm. It doesn’t feel right to talk about a book that is simmering in my brain. It doesn’t feel healthy. It doesn’t even feel possible.

But wait, talking about a book is not all bad

But then I thought, hang on a minute … not every writer is the same as me. (I’m enlightened that way.) And how about discussions with writer friends? How about writers’ groups? Euny Hong exempts the first and damns the writers’ group out of hand.

The article had already prompted 98 comments when I read it. Let me summarise the arguments for and against declaring your intention to write a book.

Why you mustn’t talk about your unfinished or unstarted book

  1. depletes your finite fund of creative energy
  2. tricks your brain into thinking you have done the writing
  3. demotivating
  4. hooks you on talking about writing
  5. when intentions go public, likelihood of completion drops
  6. you get bored with your own ideas
  7. you get a reputation for being someone who doesn’t follow through
  8. you should under-promise and over-deliver
  9. wasting time
  10. quitting is shameful after you have announced your goal
  11. talking turns into work: fun at the start, then it becomes a drag
  12. bragging is a jinx
  13. inspiration and motivation should come from within
  14. unnecessary
  15. exhausting, planning too much
  16. a way to procrastinate
  17. “If I get feedback, I struggle to get back to work on the piece.”
  18. “I feel pressured and lose interest if people start asking about my project.”
  19. self-sabotage
  20. the element of surprise never fails

Why it’s OK to talk about your unfinished or unstarted book after all

  1. depends who you tell: pick honest supportive people / colleagues / published writers / good critics / people who won’t suck the energy and life out of you
  2. declaring your intentions in public keeps you accountable
  3. people are not all the same
  4. it’s healthy peer pressure, and it works
  5. you create a support group who are looking for you to complete the book
  6. close family and friends need to know
  7. talking or not talking has no impact on whether you follow through
  8. be highly selective
  9. share small projects not long term ones
  10. ask yourself why you are sharing and choose what works for you
  11. share short tangible goals, e.g. finish editing this week
  12. quitting is shameful when you have announced your goal
  13. “I talk about my books all the time, and I’m a published writer”
  14. can break writer’s block, give you ideas
  15. it’s hard when you have lots of people close to you
  16. humans have a need to share especially things we are excited about
  17. you need to at first
  18. sometimes talking about it makes you picture it

Lessons for myself

  • Some people (extraverts?) like to talk about their books. Others (intraverts?) don’t.
  • Not a black-and-white choice. Do whatever works for you.
  • If deep down you don’t really want to write a book but you love to think and talk about it — that’s nice, carry on.
  • But you already write books. You do not need any advice in this department.

Want to write a book? Stop talking about it. Read the article by author Euny Hong