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.

 

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.

One more post about face-blindness then I promise to stop

photography

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In which the syndrome of prosopagnosia demonstrates and exacerbates the problem of finding a photograph that represents the true identity of an older person.

Identity complications of prosopagnosia

Around 2 per cent of people have a brain abnormality known informally as face blindness, and I’m one of them. Either I was born that way or it happened when I got concussion at the age of seven or eight. You probably won’t spot this (apart from thinking I’m a bit weird or rude sometimes), because most of us can cover up with fancy footwork. We refrain from using your name. We use other cues like your hair, clothes, context, and voice to figure out who you are. (Paying close attention to facial detail is useless, even counterproductive.)

Moderate prosopagnasia is not a life-wrecker. Sure, movies, videos and TV can be confusing because everyone looks the same — like potatoes in a bucket. But only rarely have I failed to recognise a husband or son or sister, and many people do kindly tell me their names. So I can live with it.

What if you can’t recognize your own face?

It’s my own face that causes me the most trouble. As a child I would stare in the mirror and struggle to see what made my face any different from all the other faces in my world.

Nowadays I recognise various skin cancer scars and also my jawline from certain angles, which is progress. But in my seventies my face is changing again.

How can I be who I am when I don’t recognize my own face?

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Three selfies: three strangers

I took all three of the photos in this post yesterday morning. I haven’t touched anything except the colour.

Although it’s hard to tell other people apart, I know they are not all the same person. I can count, you see. And in a cruel twist, these three selfies look like three different people.  Which one is me?

  1. A half-awake, swollen eyed, lopsided, puffy faced but moderately cheerful old woman?
  2. An intensely wrinkled dried up depressed terrifying old crone with no bones in her face?
  3. A wide awake woman upright and on the move?

I have no idea what other people see when they look at me — and I’m less and less sure it matters.

The aging of identity

I think I’ve spent enough time contemplating who I am (outwardly) and how to be me.

It’s quite difficult enough to do this existential acrobatic trick subjectively. And if I attempted to imagine how other people might see my face, my selfies and my avatars, that would well and truly do my head in.

Please Sergeant Major, may I stop now?

Of selfies, avatars, prosopagnosia and identity

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In the age of selfies we try to control how the world sees us

bootcamp2015-small 2In which I ponder the disparity between the perception of self held by others and the person concerned, and the volatile nature of self image.

 

“Be who you are.”

What on earth does that mean, be who I am? I see this as one of the toughest tasks in my self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years. It looks easy, because who else would you be if not yourself? But aging, like puberty, challenges and changes our sense of self.

In one sense I still feel just like a five-year-old — don’t you? But I look in the mirror and I do not see a five-year-old or even a fifty-year-old. I see a funny old woman and I have to get used to the sight of her.

So for now, let’s think about that person in the mirror, who is, according to logic and science, a reflection of ourselves.

Selfies for the young

Once upon a time it was possible to avoid looking at photos of ourselves. They were small and slurry and sepia. As children we were lined up a few times a year for the Brownie box camera, and it never occurred to us to protest or care.

But once we hit puberty, we all care about how we look. I tried to look pale and interesting whenever a camera appeared, which luckily wasn’t often. I worried about my awful haircut, I primped and patted, and I was fascinated by the cute models in Seventeen.

I presume most of my contemporaries were equally preoccupied with their changing appearance, but how would I know? An unsuspected case of prosopagnosia (face blindness) doubtless exacerbated my own identity puzzle.

Considering the metamorphosis of puberty, even a young woman with a healthy self-respect is forced to adjust her self image at that time. Thanks to self-facing (not self-effacing) phone cameras, photo apps and social media, young people can shape their image instantly, frequently and publicly.

Rachel Syme sees the selfie as an exercise in assertiveness and pride.

Avatars for the old

But never mind the young: how about older people swept up in life changes that are every bit as scary as the dawn of adulthood? We too wonder how we are supposed to look, especially when merely looking old is such a horrible fate, when President Obama takes the very word “old” as an insult. He bats away a student questioner who asks sincerely for his perspective on “aging toward a very senior life.”

“That’s pretty low!” replied Obama and “C’mon, you hurt my feelings.” All right, it was meant as a joke. But what are our options if looking old is not allowed? Dying young? Endless plastic surgery? Amortality?

If you’re on social media or in business or otherwise in the public eye, you’re obliged to display some photographs of your head and shoulders. As I get older, updating avatars and publicity photos has become somewhat intimidating.

Selfie-haters may righteously distinguish between avatars and selfies. But even if we just grab part of a casual shot for our avatar, we are still consciously manipulating the way we look, deliberately choosing the way we wish to be perceived. Who are we, now, at our age? Are we still carefree adolescents under the skin? And is that what others see? Doubt it!

Image from “The Book of Photography, Practical, Theoretical and Applied” (1905) Paul Hasluck and Arthur Hands. No known copyright restrictions.

Joining a gym at 75: a weighty move

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More strength to your elbow, madam!

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In which the Sergeant Major wins a tough battle and sends me off the practise calisthenics (in modern parlance, strength exercise, at a local gym.

Finally I did it: joined a gym. I’ve done it twice before, lasting a couple of years each time. But this time, I’m serious.

For years, neuroscientists have been discovering and proving and publishing a single message loud and clear: exercise is pure gold, a panacea, catholicon, philosopher’s stone and holy grail all rolled into one. If you care about maintaining a healthy brain into old age and if you follow health and lifestyle news even casually, you know this already.

No need to wait for dementia: how to be daft right now

So we all know, at some level, that to sit around all day is just plain crazy. That’s an interesting choice: to knowingly live in a way that makes you more likely to go daft in the future.

What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Exercise is the starting point for geriatric sanity. Better body, better brain. Not surprising, when the brain is part of the body and needs a truckload of blood and oxygen to function well.

Easy for me to say, when my joints and limbs are still mobile. But I’ve made a vow to move whatever part of my body I can move until the day I die. I am growing the habit of taking my body seriously. It’s been good to me, and I must return the compliment.

A top-of-list life change

Some life changes are exponentially powerful compared with others. They send off ripples that affect the rest of your life.

Regular exercise is one of these. It lifts your spirits, counteracts depression, gets more blood to your brain, helps you think more clearly, and somehow helps get rid of physical niggles. It may also raise your levels of confidence and optimism. It often has a social component which is good for us too. Exercise improves your sleep and even starts some people eating healthier.

I knew all this. (So did you!)

The missing link

Before the boot camp self-inquisition, my exercise regime had a few fixed pegs (tai chi every morning and dance rehearsals every Wednesday evening) and a few depends-on-the-weather items (random swims, random walks on Mt Victoria). Also, I walk around town doing my chores: big deal, not.

The more I read about exercise for the elderly, the more I could see that two things were missing in my life: a weekly schedule and strength building.

My sergeant major yelled at me about this every hour on the hour.

And yet, and yet … I postponed acting on this knowledge for six months. Back in January of my boot camp year, I already knew I must review my exercise habits. I procrastinated by focusing on less important changes. I procrastinated by reading scientific studies and books. I procrastinated by budgeting. I procrastinated by investigating every gym in town, looking up bus timetables, drawing up schedules that might work.

Finally I took myself by surprise. I attended a trial Power class at a gym close to me, called the Exodus. (Exodus from where, I wonder—Slobvania?) I joined the gym straight after trying the class. Since then I’ve attended two Power classes every week and I feel very happy about the change.

My new schedule includes a good dose of exercise every day from Monday to Friday. I’m happy about this too.

But hey, in the weekends I will just slop around as usual. Like now, for instance, I’m just a dear old granny typing to myself in a rocking chair.

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My little one-kilo weights are cuter than Angela’s but they still work fine

Drawing from Hand-book of calisthenics and gymnastics : a complete drill-book for schools, families, and gymnasiums : with music to accompany the exercises (1864) Watson, J. Madison. Public domain. Photo of Angela at the Exodus gym: Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 3.0

How I became a born-again walker

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A learner is sometimes the best teacher.

bootcamp2015-small 2Who am I to give advice about walking? Somebody who used to be not a human as we know it but a balloon on a string, that’s who.

I deeply appreciate the joy of walking for that very reason: for years I was virtually unconscious of my body when out for a trot. All my attention was locked inside my brain. And what an astounding machine it was too, by gum.

I was a mindless walker

Think think think. Puzzle puzzle puzzle. Imagine imagine imagine. I was a biological thinking machine, propelled forward horizontally by mysterious means. I was conscious only of my thoughts; I cared only for my thoughts.

I experienced myself as a free-floating brain sailing over footpaths and dangling something vague beneath me. That something vague was… my body. Legs? What legs?

You were right on the button, Vi!

My mother-in-law Vi used to say, often, in fact pretty much daily, “As long as you’ve got your health…” A cliché, and so true. By the time she died, she had 20 serious health conditions—19 that she knew about, plus dementia. She began suffering from arthritis in her thirties; even at that age, the idea of going for a walk for pleasure was completely alien to her.

Well, Vi, I’ve been a hell of a lot luckier than you were. And I’ll carry on walking, which is both a cause and effect of having my health, as you put it.

Walking up and down stairs. Walking to the pool on Tuesdays. Walking over Mt Vic on Fridays. Walking to town for errands and entertainment. Walking the compost bucket to the community gardens. Walking my grandson to the park on Saturdays. Walking to meet friends. And once in a while, most deliciously, walking on a beach or in a forest.

Enjoy your walk! 

You’ll have your own walking routes and reasons. Walking the dog? Hiking in the Solomon Islands, shopping for hot air balloons, touring the estate?

Enjoy your walk. It’s your very own. Your walk is your choice, your walk is you.
Enjoy your walk. Even if you are in a wheelchair or using a walker.
Enjoy your walk. That’s not just a cliché: it’s a prescription.

Image from Chiaroscuro 1910, Senior Class Yearbook, University of Montevallo, via Internet Archive Book Images. Image of cyclists taken by a friend or relative, but I forget who, sorry.

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Doing the Otago Rail Trail with friends: my 70th birthday treat and a celebration of sheer good luck so far