A year ago now, October 2013, I began living my life with the constant and conscious thought that this year could be my last. Questioning everything, asking ‘Would I do this work, go to this event, spend time with this person if I thought I had a year to live?’ Reasoning that one day this will be true for all of us, but that of course we mostly never know. So why not live with this consciousness for a year and see what it does?
I decided to write about it too, and you can go back and look at the posts and discussions that followed if you want. For me though, at the end of this theoretical final year it’s time now to reflect on the main things I’ve done and learned from doing it. I don’t say what follows will turn out to be all I’ve learned, but these are the first ten things that come to mind.
1. You truly never know the day.
I began this ‘Year to live’ in good health and as a theoretical exercise. Out running several times a week and fully confident in my own body. Then within weeks I was thrown into hospital land, a place from which I am yet to emerge.
First came my diagnosis with polycythaemia, a condition affecting only one in every 100,000 of us. Once exhaustively diagnosed it’s not particularly life threatening, I just need my red blood cell levels regularly checked and pints of blood taken now and then to keep me safe. But the diagnosis is the thing. Undiagnosed my life expectancy would have been 18 months. So I am deeply grateful to my NHS GP and the unseen technicians who first suspected what was happening. They almost certainly saved my life.
So I have a polycythaemia file for my regular tests, appointment and hospital visits. Health management takes a good deal of admin as you may know. To which has now been added a new file for whatever turns out to have been going on for the past four months in my sinuses and deaf left ear. A different hospital and a different specialist investigating where my hearing has gone, together with not being able to taste or smell much.
Neither of these seem likely to be life threatening, for which I am more than grateful, but both of them mean I’ve spent a lot of this year in waiting rooms with other sick people. Many much more ill than me. And all of them and all of this a constant reminder of potential mortality and the old cliché – ‘Live while you can because you truly never know the day.’
2. You know that stuff about the ‘Present moment?’ It’s all true.
The thought of a year to live removing the sense of a long future ahead of me has certainly centred me in the present moment. I’d read about the idea years ago, that while many of us spend most of our conscious lives dragging around the past or dreaming of the future, the only moment we are truly present in and can do anything about is the present one. But I’d never really managed to live in this present moment until this past year.
And it’s effects? I’ve given up worrying, over-planning and living constantly in the middle distance of waiting for a future that may never happen and that I can’t control anyway. So I have ‘seized’ many days, no sunshine has been wasted and no walks or long delayed phone calls or lunches with friends have been put off ’til ‘some other time.’ This may be the only time I have. This time, right here, right now.
3. There has been a definite and seemingly permanent slowing down of the rage to succeed.
And yet this consciousness of the value of now has not resulted in me feeling driven to busyness and to achievement. Early on in this year me and my friend Sarah Jones wrote about the slowing down of this rage to succeed, that I now realise had always previously driven me to want more, do more, be more, change more and achieve more. Well all of that seems now to have permanently gone. In Sinead O’Connor’s wise words from many years ago ‘I do not want what I do not have.’
I still feel a rage on behalf of others though. Rage about housing conditions, private landlords, hunger, food banks, austerity politics and the smug arrogance of our political classes for example. And I write about those things on here and take part in practical actions to change them where I can. But these writings and actions now are never about me being ‘good’ at this sort of thing. They are about me caring for others, making the best use of the time I have to make the world a better and fairer place. And I’m not sure that in the driven careerist days that was always so.
All ‘career thoughts’ are, in fact, now over. When I work it is on things and with people that seem to need my particular help, sometimes paid because I need to live, sometimes not because it needs to happen. Mentoring it might be called, or ‘walking around and sitting in cafés talking.’ It’s what I love to do. But I’m no longer striving to ‘be the best’ at it. All that rage and striving have gone now.
4. I don’t have the time to ‘fix things’ – I would rather be happy than right.
I’m from a generation that has put a great deal of effort into talking things through. Analysing relationships and situations to find out what went wrong and why and how not to repeat it. And I can still see the value in all that. It’s just that I no longer have the time to ‘fix things’ any more. A wise counsellor said to me recently, when talking about the story of my life and the many things that had long bothered me – ‘Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?’ And in that moment, all the earnest work and agonising that might have gone into pulling apart all of the long ago whys and wherefores of years gone by dissolved.
Given a year to live I would choose happiness every time over who might have been right and who might have been wrong. We do not in fact have all the time in the world, we have only this present moment. So if there is love between us, and there usually is, then let’s let all that other stuff be. And if there is not, then let’s leave each other alone, to live our lives in peace.
I unhesitatingly choose happiness.
5. I am glad to be older.
During this year of mine I have become 60. Together with being mildly ill for parts of the year this has made me feel fragile at times. But I don’t regret my age – that would be pointless anyway. Rather, I’m quietly enjoying what this age has brought me. Obvious practical things like a bus pass (The Freedom of Liverpool) and free prescriptions. But also the gift of realising that this age suits me. I’m full of memories, opinions and experience and have the confidence, now, of my years to express all these things. Hoping I might do some good, but old enough to not be too bothered if I’m ignored. It’s still what I think, like it or not.
And age is always present in our house with Sarah’s work as a Funeral Celebrant. Each new mourning family brings thoughts of ‘What age was she?’ And ‘What did he die of?’ So in helping with the proof-reading of her services for many of my near contemporaries I’m often and inevitably reminded of my own mortality. When the eulogy contains an event I was at, or the music choice reminds me of a record I once had, I’ll drift inevitably into thoughts of my own life and what might be said of me. Before I then pull myself up and focus on the life and service I’m supposed to be concentrating on.
In what may yet turn out to be the early autumn of my life I live constantly with age and mortality, and the two bring me only peace.
6. I am happy where I am.
I know I will never go to Machu Picchu, or climb Kilimanjaro or go snorkelling (with dolphins or not) off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef. Because I’m happy where I am and I don’t want to miss a day of it. This has not been a travelling life. Earlier yearnings and travels have gradually centred me in the Northern and Western British Islands. And now the furthest from home I want to travel is still home really. To Anglesey or to Mull or across the water to Ireland maybe. But never too far from this Liverpool. Where my heart beats.
During this year a couple of possible travels have been considered and not so much rejected as evaporated, from my lack of energy and interest. Given a year to live I am enjoying my time exploring and photographing and treasuring the land on both sides of the river I was born by. It’s enough, and it’s here I’ll stay. The streets, the people, the public libraries, the parks, the cafés, the quiet corners, the marmalade sky sunsets, and Granby 4 Streets, and Homebaked in Anfield, and Eldon Grove and, oh well, all the precious things I go on about. This is my place. I am from and of Liverpool and am of an age and experience where I am happy to carry some measure of responsibility for it and regularly convey my thoughts and suggestions to those elected to carry actual responsibility.
7. My camera and my writing give me great joy.
The walking and constantly is what I do. My right hand wraps naturally around my camera as I walk, always ready to raise it to my eye. Having had a ‘significant birthday’ I’d been hoping and planning on something new, thinking that maybe my 10 years old at least camera wasn’t quite good enough now, for this relentless inspecting and observing of Liverpool and nearby that seems to be my self-appointed task in this place. But of course it is.
By now we are best friends. I understand the things it is good at and the light conditions it just can’t cope with. And I also know that when sometimes it brings me photographs that are not what I might have wished for, then it’s probably me. Like for example, nearly all of the photographs from this week’s Sarah birthday celebrations, including the allotment meal and the Chatsworth visit were taken by Sarah herself, because I wasn’t feeling very well and I could see it in my photographs. It wasn’t the camera’s fault, it was mine.
And I so love this writing on here. That I have somewhere for my opinions and photographs to go and that people read what I have to say. During this year the numbers of people, directly here and on Twitter who read and comment and sometimes argue about the things I quietly think has continuously gladdened my heart. So thank you.
8. Most stuff is useless or worse.
But much as I love my camera this ‘Year to live’ has made me conscious of and enraged about ‘stuff’ in general.
Like, given a year to live I would not ‘update’ anything without a clear and persuasive argument, which I haven’t heard for years by the way, that the new kit or software is anything other than a planned part of the deliberate and expensive obsolescence of something I’ve already bought and paid for several times over.
So given a year to live I would certainly not be queuing up with the stuff addicts for an iPhone this or an iPad whatever. In fact I’ve never bought an iPhone anything. And will never buy that Apple Watch thing. Increasingly these devices feel like thieves and spies. Capable of measuring, storing and reporting on what we write, buy, think and do. Pernicious precursors of the insurance-based surveillance world our political leaders are preparing for their capitalist paymasters. Not in my name you’re not. What’s left of my life is my own.
Early on in this ‘Year to live’ much stuff was got rid of anyway. Some for sale, some for charity, and much just to be gone. And it was great and it helped to bring whole rooms in our house to life again. One of the very best things about the year. And one of the several friends who have, as it turns out, returned to my life this year said this great thing about stuff:
“If you can’t fix it you don’t own it”
And he’s right. Given a year to live I’d get into the workings of everything I need, or find someone who can, and keep it going. Because I just don’t need any more new stuff. Especially stuff that reports on me.
Living with less is making more and more sense.
9. Music matters deeply to me still. But not all music.
Except I do need LPs, of course. Along with my camera the joint ‘thing’ of the year has to be my turntable. Even deaf in one ear, the ceremony of dropping the needle onto the record still fills me with such well-being.
But my musical tastes and decisions have changed as I live with the thought of my time running out. The ‘classic albums’ I thought I would re-buy are not much being bought any more. And some of those I have bought have either already gone or are in my Oxfam pile. Crosby, Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, maybe even the once sacred Joni Mitchell. All listened-out and not being listened to again.
Not to necessarily be replaced with whatever might be the latest things though.I love BBC 6 Music and the radio in the kitchen is permanently tuned to it. So I’m vaguely aware of Alt-J and other newer bands and singers. But very few of their records are coming into the house. Because I find myself going deeper into where the music of my life has always come from. The deep gospel of late 1950s Staple Singers, the deep country blues of Hank Williams. And Peggy Lee, Peggy Lee anything. And appreciating the music of near contemporaries writing and singing about the pleasures of this age. Leonard Cohen of course, and Elton John. He might not be in the charts much any more, but Elton John is writing the songs of his life at the moment. His last two LPs, including one with Leon Russell, are never very far from the turntable.
But I know now I’m never going to get round to opera. Earlier in my life a good few people recommended it to me as a deep and rich source of satisfaction. So I listened to a bit but thought then that I’d leave opera for later on in my life, when I’d have a bit more time for it. Well now it is later on and I don’t. Not while the options are that Patsy Cline or Howlin’ Wolf or King Crimson album I still haven’t heard yet.
10. All you need is love, really.
Finally and simply then, our John was right all those years ago.
In this year of mine, for various reasons and some their own, people long separated from me have returned to my life and are welcome in. I don’t have clever words for the melting in my gut love this makes me feel.
Newer friendships have deepened too. Friendships formed in the heat of ‘doing things’ have become friendships where we sit and talk and walk together for the simple joy of being together. I feel looked out for and looked after. I feel loved.
Sarah expressed this best at the surprise birthday party she organised for me back in January. Standing up in front of many of you who are so enriching these days she read out this:
Late Fragment, by Raymond Carver
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
Thank you Sarah, for this and so much else.
There we are then, a much longer post than usual and no jokes in it really. But I’ve enjoyed writing it and reflecting on the differences this simple idea of ‘A year to live’ has made to my life.
And I will of course always live with this idea in mind now. That’s the idea.
I’m not sure if there will be more reflections on ‘A year to live’ – how can I know until I have them? But you can read all the reflections so far here.