“Now all them things that seemed so important
Well, mister, they vanished right into the air.”
— Bruce Springsteen, The River
Some weeks back I began to get an odd shooting pain on both my ring fingers that reached my wrists. I thought it was a repetitive strain injury from sitting at a computer or using my phone. On a recent trip I took with my cousin I purposely avoided using either, expecting the pain to recede.
Instead, the pain extended to the other fingers. Then to the outer sides of both my feet. While buying vegetables at the market one morning, I couldn’t pick up an aubergine – my fingertips were unable to get a grip. I pointed at what I needed and asked the grocer to gather the items for me, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears pricking my eyes behind my glasses.
The pain is not constant, it comes and goes, worse in the mornings and middle of the night when I suddenly find myself awake. While not debilitating (except for the sporadic times I lose my grip), I go get it checked sooner rather than later. My father died of Parkinson’s disease, and I know several people who died of motor neuron disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) – a particularly cruel and rapid deterioration of the body. Nerve damage seems a frightening prospect.
Between getting various medical tests done and waiting for the reports, I resist asking Dr Google but allow myself to imagine the worst: what if I have only until the end of the year to live? Dramatic, yes, but it’s difficult to keep the mind from overreaching in such moments.
This has come on the heels of already feeling emotionally/mentally out of sorts for some time. I have written previously of my history with depression, and it’s not a word I use casually. While I have not had a full-blown episode of the kind that previously landed me in the hospital three times, I know when I’m touching its periphery – the listlessness, the enormous energy it takes to socialise, a recurring echo of “what’s the point”.
For me, depression is not sadness, as I always have to explain. Sadness is a feeling, often in reaction to specific external circumstances that are, for example, disappointing or upsetting. Sadness can be digested.
Thinking “what’s the point” when depressed is in reaction to the darkness inside, a sense of futility in effort. All I can do is remind myself again and again that I’m inside the bowl right now, and I can’t see above the edges but to trust that I will climb out of it. Thankfully this time, the bowl doesn’t feel like the Grand Canyon, so I am patient.
I don’t know what’s causing my body to do whatever it’s doing. Or my heart to feel like it’s stone. Or my mind to be bleak. Or why it feels like the world doesn’t fit me, or I don’t fit it. But I can take stock of my surroundings – one of the few things I have control over.
“What’s the point”, it turns out, is an excellent barometer for when you feel like shit and you think your body could die in six months’ time. You view the world anew.
While I define myself as an introvert (I recharge by being alone), I am an extrovert in the sense that I am highly sensitive to my physical surroundings. Places that are dank, dismal and dirty – or even just chaotic and crowded – make me distressed. I focus on this as an easy start.
I have a large smart TV whose black screen dominates my otherwise pale living room. When I watch a film, I react the way my sister says her 11-year-old does after too much screen time: cranky, as if nothing can pacify the soul. I don’t want to feel like this any more, especially if I have only six months to live. I make peace with the fact that despite working in the business, I’ll never get to see all the films and shows I’d want, even if I had 100 more years. So the TV and its various paraphernalia, along with a tangle of thick black cables, have to go.
If I die in December, would I care that I never made buckwheat pancakes or parsnip quiche? A resounding no. I accept I like cooking the same simple meals on repeat, and have no desire to keep experimenting as it makes me feel overwhelmed, stressed and frustratingly inadequate. Who needs that?
Recipe books with photos of beautiful food – gone. A large number of condiments and ingredients for random recipes I never make – gone. Kitchen gadgets and tools I don’t use all the time – gone. Anything fidgety, cumbersome or single purpose – gone. Now when I cook the same simple meals, I do it in confidence that I don’t need to be trying something else. This is enough.
I spend most of my days in my yoga/workout clothes, which is not a great morale booster, I know. The rest of the time I wear the same handful of dresses or skirts. I read somewhere that when Véronique Vienne moved to the US in 1965, she carried with her a complete wardrobe of one dress, two skirts, four turtlenecks, one necklace, a belt, two pairs of shoes, two scarves and an antique watch (as well as, wonderfully, a Mont Blanc pen). I remember Joan Didion’s 1979 packing list of two skirts, two jerseys, one sweater, two pairs of shoes, nightgown and slippers, bra and stockings.
I give away the remainder of my wardrobe without the usual angst (why don’t I fit into this any more? Why don’t I go to places where I would wear this?). I put away a few clothes that belong to other seasons, and am left with… two dresses, two skirts and five tops.
I get an unexpected rush of gratitude for – of all things – my sports bras, for the well-worn bag and sandals I use daily, for a skirt I took on my recent trip and wore almost around the clock for three days, and which felt comfortable and appropriate for wherever I went. If I die in December, I’ll probably be wearing that skirt then too. Like simplifying my meals by putting them on a short rotation, wearing the same few favourite clothes again and again comes as a welcome relief to me. The rest of my wardrobe was taking up valuable headspace with their woulda-coulda-shoulda energy, so they’re gone.
I have papers spread across multiple desk drawers and cabinets. I get two accordion folders – blue for work, orange for personal – and file all my paperwork in them. I think it will take all day but it takes less than an hour. I only bother keeping the things I genuinely need – legal documents, tax stuff. Everything else – gone.
I look at the emails in my in-box from filmmakers I have been in talks with for months and months now. Am I going to wait until somehow the stars align and we are ready for each other at the right moment? If I die in December, will I be bummed I didn’t produce their films? Or will I be more bummed I didn’t have the courage to at least try to write and direct my own stories?
As far as writing (fiction, diary, etc) goes, I echo Isaac Asimov, who said: “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”
I hear about code-switching – switching between languages (or forms of communication) when people live between two cultures. I’m amazed that this thing has a name, this thing I’ve been doing my whole life. I have not just switched languages depending on where I am, but I have often changed who I am to fit in, to try to not be the outsider.
Even so, I learnt early that there is no corner of this world (and I’ve lived/studied/worked in six countries on three continents) where I can be myself and not have to explain – at least once a day, if not several times a day – why I have a funny name, where I was born, why my accent sounds different, why I’ve chosen to live where I do. I have to define the edges of me over and over again.
I’m always on high alert, looking for clues to pick up and reflect back that, you know, I get it. I’m not the clueless foreigner or the insensitive visitor. I do this, I realise, even with close friends I’ve known for decades. With those who send a lot of emojis, I send them back tons. With the ones who write brief messages, I respond in kind. I adapt to the schedule of whomever I’m with (except my sister whose daily timetable syncs with mine; even on holiday last year in Lisbon – renowned for its nightlife – we were happily fast asleep by 9.30pm every night).
My yoga teacher, who knows nothing about me, remarks how she can tell when I enter the room even if her eyes are closed, because of the anxious energy I have around me. She says I’m a perfectionist who feels compelled to learn up and get everything exactly right, though I’ll find it much more valuable if I rely instead on my innate wisdom.
She tells me to spend three days not reading, not writing, not watching anything on a screen. Yikes, I can’t do that, I say. Though I remember going for Vipassana and managing seven days of total silence and the massive benefits I had from it. I also recall going into involuntary silence for ten days and gaining insights that continue to shape me today.
It’s not that I don’t want to put a periodic pause on my relentless consumption of podcasts, books, films, media, news, internet and everything else. Karen Kingston writes in her book (the book I have given to more people than any other), Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui: “Another problem is the constant babble of external stimuli that is so prevalent in the western lifestyle. So many people have the TV or radio constantly turned on ‘for company’, or spend their time reading trashy novels, aimlessly surfing the net, and so on. Then suddenly, one day, you are old or sick, and you realise you have done nothing with your life. All your thoughts are other people’s thoughts and you have no idea who you really are or what the purpose of your life might be.”
The reason I stay in a constant state of distraction and consumption is because I believed I had a hole in my soul and pausing/silence/space would swallow me up if I peered in. I felt terrorised, like the boy seeing dead people in the film The Sixth Sense. I think that’s how many of us feel, as if there’s a scary monster we can’t face. So we do everything – and I mean everything – to avoid dealing with it, including shop until we’re in debt, gamble away our livelihood, numb ourselves with food and drugs and video games, run away, hook up, get smashed.
But when the little boy in the film finally decided to turn towards the scary beings, he saw they weren’t that terrifying after all – they were trying to get his attention because they just needed to be heard. It took me a long time to realise there isn’t a hole in my soul after all. It’s my inner voice, the one I’d been refusing to listen to all these years.
I truly think our intuition is our superpower. But because there’s no money to be made off of it, our culture has designed us to look outside for answers instead. And in so doing, we miss opportunities to deliver the unique contribution that life has asked of each of us.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that I hope before I die, I truly hear myself. That I’m led by my inner voice which is my intuition which is my higher power. That I allow myself to just be me, without having to contort myself to be what I think others prefer, for their comfort and ease.
I ask my yoga teacher: if I do this three-day no-writing/reading/watching thing, can I at least draw? YES, she says. I painted all through my childhood, to the point where my parents thought I would pursue it as a career. Then in my third year of university, I switched to photography and film, and stopped drawing altogether. It’s been more than 25 years since I picked up a pencil or a brush. It has been calling to me – last year I even bought some notebooks and paints – but I’ve been too distracted to attend to it.
If I die in six months, will I wish I had spent some of this time painting? I’m surprised by the answer: hell, yes!
After I’ve given away many things to many friends, I call up several local charities to ask who can come collect 50% of my life’s belongings. One sends over a chap who staggers under the weight of carrying away what was the hiss, crackle and chatter of my life. What I have left is harmony that makes my heart sing.
Everything I now have is what I use on a regular basis, and (re)newly value for the hard work each item performs in keeping me buoyant. The only things not already in use are my notebooks, pencils and paint set. I finally crack them open.
My left hand and my right brain fire up. I experience the joy of expression (whatever the quality of work). As with writing, there’s a heady mix of being intensely present while also being in a flow that’s timeless. Drawing and writing force me to slow down, to really see what is in front of me, to love, cherish and honour it. As Anaïs Nin said, “We write to live life twice.”
I had already done the first thing I would do if I knew my life would end in December: get off social media. It gives me a false sense of connection, when in reality I believe we are the most disconnected we have ever been.
My cousin arranged the recent trip I’d mentioned because I’d been feeling low. Being with her brought home the power of kindness, love, non-judgmental heart to heart conversations, sharing without exhaustive analysis, cheerful and honest companionship, and the true connection with another human being.
This part I do get: I am unmoored without my close friends and family. It’s the reason I gave up a unique opportunity to travel to 12 places in 12 months last year. It is connection to my tribe that keeps me going. If I die in six months, I want to be surrounded by the people I love. Nothing else ultimately matters.
We all have an intuitive need to belong to something bigger than us. I believe in the universe and I believe in the innate intelligence of nature. We are a part of nature and we ignore it at our peril. Consumerism and materialism keeps us in a state of constant greed and dissatisfaction. Nature keeps us in rhythm with the ebb and flow of life. Of gathering but also, crucially, of letting go. Of inhaling and expanding, but also of exhaling and release.
All these years, my fears have kept me small. Trying to tightly control everything – instead of choosing acceptance and faith in the universe – has stopped me from moving forward. Tara Brach says, “If you can trust the ocean, you’re not afraid of the waves.”
I still don’t know what’s causing the pain in my body, and I hope to find a solution for it soon. Any which way, I know we are all on this earth for a blink of an eye. I don’t want to waste any more time focusing on the wrong things, or fretting about anything that doesn’t really matter.
I’ve been asking myself, “What’s the point?” And the answer is: maybe the things I often forget or neglect.
For however long I am alive, I want to slow down, be present, express my true self and be surrounded by love and laughter.
The rest, I know, is clutter.
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” — George Eliot
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’d be more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
Last week brought the terribly sad news of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Depression – assumed to be the cause in both cases – is very, very real, and these talented people demonstrated that fame, success, beauty, wealth and even family cannot unfortunately protect us from it. The ease with which many judge or dismiss depression further creates isolation for anyone who faces it. There is merit in what Johann Hari writes in this excerpt, Is everything you think you know about depression wrong? (The Guardian, 7 January 2018) from his book, Lost Connections. He says depression is merely the symptom, and by using anti-depressants we are treating the symptoms and not the cause – which he believes is often disconnection. Think of the sad cases of older Japanese women shoplifting in order to find a community in jail.
Social media, our online activity and our gadgets have been designed to be addictive. This is why the people behind the media giants don’t allow their loved ones access to it. They know it’s crack – ‘When the product seems free, you are the product’ – and I’m not even mentioning how they’re exploiting our data. If you want to delete your Facebook account (not just disable it, which is what they’ll prompt you to do), you can follow the instructions here.
I spent most of my adult life with all my worldly possessions fitting into a small suitcase as I travelled around the world, and have several times gotten rid of just about everything I owned when I’ve moved continents, so I’m amazed (and so are my friends) that I still owned enough things to require a van from the charity shop to come and take away more stuff last weekend. Still, live and learn. For the umpteenth time, I highly recommend Karen Kingston’s book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui and also L’art de la Simplicité by Dominique Loreau, a more strident book but a thought-provoking one. You can also read my previous posts on decluttering my clothes, living with less waste, and having a massive spring clean (less than six months ago!).
No strings attached!