Monday, 31 December 2012

The Blessing of Paradox

One year ago I posted 'Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness' by John O'Donohue. I had just joined a cancer support group and one of the members quoted these lines from it:
            'you feel that against your will
             a stranger has married your heart.
             Nothing before has made you
             feel so isolated and lost.'

There were murmurs of recognition and nods of assent from around the room. These startling words captured where I was with the illness perfectly. I went home and found the whole of the blessing on the internet. I read it again and again, all of its first half spoke to me very powerfully:

            'Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
             before your eyes your future shrinks.'

I must admit that I found the second half of the blessing quite incomprehensible. For example, I should seek a way 'to embrace this illness as a teacher who has come to open my life to new worlds'! What in hell was he on about?

I knew what I wanted: exactly the opposite. To be rid of the illness as soon as possible, so that I could return to the relative safety of who and where I was before the diagnosis. My world had become so very dark and difficult. I had a long, red post-operative scar down the centre of my torso, stretching from neck to groin. Every day I had to face the prospect of my own death. I certainly didn’t need any 'new age' claptrap to add to my pain and confusion.

            'May you use this illness
             as a lantern to illuminate
             the new qualities that will emerge in you.'

            'Fuck, fuck, fuck', I shouted: 'give me a break!'

But, strangely enough, something like this now seems to have happened. I'm still not exactly sure how. I do know it's been a very hard journey that's taken the best part of a year thus far. I also recognise that I had much further to descend into the slough of despond before I was able to begin to recover. And herein lies an important paradox.

It seems to me now that within the very power of the illness, its overwhelming ability to break you, to sever your grip on who and where you used to be, there also lies the seeds of healing, the resources for rebuilding and growth. The veritable treasure of darkness.

To John O'Donohue, this is a journey of faith (not necessarily the progress of a pilgrim) and belief (not necessarily in a higher power). He describes it as a journey of faith in your own possibilities, a journey of belief in becoming and emergence within yourself. A journey 'to release whatever has become false in you'. A journey of learning and revaluing 'to become more fully yourself'.

Such a journey is of course a struggle. For becoming is, by its very nature, ambiguous and uncertain. Furthermore, it is pursued between the heavy pull of opposites (for we come to know light in relation to darkness, and vice versa) so the journey is filled with paradox.

For me this journey has been a huge ordeal. I'm strong, resourceful and was determined to escape from my situation and find my way back to before. Stress, fear and sleeplessness were my companions, until it dawned on me that the journey I was trying so hard to make was unavailable. A terrible realisation. I felt consumed by the shadows of death. Then, very slowly, I began to discover that the different life and self I did have wasn't necessarily worse: indeed in some ways it could actually be better.

As John O'Donohue perceptively observes, the struggle of becoming takes place over the span of each day, in which you are trying to 'bring this night-wound gradually towards the healing and freedom of dawn.' We all have been there and will again be there, our struggles rising and falling over the journey of a human life.

I'm still finding my way: doing my best to accept where I am, to value it differently and even to enjoy it. I know that I cant go back to who and where I was before. Indeed, I wouldn’t want to. I'm now more fully myself than I have ever been. A patchwork of strengths and limitations: sure. A work in progress: of course. And long may that journey go on.

Sadly, just two months after his 'Book of Blessings' was published, John O'Donohue died suddenly (in his sleep) aged 52.

Monday, 24 December 2012


Gushing between glaciers
and the ocean bed,
a vast, unremitting tide
sculpts the reluctant land
as the moment needs,
sweeping particles for sediment
or in raging spate, whole trees.

Tugged from the awkward bank,
I’m torn beyond the shallows -
currents and tows rip me,
               You ravel onward
in sleek rolling waves,
plunging deep and dangerous
I embrace the cascade.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


I went to the cinema last night and saw this film. Its a very powerful and affecting study of ageing and care, of love and of death. In short its the best film I've seen all year.

Anne and Georges are retired music teachers in their eighties. The film is largely set in their apartment. We see the elderly couple going about their daily life, caring for each other in many small ways. They have a rather self-obsessed daughter who lives abroad. Then Anne suffers a minor stroke and has to go for treatment in hospital. When she returns in a wheelchair she makes Georges promise that he will never put her back in hospital or in a nursing home. Georges agrees and the core of the film is the day to day love and care of that relationship. There are many challenges of course. Georges is elderly and a little infirm. Anne is frustrated by her incapacity. But they surmount these with humour and respect.

Anne suffers another stroke and becomes paralysed down one side, then begins to show signs of dementia. It is a struggle for Georges but he continues to be her carer. Despite Anne's infirmities they sing and play little games together. One day their daughter arrives, insisting that her mother be put in a home. Georges refuses and the daughter departs. But even with the assistance of a nurse and neighbours, the task of caring for the severely incapacitated Anne slowly becomes too much for Georges. Over the course of the film he deteriorates perceptibly. In the end there is a dramatic twist (the film opens with the police breaking down the apartment door to find Anne's body and concludes with the daughter walking around the now empty rooms).

Having sketched the plot, I imagine anyone who has not yet seen the film is thinking: this is such a painful story, how could it be a great film? Well it is great because it focusses on the little and large acts of kindness, love and selflessness that make human relationships work. It is great because it shows that this care, humanity and respect can surmount even the most demanding circumstances. It is great because it unflinchingly shows us our futures (ageing and death) and reminds us that we can't change this outcome, but then says - how you get there as a human being is what really matters.

Above all, it is honest and heartfelt. It comes as no surprise to find that the film was based on real events in the family of writer/director Michael Haneke. Amour won the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. In its scope and tone there are echoes of Tokyo Story (one of the greatest films of the last century).

I immediately thought of my father, who was paralysed down one side after a major stroke. Especially, the many hours I spent trying to communicate with him (he had lost the power of speech) and the long debates inside the family about a suitable care home. But all to no avail, as he died from pneumonia after three months in hospital.

Then I thought about myself. In particular, my own incapacity after the big operation last year and the care I'd been given in the early days by Joanne (which I never fully thanked her for). As Georges struggled with Anne, I relived the many problems that everyday things (that we normally think nothing of) bring for someone who is incapacitated: getting in and out of bed, washing, the toilet, walking, etc. I knew I'd come a very long way since those dark days. I'm hoping I still have a good distance to go.