28 February 2023

the exact opposite of control

It is now two months since my father decided to stay in bed and keep his eyes shut most of the time, sleeping, dozing, waking for brief moments. Sometimes, he seems to be aware of time and place, mostly not. He is calm. No medication.

Some researchers think that one of the reasons why humans have become thinking beings is because we have to make a lifelong effort to deny our mortality.

I read that from a psychological point of view, our dying begins as soon as we become aware that our death is imminent. As soon as this awareness determines our life.

I read about research where young people were asked to imagine their eventual death and most described it like a wind-up toy, you know one that runs and runs and runs, losing a critical function, a bit like a broken gearbox that forces it to stop working - a sudden death, unexpected, out of full health. But very few of us will die like that, because our body is too complex a machine for that.

Remember, our body is supported by more than 200 bones, more than 600 muscles perform our movements. When we are in a hurry, our heart beats more than a hundred times a minute, pumping blood with such pressure that we can hear it  ringing in our ears. Our brain, barely three pounds of tissue, generates our thoughts, actions, memories, dreams, sends impulses through our nerve cords at an incredible speed. We are made up of billions of critical components, some self-repairing at full speed, some duplicated again and again throughout life - we are more complex than a power station. Such a system rarely stops in one fell swoop. It happens gradually.

From 30 onwards, our heart loses strength. From 40, the muscles lose mass. From 50, the density of the bones diminishes. From 60, on average, a third of our teeth are missing. From 70, the brain in the skull has shrunk.

We wear ourselves out until we can't do it any further. Then the system falls apart. And even that is usually slow.

When we die in old age we can call ourselves lucky. We did not drown while fleeing. We were not taken in the dark of night and killed. We did not die during birth or shortly afterwards, not in war, not from a plague, terrible wounds, an infection, a mad shooter, none of the catastrophes that bring death elsewhere.

We may even be able to choose the place where we die, maybe safe at home, maybe in a hospital with specialist care and support. And above all, with luck, we can choose whose hands will close our eyes.

I read another research paper, how some dying people speak in pictures, like my father asking for his (non-existent) hunting jacket, organising catering for his birthday. The symbolic language of the dying they call it. 

My father drinks less and less. The doctors tell us that his body will slip into a state of dehydration that is natural in the last stages of dying. They tell us that his body is releasing neurotransmitters dulling any pain. They tell us that his skin still feels touch, that he can still hear us. But he is already so distant, like in another world, maybe he also sees and hears people we don't.

His breath is still regular, no sign of Cheyne-Stokes respiration as yet, but could be any day now, we are told. Or maybe another month. His skin is waxy pale.

I read another bit of research, about the last hours, how the activity of our brain begins to die down. Some researchers think that during this time our body floods our brain with serotonin and endorphins. The same hormones we experience when we fall in love, have sex, experience euphoria. I read of an experiment with anesthetized rats, in the seconds before they died, their brain waves flared up more than they did in life.

Maybe this is just a last gasp of a dying brain desperately trying to figure out what is happening or maybe it's a beautiful final firework sending us off.

But there's the problem with all the stuff I read, research on dying in the language of science is always etic, i.e. obtained by observation from the outside, never emic, i.e. based on descriptions from the dying person. (For more on emic and etic, click here.)

Whatever, dying is the exact opposite of control and I wonder if or when my father accepted this, whether as defeat or blessing.  Maybe he didn't need to. I'll never know.

Anyway, it could be weeks.

14 February 2023

“HyperNormalisation” is a word that was coined by Russian historian Alexei Yurchak, who was writing about what it was like to live in the last years of the Soviet Union. He described how in the 1980s everyone from the top to the bottom of Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working, knew that it was corrupt, knew that the bosses were looting the system, know that the politicians had no alternative vision. And they knew that the bosses knew that they knew that. Everyone knew it was fake, but because no one had any alternative vision for a different kind of society, they just accepted this sense of total fakeness as normal.  

 Adam Curtis

I think the same applies to climate change. After a long time of denial, which as we know was and still is funded by the fossil fuel industry, we have more or less accepted that science has got it right, that the burning of fossil fuels causes CO2 emissions which in turn result in climate heating and that to avert the devastating consequences of this, we humans must act now. As in NOW. But instead of decisive actions by governments (renewable energies in all areas of life, such as building, housing, transport, work, you name it) to implement the existing alternative visions and concrete plans for a different kind of society, we are presented with this fake message that individuals must reduce their carbon footprint (a concept designed by the fossil fuel industry) and that we must use less plastics and recycle our household waste and buy EVs to commute long distances and whatever tiny steps we are shamed into doing. And all this while the big corporations continue to make as much money as possible from fossil fuels.

Sometimes I think if sunshine (e.g. solar energy) would need to be mined/drilled and thus become a lucrative source of wealth to the few the same way that oil, coal and gas are, renewables would be the most wanted commodity on the planet. And we would not be where we are now.

We had what was hopefully the last night of frost. Although R talks alarmingly about The Polar Vortex.

I listen to the blackbirds belting out their mating songs before sunrise. One early February when S was maybe 12 or 13, she had to identify the number of blackbirds mating and mark the area on a map as part of a biology project and while her science teacher father blissfully ignored her efforts (not my school etc.), her mother, i.e. me, would sit with a tape deck and a map next to a very sleepy girl by the window, sipping tea, nudging her on. I don't think the project was very successful but I found out a good bit about blackbirds. I hope she did too.

This is the river on a very frosty morning.

And this is a lovely song.

05 February 2023



A long long time ago when I was living in paradise, where life was hard and beautiful, hard because money was tight and apart from lots of communal goodwill and a very well stocked public library, there was little in terms of the service and the commodities we, living in consumerism, take for granted, took for granted even back then, and beautiful because of the colours, smells, sights, feels of the rain forest, the Indian ocean, the fruit on the trees around our little tin-roofed house, the slowly meandering tortoises in the yards and the call of the flying foxes in the night,  I found myself on one of these morning digging my bare toes into the fine coral sand of a path coming down from the old wooden house behind me, the sea lapping a short distance in front of me, a tree lined road to my left and a group of massive coco-de-mer palm trees to my right.

I was waiting for a bus and without a timetable this always involved a degree of luck or long stretches of contemplation and discovery. Often, I would take off my shoes and trace complicated patterns into the sand with my toes. Occasionally, people would join me waiting, always impeccably dressed, smiling at my bare feet and greeting me shyly. 

I could hear the birds in the trees to my left, the rooster from the house behind me, a group of children playing in the surf in front of me and the wind swishing through the palm fronds to my right.

A few weeks earlier I had met an Irish nun. I didn't know she was a nun, we met at the hospital where I had been visiting a sick neighbour for a while, she was a nurse. Hearing her Irish accent, we got talking and often shared a cup of tea and stories of fun and grief and loss, as you do when you find yourself in company with a strangely familiar voice or face in a place far from home. And one day she told me about her daily prayer, said she wanted me to say it with her. Now, my inner arrogant voice initially cringed and my smile was forced. But in the end she smiled back and said, that wasn't too difficult, dear, wasn't it?

May it be beautiful below me. May it be beautiful above me. May it be beautiful to the right of me. May it be beautiful to the left of me. May it be beautiful behind me. May it be beautiful in front of me. May it be beautiful around me. I am restored in beauty.

I know now that it's her version of the Navajo prayer but at the time, there was no internet to inform me. I just called it the nun's prayer and I have been whispering it on many occasions ever since, whenever, wherever I have been waiting, for a bus, a train, a medical appointment, a drip to empty itself into my veins, a delayed visitor to arrive, a sleepless night to end, a day to begin. It always brings me back to a place, which is not the exact place of the day, but a conglomeration of places from paradise where at the time, I have often stood and waited.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast with psychologist Dacher Keltner speaking about his research on awe and the vagus nerve and how science can show (via cortisol/stress hormone levels, functional MRI imaging etc.) the way experiences of awe influence our emotional state and the first thing that came to mind was this memory, of these places, of the Irish nun's prayer, the heat of that morning, the sounds, the feeling of sand between my toes. 

If I should put into words the feeling that I experience when I remember that exact moment and the way the nun's prayer is connected to it, my first response would always be awe. And this despite the fact that it's neither outstanding scenic beauty, nor drama, nor religious or transformative event, but memories of a fairly ordinary daily experience some 30 years ago.

To listen to the podcast click here. To read about the research in a long interview, click here. If you need to see scientific publications on the subject, click here.

And BTW, you may have heard of the story where a father asked his daughter to stop using two words that drove him mad and before he could proceed, the daughter said, "Awesome Dad, what words, like, do you have in mind?"

01 February 2023


First: Thank you all so much for your kind and thoughtful comments!

Today is Imbolc/St Brigid’s day. We are half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Today, the light takes over. When I left for work the birds were singing and the sunrise was almost there. It felt so very hopeful. 

In Ireland this day is now a public holiday, the first Irish public holiday named after a woman, to mark the beginning of spring and the Celtic New Year. 

I have posted this many times before on or around this day. Many traditions are observed on this day, both here and in Ireland. 

My Irish mother in law would go to mass and bring back a St. Brigid's cross, freshly blessed, and put it inside above the front door to prevent any of the bad spirits entering. It definitely worked, that or her dogs.

Today, her heathen son stands by the kitchen window watching the birds, convinced that they are more active because of St. Brigid. Seriously, I ask. Come one, he laughs, you know what I mean. The light, of course.

My mother, a dedicated atheist and scientist, would light candles on this day, which is known as Maria Lichtmess (Mary's feast of light) in Franconia. 

The Celts, of course, celebrated in style, with bonfires, dancing and dipping of their hands into wells. It's raining now, not so sure about a little bonfire later on, but we've dipped our hands into the rain water barrel and we did some dancing at breakfast.

Anyway, isn't it just the most hopeful day in the year. 


All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks

Are life eternal: and in silence they

Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;

There's nothing mortal in them; their decay

Is the green life of change; to pass away

And come again in blooms revivified.

Its birth was heaven, eternal is its stay,

And with the sun and moon shall still abide

Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

John Clare