Timothy Spall, who opens in the Mike Leigh film ‘Mr Turner’ later this week, had a terminal diagnosis for leukaemia a few years ago. He was on a chat show this last night and I was interested to hear him say that the experience took him into a state of great profoundness. Everything he observed was almost painfully expanded into that state of beauty that great opera touches upon. He could not suffer bullshit and only wanted to engage in the deep and meaningful. He knew he was getting better when he started moving back into the slight and general.
I am not yet in at that stage, though I am in a place that I really love. My days are filled with chicken soup making and organic vegetable buying. I am resisting juicing and enemas but I reading an inspiring book by Michael something Tosh who resisted conventional treatment and lived ten years after his terminal diagnosis.
PS I wrote the above a month ago. Things have gone downhill since then. I find myself in a state of profoundness. I spend my days on the sofa watching a blackbird pecking at the last remaining elderberries. People come and visit and in the spaces between I reflect on a long and adventurous life and I prepare myself for the greatest adventure of all. I am content in my little world. It seems that it’s come full circle this long life of mine and I am caught up in the profound wonder of the exact nature of our being.
I’ve finished the painting I mentioned in my last post and as some of you asked to see it, here it is. Seeing it next to ‘Winter Landscape’ I recognise that the only thing I have in common with the master is perhaps pink and yellow. But the feeling of finishing a painting is transcendent and I’m longing to get on with the next.
How does one know that a painting is finished? That is the BIG question. Is it when I’ve carried the colour over the sides of the canvas? Or is it when I’ve lived with the painting for a few days and can think of nothing I need to add? It’s easier to tell when a poem is finished (when I’ve removed everything I can without the whole thing collapsing). It’s hard to do that with a painting but I do know that one line too many and the effect is ruined.
I guess it is when I, the creator, say it’s finished. Then I sign my name, give it a coat of varnish and, if I’m selling it, have taken it to the framers. Nothing says ‘finished’ as clearly as a frame.
I know it’s a lot easier to bake a cake but a lot less satisfying.
I have entered a very interesting part of my soul’s journey. I have been given my diagnosis and have received it with a measure of serenity, helped by the fact that I have stayed in control of my treatment. Thank you very much traditional medicine for putting in a life- saving stent but no thank you, I don’t want any treatment that burns, cuts or poisons. I will quietly live out my days this way. It is after all not the length that matters but the width.
So what am I doing to make sure I live the full width of each day I am given pain free and full of vigour? I climb up to a studio where I rent creative space and I play with a paint brush and squiggly tubes of paint. I am totally untrained as an artist, except for the fact that I have been a passionate lover of modern art from a teenager. Every city I have visited in my long and adventurous life has revealed a painting or two, that I carry within as a nurturing interior landscape. My most memorable encounter with such a painting was the glimpse of Wassily Kandinsky’s Winter Landscape 1909(see above) which glimmered at me from a side room as I was being taken on a heavily supervised tour of The Hermitage in St Petersburg.
In a flash I knew that it was my once in a lifetime chance of standing in front of a work of art that had spoken to me from the pages of books since I was little more than a child.
I broke free from the group and sprinted down the corridor with the voice of the guard ringing in my ears. I was pretty well dragged back to the group with my eyes still glued to the pink and yellow alchemy of that glorious painting. I am glad to report that I was let off with a stern lecture.
Now in my own little corner of the world, with the sense of time concertina -ing around me, I am painting my homage to Kandinsky. Mine isn’t a church, it’s a cottage by the sea. But what I hope to capture is the childlike wonder at the gloriousness of the world and the imagination’s ability to see the upside down and inside out in that as yet trammelled view of what is real and what is fantasy that belong in the world of a child. The joy of colour and the capturing of the unlikely. They are the qualities I find in Klee and Kandinsky and they continue to give me pleasure. More so now that I am realising the true meaning of the finite nature of life.
It adds to my pleasure to know that I deliberately painted the first half of the picture upside down.I think I will call it ‘The Hermitage’.
I’ve found that since the TD all sorts of things have changed. In spite of the fact (or paradoxically because of it) that I don’t now eat sugar, I am watching “The Great British Bake Off” with embarrassing delight. Yet anything to do with ‘stuff’ (bichli bithia) now leaves me untouched and you all know how I’ve always loved my bits and pieces.
So it’s all change on some levels. But all stays solid beneath my feet.
Philosophically I remain intact. Nothing the last months have thrown at me alters my deep conviction that a greater plan exists. A plan that is unknowable to those of us locked within 3D form. While those who think they know better struggle to find that one thing that connects everything, I quietly wonder whether such a discovery would, in fact, change what we think of as reality.
For we search for that which is without, using perception, which lies within.
It seems to me that we have evolved like a train going along the track. Only when we arrive at the buffers will we know the story of the whole, and that the whole is just…a track. Not the vast landscape that it sits within.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, otherwise known as Osho, said there is only one courage and that is to go on dying to the past. Not to collect it, not to cling to it. He says we do that because then we are unavailable to the present which is the difficult part, as it is in the now that pain and suffering exist.
I have been given one of life’s richest gifts. I have been informed that my time is nearly up in the starkest of ways.
‘Come in number 7′, the boatman calls on his megaphone and I start paddling to the shore. This is when every ripple on the lake has meaning and every hint of birdsong pierces the heart. This now-ness forces me into my authentic place, as every moment becomes encrusted with its finite beauty. From where I am sitting life has suddenly become too real, too colourful, too precious to be wasted on anything but sensory wonder. I look out of my window and I see the trees and they are so very green they take me like a lover and deposit me in a higher state of being. This and all the other peak experiences I am being offered at this time mean I am growing fast now towards the meeting, the communion, the encounter. God is not something that is already there, but is something that appears when I am totally conscious. To reach that state I have to let go of all other states. I have been given the chance to practice this.
We are here for such a short time and we are so very small. Joy and gratitude abound.
But sometimes I need downtime. And that’s where’The Great British Bake Off’ comes in.
One of the positive things to have happened to me in the weeks since the TD (terminal diagnosis) is my visit to my kinesiologist. He gave me some homework to be done between visits. I was to write a eulogy to be read at my funeral. The timeline that it should cover is from now until the end. “Go on some more adventures Allie,” he said encouragingly. This is what I wrote:-
‘We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of our beloved Allie, who always said her life really took off when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014. The oncologists said that statistically she had 6-12 months to live if she didn’t take up their offer of an operation and chemo. She said she thought she could do a lot better than that with a homeopathic vet she had found. How could animals be accused of responding to the Placebo Effect she thought. The vet was very handsome, which she said made the 2 hour profiling interrogation a great pleasure.
It was at the local and very famous Cancer Care Centre that Allie found a friend with a similar diagnosis and an equally maverick approach to a solution. Together they set up a company called Tatty Bye Inc. and along with the vet set off for the Caribbean, where they spent some years crewing and cooking on board yachts. When the vet moved on to another project, Allie settled in St Lucia where she founded an orphanage for the street children.
When she was 83, with the diagnosis long forgotten, Allie returned to England, declaring that she was now retired. This was not the sort of retirement that her family and friends had envisaged for her. She was by now a vegan, doing yoga daily in her beloved park and gathering around her a colourful collection of young people interested in Huna, a magical practice she had picked up during her yachting trips to Polynesia.
At 89 she had a stroke and died suddenly while in the plank position. Her last words were those of her great hero Wittgenstein,”Tell them I had a wonderful life.”
I don’t think anyone present today would deny this.”
I’ve found in the month that I haven’t been posting that nothing quite focuses the mind like a terminal diagnosis of cancer.
As you saw in my last post I arrived back from camping feeling rather ill. Well it got worse and then one morning I woke up looking like an Oompa Loompa. In no time at all the three oncologists were gathered around my bed. The haunting portrait by Ken Currie (above) that made such an impression on me a couple of years ago in Edinburgh came to mind immediately. He says in an interview on Youtube that when he was observing the three worthy oncologists he had been commissioned to paint, he was struck by the thought that people see cancer as representing the darkness and that these men go in to rescue the poor souls and bring them to the light. Very mythological this may be but is not the story that I am choosing to spin from my diagnosis.
They say that when film was the silver screen the silvering process allowed directors to capture something that the eye could not see. An alchemy took place between the filming and the audience’s reception of what was up there. I think the same alchemy is at work in this painting. The three oncologists are wrapped in a chilling, ghostly light that Ken Currie’s unconscious dictated. They themselves can’t have been pleased with the interpretation. But we the public are mesmerised by the truth behind the image. I guess in art the reception is all. To me the world of oncology IS the very darkness from which those men in their arrogance see themselves helping people to escape.
So what is the story that I am spinning from my diagnosis? Well, it is that I have much to learn from it that I haven’t yet learned. Less a diagnosis and more a dare perhaps. Dare to live life learning right to the end. Dare to keep it going against the odds. Dare to show that a change of diet (cancer loves sugar) I can beat the medics by years. Needless to say I’m taking charge. So it’s no to operations and no to chemo. I’ve always said in my book and my posts that old age is the last but one adventure, so maybe I’ll be going straight on to the last adventure. Old age not being for sissies, this diagnosis could be a sort of get out of jail card.
I’ve been camping. This is a new hobby for me, though I’ve been collecting the gear for years and planning on an expedition. It’s a big step to actually put in the action, mind. This is not glamping which I think is a ridiculous middle class concept. No. Camping for me has to be simple. So no electricity link ups, no complicated stoves and certainly no camp beds. One of the great pleasures of camping is feeling my body connecting with the earth. Earthing I believe it is called. It’s said to be good for one’s general health. It is supposed to boost your body’s supply of electrons, which have antioxidant effects,counter inflammation, regulate cortisol dynamics, help sleep and reduce the effects of stress. As well as all that, conductive contact with the earth helps to counter the ‘dirty’ electricity that is polluting the air that surrounds us.So its a shame that ever since my return I’ve felt rather ill…
Never mind, I enjoyed camping very much. The river lulled me to sleep and apart from the pine cones dropping on my tent through the night all was peaceful. My favourite and incredibly simple first night camping meal consisted of udon noodles mixed with a tin of mackerel and large splash of soy sauce and some nibbled herbs I took from my garden. Eaten out of doors, while watching the setting sun, created a memorable meal.The tin plate added to the delight. Don’t ask me why.