the time before death

Golden sunrise  clouds and rising sun in blue sky above sea and waves, fall, Atlantic Ocean; Falkland Islands
Golden sunrise clouds and rising sun in blue sky above sea and waves, fall, Atlantic Ocean; Falkland Islands

Roger Housden sent me this poem today.  He says: “that Kabir reminds us that it is so easy, and without even being aware of it, to slip into living life as if it were a rehearsal for the real thing. If you are able to take Kabir’s words to heart, you may feel the shock of living now. The truest life – the most passionately lived life – is one in which the gate of the heart is open wide to receive . . . to receive what, who? To receive the Guest, Kabir says. And who is the Guest? What does he or she look like? In the monasteries dedicated to Kabir’s teachings, in India, there are no sculptures of deities, no idols to be worshipped, no devotions to be performed. In the center of the monastery there is an open space with an empty plinth. For Kabir, God cannot be confined to religion, to form, or to name. The Guest is a general term that each of us can fill in as we wish. To stand in that openness is not only possible now, it is for Kabir an imperative. Salvation is not to be found after death; it does not require any belief, but it does demand that you fall down into the well of the heart. It demands that you leave behind your thoughts about your experience, and jump into the experience of living itself.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Sometimes we live in anticipation of an after-life with hopes that all we want and wish for may reside there.  The trick is to find it now as both Roger and Kabir advise.  In the here and now, and to break those ropes, even if only one.  The poem also reminds me of the ‘Eternal Occurence’ by Nietzsche which is a scary one to read but that’s a story for another day.

Here is Kabir’s poem that I share with you:

The Time Before Death
by Kabir
(Version by Robert Bly)

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time
Before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
Do you think
Ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic
Just because the body is rotten –
That is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the
City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next
Life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that
Does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

i am no bird; and no net ensnares me


July 7 was an emotional earthquake,” she said. “In an earthquake, everything is shaken to the core. The foundations are split and everything is exposed and you can’t start rebuilding until you have sifted through the rubble and the muddle. Issues of faith are part of that rubble and muddle.”

This was cited in an interview conducted many years ago in the NY Times.

It was believed that Jenny Nicholson was reading The Magician’s Nephew on that day in July 2015 whilst on the tube at Edgware Road.

In the same article it was said that Mr. Lewis — “A Grief Observed,” published in 1961 after the death of his wife, the American poet Helen Joy Davidman — at a time when his faith was shaken into the suggestion that God “hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine.”

In the recent BBC documentary, London Underground, agreed to halt a train briefly at the place where her daughter died. The moment was entwined with her musings on the Pietà — the Christian vision of Mary cradling the broken Jesus after his crucifixion. After the bombing, she said, “physically holding and cradling” her daughter was impossible. But she had wanted for months to enter the tunnel “and just stand a moment at that place where my daughter’s life ended.”

Parents don’t want nor expect to outlive their children. It seems unnatural and but I continue to witness that so much of what happens in our world is unnatural. I’ve given up trying to make sense of it all.

Yet I do know that amidst all the madness, courage, strength and hope, do exist. It is not lost. It is not gone.

And so as a Londoner but more as a human being, I’d like to wish you much peace, much faith to all left behind, and struggling to find faith even after 10 years.

My thoughts are with you, my heart holds yours for we are after all, all connected.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.


keeping quiet



by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go


Every single poem in Extravagaria is rewarding beyond words, beyond time. Pablo seems to be saying that it would be a different feeling, or a different experience to see the world come to a halt, where everything stops, and everyone comes together in strangeness, a sudden moment of inactivity, which the world has not often seen.

I like that — for everything to stop, to stay still, to be quiet, to slow down.

And to think.

About Life.

About Death.

And the bit that happens in-between.

stop all the clocks


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong

The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

By W H Auden

if you knew

If You Knew
by Ellen Bass


In this beautiful poem, Roger Housden speaks of how Ellen Bass couples our sweetness with our stung and swollen selves – echoing Machado’s lines in which he says that the golden bees

were making white combs
And sweet honey
From my old failures.

Both Machado and Bass join our beauty to our wounding, although in this poem by Ellen Bass she addresses our greatest wounding, which is our mortality – the imperfection that no amount of prayer or goodness or psychotherapy will ever do anything to erase. We ‘are pinned against time’. Time is our ultimate demise and yet also our friend. It is our friend when we awaken to the reality that we are not here to stay. When we know this from the inside, the caution that may have colored our days will dissolve like mist over the bay. With nothing to lose, knowing there can be nothing to hold onto, we can fall headlong into life at last – “reckless”, like butterflies still hovering over a flower even as the collector leans forward with his net.

“If You Knew”
by Ellen Bass

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the lifeline’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
they’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

fourth sign of the zodiac


While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.

Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.


I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.


How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it. And can speak it to themselves, as you might a prayer.

Mary Oliver

she was the greatest person ever


I often read obituaries.

You may think it morbid but to me, it is a way of finding out what a person was like through the eyes and minds of those left behind. I often wondered how true their words were and how much of it was edited so as to be polite.  And nice. People like to be nice.  And polite. They like that too.  Or seen to be at least!

It seems like death is everywhere at the moment; quite like the quiet winter we are currently going through in London.  So plenty of obituaries to read, to find out, to discover but more importantly to reflect.  I may not care too much about being polite, or nice for that matter, but I do care about reflection.  It’s an important past-time for me, like daydreaming. But that too is reflection.

So in my reflection I was thinking wouldn’t it be lovely if:

a. I could hear all the words, hopefully nice and polite ones about me, like now whilst I’m alive? And receive the flowers too? (I like long stemmed roses, preferably in burnt orange)

b. If there are no nice and polite words to say about me, what can I do to ensure that (a) happens or better yet….

c. What if, right now, I were to put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and write my OWN obituary (to be published in 2060) and how would that work? What would I say? What can I say?!

Self-obituaries are catching on I believe.  Soon it will be the norm.  We can write them like we write wills, legacies and who we would leave our pension funds with in the event of our death etc.; seal them in a little brown envelope (stick some cello tape on it if the sticky bit isn’t as sticky as it should be) and keep it somewhere accessible (not in a safe or in some secret location that no one will ever find because then the whole exercise of writing your obituary would be frankly, pointless and kind of dumb).  Then write on the little brown envelope:  ONLY TO BE OPENED WHEN I HAVE KICKED THE BUCKET. 

Yes I like the idea.  There is a glimmer of light in the shape of the self-obituary. I think writing one’s own obituary is a healthy phenomenon as it gives people the chance to say things they’ve always wanted to.

Websites like tell us: ‘A baby boomer turns 65 every 12 seconds, a good time to start thinking about how we will leave this life, ideally just as we lived it: with personality, panache and style.’ This advice to put the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral’ gives people the chance to tell their own life story. But why wait until 80? Do it now.  While your grey matter is still functioning as it should, effectively.

Life coach and author Carole Ann Rice said: ‘Writing your own obituary can be a great reality check and a way to ask yourself that big life question – why am I here and what do I want to be able to say (and not say) about my life at the end? ‘It can provide an incentive for people to not waste valuable time. For example, staying in a job they hate or a relationship that’s not working.’


Talking about death is now seen less of a taboo.  I have no problems talking about mine.  And many others too from the blogs I’ve seen even by young people who are dying.  I think there’s something so profound in being able to talk about death openly, to accept the inevitable.  And I think by being open one can actually help others too.

In 2011, newspaper partners of US site published many self-written obituaries including this self-penned obit from one Charlie Johnson in the Houston Chronicle: ‘Hi, my name is Charlie Johnson and I’m an alcoholic. I met the love of my life, Cindy, on August 17, 1984, and we’ve been together, and on the same page, ever since. She’ll probably try to be strong and say she’s fine, but she’s not. She was the feeler to my thinker personality trait and she’ll need a lot of support to get through this.’

See how being open can help others?  He was telling the world before it was too late and he couldn’t how his love of his life, Cindy, will need others to continue living.  He was passing on a crucial message.

Ann Wroe, an obituaries editor at The Economist magazine, said: ‘A good obituary should make you feel you know the person, share their passions and live for a while inside their heads. This is much more important than tracking their lives in chronological detail.’

So with self-written obituary etiquette from ‘How to write an obituary’ sites like telling us to be accurate, lively and memorable, what would YOURS say?

I’m fairly certain that it would NOT say the following:

“What everybody loved most about her was how she ate lunch at her desk. Every day.”


“She didn’t have any real friends, but she had 887 Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her inbox every night.”


“But she will live on, not in our hearts or memories, because we barely knew her but in her PowerPoint slides, her accurately written minutes which were always meticulously prepared.”

This is because a tribute to yourself is NOT a C.V.

Your C.V. disappears as soon as your heart stops beating.

A tribute to self on the other hand, your obit, describes your inner essence and only those who are really close to you would know a little of.  Mostly however, your inner essence will only be known to you — your passions, your joys, the things that made your heart beat fast, your first kiss, your best kiss, how you’ve loved or failed to love or couldn’t love no matter how hard you tried, how you’ve angered and hurt others and how others have angered and hurt you, the things and people you should have let go of years ago but didn’t know how or where to begin, your many fears at 3am (and 4am and 5am, 6am, 9am, 10am, 12pm…), your million little senseless and sensible moral judgements about others and yourself, your outdated but still-hard-to-let-go-off beliefs, your ‘truths’, your thousand hopes and your many lived (unlived) dreams along with the wonderful unexpected surprises and those awfully crushing disappointments that you never thought you’d ever recover from (and you were right).  ALL of the many, MANY things that make up this thing, called LIFE.

So if you do decide to write your own obituary, I hope it’s a meaningful experience for you and a helpful one.

I hope too that the exercise will show you the ways you are currently living your life and the ways in which you would like to or hope to and that the finished product is something you can then read with pride and satisfaction with a pinch of regret thrown in for good measure (as life is not perfect or easy nor was it meant to be).

Be kind to yourselves.


Jawaharlal Nehru’s eulogy to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Pacifist leader Gandhi — a crucial figure in the Indian independence movement — was assassinated at a prayer meeting in 1948. The peacekeeper had survived five previous unsuccessful attempts on his life. Despite the eventual violent aftermath following his death, Gandhi’s successor Jawaharlal Nehru — India’s first Prime Minister — addressed the nation by radio with his emotional eulogy, urging citizens to remain faithful to the leader’s ideals.

“The first thing to remember no wish that no one of us dare misbehave because we’re angry. We have to behave like strong and determined people, determined to face all the perils that surround us, determined to carry out the mandate that our great teacher and our great leader had given us, remembering always that if, as I believe, his sprit looks upon us and sees u, nothing would displease his soul so much as to see that we have indulged in any small behaviour or any violence.

So we must not do that. But that does not mean that we should be weak, but rather that we should in strength and in unity face all the troubles and difficulties and conflicts must be ended in the face of this great disaster. A great disaster is a symbol to us to remember all the big things of life and forget the small things, of which we have thought too much.”

be ahead of all parting


Hello all, I hope your day has been kind.

Rilke’s poem for today, 13 January 2015, spoke to me and I would like to share it with you:

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had
already happened,
like winter which even now is passing.

For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the

Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb
back singing.
Climb praising as you return to

Here among the disappearing, in the
realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Be.  And know as well the need to not be:
let that ground of all that changes
bring you to completion now.

To all that has run its course, and to the
vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

(Sonnets to Orpheus II, A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings)

In Greek mythologyEurydice was an oak nymph or one of the daughters of Apollo (the god of music, who also drove the sun chariot, ‘adopting’ the power as god of the Sun from the primordial god Helios.) She was the wife of Orpheus, who tried to bring her back from the dead with his enchanting music.

Here is the story which gives you a taste from where Rilke could be presenting from:

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, and he played to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow mortals, but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at the Stygian realm.

He passed through crowds of ghosts, and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion’s wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant’s liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen.

Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition that he should not turn round to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away.

eurydiceStretching out their arms to embrace one another they grasped only the air. Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her? “Farewell,” she said, “a last farewell,” and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.

Orpheus endeavoured to follow her, and besought permission to return and try once more for her release but the stern ferryman repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind, dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance.

The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they could; but finding him insensible, one day, one of them, excited by the rites of Bacchus, exclaimed, “See yonder our despiser!” and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony.

The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her, with eager arms. They roam through those happy fields together now, sometimes he leads, sometimes she; and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty for a thoughtless glance.


What a story eh?  That’s Greek mythology for you! It’s so beautifully written and translated. I wish I had that skill!

Rilke is always very suggestive in his writings, a perfect example of ‘show but not tell’.

I think that the poem above ‘Be Ahead Of All Parting’ is a metaphor of Death, alongside Life. The parting also speaks of the transient, ever-changing, seasons in life and not just winter. As always, Rilke interweaves, beautifully, both life and death, in his poetry.  They do after all co-exist and made possible because of each other’s presence just like light and darkness. What I’m struck by especially, is the line “Be. And know as well the need to not be.”

That, to me, is the HEART heart little of the poem.

It speaks of knowing when and where to be present in one’s life and when to let go.  This fine art of waiting, listening, trusting and only then, when you know it’s time to act, ACT, is so much a part of my life now.  And I can honestly say to you, from my heart, it works. But not so easy to do.

May you meet your days with trust, knowing when to be, and when to not be. As Paulo Coelho gently reminds us, “what’s important will stay”. 

Be kind to yourselves.

rilke 3