In 2011 I was closer to a dying person – physically closer, during the days and nights of their dying – than I have ever been. I recognised that for the sadness and the privilege it is. (And also the gift – my many other dead people all died suddenly and there was no chance for goodbye.) I found out what it was like to be the partner of one deeply grieving, instead of being the one in deep mourning myself. I remembered it can be harder to be beside than to be in – sometimes the powerlessness of beside is agonising. I found out that the practice of sitting shiva doesn’t work that well for me, but it holds great comfort and kindness for those it does work for. I found hope in small kindnesses and generous friends. I watched people conform to the traditional patterns of grief and loss that have filled our plays and novels and stories forever – the generosity, the stupidity, the nastiness, the openness, the confusion, the fear, the hope, the self-centredness, the egolessness … all there, just as in every bad, shouting, cliched piece of art about death and every good, quiet, real, piece that shows the other side. I was impressed by my wife’s strength, resilience, courage and tenacity.
I remembered that every time I walk down the street I am walking past people grieving, newly mourning, newly diagnosed with illness, newly happy, newly engaged, newly married, newly pregnant, newly parents. I was reminded, as the proximity of death always reminds, that we all go through this, we all have good and bad and new life and new death and that it goes on all the time, and that just because it isn’t happening to me today, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to someone else, someone who could do with my kindness and care, or – at the very least – someone who could do with me cutting them some slack when they’re parking badly.
I was full up with what was happening in our own small world and I also looked out.
And when I looked out I saw astonishing, brave, inspiring things in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, across the Arab Spring. I saw earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan and riots down the road in Brixton. I saw people keep on. I saw the UnCut and Occupy movements doing interesting and exciting and hopeful work, I saw the RiotCleanUp hashtag. I loved finding Twitter and the politics and profanity, the comedy and stupidity of it, the political youth there! I discovered I probably preferred it to Facebook, and I certainly appreciated the contact it gave me with readers I’d never have met otherwise. I made chutney from the apples in our garden and marmalade from the little orange and lemon trees. I made cakes. I finished a new book and wrote two short plays and adapted a short film from my own story and worked on two feature film projects and wrote three short stories and directed a devised theatre piece I loved working on and made amazing new friends while doing so. I went to a lovely family wedding where the newness of grief was generously acknowledged, not ignored in misplaced propriety. I enjoyed the kindness of my siblings. I held my miscarrying friend and was grateful I’d been through it all before so I could be more useful to her.
I spent a lot of time thinking about London and my choice to live here, pleasure in living here, and my gratitude for the Thames. I thought of my parents often (father dead 23 years, mother 8 years) and how the distance from their deaths doesn’t stop those occasional pangs of sheer, burning missing, but that – also – the time that does not heal, does accustom.
I saw friends and family give birth to new life (new life from so close to death in one case) and welcomed that too. I was excited and privileged to be working alongside a young woman carrying her first baby and to watch that baby grow as we made our show, incorporating and accomodating her pregnancy. I welcomed children into our rehearsal and workshop spaces and made a commitment to find new and better ways to keep doing so.
I was proud watching my wife become a better and better swimmer, knowing I gave her (some of) that.
I had some great conversations in bars and restaurants and pubs and cafes, at book festivals and events, at Open Spaces and D&Ds. I taught a writing-and-impro workshop that consciously brought my two work disciplines together and gave me loads to learn from my co-teachers and those attending. I taught an Arvon workshop with my wife to some of the warmest, most serious (and frivolous) people I have ever taught. Thanks to Comma Press I was able to work on a story with my very own physicist and loved it. A chance meeting at a very fancy do at Downing Street gave me the golden opportunity to do some work in the not very fancy place I was born, Woolwich, and I loved that those two parts of my life came together over some art work that involved the local community.
I remembered my own good fortune in being alive and being eleven years since my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I was grateful that I have not had to deal with recurrence and trust that if I ever do (touch wood/p-p-p/t-t-t) the example of my strong friends who have done so will encourage me.
I danced in a warm garden in Spain at midnight, celebrating a friend’s birthday.
I played with god/guard-children, great nieces and great nephews. Great.
I continued with my buddhist practice and was happy to do so.
I celebrated twenty-one years with my wife.
I counted my blessings and reminded myself I should do that more often. I should do that more often.
I acknowledged, as I often do, that my great good fortune in being born here and now has NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. The birthright that gave me education and the vote and the ability to be open about my sexuality is not something I made happen, my being here and now was pure chance, and that I therefore have a duty to do more for those who didn’t have the lucky accident of having been born when and where I did, with the privileges and responsibilities that grants.
I know we are not the only ones who have had a tricky 2011. Far from it. I acknowledge that my version of a ‘difficult’ year probably means very little to someone living in a war zone, and even while doing so I don’t deny that any suffering, truly felt, is real. I know that even in a difficult year, there has been loveliness.
I wish happier, more hopeful, more free, more peaceful years to us all. And I know we make that happen by doing something about it, and not just wishing.
It’s new year’s eve. Our boiler broke down this morning. The nice man is fixing it now.
Happy New Year. Welcome 2012.