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Poets tell our heads what our hearts already know.

All these weeks thinking about death, looking away from you, scared to summon up the remembrance of you. I forgot my Shakespeare, my darling Norman. But Maya’s passing reminded me that poets tell our heads what our hearts already know. I remembered my Shakespeare, and I remembered you.

You taught me to ask “why?”. You taught me to ask “why not?”. You taught me to look beneath. You taught me to look beyond. I ache every day without you. I celebrate every second I had with you. Dear friend, it’s true of course…. sorrows end in sweet silent thought of you.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

No longer sitting here in limbo.

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In the last month I’ve been in Paris, London, Berlin, Munich and as of last night Barcelona. It seems appropriate that I’ve been travelling so much during this period, when my life has finally finished the leap that started almost exactly a year ago. It’s not without a huge amount of sadness that I do this, but I am leaving academia and setting out on the “making a living” road again. For a long time I’ve been sitting in limbo – aware of the need for change yet afraid. But no more.

This time last year I was for the first time facing a major crisis in my long relationship with multiple sclerosis. We’d been limping along reasonably happily for a long time. Yes the novelty had worn off I suppose; I had stopped paying it so much attention, and I’ll admit I’d even forgotten its birthday a couple of times. But we were quite comfortable and you know sometimes it’s nice not to have to try so hard. Last year though, my MS decided it was time to shake things up. A mid-life crisis I suppose. Suddenly what had seemed a reasonably safe if slightly dull future looked a lot less certain. Why go for dull if the safety is in question, I began to ask myself. Is this really all there is? We got over the worst of it, but we were both changed by it, and both knew other things had to change too. I slipped back into my routine at work promising myself I wouldn’t let things get to that stage again. But change is hard and suddenly I found myself heading back to that place where I questioned myself more than I challenged myself, feared for myself more than I trusted in myself.

I’m not by nature a “joiner” – I’m with Oscar Wilde, any club that would have me is not a club I want to belong to. But when MS and I got together it seemed appropriate to settle for a safe option career, it was only when things actually got as bad as I had always feared that I was able to see that comfortable as that was, the cost to my soul and heart was very high. All those years ago I somehow with luck and the goodwill of a number of people around me found myself in academia straddling an awkward line between institutional life and entrepreneurial spirit. I managed to make it work, but only just. As the years passed my ability to survive in the system grew more tenuous. In itself that would have been manageable I suppose, but the demands of MS and the demands of that situation came into conflict too often. Something had to give. And it has.

For too long I’ve been “going to work” instead of “making a living”. I’m not a natural at the former, but I am at the latter. I’ve been a playing a role that doesn’t suit me. As of the end of August I’ll no longer by Dr Cat from Dundee. And I have no idea what I will be – other than that I will be fully me again. I’ve learnt more than I could ever have imagined in my time in academia. The experiences, opportunities and most importantly people it has offered me access too are priceless. And I’ve become a better person for the close view it has afforded into the politics of getting things done together and into myself and my flaws and failings. I have no regrets at all and am deeply grateful that I had the chance to do the things I’ve done.

Before becoming an academic I didn’t know that I was really a teacher at heart – that working with other people to help them grow and change gives me more pleasure than anything else. Before becoming an academic I knew very little about what I felt was and was not appropriate behaviour in team contexts, still less what my own strengths and weaknesses were. I’ve made many mistakes, but as I always tell my students, mistakes are the quickest and best way to learn. I often suspect I have learnt far more in my years as a university teacher than would have done had I been a student all that time.

There comes a point though when one’s true self needs full reign, a point when one’s inability to fully inhabit a role drains more than it enhances. That became clear to me last year when MS pulled the role mask from my face and made me really look at my life, myself, my future, my needs and desires, my capacities. Back then the conclusion was easy – it was time to leave the stage and hit the road again. It took a while to get the courage up, and a while longer to come to peace with the sense of loss and leaving (especially of friends at work, especially as the timing has meant that I leave at a time when I would otherwise so much want to be part of fighting for change within). But the time is right, the university cost cutting which I massively disagree with has sadly offered me the financial cushion that made the choice irresistible and also sadly the imperative I needed, as I know I won’t survive in the what the university becomes afterwards. And somehow the idea that I will leave on August 31st 2014, exactly a year after I returned from the summer that set these wheels in motion makes sense of the fact that at 49 years old, with two kids and MS I am throwing away a secure job and good pension for … who knows what!

I’m terrified, of course. I’ll miss the people I work with and my students enormously. I’ll miss teaching – though whatever comes next I hope/want/expect it to have some place for the teacher in me. I can’t entirely discount the idea that I might be making the biggest mistake of my life. But when I think of letting this role go, of heading back out onto the road as “me” again, I can’t help but smile. When I received the confirmation I had been approved for voluntary severance I was gripped by a huge wave of panic, so strong I had to sit down and focus on breathing. As I started to breathe, I suddenly understood that this wasn’t panic. It was just the unfamiliar feeling of happiness, excitement, engagement. It was freedom from the limbo I’ve been sitting in too long.

Rage, balanced.

The festivities for Dylan Thomas are all over the UK media at the moment, and aside from Under Milkwood this is the work of his gaining the most airtime, Do not go gentle into that good night: 

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though like most people there is something very appealing to me about the idea of raging against the dying of the light, it’s not a poem that I have ever felt particularly connected to. It just doesn’t speak to me in the way that, for example, Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees his Death does:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Where Thomas rages, Yeats seeks only a lonely impulse of delight. While Thomas implores us to curse, Yeats invites us to balance all, bring all to mind. Even as a child, drawn to the rhythm of Yeats but as yet unable to truly grasp the meaning of what he was saying, something felt right here. As we live is the time to rage isn’t it, not as we die? That death is waiting for us is inevitable, to be dealt with calmly, thoughtfully. It’s living we need to attend to, life we should rage and struggle with not death.

Perhaps our fear of dying blinds us to this? I know that life itself has a habit of encouraging us to turn away – we become swept up in making a living, having a family, paying the bills. For a long time my “rage” against the system was more habit that heartfelt. It’s been interesting as I get older to feel the youthful rages return anew: the injustice of the world, our failure to do better, to be better, it all offends me now every bit as much as it did the firebrand younger me whose default position was the opposite of what authority wanted me to assume. But nowadays this rage is accompanied with a measure of guilt and complicity too – the key difference if I reflect on youthful versus mature idealism. And with that guilt comes a degree of awareness of one of the biggest barriers to overcome if meaningful and sustainable change is to come about; our ability to forgive ourselves, to balance all, to bring all to mind. To err is human indeed, but to forgive is the pre-requisite for change. If we can’t make peace with our flaws and failings, can we ever really begin to create a new way of living, thinking, and relating to each other? Rage yes, but balancing also is needed.

I rage at the unkindness of the world, and our failure to live up to our promise, with greater clarity and a stronger sense of purpose now that I have been able to look at my unkindnesses more clearly, face my own complicity. Perhaps that’s just what growing older is all about, perhaps I was a slow learner. But it feels very different this rage – powerful and positive and hopeful. A rage, balanced.

Being There: Ann Hallenberg and Christophe Rousset at the Wigmore Hall

When I was younger, and poorer, trips to the opera were a rarity and usually a happy by-product of “right place right time” – an acquaintance of less meagre means with an unexpected spare ticket, or a festival or campaign selling cheap tickets for a change. Now, I can afford to go much more often, and I do. But I still love what in my early days of falling in love with opera was my usual haunt – the concert. I have often felt, without really being able to articulate it, that the opera and concerts are hugely different experiences. It’s the same music, not in the same context or sequence, but fundamentally the same. And yet…

At the opera you feel part of of something larger than you. The scenes unfolding on the stage are frantic with things to take in: sets, mise-en-scene, singers, chorus, dancers, supernumeraries. The favourite singer or singers that have particularly drawn you to “this” performance seem distant amongst all the stage business. The character they they are singing too is part of a larger story. They come alive in their interaction with those on the stage, not with those in the audience. At the opera as soon as the action begins the audience, including you, becomes monolithic. But in a concert it remains multi-faceted. In a concert that line between stage and audience is much more fragile, insubstantial. You no longer feel so distant, so indistinct, so invisible. The singer and musicians seem there for you, and almost you alone; there is an intensity of connection between you and the stage that becomes almost unbearable. You feel the singer’s presence so strongly – not just as a voice and a character, but as a human being, raw and vulnerable.

When we go the opera or a concert we go primarily to be lifted, to be moved, to be removed from daily life and taken to another where sound conspires to fill our hearts and ears. We seek the sublime in sound. In the communal world of the opera audience our search is enhanced by those around us – the rise and fall of the audience’s collective response becomes part of ours too. But at a concert our focus becomes so trained on the singer we can no longer ignore their humanity, or be swept away in the performance. Now suddenly they are there. Sometimes it can feel almost painfully embarrassing – to sit there so moved, so overwhelmed by them, by what they do, by what they do to you. At the opera the rest of the audience seems to disappear until the applause, when we turn and smile at each other. In a concert though you remain as aware of the rest of the audience as you do of the singer. There’s a sense of exposure that can be almost as overwhelming as the music. As you are crying, or moving to the music, or holding yourself rigid from excitement, you can become afraid of being seen. But somehow, in the intense intimacy, the connection between music and humanity, music and love, is so much stronger and more profound than at the the opera. I often find myself suddenly shocked to “hear” something new in an aria I thought I knew so well. I seem to be able to listen so much more intently than at the opera; almost as if the singer is not just singing for me, but teaching me about the music.

I was lucky enough to attend the Farinelli concert of Ann Hallenberg and Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques this week at the Wigmore Hall in London. As I sat in the audience all this suddenly came into my mind. Every aria, though familiar to me, seemed entirely new to my ears. Her Ombra fedel anch’io, an aria I normally find to be pleasant but not necessarily deeply engaging, gripped me by the throat and gave the first of the evening’s “ok I’m crying let’s not make a scene” moments (the art of crying discretely is definitely something I am glad I am skilled at).  Che legge spietatawhich I had heard in Paris just three months ago, seemed a revelation. And Alto Giove, which I sometimes have felt to be a bit of a poor cousin to Handel, pushed me right over the edge. By the time we got the encores, and my god Handel, I felt (once again) like a lightening rod being attacked over and over again by this beauty. At times like those I often find it hard to know where to look. I look at the singer and I feel almost scared for them, I look at the audience and I feel almost afraid of them. But somehow in that discomfort I found something new, deeper, in my engagement with the music. Once again, Hallenberg’s depth and intensity took us to the sublime, just as we had all hoped. Though there are several days and a great deal of “life” between now and then, I can shut my eyes and feel it again, that sense of connection with humanity and beauty and love that a great singer can engender. But unlike at the opera, as you walk away from a concert it’s the people, the singers and musicians, that stay in your mind as you reflect on how grateful you are that they did this, and that you were there.

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