This is one of those silly, wonderful photos you have from your youth; like those ‘photo booth’ photos you take posing with your friends or when you’re all dressed up in some ridiculous fancy dress costume. This is a picture, probably dating back nearly 30 years or so, of my good friend, Moose (aka Dave Trelawny-Ross). I have known Moose for 28 years. And for 15 of those 28 years he’s been ill. He was the friend I would drink good red wine with (those big, heavy reds that leave viscous wine tears around the bowl of the glass) and talk, somewhat precociously, about the novels we’d read. I remember visiting him ‘up North’ with my first daughter when she was six months old and he organised a baby sitter and we went out, drank wine, and he played jazz piano at a local bar. And then he went quiet. And, slowly, I learnt that he was poorly.
A lot of my blog posts in recent months have talked about how we can drive change in the world; change for good. And how we can respond to the disruptive change that is happening all around us. But how do we respond when change happens to our very physical being? When, things we took for granted break down and we have to adapt and adjust our lives in quite fundamental ways? So I asked my lovely friend, with whom I still, very, very occasionally drink red wine, and with whom I still discuss books (via email) to speak to his experience of change.
In my youth, during those long late night conversations about life and the meaning and purpose of life, I would offer one of my favourite lines from the New Testament, ‘I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). This seemed to offer as good a contender as any in the search for purpose and fulfilment; to live life to the full. Somehow then, in the mid-eighties, that seemed a fresh or radical thing to suggest. After all, many of my contemporaries were off to jobs in the City, in a quest for wealth, status and power.
Aspiring to live life to the full seemed a good thing. I wanted to seize each day. I wanted to grab as many rich and amazing experiences as I could. I wanted to make every hour count, to squeeze as much life as I could out of each moment. It was a good way to create a life that felt meaningful, and to feel that my life had significance and weight.
For many years I think I did quite a good job of putting this article of faith into practice. I ran the English department in a ‘challenging’ inner city comprehensive school, I took students on creative writing trips, I wrote books, I climbed mountains on every possible free weekend, I played jazz regularly with a quartet in local clubs and bars, I enjoyed cooking for friends and even reading the occasional book. I wasn’t very good at saying no to things or ‘doing nothing’.
And then I got ill. And for the last fifteen years I have been trying to make sense of what it might mean to live life to the full when my body stubbornly refuses to let me do all those things that had previously constituted fullness. For long periods of time, climbing the stairs has been more strenuous than any mountain I climbed. On my worst days, simply getting to the window of my bedroom, to lean out and feel the sun on my face would be a hard won achievement. A ten minute conversation can still exhaust me.
I used to quantify fullness of life by the arithmetic of rich life experiences; travelling to an exotic country, playing a good performance at a gig, completing a climb from the top of my tick list, having a deep conversation with mates over a bottle of red wine. Add up enough of these and I have a full life well lived.
Now I need a different metric. Instead of filling up my life with momentous significant experiences, I want to live fully in each moment, however insignificant or commonplace. Right now, Charlie the cat is nestled against my leg as I type, snoring gently. Earlier, I listened to two magpies, a pigeon and a blackbird all sitting on TV aerials above my street, competing in an avian X factor. I have exchanged texts with friends variously at a wedding, stuck in an airport, sitting at work. With a tiny piano keyboard on my lap, I have worked on some music, surprising myself with a new groove to an old tune. None of these are big significant life shaping moments. And taken together they add up to maybe an hour of my attention out of the whole day. But it is these things that make up ‘the million petalled flower of being here’, (Phillip Larkin, The Old fools). Cumulatively, they weave a fabric with colour and pattern and texture, a fully woven fabric.
If living life to the full means seeking out and cramming in as many amazing experiences as possible, I am not sure how healthy that is. I think part of the motivation for me for living like this was to make me feel good about myself. It gave me a sense of achievement. When I couldn’t live like that, because of illness, there was a corresponding sense of failure, that I was not living a good enough life.
Living a full life by living fully in each moment is less self-focused, it is less self-indulgent. This kind of living is about paying attention to what is happening outside of myself as perceived by my senses. It is the act of noticing each detail so that something small becomes intricate, multi-faceted. Our craving for those rich experiences from the ‘100 things to do before you die’ lists is a craving for intensity of sensual experience; the different, the extreme, the exotic, make a deeper impression on our minds and memories because they are different and unusual and rare. If I can find that exotic rarity in the everyday that surrounds me, maybe I can experience that same thrill of vitality. If I can pay full attention with all my senses to the ordinary and the mundane, maybe I can feel that same intensity of being and experiencing.
I still long to climb mountains and play music with other people. Noticing a beautiful rose or the smell of fresh baked bread does not quite compensate for those things. But I am determined to find fullness and vitality and authenticity in the every day and to know that this is to live a life that is fully and uniquely human.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)
David Trelawny-Ross was Head of English at a Sheffield comprehensive school until his life was detoured by illness fifteen years ago. He has been a sometime writer, jazz pianist and rock climber. Currently, he is committed to enjoying the small things. He enjoys sharing his house with interesting foreign students and his cat, Charlie. You can hear his most recent music by searching for “david trelawny ross” on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, and you can find his book ‘A dream of white horses’ on lulu.com.
A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.