I’ve been working on a post which has been getting rather stuck in my throat. It’s a necessary piece, for me, but writing about it feels hazardous. I stop, delete, rewrite. I think ‘In the face of others’ much greater trauma, do I even have the right to tell this story?’ I wonder if I’ll offend people. I wonder if my words will be too triggering. I wonder if people will look at me differently. (Update: It’s two weeks later, I’ve written another post, and I’m still stuck with the above piece. At this point I think I might never actually finish writing it.)

So I’m busy writing that post, but I also really miss just sitting down in front of a laptop and feeling words arrive easily. In the meantime thus, here is my attempt at something less intense:

We are all going to die.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot over the past while. I always do, really, but naturally the continuing coronavirus crisis and the strange silence enforced upon my own life have been bringing up this topic more than usually.

A few weeks before the virus became a global reality I read an article titled ‘Deep adaptation’, which I also blogged about here. Basically, it says that climate change has passed the point of no return and that society as we know it can only last another few years before it collapses. Even as I was writing my reaction to that, countries were announcing extreme lockdown measures. I was reading forecasts saying that lockdowns would, on and off, last until a vaccine can be found, which might take two years. This most likely means an end to the world as we know it, at least for a good long while.

How strange; how anti-climactic. I was bracing myself for a climate-induced catastrophe and then out of the blue a virus comes and sweeps the world into a new shape. We hide in our homes as a breathless hush descends over the world, punctuated only by increasingly surreal statistics. The crisis feels urgent yet far away. I feel untouched yet shaken, profoundly isolated yet part of the most global crisis of my lifetime thus far. The truth I had been chewing on before all this happened became suddenly more urgent: Life is completely unpredictable.

The only thing I know for sure is that we are all going to die.

We tend to react to a sentence like the above by saying “wow, that’s dark”. When I say that I think about death a lot, people think I’m morbid. They even try to cheer me up.

But stop, stop that for a moment. Let’s stop the reflexive flinching we do when the topic of death comes up. What if we stared down the chasm of our own finiteness, what if we explored this one and only certainty? What would happen if we really believed the idea that we are mortal?

What happens for me is a blend of grief and relief that eventually, when I lean into it, crescendos into ecstatic nihilism. This is IT. This. THIS. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah.

My twenties were basically an extended time of existential crisis for me. When I started seriously doubting my faith at 21 I asked myself, over and over, “what’s the point of life if there is no God and no hereafter?” I watched a video by Stephen Fry around that time, wherein he waxed lyrical about our mortality and about the strange defiant beauty of our tiny lives in comparison to the chasm of eternity. To me he sounded like a man grasping at straws while dismantling the very fabric of his own life. Sure, I thought, there might be beauty in doing good without having a god forcing you to do so, but it’s a sad second place to actually, you know, having a MEANINGFUL life. (I wasn’t sure what I meant by meaningful, but I knew that I was missing it.) The departure of religion had left a large hole in my life, and saying that our insignificance can be beautiful was not going to fill it.

It took almost ten years. Ten years to dismantle the ideas that society and religion had planted so deep into my soul that I thought they were fundamental to who I was: ‘Life should be Meaningful, and Meaning is inextricably linked to making a mark. Leaving a legacy. Making a difference. Changing the world. Being remembered. Living forever’.

It took me ten years to dismantle the idea of ‘meaningful’, perhaps because this concept is as vague as it is deeply ingrained. What we usually mean when we speak of meaning is that we want our lives to feel like they matter. Naturally then the question arises: matter to whom? And the answer, if we’re honest, is ‘matter to as many people as possible’.

On one level, I think that most of us want our lives to matter to others because we are so deeply relational. We deduce that we exist from others’ reactions to us. We deduce that we are significant based on how important others think we are. This is part of what makes us human.

On another level, I think there is a yearning in most of us to form part of a cosmic story. We’re storytelling creatures. We want quests, adventure, romance – we want momentum and progress in our narrative. We want to form part of a story playing itself out on the stage of eternity and unfolding into intricate patterns, in which our footsteps, tiny as they are, form an integral part.  

I think it’s fine to want to have meaning in our lives. It’s fine to want to matter to others, and it’s fine to want to form part of an epic adventure. And in many ways I DO think we form part of a continuous unfolding tale, of a cosmic love story in which every creature matters tremendously and uniquely. Every cell, every particle, throbs with existence and with impending death, with the unending flow of endings and beginnings comprising the tragedy and the glory of this universe. We matter. This matters. Excruciatingly so.

And also: we are all going to die. And in many ways, it’ll be as if we’d never lived.

This morning my dog Waldo and I went for our daily walk through the neighbour’s vineyards. A thick fog was covering the landscape, so that the earth fell away into grey nothingness at the end of every row of vines. I was the only human on earth. I opened my arms wide and walked with hands flung into the sky, laughing, crying a little bit. “I am going to die soon”, I whispered into the air. No need to get too serious. No need to do Great Things. No fixed Destiny to chase down, no Person I might disappoint, no life-or-death decisions to make – death is the only given.

This realisation has been settling into my bones over the past year or two, but it’s really over the last few months that the relief of it has become palpable for me. I hear people talk about changing the world and I think ‘wow, I don’t want that anymore! Not in the way they mean it, anyway’. I witness people being really anxious about the state of the Earth, about themselves, about humanity, and I get it but I think, quietly: ‘don’t take it so seriously!’ I’m not being flippant – we are surrounded by suffering, we are separated from nature in untenable ways, we are destroying our habitat, we are the walking wounded blindly wounding others. These are big problems. But we can do much more about these things if we start from a profound admission of our own mortality.

Everything is really really precious because we are going to die soon.

And nothing will last forever. Not even the damage we are doing to the Earth. Not even greed, and capitalism, and inequality; not even radioactive waste.

Being profoundly aware of our own impending death means not taking anything too seriously, yet ascribing great significance to everything. Holding this paradox in our hearts: My life is fleeting. My life matters. Without any grand gestures, without monuments being put up in my honour, my life matters because it matters to me – and because nothing will ever be like ME again, not in a billion billion years. I get to fill my life with exactly what I want to fill it with. I get to people it with misty morning walks and Terry Pratchett novels and late nights watching sitcoms and many, many tears (because everything makes me cry now that I realise I’m going to die soon).

I like it here. I like existing, even when I’m not enjoying it. I like this realisation settling into my heart: If there is no Grand Plan handed to me by an all-knowing God, then there is just the daily adventure of figuring out how I want to fill my life. The ending of this book is certain: death. But the pleasure is in the reading, in the plot twists and grand romances and big reveals along the way.

P.S. I do actually think that there probably is some sort of Consciousness from whence I came, or whom I am embodying, or a kind of Cosmic Plan or something. I just don’t think that it matters very much for how I live my life right now. Whether or not there is a grand destiny at play, in this embodiment I can only hazard guesses about the greater scheme of things. And, if you ask me, with no knowledge comes no responsibility.

No holy duty, only play. No god-given task, only breath-given awe.

This post is dedicated to my friend Jannie – your pain is sacred. I feel it with you.

Magic mushrooms have taught me so many incredible things that sometimes when I talk about them, I realise that I sound like a televangelist. It’s hard for me not to grab people and shout at them: “take shrooms!” whenever a related topic comes up. But I must add that magic mushrooms can also make very little difference, or be detrimental even, if we don’t embrace the experience they give us with surrender and a willingness to change. And using magic mushrooms as a spiritual tool should be accompanied by putting in the work: practicing self-care, developing a spiritual practice, building on one’s foundations, putting in the hours to turn our lessons into lived reality.

That being said, some of the things I’ve learned through magic mushrooms were just THAT BIG, that transformative, that they changed my life immediately and irrevocably. It’s like seeing something for the first time, and never being able to unsee it again. And of all the revelations I’ve had on mushrooms, the biggest one by far has been, quite simply, love.

Every mushroom trip I go on gives me some experience of love. One of my favourite things about shrooms is the experience of expansiveness and belonging that happens especially at the tail end of the trip. But almost every trip I’ve gone on has also had a theme, something(s) specific that was shown to me. Sometimes these are hard realisations, like the one time I delved deep into my own shame.

In fact, in my experience there’s always at least a part of the trip that is quite difficult, even on the experience I had roughly a year ago now which I now call my “love trip”, the one which entirely changed the way I understand life.

It began in my house; I was watching the sunrise through my window, feeling my mind opening in the rather terrifying way it does on mushrooms. Spontaneously the image of a person I love deeply came to me – his soul, the nature of his essence, his aches and joys rose up in my consciousness so strongly that I immediately burst into tears of awe. I couldn’t stop crying, profoundly moved by the beauty I could sense flowing from his heart. He was the most breathtaking being I had ever seen. Everything about him was perfect: his struggles, his fears, his desires, all coming together to create this complex dance of flesh and soul, this Being, this very breath of God. That’s what I saw. I saw that he is perfect, that nothing is out of place, that everything belongs, even the things he dislikes about himself, even the things he denies about himself.

And I saw that loving him is the most natural response imaginable.

The only thing I need to love fully, I realised, is to notice. As soon as I notice someone’s beauty, alive and throbbing in their every cell, my only possible reaction is love. And it is an expansive love, a love filled with awe and compassion, with recognition and admiration and sadness and profound joy. There is nothing else. I knew in that moment that when we are able to open our eyes to the vibrant beings around us, we cannot refuse to love them. We cannot even be afraid or shy or insecure in our love – faced with the fullness of Life, the only possible response is to open entirely.

Okay, I thought, but this is someone I love deeply, even when I’m not on mushrooms. Would it be the same if I thought about somebody I know less well? So I thought about a colleague. Her laughter rose up in my mind, the funny stories she shares at work, the way she rushes late into the office, breathless. Immediately my heart overflowed again. WOW, I thought. There is so much here. Such a complex and joyful and perfect being, imbued with such tremendous beauty. It’s there. It’s right there, everything: every struggle she has had and will ever have, her fears and empathy written into her very cells, everything exactly the way it should be. Changeable, fluid, yet at the same time everlasting.

It is incredibly poignant to witness another human. We are all so very brave, as we continue living on this earth in these limited forms, seeking love, seeking connection. Every day we have to reconcile our need for belonging with the limitations of a life in which resources are scarce, in which time is short. We get tired, we get hungry, we get jealous or irritated, we worry about money, we worry about our families. We negotiate our needs and desires in a world where there is a constant sense of not-enough: not enough sleep, not enough time, not enough energy. We pick our battles. We hold our tongues. We laugh, and relax, and tense up; we give of ourselves, unceasingly, in every interaction. We are so very scared that we might not be loved, or be worthy, or be enough. Yet we continue living through this fear, giving, loving, as best we can. We are so tremendously brave. We are so beautiful.

I thought about myself. I could feel the calmness of my own essence, like a tree somehow, grounded and singing softly, whispering the song of my heart to myself. I could feel my soul contract and expand like a river flowing unhindered around obstacles. I could feel the bigness in me, the joy and the grief running deep. I am SO beautiful. I am breathtaking. I am exactly as I should be.

All it takes to love myself is to see myself. Now, when I feel tired or self-critical, I lie down and place my hand over my heart. I grow still, until I hear the song inside my soul. It’s there, constant, my own life force undeniable. Sylvia Plath wrote it so powerfully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.

                                                                   * * *

That day, I listened to my own heart for a long time. Then I started asking questions: What about rejection, and loss, and jealousy, do they form part of this elemental love that I am feeling? What about desire, is that part of it? In this, in what feels like divine love, is there room for need as well?

Yes and no, came the answer. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, or loss, or jealousy, or an overpowering need to be loved back. Those feelings form part of this human experience, and they are the things that make us so complex and beautiful. In fact: We can love these very things about ourselves.

All the different emotions and experiences that we have as humans are simply more chances for us to love another part of ourselves. I see my own insecurity, and I love that too, and I love myself FOR it. And I am grateful for the chance to experience the whole gamut of emotions, because everything is another experience I can open myself to.

But. Love is independent of these feelings. As a human I am hardwired to want, and need, and even fear. Those things serve a purpose. But none of them affect the quality of Love itself, the love I was tapping into as I lay there, the love I have often tapped into since. We could be in the midst of much pain, bereft or abandoned, rejected, unseen. And still, if we are able to open our eyes to ourselves and to others, love will arise naturally. Even in the midst of a deeply painful moment.

Sometimes in life that feels impossible, and I do think there are times when opening our hearts is not what serves us best. There are times we feel threatened. There are times we need to insist on getting our needs met. There are times when we don’t have the energy to surrender into the full expansion of this kind of love. But it is there.

It is there whether or not we have the capacity to allow ourselves to realise this.

And it’s all okay. Even while I was on this mushrooms trip I realised there’s a reason I don’t feel this intensity of love all the time: I would not be able to function as a normal human being if I did. I get to witness myself and my fellow living beings in awe for a while, and then I have to go back to the grind of normal life.

But that’s where the magic happens: when it’s not easy. When I am anxious and rushed, yet suddenly remember the beauty around me. When I become still after a long day and acknowledge my own heart again. When I realise that love, this kind of love, is at the heart of everything I do.

Last night I watched a video by Russel Brand. He was talking about the death of his cat, about the deep love that existed between him and his pet, a connection far deeper than language would allow. “What is love”, he said, “other than an acknowledgment of oneness, an acknowledgment of union?”

That was the thing I saw on that mushroom trip: that we all have the same spirit. Every living being is beautiful in a wholly unique way; never will the exact combination of genes and experiences cohere again as they do within each of us. Witnessing each person is a journey of awe and discovery every single time. Yet at the heart of us we are the same. We have the same Life throbbing within our cells. Recognising the beauty of someone’s being is recognising my own. It is remembering, deep within my bones, that we are one.

For a really long time I thought that being healed, whole, would mean not feeling much pain anymore. I still catch myself thinking this quite often. At the very least, surely, being a healthy human should mean not experiencing inexplicable bouts of intense sadness, right? I mean, surely I must be doing something wrong if I rock my weepy self to sleep, face glued to a snotty pillowcase, and promptly resume my sobbing the next morning? And surely I am un-whole if life still routinely rocks me with its rush and clamour, and I find myself feeling namelessly anxious throughout the day? Right?  

Yeah, if I’m going to wait until life doesn’t hurt anymore to pronounce myself healed I might as well not try.

But first of all, I think that I should backtrack: the word “healed” merits a proper investigation. I speak about healing in my very first post, and even on my home page – but it’s a really vague word. What do I mean by healed? And healed from what? And what does being healed look like, anyway?

Okay, so to begin with: while I often feel broken, and sometimes use that word to describe myself, I do not mean ‘broken’ like a toy would be, or a leg. I am not a utilitarian object, I’m not here to DO a specific thing. Therefore I cannot be broken in that sense. If I don’t react as others do, or if my pain and past trauma clouds my judgement, or if I struggle to convey myself, or if I misunderstand others, this is not because I am broken. It is because I am unique. I have a unique past, unique aches, unique fears, unique talents and a wholly unique soul. There is no one way to be. There is only this odd and beautiful maze that I am walking, in which each choice brings its own challenges.

What I mean by broken, rather, is broken open.

I mean unprotected: as if my vulnerable underbelly is exposed to the world, as if I am holding my throat bare to the ravages of life. And indeed, as if life has ravaged me. I have not stopped functioning, I am no broken toy – in fact I am functioning beautifully, as wounded and terrified and gloriously myself as I will ever be.

I’m only thirty years into this life and so I cannot make any final pronouncements, but it does seem to me that the older I get, the more broken open I become. Everything.Still.Hurts. But it hurts differently. I hurt more coherently, as if with my entire body instead of with separate bits. Instead of reacting blindly to a stimulus, I open. Instead of rolling into a tiny ball, or snarling from a corner, I fling my arms wide open. I have some choice in the matter – not always, sometimes I’m a fiery ball of rage and relived triggers, but every now and then I feel this: Aaaaaaaah – everything hurts. I’m going to let go, right into that pain.

A fun metaphor I like to think about is the fantasy trope of the untrained magician. You know, that young boy or girl who gets discovered, potent with unrealised magical powers, yet with no inkling of how to use them. This young witch is trained, gradually, to direct her anger and her desires into what she wants to accomplish. At the same time, as she gains focus, she becomes increasingly aware of the untapped reserves of power she has always had, yet could never access. Before her training she was reacting rather than responding to stimuli. Becoming more skilled means focusing, but it also means unleashing. It means allowing what wants to come through to break out, because it’s safe to do so: she can hold it. She can hold herself. She knows when she’s about to drown in her own outpouring, she knowns when to step back, and she knows how to release more fully.

So I guess that’s what I mean with healing. I mean bringing the unconscious things, the fears and traumas and desires that have in the past largely determined my actions, into the light. Becoming whole means knowing who I am. I know what I’m working with. I’m still just as vulnerable, life has not become less dangerous. But I am equipped. I get to make choices from a place of self-knowledge, and self-acceptance, instead of from a place of constant threat.

That feels really fucking powerful.

And it’s also a shifting goal post. The more I discover who I am, tap into my own depths and learn how to dance the dance of catch and release, the more I have yet to discover. It feels like an increase in capacity, capacity for joy but certainly also for pain. At the end of the day, perhaps healing is best defined as presence: How much of myself can I bring? How much of this human experience can I show up for, knowing that it will hurt, knowing that it will reward, knowing that I get to decide, moment by moment, what my response will be? Presence means arriving in each moment armed only with surrender. Healing means trusting enough in oneself to be able to do that.

And yes, everything still hurts. More so, even, because my body is becoming more attuned to what’s happening within and around me. The world is bleeding, I feel its profound aches resonating within myself. We are disconnected from each other, from ourselves. To some extent, this is due to our current dysfunctional society. But disconnection is also part and parcel of the human experience. We are not one being floating blissfully into the ether – we are comprised of separate bodies, with hormones and hunger and gravity and the elements each exerting their influence on us. Life chafes. It pushes and pulls. We long to know and to be known fully, but in this life we never will. That is frustrating and painful.

But somehow, above and beyond the pain of it, this experience is something glorious. I am profoundly grateful to be here for it.

I’ve quit smoking. Again.

I started this habit when I was 21. It felt good at the time, for a long list of reasons, chief of which was that I was asserting my autonomy. For a time, smoking felt empowering, strange as that may sound.

Now it’s just a remnant of a different phase of my life; an unfortunate habit I am having the most difficult (and interesting) time kicking. It’s time – it’s been time for a while – for me to leave this behind.

And so I have, repeatedly. (I’m really good at quitting. Not so much at maintaining the quit.) The interesting thing that happens when you give up your most cemented habit is that a lot of stuff you didn’t know you had comes up. With hourly cravings suddenly abandoning centre stage, the slower more profound yearning emerges. It’s hard to explain this, but it’s as if my constant back-and-forth with cigarettes was distracting me from what was going on below that: a longing to know and be known by Life. A deep thirst, a discomfort, a yearning to be connected fully.

I ask of this yearning: What are you?

The only answer I have thus far is that it feels like a distress call coming off a stranded spaceship, floating free in foreign atmosphere. It knows it belongs somewhere. It’s calling out to that place.

In between this odd adventure into yearning, however, I simply, plainly, miss cigarettes. Today I bummed one off my neighbour. I should have known it would make no difference – ten minutes after smoking it, I was feeling the pangs of realisation that I couldn’t have another.

There’s a familiar shame that comes with these cravings. My self-talk starts spiralling: I’m meant to be better at this by now. How do I except to grow as a human if I can’t let go of this one basic bad habit? I don’t deserve to have nice things if I can’t quit already. It’s embarrassing – every other ‘spiritual’ person I know is doing awesome things like meditating for hours every day, and I am chained to a packet of stinky nicotine sticks. Why am I so weak? And on and on the thoughts continue.

Then I read this poem by Hafiz:

Because of our Wisdom

In many parts of this world water is
Scarce and precious.

People sometimes have to walk
A great distance

Then carry heavy jugs upon their
Heads.

Because of our wisdom, we will travel
Far for love.

All movement is a sign of
Thirst.

Most speaking really says,
“I am hungry to know you.”

Every desire of your body is holy;

Every desire of your body is
Holy.

Dear one,
Why wait until you are dying

To discover that divine
Truth?

I read the poem once. It was beautiful. I read it again, repeating out loud “every desire of your body is holy”. As often happens for me when I’m reading poems, the beauty of the words struck me before their meaning really did. But then I paused – wait, what? What does this really say?

It says, I realised, that I am holy. I am a spark of Essence; I am the breath of the Source (or God, or of Life, whatever your words might be),

I am a chip off the old block which is Consciousness.

This world is sacred. I, within it, am sacred. And so are my desires, mundane or annoying or embarrassing as they might seem. How dare I call anything in this strange and difficult life less than holy? With what superior knowledge do I get to choose which parts of my experiences are sacred, and which are mundane or foul? I do not get to pick and choose. I get to embrace my life as best I can.

And so I will honour my every desire, whether deeper yearning or simple craving for nicotine. Honouring does not mean humouring: I honour my desire for cigarettes. I recognise this as my body’s way of offering me relief from the discomfort of the moment. I honour my insecurities and anxieties and cravings, and I hold myself with care in this moment. But I do not simply roll over and have another smoke. There are better ways, I tell my body. In three days you’ll be glad I hung on.

But this, this struggle not to smoke, this giving in and then quitting again, this soul-battering addiction? This is holy too. Every bit of it.

But I get why it’s important

I get really annoyed when people say “be in the moment”. It’s become such a mantra, it’s like the phrase has lost all meaning entirely. And what if the moment’s boring, or irritating, or painful? Why would I want to be in it?

I mean, I suppose I do actually get it. The times I’ve managed to be fully present, even to unpleasant emotions, I’ve realised it feels MUCH better than running from them.

Feelings pass, but only when we don’t resist them – and fleeing is resisting.

But the mantra makes me feel guilty because I so rarely succeed at it. I tend to jiggle this way and that to escape the discomfort of the moment. Even when I try to allow myself to feel fully, I tend to migrate the emotion quickly into my mind, where I analyse and investigate the feeling into a whole new frenzy.

Take yesterday: I spent the better part of Saturday writing an excruciatingly personal essay about my childhood. Then I posted it and was immediately filled with regret. What if my siblings think that I am co-opting their story? What if my mom reads it? Am I oversharing? I was also feeling rather raw, as dredging up the past is wont to do – raw and sad and somewhat cabin-feverish.

To top it off: On Thursday night I got quite terribly drunk with my neighbours. I live on a small farm and there are about seven houses here; we know each other well and walk back and forth, borrowing spices, returning dog toys. Now, since none of us are leaving the farm anytime soon, we get to visit a bit and get more safe social contact than most people would. At Thursday midnight the great South African lockdown was about to descend for 21 days and of course we all wound up on one porch, dancing to Kings of Leon and drinking too much wine.

I might have offered to guide everybody on the farm through an impromptu 21-day meditation course. Facepalm. I also tried to convert everybody to the joy of magic mushrooms (why do I do this all the time???). And I sang VERY loudly to every song my neighbour was willing to play on the guitar, googling lyrics when I didn’t know them, harmonising at the top of my lungs at every chance I got. I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet quite a lot of money that I was decidedly off-key.

So on Friday I stayed resolutely in bed. My dog, Waldo, kept checking in on me, poking his head gingerly through the door, but I was having none of it – no walkies today. I tried to work remotely (life goes on), but mainly I ate popcorn and watched Netflix the entire day long, trying to distract myself from the embarrassing memories.

But yesterday I had no more excuses. After putting up my newest post, I had to return my neighbour’s jacket which I’d somehow managed to stumble home in on Thursday. He looked abashed. Oh God, did I flirt with him? That would be so like me. Please tell me I didn’t flirt with him – I really like his girlfriend and also, I am not even a little bit interested in him. Did I flirt with anybody else perhaps? I clearly remember telling another neighbour that I’d missed his face – would he have taken that as a come-on?

Haaaaaaaaaaaah. This moment is so cringey. I don’t want to be in it.

I think that embarrassment is legitimately the hardest kind of moment to stay present to – except perhaps for shame. And so I find myself, over and over again, trying to distract myself from my thoughts. Aargh, I think my sister might be angry at me. Okay, new thought. New series on Netflix! …Is my neighbour looking at me weird? No, new thought! What shall I eat?? …Oh fuck, everybody on the farm definitely hates me.

So I did yoga. Yoga with Adriene has a video up, “Yoga for insecurity”, that sounded perfect. I got on the mat. Waldo planted himself in front of me, as he does whenever I try to do some exercise, so I gave in and cuddled him first. I buried my face in his stinky neck – he smells exactly like a sour cloth, one of those you forgot to wring out, because he swims in the swimming pool all the time and never gets a chance to dry. I inhale. This is home.

Acknowledge how you are feeling,” says Adriene. “I feel really shit”, I mumble while in plank. Oh, that works. A little bit. “I’m afraid that nobody’s going to like me anymore”.

Oh! I’m not embarrassed, I’m afraid. It all comes down to fear, doesn’t it? Every time I feel yucky, when I dig down I find fear somewhere in the mix.

Let’s investigate – what does my fear feel like? This time it feels like extreme tightness between my shoulder blades. And like something’s a little bit stuck in my throat.

But you can’t really be in the moment and continue to be afraid, because fear implies thinking about the future.

I realise this with a tiny jolt as I continue dropping into my body and some of my fear dissipates. I’m a little nauseous, I also realise; but that might just be because I’m still in plank. Okay, down to cobra. My back makes a creaky sound. And whoosh, back to downward dog. I hang out there for a bit. My arms ache. This feels present. This feels good.

It’s half a day later. I’m not all better now – but I’m a little better. At least I did some exercise. And I understood something: I’m afraid. So I said to my fear: never mind, you can hang out here for a little bit if you need to. It’s okay, I’m chill.

I AM chill. I check in with my heart: it’s very full. I am loved. I love. I get to breathe this moment out.

Being in the moment is a pain in the arse, but at least a pain in the arse takes your attention off your fears.

I live in the Boland, the mountainous winelands to the north-east of Cape Town. In a good winter here it rains almost continuously, enveloping the region in a blanket of dampness reminiscent of European autumns. In summer the heat can be stifling, relieved only by the great gusts of the south-easterly wind we also call the Cape Doctor. Everything smells of fynbos and the mountains go hazy in the strong afternoon light; roads shimmer and somewhere a bush fire is blazing its way up a hill.

And then we have autumn.

Autumn makes me want to weep. The wind carries an indefinable crispness, foretelling the cold to come, while also laden with the last scents of summer: the mustiness of grapes, drying scrubland, stone. The harshness of summer mellows into long mornings of shimmering sunlight. From my home I can hear tractors driving up and down, carrying the late harvest grapes to their destination.

Even my Labrador, Waldo, sleeps later into the mornings, and now that I am working from home, I wake up in my own time to a chorus of guinea fowl occasionally interrupted by the haunting cry of a fish eagle.

Autumn is the season of mangoes, of gradual ripening and voluptuous eating. In my garden only the hardy plants still bloom – the rosemary, the scarlet geraniums hanging from their baskets. It is a time of stillness, this year much intensified by the spectre of COVID-19 gathering us each into our own homes.

This morning I took Waldo for a walk and no car passed us on the road, only cyclists.

They say that humans too have seasons. Some seasons seem to last for ever, just like a Boland summer lingers interminably, but then one day you wake up and realise with surprise that something has indeed shifted. The air is softer, somehow.

I wrote earlier about feeling beckoned to sit with and accept my deepest aches.

The thing is that you can’t force acceptance. You can only hang out with your pain as well as you can.

You show up. Perhaps that means crying. Perhaps that means feeling generally ugh and uneasy without judging or shooing the feeling away. Perhaps that means washing three dishes and celebrating this tiny accomplishment. Sometimes you distract yourself with other stuff, because you catch yourself spiralling into thoughts that aren’t useful, and that’s okay.

To me acceptance these days has often meant feeling achingly lonely, and sort of…leaning into that. Not in a self-pitying kind of way (although I think it’s very useful to acknowledge sadness without ‘positive thinking’ it away), just in a calm way. Oh, I feel bereft. Oh wow, my heart really yearns for connectedness. This feels…heavy. My chest feels heavy. The back of my neck feels tight. I feel small and tired and I want to be comforted. And then sometimes I hug myself, laughing a little bit because it feels so silly. But I am reminded that I’ve got my own back.

Building practices into my life that allow the realisation of fear or sadness or aloneness to arise naturally has been really useful. I don’t meditate every night, but when I do it often ends up completely different from the quiet mindfulness practice I’d envisioned. I sit down on my blanket. I greet all the feelings in my body and start breathing more fully. And then anxiety, or loss, come knocking. “I hurt”, my gut whispers. I’ve learned to listen to that, instead of forcing my mind to clear and rise above the painful sensations, and so I respond:

“Why do you hurt?” I ask my gut.

“Wrong question”, answers my stomach. I sit quietly.

I hurt”, whispers my gut again. “It’s right here under my rib cage, a heavy tense emptiness.”

I’m sorry that you hurt”, I whisper back. “What might make it better?”

“Lean forward. Do a child’s pose.”

I lean forward, knees splayed wide under me, chest against the floor. It’s nice down here. My blanket smells of washing powder and slightly of dog. I can hear crickets and Waldo snoring in the lounge.

I breathe. The emptiness is still in my stomach but the ground is holding me. Slowly in the silence my own presence unfurls.  

There’s a giant elephant in the room, and I need to address it because it’s threatening to squeeze the life out of me if I don’t. So instead of posting about all the interesting things that I love talking about (psilocybin! Mental health! Luuurrrv. God. How to Be A Good Human – all of these coming soon), I’m writing about The End of Times.

Yes. I’m going there.

We live in a time of rapid and unpredictable change. When I first considered writing this post, COVID-19 was a faint rumour. Now I’m sitting at home in voluntary isolation, wondering whether I should have bought more yoghurt before throwing away my car keys. 2020 started with the threat of nuclear war, then wildfires took over the headlines, then Corona reared its head. And above this all looms the giant of climate disaster. Life as we know might just be ending.

Like everybody else’s, my social media feed, my social interactions, and my work environment are littered with references to climate change. Greta Thunberg is a household name and I am uncomfortably conscious of over-fishing, desertification, wildfires and droughts. But like most people I have skirted over the discomfort these thoughts awaken with a variety of pacifying thoughts: ‘we can still turn this around’, ‘if an apocalypse is about to happen we’d see it coming and have time to prepare’, and ‘it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, or at least not until I’m old’.

Then something in my heart started changing. I barely know how to describe this other than by calling it an intuition, a gut feeling which began its unwinding first in my personal life. At the end of last year I decided to quit my job in two years from now, giving me just about enough time to right my financial wrongs and pay off my car. This might not sound momentous, but to me it was, because I’d always imagined myself going into academia. I was going to do my Ph.D., I had my topic all planned out, I was going to be a pioneer in the field of multilingual literacy. And so I couldn’t understand why my ambition was failing me, why I wasn’t writing more research papers and attending conferences, grabbing all the opportunities afforded to me by my somewhat interesting and stable job in academia. Why was I dragging my feet on this?

Then it hit me: I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m a good fit for academia – I’m an enthusiastic teacher, I love doing research, I am interested in meaty topics – but I don’t actually WANT this. It doesn’t feel connected. It doesn’t feel urgent. It doesn’t feel alive to me anymore.

So I started reimagining my possible future, and planning for the quiet more communal life I hope soon to lead. Because suddenly I was imaging living on a farm, practicing permaculture and other sustainable ways of living, I started reading more and connecting more with like-minded people. Whilst this was happening, the flood of climate-change related information was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Then a friend sent me an article titled “Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy” and the unformed thoughts in my mind merged into clarity: this could really be it. The urgency within and around me says that we are living in the last few years of relative normalcy before society as we know it collapses.

I’m no climate scientist, but I watch one video about the consequences of over-fishing or read up on the stats regarding temperature increase or Arctic melt and I am left with a weird sense of cognitive dissonance: this information tells me the world is ending. Why are we carrying on as normal? Why are politicians squabbling over policies and laws that will make little to no difference, when it seems we have long since passed the point of no return?

If things are ending, why does everything seem so normal?

“Deep adaptation” crystallised that vague sense of despair for me. Bendell writes that the effect of climate change is becoming visible in non-linear ways, in other words that change is no longer predictable and happening incrementally, but that the changes instead suggest “runaway climate change.” Elsewhere in the article, abandoning subtlety, he says: “Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.”

I don’t have the subject expertise to analyse whether the claims he makes are in fact accurate. Many experts criticise Bendell’s conclusions – here is one well-balanced example; but I personally am sufficiently convinced by the research Professor Jem Bendell cites, by his conclusions which resonate with what I am seeing, and by his forecast of the future: he suggests that we are facing a near-term societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possibly even human extinction. We cannot know what this will look like, although we can guess; we cannot know whether we will live to tell the tale, but it is almost certain that the way we have been living is about to change drastically. And any efforts we are currently making to mitigate this crisis are largely in vain. Which means that instead of trying to conserve our current ecosystems, trying to gradually change policies, switching to greener light bulbs and recycling more (none of which are bad things per se), we should be planning for a future where we might not know where our next meal will come from.

Is this simply fear-mongering? Well, at the very least Bendell believes himself. As do many others, who are now forming online communities under the Deep Adaptation banner. Perhaps the future is not as gloomy as Bendell imagines it, but to me, speculating about whether an impending collapse is a certainty or only a likelihood feels counter-productive. I find that Bendell’s suggestion resonates deeply (and uncomfortably) with me. It feels true. And if it isn’t – well, then, it still brings my priorities into stark relief.

Naturally many questions arise: If the world is about to collapse, how can I prepare? Should I even try? Should I sell my possessions and go live in a hippie commune? (Not an entirely unattractive idea.) Should I start stockpiling guns and pain medication? Bendell himself suggests that we approach the changes with a focus on resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation. These are interesting concepts and I’d like to write about them in further posts. For now, I’ll say only that I think hope, rather than defeatism, could and should still flourish.

What this article, and the headlines about COVID-19, and about the fires and the floods and the droughts, awaken in me first is the urge to pause. “I might die soon”, I whisper to myself. I don’t think that thinking about death is a bad thing, and I have been doing a lot of that for all my life. But this is the closest I have ever come to a cancer diagnosis or a near-death car crash. My future is laden with uncertainty. I might soon lose my family and my possessions. Endings and frightening beginnings are breathing down my neck in a new and almost tangible way. What strange and beautiful grief.

“Here at the end of all things”, as Frodo said to Sam – what remains that really matters?

This does. This moment, in which my dog is barking outside at the neighbours’ arrival, the autumn night fragrant and heavy and very dark. I’m itchy from half a dozen mosquito bites. I ate too much and my stomach sits uncomfortably below my ribcage. I can hear crickets, and my fridge humming, and now that my dog has stopped barking, little else. My cup of tea is lukewarm and delicious. There is so much air suddenly, now that I am aware of it, that I breathe it in in large gulps, savouring its coolness and imagining how my body hums with oxygen, transporting life into every cell. I am so profoundly alive.

If the world as I know it is about to end, then this is what I want to do with the time I still have left: I want to hear really beautiful music. I want to have really good sex. I want to laugh really hard. I want to hug my mom more often than I do. I want to be kind. I want to relinquish any sense of entitlement, let go of jealousy and competition and envy, embracing instead my life and the people it has been graced with with wonder. Every lover: how beautiful their skin, their cheekbones, their laughter. Every friend: how nourishing their presence, how dear to me their mannerisms. How dear to me my own body, and the stinky furry body of my dog, and the twining tendril of the bower vine inching its way gradually up my porch.

Perhaps all it takes to be in the moment is to realise you might not get another.