Be Prepared

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“Be prepared”

My old Brownie pack, in the early 1970s. Can you spot me?

As a child, I lived in the tiny rural village of Patutahi, just out of Gisborne, nestled between fields of corn (or was it maize?), close to the land Witi Ihimaera writes of in his fabulous novels. A sickly kid (my parents were told I wouldn’t live past age six), with skinny legs, pale skin and dark hair, I was also very happy. The highlight of my week (if I was well enough) was to go to Brownies, where the wonderful Robyn Richardson (I wonder where she is now?) led maybe 15 of us to explore ways of relating to others. I don’t remember much, except a dusty old hall, a two finger salute, and the pledge: “I promise to do my best…” it started. And of course, the ubiquitous motto, “be prepared.”

Many years on, that motto is firmly embedded in my psyche. The boot of my car carries an assortment of rugs, shoes and shopping bags neatly stacked in plastic trays, and the glove box holds rubber gloves (of course!), tissues, spare reading glasses, and extra CDs for those long journeys in Auckland traffic.

And more recently - as a funeral celebrant - I’m aware of the need to be prepared in respect to our lives, and especially the end of lives. Death is inevitable, yet many of us are fearful of talking about it, even with those close to us. Preparing for the end of our physical life makes it easier for our families, whether the death is expected or not. My friend Deborah Wilkinson tragically lost her husband to cancer, and was shocked to find how much she had to untangle after his death. Her easy-to-read book, Where’s the Password? provides practical tips about steps to take - a must-read for all adults.

 Here are a few things you might like to consider putting in place:

  •   Power of Attorney: who will make decisions about you if you aren’t capable of doing this yourself (due to an accident or illness)? This is a legally binding document, and can prevent family squabbles later on.

  •  A Will: it’s a simple process to get a will drawn up through your solicitor or the Public Trust. Even if you believe you have few assets, having an up-to-date will can speed up payments for the funeral, release of property, and so on.

  •   Funeral or Memorial: providing family with details about your wishes can help them navigate a very difficult time when they are overwhelmed with grief. Would you like to be buried or cremated, in a casket or a shroud? Are there people you would like to speak at your funeral or memorial? What special songs or readings would you like included in the ceremony? Do you even want a ceremony?

Recently, I prepared the outline of my own funeral, and shared this with my sons, both in their early 20s. It includes the tracks that I’d like played (complete with the YouTube links), and instructions about what to do with my body. My kids are millennials so maybe I’ll start a Pinterest board too, the modern equivalent of the little notebook in the bedroom dresser. I hope they won’t need any of it for a long, long time.

But best to be prepared.

A Grave Matter

The moon is full, shedding its light across the waking city. April Fool's Day, the end of daylight savings and Easter Sunday in unison this year. Hot, sweet coffee, feed the cat, a load of washing and a walk.

I am lonely, desperate for a person to talk to, to hold, to argue with. Lonely, but not alone: the radio tells me it's common this contemporary dis-ease, an increasing toll on our society. The old, they are lonely, and I imagine council flats, meagre meals, and unkempt feet and hands. But no, it is the young who top the loneliness stats, the virtual world making our existence simultaneously more accessible and less real. Insta, the tool of the young, a platform for self-exposure, while sitting alone in a bedroom. A famous online life coach writes about "life envy" and the comments are pitiful:  Facebook posts keep up the illusion that we are successful, happy, and perpetually beautiful. We hide the flaws, edit backgrounds, add filters to our lives. 

I read to dispel the loneliness, characters jumping off the pages into my head, my heart. Violence and death in The Great Alone; resilience and determination in A Gentleman in Moscow. The risque Anais Nin challenges my world view, and Witi Ihimaera confirms it. 

Today, I seek out company, and head to Purewa, a park in the centre of Auckland, full of people. They are quiet these people, lying six feet under, broken concrete and lichen decorating the earth. A strange novel - Lincoln in the Bardo - has brought me to this place, the story of the president's son, William - young Willie - dying tragically at 11. He father is distraught, his mother no longer able to function. It is odd this book, but I persevere, and the quirky characters grow on me, like the weeds on the tombstones. 

I wander through the cemetery, the bright sunshine casting deep shadows beside the graves. I've come to see angels, to master my new zoom lens. Plots first inhabited in the 19th century sit alongside recent burials,  no order to their arrangement. A bottle of beer and a tiny Santa gifted to a 15 year old boy, lying beside his relatives, his parents and friends still visiting. The grief consumes us, when young lives are lost, the injustice, the despair.  

A tiny angel, a cherub, catches my eye. The marble is bright, the skin smooth. I walk around the tomb, aiming for the best angle, for bokeh in the afternoon light. Six (or is it eight?) people rest here, a fence containing them. 

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Back home, I process my photos, blue-skied monuments and simple crosses marking Easter in the metropolis. I plan a future - a future with hope, with promise, with optimism. A future with friends, with beautiful images, with fresh vegetables and flowers and tastes and scents. I am looking forward, so I write, clumsy today, a lack of practise. In that future, I will write every day.

Then I find it, a quote to end, Amor Towles at his finest:

"It is a lovely oddity of human nature that a person is more inclined to interrupt two people in conversation than one person alone with a book."

This post originally appeared on Sandy’s blog “Living in the Light” in April 2018.