Tuesday, 12 August 2014

On the Brink of Change

I've just opened my desk drawer and found a bookmark that I've had for years.

It's a Winnie the Pooh one and it shows him walking through the woods, hands behind his back. His friend Piglet is by his side, pleasantly gazing at him, and the excited Tigger is bouncing along up ahead.

At the top, there's a quote which reads, "You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes."

That quote has never been more relevant to my life than now.

I'm on the brink of change.

A chapter is ending and a new chapter is beginning. How it will all unfold, I have no idea. All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, with the faith that the ground will continue to support me. If it doesn't, well, then my time to meet the maker has come. 

As someone told me recently, 'We spend more time dead, than we do alive.' 

The change I'm going through is taking me to Taiwan, where I'll be reunited with my girlfriend and learning Mandarin at a university in Taipei. 

I remember back towards the end of last year, I was trudging through the city of Leeds, when someone gave me a flyer. Normally, I refuse to accept one but this time I gladly took it and looked at it. And I'm so glad I did because the words printed on it had a profound affect on me.

They simply said:


The feeling I had when I read those words will forever be with me. It was like they were speaking directly to me from another place. They were the words that I needed to see/hear at exactly that moment in my life.

Has that ever happened to you? You'll know it if it has. It's like God/Life is speaking to you directly. It's giving you a key to the next stage in your development. Little clear signposts telling you where to go and what to do next.

I'm 31 and I've never had a desire to leave my hometown. I never dreamt of moving to a foreign country; I never had a reason to.

But leaving my girlfriend at the airport in January was too much.

I had to follow her. 

You know the scene in Donnie Darko when he suddenly sees the manifestation of intent coming out of his stomach, then it turns into a hand and motions for him to follow it? Remember? Well that was what it felt like for me. I felt like there was a massive hand above my girlfriend, motioning for me to go to Taiwan.

She said on a number of occasions, "I feel like I've come to take you home."

So here I am, four days until I fly with a one-way ticket. 

I've been going through the process of saying goodbye to as many friends and family members as I can. Some have been teary - some haven't. I've said goodbye to my work colleagues who I've worked with for the past decade. I was surprised that I felt sad to leave them (they're a mental bunch of lads... but I wouldn't swap any of them). 

I don't know how long I'm going to be in Taiwan for. It could be 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years, 30 years. I honestly don't know.

But I'm going to run with it and see where it takes me.

Feelings of anxiety and the occasional flutter of nerves come to the surface when I think of what I'm doing.

I've been told it's normal.

I'm sure it is.

I'm stretching my comfort zone that's very much like an elastic band... the more you stretch it, the stronger it gets... the trick is to do it gradually so it doesn't snap.

We've all heard of those celebrities who get famous way too soon... they go crazy. Their comfort zone was pushed to the limits before they had time to adjust. It's like pulling a muscle... you've got to warm it up first to prevent such a thing from happening.

This morning, I had breakfast with a good mate of mine, the illustrator, Peter O'toole. He said, "Risk versus reward. The higher the risk, the higher the potential reward. Every time I've done something that's out of my comfort zone, something good has come out of it."

People have said I'm courageous for moving to Taiwan, but, really, what have I go to lose compared to what I've got to gain?

This opportunity has presented itself to me on my path.

I must have put it there for a reason.

And what better reason, than to stretch my comfort zone and grow.

I'm going to live at my own risk.


Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Fish that Leapt (A short story)

Death is fascinating.
Don't you think?
One moment you're here and the next moment there is a complete absence of that life-force we called you.
An analogy of fish in a pond always comes to mind when I consider this aspect of our existence.
I think I was introduced to it in Michio Kaku's book, Parallel Worlds. Not surprisingly, though, his version was to explain parallel universes. Below, I've tried to create a fable around this idea of fish in a pond, but in relation to death and dying. 
I hope you enjoy it.
The Fish that Leapt

The fish thought they knew everything there was to know about their pond. It was their world. Their universe. They spent their time swimming around, getting to know it as much as they could. To discover and to know was built into their very character - it stopped them from feeling lost.

Occasionally they learnt something new, only for it to be a building block for future discoveries, but still, they thought they were making progress. Anything that was unknown to them was their main source of fear - again, another reason to know as much as they could. So with this in mind, there was one thing they knew "for certain" and that was The surface is very dangerous and needs to be avoided at all cost. This came about because many fish had left via the surface and never came back, causing much grief and heartache.

There were myths and legends of monsters that hung around the wavy ceiling, ready to swallow up any fish that hung around for too long. These stories were intentionally built into them when they were young enough to understand fear.

One day, a brave fish swam close to the surface and took a deeper look. He wanted to know what all the fuss and fear was about. He was the rebellious type and therefore hung around for quite some time. He saw things shimmering and heard sounds that were far richer than he had ever heard before. His curiosity was aroused so much that he decided to risk all that he knew and take a leap of faith.

He jumped up, into the surface and glimpsed something life-changing.

He landed back into the pond with a splash, the rest of the fish having no idea of what just happened.

'This isn't all there is! I knew it!' he said. 'There is more out there, beyond the surface! I've just seen it!'

The fish that leapt told all who wanted to know and all who would listen, that the world existed far beyond the boundaries of the pond. He warned them though that if they were there for too long, he was certain that they wouldn't be able to come back to swim. He could tell by the way his breathing was affected.

This fish was obviously ridiculed by many and was considered a bit crazy... anybody who stretches perception is always treat like this by those who prefer their minds to remain narrow.

Those fish who actually listened to him, took it upon themselves to carry out their own research of and around the surface. Some looked deep into their past and saw that such experiences had been very common for millenia. One by one, their fear of the surface began to diminish.

It still left the issue of what would happen to them if they stayed beyond the veil for too long. Not a single fish had ever returned to tell their story.

Their patience was about to be rewarded.

A young fish fell ill. He was loved by all and all believed he would get better. Young fish are full of life with a future full of infinite possibilities - he had to get better. But he didn't. He went 'up there' (as the fish often said) and his mum, who was so distraught, and grieved so much, jumped through the surface on her own accord.

Can you imagine how shocked the whole community must have been? They couldn't believe she would do such a thing.

A broken heart can cause a fish to do things that even time can't fix.

It was now that something miraculous happened: To the mum's amazement, she landed in another pond!

It looked very similar to the pond she had grown accustomed to, but the water was crystal clear and the surface shimmered more beautifully than she had ever known.

It didn't take long for her to hear a familiar voice - a voice she believed would never touch her soul again.

'Mum! Mum! What are you doing here?'

And out of the depths of this new pond came her son, embracing her, telling her that he was alright.

'Mum, you have to go back,' he explained, 'it's not your time.'

Obviously she didn't want to leave him, but he showed her other fish that would look after him: friends and family that went through the surface a long time ago. She looked at them in amazement whilst holding her son. 'Mum. Dad. Nan. Grandad.You're all here...,' she said.

'You see, Mum, I'm not alone. I'm OK.'

He told her she had to jump back through the surface. At first she refused, but he begged her to go. He told her she had unfinished business to take care of and more lessons to learn.

There was something within her that knew he was right and she agreed to go back.

She gave him one last squeeze before she leapt.

She splashed back into the old pond, with the familiar sounds and the familiar faces. She was happy to see them because she brought with her news.

She told all the fish that her son was safe and that when her time came she would see him once again. In fact, she said, they all would.

'But where is he?' asked a young fish.

She looked up, smiling. 'He's right there, beyond the surface.'



Friday, 27 June 2014

A Number Two in Taiwan

It was heart-rending. The stereotypical goodbye at the airport where you both hug, kiss, hug again, say goodbye; you then both turn around at the exact same moment and wave for one last time. Then she's gone. I drove home to The Police (I mean the band... I hadn't been robbed or anything - that would've been a disaster) and whilst singing along to Roxanne and changing the name to Ross Kemp to lighten my mood,  I knew I had to follow her. I knew I had to go to Taiwan.

Now, I'm not much of a traveler. Think of me as more of a Walter Mitty, type of guy. Don't get me wrong, I don't daydream my life away, but having said that, I don't go wrestling with sharks and jumping out of helicopters either, but at the age of 30, I had left the UK once. 


...and that was 16 years ago on an all inclusive holiday to Minorca with my parents and younger sister. I drank a lot of free strawberry milkshakes, kicked some Spaniard's ass at pool and got sun-burnt. 

It was fun.

Other than that, the UK has been my humble abode. My experience of foreign cultures, especially the East, came from my love of Kung Fu films and the occasional documentary on National Geographic. Trying to find a particular place on a globe is like a cruel game of Where's Wally. The globe would be covered with thousands of Wally's and the real one wouldn't be wearing thick-rimmed glasses.

My girlfriend was aware of this. When we first met (before we were dating) I asked her where she was from.

'Taiwan,' she said.

'Where in China is that?' I replied with a legitimate frown.

'It's not in China, it's a little island between China and Japan.'

I laughed at her and accused her of making it up.

A quick word of advice for the guys reading this - don't do that. Especially when you have as much knowledge of the world as an undercooked cod. If you do say it, expect the look that says your life is about to end within the next five seconds... and I wish you all the best.

Carrying on...

I booked my plane ticket (the first one I had ever booked) and looked forward to my little Formosan adventure. I decided it would be wise to do as much research as I possibly could about the land I was heading to. I read books on Taiwan, watched Taiwanese films, joined an English/Mandarin group in my hometown and started having Mandarin lessons on Skype with my girlfriend's sister, who just so happened to be a qualified Mandarin teacher living in Spain! Hey presto!

Having done all of that, and conversing with my girlfriend everyday, not one person, nor book, nor film, mentioned to me the issue of the toilet.

That's right... The Toilet

I will explain.

All was well. It was my first full day on the island (which isn't in China) and we were at an art exhibition. The most noticeable thing out of the ordinary was me, being the only westerner in the building. Having being introduced to an authentic Taiwanese breakfast and a morning coffee, my stomach started to rumble. 

Not a problem. 

We had just walked past some toilets. 

'I'm just going to pop to the toilet, love,' I said, calmly, not aware of the challenge that lay around the corner.

The bathroom was immaculate. It were super clean. The air was perfumed and the marble floors seemed to contain a million and one stars.

I was a happy man... then I opened the cubicle door.

Oh, that feeling.

I would've been less shocked if I had walked in on Bruce Lee who had, for some reason, forgot to lock the door.

'Oh, Brucey,' I would've said. 'I'm sorry, but the fault is all yours. And, I hope I'm not being rude, but I thought you were dead.'

He would've been a bit embarrassed, but I wouldn't have rocked the boat any further just in case he said, "Over there, on that island, with meee." To which I would've apologised profusely and left him to it.   

'What the &^$(*!' I said to myself. 'What kind of toilet is that!?'

I don't want to give the impression that it was something disgusting. On the contrary, like I've said, everything was pristine.

How can I explain this? Let us just say that it was like an elongated toilet that was flush with the floor (no pun intended).

I started to panic. I started to sweat. 

'What do I do?'

I couldn't go running back to my girlfriend whilst busting for a download and ask her for instructions.

'Love, how do you use the toilet?'

'Follow me, I'll show you.'

On a planet where pride doesn't exist, this might have been an OK scenario, but there was no way I was going to ask her how to use the toilet.

I couldn't ring her either because there was no wifi and I didn't have a local sim card.

I had to do this alone and I had do it there and then.

I felt that if I succeeded (the word IF being a super dangerous word in this predicament) then it would be a pure coming-of-age victory. It would be like when the Aborigines went headhunting - if you got a head you were a man! 

But this was much worse.

I prepared myself. 

Shorts came down... underwear followed. 

I began to squat but my shorts were getting in the way.

I changed positions and ended up doing what felt like a crab over this god-damn-bucket-thing!

I finally got into a position where I felt like I could, you know... go. 

So I did.

I was proud of myself, even though my arms were straining and...

Oh, wait... where the hell's the toilet roll!

OK, now the panic really kicked in.

My head was looking around like an owl having an anxiety attack.

What if they didn't use toilet roll here? I thought. What if there's another way of doing your business in Taiwan? What if I've been to the toilet in a place where I shouldn't have gone!? 


I turned my head 180 degrees and there it was. 

My savior. 

Loo roll, I love you. 

But then I had to reach for the swine. 

My right hand supported my crab-like posture whilst my left hand reached over my right shoulder and got the goods. It was as if I had decided to have a dirty game of Twister all by myself. 

But now the finishing line was in full view.

A few minutes later I walked out of the cubicle like a new man. I was proud of myself, yet still confused as to why they would encourage such a treacherous method of going to the toilet.

I found my girlfriend innocently looking up at a painting. I stood beside her, glanced at the painting and then explained my ordeal.

Needless to say, she thought the whole thing was hilarious and couldn't wait to tell her parents who I hadn't met yet.

'I didn't think to tell you,' she said, apologetically. 'It's just normal for us.'

'But why have the toilet roll there?' I said, pointing over my shoulder.

'What?' she frowned. 

'The loo roll was behind me.'

'You were facing the wrong way!'


I found Wally. He was squatting on an island in between China and Japan.


A Quick Guide to the Art of Squatting

Later on that day, and with the ordeal still fresh in my mind, I asked my girlfriend about squatting.

'What's the best way to do it?' I asked her whilst in the tube station.

'Imagine sitting on the bottom step... or on a curb,' she said. 'It's comfortable and it's natural.'


'Show me how you squat,' she said.


'Show me how you squat.'

'You want me to pretend I'm on the toilet? Here? Now?'

She giggled. 'Why not?'

I looked around. 'For starters, there're people... everywhere.'

She looked at me with a smile that said 'so what'.

So I squatted there and then in the tube station as if I was taking a number.

Did people look at me?

Damn right they did.

Did they mutter, 'Weird westerner' under their breath?

Most likely.

But now I know how to squat: pretend you're sitting on a curb.

I did it for you. Now you don't have to go through what I went through. I'm saving you from the pain and the anguish and the mental pressure. 

So go! 

Squat away!


Monday, 5 May 2014

Living in the Face of Death

I see a new perception of death and dying arising.

Maybe 'new' isn't the correct word. Maybe what's arising is a process of retrieving what we lost some time ago.

We've become accustomed to pushing death under the carpet. We've come full circle because many of us are now tripping over it, and during our fall we see that it would've done us good to talk about it before we land six feet under.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, Death Cafes are on the rise. The one that I was fortunate to be a part of was a success. It felt great to stand back and observe strangers talking to strangers about something that is somewhat strange to talk openly about - death and dying.

I recently read an article in the Independent about the comedian Billy Connolly and how he's looking for a way to add comical value to his burial plot. He's thinking of putting touch-sensitive pads on his site, so when people stand on them it triggers a recording of his voice, saying something like, 'You're standing on my balls!'

Read the full article here.

Years ago I watched a documentary about a boy called Jon Kennedy who had a degenerative disease. It was very moving - but inspiring. He had a great attitude to death which positively affected the way he lived his life. Carved into his coffin he wanted a tin of baked beans. When asked why, he said he liked the idea of people looking at his coffin and saying, 'Why is there a tin of baked beans on the coffin?'

Spike Milligan's headstone is famous for saying the epitaph, 'I told you I was ill'.

How great is that!

Another reason why I believe that the way we perceive death and dying is adapting and evolving, is because of another article that was brought to my attention about a death doula. (A doula is another name for a midwife).

The article appeared in The Guardian. The 'death doula' is Rebecca Green from the UK. 

She was asked what she feels about her own mortality and she says wisely: "Death doesn't scare me because I don't know what it is. I suppose I'm saying that the unknown doesn't scare me. I find the idea that one day I won't be here any more strange and impossible to imagine. But it's also a fact that I haven't always been here – I only got here in 1969. Where was I in 1968, or 1945? I have no idea. It makes me smile to think of this." 

This is what the philosopher Alan Watts meant when he said that to think of where we will go when we die is like trying to think where we were before we were born. 

Ultimately, it's the same place. Life as we know it then feels like somewhat of a blip in the midst of eternity.

You can read The Guardian article about the death doula here. I highly recommend that you do.

At the weekend I was told about the work of the photographer Rankin and about his exhibition called Alive: In the Face Of Death. He presented portraits of people who were dying. It's beautiful. Unfortunately the exhibition was last year, but there's still quite a bit about it on the net that you can read; here for instance.

Also, look at the tremendous work of Felicity Warner, the founder of Soul Midwives

Look at the amazing Dying Matters

Can you see the bigger picture unfolding around us? 

Can you see that we're slowly changing our perception of death and seeing it as inseparable from life?

Can you see that this is the way we are heading?

Having a healthier view of death affects our view of life. Our way of dying affects out way of living.

He who makes an enemy out of death, is not on the best terms with his life.

One last thing:

Where were you one year before you were born?

...thought so.


Sunday, 27 April 2014

A Successful Death Cafe

I'm pleased to say that Huddersfield's first Death Cafe went really well.
I was extremely pleased by how it turned out.
There was a total of 13 people (that's including myself). It was held at the World Peace Cafe at the Vajrapani Buddhist Centre in Birkby. I don't think the discussion group could've had a better venue. A sense of calm and serenity ran throughout the cafe as people discussed death and dying - and ultimately life.
Due to the mixed response on Facebook and on the Huddersfield Examiner's website, I wasn't sure if those who had registered would even turn up. I would say that over 90% of them did (some brought their friends) - and afterwards they asked when the next one would be, which was always nice to hear.
The group started at 2:30pm and at about 2:35 a lady walked into the cafe. She went to the counter and ordered herself a coffee. I wasn't sure if she was part of the group and I didn't know how to ask her. Standing at the door holding a sign that said "DEATH & DYING" crossed my mind, but I thought it might put people off.
'I'll ask her,' a friend said.
He walked up to her and I heard him quietly say, 'Excuse me, have you come for the Death Cafe.'
The look she gave him was as if she was staring Mr G Reaper in the face. 'God, no,' she said.
My friend laugh, nervously.
This lady ended up joining the group and was one of the last three people to leave an hour after the group was supposed to finish. 
Even though it was a discussion group based on death, this was only a minute section of the vast range of topics that was covered.
95% of the people who came were meeting one another for the first time. When we talk to strangers we naturally want to share our stories - and over coffee and cake, we naturally listen. When we actively listen to someone it's not only them who benefit, but we do too. Without realising it, when we give someone our attention and our time, a feeling of worth arises within us.
We are giving of ourselves. We are contributing to the greater good.
As for myself, I had to do very little. The admin was taken care of by my good friend, Susan Dewhurst (Over The Rainbow Workshops) and beforehand, all I did was type up and print 10 questions that I thought could be used as a guide, just in case people were stuck for what to talk about next.
The questions were:
1. Do you fear death?
2. How often do you think of death and dying, and why?
3. Do you believe in an afterlife? If you do, how does this belief affect your attitude to death and dying? How does it affect your attitude to living?
(The same goes for if you don't believe in life beyond the physical world; How does this belief affect your attitude to death and dying? How does it affect your attitude to living?)
4. How do you think the Hospice movement has affected our attitude towards death and dying?
5. Do you want to be buried or cremated?
6. Why do you think people don't want to talk about death and dying? Why do you think it is known as a taboo topic?
7. Do you visit cemeteries?
8. Why do you think death is feared by the majority?
9. Have you ever read any books on death and dying?
10. Do you see death as separate from life?
If you're thinking of setting up your own Death Cafe (which is not a cafe but a discussion group based in a cafe) then I highly recommend.
Remember, talking about death is talking about life.
And life isn't that scary, is it?


Sunday, 20 April 2014

Playing Catch-Up

Going through some old files on my memory stick I came across a folder called 'Playing Catch-up'. I'm not sure if it's an old blog post or not, but I thought I would share it. I found it quite interesting to read.

I wrote it in 2011.

This was the dream; 

I shut the door behind me and walk away with a mixed bag of feelings, ranging from relief, fear, sadness and guilt. Then I see my car parked on the street and notice my clothes crammed on the back seat and all my trainers and shoes in the passenger foot well. 

It was crystal clear. 

Then I woke up. 

But this time there was no waking up. 

I'm living it. 

Every moment is exactly how I perceived it when I was asleep. I knew it wasn't just a dream. I felt it, but I couldn't decipher its meaning at the time. It was too vivid to be a dream. 

Dreams are fuzzy - premonitions and visits stay with you. They're meaningful. It's almost as if the formless part of you, the part of you that is beyond the restrictions of space and time, has experienced part of your blueprint and has decided to show you a snippet of it. Then with time you gradually catch up with what you saw.

It has happened to me before when I was working in a supermarket in my late teens. I 'dreampt' I was walking down the staff corridor and began to work my way down the stairs to the shop floor. But it was the feeling and the detail that stood out. 

That's how I knew it wasn't a dream. 

I knew exactly where I was . . . I'd worked there for five years and I hated it when I dreamt of work. I felt like I was being cheated of good sleep. But this was different because I felt ecstatic. A feeling of pure joy and lightness coursed its way through my dream-self. I even woke up with a smile on my face.

At the time I couldn't figure out its meaning. 

It took me about a year to catch up to it. 

The day came when I walked my way down the staff corridor and I whispered to myself, 'This is the dream.' I worked my way down the stairs and smiled. The feeling of lightness was in every step I took. I couldn't help smiling. 

What day was this happening on? 

My last day working at the supermarket.
It was almost as if a part of me was letting me know that one day I would move on from that place and that all I needed was a little patience.

And now it has happened again with the dream about my belongings in the car. 

I've caught up to what was shown to me about a month ago and it turns out I was being shown the ending of a long-term relationship. 

I unlocked the car door, got in and took a deep breath and it dawned on me how it works. 

I'm being shown the ending of chapters in my life. Every time a chapter is coming to an end, I get shown a glimpse of it when I'm asleep. Then I go about my life and I have no idea when I'm going to catch up to it. 

All I know is that one day, I will.


Monday, 14 April 2014

A Test . . . How Enlightened Are you?


If you can live without caffeine or nicotine;

If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains;

If you can resist complaining;

If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you any time;

If you can take criticism and blame without resentment;

If you can ignore friends' limited educations and never correct them;

If you can treat the rich and poor alike;

If you can face the world without lies or deceit;

If you can conquer tension without medical help;

If you can relax without liquor;

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs;

If you can have no prejudice against creed, colour, religion, gender, sexual preference, or politics  -

- then you have almost reached the same level of spiritual development as your dog.