James and I became friends through our shared exploration of community, our love of poetry, and our passion for the Hokianga. One evening as I cooked a meal for the two of us, I asked James if he’d like to listen to my CD of poetry, When Death Comes Close. I guess that opened the subject between us, because some time later he spoke with me about his thoughts around his own death.
Later, when I began interviewing Kiwi baby boomers with interesting approaches to death, dying and funerals, I asked James if I might visit him to get a fuller understanding of his intention. He took me to a beautiful dell on his property, and it was there we recorded the interview.
Thank you so much for this opportunity, James. I feel very privileged – moved, actually – to be able to do this.
I’m quite receptive really; I’ve got quite strong views, so I’m receptive to talking about them.
That’s great. And as you say, the soft murmur of the stream is just beautiful, so it’s a real privilege, too, to be actually in this little dell.
It’s a special place on the farm.
So, I’d love you to tell us why it’s so special.
The Dell? I think it’s one of those little places that is enclosed, so it’s a world of its own, and it has a sound that’s very special. And apart from in a big whirlwind, it’s always the most quiet place on the farm.
Yes, I can imagine that. And in terms of your looking ahead to your dying, it’s a very special place for you, isn’t it? I’d love you to tell us about your plan.
Aye. Well I’ve given a little bit of thought to how I’d approach it, and I want to start by acknowledging human mortality, and human frailty. Yes, I have a plan, that if I’m still going well, towards my late 80s, I’ll consider it a privilege to choose a time to relinquish myself of the will to take part and compete in this physical world.
So I envision that I would like to be there in good health, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, but in acknowledgement of not really wishing to stagger on with the processes of living into my 90s. I do acknowledge that looking at my heredity – and my mother who’s now well into her 90’s – it’s a process that I don’t really wish upon myself. So, all being well, at the age of 88, I would choose to, very gently, in a sense take a vow of poverty, complete poverty – no more than that really – that being a poverty from sustenance, from physical sustenance. And hopefully I’d be able to choose an environment, like this dell, but who knows where – a place where I can experience a meditative preparation for whatever the Mystery presents.
I would not exclude my loved ones. I would keep them well informed, as I have, that this is my wish, and therefore I would allow them knowledge and access to come and go, as one would, perhaps, from a deathbed. I would probably make myself reasonably comfortable. I imagine having maybe a heavy woollen poncho, and I would choose natural shelter. I would choose a strong, leaning tree perhaps, or a sheltered bluff whereby, with my woollen poncho, I can feel basically comfortable to begin my meditative preparation.
So, I will tell my family and loved ones that they may visit me with sensitivity, as often as they so wish. They may sit with me, and talk with me, because overall I feel the meaning of life is a conversation, and the conversation requires one to be challenged, therefore, it’s great to have company. (The conversation of life, however, can be between oneself and nature, so equally so, without company, the conversation continues.) Therefore, in my imagination, I will have given myself completely to the conversation and to the Mystery. Quite simply, that’s the process, beginning, most likely, on my 88th birthday. So, maybe no birthday cake for me on my 88th. However, maybe I will feel something very special during my period of being 87, with the approach of this. So there is much to look forward to. Simply put, that’s it – that’s the entire process.
Do you have a kind of explainable sense of why it’s 88, or is that just something in you?
No, not really. I think that we’re always tempted to keep extending these things, especially if we are in reasonably good health. But there are lots of reasons really, and one of them is a feeling for my fellow humans and the rest of the planet. Why should I compete for the resources of younger, healthier, more productive people, for the scarce resources which we are all making a mess of, including myself. So, it’s a matter of choosing a time really, and to be so lucky to be in good health in one’s late 80s, I think is really a completion of a human journey.
So your sense is that by then you’ll have completed what you came for?
Very much so, because, having put a time on it, it will work me towards the time.
It’s like any great thing in life – like a family reunion, or a wedding, or somebody else’s parting – well, not so much somebody else’s parting, because one can’t plan so much for that – but one can certainly plan for a family wedding. And it also makes the rest of my family aware of this timing, and that there is nothing sudden about it, and there’s no urgency. Being in good health, I might live very comfortably in this way for three to six months, who knows? Maybe less; I think I’d be doing remarkably well to still be there in six months.
You spoke about a poverty of sustenance – would that include water?
I think it would move to water, yes.
You mean it would move towards the exclusion of water?
Yes. Perhaps I would start my days there with some fruit juices, and vegetable juices, and then I would move to pure water, and then, when I was ready, I would relinquish water. I would move with sensitivity. I would move with sensitivity, but I would know the direction I was going.
And that sensitivity? A sensitivity to something inner?
Yeah, because I would be readying myself as to the journey I was on, as one always needs to.
You’ve indicated that you’ve already spoken with your family about this – you have four adult daughters. How are they about it?
They vary; some are highly resistant at the thought of it. However, they’ve got plenty of time to think about it, and I’ve got plenty of time to make them realise that I’m sincere, and that I’ve held this view for quite a few years now. It hasn’t wavered, in fact it’s strengthened.
So, did it come out of any sort of philosophy? I can see the values – your values about the Earth’s resources and things…
Yeah. I am aware of some of the nomadic peoples of the Middle East, and perhaps places like the Tibetan Plateau, and there is a thing there where a very old person, who can’t keep up with the troupe, and is becoming a burden, will stop. And in some cases, they will choose a place, and – I’m not fully sure of the circumstances, whether some of their family may waylay with them, or whether they say their partings, and the person is left. But these things are probably not so common in the modern world, but they certainly were still happening not so long ago, amongst these peoples. And the old person would just choose to waylay, and the others would keep moving. The people I’m referring to had a nomadic life, a very harsh life, a very crucial life in a harsh environment. So these things are done, and have been done.
I have read similar of the Maori.
I’ve never heard of it with the Maori, but I can imagine it. The ones I’ve definitely heard of were nomadic cultures where one must be fit to keep up with the life
I really enjoy a physical life in the outdoors, and I am very aware of how my body is now slowing – beginning to slow – and I can’t sustain the same activity of my youth, and so I’m very aware that by my late 80s it will be quite a release to not expect myself to be able to chop wood and carry water.
Yes. So what age are you now, James?
Sixty-four, so there’s plenty of time. When you think of being twenty-four and you look back at your whole childhood, it’s a long, long time. And that’s how long it is until I’m eighty-eight.
And do you imagine that your body will just gradually slow? You’ve indicated that you’ve noticed a slowing up.
Yeah, and I have friends in their mid-70s, and I talk to them, and they tell me about some of their frustrations, as things are moving on. So in many ways this is just a preparation for a very sensible arrangement.
You’ve always lived an outdoor, active life? Is that right?
It’s been my tendency. I tried to do university, and I tried to become a professional person, but the outdoor person in me wouldn’t let that happen. That’s how that never happened. The outdoor person in me felt threatened.
As if he might get lost?
Yeah, the outdoor person has been the dominant feature of my life.
So I imagine it would be difficult to look ahead to anything like a life where you were restricted to being essentially indoors.
It is. It certainly would be. I couldn’t imagine it really, because it would be like a prison. I would need incredible amount of stimulation – you know I’d have to paint the walls green, with trees and everything, and I’d have to have lots of windows that I could open up.
…because I guess the conversation with Nature has been there all your life and needs to continue.
I think so. My mother tells me that when I was a baby she used to put me outside in the pram – and this was in Stoke-on-Trent, in the Midlands, the industrial Midlands of England – and I used to come in covered in soot that was just falling out of the sky. She did say once she felt very bad because when she got me in she realised it had snowed. There was snow on the pram and snow on my blanket. But maybe that meditative contemplation with Nature had taken place way back. You know, to put a child outside for fresh air in ironically a totally industrial area… It was an industrial slum where I was born, and my mother said there were big oil-fired power stations, and oil-fired kilns for making pottery, and she said literally oil would condense on the insides of the windows, so it was a totally out of control, polluted environment completely set on industry, frantically trying to get its feet on the ground after the big War. So there’s a possibility something happened there, in a tiny mind, that maybe identified with different bits of greenery and birds and things that stood out so much from that environment. That’s about the only explanation I can put on it.
I have another question, and that’s about after your death. Would you see your physical remains being buried where you’ve spent your last days or weeks?
That would be very nice, however I think the meaning of dying is to leave the physical, and therefore it’s not of great concern. I have actually said to my children it’s up to their convenience and their intention how they deal with my physical remains. But they do know what I enjoy, and it’s up to them to reflect that as they wish.
That feels a lovely balance, actually, because you’ve taken, or plan to take, an unusually strong choice – a very personal choice – in terms of your dying, so there’s a lovely balance there in your handing it over to your children at that point.
Because it is their concern, and you know, my wish is that they will all have completely accepted this, and see it as really a last sort of teaching from their parent.
That’s wonderful, because I think that’s a remarkable gift, when life is so full of fear and resistance around death, and you’re presenting a very solid example of something different.
I’m planning for it, and looking forward to the possibility of this happening, as I’ve explained, reaching my late 80s in pretty good stead, and then very consciously and intentionally setting off on the other journey – well, re-directing my entire process to a proper preparation for an imminent journey, which I can only and always refer to as The Great Mystery, the one we’re all bound to.
Thank you so much, James