How shall we begin, then?
Early on, when I was drawing up a list of people I wanted to speak with, your name came up, not because I know anything of you in relation to death, but maybe it’s about your connection with the natural cycles of life, and for me birth and death are part of that.
So I’m really just interested in any thoughts you have about life and death, and how we live and how we die.
Cushla: Not just little topics!
No, not just little topics. I’ve never been into little topics.
Any particular questions?
I am interested in what people come up against, in the society around them, in relation to death and dying, and how their work, and their thinking, and their living, have perhaps been inspired by their desire to take a different stance around death.
Well, I’ve had a wee think about what you’re doing – what your journey is and what you’re writing – and one of the things that has struck me in the last twenty years or more is the change in our society around how we handle our dead. I think that’s shifted enormously. For a long time there was a Māori* way of handling it and a Pākehā* way and they were very different. I look back to the death of grandparents and uncles and aunts and the fact that they died in hospital and an undertaker arrived and took them away and you didn’t see them again until an appointed time in the funeral parlour. And you were ushered in and ushered out … end of story.
That’s so different from the Māori tangi* with the departed brought to the marae* where family and friends gather to sit beside them day and night. That’s embracing death, as opposed to leaving it with an undertaker. I see quite a marked change around that. We are now creating a culture that’s a New Zealand culture, with many dimensions I applaud.
The Māori way is very personal and family-oriented. There is an openness about expressing feelings. There are protocols that help us express loss and the honouring of the dead – be it with tears or through stories about the person and the family. And there is a place for healing through laughter. And that’s all wrapped around nurturing the people who come: welcoming them formally, acknowledging their journey, and providing food and shelter.
Then when you get in to the burial itself, the haka* of farewell can be so powerful it moves you beyond tears. It captures a unity of spirit, a wairua* that embraces the past and the future. So there are protocols that have been tried and trusted and true through many generations. There’s nothing artificial about them; they’re very heartfelt and real.
That’s all becoming part of our lives. More and more people are bringing their dead home. That’s wonderful! We did it for my Dad. His mates came and sat with him, had a beer and watched a one-day cricket match on TV. So I think we are learning to say goodbye in different ways. There’s a greater willingness to be open to change. It’s happening around other things too. That’s really a hopeful thing about the kind of world we’re starting to create – our own New Zealand culture. Of course, the Irish wake and Scottish traditions are ancient practices that help influence this change. There are old customs, ways of doing things that we can polish up and use again today. There are truths we have to learn and relearn each generation.
I think the indigenous cultures have, often at huge cost, kept the sacred sacred. In the Western world we’ve tended to hand that over to the Church to care for it on our behalf. Sometimes they handled it poorly. Today we are taking responsibility for attending to the sacred, taking it into our own hands. That’s just one dimension of the change I see in our society, and I think it’s significant. We are finding new ways to honour the departed and learning to embrace death in a different way – to actually see it in a whole different context, rather than hiding it away.
I’ve attended a number of church funerals where we are getting away from the idea that the person who is at the centre of everything is the minister, who is asked to give a eulogy about someone he’s never met. We are opening up to the families, to sharing, to be truly involving those who mourn in closing the circle of life in a good way. That’s a promising, lovely thing.
Not very long ago we received word that a friend had a very aggressive cancer and was dying. We’d known him for quite a few years, but more and more he was retreating from society, even though he had really good practices in his life. He became more and more consumed by fear, by the conspiracy theorists who dominate certain parts of the internet. It had all become a terrible burden. We were in the South Island and too far away to help him but many dear friends gathered close in his last three months. When we arrived he only had a couple of weeks to go, and we wondered how he would be at that time of his journey.
We were told that on hearing his cancer was terminal, he changed – he let all of that fear go and became a delight to be around – that shift was huge. He was asleep when we visited him in the hospice so we just sat for quite a long time; it was enough just to be there. When I realised a thoughtful person had left a big pad and biro and written a wee message to him, I wrote him a few words. Eventually we left, and it was the next day that another friend sent us a little text saying… “Loved to have your words. I read them out to him because he came around and he was really very focused and alert, so I read him the words. He just sat there with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Far out!’”
And so, it’s a big journey, but I think life has got phases. An old Māori elder whom I was very close to, sent me a message when he had a week to go… “I’m walking the pounamu trail back to the stars”.
So, about life being in phases – would you be willing to talk a bit about the phase of life you’re in?
I think there’s a phase of life that’s a time when you can’t do the kinds of things you used to be able to do. There’s a time when you’re still thinking you’ve got the body of a seventeen or eighteen-year old — have great stamina and energy and you can do a lot quickly and well — but that changes. You can’t continue to do that. There comes a time when everything gets slower. You can’t sustain that level. I can’t sustain that level of writing or concentration or working. So you have to decide how you use the energy you’ve got. You have to get clever; you have to become a cunning old dog.
There’s a lot of letting go. We have a dear friend on the West Coast who is Māori, an old one who’s six months older than me.
That makes him really old!
That makes him really, really old. I always refer to him as the Old Guy. His family have white-baited in that river, for years. When six strong men arrived to carry his metal fishing stand down to the riverbank a few years back a young guy said… “Now mate, you need a wooden post up here, something to keep your hand on so you can balance on that high deck”. The Old Guy got angry. He said “I’ve been doing this for years and I don’t need a post”. You guessed it! He lost his balance and fell into the river three times that season. It’s a miracle he’s still here. And a joy too because he is one of the most generous people we know.
Accepting change, understanding what you can and can’t do, is something you have to work through. You have to adapt. It’s not just adapting to the physical change; you have to make mental and psychological changes too, decide what your priorities are, where you get enjoyment from and the source of your energy. It’s creative energy that excites me! In my seventy’s life changed faster than I expected. But I continue to write because that renews my life.
And what are the pluses of being in the final quarter, the last phase of life?
Oh, huge pluses! You can get away with a hell of a lot, really. You don’t have to worry too much about how you look, or what you do, or what people think you should do. I think for far too long in life we wonder what other people think of us, or how we look, or things like that. I’ve never been much of a supporter of that kind of stuff; I think it’s important to be who you are as best you can. Some people spend a lifetime accommodating everyone else.
And therefore never giving us their gifts, which is incredibly sad.
It is very sad. I often speak of the six-year-old little girl who spent a lot of time drawing a picture of herself for me, very colourful and very artistic and beautifully done, just on an A4 bit of paper, but on the bottom of it she’d written, ‘I’m the best at being me’. I thought wow, what wisdom coming from a child. I’m the best at being me. I think, ‘Know thyself’ is a pivotal question through the whole of our lives. The joy of life is in finding who you are, in terms of what really makes you who you are, what excites you, and to walk that.
I’ve been writing for years, and talking, about the journey. You walk the trail and the trail walks you.
I love that – both ways.
Something I like to live by, and that I’ve been putting there a lot for years, is… the journey is the destination. We miss so much on the way if we’re driving from A to B and it’s all about getting there as fast as we can and not taking in what we’re passing through. There’s a way of being – Maori have a great phrase for it… ma te wa. It means everything has its own space and time. I think ‘You can’t push the river’ is another way of seeing it. It’s about patience and seeing the bigger picture, about timing as opposed to galloping through time. Of course, ma te wa, that watch-and-wait stage, needs to bring you to a te wa, the moment to act decisively with energy and commitment. The elders taught me to wait for the wairua to move, and then phew! Miracles can happen in seven seconds. What do I mean by seven seconds? Well it takes seven seconds to realise they’ve happened!
That’s good. And that brings me to a question of how do we become in touch with, how do we stay in touch with, the wairua, with spirit, because I think that’s a real missing piece for many?
I think many in society today are diminished by the fact that for hundreds of years now we’ve taken spirit out of the world around us. In the western world the belief in one God took a strange turn. In a sense the Church made God so small that there was a denial of the creative God that is in everything around us. Maori, and the Polynesians and other aboriginal, indigenous peoples, retained the idea that there is spirit in the stone, spirit in the tree, spirit in the rainbow, the clouds, the rain, the river, the mountain and everything. But not just that, they also believe we can connect with it – understand that all are kin. We’re part of it. Now it’s fashionable to say All are One, but one what? What does this actually mean in our lives, our daily lives? For me it’s about honouring the mana* of the birds, the mana of the rain, the mana of the river, your mana; it’s the spirit within you, your spirit, that uniqueness. If we did that, there would be no war and no desecration of the land.
And we would live out our unique lives.
Because we’d have the opportunity. Seeking your truth is sometimes as simple as asking what excites you? Are you excited by water? Do you love rivers, lakes and the sea and swimming in them? Excited by forests and trees? By gardening and growing things? Do whales and dolphins call to you in a way you cannot explain? Do birds fascinate you? Are horses companions, too? Is building houses your thing, and the tools of the trade friends at hand? Do you yearn to farm the land? Is the artist in you drawn to carve and paint, and write and sing and make music? So many things reveal the truth of our journey and hidden depths within us. If we can explore what really excites us, and pursue those things that give us energy, we are sustained in remarkable ways.
But so many think that excitement is in having the latest television, or the latest iPad, or whatever. These are just things. They do not create real relationships; they are tools, and they have a limited life, a use-by date.
So it’s getting to that point of examining what’s within us that wants to be fed, and feeding it.
You must have heard the story about the North American Indian, a grandfather, about him and his grandson, and how there’s been a terrible accident in the family, a car crash, and someone has died, and there’s great grieving. And the young fellow says, ‘Grandfather, how do you feel?’ He’s trying to grapple with his own sense of loss, and the Grandfather says, ‘Well it’s like I’ve got two wolves inside my chest that are fighting’. And the little one says, ‘What are these wolves?’ and he says, ‘Well one wants vengeance, and the other wants healing, wants to forgive the one who’s caused this’. And the little one says, ‘Well, which one will win?’ and the Grandfather says, ‘The one I feed; the one I feed’.
Thank you for telling that story.
Yeah, we have a lot of control over attitude – it’s always what we bring to the table that decides what happens. We can focus on the negative and make our lives small or revel in the miracle of life and hold hope high.
There’s one other thing that comes up for me, and that’s something I referred to right at the beginning. I see you as very connected with the cycle of life – it comes through your cards, and your writing – and so I wonder if you’d be willing to comment on that in relation to living and dying.
I have a dear friend who for many years has counselled those coping with loss and grief. We have lots of interesting discussions around this. One day I told him that my sister, who had lived in a world of endless pain for ten years, explained to me with calmness and certainty that one day she would take her own life. I listened; I understood the pain was becoming too severe and that the medical profession had done their best. I held close all she had shared in complete confidence. A year later she left.
My friend listened quietly and said, “Well, there’s a way of looking at life, and the end of life. Life is a gift, and we have that gift, and we are that gift, and we carry that gift right through, but there comes a time when we can give it back again. We can give it back again”. He said, “That’s what she decided to do; it was time to give it back again. And there should not be any judgment around that. It’s fine!”
Life is a gift. I have precious pounamu* that travel to many people over time. One in particular has gone to those who are coming to their last days. It’s something to hold, something that’s journeyed for millions of years and has an ancient past. It’s played an amazing role their last days. The understanding has always been that it is gifted unto their end. Then it returns to move again.
Like with us and the gift of life.
That’s lovely. I’m very appreciative, Barry.
I have used the Te Aka Māori-English, English-Māori Online Dictionary, reduced to key elements for accessibility.
Māori indigenous person of Aotearoa/New Zealand
Pākehā New Zealander of European descent
tangi rites for the dead, funeral – shortened form of tangihanga.
marae the open area in front of the wharenui [meeting house], where formal greetings and discussions take place. Often also used to include the complex of buildings around the marae.
haka posture dance
wairua spirit, soul – spirit of a person which exists beyond death
mana a supernatural force in a person, place or object
pounamu greenstone/ jade, or something fashioned from