Lowther College choir image

Two films in a row about surviving in god-awful conditions – one up a mountain, the other in an ocean. We live vicariously through such others. The brave ones. The ones who pit themselves against a greater force than the day-to-day rolling of existence. So it is for most of us. Or is it? Are most of our lives rather more magnificent than we realise? I think about the ending to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The heroine who wanted, nay yearned, to achieve so much, to make a difference. When in the end all she did achieve was the strength to tell the truth – to follow her heart, ‘to let’, as Mary Oliver writes ‘the small animal of her body love what it loves.’ Isn’t it enough? Do we have to climb mountains, shipwreck on a sea to be extraordinary?

A picture of a girl in a school choir. Third from the left on the front row. I rarely sang. I didn’t trust my voice but I liked the belonging – the being there. I loved the ritual. The sounds of voices in unison. The candles. The exoticism. I watched. I observed.

Not much changes. We, the things that make us us become set. Don’t they? I still watch. Though I suspect I participate more than I realise. I ache with desire. Desire to be like Dodo – to make a difference. What can I do? What difference can I make? Joe Simpson in Touching the Void was so articulate (with hindsight) about his closeness to death. That terrible crevasse. That deep dark coldness. He survived by making decisions. Giving himself goals to achieve. Pulling his exhausted body with its broken leg across the glacier. I will get there in 20 minutes. Do it, do it, now. And Pi in Life of Pi acknowledges that Richard Parker the Bengal Tiger kept him alive, alert – gave him the fear to keep going.

I have finished my thesis. Handed it in. What now? I want to do so much. My mind reels with it all – what about this, or that, I could do that, no that. Round and round. While all the time knowing that I need to stop, to rest, to wait, to watch. To pay attention. Let it be. Wait. I don’t want to do the same thing again. I want to change. To transform. To become more myself. Does that make sense? It is an uncomfortable place to be. I am not in danger. I am safe. I know this and am thankful. I am not used to the space. I am a worker. I keep busy. How would it be to have that time before death? That space of grace. Waiting, watching suddenly becoming aware of the closeness of everything. That intensity. Mark Doty saw it during the death of his love. I think I saw it when my father died. I saw it before my mother-in-law died. Nothing else is left. The body has served its purpose. There is nothing else to say. There is just the peace of nothing. If I let the nothing be what will come? Anything? Something else?

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.