What do New Year resolutions mean? Nothing, I have discovered, unless you resolve your old year’s first. In September I was diagnosed with colon cancer and since then, I’ve had time to think about time. It seems as though my past years have collapsed, one after another, one into the other, until I can see my experiences both all at once and as a long train of hours. Everything I’ve been has brought me to where I am now. I must look backwards to move forwards.
I am not dying, yet I think much more about mortality. According to certain Eastern traditions, at the moment of death there occurs an unravelling — one revisits one’s life in reverse, unspooling from the Now into the Before, like a movie with the production credits rolling first. It is said that certain Tibetan masters even un-whirl as a ‘rainbow body’ — their decaying physical form spiralling off in a spectrum of colours, a kind of transcendental disco ball.
I think that, given another 1,000 years or so, I might perhaps manage to expire in the mild glow of a pale orange. Still, unenlightened though I am, my current situation has forced me to see things that I have stubbornly resisted seeing. Quite simply, my past years have not been what I thought they were.
Cancer doesn’t make your life slow down. Instead, it puts you on the fast track — you have to decide, very quickly, what matters and what doesn’t. Pleasure and pain take on new faces. On the surface, it would seem that pain is having to go for chemotherapy or landing in hospital, intravenously fed with salts and other people’s blood. Pain is surveying your body and the bruises and scars that now appear on it. Most stingingly, pain is laughing with dear friends, only to feel the pang of realising that nothing lasts forever.
But in the brutal light of clarity, if I were to be perfectly honest, it’s not as though I’ve never felt such pain before. More astonishingly, I find that the very same kinds of pain have been associated with the most mundane of events — such as fishing about in my sock drawer and discovering I can’t find a matching pair. You may laugh, but I’ve felt sad, angry, even desolate at my inability to find a missing sock.
Of course, the pain attached to cancer is a longer-lasting and thus ‘graver’ kind of grief. Yet the same germs of pain — the seedlings of fear, frustration, longing — have also lain in the trivial moments of my life. There’s the pain that’s attached to an immediate situation, and there’s the pain of realising that nothing is happening as I planned. At 40 I have been diagnosed with cancer; at 8.15 on a Monday morning I cannot account for my socks. I don’t have the things I thought I had, I am losing control. That is the deep agony.
Yet there is a deeper truth. When I realise that my cancer is only magnifying my control-freakiness — and that I have anyhow already spent a lifetime losing things — I feel rather better about everything.
And what of pleasure? I am not rich by any means, but having been a financial journalist and then a ‘lifestyle’ writer, I have travelled a fair bit and been invited to share in the ‘high life’ (for review purposes). Sometimes I’ve been truly happy; other times not. Your hell is where you make it. I have, believe it or not, felt upset while being lodged in a six-star Bali resort — with Jamie Cullum and Sophie Dahl in a nearby suite — because I believed the hot water wasn’t running properly.
I brought into what could have been the most fun parts of my career an ingrained habit of box-ticking, of deciding what a perfect life must look like, then trying madly to achieve it. Ambition is great, but not when you’re constantly beating yourself up about not being somewhere else, at the expense of enjoying where you are. In my frenzy to get everything out of life, I’ve often squeezed the life out of everything.
Worst of all are the moments I spent occupying what I now call ‘dead time’. These are the hours wasted watching TV shows I’m not interested in, reading books people tell me are worthy but I find a snore, Googling zombie-like the internet in the belief that something life-changing awaits me at the next click. At these times, it seems to me, my soul was inert, pale, dulled. I might as well have been dead. In fact, I think I was.
Do I wish I had been nicer than I have been at certain times? Yes, but not as much as I wish I had been nastier when the moment called for it. How many times have I bitten my lip and muttered what I thought people wanted me to say? How many times have I tried desperately to conform, not realising that my desire to fit in already puts me in commonality with 99 per cent of the population? I don’t want to be nice — I’d rather be true.
I can view my life as a string of beads, and every time I have a new experience I add another bead to the necklace. There are shiny beads, dark beads, half-half beads. And it’s all OK, because wishing for a completely glowing necklace would mean being caught in the box-ticking trap again. My life has been all right, is all right.
But I would like to aim for more of those shiny beads. Because now the light-filled moments of my life appear to me with a shocking clarity. These times hardly ever involve effort, and always involve people. Spending an afternoon with friends drinking Indian pulled tea in Singapore; receiving birthday surprises from family in Kuala Lumpur; visiting a Christmas fête in north London with a colleague. Such moments zoom back to me now, and something in me cries and breaks. The walls between pain and pleasure crumble, and I see life in its totality.
This coming year, I resolve to do more of the things that make me feel awakened rather than dead. I’ll lean into uncertainty a bit more, and see what treasures lie there. I’ll try to say what I mean and mean what I say. I aspire to open my heart as much as possible to friends, and to vulnerability, and to love. I want to fashion my own rainbow, my own groovy disco ball.
This coming year, I want to live.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012