Writers, Therapists, HUMANS of Instagram

Lately I’ve found myself reflecting on how I use Instagram. It can be such a beautiful tool for connection, can’t it? And I am deeply grateful for the doors it has opened in my life. Pragmatically, it is also a necessary platform for many of us in our work.

There’s been something of a debate recently, too, about how therapists are using Instagram. The role of social media in destigmatising therapy and mental health difficulties has been quite rightly celebrated, as has the humanising of therapists ourselves. Important questions have also been raised about the ethics and boundaries around clinical governance on the platform, and the limitations of offering advice to those whose circumstances we cannot know and for whom we don’t hold responsibility.

In this context, it feels important to say something about the way I post online.

As a therapist I prefer a more guided discovery rather than didactic style in my work. By its very nature this is bespoke, adapting the tools and interventions to an individual’s own current difficulties, circumstances, history and goals. Clearly this doesn’t easily lend itself to bite-sized social media posts, which are designed for broader and often anonymous consumption, and for which a more how-to, off the shelf approach often works better – certainly, it seems, from an engagement perspective. I could post in this more didactic way, but I choose not to. Indeed, I am also clear that my Instagram feed is not therapy.

As a writer, too, my instincts are to dive deep into human stories for the unique jewels each of those stories has to offer. Metaphor often drives this approach. And emotion is very much at the core. My primary motivation is always to keep this as authentic as possible – I want my words to have heartbeats in a way that resonates with the reader’s own.

In order to honour these values as both writer and therapist, therefore, my posts tend to work from within the material of my own lived stories. This is not because I want to generalise from my own experience, as this can be deeply unhelpful, but to normalise and contextualise the human struggle we all engage in, daily.

And because I am indeed human, I don’t always get this right. My hope, however, is that it is real.

On Roots and Ritual

One of the things I love most about self-employment is the chance it gives me to define my own day in a way that serves both my wellbeing and my work. Over the last year I have intentionally slowed my mornings right down, allowing myself a good couple of hours for breakfast, coffee, Italian practice and meditation, all before going anywhere near my desk, and have noticed this has made me much more productive throughout the rest of the day.

I've been much more conscious, too, of when I engage both with emails (never, now, in my PJs, and generally not at all on Sundays) and have come off Facebook almost entirely. The only social media I regularly engage with now is Instagram, but recently something has felt a little off for me even there, and so I decided to challenge myself to a week without logging on to see what emerged.

Mornings have always been my favourite Instagram browsing time – enjoying the treat and inspiration of some very gorgeous squares with my slow coffee after breakfast. And so initially during my week away (which ended up turning into ten days) these were the most challenging times for me. I missed the community and connection. But I also realised I missed the habit. For the first few mornings I almost felt naked without it. 

I’d set myself a series of journalling questions, one for each morning, and slowly these grew into a new routine. Without the (albeit gorgeous) distraction of other peoples lives, stories and images I felt free to go deeper into my own, to lean into places of discomfort and to ask myself questions that I am usually too busy with other priorities to ask; I worked with myself those mornings the way I often work with my therapy clients. I realised some hugely important, and potentially life-changing things. And I read, too, soaking up entire books in just a few days that I'd previously convinced myself I didn't really have time to properly get into. By the end of the ten days I felt rooted, and, dare I say it, real in a way I can't really recall feeling so fully for a long time.

At the end of the “retreat” I was of course excited to get back to posting and to savouring other people’s posts, but in that excitement I quickly fell back into old habits: posting at the right time to serve the algorithm (which for me, because I don’t have one of those fancy post-scheduling apps, means posting in my PJs before I’ve even gotten out of bed) and then attempting to scroll through my entire feed from the previous ten days in order to catch up. Within less than an hour that first morning I felt numb and overwhelmed. Even at my beloved dance workshop later that day I struggled to find the balance or trust in my feet.

Indeed, returning to the app after my break showed me very clearly that my time away had deepened my respect for my roots, the ways in which I need to tend to those roots on a daily basis, and what my priorities are in the resourcing of those roots. And for me that means continuing to read, to journal and to meditate each morning, and not logging on until after I have done these things. Because the way we start our days so often defines the rest of those day, after all, and by being conscious in how we choose to use this precious time, our mornings can become rituals, or even mini retreats if you like; a daily devotional practise, simply, but crucially, for ourselves.

I still love Instagram, and have no plans to leave just yet. But from this point onwards I am committed to engaging with it much more intentionally (and much later in the day), rather than mindlessly scrolling through the feed in spare moments to fill and numb time. Most importantly, from this point forwards, I am clear that Instagram (and its wretched algorithm!) serves me and not the other way round. And as for my mornings, well, I’m excited to see what might grow in their newly cleared space…

On Asking

Where did you get the idea you aren't allowed to petition the universe with prayer? You are part of this universe, Liz. You're a constituent – you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So, put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me – it will at least be taken into consideration. Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m a vicar’s daughter, and I went to a boarding school for daughters of the clergy. I spent every Sunday of my childhood and adolescence in church, we said grace before every meal, and I witnessed my father’s prayers over and over – overheard in his study, on the telephone, late at night in a hot and sticky car as we finally pulled into our drive after family summer holidays, in reports brought back from deathbeds (I might even have found half-composed prayers scrawled on notes left around the house, but this could also be one of those unreliable memories that say more about my desire, as a writer, to find similarities between me and my father, than about what really occurred). And yet, when I first read Liz Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love in my early thirties (and I say first read because it is a book well-worth re-reading, and I have), this passage was the first time I really, fully understood what it might mean to pray. And despite not being at all sure of what I believe in spiritually, I ran with this conception of petitioning the universe in the same way I run with all the shiny new ideas of my lift: excitedly setting out way faster than my level of fitness might allow. And then, for exactly the same reasons, I stopped.

Flash-forward a decade and I’m in my first six months of self-employment, a jump from a secure career that has had me face my relationship with faith and faith’s doubting sibling fear on, at the very least, a weekly basis ever since. The move has also prompted a wider reappraisal of what is important in my life, about the things we hold onto and why; indeed, I’ve thought here previously about what wealth means to me, and by extension generosity. And so it follows that this line of enquiry might eventually lead me back to the things I need, and what it might mean to ask, even if this is much less easy to think about.

Because asking is hard, isn’t it? It’s one of the reasons I sometimes find myself holding my breath the first time I meet someone in therapy, because that first moment of asking is a sacred thing and I feel the same reverence towards it as I do when I walk into cathedrals. Asking takes us straight into the vulnerability arena Brené Brown describes in her book Daring Greatly; an arena into which we usually arrive limping or covered in mud or naked. We ask because we do not have, in some way, and we are generally asking because the other does, in some way. And so there can feel like a power imbalance. In asking we are offering over enormous amounts of trust.

And because asking is hard, it’s sometimes easier to go about it in an oblique way, isn’t it? There’s a wonderful Tori Amos lyric on this: there are some, some whose “give” twists itself to take... I say wonderful despite the fact it makes me wince every time I hear it, because I know I have done this, and on so many more occasions than I care to imagine, however unintentionally – it’s so damn easy to do. Or there are those other times when I’ve left all manner of hints, rather than risk asking in a more straightforward way, in the hope that the other might pick up on my need, and then found myself feeling frustrated or hurt when they don’t. I’ll say it again: asking is hard.

And yet sometimes we have no choice.  For a whole variety of reasons I’ve had to do a lot of asking in the last year. Most recently a plumbing issue in my flat that has necessitated several trips to friends’ houses with rucksacks full of essential laundry to wash in their washing machines, and even though it’s not the biggest or most difficult asking I’ve ever had to do, on one of the occasions, as I sat on one particular friend’s kitchen floor surrounded by my underwear, I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect metaphor for everything Brené Brown describes: this is me at my most intimate, please help.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that all this thinking has led me to reflect on the ultimate in asking: prayer. I still don’t know what I believe in, spiritually (though I increasingly know I believe in something), and, as my thinking has returned to this arena, I’ve also realised that I still don’t really know how to pray. But Liz Gilbert’s conception of petitioning the universe has felt like a good place to start. And so every night as I’ve lain in bed (yes, just like children do!) I’ve made my first stumbling requests and asked my first uncertain questions, blinking into the quiet darkness, and then waited.

The first thing that has struck me (again – I remember noticing this before), is how similar these petitions are to worry (which, as is commonly the case, is a trap I can also fall into at night), only with the syntax and semantics of each plea ever so slightly rearranged. So the worry what if I don’t have enough money this month becomes the request I would like to be sufficiently provided for. The other thing that I’ve noticed, almost immediately, is that my sleep has improved.

But have any of the petitions themselves been answered? Well, in many ways this depends on our definition of answer. Sometimes the simple act of asking has been answer enough. Other times I have had to ask several times before anything close to an answer has made itself known. On a couple of rare (but stunningly beautiful) occasions an answer has quite literally landed in my lap as though it really did come from above. But mostly the answers have become clear within me, and I think this is kind of the point. In this way the act of prayer – its focus and practice and intention – feels like some kind of gentle dilation, through which things – the gifts we all hold within ourselves – eventually become manifest.

Ah, but. Am I not a CBT Therapist? And don’t we say all sorts of things about thoughts not equally facts, and about how magical thinking is unhelpful, and isn’t manifesting just an example of that? Well, no. At least I don’t think so. In fact, I think the whole idea of intentionality is actually very CBT – our thoughts really can and do determine our reality, and both are therefore entirely open to change. So, just as worry or rumination might lead us into dark and anxious places, it follows that prayer or petitioning the universe or manifesting (or whatever else we want to call it) has the potential to take us places, too. And for now that is a good enough answer for me.

Generosity (and a theory of equal and opposite forces)

Back in the depths of last summer (and yes I did say depths – some day I will tell you about how I often view the most vertiginously deep days of summer with the same fallow fears others have about midwinter) I developed a philosophy of equal and opposite forces. Even though the summer would, in the end, turn out to be entirely redemptive, and would give me a glorious brand new life that I still can’t quite believe is mine, the journey through it was, for lots of reasons, incredibly challenging. And so I decided that the only way was to meet each difficult thing with a good thing, and the worse the difficult thing was, the better the good thing had to be in response.

This February I find myself revisiting the idea, though with very different motivations. Because if January was about understanding what wealth means to me, it follows that February is teaching me about generosity. And I’ve learned that, if I am truly honest with myself, I have not been as generous as I would like to be in my life. Though it’s also important to underline that I say this without a whiff of self-criticism or even false modesty; I am simply being transparent about the motives that drive most of us as human beings – on a very basic level we all have to be self-centred to survive, especially through hard times.

And so I have been consciously trying to be more generous. Even at those times when my hunter-gatherer brain fears scarcity. Especially at those times my hunter-gather brain fears scarcity. The philosophy is quite simple: when I feel that I need something, instead of immediately attempting to somehow take (buy, consume, hustle for) it, I attempt to give something of equivalent value away instead. Possessions, time and love all work equally well here. And it works best, of course, as a regular practice, a discipline – kind of like meditation, you know? Especially for beginners like me.

I realise it’s hard to talk about this sort of idea without it sounding like a terrible, clichéd humblebrag. But what I’m discovering actually couldn’t be further from that sort of murky feigned altruism. What I’m finding is entirely self-serving. Because what I’m being shown is that whenever I give something away it is always met by an unexpected (and yet poetically obvious) gift of equal and opposite generosity in return. And what’s more, when I look around at my life I realise that far from things being scarce, I have a limitless amount left to give. And that discovery feels as rich as gold.


As we step out into this brand new year, I find myself thinking about wealth, and what that really means. I’m not talking here about material wealth. Nor am I talking about wealth of experience – the way accomplishment is now synonymous with possession, the way we talk of acquiring knowledge, or the way busyness and its by-product exhaustion are held up as social status symbols in the same way salaries, homes, cars or fancy holidays once were. What I mean is wealth as it exists when we detach it from our black and white language of ownership.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the scarcity myth. Brené Brown describes it in Daring Greatly as the never enough problem, which we see played out on social media, in our families and workplaces, in politics, in advertising, and most damagingly of all, in our own psychological wellbeing. At a time when our species is richer than it ever has been, many of us couldn’t feel poorer. And it’s kind of hardwired into our hunter-gatherer brains to think this way, as Paul Gilbert discusses in The Compassionate Mind: we so often regulate our primal fight or flight system through resource-seeking; the drive to gather what limited resources we believe there are and then hold those resources close, even if that comes at the expense of other people.

Indeed, these ideas are now so subtly pervasive in our culture that even some of the ways we’ve devised to make ourselves feel better rely on the binary language of have or have not. As wonderful as the gratitude journals that always become popular at this time of year can be, they carry an implicit assumption that we should thank our lucky stars for what is in front of us in this moment, because tomorrow it may be gone.  We strive to think positively and to usefully fill our time as a way of casting off the experiences and feelings we believe might deplete us, most especially the losses in our lives. Above all, we commoditise wellbeing, conceptualising it almost as though it were a possession to gain, rather than the life-long process it is.

And as therapist I am not immune to any of this. My decision to take the leap into self-employment last year brings me face to face with these fears on a regular basis. It’s there in my creativity, too, because shiny new ideas are some of the most sought-after, precious possessions of all. And as a human being I would be lying if I said that these fears don’t arise in my relationships, also. At the end of the day, so many of our shared, universal fears are about what will happen when the money, the love and the time runs out.

So what to do? Mindfulness, and some of the newer CBT approaches, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be very helpful. The more we lean into, rather than away from these key fears, the fuller our lives become. As Brené Brown suggests: the opposite to scarcity isn’t abundance at all, but wholeheartedness – the willingness to be all in, even when there are no guarantees. She also has some inspiring things to say about how limitless our generosity can be, once we have the right foundations in place. And Paul Gilbert’s related work is all about how we can develop the third of our emotion regulation systems – our compassionate minds – as a way of soothing threat that doesn’t rely on endlessly striving for more. Both thinkers are also very clear that vital to these approaches is connection rather than competition.

Above all, though, I find most of my solace and guidance in nature. And although it often doesn’t feel like it, so soon after Christmas, this is almost the richest time of the year for all the wisdom the natural world can offer us. That wintering field? What happens to our emotional experience when we view it, not as empty, but as the fertile evolving earth it is? Those first snowdrops, those first glimpses of blossom? As Zen Shin reminds us: they’re not competing with one another, they just bloom.  And one of the most reassuring things I’ve read lately is Robert Macfarlane’s reminder that the mountains will go on being glorious long after our species, with all its destructive consumerism (and need to bag their summits) has gone.

And here’s the thing: on the handful of occasions lately, generally lying awake at night, when I’ve noticed myself fretting about income, or about something that I fear might threaten one of my relationships (and believe me, there have been plenty of occasions in which I haven’t been so mindfully aware), instead of throwing all my new brain problem solving at it (because problem solving is so often worry dressed up in fancy clothes after all), I’ve taken a deep breath, leant into the not knowing (the not yet having of the answers), and asked (and tremblingly trusted) the universe to hold that, so very lightly, alongside me. And on those occasions the sleep, and with the sleep the solutions, have been quick to follow. Indeed, on those occasions I honestly couldn’t have felt wealthier.

So this year I’m taking that as my starting point. Instead of resolutions (often, in and of themselves, things to achieve) I’m looking to the space that surrounds them. I’m taking inspiration from those fallow fields and continuing to hard prune all that doesn’t fertilise the whole of my heart, even if that means difficult decisions. I’m committing to taking a long in and out breath every time I notice the black hole of fear opening up alongside me, leaning into it, and waiting until it offers me all that I need. And beyond that who knows – the language of the universe is so very far from black and white, and thank goodness for it.

Wishing you a 2018 wealthy beyond measure or description, shared with wide open hands and even wider open hearts.

Wellness in unwell places

I’ve not long recovered from a nasty bout of sinusitis, and I know from experience that whenever infection goes anywhere near my sinuses I’m in for the long haul. So I hunkered down and let myself properly rest, taking all the time I needed to fully recover.  And in the end it was one of the most restorative periods of illness I can remember experiencing in a long time.

But it’s not always been this way. Like so many of us juggling busy jobs, families or other commitments, periods of illness can often be inconveniences to be pushed out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to get back on with the business of life. As a therapist I am also aware that illness can be a time many people struggle to maintain emotional wellbeing. One of the things I found myself thinking about while I was poorly, therefore, was how we can look after the whole of ourselves during periods of ill health.

Emotional wellbeing covers many areas – a compass of valued domains, if you will. These include our intimate, familial and broader social and community relationships, our occupations, study and personal development, our spiritual lives if we believe, and our recreation and downtime. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy also believes that emotional health is maintained through balancing both thought and action, and that there are links between physical and emotional health, too. Of course many of these areas are compromised during illness, however there are small things we can do to look after our mental health even when we are not at our physical best.

The first and most important thing, I think, is preparedness. Whenever I finish a piece of therapeutic work with a client, we create a relapse prevention blueprint; a reminder of all the tools they can use should they start to experience difficulties again, and a list of early warning signs to alert them to the fact that they may be struggling. The idea is to catch things early, while there are still plenty of resources to hand. The principle can be applied here, too. While we are well we are much more able to think about the sorts of things that might help when we are not. Think of it as stocking up our mental health first aid kits just as we would those for our physical health. What might we need if we were struggling? What is important to us when we are well, and how could we engage with those things in small ways if we were ill? And it goes without saying that we remember things better if we write them down.

The first stages of illness can of course feel quite overwhelming. We’re often feverish or in pain or simply needing to sleep for much of the time.  This is often the most challenging time for maintaining emotional health, too. Mindfulness and self-compassion can help enormously here, and not least because their practice allows us to focus away from the negative thoughts that so often accompany ill health. How would we treat our best friend if they were ill in this way? What can we see from our bedroom windows, and how does this change throughout the day? The pattern of the hours, their weather, the changing light and the sounds from outside, and giving ourselves permission to experience these, can help locate and soothe us at a time that we might otherwise feel very dislocated and alone.

Which brings us on to relationships and community. We know that at least 13% of us live alone, and this can make any period of illness even more of a struggle. But it’s worth thinking about the people we have in our lives who we can reach out to when we are ill, and gently challenging the beliefs and fears we have that may make us reluctant to do so. It can often help to turn things around and imagine what we might do if someone we knew and cared about were poorly – most of us wouldn’t think twice about picking up a prescription, dropping off some shopping or simply checking in by text or phone, and there’s no reason to suggest the same isn’t true of how our friends and family think about us. And while social media can be unhelpful at times, it can also help maintain vital social connections when we aren’t able to do so face to face.

Periods of illness also allow time for us to revisit the relationship we have with ourselves. In many ways they are enforced retreats, and if we let them they can provide opportunities for review, recalibration and resolution. Along with the mindfulness discussed above, occupying ourselves with forward thinking and planning provides a structure and focus that can help us avoid unhelpful negative thoughts and rumination. But more than this, there are few similar opportunities in our busy lives for extended pauses, and the new ideas, plans and dreams those pauses often give rise to.

But a word, here, about pacing. I can be terribly impatient when I am ill, and will often try and get back on with things at the first sign of returning health, particularly if I have found myself planning lots of exciting things I want to do when I am better. But this of course runs the risk of keeping us sicker for longer. That said, we know that mood is linked to activity levels, and so as we start to feel well again it can help to reintroduce small day-to-day tasks – a shower, making the bed or doing the washing up not only create environments of health, they also reassure us that things are improving. But it’s important to match every chore with a pleasurable reward and time to rest.

And we can think of rewards more broadly, too. Something I have been trying to do more of is treating myself at the end of a period of ill health.  If we’ve spent a long time in bed it can be enormously refreshing for example to buy a new pair of pyjamas, if we can afford to, once we are better – even just changing the sheets will help. My recent period of illness included my birthday, and although I wasn’t well enough to do anything to celebrate on the day itself, it was incredibly comforting to spend some of the day planning belated birthday treats I could weave through the rest of the year. Practically it can also help to replenish supplies of tissues, pain-killers and other medical items as soon as we are better again (and don’t forget to refresh the mental health first aid kit if necessary, too).

In many ways, this is the point at which we realise the gift of health, isn’t it? Emerging, blinking, into the bright fresh air for the first time after a period in bed can be one of the most delicious experiences, with all of our senses heightened, energised and more fully aware. Because it’s at these points that we realise what really matters in life. Which isn’t about rushing forward into busyness, but is instead about pausing and gratefully, healthfully, experiencing this moment, and this moment, and this moment, now.

Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens

Today has been one of those slow, milk-sky January Sundays. The sort of Sunday that calls for good nourishing heart food. And honestly, very little else nourishes my heart the way vintiquing* does (I'm quite sure my heart is part-textured in reclaimed wood, embroidered antique linen and burnished copper). So I'm not sure how I've missed the gem that is Maltby Street Market until now, particularly given that it is home to LASSCO Ropewalk. But that's what right now is for, right? 
*I can't lay any claim to this wonderful word, but am very grateful to Kay Prestney of Kinship Creative for conjuring it up.

Using What We Are Given

On New Year's Eve I discovered that a tour of my flat featured in one of Apartment Therapy's Best of 2016 - a roundup of their favourite posts about making the most of your rented home. Interestingly, the post in question is one all about colour.

I don't know why I didn't post the original tour when it was published back in June. Maybe because, like so many of us, I can sometimes struggle to have the confidence in my own light to fully let it shine. But something is changing in me - maybe I didn't post then because it needed to wait until now.

Last year, rather than resolutions, I chose one single word to define what I wanted to commit to in 2016. Both concept and word worked well for me, so I have decided to do the same again this year. And the word for 2017 is unapologetic. In my writing, in my creativity more generally and indeed in all aspects of my life it's time to come out from behind those dark curtains of maybe and say a full-toothed yes.

I spent New Year's Eve itself at a glorious supper party hosted by my dear friend and creative partner Cathy Pyle. Before the other guests arrived Cathy gave me my Christmas gift, a gorgeous book by interiors stylist Hilary Robertson - The Stuff Of Life. As I opened the first pages we both remarked on the serendipity of being given both the book and the Apartment Therapy news on the same day - and not just any day, on New Year's Eve; commenting that it almost felt like the universe itself was giving me a sparkling message. This really is the stuff of life. Because, of course, part of the gift is in the receiving, and part of receiving is using.

Happy New Year everyone. May all your gifts shine.

The Key

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

I've encountered this poem by Raymond Carver so many times before: in poetry anthologies, in workshops, as an easily sharable meme on social media. I have also, of course, encountered death many times in fiction, and encountered both reported and metaphorical death in poetry. But this Friday morning just gone I had my first encounter with a real-life poet's death through his poetry. 

As I started reading All Of Us, Carver’s collected poems, I knew that he was dead. I knew that he'd almost died of his alcoholism at 40, detoxed, and then had another ten good years (gravy he called those years in his poem of the same name). But I also knew from his wife Tess’ introduction to the collection that cancer found a way to sneak in and take him anyway, when Carver was still so young at the age 50.

I remember first learning about dramatic irony for my English GCSE. But I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did reading Carver’s work. Every time he fished for steelhead, or felt the resonance of foghorns on the Washington State shoreline, or fought with or kissed a woman, I almost couldn’t breathe in case somehow he might hear the future whispering from outside his tea-coloured pages.  But eventually the reader forgets, just as we all do with each turning year.

Until Friday. I read most of my poetry on my morning commute through Croydon, on my way to my work at The Bethlem Hospital. Grey skies. Tramlines. Little scraps of green gardens. Always my tiredness. Perhaps I should have heeded the warning of Wake Up – a piece of writing that is far more flash fiction than poetry, in which Carver and his woman, his South, role play at an executioner’s block in a dungeon museum. But I didn’t. And so I landed at What The Doctor Said (“he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before / I quit counting them”) and realised I was, quite suddenly, in startlingly new territory, and that through the handful of poems that remained I was going to witness Carver die.

And isn't it so much worse to die as a poet? When the task we set ourselves is to notice and contain the essential moments of life; to somehow create an architecture in which those moments can persist? I certainly feel that. The pressure and responsibility of it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve cracked a rib.

Recently one of my poetry mentors asked me why it is that I write. I was embarrassed not to have an immediate answer, especially when she then rattled hers off quite fluently. Of course there is a sort of intuitive feeling (isn’t there always) that has been with me for as long as I can remember, but in that moment I struggled to put that feeling into any kind of words – though perhaps that precise struggle was the beginning of my answer. I have thought a great deal about the question ever since, and of course there are many strands to my answer. And I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that one of those strands is my own desperate greed for life; the ravenous wish to somehow survive my own death through my words (I like the idea of peering out from my own tea-coloured pages, held in 22nd Century hands; of somehow continuing to experience the world through them).

But in his final poems Carver takes a braver route. There aren’t many poems after we learn of his terminal cancer diagnosis, and those that are included are sparse. He writes a lot about holding hands and about kissing. And why wouldn’t he? Because, of course, in poems like No Need (“I see an empty place at the table. / Whose? Who else’s? Who am I kidding? / The boat’s waiting.”) he knows that it is not about the telling, or even the leaving behind, but about making those last moments count. (“I’ve left the key / in the same place. You know where.”)

Earlier in the collection Carver tells a story about a job he had as a teenager, working as a delivery driver for a local pharmacist. On one of his deliveries he met an elderly gentleman in a cravat whose home contained the first private library Carver had ever seen. The man also had stacks of poetry magazines piled on the floor, and while he was waiting for the man to bring payment, Carver leafed through one these magazines, a whole new world opening up in his hands – the possibility of sharing his poetry with others, and of his poetry becoming a living thing in other people's minds. The man ended up giving Carver the magazine, along with a poetry anthology, and as a reader I was left moved by that exchange of wisdom; moved as I always am by the act of passing something down from one generation to the next.

Here is the poem that follows that story:


They’ve come every day this month.

Once I said I wrote them because
I didn’t have time for anything

else. Meaning, of course, better
things – things other than mere
poems and verses. Now I’m writing
them because I want to.
More than anything because
this is February
when normally not much of anything
happens. But this month
the larches have blossomed,
and the sun has come out
every day. It’s true my lungs
have heated up like ovens.
And so what if some people
are waiting for the other shoe
to drop, where I’m concerned.
Well, here it is then. Go ahead.
Put it on. I hope it fits
like a shoe.
Close enough, yes, but supple
so the foot has room to breathe
a little. Stand up. Walk
around. Feel it? It will go
where you’re going, and be there
with you at the end of your trip.
But for now, stay barefoot. Go
outside for a while, and play.

I cried three times reading All Of Us. The first was at Carver’s poem Heels (“A man with socks over his hands / under the night sky.”) And this was the second. Because I realised that of course the business of writing, to borrow Carver’s metaphor, isn’t about the leather vessel but the living flesh inside it. After all, haven’t I seen shoes in museums, and don’t they only ever carry the faintest stain and scent of their previous journeys (as moving as that nonetheless is)? And I cried because in that moment I felt the still-warm flesh of Carver’s hand take the living flesh of mine and place something very important into the vessel of my palm.

And so I arrived at Late Fragment, the final poem in All Of Us, one bus stop away from work, and grateful to have the top deck to myself and the privacy that allowed me to cry for the final time – the sort of tears you shed, not for the passing of a fictitious character you’ve fallen in love with, but for a real person who inhabited a real space in this life, and whose death is therefore just as real. I almost felt, in that moment, like I was beside Carver’s bedside watching the fish-shape of his mouth take its last breath.

It’s a ten minute walk from the bus stop to the therapy centre I work at, along the perimeter fence of The Bethlem’s generous grounds. A line of old oak trees stand like fatherly sentinels, and beyond them the hospital's orchards and wildflower meadows wait for the day, so often still damp with their morning mists as I arrive. The hospital welcomes dog walkers onto its grounds, and so I am used to the huffing sounds of Labradors against the early morning quiet. But suddenly on Friday morning there was a different sound. Birds cracking out of the treetops like gunshots. And then, just like that, the streak of two greyhounds low against the grass, all grey flank and speed and terrifying beauty, naked muscular feet kicking up the earth. I couldn’t do anything else but stop, my mouth falling open.

My god, I hope you saw that Raymond. I said, right out loud.

I’ve left the key in the same place. You know where. He replied.