We all die. Now, there’s a cheery start to the new year. We generally avoid dying too soon, although there is no exact measure for ‘too soon’. Sometimes, we may deliberately risk or even sacrifice our lives to save others. I have not done the sacrifice bit. I suppose, if I had, I would have to be a ghost writing this. I don’t believe in ghosts. Well, I don’t believe in ghosts who can write. I have, on a few occasions, risked my life for others, but that’s not something I want to talk about right now. To get back on track, I want to say: although we all die, and we rightly avoid it most of the time, actually dying is not something I usually worry about. I say that not to boast, but because I think it is strange. I worry about most other things.
Of course, if you are a religious person, you may believe that there is a kind of continuation after physical death. So, you continue – not in your body, but in something called a spirit. So, your spirit goes somewhere else: heaven perhaps or hell. For some folk, there’s even an in-between place: neither heaven nor hell but a kind of waiting. It is maybe like the way I feel when I accidentally come across a soap on TV, and I am hypnotised by it for a few minutes. I keep watching for something to happen, but it never does.
I have known a few people who ended their lives because they could no longer face living. It sometimes happens when a person has been hurt terribly. Many things in our lives can hurt us very badly. We should do all we can to help people who feel beyond help. That’s why I’m relieved that Dundee will soon have a 24-hour crisis centre, staffed by people trained to listen and to offer support. It came about largely through the campaigning of people like Phil Welsh and Lesley Nicoll, who ensured that their son Lee, who died just 27 years old in 2017, will always be thought of fondly by thousands of people who were never lucky enough to meet him. I hope the Dundee centre saves lives. If it saves just one life, it would be worthwhile. There’s also a young man in Aberdeen, Danny Thain, who is fighting for a centre there, and he should be supported by us all. Anyone who sleeps out in the cold in Aberdeen, to raise awareness of suicide prevention, is worthy of respect. Or a medal!
Although, as I said, I don’t ‘usually’ worry about dying, I have in the past worried that I might not want to keep on living. That happened partly because I saw too much hurt in my professional role as a Welfare Rights Officer. I saw hundreds of men and women who were driven to actual despair or near despair because of the poverty, hunger, and anxiety a cruel system subjected them to. That wasn’t in Dickensian times, or in the 1930s, it was in recent years. And that war goes on. It’s of no consequence to merely wish it were not so; it only matters that we pick a side and fight on the side of the suffering in any way we can. From a few coins dropped into a beggar’s cup to leading strikes and demonstrations to protect worker’s livelihoods. Some people, like me, need time to rest and to heal; and then we return, again and again, battered and bruised but undefeated, to this or that bit of helping others.
In 2023, I want to survive but not just survive, although that’s always a good starting point. I want to also feel as alive as I possibly can. It’s sometimes called ‘thriving’. That’s why I intend to continue writing and walking around chunks of Scotland. Revisiting familiar places like Fife and Pitlochry and visiting for the first time places in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. I want to walk in those places where the air is saturated with history, where I can listen out for echoes of long-gone voices of crofters, farmers, workers, and other fighters.
I am looking forward to the days ahead when the sun is shining like hope itself and I can walk along coastlines where sky and river are so blue that it’s like a wizard has infused the whole world with extra brightness. All along the 116 miles of the Fife coastal path, you can see that kind of magic. And, if you look at the blue sky and the blue of the Firth of Forth, you quickly see that the blue is full of different shifting shades.
I noticed the other day, near St Andrews – there was a middle-blue, neither dark nor pale, poised above the horizon -which seemed wonderfully distant, and lower down in the sky towards the level of the river, there was a different vast stretch of very pale blue, as if the sky decided to dilute itself at that stretch but leave the blue above it more concentrated. The contrast and the seamless blending looked like – forever.
In rivers too, I have noticed there are different shades, but there are many more shades than in the sky, and in rivers the shades change and combine constantly. In the Firth of Forth, it is like the river is painting itself and then changing its mind and painting something new. “I’ll just try this dark green against this patch of blue” the river thinks. “Now, I’ll paint over it with a different blue. Now, these waves need to gleam a bit more. Flecks of bright gold or white. Yes! And those waves over there – a lot more sparkle needed, so a thousand silver stars might do the job.” And often, it’s far too quick and wonderful to guess what the river could be thinking. Greens and blues blend and blend, and the speed and beauty of all the changes never stops being astounding. As you stand there on the hill above the river, with waves and vast distance reflected in your eyes, you begin to realise – what a wonderful world we will always be a part of.