Life on the edge

15 12 2019


Belinda at Beer 1

I have always been drawn to edgy places. Cliff tops, rocky promontories and river banks, inspire me and open my mind to new possibilities. My brother Stefan loved these places, too, and during his life found a form of freedom in living life on the edge. On a still, hot day this summer, we released his ashes from the cliff at Beer Head.

Ashes are not dignified; they fly wherever they want to fly, and on this hot August day, they did not fly across the sea as we had imagined. Each dipping fuelled the wind, which whipped the ashes into clouds that brought to mind tiny specks of birds amassing to migrate. Looking back over the photographs I took that day, etched into the sky was the smoky shape of my brother’s last flight.

That moment of release stayed with me for some time. Later after the ceremony, I went to see the horses and sat in the meadow for a long while, thinking of my brother and the conversations we had shared about death and dying. Stefan told me several times that he was not afraid of dying; in some ways he was almost looking forward to it, of finding out what lies at the ultimate edge. Before his final operation, one of more than thirty surgical procedures in his long struggle with Crohn’s disease, he joked in his usual edgy way that he might not come back this time. He survived the operation, but the strain of many infections and complications, including two serious episodes of sepsis weakened his heart and he finally lost his grip on life in July.

I reflected that day in the meadow that Life and Death are thoughts we can hold simultaneously. After releasing my brother to the cliff winds, I could climb to the top of another landscape and find there two horses who would purposefully come and stand on either side of me in silent support as I gathered myself for what would come next. I could feel the suffering of loss while felt I sustained.

Later in the year, I came across Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax and found a work that is such a gift of inspiration, I almost can’t believe it exists. The author, a social activist, medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, shares wisdom she has gained from working with people at the edge, including her many years running health clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas, time spent volunteering in a maximum-security prison and sitting at the bedsides of dying people.

“The education I have gained through these experiences – especially through my struggles and failures – has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties and ‘crises,’ might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive emergent and wise – as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”

I love this idea of living from the widest perspective possible. To live from this position takes courage and an edgy openness. My brother lived in pain for more than half his life and even though he would never have chosen to live with Crohn’s, the suffering he experienced sharpened his appreciation of life. When I look back over this year, it’s been a journey of intense loss and incredible gain and I know, thanks to my reading of Standing on the Edge, that I want to continue to investigate every bit of it.



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