Some Wise Advice from our New, or very Old, Neighbour

Well, we did it.

We moved house.

It’s been our goal for over a year. The hopeful thing to head towards. To move into a new home in Kent, so that we can realise our ambition of founding an Improbable Creation Centre here – an ark for the arts.

With this grand, life-affirming vision in mind, right before Christmas we finally got the keys to our new home. We crossed the threshold. But, along with the jubilation, we felt, almost at once, sadness. It made me think of my husband’s current show – My Neighbour Totoroin which a family move into a new house, out of the city, yet their excitement is tempered by the reason for their move: the mother’s serious illness. The show’s atmosphere is both joyful and melancholic, playful and haunted. I have felt this here. Along with the couple in the flat at number 4, it’s as if Death has been round to drop a postcard through the door. 

“Hooray! Our house! A new beginning!” we cry.

“Welcome,” writes Death. “I live on this road too. So glad you made it.”

She/ he/ it/ they (if anyone has the right to claim ALL the pronouns it’s Death) has greeted us in many different ways since we moved in.

There was the night, in the first week after our move, when my husband and son went out for a stroll, and very nearly never came back – they had a close encounter with a speeding car.

There was the flu I caught over Christmas – the worst I’ve had in years – and I marvelled, as you do when you crack a rib from coughing too hard and your temperature reaches 40 C, at how death, as a noun, seems so final, and yet as an action – dying – it sits on a slippery continuum with living, and it doesn’t take much to feel yourself slide towards it.

There was the afternoon, not long after new year, when I learnt about the phrase ‘sniper’s alley’ to refer to the age- my age, my husband’s age- fifty, sixty, when you might get struck down – as if these years are a perilous passageway you have to try and sneak through unscathed, to have a chance of skipping on into your eighties. And that same day, I walked in on my son’s first person shooter game playing on the TV – except he was accessing it remotely, on his Playstation Portal, so the room was empty. It was eerie to stand there, watching the weapon aimed, fired, over and over. As if Death had crept downstairs and was taking a turn on the games console.

And then there is the new house itself. Not so new. A parsonage built in 1860, and owned by an eminent physician – William Warwick Wagstaff- who wrote a tome on osteology here, which my husband gave me for Christmas. A book about bones. There are skeletons in the cupboards.

But over and above anything else, are the losses that keep coming. These began before our house move, but have continued since. Some closer in, some further out, but I feel the shock waves of each run through the intersecting communities in which each person lived: Andy Smart; Keith Johnstone; Marcello Magni; Nicky Singer; Emma Gladstone, Steve Paxton.

Part of me doesn’t want to put these people in a list – as if they were merely an accumulation, when they are each so much themselves, and when loss is not a number, but a feeling – both precise and huge.

But Death is like that – same as life: both precious in its particularity, and ruthlessly indiscriminate – it happens to everyone.

How to respond then? When Death comes knocking? Or lets herself in, settles down in your living room? Not that she wasn’t always already there, but there are times when her presence – like grief, like any absence – is more keenly felt. Harder to ignore. Still, I have been trying my best, as you do. Keeping busy.

And life is busy.

I’ve all the boxes of stuff to unpack.

A hundred things to mend, replace, paint, in the house.

A relaunch of M/Others who Make with a new programme of activity to pilot.

Another novel to write.

A new show to make – Lifeline that I made at 25, now reimagined at 50.

A creation centre to make happen.

Two neurodivergent, home (un)schooled children to raise.

People to recruit and gather so that it is possible to do even half of the things on this list.

I have been feeling overwhelmed – submerged in life-lists – a kind of drowning on land. So, I try to fight my way up for air and when I do I experience a sharp pain under my left arm. My bone – cracked at Christmas- has been slow to heal. Every time I take a deep breath in, I am needled. Prodded in the ribs.

So, in the end, I can’t ignore him anymore. I have to stop, to turn.

“Hi,” I say. “Hi Death.”

“Hi,” he says.

“What do you want?” I ask Death.

“What do you want?” he says right back.

Which is a good question.

I know what I don’t want. I don’t want to ‘seize the day’ – carpe diem – which is what the presence of Death is supposed to counsel us to do. I feel my sense of overwhelm comes from seizing rather too much of too many days. Pouncing on them, as if they were my prey, I, a predator, hungry for life – except somehow in the fight, I end up the victim, worried, like the cat worries the mouse, in danger of being killed off by my own life. I am confused.

“Try P50 of The Shaman’s Body by Arnold Mindell,” says Death, from the cupboard, where the bones and the books are.

“Right,” I say weakly. “I will.”

There’s an exercise in that book (same book I used back in September to tell a lie about my life) called, ‘Use Death as an Advisor.’ Mindell writes of how, in many traditions, Death is seen as a wise guide, and so he instructs you to:

“Feel what it might be like to die…Imagine how you will die, what you will look like, what you will experience. It is important not only to think that you are going to die, but to imagine what will happen next. Go through the details of the death fantasy…”

To an extent this is an old game. Death and I go a long way back – we all have death fantasies, right? They have taken different forms at different ages: when I was little, I was going to be murdered in my bed; as I got older, crashes – car or plane – came into vogue; then terrorist attacks. When working as an aerialist, if I had to do any harness work, equipment failure was most likely to finish me off. And, predictably, as I have aged, illness – body failure – has taken centre stage.

But, regardless of the form, with each of these fantasies, I have looked, then looked away. Right at the point of death, I pull out of the image, like a horse refusing a jump, only to turn and go back to the start – replay the horror, but never go beyond it, never actually die. Mindell instructs you to go the whole way. If you are going to dream of dying, then you should do it properly.

I’ve been trying. It’s bloody hard. The resistance is unbelievable. More than anything else, what stops me is not death itself, as what I would have to leave behind – in other words, my children. Even in fantasy, it feels terrifying to let them go on alone. But then I wonder whether there is something important in my stubborn refusal even to countenance this – whether this is the part that most needs to be bumped off. I remember a Maya Angelou quote which has stayed with me through the years, because it lays down a challenge that seems impossible:

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence…Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

There is a humility in this – in accepting the difficult paradox that I am at once unique, irreplaceable, and finally disposable – things will carry on without me. So, this morning, before anyone else was up, I took a deep breath – my last – and I did it, at least on paper: I died.

I will spare you the details of my demise – it would be too long (I dragged it out – a lengthy disease) and it would feel strangely immodest, like stripping off in public. But I can share that it was surprising. Knowing I had limited life left, I didn’t want to go sky-diving, or visit the Bahamas. I wanted to have breakfast. A bath. To marvel at the water pouring from the tap. Sensation, sound, texture were what mattered. And time stopped looking linear. It felt more like an island I was resting on, one which got smaller, but only in proportion to the sea and sky growing steadily more vast.

All of which helps, as I find myself – or someone with my name – still alive this afternoon. The ‘to do’ list seems less onerous. Less like things that must be achieved, and more like an interesting collection of possibilities – I am curious about which of them will happen. I look at my children too with less fret more joy – realising how easy it is to turn each child into a kind of anxious to do list of problems to address, rather than an unfolding life which I am witnessing.

It’s not happily ever after, of course. Death is still around, ensuring there are endings. My son nearly choked in a cafe earlier today, turning blue, but – thank goodness – a lady on a nearby table knew how to do the Heimlich manoeuvre, so he is still here, alive. We thanked the lady. But I feel a debt to Death too – not only for letting my boy go, but for being our new neighbour, for greeting us.

“Thanks,” I say.

“No problem,” she says. “Any time.”

She asked me earlier what I wanted. I am startled by my answer now – I want her. Not because I want to die. Not because I want any of those recent losses to have happened. But because I think we need Death as a part of our next chapter. And while I am still afraid, I am also glad – glad of the water pouring from the tap into my hand. Glad of breakfast. Glad of the skeletons in the cupboard, but also the hard structure underneath my skin. If we are going to make a Creation Centre happen, Death has to be on our charitable Board of Directors. If I am going to make anything new of whatever time I have left on this island we call Life – other books, some shows, a home – I would not be without her. Because an island is precisely that portion of land that is not submerged, not overwhelmed, but instead stands proud of the water, encompassed and defined by the wide emptiness of sea and sky around it.

And you?

Can you dream of dying, now? Can you go the whole way through the dream?

And if who you are died today, who might you be tomorrow?

What neighbourly advice might Death give you about your life?

Artwork by Xavier Singer-Kingsmith @xotuski



    My grandparents brought me up, and for many of my formative years, I believed that they were my parents – because of this, I encountered death earlier than my peers. I tried to talk about my experience of death to my friends at the time but soon realised that they could not comprehend the knowledge that I was attempting to share with them.
    I have worked in theatre and the arts for many years now, and my journey and my Mexican roots have led me to delve into ritual and shamanic practice, and this has led to delivering projects that embrace the concept of death.
    In 1994, I made a ritual on a large scale both in Nottingham and Manchester that was a homage to my mother, who died by her hand. The following is a link to the photographs of The Clayman project and a review. The project was produced before the digital revolution:

    Recently, my friend, mentor and collaborator Ray Brookes died, and there was talk of making a smaller version of the ritual again. It would no doubt be less epic.
    I recently attended the STAMP Connects event at Shoreditch Townhall and met one of your colleagues to propose possibly making this happen at Improbable’s new creation centre. I was due to contact you when I saw this !! The website below is temporary but contains further links.

    • matildaleyser

      Thank you for this. Please do still contact us to discuss making this happen at Bore Place, our new home-to-be. It is certainly the kind of thing we want to make happen there.

  2. Charleen Agostini

    Thank you Matilda – I read you twice – strangely relaxing….actually welcoming…..saying Yes many times…..thank you for the generosity of your openness – my heart warmed and softened as I FELT what you are writing….feels like a gift. Thank you.
    As time passes and I grow older – now 82 – it often feels like I am slowly dying – which I am. Learning to surrender to the process is the daily challenge….in a way that is kind and soft, thank you again for helping me along the way,,,,,,,,,,

    • matildaleyser

      Thank you for these very moving words. We are all slowly dying – some more slowly than others – but it is the surest part of living. Sending love xx


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