death and taxes

Hey there

I hope you're doing/feeling/being well.

I didn't know where this letter was going to lead me. I'd decided (roughly) what was going in the reading section but the rest took me by surprise.

I like it when that happens.

Let's get to it...

I set It's Only Words aside for a while, put it on the back burner so that I wasn't directly focused on it. I wanted to see if my subconscious would continue to work on it and nudge me if I needed to do, or add, anything to it. Either my subconscious has been lazy or is just being obstinate, either way it hasn't slapped me round the face with a sudden realisation of "you MUST do this!" So, I'm calling it done. The last thing is to now hand it to my daughter who will do a final proof/edit before prepping it for publication.

It will need to be formatted properly for eBook and (hopefully) print on demand then, once I get clearance to include certain references, be made available to the world.

That's such a scary thought. But it shouldn't be, not really. I write and share words with the world every day and I haven't been arrested or assassinated or branded a heretic and cast out of society. I'm not controversial, I don't really upset anyone, and I suppose you could say it's all particularly tame. But "Words" feels different because it's a longer project, the longest single piece I've ever written, it is a big idea that feels like it should have a point, a certain centre of gravity and it's that which makes me nervous.

It's a fear of failure.

The whole thing is really just a vanity project, me putting the events of 2014 behind me — a very personal endeavour. Not only that but, if I never finish anything of this length ever again, it is the realisation of a promise to myself that, one day, I would write a book. In that regard it has a lot to live up to.

It's not about whether anyone actually buys it, I'm under no illusions that it will achieve any great reach or success, but whether anyone who reads it (even if that's someone who I've sent a copy to) gets anything at all from it. The thing about the personal stories of others is that we can see ourselves in them, we can relate to the events and pull out even the vaguest similarities. We extrapolate the tiniest of nuance onto our own experience, conflate it with our own experience and say "yes, I get it, I understand!" We can relate to the humanity of something and, maybe, that's what it's all been for.

Ultimately, I wrote it to close a chapter in my life, to say I'd done it, I had achieved something, whether anyone else read it or not. I think this tempers the nerves — having no expectations, setting the bar so low, negates failure; anything above zero is a resounding success.

Post 2014, I have moved further and further away from the realm of social media, closing my accounts and steering clear wherever possible. I had to re-open a Facebook account for reasons but never use the primary service, only Messenger with family. Beyond that, the only social-esque account I hold is on micro.blog which I primarily employ as an external comment system for the blog instead of as a timeline to get lost in. It has, therefore, been quite jarring for my wife to say that I need to open new accounts to promote the book. Why?

J David Osborne has written about how ineffective social media has become thanks to algorithmic timelines:

"... out of curiosity I checked my impressions. I’m only getting a dozen or so impressions on a tweet to begin with, and as we’ve discussed in the past tweets themselves only have half-life of a half an hour, so that means that my tweets are literally not being seen by my nearly 2000 followers.

At this point, it might be more beneficial to actually contact people directly ... Finding 5 to 10 people and presenting them with the work that you’ve done, so that they can at least know about it."

This echoes my recent approach to life on the web in general: build meaningful 1-2-1 relationships with people, usually via email. That's what these muse-letters have always been about — creating an opportunity to talk, a trigger to start conversations which will hopefully become relationships and, possibly, friendships.

It's hard enough to live your life one-to-many anyway, but when the platforms supposedly promoting that connection deliberately build in restrictions (unless you pay) you might as well give up and try another way.

Reading

Over a couple of days earlier this week I spent some quality time with The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman, getting it finished on Wednesday evening. It was quite eye opening.

What began as a treatise on the false promise of positive thinking — the "cult of optimism" as Burkeman refers to it — with elements of Stoicism and Zen, turned into an examination of humanity's fear, and frequent denial, of it's mortality.

He describes how almost everything in life is an "immortality project" — not physical immortality (we're not that blinkered) but notional, psychological immortality — being part of something bigger than ourselves that will outlast us, of contributing to a society or community or idea that will persist beyond our own death.

I had to stop reading at one point and make a note about people's desire to leave a legacy, something for others to remember them by. Burkeman spent some time in Mexico around The Day of the Dead celebrations to examine how they have a healthy relationship with death. He quotes that people have three deaths:

  • when their bodies stop working,
  • when they are lowered into the ground, and
  • when there are none left to remember them

I think being forgotten, that history will not acknowledge their existence, that they likely didn't matter, scares people more than death itself.

We exist in a constant state of future gratification — things will get better, the rewards will come for what we do — that we forget about the present, the now. The future is never with us and the only thing we can be sure it holds is death, hence the need for a relationship with it.

The ancient tradition of memento mori — remember you must die — is not intended to be a morbid reminder of our mortality but to clarify the mind, to point out that we have all this life within us right now that we should not be wasting. It is, perhaps best paired with memento vivere meaning remember to live, not in a hedonistic "if this was your last day on Earth" way but to ensure that you had no regrets at the end, that what you spent your time doing was worth it.

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" — Annie Dillard.

It all takes me back to being a depressed, angst-ridden young adult, sat at the top of a cliff or by the live rail of a train track. Obviously, I didn't end it all on either occasion but it wasn't due to a fear of death. I think I was comfortable with the idea of death itself. Instead, it was a fear of pain, a fear of what life would be like if it didn't work and having to live with the consequences.

It was a fear of failure.

Next up...

The next book I have started reading is definitely something a bit different — The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen's Most Important Koan. I expect this will take some time to complete and involve lots of re-reading.

And that's it...

I let the words go where they wanted, merely observing them as they appeared on the screen. I don't remember typing most of them but that's likely a good thing — if I wasn't consciously getting in the way then I couldn't censor them. More writing should be like that, it is the most honest.

(And not a single mention of taxes.)

Until next time,
Colin.


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Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog