Just back from a quick weekend visit to Berlin, my old home town from 1992 to 1998.

It was grizzly, wet and cold weather and the city was looking as forlorn and unappealing as it possibly could. Lots of my friends were sick and ill and I wondered as I wandered across the bleak wasteland that is the ‘Regierungsviertel’ why on earth I had come back in the dead-end of winter.

But a few hours later I was drinking hot ginger tea in a Prenzlauerberg bar with a couple of friends and enjoying the sort of serious but animated conversation that Berlin still thrives on.

I was puzzling the fact that ‘my’ Berlin had been overwhelmed by an influx of English speaking ‘hobby-Berliners’, drawn there by the international glamour of the city and cheap(er) rents. The old, grumpy German-speaking Berlin (which I experienced as ghastly-hard but authentic) has been covered up by a much more friendly, tourist-inflected confection of coffee-bars, graffiti art museums and more coffee-bars. This makes the city a much easier place to hang-out but somehow seems to have comotosed the rude recalcitrance of Berlin into something much more compliant and consumerist.

Adrian, an artist, art fabricant and magician of wood, pointed out that thousands of very talented people are drawn there by the art scene but only a tiny fragment will make it. This is largely due to a shift in the art market towards the ephemeral and ‘fashionable’ (which is actually a society-wide shift towards the consumer mode.) Previously, artists and gallerists would have a long-term relationship which would pay off in a long career of varied work and stably-rising prices. Now the “market’ has become the driving mechanism and, as everywhere, the market is interested in the new and instantly saleable rather than long-term investments. This means that even among successful artists there can be a terribly short shelf life.

Adrian has built his robust career on honing his skill as a ‘maker’ and he spoke of an book by Hans-Ulrich Obrist about how in the long run only people with ‘skills’ will flourish. In a world of conceptual art, the ability to work with wood and marble and metal and often hard-to-access ‘stuff’ becomes a lasting anchor. Adrian has made a decision to stay put, to hone a skill, to work day-by-day to improve that skill and he knows that it’s a good bet. Concepts are too cheap. The speed and ephemerality of ideas make them particularly prone to consumer erosion.

This ties in with what I was saying in the last post about the tick-tock of anxiety. Placing your existential eggs in the basket of thought is a perilous decision. Because thinking is so fast and erratic, one is always anxious about breakage. There is much to be said about resting in the concrete, staying put and honing a skill.

Translating Adrian’s professional aperçu into my world, then it becomes about people rather than materials. The skills I have to hone are teaching and therapy and my workstuff is the human mind and its wellbeing. But his decision to hone and engage with stuff is inspiring in other ways.

For a long time I’ve suspected that daily engagement with the actual stuff of the world rather than our thoughts about it, leads to mental health. Our consciousness according to Alva Noë arises because we have brains in bodies that move in a world. The essential component of heightened consciousness is that the body is emplaced in a vibrant and ever-challenging and refreshing world. Not a stale simulacrum of thoughts. In short, too much thinking kills us.

I was staying with my very action-orientated friend Tamsin who juggles a magnificent family of children, a challenging journalistic career, a novel-writing strand and a panache with vegan chocolate and home-made cosmetics. That level of relentless doing makes me quail a little – but as she points out: the doing breeds energy. Just as thinking makes us anxious, there is a certain kind of doing that is not addictive workaholism but is a virtuous generator of connection. So although Tamsin is working non-stop, the daily interaction with children, colleagues, cocoa-butter feeds back into her consciousness and enlivens it.

I would hazard a guess that this kind of doing (like Adrian’s daily battle with steel and oak) is tempered or made wholesome by interpersonal context. This is what stops “healthy doing” becoming “anxious doing”. We need to stay rooted in the world and other people.

Reading Iris Murdoch’s letters she writes to her French lover, Raymond Queneau: “ I don’t care a hang this evening about anything theoretical. I care so much more about people, indeed I always do.” Elsewhere she says: “Being incarnate is a business”. Which strikes me a doubly wonderful. The flesh and bone of being human as a joyful activity.

This may seem to run counter to the thrust of meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ – but this trip to Berlin, damp as it was, has pointed out that too much ‘being’ (especially when it actually involves endless thinking) can make you liable to paralysing anxiety and thence selfishness. The ‘business’ of the embodied brain moving in the world creates consciousness but not just an embodied one but a socialised one. I suspect that that “world context” contributes to a sense of inter-subjectivity that is crucial for well-being.

Perhaps it was just the gloomy weather and a fluey headache, but when I stepped into a coffee-shop to escape the rain on Saturday and was surrounded by a host of dozens of young ‘Berliners’ all staring at their glowing laptops, I felt the city had become depressingly unsocialised in the way that swathes of London and Manhattan have.

Adrian’s boyfriend was telling me about epiphytic plants which are not directly parasitic on the tree they dwell on but rather hop on the branches and commit ‘resource piracy’ – not eating the tree but taking up a lot of the airspace. One of the disturbing aspects of New Berlin is that it is becoming – like so many places – full of people who don’t directly drain the place they live in but don’t seem to connect to it either. Most of the international “Berliners”, for example, don’t speak German and have created enclaves where it’s not necessary. This self-soothing bubble existence can be terrible selfish. That’s not true of the trunk of German Berliners who have shown, for example, inspirational welcome to the Syrian refugees but more to the international epiphytic ferns that have come to nest in Berlin’s branches.

Making ends meet, planning your great start-up, securing your big art deal: these are the typical activity of your 20s these days and they are hedged around with anxiety. But how much more anxious are they in the epiphytic atmosphere that has no real roots in the otherness of the world and wants to create a ‘safe’ bubble of curated space. Planning without doing, being ‘awesome’ without actually being anything in the real world, sipping lattes instead of getting things done. It’s alarming to me – because (of course) it reminds me so much of me – but also because it is going to lead to an enormous sense of disappointment when the “Berlin” bubble pops and people have to make it in the real world of big roots, thick trunks and winter weather.

I spend most of yesterday having cups of tea and meals with different people, talking about the desire to break free of the humdrum patterns of life and the hypnotic compulsion of ‘to-do’ lists. How to unwind the daily grind – what the French concisely call “le train-train”.

It’s only three weeks since I came back from Colorado but I’ve been keenly aware of le train-train pulling into the station and not leaving. It’s a very deep-rooted mental system (akin to those other ones that I worked through in Crestone) but one that is particularly activated when I get home from travel and settle down to the routine of “getting things done”.

Like the jerry-rigged beliefs of childhood that serve us very poorly as we get older, so the idea of “I have to do this” gets in the way of a life well-lived.

Of course, we all have our own idea of what a “life well-lived” might look like, but I wager most of us know deep down that the way we live right now is not it.

I hear over and over from so many of my friends about hair-crisping amounts of stress; of to-do lists as long as the Nile; and whirring, flailing cogs of planning and agitation that prevent even the smallest crack of pleasure or relaxation from entering our days.

Many of us wake up and turn on our phones. We read the news and rush to work. We answer emails on the bus and tick off to-do lists in the elevator. There is a perpetual displacement of a “life well-lived” until we have cleared the desk of all the things we need to do. “I’ll read that book / write that novel / live my life when I have some spare time”.

But, of course, there is never spare time in le train-train. The daily grind is just that – it grinds the ‘life well lived’ into dust. And it’s awful.

It’s awful and heart-breaking and – when I’m free from le train-train, through meditation or Ayahuasca or moments of grace – then I’m moved to tears by the sheer waste and tragedy of it. How can I live in such a beautiful world – where there are worms and hawthorn bushes, birds-foot trefoils and chalk cliffs, crocuses and people’s funny moods – and sit trapped in the grey reclusion of “I must do this, I must do that”. Where is the radiance in that?

William Blake, (Reggie’s favorite poet) creates a whole mythology where the demiurge Urizen chains humanity in manacles of Concept. Slavishly entrained by the drumbeat of “I must do this, I must do that”, the imaginative life, Los, is forgotten and dies.

Since coming back from the snowy heights of Crestone, I have come face-to-face with the structures of Urizen very strongly in my life. I have been waking every morning in a dull sweat and swept instantly off into a ceaseless stream of cruel to-do lists. Even an hour’s meditation and lots of lovely teaching has barely dented the hypnotic strength of this internal drumbeat.

Crestone taught me very viscerally that the only way to undo these internal structures is to see them so clearly that they can no longer be ignored. Subconscious structures are the worst because they structure without our knowledge. This drum beat was becoming more and more audible, more and more unbearable.

One way of responding to this relentless rhythm would, indeed, be to flee. To get on a plane and travel to the Hindu Kush or go scuba-diving in the Cook Islands. And as I found in Colorado and Bahia, there is a disruptive salve in these rupturous journeys. The rupture makes le train-train visible.

However, tempting and delicious as the vision of ‘complete rupture’ may be, there is a part of me that feels that that is not the answer. I suspect that the minute I get to Qarabolq or Turoa Beach the drumbeat will still be there. And besides, if I can’t get peaceful along the chalky downlands of the South of England then surely there’s something wrong with the circuitry not with the location?

I realised that I had been weirdly in denial of my locality since coming back from Colorado. It was perhaps the power of the Sangre di Cristo mountains- imperious and daunting but intensely enchanting – that still had me in their grip. Usually, the very first thing I do when I get home from my travels is to take a walk up the cliffs near my house and look out over the English Channel and the sweep of the beach east to Seaford Head; and the charismatic Georgian seawall at the mouth of the Ouse which curves out like a friendly arm towards the horizon. This landscape of chalk and clay, river and sea, was what drew me magnetically to Newhaven three years ago. It has been a daily comfort to me – but weirdly since coming back from Colorado, I hadn’t been up there once. Almost a month had past without me making that local pilgrimage.

Since I woke feeling particularly train-train this morning – a bit coldy, a bit tired – it took some effort to drag myself out, but the sun was shining and the town was busying up for the day. White vans parked along the recreation ground waiting for their deliveries to load; the boats in the marina making their cling-cling-cling sound; the birds in the thick tangles of gorse and hawthorn singing up a racket. And the February sun bringing everything into sharp focus.

As I climbed behind the redbrick fort (built to defend against Napoleon and now pleasingly crumbly), crested the hill and saw the sea all magnesium-white with the morning sun, I wondered, out loud: “Why have I not been up here?”. This locality is my sustenance and it also anchors me. And in its magical force-field the drumbeat of the train-train faded away.

One of my clients yesterday was talking about how much pleasure he gets from playing the piano. Real, unentangled joy. And that piano playing is an island of autotelic pleasure in an ocean of grinding, anxious thinking. And, as is often the case, I thought how clients describe and elucidate what I too experience. Identifying a joy, independent of outcome, is what can undo the misery of le train-train. It’s like Kryptonite for habituated grind. Because once you’ve experience that sort of free-floating joy (doodling, reading a poem, looking at a patch of grass, singing in the shower, erotic daydreams) then the thin justification for relentless busyness dissolves all at once.

Who is that ‘they” that we’re always working for? What is the “terrible thing” that will happen if we don’t get everything on our to-do list finished? What is more important than being content in the here-and-now?

I don’t have answers but these sort of rhetorical questions put me in mind again of William Blake whose (mostly indigestible) prophetic books are often page after page of questions. The puzzle of Urizen’s hold on us isn’t solved in a day – but I intuit that finding joy where you are might well be the answer.

O Urizen! Creator of men! mistake Demon of heaven:
Thy joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.
How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love.

WILLIAM BLAKE, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years —
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious

KAY RYAN: We’re building the ship as we sail it

One of the unexpected things about my stay at Crestone was how psychological it was.
I had gaily turned up thinking that I’d be hanging out with my friends in the snow, meditating beautifully, feeling the space all around me. Instead, I turned up to a strictly silent, very sober Zen sesshin where we sat for 9 hours a day in regimented rows and ate and slept and moved in a highly controlled and very muted atmosphere.

I’ve been on vipassana retreats before but the juxtaposition of my expectation (cosy, lying down, embodied) with the reality (chill, sitting-up, hopelessly in my head) gave this one much more impact.

Despite sitting for 21 days at a stretch my practice never really took off as I had fantasized. I slogged through the long sits and tried gamely to follow the instruction. But practices like yin-belly breathing, earth descent and darkness practice that had flown on angel wings all the year previously seemed clipped and clumsy during this Dathün month.

Neil McKinley, Reggie’s senior teacher who was leading the first week, gave us Pema Chödrön’s advice: “Start where you are” and I took this on board. “This is not going to be a glorious time of practice. Ok. What is it?”

What it was was a plummet, featherless with broken pinions, down into an icy abyss of a lot of childhood stuff. Or rather the reified remnants of thoughts and fears left in my system from over 40 years ago.

In a brilliant but simple device, these strict vipassana retreats with zero distraction (no writing, no reading, no speaking, little movement) cause us to crash headlong into our most primitive selves. The child or baby that hates being restrained, told-off, punished roars to the fore. The poor facilitators who set up the rules and enforce the ‘container’ of the retreat become the target of 120 people’s atavistic rage at authority, at parents, at the impinging World in general.

In my specific case I spent a good eight days raging at the teachers, at Dharma Ocean, at Reggie, at the Lineage and indulging in endless internal speeches in my head where I would stand up and point out everything that was wrong with this place and this way of practising. I knew better and these angry monologues became more and more desperate and vituperative as the days wore on. I knew better. I knew better…

Eventually something cracked. I saw that it was not really anything to do with this beautiful place or these kind-hearted people – but to do with me and the darker echoes of my childhood. A lot of the dark places I had explored in therapy came crisply and simply into focus. And I saw with weary clearness that although I had spend time with my therapist and in the caverns of Ayahuasca, inhabiting the pain of those states, I hadn’t really extended my awareness to the defences and mental-gymnastics my little self had set running in the back ground.

My endless speeches and self-justificatory defences (like a defendant in the dock would give) had been running since my 6-year-old self started thinking them. They were running in the background, submerged in the silt-water of my unconscious, but nonetheless colouring and controlling a lot of my relations with the world. I recognised that self-justification as a very deep habit of mind: the worried child who always feels that he has to defend his being in the world. And the silence and snowy stillness of Crestone was allowing it be heard, painfully clear.

In the end, I threw myself on the mercy of the Lineage. Reggie’s teaching is part of a long river of teaching that flows back through Chögyam Trungpa to the Kagyü teachers through the wisdom torrents of the Himalayas and the Indian North – ultimately back to the Buddha. And I recognised that I desperately needed to abandon my ‘I must do everything myself’ belief and throw myself on the compassion of others.

I sat down in front of the Shrine one evening, gave up all my defence speeches and asked for help. Then I went to bed.

The next I meditated as normal and set off, as normal, on my 2 hour walk up in the snowy hills above the retreat centre.

After stomping up the very long and tiring (high altitude) path, I came to one of my favourite walks, a long level, snow-white road that wound past the Zen Centre and was overseen by Mount Crestone (which Reggie had identified as the holy Mountain Protector, Ritrö Gonpo). I was walking and taking in the view and suddenly I noticed: it had stopped.

The endless, compulsive, furious voice of self-justification and defence had gone. How had I not noticed before? But here it was – a spacious, lovely, receptive Mind. A body moving through the snow, a few thoughts here and there – but that constant suffocating stream of thinking was gone. And, I’m glad to say, has still gone, back down the mountain, weeks later.

I don’t really know how it happened – perhaps as Krishnamurti says, “The seeing is the doing”. When I recognised that this childhood need to self-justify had been running in the background for so long, then it could be dismantled. It just needed to be seen. Perhaps it was the Lineage simply responding to my call for help. Or Ritrö Gonpo sweeping down the mountain with his sword, slicing through with pure awareness.

It definitely felt and feels like a relief. That mechanism of terrified defence that had run so long in the background ate up so much vital energy and got in the way of so many healthy connections.

When we are little people we make so many decisions and cobble-together so many Heath-Robinson strategies to make sense of and survive childhood. The fear of drowning (as Ryan says) is overwhelming for a wee one. And once the raft is made it’s hard to make it elegant and watertight. No wonder so many of us just paddle on in the hope that there’ll be no more highwater. Building a ship as we go along is hard.

I think Reggie might say that the whole project of ship-building is an understandable but misguided thing. Rather than trying to sleeken the hull we should beach it or indeed breach it on the rocks of the World and step off, into the wide waters. But I’m meanwhile happy to have scraped off the mile-deep layer of barnacles that my defensive monologue had built up on the underside. Crestone may not have made me a deep-sea pearl fisher but it has definitely made me a lighter paddle-boarder.

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we can’t see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then North shifts,
buildings shear
and we suspect.

KAY RYAN, “Shift”

I was talking to a friend in Vienna on Skype last night who’s hitting a big wall in his mid-30s. And I was talking to an old Uni friend last month who smashed and lacerated himself through the last two years of his mid-40s and only now is blinking, calmer in the daylight. And I had lunch with some friends who have just left London and moved to the countryside as they approach 40. And I, myself, wake up these days happy to see the sun rising over Seaford Head but vague about the terrible turmoil of the last 3 years (in my mid 40s) that brought me to this seaside place.

‘Mid life crisis’ is a poor set of words for this experience.

It feels more like the sloughing of an impossibly tight snakeskin.

We go through the first 40 years of life with a largely improvised and jerry-rigged set of life-strategies that we snatched together when we were kids and which seemed to meet the moment. Probably any fittingness was co-incidental. These strategies – which were mostly magic thinking of the ‘don’t step on the cracks in the pavement’ sort – are hopelessly out-dated by the time we hit our 20s but by then they’re too rigidly cemented into our personalities to be changed. “I’m the sort of person who…” or “I never feel…” or “In our family we always…”

These sanctions and rules have the absurd and touching zaniness of Nasruddin who, in the Sufi tale, is found in the street clicking his fingers and whistling. ‘What are you doing?” some one asks the wise fool. “I’m scaring away the tigers”, he answers. “But tigers don’t live in Iran,” someone points out. “You see,” say Jalludin, “it works.”

So we proceed in our life by the logic of OCD. Irrational and unreal thoughts surface in our minds – “No one loves me” – and we feel anxious. Rather than noticing that the thought is wrong and taking time to correct it, we rush on as if the thought were right and fuss and obsess about ways of getting rid of the anxiety it produces. We become extra nice to everyone. Or we become super sexual and seductive. Or we are compulsed into being richer and wealthier that all those people who we believe do not love us.

And so thirty years of our adult life skip by. Speaking personally, I bulldozed blindly into a career in television, driven invisibly from behind by the paranoid childhood fear that everyone wanted to kill me. (It’s almost absurd to voice these primitive infant thoughts but it’s profoundly healing as well…) Being celebritous, being on telly, being complimented on my nice looks or my pleasant manner quelled my anxiety temporarily – but the underlying thought pulsed on. In fact, when you think that everyone is against you, the sugary compliments and unfounded admiration of a television watcher feel … well, almost sinister.

It took a physical breakdown with a mysterious ‘illness’ to take me out of London and down to the seaside where I could break down for real and dissolve the straight jacket of out-dated strategies that had ended up suffocating me. At the time I had no idea what was dragging me down to the sea but my world ruptured and cracked and ice-cold salt water rushed in. I made sense of it all much later.

As Kay Ryan says, when “North shifts, buildings shear”. We suspect that the underlying structure of our lives has been built wonky and the powerful torsion of reality will no longer tolerate the bad build.

I think there comes a point in anyone’s life (sometimes precipitated by a life-threatening illness or a bereavement or just becoming 40 something) when the superstructure of Life starts to exert such a powerful influence on us that we can no longer live in the houses our child-selves built. I eventually realised that I didn’t have to wear myself out appeasing would-be assassins with ever-new escapades of charm or creativity. I could simply undo that unfounded assassin-thought and step out into the field of Life.

People who survive the “sloughing of the Straitjacket Skin” (and not everyone does) talk about things being calmer, more spacious, less painful.

It’s like the throbbing magnet of that childhood fear gets switched off and the iron filings of our life start to arrange themselves according to the life around us instead of the fear inside us.

Reggie Ray talks about this implicitly, I think, when he talks about the ‘central channel’. This is the column of spaciousness that we carry energetically inside us and which is empty of, but responsive to, the ‘stuff’ of our lives. (Interesting there is a spatial specificity here: it’s not below us or above us but it is seamed through us like a spine of space.)

So we might be all wrapped up in our worries about work, or our love life or our financial concerns – but within us there is this core of spaciousness and energy which is actually the true ‘North’ of our being. This core is actually what holds us up. The ‘tall spires’ we believe our mind holds up are actually supported by forces way beyond our imagining. These are what we flow out into when we shed that skin.

This requires modesty. That overarching and unstoppable narcissism of youth has to give way to a much quieter recognition that we’re not the Star of the World’s Show and not everything is about us. This is a wonderful relief. We can start to arrange ourselves to so that things lie more simply in the field of the World’s magnetism and we are flowing with that field rather than shearing our selves into to anguished contortions against it.

Ryan talks about words but I might say energy. The energy of life rights itself according to poles we can’t see. Meditation helps with this – gradually untying that straightjacket of silly childhood fears, knot by knot, strap by strap and giving us permission to shuck it off and step out into the wider fields of energy that flow off in all directions, fresh and warm like the sun on water, or the sound of gulls in the morning.

I was coming down the snowy mountain from my 3-week retreat when David Bowie died.

I don’t much care to add to the pile of panegyric that is piling up on him. I loved him moderately. Didn’t listen to anything for years. Was a bit luke-warm about his last, ‘come-back’ album “The Next Day”. But he was a true creator and wild – which I loved.

But I sat and watched the video he made to accompany the title track from his very last album and it made me feel very rich inside.

A sick singer, fully aware of his probably terminal diagnosis, commissions a young video artist to make a video that explores and most importantly ritualises the approach of death.

Bowie as the character ‘Button Eyes’ (who appears in Lazarus’ video too), is there singing in a room with three young epiletically shaking dancers. A beautiful woman calmly collects the rotten skull of Major Tom from an astronaut’s suit and brings it to an all-female ritual. Scarecrows are attacked by something dark and terrible, never quite seen.

It’s the visual poetry of death matched by music and lyrics that are first incantatory and then, in the middle section, uplifting:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar)

Like the best poetry its meaning exceeds itself and the symbols ooze excess. It disrupts any clear reduction but it is undeniably about death.

Recently in the LRB, there was a good review by Adam Mars-Jones of a novel “Grief is the thing with Feathers.” He is quizzical if not critical of the ‘grief’ industry. He pointed out that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the grandmother of the five-stages of grieving, died far from peaceful but bitter and angry, saying “life is shit’.

Kübler-Ross’ neat five stages never really happen as planned – neither for the dying or for the grieving. Death is disorientating – the great disrupter – and making premature peace with it would be foolish. Nonetheless, what Bowie demonstrates is how an artistic (and by that, here, I could also say ritual) approach to death both contains and amplifies the crazy disruption of the End.

Knowing that he is going to die, Bowie doesn’t tell the world about his diagnosis but he makes art that raises his death to another order; where the images of death hang around in the minds of the living for days and weeks after he himself has passed. The images become a way of containing our grief as the artist sails off into silence.

I have always had a fraught relationship with grief and a suspiciously straight-forward relationship with death. There was a lot of death going on in my household when I was a very little one. My mother’s father died when she was carrying me. Her mother died a year after I was born. Death was not the problem – but the grief that took my mother’s attention from me was.

So typically, during my therapy training, I would notice how other people’s grief would make me angry rather than sympathetic. Death, it seemed to me then was a straightforward part of life and dissolution shouldn’t come as a shock. This is why, at that point, I made such an eerily good Buddhist but a terrible therapist.It took seven years of therapy and training to understand the frozen rage that made me so numb around the subject of my own or other’s grieving.

Unearthing of that infant rage allowed me to approach grief differently. I still don’t fear death – I think that my experiences on Ayahuasca may have prepared me a little for the mystery and I sense in death one of those exciting transitions that all humans share. But I do realise that embracing grief is – paradoxically – a very life-enhancing thing.

If you can truly love something then you have to accept that grief is part of it. Without the amplitude for grief then then there can’t really be the space for loving. If you make space to grieve something then you have allowed it to mean something, allowed it to fill that space that will be left empty.

I never met David Bowie so I can’t speak about his love for his family or friends. I’ve heard different tales: that he was a charming gentlemanly character and that he was curiously vacant like an empty space waiting to pull on his next mask. This video definitely seems to point to the Bowe-half-full interpretation. There is such heart but also such vulnerability. This is true in Blackstar but also in Lazarus. He is broken and dying but he is also youthful and dancing. Craggy and decaying but also bright-eyed and luminous.

But there can be no doubt of his great love for his art. And he exhibits in his music and songs and ‘image’ the full spectrum of human emotion in a way that few other rock stars did. Scary Monsters is one of my favourite albums because it is so blisteringly angry and, well, scary. It seemed to articulate some of the blind, roaring confusion of my teenage and early 20s. For friends of mine, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane articulated the gender ambiguity that before had seen so taboo. The Berlin albums prefigured my own experience in Berlin 20 years after his. I even chose to live in Neukölln because it was a track on Heroes.

With Black Star he articulates the ultimate piece of the human puzzle. When the tectonic plate of life shears and crunches down under the plate of death. Where the dark continent stands unescapable on the horizon and we dance and shake and cover our eyes. Where words and music and imagery stop. He pushed it all right up to the sutured seam of life and death and then left. But left us something to grieve with. And not sobbing and weeping but a dry-eyed wonder at the magic of that transition.

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