One of the many, many big changes that’s happened for me in the past year is that I lost my last living Grandparent. My Gran, Leslie Duffield, died shortly before what would’ve been her 100th birthday: today 26th May. Here’s an excellent picture of us both taken at my sister’s wedding a few years back.
You can read about Gran’s very interesting life in this article from her county newspaper. Her death has got me thinking about so many things. I’ve been writing in a few books and chapters about coming from a mixed class background (another way of being non-binary), and how curious it felt going from regular weekends in a bungalow with my Dad’s parents to yearly summer trips to a mansion house with my Mum’s. Gran Leslie’s death – nearly thirty years after I lost my first Gran – Audrey – feels like an important reminder of social injustice and the way it plays out on our bodies and lives. I don’t think there was any long obituary for Granny Audrey in her county’s newspaper despite her equally interesting life.
I’m living in Sussex now, where Audrey grew up and where there is a balance for me between nature and community like Leslie had in her life. I feel very connected with both Grans and aware of the ways in which their lives – and the lives that preceded them – impacted my own.
In the rest of this post I’ll share some reflections that I also shared for Gran Leslie’s memorial service, about a few of the ways in which her life and values impacted my own. Another time I’ll return to Granny Audrey who remains one of the most important presences in my life to this day.
My earliest memories of Leslie were of visiting this magical person in this magical place – so different to the worlds I inhabited in the rest of my life. I remember exploring her huge house from basement to attic which still shows up regularly in my dreams: all vast staircases and hidden rooms. I remember playing with all the old toys my uncles and mother had played with as children, and Gran reading to me from beautiful ancient copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and Beatrix Potter – doing all the voices. I remember discovering a love of nature – like my Gran’s – in the surrounding gardens, fields, and woodlands – seeing birds of prey, bluebells, hares. One time as a small child I sat still and silent in a copse for an hour while a rabbit came close by and observed me.
In her house I remember Gran primarily in the kitchen, ever calm, steady and available to everyone. She taught me to cook with love and I’m so grateful for that. One of my favourite things is still to show my love for people through preparing meals for them. It seemed like most of the day with my Gran involved cooking the next meal or eating the last one: breakfast, elevensies, lunch, tea, supper. But wherever we were in the process Gran had time to talk and to listen. And I remember a big kitchen table, heaving with people all chatting and teasing each other and passing around the food. As well as many of her family remaining nearby, Gran often had friends to stay and to visit, and she housed local students in her house for many years and became a surrogate parent to them. Like the natural world around us there was a sense of rightness about that family and community where all were welcome which I’d love to emulate in my own life.
Finally I think a lot about Gran’s philosophy on life, which is one that I both share and don’t share. She would always say ‘everything happens for a reason’. I think this view is what enabled her to embrace all that occurred in her life – joyful and painful – with gratitude and a capacity to cope which many of us would find hard to emulate.
However much I see what that philosophy enabled for Gran, as I said to her I don’t find it possible to agree that ‘everything happens for a reason’.
First, this is because I’m agnostic, and ‘everything happens for a reason’ seems to require a belief in an external force (god or ‘the universe’ or something) which presents situations to us in some kind of conscious way. I don’t feel able to say with certainty whether such a force does or does not exist. I relate to Stephen Batchelor’s deep agnosticism which is about more than just saying ‘I don’t know’ but rather embracing not-knowing and uncertainty, recognising the limits of what we (puny humans!) can know; our tendency to grasp for answers instead of remaining open to mystery. It seems to me that such agnosticism requires us to develop an ethics, and a way of living, that isn’t there because we hope for some reward in the future but is more focused on alleviating the suffering of ourselves and others right now, whatever happens next or whatever some higher power might or might not think of us.
The other reason I’m cautious about ‘everything happens for a reason’ is that it seems an easy slip from that into the belief that those who tough things happen to – who are in poverty or abused for example – have done something to deserve it. This is the comforting Just World Hypothesis bias which many of us slide into to make us feel better about our privilege and/or more in control of our lives. But it means that we’re often hyper critical of ourselves and others, individualise what are really structural and systemic problems, and risk falling into victim blame. Telling somebody who is suffering that everything happens for a reason seems unhelpful – and potentially unkind – to me (unless what you mean by ‘reason’ is patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, et al. in which case you do have a point).
The related view that works better for me is the idea – which I get from Pema Chödrön – of seeing all obstacles in our lives as our path: to embrace them and learn from them, to stay with the feelings that they bring up, and to invite them to open us up rather than close us down. For me that doesn’t require any definite belief about why these obstacles happen, and it still requires me to fight the injustices which place so many more obstacles in some people’s ways than others.
A couple of weeks after she died I dreamt that I was at Gran’s memorial and that she was there too – as a ghost – wandering around and chatting with everyone. She seemed to take this in her stride as with everything in her life, whereas I was desperate to talk with her and find out what was going on. When I got to her I asked what was next for her – after this final chance to connect with all her people. She said she didn’t know, just as she hadn’t known that she’d get this opportunity, and she seemed to be just fine with that. Whatever my agreements and disagreements with her philosophy, it somehow enabled my Gran to be this open to whatever came her way, even when that was death.
I expect I’ll keep returning to this dialogue between her worldview and my own for the rest of my life – even now she’s no longer here to talk about it with in person – and I’m very grateful for that.
I am very sorry to hear of the death of your Gran: she sounded like an amazing person (as Grans are so often).
I too struggle with the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’ – it’s like the phrase can give some sort of order to a totally random world. It feels like ‘order’ gives us security in this confusing world. We humans are hard-wired to succeed whatever happenings come our way. Death feels like the hardest happening to cope with. When our grandparents die and then our parents we get a sharp reminder of our own mortality. It also reminds us to make our lives count through acts of love and kindness. The lovely pictures of you and Gran show that your time spent with her was very special and life-enhancing (hopefully for you both). Your Gran was one of life’s givers – it feels like she had the capacity to open up relationships and not to shut down – she was able to care, listen and love. What a wonderful person she was – no wonder you miss her.
Thanks so much for this Paul, much appreciated.