New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Sailing to the New World on the Queen Mary 2

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

I suppose you could say that sailing to America ‘felt’ right; we didn’t realise that I would be taking the Queen Mary 2 from England to America when my friends gave me the gift of a little golden ship charm on a chain the year before I left. I had a dream last summer – again, before we decided to book the sea voyage to New York – that I was sailing along the Ligurian coast in a tiny one-person sailboat. In the dream I felt a pang of loneliness for a moment, but then when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that I was part of a huge fleet that included all of my family and friends; we started laughing and calling out to each other as we sped through the turquoise water past cliffs where brightly coloured houses and lemon trees clung to the rock face. I’ve been wearing the golden ship necklace almost every day for the past year as we prepared to leave England, and so yes – sailing to America felt right.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Lots of people have asked us why we decided to sail to the States rather than fly. The answer is that it cost roughly the same amount as flights would have done (we bought our tickets in a summer sale), and we thought it would be fun. There’s the fact that you basically get a week-long all-expenses paid holiday for the price of a flight, there’s the romance and intrigue of a sea voyage that passes right by the site where the Titanic sank, and then there’s the bonus that you can take as much luggage as you can fit in your cabin, instead of worrying about baggage allowances and weight restrictions.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA, cabin, state room

It’s also a much nicer way to travel when you have a kid – instead of being stuck in a small, crowded space with a cranky toddler for eight hours or so, she can explore the ship, get settled into a routine and adjust her body clock to the time change an hour a day, and spend time playing in the ship’s crèche while you relax with a hot chocolate, reading and staring out at the waves and the endless horizon. In the seven days we spent at sea, I only saw a handful of other vessels on the water. It’s strange – exciting, a little lonely – going without a glimpse of land for so long.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The Queen Mary 2 is essentially a huge floating hotel. When we arrived on the boat I had planned to do an hour’s work every day using the ship’s internet service, but after discovering that it cost an extortionate $47 an hour, I decided to take the first proper break from work that I’ve taken in around a year and a half. This, combined with the fact that from every window all you can see is vast expanses of water stretching away as far as the eye can see, was just about the most extreme form of disconnecting I can imagine. Why is it so hard to tear your eyes away from those constantly evolving waves? Ocean waves and fire are two of the most soothing things I can think of to watch.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

My husband teased me before we left about how eager I was to see dolphins on the voyage, and then – sod’s law – he saw a whole pod of them playing around the bow of the ship on the very first morning we were at sea, while I was having a shower. I spent every possible moment on our seven-day voyage staring out of the nearest window at the water, but didn’t see any living thing other than a few sea birds. At night halfway through our voyage I dreamed of polar bears and penguins on beautiful floating icebergs tinged pink and purple with an extraordinarily vivid sunset, as the ship rocked me in my sleep.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We had the cheapest cabin available, without a window, but it was perfectly comfortable with a decent en suite shower, a bottle of champagne to welcome us on board, and a cleaning twice a day – with chocolates and the day’s news left on the bed every evening while we were at dinner. I got glimpses of beautiful spacious suites with sea views and white orchids as we walked through the corridors, but even in one of the smallest rooms available we felt like we were living in the lap of luxury, being served a delicious breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner every day. (All the food on the voyage for these four meals was included in the ticket price, not including alcohol.)

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The lunch and dinner menus were different every day, and we were always spoilt for choice. It was fun to have to dress up for dinner occasionally, too, and made us enjoy our meals all the more.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

There was a free gym, as well as a spa (unfortunately ridiculously expensive, with most treatments upwards of $129), a free cinema (we went to see two films on our trip), a theatre and planetarium, daily mass, various musicians playing during tea and dinner, as well as several bars and a library.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Ever since we booked the trip, the part I had most been looking forward to was arriving into New York City. We sailed in slowly at 5am, the city all aglow with lights, and even though we didn’t have a magnificent sunrise that day, we had a great view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as we docked.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We usually travel to get ourselves from one place to another as quickly as possible; I’m glad we took the time, while we had some to spare, to savour this particular journey. It ended up being a much-needed family holiday, as well as getting us where we needed to go.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

When life runs away with you

peace, quiet, calm, still, slow, river, lady's lace, English countryside, riverbank, wildflowers

Some time late last year I read an old blog post by the wonderful Erin Loechner (Founder of Clementine Daily and Design for Mankind) from 2012 about “slow blogging” that really struck a chord:

“We live in a world of more; this much is obvious. More things, more information. More time-saving tricks we use to find the time to uncover even more time-saving tricks. We live in a world of Pinterest, where visual images shoot out like firehoses of pretty, manifesting themselves in the parts of our brain we reserve for planning elaborate feasts and fetes. We have hundreds of RSS subscriptions to blogs creating amazing tablescapes and Halloween costumes and DIY floor lamps. And we take it all in, bookmarking each project for future use when ‘someday’ is finally today.

Yet friends, I fear that someday will never come. Because there will continually be more to do, to see, to buy. And our someday file will slowly become outdated with a new sea of ideas and thoughts promising to fulfill our lives in ways we never dreamed possible.

I want less. I want less for this site; I want less for my life. I want to return to the days when I didn’t feel the need to ‘keep up’ with the Internet. Where less truly was more, where editorial calendars didn’t exist and the words ‘I should totally blog this’ were never uttered.

…This year, one of my personal resolutions is to live a slower, more thoughtful (meaningful?) life. Less travel, more adventure. Less work, more challenges. And I need this to translate into all areas of my life: Less blogging, more learning.”

I’ve mentioned her philosophy of slow blogging before, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve not been pushing myself to write posts here with huge regularity recently. As you’ll know if you’ve explored this blog a little, I’m kind of obsessed with the concept of slow living, because I’m convinced it could make the world a more just and happier place. I recently came across this beautiful extract from Carl Honoré’s book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, on Kinfolk, and the whole thing is well worth a read: “Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.”

My family and I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, though, and I found myself thinking back to this time last year when I created this blog and the actors who were wrapping up on the set for that film gave dad the incredible gift of their support before he passed away. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? I loved seeing so many of the characters and relationships develop, discovering a little more of their back stories, fears, and motivations. With all great sci-fi and fantasy films, after all, it’s the characters and exploration of what it means to be human that compel me to watch, not the action.

Another reason I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently is that I’ve been hard at work with our team creating the new ethical lifestyle website, A Better Place (read more about the concept behind this project, here). We are hoping to launch it later this summer, and to be able to reveal the new look and design over the next few weeks. It’s going well, but researching and testing all of the products for it is a lot of work, and taking rather a long time. It will be well worth the wait, though, and all the better for being done slowly and carefully. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Meanwhile, my daughter has been growing and learning and changing from a baby into a willful toddler. Putting her down to sleep has become like a more frustrating version of pick-up-sticks or Jenga because she is so busy all the time that she hates to switch off. Last night as she fell asleep in my arms she was twitching and saying “No!” fretfully under her breath. This is a difficult phase, and I’m trying to remember that it’s all natural and necessary development.

I wrote about figuring out how to divide the housework and improve communication with the person (or people) you live with, as well as a response to the New York Times’ article, No Kids for Me, Thanks, on the parents vs. non parents theme, both for Verily Magazine, as well as contributing to their weekly culture news roundup, While You Were Out (check it out, it’s published every Friday, and is a great way of catching up on the week’s happenings). I also wrote a piece about Monica Lewinsky’s brilliant and thought-provoking TED Talk on cyber bullying and the need for compassion and empathy online.

This piece from the New York Times about becoming the kind of person who “radiates an inner light” is one of the best I’ve read in a while. “These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all,” David Brooks writes. I am privileged to have encountered many gems like this throughout my life, and I think a life spent trying to become more like this would be a life well spent.

I also love this piece that a friend shared with me recently about not being a kid person just because you have kids. Amongst other wise things, the author writes: “Sometimes we feel we must want ahead of time everything that happens or else we are being victimized by our own lives. In fact, our need to choose each event and its outcome might make us a nation of control freaks… More than anything else, though, my children have taught me to get outside of myself–to transcend the tyranny of my own wants.”

Finally, something else I came across recently and have been treasuring ever since is J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in the form of this beautiful little book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. Profits from the sale of the book (which it took me about 10 minutes to read) go to her charity for children, Lumos. It is so uplifting, I really recommend it. Here’s a little nugget from it to whet your appetite: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

I hope you’re having a beautiful Spring and enjoying the sunshine, friends!

On assisted suicide, choice, and personal freedom

ernest hemingway quote, quotes about writers, write hard and clear about what hurts, writing, creativity, pain, death, assisted suicide, cancer, end of life care, terminal cancer

Yesterday Verily Magazine published an article that I wrote about how my father’s recent slow and painful death from prostate cancer convinced me that assisted suicide is not the answer to suffering. It is a sensitive and very controversial subject, and I was expecting a lot of readers to disagree with my conclusions, so the flood of indignant – even angry – comments on social media and on the article itself came as no real surprise. There wasn’t space in such a short article to go as deeply into how my personal experience is relevant to society and law-making as I would have liked, so I thought I’d address that a little here.

First of all though, I should probably clarify quite a basic point: many people object to the use of the term ‘assisted suicide’, preferring terms like ‘assisted dying’ instead. I keep using ‘assisted suicide’ because I believe that is the most accurate description of what we’re talking about here. The dictionary definition of suicide is: ‘the act of killing oneself intentionally’. Someone who chooses assisted suicide is intentionally seeking to end their own life, and they want medical help to do so. If we’re going to have an honest discussion about this, we have to call it what it is. Whether the actual act is right or wrong is another matter.

One thing that pretty much all of the objecting comments have in common is an underlying accusation that I am trying to tell other people what to do in an area where it should be totally up to their own personal choice. What was right for us isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Who am I to tell people that they can’t decide how to end their lives, that they must stick with it if they don’t want to? My father didn’t want assisted suicide, but if he had and I had stood in his way, I would have been a horrible selfish monster. And I am an awful person for telling people what they can and can’t do, right?

So, when it boils down to it, this is an argument about freedom and choice.

The thing is, I think it’s very disingenuous to claim that you are not directly impacting my life if you are campaigning for this change in legislation; to accuse me of standing in the way of your personal freedom, without acknowledging that you are doing the same to me. You may think that I can happily ignore any changes in the law that I want to, that it doesn’t have to concern me, but you’re wrong. You’re talking about making a radical change to the society in which I live, to the society in which I will someday die, and that is something that affects me in a very real way. I have every right in the world to protest that, quite aside from the personal experience I related that informs my views.

The fact that these proposed changes to our law wouldn’t just impact the select few who choose assisted suicide without affecting the rest of us really hit me when my father was dying, and that is why I decided to share our story. The very week before my father died, a proposed change to British law allowing assisted suicide was being discussed in the House of Lords, and in a horrible twist of fate, the experience our family was going through made us a textbook case for the debate. Everywhere I turned, the press was full of it, and it felt like they were all talking about us. It was as if they were putting value judgements on the last few years of my father’s life since his terminal diagnosis, crowding into my head and telling me I was selfish for being glad that assisted suicide wasn’t an option so that we could have as much time as possible together without the added stress of having to consider an ‘alternative’ to him seeing life through to the end.

As I sat by his bedside in the hospice during those last weeks with my family, utterly grief-striken, I was unspeakably grateful to the nurses who shifted his weight so that he didn’t get bedsores, who kept checking his pain relief was working even when he no longer proactively told them. We put ice chips on his tongue when he could no longer drink to relieve the dryness in his mouth. When his lungs started to shut down, my mother made sure that he was given oxygen to prevent him feeling like he was being asphyxiated (a childhood fear of his); it couldn’t make him live longer, but it made him more comfortable. We held hands and told him we loved him, over and over again.

It wasn’t about trying to keep him alive, stringing out the suffering longer than was necessary; it was about making every last moment he had with us as comfortable as we possibly could. I’m not arguing that people have to accept treatment for their terminal illnesses, though in our case we were glad to buy as much time as we could. All I am arguing is that we cannot pass a law that permits doctors to kill people, even as an act of mercy. If assisted suicide laws become widespread, our already stretched palliative care systems will fall into horrendous neglect. For every terminally ill person who claims that their choice to end their life impacts them and them alone, there is another terminally ill person whose palliative care will suffer if the campaigners have their way, placing an even heavier burden on terminally ill patients and their families than they already have to carry.

I can’t stress this point enough; for all that suffering is an intensely personal subject, in debates about changing the law it is anything but private. The motto of the hospice where my father died was ‘Believing every moment matters’. Would our society think this way if assisted suicide became widespread? Would our doctors and nurses still be properly trained in palliative care? Would it not be the case that more of us would start to think like the Lithuanian Health Minister, who has recently said that euthanasia is a good alternative where palliative care cannot be afforded, opening up the way for euthanasia of the poor?

Looking at countries where assisted suicide has been legal for a while is telling; in the Netherlands, the number of mentally ill patients killed every year has reportedly tripled in recent years. Earlier this year, Belgium extended its euthanasia laws to children and minors. Where the Hippocratic oath is scrapped, a whole host of nightmarish scenarios become possible, even probable.

Activist Penny Pepper also believes that assisted suicide threatens some of the most vulnerable members of society; not only the mentally ill, children, and the elderly, but also disabled people like herself. She argues that her life is just as valuable as any other, despite pain being ‘a constant’ factor. (That she even has to remind us of that is a mark of where this debate is heading.) She is afraid, like me, of what would happen to palliative care if assisted suicide laws were passed. ‘As an activist I want to rage, rage against the dying of the light, with every beat of my heart’, she writes. ‘I want assistance to live now; I want decent social care, left alone by government and not subject to cuts; and I want palliative care from doctors doing what the best of them do to the highest degree – helping me to live well.’

I do not want to live in a world where people kill themselves for fear of being a burden, as Giles Fraser so eloquently wrote for the Guardian.

People on both sides of the debate feel moved to share personal stories precisely because, in this case, the personal is not private. Much as my heart goes out to people like Brittany Maynard in their suffering, they are trying to influence legislation which will touch my life, and the lives of my loved ones, so I feel that I must speak out. Is she allowed to make her pain public in defence of her beliefs and choices, but I am not? Ultimately, whoever is right, I don’t think that’s consistent or fair.

Perhaps the objection to the term ‘assisted suicide’ is founded on the fact that it implies a choice. Perhaps people who seek assisted suicide don’t feel like they are choosing to die because they have already been given their death sentence, but rather that their hands are being forced by horribly difficult circumstances from which they can see no escape but a quick and painless death ministered to them by a medical professional. I understand that, and I sympathise; I really, really do. I know what it is like to reach the point with a loved one where you wish for death, knowing it will be a kind of merciful release when it comes. I know what it is like to be haunted by images of a dying face for months after the difficult passing of a loved one. I won’t deny the pain and trauma of these experiences, or try to claim I have all the answers and a neat theory of life, the universe and everything.

But, even though at first to many it may seem counter-intuitive, my father’s struggle with cancer has convinced me that if we really want to help the dying, we need to make the time that they do have left better, not cut it short. Better pain relief, better nursing, better care. That is what assisted dying should mean. No one should ever have to turn to suicide, assisted or otherwise. Some life, even when it is severely compromised, should always be better than no life.

That is what I will fight for until it’s my turn to leave this world, and if you want to call me selfish, so be it. Just remember that no one ever makes  a choice like Brittany’s in isolation, and that if you change the law it will impact me and everyone else in the society we all share.