Rick Nelms, who has been part of the Good Death poetry workshops at Arthur Rank Hospice Charity, reflects on beauty and its importance for living and dying well. More of Rick’s work is available here: https://underthethinkingtree.com/ricks-paintings/
Beauty is central to helping me to live well while dying well.
The relationships with my wife and children are beautiful. The successful reconstruction of my relationships with my sisters and my mother is beautiful. The realisation that my long-dead father did love me is beautiful. The paintings of El Greco, John Martin, Frederic Church and others are beautiful. The recordings of Bach’s entire harpsichord output, made from 1965-1975 by Zuzana Růžičková – who, from 1942-1945, survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – are beautiful. Music is beautiful, particularly baroque music, modernist music, Christian works like Puccini’s Gloria and Faure’s Requiem as well as progressive rock. There is beauty in the ephemeral perspectives so freely given by nature on planet Earth, sunrises and sunsets, cloudscapes, crepuscular rays on a misty morning and the endless variety of ocean waves.
Music has a central role in managing my own living positively while dying slowly and painfully. In particular, Elegie for cello and piano, opus 251, written by Jewish composer Darius Milhaud upon his return to Europe from the USA in 1945, after the discovery that his extended family had been exterminated in the holocaust, has been helpful. It is rooted in sadness obviously, and yet it is an extraordinarily beautiful, positive and outward-looking piece. My favoured performance is here. Adam Riggs on cello and Christina Lalog Seal on piano. I listen to this piece when my condition is unmanageable and I also play it when I paint (using the computer as I can no longer hold brushes). David Newton, vicar of St Mary’s Church, Comberton, calls my process ‘Painting Hope’. Some of my work is at https://underthethinkingtree.com/ricks-paintings/ where I am (to my surprise) artist in residence. All of these paintings were inspired partly by Milhaud’s little Elegie, and partly, I believe, by the Holy Spirit.
The fact that after 40 plus years with PTSD, I had successful therapy and no longer have nightmares and flashbacks is beautiful. The paintings that I make are beautiful. The friendships that I have made since I became ill, at Arthur Rank Hospice Charity, the MND Association and the Lordsbridge Team Zoom Church during lockdown are beautiful. The scriptures of the Bible, and my relationship with Jesus Christ, are beautiful. The antispasmodic medications that I take that loosen up the spasticity in my muscles are beautiful. It is these beautiful things which make it possible for me to remain positive and to live well and die gracefully.
Choice is something that brings beauty into life. In the deep past, it is when I have had least control over my choices that I have been least happy. Now I have complete choice over the matter of my treatment and the processes that will lead to my death, and having that control permits me to remain happy. So choice and control are beautiful, and my choice whether or not to have a feeding tube, whether or not to permit invasive ventilation assistance and ultimately, whether to die in my own home or in the hospice or in hospital… these choices I have control over, and that is beautiful.
The beautiful computers, software, tablets, phones and apps that allow me to continue to write and to paint though I can no longer hold a pen or brush and which will become my voice when my own voice inevitably stops working as the condition progresses…
The technology that allows me to control a computer by moving my eyes (eye-gaze technology), or by slight movements of my head (head-tracking technology), or, as Stephen Hawking did, by operating a single switch using one cheek muscle, those technologies are beautiful.
My Powerchair, named (by me) Shep, after the Blue Peter border collie of 50 years ago, to which John Noakes was forever saying ‘down Shep’, exactly what I say as I prepare to transfer from the wheelchair to another chair or bed, by lowering the leg-lifters that keep my legs raised so they don’t swell up. The wheelchair, designed by the makers in conjunction with the UK Motor Neurone Disease Association, is a thing of beauty if MND is what you have.
Scientific research and in particular the vaccines that are permitting humanity to achieve an appropriate equilibrium with the covid virus are beautiful. The sacrificial love and care of so many people is beautiful, from those who empty bins and run shops to those who work in covid testing and in places like schools, to those who care for the health of us all.
The new perspectives we have gained from the pandemic are a thing of beauty and I naively believe that we could choose to move forward together into the refreshed world after we have established a proper equilibrium with the covid virus. It is my belief that all humans are beautiful and all humans equally valuable and valued and loved by God. This was expressed in Acts 10 by Peter, on the day that the Church expanded from a Jewish Christian Church to a worldwide Christian Church when he stated “I now understand, God shows no partiality.” He had realised that God made each one of us in God’s image, and that God loves each one of us equally, regardless of any differences we might perceive among ourselves. It seems to me that the egalitarian vision of Christ for all people is a beautiful vision – he came out of love, to save the world not to condemn the world. I intend to devote the rest of my life to working towards ending inequality, injustice and discrimination as well as working towards better stewardship of our beautiful home, the only one we’ve got. It will be through my painting that I will make my contribution to this beautiful vision for the future.
The brain is the most astonishingly beautiful thing that there is. Even when it is malfunctioning as mine is doing, it remains the most complex object in the known universe and it continues to defy our attempts to work out how it works. We are still no closer to knowing how memory is coded than we were when I was a child, 50 years ago, making lists of all the problems we would solve in my lifetime.
The extraordinary glories of the visible universe, revealed by our eyes, by telescopes and spacecraft; the solar system’s extraordinary planets and their satellites, the diversity of stars exemplified by Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion, the magnificent nebulae within which stars form, and at the other end of their life, the relics left behind when stars run out of fuel, stunningly beautiful planetary nebulae and supernovae remnants, as well as galaxies, billions of galaxies, some of them billions of years old.
The mysterious beauty of the unseen universe, radiation at short and long wavelengths, neutrinos and the 80% of the mass in the universe which we can only detect because of its gravitational impact, dark matter, abundant and yet completely, intransigently, beautifully incomprehensible.
At the other end of the size scale, the beauty of intricate, infinitely complex and often fractal biological and geological structures revealed by microscopy.
And at even smaller scales, the utterly incomprehensible beauty of the subatomic world with its bizarre quantum physics and diversity of ever more extraordinary particles and waves, up, down, charm, strange, top and beauty quarks, leptons and bosons, wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement. It is a mad, yet utterly consistent and experimentally verifiable microuniverse, impossible to reconcile with the macrouniverse described by the beautiful mathematics of Newton and Einstein, a universe visible to our own eyes – such strange beauty.
The biodiversity of this little blue pearl on which we all live is beautiful. The breath-takingly diverse environments of planet Earth, the savannahs, the tropical and temperate mixed forests, the coral reefs, the littoral zone between sea and land and the freshwater lakes and rivers.
The extraordinary beauty of the weird organisms of the world, whole ecosystems of organisms that live around hydrothermal volcanic vents in the deep sea at up 400 ᵒC; fish that live in water below 0 ᵒC, only a liquid because it is salty; slime-moulds that slither around as single cells, then suddenly come together and cooperate to produce spores; the weird little animals, tardigrades and rotifers, just a few cells and completely bizarre; the single celled organisms, from algae made up of a single cell up to 300 mm long to other algae that will grow in ice, to bacteria that live kilometres deep in rocks, to bacteria so small it is a puzzle how they have enough chemistry to function as self-replicating organisms, to viruses that hijack the chemistry of cells to reproduce themselves but are not themselves alive.
The astonishing beauty of the inextricable relationships between organisms, from entire ecosystems of interdependent organisms, to the extraordinary diversity of pollination relationships between flowering plants and insects, birds and other animals, to symbiotic relationships such as the bacteria inside us that are our main source of vitamin K to lichens made up of utterly interdependent algae and fungi and mycorrhizae, the intricate relationships between plant roots and fungi without which many plants could not survive.
These are the things which, through contemplating their contribution to beauty in my life, enable me to remain resolutely positive as my progressive condition progresses.
Posted: 20th May 2021