Years Left

I used to write for a website my sister built and curated, full of interesting and, at times, wildly different art (watch this space for further news on said sister’s projects). Once upon a time, whilst I still lived in an English city, she asked some of the site’s contributors to put together a list of 21 Things — 21 goals — not dreams.

Millennium Clock, National Museum Of Scotland, Edinburgh. The photos to accompany this piece are all to do with death, and the iconography of this, the final leveller. Most of them are also in a Flickr album called “Graveyards and Stones”, available here, with many others (some rather poignant gravestone inscriptions).

Recently I revisited my list, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I wanted to see how many I have completed, or am on my way to completing (if, indeed, they can be completed — some were a little amorphous, hazy around the edges, and some were date-dependent — I am not yet fifty, for example). I count seven or eight I would say I could stroke through, although this figure may be a little higher or lower depending on interpretation. Three I know I will never complete; I could do, but older me no longer wants to. My priorities have changed. Life moves on.

Secondly, I wanted to see what I would leave on the list, what I would remove, and what I would replace these with. This is even more difficult to quantify, without actually writing a new list. I could do this, of course I could — after all, to-do lists should NEVER actually be finished. They should be fluid, added to, ticked off, scribbled over, and altered. I only realised this recently — to have a never-ending list is not a negative, not an “I’ll never see the end of this”, but actually what life is about. We do not ever reach the end. We do not ever, and should not ever, tick everything off — life is for slowly living, not racing to the finish.

I do not get the idea of the bucket list. Why would I want a finite amount of experiences to aim for? Why would anyone? What happens if you complete everything? Do you write another list? Surely these things or places would then be second rate, also-rans. That doesn’t seem right to me.


Dunbeath Strath. This is the land of Neil Gunn’s Highland River. The walled cemetery is a long walk from Dunbeath itself, perched on a ridge to the west it can be seen a long way off.

Reading and thinking about this list has made me ponder what goals I need to set myself in the coming months and years. It has started me thinking of different ways to curate the tiny inklings and embryonic plans and ideas that swarm through my cluttered head. I try to get things down on paper, then backed up digitally (in several places), as soon as I can. Doing this is like flushing the mind-cache, and it works for me.

I recently reread a post on Medium by Nic Haralambous, available here. It is well worth a quick peek, all sensible thoughts, many of which I have recently been thinking through myself and may well return to discuss soon (on trust, for example).

I especially liked the closing statement:

“Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days.”

For a long time now I have undertaken a sporadic exercise, whereupon I write a passage detailing where I see myself in a year, in two, and in five. These are not plans, per se, but ideas I strive toward. Much as the 21 Things list was a collection of thoughts and goals connected to a time in my life, I realise each exercise in future-gazing is tied more to the moment I write it than the future time it is meant to divine.

I will soon be entering my fifth decade. I am well aware it will be the next ten years that define me to the wider world. I have spent my youth doing all the right things — some of which many would regard as the wrong things. I have done things that I will never do again, but I do not regret them; as I said a couple of weeks ago, there is no point in regretting things I have done.

This next decade will be when the travails and troubles of my first forty years are spun out into fable and tale, thrown into the world, turned into cold hard cash. This is a strange thought, and I am reminded of Laurie Lee. He had already lived all the experiences he was later to become famous for writing about by the tender age of 23. I do not want this, to rely on semi-autobiographical work, as Lee’s trilogy undoubtedly was.  I want instead to turn to fiction to express ideas and explore what it means to be human in a time of exceptional, unprecedented and worldwide change. I want to use what money I raise to bring about more experiences; more travel, adventure, excitement, joy and emotion — constantly adding to the cycle, pouring water into the proverbial cup until it flows over and I am forced to share.

I love the way nature colonises graveyards. It makes me smile. The lichens and moss on this old stone seem quite natural in their location. So many species use these places as refuges, knowing they are mostly safe. The dead cannot harm them.

I am currently playing with using Scrivener to record my ideas and plans. I have been adding to a project over the course of this year, with binder entries such as “Physical Journey”, “Dreams and Dates and Diaries” or “Project Snufkin”. The project itself is entitled “Hourglass”.

I have now added a new folder — “Years Left” — to break down the rest of my life into those decades, years, months. Decide what needs to be done when. Starting this process has made me realise just how much I want (need) to do before I do shuffle off this mortal coil. It is at once enlightening and simultaneously terrifying to realise that moment may occur at any time.

I see a lot of dead people. Not walking around like regular people, but being driven in their coffins by hearse, then carried into the church across the square from me (still in the coffins, lest you wondered). There are two undertakers’ parlours/premises (I suppose we shouldn’t call them shops?) around the corner. Rare is the week that goes by that I don’t see at least one coffin (and, in case this paragraph hasn’t made you realise, I don’t think we should hold to stuffy Victorian values of death — I think she should be smiled at, gently, affectionately. The great leveller she is — and she will take us all, come what may — I’m sure she wouldn’t begrudge a laugh at her expense, from time to time).

Prioritisation has become central to my world — it is all very well planning in decades, but not knowing how many of these I may have makes me really think about what I want. The projects that I really need to complete and share. That wilderness I want to explore. Those friends I want to see again. Then there are the projects I cannot yet foresee, the places I do not yet know about, the friends I have yet to meet.

I am lucky, for many reasons. I know this. I have not been given months to live, I have somehow (mostly) escaped the excesses of my youth, I have had some incredible experiences, known and met the most remarkable people, and have the most infuriating-at-times-yet-also-truly-wonderful family. One other thing I am lucky in is my chosen means to make a living. With a laptop and an internet connection I can feasibly work anywhere in the world. I could even get away with just paper and pencil for a while.


I can combine travel with work (travel from Middle English and Old French, travail, physical or mental work). I can mix seeing people with doing things, learning with pleasure. These times we live in are extraordinary, but most of those privileged enough to be able to take full advantage of all that can be seized simply…don’t. I want to take this privilege and turn it into something where I am giving something back, and my way to do this, first and foremost, is with words.

And, as Picasso* said:

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”

I have a real urge to use the stilts we have, wear a skull mask and skeletal gloves, a long black, hooded cloak and carry one of our scythes around town this Halloween. I may get arrested though, so perhaps not.

*I’ve always felt a bit of affinity with Picasso — his work often reminds me of what I see when I get a migraine, the aura twisting and reconstituting an image into strange and, at times, frightening ways.

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