Being 'With'

Above: Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf singing a waiata [photo by Carrie Dobbs]

july 15, 2023
Being 'with'
Death in Print: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, Meet: Celebrant and deathwalker Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf, Death on Screen: The Flight Attendant
Listen to Episode 3 on the following podcast platforms
Or, if you've already listened to the show, scroll down for more info and links . . .
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
Photo by Jacob,_(1961_%E2%80%93_2006).jpg#/media/File:Richard_Carlson,_(1961_–_2006).jpg
According to a review in The Guardian by Blake Morrison, Julian Barnes took several years to write Levels of Life because he needed to find the right form; “his wife didn’t enjoy public attention: a confessional memoir wouldn’t have suited.”

A triptych about a pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer, an imagined relationship between Fred Burnaby and the French actor Sarah Bernhardt and the death of his wife, Levels of Life both provoked me and confounded me when I first read it 10 years ago. At the time, I couldn’t really understand the relevance of the first two parts but, as I understand the form now, they are there to provide contrast for the final part – in which Barnes presents the story of his own grief.

Barnes makes it clear in Levels of Life that he does not believe he and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, shall ever meet again in some dematerialised form. He writes, “I believe dead is dead.”

But perhaps apart from this very clear and direct conclusion, his is not an unvarnished account; rather, his despair and sorrow is chiselled into art.

Kavanagh’s death seems to confirm for Barnes that nothing exists beyond the material world. When my first husband Steve died, I did not reach the same conclusion but Barnes, like me, seems to understand what we in the secular West lost when we turned our backs on organised religion:

When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time? No God, no afterlife, no us. We were right to kill him, of course, this long standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway.

Given permission to experience my bereavement so fully, to be with my sadness, I was fortunate; I didn’t get stuck in any one of the stages of grief, if such a thing even exists. I now appreciate much more what Barnes writes:

Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood supply to the brain; mourning blows you in a new direction.

While Barnes doesn’t believe in afterlife, while I believe at least in the possibility – the idea that energy can’t be destroyed - I still feel some sense of simpatico with him, who finally gives me this wonderful paragraph to cherish in Levels of Life:

This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone’s dead may mean they are not alive, but it doesn’t mean they do not exist.

'Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood supply to the brain; mourning blows you in a new direction.'
- Julian Barnes
Meet Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf

Above: Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf [photo by Emma Tree]

In episode 3 of Deathwalker's Guide to Life Season 3, I speak with celebrant and deathwalker, Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf.

Hailing from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Sacha has called Aotearoa her 'turangawaewae' for more than 20 years now.

For most of her professional life, Sacha has worked as an event and promotions coordinator. In 2019, she participated in the Natural Death Care Centre's Deathwalker Training Program, which Zenith Virago led in-person in Tamaki Makaurau Auckland.

Around the same time, Sacha undertook celebrancy training and since then has focused on supporting people as they journey through major rites of passage. Her business name, Get Real Connection, says it all.

An accomplished vocalist, Sacha also sings and performs waiata, when requested by whānau.

'My work as an independent wedding and funeral celebrant, EOL doula and facilitator of life celebrations is a purposeful service that I feel honoured to offer to people,' she says. 'I move with kindness, presence, openness and gratitude. Everyone is unique and deserves their own choices when it comes to how they want to live, celebrate life changes and exit life in a conscious way. I am passionate about meaningful rituals, nature and the power of art, music and movement.'

Sacha nominated 'Satellite of Love' by Lou Reed as a song she would like played at her funeral or wake. Listen to the song in our 'Farewell songs' playlist.
'I am passionate about meaningful rituals, nature and the power of art, music and movement.'
- Sacha Horton-Hoogerwerf

View Sacha's listing on the NZ Doula website.
Follow Sacha on Facebook.
The Flight Attendant
The Flight Attendant, streaming now on Neon, is based on the book of the same name by Chris Bohjalian. The 2018 bestseller, which was marketed as a twisty thriller about a one-night stand gone terribly awry, might have been injected with a big dose of dark comedy in its adaptation for the screen but both seasons are still, essentially, a character study.

We dive right into the story in episode one, when Cassie, who is played by Kaley Cuoco, meets a gorgeous passenger (Alex Sokolov played by Michiel Huisman) en route to Bangkok. After spending a luxurious night together, she wakes up in bed to find him dead next to her — and has no idea what happened.

Cuoco is thoroughly believable as in the many selves she plays: a first-class flight attendant, the world-class party girl, the woman who drinks to drown her trauma, the daughter dancing with the truth of her family upbringing and unreliable friend to old school friend Annie (played by Zosia Mamet) and fellow flight attendant Megan (Rosie Perez).

The Flight Attendant is a sophisticated look at how early childhood trauma – in the shape of death – can lead to addiction. We spiral though a series of flashbacks that gradually reveal why Cassie is who she is today. And as she understands more about what happened to her when she was a child, we find out what she is or isn’t capable of in the present day.

Even though the mystery was solved by the end of season one, its ratings meant it was renewed for a second season. I watched, wondering how the writers would extend the story beyond the source material – the book’s plot – and while the premise – that Cassie, who now regularly attends AA, has been hired to do undercover surveillance for the CIA in the air – is totally implausible, it does provide a platform for her stunning acting.
The Flight Attendant
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Catch up on previous episodes
Deathwalker's Guide to Life kicked off in 2021. Catch up by browsing past episodes, which you can listen to on all the major podcast platforms.