‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Sheila Kitzinger, the natural childbirth activist who died in 2015
I am 64, and entering into the terrain of my own drawing-closer mortality – yet talking about death is still forbidden. Sex is so much more out in the open. Death is the last taboo. We do not talk about dying, how we’d like to die, or how others have died.
Last October, my mum nearly died of sepsis – her organs had begun to close down but being the 90-year-old Yorkshire woman she was and still is, she battled through – and then by chance, I saw there was a death café at the Dissenter’s Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery as part of their October Month of the Dead.
I invited a close friend who presumed erroneously that Death was the incidental name of a café, and that we were meeting for Saturday morning tea and a natter. Instead we found ourselves in a circle of twelve discussing – the feelings that are evoked when a family member dies, the nature of a good death and different funereal rituals.
It was simply incredible to have this space to reflect on death and dying. There was a palpable sense of closeness and connection between us all at the end. Amanda and I definitely felt more alive as a result of the extraordinary conversations. One man admitted he’d never really expressed the grief around his mother dying. Another woman talked about the terrible suicide of someone close to her in detail. There was the death/life paradox in action. Plus it took place in this simple chapel created for non-conformists in 1834. Perfect. It sounds weird to say but we loved it, and vowed we would visit more. Forget bars and restaurants, death cafes are the place for truly, deeply, madly meeting.
A few months later, I found myself having the idea – we’d already featured a couple of fiercely brave pieces of writing about death, My First Death by Lena Semaan who told us about her friend, Bob, who had been terminally ill and courageously took the act of dying into his own hands, plus Dreaming of Death by Caroline Bobby who has been in an intimate relationship with death since she was young – for a Death Dinner as part of our OUTage series of events supported by the Arts Council. It would also take place at the Dissenter’s Chapel. The aim was to invite ten people from Deathworld – from mortician and author Carla Valentine to Soul Midwife Patrick Ardagh-Walter, to academic and expert in death rituals, Professor Douglas Davies to coffin plate aficionado, Hannah Gosh who happens to have a tattoo of one on her leg – to dialogue openly about their interests in death and dying, then dig a little deeper. We, at Advantages of Age, are keen to open up this last taboo as well as helping to form a Death Community, supporting the Assisted Dying movement, and also facing the nitty gritty of what we might personally want in terms death and dying.
I also thought it would be fascinating to invite the guests to come dressed as they would like to be buried or burnt. As well to bring objects with them that they’d like to go alongside them on the onward journey. This personal DeathStyle fascinated me.
Our aim was to turn the death stereotypes on their head. The guests arrived to a big red neon sign declaring Welcome to Death and then had their photos taken in or out of a deliberately kitsch Lachapelle-influenced gold frame with a leopard skin backdrop! Of course, not everyone was so keen to be snapped in this Day of the Dead type Momento Mori and we let them off the hook. Professor Davies wore his grey suit but had a rather extravagant cravat with it. Patrick, the soul midwife, was in his suit and photographed with his white miniature rose, the object he had chosen to take with him into the next world, which he felt crossed over between earth and spirit, a living rose. Others were keener to step into the frame, Liz Rothschild who runs a woodland burial ground, had turned up in her cream nightie and had chocolates to munch in the after-life. Suzanne, co-founder of Advantages of Age, was wearing a sexy scarlet dress clasping a photo of her beloved boys. Caroline Rosie Dent dazzled with her gold and black Victorian dress, black shawl and headband covered with ivory roses. In fact, she was the style star of the Death Dinner.
Everyone was welcomed over that liminal threshold into Deathland by the Queen of the Night (Ingrid Stone), all in white, of course, rather than black, with her purifying burning sage sticks. In silence, we made our way to our seats at the table accompanied by the haunting, ethereal sounds of Fran Loze’s cello. An abundant feast – from tomato and goats’ cheese tartlets to Parma ham and the remarkable broken heart cake – had been prepared by Caroline Bobby, our magnificent cook and a guest.
During the first half of the dinner, I invited the guests to tell us a little about their relationship with death and how they were linked to Deathworld.
Charlie Phillips, photographer, has documented Afro-Caribbean funerals at Kensal Green cemetery for years. He explained how Afro-Caribbean funerals are changing and that the emphasis is on paying out a lot of money and having songs like Do It My Way by Frank Sinatra these days. He had brought along his camera, of course, as his death object because apparently he is referred to as ‘the dead man photographer’.
Liz Rothschild is a celebrant, started the Kicking the Bucket Festival in Oxford, owns a woodland burial ground and has a show called Out Of The Box about death. Liz explained how when a friend of hers died, her group of friends gathered in such an intimate DIY way, it inspired her to want to support others create this kind of a ceremony.
Hannah Gosh makes modern mourning jewelry and told us why she is so taken with coffin plates. She had also brought along a pug’s skull as her object, but not her pug’s skull!
Caroline Rosie Dent is an end of life doula and a death café host, she told us about her death anxiety as a child, and why she’d brought along a part of her son’s umbilical cord to take with her on the ancestral trip.
John Constable aka John Crow wrote The Southwark Mysteries, a series of poems which became a play. It is the story of the Winchester Goose, one of the medieval sex workers in the area who were condoned by the Bishop of Winchester but forced to have unconsecrated graves. John has been a campaigner around the Cross Bones graveyard for many years and holds a monthly vigil there on the 23rd of every month.
Caroline Bobby is a writer, cook, erotic healer and psychotherapist. She had brought with her The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and her favoured piece of fine woolen cloth, that she would like to be wrapped in when she goes. She sees herself becoming ash and being blown away.
Patrick Ardagh-Walter is a soul midwife, which he describes as being simply alongside someone as they approach this last stage of their lives.
Carla Valentine is an author, mortician and the Technical Assistant Curator at Barts Pathology Museum where she looks after 5,000 body parts in bottles. She describes herself as being quite an unusual child who was interested in death and whose grandfather died when she was seven, in front of her.
Professor David Davies lectures in Death Studies, his most recent book is Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-Style in Britain Today. He explained that he’s fascinated by different groups and their attitudes to death, some like their lives and deaths to cohere, others are just the opposite. He said he hadn’t brought an object because he’s never thought of having an object with him at that time.
Liz Hoggard is a journalist who admits to feeling like a bit of a death tourist in our midst. She sports pearls that might act as some sort of collateral in a future existence and has brought along two lipsticks, one of them is black, the other red. Max Ernst described the latter apparently as ‘the red badge of courage’.
During the break, we listen to Caroline Bobby’s recorded version of her piece, Dreaming of Death. It is precious and moving. In it, she says: ‘I don’t know if I long for death just because living with baseline depression is unforgiving, and every morning is a shock. I don’t think it’s just that. This human and embodied world has never, quite felt like my natural habitat. At a cellular level I am aching to go home.’
After this raw and vulnerable piece, we entered a discussion about death led by Suzanne. We looked at whether there is a revolution in death going on, whether death is really trending, how we could welcome death into our daily lives in conversation and what sort of funerals we would like. Some of it was funny, other parts were poignant. Professor Douglas Davies declared controversially that the only revolution going on is amongst middle-class women. ‘The Death Chattering classes,’ he asserted.
Finally, Charlie Phillips declared that ideally, he would go while making love. And that he’d like ‘Lucky Motherfucker’ on his gravestone as well as ‘Came and Went at the same time’. As you can imagine, laughter rippled through the chapel.
I announced that natural birth activist and then death activist, Sheila Kitzinger had inspired me. She had a death plan, managed to stay at home to die surrounded by her close family despite doctors trying to get her to hospital because she had cancer, then she was put in a simple cardboard coffin decorated by family and friends, and eventually taken in the back of a car for a small woodland burial. The more flamboyant memorial service came later.
Son – take note!
Death Dinner will be screened for the first time tonight – 6.30pm at Barts Pathology Museum, E2. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/death-dinner-film-screening-tickets-38270917344
Napoleon planted these pines,
the soil is sandy but not a beach.
I want to lie down,
stare upwards like a child
who hasn’t had enough clouds.
The watery landscape keeps me upright.
On cherche les oiseaux,
mais on n’entend que les chants.
The sky deceives itself.
We talk (my French friends and I)
about how to inhabit the truth,
to sink our teeth into ice-cream
without fear of incrimination or shame.
We sit with gratitude on a fallen trunk,
taste different sorts of apples,
note the sour and sweet preponderances.
There is an ending amid a swamp,
tears escape in a storm.
Brambles, bare feet, endless water.
I am scared.
My friends, my parents become.
This vulnerability is unmapped.
‘For a poem to emerge properly, you have to avoid confronting it. You have to keep it in sight without looking at it directly.’ Fiona Sampson, poet, in Mslexia
Twelve years ago, I’d never written a poem. I wasn’t – so many say this – one of those people who started writing poems in their teens. At the time, I was a journalist whose paid work – the internet and falling sales of newspapers – was on the wane. I was unsettled, gloomy and undermined.
I decided radical action was needed on the writing front. I have always been a fan of lyrical language so I decided to try out writing poems. I knew – and this is key – that writing poetry was never going to earn me my daily bread but I wanted to do it for love. I had been on the hamster wheel of feature editors’ ever-narrowing commissions and instructions, this way I would re-discover writerly freedom.
Not that I expected it to be easy. I was in for the long haul. I signed up to City Lit’s Beginner’s course with contemporary poet, John Stammers at the helm. I’d never heard of him. His collection Stolen Love Behaviour had just come out and I devoured its post-modern bite. Here were poems that were crafted to the hilt, witty and John’s degree in philosophy drove the undertow.
Through John, I discovered so many poets – from Wallace Stevens to Clare Pollard – but most importantly, and this is a rare feature, I found out that John can actually pinpoint what works and doesn’t work in his pupils’ poems. Over the years, this has been such a boon as well as a pain.
For a long long time, my poems were embarrassingly bad. I’d have a few sizzling one liners, or a good title here and there but the struggle to write a decent poem was arduous and humbling. Luckily, I expected the climb to be arduous and was willing to plod on.
What is a good poem? Ah ha, there is the subject of many a book and author. Basically the content should be fresh, the voice should belong to that poet alone, the attitude should be ‘show rather than tell’ (ie cut out any of those literal lines), a big no to the overly poetic (John has a list of forbidden words and they include iridescence and meniscus!) and then the most difficult, something should emerge magically without the poet even knowing. Helen Mort who is well-known in the poetry world, has just won the Mslexia (a magazine for women who write) poetry prize and the judge, Sinead Morrissey said; ‘there’s a vortex in the middle of it that works like a spell.’ Exactly.
Funnily enough, I am still in one of John’s groups, now an invitation-only one with some damn fine poets – including Barbara Marsh, Judy Brown and Beatrice Garland who all have collections out, won poetry prizes and more. Wednesday afternoon is often the high point of the week for me. We meet in Covent Garden above a pub in Betterton Street while the Poetry Society does its refurbishment re The Poetry Studio.
The format is like this. We hardly ever discuss our personal lives. Only through the poems. John brings in three poems as photocopies, he doesn’t tell us who the poet is. He reads the first one and then we analyse/criticize them. He will bring in these poems for all sorts of reasons – they are badly edited, they have something but not everything, they sing with edge and vim etc – and we are in constant pursuit of what makes a good poem. This is a life’s work!
In the second half, we hand out photocopies of our own new poems to the group, read it out aloud to them and then stay silent while they discuss every aspect in terms of meaning and structure. I have squirmed many times in this position as it became apparent that my new poem didn’t make sense, was overegged – I have a proclivity in this direction – and just plainly did not work. Oh the ignoble position of the bad poet!
However, over the years, I’ve been in this group for five years – we published a group pamphlet Sounds of the Front Door in 2014 – my embarrassment has subsided and I now relish their comments even when they are constructively ruthless. Because that’s exactly what my poems need ie outside voices looking in.
In January, I’d just come back from post-Castro Cuba and written a poem Finding My Inner Orisha. A lot of it was in Spanish and through the group, I learnt that actually there was too much for people to understand so they suggested that I translate lines in both Spanish and English. I have now done that and hope it lends an incantatory aspect to the poem. Although I also decided that I didn’t want to do it all in that way as that was too much. The poet always has the last word. Although as we often discuss when reading other poets’ work, a good editor is also worth their weight in gold.
Killing your own darlings is such a useful lesson in life as well as poetry. Poets often have a proclivity towards something that takes them out of balance. Personally, I go for florid language and this can be so easily overdone. Restraint is needed. Going to The Group helps me refine my own editing skills. If I see that extra ‘fecund’, then I force myself to remove it.
This year, I found a publisher for my first poetry pamphlet – 20 poems and these days often called a chapbook – Tantric Goddess at the age of 64. It’s never too late to start. And I’m not giving up now, I intend to get a collection – around 60 poems – together next.
Tantric Goddess is published on Eyewear.
Flamboyance has always attracted me and as I get older, the attraction gets stronger. The etymology goes back to the Old French ‘flambe’ – a flame. Exactly. There’s a burning about Flamboyance that is almost primal for me. I want to burn in exactly that way. There’s a romance to it too.
The joy of flamboyance as we get older is that it is truly ageless and keeps us ageless.
Of course for me, the invitation to be flamboyant is about NOT following fashion but striking a pose apart. A flourish here, a bright colour there, flowers in my hair, hand-made head dresses, feathers and more feathers, flounces on a flamenco dress specially made by a seamstress – over the years, I have devoted time to flamboyance.
And for me, there is a political aspect to it, I do not want to subscribe to the commercialism of the fashion, the market-driven wants of labels and seasonal trends. Many of my more outré clothes have been in my wardrobe for years and I still wear them.
Last Saturday, on the Advantages of Age OUTAGEous Stylista bus tour of London, I was sporting the green organza dress that I had made for my 50th birthday. It feels special to be still enjoying it at 64.
It was such a delight to create – with Suzanne Noble – this bus tour where we invited you, all the ‘flamboyants’ out there, to join us on this Flamboyant Forever adventure. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I arrived at Sloane Sq to find a gathering of extravagantly bedecked human birds ready to add sparkle to a rainy afternoon.
My eyes were in perpetual wander and wonder. Simultaneously. There was a woman in the brightest of pinks with a matching umbrella. There was a couple – he was wearing a small African hat and striped light pink jacket, she was wearing a marvel of a hat with a maroon jacket. They were quintessentially Advanced Style. And then, there were Serena Constance’s blue sequin hot pants. Envy. Oh and Oh. There was Raga Woods with what looked like a multi-coloured Nepalese headdress but I’m sure was hand-made, she had even brought her own shamanic rather large wooden totem along.
There were wild colours and a complete lack of bland. Nothing tame in sight. Suzanne – in flowing vintage with pink bows and a matching umbrella doing her Southern Belle look – and I were besides ourselves with excitement at the way people had tuned in and so turned on to the wilder shores of eccentricity.
Not to mention Johnny Blue Eyes aka Betsy who was rocking the highest of heels, the red demon cum Leigh Bowery neon face adornments and his customary OUTRAGEousness in excelsis. Unstoppable. Unrestrainable. Shouts of “Woo” and “Fuck Fashion” from the top of the open deck bus.
As we filled the bus so divinely – there were 75 of us between 45 and 80, and it turns out there is a Meet Up called Colour Walk which encourages people to dress up and parade, so some of their members had found us – it became obvious that Flamboyance is so much more than a stylistic flourish, that it is also a way in to connection, to finding like-minds – to COMMUNITY. I sensed the hunger for this sort of community. Basically a desire to find other people who are getting older with attitude.
It was no coincidence that we strutted our stuff outside Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End.
On the bus, the conversations simply cascaded forth – about flamboyant funerals, about the Hot Blushes (Hot Gossip now), about the Chelsea Arts Club parade, about what freedom means as you get older, about each other’s outfits, about how they’d found this event. People loved getting to know each other.
It rained, we fled downstairs, it became dry again, we shouted from the top deck particularly as we went through Knightbridge. People smiled, waved, workmen honked. We got out and danced at Speaker’s Corner. Johnny writhed. There was laughter and more laughter.
We were a carnival of funk and OUTAGEousness.
Kate Monro, on Instagram for AoA, put it succinctly: “It’s as if the narrative around middle/old age got stuck, quite literally in the middle ages. No one really relates to it and you’re helping re-set the groove!
I loved the whole energy of the day and the sense of freedom in redefining what it means to be older. So many interesting conversations.”
Many thanks to Arts Council England for their support in making this event happen.
‘We increasingly seek more complex and subtle imaginative explorations of identity than societal expectations of gender.’ Alex Clark.
I truly discovered the importance of female friendship in my 50s. Post-splitting up with the father of my son at 43 – I’m 64 now – I tipped myself in a giddy stream of unsuitable men. I had female friends but my main focus was men.
In my tender little heart, I distrusted women friends to truly be at my side. Yes, yes, there were reasons that go back to my mother but I’m not going to dwell in that arena. The turning point was a workshop that I went to in 2006 over New Year run by that marvel of a Tantra teacher, Jan Day.
Actually, I went with the intention of being bold with men. I had become inhibited by hurt. It was time to step into the chasm of chance and chaos again. To literally get naked in the pursuit of sensual practice. To launch myself into dangerous but potentially rich experiential waters. And I did do all of that. There was flirting wildly – why can’t we have more flirting in this country, the playfulness of it makes everyone feel so alive – I remember sitting in the Jacuzzi exchanging fruity sexual fantasies with a couple of men. The view out over the frosted Somerset fairyland enhanced this rare pleasure. In the workshop itself, there was explorative touch – to discover what we liked or didn’t – and even kissing. And heart-open sharing. I was in mid-love addiction with an old neighbour who was less likely to share his love with me than a stone in the road. And yet I had been persisting. A fatal sign of co-dependency.
Funnily enough, the outcome of this workshop was a deep friendship with a woman. Not that this seemed on the cards at the time. I was 16 years older than her. She worked as an HR executive for a massive pharmaceutical company. We really had nothing in common. And yet, we found ourselves going off to another week’s workshop with Jan Day that Easter. It was called Living Tantra 1, was 7 days long and a deep immersion into sexual healing. And goodness knows, I needed that. With or without Marvin.
Jayne and I shared a dormitory with four other women. We were a gang of the heart. It wasn’t about gossiping. Well, there was some banter. It was about tears, exploring, risk-taking and laughing. While the workshop was about learning where our touch boundaries were, then being able to speak them and practice non-sexual loving touch. Jayne and I were transported into a new land, one where we both felt we were able to be our best selves. Oh, that is such an exquisite pleasure. And is often the case when in service to others. In this instance, sexual and spiritual service at the same time.
I felt expanded, expansive, on the high of a community that flowed with open love and touch in a safe but exciting way. Afterwards, I didn’t want to live within the confines of my shame and silence ever again. I was deluded about this man, and significantly, I hadn’t been talking about it. The thick carapace of this delusion was heavy. Never again. During the workshop, I confessed. No more dark dreams for me. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that, but that was a good start.
It was an incredible week. And what came out of it was a mini Women’s Group.
Three of us – Jayne, me and another Jane – met up and spoke about our lives in a way that was more vulnerable and emotionally expressive than I’d ever felt safe enough to be. It felt rich, if a little forced at times. Having to cry can feel as restrictive as having to keep a stiff upper lip. Orthodoxies spring up everywhere.
Next came the Wild Women, which of course, was experimental, explorative and fun. There were six of us – Louise, two Carolines, one Jayne, Helen and me. We drank champagne, listened to each other in a sharing circle, ate gorgeous food, spent weekends entwined in an ever-growing closeness that we liked to call into-me-see. Sometimes we did all of these activities at the same time. Formal structure and boundaries were not our strong point. So it wasn’t surprising that our Wild Women group combusted in a firestorm of sensuality and conflict after a dramatic eighteen months. It was not constructed to last. There was heaven and hell while it lasted.
Finally, there was the Women’s Group, which I was in for six years. There were about ten of us, we met once a month for the afternoon, we had a strong structure at first, which contained us and enabled the trust to grow. After a year or so, we became a little looser. We didn’t just share in silence, we could ask for feedback and we learnt to give it sensitively. With a few huge gaffes along the way.
We rotated being hostess and therefore our location.
The hostess decided on the ‘colour’ of the proceedings, whether we danced to get into our bodies and out of our heads, or sat silently at the beginning. Also any extra structures like nurturing touch. The hostess also made some soup. Everyone else brought fruit, chocolate, nuts etc. Most importantly, we shared the depths of our lives here, we could say anything, be it angry or sad or joyful. We were free to speak what was really going on with us. No holds barred and very safely held by the rest of the group. It was a place to be as real as we were capable of being. There was challenge and there was sweetness
Jayne and I went through all of this together and it has lent a profound connection to our friendship. For me, it was incredibly important – after I first got to know her in that second Jan Day workshop – that I could admit everything to her. I knew she wasn’t going to judge me but rather witness my sorrow, pain or shame with love and affection.
I truly felt her compassion and understanding in a sensitive place that had never been properly mothered. It felt peaceful and quiet and gentle. And oh so new. It led to me trusting other women with more of me. The less bouncy sides. The nooks and crannies that I never normally exposed to that sort of sisterly light.
This experience of womanly love has changed me. Because now I know I will never be without this support. And I will never have to lie to myself again. And feel so ashamed. Only today, I went to a new dentist and discovered that my mouth was full of gum disease. I was horrified. My former dentist hadn’t told me.
I felt ashamed of myself for not being better at dental hygiene. How could this have happened? But instead of hiding away, I told three women friends. And none of them judged me for it. I didn’t feel criticized. I felt supported. Which helped me move smoothly into a place of acceptance and action. Yes, I have to face this and get into daily dental action and have some expensive periodontal work. And I am doing it.
I have a partner now – I was single when I went to those workshops – but I know my close women friends will always be there for me. As I will be for them. These relationships hold the longevity that a relationship with a beloved may not. This foundation, this knowledge of each other keeps on growing. It means that I will never be afraid to break a relationship that I think is unhealthy, and that feels mighty powerful.
Women friends – you are a boon and a blessing. Thank you.
I wasn’t going to write about this at all. I was going to write about being A Recovering Drama Queen. Finally. However, very much still in the process of ‘recovery’. It’s an age and awareness thang.
However before I could get to the computer keys, I read about endurance swimmer, Diana Nyad’s memoir – Find A Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, came out last Thursday on Pan Macmillan – and was compelled to write about what was touched in me not just by her feat, but by her bloody-and-be-damned attitude to ageing.
Oh, what a razzle dazzle of a woman. Beyond belief. First of all – the feat. At the age of 64, Diana Nyad swam unassisted from Cuba to Florida. That is 110 miles through seas infested with venomous deadly box jellyfish and sharks for 53 hours without a rest. She was the first person to do it. That is phenomenal.
But before that were the amazing amount of failures. Which make her feat even more incredible. Nyad was one of the world’s best endurance swimmers in her 20s. She’d attempted this swim at 28 in 1978, failed and given up. Two years later, she retired. At 60, she decided to try again. Spurred on by her mother’s death.
And she failed and failed. Stung by box jellyfish, stopped by an asthma attack and more. Her friends who were very involved as back up, begged her to give up. She refused. She had a silicone mask made to protect her from these jellyfish because ninety percent of the people touched by their tentacles die. She was stung but didn’t die. After all her unrelenting tenacity, she actually did succeed at 64 in 2013. Hallelujah!!
What I love about her attitude to ageing is recounted in her memoir. Someone suggested at one of her talks that she was too old to attempt this swim. She is still incandescent about this kind of ageism. Even now. “Age, gender, nothing should be a barrier,” she insists. “I’m not 25, I’m not 45, I’m 66 and I can’t do anything about cosmetic ageing. I look in a mirror and of course my face is going to show the years lived. Same with the body. I carry more fat than I did when I was younger. What am I going to do? Worry about that? Talk about not being in the moment! Any moment I spend fretting that I’m not younger, it’s just a waste.”
She then informs the Observer journalist – the piece that inspired this one – Carole Cadwalladr that the photographer had just enquired if she’d prefer to change positions to a more flattering angle. She erupted with the sort of fire spirit that we admire at Advantages of Age. “I couldn’t care less,” she insisted, “It’s what I do and what I say, and how I live that’s important, not how I look. My looks aren’t my issue and it’s just very freeing.”
Okay, I’m not quite there yet. I still do care what I look like and what photographs of me are like. But I’m 63 and I am beginning to understand the breadth of the freedom that comes with ageing. That I can make choices based on what I want to do, rather than what society, the media or even what my tribe dictates. I can be my own dictator. In the last few years, I have grown my hair long again. The convention is still that older woman shouldn’t have long hair, that their faces will sag and disappear into the hag look. I cut my hair into a bob when I was 43 somehow persuaded by conformity. Pushed by a boyfriend. At 60, my desire for lengthy tresses returned. So I allowed myself the luxury of length. Hair is a sensual pleasure and there is a be-quiet-sexuality message in the obligatory cutting.
No, I’m not about to swim even across the local Grand Union Canal but Nyad’s message around ageing feels supremely loud and clear. Don’t be cowed by comfort zones (your own) or limits (your own). And find your voice, live your life. Be free. Which doesn’t have to be narcissistic.
One of the freedoms I have reclaimed recently – is the freedom to speak my mind politically and to go for the edge. To not be afraid of showing that I’d like a radical change in society, that years of Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron had silenced my anger against the inequality we live with. But no longer.
A few weeks ago as I stood in Parliament Square shouting: “Shame on you” at the Blairites who were trying to bully the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn – who is committed to social justice and a much fairer society – into stepping down, I felt totally inspired about this kind of potential change. I also imbibed the unity and strength of 10,000 people coming together in 24 hours via social media and in being there together. This was no rag bag of ultra lefties, this was a huge crowd of ordinary people who wanted something better and were willing to get out on to the streets and demand just that.
It was electrifying and inspiring to be part of truly going for something bigger that I believed in.
You can read an extract from Diana Nyad’s memoir – Find A Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life here.
We’d love to hear from you what you’ve found freeing about getting older… please tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a gathering buzz around the Death Café phenomenon – there have been 3859 in 40 countries including Iceland and South Korea – and so when one was announced in my ‘hood and in the perfect location, Kensal Green Cemetery’s Dissenter’s Chapel*, I knew I had to go. After all, I have said on numerous occasions that our ethos at AoA includes breaking through the death barrier. Not to live forever like the Immortalists*, but in order to shatter the taboo. I’ve also stated that I’d like to ‘review’ funerals but I have yet to be offered one.
The night before the Death Café – a social franchise where people gather, drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death with the stated aim ‘is to help people make the most of their (finite) lives’ – I started to research what was happening around death instead of the classic funeral. I found a video of a woman in Britain who picked up her mother’s body from the mortuary, placed it in her camper van and drove to a field where she and her friends dug a very deep hole and gently lowered her mother into it. No undertakers, no coffin, no service, this was the ultimate in DIY and legal. Excellent. But most people have no idea what is legal and what is not around death and dying.
Which is exactly why a Death Café is such good news. There’s so much to find out and exchange.
I invited my friend, Amanda who lives round the corner from me. We met in Ladbroke Grove outside the entrance. She had managed to ignore the Death part, and only seen the café. She thought she was meeting me for a coffee and a chat, although was slight bemused and bewildered at the location.
“No, it’s a Death Café where we’ll be talking about our mortality,” I whispered loudly whilst urging her into the newly decorated Dissenter’s Gallery which even has a little potential bar these days. And am instantly drawn to a large woven artwork by local artist, Zoe Landau Kouson , which looks as though it has writhing knots of brilliant breasts all over it. Feeding breasts, dancing breasts, tribal breasts, animal breasts and more.
Twelve of us sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs with the ideal Death café view – through the large nineteenth century iron gate – are the leaning gravestones, the modern graves and the Victorian tombs all thrown together in nature and peace.
The de rigeur tea and biscuits are pretty rudimentary – in Sussex they probably do a funereal spread with coffin cupcakes and Death by Chocolate – but hey, it’s the participants that count. And these people are marvelous in their eclecticism.
Mark, our unpaid facilitator during this two hour dialogue, has a skull broach on his lapel just for confirmation of his status. He explains the roots of the Death Café – originally Le Café Mortal started by Swiss anthropologist and sociologist, Bernard Crettaz in 2004 in order ‘to break the tyranny of silence around death’ – the idea was taken up by a mother, Sue Barsley Reid and son, Jon Underwood in Hackney,2010. They haven’t looked back. Death Cafés are popping up everywhere these days and a very good sign that is.
I remember writing an article in Time Out in the mid-80s at the height of the Aids deaths where I suggested that the advent of these often oh-too-young people leaving us so tragically would change our ways of dying forever. And to some extent, that has happened. Aids funerals were bold and brave and out there in a way that proclaimed we die as we live – there were coffins that stood up, there was waving to the coffins as they departed behind the curtain, there was Barbara Streisand singing. Funerals have become freer – I went to a Catholic one the other day and even that had much more individuality than in the past – and more personal. And yet open conversation about, for instance, plans for death and dying still remain rare.
And so, we share one by one about why we’ve come. I say that my 90 year old mother nearly died of sepsis recently, which has been instrumental in me thinking about wanting to take control of my own death. In some ways impossible but in other ways worth reflecting upon. And then I explain that I edit this magazine, and that we recently had an article where someone with a brain tumor living in Australia decided to buy some Nembutal so that he could enable his own death rather than wait for an increasingly painful end. Finally, he was in a hospice and could no longer play the harmonium, he found a window of opportunity, went to the toilet and took the Nembutal.
Before I know it, Amanda who thought she was just popping out for a little catch up, is talking about how she felt like an orphan as both her parents had died. An American woman wants to talk about cultural differences, another young man is becoming a hospice nurse and more that I’m not allowed to reveal because of the confidentiality clause.
I’m impressed by our collective energy and enthusiasm for the topic, and the multitude of attitudes and interests.
And I’m moved when we start to share more deeply about a good death might look like. Amanda talks passionately about wanting to die without the anguish that she felt both her parents experienced when they were approaching death. “I really want to be able to accept what’s happening,” she says. I really feel the depth of her sharing. This is Saturday morning, and suddenly there’s such an intimacy in this wonderful little chapel.
Talking so openly about death and what it means to us personally brings a warmth and closeness. There’s a feeling of community already where this sort of exchange is possible. It’s strangely exhilarating in the way that being about to talk about your secret desires and fears can be.
Josephine Speyer, a psychotherapist specializing in loss and bereavement, as well as being the co-founder of The Natural Death Centre (they do a great handbook about everything you need to know about death) who also holds Death Cafes is present. She has a softness that curls around us as she talks about a powerful moment when her husband appeared to her soon after he died. She’s also a keen advocate for death education and says that knowing what to do when her husband died suddenly, helped a lot.
There are moments of lightness too. One woman who is a friend of Kensal Green cemetery tells us about her favourite funeral. “It was one where my friend donated his body to science so there was no funeral, just a party in a restaurant where we remembered him.”
The representative from Dignity in Dying confesses that she hasn’t made a will. I haven’t either. But we are the minority in the room as Mark gets us to put our hands up. “Well, that is unusual,” he announces, “most people here have made their wills.”
The American couple don’t have children and they explain that making a will has felt like an act of generosity for them. Basically, they have given their assets to chosen family and friends, the result being that they feel content with their decisions.
Neither Amanda nor I want to leave. This is a dialogue we could have kept on contributing to and being fascinated by. Funnily enough, we left inspired, moved and determined to visit a Death Café again soon. There’s something so compelling about this level of realness.
Look up a Death Café near you on deathcafe.com or start one up yourself through the website.
*The Dissenter’s Chapel was built as part of Kensal Green Cemetery’s eastern part for non-Anglicans to perform their own rites, and is still in use for funerals today.
*There is now a Dissenter’s Gallery, which is managed by Michael Speechley, which is involved in all sorts of exciting projects including the Death Café. Dissentersgallery.com
*The Immortalists are a community in the US who believe that they will live forever.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” Carl Jung
For quite a while, I’ve been the sort of person who recognizes my inner Hitler. Seriously, I do not pretend to be little Bo Beep. I believe that I’m on most spectrums from love addiction to violence.
I also see that separation – it’s you over there that is mentally ill, not me – is the key to a culture of blame. I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be part of relationships, friendships and a society that cares deeply and takes responsibility for our own fuck ups.
Which is why I was attracted to going on a Shadow Work weekend with my partner, Asanga. Him again! I’m blessed, I know, with a partner who is equally drawn to these kinds of conscious explorations. Going with a partner meant for us both – an extraordinary opportunity to witness each other in a way that we had never done before.
What is Shadow Work? Well, it was developed over 25 years ago by Cliff Barry and Mary Allen Blandford. They integrated and correlated their work with other disciplines such as Gestalt, Voice Dialogue, Accelerated Learning, Metaphor work, Bio-Energetics, Family Systems theory, Addiction Recovery work and other personality systems such as the Myers-Briggs Type indicator and the Enneagram. They are also indebted to the pioneering work of Robert Bly, Robert Moore and Doug Gillette, David Grove, Ron Hering and Hal and Sidra Stone.
What is the Shadow? The shadow parts of ourselves are the aspects of our behaviors and feelings that we have put into a compartment labeled not acceptable, that must not show or express in everyday life. They are not all negative, there are often positive or golden parts that we are repressing.
And so one July afternoon, I find myself driving down the lanes of Warwickshire. Although I have never done Shadow Work, I have done a fair amount of group process work – from the Hoffman Process to the Path of Love to Malcolm Stern’s year Courage to Love to Pesso Boyden – so I have a certain faith in what is to come. However, I know I will be dealing with something to do with my jealousy – an aggravating old wound which lurks painfully within me – and that will mean revealing desolate parts of myself, so I am also nervous.
And guess what – a situation has arisen that very week to intensify the Rose shadow fest. It is to do with the despairing place that I visit when, for instance, Asanga flirts with my friends. Perfect material for the weekend.
The house is called Holycombe in Whichford. It is an idyllic location, useful in terms of soothing fears. There’s an assistant, lovely Jane, who helps me with my bags. I love being helped with my bags. It’s the legacy of having been a single mother. Asanga has already arrived and is sitting on the hill near the labyrinth. We live five hours apart by car. He’s in North Wales and I’m in Harlesden, London. We keep in touch via text, email and sometimes phone. And there is trickiness re communication from time to time. This week has been one of those weeks.
Meeting each other after a couple of weeks’ apart is also often challenging. We have to find a way to come together again. Somehow we manage it this time with sweetness and a tender walk around the grounds that are full of love seats, tree houses, yurts, a pond and meadow flowers…
The group are gathering – nine participants, six men and three women which is unusual – and we meet at 4pm with the facilitators, wife and husband, Nicola and John Kurk who have been teaching this work for over 20 years in that time-honoured fashion. The circle. A talking stone is passed round. We introduce ourselves and say a bit about what we’d like to happen here and what’s important to us in our lives and how we’re feeling. Oh, yeah, that bit.
“I’m Rose,” I say, “and I’m here because I want to take off some protective clothing in my relationship with Asanga, I’d like to melt more of my heart towards him. I’m a writer, I’m passionate about my walks around Unsung London. I’m a mother. I’m feeling nervous but excited. I used to be a rock n’roll journalist.”
I mention the latter because John mentions that at heart he’s still a rock n’roll guitarist, and then Nicola adds in that she’s a classical pianist, and it becomes a theme. And makes me laugh.
As for the others, I promised not to divulge anything about them as part of the confidentiality agreement, but, of course, they have come for all sorts of reasons – from marriage difficulties to wanting more confidence in relationships to dealing with past abuse.
And then it’s straight into learning about the Four Quartered Model– Cliff Barry chose four of Jung’s archetypes as the basis of this work, they are the Magician, the Sovereign, the Lover and the Warrior as an aid to self-awareness – and also creating a safe container for the group through various partnered and group exercises. It is full on for a Friday evening.
Don’t Nicola and John realize that we’re meant to be doing some quiet movement and a little light sharing for starters? No, seems not! Here we are, thrust right into the flames… Each corner of the room has an archetype in it.
Firstly, we visit the wizard’s hat and the Magician who represents taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Strategy, analyzing, perspective, they are all characteristics. I’m instantly – as the overemotional one in my family – attracted to the Magician. In personal development work, the mind often gets a bad rap, dismissed in the mad rush to find the body and feelings, but in Shadow Work, it is lauded. Hurrah. There’s all sorts of extra information, for instance, fear is the gateway emotion so facing it ushers in the Magician, and if you have an overinflated inner magician you might be hyper-vigilant, or deflated, you might be confused and therefore blinkered. The core shaming belief is – I am rotten to the core.
We do some partnered work to help create a safe group environment, which is vital for this kind of deep sharing group work. This exercise is Tell Me Who You Are. One person keeps on asking Tell Me Who You Are, and the other sits and speaks spontaneously. For two minutes. It’s an unraveling. You can be as honest and untamed as you choose. I say – “I’m a mother, I’m a lover, I’m a wild woman, I’m shy, I love poetry, I’m afraid that my partner will abandon me etc.” It’s always a privilege to hear from the other person.
And then on to the Sovereign which is that place of authority within ourselves, the one with the vision and the moral knowledge. The sparkling crown is in this corner. The Sovereign also is the heart and the service and the blessing. This queen/king figure is represented by fire and the gateway emotion is joy. The core shaming belief is I’m not good enough. The inflated Sovereign always knows best while the deflated is unsure of her/himself.
The next exercise is one where we kneel and are blessed by two of the others. I go first. They put their hands on my bowed head and I imbibe their gift gently. Then I stand and they kneel while I bless them. One of the men is in tears at the enormity of the receiving. It’s a place where we can practice giving and receiving. And nourishment of all of that. It reminds me of the six of pentacles in the Rider Waite Tarot pack where there is a gentleman with scales, and there is a person on either side, one is giving, and the other is receiving. In balance.
We do manage to fit a gorgeous evening meal in here. It’s all lightness and Nicoise salad. Perfect for this sort of emotional/spiritual work.
Last for this evening comes the Lover. Fragrant sweet peas, a bowl of exquisite chocolates, another of grapes and dazzling textiles are all in this sensual corner. Play, spontaneity, the senses, sexuality, connecting to the body and feeling. Creativity. Intuition. Relationships. This is all that Lover energy. The gateway emotion is grief, tears lead to that opening that let the melted heart in. Listen up, Rose. Surrender. Listen up, again. If overinflated, then life is a rollercoaster of emotions. And there will be addiction in there. Deflated is a lack of feeling and connection, isolation, physical self-abuse. The core shaming message is I don’t love right.
Before bed, there’s a visualization taking us from birth to the future. For me, the most important part is enjoying the lullabies that my father sings to me as he’s getting me ready for bed when I was about three. Somehow, those innocent, splendidly playful times have been cast aside by me. This time, I get time to appreciate them.
In the morning, after one of those fruity/home-made bread breakfasts, we’re back in the room and on to the Warrior after a quick sharing of how we are. The Warrior is the perfect archetype before we go into the ‘carpet work’ – basically a one hour-ish process that includes role play– because he/she is the doer, the- make-it-happen part of us. And also the gateway emotion is anger, which propels us with its dynamic force.
I identify powerfully with The Warrior. The Warrior is the rebel too. It’s about boundaries and courage. The Warrior does what needs to be done. In inflated form, they are bullies, and deflated, they are victims. I know both intimately.
Not everyone – especially of course, the British, can do anger – I can. And sometimes I can overdo it. So in the exercise – Tell Me What You’re Angry About – I’m loud and full of the outraged anger that I feel when Asanga flirts with one of my friends. The anger of betrayal and abandonment. In fact, it’s often good for me to practice containment. But in this case, it makes me feel alive and ready for the group process work.
There are nine of us and so that’s at least nine hours. We start before lunch on Saturday and then it’s go, go go. Funnily enough, fuelled by his anger at me – I criticised him on the Friday evening after the sweet reunion and as a result he slept in the car – Asanga goes first. He’s in Warrior mode. John asks if he would like me to leave the room as they don’t want partners to cause an editing or censoring of what they say. Asanga says wants me to stay. That’s what we’ve both agreed. And to be honest, we don’t edit ourselves much in our ongoing relationship. We’re not polite.
It is deeply moving to watch your partner work in this way. And informative. I could really see now how like his mother I could be, in my unpredictable anger. And that made me reflect about my own behavior. It was a privilege to be there.
I decide to wait until the next day before I do mine. Majorly because I’m someone who can get overwhelmed by my feelings, and when I’m triggered, I long for some rational perspective. So I make my mind up that I will wait and let my feelings of anger subside a little.
On Sunday, I’m ready to rock and roll just before the sumptuous lunch. I’m full of anticipation rather than nerves. I stand up and walk into the middle of the carpet. Nicola asked me – “What would you like to have happen here”
“I would like to take off some of the protective layers around my heart with regards to Asanga, I want to allow myself to melt more in love,” I say.
And what is preventing you from doing this?
“I don’t feel safe. I feel often overwhelmed with feelings of fear, despair and abandonment when Asanga flirts with my friends?”
And then we’re off into role-play and the dynamics of the process. Nicola asks me to choose someone to play that little girl part of me that is overwhelmed. I’m invited to put her in a position and also to choose some material – dark green in this case – for what energy she emanates. I ask her to crouch down on the floor and take up very little space. I’m then invited to say what she will be saying.
“I’m overwhelmed and helpless,” I say, and my little girl performer repeats this.
I’m invited to choose someone to play Asanga. I do. And then demonstrate what he would be doing physically. I demonstrate a kind of dancing looseness and his sentences are – “I’m available to everyone else but not you.” Obviously, this is my subjective perspective when I’m triggered rather than the ‘reality’.
And then, quickly it goes back to my raging father – I pick someone for him and wrap him in bright orange – and his apoplectic violent anger against me, in other words, I felt abandoned in this place as a ten year old child and so this is still a place I travel to. I felt in those days as though I was going to be killed so this father says – “I’m going to fucking kill you” as though he means it.
Just as I’m getting carried away with that violent force – as of course, I have it within me as well – Nicola invites me into my Magician energy (in other words, to use my intellect for a bigger picture and perspective) and to the Lover corner of the room for relationship.
Who else would I like to be there? I say that I’d like other parts of my father that tend to get forgotten – to be there. The tender father who sang sweet songs to me when I was three. I choose someone for him. And the inspiring father who taught me about books and debate. So someone comes out to be him.
And then there’s me, as the pre-teen who physically fights my father. Out comes another participant.
This is a key moment. Nicola asks me if I’d like to push him – ie the angry father – out of the room. I am immediately clear that I don’t need to. That I have done this already in other group work and that’s not where my focus needs to lie. It would be better spent on the positive parts of my father and getting the cherishing that I need.
She asks me what I would like to happen? I say that I would like to be held by my father, and explain that my ideal father is actually the raging one at the moment.
“Realistically, he would never hold you, so we’ll have to de-role him so that he can become your ideal father.”
Magic can happen here.
First of all, I get to hold my own overwhelmed little girl and tell her all the wonderful aspects of herself, and stroke her hair and face. It’s exquisitely tender.
“You’re gorgeous,” I murmur, “You’re a great mother, you’re beautiful.”
Nicola asks what advice I can give to this little girl. I tell her that she can call upon those positive parts of her father in times of need and abandonment, and that they will be there for her.
Finally, I get to be my own little girl and I dissolve into the willing body and arms of my ideal father. I cry and breathe deeply. I drink in this gift of nurture and relaxation. It’s such a huge, huge relief.
John calls on everyone to join me and gently touch me. Again I breathe it all in. It is divine – floating in that sea of unconditional love. Plus Asanga is there somewhere in tears himself.
I realize that Asanga can also be this ideal father to me from time to time, when I need it. He has that energy. That’s reassuring.
I get up in bliss and dance with them. That’s my way.
Finally a couple of hours later, after incredibly intense group processes, we gather again for a graceful goodbye. Our sharings of how it has been for us. Our honouring of the group and the incredibly skilled facilitators.
What have I taken away? A sense of new calm around this, the nourishment, the witnessing and the knowledge that I have been seen in these places by my partner. That is a Big Wowee…
You can find more information about Shadow Work and weekends led by Nicola and John at goldenopportunities.org.uk, shadwwork.eu and shadowwork.com