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Am I a Workshop Junkie?


10 Minute Read

I’m talking personal development here, not a coffin or a chutney-making one. These emotion-evoking workshops are all about transforming oneself in order to go out and transform the world. It starts with the self and expands out into the world. That’s the idea – love, love, love.

And I have done a fair few in the past 20 years, it has to be said.

From a year group with a psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern to the Hoffman Process to Jan Day’s Tantra groups to 5 rhythms dance to the Path of Love, a seven day group process which runs globally. And lots of women’s groups too.

I am a fan of group process rather than individual therapy. For me. They have the potential to accelerate change because the room is always full of other uncomfortable mirrors. I might instantly dislike someone on first sighting. The idea however disagreeable/uncomfortable to me is to look to myself and see what it is that that I’m projecting on to that person. What am I not looking at inside myself? What part of my own shadow do I dislike? Easier said than done, I am eternally resistant, however it’s a great opportunity. Always.

Also I have an ongoing difficult relationship with my own vulnerability. I would rather be argumentative, defensive, win the debate and project onto my partner all sorts of false blame than face the vulnerability that lies just beneath that conflict. Often it’s simply his situation seems difficult and even dangerous to me and that distresses me, so I attempt to impose a solution because it seems untenable. But often only to me!! Now he understands that dynamic and lets me know that he is okay and doesn’t need active support.

Am I a workshop junkie? Not really, I see workshops as a way of connecting me to significant parts of myself that otherwise, I might be ignoring. Like my tenderness. They are also a way of being nourished, being seen and being acknowledged at one’s fullest, and importantly continuing the struggle to evolve in that emotional intelligence way.

And so one Saturday morning, I find myself getting up at 7 am to go and do a Path of Love Day on Relationship at a swish venue in Shoreditch. Run by co-founder, Rafia Morgan who is a psychotherapist originally from San Francisco, and used to live in Osho’s Ashram in Poona and then on the ranch in Oregon. Osho is the Indian philosopher and guru – there is a series on Netflix at the moment called Wild Wild Country, which recounts the controversial events around him – who created much of the tantra and meditation work that has become popular in the West. He was also a non-conformist in the spiritual world – he called it rebel wisdom – which attracted a lot of followers or sannyasins. The other facilitator today is Abigail Iquo Isuo Peters, a charismatic psychotherapist who zaps the day into action with her humour and energy.

First of all, there is the optional Dynamic Meditation. It’s optional because it’s hardcore in its physical demands. Today I’m in but with the intention not to overdo it. I am 65, I will go for it, but not over-go for it. That was my former self.

Dynamic Meditation has five stages – chaotic breathing, catharsis, jumping up and down with one’s arms in the air shouting HOO, stillness and celebration. The idea is to remove you from your comfort zone and stir up all those feelings that lurk just below the surface. This is an Osho invention and I’ve done it a few times before. I’m dreading the Hooing, but I’m looking forward to the rest.

I opt for a gentle version. For the chaotic breathing, we breathe only through the nose and the aim is to disrupt ourselves. That’s fine. I do a quiet disruption. The catharsis is the opportunity to rage and scream, to let it all go. This is something I don’t have a problem with. I can shout and cry until the cows come home. My difficulty is more around the opposite. I would like to be more contained when it comes to anger, sadness etc. Which seems like a heresy but isn’t. I shout and scream for a while and then find I don’t need to.

The jumping up and down with my arms in the air shouting Hoo in a fast rhythm is as hard as I anticipated, but I approach the task in a sanguine way. I do what I can for as long as I can, then, I have a rest, and carry one. Really it seems to me to be about the capacity to keep going through whatever life throws at you, about keeping the tenacity going and to be honest, I have got a proclivity in that direction. There is a reason that my close friends refer to me as a terrier.

Next comes stillness and silence for 15 minutes, which is are blessed moments although I do reach up and wipe the trickles of sweat away as they cascade down my neck and forehead. Finally, there is celebration, some sitar music stirs us into emerging. That is my favourite part, that feeling of the butterfly leaving the chrysalis. And dance. I can never resist free movement in this way. It is like spring time in music.

There’s talk of an intention and cementing an intention for the day. I’m thinking beforehand that mine is more engagement politically. Silly me, this is all about the heart. Rafia takes us on a trip around the heart in a guided meditation. How does your heart feel? Is it hurt, mistrustful, open, numb?

‘Remember,’ he says, ‘the heart loves truth, it relaxes the heart.’ This really is the mantra for the day.

We are invited to share about our hearts afterwards with one other person near us. I divulge that my heart is more open than it used to be but that it can always do with more practice around melting. I tell my partner, a tall American, that when I did the 7-day Path of Love, that’s what it was all about for me, I became like a soft jelly, a birthday card kitten, in fact, I was schmaltz itself and it was delicious.

I’m already moved to tears by my partner’s heart story. Oh, it’s going to be one of those days. Just what I needed. Tuning in and turning on to love in the overflowing sense.

After a quick break, we’re immediately into the soul of the workshop – an exercise where we become our mothers and our partners become us, and we see what that brings to us in the way of feelings and actions. I do it first. I have a decision to make – shall I be my mother now with Alzheimer’s or my mother before? I decide on the former. For me, it’s not so much about discovering family patterns but about seeing where I am with my mother now after 15 years of working in a healing way on our relationship.

So I am looking at the world as my mother with Alzheimer’s and that’s a very vulnerable, open, and needy place. I find myself looking in a plaintive way at my partner who responds by backing away and looking away. I move towards her in complete openness and need and she resists for a while, and then she opens to me, her mother, and we tentatively hold each other’s hands with love. It’s awkward but there’s a lot of love there.

For the next part of the exercise, my partner becomes my mother and I am myself. This seems a lot more straightforward, she comes forward and then we embrace for a long time. It is so beautiful and healing. I bathe in being held by her, I imbibe the nurture, I giggle at the wonderfulness of it and so does she.

I am also aware of the surreal aspect to this – I am much older than my partner, and she is both younger and much taller than me. However none of this matters in this endearing embrace.

Afterwards, we share what happened for us both. I say how amazing it feels to explore the nature of my relationship with my mother now she is 91 and has Alzheimer’s and how much softer our relationship is now than it was 20 years ago. How I feel her trust in me, which I never did before. And how profoundly healing it feels to be nurtured by her because in reality there hasn’t been much of that. There are tears and laughter.

Finally, before lunch, we do the same exercise around our fathers. My father is dead and our relationship was loving as a young girl, then violent as I grew up, then passionate round debate as I became a teenager, then conflictive again as I got older. Again I get to express what was underneath. Although I start off as my father and being in the frustration I feel with my daughter, I quickly move to wanting to connect to a safe loving place. When I’m myself, I am able to accept love from him, which feels like a gorgeous place to be. I didn’t find that place with him when he was alive so it feels nourishing to find it now he’s dead.

I have a gut instinct that this will all help to be more open to love from my partner. And more loving towards him. That has somehow arrived as my intention for the day.

Lunch is informal with people bringing their own lunches or going out to a local café.

Afterwards, we are directed into cushion-seated circles of nine and invited to participate in a cyclonic inquiry. The Path of Love facilitators love inquiry. And me too. Especially about our shadow selves. They believe that the more that we can accept our shadow selves and declare them ie all our unpalatable traits - the deeper we will be able to connect with others. And the more relaxed we will be as human beings.

We’re asked to repeat the sentence; ‘If you were in an intimate relationship with me, you would find out that I am’ and the answer is all of that secret stuff. Mine are being over-expressive around anger, insecure and jealous, eager to win at arguments, scared of real love, protective of my vulnerability and therefore more often seen in defensive mode, easily distressed by your emotional distress.

And the next one, which goes round and round the circle from person to person is; ‘What I need from you in a relationship is… and that is my need.’ Mine was to stand in the fire for me around my insecurity and jealousy, to make me feel sexually be safe and on an adventure at the same time, to come forward in love so that I can move myself. And there are more! Then the important part is to own them all as my own needs.

The day finishes off with some pulsing breath work which again was to get us back into our bodies and integrate feelings that might have come up, but to be honest, didn’t do much for me, and then finally celebratory dance with everyone in the room which I always love.

What did I come away with? A feeling of joy that I can be calmer on these sorts of days now, I don’t have to return to the trauma of my upbringing. I can connect to my heart without connecting to great grief.

And finally, the knowledge that my partner and I have unveiled and exposed every one of these shadow parts to each other. I realized and messaged him on the way home, and then thanked him again on the phone the next day. We really do have a truly reciprocal intimate relationship and that I feel blessed in that. It was something that I had yearned for, for a very long time. I felt moved to clearly declare this to him. Of course, we still have dramas and difficulties but we know how to get through them. I couldn’t want for more than that.

More info about the Path of Love on pathretreats.com

The Ineffability of Ageing


1 Minute Read

I buy a new bra laced with dahlias.
Calvin Klein. Dress is Indian
embroidered olive green silk.
Shepherd’s Bush Market.
Candelabras are cheaply ornate. Car
boot. Oh Lord, teeth have been savaged.
Dental hygienist. Like a slow moving
volcano. My sixtieth.
Pause for thoughts about gifts.
Unwanted. Suggest pies on laps
as they drive to Voewood. Wanted. Funk up
with Prince, George Clinton and Deee-Lite.
The bass. Rachel, formerly of Hard House
at the helm. Home entertainment. La famille
Pougnet divert with a comedic turn.
Love. I show a film – Rose of Life,
eulogy ahead of its time. Useful.
My mother shimmies with her grandson.
Tiger. Crone-new, I am blessed
by the sexiness of my revellers. Bingo.

The Death Dinner – Opening up the Last Taboo


5 Minute Read

‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Silence.’

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

La Tempête


1 Minute Read

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.

Poetry – how writing keeps me kicking up


1 Minute Read

‘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.

Christian Palen
Rose Rouse by Christian Palen

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.

Tantric Goddess

Flamboyance Forever!


1 Minute Read

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.

The Importance of Female Friends


7 Minute Read

‘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.

 

Fuck The Ageing Black Hole, I’ll Take The Freedom


5 Minute Read

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 info@advantagesofage.com

 

My First Death Café


1 Minute Read

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.

 

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