Alan Dolan, 55, is a breathwork guru. He’s known for this transformative work with the breath. He lives in Lanzarote. He says that ‘the deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors is the most worthwhile work that I have ever undertaken’. breathguru.com
Age (in years)
Where do you live?
Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
What do you do?
I´m a self-employed breath coach
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
55 has been something of a turning point. Whilst I´m beginning to notice the more tangible signs of ageing I know myself better than ever before. With this has come acceptance (mostly), understanding and compassion.
As I’m able to feel more compassion towards myself I find that I am automatically feeling more compassionate towards others which is a rather lovely position to be in. This relatively new level of open-heartedness has changed my experience of life and living. As my emotional spectrum continues to expand and I feel boundaries and perceived limitations disappear, I’m both elated and humbled.
On the one hand I see the infinite potential of what it means to be a human and on the other I see the sameness and ordinariness of that experience. I like Adyashanti´s perspective of ´enlightenment´ as being a process of deconstruction as opposed to adding anything into the mix. The deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors has been the most worthwhile work I’ve ever undertaken. I’m ok. I have always been ok and I always will be ok.
The misunderstanding of thinking that I have to be anything other than what I actually am has for the most part been embodied – and with that comes peace. And on the days when I feel anything but peaceful I remember the dynamic nature of having a human life and how the waking up process is ongoing. There doesn’t seem to be an end point only increasing awareness and presence coupled with decreasing identification with ones thoughts and emotions. Such a paradox. Unconditional acceptance of what is together with increasing clarity re what I am and what I am not.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Self-acceptance, which I’ve found to be the precursor to self-love
An additional 30 years of experience and the wisdom that comes from that.
An increasingly global vision. The apathy and angst of my early years has been replaced with the acknowledgement of a shared responsibility for what we have created globally and a desire to contribute to the awakening that is happening within our species.
A more open heart
Gratitude – for ALL of it.
A sense of awe at the ever-present intelligence at work all around us. The magic and the mystery of existence.
The ability to be present and live from the now. Historically, I´ve been quite future-oriented. I find myself much more in the now these days taking time to experience each moment as the truly unique gift that it is and finding delight in the fact that as we spend more time in the Now so the quality and depth of each moment becomes more apparent.
What about sex?
Surprisingly it just seems to get better. I didn’t expect that as I thought it was pretty amazing to begin with. I’m more grounded and connected to my body these days and with that comes increased sensitivity and intensity. I’ve done a lot of bodywork and yoga over the years and now diving even deeper via Breathwork. Bottom line is that it seems there is more light and shade as well these days and I enjoy the dance between the two. Last year, I began to explore tantric practices which brings a meta-context and intention to all things sexual.
There´s a direct correlation between the relationship one is having with oneself and those which are experienced with others. As my sense of self becomes clearer so I have more appreciation of meaningful connection rather than going through the motions at a more superficial level.
How free do you feel?
As I’ve explored and become freer in my body I´ve noticed that I feel freer generally. As within, so without if you will. I recognise and value my sovereignty and am more comfortable with bucking the norm if I feel it´s appropriate. I recognise the parts of me that need validation and approval and understand why those aspects still hold sway with me. Being in the world but not of it is easier said than done. In my experience, the layers of self-imposed restriction, self-abandonment and self negation continue to be peeled away.
What are you proud of?
I think my journey to date and the fact I´ve come back to me in a sense. The word communion has been coming up a lot recently both in terms of deepening the connection I´m experiencing with myself and in relationship to others also.
What I´ve created and continue to create with Breathguru. I tend to be an early adopter so when I began promoting Breathwork in 2004, it wasn’t really on the map. Cut to 15 years down the line and it´s very much in vogue in the UK and around the world. I played a fairly major part in that process and I´m excited to see the results of all that attention and energy.
What keeps you inspired?
Lots of things
The magic and mystery of existence
Individuals who are making a difference – I just read when the Body Says No by Gabor Mate which blew me away – he´s really challenging the status quo re our attitudes to addiction and I love him for that. Compassion in action. Its time.
When are you happiest?
When I´m in on or near water.
And where does your creativity go? I
Everywhere. The whole thing is one big creation both singularly and universally.
What’s your philosophy of living?
I’m not sure I have a philosophy of dying although death and dying is definitely on my radar much more these days. I can tell you that I value my life more than ever before and even though I have a new vision I´m beginning to create I can honestly say I feel ready. I ask myself that on a regular basis these days.
Are you still dreaming?
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I just asked a Belgian Venture Capital firm for 2.3 million quid. That felt quite outrageous and absolutely appropriate at the same time.
Why I Wrote a Book Called Kahuna – the Cat that Didn’t Die
Imagine standing in the hustle and bustle of Kings Cross station when all of a sudden you notice the air around one of the pillars shimmy and blur, and you can’t help yourself because you’ve seen all the Harry Potter films – you run towards a pillar very close to Platform 9 and find yourself rushing through into a different dimension of reality. Not to Hogwarts but to Catwarts! The Feline University of Life and Death.
Who would have expected to learn so much about death and beyond from a cat? Then again, who would you learn from?
It started way back when I lived on a small boat on the Thames in the heart of London with my first cat. I had always been a dog person until one day the opportunity arose to be the proud ‘parent’ to an adorable black and white, half Persian, fluff ball kitten. She gave me one of those long cat stares and I was smitten! When she came to live with me on the boat, which rocked sometimes gently and sometimes quite violently, I wondered if I had made the best decision. She was so tiny and fragile-looking but I was unable to let her go. She filled a void in my life and I was selfish. After a few months, I was getting more confident in her ability to leap from boat to boat successfully. After all, she had nine lives didn’t she? Maybe she used eight of them up when I wasn’t looking, because one very early morning, with the sun glinting off the incoming tide, she drowned. I was lying awake in my bunk wondering where she was, lulled a little by the lap of the water against the hull, when I felt a whoosh of vital energy rush through my body. Its impact was that of a strong draught of champagne; heady and uplifting. I knew in that instant she had either returned home safe and sound or she had died. I realised if death felt like that it wasn’t so bad and I was in no doubt that I had felt her soul leave her body and kiss me goodbye.
Over twenty years and three cats later, this experience of death and beyond began again, this time with my ginger moggy, Kahuna. He’d arrived in my life as a Christmas gift with his gargantuan purr, his wide rib cage and his long long tail which hung over his back like a question mark. I’d never had the magical closeness, I’d had with my first feline but he was still my ‘boy’. As he approached his sixteenth year, we ended up together far away from London in the wild and enchanted landscape of Powys in Wales and everyone thought he’d experience a whole new lease of life having always lived in suburbia. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
Having had a fairly uneventful life, he came to this extraordinary place of beauty and experienced a number of firsts – his first hill, his first pond, his first stream, his first waterfall, his first rabbit, and then his first (and only) attack by a bulldog. He escaped but damaged one back leg so badly enough he had to have surgery and then was cage bound for weeks. During this time, he became diabetic. However if he hadn’t had to have this rest and seclusion, and nursing by me, then we would never have travelled on such a profound journey together.
I had just turned 61 and on top of Kahuna’s health crisis, my life was chaotic. I had lost my only client and along with that my only income. Without savings and an alternative revenue stream, my landlord gave me notice. However, I am a firm believer in the magic of life and that when there appears to be a breakdown, it’s usually followed by a breakthrough. Which is just what occurred. An unexpected business idea dropped into my imagination fully- formed – although maybe it’s less of a business and more of a vision, mission, and legacy. And a new home was offered to me for a few months as a breathing space where Kahuna would also be very welcome.
So my few possessions were stuffed into the car and we embarked on our next adventure together. I discovered a protocol called ‘tight regulation’ that helped cats to come out of diabetes. It is a very challenging protocol and you have to be fully committed to the well-being of your cat before you start this procedure. I had to learn to let Kahuna’s body be the expert and tell me what he needed and when. After four weeks of testing his blood glucose levels every few hours day and night, feeding him and dosing him with insulin accordingly, he became non-diabetic. It was a moment of triumph but by no means the end of his health challenges. But you don’t go through this kind of intense experience without deepening your relationship substantially.
I was sure Kahuna knew I was doing my very best for him even while I had to stick pins along the edge of his delicate ears to tease out those essential pearls of blood.
We moved again to what I hoped would be our long term home on a beautiful Welsh hillside but his health continued to be a problem and we faced numerous journeys to the vets to sort out a chronic constipation problem. I knew there was only so much that beautiful tiger-striped body could tolerate and I watched him lose his vigour and his eyes told me that he was on that final furlong.
With hindsight, I had this strange thought that we had made an agreement for me to be his student. I thought back to the death of my first cat and how she died because of the selfishness of my decision to keep her with me on the boat. I was worried that my selfishness at this time would result in me keeping Kahuna alive no matter what and against his own wishes. My trust in my ability to understand his thoughts was minimal even though I had been on an animal communication course years before and felt so close to him. I was too caught up emotionally with him so I sought for someone to speak on his behalf.
‘Did Kahuna attract your attention just then?’ This was the query from Lucy Jordan, an animal communicator based in Greece.
‘Yes he did,’ I responded with great surprise. Kahuna was sitting regally in his favourite corner between two windows behind my back. I’d just heard a sound I couldn’t place from that corner and had literally just looked round to see him watching me.
‘I asked him to do that so I could check I was talking to the right cat’, said Lucy.
‘Have you a message for me from him?’ My heart was beating rapidly in my chest as I asked this question.
‘He says he is getting tired but he’s not ready to go yet. He will let you know when he needs help from the vets by knocking something off the table. He also said that he thinks about death differently to you. For him, it is simply leaving his cat-suit behind and popping through a membrane to a different dimension.’
This was the start of many dialogues with Kahuna through Lucy and step by step we walked together towards that final frontier where he would let me know he was ready to leave his cat suit and pop through that membrane. I like to think we navigated this route well together. As he got weaker and was less inclined to go out for a walk I asked him to let me know every day if he was happy to stay in his cat suit. If he wanted to stay he was to ask to go outside. There was no cat flap in the door so he would stand patiently until I noticed.
One day it was very clear, we were oh-so-close-to-that-moment. He hesitated near the door and then walked on by. His back legs were almost too weak to hold him up and his quality of life had leeched away in the previous 24 hours. I asked Lucy to check in with him after noticing a puddle of water on the table where somehow my water glass must have been nudged. Had this been his sign to me? ‘Yes’ came the clear answer.
I went with him every step of the way. The vet came to our home and Kahuna received the injection as he lay in my arms. Effortlessly, he unzipped that beautiful cat suit and popped through that membrane. And I was lost in my grief.
‘You’re getting lost in your grief Francesca!’ said friend Jeanette Kishori McKenzie as I responded to her call a few days after Kahuna’s departure. ‘Every time you feel his loss, choose to feel his presence,’ she counselled. I always took notice of Jeanette as she has the most extraordinary understanding of life and death.
‘Okay!’ I said, excited by the thought even though my rational mind told me it was never going to work. I remembered back to when Kahuna was diabetic and on Jeanette’s counsel, I had learned to tap into him to feel a bolt of life force flow through me. But he had been alive then.
Moments later I felt his loss, and the descent into grief arriving. But I caught myself and chose to dive deep, beyond that sense of loss until I felt his presence. It was a deep dive, it took all my will power not to lose focus and weep, and then all of a sudden there it was… a kind of tickling deep inside and a whoosh of energy ran right up through my body, out of the top of my head and a huge smile spread across my face. Kahuna!
I have no idea how many times I did this – but I was determined I would keep going. Every time I sensed his loss I would choose to dive in and sense his presence. My sadness would evaporate and be instantly replaced by joy.
One night, I spoke out loud to Kahuna and asked him to give me proof that he was not gone. I woke in the middle of the night hearing a scratching sound. There is nothing around my home that makes that sound except when Kahuna was with me. Whenever he needed my full attention, he stood up on his back legs and scratched whatever was in front of him. It was his signature sound I could recognise anywhere. I lay there with the most extraordinary feeling of warmth spreading through my heart and slipped back to sleep.
I connect with him regularly now as he has not gone anywhere – in fact, he is within me, in my heart, an intrinsic aspect of me. He helped me write my book Kahuna – the Cat Who Didn’t Die. He helped me write this article and he shares with me profound wisdom. One of my favourite examples is when I realised we were not going to hit the book launch date I’d planned to coincide with Kahuna’s passing. I was so sure that a launch on 6th January, a year on from him popping through the membrane as well as being epiphany was a perfect date. But it was not going to happen. I asked him what that was about and his response had me laughing. He said basically ‘Dates are completely man-made things and have no real meaning other than what we assign them.’ He went on to say that every day can be as profound and meaningful as we want, so not to be concerned. What a beautiful reminder that we are not bound by anything other than our imagination!
Asking what he’d love me to share with you, he reminds me of something he shared in the book – that cats are often considered aloof, but this is not the truth. Cats expand to feel everything and be part of everything. They understand we are all One. So aloofness is not as we perceive it, it is their state of being one with everything. He suggests we slow down, enjoy our environment, and expand our awareness out until we are all at one. His advice for all of us is this – be more cat- lke.
‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Andre Gide
Did we lose sight of the shore? Not quite but we closed our eyes for a few minutes along the way.
Recently, my son Marlon and I went travelling together in Senegal. We were, it turns out, a bewildering combo. One rarely witnessed, if the reactions were anything to go by.
‘Are you his grandmother?’ asked Monique, a flamboyantly dressed stallholder who managed to verbally capture us on the ferry going over to Goree island near Dakar. She was, of course, more interested in our visit to see her wares – wooden masks, omnipresent bracelets and more. We didn’t go. Not because of the question, but because we weren’t interested in this particular strand of touristville.
‘Are you his wife?’ asked an array of male hustlers. The latter was in pursuit of a sugar mummy. Particularly at the beach village of Toubab Dialaw, which hovers between a tourist trap, a hubbub of djembe workshops and a relaxed environment for mixed race couples. We were entranced by it, by the way.
‘Are you his mother?’ More often and gratefully received in all sorts of different places from the taxi to the beach.
When I got home, I googled Travelling With Your Adult Children and discovered that it is a burgeoning holiday sub-section especially amongst Baby Boomers. There have been articles in the New York Times on this very subject. However, it’s usually families going on holiday together. Not a mother and grown-up son.
How did it happen? This mother and son adventure. Well, my mother died in summer after six years of Alzheimer’s. She was almost 92 and it felt as though it was her time to go. I felt blessed that she was able to let go then before she didn’t recognize us anymore. And, of course, it was distressing. Three weeks before, that, one of my closest friends, Jayne, chose to end her life at 48 because she couldn’t stand living with the torment – it had been 10 months – of suicidal clinical depression anymore.
It was a shocking, tearful time. And as death does, it prodded me into focusing on being fulsome in the present. Marlon and I had been talking about going away on our own. Having a little voyage without our partners. It’s allowed! A new propulsion arrived. Okay, let’s go to Senegal – somewhere I’ve wanted to go since having a ‘flingette’ with a gentleman from this West African country during my year out in Paris during 1973.
Senegal was a new place for me. And Marlon. It is also safe and relatively politically stable. I knew I’d get to speak lots of French. These were influences. I booked the flights to Dakar in September.
In December, I realized I hadn’t done anything other than that. I researched hotels – eventually found one recommended by the Guardian that seemed to be near to the beach. Hotel du Phare. It looked funky, maybe other travellers would be there with precious information. I booked it for four nights and a taxi from the airport to make our arrival as easy as possible. I’m an oldster traveller!!
On the plane in early January, I still hadn’t read the guidebook. My travelling modus operandi – previously in Cuba, Bali, Rajasthan etc – is to book a few first nights and then travel on the hoof with my book in hand and ears open. It does require an intense reading of the guidebook – and over the years I have honed the knack of hotel-hunting by getting to the know the subtexts of what I want and what is there, sometimes I’ll prioritise the location and others the hotel – to get what you want.
Seriously, I read the Brandt guidebook (which I recommend in this case) and one other book – a Senegalese classic So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba – when we were away and Marlon read five!
But I enjoy it. The ad-hoc planning, that is. Be warned. It isn’t for those who desire complete relaxation and comfort. There are errors and not so much insulation from the rough and tumble. When I was in Cuba with my friend Amanda in 2017, there were so many more tourists than I had imagined – a new diplomatic détente with the US had happened – and finding places to stay was tough. I had to try very hard, with friends of friends of our various hosts and speak Spanish as best I could. It was the sort of challenge I like.
Funnily enough. when we arrived at the aforesaid Lighthouse Hotel in Dakar, we were both ill with British colds and coughs, and there was a disco for 18-20 year olds going on!! Not the ideal. And the hotel had style but not much organization. Towels were difficult to obtain. We were paying £60 a night so I wasn’t impressed.
But the location in Mamelles – which is dusty but leafy too – near the sea was perfect. Yes, mamelles does mean breasts, it refers to the two hills in the area. One of which has the 19th-century French lighthouse – it is still used – on it.
Immediately, we discovered just how French Senegal still is. Baguettes and croissants for breakfast, the currency is tied to the Euro, everyone speaks French as well as their local tribal language and there are gendarmes everywhere too. It became independent in 1960 and the first president, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president as he was called, was all for Negritude – promotion of black arts and culture which still affects Senegal positively today – but also into keeping close links with the colonial power, France. Not everyone agreed with him in the latter respect believing it would hold back its evolution as an independent African country.
But it’s sandy. It is the Sub-Sahara. And Dakarois take the biscuit when it comes to knowing how to sport their often jaunty boubous and hats. With so much grace and attitude. It’s not a strut, just relaxed pride. Even at the bus stop. There would be those attractively clashing stripes for the men plus maybe a trilby, and the architectural headscarves for the women in yellows and oranges. No pastels here.
Big news. We made it to see Yousn’dour. He is the superstar Senegalese singer and musician who did that amazing duet Seven Seconds with Neneh Cherry in the early 80s. It sold millions. Marlon noticed he was playing locally with his band Super Etoile. So we made our way over there, through traffic jams and desert dust and managed to buy tickets.
We thought we were arriving reasonably late at 9pm, in other words, he might come on soon. Four hours later, a whole host of Senegalese pop stars had appeared but not the man himself. And we were standing! This was a mistake. As we bought the tickets, it wasn’t obvious that there was a choice. We wondered why the seats were all empty – perhaps he’s not as popular as he used to be, haha – and then three hours later, they began to fill up. Some people knew something. There was a dazzling array of sparkle on display, ‘selfies’ were de rigeur and Nicky Minaj seemed to be the main inspiration for the women.
However at 1am, this outdoor venue, which was now packed – erupted. The atmosphere was one of deep personal love. Everyone knew all the lyrics and sang along. There was much swaying and boogying. Yousn’dour’s voice is plaintiff, electric, devotional. I couldn’t help falling in love myself.
By 2 pm – after five hours of standing, we were both tired out –and decided to wiggle our way out, the band was still playing and Yousn’dour’s incredible voice unified the crowd. In fact, as we departed, groups of young people invited us to dance in their circles. Of course, you know which one of us took up the offer!
‘Well done, mum,’ pronounced Marlon, too grown up to be embarrassed. We finally got to bed at 3pm. Earlier, it has to be said, than the rest of the crowd.
There was also the trip to Goree island – the notable encounter with Monique – which has the UNESCO heritage site, La Maison des Esclaves, visited by world leaders from Obama to Mandala. This is one of the places where thousands of Senegalese people who had been captured as part of the Atlantic slave trade – were deported to the Americas. There were dungeons, places of torture for the recalcitrant, and the final doors where they stepped out to either death at sea or servitude. 33,000 people and children were trafficked from Goree over a 300 year period from the 15th century. This was just from this one port in Senegal. There were at least four more.
The information is mostly in French, and I did my best to translate. One of the shocking bits was that a woman ran the place for a long time from 1776. Anne Pepin was a signare and a metis – she was the child of a Senegalese mother and French man, and she herself was in a relationship with a French aristo – and in Senegal it was common for the signares to be the interface between the slaves, the traders and the colonial power. This was a clever move, in their terms.
We learned how Africa was weakened by this trade, how their cultivation was severely affected by all these tribal growers being captured and trafficked. Whole families were taken. It is dark reading matter but essential for understanding the bigger colonial picture and the shame of it. We were moved and reflective afterwards.
Toubab Dialaw – about an hour and a half by taxi south – is by the sea and our next destination. I confess that an important part of my travel vocabulary these days – is hire a taxi to get to the next place. In the 80s and 90s, and even ten years ago, I was still getting local transport. I have passed through that stage! The roads are crazy in Senegal, the driving is ‘organic’, and there are a lot of accidents. I have to say my 30something companion didn’t seem to mind this choice either.
The guidebook describes TB as bohemian and teaming with artists!! I booked into Sobo Bade, which was designed by Haitian artist and architect, Gerard Chenet. It has turrets and towers, – Gaudi and Dali were on his mind – there are mosaic crescendos. It is a marvel. Turns out that Mons Chenet is 87 and still lives in one of the rooms. I tried to meet him. Unfortunately, he was sleeping every time I enquired. But we did get to stay in a thatched turret overlooking the sea.
The first artist we met, was Picasso. Naturally. On the beach with his paintings. Turned out he was the younger brother of Picasso after all. We were assailed every time we hit the beach – with the Senegalese terranga. In other words, welcome. Which often translates as ‘Come and see my paintings’.
Toubab Dialaw was fascinating. Crafts salesmen but an empty beach, French tourists, super duper contemporary homes, and shacks beside the sea selling Yassa Chicken, one of the most popular local dishes with onion gravy. It is a winsome mishmash.
It is a mixed race couple hot spot. There are the couples that I assume have met, for instance, in France. A Senegalese man with a French woman. And then there is the pervasive boyfriend trade – which comes in different forms. The offer to be a boyfriend for the day with sexual services thrown in. I happened to be reading in one of the hotel’s hammocks when the-younger-than-my-son security guard showed himself eager to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta with me. Expenses paid of course. I didn’t take up the offer.
Later that day – we went off for an afternoon visit the amazing Theatre d’Engouement, a magical location, theatre plus rooms, swimming pool and off the wall sculptures also created by Mons Chenet, for performances and festivals – we found ourselves being consciously lured into a crafty shop. It had some Malian wall hangings that I liked the look off!
Well, Bad Boy was eye-catching at first. With his haphazard, stylish dreadlocked side ponytail. The father of all Sufi neck pieces – we are about to learn that he’s a Baye Fall which means he belongs to the Mouride Sufi Muslim brotherhood that is known for their mostly liberal ways – which features a photo of his spiritual guru on a very thick leather cord. It is a fuck off spiritual accessory, to say the least.
We’re offered mint tea and we accept. There is much pouring. To create a decent head of foam. A young Danish woman comes in and is obviously partnering up with one of the Baye Fall brethren because she’s just been to Touba, their holy city and is full of it.
Before I can mention Mali and fabric, Bad Boy has gone all spiritually soppy on me. He gazes into my eyes as though he is seeing a woman for the first time. I have to say they are rivered with red. ‘You must come with me to Touba,’ he announces as though I have no say in the matter. ‘You’re my Yaye Fall.’ There is an absolute nature to his tone. I give Marlon a nudge and we beat a gentle retreat while waving at Tiffany in New Orleans on one of the other guys’ phones. Oh the joy of craft shops.
I must say I hadn’t been expecting this kind of attention. We’re both bemused.
Although less so when a very drunk dreadlocked gentleman leers and lurches up to me in the pitch black later that evening. For a moment, – and it’s the only moment on our entire trip – I’m frightened. We walk rapidly in the other direction.
Our next stop is Joal-Fadiouth, which is at the beginning of a new greener landscape around the Sine-Saloum Delta. And so many spiky, remarkably shaped bulbous baobab trees. Regarded as sacred in Senegal, they have many healing properties as well as fruit for juice and oils. They are wonderful as they mark this desert so undeniably.
Hmmm, our auberge is in a great location in that it looks out onto the water and the mangroves. In the morning, we spot several pied kingfishers in black and white, bloody great pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants, elegant herons and whiter than white great egrets. As Marlon remarks. ‘ They all have their different methods for killing, some stay still, others dive, the sandpiper gets hold of a crab and knocks it about until it dies.’ It’s quite a massacre at 7am the next morning.
We loved the location. The room and services less so. The room had strip lighting and basically no running water. We were supposed to tell them when we wanted water and they would turn on the pump. However we had one whole day without any water. Let’s not talk about flushing the toilet. Why didn’t we leave? Because we really liked the river and the staff, and this is an adventure after all.
Leopold Senghor, the first president grew up so we went along to his old house. Lots of fading photos and dense French text on the walls. However, the only employee who was called Stephane – Senegal is 92 % Muslim but those French missionaries did their job well down here and there are Catholics including Stephen and the Senghor family. Now Stephane was a hoot, which is just what was needed.
‘Don’t go in that room,’ he warned, ignoring my post-menopausal status. ‘It is dangerous. It’s a baby factory. Senghor’s father had 43 children with five different wives.’
It turns out that Leopold was child number 21 by the third wife. So often we laughed out loud in our Senegalese encounters. Stephen did a brilliant comedic turn.
Fadiouth is the famous shell island – over hundreds of years, cockle shells were discarded here– and is connected to Joal by a footbridge. You have to take a guide to go over there. We did but in comparison with Stephane, he was so on script we were quickly bored and doing our own thing.
Mostly goats are the ubiquitous animals in Senegal but here it’s pigs and piglets. Catholic, you see. There is also conch meat and stingrays out drying, not to mention a woman chopping the hammer off a hammer head shark and then doing a little dance to show how it moves in the water. More masks and bracelets to be avoided. Marlon did however buy a bag of dried cockle meat for his dad – we’re not together but we’re friends – to cook up one of his spicy stews on our return.
The star visit is to the graveyard. Surreal with shell hills, crosses lie on one side and moons on the other. Muslims and Catholics lie here together. There are even the ashes of a Black-American who discovered her ancestors came from here and wanted to be flown back.
Joal is poor. It’s a fishing village with dozens of brightly painted pirogues on the beach amongst the mountains of detritus. It’s a challenge and also needs to be seen. There’s the smell of sewage and the water problem. But there’s also the spirit of community, people sit outside their family compounds cooking fish, drinking mint tea and chatting.
One of the hotels – Hotel de la Plage – is mentioned in my book but looks closed. We wander in.
Giles, the eloquent caretaker, tells us what happened. Climate change is raising the water levels, the sea is coming much further in, it has broken up all the front of the building and the swimming pool looks as though it’s been hit by a tsunami. It’s for sale but no-one is going to buy it. This really is the world changing right in front of us.
There’s also a tourist crisis. We really don’t see many tourists in Senegal and certainly not one British one. Giles explains that the Ebola, increased prices and the financial crisis have deeply affected tourist numbers.
After a big heartfelt send-off – they were really sweet people – from the auberge without water, we are on our way further into the delta.
Faoye is a rural community on the north of the Sine-Saloum Delta. When we arrive, we can’t believe our luck.
Oh Lordy, this is an idyllic spot. After the chaos and dirt of Joal, this is a row of thatched cottages on stilts, which looks onto a vast expanse of water with salt plains at the side. It is simply magnificent. We exclaim a lot in disbelief. As usual, we are the only visitors.
And there is running water. No electricity but that is part of the treat. Early to bed and early to rise. Keeping to those rhythms of nature. Now we are in dream holiday land. It isn’t an expensive luxury eco-lodge but rather an encampment created by a Spanish NGO, which is run by members of village and the profits go to the community too.
The food is cooked by Khady who often has her third child, eight-month-old Mohammed, strapped to her back. Fish, chicken, beef. Simple tasty fare but it would be tough for a vegetarian, as would most places in Senegal. As the sun goes down, villagers arrive with their goats and horses to wash in the delta. Horses are very much part of the transport system in these parts.
We could easily have stayed a week but we just had two days. The next morning we go out with a local fisherman in his leaky boat. There were some initial difficulties. The engine kept stopping as we ‘phutted’ across this vast delta arm, he also decided to pull alongside his mate’s boat, a fisherman with no engine. And I have to add – we were paying quite a lot of money for this trip. £40.
Aminata had also come along, a young woman who was working at the encampment – to help translate. He spoke Serer (the ethnic group here is Serer) not French. So she speaks French to me. She is wearing a dazzling white dress. I am a little frustrated when she points out the ‘cows’ on the banks. It turns out she’s actually a business student in Dakar but the President, Macky Sall, has cut all funding for the moment – in other words because there is an election which needs funding – and the students have all gone home.
Finally, after an hour, everything improves. The fisherman sets free his friend’s boat, we find some mini mangroves and pelicans. And there are the inimitable salt-covered flat islands. These strange landscapes. Marlon jumps into the water, the fisherman buys some fish from friends in another boat. We end up on an island, it could be Treasure Island, we could have been stranded there for days. There is nothing but shrubs, fish and driftwood. No shade either. We crouch under a distinctly unleafy shrub while our ‘man’ makes a fire and grills the fish. They are delicious.
In the end, we are out for about six hours without shade, we got back delirious but happy. I even paid him extra.
Our final resting place is another city – this is four hours away from the delta by car and north of Dakar – but this time the old capital Saint Louis, which is squeezed onto a thin island. Pinks and yellows, crumbling 18th-century buildings with iron balconies – it reminds us of New Orleans, of Havana. There is an ambling, laidback quality to it. The perfect city to stroll in.
I am delighted because we find a big old room with a balcony that looks over the River Senegal, which has great white cotton sheets and fluffy towels, hot water and a flushing toilet. Plus electricity. I appreciate the rough and tumble of cheap hotels but then I relish the opposite. Totally. This is a room we can luxuriate in.
The wondrous encounters continue. We see what we think is a bicycle shop, we go in and it is a bike jungle instead. There are bits of bicycle hanging plentifully from the walls like a host of strange fruit. Ah ha, there is an artist in the other room. Of course.
Meisse Fall – we find his sculptures everywhere later – is the sort of gentle artist that I long to come across. His words have a lyricism that carries them along. Like a hymn to life. And ordinariness. ‘I was repairing bikes, my family always did that but I did so well that people weren’t coming back. I had nothing to do. I became an artist.’
He talks about everyone having a memory from their childhoods about bicycles and how his sculptures evoke that special time. He’s actually wearing a lyric cycling top – he cycles everywhere. There are masks from the saddles and metal animals from spokes. ‘We always say that looks are deceptive but with bikes you get what you see. They are naked. When you see a part in the road, you know it’s from a bike.’
There are contemporary galleries – one near our hotel is opened up by the owner himself, businessman Amadou Diaw who proceeds to show us around his modern creation – local restaurants, old colonial hotels, caleches, and the young fisherman who goes home and records a whole brilliant USB stick of great Senegalese music for us, the PE teacher Joel who we end up going out with. It really goes on just like that…
Senegal – you were extraordinary and have ignited my travelling spirit all over again, – that openness, that trust, that flow to whatever comes along. There’s nothing else like it. The shore is disappearing.
TIPS FOR OLDER TRAVELLERS
Buy a great guidebook and learn to deep-read it. This takes a little time but reaps enormous benefits as you start to realize what it all means.
Allow yourselves spontaneity. If you book everything up, you’ll miss the thrill of the new adventure. This means making a few mistakes and relishing the glory of the exquisite choices.
Don’t bother with local transport. Let yourselves book a taxi and driver. It can all be arranged when you get there. We often did ours on the hoof.
Pack lightly so you don’t have heavy bags to drag around. Not a backpack necessarily. I just took a small wheelie this time.
Buy a post-bite stick. They are brilliant at de-itching mosquito bites.
Hone up on the language beforehand. Gosh, it makes all the difference.
Carl Honoré is approaching his 50th birthday with trepidation. He’s worried about what happens on the other side and this sets the background for Bolder.
This context is worth remembering as you read Bolder. Honoré’s exploration of ageing is a self-confessed part of his own education and need for ‘reassurance’. Compared to many members and followers of AOA, who’ve been splashing about in middle age for a while, he appears at times to be an ingénue: he is genuinely surprised and shocked by attitudes to age.
Reading Bolder is like following an explorer in ageing Disneyland, a place that proves to be a personal roller coaster ride for the author. He finds many positives about ageing that are backed up by researchers and academics, but occasionally, usually when you start feeling good about being whatever age you are, he steps on a spike and it’s like getting the snake in Snakes and Ladders.
One moment he is laughing with Spanish grannies on a graffiti workshop, the next he brought quickly down to earth by a young female observer who tells him she wouldn’t put them on her Instagram because ‘old people aren’t that attractive.’ There are his descriptions of a Lebanese television show where over eighties play pranks at pharmacies asking for Viagra, a show that has become extremely popular and produced its own media stars.
And the same thing happens: he begins to wonder about that slender line that separates something sweet and charming from being a circus in which the aged are targets of the wrong kind of laughter. These elements in the book are the ones that made the headlines in mainstream reviews, i.e. The Guardian. While I understand how the media works, I’m not convinced that ageing, which the author describes as a game for ‘losers’, needs to be a circus.
There is much that is positive about ageing here: cognitively we are better at learning and picking up new things in middle age. In a study of IT professionals, those who were in their fifties were far more relaxed about new technologies and ready to take them on than their younger counterparts. Our experience curve gives us an advantage in making fast connections in our brain, something Don and Patricia Edgar have written about in Peak – Reinventing Middle Age. The reality is that given good health – and enough money, there are no cognitive, intellectual or social reasons why older people shouldn’t be able to continue to be the person they are. And more.
At the same time we are up against a culture that bows to youth and beauty, where social media rules the cultural narrative, and the good life is associated with the unlined and pretty.
Despite the stylish older media stars and the author’s examples of celebrities baring their wrinkles and appearing in ads, they are celebrities that means they get a very special pass that the rest of us don’t get. I wisely skimmed his section celebrating celebrities and grey hair: wild curly hair will never look good grey and I don’t intend to give it another passing thought. Not caring is a big advantage of age.
The spelling of Qigong belies its simplicity. It can be ‘googled’ and you will find Qigong, Qi Gong, Chi Gong and Qi Kung (the list continues!). The correct way of spelling the name of this gentle, yet often challenging, movement system remains a mystery; however the effects on our health and wellbeing are backed by a growing body of evidence. They are also attracting mainstream interest from public health bodies, private companies and social care organisations.
The BBC programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ (Series 2; 19th October 2018) compared Tai Chi to Zumba as a form of aerobic exercise by measuring flexibility of capillaries (they became more subtle and elastic so Tai Chi has a positive effect on blood pressure), chemical markers of inflammation (these increased in line with other forms of aerobic exercise – antioxidants also increased) and heart rate (this doubled so reached the same rate as the people doing Zumba). This is backed up by a paper published in the BMJ 24th March 2018 which compared Tai Chi to aerobic exercise. Similar physiological results were found and in addition, class attendance and adherence to home exercise was higher than in standardly prescribed exercise (patients found Qigong/Tai Chi more enjoyable and less painful) and physiologically had similar or greater benefits. Tai Chi and Qigong are so similar that the research can be applied to either.
Qigong is my daily practice of choice and I learnt it when I was training to be a Shiatsu practitioner. We were taught Qigong to maintain our own energy levels whilst treating others. Qigong is translated as Qi Harvesting (the Chinese character for Qi translates as air or space and so ‘breath working’ is another translation), it is far simpler to learn than its better known ‘sister’ Tai Chi and very adaptable. This makes it ideal for settings such as rehabilitation and palliative care.
As a teacher, I have taken my Qigong practice into many settings over the past 20 years; an NHS pain management and rehabilitation department, companies, schools and community settings. I run annual retreats and specialise in designing personal Qigong forms so that individuals can target specific health, emotional, spiritual or psychological needs. I have also facilitated Qigong groups in a hospice setting.
End of Life Qigong
St Christopher’s hospice is a flagship palliative care venue in South London. Known for its passionate commitment to making the end of life creative, fulfilling and of course, as pain-free as possible, I was invited to run Qigong classes there twice a week. I joined the Complementary Therapy team in 2016 and stayed for a busy year. The commute from North to South London finally wore me down despite practicing Qigong every morning on Waterloo East station! I sadly resigned at the beginning of 2018.
The classes were well attended and those who practiced even once a week gained great benefit.
‘I was sceptical, but I now use some of the movements on a daily basis to control my symptoms.’
‘I was surprised that my arm moved so much more easily after the class.’
‘It felt as if I wasn’t doing anything and yet I feel like I have exercised well.’
There are many forms of Qigong, the one I taught at St Christopher’s Hospice is called A Fragrant Buddha and it can be viewed here.
Integral imaging is a technique now used by top sports coaches to improve performance. Imagining a ‘move’, for example, a tennis serve, before acting, increases accuracy, focus and so is efficient energetically. And it is the same in Qigong – the titles of the movements ‘White Crane Salutes’, ‘Parting the Clouds’ are suggestive in themselves, sending messages of beauty, as opposed to pain, through the nervous system and lessening the ‘flight or fight response’ so often alerted in this cohort of patients. When the bodily systems are soothed in this way, other ‘messages’ such as ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘ that will be too painful’ are overridden so that the physical body can do what it is capable of doing rather than be restricted by negative belief.
The Fragrant Buddha form has a simple story attached to it – one travels through a landscape whilst moving in time with the natural breath, the suggestion is of sunlight on water, fish swimming slowly, bowls of delicious fruit and so on. The sensory awareness that is so often lacking in hospital and hospice environment is made available internally and again, the nervous system is soothed.
The Change factor – Mindfulness
Moving with the breath gives the same sense of peace as the time tested Buddhist practice of observing the breath, however, for people who are worried by their diagnosis and usually in pain, the addition of small movements and sensory images add an extra diversion for the distracted mind.
Do what you can Do!
Often people at the end of life believe this is the end of their journey – in tune with St Christopher’s philosophy, the practice of Qigong encourages adaptability and continued exploration and richness found in what you CAN do, not what you cannot. All patients expressed surprise at their progress and increased flexibility even though it felt like they were making very little physical effort during class.
The Loving Circle
Qigong has a ‘calling in’ feel to it. I concur with the speculation that Qigong originated in the movements and dances of shamanic priests calling in beneficial weather, spirits or resources on behalf of their communities. Qigong is rooted in the belief that we are magnetic to Qi, it is there for us, just waiting to be called. A favourite way of starting the session would be to sit like satellite dishes attracting love, peace, clarity, and to acknowledge that we were X (X = Number of people in the circle) times stronger than if we were alone.
I turned 57 in 2018 and, above all else, reaching this less-than-milestone age informed my year more than any other particular incident. Closer to 60 than 50, I began to see, with greater clarity than the year earlier, how my age was coming to define my life and my place in the world.
Take, as an example, my tech startup, Frugl, a website that curates daily deals from most of the leading providers such as Groupon, Living Social and Wowcher. I’d created the Frugl app in 2014, when I was 53, as an adventurous idea to help myself and others enjoy London’s culture on a budget spurred on by the rather naive belief that if I gathered enough users it would somehow become profitable. As someone who had always enjoyed hunting out fun and usually free events in London for the greater part of my life, I had witnessed, in the more recent past, how much harder it was to find them (especially as Time Out was no longer my go-to source). Four years later, having pivoted the business a number of times, burning through cash and experiencing more than my fair share of ageism and sexism, I realised:
a) with the benefit of hindsight, the original app would have made a great social enterprise (having learned this past year the difference between a social enterprise and for-profit business) seeing that Frugl had been championed and particularly popular amongst young people, often on low incomes;
b) that, generally, equity funded businesses (the ones you read about receiving large amounts of investment) are ones that solve clear, genuine technological problems and are easily scalable. In a bizarre twist, I did discover that in trying to build the latest iteration of Frugl, the one that I had hoped would feature all the deals, vouchers and sales across the UK, there was a genuine technological problem to be solved. The problem being, I just don’t have nearly enough cash to solve it and…
c) being an older woman working on a technology-based business isn’t much fun unless you enjoy the challenge of fighting the status quo 24/7 and
d) most companies that receive investments are fronted by young, white and middle-class men (see c).
Would I have embarked on this new career path having known all this back in 2014? Perhaps not. Did I regret the time I’d spent learning just how tough on women (especially) the sector can be? Maybe but, as a result, I’d met an investor, Yvonne Fuchs, that turned into a great friend and is now working with me on my social enterprise Advantages of Age, created in 2016 to challenge some of the biases I’d encountered through working on Frugl. So, in the end, there has been a silver lining (always there, if you look for it)! We’ve been discussing how we can redevelop the original Frugl app as a loyalty product with a bias towards helping those over 50 save money so watch this space!
If 2018 taught me anything it was to be resilient and flexible. My income stream, until quite recently, had been through generating PR for SMEs, diversified to such an extent that it made answering the question, “What do you do for a living?’” practically impossible to articulate in less than 10 minutes. I have become the very definition of a woman with a ‘portfolio career.’ Since then I’ve heard others in similar circumstances describe themselves as polymaths or renaissance people, both of which seem grandiose terms to describe what constitutes just keeping one’s head above water.
Here are a few of the things I have done this year to earn a living:
Rented out a room on AirBnB
Taught a business course for over 50s
Given talks at Soho House
Managed communications for a co-working space in South London
Sung bawdy blues at a club in Camden
Been part of various focus groups
As a result, I managed to stay afloat while gaining a deeper perspective of the career challenges many over 50s are now facing as we move towards an ever more distant retirement. Never before have I had to take on so much work to earn so little.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched as friends and colleagues my age struggled with redundancy and unemployment. This actually has allowed a handful to find purpose in their lives, many having previously defined who they were by what they did. The problem is – how to earn money from their passion. The past six months I’ve been trying, along with Yvonne, to figure out how to solve what is a genuine problem of how to keep over 50s in work, either by helping them to start a business or finding a job. It’s the one thing that keeps me up at night and I can’t say I’m anywhere close to cracking it yet! I’m looking forward to 2019 as the year where AofA can play a part in supporting over 50s to generate an income that aligns with their skills and passions.
Social media isn’t delivering results for my businesses like it did a year ago. Back in 2016, I invested in an internet marketing course with a ‘social media guru.’ I was naturally sceptical about a course that promised to deliver £10k a month in revenue within a year, and I quickly realised that the course was primarily aimed at those who wanted to coach or consult others and not the perfect fit for me. Word of warning – if you’re being sold a course that promises you £10k/month in revenue from the get-go, the likelihood is that you’re going to be learning how to create a course not dissimilar to the one you’re on that you can resell to others. Even so, my ‘guru’ did manage to deliver one killer piece of advice, ’start a Facebook group.’
I chucked in what little paid work I still had left and decided to spend 8 hours a day on Facebook building a community – called Advantages of Age – Baby Boomers & Beyond – of over 50s who, like myself, refused to give in to the media narrative around ageing. It now has over 3.5k members but with less active members than I expected or noticed a year ago. It may be that quite a few are lurkers, those that read but don’t post, but I suspect that the algorithms have changed and many users aren’t seeing the group posts. That makes reaching them difficult and figuring out how we can help them with some of the challenges they are facing, even more so. The more we can connect in other ways, whether it’s email or hosting events that bring our members together, the happier I will be. I fear that one day we’ll all be having to spend money using Facebook simply because we haven’t figured out how to communicate with each other in a convenient way! (Anyone who has any suggestions as to how to avoid this, I’m all ears).
The other social media channels aren’t as interactive for the over 50s community as Facebook and I’m reaching a point of wondering how to get back to stuff that happens in real life and not online. Part of this has been spurred by my renewed interest in singing, the biggest surprise, and delight of 2018.
In March 2018 I was given three singing lessons with a well known vocal coach and performer herself, Nikki Lamborn, as a present by one of my best friends and my two children. I’d been a jazz and session singer in my twenties as a sideline and missed performing in front of an audience. But, following menopause and over two decades of not singing, I’d moved from alto to more of a baritone. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and singing along to the radio was painful for anyone without earshot. Nikki took me under her wing and, over 6 months, got my voice good enough to guest at one of her gigs where I sang three bawdy blues songs from the 1930s, my favourite era for music. This led to my own sold-out gig at the same venue, the Green Note in Camden. I’ve also been booked for two more shows and am even thinking about how I can work my set up into a one-hour history of the bawdy blues in time for the Edinburgh Festival!
I love singing now and my range is slowly coming back, thanks to lots and lots of practice. I love performing in front of others, seeing my friends in the audience and for it to be something which others are willing to pay for (maybe I’m a renaissance woman, after all). It has come as a complete shock to me that within such a short space of time, I have been able to get a show together and find a young and accomplished pianist who enjoys playing the dirty blues as much as I enjoy singing them. Nikki and her partner Been are even talking about writing a song for me and producing an EP! It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I haven’t lost my voice and a brilliant way to wind up what has been an eventful year. If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be ending the year with my own sold-out show, I
never would have believed you.
Finally, 2018 was the year that taught me never to give up on the idea of finding love. I got divorced back in 2001 and, since then, have been in and out of relationships, some good but mainly not so great. In between, I’ve tried most online dating sites, with varying degrees of success. Friends often said they admired my tenaciousness when it came to finding a partner but were also, I’m guessing, doubtful that I ever would. Then I met a man in March with whom I felt a genuine affinity and respect. My feelings for him have deepened over the past year. Like me, he has also spent over ten years online dating and neither of us are spring chickens. It’s very much a relationship of equals, not one where one person is trying to fix or save the other. We’re having a lovely time together and I’m looking forward to the year ahead with him.
I don’t like to plan too far ahead but I’m looking forward to spending more time with friends and family in 2019; as well as developing the work we’ve been doing at AofA into a clear, strategic plan that can see us become a truly sustainable enterprise by the end of the year; and working up my bawdy blues repertoire. My motto for next year is Think Big and that’s what I intend to do.
This is about change, personal change, the desire for it, the need for it, the context of it, the possibility of it, and the experience of it.
I don’t want to come across as preachy, self-obsessed, needy, screechy, and so on, (as if!) and I am NOT a therapist, medical practitioner, psychoanalyst or expert in any way. I can only describe my experience.
I was born in 1951, a baby boy, in what was then Cumberland, a lovely part of the world. With friendly, open people, a strong sense of mysticism rooted in the dark hills, unpredictable weather, open countryside, the lakes, the moors, the ruins, the legacy of the Lakeland poets, standing stones, Roman occupation and invasion attempts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall. There was also immense potential for drama and isolation.
Black Sabbath lived in my hometown Carlisle for a while. Their doomy oeuvre is usually analysed in terms of bleak industrialism, soul-crushing factory work but I also hear their banshee call of the wild deserted moors that they would have crossed late at night in their van. There’s also the thrill of local supernatural legends, like the Croglin Hall vampire in their songs.
My childhood was spent in a society emerging from post-war shortages, attempting to rebuild Britain, with its new heroes, James Bond, Doctor Who, the rise of television and radio, the early days of multiculturalism. Into this world, shockingly to my parents’ generation, came the revolutionary force of teenage culture, rock and roll, hippies, drugs, permissiveness, Swinging London (it sounds so quaint now, it was so exciting then), and into this world, I emerged as a young adult, longing to be part of it, but not quite sure how to achieve that, and blundering along through a very large part of my life, a spoiled only child who threw himself at the brave new land.
Alcohol played a large part of my life. I regret that. But this is all history now but then there was a backdrop to a life of bingeing, yoyoing weight, car crash relationships, divorces, rock and roll, stressful work, money worries (yes, I know, it’s the same for pretty well all of us, but, of course, the world revolves around MEEEEEE), and a gradual slomo glide towards a final crisis. There was the slow dawning that I’d got a lot of things wrong, and harmed people I really cared about.
I had a full breakdown, lots of medical intervention (the NHS were brilliant). It was described as clinical depression, something I regard as different from morbid melancholia. My physical symptoms were – trembling hands, racing heart, gasping for breath, overwhelming feebleness (no driving, no socialising, crawling to the toilet, friends doing errands for me, even driving me to the GP), long, long periods of motionless sleep, hands folded over chest, periods of staring blankly into space for hours, no reading, no TV, no work, nothing achieved, no sorrow, no joy, nothing, but sudden attacks of helpless sobbing, coming out of the blue.
It wasn’t hell, or misery; it was just nothing. Nothing mentally, zoned out, blank, gone, withdrawn inside a feeble, trembling body overdosing on adrenalin. That was a few years ago. I recovered as my GP told me I would. She was brilliant, and she was right. But it didn’t dawn on me that the real underlying problem was still there. The horrible sense of guilt and regret that I’d conducted my life badly. I did share this with friends, but they dismissed my fears, kindly, compassionately.
I felt I was stuck in an inescapable prison, I just accepted it, and carried on with life, busying myself as my strength returned, business as usual, telling myself I’m okay. Really, I’m okay. And so it went on. With that lurking black cloud of guilt over divorce, financial loss. Things that would affect my son, not just me, but were caused by me. (I’m okay, really, I’m okay).
Still binging, still chaotic. My mother died, I had to look after my very old father for several years. That was pretty tough, but it did teach me that, well, sometimes, you have to face your destiny, and that life isn’t one long joke. He passed away in 2017, after years of decline. He was in the RAF in WW2, born during WW1. Imagine the difference between us; he actually had moral courage.
In March 2018, something happened. My son sent me a wounding, angry email (he lives with me, but he used email to communicate this message). He told he it was time I stopped messing around, harming people, blowing hot and cold, complaining endlessly but never doing anything to improve things. Brattish behaviour. Spoiled child behaviour. He said in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t sort myself out, within a week, then things would be unpleasant between us.
I love my son. He is everything to me, and I hadn’t realised how bad things had got, how oblivious I had been. He told me that he was worried about me, that other people were worried too, even though I thought everything was fine. So I did what he said. It was brutal, it was hard, but I tidied up a lot of loose ends. Actually, it was laughably easy. It occurred to me then that a metamorphosis can be easy. Even should be easy. Even actually is really pleasurable.
But how could I do it? I’d been on diets, I’d been to gyms, I’d cycled, I’d been slim, I’d been fat, up and down, round and round, precious little willpower (it seemed to me, making excuses yet again), I’d be drunk, I’d be dry … there was no consistency, no sense of real, long-term gain, just knee-jerk quick fixes, including lying, deception, secrecy, all those little monsters scurrying around in the spoiled little boy’s psyche, neglecting friends, disappointing people I cared about, losing their respect, all that stuff.
So how to go about it? Some lights started to go on. I read, I googled, I youtubed, I sought out the things I’d missed or sneered at, the pinnacles of human achievement, inspiration, courage and liberation. I reflected on the notion of self-reinvention, like Bowie or Madonna. If they could do it, even in the context of the music world, then why couldn’t I? I’d remember seeing a movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who were trying to survive in the wilderness. And Hopkins’ repeated mantra was: “If one man can do it, another man can.”
It stayed with me. But here’s the problem: I have got fit, then slid back; I have dieted, then gone back to large fries and chocolate shakes. It’s not just how to do it, but how to keep on doing it. So I youtubed, I read, I googled … self-help stuff, motivational stuff, this diet, that diet, and still I was blundering along, but things were slowly becoming clearer.
I knew I’d been very unhappy for a long, long time, and I couldn’t break the binge cycle of action and reaction, or so I thought. How to go about it? I’d look at drawers full of clothes that were too small and think I’d never be able to wear them, but not want to get rid of them, because that would signal the acceptance of final capitulation to a chaotic lifestyle, and its aftermath. I’d waste money, miss golden opportunities, break up good relationships. It was as though I was frightened of success.
It all came to a head last March, because that same weekend I’d seen Don Giovanni in Southampton, and I’d checked the dates. Strange that it was THAT opera. THAT weekend. Synchronistic, one might reflect.
In the course of youtubing, something clicked. Motivational clips are often quite boring, predictable, and usually they are angling to sell you something, but amongst all of that there was something. Two things, in fact. One was transformation. The other was toxicity.
Let’s do toxicity first. What my son was really telling me was – get rid of poison in your life! Get rid of it. Toxicity isn’t just about substances like alcohol, tobacco and so on. There is also social toxicity, emotional toxicity, moral toxicity and, for me the biggie: psychic toxicity. I’ve listened to people moralise about young people self-harming, and, yes, it is a terrible thing, but those judging these young people might be grossly unhealthy themselves, without realising that they are self-harming too, in a terrible, terrible way, blindly, with good intentions, and, (the most horrible thought of all), that I was like it myself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodiens? Is that how it goes? So true. I was poisoning myself with guilt, regret, overwork, dark thoughts, melancholia, rejection of society, negativity, introversion. I was a psychic self-harmer. We all are, to a greater or lesser extent. It was suddenly so clear and obvious to me. I could not become well, or at least better, until I stopped poisoning myself.
It seems to me that toxicity is very BAD for us, to put it simply, tritely even. But let’s think about it. Psychic toxicity is BAD too, banal though that might sound. You know, and you feel, how your body reacts to toxic junk food. That’s a given, I think, so … why did I do it? Some kind of post-Freudian self-flagellation thing? Probably. Nice flavour? Something like that. It’s the same with junk emotions, junk mindsets, junk values, junk irrationality, they poison you, and lead you to real self harm, to comfort eating, to retail therapy, as it’s jokingly called. To waste, to anger, embitterment, resentment, excess. Whatever. I became bloated, and limited in my choice of clothing. It was shit. Because of self-poisoning. Why? One thing is for sure: ultimately, you are the one who will pay for it. So don’t do it. It sounds banal and crude, and I do apologise for this, but I’ll still continue, even though you are already thinking about things you do to yourselves that are toxic. Do I need to name them? Do you need to throw them out, push them away like a raft that once brought you to safety, but is now allowed to drift off because it isn’t needed anymore?
It seems so obvious to stop. We beat ourselves up, and it is counterproductive. At this point I have to say this especially includes toxic relationships. Sorry. I apologise again for being preachy, I am truly sorry, but I am describing a life-changing experience. I am NOT telling you what to do.
Now is when you are really going to hate me. There is one thing that is not optional. We all know that, don’t we? Again, it’s obvious, so simple, but it seems so hard to keep going. Let’s think of it this way: not exercising is in itself a form of toxicity. You have the option. And all of this can be done at home. It is an incredibly exciting thing to experience, trust me. I’d say one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced, (in a very clunky, bedraggled life that has included clinging terrified onto a horse bolting through strange woodland), is to see the world this way, then react accordingly. You’re NOT on a diet, you’re NOT slogging painfully away. You are relaxing, and you are not beating yourself up any more. THIS IS THE KEY.
Soooooooo easy, soooo obvious, really. I’m ranting. Forgive me, I don’t want to piss you off. It gets worse though. It’s almost like … well, it actually is … a psychedelic experience. Seriously, your perception alters, things just seem to intensify. This is just what happened to me, between the ages of 66 and 67. I dropped from XL to M, waist from 44 to 36. Without feeling I had to do something, had to join a gym, had to get on a bike, had to limit what I ate, had to take supplements … once I stopped agonising (ie psychically poisoning myself), I just did these things naturally, with really very little effort, as though they were happening to me, and all I had to do was go with the flow, let it wash over me.
It’s boring to read this, I’m sure. I have zero willpower, but something stirred inside me (honestly, stop laughing) and I found myself going to a gym, then, imagine it, this hot summer of 2018, cycling nearly every day, off-road, in open countryside, along route 23 on the Isle of Wight, amongst rabbits, squirrels, herons, jays, woodpeckers … stopping for a pot of tea at Pedallers’ cafe (highly recommended). It was utter, utter, joy. It just was, and it still is. I even whistle sometimes. But exercise doesn’t seem like a task, it’s more like a pleasing ritual for me, doing crunches with music or a lecture playing, so I’m not exercising, I’m listening, and learning. I just do this and that while I’m listening. This has been my journey since March 2018. At some points before that, I did lose track, but life seems better now.
Advantages of Age hears from Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the UK’s first Coffin Club.
It’s a sunny morning in September in a room above an art gallery in Hastings. There are laughter, chat and a feeling of warmth and camaraderie which seems slightly odd considering each of the five people involved are busily decorating their coffins. This is Coffin Club UK where death is always top of the agenda and yet no one seems very sad! Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the charity, encourage clubbers to plan their perfect send-off and, if they like, bling up their coffins too. ‘We go through life planning each step of the way and then, when it comes to our funerals, we seem quite happy to just leave them completely up to chance,’ says Kate Dyer, cheerfully. ‘Yes,’ adds Kate Tym, ‘families find themselves, at a point of bereavement, having to make decisions about what mum or dad or sister might want and they’re not in the right place, emotionally, to start asking questions or thinking creatively. Coffin Club removes that anxiety as it means you get exactly the end of life celebration you want and you know exactly where every penny’s going.’
Funeral Directors, generally, like to offer a range of packages – it’s 20 minutes up the cremation, or a religious place of worship, to a very set format. ‘People don’t realise that funerals are actually very unregulated,’ says Kate Tym, ‘you can separate the cremation or burial from the celebration of life.’ ‘We’ve had send-offs in barns, village halls and even the upstairs room of a pub,’ Kate D says. ‘Simply by changing the setting, the whole atmosphere changes, too,’ she enthuses. Kate T says that by putting a brightly-decorated coffin into the mix it becomes part of the proceedings. ‘Guests aren’t afraid of it – they come up and look at it, touch it, pat it, have a chat with the person inside. Sometimes we leave a space where people can write messages to the person inside – they’re involved right up to the last moment.’
Coffin Club runs over six weeks, for one morning a week, and each week there is an invited speaker – forward-thinking, independent funeral directors, the manager of the local crematorium, a representative from the local hospice, the manager of a natural burial ground and a lady who did her own DIY ceremony for her husband just over a year ago. ‘She kept him at home for five days after he’d died,’ Kate T says cheerfully. ‘She really is our poster girl!’ Each clubber is given a funeral wish-list right at the beginning and fills it in as the weeks go by. So, from burial or cremation to music choices, to venues and readings and anything else they might fancy, not a stone is left unturned.
‘The reasons people come to Coffin Club are all different,’ says Kate D. ‘Some are all about practicality, they want to cost their funeral and have it all organised before they go, so that their family aren’t left with the job. For others, it’s more about coming to terms with the inevitable and finding that in itself empowering,’ Kate T adds.
Currently, in the UK, the average cost of a funeral is around the £4000 mark (https://www.sunlife.co.uk/how-much-does-a-funeral-cost-in-the-uk-today) and that’s not including the ‘do’ afterward, the flowers or the catering or any legal costs around settling an estate. Coffin Club wants to deal with funeral poverty, too, ‘We can get a much more personally-tailored funeral to come in at around the £2,500 mark. It can be done even more cheaply if you don’t use a funeral director at all, but that’s not for everyone,’ says Kate D.
‘Each time we’ve run the club we’ve had one person attend who is terminally ill,’ Kate T says. ‘That’s really hard, but also means a lot to us. Ashley came along wanting to be buried in the field at the back of his house, but wasn’t sure if that was even legal. It is legal and it’s really not difficult to arrange. Coffin Club enabled him to get exactly what he wanted.’ ‘He had the most fantastic celebration of his life,’ says Kate D. ‘We started in the village hall, which was packed. The service itself was full of music and lots of people stood up and told personal stories of their memories of Ashley. Without the crematorium time limit hanging over us, we were able to let the service take as long as it took, and at the end that was about an hour and a half. Then he was drummed across to the field where he was buried with family members helping to lower his coffin into the grave.’ ‘Ashley had actually been too poorly to decorate his coffin,’ Kate T explains, ‘so his family did it for him after he’d died. They covered it in maps of places he’d travelled to and tickets from gigs he’d been to. I think they found it a nice experience, talking about things he’d done and sharing memories.’ Kate D takes over, ‘Everyone came up and touched his coffin, wrote messages, talked to him – it was really very lovely.’ That’s the true validation of Coffin Club – someone who came along and got exactly the send-off they wanted and for it to not cost a fortune.
The coffins Coffin Club that uses are really innovative. They are flat-packed ply coffins that come in ten sections that are then put together with an Allen key. The Kates get them from a Dutch company called Coffin in a Box. ‘They have a really low-carbon footprint,’ says Kate T, ‘they’re made with virtually no waste, have low-emissions in combustion and bio-degrade really easily. Putting them together is pretty funny, too. Having been involved in making and decorating the coffin gives people a feeling of taking control.‘
‘We’ve had people’s kids come and help them, they laugh together whilst decorating their box, it’s a truly bonding experience and makes the whole thing less frightening. Of course, there is a very deep sadness when someone dies,’ says Kate T, ‘but celebrating their life and trying to capture some of the joy and energy they had when they were alive is about love and respect, too. It’s not about making light of it, it’s about caring deeply enough to give them a send-off that is totally about them.’
The decorated coffins have ranged from simple – painted white with a Star of David to much more decorative , for example, hot pink with unicorns and Elvis, to the jokey, for example, a plain box with This way up and Handle with Care stickers on it. ‘It’s not about how good they are, artistically,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s more the process… the thought behind them. It gets our Clubbers thinking about what’s been important to them during their lifetime.’ They range from an elderly Quaker who had a Quaker Oats themed coffin to Bev, who loves purple and went for a vibrant violet base coat. ‘A lot of the conversations happen while we’re decorating,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s a time when people share some of their deepest feelings because thinking about dying – brings these emotions sharply into focus.’
‘Coffin Club was born out of frustration,’ says Kate T. ‘We’re funeral celebrants and we were so depressed by the one-size-fits-all formula of most funerals that we thought there must be a better way. We want everyone to know that there’s a vast choice of send-offs available to them from the traditional Victorian gent in front of a limo hearse to skipping naked through a field with dancing girls and fire eaters!! If you know you can do anything at all and still want to go the totally conventional route, we’ll support you 100 percent. But, we don’t want people having 20 minutes up the cremation because they had no idea they could do anything else. Coffin Club is all about choices.’
Ultimately, Coffin Club is about people taking back ownership of their end of life celebrations. ‘We can’t believe the children of the 50s and 60s generations are going to go for the formulaic way!’ The Kates really believe, as a nation, we’re on the brink of a funeral revolution. ‘We’ve run three Coffin Club Master Classes so that people in other areas can learn how to set-up and run Coffin Clubs and are certain they will grown all over the UK.’ Coffin Club has been followed by a local documentary maker, Whalebone Films, for over a year and the BBC came and filmed in September too – there is a definite feeling of the tide turning. ‘We don’t believe respect is about how much you paid or what you wear. it can be about getting out a pot of paint and doing something that’s a labour of love.’
Coffin Club really is a fabulous initiative. As the Kates say: ‘We’ve got to start talking about death again as a nation. From the moment we’re born we’re all terminally ill. We need to bring death back into the every day and out of the scary, taboo place that it’s been for a long time now. If you talk about sex, you’re not going to get pregnant and if you talk about death, you’re not going to die. You’ll just be well prepared – Coffin Club is really just about thinking outside the box!’
Cards mean a lot to me. Birthday cards and Xmas cards particularly. I love both giving and receiving them. For me, it’s an opportunity to write personal messages, or long drawled out, hieroglyphic-looking paeans to family or friends.
Yes, it’s not the cards per se. It’s the messages, the hand-written words of appreciation and love. The chance to reflect on a year spent with this person and to acknowledge those little adventures in friendship, vulnerability, travel, laughter.
Since the demise of the letter and the upsurge of the email and text, it feels to me all the more important to send cards. My French friends, Les Pougnets, are bemused, nay bewildered by the British dedication to the card. They don’t have the same tradition. However, last year they sent me a couple themselves. You see I’m converting them.
Xmas cards, it turns out, were invented in 1843 by two men – Sir Henry Cole and John Horsley – who were trying to popularize the use of the Post Office. They designed a card, sold it and encouraged people to post them. As printing methods improved, costs went down and more people were able to afford to buy and post them.
The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. In late Victorian times, robins and snow scenes became popular. In those times the postmen were nicknamed Robin Postmen because of the red uniforms they wore. Snow scenes were popular because they reminded the public of the very bad winter in 1836.
Hmmm, well I was always a bit of an Xmas rebel. I didn’t do Xmas every year with my family. I just found it all a bit stifling and repetitive. Not really fun. My mum used to go on Caribbean cruises, my sister and her family would go skiing, Marlon and I would seek out other friends who wanted to celebrate with us. I was a single mum and I sought out other mums with kids. It felt freer that way. I wasn’t the 2.4 family and back in the 90s, that mattered more.
But Marlon – he’s 32 now – and I always made our own cards. It was our individualized offering to our world. Just as I don’t buy many off-the-peg clothes, I tend to do the DIY charity or vintage thang or have them made, I didn’t want to do the classic box of cards buying. I certainly did not want robins and nativity scenes. I was predictably anti-religious.
In fact, I remember a friend whom I played tennis with in the 80s telling me in a confessional kind of way that she really didn’t think that she could let herself stray from the traditional Christian iconography as far as her Xmas cards were concerned. I was shocked by her card modesty. Especially as she played in some well-known rock ‘n roll bands.
How conservative could you get! I laughed when she told me in such a coy tone. But then again, her family did found the Salvation Army.
And so they started with Marlon’s drawings. At six in 1992, he drew a classic paunchy Santa but by seven, he was doing funnier cards. Ones that portrays the sledge without the reindeer. The reindeer wanted the year off, he wrote winsomely.
And then there’s a funny Xmas cityscape with Santa disappearing down chimneys and one of my favourites with Santa nailed to the cross. Black humour. Teenagedom is obviously approaching.
And then in the noughties, the photos started. Marlon doing his tinsel-bedecked Eminem impression – to be honest, I think the tinsel was under coercion from me!!! And then I start appearing in the shots as Marlon is obviously more reluctant. There’s a punk-inspired one of me roaring at Xmas with a question mark on my head!!! Kind of Young Ones, a bit late.
And then the ‘arty’ shots, me popping my head around a corner, Marlon wearing a white mask, me and an Xmas tree with lights around my neck, a tumble of kitchen implements in the background. This was our Kitchen Sink drama, evidently.
There’s a distorted angel digitally enhanced. A blackened tree with baubles looking distinctly dystopian. The vibe seemed to be experimental, dark, brooding.
Phew, then we lighten up with photoshop and we are given Santa’s white beards and hats in a sudden turn for the comedic.
More recently, Marlon, of course, has moved out. And I am left doing the Xmas card myself. Keeping up this Rouse tradition. There was the lyrical black and white shot of my mother at 86 taken by Marlon, of course.
And finally a kitsch shot of my partner, Asanga and I at Portmeirion. I look as though the pot of flowers is a headdress. It keeps up the tradition!! Do you have one?