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An Ordinary Bloke Writing about an Extraordinary Moment


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I wake up

She’s there next to me, but I’m alone. Except for my tumultuous brain, trying to figure it all out.

35 years with the same person, through thick and thin, ups and downs, kids who are now adults. Moves, restarts and companionship. Love – yes, there was/is love but now it’s not what I want or need. There has been very little emotional or physical connection for the past ten years, but this is my choice. She could have easily been the one to decide that I was no longer working for her. But it was me. I’m the bastard.

The rumbling thoughts converge. I am madly in love with someone else, smitten to the point where I can’t believe it. It is joyful and I suddenly feel like me. I can see a life and it’s not the one I have now. Problem. I am also Mr Stable, Conservative and Reliable (Mr SC&R). This is not supposed to happen. Aside from one work-related fling, I have been utterly faithful all my life. Sure there have been flirtations and offers, but many were far too close to home to even consider for a fling. I am a sexual person but it simply wasn’t on my radar. That doesn’t make me better than anyone else I hasten to add, it just gives you some context.

I am meant to be enjoying everything I have now because I, we, built it. Family, friends, a community, our ideal rural life. And then there’s that brand new ride on the mower. I was excited about that mower. Maybe that’s because it represented some kind of freedom? Is that my weak attempt at post rationalisation? No, I actually like the lawnmower. But that’s what it’s come down to, finding small things that give me a smile.

The feelings I have for this new person are real, not just those “I want to tear your clothes off” ones. Ok I have those too, but there is depth here, there is a strong foundation, there is a life and it’s the one I feel I belong in. I have to go.

And then there’s the anxiety and fear of walking away from this. Mr SC&R is not supposed to do this. I wonder if this is how women feel when they decide they have to leave their families, their children behind and begin again. I wonder how much guilt they feel. Is it worse?. I tell myself I am not leaving children behind, they have left us already but I know they will think I have left them. And then there’s our community of friends. Will I have any left? Will I be a pariah forever? The one who upset the group dinners, the regularity, the status quo?

This I think is one of the problems of age. Perhaps if I had done it at 40 it might have been different, 30, no problems. But at 60, well you’re not supposed to are you? Society expects that you will stay there because after all you’re older and unless you’re famous or rich, or both, you do not go around doing things like this. Mr SC&R is supposed to be there till the end. The quiet man who, though dissatisfied, does the right thing.

“But I’m 60,” I told myself. “I can’t do this. I’m comfortable. She’s comfortable. We’re all comfortable.” That was the problem, a) I wasn’t comfortable, I was just accepting. Like so many others, men and women alike, I’d created my own trap. I’d woven a life tapestry that didn’t have room to tell any more stories, not the ones that interested me. At gatherings with friends, the very ones I am so worried about leaving. b) I’d drink so that I wasn’t there.  c) I wasn’t just bored, I had come to a standstill.

So I’ve made the decision to undo that tapestry, unpick the bonds and ties or, depending on your point of view, slash and burn them. On top of the feeling of doing something wrong I had the other voice, the one that says if you find something that feels so right, so effortlessly right, then it must be right to want to keep it. If that’s not the case, then why am I here in the first place? I have never believed that life is meant to be a constant struggle. We are meant to evolve, to find new things and new love, the latter being so rare. I still shake my head in disbelief.

I have had THE conversation, the tears and the recriminations. I have had it several times. I expect I will have it many more times. Loving the new woman in my life, planning and seeing the way forward with her has been effortless, but right now there is this horrendous juggling act to perform. To the point where I ask myself how happy I am allowed to feel? After all I have hurt someone, maybe several people and I might just be a selfish bastard.

Or maybe this is actually how it is. They say in life there are no second acts but are we kidding ourselves? I wonder how many others, men and women, feel they’ve woven their tapestry so tight they’re choking but the thought of getting out is a far more onerous concept than staying put. We also surround ourselves with so much physical stuff we make it even harder to move on and evolve but that’s another discussion.

Then there is that other little voice. The one that says if you’re the good guy everyone thinks you are, how could you do this to another person? That takes some working through believe me. Whilst I know I’m doing the right thing by me, I also know I am doing the wrong thing by someone else. Or that’s how it looks at the moment. In time, I expect everyone will recover and move on. But what if they don’t?

So I wonder what might happen if I turned my back on this joy, this extraordinary emotional, physical and intellectual intimacy I’ve found. Just let it go and say it was one of those things. But it’s not one of those things. I’m not letting it go. This is the difference between living and just existing, and as I make this leap (ok, a hop maybe because I have a bad knee), I do it in full knowledge that there will be people who say, “He’s not the man I thought he was.” But right now I feel like the man I should be. Mr SC&R who walks to the edge, then jumps. And soars.

AofA People: Amanda Brennan – Acting Coach, Lecturer


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Amanda Brennan, 55, is a principle lecturer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, author and acting coach. For the past seven years, she has coached Asa Butterfield for his lead roles in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the forthcoming Tim Burton film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. She has her first book published on Aug 18th. The Energetic Performer (Singing Dragon £17 99) looks at the relationship of the inner to the outer in acting. She is also a Woman of the Tub!!

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Willesden, NW London

AGE? 

55

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

It is good. I feel like I have reached a place of ease where I am able to watch the world go by.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

I have a knowledge and understanding of myself, the ability to live in the present and an appreciation of the preciousness of life.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

Not sure about it really.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

I treasure the close friendships I have, they keep me buoyant, interested in living, challenged and inspired. I have many kinds of relationships, each of which has its own dynamic. Working with actors means I often get to know them intimately, this exchange is required to access the deep and complex layers of a role. It is a trust – an exchange.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

I feel free in terms of self-expression. In terms of freedom of movement, and how life could be lived in an ideal world less so.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

Of  knowing where to place my energy. Of nursing my Mother through the last years of her life and facing the pain of loss. Of following my dreams. Of dedicating the time to parenting when it was needed.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

An inquisitiveness about the world and people. The belief in change and that it is always possible.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

Now

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

It goes into how I teach, experiment in my work, interact with others, search for new knowledge,and push myself to experience new things. I recently finished a book that I have been writing for seven years. At times I thought it would just never get completed but what got me through it was discovering new nuggets of information which some how I felt was relevant such as Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance, and how the universe is energetically connected. Placing topics side by side which seem unconnected is for me highly creative.

The Energetic Performer

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

Now is where the action is.

AND DYING?

Its inevitable and has to be faced.

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Always.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

Not that outrageous for most, but I jumped off a boat into  choppy waters to swim to an island because I felt sea sick. I am terrified of deep water. And I sang  an Abba song in an open mic session. And I flirted with a traffic warden. I still got a ticket.

 

The Freedoms of Age


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This week, Advantages of Age invited a host of different people to respond to the question – What freedoms have you found in getting older? Here are their responses. Please let us know yours…

I teach two weekly classes and go to a Residential Home once a month. I enjoy the interaction with the groups and it helps me to keep mobile and active. Some of my members are in their 90s. Inspirational!

My father used to say to me “there’s no fun in getting old”, and for him that was true. I have had so much fun and done more than I ever thought I would. This year I self published a book of poetry on Amazon and still can’t quite believe it. Recently joined a classical choir.

Ageing for me has been an adventure into all the things I never had time for in earlier years.

Margaret Blackman, 74, poet, exercise teacher.

 

I like myself. No, really, I do. I wish it hadn’t taken so long to arrive in this simple place. I wish I’d found The Fields Of Kindness as a young woman, rather than a middle-aged one. And, now approaching 60, where I consider myself to be at the beginning of old, I am grateful beyond description, to be free from the violence of self hatred. I think about my mother who died just 2 years older than I am now. She showed me how to hate myself because that was her legacy too. She died of it: whisky, cigarettes, bulimia, rabid sarcasm and bitterness. Sometimes, when I am feeling that gratitude, just to have comfort and ease, to know and love the one I’m with, I grieve for her suffering and forgive her for mine. Life is much simpler than I ever imagined. I have somehow learned see and hear myself through the channels of tenderness and humour. I am here. You are here. We are all here together. I am free now, to know and relax into this. It doesn’t really matter that it was a long walk home.

Caroline Bobby, 58, cook, psychotherapist, writer.

 

I have found ageing to be incredibly liberating, but more than that, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. In many ways, once I reached my 50s, I stopped giving a fuck about so many things that used to really bother me. Obviously, the work on myself over the previous 30 years has paid off..! But basically, life is just so much more relaxed, open and honest. I love it. And more than that, I’ve become a published author in my 50s, a salutary tale for anyone younger who thinks they’re not achieving things fast enough.

Hud, 55, writer.

 

Now that I’m 55 I do finally feel that I’ve arrived at the person whom I was meant to be but never was because I spent too long selling myself short. I went out with unsuitable men and was the ultimate people pleaser. I wanted to be liked by everyone. Now that I’ve stopped all that nonsense, I’m much happier and relaxed. I am leading life on my own terms and I’m enjoying the freedom that comes from not giving a f***.  I put a lot of this down to my female friendships and the new friends I’ve made in my 50s whom I deeply love and make me laugh every single day!

Suzanne, 55, entrepreneur, co-founder AoA, screenwriter.

 

Sex: more tender, relaxed and with emphasis on the journey rather than any goal.

Relationships: more genuine, intimate and fulfilling.

Attitude: more self-confidence, less to prove, content with life.

Friendship: fewer but more meaningful and nurturing.

Relaxation: more laid back, less need to rush and get things done.

Appearance: no longer any need to conform but like to stand out so feel free to dress accordingly expressing flamboyance and eccentricity.

Saying no and yes: Better able to use boundaries.

Asanga, 73, bread-maker, gardener, crystal bowl healer.

 

I am enjoying the freedom of not having to slog it out 9-5 and having more choice about when and where I work. This could apply at any age but in my case it’s thanks to getting an occupational pension and lump sum earlier than expected. However, I am glad I can’t afford to be completely retired as I still need the mental stimulus of working.

Having more time means I can seek out new activities and people to do them with. There seems to be no shortage of active single people at this stage in life – more than I’ve experienced at earlier stages of my (single) life.

I no longer feel driven to prove myself or develop my career which is a huge relief as it never came naturally to me anyway.

R, 62, University freelancer, tennis player.

 

Hmmm, I guess I never really connect the joy I feel in being me these days with my age, although I suppose the self-acceptance and self-expression I delight in has come – for me – as a result of life experience and many years’ soul-searching.  I’ve also never thought about it in terms of freedom, either.  All I know is that I love being me and creating/defining life on my own terms: not caring what others think or fitting in, wearing what I like, eating what I like, speaking my truth and not doing things to please others are just some examples.

Beverley, 51, yoga, dance and tantra teacher.

 

Ever since I was a little girl, I thought I had to try to like everyone. I would sometimes make a tremendous effort to find the good, pleasant and generally positive qualities in the people that I met. What an effort!  With advanced years, I have learnt that you can’t like everybody and you shouldn’t worry about it. Some people are too self-centred, they can talk about themselves but are not interested in knowing about you or complimenting you on your achievements. These people are no longer my friends. Some people are only concerned with appearances – never taking time to

look for other qualities – these people are no longer my friends. The result of this culling exercise is that I have fewer friends but the ones I do have are precious.  This understanding comes with age. Thank Goodness!

Alice, 78, jewellery-maker.

 

The freedom that has arrived for me is feeling the excitement of being a teenager again but with attitude and life experience of one who DOES know better!!!

Doe, 58, homeopath, culture vulture, style queen.

 

I remember my mum jettisoning friends over the years in a way that shocked me. She would justify it with such simplicity…’I’m over it’ she would say, mimicking my Gen X parlance. And she was. There was no blood or guts. She didn’t hate these charactors or curse the day they were born. She was just OVER. IT.
I have been known to kiss inanimate objects goodbye:  pants, T-shirts, my broken cereal bowl, so hard do I find it to let go. So you can imagine how these words sounded to her tender hearted daughter. Brutal. But I get it now and it was her death, ironically, and the crashing realisation that we’re all going to die that bought me that freedom. Not to get rid of friends so much as to guard and value the time I have fiercely, to fill extraneous time with people who bring something great to my table and to avoid people who pretend to listen – but don’t. I made room for anyone who asked before. But life is too short for charactors who, like apps that get left open on your iphone, drain ones life blood. I don’t hate these people. I even miss some of them but I have found the most fabulous freedom in putting myself first and I don’t even care how that sounds. I’m over it. Thanks mum.
Kate, 47, writer, cat lover, boho queen.

Jung talked about the second half of life as a time of introspection and deepening; a swerve back into one’s own rhythms away from the false self we erected as scaffold against the wounds of childhood. Spiritual life begins when seeking fails and the seeking – in relationships, sex, work, food etc – has to be exhausted. I am nearly there! We don’t see in looking outside of ourselves we are in exile from our essence but I was privileged to experience the grace of suffering, learned my limitations, and now spend a lot of time saying no to things I know are bad for me – although sometimes I still indulge a little first! I have found the key is to love all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly – not to set myself up in opposition to my flaws, enjoy the ride and not to take any of it too seriously.

Simon, 53, soul psychotherapist, writer, 1970s rock aficionado.

The Father of Men’s Work: Robert Bly – a new film


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‘Creation and destruction, I am dancing for them both.’ Rumi

Sometimes a man can live his life on the borders and in the margins, camp out in purgatory, know the territory of thresholds and sing his song among strangenesses. Sometimes, living feels like dying and dying feels like living.

Occasionally, one becomes the other. But more of that later.

For now, it is 1996, and I am standing on the back lawn of a red-brick pile in Dorset next to a pre-Oscar, pre-Spielberg Mark Rylance and poet-activist and Iron John author Robert Bly. There are perhaps six of us and Rylance, whose first men’s retreat this is, has written and delivered a devastating poem. There is the first flutter of autumn leaves.

(Yesterday, watching him as The BFG with my son, I realize it would be legitimate to call Rylance the biggest star in the world.)

He will soon be one of Bly’s more famous sons, yet we are legion. Haydn Reiss, whose film Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy premieres in Notting Hill on Sunday told me from California: “I am one of his many sons. I went up to him and said many of us look up to you as a father and he said, ‘That’s ok’.”Robert Bly

For Bly, often grizzled and grumpy in his need to carve out some space for himself after finding success in his 60s with his insights into the old Grimm’s fairy story Iron John, is both father and grandfather to a movement and knows it. He is also, Reiss reminded me, fallible and human.

One needs reminding, for Bly with his wild shocked white hair, colourful waistcoats and odd cravats, cuts quite a figure: at first glance a floral bear, then one who soon shapeshifts into an American eagle with ferocious talons. If you want to avoid their pinch, don’t call him Bob. (If you want to hear about that get to a Q & A and ask Mark Rylance.)Robert Bly

On the dais at his first men’s gathering in Dorset, he was, I wrote recently in a poem, Uranus distilled, shooting bolts of seismic thought, which his floating hands, reached up and gathered from the heavens like twin birds, returning to caress one ear then slap another. He left you stunned, felled by the koans he delivered like darts, foxed by a mind that knew what you did not. Father and friend to so many, he built sheds in the garden of thought, pinpointed and pulled out what we needed yet never wanted to hear.

He could also be infuriating and was horrendously late for one event, apparently held up by a lengthy lunch – or so the rumour went. I recall, more fondly, his many kindnesses. At one gathering, I had not felt part of the group, and slipped to the side in isolation. Bly, ever watchful, came over, simply putting an avuncular arm over my shoulders and asking if I was okay.

In the new film – which like Bly’s poems yields more with each sitting – we are taken into the heart and soul of the man who crashed his tractor into a ditch while reading Omar Khayyam as a Minnesota farm boy; who readily quoted Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats; then later wooed the great Pablo Neruda. Of course, he also organised resistance against both Vietnam and Iraq wars for American writers. He challenged many of the poets of his day he saw as ‘old-fashioned’, refusing to accept the division of spiritual reverence from sacred activism in their work, seeing them both as the poet’s sacred duty.

His love of Omar Khayyam foreshadowed his later love affair with the Sufis for, as one commentator says, Bly is an ecstatic, widely read (he researched both Freud and Jung), and has a knack for sniffing out exactly what his soul needs next.

There are a number of poignant moments: Bly, an alcoholic’s son, weeping, chest heaving, as he explains the benefits of apologizing to your children; and early scenes when, after going to Harvard and distinguishing himself among a group of noted young poets, courageously, drops out and hangs out in Minnesota, eschewing ambition and success in favour of watering his soul.

It would have cost him dear by the usual standards, but he remained true, refusing to surrender his complexity for a false peace. Like Rumi, who was at the height of both worldly and egoic powers when he met his mentor, he sacrificed everything the world values for a finer wine, treading the mystic’s path.

That helped me clarify why I feel such love and admiration for Bly. For just before meeting him, I had – to everyone’s shock and horror – given up my job as a newspaper editor as my young marriage crashed to a halt and was soon working as a commis chef in the kitchen of Gaunts House, the retreat centre where he pitched up, for board and lodgings.

I was 33 and had responded, without knowing it, to a call from my soul to vital questions put by Martin Shaw, perhaps Bly’s natural heir, in his wonderful book A Branch From The Lightning Tree: ‘Where is the mystery in going straight from school to college to job to mortgage? What wider perspective, what beauty cuts through that ghastly procession and makes you howl with the joy of being alive.’

Or as another poet, Mary Oliver, said: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

I was howling with both grief and joy and Bly understood, in detail and with a precision that no-one else did and probably few people could.

Ask Rylance (who introduces the film on YouTube), Devon-based storyteller Shaw, stage director and mythodrama pioneer Richard Olivier, Rumi translator Coleman Barks, for their most significant influence and they will likely come up with a variant on Reiss: ‘All roads lead back to Bly.’

If you have never heard of Robert Elwood Bly, now 89, the former should tell you something about his significance, the reach of his intellectual arm, and his ability to weave threads that rivet the attention.

The new film, which Reiss rushed into a theatre near Bly last summer so the old man could see it before crossing the threshold between Saturn and Neptune, the two worlds he has straddled so ably, begins on home turf in Minnesota.

Bly, gruff and staccato when I met him now says almost nothing, but the viewing, apparently, went well: ‘I could tell the film really fed him,’ his wife Ruth confided to the director, who came across his first men’s meeting while working on Oliver Stone’s JFK, and moved out of Hollywood and into documentaries.

Reiss had worked with Bly for a piece with fellow writer William Stafford, whose work is often read on men’s retreats. He later realized there was more to tell and was aided by interest from British actor-director Harry Burton, who swapped a documentary of his own on Pinter.

Harry is another veteran of what is called the mytho-poetic men’s movement and one of the film’s producers.

Late in June, he brought me via Facebook two distinct yet connected pieces of news, almost exactly one week apart.

The first, which came late at night, simply read: ‘Awful news today that Robert Moore has killed his wife and himself in Chicago.’

Moore, theologian, professor, Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago and much-respected mentor to many seems, for whatever reason, to have been devoured by the Great Self he spoke so much about.

It was shocking news, its shadow silent in the air. When I looked for Iron John on Amazon, Moore’s book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine was offered as a companion piece. Both were bibles, both published in 1990.

While the reverberations and reasons for Moore’s act will pose questions and inflict wounds for some time to come, men’s work, despite the noble efforts and great work of many men – not least in the UK – is no longer in vogue, says Reiss. Simply put, the zeitgeist moved on.

Harry’s second message was happier, with a clip of Rylance’s introduction and an invitation to the West Country screening planned for Dartington, Totnes, three days after London.

The gifts inherent in ritual and myth – something that never happened yet always is – remain: ‘These ritual forms are the secret history of the world: they are medicine. To face the world without them is to walk naked into a blizzard, to enter a desert without water,’ writes Shaw.

When Bly and Olivier, mythologist Michael Meade, Dagara tribal chief Malidoma Somé, shaman Martín Prechtel and the English poet William Ayot, entered the centre’s kitchen they came bearing myths. I put down my knife and followed.

For I had discovered through my own experience – and horror at the career in newspaper management laid out before me – that Flatlands almost always mean Badlands. If I could not cross the line into a wild adulthood, then I would sooner stay an adolescent.

I needed a life rich in meaning, purpose and passion, populated by people I could admire. My own fatherless existence and the longing that poured from my wounds caught the mood of the moment.

And so we listened to the old stories, greeted impossible dilemmas, wept and made friends, rediscovered our inner rhythms through drumming, turned and faced our grief. It was some of the best work I ever encountered. For it lent context to exile, something I knew well, and suggested staying true to one’s depths whatever others thought and, as importantly, for however long.

‘Fairy stories are the fundamental gifts we have received from the preliterate ancient world. The images of the stories given are meant to be taken slowly into the body,’ Bly tells us. A myth, adds Jung, is the collective dream of the culture. Slowness and patience are qualities long abandoned in industrialized nations.

Wild Dance Events, the organization set up by Richard Olivier with the encouragement of Bly, brought some of the power and energy experienced in America to Britain, drew on the wisdom of other cultures, included women at many gatherings and, to use Shaw’s words, amplified things we didn’t know were available any more.

There was a deep, cloying sadness when both that time and organization came to a close and although I was initiated by The Mankind Project in 2003 and attended some wonderful groups, I did not connect with it in the same way. In short, I had been spoilt.

Bly popped into my mind later through a number of channels. I wrote a piece on Steinbeck for The Independent in 2001; we had cross-referenced Steinbeck’s interest in mythology years earlier. It was the heart of my article.

A few years after that I made friends with the late actor Bruce Boa, who told me he had given up drinking for 17 years when he found himself sawing through his basement gas pipe in an attempt to kill himself.

As we drank tea in his Kew Gardens home, he told me he was the brother of Bly collaborator, Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. I had known him, like many, as the angry American in the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers.

All addictions, if seen with an eye for initiation could be argued as a failure of transformation, specifically the failure to complete what is a three-stage journey and be welcomed home. I wondered about Moore once more as well as the differing paths taken by Bruce and his sister.

It seems there is a hair width’s divide between sanity and madness, life and death, this world and the Other world.

‘The descent,’ says Woodman, ‘is a mythological term for the period during and after a powerful event in which the ego has been overwhelmed by a wave from the unconscious. Energy that is normally available to consciousness falls into the unconscious. This is known as journeying to the underworld, a state in which creative energies are going through transformations that the unaware ego may know nothing about.’

Shaw, rightly, emphasizes the importance of Return, moving back from the Threshold, coming home from the vision quest. There are always some who don’t make it.

After watching The BFG, Mark Rylance appeared once more in my mind. I tried to recall the poem he had written all those years before. The word diamond kept coming to me.

Then I read the transcript of his interview for the Bly film. He recalls that early poetry workshop and the central idea that the father cannot praise the diamond in you, something Bly knew only too well:

’Um, and this idea of the diamond in each of us, of a unique kind of gift um, gift that – that is there from birth…but it really takes a different elder man to say, “hey, I see something there that’s you – that’s in you.’”

Such seeing is a blessing and with the fires of conflagration everywhere, hawks and policemen bullying America, the fallout from Brexit oozing like stagnant water from a broken river bank, and a shredded political landscape here, there was never a more urgent time for the appearance of mystics, visionaries and men and women prepared to stand for something finer, telling truths that challenge the consensus.

There is no question that hindsight will elevate Bly, but adopt him now as inspiration and example. As Reiss and I agreed, such men only pass this way once in a thousand years.

 “ROBERT BLY: A THOUSAND YEARS OF JOY”

AUGUST 7th 2016 at 12.30pm

THE GATE CINEMA, NOTTING HILL

Special guests: Haydn Reiss; Academy Award winner, Mark Rylance; and celebrated storyteller, Martin Shaw.

For tickets in London: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Gate_Picturehouse/film/robert-bly-athousand-years-of-joy-plus-qanda

For tickets in Devon:

https://www.dartington.org/whats-on/event/?id=186399&spektrix_bounce=true

© Simon Heathcote 2016

AofA People: Derek Ridgers – Photographer


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Derek Ridgers is a photographer who is best known for his outlandish portraits of punks, pervs and nightclubbers. His new book is Punk London 1977.

WHO ARE YOU?

Derek Ridgers

HOW OLD ARE YOU?

65

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WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Twickenham

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

Photographer

hd_GenXMarquee77Derek Ridgers

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

If there were no mirrors it would be exactly like being 25.

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WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

Three grandchildren

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WHAT ABOUT SEX?

 Heterosexual.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

Married

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HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

With a small but close knit family, I probably feel more free than I have any right to be.

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WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

My grandchildren

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

The people I meet.

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WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

When I am with my grand children.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

Into my work.

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WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

I don’t have one.

AND DYING?

I’m fine with it but just not yet thanks.

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ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Yes

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

I haven’t done anything outrageous for 25 years at least.

How a Good Life is Connected to a Good Death


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We have been focusing on living and dying, noticing that something our society struggles to accept is one simple and clear fact – all of us are going to die. 100%. No exceptions. We start to die the moment that we take our first breath and we stay steadily on that path until we take our final gasp. With that degree of certainty in our lives, haven’t we got an amazing opportunity to pick and choose from an exciting vista of options in terms of how we live that life, love that life and be that life? Of course we do! We have control over this. Every single element of it.

Why does this matter to us? I’m Elizabeth and at the grand age of 44, there I was, summer 2005, at The Big Chill, up at The Castle Stage looking at the night sky and listening to some lovely music. And I said aloud to that sky, to those stars – I hope I see you again next year. Something very real was happening to me. I was halfway through six months of chemotherapy having been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a massive lump in my breast that we were reducing before my surgery. I was bald, although sporting a very glamorous black and gold headdress that I had fashioned for the look and for warmth. I genuinely didn’t know if I would make The Big Chill the next year and it was just too soon for me. I wasn’t scared of dying, I just wasn’t ready! The NHS served me amazingly and 11 years later I am still here, still going to festivals but with a renewed perspective around living so well in order that I can die well.

And yet, and yet – we can spend a lifetime looking over our shoulders at something that is no longer there. Attempting to stave off the ageing process, hankering for youthfulness and languishing in nostalgia. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. We could instead be exploring, reinventing, recreating and most importantly building a world alongside those who are younger than us. We could be helping them to appreciate and enjoy ‘now-stalgia”. We could be increasing our contribution to society as we grow older, in new and creative ways, instead of quietly letting the possibilities slide by.

I’m Nadia. I’m 55. Today I felt a significant era of my life was ending. My daughter, the youngest of my 3 children, was packing the last few essential items that comprise a life lived in 20kgs of baggage allowance and heading off, with her boyfriend, to live and work in Berlin. I’ve marveled at these brave and bold millennials as, over the past six months, they’ve used the family home as a base while they’ve worked insane hours, commuted hundreds of miles and spent weekdays on London sofas to enable them to undertake internships in creative industries, slog it out in minimum wage, part-time jobs and somehow, save up enough money to get them started on their dream. We all cried tears of frustration and bewilderment on June 23rd as it seemed their aspirations for the future might be ripped away from them. But if I know one thing about the women in my family, it is that we’re tenacious. We don’t give up. We refocus and get on with our plans. So this morning as I cried into my daughter’s soft shoulder, squeezing her tight as if I may never see her again; I recalled the steel and strength of my mother, my grandmother and felt secure in the knowledge that it flows in our veins too. I’m going to miss her company and gentle presence around the house. But empty nest syndrome? Hell no! I’ve got work to do and a lineage of whispering women urging me on to do it.

So, let’s begin by asking ourselves; “If I died tomorrow – not at some distant point in the future, but tomorrow – how would I like people to remember me? How many versions of me would there be to remember and what would be the legacy of each and every one?” It’s is possible to live our lives with meaning and integrity while keeping our intentions simple: we can pursue so many activities, from the altruistic to the hedonistic ( think volunteering at one end of the week and festival or spa at the other!). We can make, and share memories that, layer upon layer, create a patina of a life well lived.

As you read this now, take a moment and consider how you would begin to explore the possibility of giving your attention to your end of days and to look back upon the fourth quarter – however long you think it is going to be – and how you see yourself having lived and loved. Have you cried, hugged, made magic, made mistakes, showed vulnerability? What’s important to you?

So then we saw the poster featuring the lineup for Campfire Convention. So many people whose work we admire. And there were our names. On that poster.

“I felt suddenly overwhelmed and out of my depth. A sense of panic swept over me and yet, underneath that, I could feel a strange excitement. It all seemed strangely familiar so I sat observing for quite a while, trying to understand what was going on with me. I gradually realised that I’ve felt this way before. A few times. No. Change that to lots of times. Every time I’ve stood on the edge of a part of my life that is dying and set to re-emerge as something new. The sense of dread that one way of living is over accompanied by the quiet, insistent exhilaration that through this ending, another beginning is being made possible. In my hidden shallows, I’ve glibly called it re-inventing myself. I’ve come to know that it’s actually becoming myself. I’m learning how to live because I’m learning how to die. And, as I move towards my last quarter on this earth, I’m loving every moment of it,” said Nadia.

“Well my immediate reaction was Woah! Dying in order to live? What have we started here?  And then I remembered a recent conversation with my 15 year old nephew, Alex.  I was telling him about Campfire Convention and he asked me why I had agreed to do a workshop instead of just turning up with friends, joining in, listening to music? I’d told him that sometimes it’s important to go outside your comfort zones,” said Elizabeth.

This phrase is now a part of the lexicon of Alex who probably has about 60 years of living to do. And it’s firmly part of our learning to live and learning to die.

These are ideas that we have been kicking around for some time – usually whilst walking dogs and when in contemplative mode. But latterly, we have found ourselves being increasingly energised by our conversations and drawing others in. Sometimes the response is nervous, however generally we are finding that there is a real receptiveness to thinking in a generative way about what it means to live a good life towards a good death, particularly as we enter what we are calling the fourth quarter of life. And so we have come together to facilitate a bigger conversation with more people about these very ideas. We have been invited to run a workshop at Campfire Convention 001.

Campfire Convention 001.UK takes place from August 12th to 14th in the beautiful spot in the Golden Valley on the English side of The Black Mountains (just a few miles from the original and inspirational first Big Chill Gala event which created history 21 years ago). It is in one of the most spectacular pub settings in the UK, surrounded by a stream and open fields leading to the Cat’s Back and the foothills leading to Offa’s Dyke. Campfire is the chance for people to experience and contribute to a lively mix of talks, debates, thinkshops and discussions. When we first heard about Campfire we were really excited – this was our thing. A festival in beautiful countryside with friends, music, conversation, fire. But a chat with the founder, Pete Lawrence convinced us that we had to take ourselves outside of our comfort zone and so when asked to produce and deliver a thinkshop on this subject we stepped into a very scary space and said ‘yes’.

We are calling our thinkshop ‘A Good Life and a Good Death: The Fourth Quarter’. During this interactive thinkshop, we will be taking a lighthearted and yet profound look at our attitudes to life and death.  We will be using stories, provocations and exhortations to develop an engaging conversation through which growth and a new perspective may be possible. We hope the shared experience may even be life changing. We are expert coaches in narrative and will be sharing some of our stories, opening a safe space for surprise, shock and compassion. We will challenge, tease and help to connect each of the participants to the values that matter, then to articulate them in a way that will guide them through a fourth quarter that will really count.

Campfire Convention takes place 12-14th August. For tickets and more information go to:

Campfire Convention 001

Whoops, I didn’t forget to have children


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I’m rarely asked why I chose not to have children. I’ll admit the idea of missing out on mum politics and a school run did disturb me but it passed. People I know have never felt the necessity to discuss the topic with me, probably because I didn’t. I recall reading a strident Polly Vernon, vehemently defending herself from the barrage of people who seemed to approach her daily, yes daily I tell you, to inquire as to her fertility choices. I’d hazard an educated guess that when faced with intensely personal issues, the stress comes not from others but more likely is a result of our unresolved selves. It’s somewhat far-fetched that your hairdresser, newsagent or the guy at the pub will constantly engage you with, “So what are you doing tonight? Thinking about having children?”

I’ve never had a change of heart. Barely eleven years old, I recall thinking to myself – indeed I may have even loudly announced it to nobody in particular – that I was never going to have children. My father ensured our home life wasn’t stable and it left a legacy. On reflection I realise that I didn’t get the chance to enjoy being a child, and the idea of being responsible for one was far too scary. Nonetheless, at the time I thought I was odd. I hadn’t even thought of marriage. However, what I had come to think of as my errant woman brain turned out to be a full-time, clinically depressed one. I took and still take anti-depressants, drugs that my psychiatrist said might have to change if I wanted children. No way. Now I’d got the right ones, after so many false starts, I was finally feeling like me. I wasn’t about to do something that would alter that state. A life marked by years of inconsistency and instability finally had a floor, albeit a shifting one, but it was the most security I’d had and this was no time to go rogue.

I told him it was sorted.

“What do you mean?” He said in the same voice he said everything: his steady, educated but slightly uninformed voice that ensured he got the information he wanted.

“I mean I’m not having children. As much as I think they’re adorable and the idea of a squeezy toddler makes me smile and go gooey, it’s just not going to work. It’s too much responsibility and I’m still dealing with the fallout of being a grown up toddler myself.” He thanked me for doing part of his job for him, then out of interest I asked him how high the stakes were for a depressive having children. The figures weren’t good. That applies both in terms of producing a child who would have to face a life where the moving men drop into your brain, as well as the spectre of post-partum depression from my end. I didn’t want to end up in the news, demonised by social workers because I left my kids in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket.

By the way I adore kids. No that’s wrong. I love, love them. I love them for being interesting and creative people and fun. I’m a fairy godmother, an anarchist auntie and they’re not just cameo roles. I’ve played a huge part in the lives of my godchildren – yes I’ve changed nappies and dealt with school runs (the politics of the latter was far too much for me) as well as the fun stuff – and it’s been utterly fulfilling. It’s also been just enough, enabling me to enjoy my own inner child, who likes to play. I like the fact that a piece of cardboard can be a car and that when I’m with them I can be in the moment. Now in the advantage of my age (my new name for middle age) I don’t get questions, however I see the questions debated in articles from the UK and Australia where many people are old and alone.

“But aren’t you afraid of growing old alone?”

Ah now you’re talking future. In order to maintain non-panic in my life and give the impression of being the most resilient depressive in the world, I have a dirty secret: I live for the moment. Not the future. That’s too onerous. You see why I love the company of children? So the idea of having babies as some sort of insurance, a security blanket for old age, has never entered my head. It’s a strange notion in this era. Children go travelling and meet tall blonde men on beaches whom they follow to a foreign place. (I did) They study abroad. They work abroad. They become drug dealers and go to jail. They build lives that people could not have imagined 40, 30 even 20 years ago.

“It’s nice to have children around as you get old.”

What is old? Will I get old? I might die before then. I might be hit on the head by a coconut, struck by lightning or taken by aliens. Seriously I know so many people who have kids they never speak to. And others who have children they don’t like, where the feeling is mutual. I know one family where the only child joined a religious sect and was never heard of again. So this concept of being around, let alone kids being around, well it’s all a bit abstract, to me anyway. Word to the wise: If your reason for igniting your ovaries is to bring security in old age, I’d seriously rethink it.There are no guarantees they will be there or even bring you joy. Having said that, I do get a warm fuzzy feeling when I see generations together, but there’s no envy or self-pity. It’s the same feeling I’ve had when I see young children with their parents in the park. It makes me happy. A bit like watching Toy Story.

“Aren’t you scared of dying alone?”

The adage goes there are two moments in life when you are totally alone. Before you make a speech. And just before you die. Having just experienced the death of my friend Bob, his children were in his thoughts but as seizures and incontinence took over his body, he didn’t want them around. Some of us don’t get old. Happily, even with there are still many families where the children are around to provide comfort in old age or can quickly hop on a plane when needed. However, there will come a point, regardless of who is around, where we will all feel alone. From a personal point of view, I’ve lived my life feeling alone in a crowd of people I know, leaving parties after five minutes because I’ve felt disconnected. So the idea of being old alone doesn’t concern me as long as I have some friends who are still alive and most importantly good health. Because ironically, the thing that people value most as they grow older is independence. My mother who has not been sick a day in her life is 86 and not a day goes by when she doesn’t reclaim her independence. While she loves to see us and have us around, I know it’s that ability to run her own life that keeps her from being alone.

At 55, I’ve Given Up Bad Sex


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I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking about orgasms and penetrative sex.

When I was in my twenties, orgasms were easy to come by. I started messing around with myself as an adolescent so I knew how to make myself come. I had my first one, while having penetrative sex, with an old school friend at the same time as he lost his virginity. Yes, you read that right. A guy who had never had sex before made me come. Can you imagine?

I remember the moment as if it happened last week. I was in his university dorm room, on his single bed. I remember getting on top of him and grinding for a bit, maybe not more than 5 minutes, and I just came. It was eventful and yet not eventful, in that it did not require much effort. OK, I might have said, “Wow, that was amazing.” It just happened and after that being on top became my failsafe position. Over time I learned I could orgasm a few other ways provided that my clit made contact with my partner’s public bone or belly. No clit contact, no orgasm. Simple.

I’m down with sex writer Jenny Block on vaginal orgasms who says, “The vaginal orgasm — which for all intents and purposes does not even exist — is not a mature orgasm, while a clitoral one is not immature. Orgasms can emanate from a number of parts of a woman’s body. But the clit is orgasm central.” True say.

I also learned that if I really wanted an orgasm, I needed to take control. I couldn’t rely on a man to make me come. In my twenties, most of my partners were fairly inexperienced and if there’s anything I’ve learned about sex over the years, it’s that practice makes perfect. I recall a lot of fumbling back then and almost no foreplay. The men came quickly and easily so it was really up to me to get what I wanted.

I spent my 30s bringing up children so orgasms took second place most night to sleep although if I wanted one, I could. I had no trouble having orgasms with my husband.

Then I hit my 40s and I got into the swinging scene. My vibrator became my trusted companion wherever I went. I started watching porn (both with and without partners) and having more and more adventurous sex. That’s when the problems began. I stopped experiencing or expecting an orgasm whenever I had sex. It wasn’t that they never happened, it just took a bit longer to get there. I blamed the vibrators. I became used to such intense clitoral stimulation, I became desensitized in the process. The porn didn’t help either as I recognized that the more I watched, the longer it took me to get turned on. If I was going to have a healthy sex life, I needed to wean myself off both or, at the very least, cut back.

I’m not obsessed with having an orgasm but I don’t believe it should be the sole preserve of men to experience one. I’m not an orgasm fanatic but I do believe it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. When I hear some of my friends tell me that they’ve never had an orgasm during sex (whether oral or penetrative), I just can’t understand why anyone would put up with that. In my opinion, for every woman that fakes it, that’s another man that has been allowed to get away with being lazy. Statistically 1 in 3 women have trouble reaching orgasm during sex with almost 80% having difficulty from vaginal intercourse as well. Put it another way, there’s a hell of a lot of incredibly dissatisfied women out there.

Now I’m in my 50s and both my body and my choice of partners appear to be conspiring against me. One of the effects of menopause and reduced estrogen levels is that reaching orgasm can take longer and be less intense than before. This wouldn’t usually be an issue if not for the fact that at the same time I’m meeting men who, while top of their field professionally, have clearly not put their 10k hours in the bedroom. Either they’ve been with lots of women who have faked it or they simply haven’t cared. One thing is for sure; they haven’t got a clue how to make me come. Often, I have to wait until they leave to finish myself off.

I’ve never thought of orgasm as being the ultimate end game while having sex. I’m not obsessed with whether I have or don’t have an orgasm each time but when I’m with someone, really turned on and then left wanting more, I’m not happy. Sometimes the time taken to get to orgasm can be more trouble than it’s worth, especially when I’m tired or had too much to drink. At that point, a cuddle is just as good. But when I’m having sex I want it to be good sex. I expect the pleasure to go both ways. I want the connection to be total. I certainly don’t want to feel that my orgasms don’t really matter or that I’m on the clock.

If our twenties were about fumbling and experimentation, then surely our 50s should be when all the experience and wisdom comes to fruition, I want making love to be more than 3 minutes of pleasure for one and not the other. Recently, I’ve been contemplating whether I should create a manual, a sort of user’s guide to my body. Why risk disappointment when I could simply provide a set of instructions? A how-to-get-me-off guide I could send to a prospective or current partner would avoid that awkward, but inevitable moment when he asks, ‘Did you come?’ and I say, “No, but it felt nice.” Sex needn’t be prescriptive but I’d rather if a guy knew in advance that I don’t enjoy having my nipples squeezed so hard they turn black and blue. Or that the reason why I may feel so tight has nothing to do with my anatomy but simply because I’m not quite ready to be penetrated.

One of the advantages of being older is that I can’t be bothered to have bad sex anymore, not when I have a massive Rolodex of kinky memories. Life, as the cliché goes, is just too short. I’ll leave you with another quote from Jenny Block, “It’s not rocket science. It’s sex. And if you’re not doing it right, there’s no reason she should be doing it with you at all.” Snap.

Autumn Leaving


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After the too long winter

I want to drop to my knees in gratitude on April’s crocus carpet

And when the sun stays up late in summer

You’ll find me in some park or garden, unwilling to depart before the final embers are extinguished by the evening cool

As squirrel-like, I feel compelled to hoard every last nugget of light.

 

Yet despite my annual joy when daffodils raise their trumpets to herald new life

This hope always turns to disappointment

 

For summer never quite fulfils spring’s promise

 

And that exotic flower

Whose scent I catch in early May

And whose burgeoning splendour I strongly sense in balmy June

Must bloom in gardens where I never go

For these many summers I’ve not found it yet.

 

But autumn’s glorious dying I have seen

And the serene relinquishing of all those deeds not done

Reconciled with misdeeds that irrevocably were, in naïve spring or hot-headed summer.

Once reaped, this lawful harvest is gently laid on November’s cleansing fire

For purification in that impartial furnace, a truer friend in the end, than the seductive sun

And as the scent of surrender is carried on the smoky air

I know that spring and summer have never produced

A fragrance quite as sweet.

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