Aged nine it did not take a lot of time for boredom to set in when out on a fishing trip on the Lough Mourne with my father. The patience required for the trout to bite alluded me at the time, in what now looking back, was a beautiful wooded setting close to my home town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. I was drawn back to those times recently when out on one of my frequent dog walks. I was watching Briar, my six-month-old Springer spaniel puppy running free among the woods on the Wiltshire plain set above the beautiful Vale of Pewsey.
I was wondering when was the last time I had felt as energetic and wanting to run at that pace for the sheer joy and hell of it? Then I thought back to those fishing trips where I would disappear away from the water’s edge and head up into the dense woods. Just as Briar the puppy had been doing, inventing games in my head to play on my own. One of them was running full on, as I thought at the time, like Hawkeye in the “Last of the Mohicans”. Full of fun and health, just running and skipping between the trees for the sheer love of it. Lost in a world of my own, seemingly on a different plane, losing contact with the ground at points through the speed and agility of movement.
In my late teens, I would feel that lightness and almost floating sensation again when I moved to England to train and play Badminton at a semi- professional International level. That occasional feeling in a game, both of all the long hard hours of training mentally and physically coming together in one sublime set of movement and strokes. That ability to glide across the court, jump to new heights to smash the shuttle with effortless ease, creating an adrenalin buzz that would last many hours and take a long time to come down from.
Fleeting times that these were, I would not have missed them for the world; surely this was a type of drug, not just an endorphin rush, but my own private little narcotic. After sport, at that level of fitness as many top class sports people will attest, the drop down after you stop playing at that level can be hard. To substitute that sensation or moment is a challenge and one that most never do replace and have to live with that acceptance. I can see here where the temptation of taking a drug might creep in to sustain that level of feeling and performance for just a little bit longer.
Luckily in my late thirties, it came to me again. This time as an entrepreneur, a different type of full on existence, some say 24/7 in the whirl of building a technology start-up in the Dotcom era. Based in Silicon Valley California, seven weeks there and 3 weeks back in the UK for over 2 years, a full on adrenalin spree, pushing what turned out to be a successful company into the global market. Again the theme of competition, but less about fitness and more about the resilience of mind and body. Pushing harder than other killer players to win. When you do, the euphoria engulfs and surrounds you again on a very similar level, that floating feeling comes back.
I say luckily, but as I often say to young entrepreneurs starting out on the start-up path having built five companies myself over 25 years. There is only one certainty, at the end of the run, you will be sat in a corner exhausted and in tears. This will be because you have either just sold the company and won the game, or alternatively and more likely have lost the lot. Coming back from both scenarios is equally challenging, just different, surprisingly.
As I enter my sixtieth year, I have returned to the badminton after 22 years retired from playing, never having been on a court in anger in all that time. I was not setting out to recapture that feeling of exhilaration again, that would be foolish. But I had been back to the gym for the best part of two years and strangely as I saw it, was as fit as I probably had been in a decade. I had promised myself I would return to the badminton one day when I could play it socially and not mind losing or at least not mind as much as I used to. I had thought after my sixtieth birthday, having gained my senior railcard would be the considered time. But prompted by my current fitness and also thinking you never know what is round the next corner, I signed up for the winter season.
I was out drinking recently with a friend of mine in London; we were coming up the steep escalator at the Angel Tube station. Now I am giving him ten years but we were both moving at pace and we were chatting away as we do about a range of topical subjects. I enquired about his health, a throwaway line as I make it seem, but I am always keen to know my friends and their families are OK. Especially male friends who as we know rarely visit the doctor until too late and are hesitant about discussing these areas.
Anyway, I think he was surprised, but used the term robust to describe how he felt and I thought yes that is the word, as we get a little further down the track, we need to feel robust and able to deal with the hustle and bustle of today’s fast changing world. Those of us lucky enough to have good health and this does seem to be the luck of the draw, should relish that particular high. I have just been reading “The Triumphs of Experience” by George E Vaillant this is the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken. The bottom line there being that our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become even more fulfilling than before.
This, of course, goes against conventional thinking, that in particular, men get set in their ways “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. But this ability to reinvent oneself at any age is there and much needed given modern demands of innovation and the technological impact on our lives. Those moments of joy, ecstasies, floating whatever way we wish to describe them, are all possible throughout life. I am certainly looking forward to creating more magic, using my own drug of choice on the next stage of life’s adventure.
Some things you just take for granted. Me being able to sing was one. When I was young I was one of those kids that used to get up and sing in front of my parents friends to entertain them. When I was in High School I was chosen to be part of an exclusive group of singers to perform madrigals. For a couple of years a dozen of us would go 'on tour' to Spain or Germany to perform in secondary schools in front of kids our own age. I loved singing those medieval songs almost as much as the mischief I made on those school trips. I remember more than one occasion, stripping off my horrible costume, a tartan floor length A-line skirt and matching waistcoat straight after a concert, and climbing out the hostel window with my friend Laurie so we could go in search of the young men who had come to see us perform.
At University I was rejected from singing with the school’s jazz band because I wasn't doing a music degree and that was the criteria for anyone who wanted to sing with the group. And in my twenties I did lots of session singing, eventually rejoining Laurie and her sister to perform complicated three part harmonies that Laurie had devised as the band ‘The Dirty Blondes.’ We had a blast, singing at various pubs and clubs where I’m sure nobody really knew what to make of three twenty-something young women singing Andrew Sisters and Rogers & Hammerstein tunes when punk was all the rage.
By my late twenties I’d moved on, teaming up with a pianist where we would perform jazz standards for hours in tiny wine bars across the city. Singing and music was in my blood. My mother had sung on the radio as a child. My uncle played drums for Janis Joplin (whom I met when I was 6) and a distant cousin was Stan Getz.
In 1988 I met my husband who was not musical but was a total music geek and photojournalist. Although he was obsessed with music, he could never understand why I would want to sing in some half empty wine bar all evening for the price of a decent steak. So I stopped singing except for humming along to tunes on the radio or a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald record. I gave birth to a couple of kids, my youngest of whom also inherited the family’s musical gene, and put my own singing years behind me.
It took a trip to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, and a good ten years into my marriage, to re-awaken my voice. I’d gone there with a man with whom I’d been having a long distance affair. He was a born and bred New Yorker and, being August, he suggested we spend a week there to get away from the heat of the city. The place was populated almost exclusively with gay men, so much so that we quickly got a reputation as the only straight people on the Island. It was Friday night when we popped into a piano bar. One after another, guys got up to perform show tunes or jazz standards. They were mostly buff, young men who were taking a break from a Broadway show and so the bar had been set pretty high for me. I hadn’t sung for over a decade but I’d told my lover enough that he knew that with enough provocation, I’d want to have a go.
I’ll never forget that night, I went up to the pianist and said, “My Funny Valentine. Key of G.” He started playing and all those years of being silent just fell away. Suddenly the room grew quiet. When I’d finished, I went to sit down and lots of guys came up to me and asked me where I performed in the city so they could hear me sing again. “I don’t perform,” I said. “I haven’t sung for a decade.” I started to cry. I suppose I felt cheated, that I’d stopped doing something I loved so much, just because my husband thought it was a bit silly. Although I still didn’t return to singing despite feeling validated that evening.
Then the menopause arrived, and along with hot flushes and sleepless nights, I lost my singing voice. When I tried to sing to songs on the radio, all that came out was a strange and unfamiliar croaky sound. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and I couldn’t find my way around a tune. I grieved the loss of my voice much more than my sex drive or my waistline. Singing was just so much a part of me, I just never thought there would be a time when it was something I could no longer do. I stopped singing along to the radio because it was just too painful and derived pleasure listening on the sly to my youngest son and his beautiful, soulful voice as he sang along to R&B songs in his bedroom.
Over the last year I decided to try something new, I dropped down an octave, sounding more like Barry White than Barbara Streisand. I wasn’t ready to let go of the singer in me and discovered I could still carry a tune despite not being able to hit the high notes,
Recently my friend invited me to a burlesque karaoke night. I didn’t know what to expect but when they passed the book of songs around, I worked out that it wasn’t the burlesque performers who would be singing along to the backing track, it was the audience. After a drink, I decided to have a go. I picked my signature tune and one that I’d sung with the Dirty Blondes thirty years earlier - Fever. I dropped the song by an octave and, recalling that evening in the piano bar in Cherry Grove; I could feel the room go quiet. After I’d finished, a few people came up and told me how good I sounded. At the end of the night, I got back on stage (at the audience’s request) and sang another song. I felt transported back in time, only this time with my new, different voice.
That’s the thing about getting older. It’s about acceptance and celebrating that transition. I won’t lie. It’s been hard getting used to not being able be sing like I used to, but hey - I can still make a room go quiet. And I have a new voice. That is something to relish.
How do you remember this heady AofA 12 months?
Suzanne: I feel like someone floored the accelerator pedal. It has been a whirlwind of a year. The Arts Council grant, the flamboyant and fabulous bus tour, refreshing the website, starting the Facebook group, the hot tub talks. We did much more than I would have thought possible.
Rose: In fact, I came back from Cuba and Suzanne told me that AofA had been awarded an ACE grant, so we threw ourselves in doing what we said we were going to do for that. The Death Dinner, the Taboo Night at Vout-o-renees, and finally the Flamboyant Bus Tour of London. And then the screening of the film Death Dinner and then the Flamboyant Subway Tour in NYC. It’s been non-stop and brilliant to do.
Also the quality of the articles that have come into the online magazine. It has been a rich experience in terms of cajoling gently people into doing pieces, and witnessing the courageous, often revealing results. I really feel passionately about a fierce sort of writing where the writers dare to be raw and honest and reflective about their lives. A big thank you to all the contributors this year.
What have the spectacular parts of the year been?
Suzanne: The fabulous and flamboyant bus tour felt like a turning point. I’ll just never forget the sight of so many wonderfully dressed women and men walking through Sloane Square to make their way onto the bus. It was just magical. So many new friendships were forged on that day, so many great conversations, it was very special.
The Death Dinner was a humongous undertaking but seeing the final film and the viewers reaction to it made it worthwhile. My wish is that we can find a distributor to help us reach as many people as possible with it. It feels like a very important film.
Starting the Facebook group and seeing the level of engagement on it is what keeps me going. It has been a steep learning curve but an exciting one.
Rose: For me, the coming together of the Death Dinner was really momentous, having the Dissenter’s Chapel for the dinner, gathering ten colourful characters from the Death World ie a mortician, a soul midwife and so many more. And the fact that it was filmed by my son and his team, and that abundant feast was provided by an old friend who also participated because of her own intimate relationship with death made it all seem so close and important. For me it’s important that we have made a film out of it as well and hopefully we’ll find ways to screen it in different places around the country, festivals etc with Q & As.
I loved that we thought of the idea for the Flamboyant Bus Tour when we were waiting to get into the chapel one day. Suzanne and I have a way of organically making things happen and bouncing off one another in a fulsome way. We had no idea that so many people would come in such outrageous outfits worn with such boldness. There was a brilliant buzz on that bus of like-minded people finding each other and then they have kept in touch.
For me, so much of AofA is about forming a tribe of people who want to rebel against stereotypical ageing with gusto and grace. This has started to happen.
Go on indulge yourselves with a few more detailed memories?
Suzanne: The hot tub talks were alot of fun. I loved the one we did on Style with Johnny Blue Eyes, Pasha DuPont and Caroline Sinclair. Often it was the conversations we had after we stopped filming that were the most interesting and that was certainly the case on that evening. Wow is all I can say!
Our trip to NYC, our Subway Parade and subsequently having dinner with Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks. I really enjoyed that trip and showing you around. It was great fun.
Rose: Oh that’s funny that you mentioned them now, that’s just what I was thinking. The Hot Tub Mini Salons were brilliant. They were intimate and relaxed and I didn’t worry at all about doing them. I loved the one about Death because it felt so daring and intimate at the same time. It had a softness to it in the way we were talking and what we were talking about. I’ve love to get these funded as regular ongoing events.
Oh and I really enjoyed the Tantra one because we had a male sex worker, Seani Love who is doing a very different type of sexuality work with women, meeting them on a level that they may not have been met on before. And Monique Roffey and I doing readings from The Tryst, her recent erotic novel and from Tantric Goddess, my poetry pamphlet. It all felt so relaxed. That’s the key aspect to the all-mighty Hot Tub experience.
What has worked between you both?
Suzanne: We’re both doers! And people who enjoy doing different things. Rose is definitely the easiest partner I’ve had in terms of a working relationship. We’ve had our differences in approach over the year but have always been able to resolve them in a way that made us both happy. Very grown up! I’ve appreciated our frank discussions and the way that we just get on with things. It’s rare to find a partner like this and I’ve really loved working with her.
Rose: Yes, our mutual directness. We don’t spend much time pontificating or procrastinating, we just get on with it and trust the other will too. I concur that Suzanne is the easiest partner I’ve ever had in the work sphere. She’s very dependable and practical in a way that I am often not. She believed that we would get the ACE grant and we did. That self-belief has been very important in the evolution of AofA, as has Suzanne embrace-all philosophy of living. She’s very generous in the way she looks at life. We have had differences this year and we have been able to talk frankly and choose a mature pathway through. Suzanne is also very supportive of other people’s input and ideas. She’s a collaborator.
Tell us about the Arts Council Grant?
Suzanne: It was my first attempt at applying for a grant. I don’t really think Rose or myself knew what we were getting ourselves into. Rose didn’t actually believe we’d get it. It took a couple of attempts before we secured the money, which was to put on three events around Style, Taboos and Death. We both went out of our way to use the money wisely and frugally. I think one of the advantages of our age is that we have access to an enormous network of super talented people who mainly volunteered their services. I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved with limited resources although, in retrospect, I probably would have put on two and not three events which would have enabled us to earn a project management fee that was in line with the amount of time we both put in. Let’s just say, it was very satisfying from an artistic point of view but I probably would have earned more working the till at Sainsbury’s!
Rose: Hilarious. I totally relished this time. And Suzanne’s determination was key here. In terms of getting the funding. We did a lot!! I loved thinking up ideas and actually being able to make them happen. There was one Saturday were I was doing a walk (for a new book) in Roman London and Suzanne dedicated herself to finding some leopard skin fabric to be a backdrop for the Momento Mori frame!! It was a vital extra. Suzanne put herself out to get it. Yes, the creative community that we tapped into and were able to pay – in a small way – was simply marvelous – from poets to writers to actors – and I hope we can do more with them in the future.
And the FB Live Salons?
Suzanne: It started as a bit of a lark that then turned into something. I think we had over 6k views for our Hot Tub talk on Sex. It’s amazing the effect that sitting in very hot water can have on someone’s personality. There were times I really thought that some of the bigger characters would end up taking over the talk but once in the water, they calmed right down! From a technical point of view I would have liked to have filmed them differently. And my crappy wi-fi didn’t help either! I’d definitely like to carry on with the Hot Tub Talks and I’m hoping some nice, geeky person comes out of the woodwork to assist in improving the quality. Finding a sponsor for them would be great too.
Rose: Yes, I agree with finding a way to carry on here. Also, take the Hot Tub Salon idea to festivals. It could be some sort of TV channel too.
It was wonderful having an array of different characters in that tub!!
And the Business Academy?
Suzanne: It’s my passion. I feel that the biggest challenge we have as older people is remaining valued in society and a lot of that comes down to being able to support ourselves financially. Older people are not being upskilled and we have a huge pool of talent from which to draw upon that is just being ignored. I started a tech business a few years ago and it struck me that I was nearly always the oldest person at the networking events I attended on a regular basis. It’s very lonely being that person, not having any support, especially when you’re starting a new business. I want to change that and working with Yvonne is the start of something that I feel has huge potential.
Rose: Totally Suzanne and Yvonne’s baby. And I can see there is a great need for it as people get older.
And the FB Group?
Suzanne: LOL. It was an idea suggested to me by a guy named Vin Clancy running an Internet marketing course which I attended at the beginning of the summer. “All you need is a FB group,” he said, casually. “It will take you an hour a day and you’ll form a community.” So, off I trotted, doing exactly what he said. Only, of course, what I discovered is that I spend most of the day on FB, engaging with members of the group in some way. I absolutely love it. So many interesting conversations, points of view, people making new connections with others from all over the world. It’s amazing when I think about it. I do feel we are getting to the point where all the work doesn’t have to fall on me and I can see there are other key members now taking an active role in the group, which is great.
Rose: It was been brilliant to witness the flourishing of the FB page and Suzanne’s dedication to growing it, and also providing material for engaging dialogue as well as wit, fun and irreverence. I think it has been vital with regards to the community feeling and momentum. Questions can be asked, information garnered and events supported. Yes, I agree it’s important to spread this work now.
Do you feel like you have formed an AofA community?
Suzanne: 100%. We’ve still got a long way to go but we’re getting there. I’ve been encouraged by so many people telling me how much they get out of being in the group, how it has helped them make new friends. I think there’s more we can be doing on the professional/business side to support people and I’m working on that. The lifestyle side is great, the events, hot tub talks, the website but I think we could be campaigning. The bigger the group gets, the bigger our voice. I think it’s important that we have our seat at the table when it comes to talking about bigger issues affecting older people.
Rose: The FB group is lively in a way that reflects how we aim to grow older. There is sparkiness at the same time as compassion. I agree re campaigning. I enjoy witnessing others connecting in this community and then the offshoots. Recently, we did our version of Pina Bausch’s Nelken Line on a pier near the Oxo Tower in London, over 20 people turned up early on a Saturday morning and danced. It was so uplifting and now we have a film on the PB Foundation’s website. There is a feeling that anything is possible, which is echoed in the way we want to live as we get older.
Now you’re a Social Enterprise what will that mean?
Suzanne: Forming a company always comes with its share of responsibilities but it also provides us with more opportunities. And, from a funding point of view, there are grants available and ways of crowdfunding that mean that we can start to become sustainable. I’ve invested nearly £10k of my own savings over the past two years and I’m not in a position to be able to continue to do that so we need to find a way to support what we’re doing and create value from it. I know we can and we will.
And obviously, it has been a learning curve?
Suzanne: Yes and a steep one. Applying for grants, what it means to run a social enterprise, running a Facebook group. These were all things I had no knowledge of until this year. Every day I look at the whiteboard in my living room and see a whole list of new things I have to do and learn about!
Rose: We started AofA without any concrete ideas of what we were doing, beyond a mission statement to grow old differently and provide a support around this for others. I have been editing the online magazine for almost two years now and towards the end of this year, my priorities have changed. It is unpaid work and now I want to a few other things. Suzanne has been brilliant in terms of investing her own money in the AofA, and now we’ll have to see what funding comes in…
I really have been longing for time to write poetry and my new book so I am intending to change my relationship with AofA in that I will no longer edit and gather in article, but instead will focus on special projects for us instead. I hope to develop the Death Dinner in terms of distribution and screenings, other poetry events, the Hot Tub salons and festival visits.
Is there anything you would change in terms of what you’ve done?
Suzanne: We’re coming up to our second year since establishing the website and I know from previous experience with other organisations I have run, that it takes that long to work stuff out. If I’d known how important the Facebook group was going to be, I probably would have started one earlier. I still can’t work out how to drive traffic to the website which is chock full of inspirational articles and that bothers me. I know that it’s a great online magazine, looks great and I want more people to check it out!
Rose: Not really, it’s been an organic process and we’ve just been adapting as we’ve gone along. I do hope too that a way can be found to garner more readers to the brilliant new website and online magazine.
How do you see the future for AofA?
Suzanne: I see 2018 as the year of work and when a lot of the ideas that I’ve had, particularly around the Business Academy come to fruition. We’re looking at having a monthly social event and I can see that building into something that everyone looks forward to and gets bigger and bigger. I think that we can become the umbrella organization for lots of other groups, a resource that people can go to for help or advice, the place for fun activities. I think there is space for us to be that and for a new voice around ageing.
Rose: I see 2018 as the year when AofA gets grounded in a financial and pragmatic sense. Other members will come forth – and are already – to support Suzanne in her quest to spread the pro-age revolution. It’s already on track.
Recently, somebody asked how I found my way to The Fields of Kindness. This is, as much as it can be, my reply.
I was first diagnosed at thirteen, and even though I grew up (eventually) and became a psychotherapist, I was particularly blinded to my own baseline and lifelong depression.
Through the prism of hindsight, I can see chapters like hills gently rolling out my little life. Childhood ended when I was sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. After that came what I call the drug years, or the lost years. They certainly were that. During those sixteen years, aged fourteen to thirty, I missed a few things. The vortex of addiction is a particularly narrow tunnel. The horrors of Thatcherism largely passed me by. I missed out on two opportunities to get Australian citizenship, just by showing up at an amnesty with my passport. I threw away a woman who loved me when she asked me to choose between her and the drugs.
Having taken myself to the very edge of the human world, I defied the odds and stayed alive. A third chapter opened. I was wretched and wrecked and it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to stumble back into the realms of the living.
Not in a Hollywood whoosh, but slowly and blindly little bits and pieces started to move, like metal filings pulled toward Home.
While in Rehab I’d been taught to go to Narcotics Anonymous, so that’s what I did. In the meeting rooms, some were talking about going to therapy, so I did that too. Looking back, I can see more clearly, just how ravaged I was. Commitment to drugs will take everything a person is or can be, and I had utterly given myself up to it. I had no capacity for self-reflection. I didn’t know what was going on inside me, or around me. I didn’t know that I was managing self-hatred as big as the world, the only way I knew how. I was held together by a few Leonard Cohen songs and a taste of something elusive I sometimes found on the MDA fueled dance floors with the gay men.
Coming out of that, almost dead but not quite, after multiple suicide attempts and all manner of unlikely failures at dying, there wasn’t much left. I’m taking a moment to look back at her now, from thirty years on down the track and it makes me wince. I don’t quite understand how I moved from there to anywhere.
Only possible, I think, because of the 12 Step Fellowship. Thank you Narcotics Anonymous, first in Sydney and then in London, for holding me. It was basic stuff. Go to a meeting every day. Or even two. If it gets bad enough, go to a third. Don’t use. Get a sponsor. Keep It Simple Sweetheart was KISS. The way we held hands at the end of meetings and said the Serenity Prayer.
I stayed drug and alcohol free and used the 12-step formula for six years. It was, to paraphrase Mr. Cohen, a Temple where they told me what to do. It was my first experience of being received. I was welcome and understood. I was offered some guidance, but not in a top down kind of way… I kept hearing versions of my own story. I got a taste of resonance and I liked it.
I didn’t know I couldn’t think, or that I couldn’t see myself at all. I went to therapy and slowly began to translate some narrative meaning. The story of me started to make sense. I was immensely moved, as I came into focus, not only by my desperation and suffering, but by the processes of self-rescue, and the intimacy of psychotherapy itself. I found myself training without ever having asked myself if I wanted to be a therapist. Some years later when I did stop to ask that question, I found the answer was yes.
As for depression and me… now that it’s achingly simple, I have to concentrate and focus to remember the wracking labour pains.
I didn’t like the word Depression in relation to me. It felt like a judgement and a terrible failure. I should have worked it through or healed it. Or, God help me, translated it. I did so much cathartic bodywork and was always disappointed not to get rid of my heavy. I worked like a dog with a bone… I did family constellations, all manner of group therapy, shamanic healing, rituals, prayers, plant medicine, laying on the couch three times a week, periodic (secret) antidepressants and then Tantra and 5Rythms dance.
Every single undertaking gave me succour. I was very hungry. If I gaze back at all my endeavors, I feel touched by my appetite and longing to be healed and whole, even as I was partially trapped in my own prescription for that. I was nourished, though. I ate a lot of light. I found a sense of place, or the beginning of one. I met with my own homelessness and started to welcome grief.
What did for me, was that no matter how much light I ate, and how much good medicine nourished me, I was still waking up each day with the weight of the world on my chest and the taste of defeat in my mouth. I didn’t even want to call that depression, which is a little bit daft for an experienced psychotherapist, but hey.
The worst symptom of depression is the relentless narrative voice. A violent and unforgiving self-rap. The head-fuckery of it. The impossibility. The fact that it is never, ever going to be okay, to be here like This.
I moved through life and life moved through me. Sometimes with more ease and sometimes with less, but never free from the weight of myself. Never able to make myself well in the way I had in mind and vision.
Something happened. After all the fighting, the twisting and spinning in the wind, and after every trick in the book was exhausted, there was just nowhere left to go, so I fell. It was a palpable fall. My system gave up and I lost my grip on it all. It was a relief.
I didn’t know where I’d landed for quite a while, but when I started to get my bearings, postcardsfromthewindowledge.com was born. I didn’t know much, but for the first time, that didn’t seem to matter. It seemed I had fallen, not from Grace, but directly into it.
This is my first Postcard from the window-ledge and I called it: Forgiveness.
There is a wide divide
between an idea of me in my life
and the truth
and I have tried and tied
myself in knots
with medicine and meditation
to make a better fit
and rearrange the pieces into
much more satisfactory shape
I did not understand why I kept failing
and falling, or see the hopeless, helpless
circles and cul-de-sacs of trying to make
a brand new cut out of old cloth.
I had to unlearn the tyranny of healing
and find my own
that didn’t have so much to say
about healing and transformation
rebirth and renewal
and especially about surrender
oh, how I had to stop trying to surrender right
the pitch perfect surrender
like chasing an impossible orgasm
Somewhere between a daughter being born and a sister dying
I have found that I can love life
and long for death, at the same time
that both are true and I am as full of tenderness
as of despair.
The last frontier was about my attachment to an idea of episodic depression rather than the baseline kind. If I was going to be a member of the depressed tribe, I really wanted to believe in, on and off, good and bad, in and out, alive and dead… you get the picture. I wanted to have episodes of depression, in between which I could be well, wide open, productive and even happy or joyful. This was quite a showdown. The truth is that I’m not an episodic depressive, though I have forced myself into that construct on occasion. It has been the source of so much suffering. Finding in myself a welcome state of well-being, I couldn’t ever let that be in co-existence with the bleakness in my bones.
Depression Is My Home Address. It just is. Of course, I am thoughtful about this. Nature and nurture, generational mental health and all manner of self-diagnosis. But this thing called depression, the sheer weight of it, and its particular quality of darkness, have always been with me. Having spent so much of my life trying to get rid of myself, it feels so good to stop.
When I fell, I landed in The Fields of Kindness. I don’t really know how that happened, but suspect it could only happen in that tiny beat of surrender. In that precious moment when I couldn’t go on and gave up on everything, the thing that was trying to happen, could.
These fields were here all the time, just waiting for me. I have to tell you though, that they are not warm and fuzzy fields. They exist in an elemental world, rather than a Disney film. The wild winds blow in and the grass often tastes of salt. These fields though, they are so kind and so damned inclusive.
Radical simplicity: it is just This, over and over, breath by breath. I was here all the time. And depressed without the internalised voices making it wrong, over and over, is a much simpler kettle of fish. Embodied rocks, laboured breath, the darkest, almost starless night sky, and all the sighing and moaning that living with a dog and a cat forgives. What if there’s nowhere to run from? Or anyone else to try and be? What if there is nothing to fix?
Sometimes I can’t work out if my little life got smaller, while knowing for sure that spaciousness happened. I’m always saying, thank you, Life, and loving the absurdity of having so much gratitude for a life I also long to be done with and out of.
If I have anything to contribute to the dialogue about depression, it’s to do with compassion, kindness and welcome. What if there really is nothing to fix? I know it’s controversial and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but absolutely nothing else worked until I put out the welcome mat.
I have to tend to that mat, pick it up and bash it against the wall once a week, and brush off the debris. I reckon it’s a lifelong practice of remembering to welcome the one I’m with and keep giving myself up to This, especially when This is not what I had in mind or plan.
This week I have been spending time contemplating my own relationship with flamboyance; Am I flamboyant enough to attend an event for ‘Seriously Flamboyant People’ I ask myself? In order to address this I thought I would begin with the
The Oxford Dictionary definition of Flamboyant, an adjective meaning:
- (Of a person or their behaviour) tending to attract attention because of their exuberance, confidence, and stylishness.
- Bright, colourful, and very noticeable - ‘a flamboyant bow tie’
Well I can do bright, colourful and noticeable some days. On those days when I wake up wanting to proclaim my positive exuberance to the rest of the world, or at least my fellow tube travellers, I will wear loud, outrageous clashing tones and revel in the attention. My eccentricity makes me all sorts of friends. But there are also mornings when the last thing I desire is high-visibility, does that mean that when I dress in Navy-Blue I am not being Flamboyant? Confidence I can manage only flittingly, exuberance after a glass of wine and I like to think of myself as subtly-stylish.
Self-differentiation is the process of psychologically distancing oneself from membership of one’s age group, and/or focusing on aspects of one’s self-concept that are different from the general consensus of how we should behave. I want to self-differentiate in my own way which will vary depending on how I feel when I stand before my clothes each morning. I may not want to look outrageously-flamboyant every day. However I want to feel flamboyantly-outrageous every day.
For me that is about viewing the world as full of opportunity, as making new connections, as being creative; sometimes it means I will act in a disgracefully extravert manner, with colourful language to match my gold-boots. However I can be flamboyant in my head without leaving my flat or getting out of my pyjamas. Is it possible that I can maintain the joy that flamboyance implies without informing the whole of London? Can I cultivate internal flamboyance? And what would that feel like?
I am fifty-two and I don’t have any intention of succumbing to Age Based Stereotype Threat (ABST), a theoretical viewpoint that states an individual feels threat when facing a situation that puts them at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Lamont,Swift, & Abrams,2015). So in other words, I’m not about to start dressing in an age appropriate manner just to fit in with ageist stereotypes. But I’m not always in the right emotional place to want to swing to the opposite sartorial spectrum and become an ‘Advanced Style’ advocate; I Love Ari Seth Cohen’s colourful characters, I just couldn’t carry it off personally.
‘You can’t challenge bias unless you are aware of it, and everyone is biased some of the time.... Consciousness-raising is a tool that uses the power of personal experience to unpack unconscious prejudices’ (Applewhite 2015)
Connecting with positive-aging-consciousness-raising groups, such as Advantages of Age, remind me of the gender politics of the 1970s and 1980s when I enjoyed becoming a feminist and bonding with subcultures through the way we dressed, as well as shared ideologies. I knew I was a real feminist because I wore dungarees, just as I knew I was a baby-punk because I had blue hair. Is there a dress-code for subverting the aging narrative? Does dressing against the ‘norm’, wearing flamboyance, signify our intention to develop a way for ‘older’ people to acknowledge their own internalized ageist prejudice and thereby transcend it? What if I don’t want to toe-the-line with this new dress-code?
Groups are able to offer safe spaces for the first steps of people’s probing the myths and stereotypes that they have internalized consciously or unconsciously over a lifetime. But does being part of this new positive aging agenda come with its own code of conformity? Can we develop an all-inclusive ‘club’ that is truly diverse, a place where it is encouraged to express your internal flamboyance without being coerced to step too far outside your sartorial comfort zone?
So my concern is can I belong without being outwardly flamboyant? How can I balance my desire to be accepted whilst holding on to my own style, which can veer towards the normal-boring end of the scale, and signify my flamboyant mindset?
I have suddenly realised this is an on-going dilemma for me, I have been here before. I wonder if it is my lack of commitment to a cause, or my insecurity. I have always wanted to be in the cool-gang, but find myself hanging around on the outskirts, a flamboyant imposter in norm-core clothing.
So if you see me looking less than flamboyant please try to see beyond my sensible skirt; Inside I have a truly radical flamboyant heart that occasionally plucks up courage to wear Gold boots.
Pilgrimage - originally a journey to the shrine of a saint or holy person, undertaken alone or in the company (think the Canterbury Tales) to give thanks, worship, ask them for something or just taking the time to work things out at a turning point in life. Some hardship is usually involved - travelling on foot for example - and the separation from everyday life is an important element. The journey itself - or the spirit in which it is undertaken - is as meaningful as arrival at the destination.
The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostella was to visit the tomb of St James, one of the 12 apostles, who is said to have journeyed to Spain to preach the gospel. In the last 30 years, this has become a very popular pilgrimage largely due to the Council of Europe in 1987 declaring it as the first European cultural route. Consequently certain parts of the route - particularly the Camino Frances in Spain - have become the pedestrian equivalent of a pilgrim motorway.
July 2016. A hilltop basilica filled with light, a sacred spot in fecund Burgundy. My first thoughts of retirement - letting go of one (long) stage of my life and a starting point for the next. I decide I will walk to Santiago de Compostela. My wife objects to me calling this a ‘pilgrimage’. Catholic by upbringing but certainly not by inclination. It’s just a long walk, she insists.
Only two fixtures in an otherwise gossamer plan. The start point: Vezelay. The start date: 21 June 2017. My 61st birthday. The summer solstice, when a pathway of light runs down the centre of the nave of the basilica (those clever medieval builders). But how long will I take? And how far will I walk? Do I go it alone or invite others to join me along the way? Does anyone believe I will really do this? Do I?
First step. Negotiate terms. We agree I’ll take one month, with a plan to meet and walk together somewhere towards the end of that period. Next step. Plot the route, my route, on an old road map of France. I underline in red, the towns I will pass through. I pin the map on my wall so I can see it, remind myself that it’s real. I order my pilgrims’ guide book. I get my credential, my pilgrim passport. A few steps further. My retirement date slips from the end of April to the end of May. But I will hold to my schedule.
20 June 2017. I’m packed and ready to go. A sense of dislocation, unreality, before leaving home. A send-off dinner in the garden with my family. I imagine they think I may never return. A broken night and an early start the next morning. New walking shoes and unfamiliar weight of the rucksack on my back. I decide to leave my carved stick at home, not sure if I can get it through security. I’ll find another along the way.
At Vezelay station, I have my first encounter with another pilgrim. We share a taxi into town. The taxi driver complains about the heatwave. It’s 36 degrees, not good for walking. I’m lodging at the Centre de la Madeleine, my first pilgrim hostel. This is all very new to me. I’m bewildered, and very hot. As I register with the hostelier, I accept the offer of a pilgrim blessing the next morning in the basilica. Casually.
I sleep badly and wake before dawn. Just in time I get to the basilica. Two other pilgrims are there for the blessing. Mark, a tall bearded American who appears to have fallen out of the sky. And Helios, a young man wearing a flat cap and a beatific smile who has walked all the way from Aachen. I am transported by the ritual, the transcendent ancient chants. The blessing is heartfelt and heartening. I leave with a copy of Luke’s Gospel and tears streaming down my face. My journey has begun.
The first day of walking is tough. I’m not prepared for the heat. By mid-afternoon, I collapse under a tree outside a cemetery where there is a water tap. My head is pounding and I have another 5 km before I reach my lodgings. I have no energy or will to move. But I have found myself a stick, a piece of coppiced hazel. It’s pleasingly crooked and I start to carve some marks on it. Eventually, I summon the energy to get up and stagger on. I arrive at my lodgings, exhausted and slightly delirious.
On my third day, I walk 31 km in sultry weather and mostly on tarmac. Too soon to be so ambitious. I lodge with Claude and Bernard on the outskirts of Nevers. Claude sends me to the pharmacy to have a couple of ticks removed from my leg, hopefully averting Lyme’s disease. Next day on my way into town to visit the cathedral, a Moroccan shopkeeper looks at my piece of hazel. ‘This is the stick Moses used to part the Red Sea.’ Later, I find myself in a side chapel called ‘La Chapelle du Passage de la Mer Rouge’. How do these things work, I wonder?
I cross the bridge over the Loire. It feels significant, a passage pilgrims have made through the ages. The weather gets cooler. I am heading into rural France. I start to notice things. Place names that make me laugh. The daily yellow post vans. Carefully tended vegetable patches. Barking dogs in every back yard – why so many? Romanesque churches, elegant and almost Protestant in their simplicity. The depressing frequency of derelict and abandoned houses in the villages. And the speed of traffic – why is everyone in such a rush?
Gradually I’m finding my own rhythm and I feel well in my body, like a sturdy little pony. But my legs and feet are aching. I get my first blisters and chafing in my arse. I start to develop a small love affair with French pharmacies. After my first week of walking, I take a day off and stay in Chateaumeillant, once a Gaulish settlement and Mediolanum, now just a provincial town with a small museum. My lodging is a mobile home in the vegetable garden. I think I could grow roots, stay a while.
I have a sense of slipping out of time and entering into an altered state. My thinking mind is on vacation. Not much in the way of concentrated or systematic thought. Half thoughts, thoughts for nought, wisps that pass against the backdrop of mind. Background noise, low static. Sometimes it gets in the way and I miss a turning, distracted, abstracted. Remembrances and fantasies. Ear-worms - tunes that are stuck in my head. As I walk I hum, sing out loud the bits of songs I can remember.
I’m alive to sights, sounds, and smells. The Wind in the hedgerows. Birdsong. Cloud patterns. Sunlight on fields. Fresh cut hay. Old green lanes, Roman roads, forgotten byways, hollow ways, scooped out tunneled tracks through the woods. Each day starts on an up, those first few steps. Twirling my stick, heading off down the road. For the first time in years, I feel free, in a sort of ecstasy. The joy of not knowing what comes next, where I will sleep at night. An adventure.
The road, walking, becomes my meditation. I feel connected to land, nature, spirit. A force that flows through everything. My intuition feels much sharper. In churches, I pray, clumsily because I can't find the right words, silently and out loud. Where the acoustics please me, I sing or whistle my own music. I understand these are sacred spaces. And so are the hedgerows. Which gods do you worship?
The Vezelay route is a solitary one. For the first two weeks, I meet no other pilgrims along the way. I’m happy in my own company. But solitude can feel like loneliness when I’m the only one sleeping in a hostel. One night I lodge with Paul, an elderly widower, in the damp, musty wing of his large house. After falling asleep, I wake up to torchlight and muffled sounds downstairs. I lie there for ages, frozen in fear, before dozing off again. Come morning - I realise that what I heard in the night was Paul laying out my breakfast. I feel foolish and a little ashamed.
Being alone for long periods, I get lost in myself. Imagination becomes more potent than reality. What might it be like to go feral, live in the wild? Naked, unaccommodated, instinctual. Walking through great silent woods, I expect any moment to stumble upon a writhing, orgiastic mass of bodies. Pan and Lilith hold sway here. Feverishly I make up lurid stories and scribble down notes in my journal. Is this how the devil tempted Christ in the wilderness? Is this how Mara tempted Siddhartha, the soon to Buddha? Am I also being tested?
I take another day off walking. A combination of blisters and the heat of the road has made my feet swell up painfully. I rest, v get a massage, leave offerings at a menhir. I meet Sylviane and Albane, grandmother and granddaughter walking together. It warms my heart to be with them. I start crossing paths with other pilgrims. Bernd, who has walking poles and a purposeful stride. Vanessa, who has lost her God. Patrick, who has written a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Bärbel, who wheels her tent behind her on a trolley. Mostly we don’t walk together, only meeting in the evenings. We are nodes on a line, pearls strung out on a long necklace.
Heading slowly south the landscape has been changing all the while. At walking pace, it’s subtle, details you wouldn’t notice flashing by in a car. Walnut gives way to chestnut, chestnut to fig. Cows become fewer, maize and sunflowers more prevalent. In the Dordogne, the countryside is still green. But the ground underfoot is harder, drier, rockier. I hear crickets for the first time. There is fruit in the hedgerows though not yet ripe. This is still deep country but there are more foreign registered cars and holiday homes.
I now feel as if I could walk forever. Come rain or shine, blisters or no. But soon, all too soon, my journey is coming to an end. I've lost a few kilos and I feel fitter than I have for ages. I've got a magnificent farmer's tan. I feel a fresh sense of purpose and identity. The plan to meet my wife and walk some of the ways with my daughter for the final few days is abandoned. Relief for all of us as the logistics are tricky, and the late insertion into such a personal journey even more so.
18 July. I arrive in Perigueux, my stopping point for now. A large town, busy with tourists. I feel the tug back into everyday time. A new sense of dislocation. Fear about reintegrating, settling down again. I'm going to miss so much of this. My companions who are continuing their journey to Santiago. The welcome relief of the pilgrim hostel at the end of the day. Conversations with strangers along the way. The friendliness and respect for those who make this journey. The simplicity of just walking, eating, sleeping.
The joy that has fuelled me along the way stays with me. This journey will continue. Ultreya!
Tom Morley, 63, used to be in Scritti Pollitti and is now a drummer/story teller who runs a team building company. Here he gives brilliantly frank answers to our questions.
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
WHAT IS YOUR AGE?
WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I run a teambuilding company, mainly using drums (we've got 300), harmony singing, storytelling and deeper personal development. I'm moving into keynote speaking.
WHAT IS IS LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?
Surprisingly much better than I imagined. I guess when I was seventeen this is what I imagined being 40 would be like. I sometimes walk into parties and think "Blimey! It's full of old people", and realise they are my contemporaries.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?
The knowledge that I've done stand-up comedy and got away with it. After that you can do anything!
WHAT ABOUT SEX?
I can satisfy my wife better (she's taught me) and I wish I'd learned more about such things when I was a younger man. I feel sorry for some of my ex-girlfriends.
I get on with people, generally around shared values and shared projects. I don't think I've said "Let's go for a drink" without some sort of agenda for 30 years.
HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?
Spiritually free, financially shackled. My work is all about setting people free so it rubs off on me, and they expect me to embody freedom.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
Walking the talk.
WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?
Movies on my Facebook Timeline about good people doing good stuff.
WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?
WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?
Into about a gazillion projects. I have the proof.
WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
I'll welcome it when it comes. I have some stuff to do first.
ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?
Yes, and I will never stop. I believe dreaming is the source of all important breakthroughs in human history.
WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?
At a BLACK TIE WHITE LIE event I organised the singing of "Happy Birthday" to three different people consecutively in the very centre of Waterloo Bridge, dressed as if we'd been up all night, swinging empty champagne bottles and playing African drums.
I should have known that something like this would happen. I know that my life operates in seven-year cycles and it was true that I had been wondering what was going to happen on the next stage of my journey as I hit 49. I just hadn’t seen this one coming.
I got fired from the job that I loved. I was bereft. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in this role that I had enjoyed. I threw myself into other activities and rebalanced my working life to take advantage of new opportunities, but I was rattled inside and my body was acting up. Problems with my teeth and gums erupted, a sure sign that all was not well in my inner world.
In the midst of this an old friend from Australia came to stay with me. ‘You need to do The Path of Love,’ she said. ‘What is it? I asked not unreasonably. ‘You don’t need to know…I’ll sign you up.’ - came the response.
Six weeks later, I found myself outside a country house retreat centre in Somerset and somewhat nervously registering for the course and handing over the course fee. I didn’t know (didn’t want to know) much about the process, but of course that part of me that resists change and totally prefers the comfort of the known was tugging at me and imploring me to drive back home to London.
As I stepped into the seven-day residential retreat, I felt a familiar mix of terror and excitement. Even though I do this work for a living - I am a psychotherapist - the prospect of stepping out from behind that convenient mask and showing up with all my fears, feelings and failings was daunting.
I was right to be daunted because what transpired as the process unfolded - was that I had somehow been guided to what must be the most challenging, terrifyingly beautiful and transformative pieces of group work in the world today. There was nowhere to hide. My customary bullshit wasn’t any use to me.
My fear is that if I show people who I really am and what truly happens inside me then I will be judged, rejected and even scorned. But what actually happened was the more I and the members of my group revealed the truth about ourselves to each other (and especially the dark bits) the more trust developed between us. The more that trust developed, the more able I felt to go deeper. To be able to stand in the truth of who I am and to be received with no judgment and with love and compassion was extraordinary.
Then there was my body. Like a lot of men, I have a somewhat distant relationship with the seven eighths of me that resides below my neck. Like a lot of men, I was brought up and educated to believe that my brain would be the organ of my salvation - the doorway to life satisfaction, wealth and learning. I was mistaken.
Over the seven days of the Path of Love, I learned that my body has wisdom of its own and of course had been my constant companion for the last 49 years. A lifetime of repressing emotions - a survival strategy learned at boarding school at eight years old - meant that a lot had been stored in my body. Powerful meditations involving intuitive movement and inspiring music allowed me to start releasing some of these feelings - I cried, I ranted, I prayed, I rejoiced.
Finally, I reached an ineffable place of such deep stillness and calm that I honestly felt ready to die. I remember thinking about my wife and children and how they would miss me, and I them…but the pain associated with that thought was so slight that it felt like I had been given a glimpse of a liminal space between life and death. It was a profound gift that has stayed with me to this day.
I was so impressed with the work and the people who delivered it that I applied to join their team and was accepted and trained. Over the last five years, I have facilitated and then led the Path of Love process. It challenges, excites and delights me, and I find it a privilege to accompany other people through their journeys of transformation…each person different…each path unique. There is still no room to hide, as the course leaders and everyone who works with us are constantly working on ourselves and showing up in truth and authenticity. How can we ask others to do this if we are not prepared to do it ourselves?
What I have discovered, and what I take away each time I lead this process, is that human beings are wired for connection and cooperation. We need each other. We need to share our inner fears, wounds and darkness with each other, and it brings us closer together. It creates bonds of trust, compassion and love. We need these things. Separation makes us sick, and sickness is all around us.
The first Path of Love to be run in London is March 1 – 8th 2018. More info www.pathretreats.com
Simon Matthews is a psychotherapist and Path of Love Leader.