Annie Sprinkle, a golden era porn star cum environmental activist, and her partner, Beth Stephens, a queer artist/activist, and professor, have always been all about sex, sharing their enthusiasm publically. Now, as ecosexuals, they’re skinny dipping for the environment. Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure that they directed and produced, is a documentary about water which conveys its message through the ecosexual gaze. Together, Sprinkle and Stephens, with their art, are shifting the metaphor “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.” They’ve married the Earth, Sky, Sea, Moon, Appalachian Mountains, the Sun, and other non-human entities in nine different countries. Experiencing nature (human and non-human) as sensual and erotic, they aim to make the conservation movement sexy, pleasurable, and diverse. Their partnership reflects a merging of concerns about the environment, broadening definitions of sexuality, and an expansion of radical feminist art.
From tree hugging to dirty sex—orgasmic mud baths for example—the ecosexual approach to battling climate change is more fun and maybe even more effective than mainstream, dry-mouthed techniques. Sprinkle and Stephens, the co-creators of the ecosexual movement, which teaches that humans aren’t separate from, but are part of nature, use ecosexuality as a platform for environmental discourse. “Ecosexuality is a new sexual identity, an environmental activist strategy, and an expanded concept of what sex is (and can be) in our culture. . . . What most ecosexuals have in common is a love, passion, and interest in the well-being of the Earth, and they find “nature” sensually pleasurable… .” Today they estimate 12,000 to 50,000 people identify as ecosexuals. The relationship between Annie and Beth, playful and sexual throughout, provides the medium to appreciate the erotic interplay between humans and nature embraced by ecosexuality. Their sensuality thrives in the watery milieus of Water Makes Us Wet.
The subject matter of the film is significant, yet there’s plenty of opportunities to smile and even laugh. Social issues are presented in a playful, performative and humorous way. Sprinkle and Stephens, are free spirits, which also characterizes the ecosexual movement. Working collaboratively with E.A.R.T.H. Lab, a nomadic institute situated in the University of Santa Cruz (UCSC) Arts Division with a mission to create new forms of environmental art, conduct research, develop theory, and produce happenings, Stephens, Sprinkle and their dog, Butch, embark on a performance art journey in their “E.A.R.T.H. Lab mobile Unit” around California, investigating the pleasures and politics of water. As viewers, we’re taken along for the ride. Sprinkle, about to turn 65 and be a full-on senior citizen, and Stephens, 58, in keeping with their past, briefly appear naked in the film, feeling that it was important to be naked older women countering a taboo.
This documentary is part of their film trilogy to raise awareness about the environment. In Goodbye Gauley Mountain—An Ecosexual Love Story (GGM) (distributed by Kino Lorber), they raise performance art hell in West Virginia to help save the region from mountaintop removal destruction, which climaxes with their wedding to the Appalachian Mountains.
A porn actress and pleasure activist in the 1970s and 1980s, Annie Sprinkle was a key player in the sex-positive feminist movement, her art projects a vehicle for promoting sex education and equal rights. Now, an ecosexual, she’s enlarged the scope of her efforts, approaching her mission with the enthusiasm with which she embraced her life as a porn star and pleasure activist. “My work is still very much about sex, and I’ve done work about sex for almost five decades. Just that now my ecosexuality and love for the Earth comes into play.”
Beth Stephens, her partner, and collaborator for eighteen years, realized her connection to nature growing up in West Virginia, spitting distance from Gauley Mountain. An interdisciplinary artist and activist, she’s explored themes of sexuality, gender, queerness, and feminism through art since the eighties. Currently, a professor, Chair of the UCSC Art Department, and founding director of the E.A.R.T.H. Lab, Stephens’ visual art, performance pieces, and films, have been shown extensively, nationally and internationally.
Initially, I didn’t take ecosexuality seriously, but I’ve learned it can be very serious and may be a surprisingly successful conduit to express crucial messages about the natural world. The environmental ethic suggests that survival requires a mutual relationship of respect and care between humans and the Earth. Who can argue with that? (See Sexecology.org)
“Why water?” I asked.
Living in California after their wedding to the Earth, the state was experiencing a severe drought.
“So not having water, being on water restrictions, and reading about places where over 100,000 people don’t have good drinking water, like the central valley in California, we got worried. We just love water. Plus we depend upon it for life.”
To some extent, the water problems of California provide a paradigm for water crises occurring elsewhere in the United States and globally. The U.S. is technically water-rich; however our usage is outpacing our resources. For the past few years, the effects of serious drought have been extensive throughout the west—not just in California.
In 2016, when Sprinkle and Stephens set out on their road trip, the reservoirs, rivers, and aquifers in California had dried up. Narrated by the Earth, Water Makes Us Wet is informative, funny and engaging—and focal.
What started their quest? The drought was a factor, but it was a clogged toilet at home that made them ask, “Where does it all go?”, leading to their investigation into what happens to San Francisco’s wastewater. The education they received was the impetus for their journey. Blending the scientific with the spiritual, their exploration into the ways of water include visits to research labs and field stations, conversations with a wildlife biologist and a Director of Public Works, and meetings with others of a more spiritual bend.
At Big Sur they swam in the perennial stream, Big Creek. “When you spend a lot of time in nature you don’t need to know the name of the thing,” their biologist guide, said. “You just need to know its place in the environment, stop talking all the time, see where your mind goes”—an ecosexual message.
A visit to Annie’s family home and pool where they stop to swim provides the opportunity to share details about the water burden associated with pools. Annie gave her first blow job in this pool which is why she picked the name Sprinkle when she got into the sex industry—she loved it wet. Here, Annie and Beth cavort naked talking about water magic, against the backdrop of information about the burden of the more than 1.2 million residential pools in California, 250,000 in Los Angeles County. Thirty-thousand gallons are required to fill most pools: California water usage varies according to the socioeconomics of a region. For example, the daily average for residents of Compton—a community with few pools and below average median incomes—is 106 gallons, compared with Beverly Hills where residents average 284 gallons.
Informational screenshots about the ocean are sobering, letting us know the consequences of greenhouse gases on ocean waters, and that between 1970 and 2012 there’s been almost a 50 percent decline in marine life populations. Poignant and humorous images, such as their communication with elephant seals, capture the sexuality omnipresent in nature.
In the mountains east of Los Angeles, Stephens and Sprinkle learn how Nestle is mining water off the mountain, depleting the water supply, endangering more than half a dozen animal species, and creating a shortage for people living there.
Annie succumbs to eating a Big Mac that she says, “is more embarrassing than making porn,” which never embarrassed her. This moment, the film’s editor, Keith Wilson feels, reflects the complicated relationship many have to water and consumerism, to food and humor, and our ability to handle and juggle that complexity. Annie’s downfall provides the opportunity to explore the relationship between water and beef, resulting in a trip to stockyards: 1799 gallons of water are needed to make one pound of beef in California. California Feedlots
One of the last places visited is Lake Tenaya, where Annie’s dad had wanted his ashes sprinkled. Tenaya is an alpine lake in Yosemite National Park, and problems associated with high visitor use have been increasing, information that would have been good to include. This is one of the scenes which best reflects the sensuality of their relationship with nature, and an understanding of ecosexuality.
The interplay of the sexual with the ecological, the personal and the informational, the mixing of levity with significance, is successful. At the end of the film Annie and Beth “crash” the San Francisco Pride Parade, add an “E” to GLBTQI, reflecting the integration of sexuality and ecology, and the connection to their earlier lives.
To respect, love and be kind to the environment, to realize that we are part of a beautiful ecological cycle and every move counts—are ecosexual messages delivered by Sprinkle and Stephens, by the experts they meet, and the photography which reinforces the magical dynamics of nature. Screenshots of facts are effective, as are visuals such as endless shelves of bottled water and the stockyards. However, depending on the target audience, moments such as the baptism of a childhood friend, Beth learning how to use a netipot, or the extent of time spent at the San Francisco parade, were distracting.
Keith Wilson, who’d edited Goodbye Gauley Mountain, also edited Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure, with assistance from Jordan Freeman, Sprinkle and Stephens. Wilson was the cinematographer for most scenes and arranged a number of interviews. The second camera was managed by Jordan Freeman, who also did the aerial shots. Footage of Big Creek, Sagehen, and Yosemite was shot by Seth Temple Andrews. Water Makes Us Wet, distributed by Juno Films (junofilms.com), runs 80 minutes, premiered in documenta 14, and was shown in New York City at several venues, including the Museum of Modern Art. It is being shown at the British Film Institute in London, March 23 at 8pm.
What’s next for Stephens and Sprinkle? In spite of their ages, they aren’t slowing down. “As the Earth is our love, we are in an intergenerational relationship with the Earth. We are just a few decades old. The Earth is millions of years old. We are very young by these standards.”
And, they are completing a book, Assuming the Ecosexual Position, University of Minnesota Press, chronicling their ongoing art collaboration and exploring their ecosexual work, combining sex and gender activism with environmental activism. To quote Annie, “We expect the book to make a big splash in the academic world.”
Michele Kirsch, 57, is a brilliantly witty writer and cook. She used to be a cleaner. She’s a regular AoA contributor. NME, City Limits, and Men’s Health were all lucky recipients of her work. Her first book Clean – one woman’s story of addiction, recovery and cleaning – is out on March 7th. Buy it here,
What is your age?
I am 57, turning 58 in April.
Where do you live?
I live in Hoxton. I am the Accidental Hipster. I live in a Tower Block and none of us talk to each other but we nod in familiar, ‘You’re not a ruffian on the stairwell’ sort of way. We have many ruffians on the stairs. It is a warmer place to do drugs than outside.
What do you do?
At the moment I am working for a charity that supports people living with the effects of brain injury. I support people in getting kitchen confidence skills back, or learning how to cook. It doesn’t feel like proper work. A lot of it is just hanging out and having chats with people who, outside this setting, are treated as ‘other’. In our place, we just shoot the breeze, cook, play music, play games, hang. It’s brilliant. I never want another job. Except I sort of have another job. I’ve written a book and I still write. The book is a memoir, out on 7th March, It is called Clean and available from the proper WH Smiths, the ones on the train stations. As well as other bookshops and Amazon. Some people thing it might be big. That would be great. But I am OK with just doing the job I have now. I am glad I have written and published a book that is going to be in proper shops.
Tell us what is it like being your age?
I am happier now than I have ever been, probably. I had a drug problem for a long time and I am free of that, now. I didn’t get on with my children for a long time and we get on very well right now. Physically, I am very well though I feel I may have messed up my stomach with the long term drug and alcohol use. Though I had stomach problems always. I love my job, I have a good roof over my head in a great neighborhood, I see my grown-up children as often as we can as we all work, and I have a good relationship with their dad, my ex. I guess the one difficulty is that I only get to see my mum and sister, who live in NY, about once a year. My life feels contained and structured, in a good way. Recovery is the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t mind the physical effects of getting old nearly as much as I used to. I still love Topshop and Miss Selfridge. I am absolutely working the mutton dressed as lamb thing and I don’t give a hoot. If the book does well, I suppose I can dress up as more expensive lamb.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Oh my gosh, where to begin? Mainly I live in a country and city I LOVE. I grew up between Liverpool and New York but always felt pulled to London. To live here is an honour, a dream. I have a job I love. At 25 I was starting out as a journalist and making very bad money and I was never getting the great stories anyway. I had no confidence in my ability as a writer. I also thought I was passable in the looks department, but never actually pretty.
These days I have pretty moments or pretty days. It comes from inside, nothing to do with men. I have two wonderful, street smart, loving grown-up children, a huge amount of very good friends, a lovely ex-husband. I also have a sense of purpose, which comes with my job. I can make peoples’ lives more bearable. And I’ve written a book, which some people may find that they can relate to, on some level. I also have, as well as all my new friends, all my old friends. I am a stickler for keeping in touch. I love the internet for that. It makes it much easier. I have freedom from my addiction. That is my number one gift. 57 has probably been my greatest year, in terms of contentment.
What about sex?
I find at my age my appetite for it has diminished but not disappeared. Having said that, I still get the horn if I see a Paul Newman film, or Betty Blue. In real life, I have a boyfriend, and though it’s slightly complicated at the moment, I would say we are well matched and all will be well. We tend to be in the same mood at the same time, which is a bonus.
I have this notion of myself of being rather plain when I was younger, but I always had boyfriends or husbands (two) or men after me. I have no idea where this idea came from, that I was not fanciable. I was a very late developer. I did not start my menstruation until I was 16. Then it all kicked off. I also had the luck to be in love with my very first lover, when I was nearly 18. It was mutual. He loved me too. We are still friends.
One thing that has always been the case is that I feel ridiculous when I try to ‘look sexy’. It never works and I always burst out laughing. I can barely put stockings on, I don’t understand the little clippy things at the top, and I still put a bra on with the back facing the front so I can see myself doing it up. I used to have good rack, but after children and a pretty druggy career, my curves diminished, so bras don’t really do anything for me either.
My bed is never sexy. It is covered in books and newspapers and the cat and cat hair. I’m a mess. My sheets are mismatched and I fall asleep most nights listening to old comedy shows on the radio. The only thing that looks right in my bed is my hair, because I have permanent bed hair. I don’t have to buy a product to make it that way. It’s just like that. Oh, I will say this! I do have an erogenous zone I never knew about until recently. I have an unusually long neck and I like people stroking it. This man at work, he’s, you know, brain damaged and has no impulse control, he stroked my neck and I had to firmly pull away and tell him that it was not OK to do that, in a nice way of course. But I have to say, it felt really nice. That’s a shocking thing to say, but, a brain-damaged guy stroked my neck and I liked it. Doesn’t really scan so there won’t be a song….
I have many, many very good friends, some for 30 or 40 years, in America and over here. My relationship with my boyfriend is a separate thing. I do not have sexual relations with people unless I am married to them or they (he) is my boyfriend, or I think I am in love with them. Serial monogamy is what I do. Though I had some short-lived obsession in my early 20s. That drove me crazy. Everything now feels so much easier. I LOVE Facebook and I’ve made many virtual friends as well as all my real life ones. The relationships I value most are with my family, children and best friends.
How free do you feel?
Obviously, I have commitments, my job, my children, my bills, my relationships, my recovery (first and foremost) but paradoxically the more I do, the free-er I feel. Unfortunately, I am still plagued with worry and anxiety, these are long-standing issues, but I have come to accept they are part of me and just try to ride the waves of panic. It’s not always a heap of fun. I find travel …. hard. But most of my friends know this about me and know if I don’t go somewhere I am not being antisocial, just a bit agoraphobic. I have never found anything- meditation, yoga, exercise, chanting, whatever, that works totally, but I did have a short course of hypnosis, which helped a bit.
What are you proud of?
I am proud of my children. I am proud of my job, which is the best job I ever had. I am proud that I wrote a book that might make waves, somehow. It might help people who have been through a similar situation – feel less alone. I try not to be too proud, as I absolutely believe pride comes before a fall.
What keeps you inspired?
I find inspiration in so many things. I am proper nosy and I love to listen in to other people’s conversations on public transport. Whole little dramas unfold. I can’t wait to get somewhere to write it down. I love little alleyways and cobblestone streets. There are loads of alleys in Liverpool and lots around Hoxton where I live so I love to just wonder down one and wind up somewhere I’ve not seen.
Music always inspires me. I play all my old records all the time, and music can transport me back to a certain time and place in my youth more than anything else. I dance all the time, anywhere. I have no shame. My sponsor inspires me in her recovery. She has gone on to do remarkable things after a very long period of drug-induced crazy times. She is so loving and caring and inspirational. I can’t tell you who she is but I think she will be famous in the thing that she does, professionally.
I am also inspired by couples who have been couples for a really long time. Just because very long lasting love didn’t happen to me, though I was with my second husband for nearly 20 years, most of them pretty good, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I am also religious, and I find inspiration in Bible stories. I did something quite unusual several years ago, which was a formal conversion from Judaism to Christianity. It’s a long story, but actually there are many similarities in the two faiths, as I understand them, though they end differently. I do pray, but I don’t pray for obvious things like success or money or to win something. And I don’t pray for big, worldly things like world peace and a reversal of climate change. I can’t tell you what I pray for, it’s personal, but it’s important to me and it is an inspiration. The Big Book we use in recovery is inspirational to me as well.
When are you happiest?
Without a doubt, I am happiest when I am dancing. I don’t get out dancing enough. I used to go to a soul night with my girlfriends and dance all night. Not even on anything. At work, I have music on in the kitchen, where a few of us make lunch together. People get very excited about lunch where I work. It is the dividing time between morning and afternoon. And people are really into their food. They love it.
I’m am OK cook, not a great cook by any means, but when the music is on and we are, say, all dancing to ‘Monkey Man’ ( I LOVE Ska!) I am just so happy and thinking, I can’t believe I am at work, dancing and cooking and getting paid for it. I cook with this one guy who absolutely goes nuts when he hears Justin Bieber. I am not even a fan, but when this guy goes so crazy when Bieber comes on, I go crazy with him, and we dance and do the bad boy rap gun hands and all that silliness. I am extremely happy then.
I also love walking home from work. And if I am feeling low, I take myself down to the Thames and stand on London Bridge and remind myself that I live here. I live in this fantastic city. People save up all year to spend a few days in London. I LIVE here and I LOVE it. I am also happiest just hanging with my kids. They are great, really grounded and good people.
Where does your creativity go?
I like to think some of it goes into my cooking that I do at the centre, but I have had mixed reviews. I am the skinny chef you are not supposed to trust. My creativity goes into my writing. I write all the time, even if it just little entries on Facebook, I am always writing.
What is your philosophy of living?
Tricky. Though I am religious, I would not say I was particularly spiritual. Many people think the two go hand and hand, or you can be spiritual without having the structure of religion. My philosophy of living is to do no harm, and to try to be kind and considerate. Don’t shout, except for joy. Be patient. I have waited all my life to be patient (see what I did there) and it is finally starting to sink in.
Working where I do, you HAVE to be patient. Chose your battles, and when possible, chose not to have battles. Be generous with time as well as material things, or only with time if you have few material things. Don’t preach. Don’t complain about minor ailments, though I did this all the time until I started working with people living with brain damage. It’s a real wake up call. Be grateful, every morning – think of at least five or ten things you are grateful for. This is not original, it comes from working my recovery programme, but it’s a good way to live. Be kind to your friends and animals, always. Be kind to strangers, unless they are unkind to you. Then you can tell ‘em to fuck off. Keep your body in good nick as much as you can. If you can exercise, exercise. Get fresh air every day.
I have had more than my fair share of death in my life, compared to other people I know. Death has punctuated and punctured my life at various points. I would like to die when I am old, and after a brief illness. I hope whatever takes me out doesn’t take too long. I don’t really have a fixed notion of an afterlife, but I do secretly (well not so secretly as I am saying it here) I hope that after the body dies, we are somehow reunited with the dead people we have loved and lost. I don’t know how I would find them. There are a gazillion dead people. I hope they have a sort of filing system and index cards. There are definitely people I want to see again. But I don’t like the idea of an eternal afterlife. That idea horrifies me.
Are you still dreaming?
I am not sure what you mean. If you mean if I have big dreams for my life, not really, no, I am amazed I get to be this happy, right now. I would be happy to feel this happy for the rest of my life. I guess I can choose this, I can chose to be happy. At night I have strange, psychedelic dreams but I don’t talk about them as nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams. I used to love it when my kids told me their nightmares. They were damp with sweat, I remember the little wriggling bodies, the recounting of the story, a glass of water, a cuddle, ‘til they drifted off back to sleep.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I chased a swan all along the Thames embankment. I know the swan could have turned on me, they are angry birds, but the tide was out and the swan was pretty tame, as swans go. My friend and I went there to look for treasure, but she wound up getting all eco and picking up garbage, and I chased this poor swan around. I said to my friend, ‘See, this is a fundamental difference between you and I. You see a discarded bottle and pick it up to put it in the bin. I play silly buggers with a swan.’ The other tiny act of outrage I always commit around Easter is when all those little gold chocolate bunnies are facing one way on the display in a shop, I take one and put it facing the other way around. I have to do this. It is a compulsion. I am really not very outrageous. A bit mischievous, but not outrageous.
I’m a skeleton collector. I have a large sea-washed radius from a sperm whale beached on the sands in Orkney. Part of its flipper, its hand. One of my most treasured possessions is an early Victorian piece of scrimshaw, engraved with portraits of two women – maybe the whaler’s wife and daughter or maybe his lovers in different ports – made from a sperm whale’s tooth which I inherited from my father. In fact, I have a whole collection of teeth, ranging from a 50,000-year-old European cave bear’s molar to all my baby milk teeth kept by my mother alongside my four adult wisdom teeth taken out when I was 21. I can now keep my wisdom in my pocket.
Bones and teeth survive. Bones remind us of the transformation that occurs at death. I have a bunch of my hair too, literally a fist full of matted dreadlock strands woven with strips of fabric and beads, remnants of my thankfully brief ‘crusty grunge’ phase in 1991 – hair which has lasted nearly 30 years. Like bones, hair lives on. I’ve come to understand I’m a bone worker. Bones have worked their way into my ‘medicine basket’ of ritual tools that have helped me navigate a year filled with death. From the sudden death of my mother at the end of 2017, to the sudden death of my mother-in-law within two weeks of that anniversary in December 2018, to the sudden death of a yoga friend who tragically took her own life shortly after this New Year. Their bones now are ash; only fragments of bone remain, returned to the earth to sit with ancestral bones or waiting, resting, keeping family company whilst loved ones adjust to the massive, unexpected earthquake of transformation that’s hit them. The dead have to adjust too. Sometimes their souls need help crossing the mythic river in the Underworld. There lies the role of the shaman, the psychopomp, the death doula, the soul midwife, the priest or priestess and the Irish mna caointe and baen-shea in the-end-of-life and soul-crossing rituals they perform.
Through all of this, more than ever before, I’ve come to understand the value of ritual in our natural cycle of life and death. Ritual makes us human. Ritual connects us to our animal, secular and spiritual selves. We know many species have ritualistic behaviours. Corvids have been observed participating in mourning rituals, and I still have the vivid picture in my mind of a London raven jumping up and down on a dead bird’s body, cawing as if were singing an intense keening in St James’s Park as I walked to work. We now know that ritual increases the likelihood of species survival as it binds groups together. I wonder if this large, black bird was performing a ritualistic death dance to warn the rest of the flock, or was it in mourning? Ravens have long since been associated with death in folklore and myth.
Part of being human is coming to terms with death. Ritual has its place in helping us negotiate that final transformation – from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In our increasingly secular society long focused on prizing youth above elderhood, spending vast amounts of money on maintaining a youthful veneer, we have developed an unhealthy relationship with death. Death and its rituals have been pushed to the sidelines in this relentless pursuit of youth, of living as long as possible, even if the quality of that life is often questionable. Death has been taken out of the home and medicalised. So many people want to deny death, they fear death; by doing so death has gone underground until it rears its inevitable skeleton head. Death is all around us, there is no escaping; delaying possibly, but let’s face it, it’s not going away. The planet is at the precipice of the sixth mass extinction, yet still so many of us are ill-equipped for death. We’ve forgotten how to greet it, to sit with it, and ultimately how to mourn and grieve. However, many of us do instinctively know that ritual has its place when it comes to death. Even if that instinct is sometimes more unconscious than conscious.
Death demands ritual. Not just the physical death of our loved ones: our partners, our elders, our families, our friends, our babies, our children, leading ultimately to our own death, but other symbolic deaths too. The end of our bleeding (if we’re a woman), our marriages, our jobs, our old, worn-out selves, all these transformations involve a final goodbye which deserves to be marked and mourned. Ritual and ceremony can provide a framework to do just that. Underlying all ritual (and myth) is a universal pattern: the death and rebirth of a god or divinity that ensures the fertility of the land as well as social order and harmony. When we place ourselves at the heart of ritual we connect back into that universal pattern. I think that’s the key to ritual unlocking whatever transformation and change we are marking, honouring, letting go of or celebrating.
You don’t have to be religious to create ritual. As I’ve discovered, consciously creating your own personal rituals can be very cathartic and freeing. There can often be a sense of drama to ritual, and there is the idea that theatre itself emerged out of ritual. The performer in me, having created improvised theatre and dance over many decades, has been naturally drawn to creating ritual in recent years, particularly in this year of major loss. The death of the mother is one of the most fundamental deaths to grieve, since not only do we come into the world from our mothers, they represent the fertility of our land, of our society, of our ancestors. No wonder 2017/2018 was an earthquake year when I lost both my mother and my mother in law. At the same time I’ve been losing my periods – the ultimate ending of my fertility, although an ending I’m finally glad to embrace after giving birth to death. It’s taking me 13 years, and many deaths in between to reach this place of acceptance.
Through all of these griefs, I’ve found myself creating ritual. I’m not religious; but I am spiritual. For many years I was a card-carrying atheist, rejecting the dogma and ingrained patriarchy of most monotheistic organised religions. Christian mythology never really did it for me anyway. I just couldn’t relate to Jesus, and as a mythologist, I couldn’t understand how people actually believed the Bible as a gospel truth, not as a loose collection of stories written down many hundreds of years after the grains of various historical events had become mythologised and spun into stories. I enjoyed the story telling aspect at Sunday School (I voluntarily went when I was seven for a brief period) and at 14 easily gained an A in compulsory O level Religious Education. I guess it’s because I’m a storyteller.
When my baby died, I found myself craving ritual. I remember going into churches just to create my own rituals focused around Mary, lighting candles for her and my son. The archetypal mother who had also lost a son. To me she was the only remnant of an ancient fertility goddess left, sanitised into a virgin by a male dominated institution. I found Catholic or High Church of England churches always good for some goddess veneration in the form of Mary. Their churches really do the best smells and bells – because they understand the theatre of ritual. The three cores aspects of ritual being:
blood sacrifice (the blood of Christ in a cup)
a natural process or mythic historical narrative (the Christian mythology), and
an act of magic (the Christian symbol of transformation, the Holy Communion)
Thirteen years on from that earthquake birth, I’m exploring and creating my own rituals which have been particularly helpful during my year of mother grief. I have organically gathered together my ‘medicine’ basket with my tools of ritual. My bones, my incense, my core oracles – the runes and roses – and various other objects of meaning and personal importance. My horse skin drum ‘Paskadi’, my rattle, my cloak, my hood, and my 1940s fox fur cape. The elements of ritualistic transformation. I’ve started inviting others to join my rituals and offer rune and rose reading rituals.
I created my rune set after being called to work with runes in three dreams within three months of my mother’s death. This became a ritual in itself; collecting the wood to complete the set (I’d been given the first nine), carving, sanding, polishing and then anointing them with the last vestiges of my own menstrual blood (the blood sacrifice), into a tool that can help others transform (the magic), underpinned as they are with a Norse mythological framework (the narrative).
By working intuitively and instinctively, I’ve found that creating rituals both personal and shared, has really helped me through my grief. It’s provided a focus and an outlet for my grief. When my mother was close to death (she died 24 hours after having a major stroke whilst out shopping), I somehow knew what to do. I didn’t consult a book; I wasn’t a member of a church, but I knew that ritual was important. In the year that’s passed, I’ve also discovered I have a natural ability to do what I now know as soul journey work. I’ve found I have ‘psychopomp’ abilities – I had to look this up – after experiencing very strong and vivid dreams and vision journeys with drumming, where I’ve helped dead or dying people (and trees) ‘cross over’ to the other side.
Birds too, back to the corvids, are said in many cultures to have a psychopomp nature, carrying the dead to the afterlife . A few days before I lost my son, I was lying in my old bedroom at my mother’s house, clinging on for dear life looking out at the sycamore tree at an unusual gathering of at least 15 magpies in the tree. There had not been one before or since. My mother and I were both struck by the strange occurrence. The magpie is my death bird and my magician. I don’t try to explain this psychopomp phenomenon, as ultimately I don’t think it matters. I simply accept it. All I know is the role of the psychopomp is known in myth, in folklore and in ancient spiritual practices, down through the millennia. I’ve also starting exploring the power of singing laments and keening from the Celtic Scottish and Irish traditions – coming as I do from strong Celtic stock as well as Norman Viking – using my drum to access these songs as they emerge. They are a powerful way to bring voice to death and grief.
I’m beginning to see there is a place for all this work – as we enter into a new, more open and frank relationship with death. Death is coming out of the shadows. Ritual most definitely has its place and new death rituals are emerging, rooted in our landscape, in a way that is meaningful for us today. The growth of the death cafe is one example of communities coming together to talk about death and break some of the taboos that have grown up in our youth-obsessed world. I went to one in Plymouth the week before I led a small family ceremony to interr my mother’s ashes in her family grave. The cafe was well-facilitated, we all sat round tables talking about our experiences of death, dying and grieving, and it was actually very light hearted. There was much more laughter than I expected. Ultimately I think that’s the trick – to laugh with death, even in the midst of the tears, the anger and the whole gamut of emotion death wrings out of us. Gallows humour, morbid humour is there for a reason. Death doesn’t want us to be deathly serious…all of the time.
So I’ll continue to collect my bones, read my runes and bang my drum whilst I lug my increasingly heavy medicine basket around the country singing to the land and telling stories to birds in the trees, laughing along the way like some crazy Sacred Fool literally dancing with Death. And strangely as I sit here in my mothers easy chair finishing this article, the voice on a radio play I’m listening to drifts over, and says: “She deserves a good death.”
I watched my friend’s five-year-old son peer down into the tiny grave.
Surrounded by a group of somber people in the small churchyard, the cold wind whipping around their ankles, the sound of sobbing and noses being blown, he was just curious to see what was in the bottom of this hole in the ground.
We were gathered to say goodbye to a baby who had died in her mother’s womb at just eight months old. An utter tragedy. The poignancy of the size of the white wicker coffin was heart-wrenching.
But this little boy just wanted to know what was going on. He quietly leaned over, peered in, saw the tiny coffin at the bottom of the grave, and then wandered back to hold his mother’s hand, looking reflective.
Should he have been taken or not?
This was the subject of an article I shared in my Facebook group last year and which generated a large number of comments. It seems there are many different opinions on this subject.
So here’s my take.
Whether you take your young son or daughter to a funeral simply depends on many factors.
I intuitively feel that in the long run, it is better to not hide death away from children full stop, but then as some of the comments in the group showed, being in the presence of someone who has died can be traumatic in and of itself. Whether it is more traumatic than not being there at all is, at least to some extent, dependent on the circumstances.
Age may be a factor, as may religious or cultural reasons as to whether a child should attend or not. These need to be respected.
But more than anything, the way the death and funeral are handled in terms of speaking about it will determine to a large extent the effect it will have on the child.
Susan said: “Personally I think it is absolutely necessary (to take children to funerals). My mother died unexpectedly when I was 10 and I was sent away the day she died until after the funeral and it was a huge mistake and the biggest regret of my life. I never got to say goodbye and for a long time, I kept thinking she would just appear and that it was all a big mistake. It has had an everlasting effect on me and I’m now in my sixties. If someone just disappears from your life and you haven’t had a chance to say goodbye as a child, it is very bewildering and distressing, much more so than attending the funeral.
I would stand at the lounge window and think she would walk along the road. And even though I knew she was in a coffin under the ground, I thought she was still alive and trying to get out. I think a lot more damage is done by not allowing a child to say goodbye than them attending a funeral which I think is a positive way to say goodbye.”
But then someone else shared:
“I recall sitting in the front row of the visitation on the night before my grandpa was buried. During the ceremony, the Rosary was said and it seemed like hours staring at his waxed body in the coffin. I didn’t like it and to this day, those feelings are the first that come to mind even though I had many other great memories with him.”
So what to do?
On balance, I think the more we are at ease ourselves with dying, death and grief, the easier it will be for our children to be at ease. They will take a lead from us, as they do in most things.
So if you feel uncomfortable about this subject, either because of people daring to think NOT to take their child, or because they strongly feel taking a child to a funeral is a good idea, it’s worth exploring a bit more.
So, what is your opinion about funerals, full stop?
If you have religious beliefs, the end of life ritual (commonly known in the Western world as a funeral) may have requirements that you follow, that have stood the test of time in that religion, and that you are already aware of.
If you are not religious, but spiritual, you might know you want nothing to do with a church for your own funeral but are not quite sure what on earth to do if not that.
Or you might think that the only alternative is having a humanist conduct your funeral, who will not include any reference to any religions or spirituality at all.
You might not even want (or be able) to contemplate the word ‘funeral’ at all.
And this is at the heart of the original question.
In Western society today, generally speaking, we shy away from the obvious – the fact that just because we are alive, we will also, one day, die.
In fact, the word ‘death’ has almost become taboo (although this, finally, is beginning to change).
In order to consider whether or not you might take one of your children to a funeral, you have to be able to contemplate death – your own or someone you love.
In order to do that, you have to face up to what kind of beliefs or attitudes you have about end of life and all that that entails.
And that is not easy. It really is not an easy subject to reflect on, which of course is why people don’t do it. Plus we are all so busy living, aren’t we!
But let me add in a little something to tempt you to explore further, assuming you have read this far.
Did you know you don’t even have to have a funeral at all?
It’s true. But not commonly known.
And even if you do know it, the impact of grief might propel you into engaging a funeral director, or having a funeral for a family member, simply because that’s been the way it’s usually done.
So you have to be prepared in advance if you think you may not want to have a funeral. That nearly always means being willing to have a conversation with your nearest and dearest.
And that’s why it’s a good idea to work out what you think about end of life matters well before you may need to know – so you can instigate a very necessary conversation.
So – what DO you think about funerals? Would you want one for yourself? Would you take a child to one? Please comment below and let’s hear how you feel about it!
Alan Dolan, 55, is a breathwork guru. He’s known for this transformative work with the breath. He lives in Lanzarote. He says that ‘the deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors is the most worthwhile work that I have ever undertaken’. breathguru.com
Age (in years)
Where do you live?
Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
What do you do?
I´m a self-employed breath coach
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
55 has been something of a turning point. Whilst I´m beginning to notice the more tangible signs of ageing I know myself better than ever before. With this has come acceptance (mostly), understanding and compassion.
As I’m able to feel more compassion towards myself I find that I am automatically feeling more compassionate towards others which is a rather lovely position to be in. This relatively new level of open-heartedness has changed my experience of life and living. As my emotional spectrum continues to expand and I feel boundaries and perceived limitations disappear, I’m both elated and humbled.
On the one hand I see the infinite potential of what it means to be a human and on the other I see the sameness and ordinariness of that experience. I like Adyashanti´s perspective of ´enlightenment´ as being a process of deconstruction as opposed to adding anything into the mix. The deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors has been the most worthwhile work I’ve ever undertaken. I’m ok. I have always been ok and I always will be ok.
The misunderstanding of thinking that I have to be anything other than what I actually am has for the most part been embodied – and with that comes peace. And on the days when I feel anything but peaceful I remember the dynamic nature of having a human life and how the waking up process is ongoing. There doesn’t seem to be an end point only increasing awareness and presence coupled with decreasing identification with ones thoughts and emotions. Such a paradox. Unconditional acceptance of what is together with increasing clarity re what I am and what I am not.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Self-acceptance, which I’ve found to be the precursor to self-love
An additional 30 years of experience and the wisdom that comes from that.
An increasingly global vision. The apathy and angst of my early years has been replaced with the acknowledgement of a shared responsibility for what we have created globally and a desire to contribute to the awakening that is happening within our species.
A more open heart
Gratitude – for ALL of it.
A sense of awe at the ever-present intelligence at work all around us. The magic and the mystery of existence.
The ability to be present and live from the now. Historically, I´ve been quite future-oriented. I find myself much more in the now these days taking time to experience each moment as the truly unique gift that it is and finding delight in the fact that as we spend more time in the Now so the quality and depth of each moment becomes more apparent.
What about sex?
Surprisingly it just seems to get better. I didn’t expect that as I thought it was pretty amazing to begin with. I’m more grounded and connected to my body these days and with that comes increased sensitivity and intensity. I’ve done a lot of bodywork and yoga over the years and now diving even deeper via Breathwork. Bottom line is that it seems there is more light and shade as well these days and I enjoy the dance between the two. Last year, I began to explore tantric practices which brings a meta-context and intention to all things sexual.
There´s a direct correlation between the relationship one is having with oneself and those which are experienced with others. As my sense of self becomes clearer so I have more appreciation of meaningful connection rather than going through the motions at a more superficial level.
How free do you feel?
As I’ve explored and become freer in my body I´ve noticed that I feel freer generally. As within, so without if you will. I recognise and value my sovereignty and am more comfortable with bucking the norm if I feel it´s appropriate. I recognise the parts of me that need validation and approval and understand why those aspects still hold sway with me. Being in the world but not of it is easier said than done. In my experience, the layers of self-imposed restriction, self-abandonment and self negation continue to be peeled away.
What are you proud of?
I think my journey to date and the fact I´ve come back to me in a sense. The word communion has been coming up a lot recently both in terms of deepening the connection I´m experiencing with myself and in relationship to others also.
What I´ve created and continue to create with Breathguru. I tend to be an early adopter so when I began promoting Breathwork in 2004, it wasn’t really on the map. Cut to 15 years down the line and it´s very much in vogue in the UK and around the world. I played a fairly major part in that process and I´m excited to see the results of all that attention and energy.
What keeps you inspired?
Lots of things
The magic and mystery of existence
Individuals who are making a difference – I just read when the Body Says No by Gabor Mate which blew me away – he´s really challenging the status quo re our attitudes to addiction and I love him for that. Compassion in action. Its time.
When are you happiest?
When I´m in on or near water.
And where does your creativity go? I
Everywhere. The whole thing is one big creation both singularly and universally.
What’s your philosophy of living?
I’m not sure I have a philosophy of dying although death and dying is definitely on my radar much more these days. I can tell you that I value my life more than ever before and even though I have a new vision I´m beginning to create I can honestly say I feel ready. I ask myself that on a regular basis these days.
Are you still dreaming?
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I just asked a Belgian Venture Capital firm for 2.3 million quid. That felt quite outrageous and absolutely appropriate at the same time.
Why I Wrote a Book Called Kahuna – the Cat that Didn’t Die
Imagine standing in the hustle and bustle of Kings Cross station when all of a sudden you notice the air around one of the pillars shimmy and blur, and you can’t help yourself because you’ve seen all the Harry Potter films – you run towards a pillar very close to Platform 9 and find yourself rushing through into a different dimension of reality. Not to Hogwarts but to Catwarts! The Feline University of Life and Death.
Who would have expected to learn so much about death and beyond from a cat? Then again, who would you learn from?
It started way back when I lived on a small boat on the Thames in the heart of London with my first cat. I had always been a dog person until one day the opportunity arose to be the proud ‘parent’ to an adorable black and white, half Persian, fluff ball kitten. She gave me one of those long cat stares and I was smitten! When she came to live with me on the boat, which rocked sometimes gently and sometimes quite violently, I wondered if I had made the best decision. She was so tiny and fragile-looking but I was unable to let her go. She filled a void in my life and I was selfish. After a few months, I was getting more confident in her ability to leap from boat to boat successfully. After all, she had nine lives didn’t she? Maybe she used eight of them up when I wasn’t looking, because one very early morning, with the sun glinting off the incoming tide, she drowned. I was lying awake in my bunk wondering where she was, lulled a little by the lap of the water against the hull, when I felt a whoosh of vital energy rush through my body. Its impact was that of a strong draught of champagne; heady and uplifting. I knew in that instant she had either returned home safe and sound or she had died. I realised if death felt like that it wasn’t so bad and I was in no doubt that I had felt her soul leave her body and kiss me goodbye.
Over twenty years and three cats later, this experience of death and beyond began again, this time with my ginger moggy, Kahuna. He’d arrived in my life as a Christmas gift with his gargantuan purr, his wide rib cage and his long long tail which hung over his back like a question mark. I’d never had the magical closeness, I’d had with my first feline but he was still my ‘boy’. As he approached his sixteenth year, we ended up together far away from London in the wild and enchanted landscape of Powys in Wales and everyone thought he’d experience a whole new lease of life having always lived in suburbia. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
Having had a fairly uneventful life, he came to this extraordinary place of beauty and experienced a number of firsts – his first hill, his first pond, his first stream, his first waterfall, his first rabbit, and then his first (and only) attack by a bulldog. He escaped but damaged one back leg so badly enough he had to have surgery and then was cage bound for weeks. During this time, he became diabetic. However if he hadn’t had to have this rest and seclusion, and nursing by me, then we would never have travelled on such a profound journey together.
I had just turned 61 and on top of Kahuna’s health crisis, my life was chaotic. I had lost my only client and along with that my only income. Without savings and an alternative revenue stream, my landlord gave me notice. However, I am a firm believer in the magic of life and that when there appears to be a breakdown, it’s usually followed by a breakthrough. Which is just what occurred. An unexpected business idea dropped into my imagination fully- formed – although maybe it’s less of a business and more of a vision, mission, and legacy. And a new home was offered to me for a few months as a breathing space where Kahuna would also be very welcome.
So my few possessions were stuffed into the car and we embarked on our next adventure together. I discovered a protocol called ‘tight regulation’ that helped cats to come out of diabetes. It is a very challenging protocol and you have to be fully committed to the well-being of your cat before you start this procedure. I had to learn to let Kahuna’s body be the expert and tell me what he needed and when. After four weeks of testing his blood glucose levels every few hours day and night, feeding him and dosing him with insulin accordingly, he became non-diabetic. It was a moment of triumph but by no means the end of his health challenges. But you don’t go through this kind of intense experience without deepening your relationship substantially.
I was sure Kahuna knew I was doing my very best for him even while I had to stick pins along the edge of his delicate ears to tease out those essential pearls of blood.
We moved again to what I hoped would be our long term home on a beautiful Welsh hillside but his health continued to be a problem and we faced numerous journeys to the vets to sort out a chronic constipation problem. I knew there was only so much that beautiful tiger-striped body could tolerate and I watched him lose his vigour and his eyes told me that he was on that final furlong.
With hindsight, I had this strange thought that we had made an agreement for me to be his student. I thought back to the death of my first cat and how she died because of the selfishness of my decision to keep her with me on the boat. I was worried that my selfishness at this time would result in me keeping Kahuna alive no matter what and against his own wishes. My trust in my ability to understand his thoughts was minimal even though I had been on an animal communication course years before and felt so close to him. I was too caught up emotionally with him so I sought for someone to speak on his behalf.
‘Did Kahuna attract your attention just then?’ This was the query from Lucy Jordan, an animal communicator based in Greece.
‘Yes he did,’ I responded with great surprise. Kahuna was sitting regally in his favourite corner between two windows behind my back. I’d just heard a sound I couldn’t place from that corner and had literally just looked round to see him watching me.
‘I asked him to do that so I could check I was talking to the right cat’, said Lucy.
‘Have you a message for me from him?’ My heart was beating rapidly in my chest as I asked this question.
‘He says he is getting tired but he’s not ready to go yet. He will let you know when he needs help from the vets by knocking something off the table. He also said that he thinks about death differently to you. For him, it is simply leaving his cat-suit behind and popping through a membrane to a different dimension.’
This was the start of many dialogues with Kahuna through Lucy and step by step we walked together towards that final frontier where he would let me know he was ready to leave his cat suit and pop through that membrane. I like to think we navigated this route well together. As he got weaker and was less inclined to go out for a walk I asked him to let me know every day if he was happy to stay in his cat suit. If he wanted to stay he was to ask to go outside. There was no cat flap in the door so he would stand patiently until I noticed.
One day it was very clear, we were oh-so-close-to-that-moment. He hesitated near the door and then walked on by. His back legs were almost too weak to hold him up and his quality of life had leeched away in the previous 24 hours. I asked Lucy to check in with him after noticing a puddle of water on the table where somehow my water glass must have been nudged. Had this been his sign to me? ‘Yes’ came the clear answer.
I went with him every step of the way. The vet came to our home and Kahuna received the injection as he lay in my arms. Effortlessly, he unzipped that beautiful cat suit and popped through that membrane. And I was lost in my grief.
‘You’re getting lost in your grief Francesca!’ said friend Jeanette Kishori McKenzie as I responded to her call a few days after Kahuna’s departure. ‘Every time you feel his loss, choose to feel his presence,’ she counselled. I always took notice of Jeanette as she has the most extraordinary understanding of life and death.
‘Okay!’ I said, excited by the thought even though my rational mind told me it was never going to work. I remembered back to when Kahuna was diabetic and on Jeanette’s counsel, I had learned to tap into him to feel a bolt of life force flow through me. But he had been alive then.
Moments later I felt his loss, and the descent into grief arriving. But I caught myself and chose to dive deep, beyond that sense of loss until I felt his presence. It was a deep dive, it took all my will power not to lose focus and weep, and then all of a sudden there it was… a kind of tickling deep inside and a whoosh of energy ran right up through my body, out of the top of my head and a huge smile spread across my face. Kahuna!
I have no idea how many times I did this – but I was determined I would keep going. Every time I sensed his loss I would choose to dive in and sense his presence. My sadness would evaporate and be instantly replaced by joy.
One night, I spoke out loud to Kahuna and asked him to give me proof that he was not gone. I woke in the middle of the night hearing a scratching sound. There is nothing around my home that makes that sound except when Kahuna was with me. Whenever he needed my full attention, he stood up on his back legs and scratched whatever was in front of him. It was his signature sound I could recognise anywhere. I lay there with the most extraordinary feeling of warmth spreading through my heart and slipped back to sleep.
I connect with him regularly now as he has not gone anywhere – in fact, he is within me, in my heart, an intrinsic aspect of me. He helped me write my book Kahuna – the Cat Who Didn’t Die. He helped me write this article and he shares with me profound wisdom. One of my favourite examples is when I realised we were not going to hit the book launch date I’d planned to coincide with Kahuna’s passing. I was so sure that a launch on 6th January, a year on from him popping through the membrane as well as being epiphany was a perfect date. But it was not going to happen. I asked him what that was about and his response had me laughing. He said basically ‘Dates are completely man-made things and have no real meaning other than what we assign them.’ He went on to say that every day can be as profound and meaningful as we want, so not to be concerned. What a beautiful reminder that we are not bound by anything other than our imagination!
Asking what he’d love me to share with you, he reminds me of something he shared in the book – that cats are often considered aloof, but this is not the truth. Cats expand to feel everything and be part of everything. They understand we are all One. So aloofness is not as we perceive it, it is their state of being one with everything. He suggests we slow down, enjoy our environment, and expand our awareness out until we are all at one. His advice for all of us is this – be more cat- lke.
‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Andre Gide
Did we lose sight of the shore? Not quite but we closed our eyes for a few minutes along the way.
Recently, my son Marlon and I went travelling together in Senegal. We were, it turns out, a bewildering combo. One rarely witnessed, if the reactions were anything to go by.
‘Are you his grandmother?’ asked Monique, a flamboyantly dressed stallholder who managed to verbally capture us on the ferry going over to Goree island near Dakar. She was, of course, more interested in our visit to see her wares – wooden masks, omnipresent bracelets and more. We didn’t go. Not because of the question, but because we weren’t interested in this particular strand of touristville.
‘Are you his wife?’ asked an array of male hustlers. The latter was in pursuit of a sugar mummy. Particularly at the beach village of Toubab Dialaw, which hovers between a tourist trap, a hubbub of djembe workshops and a relaxed environment for mixed race couples. We were entranced by it, by the way.
‘Are you his mother?’ More often and gratefully received in all sorts of different places from the taxi to the beach.
When I got home, I googled Travelling With Your Adult Children and discovered that it is a burgeoning holiday sub-section especially amongst Baby Boomers. There have been articles in the New York Times on this very subject. However, it’s usually families going on holiday together. Not a mother and grown-up son.
How did it happen? This mother and son adventure. Well, my mother died in summer after six years of Alzheimer’s. She was almost 92 and it felt as though it was her time to go. I felt blessed that she was able to let go then before she didn’t recognize us anymore. And, of course, it was distressing. Three weeks before, that, one of my closest friends, Jayne, chose to end her life at 48 because she couldn’t stand living with the torment – it had been 10 months – of suicidal clinical depression anymore.
It was a shocking, tearful time. And as death does, it prodded me into focusing on being fulsome in the present. Marlon and I had been talking about going away on our own. Having a little voyage without our partners. It’s allowed! A new propulsion arrived. Okay, let’s go to Senegal – somewhere I’ve wanted to go since having a ‘flingette’ with a gentleman from this West African country during my year out in Paris during 1973.
Senegal was a new place for me. And Marlon. It is also safe and relatively politically stable. I knew I’d get to speak lots of French. These were influences. I booked the flights to Dakar in September.
In December, I realized I hadn’t done anything other than that. I researched hotels – eventually found one recommended by the Guardian that seemed to be near to the beach. Hotel du Phare. It looked funky, maybe other travellers would be there with precious information. I booked it for four nights and a taxi from the airport to make our arrival as easy as possible. I’m an oldster traveller!!
On the plane in early January, I still hadn’t read the guidebook. My travelling modus operandi – previously in Cuba, Bali, Rajasthan etc – is to book a few first nights and then travel on the hoof with my book in hand and ears open. It does require an intense reading of the guidebook – and over the years I have honed the knack of hotel-hunting by getting to the know the subtexts of what I want and what is there, sometimes I’ll prioritise the location and others the hotel – to get what you want.
Seriously, I read the Brandt guidebook (which I recommend in this case) and one other book – a Senegalese classic So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba – when we were away and Marlon read five!
But I enjoy it. The ad-hoc planning, that is. Be warned. It isn’t for those who desire complete relaxation and comfort. There are errors and not so much insulation from the rough and tumble. When I was in Cuba with my friend Amanda in 2017, there were so many more tourists than I had imagined – a new diplomatic détente with the US had happened – and finding places to stay was tough. I had to try very hard, with friends of friends of our various hosts and speak Spanish as best I could. It was the sort of challenge I like.
Funnily enough. when we arrived at the aforesaid Lighthouse Hotel in Dakar, we were both ill with British colds and coughs, and there was a disco for 18-20 year olds going on!! Not the ideal. And the hotel had style but not much organization. Towels were difficult to obtain. We were paying £60 a night so I wasn’t impressed.
But the location in Mamelles – which is dusty but leafy too – near the sea was perfect. Yes, mamelles does mean breasts, it refers to the two hills in the area. One of which has the 19th-century French lighthouse – it is still used – on it.
Immediately, we discovered just how French Senegal still is. Baguettes and croissants for breakfast, the currency is tied to the Euro, everyone speaks French as well as their local tribal language and there are gendarmes everywhere too. It became independent in 1960 and the first president, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president as he was called, was all for Negritude – promotion of black arts and culture which still affects Senegal positively today – but also into keeping close links with the colonial power, France. Not everyone agreed with him in the latter respect believing it would hold back its evolution as an independent African country.
But it’s sandy. It is the Sub-Sahara. And Dakarois take the biscuit when it comes to knowing how to sport their often jaunty boubous and hats. With so much grace and attitude. It’s not a strut, just relaxed pride. Even at the bus stop. There would be those attractively clashing stripes for the men plus maybe a trilby, and the architectural headscarves for the women in yellows and oranges. No pastels here.
Big news. We made it to see Yousn’dour. He is the superstar Senegalese singer and musician who did that amazing duet Seven Seconds with Neneh Cherry in the early 80s. It sold millions. Marlon noticed he was playing locally with his band Super Etoile. So we made our way over there, through traffic jams and desert dust and managed to buy tickets.
We thought we were arriving reasonably late at 9pm, in other words, he might come on soon. Four hours later, a whole host of Senegalese pop stars had appeared but not the man himself. And we were standing! This was a mistake. As we bought the tickets, it wasn’t obvious that there was a choice. We wondered why the seats were all empty – perhaps he’s not as popular as he used to be, haha – and then three hours later, they began to fill up. Some people knew something. There was a dazzling array of sparkle on display, ‘selfies’ were de rigeur and Nicky Minaj seemed to be the main inspiration for the women.
However at 1am, this outdoor venue, which was now packed – erupted. The atmosphere was one of deep personal love. Everyone knew all the lyrics and sang along. There was much swaying and boogying. Yousn’dour’s voice is plaintiff, electric, devotional. I couldn’t help falling in love myself.
By 2 pm – after five hours of standing, we were both tired out –and decided to wiggle our way out, the band was still playing and Yousn’dour’s incredible voice unified the crowd. In fact, as we departed, groups of young people invited us to dance in their circles. Of course, you know which one of us took up the offer!
‘Well done, mum,’ pronounced Marlon, too grown up to be embarrassed. We finally got to bed at 3pm. Earlier, it has to be said, than the rest of the crowd.
There was also the trip to Goree island – the notable encounter with Monique – which has the UNESCO heritage site, La Maison des Esclaves, visited by world leaders from Obama to Mandala. This is one of the places where thousands of Senegalese people who had been captured as part of the Atlantic slave trade – were deported to the Americas. There were dungeons, places of torture for the recalcitrant, and the final doors where they stepped out to either death at sea or servitude. 33,000 people and children were trafficked from Goree over a 300 year period from the 15th century. This was just from this one port in Senegal. There were at least four more.
The information is mostly in French, and I did my best to translate. One of the shocking bits was that a woman ran the place for a long time from 1776. Anne Pepin was a signare and a metis – she was the child of a Senegalese mother and French man, and she herself was in a relationship with a French aristo – and in Senegal it was common for the signares to be the interface between the slaves, the traders and the colonial power. This was a clever move, in their terms.
We learned how Africa was weakened by this trade, how their cultivation was severely affected by all these tribal growers being captured and trafficked. Whole families were taken. It is dark reading matter but essential for understanding the bigger colonial picture and the shame of it. We were moved and reflective afterwards.
Toubab Dialaw – about an hour and a half by taxi south – is by the sea and our next destination. I confess that an important part of my travel vocabulary these days – is hire a taxi to get to the next place. In the 80s and 90s, and even ten years ago, I was still getting local transport. I have passed through that stage! The roads are crazy in Senegal, the driving is ‘organic’, and there are a lot of accidents. I have to say my 30something companion didn’t seem to mind this choice either.
The guidebook describes TB as bohemian and teaming with artists!! I booked into Sobo Bade, which was designed by Haitian artist and architect, Gerard Chenet. It has turrets and towers, – Gaudi and Dali were on his mind – there are mosaic crescendos. It is a marvel. Turns out that Mons Chenet is 87 and still lives in one of the rooms. I tried to meet him. Unfortunately, he was sleeping every time I enquired. But we did get to stay in a thatched turret overlooking the sea.
The first artist we met, was Picasso. Naturally. On the beach with his paintings. Turned out he was the younger brother of Picasso after all. We were assailed every time we hit the beach – with the Senegalese terranga. In other words, welcome. Which often translates as ‘Come and see my paintings’.
Toubab Dialaw was fascinating. Crafts salesmen but an empty beach, French tourists, super duper contemporary homes, and shacks beside the sea selling Yassa Chicken, one of the most popular local dishes with onion gravy. It is a winsome mishmash.
It is a mixed race couple hot spot. There are the couples that I assume have met, for instance, in France. A Senegalese man with a French woman. And then there is the pervasive boyfriend trade – which comes in different forms. The offer to be a boyfriend for the day with sexual services thrown in. I happened to be reading in one of the hotel’s hammocks when the-younger-than-my-son security guard showed himself eager to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta with me. Expenses paid of course. I didn’t take up the offer.
Later that day – we went off for an afternoon visit the amazing Theatre d’Engouement, a magical location, theatre plus rooms, swimming pool and off the wall sculptures also created by Mons Chenet, for performances and festivals – we found ourselves being consciously lured into a crafty shop. It had some Malian wall hangings that I liked the look off!
Well, Bad Boy was eye-catching at first. With his haphazard, stylish dreadlocked side ponytail. The father of all Sufi neck pieces – we are about to learn that he’s a Baye Fall which means he belongs to the Mouride Sufi Muslim brotherhood that is known for their mostly liberal ways – which features a photo of his spiritual guru on a very thick leather cord. It is a fuck off spiritual accessory, to say the least.
We’re offered mint tea and we accept. There is much pouring. To create a decent head of foam. A young Danish woman comes in and is obviously partnering up with one of the Baye Fall brethren because she’s just been to Touba, their holy city and is full of it.
Before I can mention Mali and fabric, Bad Boy has gone all spiritually soppy on me. He gazes into my eyes as though he is seeing a woman for the first time. I have to say they are rivered with red. ‘You must come with me to Touba,’ he announces as though I have no say in the matter. ‘You’re my Yaye Fall.’ There is an absolute nature to his tone. I give Marlon a nudge and we beat a gentle retreat while waving at Tiffany in New Orleans on one of the other guys’ phones. Oh the joy of craft shops.
I must say I hadn’t been expecting this kind of attention. We’re both bemused.
Although less so when a very drunk dreadlocked gentleman leers and lurches up to me in the pitch black later that evening. For a moment, – and it’s the only moment on our entire trip – I’m frightened. We walk rapidly in the other direction.
Our next stop is Joal-Fadiouth, which is at the beginning of a new greener landscape around the Sine-Saloum Delta. And so many spiky, remarkably shaped bulbous baobab trees. Regarded as sacred in Senegal, they have many healing properties as well as fruit for juice and oils. They are wonderful as they mark this desert so undeniably.
Hmmm, our auberge is in a great location in that it looks out onto the water and the mangroves. In the morning, we spot several pied kingfishers in black and white, bloody great pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants, elegant herons and whiter than white great egrets. As Marlon remarks. ‘ They all have their different methods for killing, some stay still, others dive, the sandpiper gets hold of a crab and knocks it about until it dies.’ It’s quite a massacre at 7am the next morning.
We loved the location. The room and services less so. The room had strip lighting and basically no running water. We were supposed to tell them when we wanted water and they would turn on the pump. However we had one whole day without any water. Let’s not talk about flushing the toilet. Why didn’t we leave? Because we really liked the river and the staff, and this is an adventure after all.
Leopold Senghor, the first president grew up so we went along to his old house. Lots of fading photos and dense French text on the walls. However, the only employee who was called Stephane – Senegal is 92 % Muslim but those French missionaries did their job well down here and there are Catholics including Stephen and the Senghor family. Now Stephane was a hoot, which is just what was needed.
‘Don’t go in that room,’ he warned, ignoring my post-menopausal status. ‘It is dangerous. It’s a baby factory. Senghor’s father had 43 children with five different wives.’
It turns out that Leopold was child number 21 by the third wife. So often we laughed out loud in our Senegalese encounters. Stephen did a brilliant comedic turn.
Fadiouth is the famous shell island – over hundreds of years, cockle shells were discarded here– and is connected to Joal by a footbridge. You have to take a guide to go over there. We did but in comparison with Stephane, he was so on script we were quickly bored and doing our own thing.
Mostly goats are the ubiquitous animals in Senegal but here it’s pigs and piglets. Catholic, you see. There is also conch meat and stingrays out drying, not to mention a woman chopping the hammer off a hammer head shark and then doing a little dance to show how it moves in the water. More masks and bracelets to be avoided. Marlon did however buy a bag of dried cockle meat for his dad – we’re not together but we’re friends – to cook up one of his spicy stews on our return.
The star visit is to the graveyard. Surreal with shell hills, crosses lie on one side and moons on the other. Muslims and Catholics lie here together. There are even the ashes of a Black-American who discovered her ancestors came from here and wanted to be flown back.
Joal is poor. It’s a fishing village with dozens of brightly painted pirogues on the beach amongst the mountains of detritus. It’s a challenge and also needs to be seen. There’s the smell of sewage and the water problem. But there’s also the spirit of community, people sit outside their family compounds cooking fish, drinking mint tea and chatting.
One of the hotels – Hotel de la Plage – is mentioned in my book but looks closed. We wander in.
Giles, the eloquent caretaker, tells us what happened. Climate change is raising the water levels, the sea is coming much further in, it has broken up all the front of the building and the swimming pool looks as though it’s been hit by a tsunami. It’s for sale but no-one is going to buy it. This really is the world changing right in front of us.
There’s also a tourist crisis. We really don’t see many tourists in Senegal and certainly not one British one. Giles explains that the Ebola, increased prices and the financial crisis have deeply affected tourist numbers.
After a big heartfelt send-off – they were really sweet people – from the auberge without water, we are on our way further into the delta.
Faoye is a rural community on the north of the Sine-Saloum Delta. When we arrive, we can’t believe our luck.
Oh Lordy, this is an idyllic spot. After the chaos and dirt of Joal, this is a row of thatched cottages on stilts, which looks onto a vast expanse of water with salt plains at the side. It is simply magnificent. We exclaim a lot in disbelief. As usual, we are the only visitors.
And there is running water. No electricity but that is part of the treat. Early to bed and early to rise. Keeping to those rhythms of nature. Now we are in dream holiday land. It isn’t an expensive luxury eco-lodge but rather an encampment created by a Spanish NGO, which is run by members of village and the profits go to the community too.
The food is cooked by Khady who often has her third child, eight-month-old Mohammed, strapped to her back. Fish, chicken, beef. Simple tasty fare but it would be tough for a vegetarian, as would most places in Senegal. As the sun goes down, villagers arrive with their goats and horses to wash in the delta. Horses are very much part of the transport system in these parts.
We could easily have stayed a week but we just had two days. The next morning we go out with a local fisherman in his leaky boat. There were some initial difficulties. The engine kept stopping as we ‘phutted’ across this vast delta arm, he also decided to pull alongside his mate’s boat, a fisherman with no engine. And I have to add – we were paying quite a lot of money for this trip. £40.
Aminata had also come along, a young woman who was working at the encampment – to help translate. He spoke Serer (the ethnic group here is Serer) not French. So she speaks French to me. She is wearing a dazzling white dress. I am a little frustrated when she points out the ‘cows’ on the banks. It turns out she’s actually a business student in Dakar but the President, Macky Sall, has cut all funding for the moment – in other words because there is an election which needs funding – and the students have all gone home.
Finally, after an hour, everything improves. The fisherman sets free his friend’s boat, we find some mini mangroves and pelicans. And there are the inimitable salt-covered flat islands. These strange landscapes. Marlon jumps into the water, the fisherman buys some fish from friends in another boat. We end up on an island, it could be Treasure Island, we could have been stranded there for days. There is nothing but shrubs, fish and driftwood. No shade either. We crouch under a distinctly unleafy shrub while our ‘man’ makes a fire and grills the fish. They are delicious.
In the end, we are out for about six hours without shade, we got back delirious but happy. I even paid him extra.
Our final resting place is another city – this is four hours away from the delta by car and north of Dakar – but this time the old capital Saint Louis, which is squeezed onto a thin island. Pinks and yellows, crumbling 18th-century buildings with iron balconies – it reminds us of New Orleans, of Havana. There is an ambling, laidback quality to it. The perfect city to stroll in.
I am delighted because we find a big old room with a balcony that looks over the River Senegal, which has great white cotton sheets and fluffy towels, hot water and a flushing toilet. Plus electricity. I appreciate the rough and tumble of cheap hotels but then I relish the opposite. Totally. This is a room we can luxuriate in.
The wondrous encounters continue. We see what we think is a bicycle shop, we go in and it is a bike jungle instead. There are bits of bicycle hanging plentifully from the walls like a host of strange fruit. Ah ha, there is an artist in the other room. Of course.
Meisse Fall – we find his sculptures everywhere later – is the sort of gentle artist that I long to come across. His words have a lyricism that carries them along. Like a hymn to life. And ordinariness. ‘I was repairing bikes, my family always did that but I did so well that people weren’t coming back. I had nothing to do. I became an artist.’
He talks about everyone having a memory from their childhoods about bicycles and how his sculptures evoke that special time. He’s actually wearing a lyric cycling top – he cycles everywhere. There are masks from the saddles and metal animals from spokes. ‘We always say that looks are deceptive but with bikes you get what you see. They are naked. When you see a part in the road, you know it’s from a bike.’
There are contemporary galleries – one near our hotel is opened up by the owner himself, businessman Amadou Diaw who proceeds to show us around his modern creation – local restaurants, old colonial hotels, caleches, and the young fisherman who goes home and records a whole brilliant USB stick of great Senegalese music for us, the PE teacher Joel who we end up going out with. It really goes on just like that…
Senegal – you were extraordinary and have ignited my travelling spirit all over again, – that openness, that trust, that flow to whatever comes along. There’s nothing else like it. The shore is disappearing.
TIPS FOR OLDER TRAVELLERS
Buy a great guidebook and learn to deep-read it. This takes a little time but reaps enormous benefits as you start to realize what it all means.
Allow yourselves spontaneity. If you book everything up, you’ll miss the thrill of the new adventure. This means making a few mistakes and relishing the glory of the exquisite choices.
Don’t bother with local transport. Let yourselves book a taxi and driver. It can all be arranged when you get there. We often did ours on the hoof.
Pack lightly so you don’t have heavy bags to drag around. Not a backpack necessarily. I just took a small wheelie this time.
Buy a post-bite stick. They are brilliant at de-itching mosquito bites.
Hone up on the language beforehand. Gosh, it makes all the difference.
Carl Honoré is approaching his 50th birthday with trepidation. He’s worried about what happens on the other side and this sets the background for Bolder.
This context is worth remembering as you read Bolder. Honoré’s exploration of ageing is a self-confessed part of his own education and need for ‘reassurance’. Compared to many members and followers of AOA, who’ve been splashing about in middle age for a while, he appears at times to be an ingénue: he is genuinely surprised and shocked by attitudes to age.
Reading Bolder is like following an explorer in ageing Disneyland, a place that proves to be a personal roller coaster ride for the author. He finds many positives about ageing that are backed up by researchers and academics, but occasionally, usually when you start feeling good about being whatever age you are, he steps on a spike and it’s like getting the snake in Snakes and Ladders.
One moment he is laughing with Spanish grannies on a graffiti workshop, the next he brought quickly down to earth by a young female observer who tells him she wouldn’t put them on her Instagram because ‘old people aren’t that attractive.’ There are his descriptions of a Lebanese television show where over eighties play pranks at pharmacies asking for Viagra, a show that has become extremely popular and produced its own media stars.
And the same thing happens: he begins to wonder about that slender line that separates something sweet and charming from being a circus in which the aged are targets of the wrong kind of laughter. These elements in the book are the ones that made the headlines in mainstream reviews, i.e. The Guardian. While I understand how the media works, I’m not convinced that ageing, which the author describes as a game for ‘losers’, needs to be a circus.
There is much that is positive about ageing here: cognitively we are better at learning and picking up new things in middle age. In a study of IT professionals, those who were in their fifties were far more relaxed about new technologies and ready to take them on than their younger counterparts. Our experience curve gives us an advantage in making fast connections in our brain, something Don and Patricia Edgar have written about in Peak – Reinventing Middle Age. The reality is that given good health – and enough money, there are no cognitive, intellectual or social reasons why older people shouldn’t be able to continue to be the person they are. And more.
At the same time we are up against a culture that bows to youth and beauty, where social media rules the cultural narrative, and the good life is associated with the unlined and pretty.
Despite the stylish older media stars and the author’s examples of celebrities baring their wrinkles and appearing in ads, they are celebrities that means they get a very special pass that the rest of us don’t get. I wisely skimmed his section celebrating celebrities and grey hair: wild curly hair will never look good grey and I don’t intend to give it another passing thought. Not caring is a big advantage of age.
The spelling of Qigong belies its simplicity. It can be ‘googled’ and you will find Qigong, Qi Gong, Chi Gong and Qi Kung (the list continues!). The correct way of spelling the name of this gentle, yet often challenging, movement system remains a mystery; however the effects on our health and wellbeing are backed by a growing body of evidence. They are also attracting mainstream interest from public health bodies, private companies and social care organisations.
The BBC programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ (Series 2; 19th October 2018) compared Tai Chi to Zumba as a form of aerobic exercise by measuring flexibility of capillaries (they became more subtle and elastic so Tai Chi has a positive effect on blood pressure), chemical markers of inflammation (these increased in line with other forms of aerobic exercise – antioxidants also increased) and heart rate (this doubled so reached the same rate as the people doing Zumba). This is backed up by a paper published in the BMJ 24th March 2018 which compared Tai Chi to aerobic exercise. Similar physiological results were found and in addition, class attendance and adherence to home exercise was higher than in standardly prescribed exercise (patients found Qigong/Tai Chi more enjoyable and less painful) and physiologically had similar or greater benefits. Tai Chi and Qigong are so similar that the research can be applied to either.
Qigong is my daily practice of choice and I learnt it when I was training to be a Shiatsu practitioner. We were taught Qigong to maintain our own energy levels whilst treating others. Qigong is translated as Qi Harvesting (the Chinese character for Qi translates as air or space and so ‘breath working’ is another translation), it is far simpler to learn than its better known ‘sister’ Tai Chi and very adaptable. This makes it ideal for settings such as rehabilitation and palliative care.
As a teacher, I have taken my Qigong practice into many settings over the past 20 years; an NHS pain management and rehabilitation department, companies, schools and community settings. I run annual retreats and specialise in designing personal Qigong forms so that individuals can target specific health, emotional, spiritual or psychological needs. I have also facilitated Qigong groups in a hospice setting.
End of Life Qigong
St Christopher’s hospice is a flagship palliative care venue in South London. Known for its passionate commitment to making the end of life creative, fulfilling and of course, as pain-free as possible, I was invited to run Qigong classes there twice a week. I joined the Complementary Therapy team in 2016 and stayed for a busy year. The commute from North to South London finally wore me down despite practicing Qigong every morning on Waterloo East station! I sadly resigned at the beginning of 2018.
The classes were well attended and those who practiced even once a week gained great benefit.
‘I was sceptical, but I now use some of the movements on a daily basis to control my symptoms.’
‘I was surprised that my arm moved so much more easily after the class.’
‘It felt as if I wasn’t doing anything and yet I feel like I have exercised well.’
There are many forms of Qigong, the one I taught at St Christopher’s Hospice is called A Fragrant Buddha and it can be viewed here.
Integral imaging is a technique now used by top sports coaches to improve performance. Imagining a ‘move’, for example, a tennis serve, before acting, increases accuracy, focus and so is efficient energetically. And it is the same in Qigong – the titles of the movements ‘White Crane Salutes’, ‘Parting the Clouds’ are suggestive in themselves, sending messages of beauty, as opposed to pain, through the nervous system and lessening the ‘flight or fight response’ so often alerted in this cohort of patients. When the bodily systems are soothed in this way, other ‘messages’ such as ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘ that will be too painful’ are overridden so that the physical body can do what it is capable of doing rather than be restricted by negative belief.
The Fragrant Buddha form has a simple story attached to it – one travels through a landscape whilst moving in time with the natural breath, the suggestion is of sunlight on water, fish swimming slowly, bowls of delicious fruit and so on. The sensory awareness that is so often lacking in hospital and hospice environment is made available internally and again, the nervous system is soothed.
The Change factor – Mindfulness
Moving with the breath gives the same sense of peace as the time tested Buddhist practice of observing the breath, however, for people who are worried by their diagnosis and usually in pain, the addition of small movements and sensory images add an extra diversion for the distracted mind.
Do what you can Do!
Often people at the end of life believe this is the end of their journey – in tune with St Christopher’s philosophy, the practice of Qigong encourages adaptability and continued exploration and richness found in what you CAN do, not what you cannot. All patients expressed surprise at their progress and increased flexibility even though it felt like they were making very little physical effort during class.
The Loving Circle
Qigong has a ‘calling in’ feel to it. I concur with the speculation that Qigong originated in the movements and dances of shamanic priests calling in beneficial weather, spirits or resources on behalf of their communities. Qigong is rooted in the belief that we are magnetic to Qi, it is there for us, just waiting to be called. A favourite way of starting the session would be to sit like satellite dishes attracting love, peace, clarity, and to acknowledge that we were X (X = Number of people in the circle) times stronger than if we were alone.