Penny Pepper, 59 – poet, performer and writer. She found her voice through writing for punk fanzines and is now on her Naked Punk tour. ‘Punk fired a freedom in me to start accepting myself, that I was okay as a human being, as a woman, as a creative, who could challenge the categories imposed on me. It is the energy that triggered my activism, and my passion for social justice and equality.’
It’s a sad moment when I realise I’ve forgotten to pack my favourite knickers, as I arrive in yet another hotel room, many miles from my Hastings home.
Where am I? I sometimes forget as hotels are my second home at least every four weeks. This time, oh yes. Bristol. The Naked Punk (me) will perform a spoken word set, plus extracts from my memoir, First In The World Somewhere. And at the iconic music store, Rough Trade, only one of four branches in the entire world, damn it!
Here I am, pushing 60. A wheelchair user with a personal assistant (the preferred term) who is my driver, back scrubber and all round right-hand woman. For most of my Naked Punk tour, this personal assistant has been Emma. We work together well, have a laugh together and sometimes a cry together. For instance when we arrived one night, at a Premier Inn in Hackney, London only to discover there was no parking. None at all.
Everything I might need at a hotel goes through a triple checking process on the phone in advance, but alas this far from foolproof. While a young person on reception does not equate with incompetence, it may equate with slow and confused service, especially if you are, gasp, unusual. Poor young things, well groomed and the epitome of polite; they rarely have a clue about the shower blockage or why your room has the wrong bed height – despite those phone calls. They can resolve internet problems though, mostly. Even if they do start by looking at you as if you’re their granny who has never heard of this inter-tweet-net thing.
There are desperate moments on the road. I wish I could at this point bring in the drugs, sex, and TVs being smashed through windows. But in reality, it’s pain killers, bad telly and ‘accessible’ wet rooms that tend to flood your entire room, bringing with it the delicate aroma of the local sewage plant.
I am a bit rock n’ roll in my approach to unpacking. Emma hangs up my clothes, but otherwise my method is to throw items THERE, on the desk below the TV. Here I leave everything from lipstick to Kitkats, note books to baby wipes, empty Dorito packets to a tissue box which is de rigeur. Oddly at home I teeter into OCD tidiness. On my road trip, meh. Let it sprawl and multiply. Earrings do the latter on the road, which I think has something to do with my self-inflicted visit to a local makers’ market. Or the mall.
My hotels are booked to be as close as they can be to the venue. This means less worry about the dreaded parking and makes me more relaxed for the important bit. But in Bristol, it means working out how to get off the noisy ring road, and avoid the Bear Pit roundabout subway where there is a sleepy gaggle of street folk. I lived in London for almost 30 years – I ain’t scared. But it smells bad and brings us out to another fuck of a noisy road. Emma solves it. We come out of the Hilton Cheap and into the posh mall.
Because I am a touch on the delicate side, I always rest the day before a gig. I don’t mean lying in bed being fanned, but I do relax. This time I chilled out by way of buying a hairpiece. Long and pink. Essential for mermaid days.
A gig brings a little tension into my stomach. I’m not nervous when I perform but I percolate the anticipation for hours in multifarious ways. There is the twitchy excitement, the fretting about time, and therefore the hours in the ‘green room’.
Once this was an empty classroom. Another time it had two rows of mirrors and I got to use HRM’s Queenie lift. Here in Bristol, it is actually in Rough Trade, a table set by the photo booth amid all the records. A little disconcerting as most of the walls are glass. At least I don’t need to do a costume change.
The gig goes well despite a scary ramp, which I shoot up from the audience. Next time I need to play some music to accompany my daring ascent. It’s a decent crowd and they respond with cheers, responses and applause throughout.
I glow and grin. Job done.
Next journey Wiltshire. Next gig, WOMAD JULY 26-28th. Get me.
From our inception in 2016, Advantages of Age has always had a proclivity for poetry. In 1936, William Butler Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, described Edith Sitwell’s poetry – ‘Her language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise’.
This week, I asked our six poets – myself, Caroline Cadenza, Wendy Klein, Beatrice Garland, Matthew Brown and Debra Watson – to introduce themselves and to tell us something about how getting older has affected their poetry. We will all be performing at the Poetry Café this Thursday, June 27th at 7pm.
I started writing in my mid-50s so I was already old when I started. I wasn’t a teenage poet however I had been a journalist for years, and words ran with me like water. I found myself in the position career-wise where the opportunities to be a freelance journalist had become less and less. The democratisation of writing on the web and my age mitigated against the career I’d relished for the previous 25 years. It was a scary time. So I decided that re-invention was the best policy. In order to earn money, I started doing press and at the same time, I signed on to a Beginner’s Poetry Class at City Lit in London.
There was something about the succinctness of poems and the task in hand that attracted me, and it still does. And there is a parallel in that, with journalism. Condensing an experience that is long and complicated into something that bites with its intensity. Like pasta al dente. Not to overcook. That is my aim.
My first pamphlet Tantric Goddess was published on Eyewear in 2017 when I was 64. It was an exploration partly of the relationship that I started when I was 60. Hence the title which also has a tongue in its cheek. More recently, I did a project with my partner, Asanga where I sent him ten poems and he created ten watercolours as a response, this then became an exhibition and a book Wild Land.
Here is a poem from Tantric Goddess –
LOVE IS LIKE FINDING A SECRET BALLROOM IN MY HEAD
All those years I’d been doing crazy asanas,
the dancing was happening round the corner.
My Conscious Relationship teacher did a lecture
on Holding The Psychosexual Boundaries.
Destroy his letters in a fire ritual.
I’d always dived into Never-Neverland
with broken men, bits of rope and dirty dishes.
To me, the terms were incomprehensible,
I thought my writing should be on their walls.
Enlightenment came through painstaking logic,
a series of unyoga-like forays into household chores.
Like rebels in flagrante,
we move our old limbs slowly.
I haven’t mentioned the chandeliers.
Caroline Cadenza, 51, is an award-winning advertising copywriter, living and working in London. Not finding much scope to express the deep stirrings of her soul whilst writing cat food ads or car brochures, she often uses her daily commute to write poetry. She loves reading her work at Open Mic events and feeling it resonate with audiences.
She has just published Metaphorplay, which she describes as ‘a wildly poetic romance’ and is a collection of her erotic, naughtily edgy, witty poems. She has also illustrated them with her own inimitable pizzazz and colour.
Here’s what she says about her evolution as a poet –
In my 20s and 30s, my poetry was a microphone for my innermost voice as it sung of my spirit’s longings for wholeness and my passion’s yearnings to bust out of the prison of my shrinking-violet personality.
Throughout my fantastically freeing 40s, my art and poetry were increasingly an outlet for my mischief and wildness. But at some point, this ‘secret me’ was so thoroughly outed as the ‘real me’, that putting it back in its box became pointless.
Now at the tip-over from 40s into 50s, it seems that my former decades were merely fertilising the ground for the fruition and bursting forth I’m currently enjoying. This feels like the midsummer of my life – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually blossoming, blooming, ripening and epiphany-ing all over the place.
My poetry today remains an amplifier for my ever-more daring voice – defying convention, berating ex-lovers and shaming them for chasing ridiculously younger totty. But my main catharsis comes from fondly deriding myself and transmuting my tragedies – confessionly, into comedies. As ever, my poetry doesn’t just express my inner world, it reveals, translates, unscrambles and interprets it to me. The trembling voice of my awe and gratitude to be here at all, offers both poetic prayers of thanks and laments the loss of contemporaries who have already passed away. Through my poetry’s portal, my inner goddess roars her wrath and purrs her promises.
What’s next? Who knows? I love turning my poems into performances. So watch this YouTube space for more like this:
This is one of Caroline’s poems that we published at Advantages of Age. It epitomises her courage and naughtiness.
Fruits plucked in haste when ripe enough to eat
Are fresh and firm and tolerably sweet
But look again and higher up you’ll see
Maturer fruit still hanging on the tree.
Come connoisseur, this mellow one’s for you
Not tang and tart and biting back
Nor am I overdue
But come to my fruition – in my prime
Beyond delicious: my taste is sublime.
You’ll barely need to bite – just use your lips
I’ll yield my liquid treasure for kiss
My perfume beckons – lures you to come near
Good sir – you are the reason I am here.
I’m burdened with this ripeness, heavy with completeness
Never before nor ever more will I exude such sweetness
Nectar-seekers, lotus-eaters have not tasted such
Come pluck me now and glut yourself while I am soft and lush.
I’ve nought to lose and all to gain
For it shall be lamented
If my ripeness finds no mouth
Before I’m all fermented.
Widely published and winner of many prizes, Wendy Klein, 77, is a retired psychotherapist, born in New York and brought up in California. Since leaving the U.S. in 1964, she has lived in Sweden, France, Germany and England. Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s death, her nomadic years as a young single mother and subsequent travel. Despite dashing about between four daughters and fourteen grandchildren, she has published three collections: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.
She writes about herself – ‘I believe profoundly in the curative powers of dancing dogs and reading poetry out loud. I hope that someone will humanely destroy me if I cease to be able to enjoy these pleasures.’
Here’s what she says about age and being the poet she is – I am a bit of an imposter to Advantages of Age, because I really don’t see many advantages in terms of any part of my life. I read the brave, positive items you post with great interest and wonder! Certainly getting older has made me less confident about many aspects of my life, and writing is one of them. I am a glass-half-empty person who does her best to stay just ahead of the black dogs. Everything takes me longer, I am more disorganised, I forget titles I have changed, waste a lot of time looking for lost/mislaid items, electronic and paper.
I had a pretty good system up until we moved a few weeks ago, but I have just spent a whole morning not finding a reading I did in Chichester recently, which I want to repeat in London this Saturday, and I cannot find it. Will have to reprint, and I have no replacement cartridge to make my printer work. It is solvable, and I have a wonderful techie partner who bails me out. But… Performance-wise, I suffer more from nerves than I did when I was younger, stumble more, etc. Am pretty diffident about promoting my work, more etc. You get the picture.
I think I am definitely past my prime in terms of developing new ideas, experimentation, etc. I write what I write and know my limitations, which I guess could be described as an advantage. In general, I find the poetry world an awkward place to navigate, and I think I have retreated from the competitive corners of it I used to inhabit willingly. I still put on a pretty good show, but it doesn’t feel secure.
This is a wonderful poem that Advantages of Age published of hers! I love that it’s ‘the beast’ that she covets. I’m sure Yeats would approve.
WHAT THE WEAVER KNOWS
I’m not just any maiden lounging in the millefleurs,
there to bait the trap. On my canvas, invisible
to the innocent, fish knives gleam, wait to scale
your silver, crack open your heart. Listen;
there are rumours of drowning by metaphor:
the flicker of dance, the aspiration of flight,
the whale-bone squeeze that robs breath, moulds
flesh into enticement, promises nothing.
Embrace the rush of darkness, the drip and seep
of 4 AM when eyelids are peeled back, lashes bat
and flap, when the tick of the body is loudest
as light advances, twists, morphs, begins its birth trial:
crown of head, shoulders, the buttocks’ heart-cushion,
legs and feet, their twitch and kick built-in.
No I’m not just any maiden, there to bait the trap, a silly pawn
in some hunter’s game. It’s the beast I covet:
the arch of his back, his mane’s rough silk, the heave
of his white, white breast. Look out, for only the canniest
can break into the spiked circle, where I spell-spin;
a sucker for unicorns; not much of a lady.
Beatrice Garland, 81, has a day job as a National Health Service clinician and teacher, work which requires a lot of publication in its own right (under a different name), so there have been long gaps in her writing poetry since she began in 1989. But it has never stopped completely.
This is partly because she has always read – poetry from the sixteenth century right up to the 2019s, as a result of a first degree in Eng. Lit. – and partly because no job can satisfy every need, perhaps particularly not the need for something personal and self-examining. She spends a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds. Writing poems offsets that: poetry is a way of talking about how each of us sees, is touched by, grasps, and responds to our own different worlds and the people in them.
She won the National Poetry Prize in 2001 with Undressing, has won several other prizes and has two collections out – Invention of Fireworks and The Drum.
Beatrice is one of the most dynamic women I know. Her poems are vivid and daring.
Here’s what she says about her writing and getting older –
I only started to write really once I was older – say, from 50 onwards. And over the last four or five years I’ve become more confident about performing/reading. But basically growing older for me has meant knowing my own mind, and not being afraid to speak it without becoming strident.
We are going to bed. From where
I am lying, hands behind my head,
I watch your progress with interest
for you are a fine-looking man, good hair
and yes, still slim. When you remove
your shirt, stretching to take it off
without undoing the buttons, I see your ribs
and catch a drift of something feral,
warm, from the efforts of the day
and it makes my pulse quicken. But first
I must tell you something important:
you must never ever ever again
leave your socks on till last.
Matthew Brown, 54, is a freelance journalist and writer. His poems have appeared in a number of publications, including Magma, Other Poetry and South Bank Poetry. He grew up in Durham and lives in East London.
Matt is brilliant at forensically dissecting experiences, particularly around nature. His poems are have a quiet but flaming sensitivity to them.
Here’s s poem of his that was in a group pamphlet, Sounds of the Front Bell.
Weigh it first in the palm of your left, belly up.
Then flop flank down on the block, tail fanned out
against marble or oak. Note the gold scales,
the red-eye dots. See the gills collapse,
the arsehole’s dark O. Touch your blade tip here,
clip a nick, press till the slit grows. Grip.
Use a rag if you must, then slice through chest
to throat – a fine line where pale flesh thins.
Stop before the slack jaw’s wishbone. Make it clean.
Fishwives, it’s said, could cut through fifty a minute, their blunt fingers stunk to old age.
Slide yours between the flaps to catch
the guts, a moist purseful of soft mechanics.
This is what there is: a tube for in and out made slime. Snip the gullet, tug
the slick innards till membrane peels from bone. Adjust your hold, thumb
back muscle, let the knife-point pierce
the spinal column. Ooze as black as claret dregs.
Most goes with a running tap; some spots
need an edge, a fingernail. With luck, what’s found
between the ribs is pink. Leave the head,
let eyes pearl in the pan, skin butter-crisp with sting of lemon and dill. What’s left
is skeleton: skull, vertebrae, fin; tail, a tattered flag on a grounded ship. Fold the waste
in old news, seal the lid from night’s predators.
Debra Watson, 53, is the co-founder and director of The Crimson Word, a poetry collective for shows and events exploring multi-sensory, immersive poetry. She is also a regular performer at The Poetry Brothel London and with The Bloody Poets. She has recently published her first chapbook Laments and Incantations.
Debra is a sensual poet whose words wrap around you and wrestle you to the floor. She delights with her provocative tongue.
Here’s what she says about her work and evolution as a poet –
I stopped writing poetry when I came to the UK in 1997 and started again in 2011. I found a batch of poems that I wrote between 1993 and 1997 and to be honest, the themes and the writing styles are not madly different. I think, if anything, I have developed more craft in the writing. It was wonderful working with poet and editor Katie Haworth on my chapbook. The reasons the poems look more ‘professional’ is that Katie brought some ‘grammar rules’ to the work. She has a fine eye for teasing out the style of the poet and creating formatting rules. She is a tough editor and I had to fight my corner. I am quite stubborn, so often my first reaction to changes is ‘no’ – but then I would look again, and I would see that Katie had actually made a really genius and elegant suggestion. If anything, getting older has made me more willing to open up my work to collaborations.
What has made the most impact on my writing is performing live with The Poetry Brothel London. When I first started I asked Gabriel Moreno if I had to learn my lines. He suggested that I did, but left it to me to decide. The first few performances, I read from a book both for the opening performances and for the private, 1-2-1 readings. However, The Poetry Brothel always has photographers roaming about, and I didn’t like the way the photos looked. So I started learning the poems out of vanity. It was very freeing.
It is very much like that point in rehearsing a play when the director calls for ‘books down’ and suddenly, you can concentrate more intently on your body and your internal relationship to the words than you can if reading from the page. I find this difficult to describe, but in some way it has affected the musicality of the writing.
Performing ‘book down’ has then become really useful when performing intimate poetry either with The Poetry Brothel or with The Crimson Word, the poetry performance company I started with Winter James. Being book free has made it possible to get really close to the clients and to experiment with performing multi-sensory poems.
The poet Amy-Nielson Smith was the first person I knew who was doing this in her private readings, using blindfolds and smell sensations. I was reluctant at first – but after a few months at the Poetry Brothel – seeing how much the clients loved it when other poets blindfolded them, I started doing it too. Now it is a central part of my intimate performances and has made me super aware of the use of multi-sensory word triggers within the long form poems.
The second major influence has been working very closely with the violinist Henni Saarela. Henni is a hero. So much of the impact of the work has come through developing work with her. I have worked with musicians a lot since I started performing publicly in the 1980s.
I used to write far more political stuff till the late 80s, early 90s and worked at first with a traditional drummer and then a cellist. I have always written erotica and performed at a lot of arts events in my youth. At my book launch in May, Henni and I were joined by PicturePoems and Gabi Garbutt for some of the poems from the collection.
There are a lot of poets who are musicians and we tend to talk a bit about the difference between writing music and writing poems. Sappho, of course, was a musician, so the two have been linked in a bardic way through many cultures. We keep intending to record. I’d love that to be a collaboration with other musicians. The Spanish poetess, Belen Berlin, played ukulele on the first performance of ‘Dammit Johnny’ with the collective ‘The Bloody Poets’ and it was amazing. Henni plays that part now and sometimes other instruments too.
At the last Poetry Brothel, Henni and I were joined by Gabriel Moreno on guitar for ‘Barcelona’ and it was sensational. The title of my chapbook is called ‘Laments and Incantations’ and some of the writing has choruses/ refrains that reflect this influence of working with musicians. I’ve worked with a few different musicians on different instruments, but never all at the same time. I guess that might be next.
The last few months I have been dealing with chronic pain and have not had much mental clarity or energy to write. The last thing I wrote which I performed with FemmeDemomium at The Uncensored Festival is a prose poem called ‘Bad Feminist’.
It is a huge departure for me in terms of style. The piece before that was a bespoke performance piece called ‘Baba Yaga’. Although thematically it fitted into my fascination with retelling fairytales – stylistically, it was writing to fit in with a performance developed by poet Naomi Wood – playing the young Baba Yaga who gets the calling to visit the Baba Yaga.
I wrote for and performed the more cantankerous version of Baba Yaga. I also re-wrote ‘The Beauty and The Beast’ for a performance of ‘Venus in Furs’ which we did with The Crimson Word. It was hugely satisfying as it was delivered to be read as a pervy bed-time story and it was enacted by our house submissive playing ‘Beauty’ and an audience member playing ‘The Beast’. The fairy-tale turns the roles on their heads.
I am also busy writing for a new collection called ‘The Empire of Fluff’ which includes poems about colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. I don’t really know – my writing feels all over the place at the moment. Lacking discipline in so far as I am responding in very different and diverse ways to themes – so it is more difficult seeing an organic collection grow as I did with ‘Laments and Incantations’.
Here’s a poem that we published in AofA –
I immerse myself in you
Wanting you same
as I always did
When we were young
and the violet Jacaranda
fell carelessly in
around our feet
though we were still
Both busy reaping
the sky of stars,
I fell into you,
and light in passing
we’d be doing
into our 60s
that the delights and sensations of spring
could last for endless nights.
I touch you now
beneath my mouth
open to receive me
and though we are both older
when I kiss you
I feel a subcutaneous youth,
surfacing from deep within
and my thighs
My longing is both endless and urgent
Your body lends itself to me
and I can be as selfish as I choose
in choosing you
The feel of you evokes
so much light in me
that my fingertips
burst with sunshine
Tonight the smile will not
leave my eyes
or my soul
stop from spinning
and I cannot be damned for the
laughter you make well from me
or the way my body remembers
As if we had not spent mere hours together
in this life
but lifetimes with every hour.
TICKETS FOR PIZZAZZ, SIX POETS OVER 50 TAKING PLACE AT THE POETRY CAFÉ DOWNSTAIRS AT 7PM, JUNE 27TH 2019, CAN BE BOUGHT HERE –
As some of you know, I am deeply interested in death and dying.
A few weeks ago I released the beginning of a film collaboration with my friend Andrew Hassenruck. Its intent is to keep some kind of record as I explore the possibility and option of taking my life.
When I say released, I don’t mean in a major way. I’m not a media star, and neither is my little film trending. Nevertheless, I have come out into the public domain with my enquiry. Everyone to whom I matter has seen it. Many people I don’t personally know, some who kindly follow my blog, friends of friends, friends of strangers, have seen it too.
Over the last decade, I have chosen to write from an undefended place. It serves me well as a connective measure, and if on occasion it can serve someone else, well, that is a cherry on the cake.
Although I’ve become comfortable with the process of working like this, putting this piece out there – still put my heart in my mouth. My close friends were already in the loop. I had had fulsome conversations (you know who you are) and felt into what it would mean, and what it would ask of me, to go public.
It’s an emotive and taboo terrain. It’s an unusual proposal. It’s likely I’ll trigger some people to anger, fear, judgment, or argument. Most difficult of all is when others want to fix me. I get the good heart of it, but that triggers me.
Don’t get me wrong, if I were offered private health care that would take me out of the six months between appointments and praying to get to talk to the same surgeon as last time, groove, I’d say an unreserved, yes, please and thank you. They are the facts of the matter, alongside the time it takes to journey through the necessary hoops. I’d prefer a shorter route to finding out if the surgery to fuse two discs in my spine, either alleviated pain enough to make a difference to my quality of life, didn’t work at all, or indeed made it worse. These are the possible outcomes.
It’s the intense level of generous but onerous offers to fix that sees me off. The endless treatments and practitioners that have worked miracles for someone else. I want to say: don’t you think I’ve tried a lot of different remedies over many years? Don’t you reckon I might have some people in place? Don’t you realize that my disposable income is very small and may well be allocated already? My low tolerance for such efforts may not be fair, or very graceful, but I also want to say: what if you don’t have to offer me anything, and neither one of us needs fixing? My point being that these old narratives make distance happen, and I’d rather hang out in the fields of helpless humanity, where tears and laughter are buddies, and it is as it is.
Death compels me, and always has done, though this last decade of my little life has been the kindest. Kindness found me when I gave up looking for redemption. It was always there. Do I regret how long I didn’t know that for? Yes, I do.
I wonder about the duet of my depression and physical pain. If I were of a lighter disposition, would it seem such a viable option to choose death in the face of increasing disability and pain? The truth is I don’t have and won’t find a categorical answer to such wondering. A simple thread of truth is this: if there isn’t a way to reduce the degree of pain in my back, hips and groin, the pain that is my constant companion, I don’t want to stay in the world. It’s survival. It’s both too much and not enough.
My specialist subjects of death and enduring depression are not always easy to speak about. I feel deep in my blood and bones that doesn’t serve us, and that the unspeakable needs a voice. Many voices. Being a tiny thread in that conversation matters to me. What if depression responds better to being welcomed than banished? What if suicide is not by definition a tragedy? (Though of course it often is) What if choosing to die, is for some of us, the optimum option? What if death itself is not a tragedy, but could be more of a sweet human event to be thought, talked about and walked towards, differently? What if the mirror twins of entering embodied life with the first breath, and slipping out on the last, were equally blessed? What if more of us could turn our faces into dying with awareness and kindness?
I know, that’s a lot of what ifs.
Here’s a thing, I feel a least some gratitude to this opportunity for sincere enquiry. I enjoy, yes enjoy, thinking it through, imagining and creating details. I can feel my integrity and my love of beauty, ritual and intimate communication in the harness. I would put my heart and soul into giving it my best, passionate effort. That must mean at least some part of me, however small, would be disappointed if the surgery is effective and I get to stay in my little life for a while longer.
In the few weeks since setting my film loose, I have received so much kindness and understanding. I am truly humbled by some Herculean stretching to empathy instead of opposition. Gratitude especially to my brother Paul, sister in law, Maureen and precious niece, Genna.
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.
As Leonard Cohen says in the lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat: I hope you’re keeping some kind of record. For me, the taking of a few notes along the road never fails to crack my heart open. With my heart open I always remember we are in it together. All our little lives rolling on and running out, in a ravaged and beautiful world, that in my humble opinion – is also dying.
A problematical bed to fill was how she put it, which left a lot of scope to wonder how the problem came about and when. In her faded Greenham Common T-shirt and cut-offs, she looked too jaunty for sudden widowhood; too down-at-heel to be on the pull, though her breasts were nicely presented. She didn’t seem the sort to offer her bed to a canine companion, and I guessed her to be a cat-hater or even a member of ‘Abstinence Actually’. Dry shade she whispered to the young attendant, and the ghost of Mellors seemed to hover at her shoulder, to hint at maidenhair ferns, though a gamekeeper was probably the last thing she wanted in her garden, dry shade or not. Then she disappeared down a row of euphorbias, left me to conjure her maverick world; the delicate stepping over of a wine and poem drunk woman, her late night dance, how in the morning she might hurry to ‘sent items’ to check her indiscretions.
Wendy Klein is one of the poets who is performing on June 27th at the Poetry Cafe as part of Pizzazz, the Advantages of Age poetry evening. Book your ticket here.
As an Energy Medicine Coach, I’ve spent pretty much the last 25 years helping others find their way. Now, it is time for me to forge mine anew.
And my path is based upon a personal story that, up until now, I’ve hidden away in a very dark little closet…
Eight years ago, I was facing a hysterectomy following a failed procedure to cauterise the fibroid that was causing me many dire and unspeakable problems. And this op was not to be a keyhole job; I was facing the whole kit and caboodle. Not only did I not want to lose my womb; as a self-employed single parent, I simply could not afford to take time off work.
I pleaded with the consultant to offer me an alternative, but she was adamant. She said that the only chance I had of avoiding surgery was if the menopause were to suddenly appear. This, she said, would basically starve the troublesome fibroid into extinction. However, blood tests had revealed this was not going to be happening anytime soon; in fact, she guessed it would be at least five years. This consultant insisted that I couldn’t wait another few weeks, let alone a few years.
I’d spent a long time and a lot of money trying various approaches; Ayurveda, Chinese herbs, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Healing, Health Kinesiology, Hypnotherapy and The Journey process, but nothing had made the slightest bit of difference. This – for somebody whose whole life had been spent immersed in all things holistic and alternative – was utterly demoralising. I felt like a failure and a fraud.
But there was still a little voice nagging away at me saying there was a way. I just needed to find it. A big part of me thought further research was futile, but in sheer desperation, I nevertheless burnt a lot of midnight oil trying to find something I hadn’t tried.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a little-known ancient tantric birth control technique, which was purported to stop periods. As a very well-read energy healer, I’d never come across anything like this, and frankly, I was extremely sceptical. But it was a chance… perhaps my only chance. A shot in the dark, which my logical brain told me I was stupid to try, but nevertheless, my intuitive brain won the battle and I postponed my op for a month to give it a go.
I never had another period again. Within four months, I’d gone through a ‘mini menopause’ and was out the other side. Job done. And no op.
After the many years I’d spent struggling with debilitating symptoms, I was utterly flabbergasted by what I’d achieved. And yet I nevertheless kept my story pretty much to myself. I just wasn’t ready to out myself as a post-menopausal woman in a world whose judgment I feared.
Instead, I decided that an adventure was long overdue, and I took myself off to Bali – ostensibly to write a book about my healing work. I meditated, did lots of yoga, drank fresh juices, and slowly but surely, immersed myself – ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-style – into this strange and fascinating culture. I watched sunrises and sunsets, lost a stone, grew my hair and took a young lover. And my little sabbatical just kept being extended month after month.
My young beau – a European who’d lived in Bali for over half his life – introduced me to his neighbour, who just happened to be Ketut Liyer, the real-life healer who was featured in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. He was instrumental in turning around the life of the now-famous author Liz Gilbert, whose book turned into a best-seller and a Hollywood movie which transformed Bali almost overnight into the veritable metropolis that it is today.
Ketut and I hit it off immediately. We flirted, joked and talked long into the afternoon. It culminated in me giving him energy healing. Before my eyes, this elderly man who was ravaged with dementia transformed into a coherent and lucid shaman who taught me such a lot during the week I ended up spending with him and his family.
It was, in so many ways, the time of my life but after almost five years of living between Blighty and Bali, and with my young lover having turned his attention to a lovely young Balinese girl to whom he is now married, I began to find my nomadic lifestyle somewhat lonely and rather unsettling. So I returned home to pick up the pieces of my old life.
Of course, life had moved on and so had I. I didn’t feel as if anything ‘fitted’ me anymore. It was time to shed an old skin, turn over a new leaf, and start getting real. Drawing upon the intensive healing experiences I’d watched Ketut and other Balinese shamans craft with such dazzlingly efficacy, I created The Bespoke Retreat Company to offer private, tailored healing intensives for clients seeking deep and lasting transformation.
After a year of taking all kinds of people from Burnout to Brilliant in literally a few days, I was asked to create a retreat specifically for a woman who was struggling with the menopause. She knew nothing about the energy technique that I’d used on myself all those years ago; but it had an almost instant effect upon her and has since transformed her life.
And with that, a new arm to my business – Hotstuff – was born. Contrary to the ease with which I’d sailed through it, the menopause for most women is a very big deal indeed. My retreat client had told me she was absolutely at the end of her tether. The symptoms can be seriously debilitating, and affect not only the woman herself, but her relationships with loved ones, friends and colleagues too. I’m told that doctors receive less than an hour’s training in the subject, and the commonly accepted medical model asserts it is all about hormones, which is only a part of the story. The modern menopause is bound up with a plethora of complex layers, including diet, lifestyle and the psychological implications of a society that seeks to denigrate ageing as something unacceptable. The power and devil-may-care chutzpah that come in the wake of menopause are secrets that have been hidden from women for millennia.
And yes, this does bring me well and truly out of the closet and into the open about my own story! But, this is often the case. When we’re finally on track, there is almost always a personal story underneath it. This inevitably takes us into our own vulnerabilities and invites us to be transparent because we receive our own true powers after we share ourselves fully with the world. And so here I am: Lynn Jackson, Energy Medicine Coach, Retreats expert and post-menopausal instigator of Hotstuff. It’s been a pretty circuitous route, but it all happens for a reason, and – at the age of 60 – I feel I’m finally stepping into my power.
I thank AoA for the inspiration, and hope my story will serve to inspire others.
Lynn Jackson is an energy healer and retreats guru who specialises in menopausal issues via her ‘Hotstuff’ menopause initiative. lynnjackson.co.uk & bespoke-retreats.co.uk
She is running a 12-week Menopause online course, which starts on 3rd June, and includes a group retreat in a fabulous Elizabethan manor house on 20/21 June.
The first sport I did was serving orange quarters to Amazonian Australian girls who were on the teams. As these things tend to go, the same girls didn’t just make one team; they stormed onto all of them. As a small, migrant child dispossessed of hand-eye co-ordination, I was forever doomed to be the last one left standing when the captains chose their crew. Looking back perhaps they felt the same way when I played most of the parts in Shakespeare. I don’t really think so.
Most of these kids had emerged from the womb already swimming. Besides the dread of the weekly school lesson, there was the nuclear cloud of chlorine that hovered above the pool. It was impossible not to inhale which was pretty much my major take-out until we learned privately when I hit the ancient swimmer’s age of eight and they took the chlorine down by about fifty shots.
That’s pretty much how it went in Australia in the 1970s. Unless you were any good – no let’s make that very good at something – you were excluded. By Year 10, I’d adopted the waiter’s trick of spitting on the oranges and excelling at something none of them were interested in: cross-country running. Meanwhile, they were too busy chugging ciggies as they walked the course. I should have taken note back then.
I ran for a few years after that – until knee pain sent me to a specialist who took one look and said: ‘Well, you’re not built like a runner are you? You’ve got hips. Go swimming instead.’ Determined to turn my diminutive, curvy body into something it was resisting, I persisted. Away from the gaze of school bullies, I perfected my freestyle until I moved to London where people did not do laps in swimming pools. They floated on their backs and kind of gurgled like toddlers.
And then along came strapping Sean from NZ and a love affair with weights. Trainers are like medical professionals, you are not allowed to covet them. And for about 20 years, I trained like a boy, watching with amazement as my muscles became more defined and grew. I delighted in wearing sleeveless tops and flexing my muscles at every opportunity. It was death or glory, I chose the latter, I even learnt to ski at the age of 47 having figured out that since my life was probably half-over, injury would not be so bad.
A life spent sticking to the Mediterranean diet, a good measure of genetics and things ticked along nicely until I was about 52. Up until then, I had not given the slightest consideration to the possibility that my investment in myself could go down as well as up. My first oversight.
The second was menopause. Okay, I had no control over that one but while I expected the sudden bursts of tube rage, I didn’t anticipate that every past injury and some new ones would all surface at once and suddenly instead of a fighting machine, my body would become a nagging old aunt.
I started to feel very, very tired. I now realise I should have adopted the Keith Richards fitness regime way before. With barely a couple of glasses of wine a week and the same healthy diet, the GP informed me two months ago that I was ‘highly methylated’ with dangerously high copper and stupidly low zinc. I got capsules for that. I also acquired a physio for the hip bursitis – that’s a menopause thing apparently – and Pilates Reformer classes for the neck. I briefly tried opiates but my tolerance maxed out after two days. Go figure.
I recently opined to my mum who has never been ill in 89 years but then she stuck to gardening, that I should have stuck closer to the Middle East staples of cigarettes and alcohol with minimal exercise – my cousins don’t eat. The rather delicious irony in all this is that because the pharmaceutical painkillers either don’t work or hurt my stomach, my effective painkillers these days are vodka or scotch and the odd cigarette.
Two nights ago, the osteoarthritis in my neck reached beyond a level of tolerable pain, I helped myself to a couple of vodka shots and felt good enough to dance to random You Tube tracks for four hours. I’m not sure that particular recipe will work long-term, but right now a modicum of the Keith Richards’ methodology is working just fine.
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.”