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Backstroke


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Gerry Herman, 66, wrote this piece when he was in his mid-40s about his father who was 71. He explained that at that point ’71 seemed much older than it does now’.

He also said The title of “Backstroke” is kind of a play on words. ‘My dad had a stroke and ended up with a damaged, non-functioning left (arm and) hand. I found that to be strangely ironic because his father, my grandfather, “back” one generation, had his left hand blown off during the war. So I put “back” and “stroke” together and came up with “Backstroke”.’

He felt now was the time to go public with it.

I was never as close to my father as I was during the week that he lay in a coma following cardiac bypass surgery. I sat by his bed in the ICU, holding his hand, stroking his forehead, my tears plopping onto the bedsheets. He was unresponsive, ashen. It looked as if he would just sleep forever.

As the minutes, hours, and days passed, air was pumped into his lungs through a breathing tube that was strapped to his mouth and down his throat, eerily distorting his face. The anguish that I experienced during my father’s stay in intensive care spiralled into an ugly depression that left me depleted and feeling lost for several months afterward.

At 71 years of age, my father was neither robustly healthy nor was he ever really sick a day in his life. He and my mother, had been married for over 50 years, retired since 1992, travelled extensively around the US and Europe, participating in elder hostels, and visiting my sister and her family in South Wales from time to time. I assumed that my father would just plod along forever the way he’d done since I was a kid, going to work, travelling with my mom, planting his backyard garden, tinkering in the basement, and sitting in front of his computer.

And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he was going into the hospital for open-heart surgery. Apparently, he had been experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath; an angiogram was ordered by his physician, and within twenty-four hours an emergency bypass procedure was scheduled. His coronary vessels were ninety per cent occluded. The cardiologist labelled him a “time bomb”. He said that a heart attack was imminent and surgery was necessary in order to save his life.

When I received this news, my father was already in the hospital, awaiting surgery. My mother never told me that my father was unwell. For that matter, neither did my father tell me that he was having health problems. Maybe I should have been more cognisant of the clues that had been apparent in the past few weeks – dad did seem very sluggish at Thanksgiving; he also had had several doctor’s appointments recently and had undergone a stress test. I assumed this was all normal for a 71-year-old man. In any case, I had only 24 hours to prepare myself for the next nightmarish month.

I think I was in shock the next morning as my partners at work tried to assure me that this routine procedure would not only go smoothly, it would also add years to my father’s life. Somehow, I wasn’t soothed. My imagination hounded me with images of my father’s chest being cut open and his heart exposed. I felt helpless and unable to protect my father. My heart was aching. I drove to the hospital that afternoon to see him before the surgery, scheduled for 6:00 PM. I got there at around 3:30 and met my mother and brother in the waiting area.

Here we received our first bit of bad news: the operating room had become vacant earlier in the afternoon, and in the hospital’s interest of eliminating O.R. downtime had taken my father into surgery hours ahead of schedule. No one at the hospital had notified us of this decision. We never got a chance to see him before the operation, to touch his hand or kiss him, to wish him well. His heart surgery was well underway as we sat there, angry, disappointed and scared.

In retelling this experience, it is not my intention to malign the medical profession or hospital protocol. The list of malpractice attorneys that I half-heartedly compiled still sits on my desk collecting dust. I, too, am a doctor, although by choosing dentistry as my craft, I have chosen not to deal with life and death issues on a daily basis. However, I digress. My family and I were left in the dark for an entire weekend, without any idea of the complications that occurred on that Thursday afternoon in the operating room. Although we wondered why my father was not regaining consciousness.

The surgeon met us at my father’s bedside in intensive care before he left for the weekend, briefly telling us that everything went as planned and that he would be monitoring the recovery. As my father slept and slept, in neighbouring cubicles other patients were waking up to greet their families. Meanwhile, my mother, brother, sister-in-law and I grew increasingly concerned and anxious. Then, on Monday, the weekend now just a sleepless agonizing blur, a neurologist was called in for a consultation. A brain scan was ordered.  The specialist phoned us in ICU with the results. I remember my mother’s haggard face as she handed me the telephone receiver, unable to concentrate or comprehend what she was hearing.

According to the neurologist’s review of the operating room notes and the results of the EEG, during the surgery, my father experienced a precipitous drop in blood pressure followed by a period of several minutes in which his brain did not receive enough oxygen. Simply put, dad suffered a stroke during the bypass operation. He remained comatose for ten days. When he finally regained consciousness, his left arm was badly weakened and he was unable to move his left hand. It made me furious to hear the cardiologist later label the procedure “a success”.

My father’s father had been an 18-year-old tailor in Poland when his left hand was shattered by a faulty grenade (a “hand” grenade) in World War I. As a young child, I was both fascinated and frightened by my angry, violent grandfather who always hid his left hand in the pocket of his black suit pants. In my mind’s eye, I can see him at the dinner table, struggling silently and alone with his food. (He put ketchup on everything, from his grapefruit half to his chicken soup, and ate clumsily with his only hand.)

One day I was sitting alone with him, watching television. I think he sensed that this curious nine-year-old boy held a morbid fascination of his one-handedness. More likely he was trying to scare me. But he asked me if I wanted to see it. Of course I did! Slowly he brought his left hand out of its hiding place, the deep, dark pocket of his ever-present black suit pants. It was kind of disappointing, actually, and sad. Just a faded, leathery, beige-coloured covering at the end of his arm where his hand should have been, like an old leather baseball sticking out from his sleeve. He held it out there for a couple of moments then he wordlessly put it back into his pocket.

As I watch my father now, struggling with his disability, I am a child again, cowering before my raging grandfather, mystified and bewildered by the tricks that life plays on us. But my father is not my grandfather, not even remotely so.

My grandfather was a bitter, bad-tempered man who was violent to his wife and his sons, who routinely made my little sister and I cry with his angry outbursts, and who went kicking and screaming to his grave.

My father is a gentle, sweet man who lets my mother cut his food for him because he can’t, and who, since his stroke a year and a half ago, I haven’t heard him become dispirited or complain. Not even once.

Letting go of 40 years’ worth of family memories


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Over the past couple of years, I have had to share – with my partner, sister and other family members – the grim and heart-breaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until last summer.

Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. Despite never having lived in the house, I felt our family’s history seeping from every wall. I was incredibly protective towards it; particularly after my mother had to go into a care home, and the house was standing empty for most of the week. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it (although my dad died 23 years ago), and I would often cry for most of the two-hour journey home. My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots and, most likely (I’m guessing), want to start a family. The place needs another family and all the new life that brings. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all.

I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone, never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the larger items of furniture in the final week, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clear outs during lockdown.

I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations. Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas – the kind we used to have, when our grandparents and other family members came to stay, and when friends and neighbours dropped by. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis; her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, or even a mobile phone, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I suspect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.

We tried putting the bigger and better items from the house at the top of the drive for people to take (again, a lot of them were unused and still in their original packaging) and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip, or to charity. My sister’s friend helpfully put ads on a local ‘free’ website and we managed to pass on a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. (We all liked it, but none of us had room in our respective homes for it.) The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip.

Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants. As it happened, we had ten, all bought by me in an attempt to make the place look lived-in, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said.

Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass just a year before and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but couldn’t (Covid).

Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and Google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, cookery, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!) and sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests). There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and sensibly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies.

Having come from a wartime background of ‘Make do and mend’ my parents kept their furniture for decades. There was the 1950s oak sideboard they bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room at her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago. I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I just couldn’t let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to enjoy dusting and polishing its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)

However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been for someone like me?!)

There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family.

There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?

The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!

Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my partner, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related news is in there. They all enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him.

Don’t get me started on the photos. Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of them have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are my own house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. And I still haven’t looked at them.

There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling.

We had a caravan in the 1970s and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.

There were sets of pristine, unused bedding, blankets and towels. After a bit of research and a few phone calls, we were able to take a lot of those to a local homeless shelter. Again, though, even those places were a bit sniffy about what they were prepared to take, which surprised us. And the tea-towels! I said to my partner: ‘Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!’ When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare linens, and guess what? There were about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. I sorted through them, kept my favourites and the rest (all unused, of course) went to charity. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.

I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things away and never looking at them again and my parents’ small house was very well served with built-in cupboards in every room – sometimes more than one. All deep and all rammed to bursting.

A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is my new Very Good Thing.

Another friend, who lives in a very small flat, pays storage rental for furniture that belonged to her parents, which she wants to keep but has no room for at the moment. She is currently looking for a larger flat.

This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! All the old newspapers and leaflets commemorating some event or other, all carefully saved and filed neatly into plastic folders by my parents, ended up on the skip, or in the recycling bin, simply because there was no time to go through them all first. And that’s not including the boxes of papers and other items both my sister and I took to our respective homes to sort through. I have all my mother’s old diaries and address books and they, alongside 20 bursting carrier bags, are piled up on a bench in my kitchen – and have been for the past ten months – because every time I go to look through them, I start to cry. But I have mild OCD and I like my home to look good, so it’s a daily niggle for me and I know I have to get on with sorting it all out before an entire year has passed!

I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 12 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. Unable to leave the house at all, not even to go and sit in the garden, I’m not at all sure what she thought she was buying all these things for. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork, or we could have helped her with it all, of course.

The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. In fact, I’m still haunted by what we chucked out and gave away and regret not keeping more, but our own house isn’t that big and is already very full. Sigh. My partner is just as bad: when it came to clearing his parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and then went and bought them all back the next!

We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local village pub for some months, since they were able to reopen after lockdown. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down  with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to my partner: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember.

Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, which were looking bare and unloved before. I was also keen to keep up appearances for security’s sake. To make the place look cared-for and occupied. Last year, at what turned out to be our last spring at the house, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. And so the cycle continues…

Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially hard for me, although we have been invited to tea with all of them – an offer we haven’t been able to take up yet, as our trips to see Mum in the home take up the entire day, there and back. After so many years, it feels sad and strange to no longer have a base in the area. Like outcasts. Mum is unaware we have had to sell the house, and thinks it’s still ours, with all her things still in it, which makes for some very difficult conversations with her. It would be immensely distressing for her to learn the truth and I hope she never finds out. Naturally, she wants to go back there, which would have been impossible in any case, even if we had somehow been able to hang on to it.

A shout-out to my long-suffering partner, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he did for me, over the past few years. All the driving (I don’t drive), the checking and fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he gave me in so many ways, during what was easily one of the worst times of my entire life was over and above and beyond the call of duty. It continues, too, with our regular trips to see Mum in the home. He is a rare gem indeed.

I finally came off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I had been taking to get me through all of it. I was crying every day, and barely sleeping for worrying about the place when we weren’t there. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad had built had been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me over the years, and never more so than in the last two years of our ownership. I think he would have liked that, though I’m not so sure he would be so happy with, or approve of the way things have turned out. I hated that our last few weeks there were so stressful, fraught, panicky and emotional, and I’m still feeling wretchedly guilty, grief-stricken and regretful at what we threw into those skips, and gave away to charity and the neighbours – it haunts me every single day. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mum. Though, as someone pointed out to me last year, I’d have most likely felt sad every time I looked at anything I’d kept. He said it’s not always healthy to be reminded. He has a point, though I have kept some things, of course. Just not everything.

And when I do think of what we had to leave behind, I find it helps me a little to imagine that at least some of those things belonging to our family are still residing in the area and, especially, in the village we loved and were very happy to call our home for so many years.

© Clare Cooper, 2022

I Was Like a Man Falling off a Ferry – I had MS


8 Minute Read

Sometimes I think Job has nothing on me. All he had to contend with was a questioning of his faith in god in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. I have been faced with much more existential dilemmas than that.

I took early retirement about seven years ago, at the age of 55, due to various ailments that I couldn’t put my finger on. Ironically, it was my finger that first clued me into what was wrong. Just the very tip of my right index finger was sore and plagued by a painful numbness, if that doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction. I was beginning to find it difficult to type and my work as a lecturer and researcher was being affected as a result. The pain gradually extended further down my finger and then into my other hand followed by my toes and my feet and it was becoming clear that something was seriously amiss.

The next thing was the tests and the MRI scans, until eventually the GP sat me down and handed me the letter he had received from the hospital and said ‘maybe you had better read this.’ And there it was: a diagnosis of demyelination (myelin is the fatty covering on your nerves) and the strong possibility that it was Multiple Sclerosis. Bit of a hammer blow. I struggled on at work, of course, that’s what we are meant to do, isn’t it? We pretend that everything will be alright. But of course it wasn’t.

I found it more and more difficult to get upstairs and the fatigue was so bad that I made a little bed under my desk. Often students would knock and find me rubbing my eyes and coming back to life to answer their questions about essays and coursework. Within a few months the brilliant HR department at Sheffield was offering me early retirement on a full pension and even though I still did not feel as though I was disabled, I took it. As with all retirement, it is necessary to take a good run up at it and think your way into a new purpose in life. But rather than having several years to get used to the idea, I was pitched into it like a man falling off a ferry.

I had joined the army at 16 with no school qualifications, had left at 21 and become a lorry driver, before studying German as a mature student. If the army gave me nothing else then the ability to speak German and drive lorries turned out to be worth their weight in Bitcoin. After that I got a job as a lecturer in post-45 German history and it was all downhill from there. In that sense my entire adult life was consumed with either physical or intellectual labour and it has proven really difficult to break that habit.

I have largely got there now – as anyone who knows me will be able to tell you – but still I feel as though I should be writing books, if not rushing up and down the highways of Britain delivering concrete or tarmac. The initial anxiety dreams of having lost some important piece of military kit or misplacing my lorry have largely faded now and I sleep a largely untroubled sleep. My ex-wife and I used to talk about how we were both so brilliant that somebody should pay us just to be ourselves. Well, now they are. It’s called a pension. The problem is that I am not myself anymore.

It’s amazing how quickly I dropped any pretence at academic work and when I now read the research I did, I feel as though it was a different person writing it. That’s because it was, and I don’t really understand most of what I wrote or why I wrote it. Not because of any cognitive decline on my part but simply because I was so much older then and I’m younger than that now.

Since that first MS diagnosis, there have been plenty of others as well, so that it becomes difficult to disentangle all the symptoms. I have also had sepsis in my arm from a cat bite, which needed quite a nasty operation (I have pictures if you need proof). When they investigated why I was getting such serious infections they found that my blood was basically empty. It had hardly any of the things in it that it needs to do its job. Pancytopenic, they called it. When they investigated the reasons for that they found in turn that I had a very rare form of leukaemia; hairy cell leukaemia. No, I hadn’t heard of it either.

The doctor said to me ‘Oh well if you are going to have cancer then this is the type that you want. It’s not even proper leukaemia.’ I think that was meant to be reassuring. It kind of was, in a way. Anyway, a series of injections and infusions (the first of which sent me into a spiral of reaction in which I thought I was definitely goner) and a couple of weeks lying down and all was fixed. Full remission. If it comes back in another 15 years – which is possible – they will simply give me the injections and infusions again. Mind you, by then they will have probably invented something else and all will be well. I’m hoping that by then they will have also found a cure for MS.

Because that’s just what one does, isn’t it? It’s the principle of hope. One hangs on for dear life, squeezing every drop you can out of it, trying to have experiences and to fill up the empty hours you have suddenly been gifted. The empty hours are there because of illnesses. But had I not had these things and had I struggled on for a few more years until I was 67 (another 5 years of work – inconceivable – and I do sometimes wake in a cold sweat wondering whether they will make me go back to work if a cure for MS is found) then I would still be doing better than my father, (who died at 62 – the same age as me now – which seems to have some deep significance that I can’t quite explain) or my uncle – his brother – who also died in his 60s. My younger cousin has just died of the dreaded c-word as well and I have reached that age we are all familiar with when all around me people are beginning to drop off the perch. Although at the same time, I feel freer and more in control now than I ever have in my life and I have also become Zen-like in my appreciation of what is around me – to the extent that I can do nothing all day and think it good – there is still a big hole where the whole should be.

I taught German philosophy as well as history at university and I spend a lot of time – probably far too much time – looking out of the window and thinking about Heidegger and Hegel and Being and Nothingness. Although that is all great fun, and something to bore my grandchildren with, it doesn’t butter many parsnips. But life is funny like that. Camus recognised the absurd nature of our existence and the randomness of the things that befall us and I find it difficult to think of it in terms other than that. I even invented a term for it during some extended discussions at a particularly drunken conference; namely, the metaphysics of contingency.

In other words, stuff happens and then we make grand stories up about why it had to happen, how it is all part of some great plan for us both as individuals and as a species. But there is no plan, of course. Heidegger adapted Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) into sum moribundus (I die therefore I am) to explain our purpose and, as the old army song has it, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and as retirement shows us, our existence is completely pointless. It’s what I call an unnecessary necessity.

Everything that has happened to me over these years has been necessary to make the person that I am now, but my existence was not necessary per se. If I had not been born the world would have carried on – indeed, my poor, mismatched shotgun parents would have gone their separate ways as they should have done – and the universe would have carried on expanding without even a blink of the eye.

I don’t know what the advantages of age actually are other than a recognition that nothing really matters and that it becomes much easier to accept the banality of life than when one was young and everything mattered so very much. ‘Life is what it is’, as they say today, but you only pass this way once so it is important to make the most of it etc.

The worst thing would be to lie on your deathbed feeling and knowing that it was all for nothing. Despite all the things that have befallen me I am neither desperate or unhappy. Sometimes life feels like the trials of Job crossed with the labours of Sisyphus and Hercules thrown in for good measure. But it has been a hell of a ride  and it’s not over yet.

Funky Morrissing in London – meet Syd Pochin


4 Minute Read

‘The one thing that gets me is, you just get six guys and a musician, and you’ve got a show. It all comes together ‘

Syd Pochin and I are having a pint in a Battersea pub where House music is playing in the background. It doesn’t seem as far away from the sound world of Cornish Billy or The Worcester Hornpipe as you might think.

‘When I’m dancing, I’m thinking this is tradition, this goes way back to a bygone age when there were no electronics. And no boxed sets on the couch.’ Whereupon Syd deftly traces the Rabelasian history of Morris Dancing as the resident musician of the Westminster Chapter. The stipendiary gig, he tells me, goes back to Henry VII bringing in an artisanal take on things to lively up the Galliards and Lavoltas in the court cloister. A bit later, Will Kemp was doing Morris moves instantly recognisable to country people all the way from London to Norwich.

Dance was a bush telegraph of allusion and social mobility like folk song tweaked visually and musically cross-country and quite possibly across continents. ’This is how we do it’ as youngers chant at Raves. If you’ve ever shaken a leg at a wedding reception or a corporate do, or indeed ventured out with a bit of A of A–style Flamboyance, it seems we’ve actually being Morrissing without noticing it. Syd got me wondering, as the house soundtrack ran on, about Ceroc, Capoeira and The Four Tops among other things.

These days Westminster Morris is itself the host of a Day of Dance in Trafalgar Square and radial hostelries in W1 which this year falls on May 12th. For reasons best known to itself, Westminster Council has just given them the morning, around noon, thus far. Although the Morris tradition is maintained and respected in the new world of dance diversity – Bhangra, Lindyhop, you name it – by the likes of Cecil Sharpe House for instance, the repository of many of the tunes in Syd’s cheery repertoire – you hopefully will be lucky enough to come across him on one of TFL’s busking pitches up West as I was recently.

Syd’s fascination with Morris began when he left the Wirral for a ten-year stint in Systems Consultancy with KPMG in Hong Kong. ‘I got involved with the Round Table and we used to put on an Ox Roast every year – we came across the Honk Kong Morris, about 15 guys from Ove Arup and other Anglo- Chinese outfits.’  One wonders how the present administration in Hong Kong would respond – given the Chinese urban habit of Tai-Chi in the morning.

Morris, as a team game, appears the soul of joshing democracy.  The ‘corners 1 and 6, 2 and 5 dance together, corners and middles rotate as does the leader, then the middles 3 and 4. Then everyone dances together’. Tempo is moderated democratically over a swift half.  Westminsters’ bush telegraph moderates to the Cotswolds’, while across the country, according to your locality, you might find ‘swords’ (actually used, Syd explains, to brush down pit ponies while the miners danced in lieu of showering facilities), handkerchiefs (fluttering Moorishly to waft away evil spirits) or clogs (factory girls square bashing to the looms’ groove to keep warm). Even, in Syd’s Liverpool days Pom-Poms, where female troupes with melting-pot influences from Tiller Girling to The Nolans and Cheerleading – practised enthusiastically under the handed-down Morrissian aegis. These days, Open Morris welcomes women and all the colours of the terpsichorean rainbow.

Syd’s first encounter with the musical kinship of Morrissing harks back to the Scouseward pub residency of The Spinners, whom you might remember as beacons of Scouse diversity on night-time TV in the seventies – you had to arrive early to get a seat. He has in turn gravitated to a Wednesday night residency at the Brewhouse in Islington, near Highbury Tube, which hosts all manner of guests and where taking the floor is a distinct possibility post-hot-desking or mid-prandial. Taking things a step further, Syd says newcomers are very welcome to give Morrissing a go when the Westminster team practices on Wednesday nights at St John’s Hall, Hyde Park Crescent, Tyburnia – not far from the wonderfully communitarian Funky Nuns of that ilk in fact. Your school day memory of folk dancing might be a tad stiff and curricular, but happens upon Syd busking, and his colleagues shaking a leg as the weather warms and I challenge you not to feel a spring in your step. I do. And find yourself warmly encouraged – nay instinctively emboldened to join the dance.

More information at www.westminstermorris.org

The Westminster Morris Men on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCY6ns2hnyfM-iHjXVz2QmWA

www.islingtonfolkclub.co.uk   at The Brewhouse on 21st April then every Thursday from May

Andy’s radio conversation with Syd is at

https://www.mixcloud.com/andy-bungay/saturday-4th-april-ft-syd-pochin-westminster-morris/

AofA People: Ben Cornish – Juggler, circus performer, workshop leader


3 Minute Read

How old are you?

 59

Where do you live?

I live in Exmouth in Devon just a 2-3 minutes walk from the beach.

What’s it like to be your age? 

I’m definitely not one of those people who says that I don’t feel any different to how I did when I was 18/25 etc.

I feel like I have always felt the age I am. That said I tend to try and avoid being responsible for anything after years of bringing up children!

Certainly, I am aware of aches, pains & things not working as well as they used to. A few years back I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and then a couple of years later contracted late-onset asthma.

So after 50 years of never being ill or seeing a doctor, my life has changed quite radically.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Paradoxically, in some ways, I am less opinionated than I was at that age but I am more certain of what I do know now.

I am far more patient now than I was as a young man and yet outraged at more things. For instance, how can so many people in the UK still vote for the bastard Tories? Parking charges, not being able to contact anyone etc

What about relationships?  

I have a smaller circle of friends than back in the day but the depth of those relationships is greater.

How free do you feel? 

I have been self-employed all my adult life and that has resulted in a life with a great deal of freedom.

I still feel free, but with all the restrictions imposed by COVID and the feelings of environmental responsibilities, perhaps less so than in the past.

What are you proud of?

My children. The fact that I have some really long-term relationships with wonderful people. I have never been unfaithful.

I have earned my living (as a comedian, juggler, workshop leader, and circus performer) doing something I enjoy that gives people pleasure. I can still make people laugh.

What keeps you inspired?

I love what I do & feel like I continue to develop my creativity and understand the mechanics of that better than ever.

My partner, Ange, who is a prolific landscape painter, constantly inspires me also. My incredible 90-year-old mother is also an endless source of inspiration and support.

When are you happiest?

Eating delicious food with friends and family. Walking on a beach with Ange. Practicing.

Being at juggling festivals and playing with friends I have known for many years.

Where does your creativity go?

Into my practice and my teaching. Playing the ukulele & trying to write songs & I have just finished writing my first book. It’s called Juggling and the Art of Practice.

What’s your philosophy of life?

Energy & charm will always trump talent.

Always try to create value wherever you are and whatever situation you are in.

My outlook is informed primarily by 25 years of Buddhist practice (Soka Gakkai member for 25 years, now lapsed)

Dabbling in Osho-lead philosophy…spent a month in the Ashram in Pune 6 years ago

Friendship and kindness are the most important things in life.

You can’t take anything with you when you go.

And dying?

See above. I have no real fear of death.

I came very close in August 2019 after a massive asthma attack & at the time, felt that if I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have had any regrets.

Are you still dreaming?

My actual dreams are rarely remembered. I have never really had much ambition.Are there still things I want to do?

Yes, but are they of burning importance, no. I am largely content in life with what I have, what I am doing & where I’m going.

You can see Ben juggling here – https://www.facebook.com/benjuggler/videos/10214707312781883

www.circusberercus.co.uk

Navigating Loss Around My Health


1 Minute Read

I’ve been mulling over how to tackle this piece for some time now. Procrastination has been easy and finding excuses not to start writing has afforded me some distance from the intensity of feelings that I was experiencing when the notion of writing first appeared in my thoughts.

And then, one evening, at a small gathering of friends over supper, I was entertained/enthralled/appalled (in equal measure) to hear the views espoused by one of the guests (a new acquaintance) who talked at length and with great enthusiasm, about his very real intention to have his head cryogenically preserved immediately after his death, to upload the contents of his brain to some future supercomputer or AI system.

When I asked him ‘why?’ he couldn’t believe that everyone wouldn’t want to live forever in this way – if they could. (This currently costs £100K, so not exactly accessible to all!) He was also hugely animated and excited at the prospect of advances in medicine that would prevent ageing, rid the world of chronic disease and prolong the human lifespan by many decades.

I found myself wanting to mention minor details like the climate change emergency and looming nuclear war but that felt a bit churlish so I just listened. in that space, I found myself wondering why we humans can’t seem to help ourselves becoming attached to just about anything and everything. The idea of loss, leaving, giving something up or surrendering is often an anathema to us and yet, in so many philosophies and faith traditions, the ability to do just that, let go and simply be, is the key to bliss, to heaven on earth, to enlightenment.

My personal journey with loss is a constantly evolving one and I have come to regard loss as part of the ebb and flow of life; a process that bestows as much as it takes. This insight doesn’t make it any less painful but somehow easier to live with. I have learned that there can be layers of loss – from the catastrophic and life-changing, through the intensely personal landscape of relationships and love, to the shared sense of loss of control that (for me) came with the global pandemic.

My own experience of life-changing loss came with me being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease at 51 after months of increasingly failing health. I was shocked at how quickly my body could go from being strong and resilient (able to run marathons, take on endurance races, scuba dive, look after a family and hold down a high octane career) to hardly being able to get out of bed each day and struggling to walk down the road. There was a strong sense of relief when the diagnosis (vasculitis) was eventually made and I finally had a recognised label rather than a troublesome set of symptoms. Surprisingly (to me), being acutely ill was the easy part. I have a background in nursing and I know how the system works, what good medical care is capable of achieving and that advances in science usually mean that what is tricky to treat now may well be mainstream within a decade.

And so it was. I adopted a project management approach to making myself as well as I could be whilst getting to grips with living with a long-term condition. I negotiated a change of work, moving into a part-time role facilitating the development of an education strategy and coaching the teams that would deliver it – pretty much all of it doable from my bedroom office via WebEx (this was pre-pandemic, pre-zoom).

I spent the next ten years surfing the waves of being well and on top of things, dealing with the impact the condition was having on myself and my family and friends (they too had to learn the new normal, they had lost the old Nadia, the woman with never-ending energy and they had to get to know the new, slower, tamed version) and coping with bouts of severe relapse caused by minor infections.

I was hospitalised with sepsis three times and each time I focused on what had worked before: rest, diet, building mental resilience, some work, some exercise and being with my family. After the third episode of sepsis (I nearly died this time) I decided to take the early retirement option that came with my NHS pension and I started to do some occasional teaching with my local university on the nursing degree programme.

I used myself as a living case study to illustrate the journey of someone with a long-term condition. I hadn’t anticipated how much I would learn from this experience and, at the same time, how painful it would be to regularly revisit my recent past and relive the feelings of loss that accompanied the changes in my life. I often found that I came away from one of my lectures exhausted, pulse racing, heart-thumping, needing to find a quiet place to decompress and let the sense of panic inside me recede enough for me to be able to drive home. I suspected that I may have PTSD and I decided to stop working altogether. It was such a huge relief.

When the pandemic hit, I had already spent several months in wind-down mode – dog walking, baking, gardening and visiting my family and grandson as often as possible. I loved this new way of being. I felt relaxed and able to breathe. My health was (relatively) good, and I felt fit, certainly fit enough to take on lockdown. And then I found myself waking in the middle of the night with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and loss of control.

It didn’t matter how well I looked after myself, if I caught this virus I would at best lose my kidneys (vasculitis having caused chronic kidney disease) and at worst not survive at all. The sense of loss was immense and engulfed me (it makes me tearful to remember it). Suddenly the things I had taken for granted were no longer certain, medicine and science were struggling to deal with the unknown, we couldn’t go to see our family and simple pleasures like sharing a meal with friends or going to the cinema simply ceased to be.

I had to find an anchor, something to help me recalibrate and gain some much-needed perspective. This came in the form of sea swimming and practising gratitude. The sea swimming was easy, a no brainer for me. It gave me the chance to be outdoors in nature with one close friend and to simply be. In that being, my mind started to be still and a space opened up in which I could see things to be grateful for – and there were many. I didn’t beat myself up for having felt such a sense of loss, I acknowledged it and was grateful to be able to feel it and still be safe, housed, warm and well-fed and not be suffering financially.

I realised how lucky I was, I am, I have been and how much harder life is for so many people. This isn’t to say that if you’re fortunate you somehow give up the right to feel the pain of loss. It isn’t a competition. Each of us will experience the impact of loss during our lives, whatever our circumstances. I believe that our ability to navigate loss is not necessarily dictated by those circumstances. It is more to do with learning to surrender and, in doing so, becoming aware of some innate wisdom that is hidden in plain sight – the wisdom of the annual cycle of nature; the dying down and wintering in order to rebuild and rebirth in spring and grow in summer through to harvest; the wisdom of your body, especially your gut – when it is telling you to stop. Even if you just stop for a bit it makes a difference. I became aware of the wisdom in rediscovering old joys and discovering new ones – who knew that there is so much to see on a walk to the shops or a busy commute.

My most recent relapse has taken me down some deep holes and involved another layer of loss because it coincided with a family trauma. I have done my best to hone my navigational skills and to learn some new ones. I have found myself drawn to and interested in the power of prayer and incantation, I have gained huge comfort from practising the universal loving-kindness meditation and I have surrendered to the process of a new treatment regime and the possibility of needing a kidney transplant in the not too distant future. I have learned that I will never really know what ‘living with covid’ is actually supposed to mean for someone like me.

Each layer of loss has bought with it a new gain, and so it goes. I tend my garden, I write, I walk much more than I run and I am still swimming.

The link to the Universal Loving Kindness meditation

https://www.mindful.org/this-loving-kindness-meditation-is-a-radical-act-of-love/

 

What I Learnt About My Gut


1 Minute Read

I have had a lifetime of learning about my gut, in particular my bowels, and I know that I am not alone!  I am quite sure many of you reading this will have had debilitating and hard to understand issues with your gut at some point in your lives. Like me, you have probably tried all kinds of supplements, nutrition adjustments and food restrictions to help your gut work in a comfortable and effective way. Like me, you may have become frustrated with how little impact all this has had and not know what to try next. Maybe like me, you have discovered that talking about mental health and bowels in the same breath is a good way of ending a conversation.

It was only when I realised that my gut was illustrating and responding to my emotional status, both current and historical, that I began to have some understanding of what was going on. It was only when I began to understand that in Eastern traditions the lower belly is considered the centre of emotional and spiritual growth, that I began to see the potential there and to feel the emotions there.  It was only when I studied the anatomy and physiology of the gut that I developed awe and wonder for its incredible beauty and complexity.  And it was only when I read some of the recent research into the gut microbiome and the enteric nervous system (aka the second brain) that I began to understand how the different tissues in the gut were able to hold onto difficult experiences in the past that impacted our gut function from that moment onwards, that this all started to fit together into one huge puzzle.

If I tell you that every moment of every day your gut is responding to how safe you feel, that every moment it is remembering times when you did not feel safe and sometimes this all gets mixed up together into a tangled experience that is hard to fathom. Does that resonate with you?

My gut has memories of a traumatic childhood and then a near-death experience later in life (I was scuba diving in cold water and started breathing in seawater) which left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as I like to call it now Post Traumatic Gut. Many nights were spent waking with palpitations, nausea, dizziness, cramps, diarrhoea, then days feeling depleted and sore and only just functioning. I was feeling isolated and helpless often and not knowing where to turn for help.

Our bowels and our mental health are intimately connected, one reflecting the other all the time. As a child not able nor allowed to talk about how I felt whilst witnessing the emotional explosions of others, my gut was often constipated and its enteric nervous system moved beyond fight and flight and into freeze as I dissociated from the people and the world around me. As a teenager with anxiety and depression, I remained emotionally stuck. Later in life, and after my accident, I began to do my emotional work and my gut came on that journey with me. I am still travelling, but I know I am not alone.

As a CranioSacral Therapist, I was also seeing many people with mysterious chronic gut issues in my practice. I decided to take action. After a long period of research and trying out strategies and bodywork techniques for myself and clients, I wrote a new curriculum for the Upledger Institute, ‘CranioSacral Therapy and Listening to the Enteric Nervous System’ which I now teach internationally to support other practitioners help the people coming to them. I also wrote my book, published by Upledger Productions in the USA and UK, It’s All In The Gut which is for anyone interested in emotional stress and the gut. This is written through my personal story in an effort to make it engaging and relevant but also contains much of the recent research, the anatomy and physiology and, of course, strategies and meditations to help anyone reading with a gut issue.

Alongside this, I have a YouTube Channel Colon to Cosmos, which has some visualisations and meditations to support people on their journey of exploration with their gut.

So what can you do? The fundamental way to help yourself is to do your emotional work, through CranioSacral Therapy, talking therapy or any therapeutic practice that works for you. Emotional stress is the number one thing that has a negative impact on our microbiome and our enteric nervous system and all the layers and cell populations in the small and large intestines. This includes stress from the past as well as the present. It doesn’t matter how many avocados you eat, it will make little difference if you do not address these fundamental issues.

Alongside this work, you can support your gut health by being active, especially outside in nature. Your gut bacteria love being taken for a walk, just 30 minutes a day will help them. Learn to breathe. Eat a clean diet (avoid processed anything or anything with a list of ingredients as much as possible!) and drink plenty of water. Make time to do anything that makes you happy whether that is singing, yoga, knitting, cooking, gardening or anything at all that you love.

All of this will support your gut health and your vagal tone which is also important for healthy and happy gut function. We have so much more power to help ourselves than we may think.

So is my gut health perfect now? No more than my mental health. I am still anxious often and my bowels can be fast and uncomfortable. I also have periods of calm and normal function. The difference is that I now listen to the message my gut is sending me and do my best to deal with the emotional issue if I can or at least recognise it, as well as doing the things that help. For me these are yoga, weight training, walking by the river, talking to friends and so on. Like I said, I am still travelling.

If you would like to learn more about how this all works and how you can help yourself, you can buy my book It’s All In The Gut here:

www.nikkikenward.store

And ask any questions, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

A Street Market in Spain – Viva Los Llanos!


1 Minute Read

I’ve always liked Los Llanos. It’s a Saturday street market just outside the town of Albox in Almeria, Spain. In the top section you can find fruit, veg, bed linen, second-hand clothes, old furniture, silver jewellery, plants, homemade jam and rescue puppies. Down the steps, there’s a sizeable rastro (flea market) with old tools, antiques, musical instruments and a Moroccan shop with a cornucopia of goods. In my early days living in Spain, I’d sometimes come with 20€ and mostly leave with a good, if unexpected haul – I once got a top-quality djembe drum for 5€.

One of the best things about the market is the diversity of the stallholders – a mixture of Spanish, Moroccan, Romanian, Ecuadorian, African, English, Gitano and moreSuch variety is rare in this part of Spain, and it almost feels like my native southeast London. There’s even a bookstall playing loud roots reggae. I love reggae, but you hardly ever hear it in this area.

So when I found out that Lynda, an English woman from my village, had a bric a brac stall at Los Llanos, I decided to ask if I could share it with her for a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas. I wanted to shift some old clothes and other things that were cluttering up my house. I was delighted when she agreed.

I started on Saturday 4 December. Ahead of a move back to the UK, Lynda was selling her stuff for just 1 or 2 euros, so I did the same. On my first day I sold an electric brasero* for 3€ and a lamp for 2€. It didn’t seem much, but I decided to spend my takings. They went a long way – I got pair of crystal earrings, a vintage shift dress and a pansy for the garden. I was chuffed. It felt like an alternative reality where 5€ is a decent sum of money.

The second week I did better. Electrical goods seemed popular so I took some mini speakers, as well as the remains of a job lot of linen cushion covers a friend had given me. Both were snapped up immediately, swiftly followed by a vintage juicer and some clothes. I took 25€ and found a much-needed pair of tongs for my wood burning stove (1.50€) and a useful credit card holder (€2). I needed a second-hand axe and the Moroccan shop said they had one at home (unfortunately they never found it).

Often, when you’re shopping for something, you just can’t find it. But Los Llanos was proving this theory wrong because it kept offering up exactly what was needed. In Week 2, this was demonstrated in an extraordinary way.

A woman picked up one of Lynda’s craft books. She wandered off with it. When she came back to pay, she said she’d been looking for the book for years after giving it away in the 80s. She’d searched everywhere, even contacting the publisher, but it had gone out of print. Her husband turned the front cover. ‘Look,’ he exclaimed, ‘she wrote her name inside. It’s actually hers!’ It was the woman’s own copy – last seen somewhere in the north of England and surfacing some 40 years later in an Andalusian street market.

Weirdly, she didn’t seem too surprised. She paid up and wandered off, leaving us nonplussed. ‘Do you think she says that every time she buys something, in the hope she’ll get it for free?’ Lynda asked.

Rhythms of the market

Being there every week, I noticed how the stallholders changed. There were regulars like Lynda, and there were others who came and went. The stall next to ours had different people all the time. One week there was a Spanish lady selling exquisite handmade children’s clothes, the next week a young African man with a job lot of small leather jackets for 5€ each. My favourite temporary stall was in the rastro section: a selection of beautiful old instruments: violins, trumpets, cellos and flutes. I wondered what stories lay behind them.

Lynda

After a few weeks on the market, Lynda and I were getting to know each other better. Although I knew she did markets, I hadn’t realised how serious she was about her stall, for which she made an interesting collection of dolls, cushions and other crafts, and sourced an eclectic selection of clothes, craft books, antiques and jewellery. She treated it like a job, tapping into what people want with skill and generosity. I found out how practical she is, too. Not only is she a keen crafter and a skilled cook, she’d singlehandedly re-roofed a portion of her Spanish house with a friend’s unwanted tiles. ‘I just looked at how the others were laid in an interlocking pattern and copied it,’ she said. It took four days and 148 tiles and the roof never leaked again.

It was only when I knew her better that I noticed how she quietly sipped tea at lunchtimes, not wine like the other retired expats. She was returning to the UK to find more mental stimulation – something I crave, too. People always said there were bound to be people like me in the area, but I’d never expected them to be hiding in plain sight right under my nose!

Week 3

I rocked up late after a disturbed night and knew I wouldn’t sell anything. I decided to gather information instead. The first stop was Dean the bookseller, who I’d been plucking up the courage to approach. I bought a couple of books to smooth the way and said: ‘I like your music.’ He looked indifferent, but I persisted. ‘Do you know any local venues that play reggae?’ He still wasn’t forthcoming. It was only when I said I’d done some DJ-ing in London that his ears pricked up and he remembered that he and his partner had visited a new reggae café by the coast the previous weekend. A new reggae café by the coast?! The market had given me what I wanted again! We chatted a bit more and he started playing one of my YouTube roots reggae playlists*. As I walked away I wondered if the Lubrin Dub Club would become my legacy at the Los Llanos market.

After Christmas

Lynda’s return to the UK was delayed, so after Christmas she was back at Los Llanos again. It poured with rain the first weekend, so she didn’t go, but the market had become a habit for me and I went anyway. The place was half empty and the woman behind our favourite veg stall had time to chat. She told me that all her products were organic, grown on her farm. I bought a big bunch of spinach, eight oranges, two kilos of carrots, some bananas, two onions, three peppers, a garlic and four tomatoes for just 7.80€ and was surprised by an unusual desire to cook. Then I had a quick look round before leaving and there, in the middle of a stall of second-hand tools, sat the full-size axe I’d been seeking since Week 1. It was priced at 18€, but the stallholder said I could have it for 14€ – which was lucky as all I had left was 15€ in small change.

As for Lynda, she did one more market. I went along to see her and she gave me the last in a long line of freebies – a handmade elephant cushion to remember her by. I got her something, too, a pair of silver earrings from the jewellery stall. I presented them to her over lunch the next week. She was thrilled – and promptly reciprocated with offers of her butane gas heater, a shopping trolley and a pressure cooker! I had to smile. Los Llanos – the market that gives you everything you want, and a few things you didn’t know you wanted, too!

* Electric version of the large metal tray of burning coals traditionally placed under Spanish tables covered with a long tablecloth, to warm up the people sitting round the table.

* The Lubrin Dub Club is a series of World Reggae playlists that I’ve compiled on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzfw2_S2TRll28rWuEhvoH8tZpBCh_XPR

Photo of Mercadillo Rastillo Internacional Los Llanos de Arboleas c/o Facebook.

How Many Miles? Rolling Home Here I Am


9 Minute Read

So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.

I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.

Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.

Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.

I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.

I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.

So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.

Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.

Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.

My perspective. It might not be yours.

Remember, I am not in the self-help section.

I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.

If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.

Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.

Here.

Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.

I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.

I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.

With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.

Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from, because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.

I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot

Back to the boundaries.

I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.

Attuned.

A word that brings tears to my eyes.

A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.

I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.

And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.

Here to breathe.

Here to finish my one little book.

Here to see more of the ones I love.

Here to not know what’s going to happen next.

Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.

My body will always hurt.

Sometimes that feels overwhelming.

At this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the ‘Everything in This’.

I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.

I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…

Gratitude.

Humility.

Hilarity.

It’s all I’ve got.

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