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Starting an MA in Creative Writing at 62


7 Minute Read

As a child I loved to read and write but where did that come from?

Our story is a familiar one. Dad came over from Ireland in the 1950s as the farm could not support him. He met and married mum and as Irish Catholics, children kept arriving. Dad worked away from home supporting us and sending money back to his mother on the farm. When he was away, in the evenings to settle us mum would sit in the armchair by the fire, we would be in our pyjamas, huddled at her feet, the latest baby in the cot by her side. It is not a romantic memory. This was a council house and the coal fire in the living room was the only heating.

But I loved these evenings. She would read to us – Dickens’ Oliver Twist one of my earliest memories, then Louise May Alcott’s Little Women. I was entranced by the stories she read aloud so when I was old enough to read myself we shared the duties. It was a natural step therefore to put pencil first then pen to paper. I wrote stories, letters, poems, plays and stored them in a box under my bed.

I was good at English and my journey through school was a joy enhanced by that one teacher that everyone has; Don Whitby was mine. He took us from To Kill A Mockingbird, to more Dickens, Hardy and poetry that was not on the syllabus – sometimes song lyrics. He was a romantic figure who had been a dancer in a popular dance group in the early 60s and we adored him. He taught us drama and we put on fabulous productions. It was another easy step for me to apply to read English, Drama and Theatre studies and there followed the best 3 years of my life at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Graduating and needing a job I could not see how pursuing the Arts was ever going to earn me a living so I took a different path, signing up as a commissioned officer in The Royal Air Force – and that’s another story! But I continued to write, stuffing notebooks with my words and dreams.

Seven years ago, it was becoming clear that Mum wasn’t going to be around much longer. She was 83, in good health but frail and so I sat with her one evening grilling her on her childhood – stories she had told us from our early years but I was now thinking like a writer – I wanted detail, information, I was doing loose research before I lost her and her amazing mind. When she died, I vowed to myself that I was going to write something based on some of her stories and created a character plotline that I have been developing ever since.

In December 2019 I found a creative writing course in Ireland. This was it for me. It was in a farmhouse on an island off the west coast. I had visions of days sat around a large wooden table with other writers, swapping our daily output, reading aloud, challenging, feeding each other words and ideas. And at night musicians, the flames of a dancing fire, a bit of whiskey; I would be wrapped in a gorgeous cashmere shawl and wearing fingerless gloves. And then lockdown. I was offered an online version of the course and for six glorious weeks spent two hours every Sunday evening with the tutor and another writer who lived in Geneva. It was a lifeline in an isolated time. I live alone so it was me and the dogs and Zoom but those Sundays were wonderful.

As lockdown eased, I started to think about how I might build more formal writing processes into my life and then in November 2021, my 17 year old niece, Maeve, was telling me about her A level English course work and I offered to read it. The subject was ‘Compare and contrast Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and their depiction of ideological power’. Reading her work was revelatory. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed deep analysis of text and then committing to research. Thanks to Maeve I started looking for academic courses. I vowed years ago, on completion of my MBA, that I would never return to academia and yet here I was aged 62, researching MAs in creative writing. I wanted a fully online programme as I was still fearful of COVID, I have a compromised immune system and had stayed safe for the best part of two years so I wanted it to stay well. I looked at many programmes at various universities and then found one. It is a fully online programme and its biggest appeal was the international nature of the participants on the course. I applied, was offered a place and started in January 2022.

I went into the course clear about my objectives: to write my novel. I find myself half way through the taught modules and each time I sit down to write the strangest thing happens. I read the task assignment, weekly activity and then start to write. Stories appear, some based on events that are familiar to me, but mainly they are tales that spring out of my fingers onto the keyboard. When the task was to write using sensory detail I found myself back in the Belizean rain forest, a young female military officer in a beautiful, lush and challenging environment. Leaf cutting ants with their smell of formic acid crossed my path as I hacked through with my machete – humming birds hovered in the open mouths of scarlet hibiscus flowers. Where did it all come from?

The greatest joy of the course work is the writers’ workshop where each week we are set a task and assigned a small group. We submit our work to each other for critique and comment so that we develop our own critical thinking skills as well as our editing ability as we write. But that’s not the best bit.

At the end of the first week our tutor suggested that we might want to set up a private group to chat outside of the formal taught elements and one of the women set up a zoom call. Since that first week, in and out of term we have met every Saturday when able, on an informal basis, for our water cooler natter. This is where the real work is taking place as we develop relationships, support each other, challenge and laugh a lot. With more easing of restrictions, a summer school was proposed by the university and those of us who were able to, eagerly signed up.

It was with great joy that I headed up to the north of England to the campus for the residential in August. I booked an Airbnb and two of the women joined me. We had only ever met virtually but it was a breeze. We went to school each day together and met up with the rest of the gang – there was a group of ten of us. They came from Singapore, France, Majorca, Northern Ireland and various parts of England. During the day we were students, we did real time writing workshops and activities, attended some terrific lectures – my favourite being – writing the taboo.  And in the evenings, meals out and more – suffice to say what goes to summer school stays at summer school!

Our last day was a Saturday so the water cooler natter was held in a room at the library and we zoomed in Macao, England and France to share our connectedness. Without a doubt, the most valuable and life affirming part of doing this MA in creative writing is meeting my fellow writers, making deep friendships, and working collaboratively to ensure that we all fulfil our potential and stretch ourselves beyond anything I certainly could possibly have imagined.

We have just received another marked assignment and the results have been mixed with some bitterly disappointed people, some mildly disgruntled (me for one) and others joyous. But in all of it there has been tremendous support, love and practical offers of help. This weekend’s water cooler natter will be an interesting one as we move forward into our next module – writing from life. Non-fiction!

My novel is put to one side as I explore another facet of writing that isn’t my natural medium but so far I have surprised myself and I look forward to seeing what this one brings.

An Ounce of Prevention


1 Minute Read

We have a saying here in England, ‘An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.’

With this in mind, I felt at my age, it was time to get to my doctor’s and have a prostate exam.

I had been putting this off for ages and ignoring constant advice from my significant other.

‘Go get it checked…it’s important that you do. You are at that age.’

I have always been at ‘that age’.

I have also been that person who, at any age, does not relish a stranger’s finger or two up my back passage…even professionally.

Still, needs must.

Therefore, with my early Monday morning appointment made, I brace myself for what is to come.

I decide that a shower is in order along with scented shower gel. On reflection I think why, after all it’s not a date…just a date with the fickle finger of fate.

I wear something casual and off I trot into the known unknown.

My name comes up on the screen at the surgery and in I go. The GP is actually a nice guy and a warm friendly smile greets me.

‘So what can I do for you.’ he asks… I tell him that I am getting up two to three times a night to pee and feel that I should have a prostate exam to settle my mind. He agrees and starts to make a few notes… I get up and start to undress explaining that I have been doing stretches so I can comfortably touch my toes and make life easier for him. Why him, it’s me that is going to be impaled on the fingers of his right hand.

He looks up from his screen in disbelief. ‘What are you doing he asks?’

‘I am getting ready for my close-up.’ I reply.

‘Please get dressed,’ he says.

‘But, aren’t you going to examine me?’

He looks puzzled…I look puzzled.

‘No, I am going to send you for blood tests…this is what we do now.’

I stand staring at him. ‘But I showered, put on clean underwear.  I even shaved, (why the hell did I say that)’ I protest.

He explains that they don’t do it that way anymore…

I had psyched my self up for what was going to be a big deal for me…and now feel my ‘date’ stood me up.

I had to take something from this.

I fire one more shot. ‘Can we at least go for a drink,’ I ask.

He ignores my question and hands me the blood test request to take to the hospital. He smiles warmly and tells me he does not drink.

I feel I have just found a pay packet with cash in but am upset by the amount of tax that was paid.

Ah well.

Ten days later, I get the thumbs up but that’s another story!!!

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.

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.

 

 

How Many Miles? Rolling Home Here I Am


1 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.

What the hell is Tre?


5 Minute Read

Have you heard people talking about Tre? I have. So I invited Tre teacher, Sylvia Tillmann to explain.

How are you post-pandemic? Well, not so post.

I spoke with friends the other day about how we were – and still are – coping with a global pandemic, a couple of lockdowns and the ups and downs of life.

We are a mixed bunch of people between the ages of 50 and 70.

Some people have dogs and enjoyed the company and the daily walks – at least something was dragging them out – some people are very much into gardening, others kept sane by swimming in the sea all year round. I noticed that nobody in this group complained about this era and the ‘new normal’; in fact, we all welcomed the more reflective mode, fewer commitments and concentrating on what was really important in life.

As for myself, I reassessed my life and reorganised my career during the first lockdown. With a business background and on furlough, I was grateful for the time I was given to take stock.

First I enrolled in various business courses, but then I asked myself: ‘What does the world really need? Surely not another business guru!’

I concluded that we all need laughter, optimism, community and a robust immune system – and I trained as a Laughter Yoga Leader.

That was fun and being interested in alternative health, positive psychology and what makes us tick, I found it amazing to see how much research has been carried out on the benefits of laughter.

I loved it, but I wanted to take it further.

Having listened to many lectures, presentations and discussions on trauma – after all, we had all just experienced a collective trauma, I rediscovered TRE.

What is TRE? I hear you ask.

TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises by Dr David Berceli) is a somatic stress management tool I had experienced once, about ten years ago.

I honestly can’t remember if I didn’t get it at the time or if I totally dismissed it because ‘I had never experienced trauma’ – or so I thought!

Now I was convinced that TRE could be an amazing self-help tool to support anybody who’s struggling – psychologically or physically.

I decided to go for it.

This training took everything I had learned before to a whole new level. My go-to modality had always been talking therapies, I had counselling sessions myself and then completed the foundation training as I wanted to train as a bereavement counsellor.

Learning TRE addressed everything I missed when working cognitively. The mind is super busy, the thoughts are going round and round and … well, at least for me, it didn’t help me massively.

Why not give our busy minds a rest and concentrate on the body?

And that’s exactly what TRE enables us to do. Practising TRE means – literally – to shake off tension and stress.

To shake it off? Really? How does it work?

The easiest way to explain TRE’s principle is by watching a dog.

Yes, please bear with me …

A dog who experiences a stressful situation immediately shakes off the excess stress after this encounter and then happily gets on with life.

Animals do it automatically, but people have un-learned this process, although we are genetically encoded to tremor – and it would be so good for us.

That’s where TRE comes in, as it activates our stress release mechanism.

Over the course of the training, I also learned that trauma isn’t just big T trauma, i.e. the truly awful things that can happen. The simple fact that we are human beings means that we all experience trauma to some degree – think of family/relationship issues, work/money stress, health scares/illness, divorce or death etc.

This time I really got it. TRE is making so much sense because mind and body are intrinsically linked, so let’s include the body.

Let’s explore it in a bit more detail: When we experience stress, we mobilise energy to defend and protect ourselves, which is helpful. But if we want to run or fight and we can’t, that energy doesn’t get used up and stays inside of us.

The result is that we stay on high alert, i.e. high on adrenaline and cortisol, always expecting danger, constantly ready to fight or flight – we might have sleep issues, psychosomatic pain or avoid certain situations that caused this response.

This is exhausting and only when we are able to complete the cycle, i.e. use up the excess energy, the body can find its equilibrium again.

By practising TRE in a safe and controlled manner, this energy can be accessed and discharged.

How to practise TRE?

TRE starts with six warm-up exercises to fatigue the muscles and prepares the body to tremor. This is followed by a grounding exercise and then the actual TRE process. By lying on a mat, feet sole-to-sole, knees out, the tremors emerge. Your brain might perceive it as unusual, if not weird, but for the body, it feels quite natural. Afterwards, participants report a deep relaxation.

How does it make me feel?

I’ve been practising TRE for well over a year now and it only takes about ten minutes a day. I credit TRE with becoming more resilient – I’m just so grateful for having TRE during the pandemic – and also with the disappearance of my lower back and hip pain.

Over the last few years, I struggled with pain and sometimes it was so bad that I thought I have to stop playing tennis – which I love – and wondered if I need a hip replacement.

TRE helped me to shake off that tension in my back and hips – I don’t know what I was holding on to, and I don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of TRE, there’s no need to verbalise anything.

Curious to find out more? Check out Sylvia’s website on www.tremendousTRE.co.uk. She runs regular TRE courses, mainly online, so you can stay in the comfort of your own home.

Outrage Column: Concern versus Care


7 Minute Read

Does showing concern mean that you care?

Does caring mean that you must be concerned?

I am using these two words to illustrate some differences I see between two kinds of human behaviours, which often occur together or are mixed up with each other, and why my answers to the questions directly above are firmly NO.

But first I will tell you a story.

Not so long ago, my dear friend found himself locked out of his ground floor flat.

Well, he managed to get the large sash window open just enough to squeeze in. He decided that it would be better to go in feet first rather than headfirst. So, he got one leg through the window, was about to manoeuvre his other leg up as well and shimmy his way in, when his other leg got caught in a bramble patch by the window!

He phoned me at this point to call for assistance as he was well and truly stuck. But on my way over there (I am a good 10 minute drive away) he called again and said; ‘I’m in!’  When I got there, over a cup of coffee, he told me how he managed this feat.

One of his neighbours had happened along. A delightful young woman and also a climber. I mention that she is a climber because that means to me that she is someone who does physically challenging things. So she also probably has an understanding of the process of people facing physical challenges. As it turned out, she was very respectful too.

Anyway. He told me that she had been absolutely brilliant.

She had asked him if he would like some help.

When he said ‘Yes’, she then asked:

‘Tell me, what you would like me to do to help you?’

‘I would like you to get my leg out of the brambles and up onto the window sill for me.’

And she did precisely that and he managed to enter his flat, found his keys and all was well.

What this story showed to me was that the young woman acted with the utmost caring and respect. What she did not demonstrate was concern.

He clearly felt great about how it all happened.

Perhaps this begins to explain how I see the difference between caring and concern.

To me, caring is a deep empathy, respect and a preference to be of assistance to fellow humans (and other life forms) in whatever way that they may need and that you feel able to offer. It comes from the heart, from love and from our humanity.

Concern, on the other hand, is associated with worry, fear, anxiety and the projection of these emotions, and also beliefs about the person’s weakness, age, vulnerability and likelihood of getting hurt, being incapable and so on.

Sometimes when I have had people be concerned about me, I have experienced some irritation or other discomfort, as if it is an imposition. This is tricky to handle because caring and concern are often mixed together and come as a package. So, while I may feel uncomfortable about this concern, I feel I must do my best to hide my discomfort and be gracious and appreciative of the efforts of the concerned individual. I may also feel bad about feeling irritated!

So those less comfortable responses have to be dealt with internally. Though in less gracious moments they may inadvertently spill out!

Sometimes phoning a friend to have a bit of a rant helps! I received a call like that recently.

Something had happened on Facebook. A FB friend had posted that they were concerned as they hadn’t seen posts recently from this friend of mine. As you can imagine it set off a chain reaction with lots of comments including the suggestion that a friend be contacted. My friend read all this and felt various discomforts about it. Being talked about instead of personally contacted, having to do something about an escalating ‘bundle’ of concern being generated amongst a group, seeing people speaking about them rather than with them about their vulnerability. Not wanting to upset the person who started the posting and yet needing to communicate that it didn’t feel right and all the while having to deal with their own feelings about it.

It reminded me of ‘Does he take sugar?’ a phrase that was coined to illustrate how people sometimes do not address a wheelchair user but speak about them – in front of them to their ambulant companion – having made an assumption that because they cannot walk unaided they, therefore, cannot speak for themselves.

Has this ever happened to you or someone you know?

As we get older, get a few grey hairs and wrinkles and perhaps, as with my friend, our balance and gait change, people project their concern upon us more often, when actually what we really want is simple, practical, respectful care.

We all need help sometimes but would like the help, without this sense of people looking at us with thoughts such as: Oh no. They are weak, falling. Oh no. They are going to hurt themselves. They mustn’t do that dangerous thing. They cannot function properly /survive/take care of themselves.

I have sometimes observed that a show of concern does not always mean that someone cares. It may just mean they are reacting to something due to their own internal attitudes and/or feelings.

There is a parallel with people telling their kids; ‘You’re going to fall!’ Then the child falls and the adult says; ‘I told you so’ thinking they were right, not imagining that the child may have actually lost their balance because of the powerful statement that the influential adult just made! Children are especially impressionable. The adult thought they were taking care of the child. But they may have taken away some of their confidence and with it their ability to balance and trust their own abilities!

Yes, projections are influential. They do not have to be spoken either. Thoughts can also project.

So… concern can feel annoying, and an imposition, but also can actually be damaging. Because what you are doing when you get concerned is that you are throwing a powerful thought at the person. You may be expressing it verbally, or with facial expression, voice tone or body language. A thought which is founded on fear and based on expectations of harm, hurt, loss, or whatever else. I know I have done this, as well as having been on the receiving end!

We cannot help getting concerned at times, especially when someone seems to be struggling or suffering. I know it’s not easy to let go of our own fears and anxieties.

But most especially at these times it is better for them to feel the other’s caring and respect rather than their concern.

And to remember that if you are trying to help someone and they are getting irritated, perhaps they are feeling disempowered, disrespected, or patronised… even though that may not be your intention.

And if you feel that irritation when someone is being concerned about you… remember, behind all their weird projections they probably care.

Sadly, there are some who just want to exhibit concern in order to ‘be seen to care’. Those people you can tell firmly ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’ Or something less polite!

I would like to add a quote from my mother, who worked for many years as a social worker working specifically with older people who were leaving hospital. She helped them live where they wanted and needed to be as well as getting the support they required. She had a great respect for her clients. Some would move into sheltered housing or care homes, but some were absolutely insistent that they wanted to go back to their houses, perhaps after a fall, or a series of falls, while their families would be putting a lot of pressure on them to go into a supervised home because of their concern. Mum represented the interests of her clients as best she could and would have to deal not only diplomatically with the relatives but also with her own fears as to whether this fiercely independent person would fall again in their old terraced house, with an outside toilet that they were adamant they wanted to stay in. She had a few sleepless nights from time to time. But, one day she said something to us that I have always remembered.

‘If you cannot live dangerously when you’re eighty-five or ninety-five, when the bloody hell can you?’

Is Etiquette Dead?


5 Minute Read

I’m a swimmer. A pool swimmer. I’m proud to be part of a world – a swimmer’s world – where etiquette and codes of conduct prevail. There, at the foot of the swim lanes is a sign, Pool Rules. It’s clear and simple.

I pride myself on etiquette in and out of the pool, and thankfully there is a place I can go where civility is recognised and respected. That said, alas, lately I’ve noticed that even pool rules are being flouted and broken, and that is when I feel as if I am completely alone. A lone shark, seeking solace and a sign that etiquette is not yet dead.

I have had more than one incident of a ‘surprise sharer’ – someone who thinks nothing of getting in and starting to swim without asking – I would never share a lane without first getting a thumbs up from the person who was there first – that’s what we do! It’s a common courtesy.

Quite often, if I’m asked, I will agree to share – but please ask first. Once sharing has been established, there is no certainty that the rest of the codes of conduct will be observed. Beware of the powerhouse swimmer – who I’ve agreed to share with but who still breaststrokes across the entire lane, or freestyles so ferociously that swallowing their kick water is impossible to avoid.

Then there are the little fishes outside of the swim lanes but who seem to have a strategy to flip for fun over the ropes into the swim lane at the exact spot and at the precise moment I’m passing, resulting in near misses with precious children, and a ‘what if’ shock to my system. Contra-indicative to doing exercise for health or activity for relaxation, to say the least!

There are also, what shall we call them, lane hogs who clog up the lanes and cause traffic. Lane hogs like to think they are swimming but they are mostly taking up valuable swimming real estate. They may swim a lap, but then they stop, and stand. There’s no rhyme, no reason, there is no pattern to their process unless you call swim, stop, stand and chat a pattern. They might swim another lap, but then again, they might not. That’s not lap swimming, sorry!

I want to continue to swim, so I keep my opinions to myself for as long as possible. I have even tried going to another pool club! But there is increasing evidence on my arms and legs of lane-rope cuts and bruises from avoiding collisions with humans; audible yelping, like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, ‘I’m swimming here!’ which no one seems to hear. I am left feeling stunned, shocked, nearly defeated, and dare I say, invisible, what are my choices?

I do not want to be invisible. I want to be seen and heard. And I want everyone to observe the pool rules!! Why is it so difficult? I watch and I wonder, is it just me? I’m new here. I am not an influencer here. My mind spins and seeks solutions.

I spot Marilyn, and the clouds lift. Marilyn swims. She also knows and talks to everyone. She lives in both camps. She’s got all the gear – the mask and snorkel, the fins, the webbed fingers. When she’s not swimming, she gets into the pool in a full outfit, including hat, long-sleeved shirt, leggings and shoes, to walk and chat! This is a sight to see. It’s quirky, and it serves a purpose – it’s a new trend to avoid sun exposure. The sun mimics a light bulb over my head.

‘Marilyn,’ I say, ‘we should have a fashion show and you should definitely be in it.’ She laughs out loud. As one hilarious idea leads to the next, a fashion show is born – and the theme is Pool Rules.

I talk to Mikey, the entertainment director. He is cautiously enthusiastic, whatever that means. Maybe he knows something I don’t. I talk to some of the others, Sue and Donna, and they love it! They start to list some of the ridiculous rules at the club and discuss which rules should be changed. Like, NO Restaurant Food on the Top Deck. Like, the Snacks Only rule. Like, NO Wheels on Beach Bags. It’s not long before Sue and Donna have their theme – Sue will wheel Donna in as if she’s on a parade float. Their rule will be – NO Wheels on Beach Bags. And they will campaign to change it. It’s pretty wacky, and I’m not feeling so alone anymore. Together, we hatch the idea of a Pool Fashion Show and Water Escapades Show. It will be a variety show. We will involve the lifeguards, and Mikey will recruit all the young families with children. I don’t know what I’ll be wearing yet, but I will be campaigning hard for in-pool rule adherence.

At the end of the day, I sit with Donna and Sue in the cafe, and we chat further about the show. Then the mood changes; clouds descend again. Donna is concerned that this theme might expose her as a rule breaker. She is not so sure it’s a good idea. Sue and I muse, ’Oh really? What rules are you breaking?’ Donna goes quiet. Time passes. I take my cue from Sue, and I don’t press her any further. We do not get an answer. And we never do the show.

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