Most people view ageing as negative. But, research shows, there’s actually a lot to be positive about. As this ageing of society only really took off in the last century, it’s unsurprising that much of what we think we know about ageing is untrue.
Our three couples – Hans (79) & Edith (76), Ellen (84) & Horst (77), Ralf & Kristin (both 73) – have two things in common: After being together for 3, 16, and 51 years they are all still heavily in love.
Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.
I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.
I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.
The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?
In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.
I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.
NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.
First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.
And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.
And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.
There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.
And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.
My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.
The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.
And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.
Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.
Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.
And it’s such a freedom.
Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.
And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.
She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.
“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.
I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.
In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.
The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.
Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.
David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.
“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”
Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”
At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!
This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.
In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.
So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.
Diane Kutz who is in her 60th year supports others along their life paths – from helping to write a CV after redundancy to sound healing for emotional trauma – and follows a shamanic spiritual pathway. Here she gives a wonderfully personal account of her life now.
What is your name?
The name I go by these days is Diane Kutz. I was born with a different surname, and when I married I took my husband’s name. When we split up I changed again. And there are times when I wonder about changing it again. My first name, Diane, is not something I consider changing. I love being connected to the Roman goddess Diana – or Artemis in the Greek pantheon. A powerful woman of the moon. I resonate and vibrate with the moon. Sometimes in the night she calls me awake and I get up to go to marvel at her silvery beauty.
How old are you?
I am in my 60th year.
Where do you live?
Currently, I am located on the South Coast of England. Having moved back to the town where I grew up, after over 30 years of living in other places – South Yorkshire, NE Scotland and South London.
What do you do?
I do many things. I breathe in life. I play with my grandbabies. I hug people. I support those going through change and transition. I sing, I dance, I play music, I create, I laugh, I cry, I love. I play my part in this wondrous Uni-verse, the great One Song. I identify as belonging to many groups, many communities. These include, being part of a family, a resident of a town, connected with others with similar interests in spirituality (personally I follow a Shamanic path).
This brings me on to my work. I help others along their life paths. This support can take many forms, from practical assistance helping someone going through redundancy to write their CV, to helping them to heal emotional trauma using sound. It is such a privilege and a joy to watch people rediscover their core, their strength. I love to walk alongside people. We might engage in conversation using words, music, art, or whatever. All of which is designed to assist them in moving through things, or being with Life situations, (re)connecting them with their deepest selves, helping them to (re)discover their own strengths and resilience.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
Difficult to say. This is the only age that I know. It is the present moment, and it is my moment, my life. This is my 6th decade in this lifetime. It is exciting and amazing. I feel privileged to still be around, something that has been denied to many others who I have met in the past 59 years.
I guess you could say that it is the perfect age for me, inevitably, because it is where I am.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Ha! Lines on my face, thinner skin and a thicker waistline. And on a more serious note, I have more life experience. Although I had experienced some things by age 25. I had got married, lost children through miscarriage, given birth to a child, and had a mortgage. Now I have a grown-up son with a wife and children of his own.
I have witnessed much – joy, grief, hurt, laughter, good times, bad times, all these and much more that make up a lifetime. These things I have witnessed in myself and in others.
I have a confidence now that I did not have when I was younger. This confidence is in my abilities. That it is OK to be me, fully. For example, I always had strong intuition and the ability to connect with others (in this realm and in other realms). However, previously I would not always trust these abilities. Now I know it is OK to do so. I have given myself permission to trust.
What about sex?
Since splitting up with my son’s father, I spent some time exploring me – not just sexually, but finding out about who I am, what I like and just generally more about life. I moved to London and met a number of guys who I had fun with. I learned a lot about what I want in a partner. One thing I am now very clear about is that if I am involved romantically with a guy, that the physical and sexual sides of that relationship are important to me. One thing about getting older is that I know what works for me. So, I can express more easily what I want and need sexually, and in other ways. And I am open to learning more about me, and about any future partner I may have.
Interesting that the question of sex was before relationships. I have many relationships with people – friendships. And I guess you mean romantic-type ‘relationships’?
I know that I enjoy being in these relationships with guys. I say guys, but I am definitely into monogamy, so only one guy at a time. An open relationship would definitely not be for me. In the past 20 years (since the end of my marriage) I have had a number of relationships. However, none have lasted more than several months. I feel I am now open to being involved longer-term with someone. Though to me it is much more about the quality of a relationship, not how long it might last. After all, there are no guarantees as to how long a relationship might last, nor how long any of us will be treading the earth plane.
What I am looking for is someone who I like, respect and can have fun with. A couple of the guys I have been involved with are still my friends and I love that I we can still be friends. This is something that has changed as I have got older. Another thing in relationships is that I have attracted people who I get along with, no real stressy arguments, not the angst-ridden relationships of youth. Something much more balanced, where it is about enjoying each other’s company, respecting each other for what the other one brings to the connection, mutual enjoyment. An ease of just being together
How free do you feel?
I feel very free to be me, to express myself in whatever ways I choose. In a way, I feel less free about other things.
A few years ago, I considered moving abroad, but now I want to be around for my parents, my son and his family. I don’t want to be too far away from my grandchildren, as although technology is a marvel (another change from my younger days) and we can talk and see each other via the internet, there is just no substitute for cuddling little people and playing together. I am looking forward to when they are big enough to play puddle-jumping, messy art, and other fun things. Not things to be done at a distance. And doing these things are freedoms in themselves, being able to reconnect with the inner child. I am definitely looking forward to some marvellous fun.
What are you proud of?
Not giving up. Like most people I know, I have had tough times over the years. Some things have happened that led to despair. At one time, I went through a depression, which was not a great place to be. Now I know I am strong enough to be with the tough times, and that these times give me lessons. In learning lessons, I have more to offer others, different ways to help support people on their paths.
I am also a very proud mum and grandma. To have had the privilege of watching a person grow from a bump in the tum to being a lovely human being is amazing. And now I am looking forward to seeing how my grandbabies grow. I wonder who they will become? What gifts they bring to this World?
What keeps you inspired?
People, nature, books, the world around me. When I think about the world and the cosmos, I am awestruck at the beauty, and the passion. I am inspired by the compassion of others. There is so much to be explored, both on inner as well as outer journeys.
When are you happiest?
Generally, I am a happy person. For sure, there are times when I might feel low, or whatever. But mostly I am happy. My happiness is not dependent on external factors. I guess that has been one of the learnings in this lifetime. That if we hook our happiness to someone or something else, then it can always be taken away. Whereas, finding happiness within, means that the seed of happiness is always accessible to me.
I have already mentioned my grandbabies, and for sure, being with them and their parents brings me great joy and happiness. Other things bring happiness too, such as walking in nature. I am fortunate to live a ten minute walk from the sea and only a short drive from the New Forest.
And where does your creativity go?
Into making music / sound, painting, cooking, writing, and much else. One thing I love to do is design and run workshops. My most recent creation being a workshop called, Weaving the Threads of Your Life Story, which I will be running later this year, having piloted it successfully last year. It is an exploration of our life to date, and a novel way into accessing how we are with that life.
What’s your philosophy of living?
Life is to be lived, to be savoured, to learn. We are all here to learn, through a physical existence, about emotions – using the visceral experience of physicality to understand emotions and feelings. Ultimately, we are here to be expressions of love.
My work is called The Heart of Joy. This is about the expression of Five Fields of Being. Everything that I do, is related to one, or more, of the Five Fields. One of the things that has changed as I have got older, is that I now understand the work that I am here to do. I just need to get on and do more of it!!
A gentle breathing out for the final time. It will happen to us all. I know how I would like to go, I do not fear dying, though there are some ways of dying that hold no appeal for me. I also believe that this physical existence is a temporary home for our true and deepest selves, our soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it. We are born and we take our first breath. Then we die for the first time, as we breathe out that initial in-breath. Life is then a constant breathing in of life and breathing out of death. This continues until we take our final breath, and breathe out, never more to breathe in again in this lifetime.
I have attended a workshop, twice, called, Dying to Live. It is an extraordinary workshop and helped me to understand a number of things. One of these was how to be with someone who is dying. I will always be grateful for this understanding, as it meant I was able to be around a very dear friend of mine who died two years ago. I had the privilege of being with him just a few hours before he passed into spirit – a beautiful gift for which I will always be grateful.
Are you still dreaming?
Yes, definitely. I dream about the world that I would like my grandbabies to grow up in. I dream about how I can help to make things better, about what is my part to play in the world. I dream about my work and what I can do next to help others.
What was the most outrageous action of yours?
I am unsure how to answer this question. In my younger days, at school, I was unpleasant to some other children. Looking back, I can see that my actions were nasty and even bullying. However, I was just a child myself, and I did not understand how my actions may have impacted others. I do hope that people have not suffered because of some of the things I did when I was young.
The most outrageous thing I did at work was when I left my first job in a life assurance company. It was a very conservative organisation. On my last day, I wore bright red jeans, and a mesh blouse that was completely see-though, apart from two large patch pockets that were strategically placed, and no bra. It was hilarious, as I got somewhat tipsy at lunchtime and then went round the office embarrassing people by sitting on their desks and talking with them. Many guys had no idea where to look.
As I grew older, I became outraged at things, rather than being outrageous myself. One time, when I was living in South Yorkshire, there was a discussion in the media about whether or not peace studies should be taught in primary schools. People were writing to the newspapers about how this was terrible, and how young children were unaware of wars. I was furious. I wrote to the local paper. I told the story of how when my son was two years old, and the Falklands’ War was happening, he came to me one day and said, “When I grow up, Margaret Thatcher is going to make me go into the army. I’m going to go to the Falklands and be killed.” Him saying that, really got me thinking about the world and what was happening. And so much for some adults thinking that infants are ‘unaware’ of war.
In 1980s Britain I supported anti-apartheid, the fight against the poll tax, the miners strike, CND (campaign for nuclear disarmament) and many other ‘causes’. Marching, talking about things with others, and so on. These days, I tend to do things differently. I work with energies, spirit, whatever you want to call it. I engage in sending healing energies. Knowing that whatever we do as individuals affects the wider world. Just like dropping pebbles into a pond and watching the ripples move across the whole pond from one tiny stone. Kindness and compassion are now watchwords for me. This does not mean that I am always kind and compassionate, but that I strive to be that way. I am still a work in progress.
And I am still open to taking outrageous actions when the need or desire arises.
You can find me on the web at www.theheartofjoy.com This is a site that is developing, as I develop my own understanding of the work I am on the Earth to do, in this lifetime.
I first experienced being naked in public in my twenties, when I went to the Greek island of Ios with a girlfriend. We took a day trip to a naked beach on the other side of the island, reached only by a boat that left in the morning and came back in the evening.
I’ll never forget lying on the pure white sand, my naked body exposed to all and it feeling very daring and radical. As I recall, there were just a few others on the beach, including a group of Italians I befriended (and later ended up visiting) and a Dutchman with whom I had a brief liaison.
While I lay there half asleep he had dropped water on my feet, introducing himself by saying, “It’s raining.” Looking up I saw a gorgeous, tanned man crouched down in front of me. The rest then followed the typical 18-30 holiday trajectory – boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy disappears never to be heard from again.
It was another twenty years before I took my clothes off in public again, this time at a sauna club in Kentish Town. I’d gone there with a boyfriend on his birthday as something fun to do and indeed it was, moving around from sauna to steam room then jacuzzi, wearing nothing more than a towel wrapped around my waist as we travelled from room to room. Feeling the steam soaking into my skin without a swimsuit sticking to it was divine. Following that first time, I went back often on my own, liking the attention I received from men, as much as being divested of my clothes for a few short hours.
After that, I became more interested in naturism in general so in 2005, when I was invited to the largest naturist village in the world, Cap D’Agde, by a group of very liberally-minded friends, I jumped at the opportunity.
Situated in the Languedoc region of France, not too far from picturesque Carcassonne and Montpellier, Cap D’Agde is a walled town, created in the 1970s. Although nowhere near as beautiful as the neighbouring towns, it does have the advantage of being the only place in the world where nudity is mandatory. The town holds up to 25,000 naturists in the high season who stay in one of the many campsites, hotels or apartments in the village. I was in my mid-40s, up for fun, adventure and generally bungee jumping my way through life. But all that aside, what I remember most – was just how wonderful it felt to be naked twenty-four hours a day.
I’d spent the vast majority of my life covered up and embarrassed about my body, having been overweight throughout my teens and twenties. It took having two kids and a succession of personal trainers with whom I exchanged PR skills for weekly workouts to get myself into shape. Still, it’s one thing to feel confident about one’s body and another to wander around the supermarket with one’s breasts exposed (and, yes, the frozen section is really cold).
Since first going to Cap D’Agde, I’ve been back four times, usually taking friends with me. Most have been naturist virgins. Mike was one. A big, tall Yorkshireman, I don’t think he truly believed that he was going to be walking around starkers until we entered the village and he spotted the street signs proclaiming that clothes weren’t allowed! It took him about 30 seconds to get used to being naked in public and once that short initial shock had passed, he was in his element. On leaving the village, he said it was the most fun on holiday he had ever had.
Being naked in a town full of naked people or in any other naturist place is fascinating. We may all be human but every one of us has our own distinctive shape. There is no such thing as perfection. While there will always be lithe young women and muscular men to admire – for the most part, everyone has lumps and bumps. What unites us all in these types of naturist venues is an acceptance of our naked selves and a pleasure in going through our daily life without having to worry about what we’re going to wear. Packing for a week away with just a carry-on. No problem!
Then there’s the fun in doing all the everyday activities ‘butt’ naked. Shopping for clothes, for instance, which seems counterintuitive but is actually hilarious as it consists of putting items on. Eating breakfast while sitting on a sun deck that overlooks other people also having their croissant while naked is a treat. Sex on a beach is, well, sexy – although one needs to watch out for the sand ending up in intimate areas. And there’s no better place for watching the world go by than at an outdoor, naturist cafe.
Aside from getting an all over tan, there are other positive benefits of holidaying naked. If you’ve grown up surrounded by images of beautiful people as most of us have, then it can be hard to accept one’s body for what it is, with all its blemishes, cellulite and loose bits of skin. In Cap D’Agde, where the average age is somewhere around the mid-40s and above, one comes to view bodies as fascinating rather than judging them on their individual parts.
Above all, being naked is actually good for your health. ‘Spending time in the nude is a great way to get in touch with your body,’ says Dr. Jenn Mann, relationship expert. ‘Being in the nude reduces shame. You can work on self-acceptance and that can be very healing.’
It’s often said that we live parallel lives in cities. The other day, I was invited to a pub on a familiar junction in London that I must have passed for 30 years yet never noticed. I was meeting some musicians who found the essence of Macedonian mojo in Peckham Rye but were decamping for the season lest it is sullied by the gridlock and the ceaseless barney.
My daily commute in London was getting to be of that ilk and unreliable too, a weary outwitting of arthritic infrastructure with no access to flotation tank and Dead Sea mud. The creaking bureaucracy overarching my profession of 16 years, that had started out years ago with local JP in the shires popping in for an informed chat and a friendly trawl through the books, had become a behemoth survived by brilliant colleagues and wonderful, woefully marginalized, troubled but soulful clients, but unsustainable.
After those 16 years, my knees were buckling under the legal bundles for constant benefit tribunals, last-ditch stays of eviction belatedly on the team radar, and the pavement pounding to beat the traffic and the tardy buses. I used to go to the river to watch the timeless flow, as referred to oddly enough by HG Wells in the epigraph to a novel titled by my family’s surname. Towards the end of Tono-Bungay, about a wonder tonic whose development is as restorative as the finished product, Wells writes of a trudge through the city ‘…But after that one is in a world of accident and nature…. beyond all law, order and precedence… conferences of brown-sailed barges’. His point there I think is that traditional graft, natures’ anarchy and certain stillness revolve around the river. Not a million miles away from the green utopia he envisaged in ‘News From Nowhere’. Wells saw these urban overloads coming down the pike and he noted where the Lighter Men were, unloading vessels so they could travel safely.
During this testing period, I recalled a couple of idyllic days spent making an EP with an old musician friend some distance up the Thames. Yards away a hippie maker of bamboo sax ligatures was testing his products before an audience of newly-hatched goslings and their mum. The shifted, earthed quality of what we put into these tracks as the studio floor juddered intermittently with the current. The lack of dead-eared deadlined din and hum. The industrious and at-ease-with-it who wave as they pass and the zoned out competitive rowers, waterproof as if allergic, who don’t. The wind in my face as I took the tiller of Russ’ boat for 500 yards or so and felt the benign might of the current and the foliage gently waving and swaying from the bank, the sense of being half a mile from Tesco’s yet in another, ancient world at peace with itself, calling to me. Nearly buying a craft from the Cossack heritage masseur to Dame Maggie Smith and Kylie Minogue whose close circles thereby mutter reverently of the life-affirming qualities of Rickmansworth. A glass of wine swirling with some gentle pitch and yaw is akin to a massage I think.
So a mutual old friend of Russ’ is moving to mountainous Italy with his GF and their watery den the Jam Pony is up for sale. My Mum left me part of her bequest and I hovered between her semi-detached sensibleness and her bursts of derring-do, such as flying a glider at 70 and her discreet heroism in the blitz when being the distant relative of one of the Lightermen (they who still unload river traffic from Tilbury that’s too bulky and disperse the loads was considered a walk on the wild side). As I was leaving Streatham for somewhere Thames Water were digging up some tunnelling rumoured to have been deployed for shelters then. And in a manner of speaking, it’s the water again.
So I fall in love with a little stretch of river and she, 55 foot of blue-twinset liveried doughtiness with a hint of the racy, the Jam Pony. A bit the worse for wear but soon with immaculate internal snagging. The engine has the timbre of a fine lady baritone in a barbershop quartet with sympathetic bass undertones. Another name perhaps?
A former co-worker of mine came to mind, and she has consented, but the word is that its bad luck to reassign a vessel when you first take it on. That current means risky business in the wintertime. The Swans, who had made war with me over my lunch when I worked in the canal side country town a few years ago -I’m reliably informed they are cousins- came to be fed through the window. Terms established for the inevitable payola, I went to my local bank and perspired a little as the payment went through to the broker who has a legitimate business rather than a sandwich-fleecing operation. The quietest of red-letter day moments on a busy urban afternoon, as if the river had invisibly manifested as clearing, windy, cool (to quote the usual reading on my parents’ barometer, eventually the case).
I find that I am part of a team. Not as of a corporate training day. As you arrive it’s game on over tea and digestives in a converted Sea Scout hut as mission control. Ropes, timber for decking, scaffolding poles to lash the boat to the riverside even as the bank itself shifts and expands with the challenging winter tides. . Sourcing a dinghy for getting to and fro as there is no direct road access.
It’s a bit choppy but you’re assured these things won’t sink though you might fall in once or twice, so here’s where to get your gear. You’re embedded through this into the friendly passing noddery of the river network that gets things done and organises its parallels to what you begin to see have been and are the much choppier waters of the school run, the mall, the traffic snarls and the glassy commuter glares at uncommitted fouling of personal space. The swans nod at me now as I drive past them in the dinghy like 50s pinstriped commuters, but there by regal charter, making it clear you are on trial initiation.
What the river also does is flow together bits of your life you had left half-done and re-locate those ships that pass in the night. The person making many of these fix-up calls for my boat, with me by his side, who for many years was the first responder to traffic accidents, overdoses and climatically and unassumingly, a gun massacre by a secure hospital escapee for life-saving at which my fixer got an MBE. Though gratefully received, it’s in a drawer now, on land, maybe 15 miles from the scene, and it secured no decent pension rights or security of tenure.
Yet in a roundabout way, it did start their river journey. We also realise that we were vocationally in parallel in the shires in the swan-baited years when hostel residents overdosed, I made the call in the depths of the night and this geezers’ ambulance crew raised Lazarus umpteen times. In a parallel process, we found that the concrete and the clay beneath our feet started to feel that crucial bit less exalted with less challenged, more effusively humdrum missions. In time, tuning into the river and its denizens of all species the and the well of experience finds its wellies, its shed full of useful odds and sods, and time to ponder amid the multi-species waterside welcoming ways and means committee.
I have a confession to make, until last weekend I was a virgin in the realm of workshops. Despite being an intuitive life coach and healer, the word ‘workshop’ and the thought of all that navel-gazing with a load of strangers has always made me want to run for the hills. Maybe because I am such a rebel and that it seemed almost ‘de rigueur’ that by a certain age, 53 in my case, with a certain lifestyle, one ought to have attended some kind of self-development workshop/course/retreat.
However, I came at Jan Day’s workshop ‘Meeting without Masks’ in a back to front way that sidestepped all my knee-jerk reactions. I went to a talk she gave in Portobello Road’s Electric House one rainy night in February and was immediately struck by Jan’s gentle energy and the powerful content of her conversation. She discussed intimacy in a way I had not heard spoken about before – with really intelligent observations around consent and about when ‘yes’ truly means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ truly means ‘no’.
I was totally hooked in and wanted to know more, because in the months post the beginning of the ‘Me Too’ movement, I was predominantly working with clients wanting to heal and release their sexual traumas. I liked the way Jan talked about how critical it was to explore one’s own boundaries first, and how vital boundaries are in a trusting relationship.
Of course on the actual day, I wasn’t so keen to go. We were having a rare moment of stunning sunshine after the Beast from the East plus it a was the London Marathon and it felt like the entire world had stepped onto my tube platform, it was worse than any rush hour scrum. Consequently, I was a bewildered hot mess when I arrive a few minutes late.
However, Jan and Frieder, (her husband and co-workshop host) couldn’t have put me more at ease with no judgement. In fact, the moment I walked into the room, I felt the loving playful way in which they were holding the space for everyone. Participants were already sitting down in a circle and the only place left was between Frieder and rather fortuitously the best looking man in the room.
The icebreaker in the first exercise was designed to loosen us up and inspire playfulness was actually my idea of hell, plus it didn’t help that Mr Good Looking was my partner. I was even more flustered. Thankfully, he seemed to find it equally awkward and I sensed a mutual rebellious spirit against anything contrived to force merriment. He had a droll deadpan humour and I couldn’t stop giggling. The group was gender-balanced with ages ranging from mid-20s to early 70s. As we moved onto the next exercise, I could see how cleverly they were designed to subtly yet skilfully lead us into exploring true listening and being present to our partner. I know from my marriage of 18 years that this is an area that gets woefully neglected in long relationships.
Meetings Without Masks or Naked Dating (in other words allowing you to remove your social masks) is not created for participants to get to know one particular person, but more to look at one’s own interactions and to get us accustomed to interacting in more heartfelt ways. As I worked with different partners, it struck me just how many men hadn’t considered what kind of relationship they really wanted. I actually started to really appreciate and respect the courage it took for everyone in the room to articulate this. It wasn’t easy to pull masks off that had built up over the years of self-protection. True intimacy requires vulnerability and that requires courage and most of the people I worked with seemed utterly frozen in their fears of rejection.
As the morning continued, I felt that shifts occurring. That maybe some of those shackles were loosening. Jan and Frieder were pushing us gently yet firmly to move out of our comfort zones. We had been asked to write notes of appreciation about everyone we encountered which would be put into envelopes with our names on it to take home. At one point Frieder even came up to and asked if I had written a note to Mr Good Looking and I recoiled in fear at the mere thought of it. I told him if I ever found a man attractive, it actually made me want to run away or even leave the room. Then to my extreme surprise, he asked me if I had been abused a lot by men, which I had. Having done decades of healing on myself, I was shocked to realise there is so much residual trauma left which still impacts the way I behave in a relationship. This workshop shone a torch into all my dark crevices making me see right into those areas that had yet to be healed.
In another exercise, we had a fabulous opportunity to start an honest dialogue with the opposite sex, which is so rare and precious. We were divided into sexes and invited to think about three questions. Firstly, we were asked to think about one thing that we appreciated about the opposite sex, then to consider one aspect that aggravated us, and finally to ponder a question that had always intrigued us about them.
I found myself in front of Mr Good Looking again and despite my lack of comfort, I forced myself to look into his eyes and tried not to get flustered as more masks came off. His answers were surprising and yet confirmed what I had already realised, we are all scared of getting rejected, and we all just wanted to be accepted, heard and loved. The vulnerability of showing these feelings of fear and discomfort – is real heartfelt intimacy.
By lunchtime, I had a lot of insights to mull over. For a small extra amount of money, there was a delicious vegan and gluten-free buffet.
The kindness and nurturing energy emanated by Jan and Frieder throughout the workshop, reminded me of my doula (trained birthing assistant) when I gave birth. They know that this isn’t an easy process and they hold the space in a strong, loving and supportive way so that participants can push through the layers of social masks to give birth to themselves safely if they wish.
It felt as if time was slowing down as we dived deeply into examining our responses to exercises, which encouraged us to practice vulnerability and openness. We went from less talking to more experiential work. In a very simple exercise where we could explore consent, we walked towards a partner after they had indicated their consent with an open or closed arm gesture. This became a moving, revelatory and extremely powerful experience for me because as someone who was brought up with the ‘disease to please’ simply taking the time to check in with myself that I was okay with moving forward, was an alien concept.
I had to consciously stop myself going on doing what I thought my partner wanted. Although a total stranger, my partner displayed extraordinary kindness by waiting patiently and holding the space in a non-threatening manner. I felt safe so I eventually was ready to move forward. It was the first time in my life that I felt that kind of patience from a man.
Having said that, when I was about three feet away from him, I felt the energy between us dramatically change. So much so that I had to go backwards in a knee-jerk reaction and take a moment before I stepped once again into that challengingly intimate space. It was almost too much for me and even though we hadn’t exchanged a word yet I knew he could feel it too. When I caught his eye, we both burst out laughing with the surprise and intimacy of it all.
The second version of this exercise became even more interesting as it required us to look at what was leading us to make the decision to move forwards or backwards. Was it our head or our sexual desire? Jan knows this is an enormous challenge for most of us and I loved the way she gently introduced it – especially to the men – as a way of unapologetically standing in and embracing one’s own sexuality.
As the day ended, we left holding our envelopes with the notes of appreciation and there was no doubt many masks had been removed. I felt tired but lighter. As I left, Mr Good Looking asked me how I had found it? The energy between us felt different. We had both just done the workshop and it felt as if there was another quality to the communication. I felt as if my words were truly being listened to, as if my words were falling into a deep pile that softly held it.
The truth is that I felt a bit discombobulated after the workshop. I was shocked that at 53 and after an 18-year marriage, I didn’t know how to respond to an attractive man. My traditional response had been to run away. Yet now I could look Mr GL in the eye without needing to control the situation. I could be instead present to the connection we were making.
Therein lies the beauty of this day course. Its tools are so accessible and immediate. Perhaps we were still in the bubble of the workshop, however, I think there was a difference to the quality of our communication as we walked and talked and got to know each other better in the beautiful back streets of Belgravia bathed in spring sunshine.
Later that night, I read the notes of appreciation we had been encouraged to write. Mine were touching and sweet. They reminded me of the courage that it takes to be vulnerable. True intimacy is so scary for so many of us, especially for those who have never had it. The last note I opened was from Mr GL, it said; ‘I loved your infectious joy, positivity, sense of mischief and curiosity – and your jewellery which was nearly as plentiful as mine.’
As for what happened next with Mr GL, well that’s a story for another time…