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AofA People: Janet Kelly – Writer


7 Minute Read

Janet Kelly, 61, is a writer and started writing novels in her 50s. She has four published books as well as a number of scripts in development. She tells us how much she’s enjoying her life in her early sixties. And answers our Q&A in the way we love with long and meandering answers.

Where do you live?

Brighton

What do you do?

Writer

How do you feel about being this age?

I am thoroughly enjoying being this age, never having really thought I’d make it this far. I’m still in awe of the fact I am in my sixties and having a good time. It’s like joining a secret club where the admission fee is age and experience. There are the occasional lapses of memory and physical limitations – I have been aiming to run a half marathon but my knees gave up – but these are probably more down to an excessive lifestyle than my years on this planet.

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

The confidence to be who I am and grow into myself without worrying what other people think. For example, I grew my hair out during lockdown and am now completely grey, and loving it – particularly after years of constant trips to the hairdressers to get the roots coloured. I’m embracing the opportunity to be as natural as possible.

I do have a constant nagging feeling that time is very short but I was born with a sense of urgency so I think older age has just enhanced my need to go and do things.

I do also feel a sense of wisdom about life and people. We’re all experiencing the world in different ways and tolerance is so important (not that I always have it!). My view isn’t anyone else’s view and so I think age has helped me try and understand we are all different and need to celebrate that fact – every single person has something to offer.

What about sex?

What about it?  Highly overrated in many ways and a mechanic of nature to get us to reproduce. Once the hormones are out of the way and we can see it as a pleasure to be taken as and when, rather than an overriding drive to find a mate, it can become a pleasure amongst many other pleasures rather than the bee all and end-all.  True intimacy can come from great friendship, hugs, empathy, and connection. It can include sex but doesn’t have to.

And relationships?

I treasure my good friends and look forward to living a long life with all of them so we can continue to look backwards as well as forwards. As I’ve got older, I recognise that no one person can fulfil any emotional need, this comes from personal growth and connection with a range of different types of people. Romantic relationships aren’t as important, probably for the same reasons already mentioned – once that need to reproduce is removed from the biological psyche the options for finding fulfilment expand exponentially.  Having said that I am far more tolerant in my relationship with my partner than I might have been 20 years ago and enjoy the small levels of companionship and partnership rather than the big gestures.

How free do you feel?

I am very lucky to feel free in most ways, partly because of the accident of birth and living in the UK with all it has to offer – not least its amazing language and diversity – but also because things that used to worry me no longer keep me awake. We’re here for a very short time and all of us, very likely, will be dead in 100 years. This is a sobering thought and makes me look at all those who are striving for great wealth and power with pity. The real secret to success is the ability to enjoy the life we have at whatever level we experience it.

What are you proud of?

Many things but mainly my children and particularly my grandson – it is a different relationship to being a parent. On a personal level, I am proud of overcoming adversity and difficulties and finding the ability to keep reinventing myself. I started writing novels in my 50s and have four published books – one for children – and a number of scripts that I have written since turning 60 that are in development. I am now following a career that I should have started in my 20s had I not been influenced by a need to chase the dollar.

What keeps you inspired?

As an eternal optimist, I think it is the fact that my next ‘big project’ is around the corner and that there are limitless opportunities to become involved with things I love.  I enjoy connecting with creative people who have energy and drive, and who make things happen. I am inspired to be part of that.

When are you happiest?

Walking my dogs on the seafront or meeting friends for coffee and talking about what we will be doing in our older age. I live near the sea and it always calms my mind and reminds me that we are all in this together. The sea has always been there and always will be – while people come and go.  I love doing new things – such as taking my husband for a spitfire flight experience, which was just awesome, all that history and incredible engineering.

I also love gardening and get very excited when new shoots arrive in the spring or I get to pick some homegrown vegetables. Seeing a new runner bean or courgette is like Christmas!  My chickens also make me happy as they are very much underestimated.

Where does your creativity go?

I have really started to enjoy my creativity in recent years, starting with my writing and then moving into art and music. I started up the Saltdean Jazz Band where I live which is aimed at amateur musicians who might not be able to play anywhere else as they are either rusty, don’t know enough about music or lack confidence. I play the saxophone and finally have a place to develop my musical creativity, getting more involved with solo improvisation which I find exceptionally hard but exhilarating. More recently I have been undertaking art classes and put myself forward to have my body painted by an artist as part of a campaign to get women to love the bits they hate.

Rather than hide my blobby tummy and cellulite I think it is time I celebrated the fact it is all a result of my life experiences and need to be recognised. Not only that, my body works – it does its jobs – and I’ve been very rude to it over the years. It’s time to apologise to it for being the workhorse it has been and say thank you. Without it, I’d be nothing.

What is your philosophy of living?

Do the best you can with the resources you have. You won’t always get it right but somewhere along the way there will be nuggets of gold that make the journey more than worthwhile. I get up every day looking forward to something – whether it is collecting eggs from the chickens or preparing for a walk, a holiday or a major work project. Time shouldn’t be wasted – and by that, I don’t mean we can’t sit and dream for hours on end because that is not a waste!

And dying?

It happens. For some, it happens far too early, particularly for those left behind. For some, it happens in horrendous circumstances and for others, it is just the last breath, the full stop.  I hope my end falls into the latter but I’m aware we have no idea of what might be meant for us. So don’t waste time worrying about the next stage. It will come when it’s ready.

Are you still dreaming?

Without my dreams, I’d have achieved nothing. I spend time before I go to sleep each night dreaming of what might be.  Some dreams are possible, others a little more unrealistic. Although I’m not one to ever say ‘never’.

What is a recent outrageous action of yours?

I got so drunk on my 61st birthday that I fell over, cut my head badly, and was taken to hospital in a pizza van. I still have the scar which I wear with a kind of pride that the consequences weren’t much worse. I was more upset that we lost my birthday cake. We think the seagulls ate it.

Backstroke


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go of 40 years’ worth of family memories


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Clare Cooper, 2022

Pleasure, Healing and Fulfilment


1 Minute Read

The advantages of age are – that with less time to waste and less energy, but more wisdom about who we each of us really are – we can stop our various beliefs and strategies for people pleasing and settle down to the vital task of allowing ourselves to really enjoy this gift of life.

When I was a child, I saw that the adults around me were miserable and serious. ‘Everybody hates it, nobody likes it, you just HAVE to do it’ was regularly said by my well-intentioned mother.

I didn’t understand. I saw their sadness, and I knew, without doubt, that there was more. More to living and more to life. More to hope for, enjoy and relish. More to live for…

It was the 70s and our house was full of burnt orange wallpaper and dark heavy wood furniture. A ceramic chicken in the kitchen for eggs, fur coats in the hallway cupboard, and Benny Hill on the TV.

The atmosphere a confusing mix of post-war grief, misogyny, female empowerment, passionate love and systemic hatred. What a place for a sensitive, sensual, spiritual girl!

Out in the garden, I was in contact with everything, in deep sensual relationship with the huge willow tree and pine trees, the purple rhododendrons, dark earth, fields of yellow flowers reaching up to the horizon, and the big blue sky.

My fingers trailed textures, tree bark and metal railings, my nose was curious and I dreamt of the muscly bodies of half-naked young builders next door and roomfuls of naked people.

Those words intended kindly to protect, imprisoned me. ‘All men are only after one thing, don’t give it to them.’ And a critical judgment of my essentially wild and free true nature.

Like many others, I took it upon myself to heal those around me, sacrificing myself in an attempt to help. The soul movement of a child trying to assist. Willing to disappear herself, if her very existence on earth – was a challenging disturbance to those she loved. And needed.

There are many ways to tell a story. There are many aspects and influences on a life. I can speak of ancestral burdens and birth trauma, being bullied and great loneliness, a series of teenage and young adult breakdowns, living abroad, travelling and returning back to London.

Despite all the great difficulty – the deep dark night of the soul – I was incredibly focused and determined to retrieve my true self and live that. I always knew I would one day write a book. And had an internal sense of my big potential and destiny. I was prepared to invest almost all my time, energy and money to become that. I had a tremendous drive to heal.

I visited shamans and teachers, gurus and therapists of this and that, focused on ancestors and sex, blood and bones; energy, chakras and inquiry; I learnt to change physical pain into physical pleasure with my breath; to align cranium, spine and pelvis; to clear parasites from my blood; recover from chronic fatigue; I was lost and found again in very many different ways.

I come from a family of healers and spiritual seekers and bring with me ‘organic energy’ from their spiritual adventures. Something one of my spiritual teachers described as ‘having enough fuel to make the journey.’

Over the decades I was first a client and then a therapist and then a workshop leader. Slowly evolving, exploring and sharing the edges between self-criticism and self-acceptance, traumatic disassociation and embodiment, stress and relaxation, pain and pleasure.

And always, my theme has been the same. My life-long love of the mystery, real sensual relationships and the body.

Pleasure.

They say you teach best what you most need to learn!

In my twenties I wrote the first part of the book, a raw emotional rant, knowing that when once I was healed and evolved, I would one day write the second part. That is how it happened. One poem from that first draft made it into the final book.

A few years ago, around 50, I wrote the second part of the book. The words poured out of me, passionate and clear. A co-creation with Life. A pleasurable process.

I’m thrilled it’s been so well-received. ‘Lively and uplifting’ ‘fun and engaging’ ‘highly recommended, impressively well-written’ ‘a real treasure trove of reflections and practices to enrich our lives’ reviewers said. A manual for happiness, relationships and being human.

So what is it that have I written about Pleasure that is so fun, original and interesting?

I wrote what my heart knows and wants to share.

The book is a guided journey from mess to magic, into what I call the Universe of Deliciousness. A realm of delight hidden just beneath the surface of rushed ordinary everyday life, that is available to everyone to discover, without discrimination or expense.

Pleasure is not just a reward when we are exhausted, a sweet treat to revive or stimulate us. Pleasure is not something selfish. And not just something that we get from the outside, from other people or things. Pleasure arises within our body and life experience. It is ours! Pleasure is our essential nature, a vital source of nourishment, and the way that life can be.

Pleasure cannot exist without its counterpart pain. The journey to receiving more pleasure is the deep journey below the level of survival, to facing our fears and opening up to really feeling. It is the journey out of our heads, busyness and non-stop doing, and into the sensate, sensitive, somatic territory of our vulnerable powerful bodies — and our very right to exist – and take up space – and enjoy our own lives!

I’m not interested in the fake version of pleasure (used to sell stuff to us by monetising our own repressed desires) but in the innate natural state of pleasure, we can cultivate for ourselves – whether that’s in an encounter, relationship or moment. A taste of deliciousness.

None of us are without complication in the area of sexuality and relating. Few of us were given positive clear messages and role-models. Yet we can transform our experience of pleasure by bringing our fullest kind attention to ourselves and others, by allowing ourselves to receive goodness, by grasping with both hands the fullness of the gifts of life.

Our bodies are the location of our life experience, the source of both our pleasure and our wisdom. Our lifelong human task, is to undo all of the unhelpful messages and conclusions, to return home to ourselves, to being able to be fully in the body and in all of our life.

All of life is sexual. Every moment is a potential exchange of information and sensation. We are all physically wired for pleasure and deeply entitled to enjoy this our precious time on earth. With kindness, respect, breath, sensitivity, happiness and joy. Pleasure is for all of us.

We can increase the pleaureableness of our experience by travelling a pathway from our mess to our magic, through the practical paradigm-shifting ‘medicines,’ 7 sequential steps through Slow, Body, Depth, Relationship, Pleasure, Power and Potency. There are many small practical tweaks we can make for ourselves that will allow more pleasure in, to imbue our days and lives. Try interrupting old habits with productive pauses, sensing your physical body, dropping into humility, creating healthy relationships, relishing your sensuality, allowing your authentic confidence to shine and accessing your own inner wisdom.

Pleasure is an inside job. There is much we can do to enhance our life experience. I guess I’ve written what I wish someone with a big hug had told me when I was younger. We are none of us alone. We all can, with the right resources, heal ourselves. Life is for fully living!

The book can be purchased online from Amazon, WHSmiths, Waterstones, Book Depository, Blackwells and is in many independent bookshops. A direct link to the book on Amazon is bit.ly/HPoPLUK

My website is www.UniverseOfDeliciousness.com

I look forward to connecting with you on social media:

https://www.instagram.com/julia.paulette.hollenbery/

https://www.facebook.com/JuliaPauletteHollenbery

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2438716336148629 (Power of Pleasure Community)

https://twitter.com/juliahollenbery

https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliahollenbery/

A conversation with Julia Paulette Hollenbery and Monique Roffey in North London on June 8th at 7pm in West End Lane Bookshop – All welcome, please book your ticket, £5 includes wine and is redeemable buying the book! https://www.welbooks.co.uk/events

A Greek Island Retreat, The Healing Power of Pleasure, June 11th – 18th, bit.ly/SkyrosHPoPI

How I Became a Holy Woman in my own First Novel at 60


7 Minute Read

My father had just died of hospital-acquired Covid, my mother was in the depths of grief and clearly further developed in her dementia than I had realised. Towards the end of a working lifetime of being bullied and/or taken for granted, interspersed by failed attempts at self-employment, I felt I had run out of steam. I wondered if I could re-invent myself?

Losing my father and attempting to care for my mother had put me back in touch with childhood trauma in a most unwelcome way. I was 60, the age at which, when my career began, I could have expected to retire. The idea of working beyond 60 had never upset me.  Yet suddenly I felt utterly spent, although not ready to say, ‘I’m retired’ if anyone asked, ‘What do you do?’

I didn’t have to wait long for my answer to the re-invention question. Planning an outing with some ex-school friends, one of them suggested going to Boscobel House in Shropshire. All I knew about the place was that King Charles 2nd had hidden in an oak tree there after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, to save himself from execution by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘it will be a day out, and good to see my friends again’. Little did I know what was waiting for me.  Or, should I say, who?

As we entered the house, a guide was relating how Charles, aged 21, recognised by Royalists as Prince of Wales in England, Ireland and Wales, and King without power in Scotland, had arrived at Boscobel in the early hours of Saturday 6th September 1651. He was soaking wet, cold, hungry, exhausted and very footsore. ‘I expect Charles would have rather stayed by the fire all day instead of hiding in the oak tree,’ he said. Something inside me lit up. ‘What if I’d been here then? I could have taken care of him!’ I thought. That feeling grew stronger and stronger as we went around the house. At one point it was so powerful that I dissociated for a few minutes, swept up in my fantasy of looking after Charles.

For a fortnight afterwards, I barely slept. I read everything I could find about Charles’ rescue and eventual escape from England after six weeks as a fugitive. Source books fell off library shelves into my hands, and a friend to whom I mentioned my newfound passion gave me Georgette Heyer’s novel Royal Escape which he had just finished reading. Simultaneously, I started writing my creative narrative, blending historical events and characters with a fictional account by an imagined woman who cared for Charles.

The story poured out of me so naturally and so fast that it felt more like remembering than imagining. Sitting at my laptop one day, I saw the words ‘Healing is my sacred calling’ appear on the screen. ‘Who wrote that?’ I wondered, before quickly understanding that these words were the key to my story. Dame Sarah, my fictional alter-ego, was a herbalist. Charles needed medicinal interventions for his traumatised mind and body. This revelation also gave me a great plot twist. Sarah was adamant from the start that she was a holy woman.

The house to which Charles was first escorted from Worcester was a manor house called White Ladies, built among the ruins of a convent. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries monastic communities were suppressed, but some men and women still gave their lives to God. Sarah was one such, serving her community with her healing knowledge and practice. But herbalism also has roots in witchcraft, and during the Civil War, the ferment of Republicanism versus Royalism, and Puritanism versus Catholicism (Roman and Anglican) provided ideal conditions for anyone who practised healing to be suspected of witchcraft. Puritan rule had done away with bishops who had previously issued licenses to midwives and healers, so if the slightest thing went wrong these practitioners were prey to accusations of being witches. And women like Sarah, highly intelligent and of independent means, were threats to the patriarchy in such dangerous times.

What started as a private writing exercise soon burgeoned into a 15.000 word novelette, and it didn’t stop there! I wrote a preface setting the story in the social history of herbalism. Then friends began asking to read it. I’m normally extremely private about my writing, but I decided to share it. Six trusted friends who are writers and/or academics read it, and all said, ‘This needs to be published!’ My republican friends – whom I had expected to say it was a pity the monarchy was ever restored – told me instead that they had lived every moment of the story and they also picked up intuitively on the subliminal message I’d woven in about the relevance of Charles’ rescue to today’s emergencies of wars, inequities and the cost-of-living crisis forcing so many people onto the kindness of strangers.

So, one damp January afternoon I began an internet search for a publisher. As a first-time novelist, I knew there was no chance of being accepted by a traditional publishing house, so self-publishing was the only way forward. Nevertheless, I was astonished and elated when the first company I approached was very keen to take on my book and had a lead editor whose favourite genre is historical fiction. And, just in time for Oak Apple Day on 29th May, the anniversary of Charles’ birthday and coronation, my book is published and selling!

That visit to Boscobel House was a truly life changing experience. Not only did it give me a fabulous structure on which to write my first book of fiction; it taught me to really open up to a hugely powerful benevolent force. Many people might call it The Universe. I am an Anglo-Catholic Christian. I had an overwhelming sense of vocation to help and to care when I was a child, but have struggled with belief in adulthood. This recent experience has felt like a massive blessing and has rekindled my faith.

It has put me back in touch with happy times in my childhood when I felt spiritually at one with Nature. My love of gardening has a new focus in planting an apothecary garden. I’m applying to study a foundation course in Medicinal Herbalism, and guess what: the only college in the country which offers this course is just 16 miles from my home. Dame Sarah is a thinly veiled version of the person I would most like to be, and now I feel her guiding and shaping me to become more like her.

I even have a plan after studying to offer Living History events at which Dame Sarah teaches herbal identification and demonstrates medicinal plant remedies. But perhaps most of all, I have been taught to open myself to signs and wonders all around us which strengthen, support and sustain us if we observe and listen carefully. Emmylou Harris says that women can be just as reproductive, if not more so, after the menopause than before it, if we’re paying attention; and the Dalai Lama has said that spiritually empowered women will change the world for better. I have always believed in those ideas and am more ready than ever to embrace what is called sweet power and be part of a beneficial life force thrumming with nurture, love and compassion for the whole world.

Hilary Wellington (on social media as Ginny Rawson)

Nottinghamshire, May 2022

My book A King’s Sanctuary can be bought at

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kings-Sanctuary-Hilary-Wellington/dp/1915338212/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3GTFL2XLL3S3N&keywords=a+kings+sanctuary&qid=1653169752&sprefix=A+King%27s+%2Caps%2C81&sr=8-1

or contact me at hjwellington@icloud.com for direct sales

I Hate to Call it a Disorder – finding out I had ADHD at 57


8 Minute Read

Ivan Pope is a writer, artist and long-distance cyclist who lives in Brighton. He originally graduated from Goldsmiths College Fine Art BA. He was involved with a number of early internet developments in the UK and across the world. He invented the cybercafe at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and founded the world’s first web magazine, The World Wide Web Newsletter. He has taught at art colleges in London, Newport and Brighton. He is now a writer of fiction and psychogeographic non-fiction. He is currently undertaking a PhD in creative non-fiction at Plymouth University.

I have spent most of my life in creative pursuits, drifting from one thing to another without ever clearly understanding what I was doing. I certainly never had a plan, much less a career and, although I had some notable successes along the way, and am not unhappy with my life, I always felt something was wrong. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

The revelation of attention-deficit to me was a classic epiphany. I was trying to work out some issues that we had with our son who, although a very intelligent boy, seemed incapable of working at university and had just extricated himself from Oxford in the most painful and seemingly pointless fashion. Someone suggested ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), the full name of this syndrome. I was both dismissive and uninterested, believing at that point that ADHD was a term applied only to annoying children who would not sit still. Nevertheless, I went to Google and searched the term. Immediately I came across a list of ADHD attributes and these brought me up so sharply that my life changed in that instant. I was fifty-seven and, while I wouldn’t say my life had been a disaster, I seemed to have always stood on the edge of normality. ‘That’s my life, I thought.’ I was alone but I may even have spoken out loud. It became as obvious as it could be: almost every way that ADHD was said to manifest was familiar to me. In that instant, I understood myself better than I had ever done.

Since then I have come to see attention deficit as both the driver of creativity and the author of my strange unfocused life. I have not been formally diagnosed, I am self-diagnosed.  I have read a lot about it and also, more importantly, listened in to a growing community online who discuss, challenge and inform each other about how attention deficit works in their lives.  This syndrome seems to explain a lot about the strangenesses of our lives: why are we like this and also like that. It is a strange and shape-shifting disorder which is comorbid with a range of other neurodiversities and some even more strange issues like hypermobility and digestive issues.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is not named well. It’s not really about hyperactivity (although to be fair, there is a hyperactive version, and it is said that for many of us, the hyperactivity is internal). It’s not even really a disorder. It seems to be more of an attention surfeit, we pay too much attention to too many things. It also creates a strange relationship with time. I’ve known these attributes my whole life, but I never considered them strange. I assumed everyone had them to some degree and that my creativity, my way with ideas, was just something I was a bit better at. Then I found ADHD and suddenly I could see myself in operation, I could anticipate how I might react and understand what I was doing, and why I was doing it. This ‘disorder’ (as I don’t like to call it) is well scientifically and medically documented, but still hard to put into words. The notion that it is about an inability to sit still is nonsense in most of us, though the hyperactivity may be considered to be internal, a driver of our restless lives. We have huge issues with procrastination, an inability to get started, and then we have hyperfocus, the ability to spend hours in a different world, undertaking a single task.

I started looking, as I so often did, at art and literature for answers. In her book Flights, the Nobel author, Olga Tokarczuk, describes a condition that she calls Lazy Venus syndrome Although she never uses the term attention deficit, she describes someone with ADHD perfectly and beautifully.

“The result of this situation is that I have, as I see it, Lazy Venus syndrome. In this case, we’re dealing with a Person whose fortune has gifted generously, but who has entirely failed to use their potential. Such people are bright and intelligent, but don’t apply themselves to their studies, and use their intelligence to play card games or patience instead.

This … induces a strange kind of laziness – lifetime opportunities are missed because you overslept because you didn’t feel like going, because you were late because you were neglectful. It’s a tendency to be sybaritic, to live in a state of mild consciousness, to fritter your life away on petty pleasures, to dislike effort and be devoid of any penchant for competition. Long mornings, unopened letters, things put off for later, abandoned projects. A dislike of any authority and a refusal to submit to it, going your own way in a taciturn idle manner.”

It is interesting to compare Tokarczuk’s description with a more conventional list of attributes of ADHD:

  • Easily bored, Gets frustrated, Anxious
  • Does not meet goals, Easily distracted, Searches for stimulation,
  • Sense of underachievement, Restive
  • Disorganised, Can’t get started (Time blindness)
  • Resistance to authority, Impulsive, Doesn’t follow procedure
  • Impatient, Procrastinates, Lots of hobbies
  • Called dreamy. Hyperfocuses.
  • Has an aversion to paperwork

People I talk to, especially artists, often recognise this sort of language because it has been applied to you. Indeed, it reads like my own school reports. They (and my mother) constantly told me I lived in a dream world ‘to live in a state of mild-consciousness’. We are often categorised as lazy ‘a strange kind of laziness’ despite being intelligent and highly creative. We tend not to finish things, getting distracted or starting something new. We tend to be impulsive, getting into trouble and resisting authority in different ways, ‘A dislike of any authority and a refusal to submit to it’. People with ADHD will often ask themselves how they can be lazy when they spend so much time being busy, starting and getting on with multiple interests ‘abandoned projects’. We tend to have a dislike of paperwork ‘unopened letters, things put off for later’. ADHD can drive fierce creativity but it can also ensure that creativity never finds lasting expression.

In his book Adult ADHD: How to succeed as a Hunter in a Farmer’s world, Thom Hartmann says that the forgetfulness, disorganisation, impulsivity and boredom that ADHD brings can be as constructive as they can be destructive. To be fair, attention deficit can be hugely destructive and far more intense than I have experienced. It is a formal medical condition that can ruin lives and there is a lot of disagreement currently (especially in the US) about over-diagnosis and medicalisation. My interest is not in the medical side or in the politics of this, but in understanding how or whether attention deficit relates to creativity. In this, I mean all forms of creativity, the ability to come up with new ideas, to execute creative work within any field. It is clear that this is an ability that not everyone has – not everyone wants it – again, creativity could be seen as a curse as in the Chinese saying, May you live in interesting times. There is a double edgeness to creativity, an understanding that true artists stand close to some edge, that they may pay heavily for their talent – and not everyone wants that.

I have become fascinated by the double-edged sword of this syndrome which gives great creativity through the restless search for stimulation while undermining it repeatedly with distraction. Impulsivity is important for creativity, as is a resistance to a normal way of doing things, and a willingness to experiment, but finding disorganisation and frustration will often destroy what has been started. I used to fear that my creativity would leave me, while at the same time having no understanding of what drove it. Now I can look at myself and my behaviour and see what I am doing. I haven’t changed in how I operate in life, but I am more at ease with why I am as I am. When I was an entrepreneur, my advisors would demand consistency – and consistency is the exact opposite of attention deficit. I even came up with a phrase to refute them: consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Now, with my new knowledge, I look back at that time and that attitude and understand that I precisely understood my way of being in the world even when I had no way of thinking about it. Now I do.

If you have read this far and are now thinking what I describe is just the description of normal people, of a certain creative type, or of human behaviour, then consider that maybe you are looking at the world from within attention deficit, that you yourself have Tokarczuk’s Lazy Venus syndrome. Welcome to the club.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Pope

Choosing To Live Apart – how does that shimmy down as we get older


9 Minute Read

We were old when we met. Asanga – Pete, Albert variously – was almost 70 and I was almost 60. And we lived five hours apart by car. Holy non-matrimony, that’s quite a trip. From West London to North Wales. And now I’m nearly 70 and he’s nearly 80 – we’re still doing it. And relishing the difference.

Honestly, it was a nightmare to step into this relationship. At least for me. I can’t speak for Asanga but I’d been on my own for 17 years (apart from various mad, bad and dangerous carry-ons with unavailable men – from the drunken difficult psychotherapist to the charismatic alcoholic /would-be property developer, more likely to be found eating the carpet, let’s call them the classics) whereas he’d been married for 30 years. He was more used to a solid relationship.

Asanga found it difficult to comprehend my anxiety levels. Oh – they were so there. Especially when my family were around. For a woman who never wanted to be married (and still doesn’t) and lived her life amid squats, hippies and punks plus has never really been employed; I turned incredibly conformist when it came to this relationship. I was constantly anticipating disaster of an erotic or embarrassing kind. And to give him his disaster credentials, Asanga did live up to my expectations. I won’t go into all the details. But there was the time that he managed to use the bidet – no one actually used it, it was a throwback from 1970s new housing aspirations – and break it in my mother’s Yorkshire abode. I was beyond mortified.

And I absolutely hated that he didn’t know, understand or seem particularly interested in my vivid personal history or vast web of friends – my lumbering baggage. And equally, I abhorred having to get to know him. There was so much of it – on both sides. I’d always wanted to connect to someone who understood my roots and all their little rootlings. That was a part of that woodland, my particular wood.

However – thank heavens – I did love being transported to heavenly North Wales. I’d drive (and still do) my mother’s golden Fabia down his track and wonder at this little piece of earthly paradise full of oak and ash nestled behind Pentrefelin. I still do. Something happens to me as I arrive – a dropping down. Well – it does now. In previous years, we’d have a fight as soon as I got there. To bridge the gap and then we’d have to find a route through. We practised a lot of vulnerability-revealing in those days. It was hard work but good practice, ultimately. We discovered alleys through conflict.

There is so much to negotiate when you live together and yet apart. And there is so much richness too. I love being alone and with someone. It suits my psyche especially now I’m 69. I don’t want to be with another person all the time. But I relish the web. There is such freedom here for me. And for Asanga. We can have the best of both worlds. Well, we can now that we’ve been doing it for so long.

Phew, we are now familiar with the long bags that we drag behind us. Although we are always learning new aspects of each other, misunderstanding and trying to find understanding. Take this week. Here is a small example. Asanga is called Asanga because it’s Sanskrit for aloneness and the spiritual healer, Osho or Bhagwan gave it to him. Sannyasins are not big on boundaries because they are so great at being without boundaries which can be wildly exciting and it can make life feel very unsafe for people like me who are insecure. This is a minuscule example. A FB friend of his, an older woman, also an older sannyasin, responded to Asanga’s climbing post by commenting ‘Great Shape’. It was a comment about his body, his physical shape, she liked it. To me, that was going over a boundary. She knows he’s in a relationship and she decided to not care. I wasn’t majorly upset, just a little putout.

Asanga and I have had a lot of tooing and froing about this kind of issue. Examples more serious than this one but all along a similar line-crossing. Either by him or other women. I’ve often felt that because he’s not insecure in this way, I am being too much. This time – and we have done a lot of personal work on it – I messaged Asanga and wondered if he would act around it. In the past, he would have been, defensive and then claim it was absolutely fine. This time, he understood. He messaged her privately in a good way, then she took down the comment. O the simplicity and calm that I yearn for.

For me, that was a huge action even though it wasn’t. That action made me feel so seen. My love for him instantly deepened.

And we’re still driving 240 miles to see each other. There is no regularity about it. Sometimes it’s every two weeks, often we meet in other places – I love being on neutral terrain with him so that we can relinquish our territorial attachments, especially me, I’m forever clearing his belongings into the study, mind you, I do live in a small flat – like Ilkley in Yorkshire, Bristol – although next, I am going up to North Wales for a month. And he will stay here in July for a week because we’ve got two weekend festivals to go to – Silver Sky Festival, then Womad.

I enjoy the feeling of organic endeavour between us and that it’s not regular but is dependable. We trust each other. We’re in contact every day, mainly messages on WhatsApp and photos of what we’re up to. That’s the safety of the web that I feel holding me/us. We don’t talk much, maybe once a week. But since our energy wanes in the evening, one of us might cancel. Often me. I just don’t feel like talking on the phone when I’m at home alone. Or anywhere else for that matter. And I love that it’s okay.

I appreciate that he’s having a good time in N Wales as I am in London. We’re interdependent rather than dependent. It’s taken me a long time to get to this place. And of course, we’re lucky that we’ve both got homes that we own, and are financially stable independently. Neither of us spends much money. Asanga is frugal, my mother was frugal. And – as long we have occasional splurges on travel and a delicious meal out – I’m content to be careful in this way. Money and how we as humans spend it, and what we feel comfortable about spending is such a hugely fascinating topic.

And we are both getting older. We’re aware of it – we’re talking about death and dying. Although not especially at the moment, it’s spring! The question came up not so long ago – what will we do if one of us can’t drive anymore? The answer is that we’ll adapt. If Asanga became unable to drive, I’d be the one who did all the driving, or perhaps I’d move up there for longer periods.

It’s good to be prepared and talk but you can’t be prepared for everything. Going with the flow is one of those hippie things that we can both do. As a family, we the Rouses, learnt when my mother first got Alzheimer’s – she died in 2018 – that it’s important to be organic in terms of finding solutions. My mum moved in and out of different stages – at first, she could be at home with a little extra help and occasional companions to take her out – then it came the time for her to have more care and she moved into a residential home where there was a daycare centre. The daycare centre was so good – mum was ready there and waiting every day, she loved playing games and being sociable. It reminded her of her cruising days. We kept on the paid companions to take her out and about when we weren’t there. Neither I nor my sister lived near Ilkley. Eventually, she moved to a nursing home nearer to us. It was an ever-changing scenario where we tried as hard as we could to fulfil her needs as well as see her as much as we could.

Although I hope our experience in our older years is different to that of my mother’s (in terms of getting Alzheimer’s plus she didn’t have many friends), I know one aspect will be the same. We will be organic around what happens to each other. Fortunately, Asanga has a daughter who lives with him – her boyfriend comes to stay – and that is also a boon for me, because I know he has company and support in maintaining his large four-bedroom farmhouse and 14 acres of land. There have been times in the past when I’ve thought that he’s crazy to keep it on, but he’s almost 79 and he’s still doing it! And it’s gorgeous so why not? He’s happy in his wildland. I’m also very happy about his wildland when I’m there.

I also have a son – who’s 35 – and he lives in London with his partner. We’re very close. I’m not a grandmother yet, but I might be one day, and if I am, I’d like to be relatively nearby. Another reason that Living Apart Together suits me.

I also have to confess that I’m a sucker for anticipation and the ritual of preparation. I’m already thinking about what to take to Wales when I go very soon. I’ll be working there this time – I did that in lockdown too – and Asanga has cleared out his office (formerly a dumping ground for every discarded item) for me. I am touched.

What will the future bring? We’ve really no idea. But I have confidence that we’ll roll with it.

If you would like to read more of my work, it’s here –
http://www.roserouse.co.uk

Shedding the Old Skin – My journey into a new, exciting stage of life


1 Minute Read

After my mother’s death, I started reviewing what I had done with my life and what I wanted to do with the time I had left.

For the last ten years, I’d put a lot of energy into working with a charity called A Band of Brothers (ABOB), doing rites-of-passage weekends for young men involved in the Criminal Justice System in order to help them move on from adolescent behaviour to healthy masculinity. It was powerful and rewarding mentoring work around life transition. A group of us would go to the woods on a Thursday to prepare the physical and emotional ground for fifteen or so young men to arrive on Friday. Most of the young men went home on Sunday evening with the hope of a new beginning in their lives and a willingness to be mentored into a healthy community. I loved the challenge of the work, the processes we used, and the camaraderie of building community together.  I made deep connections and considered myself fortunate to have my ABOB family.  

But then there was a problem.  At the age of 70, I was finding the long days and nights camping in the woods with a demanding schedule that sometimes didn’t finish until after midnight too much. Of course, I didn’t want to admit it. I tried to keep up with my brothers’, who I generally considered my contemporaries, but they were often thirty years younger! I was struggling and even the younger men were knackered at the end of a weekend. What I could do when I was sixty-five was no longer possible. I would sometimes take on the ‘elder’ role, but the physicality proved too much for me.  I felt like I was failing myself, my colleagues and the young men. I felt shame at being too old to full participate, though I was never going to publicly admit it.

I would still turn up for meetings, but I started to feel critical about the work and I would long for the event to end. The feeling of connection and joy that I had felt for many years had gone, and I felt huge grief at the thought of losing my tribe. I had spent nearly ten years of my life contributing to the organisation, and now I felt alone and past it. Like many people who have to retire from the work they love, I felt like this was the beginning of a slow decline to the end of my life. These were dark times for me. The joy of life had gone but it was in this darkness that a new seed started to germinate.

What did growing old mean to me? I could no longer pretend to be middle-aged. I realised how unaccepting I was of ageing and how unprepared I was for this stage of life. Why was I surprised to be this old? I thought of my friends and me, and how we engaged in distractions to avoid the reality of our existence. News, celebrity gossip, sport, box sets – anything but the truth of our existence. The idea of fully accepting my age was a challenging one, but I started to explore how I could shed my old skin and move forward into a new stage of life.

As luck would have it, I was offered a place on a brilliant course in supporting people at the end of their lives. Through being alongside people who worked with the dying, I started to come to terms with my mortality. I was able to let go of some of the old attachments and this gave me a new lease of life and a surge of creative energy that I hadn’t felt for decades.  

In 2018, I wrote and rehearsed a show called The Seven Ages of the Dance of Life and Death with a community of actors, dancers and musicians. We did fourteen public performancesand the show attracted an appreciative audience. This was a creative and joyous time of my life and I forged some new and deep connections. I had let go of the past and moved into a new and empowered stage of life.

As I had been involved in helping young men transition from adolescence to healthy adulthood, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a need for a rites-of-passage in later life in which participants could let go of their old beliefs and identities that no longer served them. I read books by psychologists and by the pioneers in the conscious ageing movement. I researched some of the anthropologists on ritesofpassage and found that within many indigenous tribes, the process of marking key stages in life was seen as absolutely necessary for communal well-being.

I felt certain that myself (and possibly others could benefit) from a deeper exploration of the stages of life and our role in the community, so I completed a facilitation training course with The Institute of Noetics Sciences. After that, I was fortunate enough to meet a wise, elder woman who was already working in the field of conscious ageing. Together we devised and marketed our first workshops, which were well attended. We found that in each group, there was so much that connected each of us even though the participants came from diverse backgrounds. The future looked really exciting until February 2020 when the fear of a new virus took hold.

In isolation, I spent the next few months writing and sorting through my ideas so that in November, I was able to publish The Power of Ageing.  It sold around a hundred copies, but more importantly, it brought together a small group of like-minded people who felt passionately about the subject matter. We started a monthly discussion forum from which the Life-Stage Project was formed. Having lost my tribe a few years back, I finally felt reconnected again.

As we emerge from the pandemic, Life-Stage is offering regular workshops, an online course and a free monthly forum. We continue to explore how to empower ourselves in later life and now, we are taking the work into Retirement Villages and are hoping to spread the word further so that instead of us fearing ageing and death, we can become fully alive with wisdom, courage and a love of life.

Attachments and Letting Go workshop 30 April 10.00-3.00 in Glynde, Lewes, Sussex. Find out more about the Life-Stage Project at  www.life-stage.org.  

Navigating Loss Around My Health


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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/

 

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