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Will I Bloom Again?


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I’m a baby boomer, born in the early 50s to an adventurous father who went on to be a civil engineer working on the barges carrying cargo on the great Brahmaputra river and the Hooghly where it splits from the Ganges at the delta beside Calcutta.

I say adventurous because he met my Anglo-Indian mother when she was singing in a nightclub. She refused to dance with him so he picked her up and carried her over his shoulder to the dance floor. She said she only married him because she thought he was an American. That was his Devonshire accent, apparently. By the time she realised that she wasn’t going to be swept back to the States where she would have a washing machine and a big car, it was too late.

Instead, his British engineering company kicked him out for daring to want to marry a “chee chee” mixed-race woman. So he put her over his shoulder, this time with the approval of my grandmother, and brought her back to post-war Britain. No washing machine, no car, and food rationing. No tailor to make her clothes from a photo torn from a magazine. No cook to rustle up jhal frezi and spicy dhal. For years we made the pilgrimage to Patak’s, in Drummond Street, just behind Euston Station, so that she could stock up on spices and then practice word for word the recipes that her mother would send her in weekly handwritten airmail letters.

Looking back, I can see how she must have looked forward to those rare excursions. First a curry at The Shah restaurant opposite and then a dive into the only place that, for her, smelled like home.

Patak’s, their pickles now a familiar sight on supermarket shelves, were pioneers in the 50s. Starting from their Kentish Town kitchen in an effort to top up the income of Lazmishankar – who had come from Kenya and taken the only job he could get, working in the sewers – they brought a taste of India to London.

My father took a job in Bahrain with the British American Petroleum Company, and my mother and I stayed behind because they would not allow my mother, with her British India passport, to live on Awali, the “oil camp” with the rest of the white expatriates. She and I would have had to live in a shanty, leaning up against the walls. In the 1970s, my father went back to Bahrain, and this time my mother went with him. And so did I. We lived in one of the cream-coloured villas near the clinic. There were very few Bahrainis invited to live on Awali, only the top brass. Segregation continued one way or another.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be set apart because of the colour of one’s skin. My mother never overcame the slight, even though she had grown up in India where the caste system itself made “otherness” a way of living.

Now, in my 60s, I ponder the #BlackLivesMatter movement and I wonder.

What would she have made of it? If I had ever referred to her as “black” she would have given me a slap. ‘I’m coloured,’ she would snap. Once, in Singapore, I went into a chemist shop to buy sun-tan lotion. The Chinese woman behind the till sucked her teeth at me and shook her head. ‘You good colour, already, yah? Almost white. No go in sun. Take this.’ She handed me a jar of whitening cream with an encouraging smile.

My friend Diana, a stunning British Jamaican entrepreneur, go-getter and bottle-of-wine buddy, used to drag me to Black Businesswomen’s groups in the 90s. ‘I feel like a fraud,’ I would whisper as others, a few shades darker than I could ever be, used to eye me up and down.

So now, I wonder … where DO I belong? And, in particular, which box do I tick on forms that ask me to describe ethnicity? Having done Ancestry for a laugh, I’m gutted to discover that, despite having relations called Chaves-Wheeler-Gomes, I actually have no Portuguese DNA at all. Indian? Yes. French? Yes. Welsh? Yes. Philippino, Vietnamese and Italian? Yes, yes, yes. But Portuguese, no.

In considering identity, I put my hand up to being a Londoner, at least. Born at Allie Pally, I came back to my roots – it just took a while. In the swinging 60s, I missed out on all the trendsetting, being at school in Africa, with no TV. But in the 70s, I left the convent, dropped out of university, and set up with a bunch of bachelorettes in a small terraced house just off the King’s Road. Mini-skirts and neon blue platform boots.

But I was a bit shy to be too much of a swinger. Not in those days.

Years later, in my late 50s, after losing a husband, bringing up three daughters and nursing a mother and father to the great rainbow bridge crossing. I felt a certain sense of freedom, at last.

I remember thinking that T.S Eliot was a tough poet to crack. I’ve been reading and re-reading his selected poems for years, and I’m still none the wiser.

Yet I’ve always found something that resonates in The Wasteland, although I’m not at all sure that Eliot would have approved. Not so long ago, I burst out laughing when I read the line ‘By Richmond I raised my knees supine upon the floor of a narrow canoe.’

Whilst my memory had been tickled by the image, geographically speaking it had been nearer to Battersea than Richmond where I had encountered Budgie, the helicopter pilot, for the third time.

Our first meeting had taken place in Covent Garden. Budgie had met me for drinks. It’s safer meeting an internet date in The Crusting Pipe courtyard because you can look down and see who you’re going to spend an hour or so with, especially if you’ve asked him to wear a flower in his lapel. I took a friend for moral support. She was rather taken by him. But while she was in the loo, Budgie took my hand in his. He was wearing a black leather glove. He looked at me thoughtfully and stroked the palm of my hand. I quivered and he smiled. Then, from nowhere, he produced a rose. It was my favourite colour, one of those roses that seem to explode from shocking pink to yellow and then tangerine. Bingo.

‘I only do a little magic,’ he said with a grin. ‘Keep the rose. Can I see you again?’

‘Perhaps,’ I said. I sensed danger. He offered to walk me to the Underground as my friend had left in a bit of a huff. ‘I’ll just get my bike,’ he said airily. And then my eyes widened as I glimpsed a penny-farthing for the first time.

Budgie, it seemed, had a thing about transportation. His tastes proved eclectic.

On our second date, he took me for a spin in his beloved TVR. It was British Racing green and as a lover of elegant cars, I was enthralled. I was less impressed when we got stuck in a snowdrift in Epping Forest on the way back from supper, in what can only be described as a compromising position. I was even less impressed by the sight of flashing blue light in the rearview mirror. We were almost arrested until Budgie pulled rank, being ex-Met, and the two policemen retreated, grinning.

The next date was even more interesting. He invited me back to his penthouse flat and cooked for me. He didn’t have a clue how to cook, but he did have a canoe on his dining table, which is why the T. S. Eliot quote had made me giggle. ‘Have you ever made love in a canoe?’ he asked me, as I poked in desultory fashion at a bowl of stodgy pasta, wishing I’d thought to put a bottle of Tabasco sauce in my handbag.. ‘How about this one?’ he suggested hopefully. ‘But it’s not even on the river,’ I protested. ‘Believe me, sweetie, that’s a bonus,’ he murmured, sweeping me off my feet. It tickled my sense of the ridiculous, amongst other things.

Over the course of the following weeks, I had a lot of fun exploring Budgie’s entire collection of vehicles. He pulled me across London in a rickshaw. He whisked me into a sex-shop in Soho on the back of his Harley-Davidson. I was too embarrassed to go inside in case I was seen by someone I knew. ‘Who do you think is going to see you?’ he said in amusement. ‘And even if they do, they won’t recognise you, because you’re wearing a motorcycle helmet, you daft cow.’

‘I’m not a cow, bugger off,’ I snapped and marched down the road while he followed me on the motorbike, trying to coax me to climb back on the pillion.

Whilst I admit I enjoyed the kiss and make-up part of some of our altercations, I flatly refused to climb into his hand-made Welsh coracle for a spin down to the Thames Barrier. Shrugging, he went solo and was soon towed back to shore by the Thames River Police who said they had received many calls from concerned members of the public who thought he was being washed out to sea.

Enthusiasm only slightly dampened, he ordered a six-foot helium air balloon bearing the colours of the Hindenburg, and we spent a fairly peaceful Sunday morning sailing it around inside his spacious apartment.

One day, he turned up to meet me at my new job at Canary Wharf. He was riding something called a Segway. ‘It’s one of the first in the country,’ he boasted. ‘I got here all the way from Battersea on one charge, can you beat that?’ He paused. ‘But I got chased through the City by the coppers, because they’d never seen one before, and they weren’t sure whether I should be driving on the road or on the pavement.’

‘Presumably, they didn’t catch you?’ I said nervously.

‘Of course not. I took this baby down one of the alleyways and left them standing. She does 40 miles per hour, you know.’

I remember nodding a little wearily. The crowd that formed to admire his Segway was only marginally larger than the crowd who had gathered around his penny-farthing, the previous week when we’d gone to have supper with friends of mine in Notting Hill Gate I was coming from a meeting in the City. ‘Don’t bring the bike, Budgie,’ I’d pleaded. ‘I’m going to be in a tight pencil skirt and high heels.’ When I saw the penny-farthing parked outside, I sighed. ‘How do you expect me to get to yours?’ I said. ‘No problem, sweetheart,’ said Budgie cheerfully. ‘I’ve got you a present.’

He disappeared into the hallway and came back bearing a large coil of thick rope. My friends were quietly in hysterics at the look on my face. ‘Do you intend to rope me to the handlebars?’ I enquired. It had been a long day. ‘No, of course not. That would be too silly,’ he said briskly. ‘Wait until you see the rest of your present.’ He disappeared again and then bounced back into the living room holding a fold-up scooter. He presented it to me, looking delighted with himself. ‘See how much I love you?’ I was dumbstruck. ‘You see,’ he explained patiently. ‘All you have to do is stand on the scooter, sweetie, in your very fetching little tight skirt and high heels and I’ll do the rest.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I’ll tow you with my penny-farthing, it’s pretty nippy,’ he said. He looked a bit crushed when I seemed unimpressed by his initiative and insisted he call me a minicab. As it turned out, Khyber Pass Cars, were not all they were cracked up to be. They got lost with me in the back, clutching the scooter and the rope. So Budgie did get back to Battersea before me, which pleased him no end. He was the competitive sort.

But the novelty was beginning to wear off. It was when he finally proposed that he take me to the theatre balanced precariously on the bonnet of one of his Sinclair C5s that I realised the relationship was going nowhere, except possibly to Accident and Emergency. Amicably enough, we parted company and he took a job flying bloody big helicopters to the North Sea oil rigs.

Budgie had been just what the doctor ordered. I’ve bloomed as a baby boomer, but time and tide wait for no man … or woman. I don’t think T. S. Eliot said that but he DID say; ‘This is the way the world ends … not with a bang but a whimper.’ I’m not sure if that was some kind of sexual innuendo and after three months of solitary lockdown I think back to the good times with a twinge of nostalgia.

It’s been a tough few months, and he had made me laugh and forget other heartaches. Now, like any rider who’s been tossed off horseback, I need to clamber back on quickly before I lose my nerve. But I’m not talking transportation. I’m talking about internet dating.

Do I have one more adventure left in me? Like an autumn crocus. Is there still the potential to be a late-bloomer?

Or do I accept my fate and go quietly into that dark night? I wonder. I wonder.

We don’t actually fear death, we fear that no one will notice our absence, that we will disappear without a trace. T. S. Eliot.

 

Lockdown Story – Living with my 92 year old Mum


8 Minute Read

It’s April 18th 2020, somewhere around week four of Lockdown in the UK. Life has taken on a reassuring and at the same time, unwelcome routine. A glimpse of institutional life perhaps. A distorted vision of freedom.

Mum has been living with us since two days before lockdown began. Uprooted from her cosy flat where assisted twice a day by experienced carers, she lived a semi-independent life. We all joked about her being an evacuee for the second time in her life. Alhough this time, it’s not as a result of a war, it’s simple biology in action and we humans are on the wrong end of the equation as hosts to an unwanted viral guest.

It made sense for mum to move in with us (that is me and my husband of nearly forty years) because we are both shielding – she, because she is a frail 92-year-old with early dementia and me, not yet sixty, living with a rare autoimmune disorder for the past eight years, which requires a regime of drugs to subdue an over keen immune system and to support less than effective kidneys that have endured the battering when the body goes on the rampage against itself. Neither of us would fare well with a dose of Coronavirus so staying safe together in a small unit of three people was the sensible thing to do and this situation demands good sense doesn’t it?

Hubby, Mark, is our stalwart and steadfast gofer – collecting our weekly provisions and, because he enjoys the creativity of it, cooking for us every day. We have decided that we will venture out for a daily walk, it’s quiet in our part of the city. Mum clings to her Sholley, determinedly teetering onwards as we plough our furrow around the block. Roads are almost silent and streets mostly empty.

We have the same conversation each time, we observe the silver birch trees that mum can barely see (macular degeneration having robbed her of most of her vision), then she asks me if the trees have been painted white. I respond that, no, it’s the pale, papery bark that she is seeing. I peel a little away and press it into her hand to confirm the veracity of my words.

Each day, we mention the magnolia tree that sits proudly in a front garden. Each day we comment on its slow progress towards spectacular bloom that is certainly followed by disappointingly drab foliage. Is it worth taking up that much space? We both muse, again.

It’s spring and, although the gardens are verdant and bursting forth, life has a treacle like viscosity, like the slow, dusty dog days of summer, the ones where you are itching for autumn to arrive, to get the heat over with and for time to speed up a little.

Mornings have the same routine, helping mum to get up, to reorientate herself in both space and time, to understand, albeit temporarily, that, yes, the virus is still here and, no, we don’t know when it will end. Each morning we put on the TV news, so loud that I swear you could hear it from space (did I mention that mum is also deaf and hates wearing her hearing aid?). We enjoy breakfast, meals are somehow always life-affirming, and we laugh at the magazine programmes that show others and their various lockdown antics. We do our daily ‘exercise class” with Mr. Motivator and I take photos of mum to put on Facebook under the legendary “Team Eunice”. Mum has come to love seeing how many likes she gets and hearing me read the comments from her many fans.

The afternoons are often less light-hearted as mum’s mind wanders off down one of the many rabbit holes that trouble her each day. She tires as the day progresses and often becomes tearful and confused, wondering what it is that she has done wrong and why she is living here with us instead of in her own home. We mobilise family and friends to make contact via Skype, Zoom and telephone in an effort to both reassure mum that we are all in the same boat and to give Mark and I some respite from having the same conversation on a seemingly endless loop.

The evenings are enlivened with laughter from unexpected quarters; Mum can still be sharp as a tack in dispensing a witticism or wickedly caustic comment. At bedtime I tuck her in, as if she is now my child. I let her know that all is, and will continue to be, well. I make sure she is warm and bestow hugs and kisses so that she knows she is safe and loved. I put out the light. Then I go upstairs to join Mark in his bedroom (we have taken to sleeping in separate rooms, not only to follow the shielding advice but also, if we’re honest, to have some precious space to ourselves, to breathe). We hug, laugh, cry, rant in whispers, rage under our breath and openly question our sanity, terrified of how long life is going to be like this.

We feel robbed of our wonderful, globetrotting, family and friend filled retired life and then immediately are wracked with guilt for even daring to feel this way. After all, there are millions of people who have a genuinely hard life: full-time carers, often on the breadline and managing alone; parents cooped up in tiny high-rise flats with children who are longing for an outdoor play space; those whose livelihoods are ebbing away; those who have no choice but to risk getting infected everyday – the key workers who have, by and large, been invisible and are now being afforded super-hero status (But not the wages that go with it).

The list is endless and I feel that I must temper my urge to scream with a very big dose of gratitude because my lot could be a great deal worse. Even so I remain deeply sad and in a state of grief.

Each day Mark and I take it in turns to walk our dog, a welcome time of solo exercise in a lovely green space not too far from home. A time to be with our own thoughts, to observe the natural world just being there and to decompress. It feels strangely dystopian.

Whichever one of us stays indoors tends to entertain Mum out in our garden. Mum loves being outside, enjoying the scents of emerging flowers and herbs. Each day one of us walks her around our tiny, much loved plot.

Gardening, growing, nurturing and tending has proved to be such a balm, such an act of defiance, optimism and hope for the future. Before lockdown the garden was predominantly my preserve, now it is a sanctuary for us all, one where the seasons move while time stands still.

As we enter the second month of lockdown, a switch seems to go off in mum’s head and she begins to withdraw, turning away from meals and only speaking to ask when she can go home. It is clear that in striving to protect her physical health her mental health is suffering so we begin to make arrangements for her to go back to her flat. Luckily it’s been possible to continue to pay Mum’s carers throughout her time with us and they are both ready and willing to pick up where they left off. Mum is overjoyed at the prospect of going home, although she is now worried that I have contracted the virus because I often have a croaky cough in the mornings. I reassure her that I’m OK. Mark moves back the items of furniture that we bought from mum’s flat to our house in an effort to make her feel at home. Both of us now reflecting on how home isn’t actually about possessions but is in fact about the place where you can be yourself. The transition back to mum’s flat takes place on a Saturday morning when mum’s favourite carer, Linda is there to greet her. Later that day I call mum on the phone and it’s almost as if the past weeks have evaporated, we have the same phone conversation that we always have, she has little recollection of the details of her stay with us, preferring instead to reminisce about her time working at the Admiralty in London after the war.

It is now July and the virus lingers in the background like a bad smell and I find myself bouncing between feelings of relief and spaciousness and a vague sadness.

I continue to rant at politicians whenever I feel the need to let off steam. At the same time, our garden is bursting at the seams with fruits, flowers, vegetables and anything we can grow. I have been swimming in the sea several times a week since the end of May and that brings me more joy than I thought possible. Mum comes here for afternoon tea in the garden almost every week and I have no idea where all this will end or what the world will look like in the future. And I’m beginning to think I’m fine with that.

Everything I know about Women Over-50


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I was recently signposted to a fabulous article by Alyson Walsh, journalist and more widely known as the creator of the site, ‘That’s Not My Age’ called, ‘I’m 56 and proud – and here’s what I know about women in their 50s.’

The article came out in January but I missed it until it randomly popped up on the Advantages of Age Facebook group as a post waiting to be published.

It got me thinking. In March 2016, Rose and I started Advantages of Age, on an impulse – we wanted to challenge the media narrative around ageing. Four years later, I’ve probably spoken and heard from hundreds, if not thousands of women (and a handful of men) over 50.

What do I know about women over 50s? A lot more than I did when I was in my 40s.

For a start, as you’d expect of a group of people characterised in a general way by age, we’re a diverse bunch. Some want to dress up in funky, colourful clothes; others are happy to blend in with the background. Many are quite relieved not to be the centre of attention while others still want to shine in the spotlight. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to being a woman in her 50s, much like any other age group. I would prefer it if that bulge around my middle – that suddenly appeared around the same time as my hormones took a nosedive – would go away but I’m learning (slowly) to get used to it.

Sex is and continues to be a divisive topic, with some of us still having it when we can and others happy to have left that all behind after the menopause. My own libido definitely fell off the cliff when I hit ‘the change’ and never fully recovered. It took a couple of years to get used to not being constantly horny but eventually, as the writer M. Scott Peck said of his own dramatic lessening libido: ‘It’s like a monkey off my back.’

We know who we are. One of the greatest pleasures for me in meeting and talking to so many women my own age is discovering a bunch of people who really know their own minds and aren’t afraid of expressing their opinions. And I love that about them. There’s no pussyfooting around with a woman in her 50s. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in what they have to say – they’re going to tell you anyway. No longer trying to please others – as I suspect so many of us were prone to do or had to do to fit in – most women over 50 that I know are comfortable in their own skins. It’s what makes hanging out them such a pleasure. We can explore the range of our opinions and accept or challenge them. That is a huge bonus for friendships. And the depth of friendship.

It’s very tough to make money. This is one of the universal truths about life for the Over-50s. I’ve spoken to women working to create positive change in the world, others who are simply trying to put food on the table and we’re all trying to work out how to generate a reasonable income that wouldn’t hold a candle to what we were probably earning 20 years ago. Lots of my friends have been made redundant or are currently unemployed. It’s actually harder to come out of a corporate career because you’re used to a regular pay packet than if you’ve been freelance for most of your life and are used to living with uncertainty. I don’t know that I’ve figured it out for myself yet but it’s one of the reasons that I’m continuing to work and develop programmes aimed at supporting older people into self-employment. It’s important that we’re all able to make enough to survive and more.

The pension gap hits women over 50 the hardest. One of the many manifestations of working with and listening to women over 50 for the past few years is that I am invited to and participate in events, webinars, zoom sessions, meetings with others who share my interest in helping our generation. I have a google drive stuffed full of reports related to the Over-50s to the extent that I’ve become a geek when it comes to understanding the various ways we’re taking a hit.

Ageism and sexism play a part but there are other lesser-known factors too such as the switch from Defined Benefits to Defined Contribution pensions, becoming informal carers to our parents or in having had occupations that by virtue of the industry we chose to work in, no longer exist. I’m thinking of all the Over-50 journalists now, people like Alyson Walsh, who has recently set up a subscription page on Patreon asking for contributions of £1 – £4.50/month to keep her site alive. So many women I know are trying to figure out how to do what they love and get paid for it; it’s not easy.

We talk about grey hair a lot. Is it OK to go grey? The pros and cons. Why some of us would never do it or we did and didn’t like it or the ones that are fiercely pro-grey. Along with sex, it’s a big topic that always generates lots of debate. That and going pink or purple or blue. Let’s just say, hair colour is a definite thing if you’re a woman over 50.

When it comes to the opposite sex, many of the heterosexual women over 50 are on the fence as to whether it’s worth the bother. Online dating has proved successful for the very few who are tenacious and tough enough to deal with the ghosting, the rejection, the prevalence of men pretending to be someone they are not. I met my partner via Tinder after over a decade of online dating, on and off, but I appear to be the exception that proves the rule. Most women I know would still prefer to meet someone via a friend and as we all so rarely go out, especially at the moment not-quite-post lockdown, it’s unlikely to happen. There’s a lot of celibate women over 50, some who would prefer to be more sexually active.

We think about our future housing needs and there’s a trend towards a more communal style of living, even if that means something different to everyone. We don’t want to end up in care homes. Nearly every woman that I know, in every group of friends I have, is clear about this, having witnessed what is happening to parents in care. Some experiences have been more positive than others. We all worry about the prospect of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s or worse. Health is a topic – what we’re doing or not doing about it. Whether or not we’re exercising. Walking, cycling, running, bodybuilding. And a range of approaches to eating from supplements to intermittent fasting. There’s no one size fits all. As we age, we want to be active, even if our bodies are suggesting it’s time to slow down a little.

Women over 50 are curious about life. There’s no stopping them. Freed from looking after kids, if they ever chose to have them and often with a divorce/split up (or two) behind them, the women I know have a relish for life and for living that is undiminished. They’re still out there, being creative, travelling (when they’re able to), hosting small and large events and parties, being seen in ways that don’t depend on whether or not they look or feel sexy. It’s not always an easy life and often means having to accept that there’s little to no money in the bank. But having good friends and strong relationships is important to them. I’ve met dozens of new friends since starting Advantages of Age, all over the globe and I hope one day that I’ll be able to see them all too.

What do I know about women who are over 50? They’re living life, to use the cliché, on their own terms and isn’t that great?

Coming Through the Darkness of Lockdown – DEBRA WATSON


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At the time of writing, I have been in Lockdown since March 14th. That’s 90 days plus. I could count it out, but days of the month, weeks, days of the week, even hours of the day have become meaningless. I get – when I remember to put them into my calendar – notifications for zoom meetings, google chats, deadlines for writing which pass like ships on a misty horizon.

Given the relative ease of my situation, it seems churlish to complain about the lockdown. I know for sure that I am not the only one who had a holiday and career plans thrown into disarray. Having kept a sharp eye on events in Wuhan, I knew that the UK was only two weeks behind Italy. I spent a week umming and ahhing about whether to go to South Africa to visit my mother or not. If I did go, I couldn’t stay with my best friend who has a heart condition. If I couldn’t stay with my best friend, should I even see my mum, who is also at risk? What if I picked it up en route and spread it to friends who would then infect their loved ones? What if either the UK, SA or Turkey cancelled flights and I couldn’t get back? My impulse was to risk it, but I can’t be the only one who, having heard Boris Johnson’s infamous, ‘and many family and friends will die’ speech decided to immediately go into lockdown. I strongly suggest that, in future, if anyone wants to clear a room really quickly, that they play a video of Johnson asking people to ‘stay calm and in place till further notice.’ I did not trust my chances with herd immunity. Firstly, I would be travelling through three international airports in both directions, with a long stopover in Istanbul on the way back. Normally, this is a delight, and I go explore Istanbul, have a steam bath and a massage and eat gorgeous food – but in a pandemic, this seemed like a really bad option.

Countries were closing borders and shutting down air travel. The last thing I wanted was to be separated from my family in London. I phoned Mum to tell her my decision. Mum immediately concurred. ‘I am so relieved that you aren’t coming. I have been so worried about you. I want so badly to see you, but I think you are making the right decision.’ Heartbroken and shell-shocked, I rang off. The foreign currency I had purchased just that afternoon was shoved in a drawer for later use. I messaged my friends to inform them of my change of plans; some tried to convince me to take a chance, others wholeheartedly supported my decision. I guess we all had a sense of what might be coming, but I had no idea how mentally and emotionally exhausting I would find the next few months.

The decision not to see my mum was by no means decisive. I felt gutted and right up to the Sunday that my flight was due to leave, I was still forensically going over ways in which I could make it work. Having self-elected not to travel, I would lose the entirety of my air-fare, but really, what if South Africa went into lock-down too, and I would be there, but unable to actually see anyone? The unfortunate side-effect of having an imagination is being able to catastrophise. I catastrophise rather well; my mind settling comfortably on the worse case scenarios: Kill your friends and their families? Get stuck in an empty airport with no flights buying bottled water at £2 a shot? Die in another country with no chance of saying goodbye to your family? Even with all the evidence stacked to support my decision to cancel, my mind continued to play ‘what if’s’ with me; as arguments and counter-arguments twisted like a particularly fiendish and determinedly misaligned Rubric cube.

I was buoyed by the fact that people more sensible than I – thought I was making the right decision, or at very least, the wrong decision for the right reasons. My family thought I was nuts. Immo, my son’s dad had returned from Hamburg on the Saturday. His suitcase filled with requests for Vitamins C and D, Germany too was preparing for lockdown, but I could see that he remained intellectually sceptical. Surely the virus

would only attack the old and the weak? ‘No. The London Marathon cancelled for August last night’.

When lockdown did come on March 23rd, it was a huge relief and vindication. Ditto, when South Africa cancelled a few days later, with an even stricter lockdown that included no sales of alcohol or tobacco and limited opportunities to exercise. For a full week before that, with no lockdown in place, events and businesses in London were making their own decisions as so many were just struggling to keep going. For the first three weeks, I had nothing to worry about anyway. I was on annual leave. In my room, for the most part. Planning on just staying alive. As a life-long asthmatic, I have been close to death on a number of occasions, particularly as a child. I know the feeling of my lungs being so constricted that taking even one step is too much. When the tiny bit of oxygen that is getting to your lungs is all that is keeping you going. When you have to be as still as possible whilst turning blue in the face. When you are living breath to breath until you can get to your inhaler, an injection or an oxygen tank. I watched my dad die of pneumonia. I was there when they pulled the plug on his life-support, mopped up the liquid oozing through the pipes from his drowned lungs. COVID19 sounded like my worse nightmare. For someone who has long advocated for voluntary euthanasia, the irony of my deep aversion to dying did not escape me. Yes, I am ok with dying – but honestly, I have tried my entire life to avoid dying from suffocation. Oxygen deprivation is a horrible, horrible way to die. Give me pills! Give me injections!

In retrospect, it seems bizarre how overwrought those first few weeks were. Considering my near-legendary inability to plan ahead, life had somehow fortuitously arranged that both Immo, my son’s dad and my son, Kalen were in lockdown with me. It is a rare occurrence for us all to be in a living space together. Not since I moved out of our tiny one-bedroom flat, had we had to all be in such close proximity for such an extended period of time. Immo who was working from home in the week before lockdown became official – commandeered the living room. My son, fired from his pub job two days before lockdown, turned his room into a games area and I hunkered down in mine, the bed taking up the majority of the floor space. Suddenly, my tiny bedroom became a multi-functional space – holiday destination, office space, studio. The kitchen became our communal space and without much prodding, we all tried to give each other as much room as possible, the other two shielding me by taking responsibility for food supplies and all of us sharing cooking and cleaning duties on a rota.

Left more or less to my own devices, I still can’t account for the feelings of lassitude and panic. Enthusiastically, I signed up to do a sign-language and a TEFL course but followed up on neither. Many artists I knew were responding to lockdown by organising on-line events, but for the first three weeks, I remained stubbornly on holiday, pondering how to best turn my bedroom into a performance-ready streaming facility. I wrestled with technology: how to turn a SLR camera to a streaming device? What apps should/could I use? My room a mess of cables, manuals and assorted kit, I spent most of my time watching Netflix, Mubi and reality TV on Hayu. I fell enthusiastically into binge-watching ‘The Tiger King’, in between a near 24/7 compulsion to read everything I could about the virus. There was so much we didn’t know. In the early days it was assumed that there was not much risk of it being airborne – though, in retrospect, I wonder how this could have been at all credible. I started a group, ‘Solace for the homebound’, where people could post live-streamed events, I joined The Poetry Society New York’s online service to read 1-2- 1 poetry. When I finally gave up on mounting a new curtain rail against the wall on which to hang a thick crimson curtain, I called my friends Mad and Jeyda to help me, and, over Zoom, they helped me re-arrange my space. With only torches and an array of fairy lights at my disposal, my laptop webcam was unusable. Really shit. Like vitamin C, soap and pesto sauce, web-cams were impossible to get. A friend responded to a call-out on Facebook by sending me hers and I started performing online.

This simple task of getting ready to stream, which would normally have taken me a matter of days to sort out, stretched into weeks. My primary concern was, not creativity, but simply to stay alive. Everything else was secondary. Luckily Immo, Kalen and I are good housemates. We know how to be unobtrusively supportive of each other. The only massive rupture was early on in lockdown when my son travelled across London on public transport to pick up a monitor for his PC. On his return, my eyes wide with paranoia, I tried to get him to take off his shoes and all of his clothes to put straight into the washing machine. His response was to have a huge stand-down fight with me. I phoned my boyfriend in tears and he kindly offered me a place with him and his flatmate. I wanted to wait out two weeks of isolation before relocating to his, but a mixture of not feeling confident that we could comfortably nest without putting undue pressure on our relationship, coupled with a heart-felt apology from my son, put paid to that idea.

A week later, I broke up with my boyfriend. Things had been rocky for a while as I had found that, despite us having an open, polyamorous relationship, he had not been as honest with me as I would have expected. We had patched things up just before I went into lockdown and he had had, I now realise, been preparing the ground for a new relationship when I was going to be away on holiday. I found out soon into isolation that he had two people, other than me, that he was having cyber-sex with regularly. One of whom, he now told me, lived in Dorset and was already planning on seeing him after lockdown. I accepted his offhand comment ‘Yes, I know! You want to break up with me again’, without argument. I couldn’t imagine weeks and weeks in lockdown with no access to him when our relationship was in such a chronic state of distrust. My frayed nerves would not allow it.

For some weeks, we maintained a difficult and frosty attempt at friendship. I had made a promise to both of us that if we were to break up I would try and keep a friendship going. For many weeks, we checked in on each other and maintained a cordial relationship. I struggled through lockdown, in a haze, the lid firmly on expressing any feelings of compounded grief. I was already mourning my lack of physical freedom. Early on I bought a mask, so the short walks I did were frustratingly short of smell stimulus. I wrote poems, sluggishly. Participated in collaborative writing pages and forcing myself to write every day, without quality control, producing little that I found of value.

My days blended into each other, sleep came in snatches, rarely more than three hours at a time. Despite being granted furlough and not having any external stresses, I found it difficult to concentrate. I signed up for meetings and seminars I never arrived for. My feelings of uselessness only compounded by the idea that most heroic thing I could do would be to stay at home, till it was over. Whenever that may be.

For a short time, I wondered at the fact that everything we had previously been told was impossible; grounding planes, working from home, instituting a humane and human supporting benefits system – suddenly overnight became not just possible, but essential. The possibility, that at this moment we could re-choose a way to live as a society that wasn’t dependent on the fossil-fuel industry became briefly intoxicating. It was not lost on me that many of the people who just months previously had characterised Corbyn as a Communist, were now clambering for the state to intervene in exactly the kinds of ways social democrats would expect.

I wish I could say that I am coming out of Lockdown stronger, with more personal insights, a bucketful of achievements and optimism. Nothing could be further from the truth. My boyfriend and I briefly tried to get back together again, with disastrous results. I spent two nights not sleeping, crying my eyes out in the knowledge that he had deliberately lied to me. He hunkered down on the lies even as they unravelled at his feet. Faced with the choice to either accept a relationship where lying is the norm or to not have a relationship, I have chosen not to have a relationship. It hurts. It hurts like hell.

Businesses are getting back to doing business as usual. We have been rocked with scandalous negligence by this government. The Black Lives Matter protests came on the back of a world already in grief, already not breathing, already feeling the bite of inequality. For one moment, the whole world could see clearly what the Black Lives Matter movement had been arguing all along – that Black Lives were daily being sacrificed by governments and institutions who refused to be held accountable and populations whose ‘refusal to see colour’ both tacitly and overtly supported the continuance of casual racism into more institutionalised violence against black bodies.

As we begin to come out of lockdown, the World Health Organisation is warning that we should prepare for a second spike in the winter. There is speculation that theatres will not open till next year. I feel that it will take me a long time to re-calibrate. That the shocks to my system have been deep and damaging. I feel much like a fragile shell, empty of substance, my personal equilibrium, tottering.

Immo and my son have held me together. I am not sure if I could have got through this without them. It has been incredibly comforting to have both of them around. Immo, with his offbeat sense of humour, can always make me laugh. We have a deep intellectual and spiritual connection. A deep understanding. It brings me joy to see him and my son together. My ex-boyfriend filled in the gap for sex and erotic attraction and I suspect that it will not be too difficult to replace. Work has been amazing and held off taking me back from furlough as they know that I am physically vulnerable.

I realise that everyone has tried to do their best with the tools they have had at their disposal and that many of us are, by now, at the very end of managing. I try and tell myself that it was not a race, is not a race, but hope fervently, that the next time a pandemic hits, I will be less deer-caught-in-the-headlights, more able to weather the near-impossible changeability of my emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

That I will work productively again. Sometime.

Libido in Lockdown – Stella Anna Sonnenbaum


1 Minute Read

 Stella Anna Sonnenbaum is an intimacy teacher and founder of Stella With Love. She trained in Sexological Bodywork and Somatic Sex Education with the don, Joseph Kramer. Here she tells us why she’s decided to run a course – Liberate Your Libido – just for men.

The lockdown stopped all of us in our tracks – people are dying, others are fighting for survival… so why do I keep talking about sexuality and pleasure?

Just a week before everything closed down, I realised I wouldn’t be able to make it to Canada to see my Beloved. I lay in bed, feeling sorry for myself, and longing for sex and touch. In the midst of feeling quite miserable and tearful, I had a sudden flash of insight – my feelings are the result of how I see myself – I was making the situation worse by projecting a ‘poor abandoned me’ image onto it!

Instead, I imagined myself being held, being sexual – my body memory instantly recognised the situation, and made me feel warm and yummy and expansive – and much happier with the situation.

Our society is not exactly pleasure positive. It takes courage to take our pleasure seriously and to put our love for ourselves and our partners first. It also takes courage to continue to show ourselves as sexual beings when getting older.

An emergency situation does not mean that we ourselves need to adopt the pain around us. We can let it in, feel empathy, and breathe it through us.

Figuratively speaking, we need to put our own oxygen masks on, before helping others. ]

Loving touch and sexuality are great immunity and happiness boosters.

Pleasure is needed, in emergency times. Lovers continue to make love if they can, babies are born, birds are flying free and happy, flowers grow.

Last Saturday I had 100 people – mostly men – booked for our free webinar ‘Liberate Your Libido’. How can we liberate our libido in lockdown, and why would we even want to?

There is a life after Covid-19. I don’t know about you, but I want to imagine skipping into the sunset, feeling juicy!

Being stopped in our tracks could be exactly the reason we can reconsider what is truly important for us.

Many years ago, I was in a sexless relationship. I have a healthy libido, and I had just never come across a man who deals with his sexuality all by himself, and truly didn’t like partner sex. It was like a chore for him, and he tried to avoid it. At some point in his life, he had decided he was ‘no good’ at it, and had left it at that. ‘Surely we can fix that somehow’, I thought. (Never try to fix your partners, please!!). Meanwhile, I was hoping and suffering. By and by, the situation took its toll. I felt unseen, and something very important in me felt unacknowledged. It took a toll on my self-esteem. It was time to do something. I knew about Tantra and dragged him to a Couples Weekend Retreat. And then another one! He must have loved me very much to step out of his comfort zone to such a degree, and I really want to acknowledge that, too.

For me, Tantra was where it all started. I stepped into my femininity and started to own it, instead of hiding it away. I embarked on a beautiful spiritual journey of heart-opening. It also transformed my relationship, brought intimacy and communication, and owning up to vulnerability, even though it didn’t bring sex back to a degree that I could truly let go, and enjoy.

Fast forward, I met Joseph Kramer, the founder of Sexological Bodywork, started training with him, certified in Sexological Bodywork and Somatic Sex Education, and founded my company Stella With Love.

I know what a difference it can make to be in a happy sexual relationship and to have satisfying solo play, and my endeavour is to bring this to others, too.

This lockdown is an opportunity for many of us to step into new and better ways, involving more of ourselves, and is a chance of taking close look at how we see ourselves because that might determine our actions.

There is no imperative to be sexual, not with your partner, nor with yourself.

I would just invite you to consider if you have decided at some point in your life that there is only this much pleasure available to you, and then left it at that? There may be another way!

I know very happy and loving sexless marriages, with separate bedrooms, where the higher sexed partner engages in regular extensive and satisfying solo play. Did I mention he is in his seventies?

I also know about men well in their seventies who are VERY sexually active, with one, or multiple, partners.

Our sexual journey is ongoing, and I hope that we will continue engaging with it, and find new pleasure zones and preferences all the time, and particularly as we get older.

I think it makes for happier lives to include our sexuality, and to engage with our sexual pleasure, and age is not really an excuse to refrain from it. On the contrary!

Yes, our libido might vary, however, the rule ‘use it, or lose it’ is also true. Body memory fades over time, and it’s good to remind ourselves of the source of so many delicious pleasures.

A lot of men I see in my private practice would like to find a solution for performance issues, and I decided to compile 80% of my tools in an E-book, which is the handbook for my 7-week online course for men. The booking deadline, to include 3 online group coaching calls in May, is Wednesday, May 6th.

The course is aimed at making solo play more satisfying and whole-bodied, falling in love again with your own sexuality, taking pleasure to new dimensions, and transforming your lovemaking skills via pleasure, and staying in the moment, rather than working towards a goal. Particularly, it teaches tools to last longer, because 60% of my male in-person clients would like to learn that, and have more fun in the bedroom.

It’s never too late to reinvent ourselves, and find new bliss – whether solo or with our partners – and we can all do with more pleasure in this long lockdown period! Join us on the journey! A small group of men is taking shape, and I’m looking forward to working with you. More info, and booking, here: https://stellawithlove.com/liberateyourlibido/

Living in London during Lockdown – Sophie Parkin


8 Minute Read

Sophie Parkin is a writer, artist and poet. Her most recent book is A History of Soho’s The Colony Club. She owns an artist club in East London Vout-o-Reenees. During the lockdown, she’s taken to the cocktail shaker. With or without her ex-husband, Jan.

I nearly lost it yesterday. I thought I was enjoying this time. I never seem to have enough time. But suddenly I was mad as hell, I wasn’t going to be able to take it any more, my head was going to explode in frustration. For three and a half hours, I had been trying to sort out my Amazon account as a seller, none of my books was left on sale because my lovely book distributors had closed for the duration.

This was the ideal time to sell books, wasn’t it?

This is when people have time and might actually read my books, or just buy it and look at the pictures. This was an opportunity from nowhere and the one time it happens, none are for sale…. typical!

My final outburst was caused by realising I was shouting at a typing robot. I had to laugh. This wasn’t anything to do with the lockdown getting to me, this is what it’s always like dealing with any of those faceless global brands, any day any year.  So at two in the afternoon, I stopped and had a long soak in a scented bath, washed my hair, did half an hour of meditation and started again.

Discarding my annoyance, I contemplated what I should make of this day? Should I organise another part of my flat, pick up the phone and have one of the many extended catch-ups with friends I don’t see or talk enough to, or repair all the moth holes in my jumpers? Or make marmalade? I could make marmalade with ginger. Rice pudding? Wild garlic pesto.

I have been doing a lot of cooking, not just for me but also for my son Cameron who was between accommodations at Christmas and was looking for a place when this happened. He has been sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the front room of my one-bedroom flat, not ideal but we have a garden so we are blessed. He is a lovely boy of 32. Where did those years go? It is hard for mothers to see their sons as men in these times, which are so much to do with caring and rubbing along in the make-believe of normal family life but none of this is normal. I haven’t spent so much time with him since before he was 12? 8? Played football.

I do find myself sectioning out days to deal with stuff, work. I have a business and the priority is how I’m to keep it running and relevant. Emails to the council, trips onto Gov.UK for latest updates, calls to the accountant, is it worth being furloughed it turns out not -because to be paid by the government as a director of my company I am not allowed to do ANY work from my company accountants of social media or emails. What are they trying to do, kill us all?

For Vout-O-Reenee’s, I keep up the jolliness quota with my silly Vout’s Cocktail Masterclass (Slim Gaillard would have loved these!) – I go to the club once a week to check on paperwork, my ex-husband Jan Vink and the plants, and I make three videos of three drinks and post them through the week. People seem to like them. They are not professional in the least, they have Jan and I back-biting, laughing at each other rather than with, and recall Fanny Craddock and Jonny. Sometimes Jan doesn’t even appear because he’s so annoyed with me! I just thank the Universe that we aren’t still married, otherwise one of us would be a casualty. All it would take is a bottle to the back of the head. This is real life, but is it relevant?

Let's spread Joy…

Geplaatst door Sophie Parkin op Vrijdag 24 april 2020

I keep on coming back to that word; relevant. When I was swept up in how life used to be, the hamster wheel of keeping a business, including an art gallery going; I hadn’t stopped for a long time, certainly not to think about what is and isn’t relevant. Now I think about it almost every day.

The books I thought I would read in an orgy of indulgence – for that is how I saw lockdown like a greedy girl ‘oh good I’ll be able to read…everything!’ – half I have tossed to one side as irrelevant. I find myself going back to the classics – William James, RS Thomas, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus. Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Then searching for things to make me laugh, Dorothy Parker can be a little depressing but I return to Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find, short stories. Black humour seems a little tasteless yet Francis Plug Writer in Residence by Paul Ewan still appeals to me and there’s comfort in Sue Townsend’s The Diaries of Adrian Mole.

There is not enough good writing that makes you howl with laughter. There is too much misery. The largest prize in literature should go to the books that make us laugh, anyone can bring you down with good writing like Karl Ove Knusgaard’s My Struggle but what about his poor kids! Lifting the spirits takes a gargantuan effort that belies its lightness of touch. That’s why there isn’t much comedy on the BBC. I expect it’s too damn difficult.

My mum, Molly Parkin a proud 88-year-old, has been locked in now for six weeks with me visiting for the last two once ever five days. She is full of beans, she laughs from the moment she gets up, to the moment she falls asleep. Last week her activities included putting some eggs onto boil, only to find Steve the fireman waking her up by pummelling the door down. She’d left them a bit too long and they were burning. She still laughed.

When my mother was five she had mastoid and was put into isolation. She expected to be taken by the angels but someone had other ideas. She regularly rings me up and says – ‘Where’s my special delivery chef?’ leaving me concerned that she has discovered Deliveroo, but she’s talking about me and Masterchef in one breath. I cook up a storm and expect it to last, but in one day she’s gobbled it all down. Home cooking, not shopping is the answer to a lot of love at this time. She once gave me the sage advice not to invite any paramours to dinner in my home if I wanted to be taken out to fancy restaurants, and I wasn’t entirely sure of the man.

’Once you get them in the back kitchen and start cooking for them, they’ll never want to go anywhere else.’ She was right. Trying to get my husband to take me out for dinner was like asking for Elizabeth Taylor’s diamond rings!

And what of love? How are you supposed to date? Are couples having sex like never before or in exactly the same way? I doubt with this uncertainty that there will be a baby boom, more time doesn’t always lead to inclination. So it has to be friendship, making each other laugh over the phone or with a WhatsApp message. And I’d just got some super sexy new underwear, damn – my timing is out not just on books. No point in preparing the fire that cannot be lit, let alone stoked for another 3 weeks – with government guidelines.

To laugh and be light in this heavy time is a gift that needs spreading. Forget the conspiracy theories.  Books recommended by members of Vouts include – The Colony Room as an e-book on Kindle (and all my teenage series The Life and Loves of Lily). David Sedaris – Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim. Diary of a Nobody by The Grossmith Bros. Pale Fire By Nabokov. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. A fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Rude Britannia by Tim Fountain. The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer. Augustus Carp Esq by Henry Howarth Bashford. Money by Martin Amis. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten. Spike Milligan, Anything by Jeffrey Bernard and My Last Breath by Luis Bunuel.

So meditation, acceptance of how it is, cooking with love, and laughter are my answer to getting out of this lockdown alive, What’s the laugh out loud funniest book you’ve ever read and reread during this time? Answers on a postcard…. maybe we can start a book club but only for books that make you laugh.  See you at Vout-o-Reenees.  @Voutoreenees_  @TheStashGallery_London.

Living in London during Lockdown – Michele Kirsch


1 Minute Read

Michele Kirsch, asthmatic isolator, mother of two, author, and furloughed chef, writes about her experiences of lockdown from a tower block in East London.

LOCKDOWN: Day something. I forget exactly. The Vicar.

My vicar is bellowing to me from safety across the road. He is trying to put social distancing into a spiritual context, but he has to almost shout for me to hear him, and he’s just not a shouty vicar. I get the giggles and drift off into fantasy, even though this is the first conversation I’ve had in days.

Vicar dream: In my mind’s eye I see him preaching to NO ONE at the church behind my block of flats. He does the sermon and then asks the invisible congregation to line up for communion. He realises there is no one there, so he eats all the wafers himself, and guzzles the wine. ‘This is my body, this is my blood. WHATEVER!’

Pissed and sated on communion wafers, he recites the Psalm that starts, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’

But that’s just in my cabin fever imagination. I actually have the vicar here on the pavement outside the chip shop. The first human real-life voice, not counting the phone or Zoom meetings, in days. Have I already forgotten how to talk to people, even if the talking is nearly shouting, six feet away?

He says that isolation is not the same as solitude and that solitude can be a good thing, and can put us in conscious contact with God. I’m paraphrasing here. He references the movie Papillion, and then we both say, at the same time, ‘But he escaped!’ And usually, when you say the same thing at the same time, you shout ‘SNAP’ or ‘JINX’ but you know, we’re in a pandemic and I don’t want to jinx the vicar. I need all the help I can get. So far, this has been a high point of lockdown. That and getting four tins of plum tomatoes left outside my door on my birthday. Lockdown has made me SUCH a cheap date.

EARLY ON: Day something, when it still felt like a novelty. The study of Torpor.

I think I will take very well to isolation. I was agoraphobic for large, inconvenient chunks of my life, and being alone, in my own space, was a blessed relief from the gut-clenching anxiety prompted by being with other people in public spaces, far away from home. Back then, isolation was called avoidance behaviour, and I was told, repeatedly that avoiding the thing I feared most would feed the fear and make me more screwed up, which it did. It took time and coming through a raging pill and alcohol addiction, to let me undo all the damage I had done by NOT going out, not doing normal life. It’s not healthy, but I know how to do it.

So the thought of having to isolate for very legit reasons, the health of myself and other people, seems a cinch. It is JUSTIFIABLE AGORAPHOBIA, and I don’t have to let people down, the way I used to. The whole pantomime of ‘Sorry, something suddenly came up’ is no longer necessary. This is gonna be like pulling one long-ass sickie that’s actually for the common good, as well as my own. It reminds me of that New Yorker cartoon with the guy at a desk, on the phone, saying, ‘No, Tuesday’s no good. How about never? Is Never good for you?’

Not only can I stay home from work and meet-ups without the inconvenience of being ill, but I can do great, creative, mind-enhancing, body hardening things. I signed up for a free course at the Open University; Animals at The Extremes: Hibernation and Torpor. I love a course with the word Torpor in it. I am ALL ABOUT the Torpor. But to counter the inner sloth, I do workouts with Youtube, tattooed sensation Betty Rocker. I get over my aversion to Uber, tidy lady Marie Kondo, and tidy and order all my clothes in the Kondo style, even watching shirt folding tutorials to maximise my space in an aesthetically pleasing way. All this frantic productivity lasts until a friend sent me an article saying that you don’t have to be frantically productive in lockdown. So that’s a relief. I go from hyper-activity to TORPOR, in about a day. Doing nothing, is much easier than doing loads of things. Who knew?

A BIT LATER: Day something. I should probably get some food. And drugs.

The novelty of doing nothing is not exactly starting to wear off, except I do worry that I am getting awfully good, awfully fast, at doing very little. One thing I have not been paying attention to is my medication. I am running low on my blue and brown asthma inhalers, and my thyroid pills. I go down to Boots near Liverpool St station and the City is desolate, pin-drop quiet. Everybody has GONE. ‘Everybody is dead,’ I think, melodramatically, and then add ‘Or just at home watching telly.’

I am also running low on food. Food is becoming quite central to other people’s lockdowns. My Facebook timeline is filled with domestic Gods and Goddesses, all displaying that Sourdough bread, or that beautiful Persian meal, or ‘Locktails’ made of Ben and Jerrys, Crème de Menthe and some holiday liqueur. People are exchanging information about where to get eggs, where to get flour, and other now elusive staples.

I have to go to the shop and queue and socially distance and stand forlornly in front of the now-empty shelf that used to have some ingredient I fancied, like tinned tomatoes, or marrowfat peas, or baked beans. Highly processed, and a bit disgusting. I can’t believe I’m a cook. The foods I crave- beans on toast, peanut butter and jam sarnies – are childhood staples. Am I regressing, or is it just a craving for some earlier, innocent time when the kind of thing that’s going on now, this pandemic, was something from an episode of The Twilight Zone? Dystopia does funny things to the appetite. My friend Nick asks if whacking chilli sauce over sauerkraut counts as kimchee. Of course it does.

LATER: I actually know this day. 4th April. My birthday. Followed by Easter! Hurrah. Festive fun.

On my birthday I throw myself a surprise party. It’s great. I have party bags and Soul Classics on the stereo. I put on my best frock and shout ‘Surprise!’ to myself. I have no cake, but jazz up some digestive biscuits by sprinkling them with icing sugar. I give myself presents, which include a box of chocolates, and a sexy dress. But the thing is, I don’t like chocolate, and the sexy dress is already mine. I know it’s the thought that counts, but I don’t think a lot of thought went into these presents. While dancing to the Temptations and swigging Ribena undiluted straight from the bottle, I say to my cats, ‘This party kind of blows.’

On Easter, I read the bible, and sing ‘Lamb of God you take away, the sins of the world….’ in the style of a tone-deaf Mariah Carey, drawing out each syllable until I am totally out of breath. I do all this totally bare arse naked. Because I can. This kills about five minutes of festive fun. Then I make myself an Easter egg hunt, only I don’t have any eggs cos there are none at the shops. So I hide a box of Vegan egg replacer from myself. And find it again in two minutes. I am alarmed that it took me that long. I might be losing the plot.

LATER STILL: Day something. Ah, the interweb!

Spending much more time on social media, and little rituals emerge, which give me a sense of belonging. Each morning Nicholas does his interpretive dad dancing, on camera, with his dog in the background, looking at times, terrified and other times, bemused. Then Naureen takes the register, a la school mistress, and asks who is alive. It’s like a virtual game of schools, and our ‘class’ has gone from simple ‘Here, Miss!’ responses to depraved, ‘To Sir, With Love’ style naughtiness. Virtually we ‘throw’ things, light cigarettes, swig from whiskey bottles. We have gone from being eager, suck up kiddies to a kind of virtual lockdown Behavioural Unit for maladjusted isolators. My virtual friends have become my lifeline, entertaining me when I feel low and conspiring, with me, to be irreverent, no matter how awful the news is. And the news is totally shit, every day.

People are playing a lot of participatory games on Facebook. Here are all these famous people I met, but one of them is a lie. Here are 10 LPs that changed my life. Please describe me using a word starting with the letter L. Here are 15 jobs I had in my life and guess which one is a lie. These games, some of which I play myself, are like those games you played on long car journeys, vaguely diverting you from the slow build of car sicky queasiness. Thing is, none of us know when this journey is going to end, which EXIT we will take. I am starting to feel a little bit ill, the games and quizzes not quite diverting enough to stop asking; ‘Are we there yet, mum?’

FINALLY: Day something, before tomorrow, but after yesterday. It’s good to talk.

I have a brilliant idea, which is to ring two people a day, two people that I wouldn’t normally speak to because work, life, no time, yadda yadda. Well, I have a TON of time now. I ring ________, holed up in his penthouse over a whorehouse in a red light district far, far away. The prostitutes have scarpered but forgot to take the goldfish. My pal has a new focal point of the day, which is to feed the fish. He’s delighted he has found a purpose, a thing to do. And it’s all going so well until the caretaker comes back. The caretaker now oversees the fish feeding operation. He’s stolen _______’s job. And in fact, he’s stolen the joy that I get from asking him how the fish is doing.

Then there is ______ in NY. She lives two blocks from the totally overrun Elmhurst hospital in Queens, with refrigerated trucks for the dead bodies parked outside. She’s trying to figure out a way to get to Costco without passing the trucks, which are scary and depressing.

I am speaking to friends in Moldova and Bangkok. And Hull. People who are stone-broke, and people who will be able to ride this out, financially. People who are doing tons of things, and people who are doing nothing. I am finding that in isolation, I am more connected to other people than I have been in a long time.

Will I use this time productively? I doubt it. I’m certainly not going to write the great Pandemic novel. I’m gonna go grey. I’m gonna run out of savings. I’m probably not going to get fit. I’m gonna watch waaay too much Netflix, and play all my records and dance like no one is looking because NO ONE IS LOOKING. I’m not going to think about what the future has in store for me (or any of us) because I’ve come to the conclusion that the future is none of my damn business.

Michele Kirsch is the author of  CLEAN: A Story of Addiction, Recovery, and the Removal of Stubborn Stains.

Living in London during Lockdown – Hanja Kochansky


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Eighty-three-year-old Hanja Kochansky is living alone and on lockdown in London. Everyone over the age of 70 has been asked to self-isolate for twelve weeks. But what does that mean exactly? Advantages of Age asked Hanja to tell us what her days are like. And what resources she has.

The word isolated comes from the Latin insula, which means island. And here I am on a desert island in the centre of a densely populated and noiseless city.

As soon as I wake up and turn on my radio, I’m bombarded by terrifying news and a wave of sadness washes over me. Who could have ever imagined that the plague would invade our world? How long will this horror last? Then, I remind myself to take it one day at the time. I tell myself that I am on the retreat I’ve always wanted to take but never did and now it’s been imposed on me.

After a glass of hot water, I go to my computer. Facebook and the Guardian keep my interest up for quite a while. I have a coffee and eat a too large amount of my Digestive Thins before I take a shower.

My daughter WhatsApps me from Long Island. She notices my wet hair and says, ‘I see you’ve had a shower, Mum’. ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe you wouldn’t bother, given you’re not going out.’ ‘Of course, I bother. But anyway, I do go out. I’m allowed to do shopping.’ We chat about how awful Trump is, about how we are coping and how is it with the kids at home now. There’s going to be no anticipated graduation for my granddaughter. I was going to go for that in June. All plans are on hold.

I do my exercises. Mostly tai chi and chi kung which I follow on YouTube. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I do a proper class with my tai chi teacher on ZOOM. ZOOM is a marvel.

Given the lovely weather, I go down to my itsy bitsy garden and plant violets and poppies. Poppies remind me of my childhood summers on the Dalmatian coast.

I sing You Belong to Me when I wash my hands. See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sun-rise on a tropic isle . . .

Avocado on toast is a perfect lunch. Amazon has run out of the organic apple juice I normally have- so I make lemonade with the lemons I got with my last order from Farmdrop. I can get just about anything from them. Organic food, household goods and what-have-you, but I prefer to take a saunter to my well-stocked Waitrose at the Angel in Islington. After all the rain I need to stretch my legs now on these sunny days. I must walk or my legs will lose muscle. On the way, I walk through a park and hug a tree.

My son skypes from Siena, where he is housebound with his wife and two small children. ‘You must not leave the house at all, Ma.’ He warns me. ‘I have friends in London and they can bring you anything you need.’ ‘Thanks, Kas, but I absolutely need to go out.’ ‘If you get sick, Ma, I won’t be able to come and look after you.’ ‘Don’t worry Kas, I don’t think, that after all I’ve gone through in my life, it’s in my karma that I should die here, alone like a dog.’ ‘Oh, I wish you’d stay at home, Ma.’ My worried son insists.

A friend once told me how she’d always felt safe when her husband and two children were all at home in the evening, and nothing bad could happen to them. Only, one night her husband had a heart attack and died. So much for feeling safe at home.

An often-repeated platitude is, ‘We are all in this together’. No, we are not, mate. Some are on luxury yachts, others on ships, boats, overcrowded ferries and dinghies. And some are wading through treacherous seas.

My large sitting-room bay window overlooks a lawn. I watch squirrels scamper as pigeons and magpies peck for food on the green grass, while at the same time, keeping an eye on the self-confident, stalking cats who belong to some of my neighbours whose much anticipated, twice-weekly Bingo in our communal room, is now prohibited. The fox no longer comes in the evenings. I miss her – she kept me in touch with the foxy me.

How are junkies coping without their fix? How are prostitutes surviving without their tricks? I think about the rough sleepers and the old age homes where older people are dying alone. I think about what will happen to the refugees in overcrowded camps when the assassin virus finds them. How terrifying it must be for them. I’m so sad about Italy, il Bel Paese – the beautiful country. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back.

I am, at all times, grateful for my blessed life, with enough money to get by as I reflect on the poverty which will get even worse and financial anxiety will see a flurry of mental illness. As though there isn’t enough of it already. Happy to be on my own, my heart goes out to the overcrowded families who have to learn, or not, to put up with each other day and night. I fear there will be a lot of physically abused women in these tough times. And children.

And what about the thousands on cruise-liners not allowed to dock? Or the ones stuck in other countries who are not able to come home? What will happen to them?

The virus is the revolution. More than a million heroic people have signed up to help the NHS! I was gutted when I found out the dolphin in the Venice canal was an Instagram joke, but the sky is now visible in China, rivers and seas are cleaner, there has been a significant drop in pollution, ozone levels are up. The end of knife crime without Pretty Patel’s intervention is a blessing. I wonder how she feels about the prisoners that are being released. In their case, just goes to show that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is on temporary leave from prison in Iran, and there is talk of a possible reprieve. She must be living in a balloon of agitation.

In the afternoons, I write. What better for a writer than a retreat?

Possibly, because I don’t love washing dishes, I don’t feel like cooking much, but I know I have to eat well because healthy food is a must. I make myself a large bowl of fruit and nuts topped with kefir and homemade yoghurt, which I buy from the kind Kurdish shopkeeper near my house on the Caledonian Road. His wife, who makes the yoghurt, has been getting racist abuses, he tells me. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say and feel guilty. For what? For the privilege of my white skin.

Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine and eat one of the packets of precooked lentil dahl and spicy beans which only need to be heated. Or maybe I’ll make myself a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, or dine on fruit: pineapple, mango, apples. And a cookie. I have these delicious salted caramel biscuits and must be careful not to binge on them. I have a feeling that by the time this Groundhog Day is over I’ll have put on weight.

The endless pings on my smart-phone announce constant messages. There’s no time for boredom. There is no shortage of stimulating articles on the computer, and I am addicted to Radio 4, I’m sure to always find something interesting to listen to. Or I can watch a movie on the iPlayer, Amazon, YouTube, Curzon Cinema or BFI. There are myriad choices. This, alas, stops me from reading much of The Leopard, the book I’m currently enjoying.

In the evening I try to do some stretching yoga, but I don’t always manage it.

With another glass of hot water, I take the supplements which I really should take in the morning. Bs, Ds, Cs and what have you.

By midnight, I’m ready to turn off the computer, do my toiletries and get to bed. Before falling asleep, I thank the universe and my angels for another serene day and send white light to the world.

But this is early days and I’m super curious about how I and the world will be changed when the nightmare is over. Hopefully, we’ll have become wiser.

Ayurvedic advice in the time of the Coronavirus: Do we need a paradigm shift?


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These are challenging times…

Even if we are not concerned about our own health, we may have loved ones who are at risk, and it may be that the only way we can protect them is by staying away. Jobs are in jeopardy, incomes are compromised and above all, there is much that is unknown: How fast will the virus spread? How quickly will it peak? And what is my relationship to this unknown threat? Am I reassured by knowing that for most people it is a mild disease with no danger? Or is there an overwhelming sense of panic and visions of the worst possible outcomes?

Sometimes a current event can trigger deep ancestral fears that live on in our unconscious and we may find ourselves unable to keep a cool head. Recognising that this is the case can prompt us to find ways of helping ourselves; essentially by slowing down and focusing on the basics – adequate rest and some mental discipline as well as a good diet to increase our resilience.

Which is the real killer?

is it Exhibit A – THE AGENT, the focus of all our attention right now – the Coronavirus?

or is it Exhibit B – THE ENVIRONMENT – a damaged Microbiome?

We are so used to seeing the enemy as being out there, whether it’s a virus, a bacteria or a malignant tumour. If only we could avoid it / kill it / vaccinate against it: in all these approaches we are assuming the agent is the problem. However, our bodies play host to a whole concert of these agents, some of them deadly, some friendly and many which are relatively benign, as long as they are in balance. And the idea of balance is key when we are talking about a healthy microbiome.

Did you know that 80% of your immune system is in your gut? What if the choices you make – food and lifestyle could be used to enhance your immunity? Read on if you want to begin to take charge of your health outcomes…

According to Ayurveda, it’s not only what we eat that has an influence on our health. How, when and in what state we eat our food will have an influence on how well we digest it and whether it becomes nourishment for our bodies or, in an incompletely digested form, becomes the toxins that lead to poor health outcomes.

Why is this important for us to be aware of?

Because every time we trigger our stress response (fight/flight/freeze) our digestion shuts down and our immune system is suppressed. So when I listen to the latest statistics about the rising number of cases/fatalities or when I think about what will be the fate of my loved ones or wonder how we will survive financially…. my immunity drops. This information could be deeply depressing, but it could also be empowering; because it means that I hold the key to improving my immunity.

It’s also a key thing to remember because those of us who are health conscious tend to obsess about what we eat, when in fact the state of our nervous system has an even bigger impact.

We know from statistics that catching Covid19 (Coronavirus) will be relatively harmless for 80% of the population. And we know that the other 20% – those who are over 70 as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease etc. have a higher risk of complications and fatalities. What is it about age or health conditions which leads to this huge difference in impact?

Most of us don’t follow a perfect diet and so one of the things that happen gradually as we age, or more rapidly if we don’t look after ourselves, is that this begins to have an impact on the gut. Inadequate fibre in the diet leads to damage in the lining of the gut as the bacteria (which live largely on fibre) begin instead to consume the mucus lining which protects the gut. At the same time, incompletely digested food creates toxins, and these together with gliadin, the indigestible gluten found in wheat, begin to leak through the damaged gut lining into the bloodstream triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system and leading to chronic inflammation – the condition which plays a major role in many of the chronic health conditions now endemic in our society.

The diet and lifestyle advice (see below) will encourage a healthy microbiome and increase our immunity and well being.

And if you are reading this and thinking: “I am definitely in the 20% and it’s too far down the line…” there are many reasons to not despair! Our bodies are all on a journey and the final destination is death. You may be further along in the journey, but we will all have to face that eventually – our bodies are not immortal… But even when it is too late to heal the body, healing is always possible for our hearts and soul. Peace, acceptance and love are experiences that we can touch and grow.

And maybe you’re not quite at that stage yet! In that case, there are more drastic measures –interventions such as detox programmes and herbal remedies that can provide more support and begin to shift long-term health issues. Those require 1:1 guidance from an Ayurvedic Practitioner or Complementary Health Practitioner. The Ayurvedic Professionals Association has a Directory of Practitioners around the country. Many of us will also be working by skype during the pandemic. And of course there are Naturopaths, Herbalists, Chinese Medical Practitoners and many other ways to support yourself during this challenging time. Set an intention for yourself and you will find the support you need.

Ayurvedic tips for boosting immunity 

Ensure you get adequate rest to allow your immune system to do its job of keeping you healthy

Keep a sense of perspective as much as possible. Fear begets fear and reduces our immunity in the process: Consider how much media and which content is helpful for you to be exposed to.

Much of what we may fear is connected to the unknown and may never happen. If we focus on the present moment and what is needed right now our energy will stay grounded.

Expressions of love boost our immunity – whether it’s speaking to someone we love, thinking about them, doing something to help someone, enjoying touch by eg. stroking a pet or the Ayurvedic practice of self-massage with sesame oil and of course, sexual intimacy: All of these will stimulate the release of Oxytocin: the ‘love hormone’ and give a boost to our immune system.

Ayurvedic diet advice for all mucus-related conditions (eg. coughs, colds, flu)

Follow a light diet with warm soups or stews and fewer carbohydrates than usual. Herbs & spices such as basil, thyme, oregano, black pepper and ginger will help reduce mucus. Use moderate amounts of high-quality fats such as ghee and coconut oil. Stewed fruit with spices such as cinnamon is a good source of iron and fibre. Above all, don’t eat unless you have a real appetite and avoid eating late at night.

Vegetables are high in fibre and detoxifying. The only ones to minimise are the nightshade family (tomatoes, aubergine, potato, peppers) as they are inflammatory. The onion family, including leeks & garlic, contain allicin which is anti-viral and antibacterial. Garlic has more potency (medicinally as well as on your breath!) when uncooked. If you can’t find fresh greens in the shops, nettles are a great source of vitamin C and iron. You can use them in soups, omelettes etc.

Small amounts of a non-dairy fermented product such as sauerkraut can be helpful as probiotic support.

Avoid the following: Dairy products, especially cheese, yoghurt, milk & ice cream; bananas; cold food and drinks (including beer); uncooked fruit, salads, raw food; food that is difficult to digest e.g because it is fried or heavy, such as red meat and wheat (spelt is a good alternative); puddings, cakes, biscuits & sweets.

Best options for a sweet tooth: One ginger biscuit or a rice cake with honey or a few raisins or a spoonful of Chywanprash: an Ayurvedic jam, which is a tonic for the lungs.

Vitamin D is essential for a strong immune system. Non-vegans will source this from fish, meat and/or eggs. The sun is an ideal source, but until we get some, vegans and anyone who suspects their levels are low is recommended to take Vit D3 + K2 as a supplement.

Ginger, turmeric and green tea support immunity. Use ginger water (made by boiling a couple of slices of fresh ginger with a cupful of water for a few minutes) and/or drink green tea or a herbal tea containing turmeric. If you have been exposed to a virus, regular warm drinks will clear it from your throat area and flush it into your stomach; so keeping a thermos flask with you and taking a sip every 20 minutes is advised.

If you use anti-bacterial products, make sure you also wash your hands before eating, as you don’t want the chemicals to end up in your gut where they can destroy good as well as bad bacteria and lead to an imbalance in the gut flora.

Beware of using Ibuprofen if you catch the virus:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/anti-inflammatory-drugs-may-aggravate-coronavirus-infection

Home remedy for immunity

Gargle twice a day (after breakfast and before bed) with turmeric and salt – as a preventative or when there is an active infection. Use ½ tsp turmeric + ¼ tsp salt in 1/3 cup hot water.

Looking after ourselves and our loved ones and taking simple measures to limit transmission (handwashing, self-isolation if you are unwell, social distancing) and keeping a sense of perspective will help us all.

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