There comes a point in life and I’m sure it’s different for everyone when one becomes aware of one’s mortality. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it was for me but one day I became scared of climbing up or down steep staircases, thinking I might fall. I stopped driving about 10 years ago when my little Fiat 500 was taken back by the leasing company and, since then, when I get in the passenger seat of a car, I’m aware that my heart beats a bit faster than usual. I avoid looking out from tall buildings. These may all be totally unrelated or, as I suspect, they’re just my brain sending out a warning signal that life is full of dangers that I’m not quite as resilient as I was in my youth and that death may come upon me suddenly.
I have also spent the past year becoming more interested in death and specifically, how I’d like to die and my funeral. A lot of this has come from putting together the film Death Dinner which Rose Rouse and I created last year with the help of an Arts Council grant.
Death Dinner explores the arena of death in conversation with ten characters who are connected to the death industry. There is a marvellously gothic mortician, an end-of-life-doula, a death rituals’ academic, a soul midwife, a photographer of Afro-Caribbean funerals and more. It all took place over an abundant feast in the Dissenter’s Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery. Prior to making the film, I hadn’t really given death much thought, but the dialogue over dinner made me realize that there are many different sorts of funerals and ceremonial aspects, as well as various ways of body disposal.
Recently, I attended a Thanksgiving for the Life of Nigel Castle, held at the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in the heart of Hampstead. Nigel was someone who had been in and out of my life for the past decade, thanks to an introduction made by his closest friend, Rob Norris.
A keen gardener, skilled healer, acupuncturist, osteopath, masseur plus being a good musician, Nigel was multi-talented. At various times, he had tended to my garden, worked his magic on my back and danced with me and others at 5 Rhythms, another passion of his. My children, now grown up, remember us all sitting in a circle and singing together while Nigel and Rob played guitars. He was a familiar face around Maida Vale and Queens Park, driving around in his beaten up Volvo. I never knew how he kept that car on the road but somehow he did. Nigel was always around and then, one day, I found out, via Rob, that he had lymphoma and two months later he was gone. He was 67. I never got a chance to say goodbye but there were plenty of people that did. Nigel was much loved by everyone that met him.
If funerals could come with ratings, then Nigel’s would have been a five star one. I’m by no means an expert on what constitutes a good or bad funeral, but Nigel went out in a way that will leave a lasting memory for me and, I’m sure, for many others.
The service itself lasted two hours. And, let’s face it, it’s hard enough to find a table in a restaurant that will let you sit there for two hours, much less a chapel. The service presided over by Anja Saunders, Nigel’s old friend and an Interfaith Minister, wove together music, poetry, tributes, recollections and finally Nigel’s own voice. At various points during this unconventional and beautiful service, we danced around the beautiful wicker casket to Dance me to the End of Love by Leonard Cohen, and then we were invited to come up and weave flowers into it or write tributes to Nigel on small, brown labels which would be buried with him.
There were tears and laughter as friends and family recounted their memories of Nigel. A pianist had written a song for him. A guitarist wrote another one. His friends from 5 Rhythms read out a series of poems. Rob and I particularly liked White Owl Flies in and out of the Field by Mary Oliver, which seemed to sum up Nigel perfectly.
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
The length of the service felt like we were all able to collectively grieve, and by the end, I felt my spirits lighten as we all said goodbye to him. It was an amazing tribute to a wonderful person and I couldn’t help thinking that the world would be a richer place if everyone chose such an intimate departure ceremony.
Afterwards, I spoke to Anja to thank her for the way she managed to oversee the service and its host of participants in such an effortless manner. She was so fittingly graceful in the way she provided just the right amount of space and time between tributes for us to absorb what Nigel had meant to those he loved and just how much of an impact he had had on so many people. At the end, she encouraged us all to breathe and we did…
Laura Benson is a British actress based in Paris – she was in Dangerous Liaisons – who plays a lead role in the controversial and challenging new film Touch Me Not (which also features Seani Love, a sex worker who appeared in the AofA Tantra Hot Tub Salon which was FB Live). Touch Me Not follows three characters, one of which is called Laura, a 50 something woman, who is in out of touch with her sexuality and takes some radical steps to address this situation. The film coasts a fluid line between reality and fiction. It won the Golden Bear earlier in the year in Berlin and is the London Film Festival on Oct 16 and 17th plus a special screening at the ICA on Oct 23rd.
How were you cast in Touch Me Not?
Through a casting agent, who works with the French co-producer. They were casting in several countries. I was asked to send something that I had shot recently. The film I had just done wasn’t out yet and I didn’t have anything recent in stock. So they sent me five pages about the subject of the film and I was asked to do an exercise: a video diary for my lover. I thought about it for a week and then did it and sent it, like a bottle in the ocean. The next week I was asked if I could go to Bucharest to meet the director. I obviously agreed. We had a four-hour meeting. I had understood what she wanted from this meeting.It wasn’t going to be a chit-chat… she wanted to feel who was in front of her and what I was made of.So my challenge was to go and not contain myself and be as free as possible.
What were your initial thoughts about playing this character, Laura who hasdifficulty with sex and intimacy?
What I had read gave little insight into her feelings and her struggle.She seemed cold and terribly cut of from herself…dead in a way.I didn’t know how I was going to bring her to life.
Were you excited by the original script in that you were playing a woman in her 50s who is the main character in this revealing/naked about vulnerability way? It’s unusual to get this opportunity, isn’t it?
I would say that what is unusual is to have a lovely part to explore (which has nothing to do with the age) and to work with an inspiring director that you get on with and understand in a way as well as on a project you like. All those ingredients are not always present all at once!I never actually considered that I had the main character and her vulnerability appeared during the process.I didn’t know before we started working that this would emerge.And yes yes, it was a lovely opportunity, which came out of the blue! I feel very lucky. I think that Laura could be 40, 45, 50, 55…
Obviously, it was a wonderful opportunity to have an interesting important part to play, considering that most important characters in film are under-45! A casting agent friend of mine told me that in France when they suggest actors over 50, the producers and TV say ‘no, menopaused’! But I do more theatre than film, and a female actor’s age doesn’t have the same significance on stage, because there aren’t close-ups — the body and how you move and your energy are more important than the reality of your age. I’ve seen some Comedia dell Arte where the character is 20 and the actor behind the mask 80. So to answer your question, I didn’t realize really how lucky I was.
What were you challenged by in the process as an actress where it sounds like you had to get in touch with your own vulnerabilities?
For me, the challenge wasn’t as much about being in touch with my vulnerabilities than it was about dealing with my fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and my doubts.
And how did the improvisation go? Do you enjoy this way of working?
The script was just a starting point, like a trampoline that we could bounce off.A kind of skeleton, if you like. It acted as a kind of safety net. There was very little dialogue.A great deal of the material, the nature of the interaction, came from what was happening on set and how it was happening. Doing a scene when you have no idea where it is going to go, and more to the point – if it is going to go anywhere at all can be very uncomfortable. I would say that ‘exploring a situation’ rather than ‘acting a prewritten scène’ is a lovely way of working when you have a director that you can understand (and can understand you) and with whom you share the same vocabulary. There is a certain amount of preparation needed in that kind of approach. Adina has her way of working that takes you into a profound process, so you’re not lost and you are pretty charged. What was nice about the relationship on set, was that she was as worried and excited as us.So we all worked together (technicians included because for the camera and sound people, it wasn’t easy either) to do the best we could. The work was about being in the present moment, being spontaneous and authentic.
What did you discover personally?
I discovered how little I knew! How much there is to experiment with!I think the most surprising thing I discovered was when I was filming myself on a day off.It was a way of staying involved in the process and not losing touch with the film.It was something that spontaneously came to me when I woke up that morning. I put my body in the window frame (the window was very big) and I pushed and pushed against the structure. The architecture became my prison.And since I had voluntarily put myself in that space – that I wasn’t a victim – my frustration and anger transformed into pleasure. Close to a sexual pleasure. It was very empowering.When Seani Love talks about ‘conscious kink changing the world’, I understand how some sexual activities can release and transform very powerful negative energies. And that changed my outlook on BDSM.
What kind of dialogue about sex and intimacy was going on between you and the director, Adina Pintilie? This is also included in the film?
We spoke about many many things; I don’t remember it being focused on sex.But the conversations, when we weren’t talking about work, were generally intimate I think they contributed to creating a particular dynamic based on trust.
Did it make a difference having a female director?
I have often worked with women.Doing this film with a man would no doubt have been very different…but how, I cannot exactly say.
Do you think it is valid not to explore why the character Laura has ended up with such difficulty in her sex and intimacy life? Anger with her father is intimated but not explored.
I think that Adina is more interested in looking at someone’s attempt and struggle to change than explaining where the problem comes from.As far as I am concerned, we don’t need to know where Laura’s problem comes from – what is important is that she can move towards going beyond it.A young couple at a film festival said that it was the only ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ film they had seen in the film festival.
What was your interaction with Seani Love like? He was in our AoA FB Live Hot Tub event on Tantra, we loved him. He’s playing himself in the film? A sex worker, who deals with intimacy issues.
Seani’s work is really interesting and I would say that the interaction we had is what you see in the film. We didn’t meet and talk before, my only interaction with him is when we were on set filming. I didn’t even see his face before he came into my sitting room!
Were there moments when you had to say ‘No’ to the director?
No.Adina was very respectful of limits even though wanting everything!She never – or rarely – asked for anything precise. So the limits were where you yourself put them. I asked her at the beginning of the film, when we were preparing the escort scenes : ‘Are you expecting me to sleep with them?’ She said: ‘you do what you want’.Things were generally not decided before.It was more organic than that.
The film’s reviews have been very mixed, I read the Guardian one by Peter Bradshaw and laughed. I wondered if this is because these reviewers have difficulty themselves with intimacy issues?
I think the reactions correspond to the anger someone can feel when they are going out to have fun and escape reality, then find out that someone is forcing them to have a therapy session and that they weren’t asked if they wanted, let alone warned that they were going to have one (whether they like it or not).
What kind of conversations has come out of it for you?
People have shared some lovely things.One young man said that he spent his first night with his girlfriend just after they had both seen the film and that it totally changed his way of relating with her and changed both of their approaches to their intimacy. I am surprised because a lot of people have thanked me and given me hugs. I recently spoke to a woman who said she was happy to meet me because she had been worried about me during the film. I think it is a film that is a relief for a lot of people who have suffered feelings of inadequacy. In Kiev, a young woman had been thrown out of a café three weeks earlier because she suffered from cerebral palsy.She was so pleased to see the film. It gave her courage and hope.
What did you enjoy about making this kind of film? And the responses?
I enjoyed the complicity with Adina, the challenge and adventure and am relieved that I managed to overcome any fears and doubts, or at least deal with them. I am pleased to have managed to be spontaneous. So I guess that I have grown up a bit!
Janet W. Hardy is a provocative American sex educator and one of the leading authors and publishers on alternative sexualities including BDSM, polyamory and alternative gender/orientation expression. Author of ten books, including her notorious and groundbreaking guide to polyamory and open relationships The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (co-authored with Dossie Easton), Hardy has been one of the most infectious and compelling voices of consensual non-monogamy and the pursuit of (ethical) pleasure for more than twenty years.
She is doing a talk in London on Oct 3rd. You can purchase a ticket here.
We’re called Advantages of Age and we’re hopefully challenging media stereotypes around ageing, do you see this pursuit as relevant to you and your work? Could you tell us how old you are?
I’m 63, due to turn 64 in February. Not quite old-old, but not really middle-aged anymore either.
Your new book is called Impervious – Confessions of a Semi-Retired Deviant – so we were wondering what you are still up to as a deviant?
I think of myself as a “deviant emeritus” – with all the knowledge and experience I acquired over three decades of exploring alternative erotic behaviors, gender expressions and relationship structures, but not very actively involved in any of them anymore – hence “semi-retired.”
Could you let us into a few juicy interludes that you have included? Why did you want to write this memoir?
I wanted to write it for a few reasons. First, because I think any one individual’s personal experience of kink gives a very different perspective on kink as a whole than can be gleaned by a media-filtered overview. Second, because I don’t think enough has been written about kink as an ecstatic experience, and for me, that’s by far the most important aspect of BDSM. Third, because it’s fun to write a smutty graphic recounting of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had through the years. Some of my favorite chapters of the book include one about an encounter in which a group of women spent an evening preparing a very small woman to be fisted for the first time by her very large husband; one about an encounter where my partner and I broke the common BDSM rule about “never play while angry,” and one about agreeing to become a substitute disciplinarian for a dominant who was out of the country and could not properly chastise his slave.
You and Dossie Easton wrote Ethical Slut over 10 years ago, why did you use the word slut and has it served the cause?
Actually, the first edition was published in 1997, so that’s upwards of 20 years now. In the beginning, we were calling it “The Ethical Slut” as a working title, kind of a joke between us – it was a phrase Dossie had invented, but we never thought we’d actually publish under that title. But as we tried to come up with something more socially acceptable, all we could find were horrible clunky textbook-sounding things like “Multiple Loving for the Coming Millennium,” blargh. Finally, we had to get our cover designer started, and we really couldn’t think of another title than “The Ethical Slut,” and some friends encouraged us to go for it, so we did. And it turned out to be a brilliant move. I think we helped jumpstart a whole new part of the sex-positive movement, one in which people of any age, gender or orientation can claim the title “slut” with pride.
Is society catching up with you now? How do you view polyamory and pansexuality now? Has your attitude towards polyamory changed?
My attitude hasn’t changed at all – I think polyamory is one of many excellent ways to manage a relationship, and that any relationship style that works for the people in the relationship is great. But there’s no question that polyamory is far more broadly understood and more socially acceptable than it was in 1997. There was a Newsweek cover, there was a reality series, there have been uncountable newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, etc. I do want to note, however, that pansexuality and polyamory are not the same thing. Pansexuality is a retooling of “bisexuality” for people who believe that bisexuality implies only two genders (it doesn’t). Polyamorous people can be hetero, bi, pan, ace, gay, or any other sexual identity.
I guess the Metoo campaign has made ethical all the more important?
I think what #metoo has done is brought to the forefront a very long-overdue conversation about the nature of sexual consent – and that’s a conversation that’s changing shape almost daily. Poly people do not have a monopoly on ethical sexuality. Everyone, whether they identify as monogamous, poly or something else, has to consider the ramifications of their sexual and romantic behaviors, which must be respectful, consent-aware, honest and growth-oriented in order to be considered ethical.
Polyamory is difficult to do – jealousy has to be dealt with – but do you think it’s easier for older people?
I don’t really have an opinion on that. On one hand, older people are often more comfortable with who we are as individuals, with less need to seek out romantic partnerships in order to feel whole. But older people got indoctrinated into normative monogamy at a very early age, and may have to work harder to overcome that conditioning. Younger people these days are likelier to enter the sexual/romantic arena with more sense of what possibilities are out there, but they may not have as much self-awareness as older folks, and self-awareness is essential to ethical poly.
Are you in a non-traditional marriage?
Sure am! My spouse and I are both genderqueer, bisexual and kinky, none of which makes us all that non-traditional in the groups we run in. However, we have never had sexual intercourse, and we no longer have any form of genital sex, which is still pretty non-traditional, even among our perverted friends.
How has ageing affected your desires on the BDSM and leather front?
My libido is certainly not what it once was, but it’s still very present. However, I rarely-to-never feel the desire to indulge it with anybody but myself. I still do the very occasional BDSM scene, either as part of a lecture/demonstration or with an old and beloved friend, but the hunger that sent me to play parties every weekend and play dates once or twice a week is not part of my life anymore, and I find I rarely miss it much.
What do you see as the possibilities re ageing and sexuality?
I think the work being done in alternative sexuality toward creating forms of sex that are not predicated on penetrative intercourse (we sex educators call this “outercourse”) has the potential to be extremely helpful for older folks who still want the excitement and connection of sex. Penetrative stuff can very often be problematic with older bodies – penises refuse to get or stay stiff, vaginas get stubborn about lubricating. But outercourse can be fun for anyone.
I see you have also been into tantra and full body orgasms?
Yes. When my coauthor Dossie and I were researching our book “Radical Ecstasy: S/M Journeys in Transcendence,” we took many tantra classes together and had some astonishing experiences. While I don’t think full-body orgasms scratch exactly the same itch as genital orgasms, I also believe in having lots of arrows in my quiver, so I like doing some of each!
Are you still working with Dossie Easton? I was intrigued by the scenes that you two set up together when you’re writing about sexuality.
We don’t have any new books in process – we don’t have anything that urgently needs saying right now, but if that changes, we’ll definitely be back at our keyboards. Our scenes together have always been part of our process as writers. If there’s an issue on which we need clarity, we create a scene to explore it together. I don’t think I can recommend our technique to all coauthors, but it’s worked pretty well for us for thirty years now.
Are we making progress re openness and sexuality as a society, do you think?
Right now, depressingly enough, we’re in the midst of a sex panic – finding ways to talk about important sexual information is more challenging right now than I think it’s been since the Internet started enabling people to share information about sex. But I don’t think the genie of good sex information is going to go back into the bottle. There is a lot more information about sexuality than there was when I was young – I was pushing 30 by the time I figured out that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got turned on thinking about spanking, and it’s hard to imagine that happening now. But the more forthright and informative sex information becomes, the greater the pushback against it from conservative forces who want to restrict sex to a very narrow form of expression (married/heterosexual/fertile/etc.).
What’s important to you now re sexuality and desire?
Self-awareness, access to information and tools (any older person who does not have a bottle of lube on their nightstand is missing out on a lot), fighting back against shame and oppression.
What mistakes have you made on the relationship front and where have they led you?
I am by nature a caretaker, and that’s led me down some unfortunate paths. I don’t think I get to stop being a caretaker in this lifetime, but I have gotten better about distinguishing between caretaking and codependency, and at looking for relationships where my caretaking is met with appreciation and echoed by someone who wants to take care of me too.
Can we be old and bold on the sexuality and relationship front? And what does that look like for you?
The best thing about being old, as far as I can see, is getting over caring what strangers think of you (aka “having no fucks left to give”). I fear that many older people avoid being overtly sexual because they think they’ll look ridiculous. And what I think about that is, who cares? If you feel hot, and you look hot to the person you’re in bed with, what some twentysomething thinks of you is the least relevant issue imaginable.
For me, this plays out as a lot of experimentation with gender signifiers, and a lot of thinking and discussing the possibilities within our grasp when we let go of conventional thinking about questions like “What is sex?” “What does it mean to be female?” “What do we actually need from relationships?”
I return from my hairdresser having had the last bits of colour chopped out.I’m now sporting a choppy, silver and pepper pot, topknot, not entirely dissimilar from my beloved dog.
I don’t fully understand the impulse to grow out the colour, which had me ditch the hair dye in April. I knew it was related to my sixtieth birthday, which is now a mere two weeks away. I wanted to see my hair. I had been using colour for fifteen years, ever since my hairline started to grey.
It wasn’t anything clichéd about aging and grey hair, that drove this. It hasn’t been comfortable at some points during the process, seeing the half in, half out thing going on, on a daily basis. Now I’m here. My hair is grey and I’m surprised by the strength of my feeling. Oh. I say to myself in the bathroom mirror. Hello.
I limp and lurch towards my ‘big birthday’ not only as a metaphor, but literally, as I’m long overdue for back surgery. Limping and lurching is what I do – though, my bulging discs notwithstanding – it is a blessed relief to understand that stumbling, staggering and lurching, is the human condition of our little lives. My own little life has become much sweeter, since giving up on getting life right.
The shoreline. The beginning of being old: to my way of seeing it, anyway. No, I am not the new forty. I am not still middle aged. I am averse to ageing euphemisms.
My mother died, just days after her sixtieth birthday. She was bitterness and sorrow as an art form, and I never really understood how that came to pass. I was on the other side of the world, caught up in my own version of sorrow and bewilderment. We were estranged for years. Her death coincided – although I wasn’t to know it for quite some time – with the death rattle of my addiction. No coincidence. I was so nearly dead myself, on my knees in the shadows of Sydney’s yellowest sun. My mother died and I stayed alive.
Thirty years ago: half my little life ago.And, here I am with my grey hair, having somehow descended into tenderness. I wish my mother and I had had more time together, an opportunity to see if there was any other way to dance our dance. It was a brutal dance and I needed kindness like a desert landscape needs water. I nearly died of thirst. I believe that is exactly what she died of – she was latched on to the breast of death, and didn’t ever get to know there was another place to drink from.
Twenty years ago, when I was in therapy and starting to interpret past events, I went to the graveyard on the edge of Dartmoor where she’s buried and lay down on her grave. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, though I was making it up as I went along. I didn’t know what I was doing or why, but I managed to trust the imperative. If it were physically easier (those discs again), I’d go back there now to lie on the ground that holds her body. A mother and daughter, with a hundred and twenty years between them: thirty of them in this world at the same time.
This turning a new decade, it has some juice. As an exquisitely understated friend of mine would say – ‘it’s not nothing’.
I don’t have any recollection of reaching ten except for a tiny, waft of unease. Neither do I remember a twentieth birthday, which was undoubtedly due to drugs and alcohol. Turning thirty was the milestone of my life. I don’t remember anything at all with my conscious mind, but almost dead from self-hatred and drugs, I finally turned my face towards this human world.
Ten years later, I celebrated becoming forty around a table with friends. I had a profession: psychotherapy, and a partner. I was trying to force myself into an idea of myself and it was only a partial success.
By fifty, I had escaped the partial partnership and some internalized constraint. I had found and then lost again, the love of my life and the daughter we called in. I had a proper party with catering and dancing and wore a sea green dress. It seems so long ago.
With a light, yet serious touch, I’ve dedicated a few ritual acts of love and kindness towards this birthday. In May, I went on a pilgrimage to Hydra, the Greek island where Leonard Cohen lived, wrote and loved. More recently, I commissioned a photo shoot. At home with Leonard The Dog and Bebe The Cat. Family life. Love.
And, it was not nothing – to see the sweetness and comedy I live inside, from the outside.
These last ten years I have been winding myself home. Many things I’d thought I needed, turned out not to matter much. I found the Fields of Kindness and Simplicity. I discovered they had been here all the time. I had been here all the time.
I wonder what the next decade of me, and of this wailing world will be. I’m viewing my personal next decade through the lens of no real appetite for more than that. My sense of having the capacity for another ten years, but not much more, is clear as a mountain stream. No drama. Nothing complicated or ambivalent. Just its ring of truth. And, of course I know ideas, beliefs and passions change, so I’m not gripping on too tightly.
I am trusting my own precious heart. If this is my last decade, I’ll do the very best I can with it.
If you are wondering about why a person might ‘only have another decade to give or to live’, I can only say I’m very tired. I’ve been tired all my life. Living with depression is tiring. I’ve been dragging myself through the days of my life, and while I finally fell from the self-violence that came down through my mother’s line, into something like Grace, it will always be heavy. Dragging the heavy is wearing and I am worn.
The thing is, all of this is gentle. I did, eventually get home to that precious heart I mentioned. The fact that it took a long time, and that in many ways I’m ready to go now, just makes me smile. Maybe I’ll make it to seventy. Maybe I won’t. If I do, and still feel like this, I’ll be writing about ending my life. If I get to seventy and don’t feel like this, I’ll be writing about that instead.
Depression and weary aside, I know I don’t want to be old, old. Seventy feels doable. More than that feels dangerous. We don’t hold old age with compassion and respect in these broken systems of our government. I am crystal clear I don’t want to spend my last years in that system. Unequivocally not.
So, here I am, stumbling sweetly towards my sixtieth birthday, which incidentally I’m celebrating by going on a Death Retreat. I tell people, and they mostly grin at the perfect pitch of it. So very me, and so very lovely to be seen and understood in my deepest longings.
As Leonard (Cohen)would say:
And here is your love
For all things.
And here is your love
For all of this
May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.
Most people view ageing as negative. But, research shows, there’s actually a lot to be positive about. As this ageing of society only really took off in the last century, it’s unsurprising that much of what we think we know about ageing is untrue.
Our three couples – Hans (79) & Edith (76), Ellen (84) & Horst (77), Ralf & Kristin (both 73) – have two things in common: After being together for 3, 16, and 51 years they are all still heavily in love.
Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.
I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.
I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.
The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?
In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.
I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.
NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.
First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.
And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.
And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.
There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.
And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.
My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.
The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.
And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.
Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.
Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.
And it’s such a freedom.
Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.
And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.
She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.
“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.
I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.
In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.
The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.
Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.
David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.
“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”
Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”
At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!
This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.
In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.
So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.
Diane Kutz who is in her 60th year supports others along their life paths – from helping to write a CV after redundancy to sound healing for emotional trauma – and follows a shamanic spiritual pathway. Here she gives a wonderfully personal account of her life now.
What is your name?
The name I go by these days is Diane Kutz. I was born with a different surname, and when I married I took my husband’s name. When we split up I changed again. And there are times when I wonder about changing it again. My first name, Diane, is not something I consider changing. I love being connected to the Roman goddess Diana – or Artemis in the Greek pantheon. A powerful woman of the moon. I resonate and vibrate with the moon. Sometimes in the night she calls me awake and I get up to go to marvel at her silvery beauty.
How old are you?
I am in my 60th year.
Where do you live?
Currently, I am located on the South Coast of England. Having moved back to the town where I grew up, after over 30 years of living in other places – South Yorkshire, NE Scotland and South London.
What do you do?
I do many things. I breathe in life. I play with my grandbabies. I hug people. I support those going through change and transition. I sing, I dance, I play music, I create, I laugh, I cry, I love. I play my part in this wondrous Uni-verse, the great One Song. I identify as belonging to many groups, many communities. These include, being part of a family, a resident of a town, connected with others with similar interests in spirituality (personally I follow a Shamanic path).
This brings me on to my work. I help others along their life paths. This support can take many forms, from practical assistance helping someone going through redundancy to write their CV, to helping them to heal emotional trauma using sound. It is such a privilege and a joy to watch people rediscover their core, their strength. I love to walk alongside people. We might engage in conversation using words, music, art, or whatever. All of which is designed to assist them in moving through things, or being with Life situations, (re)connecting them with their deepest selves, helping them to (re)discover their own strengths and resilience.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
Difficult to say. This is the only age that I know. It is the present moment, and it is my moment, my life. This is my 6th decade in this lifetime. It is exciting and amazing. I feel privileged to still be around, something that has been denied to many others who I have met in the past 59 years.
I guess you could say that it is the perfect age for me, inevitably, because it is where I am.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Ha! Lines on my face, thinner skin and a thicker waistline. And on a more serious note, I have more life experience. Although I had experienced some things by age 25. I had got married, lost children through miscarriage, given birth to a child, and had a mortgage. Now I have a grown-up son with a wife and children of his own.
I have witnessed much – joy, grief, hurt, laughter, good times, bad times, all these and much more that make up a lifetime. These things I have witnessed in myself and in others.
I have a confidence now that I did not have when I was younger. This confidence is in my abilities. That it is OK to be me, fully. For example, I always had strong intuition and the ability to connect with others (in this realm and in other realms). However, previously I would not always trust these abilities. Now I know it is OK to do so. I have given myself permission to trust.
What about sex?
Since splitting up with my son’s father, I spent some time exploring me – not just sexually, but finding out about who I am, what I like and just generally more about life. I moved to London and met a number of guys who I had fun with. I learned a lot about what I want in a partner. One thing I am now very clear about is that if I am involved romantically with a guy, that the physical and sexual sides of that relationship are important to me. One thing about getting older is that I know what works for me. So, I can express more easily what I want and need sexually, and in other ways. And I am open to learning more about me, and about any future partner I may have.
Interesting that the question of sex was before relationships. I have many relationships with people – friendships. And I guess you mean romantic-type ‘relationships’?
I know that I enjoy being in these relationships with guys. I say guys, but I am definitely into monogamy, so only one guy at a time. An open relationship would definitely not be for me. In the past 20 years (since the end of my marriage) I have had a number of relationships. However, none have lasted more than several months. I feel I am now open to being involved longer-term with someone. Though to me it is much more about the quality of a relationship, not how long it might last. After all, there are no guarantees as to how long a relationship might last, nor how long any of us will be treading the earth plane.
What I am looking for is someone who I like, respect and can have fun with. A couple of the guys I have been involved with are still my friends and I love that I we can still be friends. This is something that has changed as I have got older. Another thing in relationships is that I have attracted people who I get along with, no real stressy arguments, not the angst-ridden relationships of youth. Something much more balanced, where it is about enjoying each other’s company, respecting each other for what the other one brings to the connection, mutual enjoyment. An ease of just being together
How free do you feel?
I feel very free to be me, to express myself in whatever ways I choose. In a way, I feel less free about other things.
A few years ago, I considered moving abroad, but now I want to be around for my parents, my son and his family. I don’t want to be too far away from my grandchildren, as although technology is a marvel (another change from my younger days) and we can talk and see each other via the internet, there is just no substitute for cuddling little people and playing together. I am looking forward to when they are big enough to play puddle-jumping, messy art, and other fun things. Not things to be done at a distance. And doing these things are freedoms in themselves, being able to reconnect with the inner child. I am definitely looking forward to some marvellous fun.
What are you proud of?
Not giving up. Like most people I know, I have had tough times over the years. Some things have happened that led to despair. At one time, I went through a depression, which was not a great place to be. Now I know I am strong enough to be with the tough times, and that these times give me lessons. In learning lessons, I have more to offer others, different ways to help support people on their paths.
I am also a very proud mum and grandma. To have had the privilege of watching a person grow from a bump in the tum to being a lovely human being is amazing. And now I am looking forward to seeing how my grandbabies grow. I wonder who they will become? What gifts they bring to this World?
What keeps you inspired?
People, nature, books, the world around me. When I think about the world and the cosmos, I am awestruck at the beauty, and the passion. I am inspired by the compassion of others. There is so much to be explored, both on inner as well as outer journeys.
When are you happiest?
Generally, I am a happy person. For sure, there are times when I might feel low, or whatever. But mostly I am happy. My happiness is not dependent on external factors. I guess that has been one of the learnings in this lifetime. That if we hook our happiness to someone or something else, then it can always be taken away. Whereas, finding happiness within, means that the seed of happiness is always accessible to me.
I have already mentioned my grandbabies, and for sure, being with them and their parents brings me great joy and happiness. Other things bring happiness too, such as walking in nature. I am fortunate to live a ten minute walk from the sea and only a short drive from the New Forest.
And where does your creativity go?
Into making music / sound, painting, cooking, writing, and much else. One thing I love to do is design and run workshops. My most recent creation being a workshop called, Weaving the Threads of Your Life Story, which I will be running later this year, having piloted it successfully last year. It is an exploration of our life to date, and a novel way into accessing how we are with that life.
What’s your philosophy of living?
Life is to be lived, to be savoured, to learn. We are all here to learn, through a physical existence, about emotions – using the visceral experience of physicality to understand emotions and feelings. Ultimately, we are here to be expressions of love.
My work is called The Heart of Joy. This is about the expression of Five Fields of Being. Everything that I do, is related to one, or more, of the Five Fields. One of the things that has changed as I have got older, is that I now understand the work that I am here to do. I just need to get on and do more of it!!
A gentle breathing out for the final time. It will happen to us all. I know how I would like to go, I do not fear dying, though there are some ways of dying that hold no appeal for me. I also believe that this physical existence is a temporary home for our true and deepest selves, our soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it. We are born and we take our first breath. Then we die for the first time, as we breathe out that initial in-breath. Life is then a constant breathing in of life and breathing out of death. This continues until we take our final breath, and breathe out, never more to breathe in again in this lifetime.
I have attended a workshop, twice, called, Dying to Live. It is an extraordinary workshop and helped me to understand a number of things. One of these was how to be with someone who is dying. I will always be grateful for this understanding, as it meant I was able to be around a very dear friend of mine who died two years ago. I had the privilege of being with him just a few hours before he passed into spirit – a beautiful gift for which I will always be grateful.
Are you still dreaming?
Yes, definitely. I dream about the world that I would like my grandbabies to grow up in. I dream about how I can help to make things better, about what is my part to play in the world. I dream about my work and what I can do next to help others.
What was the most outrageous action of yours?
I am unsure how to answer this question. In my younger days, at school, I was unpleasant to some other children. Looking back, I can see that my actions were nasty and even bullying. However, I was just a child myself, and I did not understand how my actions may have impacted others. I do hope that people have not suffered because of some of the things I did when I was young.
The most outrageous thing I did at work was when I left my first job in a life assurance company. It was a very conservative organisation. On my last day, I wore bright red jeans, and a mesh blouse that was completely see-though, apart from two large patch pockets that were strategically placed, and no bra. It was hilarious, as I got somewhat tipsy at lunchtime and then went round the office embarrassing people by sitting on their desks and talking with them. Many guys had no idea where to look.
As I grew older, I became outraged at things, rather than being outrageous myself. One time, when I was living in South Yorkshire, there was a discussion in the media about whether or not peace studies should be taught in primary schools. People were writing to the newspapers about how this was terrible, and how young children were unaware of wars. I was furious. I wrote to the local paper. I told the story of how when my son was two years old, and the Falklands’ War was happening, he came to me one day and said, “When I grow up, Margaret Thatcher is going to make me go into the army. I’m going to go to the Falklands and be killed.” Him saying that, really got me thinking about the world and what was happening. And so much for some adults thinking that infants are ‘unaware’ of war.
In 1980s Britain I supported anti-apartheid, the fight against the poll tax, the miners strike, CND (campaign for nuclear disarmament) and many other ‘causes’. Marching, talking about things with others, and so on. These days, I tend to do things differently. I work with energies, spirit, whatever you want to call it. I engage in sending healing energies. Knowing that whatever we do as individuals affects the wider world. Just like dropping pebbles into a pond and watching the ripples move across the whole pond from one tiny stone. Kindness and compassion are now watchwords for me. This does not mean that I am always kind and compassionate, but that I strive to be that way. I am still a work in progress.
And I am still open to taking outrageous actions when the need or desire arises.
You can find me on the web at www.theheartofjoy.com This is a site that is developing, as I develop my own understanding of the work I am on the Earth to do, in this lifetime.