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Roadmap to Compassion

9 Minute Read

Recently, somebody asked how I found my way to The Fields of Kindness. This is, as much as it can be, my reply.

I was first diagnosed at thirteen, and even though I grew up (eventually) and became a psychotherapist, I was particularly blinded to my own baseline and lifelong depression.

Through the prism of hindsight, I can see chapters like hills gently rolling out my little life. Childhood ended when I was sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. After that came what I call the drug years, or the lost years. They certainly were that. During those sixteen years, aged fourteen to thirty, I missed a few things. The vortex of addiction is a particularly narrow tunnel. The horrors of Thatcherism largely passed me by. I missed out on two opportunities to get Australian citizenship, just by showing up at an amnesty with my passport. I threw away a woman who loved me when she asked me to choose between her and the drugs.

Having taken myself to the very edge of the human world, I defied the odds and stayed alive. A third chapter opened. I was wretched and wrecked and it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to stumble back into the realms of the living.

Not in a Hollywood whoosh, but slowly and blindly little bits and pieces started to move, like metal filings pulled toward Home.

While in Rehab I’d been taught to go to Narcotics Anonymous, so that’s what I did. In the meeting rooms, some were talking about going to therapy, so I did that too. Looking back, I can see more clearly, just how ravaged I was. Commitment to drugs will take everything a person is or can be, and I had utterly given myself up to it. I had no capacity for self-reflection. I didn’t know what was going on inside me, or around me. I didn’t know that I was managing self-hatred as big as the world, the only way I knew how. I was held together by a few Leonard Cohen songs and a taste of something elusive I sometimes found on the MDA fueled dance floors with the gay men.

Coming out of that, almost dead but not quite, after multiple suicide attempts and all manner of unlikely failures at dying, there wasn’t much left. I’m taking a moment to look back at her now, from thirty years on down the track and it makes me wince. I don’t quite understand how I moved from there to anywhere.

Only possible, I think, because of the 12 Step Fellowship. Thank you Narcotics Anonymous, first in Sydney and then in London, for holding me. It was basic stuff. Go to a meeting every day. Or even two. If it gets bad enough, go to a third. Don’t use. Get a sponsor. Keep It Simple Sweetheart was KISS. The way we held hands at the end of meetings and said the Serenity Prayer.

I stayed drug and alcohol free and used the 12-step formula for six years. It was, to paraphrase Mr. Cohen, a Temple where they told me what to do. It was my first experience of being received. I was welcome and understood. I was offered some guidance, but not in a top down kind of way… I kept hearing versions of my own story. I got a taste of resonance and I liked it.

I didn’t know I couldn’t think, or that I couldn’t see myself at all. I went to therapy and slowly began to translate some narrative meaning. The story of me started to make sense. I was immensely moved, as I came into focus, not only by my desperation and suffering, but by the processes of self-rescue, and the intimacy of psychotherapy itself. I found myself training without ever having asked myself if I wanted to be a therapist. Some years later when I did stop to ask that question, I found the answer was yes.

As for depression and me… now that it’s achingly simple, I have to concentrate and focus to remember the wracking labour pains.

I didn’t like the word Depression in relation to me. It felt like a judgement and a terrible failure. I should have worked it through or healed it. Or, God help me, translated it. I did so much cathartic bodywork and was always disappointed not to get rid of my heavy. I worked like a dog with a bone… I did family constellations, all manner of group therapy, shamanic healing, rituals, prayers, plant medicine, laying on the couch three times a week, periodic (secret) antidepressants and then Tantra and 5Rythms dance.

Every single undertaking gave me succour. I was very hungry. If I gaze back at all my endeavors, I feel touched by my appetite and longing to be healed and whole, even as I was partially trapped in my own prescription for that. I was nourished, though. I ate a lot of light. I found a sense of place, or the beginning of one. I met with my own homelessness and started to welcome grief.

What did for me, was that no matter how much light I ate, and how much good medicine nourished me, I was still waking up each day with the weight of the world on my chest and the taste of defeat in my mouth. I didn’t even want to call that depression, which is a little bit daft for an experienced psychotherapist, but hey.

The worst symptom of depression is the relentless narrative voice. A violent and unforgiving self-rap. The head-fuckery of it. The impossibility. The fact that it is never, ever going to be okay, to be here like This.

I moved through life and life moved through me. Sometimes with more ease and sometimes with less, but never free from the weight of myself. Never able to make myself well in the way I had in mind and vision.

Something happened. After all the fighting, the twisting and spinning in the wind, and after every trick in the book was exhausted, there was just nowhere left to go, so I fell. It was a palpable fall. My system gave up and I lost my grip on it all. It was a relief.

I didn’t know where I’d landed for quite a while, but when I started to get my bearings, was born. I didn’t know much, but for the first time, that didn’t seem to matter. It seemed I had fallen, not from Grace, but directly into it.

This is my first Postcard from the window-ledge and I called it: Forgiveness.

There is a wide divide
between an idea of me in my life
and the truth
and I have tried and tied
myself in knots
with medicine and meditation
to make a better fit
and rearrange the pieces into
much more satisfactory shape
I did not understand why I kept failing
and falling, or see the hopeless, helpless
circles and cul-de-sacs of trying to make
a brand new cut out of old cloth.
I had to unlearn the tyranny of healing
and find my own
that didn’t have so much to say
about healing and transformation
rebirth and renewal
and especially about surrender
oh, how I had to stop trying to surrender right
the pitch perfect surrender
like chasing an impossible orgasm
Somewhere between a daughter being born and a sister dying
I have found that I can love life
and long for death, at the same time
that both are true and I am as full of tenderness
as of despair.

The last frontier was about my attachment to an idea of episodic depression rather than the baseline kind. If I was going to be a member of the depressed tribe, I really wanted to believe in, on and off, good and bad, in and out, alive and dead… you get the picture. I wanted to have episodes of depression, in between which I could be well, wide open, productive and even happy or joyful. This was quite a showdown. The truth is that I’m not an episodic depressive, though I have forced myself into that construct on occasion. It has been the source of so much suffering. Finding in myself a welcome state of well-being, I couldn’t ever let that be in co-existence with the bleakness in my bones.

Depression Is My Home Address. It just is. Of course, I am thoughtful about this. Nature and nurture, generational mental health and all manner of self-diagnosis. But this thing called depression, the sheer weight of it, and its particular quality of darkness, have always been with me. Having spent so much of my life trying to get rid of myself, it feels so good to stop.

When I fell, I landed in The Fields of Kindness. I don’t really know how that happened, but suspect it could only happen in that tiny beat of surrender. In that precious moment when I couldn’t go on and gave up on everything, the thing that was trying to happen, could.

These fields were here all the time, just waiting for me. I have to tell you though, that they are not warm and fuzzy fields. They exist in an elemental world, rather than a Disney film. The wild winds blow in and the grass often tastes of salt. These fields though, they are so kind and so damned inclusive.

Radical simplicity: it is just This, over and over, breath by breath. I was here all the time. And depressed without the internalised voices making it wrong, over and over, is a much simpler kettle of fish. Embodied rocks, laboured breath, the darkest, almost starless night sky, and all the sighing and moaning that living with a dog and a cat forgives. What if there’s nowhere to run from? Or anyone else to try and be? What if there is nothing to fix?

Sometimes I can’t work out if my little life got smaller, while knowing for sure that spaciousness happened. I’m always saying, thank you, Life, and loving the absurdity of having so much gratitude for a life I also long to be done with and out of.

If I have anything to contribute to the dialogue about depression, it’s to do with compassion, kindness and welcome. What if there really is nothing to fix? I know it’s controversial and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but absolutely nothing else worked until I put out the welcome mat.

I have to tend to that mat, pick it up and bash it against the wall once a week, and brush off the debris. I reckon it’s a lifelong practice of remembering to welcome the one I’m with and keep giving myself up to This, especially when This is not what I had in mind or plan.

Cultivating A Flamboyant Mindset

4 Minute Read

This week I have been spending time contemplating my own relationship with flamboyance; Am I flamboyant enough to attend an event for ‘Seriously Flamboyant People’ I ask myself? In order to address this I thought I would begin with the

The Oxford Dictionary definition of Flamboyant, an adjective meaning:

  • (Of a person or their behaviour) tending to attract attention because of their exuberance, confidence, and stylishness.
  • Bright, colourful, and very noticeable - ‘a flamboyant bow tie’

Well I can do bright, colourful and noticeable some days. On those days when I wake up wanting to proclaim my positive exuberance to the rest of the world, or at least my fellow tube travellers, I will wear loud, outrageous clashing tones and revel in the attention. My eccentricity makes me all sorts of friends. But there are also mornings when the last thing I desire is high-visibility, does that mean that when I dress in Navy-Blue I am not being Flamboyant? Confidence I can manage only flittingly, exuberance after a glass of wine and I like to think of myself as subtly-stylish.

Self-differentiation is the process of psychologically distancing oneself from membership of one’s age group, and/or focusing on aspects of one’s self-concept that are different from the general consensus of how we should behave. I want to self-differentiate in my own way which will vary depending on how I feel when I stand before my clothes each morning. I may not want to look outrageously-flamboyant every day. However I want to feel flamboyantly-outrageous every day.

For me that is about viewing the world as full of opportunity, as making new connections, as being creative; sometimes it means I will act in a disgracefully extravert manner, with colourful language to match my gold-boots. However I can be flamboyant in my head without leaving my flat or getting out of my pyjamas. Is it possible that I can maintain the joy that flamboyance implies without informing the whole of London? Can I cultivate internal flamboyance? And what would that feel like?

I am fifty-two and I don’t have any intention of succumbing to Age Based Stereotype Threat (ABST), a theoretical viewpoint that states an individual feels threat when facing a situation that puts them at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Lamont,Swift, & Abrams,2015). So in other words, I’m not about to start dressing in an age appropriate manner just to fit in with ageist stereotypes. But I’m not always in the right emotional place to want to swing to the opposite sartorial spectrum and become an ‘Advanced Style’ advocate; I Love Ari Seth Cohen’s colourful characters, I just couldn’t carry it off personally.

‘You can’t challenge bias unless you are aware of it, and everyone is biased some of the time.... Consciousness-raising is a tool that uses the power of personal experience to unpack unconscious prejudices’ (Applewhite 2015)

Connecting with positive-aging-consciousness-raising groups, such as Advantages of Age, remind me of the gender politics of the 1970s and 1980s when I enjoyed becoming a feminist and bonding with subcultures through the way we dressed, as well as shared ideologies. I knew I was a real feminist because I wore dungarees, just as I knew I was a baby-punk because I had blue hair. Is there a dress-code for subverting the aging narrative? Does dressing against the ‘norm’, wearing flamboyance, signify our intention to develop a way for ‘older’ people to acknowledge their own internalized ageist prejudice and thereby transcend it? What if I don’t want to toe-the-line with this new dress-code?

Groups are able to offer safe spaces for the first steps of people’s probing the myths and stereotypes that they have internalized consciously or unconsciously over a lifetime. But does being part of this new positive aging agenda come with its own code of conformity? Can we develop an all-inclusive ‘club’ that is truly diverse, a place where it is encouraged to express your internal flamboyance without being coerced to step too far outside your sartorial comfort zone?

So my concern is can I belong without being outwardly flamboyant? How can I balance my desire to be accepted whilst holding on to my own style, which can veer towards the normal-boring end of the scale, and signify my flamboyant mindset?

I have suddenly realised this is an on-going dilemma for me, I have been here before. I wonder if it is my lack of commitment to a cause, or my insecurity. I have always wanted to be in the cool-gang, but find myself hanging around on the outskirts, a flamboyant imposter in norm-core clothing.

So if you see me looking less than flamboyant please try to see beyond my sensible skirt; Inside I have a truly radical flamboyant heart that occasionally plucks up courage to wear Gold boots.

Notes from a Gentleman Walking into Retirement

10 Minute Read

Pilgrimage - originally a journey to the shrine of a saint or holy person, undertaken alone or in the company (think the Canterbury Tales) to give thanks, worship, ask them for something or just taking the time to work things out at a turning point in life. Some hardship is usually involved - travelling on foot for example - and the separation from everyday life is an important element. The journey itself - or the spirit in which it is undertaken - is as meaningful as arrival at the destination.

The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostella was to visit the tomb of St James, one of the 12 apostles, who is said to have journeyed to Spain to preach the gospel. In the last 30 years, this has become a very popular pilgrimage largely due to the Council of Europe in 1987 declaring it as the first European cultural route. Consequently certain parts of the route - particularly the Camino Frances in Spain - have become the pedestrian equivalent of a pilgrim motorway.

July 2016. A hilltop basilica filled with light, a sacred spot in fecund Burgundy. My first thoughts of retirement - letting go of one (long) stage of my life and a starting point for the next. I decide I will walk to Santiago de Compostela. My wife objects to me calling this a ‘pilgrimage’. Catholic by upbringing but certainly not by inclination. It’s just a long walk, she insists.

Only two fixtures in an otherwise gossamer plan. The start point: Vezelay. The start date: 21 June 2017. My 61st birthday. The summer solstice, when a pathway of light runs down the centre of the nave of the basilica (those clever medieval builders). But how long will I take? And how far will I walk? Do I go it alone or invite others to join me along the way? Does anyone believe I will really do this? Do I?

First step. Negotiate terms. We agree I’ll take one month, with a plan to meet and walk together somewhere towards the end of that period. Next step. Plot the route, my route, on an old road map of France. I underline in red, the towns I will pass through. I pin the map on my wall so I can see it, remind myself that it’s real. I order my pilgrims’ guide book. I get my credential, my pilgrim passport. A few steps further. My retirement date slips from the end of April to the end of May. But I will hold to my schedule.

20 June 2017. I’m packed and ready to go. A sense of dislocation, unreality, before leaving home. A send-off dinner in the garden with my family. I imagine they think I may never return. A broken night and an early start the next morning. New walking shoes and unfamiliar weight of the rucksack on my back. I decide to leave my carved stick at home, not sure if I can get it through security. I’ll find another along the way.

At Vezelay station, I have my first encounter with another pilgrim. We share a taxi into town. The taxi driver complains about the heatwave. It’s 36 degrees, not good for walking. I’m lodging at the Centre de la Madeleine, my first pilgrim hostel. This is all very new to me. I’m bewildered, and very hot. As I register with the hostelier, I accept the offer of a pilgrim blessing the next morning in the basilica. Casually.

I sleep badly and wake before dawn. Just in time I get to the basilica. Two other pilgrims are there for the blessing. Mark, a tall bearded American who appears to have fallen out of the sky. And Helios, a young man wearing a flat cap and a beatific smile who has walked all the way from Aachen. I am transported by the ritual, the transcendent ancient chants. The blessing is heartfelt and heartening. I leave with a copy of Luke’s Gospel and tears streaming down my face. My journey has begun.

The first day of walking is tough. I’m not prepared for the heat. By mid-afternoon, I collapse under a tree outside a cemetery where there is a water tap. My head is pounding and I have another 5 km before I reach my lodgings. I have no energy or will to move. But I have found myself a stick, a piece of coppiced hazel. It’s pleasingly crooked and I start to carve some marks on it. Eventually, I summon the energy to get up and stagger on. I arrive at my lodgings, exhausted and slightly delirious.

On my third day, I walk 31 km in sultry weather and mostly on tarmac. Too soon to be so ambitious. I lodge with Claude and Bernard on the outskirts of Nevers. Claude sends me to the pharmacy to have a couple of ticks removed from my leg, hopefully averting Lyme’s disease. Next day on my way into town to visit the cathedral, a Moroccan shopkeeper looks at my piece of hazel. ‘This is the stick Moses used to part the Red Sea.’ Later, I find myself in a side chapel called ‘La Chapelle du Passage de la Mer Rouge’. How do these things work, I wonder?

I cross the bridge over the Loire. It feels significant, a passage pilgrims have made through the ages. The weather gets cooler. I am heading into rural France. I start to notice things. Place names that make me laugh. The daily yellow post vans. Carefully tended vegetable patches. Barking dogs in every back yard – why so many? Romanesque churches, elegant and almost Protestant in their simplicity. The depressing frequency of derelict and abandoned houses in the villages. And the speed of traffic – why is everyone in such a rush?

Gradually I’m finding my own rhythm and I feel well in my body, like a sturdy little pony. But my legs and feet are aching. I get my first blisters and chafing in my arse. I start to develop a small love affair with French pharmacies. After my first week of walking, I take a day off and stay in Chateaumeillant, once a Gaulish settlement and Mediolanum, now just a provincial town with a small museum. My lodging is a mobile home in the vegetable garden. I think I could grow roots, stay a while.

I have a sense of slipping out of time and entering into an altered state. My thinking mind is on vacation. Not much in the way of concentrated or systematic thought. Half thoughts, thoughts for nought, wisps that pass against the backdrop of mind. Background noise, low static. Sometimes it gets in the way and I miss a turning, distracted, abstracted. Remembrances and fantasies. Ear-worms - tunes that are stuck in my head. As I walk I hum, sing out loud the bits of songs I can remember.

I’m alive to sights, sounds, and smells. The Wind in the hedgerows. Birdsong. Cloud patterns. Sunlight on fields. Fresh cut hay. Old green lanes, Roman roads, forgotten byways, hollow ways, scooped out tunneled tracks through the woods. Each day starts on an up, those first few steps. Twirling my stick, heading off down the road. For the first time in years, I feel free, in a sort of ecstasy. The joy of not knowing what comes next, where I will sleep at night. An adventure.

The road, walking, becomes my meditation. I feel connected to land, nature, spirit. A force that flows through everything. My intuition feels much sharper. In churches, I pray, clumsily because I can't find the right words, silently and out loud. Where the acoustics please me, I sing or whistle my own music. I understand these are sacred spaces. And so are the hedgerows. Which gods do you worship?

The Vezelay route is a solitary one. For the first two weeks, I meet no other pilgrims along the way. I’m happy in my own company. But solitude can feel like loneliness when I’m the only one sleeping in a hostel. One night I lodge with Paul, an elderly widower, in the damp, musty wing of his large house. After falling asleep, I wake up to torchlight and muffled sounds downstairs. I lie there for ages, frozen in fear, before dozing off again. Come morning - I realise that what I heard in the night was Paul laying out my breakfast. I feel foolish and a little ashamed.

Being alone for long periods, I get lost in myself. Imagination becomes more potent than reality. What might it be like to go feral, live in the wild? Naked, unaccommodated, instinctual. Walking through great silent woods, I expect any moment to stumble upon a writhing, orgiastic mass of bodies. Pan and Lilith hold sway here. Feverishly I make up lurid stories and scribble down notes in my journal. Is this how the devil tempted Christ in the wilderness? Is this how Mara tempted Siddhartha, the soon to Buddha? Am I also being tested?

I take another day off walking. A combination of blisters and the heat of the road has made my feet swell up painfully. I rest, v get a massage, leave offerings at a menhir. I meet Sylviane and Albane, grandmother and granddaughter walking together. It warms my heart to be with them. I start crossing paths with other pilgrims. Bernd, who has walking poles and a purposeful stride. Vanessa, who has lost her God. Patrick, who has written a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Bärbel, who wheels her tent behind her on a trolley. Mostly we don’t walk together, only meeting in the evenings. We are nodes on a line, pearls strung out on a long necklace.

Heading slowly south the landscape has been changing all the while. At walking pace, it’s subtle, details you wouldn’t notice flashing by in a car. Walnut gives way to chestnut, chestnut to fig. Cows become fewer, maize and sunflowers more prevalent. In the Dordogne, the countryside is still green. But the ground underfoot is harder, drier, rockier. I hear crickets for the first time. There is fruit in the hedgerows though not yet ripe. This is still deep country but there are more foreign registered cars and holiday homes.

I now feel as if I could walk forever. Come rain or shine, blisters or no. But soon, all too soon, my journey is coming to an end. I've lost a few kilos and I feel fitter than I have for ages. I've got a magnificent farmer's tan. I feel a fresh sense of purpose and identity. The plan to meet my wife and walk some of the ways with my daughter for the final few days is abandoned. Relief for all of us as the logistics are tricky, and the late insertion into such a personal journey even more so.

18 July. I arrive in Perigueux, my stopping point for now. A large town, busy with tourists. I feel the tug back into everyday time. A new sense of dislocation. Fear about reintegrating, settling down again. I'm going to miss so much of this.  My companions who are continuing their journey to Santiago. The welcome relief of the pilgrim hostel at the end of the day. Conversations with strangers along the way. The friendliness and respect for those who make this journey.  The simplicity of just walking, eating, sleeping.

The joy that has fuelled me along the way stays with me. This journey will continue. Ultreya!

Small children are really confused about the link between birthdays and ageing

3 Minute Read

Small Children Are Really Confused About The Link Between Birthdays And Ageing

Which follows which?

Imagine if all you had to do to avoid getting a year older was to not have a birthday party. Simple, right? It turns out that a good number of young kids think these parties are what makes us older.In a study of 99 kids aged 3, 4, and 5, nearly two in five of the youngsters thought that birthday parties were somehow linked to ageing. Don't have a party, and maybe you can stay the same age.

While the older children seemed to have a better grasp of age and how we get older, the confusion over the link between parties and moving up a year was spread across all of the kids – which is understandable, as they suddenly find themselves one year older after blowing out candles on a cake and singing Happy Birthday.

Results indicate that young children understand certain important biological aspects of the ageing process but exhibit confusion regarding others, including the causal role of the annual birthday party," write the researchers in their published paper.

Jacqueline D. Woolley from the University of Texas at Austin, and Amanda M. Rhoads from the Community of Hope in Washington DC, ran through three stories with their young volunteers to explore how they understood ageing.

The first story was about a kid who didn't get a party, the second was about a kid who got two parties, and the third was a more general, control story about a child turning 3.Nearly 20 percent of the toddlers thought the lucky child who got two parties would be two years older; meanwhile, around a quarter of the kids thought the child in the no party story stayed the same age.

A repeat of the study with a different group also produced similar results.A previous study has shown this way of looking at parties as the causes for ageing can last until kids are 6 or 7 years old, though that earlier research wasn't as specific in the questions it used – instead the children were polled on whether having multiple parties to try and get older was "a good idea".

Of course, even though these results are fascinating, the relatively small sample size and the fact more than a quarter of the kids got the control question wrong, makes us cautious about drawing any major conclusions here.

But we can't imagine a much cuter concept than staying the same age until the cards and presents are rolled out - and why wouldn't young children think this way?The effects of ageing are largely imperceptible to little minds, and then in a flash and a flurry of jelly and ice cream they're a year older.For the current study, the youngsters were also told a story about a woman who didn't want to get older. More than 70 percent of the 3-year-olds thought adults could avoid ageing if they so wished, though this dropped sharply with the 4- and 5-year-olds.

And perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise either, as us grown-ups spend so much time talking about wanting to look and feel younger.The researchers behind the study say it's an important look at both how we come to understand the passing of time, and how much significance our society gives to birthday party celebrations, especially when we're little."

Anyone who celebrates birthdays or who wonders about children's minds should be interested," Woolley told George Dvorsky at Gizmodo."Our culture is obsessed with the concept of the birthday party. Parents should enjoy their children and their children's questions, and discuss these issues with their children as they arise spontaneously."

The research has been published in Imagination, Cognition and Personality.

Read the full story here: Small children are really confused about the link between birthdays and ageing

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