Read the full story here: 4 Couples Who Are Best Friends Build Tiny Home ‘Bestie Row’
Imagine a windy but warm night at 10pm on 1 August 2017. Three women gather outside a blue beach hut at Hove Lagoon. Fishing boat lights twinkle on the horizon, and Carl and John, the two resident homeless chaps are already bedded down for the night on their beach shelter benches.
We drag a pile of firewood and kindling onto the pebbles, along with a large bunch of beautiful wild flowers Asha has picked from Whitehawk Camp Community Orchard. I grab sheepskin rugs, cushions and blankets from my hut. No one else is around, all is quiet.
What are we doing at this time on a wild Wednesday night, trying to start a bonfire?
Well, we are here to celebrate High Summer otherwise known as Llammas in the old English Anglo Saxon pagan calendar, and Lughnasa in Gaelic. Originally held on 1 August, the celebration marked the first harvest, and was an important seasonal feast alongside the pagan festivals of Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. Lughnasa is the mid-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, it celebrates Mother Earth and the abundance of nature; plus says farewell to the Oak King as his power slowly starts to subside to make way for the Holly King. Feasting with neighbours and honouring the still powerful forces of the summer sun’s light are important elements of this community-based sabbat. The festival’s energy is one of optimism, hope and well-being and brings out the best in people. This was particularly relevant, as we had just been feasting at my flat on Hove seafront whilst sorting out outfits to wear at the Brighton Pride Summer of Love Parade – the biggest and best of UK Pride events, celebrating sexual and gender diversity and freedom. So many people across the world remain repressed in their communities, and I feel so lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, which is abundant and relatively progressive and tolerant.
Before we got the fire going, Selina, who had just come down late from her London commute, started the proceedings by reading aloud to the sea, a poem she had brought by Mary Oliver. It summed up our mood –
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Then Selina said her farewells and retired for the night, as we realised it was going to be a while before our ‘spontaneous’ fire ceremony got going. Asha, who is an incredible Polish shamanic scholar and celebrant, directed me to build the fire in a sheltered spot on the beach and lay out the flowers in a circle around the pyre. She’s an expert fire starter, and despite the wind, we got it going with the help of some additional candle wax dripped onto paper.
Wearing yellow to celebrate the high summer sun, the two of us created our own ceremony, drumming, chanting, and praying to the spirits of the East, South, West and North, to Father Sky and Mother Earth. We shook our rattle, beat our drum and sang to the sea and the stars. We fed the fire with frankincense, tobacco, wine and fruit in offering to the harvest; then cast our prayers and wishes to the waves. We drew animal totem tarot cards and I pulled the turtle whose wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Slow moving on earth, yet also incredibly fast and agile in water, the turtle also teaches us to be grounded yet fluid. An art that I am forever practicing and developing since my natural temperament is to fly high without a solid anchor, but I am learning to cultivate and nurture my root system.
Then my friendly vixen made an appearance – ever so tame, she arrives like clockwork at my hut every evening I am there. She has almost braved the inside my hut on one occasion. So we said ‘hello’ and she lay down and watched us awhile. At midnight, Asha and I decided to read aloud some of favourite poems about the moon and summer (mobile internet has its uses), inspired by Selina’s earlier contribution. One of my favourites is by e.e.cummings, and felt so appropriate for the occasion:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Before we knew it, the fire had burned right down and it was 1am. Still warm and windy, with the moon shining amidst the clouds, we closed our High Summer circle, gathered our instruments and cards, and left with a song of joy in our hearts for the last days of summer.
Serena Constance is a dancer and wand-maker with the soul of a gypsy queen, who dresses like a peacock and has the spirit of a white tiger. By day, you can find her at the University of Sussex, weaving her networking magic for Sussex Alumni Relations.
Asha Sali is a shaman in training; a sweat lodge builder, a Biodanza facilitator and all round magical being.
Selina King is a moon sister, a fire starter and a great freelance researcher.
We all live in Brighton, UK.
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.
It was no surprise to me to see a picture of Alexandra Shulman wearing a bikini. I’ve been on holiday with her, (we’re friends, neighbours and I worked for her at Vogue magazine for four years) so I know she’s a two-piecer on the beach. Her philosophy is that bikinis look fabulous on a tiny fraction of the female populace – namely teens and models — but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from wearing one if they want to. Alex thinks they feel lovely, the very essence of summer, and as she told the Sunday Times, she planned to wear them until she died.
Why did that make page 3 of a huge-selling newspaper and the opinion columns of all the rest? Alex had Instagram-ed a selfie of her bikini clad body, in advance of a boat trip on her Greek island holiday. The world of social media, then the more traditional type, went crazy. It wasn’t just that she was the former editor of Vogue, letting her hair down in public —- but she was 59 and as “imperfect” as any woman is by that stage.
As it happened, while all this was going on, I was on holiday with my husband in Croatia. For the first time in 20 years we were vacationing together, no children, no friends, just us. It was great! Island hopping down the Dalmatian coast took us to a variety of beaches, short and rocky, long and sandy, all fringed with crystal clear blue water.
But this is not a travel post. What was I wearing? Mostly my cerulean blue Heidi Klein one-piece, an expensive, elegant piece of swimwear engineering I invested in a couple of years ago and that I still believe is a great swimsuit. It holds my belly in (a bit), pushes my boobs up (a lot) and makes me feel beach-ready or whatever that pernicious advertising campaign promised.
I had also packed a rather ancient bikini – or rather a top of one and bottom of another – in a what the hell sort of way. I wore that too, but mostly on the more remote stretches, where “it didn’t matter”. On the final day we were biding our time on the city beach strip at Split, before an evening flight back to London. Beside a cafe, stretched out on pricey hired loungers were the gamut of sunning sisters. Young, old, fat, thin, sexy, not so much —- and not one of them in a one-piece.
It was a couple of 70-somethings showering off the salt water next to me that really swung my opinion. Brown and wrinkly, with soft bellies and sagging breasts, they were clearly having a wonderful, cooling time at the seaside. A constricting one-piece wasn’t going to fool anyone about the effects of time on their bodies; why would they even want that? They stood straight, laughed and chattered, moved with ease and grace, not as if they had something to hide. They were simply themselves.
I run welldoing.org, a website that matches people with the therapists most suited to them. Women are the major users, and the majority are young. We often post pieces about body confidence —- or rather the lack of body confidence. Therapists and psychologists are noticing the increasingly impossible standards by which so many women are judging themselves.
We recently ran a post by Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University on exactly that subject: “The body shame so many women wrestle with isn’t about vanity. It’s important that we not brush it off or dismiss it. Body shame is linked with all sorts of nasty psychological outcomes, including eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. And while many seem to think that shaming women’s bodies is a way to encourage weight loss, the truth is that body shame makes it more difficult to take good care of your body.
“Body shame can trigger binge eating. It also makes you less likely to exercise and more reluctant to seek medical care when you need it. When you’re ashamed of your body, you’re less motivated to listen carefully to what your body needs and respond accordingly. Body shame can also weaken valuable social connections if it prompts you to avoid engaging with others.
How did we get to a place where so many women are feeling so much body shame?”
That is a longer, much more complex question. But the great thing about being 61 —- an advantage of my own age — is that I may finally be breaking free of it. Being older your body adjusts to the reduction of oestrogen. We all know it means our skin is drier, our sleep may be interrupted, and so on, but it also changes your emotional response. You care less about what other people think of you. Friends and family will usually still make the cut, but a crowd of people on a beach in a strange place? Why would that matter. You feel good in what you’re wearing, and that’s all that really matters to you. Now is your time to revel it!
Some things you just take for granted. Me being able to sing was one. When I was young I was one of those kids that used to get up and sing in front of my parents friends to entertain them. When I was in High School I was chosen to be part of an exclusive group of singers to perform madrigals. For a couple of years a dozen of us would go ‘on tour’ to Spain or Germany to perform in secondary schools in front of kids our own age. I loved singing those medieval songs almost as much as the mischief I made on those school trips. I remember more than one occasion, stripping off my horrible costume, a tartan floor length A-line skirt and matching waistcoat straight after a concert, and climbing out the hostel window with my friend Laurie so we could go in search of the young men who had come to see us perform.
At University I was rejected from singing with the school’s jazz band because I wasn’t doing a music degree and that was the criteria for anyone who wanted to sing with the group. And in my twenties I did lots of session singing, eventually rejoining Laurie and her sister to perform complicated three part harmonies that Laurie had devised as the band ‘The Dirty Blondes.’ We had a blast, singing at various pubs and clubs where I’m sure nobody really knew what to make of three twenty-something young women singing Andrew Sisters and Rogers & Hammerstein tunes when punk was all the rage.
By my late twenties I’d moved on, teaming up with a pianist where we would perform jazz standards for hours in tiny wine bars across the city. Singing and music was in my blood. My mother had sung on the radio as a child. My uncle played drums for Janis Joplin (whom I met when I was 6) and a distant cousin was Stan Getz.
In 1988 I met my husband who was not musical but was a total music geek and photojournalist. Although he was obsessed with music, he could never understand why I would want to sing in some half empty wine bar all evening for the price of a decent steak. So I stopped singing except for humming along to tunes on the radio or a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald record. I gave birth to a couple of kids, my youngest of whom also inherited the family’s musical gene, and put my own singing years behind me.
It took a trip to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, and a good ten years into my marriage, to re-awaken my voice. I’d gone there with a man with whom I’d been having a long distance affair. He was a born and bred New Yorker and, being August, he suggested we spend a week there to get away from the heat of the city. The place was populated almost exclusively with gay men, so much so that we quickly got a reputation as the only straight people on the Island. It was Friday night when we popped into a piano bar. One after another, guys got up to perform show tunes or jazz standards. They were mostly buff, young men who were taking a break from a Broadway show and so the bar had been set pretty high for me. I hadn’t sung for over a decade but I’d told my lover enough that he knew that with enough provocation, I’d want to have a go.
I’ll never forget that night, I went up to the pianist and said, “My Funny Valentine. Key of G.” He started playing and all those years of being silent just fell away. Suddenly the room grew quiet. When I’d finished, I went to sit down and lots of guys came up to me and asked me where I performed in the city so they could hear me sing again. “I don’t perform,” I said. “I haven’t sung for a decade.” I started to cry. I suppose I felt cheated, that I’d stopped doing something I loved so much, just because my husband thought it was a bit silly. Although I still didn’t return to singing despite feeling validated that evening.
Then the menopause arrived, and along with hot flushes and sleepless nights, I lost my singing voice. When I tried to sing to songs on the radio, all that came out was a strange and unfamiliar croaky sound. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and I couldn’t find my way around a tune. I grieved the loss of my voice much more than my sex drive or my waistline. Singing was just so much a part of me, I just never thought there would be a time when it was something I could no longer do. I stopped singing along to the radio because it was just too painful and derived pleasure listening on the sly to my youngest son and his beautiful, soulful voice as he sang along to R&B songs in his bedroom.
Over the last year I decided to try something new, I dropped down an octave, sounding more like Barry White than Barbara Streisand. I wasn’t ready to let go of the singer in me and discovered I could still carry a tune despite not being able to hit the high notes,
Recently my friend invited me to a burlesque karaoke night. I didn’t know what to expect but when they passed the book of songs around, I worked out that it wasn’t the burlesque performers who would be singing along to the backing track, it was the audience. After a drink, I decided to have a go. I picked my signature tune and one that I’d sung with the Dirty Blondes thirty years earlier – Fever. I dropped the song by an octave and, recalling that evening in the piano bar in Cherry Grove; I could feel the room go quiet. After I’d finished, a few people came up and told me how good I sounded. At the end of the night, I got back on stage (at the audience’s request) and sang another song. I felt transported back in time, only this time with my new, different voice.
That’s the thing about getting older. It’s about acceptance and celebrating that transition. I won’t lie. It’s been hard getting used to not being able be sing like I used to, but hey – I can still make a room go quiet. And I have a new voice. That is something to relish.
After a brush with death in 1995, Robert McCrum had settled back into life as a literary journalist. Then, aged 60, came a fall that would force him to contend with mortality once more…
Read the full story here: ‘Words are the best weapons with which to come to terms with ageing’
‘Go you, sweep out the dwelling room of your heart; prepare it to be the home of the Beloved; when you go out He will come in. Within you, when you are free from self, He will show His Beauty.’ Sufi
I notice I have never been good at bowing. It usually takes a large piece of wood – or at least the emotional equivalent – to get me on my knees.
Even then I tend to get up too quickly, my ego returning, stronger than ever, like some tumour determined to spread to another, as yet unaffected corner of my being.
True surrender only seems to happen when we run out of road, our own defences, plans and trickery finally exhausted, defeated by a power greater than ourselves.
Self-preservation can do it. I discovered that when, aged 25 and a determined atheist, I found myself begging God to save me from the painful consequences of my drinking.
I was on my knees, and I should have stayed there.
But I didn’t. I got up and although I gave up drinking, my mind was most definitely going to stay king if not emperor of other important areas, not least sex and relationships.
Although in truth, it was anything related to pleasure. Fear will only humble a man for so long. After all, I was only 25 and I needed to swagger a while longer.
Luckily, however, somewhere in the depths of me lurked a mystic who secretly longed for love and with it the sense of wholeness and completion that is our birthright.
The human task is to become divinised, to remember who we are beyond name and form. To upgrade has become urgent. Without it, we will almost certainly destroy ourselves.
The mirrors are now flashing endless reflections: Trump, Grenfell Tower, Isis. The world is dying and so our sacred task, what Rumi called the one thing, is pressing.
And the work is personal and calls us to stop looking in the world and turn within. This world, for all its glamour and show, is a realm of reflected light.
The light of pure consciousness is within the heart. The Sufis understood it and yet it is an understanding that lies beyond the mind:
‘The heavens cannot contain me, or the void, or winged exalted intelligences and souls: Yet I am contained as a guest in the heart of the true believer.’
This is the divine secret. The whole universe lives within the human heart. Our destiny is to realise it, to discover powers we cannot even begin to imagine.
But we only receive the powers of mastery when we no longer want the world. We only get them when we have been purified enough in the divine flame, passed through rings of fire and proven that all we want is love.
To be the lover, the Beloved, and finally Love itself.
How few of us are ready to give up all our secret longings, to become empty enough to receive the jewel the divine has for us. There is always something else to play with so, like me, we miss the opportunity to stay down, be humbled enough for grace to enter.
And we have no idea how tragic it is.
But then life presents us with another opportunity, if we are lucky. (I have seen many people who thought they could indulge their poison one more time leave this planet.)
The mystic Andrew Harvey describes wonderfully what he calls our addiction to stage two culture, where the rewards of the prevailing culture keep us smug and satisfied.
He goes on to recommend a nervous breakdown sometime in your 20s to catapult you out of it. As Rumi says, leave safety for in truth it is final danger. Complacency kills.
The difficulty is most of us do not want the work of purification, what the Sufis called polishing the mirror, so the divine sun can be reflected in it.
Yet that work is inevitable. We all have to do it and we have to do it willingly. If not in this life, then another.
But as I know from my own life and in working with clients, resistance is often dogged. Submission and obedience to a will other than our own takes collapse or the threat of the loss of something we are not prepared to live without.
And it is the smartest people, the intellectuals, those with a head filled with knowledge, who find humility so hard. But humility and its bedfellow gratitude, are qualities the ego-driven westerner need to assimilate.
Structures by their very nature carry a weight of unconsciousness that is often impenetrable and more so when combined with intellect.
The mind sits on the throne of consciousness and hoodwinks mainstream culture into accepting its dominance, despising the spiritual.
I’m also not in the business of martyring myself before the mob so I can only say I am a penitent man, after recent events.
I am in touch with my shadow, that which remains in need of integration. It does not make me bad, although others might judge me as such.
But it does mean there is more work to do on a road less travelled. (I will save my confession for a more private vessel.)
You can stay entranced by the rewards of stage two culture if you like.
I will do the work of wholeness, As Rumi put it:
‘Heart be brave, if you cannot bear grief, go. Love’s glory is not a small thing. Come in if you are fearless. Shudder and this is not your house.’
Flamboyance has always attracted me and as I get older, the attraction gets stronger. The etymology goes back to the Old French ‘flambe’ – a flame. Exactly. There’s a burning about Flamboyance that is almost primal for me. I want to burn in exactly that way. There’s a romance to it too.
The joy of flamboyance as we get older is that it is truly ageless and keeps us ageless.
Of course for me, the invitation to be flamboyant is about NOT following fashion but striking a pose apart. A flourish here, a bright colour there, flowers in my hair, hand-made head dresses, feathers and more feathers, flounces on a flamenco dress specially made by a seamstress – over the years, I have devoted time to flamboyance.
And for me, there is a political aspect to it, I do not want to subscribe to the commercialism of the fashion, the market-driven wants of labels and seasonal trends. Many of my more outré clothes have been in my wardrobe for years and I still wear them.
Last Saturday, on the Advantages of Age OUTAGEous Stylista bus tour of London, I was sporting the green organza dress that I had made for my 50th birthday. It feels special to be still enjoying it at 64.
It was such a delight to create – with Suzanne Noble – this bus tour where we invited you, all the ‘flamboyants’ out there, to join us on this Flamboyant Forever adventure. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I arrived at Sloane Sq to find a gathering of extravagantly bedecked human birds ready to add sparkle to a rainy afternoon.
My eyes were in perpetual wander and wonder. Simultaneously. There was a woman in the brightest of pinks with a matching umbrella. There was a couple – he was wearing a small African hat and striped light pink jacket, she was wearing a marvel of a hat with a maroon jacket. They were quintessentially Advanced Style. And then, there were Serena Constance’s blue sequin hot pants. Envy. Oh and Oh. There was Raga Woods with what looked like a multi-coloured Nepalese headdress but I’m sure was hand-made, she had even brought her own shamanic rather large wooden totem along.
There were wild colours and a complete lack of bland. Nothing tame in sight. Suzanne – in flowing vintage with pink bows and a matching umbrella doing her Southern Belle look – and I were besides ourselves with excitement at the way people had tuned in and so turned on to the wilder shores of eccentricity.
Not to mention Johnny Blue Eyes aka Betsy who was rocking the highest of heels, the red demon cum Leigh Bowery neon face adornments and his customary OUTRAGEousness in excelsis. Unstoppable. Unrestrainable. Shouts of “Woo” and “Fuck Fashion” from the top of the open deck bus.
As we filled the bus so divinely – there were 75 of us between 45 and 80, and it turns out there is a Meet Up called Colour Walk which encourages people to dress up and parade, so some of their members had found us – it became obvious that Flamboyance is so much more than a stylistic flourish, that it is also a way in to connection, to finding like-minds – to COMMUNITY. I sensed the hunger for this sort of community. Basically a desire to find other people who are getting older with attitude.
It was no coincidence that we strutted our stuff outside Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End.
On the bus, the conversations simply cascaded forth – about flamboyant funerals, about the Hot Blushes (Hot Gossip now), about the Chelsea Arts Club parade, about what freedom means as you get older, about each other’s outfits, about how they’d found this event. People loved getting to know each other.
It rained, we fled downstairs, it became dry again, we shouted from the top deck particularly as we went through Knightbridge. People smiled, waved, workmen honked. We got out and danced at Speaker’s Corner. Johnny writhed. There was laughter and more laughter.
We were a carnival of funk and OUTAGEousness.
Kate Monro, on Instagram for AoA, put it succinctly: “It’s as if the narrative around middle/old age got stuck, quite literally in the middle ages. No one really relates to it and you’re helping re-set the groove!
I loved the whole energy of the day and the sense of freedom in redefining what it means to be older. So many interesting conversations.”
Many thanks to Arts Council England for their support in making this event happen.
I could feel my heart beginning to swell as I approached the brow of the hill, and I freewheeled down, until there she was before me – my beloved river: My place of sanctuary and delight. At that moment, my tears started falling.
I had discovered her by accident, one beautiful summer’s day, when friends invited me to a small music festival along her banks. Her dancing waters, wild hedgerows, swooping birds and bobbing barges all framed by an open sky, cast a spell over me. A hidden jewel in a grubby city. It was love at first sight. I walked along in wonder – my breath and then my feet gradually slowing down – as if merging into flow with her own gentle rhythm, and a feeling of coming home enveloped me.
Within days, I was back again, this time cycling for miles and miles along her towpath, until I had left the noise and chaos of London far behind me.
And so my love affair began. Each day, upon waking, my eyes would turn to examine the light peeping around my blackout blind, and if it was the right kind of brightness – I came to know the quality of light intimately – I would be straight out of bed, on my bike and wending my way towards my lovely Lea.
I would come to know every curve of her sinuous length, her unique sounds, her subtle and intoxicating scent, her changing beauty throughout the seasons.
In the beginning, I would occasionally invite another to join me, to delight in sharing this newly discovered beauty with them, but I soon realised that most people did not see what I saw. They tended to bring the city with them, so after a few failed attempts, I kept her to myself.
It became a reclusive period for me. I encountered few people on these journeys, for which I was grateful, as my tears could then surface unimpeded by self-consciousness. I must have been a strange sight in those days, this weeping woman of the waters.
I was in a period of intense overwhelm. The advent of menopause had brought with it a deluge of tears, which begged for release, and over time, these journeys morphed into grief rituals that felt both cleansing and healing as the river received my tears again and again.
I would cycle for hours on end, my feet barely touching the ground, often until darkness fell, when I would reluctantly go home in a state close to euphoria. A friend who was into martial arts told me the euphoria was due to all the chi I had taken in.
My acupuncturist told me that menopause is a time of too much fire energy (yang) and that I was naturally seeking out its opposite through the element of water (yin), which is receptive and balances the fire so it doesn’t consume us. This all made sense, but I chose not to think too much about the whys and wherefores then.
All I knew was I never wanted to return to my house at the end of the day. Being under a roof felt very oppressive at that point, like a heavy lid that could not contain the overwhelm inside me. I have always wanted to live in a place with a roof garden, and on the days I could not get to my beloved river, I would sit at my upstairs window for hours, watching the changing colour and light of the evening sky above the rooftops opposite, like a series of Rothko paintings, until the last band of light surrendered to night. I at least had this.
But the river was where it was at. Something deep within me craved to be in continual flow and the river echoed this back to me. My tears were part of this flow and so I wept as I cycled.
There was something about the rhythm of cycling, the continuous turning of the wheels, no beginning and no ending, that was very much in alignment with the flow of the river itself, and also in alignment with some deep need within myself, too. I often heard myself softly whispering: “Going… going … going.”
I was learning to open to the river within me, allowing my feelings to flow unhindered by thought. There was a sense of comfort in this inner place of aching sadness, this place of acknowledgement, this place of truth.
Emotional honesty was everything, and I made a conscious decision early on, to not question these tears, but to simply allow them to flow. Swedenborg says that rivers are the spiritual representation of Truth, and in Russian the word for water means ‘liberator’; both felt true for me. It was definitely a time of truth and letting go.
So I never asked myself why I was weeping. Thoughts were like red lights that would stop the natural and spontaneous flow of feeling so I learnt how to jump the lights. These journeys became meditations.
I have always had a huge propensity for tears. According to my mother, I cried non-stop as a baby and the few photographs of me from that period show a glum-looking child wearing a permanent frown. Like so many of the Dr. Spock generation, I never had a place where my tears were fully received, not as child, nor later as an adult.
My mother was unhappy, tired, depressed and angry for much of the time, when I was growing up, and there wasn’t space for extra tears in our house. The allocation had been used up and, as a child, I knew better than to trigger more in her.
“You are a survivor,” my mother would say emphatically throughout my life. ‘I don’t worry about you.”
So I cried alone in a tiny closet in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, and even now, I can recall the comforting embrace of its walls as I crouched in the dark and wept and raged.
The life partners I chose were all walking wounded themselves, revealing my tendency to seek out hearts that had been closed by pain and fear. I fell into the role of rescuer perfectly.
At the river, all the losses of a lifetime seemed to be presenting themselves for feeling and healing.
So I cycled, feeling deep into this well of sorrow, the most tender of spots. I was a human version of the weeping willow, finding sustenance at the water’s edge.
The river became a mirror for my soul, a loving embrace in times of emotional emergency, my place of sanctuary – asking no more from me than that I come unarmed and unquestioning, to seek solace in her watery gaze.
I came to feel that deep connection with nature that leads us to connection with our own nature. Mother Nature, my own nature, my relationship to my own mother, then a learning to be my own mother through this watery journey of aloneness and allowing my own tears to be felt and released.
I began to wonder whether the extreme fear of death that plagued me as a child, stemmed not simply from a fear of annihilation, but also from fear of aloneness, of abandonment, of being forgotten. Nature herself was helping me to make friends with this sense of aloneness
“All your feelings are welcome here,” she whispered gently to me. I was not alone after all.
I became increasingly aware of a universal sadness that permeates all of life, that is part and parcel of the human condition, and there was a growing awareness of the unexpressed tears of others – all those ‘others’ who, just like me, were also feeling overwhelmed, scared and vulnerable, and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ arose, which provided great solace. To be alone did not mean to be lonely.
Away from the river, I began volunteering in a sanctuary for suicidal people. The river had been teaching me how to be quiet and to really hear my own cry, and so I started to learn how to be with the river in others. The river was everywhere. In all of us.
During this time, I was listening to a lot of melancholy music and sacred chants on my little iPod shuffle which went everywhere with me, and sometimes I sang or chanted quietly as I cycled. Native American and devotional chants, mainly.
I began singing simple chants to the cows I passed in the fields, and when I discovered a dairy farm close to the river, I began singing to the newly-born calves which were separated into tiny pens. My heart hurt for these animals, these mothers and babies torn apart. I felt I was singing to their sadness, saying: “I understand and I am sorry”. They would gather in front of me and respond with their mournful eyes. We were in it together.
Later on, when I discovered stables along the route, I would stand with the horses and hum gently to them. In those moments, I was simply resting in the collective sadness of this broken world.
It probably sounds as if those times were just about tears of sadness, but many of my tears, especially later on, were tears of joy at all the beauty I discovered around me. So much beauty everywhere! Rivers full of blue sky one moment, turning into molten streams of golden green the next. Joy and sadness were becoming close friends.
I found a hill where I would often stop and sky-gaze. Nobody could see me there so I felt very free, and I would spend hours lying in the soft grass, watching the clouds drifting through the blue, listening to the sound of the bees being seduced by the blossoms in the hedgerow. Life in all its fullness. I felt such joy in those moments, and then I cried from the sheer beauty of it all, as I realised there is a bittersweet joy that can only be experienced through embracing impermanence, and I found it here, in this sublime display of transient beauty.
As I look back now, some eight years later, I see clearly that a transformation was taking place, almost a rebirth. A new path was forming. My old life as creator of beautiful ‘things’ no longer attracted me in the same way, and my creativity was taking on a more inner form. I was moving away from ‘things’, and towards ‘feelings’.
My lifelong enquiry around death and dying was growing. I began volunteering with the terminally ill and I discovered Death Cafes. When I first heard about the new role ‘death doula’ which involved accompanying the dying, I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of this new death movement. I am now a trained ‘end of life doula’ who hosts a Death Cafe. I have left my old life behind, like a worn out skin.
I can still be found at the river most weeks, but no longer every other day. Over these years, my glorious obsession has expanded to embrace lakes, and I now find myself being increasingly drawn to the wide open spaces of estuaries, places it is impossible to see where the land ends and the sea and sky begin. No beginning and no end. Everything connected in a shimmering mirage of oneness. Life merging back into itself, boundless and ever changing, reaching into this great mystery we call life.