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Tips on Thrifty Living


6 Minute Read

I wish there were free public classes in household economising. My upbringing in remote North West England taught me a great deal about thrifty living. Our only heating was solid fuel, wood from the land, and anthracite delivered periodically by a muscular man in a leather tunic, face black with coal dust, who’d dump a small mountain of the stuff in one of the byres.

On very cold nights, I loved it when the little open fireplace in my bedroom was lit, feeling cosy and entranced by the flickering light from the flames making shadow figures on the walls. For 25 years, and all my childhood, my mother ran a vegetarian guest house – a rarity during the rationing years of the 40s and 50s – and I have no idea how she coped. But she did. We had no fridge or freezer, just a solid stone extension with big stone slabs as a larder, and in the corner was a huge slipware jar filled with fresh eggs preserved in isinglass.

It was a big, draughty, damp and cold stone house. We’d put our clothes for next day under the top cover on our beds, so they would not be frozen stiff in the morning. We had draught excluders for the doors, and windows. Heavy curtains make a huge difference in cold weather even in my double-glazed, well-insulated little London terrace house. Charity shops often have large, proper, lined curtains, also more and more quality clothing as people are simplifying and decluttering. A most excellent gift my daughter made me is a draught excluder stuffed with plastic bags, and its weight holds it tight against the door so no gale around the ankles.

Maybe instead of everyone in their own rooms trying to keep warm and staring at their screens, we’ll revive the tradition of family gathering around the “fire,” a single source of heat, for the evenings, for homework, for playing games, story-telling, for conversation and meal times. Nobody needs a heated bedroom if they have a cosy bed with a duvet and a wool blanket under the bottom sheet and on top of the duvet. I still have some of those lovely old wool blankets with satin ribbon bindings, and you can still find them in charity shops, along with sleeping bags and sometimes eiderdowns.

Polyester duvets keep nobody warm. And of course the best is to have someone you love to cuddle. I read that Chinese mandarins used to have lapdogs tucked in their wide sleeves to keep them warm in public. Some people love to have their dogs or cats on the bed. Things to reintroduce from those cold old days: Bedsocks! Priceless. A warm scarf round the neck and in extreme cold, a woolly hat or head covering. In other words a nightcap. Whisky might warm you up fast, but it won’t last long.

Proper wool clothing is essential. I despair when I see people wearing acrylic or polyester clothes and plastic shoes, thinking they will be warm. People in care homes are almost always dressed in man-made fibres – the rationale being ‘easycare’ – no wonder hypothermia is on the rise. Hand washing woollies and spinning most of the water out before hanging out is the fastest way to keep them looking good, or skip the spin and roll tightly in a towel to dry before hanging or pressing to keep the shape.

Thick socks – preferably wool – and leather shoes with good thick soles, ankle boots, and cosy house shoes help keep your lower limbs limber and active.  A hat, gloves and scarf are essentials for going out. Layers are really a great idea with clothing, starting with a proper vest. Two thin jumpers, or a shirt and a cardie, under your coat will be much warmer than one of those trendy chunky-knits. Choose them longer to cover your lower body. I recently discovered the wonderful cosiness and comfort of a tradition – adopted by Ghengis Khan, by warriors, and by many tribespeople and including national costume – of a broad sash or scarf wrapped around the body from waist to pelvis. I now do it every day in winter. It’s pretty stylish too!

Food

With a bit of planning, it’s possible to cook a decent meal with less than 30 min of oven or stove top fuel. For several years I’ve made a practice of cooking one-pan meals…a proper steamer is an essential bit of kitchen kit and one I use most often. An example… rice, potatoes or pasta boiling in the pan, adding shredded cabbage to the steamer, and a couple of eggs in their shells, or veggie sausages, for protein, to steam along with the cabbage.

I often add a handful of nuts and raisins to the rice, and capers after cooking. I’ll sauté some root veg with onions in oil and water and pop them in the oven with something protein like nut burgers, and if I’m baking, that can go in too. I usually make enough for three days, and re-purpose leftovers into soup. Or make potato cakes and freeze them, assuming the freezer is still working. Finely grated veg like carrot, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, marinaded in a dressing, with caraway, lemon, raisins, seeds and capers don’t even need cooking. A pan of rice, pasta, grains or beans can lend itself to three days of different meals. Soaking oats, beans, and grains overnight reduces the cooking time. Using a flask for the kettle hot water is a very sensible thing to do, even if it seems minimal, over time it will make a significant saving. And I am going to investigate creating and using a Haybox. If you’re a carnivore, all the above is easily adapted for meat dishes.

At the first warnings about food shortages post-Brexit came through, I bought a dehydrator, and plan to use it 24/7, for fresh veg and fruit while the summer and autumn abundance is still with us. I rarely use tinned foods, and if I make a dish in the oven, I’ll make sure to cook two or three more dishes at the same time. I make a lot of preserves too and started making pickles as well. I have a store cupboard with a fair amount of dry goods.

Oh and some years ago,, I got familiar with moving around my house (three floors) with my eyes shut. (Can’t remember if I thought I’d go blind, or if there would be a power cut.) So I could walk across the room blindfold, and with confidence put my hand straight on the switch of my bedside light, go up and down stairs with confidence, and got familiar with other tasks too, such as making a cup of tea without spilling or burning myself, finding things in the dark, and having candles, matches, torches with batteries in handy places. Showering or bathing in the dark is a fun experience, worth a try before you might have to.

I’ve got to replace my fridge and cooker this autumn as they have pretty much fallen apart, and I’ll choose highly economical ones, for the sake of the environment as much as for my own purse.

An Ounce of Prevention


1 Minute Read

We have a saying here in England, ‘An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.’

With this in mind, I felt at my age, it was time to get to my doctor’s and have a prostate exam.

I had been putting this off for ages and ignoring constant advice from my significant other.

‘Go get it checked…it’s important that you do. You are at that age.’

I have always been at ‘that age’.

I have also been that person who, at any age, does not relish a stranger’s finger or two up my back passage…even professionally.

Still, needs must.

Therefore, with my early Monday morning appointment made, I brace myself for what is to come.

I decide that a shower is in order along with scented shower gel. On reflection I think why, after all it’s not a date…just a date with the fickle finger of fate.

I wear something casual and off I trot into the known unknown.

My name comes up on the screen at the surgery and in I go. The GP is actually a nice guy and a warm friendly smile greets me.

‘So what can I do for you.’ he asks… I tell him that I am getting up two to three times a night to pee and feel that I should have a prostate exam to settle my mind. He agrees and starts to make a few notes… I get up and start to undress explaining that I have been doing stretches so I can comfortably touch my toes and make life easier for him. Why him, it’s me that is going to be impaled on the fingers of his right hand.

He looks up from his screen in disbelief. ‘What are you doing he asks?’

‘I am getting ready for my close-up.’ I reply.

‘Please get dressed,’ he says.

‘But, aren’t you going to examine me?’

He looks puzzled…I look puzzled.

‘No, I am going to send you for blood tests…this is what we do now.’

I stand staring at him. ‘But I showered, put on clean underwear.  I even shaved, (why the hell did I say that)’ I protest.

He explains that they don’t do it that way anymore…

I had psyched my self up for what was going to be a big deal for me…and now feel my ‘date’ stood me up.

I had to take something from this.

I fire one more shot. ‘Can we at least go for a drink,’ I ask.

He ignores my question and hands me the blood test request to take to the hospital. He smiles warmly and tells me he does not drink.

I feel I have just found a pay packet with cash in but am upset by the amount of tax that was paid.

Ah well.

Ten days later, I get the thumbs up but that’s another story!!!

Backstroke


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Was Like a Man Falling off a Ferry – I had MS


8 Minute Read

Sometimes I think Job has nothing on me. All he had to contend with was a questioning of his faith in god in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. I have been faced with much more existential dilemmas than that.

I took early retirement about seven years ago, at the age of 55, due to various ailments that I couldn’t put my finger on. Ironically, it was my finger that first clued me into what was wrong. Just the very tip of my right index finger was sore and plagued by a painful numbness, if that doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction. I was beginning to find it difficult to type and my work as a lecturer and researcher was being affected as a result. The pain gradually extended further down my finger and then into my other hand followed by my toes and my feet and it was becoming clear that something was seriously amiss.

The next thing was the tests and the MRI scans, until eventually the GP sat me down and handed me the letter he had received from the hospital and said ‘maybe you had better read this.’ And there it was: a diagnosis of demyelination (myelin is the fatty covering on your nerves) and the strong possibility that it was Multiple Sclerosis. Bit of a hammer blow. I struggled on at work, of course, that’s what we are meant to do, isn’t it? We pretend that everything will be alright. But of course it wasn’t.

I found it more and more difficult to get upstairs and the fatigue was so bad that I made a little bed under my desk. Often students would knock and find me rubbing my eyes and coming back to life to answer their questions about essays and coursework. Within a few months the brilliant HR department at Sheffield was offering me early retirement on a full pension and even though I still did not feel as though I was disabled, I took it. As with all retirement, it is necessary to take a good run up at it and think your way into a new purpose in life. But rather than having several years to get used to the idea, I was pitched into it like a man falling off a ferry.

I had joined the army at 16 with no school qualifications, had left at 21 and become a lorry driver, before studying German as a mature student. If the army gave me nothing else then the ability to speak German and drive lorries turned out to be worth their weight in Bitcoin. After that I got a job as a lecturer in post-45 German history and it was all downhill from there. In that sense my entire adult life was consumed with either physical or intellectual labour and it has proven really difficult to break that habit.

I have largely got there now – as anyone who knows me will be able to tell you – but still I feel as though I should be writing books, if not rushing up and down the highways of Britain delivering concrete or tarmac. The initial anxiety dreams of having lost some important piece of military kit or misplacing my lorry have largely faded now and I sleep a largely untroubled sleep. My ex-wife and I used to talk about how we were both so brilliant that somebody should pay us just to be ourselves. Well, now they are. It’s called a pension. The problem is that I am not myself anymore.

It’s amazing how quickly I dropped any pretence at academic work and when I now read the research I did, I feel as though it was a different person writing it. That’s because it was, and I don’t really understand most of what I wrote or why I wrote it. Not because of any cognitive decline on my part but simply because I was so much older then and I’m younger than that now.

Since that first MS diagnosis, there have been plenty of others as well, so that it becomes difficult to disentangle all the symptoms. I have also had sepsis in my arm from a cat bite, which needed quite a nasty operation (I have pictures if you need proof). When they investigated why I was getting such serious infections they found that my blood was basically empty. It had hardly any of the things in it that it needs to do its job. Pancytopenic, they called it. When they investigated the reasons for that they found in turn that I had a very rare form of leukaemia; hairy cell leukaemia. No, I hadn’t heard of it either.

The doctor said to me ‘Oh well if you are going to have cancer then this is the type that you want. It’s not even proper leukaemia.’ I think that was meant to be reassuring. It kind of was, in a way. Anyway, a series of injections and infusions (the first of which sent me into a spiral of reaction in which I thought I was definitely goner) and a couple of weeks lying down and all was fixed. Full remission. If it comes back in another 15 years – which is possible – they will simply give me the injections and infusions again. Mind you, by then they will have probably invented something else and all will be well. I’m hoping that by then they will have also found a cure for MS.

Because that’s just what one does, isn’t it? It’s the principle of hope. One hangs on for dear life, squeezing every drop you can out of it, trying to have experiences and to fill up the empty hours you have suddenly been gifted. The empty hours are there because of illnesses. But had I not had these things and had I struggled on for a few more years until I was 67 (another 5 years of work – inconceivable – and I do sometimes wake in a cold sweat wondering whether they will make me go back to work if a cure for MS is found) then I would still be doing better than my father, (who died at 62 – the same age as me now – which seems to have some deep significance that I can’t quite explain) or my uncle – his brother – who also died in his 60s. My younger cousin has just died of the dreaded c-word as well and I have reached that age we are all familiar with when all around me people are beginning to drop off the perch. Although at the same time, I feel freer and more in control now than I ever have in my life and I have also become Zen-like in my appreciation of what is around me – to the extent that I can do nothing all day and think it good – there is still a big hole where the whole should be.

I taught German philosophy as well as history at university and I spend a lot of time – probably far too much time – looking out of the window and thinking about Heidegger and Hegel and Being and Nothingness. Although that is all great fun, and something to bore my grandchildren with, it doesn’t butter many parsnips. But life is funny like that. Camus recognised the absurd nature of our existence and the randomness of the things that befall us and I find it difficult to think of it in terms other than that. I even invented a term for it during some extended discussions at a particularly drunken conference; namely, the metaphysics of contingency.

In other words, stuff happens and then we make grand stories up about why it had to happen, how it is all part of some great plan for us both as individuals and as a species. But there is no plan, of course. Heidegger adapted Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) into sum moribundus (I die therefore I am) to explain our purpose and, as the old army song has it, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and as retirement shows us, our existence is completely pointless. It’s what I call an unnecessary necessity.

Everything that has happened to me over these years has been necessary to make the person that I am now, but my existence was not necessary per se. If I had not been born the world would have carried on – indeed, my poor, mismatched shotgun parents would have gone their separate ways as they should have done – and the universe would have carried on expanding without even a blink of the eye.

I don’t know what the advantages of age actually are other than a recognition that nothing really matters and that it becomes much easier to accept the banality of life than when one was young and everything mattered so very much. ‘Life is what it is’, as they say today, but you only pass this way once so it is important to make the most of it etc.

The worst thing would be to lie on your deathbed feeling and knowing that it was all for nothing. Despite all the things that have befallen me I am neither desperate or unhappy. Sometimes life feels like the trials of Job crossed with the labours of Sisyphus and Hercules thrown in for good measure. But it has been a hell of a ride  and it’s not over yet.

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


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating Loss Around My Health


1 Minute Read

I’ve been mulling over how to tackle this piece for some time now. Procrastination has been easy and finding excuses not to start writing has afforded me some distance from the intensity of feelings that I was experiencing when the notion of writing first appeared in my thoughts.

And then, one evening, at a small gathering of friends over supper, I was entertained/enthralled/appalled (in equal measure) to hear the views espoused by one of the guests (a new acquaintance) who talked at length and with great enthusiasm, about his very real intention to have his head cryogenically preserved immediately after his death, to upload the contents of his brain to some future supercomputer or AI system.

When I asked him ‘why?’ he couldn’t believe that everyone wouldn’t want to live forever in this way – if they could. (This currently costs £100K, so not exactly accessible to all!) He was also hugely animated and excited at the prospect of advances in medicine that would prevent ageing, rid the world of chronic disease and prolong the human lifespan by many decades.

I found myself wanting to mention minor details like the climate change emergency and looming nuclear war but that felt a bit churlish so I just listened. in that space, I found myself wondering why we humans can’t seem to help ourselves becoming attached to just about anything and everything. The idea of loss, leaving, giving something up or surrendering is often an anathema to us and yet, in so many philosophies and faith traditions, the ability to do just that, let go and simply be, is the key to bliss, to heaven on earth, to enlightenment.

My personal journey with loss is a constantly evolving one and I have come to regard loss as part of the ebb and flow of life; a process that bestows as much as it takes. This insight doesn’t make it any less painful but somehow easier to live with. I have learned that there can be layers of loss – from the catastrophic and life-changing, through the intensely personal landscape of relationships and love, to the shared sense of loss of control that (for me) came with the global pandemic.

My own experience of life-changing loss came with me being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease at 51 after months of increasingly failing health. I was shocked at how quickly my body could go from being strong and resilient (able to run marathons, take on endurance races, scuba dive, look after a family and hold down a high octane career) to hardly being able to get out of bed each day and struggling to walk down the road. There was a strong sense of relief when the diagnosis (vasculitis) was eventually made and I finally had a recognised label rather than a troublesome set of symptoms. Surprisingly (to me), being acutely ill was the easy part. I have a background in nursing and I know how the system works, what good medical care is capable of achieving and that advances in science usually mean that what is tricky to treat now may well be mainstream within a decade.

And so it was. I adopted a project management approach to making myself as well as I could be whilst getting to grips with living with a long-term condition. I negotiated a change of work, moving into a part-time role facilitating the development of an education strategy and coaching the teams that would deliver it – pretty much all of it doable from my bedroom office via WebEx (this was pre-pandemic, pre-zoom).

I spent the next ten years surfing the waves of being well and on top of things, dealing with the impact the condition was having on myself and my family and friends (they too had to learn the new normal, they had lost the old Nadia, the woman with never-ending energy and they had to get to know the new, slower, tamed version) and coping with bouts of severe relapse caused by minor infections.

I was hospitalised with sepsis three times and each time I focused on what had worked before: rest, diet, building mental resilience, some work, some exercise and being with my family. After the third episode of sepsis (I nearly died this time) I decided to take the early retirement option that came with my NHS pension and I started to do some occasional teaching with my local university on the nursing degree programme.

I used myself as a living case study to illustrate the journey of someone with a long-term condition. I hadn’t anticipated how much I would learn from this experience and, at the same time, how painful it would be to regularly revisit my recent past and relive the feelings of loss that accompanied the changes in my life. I often found that I came away from one of my lectures exhausted, pulse racing, heart-thumping, needing to find a quiet place to decompress and let the sense of panic inside me recede enough for me to be able to drive home. I suspected that I may have PTSD and I decided to stop working altogether. It was such a huge relief.

When the pandemic hit, I had already spent several months in wind-down mode – dog walking, baking, gardening and visiting my family and grandson as often as possible. I loved this new way of being. I felt relaxed and able to breathe. My health was (relatively) good, and I felt fit, certainly fit enough to take on lockdown. And then I found myself waking in the middle of the night with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and loss of control.

It didn’t matter how well I looked after myself, if I caught this virus I would at best lose my kidneys (vasculitis having caused chronic kidney disease) and at worst not survive at all. The sense of loss was immense and engulfed me (it makes me tearful to remember it). Suddenly the things I had taken for granted were no longer certain, medicine and science were struggling to deal with the unknown, we couldn’t go to see our family and simple pleasures like sharing a meal with friends or going to the cinema simply ceased to be.

I had to find an anchor, something to help me recalibrate and gain some much-needed perspective. This came in the form of sea swimming and practising gratitude. The sea swimming was easy, a no brainer for me. It gave me the chance to be outdoors in nature with one close friend and to simply be. In that being, my mind started to be still and a space opened up in which I could see things to be grateful for – and there were many. I didn’t beat myself up for having felt such a sense of loss, I acknowledged it and was grateful to be able to feel it and still be safe, housed, warm and well-fed and not be suffering financially.

I realised how lucky I was, I am, I have been and how much harder life is for so many people. This isn’t to say that if you’re fortunate you somehow give up the right to feel the pain of loss. It isn’t a competition. Each of us will experience the impact of loss during our lives, whatever our circumstances. I believe that our ability to navigate loss is not necessarily dictated by those circumstances. It is more to do with learning to surrender and, in doing so, becoming aware of some innate wisdom that is hidden in plain sight – the wisdom of the annual cycle of nature; the dying down and wintering in order to rebuild and rebirth in spring and grow in summer through to harvest; the wisdom of your body, especially your gut – when it is telling you to stop. Even if you just stop for a bit it makes a difference. I became aware of the wisdom in rediscovering old joys and discovering new ones – who knew that there is so much to see on a walk to the shops or a busy commute.

My most recent relapse has taken me down some deep holes and involved another layer of loss because it coincided with a family trauma. I have done my best to hone my navigational skills and to learn some new ones. I have found myself drawn to and interested in the power of prayer and incantation, I have gained huge comfort from practising the universal loving-kindness meditation and I have surrendered to the process of a new treatment regime and the possibility of needing a kidney transplant in the not too distant future. I have learned that I will never really know what ‘living with covid’ is actually supposed to mean for someone like me.

Each layer of loss has bought with it a new gain, and so it goes. I tend my garden, I write, I walk much more than I run and I am still swimming.

The link to the Universal Loving Kindness meditation

https://www.mindful.org/this-loving-kindness-meditation-is-a-radical-act-of-love/

 

What I Learnt About My Gut


1 Minute Read

I have had a lifetime of learning about my gut, in particular my bowels, and I know that I am not alone!  I am quite sure many of you reading this will have had debilitating and hard to understand issues with your gut at some point in your lives. Like me, you have probably tried all kinds of supplements, nutrition adjustments and food restrictions to help your gut work in a comfortable and effective way. Like me, you may have become frustrated with how little impact all this has had and not know what to try next. Maybe like me, you have discovered that talking about mental health and bowels in the same breath is a good way of ending a conversation.

It was only when I realised that my gut was illustrating and responding to my emotional status, both current and historical, that I began to have some understanding of what was going on. It was only when I began to understand that in Eastern traditions the lower belly is considered the centre of emotional and spiritual growth, that I began to see the potential there and to feel the emotions there.  It was only when I studied the anatomy and physiology of the gut that I developed awe and wonder for its incredible beauty and complexity.  And it was only when I read some of the recent research into the gut microbiome and the enteric nervous system (aka the second brain) that I began to understand how the different tissues in the gut were able to hold onto difficult experiences in the past that impacted our gut function from that moment onwards, that this all started to fit together into one huge puzzle.

If I tell you that every moment of every day your gut is responding to how safe you feel, that every moment it is remembering times when you did not feel safe and sometimes this all gets mixed up together into a tangled experience that is hard to fathom. Does that resonate with you?

My gut has memories of a traumatic childhood and then a near-death experience later in life (I was scuba diving in cold water and started breathing in seawater) which left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as I like to call it now Post Traumatic Gut. Many nights were spent waking with palpitations, nausea, dizziness, cramps, diarrhoea, then days feeling depleted and sore and only just functioning. I was feeling isolated and helpless often and not knowing where to turn for help.

Our bowels and our mental health are intimately connected, one reflecting the other all the time. As a child not able nor allowed to talk about how I felt whilst witnessing the emotional explosions of others, my gut was often constipated and its enteric nervous system moved beyond fight and flight and into freeze as I dissociated from the people and the world around me. As a teenager with anxiety and depression, I remained emotionally stuck. Later in life, and after my accident, I began to do my emotional work and my gut came on that journey with me. I am still travelling, but I know I am not alone.

As a CranioSacral Therapist, I was also seeing many people with mysterious chronic gut issues in my practice. I decided to take action. After a long period of research and trying out strategies and bodywork techniques for myself and clients, I wrote a new curriculum for the Upledger Institute, ‘CranioSacral Therapy and Listening to the Enteric Nervous System’ which I now teach internationally to support other practitioners help the people coming to them. I also wrote my book, published by Upledger Productions in the USA and UK, It’s All In The Gut which is for anyone interested in emotional stress and the gut. This is written through my personal story in an effort to make it engaging and relevant but also contains much of the recent research, the anatomy and physiology and, of course, strategies and meditations to help anyone reading with a gut issue.

Alongside this, I have a YouTube Channel Colon to Cosmos, which has some visualisations and meditations to support people on their journey of exploration with their gut.

So what can you do? The fundamental way to help yourself is to do your emotional work, through CranioSacral Therapy, talking therapy or any therapeutic practice that works for you. Emotional stress is the number one thing that has a negative impact on our microbiome and our enteric nervous system and all the layers and cell populations in the small and large intestines. This includes stress from the past as well as the present. It doesn’t matter how many avocados you eat, it will make little difference if you do not address these fundamental issues.

Alongside this work, you can support your gut health by being active, especially outside in nature. Your gut bacteria love being taken for a walk, just 30 minutes a day will help them. Learn to breathe. Eat a clean diet (avoid processed anything or anything with a list of ingredients as much as possible!) and drink plenty of water. Make time to do anything that makes you happy whether that is singing, yoga, knitting, cooking, gardening or anything at all that you love.

All of this will support your gut health and your vagal tone which is also important for healthy and happy gut function. We have so much more power to help ourselves than we may think.

So is my gut health perfect now? No more than my mental health. I am still anxious often and my bowels can be fast and uncomfortable. I also have periods of calm and normal function. The difference is that I now listen to the message my gut is sending me and do my best to deal with the emotional issue if I can or at least recognise it, as well as doing the things that help. For me these are yoga, weight training, walking by the river, talking to friends and so on. Like I said, I am still travelling.

If you would like to learn more about how this all works and how you can help yourself, you can buy my book It’s All In The Gut here:

www.nikkikenward.store

And ask any questions, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

How Many Miles? Rolling Home Here I Am


1 Minute Read

So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.

I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.

Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.

Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.

I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.

I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.

So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.

Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.

Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.

My perspective. It might not be yours.

Remember, I am not in the self-help section.

I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.

If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.

Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.

Here.

Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.

I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.

I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.

With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.

Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from, because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.

I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot

Back to the boundaries.

I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.

Attuned.

A word that brings tears to my eyes.

A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.

I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.

And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.

Here to breathe.

Here to finish my one little book.

Here to see more of the ones I love.

Here to not know what’s going to happen next.

Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.

My body will always hurt.

Sometimes that feels overwhelming.

At this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the ‘Everything in This’.

I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.

I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…

Gratitude.

Humility.

Hilarity.

It’s all I’ve got.

What the hell is Tre?


5 Minute Read

Have you heard people talking about Tre? I have. So I invited Tre teacher, Sylvia Tillmann to explain.

How are you post-pandemic? Well, not so post.

I spoke with friends the other day about how we were – and still are – coping with a global pandemic, a couple of lockdowns and the ups and downs of life.

We are a mixed bunch of people between the ages of 50 and 70.

Some people have dogs and enjoyed the company and the daily walks – at least something was dragging them out – some people are very much into gardening, others kept sane by swimming in the sea all year round. I noticed that nobody in this group complained about this era and the ‘new normal’; in fact, we all welcomed the more reflective mode, fewer commitments and concentrating on what was really important in life.

As for myself, I reassessed my life and reorganised my career during the first lockdown. With a business background and on furlough, I was grateful for the time I was given to take stock.

First I enrolled in various business courses, but then I asked myself: ‘What does the world really need? Surely not another business guru!’

I concluded that we all need laughter, optimism, community and a robust immune system – and I trained as a Laughter Yoga Leader.

That was fun and being interested in alternative health, positive psychology and what makes us tick, I found it amazing to see how much research has been carried out on the benefits of laughter.

I loved it, but I wanted to take it further.

Having listened to many lectures, presentations and discussions on trauma – after all, we had all just experienced a collective trauma, I rediscovered TRE.

What is TRE? I hear you ask.

TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises by Dr David Berceli) is a somatic stress management tool I had experienced once, about ten years ago.

I honestly can’t remember if I didn’t get it at the time or if I totally dismissed it because ‘I had never experienced trauma’ – or so I thought!

Now I was convinced that TRE could be an amazing self-help tool to support anybody who’s struggling – psychologically or physically.

I decided to go for it.

This training took everything I had learned before to a whole new level. My go-to modality had always been talking therapies, I had counselling sessions myself and then completed the foundation training as I wanted to train as a bereavement counsellor.

Learning TRE addressed everything I missed when working cognitively. The mind is super busy, the thoughts are going round and round and … well, at least for me, it didn’t help me massively.

Why not give our busy minds a rest and concentrate on the body?

And that’s exactly what TRE enables us to do. Practising TRE means – literally – to shake off tension and stress.

To shake it off? Really? How does it work?

The easiest way to explain TRE’s principle is by watching a dog.

Yes, please bear with me …

A dog who experiences a stressful situation immediately shakes off the excess stress after this encounter and then happily gets on with life.

Animals do it automatically, but people have un-learned this process, although we are genetically encoded to tremor – and it would be so good for us.

That’s where TRE comes in, as it activates our stress release mechanism.

Over the course of the training, I also learned that trauma isn’t just big T trauma, i.e. the truly awful things that can happen. The simple fact that we are human beings means that we all experience trauma to some degree – think of family/relationship issues, work/money stress, health scares/illness, divorce or death etc.

This time I really got it. TRE is making so much sense because mind and body are intrinsically linked, so let’s include the body.

Let’s explore it in a bit more detail: When we experience stress, we mobilise energy to defend and protect ourselves, which is helpful. But if we want to run or fight and we can’t, that energy doesn’t get used up and stays inside of us.

The result is that we stay on high alert, i.e. high on adrenaline and cortisol, always expecting danger, constantly ready to fight or flight – we might have sleep issues, psychosomatic pain or avoid certain situations that caused this response.

This is exhausting and only when we are able to complete the cycle, i.e. use up the excess energy, the body can find its equilibrium again.

By practising TRE in a safe and controlled manner, this energy can be accessed and discharged.

How to practise TRE?

TRE starts with six warm-up exercises to fatigue the muscles and prepares the body to tremor. This is followed by a grounding exercise and then the actual TRE process. By lying on a mat, feet sole-to-sole, knees out, the tremors emerge. Your brain might perceive it as unusual, if not weird, but for the body, it feels quite natural. Afterwards, participants report a deep relaxation.

How does it make me feel?

I’ve been practising TRE for well over a year now and it only takes about ten minutes a day. I credit TRE with becoming more resilient – I’m just so grateful for having TRE during the pandemic – and also with the disappearance of my lower back and hip pain.

Over the last few years, I struggled with pain and sometimes it was so bad that I thought I have to stop playing tennis – which I love – and wondered if I need a hip replacement.

TRE helped me to shake off that tension in my back and hips – I don’t know what I was holding on to, and I don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of TRE, there’s no need to verbalise anything.

Curious to find out more? Check out Sylvia’s website on www.tremendousTRE.co.uk. She runs regular TRE courses, mainly online, so you can stay in the comfort of your own home.

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