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The Death Dinner – Opening up the Last Taboo


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‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Silence.’

Sheila Kitzinger, the natural childbirth activist who died in 2015

I am 64, and entering into the terrain of my own drawing-closer mortality – yet talking about death is still forbidden. Sex is so much more out in the open. Death is the last taboo. We do not talk about dying, how we’d like to die, or how others have died.

Last October, my mum nearly died of sepsis – her organs had begun to close down but being the 90-year-old Yorkshire woman she was and still is, she battled through – and then by chance, I saw there was a death café at the Dissenter’s Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery as part of their October Month of the Dead.

I invited a close friend who presumed erroneously that Death was the incidental name of a café, and that we were meeting for Saturday morning tea and a natter. Instead we found ourselves in a circle of twelve discussing – the feelings that are evoked when a family member dies, the nature of a good death and different funereal rituals.

It was simply incredible to have this space to reflect on death and dying. There was a palpable sense of closeness and connection between us all at the end. Amanda and I definitely felt more alive as a result of the extraordinary conversations. One man admitted he’d never really expressed the grief around his mother dying. Another woman talked about the terrible suicide of someone close to her in detail. There was the death/life paradox in action. Plus it took place in this simple chapel created for non-conformists in 1834. Perfect. It sounds weird to say but we loved it, and vowed we would visit more. Forget bars and restaurants, death cafes are the place for truly, deeply, madly meeting.

A few months later, I found myself having the idea – we’d already featured a couple of fiercely brave pieces of writing about death, My First Death by Lena Semaan who told us about her friend, Bob, who had been terminally ill and courageously took the act of dying into his own hands, plus Dreaming of Death by Caroline Bobby who has been in an intimate relationship with death since she was young – for a Death Dinner as part of our OUTage series of events supported by the Arts Council. It would also take place at the Dissenter’s Chapel. The aim was to invite ten people from Deathworld – from mortician and author Carla Valentine to Soul Midwife Patrick Ardagh-Walter, to academic and expert in death rituals, Professor Douglas Davies to coffin plate aficionado, Hannah Gosh who happens to have a tattoo of one on her leg – to dialogue openly about their interests in death and dying, then dig a little deeper. We, at Advantages of Age, are keen to open up this last taboo as well as helping to form a Death Community, supporting the Assisted Dying movement, and also facing the nitty gritty of what we might personally want in terms death and dying.

I also thought it would be fascinating to invite the guests to come dressed as they would like to be buried or burnt. As well to bring objects with them that they’d like to go alongside them on the onward journey. This personal DeathStyle fascinated me.

Our aim was to turn the death stereotypes on their head. The guests arrived to a big red neon sign declaring Welcome to Death and then had their photos taken in or out of a deliberately kitsch Lachapelle-influenced gold frame with a leopard skin backdrop! Of course, not everyone was so keen to be snapped in this Day of the Dead type Momento Mori and we let them off the hook. Professor Davies wore his grey suit but had a rather extravagant cravat with it. Patrick, the soul midwife, was in his suit and photographed with his white miniature rose, the object he had chosen to take with him into the next world, which he felt crossed over between earth and spirit, a living rose. Others were keener to step into the frame, Liz Rothschild who runs a woodland burial ground, had turned up in her cream nightie and had chocolates to munch in the after-life. Suzanne, co-founder of Advantages of Age, was wearing a sexy scarlet dress clasping a photo of her beloved boys. Caroline Rosie Dent dazzled with her gold and black Victorian dress, black shawl and headband covered with ivory roses. In fact, she was the style star of the Death Dinner.

Everyone was welcomed over that liminal threshold into Deathland by the Queen of the Night (Ingrid Stone), all in white, of course, rather than black, with her purifying burning sage sticks. In silence, we made our way to our seats at the table accompanied by the haunting, ethereal sounds of Fran Loze’s cello. An abundant feast – from tomato and goats’ cheese tartlets to Parma ham and the remarkable broken heart cake – had been prepared by Caroline Bobby, our magnificent cook and a guest.

During the first half of the dinner, I invited the guests to tell us a little about their relationship with death and how they were linked to Deathworld.

Charlie Phillips, photographer, has documented Afro-Caribbean funerals at Kensal Green cemetery for years. He explained how Afro-Caribbean funerals are changing and that the emphasis is on paying out a lot of money and having songs like Do It My Way by Frank Sinatra these days. He had brought along his camera, of course, as his death object because apparently he is referred to as ‘the dead man photographer’.

Liz Rothschild is a celebrant, started the Kicking the Bucket Festival in Oxford, owns a woodland burial ground and has a show called Out Of The Box about death. Liz explained how when a friend of hers died, her group of friends gathered in such an intimate DIY way, it inspired her to want to support others create this kind of a ceremony.

Hannah Gosh makes modern mourning jewelry and told us why she is so taken with coffin plates. She had also brought along a pug’s skull as her object, but not her pug’s skull!

Caroline Rosie Dent is an end of life doula and a death café host, she told us about her death anxiety as a child, and why she’d brought along a part of her son’s umbilical cord to take with her on the ancestral trip.

John Constable aka John Crow wrote The Southwark Mysteries, a series of poems which became a play. It is the story of the Winchester Goose, one of the medieval sex workers in the area who were condoned by the Bishop of Winchester but forced to have unconsecrated graves. John has been a campaigner around the Cross Bones graveyard for many years and holds a monthly vigil there on the 23rd of every month.

Caroline Bobby is a writer, cook, erotic healer and psychotherapist. She had brought with her The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and her favoured piece of fine woolen cloth, that she would like to be wrapped in when she goes. She sees herself becoming ash and being blown away.

Patrick Ardagh-Walter is a soul midwife, which he describes as being simply alongside someone as they approach this last stage of their lives.

Carla Valentine is an author, mortician and the Technical Assistant Curator at Barts Pathology Museum where she looks after 5,000 body parts in bottles. She describes herself as being quite an unusual child who was interested in death and whose grandfather died when she was seven, in front of her.

Professor David Davies lectures in Death Studies, his most recent book is Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-Style in Britain Today. He explained that he’s fascinated by different groups and their attitudes to death, some like their lives and deaths to cohere, others are just the opposite. He said he hadn’t brought an object because he’s never thought of having an object with him at that time.

Liz Hoggard is a journalist who admits to feeling like a bit of a death tourist in our midst. She sports pearls that might act as some sort of collateral in a future existence and has brought along two lipsticks, one of them is black, the other red. Max Ernst described the latter apparently as ‘the red badge of courage’.

During the break, we listen to Caroline Bobby’s recorded version of her piece, Dreaming of Death. It is precious and moving. In it, she says: ‘I don’t know if I long for death just because living with baseline depression is unforgiving, and every morning is a shock. I don’t think it’s just that. This human and embodied world has never, quite felt like my natural habitat. At a cellular level I am aching to go home.’

 

After this raw and vulnerable piece, we entered a discussion about death led by Suzanne. We looked at whether there is a revolution in death going on, whether death is really trending, how we could welcome death into our daily lives in conversation and what sort of funerals we would like. Some of it was funny, other parts were poignant. Professor Douglas Davies declared controversially that the only revolution going on is amongst middle-class women. ‘The Death Chattering classes,’ he asserted.

Finally, Charlie Phillips declared that ideally, he would go while making love. And that he’d like ‘Lucky Motherfucker’ on his gravestone as well as ‘Came and Went at the same time’. As you can imagine, laughter rippled through the chapel.

I announced that natural birth activist and then death activist, Sheila Kitzinger had inspired me. She had a death plan, managed to stay at home to die surrounded by her close family despite doctors trying to get her to hospital because she had cancer, then she was put in a simple cardboard coffin decorated by family and friends, and eventually taken in the back of a car for a small woodland burial. The more flamboyant memorial service came later.

Son – take note!

Death Dinner will be screened for the first time tonight – 6.30pm at Barts Pathology Museum, E2. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/death-dinner-film-screening-tickets-38270917344

La Tempête


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Napoleon planted these pines,

the soil is sandy but not a beach.

I want to lie down,

stare upwards like a child

who hasn’t had enough clouds.

The watery landscape keeps me upright.

On cherche les oiseaux,

mais on n’entend que les chants.

The sky deceives itself.

We talk (my French friends and I)

about how to inhabit the truth,

to sink our teeth into ice-cream

without fear of incrimination or shame.

We sit with gratitude on a fallen trunk,

taste different sorts of apples,

note the sour and sweet preponderances.

 

There is an ending amid a swamp,

tears escape in a storm.

Brambles, bare feet, endless water.

I am scared.

My friends, my parents become.

This vulnerability is unmapped.

Poetry – how writing keeps me kicking up


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‘For a poem to emerge properly, you have to avoid confronting it. You have to keep it in sight without looking at it directly.’ Fiona Sampson, poet, in Mslexia

Twelve years ago, I’d never written a poem. I wasn’t – so many say this – one of those people who started writing poems in their teens. At the time, I was a journalist whose paid work – the internet and falling sales of newspapers – was on the wane. I was unsettled, gloomy and undermined.

I decided radical action was needed on the writing front. I have always been a fan of lyrical language so I decided to try out writing poems. I knew – and this is key – that writing poetry was never going to earn me my daily bread but I wanted to do it for love. I had been on the hamster wheel of feature editors’ ever-narrowing commissions and instructions, this way I would re-discover writerly freedom.

Not that I expected it to be easy. I was in for the long haul. I signed up to City Lit’s Beginner’s course with contemporary poet, John Stammers at the helm. I’d never heard of him. His collection Stolen Love Behaviour had just come out and I devoured its post-modern bite. Here were poems that were crafted to the hilt, witty and John’s degree in philosophy drove the undertow.

Through John, I discovered so many poets – from Wallace Stevens to Clare Pollard – but most importantly, and this is a rare feature, I found out that John can actually pinpoint what works and doesn’t work in his pupils’ poems. Over the years, this has been such a boon as well as a pain.

For a long long time, my poems were embarrassingly bad. I’d have a few sizzling one liners, or a good title here and there but the struggle to write a decent poem was arduous and humbling. Luckily, I expected the climb to be arduous and was willing to plod on.

Christian Palen
Rose Rouse by Christian Palen

What is a good poem? Ah ha, there is the subject of many a book and author. Basically the content should be fresh, the voice should belong to that poet alone, the attitude should be ‘show rather than tell’ (ie cut out any of those literal lines), a big no to the overly poetic (John has a list of forbidden words and they include iridescence and meniscus!) and then the most difficult, something should emerge magically without the poet even knowing. Helen Mort who is well-known in the poetry world, has just won the Mslexia (a magazine for women who write) poetry prize and the judge, Sinead Morrissey said; ‘there’s a vortex in the middle of it that works like a spell.’ Exactly.

Funnily enough, I am still in one of John’s groups, now an invitation-only one with some damn fine poets – including Barbara Marsh, Judy Brown and Beatrice Garland who all have collections out, won poetry prizes and more. Wednesday afternoon is often the high point of the week for me. We meet in Covent Garden above a pub in Betterton Street while the Poetry Society does its refurbishment re The Poetry Studio.

The format is like this. We hardly ever discuss our personal lives. Only through the poems. John brings in three poems as photocopies, he doesn’t tell us who the poet is. He reads the first one and then we analyse/criticize them. He will bring in these poems for all sorts of reasons – they are badly edited, they have something but not everything, they sing with edge and vim etc – and we are in constant pursuit of what makes a good poem. This is a life’s work!

In the second half, we hand out photocopies of our own new poems to the group, read it out aloud to them and then stay silent while they discuss every aspect in terms of meaning and structure. I have squirmed many times in this position as it became apparent that my new poem didn’t make sense, was overegged – I have a proclivity in this direction – and just plainly did not work. Oh the ignoble position of the bad poet!

However, over the years, I’ve been in this group for five years – we published a group pamphlet Sounds of the Front Door in 2014 – my embarrassment has subsided and I now relish their comments even when they are constructively ruthless. Because that’s exactly what my poems need ie outside voices looking in.

In January, I’d just come back from post-Castro Cuba and written a poem Finding My Inner Orisha. A lot of it was in Spanish and through the group, I learnt that actually there was too much for people to understand so they suggested that I translate lines in both Spanish and English. I have now done that and hope it lends an incantatory aspect to the poem. Although I also decided that I didn’t want to do it all in that way as that was too much. The poet always has the last word. Although as we often discuss when reading other poets’ work, a good editor is also worth their weight in gold.

Killing your own darlings is such a useful lesson in life as well as poetry. Poets often have a proclivity towards something that takes them out of balance. Personally, I go for florid language and this can be so easily overdone. Restraint is needed. Going to The Group helps me refine my own editing skills. If I see that extra ‘fecund’, then I force myself to remove it.

This year, I found a publisher for my first poetry pamphlet – 20 poems and these days often called a chapbook – Tantric Goddess at the age of 64. It’s never too late to start. And I’m not giving up now, I intend to get a collection – around 60 poems – together next.

Tantric Goddess is published on Eyewear.

Tantric Goddess

Flamboyance Forever!


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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.

The Woman Who Wore Wings


1 Minute Read

i.m. Sarah’s mum

Stella hailed from startleland,
uneven terrain was welcomed.
She’d entertain with the intimate habits
of the stag beetle, probe my knowledge
of ‘Cargador de Flores’ by Diego Rivera,
demand to be spoken to in French.

La vedette made the everyday
into theatre. Did I mention
the Lalique obsession and the birdsong clock?
She looked out onto her Dali-esque garden,
refused to see the watery moon,
her eyes forever fixed on the silver feather tree.

AofA People: Rose Rouse – Co-Founder Advantages of Age, Poet, Journalist, PR


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Rose Rouse, 64, is the co-founder and editor of Advantages of Age, poet, journalist and PR, On June 11th, her first poetry pamphlet Tantric Goddess is published on Eyewear. She says she sees herself as a sex and death activist. As well as an inveterate feather wearer.

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

Rose Rouse

HOW OLD ARE YOU?

64

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

London, UK

WHAT DO YOU DO?

Co-founder of AoA, journalist, poet, PR and wild dancer when I get the opportunity.

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

It’s a surprise really. After the dread of being Saga-bait 50, post-60 has brought an unexpected blooming. I had a crisis when I was in my mid-50s. Freelance journalism seriously diminished. Ever tenacious, even I had to surrender and ultimately change. I was resistant but in the freeing up – I started earning money from doing press instead – I was ultimately able to be more creative. I started writing poetry and devoting an afternoon a week to this pursuit. I started writing the sort of non-fiction books that are long winding projects rather than deadlined commissions. I am at present working on UNsung London, a series of walks in unfashionable places with unlikely characters. I have already marched from Hackney Wick to Beckton Sewage Works with Billy Bragg, shopped Southall with Andrew Logan, visited new Haggerston estates with director, Andrea Zimmerman, explored Roman London with writer, Charlotte Higgins and more. I have also made a couple of dance films (I am fortunate in having a film maker son) Dance Willesden Junction and Dance Harlesden where I persuaded a little tribe of my friends to bring intimacy in the form of dance to the heart of Harlesden, not to mention the railway station.

And I edit AoA which is a pure delight. I encourage people to write for our magazine with the intention of challenging and bringing new ideas to this significant arena around growing older, and create conversations about the taboo stuff like sex, relationships and death as well. For me, a veteran rebel, this magazine brings oodles of pleasure.

At the moment, Suzanne Noble and I are in the midst of putting on a series of Arts Council funded events and performances called The OUTAGE series. The first was the Death Dinner which comprised twelve Deathworld people – from groovy pathologist, Carla Valentine who also has a column in the Guardian, to Professor Douglas Davies from Durham University who is an expert on Death Rituals in the UK, and Liz Rothschild who runs a woodland burial ground in Oxfordshire, is founder of the Kicking The Bucket Festival, a celebrant and performer – telling us about their death game in various moving, poignant, funny ways. This was filmed and will become an hour long documentary. The aim is to contribute to the opening up of dialogue and information around death.

The second OUTAGE event will be Taboo Night on June 24th at Vout-o-Renees in London where we will explore the taboos around getting older – from menopause to lack of erections to online dating to mutton style – through poetry, performance, tales and music.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

I remember being really embarrassed at 25 at my lack of worldly knowledge about the arts, history etc, I have a bit more of that which is a relief. I have some firm foundations in having a son, and a partner, plus well-established friends. That makes me feel infinitely rich. I am seen for who I truly am with all the shady parts too.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

Making love, sensuality, explorations. I feel passionately that you can have a brilliant sex life as you grow older. I’m a bit of a sex activist. When I hear people sigh and say: ‘I haven’t got the energy these days’, I think you don’t need the energy, just the willingness to adventure in a different way. In my 50s, I was single. I signed up to Guardian Soulmates, it was hard work. Maybe I had sex a few times through that avenue. However I also did Tantra courses and learnt about boundaries. But mainly I discovered that I could have gorgeous, intimate relationships with my women friends. I was happily independent.

And when I was 60, I found a partner through a personal development workshop. But I had worked hard that year to invoke this potential partner. Luckily we are both sexual explorers. Which helps us keep it all alive. We have learnt not to be so restricted in our descriptions of what sex is. Sex can be stroking the other person’s back. Or dancing naked together.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

I am an eager student of relationship. Still. The learning never stops. One of my favoured places is in a group where process can take place. This is challenging and nurturing at the same time. And a creative, dynamic one for me. My friendships with women are hugely important. I have found women friends with whom I don’t have to lie about anything. I can reveal shame, embarrassment, jealousy, everything. It is such a liberation. I feel that these relationships will always be with me. And I am a fan of intergenerational friendships, not just my age group.

My relationship with my son is the one I feel the proudest of. We are in tune in so many ways. Especially around ideas, politics and emotional matters. I love that he trusts me enough to tell me when he’s hurting. I love the bravery of young and older men.

My relationship with my mother has changed beyond all recognition. She has Alzheimer’s and we have the best relationship now. She has become sweeter. Me too. It has been a healing trip. So lovely that she trusts me now.

My relationship with my man. I am blessed with a man who can show his feelings. We can talk. And we both eventually show vulnerability. It’s actually harder for me. I appreciate his willingness to stand in the fire with me. And the twists and turns along the way.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

It’s not freedom that is important to me, it’s actually safety. I have always been freelance, a single mother etc. I’ve fought for freedom, but it was the safety that was harder to attain. Both in partnership and in a financial sense. I feel much safer at the moment. Which is great. Not of course that I have anything like retirement funds.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

My relationship with my son. It’s so different from my relationship with my parents. I love that feeling of unconditional, tigress love.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

Keeping on meeting and talking to different people with different ideas. Keeping on reading. Being open to the new. Curiosity.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

Doing simple stuff. Walking on the beach at Borth y Gest with Asanga and his wanderlust dog, Poppy. She’s actually run off somewhere but we’re not worried. Going down Columbia Rd market with Amanda, one of my best friends. Pottering around in my garden. Sitting in bed writing a new poem.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

In lots of different directions from AoA to dance to poetry to new books to group processes to cooking up ideas for projects.

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

Get involved. Stand up for what you believe in. At the moment, I am active in supporting Jeremy Corbyn because I believe that he honestly wants to bring a fairer, more equal society that will help the vulnerable. Showing up for my friends, family, loved ones. To be unafraid of the shadows and to welcome love.

AND DYING?

I feel as though I am a beginner here. But I am thinking about death and how that could be better for everyone. And opening up the dialogue.

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Dreaming is one of my favourite pursuits, often on motorways when driving. Somehow there is the space to dream.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

For me an outrageous action is turning down the opportunity to be outrageous. To hide a little. I’m hiding now.

The Importance of Female Friends


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‘We increasingly seek more complex and subtle imaginative explorations of identity than societal expectations of gender.’  Alex Clark.

I truly discovered the importance of female friendship in my 50s. Post-splitting up with the father of my son at 43 – I’m 64 now – I tipped myself in a giddy stream of unsuitable men. I had female friends but my main focus was men.

In my tender little heart, I distrusted women friends to truly be at my side. Yes, yes, there were reasons that go back to my mother but I’m not going to dwell in that arena. The turning point was a workshop that I went to in 2006 over New Year run by that marvel of a Tantra teacher, Jan Day.

Actually, I went with the intention of being bold with men. I had become inhibited by hurt. It was time to step into the chasm of chance and chaos again. To literally get naked in the pursuit of sensual practice. To launch myself into dangerous but potentially rich experiential waters. And I did do all of that. There was flirting wildly – why can’t we have more flirting in this country, the playfulness of it makes everyone feel so alive – I remember sitting in the Jacuzzi exchanging fruity sexual fantasies with a couple of men. The view out over the frosted Somerset fairyland enhanced this rare pleasure. In the workshop itself, there was explorative touch – to discover what we liked or didn’t – and even kissing. And heart-open sharing. I was in mid-love addiction with an old neighbour who was less likely to share his love with me than a stone in the road. And yet I had been persisting. A fatal sign of co-dependency.

Funnily enough, the outcome of this workshop was a deep friendship with a woman. Not that this seemed on the cards at the time. I was 16 years older than her. She worked as an HR executive for a massive pharmaceutical company. We really had nothing in common. And yet, we found ourselves going off to another week’s workshop with Jan Day that Easter. It was called Living Tantra 1, was 7 days long and a deep immersion into sexual healing. And goodness knows, I needed that. With or without Marvin.

Jayne and I shared a dormitory with four other women. We were a gang of the heart. It wasn’t about gossiping. Well, there was some banter. It was about tears, exploring, risk-taking and laughing. While the workshop was about learning where our touch boundaries were, then being able to speak them and practice non-sexual loving touch. Jayne and I were transported into a new land, one where we both felt we were able to be our best selves. Oh, that is such an exquisite pleasure. And is often the case when in service to others. In this instance, sexual and spiritual service at the same time.

I felt expanded, expansive, on the high of a community that flowed with open love and touch in a safe but exciting way. Afterwards, I didn’t want to live within the confines of my shame and silence ever again. I was deluded about this man, and significantly, I hadn’t been talking about it. The thick carapace of this delusion was heavy. Never again. During the workshop, I confessed. No more dark dreams for me. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that, but that was a good start.

It was an incredible week. And what came out of it was a mini Women’s Group.

Three of us – Jayne, me and another Jane – met up and spoke about our lives in a way that was more vulnerable and emotionally expressive than I’d ever felt safe enough to be. It felt rich, if a little forced at times. Having to cry can feel as restrictive as having to keep a stiff upper lip. Orthodoxies spring up everywhere.

Next came the Wild Women, which of course, was experimental, explorative and fun. There were six of us – Louise, two Carolines, one Jayne, Helen and me. We drank champagne, listened to each other in a sharing circle, ate gorgeous food, spent weekends entwined in an ever-growing closeness that we liked to call into-me-see. Sometimes we did all of these activities at the same time. Formal structure and boundaries were not our strong point. So it wasn’t surprising that our Wild Women group combusted in a firestorm of sensuality and conflict after a dramatic eighteen months. It was not constructed to last. There was heaven and hell while it lasted.

Finally, there was the Women’s Group, which I was in for six years. There were about ten of us, we met once a month for the afternoon, we had a strong structure at first, which contained us and enabled the trust to grow. After a year or so, we became a little looser. We didn’t just share in silence, we could ask for feedback and we learnt to give it sensitively. With a few huge gaffes along the way.

We rotated being hostess and therefore our location.

The hostess decided on the ‘colour’ of the proceedings, whether we danced to get into our bodies and out of our heads, or sat silently at the beginning. Also any extra structures like nurturing touch. The hostess also made some soup. Everyone else brought fruit, chocolate, nuts etc. Most importantly, we shared the depths of our lives here, we could say anything, be it angry or sad or joyful. We were free to speak what was really going on with us. No holds barred and very safely held by the rest of the group. It was a place to be as real as we were capable of being. There was challenge and there was sweetness

Jayne and I went through all of this together and it has lent a profound connection to our friendship. For me, it was incredibly important – after I first got to know her in that second Jan Day workshop – that I could admit everything to her. I knew she wasn’t going to judge me but rather witness my sorrow, pain or shame with love and affection.

I truly felt her compassion and understanding in a sensitive place that had never been properly mothered. It felt peaceful and quiet and gentle. And oh so new. It led to me trusting other women with more of me. The less bouncy sides. The nooks and crannies that I never normally exposed to that sort of sisterly light.

This experience of womanly love has changed me. Because now I know I will never be without this support. And I will never have to lie to myself again. And feel so ashamed. Only today, I went to a new dentist and discovered that my mouth was full of gum disease. I was horrified. My former dentist hadn’t told me.

I felt ashamed of myself for not being better at dental hygiene. How could this have happened? But instead of hiding away, I told three women friends. And none of them judged me for it. I didn’t feel criticized. I felt supported. Which helped me move smoothly into a place of acceptance and action. Yes, I have to face this and get into daily dental action and have some expensive periodontal work. And I am doing it.

I have a partner now – I was single when I went to those workshops – but I know my close women friends will always be there for me. As I will be for them. These relationships hold the longevity that a relationship with a beloved may not. This foundation, this knowledge of each other keeps on growing. It means that I will never be afraid to break a relationship that I think is unhealthy, and that feels mighty powerful.

Women friends – you are a boon and a blessing. Thank you.

 

Fuck The Ageing Black Hole, I’ll Take The Freedom


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I wasn’t going to write about this at all. I was going to write about being A Recovering Drama Queen. Finally. However, very much still in the process of ‘recovery’. It’s an age and awareness thang.

However before I could get to the computer keys, I read about endurance swimmer, Diana Nyad’s memoir – Find A Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, came out last Thursday on Pan Macmillan – and was compelled to write about what was touched in me not just by her feat, but by her bloody-and-be-damned attitude to ageing.

Oh, what a razzle dazzle of a woman. Beyond belief. First of all – the feat. At the age of 64, Diana Nyad swam unassisted from Cuba to Florida. That is 110 miles through seas infested with venomous deadly box jellyfish and sharks for 53 hours without a rest. She was the first person to do it. That is phenomenal.

But before that were the amazing amount of failures. Which make her feat even more incredible. Nyad was one of the world’s best endurance swimmers in her 20s. She’d attempted this swim at 28 in 1978, failed and given up. Two years later, she retired. At 60, she decided to try again. Spurred on by her mother’s death.

And she failed and failed. Stung by box jellyfish, stopped by an asthma attack and more. Her friends who were very involved as back up, begged her to give up. She refused. She had a silicone mask made to protect her from these jellyfish because ninety percent of the people touched by their tentacles die. She was stung but didn’t die. After all her unrelenting tenacity, she actually did succeed at 64 in 2013. Hallelujah!!

What I love about her attitude to ageing is recounted in her memoir. Someone suggested at one of her talks that she was too old to attempt this swim. She is still incandescent about this kind of ageism. Even now. “Age, gender, nothing should be a barrier,” she insists. “I’m not 25, I’m not 45, I’m 66 and I can’t do anything about cosmetic ageing. I look in a mirror and of course my face is going to show the years lived. Same with the body. I carry more fat than I did when I was younger. What am I going to do? Worry about that? Talk about not being in the moment! Any moment I spend fretting that I’m not younger, it’s just a waste.”

She then informs the Observer journalist – the piece that inspired this one – Carole Cadwalladr that the photographer had just enquired if she’d prefer to change positions to a more flattering angle. She erupted with the sort of fire spirit that we admire at Advantages of Age. “I couldn’t care less,” she insisted, “It’s what I do and what I say, and how I live that’s important, not how I look. My looks aren’t my issue and it’s just very freeing.”

Okay, I’m not quite there yet. I still do care what I look like and what photographs of me are like. But I’m 63 and I am beginning to understand the breadth of the freedom that comes with ageing. That I can make choices based on what I want to do, rather than what society, the media or even what my tribe dictates. I can be my own dictator. In the last few years, I have grown my hair long again. The convention is still that older woman shouldn’t have long hair, that their faces will sag and disappear into the hag look. I cut my hair into a bob when I was 43 somehow persuaded by conformity. Pushed by a boyfriend. At 60, my desire for lengthy tresses returned. So I allowed myself the luxury of length. Hair is a sensual pleasure and there is a be-quiet-sexuality message in the obligatory cutting.

No, I’m not about to swim even across the local Grand Union Canal but Nyad’s message around ageing feels supremely loud and clear. Don’t be cowed by comfort zones (your own) or limits (your own). And find your voice, live your life. Be free. Which doesn’t have to be narcissistic.

One of the freedoms I have reclaimed recently – is the freedom to speak my mind politically and to go for the edge. To not be afraid of showing that I’d like a radical change in society, that years of Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron had silenced my anger against the inequality we live with. But no longer.

A few weeks ago as I stood in Parliament Square shouting: “Shame on you” at the Blairites who were trying to bully the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn – who is committed to social justice and a much fairer society – into stepping down, I felt totally inspired about this kind of potential change. I also imbibed the unity and strength of 10,000 people coming together in 24 hours via social media and in being there together. This was no rag bag of ultra lefties, this was a huge crowd of ordinary people who wanted something better and were willing to get out on to the streets and demand just that.

It was electrifying and inspiring to be part of truly going for something bigger that I believed in.

You can read an extract from Diana Nyad’s memoir – Find A Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life here.

We’d love to hear from you what you’ve found freeing about getting older… please tell us at info@advantagesofage.com

 

My First Death Café


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There’s a gathering buzz around the Death Café phenomenon – there have been 3859 in 40 countries including Iceland and South Korea – and so when one was announced in my ‘hood and in the perfect location, Kensal Green Cemetery’s Dissenter’s Chapel*, I knew I had to go. After all, I have said on numerous occasions that our ethos at AoA includes breaking through the death barrier. Not to live forever like the Immortalists*, but in order to shatter the taboo. I’ve also stated that I’d like to ‘review’ funerals but I have yet to be offered one.

The night before the Death Café – a social franchise where people gather, drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death with the stated aim ‘is to help people make the most of their (finite) lives’ – I started to research what was happening around death instead of the classic funeral. I found a video of a woman in Britain who picked up her mother’s body from the mortuary, placed it in her camper van and drove to a field where she and her friends dug a very deep hole and gently lowered her mother into it. No undertakers, no coffin, no service, this was the ultimate in DIY and legal. Excellent. But most people have no idea what is legal and what is not around death and dying.

Which is exactly why a Death Café is such good news. There’s so much to find out and exchange.

I invited my friend, Amanda who lives round the corner from me. We met in Ladbroke Grove outside the entrance. She had managed to ignore the Death part, and only seen the café. She thought she was meeting me for a coffee and a chat, although was slight bemused and bewildered at the location.

“No, it’s a Death Café where we’ll be talking about our mortality,” I whispered loudly whilst urging her into the newly decorated Dissenter’s Gallery which even has a little potential bar these days. And am instantly drawn to a large woven artwork by local artist, Zoe Landau Kouson , which looks as though it has writhing knots of brilliant breasts all over it. Feeding breasts, dancing breasts, tribal breasts, animal breasts and more.

Twelve of us sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs with the ideal Death café view – through the large nineteenth century iron gate – are the leaning gravestones, the modern graves and the Victorian tombs all thrown together in nature and peace.

The de rigeur tea and biscuits are pretty rudimentary – in Sussex they probably do a funereal spread with coffin cupcakes and Death by Chocolate – but hey, it’s the participants that count. And these people are marvelous in their eclecticism.

Mark, our unpaid facilitator during this two hour dialogue, has a skull broach on his lapel just for confirmation of his status. He explains the roots of the Death Café – originally Le Café Mortal started by Swiss anthropologist and sociologist, Bernard Crettaz in 2004 in order ‘to break the tyranny of silence around death’ – the idea was taken up by a mother, Sue Barsley Reid and son, Jon Underwood in Hackney,2010. They haven’t looked back. Death Cafés are popping up everywhere these days and a very good sign that is.

I remember writing an article in Time Out in the mid-80s at the height of the Aids deaths where I suggested that the advent of these often oh-too-young people leaving us so tragically would change our ways of dying forever. And to some extent, that has happened. Aids funerals were bold and brave and out there in a way that proclaimed we die as we live – there were coffins that stood up, there was waving to the coffins as they departed behind the curtain, there was Barbara Streisand singing. Funerals have become freer – I went to a Catholic one the other day and even that had much more individuality than in the past – and more personal. And yet open conversation about, for instance, plans for death and dying still remain rare.

And so, we share one by one about why we’ve come. I say that my 90 year old mother nearly died of sepsis recently, which has been instrumental in me thinking about wanting to take control of my own death. In some ways impossible but in other ways worth reflecting upon. And then I explain that I edit this magazine, and that we recently had an article where someone with a brain tumor living in Australia decided to buy some Nembutal so that he could enable his own death rather than wait for an increasingly painful end. Finally, he was in a hospice and could no longer play the harmonium, he found a window of opportunity, went to the toilet and took the Nembutal.

Before I know it, Amanda who thought she was just popping out for a little catch up, is talking about how she felt like an orphan as both her parents had died. An American woman wants to talk about cultural differences, another young man is becoming a hospice nurse and more that I’m not allowed to reveal because of the confidentiality clause.

I’m impressed by our collective energy and enthusiasm for the topic, and the multitude of attitudes and interests.

And I’m moved when we start to share more deeply about a good death might look like. Amanda talks passionately about wanting to die without the anguish that she felt both her parents experienced when they were approaching death. “I really want to be able to accept what’s happening,” she says. I really feel the depth of her sharing. This is Saturday morning, and suddenly there’s such an intimacy in this wonderful little chapel.

Talking so openly about death and what it means to us personally brings a warmth and closeness. There’s a feeling of community already where this sort of exchange is possible. It’s strangely exhilarating in the way that being about to talk about your secret desires and fears can be.

Josephine Speyer, a psychotherapist specializing in loss and bereavement, as well as being the co-founder of The Natural Death Centre (they do a great handbook about everything you need to know about death) who also holds Death Cafes is present. She has a softness that curls around us as she talks about a powerful moment when her husband appeared to her soon after he died. She’s also a keen advocate for death education and says that knowing what to do when her husband died suddenly, helped a lot.

There are moments of lightness too. One woman who is a friend of Kensal Green cemetery tells us about her favourite funeral. “It was one where my friend donated his body to science so there was no funeral, just a party in a restaurant where we remembered him.”

The representative from Dignity in Dying confesses that she hasn’t made a will. I haven’t either. But we are the minority in the room as Mark gets us to put our hands up. “Well, that is unusual,” he announces, “most people here have made their wills.”

The American couple don’t have children and they explain that making a will has felt like an act of generosity for them. Basically, they have given their assets to chosen family and friends, the result being that they feel content with their decisions.

Neither Amanda nor I want to leave. This is a dialogue we could have kept on contributing to and being fascinated by. Funnily enough, we left inspired, moved and determined to visit a Death Café again soon. There’s something so compelling about this level of realness.

 

 

 

Look up a Death Café near you on deathcafe.com or start one up yourself through the website.

*The Dissenter’s Chapel was built as part of Kensal Green Cemetery’s eastern part for non-Anglicans to perform their own rites, and is still in use for funerals today.

*There is now a Dissenter’s Gallery, which is managed by Michael Speechley, which is involved in all sorts of exciting projects including the Death Café. Dissentersgallery.com

*The Immortalists are a community in the US who believe that they will live forever.

 

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