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How I Found my House in the Magical Spanish Mountains


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I started my Spanish adventure in 1997, just as Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative rule with the slogan ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. I was one of a number of young BBC journalists helping with the count on Election Night, but soon after fled the BBC on a trip to Mojácar in Spain, on the pretext of finding a cheap house to buy. I didn’t seriously think I would get one.

Accompanying me was my old friend Mark P, who had ridden to Mojácar on his motorbike a decade before. My friend Lucy’s house was empty, so we stayed there. We had instructions to call Jacqueline, the French postwoman for the mountain villages, who put the word out for villagers with houses to sell.

It was a beautiful early-summer day and the road to the mountains twisted and turned up through arid countryside, almond trees and old ruins until arriving in the pretty whitewashed village of Bédar, with a long view back down to the sea.

Jacqueline was waiting in one of a pair of bars facing each other on the road in. Tall and thin with a mahogany tan, long black hair framing strong, handsome features, and wearing lots of silver jewellery – she was unmissable.

Jacqueline drove us down a narrow unpaved road running under the looming peaks. We undulated through tiny settlements and over a rambla [dry riverbed] before accelerating up a perilously steep bank on the other side, to end up at a collection of three or four houses strung out along the top. We bumped down a track to one, a wide, two-story house set in an overgrown garden with several olive trees.

I don’t remember much about the house, apart from that the kitchen was outside, and the water supply was rationed from the nearby balsa [water store] where you took your turn on a rota with the neighbours. There was a ramshackle outhouse, and I remember standing near it while Jacqueline and a neighbour discussed which of the stones on the ground marked the house’s boundary. The discussion went round and round, much like the roads that had brought us there. Then, none the wiser, we all piled back into the car for the drive back to Bédar where Jacqueline dropped us at the bar and drove off.

I remember feeling out of my depth, and telling Mark that what I’d really like would be something less remote, perhaps a little house on the edge of a village. We decided to have a quick drink before driving back – and then I realised that the key to our hire car was no longer in my possession. I tried to call Jacqueline but got no reply. There were no buses. We were stranded.

What happened next was, as they say, fate.

A young blonde dressed in black leather came through the door and strode up to the bar. After exchanging a few words with the bartender, she came over and asked where we needed to go. When we said ‘Mojácar’, she offered to drive us. As we weren’t in a position to refuse, we accepted.

Nadja was Swiss, and although quite fluent in English, all her sentences came out back to front. When I told her that we’d been looking at houses, she said that she had one to sell, “with mains water, electricity, a telephone socket and seven terraces.” It sounded very grand so, to rule it out more than anything, I asked how much. “Four million pesetas,” she replied (approx. £16,000). It was the same price as the house we’d just looked at.

What’s more, Nadja’s house was on the edge of a small village – just as I’d wished for.

When we reached the main road, our saviour pulled into a garage and bought three cans of lager from a vending machine in the forecourt. We drove the rest of the way to Mojácar swigging beer and listening to her peculiar jumbled steam-of-consciousness conversation. I concluded she was very sweet but most likely mad.

I didn’t think I’d call about the house, but a few days later curiosity got the better of me and we made a date to visit.

To get to Lubrín we had to return to Bédar and carry straight on, up a narrow white asphalt road that twisted its way through a magical landscape of hills studded with olive trees, yellow broom and thyme. At the top we passed the village of El Campico before descending to El Marchal where the road broadened out and continued another 5km to Lubrín.

The strange thing was how at home I felt. While the views were far-reaching and magnificent the road itself felt cocooned and cosy. We didn’t meet another vehicle that day and in the years to come, I rarely did. If it did happen, I often knew the driver, and we’d stop to chat.

Nadja and her English boyfriend Steve were expecting us. Margaritas tumbled over their garden wall, and on the left of the house were the seven terraces Nadja had referred to, planted with almond trees and flowers.

By the end of the week, we’d agreed on a price and employed a gestor to manage the sale. We sealed the deal over a breakfast of beer and tapas in Mojácar.

Back then, Lubrín was my freedom. The village seemed not to have changed since the Fifties. Set in a valley, whitewashed houses were built up the side of a hill, around an enormous red brick church in the middle.

My house, later christened Casa Becca by a guest, was set off to the right, built into the side of  ‘El Castillo’. Many Spanish towns have a ‘castillo’ hill, on top of which the original Moorish watchtower would have stood.

All the roof beams were tree trunks, gnarled and twisted, interspersed with traditional caña – cane. Stone stairs led up to a low-ceilinged dining room leading to a big kitchen with an enormous fireplace at the end. There was a windowless ‘cave room’ with a huge rock from the mountainside protruding within. More rooms led around to a third bedroom opening onto the front of the house at the other end. The bathroom, down by the main front door, was a very basic affair with an old toilet and a plastic shower over a dug-out portion of the stone floor. In its 200 years, the house had barely changed.

Although there was a phone socket, there was no phone line and, back in 1997, no Internet. Apart from the 6am bus to Almeria City, there was no public transport, either. Compounded by the feeling that I’d stepped back in time, Lubrín felt properly remote. Nobody would ever find me. I’d been unhappy at the BBC so it was a huge relief to find myself there, completely cut off from social pressures.

I turned into another person when I was in Lubrín. Scruffy, dusty, carefree. I wore flowery shift dresses and tatty shorts. The only other foreigner in the town was a Dutch guy who I never met. My friends were old men who regaled me with tales about the village and my house’s past. I found out that Casa B had been the home of the village transportista who took goods and passengers to the coast in his donkey and cart, and that a man had been shot outside during the Civil War.

My main friend was Paco, a portly fellow of about 60. He had small, dainty feet and spoke in a soft, high voice, often reciting poetry or playing with words. Like many men from the village, he’d emigrated during Franco’s rule. He’d worked in Switzerland as a carpenter – he said he’d made furniture for David Bowie.

Another frequent visitor was Christobal, a wizened, Steptoe-like man who would exhort, ‘Mujer, mujer!’ [Woman, woman] in the style of a whiny flamenco singer at the start of every sentence, while encouraging me to buy his house or be his wife.

Paco and I became good friends. Even though he didn’t speak any English and I not much Spanish, he was an excellent communicator and we understood each other surprisingly well.

Soon after I bought my house, Paco took me to his land in La Alcarria, a beautiful valley on the other side of the main road. On the land was an old trunk which he ceremoniously opened to take out two fold-up chairs – one for me, one for my friend. He set them out and we sat down – looking north over an infinity of hazy mountain ranges – the ones in the foreground like rows of reclining elephant backs. Paco loved his land and was planning to build a house on it.

When I think of the early days I remember warm friendships and laughter. Paco would accompany my friends and I on excursions in the car, or come round for raucous suppers on the patio, or we’d have mad nights out in what I christened the ‘Young Mans’ Bar’ next to the post office, where the clientele would chorus ‘Paco Toro!’ when he arrived with two young women on his arm. When I was the only foreigner in town it really was fun.

Slowly but surely, Lubrín caught up with the rest of the world.

A few settlers from England arrived every year. There was Ponytail John, who built his own house out in the campo, and Dave Beach, a lugubrious hippie with great taste in music. There was Sally and Ann, possibly the village’s first ‘out’ lesbian couple, and their neighbour Bill, a gay accountant. There was Mandolin John, always with a beautiful girlfriend. Tourists rarely found their way to the village, but when they did it felt bizarre. To me, they looked big and out of place. Sitting outside the Plaza Bar, they were like giants on a small stage.

Around 2003 the dear little road from Bédar to El Marchal was widened and tarmacked, and with that more and more foreign settlers came. The tipping point for me was when a young suburban couple arrived. Until then, the foreign residents had had something alternative about them, a touch of the pioneer. But these people had none of that. And with that, it was as if my secret hideaway had been busted and my freedom was gone.

Solo Visits

I started coming to Lubrín on my own around 2002. At first, I was nervous. I’d fly in from Gatwick, drive back in my hire car, make the bed and smoke the emergency cigarette I left on the dining room desk. Then I’d go out for provisions from Antonio and Fina’s late-night shop – and see who was around. One time I didn’t get home till midnight after being waylaid by Mandolin John and a friend of his. Another time, I woke up at 4 am in a panic. It was pitch dark and I had the sensation I was entombed within an endless Spanish mountain range – there were no buildings after mine. In my 40s I would often wake up in the night. For a while, an insomniac bird nesting in the roof would be up around the same time, moving about. I found it comforting.

Paco and I grew apart. Lubrín had won the massive El Niño lottery in January 1998 with a prize of 1400m pesetas (about 8.5m euros). Paco was one of the winners. He didn’t spend the money at first, but a few years later he bought a radio-controlled airplane and a souped-up black sports car with red flames blazing on the sides. Where once he had been patient and good-humoured, he became impatient and his gentle high-pitched voice became gruff. He’d tear off to holiday towns like Aguadulce in the sports car and return with torrid tales of his exploits.

They wouldn’t let him build a house in La Alcarria (the plot was just 1m too narrow). Bitter, and obstinate to the last, he built a swimming pool instead and put a squalid kitchen and bathroom underneath. He surrounded the pool with weird totems like plastic fans and dolls’ heads on sticks.

There was a succession of dogs he didn’t know how to look after and on occasion he’d chase English settlers in his car. The gentle, communicative Paco I knew and loved had vanished, and when I asked people how he was, they just shook their heads and said, ‘perdido’ – lost. He died in 2010.

Middle Years

So far, I’d only visited Lubrín for short holiday breaks but when I started my Spanish rug and tile business it became the base for buying and sourcing expeditions. From 2006 onwards, I’d embark on huge solo road trips around Andalusia several times a year. I visited Valencia, too, to go to the Cevisama tile fair, once driving 400km cross-country from there to Cordoba to visit our main supplier. I visited Granada and embarked on crazy missions to find new suppliers in a series of remote locations. I particularly loved going to Priego de Cordoba, a baroque gem perched atop a cliff in the Sierra Subbetica Natural Park. I’d stay at Hostal Rafi where the bar was like a Spanish version of the US series Cheers. Rafi was even playing Bruce Springstein the first time I went. My second visit coincided with a noisy religious procession, the virgin being borne through the streets, children dressed up for their communion and a major football match blaring out from TVs. Hostal Rafi was in the middle of it all – the centre of the world!

Priego was four hours from Lubrín. Driving there in the autumn you’d see bonfires blazing high on the horizon. There were deserted mountain passes where you could go for hours without meeting a soul. At these times, I’d marvel at how, sometimes just the day before, I’d been caged like a bird in my London shop watching traffic thunder by, and now was soaring free in the mountain air, maybe 100 miles away from anyone else.

Occasionally I ended up in dangerous situations like the time I took the wrong route to the pretty village of Castril, 890m above sea level on the edge of the Cazorla National Park. As the track got narrower and narrower, I found myself with no choice but to accelerate up the precipitous bends with an overweight load of wholesale ceramics in the back. Dusk was falling and I remember thinking, ‘no-one knows where I am and I might die,’ followed by a half-crazed relief when I reached the top to witness a herd of goats galloping home in a cloud of dust. It was a quintessential Spanish moment.

Now…

In 2016, Lubrín became my freedom for the third time. Disgusted by the Brexit vote in March 2016, my first thought was to leave the UK. On the basis of having a Spanish house, I applied for Spanish residency. To my surprise, the application was successful and I moved out here in 2018.

Today, Lubrín is firmly rooted in the 21st Century. There are street lamps along the road in, and a small industrial estate just north of my house. There’s a world-class olive oil press, a honey factory and modern milking sheds for the goats. The once-silent hills are full of light and noise. There’s a small housing estate opposite me, too, mainly occupied by British families who now make up a sizeable proportion of the population.

Stubbornly ‘unreformed’ for years, Casa B has been updated to make her long-term habitable. The tree trunk roof beams have gone, as has the insomniac bird. The cave room has a window. The dining room and kitchen have been knocked together and the ceilings raised. A proper bathroom has been added.

I study Spanish, teach English and Creative Writing, blog, write and walk the hills. Everyday life is time-consuming – I collect my water from the mountain spring at El Campico and drag it up to my house in a trolley. In the winter I must bring in wood, make fires and clean the stoves. More satisfying, this year I picked my olives for the first time and took them to the press in exchange for some superb Lubrín olive oil.

It’s been a little tough, establishing a life here on my own. It can be awkward negotiating social groups as an older single woman. It’s taken time to find work, or friends on my wavelength, but I keep on. Perhaps the fourth freedom will come when I really don’t care what other people think.

In the absence of family, Casa B has been my continuity. Last March, returning from winter respite on the coast, it was surprisingly nice to be back. Even though I had to hoover the flaky paint off the walls and clean surfaces thick with muddy dust, it was just lovely to hear the birds again, and the goat bells, and the church ringing every quarter-hour. Enduring country sounds. The sounds of home.

Postscript

In June 2021, I went to a dance performance at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London. ‘Dance Me To Death’ was a project started by AofA’s Rose Rouse, with all the dancers in their 60s or older. At the after-party, I was on a table with a couple from Clapham. When I asked if they knew the province of Almeria, the woman gave a little start. She said that she’d visited a place called Bédar one Christmas in the Seventies. Back then, black-clad village ladies washed their clothes at the communal fountain and collected water in huge water jugs on their heads. Donkeys were the main means of transport, roads were few, and Fi and her boyfriend had walked four miles up to the village from the bus stop. On Christmas Eve, the village ladies taught her to dance Flamenco – she pulled her body up straight to demonstrate. She looked happy as the memories resurfaced, and I thought how great it was that we should meet by chance almost 50 years later, two strangers transcending time and space to share our experiences of a tiny, faraway place that has meant so much to us both.

Perhaps the magic lives on, after all.

Becca is running a trio of online Creative Writing courses. Each runs for six weeks and a number of themes are covered, including Fantasy & Transformation, Imagery, Characterisation, Dialogue, ‘Fragmented Writing’, Theme, Plotting and more.

Classes contain excerpts from a range of relevant authors and a 25-minute writing exercise based on the theme of the week. There’s time for students to read their work and discuss, and homework is given.

Featured authors include Kei Miller, Tim Winton, Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Carys Davis, Jo Shapcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Andrea Levy, Helen MacDonald, Jeanette Winterson, Tricky, Tracey Emin and Melissa Harrison. 

The Creative Writing courses will run from mid-September, along with the journalistic ‘Write an Article in a Week’, which runs over two weekends. The price for each course is £125, with a 10% reduction if you book up for two or more. Becca is currently developing a new course on Memoir Writing.

For more info please visit https://beccaleathlean.wordpress.com or email lubrinbecca@gmail.com

Why I had to Write This Book


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Last year, Dr Eva Chapman wrote about her book, ‘Sexy at 70’ for us at ‘Advantages of Age’. Here she explains why she had to write her latest book, ‘Butterflies & Demons’.

 Butterflies and Demons is set in Adelaide, South Australia. After a vision, in 2006, about the Adelaide Aborigines (the Kaurna), I felt compelled to tell their story, which is also partly my story. In 1950, I arrived as a three-year-old Eastern European refugee in Adelaide.

I didn’t see an Aboriginal person until my teenage years even though the Kaurna had inhabited the Adelaide plain for 40 thousand years. It was as if they had been obliterated. I was taught the European version of history at school, which was that Australia began when the white man came to her shores. I was curious and spent the next few years researching the history of the Kaurna. This entailed going back – by this time I had moved to the UK – to Adelaide, speaking to Aboriginal people, and looking through diaries, newspaper articles and archives. I loved doing the research and found that Kaurna people were so gentle, so clever, and so mindful of the piece of earth they lived on. They suffered terribly at the hands of the British Empire, as did I, an unwelcome refugee in 1950s Adelaide.

I was thrilled to come across the diaries of two Lutheran missionaries, Teichelmann and Shurmann who came to Adelaide in 1838 and lived among the Aborigines, describing in great detail, what happened to the Kaurna, as the British occupied their lands. The missionaries learnt the Kaurna language, believing this was the best way to convert the Aborigines to Christianity. I reproduce many of the conversations between the missionaries and Kaurna men especially Murlawirrapurka who was regarded as the wise elder of the Kaurna people. The missionaries recorded many conversations and events which involved Murlawirrapurka, which demonstrated the measure of the man and the delicate line he had to tread with his new masters. He was gentle and trusting and bent over backwards to accommodate the white man, working hard to ease tensions within his own people. He, as the custodian of the Kaurna people, hoped that the whites would uphold their traditions. But sadly, this was not to be, even though Adelaide was set up to be a model colony, which was not supposed to repeat the harsh treatment of Aborigines in the Eastern States.

The story in my book bounces between two eras, the 1840s, which describes what happened to the Kaurna, and the 1950s, which follows the story of a migrant child who also suffered at the hands of British imperialism. This is based on my own story and describes the prejudice I personally experienced, as I spoke weirdly, looked strange and smelt of garlic. Adelaide residents prided themselves on their Anglo-Saxon heritage and were afraid that the influx of ‘aliens’, as we were called, would dilute their Britishness. They set out to ‘australianise’ us as quickly as possible. My misery was compounded by having a violent, schizophrenic mother who thought the Communists were persecuting her.

The Kaurna story and my story intertwine in a startling and dramatic way – I personally received great healing from their loving energy, which still imbues the gum trees and blue skies of the majestic Adelaide plain.

The pivotal theme that fuses the parallel stories is that past misdeeds cannot be buried. I include a meta-commentary that illustrates this. This Greek chorus is supplied by a dreaming circle of Kaurna grandmothers who observe the unfolding drama, confront and challenge the author (often with humour), and also take part in the action. So I use it as a way of challenging myself. For instance –

Grandmothers:  Eva Chapman, who do you think you are?  Are you attempting to write about the Kaurna, the Red Kangaroo people?

Author: Hey who do you think you are? I am trying to write Chapter 1.

Grandmothers: We are the Kaurna Grandmothers. And we want to know why you are writing about us? We exist in an oral tradition. We are here to protect our sacred Kaurna heritage. We don’t want white, nosy know-it-alls, poking their pointy snouts into our business.

This dialogue device is in honour of the Kaurna oral tradition, and also of the plays or ‘ngunyawaietti’ that the Kaurna loved to put on, and which were described by Teichelmann and Shurmann, in their diaries. The other outstanding contribution of Teichelmann and Shurmann, was their grammar book of the Kaurna language which they published in 1840. This was subsequently lost for 150 years, but by a series of miracles recovered. As a result, Kaurna is one of a handful of the original 450 Aboriginal languages that is still spoken, and taught in schools.

The story ends in the present. Deeply held racist attitudes still hold sway towards Aborigine people. The author is challenged by the Kaurna grandmothers about her own racism, and the result is surprising and ultimately rewarding. Out of the chrysalis of greed, racism and demons emerge new hope – including a song that had been driven underground and a virtually extinct butterfly.

The butterflies which are in the title and on the cover are the Delias Aganippe which were in abundance on the Adelaide plain. Now they are rarely seen. Fortunately, the South Australian Butterfly Conservation Society has taken it on as its mascot and are working to restore vegetation to bring them back.

I have had many visits with Uncle Lewis Yelopurka O’Brien, the current highly esteemed Kaurna elder, who is now 91. What a lovely man. As well as taking me on a historic tour of the Kaurna sites, he read my book ‘Sasha & Olga’ and said my life had been harder than his. Excuse me! His humility is astounding. He feels very honoured that I wrote ‘Butterflies & Demons’ and has fully endorsed it.

Please message me if you want a signed copy or get it on Amazon.  Website www.evamariachapman.com , emachapman@gmail.com  

AofA People: Joolz – poet, novelist, artist, illustrator and tattooist


6 Minute Read

Joolz, 66, is a poet, novelist, artist, illustrator and professional tattooist. She came to prominence in the 80s when she was often called a punk poetess and was instrumental – Justin Sullivan, the lead singer was her partner at that time – in the rise of New Model Army. She’s still writing, painting, drawing and expressing her opinions from her base in Bradford

Where do you live?

I live in the same house in Bradford I’ve lived in for 35 years. It’s an end terrace in a hidden cul de sac in a very poor area but by chance has a large garden with trees. It’s extremely untidy and full of stuff and art materials. It’s very comfortable despite being in disrepair.

What do you do? I’m an artist, writer and tattooist, although I’m semi-retired from tattooing because it’s exhausting work. I have my own studio and set my own rules so I don’t have to get up early or any of that nonsense. I spent my whole adult life working at night either on tour with the band or just because I like it and it racks me off when people say ‘not up yet?’ I probably didn’t go to bed until 3.00 am whilst they were snoozing at 9.00pm. I’m sure it’s lovely to see the sunrise and I often do, just before going to bed.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I will be 66 shortly. My current joke is ‘one six short of the Beast’ which no one finds funny but me. Life is a see-saw – when you’re young you have all the energy and no wisdom, in middle age, it’s 50-50, now it’s all wisdom and naps. It’s frustrating my body which was always fit and strong is still strong but less fit and I live with the constant pain of arthritis in my knees due to motorcycle accidents and the sports I did but hey. Everyone has something wrong with them. I don’t put up with bullshit and I speak as I find, so people try and pigeonhole me as a grumpy old woman but I’m not. I’m half in this world and half in the other world so I see things much more clearly than I did.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Insight and courage, I was a very damaged and hurt girl, I suffered serious sexual and physical violence, decades of abuse and bullying – now I understand and despite the legacy of CPTSD and depression, I’m actually much more liberated and free than I was. At 25 I didn’t have knowledge that I didn’t need anyone else to be happy. Now I like people well enough but I don’t need them.

What about sex?

I have a partner who’s 30 years younger than myself and extremely good looking. All my bits are in working order. It’s not a problem. I don’t lack for suitors either, but that’s their gig, I’m not bothered.

And relationships?

They have been extremely problematic in the past and I’m shit at them, I just take it day by day. I don’t expect the traditional holding hands in the twilight of our year’s stuff now. I had years of domestic abuse physical and psychological so I’ve seen the worst relationships can bring and I’ve also seen the best. I think people expect too much of their partners sometimes. They want a mother, father, sibling, best mate, nurse, counsellor and lover all in one and that’s a terrible burden to put on someone else. Just look at them as a person like yourself with problems like yourself that you’ve entered into a partnership with so you’ll each have someone to be close to over the years and never ever marry someone you couldn’t spend two weeks in a two-man tent in the Lake District with.

How free do you feel?

Extremely free. No one tells me what to do and I won’t be shouted at by anyone. I do as I like and make what I like.

What are you proud of?

Surviving. Being successful in every career path I’ve taken. Being a hard worker and researcher. Loving people. Loving my cat Scout. Having nice grey hair.  The garden.

What keeps you inspired?

Absolutely everything. Every day is a revelation and brings fresh insight. I’m not even kidding or bullshitting. Just keep your eyes open it’s all out there.

When are you happiest?

In bed reading with Scout lying beside me. Scout is a 9kg male Black Smoke variant Maine Coon cat so it’s like having a dog that purrs. We love each other. I feel safe, warm and comfortable and can dream of other places, places I’ll visit when we can travel again.

And where does your creativity go?

Into everything I do and am.

 

What’s your philosophy of living?

I don’t think too hard about that. Don’t get wound up about small stuff. Tell the truth and shame the devil. Stand up for what you believe in but question everything. You don’t get owt for nowt so be prepared to pay the price. Love with all your heart, if the loved one turns out to be shit that’s their karma. Women should always have money of their own and men should give up trying to control everything. Children are our most precious resource, don’t spoil or hurt them. Don’t use children as props to your ego or weapons against your partner. Respect your Elders, you don’t have to like them but they gave you life. Be polite.  Swear if you feel like it. Let your hair go grey and be proud of it because it’s two fingers up at Society that says we should be ashamed of being old.

It’s just part of the journey. We all die. I’ll make an end of it myself if I’m too ill to go on with dignity like my father did. At least I hope I’ll be that brave. There’s nothing to fear in dying, just try to do as much as you can prior. Think of it as the end of the summer holidays and that bright shore waiting.And dying?

Are you still dreaming?

Every day.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

My entire existence is an outrage to many so I don’t have to do anything special.

Lockdown by Live-in Carer


6 Minute Read

There’s being a live-in carer when you can get out and about, visit a friend, see your kids, indulge in a spot of raving from time to time and generally remain connected to the outside world. Then there is being a carer during the lockdown. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done and I review my situation often, surprised that I ended up here. I’m also grateful when I think about where I might have found myself when the orders were issued globally to ‘stay at home’. It could have been anywhere, considering I’ve been wandering the planet, home-free for the best part of seven years. I know what’s going on in the world right now and am aware that there are millions of people suffering greatly during these ‘unprecedented’ times so any challenging aspects of the job I write about please know that I’m not complaining, only describing.

I’ve always been a fundamentally caring person, but when I retired from my last career, I imagined I’d be doing less caring, not more. For nearly 20 years, I had a successful career as a Tantric Sex Goddess – a healer, therapist, relationship coach, masseuse, group facilitator and author. Upon retirement, I changed my name – a kind of magic spell to manifest more freedom in my life and took off to the other side of the world to write the memoirs of my tantric sex years. Falling in love with New Zealand, I returned three times over the next three years. It was a relief to be far away from the responsibilities I’d carried and to finally live the dream – travelling while writing. As is often the case, the book took longer than expected and I wasn’t earning much as I flitted about. As exciting as Tantric Goddessing had been, I had no desire to return there but I did need to start thinking about producing some kind of income.

On one of my trips back to England, a friend begged me to go to Kent and look after his 99-year-old mother. It wasn’t long after my own mother had died. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s for ten years and spent the final four of those in an upmarket care home. I couldn’t look after her myself for too many reasons to go into here but I visited regularly. If truth be told, it was too close, we had been too close and I could hardly bear witnessing my beloved mother’s slow and inexorable deterioration. Her relatives wanted to be in charge of her care and I was happy to step back, supporting the team with some distance between us. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I’d not taken on the role of my mother’s primary carer. This job with Cynthia was a chance to give something back, make amends perhaps. Human emotions are complicated and I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time trying to make sense of that particular tangle of feelings.

I agreed to test the waters for three months and thought I’d just about tolerate the work. Unexpectedly, I loved it and stayed for six months. Cynthia and I bonded. Perhaps it was because I was hired directly by the family and felt a confidence I may not have felt had I started my caring career thrust into a random family through an agency. My friend and his siblings were so grateful to find someone they knew and trusted, they were behind me every step of the way. I felt free to ‘be myself’ – mostly patient, kind and funny and sometimes emotional, impatient and grumpy. I was Cynthia’s first carer and for the first month or so she was resistant to having me there. I won her over but not with charm. I realise now it was by being authentically me. We would laugh together, cry together and watch Zoe Ball on Strictly Come Dancing every single day. We felt at ease. When you do everything for someone – feed them, wash them, walk them to the toilet – for days and months on end, unless you are an automaton a symbiosis occurs, one becomes emotionally- entangled. Love happens.

My time with Cynthia came to an end (she got a new carer and is still going strong, now a 100 years old) and I flew back to New Zealand for the final furlong of my overseas adventure. My oldest son and his wife were expecting their first child and I knew when I returned to England, it would be to settle for good.

Another friend pleaded with me to look after his mum and dad. There’s a lot of need for it out there, it seems. So here I am now in my ninth month of caring for a couple who’ve been married for over 60 years. They’ve become like family. Valerie and Thomas both have dementia to varying degrees, diabetes, a fair few health issues and wear accident-proof pants. They move slowly, with walkers. Valerie, who is 84 is sweet, bright and easy. Thomas, 86, is mainly sweet, bright and easy but can also be infuriating, bullish and can drive me crazy. He went to Cambridge and has an impressive brain on him, which shines through in some of our conversations. I can only imagine what it must feel like to lose control of one’s mind and body, basically one’s life, so of course I have compassion. But I hope don’t live to the point where somebody’s telling me when I have to go to bed and how much chocolate I can eat.

We’ve been locked down together in this house for four months now. Thomas has raised his voice a number of times. I’ve managed to raise mine only twice, a fact of which I’m proud. I’ve learned to become less emotionally reactive and more stolidly patient. The only exercise they get is shuffling back and forth between the three rooms they’re confined to inside the house, with the occasional foray out to the garden. They need me to get them in and out of the door. They need me for most things.

Before COVID, I would drive them out to local restaurants where they were loved by staff, some of whom had known them for years. They had rather a lovely life. The threat of the virus has rendered them house-bound with no visitors. Lockdown was the point at which their carer also became their cleaner, hairdresser, entertainer and full-time chef. We’re all aware that they’re in a comparatively fortunate situation. I do my best to keep us all from going mad, but it’s the Groundhog Dayness of it that gets to us all. Their food preferences are limited, as is their concentration. Toilet accidents are regular occurrences and there is a lot of frustration and apologising on their part, with me saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your fault’. Fortunately, all three of us have a sense of humour and laugh often.

Although the end of lockdown will be welcomed by Thomas, Valerie and I – being a carer is about taking the bad with the good, going with the flow and being responsive in the moment. Of course, I miss certain aspects of my Tantric life but although my days are pretty unsexy right now, caring for the elderly isn’t that far from what I understand to be the true meaning of Tantra. The transformation of poison into nectar. Yin and Yang – the light and the dark. Hey ho. Namaste.

Living in London during Lockdown – Michele Kirsch


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Michele Kirsch, asthmatic isolator, mother of two, author, and furloughed chef, writes about her experiences of lockdown from a tower block in East London.

LOCKDOWN: Day something. I forget exactly. The Vicar.

My vicar is bellowing to me from safety across the road. He is trying to put social distancing into a spiritual context, but he has to almost shout for me to hear him, and he’s just not a shouty vicar. I get the giggles and drift off into fantasy, even though this is the first conversation I’ve had in days.

Vicar dream: In my mind’s eye I see him preaching to NO ONE at the church behind my block of flats. He does the sermon and then asks the invisible congregation to line up for communion. He realises there is no one there, so he eats all the wafers himself, and guzzles the wine. ‘This is my body, this is my blood. WHATEVER!’

Pissed and sated on communion wafers, he recites the Psalm that starts, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’

But that’s just in my cabin fever imagination. I actually have the vicar here on the pavement outside the chip shop. The first human real-life voice, not counting the phone or Zoom meetings, in days. Have I already forgotten how to talk to people, even if the talking is nearly shouting, six feet away?

He says that isolation is not the same as solitude and that solitude can be a good thing, and can put us in conscious contact with God. I’m paraphrasing here. He references the movie Papillion, and then we both say, at the same time, ‘But he escaped!’ And usually, when you say the same thing at the same time, you shout ‘SNAP’ or ‘JINX’ but you know, we’re in a pandemic and I don’t want to jinx the vicar. I need all the help I can get. So far, this has been a high point of lockdown. That and getting four tins of plum tomatoes left outside my door on my birthday. Lockdown has made me SUCH a cheap date.

EARLY ON: Day something, when it still felt like a novelty. The study of Torpor.

I think I will take very well to isolation. I was agoraphobic for large, inconvenient chunks of my life, and being alone, in my own space, was a blessed relief from the gut-clenching anxiety prompted by being with other people in public spaces, far away from home. Back then, isolation was called avoidance behaviour, and I was told, repeatedly that avoiding the thing I feared most would feed the fear and make me more screwed up, which it did. It took time and coming through a raging pill and alcohol addiction, to let me undo all the damage I had done by NOT going out, not doing normal life. It’s not healthy, but I know how to do it.

So the thought of having to isolate for very legit reasons, the health of myself and other people, seems a cinch. It is JUSTIFIABLE AGORAPHOBIA, and I don’t have to let people down, the way I used to. The whole pantomime of ‘Sorry, something suddenly came up’ is no longer necessary. This is gonna be like pulling one long-ass sickie that’s actually for the common good, as well as my own. It reminds me of that New Yorker cartoon with the guy at a desk, on the phone, saying, ‘No, Tuesday’s no good. How about never? Is Never good for you?’

Not only can I stay home from work and meet-ups without the inconvenience of being ill, but I can do great, creative, mind-enhancing, body hardening things. I signed up for a free course at the Open University; Animals at The Extremes: Hibernation and Torpor. I love a course with the word Torpor in it. I am ALL ABOUT the Torpor. But to counter the inner sloth, I do workouts with Youtube, tattooed sensation Betty Rocker. I get over my aversion to Uber, tidy lady Marie Kondo, and tidy and order all my clothes in the Kondo style, even watching shirt folding tutorials to maximise my space in an aesthetically pleasing way. All this frantic productivity lasts until a friend sent me an article saying that you don’t have to be frantically productive in lockdown. So that’s a relief. I go from hyper-activity to TORPOR, in about a day. Doing nothing, is much easier than doing loads of things. Who knew?

A BIT LATER: Day something. I should probably get some food. And drugs.

The novelty of doing nothing is not exactly starting to wear off, except I do worry that I am getting awfully good, awfully fast, at doing very little. One thing I have not been paying attention to is my medication. I am running low on my blue and brown asthma inhalers, and my thyroid pills. I go down to Boots near Liverpool St station and the City is desolate, pin-drop quiet. Everybody has GONE. ‘Everybody is dead,’ I think, melodramatically, and then add ‘Or just at home watching telly.’

I am also running low on food. Food is becoming quite central to other people’s lockdowns. My Facebook timeline is filled with domestic Gods and Goddesses, all displaying that Sourdough bread, or that beautiful Persian meal, or ‘Locktails’ made of Ben and Jerrys, Crème de Menthe and some holiday liqueur. People are exchanging information about where to get eggs, where to get flour, and other now elusive staples.

I have to go to the shop and queue and socially distance and stand forlornly in front of the now-empty shelf that used to have some ingredient I fancied, like tinned tomatoes, or marrowfat peas, or baked beans. Highly processed, and a bit disgusting. I can’t believe I’m a cook. The foods I crave- beans on toast, peanut butter and jam sarnies – are childhood staples. Am I regressing, or is it just a craving for some earlier, innocent time when the kind of thing that’s going on now, this pandemic, was something from an episode of The Twilight Zone? Dystopia does funny things to the appetite. My friend Nick asks if whacking chilli sauce over sauerkraut counts as kimchee. Of course it does.

LATER: I actually know this day. 4th April. My birthday. Followed by Easter! Hurrah. Festive fun.

On my birthday I throw myself a surprise party. It’s great. I have party bags and Soul Classics on the stereo. I put on my best frock and shout ‘Surprise!’ to myself. I have no cake, but jazz up some digestive biscuits by sprinkling them with icing sugar. I give myself presents, which include a box of chocolates, and a sexy dress. But the thing is, I don’t like chocolate, and the sexy dress is already mine. I know it’s the thought that counts, but I don’t think a lot of thought went into these presents. While dancing to the Temptations and swigging Ribena undiluted straight from the bottle, I say to my cats, ‘This party kind of blows.’

On Easter, I read the bible, and sing ‘Lamb of God you take away, the sins of the world….’ in the style of a tone-deaf Mariah Carey, drawing out each syllable until I am totally out of breath. I do all this totally bare arse naked. Because I can. This kills about five minutes of festive fun. Then I make myself an Easter egg hunt, only I don’t have any eggs cos there are none at the shops. So I hide a box of Vegan egg replacer from myself. And find it again in two minutes. I am alarmed that it took me that long. I might be losing the plot.

LATER STILL: Day something. Ah, the interweb!

Spending much more time on social media, and little rituals emerge, which give me a sense of belonging. Each morning Nicholas does his interpretive dad dancing, on camera, with his dog in the background, looking at times, terrified and other times, bemused. Then Naureen takes the register, a la school mistress, and asks who is alive. It’s like a virtual game of schools, and our ‘class’ has gone from simple ‘Here, Miss!’ responses to depraved, ‘To Sir, With Love’ style naughtiness. Virtually we ‘throw’ things, light cigarettes, swig from whiskey bottles. We have gone from being eager, suck up kiddies to a kind of virtual lockdown Behavioural Unit for maladjusted isolators. My virtual friends have become my lifeline, entertaining me when I feel low and conspiring, with me, to be irreverent, no matter how awful the news is. And the news is totally shit, every day.

People are playing a lot of participatory games on Facebook. Here are all these famous people I met, but one of them is a lie. Here are 10 LPs that changed my life. Please describe me using a word starting with the letter L. Here are 15 jobs I had in my life and guess which one is a lie. These games, some of which I play myself, are like those games you played on long car journeys, vaguely diverting you from the slow build of car sicky queasiness. Thing is, none of us know when this journey is going to end, which EXIT we will take. I am starting to feel a little bit ill, the games and quizzes not quite diverting enough to stop asking; ‘Are we there yet, mum?’

FINALLY: Day something, before tomorrow, but after yesterday. It’s good to talk.

I have a brilliant idea, which is to ring two people a day, two people that I wouldn’t normally speak to because work, life, no time, yadda yadda. Well, I have a TON of time now. I ring ________, holed up in his penthouse over a whorehouse in a red light district far, far away. The prostitutes have scarpered but forgot to take the goldfish. My pal has a new focal point of the day, which is to feed the fish. He’s delighted he has found a purpose, a thing to do. And it’s all going so well until the caretaker comes back. The caretaker now oversees the fish feeding operation. He’s stolen _______’s job. And in fact, he’s stolen the joy that I get from asking him how the fish is doing.

Then there is ______ in NY. She lives two blocks from the totally overrun Elmhurst hospital in Queens, with refrigerated trucks for the dead bodies parked outside. She’s trying to figure out a way to get to Costco without passing the trucks, which are scary and depressing.

I am speaking to friends in Moldova and Bangkok. And Hull. People who are stone-broke, and people who will be able to ride this out, financially. People who are doing tons of things, and people who are doing nothing. I am finding that in isolation, I am more connected to other people than I have been in a long time.

Will I use this time productively? I doubt it. I’m certainly not going to write the great Pandemic novel. I’m gonna go grey. I’m gonna run out of savings. I’m probably not going to get fit. I’m gonna watch waaay too much Netflix, and play all my records and dance like no one is looking because NO ONE IS LOOKING. I’m not going to think about what the future has in store for me (or any of us) because I’ve come to the conclusion that the future is none of my damn business.

Michele Kirsch is the author of  CLEAN: A Story of Addiction, Recovery, and the Removal of Stubborn Stains.

AofA People: Susan Latchford


1 Minute Read

Susan Latchford, 54, is unemployed in the conventional sense and brimming with ideas around the written word.

Age (in years)

55

Where do you live?

Chigwell Row, Essex, England

What do you do?

Right at this moment, I’m unemployed in the conventional sense I’ve been yearning for something but have never been able to find or admit what that was. After doing a Soul’s Work coaching session with Gitte Lassen, I was finally able to admit that I am a writer. Not a wannabe, not aspire to be but I AM. It’s my essential self, to question, to be curious, to pull on the loose thread, to research, to read, to write to form an opinion, to tell a story. After doing a CV, it became even clearer to me that all my life I’ve been writing: for others, for charity, for nothing. Now I’m going to be writing for myself, starting with a fear-inducing, sphincter clenching blog which launched on Friday 20th September. I have two half-written books on the go and already have an offer of professional help to work on finishing one of them.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I actually love being my age! I was never too worried about people’s approval anyway, but there’s something very liberating about this time of life. I don’t worry about offending people – in fact everyone is far too easily offended these days. I do feel it’s something that’s easier as we get older and the need for peer approval, belonging to the tribe, fitting in – falls away. There is a parallel with autumn as trees start looking inward and leaves fall. At this time of my life, I’m seeking my bright and shiny self, letting go of things that no longer serve me. I hope I can stand proud of my truth and glory, even if others don’t get it – that’s ok. I don’t owe anyone an explanation or reason for my being. I’m very aware of my health having had two stress-induced heart attacks in 2016 and this has encouraged me to lose weight, take regular exercise and improve my diet. For me, every birthday since October 2016 is one I might never have seen. I’m aware that this isn’t everyone’s experience. One of my oldest and closest friends who are exactly the same age as me is not very well. I was very shocked when I saw him last year at how frail he seemed. I’m so very privileged to get a second chance and be in a position to keep pushing the envelope as much as I can!

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

In terms of material things, I have a home (rented), a husband and a ginger cat companion called Purdy. I have no real lack of anything other than a personal income which I intend to change. I have clarity of purpose, friends I truly value and am valued by, an amazing landscape to inhabit and explore both. The most important thing I have now that I didn’t at 25 is spiritual certainty.

What about sex?

Sex is great! I’ve always been someone with a high libido and find physical intimacy enjoyable and fun. Getting older has had some effects, but as I often say to my friends, I’m older not blind or dead.

And relationships?

Human relationships are important to me, particularly my female friends. As I’ve got older I prefer their company, to that of family, and often my husband. I’m quite happy to spend the majority of each day on my own. I never feel alone.

How free do you feel?

That’s such a loaded question! Am I free of fear and suffering? Do I feel safe and secure? To all intents and purposes ‘yes’. Do I think I live in a democracy in a free country, and exercise free will and free choice? Absolutely not, that’s complete fiction. The only place we have the potential to be truly free is in our mind – even that is fraught with ego and falsehood through the programming of two thousand years of Western society and culture; our childhood, education, peer groups; friends and family and the drip-feed of sometimes poisonous media.

What do you feel proud of?

Throwing my hat in the ring and declaring myself to be a writer.

What keeps you inspired?

The enormous mysterious beauty of Creation, not just on this little backwater planet, but our entire solar system and galaxy. Beyond that, it’s just too mind-blowing and vast to get to grips with.

When are you happiest?

When I’m deep in the forest, on my own, in the early morning, watching the comings and goings of all the creatures.

Where does your creativity go?

Over the years it’s gone into painting, drawing, crafting, wood-burning, photography, and mosaics but always comes back to writing, writing writing!

What’s your philosophy of living?

Life should be defined by joy. It’s just too short to do anything else.

And dying?

Well, I have been on the cusp of that and during a Shamanic journey had a spontaneous dismemberment experience. It’s often been said that it’s a doorway, a transition, another part of the journey. Dying is inevitable and certain. I no longer view it with trepidation, but at the same time I love being alive on this gorgeous planet. I’ll be sad to leave it.

Are you still dreaming?

Of course! I currently dream of spending the night in a desert so I can see an amazing sunset, experience the dramatic heat turning to cold and see the Milky Way Galaxy across the starry medicine bowl of the sky without light pollution. And of course, making a complete photo journal of it all.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

It all depends on how you define outrageous. If it’s bucking the social norm and trend of the average 54-year-old, then I must be perpetually outrageous! I did recently have an altercation with a young mum in the post office. Her rather weak parting shot was ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’. I just laughed in her face and said – ‘don’t let my shame hit you on the arse on the way out’. Or maybe that was just rude?

 https://thewoodp3cker.wordpress.com

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