I wasn’t prepared for the visceral nature of grief.
Holding space as she travelled through her final weeks was a physical task, watching, tending, adjusting, deciding; always on hand, waiting and waiting and waiting.
And then, to begin with, I was light, knowing she was free. At moments almost giddy, I could feel her sailing away full of joy that her prison was broken and she could fly again.
The Christmas holidays drew to a close, the calendar creaking back to the mundane Monday Friday.
It will be good, I thought, to get back to work; something to provide a distraction. Not avoiding, but giving shape, focus, purpose to the days, which are, now, surprisingly empty.
I sit at the desk and read an email. Then again. And again. My eyes slide over the words, they will not “catch”, connecting with meaning, context. They are tired and prefer to stare out at the winter’s day, lemon light bathing the houses opposite.
I am slow. Clumsy. “Wading through treacle”. I forget things I know, my brain operating at dial-up speeds, clicking and whirring to little effect.
On the phone speaking to colleagues I sound like myself, but inside a restless toddler impatient, tetchy, longing to be elsewhere.
The body hurts, skin taut and unsettled, longing for another time.
Lie on the floor until the world stops spinning.
Move slowly, intentionally.
Allow it to sit with you, to anchor you, in the new world.
The rain came and in the cold night turned to snow. Dusting cars and grass verges, a seasonal decoration. In the morning the light crept in milky and shy, a day only half awake, longing to be back under the covers.
We walked to the post box before office hours to send the remaining Christmas cards. We are ahead of ourselves this year, trying to prepare for the unexpected.
Turning into Stranger’s Lane we see an orange blur emerging from the farm track across the A28. A fox. It runs across the road and up the lane, hugging the wall of a house. We rarely see them in daylight, they are creatures of dusk and darkness. It is not yet full grown, and runs like a sniper, cover blown. When the wall opens out into an entry way it turns and vanishes.
On our return we are almost home when I notice the gulls are especially noisy. Looking up a flock of pigeons spatter the sky; two gulls are calling, wheeling while mobbing a much larger bird. At first I think it must be a buzzard, but the wings are too wide and the body drifting behind is wrong for raptor. It is a grey heron. Dipping momently behind the roofline it emerges further on, the gulls still squawking their disapproval; get off my land. The world is full of omens.
Another day, another brief foray into the world (which continues to turn, despite our domestic dramas). The river is swollen, fat and frisky with the rain of past days it rushes and twirls its way sea-ward, murky with mud, creeping up into back gardens, lapping at bench legs or decking, nibbling lawns and shrubs. The ducks dabble where last week was lawn.
On the far side of the bridge the water has spread into the bankside grass, now a shallow lake. I am fascinated by the way this body of water behaves. How it rises and falls, changing daily. How what was last week a grass space where I watched a family feeding ducks, is now a pond, lurking murkily. The trees are stark etching against the slate grey of sky, scratched into place by the cold, printed. Reflections shimmer in the waters swirling satin beneath.
We are in the flood days, nothing what it was. These encroachments change us. As the landscape shifts minutely with the floods expansion, contraction, the flood days sweep us on; when we stand between what was and what is to be. When the rains come to fill up and wash away, moving us, tide-born, where we do not wish to go, but are journeying nonetheless.
She is sitting in shorts and a t-shirt, long hair tied back, wisps escaping around her face. She wears sneakers.
Her face is thoughtful, her eyes questioning, she is as sharp as a tack. She doesn’t fear, her gaze is steady and strong; grass stains on her knees show that she has been outside playing with her brother all the morning.
When I speak she is wary at first. She weighs everything up, she is curious, careful, kind.
She reminds me that we are unique, shows me the confidence that I have forgotten, how it sits surely encircling me, heart and belly, an invisible cord of power snaking through me.
She shows me laughter, joy, playing like there is no tomorrow, forgetting time, clocks, obligations. There are no lists in her world, no schedules. She is immediate and present. She knows things, though she doesn’t know how they came. She has a wisdom which seems older than her years, something ageless there. She is certain of herself.
We walk together until it is time to part company. She gives me a red flower. Then she steps into my soul-self, as though through a doorway. I see her there, shadowed, and know she never left.
I sit in the dust. Hot sun beats my shoulders. Sounds bubble around me, a rushing torrent; traders call, animals speak their own rough music, babel reborn.
To my left my father’s shop. He trades in medicinals; oils and ointments. Herbs dry bunched above the open window, the strong, wood shutters set aside for the day. In the cool of the awning a merchant’s wife enquires for a remedy.
My brother is apprenticed here. In the afternoons he labours in the workshop; steaming, chopping, bottling. He learns the ingredients, their names and effects, how combined they may bring calm or calamity. Father makes him touch the baneful herbs to his lip, the soft skin scorching briefly to death’s kiss. In the mornings he walks to the tower in the town square. He learns there from the mage, studying stars and first-stage sorcery, understanding elemental powers and the scribes’ secrets.
I begged to go too. I am older after all. First-born. Until I bled father would allow me into the workshop, I dealt with the basic herbs, grinding them up to fragrant powder, finer than sand. Once my blood came it was different. A day of shame and celebration. Sent into the women’s rooms behind the courtyard, I learned to fix the linen and master domestic arts; the proper way to serve tea and smile at a husband.
I stifle there. My skin itches with sitting still, my heart strangling with required order. Head aches, ears pounding; I have fainted more than once. Mother fears I am ailing, some malady without a name, moon madness.
Released into the air, which they whisper is good for my delicate disposition, I am at once well. I take with me a bag, velvet and tied with silken cord.
Here I am then, in the dust. My head covered in black to hide me from the sun’s gaze, girl in the street, invisible. I tip the bag’s treasure before me and begin. This one like a butterfly with outstretched wings, this one like the trunk of a tree, this one delicate and nobbled at each end. I watch where they fall, noticing how they lie within the sphere of my gaze, where they touch. Images swim before me, shifting and remaking themselves as my eyes adjust.
I have gathered these tools from kitchen scraps, from the city’s ditches and gutters, when fresh I leave them on the roof for the crows to pick clean. Scoured by wind, bleached in the sun, marble smooth I let my fingers know them, learning each one, a trusted friend.
Already a figure approaches, he is a trader, feet bare and dirty, he offers a copper coin, small, a fortune for him. I shake my head and suggest one of the fruit he carries from the yoke on this shoulders. The deal struck he squats in the dirt. I scoop up the bones, release them, an ossiary offering. Here is a house, a cloud, a bird. Go home, I say. You are needed, be swift.
He is up and gone, nodding thanks, dissappearing into the crowd.
In years to come I will remember these early days, the way I studied and waited, watched and listened. Hiding in plain sight, gathering from the household scraps, my schoolroom the kitchen, my teachers the servants and their stories.
I will remember the day I took my store of tiny coins from behind a brick in my bedroom wall, wrapped them in a silken bride’s veil and crept out across the rooftops to find my own place, far away. I will remember the tiny refuge I found, tucked against the wall of a foreign city, where others would come to seek counsel.
I will remember that not all that is known can come from books and the teachings of wise men.
That there is wisdom in the bones; older than time, felt in the body, known in the blood.
I remember sitting in a neon-lit classroom learning about high magic. The clean lines of ritual, the careful, structured, ordered, measured way of it. How this could, in the right circumstances, create an elevation of the practitioner to an altered state of consciousness. How these steps, made just so, act as the key to unlock the portal of magical power and connection.
This was, in a way, the practice of my churched life: wear this, prepare thus, stand here, step and turn, read these words, raise this cup, offer this sacrifice, move your arms in this way, bow and bow again.
When I sat in that classroom I was newly out of church and all the described splendour left me feeling exhausted. The bone deep exhaustion of seeking to earn a measure of grace, of nothing ever being “enough”, the tarnish of sin masking any hope of joy.
I will, I think, forever connect this kind of practice with the patriarchal structures which dominated and constrained the first half of my life.
I found an interest in the kind of magic mortals make, those tied to the earth by their work, or inhabiting it fully in their bodies. I think of this as traditionally women’s magic. The magic that is whispered on doorsteps or in the woods under the moon, the magic that is shared in a carefully selected herb, a small muslin pouch of tea. The magic of clean sheets and boiling water when one reaches her time and the child is almost come. The magic of the knife which severs the cord. Or of the silent bathing of the newly dead, and later, the remembering, stories of their life laughed over cups in a quiet kitchen, a litter of kittens on the hearth rug.
Life, death, life again.
This magic is not hard or fast. It works with a cup of water and a pinch of salt, with a wish breathed on frosty air, a huffed-out candle, smoke lingering like incense. It meets us where we are, whether in our kitchens or at our computers.
It is subversive because it can’t be tamed. A wild magic which sings in our skin and beats a tattoo in the cavern of our breast. It is powerful because it belongs to each of us uniquely; no-one can tell you “how” to do it, it is sensuously sweet and potent as poison, the warmth of the sun on stone, the cool clarity of the crescent moon.
This is the magic which thrills me, calls me to create oracles from bottle tops and bones, to read tarot at the dining table with an ancient cat in attendance, asks me to listen to my son when he returns home from work at 11.30pm or recite nonsense verse with my mother as she approaches the end of her life. I weave it with string and stones, with herbs, berries and a purple pen.
My rituals now are creative endeavours cobbled like a patchwork from found objects, poetry, spontaneous dances, stolen moments.
Claim this magic for your own. She has been watching for you all this time, ready to welcome you home. Breathe in and wait just a fraction of a moment and you will feel her, willing you to join in with the cosmic dance of creation, to take your place and name yourself.
Once upon a time I was a born-again Christian. I was young and earnest. I made time each day for Bible study and prayer. I attended church services and was an altar server. Later, as a young adult, I took ministry training. I helped with preparing and leading worship, ran evening study classes, met parents to talk about baptisms, sat on committees, supported fundraising events. In these days devotion seemed simple. A prescribed set of tasks, active service within the church.
After I had my children I continued this path, however it was more challenging, the demands of parenting didn’t fit easily with active ministry, I began to explore what living as an act of prayer might look like, then when I began to work in education, once the boys were in school, this became a different coloured thread in my devotional weaving. I was fraught though, pulled in many directions, longing for the simplicity of service, feeling caged by societal expectations. It felt as though I was constantly being asked to “choose”, this or that, devotion or career, mundanity or mystery.
Over the years I have continued to reflect on this, finding the weave sometimes too tight, sometimes loose, never quite hanging together. The tangle seems to be around trying to engineer a situation where it all flows. To create an organic process for arranging a life of devotion in the heart of life denies the fact that organic processes create themselves…I might be a support or guide, tying in the shoots, clearing the dead leaves. I can’t force it.
This week the theme has returned to me again. As we embark on a new phase of care for my mother time stretches to thinness and I feel an old, familiar tension.Turning my mind to the tasks in hand I find a new devotional practice. Brewing a pot of tea. Emptying the recycling bins. Sweeping a floor. As I lie in the front room trying to fall asleep at the foot of her bed I imagine walking barefoot into a huge marble temple. I am surrounded by devotees. We walk silently, our feet whispering on the floor. Candles and incense stand to left and right. I am here to make an offering.
Back in the apparent world I find myself reminded of that temple. I realise that while my other-worldly temple is out of reach for now, I have an actual temple to tend, the details and distractions of daily life beckon. As I sweep the floor I am the disciple, as I clear the dead flowers from the vase I am creating beauty, as I hold a cup to Mum’s lips I am tending the needs of a world in pain. There is no split between devotion and the daily. They are one and the same. Micro-magical moments waiting to be unlocked as I wake to their presence.
I’ve been pondering my relationships with social media, in particular, Instagram.
I have noticed that on days when I am “on” IG a lot I feel less contented and happy. This isn’t even due to endless scrolling, as I don’t tend to do that a lot.
I think it is due to “likes”. This is what happens…I make a post.
Sometimes people “like” the post, they may even comment. Sometimes people don’t respond.
I then begin to reflect on what about the post they may have liked…was it the composition of the image, the content of the text, did I use the correct hashtags?
Then I try to make another post with the information I think I have deduced. Only it doesn’t work.
Now I am aware that there is a mysterious algorithm which runs IG. I suppose it would be too easy and we wouldn’t all have to work as hard and pay for advertising (I only did that once 😉 if it made sense to us…this article talks about how IG is designed to be as addictive as strong pain killers.
However what is striking me most today is how much using IG is like an emotionally abusive relationship.
Let’s cast IG as the significant other in this relationship.
Today I do something, and IG is happy, it smiles, offers me a hug, wants to celebrate time with me, buys me flowers, make me feel good. I bask in a sense of approval and belonging, here are my people, I am finally home.
Tomorrow I do the self-same thing, which I knew made it happy yesterday, but, rather than that warm, companionable sensation, it is cold, stony-faced, it cuts me out and cold shoulders me, laughing with people I know but not including me.
In the past I had a relationship with a human that was just like this, and I have the self-same emotional response with IG. Rather than taking my power back and saying [insert expletive here] I try to appease. I don’t step back, I try harder, I invest more…I check and double check, I criticise my own behaviour, I ask what I did wrong, trying everything I can to get back that sweet sense of approval and affirmation.
It took me a long time in my human relationship to realise what I needed to do.
I am just waking up to what I need to do with IG.
My life. My story. My choices.
First I need to see it for what it is, a communication channel, an app. A piece of software. There is no “personality” here, it’s just clever tech, and its designed specifically to get me hooked and keep me guessing.
Next I need to face up to the fact that if I’m not enjoying it I need to stop! I don’t know what that will look like yet. Cold turkey? Or some significant distance? I can put my phone onto “airplane” mode so that I don’t have internet access to help myself, and make sure there are times when it is out of the room.
While practical changes may help the biggest shift will be in mindset, that there is validity in what I do even if (wait for it…) I don’t share it. That I am keeping my promises to myself and others even if I don’t tell the internet. That I am worthwhile and precious and unique without having to try and prove it to 1 billion mostly strangers…
I am realising that while you “can’t stop the signal”, you sure can choose how much you plug into it.
Trouble is I don’t know how to word it. We need some context.
There is an idea around in the new age community that you can have whatever you want in life, through the process of manifestation. There are teachers (plenty) who will tell you that to have a six figures income you just have to do what they did and you will have a life of wealth and comfort.
If you don’t achieve this then maybe you are “blocked” in some way, perhaps through not having sufficient self-belief, or through some other negative karma which is holding you back. Perhaps your intentions are not robust enough, or you haven’t visualised your goal clearly enough.
These promises are alluring. You can pay money to these teachers to enter into their programmes and learn the skills which they used to achieve their wealth. No one seems to notice the irony that this automatically makes you poorer and them richer.
The idea seems to be that there is enough to go around and everyone can have untold wealth and riches, if you don’t you’re just not trying hard enough, raise your vibration and get with the programme and it will all come right.
I want to call bullshit on this teaching.
First, if you read this article you will see that excessive wealth is excessively damaging for our planet.
Secondly take a stroll with me in your imagination around our marvellous planet…it is still beautiful. What strikes me is that this blue-green wonder rotating its way slowly through the universe is (as far as we know) a one of a kind deal. Everything on our planet is just that…everything on our planet.
When we have used up all the minerals buried in the rocks, or all the wood from the forests, or all the clean water, there won’t be anymore. We might be cunning enough to create some wonderful technology which will help us eek everything out a little further, but there are, unequivocally, finite resources.
Thirdly let’s take a look at the creatures living on the planet. Human creatures have been very successful at manipulating said resources to the point where the population is having a negative effect on other forms of life here. Then look at human creatures. While some are teaching that a six-figures salary is just a powerful visualisation and a well-managed list away, a staggering 790 million people (11 % of the world’s population) do not have access to clean water.
I passionately believe that we need to flip the script. Endless growth is not sustainable. It is natural, hard-wired into us, to fear lack. Our animal selves want to survive. But I do not believe that anyone needs a six figure salary. No one “needs” a holiday every year or £3000 handbag. These might be nice things to have, but they are not needs. Needs are clean water, shelter, adequate food, basic clothing, healthcare, security. Not a Netflix account or a pedicure each month or a bar of chocolate…
Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate and Netflix and I am fortunate enough to be able to afford them at present, but these are luxuries and to think otherwise is kidding myself.
I do not want to align myself with beliefs and practices which are detrimental to other creatures and our home planet. My very existence does this in any case, every time I use my car or buy a loaf of bread I am creating pollution and waste.
We don’t need six figure salaries. If we could stop imagining our lives of luxury and prosperity perhaps we would have more time and energy to make positive changes for our planet and neighbours (both human and not) perhaps we would be able to see through the rosy pink glow and understand that if we don’t do something to help out, if we don’t make the changes, albeit at a micro level, nothing will change.
I do not want to “ascend” to another plane of existence. I want to savour and delight in this marvellous world and the crazy, wild beauty it encapsulates. I don’t want to “escape” I want to embrace…What am I willing to let go of to “be the change”? What am I willing to live without? What vision can I create to make this world a better home for all creatures…because it starts with me.
We live with my mum and my mum lives with dementia. That’s context for you.
I have been following all the good advice. Take each day as it comes. Deal with one problem at a time. Make a list. Set small goals.
Up to a point.
And then suddenly not so much.
I have watched her fade over the past five years. From missed beats in conversations, through frustrations and misunderstandings. Watched as she gradually winds back through memory, now residing somewhere, at a guess, in her early twenties. She knows who we are by name because she sees us everday, but the sense of relationship connection has gone. I am “the lady who helps her.” She likes us (mostly) and knows we are friends, but she doesn’t live here (as far as she is concerned) and wants to go home and wonders when her parents will come and get her. She is dependent on us for every aspect of her daily care.
Today I had a conversation with her doctor. We talk about referrals for community nursing support and to the hospice team for advice. We have been reading up on end of life care and comfort feeding. She is living off small cakes and sips of Ribena.
Life has a surreal quality, like when you listen under water. Everything is muffled, blurred around the edges, distorted. My mother will die because of her condition. While once this was a fact without much evidence, these days it is an ever present thought. Will she be here next week? In the spring?
I fall back on routines and putting on a face. I try to show up for my various work streams but my head is full of cotton wool and I am feeling too many things at once. Terrible sadness and grief. Determination to see this through and give her a “good” death. A sense of inevitability. Hope. Concern for current global issues. The excitement of some projects currently underway, overlaid with the wondering of what I will do once bereaved, whether I will even be able to get out of bed, let alone create.
Too many feelings. All at once.
People say that it is all ok. And it is all ok. Except when it’s not. Except when I wish for someone else’s life which looks easier or when I slip into memories of before. Some things once seen you can’t unsee. Some things once known you can’t un-know.
Human life is an unusual thing. We have the capacity for great creativity, for great compassion. We can take flights of fancy and create wonderful philosophical treatises. We can write novels, invent recipes and send spacecraft to Mars.
All while wrapped in a bundle of organic matter which grows and changes and ultimately fades to nothing, like autumn leaves.
This is the great paradox. To embrace life while staring down the knowledge of our own death. This is the great journey, to burn brightly for our time, and then let go.
Some days I am full of ideas, I was writing two books but for now they are stalled. I cannot imagine that there will be a time when they could be complete. Or maybe I can imagine that time but as Mum won’t be in it I don’t want to finish. Even if I do finish while she is alive she will never, now, know what I did or why that might matter to her.
Such a strange thing this journey. So slow.
And then suddenly hilarious, she is playful, or silly, or downright rude and chuckles uproariously. And for a moment we share the joke. You have to laugh at death. I think Death encourages us to this. She reminds us that our mortality is given, and that we must not take too earnestly something we will have to give up. She asks us to play with this time, to savour it, but not to hold on too tightly.
To feel all of the feelings at once, to revel in the messed up magic of it.
I play the recorder. I started when I was about seven. Recorder in the UK is a starter instrument, people often dismiss it. Popular between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries it lost favour after the transverse flute, with it’s powerful tone, was introduced.
I loved the recorder, and, for my small, rural school I was good at it.
When we moved to Canterbury my parents took me along for group lessons on a Monday night and I met my first “proper” teacher. I took my first music grade lessons.
I went to a girls’ grammar school for my secondary education and music was a big thing. Many talented people attended and often they were part of the county music orchestra or even, in some cases, the National Youth Orchestra.
Towards the end of my first year one of the school’s music teachers told me about a proposed county recorder ensemble. I went up to Maidstone for an audition and became part of the “second” training ensemble. I spent two days in every school vacation practising with others from across the county, and each year we went away for a residential trip. We finished each weekend with a concert
When I was fourteen I was granted the honour of a solo in a school concert. I practiced for weeks, working hard to get the notes in the sonata right. My fingers sometimes stumbled but I was working hard, eager to please, afraid to let the school down.
While I was about as ready as I could be to perform the piece I was in no way ready for the stage fright.
Under the glaring spotlights in the school hall my carefully practiced performance fell apart; I couldn’t get my breath, my hands were clammy and my fingers slipped over the notes, my face was hot and tears leaked from my eyes. It was dreadful. I stumbled through the performance and hurried from the hall to the green room full of shame.
No one told me it was good that I’d tried, how much courage it takes to stand up and perform. A suspicion began to grow…
I played with the county group, eventually making it into the “A” team, for over five years. I had a group of friends there I enjoyed spending time with, we exchanged letters in between our meetings and I felt like I belonged. Once we took part in a national music competition and got to play at the Royal Festival Hall in London. They were good times.
When I was about seventeen I changed recorder teacher. Rather than the thirty mild drive up to Maidstone on Friday evenings (which on British roads is a long way!) I was to learn with a teacher in Canterbury. I was working towards my Grade 8 exam, which is the highest exam in offered my British music boards. The music school was sited in the old town gaol, memory walks through wonky corridors with uneven floors lit by yellow un-shaded bulbs.
I didn’t get on with the teacher. I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do, he seemed to get flustered when accompanying me, and I got frustrated because I didn’t understand him.
One day a letter came in the post. He said I had too many holes in my muscial knowledge and he was no longer prepared to teach me.
I was crushed. It confirmed what I had suspected all along, that secretly I was no good. I didn’t even think to challenge him, to ask him why someone who had been learning music for eight years and had music theory qualifications was not a suitable pupil, to ask him why he wasn’t up to the task. I didn’t take my Grade 8. And I stopped playing music.
For years not playing was an ache in my chest. But I knew the truth now and I couldn’t go back. It was all too much. To face down that failure, to revisit the shame and embarrassment. I told myself I didn’t have time, that I’d disturb the neighbours, that there was no point playing on my own.
A few times I looked for a teacher, but the children were young and we were poor and music lessons are expensive, which is something you don’t realise when your folks are paying!
Time passes. It must be about thirty years since I quit playing music.
This week I met up with a woman I was at school with. We haven’t seen each other at all in three decades.
She also was a recorder player. She asks if I still play. I give a brief, throwaway story about getting sacked by the teacher. We use humour to hide pain in my country. She is shocked. You were good, she says. I knew there was someone else who played and I couldn’t remember if it was you, you were really good.
When we part company she says I should pick up my recorder again.
I think about it for two days.
I don’t tell anyone, but I order a music stand.
It arrived this afternoon. I go upstairs and shut the bedroom door. I unclip the case where my recorders lie. I have a rosewood descant and an ebony treble.
I set some music on the stand. Looking at the notes I don’t recall any of the fingerings. I start nonetheless. I play for around twenty minutes, occasionally stopping or stumbling, my fingers showing my brain the way; muscle memory is a powerful thing.
As I pack up, I pick through the music books. They are dusty, covers faded. A few I enjoy, but many are pieces chosen for examinations or at the behest of instructors.
It comes to me, a word from the gods; maybe it’s time for some different music?
Time to find something I enjoy playing, because playing is enjoyable. Time to explore music because it delights and creates joy.
I find a damp cloth and wipe down the instrument cases. I sort the music into two piles one to archive and one to practice. I go to the computer to order cork grease and a book of folk music.
The metaphor rattles around my mind. Time for different music. How many parts of life does that apply to? How has it taken me thirty years to realise it?
Time to sing a new song, to explore, to find out what I like. To take pleasure in this art just because, not to pass an exam, or impress a teacher. To let go of a sad story; to stop forcing myself play other people’s choices and seek my own.