Thank You Life

First published by Advantages Of Age on 12th January 2021 as: My Letter To Loved Ones

https://advantagesofage.com/exclusives/my-death-letter-to-loved-ones/

As some of you will know, I am passionate about death and I continue to enquire and investigate this amazing thing that will happen to each of us. So, it doesn’t feel strange to be writing you a letter from the alive side of death.

I am sitting here in January 2021 very much alive, writing some words I wish to have included in the rituals that occur afterwards. Those after-death parties, celebrating, mourning, loving, laughing and weeping of afterwards. I know my afterwards will be good. A consequence of having spoken, written and riffed about my death and dying, as much as I have. As well as knowing that people who love me have heard me.

I don’t doubt for a moment that you – the ones that I am writing to now while imagining your faces and presence – would get it totally right. What I mean by right, is that it would be about me. Seems so obvious, but I don’t think it is. Funerals and memorials, often end up in the hands and power of next-of-kin, and they may not be the ones that are the deepest kin.

I am remembering the horror of living in Sydney when many gay men started dying of AIDS. So many homophobic next-of-kin who claimed their dead sons, taking them away from the kin who knew and loved them. These next-of-kin gave them funerals we were excluded from, that completely eradicated each beloved brother.

That’s an extreme example. I have some biological next-of-kin, my dear brother, a sister-in-law I adore and the most delicious niece. Over the last few decades, we have got closer. We have become more real across the differences, and I know in the event of my death, their involvement would be wholehearted, and that they have seen my life in ways now that they hadn’t before. They would be led by those that know me in more detail and nuance but they are here. You are right here. I can see your faces, the way I did 13 years ago when you crossed the border and really got a glimpse of me by accepting the invitation to my 50th birthday party. I love you so much for that, and nothing was ever as distant again afterwards.

So, I’m imagining myself dead, and someone (maybe Louise, or Cath, or Sue) is reading these words to you, and a gathering well worthy of my little life is happening all around. I want you to know that I’m pissed, (in the American vernacular, rather than drunk) I’m angry.

Of course, I’m not anything, because I’ve disappeared back into the mystery. I’m angry now at the idea of this letter being necessary. This is the letter in case I die suddenly, without any warning, without any space whatsoever. The one for if I get blown up, squashed by a bus, murdered, stroke, aneurysm… you get the picture. One minute I’m here and then not at all. Gone.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to die. The one outlined above is the one that would piss me off.

The thing is, I don’t want to miss out on my death.

In my wishes, hopes and dream versions of dying, I am either terminally ill, or I get to a point in time when I’m done, and choose to leave life by my own hand.

I have given a lot of thought to both these possibilities.

At the age of 62, I am clear that I don’t want to get very old. If nothing medical shows up as the pathway, I will know when I’m done. It feels like approximately another decade. If I feel into my heart, and I do check in with it, now I know how that’s what I hear.

It would be both simpler and more edgy to die by taking my own life. I like the not-having-to-die-of-cancer part, but it would require a different kind of discourse with people. By people, I mean you, the ones I am writing to now. The you that I have loved and travelled with, touched, been touched by, been loved by, argued with, forgiven and been forgiven by.

It’s an act of some kind of defiance to say – I’m not ill, dying of cancer, or anything else, but I am done. I’m going to go soon. I’ll take some time preparing, I’ll invite you to meet me in some of it. I will probably ask you to take on some specific parts of the afterwards. I’ll let you know when-ish, so it’s not a shock. I know how to do it, I will have the pentobarbital ready, the conditions as I have dreamed them. I won’t ask anyone to sit with me because that is a legally compromising impossibility, but you will know it’s coming, my going. I will say goodbye. I will do it with grace.

That is very different from saying – I have a terminal illness. But if I do develop one, I am not going to fight it. I’m going to learn everything I need to know about how to die of it, what it involves, how long it takes, what it will take from me before that last breath happens. What support I might need because I want to stay at home. I know it’s still a bit off the wall, controversial even, going against the cultural assumption of fighting the good fight for life at any cost.

In both these scenarios, I will have the opportunity, the actual time and space to experience the process of moving, eyes wide open towards that last out breath. If I were sick, I would want to minimise the pain relief, not to a masochistic degree, but I would want to be as awake as reasonably possible. I’m no pain meds prude, but if this were my last dance, I’m up for a bit more pain in order to be conscious so I don’t miss it, this last walk home. The nicer thing about being consciously sick, rather than the barbiturate route, is that I will have you around, faces to see rather than imagine, hands, breath in my ears, near my face. It will feel less lonely, even though I know you would be there holding me either way.

I know I am held, seen and loved, even though I spend a lot of time in solitude. I can always see and feel you if I turn your way and let the light flood in. I am always lying under the brightest of stars and blackest of skies, even though I haven’t ever really seen that sky.

A few words about my clear-as-a-mountain stream, choice not to get what I call old-old. I consider myself in the early stages of being old. If the world were a different world, where systems were built from the bedrock of humanity and kindness, where the places called Care Homes, were as a norm, thought about and operated completely differently. And this work of looking after old humans, was valued and peopled by those well trained and well paid, rather than those desperate for minimal wages to survive, with no training and support – maybe, just maybe, I would feel differently.

I’m not saying all facilities are grim, but that is the norm rather than the exception.

There is something deep in my bones that just doesn’t want old-old age. I’m tired. It hasn’t been an easy journey to find my soft place of belonging here in this ravaged and beautiful world. What I think of as a hard journey to a very soft, though not ‘cotton wool candy soft’ place. These fields of kindness and simplicity require courage, a willingness to let go of pretty much any idea you get too attached to, along with compassion and comedy in equal measure.

I live with, was born into, baseline depression, and have had a long old pilgrimage with understanding that the physical pain in my body is the embodied truth of that. With an almost mythical miracle of generosity and timing, I had my spinal surgery, and have spent the best part of 2020 understanding what I had been blind as a bat to seeing. My baby bones are coming home. It nearly didn’t happen like that. You all know this story.

So, I’m here, and often peaceful in the way my friend, Leonard Cohen speaks of in one of my favourites of his comedy riffs:

‘Peace did not come into my life
My life escaped
and peace was there.’

I’m tired. I have some more life in me, but not without a sense of limits. This is not complicated for me, or sad, bad or wrong. Or right. Just simple.

I long to have the opportunity to die creatively. I want to make it a project that has meaning, may even be an offering. Since kindness and simplicity have found me, I have had this sense that all I have to offer is my little life. I discovered my own generosity, not as claim to anything, but as a gift that brings me closer to myself and to you. It is the ‘peace’ that was there.

If you are listening to these words being read at a ritual gathering, I have died suddenly. I have not been able to give myself to the longed-for experience. I missed it. I feel an indescribable sense of loss at this possibility, just as I know that it is not in my hands. I have to long, and to let go. I am tasting the grief as I write these words. I have to trust you will know how to include this offbeat part of who I am, and who you love, in my afterwards.
I do trust that.

Postcard on 2nd January 2021

On Monday I go back to work… work I love by the way. Just suffering a bit from old mumbling narratives of head fuckery. 
I haven’t done enough with my time off… I haven’t refreshed like a delusional detox advert… I haven’t even detoxed at all… still running on too many diet cokes, even though they keep flying out of my hands and drenching the just made with clean sheets bed, or newly clean clothes, or books, cards…
I KNOW, I shout at the comedian teachers… I know, I’m just not quite ready to let go. As any addict knows, a decision needs to be made, to stop, to reduce by 2 a day, to start a planned reduction programme, whatever the plan, there has to be a decision. A date in the diary, and then the commitment to hold the boundary. I’m not making that decision. My diet cokes keep flying out of my hands. I am close. I am in negotiation with the comedians. I say, please don’t throw one over my laptop. I’m coming. I’m nearly there.

It’s not a moral judgement thing… it’s just got so bad I can’t even say my daily number of cans in public, though a few people know… I’m ashamed. My body is suffering… and, I don’t want to stop!

Welcome to all that, I bellow. 

I felt kind of Holy yesterday, for a bit anyway. Getting up, lighting every candle in the house as little flames of prayer, for all of us, for all of it, for the hopeless, wretched, broken and whole, with gratitude for all that I have: home, friends who really get and love me, enough money, though not a whole lot… food, warmth, my 7-legged non-human family. Myself, my teachers, everything… 

And, yet before long, I had dropped into a place I know well. It’s the weight of depression, without too much judgement. A place where I am weighted down, and not much seems to happen … I’m not sure if that’s true. The Jury is still in enquiry… but it is a place I don’t feel like anything is happening, nor very connected to aliveness… 

My very dear friend, Cath, was visiting later, and I had wanted to hang on to feeling Holy (in the Patti Smith sense you understand) but all that was open, had closed down. I tried to say: welcome to This, and maybe a little bit of welcome happened.

Cath came. I told her the above. 

Immediately, This relaxed, not gone nor banished, but included. It was precious to be with my heart sister. I was nourished. Still not entirely returned to the fully desirable, Holy place. 

What is this place I speak of? 
It’s being cracked wide open… I love it. I’m so entirely HERE. It’s sublime, not high or hyper, often very peaceful, often bringing such rivers of welcome tears… I do, both want more of it, and feel a should…. I’m exploring the matter.

This morning, I woke up under a blanket of doom. I didn’t want it but know so well the futility of that… a text arrives from my very dear friend and writing mentor, Rose, and in the sweet authenticity of our exchange, the light slipped in through the crack and I was in my heart.

Am I not in my heart when that crack closes again? I don’t think that’s true… but am questioning the tyranny of Presence & Connection. The Jury is still considering, and the true rigours of welcoming everything is throwing me around a bit. 

So, I got up. I had to get up. I have a responsibility to Leonard The Dog. I got up. Got dressed and washed and all that stuff. I listened to some of what’s going on in the world on the radio. I took Leonard to meet his friends, Shaun and Carol, who were taking him for his proper walk. I can walk, slowly, on pavement, up to a total at one time of approximately 2500 steps. 

I walked home, full of doom.

I started making order and peace out of Bed-World, and suddenly knew, no more world woe. I put Kate (now Kae) Tempest’s Book of Traps and Lessons on loud… this extraordinary long form poem in 9 parts, or tracks, or songs, as they are listed. Seriously, and I mean seriously, this is a piece that deserves to be listened to as the fucking amazing, complete thing that has been offered up to us.

I can’t always put music on, or open up my poetry books, because it is this that cracks me open. Every-time. And, like the Diet Coke, I don’t always want to feel so cracked open, even though I long to be so torn apart… 

A conundrum. Maybe the conundrum of my little life. Open and closed, contracted and undone… for now, I am exploring a little more deliberate use of the art that does tear me apart. I bought a Bose Bluetooth speaker in the Boxing Day sale, and now am going to begin every day with at least 1 or 2 songs. 

It is a heart strategy. It is discipline, in the discipline of practice kind of sense. 

Today, I have just kept listening to songs. I can’t do background music… I have to be willing to touched to the core. So, I washed clothes, cried, laughed, danced, my much more embodied, so sometimes barely dancing, dance… I have read some poems, some of Leonards, that I don’t actually need to see the words on the page to read, just be available to feel… I have washed Leonard The Dog, as he was delivered home with muddy in ascendancy. He forgives me for every shower.

Now, I am here in a darkening London bedroom, tip-tapping with no particular story to tell. Just a candle-lit postcard from the 2nd January 2021. Alongside my sweet smelling and beloved dog. 

I am here.

I am imagining each and every single one of us. All kin. All Here, each in their own direct experience of Here, some unthinkable, unspeakable, unbearable … I want to feel that thread of humanity that connects us all, even if I can only come and go with that.

It’s all I’ve got.

17 DAYS

On Thursday 17th December 2020, I did my last day of work until 4th January 2021.

My 17 days of space had taken on a mythical and magical quality. Now I am in it, and it’s only 12 or 13 days, depending on if I count today. It has been a most peculiar year for each and every one of us. The year of the corona virus, lockdowns, body counts, avoidance of the realities of Brexit, division deepening, black men being murdered by police on live television: the best and the worst of us.

I began 2020, in the narrative of my own little life, preparing to have a second spinal surgery in February. I was in constant acute pain. The kind of pain that made me want to die. Literally. I have, as some of you know, given a lot of time to reflecting on and feeling into death… a life-long enquiry. Given that, it wasn’t such a stretch to examine the option to take my life if the alternative was to live like this. 

With my dear friend, and most intimate filmmaker, Andrew Hassenruck, I started to explore this possibility on camera. If you would like to see what we made together, here it is.

I had planned my post-surgery back sabbatical with military precision. As a psychotherapist, I had scheduled with care, the two months recovery space for afterwards. Everyone knew what was going on. I knew what was going on. My budget knew what was going on. I arrived at Charing Cross Hospital at 7am on the morning 20thFebruary, accompanied by my heart sister, Louise, who has been beside me all the way through this arduous journey of many appointments and the first surgery the year before.

I was admitted, dressed in all the attractive garb, including unspeakable underwear and socks it took a lot of effort to get on. 
And, then the waiting.

And, more waiting, and not much movement of anyone out of the waiting and towards the operating suites. Anxiety began to ripple round the room. There were whispers of some trouble with equipment. After 7 excruciating hours, we were taken to a room and told my surgery had to be cancelled due to the lack of an Xray machine. 

I don’t really remember what happened next. I lost it. Loudly. I have a strange gift, in that when I do really lose it, I may not remember much after, but am able to lose it with eloquence. My surgeon came upstairs to speak to me, and we stared into the eyes of each other’s helplessness. He couldn’t help me. He said it was like this down there every day, surgeons fighting over not enough basic equipment. He needed an Xray machine for 3 hours and now the window had closed… he only came in once a month. He could book me in for March but couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again… he was willing and able, even if just for a moment, to really see me on my knees… wailing. I did not know how to go on. 

Home. Louise. Uber. Leonard the Dog hurriedly retrieved from Dog Heart Hotel… 
In the morning, in my own bed rather than the surgical ward as I had expected to be… I knew I couldn’t go on. The only words I could hear, were ask for help.

From somewhere beyond anxiety, head fuckery, shame, ego and all that would have made a pig’s ear of asking for help, a clean, clear voice found its way to the keyboard. I still don’t really understand how that request got written.

It did.
I posted it.
Help happened.

It was a huge, life changing, extraordinary experience, that I have written about, and know I will write about more.

Some of you know it, were part of it, have walked the road of it with me. 

The short of it, is me calling my surgeon at his private clinic in Harley Street 24 hours after my cancelled operation to ask him when I could book into his clinic and pay him to do the procedure. So many people had given me hard cash, with such generosity and kindness, that I had almost as much as I needed, and more was flowing in. He was astonished. He booked me in.

On 25th February, I had my spinal fusion surgery in his tip top, state of the art facility. He was so delighted to be able to do his best work, under impeccable conditions, with his hand-picked team and absolutely no time pressure. 

I came home in post-surgical agony.
I bow deeply to medical science, and the extraordinary things we have learned to do over the last century, and, I think we forget that any surgery is a medicalised violence. We are sliced open and tools are used to rearrange the inside of bits of our body. We are rendered unconscious and intubated. In another context that would be considered traumatic for both body and mind. We have been educated to disassociate from the truth of this, and recovery is measured in a different language.

In summary, the next two months were wending my way, from indescribable pain, overwhelming gratitude to the kindness that gave me my surgery, the shock of Covid, and the Lockdown, a realisation that if not for my personal miracle, I would have been long-term lost in the vortex of a non-critical backlog within the NHS. 

There are two strands to my working life. I am a home-based psychotherapist, as well as doing a small admin job for a Devon based, groupwork programme called Movement of Being. I was imagining that many of my ongoing clients wouldn’t want to work on Zoom, which turned out to be the opposite of true. I was also faced with my admin job having become a much more technical affair. My dear bosses, Fanny and Colin, when faced with the stark choice of closing shop for the duration or trying to make a version of their programme happen online, went for the latter. 

They didn’t hire me for my tech skills, which are basic, but because I really understand their work, and how to hold their frontline. Communication and basic systems. All of the systems changed and some of them were not so basic.

So, when I came back to work at the beginning of April, I was thrown into, not only a major learning curve for Movement of Being, which turned out not to have been so 20 hours a month, which I’d not really noticed before, but my practice was bursting at the seams. Suddenly, I was seriously lacking in breathing space… I think this is how a lot of people operate in this culture of work and stress. I think where I found myself is many people’s normal… but for me, it hasn’t been like that for a long time. Maybe back when I was training at the Tavistock, doing placements, running my own private practice as well as working a full-time job in Addiction Services, plus trying to have a relationship and a personal life. 

Within this new spaceless-ness, much was happening.
I barely left the house. 
Not great for my back rehab walking practice.

I sat with more care and effort to posture than ever before, for long hours, with more clients than I’d had for a very long time, and in-between I crashed coursed in learning new admin. 

Having learned a bit about self-care along the road, I did put some in. 
I saw my therapist, long-time angel, witness, holder of place and space for me, much more regularly. I started to go back to my movement practices, groups and teachers, because I could, because the whole world was happening on zoom. When the first major lockdown started to open up, I went back to see my blessed osteopath, and she gave me an exercise routine for daily practice… I needed core strength and stability to support the surgery.

I worked and worked, so very grateful to be able to earn my living, looking into the mirror of so many people in industries that had collapsed. 

I was also trying to work out and assess the results of my surgery. I was in less pain, and significantly more mobile. I was straight, not skewed over to the right. I could feel the new architecture. I had seen x-ray pictures of the surgery. The dust of my two lower discs had been swept away and now I had structure that in principle could support me for the rest of my life.

I was still in pain. Much less than I had ended up in prior to surgery when life became survival, but more than I had imagined. I’d had what I now see quite clearly as a magical thinking delusion that I could wind the clock back 10/15 years, live with constant pain at a much more manageable level. Chronic rather than acute. Obviously, we can’t roll back time. I’m 62 not 47. 

Also, I’d missed something so extraordinary, I could hardly believe my blind spot. Yet, that is the nature of a blind spot… it is blind, until it isn’t. Having spent the last 15-20 years deeply involved in healing practices, many involving embodiment and breath, I had failed to notice my lifelong physical disassociation… I fell, in many moments, with many teachers, Grace, Mystery, my own grit and drive, via many beautiful trainings, journeys, techniques for homecoming, and I did fall eventually, when all else failed, into a field of simplicity and kindness. The place of giving up, that welcomed me into a deep understanding of already being here, just waiting.

The physical pain had become split off by my blind spot… I wanted to fix it… it had become unliveable with. I had always been able to say: I was born into depression but had truly failed to recognise the pain began there too. In the first moment, the first clench, the first no to every in-breath. Embodied depression. Not separate, but the bedrock of it all. We are embodied. Everything begins there. 

I sort of knew. People would ask me what the physical issue with my back actually was. I never had an accident, or an incident. I always said that a lifetime of clenching had broken me in the end. Sure, my discs had turned to dust, but what I did, until I couldn’t anymore, was just keep going. All the dancing, cooking, walking… all these things that healed my heart, kept breaking my body, and I didn’t notice, until I literally couldn’t do anything that mattered anymore. I still didn’t understand what I didn’t understand…

These last 9 months, underneath all the overfull-ness, my blind spot has been falling from my eyes, from the narrative in which I had thought I’d understood. That sounds so coherent, but let me say, it has been the most untellable storyline of my little life of stories… I have just had to let it do its thing… All sorts of ideas about what I needed for my ongoing Back Project, were exposed as traps and lessons. No, it wasn’t about learning how to think on the dance floor, find the special teacher that could teach me yoga, in spite of my difficulty/impossibility of getting instruction through brain that hears words and understands them, into my body… it wasn’t about learning anything fancy at all, but trusting my teachers are already here… like my dance, my capacity, my limits. Of course, I am already here, and the heart-breaking open, tenderness, of starting to be able to give some words to this, is that my self-parenting mission is to do my best to stay in my body… imperfectly no doubt, but this is what is true… if I stay in my body and listen to what it can and can’t manage, even though I am fixed enough to push on through again, I keep the pain from escalating. If I forget, it escalates. Simple.

A few simple lessons. I can clean my home, but only if I don’t listen. Clean house = more pain. I can dance faster and harder in a 5 Rhythms class and then I escalate the pain… I can walk further and faster, and carry too much shopping, and then I pay the price… learning to listen, to work within my limits, to think about limits without the tone of judgement, to keep on practicing this quality of self-attention, to lovingly listen, and bring home, my tiny unmothered baby bones, to my aging body, while there is still time, well, it is quite something, just beginning to be tellable. 

I have been working hard to make coming back to work in January, a thought through, learning from the ending up spaceless, into a balanced and structured enterprise. I can’t do that again. I know bags about repetition, but I can’t do that again. I went a bit mad, and I sort of ended up in another version of surviving at some level. I’m quite proud of doing all the thinking, tweaking, re boundary building, deciding on how many clients, how many days, how to have a weekend rather than 2 days off with work in-between, more structure to my ad-mining for Movement of Being. I have built in spaces, time to be, to exercise, to write, to see what’s there, which is something I was prone to call being lazy and unproductive. 

I have some writing to write. It matters to me.
I have friends to have more of. 
I have work that I love, and more life to stretch out into, with more breath inside it… as many of you that are kind enough to read my postcards and riffs, already know, I am not planning on much old age. This is not the society I have any interest in getting old and dependant in… but I’ll know when to go, and it’s not yet.

So, back to my 17 DAYS… I put a lot of pressure on myself to USE them productively. I knew I was doing that and couldn’t help it. I’ve finally landed, and it took 6 days… now my days are numbered! 10 more days until I return to work. I’m wrapping up the little one that counts and worries, in a nice soft cashmere shawl, and inviting her to put her head down.

All our days are numbered. If I keep remembering, what I regularly forget, I get to put my head down in the grace of simplicity, often, and that is a place, and a no-place I recognise as Home.

THIS: PART 2

 

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It has been a bit of a time.

These last few weeks have thrown me through the air and spun me round.

I was slow cooking something, writing wise, and I knew a few things about it. That is was called THIS and why it was.

And then Life really overthrew me, and This was not going down the writing enquiry I had in mind… and yet it was still This.

Sometimes I have to surrender, and for me surrender is another word for trust. I had to trust this uncooked, unplanned, unthought through, most crucial of all, undefended piece of writing, because it was part of a cry for help.

I wrote a letter and posted on FB. I also sent it via email to some people who don’t use FB. I did the very best I could, to not play any games, not to be clever or defended, or anything except real. It is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, just because there was nowhere to hide (nor should there be) but the feeling of that itself, was exposing beyond anything I’d ever experienced.

The outcome, as many of you know, was so overwhelmingly kind, generous and fast, that within a few hours I was able to ask my surgeon when was the soonest he could do my spinal procedure in his private clinic. I already had been given enough money for the basic fee. He couldn’t believe how loved I was. I couldn’t quite take in how loved and cherished I was.

I had some epic surgery, under the most optimum conditions, great team, great, tip-top notch theatre, no time pressure because there was no queue of people needing to be fitted in behind me. My lower back has been restructured, architecture and engineering has happened. It will take some time and patience, but the very worst post op pain is over, and I can feel the new story in my body beginning. My body is hopeful to such a degree, it is only through that that I really grasp how much hope I had deeply given up.

So, this is an epic tale of good fortune, of love, generosity and kindness. Many people who gave so much were friends and friends of friends, but some were strangers. Are any of us really strangers? Really? There was a moment when 2 transfers came into my bank adjacent to one another. One for £3 and the other for £3000. Both people really were strangers. And absolutely not strangers. At that level, to quote the great and lovely Ram Dass: we are all walking each other home… and we are all in in together. If only, only, more of us could crack open to the truth of that…. My longing for this for us, especially for those of us caught up in very oppositional positioning, is fierce. My tiny life is a prayer for that…

Anyway, back to the original cooking of THIS.

A while ago. A year or so, ago, I was talking to Colin. Colin is a lovely human. A fellow traveller, and in the weirdness of certain things, he also my boss. I have a little job looking after the front line responding, and behind that, administrating for the lovely work he does with his partner in life and work, Fanny Behrens. It’s called Movement of Being.

It’s such a privilege, being their front line, and behind holding, of their radically simple work that mostly happens in small groups.

So, on this occasion of conversing with Colin, I asked what Adam calls his work. I don’t know Adam and may never meet him. He is completely off the grid so it quite fruitless looking for him, and yet I do feel him… humming down through the lineage of teachers, and friends, just as I felt Fanny and Colin, long before I met them, through their students, my teacher’s teachers and friends…. I sent Fanny a card once, expressing gratitude for their work, even though we’d never met, and may never do so. Later I got to find out it lived on her dresser for quite a long time. These beautiful things we often never know, about the ways we touch each other.

So, Colin says to me, what I heard as THIS. Actually, he’d said, This Movement. The vagaries of going slightly deaf, getting old, losing pieces of ourselves along the road.  For ages afterward I thought Adam’s work was called THIS. I fell in love with this man I may never meet, because his gig was called THIS. How distilled is that?

It is always, always, This. I fight with this, I rage at it and refuse it, and sometimes love This so much I try and hang on to it with all my might. But This is here and then it’s gone. Over and over This is just simple and true… and I find great, deeply embracing comfort in this, THIS-NESS.

Of course, I forget, and remember again, and can only part pray and part muscle build, growing a bit stronger with practice in remembering the simple principle of THiS.

I grew up learning the alright and not all-right model. It wasn’t explicitly called that, but I learned it deep in my bones. It coloured and shaped every single beat and pulse of becoming.  Baby boned me learned shame for almost every ordinary human experience: needing things, having feelings, taking up space, asking for help, making a mess, bodily functions, wanting to be seen, heard…. What I really learned was that I was never alright, and the only kind of welcome I experienced was if I was compliant. I learned compliance for a bit. And then I found rage. Rage at the seeming madness of the world, but mostly at my un-all-rightness. I learned a lot of ways to hurt myself. I almost died but couldn’t quite manage to let go of my little life.

A lot of things happened over the next thirty-plus years. A lot of healing happened. A lot moved, and a very deep thing stayed stuck. Depression is a funny word. Some object because it feels pathologizing and/or reductive. Personally, as one who recognises (now) that depression is her home address, it’s a helpful word if used in an expansive manner….

I became a therapist. Funny what takes some of us to this kind of work. I’ve done a lot of journeys, in pursuit of unsticking this thing about me I was making not-okay. Tantra, Amazonian plant medicine, inner child, cathartic work, personal guided channelled advice from beyond…. I started to feel defeated… there is a whole discourse in healing communities (I use the term loosely) about how we should be able to release and heal ourselves. In the end it felt tyrannical…. The tyranny of presence. The only thing I kept on trusting was dance, 5Rhythms et al. In the body was something true. In this practice was something trying to happen that I couldn’t so easily fuck up with my head. Poor head, trying so hard to work it all out

About the same time, four/five years ago, I started to give up on fixing myself, my depression, my failure. Sounds kind of soft, but it was awful and violent, and I was lost in the real, rather than theoretical experience, of there being nowhere else to go…. I can only write it like this, I fell. Falling happened. Not all at once, but fairly fast. It took my breath away, and I wondered if I was dying. I landed in what I have learned to call The Fields of Kindness, and it was there that I first started to get a taste of THIS. What if there really wasn’t anything to fix, to make wrong or right? Just This. Welcome or unwelcome. Easy or terrible.

Alongside the Fields of Kindness were the Fields of Simplicity. So much kindness and simplicity, just waiting for me to get there. Homecoming happened. Truly. How long it can take to make that journey when the beginning was rough as fuck and no-one knew how to show you those Fields of kindness or simplicity, never mind a doorway called THIS.

I could, if I were a linier bird, write a whole piece about the last couple of years, and the physical pain, and my enquiry about staying in, or leaving the world. But, I’m not a linier bird, and as I recover from my recent, rather miraculous surgery, waiting to see what the outcome will be, all I can say is that, that’s a riff and ramble for another day.

THIS this, is Sunday, on my beloved bed with Leonard the dog, some post op pain, some cracked open heart, interspersed with some head fuck about wanting to hang on to cracked open and knowing that nothing stays still, and that in all the welcoming and falling, I have learned that even if I drop in to the darkest places, luminosity still rolls through the darkness of rock face, and the stars are down there too. It’s the THIS-NESS of trusting that comes and goes: forgotten and remembered again.

 

Forgetting (again)

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I keep forgetting what I know
I don’t mean the knowing my brain cells know
or the kind that’s hidden in oblique reference books

it’s the knowing that my breath knows
literally, my breath knows
and it’s ridiculously simple
stupidly, heartbreakingly
simple
to give up struggling with this moment
to let go
or even relax

what if relaxing has less to do with spa-days
and more to do with the radical acceptance
of this moment
over and over, through the course of a little life?

oh my, how I wring my hands
and make a pig’s ear out of forgetting
what I know in my breath

I forget
to give up the struggle,
the bargaining and raging
I forget to draw breath slowly
into the pulsing meat of me
and unclench my jaw
and say: Fuck This
I don’t want this
I want that

And then laughing happens
roaring, messy, unhygienic laughing
that might well be crying at the same time
and I remember that I am not only weight and pain
Not only, anything

Tiny moments return me to myself
falling into the heart of a peony
sweet, sour, dog breath kisses
the linen sheets that hold my opiate dreams
texts from the ones who forgive my disappearances
and love me anyway

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I remember what I know
in the sweet, simple mystery
of breathing|
I bow
I touch my forehead to the kindness of ground
(which is a relatively easy manoeuvre if you live on your knees)

I say thank you to Life
and apologise in advance
for the inevitable forgetting
up ahead

 

 

 

 

 

1460 Days with Leonard

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Oh my, I am depressed
You might well say, what’s new
I might well say that too

I’ve supersized up, I’ve got
depressed with extra fries

I’m looking for a love song
for Leonard

Depressed has got my tongue
my eyelids can’t go on
I am on a respirator
though you might not see that
at first glance

Just a crooked woman
with a beautiful dog
Searching her muffled heart
for a way to thank him

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For something like a second

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The thing about depression as I know it, is that even though it’s baseline, home address stuff, there is also a spectrum of depressed.  The heaviest of heavy is when I’m furthest away from the Fields of Kindness.

I seem to be caught in this distance and weight.  I know the fields have got me, but I don’t feel the Grace. That’s weird conceptually, because it’s a blessing to know I am held in this cradle of Grace, even if I don’t feel anything.  Without this knowledge, even if academic, it’s a whole different story.

When I say, don’t feel anything, I mean anything tender. The light doesn’t slip through the cracks and I am trapped in Sylvia’s Bell Jar, like a half dead insect.

On this end of the spectrum, I murder every opportunity to find my ravaged heart again. I don’t listen to music or raise my face towards the sun. I keep my head down and the shutters closed. Even though I am longing for a beat of tender, I won’t let anything touch me.

This morning, whilst getting out of bed and into another day, instead of listening to the woes of the world on Radio4, I turned on my IPod. The complete body of Leonard Cohen’s work, on shuffle, while Leonard the Dog watches me get dressed.

Joan of Arc comes riding through the dark. The young Leonard is singing in my bedroom, forty-seven years on from when I first heard this song. The Bell Jar cracks and the light comes in.

Then the old man Leonard is singing, Light as the Breeze. Thank you, I mumble, to the angels that shuffle the songs. This is one you won’t know if you don’t know Mr. Cohen well. It wasn’t a big hit, and no one is ever going to cover it on a singing show.

I especially love it for the collision of sacred erotic and dark human, comedy. Only Leonard could write a song like this. A devotional hymn to giving oral sex to a lover, woven into the ways we can lose, and maybe find one another again in long relationships.

She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it,
and she comes to you light as the breeze.
Now you can drink it or you can nurse it,
it don’t matter how you worship
as long as you’re
down on your knees.
So I knelt there at the delta,
at the alpha and the omega,
at the cradle of the river and the seas.

O baby I waited
so long for your kiss
for something to happen, oh something like this.

And you’re weak and you’re harmless
and you’re sleeping in your harness
and the wind going wild
in the trees,
and it ain’t exactly prison
but you’ll never be forgiven
for whatever you’ve done
with the keys.

As well as the sheer pleasure of Leonard, the personal gift in this song, today in my bedroom, too far from the Field’s of Kindness, is this. To be reminded that for something like a second, I’m healed and my heart is at ease.

So I knelt there at the delta,
at the alpha and the omega,
I knelt there like one who believes.
And the blessings come from heaven
and for something like a second
I’m healed and my heart
is at ease

 

Kitchen Mojo

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Last week I made a small exception to my socially reclusive ways. My dear and patient friend, Rose, got me out of my house and into another friend’s house. A gathering to celebrate two birthdays, and Life itself. Women who laugh and cry about it all, with great gusto. There was food and drink, and the hot tub in the garden for after dinner.

I wasn’t in the mood. I wasn’t going to stay long. It’s been a few gatherings since I was able to get my failing body into Suzanne’s hot tub. Though it is perhaps worth mentioning, that the last time I did, it was for a live streamed, Facebook discussion about death.

By the time evening comes, any capacity I have for sitting is done. I’ve made it through another day by 5pm. Mostly I say no to invitations out. I know how to take care of myself in this condition. It just isn’t very relational, unless you’re the dog or cat of the house. I have a whole world on my lovely bed. Project BedWorld. It has taken some efforts, but I have to say I’ve done a marvellous job. It is the place I can get as comfortable as is possible in this body. I have cushions, pillows, linen and velvets (yes, I am a sensualist).

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This is the place I am yearning to be returned to, as I lurch around the festive table, casting (in my worst case paranoia) a shadow across proceedings. These women, who forgive me and care for me, spontaneously start a riff about food I have cooked in the past.

Do you remember the little tarts for Rose’s book launch?
The tiny cheesecakes?
The raspberry and vodka truffles…

Unexpected grief stabs me in the heart. I have so utterly lost my kitchen mojo that I’ve spent the last year eating ready meals for dinner. And, after what felt like a revelation that this body is never going to be able to manage big food gigs again, I gave two boxes of baking paraphernalia away on a neighbourhood forum.

My cooking was an intimate business. I’d forgotten how tender that can be. My friends were showing me that even if I forget, I am still held in the narrative of what has been, and what has been so alive. I faintly recall myself saying: this is part of how I make love in the world. My mission statement for Carolina Cooks.

Today I made biscuits. A lot of biscuits. My heart shaped signature biscuits. Fig and coffee, and chocolate with chilli. I had to push myself hard to make this happen. If you asked me why, I’d be hard pushed for a coherent answer. Something to do with the grief, and something to do with a kind of discipline. Not a sadistic kind of discipline, but more as practice. Showing up on the dance floor anyway.

I didn’t get much obvious pleasure from baking my hearts. I made a rookie mistake with the glaze on the chocolate chilli. My body has forgotten some of what it knows without thinking. Now I have to scrape glaze off, tweak and reapply. I’m sure there’s a metaphor here.

I’m finding that my depression, informed by unforgiving back pain, is not a forgiving place. I know the Fields of Kindness are holding me and all of this. I know it in my bones, and my gratitude is legion. It’s just, well, I miss myself softer and less clenched.

I’m looking for a softer and less clenched way to sign off  this postcard. If I listen to my teachers, I remember that I’m here already, clenched and all.

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Hello darkness my old friend…

 

‘Hello darkness, my old friend… ‘

It is not so much that I’ve had a break from my depression. It didn’t go anywhere. It lives in the air that I push and pull through my lungs. It is weight in my bones and blood.

Rather than having a sabbatical from depression as I know it, I’ve been engaged with acute physical pain. Physical pain and emotional pain are dysfunctional bed-fellows, co-dependent even. It’s easy to not know the wood from the trees.

I’ve lived with back pain for a very long time, but depression was here first. Depression was here from the start; in the umbilical cord. In the bones and blood of my mother, and more than likely in the bones and blood of hers.

Pain in the body: it’s been so long that I only faintly remember there was a time before. My back/hip/leg pain, has been lurching  and stumbling though the days of my little life. I learned to mange pain with a combination of medicine and prayer. It was something of a beast, and it was slowly but surely getting worse each year that turned.

About two years back, almost overnight it seemed, the pain jack-knifed up to acute. Unlike previous acute episodes, it never dropped back down to what I called ‘chronic severe’ and had found a way to live with.

This was another country. It took a lot out of me and from me. It brought new meaning to my experience of survival. It changed something in my relationship with my own baseline depression. Like I said, it didn’t go anywhere. Yet the pain in my body was such a constant bellowing, that I had nowhere else to be except in the bellow of it.  A brutal teaching of ‘being here like this’ which as some of you know, is one of my favorite songs.

On several occasions during this period, I said that full on, unadulterated depression as my home address, would be like respite, a beach holiday… I shouldn’t have said that. On several occasions, I have been thrown face down on the ground by a tsunami of depression as I know it in my bones and blood. It breaks through the physicality of things you can see on an MRI scan and discuss with an orthopeadic surgeon. It takes the wind out of my sails. It tears the sails from the mast. It takes me right down into the darkest rock and earth, where I have forgotten that in this unremitting darkness there are silver threads of luminosity and light.

It seems to be tsunami season.

Maybe, because I have just had back surgery, and though my legs are better, my hips and groin are still bellowing. Maybe, because it took so long to get to that surgery and all sorts of magical thinking and voodoo were tangled up in my hopes and prayers. Maybe it is just tsunami season, or the great comedian in the sky is having a laugh at my beach holiday, throwaway line.

I’m simply, brutally depressed as I know it in my bones and blood. Waking up in the morning, even with Leonard to dog kiss my defeated eyes, is brutal. I remember that I’ve written a few riffs about brutal mornings, and wonder how many ways there are to write that same old song?

And, this is me writing it again. I wish I wrote more. Writing helps me remember my name, and that I have a little place in this brutal and beautiful world. It is a silver beam of light in a dark place. It is how I stay alive. It is how I find my way back to the Fields of Kindness when I forget again, that they hold me anyway.

Writing is a tonic. I wish I did it more. And, though I don’t really play the New Year Resolution, game, there is a a whisper in the bedrock, in the fields, in the stillness and the noise, in that pile of gorgeous notebooks people keep gifting me because they imagine me beavering away… a whisper I can only just hear, about writing more. This year. This life. Before I run out of breath.