Last Thursday, the 4th August, I say the date because time has been shaken up into a new and more watery condition. I like water… the place I am most held… anyway, on that day, I fell very hard on my head, quite simply mis-stepping in my garden off a very low wall. I thought I would find ground, but instead I found space and I fell like a sandbag, hitting my head on a cast iron bench.
Very, very strange, new country.
After managing to find someone to cancel my line of work, I called 111. Not nice… has no-one thought about how to deliver this service to people, all in one way or another in distress? (Rhetorical question, obviously)
Eventually, a person, questions = ambulance.
It felt excessive.
I felt embarrassed.
I had thought, with dread in my bones, I’d be told to go to A&E, but apparently I sounded like I had/could have a brain injury, so A&E came to me.
2 incredibly relational, kind men arrive in my bedroom, and I am really seen, heard, and got.
I wept with gratitude.
They said I should really go to hospital with them for 6-10 hours of monitoring.
I said, I’d like to self/friend monitor here.
They said, absolutely. It’s lovely here… can we stay here.
We agreed that I was stable, and hadn’t escalated, that I understood the red flags that could happen, and would call 999 asap if I started un-ravelling, that a friend would call every 45 minutes to make sure I still knew what day it was.
Did I say how kind they were?
I felt fathered and brothered… 1 young Aussie, and 1 older dad/bloke kind of chap.
I had to not work last week (what is a week?)
I’m working gently this week… a precious person is landing in my zoom room soon.
This is a little impulse to check in, to say, oh here I am, I’ve been somewhere, and I’m still coming back. Like going any somewhere, we come back a little bit different… I’m just tasting the different, like the space where a tooth came out. I lost something, though I couldn’t tell you what… and it feels like a blessing, not something I need to get back.
(First published by Advantages of Age on 15th March 2022) HERE
So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.
I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.
Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.
Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.
I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.
I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.
So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.
Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.
Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.
My perspective. It might not be yours.
Remember, I am not in the self-help section.
I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.
If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.
Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.
Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.
I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.
I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.
With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.
Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.
I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot.
Back to the boundaries.
I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.
A word that brings tears to my eyes.
A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.
I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.
And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.
Here to breathe.
Here to finish my one little book.
Here to see more of the ones I love.
Here to not know what’s going to happen next.
Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.
My body will always hurt.
Sometimes that feels overwhelming.
In this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though, and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the “Everything in This”.
I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.
I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…
I wake with the weight of every sorrow sitting on my chest I am not a morning person, even after 63 years, it is still a shock to wake up and face a new day
it is me I no longer make me wrong I no longer try to fashion a different me out of real me, though I suffered a lot trying to be the one that woke up, threw the shutters open on a world that always looked like Greece – a blue and white world
and cried out: oh yes, a new day
the one that I am has heavy in her DNA she is full of weight, and lumbers and lurches, crashes around, falls down, crawls on her knees, bumps into walls, collects bruises, and, still following the breadcrumb trail Home, to where all this resistance and NO Is welcome I mean really fucking WELCOME
The welcoming gig for which I have a bit of a rep is not, I repeat, not, for the feint-hearted
it asks me to bring home everything the most homeless, invisible (until it isn’t) the most hated, lost, denied, utterly un-held, unheard, defeated, violent and hopeless
until there is no homeless left until I can sit by my own little fire with every last piece of me
my ferocious original NO in my blood, body, bones, breath always will be always will be always will be is by that fireside too her head down her rage and pain received everything loved
nothing to fix, get rid of, make into something else
Another year has rolled around and we are both still here.
Six years translated into 2190 days.
You are my love story, my anchor to life. You anchor me.
When you got seriously sick a couple of months ago, showing all the classic symptoms of pancreatitis, the particular vulnerability of the schnauzer, I felt sheer terror at the prospect of losing you.
I stared into the face of your fragility and mine. I have such a longing for what I know I can’t control. My narrative of longing that we have approximately the same lifespan, that I get to breathe my last out breath with you by my side. Of course, I have provided you a place with someone you love and trust, to breathe life in and out of your precious body until you are done.
Then we are both returned to the mystery of nowhere, and I have avoided losing you.
You were so ill, shitting blood, distressed, spasming with pain, that I couldn’t not know that you might be going to die. My plan, that we stay close until it’s my time to die, that I know is fragile as fragile can be, was showing me that knowing isn’t the same as being in direct experience. I know that too.
You didn’t die then, and I didn’t die this year, which was on the cards. We are both still here. You had an acute gastric episode, and I had the miracle of top-notch spinal surgery. I am no longer in the constant and extreme level of pain that reduced life to survival. A condition unacceptable in the long-term if it couldn’t be improved.
It is improved.
Still a constant, though manageable, and a doorway back to life rather than survival. I have returned. I have more life to live and you are my love story and my anchor.
There is a cricket term that I learned from a very dear client. I know nothing about any sport, and yet through years of walking the road with this man, I have learned the feel of cricket and discovered it is full of poetry. The Corridor of Uncertainty. It means something particular within the game of cricket, and it is life. We all live in the corridor of uncertainty, no matter if we can bear to know that or not.
All my plans about timespans and how I’d like to die on my terms, are well and good, and that you are my love story till the end is the truth of my heart. I guess in the reality of the corridor of uncertainty, any human heart needs courage to dare to long and love and live, and to allow the uncertainty and fragility to make us more human. As my other Leonard speaks of throughout his body of work: we are so lightly here/the light comes through what’s broken/if it be your will…. He knew about the corridor of uncertainty, though I have no idea if he had any interest in cricket. I know a lot of things about Leonard The Man, but not that.
I digress. This is your annual love letter. The tradition of counting our days.
And, for this account, my memory of facing the prospect of your death, way out of accordance with my longing/plan/dream/wish/creative vision, is still very vivid. What if you had gone?
I can’t answer such a what if, but I can tell you that it took me somewhere that I am still feeling into and exploring, that feels both horrifying and necessary. You really are my love story. Not my only love story, as I have tried in my way to make a normative human attachment work. I have even believed I needed to find that, and have tried to make a few square pegs fit into round holes… and in the one instance, the only human love story I was made for happened. A child was born and for small measure of time two women welcomed and helped a tiny new baby to have the beginning that neither one of them had.
That little babe just turned sixteen, and her Mother and I have only very recently opened up into some gentle reconnection. Of course, it ended badly. They were the best and the worst thing that ever happened. The love and the loss. Thing is the love was and is just simple. The stories of who needed what and what we were trying to build got very confused. I had to find my way alone, to understand and trust the meaning of our fleeting three years of being a family. I had to trust all that was simple and meant and healing and holy, was in all of us, even if a door was never ever re-opened.
A little life is such a pilgrimage, and you my darling Leonard are the love story I can’t create in this little life with another human being.
I notice the writing stopped flowing at the end of the above sentence. Some judgements got triggered at ‘can’t create’. I had an impulse to start writing about why not, as if I had to explain a failure, rather than stay with our 2190 days.
I do understand why not.
Some of you reading this that know me well, understand the story, and that does matter, but I just a caught a moment where a little flash of ‘not okay’ happened.
With you I get to have many aspects of what human to human relationships nourish. I share a bed, for the one and only time without any speck of ambivalence. I get to find you there throughout the journey of each night cycle, during which I wake often to rearrange my body related to pain, and to high frequency peeing. You snore like a pig, which I find endearing… the little sounds you make in your throat, the tenderness of knowing so intimately how you smell, and knowing that you have a heightened experience of how I smell, being a dog and all… waking up each morning, never an easy moment, is gentled by yawns and kisses and the warmth of presence and connection.
You have and continue to teach me many lessons. How to be here in this moment. How to move away if you need to, or towards, with no fuss. What joy looks like.
You are my love story. The one I can open every part of all my quirks and wounds and old bits of shame, and all that I have to give… Loving you is beyond words, but I’ll always keep writing. You are my true muse…
12October · 2016 (facebook)
Dear, dear, Leonard The Dog If I wrote a million poems I couldn’t quite write the one, true love song to you
Leonard The Man once wrote about how love comes how it comes. He actually mentions dogs, saying something like: it may be a woman, a man, a mother, a dog… just recognise it when it comes.
Sometimes I hold your precious face in my hands and say: Leonard, don’t die… and I know that can only be a prayer. It is a prayer. Thank you for another year dear Leonard.
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.
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.
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.
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.