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Tuesday, 4 February 2020

I am going grey, goddammit, not into a nursing home

Such a youthful brown haired person. 
Part One

For years I pretended that my hair was dark brown.  How well you are looking, people would say to me, and how young.  Oh, I would say, surely not!  And inside I would feel smug.

This delighted me for a long time, and every six weeks I made appointments at the hairdressers to keep up the show.  Not a single grey hair, and a very clever mingling of high lights into the brown as I got older so that the original dark brown did not clash with my skin as I gently aged.  It did not occur to me that I could have grey hair, or white hair, and there was a wonderful disconnect between my age and hair colour, and that of my friends who were as old as me and their naturally grey and white hair.  That was them, and this was me.

Can I be like you, Miriam? x
There was a great deal invested in keeping my image going as an energetic, creative and youthful fifty eight year old.  When someone showed surprised that I dyed my hair, on the one hand I was surprised that they were surprised - they must surely realise that someone my age couldn't have no grey hairs at all, and on the other hand it affirmed my decision to be brown haired and full of youthful bloom.  I did not exactly articulate it like that, part of the deal was that I did not think too deeply about what I was doing, and it did not matter really, in the great scheme of things.  But I would not have liked the idea of keeping a youthful bloom, because that would have conflicted with me being happy with ageing, and not into the "being young and beautiful" thing.  After all, I do not wear make up at all (except for lipstick.  And later, eyebrow pencil when Eileen pointed out that my eyebrows had disappeared.)  So actually, already, I wasn't really the spring chicken I liked to think I was.

Then I turned fifty nine and I visited my friend Deb on her houseboat.  Deb greeted me in the hot August sunshine from the deck of her boat, happy and brown, with a head of glorious naturally sun bleached white hair.  I am older than Deb.  She looked utterly fabulous.  Damn, I thought, it is time.  I want to take off my brown hat and put on a white one.

And Deb didn't look old!  She just looked like Deb.  I was actually jealous.

Part Two

I began to look at my friends who had unashamedly grey and white hair.  I had not really noticed before, but each of them looked lovely and their hair colour was nothing to do with it.  These ladies, I thought, had it sussed all along.  They did not look young, but they did not look old either.  They looked like themselves, and I began to tot up the amount of money I would save by not going to have my hair wrapped in foils and thick brown gunk for a whole afternoon every six weeks.  Millions of pounds, I thought.  Millions.

(A small word here about my excellent hairdressers over the years.  They do a wonderful job, they have made me very happy and I salute their hairdressing skills.  They only did what I asked, and did it brilliantly.)

I am going grey!  I told my friendly psychic hairdresser, Craig.  I am going grey I told all my friends, and then, I waited.  I stared hard at the mirror, trying to imagine what I would look like as an old lady.

Back, mother. 
A long, slow five months later, there is only about two inches of white around my face and two inches of grey on the rest of my head.  The rest is still a jolly all-over brown.  If I put my fringe back, I am a different person.  Then, I am white haired.  If I take the hair clips out, remove the headband, I am brown again.  The grey growing out at my roots does not show too much, it is only the white hair around my forehead and temples that is so different. When  Psychic Craig finally cuts off the last of the brown, I will have to think about what look to go for now.  This is taking a huge amount of time, and I simply have to wait and let my hair grow out at its own pace which feels like an eighth of an inch every six years.

The problem is, when I pull back my fringe, I look like my mother.

This leads onto part three.

Part Three.

Don't make me into my mother.
I know.  You can hardly see it. 
And this is a very nice photo, you
can't see the lipstick on my teeth or
the nail varnish on my tights.

The psychological journey while growing out dyed hair and embracing the white and grey has been a surprise.  Nothing changes, I tell myself but actually, much does change.  In surrendering to my natural hair colour at the age of fifty nine I am bound to be confronted with my own ageing.  With this has come a re-evaluation of who I am.  There is a real sadness about parting with how I have looked for so many years, and letting go of the youthful bloom that a head of carefully maintained brown hair has given me.  In keeping the dye going, I was stalling the moment when I would have to recognise that I am older now. Waiting for the rest of my hair to grow out, I feel stuck between two identities.  I can still keep my brown hair near my face and look as I always have looked, until the wind blows it just a little bit and then the white come out.  Then I wonder if I look like someone who is trying to hide her real hair colour and not able to afford to cover it up.  Or the sort of person who smudges her lipstick onto her teeth and doesn't care and goes out with holes in her tights with bits of nail polish to stop the laddering.

I am transitioning into a new version of myself.  When I look in the mirror with my hair taken back and all the white hair showing around my forehead and temples, with no lipstick or eyebrow pencil, I see my mother looking back at me.  Begone Mother! I say.  I want to be me! But there is a long slow re emerging of me, and I have no idea of what that will be.  And actually, my mother was a very chic, well dressed and beautiful old lady who had white wavy hair that looked like a Mr Whippy ice cream. She was known for it.
Grace Jones as me.

I will be sixty in August.  By then this slightly depressing growing out of my brown hair to my new white and grey hair will be done.  I am not my mother, but I do still look like her.  I do not have to buy navy jumpers and matching navy slacks with sensible shoes, I can continue to shop in Oxfam and go for the 1970 geography teacher look that I like so much.  I can continue to wear sparkly Indian type skirts and look like a gypsy.  Or can I? I have no idea of how I will actually look, so it is all a bit uncertain. I will just have to get through this and have fun at the other end.  I may choose to look like Grace Jones.
Part Four

I will go back to see Deb in August in the hot sun, on her boat, and let it all hang out.  I am sixty in August, and even if I go looking like Miriam Margolyes it won't matter.  Goddammit, I am going grey, not into a nursing home.  Move over mother, there's a revolution brewing.

The revolution.  Me, Mum and all my friends. 

Every two weeks my newsletter comes out, full of information about all the work -  painting, writing, support work and exhibitions - that I am doing.  It is informative and amusing, like me, and I would love for you to join us.  To subscribe, please go to .  

Many thanks, it will be great to connect with you. 

Monday, 20 January 2020

A Big Fat Daddy.


I am busy again, it is wonderful.  All that blether about taking a Sabbatical and working out what I want to do, about focus and keeping myself from going into overdrive has been joyfully thrown out of the window at the first opportunity, and the window firmly closed behind it.  It is fine, I say, I am back in the driving seat, and all is well. 

Bring it on, I say, I can handle all this, I am the Daddy, I can do it.

I am really busy, it is true.  I am a little watchful too, because this enthusiasm for projects has been hard to handle before, in the end.  What seems to happen is that I do too much, can't cope and my head explodes.  Then I announce that I am becoming a recluse and I will never work again.  After a while, with good sleep and nice healthy meals, I am inspired by someone, something, and off we go again.  It looks like I work too much, or not at all.  This is not sustainable, so bear with me, I am going to unpick this in front of your very eyes.

  • What do you think you want?  To plod away at stuff, getting it all done, with timetables, order and proper mealtimes.  Each project has a little folder, a file, a chart and some coloured pins to track progress.  Each project has a name and all the information needed is updated daily in triplicate and I keep to the allotted hours per project per day so I always know where I am.  Everything runs like clockwork, and when I get a surprise phone call, or something isn't working to plan, I am so calm and ordered, refusing to flap or panic, that I bring order back into what could have been an unwelcome disruption to the routine.  I am, after all, the Daddy.  
  • What do you think you have?  A blunderbuss approach where everything is massively exciting and all my notes are on bits of paper, in my head or teeny notes on my phone.  Where I make plans to spend a day in the studio but have to do the dishwasher first, then check my Instagram, then do a bit of emergency gardening.  I have said yes to many different things
    because I read something about them recently in a book and now I think I am an expert.  Each project seems like a great idea, and very do-able until I see that I have said yes to 5498503 of them.  Now there isn't much time and I rush about making a start on all of them, blame the people who asked me for asking me, and then eventually my head explodes.  I am joining an enclosed order of silent nuns I say, and for a while, I mean it.  Everyone else just laughs.  
  • Is any of the above really accurate?  No.
Let us now turn to what is actually true.  I have agreed to many projects, and I know I have tendencies to exaggerate.  So, if I am not a plodder or a blunderbuss, let us see what I actually am.
  • What, actually, are you?  I am a well meaning artist.  The sabbatical was very helpful and enlightening, so now I am also enlightened.  It was a time of rest and thought, much lying on the sofa, eating peanut butter and thinking great thoughts, so I am now fat.  I am older and wiser at the start of the new decade, which makes me sensible.  I have very good health thanks to my grandfather who, along with his eight siblings, all lived until they were between ninety three and one hundred and four years old, so that makes me invincible.  Being invincible means I can safely do what I like which could make me incautious, but it doesn't.  I am sensible, so that is a relief.  Finally, I have been doing my kind of work for twenty years, so I am both experienced and accomplished.  
  • Wonderful.  List all the things you are then - An artist, enlightened, fat, sensible, invincible, experienced and accomplished. 
  • What, actually, are you up to?  I am working on the following
  1. The exhibition called Addicts And Those Who Love Them opening in May in Brighton
  2. Finishing my book As Mother Lay Dying 
  3. Taking Grief Cafes at our local Womens' Centre
  4. Taking Loss Conversations at the local Job Centre (pending)
  5. Supporting three clients with cancer for Macmillan
  6. Taking the A Graceful Death exhibition to the Dead Good Day Festival
  7. Performing a one woman show, the Soul Midwife Sofa, at the Dead Good Day Festival
  8. Taking a workshop with a lovely palliative care nurse friend called How To Sit With The Dying
  9. Finishing a double portrait 
  • Anything else? Yes! Of course! A re branding of all my stuff, a new website, joining Patreon and world domination.
  • So, are you working too much, or not at all? Here is the thing - I used to be like that.  I am not like that now.  The most important work is the Addicts exhibition, and that is taking up much of my time with a deadline of the 2 May so there is no messing about there.  I have also, being both sensible and accomplished, decided to simply do the best I can.  Very zen. The book is ongoing.  The Loss Conversations are to be confirmed and will be every second week.  The Grief Cafe is once a month.  My Macmillan clients are every week, and this week I am taking one of my clients, aged eighty four, to London for a day out.  We are taking the train up, riding the double decker buses and ending up at the National Gallery.  It will be like the Famous Five reduced to Two, and very elderly.  The A Graceful Death exhibition has been going for over ten years now, so setting it up is easier than it used to be.  The workshop on sitting with the dying is fun, and I have done plenty before, the double portrait is just a matter of application and concentration but the one woman show, well - that is going to need a bit of preparation.  That does make me nervous.  But not so that I become mad.  I am invincible, sensible, fat and accomplished.  I know I will sort it all out.

It seems the sabbatical and the new decade have enabled me to be artistic, enlightened, fat, sensible, invincible, experienced and accomplished.  That is awfully helpful if it is my destiny to take on a thousand things at once, if I am doomed by my own personality and character not to be a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person.  So the conclusion is, that yes, I do tend to work too much then not at all - but now that I am so wise and fat and accomplished, I can see problems coming from far away in the distance, galloping along the horizon, and I can take evasive action.  I do not have to wait until my head explodes to rest, I do not have wait until a convent of silent nuns is the only way to stop.  So it does seem that I am still the Daddy.  It does seem that I am still in the driving seat, and I am a new and improved enlightened, fat, sensible, invincible, experienced and accomplished Daddy to be reckoned with. 

Oh bring it on, Sisters.  I'm on my way!

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Do what you can, not what you can't

Quick! Run!
Have you ever made a decision to do something amazing for yourself - a plan, a dream, a project, a thought - only to be overwhelmed with the enormity of what is ahead?  Like a rabbit dazzled in the headlights, you become paralysed with fear, and scuttle off to safety somewhere.  Phew, you say, not doing that again.

Doing what you can't 

It's not for me.

As the theoretical rabbit, you have run from the headlights to a place of safety.  This is possibly your go-to comfort space where nothing can get you, and you can breathe easily again.  Whatever this space is, let's not judge it, let's just say that it is there.  My safe space is always about comfort; sitting on the sofa with blankets, cushions and a pot of tea.  From there, I feel relief and protection, and I can pass the time telling myself I will do whatever I ran away from later.  But from my comfort place, I do not want the later to come, I am not sure if I am good enough/wise enough/strong enough. It is easier to stay here, in my place of comfort.

It's not for me, I may say, and you in your circumstance, may say the same.  It is not for us. Whatever this thing was that seemed so exciting when we thought of it, and so terrifying when we glimpsed the work ahead, whatever it was, we cannot possibly do it now.

I'm not one of them.

They are the people who succeed at things.  Separate from us, they have a secret thing that makes them do what they say they are going to do.  They are lucky, they are unafraid, they have networks and support systems, and they are really annoying.

This amazing thing we thought we would do, is for these other people.  We aren't like that, we don't have their drive, determination, talent, and in our lowest moments, we think they probably all have personality disorders anyway.

From our place of safety, this seems to be a sad truth, that we have to be another type of person in order to do our thing.  We aren't one of them, so it is best to not even start.  This is where I could have more cake and look things up on YouTube.

They'll laugh at me.

How very dare you have ideas
Yes, well, the They has expanded to include everyone in the whole world.  We envisage putting ourselves out there and instead of feeling the buzz of excitement for our new project, or idea, or
thought, we see everyone looking at us and smirking.  We hear them say, oh dear, how awkward.

We have visions of standing up before a group of people and not being able to say anything sensible about our ideas or projects, and everyone giving a slow hand clap.  They all go off for tea and fall about laughing.

How dare you have these ideas, they chuckle, how very dare you.

I'll be so embarrassed.

Now that in our imaginations, we have separated ourselves from people who do the things that we want to do, have caused the whole world great amusement when talking about our dreams, we cringe with embarrassment at the thought of all this humiliation.

I will be so embarrassed, we say to ourselves, if I put myself out there.  In this frame of mind, even a little email to someone about this project we thought so amazing, seems impossibly cringe-worthy.  Whatever way we gather our thoughts about it, we end up embarrassing even ourselves.  Oh no, we say to ourselves, it is definitely not for me.

And we are back to square one.

Do what you can, not what you can't. 

This is very simple and very freeing.  You cannot do what you cannot do, but you can do what you can do.  The problem with having dreams, projects, plans, is that we may only focus on what we can't do, because for some reason we need to beat ourselves up.  If I make a plan to write a book, and my imagination shows me scene after scene of what I think is the correct path to take, and all of it frightens the life out of me, then I am concentrating on what I can't do.  These things that I think I ought and should do, make me realise I am useless, because I simply cannot cope with them.  It reinforces the idea that I am no good and that it is, once again, not for me.  I could, though, just start by doing what I can do, and put some words down on either the laptop or on paper.  It is very simple.

Doing what you can.

It is for me.

It IS  for you!
Ask yourself, why would it not be for you?  Glimpsing the work ahead can be alarming but, the work ahead has not happened yet.  You have no real idea of how things will go, you can only imagine - and if you imagine frightening stuff, then you are capable of imagining not-frightening stuff.

This is your journey, your thing, your idea, it comes from you.  How it unfolds is partly in your own hands, and partly not.  But to start with, it is all up to you.  Even if you sit on your sofa with a pillow on your head, it is still possible to make a start.  The secret to everything is state of mind.  Allow yourself to notice how negative you may be, and stop it.  Change your mind.

  1. Write it all down.  But be polite to yourself, you do not want to work from notes and thoughts that tell you off.  If I wrote notes to myself about creating some new artwork, and I was very negative, it may read  - Creating an exhibition.  Why can't I do it? No nice paints, wish I had some money.  Get money.  How?  Can't do it, no time.  Rent rooms in the house out?  Can't.  Hate people. It would be easier to work from if it read - Creating an exhibition. How can I do it?  Make time to raise money for paints.  Ideas to raise money - rent some rooms out? Other ideas?    
  2. Daydream.  This is a lovely way to experience possibilities without having too many boundaries.  This is an exercise for enjoying things that could go very well, and there are no limits.  I recently imagined that I had lovely white wavy hair and I looked just like Audrey Hepburn.  It doesn't matter that I don't have white hair or look remotely like Audrey Hepburn, it was just a lovely daydream.
  3. Think about what you can do, not what you can't.  Write it down and remember to be nice about yourself.
You are one of them.

They, those people, are one of you.  You have imbued them with super powers because they seem to be doing the things you want to do.  But they still have to find the courage to do what they do, and they may well struggle, they may have to dig deep.  But they are not going to tell you that, and they are human too. 
  1. Don't worry about who you think these people are.  Work out who YOU are.  It all comes from you, and you need to focus on yourself.  They haven't got any super powers.  Like you they are good at some things and not at others.  But they are giving it a go and in time, you may choose to do that too.
  2. Networks and support systems.  Yes, there are networking groups and business support groups, but if that is too much to think of right now, family and friends are a great support system too.  Even if you only have one of each.  If you are very shy, online friends are a great network and support system.  You may be surprised at what you already have around you.  
  3. You are who you choose to be. Focus on who you are, not who you are not. Write it all down remembering to be polite about yourself.  Allow yourself to be nice on paper, allow yourself to have good points. That is you, too.
They will listen to what you say.

How brave it is to stand up and tell people your plans and hopes.  In our imaginations before we have even begun our project, we see ourselves not being taken seriously.  We fear ridicule and because we have made the people who seem to make a go of things, separate from us, we have created a most unreal and damaging scenario. 

What if your ideas are good, and you like them, and people listen?  
  1. Practice.  All those people who are doing what you want to do had to start at the beginning, everyone had to speak for the first time.  Talking about your projects does get easier with practice. 
  2. Tell people who can respect your message.  If the people you choose to talk to listen well, they may offer good feedback and advice.  Don't talk about your things to people who will make you feel bad.  Good criticism makes you feel inspired, bad criticism makes you feel crushed.
  3. Anyone who laughs at you is rude.  Select your listeners carefully, and if anyone is rude to you, try not to take it personally, keep your power, and go and talk to someone who supports you.  
Be brave.

Just finished the trifle
If all those people are not different to you, and if they may well listen to you, and if your own plans and dreams excite you, be brave.

Finish that trifle, and get off the sofa and write it all down.

Then tell someone who likes you and will listen, about your plans, projects, dreams and ideas.

Have courage and dare to be a weeny bit special.

My mother always advised us to focus on what we could do, not on what we couldn't do.  She also advised us to be

 Bloody, Bold and Resolute.

And these are your orders.

Mum.  Bloody, bold and resolute. 

Once every two weeks, I write a newsletter of all the things I am painting, doing and writing.  Would you would like to subscribe? You will read of projects such as the new exhibition on addiction, and the upcoming Patreon page.  And at any time you can unsubscribe, and I will never know it was you who left.  
Email me at with your name and email address to receive it.  You will love it. New one out this Wednesday 8 January.  

Saturday, 21 December 2019

There are no Super Grandmas.

As a character study, this is very accurate. 

George is a thrilled-with-life Joseph in the nursery 
Nativity play, Arf is quite an individualistic sheep.
George in an Emperor.  He is three now and four on Sunday.  Tomorrow, Saturday, is his fourth birthday party and it is a Super Hero party.

George is my oldest grandson, and a child for whom life is a constant source of excitement and happiness.  He is at the moment a mixture of many super heroes and changes often during the day into his spider man outfit, or his batman costume, or green trousers and jumper as the Hulk.  Yesterday he had a PJ Masks lollipop, as was his right, while his brother had a Peppa Pig one, being not quite as super as George yet.

George's younger brother is called Arthur, a very serious little fellow.  Arthur has Batman pyjamas and understands there is a huge responsibility when he wears them during the day.  Arf, as we call him, is two.  He is with George in the super hero thing, but he does not completely understand it so George needs to guide him and tell him who he is and what his super powers are.  Arf is fine with this, he just wants a quiet life on his own terms, and he knows George is right about all these things.  Anyhow, his Batman pyjamas give him plenty of kudos as George only has Spider Man ones.

Both George and Arf have a younger sister aged seven months called Liliana.  Liliana is used to being played with by her two super hero brothers, and has no problem with being sat on, loved to within an inch of her life, sung to and given toys to play with until we can only see the top of her head above the pile.  But the thing about Lilz is that she has got a super hero girl costume.  Already.  Tomorrow Lilz will be Wonder Woman.
Lilz IS Wonder Woman

The fourth birthday super hero party will be a grand affair in a village hall.  All the local children and their siblings will be there plus parents and in my case, a grandma.  It is a super hero party so there will be many super powers in the same room, and enough excitement to end in super fisticuffs.  So George's Uncle Dida, six foot seven and super indestructible, is supervising as a superhero himself in order to keep an eye on things.

My jobs tomorrow are mostly about food.  I am going to prepare teeny tiny sandwiches for the four year old Bat and Spider people. And the Wonder and PJ Masks people.  Teeny tiny jam sandwiches in one pile, teeny tiny cream cheese sandwiches on another, and teeny tiny ham sandwiches on a third.  I will be providing pizzas in bite size pieces and fingers of cucumber so that the mummies and daddies will see that it is a bit healthy too.  I will arrive early at George's house tomorrow morning with Super Dida in my car, all the food ready prepared, and help the children on with their costumes.  The party is a morning one, starting at eleven, so everything has to be ship shape by ten thirty.

George's parents, my daughter Lexi and her husband Mike, have been on the case for a good week now.  It coincides with Christmas, and far from George having a substandard birthday because of Christmas, or a substandard Christmas because of his birthday, George's little cup runneth over and he has no break in the celebrations in his little mind.  It is one long fabulous party and he is in the middle of it.  Arf is more of an observer, he is quite an individualist but he does know that if he had his Batman pyjamas on, that things change, and he is happy to be whatever George says he is.  Lilz of course hasn't a clue, but George does not get that yet, her Wonder Woman outfit means she is one of the gang.

Yesterday, George had a word with me.  It turns out that there are no Super Grandmas and no Wonder Grannies that he knows of, and this is really important.  I had told him that I would come in my own super hero costume, thinking that it would add to the fun of the day, and that he would be very impressed.  I was going to find a blanket and use it as a cape.  He'll love that, I thought.  I will be top Grandma and I will show them my super powers.  But it turns out that no, this is a problem.  George is worried that I am out of my depth, my character does not exist, and somehow in his three year old soon to be four year old mind this is a worrisome thing.  Will I just come as Grandma, he asked me?

Of course I will. I said to him.  I will just come as your Grandma and we will have a lovely time together.  So I have put away my blanket and will be a proper Grandma tomorrow, and let him and his little friends be the real super heroes.  And as if to show me how relieved he was, George narrowed his eyes and fixed me with a steely gaze.  He is showing you his Lazer Eyes, said Lexi.  Apparently she and Mike had noticed him squinting and scowling in the back of the car recently and had stopped the car thinking that he was feeling sick.  No, he said, these are my Lazer Eyes.

So tomorrow will be a festival for tiny saviours of the world, their siblings, parents and one normal grandma.  Lexi has made a birthday sponge cake with George helping (you can't believe how helpful I am, he says.  No, we say, we simply can't believe it.  The subtext is George, we cannot even manage without you) - and now she has covered it with red icing and a yellow lightening flash across the top.  The party bags have little masks, a pack of raisins, a bit of cake, a balloon and a sticker.  There will be a bouncy castle for the superheroes, and plenty of tea and coffee for the grown ups.

George, our little Emperor George, is centre of the universe tonight.  He is moving on from being three, into the next stage of his little life, which is being four.  Arf will be well left behind, still being two until the Summer and little Wonder Lilz, well, she does not really count because in her brother's mind, because she is only nought.  She is not even a number yet.

It is late in my house now, and the sandwiches, pizzas and all other foods are done, covered and in the car. Super Dida and I (Super Grandma) will leave here early tomorrow morning, and give ourselves over to the excitement of seeing our little Emperor George become four in style.  Time for tired old super grandma to go to bed, and gather her strength for the onslaught of teeny super people at eleven tomorrow morning.

Grandma, how old are you?  
George, I am quite old now.  What age do you think I am?
Nine?  Is that the biggest number you can think of?
You're so old Grandma, that you are nine.

Batman, Wonder Lilz and Spider Man chilling, as they do.


Every two weeks, I write a newsletter with details of the paintings, the exhibitions and the grief and end of life support work that I do.  It is both interesting and entertaining, like me.  
To subscribe to the newsletter, please go to my website, a link is below.  And, if you don't like it, you can unsubscribe, and I will never know.

Thank you and I wish you all the best and most peaceful over this Christmas time. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Not old yet, but thinking about it. Could be any time now, but still loving reggae and red lipstick.

Not my granddad.

My granddad used to give us riddles.  Make sense of this, he would say, just add two commas -

Time flies you can't they fly too fast


Over the last few years, the weeks have got smaller, the days shorter and it seems as if every day is Friday.  I get to Friday, and feel as if I have only just finished the last one.  I know there have been days in between, but none of them lasted long and once again it is Friday.

And of course, the Friday doesn't last long either.  It is true, what our old people say, that as we get older, time passes faster.  I am not yet old, but I am entering into the the second part of life, I am just at the start of this getting older journey.  Things are changing, I am changing and time is gathering speed. The wonderful Franciscan priest and teacher Father Richard Rohr suggests that we spend the first half of our lives building our container, the second half examining it's contents.  I am definitely examining my contents.

The physical things I notice most are

  1. I have less energy. I like a good sit down.
  2. I notice aches and pains in my body, not all the time, but enough so that when I get out of bed or the car or a chair, I stand and stretch before walking off.
  3. Underneath this hair dye, I am totally grey and white
  4. My voice is deeper
  5. I put on weight faster than ever before 
  6. I love to sleep.  I get into my bed at night and am shocked that I ever thought it necessary to leave it at all that morning.  What was I thinking of!  I say as I lie on the memory foam mattress under the exciting duvet of my choice.  This is my spiritual home, I think, I will stay here for a month.
A brown scarf, not fancy brown
hair do. Growing my hair out, you
can see the white just beginning
to show. 
And of course, I notice that time is moving faster. I feel that I am slower and time has sped up.  I make plans for months in advance thinking, that event is far away, there is plenty of time to prepare.  Suddenly, it is the night before, and then the event takes place, and it is done.  It is gone. What was so far away once is now in the past.  My relationship with time has changed, it has had to.  Time is still colourless, odourless, silent and constant but I notice it more.  I am aware of it, not because it has made itself known to me, but because I am moving out of my youth and into older age, and I have begun to look at it with interest.  It is possible that I think I move through time faster now, because at some point, time runs out for us, and there is less time ahead of me now, and I am becoming more aware of this.  There will come a moment when I do not finish the twenty four hours in that particular day or night. It is also possible that I remain constant, and time has begun to change around me, because it can, and this is part of the human journey.  It is possible that none of these things are true, and that I am simply becoming used to time passing, and that it is no big deal that every few days seem to be Friday.  Time has concertina'd for me, because that is how I perceive it.  Nothing has changed except my perception.

Someone once said that the passing of time is marked by atrophy.  I liked this, because trying to make time into something sensible and easy to understand can make my head spin.  A definition of atrophy is

Atrophy - waste away, especially as a result of the degeneration of cells, or become vestigial during evolution.  (Vestigial - "forming a very small remnant of something that was once greater or more noticeable")

Bit wordy, but I take it to mean that matter degenerates.  We can infer the passing of time because an object has changed and finally disappears.  An apple, for example.  From falling from a tree to decomposing in our kitchen, there is a change and we put it down to the passing of time.  Leave it long enough and that apple will disappear.  We can mark this thing called time using the example of an apple, because it has evolved and changed shape and so, in order to explain that, we think that something called time has caused it to move from being fresh and juicy, to being withered, brown and rotten.

I am powerless over time.  I am coming to terms with this.  Time just happens, and what I took for granted before (endless time and space for me to work out what I am doing here), I no longer take for granted.  I am not old yet, but it is where I am going and as I have said above, there is an end point coming.  Next year I will be sixty.  I am told that sixty is the new forty, which is great, but I am not forty.  I was forty twenty years ago, and now I am going to be sixty.  

Here are some non physical observations about being older

  1. I am braver.  I can go to events without the same worries as when I was forty.  I can hold my own and do not have to impress anyone (though of course, I still want to impress everyone and be loved and adored, it is just that I am more realistic about it happening).
  2. I am NOT so brave.  I do not want to put myself into stressful situations in order to gain something or other from them.  I prefer to sit on my sofa here and feel relief that whatever lessons I could have learned or contacts I could have made through being bold are safely never going to happen.
  3. Silence is my friend.  I love silence and can hear the ticking of clocks, the humming of the washing machine, the dropping of rain or the swishing of leaves in the wind and that seems very loud indeed and very lovely in the silence of turning off radios and televisions and all manufactured noise.
  4. I am surprised at quite how young the young are.  They are a race apart.  My sons have friends in their twenties, and though I love them all, I do not know what they are talking about or why they look like they do.  They probably feel the same about me.  
  5. I am a widow.  Once, being married and raising my children was everything to me.  Now, with my children grown up and safely into adulthood, I love just my own company.  I never gave myself much attention when I was younger (I didn't like myself very much), but now I find that I am quite interesting, there is much to get to know.  Who would have thought that an evening in silence and completely alone with my flannelette pyjamas in my own home, with nothing to do except watch the fairy lights and smell the lovely candles, would be enough?  That would have been a great big fail once upon a time.
  6. I am beginning to understand the Buddhist idea of not getting hung up on the outcome.  I would change that to not getting too hung up on the outcome, I am not yet fully enlightened.  I still like a bit of outcome.  This means not becoming so invested in results that the journey is both hard to begin, and if begun, fraught with fear of failure.  I am of course, longing for success and adulation, but the intention and the journey seem to be much more peaceful things on which to focus.  The success and adulation are possibly quite empty things (though jolly nice to receive), because if the whole purpose of any undertaking is to have affirmation and confirmation of worth from outside, from other people, then we are only ever as good as other people say we are.  And other people are notoriously fickle. So I am much more connected these days, to the work I do as an end in itself.  
So here I am.  Aged fifty nine and a half, teetering on the edge of old age, curious about the grey and white hair underneath my brown dye and getting philosophical about life.  

In many ways I am still only just in my twenties.  What made me myself then, is still present now.  I like reggae, I like to do what I want, I love to mix bold colours and wear them all at once, lipstick is my friend, I am really arty, I see fairies in the hedgerows - and so on.  But life, which happens to us all, has given me some fairly sink-or-swim experiences, and has provided me with wonders such as children, grandchildren and husbands. Life has tempered the good and the bad with priceless teachers and moments that have saved me, changed my mind, and moved me on.  Get out of jail free cards, I call them.  Like the poem by St Teresa of Avila that fell from a book just when I thought my god had abandoned me because of my uselessness and insignificance.  The Let nothing disturb thee and the All things are passing were all that I needed to know just then.  Each time I read the poem after it fell out of the book at my feet, a line jumped out at me and told me all would be well - 

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth.
Patient endurance 
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth 
In nothing is wanting;
God alone sufficeth.

One of the many benefits of getting older, of examining the contents of my container, is that I accept small miracles as part of my life.  On the one hand, my sometime friend, sometime adversary called Time, has taken away so many things that I expected to travel the years with me.  For example, my husband Alan, my partner Steve, my smooth skin and my boundless energy.  On the other hand, Time has given me perspective, grandchildren, pleasure in my own company and a desire to cut through the nonsense and to get to the point of things.  And people.  

And finally, Time is allowing me to think about my own mortality.  I am not old, not really, not yet.  But there may be less time ahead than behind me.  It is time to consider the winding down of things so that when I have to do it properly, I can do it well.  Unless I die suddenly and unexpectedly from falling down a man hole in the street, or  under the wheels of a crazy out of control combine harvester, in which case I won't have much time to prepare and St Teresa will have to add a new line to her poem -

Get thy will sorted
God may have 
A sense of humour

Time flies, you can't, they fly too fast.  So it wasn't about time at all in the end, it was about timing flies.  Thanks Grandad. 
Passing through time with my grandchildren.  Or, on Bognor Beach as the tide goes out.  Both quite poetic. 

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Sunday, 24 November 2019

I cannot notice you, because I have a fug of misery around my head

An optimistic sketch based on
Gertrude Stein's
A rose is a rose is a rose.
I am an optimist.  Let me get that out of the way first.  My glass is half full, and I see the good in things.  I am lucky to have basic necessities like somewhere to live, something to eat and clothes to keep me warm.  I am lucky to have family and friends, and if I were to get ill, I could call an ambulance for free, and be taken to a hospital also for free.  My experience may or may not be pretty dire, but the system is set up for me to use.

But we belong to a world in which there is suffering.  Things are wrong, things are bad, and somehow, despite having all that we do have, life can be a struggle.  I do not mean that we want to end it all but just having nice things doesn't mean we are sorted.  It doesn't mean we are protected from all the difficult feelings like sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, loss, judgement and anger.

My world.

I live in a big old house that has been painted in the colours I chose. It is filled with treasures and beauty, like my grandmother's sieve from her kitchen and my grandfather's shabby green canvas and wood folding chair.  I have my late brother's bed, a huge wooden affair made for my grandfather a century or so ago, and I have the beautiful bone china tea set, chipped, mismatched and utterly beautiful, that my Irish grandmother used for best.

The pantry is full of food.  The kitchen is painted a beautiful warm pale green and all the artwork from over the years looks wonderful against this green.  In fact, the whole house is painted the same gentle warm, peaceful green.  Except the bedrooms, they are a blend of duck egg blue and gentle turquoise.

My dining room has a bright pink sofa with colourful African cushions, and my sitting room has a red sofa with a motley assortment of pink and red cushions with jewels, sparkles and twinkles sewn onto the fabric.  Not by me, I bought them and was given them like this.  I have fairy lights and fresh flowers all over the place, and in the garden the flowers grow with abandon, making me feel that there is magic outside my back door.  My friend Chris does all the hard work, he manages the garden so that I can lie in it and admire all the nature tumbling around me.

My youngest son lives with me, and we inhabit the house happily, independently and respectfully together, bumbling around this big old house in our own little lives together, separately, bumping into each other during the day, and taking a moment to ask how the other's day is going.  My other son, my daughter and her family come to visit and to stay, and everyone has a great time eating and talking, until the day is over and I clear up, knowing all the time how lucky I am.


These things, this wonderful sounding life, does not protect me from feeling overwhelmed by feelings of failure.  My grandmother's sieve does not help me when I have ignored deadlines and the big wooden bed does not tell me not to worry when I am too weary to do the things I believe I want to do.  Like some great artistic creation that I feel I ought to be doing and can't even begin to visualise or make sense of.  When I am too stuck to even get a pen and paper out to write lists of the things I fear I am not doing and never will do, the lovely bone china tea set cannot make it suddenly easy to start writing.  Or thinking.  On paper, at a superficial level, I should be forever happy and satisfied.  All the time taken up in having negative feelings should be freed up, for me to dance with joy from room to room having only positive feelings, and finding the way clear to do all those wonderful things that I have always wanted to do, since nothing stands in my way any more.  Nothing standing in the way for me, means the bills are paid, the house looks fab, there is food in the kitchen and all my children are grown up, living their own lives, and I do not have to get up in the night to change anyone's nappies.  It means there is order, and silence, and I am not constrained as I once was a young mother, with the weight of all worlds, all humanity and all struggles on my shoulders.

It helps a great deal to live as well as I do.  My point is that the things we own do not take away our complex natures.  Even if I were happy to potter about for ever in my home and do nothing else, I would still be prone to all the myriad emotions we humans feel.  I may not be worried about finishing (or even starting) creative projects, but I may find myself worrying about how the fuchsia in the garden is growing, or how global warming is beyond my control, or that I am growing old.  It does not matter what we do and how we live, we will all experience pain as well as pleasure.  And often, we choose pain more than pleasure.

A thought.

I do much sitting and thinking.  I sit on the red sofa sometimes, the pink sofa other times.  Over the last few weeks I have been feeling tired, full of doubts about my abilities and a bit stuck.  The only way out of these feelings of inadequacy was to watch as many police documentaries as I could find.  I watched fast car chases, I watched drugs busts, I watched police forces all over the country do their thing, and then I went on to America.  I found documentaries on the FBI, and forensic investigations and while I was watching all this, I was transfixed.  It was perfect but when it was over, there was that pain of re connection.  At some point, I had to come back to where I left off, and the feelings of self criticism that had plagued me before I started to watch the FBI demonstrate sophisticated interrogation techniques, took up again where they left off.  And then - I had a thought.

I, we, become distracted by all these difficult feelings.  We become used to them.  We allow them in as if they have the right to be there and to dominate.  What if, I thought, I don't listen to them?  What if I look over the top of them and look for thoughts that I actually like? If I find thoughts that I actually like, will I find it too hard to keep my focus on them?  And if I do find it hard to focus on them, is it because I am so accustomed to living in my difficult thoughts, that I have begun to agree with them and live them?  Have I allowed myself to become brainwashed?

Looking around me, I thought, what a waste of time to not even know that I am ignoring better thoughts. The fairy lights were draped around the sitting room, and I looked at them from the red sofa.  I had lit a scented candle, which filled the room with lovely smells.  What the hell, I thought, the lights and candle were there a few minutes ago, and I am only just noticing them now.  If I am so wrapped up in feelings of failure, disillusionment (with myself),  tiredness and lack, then where is there room for anything else?  The candles and lights are amazing!  They are lovely, but if I am putting my head into a dark fuzzy cloud and keeping it there, candles and lights are just things that I do.  Without noticing them.  Of course I can't see these lovely things clearly, I am not interested in them.  I am only interested in being miserable and trying to distract myself with police documentaries.   What if, then, I changed my thoughts?

What came into my mind was that all the good stuff is out there too.  It always was.  It never went away, and it is always there along with our perceptions of bad stuff.  There are people who support us, our friends, our families, whoever it is that supports you even is it is only one greengrocer in your village, there is someone nice out there.  We forget to look for them.  We forget to remember them. I thought, gosh - I am surrounded by wonder.  It was always there, but I chose to go with the misery.  I have friends out there who say they love me.  Well, maybe they do!  Just maybe, they do!  I have a studio in which to create - well  blow me down!  Just because I am not in there and making a masterpiece does not mean it isn't a wonder.  Stop all the self pity, it does not matter if I go in there and create or I go in there and call all my family in America.  There is already work in the studio from over the years that is good enough, I have already done enough and it does not matter.  What matters is that feeling inadequate is a preventative, not a prerequisite, for anything.

Doodles from the studio
So I looked around at what was already there, already in place to give me hope.  To give me pleasure.  There is an ocean of support and goodness out there for us.  There is so much in our lives that we take for granted, because we are so caught up in living out the negative thoughts in our heads.  We have a false sense of modesty.  Bad things are easier to be than good.  Nobody wants to be seen to boast, and to be full of themselves.  We expect the bad things and discount the good.  We work at the good till we have changed them round to the bad so we can be comfortable with them.  So deep down, we feel relieved that we are rubbish, even though we say we don't like it.  It is just easier to be there than to rise up like a lark ascending, and take in the light, our successes, the support around us, and to believe in our own worth.  And actually, it is a good thing to admit we are good at things.  It isn't boasting, it is the truth.  I am really good at portraits.  There.  That isn't boasting, is it?

I looked around and the things that I saw to support and give me hope were not simply that my house is nice and that I can have toast any time of day or night, I saw friends who want the best for me.  I saw family who think well of me.  I saw people who offer me opportunities, who help me get things done - like the local printers in Bognor who never let me down.  There are wider things, like the fact that I can get a train anywhere I like.  Think about it, the service may be rotten but I am better off than in many countries.  I can actually go places.  The sea is at the end of my road - what a wonder.  And then, I thought, I have choice.  I have agency.  I am healthy and I can make decisions about my life.  Many people can't.  I can.  Blimey, what am I doing in allowing a miserable fug to live around my head?

And then I remembered that actually, we do have to have these darknesses.  We cannot know the light without the dark and so, these sad times will always be here with us.  But what I am thinking now, is that we do not have to let them take over.  We must allow ourselves to find our joy.  What we are missing, is joy.  If we know and agree that it is possible to change our minds, then we have the tools possibly, when we are down in the dumps, to look for the moment when we can stand up and say Eureka!  and begin to look for the oceans of blessings that may surround us.

I'm JOLLY good at portraits.  Not boasting, is it?

Sunday, 10 November 2019

You are my aunt. Am I? Are you sure? What else am I?

I am sitting up in bed in Trumbull, Connecticut, America.  It is early, I am watching for the dawn through the windows, and I have been down to my aunt's kitchen with my mobile phone torch in the darkness to make a pot of tea.  I do not want to wake my aunt because she will not remember who I am nor why I am making tea in her kitchen in the darkness.  And she sleeps next to the kitchen with her door open.  But I am quiet, and successful, and with tea, the winter sky lightening and my laptop, I am ready.  It is after six, and if I were in Bognor it would be nearly midday.

I am staying with my father's older sister.  Long before I was born, my father's sister moved to America to ease a broken heart.  She married here, had two daughters, and stayed.  My aunt is nearly ninety now, and has the same condition as my father, though she is in the earlier stages.  My cousins have arranged for me to come and see her and now, in her house, surrounded by evidence of her long life and the family we have in common, I can't believe I am so lucky to be here, and to have this family.  I am especially grateful to have this time with my precious aunt, who is gracious and kind and has no idea who I am or why I am here.

Lunch with my cousin's husband, Vladimir
I am not sentimental.  I never have been, I can't see the point of it.  I like to get to the heart of things and not get overwhelmed by feelings so that I can be the best I can be in any situation.  So being here in my Aunt's home, all the way over in America, when she has no idea who I am, is powerful.  I love my aunt, everyone does, she is one of those gentle, loving and strong women who form the backbone of our families.  I do not know much about her day to day life, and I have not see her much in my lifetime, but I know who she is and I know her parents, her children, her brother and sister.  I even met her grandmother.  I know where she comes from and I know the stories of her childhood because she and my father and their older sister are a tight unit and have been together all their lives.  My father's oldest sister says that she has always felt responsible for the other two.  She feels that very strongly, especially now that they are in their late eighties and early nineties, and two of the siblings are struggling with memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's.  My father's oldest sister is as bright and sharp as she has ever been, it is hard for her to see her siblings struggle.  My father does know who his sisters are, he knows who my brothers and I are, but he does not know where he is or what is going on.  He is unable to walk, feed himself or even sit up.  He cannot initiate a conversation, and cannot remember how to respond with words.  But he is still in there, when we visit him we can see that he is still there and his smile is the same as it ever was.  Recently he asked me if I had ever met his wife.  Yes, I said, I knew her well, she was my mother.  He looked impressed.

After my cousins left yesterday afternoon, my aunt and I held hands and looked at all the photos she had on the walls.  She was surprised that I knew who they were.  From time to time I said, do you know that your brother is my father?  Each time she was absolutely amazed.  No! She said, that means you are my sister!  I told her she was my aunt, and that we are family, and each time she was astonished.  You will have to call me Aunt, she said, laughing. I have called her Aunt all my life, but she has forgotten.  Because she does not know who I am, I hold her hand to show her she is safe.  We read stories of her life that her older sister has written and sent to her, and she is delighted with the memories.
My amazing cousin Vicky, wife of Vlad

My cousins here are amazing women.  They take care of my aunt with all the patience and determination that they can.  My father is looked after in a specialist nursing home, and my brothers and I do not have to do anything but visit him.  My aunt here is cared for by her daughters, grandchildren and son in law.  But in each moment my aunt is alone, she is confused and forgetful, and cannot remember that her family has been with her that day.

I love my cousins.  I have two cousins from my aunt here, and we have always been friends.  They have been my confidants and co conspirators in life from early childhood, despite not seeing each other often.  My oldest aunt's son lives nearby too, and over the years he and his family have become my most wonderful friends, and I am staying with this excellent cousin too.  It is good that my father and his two beloved sisters have families that are close too.

An attempted kiss not a
So back to this aunt, who I can hear moving around downstairs.  She is feeding her cat, and I was told by my cousin last night that she will go back to bed again for a while after feeding him.  Soon I will go down and tell her that I am staying with her, and that her brother is my father.  I will hold her hand, and she will talk about things she remembers, and will stop from time to time to make sure I am comfortable, happy, fed and have everything that I need.  Even though she won't remember what I am in her house for, she is looking after me.  How lovely.  She has snowy white hair and big blue eyes.  She has kind warm hands and her house is full of old family photographs I have not seen before, and pictures and letters from her grandchildren, now grown up and away at college.  My cousins will come over and we will all spend the day together.  We will call her older sister in England, and I will video my aunt sending messages to my father and to her sister.  Then when I go back to England, I will take this time with our most treasured aunt and relay it to her sister and brother.  Then knowing me, I will plan another visit and come back.

Soon, my aunt may remember who I am and sigh, Oh not again.  She's not my sister, but she is very familiar.  She keeps making tea in the middle of the night in the dark.  Strange woman, that.  From the UK, you know.  She needs some looking after.

Post script.  My aunt just opened the door and walked into my room.  I didn't know how many people were staying in my house, she said, or where they were.  I told her my name and that she was my aunt and she looked at me with recognition and said - yes, I remember you as a little girl.  So YOU are Antonia.  With that, we went downstairs to have some breakfast.  (This isn't my house, she said on the way down, it belongs to some man.  I think he's my uncle.)

Our most precious Aunt.