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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


Time.

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.

But 

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
headbutt
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.



Monday, 28 October 2019

A Sabbatical. The Good, Bad and Ugly Days.

Introduction.

Marie and me some time
before the sabbaticals
My friend Michael decided to have a Sabbatical from September 2019 to January 2020.  Oh my God, I thought, I want one.  A light went on in my head, and I announced my own Sabbatical to run concurrently with Michael's.  My friend Marie was with us, and she took one too, and all three of us are hiding away now and not answering the phones. 

My own need for a break had been building up.  I was doing too many things and spending too little time on them to make them worth while.  The more I took on, the more frantic I became and the less grounded.  It never occurred to me that I was allowed to stop.  If Michael had not said he was now unavailable until next year, I would never have thought it possible.  Next year? I said, astonished.  And then as the penny dropped, I saw myself wrapped in blankets on the sofa, the doors padlocked, the house phone in the bin, the fridge full of apple crumble, and I said - I am having one too. 

Much of the work of a sabbatical is personal.  If I am stuffed full of ideas, plans, notions, movement and worry, then letting go of all that will create spaces and those spaces may not feel comfortable.  There is a difference between driving fast and being safe and in control, and careering off at the speed of light whizzing round corners and wondering how it got to be this fast.  And the slowing down, when we are going so fast, cannot be an emergency stop otherwise we will be chucked through the metaphorical windscreen.  When going that fast all our energy goes into keeping to the road, and we think that this is how fast we should be going, it is normal, so we better focus or we may crash.  Being reminded that we can slow down by seeing someone showing us how and then getting out of his metaphorical car and walking off into the sunset, changes everything. 

I went home, shut the door, made some tea and cancelled everything.  Then I sat down and waited for Nirvana.

Chapter One.  The Good Days.

These are the days with nothing in them.  It does not matter what time I wake, it does not matter if I get dressed or not and my only difficulty is which sofa to sit on.  The sense of peace and relief makes me smile, and I look about my home with real joy.  Deciding to disconnect from everything feels like a very good idea at the beginning - and it is a good idea - it just is not simple.  I can't not turn up for the things I have agreed to do, and so I do have to get dressed sometimes and go out and perform.  But slowly, I have wound my engagements back leaving only those that could not be tampered with, and found a growing sense of relief in not feeling like I had to do anything else.  My studio was left like the Marie Celeste, intact but abandoned mid flow.  My writing was put away into a locked casket and hidden fifteen feet below ground (not really) in case I felt guilty about not doing it, and I stopped making plans.  There is a saying that nature abhors a vacuum, and so does family.  Family will be sucked into free spaces if they are allowed to, so that is lovingly checked.  Oh the freedom to sit on the sofa and think about the books I wanted to read and catch up with.  The pleasure of letting the hours tick by, and as there is no plan for the day, nothing has to be achieved.  Bliss.  I had the image of my mind being like a kettle filled with limescale.  I was allowing the limescale to drop away, and into the nice new kettle bits in my mind, new plans were going to form.  Another image was that I was a blocked sink, and all the old tea leaves and bits of soggy lettuce clogging the drains were going to be washed away for ever, and the water of my new and wonderful ideas would then flow effortlessly down the pipes. 

Family abhors a vacuum 
Time is such a friend on the good days.  It lets me sit and look about me.  Once, I would have been compelled to make a plan and rush about.  Now, I decide if I want to watch Police Interceptors on the laptop, or plan my lunch.  Because I am on a sabbatical, I can't do both at once.  I know that Michael is sorting his creative life out on his sabbatical, but any sorting out feels too much like hard work, and so I must not be tempted.  I choose mostly one thing at a time from the following list
  1. What do I want to eat?
  2. Where do I want to sit?
  3. Shall I get dressed?
  4. Shall I stare at the wall?
  5. Are there any sweeties in the house?
The good days are about freedoms - mental, physical and emotional.  They are free from expectations, they are free from distractions and they are formless and delightful.  But then, as with all things, there is the contrast.  There is not up without down, not happy without sad and not good without bad.

Chapter Two.  The Bad Days.

 Too much of nothing becomes heavy.  But doing nothing is precisely what I plan to do.  In order to get rid of the soggy lettuce in my limescale kettle mind there must be a letting go, but I am used to my rubbish.  Having freedom in my mind is unfamiliar.  The limescale and old tea leaves cover all manner of feelings and difficulties that I do not want to deal with.  It is because I am avoiding looking at my choices and my thoughts about myself and my life, that I have become such a high speed driver and have allowed the limescale and old carrot peelings to pile up.  So to speak. 

And so.  I begin to access the hiding away bits in my mind.  I don't like them.
  1. No one likes me
  2. I have not achieved anything
  3. No one comes to anything I do
  4. I am too fat
  5. I am scared of people
  6. People are scared of me
  7. I don't deserve success
There are more things on the list, but the important thing is that if these thoughts are hiding in my head, I need to look at them.  It is uncomfortable to confront them but I am on a sabbatical precisely in order to let my mind unclutter.  But what if the thoughts are right, what if it is true and I am doomed to be a fat, unpopular, unsuccessful, frightening, formless blob?  

Now, sitting on the sofa letting these thoughts happen is no longer fun.  Time feels unfriendly, it is hurtling past taking me with it and soon I will die because I will be nearly ninety and still no one likes me.  I can't read because I can't concentrate. I can't get dressed because nothing fits.  I can't plan lunch because I ate all the food in the house an hour ago, I can only sit on the sofa because I am now too enormous to fit onto a chair and perhaps staring at the wall and feeling doomed is the only thing left. 

I know that all this will pass.  It is a measure of how I have looked for distraction with movement, work, plans, mad schemes and over reaching projects because underneath it all, I am very tired, not enjoying myself and having angst ridden thoughts that need to be looked at.  I do know that I have to sit with this and wait for some perspective to arrive, which, bit by bit, it has done.  One of the things I did was to change the list round.  Here is how it reads now -
  1. Everyone likes me
  2. I have achieved a lot
  3. People always come to things I do
  4. I am gorgeous 
  5. I am delighted with people
  6. People are delighted with me
  7. I deserve success
The bad days are part of the deal, but while I am having them, they feel like the only deal.  I do not paint, I do not even go into my studio, my painting days are over.  I do not write, I have nothing to say, and I can't believe I ever did paint, write, leave the house.  Oh dear.  But then, you see, all this nonsense is just that, nonsense.  I am allowing it all to surface so I can see what is holding me up.  No wonder I am tired, no wonder work has become such a trial, no wonder I am not enjoying my life.  I have forgotten how to have fun.  It has all got a bit outside-in instead of inside-out.  I am looking for results from outside, from everyone else, and have forgotten that all the good stuff starts with me, with what I think about myself, and what is coming from my own good heart.  What thoughts I have about myself are destructive because I have given away my power.  Oh dear.  These bad days on the sabbatical are sad, lonely, heavy days.  But they are necessarily interspersed with lots of good days, no sabbatical should be a singular trudge up a steep hill with no respite.  But then there are also what I call the ugly days.



Chapter Three.  The Ugly Days

Can it get any worse?  Isn't a sabbatical meant to be fun?  It is fun.  It is wonderful, but the decluttering of the mind, the putting on of the brakes when we may have been going faster and faster on the autobahn, will bring a certain amount of trauma when still and facing what we have lost sight of in ourselves and our lives.  Things like perspective, self examination, assessing what is working and what is not and so on.  I do not think my life was out of control, not at all, it is simply that I had forgotten what I wanted to do and what I am truly good at.  And I am prone to thinking and saying dreadful things about myself when I give away my power.  Then I feel sorry for myself.


A Balrog.  The people on the right are the neighbours who can't
ignore they live next to a Balrog an longer.
The ugly days are when I see myself and everything around me as ugly.  The house needs cleaning, the flowers need changing, the laundry needs doing, everything is messy and then, I pass a mirror and it cracks.  I have no desire to clean, change, wash or hoover anything.  I do not want to pass a window now because my neighbours don't know I am now a Balrog.  I have taken time off work and so there is no distraction, and it is just as well because now if I leave my house the army will come and have me blown up.  The ugly days which I have had to face down, are the days when it is not enough that I have made that list from the bad days.  On top of that, I feel hopeless.  That is very sad.  Loss of hope colours everything grey and feels bleak.  These ugly days manifest as perceiving myself and all that is around me, as inadequate, unlovely and wrong.  But, I say to myself, if this is what is underneath my busy life, then the sabbatical is working, and it needs to be looked at.  Why is this coming up?  What is it saying and what can I do about it? Not much while it is happening, I can't reason with a Balrog. I just have to let it pass, and it always does and thankfully, I know that it will.  Ugly days don't happen often during this sabbatical, but when they do, I am very glad I have taken time off to face them.

Conclusion.

There are many more good days than bad or ugly and this sabbatical is still only half way through. I imagined I would have so much time to focus on cooking, writing lists, reading, sitting and having great thoughts.  Instead, my time has been spent dealing with all the nonsense I have allowed myself to come up with.  I have sat on my sofas a lot - I have two, a red one and a pink one - and I have tried writing lists but what I most need is time to think.  Thinking with attention, and thinking without.  Thinking with attention means focus and a furrowed brow.  Lots of deep and meaningful sequential thoughts.  Thinking without attention is letting your mind go on a wander.  Letting it meander off into the ether, you just watch it go and soon you are lost in a lovely journey without boundaries or stress.  Then you fall asleep.

I have not asked Michael or Marie how their sabbaticals are going, I don't want to hear that they are having a great time and it is only me doing the I'm a Balrog thing.  I will sum up the sabbatical below

  1. It is such an indulgence doing nothing
  2. It is really hard work doing nothing
  3. I am not doing nothing!
  4. There are sweeties in the house
  5. I am so glad I am doing this
  6. Some plans are forming for next year 
  7. I am not a Balrog
  8. Even if I was, I would be a nice one
  9. I am really glad I am not doing as much as I was
  10. My clothes do fit, I am just attention seeking.

My sabbatical ends in January 2020.  If all goes well, I shall sail out of it like a ship in full sail, filled with wisdom and good food.  I will meet up with Michael and Marie and we will all laugh about how good life is now, and getting into our metaphorical life cars, we will stick to the speed limit.  And I will have a clean limescale free kettle head with all the old bits of sweetcorn removed from the blocked drains, the water of my ideas will be flowing smoothly and no one will notice that my metaphors are really odd.



Emerging full of wisdom, food and metaphors.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Whirligig mind and Buddhist mind


I pretend I have a Buddhist type mind.  I think it is evident if I present as calm and unruffled by life.  All that I have read about Buddhism makes perfect sense, and I tend to agree with it by feeling satisfied that actually, I already do that.  Whatever deep and meaningful books I read, I find myself thinking, well, lucky for me that I don't have to do any of that. I do it already.  I am actually, I think, a bit fab.  I like how advanced I am, I am lucky to be so wise and calm and perceptive.  I am lucky to be able to understand the energy follows thought kind of thing.  It is a very nice place to be.

What is more accurate is that I have a whirligig mind, wrapped up in some comforting distractions that I have lifted from very worthy and good books, and used to prevent myself from noticing I am not really that advanced nor Buddhist.  It takes a while to create the belief that one is safe in one's mind, and that it is comfortable in there.  It is comfortable thinking the things we think, and knowing the things we know, and having our views sorted enough for us to not be too challenged.  It is entirely understandable, it is inevitable, that we should create our safe space in our minds, because we have to live with ourselves, and make sense of the world.  At the same time, we are called upon to cope with things that we can't quite understand like love, and violence, and news stories, and other people, and why if we know it isn't good for us, do we still bulk buy ice cream and pot noodles?

So I have created an illusion of a Buddhist mind.  For myself.  I can do my projects, write my articles, rush about like a whirligig, all the while believing I am not rushing about.  I have it sussed, I say.

The whirligig mind does the following. It is unable to say no to ideas, it is as excited about the idea it has just had as about the project already in hand, and going well.  It doesn't give one idea time to sink in and start to work before the next four pop up and are given exactly the same amount of attention, even if they are (possibly) really silly.  It thinks it can start things off, and watch them hurtle about like spinning tops, and that somehow it will all be fine.  A whirligig mind agrees to do things despite already doing things, as if time will somehow become elastic and stretch to accommodate the new plans, and nothing will suffer.  When eventually, a whirligig feels they are run ragged, they get despondent and a bit sad, and feel a failure.  All the spinning tops are off out there careering about, some doing well perhaps, but most losing speed and crashing into each other.  "Oh dear", says the whirligig mind, " I tried so hard, nothing is working, I am so useless", and their friends give them hugs and say, that, perhaps they are doing too much.

"Too much!" says the whirligig, "Nonsense! This is just the beginning!" Whirligigs do not listen.

But in their quiet moments, they think that perhaps they are doing too much, and because they lack discernment and boundaries, they have no idea what to stop and what to continue.  So they may get back out there and carry on with all their ideas despite feeling dispirited, or they may disown the lot of them.  That is when they really do bulk buy ice cream and pot noodles.  They need a treat.


What is to be done. A personal take.

It is unlikely that we whirligigs will slow down and take stock unless life gives us a shove.  I was given a knockout in late summer this year, after which I was required to look around me at my choices, and to unravel them.  The ambition I had for a particular project had blinkered me to the consequences, I was on a roll, it was all going to be fine.  I was in control! And I so wanted to do this project.  It was personal. 

Of course I went ahead with the project.  Things were not going well, but the show must go on.  There was too much invested in it to stop and besides - what would people think? So we did it.  And far from being delighted with it, I was ashamed of the difficulties I had stirred up.  I don't think anyone knew, but I was shaken and challenged and found no peace.  When it was over, and everyone had gone home, I was left to think about what I had decided to do, and what I had allowed to happen. I was now required to look at what was real. 

It was very hard.  My whirligig mind had nothing to distract it.  I was involved with so many different things, I had given my time and focus to whatever came my way and now I had no desire to do any of it.  I needed to think.  This Buddhist mind business was a bit of a sham, I began to see.  I was no calm, detached, wise and illusion free person, I was an over busy, over committed, superficial jack of all trades.  "Time to stop", said my friends, and for once, I listened.  Things had become so difficult, I was really out of my depth, and I wanted to think and be alone.  I cancelled everything and went to bed.

In my dressing gown, from the sofa, in the middle of the day a long while later, I began a time of reflection and understanding.  Over the weeks, this is what I came up with and bear in mind, this is just a few  -

  1. I do not disappear into a puff of smoke because I stop.  I am still here.  A whirligig tends to think that the only thing that makes them real is doing things.  Hundreds of things.
  2. Be truthful. "At the end of the day," a dear friend said,"people decide how they behave".  And that includes me.
  3. I am not indispensable.  No one needs me.  Things happen without me.
  4. This project cannot continue.  I can start again with the same subject in a different way.  I must let this one go.  I must accept this did not work. And I got it wrong.
  5. In order to really take notice of my own mind, and what it is creating, I must close down the things that are really not working.  There are a good few.  It is dawning on me that I am very very tired. Emotionally, physically and spiritually.
  6. I don't want to be a whirligig any more.  
So I have taken my metaphorical phone off the hook, and am having what I call a sabbatical until 2020.  I am seeing what plans I have that are authentic, and well thought through, and sticking with only one or two.  Maybe three.  Or four.  I could do ten ..... (and breathe).  And I am not doing anything now.  I am thinking about them and planning them only.

However.  I am still busy.  But not that busy.  Remember, I say to myself as I start to fill in my diary - plan times to just do nothing.  It is so hard to just do nothing.  But persevering with it is a lesson in time, the passing of time.  It is a lesson in the decluttering of one's thoughts.  It is a lesson in realising you exist.  Simply, and wonderfully, just as you and you exist.  I had forgotten how to have fun.  I had forgotten how to daydream.  I had forgotten how to read all afternoon, how to watch the light change as the day ends or begins and I had totally forgotten how time will never come back, and to experience it passing is sometimes a luxury we don't allow ourselves.  To a whirligig, time is terrifying.  It is evidence that you haven't done enough, become enough, achieved enough.  A whirligig forgets that we have to be as well as do.

So.  How are you now?



Getting good at sitting down.  I have little insights into what I want to do, and I have long ponderings about what I don't want to do.  I get excited about new plans now that I am a recovering whirligig and then I remember, plan only one (or two) things at a time and do them well.  Yesterday I had a brain wave.  I will do a new one woman show.  It will be easy.  Now that I have stopped all my previous projects I have more time.  I know, I thought, I will call my friend Deb and she will help and we can get this sorted by May and she can put it on in Southampton.  Then I remembered.  I already have a project to plan and think about (just the one) and I am not doing this kind of whirligig thing any more.  It was really hard to let it go but I managed with a packet of biscuits.  I was on my super comfy sofa, the fairy lights were lit and it was raining outside.  I began to think, do I really want to fuss about again, and chase spinning tops?  Mostly, no.  But a bit yes. 


In conclusion 

After Gertrude Stein's A rose is a rose is a rose.
The two plans that I am allowed to have are -


  • The Addicts and Those That Love Them project 


  • My book I am finishing by Christmas


  • Loss Conversations I hold with my dear friend Gill - every second Wednesday in Bognor.


Damn.  That's three.  Damn.



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www.antoniarolls.co.uk



Saturday, 28 September 2019

Addicts and Those Who Love Them. Part 2 - Love.

The Love Bit.

Love is what we aim for, but loving the lovable is easy.  The test is, how can you love the unlovable?

Words from the Brighter the Light
exhibition, partying drugs
and addiction
How can we unpack this business of love.  In this context, loving someone who is monstrous with addiction, is an idea too far.  It depends too on who you are, who your addict is, and what your relationship is.  For example, a thin, ragged, pale and dirty young man asked an underground train carriage that I was in, in Central London, for some change so he could go to a hostel for the night.  I beckoned him over to me, asked for his name - Steven - and I gave him money.  Bless you, I said.  We all knew in the carriage that it was going straight to a dealer.  I got some pretty annoyed looks from the other passengers, but I do not believe any of us can even begin to understand how bad Steven's life is.  The act of giving him some money is all I can do.  What he does with it is none of my business, that is judgement, and no addict has a better life than any of us in that underground train.  The Bless you came without thinking; this young man could have been my own son.  Could have been any of our sons. I would want someone to ask my son his name, bless him and give him the money he asked for.

I loved that young man despite never having seen him before, and still find myself sending him love from time to time.  Here is the rub.  I can love that young Steven all I want, because I have nothing to do with him, I do not ever have to deal with him, and I can project any manner of blessings onto him, because my love for him is easy.  There are no consequences for me whatsoever.  In fact, if I am not careful, I can love myself a little too much for doing that, so I have to be careful.


From the Brighter the Light exhibition
Here is another example.  A mother I met, in her fifties, spoke of  her addicted son and herself as if they were all that were left, holding up against the blank indifference of the world outside.  "He's all I've got", she says.  "Everyone has given up on him, and everyone has given up on me."   But she hadn't given up on either of them.  Her son had been in prison many times, had a crazy addiction and deep underlying mental health issues, and when she could, she gave him space in her house.  Each time he trashed her house and was removed by the police, she knew it was the drugs and despite her despair and her fury, she continued to look out for him and argued with everyone who stood in her way.  She was angry, lost in a hopeless battle, alone, determined and not very lovable herself - but here is love in action. Classic co-dependency, you may say.  Yes, and I was impressed by the sheer power of this mother's love for her only son.  She was loving the unlovable.  She was wonderful.


Here are just some things we believe about love.

  1. We all need it.
  2. It's good for us.
  3. You have to be careful, it can hurt.
  4. You either do, or you don't, feel love.
  5. We can withdraw it if the going gets tough.
  6. It's conditional.  You show me first that you mean it, and I will show you I mean it.  
  7. It's conditional.  You behave badly, don't treat me well, I will stop loving you.
  8. If you don't deserve it, you won't get it.
  9. Unconditional love is for idiots.
  10. It's rare, and not for me.
Many of us base our idea of love on fear.  That there is not enough, that we can't have any, that it will be taken away.  The ten points above are from a place of fear, from a feeling that we are not enough.  We have to negotiate with the outside world, because we fear we lack the right, lack the equipment, to deserve love.  It is conditional, and if we do find it - love amongst friends, or lovers, or family, we can be so afraid of being unworthy that we sabotage it.  And then we are sad, and proven right.  Love is too hard, and hurts too much.  It can become all about power and control.

Here are some more things about love that we believe and hope are true.

  1. It feels wonderful!
  2. Someone, somewhere, will/does/can love us.
  3. It conquers all.
  4. It makes us look and feel gorgeous.
  5. It can take us by surprise.
  6. Sometimes we have no control over it.
  7. It is worth it!
  8. Love brings out the best in us, we learn forgiveness and kindness etc.
  9. It opens us up, we learn about ourselves.
  10. It is difficult to describe - it can make us weepy with happiness.  
It is said that love is not a noun, it is a verb.  One has to do it.  And one step further than that, one has to be it.  But what holds us back, trips us up time and time again, is ourselves.  We choose our love from the first ten points, from a place of fear and lack.  We long to believe that the second ten points are true, which sometimes - to our great surprise - they are.  Practising love, looking at love, living love, comes after we have taken time to work on loving ourselves - and it is work, because our social narrative tells us that self love is selfish and toxic.  Wrong.  We are confusing self love with narcissism and self absorption. Taking time to work on ourselves, to understand ourselves and get to know who we are, what we like and dislike, and really listen to ourselves may well make people challenge you, but maybe you are not willing to be so indispensable any more.  Maybe you, taking time to learn to love yourself, is offensive to some because you are stepping into your own power.  Well, go ahead.  Love is a paradox, both simple and complex, and well worth working on.  Imagine you really liked yourself, imagine you loved yourself - well!  Imagine being open to love in your life because you were strong in the love for yourself!  Not self absorption, not narcissism, not those things that isolate you and centre around power and control - but actually listening to your own needs, and giving yourself a bit of loving attention.  Wow.

Back to addicts and those that love them.  

From the Brighter the Light exhibition
Loving our addicts brings pain.  We are often lost in a nightmare world of collusion, fear, reaction and cover up.  We do not know how lost we are in an addiction world until, perhaps, we find help.  For ourselves.  And this is the hardest thing of all.  Our whole focus is centred on the fact that our addict needs help, and we who love them have tried so hard, only to have it trashed and used against us.  When we do, eventually, ask for help we are distressed to hear that we cannot help our addict unless they want to help themselves.  Oh but!  we say, my addict does want to stop!  They do want help!  But because we are there in the relationship to take the edge off things for them, the addict has no intention of getting help.  Saying these things keeps us in the loop where we are useful.  

Our notion of love has become twisted, toxic and harmful - mostly to ourselves.  Our addict has checked out long ago, their fix is their love.  The drink is their love.  Whatever.  We are lost, our addict is lost, and love does not work.  It does not even touch them.  What are we to do.  And now, we do not trust, care for, or understand love.  We certainly have none left to give, and even if we did, we would be so far down the list as to be no longer visible. 

Love does work.  But we need to reclaim it.  We need to reclaim it for ourselves. If, as they say in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous - but it works for all addictions) we are powerless over our addictions, then we are powerless over our addicts too.  We need to let them go.  We must learn to detach, and to detach with love.  How so, we say, if we do that, they will die.  We think, if we let go, we are the only thing between them and a bad death.  We learn, sometimes with relief, that we not only that we must let them go, but we can let them go.  And then we start to work on ourselves.  Our addicts will do what our addicts will do, drink, take drugs, and nothing will get in the way of that.

I learned, when I let my addict go, that I was not responsible for them.  I learned that their first love was their fix, not me or any other person.  I learned that my addict would need to reach their lowest point - rock bottom they call it - before anything could be done.  And I learned that by covering up for them, getting involved in their life, trying to rescue them all the time, I was delaying their ability to get so low that they could make a choice.  I was colluding, I was lost in a co dependent relationship, and I was not helping anyone.  Detach, I was told, but do it with love.  Always with love.  A wise lady said of her journey, that when her drunken husband fell out of bed yet again onto the hard floor, she understood that she does not have to break her own back trying to get him back into bed.  She was letting him begin to experience consequence.  She was detaching, but the love part, she said, was that she found a blanket to cover him on the floor.  

Loving ourselves when we love an addict, is the only way.  We need to be strong and we need to re-understand boundaries.  Our addict is destructive and it is reasonable to let them go, really go, off somewhere to continue to use or drink, without us.  It is both the hardest and saddest thing for us, but the relief that we don't have to live in that madness any more, is astonishing.  Because we love our addict, we need to be strong, wholesome, supported and boundaried.  They may never come back, but that is their choice.  And if they do, we have something to help us with their recovery - self love, self respect, boundaries, love and wisdom. 

A meeting had been arranged through a friend, I was going to see my addict.  My addict had reached their bottom, had managed to come off the drugs, and had asked for me.  For a while, I had refused.  I have been here before, I said to my friend.  I will not do it again.

No, said my friend.  I have spoken to them, this time it is different.  Please go.  In the end, I had reluctantly agreed. 

I had walked away, detached with love a year previously, and sought help to cope with what felt like the worst kind of betrayal.  The withdrawal of my love and support.  I learned about addiction and mental health, and I learned that I was not to blame.  I had understood finally that only my addict could decide what they were going to do, and that I needed to do the same for myself.  Love, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with what had happened.  My love was unconditional, but I needed to wise up, be strong, recover, get educated and let go in order to be of any service.  And I also had to prepare myself to receive that call, if it ever came and that it could come, that my addict was dead.  

I was very scared as I arrived at my addict's door. It was scruffy, as I remembered it, with damage from a forced entry some time ago on the wood, when the emergency services suspected an overdose. 

I knocked on the door.  I heard  shuffling inside and it opened slowly.  My addict stood, the gloom behind them filled old rubbish bags, flies swarming and dirt on every surface. The smell was awful.  My addict stood, thin, grey, unwashed, derelict and filthy.  Hello, I said, and my addict looked at me.  Despite the dirt, squalor and smell, their eyes were present.  You are back, I said quietly.  We can do this.  You are back.  Welcome. 



From the Brighter the Light exhibition


Monday, 16 September 2019

Addicts and Those Who Love Them. A new project.

The helplessness of a hand after passing out.  Charcoal and pastel on paper.
 I took a risk.  I created an exhibition of paintings and words about my experience of addiction and showed it in August.  I am not an addict, but someone close to me is, and I used their story to describe how it looked and felt to witness a downhill journey, to be helpless and hopeless and unable to intervene.  The exhibition looked excellent when hung, the paintings told the story of this one person's journey and though I say so myself, the artwork was very good.  Two friends, Marie and Michael, both of whom had experienced their own addictions, added their own artwork to mine, and I was grateful to have something from the horse's mouth, so to speak. 

Creating the artwork, writing the words, was hard to do.  It felt as if nothing could ever describe the bleakness of the world of addiction that I had seen.  I began to feel the same hopelessness in my studio while painting these images, as I had felt when actually there and watching the madness happen.  But my friends and I went ahead and showed our exhibition.  People were very interested and came along with their own stories, experiences and opinions.  There were many discussions and sometimes, I felt as if I were justifying myself for opening this subject up to scrutiny.  Of course it is unpleasant, and of course it is shocking, and I have no answers.  During the exhibition, I just wanted to say - Look!  This is what I saw, this is how it is, it is really like this.  The words I used to describe how I felt, they are real. 

And now, the exhibition is over and packed away and I am left wondering what to do next.  I have barely scratched the surface, there is so much to say and do.  As an artist, what is my response now? 

What I have not found a way to describe is the bleakness of an addict's life.  I am talking of the addict who has stopped being able to get by and fool people.  The addict who has lost family, friends, help, a place to live and all sense of perspective outside their drug use.  I saw how the addict has no reason to exist except to find the next hit to feel normal and if they don't get the hit, the suffering is indescribable.  In between the hits, the need to eat, sleep, wash, communicate is almost lost.  I watched the crazy mood swings from the agitated sometimes hysterical lows before the hit, to the stumbling semi conscious disconnection as the highs hit home.  I saw a brief stabilisation of the mood swings before the drug wore off and the agitation began again. 

Words from the first exhibition
Mostly, I had to accept that the person I knew had checked out a long time ago.  What had taken their place was a monster who would do anything, say anything, to get what they needed.  Sometimes the person I knew would be there underneath it all, and sometimes that person would ask for help.  It soon became clear that the monster was in control though, and any help offered would only be accepted if it could be used to get the drugs. 

The loneliness of this life, the degradation of this life, the squalor and dirt and crazy lack of self care, of hygiene, of self respect, the catastrophic lack of connection to reality and isolation from any love, kindness or consequence is difficult to describe.  Sometimes I visited this addict in their flat.  If they were able to answer the door, I'd go in.  If not, I'd go away.  Inside, every window was covered with filthy material, the darkness and gloom lit only by the television constantly on in the corner.  Underfoot, old food, cigarette buts, broken crockery, rubbish, detritus and medicine packets scrunched as we walked over them.  The grime and mould growing on the old food and washing up in the kitchen smelt almost as bad as the powerfully reeking rubbish bins overflowing onto the floor and walked around the room.  In the darkness, in the corner, sitting on a sofa covered by a blanket with dirt and burn holes from forgotten cigarettes, this addict would go over and over how bad their life was, and how no one would help and how they could not get their drug, how they needed it, how badly they were being treated, how it wasn't their fault and how everyone was conspiring to close off all avenues to get this drug.  Listening to this addict become more and more angry and agitated I knew from bitter experience that if I stayed too long, it would become my fault and I would become the focus of ways to accompany my addict and make people give them the drugs they needed to stay alive.  Once, though, before the agitation became manic and confrontational, I had to go and the addict started to cry quietly saying, don't go.  I'm so lonely.  It was heartbreaking to leave this traumatised and possessed person in such a state but I went, I knew how it would end, and the monster that lived in this addict would crash back into their brain, and I would be a target again.  The ranting about the unfairness of everything would lead into a wild and demented search for someone to give them the stuff they needed.

Detail from first exhibition. 
From a painting of  an overdose
Here is what else I need to find a way to describe in paint for the exhibition.  All the ranting, the unfairness, the paranoia, all the madness was true.  It was unfair, all avenues to help were being shut, it wasn't their fault, and there was a conspiracy to prevent them finding their fix. 

This was an addiction to prescription drugs, prescribed for years without anyone checking, the dosage increased when this addict said the current dose was no longer working.  When finally the addiction was noticed, the shutters came down, the dose was lowered and the medical profession withdrew support and eventually, withdrew the drug entirely.  Here is another thing I have learned.  You cannot reason with an addict, and you cannot punish an addict.  This is the point at which this addicts behaviour became extreme, out of control and distressing.  It was now total survival.  Whatever worked to get the drugs, worked.  There were no consequences, there was only what got the drugs.  The addict was barred from surgery after surgery.  Hospital after hospital refused to help, and written on this addicts records were notes not to believe them, not to help, not to get involved. 

I saw something of how we treat addiction.  I saw that there is nothing much in place for them, there is almost nowhere for them to go, there is not much understanding not much care and very little interest.  Addicts are today's equivalents of lepers of  times past. Monstrous, insane lepers that we cannot have in our midst.  And watching this catastrophic journey into a crazed, nightmarish stalemate, I am left with the question - what are we to do?  What on earth are we to do?  If an addict is on the streets, living a nightmare until they die and perhaps they want help but have no money to pay for anything, what do they do?  What is there then and there to help at that moment, what is in place?  I saw nothing at all to help the addict I knew.  This addict could not attend a meeting.  This addict could not think beyond the paranoid panic that his next fix could not be found.  This addict could not agree to anything, this addict would sell their mother's kidneys to get a fix.  This addict could not make a phone call to a helpline and wait for their call to be answered, if this addict had a phone it would be sold to get drugs.  If, however, you can pay for it, there is help.  There is rehab.  If you cannot pay for help, like so many who have no one and who hustle for money to keep their habit going, there seems to be a large black hole of nothing.  There seemed to be a complete societal and political lack of will to deal with the dirt and mental illness of out of control addiction.

Words from the August exhibition
It is all of the above that I want to describe in my next exhibition.  You see how hard it will be, but I am sure that I will do it.  One thing that I have decided, is to call the exhibition Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  I am taking time out now to work on this new exhibition.  The old one, that I showed in August this year, is too personal to the person whose story it tells. I don't think I want to do that now.  I want to open it up to other addicts and those that love them, and tell their stories.  But before that, before I start to paint, I want to understand more about addiction and what help is available.  I know nothing except what I observed during the journey of the addict that is close to me.  I want to know because another thing about addiction is, that it can happen to anyone.  You and me included.  Anyone.



Love is important, it is true.  Loving the lovable is easy.  Loving the unlovable is a nightmare.  What little experience I have of addiction tests this loving business to the limit.   


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Guilt about Doing Nothing.




Why do we feel guilt about doing nothing?  About sitting for a whole afternoon and having nothing to show for it?  Even potting plants in the garden is better than sitting on the sofa.  Even washing up, or making soda bread, or writing lists has something to show for the time spent on it.  But sitting on cushions, drinking tea and drifting online, or on my phone, or listening to my talking books, or all of them at once, has no results.  I can't tick them off a list.  I can't say to my friends, well - at least today I worked on a painting/made a big decision/spoke to someone important/cleaned behind the piano.  I have only the passing of time and the setting of the sun to tell me that the day is nearly over and I am still oblivious to the world outside.


Perhaps that is the point of the doing absolutely nothing.  Being oblivious of the world outside.  These days I need to disengage, and to find a nice place to go to inside my head.  I can be lost in someone else's world on YouTube, I can live vicariously through my talking books, I can skim along the surface of life by asking questions online like, why is Bognor called Bognor?   It is a relief to think - Oh now it is time to stop all this thinking and doing and organising and planning and so on, now is the time to sit down and opt out.

I do a great deal of opting out.  Now that I am a grandma, now that my role has moved on from mother, young person, artist on the move, I haven't the same calls on my time.  There isn't that frantic hustle and especially, there is less worry and more sleep.  This morning I realise that I spend a lot of time sleeping, or at least lying down, and that it is rare that anything disturbs me enough to stop it.  Our human nature gives us a wonderful and complex brain, and a mind that not only thinks of good things, but thinks of bad things too.  So sometimes I am disturbed by worries and feelings of unease, and that is all part of being alive. It doesn't make me get out of bed at night or feel I need to do anything till the morning.  My bed is very comfortable, my bedroom is beautiful, filled with lovely things and colours so that it is a pleasure to be in there.  I couldn't do that when I had young children.  They were all in my bed anyway, it was the only way we got any sleep.

So what about the guilt.  Oh that happens if I am drifting when I plan a day in the studio painting and I don't quite get there.  It happens when I sit down to be productive and all I can think of is baked potatoes with butter.  The awkward feeling of time running out and the hopelessness of ever achieving anything hits me when I put on my overalls, walk into the studio, and get caught up in my Instagram stories.  And then, before I know it, I have drifted off into that lovely state of mind where time passes, I am very content, and then aware that there is less time to work on my painting and it is all my fault.  Then, I remember how well everyone else seems to be doing, and I feel sad that I am now not one of them.  This morning, I could have been.  This afternoon, I am not.

I have been thinking about this difficulty of making time work for us, of our judgements about it, and how it is a mark of honour to have too little of it and a problem to have too much.  And when various spiritual teachers tell us that we are human beings, not a human doings, we get what they mean but we think - Oh but they don't understand. It's different for us, we say, things are different for us.  Perhaps, though, we have made time into a dreadful friend, a friend who bullies us and cannot be satisfied, and yet we love it.  And hate it.  And love to hate it.  Our difficulties with lack of time have, after all, helped us feel important and given us a currency by which we can judge our feelings of worth and belonging.  I accept that busyness is not going to stop, and busyness in itself is not a problem.  The problem is when it becomes a way to avoid facing ourselves and becomes an end in itself, like an addiction. I accept that it is great fun to be caught up in a whirligig of things to do, places to go, people to meet, deadlines to beat.  I know how wonderful it is when so much is happening and somehow nothing can succeed without us and there is that feeling of being indispensable.  It is intoxicating to not have time even to eat, to find the only way you can fit in your next client is the two minutes you set aside to get a sandwich for lunch.  It is a powerful pull to answer that call late at night, to check your emails in the early hours, to rush about and to be seen to rush about.  I have done it, it made me feel important and one of the gang.  I felt that if there was a film crew following me they would say Yes!  She's one of the players!  See, she is so busy and she is doing so much!  We can't keep up!

It's great fun. Until it is not.  Until it is not fun any more, and then, we do not know how to slow down, how to stop, and we do not know how the world will turn if we cannot go on.  It is personal.  We have failed.  We can't maintain this way of being, everyone else can (it seems) and we are on the road to oblivion and failure. There are many times we enter the dark night of the soul, and this may be one of them.  What, in my case, I did not do, was know who I was in the quiet moments.  I avoided the quiet moments because I felt I did not exist if I was not moving.



Too little time means we cannot stop to take stock and also gains us a perverse respect.  (Who is this successful indispensable person that other people need so much?  Who must have powers and talents that I, who have more time, must be lacking?)  Too little time is impossible to maintain. If there are free moments, they are filled at once, because that is all we know.  And then, there is that old guilt again, about doing nothing.  About having time to fill.  What does it mean?  What does it say about us?  What if, in the little bit of time that is sagging around us, someone else gets the prize and we were not quick enough?

Too much time is as bad as too little.  Too much of anything is unbalanced.  Perhaps, with too much time, we sink into what we fear and feel there is no point in doing anything anyway.  We fear we have no worth, we fear we are not enough when there are no distractions and no props. Too much or too little of anything is not good.

Up till only a few years ago, I was conflicted about who I was and what I wanted to be, rushing about trying to do and be it all.  Then, one after another, three of my closest people died and I was forced sit with myself in what felt like total emptiness for a long, long time.  I felt as if I had fallen off the edge of the known world, and had to begin again.  I sat still for days at a time watching the play of light on the wall opposite me as the day passed, doing nothing at all but looking at the changing light as it moved.  Somehow I survived, and life went on.  I had to look at who I thought I was, and who I thought I was not, and to begin the long slow process of getting to know myself as I really am.  There was no choice. I had abandoned the outside world and had shut myself off from everything.  What was left was, simply, me.  Sink or swim.  I understood that even the choice to sink could only take me so far down and until I was dead myself, there was still life.  And so, I began to choose life.

My focus is also on more tea.
My focus now is in creativity and healing work, and though that still feels like a lot, the relief is enormous.  I don't need to do all the other stuff any more (I can't remember what it was that I was so busy doing now.  I used to have ten ideas an hour, tried to implement all of them, and tumble into confusion and exhaustion all the time).  Healing and soul midwife work take a huge amount of energy and I accept that I need a lot of time to recover and recharge.  Painting time needs managing too, but the joy of being creative means we express it all the time anyway, in how we live - what we wear, how we cook, what we do with our surroundings. I build time for absolute nothing into my diary and sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn't.  Of course, I still get caught up in the whirligigs, but I am aware that there must be recovery time or I will become loopy and my children will put me in the same care home as my father.

All this is a bit different to feeling guilty when I cannot prevent myself from spending a whole day gazing into the garden and thinking about doughnuts.  My guilt comes from having made a plan to do something, something work related, and yet having no power to make myself do it.  But writing this blog, and thinking about it all, I am struck by how therapeutic these drifty days are.  And even if I have four of them back to back, I am beginning to think that four drifty days are exactly what I need to be my most calm, grounded, prepared and focused for my end of life clients as a soul midwife, and an artist extraordinaire for my painting clients.  I like my own company now, after spending time with myself after my falling off the edge of the world; a very different set up to before, when nothing could convince me that I was not a total nut nut and no one could ever like me.

So back now to coping with guilt when time passes and nothing seems to be achieved. Well, I think I have to change my mind about it and enjoy it.  Life goes on whether I while away the days or not.  Somehow, things still get done.  And the joy of watching the grass grow, the light change on the wall, letting myself drift as the hours go by, is good for me.  Like now, it is nearly 11 am and I am in my pyjamas, I have a painting to finish and a soul midwife visit to do.  I can do that, all in good time, but right now, I want to watch the peonies bloom until it is time to get dressed and go.