Saturday, 11 September 2021

The healing room. Making earrings in the sunshine.

 

Claire working on a piece of complicated jewellery loveliness

Ups and downs

I witness many stories.  It is what I do, whether through art, words, image or presence, I witness lives, livings and sometimes, dyings. Though I have experienced my own fair share of stuff I do not know half of what other people have to deal with.  It is always surprising to see how other people deal with the lot that is dealt to them and how, when I think I would not manage to cope, they do.  And also sometimes, when I think I would cope, they do not.  There is so much tied up with living.  It is never a simple straight line, peacefully stretching without interruption from morning till night for ever and ever. Oh no, it is a bumpy, complex affair that can hold both peace and conflict at the same time if it wants, can defy our logic and reason. It shows us that we are also full of paradoxes, we are both simple and sophisticated, we are both full of wisdom and full of ignorance, we are up and we are down - and no matter how we try and control events, or go with the flow, life simply happens to us often and we struggle to explain how and why.

When things are going well, we think we have the answers.  This is how the world works, we say, this is the truth of things.  But when things go what we would call badly we are shaken, our certainties are challenged and we try and find answers to make sense of it.  We want reasons for why things happen, and often because we no longer feel in control we look outwards for where to put the blame. 

 Me

Mustn't grumble.
I live in a lovely home, with a garden that I call my favourite room in the house.  Now that my children are grown and live away from here, I wander with joy and surprise (at the silence and order, mainly) through the empty rooms and feel both utterly delighted to be able to do what I want, and a little guilty at the lack of sentimentality I have about being alone at last.  To put that into context, I raised my three children alone and without a leader (as Horace Rumpole says, the wonderful grumpy old barrister from John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey books. His first triumphant win as a young barrister defending the undefended was despite the lead barrister in court not being there.  Rumple won it alone and without a leader).  I had very little money, space, time or peace in those early days.  Now that I am older, and time has moved on, I can live in glorious solitude (mostly) in this lovely house in a way I could only have dreamt of at one time.  I love my life here.

My friends

My three close friends here live with cancer, the results of cancer surgery, and the uncertainty of living itself.  I have seen the effects of illness on their bodies and have watched the struggle to keep their minds from giving up. I have also seen their determination to live and live well, to find ways to get through, to laugh and look for the silver lining, while telling it like it is.  

The healing room

Before she began her chemo, my  friend Marie was visiting.  The sitting room here has doors that open onto the garden with its flowers and colours, and a big oak table covered in beads, threads, earring making wire and old necklaces to be dismantled and re used.  The sun pours through the garden doors in the afternoons, the big old bright pink sofa is covered in African print cushions, and the sound of the seagulls calling outside reminds us that the sea is just at the end of the road. It was Marie's idea to come and sit at the table when her chemo started, when the treatment for her cancer became difficult, and to make beautiful things with colourful beads in the sunshine.  We asked our friend Claire to join us.  Claire is finding her way back to strength and a place in the world after life changing surgery.  Her cancer treatment from ten years ago has left her vulnerable and physically changed, leading to her recent operation to have half her jaw removed.  So she joined us, and the healing room began. Though she is well now and working again, our friend Gill drops by, just for the love of it, bringing her warmth and wisdom and laughter.  Gill's cancer has also left her physically changed with disabilities for the last twenty years that may floor most of us, but that Gill works with, understands, and will not allow to define her.  

Marie and the box of hair

The healing room is not really called the healing room, but that is what it has become.  Once a week Marie, Claire and sometimes Gill, come to sit and eat, drink tea, play with beads, and create in the late summer sunshine.  It is a space to laugh, forget the difficulties of getting by, and also to talk of things both good and bad.  Each week, something is different.  Last week, Claire arrived with her hair dyed blue.  This week, Marie arrived in a turban with her hair in a wooden box.  She and her boyfriend had shaved it off now that the chemo was kicking in, and it was falling out by the handful.  Instead of making jewellery this week, Marie is going to make something with her hair.  What she ended up making was a false beard and eyebrows and made us all laugh.  But she is serious, and is aiming to make little figures with it.  Marie is a very extraordinary artist.  She will do it. And Gill?  Gill brings flowers, and cakes that she makes, and sits with us understanding all that Claire and Marie are saying.  It has been her story too. 

 

While Gill helps polish the silver (I know) Marie tries out her new hair-beard.

Later, when they have left, I think of their courage.  I think, how would I feel if I were dealing with a possibly life limiting illness?  Marie is beginning her treatment, and has a long path ahead.  She has only just recovered from heart surgery too.  How would I cope if my hair fell out? How would I cope with open heart surgery followed by chemo followed by another operation?  I am not sure.  I hope I do not have to.  Marie's energy is inspiring, and her beauty is wonderful.

I think of Claire who has more will to live, and to live well, than most people I know.  A tiny person, who has a feeding tube into her stomach, half her jaw missing, and a need to eat enough calories not go under seven stone and yet is as elegant, creative and beautiful as a model. Claire has sass.  There have been many tough days for her but she will not give in.  So it is no surprise that she turned up last week with blue hair.  Claire uses real silver for her earrings, and brings her own.  She can swallow but not well.  We give her tea in a teeny cup made for one of my grandchildren.  She manages half of it.

Gill loves the sea, the sky, the wind, the rain and the breeze in the air. She belongs in nature and swims in the sea all year round.  She is tall, slim, brown and free.  Life has been challenging for Gill and I know that she has made the choice to be better than much of what life has thrown at her.  Gill can't eat much either, she has no lower bowel after her cancer and an operation that left her in difficulties, but she does all that she can to live well and that living well includes loving all of us, and supporting us when we need it.  She dropped by the other day to have tea with Marie, Claire and me, before going off to swim in the sea again, and because she is Gill, she brought us home made cakes and flowers from her garden.

And so -

This is how our healing room looks then at the moment. It seems to have created itself, and we are all a part of it.  What seems to work for all of us is the fun, the creativity, and the forgetting of the world out there, unless we want to remember it, in which case we do.  

There's a big world out there.  It is full of people who find pockets of light in difficult times.  For as long as it lasts - our healing room seems to have created itself when the need was there - there is a pocket of light for my friends and me, here with the beads, the garden, the light and the cups of tea and Gill's cake, with the unspoken gathering of people who do not give up and do not give in, and who want to let go for a while in good company together.

 

Claire me and Marie.


Subscribe to my twice monthly newsletter, updates from the studio and life, here

Have a look at my YouTube channel here

Follow me and my daily stories on Instagram here

Follow me and my daily stories on Facebook here

My website is here

 

Sunday, 29 August 2021

My consciousness is both a divine free floating hippy, and an annoyingly open minded mum.

 Bognor Regis. Where all the deep stuff happens.
My mind is a wilful person in my head with no manners

I walked home from doing something or other last week through Bognor, my mind flitting here and there, thinking and chattering away to itself, as it does.  The day was beautifully sunny, the gardens bright with flowers all along the road back to my house.  I was wearing my favourite pink sundress of all time, since the last favourite one of all time, which had disintegrated and had to be thrown away.  This current favourite sundress of all time is showing signs of old age now too, it is only a matter of time before I will have to find yet another one.  Despite the warmth of the sun and the smell of the salty sea in the still air, I noticed that my mind kept taking me back to memories I would rather forget.  I should be enjoying every step of this walk home, I thought, how can I be thinking of these difficult things and not enjoying this peaceful summer loveliness?  And, I thought, I am wearing my pink summer dress.  Does that not count for something?

It made me think.  What is my mind doing, that it hones in on discomfort like this? Have I any choice?  It is true that I was thinking without thinking, so to speak.  I was not taking part in the physical walk, I was deep in the stuff going on in my head.  It was not all bad, much of my focus was on things I had to do that day which were very nice, but my mind would veer off at a tangent and become embroiled in things from my past, conversations I wish I had not had, bad judgements that led to bad outcomes, and without noticing the shift, I would be back in those things I don't want to think about.  But once aware I was able, also without thinking about it, to come back to my planning once more.  But I felt as if it had the upper hand, that I had to follow its lead, not the other way around.

I wondered about how single minded my mind is.  It does its own thing regardless of what is going on outside my head.  I mean, I can set up a lovely space in which to sit, for example, with smelly candles and red cushions, and think Yes, that will make me happy.  But if my mind doesn't want to engage, and be calm and happy, it won't.  Ungrateful wretch, I may say of my mind, but it is on a roll and doesn't care.  I have read of many strategies to tame the mind, to create awareness, to be mindful and come back to the moment, but I find them difficult to put in place when in the middle of a wilful and determined thinking experience.  There is therapy, at a deeper level, and professional help, but I wasn't quite that bad on my walk home in the sun in my pink dress. It was very curious, I thought, that despite not wanting it, despite having a nice day, and despite having real things to think about, my mind was walking off into the middle distance and fixating itself on problems.

My mind, I thought, is like a wilful person in my head that has no manners.  And then I thought, what is my mind?  This is where we can get lost in thousands of years of speculation and research, many books have been written, many wise people have tried to work this out, so rest easy.  I have no answers and we won't get heavy. But what I did come up with, is that perhaps my mind does not own me, I own it.  Do I have to go down these rabbit holes? Sometimes, yes, sometimes I have to mull over uncomfortable things and it doesn't do to evade them.  But who is in charge?  Wouldn't it be nice if it was me?  For myself, I mean.  I am not in charge of your mind.  You would hate that, I would paint things red and make you drink tea. The point is, I wondered, on this walk home, that perhaps once I know my mind has gone off on a tangent, can I exert some control over it?  Can I say to myself, No.  I am not going there, I see your game and I am busy thinking nice thoughts over here. And there are other things to think about, like the brain and consciousness. 

There is the question too of whether the mind is the brain, or is in the brain, or is something completely separate.  And what is consciousness? If I can step aside and see my mind as a wayward thing in its own right, how am I separating myself from my mind?  If all these thoughts are coming from my brain but now I am conscious of them, does that mean that I am operating independently of mind, body, brain and consciousness, and there is a me that is observing the whole process? 

What does it all mean, Batman?

Well, let's say that the thoughts that I have in my mind come from my brain.  And if I am aware of it, am conscious of it, then perhaps there are three things at play here, all of which are mine, so I will take ownership.  If I were to create characters for these three things, my mind, my brain and my consciousness, it could look like this. My mind is sometimes an unruly, undisciplined trouble maker. It can be really smart and on the ball, but it likes to do its own thing and thinks it owns the world.  My brain is a task orientated professor that has been running things for me since before I was born, has been in the job a while now and has no time for slacking.  My consciousness is both a divine free floating hippy, and an annoyingly open minded mum.  Never bats an eyelid at the weirdness of life, but wants me to keep it real because it knows me so well.  Often waits for me to catch up with it, and is never surprised at anything.

And then of course there is the Me that is observing the whole process.   

With this trio now playing in my head, and as the observer that is outside the whole darn thing, (possibly,) I decided to get to know the one that started all this questioning, my mind.  I decided to have a date with my mind and get to know it.  

The date with my mind.

Got my tray of tea, getting ready to go inside for a date with the unruly rebel within.
 I made myself comfortable, sat down with a good half hour to spare and scrunched up my eyes in an effort to go within.  I was having a date with my mind but did not know where or what my mind actually was, except that it had to be inside me somewhere.  This will be fun, I thought.  What it boiled down to was me watching what I was thinking, and observing where it all went.  That means the free floating divine hippy mum followed the undisciplined trouble maker with a view to understanding what it was doing, so it could be reined in a bit.  The professor would then put a plan in place to cement the understanding. 

I do realise that this is a very simplistic approach.  There are more things going on in my head than just my mind, brain and consciousness.  There is my life experience, my personality, my will and for some, but not for me, there are illnesses and conditions that affects the mind too.  But for the purposes of this little exercise, I was curious to know why my mind was so intent on doing its own thing and what on earth was its agenda.

I came up with a few observations.

  • I quite enjoyed seeing my mind as a character, and felt as if it were a bit of a wild animal, in that I did not really know how to approach it or what it would do.
  • My mind, that unruly and undisciplined troublemaker, can insist on following its own mind, so to speak.  If I am not paying attention, it can cover a lot of ground and make me feel very uncomfortable.  It can get stuck on tracks I do not want to deal with and is very wilful.
  • If I am outside it all, then I am the observer.  And in control. Once I follow my thoughts, I can choose to stop thinking them.
  • Ha ha ha. Rubbish. 
  • While I am feeling thoughtful and unstressed, this all makes sense.  
  • When I am feeling anxious and burdened, the divine hippy, the silent professor and and the unruly troublemaker (consciousness, brain and mind) are having a drunken party somewhere and can't even stand up straight.  I have to be very tough and bossy in order to make myself feel better, and it can be hard work if they are all out for the count.

The conclusion.

I started this blog wanting to know why my thoughts do their own thing and lead me into uncomfortable places.  Why, even if everything is nice outside do I get stuck in loops of tricky thinking?  Being creative, I decided to give my mind, brain and consciousness personalities to explain to myself why this happens.  I love the quirky, I love thinking outside the box, and this little idea of having a date with my mind really appealed to me.  It also made me laugh.

It is just another way of getting to know myself.  Every time we think we know who we are everything changes and we start again.  I spend much time trying to live a good life, to understand how to be a better person so that I can offer more to the people I meet.  But everything we do, investigate and long for comes back to the question Who Am I. 

The conclusion is that the mind, brain, body, spirit, consciousness that I am writing about here, is me.  It is all me.  I am all of it.  Especially the me that is observing the whole process, and that is where, I think, the real power lies. Who am I?  Does my mind rule me, or do I rule it?  Now that I am a bit more aware and have had a date with it, perhaps I can decide to rule my mind and see how that goes. And if my thoughts rule me in a way I wish they would not, I love the idea of thinking of them personified as a wild, unruly house guest that needs to be pulled up short. 

If you had to think of your mind, your brain and your consciousness as personalities, what would they be?  And who is the person observing it all in your case? Interesting way to spend a bit of down time.  

Still trying to work it out.

Subscribe to my twice monthly newsletter, updates and thoughts from the studio and life here

Subscribe to my YouTube channel here

My website is here

Follow me on Instagram and watch my daily stories here

Same with Facebook here

And buy my book As Mother Lay Dying, memories and insights from the bedside, here

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Who are these blinking drug addicts

Hand of an addict. Charcole on paper.

One of the most difficult parts of being alongside addiction for me, is remembering that these crazy addicts are also people.  Dealing with someone who is intoxicated can be very challenging.  If you don't need to engage, that is fine.  If you do, then anything can happen and it is frustrating, chaotic and sometimes frightening.  If someone kicks off in your presence while having taken something (or many things) and you are faced with an irrational, disinhibited, paranoid and angry melt down, it is unlikely that you will say, "Oh, that is just the drugs.  The person themselves is actually very nice."  If you are sensible, you get the hell out of the way or if you are feeling threatened, call the police. 

Many of us have tried to reason with someone who has drunk too much at one time or another.  Many of us have experienced how quickly they can become angry, unreasonable and aggressive. When they are sober, they have no recollection of how badly they behaved. How about someone acting out on crystal meth?  Or cocaine?  Or someone causing enormous chaos while coming down from something or at a critical point because of needing another fix?  These are not people we can chat to or reason with or discuss how their behaviour is making us feel.  How, we ask ourselves, can they possibly allow themselves to get so bad? Where is their sense of shame, where is their self control?  We cannot understand why they do not get help.

Yes to all that.  And also, addiction is not rational.  An addict may defend their addiction to the death, literally, and blame you, me, everyone else, especially loved ones, all the way down. Addiction, to an addict, is reality.  The need (and it really is a need, an absolute catastrophic need the like of which we who are not addicted can have no idea) to keep using makes them manipulative, amoral, paranoid, psychotic, clever, dangerous and without conscience, boundaries or responsibility. And yet.  It is not always like that. There is always someone in there.  There are times when the person lost inside is visible, often it is very poignant.  Sometimes it is astonishing - how can that person who ranted and raved at the bus stop all last night be so interested in and interesting about music?  Or politics? Or whatever?  I have seen someone very addicted to alcohol and opiods sit with a frightened young addict who was hearing terrible voices, talking gently to calm him down and help him feel safe.

The thing is, at some point that person was not an addict.  When they first took something to make the pain go away, or perhaps because it was just what their family or peers did, it seemed a magical answer. It really worked.  It allowed them to self medicate and forget how bad life was, it allowed them to feel in control, it gave them confidence and helped them fit in when they felt isolated and alone, when dealing with abuse and violence at home and around them, when frightened by an undiagnosed mental health condition, when living itself was intolerable.  Checking out of pain and abandonment through substances is a powerful relief.  The person entering addiction feels as if they are in control.  Even when it is patently obvious further down the line that they are not in control, they can insist that they are.  This is denial, and addicts can be great at denial.  

I spoke to an addict recently who dismisses the idea that he is addicted.  Let's call him Bob.  I have a dependency, Bob said, I am not an addict.  Everything about Bob's life and choices points to a deep and long lasting addiction.  No! He said, I am able to stop at any time and I have a dependency.  It seems obvious that Bob cannot stop, regulate nor manage his substances.  How can he not see it?  I thought.  One of the reasons for dependency not addiction, I learned, was that once his medical records had Addict on them he was, according to Bob, discriminated against by the medical profession.  He would not receive proper treatment and would always be seen as a problem.  I do not know if this is true, but I have seen how badly addiction is treated by many (not all) medical professionals.  I must add here that I do not blame them, they are acting in accordance with what they have been told.  I think that addiction is vastly misunderstood, judged, untreated and dismissed.  It is at present, almost impossible to find reasonably effective treatment that is not private. Addicts are the modern day lepers with knobs on.

As we talked, Bob explained how wonderful the drugs are that he takes.  How good they make him feel, how so much of his time is spent looking forward to preparing and taking them.  Bob could describe how all the different drugs he takes affects him, how to inject certain ones to increase the effect, and how to experiment with mixing them all up.  "I love my life," Bob says.  He drinks heavily too, but mostly will not admit to it.  "I used to drink," he says, "but not recently."  I see empty spirits bottles all over the flat, under the bed, in the bins, and some by the bed still half full.  That is not true, and I think, denial.  More denial.  

I have seen Bob in powerful rages in public places because he could not get what he needed.  I have seen Bob in pain in between using, longing to feel a part of the world and to get better, I have heard him talk about loneliness and self hatred.  I have seen how he rejects help, sabotages kindness, chooses chaos and danger time and time again, and I think - are you in denial about all this too?  When you say you love your life?  But I see that whatever substances he is taking are succeeding in obliterating the terrible pain of real life.  It is a vicious circle and it feels like an insurmountable problem.

It is a problem.  I will never forget an addiction counsellor once telling an angry, distressed wife at the end of her tether, that she did not have to rescue her husband but that she could still be kind.  When her drunken husband fell out of bed onto the cold stone floor, she wanted to leave him there all night and make him suffer.  The counsellor understood her anger, understood her feelings of powerlessness and the fact that she had tried everything to help him.  "You cannot help him," the counsellor said, "but you can be kind.  You can put a blanket on him and leave him there."  

When dealing with addiction we try not to rescue, we try not to enter into the madness and we know we have to establish very firm boundaries to keep ourselves safe.  But, we can be very judgemental and unkind to both our addicts and ourselves.  We can want to punish our addicts for their awfulness and madness, and we cannot rid ourselves of that fear that perhaps the addict is right, it is our fault.  Kindness does not mean weakness, compassion does not mean we condone addiction.  We know we have to keep ourselves safe with firm boundaries which can feel counter intuitive at the beginning but are not.  We practice detachment with love and, at least for me, keep hoping for that miracle. And most important of all, if we cannot change our addict or deal with the fall out, we can try, really try, to be absolutely loving and forgiving of ourselves.  A wise man once said that when all else does not work, all we can be is a good example.

I have had to call for help many times.

Who are these blinking drug addicts then?  Without being sentimental or foolish because addiction is an absolute bugger, they are our children, our parents, our partners, our friends, our family.  They are Everyman and Everywoman. And, they could be us too. 

I have just been a guest on the Zestful Aging podcast hosted by Nicole Christina in New York.  We talk about addiction in my family, and how as a mother and of the hope, despair, troubleshooting and lessons I have to keep learning.  We touch on the Addicts and Those Who Love Them exhibition too.  Nicole is a wonderful interviewer.  She is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a successful podcaster.  You can listen to it here.  


Young addict, detail, oil on wood.

 Subscribe to my twice monthly newsletter, with insights, plans and ideas from the studio and life, here

My website  is here

Follow me on Instagram  here

Follow me on Facebook here

Have a look at my YouTube channel here

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Renaissance grandma

Portrait of my Dad, looking for him behind his Alzheimer's.  I added a little landscape behind my father, with a little figure in a boat on the right hand side of the painting, echoing the tiny patchwork landscapes of my favourite Italian Renaissance art.

In the beginning

It is a well known fact that I am an artist.  I paint, gaze into the middle distance, and once upon a time I had bright pink hair which looked lovely.  If there is an archetype of an artist, I am it.  Being an archetype does not mean I am a wonder, a genius, a trail blazer though I am quite good at painting and writing etc, it means I am a typical arty type and visible as such from miles away.  "Are you an artist?" people ask me, and long ago in my youth, I would not be surprised.  I embodied the bohemian, crazy, eccentric look.  The only other question they could have asked was, "Are you quite sane?" which would have been provocative.  As time has gone by and I have settled into a nice grey haired lady with colourful skirts and earrings, and always the red lipstick, I am a bit surprised when I am asked if I am an artist.  I think I blend in brilliantly with other middle class older ladies who have gone a bit boho. "But how do you know?" I want to say, but don't because it sounds defensive.  "Yes," I say instead, "how clever of you." 

My journey to art-hood was not through art school.  I always knew I could draw and it felt fragile.  Perhaps I felt fragile with it, because as a child and young person I was terribly easily swayed by strongly opinionated people and could find myself in a lot of trouble. Believing I was a fairy too from an early age did not help with my being grounded in reality.  But one thing I did know instinctively was that I could do art and if I went to art school I would lose whatever I had.  If I had to follow art rules, if I could not follow my own inspiration and protect this teeny little flame of absolute certainty that I was already an artist, I would become dissipated and fragmented and stop wanting to create.  So I chose university instead.  I would be safe there, I thought.  Based on what? I hear you say. Precisely.  I have no idea.  But when we are young like this, sometimes we just know things, with no grown up tendencies yet to analyse and dismiss what we instinctively feel.  I ended up studying History of Art at Aberdeen University and left in 1983 with a Masters in Art History.  And during those four years I discovered all I needed to know about the kind of artist I wanted to be.  We had an art library where I would sit for hours pulling out books and reading the lives of artists, looking at their work, and feeling as if I had absolutely come home.  

Pieta by Giovanni Bellini c1455.  Look at the intensity of the expressions, the light on the hair, the halos and the landscape in the corners.

To back track a little, by the time I arrived in Aberdeen I had already found my passion.  It began with my father showing me a Bellini Pieta when I was eight years old.  It blew my mind.  I had never seen anything so powerful, so beautiful, so extraordinary.  Later, while studying art history during my school sixth form, I was introduced to art from the Italian Renaissance, and was hooked.  It touched that nerve that had reacted to the Bellini Pieta when I was eight, and I developed a love paintings (and some sculptures) from about 1390 to about 1500, taking this with me later to Aberdeen, where I was able to study them in more detail.  This then was my passion.  Italian Renaissance frescoes, religious paintings, the lives and loves of the artists themselves and the amazing societies in which they lived.  

In the middle

I don't remember making a decision to base my artistic life on the Italian Renaissance.  It just seemed to happen. Painters and artists in fifteenth century Italy (and Europe) worked for a major family, or the church or a civic body.  These patrons paid for the works they commissioned and the artist and their studio could do very well both professionally and financially.  In my own century, a patron would be a client so I looked for clients and sought commissions. I found I could do portraits, and as a Renaissance artist in the twentieth century as it was then, I took ideas from the works that I loved and began to add attributes to my portraits - clues to who was in the painting, for example a person with a love of music would hold a musical instrument.  A sports player would have something from their sport with them like a tennis racquet or a rugby ball.  I put halos on everyone.  A halo is a circle of light that is painted around the head of a holy figure to tell us that they are divine.  Fine, I thought, I will do that.  Many of my portraits and paintings from the beginning until right now have halos.  I love halos. 

 Jesus on the Tube. A modern icon.

During my time in Aberdeen I found Greek and Russian icons too with the same wonderful lines, patterns and stylised images of the Christian Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost), of Saints and Angels that I saw in some of the early paintings in Italy.  Oh my, I loved them all.  For a long while when trying to find my way in the real world after university, I painted modern icons where I updated the subject matter and not only made it modern, but gave it a sense of humour.  For example, I painted an icon in the old style, of Mary, the mother of Jesus, having just given birth to the baby in the stable and having an argument with the Angel Gabriel, who had announced nine months before that she was to have this baby.  Gabriel, a top angel, an Arch Angel, had told Mary the baby would be called Jesus and be the son of God.  In my painting Mary was sulking because she wanted to call the baby Duncan. On a table beside her was a congratulations card welcoming Duncan.  From these icons came the Jesus on the Tube painting which showed Jesus sitting on a tube train looking straight out at the viewer, and being ignored by everyone in the carriage, all of whom are looking away. This Jesus on the Tube painting is my most well known image, having been used all around the world in schools, churches, books, Cathedrals, seminaries and convents.  

And now

Fast forward to where I am now where I can look back with all the benefits of hindsight, where I can make sense of things.  I no longer take commissions, my painting now concentrates on making sense of projects that are close to my heart and these projects are all about me, really.  The A Graceful Death exhibition explored death and dying after the death of my partner Steve and to do that, I needed total freedom to follow where the exhibition and subject would lead me.  These days my painting work is focused on addiction, on telling stories of those in and around it, and for this project I continue to need total freedom and autonomy to follow the subject.  

Lou, from the Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition.  Note the halo, the decorative motifs on her clothes and the fact that it is painted on a block of prepared wood.

 But! I carry my Renaissance aspirations with me still.  I add halos to, and tiny decorative motifs on the clothes, of people in my paintings.  Once or twice I have added little far away landscapes behind a portrait, and I am still moved and delighted by those early frescoes on the walls of the churches I used to visit in Tuscany, Northern Italy.  In the old artists' workshops the students would learn their art from their master.  There would be apprentices attached to each workshop and some would go on to become masters themselves, some would not.  Some would be more famous than their masters.  These apprentices all had jobs to do on whatever the studio was working on, perhaps painting the foliage on the bottom right of a painting, perhaps helping to create the long flowing material that the figures wore. Perhaps to paint a whole work themselves if it was a minor commission, so that the master would be free to work on and oversee the bigger projects.  I loved the idea of the bustle and industry, I loved how the skill of painting would be honed over time with actual painting, with just doing it.  This is how I learned my painting, by just doing it.  My teachers were in the books at university, on the walls of the churches and galleries in Italy and in my own imagination.  I was never taught any methods, never explored different media and had no instructions in painting itself which is why, probably, I only paint, draw and write. 

In my own life, that atmosphere of the bigger working environment of the old masters' studios came with meetings with, talking to and interviewing all the people who are part of the exhibitions, and creating with them the images to go into my two projects, on end of life and on addiction.  The meetings take place in my studio here, ideas are discussed and we go over how someone will be represented with their story.  And often, my inspiration comes from fifteenth century Italy.  

Today, I don't have to struggle to know who I am.  I have a clearer idea, and of course we never really know ourselves fully.  It is a life long process.   One thing I can say, is that I am still an artist and that if I were very bold (which I can be) I would say I am Renaissance Grandma. 

 

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino painted between 1465 and 1472 by Piero della Francesca was the inspiration for the painting below of Stuart and Sue Pryde.

                               

Painted for the A Graceful Death exhibition, we have the bright blue sky of Tanzania where Sue grew up, and the cottage garden flowers that both Stuart and Sue loved so much.  Sue ended her own life, and this is a diptych in her memory, as much as the above diptych by Piero della Francesca was a betrothal portrait.

 

Subscribe to my newsletter here

Subscribe to my You Tube channel here

Follow me on Instagram here

Follow me on Facebook here

My website is here


Monday, 19 July 2021

Settling into myself.

 

Me as a young mother with Lexi, my oldest, aged 7

Pondering at nearly 61

I am going to be 61 in a week or two.  I remember being 10 and spending all my pocket money on some lipstick for my mother's birthday and a Bic biro for my father's and feeling very grown up. I have a handle on life, I thought, I know what these grown ups need. Theoretically I am grown up myself now, and I am very glad.  There is much to be grateful for, not least that I do not have to go through the learning any more that has led me to who I am now.  The learning is not over, it never is, but the hard lessons during my travels to where I am today, are over.  They still reverberate and I deal with the fall out from time to time, we all do this, and the fall out can be good too.  Then I am relieved and feel that we never really know how things will turn out.  With the best will in the world, struggling through the business of being young, trying to work out how the world works and who we are in it, sometimes our worst decisions can end up being beneficial in the end, after many years, despite the fall out at the time. 

Being a young mum

The most difficult times of my life were as a young mum.  I was not as young as some, my first child was born when I was 30, my last when I was 36.  I did not have a clue how the world worked and did not have a clue who I was.  My first pregnancy was a complete shock, I had only just met the father.  None of my clothes fit me any more and I felt sick and exhausted. "You're pregnant", said the doctor when I went to see her, and I was outraged.  "How very dare you!" I said, and changed doctors.  At the new surgery, the doctor said, "You are probably pregnant," and as I made to leave in a huff, she gave me a pregnancy test and told me to come back and see her with the result.  It was positive.  OMG. I was so clueless.  But in this strange and confusing world, where I was now to have a baby despite feeling totally disconnected to life, my own mother was a lifeline.  She was calm, loving and practical.  She was the grown up, she was the real mother.  I was stunned.  A baby.  Blimey.

I found motherhood both beautiful and glorious, and terrifying and challenging.  I made it up as I went along, I meant well but had absolutely no grasp on reality.  Sometimes I thought I was only three months more emotionally mature than my children.  I had no idea how to do it, what the rules were or who I was.  And after my divorce and two children later I was, for most of the time, a single mother.  To say I was anxious and frightened was an understatement.  We were poor, chaotic and for much of the time I was ashamed of how bad a mother I thought I was.  Not only that, I thought I was a bad person.  I just wasn't like everyone else, and I felt too different. Of course I was never a bad person.  I was different, I wasn't like everyone else, but I lacked the experience and insight to understand that that was my USP.  My unique selling point.  That was my strength.  That is what artists are.

But

With all those years behind me, with the benefits of hindsight and time passing, I completely see I wasn't so bad.  This is the good bit of settling into myself.  I wasn't so different from other mothers, though I thought I was at the time.  Somehow the kids and I got through and everyone is still alive today, which in some places, is a huge success.  All those years of ups and downs, good and bad decisions (lots of very bad decisions) made me work out who I am and what I want.  There is nothing like being on the front line of experience to make you decide to sink or swim.  

My own daughter has four little children and a lovely husband.  She has everything right in ways that I had not. But her struggles with being a mum are, actually, the same as mine were and, I see, the same as all of us.  Despite making excellent choices, and despite being a very sound family, the actual job of parenthood for her looks as difficult as mine was.  I am reassured that perhaps the bottom line for many of us who have children, is that we really do love and we do the best we can.  The rest is just a muddle. Life happens around us at the rate of knots and we do a great job of running as fast as we can to stay as still. I know who I am now because for so long I did not know.  All those years of struggle have led to a degree of calm now, and the calm is not just from outside because all my children are grown and living away.  That does help, boy does it help.  But the calm is also from inside -  we have all staggered through the good times and the bad to right now, and though my children are all beginning their crazy journeys through life, I am beginning the long last road of mine.  I am not old and am not intending to die just yet but I am looking at about 20 years with luck, and I know now a lot more about what not to do, and how not to fall into traps which leaves me with what I do want to do, and, of course, what I can do.  And, I am deeply sympathetic to my own mother too as I get older. 

Work

My work, my family and my social life are all linked together in a big crazy knot. While a young mum, I became a self employed artist almost by accident, I announced it one day out of the blue and then had to learn about business, about clients and new things called the internet and mobile phones.  It seemed such a huge deal at the time to admit that I was an artist, even though in my heart I never was anything else.  A friend held business support sessions and encouraged me to think big.  This is where Artist Extraordinaire came from, but for the first ten years or so I used to whisper it in case anyone thought I was uppity. Yet I didn't reject it.  Funny, really.  Like I knew I was an artist extraordinaire but no one else would. 

About to set the world on fire at uni

I have not set the world on fire.  At university, my aim was to soar to the greatest heights and change the world.  To what, never crossed my mind.  It was all about me.  The hard task of life got in the way of all that, and for many years it seemed I was never going to amount to much.  It was all such hard work.  Trying to be a mum, doing my own growing up (painful), following a dream and navigating the real world as an artist meant that all I ever seem to do was get it all wrong and tread water.  That is how it seemed.  I still stuck at it because that is what I do, I stick at things.  And because in my heart and soul I had never ever wanted to do anything else than be an artist.  So when I look back at all the crazy, I see someone who was just a bit different, who did not conform to anything much but had so little self confidence that she thought she was just wrong.  But what I also see disguised in there as stubbornness, is self belief.  Wow.  That's good.  Self belief helped me to choose and stick to my destiny as an artist even though everything around me was mental, and everyone else thought WTF.  

And so -

 Here I am today.  Feeling chilled about life in the way I used to marvel at in my grandparents.  In my opinion, they had finished living because they were happy to do gardening and reading, and have early nights.  I see the almost spiritual benefits of that now.  I can't wait to do some gardening and take a book to bed for a night of reading.  Damn, I would have considered that a punishment at one time.  Time is different to me these days, and I suppose will continue to change and morph.  I don't have to rush about now, and I am learning that whole chunks of time spent not being an amazing human being are not only preferable, they are a relief. And they are possible!  The world does not end.  By now, being an amazing human being is less about changing the world with a fanfare and lots of praise from the outside world, and more about getting a balance between me and my soul. I don't have to do anything to be amazing, I just have to be.  Then, I notice that everyone else is an amazing human being, and we are all in this together.  Life changes over time, and it becomes less about the outside and more about the inside.  The great Franciscan priest, author and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says that we spend the first half of our lives building our container, and the second half examining its contents.  Well, I am examining the contents of my container, and finding much of what is in there can be gently removed and the space that it leaves filled with only peace.  

I will just end by saying that to the outside world I am still constantly on the go.  Yes, I am.  But I can, and do, stop and spend the time chillaxing alone that once I would have spent with children, life and ambition.  I am full of projects, thoughts, events and stuff.  I am a whirligig.  But I am not driven now, there is no point, I can't change the world.  I still want to get things done and make a difference, but where I once wanted to change the world, I now understand that my journey is not to do that.  I can still make a difference, as can we all, and it is lovely to make a difference every now and again and feel good about it.  I am settling into myself very well these days, and finding that it is nice, being nearly 61. 

Nearly 61 with my little granddaughter Lilz. All the world ahead for us both.

Subscribe to my newsletter here

Subscribe to my YouTube channel here

My website is here

Instagram here

Facebook here
 

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Look at you, you great big booby.

 

Little boobies

Everything about those that support the Covid narrative and those that don't, has mostly been said.  There are those who follow it, there are those that sort of follow it, and those who don't follow any of it.  I try to keep myself in check, remembering both to love my neighbour blah blah blah, and that, according to my Qi Gong teacher, energy follows thought.  That means something along the lines of I have a thought, it creates energy, energy creates matter and boom, I have created my reality.  If I engage in negative thoughts about people wearing masks, washing their hands every time they pass someone in the street and keeping as far away from me as they can on a small path as if they are both doing me a favour and furious that I am not climbing the fence to keep out of their way too, then I create my experience of lower vibration hostility and judgement.

But. It is hard work.  I took my car in for an MOT last week, and found myself wanting to stop being so reasonable.  I am reasonable, because we get nowhere challenging very convinced people.  After all, I am a very convinced person too, and I am utterly unmoved by the Covid pantomime. 

At the door of the reception in this garage is a notice telling me not to cross the threshold.  There is a bowl on a small table for my keys, and some hand gel in case I have suddenly got Covid on my hands. The staff sit about fifteen feet away, safely behind clear perspex screens with little holes to receive money and paperwork. Most of the staff are big, lumbering blokes.

When I went to collect my car, I walked into the reception thinking that as they would like my money, this was allowed.  "Where is your mask?" asked the big burly fellow sharply, sitting by the little hole in the perspex where I would be paying.  "I'm exempt," I said.  "But I'm not," he said with suppressed bad temper.  I dug out and put on my exemption lanyard, and he said with a curtness that told me what he thought of me, "Oh.  I see."  Despite the disapproval in the air and the feeling that I had personally offended him by my death wish behaviour, we had a civil transaction, and I left.  I hadn't noticed him moving his chair further away from me as I approached though, nor was he wearing a mask himself.  Perhaps he had not thought about the rules very logically, and wearing an official lanyard was safe as a mask because the virus has had the memo from the Government and knows to leave them and masks wearers alone.  Though not as safe as if I had stood at the doorway fully masked wearing my laminated "I have been double jabbed" badge, and thrown him my money to him across the no mans land where the virus waits to bring him down.  I wondered if he knew the virus might go through the hole in the perspex and get him that way but he didn't seem to have thought of that either.

You big booby!  I thought as I left.  Look at you, a big healthy fellow like you pandering to this nonsense!  Here you are, young and fit, probably double vaccinated, hiding behind a plastic screen and feeling hard done by because I, an actual old lady who you have been told should be clinging on to life with my fingernails inside my motorised perma-sealed bubble mobile, am walking free, ignoring the rules and do not have a mask.  You big soft lump.  What on earth has made you into such a weakling?  Oh for goodness sake. And I thought, how have these previously proud and fit youngsters been cowed into such foolish subservience?  That bearded, tattooed bloke in the garage, treating himself as if he has special needs, who must have created all his muscles in the gym and lifting cars to work on them in order to look like a tough guy, has become a self righteous school prefect. Pompous buffoon, I said to myself.   

There are so many who are not like this, but I do see these self important boobies everywhere, masked up to the nines, swerving to avoid each other delighted to be following the new protocol in politeness and social acceptability, checking their phones to see if they have been pinged by their app telling them to self isolate.  "Look at me look at me!"  They seem to imply.  "Even though I am young and healthy with my life ahead of me and a stupendous immune system evolved over millenia, even though I smoke and drink like a fish, I want to be prematurely old and terrified into delicious paranoia and join your gang, the one where nothing in our lives will get us no matter what risks we take except for this one virus.  And," they may continue, "we agree that plastic will save us, and wearing masks will save us, and being alone for the rest of our lives will save us, thank you very much for this amazing life saving wisdom." They remind me of the little green aliens in the Pixar film Toy Story.  

I think, what happened to you all? Young people need to rebel and question the older lot who decide the rules.  Young people are quite literally the future. What have you done with your brains?  What are you doing, you ninnies?  What happened to you that you feel safer behind a bit of perspex when the air around you is swimming with bugs and germs and long legged beasties that never bothered you before, and what makes you think that the perspex is going to fool all the swirling bacteria and viruses in the air now?  Can't these beasties see the holes in the perspex for money transactions?  Can't they pop over the top and around the sides?  Can't they pop into you through the gaps in your masks round the ears and nose and don't they rush at you when you take your mask off to take a bite out of your sandwich? And what in heavens name is going to happen to you if one virus with a 99% chance of survival gets you?  You will probably survive.  And then what?  My mask free youngest son is 6'7" and makes a point of peering over the top of the safety screens in shops because they only come up to his chin, and no one has been carted off to the crematorium yet.  No one has asked him not to because he is far too close to the cashier and breathing down on top of her head.  They think it is funny and everyone laughs at how tall he is.  No one has noticed that he is a killer in action.

So I will go back to my loving my neighbour as myself thing, and remember my Qi Gong energy follows thought thing, and try not to swerve into people as they swerve to avoid me.  And I hope that these big boobies get bored with all this fuss, and start to swerve into me too. Then I know we are getting back to some kind of normal.

Yeah, well.

 Subscribe to my newsletter here

My website is here



Sunday, 4 July 2021

"We have to learn what kind of love works for us." Love in addiction.

 

No matter how wise I think I am about other people, I can feel clueless about myself.  Someone called me once, at her wit's end, because her daughter was doing the crazy, angry, help-me-it's-your-fault-give-me-money-or-I-die thing.  I had been supporting this lady over an entirely different health matter but what she needed on this call was immediate and intense help with how to cope with her daughter's out of control drug habit.  She wasn't supposed to have my number but we had realised very early on that in the background we both had addiction problems in our family.  I gave her my number for this reason, and because other people had been so kind to me when I was overwhelmed at the beginning of my own journey. I knew how helpful it was for her to have a no holds barred conversation about a loved one's addiction, because I have been where that lady was.  It was crisis time for her to recognise the depth of the problem, how she was going to protect herself, how she was going to detach with love.  I repeated one of the Al Anon pieces of advice given to me when I needed it - do not cause a crisis, but do not get in the way of one if one is naturally occurring.  I knew how bad she felt about not being able to help or protect her daughter.  I knew that awful helplessness in the face of drug and alcohol fuelled self pity, drama and manipulation. This lady had called me was because she knew I knew about the handicap, as it can be, of loving an addict.  Her story is my story.  It may be your story too.  Our phone call gave her permission to love and be ruthless and be safe.  It is not easy.  It doesn't feel like love at all, because love is kind and gentle and saves the world.  It feels like rejection, cruelty, selfishness bordering on sociopathy, and it feels like everything a Mum should never do.  But it worked for her that day, and she was able to put herself in a place of safety, detach with love, and make herself a priority for once.

Here I am today then, in a muddle myself, wanting someone to come in, be a grown up and take it all away. There has been so much disruption and madness with drink and drugs this past week, and when it is in my family, when I am the mother who has to rethink her idea of love in a split second or go under, I can't remember any of the things I have learned about how to survive it.  I have had to call on other people to help me remember what is real and what is not, and to breathe, and to not be afraid.  I had to do what that lady did when she called me.  Thank goodness we all have each other.

I want to talk about love.  It is this in all its different layers and manifestations, in its abundance and in its absence, that makes everything so complicated.  If I had no love for anyone, it would be so easy.  I could dismiss everything that got in my way and have no feelings about it at all except possible satisfaction.  If I had no love for myself, I would fall prey to everyone and anyone who said something nice to me, and blame myself when it went belly up.  So having no love is not a good thing.  Over-loving is as messy as under-loving.  If I love too much, I misunderstand the idea of love and think that I should give it all to everyone without limit.  Without boundaries.  When it goes belly up I blame myself again, and carry on with my warped idea of love (which always goes out, and never comes in) until I am a pale shadow of a person with no will of my own left to save me. 

We have to learn what kind of love works for us.  How to do it, what version is going to work best for the person giving and the person receiving. It is easy to love the lovable, and very hard to love the unloveable.  When challenged, in an emergency or when the chips are down, our idea of love can become tangled with other emotions like guilt, sentiment, anger, control and punishment to name a few.  Love is meant to be uplifting and purifying, but so often isn't.  It is painful and confusing and we need help to work it all out.  Do I love, or don't I?  Is this how love behaves?  Am I loving enough?  Am I loving correctly? Is it my fault that my love is not working?  Am I to blame?  Is my love not good enough?

Over the last few days I have expressed tough love.  I have done this a few times now and it is never easy.  The first times I put it in place I did so as a last resort to protect myself from addiction behaviour that threatened to stop me functioning at all.  It was then, and is now, so hard.  It feels like abject failure to turn my back on all the crazy that is trying to pull me in, because the crazy is so powerfully painful and I need to make it better.  The addict is in meltdown acting out all their pain, fear, illness, trauma and rage; I am watching someone out of control with mental, physical and spiritual agony but whatever it is that they are begging, shouting, crying and demanding I do, I ignore.  I walk away. I turn off my phone, I do not take calls, I ignore all the calls from the emergency services and I will not engage.  No, I say, this is not for me and I must put myself in a safe space and keep myself there.  And then I ask myself , "How is that love?"

I cannot love you until I love me.  My own love, for me, has to survive all the sabotage and cruelty that I put in its way. It is an ongoing struggle to love myself, especially when tested by the extreme distress and drama of someone who I am supposed to keep safe and love forever, kicking off.  If I have worked on my own self love I will know what I can do and what I can't do for someone else.  My self love has weathered its own storms of self doubt and self loathing.  Of course it has.  We all have messages on a loop in our heads that insist that we are unworthy, ugly and failed.  Self love tries to address that narrative and limit the damage by consciously choosing another one.  I am worthy, I am beautiful, I have done well.   I have also learned that giving into sentimental self love is OK sometimes but mostly leads to self indulgence and superficial relief. If my go-to self love tactic every time I am distressed is to eat cream buns, watch Bugs Bunny on a loop and lie on the sofa, and this is my only response, I may feel instant comfort and distraction but I will end up fat, spotty and a bit emotionally stunted.  It is when I am challenged by myself, in loving myself, that I learn to persevere and keep on trying to believe that I am worth it.  I end up learning to love me even when I feel lost, frightened and unloveable. It is good training for dealing with someone else's crazy when they are demanding the impossible.  When they demand to be saved from situations in which they put themselves time and time again, with no self awareness and no intention of not doing it again, I discern that the love I need to access is not the love they think they want.  

How is this not love? 

Here is tough love.  I do not play the game any more.  I will not dance this dance.  I step out of the madness leaving the addict to cope without me.  If mere words worked, then we could have talked about it.  Words have not worked yet and it has been years.  If diving into the crisis helped, I would only have had to do it a couple of times, but the crises continue.  My love becomes weak and confused and I no longer know what to do if I enter the fray. I get ill, the addict gets worse, I feel responsible and the addict continues to take without a conscience and maintains the story that I am in fact, responsible.  Nothing changes for the addict except that when I am truly under and far too crushed to continue, they need to find a new source of attention and money.  That is not love.  That is abuse. 

I have to remember to step away and focus on myself, keep trying to learn compassion, love and respect for me. I put myself in a place of safety and I learn from all the stuff I have done and failed to do up until now.  I learn to be kind to myself and I learn how others have coped and I share my experiences.  All this is done so that I can see clearly that my addict is doing the addict thing and I need to toughen up so that when, if, I can help and support, I am strong and experienced enough to do it.  Love can be soft and kind, it can be gentle and insightful and save the world.  It can also be powerful, robust, challenging and tough.  It can be boundaried and it can say No.  True love does not shut down, it strengthens, challenges and demands truth from the person working with it.  It keeps an eye open for a chink in the armour of addiction and prepares to go in to do what it can however many times may be needed without getting lost because it can retreat as well as advance.  And if nothing else works, I heard a wise man say once, and nothing we say is being heard, the last thing we can be to those around us, is a good example.  

 


 Subscribe to my newsletter here

See my YouTube channel here

My website is here

Buy my book As Mother Lay Dying here

Follow me on Instagram here