Friday 28 December 2012

Painting To Escape

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;
Alone God sufficeth.

St Teresa, 1515 - 1582

When I was at perhaps my lowest ebb, in the mid 1990s, these words fell out of a book and landed at my feet.  The words telling me not to be disturbed and affrighted pierced the fog in which I was living, and I remember holding onto the prayer and thinking that I had just received some divine consolation.  I was being told not to be afraid, and at that time I was very afraid.

I took from this prayer whichever line that I needed at the moment of reading it, to help me through the next few years.  Sometimes I was being told that all things were passing.  I would not be like this forever, this would pass.  Sometimes I went back to the lines that told me not to let anything make me afraid, and sometimes I wanted to know that God never changed.  I couldn't be dismissed nor be passed over by God just because I was not in control of my life and was making some very bad decisions.  And sometimes I wanted to hear that patient endurance attaineth to all things.  If I kept going, trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel, then I would get there.  Sometimes I fitted my life and circumstances into the entire prayer, and found that the whole thing told me I would not be like this for ever.  There was a day coming when it would be in the past, and I would not feel so low.  There was more to life than this.

I was divorcing my first husband.  I had three tiny children, one of whom was under a year old, no income, and was having to protect myself during a difficult divorce.  I had to find an income, quickly, I had to find a way to get all of the children to schools and back, to feed us all, to pay all the bills and the mortgage, and I had to deal with the legacy of having been married to, amongst other things, a very heavy drinker.  I was also about five stone overweight.  I think I was very afraid, of everything and everyone.  And I felt so helpless.

But, I had not lost my inner optimism.  There are a few paintings that help to tell the story of those years, and today I am going to find them and speak of how they came about.  I will begin with this one -

Throwing Away My Troubles, about 24"x 18"

A very large me is floating in a bright and cloudless sky and dropping her troubles out of her basket onto the world below.  Because I didn't want anyone else to be knocked on the head with them, I have given them umbrellas so that they are protected below.  Flying in the sky behind me, far above and getting rid of their own troubles, are my dearest friends from University days - Eileen Rafferty, Tasha Yarker McKenzie and Rhona Reedie.  What I wanted to say in this painting was that I was not completely overtaken by events, and that I could see a way to keep myself sane, and that I was not alone.  It is a gentle and special painting.  It was painted in a time of great turbulence and yet I am looking out at you with a wry look on my face.  And I make eye contact with you.  I know how I look, I know how things are, and I am still able to float up into a wonderful blue sky, far above you all, and throw all my troubles, nicely packaged, out of my basket.  And, just to prove that I am not alone, my friends are doing exactly the same thing in the same sky, just there in the distance.

At this difficult time, I had found a room in an old abandoned office block near to where one of my brothers was working, and I had set up a studio in there for very little rent.  It was a strange place, and it was to this studio that I escaped whenever I could.  I painted the above painting, Throwing Away My Troubles, in there.

From the abandoned office block came another painting, Fat Ladies Diving.  I painted this as a means of sheer escapism.

Fat Ladies Diving, first edition

This was only a small painting, but it made me very happy.  I would paint fat ladies, like myself, diving carefree and lovely, in matching swim suits and hats, through the sky and not paint any water or any suggestion of anything that they are diving into.  We would live in the sky.  We would dive forever in the bright blue of this happy sky.  It was a good way of escaping the madness of my daily living at that time.

Soon, I had moved from the room in the abandoned office block to take up a proper art studio a little further away from my house.  Directly because of the Fat Ladies Diving, the first of my commissions to paint portraits of people floating in the sky appeared.  I was, at this time, taking the words from the prayer "patient endurance attaineth to all things", and was finding that patient endurance, did indeed, attain to all things.  A new commission, my first, had popped up thanks to this painting. Here is that commission -

The Floating Franckes,  Oil on wood, 24" x 24"

Bliss!  What brave people!  Here is Donald and Margaret Francke, wanting to be painted falling joyfully through the sky with their two beloved dogs.  Margaret, an opera singer, is dressed in her finery and has a bouquet of roses falling with her.  She carries a lovely parasol to help her float with grace while Donald, an actor and singer, had chosen to wear a Victorian bathing costume and hold his beloved anemometer.  Donald is fascinated by science and wanted to hold at least one of his collection of scientific instruments.  Below Donald is the planet Saturn.  Another of his interests is astronomy.  These two venerable people came my way and this is what we came up with.  I did a number of portraits of people floating in the sky after this, and found that quite a few people wanted to escape up there, it was not just me. 

All things are passing.  Time moved on and you will be glad to know that I joined Weight Watchers and lost five stone.  How so?  Well, I did this in order, one fine, far off day, to run the London Marathon.  This is how it happened.  I went with my three tiny children to cheer on my brother John as he ran one of his many marathons.  I took up much room in the crowd, not only because I had tiny children and a buggy, but because my body was just so big.  My movements were slow, my legs hurt, and I looked like just the fat mother in the crowd.  And then, amongst all those people running past me, came my brother.  He ran with ease, he looked fit and alive, and he ran past me at the nineteen mile mark, smiled and disappeared into the distance along with the other runners to the roar of encouragement from the crowds.  I would have given anything to have been able to run, to have been in that mass of people who passed me with such seeming ease.  And so, all things are passing, in 2004, five stone lighter, I ran my first and only marathon.  My brother John trained me, and my whole family came to cheer me on.  It took me 6 hours, and I will never ever do such a barking thing again.  I am utterly thrilled to have done it, and think that possibly I am a genius, but it took a year to lose the weight, and then a year to train. That is quite enough to be going on with, on the life changing front, and I needed a rest after that.  To celebrate, I painted the following picture a couple of years later (when I had got my breath back)

Marathon Madonna.  Her time is spookily the same time as mine.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, or as she is known, the Madonna, is running the London Marathon.  This is at the finishing line, and though everyone else seems to be running past the line with aplomb, the Madonna is barley able to stagger her way past it.  We all had our names on our vests, and she has Mad 1 on hers.  Her hair is straggling under her headdress, she is really very exhausted.  I remember staggering past the finishing line straight into the arms of my mother and my older brother Ralph.  It was pouring with cold rain, and all I could think of was cheese sandwiches.  The Madonna is more sophisticated, I have not painted that into her experience.

I am going to finish this account of those difficult years with a painting that was quite different to any that I had been asked to do.  I was very afraid of this commission as I had done nothing like it before.  It was a seascape, and contained portraits where no faces were visible. I have to admit, I found every excuse in the book to delay starting to paint.  I needed the money, I was lucky to have the work, but I just couldn't think of how to go about it.  I think I spent nearly a year doing it in my head, and when I could not hold off any more, I did it in just a week.  At that time, I was a very slow worker, and completing a painting in a week was almost faster than the speed of light.  After all that fuss, I found that I could do it.  Planning it for a year in my head was the key to this one, but I was getting better at the whole business of painting, and since I was being asked to paint for other people, I was having to learn how to charge for the work, how to do what they wanted and how to stick to what we had agreed.  Here is that difficult piece, which was in the end, not difficult at all -

Santa Croce Yacht Club

I will end this section of my life through my art with this Santa Croce Yacht Club.  I look back on that time, fifteen or so years ago, without much pleasure, but I did always continue to paint.  It gave me an escape and an escape was just what I needed.  I was finding out what I could paint, what I wanted to paint, and what I was being asked to paint.  All of this was very valuable, and I began to make sense of my new life on my own. I began to make my way back to health with my weight loss and I began to make friends through painting and taking on commissions.  It was a long slow journey, and I am glad that that particular part of it is over.

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;
Alone God sufficeth.

Thursday 20 December 2012

This is where it all began.  Look at this painting and notice what you are feeling.  Really look at it, give yourself time, and look.

Pieta, by Giovanni Bellini.

I love this painting with a passion.  I am very affected by it, I feel the power of this image and never get tired of looking at it.  Here is what happened.

When I was eight years old, I was a very established fairy.  Fine.  I wore net curtains and a home made crown, and because my Aunt Kit had tiny feet, I wore her shoes. I loved to draw, to paint, to make lovely things and I had a vivid imagination. I lived in an imaginary world.  My father always noticed and encouraged me, and being artistic himself, being intellectual, well read, and slightly eccentric, he selected this painting in a book one day and asked me to come and look at it.  Here, he said, is beauty.  Look at the faces, he said.  This is the dead Jesus being held by his mother.  Look at how their faces turn to each other, see how Mary has only eyes for her son, how Jesus turns his head towards his mother's face, see how she holds his hand.  The light is white, and falling on the figures giving them shape, said my father, and see - there is a quality of silence and pain in this scene.  How beautiful are the hands?  How beautiful are the folds of the clothes?  And can you imagine what St John is feeling as he holds Jesus and looks away in shock?  Maybe Giovanni Bellini painted these faces from looking at people around him.  This painting, said my father, was painted in about 1460.  Maybe these were faces that went to the market, that walked in the street, that got on with their lives in 1460, and you, said my father, are seeing them today in this painting of Jesus being held by his mother and St John after his ordeal on the cross.

It was a moment of recognition for me.  This is what painters did.  This is what I would do.  I kept this painting and looked at it often, falling in love with it again and again.  How could a man from so long ago paint something so moving, so exquisite, so painful?  How could he get the eyes so real?  The hands so amazing?  How did he paint the quality of silence and stillness, how did he seem to capture an intimate, powerful, private, moment that we should not be seeing? And yet we were there, with them, watching with horror the moment a mother holds her dead son.  I wanted more than anything to do this, to paint something that was as beautiful as this.

At University many years later, my dissertation was on the religious frescoes of Pietro Annigoni.  I wanted to talk about his recent, currently being painted, religious frescoes, and I went to Florence to track him down.  I did track him down, and he did help me wonderfully and I was bowled over by his work.  So bowled over that I couldn't speak.  It was with huge difficulty that I communicated at all, it was as if I had an audience with a rock star, I was so overwhelmed.  He was a very kind man, and seemed to be used to paralysed students, he asked himself questions and then answered them for me, and I wrote it all down.  I went and visited, with special permission, the frescoes that Annigoni was currently painting. I went to Monte Cassino and to Padua, and I can't remember where else.  I did not see him at work, but I saw how it was done.  The scaffolding, the paints, the drapes, the brushes, the paraphernalia accompanying him as he created his great art on the walls of churches and Cathedrals.  And the paintings themselves.  Lord, they were magnificent.  Goodness, they were powerful.  So beautiful, so intense, so passionate.  And all these religious scenes, painted by a man who was an Atheist.  I had not come across that before, how could a man who didn't believe in God paint such glorious religious paintings in a church?  I thought I saw evidence of a struggle in the frescoes.  I thought I caught a glimpse of the powerful inner life of an artist, I thought I understood a little more how magnificently contradictory an artist could be.  I'll be that one day, I thought.  If only I could speak. 

From Scenes from the life of St Anthony of Padua, in the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua by Pietro Annigoni

Here is St Anthony meeting the tyrant Ezzelino da Romano, painted in 1981.  I was there in 1981 and stood in front of this before it was finished, feeling the energy in it, the menace of Ezzelino and the figures in the background, feeling the passion of the artist and thinking of the Atheist who painted this insightful and beautiful fresco.  The dog is very ugly, it highlights the saintliness of Anthony as he stands, still and vulnerable, before the threatening figure of Ezzelino da Romano.  The painting is full of movement; controlled, big movements, with the still, silent, glowing figure of St Anthony in the centre of it all.

What I saw, when I met Annigoni, was a modern day embodiment of Giovanni Bellini.  Both were Italian, both painted with power, magic, brilliance, and I felt a link between them from over the centuries. I was in awe of Annigoni because he not only represented his own art, but because he represented the painting that first moved me to a place quite beyond myself when I was so young.  I could have been in the studio with Bellini.  Bellini lived in Venice, Annigoni lived in Florence, and I was there, in Italy, the country from which both men came, and even though I have not a drop of Italian blood, I do at least have an Italian name. 

I am in no way like Bellini and Annigoni.  But I am looking for a way to represent very powerful human stories through art, I am deeply affected by the way in which they interpreted the scenes they were painting.  I am moved each time I see work by Bellini and Annigoni.  I feel that they are painting from their hearts, there is something far more to what they produce than simply a picture.  When I paint for the A Graceful Death exhibition, I remember the power of these two great painters.  I am moved beyond imagining by the people that I paint for the exhibition, and hope to go beyond mere representation.  I want to say something much more about the situation that my sitters are in, I want that magic from the other place, that Annigoni and Bellini access, to come to me.  There is real love in what they do, and real love in what I do. 

Steve as Christ's HeadFrom the A Graceful Death exhibition
This painting is of Steve the day he died, and I have painted him as a beautifully as I could.  I was inspired by the Renaissance paintings of Christ's head after the crucifixion,

Another Pieta, by Giovanni Bellini, from about 1472.  This is a detail from a larger painting.

like this one.  The Steve as Christ's Head painting is directly inspired by paintings such as these.  I have taken a dead man and given him the same love in paint as in the painting above, I have given him a golden halo and used the darkest of blues to highlight his yellow skin and I have tried to give the painting something from that other place, that Bellini, Annigoni and other painters can access. 

Anne and Peter Snell.  From the A Graceful Death exhibition

 Here is another example, of painting with love.  Anne Snell here is sitting with her husband Peter as he dies, and holds him with both her hands.  I did not paint it here, but her other hand was under his pillow holding him close to her.  Their faces are close together, they are connected in this painful and intimate moment, and we feel that we are watching something private and deeply moving.  And of course, we are. Annigoni's drawing is excellent, in all his works, the evidence of perfect drawing is there.  I have tried to make the drawing correct in the painting above (and in all my paintings) and have worked hard to make it all as good as I can.

So now.  I want to leave you with an exquisite drawing by Annigoni.  Can you see the movement in the drawing, feel the restless energy with which he must have drawn this face, are you inspired by the beauty of the image? 

Study of perhaps, a Prophet perhaps.  By Pietro Annigoni

  What a lovely way to end this blog.  With a drawing by Pietro Annigoni.  We began with Bellini, we end with Annigoni.  Oh I am in such good hands.

Friday 14 December 2012

And so.  I sit in my warm home on the sofa with blankets round my shoulders and knees, listening to the rain outside.  I have had my breakfast, unfortunately, so I can't have any more.  I love eating, it cheers me up no end, and now, having had just the one breakfast, I am moving into work mode.  What is my work, you ask with a serious and curious expression?  Tell us, you say, sitting down and making yourselves comfortable.  Well, I say, my work is thus...


I am illustrating a new children's book about a little girl witch and her poodle dog.  I have created the character, and have given her lovely rosy cheeks and masses of auburn curls.  It has been great fun making her, and painting the woodlands in which she lives.  I have been allowed to wander into an enchanted world with this little girl witch, and feel as if I am enchanted too.  She wears red doc martens boots.  In the studio, I speak to this little girl character and ask her to come and reveal herself, and to help me to paint where she lives.  All very much in keeping with the idea that the creative force comes from outside, and is divine.  It is not you who owns your gift.  It is given to you from above.  Or beyond.  You are lucky that it speaks to you, and that you are able to receive it.  The ancients called it your Genius, but it was not living in you making you a genius, so no false pride and conceit there.  Nope.  Not you at all, so man up is the advice given, and be nice to your gift which chooses you, not you it.  You ask for it to come and inspire you.  I have taken this idea on board with gusto, and find it an enormous relief not to have to be responsible for the paintings that I do.  I sit there, prepared to do the work, and yell for the divine creative thing to come and inspire me.  Thanks very much, I say afterwards, when it works.  You were fab.  And if it doesn't work, I say, well.  You weren't much help today.  And then I remember it chooses me not I it, and say with a placatory and winning smile - perhaps I wasn't listening properly!   Not your fault! Thank you very much, please, and thank you (in case the divine muse has feelings and can sulk if I am not polite).

A Graceful Death

I have had an idea about the funding.  I will ask for sponsorship from charities, companies, individuals for each individual painting.  If I am working with someone who has cancer, for example, which I do a lot, then I will apply to a cancer charity to fund the painting.  I will ask for help painting by painting.  How about that for a simple idea?  I am very excited about the possibilities this creates, and perhaps a link with appropriate charities will be good for me and a link with an artistic project that highlights, with love and clarity, how normal and human it is to die, will be good for the charity. Or individual.  Or company.  I don't want to stand in your way, any of you.

I am delighted to be working with two new people in January, both of whom have Motor Neuron Disease.  This will be my first experience with MND, and I am looking forward to learning about it through the people I will be painting and interviewing.  There are also two cancer sufferers, both of whom are gloriously articulate, joining the exhibition. I hope to be arranging an AGD exhibition and Soul Midwife event in Bridport Devon, in early 2013.  I will show the paintings there, and have ideas about the Soul Midwife part of it.  See below.  I may need reigning in.

A Graceful Death needs one more painting about Steve from me.  It needs a final painting to close the whole story.  I don't know what I will do yet, something will come.  I want to do something about his funeral, which was perhaps the worst thing about his death.  I want to do something to lay that experience to rest, and face that particular ghost.  It makes me uneasy to think about it, but it has to be done.  I will have to sit in my studio and call out politely to my Genius that I am here, sitting, ready, any time now will do for an idea, thank you very much, please and thank you.

Other Stuff

Angels.  I am painting Angels for Christmas, some very lucky people are going to receive some personal Angels commissioned for them by loving friends and family.  I say lucky people, not because they are going to receive an Antonia Rolls painting though of course, that could be a very nice thing. They are lucky because someone has thought of them in such a lovely way, and taken the trouble to commission a painting that they may keep, just for them.  I like my clients.  I think they are very kind people.

I went to London yesterday to help Felicity Warner to run a master class on Soul Midwifery.  It was lovely to see her again, and some old friends were there too.  Bex, my wonder woman, wise lady, Soul Midwife and now Director of the charity Rainbow's End was there as was Nigel, clever, compassionate and wise community palliative care nurse and Soul Midwife Nigel.  The whole day was enlightening, and Felicity and I did a question and answer interview kind of thing, where she spoke of all sorts of angles and aspects of her work.  It worked very well, but of course I wanted to keep talking and not stick to my questions.  I wanted to carry on when it was finished, because it seemed to me, that there was at least 14 hours more of talking to do.  However, I bow to Felicity and agree that one hour was enough.  We may still be there, if I had my way.  Lock us all in, I may have said to the staff who came to lock up the building at closing time, they may all look tired but I have not finished with them yet.  I have more to say, and more to ask Felicity, sit up and pay attention, this is for your own good.  You know you want to.  Perhaps Felicity will do that with me in Bridport, for the AGD exhibition and Soul Midwife event I want to produce there.  It is possible though that she will organise that part of the proceedings, as this may have alerted her.  Not 14 hours, she will say sternly.  Not even if you provide chocolate and cocoa every hour on the hour.  You can have a normal amount of hours and if you don't stop asking me questions and interviewing me I will put a paper bag over your head.  That will be your signal to stop. 

I have found my lovely Age UK lady who I visited.  She went into hospital, and it became confused as to where she was and whether she could receive visits.  I have missed her, she is fun, witty and very beautiful.  I went to see her this week at last, and she has been very ill.  I am going to see her again today, and will take her something lovely to look at.  She is not feeling very good, but is being wonderfully cared for by her family.  I wish I could make her feel better, it must be dreadful to be ill when you are old.  She is much recovered though, I am told, and so I hope she continues to progress.

The rain has stopped and the blankets have made me warm and sleepy.  But up I must get, and go and visit my lovely Age UK lady.  I think my Muse has a hand in other things than painting.  I think my Muse has stopped the rain in order that I have absolutely no excuse to stay sitting wrapped in spotty blankets on my sofa by the radiator.  No excuse at all.  My Muse is also arranging for my car to start first time and for the traffic to be non existent so I had better get myself up and on my way.  Thank you very much, please, and thank you.

Friday 7 December 2012

Yesterday, a man from the Spectator called me. My first thought was that they had read the death-by-Spectator bit in my past blogs, and that when the Spectator arrives on a Friday I close my eyes and put it into the wicker basket next to my sofa.  It is nothing to do with the Spectator, it is only that I don't get round to reading it as it arrives, and they pile up, one after another, looming at me, until I have to take a week off to read them.  My first thought was then, when I answered the phone to a man who introduced himself as Phil from the Spectator, that they knew.  There was going to be some kind of show down.  Actually, Phil only wanted to tell me that unless I paid up immediately, my subscription would end within the next two weeks.  The sup plot was, what would I do then?  Oh Phil, I could have said, I would sleep at nights!  I embrace you, Phil, for only sending me two more weeks of this magazine.  In the coming year, Phil, I will read the whole of the past year, which is all I ask, and then, next year, Phil, when you are checking the Christmas subscriptions, come back to me and I will be a different person.  Dear Phil, send me those last two Spectators, and then let me rest.

I must just add here that it is a gift from one of my admirable brothers, that I have had a subscription to the Spectator these past few years.  What I actually said to Phil from the Spectator was that my dear brother deals with all my subscriptions, and I left him to think that I had many subscriptions, and that I could not only handle them all, but I was blase about them.

This week in Bognor has been quiet and good.  I have needed to be quiet.  I have some thinking to do.  There are some changes to the A Graceful Death exhibition which I feel need to be made.  At present there are 48 paintings and poetry, a book, music, poetry workshops, a film, a prayer bowl and much writing including an amusing and provocative essay by my dear friend and writer Olivia Fane .  The paintings continue too, I am presently working on new paintings and new people to the exhibition; new images new stories, new lives, new deaths.  It is getting very large, and I feel that it is changing.  So what do I do, and in which direction will I take in order for it to be effective?  A Graceful Death started with my story.  I began the whole thing by painting Steve as he died, and after his death.  That is the introduction.  It is now utterly about other people and how they face the prospect of illness and death, it is not about me at all.  Many who I have painted for the exhibition are no longer alive.  But their stories and their images are, and they all contribute to a discussion on what it means to die.  A great deal of good is done by this, and much saying of things unsaid takes place when people see the exhibition and read what is written by those who have been painted.

One of the problems that I am facing is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to transport all of these paintings and everything that goes with the A Graceful Death.  My car isn't big enough, and what worked for a smaller exhibition does not work for a larger one.  Transportation and protection of the works is a big issue now;  how to best and most efficiently wrap the paintings so that they don't get damaged in transit?  Bubble wrap used to work but now it just gets in the way.  And the largest of the paintings is about 5' x 4', so now that there are 47 other paintings and poems of varying sizes, plus all the other things, I need a new plan.

Another issue is that it is ever growing in size. More people are being painted, so that it feels that perhaps I should show the exhibition in two halves.  Or with just a selection of the paintings, and a catalogue available to show all of them.  Another addition to the exhibition is that I am beginning to use video, thanks to the work of photographer extraordinaire and friend Eileen Rafferty, who is already the official AGD photographer.  I am also thinking of using drama as part of the exhibition, I want to use some plays and scripts written for the end of life by various writers, because I think it would encourage excellent discussions with people who come to take part. But, the biggest problem now, is the funding.  What funding?  Here is a bit on the funding.

I paint people for the exhibition, keep the paintings, and Eileen presents the sitter with a top quality print of the painting.  Nothing goes on display without the consent of the sitter, or the sitter's family.  Working with someone on a painting is a labour of love, and the experience for all us involved is profound, moving, enlightening and wonderful.  And sad, too, when that person dies if that is what they do.  Some of the people in the exhibition are alive and well, some are not.  But because of the nature of A Graceful Death, I do not charge anyone anything.  It feels as if I am receiving a priceless gift listening to life stories and painting portraits.  So how does the exhibition manage to exist, grow, exhibit, make itself?  Miracles.  It runs on miracles.  If I take the exhibition to a conference, or an event that I am not organising, then I charge a fee. But to create the exhibition, I do not.  And now I must find a way to fund the creation and maintenance of this amazing work.  It is time for it to make its way in the world so that I can concentrate on the paintings and the work I do with the people involved in making it so powerful.  It is time to get financial.

This then, is why I needed to be quiet in Bognor this week.  I must do some serious thinking, it is time to take this huge, growing, glorious exhibition to the next level.  It is time to find that open door, and step through it.  It is time for benefactors to vie with each other, falling over each other to offer their services, in order that I can keep this exhibition serving the people that take part, and that come to experience it.

And as if to help me to do this, I have planned to do nothing at all this weekend.  I have planned to wear my pyjamas from Friday night until Monday morning, and to follow my every (legal) whim.  If I wish to eat eggy toast at 2am, I shall.  If I wish to lie on the sofa under soft green woollen blankets and dream of the future, I shall.  If I wish to watch my phone ring, and not answer it unless it is from the Spectator wanting to give me an award for perseverance, that is what I shall do.

It is time for a very emotionally mature and ridiculously wealthy philanthropist to decide to go on a journey of personal discovery.  Go to Bognor, the Philanthropist's assistant will say, I have had a dream.  And so, leaving the limo behind, giving the helicopter pilot the day off, the Philanthropist will catch the train to Bognor.  Where, the Philanthropist will ask at Bognor Regis station, is the house in which a lady lies dreaming on the sofa under a green woollen blanket?  Where is the house in which a lady is eating eggy toast in the wee small hours, as I must go there; my assistant has had a dream, and my assistant is never wrong.  Ah, someone will say, you will want the house of A Graceful Death. I am intrigued!  The Philanthropist will say with feeling.  I feel a journey of personal discovery coming on!  I will go and accompany this lady (when she gets dressed and answers her phone) and I will meet people and hear things that will make me wonder at the miracle of life and death.  I will go with her and see how people tell the truth at the end of life, and how it is sometimes the hardest and sometimes the most intensely rewarding part of one's life.  I will be prepared to be humble and to listen, and I will see how Art can reach the parts other things can't reach.  And most of all, I will pay for everything.  It will not take much for me, the Philanthropist on a journey of personal discovery, compared to what I will experience and learn from being with those who are dying, what are a few noughts on a cheque compared to that?

Quite, I shall say when I hear the Philanthropist knock.  Quite.  All I ask, I shall say as I put the kettle on and wrap the Philanthropist in a warm pink and white spotty blanket for warmth, is that you come with me, see what I see, and make it all possible.  I do not need more than you can give, but come with me and see how this is all done.  Listen to the music that Lizzie has composed for the exhibition.  Meet the lady who is going to be painted next and listen to her story.  Meet her friend who loves her, and see how life gives us so much that passes under our noses until we are in need of someone to hold us as we face our dying.  And see, how we can ask someone who is dying - Who are you?  What are you saying to us?  Sit with me while I paint it, and tell me what you are feeling.  And the Philanthropist will say, well blow me down.  This is profound and within my grasp and all that.  But first things first.  Can I have ketchup on my eggy toast?

Goodbye Michael, Goodbye Old Friend. 

Friday 30 November 2012

I am lying on the sofa. Another Spectator magazine has arrived in the post and I have closed my eyes and put it into the wicker box on my table next to the sofa, along with all the other Spectators.  I will read them.  I will wake one morning and know that today, it is time to read all of the unread Spectators hidden around the house so that I will not suffer from anxiety from not reading them in the correct order, or at all, before the next one arrives.  I could stuff a mattress with them, there are so many.  But I have been in this state of siege before with the Spectator;  I went to Ireland to my Darling Dublin Friend and her husband, the Nicest Man in Ireland's holiday cottage with a suitcase full once, and read them all there.  It was necessary to leave the country, and all of the distractions of my home, in order to return myself to square one with Spectators.  I must remind you here, that the reason that I have the Spectator delivered to my door every Friday is that one of my dear brothers has taken out a rolling subscription for me, which will last from now until the end of time.

On Monday my dear friend Gail Dyson from Elizabeth Way Funeral Directors, came to stay.  Gail's approach to her work is guided by compassion and love.  There is nothing dark and gloomy about Elizabeth Way's premises, there is nothing sombre, distant or formal there.  There are cups of tea, brightly painted rooms and a great deal of care and understanding about the terrible confusion and pain into which we plunge when we lose someone we love.  Not only does Gail run her Funeral business, she is a celebrant, and bereavement counselor, a Soul Midwife and now the founder of a local charity helping children to deal with bereavement, called Roxie's Rainbows It won't surprise you either to know that Gail is blonde, beautiful, witty and amusing.  You can see why we get on.

On Tuesday we had our Soul Midwives meeting.  It stared early with a meditation with Gail on compassion. This was her idea entirely, my meditations are usually a mental free for all revolving around shopping lists and imaginary dialogues with my mother; but Gail is a Buddhist and has a wonderful simple and effective approach to life.  It is so important for us Soul Midwives to keep meeting each other to examine our work and our effectiveness.  We practice in very different ways, Gail as a funeral director, Nigel as a community palliative care nurse, Bex as a wise woman in her community and the founder of the Rainbows End project, care home and forest school in the making, Cathy is looking to become a celebrant, and Mandy is a healer and a Soul Midwife; Mandy sits with terminally ill people for Macmillan and chats, listens, helps and makes them laugh.  As for me, I realised at this meeting that I am principally an artist.  That is where my gift lies, and from there, all my other work comes.  Painting for A Graceful Death is what I can do to make a difference, and it involves Soul Midwifery in all stages of making a painting.  I work with someone who wants to be painted, and I ask them, Who are you?  What will you say now, and what can you tell us?  I make them visible and show everyone that they are ill, they are dying, they look like this today, and they are not hidden.  And until they die, they are alive and look!  This is what they look like and this is what they say.  It is a powerful experience to work with someone who is dying, or someone who has faced the prospect of dying, and to ask them to tell us who they are, today, now, at this moment.  And then to paint it for all eternity.

Tuesday was a day of talking, of listening and of advising.  We need feedback, we all need to articulate how and what we are doing, and to listen to not only how it sounds, but whether it is working or not.  So Tuesday was filled with passion, ideas, discussions, challenges and lunch.  Lunch consisted of things we brought to add to the table, and everyone thought they would buy the puddings so, quite rightly, we dined on mince pies, cheesecake, biscuits, doughnuts and teeny glitter fairy cakes.  Good, we cried as one voice, as Soul Midwives we need to feed our souls, and nothing does this better than strong tea and a lunch of only cakes.

Bex, wise, patient and kind Bex, stayed the night on Tuesday and by Wednesday midday, we had completely reorganised the world to our liking, and knew exactly what we were going to do.  Or perhaps, Bex had completely reorganised my world, and I knew what I was going to do. This is the plan -

10am Thursday 29 November was the anniversary of Steve's death.  Steve's funeral was a terrible experience for me, and I remember thinking at the time, thinking through that terrible fug and confusion and horror at what was happening, that I have to do another one, a proper one, where I can recognise the man I lost, and where I am part of the proceedings.  But I have not been able to face it.  Bex and I talked of a way that I could do this, and six years after he died, next November, I will have a memorial that will put to rest that terrible day. Bex did point out that a full Viking Burial where I send a burning boat out to sea from Bognor beach wouldn't work.  It would get caught in Bognor Pier, and set it alight and then I would have to go to prison.  My house wouldn't get a blue plaque when I die, it would get turned into a rehabilitation centre for grieving pyrotechnics where they would learn that one of the best ways to remove yourself from everyone's Christmas card and party lists, is to have full Viking Funeral under Bognor Pier.  Don't do it, they would say, don't do it.  You don't want to end up like that.

I went into where Alan was working at my dining room table, to tell him that it was Steve's anniversary, and that at 10am, he had died.  I started to cry and Alan gave me such a lovely hug and said that I of all people, should know that today would be hard, and to give into it.  Alan was, and always has been, so kind and supportive, so full of good advice, I am very lucky indeed. I am glad he was there.

So Thursday was a difficult day in which to concentrate.  I tried to work on the book that I am illustrating about a little girl witch called Isi, but it was slow work.  I tried to paint the Angels commissioned for Christmas, but they all looked a bit spaced out.  This is what happens, on anniversary days, and I can tell other people that it is normal, and to expect a slow and sad day, but for myself I was strangely ignorant.

And now, Friday, we come to the end of the week.  We come back to the sofas, to Eileen, and to the Spectator.  The Spectator is safely out of sight, and Eileen and I are safely on the sofas, each doing her own thing, together but apart.  Tomorrow, Saturday, is another day.  The week has been full, fun and at times, sad.  It is time to go to bed now, and to start again in the morning.  I am spending tomorrow in the studio and Eileen is going to take photos and films of Bognor and of me.  I need my beauty sleep, so that if Eileen does film me, I can say Oh!  I always look as fresh as this.  No, I never even think about it.  I never go to bed early on the off chance that someone will take a picture of me the next day, I am just so natural.

I shall not mention either that the blog is a day late, because I am hoping that you haven't noticed, and because the world hasn't ended, it may just be all right. 

Friday 23 November 2012

From Which Chair Shall I Address My Genius?

In which chair, out of all the chairs in the house, shall I sit?  This is not a flippant question.  All creative people are influenced by their surroundings, all creative people are prone to paralysing moments of indecision based on such things as, which chair to sit on. I am no different, and I have narrowed down my choice of chairs to three.  From each of these places, I have worked on different parts of my Master Plan to make the world a better and more arty place in which to live and die.  From each of these chairs, I have spent the past week working at different projects, with huge enjoyment, varying degrees of energy, and sometimes a little whoop of delight.  I have arrived at Blog Time and cannot work out which of these chairs will support the gathering of the past week into one cohesive account.

Don't be cohesive!  You cry.  Give it to us as a stream of consciousness, take us on a journey of wonder as we try and work out what you are saying.

And I say, how kind.  But in order to progress with all that I am doing, I do need to make some sense and connections, and though a muddled account would be a joy to write, none of you would say Ah, when you need me or my services, Ah.  That Antonia, never muddled, always lucid, she's our girl.  So here is an account of the past week and an introduction to the three chairs which I use in order to make my life go with aplomb.

The Studio Chair

The Studio Chair.  I used to have a hard wooden chair but now I am over 50 I need a padded one with arms that I can use to help me stand up.

My studio chair has seen many paintings and drawings.  There is another chair on the other side of the studio, and another table, and an easel, from which I paint in oils.  That chair has been sitting and resting since the last oil painting was finished a month or so ago, I have put a neon pink fluffy cushion on it and have put it to bed for a while.  This chair above, oh this chair - I sit here and work out drawings and create Angels.  This is my drawing and my acrylic table.  I am illustrating a new children's book about a witch called Isi, and this week I have been trying to make her real.  I have been trying to find her, and give her form so that she can come alive. Isi is a lovely, pretty witch with a poodle dog.  Isi loves the earth and nature, it is an exciting book to illustrate.

 There is a wonderful TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) on creativity.  In this talk she says that creativity is historically something that is considered external to us, that only recently have we been sure that we are responsible for our creativity.  She says that the Ancient Greeks referred to their creative processes as Divine, from the Gods.  It was something other, apart, and a gift.  She spoke of artists that she knows today, catching ideas for work as they wash over them, and pulling them back as they threaten to disappear into the ether.  She speaks of addressing your creativity as something that is in the room with you, and asking it to come to you and do its stuff.  She said that the word the ancients used for the Divine creative presence was Genius, and that the Genius was nothing to do with you or your brilliance.  It was God given and given to you for your use from outside, not inside, your body and mind.  I love this idea.  I think it is right.  In this chair this week then, I have addressed my Genius, which to my mind, lives in the corner visible in this picture, and asked it to come and create Isi.  And the Angels.  And do you know, it does come.  It is a wonderful relief not to be totally responsible for any good or bad work.  It is a wonderful relief to address your Genius, as it lives in your place of work, watching you and (we hope) longing to come and bring this idea to life for you.

Another painting I have done here this week, from this chair, with help from my Genius who is just itching to help, is for the new charity Roxie's Rainbows.  Roxie's Rainbows is recently set up to help children, and their families, deal with bereavement from a child's point of view.  Here is what they say -

It can be difficult to talk to children about death and dying and sometimes a little help may be needed. Trained staff at Roxies Rainbows will stand beside children and their familes, to guide and support them through what can be very complex emotions and feelings when a bereavement occurs.

The charity has started in response to the death of the sweetest little princess called Roxie Joanne Archer, who was killed when she was only two years old.  I have painted Roxie for the charity to use as they wish.  I needed my Genius to help me with this one, it upset me very much. I wanted little Roxie to be alive to see the painting.

The website is now up and running, please go and see

The Sofa  Chair

When I sit here, which I do a lot, I need a plan which makes me get up otherwise I would lie on here dreaming and smiling for ever.

Ah here is where the reading happens.  Look, you will see there the book about which we are all talking, on the table.  It is called Dazzling Darkness by Rev Rachel Mann.  It says, under the title - gender, sexuality, illness and God.  Here is the blurb (or a bit of it) - Dazzling Darkness is a true story about searching for one's authentic self in the company of the \living God. Rachel  Mann has died many "deaths" in the process, not the least of which was a change of sex, as well as coming to terms with chronic illness and disability.  You can see Rachel talking about A Graceful Death on the AGD video below.

Rachel's book is well worth reading.  We need thinkers and priests like her.

And on the sofa is a copy of the Spectator, for which which my dear kind brother John has taken out a subscription for me.  I enjoy reading it, but I suffer from what I call Death by Spectator.  If I don't get round to reading the one that comes through the post on a Friday, suddenly another one comes, and then another and as I have to read them all in order, I feel under attack by Spectators.  They pile up and I am haunted by them as they remind me that it is impossible to continue to live and call myself a good sister, as there are now four thousand Spectators in the house and unless I can find the first one that I missed, I cannot read any of the others, and what is the point anyway, I can no longer find the front door to escape, there are so many Spectators piled up against it.  However, there comes a point when I take time off and get through them all, and clear them, in the same way that you would clear the pressing and looming tax return from hell.  Except the Spectator is not hell, it is fine, it is just that it has it in for me.  See that wicker box on the table above?  In there are many Spectators that I have not yet opened, and as I cannot see them, they do not exist.  Today is Friday.  Another one will arrive any minute.  I am ready.

Another book I am reading and because I am no academic, am finding deeply difficult to remember the beginning of the sentence at the end of the sentence, is Compassionate Cities, Public health and end-of-life care, by Allan Kellehear.  Despite having to concentrate doubly hard, I am very excited about this book.  I feel that what we, Soul Midwives, healers, listeners, compassionate companions, are doing is working within a Compassionate Community.  It was meeting and talking to Jon Bowra who works for the Living Well, Dying Well organisation, that made me see a light bulb.  I had a eureka moment.  He talks of communities of volunteers and neighbours working together to set up networks for all those who need support at the end of life.  You don't have to go and have a heavy talk, he says, you can walk the dog.  The idea is to set up community networks that can support the person who is dying, not as a patient, but as a community member.  As Allan Kellehear says in his book, as a citizen.  As a citizen.

End of life care is often very professionalised so that the only people who can do it, are trained professionals who offer it exclusively as a service.  What I think both Jon Bowra and Allan Kellehear are saying, is that the professional services are excellent, alongside normal community support and participation.  The end of life person is not a patient (unless in hospital or hospice, and even then that is not all they are), they are a citizen. A part of the community. And the part we can play, we Soul Midwives, Doulas for the Dying, Interested Parties, I think, is setting up the networks.  An possibly before even that, making available places to come and talk about end of life stuff, over tea and cakes, so that when the time comes to face someone dying, it is not all completely unexpected and overwhelming.  I think that the first time we face someone we know or love dying, is the first time we address the subject of death.  We are forced to take a crash course in end of life stuff when we are probably panicking and upset.  I also met and really liked, the lady who is researching Compassionate Communities for the Dying Matters organisation.  I am hoping to talk with her again next week, she is very helpful indeed.

So I am working out what to do with this idea, and will be asking my Soul Midwife colleagues and friends what they think at our next meeting here, at Rolls Mansions, on Tuesday.

And Finally, the Kitchen Chair

A thoroughly public chair.  You have to make sure you look the part if you sit here, hair brushed, teeth cleaned, shiny shoes, concentrating frown.  The whole household passes by this chair.

May I introduce the final chair for today.  The Kitchen Chair.  This is the chair to sit in if you mean business.  To sit in this chair says that you are so busy and important, that you can work amongst the throng.  You can sit on a hard wooden chair, so dedicated are you, next to the larder (the opening behind the chair is the larder) and among the to-ings and fro-ings of all who live here plus their friends, and still hit the deadline.  Don't bother me!  you seem to say, see how invaluable I am to my work.  Watch me tap away here despite your chatter, and marvel and how I do not blink even when you are frying onions. 

But if the house is empty, as today, I sit in silence here and am not too comfortable as on the sofa so that I fall asleep, I am not in the studio having words with my temperamental Genius who may want to put moustaches on my angels, I am in a quiet house, at a quiet table, and doing the laundry at the same time.  The 16 year old boy giant is at school, Alan is coming tonight, my Polish lodger is sleeping after night duty upstairs, my other two lodgers are at work, and I know there is no one else in the house.  So sitting here is a good idea right now.  It can be very helpful to look up from the laptop, and see the flowers, and the bits and pieces on the table and muse for a short while.

And here, in the evenings, I can sit and look at emails while the 16 year old boy giant lies on the floor to rest his weary bones after a whole day of being upright and awake at school, and chat with him. I can have a flurry of texting with enthusiastic daughter as she comes off the wards where she is doing her nursing training, and I can try and contact elusive older son as he does what he does, wherever he is, bless him.

And so, I end today's blog.  All this week I have been entertaining a different Genius from each different chair.  In the studio, Isi, the pretty witch, has taken form, little Roxie has had glitter sprinkled onto the painting of her dress, and the ipad Angel, plus other Angels, are taking shape.  From the Sofa, I am reading Rachel's story, I have had huge insights into how to proceed with Soul Midwifery, Compassionate Companionship and Compassionate Communities, and have done battle with the Spectator.  From the kitchen chair, I have done this blog, have had jolly moments on Facebook and have been in contact with many and varied people, all of whom I meet on my journey as an Artist and Soul Midwife.  And at all times on this kitchen chair, I have been available to chat with Son, and have adopted a weary but resigned look of utter importance, in case any member of the household and their friends, are passing by.

Here is the kind of conversation I have with 16 year old giant boy, to set you on your way today:

 Mum, what is red and bad for your teeth?
(Mum - I don't know dear.  What is red and bad for your teeth?)
A brick.  Ha ha ha ha.
(Mum - oh dear.)

Friday 16 November 2012

The Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief is a Scottish Alliance of organsations and individuals, aiming to promote understanding and information about end of life matters.  It aims to empower individuals and communities to support and engage with each other around the subject of death, it aims to put people in touch with each other for best practice, support, information and help.

Membership is free and is jolly well worth it.  Have a look and sign up on

An account in three parts follows, of taking the A Graceful Death exhibition up to the annual event held in Edinburgh.  Make the tea, settle down, and read on.


The Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief partnership held their first annual event in the Budongo Room of the Chimp House in Edinburgh Zoo yesterday.  We had use of the Budongo Room and the Board Room, both of which had three solid walls and the fourth wall, pure reinforced glass.   Against this glass wall the chimps lounged, eating bananas, chatting and telling each other jokes.  From time to time they would chase each other around the very large enclosure, swinging from trees, calling each other rude names for the fun of it, and flinging themselves with their full force against the glass wall to see how many humans then had heart attacks.  They were the happiest most uncomplicated animals one could hope for against which to have a day of awareness raising about Life, Death and Dying. 

I drove up to Edinburgh on Monday. Alan had hired a large Peugeot car for me, which was packed to bursting with the A Graceful Death exhibition, plus my overnight case and my teapot, teacosy, mug, and teabags.  Monday night was spent in a Travelodge near to the zoo, and Tuesday morning I arrived at 10am, as planned, and met the very wonderful Stuart Pryde, an old pal who was not only helping me set up, but putting me up for the night and as it happened, later helped to take down the entire show after it was over, and pack it away in my car.

But!  Apart from the extremely helpful Mike from OCD Hospitality we found that nothing was available, no one was there to help, nothing had been arranged and no one knew what the dickens to do with us. No one seemed to give two hoots and Stuart and I could not seem to find a way to actually set anything up because there were no surfaces on which to try to place the paintings, and that until the room was completely set up for the event, nothing whatever could be done. No one was there to set up, in fact, no one was there at all.  It was as if they had all gone on holiday, quickly, half an hour before we arrived, so as to be really unavailable.   And, the board room in which I was to set up more paintings, the film, the books, the prayer bowl and the Memory Books, was now hosting a meeting until 4.15, which gave us 15 minutes to set up as the zoo closed at 4.30.  No one had checked, no one had told me, no one had told each other, no one had bothered to talk to anyone else, about anything, and not one person except the helpful Mike had even turned up.  In fact, it was a normal day at the zoo with an artist, her pal and 48 paintings of dead and dying people up in the monkey room. I got cross at this point.  Have a banana, the chimps seemed to say, from the other side of the reinforced glass.  And then swing on this rope and splat into the glass wall.  Works for us. 

Enter Derek Blues from the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief organisation -!  Like the cavalry, like a man who gets things done, like a godsend, Derek had the whole thing sorted within half an hour.  It was Derek who has organised the annual event, had set it up, had engaged the speakers and had delegated the setting up to the invisible crew.  Stuart, Derek and I set up the exhibition, and helped Mike who was now doing all the tables, chairs, banners, stands and so on, quite on his own.  And throughout this, the chimps continued to watch us through the glass wall, hanging upside down from their toes, chewing noisily on sticks and bits of fruit and veg, and looking amused.

Setting up the Budongo Room in Edinburgh Zoo.  Very fancy in the end. 

The next morning, after the chimps had been counted to check that none would be joining us actually in the Budongo and Board Rooms, Derek and Mike and I finished the setting up, and lo!  By the time the delegates arrived, the rooms were as professional, as crisp and as welcoming as if we had spent the previous day with dedicated staff who had vied with each other to do more for us, and had cried if they felt we had not used them enough.  The paintings were set up on display boards, were attached to whatever was available, were blu tac-ed onto surfaces and were on the whole, very imaginatively set up to catch the eye and stimulate conversation.  I felt happy, excited to meet the people who were speaking, and very excited to meet the people who were attending.  It felt as if much would be said during the event to inspire, much said to challenge and a great deal of material for serious thought and consideration.  And I had my flouncy black and white skirt on, which always means business.  Let the day begin!  I said to the chimps, before a screen was pulled down over the window in the Budongo Room, so that we could no longer see each.  Power points could be projected instead.  In the Board Room, the window was left uncovered.  There was already a screen in there on which the A Graceful Death film was played on a loop.  Blimey, said the chimps in that enclosure, from the other side of the reinforced glass wall, that's interesting.  We won't chuck our dinner at the wall while that is playing, because we think if you only had 15 minutes to set it up, we ought to show some solidarity with you.  I didn't tell the chimps that thanks to Derek I had much more than 15 minutes to set up, I thanked them instead and tried to look like someone who needed strong chimp backing.

What the chimps could see through the glass wall into the Board Room.  Ooh, they said, Telly.  Let's watch.  The AGD film plays on a loop in all exhibitions now, and so the chimps know more about AGD than most, if they sat for an entire day and watched it go round and round and round.

The people that started to arrive were greeted by the A Graceful Death exhibition, by Derek and people from the Good Life Death Grief Alliance, and made very welcome.  Time first to network, and mingle, and chat before we sat down at our tables, and were introduced to the work of the Alliance.  Around the room, on all spare wall and door space, were large pieces of paper on which were written "Before I die I would like to...", and lines below for us to write what we would like to do.  This is based on the extraordinary work of artist Candy Chang from New Orleans - watch her on this 6 minute TED talk,

and you will get the picture.  We took our pieces of chalk and milled around writing all sorts of things on the papers, reading each others and enjoying what we were all writing.  Our speakers that followed were Sally Paul from the Strathcarron Hospice, talking about death, dying and bereavement for children and young people.  Her work highlighted a real need for working with children and teenagers in schools and communities, and how adults were often unrealistically afraid that children wouldn't be able to cope with death.  Wrong, said Sally Paul, they want to talk about it, and her work has shown that it is a relief when they are encouraged and helped to do so.

The next speaker was Dr Gordon McLaren  who spoke on a public health approach to death, dying and bereavement in NHS Fife. I liked hearing of the community aspect of the work Dr McLaren was doing, he spoke of combining different local bodies and peoples to address the very real public health needs in the Fife area, around end of life issues.  The chimps got restless at this point and began to bash things behind the power point screen, in their enclosure.  We know you are in there, they seemed to be saying, and just to make sure you don't forget we are here and rule the place, we are going to bash each other with saucepan lids for a while. 

Our final speaker was Dr Kate Granger, an practicing doctor and a terminally ill cancer patient.  And, too, a wife and in her own words, Just Kate.  Kate spoke of her diagnosis, of what time she has left, and how decided to stop her treatment that didn't agree with her, in order to go back to work and to accept her short life span.  Kate spoke very softly, and articulately.  I remember most her saying that she wanted so much to be here for her nephews and nieces, but knew that she wouldn't.  The funny thing is, that we were being addressed by a terminally ill doctor, who had travelled to Edinburgh by train, in lovely brown and white spotty dress and glorious complexion.  It brought home to me how little we know of the dying process, how until we die, we are alive, and that looks really can mislead.  I spoke to Kate afterwards in the Board Room, we sat for a small chat, and I saw a frail, strong, vulnerable, amazing, helpless and sad lady, facing something head on, that only she could see through.


After speeches, lunch, talking with people about the exhibition, discussions, chats and mingling, people moved off to spend the rest of the afternoon if they wanted, at the zoo.  Derek, Stuart and I took down the exhibition, carried it load by load all the way through the zoo to the car park, and packed it into the car.  The ever helpful Mike dismantled the tables with his crew, and the screen in the Budongo Room was lifted so that we and the chimps could be as one (sort of) again.

I am left now having met and talked to some extremely inspiring people.  I have seen how helpful it is to belong to an alliance such as the Good Life Death Grief alliance, if it works.  This one works.  The guests at the event were professionals, thinkers, practitioners, volunteers, members of religious groups and all of them, wanting to make a difference.  I enjoyed the speakers, I felt educated and challenged, I felt that I was part of a nationwide desire to deal with the end of life so that we can do it as best and as openly as possible.  I hope to speak to a good few of the people I met in Edinburgh again, and find a way to combine our ideas.

I left Edinburgh in my hired Peugeot car, into the rush hour traffic, feeling inspired and appreciated.  Destination Salford Manchester, to stay with priest Halyey Matthews, chaplain of Mediacity UK.  And there I will leave it.  I will say however, that despite arriving in Manchester very tired indeed, Hayley was so full of life and fun and inspiring talk, that we stayed up till 1am, and could have talked all night. And we had a fab dinner that included Maltesers for pudding. So actually, life is pretty damn good. 

My two new best friends. 

Friday 9 November 2012

Struggling to Stay on the Sofa

I have spent this week mostly sitting, or lying, on my sofa.  Planning to sit on the sofa is an easy thing to do.  Planning with all your heart and soul while in the midst of severe busy-ness, to stop everything, and sit on the sofa, sinking back into the cushions so that your tired body rests and your busy mind quiets itself. The planning part is the easy part.  What actually happens is that I cannot sit still and if I do sit still, my mind gathers all the most ridiculous things on an imaginary To Do list, and chucks them at me with a smirk and a Ha!  Forgot about that then, didn't you! Gotcha.  All over for you now, matey.

I arrived back from the Spirit of Caring Conference late last Friday, directly into organising a birthday party for Son who turned 16 the day I packed up the exhibition and drove like a weary bat outta hell all the way from Northampton to Petworth, where he was staying with his 82 year old Grandma.  It was agreed that I would do the birthday lunch for nine guests the next day, as Grandma is not up to it, and so I did.  And cleared up.  Grandma bought all the food and had everything ready, it was not hard work at all.  Except that my body was tired and my mind was on overdrive.  All went well, and Son was unaware that Laurel and Hardy were singing Way Out West in my brain most of the time.

We come to Monday morning.  The day I had set aside to sit on the sofa and snooze, thinking only thoughts of a fluffy nature and smiling softly to myself as I plump up the twinkly cushions on which I lie. Everything was set so that there was nothing more for me to do.  Sunday had seen the house cleaned, the washing and ironing done, food for the week bought and put away, and jolly banter with Son who had not seen me for most of the week dutifully performed, there was nothing more to do.  We come to Monday morning when everything in my world, domestically at least, was shining and under control. 

But the mind is a very separate entity.  Oh yes it is.  I had had all the bubble baths and pots of tea that the best psychologists insist will calm our fevered thoughts, I had spoken my intentions aloud as the best life coaches have advised that we do - I am lying on the sofa this week in order to indulge in watching 999 What's Your Emergency on a loop on the laptop and so to rest my weary mind body and soul.  As I lay on the sofa on the Monday morning, I found I could not disconnect my mind from all the things that it told me that I ought to be doing.  And if these things were not done, somehow I would be sucked into space and disappear into a black hole.  And everyone who was relying on me to do these things that I ought to be doing would look on with folded arms and a frown and say Well.  We gave her plenty of time.  She ought to have done those things and it is all her fault.  It was as if I had cleared the way for a stampede of nonsense in my head by carving out time in a busy life, for rest and recuperation.  I had removed all the obstacles in the way for a mental free for all.  I lay on the sofa last Monday morning and worried, fretted, bothered myself with myriad things that needed to be done as a matter of urgency.  Here is a list of the kind of things that became terribly important.
  1. Reading.  I have some light reading to take my mind off things and to entertain me.  You can't read those, said my mind, you have to use this time to catch up on all that other reading that is good for you!  If, said my mind, you don't read all of these books and articles you will never know anything and you are doomed to be useless for ever and people will know that you didn't read important things when you should have done so and it is all your fault that you are a flibbertigibbet.  
  2. Network!  If you don't contact people you have met, said my mind, they will not only forget about you, they will hate you and there are so many of these people you need a day to sort it all out.  And you have only today and so time is running is time for you to panic, thank you very much.
  3. Plan the Future.  I have some very good events and work to do until Christmas, but my mind wasn't having any of it.  After Christmas, it said, you will be completely ruined because unless you sort out all the details now about all your plans next year it won't be possible, none of it will, it is all going to be your fault because you have not done a pie chart, a flip chart, a plan, a list in bullet points, a power point (nooooo) or a risk assessment - it is time to get really agitated because it needs to have been done by midday today and there is no time.
  4. Confirm all the things that you are doing anyway.  I have everything nicely charted in my diary and on the various white boards that I keep in the kitchen and the studio, so that I know what we, Sons, Daughter, and I am doing and of course, what work I am doing.  My mind suddenly sat bold upright.  Goddamn!  It said.  Are you sure that you confirmed that work, that appointment, those commitments, are you sure?  You probably didn't and now you have to check them all out and re confirm but stop!  You will look like a fool for not remembering the first time if you really have made all these arrangements and what if you are wrong and yes!  Everyone will sigh and say, Be nice to her, she has Laurel and Hardy singing Way Out West on a loop in her head.
Day one, Monday, was spent battling.  As I lay on the sofa, unable to concentrate for more than five minutes on anything, a quote from one of my lovely American cousins popped into my mind.  This, said my cousin's voice, is a pile of old cummerbunds.  My cousin loves English sayings and had misremembered a load of old cobblers.  It is indeed!  I cried.  This is, undoubtedly, a pile of not only cummerbunds, but cobblers too!  And with that began my recovery.  Here is the reply, crafted on Monday afternoon and delivered on the Tuesday morning to myself;  the reply to the to the four points above.
  1. Shan't.
  2. Won't.
  3. Don't care
  4. Booh-bah.
And with that, the resting began.

Tuesday was much better.  I even found that there was not enough time in which to do nothing.  That was a very nice turnaround after my rather embattled Monday.  A pile of old cummerbunds, I whispered to myself, a pile of old cummerbunds.  Wednesday saw me at my Age UK lady (Darling, why exactly are you here?) and Thursday with my Daughter and then my Older Son in Brighton (Mum, let's have another meal.  Don't mind if I do, I am resting and recuperating.  Don't mind if I do.)

And so.  Friday today and what have I done.  I have done a week more or less on the sofa.  I have rested, I have gathered my strength and I have seen how if I am busy, I have to work at arriving at a point of being not busy.  It doesn't just happen.  I need, in the language of the psychologists, to wrestle busy-ness to the ground and sit on it's head.  And now, next week, and the weeks after, seem possible. 

On Monday, I am driving the A Graceful Death exhibition to Edinburgh to the annual event hosted by Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief held in the Chimp House of Edinburgh Zoo - look on the 14 November event on this website http://  This will be a very good event, and the people I have dealt with at Good Life Good Death Good Grief are very good people indeed.  On Thursday evening, I shall return home.  Almost at once, I shall start to illustrate a new book, a children's book about a witch called Isi, and I will paint the backlog of Angels that I have collected.  I will have a Soul Midwives meeting here on 27 November, and I shall speak to a lady who is researching compassionate communities about what is happening here, with our Soul Midwife meetings.  I will meet with Nigel, my dear Soul Midwife friend and colleague, about our working partnership and how we continue to work together.  And at all times, I shall effortlessly read and absorb all the documents and books that will inform me of Important Things, I shall network and remember people as if I am born to it, I shall find that planning the future is a doddle and I can do it in between emptying the dishwasher and calling Channel 4 and I shall merely glance at my timetables and arrangements with a knowing little chuckle, and know it is all up to date and so very sorted out that even thinking about it makes me give a teeny yawn.

It has been a week of hard work, staying horizontal on the sofa and eating a lot.  But I want you to know that I did it.  Against all the odds, despite all the anguish, and now - now, I have to get off it.  Good Lord, I didn't plan for that.

Friday 2 November 2012

Spirit of Caring Conference.  I Care!  I Care!

I arrived at the conference centre in Northampton at 5.30 pm last Tuesday, for the Spirit of Caring, Spirituality and Well-being in End Of Life Care conference, run by LOROS.  Cousin Maddy was waiting for me;  Cousin Maddy had arranged to take time off work and home to come and help me to set up A Graceful Death, she knows how much work there is in doing each exhibition and offered to help.  And she is good, very good, at setting up and thinking outside the box.  We set about unpacking the exhibition from the car into the room where we were to exhibit.  This is where being part of a conference is the bees knees.  The young man from the conference venue assigned to us to help with the setting up kept longing to bring light and joy into our lives - we would say, can we have a 23" screen to play the film on?  When he returned with a brand new one from the stock room, we would say, oh but may we have some really big earphones to go with it?  In purple?  And off he would rush to the stock room and come back with purple earphones.  We need some Chinese lamps and an elephant we would say and whoosh.  Off he goes to the store cupboard to get us a Chinese lamp and an elephant.  Maddy mentioned tea.  I'll get you some!  said our conference genie and off he goes to fetch a tray of tea in a teapot, milk, and so on.  There will be two more of us to help you tomorrow, said this glorious creature, and your wish is our command.  Good Lord, said Maddy, three conference genies!  Let us write a list and leave it on the white board so we remember what we want tomorrow.  I did this, and to remind me of why I wrote the list (more coloured pins, another small table, some display stands, a holiday home in the Lake District, all my Christmas shopping etc) I wrote it under the name of the conference genie on duty the next morning.  I hurried into the exhibition space at 8,30 the next day, as we only had a few hours to complete everything, only to find the genie had been in at 7am, seen the list, clicked his heels and gone off to find everything on it.  And then, he had more or less finished the display of brochures, fliers, tissues, stuff.  I walked in and everything had been done.  I saw you had left me a list, he said, and rushed to do your bidding.  Thank you conference genies.  May you come with me everywhere I go, and may my life always be this easy. 

We had spent till 1am, getting it all in order.  Or perhaps Maddy spent till 1am getting it all in order.  I unwrapped the bubble wrap, pointed to places, asked our conference genie to bring us a table, then another table, then some more tea, then to sort out the film to run on a loop on the big screen, and so on.  While Maddy, little creature that she is, was climbing onto tables to find ways of exhibiting my art in the best way possible for the exhibition and me, I helped her by telling her I was going to find some more drawing pins and that I needed to find a pen.  Maddy did a lot, and I helped her.

I wanted to help Maddy but someone had to take the photograph
The next day, after breakfast Maddy went to buy the flowers and came back with three bouquets and a carrier bag full of chocolate, which she said I needed.  I do need it, she is right, and I have been telling delegates here at the conference that if they come to the exhibition I have lots of chocolate and wouldn't that be nice for them?  I remember in the Harry Potter books, that the cure for a Dementor's visit was to eat some chocolate.  Maybe in some way I was saying Come to the exhibition, you will probably be upset but like in the Harry Potter books, you will be cured by chocolate.

All the time that we were setting up, I was aware that I still had to give my talk.  I was due to start the proceedings off at 2.30, and as the first speaker set the mood for the day.  Setting the mood for the day with paintings of death and dying, I reasoned, will be either a very good thing, or a very bad thing.  Maybe, I began to think, as Maddy worked hard and I ate chocolate, I have nothing to say.  Maybe I won't remember anything.  Maybe I never really knew anything anyway.  But we all know that is rubbish, and even if I don't follow a plan, even if all I do is tell stories of funny things that have happened to me while working with the dying, I can fill an hour.  I may be asked to leave the conference early, but it is not likely.  I did speak, and I did tell people what I thought of things, and then I showed some of the paintings on a big screen from my computer.  It was very effective.  I think it was quite hard to be in the audience and seeing these images for the first time, and I have had feedback that a few people were upset.  Maddy got up and said a few words too, because she has been on the AGD journey with me since the beginning, and also Sam Reynolds, Soul Midwife and dear friend, spoke of the use to which she puts images of the paintings in training her Care Home staff in Soul Midwifery.  Sam, and Paul Blaker (another Soul Midwife and friend) have set up a very simple and effective model of training for soul midwifery for carers and care homes.  Go to  and see.  Sam and Paul are inspirational.  Take it from me, and we now know that I can fill an hour not talking rubbish, so I am reliable and the boss.

Maddy left after the first day, having a life of her own far away from me, and I have been left here at this conference with old pals Sam and Paul, meeting new people and learning new things and having a very inspiring time.  The exhibition is here for the three days of the conference, I open it at 8am and closed it at 10.30pm.  It needs to be accessible to all the delegates who are busy attending talks and workshops, and can only get to it in fits and starts.  There has been a bit of feedback, and I feel that this set of people is different to those in other AGD exhibitions that I have had.  I wonder if it is because all of them are dedicated professionals working in palliative care, and many of them are from Universities, and they will need time to assess what they are feeling.  I will get feedback from the conference organiser and it may not be what I hope for, everyone will have to rate all the speakers and workshop leaders for the conference leaders to assess.  (Exhibition would have been better without the Chinese lamp and the elephant)  (First speaker needed to tell more jokes about working with the dying). Some people have come and talked about themselves and the work that they do, some have talked about liking the exhibition but only a few have a personal story to tell.  Interesting, most of the reactions are about a professional life, not about a personal life.  One lady wrote me a poem today though and I am delighted.  It has gone up on the Wall of Words instantly.  Only a few people have let their guards down and talked of themselves and how they are in relation to the exhibition and I consider those few to be very brave.  Given the nature of this conference - Spirituality and Well being in End of Life Care, with all the very dedicated professionals here, plus chaplains and those concerned with spiritual matters, it must be quite hard not to feel a little suspicious of other peoples take on end of life spiritual matters.  No one wants to be the first one to get beyond the professional persona and do the feeling thing.  So going into AGD in fits and starts is a rather helpful thing, it means you don't stick around too long and remember your granny or your brother who died, and let the side down by feeling a bit sad.

I have two new paintings for the exhibition.  Caroline Soar -

Caroline Soar.  Caroline's partner Bette has sent a love poem which I have added to this painting.  I knew Caroline, and remember when we talked about her being in the exhibition that she was so helpful with, none of us really believed we would do it.  It is strange that she is gone, and we did, after all, do a painting.  

Winnie being cared for by staff at Woodleigh Christian Care Home.  Sam Reynolds, the manager of the care home, and Soul Midwife, has trained all her staff in Soul Midwifery.  She requested this painting to show the love and care that her staff give to the residents at Woodleigh. 
Here I am then, in a magnificent conference venue in Northampton.  My room is double, huge, fancy and the bathroom large and all mine for the stay.  There are three cooked meals a day for us, and tea, coffee and water available around the clock.  I am treated with courtesy and kindness by all the staff (I sound disabled) and my dear friends Sam and Paul are here.  But I am very very tired.  I am in the exhibition doing my AGD thing from early morning till late at night, on top of which I have opened the conference with a talk that can only be called eccentric.  I love doing this, but I must remember to take time out or I will be greeting people in the exhibition and saying, You think you have problems?  Listen to this!  I got to bed after midnight and was up at 6 and there is no personal feedback in the exhibition and, someone ate the Mars Bar Maddy bought me.  So let's get this into perspective!

So now, I am writing this in bed, it is Friday morning, and it is time to start the day.  Tonight I pack up and go home.  It is my youngest son's 16th birthday today, and I am going to arrive at my 82 year old mother's house, where son is staying, late tonight with all my exhibition in the car, and gather him in my arms and tell him I love him.  He is 6'5" tall.  He will react as he always does, like a large puppy hound, and think Play!  Mummy wants to play!  and try his newest Judo move on me, over the shoulder and flat on the floor.  Back to normal then, I will say, as I fly through the air.