Sunday 8 December 2013

On Noticing that one is Ageing.

Eileen is with me this weekend.  She is sitting next to me on the other sofa, with her laptop, and between us are two trays of tea.  One for her and one for me.  The house is empty.  Giant Boy is with my cousin and his family, a long long way away in Oxford.  Fancy Girl has gone to Australia with her boyfriend, even further away than Oxford,  and my other son, Angry Boy who seems not to be so angry any more, is somewhere and still alive.

My lodgers, all of them, work at night (no, not like that) and are peacefully asleep during the day.  My newest lodger is passed out on her bed with the door open and is snoring peacefully.  She came back from her night duty at 8am and having got into her comfy pyjamas, put on a load of washing.  Only a half hour cycle, she said, I will wait till I put it all out to dry before I go to sleep.  And now, hours after the half hour cycle has finished, my lodger has still not moved from her room;  she lies on her bed where she fell, in her Eyore pyjamas, and from the open door comes the steady sound of deep snoring.  

There is peace in my house.  I am thinking about what to eat when I am next hungry, and am satisfied that whatever it is, I have all the relevant ingredients in the kitchen, and all is good.  It is nice to be old enough to have anticipated all my needs. 

I am thinking about ageing these days.

Me aged 40, taken by Eileen. I was a lot less wrinkly, a lot less sorted, and with my own hair colour.  
Eileen and I talked about it last night, she is thinking about it too.  I am 53 now, and though my inner life is constant and astonishing, my outer journey seems to have caught up with me.  I look in the mirror and see someone who really is 53.  I always thought I just looked like me, and worried only as to whether I was fat or thin.  Now I look at my skin and see it has aged and is puckered and falls in little wrinkles in places all over my body.  My neck has become looser and the skin is wrinkled.  My hands look like my mother's used to, bony and wrinkled.  It is not a question of fat or thin now, it is a question of fat or thin and older. Whatever my weight is, my body is still older.  Whatever I look like with my clothes on, without them, I am showing my age.  If I don't dye my hair, I am grey.  Goodness me, I say to myself, who is this lady in the mirror?  I know it is me because the eyes are looking at me as they have always done, but I am beginning to doubt the rest of the evidence.  I don't remember my chin changing shape like that, I don't remember my eyelashes becoming smaller, I don't remember all those lines showing up when my face is in repose.  I used to see lines only when I laughed, or frowned, or changed my expression.  Now I am looking at lines, deep lines, from my nose to my mouth, around my eyes, at the corners of my mouth, when I am not doing anything at all.  The face and body I have now is changing and taking me by surprise.

I have recently lost a lot of weight.  At last, I thought, I am the size I want to be.  Yum.  And with clothes on, I am just tickety boo.  But do we ever get to be the person we think we should be?  I have never really liked myself without clothes.  Even in the past when I was very thin and in my early forties, I saw deep imperfections.  I saw a body that was really quite unlovable, a body that didn't match up to the clothed version, a body to keep hidden in case anyone else saw it and was horrified.  How sad, I think now, to have been so wrong.  How sad, and what a waste. It shows much about my state of mind at that time, and I am sorry for that vulnerable, mistaken person with such a distorted idea of her worth.  Now, ten years and much experience later, I have again lost weight and achieved a good body shape, and this time I appreciate it but, my skin has changed.  I have varicose veins.  My stomach is completely shapeless after having had three such large children (Giant Boy was nearly 11lb, the other two were 9lb and 9lb 1oz).  There are no muscles there at all, it has always been a deflated balloon, but now it is even more obvious (to me) because the skin has become thinner and more marked.  And so, I am happy with my size, but concerned about the inevitable and obvious signs of age, and feel that you can never win.

Eileen was saying that women become less noticeable as they get older.  More invisible, was what she actually said.  How do I feel about that?  I feel sad.  On the other hand, what do I need to be noticed for?  It is much more important for me to be taken seriously as an Artist Extraordinaire than to have someone size me up with a gleam in their eye.  I don't want to be be invisible, I don't want to be too old to be attractive, and I don't want to be passed over.  I suspect that my feelings of attractiveness are changing too, and the fact that my body is becoming, quite naturally, the body of an older woman, has made me think of time, of what time I have left, of who I am and what I want.  Oh do we ever know who we are and what we want!  We do, we get an idea of both from time to time, but life is fluid and unexpected, and what worked for us once, may not work for us later.  Who we are and what we want develops, changes, moves on and does not stay static.  I am now, at 53, happy with my shape, and quite happy to stay this way.  But, I am aware that I am changing fast.  What was just a theory, the theory of ageing, is now a reality.  I will never go back to being younger.  Being this shape and older is good but the attention I receive is different.  I do not need nor want the same attentions as a younger woman, but I do want to be appreciated.  Eileen and I agreed that we want to be respected, and listened to.  I suspect that my best work is yet to come, which is a relief.  It's nice to think that as I grow old and start to become a prune, my work may become more and more interesting.

So here we are, Eileen and I, on our sofas, our combined ages are 106.  I look over at her and think she looks just the same as she ever does, and I am not asking her if she looks over at me and thinks the same thing in case she says No.  You are a wrinkled old bat, but you are very nice.  We will stop to have our lunch and then because we are old and wise we will go into the studio and Eileen will continue to edit her new film, and I will paint the first of the True Fairies that I have been working on.  No messing around for us.  Time is ticking, we have work to do.  I may be doing mine in smaller trousers (stretchy ones, they have to go over my varicose veins) and Eileen may look as she did to me when I met her at nineteen, but age is a funny old business, and it either spurs you on to do wonders, or it depresses you into doing nothing.

Me, thirteen years later, aged 53, taken by Alan who is twelve years older than me and doesn't make half the fuss.
And just to give it all some perspective

My mother.  At 83, she is beautiful and funny and old.  A good role model, and you can see where I get the tea thing from.

Saturday 30 November 2013

29 November Anniversary, and Much Mud.

Today is Steve's anniversary.  He died on the 29 November 2007 at 10am, and so I went to Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve to do something to mark the moment.  I mean this in a most healthy way, I was not meaning to go to the estuary and lie down in tears wearing my best wedding frock and let the tide wash over me.  I wanted to celebrate and remember, and feel good about our time together.

The landscape that most holds the memory of Steve for me.
I cycled to Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve a few days ago, only to find that it is the most beautiful place on earth.  I left the bike chained securely to a flimsy and unsafe old footpath sign, hoping that any bicycle thief would find it too difficult to cycle off with my bike dragging along behind it a weather beaten sign with a wooden finger pointing up into the sky saying This Way. Enjoy Yourselves.  This landscape above reminds me of Steve, it is the kind of place in which I imagine his spirit is happiest. Steve loved the sea, he loved boats and he loved silence.  Sometimes I thought he was only on loan to us, his place was far, far away from the bustle and noise of life.  One night, I caught him looking up into thousands of stars in the night sky, as he stood in his garden looking over the hills and fields, and I was struck with the knowledge that he was on loan here.  His place was amongst the stars. I had the same feeling when I saw him in places like this, with the ebb and flow of the tides, the birds flying overhead and only the silence and power of nature.  

Me and Steve, on loan to us for a while.
This morning, I put into my bag two bright tulips from a bunch that dear Alan had given me, some stones from the garden, some pieces of paper and a pen, and some matches. Leaving the bike chained again to the old battered wooden sign at the Harbour, I walked along the mud and sand banks, trying to keep to the path, through the puddles as the tide was out, until I found a piece of the estuary in which I could create a little ceremony for us.  I wanted to be ready at 10am, the time that he died. And so, at five minutes to ten, in a little spot amongst the sand and pools of water, I sat on a bit of grass and wrote on the paper, wishing him a happy anniversary, and thanked him for everything.  I wrote a good few notes and letters to him, with thoughts and news of my life, and hopes for the future.  I told that I loved him, and I asked him to keep looking after me.  As the wind was blowing fiercely off the sea, burning the letters wasn't possible, and so I left a circle of stones with the two red and white tulips in the centre as a memorial to us, and went off looking for somewhere to build a little cairn and burn the letters.

I found a space eventually in some overhanging branches at the side of the estuary.  It was lovely inside, like a mermaid's cave, with bits of seaweed hanging off the shrubbery around me.  In my little cave of branches, I sat on the sandy floor and built the cairn with the stones and rocks around me, and I burnt the letters, one by one, warming my cold hands by the tiny fire.  A robin red breast joined me from nowhere, and hopped from branch to branch only inches from my head, watching me and the fire with tiny beady eyes.  I spoke to it gently, telling it things about Steve, and explaining what I was doing.  It wasn't afraid of me, and stayed on a branch listening intently with its little head on one side.  We watched the fire die down, the robin and I, for a long time, in mutual companionship.  When eventually I decided to go, the robin had gone. I had not seen nor heard it fly away, it was just gone.

The tide was coming in as I walked back.  Without knowing the landmarks and not recognising where the path was, I found myself walking in the wrong bit of the estuary, into the sand and mud, and wham.  Over I go, my boots stuck in the sand, sinking fast and I sprawling in the mud making a right old mess of my coat, hat, gloves, tights, face, hair and nice white jumper.  Righting myself somehow and pulling out my boots in my stockinged feet, and realising that if I spent more than a half second at a time in the mud I would sink and join Steve amongst the stars, I waddled as best I could over clumps of seaweed that would be safer to stand on,  and arrived back eventually to the bank.  I looked like a creature from the black lagoon.  I had weeds in my hair, thick mud coating me, my clothes, my face, and up my nose.   I put my boots back on, displacing the mud inside with my feet, and squelched back to my bike.  I was wet, a few stone heavier with the mud, and very very cold.  This is all because of you, Steve, I thought.  I hope you're satisfied.  Last time I get sentimental on your anniversary, I felt like saying.  Next year, I shall have a cream tea in a comfy hotel and think of you there.  

Me coming out of the mud.  Not really, but similar.  
I rode home in style.  Today is the first day for my new lodger in the house, I wanted her to feel at home and safe on day one, and so I hoped she would be out when I arrived.  Of course she wasn't.  She was standing by the door.  When I said that I had fallen in the water and mud at Pagham Harbour, I could see that she thought that I was one of those odd posh arty types you read about.  "I do it all the time!" I could have said, picking seaweed from my teeth, "I like to jump into the quicksands at the estuary when I feel low, it always makes me feel better!  Gives one perspective!" and she would not have been surprised.

I am feeling better this week.  We have only one day left of November, and it is common knowledge that December will be my month.  It will all be lovely again.  November has been ghastly, and so obviously if November ends, it will end the ghastliness too.  Simples.  I am consolidating my 2013 by not making any intentional decisions until day one of 2014.  I am sitting back and waiting.  I am waiting to see what happens.  Instead of me going out to get things and do stuff, I am waiting for stuff and things to come to me.  Nice stuff and things, in December only nice things happen.  I am chilling, chillaxing, watching, thinking, pondering, and taking notes.  Life is too short, I read, to be always on the go.  Fine, I say, I shall be on the stop.  I am in transition.  I am in a limbo.  I am filling the empty vessel that is me, with time off and lots of nothing.  Actually, decisions will be made, they will happen when I am not looking and I will be pleasantly surprised that I have made them while thinking of something completely different.

Happy in my blanket in the kitchen gazing at the iPhone as Giant Boy plays me some of his French Rap music and I am reminded that I do not know what is going on and need more time.

To end now, on a happy note, I am going out with Alan tonight to the poshest of dinners at Amberley Castle.  We are dressing up, having bubble baths and putting perfume behind our ears (mostly me doing that) and ending the month of November in style.  From Shrek yesterday to Elizabeth Taylor today.  Roll on December.

Sunday 24 November 2013

On My Soul Calling an Experience for my Good.

We call to ourselves experiences that we wish to have for our growth.  Some say that there is no coincidence, there is only that which we create for ourselves.  We don't know on a conscious level much of which we cause to happen for our own growth, but deep inside, somewhere under all the cobwebs and the layers of self doubt and worry, our little souls shine like supernovas longing for the chance to experience all that will make them grow, and shine brighter, and cause us to move on and up in our worlds.

The experiences that we cause for ourselves are often difficult to understand.  Why would our deeply buried souls require unpleasant things to use for their growth?  How could our weeny little supernovas attract badness for our benefit, and how are we to understand and use these experiences so that we become wise instead of plotting revenge and ways to have the last word?  Don't know, is the answer.

I called to my soul, over the last few months, an experience that I cannot regret but I do not understand.  It is over now, though my heart hurts and my soul is trying to calm me, telling me that it is all for the best.  One day it will be clear, says my soul, that this was important and I learned much from it.  I would rather not, I say to my soul, life was going so well before you needed this experience.  Ah, says my soul, what have you got from it already?

I have got a glimpse of the power of love and life.  I took a risk, I did what Brene Brown calls daring greatly, and I agreed to go to places which were so seductive and wonderful, and at the same time, filled with danger and harm.  I accepted all of that, and followed my heart and soul into the arena, where I have done battle, and come away bloodied, sad and wise.  But while I have been trying to keep myself safe during this time in the arena, in order to carry on from day to day, the door that was closed into my creativity, opened.  See, says my soul, I sent you something to work with when this experience tuned sour.  Use this, all of this, this powerful emotion, this seemingly random madness, this deeply felt confusion, and make it work for you.  This is what I can do for you, and you will be better for it.  

Now, I am consumed with feelings.  I have not listened to music for many years, not wanting to have to address anything that would shake my resolve to be calm, to get on, to be safe.  Now, I am lost in music, lost in feelings, lost in feeling unsafe.  I want to feel my chest hurt, and I want to pour into it all the music that I can, I want to experience the feelings of loss, and power, and love, and misunderstanding, I want to feel the whole darn lot.  I want to write poetry, and create things that make others gasp and say, "Lord!  What turmoil!  How I feel it too!"  I want to dance outside in the mist in a nice dress, and have someone film it so that the result is so full of meaning that everyone that watches it says "Aaaah.  Mysteries, and life, and boy she must be lost in something big, and blow me down, but I am lost in something big too now ".  

A still from the film I have not made yet, and this is not me, obviously, but it is as mysterious and full of  unknowable feelings as one could wish for.  It is a photo of my troubled older son who has been locked in his own turmoil away from me, for however long it takes for him to come through and come back.  So having his photo as a still for a film not made, about his mother's turmoil, seems fine.  
The day that I closed the door on the experience was the day that the true fairy painting decided to be painted.  It was wonderful.  The wood on which she is being painted was primed, the paints were all ready, I knew she was wanting to come. I started to try and find her by painting her.  She changes and evolves each time I go back to her on the easel, she moves on, and manifests a different mood.  I am intrigued as to who I will find when I have finished painting her for that moment.  The true fairy will tell me that I am fine, and that I did the best I could.  She will tell me that she is from inside me, she is me, she will always be me.  For this, I am very grateful and as the dust settles, and time passes, I am beginning to rest a little and feel that I am safe again.  Sad, but safe.   And now I have the gift of the painting of the true fairy.  She could not manifest before, but she is in league with my soul, and has agreed that now is the time to make an appearance.  It was necessary, she says as I am painting her, you couldn't see me before.   I am here because you needed to find your feelings again, and you needed to come out of yourself, and want to make a film about you dancing in the mist in a sparkling dress to music, you needed to want to find a way to make me real so I could come and see you.

The true fairy aged one.  Fey, delicate, and proud.
The next experience my soul, shining brighter than ever before, is calling to it, is one of love and kindness.  When in the arena this time, and daring greatly again, I will dance with garlands of flowers in my hair, holding the hands of those who love me best.  

Saturday 16 November 2013

Planning a Me Centred December

I am back on the sofa, but not my usual one.  The other one.

My sitting room has two sofas, one by the window, and one by the door.  I usually sit by the window, but Fancy Girl is here for the week, doing last minute stuff for University, and she is sitting on my usual sofa by the window, in the sunshine.  I am sitting on the other sofa, and feeling very comfortable, and very gracious, allowing my usual spot to be taken by my daughter.  Her needs are greater than mine, I say to myself, but what I really mean is, she was there first and has occupied it.

I have come home from Bridport.  The exhibition is unpacked, sorted, and repacked.  The studio has been hoovered, and I have put a fluffy cushion on a chair there so I can sit and be ready for inspiration. All the jobs that have to be done have been done, and now I am sitting on the wrong sofa in my sitting room, with the sunshine coming in through the window, smiling brightly and feeling faintly out of my depth.

There is no time for the studio at the moment.  There is a surge of lodgers moving out, and new ones moving in.  Giant Boy is thinking about driving lessons.  Fancy Girl is doing her last minute Uni work and I have no real space to think.  I have returned from AGD in Bridport, with all the work and effort, all the rewards and engagements there, to Bognor where a different kind of world awaits me.  A world where, amongst other things to do with hoovering and washing and wiping with antiseptic wet wipes, a blind needs repairing, the laundry needs doing, Giant Boy requires some proper food and the garden needs help.  And so, sublime to the ridiculous.  The sublime is where I am working through the A Graceful Death exhibition and project, reaching people, asking questions, understanding things, sitting with the dying, with the bereaved, with the curious, being brave.  The ridiculous is dirty dishes being added to a clean dishwasher, piles of laundry, lots of bills to pay and wilted flowers in old water on the kitchen table.

November has been a difficult, exciting and rather confusing month.  And so, I have decided to take control.  I will make December into a caring, gentle, Antonia centred event.  December will be my month of space, of wilfully following my nose, of only sitting next to people who agree with and are very nice to me.  There will be space, a whole 4' at least, between me and any of my children, my family, my friends or other human beings who are in the same room as me.  I have a piece of  wood in the studio that is 4' long, I will hold it out in front of me, so I can keep all my dealings with other people at a safe distance.  I won't engage with anyone who is not at the end of my stick.  "No,"  I will say, "you are too close.  Let me poke you with my stick to a safe distance, and only then shall I deal with your communications."  There will be space between me and the studio, between me and the cooker, between me and answering the phone.  During December, I will wander aimlessly and happily around.  My favourite sentence will be, "Sorry, can't hear you," and my distance stick will make sure only the most dedicated keep going until I decide to hear them.

Fancy Girl on the wrong sofa, the right one for her, and still the mammoth last minute University assignment continues. My sofa, the right one for me and the wrong one for her, is free now and I am one step closer to a me-centred December
So now, I am sitting in a silent room, alone, with some scented candles and some roses.  One of my lodgers moved out today, and I have occupied her bedroom.  It will be a month till someone else moves in, and so, I have selected some deep pink blankets, some fresh sheets, some smelly candles and some roses from downstairs, and I have moved in.  It is a bare room, which is what I want.  It is really lovely in here, and I feel I may stay here until December.  Fancy Girl is sleeping in my room with me, and though I adore every little hair on her head, I need some space or I may kill someone.  Earlier on I did get onto the right sofa in my sitting room, Fancy Girl moved all her stuff onto the wrong sofa, which did not seem wrong to her, and we were very happy.  That was a small victory, leading to the gentle but swift occupying of the spare room as the lodger was leaving.  "Out of my way," I was thinking, "this is all mine now."  And so it is.  I am very happy in here, with the bare minimum of things and all my nice cushions and blankets.

My Decisions.

  • I shall do nothing until January.
  • Or February
  • Fancy Girl and her boyfriend are off to Australia in December, leaving me use of their flat.  I will go there to write.
  • I won't tell anyone about this
  • I may change my name in December and speak with a Welsh accent.
  • I may get a disguise for December.  I think a Fireman's uniform is a good one. If someone stops me and says, "Oh thank goodness! A fireman! I have a fire for you to put out,"  I will say to them, "I have a raging fire in my soul, which I need to address, and until that fire in my soul is under control, I cannot put out the fire in your wheelie bin."
  • I don't have to come out of this bedroom until five minutes before the next lodger arrives in mid December. 
  • Garlic sandwiches are fine.  It's not my problem.

I have been rushing ahead full tilt, feeling, as one does, invincible and rather unstoppable. "Pile on the events!" I said to everyone, "the more the merrier!"  I felt robust and inspired, and imagined that it was easy to put on as many AGD events as I wanted, to continue to work with people at the end of life and run the family, deal with the lodgers, try to lose weight, and do the hoovering.  It is absolutely possible to do those things, but not all the time.  No, not all the time.  If you decide to be a human dynamo with no down time built in, sooner or later all the springs and wheels and cogs will start to fly off and everything will grind to a bit of a halt.  I have lost count of the times my friends have told me of this.  I cannot imagine the amount of times I have reminded someone else of this, but do I listen to myself?  Or anyone else?  Do I hell.  And so, my cogs and wheels have pinged off into space, and I have had to stop.  Like the Duracell bunny who's battery has run out, but with more cogs and wheels.

To end this small and intimate blog, I will tell you that a) I have lost over a stone and a half.  I look the bees knees and will probably go mad now buying smaller clothes and wearing them at half hour intervals.  b) I'm fine really.  c)  Both Giant Boy and Fancy Girl have followed me up here with their dinners and are sitting very close to me on the bed asking me if I want to be left alone.  Sigh.

A snack to keep me going while I plan my Me Friendly Month of December,

Friday 8 November 2013

AGD, the AGD Elves, Soul Midwifery and Fluffbucket. A Huge Success in Bridport.

Eileen, the chief AGD Elf, sitting in a quiet moment at the Bridport AGD Soul Midwife Exhibition, at our tea tables.  There was a large amount of cake, flapjacks, teas and coffees for people to help themselves whenever they wanted, helping to ground us all if we needed it.
We, my team of AGD elves and I, had the most wonderful and exhausting exhibition of paintings, Soul Midwife workshops, talks, concerts, music, afternoon teas and deep and meaningful chats.

The AGD elves for this event need to be acknowledged and thanked for their cheerful and consistent hard work.  For their willingness to stay, to help, to take part, to anticipate and to communicate with the public who often needed to talk, and not least, for being nice to me even when I was so distracted that I could not finish a sentence.  And so -

The AGD and Soul Midwife Exhibition Elves Hall of Fame for Bridport November 2013

A big thank you to -

Eileen Rafferty - photographer and friend extraordinaire - quietly keeping everything going behind the scenes
Lizzie Hornby - musician, Unitarian minister, and friend - sweet hearted, efficient and enabling
Jackie Keogh - trooper! With chemo, picc line in your arm - funny, helpful, kind and supportive
Alan Bedford - experienced, kind, fearless - anticipating all needs and seeing to the details without fuss

The AGD and Soul Midwife Exhibition Contributers Hall of Fame, Bridport November 2013

A big thank you to -

Mandy Preece - for starting us all off with her Laughter Therapy Workshop. We needed this!  It was wonderful!
Felicity Warner - for coming to talk about Soul Midwifery, and inspiring new people in the art of gentle dying.  There were so many people who needed Felicity's words, and it was wonderful to have her with us.
Lizzie Hornby - For giving a concert on the Friday of her magical, wonderful and special music, for being so generous 
Jade Parsonage-Buck - for stepping in so gracefully and reading the AGD poetry like a star
Jane Saunders - for playing the harp like an angel on the Saturday afternoon amongst the paintings and afternoon teas
Sarah Weller - for once again giving a sound bath that knocked everyone's socks off.  For making us all laugh.

Setting up for Sarah's sound bath amongst the paintings.  Sarah didn't make us laugh here, it was all very serious and lovely.  She just does it at all other times.  She even calls Jackie "Fluffbucket."

Me and Jackie, aka Fluffbucket, having a quiet moment where I tell her my Grandfather worked for Cadbury's and I and my brothers got to eat all the reject chocolates.  This is the moment I told her Grandad brought home square cream eggs. Taken by Eileen, this is actually a still from a lovely little film she took of us having a chat in a lull at the exhibition.
A steady stream of people came to the exhibition, and there was much to talk about.  Our workshops took place downstairs in the White Room, where we had decorated it to look warm and welcoming.  There were sofas, colourful cushions, lights, candles and some of the more gentle and less challenging AGD paintings.  This is where Jade recited the poetry, I gave a talk on what I do, Lizzie played her concert, Mandy gave her Laughter workshop and Felicity did her Soul Midwife talk.  

The exhibition over the weekend, taken by Eileen.
I will tell you, in a minute, of the experience of one of our visitors.   

There was more than one result for the exhibition in Bridport.  The effect of the paintings is always important with the feelings, responses and emotions that the exhibition stirs up. We care greatly about this, and try to give time and space to those that may need it, and to listen to those who want to talk.   At this event, there was the added bonus of the Soul Midwife connection. The joy of the Soul Midwives meeting each other again, to do their workshops and talks, to visit the exhibition for the first time, to catch up on each others news, and to have Felicity who started it all with us, was wonderful to see.  It was a powerful exhibition because of input of the people involved.  Everyone was able to offer something profound, which added to the atmosphere.  Death and dying is not an easy subject, the paintings are challenging and some of the stories are really sad.  The films we show are true and real, and make us stop and think about how precious our lives are.  There is much love and life too, in A Graceful Death.  There is even laughter and joy.  The presence of the Soul Midwives, those who worked over the weekend with me, and those who came to visit, lifted the spirits of all who came and raised the energy of the whole event.  

Before the exhibition began, I was contacted by a lady I had never met.  She told me she was coming to make a weekend of it.  At the opening event, she introduced herself and after a while, told me that she was coming because she needed to bridge a gap between the last few weeks, at home, after suffering a miscarriage, and going back to work.  She loves her work, but felt that her miscarriage had taken her into a separate and private world of grief and sadness, and she was not sure how to move on from there.  She told me she would take from the weekend what she needed, and that she would know what that was.  I was very moved by her sadness and bravery.  

This lovely young woman attended everything on the Friday and on the Saturday.  After Felicity's talk on Saturday afternoon, from which she gained a great deal of comfort, I asked her how she was. She told me that she was ready to make that transition.  She had, she said, created the perfect life inside her, and then had created the perfect death.  She miscarried the baby at home, over some time, and she and her husband gave it a Viking funeral.  I asked her why she had come to such an event, after experiencing such a terrible thing.  I told her that she was very brave.  She replied that she had been afraid of being with other people's pain, but had come anyway.  What she had wanted was to link everything, her experience of loss, of work, of life, and grief, back to work again.  Her miscarriage, she said, was the loneliest grief. You cannot prepare for it.  She had known that she had to come, and was willing to see what she would learn.

After Felicity's talk, my lady had taken huge comfort and had felt that she had created both life and death, and honoured both, and that she had an innate knowing about death that she could tap into.  And instead of finding herself afraid of experiencing other people's pain at the A Graceful Death exhibition, she had found it a place full of love and warmth.  My new friend finished by saying that she was aware of a heart and mind connection, and at the moment, she was able to leave her head space to live in a heart space, and work from there.

After two days, she decided that she had got what she needed, and left.  I asked if I could use her story for the address I was giving the next day, Sunday, at the Unitarian service, and she agreed.  I think her story is a very poignant example of how A Graceful Death can work.  It can be what you need.  This time, there were a good many of us who had worked with the dying, and the bereaved, and were able to create a safe space for those who needed it.  I am grateful to this young woman, and send her love.  Maybe, I will put a little pot of flowers dedicated to the baby at the next exhibition.  I don't think she will mind.  She told me the name of the baby, and I will name the flowers for the little one.  

Candle by the Prayer and Memory Bowl at Bridport AGD Soul Midwife Exhibition last week.  Taken by Eileen.


Coming up next, fast and furious, hot on the heels of the Bridport AGD Soul Midwife exhibition, next weekend -

A Graceful Death presents a weekend of a Sound and Toning workshop, and One to One Astrological Soul Readings, at my house in Bognor Regis,  

  • A Sound and Toning workshop on Saturday 16 November from 2 - 4 pm, afternoon tea afterwards with discussions and talking.  £10 for the afternoon.
  • One to One Astrological Soul Readings on Sunday 17 November.  Each session is 45 minutes long, and very focussed on you.  You will understand so much about who you are, Sharon's Soul Readings are amazing and enlightening, and Sharon herself is deeply perceptive and intuitive.  Her Astrological Soul Readings are always very popular.  
  • Contact me on to book your session.  Each session is £35.  Sessions start at 11am.  Book soon as Sharon will only be able to do up to five sessions, as they are long and intense and wonderful.  And there is tea and cake included, as usual, all the time.  
Both workshops are run by my dear old friend Sharon, a Transpersonal Psychologist and Sound Healer.  Here she is -

"Sharon Galliford MSc a Transpersonal Psychologist and Sound Healer. Her work is rooted in her love of understanding the connections we all have to our inner knowing and intuition. She has a passion for assisting people through these tumultuous times as they realign themselves to the changes taking place in their lives. Sharon runs regular facilitated support groups, workshops and private client sessions in Lightwater, Surrey.

This weekend of Sound and Toning, and of Astrological Soul Readings is held at my home in Bognor Regis.  Email me at the above address to book your place at either or both of the workshops.

A donation from the proceeds will go to A Graceful Death exhibition and project.  I am very grateful, thank you.


I want to leave you with a small clip of Jane playing her harp in the exhibition area.  She plays it so gracefully.  It added a certain something else, something poetic and lovely, to the afternoon, and you can tell by the way everyone is tucking into the tea and cakes, that they think so too.  Jolly good harp, they are all saying.  Gives one an appetite.   


And finally.  The day Eileen and I left for Bognor Regis again, the car died.  A death of a different kind, and before we could get out and film it, the AA arrived and put in a new battery.  So the car got away with a near death experience, and did not have to join the exhibition after all.

Saturday 26 October 2013

A Graceful Death and Soul Midwife Exhibition in Bridport. Come. We know where you live. Next Weekend.

A family at a recent AGD exhibition.  
We, Lizzie, Eileen, Jackie and I open the exhibition on Friday 1 November, at 10am, and from that moment on, we will be going with the flow, hoping to see you all, and being excited about everything.

There is our dedicated website here -

This website tells you all what is happening, when, and with whom.  What it does not tell you is that my new Hungarian Lady Lodger is making us some fabulous brownies, in bulk, to use for our afternoon teas. She is going to provide you all with brownies that will make you realise how alive you really are. Recently she was spotted cooking in the kitchen and we all kept an eye on her, as the smells were wonderful.  Later on, she let us try a bit of the chocolate brownies that she had made, and we all vied to become her best friend after that.  So now, she has agreed to make a lorry load for AGD, and for you, from Friday onwards.  The website does not tell you that we are looking for fairy lights to hang outside in the bushes at the entrance, so that you will be welcomed into a magical exhibition which we all know, is not magical, but has much love and passion in it.   Nor that we are going to burn beautiful smelling candles, and that we will create the most lovely exhibition. We will be challenged.  We will talk about death and dying, there will be difficult moments, but you will be held lovingly and kindly throughout, and there will be just as many jolly, happy and satisfied moments, moments of insight, of understanding, of acceptance and of sadness and remembering. 

You have seen this photo before, it shows the entrance to the Chapel in which AGD will be set up.  I want to put lights out here, in the November darkness, to welcome you all in.
The exhibition space in the Unitarian Chapel in the Garden in Bridport.  Lizzie and I being thrilled in the Summer with it. Still thrilled in the Winter (thank goodness)

Here, just to remind you, despite you having already clicked on the AGD Bridport website link above and thoroughly memorised everything, is the agenda.  I am so happy to have such excellent Soul Midwives at this event too, and hope that you will come to take part in their workshops and talks. 

  • Friday 1 November   10am Exhibition Opens. Exhibition free, donations accepted.
  • 11am stalls open.  Cards, CDs, earrings, Graceful Gifts memorial items, books, gifts.
  • Teas, coffees, cakes and buns available up in the exhibition area.  Donations accepted.
  • 7pm - 10pm Friday, Open Event.  I will introduce AGD and speak a bit about working with the dying through art and what effect it has on them and me.  There will be readings of some wonderful poetry from the exhibition, and best of all - a piano concert by AGD Composer Lizzie Hornby.       
  • Saturday 2 November 10 am exhibition opens. Teas, coffees, cakes, goodies upstairs.  Stalls open too.
  • 10am - 11am Laughter Therapy Workshop with Mandy Preece. Mandy is a practicing Soul Midwife teacher and practitioner. Mandy is an experienced, gentle, much loved and in demand Soul Midwife.  £5.00 on the door.
  • 2pm  - 3pm What is Soul Midwifery by Felicity Warner.  Felicity is the founder of the Soul Midwife movement, and lives locally near Bridport.  I trained with Felicity a few years ago, and have not looked back since. Felicity is inspiring.  Felicity has worked tirelessly to help change the culture of how we let people die, and is a kind, sweet hearted and gentle soul who will not take no for an answer.  She is an author too.  £5.00 on the door
  • 3.30 - 4.30 Harp music played in the exhibition space by Jane Saunders, musician and Sound Therapist.  Jane is a wonderful funny kind and talented musician, and brought her ukulele to my house recently to play some reggae songs.  Of course it was barking, but fun.  Tea and cakes will be on sale and you can rest amongst the artworks with Jane playing her harp to soothe and charm you.
  • Sunday 3 November exhibition opens at 10am
  • 11am - 12pm  Service in the Unitarian Chapel, led by Unitarian Minister Lizzie Hornby, and a bit by me.  I am delighted to be able to take part with Lizzie, and hope I keep up with her.
  • Bring and share lunch for all, time to chat, to meet, chat, chill and to see the exhibition with a sandwich in your hand. The exhibition is held just behind the chapel itself, up the stairs.  
  • 2pm - 3pm Sound workshop and sound bath by Soul Midwife and Sound Therapist Sarah Weller, up in the exhibition space.  Everything provided, just turn up and be amazed.  Sarah is wowing everyone with her Sound Baths!  We love Sarah, she works a lot with AGD, and also takes her gongs and bowls to all places for all people all the time.  Sarah is also a Soul Midwife.
  • 4pm the exhibition closes.

Gentle much missed John Horne, part of the AGD exhibition.  It is his daughter and granddaughters that are looking at the painting at the beginning of this blog.

I travel down with Eileen on Thursday and with Lizzie and Jackie's help, we will be making the exhibition as memorable, as effective, and as welcoming as possible.  The setting up is always a total act of creation.  We often are not allowed to touch the walls, and so have to find other ways of displaying the paintings.  I propped them up on piles of old books against the walls once, in a lovely old room that was used as a tearoom, in a big old manor house.  If we can't use the walls, I have ways of adapting the exhibition so that it still greets you, still works and is strong enough to speak its message. In the Chapel in the Garden in Bridport, I will have a lovely large room in which to play, a staircase, a lobby area and a separate room where we will be holding the workshops and Lizzie's concert on Friday night.  I will be displaying the new paintings of Mike and Julia with MND, of Claire and Kate Granger with Cancer.  I hope I can play the films of Julia, of Mike, and the AGD film made by Neill Blume too.  We are expecting Mike to come on Friday, and hope it is possible.  

This is Lizzie's piece composed for the exhibition, called A Graceful Death. The left hand plays the notes as if they were a heartbeat.  At times in the piece, the heartbeat fades, becomes irregular, and then starts up again.  Lizzie's creativity amazes me, and her adaptation of the AGD message into her music, is an example of how clever I think she is.  Lizzie will be playing this and more, on Friday night, at the Chapel in the Garden Unitarian Church, East Street, Bridport.  £10 on the door, and a glass of wine and nibbles included.  You will, of course, have access to the exhibition and be able to talk to us all.
You are all welcome.  We hope to see you there, we look forward to meeting new friends, and seeing our old ones, and hearing what you think both of the exhibition, and of the end of life in general.


And So.

A snap shot of this afternoon.  I sit, as I do, on my sofa.  Outside my window, the guard hollyhocks are smacking passers by in the face as usual and the wind and rain are making them even more unpredictable (hollyhocks, not passers by).  Giant Boy is lying in a pair of jeans only, on the sofa opposite, eating pasta loudly and listening to South Park through headphones on his laptop.  His legs hang over the end of the sofa from the knees and he is so obviously a baby dinosaur, that if I was not used to him, I would wonder how on earth he is kept fed and exercised.  This dinosaur is laughing loudly every few minutes and I am trying not to react because the only other way for him to pass his time is to practice judo on me.  I don't want to bring myself to his attention.  We have a mantra here for when he gets too enthusiastic, "Mummy is for loving, friends are for hitting."  When he is longing to throw me over his shoulder and when he gives me a wooden stick with which to hit him so he can fend off the attack with quick Bruce Lee type moves, I have to shout very loudly "Giant Boy!  Mummy is for loving and friends are for hitting!" and then I run.  

He is on half term now and has told me he will be here 24 hours a day until next Monday.  Giant Boy doesn't go out much, he is a home bod and wants nothing more than to see his mother fly through the air between meals.  However, his mother is going to Bridport on Thursday, and won't be back till next Monday.  He may have to find the Hungarian Lady Lodger and give her some Judo instead.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Are We Ready to Talk About Dying?  

An article written by Katriona Feinstein from the AGD talk and exhibition at the Brighton School of Medical Science.

Bognor Regis artist Antonia Rolls opens up the conversation on death – and the result is surprisingly positive
I am sitting in a brightly-lit lecture hall in Brighton and Sussex Medical School, watching a woman use a green LED torch light to show areas of interest on a picture of a dead man.  She draws our attention first to his still-moist lips and then to the bright spots on his jaundiced, sunken eyes.
This is no medical demonstration.  Our speaker is no woman of science.  She is Antonia Rolls (left), full-of-life, self-professed Artist Extraordinaire.  The picture is in fact a painting – hers – and in it she has depicted her beloved partner’s emaciated face minutes after his death, framed by a golden halo.
I was not sure what to expect.  Like many, I am used to thinking of death as something we all know is there, waiting in the wings, and that, probably, the best thing we can do is just to keep it quiet.  Like an uncomfortable shared secret we know we’ll all be forced to listen to, loudly, at some point or another.  Why not put it off until then?
Antonia is on a mission to show us this attitude is not helping. 

Antonia Rolls’ partner Steve, the inspiration for A Graceful Death, whilst dying of liver cancer in 2007.
It all started for her in 2007, when her partner, Steve, was dying from liver cancer.  Bewildered and angry, she did what she knew best and painted the last few weeks, days and the actual day of his death, “with no other aim than to survive and understand this terrible loss.”  She never expected anything to come of these painfully honest depictions.  “I didn’t think anyone would want anything to do with me if they saw them,” she said with typical wry humour as she showed us the first image of Steve’s deteriorated form.

A Graceful Death – Paintings from the End of Life, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, 3rd October.
But in 2009, she summoned the courage to put on a small exhibition of the works in her house.  To her surprise, strangers and friends turned up and responded passionately to her illustrations of the end of life.  Most importantly, she found amongst her visitors a common desire to talk about their own experiences.  “I learned a huge lesson that day,” she said.  “Everybody has a story to tell.”

And now, Antonia tours the country telling the stories that people want told.   Since those early days, A Graceful Death has grown to include commissioned paintings of both dying and dead subjects, in addition to “Survivors” – those bereaved, or those who have endured a life-threatening illness.  At her exhibitions and talks she tells each person’s story in charming and poignant detail, helped by poetry and snapshots of that person’s life and death, written by their loved ones.  

Her aim is to start a conversation about death and create a space where people can share their feelings on this often-avoided subject. 

“I don’t want to die!” she admitted readily during her talk.  “It’s the biggest unknown.”   But it is as much a part of everyone’s life as all the rest, she said, and accepting death is fundamental to having an easy one. 
In East Asia, Confucian philosophy helps death to be thought of as an inevitable part of Destiny.  A man’s death can be considered less final through a belief that his family will constitute a continuation of his self.  However, as Antonia pointed out, in our more individualistic western cultures, we do not have a tradition of acceptance and we tend to fear the topic.  She believes we all have to deal with death at some point and most of us, through dodging thinking about it for years, suddenly have to go through a “crash course” on how to cope whilst at our least able to do so.  She wants to use A Graceful Death to show that it is not wrong to talk about death, to cry, to get upset and to laugh.  “There’s a lot of laughter in the exhibition,” she said, with a smile. 

The wit and candour with which she discussed her own gruelling experiences illuminate each of her paintings.  Her simple diptych, ‘Alone with Tea’ (left), portrays herself, desolate after her partner Steve’s death but with a teapot and mug by her feet.  She writes in the paintings’ description that here she is taking solace in the fact that “there is still tea.”  

Then there is the story of Hiram Burnett (right), a real character, strongly disliked by all of his children.  On what was to be his final day alive, Hiram’s daughter Cecil decided to visit him in hospital after a long time apart.  There Cecil finally realised that although she did not like her father, she loved him totally.  She asked him if she could take a photo and he instantly pulled the cheeky face seen here in Antonia’s painting. 

Walking around the cold and fluorescent lobby of the Medical School, I could not help but be touched by these stories.  Each person (or cat!) was given his or her own small, personalised section.  Antonia’s great skill was to give each life a sense of truth and immediacy, through boldly-painted facial expressions and intimate accounts from families.  The cherished slippers, rubber ducks and tiny perfume bottles hiding cosily in each painting were symbols of each of these subjects’ rich, various and funny existences.   I found an inescapable feeling of brief closeness to each one.

And yet death as a topic can still seem too raw to seek out.  I was told that some who had booked to come to the exhibition could not face entering the building.  It is certainly true that a few of the paintings are uncomfortable and haunting.  One in particular shows Steve in the bath with rubber ducks.  She writes that here the illness had taken hold of him and he had slipped into another place mentally where she could not reach him.  He looks frail, uncertain and lost.

I asked Antonia why people want to be represented in their dying states.  Would their families not want a painting that reminds them of the good times?  Are there not photos from their youth that could be painted?
In spite of what society expects, “dying people do not want to go and die quietly in a room somewhere,” she replied.  “Until they are dead they are very much alive and they each have a story to tell.”  Many of them want to be seen, she said, and this is why they or their loved ones have approached her to ask for paintings from the last stage of life.  I was surprised to learn from conversations with audience members later that it is also not uncommon to take photographs at funerals, in order to chart the very last part of a loved one’s story.  They saw it as part of the acceptance of death.

And what does Antonia get out of doing this work?  “Painting someone who is dying and disappearing before your eyes helps to keep a connection with them even though they are changing and moving off to another place.”  After this helped her through Steve’s death, she said it “seemed right somehow” to move on to painting others.  “It is the most humbling and inspiring, and sometimes very difficult, way to paint…  It has changed my life because now I try to understand what I have, not what I have not.”
Although the subject matter may seem the heaviest, the hardest to understand and the most frightening, Antonia’s talk on her work for A Graceful Death and as a “Soul Midwife” (a spiritual and emotional companion for the dying) was in fact uplifting and cathartic. 

The audience watched in sharp silence as Antonia interviewed Mike Hardy, an ex-headmaster severely disabled by Motor Neuron Disease, and Michelle, his wife.  Mike was supposed to attend the evening but after 11 years of living with the disease, he had recently become unable to travel and was forced to appear by pre-recorded video.  “He never gets any better,” his wife said during the taped interview, “only ever worse.”

Despite such bleak content, the video and talk actually united the audience – which was an eclectic mix of medical students, doctors, mourners, clergymen and art enthusiasts.  The evening was not academic or particularly philosophical (apart from encouraging openness).   It was an appreciation and discussion of a spiritual experience that never became over-sentimentalised or centred on religion.  Its focus was our entirely human reactions to death and our shared ability for resilience.  In the context, it became life-affirming to watch Mike and Michelle chat on film about carrying on with their lives as normally as possible and Mike continue to tease Michelle through his computer-operated voice, as he always had done when able-bodied. 
After the talk, most audience members turned to their neighbours and asked them questions or comforted them if they seemed upset.  One woman talked to me about her brother who had died young and I, usually reticent on such matters, found myself telling her about the song they had played at my grandfather’s funeral. 
I would highly recommend A Graceful Death as an unusual and unexpectedly uplifting experience. 

A Graceful Death – Paintings from the End of Life
Upcoming events:
1st-3rd November: A Graceful Death and Soul Midwife Exhibition, Unitarian Church, 49 East St., Bridport, Dorset, DT6 3JX.
16th-17th November: A Graceful Death and Sound Therapy Workshop, 113 Marshall Avenue, Bognor Regis, PO21 2TH.
7th December: A Graceful Death and Gentle Therapy Day, 113 Marshall Avenue, Bognor Regis, PO21 2TH