As I stare into the camera with my long hair framing my face, there is a light side and a dark. My eye traces the silhouette of the beautiful left, and in her softly refined cheekbone curve to the jaw, I don’t see me any more. Mum is looking back from the screen, directly meeting my gaze. She is in me, and my portrait won’t let me forget; she is watching me.
It is her youthful beauty channeling through the light side of my face, wondering what I will do next. I search for condemnation in her pupil; does she mind the way I write about her? I find only a questionning, a look that is checking.
The light side is only a sliver the width of an eye; grossly out-proportioned by the shadow. The darker part is tired and pasty, baggy-eyed; wearing the weight of my worry like the picture of Dorian Gray. It is real life lived, completing a model with stories to tell. Only squinting can I shed the ugliness to reveal a blurry pretty me/my Mother all in one.
In Victoria Rance’s class I agreed to sit, on Zoom, finally giving in this term. Yesterday evening an experienced class drew me in Steve’s clean studio space. This morning I was at home in Brockley for beginners.
Last night was my first good night’s sleep in the last four. Returning to my own bed with its double mattress all to myself, helps to reboot my insomniac system. I spread out luxuriating, stretching my limbs to each corner as far as they’ll go. I feel the cracks in the walls, the raw plaster above my head, the drafty windows and their damp underside; pictures on the walls telling pieces of my history (my sister calls my home ‘the museum’) and my bones know they are home. I haven’t had a home this long in my life ever till now, and I know its value. Not just in terms of housing benefit. It is a sanctuary.
In the afternoon I met one of my oldest friends on the Heath. We talk about how we are different when we are spending time in our homes alone, to when we are staying with our partners. She has a similar set-up. Sometimes coming home is a reconnection with self, and this is something we hadn’t always realised in our lives. Now in our 40s it is really clear; but when we were younger, we didn’t always notice the disconnection.
Here is a short video I shot yesterday in Bowers Marsh, close to where Steve lives. I was very tired and spontaneous; it’s a bit rambly, but honestly I love the ambience! It wouldn’t be the same on a grey drizzley typical day, but here in gorgeous Spring sunshine, something is working. It continues from yesterday’s theme of sex and connection.
My counselling classes became the highlight of my week, getting to know a reasonable cross-section of people from my area. Women outnumbered men, and there were not people in their 60s and older, but otherwise there was a fair amount of diversity. The teaching of the course had to be covid adapted to ensure safety as far as possible. That meant some mask wearing, distancing, tables and chairs disinfected before the class, and a one way system around the building.
We got used to checking-in, in a big circle at the start of each class. Sharing where we were at, how we were feeling and what had been going on for us. We also got to practise little sessions of counselling each other, taking it in turns in small groups. It requires being open with strangers and in some ways you may experience a fast-track of getting to know each other. To do this course at any time could be transformative, including the accompanying regular journals and a couple of essays. In a pandemic and a lockdown, it was heightened, because we were spending more time with each other, than many of us were with our families and other loved ones. During the Autumn term the course occupied me substantially – practically, emotionally, even spiritually. I mean I engaged on a pretty deep level, probably because I am familiar with being open in performances. As well, unlike most class members, I wasn’t working much nor do I have a family to look after, so I had a lot of space and time for the course. I never missed a class, and I enjoyed learning about the theory of counselling and history of its development, really appreciating being able to borrow books from the college library.
The course teaches some useful ideas and techniques, about how to listen and respond; how to improve one’s empathic connection with others. While some of that capacity is innate, it can be developed. I think the course could be helpful for many many people. I discovered during my time on the course, that several of my friends had done it, or a version of it at some point in their lives. Some had pursued it further, all the way to become counsellors, but most had simply found it useful personally or towards other vocations. I could see why. In a small yet profound way, it can teach you how to do some therapy on yourself. It could help you notice issues you weren’t so aware of, and re-assess your self-image, perhaps with an openness to development. It can subtley alter the way you relate with others, in a positive way.
This was all very good stuff and for a few months I thought how fortunate that the pandemic had afforded me this opportunity I would otherwise not have considered, and which turned out to be so fruitful. Our class were blessed to have a very sweet tutor who made us all feel so welcome and that she was interested in us. At least that was my experience, and such an attitude is exemplary of what we learnt to call ‘unconditional positive regard’, a required element of being an effective counsellor, according to the person-centred approach.
The teacher is very important on a personal level with this course I thought, as in the students’ journals and essays, they must open up about intimate aspects of their lives and personal histories. These things are not revealed to the other class members necessarily, but the teacher holds the whole class together. It was a very special experience, and I realised I found it healing because I had not felt so comfortable or ready to open up at university or drama school. So my last experience of education was not so ideal. With drama, similar to counselling, you do have to get on with the other students for it to work well. They are not subjects you develop particularly in isolation. Except perhaps for downtime in between, absorbing what has been learnt.
Sometimes I compared notes with my friends who’d studied counselling before. In what ways were their courses similar to mine, and what had they found difficult? In respect of the latter, one artist friend who’d gotten far further in the training than I, observed acutely, that as an artist her responses to case study examples given on the course, were not always what was considered correct. Her vision was perhaps too wide, when a more selective perspective may be sought to usefully apply counselling in our society.
Ethics are a set of guidelines and some rules; and I too struggled with taking on some of the practice. The confidentiality breach which requires breaking the confidence of a client because they mention certain elements of danger or illegality, for example, means that some people living outside the law, may never reasonably open up to a counsellor. They might simply have been born into that predicament, but then they are easily trapped there. I remembered coming across such characters in my past, and their absolute fear of social services. It’s not an easy issue to resolve; there has to be safeguarding for a lot of good reasons. But I couldn’t help identifying with those isolated on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps my empathy was not the right sort?
It became apparent that taking such a stance may not be helpful, and possibly made me less relateable to other class members. On the other hand, talking about the issues, opening up that conversation was valuable for us and I felt supported. Level 2 is just a very beginning towards counselling so I had a lot more to learn. After Christmas it was all online and the transition felt awkward for me. I easily completed that first level (oddly number 2), but found building trust and further connections really challenged online, so decided not to continue. It had been an extremely valuable, precious encounter that would stay with me. For now, however, I felt called to return to art, and the garden!
I have been writing that my first performance was 12 years ago. That’s not strictly true. On my drama school course, in 2004 I created a 20 minute piece as a final project. It was in a way, a very early version of ‘Growing Roots’, drawn from the same material. It had even involved an ex-boyfriend of mine from the time of the narrative, so that he could tell some of his story too. I think I probably wanted some solidarity, because it felt scary and brave to be so open at that time. I do have a recording of that show somewhere, but it’s one of those things I find cringey to watch now! I was still so relatively early on in my processing of the events I was describing. Some things just take years.
Just now I watched a documentary film by Benjamin Ree called ‘The Painter and the Thief’. Two paintings by a Czech woman artist – Barbora Kysilkova – living in Norway, were stolen from a gallery. When the thief is caught, she gets to know him and develops a friendship. He becomes her muse, and she gets to know something of the mind of a junkie to the extent that both grow considerably from their bond. His ways were familiar to me; he reminded me of people I used to know. Seeing the film I identified strongly with the protagonists. It made me think – after writing this post it seemed to encapsulate my feeling – I would rather be free as an artist to build friendship or artistic connection where I am drawn to with whoever, than have to operate by the rules of the confidentiality breach. There are other ways too in which one may have to curb potential friendship in a counselling relationship, in order to be professional. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that (or ever will be). I feel like, because of who I have been, I must keep myself open, and not attempt to consent to a system of rules that could crush part of my spirit. I think that sounds harsh, and there are lots of amazing artist-counsellors out there, and counsellors who know how to negotiate these straits without compromising their soul. But for me that’s what I feel for now. Very likely, if the course had stayed in the classroom, my experience would be quite different.
On the course I reflected about how I have had therapy a couple of relatively brief times in my life. It made a difference in a gentle way, and when I was in my final year at drama school, it did support my stability. At this time it was part of a sort of informal package, because it took place at a centre which held a women’s day on the same day. Fortuitously I didn’t have a class that day and was able to connect with lots of more diverse women than at college, in a healing, supportive environment. I think that aspect helped just as much as the counselling itself, but for sure the counselling was a backbone.
How do we stay relevent in lockdown? I feel for the doctors, nurses, hospital and other medical staff who have been pushed to their limits and exposed to the highest risks, on the frontline of the pandemic. All the essential workers; and some who lost their lives as a result. Many are not paid or appreciated enough. They weren’t or aren’t looked after properly for a long time, and I wonder how the teachers are now. There are other jobs too that keep the wheels of society’s machines oiled, like my partner working for the council. They don’t all have to leave the house, but they are needed, and often their workloads have increased in the stressed circumstances of the changeable pandemic.
Being an artist can feel like a luxury that is not strictly needed, along with other jobs and roles not deemed necessary enough for the risk to be accommodated. Some have been able to thrive or at least get by, making their work online instead. There are advantages, but so much is missed that way as well.
I was a bit lost in the Summer, unsure what to do with myself. Really allowed myself to feel the emptiness, the gap in my life where work had been. I’d gotten a lot from gardening earlier on, at a time when things felt so scary we weren’t sure which way the world might go. But the garden had been sorted, and was just busy quietly growing vegetables. Beyond a bit of watering and harvesting each day, it was taking care of itself.
If I wasn’t going to make my work online, then what? Sensing I needed a focus, Steve suggested I go to college; study something. When he said that, there was just one thing I thought I’d like to do. There are lots of subjects I’d like to know more about but wouldn’t require going to college. Training to be a counsellor however, seemed like something I could either do, or make use of in my work in a more artistic medium, so I looked up the options.
I wanted somewhere local so I may benefit from in-person teaching if it was possible. The local Higher Education college a couple of streets from where I live had an open day imminently, where it was possible to enrol. I booked a place to check out the Level 2 counselling skills course, and during the day I spent there, much of it waiting or filling out forms, I did enrol. Something new was going to happen and I was excited! I’d had to complete a 500 word essay as part of the application process, and sat in an empty art room alone, describing a period of change in my life. It flowed out without hesitation, and I thought, I could get into this subject. I’d just written a 4000 word blog post about gender inclusivity, so this felt like a picnic.
When it came to the actual enrolling, after a long queue, the guy who saw me asked about my employment situation and finances, and quickly surmised I was eligible for a free place. This was going well. The thing that absolutely sealed the deal, much more important than the fee in fact, was this course would be taught in-person. I was thrilled. I would be in a class with other students and a tutor once a week for 5 hours, over 18 weeks. That was an enriching prospect and I was looking forward to learning something new.
I had one major performance gig lined up for the Autumn in November – at an eco-feminist festival organised by Art from Heart. As well as going to college, I needed to prepare a show, and I was potentially starting from scratch. It had originally been scheduled for April… and if it had been then, I probably would have performed a version of ‘Growing Roots’. I was aware however, that show did not really fit the theme. Which goes to show how much I wanted to make that play, because it didn’t have any sort of commission, or fit with anything I’d been asked to do. Although Dani at LifeArt Stockwell‘s openness to me performing however I wanted, gave me a supportive space in January 2020.
Now I had more time, and had psychicly moved on from ‘Growing Roots’, it made sense to think afresh about this performance. Where on the eco-feminist spectrum did I incline to zone in? While that is a theme close to my heart, when it comes to feeling an artistic drive towards writing a story, the means of being hooked are not always obvious. There was however a guideline from my friend Judit, who runs Art from Heart, especially for me. When I had performed at her festival in 2019, I had created the ‘Roots’ show, which only loosely connected to the ecology theme. About some of my activist ancestors, I’d sourced original memoirs and letters to tell much of the narrative, plus written one monologue so that at least one female character could speak. The play had overall been received very well, presented largely as an audio piece with visual tableaux on stage.
Judit’s suggestion for my contribution at her next festival had been, “Now write just about your female ancestors”.
What an interesting and valuable instruction! It would have to be more fictional, and to be credible, involve plenty of historical research. A very thoughtful exercise, essentially rewriting history with some of the untold stories, imaginatively drawn to fill important gaps. To rebalance my ancestral blueprint informing who I am – but the wider symbolism meant adding to a growing shift in awareness about women’s and non-binary part in the past, as well as going forward. It’s a shift which I believe helps to heal everyone including men. I sometimes wonder how much I am affected, influenced by there being a long line of men on one side of my family at least, who we know about, have been written about. They are considered important and relevent. It’s also true that some of the women were prominent in their own right; but that wasn’t impressed upon me as I was growing up, the way the men were.
Judit’s suggestion feels timely, welcome, and currently I am eagerly immersing myself in it. Before the course began I got stuck into the new enquiry, probing Dad for useful documents (he is the family historian) as well as searching online for material about the era, movements of the day, and known figures involved. Very quickly a Victorian cast of torch bearers and trouble makers opened up, and I knew I’d have no problem generating drama. Of course the November date was cancelled – and didn’t go online – but we are now aiming with hope, for October.
The featured image above, is of me performing my great grandmother Rivkah. Below I am performing my grandmother Mary, as well as the statue of Liberty. Both images are taken from the ‘Roots’ performance in 2019 at ‘We Grow into the Forest’ festival. Photographs by Judit Prieto.