Reflecting on where I’m at from St Michael’s churchyard in Fobbing, Essex, on Saturday 27 March 2021.
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.
Twelve years ago, I was about to make my first performance post-drama school. It happened by accident, a bit like the pregnancy that accompanied it, and was quickly aborted. A good friend of mine had decided to quit smoking dope, and simultaneously signed herself up for numerous AA/NA/MA meetings, and a performance slot in the local community festival. Her optimism was admirable, as was her commitment to sticking with the rehab programme of the Anonymous meetings. Her ability to juggle this with creating a performance was however challenged, and that’s where I came in. I had not quit smoking and had plenty of creative energy to pour into script writing, directing, choreographing… I realised it was what I had been crying out for. I’d gotten a bit stuck as an actor, unsatisfied with the effort put in to not getting roles or rarely having enough artistic input when I did.
My creativity unbound, my womb managed to conceive as my imagination soared. To anyone trying to have a baby I recommend finding your passion in life and following it relentlessly. Chances are if you do conceive, you may end up questioning if you still want it once you’ve experienced how good your life feels living your dream. Or you may open up your heart to abundance and nurture both your passion and your child. Either way you win.
As it happened I did not want that child. I didn’t want to pass on my unresolved issues, including any not entirely conscious resentment for subjugating my personal purpose. It’s a human chain I had no desire to continue, and knew I had not overcome yet. The only nag at my decision making process was the sheer joy my body experienced being pregnant. Something did feel right physiologically and I radiated and glowed. If only I could integrate the disturbing psychology, however I chose a simpler life. I had to allow myself a chance to blossom at least, after a struggle to get to this point. To throw it away, for it would be that – I had barely started on my independent creative path – could be a harsher death than the suction at 8 weeks.
Back to 2020 – when last year I celebrated a year since quitting smoking myself. It took me a lot longer than my friend to get that far, but we all have our own journey and mine was on my own. I had to wait till I could do it by myself as I’m not an Anonymous meeting person. I felt extra relieved not to be addicted in a lockdown; not to be sneaking off to that place and taking extra risks. To be able to pack off to the countryside without that concern at least, even if leaving family was a question. Quitting dope was a massive milestone and one I hesitate to congratulate myself on too soon, as relapses happened before. But it does feel good this time; and, I’ve been public.
Things which many people probably work through in the Anonymous meetings where they are in relatable company, and which I have grappled with too include the huge shameful feelings associated with a dodgy past, and which help to draw one back to a reassuring habit. Facing that shame and not running away has to happen for one to heal. There can be a lot of facing up to do. So much learning before you stop blaming others, making excuses; when deeper compassion is what you really need.
Writing one’s way to success must be the answer for the aspiring imagination; or any sort of making. Last Summer I let go of words and found rhythms in my body moves to respond to drummers’ beats. From South East London I travelled to West Africa, through the djembe and the dundun drums, bouncing on the Earth in the evening air. I found peace there! A circle where masters play and newcomers play, children join in and anyone can dance. This culture is open, accessible, loving and kind; and I was grateful to live in London as well as Essex, once the lockdown eased.
I met these guys at the Summer Solstice 2020, which was the most crowded I’d ever seen Hilly Fields. There was a Black Lives Matter live music festival in the stone circle which attracted hundreds of mainly young people. Normally my friends and a few others have a modest gathering, but this year we were vastly outnumbered. Meanwhile at a quieter patch on the other side of the hill, we found a less raucous, intricately rhythmic circle of African drummers. It was a wide open circle and at first we danced on the outside, before asking if we may go within. They weren’t all African but I later discovered their teacher was Ivorian and so were the beats, mainly from the Zaouli people. It happened that in late May Steve and I had been due to travel to the Ivory Coast. We never got there of course, but I did get in touch with their culture in a very visceral way. As much as I love visiting far away foreign lands, it’s easier to blend in South East London if you are white, than in Africa itself where you always stand out.
The drummers were meeting twice a week at least in configurations of six, and if I wanted to join them as their dancer I was very welcome, for it was a casual arrangement. In the freedom of the park I could dance nearby but never be too close. That became a regular fixture of my London life. It was a new (for me) group of people who lived mostly close by and were united by learning and making music. There is one very special teacher running the crew, and now and again another master drops in. Autumn Equinox was one of the last big gatherings outdoors, and as you can see, went well into the darkness.
These were not the only musicians I’d been hanging out with. Walking across another side of the hill one evening in July, I’d found my friend Sarah practising with her ceilidh band, a sprawling number who are challenged by the rule of six. Where the drummers took it in turns, the ceilidh operated almost as two different groups who happened to play the same tune at the same time! Well they were several metres from each other and very strict about that. When we were and are being starved of live music and performance, and our mental health is not officially prioritised, these musicians brought joy to many passers by as well as each other.
The Black Lives Matter festival folk were doing gigs twice a week in the park too, and they went further and brought a generator to amplify their sounds. It really was a festival scene up there, probably attracting too many people – but lots of people had nothing to do and few places to go, so what can you do. It was a healthy happy vibe, and the Friends of Hilly Fields I imagine, helped out by placing large make-shift bins all over the park, as alas the young people were not so tidy. At some point later on in the Summer, police did move on the BLM party people sadly.
The drummers and ceilidh remained however, as late into the Autumn as light and warmth permitted. When in October the drummers moved indoors to a local church, I decided to stay with them as they had become an important part of my wellbeing. Now I became a drummer too, and learnt how tough the skin on one’s palms and fingers must become. I was grateful for my teacher’s latitude, letting me find my way largely by ear, and eye, a bit like a child, often stumbling. He is committed to encouraging people to learn in the way that works for them, similar to how I had felt about the life modelling. Finding such a generous spirit to learn from was and is a privilege. Classes haven’t happened since December, but from 10 days time as I write, the outdoor small gatherings should hopefully resume and I very much look forward to that.
I want to mark this date, this passing of time, and break what sometimes feels like a silence. I went from being the busiest I’d ever been – with Spirited Bodies and creating my performances – to a very quiet standstill. Like many other folk, I’m sure; though I was slower and still am less inclined than many, to roll with the transfer to online art practice.
Somehow the alignment for me of pandemic/lockdown, with where I was at, meant a complete shift in life felt in order; not a transfer to a different mode of doing what I’d done before. The alignment was severe. Quite a few what would have been really cool Spirited Bodies events were cancelled. But what struck most strongly was, the last thing I did before lockdown, was my ‘Growing Roots’ performance. Nothing could have felt more appropriate and spooky. I was left feeling that after-shock moment in a new sort of timeless suspension. Revealing some pained part of me to the world as it was filmed. Is that the last thing I wanted the world to know about me? Hell no! But it would take me a while to really feel what next.
I took to Steve’s garden in Essex, digging and weeding away my anxieties and doubts, before the beds were ready for planting new seeds. I managed to take a very long time to do that – pretty much most of the first two month lockdown! It’s not a huge garden, but it hadn’t been looked after in a while. Moreover I really enjoyed taking my time. I quickly realised how much I was getting from therapeutically connecting my hands with the earth; observing all the competing and interweaving plants living amongst each other, as well as the insects and molluscs who made their homes there. It was a new level of peace, and it seemed even to surpass that of the meditation I could find whilst life modelling. Now I was at one in nature; being with the natural environment; finding an ability to work with it. Nothing could persuade me to go and model on Zoom! And we were learning some great new walks in the local countryside which enhanced both our appreciation of his home and the surrounding landscape.
This time has been about re-ordering priorities; scaling back or completely removing what wasn’t serving. Focusing on what heals, uplifts, grows.
With regard to living by lockdown rules, a year ago I immediately feared the stay-at-home order as we’d seen or read about it in Spain and Italy. I know many others have lived that way, but for me that felt like the biggest terror. I knew I would not be a very online person. I would do it a bit, but I’d find ways to avoid doing it much. Maybe it’s an allergy.
Being able to move to Steve’s was an enormous gift. Without that I think I would have resorted to breaking the rules. In Essex I could be outdoors in the garden, and when we went on walks (I was beyond grateful that we were never told not to do that) we could walk over an hour without seeing a single person. We knew we could walk for a few hours if we felt like, and no one would know. We were able to discover new directions to walk to keep it interesting. This made a very big difference to my wellbeing. In many ways my life improved during the first lockdown. I suddenly ceased rushing around. I slowed down and connected with nature and myself. I realised I could live with Steve happily in a lockdown. I embraced living outside London. I didn’t have to work – because I couldn’t, and would rather slowly figure out something new, than model/perform/do events online. It wasn’t simply an aversion to online; it was also aligned with my need for change, to address certain issues.
I no longer wanted to model so much (after 12 years or so of that being a large part of what I do). Performing ‘Growing Roots’ put me in touch with the connection that modelling has to that old troubled time. I wholly wanted to re-examine what I was doing and why.
I have a lot more to say about this and other developments during the last year, indeed during the last 12 years – as on Saturday it will be the anniversary of the first performance I created – ‘An Ordered Kaosz’. But this is a beginning, because today is a year since the ‘Growing Roots’ performance at Candid Art.
Lucy shared excerpts with me from Sarah Bakewell’s book, ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne‘. This 16th Century diarist is one originator of the modern penchant for describing everything we experience and think about, as it happens to us in minute detail. In particular he was obsessed by dying until a near death experience relieved him of the worry. A hazardous fall from his horse at the then mid-life age of 36, altered his outlook.
“In dying, he now realised, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of your soul’. Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.”
“He particularly liked the story of Marcellinus, who avoided a painful death from disease by a gentle method of euthanasia. After fasting for several days, Marcellinus laid himself down in a very hot bath. No doubt he was already weakened by his illness; the bath simply steamed the last breaths of life out of him. He passed out slowly, and then he passed away. As he went he murmured languorously to his friends about the pleasure he was experiencing.”
The strange thing about Montaigne’s experience was that in the aftermath of his fall he had been convulsing violently, in what appeared to be a disturbed manner, yet simultaneously he felt very light and floaty; he was enjoying a sort of ecstasy!
He wrote, ‘If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.”
He said it is best to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’
“Through this discovery of gliding and drifting, he lost much of his fear, and at the same time acquired a new sense that life, as it passed through his body was a very interesting subject for investigation.”
He was very taken with contemplation and wrote, ‘let us cut loose from all the ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease.’
He regarded Seneca’s advice for achieving peace of mind; ‘focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.’
And Pliny, ‘each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.’
Of his own essay writing Montaigne wrote, ‘It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilise the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.’
Bakewell writes, “He was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition – sleep – that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him”!
I found Bakewell’s analysis quite soothing, and her snippets of Montaigne intoxicating. Thank you Lucy for pleasurable advice on how to live.
- The First Modern Man, Michel de Montaigne and pursuit of the Character (bibliologist.wordpress.com)
- The Essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (onweb3.wordpress.com)
- On writing every day. (dougbelshaw.com)
- Caricature of Michel de Montaigne (“On Friendship”; Facebook and the Future of Presidential Elections) (konokopia.typepad.com)
- Michel de Montaigne and the Independent Commission on Banking (honoratus2001.wordpress.com)
- Quote #28 (ilikethesequotes.wordpress.com)
Yesterday was disabling. Unsent angry letters! It worked though because by the end of the day the anger was gone.
Today was melancholy and introspection, treading softly, taking care.
What a difference – I know where I’d rather be. The morning felt delicate, tender; the evening light, beaming.
I really didn’t know how long it would take to diffuse the anger; it was so dominating, it felt like it might stay a while. I think the answer was in allowing it to take over me, not blocking it. It didn’t feel like a choice, but at some other juncture I think it was.
It started with writing rationally, cataloguing. When that was through and sending would obviously not yield constructive results, I moved on to harm wishing. I was consumed by righteous rage and this revealed something profound (to me). Whilst imagining awful accidents befalling the person in question, I reasoned to myself that that is the only way I could imagine them coming to a transformation whereby they may acquire enough humanity that we may get on again.
To clarify: this wasn’t considered or premeditated visualisation. It was in-the-moment-blind-and-going-nowhere rage.
As I reasoned however, I remembered a childhood preoccupation. As a small girl with an angry, unloving Mother; I used to wish she was dead. And I would picture her dead and buried in our garden. I even imagined her rotting bones.
I was not surprised when as a teenager I was told she had gotten a degenerative disease – MS. The thing is now, I associate that condition and disability with my Mum becoming a more decent human being with whom I have a reasonable relationship. Dependence on others changed her outlook, made her humble.
So when I momentarily wish ill on people messing with me now… I ultimately mean them good!
- Anger (buddhasadvice.wordpress.com)
- I Thought This Was Great, So I Copied It (craftythriftydecoratingwifemom.wordpress.com)
- Anger Management: How to Keep Your Temper in Check (everydayhealth.com)
- Working on my anger (nothinginmynoggin.wordpress.com)
- Eliminate Anger with these Five Tips (standupagainstbullyingguy.wordpress.com)
- Finding fury (windowsonemotions.com)
When the doctor calls in the middle of the night, come to the hospital, this could be it. We don’t know if she’ll make it, but we need to know from you what you would like us to do if – if the life in her is not worth – if when she opens her eyes there is nothing there. They have the power and they need to know, have you thought about it? Yes because it happens each time – different doctors, sometimes different hospital, but each time she is under they have to ask.
Sometimes my instincts check in advance, they are not feeling adrenaline, I am sure this time will pass. Often I am pulled in to the brink on the edge of the rollercoaster seat. By the bedside crying, and appreciating time in the relatives’ suite, because that is the most meaningful conversations the rest of the family ever has with Dad. The family drama; and when the doctor calls, I know now that he is hoping. This time could be his meeting with freedom. He has discussed her wishes with her and the answer is to switch off from a life not worth the trouble. Meanwhile they continue, we keep on.
At the front of The Royal Festival Hall, Lucy and I find a table and furnish it with my large painted Spirited Bodies sign. We discuss the press release, skirting over our brushings with mental health. I was supposed to prepare the meeting we are about to have with our brand new SB models. We’ll wing it; well it’s not like we haven’t done it before. The hardest thing I find is putting myself in the position of someone new to the whole business. Remembering what it was like before nudity was normal, and even then it wasn’t that new to me. And tuning myself to a sensitive mode that is ready for newbies both anxious and nervous, as well as those in it for the craic, or because they just love what we’re doing. I’m a tiny bit nervous but it’s going to be fun.
They arrive one by one, with warm hand shakes and smiles, chairs gradually accumulated from across the room. They find me familiar, I have been emailing them individually, and it’s like we know each other, except now they’re all here I don’t know who each one is. It’s ok. We have important informations to impart and light-hearted anecdotes of bodily fluids and anti-sexual encounters. We – Lucy and I – are on familiar territory, and we pick up after each other. I try to feel what the interested faces are hoping to glean, and they ask about the photographs (for London Drawing) and how to choose poses. It goes well and I am high and full of love afterwards. That’s why we do it, because of them (and us). I love it when they are happy. The artists make another level of content, but for me it’s for the models first. They make me feel both humble and worthy. They are on edge with excitement to meet themselves in a space that is about just being, and being drawn. And they will be together, as in a drama, complimenting and interacting with each other, creating a story where there are bodies. We will be guiding them, but now already these that we have met, know more what to expect. Their minds will imagine and start to build the scene of the next event. The seeds are gestating in time for a rich bloom.
At the first meditation meeting of the Women on Fire, most of us were tentative about speaking up, coming forward. Judith had some salient advice; many of us, whether by nature or nurture who knows, feel drawn to helping others a great deal. All too often to the detriment of looking after ourselves. I don’t know if this message came to Judith from spirit, as they say in shamanic circles, or if she just felt it intuitively. I felt its resonance.
I am not sure if people around me in my life would especially notice whether I take enough time for myself. Not having children, other dependents or a regular full time job means I am more likely to be taking time for me. The way I reflect on Judith’s advice, is to consider more, how many years I have given over to trying to nourish the impossible. In other words, relationships with men which were mighty troublesome.
I am so happy and grateful to be in more favourable circumstance now. It has perhaps been in trying to establish where my priorities lie in friendship that I may have felt myself spreading a little thin. It is needs part of the process of finding out how different friendships fit.
The regular meetings with the writers workshop in the theatre are already providing valuable structure. I have to present an idea, pitch a project and I am unused to doing this in such a group. Whether I come up with the right project or not, I know I won’t be satisfied unless I have given myself the appropriate amount of quiet and private time in order to realise whatever ideas I may.
At the Women on Fire meeting I tell them I am there because I want to root myself more, so that I may build my work more effectively. I am in good company.