Saturday 26 November 2011

Resting In Motion At The Speed Of Light

I have taken the unprecedented step of replicating my A Graceful Death blog here.  The A Graceful Death blog is about my life as it is unfolding now, and seems to be relevant to this blog too.  So here it is, and if you want to see the blog in situ, and read it all again with different pictures, please go to  Here goes -

I am so proud of the A Graceful Death exhibition.  So many people, too many to name here, are responsible for making it strong and simple, gracious and loving.  It exists because there are those who have a huge heart and a strong mind.  I include in this all those who help to transport, hang, catalogue, publicise and do workshops for the exhibition, and those who are painted and who tell their stories, and who write the poetry that is used.  Having the expert and excellent Eileen Rafferty on board as co-producer is another feather in the exhibition's cap.  This link to Eileen's blog shows some small films that Eileen has made, where we discuss the latest paintings for A Graceful Death, which is on the subject of the suicide of Stuart Pryde's wife Sue.

But I am now moving in a different though parallel direction.  I have taken on the job title of Soul Midwife, and have begun a journey that both thrills and terrifies me.  I simply do not know how to do this job.  And yet, it is quite simply the most important thing I have ever done.  I have been on a course in Dorset with the wonderful Felicity Warner, I have been inspired by the concept of graceful, gentle dying and the place of the Soul Midwife in working with those who are going to die, to create the best death that they can together.  The idea behind the Soul Midwife movement seems to be very like the ideas behind the hospice movement, and the work of all the most influential palliative care pioneers.  The beauty of the Soul Midwife is that we do not have to be trained medically or as a counsellor, we work alongside other professions and provide spiritual and emotional support.  We listen, we support, we are not afraid.  Many have other services such as reiki, healing, bach flower remedies, meditation to offer.  Some are experienced in helping the dying person to reconcile differences within the family, some are wonderful with music and art, and can help to unlock thoughts and memories that need to be celebrated or acknowledged.  The most important offering, I think, is a listening love.  If only we start with this, the rest is just icing on the cake.

Where am I in this wonderful new world?  Having done my course with Felicity, I am so far down the ladder as to be almost unable to see the starting rung.  I have spent a week letting my thoughts settle after the course, and making myself do nothing.  I can see how this work can be done, and I can see that it is so very important, but where on earth do I start?  I am paralysed by the enormity of the task.  How can I, with very little experience, possibly help another to die well?  I know nothing.  I know nothing.  It is the other way round, it is me who will be saying, help me.  I will be saying, will you help me to know what is going on as you die, will you teach me how to do this?  I need to watch and wait, I need to go directly to the dying and learn from them.  I cannot do this work yet, I have much to learn and a long way to go.  So I have decided to start at the beginning.  I need to learn. This new job as a Soul Midwife starts with some training at the front line.  It is fine that I know nothing, it is not fine if I stay like that.  So learn something.  Ask someone.  I am a Soul Midwife in Training.  It is fine to take my time, in fact, it is essential.  Maybe I will learn quickly and set myself up in no time at all.  That would be wonderful;  I cannot think of a more perfect job than that of a Soul Midwife.  And maybe, I find that I do not learn quickly.  Maybe I am someone who needs to sit at the feet of many many different people before I set myself up as a Soul Midwife.  Or perhaps a third option, in that I do a bit of both.  I don't know right now, I have not quite started.

Here is what I have done.  I have contacted the Snowdrop Trust, a charity that cares for children in West Sussex (where I live) with life threatening and terminal illnesses, in their homes.  I have asked to train as a volunteer, as their volunteers are highly trained and supported, and are not expected to do anything medical.  I will, I am told, be doing fun things with the children alongside the Snowdrop Trusts doctors and nurses.  A  lady from the Trust is coming here to my home next week to go through it all with me.  I volunteer already at my local hospice, where my role is to make teas and coffees and listen.  And finally, just as I returned home from the course, I received an email from a lady who I admire tremendously.  She is a highly intelligent, articulate and compassionate speaker on all subjects from palliative care to moral issues in the approaches to dying, legal issues at the end of life to matters around mental health.  I have found her willingness to help me work out how to best produce the A Graceful Death exhibition over the years so helpful and insightful.  Her email, received at 7.30am the morning after I returned from Felicity's course in Dorset, said that quite out of the blue she had been diagnosed with a possible terminal condition, and that everything in her life had been turned on its head.  The most extraordinary thing, she said, is that the tests that found this dreadful illness, were routinely given for something else, and that she still felt very well indeed.  And yet, she is extremely ill, and possibly has not got much time left.  I asked her to come and see me as a friend, not in a professional capacity, and she did.  The following morning she came for breakfast.

She is an extraordinary lady.  It was a wonderful breakfast.  We laughed, we ate, we spoke of life and death.  And here, in my kitchen, is the person who can teach me how to be a Soul Midwife.  She had agreed to talk me through her experiences and to be my teacher.

And finally, as the dust is settling, and I am making more sense of how to move forwards not only as a Soul Midwife but as an artist who is dedicated to producing the A Graceful Death exhibition as an ongoing Artistic contribution to the subject of death and dying and love, I am aware that the most difficult thing to overcome is my own lack of confidence.  One of the bonuses of being a Soul Midwife is the contact with other Soul Midwives.  We seem to care greatly about each other, and to offer a huge amount of support in all ways. I met and made contact with some wonderful people on Felicity's course, and am really, once I get over my confusion, in very good hands indeed.  And that is what I want the people I work with to say of me, that they are in very good hands indeed.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Tangos And Soul Midwifery.

I am lying on the sofa with the sun shining in through the twinkly butterfly installation in my window, listening with a fluttering heart to an old 1950s record of Continental Tango Music played by the deeply camp and long forgotten 101 Strings Orchestra.  The Sound, it says on the record cover, Of Magnificence.  Despite a part of me longing to take it off and hurl it into the far distance, a good deal of me wants to give into this romantic, unselfconscious medley of passion.  Put that way, who wouldn't?  Much of me longs to melt into the violins, the accordian, the thing that sounds like a Hammond Organ.  (Hammond Organs mean ice skating at Richmond Ice Rink in the 70s.  Remember?)  And the rest of this music makes me feel I am in a Peter Sellers Pink Panther film, with technicolor in my sitting room.  I am unsure whether the music is making me happy or violent.  But as I write this, a passionate Tango has just struck up, and I am full of angst.  Oh oh oh.  How will I tell Peter Sellers when he comes into my film set sitting room, that I am a) someone else b) a murderer c) married?  But patience, the Tango has finished and another one has started up that makes me feel I am now in full Flamenco dress on the Spanish border singing across the dust and guards that my heart is true and even though I am dressed like this, I can be sensible and fling myself into a proper job till you, oh my love, come back over the border to claim me. 

I have just come back from a course in Dorset with Felicity Warner, where I have begun my training and my first steps into the work I am wanting to do.  Felicity has set up a foundation called Soul Midwives - see her website .  She has begun to train those of us who want to do this work, and sent us out to do our stuff.  A Soul Midwife is someone who is an emotional and spiritual support and companion to the dying, helping those who are at the end of life to achieve the best death that they can under the circumstances, with as much dignity and attention and love as possible.  A Soul Midwife is not medical (though many who train are already nurses and doctors) and aims to work alongside doctors and counsellors.  We work one to one with those who come to us, and help by listening, by offering such things as gentle touch massage and often other holistic treatments such as aromatherapy or healing, for example, as many who train are already registered as therapists in these fields, to support and to be as practically helpful as we can. 

Having gone to Dorset, I have come away utterly inspired and extremely nervous.  I know nothing.  Each person who is facing death is tied up with medical stuff, procedures, fears, expectations, unfinished business, legal business, family business and management and relief of symptoms.  Oh goodness.  Each person is different, each person will die in their own way, and as I am starting out, I wonder will I be able to help?  Of course I can.  This is something that I want to do.  Everyone starts at the beginning, there is always the first step.  And I have been working in my local hospice for a while now, and I do my wonderful A Graceful Death exhibition, paintings from the end of life ( which as you know, is on in Birmingham for the rest of this month and you will go to Birmingham to see it, at St Martin in the Bull Ring, you know you will.

The course in Dorset was full of the most wonderful people.  From all corners of the UK, and from all backgrounds possible.  We all have experience of end of life care and issues.  Some work professionally already with the dying - we had an inspirational Funeral Director who runs her Funeral Company with care, light, love and inclusiveness.  Two people came from the care home they run up North, specialising with end of life care.  I was very taken with their stories of how they deal with their residents, their families, and all the details of practical and medical care given to old people as they are dying.  But I found their humour and dedication to the individual really astonishing.  The stories they told of the old men were wonderful; the old men now ill and in the home, once vital to the life of the factories, pits and communities, being diverted to the pub for a quick pint on the way back from the doctors with the wonderful male nurse who came on our course.  Full of love and kindness. 

We had alternative therapists, we had all faiths and none, we had trainee celebrants, we had even an Angel Rieki Master - a lady who works with angels.  We had nurses, mums, healers, and a dance teacher.  And me, an Artist.  All of us bound by our passion to work with the dying and to apply ourselves to becoming a friend and companion to those that come to us asking for help.

So back to today.  I set the scene with the help of my passionate Tango medley music, so that I could write this and pour out my heart, this sunny Sunday afternoon in Bognor Regis.  But, the music forced me into a Peter Sellers film on the Spanish border, with all sorts of passionate and conflicting feelings and all in all I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  So that didn't work.  I have started to talk about the Soul Midwife course, but have found that I don't know what to say yet because having done the course, I am exhausted and full to bursting with unprocessed thoughts. 

So.  Here I sit with the Tango record back in it's sleeve (and not flung far into the garden), the butterflies twinkling and dancing in the sunlight in the window, and my eyes crossed with the effort of thinking.  At times like this, in order to move on to the next stage of life, one needs a nice strong pot of tea and some Cadbury's dairy milk.  I can cope with that.  I have to start somewhere.

Monday 14 November 2011

A New Ploy. Saying Yes To Everything.

"Can I go on a bender and lose the plot?"
"And maybe die?"
"You won't change your mind?"
"You will change your mind?"
"So you don't mean yes?"
"You do mean yes?"
"Oh no!  So I can't go, this is what you mean?"

"Oh what is happening nothing is safe any more nothing is as it was.  My mother is either too deep for her own good, or she is barking."


I have had a tough weekend.  It is all sorted now, and I am sitting in my studio with my fourth cup of tea on this Monday morning, and thinking over how much time I didn't spend doing nice things.  I spent a lot of time being grown up over the weekend.  I spent a lot of time wondering if instead of sending my children to the World's Strictest Parents (a TV programme I am told), I should go and pick up some tips.  I like the idea of my children kissing my hands before each meal, and washing my feet after.  And carrying me shoulder high into a bath of bubbles and scented soaps before bowing their way out backwards as per the King of Siam.  There were highlights, there was tons of lovely food cooked by my Daughter, so we may have had a fiery weekend, but we were all very full up for it.  Passions ran high, but slow, as we were all eating an awful lot.  Last night, though, the tsunamis of passion and fury had quietened down to such an extent, that everyone went to bed early and exhaled a teeny burp and a sigh of relief.  And so, this morning as I turned on my computer, an ad popped up and said with a little conspiratorial wink - Simplify Your Life!.  I will, I said to the computer, but not in the way you are suggesting. Not by taking out the insurance that you insist will simplify my life, but by finding another more personal way.  I intend I said to the ad, to narrow down my response to the word Yes.  I will, for a week, say Yes to everything. 

Many things may happen.  My children and those who deal with me may cotton on very quickly that this new tactic.  They may cleverly tailor their requests to make sure they get what they want.  "Mum?"  "Yes." "When you said that you love all your children the same and that you don't prefer me above all else, you meant something else didn't you?"  "Yes."  "You meant you like me the best didn't you?"  "Yes."  "Ha ha!  I knew it!  I am the favoured one, I am the golden child!".  Half an hour later, "Mum!" "Yes."  "I am your favourite child, aren't I?" "Yes."  "Ha ha!  You have fallen from grace, I am the one and only now!"  Ten minutes later "Mum."  "Yes."  "You are mad aren't you?" "Yes."  "You are playing with our minds, aren't you?" "Yes."  "Run your own bubble baths and wash your own feet.  Bah!  We give up."  ("Yes.")

They may not want to risk a change of mind once they get a Yes.  They may ask no more questions, and act on what they have heard me agree to.  "Madam,"  "Yes."  "We are reputable traders, and we think you need a new roof."  "Yes."  "Fine, stand aside, we will start with that bit there.  It will be fifteen million pounds.  OK?"  "Yes."  A small discussion amongst the reputable traders, and a hesitant, "no personality disorders we need to know about? "Yes."  "What?  Are you known to be unpredictable and violent?" "Yes."  "Run boys!  Save yourselves!"  ("Yes.")

And they may have seen the same advert for Simplifying Your Life, and had the same idea.  They may just leave me to it.  "Antonia?"  "Yes."  "Seen the advert for Simplifying Your Life?"  "Yes."  "Saying Yes to everything then?"  "Yes."  "Thought so. Me too."

So far, though, I am having a lovely Monday morning.  I have work to do, but I have spoken at length to my lovely cousins Maddy in Tunbridge Wells and Marlayna in Detroit, and to my splendid brother John in London, and I have facebooked witty one liners with all sorts of people who just want to have fun.  I have made a few important calls and left messages on answer phones, and very soon, the effects of the weekend will evaporate, and I will stop saying Yes to everything.

"Can't you say Yes any more?"
"Are you going to behave yourself?"
"Oh I give up.  I'm moving out!"


Sunday 6 November 2011

A Gentle Day, A Clean House, And A Semi Comatose Mother and Artist

In case that you think that while cleaning my house one gentle day, I found a semi comatose artist in one room and a semi comatose mother in another, I am afraid that you are wrong.  I am, dear reader, both the semi comatose mother and the semi comatose artist.  One body and one soul. 

Alan and I set up the A Graceful Death exhibition in Birmingham, and Eileen ( ) and I were there with the poet Penny Hewlett for the opening.  I came back from Birmingham for one day during the week, because deeply beloved Youngest Son, the one who is learning to be gentle and sweet, turned 15.  Early the next day I shot off back to Birmingham and got on with the opening. Late on Friday, Eileen and I arrived home here and I started to clean.  Hello, I said to all who were here.  How are you all, lovely to see you, pass the cleaning fluid, and tell me your news.  In fact, I said, tell Eileen.  I am going to clean the cooker and take out the rubbish and wash the kitchen and bathroom and re-tile the roof.  So Eileen sat and listened and I entered an alternative universe and repossessed my home by cleaning it.  It is something that I find I have to do; after being away I cannot sit in the house without putting it immediately to rights.  It has to be exactly perfect or I will die.  Now.  I have to do it now.  It must be a kind of mental thing, there is no reason for it, but it is rare that I come back from being away and sink with a contented yawn into the nearest chair and say Yeah, whatever, bring it on.  I want perfection after being way from my home and I want it now or a comet will drop on our heads.  The only thing I couldn't do was hoover because by the time I was ready to hoover at midnight, everyone had gone to bed and not only were they in the rooms I wanted to hoover, with the lights off so that I couldn't see (goddam it),  I would have woken them up and they would not then want to make me tea in the morning and let me eat the banoffee pie that was in the fridge.  So twitching and frothing, I went to bed too. 

On Saturday morning, dear Fatema who had sat in for me here while I was away, caught the train back to her world.  I spent the day finishing the housework.  And the shopping. And the washing.  By late evening, the house was glorious, everyone was fed and I was a shadow of my former self.  I looked 80 years old and I had lost the power of speech. I crawled into bed like a man crawling out of the desert into an oasis. Sort of.  If the man had only been lost that afternoon in the desert, he had gone the wrong way coming back from the loo behind a sand dune and spent the afternoon being lost and feeling dreadful.  Anyway, a man who was not really in dire straights, just a bit needy for the time being, crawling out of the desert into an oasis.  That was how I crawled upstairs to bed.

This morning, while lying in bed, I decided to wear my pyjamas all day.  I thought that if I did that, my whole life would fall into place.  It was a relief to feel that at all times I was connected to my bed, and that it would take no time at all to rush back upstairs and fall into it.  It was after all, the place I was dressed for.  Oh the joy of putting on a dressing gown and slippers.  There was nothing anyone could do - I couldn't possibly leave the house for anything ever, there was a huge barrier between me and the outside world - my pyjamas.  They said No!  I am mentally and physically deficient, I cannot go further than the front door!  Bring me tea!  So I drifted from room to room, patting a surface here and smoothing a cushion there.  I smiled with a trembling and weary smile when any of the Sons came near me - I am weak, I made it say.  Do not ask more of me than my fragile body can manage.  I drifted from the kitchen to the sitting room grasping onto the furniture if anyone was watching and holding myself upright.  See?  I am in my pyjamas and my strength has gone.  I hold this furniture  because I am spent.  Bring me a sandwich or I may collapse behind this sofa;  and if they were still watching, I would pass a weary hand over my brow and sigh.

Oh but the house is so clean and tidy today.  I am fulfilled.  Yes, the exhibition is up and running, yes, Christmas is coming but right now - my house is wonderful and sparkly and I am in it, ready at a moment's notice for bed, and all my world has narrowed down to being hopelessly delighted in a hoovered and polished house.  With, of course, lots of lovely flowers and scented candles.  I am after all, an artist.

Here is my kitchen.  I want you to glory in the lack of rubbish on the floor and the Mr Sheen shine on the table.  Now look at this.

Do you see the tray of tea on the sofa?  That is for me!  And the big cushions for me to sit on.  I can't launch myself onto them, because I am supposed to be a faded, wizened and pathetic creature (until tomorrow) so I stagger from door to mantel piece pausing for effect, and then a face forward fall onto the sofa cleverly missing the tea tray.

And when I do get onto the sofa and sit up, I see on the other sofa, the excellent Eileen Rafferty - dressed and in control!  Eileen has already been for a walk on the seafront.  I screamed when that was decided, in case I had to go too but I didn't.  So I stopped.

And when the going gets tough, this is where I lie my weary head down.  That is not a pillow under the window, it is another big double duvet in a spotty duvet cover in case I get chilly in the night.  It sits there, large and poised for action, to save me from any discomfort and inconvenience.  I hope you note the spotty bra on the chair.  Marks and Spencers.

Now it is late and time to go to bed. Tomorrow is Monday and it will be a day to get dressed.  I need to build up my strength so that come the morning, I will bounce out of bed at 7am with a roar of defiance, and pummel the day into shape.  Perhaps.  I am still a bit weary...