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Peace, rage and solidarity

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

[Into Battle – Julian Grenfell]

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[Trigger warning: suicide and mental illness]

I went back to the pond today. Frozen over with patterned ice, it was the epitome of peace and stillness above the runners, the dog walkers, and the chatter of birds and flowing water in the woodland below. The winter sun just touched the tips of the allotment hedges on the other side, still not high enough above the hill to warm further. It was this beautiful on Friday morning too, when I deviated from my usual dog-walking route on a whim, thinking ‘I’ve not been up round the millpond for a while’. I normally keep my walks to the woods, surrounded by trees and birdsong (the woodpeckers are back, by the way; I’ve heard them rattling their tattoos for a week or so now), and squirrels for my brainless dog to attempt to chase. There’s so much life in the woods. But occasionally I like to take the path up to the millpond, for the silence, the space and the uninterrupted light.

It did indeed look beautiful, until I went for a closer look at a bit of something poking through the ice, and realised it was the back of a man’s jacket. I called 999, ‘yes, I think I’ve found a body’, and soon the stillness was taken over by uniformed police, incident tape and parked cars. The body didn’t move though; he was done with the business, the busyness, of this world. He’d found his peace.

I went back to the pond today. There was nobody around, just a bunch of roses tied to the information board, and a printed poster in memory of a much-loved husband, brother and father “died 2017, in one of his favourite spots”. I had been worried about going back, but reading that was like a huge sigh of relief. I tucked a sprig of rosemary behind the poster, and looked again at the still, frozen pond. A place I love too. It looked like somewhere you could find peace, somewhere willing to welcome those who needed rest, and relief. Soft wings.

I do not know if this was suicide; the police have not revealed it and neither have the family, but it certainly got me thinking about it. Later in the day I also found out that a friend, who had died unexpectedly a week or so earlier, had died by suicide. I choose my words carefully. Not ‘committed’, this isn’t a crime, and not ‘taken his own life’ – his life was *taken from him* by mental illness. And this is where I go off on random tangents, because I read the other day that white women aged 25-55 in America are experiencing a spike in mortality rates not seen since that of gay men during the AIDS crisis. Nobody’s talking about this one though, because the main causes of death are alcohol poisoning and suicide. Self inflicted, personal, not a ‘wider picture’. Except IT BLOODY WELL IS. Mental illness is sweeping the Western world, and leaving death in its wake, and we’re still not talking about it. Mental illness kills people, the way cancer kills people, the way road accidents kill people. But mental illness is still not treated with the same brevity as physical illness. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years in the UK (I’m going to allow a pause here to let that sink in), yet it is still stigmatised and misunderstood. We don’t shame people for not being able to fight against cancer, but oh boy does society have a stick to beat the mentally ill with when they can’t fight it any more.

I’m in danger of getting ranty, so I’m going to wrap up now. Someone very dear to me is in a demographic where nearly half of that group (approximate, as this study doesn’t cover her age bracket, but even so) dies by suicide, so you’ll excuse my rantyness I hope.

Mental illness is illness. Some people get it mildly, some get it worse. Some people have a pretty good resilience, or immune system, and the resources to fight back. Others are completely sucker-punched by it. Sometimes, the urge to check out can be so strong, because you honestly feel that those around you would be better off if you weren’t there.

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©sane.org.uk – Black Dog Campaign

Whatever it is, it is a fight, and those who fight it need all the help they can get. If it’s you, or if it’s someone you know, here’s a list of resources to be going on with. There are plenty more out there. You are not alone. Far, far from it.

Resources (mostly UK):
The Samaritans – Confidential helpline: 08457 90 90 90 (or Republic of Ireland 1850 60 90 90)
Papyrus UK – Prevention of Young Suicide. Hopeline: 0800 0684141 or text: 07786 209697
Sane – Leading UK mental health charity
Befrienders Worldwide – Providing emotional support to prevent suicide worldwide
Rethink – national charity for everyone affected by mental health, whether it’s you or someone you know.
SOBS – Survivors of bereavement by suicide. National helpline: 0300 1115065 (9am-9pm)

And I would also like to take this opportunity to raise a glass (mug of tea, whatever) to Good Friends. Good friends who hear about your upsetting morning (oh, believe me, I am well aware I had the least upsetting morning of anyone involved that day) and cancel all their meetings to take you out for coffee and stationery shopping and really good chats. Mental illness can strip away your comprehension of why anyone would want to be friends with you, your desire to socialise, your ability to receive and accept love. Good Friends – may we have them, may we be them. Now go give someone some flowers x

rip-patrick

RIP Patrick, you brilliant wonderful human


Why do we need to?

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Sarah Smout imbibing the silence (Italy 2016)

30th November is the international Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Recently I was talking to a friend about an event in commemoration of species now extinct. She looked a bit puzzled. ‘Why?’ she asked. OK, that threw me. I’m not good at explaining stuff on the fly, and everyone else I’d spoken to had just ‘got it’, like a wake for lost species was a completely normal idea. I started talking about the importance of taking time to mourn, of the way society views extinction through the lens of science, but ignores the cultural importance of grief, and…  she interrupted me again, ‘Do we need to? I mean, they’re extinct, can’t we just move on?’

Do we need to? Earlier this year I saw Feral Theatre’s ‘Thylacine Tribute Cabaret‘ (Thylacine: Tasmanian Tiger; hunted to extinction by 1936). A phrase from that stuck in my mind like a tolling bell: ‘Nobody is alive now who knows what a Thylacine sounds like. The world will never hear its voice again.’ Do we really just shrug that off and keep going? We cannot change it, we cannot bring back species from extinction. Scientists are currently trying to clone the passenger pigeon, which was wiped out in 1914. They admit that even if they succeed, it will still only be a hybrid with a ‘normal’ pigeon, and DNA from one animal doesn’t make for sustainable genetic diversity. Surely a failure to acknowledge, or to mark the passing of such losses is just one more disconnect between ourselves and the world we inhabit? We are humans, we are animals. We berate our rich politicians for being out of touch with the lives of the majority, while we ourselves remain out of touch with the lives of the majority of animals on this planet.

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If my sister dies of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, would I be ‘normal’ to shrug and say ‘She’s dead, so what? There’s nothing I can do.’ Or would society understand if I asked for a leave of absence from work to grieve, to organise a funeral and write an obituary, or if I suddenly developed an interest in campaigning for cancer research, or restricting government lobbying by tobacco firms? If we can see ourselves as part of the incredible variety of life on this planet, we unlock a sense of connection that enables us to see something as huge as extinction on a much more immediate scale. To truly comprehend that a voice has been forever silenced, not just that a tick box on Wikipedia has gone from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Extinct’.

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30th November is a chance to reconnect ourselves to the turning of this planet; to learn about lost species and tell their stories, and to renew commitments to those remaining. It is about art — music, dance, song, stories, all of it — setting its light to fill out the stories that science shows us the bones of. To make it real, immediate, and something that touches all of us. This year, one such event takes place a week later, on 7th December (venue logistics care nothing for your dramatic timing), featuring three amazing artists who each have a strong cause to be drawn to the theme of engagement with nature, environment, and loss. Tim Ralphs, storyteller and interfaith minister, says that when we are faced with something as shocking, hard and seemingly inevitable as climate change or mass extinction, we first need to pause and sit with our fears, our grief, and acknowledge how we feel; to talk, to sing, to find the stories that help make sense of the world. Sarah Smout, poet, cellist, and singer-songwriter, adds: ‘While I can’t berate humans for advancing, intellectually and technologically, I feel that the ensuing disconnection from nature is at the very heart of our destruction to the planet.’ This is one of the things that spurred her to embark upon her ‘Polar Line’ project; a travelling, collaborating, writing project to the Arctic and beyond, to ‘sit in quiet, remote lagoons of thought, to feel the pulse of the land.’ To grieve. Nancy Kerr, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, speaks of our collective need to sometimes just take the time to ‘have a good wallow’. Steeped in the folk tradition, she talks of how folk songs put a name and a human experience to the vast, complex and seemingly uncontrollable forces of war, death and loss.

Together they offer this evening as catharsis, as a connecting with hurt and grief to better understand and move through it. So that we can remain connected and still remain sane, so that we can engage instead of avoiding — and be left bigger by that engagement, not broken by its enormity.

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Tim Ralphs, setting the storytelling fire under The Telling

 

If you are based in the North of England, an evening of Remembrance for Lost Species is at the Moor Theatre Delicatessen, Sheffield, on Wednesday 7th December. Tickets £9/12 available here. There is also a Facebook page here.remembrance

If you are based elsewhere in the world, we encourage you to join another remembrance event nearby, or start your own — have a look at the online map of events for 30th November 2016:

For further reading, Remembrance Day for Lost Species made the international press with this Guardian article published earlier this month.

(With thanks to Nick Hunt, and the Dark Mountain network, where this blog post was first published)


What are you like?!

I have an “About me” page somewhere around here, but nobody ever goes there. Yeah, this is about me, but I want to know about *you*. Who are you? What fires your passion? What kind of news article is bound to get your blood pounding, and which to make you smile and know that the world isn’t such a bad place after all? What do you do to relax, where do you go? Do you prefer to listen or see or both or neither?

I was waiting for the bus this morning, and an older lady tried to stand her trolley up, but it kept falling over. “There’s nowhere flat in this city!” she exclaimed (and she’s kind of right – Sheffield is built on seven hills). And because part of who I am is being remarkably restrained under provocation, I *didn’t* say No, not even Flat Street (a steepish hill in the city centre)! Although Flat Street is so named because it is an artificially flattened slope allowing passage from the medieval fishponds (now ‘Ponds Forge’) to the top of the cliff (a geological fold known as the Don Monocline) whence sat Sheffield Castle. I didn’t say any of that, I just nodded and smiled, and then got on the bus to go to my studio at Bank Street Arts. There are no banks on Bank Street (as far as I know); it’s so called because it follows the line of the bank of the aforementioned Sheffield Castle. It runs as far as Angel Street, which has no such historical beginnings, it’s just named after a pub that was destroyed by bombing in WWII. Did I just read all that? No, it’s straight from the recesses of my brain, after hearing it at one talk two Septembers ago at Festival of the Mind.

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C’est moi

That’s who I am. I am somebody to be either sought out or avoided at parties, depending on how much random origins trivia you’re feeling in the mood for. I still need step by step instructions to fill out my tax return, but I’d be great on your pub quiz team.

As regards my questions to you: I am outraged by injustice, especially as regards the rights of children. I am comforted by humans, doing human and kind things – I believe the good outweighs the bad by a large margin, but it doesn’t make exciting news, so we just don’t hear about it (this is actually true). Choral music relaxes me, and Taverner, Tavener, Tallis and Part (composers, not a law firm) in particular. Walking in woodland, near water relaxes me. And sunshine, and gardens, and birdsong.

So, who are you?

 


Unconditional love

I’ve just read a blog post about snow, which drops in the (widely held, according to this) forecast that unless climate change can be halted, there will be no snow in Utah by the end of this century. The author says “My memories [of thick, winter snowclouds] make it incredibly painful to imagine a Utah without snow, but this is the reality confronting us.”

Across the globe the impacts of climate change are painfully uprooting people’s (possibly nostalgia-tinged) memories of what a place is like. Should be like, has always been like. We humans are very clever, and are more than capable of seeing the bigger picture, but somewhere deep inside, don’t we hold ‘what it was like when we were growing up’ as the yardstick to measure life by? Did you grow up with central heating, and shudder at the idea of life without it? Did you grow up with an outside toilet, and roll your eyes at people complaining their bathroom is too cold? When I look back at my childhood winters, they were filled (like, for weeks) with snow, sledging, days off school and failed attempts at igloo building – and this in Gloucestershire. So I remain perplexed when people in Yorkshire get wiggy about a couple of days of snow in January. But isn’t this normal? I ask. But ‘normal’ is what we grew up with. Nothing is ‘normal’ any more. Like it or not, believe the reasons or not, the climate is changing. Every year we see new weather records – hottest June, wettest December, highest monsoon, most ice lost, earliest melting.


So we are losing the things we love. This earth we live on is changing, and things are dying. People, species, hope. It’s easy to read the statistics and despair. And nothing I can say, no wishful thinking or positive affirmations, can change the facts. So maybe your childhood was filled with snow, and you have to face an adulthood without snow. Maybe the home where you grew up was filled with flocks of starlings, chattering and murmurating across the evening skies, and now there aren’t any. It hurts, it’s painful, I hear you; but I want to take your despair and kick its backside right out of the room. Let’s ask another question: maybe your partner is diagnosed with a degenerative disease, or maybe your parent succumbs to dementia. That person you love, you’ve know for so long, is changing, and there is nothing you can do. Do you despair? Or do you love them anyway? Do you love them as much when they cannot speak to you, as you did when they could? Will you love them when the chemo steals their hair? Will you love your home even when it loses its snow?

If we love this world, this earth, then we must love it unconditionally. If Utah loses its snow, it will not cease to be Utah, it will be a different Utah. And we can mourn the change, but we must continue to fight for its survival. I think this for me is the essence of climbing the Dark Mountain. Earth is still Earth, whatever state it is in. We must love it, and fight for it, and protect it, but we must never let change be perceived as failure, and an excuse to give up. Change is constant, and so must we be.  And yeah, I can see how this might be hard to hold in your head, the seeming dichotomy of ‘we must fight to prevent change’ and ‘we must accept change’, but come on. There are plenty of lessons out there from people who are doing this already; we’re clever. We can do this. We can love.

 

 

 


Democracy isn’t picking the nicest guy

You know what’d be good, and I accept this might be a radical and naive idea, would be if instead of MPs, we had ‘elected representatives’. Not people we voted in because we liked their opinions, but people chosen to listen to the people in their area and represent those views before the current government in charge.

I’d like to sit Nick Clegg down and say ‘Listen you spineless weasel (which essentially makes him a small and ineffective draught excluder, but that’s another story for another time), I don’t give a shit what you think. It’s not your job to have an opinion, it’s your job to represent the opinions of your constituents. You are not a leader, you are messenger, to whom WE have given power and authority to effect change. But not YOUR change. So do your fucking job.’ And then I’d punch him in the face and fly home on my unicorn. Sigh.


Checking in, and checking out

Gotta love a smartphone. It’s like I open my eyes, and the first thing on my mind is ‘I wonder what’s going on in the world? What are the media saying about Jeremy Corbyn today, have there been any terrible disasters in the last seven hours, who’s died, who’s been saved, who’s been taking cool photos, who’s liked that witty remark I made on Facebook last night, what’s happening in the Arctic, in Syria, in Australia, in somewhere random I just spotted a mildly interesting article about?’

I tried that this morning, and it was surprisingly boring. So I think I’m done checking in with the world outside, it’ll still be there later. I’m going to start my days checking in with where I am, with who I am.  I sat in bed this morning and ran a quick diagnostic – how’s my back feeling this morning? How is my stiff shoulder, any better? Hey brain, how are you? It’s grey outside the window, that’s going to have an effect – think you can cope with that today? I checked in with my heart, asked how it was feeling, what it wanted to do today. Aside: There is a reason the heart is associated with love, with emotion, and it’s probably more amazing than you think. Your heart has neurons, like your brain, did you know that? Have a wander round this conversation and its associated links. Anyway, aside from the science, it’s just how I work. I check in with my head, and I check in with my heart, and I learn from them both. So sue me.

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I left the internet on my bedside table, and I walked the dog in the woods. I checked in with the trees, their leaves just starting to hint at a turn to autumn hues. I saw the moorhens looking for insects in the damp grass, and the crow family (two adults, one juvenile, and one extra – maybe a chick from last year, they do come back to help with future siblings) in their usual spot, pecking around, then flying up to a low branch to caw indignantly at my dog. I walked by the stream, which was chuckling faster and cloudier after last night’s rain, and paused to look for the brown trout that always spend the mornings swishing lazily under the bridge. I couldn’t see them through the murk, but they were there somewhere, swishing their tails and thinking trout thoughts. I listened to two robins, chatting to each other across the path, and I watched the grey clouds gradually break apart ahead of a band of clear blue sky.

My lunatic hound didn’t spot any squirrels today (thank goodness, or I’d most likely still be in the woods now, whistling loud whistles and looking like a woman who’s pretending to own an invisible dog), but still had her usual fun five minutes, racing round in large circles, chasing off the pigeons, and spattering me with wet mud every time she charged past. Dogs know how to enjoy the world. Dogs don’t worry about the opinions or body images of other dogs they’ve never met.

OK, I've run, I'm good now.

OK, I’ve run, I’m good now.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, living in the Information Age, but I just like to know I can put it aside, and live in the moment.  Because isn’t that all life is, a series of moments? I don’t want to lie on my death bed and think ‘I never noticed the seasons change, but at least I know why Australians put their onions out that one time.’

Happy Tuesday everyone. How are you today?


Amanda Palmer, soft fruit, and sharing.

I was in Manchester yesterday, to see the one and only Amanda Palmer, and ask if she’d sign my book. Or her book. Whatever. Look, she wrote a book, and it’s really really inspiring and beautiful, and I have a copy, and now she’s signed it for me, and I’m very happy (if a little short on superlatives – I’m tired, OK?). If you haven’t listened to her music yet, or read The Art of Asking, then you absolutely should.

Title page of The Art of Asking, signed 'For Abi. Take the fucking donuts'

Read the book. You’ll understand.

ANYWAY. I was in Manchester yesterday, and it was gorgeously sunny, and massively busy, and I was hungry after standing in a queue in Waterstones (ZOMG so many lovely booooks) for two hours. There was a hot dog stand, which was tempting (and I can never work out why), but I decided to stop at the fruit and veg stall nearby and buy a punnet of cherries instead.  And as I walked back towards the station, through the sunshine and the crowds and all the people trying to give me leaflets, I discovered something amazing. Enlightenment through soft fruit choices: I had something to share. Giving people (especially strangers) things is often weird, and hard to stop from feeling like charity. But somehow sharing things is completely different.  It’s like people are happier to take something from you if you are still keeping some – or most – of it for yourself. That way they are receiving, but not really depriving you of anything, so they are not in your debt. And you know what’s great for sharing, on a sunny hot day in a big city? Cherries.

Punnet of dark red cheries

Tiny morsels of pure joy

“Leaflet?” “No thanks, but would you like a cherry?” “Oh, how kind, thank you!” That kind of thing. I’ll borrow from Amanda Palmer’s book here, but really, it’s exactly how it happened to me too – people were surprised when I spoke to them instead of mumbling  a ‘no thanks’, or just striding past, eyes averted. Handing out leaflets, or newspapers, that nobody really wants, must be a thankless job indeed, and it was lovely to look people in the eye and say ‘would you like a cherry?’ – which really meant, ‘I see you.  You are a person, like me, and it’s a hot day.  Have some fruit.’ There was a homeless guy with a massively chunky Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who asked if I had any change. I had to admit that I’d spent my last change on cherries, but would he like a cherry? He said no thanks, but we had a chat anyway, and his scary dog with a head the size and weight of a bowling ball climbed on my knee and licked my ear.  I may have made a complete cabbage of myself when I came face to face with one of my heroes (I have no recollection of what I mumbled at the lovely Amanda, it was probably cringeworthy), but through her inspiration and permission, if you like, I shared a connection, and smiles, and a lot of cherries, with some complete strangers – who I’m sure are somebody else’s heroes in their own right 🙂