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An ossuary is a place to store bones, from the latin ‘os’ meaning bone. There are many places around the world where bones are stored, often in boxes, in places of faith – Zoroastrian, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish for example. There are many crypts and catacombs which hold human remains.

The Church of All Saints at Sedlec in the Czech Republic and The Skull Chapel in Kudowa, Poland are decorated in baroque style. Mojmir Horyna speculates about the meanings of such places in ‘Momento Mori’, a book of photographs of the Ossuary at Sedlec.

“The very building of the ossuary, as a place where the remains of the unknown dead were laid out in patterns, expressing hope in the resurrection, is also a fundamental expression of something else: it is an operation of human solidarity in the history of salvation, a solidarity which stretches across generations and centuries, which demolishes the empire of death and breaks through the temporal boundaries of the individual human life.”

We came upon the ossuary in the crypt of St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, in Kent by chance. It is small in comparison with some of the larger European ones, but a significant collection of around 1,200 skulls and includes the remains of around 2,000 people. The collection was first recorded in 1678 as ‘an orderly pile of dead men’s bones’, although its exact origin is undocumented and many of the bones date much further back. It is housed in a small annexe of the church. There are four arched bays. Skulls rest on shelves to the ceiling, making an audience of ancestors peering at the visitors who have come to look back at them.

A large carefully balanced mound of femurs interspersed with skulls takes up the volume of about 2 cars. Some of the irresistible rounded foreheads and ball joints have been polished smooth by hands passing over the centuries. In the 21st century scientific inspection seems to take precedence over veneration. The focus of this gathering of the dead has become a library for study. Students investigate causes of death, ways of life, nutrition and dental decay.

It is easy to separate myself from these long dead creatures. I see their individual characteristics as part of a decorative pattern. I notice my curiosity at their differences – youth, age, bony protrusions, blunt-force traumas. The evidence of a nest lined with dried grass in one (bird or mouse?) delights me.

But there is an important lesson here amongst the dust, spiders and creeping green mould; a reminder that I too will one day stare hollow-eyed, a momento of a life once lived in solidarity with future beings.

Why don’t we talk about menopause?

Why don’t we talk about the menopause? Are we just embarrassed to speak about personal things? Or is it because the things that happen to our bodies are loaded with shame? In talking about it, we might risk showing our vulnerability.  We are loaded in western capitalist society by unconscious messages about beauty and mortality. Youth, productivity and fertility are valued markers of success, rather than wrinkles and wisdom. It may also be because approaching our senior years reminds people that they will not live forever, the truth we all try to forget.

How can we talk to our peers about menopause? Media images encourage women in particular to compete at looking younger for longer. Is it because we daren’t risk being rude or invasive that we don’t ask or reveal to one another? Talking about the menopause may be just one taboo in a long list. We may not have talked about the things that came before this rite of passage – puberty, bleeding, pain, lost pregnancies, infertility, terminations, tampons, fibroids, sexually transmitted infections, our sexual encounters, our sexual pleasure, masturbation…

The metamorphosis of menopause

Like puberty, you don’t know when the menopause will happen, and how it will land in your life. It is official a year after your final period. I see it effect the people around me in different ways. The most likely predictor for when it will happen is genetic. Early menopause can also come way before mid-life. This is less common, and is sadly much less widely recognised, as it arrives unexpected with many consequences. My final period came when I was 51, the average age, despite my first period being early. I now have a nostalgic fondness for copious bleeding and the earthy messiness of menstruation.

“Everything you cling to that’s comfortable in its familiarity including your very identity is metamorphosing from the inside out,” Christiane Northrup.

Up to 10 years of peri menopause

The piece of information I wish I had known ahead of time was that it may have a lead up of 4-5 or even up to 10 years of peri menopausal symptoms. Menopause can also come suddenly in response to surgical or medical situations.

Menopause used to be known as ‘the change’; as though it was a single turning point in the transition from the archetype of mother to crone. My experience has been of a gradual process of transformation. With hindsight I can recognise difficult and sometimes dramatic symptoms in a lengthy peri menopause.

During, or perhaps as a consequence of peri menopause I was exploring my sexuality, and I enjoyed surges in sexual energy. At the same time, I needed to come to terms with infertility. There was grief in being unable to be a biological parent. I gradually let go of dreams of being a birth parent. This came with an enquiry into who I wanted to become. I weathered the emotional shifts as my creative energy was channelled into other new ventures.

“Our hormones are giving us an opportunity to see, once and for all, what we need to change in order to live honestly, fully and healthfully in the second half of our lives.” Christiane Northrup

Navigating the changes of menopause

I was unprepared for the physiological changes. I did have encounters with medical professionals during gynaecological medical emergencies, but I found little information or support elsewhere. My mother couldn’t remember how old she had been by the time I got around to asking. There was a distinct absence of elders to pass on their wisdom on the subject.

Davina McColl’s refreshingly straight-talking documentary on Channel 4 ‘Sex, Myths and the Menopause’ is a good starting point on the subject. Information can be found on websites such as Women’s Health Concern – the patient arm of the British Menopause Society, Menopause Support and Menopause Matters. Look for independent reliable information that is not covert advertising for products, treatments or consultants.

There is still stigma and embarrassment in talking about menopause issues. Like other signs of mortality, talking about ageing can be taboo, worse still showing visible signs of it. I am aware that some people feel more invisible in the face of the physical changes of becoming mature. Others may redirect their energies into new endeavours with vigour.

The issues around menopause are not just ‘women’s business’. In a mission to make menopause more inclusive, Tania Glyde recognises that ‘Queer Menopause’ effects many including women, trans men and non-binary people. Whatever your identity, it is likely to include hormonal, physiological and emotional changes.

Menopause in Relationships

Friends, family and partners may be in different life phases, or moving towards elderhood in different ways. It may be complex to co-navigate changing needs and desires in lifestyle and relationships. After many years caring for others, I found myself with more time to invest in new interests that I hope will sustain me into the next phase of my life.

Coming to terms with changes in levels of desire, or response may precipitate exploration into what works for us sexually. If you haven’t already considered what you still want to receive, or give, I recommend Betty Martin’s ‘Wheel of Consent’. Being menopausal doesn’t mean we have to give up on intimate touch, although it’s a great time to work out what we do want to share in relationships with others.

A rite of passage

Like most rites of passage, the route through menopause is a liminal journey of stages – preparation, threshold and return. Ideally there will be support and education during peri menopause, and adjustments made before the final period. The threshold occurs, but we may not know it until a year after it has happened. One of the things that I found tricky was not knowing when I had actually had my final period. There was a gap of six months and then a year between my penultimate and final periods.

During this time, we will be aware that our years of potential fertility or procreation have come to an end. As with any big life change, this transition is an opportunity to grieve what is ending. Our ability to recognise and face this letting go process will reflect how we feel about our achievements and regrets as our identity shifts. The health concerns that may have accompanied our menstruation cycles will also be factors.

As physiological changes happen, are we welcomed into a community? Do we have support in place for this new time of life? Do we have peers we can talk to? Is our GP willing to hear and respond to our concerns? Are we resourced enough to find the support we need to manage symptoms?

After all the changes that may accompany peri menopause, and then menopause, I notice an absence of marking this initiation. Will our arrival on the shores of eldership be acknowledged or better still celebrated? Is this the time, or will I have become a member of the older generation when my hair turns white, or when there are no longer any family members ahead of me?

The symptoms of menopause

There are many symptoms that may be part of the experience of menopause. Hot flushes, (hot flashes), poor memory, changes in sexual responses and vaginal dryness have affected me. Then there are night sweats and early morning anxiety which disrupt my sleep patterns. Symptoms may arrive suddenly or gradually then ease off or stick around.

I have experimented with a variety of alternative treatments to support my physical and emotional health at different times including Chinese herbs and Acupuncture, Grindberg Method, Cranial Osteopathy, Herbal Medicine and natural bioidentical hormone creams. This is in addition to taking food supplements, good nutrition and exercise. My family enjoyed regular yam patties for a while. Yam is one source of naturally occurring oestrogen, but quite an effort to mash.

One solution to ease vaginal dryness

If you want to avoid the graphic details of my journey with vaginal dryness, stop reading here. Vaginal dryness crept up on me, and I became reluctant to engage in penetrative sexual play until I discovered that regular activity in my vagina actually made the pain improve rather than worsen. I retreated from the dread of the words ‘vaginal atrophy’ by putting some practical steps into action.

Experimenting to find what works for me, I now have a daily practice of repeatedly inserting and removing a ribbed glass dildo into my vagina. You can find a selection at Women’s ‘adult emporium’ Sh! and other adult stores including Love Honey. This stretches my vaginal sphincter and helps my vaginal walls to lubricate. I use a dollop of ‘Yes VM’ natural organic vaginal moisturiser. (Their lubes are great too.) Over time I built up to moving swiftly in and out for a couple of minutes. Now I do it about 70 times every morning just before brushing my teeth. When I began, this was an unimaginable goal. But it has over time reversed the pain and dryness which I was experiencing during intimate touch.

Anything that enhances blood flow to the pelvic area may help. Practices of self-pleasure that work for you are worth experimenting with. I find ribbed glass good for stimulating and stretching, and the glass has a cooling sensation. I wish someone had given me a few tips, so I hope this will be useful information to pass on.

On the other side of menopause

What am I like several years on from my last period? A more direct communication style has replaced some of the buffers of ‘niceness’. I am more confident in who I am and what I want to do. My gender identity also feels less fixed, and also less important as my hair greys. Brain fog and memory lapses can make me feel at the edge of my capability, but I feel as though I have no time to waste, ready to offer my experience to the world as an elder in training.

My inexpert experiences here are a kind of coming out, to reveal what often remains unseen and unheard in the shadows. I value intergenerational work. The conversations I have with the extraordinary young people I come into contact with fill me with hope. The generations have such different perspectives and exposure to ideas around sexuality and the body. In writing this I offer an invitation to risk having conversations about the nitty gritty of life with elders and youngers alike.

My spine is tingling as I watch ten performers solemnly walk along the path towards me, in Kensal Green Cemetery. They move at funeral pace, each holding a grief object, in a ritual procession of remembrance. I am here to support an intention to hold death in my awareness along with these non-professional dancers who, all over 60 are themselves turning towards mortality.

Along with singing and making music together, dance is one of our oldest and most universal human activities. In this time, this mode of expression is often side-lined as a pastime of the young or drunk. My winding and sensuous dances keep my ageing body moving, but also allow my soul to connect with others. One of the advantages of age for me, is a letting go of inhibitions – to be less self-conscious about my image in others’ eyes. We bumped into a friend on the way to the cemetery by chance, who told us that dancing in community was what sustained their parents (now late 70’s).

Rose Rouse – a passionate dancer and advocate for the ‘Advantages of Age’ was the instigator of ‘Dance Me to Death’. She met Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada of Fubunation – young dancers who are exploring black masculinity in their choreography, encouraging diverse collaborations and audiences. Rose was excited by Rhys and Waddah’s work. But, in order to make this intergenerational project happen said, “I had to persuade them to do this project with me.” They said “Yes”, and the project emerged as a collaboration – devising, dancing and exploring their experiences around death and grief. The outcome is a performance, photographs, and documentary film in the making.

The cemetery is a beautiful backdrop of caryatids, columns, and tombs surrounded by trees, and just enough wildness. Reminiscent of the angels that reach out to one another from the top of one mausoleum, the dancers stretch and connect. As the dancers claim the grand steps of one chapel they move,  dancing with the edges between life and death. Cello and percussion accompany their coming together in group pieces and duets that are tender with moments of surprising energy.

Informed by mortality, and the uncertainty of Covid rules and weather, this nod to death felt like an achievement against the odds, and a celebration of life.

Sam Butler and David Harradine of ‘Fevered Sleep’ have devised and produced ‘This Grief Thing’.

This Grief Thing is a project that encourages people to think, talk and learn about grief.”

Their billboard caught my eye last week as I walked along Dalston Lane. They have curated a number of talks on grief themes, as well as other projects that stir people to engage with the theme.

Tony and I visited their market stall in Brick Lane where Julie, Sam and David folded T shirts and sweltered in the heat like all the other market traders. Poised for spontaneous interactions, the presence of the stall caught the eye of people walking past. As people browsed hoodies and T shirts, conversations were encouraged with the curious. I remembered my days on the Narrow Way initiating random conversations with strangers in the Hackney is Friendly project.

The market stall is full of merchandise designed to open conversations with ordinary people to normalise talking about loss. Brilliant and simple, their slogans champion a way to engage with someone who may feel ill-equipped to mourn, or to respond to someone who is grieving.

“Don’t panic if I cry,” printed on a red T-shirt particularly appealed to me. We left with “Let me be sad” badges, and some other swag. I shall wear them, ready to see what communication it provokes, hoping to spread their mission of everyday encounters that unlock the taboo around the subject of grief.

We have been invited by Nora Sorensen to hold a ‘Love Ritual’ for the ‘Monday Club’ on the 21st June. It is to be a sister event to the ‘Grief Circle’ we held on the 7th June.

We were hoping to celebrate the end of lockdown on this Midsummer Day, but our plans have been foiled by an extension to distancing rules. But the heart is a flexible organ, and we will offer routes in to love and connection despite, and perhaps because of the distance that remains at present between us in public indoor spaces.

Like ‘grief’, love is a four-letter word that includes many different feelings and meanings. For me, a way into loving and being loved – whether it is in family, friendship, sensual, sexual, community or other contexts, is to be in connection with myself. Our personal history, personality, cultural and gender socialisation all play their part too.

Connecting with my body, and my inner life is an ongoing process. I didn’t begin to unfold my own desires until I was in my forties. Tapping into our longings, asking ourselves what we want can be a huge adventure. It was also really helpful to learn skills that help build the capacity for intimacy.

After ‘me’, the next step is meeting ‘you’, the other. It involves noticing whether I feel safe enough to trust another person, whether I want to connect with them. Sometimes this is difficult, and sometimes I might do it too easily. Again, our patterns of relating play a part, as well as having the luck to meet willing others to explore with.

Then what happens when we land in a group. Can we be authentic together, and connect to ‘we’ space, (as Thomas Hübl calls it)? Our ability to open our hearts when it feels appropriate also comes into play in groups. “We are wired for connection,” as Sophy Banks says, “to be held in community”, but it can be elusive to find places where all of our parts are welcome.

In synch with the Summer Solstice, can we feel the warmth of sunshine and open our hearts? What is ready to blossom in us? Are we able to appreciate others blooming? Inviting the possibility of vulnerability and shared intimacy, will our group journey into the theme of love elicit tears of longing or the joy of coming together?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have been invited by Nora Sorensen to lead two introductory workshops in Blackheath. One is on the theme of grief, the other with a focus on love. I am conscious that these two themes wind together almost inseparably. Love is probably the thing that brings us together, that drives us, that evokes poetry and art to inspire us. “Love is the only language I speak fluently” says graffiti artist Trusty Scribe. On this Brighton wall, there is an image of Bob Dylan by The Postman. I don’t know who gave him tears, but here they sit together – love and loss.

It is easy to confuse the word ‘grief’ with bereavement. While the death of someone close to us is often a huge and devastating experience of grief, there are many other possible reasons to feel pain. Grief is a broad church and can lurk for many reasons past, present and future. All our losses are worthy of receiving our attention; and some experiences of loss or change may be more significant than we realise. The absence of someone or something, or the presence of suffering can alert us to value the things we held or hold dear.

Bereavement is a significant source of grief precisely because it reveals how much we love and miss someone who has died. Similarly, when someone or something becomes beloved to us, the fear of separation or ending may haunt us.

The fear and pain which grief can cause us often makes us keen to keep the lid tightly closed on our feelings. This is often for much needed self-protection at a difficult time, and we may not even realise we have done this. These self-protective mechanisms may have been “our childhood heroes” (as Thomas Hübl calls them). We want to keep safe, and sometimes this comes at a cost to ourselves. In Grief Tending we invite bringing kind attention to these parts of ourselves.

Intimacy, presence and vulnerability are the language of love for me. These are the skills that bring connection – with self and others – for both love and grief. When I am connected to more of myself I notice I laugh more. When I am present, grounded and in touch with my tender emotions, I am also more sensuous, more available for spontaneous fun. Paradoxically, opening up to love can put me in touch with yearning, or the disappointment of the places in me that don’t feel seen and valued.

There is risk in daring to show myself, to express who I am, but it is also exciting. I am on a journey to feel more, to love more and increase my capacity to live compassionately, unhindered by outdated fears. Like going out dancing, Grief Tending can feel like an effort, and requires a little courage, but it always makes me feel better afterwards.

In my ‘before times’ life, I was a member of different communities and social groups that circled around festivals and events. There were many people that I could recognise and not name. My daily circuits of dog walkers, pram pushers, shop-keepers and local characters number many more familiar but anonymous faces.

My Face Book ‘friends’ include people I may have shared a brief, intense experience with (like a workshop), as well as people I would encounter regularly, but not know well (like on a dance floor). I can name many of these, but may misplace the origin of our connection. If we don’t meet for some time, they may be relegated to the bigger pool of un-nameable people from my circles of interaction.

‘Dunbar’s number’ is an orbit of around 150 people that roughly equates to the size of a village. Repeated research findings indicate that this is the average number of people that our brains are designed to handle in terms of useful communication and connection. Above this 150 meaningful connections might be about 500 acquaintances. Then there are 1500 faces, which might be recognisable. Below are smaller average units of 50 friends, 15 close friends and 5 beloveds.

I notice that in my own life there is a constant game of Snakes and Ladders between these circles of connections. Although the numbers maintain a rough equilibrium, people move up a ladder into the category of ‘Want to know you better as we are currently on the same wave length’, and slide down with ‘If it is always me who phones, are you more engaged with people who have more in common with you right now?’

This week, a person whose company I enjoy, but don’t know well introduced me to the concept of ‘Cactus Friends’. These are people who do not require regular maintenance, but when you feed them with the water of your attention, they respond with delight, as though becoming vivid green. I like the light touch this understanding can bring to a friendship.

I have moved in and out of communities, as I become more or less aligned with different interest groups. After this year of minimal social interaction, I wonder what the current Venn Diagram of my relationships looks like. I am reflecting on the friendships that have gone deeper, and those, which have got lost. Who inspires me? Who do I feel moved to reach out to? Who supports me, and who do I support? I no longer seem to have the capacity for the many micro stitches of attention and repair needed to foster healthy connections with all the people I used to see socially. I hope some of these will flourish from time to time as Cacti friends.

There is no stated dress code for this funeral. It is being held for an octogenarian, so perhaps formal is best. But it was a life lived well and long, so perhaps a flourish of colour to acknowledge their well-played ‘innings’.

I settle for my mother’s home-made in the 1950’s black velvet coat, and a bright shawl. The coat has no buttons – I wonder to myself whether it is because button-holes were and still are a chore to make, even with my clever sewing machine. Instead I clutch it closed over my winter dress, which conceals thermal underwear, and step into the misty morning. Today I eschew pink fur hat, dog paraphernalia and hiking boots.

Our car has stayed put on our street over winter. On opening, I discover it is cultivating a spread of green mould. Despite the cold, we drive with open windows hoping to dry out the atmosphere. We skirt around the metropolis to what seems another world, way beyond the reaches of my lockdown-beaten-bounds.

I notice fresher air, fewer people, and struggle to use the car park payment system. I perch in the cold to eat my sandwich lunch, made at breakfast time in my familiar kitchen. I regret that the carefully prepared thermos, is still sitting on the kitchen worktop.

Outside the church, selected representatives from different strands of the well-loved deceased’s life negotiate greeting. Do we bump elbows or wave? Coming together for this rite of passage without the rituals of touch adds another layer of discomfort. My expressions of warmth and care are lost beneath my mask. I try a twitching eyebrow to make connection. My words feel lame. I wince overhearing another grapple with a genuinely offered “Sorry for your loss.”

We stumble through new rituals of sanitising hands, registering our contact details for ‘Track and Trace’. Alternate pews are blocked off with red tape. We sit in isolated pods, at least a pew away from backs hunched in sorrow. The choir of three sing hums at a distance while we stay mute. An inspiring eulogy and readings are given in the traditional British manner – words regimented over emotions that sometimes crack through.

But to my delight, in lavish and beautiful gestures, the British Sign Language interpreter brings real poetry with their embodied expression of the solemn words spoken. My tears roll in response to this direct communication of all that this event means, in this time.

Outside again, rain hammers down and draws our distanced conversations to a close. I miss my usual rain-proof jacket, return to the car with hair, coat and shawl soaked. The car steams. I sense the mould perk up, quietly continuing its life cycle.

“In order to find our way, we must become lost”
Yoruba saying via Bayo Akomolafe

A variant of the Corona virus rampages through the UK now. Whatever your perspective on the virus, restrictions as a consequence, and the UK’s changing boundaries with Europe, we are living with uncertainty. The spectre of climate change continues to slink past our political gatekeepers. Are we lost enough?

As the year turns, a pink camellia in our garden, which was blossoming un-seasonally early, has now been chewed by a hard frost. The Old River Lea rose alarmingly, the marshes sodden at the edges. The river is full of willow tears. Branches and twigs are scattered on the ground in the wake of Storm Bella. Much else is also out of right relationship in our world.

2020 has been a bumper year for grief. What might have been hidden away in other years as a minority interest for the bereaved, has through necessity come to the fore. Unexpected crisis, loss, isolation, disappointment, anxiety and depression have devastated many. I feel incredibly lucky to no longer be caring for parents and children. Huge respect is owed to those who are juggling care roles – personal and public.

Social injustice has also rightfully been made visible this year. I see the consequences of unequal power dynamics playing out. We have seen grassroots movements take to the streets and social media, but we still have a long way to go. The impact of collective trauma is only just beginning to be recognized. I am learning about the relationship between what pains me, and what we carry systemically. I have been navigating my way through a tsunami of wise words and courageous expressions. Sophy Banks, Bayo Akomolafe, and Thomas Hübl are among those who are illuminating the landscape of this ‘lostness’ for me.

This year I feel as though I have more to be grateful for than ever. I am extremely lucky to have hugs, organic broccoli, wi-fi, urban wild to walk in, time for creativity and squirrel friends. In appreciating the things I have, I try to also imagine life in other shoes, less comfortable than mine. I try to see political differences, polarizing arguments, and different viewpoints as a result of the different stories we hear, or tell ourselves. I welcome curiosity, more tolerance and celebrate kindness. I hope also to be kind to myself when I fail in these and other things.

I am trying to sit with not knowing, with the uncertainty of ‘lostness’. Alongside the relationships that have grown and deepened this year, I find myself leaning more into the transrational; the things that are beyond the rational, that can’t be easily explained in logical ways. I am finding my way through art, intuition, ritual, and faith in the unseen and unknown. May we recognise that we are lost, and find our way, both individually and together.

 

Living creatively is an invitation to walk through the world with eyes open to wonder. There is a quality of presence, of being in the moment, which ushers in a way of looking, unhindered by too much thinking. Whenever I travel to somewhere new, I put on this way of seeing like invisible glasses. But I also try to remain open to looking with my ‘travelling eyes’ in my every day places.

The serendipity of light, weather, season, and other chance encounters give endless variations to my daily walking route, and the kaleidoscope of natural patterns. To see like this is a commitment to curiosity. I urge myself to notice and follow the energy that is alive for me in everything. ‘Where is the juice in this subject, this conversation, or in the dance between us?’

I find a leaf, an insect, a feather, a puddle, examine the details with ‘mouse view’. Here sit droplets of water on a pigeon feather. Vast elements encapsulated in feather, grass, rain and light – air, earth, water and fire. Here lies beauty and simplicity.