Blog

In a hidden corner of South London is artist Stephen Wright’s extraordinary house. It is a cave of wonders, an eclectic collage of colours, textures, objects and images. Over many years he has crafted the house to tell the story of his own ethnobiography. Confronted by the death of his parents and then partner, the walls, ceiling and sculptures inside reflect the narrative of his grieving process. It is a moving temple of remembrance. As I revisit the ‘House of Dreams’ for the third time I am welcomed through its blue door – where conversations about art, beauty and death are celebrated. www.stephenwrightartist.com/houseofdreams.php

My wellbeing is balanced by putting myself first; and then taking care of others with any surplus energy. This practice is foundational, having experienced what happens when I don’t. Today it means describing my biomechanical symptoms and inner state of mind, sticking out my tongue, offering up my wrists. The acupuncturist’s reassuringly capable hands feel my pulse, tap in needles, heat me with burning mugwort on ginger and vibrate me with tuning forks. I absorb it all, feeling the shape of my need.

Herbal blends are neatly sealed in printed packets containing one-mug bags. The long-gone choice of peppermint, chamomile or rosehip has been replaced with branded states of mind like ‘Feel New’ and ‘Love’. Taking a snapshot from my memory of childhood and comparing it to now, I find gaping holes in my culinary and herbal know-how. We split and sprinkled the seeds from rose hips into unsuspecting boys’ collars as itching powder. I don’t know how to make tangy, vitamin-rich tea, so I check. Pluck hips after the first frost (for sweetness) from a rose bush uncontaminated by pesticide. Top and tail each hip. Steep 4-8 hips in boiling water for 10-15 minutes for high potency tea.

On opening the door, an unfamiliar dog bolts through my legs and dashes across the road into the park. I follow, adrenalin pumping. A high speed chase ensues through the park and out at the other end. “What’s the dog’s name?” I pant into my phone, the rush of traffic drowning out the reply. “What?” Dog crosses main road, down the pedestrian ‘Narroway’ and out into another road where cars stop their manoeuvres to let us pass. We are approaching another large busy road. I have run out of sprint. Then a young man appears on the opposite pavement on a scooter. He out-rides the dog-in-a-panic whose name sounds like ‘Daz’, catches him for me to grab. This is not a tale of a lost, injured or dead dog, but one about gratitude. After the briefest of thanks, the young man scooted off. Today, out walking a mile and a half in the other direction I meet my rescuer. We swap names, shake hands and I am able to thank him properly, my street angel. On the ground I find a very small saint.

A selection of apparently unrelated items nestle in the crematorium waiting room. They have each been chosen to give the illusion of comfort and safety in an environment that most will encounter during a period of very uncomfortable loss of emotional safety. The artifice of these flowers, the institutional furniture, intended to make me feel at home, highlights instead the way the business of dying has been hived off away from the clutter of home and family life.

Sunlight dapples through the lobed emerald green leaves. The oak inspires me to be strong, to stand tall. In these days of polarities and politics, I think of the oak, which marries the curvaceous with the linear. In this young oak is the potential for great ship hulls to be carved. For me the oak teaches us to sail safely through storms, to hold troubles lightly, to endure, to think in deep time lines.

South of the river – behind and between the brick warehouses, pubs and centuries of old Southwark lies Crossbones. Gathering every 23rd of the month at this once forgotten paupers’ burial ground is a crowd of people come to celebrate the edge dwellers of life. We offer words and tokens in memory of the outcast, the ‘othered’ and of sex workers. John Crow – bard and shepherd of this flock welcomes the absurd and the unheard. I imagine this diverse but woolly-hatted crowd creeping out of the cracks in the city to bring their undervalued blessings; here to remember those who have fallen through the cracks. Libertines speak poems into the dark, drowned out intermittently by the rumble of jets full of people who can’t hear the poetry. www.crossbones.org.uk

Eagle feather presides over the room. It was a gift from a Hunter who trains Golden Eagles in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Symbol of truth, this feather represents one of my highest ideals, something to align with. Another gift – almost identical in colour is this knitted rat, a double of a beloved pet, who came to represent embodied wisdom and love. He taught me to stroke him until I was present – a zen master rodent. I value the twin perspectives of eagle and rat vision – the eagle’s overview of the big picture and rat’s beady eye for close observation, spotting the details of life. Both are allies for me as a space holder for grief.

It is a perfect Indian summer’s day with blue sky and sunshine to frame the pylon. This now shorn meadow is a piece of my favourite urban wild landscape. Like a Constable painting, green blue and ochre contrast with one singing pixel of red. The abandoned scarlet sleeping bag – left by a recent tent dweller – a hint of dystopia. Yet this is a place of refuge for me. I come here to expand my chest, to ruminate. It is the place I imagine being scattered if I am cremated. It’s local, easy to visit and natural enough to elbow out the encroaching pressure of east London.

Ten clear glass bottles wait for the milk van/person. They arrive next door with turquoise/pink foil tops. Milk drunk, they will be collected, washed, re-used. This normal part of my childhood is now an out of the ordinary labour of the environmentally conscious. I remember Blue Peter appeals and saving our silver milk bottle tops. In our house normal/British Rail/builders tea is now abnormal. We sip our herbal uppers/downers, fruity or spicy. For cereal there’s a tetra pack of coconut/almond.