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The car is packed full of boxes as we help someone to move house. Moving house is a huge upheaval. It invites the question, what are we moving towards, but also what are the things that we are leaving behind? My memory jolts back to my first move as a child. It was two weeks before my ninth birthday. I remember a leaving ceremony. I felt awkward and shy in my best blue dress and white nylon socks, that wouldn’t pull as far as my knees up my growing legs.

I understood that we were going somewhere new. But this was an abstract concept for me, because I had only lived in this suburban house. I loved the free reign of parish spaces – church steps, church hall, and adjoining cul-de-sacs to roller skate around. With the other kids from these streets, we played outside, free from adult supervision. The ice-cream van reeled in my attention  every day. I longed for, and occasionally got a FAB or Strawberry Mivvi, by sneaking coins from my Mum’s purse.

I watched my father unlock the church doors, the coming and goings of cubs and scouts. I waited for the coal delivery truck, and celebrated the nasal chant of the rag and bone man. On the main road, buses clustered. Old ladies wearing headscarves or plastic rain bonnets put out their hands or thumbed them on. It was a place where ordinary Londoners went to work on the train, bought square white bread from the bakery, competed with their neighbours’ front garden.

A car, packed full of the bits and pieces that wouldn’t fit in the removal van, with me squeezed in the back seat was ready to leave. I remember waving goodbye. My life was changing, but I was oblivious. I knew we were going, but I hadn’t understood that we were never coming back. I had no idea of where I was going to.

I would only discover that I was defined by paving slabs, street lamps, a landscape of tarmac and brick, by its absence. Landing in alien territory of country lanes, Forestry Commission pine forest, one village shop full of plum-in-the-mouth accents, came as a profound shock. My old identity had been presented to me, ‘the vicar’s daughter’. Now I would have to begin again, overcome the trauma of dislocation, and re-shape myself.

Avebury has become an anchor for me. It is a still point in my psycho-geography. Built around 6000 years ago, in Megalithic times, it keeps calling me back. In this modern era of uncertainty and upheaval, it feels necessary to tap into ancient pathways. The stones – which once formed circles and an avenue – along with Silbury Mound, form part of a constellation of land energy markers.

This is a place of pilgrimage. I notice a plethora of omens as I walk. Small signs take on significance as I contemplate my inner journey. I try to stay on track, following my own idiosyncratic path through life. Crows and wood pigeons call to me here, as they do at home. Crow feathers drop at my feet like breadcrumbs, to show the way, whether I am in the city or in fields.

I stop to watch a bee on a thistle. From ancient times, the thistle represented strength, determination and power. In the Druidic tradition, the bee represents sunshine, the Goddess. I have brought brandy and dates to bring succour and sweetness to honour the ancestors. I wish I’d brought honey. “Where is the honey?” Dexter rings to ask from our kitchen, echoing this, as we sit looking out at Silbury Mound, about to make our offerings. A day later, in another ritual, I will be offered and drink a sip of mead. I am grateful to the bee for its labour, essential to life then as now.

I have a jolt of recognition as grief comes to visit. “Oh, hello again, I know you.” It feels like a small bird trapped in my chest. Anxiety sets in, with a fluttering of wings, with fear of what is to come. Speaking of it gives my heart an unexpected squeeze, which elicits tears. It feels as though the little bird is being crushed inside my chest when this happens. Thinking about the cause of my sorrow hurts, as though the little bird has smacked against the cage of my chest. If I observe closely, I notice this emotional pain can cause physical sensations along my arms to the tips of my fingers, and fill my stomach.

Then distracted, or numb, there may be a brief respite of quietude as I forget. Regaining consciousness again, the little bird takes to battering itself against confinement. I dip in and out of feelings, sometimes immersed, as though this captive air-borne creature is being held under water. Sometimes I am with a tender quality of beauty for all that is in the world, slowing down to feel gratitude alongside sadness.

I know over the coming days that this little bird will be squeezed, and bruised as grief mauls it like a predator inside my rib cage. I know too that every grief will mark me in some way, and ripen my understanding.

After a long dry spell without access to a pool, we are longing to swim. There is still the shock as warm flesh hits cold water, and a sharp intake of breath once I have inched in deep enough to lean out into the first lunge. It feels as though my skin is being stroked by silk as I acclimatise to the cold. I remember how it feels good, as I dry off. Sunshine and the sea breeze toast my skin, drying beads of salt water. The smell of the sea, mingled with sun cream makes my nostrils flare with pleasurable associations.

Seagulls fly low overhead, scanning for fish and chips. I can hear the squeals of both children and adults as they encounter cool water. My companions swim at the far edge of the ‘marine pool’. Just beyond is the sea. All around me, there is a burble of happy holiday sounds.

In full sunshine, the landscape of sky is inked in cobalt blue and the sea blends olive green with Prussian blue. Later, overcast, it has a different colour palette. Hazy bands delineate pool, the Severn estuary, windmills and industrial silhouettes of Wales behind. Then there is sky and a few distant smears of cloud. Bands of neutral tones mark each layer, with hints of pink, blue, brown and green. The sea recedes, shimmering silver grey.

In the garden studio where I am sitting in three dimensions, a squirrel grabs onto my trousers, and climbs up my leg. “You look like Snow White”, someone quips in the Zoom room, watching the wildlife come close in my screen. This squirrel has become bolder, in search of my stash of almonds. Papers scatter, when she eventually ventures onto my desk, locating my horde. She tries to open the glass jar, but it is resistant to her sharp teeth and dextrous paws.

Our lockdown guests made friends with this grey squirrel, naming her Squiffy. She also visits next door, where she is known as Clara. Easy to identify, with a cut-short tail, inquisitive expression and beguiling eyes, she has become a frequent diner at our bird table, and from my hand. She likes black sunflower seeds, almonds, is partial to acorns, loves to chew on a peach pit, but is mad for hazelnuts.

Squiffy’s presence adds delight to my day, and a bit of magic to the garden, but in my head, I hear the voice of the militant squirrels in Dom Jolly’s ‘Trigger Happy TV’ shouting, “Give us your nuts!”

These hands belong to a close friend, who lives in a care home. He often struggles with confusion. His life was impacted by a sudden event. Surgery and a spell in hospital followed. Both the original event and its treatment were traumatic. Some months later, a sudden improvement in his condition gave him more awareness of what had happened to him. This ‘insight’ in itself, a greater realisation of the radical changes in his life, might be described as another layer of trauma.

During the Corona virus pandemic, he has been stoical, and is cared for brilliantly. However, he has been deprived of regular visits from friends and family. These visits usually provide hugs, support, a sense of orientation, identity, and a feeling of being loved. A phone call for someone with this kind of impairment just doesn’t communicate well. Now visits are possible again, but under very strict protocols. I am present, yet at 2 metres distance, for a short time, outside. I wear a mask, that doesn’t reassure like a smile. I watch the hands that I can’t hold, notice the finger-nails I can’t clip, and feel for those who are denied the proximity of loving touch.

Like a crime scene, the victims of accident or predator sometimes lie in my path. I imagine each feather marked with an exhibit number, a chalk line around the body. The path that meets the road is closed off one day this week, with real police tape. “There has been a shooting,” word passes between dog walkers. Accident or not, a tragedy will probably be playing out in two households, as a consequence.

On this theme, there are a couple of gems available to hear on BBC Radio 4, which unfold some of the consequences for everyone involved after a crime has been committed. ‘This Thing of Darkness’ is a 8 part drama, written by Anita Vettesse and Eileen Horne. It follows a forensic psychiatrist’s conversations with an accused man, and members of his family, in an attempt to unravel what happened. Told from the psychiatrist’s point of view, it reveals her thought processes as she listens for glimmers of truth among the facts. It also includes characters inside a therapy group process within a prison. It allows us to see the nuanced and complex causes of what happened, and the feelings of everyone touched by the incident.

‘The Punch’ is a 5 part documentary series following the impact after one young man was convicted of manslaughter, for killing another with a single punch. We hear about the impact of the death both on the person convicted, and the family of the victim. It gives an inspiring insight into the process of restorative justice. The outcome of the meetings between the convicted, and the parents of the victim is remarkable, but does not diminish the morass of difficult feelings on both sides.

I rarely foray beyond the distance of a dog walk. Travelling on the tube is now a novel experience. Passengers, disguised by paper, cloth or moulded fibre masks stay divided, moving along the platform as though pushed away by negative magnetic poles. We step on the train like a game of Connect 4. We make strategic moves to sit in seats that block consecutive diagonal or straight rows. This deliberate spacing interrupts the flow of my micro interactions. I notice how the separation amplifies a feeling of estrangement. Those without masks have become renegades, subject to stares from the obedient. I try to expand the expression possible with eyebrows, wonder if anyone knows I am smiling? A man plugged into headphones opposite me in the carriage has shaking shoulders. I am concerned at first by what looks like sobbing. Then the angle of his head lifts, and I recognise laughter. Perhaps this conceal is a great relief to the introverted, to those who prefer to travel incognito. I notice that I can slacken my jaw, rest the crinkles that habitually pinch into a smile. I value the street currency of nods, benedictions of kind looks, and mirrored grins from the colourful. I enjoy paying my way in “Good mornings”, and exchanges of friendliness with open faces. The absence of choice makes me feel uncomfortable, the ushering in of fear growing from this distance. The other may now be perceived as a source of threat, but the real risk of infection is unknown. In this new world order I am being cautious, but I choose connection, touch and self-revelation.

 

Rachel, who died last year, is commemorated just under a hammer and sickle, and opposite an ‘Om’ sign. At first Bob kept a coffee table memorial with a photograph and flowers to honour his beloved of many decades. The walls are still alive with some of Rachel’s paintings; and on the mantelpiece, photographs hark back to her wilder days of travel, and radical politics alongside Bob.  She still remains close to his heart, on his left bicep. He has also commissioned a local potter to make a plaque for the garden wall. This will continue their tradition of non-conformism, as a non-religious way to remember her life, and the important place she held in their family. For many of us, there is no longer a set way to remember those who have died. We can choose our own ways to mourn, to mark each significant date, to make space for our responses to the absence of loved ones. I love Bob’s characteristically thoughtful approach – a tattooed portrait, as a significant way to mark the pain of his loss, and the plaque to make a dedicated place to remember.

Before a grief tending session, we recommend connecting with support. We suggest checking in with someone before and after a group. We often ask, “How resourced do you feel?” Responses to this question vary, and sources of support can range hugely too. They may include some very general terms like ‘nature’, ‘friends’, and ‘my community’, as well as more specific ‘my cat, therapist or partner’, or reveal an absence of dependable support. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective focuses on “building relationship and trust” in transformative justice. Their work includes those whose need for support may be affected by a history of abuse, isolation and oppression. Mia Mingus writes an exploration of ‘pods’ and ‘pod mapping’ for the collective, which illuminates some very common gaps in support networks. “Most people have few solid, dependable relationships in their lives.” Mingus goes on to say, “Although ‘community’ is a word that we use all the time, many people don’t know what it is or feel they have never experienced it… Asking people to organize their pod was much more concrete than asking people to organize their ‘community’.”

I used the ‘pod mapping’ worksheet to identify my own sources of support. It was a really useful exercise. I wanted to look at my ‘pod’ in the context of grief in particular, but also reflected on maps for other themes. My grief ‘Venn diagram’ features particular people, inspirations and practices. A few key people overlap in several of my ‘pods’. These are the ones who stand near the centre of my life in multiple roles. They are often my first port of call to witness tears of sadness or joy. I find it helpful to consider, who I can really count on. ‘Chosen family’ is also an important part of my own queer social network. Widening my pod identified people with shared interests to connect with for reciprocal support. I found it helpful to get clear about what feeds me, and where there are sources of emotional credit to draw on when I need it, as well as the places that could use more resilience building.
See The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective for pods and pod mapping article and worksheet.