Sarah’s Journal

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.

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.

I want to point to the disorientation that loss of memory can have on our mental landscape. Loss of memory can create mental fog and confusion. Things may not be quite as they seem. For me, it can be as if I have forgotten a vital key in a chain of events.

Loss of memory can be a normal part of the aging process. It may be a symptom of hormonal changes, or be as a result of a variety of health conditions. It can be affected by nutritional deficiencies. Sometimes, the body needs to prioritise other more essential functions. In my case it may be a legacy that remains post having had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

I have a sense that the holes in my ability to remember are growing at an alarming rate. The spectre of dementia hangs just out of sight, but lurks. It’s disconcerting to find that something essential has been lost from my inner view. Giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I imagine my capacity to remember is like the ‘muddle drawer’ in the kitchen. It keeps on having things stuffed into it at random, until there’s no more room, and things are forced to slip down the back out of sight.

I have strategies. I keep lists, type notes, add even small things to the calendar, keep things in logical places and set timers. These adaptations work well for life admin tasks. More strategic intentions are often harder to stay on track with. It’s easy to find that something important has disappeared, submerged without trace. The undertow of persistent low-level stress may be making it more difficult to stay with previous levels of efficiency.

I stand wondering why I am in this room. I forgot the one thing I went to the shop for. I have no recall of the film we saw last night. Today I am glad that I found my keys, and I finally put that letter in the post. Now what was that urgent task I wanted to add to my to-do list? Things may fall out of my head, but I trust that if they are really important, they will return later.

During late spring and summer, the Murder of crows on Hackney Marshes has other business to attend to, and politely ignores me. But come the first hint of cooler air in autumn, they seek out my bright colours. We make each other’s re-acquaintance, and I bring offerings of seeds, peanuts and other treats. Whether with or without dog and companions, and whichever direction we approach from, one of them will call several times to alert the others. Like an out-take from ‘The Birds’ they swoop towards us. They are cordial but cautious. I am always gratified by their appearance.

This image, however, is ‘Mr’ crow. He and his family live closer to home. ‘Mrs’ crow is smaller, more timid, and ‘Junior’ is almost as big as Mr, but not quite as bold. Hopping away from me, Mr is disconcerted by my camera. He prefers to see me reach for a handful of seeds. Standing just a few feet away, I admire his shiny black feather tailcoat. He eyes me with an inquisitive look. Tooled up with an impressive black beak, he is always keen to see what food I might have.

As I approach the trees in their territory I look up, in anticipation of three large black winged creatures tacking across the sky, to land near me. If my companions and I are deep in conversation, a loud throaty call overhead, will announce their arrival. I notice that my ears have become attuned to crow voices over the beat of my footfall. Their cries punctuate woodland, street and garden, overseeing each landscape I move through.

Last night I dreamed of dressing up in preparation for a night out. I wanted to look glamorous. I dressed black, rootled around for a necklace in a box of broken pieces, and tried to apply melted lipstick. I woke instead to another morning without the prospect of cultural or social events. I put on warm stretchy layers to walk the dog in the rain.

“There is the mud, and there is the lotus that grows out of the mud. We need mud in order to make the lotus.” Thich Nhat Hanh.

Reflecting on this time, I feel as though we are collectively in the mud of complexity and uncertainty. I am lucky enough to have the liberty and resources to sit in the mud, while being aware that others are drowning in it.

In the wake of difficulty change might be described as ‘post-traumatic growth’. This term was coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. This quote from Tedeschi comes from a recent article aimed at business people:
“We’ve learned that negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth.”

I long for this time to generate widespread positive changes, the ‘lotus flowers’. Similarly, my dream reminded me of being in chrysalis form, incubating my next evolution. At some point, if the conditions are favourable, perhaps we will shrug off our chrysalises, in an act of transformation, to unfurl resplendent new wings.