Life in my house is rarely dull.
To set the scene, I own five lodgers, one son and a hamster called Matthew. Matthew belongs to my son Giant Boy, and his girlfriend, but he lives here and is taken, by them, very seriously. If I had my way, Matthew would be in someone else's house, lovingly taken care of, far away from me. Matthew would be adored and petted in another part of the country, and I would not have to clear up scatterings of stuff from his cage as it gets walked around the house, or fear he will escape, or be fed to death, and I will have to deal with it all. At one point, when Giant Boy was younger, there was a craze for dwarf hamsters, and they came and went here, living happy lives in wonderful cages with all sorts of games, walkways, assault courses and play areas constructed for them out of cereal boxes, old shoes and drinking straws. Dwarf hamsters don't live that long, and once they passed on into that hamster heaven for which they are all destined sooner rather than later, they were buried with tears and honour, in a coffin made of a big match box, in graves of about four feet deep in our garden, and the next one bought from the pet shop.
Matthew is not my problem. I tell myself Matthew is not my problem, he will not escape like the gerbils that Giant Boy once decided to keep. These two gerbils escaped as they do, by eating their way out of their cage, and by the time I had found them, they had eaten the spare room. Matthew will not do that, he is being trained by his owners to be happy and well and quiet and tidy in his large cage full of toys.
My lodgers are mostly young fellows, who don't feel the cold and who live blameless lives dreaming of having a six pack stomach and an easy life. With beautiful girls knocking on the door begging to be let in. One of my lodgers is not a man, and she is the only one who empties the dishwasher. This lodger is an arts student, a very very good one, and has turquoise dreadlocks, and an absolute passion for spending as little money as possible on as much food as possible, and then eating it all in one sitting. She is a genius at waiting till Morrisons cuts the day's groceries to 9p and then buying the lot. And, bless her, she is the tiniest, slenderest, prettiest creature who must, like a cow, have two stomachs as there does not seem any way in the known universe that so much food can fit into her tiny frame. But it does! And the men here marvel, it is like her party trick, it is as if we are in the presence of a genius, and we all like to pop into the kitchen when she is here to see what she is cooking, how much of it there is, and how much she is eating as she cooks it, and then how much she sits down to. Any left overs are taken to her college the next day in tiffin carriers that she ordered online. What a genuis.
I am writing today from my bed. I am in my fluffiest pyjamas, my warmest dressing gown, and under a million tog duvet because over the past few weeks, my boiler has been playing up. From time to time, the water has gone cold, or the heating has not worked, and I have paid plumbers to correct it all. They have corrected it all, but something is fundamentally wrong with my system, and it keeps breaking down - which leads to today, the second day in which there is no hot water, or heating, and no hope of a quick fix. Yesterday, I spent the day in a coat and hat in my house, shivering in my chair and clutching a hot teapot to my chest for comfort. With no prospect of a bath, or of drying the laundry on the radiators as I used to do once long ago when life was easy, I took the decision to contact the extremely expensive specialist company the plumbers suggested for me, and book them in for Saturday morning, first thing. My system is filled with sludge. It is drawing in air, and with such a sludgy airy situation, there is no way hot water can survive and so it needs dealing with by the only people in the world who do this kind of thing (I am told). My radiators and pipes, my boiler and my tanks are all sludge filled, all blocked and all resistant to any interference except from that of the specialist company, arriving on Saturday first thing, to spend five hours sorting it out. In my mind, I have a little Basilisk, like in Harry Potter, swirling around my pipes and making my life a misery. The tremendously expensive company with their modern and exclusive equipment will slay my Basilisk, metaphorically, in two days time, and like Harry Potter, we will all live happily ever after.
The lodgers are not batting an eyelid, bless them. They have a vision of themselves as frontier types, living rough and forgoing washing and comfort (heating) in the interests of being tough. They all continue to wear teeshirts and trousers, and some, like Giant Boy, don't even wear teeshirts. Just tracksuit bottoms and no shoes or tops. They haven't noticed the cold they say, what cold? I sit in the kitchen in a coat and furry hat and boots, clutching the recently boiled kettle to my chest, and marvel. I have noticed though, they have been wearing hats. Thick woollen bobble hats, with the teeshirts and tracksuit bottoms. Still no slippers or thermal socks, still just bare feet, but with hats pulled down over their ears and to just over their eyebrows. Yesterday, as I sat in my chair feeling miserable in the cold, in my bedroom in what was the downstairs sitting room with the piano and the grandfather clock still in there, Giant Boy came into play some Debussy to me. I sat huddled in all my clothes like an old lagged boiler, and Giant Boy came in with just trousers on. That's all. Bare chest, arms, head, feet and no goodbumps anywhere. He sat and played the piano, happily, merrily, stopping briefly only to put the lightest of jackets over his shoulders, while I sat with a drip forming at the end of my nose only inches from him in my chair, wondering what kind of people live in my house.
And so, today, I am in my bed. I am warm, comfortable, smelly, and determined. Blimey, said one of my lodgers late last night after he came back from work, blimey the water was cold this morning!
You had a shower? This morning? With cold water? I said.
Wakes you up, he said. Don't worry me. Don't really notice, he replied.
And there we will leave my household for the while, knowing that soon I will be warm and clean and dressed. Soon being on Saturday, and today is Thursday, and that day will be one of the happiest of my life. In some ways.
|The household when there was heating and hot water and everyone put some normal clothes on for a birthday dinner|
Part II The Work
On the 4 January I went back into the studio having spent a few months coming to terms with life after my mother died in September of 2015. The time spent not working, taking time off from my very busy and full life after Mum died, has been invaluable. I have come to some decisions, to do with my work, and these decisions have made great sense to me.
I am first and foremost an artist. My response to life, to my experiences, to what I encounter, to who I meet, to what I see and what happens around me, is creative. It is through expression and painting, writing and filming that I make sense of the things that I do. This creative response is intended too for you, for you to make of it what you can for your own lives. It is about a human response to a human situation - I am meaning here my work on end of life and the act of dying. My A Graceful Death exhibition is about my response to dying and to death. It is about working with the dying to ask them who they are, what they want to say, and how they are doing their dying, and it is intended for public showing so that we can all start thinking, taking time out to consider this thing that we all will do, whatever we feel about it and however frightened it makes us feel.
Secondly, I am a soul midwife. I have thought long and hard about this title, about whether it describes who I am and what I do, and I have decided that it does cover what I do.
Briefly, here is my thinking. A soul midwife is a wonderful thing. It is a wonderful idea, a concept that is genius in its simplicity. The very fact that it is an idea and that it is simple, and that it has a million different applications, makes it almost impossible to define. So what is a soul midwife? The standard reply I give is - an emotional and spiritual companion for those at the end of life, at any time from diagnosis to death, for however long or short the contact is needed. It may be ten minutes on the phone, it may be a series of visits, it may be a bit in the middle of the dying process, it may be vigiling with someone who is at the very end. But, that is what I have come up with and even that is very hard to define because it is so open, it could, really, mean anything. In reality, most people have family or friends with them, and muddle on through with them. It is difficult to call a soul midwife you don't know, who doesn't know you, and so I have had to build up a reputation that is trustworthy and sound, so that I am known as a safe option. That is itself is difficult, you have to do some soul midwifing to build up your reputation, and how to start and how to work it out and what to do is really very hard work. Where do you start? How do you start?
No soul midwife just goes out there that is not already in a profession to which the soul midwifery is something to incorporate into an already established job, and does their thing. In order to work with the dying, for those of us who have no medical training, no professional access already to the dying or to the dead - hospice staff, medical staff, funeral directors and workers to name but a few, we have to start at the very bottom and find a way to learn first of all where the dying are. We have to learn how to be of service. We have to learn what dying looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like. We have to learn how vulnerable and fragile the dying process can be, we have to see what we can do alongside all the other professionals involved, and we have to work out our boundaries. In my mind, in order to work as a soul midwife, you can only find a role for yourself after having spent time finding out what dying is all about. Being there, seeing how dying pans out, how different illnesses affect people, watching the processes, learning about family dynamics and learning, amongst other things, the value of deep and true listening.
I have spent the last seven years working with people at the end of life, and the last five years building up experiences as a soul midwife, to the point now where I can, and do, use the title. For the moment, I know what I am doing. Because the end of life is like life itself, unpredictable, changeable, unknown, wonderful, awful, and all things to all people, I know as a soul midwife I just have to see what I can do for each situation, and try and do it. It is as simple, and as complex, as that.
I am narrowing down my professional life to two areas.
- The A Graceful Death exhibition, portraits and words from the end of life, will continue with huge joy to take part in events, exhibitions, festivals, conferences and I will continue to give talks, workshops and presentations on how it evolved, the people who gave their stories and images, and what painting and interviewing the dying means in our world. There are charges for hiring me and the exhibition which will be on a new website which will be up and running in the second week of March. This new website will give details of what I do, and how to work with me, and will keep you up to date with exhibitions, events, talks and workshops as I do them
- I will be working as an independent soul midwife, and will be available on a separate number for anyone to call to make an appointment, or to chat, or to ask for help. This number will be on the new website due to be up in the second week of March. I will have at least half of every week set aside to be available on this new number. There will be charges for soul midwife services, but as everyone should have access to this, if there is hardship, then donations will be gratefully accepted.
|Baby George and me. Yum.|