When the old become as children.

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I was ducking into the supermarket on my way home yesterday and noticed a very elderly man with a walking stick, staggering over the transition from the curb in the carpark, to the adjoining footpath. I rushed to assist him and as he was shaky and very unsteady on his feet, I ended up walking with him as he looked for a nearby dental technician to drop off a mould for a new denture he had just had made.
After introducing myself, we talked a little as we walked, and I ended up taking him by the arm, something I asked permission to do as I felt that my attention could be seen as invasive (despite its necessity) although his imbalance was a proverbial accident waiting to happen.
‘David’ told me that he’d had a stroke several years ago and at the behest of his daughter, he and his wife (who was now in the supermarket) had relocated from a small country town where they had lived for many years, to a village in this area that was closer to his daughter and her family. In David and his wife’s original home they knew everyone and had an active social life with all necessary amenities nearby. He described their new residence as having nothing nearby other than a badly stocked village shop and said they knew no one, and ironically, rarely saw his daughter. He also told me that his wife was presently very upset as a close friend of hers had similar pressure from her children, however as her friend’s husband had recently died she was considered even more vulnerable. Under duress she had sold her home and been moved into a care home where she was now incredibly unhappy.
I walked with him further and after we found the technicians we waited whilst his order was processed and quizzed the staff  about an easier way for him to pick up his new dentures without necessitating the present, difficult walk.
I noted that as I waited, even though I looked like hell having spent the day in my studio and was wearing scruffy paint and solvent spattered clothing, with hair managing to be both lank and dishevelled and having my many tattoos visible (not such an uncommon thing in this era, but slightly more rare on a woman in her mid 50’s) the technician talked over the immaculately dressed man of 90, directly to me.
I walked David back to the car where he started scanning the supermarket store front for his wife, saying that he would recognise her at a distance by her hair, which he had washed and styled for her this morning. He himself was dressed smartly with a very American retirement style of polo shirt and ochre toned, plaid golfing trousers. The thought of them dressing so fastiditiously for this day out, broke my heart.

I have many friends who find they become parents to their parents and are under a huge amount of pressure to manage their combined lives, especially as they often dealing with older people who are stubborn, opinionated and strong willed; traits that naturally occur with time and longevity. I think this can can cause adult children to become domineering and controlling, resulting in their overriding any acknowledgement of what makes their parents happy in the name of what makes them safe.
I have also known, all too often, cases where a parent is pushed into selling a home (which is a way of avoiding the payment of taxes that are instituted if the house is sold after death) then placed somewhere that makes their last years difficult but also assures a greater level of financial security for their children. I once talked to a friend who was a lawyer, who said he always tried to dissuade the elderly from doing this, as he had seen on many, many occasions, an ageing  parent being stripped of their assets and then near abandoned.
In David and his wife’s case I don’t know what will happen. David had a strong spirit that kept forcing his vulnerable body forward in a way that was obviously neither safe nor sustainable. He realised this and was looking for alternatives forms of mobility (we had discussed his getting a scooter but in acknowledgement of his closeness to his wife, whom he obviously did everything with, he needed to be able be fold it up to manoeuvre into the car, and even the lightest model would still be too heavy for him to do this) as his inner strength would not prevent the devastating fall, which was so apparently imminent.
Later that night I was thinking about him, realising he had been born in the 1930’s and had lived through unstable times where survival was habitual and instinctive and often entailed pushing forward in difficult circumstances, despite risks and unknown results.
David was still doing that.

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Connection

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By the second week of his return to work, the previous long months of lockdown seemed like a slow moving, long ago dream.
The birds no longer sang him awake into a room filled with sunlight. Now he fell out of bed after yet another restless night punctuated with interludes where he would invariably find himself mindlessly awake, sitting on the sofa staring at a blank spot on the opposite wall, smoking cigarettes and fighting exponentially rising waves of anxiety.
Every morning he would race to his car which seemed to have a daily, progressively heavier coating of bird shit. No matter how thoroughly and often he washed it and how much he varied the car’s parking place, it still seemed as if a myriad of birds would use their early morning hours to not sing him awake as they used to, but rather to vent their bowels on his Fiat.
He had recently found claw scratches on the vehicle’s paintwork, but as always was in too much of a hurry to examine the marks closely; perhaps this upcoming weekend he would get around to it.

He also no longer looked after or appreciated his garden, there just didn’t seem to be enough time.

During the lockdown he sat outside every morning with his coffee, watching the spring born creatures grow up with no fear of human beings or their vehicles  because they had no real experience of the dangerous potential of either, and thus no need to develop caution around them.

He had moved to this more rural area several years before, but somehow was always too frenetic to appreciate his surroundings as he was invariably caught up in his work. If he was home he either slept, or pulled the curtains shut and continuously watched Netflix or something similarly addictive and mindless.

Early in the pandemic, he had spent most of his time online, but when his Wifi connection started stuttering, after an initial discombobulated flailing, he began to go outside and explore his surroundings. Initially he pottered around in his garden and pulled up plants that he thought might be weeds in a perfunctory, business-like fashion until he eventually gave up and succumbed to a pleasant drowsy inertia where he found himself simply sitting in the sun, relaxing. He particularly bonded with a vixen and her two March born cubs that lived in the woodland adjoining his garden, filling his camera and when he could access the internet, his social media feed, with a plethora of their images as he coaxed them closer and closer to the patio where he had left out bowls of food for them. When the vixen had first started visiting him she been worryingly thin with a patchy pelt and a tail that was more flesh than fur. In the intermittent moments when he had internet connection, he would take his laptop outside and look up the plants and animal life in the area, researching the best food to offer the fox and her family and finding a small farm shop nearby where he was able to get the suggested eggs and chicken mince which he would place outside for the creatures. Initially, the vixen would leave her cubs at the edge of the garden and wait until he went inside (where he would watch her from his kitchen window) before she would race to the food and bear it away to her brood, however as she grew stronger she also grew more trusting, and allowed her cubs to draw more closely to him. Her brush grew back and whilst she remained lean, she appeared sleek rather than emaciated and gradually she began waiting for him on the garden bench when he brought them their food, remaining seated as he approached her. He would talk softly to her at this time, quietly in awe of her and for the first time in his life, feeling that he had been blessed with something beautiful.

He had never been a happy person. He was driven and compulsive and gained his only sense of achievement from his steadily rising wage and the professional accolades and higher positions awarded to him in his profession. Happiness wasn’t something he had ever experienced until those moments in his overgrown, bird filled garden when the vixen and her cubs glowed and played in the sun.
He would dream at night about the foxes, sometimes even holding strange conversations with the vixen. In one of these dreamed dialogues he talked to her of how, through their contact, he realised what a great a gift it was to realise he was an animal and part of a natural flowing sequence, and that his offerings to her had created a bond that had given meaning to what had previously been an empty life; a bond that he felt could never be broken. The morning after that particular dream, although he had shrugged if off like an illusory smoke, some part of him had felt lighter and transformed.

It was in the first week of his returning to work that one of the cubs, now near grown but with no learned road sense, was killed by his car as he was driving too quickly on yet another morning that he had overslept. He was terribly upset about this, particularly because he realised the creature would have been racing to greet him and be fed, however  he was running too late to stop and check the animal and see if it could be helped in some way. He finished at his office as early as possible and when he returned home he searched for the body but found no sign of the fox aside from some bloody marks on the road and hoped that perhaps the creature had only been stunned and superficially injured rather than killed.

It was around that time his dreams became nightmares, and the sequence of unnerving phone calls began. The garden outside his house leading to the fields and forests which had previously delighted him so much, now appeared in dreams that bled into reality,  as something dark, unknown, and intangibly threatening. The phone calls were a parallel strangeness; intruding into his mundane world and all coming from an unlisted number. When he answered his phone there was no voice at the other end of the line nor any feel of a human presence, only sounds akin to the noises of the wind moving through branches and a presumably imagined feeling of darkness seeping out of the headset.

He remembered a twilight in mid June when he’d spent the day walking in the woods in his area. He had returned home, and was sitting outside, watching the fox and her cubs playing on the grass at the edge of his garden. The creatures interrupted their play as he laid food out for them, and as he sat on his haunches watching them sniff and then eat their offerings, he mused to that he would never forget this moment, never forget this time of near communion, would never return to what was before.

However his life did go back to the way it had been.

The bowls he had fed the foxes from were still outside, but now only filled with dirty rain water and dead leaves.

His phone rang again and when he answered it after some moments of indecision, he heard the usual rustling noises but now he thought he could also also hear an angry yelping.

The next morning as he staggered to his car, clutching his half drunk coffee in one hand and pulling at his tie with the other, he noticed the usual heavy coating of guano on his car before seeing that his rear tires were punctured. After ringing his office to say he was held up and then changing the tyres using his own spare plus one borrowed from his neighbour, he didn’t have time to wonder how two of his tyres could have been pierced so thoroughly, however as he was driving home that evening after a longer than usual day, he mulled on it.

It was dark when he approached the wooded area near his home and he glanced at his phone on the seat next to him as began to ring. Seeing the caller withheld banner, he left it untouched. Then his car shuddered, stuttered and stalled. He pulled over into a narrow layby in the hedgerows, praying that no tractors or cars would come past at this hour and glanced at the dark fields to either side of the country road, feeling a growing disease, disturbed further as the silence was once more shattered by his ringtone.

He answered, and as always he heard the rustling and the yelping, but it seemed as if the noises from the phone were coming from the fields, the hedgerow and the darkness, rather than his handset.

Then he saw the glowing eyes in the hawthorne.
Foxes, two of them, but also something bigger in the shadows behind them.

The farmer found him early the following morning as he was trying to navigate his tractor down the now blocked, single track country road.
The dew and slug covered body of the slightly overweight, middle aged man in a business suit was lying next to a car that was parked in the hedgerows.The farmer needed to shoo away two unusually bold foxes that were sniffing around it, in order squat down to see if this obvious city dweller still showed any signs of life.
The man looked to have been dead for some time however and the open phone that was lying next to him that must have been dropped mid call, was making noises that were strangely like those made by the surrounding country side.

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The Man Who Never Wrote In His Notebook.

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As I slowly return to my writing groove, I’ve been thinking I wanted to blog about joy or something humorous to break up what seems to be a continuum of misery writing over the last few years. Despite racking my brains (that cliche produces the most wonderful imagery doesn’t it?) I couldn’t access anything that connected me with the type of laughter so free and deeply experienced it leaves you breathless, or the feeling of sitting on the grass in the sunshine, so absorbed in the warmth and light it is akin to a pagan act of worship.
As I’m not ready to start writing fiction again, I decided to instead talk about something that has always been a part of me and does give me a thrill of happiness; my relationship with ‘old stuff’.
I’m not going to be approaching this in terms of my art which uses old and discarded ‘ingredients’, nor to align with subjects I talk or write about in terms of memory and animism and spirit. I am also not writing in terms of shopping and materialism, although there may be shadows of that (says she sitting in a home which is steadily becoming more sparse, an ongoing project I have been engaging in for two years which is also a battle with my own true, accumulative self) but rather of my longstanding love of charity shops, junk sales, antiquities and vintage items.
I’ve always had a near reverence and fascination for things that have age. Although my memory is ropey at best and my childhood consists of a series of vague knowings rather than actual recollections, I still remember the excitement of exploring kitchen cabinets or drawers at my grandmother’s house or rummaging in my grandfather’s shed and finding old objects that were strange and constructed so differently they seemed like gateways into other realities.
I recall being eight years old and on the back of my grandfather’s huge old bike going to the local ‘tip’ (New Zealand terms for the rubbish dump) to hunt for car parts. A few years later I remember diving into a skip where the possessions of an old woman had been thrown when she was being moved from a house into a tiny room in an old people’s home, and finding leather needle cases like tiny books with fabric pages, filled with pins with pearl and old plastic heads. I still retain memories of charity and junk shops from places I lived in as a child and when I have gone back to those towns and cities 40 or 50 years later, this seemingly indelible map in my head accurately takes me to places that, on occasion, still exist.
Part of this fascination perhaps ties in with my known family history going back no further than a generation and in our frequent relocations had a ‘one suitcase’ rule, so only clothes and toiletries could be taken to our next home. It is also possible that coming from a country such as New Zealand where aside from the land itself, antiquities are rare, perhaps causes a greater glamour to be created around aged items. However I think, intrinsically, it is simply part of my nature to pay attention to things that are suggestive rather than definitive.
In my early teens I worked in antique show rooms and over the years have continued to be in positions where I was in some way involved with older objects. If one constantly collects or acquires, unless you want to have a documentary made about you in terms of a home where the only route to manoeuvre movement is through small tunnels made within the mountains of stuff; one has to constantly sell, give away and rotate acquisitions and I also love the vibe of the antiquities trade, even in its more common variety as is found in car boot stalls.
I’ve been doing these stalls for years both as a buyer and a seller and they never fail to excite me although in recent years, perhaps precipitated by mainstream viewing such as The Antique Road Show, collecting and money and profit are more entwined and acquiring old items has becomes a form of gambling where materialism can distract from the beauty of an object and all the stories it may hold.
Whilst I have had people getting into the boot of my car to rummage before I have unpacked my wares, had people insult me with ludicrously low prices for something already stupidly underpriced, and had obviously well off people steal from my stalls; by and large this arena of trading is a wonderful, quirky one where there are no barriers or class.
I have seen a shambolic and ragged antiquities dealer wander into Sotheby’s and being greeted by name, before producing Chinese porcelain worth 100.000’s from a filthy plastic supermarket bag. I have had stalls next to a trader who went to Las Vegas and won an Elvis imitator competition whilst dressed as a pig and known a failed pugilist from an inner city estate who had a punch flattened nose and prison tattoos and whose speciality was fine bone china. I have also heard of an upper class English man who specialised in antique Japanese weaponry and would hone his empathy with just a smidgeon of snorted, high grade heroin.
I have what is known as ‘the eye’ for finding things. This is a sort of attention where I can yield treasure from dross. To make things more challenging for myself and also more fun, I tend to only buy things that cost a few pounds that I then sell on cheaply to other traders. Whilst I make a profit, it isn’t a huge one, and in many ways is more akin to a reward (hah, AND further encouragement for process).
I was a manager for a charity shop for a while and word quickly spread among dealers who would visit daily for the finds I would put on the shop floor. Strangely enough, although I love going into charity shops and find being surrounded by all those stories encapsulated in objects, soothing (when I was undergoing chemo for my hep c, I would always calm myself pre hospital appointments with charity shop visits) working in them was different, and actually can be depressing. Behind the scenes so to speak, you would be surrounded by all the discarded remnants of lives and people, muddled into bags jumbled with used nappies, soiled clothes and random items that were tossed in, sometimes in grief and sometimes in mania, often with complete disregard for the people doing the sorting. I was working in this shop during the first year of the pandemic and as the business adjoined several homes for the aged that were hit with a high death toll from covid, the staff would anonymously dump the clothes of the dead on our doorstep and it was only in the unpacking that it became apparent where they were from. I was miserable working there and sometimes felt as if I was being drowned under an indiscriminate tsunami of history that reveals not the individual stories that I would find when looking in such shops as a customer, but rather a darker side of humanity when viewed en masse. For instance enormous bags of plastic items from people who were replacing the same pieces in bamboo or biodegradable ingredients; hugely expensive items of clothing that has been discarded because they were no longer fashionable, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, mountains of what is termed fast fashion, discarded by season and so badly made they could only be recycled as rag after a few wears.
Selling my home necessitated clearing many of my possessions so I was hawking more than usual on stalls, e bay and facebook marketplace but could not resist occasionally buying an item for £1 or so, such as an unused and boxed notebook and silver pencil originally from a New York department store in the early 1900’s (perhaps given to an Englishman visiting America, who on on his return to Europe went to war and never came back to use it or maybe part of a well-off English woman’s New York shopping spree that was placed in the gift drawer of her vast home, then forgotten for over 100 years).
This pencil and notebook was sold to a woman in New York who loves my taste and has brought from me many times before. She was a highly successful corporate layer who was working in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Traumatised by the event, she left her job and became a recluse, rarely leaving her apartment except at night, or for Radiohead concerts; a band she has seen many, many times.
So this is one perspective on joy; a process of stepping back and disentangling from the mass of humanity the appreciation of individual stories, and allowing the history carried in discarded objects, to generate portals to further experience.

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Shades of Love

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A few days ago I met up with a friend whom I haven’t seen since the start of the lockdowns, during which time both of her parents had died. She told me that after their deaths she had consecutively lost two jobs due to her being considered negative, emotionally volatile and difficult to be around.
Another close friend lost her only sibling recently, and took a week off work to go from England to America where her sibling had died, to arrange the funeral and sort out his effects. She needed to extend her agreed upon work leave by a week as there was more to sort out than she realised, and when she returned to the workplace, was castigated and given a huge workload to compensate for her absence. At this point she handed in her resignation.

Now I have been in both the position of someone being ripped apart with grief but still working as there is no alternative, and also of someone working alongside people in the same position. Anger and outright rage, controlling behaviour and dramatic mood swings all are par for the painful course of grieving, admittedly often making the afflicted difficult to be around. Generally there is a window of perhaps a month when these emotions are socially permissible, then the shutters of compassion come down and one is expected to return to acceptable behaviour.

’Get on with it’ as the traditional saying goes.

I agree with the reasoning for maternity leave and its necessity, but logically there should also be a ‘death leave’ as death leaves a complex legacy for grief to navigate, something that often can only be done over a long period of time.
In theory compassionate leave is provided (although not legally required and not necessarily paid), which invariably will be occupied with the practical aspects of a death; aspects which actually distract from emotions within its blur of activity which includes packing, sorting, and dealing with bureaucracy and its associative financial complexities. Death is an expensive business that requires disassociation to cope with.

I was at Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol earlier this year and whilst wandering around their memorial garden I noticed piles of rough hewn ashes scattered on the grass, often next to floral tributes in various states of decay. These small piles were very subtle and easily walked on without realising. It was only on close examination I realised they were a very coarse cremation ash.
I had never seen this mode of ash deposal before and making enquiries I found that it was possible for people with little money to have a cremation and be able to scatter a portion of their dead in some local cemeteries. Perhaps this sort of disposal is even more important to have available in recent years as there are many who may have not been able to attend the dying process or a funeral due to lockdowns. Being able to lay remnants of the loved dead within a community site must be a huge solace in a time when community has seemingly dissolved. If one doesn’t have the financial means to create recognition for their dead, then the social constructs that occupy such a huge portion of our existence (such as those that exist around our workplace) can be seen to dictate the value of lives, with grieving being suppressed and expressed superficially in accordance with the needs of the living to continue to operate and earn a wage.

Maternity leave in the uk is a recognised, legal requirement and so it should be. However there is no recognition of the impact of death, of the memories and stories and emotions entangling the living and the dead. If there is acknowledgement, it is dependant of social and financial status.

It as if the formation of a personal history and all the joy and pain, the learning and layers of experience and energy that form within a lifetime, mean nothing. Acknowledgement is reduced to financial terms in that if you cannot afford to take time off to grieve or to spend money on a gravestone and placement for your dead where they are ‘seen’ in some way and where you can visit surrounded by others in the same meditative or emotional space as yourself, you are not recognising the present and the future and the place of the dead within it. Both the dead and the living become without name or place or community, only marked by scatterings of rough hewn ash to be walked through unnoticed, on a manicured lawn.

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Reality: A Wide-Angle Lens Followed by a Zoom.

 

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I often get asked how my university studies are going and notice that the face of the person asking shuts down if I answer in any depth. I feel as if I am indulging in some sort of faux pas by being so negative in my recitation, as invariably they will counter with comparisons of their own more positive university experiences. I’ll walk away thinking there is something wrong with me, perhaps I need cognitive behaviour therapy or medication to break out of my dark way of perceiving things.
However I try to step back from my incredulity at my questioners being surprised by my negativity and their not wanting to hear about a higher education filled with stories of the year of the sofa, the striking university staff, student suicides, and university warnings of not just the commonality of students drinks being spiked but also of being injected with date rape drugs in clubs. Then, of course there is the creation of university centred micro communities of wealth and privilege that sustain larger areas and towns whilst simultaneously rendering these spaces uninhabitable for ordinary residents due to high prices, as well as the inability to have open debates on certain subjects in case one is ‘cancelled’.
I’ve been mulling on all of this this and realised that I am neither negative nor depressed but simply experiencing an era with no historical comparison. Perhaps people do not realise how unprecedented and transitional a time this is, and even when we do realise the enormity of the changes occurring and make adjustments, maybe we are all still locked within our own small sphere and these transformations are so wide reaching, our brains simply can’t comprehend them. I have no doubt that everyone is struggling at the moment and it is not ‘simply’ the last few years of the pandemic but life in general that seems to have descended into a sort of morass.
As with everyone else, I have gone through stages of powerlessness that are overwhelming and for a period, felt as if I were wading through mud. Every time I made adjustments, things seemed to fell apart. Even something as simple as catching a bus or posting a parcel has become a gamble as to the success of the venture (or is that just in the UK?)
Perhaps part of this feeling of powerlessness was because some four years ago, I had constructed a redirection of my life. I was inordinately proud of this, as it was the first time I actually had a life plan of any sort, so any resultant bitterness when the world and my dream fell apart admittedly was a bit of a tantrum. However having an internal make up that designed me to be a survivor in the face of chaos, meant I struggled along even though I was rather dilapidated. When the situation seemed to finally improve I gained a feeling of, whilst not exactly empowerment, it was at least one of being an active participant in my own life with some choices available, although it still necessitated developing a much more philosophical and relaxed world view.
My belief system and spirituality are very focused on having choices and working within the environment in an active way; acquiring knowledge of how things operate and using insight gained from that knowledge to progress. However at this point in time, knowledge changes so rapidly and in itself is such a tenuous thing, this approach becomes problematic. I know many people who saturate themselves with information that follows their reality paradigm and the algorithms that generates. Whatever the truth in their findings, I can see for many of them this information isn’t necessarily leading to a feeling of empowerment, just stimulation for online discussions, individual blow outs and a generating of targeted news feeds and advertising.

So my own new approaches to life?

Flexibility.
Open mindedness as to what ‘truth’ is.This includes non judgemental dialogue in appropriate places.
Aim for pushing boundaries.
Connection.
Compassion.
Research into deep fake videos and sourcing of information. Look further into technology and IT (developments of which I have been following for some years now and I feel needs to be examined more closely as IT is a manifestation of human invention, desires and needs. Having even a basic view of its developmental trajectory may help me have an idea of directions we could be heading in).
Work on my garden and pay attention to the land and how it is changing.
Attention to my needs and the needs of others (something that is easy to forget as we have all spent such a long period of time in own bubbles, and higher internet use further precipitates a solipsistic perspective).

Through all of these struggles to survive and self empower; always, always,express and create.

Header image: Mixed media sculpture by Charlotte Rodgers, photographed by Jack Van Hales.

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Victoria Musson. Bright Magic: Rest in Power.

I have only recently started engaging with facebook again, and logging in last night I found out about the death of Victoria Musson.
This will be the third obituary I have put up in my blog; acknowledgements of inspirational, bright, shining and wonderful people that I worked with creatively, and that died too young after long and painful illness. Individuals that have enhanced my existence and with their death, left a large and painful hole in my life.
Victoria Musson was one of these bright three, and this blog is to honour her and celebrate the gift that was her life as I understood it, acknowledging the pain her loss has created.
I’d seen Victoria often over a period of many years as Mrs Midian, a persona that was affiliated with her partner, Jonathan who owned Midian Books and would have stalls at various conferences and events. She had a round, open and sunshine filled face and a strong quirky aesthetic. Whether wearing jeans, tiered patterned skirts, smock dresses or having an occasional foray into more flamboyant look, Vicky stood out amongst the wider aesthetic amongst our group that veered towards black clothing interspersed with leather and embellished with silver jewellery.
Victoria was younger than myself by some ten years and her intensity, enthusiasm and passion was coupled with an intelligence, moral openness and creative experimentation that challenged the innocent slightly rustic look she seemingly embodied. I loved that, Vicki didn’t wear a uniform and was very much her own person.
We became more deeply connected as she moved away from her teaching work and fully immersing herself in her art. I was lucky enough to be involved in several exhibitions with Victoria that provided an opportunity to learn more about her away from the Mrs Midian persona.
Victoria’s background was that of generations of tenant farmers. A family history long connected with the East Midlands that forged an inherent bond for her with the local landscape that fed her spirit and beautifully informed her nature based, folkloric art. Art which embodied both simplicity and power and was most notably manifested in her glorious corn sculptures. 
She was an incredible photographer (as can be seen in the image above)  and could also write brilliantly and that she never had a chance to take her writing and research  to the next level and write a book on subjects that she was passionate about, such as Pamela Coleman Smith, is our great loss.
Vicki was a pleasure to create exhibitions with, brainstorming titles and themes and throwing together thoughts and magic’s into a carefully curated mix. She would roar up to my house in her gorgeous vintage sports car, with partner Jonathan and an array of huge corn creations, horseshoes and nails, fetishes and sweeties (Vicki was long term, insulin dependant diabetic and always had snacks on hand in case of a crisis) somehow stuffed into a space that logically shouldn’t have been able to encompass everything.
Vicki always pushed the boundaries. I didn’t realise until she stayed with me at our first exhibition together how difficult her diabetes was to manage and how it could control how she lived her life; however she pushed through fears and illness to follow who and what she was, an iconic, magical artist.
When I think of Vicki, I think of sunshine and corn fields and earth and the fire of creative passion lighting everything up.
I still have a scar on my chest from my first visit to her home that was filled  with books, treasures  and mountains of  ingredients for future art works with her wonderful magical wild garden with its padlocked ‘rat shed’. I met her cat children, one of which (was it a Sphinx or a Rex, I can’t remember) scratched me. I was told this was a great honour and as I had never stroked a Sphinx cat before, (what an amazing experience) I thought it well worth the ritual marking that the contact brought with it.
Vicki was ill for a long, long time. She lived for years with the severe diabetes that had knock on effect on her vision, and then there was emergency abdominal surgery that the surgeons made the most horrendous mess of closing up leading a terrible scar that no young woman should have to carry. Then, then came the cancer. The terrible vicious cancer that ate her away.
Victoria Musson was an amazing woman and will be so missed. I’m going to conclude this blog with an image from our last exhibition together. We went in the early morning to open up the chapel where we were holding our show, and heard noises inside. When entered we found a sparrow had somehow found its way into the building and had nested on one of Victoria’s corn dolls, recognising it as a natural and right home. It was a magic moment, as was your time in this world Victoria Musson.

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Review: Chaos Monk by Steve Dee

 

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Though I have had a life long working interest in spirituality and specifically, transformative magic, in recent years I rarely read books on the subject unless historical or ethnographic.
Why? I’m not sure. I’m not egocentric enough to think they have nothing to offer me but I suppose it is simply I am having a break and approaching the subject from another angle.
However I made an exception for Steve Dee’s ‘Chaos Monk’ as I so enjoyed his earlier books and appreciate his gently practical, lyrical and well researched approach.
I do not regret this decision to deviate from my usual reading pattern. I think deviation from the prescriptive is very much in keeping with the times, and I’ve already read this book twice.
‘Chaos Monk’ is an accessible, beautifully researched book about spirituality focused on the long term approach. It follows a personal trajectory of development whilst acknowledging tensions that exist between practice, life and aspects of self (some of these tensions being deliberately chosen to challenge personal predilections) and using these tensions in a positive way, aiming to ‘hold the position of both wisdom and radical uncertainty’.
Chaos Monk is about the pilgrimage that is life. Through  historical, contemporary and practical reference it ostensibly explores an intersection between Chaos Magick and Monasticism however I also read it on another level; that of a book that addresses this crazed, chaotic assemblage of modern life and all the excitement and learning it offers whilst acknowledging personal needs for contemplation, fulfilment of self, explorations of stillness and a middle path that embraces compassionate living, service and progressive creativity.
Referencing Tantra, Thelema, Chaos Magic, Psychology, and Monastic Traditions whilst weaving in more ‘pop’ references such as cut ups and creative art based exercises, the book’s rhythm is entwined with sublime poetry (both Dee’s own as well as Rilke, Eliot and an extract from ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ amongst others) as Dee structures a practice that amalgamates myriads of gateways to long term, balanced and stimulating magical and mystical spirituality.
I found this book immensely interesting and relevant, especially after emerging from two years of being battered by the pandemic realities and losing connection with many of the things that really mattered. This book is a joy, and a reminder to me of the quiet mystical power that can reside comfortably and progressively within a chaotic world and a dynamic, modern magical practice.

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Big Bang Theory

It’s been such a long time since I’ve written here, although strangely, whilst I have not posted blogs, I have still continued to compose them in my head, only to get distracted before I can transcribe these formations of thoughts and words.
I wrote consistently over the lockdowns, recording thoughts, feelings and experiences, but as the lockdowns eased and the pandemic became less controlling, somehow there didn’t seem to be anything to write about anymore.
I’m not sure if this was due to my absorption in university studies and the struggles went with it, or if all of the energy I used to have to record and create was channelled into trying to figure out who I now was and how my existence would now unfold.
I never believed that there would be a return to a normality however I was so busy dealing with the minutiae of daily survival I didn’t think much about the future at all and when I did, unlike some friends who believed there was some great spiritual awakening that was leading to positive change, I was aware I had a more negative approach to what is to come. This was no doubt encouraged by the solipsistic introspection that lockdown encouraged alongside a discomfort that 30 years ago I was strong, flexible and willing to adapt to changes in the world, and now I feel too tired, too old, and perhaps less optimistic and more cynical.
Not saying I am depressed (as in many ways, feeling darkness at the moment is a very natural reaction to the present state of affairs, especially if you are prone to reading the news alongside your imbibing of your morning coffee) in fact as summer strode into this year, I am more positive and optimistic in a moment by moment experiential way, just aware that things seem dark if I look beyond my own small reality.
This was triggered in part perhaps, by the death of a dear friend the obituary of whom was the topic of my last blog, and which affected me more than I realised. Today the news reached me that another old friend has died, and many people I know seem to be struggling with illness and grief.
Perhaps one could say this is part of the ageing process, that falling away of people and the grief and disorientation within self it brings. However I think it is part of the knock effect of the pandemic; a tiredness that takes away the energy to experience life and be willing to throw oneself into it and grasp fully all it has to offer, even if one is reaching for things that are amorphous, shifting and potentially illusory.
Each day I push outwards a little more, exploring a little further afield. Being on a university break where I finally able to venture further than the academic k-hole that has engulfed me for the last year has helped in this. I grasp my art tools and wander to new places. I try to find friends some of whom have disappeared into isolation and then found it too comfortable a space to warrant risking going out again. I do things that used to gave me joy, such as attending exhibitions, concerts and conferences, and, as the near final piece of my personal reassembling, today I have started to write once more.
The social skills I spent so long trying to master now seem redundant, however I do get some comfort in the fact I am not alone in this clumsiness, something apparent when I have been in larger social gatherings and have seen people leaving early, overwhelmed, and others clutching drinks with more vigour than they might have two years ago.
Of course this may pass. Humans are a resilient species, and this splintering of rules of behaviour and being may well create a strengthening in smaller communities and realisations of how we are all, simply enough, social animals that need each other and whatever new reality we choose to create will acknowledge that.

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Honouring Eric. K. Lerner

 

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A dear friend died very suddenly last week, and after a day of being stunned and immobilised with shock and a day of frenetic e mails to people telling them of Eric’s death so their relationship could be acknowledged in an individual way (as opposed to reacting to a general social media posting/call out) I have finally sat down to acknowledge our dance together in this life.
I feel a little sad looking at our earliest e mails, seeing how the years have gradually eroded my more youthful openness and enthusiasm; perhaps we all become a little more closed and insular as we age to help protect against the pain of loss that naturally occurs over time.
These occurrences of loss accelerate as we get older, but with myself and Eric it had been a constant for many years; perhaps because we mixed with those who burn brighter than most and perhaps due to the era we lived in that brought with it illnesses that killed so many of those we loved.

I first contacted Eric in the mid 2000’s after I read an article he wrote in ‘Ashe Journal of Experimental Spirituality’ about his spiritual path and his HIV positive status, and how it led to him becoming a priest of the Yoruba deity Babalu.
At that point I was very involved in a magickal practice exploring my sexuality and my blood and as I saw sexuality as being an expression of self, and my spirituality as being an expression of relationships with self and other, my own hep c positive status entailed looking at both in terms of examination of my life and my responsibilities. Not everyone perhaps saw this examination as part of a magickal practice but I did, as the dis-ease my illness brought with it created both a form of self obsession and of shame that I could not push to the side.
So I contacted Eric, initially regarding his article and to discuss the avenues he had opened in his words that generated such a lightbulb moment in me.
For Eric his illness brought with it a sense of responsibility to both endure and to give, and to do both within a spiritual creative format.

I had contacted Eric not long after his life partner, Cabell, had died from AIDS. Eric had nursed him through the process and it was not an easy or pleasant death; and when Caball died Eric lost not just his best friend and lover but his creative partner.
They had moved from New York to Baltimore for an access to necessary medication that was better than the rest of the U.S, and with that move left behind a full, creative and sometimes wild life in New York.

Eric was an AIDS activist who wrote ‘The AIDS Crisis In America’ (1998) as well as being involved with a number of AIDS service providers including AIDS Research Imformation Centre, Health Education Resource Organisation, Maryland State Health Department, Visual AIDS, ACTUP and the American Indian Centre.

He was also an incredible artist and writer, a skilled tarot reader and a Santero who listened closely to those he talked to and gave practical and wise advice.
When I met him he had two terriers, Butter and Biscuit, and he would make the most delightful comedic and irreverent montages of their adventures.
He always gave me creative encouragement and practical advice on publishing, and was there for me when my mother died and my life fell apart and reassembled in a dramatic manner.
As with myself, he loved clothes and make up, and had been a successful make up artist at one point in his life. He was quite happy to talk in superficial terms about sex and aesthetics and countercultural super stars, however I never heard him say anything negative about anyone and he was incredibly forgiving about the foibles of others, having a great insight into human nature and its weaknesses.

I interviewed him many times over the years and he gave me suggestions for projects or submissions which he felt would work for me, and also would gently prod me to reexamine my perspectives when I made arrogant or ignorant judgements (as one does when one’s own self esteem is incredibly low).
Eric was dry and funny and like myself was not going easy into the process of ageing, and prep H on eye bags was a topic that came up many times in our conversations over the years, interspersed with thoughts on favourite dog breeds, reading contracts with publishers, Yoruba folk tales and traditions, dealing with our respective splendid but demanding mothers’, dental hygiene of our few remaining teeth, politics, sexual politics, and the sartorial impact of a bloody good hat.
I am a clever woman but Eric had a bright intelligence that was different to my own and was deeper in some respects (I am unashamedly superficial in some of my cultural meanderings…my zombie obsession being a prime example of this) and he was unusual in being a creative who also had a sound knowledge of practicalities of business.

The pandemic was especially hard for Eric. He was living alone and his HIV positive status meant he was particularly vulnerable and needed to shield more assiduously than most. His studio in the college was locked so he was denied access to necessary art equipment and the printing supplies essential for him to make a living.

Navigating online marketing when aspects of his work could be seen as subversive and was often censored meant making a living became even more of a struggle and though we discussed this, he never really revealed how emotionally difficult this must have been for him.

As Covid continue to lay waste to the world on so many levels, we talked in depth about the situation especially as I felt there were some parallels to the AIDS crisis, and then a short time before his own death, his remaining beloved dog, Destiny, suddenly died.
After this happened we only talked a few more times and then on the morning of Friday 4th September, his close friend and creative collaborator Thomas, contacted me to say that Eric had died.

I am writing this next to a small shrine for Eric that has a pile of books and zines on it that we worked together on over the years. My computer is filled with similar joint projects and plans, and the room I am sitting in has 6 of his framed pieces surrounding me.

When someone you love dies, little pieces of yourself crumbles away and these pieces that you have created together are all stories. I sincerely believe that these fragments need to be acknowledged and these stories be told, to honour the one who has left.

I am devastated but so privileged to have had the love, care, attention and humour of someone such as Eric K Lerner in my life.

I will close this with some of his words from that first piece of work I read in Ashe Journal of Experimental Spirituality (2003), words that led me to seeking out a relationship that lit up and enhanced my life and changed its direction.

‘I give testament to the strength and dignity of Babalu. I worship an entity scaled in sores, with cowries twisted in his matted hair. I honour the virality of one who must walk with dogs, whose penis can ejaculate death. I praise him who others will not look at, nor his name speak. I respect that he must sometime walk ahead and pave the way for Oya-Yansan in her most fearful task. To him I make offerings of dry white wine, grains and cigars. And I acknowledge that a terrible part of him exists in me. And I beseech his kindness to show me how to endure. And I give him praise. Babalu, Ashe.’

 

Below Image: Thomas van der Krogt

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Boilerman and The Fear

I’ve never particularly liked people I don’t know in my house, partially because I have an unusual home decor that some may find disturbing and could lead to bias and negative judgement calls on their part. When I was working predominantly with road kill I was especially careful about my visitors, and it always made me uneasy when builders or workmen came, with their inevitable comments about the amount of bones and strange statutory that I had, near invariably followed by questioning along the lines of ‘are you a witch or something?’ which was not necessarily made in the most endearing of tones.

My boiler broken down when I was in the midst of a particularly prolific and experimental stage of my taxidermy art and my home although tidy, had a very strong, darkly visual and death orientated character.
Perhaps it is a specific to England but a boiler break down generally comes with a lot of financial anxiety as the cost of replacement is horrendous, and that worry was magnified to the nth degree at the thought of having unknowns traipsing around my kitchen with its focal point of a rather splattered old butler’s sink with overhanging shelves filled with apothecary bottles stuffed with fragments of drifting dead stuff.

I found my much needed Boilerman on a local tradesmen list. He was a large, genial man in his 50’s with a strong Somerset accent and a family that had lived in that area for more generations than he could count.
His assistant only came on the first visit and never returned; also a local lad, Boilerman said his work mate was a ‘bit superstitious’ and ‘the place freaked him out’.
After the expected ‘are you a white witch or something?’ (a question that always seems to come with colour coding for some reason, as if reducing the moniker to binary monochrome made it more palatable) was out of the way, he commenced, whilst replacing my now defunct boiler, to chatter about what really interested him as he felt we had certain things in common. 
Boilerman was a committed hunter and although I worked with dead things and did my own skinning, I was a vegetarian who only worked with the found dead and road kill and was against anything that involved inflicting pain on living creatures. Despite these apparently insurmountable differences however, we managed to find a comfortable middle ground to talk about our respective perspectives.

In his own way, Boilerman was a very ethical man. He was strongly family centred, with a keen awareness of nature and the environment and an embedded morality but also an open mind; things which all to rarely go together. He was very clear on the point that he never killed anything that could not be eaten by himself and his family and friends.
He did offer me bones, skins, deer tine and fresh fish but I respectfully declined and he took it in good grace. During the badger cull he told me that farmers had offered him a bounty to kill the creatures and that while he could see their perspective he didn’t necessarily agree with it and thought it would be problematic to become involved in that way.
I remember him telling me that he believed that he would eventually stop hunting and even fishing, seeming to regard this as a near inevitability. He had known others that had happened to as they were no longer able to disassociate emotionally from their prey: in order to kill animals they had to know them, and sometimes that created an identification that made further killing impossible.
I saw him a few more times over the years for my boiler maintenance then on one visit his son, another large, thoughtful man came instead as his father was unwell after an accident and was no longer working so much.

I saw Boilerman once more before he retired completely. He told me he had been working on the plumbing on a friend’s farm and afterwards had walked through the farm’s paddocks to the orchards to gather apples although his friend had warned him that the cows had calves and were skittish. He took the risk driven by the thought of his wife’s apple crumble which was apparently legendary, feeling secure in his knowledge of animal behaviour.

Whilst in the paddock, several cows knocked him down and trampled him. He said he thought he was going to die, literally seeing his life flash before his eyes, and though lucky enough to survive the attack, spent many months in hospital.

He told me he was now unable to hunt and though much depleted in strength, the worst byproduct of the accident was the fear; an awful fear of animals and nature that haunted him and made him afraid of going out.

That was the last time I saw him, a very strong man with his spirit broken. I’m not sure what made me think of him recently but I did and this hasn’t been recounted with any morality tale embedded but rather as a description of a good man who was broken by something he thought he was familiar with.

 

Image by Charlotte Rodgers. Artwork by Charlotte Rodgers

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