MERMAIDS AND MENTAL HEALTH – Being Silenced and Finding your Voice

 

https://www.instagram.com/cdd20/

https://www.instagram.com/cdd20/

I watched the Oprah Winfrey interview of Harry and Meghan on 8th March.  I’ve never watched one before but this story intrigued me.  In the interview Meghan mentioned a low moment when she watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ and she said how resonant it was – the little mermaid fell in love with a prince and in seeking his love, she had to lose her voice.  In the Disney version it all ends well.  Fortunately Meghan didn’t read the Hans Christian Anderson version.

When Meghan talked about the fact that she’d lost her voice and become silent, Oprah asked ‘do you mean silent or silenced?’  ‘The latter’ Meghan replied.

But being silent was not enough.  The ‘firm’ kept telling her to stay mute and they would keep her safe, but they did not.  They did not protect her against the press, they did not speak out on her behalf. The way she was treated and the racism that she experienced led her to a deterioration in her mental health and she became suicidal. She told Oprah that when she went for help she was not given the support she needed.

 

MENTAL HEALTH

On 9th March, Mind, the Mental Health Charity responded to the above interview and in the article reported: “Our research found that 25 per cent of people said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had inspired them to seek help or get support for themselves.  (https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/mind-responds-to-the-duchess-of-sussex-meghan-markles-interview/)

Meghan, in finally speaking out, was helping people to find their voice, but there is also something else.

MERMAIDS THAT NEED TO BE ‘FIXED’

‘Too often, feelings of shame and isolation mean people affected by mental health problems go without the help and support they need and deserve.’  (Mind quote)

The Little Mermaid was a mermaid.  She belonged to the sea.  In order for her to have a chance of finding her prince and true love, not only did she have to lose her glorious voice, she had to lose her beautiful tail and become something else.

It seems so often that people described as ‘mentally ill’  or ‘autistic’ or simply  ‘different’ are seen as the ones with the problem.  They are the ones with ‘the tail’ and all the effort goes into ‘fixing them,’ making them ‘fit in.’  What if instead, it is the attitudes of those in power that need challenging?  What if it is the ‘normal’ ones who need to open their eyes to see and unplug their ears to genuinely listen?  And finally to open their hearts to welcome?

Illustration by E.K. Mosley,  verse from ‘The Teachers’ by John Bell

My friend Stephen lived his life with ‘difference’ and also struggled with various mental health issues.  He tried to lose his mermaid tail and to ‘fit in’.  It didn’t work because he couldn’t be anything other than he was.

He spent many years on psychiatric wards.

Illustration by e.k.mosley from ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’

Instead of the Firm, he had the UK mental health services to ‘keep him safe’. At times he was ‘legally’ restrained and at times sectioned.  He also claims he was physically abused by staff. Stephen did not discern between what was ‘legal restraint’ and what was ‘abuse’ – he received both and they both felt the same to him.   As far as he was concerned, the institution which was supposed to keep him safe,  did not. He was also silenced.Once you have a diagnosis of mental illness, it is difficult to be heard.  Everything you say is, of course, a result of your illness.

 

ANOTHER STORY

For me the moral of the mermaid story is that we need another!  We need a story of a prince who falls in love with a mermaid and gives up his princedom.

This is the story of Meghan and Harry. By falling in love and marrying Meghan, Harry began to see – he began to see what the world looked like from her perspective, he began to see how the Firm, to which he belonged, was silencing her and crushing her.  He chose to do something about it.

He gave up power. He gave her back her voice.

And Stephen?  There was no romantic story between me and Stephen but a friendship across a great divide.  Perhaps we would need a new version of ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ a piece of historical fiction by Mark Twain, where the young prince Edward VI of England and Tom, a pauper, discover they are identical and swap places for a time.

illustration by e.k.mosley from ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’

When I meet Stephen, I was a middle-class,  vicar’s wife and Stephen was under section at a mental hospital.  We did not swap places but over a number of years, Stephen did show me what the world looked like from his perspective.  He showed me how he was silenced.  I began to see how this culture, to which I belong, was systematically silencing and crushing him.  He did not need to be another shape.

I chose to do something. He agreed to me writing a book about him and I recorded conversations with him.  I wrote chapters of the book and I read them back to him so he could comment.  In ‘Stephen from the Inside Out,’ you will hear his voice.

Please listen.

In this book, Stephen wanted to speak out about the injustice he suffered. He also told me on one occasion:  ‘I’ve never found peace of mind or achieved peace in this life and I never shall. Only in the next life shall I find peace. You can write that down in your book. Make that the fundamental cornerstone.’

I did not want to accept what he said.  However his sentiments find an echo in the original Hans Christian Anderson’s version of the Little Mermaid. In this, the prince marries someone else and despite being given a chance to kill him and so recover her tail, the little mermaid refuses and throws herself into the sea.  In the story, she receives the gift of an immortal soul, peace in the next life.

NEW STORIES

Let us create other stories please.  Not ones that are dependent on the mermaid becoming someone different (Disney) or being granted a future life (Hans Christian Anderson).  Maybe instead a prince who has been asleep under a curse for five hundred years is woken with the kiss from a pauper. Together with the human who kissed him, together with mermaids and unicorns, with wild trees and the natural world,  they create a life that is creative and complex and beautiful.

LAST WORD

In this blog, I want to give Stephen the last word, so below are two extracts from poems he wrote.

Windy Spring Day

Two nonchalant wood pigeons temporarily transfixed

do ascend into the threadbare firmament this vivacious Spring Day.

Why was I never granted an opportunity to recompense let alone to flourish?

 

‘The beauties of early spring,’

‘Ah the glittering incandescent effervescence of this late February day.

The intricate delicacy of myriads of spring daffodils and crocuses

that on this stoic and threadbare ground do so optimistically lay.

Hope of a rejuvenated season rising like a palpitating phoenix

among such despondency and gloom.’

illustration by e.k.mosley from ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMBOLC/CANDLEMAS – SPRING IS COMING!

The first of February!  Imbolc in the Celtic calendar marks the beginning of spring, the light returning, life emerging.  A time for inspiration and new beginnings, allowing the life in us to push through all that hard cold earth!  If a snow drop can do it… so can we.

 

‘Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid,
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!’

The Snowdrop, by Tennyson

 

 

This morning, Monday 1st February,  at 6.30am our household gathered in the trees at the top of South Park in Oxford.  It wasn’t fully dark because of the various lights from the roadsides and coming up from the city but it was grey and chilly and very beautiful with the trees patterning their branches against the dark sky.

Someone read a poem and we sang a chant:

Light emerging, Spring is near,  life emergent, we are here.

After this we went our separate ways to find a place to stand, to notice nature and the very slow lightening of the sky.  We had thirty minutes before rejoining one another.

I felt an exhilaration being up this early, no-one else in the park, only the distant movement of occasional cars on the roads.  The birds were welcoming a daylight that had not arrived, some with such sweet staccatos and others like the rooks, cackling and bawling out their hellos!

I found my way to the huge oak at the centre top of South Park which overlooks the city and I stood leaning against her, feeling her rough support,  feeling the solid, rooted homeliness of this being.  I asked her for any advice and the words that came to me were, ‘heal the roots’.

I thought of the roots of the tree, how deep and wide they run..  The roots are vital to the life of the tree but also to its connection with other trees.

Over the last few years the human race has been discovering that trees communicate with each other and share nutrients through their roots and through fungal networks. The fine, hairlike root tips of trees join together with microscopic fungal filaments to form the basic links of the network, which appears to operate as a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi. This network has been called ‘The Wood Wide Web’!

 

Peter Wohlleben has written a beautiful book entitled “The Hidden Life of Trees” and he says that all the trees  ‘in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.’  (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/)

 

It seems to me that we the human race could do with healing our roots, healing the vital connections that are between us.  One of the ways we might  do this is to start digging up our certainties, the ones that crush the possibility of connection, of love, of hope –with ourselves, with others and with this good earth.  I am hoping to do some gentle digging over this year.

THE PLACE WHERE WE ARE RIGHT

Yehuda Amichai (translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell)

 

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

 

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

 

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

 

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

 

 

Living with a Copy Edit

 

My copy edit has arrived.

 

Give or take a few bits of blue, it looks like this for 450 pages.

 

 

Help

Fortunately, a few things  prevented me from lying face down on the available carpet space of my home ‘office’ and refusing to move for the next three months.

Jeff Collyer, the very able and patient publisher of Impress Press said helpfully:

  • In the end, this is your book. I’m not requiring you to make all the changes.
  • Every copy editor will respond slightly differently to a text.
  • As an author it hurts every time!
  • I will put you in touch with the copy editor, Matthew Baylis by email so that you can be in direct communication with him.

 

Meeting the Copy Editor

Having some communication with Matthew was vital to me.  It felt awkward  asking for this especially as I didn’t quite know what to say but it was important that I sensed a human being there before he disembowelled my text.  After all, this is a book which I spent years writing and here I was, trusting a stranger to read it.

There were two other things that also really helped.  Firstly, several people had already read the draft and loved it and secondly Matthew took the time to send me a cover email with the copy edit, in which he wrote some very precious praise and finished, ‘Please take it as read, I rated this book highly. But obviously I had plenty to say about the bits I felt were not working so well.’

I treasure those words especially when I am working on the text and can’t seem to get it right.

 

Copy Edit Early on:

I find myself caught on paragraphs like a fish on a hook and it’s hard to wriggle free.  The editor suggests an alternative turn of phrase to clarify a sentence – it is definitely not a phrase I would use but he is right that clarity is needed.  I sit rifling through my memory for words or phrases.

Then my mood dips because it’s now lunch and I haven’t even got half way through one chapter.

 

Tenses:

The major issue that Matthew raised was ‘tenses.’ Apparently, I change tenses not only mid-paragraph but also mid-sentence.  I need to clarify when I’m in ‘the present,’ what that ‘present’ is (before or after Stephen has died) and when I’m in the past.

 

What you don’t expect

When I started out on this book, I thought I’d just record and write about Stephen’s past life.  Not too difficult.

Yet while I assiduously recorded his past, it rarely occurred to me to record what was happening to him in the present time, between 2012 and 2018.   I did make notes of phone calls almost as a side issue because he didn’t like me talking.

I didn’t expect to be writing about him for 8 years.

I didn’t know that I would fall into the book, into the narrative.

Maybe none of us know what will happen when we start to write a book.

 

Working out the real problem

The real problem is not the tenses. It takes me a while to unravel. I worry that as Annie Dillard says (The Writing Life) I’ve come across a hair line fracture but I don’t think so because that generally happens when I’m in the middle of a first draft and I can’t find the way forward.

I worry that if I tidy the text up too much,  the energy will dive.

I worry that if I don’t, I will confuse people.

I need to do something.  But what is it?

I worry.

Then my worry expands, stretches to: corona virus, world inequality, the environment, our beautiful world being destroyed.

I stop, become aware of sitting, noticing my feet on the floor.  Then I look out of my upstairs window at the bare branches of the huge beech trees opposite, their delicate sprays of twigs outlined against wispy, white clouds and a gentle blue sky.  I feel a surge of aliveness firing up from my belly, up through my chest, lifting me.

 

Confidence

The real problem is in having confidence in my voice.  I take the editor’s views as huge criticisms and sit pondering them for hours.  It takes a while to realise that I wrote in this style for a particular reason, not because I’m an idiot.  The editor is here as a ‘critical friend,’ pointing out inaccuracies and asking awkward but interesting questions.

When I recover from the ‘must get it right’ stranglehold that part of my psyche is holding me  in, energy comes back and a sense of adventure.

I can live with this copy edit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing is Impossible!

Writing a play is impossible.

I thought this.

It was too long, too complex

To hold the structure.

Yet one day I began.

I wrote short sketches

5 minutes long

10 minutes long.

Others performed them.

First, they grew like daisies

Then they grew like roses.

The smell was glorious,

Intoxicating,

I began to write more.

They became knotted wood

And branches,

Saplings swaying to the music.

Now

Writing a book is impossible.

It is too long, too intricate

To hold the structure.

How do they do it?

And then one day I began.

FINISHING MY DRAFT FOR THE BOOK

‘STEPHEN FROM THE INSIDE OUT’

On Friday 9th October, the day before World Mental Health Day, I completed my penultimate draft for the book, ‘Stephen from the Inside Out’!   Here is an extract from the back cover ‘blurb’:

‘From the outside…  Stephen struggled for most of his life with severe mental health issues, endured 25 years inside British psychiatric wards and never felt acceptable in the ‘normal’ world.   From the inside… here was a man with powerful convictions, deep longings, wide interests and an incapacity to be anything other than himself, whatever the cost. This is his story, inside and out; a story of grave injustices, saints and bigots, a faithful dog, a wild woman, a fairy godmother and angels hidden in plain sight. It is also the story of the author, Susie, who started off by wanting to ‘help’ Stephen ‘get better,’ but then found out it was somewhat more complicated than she’d anticipated.

In 2012, this book was a seed in my mind.  Stephen agreed to me writing the book but how to begin? We met up regularly and I recorded our conversations.

In 2014  Kate Clanchy, author and poet, agreed to mentor me. Every now and they she would issue vital advice.

At the beginning: Weave in the history of mental health in this country but only sparsely – keep the story moving forward.

Which I did.

Then: Go on an Arvon Course to complete your first chapter.

Which I did.

Near the end of my first draft: Send it out and get used to rejections. 

Not so easy. But I began.

You might like to apply to a competition run by a publisher.

I applied to the Impress Prize for New Writers.

And got to the last 10. But I’m not going to win.

And then I won.

Won £500 plus the promise to publish.

Now 10 months later, in October 2020, after 14 drafts,  I’ve handed in my draft to a copy editor, to be ritually disembowelled. I’ve spoken to him and trust him to use a clean sharp knife.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Writing, writer’s tips and writing peeves – An Interview with Impress Press

An interview with the 2019 Impress Prize Winner and writer Susie Stead 

 

Meet Susie Stead

Susie is an award-winning writer who has been writing and creating drama in community settings for the last 20 years. She’s written and produced plays, drama sketches, street theatre, short films, short stories and a memoir. Two of her plays were theatrical biographies (on William Tyndale & C S Lewis) but “Stephen, From the Inside Out” is her first biography intended to be read not performed and unravels the life of  a man whose story has never been told.

Follow Susie on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn to support her work.

 

About “Stephen, From the Inside Out”

For our readers, can you tell us a bit about the book?

This is a biography (but not a straightforward one) of a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and autism.  Stephen was born in 1955 and says that at the age of 3, a psychiatrist told his mother that he was ‘the sickest child’ he’d ever met.  This book is about his life, often with commentary from Stephen in his own wonderfully idiosyncratic style, but it is also a conversation with my life, as someone who has never been diagnosed with a mental illness.  I’m not related to Stephen and was never in a romantic relationship with him, nor did I decide to write a book about mental illness and then seek him out.  I started out in the role of ‘Good Samaritan’ and over 18 years went on an eye-opening and bumpy journey getting to know him (and myself).   Stephen’s life was a patchwork of drama, difficulty, fairy godmothers, damnation religion, humour and moments of great tenderness. This book asks: What does it feel like never to fit in?  What do we mean by mad, bad and god?  What is it that gives our life value?

 

Why did you choose to write about Stephen in particular?

Because he had a very different take on life and he was a powerful character with a story to match. He was extraordinarily honest and unable to be anything other than himself, whatever the cost. Up until the last couple of years of his life he had a photographic memory together with a wide-ranging vocabulary and a colourful turn of phrase and so he was able to capture and give us  insight into what it was like to grow up and live with severe mental illness (and undiagnosed autism) in the UK from 1955 until his death.

 

Did writing about someone with special needs provide challenges?

Firstly, I don’t like the phrase ‘special needs’.  Both getting to know Stephen and writing about him provided challenges, but this is the stuff of the book! Sometimes I would drive 100 miles down to record him for this book and he wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind or he’d need me to do some practical things and no recording would happen.

Another challenging aspect was that he was paranoid that people would find out who he was and the authorities would sue him because of the claims of severe abuse that he makes in the book.  On the one hand he wanted justice but, on the hand, he was terrified of both being sued and getting into trouble with the authorities.  I had to keep assuring him that I’d get any publisher to ensure that I’d done what was needed to keep his anonymity.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect about writing about Stephen was that by his very being and personality he was constantly exposing my assumptions, dogmas and false beliefs.

 

 

Writing Tips from Susie Stead

Do you have any tips for overcoming writers block?

Depends on where you are in the process.  I’ve found Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” very helpful.  She talks about looking for that hair-line crack in your narrative.

I think that sometimes I can’t write this chapter because I haven’t ‘got there’.  I’m not writing truthfully, instead I’m talking in clichés or have gone off on some rant.  I couldn’t finish this book until Stephen died because I couldn’t yet fully see what he’d given me and I couldn’t get a perspective.  However, I didn’t know that till he died.  I’m sad because I’d have loved to have seen his face when I told him it was actually getting published.

 

What’s your biggest writing pet peeve?

I don’t know a way around it but I hate it when people ask me ‘how’s the writing going?’ If its going badly or I’m not writing, my lips go thin and tight, I give a fake smile and I change the subject.  If its going well, I don’t want to talk.  In fact, I don’t want to be there at all because I want to be in front of my laptop.  It feels far too personal a question, like asking me how my sex life is going.

 

What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of writing?

Having a passion and energy about the subject you want to write about and then writing and not worrying about what that first draft looks like.  It is just a draft.  When I write, whether its sketches, playscripts, or this book I write many, many drafts.  Someone said that with sculptors, they have the clay but with writers, we have no clay until we’ve written something.  Once we’ve written some text, we’ve got some clay to mould.

 

How do you handle writing scenes that exhaust you or stress you out?

I practice mindfulness and as part of that I try to notice when I’m stressed and then be kind to myself, acknowledge that suffering is here and give myself breaks.  After Stephen died, I couldn’t write for 6 months and then I was able bit by bit to get back to it.

 

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Stop writing about your dreams and write about all those interesting people you’ve been meeting and what you thought about it all.  In 10 years when you want that beautiful information, you won’t remember!

Writing is important to you.  Don’t reduce its value.

 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

“All writing is re-writing.”

 

If you’re interested in entering the 2020 Impress Prize …

go to the website: http://www.impress-books.co.uk/impress-prize-for-new-writers/

This interview has been taken from the website: http://www.impress-books.co.uk/an-interview-with-the-2019-impress-prize-winner/

PRIZE WINNING WRITING !

 

 

I’ve won the Impress Prize for New Writers 2019!

 

The 2019 Impress Prize Winner

The prize relates to a book that I’ve been writing about a man who lived with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and later autism. I knew him for 18 years and decided to write about his life in 2012. I call it biography and it is but it’s also a conversation between his life and mine. I’ve mentioned him in blogs, last January and September.  Below is an extract from the first chapter which formed part of my submission for the Impress Prize.

Please note that after I wrote a chapter, I’d read it back to him and sometimes incorporate his comments which are in italics. His name in the book is Stephen, because he wanted to remain anonymous and he like the name Stephen 😊

 

EXTRACT FROM CHAPTER 1 –  2014

Recently Stephen watched the film ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ again on TV. He tells me: ‘It was good but it disturbed me.  Much worse things happened to me, Susie, much worse.’

I’m interested. I’m perched on a wooden chair facing Stephen folded into his ancient armchair, in an equally ancient jumper, his cigarette alight, ash about to fall, taking notes while a February sky squints at me through the smoke-stained bay window of his front room.  I remember ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ set in Oregon Mental Hospital.  It won 5 Oscars. Jack Nicholson with his arched eyebrows, wicked smile and black, wild hair played the charismatic rogue attempting to avoid prison by posing as a mental patient.

prize winning writing

Jack Nicholson from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’

I look at Stephen with his black, untidy hair, serious eyebrows and intense dark eyes and an image rises in my mind of Jack Nicholson’s face contorted in pain as he’s given an electric shock. It had never occurred to me before that this might have been visited on Stephen.  I’m curious: ‘Did you ever have that electro whatsit?’

Stephen drops his voice: ‘I did.’

‘What’s it called?’ I don’t catch what he says. ‘Sorry?’ Still no good.  ‘What?’

‘ECT – Electro Convulsive therapy – it doesn’t’ matter. You’re obviously hard of hearing.’

I am not hard of hearing.  He hasn’t got his teeth in.  I grind mine: ‘No, I’m listening’.

‘You are hard of hearing, Susie, you are hard of hearing.’

‘Ok I’m hard of hearing but if you could speak up that would help me.  Did it help you, the ECT?’

‘Most people are hard of hearing.’

‘Are they?’

His disappointment with the human race and my irony hang in the smoky air between us.

[When I read this part back to him, he still agreed emphatically that I’m very hard of hearing]. 

I get back on subject: ‘Was it helpful, the ECT?’

‘It didn’t help me.’

‘Was it painful?’

‘Very painful.’

‘I’m sorry. And did you agree to it or was it forced on you?’

‘Forced on me.’

‘Could you give me some dates when you had it?’

’76. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’

It’s only later I notice that ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out in 1975, the year before Stephen had ECT.

And later still that I notice painfully, my curiosity trumping compassion.

 

That was the extract from the book and part of my prize winning entry.  Stephen died in August 2018 and never got to share this good moment.  I miss him.  May he rest in peace.

 

Election Day Fairy Tale – The happy princess

The Happy Princess : A Fairy Tale with a Twist – By Susie Stead

 

Once upon a time a long time ago, there lived a king and queen of a great kingdom.  They had one daughter.  Like any parent, they wanted their child to be happy and to protect her from suffering but unlike most parents this couple had the power and the money to achieve their aim.

Their castle, sitting on the crest of long low hill was huge and beautifully crafted. There were rooms for the winter with great fireplaces and walls hung with gorgeous tapestries.  The summer rooms were full of light with delicate curtains fluttering in the breeze. The grounds were vast with a fabulous array of gardens: formal and informal, some with mazes, others rippling with pools and delightful bridges.  There were spots of woodland and pleasant copses for picnics. Wildlife was carefully monitored and the princess enjoyed the pleasures of a wide array of pets from rabbits, puppies and ponies to more unusual pets that visiting royalty brought as gifts.

The King and Queen had a huge wall built around these grounds and their daughter grew up within this enclosure, surrounded by beauty.  Servants and visitors were carefully screened and required to be happy and positive in her presence at all times. Any sickness or death was hidden from her.  The word ‘death’ was hidden from her. When a pet became old or ill, it was put in a pretty carriage driven by a coachman in a silk top hat and two frisky ponies at the front. The princess would feed her pet its favourite treat and wave it off, secure in the knowledge that it was being taken to a very special home where all its friends were waiting for it. Another delightful pet would appear in its place.

The Princess was blissfully happy.

As she grew older, inevitably she grew more curious as to what was beyond the wall. That curiosity grew into a somewhat irritable obsession.  This was not acceptable to her parents so with strict instructions, she was taken out into the streets in the coach. The coachman tried to keep her within the area that her parents had required but the princess simply stepped out of the coach and ran off laughing. What she found down the lanes of that town stifled her laugh.  Skinny smelly children, women holding babies and begging from shop keepers, people wandering about in a strange assortment of old clothes talking nonsense, others with strange lumps and bumps on their bodies or missing limbs altogether.  There were people arguing or walking under heavy loads with bitter tiredness on their faces. When they saw her, they stared and then quickly moved off when they saw the coachman running up towards her. The suffering she saw there overwhelmed her and she let the coachman lead her back to the carriage and back to her home.

Once she had time to recover from the shock, the princess knew what she must do. She told her parents she wanted to make it all better, she wanted all those people to be happy. Her parents tried to tell her that these people were used to their way of life, they were mostly lazy or brutalised and would not appreciate her warm and caring heart.  However, to please her they gave her a generous allowance which she spent on the poor.  The poor were very grateful.

However, there came a day when an arthritic old man refused her gift of a thick warm coat. She’d never been refused before and became quite agitated. She wanted him to be warm and happy, why was he refusing this? As she argued, he stood watching her in silence. An elderly woman passing by muttered, ‘Don’t, it will do no good’ but the old man made a different choice. He decided to tell her the real problem; her parents.  It was they who were the main employers in the area. They paid low wages and charged high taxes.  They owned all the properties and when people could not pay the rent, they were made homeless.  Perhaps if she could speak to her parents, they might make changes that would make a real difference.  The princess felt a welling up of feelings that she didn’t recognise. She was angry and upset, hurt and very, very unhappy. She found the coachman and asked him to drive her home.

Once she had time to recover from the shock, the princess knew what she must do. She told her parents about the old man and his accusation. She told them that she didn’t like these terrible feelings that were in her and she wanted them to go away. Her parents promised her that what the old man had said were dreadful lies.  He was a wicked and ungrateful man – after all, she in her kindness had offered him a beautiful, warm thick coat and he’d turned it down.  Everyone else was grateful.  The princess was not to worry and they would make sure everything ended happily.  They had the old man brought before the court, tried and summarily executed for treason.

The Princess never left the castle grounds again.  She married, had one daughter and lived happily ever after.

EXTINCTION – It’s just not cricket

On 8th October 2019, several people were playing cricket on the road round Parliament Square, in front of Westminster Abbey.   A few thousand others were busy stopping the traffic in 12 different localities.  On the back of this person’s shirt is written the words:  ‘Extinction – it’s just not cricket.’  This was the beginning of the London October Extinction Rebellion.

 

In my last blog I said that my deepest wish was not to be afraid but to play in the sand of my life.  As I’m sure any child psychologist would tell you, play is a vital thing for healthy growth in children.  I don’t think it stops being important when we are adults.  Surely, part of play is trying out new approaches, new ways to do things, playing with what its like to be someone else, being creative…

 

 

Over the last two weeks, Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists played, with great seriousness but also with great creativity and often great courage.  Some of it you might agree with and some you might not.  We’re in the midst of huge change and what is called the 6th mass extinction.  If we want the wonderful diversity of life that inhabits our planet to survive, we have to wake up and change, radically.

READ THE SCIENCE!

(you can start with the IPCC report :International Panel on Climate Change https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/)

We need to challenge ‘business as usual’, suggest alternatives, act them out.  The three demands of  Extinction Rebellion to governments are:  Tell the Truth, Act!, and create Citizens Assemblies (similar model to juries) to take this out of party politics.

Throughout the two weeks of the London Rebellion, people met in People’s Assemblies to plan, make decisions and check in with each other. On the Telegram app there were often messages reminding us to look after ourselves. There were constant reminders that this movement is Non-Violent and when we start feeling the rage rise, we need to step aside.  Everywhere there was a conscious choice to speak reasonably, to hear one another and to ensure non-violence was our signature. When the police started arresting people and the temperature was rising, people who had trained in de-escalation would step in and often someone would start a song to help restore the peaceful mood. We’d  sing to the police ‘We love you police’ and sometimes add ‘we’re doing this for your children.’

Below is a taster of  my experience of the London Rebellion (there were events around the world). I was only up there on 4 of the days and I didn’t camp.

On the Monday 8th October at 8.30am, as requested, a number of us gathered incognito at Parliament square. Police were everywhere and searching people and it was nerve wracking.  A group of us XR Meditators stood at a bus stop on Whitehall ‘waiting for a bus.’  We then moved towards the Women’s memorial.  We’d been told:  ‘when the man with the yellow umbrella walks onto the road, everyone go’.  It was like some sort of strange comic farce.  The man with the yellow umbrella walked out and we all ran onto the road. The police ran after us and a policeman grabbed me and pushed me off the road.  I saw Tim go back onto the road several metres down so I followed.  Someone shouted ‘sit down’ and we all sat down and that was that.  A couple of hundred activists sitting in the road and we’d done it! Whitehall had been ‘taken’ just outside Downing Street.

It may help to know that the people who’d come with me and were sitting with me were mostly quiet introvert types: buddhists, meditators, psychotherapists, nurses, gentle souls.  It was extraordinary.  On that first day, we as a Meditators group, offered meditation on the hour every hour for 10 to 15 minutes and despite the noise, we kept silence and others joined us.  I found it surprisingly easy as all the noise outside drowned the usual panoply of noise inside my head!

 

I didn’t see it but later on a giant pink octopus travelled down towards Whitehall and got kettled by police.

 

 

On the Wednesday some of us came back     and we walked around the different sites.  By St James Park we saw some ‘birds’ fly past while a young man entertained children by making huge bubbles.   Just out of sight is a wooden frame with a young woman on top. In front of her is a crowd of people ‘holding the road’ and a cherry picker has been brought over to remove her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later we came back to find an indomitable woman in a wheel chair who had fixed herself to the road with several people attached/glued on to her wheel chair. We helped put the blue plastic over to protect them from the rain.

 

 

Coming out by Methodist Central Hall, Parliament Square were some phoenixes and an uncooperative crusty 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These birds joined a band drumming a rhythm that got me dancing in the street.  Shortly afterwards, I saw the young man who led the dancing, gluing himself into his tent on the road in front of Westminster Abbey, while police were arresting and removing others.  I hope you are ok, Patrick.  Further along, I watched as 3 police officers unzipped a tent, read the rights to the person inside and then dragged him out and arrested him.

On an impulse I sat down in the tent.  A policewoman came back, furious and told me I was illegally sitting in someone else’s property.  When I said I was just looking after it for him, she grabbed me by the arm and almost literally ‘threw’ me out of the tent.  several XR people surrounded me to see if I was ok and to offer me care and biscuits.

 

 

Down Whitehall, walking back towards Trafalgar square, a group of Australians had decided to appear as jumping kangaroos.

 

Over the days we watched as the Red Rebels wove their silent way through the crowds.  This time they arranged themselves in front of the Women’s Memorial.

 

 

Up in Trafalgar square Extinction Rebellion had found other creative ways to block the road.  Police had stopped them bringing boats into London, so instead, someone drove a hearse in, with a coffin that had ‘Our Future’ written on it.  Two men sat in the front of the hearse, one locked on to the steering wheel.

 

The police moved in over the days arresting more and more people and gradually clearing the 12 different sites yet XR members continued to act.

On the Saturday we joined the march from Marble Arch to Russell Square, a sombre and highly imaginative funeral procession that allowed rebels to grieve for the ongoing ecocide. The march drew a crowd of more than 20,000 people, despite near continuous rain, and brought Oxford Street to a standstill for several hours. I brought my sign and walked with friends very slowly for over 3 hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from above was impressive.

On the Sunday the police slapped a section 14 on the whole of London for Extinction Rebellion which meant they could arrest anyone anywhere in London. In response, at least 1000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square.

 

In spite of this section 14, I came back on the Thursday 17th, a day before the Rebellion officially ended and joined a variety of working people; librarians, nurses, university lecturers, professional coaches, engineers, farmers, scientists etc etc. We marched to Trafalgar square, heard from some of these people and then finished the day with a mass meditation. There was a wonderful medley of faiths and philosophies represented and offerings included inviting everyone to bellow out 3 Ohms, sing a Taize chant “Ubi Caritas” and the first verse of “Amazing Grace” with particular reference to the words ‘I was blind and now I see’.

What is it about this movement that matters to me?  It’s thoughtful, creative, non-violent and aims to be as inclusive and democratic as possible. It can get somewhat chaotic and messy but creativity in my experience is not tidy.  XR is challenging those in power to make systemic change, it dreams of a different way of living which is fairer,  sustainable and which honours, not destroys our beautiful planet. It is waking people up to the fact that Climate change is happening now.  People and creatures, trees & plants are dying now.

Is it worth all this effort when we may not succeed?  As my son put it, ‘you mean we might make this world a better place, for nothing?’ !  Even if we don’t ‘succeed’,  it is so heartening to be in the company of so many people who want to create a better world and want to do it actively and non-violently.  Many people on the rebellion joined in workshops on non-violence and discovered how to relate to each other in healthy, creative ways, how to notice and channel their anger and fear.  That’s got to be good 🙂

This movement is following in some very honourable footsteps: the Suffragettes,  Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement and many others.  There are older footsteps to honour: for me, the Jesus who challenged the authorities and who turned over the tables of the money changers.

For the love of this beautiful earth and for all living beings in it, lets make a stand.  After all, extinction is ‘just not cricket’.

Coming back to what matters

About 16 months ago, I and Tim left an entire way of life behind.  About 13 months ago a friend of mine, Stephen, left his entire life behind because he died. Within the space of 4 months, three friends of mine died. On the day I was told that Stephen had died, 13th August 2018, I had just spent the morning reflecting & brainstorming, ‘what is my deepest wish?’

 

In writing down the thoughts,  the most repeated phrase was ‘I do not want to be afraid’.  It finally formed into the following: My deepest wish is to play – to allow myself to make different patterns in the sand of my life and then allow the tide to wash them away.

 

As I finished writing , the phone rang and a voice said ‘Are you sitting down? Stephen has died.’

 

PLAYING LIFE AND LETTING GO  

I will play in the sand of my life

because it is sand

And its

Running

Through my fingers

 

Let us play together,

Let us build strange structures

Dig ditches

and fill with them water.

Let us create

Extraordinary shapes in

the sand and delicate

Patterns with shells and

Stones.

 

Let us play together

Create together

Argue

Fight

Laugh

 

Then watch the sea

In leisurely fashion

Erase

Our precious

Designs

 

And let them go

And let them go.

 

Over the coming year I played.  It was very serious play.  I discovered what it was like to be the executor of Stephen’s will, to become a mindfulness teacher,  to live in a home that was not public property (ie belonging to the church), to live without a car, and many other things.  I also discovered Extinction Rebellion.

What I kept finding was that I’d appreciate something valuable and then get carried away into planning, angsting, plotting or being utterly overwhelmed and then lose touch with the original experience.  Meditation would eventually bring me back.  That is one of the beauties of mindfulness.

 

So, with Climate Change and Extinction Rebellion.  I feel a deep love for this good earth:  my dog’s hairy face, the hundred different shades of green in the garden,  the crunch and taste of cox’s apples, the view from a hill I’ve just climbed…  Then I get caught up, rushing, worrying about whether to get arrested or not, becoming in turn furious, despairing and weepy over the burning of the rainforests, the destruction of the coral reefs and more.   That is not to be avoided but I also need to keep coming back to what matters, to let ‘the soft animal’ of my body love what it loves (see below: Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver).

 

In April, Tim set up an Extinction Rebellion Meditators Group,  a group of meditators who want their action to come out of their meditation, and in keeping with the ethos of Extinction Rebellion, want to respond deeply to this climate crisis, not react by pursuing a narrow ‘solution’ or finding enemies to hate.

It’s quite a challenge!  The group helps anchor me and keep me coming back to what matters:  connecting with the earth, myself, others, – discovering what contribution we can make, not only in relation to the climate crisis but in relation to what sort of people we want to be, what sort of society we want to live in.

Last year, two weeks before my friend Stephen died, I visited him in the nursing home he was in.  He was only 63 years old but by now he was an invalid.  He was in a wheel chair but he’d survived so much, it didn’t occur to me that he’d be dying anytime soon.  I had to travel 100 miles to visit him and was going to ‘fit in’ a visit to someone else as well but just in time, I recognised that push to ‘efficiency’ and chose deliberately not to do that and therefore not be rushed.

In the event, we sat on the porch outside his nursing home for nearly 3 hours, mostly in silence, as the sun slowly went down.  He’d had a lifetime of mental health issues and was struggling with his ‘voices’, I was struggling with the desire to ‘get on’ and with the irritation of having to light his cigarettes every 15/20 minutes by walking over to my car where there was fixed lighter.  Yet still, for large chunks of time we sat peaceably together.  When the nursing assistant came out to collect him, I said with feeling, ‘Thank you Stephen,’ meaning, thank you for the space to sit in silence together, to watch the sky change colour, to be present, to be here.  And Stephen said ‘Thank you for sitting with me’.

That was the last time I saw or spoke to him before he died.

 

What is your deepest wish? Or wishes.

What is it that matters most deeply to you?

Make time to remember

 

Wild Geese – by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/5300846002

 

 

 

WAKE UP TO CLIMATE EMERGENCY – EXTINCTION REBELLION

Its not exactly ‘the ARK’ but it is trying to save us from catastrophe.  The Police have removed a boat which has the words “TELL THE TRUTH” on the side of it. Well, isn’t that interesting?

I’ve watched videos of TV interviews with Extinction Rebellion people and the interviewers are not challenging the statement that our planet is going down the pan.  The last couple of weeks have felt quite overwhelming as I’ve tried to absorb all the information and at least attempt to read the IPCC report (international panel on climate change) which tells us we have 12 years to make radical changes if we want to stop temperatures rising to catastrophic levels.  It has been very helpful to combine the activism with meditation.

I went up to London on Monday with the Oxford Meditators and then camped Tuesday and Wednesday evening.  These are some of my reflections on that experience as a part of Extinction Rebellion.  I am intending to go back next week.  Hope you can come and see for yourselves at some point.

Susie & Tim at Marble Arch, Monday 15th April

Monday @ Extinction Rebellion – a group of us, ‘Oxford Meditators’ went up for the day and it was more like a festival, friendly and easy.

 

Tuesday @ Extinction Rebellion –  In the afternoon I came back with a tent and 2 of us (myself and friend, Sarah) camped at Extinction Rebellion Marble Arch site.  That’s a rare opportunity!  I recommend the toilets at Hyde Park 😊

we were up by the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waterloo bridge Tuesday afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah and I went to Waterloo bridge to hear children speak about wanting change.  We saw plants and flags, heard music and mixed with a range of people: older, younger, hippies, middle class types like ourselves (!), all sorts.

We then went to Oxford Circus which was more of a party around the pink boat – a very good natured party, where one of the people on the boat gave us an extended argument as to why it was so important that we did not drink alcohol or take drugs while involved here and if we wanted to do that then go somewhere else and if we see people drinking, tell them to go.  He explained that drinking and drugs destroys movements and people.

One man started shouting at the police and Sarah walked over to him and insisted that he stop.  He took a bit of time to respond but he did stop and over the next 2 days I saw him often and he stayed calm and reasonable.

police vans at Oxford Circus Tuesday evening

Something in the region of 8 to 10 police vans arrived and the police then began to converge on the boat. It was intimidating. Sarah and I watched young people being carried out of the circle around the pink boat by groups of 5 or 6 police officers as volunteer legal advisors walked beside them and the crowd cheered those being arrested.  It was as peaceful as something like that can be but I found a heavy pain in settle in my guts.

 

Wednesday @ Extinction Rebellion – DEMOCRATIC PROCESS- a group of about 30 or 40 people gathered at Marble Arch to discuss the proposed action on the underground.  The person who gathered us asked if someone else wanted to chair it, no-one did, after gathering some views, he then asked if there was anyone with a different viewpoint.  Everyone listened respectfully.  We all agreed we didn’t think this was a good idea and the news was sent back to the main headquarters.

I decided that I was willing to be arrested and I sat with the others at the Pink Boat but it’s not as easy as you think 😊.   If I’d stayed a bit longer on Wednesday evening then I may well have had the privilege.  While I was there I listened to a young german man tell us how big companies are systematically stripping local farmers of the land in many countries and then they starve.  It is our money that is being used for this and it is standard practice..  He said ‘have you watched a person starve to death? I have.’  I  wanted to cry.

At midnight, I stood at the barrier at Edgeware Road talking with a lecturer in Economics, a frightened scientist, a retired psychiatrist, and others.   Other people I’ve met are women who were at the Greenham common, shop workers, couples and single parents with their kids, people coming up from Devon and down from York, a young man who biked from Cambridge… There are people with mental health issues, physical health issues.  There are babies and 80-year olds.

food offered at marble arch

And every day volunteers create dhal curry in the evening, porridge in the morning for hundreds of others.  I spent a pleasant hour in the food tent on Wednesday evening cutting up onions, garlic and carrots with others.

There are Volunteers carefully emptying the  ‘green’ toilet with its plant pots on the top,  volunteers checking that those locked onto the boat have food and water,  volunteers acting as de-escalators and keeping the atmosphere as calm as possible,  volunteers who’ve done some training to be legal observers, volunteers who are willing to be arrested….. volunteers who stand at the barrier through the night, it goes on.

I am deeply moved.

It is also wonderfully liberating not to react angrily to other people’s anger – simply smiling back at a car driver giving you the finger.  A young man told us we were just a bunch of lefties looking for attention and told me to look up the facts.  I laughed and told him he needed to check his.  We parted on good terms.

the police have been very good and the protestors tend to sing ‘we love you’ to them.  Several of them made it clear that they agreed with us but they were just doing their jobs.  I feel sorry for the ones who were caught on film dancing at Oxford Circus.

Sarah went home on Wednesday and then I met a very able older woman who was planning to sleep out in just a sleeping bag, so she came and joined me in my tent.  She’d volunteered to be a legal advisor and got up for a 6am – 11am shift.  It was freezing in the tent although it helped when I put on my waterproof trousers as well!

While we were standing at the Extinction Rebellion Edgeware road barrier at midnight on Wednesday 3 young very bright, british/arab men came and chatted to us and asked us difficult questions – they were all the age of my boys – turned out one of them had done a thesis on climate change so I asked him to email it to me and he has.  His report is very clear that the temperature rises are human made but following a survey he did, he concludes that we won’t do anything until it hurts us.  We are willing to sacrifice the future generations for our present comfort.

I’ll repeat that.  This young man thinks that:

We are willing to sacrifice future generations for our present comfort.

I hope not  and thousands of people at Extinction Rebellion are not in agreement with that.  Come and see what is happening.  Come and join us.