Saturday, 26 November 2011

Resting In Motion At The Speed Of Light

I am so proud of the A Graceful Death exhibition.  So many people, too many to name here, are responsible for making it strong and simple, gracious and loving.  It exists because there are those who have a huge heart and a strong mind.  I include in this all those who help to transport, hang, catalogue, publicise and do workshops for the exhibition, and those who are painted and who tell their stories, and who write the poetry that is used.  Having the expert and excellent Eileen Rafferty on board as co-producer is another feather in the exhibition's cap.  This link to Eileen's blog shows some small films that Eileen has made, where we discuss the latest paintings for A Graceful Death, which is on the subject of the suicide of Stuart Pryde's wife Sue.

But I am now moving in a different though parallel direction.  I have taken on the job title of Soul Midwife, and have begun a journey that both thrills and terrifies me.  I simply do not know how to do this job.  And yet, it is quite simply the most important thing I have ever done.  I have been on a course in Dorset with the wonderful Felicity Warner, I have been inspired by the concept of graceful, gentle dying and the place of the Soul Midwife in working with those who are going to die, to create the best death that they can together.  The idea behind the Soul Midwife movement seems to be very like the ideas behind the hospice movement, and the work of all the most influential palliative care pioneers.  The beauty of the Soul Midwife is that we do not have to be trained medically or as a counsellor, we work alongside other professions and provide spiritual and emotional support.  We listen, we support, we are not afraid.  Many have other services such as reiki, healing, bach flower remedies, meditation to offer.  Some are experienced in helping the dying person to reconcile differences within the family, some are wonderful with music and art, and can help to unlock thoughts and memories that need to be celebrated or acknowledged.  The most important offering, I think, is a listening love.  If only we start with this, the rest is just icing on the cake.

Where am I in this wonderful new world?  Having done my course with Felicity, I am so far down the ladder as to be almost unable to see the starting rung.  I have spent a week letting my thoughts settle after the course, and making myself do nothing.  I can see how this work can be done, and I can see that it is so very important, but where on earth do I start?  I am paralysed by the enormity of the task.  How can I, with very little experience, possibly help another to die well?  I know nothing.  I know nothing.  It is the other way round, it is me who will be saying, help me.  I will be saying, will you help me to know what is going on as you die, will you teach me how to do this?  I need to watch and wait, I need to go directly to the dying and learn from them.  I cannot do this work yet, I have much to learn and a long way to go.  So I have decided to start at the beginning.  I need to learn. This new job as a Soul Midwife starts with some training at the front line.  It is fine that I know nothing, it is not fine if I stay like that.  So learn something.  Ask someone.  I am a Soul Midwife in Training.  It is fine to take my time, in fact, it is essential.  Maybe I will learn quickly and set myself up in no time at all.  That would be wonderful;  I cannot think of a more perfect job than that of a Soul Midwife.  And maybe, I find that I do not learn quickly.  Maybe I am someone who needs to sit at the feet of many many different people before I set myself up as a Soul Midwife.  Or perhaps a third option, in that I do a bit of both.  I don't know right now, I have not quite started.

Here is what I have done.  I have contacted the Snowdrop Trust, a charity that cares for children in West Sussex (where I live) with life threatening and terminal illnesses, in their homes.  I have asked to train as a volunteer, as their volunteers are highly trained and supported, and are not expected to do anything medical.  I will, I am told, be doing fun things with the children alongside the Snowdrop Trusts doctors and nurses.  A  lady from the Trust is coming here to my home next week to go through it all with me.  I volunteer already at my local hospice, where my role is to make teas and coffees and listen.  And finally, just as I returned home from the course, I received an email from a lady who I admire tremendously.  She is a highly intelligent, articulate and compassionate speaker on all subjects from palliative care to moral issues in the approaches to dying, legal issues at the end of life to matters around mental health.  I have found her willingness to help me work out how to best produce the A Graceful Death exhibition over the years so helpful and insightful.  Her email, received at 7.30am the morning after I returned from Felicity's course in Dorset, said that quite out of the blue she had been diagnosed with a possible terminal condition, and that everything in her life had been turned on its head.  The most extraordinary thing, she said, is that the tests that found this dreadful illness, were routinely given for something else, and that she still felt very well indeed.  And yet, she is extremely ill, and possibly has not got much time left.  I asked her to come and see me as a friend, not in a professional capacity, and she did.  The following morning she came for breakfast.

She is an extraordinary lady.  It was a wonderful breakfast.  We laughed, we ate, we spoke of life and death.  And here, in my kitchen, is the person who can teach me how to be a Soul Midwife.  She had agreed to talk me through her experiences and to be my teacher.

And finally, as the dust is settling, and I am making more sense of how to move forwards not only as a Soul Midwife but as an artist who is dedicated to producing the A Graceful Death exhibition as an ongoing Artistic contribution to the subject of death and dying and love, I am aware that the most difficult thing to overcome is my own lack of confidence.  One of the bonuses of being a Soul Midwife is the contact with other Soul Midwives.  We seem to care greatly about each other, and to offer a huge amount of support in all ways. I met and made contact with some wonderful people on Felicity's course, and am really, once I get over my confusion, in very good hands indeed.  And that is what I want the people I work with to say of me, that they are in very good hands indeed.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Photos By Eileen Rafferty And A New Venture For Me

A Graceful Death Exhibition
St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham B5 5BB

Friday 4 November - Tuesday 29 November

Open Daily
Come and write your piece in the Memory Book in the exhibition.  Write about you, write in poetry or prose.  Say what you want.  Tell us about who you remember.
These are some photos for you by Eileen Rafferty who has written of the exhibition in her excellent blog Photosynthesis - .   
Steve in shadow, taken by Eileen as the sun was slowly setting.

The paintings of Stuart and his wife Sue Pryde.  Sue killed herself in 2008 and this is an important work and comment on Sue's suicide.  Written in the three smaller paintings are extracts from Sue's writings, her suicide note to the police (not her suicide note to Stuart) and her letter to Stuart on their wedding day.  Sue is deeply missed and mourned by her husband and her friends.

We are very lucky indeed to have the services of Penny Hewlett, poet in residence at St Martin in the Bull Ring.  Penny is taking poetry workshops on themes taken from the exhibition.  These are a couple of photos from her first workshop.

Penny talking to a very interesting lady from her first workshop, on the subject of Facing Loss.

The same lady working on exercises in writing and thinking that Penny had set.

 These are the hands of a poet, Jenna Plewes who has written the poem on death below.  I am using this and at least two other poems of Jenna's for the exhibition.  Jenna is a warm, intelligent lady who's hands Eileen has captured in her usual excellent way.


 Spring sunshine brings the beech leaves
to a simmering mouthwatering greenness
and the bluebells beneath are a long cool drink of blue.
I walk carefully, but leave a bruised path,
and so I stop, and let the blue green day sift down around me.
Inside a voice says “hold on to this, remember this,
remember this when the busy world reclaims you,
see still in your mind’s eye the blue  and the green,
and the gentle sky.

Tomorrow I go to Dorset to start my training as a Soul Midwife with Felicity Warner.

I will be starting something that I am very keen to do.  Until I start learning about it, I am reluctant to say very much.  I am not trained to do anything professionally.  I am not a medic, I am not a counsellor, I am not even trained as an artist.  I know that I can help people who are dying, and I want to learn how to do it.  As far as I can see, a Soul Midwife provides emotional and spiritual support for those who are dying, whether at the time of diagnosis or later on.  A Soul Midwife will walk alongside someone at the end of their lives, helping to make the experience as easy as possible.  I will learn how to listen, comfort, discuss, do things, and when the time comes if requested, to be present as they die.   I will work alongside doctors and nurses, counsellors and other trained professionals, to make the experience of the end of life as good and peaceful as possible.

More on this as I do it.
In the meantime, please go to St Martin in the Bull Ring and witness the A Graceful Death exhibition. Penny's final workshop will take place during the closing ceremony of the exhbition on Tuesday 29 November, at 2pm.  The title of the workshop will be Moving On.  I will be there and am looking forward to doing another of Penny's moving and uplifting poetry workshops.  I hope to see you there too.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A Quiet And Profound Opening

A Graceful Death Exhibition
St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham B5 5BB

Friday 4 November - Tuesday 29 November

Open Daily
Come and write your piece in the Memory Book in the exhibition.  Write about you, write in poetry or prose.  Say what you want.  Tell us about who you remember.

We opened A Graceful Death on Thursday 3 November, in the lovely old church St Martin in the Bull Ring in Birmingham.  Eileen Rafferty, the photographer, photographed some of the paintings in situ, and photographed the poetry workshop which was held by Penny Hewlett, poet in residence at the church.

This is a small update for you, I will post another account with photos from Eileen next week.  Our new works, Nushi Khan-Levy and Stuart and Sue Pryde, were received with interest.  People were heartened by Nushi's image of Cancer Chic, and the account of her decision to live one day at a time.  Her obvious beauty, even while undergoing chemotherapy, even while losing her hair and feeling so very ill, made people smile with recognition.  If Nushi can do it, we can.  And Stuart and Sue Pryde's story stunned a good few people.  Very powerful, they said.  It is very powerful, and the fact that some of Sue's words are displayed as part of the artwork, is very touching indeed.  Sue has left behind an account of her decision to kill herself, which will start a profound discussion about suicide. Her writing is difficult to read, she is extremely articulate and holds nothing back.  I have only used a fraction of it in the paintings, but what I have used is very good.  Her husband, Stuart, is a brave man to allow this subject of his wife's suicide to be made into an art work to try and touch others who may be in the same situation.

I was very fortunate to meet at last, the Rev Al Barrett and his wife and children, who came to the exhibition on Friday morning.  I know of Al through friends in Birmingham, and though we had corresponded, we had not met.  Now we have, and very lovely it was too!   I was touched by his and his wife's response to the exhibition.  As a priest, Al has to deal with bereavement and the end of life.  It never gets any easier, he says.  He often doesn't know what to say, but just being there is all he can do sometimes.  The painting that meant the most to him was the Tea And Hope Diptych.  There is always, he says, just the simple act of making tea.  Sometimes, that is all he can do.  Al wrote a wonderful piece about the exhibition in his very excellent blog below.

 Tea And Hope Diptych.  This is the painting that the Rev Al Barrett liked the most.

It is worth mentioning that Al's enchanting little son aged 3, when asked how Steve was feeling in one of the paintings, said without hesitation, Grumpy.  

The poetry workshop was so moving and so excellent.  Penny Hewlett ran quite a challenging session for us, and I recommend that you who can, go to Penny's other two workshops.  They are

Workshop 2: Saying Goodbye    Saturday 12 November 11 am - 1pm (if you are coming to this workshop please bring some photos)

Workshop 3: Moving Away      Tuesday 29 November, talk 2.00 and Workshop 2.30 - 4.00 pm 

 Penny will be compiling a small book of all the poetry that is created from these sessions, which will be available at the next A Graceful Death exhibitions.  To end today's update, I want to add a poem that Penny wrote in response to the painting below.  It made me cry.

Letting Go

What do you see,
my love, as you sit in this bath
with bubbles and yellow ducks,
touches of life and loving kindness
in the midst of desolation?
What do you see,
from your tired eyes, heavy lidded,
No longer looking out at what
is all around you, the gentle hands
that hold you, wash you,
bringing you this gift,
last as it was first.
What do you see,
now the world is disappearing,
as your strength leaves you
and light no longer brings you
gifts of sight?

I see that you are leaving me,
even now, you who are the life
that breathes colour into my days.
I see that you have passed into shadow,
as even my touch slides like water
from  your skin.
I see there are no hands
to hold me now, no last look
to say goodbye, though I say it
for us both, through the fierce
pain of separation.

Penny Hewlett