Finding A Voice (again)

HMV

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a timid little thing.The sort of child that wouldn’t really say boo to a goose. Then, at school – after being overlooked for the central casting – a guy called Patrick was forced to pull out of the school nativity play. It was ‘The Shepherd’s Story’, and he was the lead shepherd. I was asked to help the rest of the cast by reading his lines in rehearsal. I can still remember the opening lines:

I wish I’d never been married. I wish, I wish, I WISH I’d never been married.

This from an 11 year old soon-to-realise- homosexual. I began to quite like the acting thing, and so was secretly pleased when Patrick failed to recover in time for the performance. All of a sudden, the timid child had found a voice, and it felt really good.

From there, I joined a local panto group (oh yes I did!) and went on to school plays, and on to studying drama at University. In the midst of it all, I found the power in having a voice – both in projecting on stage and to a crowd, and to find the individual voice for myself as powerful, engaged and active. I studied the voice as part of the drama degree, alongside using my body, working in space and working at different levels, and it became a journey of knowing more about my interaction with other people.

In a second career, I trained as a counsellor, a psychotherapist. I helped other people tell their stories, helped them to find a voice for themselves – to name and reclaim shameful of frightening parts of themselves. As much of the work was over the telephone, I found ways to quieten and soften my voice, to put aside views and judgements which impeded the client’s telling and speaking. I became a soft spoken facilitator of feelings, a person-whisperer.

And then people had to ask me to ‘speak up’. I’d become so accustomed to soft speaking that it was a habit, that instead of performing I found myself shrinking. The quiet voice quietened my physically, artistically, emotionally and politically.

For the first time in -ooh, 20 years- I’ve been performing again. A couple of one-offs, but a journey in rediscovering the power of my voice. Feeling it resonate in my body, the power of a voice in the auditorium. Shouting, screaming, laughing, swearing. All those – words. ALOUD. Not thoughts, but spoken words.

It’s like running or swimming, rediscovering muscles unused for too long.

Today was an interview – again, the softly spoken facilitation. It returns easily, that quiet and timid part of me.

But there’s still a part of me able to shout out:

I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN MARRIED! I WISH, I WISH, I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN MARRIED!

 

 

 

 

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Written In Stones

future stone

It’s been a while since I blogged – miss me, faithful reader? – and in the meantime, I’ve gone through a redundancy. Which is a relief, a disappointment, and an opportunity. In my day job as counsellor and psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many clients on ‘change management’ of various sorts, and redundancy itself quite often. From the outside, the strategies I offered seemed clear and helpful, goals simple to pinpoint, aim or work for.

From the inside, it’s very different. Feelings of loss, disappointment, loss of worth and self-esteem, self doubt and self questioning cloud the space in-between  and clog the gears, leaving a sense of stuckness and impotence. Weighed down by the past, my fears and uncertainties.

It’s not easy to let go, and sometimes we need a ritual, a structure to help us reflect, learn and grow. When I’ve ended counselling sessions, I’ve sometimes used ‘smudging’ or the burning of incense or a candle to formalise a break or clear a feeling, a response, something left over. I use focussing and Interpersonal Process Recall to check in on how I’m feeling and where the feelings might come from. I can share my thoughts, feelings, observations with colleagues and my supervisor.

Yesterday was an ending for me. A long relationship with a valued and trusted supervisor who had also trained me. I’d been supported through many changes at work, and we both agreed that an ending session  – the rituals of goodbye – would be useful. My supervisor offered me a tray of stones, a technique we sometimes use in counselling to find an object to reflect on what we see, what we notice, what we might project at that particular time and place.

A way to tap into something subconscious, or a felt sense.

I shuffled my hands around in the battered foil tray containing big, small, elaborate, smooth, rough and raw stones, looking and feeling for something appropriate.

A stone for when I first entered the counselling profession.

A stone for when I first met my supervisor.

A stone for the end of the relationship.

A stone for the future.

The first is a battered and raw large pebble. Parts of it feel smooth, parts of it feel rough. It’s not polished and it feels an unfinished shape. The second is part of broken tile, clear and beautiful glass on one side, rough honeycombed plaster on the other. I hadn’t noticed the rough side when I picked it. Shiny, shiny. The third stone was dark and chipped, its centre exposed and its exterior worn smooth. A very tactile stone – cool and comforting.

The final stone is the one in the picture. I’m still seeing different things in it. I picked it because it reminded me of a decoration on a mobile decoration hanging up in my home. It’s round, it’s an appealing colour, and it’s complex. If I look hard enough, I see nicks and scratches and imperfections. When I hold it, it seems smooth but my fingers can find faults and lines along the surface if I let them. I find it hypnotic, enticing, and uncertain, foggy, shiny gold and deepest blue.

I don’t claim to know what any of it means. And it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s play, it’s imagining and creating and questioning.

Oh, and it rolls and moves around and doesn’t stand still….

The raven, the beaver and on making happy tracks in non ordinary reality

drum n rattle

Recovering from my heart surgery last year , I often hallucinated with whatever drugs they were pumping into me. I had no idea that’s what I was  doing. It did seem a little odd that at night my ward was being run by a Chinese matron instructing men in loincloths to pose whilst Chinese nurses painted them in beautiful watercolours.. I just thought it was all part of an Arts Therapy programme. It was comforting when one of those nurses sat next to me to read some poetry, and hung  strips of coloured ribbons around my bed and over me. The next night, when a sacked caretaker shouted abuse and broke a window by throwing a brick at it, was more unsettling. By the third night, when the Irish nurses were creating sculptures of animals on the ward, I was still convinced that all of this was true. I don;t know when my imaginations stopped and common reality took place. It was only several months after it all that my family told me the Chinese nurses didn’t exist. I don’t know what else was and wasn’t true.

The shaman is a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself. Once he has achieved this he can help others.

Mircea Eliade Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University Press, 1972)

So it’s not surprising that I’m drawn to the idea of  ‘non-ordinary reality ‘ in shamanic healing. I’ve recently spent some days learning a little more about the sacred ritual of ‘soul retrieval’, a healing journey facilitated by ‘smudging’ through prayer and burning of cedar, sage, sweet grass and using a drum and a rattle. I’ve worked with forms of trauma before, and welcome the opportunity to understand it from a different, and more intuitive, perspective. As a counsellor, we use ‘talking therapies’. Sometimes, there can be too much talking.

I’d read a while ago about the role of the ‘berdache’ in Native American culture and was intrigued/drawn to it.

a berdache can be defined as a morphological male who does not fill a society’s standard man’s role, who has a nonmasculine character… Berdaches have special ceremonial roles in many Native American religions..They serve a mediating function between women and men, precisely because their character is seen as distinct from either sex.’

…Shamans are not necessarily berdaches, but because of their spiritual connection, berdaches in many cultures are often considered to be powerful shamans.

Walter L Williams, The Spirit And The Flesh (Beacon Press, 1986)

So I trolled along to a Shamanic Healing training. I ‘received’ a soul retrieval first – a very relaxing, calming and entrancing experience.  No great revelations, and when my healer old me his power animal had been in a yellow kitchen to retrieve part of me , it didn’t ring any bells (or beat any drums!) Afterwards, however, I recalled overhearing my B&B owner disparaging gay marriage as they prepared breakfast in the kitchen, and how wounding it was to overhear their comments in the public arena of the breakfast room. I looked the next morning, and their kitchen wasn’t yellow. But the feeling of having part of myself returned, or taken care of, did feel important.

When it was my turn to give the healing, I was nervous – all fingers and thumbs with drums and rattles, chants and focussing on journeying. I was disappointed not imagine a dramatic power animal like a bear – I was met with a raven, which insisted that the trees it was flying over were cedar. They returned with something, but it was unclear to me and of no use to my ‘client’. Later, I found that the raven is a symbol for creativity and magic – raven is the guardian of ceremonial magic and in absentia healing. ‘You have earned the right to see and experience a little more of life’s magic.’ It seems the raven may have appeared to help me more than my poor client, and I will probably use cedar for smudging rather desert or white sage in the future.

Our second practice, and my healer talked of seeing a boy with a blue ball at the seaside. I love the sea, and hate balls, and again there was no strong resonance for me. My second giving of healing , I saw a beaver this time. Again, I was disappointed, but later learned the beaver is ‘the doe-er, the builder’, and took away a sense of urgency, both to continue this unknown journey, and also feeling more energised and active.

I did order a drum, and a rattle, and I’m insured to practice ‘shamanic healing’. as a student. I’m holding back on that a little to see what will happen – part two of the course is in September, and if I successfully complete 12 case studies I attain a certificate. Drop me a line if you might be interested. All of which is a long way from my counselling training, and still feels a little ‘weird’ and ‘out there’. But it’s all about healing, and making some form of connection.

Yet, that night, I had the strangest, but most comforting dream. I discovered a ‘rooftop garden’ at my place of work. It’s very beautiful, full of pot plants, and statues, and water features and pools, with the most glorious food, and lots of light, warmth , and the sound of children’s laughter. It’s inhabited by lots and lots of people, some of whom have left the organisation but enjoy spending some time up there, and there’s room for many more. It’s accessed by a special lift at reception – the glass one with  a curved side. I met a couple of friends there in the dream, who were already knew of its existence. Now, when I feel pressured or stressed at work, I make a decision to ‘visit the rooftop garden’ to get a little peace and inspiration, and have told supervisees to do the same. It’s not rational, but it is helpful. That’s the beauty of non ordinary reality. It allows you to see things differently, beyond a common or imposed reality, and to work intuitively, creatively – and magically. One translation of ‘shaman’ is ‘one who sees in the dark’. Sometimes we all need to see in the dark.

So I leave you with an open invitation to occasionally wander through non ordinary reality, and perhaps join me in the Rooftop Garden.
May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house
May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there
May your moccasins make happy tracks on the path
and may the rainbow always touch your shoulder
(Cherokee blessing)

Now Was Not Like That Then

outrage impertinent decorum growing up positive

Once upon a time, in a universe far away, I landed my first writing contract. It was all terribly exciting. Getting a real book into print, ad being commissioned. I was a post-grad student terribly excited by ‘gay theatre’ and ‘gay drama’,  the new ‘queer politics’ that had emerged in the 1990s and which seemed to inhabit different areas of my life – politics, friendships, relationships, culture. I was in the process of trying to make sense of all this when Cassell started its own pioneering ‘queer studies’ publications list, and I was invited to be in the first round of authors to contribute. My research enthusiastically – and probably, naively – coalseced around an idea of ‘gay theaterical manoeuvres’ – the notion that sexual identities are created through our body, our language, and the spaces we inhabit/invade. A clumsy, but idealistic way, to try and marry some of my lived experience as a young queer writer and activist following a backlash from the AIDS crisis, and new(re-emerging) prejudices and homophobia. No equal age of consent, no equal marriage, no gays in the military, no ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.

What strides, what leaps there have been since then. And, for me, that book – Impertinent Decorum – was published in 1990, and I was then  offfered a second commission, for a collection of oral histories on the theme of ‘Young people and HIV/AIDS ‘- an area I was doing work in as a dramatist, activist, and writer.  I got the opporunity to write another book, and to sit and listen to many inspiring life stories. ‘It’s like talking to a counsellor’, one of them told me. Which is what I also eventually became.

My third commission from the same supportive editor/publisher was to document the rise and history of the direct action group we both belonged to, OutRage! I had lots of chats, listened to a whole load of gosssip and rarguments, from people I barely knew and people I knew well – ‘including ‘the busiest gay man in London’. Even then, we found we were looking back at a world that was changing and disappearing, hence the title of my introduction to the book ‘Now Was Not Like That Then’, after a comment from a vociferous anti-gay contributor on a television talk show. Much of the time we were being vindicated and ‘str8’ society was coming round to a rather more liberal  (or assimiliationist) vision of ‘equality’. It wasn’t exactly the ‘Queer’ agenda we’d started off with, but if that got the police to investigate homophobic murders rather than hanging round toilets trying to entrap gay mean, it seemed an imporvement. OutRage! was published in 1998, at a time when the organisation itself was changing and diminshing, but before the real impact of its arguments and campaigns saw fruition. Many will argue that OutRage’s direct action was counter-productive and it was the more measured politicking of groups like Stonewall that were responsible for the change.Wotevs.

It was kind of exhausting  wirting non-fiction about things I felt so strongly about. Writing the books was a way for me to re-imagine, but also to record, what was happening around me. After those books, I took to greater flights of fancy with queerotica and sci-fi. But it was glorious to have a commision, and to have space, simply to write,with a supportive publisher backing me.

As with gay rights, publishing has moved on and Now Was Not Like That Then. My publisher was acquired by a much larger publisher, so I find myself strangely housed within the Giant Halls of Bloomsbury, who have recently confirmed that they will be e-publishing those early books. E-publishing! My edior and I talked about such a thing in the 1990s and we both thought there might be something in it, but at the time the publishers themselves weren’t so convinced. All that business about licenses and formats seemed too complicated. So I continued to take a train down to That There London and the gleaming and daunting publishing houses, with a big fat print-out opf my latest 200 page book, Ofcourse, I LOVED going down to the Big City with a physical print-out of my latest  book. It was so …. heavy and impressive. And, even better, to get the print copies or proof-copies through the pose, so I could hold MY BOOK in my hands. Mmm, Precious ….

I still write. Mostly, these now get e-published in the first instance. Which is equally exciting, for me, but it’s rarer to go to a bookshop in Vancouver or wherever I travel and find one of my books on the shelf. But, for me, those first three titles remind me of the many thoughts, conversations, arguments and struggles of a young writer. I’m welcoming their return, and hope I can forgive myself the mistakes which will be so evident to me today.

My first published words were It’s Cool To Be An Artichoke which have also been quoted in the blog. Recently, professional footballer  Thomas Hitzlsperger and Olympian Tom Daley have come out. Moves are foot for equal marriage. Now was not like that then. Later today, I have an appointment with a space station. Funny where your writing and (re) imagination can take you …

more beautiful for having been broken

kintsukuroi

Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold paste, ‘to repair with gold’  has also been described as ‘more beautiful for having been broken’, or the beauty of being broken. It’s been part of this year’s blog experience for me as rogue and queen (from the Eartha Kitt song All By Myself, also about becoming beautiful through painfulexperience.) The proof of its fragility and its resilience is what makes it beautiful.  I even like the fact that the gold paste used is potentially poisonous – repair itself is dangerous.

My journey this year has been through cancer, strokes, heart surgery and loss of lovers and loved ones. The picture above is of something I chose not to repair, as it reminds me of my best friend Mary Harlot, who I wrote about in another blog entry Betty Bones And Mystery Of The Phantom Clipper Knicker. Mary was my oldest, oldest, oldest,  schoolfriend and I bought him the candle holder  as a birthday present to keep on a lovely glass table in his beautiful scarlet papered front room in his home in South Wimbledon home (once used as a setting for a hovel in an episode of The Bill which caused me no end of amusement.) At some point, in drunken revels, he broke one of the glass candle holders. He died suddenly and tragically over ten years ago and I read a poem , shaking like a leaf, at his funeral. When his parents cleared out his flat, they offered me the opportunity to take something away as a momento and I chose the candle-holder. When my Mum saw it, her immediate reponse was ‘you can get that fixed.’ I told her I didn’t want to fix it. Dad understood, but she didn’t – she wanted to repair it, as she always wantes to make things better. I keep it broken, because I like fragile things, and resilience. Not quite kintsukuroi, as it’s not mended with gold, but certainly more beautiful for having been broken.

This year, I’ve written two novels Second Moon and Endlings (which, to be honest, I should be working on finishing now),  and a collection of short stories A Happy Finish. Both novels have touched on my experiences of being broken, or beautful fragility and resilience. Earlier this year, I had a very polite thank you/but no thank you rejection for an earlier romance novel The Leading Man I had published a while ago which I was looking to re-publish. It was also written after a period of illness and brokenness.  Fortunately, as a writer, I’ve had very few rejection letters, but know it is part of most authors’ experience, and we have to believe in the beauty or resilience of our writing to carry on. I encourage myself, and other authors, to treat rejection with politeness and gratitude – not only might you need the contacts again, but someone has taken the time to read your work and respond, and you can learn something valuable both from their criticism and the experience.

We’re all broken. We’re all beautiful. I remind my counselling clients of The Power Of Gratitude – reflecting on the things we can be grateful for, however difficult or painful the experience might be. Often, they will choose to create Gratitude Lists – reflections on what is positive in their lives, as an antidote to the Negative Chatter we often experience. Gratitude often allows us to accept, to look beyond and through the pain itself, and move on.

I hope your experiences of being broken reveal your beauty in 2014.

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Smash The Goddam Mirror!

When it comes to happiness, I’m not often going to be quoting either ex-Conseravtive MP Gyles Brandreth or indeeed the xenohpobic and misery inducing Daily Mail, but a change is as good as a rest. I’m intrigued by one of Gyles’s ‘secrets to happiness’  from his recently published book and article in ‘Fe-Mail’ (get it – because the Mail is, of course a men’s paper when it comes to important things like news and sport, but likes to cater for the lovely ladies every now and then) .
‘Happiness’ sells, because who doesn’t want to be happy? My own philosophy (Lukas’s secret to happiness, and you get it  free…for what it’s worth, as I’m a notoriously gloomy old queen) is that it’s a journey rather than a destination, and that we alone are responsible for our own happiness. So I’m surprised how challenged I feel by one of the most simple of Gyles’s ‘secrets’ – to ‘smash the mirror’. That is, not to be so self-absorbed, to ensure we don’t spend so much time thinking about ourselves. .To avoid becoming self-obsessed. Avoid introspection. I work as a counsellor, so much of my training has been about self-reflection and ‘self awareness’, but perhaps this does as much harm as it does good? Living on my own, writing, (even blogging) means constantly over-thinking and questioning. Gyles quotes advice given to Prince Edward from  Prince Philip ( another two first and last mentions)

‘One of his best pieces of advice he gives to everybody is talk about everything else, don’t talk about yourself, nobody’s interested in you.’

He’s right. I’m not remotely interested in Prince Philip. Harry, on the other hand… The mirror I all too often look  has a harsh light on it, dazzlingly bright and unforgiving, banishing all the interesting or more complex and complicated shadows. Sometimes, it’s akin to a fairground Hall Of Mirrors, distorting but also fascinating. And wherever you look, there’s a mirror – walking past a window, or near a puddle, who isn’t tempted to look at oneself, or criticism from others.

I grew up in the  1980s, which  were defined by self-absorption and the rise of consumerism, the individualism of the ‘Me’ generation. Counselling as a profession is often (quite rightly) criticised for its own strategy of naval-gazing. Communication, counselling and even flirting courses I’ve been on ,have often posed the challenge of just sitting and listening to someone else for five minutes, without speaking yourself or interrupting them.

Michael Jackson famously sang of The Man In The Mirror. As a teenager, I played the ‘Mirror Man’ in an alternative version of ‘Snow White. There was a lot of tin foil and  lots of sequins involved, which I have to admit I adored. I spent ages looking at myself, as a mirror, in the mirror.

But as of now, I’m smashing mirrors, and not worrying about ‘bad luck’. And then I’ll work on Gyles’s secret Number Two – being a leaf on a tree. This happiness thing can’t be too hard, can it?  Not if Gyles Brandreth has mastered it.

And anyway, enough of me – how are you doing?