The Company of Elders

Sadler's Wells Company of Elders

Sadler's Wells Company of Elders

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance? –  W. B. Yeats

I have just finished watching a wonderful programme about The Sadler’s Wells Company of Elders dance group. I spent nearly the entire hour with tears rolling down my cheeks – I found it so moving and inspiring. Set up as a company by the Sadler’s Wells in 1992, the current batch of dancers’ ages range from the youngest at 61 to the oldest at 85. None of them have been professional dancers and most have never had any contact with Contemporary Dance until their retirement and involvement with the company.

The programme followed the rehearsals for a show choreographed by the lovely Chris Tudor – who was obviously also very moved by his experience of working with these extraordinary dancers. Any lack in physical strength, flexibility and virtuosity was more than made up for in expression. What really got me reaching for the tissues was the brief moment of a duet between a woman and man – both in their late seventies; the intimacy of their eye contact as they danced, the tenderness of their movements, reminded me why dance is so incredibly special – words can not always express the deepest truths about our living with quite the same directness, poignancy and power that the body is capable of. It was commented on that it is often quite a struggle to get that sort of emotional depth out of young dancers – they simply haven’t lived long enough yet.

Each of the dancers shared some tough physical challenges which they had to overcome, from hip replacements and osteoporosis to cancer and heart troubles. One woman had suffered a brain tumour in her twenties that had left her blind, deaf and incapable of movement; she had spent a great deal of her life relearning all these skills and I was struck by the youthful joy of her movements. In fact all of the dancers exuded a great deal of joy, that wonderful light that shines out of people when they are doing something that they love. Such things make me want to live well.

The Company of Elders have had a profound impact on me tonight. They have made me realise that I have never stopped being a dancer (or for that matter a singer). What we are – those God/dess given things that are ours to express in life – remain a part of us. Dancers know that their professional lives are relatively short but of course age does not stop the desire or the delight of letting your body speak.

Briefly, tonight I had the memory of myself as a small child dancing; I recalled for a moment the total compulsion I felt to move, to express the emotions I felt, or that music made me feel (and which it still does) through my body. I also saw myself as an old lady dancing and it was such a compelling vision that I now can’t sleep, my head is buzzing. I once had great ambitions for myself but now all that pressure has gone. For too long I think I interpreted this as a form of loss; I grieved and a little light went out somewhere inside me. That look in those dancers’ faces seems to have flipped the switch back on. I have decided to stop wasting time and find a class to return to – I want to do some serious but happy sweating, my body (like my voice) has been mute for long enough. Watching the Company of Elders, I know that the aging body will have its limits but I also know that the heart still yearns and the soul still soars and the dance is boundless and eternal.

Company of Elders

Company of Elders

The Hermit Takes a Holiday

I have been really enjoying my Yoga of late. This has been in great part due to the wonderful Yoga class I have been attending. Trish very kindly and patiently has been prodding me for months to go and as a part of my ‘sick of being a grumpy old hermit’ campaign, I finally gave the moany old bugger a night off and ventured out with eager anticipation and Yoga mat in hand. Julie, our teacher, is lovely and the classes are just the right balance between postures, breathing and meditation. After seven years of practicing on my lonesome, it was so nice to be with others. Julie is a great teacher and her approach is really helping to enrich my own personal practice. The others in the group are friendly and welcoming. Our mats are positioned in a circle like petals in a flower, which all seems rather appropriate with regard to my efforts to become more open and sociable once more. Each week has found me eager to go and sad when the lesson is over.

Tracey – who herself is currently working through her Yoga teacher training – gave me a wonderful little book for my birthday about Mudras entitled Mudras: Yoga in the Hands by Gertrud Hirschi. Mudras are hand gestures. As westerners, we are all familiar with the prayer position (Atmanjali Mudra). Some might also recognise the Jnana and Chin Mudras where the tip of the thumb and index finger meet in a circle; in Jnana, the fingers and palm face upwards; in Chin, downwards. These classic Mudras are often what comes to mind when people think of Yogis sat in the lotus posture, meditating. These beautiful gestures have deep meaning. When writing of the Jnana and Chin Mudras Hirschi writes:

These gestures symbolise the connected nature of human consciousness (thumbs). The three extended fingers symbolise the three gunas – traits that keep evolution in both the microcosm and the macrocosm in motion: tamas (lethargy), rajas (activity), and sattwa (balance and harmony). The closed circle of the index finger and thumb depict the actual goal of Yoga – the unification of Atman, the individual soul, with Brahman, the world soul.

It is wonderful that such beauty and depth can be articulated within the elegance and simplicity of a small hand gesture.

There are many Mudras, each with their own focus and benefits. I have been experimenting with different ones during relaxation and meditation, although Hirschi recommends doing them anywhere, even whilst walking. The book has sections on the positions and meaning of each Mudra and also includes visualisations and affirmations that enhance the impact of each. When we adopt the position of a Mudra, we invite its qualities into our lives and being on many levels.

As part of our Midsummer ritual, we performed Hirshi’s suggested meditation and affirmation for Pushpaputa Mudra. This Mudra  is rather beautifully called A Handful of Flowers. It is simply where the hands are placed, palms up ‘like empty bowls’ upon each thigh, fingers resting gently together (I have also seen it as cupped hands placed together in offering). This seemed a very appropriate Mudra for midsummer, opening us to the gifts that surround us, allowing ourselves to receive. It is also a great one for me and my poor old beleaguered inner hermit, who really is feeling a little over worked and due for some time off. My retreat from the world was initially necessary – a good deal of wound licking and healing could only be done this way. Now, I have become increasingly aware that perhaps this approach is no longer appropriate and is becoming more of a hindrance than a help. It’s about fear of course and the beauty of Pushpaputa Mudra is that it encourages us to receive with openness and trust. Hirschi puts it nicely:

One reason why we close ourselves – in addition to apathy – is fear. But whatever is bad cannot get to us and affect us if we strive for a pure heart…Pushpaputa Mudra expresses this openness. Only with open hands can we enrich the world, and only with an open mind and open soul can we receive what cosmic consciousness gives us.

I include here Gertrud Hirschi’s lovely meditation and affirmation – please do check out her book (published by Weiser Books).

Pushpaputa Meditation:

Your two hands are like open flowers. Imagine another flower on top of your head. While inhaling, golden rays came from a cosmos that embodies love, joy and peace. Through the open flowers, they flow into your innermost self. Then let yourself be filled (take a pause in your breathing for a moment) and radiate this wealth through your heart into the world while exhaling.

Pushpaputa Affirmation:

I open myself to divine joy (or healing, light, love etc.), let myself be filled by it. I radiate it into the world through my heart.

My loyal inner hermit has been packing a small going away bag. He has been procrastinating a little bit because he worries about me and how I will cope without him while he’s away. He’s looking forward to not being in charge, to letting his hood down and exchanging his cave sandals for some rather fetching (if slightly camp), sparkly disco boots. Beneath the distracted mutterings, he really is quite excited about going but reassures me he will be there the moment I seriously need him. I hope he has packed enough underwear…


Guest Blog Pieces

For those of you who might be interested, here are links to a couple of pieces I wrote for Philip Carr Gomm’s blog. Please do check out Philip’s wonderful blog while you are there – lots of interesting and inspiring stuff. He is having a bit of a blog holiday at the moment (I’m starting to have serious withdrawal symptoms!) but there are plenty of lovely posts to browse through and lots of really interesting and thought provoking comments from readers too.

There is probably a much easier way of linking but being sadly a bit challenged on the understanding technology front and also pathologically incapable of having the patience to read instructions, this will have to do.

The first piece is called ‘The Landscape is Within Us’ and is here:

The second piece is ‘Life, Death and the Sexton Beetle’, here: 

Hope this works, if not, Philip is on my blog roll.

The Longstone

Laurie and the 'Back of the Wight'

Laurie and the 'Back of the Wight'

Yesterday Laurie and I took a walk up to the Longstone. Although the monument looks like two standing stones (one on its side) it is actually the remains of a Neolithic long barrow, the stones themselves once having been part of the barrow’s entrance. Known as the Mottistone Longstone, it is set in a beautiful enclosed valley on a plateau at the foot of Mottistone Down. Below the plateau is the western plain stretching out towards the ocean, the white chalk of Tennyson cliffs to the west and the striking Gore Cliff to the east. There are several paths up to the stones – one comes up through the valley and feels like a processional route towards the entrance of the tomb; others come up from the plain below through bluebell woods or up a wide path that climbs through heath land on the outer side of the hill. This last route doesn’t reveal the stones until you mount the top of the hill and turn into the valley itself. From here the incredible view of the sea is lost as the surrounding Downland enfolds itself around the monument, as if to keep it secret and protected. Looking back through the valley, the chalk ridge of the western downs is clearly seen and you get a sense of how the tomb’s entrance would have caught the rising sun, the shape of the earth here a perfect channel for its light.

It’s an incredibly peaceful place, the atmosphere ancient and timeless, not so much because of the age of the monument but more because of the spirit of this wonderful place. It isn’t hard to imagine why our ancestors felt inspired to build their tomb on this spot. Modern Druids worship here now, holding open ceremonies at each of the festivals. At Beltane they are joined by Morris Dancers and singers at dawn whose processional route climbs up through ancient woods full of bluebells and red campion.

Laurie and I took the route through the valley, passing the stones and following the path round onto the heath. The dark clumps of spiky gorse were softened by vast pools of pink: heather and rosebay willow herb abundantly blossoming. The view here is stunningly beautiful and yesterday it was particularly so, the grasses on the downs above and in wheat and barley fields on the plain below, turning from green to gold. The strong south-westerly propelled wispy patches of cloud, the path of their urgent shadows crossing the earth and dispersing into light. A kestrel suspended itself in the powerful stream of air, as easily as if the wind had lulled to stillness, whilst bees and butterflies feasted on the heather and bramble flowers: Gatekeepers, Meadow and Hedge Browns. We saw two Marbled Whites, their striking chequered wings opening in the heat amongst the low growth on the hill’s summit.

We walked down through the woods on to the drive of Brooke Hill House – this was once the home of J.B Priestly, now private and exclusive apartments – and then back up on the downs towards the stones once again, sitting for a while in their quiet presence.

This western part of the Island is known by Islanders as the ‘Back of the Wight’. It is remote and rural, the coast here beautiful but treacherous. The lighthouse at the Needles in the far western point of the Island shines a red light towards the lighthouse at St Catherine’s point on the southern tip – this lighthouse shines a red light back. These create a warning line of light not to be crossed by vessels with sails; once beyond this line the winds drive them on to the hidden rocky ledges that line the coast. A part of this stretch is called the ‘Graveyard’ – many ships and lives have been lost within its waters.

Our Neolithic ancestors who built the tomb, happily settled in this part of the Island. The thick oak forests in the north were mostly uninhabited at that time, the land on the southern coast much easier to clear and farm. Many ancient monuments and archaeology have sadly been lost due to coastal erosion, but it appears that this now sparsely inhabited part of the island was once relatively well occupied. Down on the vast sandy expanse of Compton Bay – the Back of the Wight’s most popular surfing beach – there is evidence of a much more ancient history: a prehistoric fossilised forest can be viewed at low tide, along with the footprints of dinosaurs.

In this landscape it is hard not to feel part of an ongoing story; so much life come and gone, from the fossilised bones on the beach and the mysterious barrows, right up to the lives lived and surrendered by all who have occupied this island in recent times. The chalk downs and cliffs themselves are the compressed layers of once living creatures; the soil is layered with countless stories.

The Rosebay Willow Herb up at the Longstone is also called ‘Fireweed’. It often springs up at the side of railway tracks, particularly on land ignited and scorched by the sparks of the passing trains. After the Second World War, it covered bomb sites, growing freely on land that had been seemingly stripped bare of life. It is a flower of regeneration, reminding us that life continues long after we ourselves have gone.

We create our monuments, their point and purpose obvious to us but perhaps mysteries for future times; we are born – we die; we celebrate and we mourn; the days pass and are filled with all the many small dramas that themselves become the greater narrative of our living, rich in pattern, complexity and meaning. At times we each suspect that what appears unique to our experience has been lived through infinite times by others long gone and this sense of continuity – of the passing on of the baton of our joys and failures, of our skills and lessons to be learned – when thought of deeply, encourages a greater compassion with ourselves and a bond with all life past and present.

Sat in the stillness of the Longstone’s presence I am reminded that I am not alone in my fears, my loves and passions; others suffer and endure and celebrate these; along with all those that exist with me in this time and space, to those who exist beyond the limits of my understanding. No mistake I could make is any worse than those made countless times before; no moment that graces me is one that hasn’t already been shared by someone, someplace, at sometime. It moves and comforts me greatly. There is far more that connects us than that which divides us.

The grain harvest will soon be upon us; our blessings counted; the wheat and chaff of our lives sorted and assessed. Like the Fireweed I have seeds that are regenerating ground that looks and feels a little like a bomb site; I have chaff that causes me pain and regret. It’s really ok. Looking out over the earth made golden by the sun’s ripening, I see countless seeds and endless harvests stretching back and – I dearly hope – forward; and me – one tiny golden seed of hope and potential amongst many – some who will grow and thrive, others who will be prematurely harvested or wither through lack of care or nurture. Either way, I am beginning to believe that we get to do it all again, many times over, feeding life’s hunger and desire to experience and understand itself more deeply. Perhaps our lives will one day appear as mysterious as those who once built the Longstone and yet beneath the initial sense of the foreign that time and distance might lead us to erroneously feel, there is this striking familiarity, something deeply known and understood.

The 'Back of the Wight'

The 'Back of the Wight'












It’s good to feel my old self emerging. The severe allergic reaction I have been suffering, on and off for the last few months, will hopefully no longer be troubling me. The offending substance ended up being the cleaning fluid used in root canal work, my body’s reaction becoming increasingly severe with each subsequent treatment. Initially I was unsure of the cause; such things are hard to pin down without skin tests but after a while a pattern emerges. By the time I became more or less certain it was linked to the dental work, the reaction had intensified alarmingly. After each treatment I found myself out of action for three weeks, sometimes more, the swelling spreading around my body, large and sore, itchy lumps covering my skin. At one point, for three days I couldn’t walk properly, my feet were so swollen. As the dental treatment progressed, the reaction started to centre more on my throat, at times troubling my breathing; I felt frighteningly asthmatic. My dentist was a hero, ultimately working within the cramped confines of a contraption that consisted of a metal clamp, a square of latex and a plastic frame that ingeniously isolated the tooth, hopefully preventing me from ingesting any of the offending fluid. Thankfully it worked; the swelling and the reaction being considerably reduced.

The only anti-histamine that would even begin to keep me from swelling until I popped was Piriton. Its effect on me was in some ways more difficult than the allergic reaction itself. It warns upon the packet about possible drowsiness but this really is a major understatement. The collective impact of weeks taking the stuff has left me feeling immersed – utterly cut off from the world – as if my cognitive functions have congealed. I have felt so confused, vague, exhausted and out of sorts, my thoughts horribly disjointed. It’s not that I haven’t been able to communicate but there has been no easy flow in my thinking; conversation has felt tiring and strained. Laurie told me he could tell whenever I had taken my first dose of the day, feeling me withdraw.

My last dental treatment is now over and I have been Piriton free for three whole days. It has felt like watching myself from above, rising up gradually through murky water, the details of me sharpening as I resurface. It’s a brilliant feeling, like sunlight pouring into a room. Drugs can have such a powerfully distorting effect upon our personalities, even something as seemingly innocent as anti-histamine. I am so grateful that those bits of me that I value have only temporarily been held hostage. I feel enormous sympathy for those whose unavoidable reliance on medication leaves them suffering from unwanted side-effects. My continued health and well-being is something that I am truly grateful for.

Writing has been difficult during this period. It’s taken a lot of concentration and focus to get anything down. My posts on this Blog have become fewer. It has been so frustrating wanting to write but struggling to pierce through the fog. It is so good to start feeling connected again, the cogs happily whirring and clicking, my clarity returning and my energy levels rising; time to re-engage.

On a Clear Day...

On a Clear Day...


Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest –  Edith Sitwell