Monthly Archives: May 2012

Why you should wear your clown shoes at a funeral – on dying, wake’ing and crematorium parakeets

My nan died recently. It wasn’t much of a surprise, I mean she was 97, and that’s a bloody good age. In fact in the end it was a relief for her and the family. She transferred to a nursing home last year and she sort of settled in but she suffered from dementia, often being confused and never really seemed that happy there.

I last visited her at Christmas, being so far away makes seeing family difficult but I was really glad that I got the chance. The home was well equipped and the staff were amazing… really taking care of her well. It was funny actually – the day I visited was the day of the Christmas panto, and nan along with the other residents were wheeled out, and put in rows to watch this supremely cheesy Christmas song and dance routine by guest entertainers. To be fair to them they were amazingly energetic considering  the audience were in many cases, erm not. My nan always had something to say though often shouting out that’s she didn’t know what the Elvis impersonator thought he was doing!!

They sang lots of Christmas songs, rock and roll, cockney favourites that sort of thing. It’s hard to know if some of the other residents enjoyed it. It seemed hard to know if some of the other residents were even there. For as many people exchanging stories and chatter there were also bodies, laying twisted and contorted, motionless with teddy bears strewn around them. There was one lady I remember, she was really unresponsive keeled over in her chair and didn’t acknowledge anyone, but then a Bing Crosby song came on – immediately she looked up and out of the window and her face lit up with wonderment to see snow falling…There wasn’t any snow but it was a line of the song that seemed to inspire this. She looked so happy listening to the music… and she could see the snow. It was right there, and it was beautiful.

After the performance was over I said goodbye to Nan for the last time. I had to get really close to her as she was very deaf and couldn’t see or hear me very well. She would ask me a few times who I was.. get me confused with cousins or aunts. We would tell her and then she would forget…  She would cry and say how much she hated it at the home. Then ask who I was again. But there was this one moment when she touched my face and looked at me and I really believe she knew who I was.. her face was so old and wizened and wrinkled yet exactly like a childs. Both old and young in the same body.

She looked me in the eyes… ‘Amy’ she said confidently.

‘That’s right Nan. It’s Amy’

Then she smiled and she stroked my cheek.

And then she was somewhere else again.

Visiting the home made me think about old age and how it’s often always so hidden. How community and family structure has changed so much in more ‘advanced’ times and how as a society we undervalue older people.. almost as soon as they stop work… and definitely up until the point their ability to spend money and consume runs out. I wondered who the people were that were sitting around me. What they had loved, who they had loved, what they had achieved and dreamed of. I almost saw them standing in front of me as young adults with hopes, and fears and passions. Many of them still had these things, others were just traces or shells of the people they once were.

My dad rang me on a Saturday afternoon to tell me Nan had finally passed away. I still cried. Events in the family – weddings, funerals often result in the churning up of old memories, events or incidents. I think I cried more at the time that was lost through the family ‘estrangement’ than I did at her death. Death is always inevitable but If I had just tried to find my dad sooner than I did, I could have had more years with her, or if I had managed to get back to Kent more often, I could have seen her more.

But she is gone.

This is how I remember her:

  • Home made jam (often plum)
  • Toffee apples
  • Fruit cake
  • Yorkshire terriers fed on maltesers
  • The smell of tomato plants and geraniums being nurtured within a humid greenhouse
  • Fat brown teapots
  • Lace doilies
  • The bathroom doll in the knitted dress that sat on top of the toilet roll
  • Imperial leather soap and flannels.
  • The TV on extra loud
  • Bossing everyone.
  • Gold jewellery

I remember less about my granddad (Bert Reuben Webber) he died some years earlier but I’ve got notes and photos from my parents (set 2) about his life and am going to do something with this in the future. I know he was hit by a car so he couldn’t serve in the war due to injury. I know he loved music and was disappointed none of his children grew up to play the organ/piano like he did. I know they managed a shop once. I know he was a devout labour supporter and I have a letter to him from Neil Kinnock. I know he loved my Nan very much. He was also a Mason like my Dad and uncle.

The day of the funeral drew near and I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to be hysterical and upset or distraught with emotion or regret (it happens). I have this one damn black dress that I always wear to funerals, sensible auditions and job interviews. Its really nice but its getting to the point where I’m sick of the sight of it now – it just makes me feel grim.  I wore it anyway though.

But I also wore my clown shoes. They are magic shoes. I call them my clown shoes because clown as a philosophy starts from the feet up. The feet are important and symbolic because they are what ground you and connect you to earth (of which we are all a part). The feet are the starting point for your journey through life (they take you places) and they are what supports you.  People seem to assume they are my clown shoes because they are red, clompy and funny looking. This may also be true. They didn’t go with my dress at all, but as they are magic shoes that didn’t matter. And it really didn’t matter. In fact all but one person thought they were happy and cheery, and they were kind of grateful to have a talking point at the wake.

And that’s when I realised how important clown as a philosophy is. In clown, death is inevitable part of the life cycle, and it’s okay to engage with it. In clown, being grounded gives you strength when others need it and I realised that  during the ceremony.  So at the funeral I wasn’t this mess that I thought I would be. I was accepting and grateful and there for other people and yes I provide laughs. But looking at my nan there in a box for the last time, it suddenly didn’t seem so bad…because if I have learnt anything from older people is that we are all equal in death, and in life it is the laughs and pleasure and sharing moments that are important.

Outside after the service we stopped and looked at the flowers. It struck me how odd it seemed that people leave wreaths saying ‘mother’ or ‘father’ as if they were only ever defined by that role. I guess how you remember someone is a very individual thing. All the flowers were beautiful.. and up in the trees  (and very surreally) parakeets squawked. (London has around 3100 urban Indian parakeets apparently and some of them live in the trees around the crematorium) the noise was reassuring. It almost felt like the gull-stuffed Bristol of home.  They must be stubborn little buggers to survive over here, beautiful too.

Lovely.

They played the ‘circle of life’ at the end of the funeral which is a great song. I’ve posted the version below for you. The first few minutes are phenomenal. TURN IT UP LOUD!!!

I loved my Nan but truth is,  I know, know, know she would have disapproved of the below version even before she had heard it. So… I thought that was all the more reason to post it.

Because people change…… and so can families.

97.

It was a good age.

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Writing and….. the object @The Arnolfini

Back in October I attended my second course at  the Arnolfini – Writing and…The Object –described as

 ‘A cross-artform weekend writing course which investigates the relationship between text, physical objects and their collection and display. Examining through practical writing projects how objects can generate and structure writing, the ways in which text can change how we look at objects, but also how language itself can be displayed as object’.

The course was designed to engage with the exhibit ‘Museum Show ‘and was run by Jerome Fletcher, Associate Professor of Performance Writing at University College Falmouth. The sessions ran for two days and combined some theory around the idea of ‘the object’ with a piece of solo performance, the production of some visual/textual art using our own objects and the objects of others as a basis. In addition we could examine and experience the exhibits and draw from them also.

My expectations:

As ever I was a little apprehensive about taking part. Given my lack of background in both arts theory and practice I was supremely self conscious but determined to try to get to grips with things. However, as the course unfolded despite the weighty academic and artistic experience the other participants had – being a cross art form course it seemed that most people were out a little of their comfort zone at some point or the other.  The more I learn about the arts, the more is seems that regardless of education or experience you ‘just do it’ so I decided that I’d just have to get in there and suck it up. In hindsight whilst I  produced some pretty rubbish stuff, it did move my thinking on and I made a significant discovery about myself so I think overall it was worth the discomfort.

I signed up specifically as I wanted to understand how to devise or create work and having taken part in some taster courses in performance had an idea that the role of ‘the object’ in this could be significant. Also the focus on exhibition and references to material culture and museums fitted in with some of the cultural theory around heritage and identity that I had studied and enjoyed as an undergrad. In addition as an ethnographer the role of ‘the object’ can be symbolic and significant when trying to understand culture/behaviour and I wanted to reengage with this, also in a kind of chicken or egg way I guess I was also trying to understand if the relationship between writing and the object and what came first – or how one could relate to the other.

Theory

The day started with an overview of various disciplinary theory surrounding ‘the object’ which was extensive and discussions around what an object was (which we never really managed to define) we debated how and where writing could or should meet other art forms and how it could be ‘read’, how text could transform and object in terms of the meaning it conveyed. We also discussed the difference between an ‘object’ and a ‘thing’.  I struggled a bit here used to clearer specific definitions but persevered. What did come out of it was the significance of values (or how something is valued – culturally/societally) in these two definitions and the symbolism/social construction of language that can frame and artwork and influence our appreciation/understanding/consumption of this as well.

The role of the relic was something that I found really interesting, how these things are valued and exhibited and how a sense of identity conveyed can be ideological thinking back perhaps to colonial collections, or also perhaps in a contemporary sense with regards to religion and ritual/performance. It led to me to question and think about presentation of history – who’s past is demonstrated, how, who and when? Who may be disinherited through this representation of culture or history? What form could this representation take? What is the narrative between objects and how can audiences ‘write back’ and respond to what they see? Who is the ‘expert’ and how as individuals do we use such interpretations to mediate our own understanding of self, landscape, the city and society as well as our understanding of ‘the other’.

Practical exercises

The focus of the course was on practical exercises, the first day being a piece of solo performance using something from the exhibition as basis for the ‘writing’ of the performance. I ended up giving a kind of ‘performance lecture’ falling back on my knowledge of the material production of culture and exhibiting a bottle of Pepsi  as relic but 200 years in the future –  and questioning how our the presentation of history relates to the production of knowledge – it was all a bit dystopian.   I had seen only one piece of live or performance art previously to this and through their contributions my coursemates demonstrated a mindboggling range of possibilities that I had never considered could be ‘a performance’. They ranged from cutting or destroying and remaking things, using sounds and reading, repeating certain aspects of the exhibits. I was really nervous about doing a solo performance as it had been a while since I’d done any and it was only ensemble work that I had at clown school at that point, but I think it went okay in the end.

The performance that stood out in my mind the most was one that took us  out of the room/gallery and to a window to watch the view and a whisper, two whispers in fact were released around the group which we had to pass on to each other. I think this appealed to me as it took the focus away from the gallery or the internal space to the world outside, that the performance was participatory in terms of its audience allowing us or requiring us to connect with each other. It was subtle yet moving.  You could appreciate nature, I also liked the fact that although we were instructed to work individually two people had decided to work together or cooperate in spite of this. I found this quite inspiring and a good way to look at things.

The second practical was focussed toward arranging the objects of choice that we asked to bring in various ways. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to create but I brought the following:

Yellow duck – This symbolises the beginnings of my own artistic journey (it’s not THE little yellow duck I love but a substitute) also its a representation of the inner child which I felt many people could relate to easily (I’d already decided I wanted whatever I made to relate to childhood in some way).

Umbrella – aesthetically I love them and it was brightly coloured. They keep off the rain 😉

Leaf – sublimity of nature, (and a need to care for nature)

Tarot cards – In terms of theatre pieces I wanted to try and develop something relating to my metaphysical upbringing and the influence that tarot has had on me and my life. I’d been trying to understand this aspect of myself, and given that many people today actively seek out and practice clairvoyance and tarot, I thought this would be a good fodder for a theatre piece.

Peacock feather – aesthetically I love peacocks. The feather was given as an object to me from a close friend and was to represent the gift of creativity. Peacocks are said to be symbolic in terms of rebirth, spirituality and awakening. I like them because most people assume them to be beautiful and delicate by their appearance but actually they are squawky, grumpy, feisty little buggers.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – again this is a story of awakening, particularly feminine awakening, its a popular book and the imagery and story are reproduced regularly around us, which again was something I thought people could relate to easily. I realised after that this book is more than that as I’ve had it since school, in fact It says property of my old school library on it. Since then I realised it must be quite significant to me and  I thought that once I’d finished my PhD I would send it back there with a donation to my old school so perhaps they can buy some new copies. Figured I’d be the first person to attain a PhD but I could be wrong. I’d like to thank them in some way (and apologise for nicking the library stock).

We first had to make our own display using written text and two of our objects, I used text from the Lewis Carroll book (quotes relating to identity), the umbrella as a kind of tent almost (the light looked quite good through it) and the duck to represent childhood. Fair to say it was a bit out of place with all the other things, and was a bit odd really (had no idea what I was doing)  but it was well received by some of the group. I also noticed that those of high status may be less comfortable when asked to make themselves smaller in order to experience the art (the display was on a little low table so you would have to bend down and under the umbrella to read the text – like being in a tent almost). This was interesting to me. It made me question this physical movement and if and how it could be used as part of the exhibit/performance experience and what implications this may have.

Our second task was to use the objects of others in an arrangement – this I was not prepared for, and I panicked a bit at this. I struggled and struggled – the objects I was given were quite random, (a piece of astro turf, a didgeridoo, an old canvas, a foreign coin) and I was an object short. All I could think, was that these were not my objects.. this was not my object.. none of these were my objects..so I wrote that. I layed them out in an archaeology arrangement and with a gap at the end emphasising that the final object was unwritten or unknown. I was mortified. It wasn’t art, I felt it wasn’t really anything. I did want to go home at that point when I saw some of the beautiful things other people had made.

It was only when we fed back to our partners and we understood the nature or the story of the objects it began to make more sense. The objects of my colleague were in fact not her objects – well at least they had all belonged to ex boyfriends…. they were relics of her past , of her relationships and she felt she had yet to find her own object/ive and was single and trying to find herself at this time. I asked why she was holding on to them. She said she wasn’t sure and that maybe she should let them go.

I felt then that something had been achieved. I don’t know if it counts as art. but it was definitely  something.

This ‘a-ha’ moment was significant to me too. My work/ideas for my show were no closer to the stage…. but I felt I had started to understand something fundamental about the practice of tarot… so maybe in fact it was?  For a moment take away the ‘supernatural’ element of the tarot instead look at it simply as art. As characters in a book, representing certain people, stages of life, happenings which require two people, (the reader and sitter) to reflect on personal questions and make meaning via the images.  Its not a dissimilar process. In a therapy setting, images, photos etc are often used for similar purposes indeed even in some types of qualitative research methods to understand values and perceptions and prompt discussion of personal experiences.

So I had a little realisation moment followed by an intense feeling of self-consciousness as I realised that other people experienced in this kind of ‘decoding’  could read anything that I produce perhaps even before I knew of its significance to me as creator. I guess its all subjective to an extent – but there was definitely something in this I felt.  My partners representation of my objects was not as clear… she said she struggled with them as to her they seemed quite random.. but she did say she felt there was contradiction contained within the objects and no clear way of setting out the relationship between them.. that seemed pretty accurate at the time.

Conclusions

All in all it was a good weekend even if it was uncomfortable in places. I had a good few ‘a-ha’ moments – I enjoyed the practical work and liked reengaging with the theory. On reflection it felt a lot more academic both in process and environment than some of the other courses I had been on and given the academic background of almost everyone there it would be easy to be really cerebral about it all. I decided that I want to try and avoid this. I realised that maybe, like the window/whisper exercise.. when writing performance the best thing to do is come out of the traditional gallery environment and look out on the world – encourage people to awaken, connect and experience, and I felt this should go beyond and reach more than those experienced in the arts. I realise that my own performance offering on the day could be described as a little self indulgent, (I ended up consuming the product I was exhibiting) and I accept this… to be honest I just didn’t have any idea of the performance possibilities that are out there..  .. but then that’s what workshops, performance and other people are for..

lessons learnt.