Sunday, 16 March 2014

A trip to the zoo

I can't remember the last time I went to a zoo.  I think I've avoided them, put off by overcrowded and unfitting enclosures that felt all too enclosing for the inhabitants, with too much emphasis on their exposure as revenue generators by expectant onlookers. 
So this weekend's expedition was somewhat unexpected.  And wildly different to my preconceptions which were all exceeded, by a mile. 
Edinburgh's zoo is simply splendid.  Spanning an 82 acre park and boasting an impressive tree collection, it lives its mission statement: "to excite and inspire our visitors with the wonder of living animals, and so to promote the conservation of threatened species and habitats."
Perfectly situated upon a hill above the city, the views are spectacular and, together with the resident attractions, have been exciting visitors for just over a century. 
Currently Scotland's second most popular paid-for tourist attraction (after the Castle) - it's easy to see why it attracts over 600,000 visitors a year (with Yang Guang and Tian Tian, the Giant Pandas on a 10 year loan from China, receiving up to 2,500 people in a day).
The zoological research is far from hidden, and wandering around today I learnt a lot.  Nearly all of the species we met this afternoon are on the endangered list and the zoo is keenly involved in captive breeding to sustain worldwide populations to ensure that generations to come also get to behold the wonderful variety of fish, foul and beasts with which we can (and should) share the planet. 
It was the first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins, and the three breeds on display did not disappoint.  6 Gentoo penguins even came out of the enclosure voluntarily when invited to do so, and paraded in an orderly fashion, in front of an enthusiastic (and respectful) crowd of all ages. 
We were truly privileged to see Yang Guang (or 'Sunshine') and Tian Tian (or 'Sweetie') - currently the only Giant Pandas in the UK - up and about (as they tend to sleep for upwards of 16 hours a day) and the guide shared with us a wealth of information about their solitary (and soporific) lifestyles, focused on eating up to 80kg of bamboo each day. 

The Queensland koalas scored highly on my list, and I enjoyed watching a mother and baby casually climbing trees within their enclosure. 
Whilst not without its critics, and perhaps not fitting with everyone's politics, the zoo gave me a different perspective and reminded me how diverse the world really is.  Today's expedition felt a little like whirlwind tour of the globe, and I loved the glimpse I saw of the different strata of the animal kingdom.  I loved the silent interactions I had with these strangers, some tall, others small, all going about their business undisturbed (and largely uninterested) by my presence. 

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC)


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Pronoun: Awkwardly accurate

It was a refreshingly real piece of theatre which I enjoyed from start to finish.  I wanted to applaud louder, and for longer.  The young actors did a superb job, and spoke to their parts and to the audience as though from their hearts. 
The Traverse Theatre was packed.  I was not displeased with a front row seat.  Pronoun is a piece of theatre whose awkward accuracy was somehow comfortable.  Dialogue involving and exploding the constructs assigned to gender is something I cannot get too close to.
Pronoun is an utterly brilliantly articulation of the sometimes terrifying journey of Dean, a young person navigating the early stages of transition - internally and externally; at home, at school, and in the big wide world.
A love story about transition, testosterone, and James Dean.

Josh and Isabella are childhood sweethearts. They were meant to spend their gap year together, they were meant to be together forever. But Isabella has now become a boy.

Pronoun was commissioned as part of the 2014 National Theatre Connections Festival and premiered by youth theatres across the UK. Especially written for young actors, the play can be performed by a cast of seven, with some doubling of roles, or a much larger cast.
From my perspective, as a psychotherapist supporting several adolescents who wish their hormones were other than they are, I found Pronoun awkwardly accurate in places.  The powerful monologues speak of the anguish experienced by anyone who does not feel they fit, and who wants nothing more than to conceal the body they feel trapped inside.  The play speaks to the utter bewilderment that often besets someone who identifies as trans, and the befuddlement of even the most benign who scramble around trying to catch up and come to terms with something they will never truly 'get'. 
The message is a powerful one: those who cannot conform to society's current constructs do not seek to be tolerated.  They long to be loved.  Just like the rest of us. 
Evan Placey's observation as to the absence of plays written about (young) trans individuals is spot on, and Pronoun (currently touring theatres around the UK as part of NT Connections) will, I hope, be swiftly followed by many more expositions of the reality that is non binary gender and sexuality.  I wish I could be more confident that those who need to see this play will go to the theatre.  Sadly, I fear, the seats will be packed with us allies and supporters who can only continue to do our best to support those we love or care for. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Louise Bourgeois: A woman without secrets - Art as Therapy

Nathan Coley's outdoor work
in the grounds of the Dean Gallery,
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
We stumbled across the exhibition.  I had intended to visit the two imposing galleries standing opposite one another, both dedicated to Modern Art, but had not anticipated encountering such a moving retrospective of Louise Bourgeois' productive career that spanned most of her life (25.12.1911 - 20.05.2010). 
The Art Collection Rooms were as spacious as they were welcoming.  We were privileged to enter and occupy each of the connected galleries with only each other for company.  Left to enjoy and absorb the works of art mostly from the later stages of Bourgeois' life spoke to us in different ways, touching us and our individual stories. 
Bourgeois' talent was hidden from the public eye until her seventieth year, when the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) uncovered her bold genius allowing her to rise to fame at last as one of the most inventive, and disturbing, sculptors of the century.
I remained ignorant until I came across her 35ft high giant arachnid installation, 'Maman' in the vast atrium space of the Turbine Hall when the Tate Modern opened in London.
Her visceral and tactile work excites and fascinates me.  The themes that preoccupied her speak to me at a number of different levels.  Acutely aware that her father had hoped for a son, her work unpicks childhood trauma, and offers her audience the opportunity to look through the lens of the Kleinian psychoanalytic psychotherapy she underwent intensively for over 14 years (and thereafter for a further 18 years).
"The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
I am not what I am
I am what I do with my hands
Louise Bourgeois
The small selection of her work we encountered in Edinburgh bears testament to the voracious appetite and energy of an artist who truly discovered her vocation and lived her talent through a variety of media. 
It is as though she came to terms with her experience through her art, and that via catharsis conversion from experience to image became possible, and this process itself was her healing journey. 
Anger and rage, envy and hatred are all on offer - wild, and unrefined.  Emotions are expressed, but not dressed up.  Whilst she is on record as having said that understanding her autobiography is not necessary to appreciate her art, it certainly adds a further dimension.  In knowing a little about the artist, one can deconstruct the powerful symbolism and digest the humility that, I feel, characterises her work which is, above all, about the struggle and broken-ness that unite us.
The relationship between gender and physicality captivated Bourgeois, and none more so than her relationship with her own body.  Having convinced herself she could not conceive (ascribing her self-diagnosed infertility to hysteria), she adopted a boy, before later giving birth to two more sons.  Balancing her passion for her work and motherhood was something she never believed she wholly achieved and her later work is riddled with ambivalence around her maternal identity, with concepts of the good enough mother repeatedly returning more or less explicitly. 
"The subject of pain is the business I am in," she wrote.
From what little of her work to which I have now borne witness, I am more certain than ever as to the power of art in the expression of trauma and working through of even the most impenetrable-seeming pain and shame. 


Saturday, 1 March 2014

No regrets

Palliative care does not happen by itself.  I know this to be true, from a very personal perspective.  I am, among other things, a care coordinator.  I do not claim responsibility for the care itself.  That is now, quite simply, way beyond my capabilities.  This is a role for which my only recompense is being able to sleep at night knowing that my dear mother is in a safe pair (or usually several pairs) of hands. 
My sleep is easily compromised.  Watching someone you care about decline beyond recognition will push most people to the edge.  Chronic health conditions are no fun for anyone.  They take their toll.  Progressive illnesses progressively drain all those whose lives come into contact with them, and that  usually includes a network of people around the patient themselves. 
I feel so fortunate.  I am not doing this alone.  The support we receive from the hospice is unquantifiable and invaluable.  They think of everything I can't.  They remember when I don't.  They hold the ball when I drop it.  Thank goodness.  But, were it not for them, I believe we would be all at sea.  I honestly don't know to where we would have turned. 
Caring for anyone requires energy.  It also requires creativity.  You have to learn to foresee the unforeseeable.  You have to think the unthinkable and bear the unbearable.  No one wants to see a loved one deteriorate, but in order to support them you must come to accept what it is that you are dealing with.  Only then can you get on with the task in hand.
And what a massive task it is.  I had no idea.  I have a better idea now, having been learning on the job.  Acceptance is a funny thing.  In my family it gets passed around.  Someone holds it, for a while, and then it becomes too difficult, and it will pass to someone else.  So long as somebody is holding it, then we can maintain the momentum that is such an intrinsic (whilst anachronistic) component of this journey.  Awareness, acceptance, action.  That's how it goes.  Only when we learnt about the diagnoses and conditions could we come to accept what it was that we would be dealing with, and only with these prerequisites, can we move in a direction that is truly useful.

We cannot be sure what the future holds.  We cannot even know how long the future will allow us to spend together.  But in this, we are no different to anyone else.  Life is precious.  Time is precious.  We need to prioritise.  Perhaps more urgently than ever before.  We want to avoid regrets.  We must keep putting one foot in front of the other.