Saturday, July 28, 2007


Today I visited a friend in a local nursing home, and together we watched a troupe of local belly-dancers performing for the summer Fete. There were five of them, each a manifestation of a unique energy, dancing to what I imagine was North African music delivered via an amplifier system. I was quite enchanted. I have never witnessed such an enthralling surprise event. The dancers were quite evidently Essex women, but in their interpretation of the dance there was something deeply and inexplicably sensual, captivating in an other-worldly way, delightfully pure and playful. What a lovely experience, and so unexpected for us both.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Queer as Old Folk - fifty years on...

"All of these men made choices about their sex lives and sexual identities pre-legalisation, and 40 years later, they’re still living with the consequences of these choices, and sometimes exploring whether they did indeed make the right decisions after all."

Thus the Channel 4 notes on a programme I watched on last night's TV, with interest, some nostalgia, and - I admit - a lump in my throat to hear the loving testimonies of two men in a long-term partnership that had lasted over forty years.

No-one who didn't experience the endemic paranoia around the issue of homosexuality in the late 1940s and 1950s can have any idea of what a torment it involved for homosexual men (and boys) at the time, as it did for me. I have written briefly about this on the Buddhist Conflict Resolution blog, for which a link appears to the left of this post.

In early puberty, aged 11 or 12, I was aware of my sexual awakening, and deeply troubled by its significance. I have never felt so alone, so desolate, so troubled, so vulnerable, so frightened, so trapped. In those days homosexuality was a crime, and no-one ever mentioned its name. I only discovered, quite by accident, that I wasn't alone by finding a book in the public library. The book was called , I think, the Secret Garden, and it had a "star" on the inside cover, meaning restricted circulation. For some reason the librarian let me borrow it. For the first time I learned the name of my affliction, and this afforded me some consolation, but augmented my feelings of isolation and fear of exposure. These recollected feelings haunt me still, fifty years or more on.

Despite my strong romantic and sexual feelings for persons of the same sex, these have never, throughout my lifetime, been requited through a homosexual relationship - however brief - although opportunities have arisen occasionally across the intervening five decades or more, and invitations made. I have always been so paralysed by fear and shame as to be incapable. Fortunately, perhaps - a very big perhaps - I have also had heterosexual feelings and have been able to enter into more-or-less satisfying relationships, become father to six children, and enjoy a marriage that has lasted thirty five years.

This isn't a complaint, there's nothing to complain of, and everything to celebrate. Life is as it is, and it's what we are able to do with it that matters. My wife and loved ones have come to understand my strange, burned-out conflictedness, and made their own kind of peace with it, and with me. It helped them make sense of my at-times difficult behaviour, and my ingrained and inexplicable defensiveness.

So it was much vicarious pleasure and satisfaction that I was able to share in the experience of a few men of my own generation who had made choices that I couldn't, and found their own happiness, not without a struggle, not without tears, but with an authentic queer kind of love that, from my own shadows, I admire and honour with these words.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Didn't smoke dope, or only once, or didn't inhale, or didn't enjoy it etc

Reading the account of Jacqui Smith's (et al) admission of a youthful pot-smoking past seemed the occasion for getting my own 'issues of substance' off my chest. You know the saying about "if you remember the sixties, you weren't there", well , I was there, and I remember almost nothing at all, except going to work, and learning how to be a married man and new father, or trying to with not much success.

I do know that I never so much as saw a spliff or a reefer. When in later life I heard folk say wrily "Can you smell what I can smell?", assuming they meant the unmistakable scent of dope, and not wishing to seem hopelessly naive, I would wrinkle my nose, tap it knowingly and smile conspiratorially, but it was bullshit for all I knew. I was a cannabis virgin. And not because I was into magic mushrooms or speed. I was a drug-free zone, save for a liking for St Bruno Rough Cut, in a Peterson pipe with a curly stem. Smoking that pipe was a thoughtful-young-man image thing that turned into a genuine taste for the rich satisfaction of a well-filled pipe, a habit that lasted twenty years.

But you must hear about the Amsterdam Incident. A couple of years ago my wife and I spent a few days in Amsterdam, and we did the tourist round of the Rijksmuseum, the cosy 'brown cafes' that sell potent draught ales, the canal walks, the Red Light District (very well-turned out and wholesome-looking women, scantily dressed, behind what looked like illuminated shop windows); and, suddenly, we came across a Coffee Shop. Keen to impress, I told my wife that Dutch coffee shops were more-or-less legal outlets for marijuana, and I was gob-smacked when she pushed assertively through the doors, with me in obedient tow. Having studied the Rough Guide to Amsterdam in advance, I knew that access to dope followed the simple but obligatory request "May I see the Menu?" (you can't ask to buy the stuff directly), whereupon a neat roll-up menu was whipped out from under the counter. Not only roll-ups, you understand. Marijuana biscuits, cannabis cakes, hemp sandwiches too. Everything mind-altering one could want, with brief descriptions and prices. And coffee too, of course: all types and sizes.

She settled on a large roll-up to share, and two coffees. We sat at a bistro table, tasted our coffee, and I asked with some embarrassment for a light from behind the counter. My wife and I passed the lighted spliff back and forth between us, as one supposedly does, and I felt very self-consciously a man of the world, 'as if' an old denizen of the Hippy Trail. As I hadn't smoked for almost thirty years the 'tobacco' made me cough a little, but I remember thinking "this isn't having any noticeable effect". We finished our coffee mid-spliff and I sat down at a nearby computer console (there was Internet facility there) to check my email. I remember having slight but mildly amusing difficulty in getting the on-screen cursor to obey the mouse, and the next thing I was aware of was my wife calling my name as if down a long tunnel.

I had passed out, and the next half an hour involved the cafe proprietors in efforts to revive me with sweetened drinks, and attempts to get me outside onto the pavement and "into the fresh air". This I resisted rather tetchily. I remember saying "You're just trying to get RID of me, but it won't be that easy!" For that half an hour I felt almost unable to move, I sweated profusely, and was thoroughly spaced-out, with a tinge of paranoia (or did they really want me off the premises?). Within the hour we were walking in the sunshine, and I was none-the-worse, my wife relieved to see me thus. The dope hadn't affected her badly, and she finished the spliff herself, with obvious enjoyment.

But I found it a worthwhile experience, albeit not one I want to repeat. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind a go at a spot of psilocybin, if you know where I could get a drop! That Timothy O'Leary business and Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds passed me by too.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Palliative Care

I've mentioned before that I work as a nurse, although not specifically in palliative or hospice care. My patients are people who have lived for many years in psychiatric hospitals, have never been well enough to move into the 'community', and now inhabit a special unit created specially for them in a suburban setting. A team of nurses and support workers supply round-the-clock care for these people, who could fairly be described as 'damaged' by decades of institutional living, on top of serious mental illness that have failed to respond to treatment, or not enough to make independent living feasible.

One of my patients has inoperable cancer. At least, it's a fair bet that she has inoperable cancer. Her mental illness is of such severity that she has consistently refused to allow a doctor to examine her. But she has all the symptoms of malignant disease: weight loss, heavy bleeding 'down below', severe pain, and other distressing signs. Although she won't submit to examination or investigations, she accepts occasional visits from Macmillan nurses, and takes regular doses of morphine to keep pain at bay. She is now confined to bed, and she trusts those of us that she has known for several years to attend to her basic needs, washing her, helping to change her when she is wet or soiled, and encouraging her to eat and drink. Her mental state fluctuates between delusions of persecution (the newscaster on TV is calling her obscene names and broadcasting her sexual escapades to the nation; her food is poisoned and rancid) and flights of elated fancy: she has two lifelike dolls that she treats as if they were living infants, talking to them, feeding them with jelly and ice-cream or toasted cheese, you can imagine the mess!

She occupies an en-suite room quite far from routine nursing activity, and can not get out of bed unaided. On two recent occasions she has been found on the floor by her bedside, having tried to get up, fallen to the floor, and incapable of either getting up or calling for help. Although she has a call-button she won't use it. Now we have 'risk-assessed' her, and she has cot-sides attached to her bed to restrain her movements from the bed and prevent accidental falls. We have insituted a frequent, regular, visit to her room: at fifteen minute intervals during the day, at thirty minute intervals at night. Staff who visit her are required to sign a sheet to record their visit: this ensures consistency, and is an attempt to see that her needs are met, so that she doesn't need to try to leave her bed for any reason, and doesn't fall or get her frail limbs entangled in the cot-sides that are intended to prevent her from falling.

All this sounds very cold-blooded, but it is how palliative care has to be delivered in the very challenging circumstances of our work. It doesn't express the inexpressible rapport that exists between us, her carers, and our patient. Despite her severe paranoia, her grotesque innuendo and racist insults, and her obstinacy about treatment, we love the being she is, and we wonder at her courage, her equanimity, her acceptance (on her own terms) of what is, and relish her devastatingly trenchant humour, spiced with 'blue' language, and saucy innuendo that would make a sailor blush.

She is dying an ordinary yet extraordinary death, free of religious or what some might regard as spiritual associations. But there is a wonderful transcendence too that invests the everyday happenings in her room, an unspoken - or artlessly articulated - witness to the marvel of human existence, and of relationship, and of perfect reciprocity: no carer, no cared-for, no-one to give, no-one to be given to, nothing to figure out, nothing to make happen, just a momentary joy and ease that conquers suffering, and a knowing that all is as it should be, all is well.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On-line Forum

Lurkers may have noticed that almost all the content of the Forum we established a few years back - in the flush of enthusiasm for such things -has been deleted.

Forums are either alive or - if they're dead - a sad encumbrance. Ours had a brief and quite heady existence, but moderated top-down Forums have had their day, superceded by weblogs and new-wave ephemera such as FaceBook, MySpace, YouTube.

It's hard to stay abreast of the new technologically-driven styles and modes of peer-to-peer communication and exchange. And, of course, there's no "must" to be obeyed, no follow-the-pack imperative we have to heed. But if the Trust is to survive beyond its current corpus of mainly elderly (or at least maturely middle-aged) supporters, I do believe we must find a way of engaging with the wider world, the younger world, for whom scepticism is everything, and disengagement with established institutions is the chosen option, perhaps on a "wait-and-see" basis, with which I have a lot of sympathy.

I'm immensely lucky, because ~ old as I am in years ~ I enjoy a priviliged place amongst a work-group of young people, 65% under thirty years of age. This affords me a perspective on their attitudes, their concerns, their aspirations, their energies. I don't advertise my "Buddhism" at work or elsewhere, but these things inevitably get around, and there is a real interest in the problem of suffering, and in the everyday approach "we" take to it, which attracts questions and challenge. Like everyone else, I suppose, I do what I can to point others to the dharmic medicine that offers ease, without dogmatising or introducing culturally alien concepts into what I say.

I live and work in South Essex: this is a part of the United Kingdom well-known for its cultural homogeneity, its social conservatism, and its assertive secularism: think Wat Tyler (see image above). A Buddhist stronghold it ain't, but a dharmic citadel it could be!

I referred earlier to the young nurses - a new generation of socially sceptical and evidentially trained carers - who might represent a new strand in the Trust's work. At present there are but two, possibly three, such young people to form a nucleus: we need, they need more peer support, and enablement from us. I need urgently to know how to do that. Do you know? Please comment if you can, and want to.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trust Supporter in McLeod Ganj

Lisa Sheehy is an oncology nurse from London and a recently enrolled supporter of the Trust, currently back-packing in Asia. I met Lisa at a meeting of the Inner Work School earlier this year, and was delighted by her enthusiasm for our work, and her willingness to join in it. I know I shouldn't fantasise, but I couldn't help praying that Lisa might help develop a special nursing interest group within our Trust, and she tells me in a recent email from (pictured) McLeod Ganj, near the Dalai Lama's seat in Dharamsala, that she is keen to get to work on our behalf on her return. An account of her journey has been written as a (limited circulation) blog, and she has had a hair-raising, stomach-churning and leech-infested time of it, described in very salty, down-to-earth terms, such as nurses prone to use (usually "behind the sluice-room door" as the saying goes).

Lisa tells us that she may pop in on the Dalai Lama, as no formal invitations are required at his frequent audiences.

Not Just Words

“ Not Just Words” – an anthology of patient and staff writing gathered by Judi Benson, Writer in Residence at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary's Specialist Palliative Care Services ( 2004-2006) - has recently been sent us. It brings together a diverse range of individuals including consultants, nurses, phlebotomists, bacteriologists, clinical psychologists, patients, archivists, administrative and domestic staff, carers, spouses, volunteers, children and grandchildren, as well as poets in the community and further afield including the Sevice's first Writer in Residence, Diana Hendry. Here are poems of joy, sorrow, pain and levity, on a range of themes including, though not exclusive to, the hospital setting….a sharing of the human experience. The poems are interesting because most of them are written as "One Word Sonnets" - a poem of fourteen individually listed words, something akin to a Haiku.

In a covering letter, a Consultant in Special Palliative Care, Dr Lyndsay Martin, tells how valuable the anthology exercise has been in empowering people who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the necessary care lavished on them by others, on top of the many emotions that come up in people diagnosed with a life-limiting illness.

Ray Wills often exhorted and encouraged others to express themselves in writing, however much they might see themselves as having nothing to say, or however inarticulate their voice (as they saw it). With Ray, I am sure that regular writing is a valuable way of developing a deeper awareness of ourselves, our mental habits, assumptions, bigotries and blind-spots, as well as a way into the source of our innate wisdom.

This blog was set up for that purpose (amongst others), although it has got off to a less than auspicious start, perhaps because I don't post often enough, or because I'm not honest enough, or both. Having acknowledged that, I do feel a bit closer to doing something worthwhile about improving and invigorating it. Interestingly, I received an email recently from someone who confesses that, having stumbled across the blog when visiting the parent site, she is now an occasional 'lurker'. I'm pleased to hear it (I think!)

All-Purpose Good Advice

I have found these Six Words of Advice from Tilopa very useful (as translated by Ken McLeod):

Don't recall.
Don't imagine.
Don't think.
Don't examine.
Don't control.

The advice consists of only six words in Tibetan. The above translation was developed to capture its brevity and directness. Some years ago, McLeod developed the translation shown below, which he says some people prefer:

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don't try to figure anything out.
Don't try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

A blessed formulation for anyone up against anything, and ~ I've found ~ a sound injunction for anyone who asks "What should be my approach in volunteering my services in support of someone who is seriously ill, dying or bereaved?"

Monday, July 9, 2007

Conversations to Remember

This is the title of a DVD just received from KOSH, a performance group who seem to specialise in cinema verite around issues of death and bereavement. Although I haven't yet reviewed the entire content, I looked at a short trailer on YouTube, and I found it authentic and moving. I shall wait until I can review the DVD in company with others, to capture ~ perhaps ~ something of our experience together, before deciding together if we can put it to use within our organisation.

The DVD seems to give voice to a number of people at the end of their lives, telling it as it is, without intrusive questions or interpretations.

You can easily access the trailer, and another one for a work still in progress, at, but you'll need some kind of media software installed if you want to watch it live.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Back on-line

My new computer is installed and I am thus on-line again, though delivery took longer than I expected and I've had the usual set-up problems, especially with email. At present mail to the address isn't being forwarded, so it will help if messages are sent to me at in the short term until I can get it sorted out.

I had a letter drafted (on the defunct machine) to send to Raft subscribers (or former subscribers) and I intended to mail this out with a back copy of Raft from my large stockpile of early editions, notably 'Spiritual Care', 'Bereavement' and 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead'. These topics are timeless and the editions are well-worth having and reading. Certainly they aren't doing any good in cardboard boxes under the bed. I do take copies to meetings and send them out with correspondence, but there are ten boxes each containing a couple of hundred journals, and they take a long time to pass on a couple at a time.

The letter I drafted was lost with other data when my PC nose-dived, but I still have the Raft subscriber data-base on a "Flash" drive, so I know where you all are, unless you've moved in the last few months (I've got your recent change-of address, Val Philpott of East Yorkshire, so don't worry your head!).

The letter was a two-pager with information about where we are at or, more plausibly, where we're not. As I see it, and the other Trustees agree, there is no likelihood at all of a replacement journal for Raft in the foreseeable future. There isn't a lot of call on the Trust's services either, but there's enough to warrant our 'being there' just in case. It's important that the 'spirit' of voluntarism in support of our core aims is kept alive, and I shall be writing a new draft letter to supporters soon to breathe into that spirit.

I hope and expect that as many of you as can and want to are doing your bit in your own locality, in your own way. Perhaps you have links with a local hospice or with Macmillan nurses, the palliative care service. It's just about spiritual friendship at life's end, especially supporting those who ask for help in doing whatever needs doing, if anything, including letting go of the need to do anything. But, above all, Buddhist friendship. Even the most spiritually adept and practised individuals can lose sight of the obvious: I know I can and most often do. How it will be when my own death looms large I don't know, but I trust the process ultimately, and my friends to tell me what I need to hear.