The Self-Made Body, personal growth and steroids by Michael Collins
This honest and touching essay is about steroid use for bodybuilding, and a description of that sort does not usually match this topic. Michael Collins is right, I had a critical preconception about this subject, far away as it is from my own way of thinking. I knew nothing about the subject and hadn’t bothered to find out, nor do I know anyone who bodybuilds in this way. Once again (this was also the case with The Waiting Room by Hidden Ink Child) I do have some idea now, and am grateful that my outlook has expanded a little, and my understanding with it.
In his essay, Collins is saying, ‘This is me!’, and he goes to the trouble of explaining, in detail, why and how he takes steroids even though dangerous to do so. It is interesting in an ‘Oh… really?… oh!’ sort of a way – sometimes I winced and sometimes I was surprised. I was also convinced. The writing has an ease about it and there’s nothing extraneous; having read a few of these essays now, I would suggest that is the mark of the editors. What there is, as I read on, is a plea for people – his family and loved ones especially – to hear and accept him. I think we, all of us, want that, and so I finished this essay feeling compassion and a sense of shared humanity.
It really is a very important thing that Monstrous Regiment and the editors have done – to give a voice to these authors. Though you may find individuals writing about such topics in various specialist sectors of social media, they have not been collated in this way before. Publishing these writers, one at a time, would have been impressive, but to gather them together into this one volume increases their power and validates what they are saying. Of course, the activities and people written about in the book are valid in their own right, but as so many are marginalised, and it is a great service that this very small and young publishing company have done them.
So Hormonal was fully paid for by Crowd Funding, so all praise must also go to those individuals who liked the idea enough to put their private money behind it, even during a time of pandemic when so many were struggling without work and pay.
Short posts on each of the essays from So Hormonal – A Collection of Essays on Hormones published by Monstrous Regiment, Edinburgh. Edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson with a foreword by Karen Havelin.
Getting Off the Back Foot with Male Fertility Health by Tyler Christie
There is a short, personal introduction to Tyler Christie’s essay about fertility which tells how he always imagined a future in which he had children and how hard it was when he realised that might not happen. He allows his vulnerability to come through and it’s a poignant read.
The remainder of the essay is about the part men and their sperm play in the fertility process. It has the tone of an informative website, and it soon becomes apparent that he and his wife have set up an organisation, Parla, to provide support and advocacy for those who need it.
This little-known subject deserves such attention and it is admirable that the author puts his hand up and takes responsibility, on behalf of men in general. As he acknowledges, it is commonly assumed that women and their bodies are at the centre of fertility issues, so this is a refreshing and honest approach. There are useful statistics and practical tips, and the piece will undoubtedly raise awareness.
From a no woman’s land comes this heartfelt essay from someone with a male gender presentation who must suffer the ignominy of sitting in waiting rooms labelled ‘Women’s Health’ because he has endometriosis. Constantly faced with places which are unwelcoming (although sometimes the people are great – a big thankyou to that nurse who gave you a hug) the author must choose to explain or just sit there feeling ‘Me and my uterus do not exist in this space.’ (p14)
Examining a range of experiences from different angles, the reader can feel the distress and justified anger, but there is enough distance to be able to think about it at the same time – I really sat up when it became clear that the change in the doctor’s response to pain (and therefore to giving pain killers) was because of presenting as male, not female.
This essay is essential reading for people like me who cannot know what it’s like, but are ready to empathise. Now I do have some idea because I can hear about it in Hidden Ink Child’s own voice. I hope we don’t have to wait too long before the rest of the NHS and others catch up.
No Country for Neurodivergent Women, Addressing Undiagnosed ADHD and Cluster Headaches by Donna Alexander
There’s a great mix of objective fact and subjective sharing in this piece – I learned a lot, felt both informed and sympathetic, without once feeling obligated to pity. In writing like this, particularly in terms of identifying a cause for these two challenging hormonal disorders, it’s hard to find a balance between chemistry and upbringing, but Alexander achieves it. Ireland doesn’t come out so well, but things seem to be moving in the right direction. Using a well-known TV programme and two equally famous films to illustrate, makes it all the more approachable, and anyway it is not bleak as there is subtle humour in both the choice of language and anecdotes. There are some sweet phrases – on p. 5 she describes her childhood den behind the sofa as ‘a cradle in the absence of comfort’ – and the writing is silky smooth.
Film (described as a comedy drama) written by Roseanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, directed by Peter Cattaneo (2019) 112 minutes
The scene is clearly set at the start: the soldiers (men and one woman) depart for active service leaving the wives and children at home. The streets are empty, the wine bottles are out.
Military Wives is a true story of those left behind at a British military base who decide to form a choir to take their minds off the worry about their loved ones away in Afganistan (and yes, they do acknowledge the controversy over the war). The film does not show, or even imply, any heroics. Neither is there any romanticism. It’s not even corny. It’s about the women and how they manage their situations. And it’s about grief.
There are two, clear portrayals of the effects of bereavement: one death (a young son killed in action) has already taken place before the film starts; and the other happens mid way through. Both are poignant and realistically depicted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Amy James-Kelly respectively. In a manageable and sincere way, the film presents this tricky subject sympathetically.
Various types of grief are embodied in the film: there is the stoical stage where you get on with things, try to stay calm, put on a brave face; and there’s the weeping one, the impossibility of doing anything other than having it all pour out. In a subtle way, we are also shown some of the displacement activities which any grieving person might find themselves involved in: volunteering for another stint in the field; over-working; caring for others; or impulsive buying of unwanted things which sit in their packets in the airing cupboard.
The film explores the various ways we cope – by being alone with it (either isolated or simply private), and by being supported through sharing with those who know it first-hand or who are empathetic. Group singing is useful both as self expression (remember that phrase, ‘sing your heart out’?), and also as relief. Communal carolling does not activate the logical-thinking left brain, rather it is the right side which lights up, the part associated with intuition, imagination and creativity.
What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats.
From ‘The Neuroscience of Singing’
Part of the difficulty that we have with grief in our society is that we don’t always know how to deal with others suffering from it. In this film, there are a couple of men who clam up in the face of sadness. This type of behaviour is common, human even. Dr Rachel Clarke says, ‘None of us… In modern British culture, are taught how to confront grief and loss.’ And while that is not strictly true, some of us are, it is the case for many.
Not referring to the death or loss that has just taken place can leave those who have been bereaved feeling as if they are not coping, or as if there’s something wrong with them. In fact it is usually caused by our desperate need not to ‘make things worse’ or ‘put our foot in it’. Seeing this inability to communicate acted out so effectively on the big screen allows the viewer to take a step back and realise how much space we sometimes put between ourselves and those we care about if we are not brave enough to ask them how they are and listen, open heartedly, to their reply.
Grief usually contains the full range of emotions at one stage or another, and there is a tense scene towards the end of Military Wives where it is clear how anger can make you say things you wish you hadn’t. Sometimes that can be cathartic. The manner in which bereavement is shown through the characters’ lives is well thought through, honest, and never soppy
Music is, of course, highly emotive, bringing back memories and connecting us with our feelings in situations where conversation can sometimes fail. Most of the songs in the film are upbeat, appropriate and familiar (You’ve Got a Friend, With or Without You) and, although they mention the Robbie Williams song Angelsseveral times, they don’t resort to the top funeral songs list. However, beware the Ave Maria – that was the point at which my floodgates truly opened!
There are several other themes, including a battle between the two main female characters, ably played by Sharon Horgan (Lisa) and Scott Thomas (Kate). Scott Thomas is funnier than I’ve ever seen her before, and although she softens during the pic, she still manages to sing and sort-of-dance in the final choir performance with her shoulders raised and elbows stiff, remaining impressively uptight to the last.
So, it is not unremittingly sad, indeed there are a lot of laughs, but Military Wives does not shy away from death and grief. If you need a good cry, and sometimes, let’s face it, it’s necessary to let off the pressure cooker caused by the suffering around us and clear out the tubes, then this will do the job.
I asked myself, ‘Shall I discipline myself to write my own words this morning as planned, or write about hers?’ Having just finished this book (333 pages, it took me 3 days to read), I am full up with her voice, so hers take precedence and maybe, in doing that, I will free my own.
Circe is a tale of Everywoman, and you don’t hear that phrase very often.
Circe is not wrought of clever poetry, but is consummate storytelling. Being a Classics scholar, Madeline Miller will know the famous texts inside out: Homer’s Iliad (try Emily Wilson’s translation), and the two Electra, by Sophocles and Euripedes, for example. In this book, she has embodied the bard and found her way to the page with it. Born in America in 1978, her first book, The Song of Achilles, was the winner of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2012, the same year it was published. Circe, too, won awards, The Red Tentacle being the most enticingly named, an American Library Association Alex Award. She describes herself as ‘a Latin and Greek teacher, director of Shakespeare plays’, and there is something good about knowing she was a tutor to high school students for so long. In her acknowledgements, she thanks them for engaging ‘passionately with these ancient stories’ and stopping to tell her about it.
The renowned stories spin, one after the other, familiar and yet not, because they are spun from the female point of view (as much, that is, as any woman can when she is born into a male world). Contrasting the eternal with the everyday, opposing everlasting life with mortality, and pitting struggle and war against the acceptance of ‘a simple mending of the world’ with herbs and carpentry, the author knits her threads ever quicker as the tale unwinds. This retelling does not have the sound of epic adventures told by a traveller, but an altogether more intimate, late-at-night uttering, by crone to virgin, in preparation for womanhood.
I felt I could hear this enduring, female voice speaking through Miller, either that or she is a very wise woman for her years. It seemed as if I was hearing what I have read about: that once a true writer has identified a character and started to ‘talk’ with its voice, it then continues to speak its truths and knowledge through her, a knowing which is deeper than her own. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about stories needing someone to tell them, that when they come to you, you must serve them, allow them to be told. That made sense when I read this book.
Miller throws every Greek God and Goddess that you have ever heard of, and more, into the mix, however, at root it revolves around Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) who, of course, being male, is the one who we more usually worship. Witch, lover, daughter and mother, Circe cannot die or age and this is a magnificent device allowing Miller to entice us through the seven ages of woman one by one, slowly learning as she goes. Like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Circe gets another shot, and another, and …. well I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that her power is hard-won. Against all odds, she finds she can subvert this very mechanism because she has proved that she can live through everything an earthling’s life involves: birth, joy, disappointment, hurt, and grief, and can therefore finally face the ultimate challenge.
Recently, I have been submerged in loss (I lead workshops and have just written a book about it), so it was perhaps inevitable that those were the parts which affected me the most. I wept with recognition when Circe realised that she had to let go of her child. And be glad for him. Oh, my mother-heart broke again because I too longed for children, bore them, became completely immersed in them and then gave them to the world never to return. (And yes, that is a dramatic turn of phrase, but here is the magic of storytelling – it gives us a universal language with which to speak about the parts of humanity which are known by all, but so often unspoken.)
I did resist, I will be honest. I didn’t want to read of Circe’s faults and mistakes, only of her spells, defiances and transformations (what woman would not want to find such a delicious way to deal with the men who rape her). I railed to my own daughter when I had finished the part with Odysseus, of how Circe listened to him, and pandered to him, and healed him, or tried to. Then again, I did know, who of us hasn’t tried that? But on I read. Why? Because I sensed that Circe was looking for a way to know and befriend herself, to throw off her inheritance. (As am I. As are we all?) And then it came:
‘I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.’
We can choose, Circe said to me, we can let go of the roles we have been handed by our parents and ancestors. If we can face all the things that life throws at us and live, then we have the strength we need to choose to be ourselves.
Richard Reoch wrote ‘this meticulous book is a work of love’ in his foreword to the book. Richard is author of Dying Well.
Who is this book for?
This guide is for Shiatsu and other complementary therapists, especially bodyworkers. It is also for those who are looking after, or working with people who are grieving, facing a life-threatening diagnosis, or working in end-of-life and palliative care. It covers the private and public sectors, and so is appropriate for physiotherapists, doctors and other careworkers. It is for those who are interested in the marriage of CAM and allopathic medicine, or who want to understand more about how both approaches can sit happily side-by-side for the benefit of patients. Many parts are relevant to people who work as self-employed therapists or counsellors (for example, the legal and administrative aspects of preparing for your death and caring for your clients in that eventuality; and the self-care necessary to support you in carrying out this, sometimes emotionally stressful work). Additionally, if you are curious about finding a holistic way to look after yourself or your loved ones when they are dealing with loss or preparing for a Good Death, this book will give you information about the nature and benefit of Shiatsu and other complementary therapies, which may be of interest.
Is it just for UK practitioners?
No, it uses statistics and information pertinent to the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the UK.
Some examples of ritual and traditions, from the past and across the world, are used for inspiration.
What is covered in this book?
There are sections on how change of all sorts can involve grief: moving house, breaking up with a lover, getting older; on dicing with death through our everyday behaviour and activities; on loss and bereavement; about the meaning of touch where grief and loss are concerned; the variety of beliefs different people have about death; suicide and mental health; the language we use to describe and communicate about this subject; working in extreme life/death traumatic situations; how death affects all ages differently; and how we support ourselves and others who are living through the death of babies, parents, partners, children and older people.
There are chapters on:
Theory – Chinese and Japanese Medicine, and the cycle of life
The client – types of people we come across who are dealing with death or the fear of it
The practitioner – practical matters like preparing your clients for your own death (client notes, your digital will), and spiritual ones (with a section on self-care: how we all need R.E.S.T)
The client-practitioner relationship – boundaries in this deep work, listening, the philosophy of dying, and love
Working in the NHS and other primary care settings including working in teams with other healthcare professionals
An extensive bibliography which also details websites, blogs, films, and much more
There is a section for teachers with lesson plans for including death and related subjects in the training curriculum, dealing with dying students, and teaching when you yourself are grieving
Finally, there are some exercises (physical and mental) and meditations (with diagrams and photos) for practitioners who want to develop their chi for this work, engage with CPD (continuing professional development), and tackle these subjects in small community or study groups
Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice shares knowledge from the author and others who have many years of experience in this field.
A review of Marram, Memories of sea and spider-silk, non-fiction by Leonie Charlton published by Sandstone Press
Marram, memories of sea and spider-silk would have made a great Xmas gift! Published by Sandstone Press, it is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton and her friend’s ride on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship (‘I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken’). Charlton takes a bag of her beads on the journey, and leaves them in nooks as she meanders the ‘necklace’, ‘strung on streams of salt and fresh water’.
The carefully chosen language, the delicacy of description, is one great strength of this travelogue – it invites the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes us to slow to a walking pace and admire the ’empty, sun-bleached snail shells’ at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which ‘serrated the air with their cries’. Marram is full of colour: ‘the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills’; a drake Mallard, a ‘startle of tourmaline’; the ‘gold-gilt ‘of the title’s grass; and tones of dappled grey and cream dun taken from the coats of their four-legged friends. Indeed, for those who love things equestrian, there are many parts which will delight. Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation, intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history – who knew that horses came to Scotland with the Spanish Armada, staying and enriching the local breeds?
‘a pilgrimage of love and personal sea-change’ p. xv
With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether Shepherdian * disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.
Which it is! We are pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of some serious difficulty all four characters encounter and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds you to go off and explore.
*Nan Shepherd Scottish writer best known for ‘The Living Mountain’, a collection of essays about walking and living in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.
Marram will be published on 19 March 2020
Have you read this? Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought.
The Museo de Zaragoza, a municipal museum, is free to enter. Situated around a central courtyard which is currently under renovation, there are two floors of paintings, sculpture, ceramics and more to stimulate your tastebuds.
This blog covers a rather random selection of what can be seen at the museum because my reason for visiting was to view the Japanese ceramics which were mentioned on the website. (I have a special interest in all things Japanese as I have been working as a Shiatsu practitioner for 30 years.) Therefore, I walked past the Goya paintings and the Roman section (Zaragoza has a fascinating Roman history as mentioned in my travel blog of the city) to find them, only stopping ocassionally on my way.
I have recently written a book about death and loss, so I was interested in the tombs I passed. I had not seen one with angels on either side of the deceased’s head before (were they bearing him up to heaven?) nor one featuring pigs at the dead woman’s feet (were they riches to be taken with her on her journey?)
I tried out my Spanish, asking the attendant who the woman with swine was, but she didn’t know – or at least I think that was the gist of her reply. When I ask in my best accent and speed, and they answer accordingly, I can almost never understand all of the reply!
On the way back from that conversation, my attention was arrested by some 15th century Aragonese panels. Again, I enjoyed the detail the most.
In Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén (above), I loved the ‘now I hope you are listening’ expression on baby Jesus’ face, his little, chubby foot, the men’s hats doubling as crowns, and how similar the eyes of the cattle were to the man’s beside them.
It was the depiction of the torture by demons that poor San Antonio was subjected to in Escensas de la vida se San Antonio By Juan de la Abadía ‘El Viejo’ which I particularly noticed.
In Retablo de San Sebastián by Taller de Juan de la Abadía, I was both horrified and amused by the weighing up of mortals to decide their fate, and the subsequent fighting off of the devil who is attempting to take the sinner from the bottom scale.
Then I came to the pottery by Tanzan Kotoge. Spanning his œuvre, the majority of exhibits were bowls and cups to be used in tea ceremonies.
Decorated with birds and flowers, Japanese lettering and figures, they were exquisite.
Born in 1946 in Himeji, Kogote is from the Kyoto workshop and was taught by Shimaoka Tatsuzo (Living National Treasure) who learned from Shoji Hamada in the Japanese master-follower way. Considered one of the great masters of traditional pottery, he incorporates the old ways while also bring his own personal signature to the decoration.
It is believed that the creator of true tea-ceremony bowls must first understand and have integrated Zen philosophy and the art of this ritual. Kotoge, however, accepts that many potters will not have this background and still provide ceramics for this purpose.
I rounded off my most stimulating visit with a manuscript showing tea ceremony scenes and some older Chinese pots and porcelain figures from the museum’s permanent collection.
The museum can be found on the Plaza los Sitios and although it was dark when I emerged at 6.15 pm the playpark was full of children and their parents playing.
Contemporary Art Museum, casa (house) and parque (park), Porto, Portugal. September 2019
The gardens of the Casa da Serralves, Porto, Portugal
The Museum was designed by Álvaro Siza (1999) and the park by Jaques Greber to complement the 1930s art deco style of Casa da Serralves.
Located a little ouside the city (R. Dom João de Castro 210, 4150-417 Porto), you can get a bus from close by the Igreja do Carmo – numbers 200, 201, or 207 buses – from Carmo, taking half an hour.
The architecture of the Museum is collosal, and sculptural, in keeping with its function. With a blue-sky backdrop, and in contrast to the surrounding garden, it is seen to best effect.
Time and again the buildings complement the landscape and vice versa.
Olafur Eliasson’s silver birches was the first artwork to be seen in the foyer. Lit by natural light from the window above and with eerie street-lamp, yellow man-made lighting, the trees are in water and yet dying. An effective statement on how climate affects nature, we walked through the ‘grove’ as we would the exhibits afterwards – trees as art?
The current exhibition, Voyage to the Beginning and Back, is a retrospective of 30 years of Serralves. From the little wood, we move into the galleries to Eliasson’s ‘Y/Our Future is Now’, consisting of horizontal metal spirals in a mirrored space where, once again, the outside, seen through the window, plays a large part.
When seen in the green, Eliasson’s work has both a grounded and spacey feel to it. Loops and swirls, suggestion of a treble clef and wonky infinity sign, they seem to dance and float, throwing glorious shadows on the lawn.
Fitting three or more works to a room, and also showing in the house, there is a wide range of artists represented, from Sol le Witt to Simon Starling, Hamish Fulton, Andy Warhol and Lygia Pape.
Dominating the junction between tree lined avenues, Oldenburg’s enormous, eye-catching red trowel teeters on its tip as if left by a random gardener. Here is the everyday tool assuming its true importance.
Urns of ashes, posing as the art itself, again take centre stage: scattered around an empty room and catching the light, complementing the fixtures and fittings. Faced with what could be our final resting place, a snake may rise out of one, a genie from another if rubbed. Is now the time to take control of life before it ceremoniously ends?
You hear Drop before you grasp what is happening. Rounding the corner to be faced with stairs, a ping pong ball tap tap taps down the stairs in front of you as you stand at the top. In fact, there is nothing to be seen except the hanging speaker and members of the public who are descending before you. Echoing against the bare walls, the sound gently, humorously plays with your reality. The windows at the bottom of both flights add an underwater colour scheme which mimics the azulejo tiles of the garden’s pools (see above).
The parting of the ways, of the biblical Red Sea, were suggested by this simple, stone installation. Its placement in front of the long windows, despite the parquet flooring, added an air of the outdoors, where Long’s work is so often situated: another example of the merging of inner and outer spaces.
This red velvet topped performance area only allows the audience to see the feet of those inside. A TV screen beside the work, shows tango dancers dancing together on the circular, blue platform, the ankles and lower legs making it even sexier!
Finally, the building itself, inside and out, is worth seeing, quite apart from the art.