Taking a Breathing Space

Morello Cherry in bloom, May 2021

Why wait to be happy? When you walk it is possible to walk in such a way that every step becomes nourishing and healing. This is not difficult. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Springing into bloom

ALTHOUGH it is pouring with rain here in Leeds, as we go into the merry month of May, spring is still doing its thing, with foliage leaping from every branch in my garden, buds bursting on the peonies and mountain cornflower – and the beautiful blossom of the Morello Cherry presiding, with a pure white majesty, over the whole terrain.

When the weather is fine, I love stepping into the garden in the early morning, to practise some T’ai Chi or Chi Kung. Just me and the blackbirds. The Covid Pandemic has meant that I have mainly been walking solo through the gentle steps of this practise. But one of the unexpected bonuses of lockdown has been the discovery of Zoom, and the ability to share the work with people from all over the country – and from Germany and Hungary, on occasion, too.

There are advantages to moving quietly in your own space – but in the (virtual) company of others. For the shy or unconfident mover, it can be unexpectedly liberating. So on I go, running several Zoom classes each month, on a Tuesday evening and a Thursday morning, and they continue to nourish and sustain me – and those I teach – in these hard lockdown times.

Stepping outside, treading gently

Still, it will be a great pleasure to finally come face to face with other people again, all moving together in what is such a quiet and contemplative way: a meditation in movement. So, there are outside get togethers coming up too, and a tentative plan to meet indoors in July. You can check out any of the dates and details on my Breathing Space page. And if you are curious about my own – very particular – approach to movement, then the Dancing page goes into my history a little bit too.

For me, the movements of the T’ai Chi and Chi Kung are deeply embedded in nature – and they take their inspiration from the four elements, from Taoist philosophy, from birds and from animals. Beautiful images like Big Bird Spreads its Wings and Wild Goose Flying serve to inspire, both in their names and in the movement they describe. And its been a deep joy to spend the past 30 years of my life, exploring the deep layers of vitality that these ancient practises contain.

Do join me, this spring, if you fancy a Breathing Space from the considerable challenges we are all facing right now. Take a simple step… As the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, why wait to be happy?!

Details of how to book a class, or to be in touch for more information, are all included on my Breathing Space page.

Green Tomato Chutney

‘A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars’/Song of  Myself/Walt Whitman

Seeds of hope

ON 30 APRIL 2020, I planted some tomato seeds. Gardener’s Delight – an easy-to-grow, heavily cropping variety. I had been waiting for these seeds to arrive by post for four weary weeks. This was the beginning of lockdown in the UK. Suddenly everyone was re-discovering the green, and ordering seeds and plants and compost, desperate to make something grow in a time of death and dislocation. I joined the queue for online ordering, and then: silence. Just as I was beginning to despair, through the disinfected letter box they plopped. I got busy with some little pots along my kitchen windowsill: never more aware of the power of these little seeds to inject new growth into a moribund situation – and a simple kind of happiness and hope.

I was right up against the deadline – Sow from January to April, the back of the packet instructed – and wasn’t at all sure the seeds would take hold. But they did. Little leaves sprouted from each pot, with their jagged, jaunty outlines, and that familiar hot tomato smell. 

Tomato seedlings in tomato cans. The circle of life.

Potting On

I potted them on, and the astonishing spring warmth and sunshine strengthened their sense of purpose – and mine, too. I cleared out my old shed in the back garden. I remembered the wild allotment I had tended for seven years after my husband died, and which had re-purposed my life, digging me back into my own resilience and resolve; and I started to re-create some of that fruitful wilderness again, on a miniature scale. I hardly left house and garden in those early weeks, was rooted to the spot, feeling the pull of place – the soil beneath my feet – to help keep me standing and steady.

The tomato plants kept growing. In June I planted them in big pots by the back door: underneath the notice that read “Dear Delivery People, thank you for your help! Please leave parcels on the table by the back door” – subtext, “And don’t come any closer!” The contrast of this plague-type declaration, with the green, growing loveliness of the tomatoes, was not lost on me. I hoped the sight of them gave those poor harried postmen a second of uplift. It certainly did me.

 

The plants have been denuded of most of their crop now, but still they stand guard!

Rain, rain, rain

Tiny yellow flowers appeared, then the hint of a little green fruit. The leaves sprawled across the red doorway. Profligate growth, that made me greedy for more. the fruits appeared and they started to swell. Then came the rains. And the early spring heat turned to biblical soakings, day after day after day. By August the sun was still reluctant to appear.  Like the weather, I sickened, and a serious tooth infection, then a brutal, bloody extraction laid me low, in body and mind. In the outside world, the early promise of the pandemic – of bringing everyone together, in solidarity and kindness – had ruptured like my wretched tooth, with mad recriminations and a running amok on beaches, in pubs, at airports and borders. Anger replaced the warmth of fellow feeling, of staying put and staying well.

Nature’s jewels

Yet still my little tomatoes grew. They swelled and shone and dropped gracefully from their stems, like small green jewels. It was a gift just to look at them – which I did, early every morning, flinging open the back door just to check they were still there. Still standing. They always were.

 

Green tomatoes on a white plate on a green cloth in the garden room. Perfect.

Of course, they never had a chance to ripen properly and turn red. Too much rain on our northern hills, from June, through July and August too, and not enough heat or sun. But still they existed: and they felt like a lucky charm. A sweet silent companion through those tense and haunting lockdown days. Their very greenness a rebuke against despair.

Green tomato chutney

Yesterday, on 5 September, I harvested my tomatoes. With a certain amount of ceremony and satisfaction, I cut the the branches of fruit and brought them inside, to the kitchen where they started their little lockdown journey. I made green tomato chutney.

 

This is the pan and these are the fruits. Let’s cook!

To be honest, the haul wasn’t exactly huge. Enough for just three modest jars full. And I’m not sure that the chutney itself is the finest in the land. But I really don’t care. The pathway those tomatoes took me on, from April to September, from seed to fruit to harvest, was a lovely lesson in persistence and resilience. This is what takes us forward: never our grand designs, but small things, quietly savoured. Nature’s bounty. Back to the garden.

 

Shopping List

Coming out of Lockdown –  a  Confused New World

It’s now over three months since the Corona Virus lockdown began in the UK. There have been so many words written about this, so many opinions shouted, so much hurt and resentment, and most of all – such deep, deep loss. I am a quick thinker – but slow to come to any conclusions. It will take me a long time to figure out what all this means. All I do for now, is take one shaky step at a time: to live my life, stay reasonably well and sane, and reach out – from a distance – to the people, and the things, I care about most. Some people are rushing out into the world, hurling themselves off cliffs, crowding beautiful beaches, and piling into parks in a boozy throng, now that restrictions are beginning to ease. Not me. By nature more cautious, I wait. And still I wait. Trying to figure out how to shape a new life, from the ashes of the old. One thing that has been a unifying force for me and for my young adult daughter, who currently lives at home with me, has been the joy of the weekly grocery delivery. Lists and online slots have become her unique selling point in the household, and there is much excited talk of what to order, what to cook, and how to nourish ourselves in this depleted, exhausting time. Here is a poem based on that premise. I have no joined up eloquence to express what is happening. So a simple list will have to do.

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Shopping List

1. Out of stock/currently unavailable:

The faces of friends, of family and colleagues, wreathed in smiles – poised for argument, or song.

A  touch of the hand in welcome.

Interrupted conversations.

The noise of the theatre: the five minute call.

Soft steps of the T’ai Chi, walked together, as one.

Happy dancing.

Happy drinking.

A beer in the little local bar.

Bus journeys. Train journeys. Plane journeys.

The sea.

Freedom to fly: in body, in mind.

Another country.  Many countries.

Budapest. Ireland. The North Yorkshire Coast.

All my dead beloveds.

My old dog. And other dogs, too.

The beat up gold Toyota Yaris, sent for scrap in January. Would have been useful now.

Courage to go where I please, unmasked, and carefree, and open.

The wildness of the world, beyond the hedges of my garden.

An appetite for reading.

A keenness to study.

A mind that can focus.

The energy to dream.

Stepping out.

Stepping forward.

Stepping up.

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2. Unexpected items in bagging area:

Animals taking over city streets, as the whales start to sing again.

My old shed – tidied and cleared, after years of neglect.

Fairy lights sparkling in the dark, wellington boots standing  to attention.

Tomato seeds planted in tomato cans.

Lettuce plants raggedly greening.

Inertia.

Toothache and patience. Paracetamol and codeine. Moxa and deep red wine.

Raging against injustice.

Rebellion and riots.

Forty thousand dead – and rising.

A black man dies at the knee of a white policeman: fire in the Minneapolis streets.

Eight minutes, forty six seconds. ∗

Justice demanded, statues start to topple.

Frenzied voices, confused agendas.

Moments of calm.

The kindness of strangers.

Deliveries and phone calls.

Solidarity in the distance: disembodied zoom calls. Echoing. Frozen.

Self care, snoozing, sleepiness, exhaustion.

Mother and daughter, together.

Comrades in the kitchen, politics in the living room.

Stillness.

Moonlight.

Netflix.

Sunshine.

Silence and sorrow.

And the bitter-sweet song of the birds.

∗ On 25 May 2020, George Floyd died on the street in Minneapolis, after being arrested and handcuffed, with a policeman’s knee pressed on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, suffocating him to death. #BlackLivesMatter

 

 

 

Reflections in a Mirror

IMG_0507Molly (left) and Barney (right) in a salty, windswept, seaside selfie, autumn 2017

The Mother and Daughter Conundrum

PEOPLE SAY my daughter looks like me. I can’t see it myself. Although she is tall and long of limb, as am I, her face is much more symmetrical, more classically beautiful, than mine. We are very different, in character and ambition. Yet still, curiously connected and interdependent. And it’s partly  a numbers game.

Molly is 26 and I am 62. Back to back we stand: both in our age and stage of life. She is climbing up the hill of adult life: I am perched at the top, ready to descend, slowly, on the other side. And every eleven years this strange reversal happens. When Molly was 15, I was 51. At 73, she will be 37. Each time it happens, I take stock. It’s a seismic shift of awareness. Not comfortable – but instructive. Reflections of a life in change. Hers – and mine.

Shock of Midlife

The first shock came in my fifties. Molly, at 15, was entering the mysterious world of puberty. She became a stranger for a while. Meanwhile, I, at 51, was lurching about in the maelstrom of mid life – with no idea who the hell I was any more. (See “I Am Beginning Again”, Guardian article: link here )

I had spent the past decade caring for my husband, who died of a rare cancer at 47.  The disease took almost everything we had. I had no money, no work – no partner – and not much of a social life either.  I became a bit of a recluse. I dug my ragged allotment.I walked the dog.

Then came the menopause, charging down the tracks like an overheated steam train.  I looked in the mirror and saw my mother: hair greying at the temples;  brow furrowed with care. I turned around and saw the face of my daughter –  dewy with youth, the whole world in front of her. That’s it, I thought. I’ve had it.

Tough and turbulent it may be –  but menopause shakes loose the fire in a woman. At least, it did in me. Not for nothing is it called The Change. Slowly, as I emerged from my grief and isolation,  it began to dawn on me. This was no end. It was barely the start.

I  picked  up on things I  had thought lost – published two books, wrote a pile of features, began to dance again, went back to work in theatre – and re-discovered an appetite for travel  and solo adventure.

I learned that life goes in circles, if you live long enough. Things, people, places, passions. So much can be retrieved, if you have the heart  to go looking.

Murky World of Adolescence

But even as I turned my face out to the world, Molly turned hers inwards, to negotiate the murky world of adolescence. It’s a scary time for parent and child. “Just stay alive,” was my silent mantra, all through her teens. She wasn’t one of the risk takers, by any means; still,  those words ran through my mind, like a tormenting refrain. Luckily, stay alive she did.

Never a fan of school, she went through sixth form nonetheless,  and then to university – coming out with a first class degree in film. Losing your dad at 11 – after knowing him ill, for the whole of your young life – is a huge thing to manage. But she is her father’s daughter. Bears herself with dignity and resolve. And she keeps walking forward, into her unfolding life.

Eleven years have passed now,  and mirrored in age we stand again: 26 and 62. Janus-faced, we  look in  opposite directions. But this time it’s her taking off.  And me, coming into land.

Broad Sunny Uplands

After the wild and rackety ride of my 50s, I am more than ready to dial down the noise. The splashy, extrovert world of theatre – the shouty politics of the marketplace – no longer pulls me in, in the same way. The circle has turned,  all over again, and I am happy to embrace the quiet.

When I was tiny, before I could walk or talk, my mother would sit me on a blanket in the back garden, and place a little book in my hands.  Of course I couldn’t read a word, but was  captivated by the object itself. A thing of contemplation. An escape from my noisy older brothers!  And when mum came to scoop me up, some time later, I would be in the same position exactly: perfectly still, perfectly content. I’ve searched for that stillness ever since.

 Maybe only now, entering the “broad sunny uplands of my sixties” – as a friend delightfully put it – am I able to find that little girl again: to remember and to learn from her; to be the person I am really meant to be, beneath the accretions of age and experience.

Lessons of the Body

Sometimes the body forces these lessons on us, too. At 58 – ten years on from my decade of frontline caring – I started to fall apart physically. A B12 anaemia, with fierce attendant infections. Stomach problems. A  broken shoulder. All the years of holding things together finally proved too much: it all fell apart. And I crept through the next few years – trying to figure out how to put myself back together again.

“Your adrenal glands are depleted”, a medical herbalist advised. Too much “fight or flight” in my life, and now: no fight left.

But the body knows what it needs, and mine needed rest. Meditation. Acupuncture. Reiki. Solitude.

Changing Rhythms of Life

When I turned 30, I had taken a swerve in my life, away from my job as a journalist, to study dance and T’ai Chi. First a rehabilitation  for a debilitating illness in my 20s, it  then became a whole new way of life, energetic and joyful. (See “Dancing Feet”)

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T’ai Chi in action… Barney in Bus Ride at The Queens Hotel, Leeds, by the The Performance Ensemble. © Mike Pinches 2018

At 60, illness was to be my guide again. It led me this time to Reiki, a Japanese touch technique, very subtle, miraculously calm. Reiki helped me recover from the broken shoulder and all the debilitations of the previous two years. Eased the pain. Settled my mind. Dialled down the  “Yang” of the outside world. Dialled up the quiet reserves, deep inside. 62 brings me to a much stiller, more contemplative place – writing, and practising Reiki – and I am happy to be here. (See Reiki in Leeds)

Turning Out to the World

At 26, Molly’s challenge is quite different. One’s 20s are such a turbulent decade. Out of the  cocoon of education – into a pushy, competitive market:  where the one who shouts the loudest, too often wins.

 A natural-born introvert, my daughter is never likely to raise her voice (I am the loudest in our house by far, despite my new-found Zen).  But her organisational skills, in both theatre producing and office management, her cool-headed acumen in the workplace, speak louder than words, and will surely lead her where she wants to be.

She came home after university, as is the modern way. But I know that won’t last. Before I blink, she will be gone again, and letting go with grace will be my job then. I am working on it.

 bac7bd90-1fb1-41a4-a73e-4b14d8362366Emma (left) and Molly (right) in Times Square, New York, 2019

After her dad died, Molly developed a phobia of flying. For 15 years she refused point blank to step on a plane. But this year – she booked herself on a flight to New York with her friend Emma. The long impasse was broken. Change is – quite literally –  in the air

Moving On into the Mirror of the Future

The next time we will mirror each other in age, will be in October 2029, when she turns 37, and I will be 73. What will the world look like then? And where will we both be?  I suspect that the silent mantra I used throughout my daughter’s growing up, will be turned towards me at that point, as I go into the uncharted waters of  old age proper. Just stay alive.

 If I am lucky enough to do that – maybe I’ll be ready to spread my wings again, and it will be me on that plane to New York, with Molly, wherever in life she may find herself,  waiting for me to land safely . Both of us ready for another adventure: another reflection in the mirror of our unfolding lives.

This feature was originally written for the Guardian Newspaper. It has remained unpublished – except here and now! The original feature, which sparked the idea for this follow up, was first published in the Guardian in 2008, and then re-published in Femail the same year. Of all the pieces I have written, “I am beginning again” excited the most – and most positive –  responses from readers.

Winter in the City

31 October 2017

Number 49 bus to St James’s Hospital, Leeds. Fractured shoulder. Physiotherapy. This route is so familiar. Harehills Road running like an artery  from home into the city. Every nationality under the sun (or Northern rain) steps on and off, as we trundle along. My shoulder hurts. It’s hard to balance, as the driver lurches to a stop. Time to kill. Wandering around the gloom of Beckett Street Cemetery. Tumbling gravestones. Strange lurking characters.  A man, perched alone on someone’s tombstone,  secret with his thoughts. A lad on a bench, headphones tight clamped, jiggling to a silent tune. Red bouncy curls escaping his cap. Roll-up fag on his nervous lips. Coffee at his side. “Hiya” he calls, too bright and twitchy. A little high. A little provocative. I step away fast. Later, on the bus home, I see him again, at the front, near the driver. Still jiggling and bouncing and ready to run – or pounce. I hold on to my shoulder. Everything feels unsafe, when a bone gets broken, and the feet are swept away from under. Not able to run myself, these days, through the wet slippy streets. It would be hard to escape.  But he soon gets off. Grateful for the bus, and the tight swell of people. Happy to land at my own stop again. Easterly Road. And then just round the corner through the rain. Making it home – a little tentative – in the gathering gloom.

 

26th January 2018

“I’m pleased with you. Your shoulder is doing well. All credit” says the physio. “I’m signing you off.” I grin like a tiny child. Praise indeed. And out from the scaffolding of the scruffy old hospital, back onto Harehills Road again. The sun is shining. A rare benevolence. And I wait for the bus. But the bus doesn’t come. So I walk – with new confidence – take in the squalor and grime all around me. And look at it with a new appreciation.

Past the cemetery across the road. Round the corner, where the tiny businesses and mini markets jostle side by side, all the way downhill, in the sweep back to Roundhay. Wave after wave of immigration and re-settlement has made its mark here – working class English, then Asian, now East European. Krakow supermarket. Polski sklep. Peshawar Asian stores –  and here and there,  self-made shanties made of wood, packed to the gunnels with fruit and veg. An old Victorian church – no more prayers now – but a carpet warehouse instead.  Banstead Park on my left – a scrubby patch of green in the middle of tightly packed terraces, red and black, holding on tight to their Northern hillside. Then a tiny back- to – back, packed floor to ceiling with used and remodelled tyres.Would you  live here if you had a choice? With the noise, and the cars, and the  wary hustle of the people, all struggling to make a living, just surviving, cheek by jowl? But it’s extraordinary, too.  Energetic and fighting and always moving forward. Full of dirt. Full of attitude. Full of life.

A man lurches towards me, white, dreadlocked, pulling an ancient rottweiler on a lead, hat pulled down, dark glasses, distinctly lairy. I stiffen and speed up. We pass each other, he looks, and he grins, and the tension disappears. Just a man and his dog. I wander on. And its good to feel the cold winter sun on my face. Feel the ground coming back to me, safe under my feet. The shoulder strong and healing. The body on my side.

Then I am there, at the bottom of the road – East European Foods and the defunct Delaneys Bar nestling opposite me, side by side. Irish and Russian.  Another unexpected marriage. Everything surprising can happen in Harehills Road.

Turn up the hill, and a man in a Kurdish hat and elegant baggy trousers makes his way down towards me. He doesn’t meet my eyes. There will be no smile here. But back near my  home, an elderly Sikh man, turban immaculately coiled, bids me a courteous Good Morning, as he always does.  And it always lifts my spirits. So much life all around me. If I remember to open my eyes again, trust my feet. Just look. And walk.

Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here

 

Sleeping Girl

WHEN I got married in 1991, a friend I had met whilst training in dance at the Laban Centre, five years before, gave me a small sculpture, moulded in metal. It was a girl, sitting cross-legged, her long back folded over her hips, arms tucked tight in, head resting on her feet. She looks tired, but peaceful. Maybe she has been dancing – a lot – but now she has dropped to the floor and is motionless and quiet.

“She reminds me of you”, said Tricia. Now the girl sits on my bookcase, next to the buddha, where I meditate each morning. And, 25 years later, she is resting still.

Two years ago I started to experience a succession of problems with my health. After 20 years of watching significant others fall ill and die, it was my turn to struggle, and -temporarily, thankfully – fade. It was a scary and salutary experience. When I started these columns in spring, 2015, I wrote about the need to get strong again, to return to health. ‘Walking Back Home’ became a recurrent theme – treading the familiar pathways in my beloved home county of Yorkshire, to bring power and vitality back to wobbly legs; some roots back to an unearthed tree.

This year feels very different already. Despite ongoing physical adjustments, I feel better, stronger, calmer. I knew, from the first week of January, that what was needed now, more than anything, after a sparky and chaotic previous year, of both personal rehabilitation and professional outreach – was a long period of quietness and reflection. Just sitting still. Judging by the tumult across the entire globe: it’s what all of us need right now. But I can only start with myself.

I was meant to fly abroad in the first week of January. A kind and generous friend had paid for me to stay with a group of people in a warm villa, under blue skies and in  a welcome sun. But a recurring ear inflammation meant I couldn’t risk the flight. So I stayed home instead. There was, inside me, a curious restlessness. No reason that I could pin down. Just a sense of a pit opening up, despite my smooth transition into the New Year. I did all I could to stave it off. Cleaned the house (a rare event). Cooked nice things. Kept my hands busy and my mind fastened on quotidian comforts. All of which worked – to a degree.

Then came January Week Two. On Monday – the death of David Bowie. On Thursday – the death of Alan Rickman. And suddenly the darkness had a name.

David Bowie means a multitude of things, of course, to countless people. He was – and remains – a shape-shifting genius, who will fill the questioning minds and hearts of generations for many years to come, with his wonderful,soaring music and his beautiful, ever-changing face.

For me, his influence came early. 1972. I was 16. Gawky, awkward, thin and tall. I wasn’t pretty and I didn’t really fit – either myself, or the world around me. Then Ziggy Stardust burst onto the small screen and into the record shops, in all his angular, androgynous, extra-terrestrial glory. Singing wildly off-key. Snaggle-toothed. Sexually ambivalent. Inside just one skinny boy from Brixton: a whole heap of beautiful strange. And that was it. I was no longer alone.

Every girl needs a hero/ine – and I found mine in Bowie (and later, Patti Smith, to stand magnificently alongside him).

But more important by far – she needs a mentor. A guide in how she might live. In how to make her own star shine brightly. How to be rigorous, honest, brave. Ten years after the Starman first fell to earth, in the mid-1980s, I was working as a theatre journalist in London. A tall actor with a strange face and a startling voice – part husky whisper, part sardonic, menacing growl – kept hoving into view, on stage and on the television. Alan Rickman.

This was long before his breakthrough role at the Royal Shakespeare Company as Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But already he had a pedigree. A powerful presence onstage – and a compelling personality off it. There was always a stillness, a command, in his presence. A forcefield of compressed energy, which coiled invisibly around him. He was formidable.

I interviewed him once for Drama Magazine. Whilst we never became close friends, he was certainly a kind and concerned presence in my life, on and off, for the next 20 years or more. And as all mentors do, he pointed the way forward. He saw through all flimsy argument. Alerted me to the limitations of journalism, and – unwittingly, maybe – ultimately led me to a complete change of direction in my life. He was the first to initiate me in the physical power of the Alexander Technique, the first to convince me of the wonders of dance and movement – of the beauty that lies beneath the spoken and written word. He was, as the world now acknowledges, a true artist – and, as he has done with countless others besides, he helped encourage the artist in me, at a time when I was young, chaotic, and, truthfully, a little lost. I am forever in his debt.

Giants in human form walk among us everywhere, of course, some of them famous, like Bowie and Rickman, many of them unrecognised, “ordinary”, neighbours.  But it is rare that we lose two of them in the space of a few days. It will take us time to process their true worth and meaning. For now, it is enough just to sit still, like the little dancer on my bookcase, and wonder – at the strangeness of it all.

Live in yourself. There is a whole

deep world of being in your soul,

burdened with mystery and thought.

The noise outside will snuff it out.

Day’s clear light can break the spell.

Hear your own singing – and be still.

from: Silentium by Fyodor Tyutchev, translated by Robert Chandler (The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski)