Animals and Reiki

FE362B21-0AFA-4BB4-B961-610F3ABDAEBD_1_105_cThis is my Old Dog Muffin, taken in the last few months of her life. Still very photogenic…

In praise of rescue dogs

OUR RESCUE DOG, Muffin, was always an anxious creature. No wonder – given the woeful circumstances of her early life: kept half-starved in a high-rise flat, along with a pack of other desperate, neglected dogs. She cried alot when we first rescued her, via the RSPCA. She was terrified of being left alone, yet did not know how to co-exist, either with humans, or with other dogs. But with time and patience and kindness, Muffin grew to be an intuitive, exuberant, extravagantly loving pal to the whole family. She was the inspiration for the last book I wrote, Old Dog, and, seven years after her death, she remains a lodestar for all that I might wish for, in a canine companion.

Meditation and Miles Davis

The last years of Muffin’s long life were compromised by ill health – heart problems, a stroke, and arthritic hips. But she retained her humour, her greedy appetite – for food and for life – and her love for us, right to the end. During her time in our family, I turned to a serious study of meditation. There was ill health in the household, as my husband Tim was terminally ill with cancer, and I needed help to deal with the pall of death and dying, that hung over all our heads for so long (ten years in all). As well as being a brilliant nurse-companion to Tim – sensitive to his depressive moods and his suffering, and enthusiastic, always, to walk with him through the woods and to play silly games – Muffin turned out to be an expert meditator.

Despite her skittishness, the dog also had a propensity – a deep longing, even – for relaxation and calm. It was not long before she got the hang of it. And better than I, indeed, with my mad-chattering-tormented-human-mind. As soon as the meditation bowl was struck and I sat in contemplation, she would come and lie beside me, drifting into a deeply quiet, almost semi-conscious state. She loved it.  (She was also a great fan of Miles Davis, and the Kind of Blue album would invariably send her into a serene jazz hypnosis within minutes of it starting: but that’s another story.)

Reiki for Animals

I am sad that I was not a Reiki practitioner when Muffin was still alive. (See Reiki In Leeds to find out more about the technique). I wonder if the deep aches and pains she suffered in her dotage, as well as her hyper alert, ‘fight or flight’ personality, hardwired from her deprived early life, would have found some relief, through some warm, hands-on Reiki? Judging by her response to simple meditation, I suspect she would have enjoyed it. For, at its foundation, Reiki is indeed a meditative process: its aim, simply to be quiet, calm and focussed; allowing the natural vitality within and without us, to flow, via the hands, with a kind and restoring intent.

My sense is that many animals, unpolluted by the constant questioning and judging that weighs down human minds, might love Reiki, and benefit greatly from its gentle support and connection. I don’t practise professionally on animals myself – though there are many who do, and who have considerable success in their work.

Donkeys love a moment of relaxation

Dogs and horses seem to feel a particular benefit from Reiki. A practitioner in West Yorkshire, Sue Malcolm, sends through bulletins from time to time, about her work with rescue animals, via Friends of Baxter Animal Care . One charming account – with photographs of donkeys in an animal sanctuary lining up to receive group Reiki, and then spontaneously lying down next to one another, so chilled and relaxed did they become – particularly moved me. Where is the harm in this – however sceptical you might feel about Reiki? To help an abused animal experience some moments of deep calm and comfort, is demonstration of real compassion. It’s a world I want to be part of.

Dogs in the zone

Sometimes, surreptitiously, I lay my hands on friends’ dogs, just to gauge their reaction. I do ask permission, both from owner (verbally) and from dog ( they let me know either way, through simple body language). This happened once at a book group I belong to. The dog of the household is a lovely black labrador, very friendly and gregarious. She was happy to let my hands rest on her – and pretty soon wafted off into a deep and inert state, despite the many people in the room vying for her attention. After a while, she quietly got up, walked away from me, and took herself off to another room, and to her bed. Normally very sociable, this time the Reiki told her something different. Go to sleep. Rest. You are off duty now. The next time I saw her, many weeks later, she came right up to me and sat expectantly by my side, waiting for my hands to rest on her again.

Taking a big breath out

The second dog I approached, was a very different character. He had come to visit us for the afternoon. A big dog – and boisterous – he wears about him a permanent air of good cheer and excitement. He has his own problems – a skin complaint that creates a maddening itch, arthritic ankles, and a tendency to pant restlessly, making relaxation sometimes hard to achieve. There has been shock and bereavement in his household in the past – and his big heart has inevitably taken a hit from that experience.

I hardly expected him to settle when I sat beside him. And for a long time he didn’t. He panted and wriggled and wanted to play. But I left one hand on his back, and one on his flank, and waited. The panting continued. His heart beat fast. His tongue lolled and he thrashed about a bit, as usual. But then – all of a sudden – the panting stopped dead. He took a deep, deep sigh – and lay perfectly still. Some minutes later came another sweet, deep sigh. I moved away from him. He stayed where he was. There was a sense of calm and of peace in his big, shaggy, jovial old body. When it was time to take him home, I had to work to wake him up again. And this I hadn’t expected – that he would take the Reiki so easily and so completely. That he would find such tranquillity.

But in the end, that’s all we’re after really, isn’t it – humans and animals both? A chance to breathe more freely, and to enjoy a few moments peace in a demanding and pressurised world. I don’t think it will be long before I sit beside another dog, and enjoy some of those peaceful moments with them, through the quiet and unobtrusive power of Reiki.

If you would like to book a (human!) Reiki session with me, please go to my Reiki in Leeds page for details.

Kathleen Prasad has written alot about working with animals and Reiki. Visit her website here: https://www.animalreikisource.com

The Uses of Solitude

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“Solitude stands in the doorway

And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette

By her long cool stare and her silence

I suddenly remember each time we’ve met.”

Solitude Standing/Suzanne Vega

TREES do it for me. Woods and water. Those are the places where I reclaim my solitude, and my sense of inner peace. Also, sitting in my favourite chair, in my favourite Reiki Room, at home. Alone. With a book. And my quietly settling thoughts… These are the uses of solitude. It’s a matter of remembering where to go, when the world gets too much. Back to the source. But how often we all forget.

The age of high speed

This is an age of high speed connection, and of twenty four hour visibility. The mass communication tools of online social networks are astonishingly useful – and sometimes corrosively cruel. There is a pervasive collective sense of being on view, on guard: and a heightened fear of being left behind. I am not immune to any of this. Partly this is a professional imperative: my last publisher insisted I join Twitter; whilst a tech-savvy colleague said Instagram was essential to my Reiki business. But partly, it’s pleasure, too. I am curious – and I am full of the trigger-happy smart phone habits of those far younger and far more switched-on than me. How many ‘likes’ on a Facebook post? Who has re-tweeted my latest, carefully crafted tweet, complete with click-bait photo? Oh, those little shots of dopamine, when someone says something nice about you online. And the horror of the constantly lurking trolls. It’s a minefield out there, both online and in the real world.

Stepping off the train

But in the middle of this constant chatter, there is a deeper, quieter, more reliable resource. Somewhere to turn to, for solace and relief. It’s always there. Always available. Being attuned to Reiki has brought me back into its embrace, after too long away. The joys of being alone. Although linked to the quality of stillness, another Reiki-related resource that I have written about here , it can also be tapped into when on the move. Alone in a crowd. When walking or running… Even when doing the washing up! Solitude is a pleasingly transportable and eminently meditative feast. It’s all about tuning in to the “still, small voice inside.”

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Extroverts and Introverts

There are some people who replenish themselves through the company of others. They are the true extroverts, like my lively, gregarious mother, who would have found it a torture to be alone with her own restless spirit. Then there are those who are quite deeply introverted, and who would always choose their own company over that of others. My late husband was pointed that way:  steady, silent and serene, in another life he would have been a hermit or contemplative.

I am somewhere between these two extremes. An “extroverted introvert”, as my brother once pronounced, when subjecting me to some cod psychological profiling for his ‘A’ level studies. And he was right. People do matter to me, very much indeed. They comfort, challenge and delight me, every day of my life. But when my tank of energy is empty – or when the phenomenal noise and speed of the modern world  overwhelms me – it is solitude that fills my cup, and settles my frayed and fractured nerves.

Reiki: being alone together

One of the things I have come to love about receiving and practising Reiki, is the sense of quiet and inner listening that it brings with it. Something about the silence that descends, when Reiki hands are placed on the body during a treatment, is particularly special. Someone is there with you – tuning into the deeper rhythms of your physical and mental self – and yet, there is no sense of intrusion. Few words, if any, are exchanged. You are alone: able to travel inwards, for refreshment, even some kind of healing; yet with the hands of another held upon you, keeping you steady and safe.

Challenges and rewards of solitude

Solitude, as singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega suggests in her 1980s classic, ‘Solitude Standing’, quoted above, can be provocative. It brings you face to face with yourself – no escape, through mindless chatter, or another empty scroll down your Facebook timeline. Solitude, as Vega sings, is a “flower with a flame”. It’s beautiful – but it can burn, too.

Too much solitude can turn into loneliness and isolation, and the illumination of a mind turned in on itself can become a trap. As with all things, a balance needs to be struck. The golden mean – a middle way. Enough company. Enough time alone. Switching off the smart phone one day a week, is not such a bad idea (although surprisingly difficult to do!) And seeking out quiet practices like T’ai Chi and Reiki, which bring you into closer contact with your inner – soulful – self,  can bring more balance and flow into your busy life. Sweet harmony. How do you find yours?

If you want to give Reiki a try, take a look at my Reiki in Leeds page, for more details.

And there is plenty of T’ai Chi coming up at Leeds Buddhist Centre. Details on my Classes with Barney page.

Suzanne Vega’s ‘Solitude Standing’ album was released in 1987.

The Art of Stillness

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees 

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

from ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver*

Girl on a blanket

There are children who come bursting out of the womb, full of sound and fury, arms and legs flailing, ready for the busy action and freedom of the world, outside the muted chamber of their mother’s womb. There are others, who would rather be quiet, thank you, and who spend all their time trying to get back to that strange watery cave they swam in, before they were born. I am one of those: a seeker of silence, of stillness and repose. Gregarious up to a point – teacher, theatre collaborator, singer and dancer – it is always the quiet of my room, the comfort of solitude, that fills me up, when I am empty and deflated.

When I was small – before I could walk – I could happily be left by my mother on a blanket in the back garden (See Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives) with a book in my hands – not to read, just to hold and to gaze at – safe in the knowledge that I would be in the exact same place, when she returned to collect me, some time later. Peaceful. Content. The “soft animal of my body” absorbed in the tactile tranquillity of simply being still.

My daughter is cut from the same cloth. She has an inner eye, that shines, clear and calm, in vigilant introspection. Now 26, when she was nearly a year old, we took her with some friends of ours, to the paddling pool in the middle of Brockwell Park , in Brixton, South London, where we used to live. It was high summer – hot and noisy – and the pool was rammed with over excited children, roaring and splashing, and causing all kinds of chaos and mayhem. In the middle of it all sat my small daughter, gently passing trickles of water from hand to hand, fascinated with its flow and texture, soothed by its cool rhythms, and oblivious to the febrile atmosphere all around her. Utterly self contained. The adults were mesmerised. Molly was simply being herself.

Meditation in a garden

There is a place for noise and bustle in a life – parties and adventures and excess. Living on the wild side. Drinking and talking and getting giddy on life itself. And in my 20s and 30s there was plenty of all that. But age and experience – and my natural, underlying disposition – taught me a different path in the end. Watching people around me fall ill and die – including my own husband, after 10 years of cancer – took its toll, and taught me to surrender. To surrender to the wisdom of stillness, wherever it can be found.

After decades of living in tree-less streets and flats in London, I found both harmony and joy in the great outdoors, in Leeds, where I have lived since I turned 40. Nature can be noisy, for sure. But it’s a different kind of noise: with none of the clamour of human voices and demands. A rough old allotment – digging for spuds and scratching my hands on the blackberry brambles – and an overgrown, rambling garden, out the back of the house that I live in now, have given me solace, strength and a place for silence and healing. I am looking at the garden now: my Reiki in Leeds room overlooks the dogwood and the witch hazel; the tangled clematis and the thorny rose; and the aged stone Buddha (pictured above), who presides over proceedings from the far end of the grass, under the big old holly tree. Birds visit often and squabble over the fat-feeder; hop on the lawn to pull out juicy worms for lunch; peck at the apples and clean their feathers  in the birdbath. All of this gives me immeasurable satisfaction. Like the great poet Mary Oliver quoted above – who died just this month – I find deep solace in being alone, in nature, in quietness. All things and people connect, when we  return to the earth.

In my room

The room in which I now practise Reiki in Leeds, has a sense of deep calm in it, that comes from the years of meditation, of T’ai Chi, and of “just sitting”, that have passed within it. There is layer upon layer of invisible vibration: a clear intention, whatever the turbulence of my external life, that this modest space be a sanctuary. For me – and for those who step into it, for a Reiki session, or to practise Chi Kung. There is art on the walls, from friends, or people I have taught. There is colour – vibrant oranges and reds – to affirm vitality and aliveness. There are books, for study and contemplation, for writing. But most of all, there is stillness. A stillness I have long searched for, since I sat on that blanket as a child. And now that Reiki has come to the room, with its own sweet wisdom,  there is a chance to be still – alongside another. Most of the people who come for Reiki with me remark that one of the most refreshing things of all, is simply to take time to sit or lie down. Giving something back to themselves. Going back to the source. And by paying this act of quiet attention – we breathe new life into ourselves, and discover  a clearer sense of who we are really meant to be.

*’Wild Geese: Selected Poems’ by Mary Oliver is published by Bloodaxe Books

For details of my classes go to Classes with Barney

To read more about Reiki and to book a session with me, go to Reiki in Leeds

Reiki Reflections: On Books and Being

TIMES OF CRISIS can be times of  illumination, too. My own life’s journey through different forms of movement and body work has always been precipitated by great challenge and difficulty. I learned to dance (history here ) as a way of becoming strong after a series of debilitating illnesses in my twenties. I studied T’ai Chi (classes info here) in my thirties to find balance, when the dance became a little obsessive and threatened injury. Dance Movement Therapy was a training that helped me deal with the emotional repercussions of supporting a seriously ill partner – and has led me, indirectly, to look after others who have been exhausted by the caring role. The Alexander Technique picked me up, when I was flattened by a back injury, as grief over multiple losses finally caught up with me, and laid me low. Now Reiki has come along – helping me recover from a serious shoulder fracture (See my Reiki In Leeds page, here )and build a new course for my life, more internal, more reflective, as I go into my Third Age.

Reiki books: theory versus reality

As a writer and an inveterate student, I am always looking for the answers to imponderable questions. Reiki can be pretty opaque and difficult to explain. How does Reiki work? Where does it come from? What is it all about? As I have gone through the Reiki training and ‘attunements’,  I have looked in books – and found out about the history, and various interpretations of the hand positions, the philosophy, the spiritual power behind the word. But of course, the answer, in the end, is in the experience itself, of giving and receiving Reiki. So whilst there are some fascinating books on the whole concept of Reiki, and I have listed a few favourites below, there is nothing quite like the reality. Feeling warm hands upon you – laying warm hands upon another. It is a meditation, of sorts. And a deep well of serenity, just waiting to be tapped.

Meditation is the thing

When I was  involved with learning the Alexander Technique, I asked my teacher for his book recommendations. He paused for a long time. I expected weighty tomes from F.M. Alexander himself, long disquisitions on the exact art and science of this beautiful psycho-physical technique. Then he said, “Actually, the book that helped me most when I was training, isn’t about the Alexander Technique at all. It’s called ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ by Eugen Herrigel.” So I bought the book. And what is it about? Meditation. Being prepared, mentally, for whatever art form – or life practise – one is about to perform. The Japanese art, or archery, teacher “knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating. The meditative repose in which he performs them gives him that vital loosening and equability of all his powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.” Reiki, like archery, requires that one steps out of one’s own way, and allows the energy to flow through the hands – as the arrow springs, with unerring accuracy, from an archer’s bow that is calmly held.

When things fall apart

In summer 2004, a few months after my husband had died – following his ten year gruelling battle with cancer – I spent some time at a buddhist meditation retreat, Dzogchen Beara, on the wild west coast of County Cork, Ireland. I sat in desolation, watching the sky  and the waves outside the magnificent meditation room, and feeling that my life was over. All energy spent. All hope darkened. In the little bookshop next to the shrine room, I picked up a book by a buddhist thinker and writer  Pema Chodron, called ‘When Things Fall Apart’. This book, wise, calm, challenging, yet comforting, became my constant companion, and it still is, all these years later. Every page has a nugget of wisdom. Her descriptions could be as much about Reiki, as they are about the art of meditation itself. In her chapter on Loneliness, when she advises us not be afraid of feeling alone, she says “right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart?” Since practising Reiki, on myself and on others, it has seemed to me that, more than anything else, Reiki is about compassion, about settling down alongside oneself, and alongside others. About simply being and accepting things – just as they are. So this is the book I would recommend most, for anyone involved with Reiki. And it’s not about Reiki at all!!

Personal journeys

Of the books that are about Reiki itself, it is the ones that are personal, direct and autobiographical that appeal to me most. Lofty claims about Reiki’s miraculous powers leave me cold. But individual journeys through the mystery of the Reiki process, draw and delight me. A small book called ‘Principles of Reiki’ by Kasja Krishni Borang is a lovely little memoir of the author’s own initiation into Reiki. Her descriptions on living in an ashram in India and looking after the herd of deer – treating some of them with Reiki, and then going on to work with other animals in the same way – is quirky and affectionate. And for something more rigorous, on the mind and spirit of Reiki, Frans Stiene’s ‘The Inner Heart of Reiki’ is very compelling. In the end, it is about being, rather than doing, that is the heart of the matter, a message for life, if ever there was one…”‘Doing Reiki’ is about being busy: we always try to ‘do’ something. And by always doing things we forget to be. ..When we remember how to truly ‘Be Reiki’ then there are no traces to be found, and we are finally completely free, like a bird, roaming the mighty sky.”

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (Penguin)

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron (Element)

Principles of Reiki by Kasja Krishni Borang (Thorsons)

The Inner Heart of Reiki by Frans Stiene (Ayni Books)

 

 

 

 

Wave

MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)

Moving into Stillness

THIRTY YEARS ago an enigmatic teacher, Andreas Demetriou, began to train me in the old and beautiful slow dance of T’ai Chi. It was the long, classical Yang form that I learned with him in London, and it has stayed with me through the extraordinary twists and turns, ups and downs, sicknesses and recoveries, of my life since then. It is, of all the movement forms I have practised and loved, the one that will grow old with me. Though I leave it from time to time, it never leaves me.

Andreas’ own teacher was the formidable Norwegian Gerda Geddes, who was a true pioneer. Dancer, psychoanalyst – a woman who escaped the Gestapo when she joined the Resistance, and then landed in China with her diplomat husband in 1949, just before the Chinese Revolution – Gerda first saw the T’ai Chi in action, on the misty banks of the Yangtse River in Shanghai in the 1940s. She wrote about the power that it stirred in her: “As I watched I had a sensation of hot and cold streaming up and down my spine. It was like ‘meeting with the Holy’ and I remember thinking: ‘This is what I have been looking for all my life'”. She went on to study with a T’ai Chi master in Hong Kong, and later, she was the first European to bring the technique over to London, where she taught generations of dancers and interested laypeople at The Place, and all over the country, for several decades. She herself practised the T’ai Chi until she died, well into her nineties. Her philosophy and wisdom live on through the people she taught, and the words she shared, on the deeper meaning and significance of this profoundly peaceful and nourishing art form. My own work, mentored for many years by Andreas, has also been shaped and influenced by her, though we never met face to face. There are other pathways too, that inform the way I practise and teach. The Alexander Technique.  Meditation. Nature itself.  The trees in the little wood down the end of my road, rooted and graceful. The gorgeous dog I walk every Thursday, bounding with natural energy. The ground under my feet. They all remind me how to breathe –  how to be fleetingly, but tangibly, free – and how to be still, content.

Again, here is  Gerda Geddes, describing the first meeting with her future teacher, who came with his friend to demonstrate the T’ai Chi: “When I looked at the 82 year old man, whom I never met again, I had a sensation that he was transparent, like air, as if there was no barrier for him between this life and another life. His balance was perfect, and although he was old and thin, the flow of his movements and the harmony of his body seemed timeless. I have often held him up as an example for myself, and of how to grow old.”

I shall be running independent classes again in T’ai Chi and Chi Kung, in Leeds, starting with a taster session on Friday February 19th, 12.30 – 1.30, at Leeds Buddhist Centre. Visit my Facebook Author’s page for more details, or leave me a message below.

Dancer in the Light: the Life of Gerda ‘Pytt’ Geddes by Frank Woods (Psi Books)

Andreas Demetriou teaches at Brockwell Lido in Brixton

www.gerdageddes.com

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)