We are all so many people. So many hidden stories. Such large lives lived behind the quiet of the everyday. Daily we ask each other: ‘how are you?’ and everyone just accepts that there is never time for a true answer. How am I today?
…today I was up a little late, and ran fierce through my daily practice, running with sweat for over an hour. I am, I think, a little apprehensive and burning off that anxiety, as I gear up for the longest stretch away of the summer – over a fortnight at two different camps. There are tensions tightening within me, physical as well as mental and emotional. There will be both challenges and friends to meet and make. I am a little worried that I’ve been over-efforting. Indeed, there is a nagging ache in my left heel and I don’t know why, although my right hip is much improved. My body cries out for rest, but also strength, and the exultation of endorphins, and I’m not sure, as ever, where the balance point is. This is an old struggle, and thus a sad and weary one. But also my class went well this morning, and I finished a little study project and a long-term knitting project for two dear friends and teachers, so there’s a sense of connection, of modest pride and a neat, finishing off feeling to that. And more, in the front of my mind, I’m a little off-balanced because my evening was slightly derailed as the respite centre was unexpectedly closed with a viral outbreak, and I hope everyone’s okay…
Some people wonder how others can contain whole hidden lives within them – from struggles with depression, to histories of abuse, to social taboos and criminal tendencies, all unseen and unknown – as if this is some feat, some aberration of the human condition. Lives held close and secret suddenly collapse or break open, and people are left wondering if they really know their colleagues and neighbours at all. Is it as unusual as all that, to hold such oceans of experience within that the stories of our lives are just too large to share in a few breaths? The truth is, however well you think you know me, I have still edited my story to be smaller than it is.
At 18 years old I was outgoing but guarded, with the latest in a series of steady boyfriends on my arm, and a sharp mind applying itself to the daunting prospect of a Cambridge degree. My home life was the average product of a second marriage – not perfect, but stable enough. I dressed smartly, and provocatively, to stand out from the sea of denim around me. I had friends. I had fun. I had good prospects. People in the town where I grew up were expecting to hear Great Things of me. Instead, I disappeared completely from the Northern town where I seemed to have such deep roots. In reality, I hadn’t been born there, and it had never felt like home.
Never mind the early, early years right now, with the endless green grass and the smell of the chocolate factory on the air. Picture me instead in my mid-twenties, just a few short years after leaving home. Here I was, working and living in pubs on the edge of Soho whilst I trained as a tattooist. I was in a long-term relationship with a young French woman, and while we didn’t exactly dress alike, we did share a love of black, of PVC, of bleached, crew-cut hair; of new metal and body modification. I remember once waking, bleary-eyed to my lover’s anxious face one morning and having to explain that no, I wasn’t quite awake enough to help her re-pierce her lip, and it was her own silly fault for taking it out the night before. I remember absinthe and menthol cigarettes, and Christmas Day dinners interrupted by people trying to get in to buy a drink. I remember tattooing my girlfriend under photographer’s lights for a Time Out promo that never happened. And then, one quiet afternoon, a young man walked into the pub and recognised me from my life before I left home. He called me by a name only a handful of people now know. I looked into his eyes, and in all honesty told him that wasn’t me; and sorry, that wasn’t my name.
He believed me. There were just too many transformations; too many stories between the girl he knew and the woman I had become. I hadn’t failed my degree. In fact, I was modestly successful at an academic life, whilst simultaneously coming out, falling in and out of love on a grand scale, and falling apart in the care of a therapist who held the pieces as I sang the song of a decade of sexual abuse. In between were many milestones, not least a formal estrangement, a nicotine habit and the change of name. I remember the first gay women’s club I walked into, my breath taken by the sheer diversity and number of women there. I remember the sound of oars on the river when an eight rows in perfect harmony. I remember the terrible night my first girlfriend left, as the rain poured down; and I remember another, three weeks later: sweet, drunken and decadent, with two dear friends and a scandalised onlooker.
When the shining promise of a first class degree became the reality of a still respectable 2:1, it was a blessing. I wasn’t ready to become an academic. The wider world called. I spent a year selling books, then left the country for France. I taught English, gained a Southern accent to my French, and fell in love again. I thought I’d live there forever. But when work was scarce, and we were poor, we came together to London, still too young, I think, for our fierce love to survive the loss, grief and growing up ahead of us. But I was left with more memories; more stories: swimming in the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea on a summer’s night, and staying up until the bars opened again. The first lines of the song we sang at Pride with the samba band. The night her mother died.
You see, I really wasn’t the girl he’d known. In between, I had known panic attacks and hallucinations; insomnia and brushes with suicide. I had been nurtured by gifted and brilliant academics. I had been a teacher; a bookseller; an artist and now a body modifier. I had gained a number of tattoos and rings in more and less secret places. I had known a handful of lovers who will always have a piece of my heart.
Picture me a handful of years later still: living with my husband and a friend in a flat in East London, coding and designing little websites and flyers for friends of friends. Gone are the dark edges and guarded expression; replaced by pink camo-print and wide eyes, open to every possibility in the universe. Let me take you to the 414 in Brixton, and argue good-naturedly about the differences between psy-trance and techno; legal and illegal parties; Mayday protests and discordianism; speckled pills and pink ones. Entheogens of the hedonistic revolution I have known and loved, leading to love without limits and the entirely predictable ocean of emotional chaos. Through these high seas my man and I sailed inexpertly, but happily, onto calmer shores. I remember the chill, waking realisation of violent tendencies in a man whose bed I had just slept in. I remember the friend who taught me how to use Photoshop in an afternoon, and then eased me through my first proper comedown with expert deployment of tea, cuddles and a duvet. I remember falling into a Barbados hotel bed with my brand new husband, blissfully happy, drunk and full of cake, as far from our friends and family as we could get.
I am just 41 years old. I am a qualified youth worker. I ran a research project for the National Trust. I can code HTML. I have taught yoga for long enough to have given up affiliation to any single school. I have sat at the feet of a number of spiritual teachers; and trained deeply in a small number of esoteric disciplines. I have sat on the user group committee for Stonehenge. I have seen every solstice sunrise for over a decade. I have been naked on Anglia TV, covered in body paint. I help run one of the largest Druid camps in the UK. I was very nearly part of a new eco-village project in Wales. I am at the very start of a doctorate – my third degree in three different disciplines: literature and languages; then social sciences, and now humanities. I have taken substances you’ve never heard of, and done things you may not believe are physically possible. Across two decades, I could place photos of my adult self a few years apart on a timeline, and not one of them would look the same. And yet, I don’t think I’m unusual. All the people I adore most have life stories so full I don’t think they’ll ever stop surprising me. I think when the oil runs out and we’re old and we have to make our own entertainment, we’ll just sit around and tell our stories to each other.
My grandfather’s whole working life was spent in one factory; his home life with one woman. My father has had three careers: when he didn’t gain tenure at university, he spent the next two decades with the same company, and still runs the consultancy he started when they made him redundant. My mother has been a teacher all her life, and she now knows the English Literature A-level examination so well, she can’t fully retire. She is single, with two marriages behind her. In contrast I have a CV that needs footnotes, complex diagrams and extra pages. I have sworn eternal love in front of witnesses to three different people, two of them women, and I have still been married to my husband for 15 years, albeit rather unconventionally. My oldest friend is transgender. My only sibling is gay. For very, very good reasons, I once had two members of my step family arrested. I do nothing by halves. I am nothing halfway. Life rolls on. Last week I helped roll out a 7 mile pink peace scarf. I want to learn how to run sweatlodges; and I really, really want a narrowboat.
In my heart and with each breath I have lived a hundred different lives, had a thousand adventures, and still it isn’t enough. Life is wide and it is full, and there is so very much to see and do. I hope I have many more years, many more roles to play, many more skills to learn, many more people to meet heart to heart, and so many, many more stories to tell.
At this year’s DruidCamp, I dressed for the opening rite in a green dress, high in the front and trailing at the back. A dear friend joked that the outfit needed only a cutlass and high boots, and I would look like a proper pirate. A plan therefore evolved in the last moments of preparation: I would carry Mark’s sword into the centre of the circle, thrust it into the ground, and walk out without a word. It felt good, and I kept doing it, in rites and morning meetings. It served to earth the higher energies of the camp, and silently underline the emerging activist, warrior themes of the tribal work we did together. At the end of the week, a new friend remarked on how fully I embodied what he saw as ‘the divine feminine’ in ritual. It gave me pause. For what the sword and the big boots had resonated with in me was, in fact, both the young, spiky and androgynous, gay woman I had been in the pub on that long forgotten day; and the flirtatious, fluffy, polyamorous child of the universe of a few years later. This was a part of me as much masculine as feminine, as open as it was secretive, challenging and welcoming in equal measure.
During the camp, it was my very real honour to be part of a preparation group for a ritual honouring the masculine journey in Druidry. I came to a realisation: that the female wisdom of blood and shakti, no matter how hard fought and deeply felt, cannot encompass all that I am driven to be. I need the men of my tribe to model both the shadow and the light of masculine archetypes, so I can find them within myself also. I feel the swagger as well as the sway in my hips; the sneer as well as the smile on my lips.
If we meet, mostly, I will hold your hand and make you tea and welcome you home to yourself. Mostly, I am the slightly neurotic, over-working, nurturing and accepting yoga teacher that my friends, family and students see every day. But my loved ones and my tribe will tell you without reservation that I can also be wild, challenging and much more dangerous to know. These days I define my tribe as the people and places where all these parts of me are hailed and welcomed.
When our stories are fully told; when we can be accepted with all of our history; when our silenced and forgotten voices are heard, we can live, and love life, even wider, even deeper than before. You are merely a temporary alignment of atoms – an indescribably tiny being in an infinite universe of great forces and grand majesty, and yet, what you do with the time gifted to you counts for so much with the things that matter to you: home, family, work, peace, play, environment, tribe. May your life be lived large, and the power of your song echo out far beyond its natural reach. Live your life as if it counted; as if it mattered, with all the dignity and honour you can manage. Let it be deep, and wide, and full of stories of storms fought, and sea monsters tamed, and romances fit for an Italian opera. Let it never be small, and neat and tidy. Find your inner pirate, your inner Robin Hood; your Maid Marian and your Morgan le Fay; your King Arthur and your Merlin within. Find your swagger or even a strut, and find your most dangerous smile. They’ll smile back, I promise.