Over the last year I have had the great privilege of working with philosopher Havi Carel and the Life of Breath team to develop a new piece of theatre work The Book of Jo.
Havi wrote a book in 2008 called Illness which uses phenomenology to chart her lived experience of being diagnosed with sporadic LAM - a serious, rare and random lung condition that affects women of childbearing age - random in that it is not caused by any lifestyle choices, exposure to toxins or genetics. Illness reflects on what it is like to live with a terminal condition, to receive treatment and deal with the responses of friends, family and strangers. It reads as a call for more empathy in health care but also in the world. It asks important questions about finding wellness within illness - anyone with a long term condition will confirm there are better or worse days, that our experiences aren’t linear or one dimensional. I say that as someone living with a long term mental health condition.
When I read her book, it reminded me of the only bible story I know well The Book of Job. In the old testament story Job is seen by God as the best of men and he is blessed with a wife, lots of children, loads of sheep and property. God and Satan make a wager where Satan states that it’s easy to be good when you have it all. He encourages God to test Job by destroying his herds, home and children, to then see if Job is still so wonderful. When Job proves unshakeable, Satan pushes God to test him further by afflicting his body. Job sits in the ashes of his life covered in pustulent sores and maintains his faith.
His friends come to comfort him but prove pretty useless - they doubt him arguing that he must have done something wrong to deserve his plight, in a no smoke without fire kind of way. As he maintains his innocence - they question God and Job’s faith. To cut a long weird story short, Job is steadfast, God wins the wager and in the unsatisfying ending he restores Job’s life - new sheep, new children etc.
Both stories propelled me to think about how we make sense of life, misfortune, injustice…. How do we find hope within adversity? Why does bad stuff happen to good people? So these are the questions that I explore in the piece which draws on the bible story, Havi’s book and my own lived experience to animate the Life of Breath research and contemplate something about our humanness. It’s quite dark and wry, simmering with anger but also humour and love. I have written it with mentoring from Dramaturg Chris Fogg and I selected quotes from the bible story to link the scenes which have been brilliantly composed by Tom Johnson. I’m looking forward to performing it - I hope that audiences can see something of their own journey in it. No life is straightforward - none of us has certainty - especially right now. We all need some perspective and ways to understand life’s imperfections and challenges. Stories are great for that.
The Book of Jo is commissioned by www.lifeofbreath.org and funded by The Wellcome Trust
I’m walking along the South Dorset Coast Path. The walk is the beginning of a project called ‘Restless’ part awareness raising campaign and part choreographic response to the Coast Path.
I’m with my friends and colleagues, the artist and activist Viv Gordon and producer Sarah Blowers. We have been walking for two days. My feet are swollen and each step hurts. We have walked cliffs so high that at the top you can see how far you’ve already come and how far you have to go.
Viv has come a long way.
On this walk. Seven days, carrying her kit and sleeping in a tiny tent.
And in her life. Her tale is extraordinary. From being sexually abused as a child, to bravely talking about her life through honest and challenging theatre shows.
Only her story isn’t extraordinary. In fact it’s very ordinary. I’m reminded that everyday, everywhere in every town and city and village abuse is taking place. And that this abuse happens in a vacuum of silence, because thats where it flourishes. A number that often comes up in conversation is 11 million. 11 million abused people in Britain today. Today. I can’t take it in. That is enough people to fill not just this coast path, or the beaches that we can see laid out beneath us, but the whole of Dorset. To most of us its invisible. Not to Viv. She sees it everywhere. The paths and benches and rock pools all seem to hum to the sound of the millions of voices with similar stories of abuse.
We walk shoulder to shoulder. She is inquisitive and funny and always seems to hold within her a deep understanding of the tidal, surging, world of emotion we all live in. On the path and in life Viv has a long way to go. She believes that these 11 million peoples voices need to be heard. I sense she is slowly and persistently gathering the force of these people. Through walking, talking, theatre making, writing and at every moment in her life she is affecting change. This project is just the beginning.
As we walk into Lyme Regis to finish our walking for the day she recounts a story from her younger days traveling in Kashmir in her 20’s. A border control guard was trying to extort money from her and her friend, eventually she grabbed their passports and yelled “run”. She is surprised by her own actions because she “isn’t brave”. I’m amused by the story and we laugh but I disagree. She is as brave as anyone I know. For telling her story. For helping others to tell their story and for supporting those who for whatever reason can’t tell their story.
At some point in the future she is planning a larger event. I’ll be there and perhaps you will be too.
I am home, lost for words, emotional and tired. When we reached Lyme yesterday a massive part of me just wanted to keep on walking.
I really will struggle to articulate anything very coherent here but there was a rightness and simplicity in just putting one foot in front of another as a way of campaigning, raising awareness, being with my own story of childhood sexual abuse and all the other stories we met and heard on the way.
We met and spent time with so many incredible people. People who shared their own stories - not in hushed voices or private spaces - but out in the everyday - at work, on holiday, down the pub.... it felt like a small microcosm of an imaginary, possible world where survivors are not in hiding, burdened with the keeping of other people’s terrible secrets, carrying the shame of other people’s incomprehensible and evil behaviour.
Walking and talking. It felt primal. I felt embodied. I felt like after the confusion and chaos of survival, I knew clearly what my body was for and that I could give my whole self unequivocally to this action. Maybe that doesn’t make sense - I guess it’ll take time to process the whole experience.
I’m sat in my own bed drinking tea, it’s a luxury.
We finished our walk yesterday, 110 Miles (more than we thought).For the last two days we walked with Tom Roden, choreographer and Director; talking through artistic ideas, the landscape, sore knees and blisters.
I don’t know how I feel now we have finished.
Mixed, it was intense at times.
It’s easier to reflect in bullet points!
-Wear good socks, they protect your feet
-Check your kit before you go, it might have holes in it
-People will be kind and help you, particularly if you ask
-You can walk further / carry more / than you imagine, it hurts but you can do it
-Sometimes it’s ok to let people help you, we don’t need to be strong all the time
-Walk with good friends,
-Silent walking is golden
- Abuse and violence is everywhere and people are hungry to talk about it
When we arrived in Lyme Regis we had a celebratory drink; the young barman asked us what we were doing. We told him. As we sat outside in the sun with our drinks he came out and thanked us. Of course, the themes resonated for him and he was moved to come and tell us. As we made our way to the car to drive home I felt tearful and overwhelmed with the scale of abuse and violence that sits so firmly in our society.Whether we are allies / survivors or indeed both - it is time.
I’m restless for change.
Wow wow wow
What an uplifting day we had yesterday on our participation day. Despite the rain a small and perfectly formed band of brave warrior souls rocked up to walk with us in the morning, with more joining at lunchtime and yet more walking from or waiting at West Bay to meet us.
We walked together (obvs), talked and took space to think and feel.
The sea was fierce and the cliffs were high and dramatic. On Freshwater beach we made the word RESTLESS from found objects - rocks, driftwood and seaweed. On the beach at West Bay we lit a fire, formed a circle and made the simple empowering statement that each of us was there to say no to abuse and violence. One participant sang to us. Her song, about the sea, traced a metaphor for deep emotions and returning to feeling after the numbness of shock and trauma. Another read to us from Marianne Williamson “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”
We made a dance together, each person contributing a movement inspired by their day - simple and beautiful gestures of crashing waves, soaring birds, reaching hands and open hearts.
Coming together as survivors and allies feels like a daunting prospect - isolation, secrecy and shame are hard wired into us - but the actual act of gathering, sharing and bearing witness was warm and affirming. I take my hat off - a very stupid cat hat with ears -to each one of us, to all living with this story and each transgressive step out of silence.
Yesterday was great and sobering.
I know I’ve already said this but it feels overwhelming, this is everywhere, every pub, every campsite, the scale of it, always sobering, over breakfast at the B and B we talked about our project with a couple who were staying, guess what?
The themes of abuse and violence strongly resonated with them.
Again and again and again, it seems that every time Viv speaks up; even when we’re both tired and I secretly think “ shall we just drink tea and not say anything this morning?”
It lands, and over and over we hear about the affect of abuse on lives.
We walked with a fantastic group of people yesterday, past an old row of cottages that I used to go on holiday to as a child, over big drop cliffs, a rainy lunch spot and finally West Bay.
We made a fire and all spoke out the same words
My name is Sarah
My voice is powerful
I say no to abuse and violence.
It was hard not to cry hearing others say it and harder to say than I thought it might be.
It’s our last day today,
My blisters are sore and it looks like rain; every step is saying no to abuse and violence.
Yesterday we walked along the Fleet Lagoon - the body of water created and protected by Chesil Beach, that runs about 9 miles along the coast from Portland. It’s a beautiful and important nature reserve which yesterday in the drizzle felt stagnant and bleak, emitted a strong and unpleasant smell of sulphur and failed to inspire me.
On land we walked past a large MOD compound - also protected by high fences and razor wire. The previous day on Portland we had passed the prison similarly enclosed.
I have discovered this is not my favourite stretch of the coast path. It made me think about the urge to defend and protect ourselves and how this can shut us off from and mar the beautiful. And also how (in the case of Fleet Lagoon) the natural protection of a long gone geological event has created a sanctuary where delicate, unique things thrive. I guess protection is double edged.
As we approached Abbotsbury - the landscape rose up away from the sea and changed to sculptural, undulating shapes as the sun came out and uplifted us both.
Of course it’s all personal and my responses just affirm to me that now is not the time for me to shut off or protect myself but to be out there getting amongst it all exposed and vulnerable.
Joy of joys we stayed in a B and B last night so I am sitting in bed with a cup of tea writing this. Absolute bliss. It is pissing it down outside and is going to be all day, we are both dreading it. We spent some time last night bursting our blisters with an opinel knife, intimate.
My feet really really hurt yesterday. We only walked a small distance but I found it hard.My left foot has four blisters on it, three on my toes and one on the ball of my foot near my toes. I’m sure not coincidentally it’s on the foot that I broke earlier on in the year. When you already have a weakness it’s easier for other injuries to begin, one can lead to another. My non - broken ankle foot is blister free.
People on campsites have been so kind. I know I wrote it yesterday but it still felt good. Finding allies when things are hard I guess.
We had lovely food at a pub in Abbotsbury last night and as always Viv is amazing about talking about our project. It’s not always easy to say “we’re walking as a creative protest against childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence” We have got better at saying it, Viv often says “I’m a survivor”. It puts so much context around the work and brings it right into the forefront.
Every day we have met someone who resonates with this story, or it is their story. Once Viv is brave enough to say “I’m a survivor” so do other people; it’s heartbreaking to consider the scale and uplifting to think that every blister filled wet step is about speaking out /walking out / holding heads high and being visible/brave/powerful and together.
For all those kind people who have made us tea, stored our bags, charged our phones it really helps.
I’m hoping for some hot tea along the way today, it looks grey and stormy but I know we can do it.
Yesterday got better - surprisingly better considering very little sleep, blistered feet and emotional overload.
We walked with hip hop artists Beth Griffin and Dave Leong and Comms lead Becky Millington from the South West Coast Path Association around Portland. Like when Quinta joined us earlier in the week it is exciting and interesting to engage with fresh energy and new creative perspectives.
I’m always struck by the courage people bring to engage with this content which is not easy and touches so many lives in so many different ways. I’m also stimulated by their responses and creative ideas in formation.
We took time (after a much needed lunch break from the rain involving lasagne) to walk in silence together being with nature and the elements and our own thoughts and responses.
There is such solace in the steady action of walking, the constant sound of the sea, the feeling of sun, wind and rain on my body.
For me - living with a dissociative mental health condition as a result of the abuse I survived - it is great effort to feel solidly embodied. When the body has been the site of abuse it is logical to not want to inhabit it - but ultimately there is nowhere else we can live except in our bodies?
After a long night and waking with grey skies looming the day felt like it could be a struggle.
But things improved.
I have been struck by campsite communities/ the lack of walls and maybe just being outside brings people together. A kind family are looking after our bags at night ( the tent is so small they can’t fit in with us). Yesterday morning with no way to make tea ( I bought the wrong make gas canisters) They offered to make us tea. I was so grateful I cried a bit.
When you have very little ( or almost nothing) a cup of tea is amazing.
Then as if by magic Beth and Dave our brilliant vocalists ( rap/spoken word/ vocals) turned up at the campsite- early! Having left Gloucestershire at 6 pm to join us.
We were a bit nervous about having to walk with others, we were both feeling exhausted after not much sleep. How wrong we were, it was brilliant to have young infectious energy around. Positive , supportive and new. Becky from the South West Coast Path Association joined us too, again more amazing, positive supportive energy.
We all walked 15 miles up and around Portland bill. I didn’t love it all. A lot of tarmac and cars as well as some beautiful coast line. We didn’t have our packs to carry which was liberating but weirdly my left foot really blistered up.
Scampi and chips
A mojiito at the end
Blisters and plasters
And a sense of warmth as Beth /Dave /Becky drove off at the end of the day.
To walk with others felt really special.
To share our thoughts
Share a path
Share a view and hear another voice
If you’d like to walk with us on Sunday please do
Whether you’re a survivor or an ally, or sit as many of us do between the two we would love to walk with you. We would love to feel your support and also share the beauty of what we are doing. The sea, the rocks, the beaches, the wind and the rain.
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I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist with mental health needs, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health.