On September 9th 2015, at roughly 5pm, watched by my parents and by the love of my life, 'The Pirate', I received my master's degree from the chancellor of Falmouth University (Dawn French). It was a proud moment for me, having achieved an exceptionally high distinction for my troubles, and a moment which just a few short years earlier would have been beyond my wildest imaginings.
Six days later I turned 45. An age which just a few short years ago was also beyond my wildest imaginings!
At the beginning of 2012 I was 41. I had just recovered from major surgery after the second cancer scare of my life and my marriage had recently ended. I was living in North Yorkshire, cut adrift, lonely, directionless, afraid. I had no idea what to do with my life next, but a conversation with a friend who lived in Falmouth had got me thinking. And hoping.
'Years earlier - 18 to be exact - I had lived in Falmouth and completed an HND in commercial illustration, but for some reason 'The Future' had never really happened, and my creativity and love for storytelling had gotten lost in the struggle to survive 'life'.
I yearned to return to what I loved. The place, Falmouth, and the one thing I knew I was good at: Storytelling. But at 41 I feared I was too old for university life. Too old for academic study. Too old to begin again.
I was lucky enough to have the (tentative) support of my parents and a smattering of friends who encouraged me throughout the difficult winter of 2011/2012 as, whilst enduring both the surgery and a job as General Dogsbody in the cafe at Rievaulx Abbey, I cobbled together a portfolio of dreams and began to look nervously towards an uncertain future.
I was as amazed as anybody when my first day as a postgrad student rolled round and I found myself sitting in a room full of strangers on the Authorial Illustration MA at Falmouth University in October 2012. Amazed, and liberated, and terrified, and about as happy and excited as I thought it was possible for a human being to be.
I knew from the very first day that I had made the right decision. That the upheaval and the risk and the fear would all be worth it. That I was already so proud of myself for taking the leap, for putting myself on the line like that. For taking the risk of finding out, once and for all, if I really did have something inside me worth pursuing.
In October 2012, I couldn't have known where the next two years would take me. Couldn't know that I would meet and become friends with some of the most incredible people, of all ages and backgrounds and stories. Couldn't know how I would be pushed and pushed and encouraged by my incredible tutors to fulfil all that potential I'd had simmering beneath my skin for years. Couldn't know how I would open up my mind and my heart to let all the university experience envelop me. That I would work harder and more passionately than I had ever done before. That I would spend my days creating and my nights dancing. That I would go swimming in the sea in the moonlight. That I would spend the summer solstice drumming until dawn with my new friends. That I would fall in love with a gypsy pirate boy that lived on a boat. And that at the end of it all, I would surpass all expectations for myself and emerge with a distinction and a body of work that I could not have even imagined at the beginning.
What I learned during those two years, more than anything else, is that it is never too late to begin again. I wasn't the oldest person on that course, but even if I had been, I doubt it would have mattered. What I took to university was an attitude of openness. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to learn. I wanted to feel enchanted by life again. As a result, I became friends with 22 year olds as well as 62 year olds and everyone in between. I never, ever allowed myself to think that I couldn't do something because I was 'too old'. So, I went to parties. I drank a bit more than was strictly good for me. I walked home at dawn in inappropriate footwear.
One year after my MA exhibition, in my graduation regalia, I found myself reflecting on those two incredible years. It was a kind of closure, I suppose, to go up on to the stage and accept my Masters, to listen to the speeches and to find myself wondering, again, what the future might hold. Nothing is certain. Life goes on. But my two years as a mature postgrad student taught me that I can really do anything if I want it badly enough.
Life, it seems, can be a great adventure. As long as you let it.
Ten years ago today, almost exactly to the hour, I was sitting in the consultant's office at Whitby Hospital receiving a cancer diagnosis.
It had been a long day. I had been in the garden tying my nasturtiums to pea sticks, experimenting with companion planting in my vegetable garden. They were bright orange and full of hope. I was nervous and full of foreboding. I had been unwell for months, dragged down by vague but persistent symptoms, dosing myself on over-the-counter painkillers. Five days earlier my beloved pet cat had died on the operating table at the vets, felled by liver failure. The mid-June air was heavy, threatening storms. I was trying to remain calm, but I knew in my bones that something bad was coming.
Every year, in June, I am reminded. The calm before a storm still unnerves me. And the sight of nasturtiums still sends a rush of pins and needles to my fingertips.
At Whitby Hospital, they were behind schedule. Woefully behind. My appointment had been scheduled for 4pm, but it was gone seven before my name was called. I was the last person to be seen that day. Everyone else had gone home. Even the staff.
I knew in my bones that something was very wrong, but nothing prepares you for a shock of that magnitude. I was 34. Young, fit, perfectly healthy all my life, and recently married. I was in the middle of renovating my first home, a Georgian cottage between the sea and the Yorkshire Moors, my whole life stretching ahead in unwoven threads. The kindly consultant delivered the grim diagnosis whilst the tearful nurse handed me a box of tissues. Even now, 10 years later, my hands shake a little as I write, tingling with the ghost of that memory.
I didn't cry. I was too busy observing, from a long distance, the buttons on the consultant's white coat. I was in a tunnel, and there were Banshees screaming past my ears. Everything was hard and bright and my eyes were burning. I heard very little of what was said to me. Something about surgery. Urgent. Chemotherapy. Months of treatment. Years of surveillance.
I went home that evening and called my parents. My mother cried. My dad said 'oh, my God' a lot. I went to bed and lay awake all night staring at the ceiling while my husband slept beside me. I had no thoughts. Only pure, intense, terrifying sensation. I thought I might die of a heart attack.
10 years ago today, on this very evening, my life changed forever. Everything I thought I knew about life, about myself, was different. I was plunged into a world of hospitals and impossible, nightmarish decisions about treatment. I wanted to run away so badly that my legs ached with longing, but I was trapped inside my body with no up, no down, no under, over or around. There was no escape. The only way forward was Through.
It was a long, long walk through that tunnel. The Banshees screamed inside my ears, without pause, for two whole weeks. After surgery, they calmed themselves a little but remained inside my head for months, stirring occasionally in unexpected moments to remind me of their presence. They are still there now, but over time I have become more accustomed to their mutterings.
My cancer had been serious and the treatment was brutal, but my youth and fitness helped me to recover quickly, even as the chemotherapy took its toll. The prognosis was good, but uncertain. The cancer, as it turned out, was hereditary, and none of the experts quite knew what to make of it. I got used to meeting with new consultants, all of whom, without fail, looked at me in bewilderment, shook their heads, and uttered the words 'very rare'.
Coming back from cancer, or from any life-threatening or life-shattering event, takes a long time. In some ways, you never come back. Or, at least, you come back different. My physical recovery took at least a year. The psychological recovery was far more complicated.
I thought I had a handle on the idea of my own mortality, but before cancer it had only ever really been that: An idea. With cancer, I found myself staring right into The Abyss. I could taste it. Touch it.
It smelled of metal and coated plastic.
There are moments in life which everyone experiences, when everything is clearer. We don't always recognise them as such, but these are the moments when our subconscious selves rise to the surface and for a brief time over-ride the clatter and noise of the everyday. These are the moments to which we should give our undivided attention. Having cancer gave me one of those moments. But it was a moment which was so clear and bright that I was almost blinded by it. I couldn't switch it off. It was relentless. And exhausting.
Admittedly, I was always a little bit hippie, but now all I wanted to do was to sit and look at swifts. They were everywhere. Filling the sky. Everyday life seemed ridiculous. All the old worries so pointless. When I looked at the swifts I found them so beautiful that I wanted to cry, but I had no idea if I was happy or sad. I was simply filled up with the joy of being alive.
I travelled to Australia and found myself in a Buddhist retreat in The Snowy Mountains. Sitting in on the meditation with the monks, the doors and windows thrown open to the sound of an Australian night, I wondered how it was that I could be so far from home and not miss any of it. I travelled for two months, but I knew I could have gone away forever and that it wouldn't really matter. Life was very small. And impossibly huge.
On my return, I spent the winter of 2006-2007 holed up in my attic, listening to the wind and the rain battering the roof tiles, sitting in the semi-darkness at my computer, writing my way back to life. I wrote for six months straight, immersing myself into a story that had waited for my attention for years. It was the only thing which stopped me from thinking about cancer. It stopped me from thinking at all. For six months I was immersed, hiding from my own thoughts, allowing the healing to take place off-stage, whilst I looked the other way. By the end of 2007 I had written a novel, and to all outward appearances, I was back to 'normal'. I put my story in a cupboard and got myself a job at a little independent bookshop in Whitby where I stayed for the next 4 years.
Life went on, as it always does. My little drama became yesterday's news. Other things happened. People close to me died. I had friends diagnosed with their own illnesses. Over time I became the person that others came to for help and advice. For reassurances. Somehow, having cancer had made me wise.
I didn't feel wise. Under the surface, something was brewing. It is impossible to go through something so traumatic and to return to 'normality' untouched. I wasn't fully aware of it at the time, but having cancer had started a process inside of me, unlocking something deep in my bones which had been lying dormant for years. I had begun to feel an unease about my life, now compounded by the fact that due to the cancer treatment I could no longer have children. It was odd. I had never really wanted children, but in my early 30s I was beginning to think I should. It seemed like the thing to do, and my husband wanted them. Now that the choice had been taken away, I was left feeling sad but also disturbingly relieved, and this realisation led me into looking at my adult life through new eyes. Somehow, from graduating at the age of 23, I had been drifting through life, never quite committing to one thing or another, always waiting for something to happen or something to change, allowing myself to become a part of somebody else's life-plan. I have no idea to this day how or why it happened. It just did. I suspect it happens to a lot of people.
It wasn't an overnight realisation, or a lightbulb moment, merely a slow creeping sense of wrongness and of time running out. I was still attending check-ups at the hospital every six months, and with the knowledge that my cancer was hereditary I was told that I would need monitoring for the rest of my life. Cancer would be with me for as long as I lived, however long or short that might be. It would stay with me constantly, always there to remind me of how precious life is. Of how utterly fragile we are as flesh and blood human beings. This awareness was almost unbearable. Somehow, I had survived. Give or take a couple of scars, my body was more or less intact. I was still relatively young. And I was as restless as hell.
When you realise, truly realise, that your life is your own. When you understand, fully, that you are an independent adult living in a free world, that you are nothing but atoms and stardust and that after you die (which will be soon) the world will spin on without you and absolutely nothing will matter anymore, there is an overwhelming surge of liberation that cannot be ignored.
I had survived. For how long, I could not know. but I was here now. I had survived.
There was no sense to it, of course. The universe may be all random chaos, or there may be a pattern somewhere that we cannot see, but I could make no sense of it. Only that I was here, that my life was my own, and that I absolutely had to start living it the way I needed to. Straight from the heart.
There are points in our lives around which we orientate ourselves. Memories. Ideas about who we are. Places we feel safe. The image we have of ourself which is familiar and which we understand. In order to reset my life at one of these points, I had to go a long way back. Back to my very early 20s in fact. When I was last making important decisions for myself. Alone.
Fighting cancer was one thing. Nobody really fights cancer. The doctors and the drugs do that. Fighting for your life is something else entirely. It is a mental process which takes time and strength and courage. It is something which has to be done alone, during the sleepless nights of soul searching when there are no distractions and no one else around to muddy the waters of deep thought.
In the end, I had to bring down my entire life as I knew it in order to rebuild again from the ground up. Rock bottom, I believe it is called. The good solid foundation on which to lay the first bricks of something new.
When you are young, you begin your life standing in an empty field of possibility. There is no defined path, no walls to hem you in, no perimeters to limit exploration. But as we move forward, a path is furrowed, fences are erected, and before we know what is happening, we can find ourselves standing inside a wind tunnel, walls of concrete rising on all sides. When this happens, the only way out is to bring everything down.
It is a painful, destructive process. Utterly terrifying. But after the destruction, after the ruins have ceased to smoke and the dust has settled, you may find yourself standing back in that empty field. Older, hopefully wiser, and ready to begin again.
In 2012, I found myself standing in that field. I was bewildered. Elated. Shocked by my own power. My house was sold, my marriage was over, and some friends, unable to understand the changes I had wrought, had been lost. But there I was, in my 40s, starting again. I took myself off to Cornwall where I had lived in my early 20s, enrolled at university, and began a Master's Degree in illustration. I had the support of my parents and a handful of friends who had stood by me throughout the destruction, and I was ready, at last, to build the life I wanted for myself, by myself.
University has finished now. I spent two years working harder than I have ever worked in my life, dedicating myself to my art, to storytelling, with a passion I had never previously experienced. It was an intoxicating, empowering experience. I achieved a very high distinction for my efforts, but more importantly I proved to myself that I possessed talent and commitment to the one thing I have always known I was good at. I built new friendships with honesty. I allowed myself to be seen for who I truly am. I fell in love and began a relationship with a man who could see straight through me and into my heart.
Ten years is a long time. But it can also pass in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Since that evening in the consultant's office at Whitby hospital, I have made absolutely sure to always pay attention. All I wanted, at that moment, was a 'few more years', and by some miracle, I was granted my wish. It hasn't always been easy, but I hope I have used those 10 years wisely, pushing the limits of my life and who I am beyond anything I thought I was capable of.
I'm 44 now. Ten years older and yet feeling immeasurably younger. Cancer, trauma, taught me to be open. To be fearless. To take the time to drink in everything that life has to offer. All the joys and sorrows. Life is full of possibility. I learned these lessons in one of the hardest ways possible. That we are all living on borrowed time. Life is not finite. It is short and filled with sorrow and hardship, but it is also long enough to cram in everything you need to do. Not everything you want to do. Everything you need.
I still don't have a 'career' to speak of. I don't own my own house. And I will never have my own children. But I spend my days on beaches, looking at skies. And I write. And I draw. And I am loved.
And I am alive.
Why do I make art?
It's a question I sometimes ask myself, usually whilst lying awake at 4am worrying about the future, about money or the lack of it, about how it is that I find myself here, at the age of 44, still 'making art', still day-dreaming, still conjuring stories from the recesses of my perpetually distracted imagination, some 30 years on from the frowning words of the careers advisor to 'have something to fall back on'.
Tomorrow we have a general election.
For the last several years, whilst I busied myself with the massive leap of faith from my old life into the new, I chose to ignore politics in much the same way as I once chose to ignore the naysayers who suggested I find a more sensible line of work. For the two years I attended Falmouth University, undertaking an MA which I loved with a passion, I chose not to worry, to focus on my work, to follow my heart along the path which felt right, the path which I have always known I was destined to walk and where all my strengths as a human being lay.
Growing up in the 1980s of Thatcher's Britain, I was told by somebody older and infinitely wiser than myself that as you 'grow-up' and acquire all the trappings of an 'adult' life: A house, a car, the kids, the ski-ing holidays, the 'proper' job, you inevitably become more Conservative. To me, this translated as meaner, more selfish, more distrustful, so I made art and I created stories as a way of rejecting this fate. Art, stories, music, film, these were the places where truth and beauty and hope could be found. A way of learning about the world and a way of connecting with other human beings in a kinder and more sympathetic way.
Of course, I did indeed get older, and as I got older I did indeed begin to acquire the trappings of an adult life. I watched as my friends and peers, as predicted, became gradually more Conservative, more protective of their lives and the 'things' they had acquired along the way, and I disliked what I was witnessing.
Eventually, I turned my back on the life I had built up over the years so that I could return to a more innocent state. I returned to my art and to my storytelling and I made the decision to be the person that the younger me would recognise and be proud of, and in doing so I chose to ignore politics and the fact that the society I was living in was more right-wing than ever.
It is a sometimes difficult path to follow, particularly now that I am older. Swimming against the tide of society is harder in middle age than in youth because the expectations and judgements of your peers are so much harsher. To be a 44 year old idealist in a cynical, grasping world is, at times, a lonely and frightening experience, but the more I follow this path, the more I come to realise that I am not alone, that there are others, and many more beside who yearn to give voice to the human kindness stifled away inside them.
So I make art.
I make art, despite the financial impossibility of it, because I still believe that human beings are, on the whole, good and kind. That human beings each yearn for beauty and for truth and to feel connected to one another. This, I believe, is what art can do. It is what books do. It is what music does. It is in the power of stories that we find each other. That we rise above the mess of consumerism and capitalism.
Art has value because it nurtures the soul and connects us to other human beings. And human beings, every one of them, rich and poor, old and young, have value too. We are all connected.
Remember that when you vote tomorrow.
... And from somebody infinitely wiser than myself, here is Alain de Botton and The School of Life's view on the subject in 'What is Art for?'
Today is Walk and Think Day, so I walked through a deserted wood and along the estuary to Mylor Harbour. I didn't see a single other human being and I was thinking about two things:
The first, completely unexpected and random, was an article in 'Oh Comely' magazine (Issue 22) about 10 year olds in an art class painting single blocks of colour and then writing a paragraph about what they see. It was an activity they had been set by a particularly inspired teacher and the results of the exercise both astonished and moved me. How could 10 year olds write such powerful, soulful reflections on something as simple as a colour? Take this, for example, on the colour white:
"Huge clouds blanket the vast sky, making the unbearable feeling of loneliness and emptiness ache even more, along with the annoyingly repetitive flavour of minty toothpaste, but soon all the heart aching worries disappear and the snow, now flying swiftly towards the jagged pavement brings the beautiful, joyous and wonderful feeling of peacefulness; children laugh, adults smile and I savour this sweet moment like it is my last".
I mean ... What? They're how old?
The second, apparently unconnected to the first, was an article written by the author Lionel Shriver entitled "I was Poor but I was Happy" where she discusses the nature of happiness and what it means to her. (Click on the link, it's well worth the read).
Happiness. Well, there is a big subject. We all think about it. We all pursue it. We all wonder if we're getting enough of it. I've thought about it myself at great length and wondered at its nature. I mean, what is it exactly? It's not contentment exactly (too sedate) and it's not joy either (too exhausting). It is elusive, hard to recognise, and once you find it, it is difficult to keep hold of. Happiness, like the future, is unpredictable and always just out of reach. And, it would seem, the only place it is to be found freely and in uncomplicated abundance, is in the past.
In retrospect, Lionel Shriver sees her past, despite its challenges and deprivations, as a time when she was happy and I don't doubt that she was happy. The point of this article was to highlight the fact that money does not bring happiness, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, having experienced both ends of the economic scale, but the common thinking amongst those of us who are relatively poor is to imagine that money will take away fear, in particular the fear of the future.
But it doesn't.
Fear of the future is fear of the unknown and no amount of money will take that away. What makes the past such a happy, nostalgic place is the present day knowledge that 'everything turned out alright in the end' ... So far, at least. Whether you are happy or miserable, rich or poor, The Future remains an unknowable, shadowy country and no amount of planning can make it safe. Only the past is safe.
I was thinking about all of this on my walk because for the last two years I have been happier than I have ever been, but recently a certain anxiety about the future has crept in and I have been conscious that this anxiety has stolen a little of the happiness from me. And so I have wondered why it was that for the past two years I have felt so blissfully at peace, and the answer of course lies in the fact that for the last two years I have perfected the art of living in the moment. For the first time in all my adult life, I have been exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. And I have absolutely, categorically, refused to worry about what comes next.
Being a self-employed artist, the future is always going to be unpredictable, and I have wondered recently at my choices. Until I remember that The Future is unpredictable regardless of your choices. A brush with life-threatening illness nine years ago taught me that, which is why I now make the effort to live my life in the moment and which is why I have been all the happier for doing so.
But it isn't always easy, and sometimes we need the odd little reminder to keep us on track. Which is where I come back to the 10 year olds and their wonderful, spontaneous descriptions of colour. Children, generally speaking, understand all about 'The Now'. To them, The Past is as murky as The Future, and just as untroubling. What matters to a child is what is happening here and now. It is all about The Moment. The description of the colour white is so affecting because it is so unguarded, so immediate, so responsive to The Now. And this week, it served as a reminder to myself of what makes me happy. Right now.
Here are a few images of 'The Now' that I took on my walk ...
I am a ...
... Teller of Tales. A Creator of Books. An Artist, Illustrator and A Boatbuilder. A Professional Daydreamer, Occasional Mermaid, and always The Eternal Optimist.