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My Place to Dwell...

RICHARD HEADSHOT

Dwell: to linger, to delay, to reside.

“But dad, can’t we just play cricket NOW?”

“No, not now. Later, yes. But now I need to bench myself”.

“Bench yourself?!

What the heck does that mean? I’d watch him saunter off. Him, heading towards his bliss. Me, ever so slightly baffled.

I have always been a slightly anxious soul. Slightly unsettled and perhaps not fully at ease with the world around me, I felt like the sensitive boy in the class and, in true schoolboy style, was duly mocked for this. In many ways, my anxious response to the world I inhabit has served me well. Over a span of almost fifty-two years, I’ve endeavoured to find ways to use and to bring it fully into my life as opposed to repressing it and showing a mask to the world around me. The latter being what we are mostly taught to do with stuff that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, CHILD RICHARDand perhaps induces some degree of fear. The former may well be the healthier choice, but for most of us, it remains the tougher one of the two choices. On reflection, I have danced with the two polarities my whole life. Burying some stuff and turning away, whilst then facing my tests and trying to include them in my life.

And then my life shattered

But on December 7th, 2021, my life took a dramatic turn. There is nothing like a stage 4b, incurable lymphoma diagnosis to bring your entire frame of reference into very sharp focus. Add in the fact that it is extremely rare and the dramatic effects multiply. Being told I will be assigned to chemo the next day as, without it, I would have 3-6 months to live, I watched as everything I knew, believed, and had in my life, shattered into tiny remnants. Burying it did not feel like a viable option.

Some of you reading this will have been sat in the chair, receiving a similar life altering diagnosis. Maybe you were the person sat with another as they heard how the story of their life was about to take an unexpected turn. Or maybe you are a carer for someone who lives with cancer. Whatever your relationship with cancer, you will perhaps understand what I mean when I share just how harrowing and brutal cancer is. Not just on our bodies, but on our minds. And deep into the cells of our hearts too. Whilst I believe that our souls stand firm and remain sturdy, it is the rest of us which takes the greatest hit.

When I was asked to write about my cancer experience for the Mission Remission community, I pondered as to which part of my story might be most helpful and resonate with anyone reading it. I decided that I wanted to speak to one of the themes which supported me through treatment and into remission.QUOTE 1

As I’ve already shared, I feel like an anxious traveller on this planet. Starting out on my quest into and through cancer, has not really helped me to settle myself! Sometimes, as a psychotherapist and coach, I feel as if I should be sorted and able to cope. Well, sometimes I am. And sometimes, I am certainly not. I don’t even come close. I am fortunate to be in therapy myself and that relationship has been fundamental in helping to carry me through these past two years. There is no way I would be in the place I am today, had it not been for that firm holding from another. Susan would remain present with me when I was fumbling around in my most bleak moments and likewise when I was ecstatic with the news of all-clear scans.

A place to dwell

One of the things we discussed, soon after diagnosis, was my yearning for a place to dwell. I felt a pull to have somewhere I could retreat to when the world felt too much to handle. I recalled how my dad always had a bench at the top of our garden. It was an old, rather tatty looking wooden thing. Each spring he would feed it with a little oil. Massaging the soul of the bench so that it would, for another year, hold him firm. On days when he’d had enough, off he’d go, tea in hand, making space to survey his kingdom.

RICHARDS DAD

I decided on a bench for myself. Maybe this would be a way to find solace and space when my own world felt overwhelming. I didn’t want a new bench, I wanted one full of stories. Ebay offered me just what I needed for £50. I spruced it up, rubbed it down, following the lead of my dad and his bench massaging technique! As it was summer, making room in my day to go and sit was pretty easy and I’d slip out and sit on my wooden place of dwelling. For a few moments, I created some space between me and my stories. Taking to my bench was akin to taking to the witness seat. Rather than being simply in my story, I took the role of the observer. I didn’t always need to be the leading man in the Film of Richard, I could comfortably seat myself in the auditorium and watch as the action unfolded.

For me, this was revolutionary. Living with cancer meant it was all too easy to stay consumed by the drama of everything that filled my life. Finding ways to escape this was vital. Turning to face the anxiety of living with a life-altering illness takes courage. It calls us to sit with the despair of not knowing. I don’t know about you, but as I grew up, no one taught me how to be with despair, whilst holding onto some degree of hope.

QUOTE 2The bench as a metaphor

It has taken me over 40 years to understand why my dad needed to bench himself. As an adult, attempting to navigate my life, I see only too well what happens when we don’t have our bench – we remain writhing around in our own challenges, heartache, and trauma. The first step is acknowledging that we need to make room for ourselves to be able to take up the witness seat. There are many ways we can do this, mine happens to be a bench. Yours might be writing, making pottery, painting, walking the land, gardening. The list is endless. What matters is that this place offers you space to step back from the noise of the story. So, once you’ve acknowledged that you need it, then you can take action to find out what your version of the bench might be. Then you have to guide yourself towards it, regularly. Make it a habit. Be relentless in creating this sacred space for yourself.

What I soon realised was that my bench was merely the external method for creating some space for myself and having distance between me and the continual chatter in my head and heart. After many months of benching myself, I started to become aware just how much I had imbibed this new-found sense of being settled. I didn’t have to be sat on my bench for my system to feel soothed and at rest. With my ongoing treatment, being able to settle myself feels essential.

Cancer is activating. It sends our system into one of hyper-vigilance. It can be frantic, chaotic, terrifying, destabilising, ugly. Amongst all of this, we are each being called to find ways in which we can settle, tend, and repair ourselves.

Benches fascinate me, they are riddled with stories. I wonder if you ever notice them on your travels. Maybe you even sit on them every now and then. Perhaps you even have your own. I wrote a poem about benches. Take a read. See what pops for you. You may have your own tale of life on a bench.

But for now, as you walk this path through remission, I send you much love.RICHARD SMILING

Yours, Richard x

I am husband to Kelly, father to Mia, dog-father to Royston, therapist, coach, writer and creative. Following my diagnosis, me, Kelly and Mia decided to set up a Blood Cancer Charity. To date, we have raised over £200K to support families living with a blood cancer. You can read more about our adventures, here: https://thewillowtreefoundation.com 

My second book will be published in June 2024. It tells the tale of the flight and the fall of life. It is a memoir which I wrote primarily for me to make some sense of my life with cancer. My hope is that it will also act as food for thought and medicine for the soul. You can find As a Kite Falls here on Amazon, ready for pre-order: https://amzn.eu/d/fIbz5Fm

 

A place that bears witness to an entire lifecycle; each flash of the 24/7 Urban Ballet is visible from here

It is, by far, the best seat in the house

The bench falls somewhere on our journey as we leave home

A red breasted robin settles on the backrest as he goes about his morning routine, stopping to survey his kingdom

The pregnant mum who perches to rest, through to the long-married couple who reminisce about life…to the plaque that honours their presence.

Babies are conceived here.

Life is taken away here.

It sees everything

The secrets that are never shared

Holding every tale, never revealing the truth

The scene of merry hellos and heart-breaking goodbyes

New mums unite and share their anecdotes of both the joy and the despair of parenthood

The toddlers first tantrum

Teenage gangs hold court in their mission control

The first glance

The first kiss

The last kiss

The broken heart

The mourning of loss

Truths revealed

Lies concocted

A place to be private, in public

A spot for solitude

A social gathering

The empty bag of Frazzles that is tightly folded and tucked amongst the slats

The place to create

lans are hatched

Ideas are born

‘Dean woz ere 96’, inscribed with his makeshift knife, adorns the armrest.

‘Fuck U Dean’ is etched in just beneath

Memories are made

A theatre where free performances are laid on, 24/7

Judgements are passed

The world is put to rights

Laughter rings out

Canoodling couples

Giggling girls

Lost travellers

New insights and perspectives gained.

The pause between places - the moment of rest within a liminal space.

A space between the notes.

Where we stop to offload the burdens of life

Where we can survey; the world outside and the world inside

A place to dwell

A bijou space in the melee of the metropolis where it is acceptable to do nothing, to consume nothing, to just be

The modest bench doesn’t turn anyone away

It is someone’s home

Somewhere we can catch our breath

Somewhere where the final breath is taken

The bench will contain whatever it is offered

It is both the auditorium and the stage of life

It holds every guest with the same firmness; supportive, unconditional

The place we pass as we journey home

Life, death, and everything in between…

The humble bench sees it all.

 

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