Tuesday 11 August 2015

Civil Celebrancy and Me (2) | Writing, Reading and . . .

As I suggested in my most recent Blog entry writing (of various sorts) has helped me to make connections between my own life and that of others. Laurel Richardson turned to life writing following a car accident. She wrote:

Although I could not bring into speech what was happening in my head, I found that I could write about it. If I could not find the word I wanted, I could write its first letter or leave a blank space. In writing, the pace and the issues were my own . . . Writing allowed me to record little thoughts, to revisit them and fill in the blanks, to piece them together, thought-by-thought. Writing gave me a feeling of control over time and space, and a faith that I would recover. Writing was the method through which I constituted the world and reconstituted myself. Writing became my principle tool through which I learned about myself and the world. I wrote so I would have a life. Writing was and is how I come to know. (Richardson 2001: 33 original emphasis)

When I discovered sociology in the late 1980s I was aware of the auto/biographical power of the discipline although was unable to articulate this then as I am now, not least to agree with Irene Karpiak (2010: 47) who argues that auto/biographical writing is one way in which ‘adults can come to enlarge their perspective on themselves and others, and even to heal’. As such it represents, as Paul Eakin (2008: 148) suggests ‘the art of the future’: a prospect of what might still be ahead as possible and worthwhile.

In recent years my writing has moved beyond the academic. Here is a piece of auto/biographically informed ‘fiction’ (which I write in single quotation marks to highlight the fact that fiction draws on fact, just as fact often/always contains an element of fiction) that I wrote following my husband John’s death in 2010.

Thank You For The Days

The birth was hard, mirroring the effort to conceive. Reporters waited outside to take snaps of babies born on the first day of the year. They went away disgruntled. He was born 20 minutes after midnight on the 2nd. It was a Monday.

Although raised in the Jewish faith the boy’s parents were practicing atheists. Yet, they wanted to mark the birth of their longed for child, to share their joy. The baby naming took place on the second Tuesday in May.

The child grew happy and strong and weathered all of the usual childhood ailments and adventures. School and university a challenge he embraced. On a gap year, before full-time responsibilities began, his marriage took place on an Australian beach. Some called it a shotgun event but the bride and groom were blissfully happy. They exchanged rings at midday on a Wednesday in December. 

Years passed, the man worked hard, the next generation grew up and the usual ups and downs of a life-course took place. He was happy but sometimes tired. After a long day at work or an exhausting family outing he’d pour himself a beer or a whisky. They’d drink wine with their meal, followed by a nightcap. He never kicked the 20-a-day habit he picked up on his travels. First he noticed a change in his gum at the back of his mouth. Soon it became uncomfortable to chew. He told the dentist at a Thursday appointment. 

Radiotherapy lasted three months. He felt lucky he’d avoided an operation. There was only a 50/50 chance of survival to five years but he approached this as optimistically as he had the rest of his life. He dressed smartly for his first appointment and chatted and laughed with his wife on the way. She waited while he went for his treatment, glancing at, but not taking in, the news and gossip in Friday’s newspaper.

On his deathbed he reviewed his life. It had been a good one. He’d even got his five years following the cancer diagnosis but now it was his time. He squeezed his wife’s hand and smiled. Elsewhere in the ward a radio was playing, he could hear Big Ben chime in Saturday morning.  

The funeral celebrant was thorough. She captured the man and many tears were shed during the eulogy. An old friend and one of the man’s children retold anecdotes that made everyone laugh. Favourite songs were played. A cremation followed.  A smaller group – immediate family and close friends - assembled later to bury the ashes under the tree at the bottom of his beloved garden. A few words were said, a few more tears wiped away. His wife led the way back to the house for Sunday lunch.
63 Years Earlier: As the pregnancy is confirmed Rachel and Ethan Grundy wonder what their child’s life will be like. They’ve already chosen names. If it’s a girl Sarah and for a boy Solomon is a good, strong name. . . 

Reading, as well as writing, has helped me significantly in my own grief journey(s). In a novel I read shortly after my mum died I found a reference to a poem called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, the last three lines of which are:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
           Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one                          wild and precious life?

For me training to become a Civil Celebrant was one of the things I felt that I needed to do with my life.  More of this next time . . .


Eakin, P. J. (2008) Living autobiographically. How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Karpiak, I. (2010) After life review: Autobiography as ‘art of the future’. Studies in Continuing Education, 32(1)

Oliver, M. (1990) ‘The Summer Day’ The House Light Beacon Press: Boston

Richardson, L. (2001) ‘Getting Personal: writing-stories’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14(1)

Saturday 1 August 2015

Civil Celebrancy and Me (1) | Identity, Disruption, Reorganisation, Retreats [For You]

I appreciate that this Blog has something of an identity crisis. On first sight it may appear to be an advertising/marketing tool for Arwenack Celebrants, on further reading some might view it as a (sociological) reflection on civil celebrancy, and yet others may read it as a grief memoir. It is of course all of these things because ultimately every text we produce is in some ways an auto/biographical endeavour involving not only intersections of the lives of those who write and those who are written about but also insights into the writer’s own history, interests and values.

My adult life has been peppered by experiences that following Michael Bury (1982) we might call ‘biographical disruption’. Bury’s analysis related to chronic ill-health which others have engaged with and extended to include bereavement, unemployment and other losses. Biographical disruption results in ‘the structures of everyday life and the forms of knowledge which underpin them’ being disrupted, if only for a time (Bury ibid). With reference specifically to death and bereavement:  my dad died when I was 20, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid-20s, my second husband died five years ago when I was in my very early 50s and three and a half years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these (and other difficult) experiences, my mum, died. In addition, other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that I have had my fair share of loss and that I have become something of an expert in bereavement and grief, which includes, but is not limited to, what Robert Howell (2013) describes as the ‘significant reorganisation of one’s sense of self, for better or worse’ following the death of a significant other(s).

Unable to continue my job as a nursery nurse following my miscarriage I looked for something to fill my time with an A Level in Sociology helping to do this. I didn’t stop at an A Level and during my undergraduate degree, my doctorate, my 21 years of full time teaching and research and now my freelance sociological activities (undertaken alongside my work as a Civil Celebrant and my Blog and fiction writing) I have been conscious that not only did an experience of loss bring me to sociology but that sociology has been significant in the way that I ‘do’ grief and bereavement. So, my engagement with sociology has not only helped to shape my identity and influenced my experience of important life events and experiences but it’s also given me a language to articulate my feelings and reflections with reference to myself and others.
I am writing this – the first in a series of entries on my route to and particular engagement with civil celebrancy (and this Blog) – during my eighth or ninth stay (I’ve lost count) at Retreats For You http://www.retreatsforyou.co.uk/. Here is an extract from something I wrote following my second visit early in 2013:

My Retreats For You Desk
I am in Sheepwash, North Devon at Retreats For You . . .  I'm attempting to write a novel (a little revelation here) and like other writers of all sorts I find the welcome, warmth and supportive atmosphere here both stimulates and challenges me. . . . Deborah Dooley and Bob Cooper who run the retreat are looking after me, and providing me (in their effortless way) with good food, good company and lots of time to myself when I want it. It's late February and very cold. . . . [before going out for a walk I] look in the mirror and there she is, my mum  - my Dorothy - looking back at me. I am shocked but pleased and I take of my glasses (which I need for long but not short distance vision) to get a better look. It's the way the hat frames my face that highlights the features I've inherited from my mother. I'm usually compared to my father in looks. She's always with me, in my head and my heart. Now I see her in my face as well (Letherby 2015).

To be continued . . . 

Bury, M. (1982) ‘Chronic Illness as Biographical Disruption’ Sociology of Health and Illness 13

Howell, R. (2013) ‘I’m Not the Man I was: reflections on becoming a widower’ Illness, Crisis and Loss 21(1)

Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2)