On balance

18th century silk shoe
18th century silk shoe

Term 7

The pleated oak panelling on the walls of the Linenfold Parlour disappeared from view as I wedged on the heavy virtual reality headset, took hold of my high-tech walking stick and departed for Anxiety Island.  I was visiting the Footnotes exhibition as part of London Craft Week and Dutch designer Eelko Moorer wanted to test my stability in three virtual scenarios.  A number of research studies have shown the effect of Alexander Technique on balance, so I was curious to see what mine is now like.

Four artists, including Moorer, have responded to footwear from the London College of Fashion archives. The shoes are displayed at Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor townhouse in east London, now run by the National Trust.  Oak linenfold panelling, Sutton House

The exhibition theme in the Linenfold Parlour was Balance, hence Moorer’s involvement, with his inspiration being five shiny black leather orthopaedic shoes selected from the archive. According to the Footnotes catalogue:

“In his work there is an underlying preoccupation with balance, often taken to extremes through his focus on the psychological and physical impact that objects can have upon the human form.”

Headset on and guided by a fashion student following my virtual reality trip on a separate screen, I moved in jump-cuts towards a busy outdoor plaza as a computer-generated crowd criss-crossed around me. Many people find this disconcerting and scream. But I was calm and stable on my feet, not worried about being jostled or knocked over.

Next my guide directed me to a narrow gap in a towering black wall. Standing on the threshold I noticed virtual spiders, from tiny to giant, crawling over the floor and walls to a rhythmic soundtrack of lightly clicking arachnid feet.  My heartbeat and breathing were steady but I declined the invitation to enter, calm but not quite ready to embrace the full spider experience.

The final destination was an outdoor space where suddenly the floor ahead dropped away, leaving a gaping hole and darkness below.  I stood happily, seeing clearly through the headset that there was no ground beneath me as I looked down, but completely aware that my real feet were firmly planted on wooden floorboards and I was in no danger.  After I’d taken the headset off my student guide thanked me for undergoing the experience, as not all visitors are up for it. At the same time she seemed disappointed it hadn’t unnerved me as much as she’d anticipated.

I, on the other hand, was cheered by ten minutes with the headset.  It showed that I’m living more fully in my body than before starting Alexander work and have a more co-ordinated and accurate sense of where I am in space. I hadn’t been drawn in to the virtual reality landscape but stayed calm and grounded without going off balance.  I’d given myself time at each stage rather than feeling rushed or disorientated by the changing visual cues. For me these are huge steps in improved proprioception, integrated body use and balance, and responding to the unknown.

Exploring the rest of the exhibition, I appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of faded silk and worn leather, even though I can no longer wear narrow shoes with pointed toes. ” It’s not you, it’s me” I whispered through the glass of each display case. My toes are opening out, I’m putting my best spreading feet forward and I definitely need more space.

Woman's silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman’s silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman's silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman’s silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman's silk ankle boot, 1850s
Woman’s silk ankle boot, 1850s
Leather women's ankle boots, c 1870
Leather women’s ankle boots, c 1870
Leather woman's puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Leather woman’s puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Woman's leather boot 1880
Woman’s leather boot, 1880
Shoe tree for a military thigh boot, 1850
Shoe tree inside a military thigh boot, 1850
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10

 

 

 

 

 

Letting go

Signpost showing different levels Term 7

This week my voice changed.  Reading aloud in class I noticed easier breathing and a richer resonance coming from a deeper place inside me. It’s taken a long time as muscle tension has only slowly undone and responded to Alexander work.

I welcomed it on Tuesday, but sometimes this muscle release has been awkward, as if I’m going through a second adolescence.  At these points my usual way of being no longer fits, brain and limbs don’t mesh and nothing works. I can’t move as I did before but haven’t yet found a replacement.  After sitting it out in teenage limbo for a while something shifts, new connections form and a different me starts to emerge. Like a breaking voice it’s unpredictable, but gradually I gain in confidence, the old pattern fades and I learn to trust my new self.

A second level of mental letting go comes as part and parcel of the new physical freedom.  I’ve found new patterns of thinking emerging, unstoppable and fresh like blossom after the cold contraction of winter.  I’m becoming more open and lively in all aspects of myself with less need to hold on to the safe ground of what I know. Spring blossom, France

In the wake of this has come the capacity, gently at first, to let go even more deeply. Life changes on a broader scale, inconceivable a few years ago, become a glint in the eye. From being desirable they slowly seem manageable then after a while inevitable.  Greater awareness, clarity and vitality are beginning to make profound change possible.

I’ve just let go of something important and long-standing in my life.  For 35 years I’ve had a share of a small piece of land with an old stone cottage set into a steep wooded hillside in rural France –  an antidote to London living and holding deep-rooted memories for me and family and friends. It’s been a formative, long-term and joint project with others. But now we’ve signed the papers and handed over the keys.

Before I left I laid my hands on the once yellow cornerstone where long ago an unknown mason had painstakingly carved two distinguishing marks, perhaps to ensure payment for his work. I passed the care of the traditional stone bread oven over to its resident adder, knowing I would never now fire it up and bake. I visited the small pool of spring water below the house where the wild boar come to wallow in the mud, snorting their way through woodland at dusk, heard but rarely seen. I lay one last time in the hammock, lizards rustling in the leaves below and the oak and hornbeam holding me swaying in the late afternoon breeze as the cuckoo song echoed down the valley. Oak and hornbeam from below

Letting go at any of these levels has been emotional and uncomfortable and I’ve needed energy, courage and time. It’s been a multi-layered process and will continue in other forms long after the end of my training. I feel loss and sadness for what I’ve left behind, but I’m relieved and lighter, intrigued about what comes next.  The patterns and places of the past have served their purpose but they’re no longer what I need to move freely into the future.

Bories (stone shepherds’ huts) and lavoirs (communal washing places) in south-west France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

 

Growing up

Peacock umbrella at Kew GardensTerm 6

In the dog days of winter I long for colour and warmth, and the place for both is at the annual Orchid Festival in Kew Gardens.  On a grey and rainy day I made my way to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was toasty, welcoming and packed with vibrant Thai-themed displays. Walkways and stepped paths led through a multi-coloured indoor pleasure garden, hung with delicate umbrellas, flowered archways, evocative animal scenes and stunning floral arrangements.   Avoiding selfie takers, family groups and the Room of Carnivorous Plants, I bathed in the tropical temperature and soaked up the bright hues, chasing away my late-winter blues.

Temple Kew Orchid Festival

Orchids in barrow at Kew

orchid arch at Kew

Thai umbrellas at Kew

After a while I became aware of the detail of the blooming orchids  – delicate gradations of pattern and colour blending with curved petals to form captivating shapes, almost symmetrical and yet not quite, each one individual.  And in amongst the foliage were gardeners carefully watering, monitoring and nurturing the plants, ensuring those in bloom stayed at their best, and the ones yet to emerge had the right conditions to flourish during the short life of the festival. orchids in close up

orchid petals

pale yellow orchids

As I continued my eye was drawn away from the gaudy flowers and towards the less showy leaves of the resident plants that thrive in the conservatory all year round.  In the past I wouldn’t have paid these much attention.  But now their spreading and flexible surfaces remind me of the way I’m uncurling and opening out as I get deeper into my training.  I see the anatomical everywhere and noticed in the leaves their long spines and ribs with a sense of openness and space, mirroring what’s happening within me.  They seemed firmly planted yet free to expand upwards and outwards towards the light, not bursting with colour like the orchids, but with a clear and strong presence in the conservatory.

large leaves

leaf

leaf

Leaves

In a way the process of training is like being a plant tended by thoughtful gardeners.  It’s no hothouse after quick results, but a warm and safe environment for three years, encouraging curiosity, exploration and growth. Teachers notice our clinging habits, and encourage us to let go and send roots into more nourishing ground.  Their hands and words guide wayward spines and limbs into a more dynamic and integrated shape. With daily attention they gently provide what we need to send us upwards, strong, light and open, firmly rooted but flexible.

Soon an outside Alexander gardener -our external moderator – will come to check me over. She visits twice, now towards the end of my second year and once more during my final term.  This time she’ll want to see how I’m progressing, whether I’m fully embedded in Alexander soil and how I need to develop over the coming year to bring me into bloom at the right time. Two years have passed since I started my training and it’s a year since I began this blog. Slowly but surely I’m growing up.

Kew red flowers

Kew red flower

Umbrella with orchids

Water buffalo at Kew

Flower lizard at Kew Gardens

Kew orchid festival

Flowers at Kew