How can hand-written letters help you flourish?

Over the last six years I have become a leader in the arts&health field of therapeutic letter writing. I began my breath project with a Tedx talk in 2014: The Lost Art of Letter Writing. I didn’t know at that point that I was going to develop my work in the direction of health and well-being – or being part of a movement to help people flourish through art and creativity.

One afternoon, I presented further ideas about using letters in participatory art projects to Lead Investigator of Life of Breath Project, Professor Havi Carel and her team, (at University of Bristol). I was then delighted to be invited to take part in The Wellcome Trust funded Life of Breath Project. Adapting ideas to the values and needs of the project, this became Letter to my Breath. 

Over the first two years, I ran over 10 “Letter to my breath” workshops along with Dr Alice Malpass, and produced Being Human Festival event Gasp! Exploring Breath Through Creative Arts at The Arnolfini, and other community events. These all contributed to Life of Breath winning the 2018 Health Humanities Award.

This work has manifested further in a number of forms and I have played these roles:

Co-writer of articles    Penny, E., & Malpass, A. (2019). Dear Breath: using story structure to understand the value of letter writing for those living with breathlessness–a qualitative study. Arts & health, 1-15. Read

Malpass, A., & Penny, E. (2019). Invisible Breath. Storytelling, Self, Society, 15(1), 43-70.

Provocations/speaker/workshop leader:

2020 February SWSAPC workshop:  Telling Stories About Breathlessness Hosted by The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol, the South West regional meeting of the Society for Academic Primary Care (SAPC).

2020, Our work was presented at The Conference on College Composition and Communication, the largest gathering of college writing faculty in the US via Beth Boquet, Professor of English Director, The Writing Center.

2019 Provocation at Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance: Cultures of breathlessness: using creative letters to the breath to navigate narrative wreckage.

2019 June.  Workshop at Storytelling Conference Swansea: Breathlessness as narrative wreckage: helping patients locate themselves within their own treatment narrative and helping GPs to engage their clinical imagination.

My work with Life of Breath took another direction in 2019-20 and I worked part time as a Consultant for Exhibition and events programme for Catch Your Breath exhibition for the project. Our team coordinated, commissioned, curated and arranged exhibitions, events and a workshop programme. We invited new and diverse audiences to encounter a collaborative multi-sensory, interdisciplinary, participatory exploration of breath. We held events in diverse locations across Bristol.

My Letter to the Breath project has also inspired two pieces of art: Louise Jenkins’ ‘Breath Capsules’ and Toby Young’s choral piece ‘Under The Surface’. And the letters themselves have been displayed at multiple venues and online.

Here are some of my blog posts about the project:

https://lifeofbreath.org/2019/07/catch-your-breath-puppetry-dance-and-creative-writing
https://lifeofbreath.org/2018/11/letter-to-my-breath-at-fun-palaces-bristol
https://lifeofbreath.org/2018/01/gasp-making-breathlessness-less-invisible-through-the-creative-arts.
https://wp.me/p2Dje8-aS Letter to my Lungs 2016

I have explored writing/creating letters to various aspects of ourselves, (ie not just breath) and have tried them in various pilot projects, (including adaptations to take into consideration vulnerable participants) and one evaluation project, as below.

 Letter to my emotions: Commissioned by EHCAP, then Life of Breath, I developed workshops in Dunster Primary school, then led an innovative a puppetry, dance and creative writing workshop about emotions and the breath in three Bristol primary schools, including Glenfrome and St Werburghs.

Letter to my grandchild: I created and ran workshops at 65 High Street, for Nailsea Town Council in 2017: 14 older people learned ipad skills and story-telling skills and made their own photo books and presented them at a Christmas party.

Letter to my Inner Superhero: as part of an evaluation project for social prescribing at For All Healthy Living centre, Weston Super Mare (commissioned by Theatre Orchard and Arts and Health South West). This is an ongoing project over 2 years.

I also wanted to discover what would happen if I tried writing the letters each day, rather than just a one-off workshop. I tried this out at an Arts Residency at The Mothership, Dorset, along with my 16 year old son Bede. We presented our Work in progress and listened to stories and responses over a fire dish to artist’s collective, Force 8.

As a result of this, I am creating and piloting an online multimedia course called ‘Your Creative Sparkle.’ which is a forum for creativity and curiosity, for art and creative writing, a love letter to the self and uses my letter writing/creating techniques to help people through transition. I’ve also created a free online course for children age 10-12 and their parents to do together, called Write Without Rules, with help from Arts Council England.

I’m proud that my letter project has both continued to teach me, and has benefited many people: by listening to what people need and organising a workshop to reflect that, the letter have provided a platform for people to be listened to, and for them to listen to themselves.

To sign up to my newsletter, including information about my courses, please do so here:

https://2bu-production.ck.page/2c01bcb718

My 2BU newsletter for February 2020

Happy February everyone. I’d love you to read my latest newsletter:

https://mailchi.mp/7dfef02d559c/a-new-newsletter-from-elspeth-penny-im-just-saying

Havi Carel and her team are working together to find new ways of answering questions about breathing and breathlessness and their relationship to both illness and wellbeing. Life of Breath is a five year research project funded by Wellcome. It is led jointly by Prof Jane Macnaughton (Durham University) and Prof Havi Carel (University of Bristol).

Catch Your Breath Exhibition and events, Winter 2019-20

It’s been busy and exciting being part time Exhibition and events Consultant for the Life of Breath Project’s Catch Your Breath end exhibition, working alongside an awesome team of people. We’re half way through our programme. Here I am at the launch at Southmead hospital, Bristol, UK, photo courtesy of Wellcome Trust.
The exhibition is now moving from Southmead hospital to Bristol Central Library (I’m excited about our new central Bristol location), but if you’d like to see a virtual walk around the exhibition from the comfort of your sofa, take a look…  https://catchyourbreath.org/bristol-virtual-exhibition The exhibition kicked off with a series of wonderful events in Bristol before Christmas:  https://catchyourbreath.org/catch-your-breath-moves-to-bristol/ … what a feast…. highlights for me were the Rap workshop with Mandeep Singh and Puppetry workshop with Chris Pirie.Catch Your Breath 2019 events programme (Bristol).jpg To see an account of two of my recent workshops as part of the workshop programme, see https://catchyourbreath.org/writing-letters-to-your-breath So what’s coming up now? Here’s our new programme. Book in and we’ll see you there! CyB A5 Events Leaflet (Bristol 2020).jpg

Innovation in schools using Puppetry, Dance and Creative Writing

I wrote this blog post for Bristol Life of Breath Project, so am now posting it here. I’m very proud of the work that a group of us did in primary schools in early 2019. I’m using some of the ideas we experimented with in some new workshops I’m devising for GP Dr Sarah Temple and her company Ehcap. Her work on emotion coaching for parents and children helps a great deal of people and I’m proud to be part of the development of this too.

Catch Your Breath: Puppetry, Dance and Creative Writing

“Think young and keep smiling”

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Panel on Aging, 2nd February 2018

Dagmar Wilhelm @UWE invited me to run a panel on Aging at her conference Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination at The Watershed. Hazel Winter performed some of her poems, “Menopause”, “My hair is thinning at the front”, and “Facing up to 50” from her book, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’, and in doing so adding some rock and roll to the panel. Dr Joanna Cross delivered a fascinating talk, looking at the theme from her perspective as Gerontologist. I loved Jo’s observations about ‘extra-normative’ women Christine Keeler and fictional character Edna in Sandford’s play “Edna the Inebriate Woman” (Sandford is known well for authoring ‘Cathy Come Home’ directed by Ken Loach).

In my own investigation (so far) of getting older, of aging, of grappling hormonal changes, navigating a divorce and having a 50th birthday, I’ve found a seam of creativity – I’ve been writing and creating a lot of work, which has been helpful to me. This includes the first draft of a graphic novel, and before that the play Silva Lining’s Care Plan, which is based on real carer diaries and addresses what care, especially of the elderly, really is.

Elderly. Elder… ok so what’s this idea of being an elder… when does that happen? Does initiation into it have to be rocky and tricky?

Should we just ‘think young and keep smiling’ as a woman in a café recommended me last week?

In the words of Sharon Blackie who writes in her book ‘If Women Rose Rooted”

“Becoming elder begins at menopause, an entire journey all of its own: a biological, spiritual and emotional rite of passage whose impact is often underrated. Menopause is not a medical condition, it is an earthquake, shaking us to our deepest foundations, wiping out the edifices we’ve so carefully constructed on what we once imagined to be the solid ground of our life. Menopause hacks us open….

The relinquishing of identification with fertility, youth, and motherhood… entails a time of deep grieving.  Sometimes we clutch to all that is vanishing, unable or unwilling to learn to love our beautiful silver or white hair, to live comfortably with our new wrinkles…. Sometimes we refuse it, postponing the inevitable with hormone therapy and hair dye; It seems like the harshest and loneliest of all lessons, in this society where elderhood is so little valued.”

So I ask the question:

  • Is there a safe place to remove masks and be vulnerable enough to talk about these changes? Quick answer: I am in a private Facebook group with old university friends, which does provide this in part.
  • My second question – is there a way to reclaim the place of elder in our society?

One idea…

Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, @peacedirect and Oxford Research Group founder, Scilla Elworthy says – “Post-menopausal energy emerges when we suddenly become invisible… it was incredibly liberating. Your energy becomes your own instead of thinking all the time about who is looking at you, who might desire you.’

She also talks about Wrath. “Wrath is different from rage… it carries an urgent instruction about what needs to happen.”. There can be much power in the wrath of an elder. She talks of how ‘Elderhood is a huge under tapped resource’.

One of the things I did in the panel was invite people to write a letter to their ‘getting older selves’. Quite a few people read their letters out and some were feeling more private, which was fine too. I always love hearing what people have created and what they might have realised about themselves in sessions like this. One UWE lecturer said she would like to use a similar exercise with her students. She called the exercise disruptive – in a positive way. I take that as a big complement.

Thanks to Dagmar, Hazel, Jo, and thanks to our audience, for listening and contributing to the session.

 

Hazel Winter Hazel has spent 30 years playing in guitar bands including Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes and has released four critically acclaimed solo albums on her own Death Row Bride label. She has been produced by John Parish and Adrian Utley (Portishead), and has played in Utley’s guitar orchestra with conductor Charles Hazelwood. Hazel is going to perform from her first book of poetry, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’ .

Dr Joanna Cross moved to Somerset in 2000 to look after her mother who had vascular dementia, and studied at the same time after working as a drama teacher in East London. She has a doctorate in Gerontology  (“Truth to the Materiality of Later Life:  the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People” 2015). Her current aspiration is to develop new ways of understanding and communicating respect for cultural diversity in later life via the performing arts. She is an equity member and did work for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. 

Elspeth Penny is a theatre/arts and health practitioner with www2buproductions.org. Recently funded by Arts Council England, she wrote and directed Silva Lining’s Care Plan, a play about carers and dementia, a collaboration with University of Nottingham. She runs many arts and health projects with organisations such as Somerset County Council, Nailsea Town Council (Letter to My Grandchild), schools, WECIL and Life of Breath project www.lifeofbreath.org. She is currently creating an online course exploring identity and change, particularly in that ‘getting older’ space.

Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination. A conference in conjunction with a performance of “Woman One” a monologue bsed on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Monologue”With the kind support of Hypatia (the Hypatia Diversity Project Grant) and Social Science in the City, UWE.

Photo by Miguel from Social Science in the City.

Arts residency at The Mothership

My 16 year-old son and I were invited by Anna Best to do an arts residency at The Mothership in Dorset at the end of October 2018.  This is an account of that week.

We know that we will be doing some work together.  We don’t know what we’ll be exploring exactly, and we’re given the freedom to not know. No result is expected – this is luxurious, even decadent, in the best possible way. We’re both at periods of life where there is transformation and change. He will leave home soon, maybe next year, maybe in two years, so I will be looking at what this means to me. I know I want to go deep into whatever I explore.

Practicalities first. We are staying in a studio overlooking a giant oak.

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Anna’s beans are drying on one of the shelves:

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We have a compost loo which we’ll share with other people, there is no internet. Chris is next door with Simone the dog.  We have a vast landscape to wonder in, including a disused railway line. Bridport is 20 minutes drive away and there’s everything we need there, including food shops, pubs and cafes. I’ve brought most of what we need anyway. There are other rural local produce shops and pubs nearby, and it’s not so far from the sea. I pour over maps to get my bearings as I don’t know the area at all. We are near Powerstock, not far from Bridport, and oddly close to places we used to go when we lived in Devon, such as Lyme Regis.

We will present our work at a showing for Force 8 on Friday, 5 days into our residency.  http://force8.org is  “a creative collective of artists, writers, designers and musicians founded by Anna Best and Hester Schofield in 2016 to promote a culture of thinking  and progressive dialogue through contemporary art that will inspire people in Bridport and the surrounding area.”

Where to start? There are many resources available to us: Resource 1. we have brought books. Some are his choice, some are mine.IMG_6998

Resource 2: a random selection of materials. The combination of them is in itself of interest to me. I’ve brought wood cutting tools, paper, inks made out of soil, he’s got threads, wool, knitting needles, an antique wooden milk crate full of materials including paints.

Resource 3: there is a lot of extraordinary nature outside, so our palette is full and there are endless textures and colours to find.

 

Resource 4: In our application for the residency, we started from a statement that Bede attributed to Plato –  “Inside everything, there is a perfect form“ which I think he picked up from studying Ethics and Philosophy. Another way of putting this is that everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect form.

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Resource 5: In the summer we were in North Wales and my mother, sister, cousin, my children and I had walked to the beach for a swim. On the walk down, Bede made me a boat to hurl away into the sea, as it was my birthday.  It was rainy and cold and it was the perfect thing to do. I have brought the photo of this.

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Resource 6. Making letters to an aspect of self is my thing…. so I would like to do this. Writing letters to the breath every day makes it easier to catch the journey of the week in the writing – they  somehow catch the nub of each day. They give the whole thing a slow paced rhythmic quality.

The first thing I do is ditch any idea of a plan, or a list or any tightening around my waist. I do keep looking out to check Bede is ok though….

Watching your mother go into a deep creative zone in an almost off grid rural location and having no-one else about isn’t every son’s dream. And you might be amazed he actually came at all. Well so am I, and it isn’t all smooth…

“How long are we here for?” he says on day 2, impatiently.

“Seven days” I say.

“But what exactly are we doing here?”

“Making things, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Just making art. You know that. You wanted to come!”

” I don’t want to do an arts project, he says. I want to be at home.”DSC_0459

And there was the ‘You’re so deep mum’. It wasn’t a complement.

‘Yes, I am.’ I say, simply and get on with sewing fragments of text onto a piece of paper.

After that he settles in, or just gives in and finds what this is about for him. Unstructured time, un-led… no one is telling us what to do and there really aren’t many people around… all this is fine. It’s such a contrast to the stitched up quality and quantity of time in the rest of life… school, jobs, volunteering, walks, Duke of Edinburgh, Ten Tors, and so on. There is certainly no manual of how to go about making a piece of work here. Physically and in atmosphere, the place is remarkably like the farm we were lucky to be able to live on in mid Devon for eight years, before we moved to North Somerset.

I offer to give him structure, which he refuses, but I throw out a few lines in case he wanted to catch them. Such as a quote I’d been told at a wedding the day before we’d left. “When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.” This goes down surprisingly well.

DSC_0462But if we’re open to noticing the perfect form of everything, then which parts of what we encounter will get sketched onto my notepad, or scratched into something he is making? What form will we use to pull it into a piece of work? Will we even make a piece of work together?

The time we have at The Mothership is during the week of the end of October, our Halloween; this was once seen as the thirteenth month. I read about October and November in Ian Siddons Heginworth’s book ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth.’ I read slowly as I like to let the thoughts of writers that I like seep through me, not just over me… though perhaps I’m just slow, and it’s my way of justifying it. His words make more sense to me whilst in this landscape than they would have done at home. You might say they enter me as much as the surroundings, the elements, the fierce winds on our last night there.

We don’t garden as we’d thought we would, so it is more about the landscape, the stories, the fire, the materials we find in these places. We visit the sea and the fossil cliffs.

 

We have walks in the forest next to the house,  alone and together in various changing lights.

”I’m blowing through the elder” he says. ‘It’s pithy inside. You can easily remove the pith”. He’s carved out holes and blows the top, I hear it make a trembling airy sound. Then he shaves a bit more, and the sound disappears. That’s perfect, I think. It’s a silent recorder. And just then steam shoots out of a log.”

Everyone who walks into the space or we come upon becomes part of the work. The stories of everyone who we talk to, influence us or are woven in. The theme seems to be around cuts, threads, sewing up, tracks, circles. A saying goodbye, and a what next? Quite often words elude me, and I confuse words with others – he’s quick to point it out. That’s creative brain at work. He’s got to write an application to a school. It irritates me to have to get that bit of my brain out (the left hemisphere), but of course I’m going to help. I don’t want him to leave home just yet, yet if that’s what he needs, that must happen. We go to an internet cafe to do it.

So in the end how do you choose the right thing to put into this grand sketch of a mother-son moment in time, and what to leave out? Perspective is necessary, to distinguish between the irrelevant details and if no-one else is there to do it, eg a dramaturg, a work partner, it takes longer. I’m already making excuses for the unformed quality of my work. Yet there’s a joy in staying as free in ideas as possible for as long as possible. On Thursday night, I  start to create something in script form. I am still pulling threads together when Hester and Anna arrive at 5 pm on Friday for the showing. Bede has lit a fire dish outside.

I haven’t expected it, but the making of objects, the formation of ideas, our creative journey becomes the main thread of the script. There is also something emerging about rising to the challenge of being an elder, in spite of not really wanting to be.

The showing

A fire dish. Stories. Everyone who is there tells a story, each one brings something new to the circle.

This is Bede’s story, though it’s changed and refined and perhaps got both more factually accurate and more poetic in retellings since. ‘If you cast your eye across the bay towards Plymouth, you can see Eddystone Lighthouse. Eddystone built his lighthouse out of wood and glass, and to show off how well built it, he decided to sleep over inside it, for the first night it after it was completed.  And that night a great storm came, an unlikely storm, and swept it all away, and him with it. So I was on the sea, on the way to France, thinking of this story. I looked out of the horizon and I could see the world was round. You can’t get that perspective on land. We can make the land straight by building railways, but the sea will always be round. Railways were built across America, they cut off Buffalo paths. We westerners build roads, square buildings, straight lines…”

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Bede also shows what he made… the silent elder recorder. A bamboo pen. A mini church door.  A book bound in leather and filled with painted images: the images illustrate cell division. A thick knitted something which ‘has not become anything yet’, but then becomes a circle, a cowl. He tells a story around a fire dish. He composes a song.

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I make a series of letters, in ink and red thread. Seven stories joined by breaths, stitches, insults, home truths. I then write a 24 minute script which is finding what it is.

What does Bede think about what we have made? He likes the fires and the stories but he doesn’t want to hear what I have written. Of course. But he doesn’t mind I’ve written it.

What do I think of what we have made? Perhaps I have made something out of the extraordinary ordinary – this place, the occasion, just having a week to play with. Or even something ordinary extraordinary? I like it when Anna says the studio looks like we’ve been living there for weeks – I suppose we have let ourselves get pretty messy at times. I hope I have not been sentimental, and I hope it gets people feeling something, but know I’ll need to do a lot of cutting.

When I read my words, I see that my metaphors are thick and deep, where as Bede’s thoughts are so clear, even if not simple. Does this make him a better artist than me?  I know the detail can confuse the whole, and I need time to work out which is which.

What medium should this writing end up as, I ask at the showing. I’m not so sure yet. Theatre? Radio? Novellette? Long poem? Hester suggests it’s radio, it’s so internal. “You really need to stop and listen to the words, the words are enough in themselves.” I agree, and think that the character called Time could blossom if on radio. Hester sees it as a working through, an interpretation of a dream, or the unconscious, through referencing the every day. Anna says that though some of the references are familiar (she’s lived her for some time, and visited since a child), that this doesn’t make it dull. Knowing a place for years, seeing it through seasons and periods of life, seeing the same thing again and again just makes it richer, deeper, and hearing about it from different perspectives is part of that depth.

Yes – life gives everything we need.  When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.

I ask Hester and Anna to create their own letters to the breath which they do, speedily. I hang them next to my letters, at the window overlooking the oak tree.

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Then they tell their own stories beside the fire. Both pick up on themes and leave something new to this story. We blow breaths to each other and receive them back and then go back to our lives.

This whole thing is a walk through something, the 13thmonth, a ritual, a song.  It feels as though it touched something honest and true, but I can’t yet understand it  – how could I?

I look up my notes of a workshop I went to the week before the residency, about building your dream idea. One of the exercises is a visualisation. I read my account of the visualisation – my vision if you like: it’s about a tall lighthouse by the sea, I am at the top of it talking to a big crowd, helping millions of them see differently. Let’s hope that vision doesn’t get dashed into the sea, I’ll have to build it with better materials than Eddyson used.

My youngest son comes for the last day, after his trip to London where he spent time with my mother. He’s been to the holocaust exhibition at The Imperial War Museum and played Fortnight with his cousin. I encourage him to create something. This is what he makes: IMG_6979

“So for now the cycle is ending…. Down by the water’s edge, our ship awaits” writes Ian Siddons Heginworth

Thank you to:

The Mothership and Anna

Bede

Iris

Ian Siddons Heginworth; Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth’

Hester, for recommending ‘If Women Rose Rooted: A journey to Authenticity and Belonging’ by Sharon Blackie, which I’ve been reading since.

Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannia

Christopher Hammond

Serena Inskip

The Viking I met at Adele and Nic’s wedding.

Eggardon Hill, which we could see each day, and our friends at 3CaneWhale whose beautiful song ‘Eggardon Hill’, sent little ripples to us throughout the week.

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What people are saying about Silva Lining’s Care Plan

Silva Lining’s Care Plan…. Three brains, two bodies, one secret plan: an absurd journey into the invisible world of carers. Written and directed by Elspeth Penny

See Silva Lining’s Care Plan trailer

Developed in collaboration with University of Nottingham, based on real care diaries, Silva Lining’s Care Plan shines a light on the experiences of paid carers of individuals with dementia.

What people are saying:

“Silva Lining’s Care Plan is a wonderful and moving exploration of the complex relationship between carer and cared for. Both heart-rending and laugh-out-loud, it takes you on a roller-coaster of an emotional journey through Silva Lining’s story, with many an amusing aside from her Brain.” Alex Coulter, Director, Arts & Health South West. Chair, Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance

 “This play must be watched/shared with carers old and new and care agencies. Good to see a positive care/relationship and the importance of getting it right. Very powerful. I was completely engaged for the whole piece” Claire Angerson, Person Centred Planning, Bristol Community Links North. “Sticking up for carers” Anonymous carer

 “Professional carers are hidden from view, yet are at the heart of support to people with disabilities or disabling illness, particularly dementia, helping them to live at home as long as possible. This play portrays the complex relationship between a carer and a woman – a retired doctor – living with dementia. Mutual respect, misunderstandings, anger, beauty, frustration, jokes and, above all, love, drew me into this poignant play with beautiful acting and even a brain puppet.”Gene Feder, Professor of primary health care Centre for Academic Primary CarePopulation Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol

 “Everyone involved as Commissioners of care services or as carers should immerse themselves in this play.  You will forever see “Caring” in a new light. I was immediately captivated by the scene and the setting – familiar to me as a GP. Difficulty in gaining access to the patient’s house using door codes has been part of my lived experience for many years. The conversation between Silva Lining and her carer, the profound insights and astonishing puppetry engaged me throughout.” Dr Malcolm Rigler FRSPH, Health Ambassador at: www.patients-association.com

Opportunities to see the play:

Tandem Conference on Sept 20th

Nottingham Contemporary on Sept 21st

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