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Mother Of Pearl

The Hidden Spire Collective Ritual project began for me around November 2022. Hidden Spire Collective was a group for people from different backgrounds to come together and make artwork for public sharing. I came to a drama workshop at the Old Fire Station and Rowan, who works here, said ‘We've got this Hidden Spire thing coming up, I think you might be interested.’ If we hadn't had that conversation, I mightn't have done it. Just somebody taking the time to make that connection. I was having such a shit time in my life. My husband had been very ill, with a mental health breakdown, and then my work life had imploded, my team had fallen apart. There was a lot of stress and pressure, it was really unpleasant. And so I thought ‘I'm just going to do it. I need something different, let's jump on this!’  

 

I hadn’t done anything creative for years, since A-levels really. I was a professional scientist, just doing that, very serious, and had lost my way a bit, lost that joy, that creativity and connecting with people. So I think I was trying to tune back into those aspects of myself I had pushed to one side. But it was really out of my comfort zone. I didn't know what would be expected of me and I was not confident in myself. All I knew was we'd do some writing, some making, and then some photography.   

  

As well as wanting something creative in my life, that theme of ritual really spoke to me. Alongside all of that other rubbish, I was having a personal crisis. I had turned thirty-five and in my head thirty-five was a kind of deadline. I felt I needed to decide whether to have a baby, because everybody says when you reach thirty-five, your fertility falls off a cliff. Because of all the other challenges in my life, I just felt I couldn't address it. I was unable to accept the scratching in my brain saying, ‘It’s okay if you don't want to do that.’ So I did have quite a clear idea that was something I wanted to think about, the decision not to have children. In all of the other chaos, that was something I wanted to deal with that was mine. 

  

I went into that first session really nervous, but it was all very welcoming, there were snacks, drinks, we all sat around a big table together. I felt really at ease, in a space where there was no expectation to perform, to be a certain way or to say the right thing. We were just having conversations and listening. We had a table with a random selection of objects, and we were invited to go and choose one and think about a ritual it could inspire. I knew I’d like to think about the decision not to have children, but I didn't know what that looked like. But then there was a shell, with mother of pearl on the inside. It spoke to me, and that action of going with my gut, ‘I want to look at that,’ that is so not how I usually am! I'm trained as a scientist. I'm going to make a plan and follow the plan and think things through. But the shell then inspired everything I did throughout the rest of the project. The language, too – 'mother of pearl', but it's not a mother, it’s part of the shell, a complete object in itself, it doesn't need to create a pearl, an offspring. All of these things started bubbling out!   

  

We then had a number of making sessions. I still didn’t know where I was going, I felt a bit blocked. Then I was explaining some of my ideas about the ritual and Donna, the session leader, said, ‘As you're talking, you're doing this gesture, offering your hands.’ I wasn't directing it, it just emerged. So the next session I played with making casts of my hands. We put plaster into the centre of my cupped hands, casting that bowl shape, and then when it was set and turned out, it looked like a shell! It was a very organic process, experimenting and exploring. The final shell which emerged has the indents of my fingers on the outside making rough ridges, and then the inside was quite deep, so we scooped it out to create this womb-like space, painted a deep red, then overlaid with a mosaic of mother of pearl. So this was my vessel for making an offering. I made some sweets to put inside, and then the ritual became the symbolic gesture of offering the sweets in my special shell to people, asking ‘Will you accept this?’ I'm offering you a sweet, but I'm also offering you myself. I’ve called the ritual Mother of Pearl.   

  

The end was a little bit anticlimactic. We had hoped we would do the rituals with our fellow participants, but because of availability constraints, the final stage was just to capture photographs of our objects so that they could be displayed. But on the side, me and some others did our rituals. One of them is about using weaving and knotting as a way of unravelling internal knots. And then there was another one around processing anger using Russian dolls. Totally different from mine, but nobody did a really happy ritual about when the sun's shining! Everybody was like, ‘This is something that I struggle with. Let's create something to support that.’ I just had no concept at the start where I would get to and the changes in my thinking through that process. The levels of symbolism that came out, you know, that there are many possible ways to live one's life, which can all be good and creative, nurturing, interesting. And we don't really have rituals for this big life stage, it can feel very lonely. There's something about having a pattern, a way to be together in that experience.   

  

Just before I started in the project, I resigned from my job because I was so unhappy. I was privileged having time to give to it. I don't think I would have been able to go back to work without this project to help me refocus on what’s important. I have a new job now, at the university, working with researchers to help them have a better postdoctoral experience. My career path was similar, and I found it really hard, I didn't know where I was going. So I want to help people have a better experience than I had. And there's something around the theme of my ritual – even if I don't want to have a child of my own, I still have that desire to nurture people. I found it quite hard to navigate my life. Don't we all? But if I can help somebody else, that’s quite motivating. I felt previously that I didn't have anything worthwhile to share, but actually there are many ways we can support others.  

  

I've made some friends from totally different backgrounds through the project, different life experience, different ages. There were professional artists, people from the Crisis community and then people like me, interested amateurs. That has been so refreshing, to be outside that bubble of scientists, professionals, academics. You can become blinkered to the fact that there is a wider world, and people with very different experiences, which are also interesting and valid and creative. It's also been a revelation that people want to spend time with me, not because I have this job, or I live in this house, you know, they just like me. I think the way the team created a safe space and encouraged conversation, that really helped, it was very inclusive.  

  

I feel like a different person. Last December I was having very bleak thoughts. I felt life was not worth living. I had lost my way. And this process of really engaging with myself, that has been transformational. My self-confidence has returned. I'm just much happier, much calmer. I feel much less like I need to fit in. I was a good girl, you know, I worked hard at school, went to university, got a good job, bought a house, got married. I ticked all of those boxes and then I was really unhappy! So this second half of my life's work is to plough my own furrow, and feel okay about that. It has taken me until I’m nearly thirty-six to really know myself and be able to make those decisions around what works for me. Why would I give that up to put somebody else first? Which is what having a child would do for me. I definitely wouldn't have got to where I am now without the project. That change in my self-confidence and in accepting it's okay to be myself – that's come from this experience.

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