March 02, 2019
In the Spring of 2006, I was staying overnight with my mother in the hospital before a major surgery for her in the morning. The family had gathered. We were worried that after several years of battling cancer this might be it, we might be at the end. I wanted to stay with her that night, and she didn't mind the company. This was in America so she had her own room, and we were able to have a few quiet peaceful hours together. We had a lot to talk about. I was freshly recovering from my third miscarriage in a row, and needed her company as much as she needed mine. So we chatted, we watched home improvement shows on tv, and we made distracting and inappropriate jokes until we fell asleep.
One of the things I remember most about that evening was a chat we had about the flowers in her room. Whenever she was in the hospital, my father always made sure she had fresh flowers in her room, but this time there were masses of other bouqets from her wide network of friends, all of them wishing her well, all of them scared she was leaving this time.
She said sometimes she'd feel bad about getting so much attention. All of her visitors, all of the flowers... she wished the other patients in the cancer ward had that same show of support. I joked about that being my perfect job one day, to simply give things to dying people because I could. To walk around buying flowers for people with heavy hearts, making sure hospital beds always had something beautiful beside them. We jokingly came up with a little business plan that night, in which we collected donations and also asked florists to pitch in, and we would simply become flower faeries of sorts, spoiling total strangers who were dying of cancer.
My mother didn't die that Spring, she stuck around for a few more months and we eventually lost her in January of 2007. She was fiery, stroppy, creative, hilarious, irreverent, red-headed, passionate, and well loved. Her death at 61 already felt deeply unfair, to put it mildly, but the fact that I was 6 months pregnant at the time made it an even more complicated time for me emotionally.
At her funeral, there was a small sea of flowers and plants. Afterwards, they were all brought back to mom and dad's house (or was it now just dad's house? funny how those little thoughts can be so unexpectedly brutal in the beginning) and we collected them on tables, on the piano, on windowsills. I stayed with my dad for another week or so as we navigated things together. She died the day before her birthday, and I tried to field the birthday cards and get rid of them before he saw them. I also wrote thank you notes to all the (what felt like) millions of people who made donations to a local charity in her name. We worked through it, dad and I. The most beautiful part for me was when he and I were sitting at the kitchen table together, wondering what to do with all of those flowers. I shared the story of that night in the hospital, and we both decided to make that little mini dream come true... her wish to share her gifts with everyone else who needed them.
So we packed up the car, drove to the hospital, and delivered bouquet after bouquet of fresh flowers to the cancer ward at the hospital that had been so good to her, and kept her alive so much longer than anyone was initially expecting. And it felt so good. Honouring her memory, giving in secret, knowing people would be smiling because of her, because of us.
I made the 4 hour drive back home to a place we had only moved into days before she died. A few days later, exactly two weeks after her death, I began bleeding. My husband was away on business, I didn't know anyone in town yet, and so I packed my 2 year old son up and we drove to the hospital together. I was terrified, and my only real feeling of comfort came from wearing a mint green chunky knit scarf that I'd taken from my mother's closet after she died. It felt like part of her was with me, by doing that. I wrapped the scarf around me and once I explained why it was important to me the nurses let me keep it on. Everything happened rather painfully and fast, my preeclampsia had developed into HELLP syndrome, and the next day my second son was born via emergency c-section at 7 months old.
It was a difficult two weeks to say the least. I had to leave my new baby behind at the hospital for a few weeks, and in the times I was separated from him I would sit at the table at home and write more thank you notes from my mothers funeral, and I would make cards. It didn't take very long for me to make the connection between giving and healing. Giving is what got me through that time. In no time at all I had organised a massive donation drive for the hospital where my son was born, making gifts for the parents who had premature babies stuck in the hospital over the holidays. This was the first incarnation of my charity project, Preemie Presents, and for three years I was able to give annual gift bags to these parents that included preemie clothes, personalised gifts, handmade quilts, and all manner of beautiful donations I had collected.
At that point my husband, two sons and I moved back to England, where he is from. I wanted to continue my new passion for giving on a large scale, but because the hospital system in England is so different to the American system, I had to think of a different way to go about it. I had the idea for Crafters Against Sadness, and ran with it. Instead of giving just to parents of hospitalised preemies, I would give to anyone who needed it now. And instead of me making everything, I would collect handmade items from other creative people as well. I came up with a nomination system. Say for instance you knew someone who needed some love. Maybe it was anxiety, or money problems, anything really. You'd contact me and give me their details, which would make you feel happy for knowing you were helping. I'd then send them a gift in the post as a surprise, either from me or one I'd collected from another creative person, which would make us feel happy for giving. Then they'd receive the parcel as a total surprise with a little handwritten note to remind them that there's good in the world and they are loved. Which of course makes them happy. So with every nomination I had three people benefitting from the process.
Over a few years, the people who were getting referred to me were having deeper and darker issues. I was getting fewer requests to give gifts to people with stress or poor health, and far more requests to give gifts to people who found their son's body after a suicide, or who lost all their children in a car accident. The way my charity project was organised had stopped making sense. I wanted to focus more on artwork rather than craft. I wasn’t out to cheer people up necessarily, just give them gentle reassurance that they are seen and loved. And I wanted to make all of the gifts myself again and connect with these people on a much more personal level. And so I changed the name of the project again, this time to Guided Gifting.
And thats exactly what it was. Guided gifting. I continued to make gifts for people through some very challenging times. Just as it helped me cope with my mother's death, I was now finding solace in giving whilst I managed my way through another childbirth and a divorce. For another 4 or 5 years I kept this practice up, just quietly and sporadically doing my best to give gifts as I was making my adjustment into being a single mother of three boys in a new place.
Things changed again in late Spring of 2016, ten years after that night in the hospital with my mother where we daydreamed of giving for a living. My best friend died after hanging himself in his workshop at his house. The entire landscape of my life changed again in a heartbeat. The bereavement after a suicide is unique in many really horrendous, awful ways. I knew what it was like to lose multiple pregnancies, I knew what it was like to lose my mother, but this was almost an entirely different beast. I knew nothing and I was lost.
It took a little time of course, but eventually I once again began using creativity and gift giving as a path towards healing. Once again, I decided to change the focus of my charity project, this time knowing it would deal specifically with bereavement. After my mother died, I felt as if she came to me in blackbirds. I felt thats how she was showing up, communicating with me, and making herself known. To this day they still call to me, I still find so much love with Blackbirds and all corvids, and so calling my project the Blackbird Foundation felt ideal.
My idea was to be a foundation, hence the name. An enormous life changing organisation with a board of trustees and helping everyone on the planet. I saw what I was doing through a more professional lens now, and saw it as a possible way for me to spend the rest of my life. Now... I knew at the time that I was making myself extraordinarily busy as a way to get through my days. I was fully aware of what I was doing, and I was burning out. I was losing friendships, my health was suffering, and everything that could fall through a crack fell through a crack. Nevertheless I created the foundation of a very beautiful thing, and was very proud of the fundraising I was able to do for a local suicide bereavement charity in my best friend's name.
Eventually, I had to have a really good look at how I was living my life. Too scattered, too many projects, a lot of fear. By this time I had started taking myself seriously as an artist as well, something that really bloomed in that friendship before his suicide. I had to think of how to support my kids best, how to make the right kind of difference in the world, but also take some care of myself. Self care was never my strong point. It’s a journey.
And so at some point in 2018, I sat down with a marketing team and really hammered out what I want to do. I tried to focus (again not a strong point) and really get to the core of how I could make these two parts of my life work... my art and my charity.
I made the decision to stop growing as a foundation, and change to a social enterprise. The more I travelled down the legal and bureaucratic road of foundations and registered charity, the sadder I became. It was restrictive, complicated, never exactly what I wanted, and required me to give up too much control of my vision. As a social enterprise, I am operating as a sole trader. A small business, in effect, but a non-profit. The idea is to collect resources, distribute them to issues, projects, and causes surrounding death and dying, and to keep a small percentage for myself to help me live and raise my boys.
This meant changing the name. AGAIN. Because legally the word ‘foundation’ should be used in specific ways. So here I was taking control of my decade long charity pursuits, tidying them up, and creating a real plan. I wanted to create a community of giving, a sense of empathy driven crowd funding and micro philanthropy, and help other people give more effectively. I wanted people to feel good when they gave to a cause, and not worry about where the money actually goes. I wanted transparency and details. I wanted to do programmes myself, but I also wanted to support other programmes that already exist and need some backup. I wanted people to feel involved, like their giving Mattered. I wanted them to be My Blackbirds.
And so here I am, in this final incarnation of an often evolving mission, satisfied and content with how it is moving forward. Thank you. I believe very much in honouring people’s stories, and so I thank you very much for letting me share mine. 🙏🏼
Artist, free spirit and Founder of My Blackbirds.
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