Anna Sale: Hey, everyone. It's Anna and this is--
Andrew Dunn: The Audio We Love Festival!
Anna Sale: Every week in the Death, Sex & Money newsletter, we share some of our favorite podcast episodes with you in a section we call "Audio We Love". It's really fun for us to listen to the great pieces our friends are making across the audio world and then tell you about them. Recently, we started thinking, what if we shared some of these incredible listens in our podcast feed for a whole week? Right now we could all use something special to listen to that's not the news. So that's what we are doing this week in the first ever Death, Sex & Money, Audio We Love Fest.
I want to jump ahead to let you know that this Friday, at the end of the festival, we have a very special live event coming up. I'll be joined by the co-host of the Back Issue podcast, Tracy Clayton and Josh Gwynn on zoom at 7:00 PM Eastern to talk about their new show, which definitely falls into the Audio We Love category.
They're also going to tell me about some of the pop culture moments from the past that are helping them get through this year. Mark your calendars and RSVP to have the watch link sent directly to you. Go to thegreenspace.org. That's green with an E and to get Audio We Love all year round don't forget to sign up for our newsletter if you are not already subscribed. Head over to deathsexmoney.org/newsletter, and we'll get you on the list.
Today, we're kicking off this festival by sharing the first episode of a brand new series called Goodbye To All This. It's from the BBC World Service and it's hosted and written by Australian audio producer, Sophie Townsend. It's about family, love, and grieving her husband's death. We're going to play the full episode and then stick around after the break and I'll talk to Sophie a bit more.
Sophie Townsend: There's a group of us, moms of kids at the local school. We sit on a Friday morning and have coffee together. We meet at the cafe around the corner from my house in Glebe, a suburb near the city in Sydney, Australia. Usually, we're laughing at the expense of someone's husband. We must look horribly cliched like this after school drop-off complaining about men in our lives, the ones we chose to be with forever, the fathers of our children.
It's just that with raising kids and paying bills, sometimes the person you do that with day after day is hard to like. Here in the coffee shop with these women, it feels safe because we know each other so well and we all have the same stories and we feel the same frustrations and the same exhaustion and the same small triumphs too. So we lay it all out for each other and we laugh and it feels like it will always be like this, that our lives will go on in this safe little place we've made where things are sometimes hard and tiring, but really very good.
We never expect anything really bad will happen. Not to us. I'm Sophie Townsend with Goodbye To All This, an original podcast from the BBC World Service. It's about losing the man I loved and going on without him. It's about raising two girls through grief and being alone and surviving mostly intact. Chapter one, a shadow.
Most of the week is a rush to get the girls dressed, through the school gates, and get myself to work on time, but Fridays, Fridays are mine and I don't have to be anywhere after school drop off. There are no meetings and no deadlines on a Friday. I can walk slowly back from school, going the long way to see my favorite eucalyptus tree thinking of nothing but the household chores I'll catch up with. A visit to my parents. Maybe some writing I'll do. Fridays are a lovely long breath out.
Nicola: It was a very local time here with kids in pre-school and primary school. It was all about them and we all live locally. We had kids at the local school and life was similar for all of us.
Sophie Townsend: I always thought of Nicola as a founding member of the coffee mums. I don't think she was really, she was just there before me. There's always been mums at the coffee shop, groups of women talking, laughing, getting through it together.
Nicola: It kept me sane and it kept me in touch with the fact that what I was going through was similar to what other women were going through with all the things that we thought were tragedies or traumas that our kids were going through while we were going through. It did give it some perspective that it wasn't so traumatic because it was normal.
Sophie Townsend: Coffee mornings, walks around the park, a night on the pub, it keeps us sane, sane-ish.
Nicola: Sitting in cafes regularly with people you know, I think you do peel away the layers. I think some people peeled away more layers and felt comfortable. I remember days various people taking their turns to cry about what might be going on.
Sophie Townsend: No one minds the tears but someone, often the person crying, will always make a joke. An equilibrium is restored. After all, we are the lucky ones with all the stresses of raising children, we're basically all right. I tell them about Russell. He says, he's exhausted. I say in a way that makes it clear I have no sympathy for it at all. I'm sick of hearing about it. Who do we know who's not tired? He isn't wildly happy at work. I know that. There's never enough time to get everything done on the weekend, so things are rushed. So often we're rubbing up against each other the wrong way. We're short with each other. Not considerate or kind because there isn't the time.
Nicola: I remember something along the lines of he's complaining about being tired, he doesn't know what tired is. I do remember saying, and I still say it I've been tired for 20 years since I had my first child. When Patrick comes home complaining about being tired, I'm not that interested.
Sophie Townsend: She's right. No one's weariness ever manages to be as interesting as your own and the exhaustion of someone you live with, someone you're depending on to help you get through all the colds and the stomach bugs and the children's temper tantrums is not only not interesting, it's infuriating. I'm not going to indulge him. I'm too busy. Maybe, just maybe I like believing that things are all right because things always have been, not perfect, but all right, and I'm tired too.
He goes to the doctors, get some blood tests done. At the coffee morning, I make fun of that too. Bear and I are off on holidays. Bear, our first child, she's 10 going on 25. She's clever and sophisticated and not quite a little girl anymore. She's been Bear since she was first born, baby Bear then big Bear when her sister arrived two years later. Then just Bear. Our Bear still, sort of. She's been desperate to go to Tokyo ever since she started watching Japanese cartoons. I want to spend time with her and I'd go anywhere. I can see puberty on the horizon and the attraction of spending time alone with her mother waning.
I kiss our younger daughter who we always called Poppy like the flower, bright and open and delicate all at once. I'm full of quick and superficial reassurances of the lovely week she'll have with daddy. She adores her father in that openly physical way eight-year-old still can but she's aware at the airport even as she holds his hand tight, that her sister is getting the better deal here, that she's being left behind.
I kiss him, remind him about the dentist appointment she has this week. Just before we go through the doors, I turn to wave, Poppy waves, he blows a kiss and now I see it, there's exhaustion in his eyes and in the way he stands. How didn't I notice it before? My heart gives that anxious little flip that is usually set off by one of the kids. Bear tugs on my hand and we go through the doors and I swallow the anxiety. He's just tired.
We get lost in a seven-floor stationery store, we eat noodle soup out of a vending machine, we walk the streets buying presents of Hello Kitty socks for her friends. We finally get brave about crossing at Shibuya station, which our guidebooks tell us is the world's busiest crossing. We like the noise her children's subway ticket makes as she goes through the turnstiles. Then we come home at night to our tiny hotel room and Bear watches a television program about a small talking dog, which we don't understand but that she declares the finest television ever made.
Then Russell calls one night and I can hear Poppy in the background yelling out to the dog and Russell trying to keep his voice down. He talks the way you do when you've been reading medical reports like suddenly you know what's what but in actual fact, are as in the dark as ever. He says the tests indicate an iron deficiency which is unusual in men and could indicate internal bleeding which may indicate a tumor. He says that's the worst case. It's probably not that, it's probably nothing.
More news the next night, the doctor has sent him off for more tests that show protein in his blood which could be an indicator of bowel cancer but the doctor thinks it can't be right. Russell is scrupulous about screening, his mother had died of bowel cancer but that marker, well, it means something though. "I'm sure it's nothing." He says. Again, we're out of sync, this time me feeling scared and wanting him to take this seriously and him wanting it to blow over.
I sit one morning on the subway and I think about the call and I cry quietly, hoping no one will see. Bear notices and asks me what's wrong, "Missing your dad and your sister. That's all." I think she knows that it isn't all. She gives me the smallest of pats on my shoulder in that tentative way a child comforts their mother not wanting to make it worse, not knowing what it is. She teases me for being homesick, hugs me, and busies herself counting subway stops.
I don't think I sleep the whole night through the rest of the time we're in Tokyo and the day after we're home, he has another test. This one to rule bowel cancer out and it turns out that the bowel is healthy and fine and there's nothing to worry about. His specialist says that quite possibly Russell's exhaustion, his low iron, this protein marker in his blood, which after all is sometimes not a marker of cancer, are just anomalies.
Relief, it's okay. The night after the bowel cancer scan, we make dinner together and he looks lighter somehow, the girls do their homework and he and I move in the way only people who know each other and love each other can, in a rhythm only achieved out of long-established passions of padding around one another. He makes me laugh, a wry comment delivered deadpan. We talk politics and work gossip, he lectures me on a bit of arcane rock and roll history and he laughs when I make fun of him.
It's an evening full of those moments never spoken of in the coffee shop, a kiss, a shared joke, watching the way he twirls noodles around his fork, the way he folds his arms over his chest and sits back after dinner, the way he pours wine into my glass, the way he loves me.
After dinner, we put the girls to bed and watch TV. I lie with my head in his lap. Here is my husband, he'd been all alone in the world when I met him, an only child and his parents long dead, a determined bachelor, self-sufficient and seemingly fine just the way he was and somehow, I've managed to get through all that.
We're watching an American cop show we only realize halfway through we've already seen. Poppy comes downstairs and tries to argue her case for being allowed to stay up. He takes her back to her room. He'd always been very clear he hadn't wanted children but had them because he loved me and the family we've made is everything to him and I am everything to him and he to me, even through those times we forget it. We watch the late-night news, switch off the lights, and go to bed.
We sleep deeply only woken by Poppy, he comes in earlier than we'd like to chat. We have breakfast and get the girls ready for school. Russel kisses us goodbye, his doctor has ordered a full-body scan just to be sure and he's going but just to be certain. I have coffee with the school moms, then my mobile rings, and I go outside to take the call. I tell them what he tells me, a shadow on his lung, the tiredness, the protein marker in his blood, and now, a shadow on his lung.
Nicola: I can't remember even what he was low in but then I do remember you coming back to the cafe and you cried
Sophie: I look these women in the eyes and I can see it all, sympathy, fear, there but for the grace of God. This look that says, we will do anything you need, anything. Turns out I'd need everything.
Anna Sale: That's Sophie Townsend and the first episode of her new show, Goodbye To All This from the BBC World Service. After the break, I talk with Sophie about how she got some inspiration for the series from an unlikely source, the letters of Queen Victoria. Welcome back to Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. I'm here now with Sophie Townsend, the creator of the new BBC World Service podcast, Goodbye To All This. Hi, Sophie.
Sophie: Hi, Anna. How are you?
Anna Sale: I'm good. Thank you for sharing this series with us. It's beautiful.
Sophie: Oh, thank you so much. It's been a real privilege to make and I'm really so thrilled to share it with the world and particularly your audience.
Anna Sale: All this week, we are hosting a festival. We're calling the Audio We Love Festival. As part of that, we've been asking the creators of the shows that we're featuring about the things that really got their creative juices flowing while they were making these podcasts that we're listening to, whether it's a meal, you really like cooking or music you were listening to or movies you were watching. I'm curious to hear when you were beginning the project of making such a deeply personal and deeply felt podcast series. When you were looking for inspiration, what did you turn to?
Sophie: I think firstly, I turned to Queen Victoria. I want to say I'm not a fan of the Royal family and I'm not a monarchist. I'm also not a fan of Queen Victoria as a ruler of an empire, but she was a widow, she was the widow really. She was married to Prince Albert and he died in 1861 after a marriage where nine children were born in a very loving marriage. She was a widow at about 40, which was the same age as I was. She beat her breast. She was really mourning for 40 years until her death. She was in black for the rest of her life.
Things in England really stopped, which meant an empire stopped for many years while she mourned. She was just, so her letters are just so-- I think we'd turn them melodramatic now, deeply felt but even if there's no restraint in her mourning. I guess I never want to be Queen Victoria and there's not much likelihood of me having that life, but that kind of obsession she had with Albert and with the grief of Albert, that gave me, in a weird way, permission to examine my story and look back and think. This was a huge thing and a traumatic thing and grieving is okay.
Documenting that grieving is also okay. I think we feel a bit in our modern lives that we should get on with things. There's a time period, which is okay to mourn for a certain amount of time. Then everybody starts saying, when are you going to find someone else. Just there are indications that you need to stop thinking about this. I don't know, I just felt real, this is okay to actually love someone and miss someone and adore someone and want to talk about those years after he died.
Anna Sale: Did you find after spending several hours in her letters and noticing the ways that you could relate to her sorrow, what would you do when you wanted to re-enter daily routine?
Sophie: That was really important because one of the things I realized about Victoria was she was stuck. No one could say, you know you've got to get on with things. She could basically just wallow in her grief. I think wallowing is good sometimes, but I had the good fortune of actually having to do those tasks that may seem dull and time-consuming, that take me away from my creative work. I think a big thing for me has been cooking and cooking those recipes that take time and that I know, like my favorite thing to cook is roast chicken. I brine the chicken 12 hours before it goes into the oven and I prepare the brine and put the chicken in the brine and stir it.
Then it goes 12 hours later into the oven. You've got to get the temperatures right. You've got to turn the chicken at the right time and the potatoes have to be just so around the chicken. I don't do it often and it's become less satisfactory since my eldest has become a vegetarian. It leaves you with a lot of roast chicken.
There's something in those recipes that my mother cooked, my grandmother cooked. That slow, just calm cooking, really centers me back into the world.
Anna Sale: I'm curious that you had to reach back. It's interesting to me that you reached back to the 19th century for a model for grief. Was there anything, whether it's art or music or books about death and dying and grief that's more contemporary that you found inspiring?
Sophie: There's something about those 19th-century rituals that I think they're so full of emotion and symbolism. I think we really lost that in the first part of the 20th century, we decided and I think it was probably the First World War with so many young men dying, people just didn't want to make a fuss in the way they had in those 19th-century rituals. I'm very pleased in many ways that we don't have those rituals because I would not want to wear black crepe for a certain number of years and I think we're much freer, but we've lost-- I think we lost something.
I think we're not so familiar with death that's taken, it's been really taken away but my rituals are really about walking in nature and noticing nature and the wildflowers are so magnificent this year. I think that's been really important for me just to create my own ways of thinking about him and about the work and also freeing myself from that to thinking, I am just a bunch of elements that have come together in this random way that makes me who I am and I'm about as important as a beautiful wildflower, that feeling the breeze on my body and smelling those natural smells and being in the world has really helped me move away from my head and get back to just feeling all those things again. That was really important too.
Anna Sale: It's striking to me that you're describing both feeling inspired by Queen Victoria and her expressions of the immensity of her grief and also house that it's been soothing to realize how common your grief is and also just your very life like to compare yourself to a wildflower. I like that. Just the bigness and the smallness, holding both of those things.
Sophie: Yes, because I think that's really what grief is. It's all those big, powerful, rolling emotions and the tiny-- there are things about Russell that I remember and then the way he rolled his eyes after a joke or the way he finished a sandwich or the tiny gestures that and that's-- remembering that that lightness can really, I think, help you through. It's really helped me through.
Anna Sale: Sophie Townsend. Thank you so much for sharing with us, this audio that you've made and for talking with me about this.
Sophie: Thank you so much, Anna. Thanks.
Anna Sale: You can subscribe to Sophie's brand new podcast from the BBC world service called Goodbye to All This wherever you listen. Their show is produced by Sophie Townsend and Eleanor McDowall, original music by Jeremy Walmsley. Alan Hall is the executive producer. The consultant story editor from CBC podcast is Chris Oake. The BBC world service podcast editor is Jon Manel. Thanks also to Chris Chafin. The show is a Falling Tree Production.
Death, Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC studios in New York. Anabel Bacon is producing our audio. We love festival. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke and Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Michelle Xu for her work on the festival. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Twitter @annasale. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. If you want to keep getting audio recommendations from us, even after this festival is over, sign up for our newsletter, text DSM news, two words, to 70101. Look out for more audio we love in your podcast feed tomorrow.
Sophia: Dear God, sorry I forgot about you, and thank you for the tingles that I received in my body this morning. That was nice.
Anna Sale: I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex and Money from WNYC.
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