On Hair and Hairiness

During the early part of the pandemic, one of the things that a great number of people have found hard was not being able to access their hairdresser or barber. My FB and Twitter feeds were later full of people being joyful when they finally could get a hair cut and expressing how much better they felt about themselves once they’d had a cut and restyle. The last time I can remember having a trim was in 1998, so their joy wasn’t something I could relate to directly, because I’ve never enjoyed having anything done with or to my hair and having it cut filled me with fear and dread as a child and a teenager. Aged 14, I decided to grow my hair long, having been mistaken for a boy at school; a year prior to that I might have been delighted but something had changed. My mum insisted I go every six weeks for a trim, to ensure I didn’t have split ends ruining the entire strand of hair.

That’s the first big myth I want to explode. The trimming of long hair is done mostly for aesthetic reasons, because people like to see tidy, even ends, much as they like to see neatly trimmed and edged lawns. It was put about by hairdressers that hair NEEDS to be trimmed to stop splits extending up the hair shafts. They don’t split like that. Yes, I know, you can often see multiple splits along a single hair. That’s not one split running all the way, like a dropped stitch or broken thread in weaving. Hair is dead. The moment a hair emerges from the follicle, it’s dead matter. It’s made of a protein called keratin, same substance as your nails and indeed, the horn of a rhino. How long your hair grows is also subject to certain issues of personal biology. Each hair has a life span (between 3 and 7 years is the usual range but some can live a lot longer) before it drops from the follicle. We lose between 50 and 100 (ish) hairs every single day, but fear not, the human head contains between 90 and 150 thousand follicles and therefore, usually, hairs. Redheads have fewest but seem to have the thickest hair as each strand tends to be thicker, and blondes have the most, but it’ often the thinnest. Brunettes are in the middle. Hair goes through a cycle. The cycle involves growing, resting (ie, not growing) falling out, pausing before beginning again. The rate of growth of hair is also a factor. Some hair grows very slowly, some very fast. It grows faster in the summer and it also grows faster on the side of your head that tends to be on the pillow more. Average growth is about one cm a month. If you have a head of hair that grows fast and each hair has a longer life span, you will be able to grow your hair very long. If you have slow growing hair with a short life span, it may well never get beyond your shoulders. You can’t change this. You can ensure that the bed (the scalp) your hair grows from is kept healthy and nourished so that the hair has the best chance of growing well. Once a hair has emerged from the scalp it is dead matter. Conditioners cannot repair the hair; they can make a superficial coating to smooth the hair, prevent further damage and ease the passage of a brush or a comb. The oil the scalp produces is called sebum and it’s the body’s natural lubricant for hair, to keep it clean and water repellent. So we wash it out, sometimes daily. My scalp is prone to psoriasis and general flakiness which can make it unbearably itchy at times. Nonetheless I have unusually long hair. After my parathyroid tumour was removed, my hair started growing properly again, having stalled around hip/waist length. Wet it now reaches below my knees and touches my calves. And no, it’s not difficult to look after. It’s easier than short hair, for me.

But it is very much a part of my identity. Who I am, if you like. There’s a lot of information about hair, that claims there’s a connection between hair and being terribly spiritual. One story cited Native American (don’t ask which tribe, I have no idea) beliefs that hair is a sort of cosmic antenna, connecting us to the cosmos, making those with long hair supernaturally sensitive. There is some truth to this, but not how people think. Hair serves various biological purposes on us mammals. It keeps us warm, keeps us cool and is also used for display to the opposite sex. It also serves as part of a sensory system. If you have a cat, you will notice that they have whiskers on other parts of their bodies. These are called vibrissae, and they each attach to the body and feed back sensory information about their surroundings. That’s how a cat knows it can fit through a gap. The vibrissae provide proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system of the cat. I suspect there is a lot that needs more research. Human body hair (now so anathema to many that it is shaved and ripped and chemically removed) serves other functions too. Our nervous systems respond to stimuli like fear or uneasiness by erecting the hairs on our body; often this is a very primitive response, atavistic perhaps. I’ve used the sense of the hairs on the back of my neck going up as a warning. Something is out of place and my conscious mind hasn’t spotted it but my unconscious has. If you have seen the hackles of a dog go up, it’s the same thing.

Some cultures equate long hair with a kind of spiritual holiness. The wandering holy men and women in various places have extremely long and often unwashed and matted hair. There are theories spoken of, like hair containing life force and cutting it cuts the life force and therefore the special powers these people are believed to possess. I have never personally encountered such a figure. But I cannot help wonder if the long hair is about display rather than anything holy. How is anyone meant to recognise the holiness is there’s no physical marker? No one would ever suspect someone going about their daily business, wearing ordinary clothes and hair, of being anything special and holy, would they? I might be a tad cynical. Other cultures cut the hair off, shave the head in whole or in part, for their holy people.

Hair is connected deeply to both sexuality and gender. For many in the west, at one point in fairly recent history (Beatles, I’m looking at you!) long male hair was seen as deeply subversive, decadent, emasculating; the cutting short of female hair (in the 1920s) as a radical act of defeminising. It’s a contentious issue. It was also a thing that over a certain critical age, a woman ought not to have long hair. I see comments abounding online where people denigrate older women for keeping their hair long. It’s seen as somehow false advertising, this pretence that you are still young and fertile and therefore desirable (because you can potentially bear some man a child) and the fury and the nastiness is depressing. So much bound up in what a woman chooses to do with her appearance is about squashing women into a box marked, “Men’s playthings only” and women can be fierce collaborators in this. One tiny change, expanded by the pandemic, is the growing numbers of women choosing not to dye their hair, and embracing their silver and their grey. It’s more acceptable than it was. It’s equally acceptable for older women to dye their hair fun colours, that were more associated with student age; I have seen friends get their mermaid hair colours and it looks amazing. It’s about being allowed to choose, and not having someone brow beat you into having a bob just because you’re now 41. My mum never much liked me having long hair; she said on more than one occasion that long hair was “ageing”.

For those wondering how it is possible to care for getting close to five feet of thick, slightly curly hair, and whether it’s heavy or uncomfortable, I’ll explain a little. These days of decent power showers means it’s easy and simple to wash long hair. Modern shampoos are a huge improvement on ones from when I was growing up. You lather up only at the scalp, because that’s where the oil and the dead skin need the shampoo. Gravity means the rest of the hair gets a smaller dose, which is all it needs usually. I stand upright and let the water do most of the work. It gets wrapped in a super absorbent high tech towel (the kind you take camping because they take up less room). I don’t use conditioner every time because it doesn’t always need it, though I do sometimes use either jojoba oil (closest in structure to human sebum) or coconut oil on the last foot or so to protect. I don’t often use a hair dryer, I’ve never straightened it (or dyed or permed). I keep a close eye on hair care products, and will try new brushes/combs. Currently the range of Tangle Teezer brushes do a superb job of detangling and grooming without pulling or damaging the hair. Once the hair is dry, I usually plait it and that’s it. It gets brushed in the morning, and before I go to bed, and replaited. It takes a few minutes, but the process is soothing and reassuring, and some claim that you are activating acupressure points on the scalp when you brush. It just feels very nice. I don’t find it heavy (it’s probably silly to try and weight it) but hair doesn’t actually weight a lot anyway.

Anyway, that’s about all I can find the energy to write. Hair is deeply personal, but I don’t think having long hair makes a person more spiritual or psychic.

“Bleeding for Jesus” by Andrew Graystone – a review and some comments

“Bleeding for Jesus” by Andrew Graystone – a review and some comments

I don’t often review books on my blog; I’ve tried to steer clear of being a book review blog. Others do it better than I could ever hope to; plus my reading is so eclectic that there would be no discernable pattern for readers. But this book needs to be mentioned here. I’ve talked a bit about spiritual abuse, here and in some of my novels (especially “Square Peg” which draws liberally on my own experiences), so it feels as if this is the best forum for my thoughts on this book. I have done a brief review on Amazon (which was not yet showing when I began writing this) and hope that may help anyone wavering over whether to buy it.

This is the blurb:

A Christian barrister and moral crusader who viciously caned young men in his garden shed. An exclusive network of powerful men seeking control in the Church of England. A shared secret of abuse that casts a dark shadow over a whole generation of Christian leaders. This is the extraordinary true story of John Smyth QC, a high-flying barrister who used his role in the church to abuse more than a hundred men and boys in three countries. It tells how he was spirited out of the UK, and how he played the role of moral crusader to evade justice over four decades. It reveals how scores of respected church leaders turned a blind eye to his history of abuse. Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graystone has pursued the truth about Smyth and those who enabled him to escape justice. He has heard the excruciating testimony of many of Smyth’s victims, and has uncovered court and church documents, reports, letters and emails. He has investigated the network of exclusive ‘Bash camps’ through which Smyth groomed his victims. For the first time, he presents a comprehensive critique of the Iwerne project and the impact it has had on British society and the church. https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1913657124/

I read the book in a couple of sittings. It’s not terrifically long (less than 250 pages) and is well written in an engaging but not frivolous style. I know that the publishers rushed through the publication (for a variety of reasons) and there’s some small issues with editing; some repetition of material without clarifying why that has been mentioned again, and also a conflation of Plymouth with Portsmouth in reference to a bishop. These are small and relatively unimportant matters. The entire book is shocking. One reason that I had two disturbed and sleepless nights after reading it was the realisation of various gigantic missing pieces in my own experience of spiritual abuse (which I do not wish to detail here) and a greater understanding of how the evil that came through the Iwerne camps filtered out into the wider church community and damaged many lives beyond the immediate reach of the camps and the leaders there. Imagine the mycelium of a malign and toxic fungus reaching through most of the trees in a forest and you get why I felt so shaken and horrified. The abuse itself detailed in the book is shocking enough. The cover-up that has ensued is also deeply shocking.

As a young person I was unaware of the existence of the Iwerne project for a very good reason: I was a state school student. Iwerne dealt exclusively with the boys and young men who came out of what were considered the top 15 private schools in the UK. Their intent was to recruit those who would be leaders in society, whether as clergy, as lawyers, doctors and so on, at the highest levels. The idea was that if they had such men (for until later it was universally male and much of the leadership were misogynistic to a terrifying degree) as Christians, their effect on the country would be powerful.

Except to anyone who has understood the gospels and the person of Jesus, nothing of what these people did was in the slightest bit Christian. The very choice to only recruit from the ranks of the privileged is frankly unchristian; not one of Jesus’s disciples was rich, highly educated or from a higher level of society. He chose from among ordinary people doing ordinary jobs; his reaction to the Rich Young Man who came to him was not to immediately ask the guy to join him but rather ask him to let go of his wealth and privilege first. The beatings, given in the name of promoting holiness and with a gloss of various select New Testament texts, are little more than the surfacing of pernicious gnostic heresies that deemed the body evil and to be subdued and punished. The effects of physical pain inflicted in this way is well documented in studies of S&M: endorphins kick in and a kind of high ensues, there is a feeling of catharsis and bliss and release. This is not holiness. It’s the body’s mechanism for surviving catastrophic injury and illness. Yet it’s close enough to a numinous and mystical experience to baffle those already brainwashed and enthralled by a man whose personal charm and charisma were enormous, that they believed themselves to be singled out for an extraordinary life. Iwerne was, to put it bluntly, a cult, and the members behaviours is classic cult behaviour.

The persistence of those still in power to keep the lid on this, not to address any of it, but sweep it under the carpet and hope it is swiftly forgotten, is impressive. My feeling is there is so much more to come out. Those who have been harmed will not forget. People have speculated why spiritual abuse is so damaging, asked why don’t those just walk away from the church, wash their hands of faith entirely, and forget they were ever involved. Graystone succinctly sums up why this is not possible:

The nature of abuse is to inflict trauma on the personhood of the victim. It is a conscious invasion intended to violently challenge and destabilise the physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual identity of the other – to fundamentally devalue them and forcefully mark them with the identity of the abuser. In other words, abuse, whether physical, sexual, spiritual or emotional, is always relational. Where the abuser is deeply identified with an organisation or culture, as John Smyth was with conservative Christianity, the identity that is marked includes that of the organisation.

So a victim abused by a Christian is indelibly marked as a victim of Christian abuse, and the relationship that is damaged is not only between the victim and the abuser, but also between the victim and God. When John Smyth beat his victims he was baptising them, not into the identity of Christ but into a false identity as a worthless object for his pleasure.” (p210)

From a personal perspective, this rings true. Much as I have wanted to stay away from the church since then, I have not been able to; what I experienced damaged my own relationship with the divine terribly badly. Any embryonic sense of vocation was aborted by what happened.

Touching on some of the wider ranging reach of the abuse, Graystone also says:

This is a book about men who abuse men. Men abuse women too, both in person and through the institutions they sustain. Perhaps the hidden victims of the Iwerne movement are the thousands of women who have been led to believe that they are in some way created to be subordinate. I know that some conservative evangelicals who will want to say that the Bible carves out an equal and complimentary role for women alongside men, but again, the deprivation of opportunity for women is a matter of culture as much as teaching. I’m well aware too that there are more women who suffer physical and sexual abuse in the church than there are men; that the church treats female victims even more badly that it treats male, and that the degree of blindness to this in myself and others is greater than it is towards men.” (p208)

At the time of the activities of Smyth in the UK, the ordination of women was something being campaigned for, fought about and by 1992 was finally allowed. Yet it was held back and suppressed and damaged by Iwerne alumni, and to this day the divisions are still brutal. They still have great reach.

It’s said that a participant in any battle sees very little of the battle at large, only being witness to what they could see and experience in their immediate environs. For me, this book has shown me what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield beyond the smoke and blood and fear of my own tiny part in that battle. None of this should ever have happened, to any of us. Please consider buying, reading, reviewing, discussing, buying copies for your church library/bookstall, because it might be the piece in a jigsaw you (or others) may need to make more sense of your own experiences. I’ve found this incredibly difficult to write about because of so many difficult emotions and memories, so I am going to leave it here and hope that it reaches those who need to read it.

Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

I’ve been a subscriber to New Scientist magazine for many years; indeed, I’ve had a couple of letters published and I even won “The Last Word” once. We moved to digital only and I stopped reading it, largely because I don’t find reading on screen pleasant. The irony of writing that on a blog is not lost on me. A few months back, we started getting the paper magazine again; it means I can pass on copies when we have read them and I can stuff a couple into a bag if I am going somewhere where I am likely to be waiting around. Experience has shown me that sitting reading a copy of this magazine while waiting for a medical consultation improves my outcome of being listened to; following a botched (ish surgery) around 10 years ago, the same (admittedly exhausted) doctor responded very differently to me the morning after the surgery when he and the ward sister found me reading a copy (and a couple of novels in French laid on my side table too) from the night before when my belongings were still in my bag. We had an actual proper conversation; their opinion of me shifted in the light of my reading material. Sad but true.

Anyway, a copy from a couple of weeks ago caught my eye today because my daughter had mentioned something key from it the day before. She’d been checking out a mini series on Amazon prime called “Nine Perfect Strangers”, because the premise of it seemed at first glance to bear some resemblance to my novel “Strangers and Pilgrims”. The concept of troubled, damaged people seeking healing by going on a retreat somewhere remote and beautiful but with some sort of mystery at the heart of it, is not (thankfully) trademarked, and on reading the review of the series that appeared in New Scientist, I relaxed. The nine perfect strangers of the mini series could not be more different in circumstances than the six imperfect pilgrims in my novel. The nine are damaged and hurt people for sure, but their lives are otherwise ones of privilege and plenty. The wellness retreat of the series is plush, expensive and extremely well-ordered; visitors give regular blood samples to ensure their tailor made smoothies are perfect for them. The cottage, known as the House of the Wellspring (in “Strangers and Pilgrims”) is a tiny place, comfortable but not luxurious, and the food is plentiful but the pilgrims must work together to prepare, serve and wash up after eating. They choose classic, timeless comfort foods, of stews and crumbles and cheesy bakes, and the making and the baking is a part of their healing process. To spend time with others, cooking, eating, clearing away, serving each other, is a very elemental part of being human; to be waited on by servants is part of a form of elitism that is pernicious when it becomes something we see as our right rather than as an occasional treat or holiday.

At the heart of the “Nine Perfect Strangers” retreat is a guru; a mysterious, ethereal figure played by Nicole Kidman. At the heart of “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a mystery, yes, for each retreat member has come because they reached out, in their lowest ebb, to a shadowy but compelling figure, the Warden of the Wellspring. This person, in a series of emails, has shown both love and understanding to those who contacted the House of the Wellspring, and has offered the chance to visit and to drink the healing waters, that will heal their unbearable hurts. Each yearns to meet this Warden, to pour out their sorrow and rest in the quiet of understanding and of unconditional love. And so, they make their way there, trusting and hoping for healing.

I don’t have any streaming services for TV, so I haven’t seen “Nine Perfect Strangers”. I’m always late to the party; I’ve probably not missed much by not having any streaming. We watch only a very small amount of TV and these days I quite enjoy binge-watching a series I missed years ago, now that the hype is forgotten and the painful pressure of FOMO is gone. When it does come on ordinary free-view TV, I may well watch because it may be good drama. You may already have seen it. As I say, I’m always late to these kind of things. “Strangers and Pilgrims” was first published over ten years ago now, and it’s garnered some wonderful reviews. It’s also got one or two excoriating ones, because you can’t please everybody. It’s in need of a new cover, because things have moved on (and yes, I hope to do this at some point but I have zero energy and mojo), but the core of the book is what it was ten years ago, and if you didn’t read it then, perhaps now is the time to give it a try. The evenings will be drawing in and it’s a perfect autumn or winter read, especially around the time of All Hallows, during which the main part of the story is set.

“My heart is broken and I am dying inside.”

Six unconnected strangers type these words into an internet search engine and start the journey of a lifetime. Directed to The House of the Wellspring website, each begins a conversation with the mysterious warden, to discover whether the waters of the Wellspring, a source of powerful healing, can heal their unbearable hurts.

A journey of self discovery and healing awaits them, but will the Warden grant them their wish? Invited to spend some days at the House of the Wellspring each of the strangers comes with the hope of coming away whole again.

But where is the Warden they all longed to meet and where is the Wellspring they all came to find?

Chapter 3 gets the “We Lack Discipline” treatment

For those following this, the next chapter analysis is up.

It’s kind of like being psychoanalysed via one of my books; albeit the book that I probably feel most sense of pride and achievement about. Check it out.

https://welackdiscipline.com/2021/08/02/we-lack-discipline-reads-the-bet-chapter-3/

Revelations of Neurodivergence

Revelations of Neurodivergence (part one)

This is a very deeply personal and quite difficult post to write for an assortment of reasons that I hope will become clear. It’s also something I feel is important and I also hope it may be helpful to others.

Last year in the autumn I was diagnosed as autistic, level one (what was previously referred to as Asperger’s). It took the better part of four years on a waiting list to get to an assessment; the psychologist at the pain clinic had been very helpful in getting me get that far. I’d filled in a 20 page assessment form, sent it off, and then waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually, worrying that it had gone astray, I rang and left a message. Nothing. Apparently they had NO admin staff whatsoever. Eventually a message was left on our answer phone, apologising for the delay, acknowledging both receipt of my form and also the fact that my information in said form strongly suggested a formal assessment was in order. Then they warned that the waiting list was very long. They weren’t wrong.

In the wake of my father’s death, I was contacted again, saying that I’d got close to the top of the waiting list and wanting to organise various things. This is where, for me, the process began to become painful. They asked whether they would be able to speak to someone who’d known me as a child, a parent for example. Bearing in mind I was 54 at this point, I found this first an offensive and pointless request, and secondly, when I explained my father’s recent decease and my mother’s dementia, a painful one. It did not occur to me that this information would not be placed front and centre of whatever records they then held.

Then there was another LONG hiatus. My mother also passed away. Then they made contact again. They wanted to know if there was someone who’d known me as a child who they could also talk to. I explained the recent decease of my one remaining parent, explained also that at 54 there was NO-ONE they could talk to who had known me in childhood and that my husband was the person who’d known me longest (since we were 18) and that he would have to do. I expressed repeatedly my distress and increasing anger that they were continuing to ask for “a parent or someone who’d known me as a child” when I had politely informed them this was NOT possible. There cannot be any condition, illness or anything that ever asks for such a thing. It is infantilising in the extreme. I told them this. I was informed that this was just how it was done. They apologised, but it began to feel very much like a not-’pology.

There were several sessions booked in via video link. Two people, a psychologist and a speech therapist, taking turn and turn about speaking to first me and then to my husband. They were both very pleasant. The process from my point of view was absolutely not. Again I was asked whether there was someone who’d known me as a child, explaining how it was needed for a proper diagnosis. I sensed the hand of a supervisor somewhere in the background insisting on prodding still further. Both my sessions were gruelling, taking several hours each. Endless questions, and most of them were those you would use with a child. I felt insulted and infantilised. I had to comment upon pictures from a children’s book, telling a story and describing the scenes. I’m a story teller, so it wasn’t difficult (but in my assessment letter, apparently I did it in TOO MUCH DETAIL) but frankly I was getting more and more angry at being treated as a child. The assessor was quite stunned at how much I could notice and observe in a single picture, and infer and deduce. That in itself is insulting. I have an IQ of something that is up there with the most intelligent people in the world; I’m a trained observer and a very experienced storyteller.

You’d think all that would be enough, wouldn’t you? But no. Again I get contacted saying that for a firm diagnosis they needed to speak to someone who’d known me as a child. Perhaps my brother, or an aunt or an uncle? At this point I became incandescent. I had thought I had made myself clear: there was no one who’d known me from childhood that it was even vaguely appropriate to speak to. More apologies. Another assessment session.

And a few weeks later, a letter, confirming that I am indeed autistic. I have read the letter twice, then shoved it in a file, because I am still furious. All of the markers that suggest autism were there, quite obviously, without the need for this endless requests for someone who’d known me as a child. There were at least 6 separate occasions when this was asked for, despite on the first time of asking me saying emphatically no. I cannot imagine a more disempowering and infantilising process, one which sought to deprive me of all personal agency over my own designation. I have considered making a formal complaint and still may but I do not have the energy to fight through the process. The assessors I do not blame; they were following the script of a poorly developed process, and I felt the heavy hand of a pernickety supervisor at every step of the way. But to insist that an adult of mature years somehow produces what is in essence a character witness to their childhood years is absurd and cruel. It shows the system is failing adults seeking assessment, because it fails to recognise that they are fucking adults. Sorry. The reason I went through the process was to try and understand myself. There are very limited resources for helping adult autists, and NONE of them address the long term trauma of being autistic in a world that despises and loathes difference. I will not be attempting to access those resources via the autism services locally. I cannot imagine they will be of any real assistance to me. Or, to be honest, any adult who has survived so far into middle age. I can only expect that they may be as infantilising and disempowering as the assessment process.

(part two to follow soon)

“The Bet” analysis of chapter 2

“The Bet” analysis of chapter 2

The inimitable “We Lack Discipline” are doing a chapter by chapter critique of my novel, “The Bet”. This is for chapter 2. I suspect it’s probably at least as long as the chapter itself.

Be aware that there are references to disturbing/upsetting themes, and some of the language is definitely not suitable for work. But it’s a superb analysis that has cheered me up enormously to know someone loved the book that much they’ve taken the time to work through it in this way.

https://welackdiscipline.com/2021/07/06/we-lack-discipline-reads-the-bet-chapter-2/

First chapter of “The Bet” gets a detailed critique…

https://welackdiscipline.com/2021/06/27/we-lack-discipline-reads-the-bet-chapter-1/

We Lack Discipline is doing a chapter-by-chapter review/critique of my novel “The Bet”. I cannot express how emotional I feel about this. It’s almost as if I were a writer of classic works. A real writer, even.

On Keeping a Dream Journal

On Keeping a Dream Journal

Dreams: there’s a divisive and complicated topic for you that will polarise most groups. Many people are indifferent to the concept of dreams, dismissing it and being scathing of those (like me!) who talk or write about dreams. My mother was one such, often telling me that dreams didn’t mean anything, couldn’t hurt me and weren’t important. I think that has caused me more damage in relation to my journey into deep matters of the psyche than anything else: that nagging voice in the back of my mind that poured scorn on my hope, my belief, that dreams, my dreams, are indeed valid and important. Identifying that voice may have helped to disarm it.

In the last couple of years, my sleep has been so disrupted that there has been less than usual energy for my brain and my psyche to dream, and I’ve had no energy to do more than occasionally jot down a very striking dream when sleep of reasonable quality has taken place. I’ve kept dream journals for years, sometimes with more discipline, sometimes not.

From this particular place of experience I’m going to share a few thoughts on keeping a dream journal. I’m not fond of the whole “How to…” culture, where blogs list 13 ways to do X Y or Z, often breaking it down into frankly silly steps. I work on the premise that anyone reading my blog is an intelligent, thoughtful person, so I’ll break it down into two sections. WHY keep a dream journal and HOW to keep one.

WHY keep a dream journal?

Well, if you subscribe to the notion that, as Freud said, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, keeping a journal means you record the messages your unconscious sends you. During a lifetime where we spend roughly a third of it asleep, dreaming is an activity that fills that third of life. It’s important. Scientists still haven’t agreed what sleep is for, let along dreams, but the fact is, both are vital to health and sanity. As a writer, vast swathes of my inspiration has come via the dream world. As a troubled human being, the potential for finding respite from those troubles in the messages of my dreams is immense. Writing down those dreams means you record and fix, both on paper and IN YOUR OWN MIND, the content of the dreams. There’s a process that does double duty. I’ve heard people say they don’t dream or they don’t ever remember their dreams; resolving to record them tends to aid recall, for the same reason resolving to wake at a certain time (with practise) also tends to work. Having a record of dreams helps you return to them, to analyse them more closely and also to keep track of progress. Dreams often send coded information, rich in symbols and often in puns, often via terrible, groan-worthy Dad jokes, which can take time (even years) to decode. Unlocking one such dream may provide the key to unlock a lot of other ones; having a record of them is invaluable for this.

HOW to keep a dream journal.

The accepted advice is to keep a notebook and pencil by the bed, ready to record any and all dreams. Some might counter that they’d rather do it digitally, on their phone, tablet or computer but honestly, don’t. The act of turning on a device, the blue light, and the potential for checking messages, all may cause a dream to vanish like smoke. My advice is this: keep not one but TWO journals. One simple journal, a cheap exercise book that sits at your bedside with a pencil or pen, along with a torch (I have one that has a casing that glows in the dark so I can find it easily) so you don’t put on the light (even if you sleep alone, putting on a bright light drives away dreams). In this you record the dream when you wake from it. Your writing will be hard to read, but almost certainly legible enough to fathom most of what you wrote and then recall the rest. The act of writing pins down the dream material in your consciousness. If you wake with a dream, write it before going to the bathroom because the act of walking to another room, plus turning on a bright light, will drive away or diminish much of the dream. Then, the following day when you are up and about, take a moment or two to transcribe and expand the dream into the second journal. This journal is more orderly. I use a Leuchturm Jottbook. This range of journals is very organised. Each page is numbered, has a space for the date, and there is an index at the front. They come with several stickers so you can make a title for the entire book (for example: Dream journal, from Jan 2019 – December 2020) and the bigger ones come also with a sticker for the spine. Date each entry, including the year. I specify when the dream took place too, either by time or by a more rough estimate. Then when you write up the dream, give it a title as if it were a story. Believe me, it helps. Use elements of the dream as the title (example, “At the high waterfall with old school friends”), and then add that, the page number and the date, to the index. This means it’s much easier to check when a dream took place and also identify themes and so on. You often start to see patterns emerging, and for me it hasn’t been unusual for a dream to reference other dreams (very meta). Don’t censor or edit your dreams when you write them down; yes, some of the content may be irrelevant but you don’t know that yet. It’s not unusual for apparently silly or unpleasant content to be very valuable.

And that’s it. Sweet dreams to you all.

We Lack Discipline reads “The Bet”

It’s very gratifying to get new reviews on a book that’s been out a few years but when it’s the first of a series of articles on said book, it’s a definite red letter sort of day. https://welackdiscipline.com/2021/05/08/we-lack-discipline-reads-the-bet-by-vivienne-tuffnell/

Year’s Mind

Year’s Mind

A year is a strange thing. 365 point something days, during which the earth orbits the sun and spins on her axis, eventually bringing you back round to the same date. It can be bittersweet. Anniversaries and birthdays, markings of celebrations and of commemorations.

The first year after a bereavement is a time when it feels as though all the certainties, the solid anchor-points of life, have been ripped up and thrown away. No matter what you try, nothing feels right. You cannot get comfortable, as if comfort itself no longer exists. And when you do teeter on the brink of it, you jerk back, feeling guilty, uneasy and disconcerted by the sinking into an old normality that doesn’t really exist. Like that stomach-churning moment when you step off the final stair, and for a second, you believe there are more stairs and that you are about to fall, before you catch yourself, heart-pounding and filled with absurd fear. The Rev Richard Coles has a book coming out called “The Madness of Grief” detailing his journey through loss, and though it’s not a book I could read right now, the idea that somehow in that liminal time after bereavement we go into a kind of madness, resonates.

But the year thing, there’s truth in the old adage of time being a great healer. Cliche that it is, and one that should never be offered to a grieving person as a shortcut to actually sitting and being with them, it contains old wisdom. Each day you go through is a triumph; each sleepless night, a survival of that pain. The other week was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. She died in the first few days of the UK lock-down, and so much seems to have happened (and so little too, strangely) since then. The nights of excruciating insomnia, the endless rehashing of memories, the inevitable and (probably) unearned guilt, have begun to peter out finally. It’s unusual rather than the norm, for me to be sitting reading on the sofa at 2am, with a cat for company and a heated blanket for comfort, drinking herbal tea or hot milk. That year of mourning has given way to less raw, less immediate sorrow. Not gone away, no, but the sheer touched-on-the quick roar of grief has settled.

The Victorians partially codified their grief and their rituals and customs around mourning; deep mourning was worn for a certain period of time, usually a year, but sometimes longer, depending on the closeness of the connection. Sombre colours were then allowed, in varying degrees. I remember a colleague speaking of a friend who had lost her husband in his 30s, of how she wished she could use some of those customs because after that first year, when others had begun to forget about her loss, she knew that the grief was still very much in the early stages. She wanted to BEGIN wearing mourning for her love, because only the shock of the loss was past and the real process of grieving was starting at a point when others expected her to begin dating again.

Grief is a journey we all travel along in our own unique ways; the completion of the first year after a death brings for many a subtle change. It can deepen the grief, but for me, I have felt a change. There is great sadness, but it feels different. I’m not sure how to explain it but there is a lightening of the burden of sorrow. It’s still one day at a time but there are more good days than bad ones and I am grateful for that.