Lost 10

Lost 10

I slip in and out of bitter blackness, and even when I am mostly unconscious the pain keeps me from resting fully. My bones hurt, as I lie under the darkening sky, thrashing feebly from side to side trying to find warmth amid the dank mosses. My teeth chatter as the fever rages and I roll myself over to try and bury myself in the ground.

A hand stops me, holding my burrowing hands firmly and I find myself rolled back on my back. I have as much strength as a newborn rabbit and I cannot fight. For the first time, I understand the resignation of the prey animal at bay finally, wounded and dying. Let me die with dignity; let it be a final single bite.

I close my eyes again, hoping I will never open them again, and as I slip once more into a fitful unconsciousness that is in no way like sleep, I feel something unexpected. Is it my imagination as I die, or has a warm soft blanket really been wrapped round me?

The passing of time is impossible to gauge but when my eyes open again, there is indeed a blanket around me, and it is dark. I feel strong arms raising me, and a wooden cup is placed to my lips and I am made to drink. The liquid is warm and reminds me of the willows at the waterside in some distant memory, but as I drink it, beneath the sweetness of honey, there is a bitter woody taste that is not unpleasant. I swallow and am allowed to lie back down. There is another, rougher blanket that has been eased under me and a pillow too.

I fight the fever, alternating between throwing the covers off me and clutching them tighter round me. I drift into dreams that have me striding amid the stars of the heavens and wake to find more of the willow-drink being poured into me. How long this goes on for, I do not know, for the passing of day into night and back again seems to blur and ripple and become confused.

Eventually I wake, and I sense that something has changed. My skin is neither burning nor clammy and when I open my eyes properly, I can see without that haze of fever distorting everything. Near me is the old woman, wrapped in a heavy cloak that I at first take to be made of rags. As my eyes clear, I see it is not. It is made entirely of thousands of feathers, arranged in ranks that grown longer the closer to the hem they are. Near her neck, brightly coloured feathers form a ruff.

She gives me a stern look and comes over, carrying something in her left hand. I may be free of fever, but I am also free of any strength, and I lie there passively to await my fate. I cannot imagine that someone who has cared for me these last days can mean to harm me now, and as she kneels next to me, I see that what she carries is a bowl of thin broth, with a spoon in it and my mouth fills with saliva at the smell of it.

Why the poet’s garden may be a jungle, the artist’s house a mess and why writers often live on noodles

Why the poet’s garden may be a jungle, the artist’s house a mess and why writers often live on noodles

A couple of years ago, a friend expressed puzzlement at why we had stopped making our own wine and beer. It had been so much a part of our lives that at one time I considered starting a small business. A quick look at the complexities of licensing law put me off but for many years I spent countless hours picking fruit, fermenting petals and enjoying the alchemy of turning a pile of elderberries into a deep red beverage that tasted just like vintage port. Our scullery in our Norfolk rectory was stocked with barrels of beer and cider, and we experimented with recipes using raspberries and even heather.

And then it stopped. Not overnight, but over a period of years and I know it baffled those of our friends who had seen it as a part of us. Neither of us were big drinkers, except when we had company at Christmas and other times; we enjoyed the process of creating the products possibly more than we enjoyed drinking them.

I used to be a great gardener. Not one of those neat particular sorts, but one who sought out unusual and dramatic plants and every garden I planted had a deeply sensual aspect, filled with scent and taste and texture and eye-catching form and colour. Not any more. You could lose a tribe of fairly tall pygmies in our vegetable patch this year.

Once upon a time, I was also an imaginative cook, taking ingredients and experimenting and creating new taste sensations. I used to love exploring ethnic foods and trying to recreate the flavours at home. I used to bake our own bread from scratch and made my own jams and pickles. Nowadays, when left to myself, I eat noodles and whatever is in the fruit bowl.

So what changed?

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what changed. They were all things I enjoyed doing. I was good at them; they gave me and others pleasure. It certainly wasn’t boredom.

When I was brewing wine and gardening and experimenting with food, it was during a time when my writing was of less importance to me. Indeed, for many of those years, I had turned my back totally on the idea of being a writer. I defined myself in different ways.

But in 2003, after a move to the Midlands, I’d found myself caught up in a narrative in my head that wouldn’t go away and became so insistent that finally, at the latter end of October that year, I began writing. I wrote obsessively for seventeen days and produced a novel of such complexity and brilliance I still to this day wonder where it came from. From that time onwards, writing became my North Star.

Around that time too, I bought a book by Julia Cameron, called Walking in this World, a sequel to her best-selling The Artists’ Way. I worked through the twelve week course and found it revealed some powerful secrets of my own soul. I convinced a close friend to do the same and while she found it interesting, at the end she said something that has haunted me to this day. “I don’t think I’m a creative person,” she said.

The problem is she had confused creativity with the most obvious examples of creativity in action: art, poetry, writing etc.

Every human being alive is brimming over with creative energy. It’s a part of being human. But that does not mean every single person is an artist, a poet, a chef or whatever. Far from it. Those are areas where the creative energy has been focused and honed and worked with.

There are two things I have discovered about creative energy. The first is that creative energy is completely neutral. It doesn’t care whether it is used to create the Mona Lisa or whether it is used to colour co-ordinate pegs to clothes when hanging them on the washing line. It doesn’t care whether you use it for writing the next Booker prize winner or writing rude words on a toilet door. Like electricity, it can be used to power wonderful things or it can be used, like the electric chair, to murder.

The second thing is that creative energy is finite in the sense that every day can only contain 24 hours, each day can hold only so much creative energy. Many of us who have day jobs have discovered that when we get to the weekend when we have the time to explore our creative expression, there is nothing left after a busy week. When my daughter was a baby, I spent a lot of time and some money researching the perfect sippy cup for toddlers and trying to design one that fulfilled every need. I also spent time trying to find the perfect fold for nappies for every different stage of babyhood. So when I had time to write, I simple didn’t have the creative energy to do much. And when I did begin writing properly when she was small, other things had to give way. Keeping a tidy, attractive house, entertaining guests, producing imaginative food all went the way of the dodo. They still do, when I have a writing project on the go.

I can bet that you are now thinking of some fabulous god/goddess of creativity now who seems to be able to do everything and still write/paint/garden to perfection. They have either learned to prioritise their creative projects and maybe delegate some tasks to others, or else their interpersonal relationships are in dire straits. Maintaining close relationships is also something that uses our creative energy, and some people take more than they give in this area.

In essence I believe that we need a greater awareness of where our creative energy is going and a much greater sense of its value. I don’t believe that it is a totally finite resource in the sense of being able to use it all up in one great enterprise or by simply squandering it. It’s something that is renewed every day, in some measure. That said, I do think it is worthwhile to review at intervals where it is going and assess whether we might use it better. If you find that it is vanishing without trace, swallowed up by life and by the day job, then you are faced with a dilemma. It may well be that the leftover energy is actually being consumed by other acts we don’t always consider creative: choosing clothing, shopping for Christmas presents, planning holidays.

For myself, when my teaching job is in full swing and I have a class I engage with, there is a strange thing that happens. The energy I put into creating lessons that meet the students need is somehow paid back by the students’ reactions. They spark my imagination. But other times, I feel I am wading through treacle and a class is non-responsive to the creative energy I had put into it. This is when it’s wise to withdraw and use tried and tested methods created by someone else and save my energy for where it is better received.

Learning to identify and understand where our creative energy goes is a valuable lesson because if it is finite on a daily or weekly basis, then if we have work we feel is valuable, then allowing ourselves to pour out energy on things that don’t matter is robbing ourselves of our own resources.

Lost 9

Lost 9

The sound of the water gurgling over the rocks is lost beneath the thunder of my own heartbeat as I stare in shock at the little building. I’m not sure what I feel; fear and hope fight each other for supremacy over me but their effects are just the same. My knees wobble and I sink to the ground, shaking.

The blue thread of smoke wavers a little as a slight breeze catches it, and then settles back into a steady line. I make my legs work and walk very slowly down to the stream. The water is noisy, and my thirst is suddenly unbearable and I drop to my knees once more, scooping handful after handful of icy water into my parched and foul mouth. Thirst quenched, I back away but the sound is soothing and I stand a few paces away, before tiredness creeps up on me. I am exhausted and now one of my most urgent needs has been met, something in me gives way and as if bewitched, I curl up on the soft mossy ground a few yards from the stream and close my eyes. The voice of the stream becomes my lullaby and I drift off, aware how foolish this may be and yet not caring any more.

The sun far above has shifted a few finger-widths when I wake and I am thirsty again and I return to the stream to drink.

As I dip my hands into the fast flowing water, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone is emerging from the hut. I freeze. I have no time to run, no time to hide. Like an animal, my only refuge is staying completely still.

The figure is clearly that of a woman, and by her long white hair, an old one at that. She wears long robes of simple design and muted greens and browns but for me, she looks……beyond human. She seems a goddess to my starved and frightened eyes.

She is watching me, as if she was long aware of my presence by the stream and as if like a gracious host, she has waited for me to wake up. In her arms she carries a large bowl that steams, and as I catch a whiff of the steam, I let out a groan of pure desire. I smell things I can no longer name, for the words have been so long unused that they have become dormant, sleeping in my memory like winter bears in mountain caves. But the smell is like every delicious foodstuff I might ever have smelled and I feel my dry mouth fill with saliva and I groan again.

Nodding to me, but not speaking, she places the bowl on a flat rock on her side of the stream and turns back and disappears into the little house again.

The steam rises, and the soft breeze carries the scent of the food to me. Saliva spills out of my mouth and down my chest, and I whimper. The food calls to me, calls so seductively but is this a trap?

As I watch the rising steam, my body acts without my conscious consent and I wade through the bitterly cold waters to the other side. I crouch, and see that there is a large carved spoon embedded in the food and I lift it to my mouth and cram in the hot stew as fast as I can, hardly chewing but letting the taste overwhelm my senses with bliss and swallowing to make room for more.

The bowl is soon empty and I drop the spoon with a clatter and wade back to my side of the stream. I should run away, I know this but my legs are not wanting to work any more. The shivers I’ve been feeling are growing and I ache all over. It seems so cold, and my rags of clothing are soaking wet too. I huddle up, trying to get warm, pulling tufts of thick moss to cover myself and I close my eyes and lose consciousness as the fever takes command of my body.

My last thought as I slip into darkness: was the stew poisoned?

In Memoriam ~ when the dead speak to us

In Memoriam ~ when the dead speak to us

Today is the Autumn Equinox and I woke crying. I woke crying because I dreamed about a friend who is dead.

Debbie was one of those extraordinary people who just brim with talent and ability; she was doing a doctorate in Zoology at the same time as I was doing my B.A in English and Latin. She had a gentle and gracious nature and we almost shared a birthday, so on a couple of occasions we shared celebrations. Not only was she intellectually gifted, she was spiritually gifted too, and was called to the priesthood, training a year or two ahead of my husband.

The first Christmas after we moved to darkest Norfolk for my husband’s first incumbency, I sent Debbie a gift and when a week or so later a card came from her, I was unprepared for the letter that came with it.

Brace yourselves; I’ve got leukaemia!”

A bright and breezy letter detailing her death sentence followed. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I assumed that she would be one of those people who survived. I assumed that the fact that she’d fought some pretty serious difficulties in her life so far meant she’d survive this.

I was wrong. She died. She was only in her mid thirties.

This morning, I dreamed of her. I’ll be honest, I’ve thought of her at times over the years but we weren’t very close and her passing had saddened but not devastated me. So it was a very strange dream, to be driving up to a house I knew to be hers and going round to the back door. The door was ajar, into a cosy old fashioned kitchen complete with Rayburn and snoozing dogs, and I shouted, “Are you in? We’re here!”. Debbie appeared, older, and with white streaks in her hair, and her face lit up at the sight of me. She held me at arms’ length before hugging me tight and then holding me out again to look at me. Then I woke.

When the dead speak to us in dreams, it is surely a sign that something is shifting in our lives, but what? Why did I dream of a friend, dead now thirteen years, whose life ended prematurely and with work incomplete?

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

I was cycling home yesterday from my optician’s appointment and as I whizzed past a pub, the opening lines of “Eleanor Rigby” filled
the street and my consciousness for a moment. I’ve always loved that song, was actually one I could play on the guitar, but it (along with “Streets of London”) gives me a moment of intense melancholy.

Loneliness is endemic. It’s something that’s been a part of society for such a long time. Even in a big family, or a close-knit community, there will be people who are lonely. Even with a loving partner who
understands us, many of us are still deeply, painfully lonely. No
amount of hugs and cuddles or reassuring words quite take away that aching loneliness. They may displace it at times but it never goes away permanently.

The way I see it, it’s because inside my head, there is only me, however many different voices that self uses. Even though quite often I know what my husband is thinking, I don’t hear his thoughts in my head. That might be why the concept of true telepathy is so seductive and appealing.

The internet brings a greater balm to the lonely than almost anything in the last century. It can feel like someone is so on your wavelength, that they might almost be inside your head. But they’re not. Internet friends help, enormously, in getting through those times when being alone in your own head is to painful to bear; that said, they vanish without trace (and that’s another story) just when you need them. Physically present friends, or ones at the other end of a phone line can help too. Still, at three in the morning, when there’s no one to talk to, when you are totally isolated from your usual pain-relieving relationships, you are thrown back into your own deserted mind, with only yourself for company.

I’ve never liked myself much, to be honest. Perhaps the deep loneliness I feel is because the very last person I want to spend the eternity of the small hours with is myself. Perhaps that’s why I reach out to others, for that comfort, and the hope that unlike Eleanor Rigby in the song, when I die, I will not be buried along with my name and that someone will come, that I may have made some sort of a difference in the years I’ve been around. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dsz4dB6DuM

Lost 8

Lost 8

The wind shifts the branches above us and the moment is gone and the starlight with it. I stand very still, waiting, in the darkness and
after a moment or two where all I can hear is the broken wheezing of my enemy, finally I hear the crunch of dragging footsteps as it
staggers into the dense blackness. 

Slowly, because I find that now the adrenaline of the fight is seeping away. I move back to the tree I had been dozing against and slide down into a crouching position.  Every muscle is screaming with pain and when I touch my face, I can feel stickiness everywhere. It must be blood, but I will have to wait till morning before I can really make any true assessment of my injuries.

I can hear my own breathing, hoarse and rapid, and it scares me,
because the forest is otherwise unnaturally silent. The normal rustle
of creatures going about their nightly business has ceased and an
uneasiness remains. I cannot sleep again or the creature will come
back and finish me off. My instinct towards mercy will surely not
serve me here where raw survival is the aim of every day.

And yet, I could not kill it (him? Her? I do not know.) I’ve killed small animals and birds to feed myself, and fish too, but this was a much harsher choice and even though I worry, in some ways I do not regret sparing it.

The night seems long but when the grey morning arrives and the ground and I are both covered with dew, I rise from my crouch to find that I am stiff and very sore. I systematically pat myself all over, and find many areas of almost unbearable pain. Blood covers me from head to foot. I have no means of knowing quite what damage I have received but when I start to move, my whole body hurts. My stomach aches from hunger but there is a pain too that wasn’t there before and it scares me. Did the pummelling I endured do some serious damage? Am I bleeding internally?

I limp onwards, my mouth dry and I know I must find water soon. I lick moisture from leaves and scoop it from hollows in the spreading roots but I crave clean cold water, from a fast flowing stream. The water from the root crevices tastes woody and stagnant but it has to
suffice.

By the time the sun is fully up, I can hear the sound I have longed for, the rushing of water and despite my pain I speed up towards the
sound. It seems to take an age but finally, I find myself at the head
of a low valley and at the bottom of it, I can see a deep, swift
stream, cutting its way through the bedrock of the valley and I start
to scramble down to it.

Halfway down I stop, shocked.

On the opposite side of the stream there is a small wooden building,
clearly a dwelling place and from the hole in the roof, I can see a
thread of blue smoke rising into the sky.  

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

Writers are often asked a question that can be virtually impossible to answer: “Where do you get your ideas?” as if there’s a kind of
supermarket you can shop at. It’s hard to answer because in some ways ideas come from everywhere; too often writers become blocked not because of a lack of inspiration but a surfeit of it and indecision
about how to bind them together cohesively.

For me ideas are the grit that sneaks into an oyster and causes so much irritation that the poor oyster does its best to cushion and coat the sharp grit so it stops hurting. I’ll come back to the pain of the
oyster later.

Strangers and Pilgrims was an odd book for me because some of the grit has been lurking in my personal oyster for a very long time. It’s an odd book for me for other reasons; I’ve never written a novel that had six powerful protagonists whose stories drove me quite so hard. Each of those characters was a lump of grit in my system that had each sneaked in from elsewhere, and stayed, bugging the hell out of me for years because I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had a story, certainly, but only one that maybe comprised a short story or a novella at best.

One of the oldest pieces of grit was the origin of Sara, the character
whose story starts the novel. I’d long loved Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott and especially the song version by Loreena McKennitt.
I’d got this image in my head of a woman staring at a computer screen, rather than a mirror, and being cut off from the world by something and only able to see the world from that “mirror” of a computer. Then I had a hideous nightmare about how she came to be imprisoned and woke shaking, because in these dreams, I am the person being tormented. Of course, I could do nothing with it, so it got noted down and left for later.

A little later came Gareth’s story, again through a nightmare. I found myself in police uniform, male and quite self-assured, smiling at people as I walked through a crowded shopping centre. I was totally unprepared for being shot, or lying in the arms of one of the
bystanders while she pleaded with me to stay awake, to live. I woke
from that dream, certain there was a story, but not sure what to do.

Ginny’s story is older yet, mixed in with real experiences of sleeping at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and finding myself lost in an eerie mist that swept in and divided me from my tent, and of uneasy dreams of being thought mad and kept locked up against my will. It’s a real fear, if you’ve ever suffered from mental illness.

Elizabeth came out of a long train of thought, based on the fact that at nineteen, I almost became a nun. Needless to say, I didn’t, but I
often have speculated what my life might have been had I taken those steps back then. Her faith, shattered but not destroyed mirrors my own.

A long and complex dream of archaeology began Alex’s story. As him, I crawled down the long stone tunnel to a horde of treasures left from when the dark ages began with the departure of the Romans from Britain. My heart pounded as his as I saw the possible fruition of my own dreams that Arthur had been real and that I had found conclusive proof of it. The later discrediting of this discovery was another nightmare. I had a very distinct mental picture of Alex, sandy haired and slightly fussy fledgling academic at the start of a promising career, older than his years but still somehow a dreamy boy at heart, believing in chivalry and honour.

The character whose story ends the first section of the novel is probably inspired by a famous faith healer in Britain, Matthew Manning, but only by a very dim thread. Mark’s story for me began with a curious dream of being a healer who has lost his gift and who is found out as a fake. It was a very strange dream indeed.

The unifying thread (apart from a river they all live somewhere near
to)for all six characters was the focus upon typing a phrase into a
search engine while at the peak of despair: my heart is broken and I
am dying inside. Each character does this and finds the same answer.

Another piece of grit was the title. I stumbled upon the phrase strangers and pilgrims many years ago, embedded in the post-communion sentence for All Saints in the Church of England liturgy “may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims-”  and I had an image of people sitting quietly round a table after a meal, and reflecting on their journey to this point. 

So I had all these people who wanted me to tell their story and yet, I couldn’t begin. There was something missing. Several things missing in fact, the largest of which was an actual story.

It bothered me for years, as this crew of diverse and damaged people rooted around in my unconscious mind and niggled at me constantly to somehow or other bind them together. Then I had another series of dreams, that had me and a companion searching for something that changed when we found it. These were numinous dreams, full of symbolism and gradually, I found myself aware that what I was seeking in these dreams was a spring. More: a Wellspring. And then it started to fall into place.

The concept of a spring that heals is an ancient one and one I’d long been fascinated by. The Wellspring in Strangers and Pilgrims is real, and not a fantasy. It’s somewhere I’ve visited. Wellsprings exist,
hidden and secret throughout the whole world and the whole of
history. Their waters heal.

Which brings me back to the pearl. For writers like me, writing is about a form of exploration and of seeking to understand both the inner and the outer worlds. But more than that, writing is a means of coming to terms with conflicts and pain and of finding healing. Each of the characters in Strangers and Pilgrims is in some strange way a
fragment of my own psyche, each screaming a very different pain and demanding relief from the agony. While each of those fragments was grit in my soul and in my consciousness, it was hard to rest. In
allowing those stories to bloom and become luminescent, I allowed
some of my own pain to flow and be healed by the process of creating a story around it. Coated in shining words, it became something beautiful and oddly transparent: those who had experienced similar pain were soothed by those stories. Each of my readers who has commented, either in a review or privately has identified with certain characters more than others: some have identified with all of them. I’ve had requests for a sequel and people have very different ideas of whose story they wish to follow next. Not sure yet if I can provide this but I can work on it. 

In the end, writing a novel like this one took a great deal of emotional energy that left me drained and empty but with a feeling of having accomplished something: a story that healed in both the writing of it and in the reading of it. Anyway, I hope I have given some insight into how one book came into being and how both writing and reading can heal and comfort the soul of the troubled, which is pretty much most people!  

The future? Well, there is plenty more grit within me, to be worked with. Each of my novels comes to me in this uncomfortable way. I chose to publish Strangers and Pilgrims first for a host of reasons but I have a back catalogue of novels to be released. The next novel to come out will probably be Fish Out of Water (which title may well be changed to Away With The Faeries; still thinking about that), but I’m planning a collection of short stories in the meantime, which is to contain a teaser or two about Fish. Fish Out of Water is about Isobel, artist, mother of two small children and wife to a minister, who starts to lose both her sense of identity and her grip on what she thinks of as reality after the double suicide of her parents. Dividing her life between the humdrum grind of being a mum and the visionary life of an artist is tearing her psyche apart, and the weird and unexplained activity in the family’s isolated holiday cottage makes her question her own sanity. As events unfold with increasing speed and strangeness, Isobel struggles to stay her usual sensible and cheerful self, being dragged rapidly to breaking point. Look out for news of Isobel here or on Facebook or Twitter.

(This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog)