The Year in Review: highs, lows, triumphs and tragedies of 2011

The Year in Review: highs, lows, triumphs and tragedies of 2011

 

It’s the very last day of the year and I thought I might do a quick run through of how the year has been for me.

Travel: countless trips with students to London, Cambridge, Norwich and so on. Enjoyable, as I get time to wander off, as well as get to know some of the teachers, visiting leaders and students better, not to mention colleagues. For the travel job, I’ve done only the four trips this year. Paris in January, Austria for ski in February, Poitiers and the Futuroscope in April and Bologne and Northern France in June. All eventful. I blogged about my failure to learn to ski, and also about being detained at Border Control because of stowaways under our coach.

Teaching: the school moved in March and so I had to start cycling to work. Not something I enjoyed much at first but it got easier. I don’t know how many kids I’ve taught this year but I keep in touch with some of the special ones. Next year, I don’t know how much work I will get as there are serious issues with the location and also because the Olympics are ruining the summer school (long story)

Physical Health: after starting the year in hospital hooked up to a drip of anti-biotics, I guess things could only get better. They’d only managed to excise half the wretched thing that was causing me to go into labour every month and bleed like something from a horror film so in May, they finished the job. I’m still getting silly amounts of pain, but nothing that makes me pass out or need opiates to cope, so a win. I began having terrible migraines too this year, on a far greater frequency and severity than before, and was sent for a brain scan. I am happy to report that they pronounced my brain normal! I tried several medicines before finding a natural remedy that I take daily that has reduced the migraines back to former level.

Family and friends: this year my daughter managed to finish her degree in History with a high 2:1, and starts her Masters in February. Very proud of her. My husband continues to work hard at both his day job, his kung fu and also as assistant priest locally. My parents seem frailer than they used to; something to watch and pray about. Friends? Well, I lost a dear friend this year but not to death. I do not understand why and it hurts me still. Being as I am, I need closure and the abrupt, unexplained ending of what had been for me a meaningful friendship of several years leaves me anxious and worried that I have done wrong somewhere. Endless searching of my mind has not resolved this. Perhaps with time, I will. In the place of that friendship have come a host of others, and for that I am deeply grateful and I look forward to getting to know these new friends better as time goes on.

Mental health: I’ve suffered more lows this year than usual, and corresponding but brief highs. The last couple of months, I have found it increasingly hard to socialise, both online and in real life. I’ve found it hard to reply to comments here, which is sad because I love getting comments and often treasure what my readers say. There is something wrong in my head, and I am feeling very tired and hopeless at times. So I apologise if I have failed to respond to a comment or even an email.

Books: this year, in June, I put my first published book Strangers and Pilgrims  onto Kindle and was delighted to discover that is has sold quite well. Not a best-seller, but a steady seller. It’s been on various of the top 100 lists on Kindle, including literary fiction, spirituality and it spends a lot of time in the top 100 for personal transformation, which amused me as I put it there by mistake not realising it was for non-fiction. Considering I’ve always said the Wellspring is a real place, I do think this is apt. I also put out a book of meditations, using fragrance, and made this free to download. I intend to add to this and put a version up for Kindle next year. In October, I released my second book, Away With The Fairies, originally entitled Fish Out of Water, and was gob-smacked when it sold a copy before my Kindle dashboard told me it was LIVE. This has appeared on the top 100 for Women’s literary fiction several times. Again a steady seller, but not a best-seller in the true sense. It ought to be available as a paperback some time soon via Amazon. I’m preparing a couple of things for publishing next year: a novel called Square Peg, which is based on our experience of Theological college, and is also the first appearance of the inimitable Isobel from Away with the Fairies. I am planning also three collections of writings with the Tightrope theme, using material from this blog. I’m at over 600 posts now, and I plan to collect the short stories into one volume, poetry into another and the essays into a third. While most of the material is available here for free, finding it all collated into volumes where you can find what you want quickly appeals to me. All I need is to figure out how to do a Kindle book with a table of contents and we’ll be off.

Writing: I finished the third book in a series back in April, and have been stuck ever since, nibbling away at two other novels, one a sequel to Strangers and Pilgrims. I’ve written a number of short stories, poems and a lot of articles, but it feels like the joy and delight that writing novels brought me has gone away. Some of this is down to the heartache of this year, some to my baseline depression and some is down to the sheer grind of trying to promote my books. It takes up a lot of energy, not automatically time, because shouting about my books, my achievements does not come naturally to me and I hate doing it. This is why when someone writes a review of one of my books I am doubly delighted. Even were I to be published traditionally, a mid-lister like me would be expected to do a lot of the promotion herself.

Spirituality: I started the year with a retreat at the Julian Shrine, which helped. I think I need to do it again! I’ve been to a fair few places on mini pilgrimages and have been finding synchronous events and meaningful coincidences that give me some hope of a better future. I want to spend more time meditating in the various ways I find work for me and also learn more about my own soul-journey.

Anyway, there’s a brief summary of some of my year. I shall write a post soon about my hopes for 2012.

I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy New Year and every blessing for 2012, and also to thank you all for the support, the kindness and the love I have felt from you. I am conscious of being really quite withdrawn the last few months and just want to say how much I value all my visitors, both those who comment and those who stay silent.

Thank you.

Burning

Burning

Shall I burn brightly:

The flight of a sparrow through

The fire-lit glory of the mead-halls

from darkness to darkness

With that brief passage

of brilliant light and heat?

Or shall I burn soft and subdued,

the banked peat fire through

long winter night of huddled homes,

Giving only a little but for long time,

Staving off freezing snows

with meagre, measured warmth?

Shall my show be the splendour

Of the fireworks at New Year,

Shooting flames and colour

High into the midnight sky?

Or shall it be the dim glow

Of the dark lantern,

Concealed and saved

For when it might be needed?

Shall I be the sparkler in the cocktail

Spitting white-hot stars

And burning my words onto retinas

of many mind’s eyes?

Or yet a single lonely candle

Lit to draw a lost soul home,

Set in window and left to flicker

Where few if any will see?

Put me then to the test:

Set a match to me,

Watch me burning

And see how long I last.

 

A fragrance of roses ~ a love-story for Christmas Eve

 

A fragrance of roses 

 

The scent of summer wakes me, drifting on the cool night air, and brings me to consciousness again. Roses in fullest bloom, warmed by June sunshine, great old fashioned cabbage-headed flowers that drop petals and trail their heavenly scent throughout the house. But it is late December and amid the scents of pine and baking, this scent is surprising and welcome, reminding me of sunnier days and long-lost memories of courtship and romance.

Every year at this time the fragrance of roses seeps into my awareness, a dim lovely thread of happy associations and a feeling of such intense love that my eyes prickle with tears of joy. I weep tears of sadness and broken-hearted sorrow almost every day, but this day, the scent of roses brings me the sweeter tears of purest delight and I know that I am loved for myself alone and not for what I may do for another soul.

Other times, a touch on my cheek as soft as brushing through cobwebs brings me that sense of being loved by someone who is not here. A phantom hand will stroke my hand or my face and I smile and shiver, grateful for the loving gesture and wishing I could know who it is who makes these gestures of gentleness and loving respect. I gaze into infinity and send my visitor the best I can do: my prayers and my thanks.

 

*

 

The old man eased himself off his aching knees and got to his feet, letting the folds of his battered cassock fall straight. It really needed replacing, it was getting so worn and faded, but every time he thought to buy a new one, he decided it probably wasn’t worth it. His had already been a long life, and each year from now on was a surprising bonus for someone who’d expected to die at eighteen, a terrified conscript soldier cowering in a foreign church waiting to be shot by his enemies.

The tiny candle flame flickered at the feet of the statue, and cast a rosy glow on her bare toes. The roses were already wilting, their smooth petals starting to crumple at the edges. A single petal had already fallen, and he lifted it and held it to his cheek as he gazed at the wise and serene face. It cost far too much to buy these roses every year; the florists only stocked the sterile, scentless red roses that might as well be paper or plastic, and he had to order these specially. But the sensuous perfume and the exuberance of colour and form and imperfections were what he wanted, not the uniform perfection of the bouquets of lovers’ roses. The Rosa Mystica was perfection that defied definition.

The impassive face seemed as thoughtful and inward-looking as ever but he sensed that beyond the plaster and paint was a real smile of benediction. She had saved his life once, long ago and for that, each year he brought the flowers that might remind her that saint she might be, but she was surely a woman first.

Why I believe in fairies

I believe in fairies ~ just don’t ask me to define what a fairy actually is!

(this article has appeared before but as a guest post. Do forgive me; I’m not lazy, but rather bogged down with depression at the moment.)

Most children stop believing in fairies somewhere in their tweens, if not beforehand. It’s a charming belief like Father Christmas that adults usually encourage them to hang on to but are never surprised when they finally declare in that argument-defying tone, “There’s no such thing!” I suspect I was no different, though my personal belief in Father Christmas persisted a little longer due to an incident involving bells, the interconnecting chimney system in the Victorian house I grew up in and my father’s attempt to wrap an impossibly shaped toy. I’ve long been involved in the supernatural; a diocesan exorcist or two have been among my close personal friends and I’ve experienced many things that would make the researchers of Britain’s Most Haunted lick their lips in glee. But fairies? Come on, now, flower fairies with gossamer wings? Tinkerbell? I returned to a belief in fairies some time in 1997, when we lived in an isolated rectory at the edge of the Norfolk fens. Items of small worth but immediate need kept going missing and reappearing in improbable places, often where several of us had looked numerous times before. Glasses, jewellery, keys, precious little things all vanished into thin air. My husband or my daughter or I would storm around the house hunting for the missing item, getting more and more stressed about it. Having coffee with a friend and neighbour Sam, I mentioned this and she let out a full throated chuckle of a laugh.It’s the fairies,” she said and I spilled my coffee and spluttered with disbelief. To my shock she detailed the things that happened, the kind of things that went missing and where they tended to turn up. Half convinced, I asked what I could do about it.Not a lot, really,” she said. “I find leaving them sugar and the occasional glass of something sweet and alcoholic helps. They tend to return things quicker if you ask politely. And sometimes they give you things.” After this I tuned up my inner vision and I did start to sense presences, around me. Most of them were in the garden which we’d cultivated as a traditional cottage garden filled with old fashioned scented plants, but some liked the house. They liked my collection of stones, polished gemstones and crystals; these were my most commonly borrowed items. They liked my house plants and the small grove of large leaved plants that I had in the larger of the reception rooms. So, still a little sceptical, I tried working with them, and to my surprise I found that the garden grew better and the house felt happier. Things still moved around but I didn’t worry too much. Even when car keys vanished when I needed them, I tried to stay polite and eventually they were returned. Of course, the big question is what ARE fairies? There are a number of possible options. They may be nature spirits, of the type termed devas, which work with the natural world to keep things going smoothly. In some theologies, they are the spawn of fallen angels and are to be mistrusted and shunned; these are the kind that stole children and replaced them with changelings. They may be disembodied spirits, those of the dead or those not yet born. Or one theory is that in antiquity they were a pygmy race of humans driven to the margins and subsisting by stealing from us. This last theory is somewhat borne out by the discovery some years back of a miniature race of humans on the island of Flores; nicknamed the Hobbit, these tiny folks, now extinct, would have lived at the same time as modern humans. And of course, for some, they may just be a figment of the imagination, the product of a deranged mind, a sustained hallucination. We use the term “away with the fairies” to denote someone has lost touch with ordinary reality and is on a trip of some sort. It’s a kinder way of saying someone is a bit mad. It’s also the title of my most recent book.Away with the Fairies” is the tale of artist Isobel, trying to carve out time and space from busy family life to pursue her career as a painter. Isobel has endured tragedy and hardship but has brushed all these under the carpet in the need to get on with everyday life. But none of these things have really gone away, and her life unravels spectacularly when she hits a deer driving home. Sequestered at their isolated holiday cottage, Isobel notices odd things happening, small things appearing and disappearing and doors and windows refusing to stay shut. Dismissing it as nothing at first, she becomes immersed more and more deeply in the cycle of visionary paintings she has begun until the strange events become impossible to ignore. That’s when she gets scared….. My own experiences always tend to influence my books, so finding fairies in a story wasn’t that great a surprise, though the conclusion I come to in the book was a bit of a shock to me. That is one of the great joys in writing, that finding of secrets you didn’t know you knew.   “Away With The Fairies” is available as an e-book from Amazon USA : http://www.amazon.com/Away-With-The-Fairies-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1318763160&sr=1-2   From Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-With-The-Fairies-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318763071&sr=1-3   And currently as a paperback from Lulu, (though in a few weeks time it will also be available from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1470923416/ref=la_B00766135C_1_2_bnp_1_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422703517&sr=1-2 ) http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/away-with-the-fairies/17985792   It is also available at Amazon France, and Amazon Germany etc but I haven’t put up the links from those places as I can’t imagine it selling in either country.   Isobel’s a sceptic, as I suspect most people are, but she learns that there are far more things in the world that she never imagined could exist…….

Miranda the fairy

The Scent of Christmas ~ an aromatic meditation

The Scent of Christmas ~ an aromatic meditation

 

The sense of smell is closely connected to the area of the brain that processes emotional memories; sometimes memories are very deeply buried and certain scents can awaken those memories. I am also aware that not all buried memories are good ones, which is why for this meditation I am asking you to think deeply about which aroma you best associate with Christmas time.

Spices are a popular smell at this time of year; for some the powerful scent of cloves, and cinnamon and ginger sum up their aromatic memories of Christmas. For others the crisp clean smell of pine or fir cones and needles is instant Christmas. Others love the scent of baking goods, or roasting turkey. For some chocolate is the best scent of the season. Traditionally the resins of frankincense and myrrh are used as incense and their part in the Christmas story is very important.

Take a little while to think about what scents you most associate with Christmas happiness. If it is a scent you can put on an oil burner as essential oil or hold in your hand like cinnamon or cloves, then do that. If it is something less easy to reproduce, then try your best to hold the memory of that fragrance in your mind.

When you are ready and you have let your mind settle and become quiet, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

You find yourself in a dark room, which seems to be quite small at first. There is only the light of one candle in a glass lantern on the floor near your feet, shedding a soft golden light around you. The walls of the room are high and the room is long and narrow but most of it is lost in shadows. The air is cool but not cold. Go to the candle and hold the lantern up.

You will see that the walls are lined with row upon row of drawers, each with a neat little label on. There are hundreds of drawers and there is even a rolling stepladder. It’s a little like an old fashioned apothecary’s shop. At one end of the room there is a door which is the way you will return to your ordinary awareness, but near the door there is a low table. On the table there is a small crystal bottle, shaped like a tear drop with a flat bottom. It has something engraved upon it; look closer and you will see it has your name on it. If you hold it up to the candle light, you’ll see that it contains a liquid. The bottle is sealed with a stopper than glitters like a diamond in the flickering light. If you remove the stopper you will discover that the liquid emits the fragrance that you chose as being most closely and best associated with Christmas.

Take the bottle and the lantern stand in the middle of the room and look around. Each of the drawers contains other fragrances that are associated with Christmas. Some of these are ones that you might like to explore.

There’s one marked toffee popcorn. Another marked spiced cider. Another says chocolate. Look around you at all the drawers.

Oranges. Cloves. Cinnamon. Wood-smoke. Fruitcake. The smell of new snow. Granny’s perfume. Cranberries. Fir-cones. Pine needles. Gingerbread. New books. Old Spice. Mulled wine. Roast potatoes. Sherry trifle. Egg-nog. Bubble bath and bath salts. Chestnuts. Candles. Plasticine.

The walls are filled with them, hundreds of them. Some are old, their labels in faded copperplate and contain some surprising things. These are fragrances from older human memories. They’re all good things, but things we don’t have any more as part of our Christmas, like Plum Pudding and a winter drink called Lamb’s Wool.

If you wish to do so, explore the drawers. Each one contains a neatly stoppered bottle like yours, and inside it is the essence of the fragrance. Take your time. If a fragrance appeals to you and brings back good memories, add a drop to your bottle. This is not like blending a perfume but rather a blending of memories. You may find that first the name and then the fragrance may awaken some lost and treasured memories of Christmas past.

If you find a fragrance does not appeal or you dislike it, return it to its drawer and move on.

Give yourself time to explore as many of the drawers as you find interesting. There is no limit to what you can add to your bottle. None of the smells will clash or fight.

When you feel you have collected all your fragrances, go to the door at the end and put your lantern on the table. Hold your bottle up to the light and watch the liquid inside sparkle and glitter. This is your unique Christmas perfume, filled with warm memories. Every ingredient is special and precious. If you smell one, it will bring back those warm feelings and if you smell them all, it will bring a wealth of wonderful memories and emotions.

Before you open the door, take a breath of the scent contained in your bottle. Each note is unique and special and the whole fragrance simply says: Merry Christmas.

Put the bottle back on the table and open the door. Your mind is peaceful and happy and you are ready to return to your daily life. Step through and open your eyes.

(Remember to take time after meditation to allow your mind to adjust to normal; this can be helped by eating or drinking something to help you ground the experience and signal to your mind to return tor normal. If it helps, make notes of what you experienced so you can remember more late)

Darkest before Dawn ~ waiting for Sun Return

Darkest before Dawn ~ waiting for Sun Return

 

In the middle of all the excitement and glitz of the approach of Christmas, I’ve noticed something. My own mood has plummeted to below the bedrock and every task seems to take ten times the effort. I’m tired and feeling generally unwell most of the time and the entreaties of others to feel the Christmas spirit is failing.

Even writing this is a huge effort. I question whether it’s worth making an effort at all to write posts any more, at this time of year. Is it worth bothering to do anything much? It took me till mid morning to have a shower and get dressed. I’ve no work on at the moment, and even if I did have, it’s as likely as not that it’d be a massive expenditure of energy to get to it each day.

I made myself walk into town, which is about two and a half miles away, and I began thinking about it as my legs swung along, and I came to a shocking thought.

Winter. It’s always been this way.

Our ancestors even a hundred years ago dreaded winter, because a poor harvest and a long winter meant that making it through was a huge achievement. The Christmases we see in art from Victorian times were usually those of the well-to-do. The poor often shivered, starved and sometimes froze to death during winter.

Go further back, to pre-industrial days, and the picture gets grimmer. The old and the very young would often not make it through a winter, and food had to be carefully rationed to try and ensure it lasted till the spring.

Further back still to our stone age ancestors and you can see that instead of being a cosy time of candles and roaring log fires, it surely must have felt endless. Monotonous food, often poorly preserved, leaky homes, sickness, freezing conditions with blizzards than might last for days made winter a time to dread.

Those memories are stored in the collective unconscious of all peoples whose ancestry is rooted in the chill of the north, and those who are sensitive to them feel them seeping through into our conscious minds as anxiety and fear and dread. In Britain and Europe, the news is packed with reports of financial institutions and governments on the brink of bankruptcy (“The grain store is overrun with rats, the apples have rotted- we’re going to starve!” whisper the ancient voices). The news is not good about the environment either (“The mammoth are gone, what will we hunt now?” say the ancient voices). The weathermen give us warnings of bad weather and high winds (“I smell snow on the wind; it will be a bad winter,” comes the voice of a lost elder)

And instead of huddling in front of our fires and telling stories, we stare at our TV screens and computers and we are alone with our fears.

I feel like I am on an inexorable downward slide and I am. So are many. I’m hoping that many of you reading are nodding and thinking, yes, that’s me. Not because I want anyone to be unhappy but because, you know, it makes me feel a tiny bit better to think I’m not alone in this.

Behind me stand the shadows of my ancestors, whispering in my genes and in my inner ear and telling me things I cannot quite hear. They’re telling me I’m going to go down still further yet.

And then it will stop.

My ancestors, the more distant ones anyway, waited at this time of year, for the midpoint, the point at which the sun will not get any lower or the days any shorter. The point at which the land stands poised and silent and waiting. And then and only then will the slow climb towards the lighter days begin again. The Solstice is not just a calender point, but is a vital, psychological and spiritual moment where we know we have reached halfway. Yes, there will be fouler weather and colder frosts and heavier snows still to come but we have reached halfway. Yes, it will be months before we feel warm again, and before we see flowers bloom once more.

But we have made it to as dark as it will ever get and from now on, little by little, the light is coming back, two minutes or so more every single day.

The Christmas Carol The Holly and The Ivy probably is as ancient a winter song as there can be, for all the Christian verses, at its core are two things that take us back to what the Solstice is: “Oh the rising of the sun and the running of the deer.” The sun comes back and the deer (to hunt, presumably) are there too. We can celebrate because of these things. We can come together and tell stories. Whether we do so in physical gatherings or via social media is not important. But what is important is that you are not alone. Our common humanity means that we have a better chance of finding understanding for what we have to share.

So, as I wait for SunReturn, I shall seek to make more light, tell more stories, bind the people of my tribe a little closer and watch the sky.

Man of Straw

Man of Straw

 

You were a man of straw,

Dressed in stolen rags

Lonely in a ploughed-up field

Bereft of all but crows.

I dressed you in a suit of clothes

Gave you shoes and voice,

A backbone made of wood

And a bravely painted face.

You took these gifts as your right;

Your cunning crow-like brain

Told you what they were worth

Beyond this vacant land.

One day you’ll stand again

In some distant barren place

Fine clothes sold, shoes in holes

Backbone snapped by time

Left only with that crow-led mind

And disintegrating straw.

I gave you just the strength to stand

Not strength to run away.

You can travel a long, long way

With someone else’s power

You cannot stand a single day

Without a beating heart.