First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

For Christmas I amassed a respectably high pile of real books(as opposed to digital; if the books on my Kindle awaiting reading were physical, my bed would be encased by stacks of books) as gifts from kind friends and family. I’ve been working my way through them rather slowly; my concentration at present is rubbish so something has to really grab me to keep me going for more than ten minutes at a stretch.

I’ve also found that however much I value my Kindle, I still definitely prefer the feel, look, smell sound and did I mention FEEL of a real book. Anyway, the last few nights have been spent reading to help me unwind to try to get to sleep, and I’ve just finished The Wee Free men by much-loved author Terry Pratchett. Let me emphasise though: this is not a book review. I will say that virtually everything this man writes is wonderful and this book is not exception. I do wonder at the wisdom (ha! Or lack thereof) of calling this series children’s books, because, like all superb children’s books this can be read by adults with as much pleasure as any of his others.

The plot of the tale is a simple one, and one drawn surely from some of the very oldest of fairy tales, but with any of Sir Terry’s works, do not let the apparent simplicity of plot fool you into expecting a simple book. Or simple characters for that matter because every being in this book has a complexity that bewilders.

There are several things I’d like to share with you from the book. The first of these is perhaps one of the most closely guarded secrets to magic. This is first sight. Not second sight. First sight is seeing what others do not, and that is seeing how things really are. Not how we wish them to be, or how they ought to be. But how they are. This is not easy. For some it’s virtually impossible from years of choosing illusions over reality. For others, it’s what they’ve always done. It tends to make you unpopular.

‘Aye, you’re a born hag, right enough,’ said the kelda, holding her gaze.

‘Ye’ve got that little bitty bit inside o’ you that holds on, right? The

bitty bit that watches the rest o’ ye. ‘Tis the First Sight and Second

Thoughts ye have, and ’tis a wee gift an’ a big curse to ye. You see and

hear what others canna’, the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye ‘re

always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who

cannae join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow.

‘Ye have the First

Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.’

‘Don’t you mean second sight?’ Tiffany queried. ‘Like people who can see

ghosts and stuff?’

‘Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see

what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there. Ye

saw Jenny, ye saw the horseman, ye saw them as real thingies. Second

sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.”

The next thing worth hearing about are Second Thoughts. These are the thoughts that are about observing and analysing what you have seen and making good sense of them. There are Third Thoughts too, a voice in your head that does the thinking when you’re too tired or scared or ill to do it. It’s that voice that tells you that even if you don’t think you’re hungry, it was ten hours ago that you last ate and you need to eat NOW. You might call Second thoughts logic and third thoughts the survival instinct.

Books like this have characters who never appear except as memories or dreams but who are vital to the story because they are vital to the main character. The heroine of this tale is nine year old Tiffany Aching, but her grandmother, dead for two years, is here so powerfully she feels alive.

Who was Granny Aching? People would start asking that now. And the answer was: what Granny Aching was, was there. She was always there. It seemed that the lives of all the Achings revolved around Granny Aching. Down in the village decisions were made, things were done, life went on in the knowledge that in her old wheeled shepherding hut on the hills Granny Aching was there, watching.

And she was the silence of the hills. Perhaps that’s why she liked

Tiffany, in her awkward, hesitant way. Her older sisters chattered, and

Granny didn’t like noise. Tiffany didn’t make noise when she was up at

the hut. She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards, and listen

to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up

onto the downs, somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

When you are a small child, when people ask what do you want to be when you grow up, often what you want to be is a certain person, and those role models are usually initially the people we see on a daily basis: family, teachers, tradesmen. It’s important that we have role models that are the right ones. Growing up is actually more about growing to fit ourselves and a mould that is roughly the right shape is a big help. So many of us grow up trying to fit ourselves into shapes we can never fit into, and emulate people with whom we have no single point that might fit. Granny Aching is a powerful role model for a child like Tiffany; she’s a witch who never wore The Hat or claimed the name and so too is her twentieth grandchild, who has inherited that uncomfortable ability to see what’s really there and examine it with care and some detachment. These abilities stand her in great stead in her adventure but in real life, they are demanding and often isolating qualities. In my post Disneyland and let’s pretend, I explored this a little. But having that strong, solid role model is of such importance that I am considering time travel to try somehow nurture my child-self!

Another aspect of the book that I found extremely interesting was the sense of how much a place was in your bones. The Achings live on a vast area of land known as The Chalk, and have done so for so long no-one remembered a time when they didn’t:

It was actually called the Home Farm. Her father rented it from the

Baron, who owned the land, but there had been Achings farming it for

hundreds of years and so, her father said (quietly, sometimes, after he’d

had a beer in the evenings), as far as the land knew, it was owned by the

Achings. Tiffany’s mother used to tell him not to speak like that,

although the Baron was always very respectful to Mr Aching since Granny

had died two years ago, calling him the finest shepherd in these hills,

and was generally held by the people in the village to be not too bad

these days. It paid to be respectful, said Tiffany’s mother, and the poor

man had sorrows of his own.

But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins,

or Archens, or Akens, or Akenns – spelling had been optional) mentioned

in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years. They

had these hills in their bones, he said, and they’d always been


To have been a part of a land means that the land is also a part of you, and while this has become diluted in our world, it’s probably at the root of a lot of discontent and tribalism. Too many have become detached from their lands. I have lived in a fairly wide range of counties of England in my time, all distinct with their customs and traditions and their bones.

“….and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt

the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the

distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells.

She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk

again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time

and stars, were turning slowly around her.

She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.

She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She

could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents

on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night. . .

The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She

knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.

‘I never cried for Granny because there was no need to,’ she said. ‘She

has never left me!’”

To feel so much a part of a land is something is so little understood and undervalued, but it explains a little of how I feel about my country. It may not be the best country in the world, but it is mine and that of my ancestors for as far back as anyone can reasonably be expected to go. I’m beginning to get an understanding of both Motherland, and Gaia our Mother.

To find a set of such important ideas in what is deemed a children’s book gives me great hope. The fact that it’s also a rattling good adventure tale is even more exciting; reading a story is always more interesting than learning a lesson……

The Gardener and His Apples

The gardener and his apples

Behind the high walls of crumbling red brick a garden was tended with immense and loving care by a man who knew every plant and stone and loved them all. The garden was one he had tended much of his life and his father and his father’s father before him. The garden was what you would call a working garden, and a greater part of it was a market garden. Once his father had grown potatoes and carrots and the usual array of vegetables but only a small plot was used for that now, and its produce was for his own table.

The gardener mainly grew the things the supermarket buyers wanted him to grow: soft fruits like blueberries, raspberries, red currants, and unusual and fashionable vegetables. He grew enough of such premium food to make a quiet living on top of his other part time job, and he was content with his life but for one thing.

That one thing was the orchard.

Now the orchard was a beautiful place, half an acre of mature trees that had mainly been planted by his grandfather. The trees were a mixture of fruit trees and the majority of them were apple trees. Not just any old apple trees but the glorious old varieties that you hardly ever see any more. Every spring time a local bee-keeper came with hives and while the apples bloomed fragrantly the leaves were filled with the contented hum of a million bees. A few jars of honey always came his way for this and he always looked forward to it. The problem had become the apples themselves.

People had become accustomed to only certain types of apples being considered to be apples. The varieties he grew not only tasted quite different to normal apples, they looked different too. Some were smaller than usual and had a colour that seemed different to the shiny green or red that the shoppers preferred. Since he never used any pesticides, or anything unnatural, most of the crop had at least a tiny blemish or mark on their skin. The apples refused to grow perfectly round and to a specified size. And their taste was far stronger and richer than most shop-bought apples ever were. So little by little demand for his apples dropped away until the last two years he’d been unable to sell any apples at all. The previous year’s crop had gone to feed pigs.

Now this year, as the September sun ripened his apples, he stood watching his beautiful orchard and wondered if it was time to chainsaw the whole lot and replant with modern varieties that the public might want to buy. The song of the birds soothed him and as he watched both the birds and the busy insects and saw the thousands of faces of flowers looking up from the grass beneath the trees, and smelled the rich fruity smell of the first windfalls fermenting in hidden hollows in the grass, he thought, not this year.

Pondering it over a quiet beer with his old friends at the pub, one of them suggested that rather than let them all just rot or be composted, he ought to fill up crates with them and leave them at his front gate with a sign telling people to help themselves.

People love getting things for nothing,” said his friend. “It’ll encourage all those kids who walk past your place every morning and afternoon to eat some proper fruit.”

What a good idea, he thought, and when he got home, he hauled out a wooden crate and filled it with some of the first apples that had ripened. The smell rising from them made his mouth water, and he wrote out a sign saying Free Apples and put both out by the front gate and went to bed.

The next morning, he watched from an upstairs window as the usual parade of uniformed school children trooped past. He saw heads turn and glance at the sign before rushing onwards. Of course, first thing in the morning perhaps apples aren’t what you want, he thought and got on with his busy day. As evening came he went to refill the crate with more apples and when he got to the front gate he almost dropped his basket. The crate was empty.

Excellent, he thought. The children love my apples.

For the next two or three days he filled the crate up every morning but then he noticed something when he went for his usual Friday night pint at the pub. All along the road were smashed apples. They’d been kicked to pieces, used as footballs, as missiles to throw at the ducks in the duckpond. There was no evidence that anyone had ever set tooth to a single one.

Well, then suggest a donation and put out an honesty box,” suggested his friend. “But leave it a few days to let the kids forget they used to be free.”

The following Monday he began again with a fresh batch of apples, a new sign and a cash box with a slit chained to the gate. The sign read, “Please take an apple, and make a donation if you enjoy it.”

Again he watched from a distance as people passing, not just children, stopped and read the sign and at the end of the day he came back to find some of the apples gone, and only a few littering the road. A core had been placed on the cash-box, but when he opened it, it was empty. The following day, the same outcome, except for a badly spelled note in straggly handwriting pushed into the cash-box, which read, “Your appels tast like shit.” And on the third day, he went to pick up the crate only to discover the apples were all wet; someone had urinated on them.

Discouraged, he took the sign and the cash-box down and threw the remaining apples into the compost.

As the rich September sunshine ripened more and more apples, he decided to have one more shot at it and this time he filled a few bags up with apples, put out the cash-box again and wrote yet another sign. This one read simply, “Apples, 8 for 50p. Put money in box; I am watching YOU!”

At the end of the first day he came to find the crate empty and the cash-box rattling. When he added up the money and the number of bags, it didn’t tally exactly. Undoubtedly someone had taken a bag of apples and not paid for it. But the next day, he filled more bags and set them out and so it went on.

One morning as he was setting the crate of apples out a schoolboy stopped.

I don’t have fifty pee,” said the schoolboy, and the gardener looked at the boy curiously. His uniform was clearly second-hand, probably a hand-me-down from an older brother and his face looked pinched and a little pasty. Poor kid probably needed some decent food in him, thought the gardener.

Tell you what,” said the gardener. “I’ll let you have some for nothing if you do a bit of tidying up for me out here. Come by after school and we’ll see.”

The boy’s face brightened, and then brightened some more when the gardener opened one of the bags and popped an apple in his hand.

You munch on that on your way to school and the rest’ll be here waiting for you later,” he said and the boy bit into the apple and began running to catch up with the rest of the gang of kids.

That afternoon, the gardener waited near the gate, weeding the path, until the school boy came back.

Hey mister, that apple was lush,” came the voice and the gardener got up from his kneeler and came to the gate. “What do you want me to do?”

The gardener had thought about this. He produced a big bucket of water and some cloths and a fresh piece of white card with a packet of coloured pens. Then he brought round a new basket of apples and some clear plastic bags.

You can make my apple stall look a bit nicer,” he said.

So he watched for a while as the boy washed, dried and bagged up apples and he went inside for a cup of tea. When he came back, he found the boy had not only finished bagging the clean apples, he’d made a good start on a new sign. He’d sketched out new words and was busy making each letter a work of art. They were like the letters in an illuminated manuscript, with little drawings worked into them.

Can I finish it at home, please, mister, me mum’s going to go spare if I’m not home soon?” asked the boy and the gardener nodded and handed the boy his promised bag of apples and saw him scurry off down the street with school bag, sign and apples all clutched in his skinny arms. 

The following morning, as he watched from an upstairs window, the gardener saw the children rushing by and he saw a familiar mouse brown head pause at the little stall before rushing on. Curious, he went to see if the boy had brought the finished sign. People were stopping to read as he got to the gate and he waited till the rush of school kids was gone before going to see what the final version of the sign said.

The sign, among the drawings of apples and bees and butterflies, read:

These are not just apples; these are carefully tended, specially washed and utterly delicious apples. Eat one and never crave Golden Delicious again.”

In smaller letters it then read:

8 for 50p but feel free to pay more when you buy some more

and in smaller letters still it said: I bet you will, too!

By the first frosts, the gardener had sold every single apple but for the ones he’d set aside in his shed to save for the winter, for himself and his helpful young assistant.


Earthbound ~ a poem of longing


Last night I dreamed that I could fly,

Take to the skies in a single stride,

Soaring above rooftops

Not like a bird but rather a kite.

This morning when I woke, I felt

Heavier than usual and burdened

By the gravity of my daily life

And bound to earth by boots of lead.

If there were a way whereby

My spirit might rise above the earth,

Leave behind my weighty flesh

And freely fly about the land,

What then? Would I leave behind

My earthbound life, tied by the merest thread

Of silver light, snapped or cut

By choice or chance to free my flight?

I sigh and know it cannot be;

I lack the skills to fly at will,

Except when I chance to know

My dreaming self and wake

Within the dream and leap feather-light,

Find my wings outstretched,

And for a time enjoy the skies

Until I slip into the dream once more.

“Away with the Fairies” review

I don’t usually post on a Sunday unless I have something to share that is special and this is VERY special. Away with the Fairies has been out a little while now and reviews have been popping up on Amazon, making me dance round like a lunatic, but today, this lovely review appeared on a blog. I’m chuffed to bits with this, so a big thank you to the blogger, Gordon Bonnet.

Go and have a read.

From Palaeolithic goddess to a face in the crowd ~ how success is measured according to the times and society you live in.

From Palaeolithic goddess to a face in the crowd ~ how success is measured according to the times and society you live in.

As an exercise in exploring the concept of success I thought it might be entertaining to speculate on how my life might have been viewed through different eras and millennia. The one thing that will remain constant is my age at the time of writing this (45) but other elements of my current self will intrude (education, marital status, intellect, interest and skills) if this serves a good use.

Palaeolithic (Old Stone age) and Mesolithic (Middle stone age): at forty-five I am perhaps the oldest woman of my tribal group; I have given birth to nine children, eight of whom lived to adulthood and the older of whom now have children of their own. My ability to retain fat has served me well through many lean times and my curves have served as inspiration for those who draw and carve figures of our Mother Goddess. I am revered as an elder, though the fact that I have yet to pass into my Crone-hood is marvelled at. I may bear another baby yet, though I am tired of this; my granddaughter is expecting her first baby soon, it’s about time I stopped! My knowledge of herbs and healing has saved many lives, and my story telling during the summer gatherings has become legendary. People from many other tribes who we meet with during those long months of summer plenty talk of me, and it’s a rare year when someone does not come many moons’ walk to bring a youngster to be fostered by me to learn from me for a season or two as I see fit. Some stay as apprentices and I see them as my children too. I have covered many thousands of miles over my life as we migrate to follow the herds but I carry the hearthstone of our camp, a badge of great honour. My husband’s role as shaman rubs off on me; I assist his work in many ways and can do much of it now. Sometimes folks come to ask me rather than him, needing, they tell me, a woman’s touch at healing. I am respected as a great woman by all who encounter me; surviving all that an unimaginable forty five summers can throw at a woman entitles me to this, even if I had done nothing else beyond live that length of time.  

Neolithic: our farmland is good but sometimes crops fail and my summer fat feeds me through to the spring when winter bites hard. When the long Northern winters drive us into our roundhouses to hide from snow and ice, my tales around the fire have kept spirits up through many a long dark night. My skills with herbs and healing make me a key member of our people and my stories are learned by heart by many of the youngsters. I am seen as a magical being, and my shaman husband is held with great respect by our chieftain.

Bronze Age: nothing much has changed but the possession of the secrets of metal working make my husband a man of great honour in the tribe. Our status is high and we are wealthy and honoured.

Iron Age: there are rumours of changes, of visiting warriors from thousands of miles away. I tell the stories still but sometimes I wonder if it is enough. No one will remember them if the line of story tellers is broken. I hear the new warriors have fabulous wealth and are masters of things we can only dream of.

Roman Occupation: we have become Romanised. I can now speak and even read and write a little Latin. We live in a small villa, in the countryside, and run a farm. I have had five children. I wear the stola, the dress of a Roman matron, when I entertain guests but I wear the old bracchae my husband has discarded when I ride and walk the land in search of herbs and solitude. We are respected; my husband is a priest of the local temple. I do not know what gods he is serving but he serves them well and faithfully. He does not like the Emperor worship. The guests we have do not wish to listen to my stories; the men are full of their achievements and the women full of their children and of dresses and gossip. I feel alone but the stories fill my head and ease the loneliness. Painstakingly, I start to write them down, but my adopted tongue feels unwieldy and wrong for the tales that burn in my mind. I am seen as odd, but even those who deem me so come to me for aid with their problems, knowing that I will keep silent and do my best to help.

The Dark Ages: I keep the flame of civilization burning as long as I can, memorising the Gospels so that even when the books are looted or burnt, the words will go on. My own stories I tell again around the fire, to bring hope to my people when the bands of warring tribes burn the fields and our homes, telling them they can rebuild and all is not lost. Some times it is beyond me, this desperate sadness for what has been lost or destroyed and I lapse into months of brooding silence and none can reach me even my husband, priest of the growing Christian church.

Early Middle Ages: I am burned as a heretic.

Middle Ages: I end my life on a scaffold, hanged as witch.

Late Middle ages: Ditto. I really must stop playing with herbs and healing.

Renaissance: a better time. As mistress of a prominent Oxford don, I have certain reflected glory. I also have access to books I’d never have otherwise. I steer clear of herbs, and  I study some of the newly emerging sciences and mathematics. I find joy in poetry, both reading it and writing it. Some is even published, though under my lover’s name. I am viewed by many women with suspicion because my looks conform to current notions of beauty: blonde hair, fair skin, blue eyes and robust curves win me few friends among the ranks of slender dark-eyed brunettes. However, I am sure I have given some of my husband’s fellows some uncomfortable moments…

Reformation: a grim time. Much of the joy and colour has gone out of church worship and  there are strictures unimagined. But I can marry my love, for the clergy are allowed now to marry. I cover my mane of bright hair with a matron’s cap and yearn for greater freedom to be myself without censure. To wear my hair loose beyond my own chamber now would proclaim myself a loose woman.

Seventeenth century: an era of civil war. Women have little or no power, but I have clawed my way to some education and as wife of a clergyman I am given certain basic respect. I am relatively rich; I own books. I can write, but the stories I wish to tell are not what the ladies wish to read and I am still viewed as an oddity by my peers. Ideas about equality are bandied around; the Levellers talk about everyone having the vote but it seems they do not include women. I learn to stay silent. A fist in the face is a deterrent enough for me. Threats to my six children even more so.

Eighteenth century into early nineteenth: the latter half of this century sees things I’d once imagined impossible. Certain lady writers being lionised. The Gothic novel is the latest craze among the upper echelons of society, but when I read them I find them disappointingly unreal. My own stories are surely better than these, but I do not know how they may be published. It seems to be a very fraught process. I am told that if I write love stories then I may be considered. I go back to my garden and I make cordials and possetts and dry herbs for the winter, and no one thinks me more than a good housewife for doing so. Writing is a past-time for spinster ladies of decent fortune, not the wives of country rectors with five children and a house to run, but I still use the stubs of candles to write, late at night when all but the mice in the wainscotting are asleep. My favourite writer has recently been named as a Miss Austen, though her early works were initially anonymous. She writes with good sense and a dry wit.

Victorian era: I made the mistake of emulating my heroes, Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell and have submitted novels that deal with passions and real human emotions in the raw. It has earned me great reproof from the publisher, who has advised me that I am a shocking blight on the face of Womankind and writing such penny dreadfuls dressed up in fancy words without the knowledge of my respectable husband is as dire a betrayal as adultery. I am sure that the Bells are women but no one will believe me. I read whenever household duties allow and write later at night  even though I know that I have little chance of ever achieving recognition for what I write. I have a few close friends whom I send my manuscripts, and they tell me they love my stories. Is this enough? No. But what can I do?

Edwardian era to pre-War: the bluestocking is established as a real entity, and in my youth I managed to gain a university education though sadly not a degree. I was told that no decent man would marry such as I, yet I married as young as many of my peers who went through the usual route of balls and a season. My education probably cost a lot less, being less involved in fancy clothes and fashions. I am seen as an oddity in my husband’s parish, and I hear whispers when we are obliged to entertain. My bookshelves are inspected by all and I am pronounced, “clever” by the kindly and “subversive” by others. I have had some poems published; my nature poems are deemed worthy of it while my harsher ones are not. I hate my stays, and will go without while at home. Beyond the home, I would not dream of going out unsupported; but there must be a better way than this torture.

War-time: I am allowed to work, doing a job that a man normally does so that he can go and be blown to a million pieces. I write anti-war poems and some of the papers print them. The Bishop reproves my husband for not keeping tighter control of me and I lapse into a depression born of the millions of deaths at the front and the fear that it will not end before my son turns eighteen.

Fifties: the more readily available birth control means I have been able to keep my family small and that has meant, along with changes in technology, that I have a little more time for me. I am still seen as an adjunct of my husband, and what I write is always interpreted in that light. I consider a pseudonym. Marilyn Monroe has made blondes with curves very popular but my relative poverty as wife to a country vicar means I am hardly dressed like a pin-up, but it is enough to give me certain notoriety.

The years between my birth and the present time have seen a lot of very rapid change, but I will skip them and move to the present.

2012: curves that seemed like those of a Goddess are seen now as a sign of a lazy, feckless woman who eats greedily and never exercises. My degree, once the province of the top 5% of the population is commonplace, everyone has a degree, and I am told that to progress I need a master’s degree. At 45, I am considered middle aged, menopausal and irrelevant; no matter what legislation is present to avoid age-based discrimination, the concept of age being a bad thing is endemic in a culture that idolises and sexualises youth and I am sure that many jobs I have chased I have missed because I am seen as too old. I teach, but am the lowest of the low in the unacknowledged hierarchy of teaching because I do not possess a certain piece of paper that entitles me to teach in the brutality of an English state school. My only other saleable skill is being able to speak some French and German and find my way around Europe. I live in a small house in a port town at the edge of England, and I do not own many of the trappings of success that today’s society demands. I wear old clothes, I use devices till they break down beyond repair and I recycle everything; I try to minimise my impact on the environment. We own an older car and I cycle to work.  My hard-won learning of herbs and the natural world is superseded by  access to Wikipedia and a million websites trying to sell you something. Poetry is seen as irrelevant to normal people, and few read poems any more. It certainly doesn’t sell. As a writer I have had some small success but the greater exposure of commercial success is still beyond me. As an independent writer who has decided to self-publish my books are competing (at time of writing) with over 900k books available on Kindle alone.

I am a face in the most immense crowd possible.

Capturing Dragonflies

Capturing Dragonflies

If you catch a dragonfly

And dissect it

To unravel it secrets,

Taking it apart bit by bit

Examine under microscope

Label its parts

Classify it in Latin

Then all you are left with

Is a pile of wet chitin

And some fragments

Of dead-rainbow wings.

I have captured dragonflies

Held them in trembling hands

Gazed into jewelled alien eyes,

Felt the flutter of gauzy wings

And the bite of tiny jaws,

Only to release them later

With wings and mysteries intact.

You learn a lot more than way.

What causes depression? ~ a very subjective examination of a difficult subject

What causes depression? ~ a very subjective examination of a difficult subject

I’m in the middle of a depressive phase at the moment, but even within that there are peaks and troughs so I can make a very ham-fisted shot at this very fraught subject.  My personal experience has been of depression itself, without add-ons or other mental health issues other than sometimes severe anxiety. Watching my own patterns in the last few years has made me suspect a possible bi-polar slant too, but until that becomes pressing I don’t intend to pursue that as a diagnosis.

I’m going to do a run-through of the usual and not so usual suspects for the causes and try and briefly explore the evidence. I am not a medical practitioner, nor an expert in anything so be aware these are opinions only.

Chemical imbalances: in the last thirty years, this has been much discussed and researched as a cause for depression. The basic brain chemicals get out of whack with each other and the resulting imbalance is seen to cause depression and other mental health issues. Serotonin, the feel-good “drug” is an example of that. Brains of people suffering with depression were discovered to be malfunctioning in regard to this chemical. A good analogy to this would be to see that the some of the brain had a kind of serotonin gobbling tapeworm that ate up all the good stuff and stopped the rest of the body/brain using it to feel good. The drugs used to treat this were SSRIs, that is Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, which stopped the brain reabsorbing serotonin. I was on an SSRI for many years, off and on, but it only ever took the edge off the depression and in the end, the side effects outweighed the benefits.

My problem with this theory of brain chemical imbalances is a) that it fails to explain quite why the brain gets out of sync with it’s balances and b) the body’s ability to self-right itself is such that untreated most standard cases of depression right themselves within about six months. Treated with drugs or left untreated, many cases of depression actually seem to heal themselves. This then leaves folks like me for whom the medication didn’t work and who spend months in deep depression, which may lighten and then return. I can’t remember a year in my life where I didn’t have at least one spell of debilitating depression. I don’t mean feeling a bit blue or whatever. Everyone has those and that is not depression. And finally c) I also wonder if the chemical imbalances are caused by depression itself. It might be like treating anaemia by giving iron but never discovering that the reason someone is deficient in iron because they have internal bleeding of some kind that has gone undiagnosed. The chemical imbalances might be the result of depression and not the cause.

Trauma: back in the first world war, breaking under pressure was labelled LMF, that is Lack of Moral Fibre, and soldiers who cracked were sometimes punished by being crucified on gun-wheels. By the end of the war, the term Shell shock had come about and that was the start of the understanding of what we now term Post Traumatic stress disorder. Now those with PTSD often suffer serious depression as well as other dreadful symptoms but can we really reverse this and say that those with depression are suffering from PTSD too? Life is tough. Most of us have been through and seen things that haunt us, but is trauma the cause of depression? I know of cases of people who go through terrible things and never suffer a day of depression; I also know of people who have led sheltered, protected lives and whose day to day existence is marred by constant battles with the Black Dog.

Dietary Imbalances: there is no doubt that eating a good balanced diet feeds both body and mind, but can a lack of a few nutrients really cause depression? Well, there is good evidence that lack of certain essential fatty acids depletes the brain, but whether this causes depression or not is still uncertain. In theory, taking supplements of certain fish oils may help. But given that the body is amazing at self-regulating and that enormous numbers of people eat a dreadful diet deficient in lots of nutrients, it surprises me that better evidence has not been presented to support this theory. I tried various much-touted supplements and tried to eat more oily fish, and after a good six to twelve months could see no real changes.

Evil Spirits: medieval physicians often ascribed melancholy to the unwelcome attentions of demons, often referred to as the Noon-Day Demon. Serious psychosis and aberrant behaviour was often attributed to actual demonic possession and it may surprise and even horrify some that exorcisms do still take place, very infrequently, of psychiatric patients, and it may surprise that on some occasions, it works and the person is restored to sanity. Please don’t ask me to quote examples of this, because I probably can’t. The information came to me anecdotally from various sources I trust but am not at liberty to disclose. In some ways, this may be very like the shock-treatments carried out in Victorian or earlier Bedlams, where patients were subjected to extreme shocks like being hosed down with ice cold water. While I believe that demonic possession is possible I also believe it is also phenomenally rare. However, depression is not something I would ascribe to this cause!

Life circumstances: Modern life puts pressures on us many of us find hard to cope with. Stress and worry, not to mention illness and failure, can put a heavy burden on us. Grief and sorrow are a normal part of life, and while they are excruciatingly painful, they pass in their own time. It is when the normal grieving process goes on longer than normal and it can pass into depression. This too will pass. Each and every one of us will lose people and things we love and will be subject to hardships. So why do some never descend into the miserable hell of depression?

Spiritual/psychological problems: I believe that we are beings of soul, of spirit and that a denial of this aspect of self can unbalance us. This doesn’t mean to say that those who have no faith in a higher power are going to be more subject(or less so) to depression. But the psyche, that nebulous thing, is something that needs attention whether you believe in eternal life or not. If we find ourselves at odds with ourselves internally, whether this is spiritual or psychological, then problems do crop up. The classic mid-life crisis is an example of this. The call to inner work is a strong one that is strangely easy to resist, possibly because of the fear of breaking down rather than breaking through.     

Being ungrateful, lazy and selfish: I am adding this one not because I believe it is a cause but because, sadly, others do. A few weeks ago, someone used a private conversation I had with them to air their own agenda publicly, that depression is something to be overcome by being grateful for the good things in your life, and that if you are depressed then you just need to be thankful for those things, pull up your socks, tackle the problems again and get on with it and stop crying for the moon. I was very angry and very hurt by both the betrayal of confidence but mainly for the fact that it was so clear that a great number of people misunderstand what depression is and how destructive it can be.

As you can see from this brief run-through, it’s a minefield of epic proportions. If it’s dietary, HOW can you find out exactly what you are missing and replace it? If it’s psychological, HOW can you pinpoint what is wrong and formulate a plan to deal with it? If it’s a chemical imbalance, HOW can you be sure that what a doctor offers you is really going to help? If it’s spiritual, HOW can you begin to understand what you need to do to get through?

The last few months, I have noticed something very interesting. Many of my friends and contacts online and beyond have mental health issues, and I have explored this both publicly and privately and two important things have emerged from it.

The first thing is I AM NOT ALONE. During really bad days, the kind and encouraging words and acts of both friends and total strangers have helped me limp to the end of another day. Some have made me laugh, some have made me cry(which is not a bad thing) with their kindness.

The second thing is THIS TOO WILL PASS. People have said to me, you’ve been through this before, you know you will come through to the other side. Now, on a bad day, I often think, I have had enough, I want this to stop. I often think, there is no other side, just this blank blackness. Remembering there is an end is often the only thing that keeps you going. Tomorrow is another day is not just for Scarlet O’Hara.

Analysing the creative process ~ part one

I’ve been trying to frame my ideas for this and it has simply been like trying to herd cats!

First I must say that this is purely personal and I can only really speak about what I do most and that is to write. I suspect something similar may go on with art and music and other modalities but since these are not my areas of expertise( if that sounds pompous, sorry!) I can’t comment there.

When I write I often get a feeling that I am not creating anything but that I am re-creating something or discovering something that already exists, rather like an archaeologist happening upon a lost temple that has been forgotten about for centuries. The temple has always been there but people have forgotten it and the lianas have grown up and the jungle has expanded and covered it, and eventually even legends concerning it become vague.

Now I know this sounds rather strange and in some ways completely at odds with the idea of the writer as story-smith and creator of the tales they tell. But I feel I am retelling tales that have been lost. Terry Pratchett wrote quite extensively in Witches Abroad about the concept of Story as a symbiotic or even parasitic life form and while I wouldn’t go so far, it often feels very much as though the stories that I find in my head are alive and evolving.

Quite where the stories actually exist I do not know. I’ve been desperately trying to get my head round ideas to do with Space/time and so on but it simply won’t come right at the moment. But maybe since as Eliot said, in The Four Quartets, all time is eternally present, the stories I write exist in my head because they already exist in the future and the past simultaneously. I might not be making sense here but the echoes of what I hear are not very clear yet and I am trying to translate them into concepts I really do not have the vocabulary for.

I have heard of David existing inside the block of stone and Michaelangelo chiselling away all that wasn’t David; it’s a similar process of identifying which scene is from what story and which lines belong where. Like a combination of excavation and reconstruction, I sift through the images and story-lines and characters and try and use my rather inadequate brain to decide what goes where and I am often left with numerous bits and pieces that fit nowhere that I file away for future use, much like the way comedians collect humour and jokes for the right set.

I’d very much welcome discussion and comment on this issue as it perplexes and baffles me. I’d like to take credit for creation but in some ways I never can; only for allowing the book or poem to “come through” the layers of sand and the detritus of maybe centuries or millennia and cleaning it up.

When Iguanodon was first reassembled by early palaeontologists, they made a right dog’s dinner of him and put his thumb claws on the end of his nose and had his whole structure wrong. Maybe sometimes I do the same with stories and poems but only experience and intuition can tell this, and I suspect that much of what I uncover and reassemble is as accurate as can be hoped for. 

(Ed: I found this article in my archives; I think I wrote it for Cafe Creme, the multi-authored blog I started with three years ago. It’s dated 2009. I’m feeling very flat and lifeless creatively, so hopefully this set of ideas from when I was a bit more lively may be of some use)

I am Napoleon Blown-apart ~ on trying and failing to maintain psychic cohesion

I am Napoleon Blown-apart ~ on trying and failing to maintain psychic cohesion

On Thursday morning we came down to a certain amount of devastation. High winds had wreaked havoc all over Britain but for once, we had not escaped unscathed. A number of panes of glass had blown in or blown out in our small conservatory and it and the garden were covered in shards of glass. Other panes, including the door, were cracked and much of the day was spent sorting out the problems. Now, everything shored up and awaiting proper repairs in due course, I’ve got a moment to process some of my reactions.

Seeing empty space where glass was, feeling wind and rain blowing in where none should be, and touching the gaping empty holes where none should be reminded me of how I feel emotionally a frightening amount of time. Those esoterically trained will surely be shaking their heads at my naivety and are ready to offer me a whole host of advice about maintaining my psychic boundaries, strengthening my energy field and shoring up my aura. And indeed, I have a short shelf full of books on such things. I could probably write a book on psychic self defence and related matters, and I don’t deny that some of it works. You might (if you are of a more sceptical bent) decide that the placebo effect is at work here: you feel safer, therefore you act safer, therefore you are safer.

I don’t know any more really. Despite having a vast horde of techniques and tricks, not to mention enough crystals to run a shop in Glastonbury for a week or two, nothing really works that well for me. Or at all. Staring at my wrecked conservatory today, I began to wonder why and the skeleton of the building made me think. It’s about a cohesive framework, perhaps, or a body to hang skin from. My conservatory is made with all angles and straight lines, with a few defined curves, and the panes of glass sit neatly in their places. It’s stood up to high winds before, and never lost a pane. The design works because while all the frame and all the panes are in place, they support each other. One pane going out meant the whole thing was at risk; flying debris may well have started it.

But I am so far from wholeness that there are gaps in my framework, there are missing pieces that mean that much of my self defence is a matter of cling-film gaffer-taped over cracks and gaps. It might last for a few days, as long as it isn’t subject to anything too demanding but it is a temporary fix. I’ve been doing this sort of repair as long as I can remember. No wonder then that harsh words and losing friends and the usual buffeting life  hurls at us shreds my defences and leaves me raw and naked to the elements.

I’m faced with a choice, really. Using the conservatory as a rough metaphor, I can board over all the gaps, thereby excluding light and sunshine and shutting myself off from the outside world. Each time a piece goes, I can hammer into place great slabs of wood to block out the world. I can leave the temporary fixes till they too fail. Or I can let myself fall into ruins, let the entire outside world, rain, hate, wind and chaos flood into my soul.

There is one final choice: somehow find a way to rebuild my defences so that I allow the optimum balance between protection and sensitivity and involvement in the outside world. For this I need to take time to see what my real shape is. I may have been trying to maintain a form that is not my true form, using straight lines when I needed to use curves, and using a framework that is not the real me.

So: back to the drawing board. Back to trying to fathom who I really am, and trying somehow to nurture that person rather than punish her.