Weird Fiction ~ a guest post by James Everington

James is the author of The Other Room, a collection of short stories I enjoyed reading a few months ago. Some are reminiscent of Lovecraft, some of M.R. James but all have a unique Everington flavour. Over to you, James:


Why I Sub-titled The Other Room a collection of “Weird Fiction”

My self-published collection of short stories, The Other Room, sits firmly in the horror section of the various virtual bookshelves it is for sale on. In terms of commercially defined genres there wasn’t really any other choice – and after all it does feature a brace of ghosts, a parallel universe or two, and many a scary noise and sinister figures glimpsed out the corner of the eye.

Horror fiction is a broad genre though, despite what those who have never read it might believe, and I wanted to give readers an indication of the type of horror fiction they might expect within its virtual pages. Hence the subtitle: Weird Fiction by James Everington.

‘Weird fiction’ is a term that was first used with reference to short stories by the likes of Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, and has been used intermittently by writers ever since. It’s a term which seems to have come into vogue again, especially with the publication of

The Weird, a vast (and I do mean vast) new anthology.  In a similar vein, Robert Aickman called his fiction ‘strange stories’ meaning much the same thing, I think – horror fiction that wasn’t quite horror, ghost stories that didn’t necessarily feature ghosts – weird, odd, strange, ghostly, uncanny fiction.

But what exactly is ‘weird fiction’? Well, like anything interesting, it is hard to define.

Maybe a definition of what it isn’t will help. Imagine a basic horror story plot:

zombies rise up

zombies start to kill people, who turn into zombies themselves

the central characters struggle to survive the growing zombie hoard

some die, some don’t.

the end.

The zombies in this story are scary, if the writer is any good, but within the context of the story they aren’t any more scary than a man-eating tiger or a tsunami, say. They are a physical threat to be overcome.

Now let’s imagine a weird fiction take on the zombie story:

zombies rise up

zombies return to where they used to live. They are silent and placid, but not dangerous

One man, finds his wife’s first deceased husband has returned and has his (somewhat smelly) feet back under the table.

He is gradually usurped by this imposter, and kicked out by his wife. He lives in a big camp of the similarly displaced.

He ponders suicide, as a way of coming back as a zombie and maybe winning back his life.

(I might actually write this one now I’ve thought it up!)

These two examples are somewhat contrived, but they illustrate the point: weird fiction uses the tropes of horror, but it’s tone is likely to be creepy and ambiguous rather than all-out carnage and loud screaming. What tends to be at stake for the protagonist is not simply their physical survival, but murkier questions of identity, ethics, or the nature of reality or perception. Examples abound, many from writers not always considered horror authors: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates. And of course many of the best horror writers are firmly in this territory.

One of the key things that distinguishes this kind of writing, for me, is ambiguity. At the end of a piece of weird fiction questions will remain unanswered (one reason, I think, why this type of fiction’s natural home is the short story).

For certain it’s a sprawling and largely undefined tradition of writing, but one I feel very much a part of. It is more a feeling that anything that can be strictly defined. You know it when you feel it. And for me that feeling is like stepping into the ‘other’ room. One where everything initially seems familiar and safe, but you still feel that something, somewhere, is off-key…

For those who are intrigued I will finish with a ‘Weird Fiction 101’ reading list – not necessarily the best stories, but a good introduction:

The Swords -Robert Aickman

The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

The Summer People – Shirley Jackson

The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Afterward – Edith Wharton

The Companion – Ramsey Campbell



James Everington is a writer from Nottingham, England. His first collection of ‘weird fiction’  The Other Room is available from

Amazon UK, Amazon US, and SmashwordsHYPERLINK “”.

Along with some other great horror authors, he is one of the

Abominable Gentleman, writers of the semi-regular anthology Penny Dreadnought.

He talks nonsense on his

Scattershot Writing blog or on Twitter as @JHEverington .

Urban Spring-time

Urban Springtime

Petals and broken glass

Line the festal way.

Accidental emeralds gleam

Amid silken pink blossom

Trodden underfoot,

Sodden and sad:

Softness and sharpness

Mingling in the fallen trash.

Ten green bottles

Smashed against my wall,

Ten green bottles

Didn’t accidentally fall.

Drifts of pink petals

Candy-floss coloured

              Blow lazily in hot wind

Drying to nothingness

In a few days, gone.

Some rubbish I can live with.

I wrote this poem some years back when we lived in a large village in the Midlands. It had been a big change from the tiny village in the middle of nowhere, where I could walk at night with only starlight and moonlight to guide me, and where the nights were so quiet I could hear the wind in the wheat on a summer night.

It’s been a bigger and more shocking change to move to a port town, and even walking the ancient woodlands a few minutes’ walk from my home I can still hear the roar of traffic, see the rubbish and mourn the damage.

We are stewards and we have not done our job very well.

Why daffodils became the last straw ~ metaphors that strike to the heart

Why daffodils became the last straw ~ metaphors that strike to the heart

Say the word “daffodils” and any literate person will probably reply with “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and any poor fool who grew up with Not The Nine O’ Clock News will probably put on a funny voice and say, “He does eat daffodils, you know.” My friend Kate will probably tell you of the time her clergyman grandfather ate a daffodil as a part of an Easter Day sermon. They’re generally not the sort of flowers to reduce someone to a flood of tears like rain from a blue sky. Genial, gleaming golden trumpets with a faint scent of spring sunshine and pollen, they herald the real arrival of spring with silent songs and waving yellow heads.

There are hundreds planted along the roadside on my route to work, massed brilliance of almost neon yellow, paler shades of lemon and deeper orange of the narcisssi varieties. They’re there for everyone who walks, cycles or drives past to enjoy for a few brief weeks each year.

Last Monday was my birthday. I’m not big on birthdays, I don’t like to make a fuss about them, so working that day was not a big deal. I decided to walk rather than cycle as I’d asked my husband to collect me from work in the evening so we could go and have a meal somewhere. The plan was a picnic on a beach somewhere, if the weather stayed fine enough.

I got a little under half way when I saw the daffodils. Rank upon rank of them, blooming in the sunshine. Then I saw the other ones. Someone had thoughtlessly picked a dozen or so, then thrown them down onto the path and left them, perhaps trampling them as they did so. I don’t know who picked them or who trampled them. It doesn’t matter, now. They were smushed into the path, withering where they had not been flattened.

I tripped in my stride and felt as if the world had suddenly become shadowed. I’d not been precisely cheerful that morning but not a lot different to usual. Tears prickled my eyes, then began to fall, uncontrollable and hot. Flowers have such a brief life, why did someone destroy those ones so wantonly? I sobbed as I walked, unable to understand why a handful of blowsy smashed-up  flowers had bypassed all my controls and hit me so hard. By the time I got to work, I had to come home again.

Now I’d finally spoken to my doctor about the insomnia and the depression and he’d given me some sleeping pills as an interim aide, and I’d been taking half a tablet cautiously every other night. Reading through the leaflet, one of the side effects is “unmasking of existing depression.” Bang on, that is. Unmasking. Yes, indeed. And I found I couldn’t put that mask back on this time.

Those daffodils were a powerful message, a metaphor from the world that flashed directly into my being. We’ve trashed a beautiful world without a thought for the fragile beauty and wonder therein. Oh you could say, it was just a few flowers and there are plenty more. You could say, well they’re bulbs, they’ll get another chance to bloom next Spring.

You could.

But those flowers were cut down and destroyed before they had a chance to finish their short blooming. Cut flowers in vases don’t bother me, because the time they bloom their beauty is being shared, seen and appreciated. Each flower matters, each bee, each bird, each bacteria, each living being, each rock, each bug that creeps you out, each one matters immensely because while there might be millions or even trillions like it, it is the only one in it’s existence.

Ascribing consciousness to inanimate things or creatures might sound mad, but surely recognising the right for things to have existence is better than wiping out things on a whim?

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome


A few weeks ago I got to finally visit the Louvre in Paris. A word of warning: this is the second biggest museum in the world. Even knowing this didn’t not prepare me for the sheer scale of the place. It is ENORMOUS. Unbelievably big. I’ve walked round the outside of it several times but it never sank in how huge it is. With this in mind, we planned to go to one exhibit first and see how much time we had after that. I’m glad we made this decision because by the time we’d corralled the group and walked what felt like about a mile (it may actually have been close to this) we were running out of time.

The exhibit was of course the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. We walked past countless works of breathtakingly amazing art. I had to stop even glancing around me. I’m somewhat prone to Stendhal syndrome, that psychosomatic disorder where a person becomes totally overwhelmed by beauty to the extent they can faint or become otherwise incapacitated. So I focused on just getting us all to the painting.

I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. This is the most famous painting in the world:

It’s quite dull, behind bulletproof glass and a horde of people snapping away. To me, it had no atmosphere except that which the long walk and expectation created. It didn’t overwhelm me, even though I was primed to be knocked over. Worth billions itself and worth billions more through related merchandising, I just thought, “Meh!” and turned away. Call me a Phillistine if you like but it did nothing for me.

Later that evening, I finally had my portrait sketched at the artists’ square at Montmartre. The artists were doing good business and one offered to do mine for just 20 euros; I glanced at his work and decided to sit. Everyone agreed that he’d done astounding work for just fifteen minutes sketching.

Art and beauty are very subjective things but I’d rather appreciate something for its appeal to me than be swept along with the hype.


“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Humankind cannot bear very much reality”

(I wrote the following article at a very low point in my life, Christmas Eve 2010. Following an operation that went somewhat wrong, I was more seriously ill than I realised with post-operative infections and blood loss. I was also subject to the slowly dawning realisation that certain things I thought to be fixed were in fact illusions. So I wrote this in a fit of crying so unlike me that I never had the courage to share it here, and I wrote a less painful version a week or so later. A few people have read this, but until Monday I thought I would never post this entire article here. It was my birthday and the sight of some trampled daffodils on my walk into work triggered a powerful reaction apparently disproportionate to the visible reality. I was suddenly unable to contain the feelings and thoughts that lie beneath my surface and they all came surging up to overwhelm me. I’m off work now.

The title comes from Burnt Norton, the first poem in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “Go, go, go, said the bird: humankind cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end which is always present”)

One of the gifts that pain brings is fact that it destroys illusions. Everything is stripped back, naked in its light. You can’t ignore pain for long. Pain killers themselves seem to work by distancing you somehow from the experience of that pain.

The last week or so I have experienced so much physical pain it has even sneaked through morphine to make me sleepless and uneasy. They offered me ketamine at one point and I refused it, based on an account a friend gave me of how it works. She likened the experience of it to being in a long corridor with doors off it and one by one, the ketamine slams shut all those doors and you are just left watching and unable to participate in life.

The problem was this was more than tempting; it was almost compelling in its appeal. I’d like to be mindless for a while but I suspect it might be addictive.

Being ill over the Christmas period is also a gift, though no one kept the receipt and I can’t take it back and exchange it for underwear at M+S instead. I’ve been too ill to participate in the process, to shop for groceries amid the manic throngs of anxious people, or to agonise over cranberry sauce over redcurrant. So I have been able to stand a little to one side and observe and what I have observed has made me very sad. The frenetic activity is a distraction from the reality of much of human life. The obsessive need to create a perfect Christmas is about fortifying the illusions that keep most of us going forward most of the time. 

Our illusions are sometimes what keep us from collapsing into a useless heap. There is a world of ‘literature’ about following our dreams and believing in them and in ourselves.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night, realising that the state of being that is covered by the term depression is neither an illness nor an imbalance but something quite different. As Aha moments go, it was a terrible one. It also covered quite why there has been an almost unprecedented growth in depressive states and why there has been a corresponding rise in rampant consumerism.

Depression is a state of being when your most cherished illusions about life, and about your part in it are ripped away and you see things as they truly are: naked unvarnished truth. Cold, hard painful truth. It’s enough to send people insane. It does send them insane; it sends them into fugue states and into wars.

It’s hard to explain without giving examples and the only examples I can give really are from my own experience. That, in the end, is all I have. Even what we call objective reality is only ever experienced subjectively.

I had my first experience of what we call depression when I was six. I don’t recall what triggered it but I remember the feeling too well; I felt lost, alone, abandoned and infinitely tiny. Remember that word; it’s important. Tiny. For the years that followed it was a familiar experience and analysing it now it always followed an experience of having the veil between what I wanted the world or my life to be and what it actually was ripped to shreds. Failures, disappointments, self-revelations, all were followed by a long period of extreme lowness. Sometimes the lowness seemed to come out of nowhere, but it really came from a deeper sense of existential failure.

I’ve never been able to manage the whole suspension of disbelief thing for more than a few seconds; it’s probably why I found Disneyland a trial. (“It’s not Mickey Mouse, it’s a man in a suit; Mickey Mouse is an animated character!”) Perhaps it’s a genetic thing, this ability to believe in something you know logically isn’t real; whatever it is, I lack it. All the supposedly key moments in my life, the ones that others dream about for years, have been marred by this. There’s always the me in the background that knows that it’s only a stage set, that what I see is an illusion and isn’t real. Oh I have gone along with things to make it all right for others, but the other night, sleepless again with pain, I mulled through various things and felt such bitterness that others seem to be able to hang on to their illusions, and never even know they are just that. And I wanted, briefly, to smash their veils for them and hold their faces in reality for a few moments.

To bring it to something specific now. Most of my life, I have written. It’s a passion and an obsession for me and I’m good. This I know. But not good enough to get through the lottery that is the Publishing Sweepstakes. To win that particular game, you need to be not merely good, but lucky too. You need to be outstandingly good, and you need luck and contacts and determination and did I mention luck?

Let’s bring it down to numbers. I am one of around 7 billion people on this planet. Of that number, I have no clue how many speak or write English as their first language but a pretty high number. Of that number there are hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) who consider themselves as writers. There are certainly millions of blogs. Of those, I come across a large number via social media as well as blogs, and a fairly large number of those say almost exactly the same about themselves as writers as I do about me. I look at their stuff; some of it is good, some is rubbish and some is amazing. These are essentially the same people whom I was unconsciously competing against when I was submitting to publishers and agents.

That’s a sobering thought. I had no idea back then of the sheer scale of numbers trying to squeeze into a tiny gate, or yet of the talent that was and is out there. What on earth made me think I had even the tiniest chance of ever making it through?


That’s what. The illusion that I am someone special. Someone talented and someone who deserved success and that the simple deserving of something meant that I would get it. And to be fair to myself, in case I seem unusually slow on the uptake, I had a lot of feedback from publishers and agents telling me I was good and to keep going. I had an agent, I had books at publishers being discussed by committees of readers and editors; so I had evidence that I had at least some chance of making it through. It was not merely on self-belief, something I have always lacked but which seems to fuel a lot of people. Those are the ones whose faces I wanted to hold in the stream of reality till the bubbles stopped.

It’s this illusion that means phenomena like The Secret and the plethora of  products and workshops and so on can thrive, because it is something virtually every human being on this planet wants to believe. It’s the periodic thinning of the veil between our illusions and reality that sends every increasing numbers of people into cycles of despair and depression and spending sprees and violence.

I shall say it again. I am one of 7 billion people on this planet. And I am not important. I will never be important. All that I have done in my life is try to  bring into reality a belief that somehow I am important and special. I am TINY. Insignificant and without value. Even if I achieved my dreams, sold a million books, became an overnight success, this would change NOTHING at all. I would still be me, and tiny.

Right now I feel as though I am standing at the summit of a very high mountain and the air is cold and thin and I am finding it hard to breathe. Because this is the point at which I have a number of choices of what to do with these revelations. I can try and claw back my illusions; friends and family usually help with this one, because while in the grand scheme of things, I am unimportant, I am also to some degree important to them. That’s natural and human but while to some degree I want more than anything to have some reassurance, to be told that one day I will “make it” and succeed in my dreams, right now, that’s not what I need. This would simply prolong the pain of this revelation. I would have to revisit it, as I have done so often, through depressive episodes. The dreams are no more than that: dreams. That’s all they ever were and all they ever will be. Even if I achieve them, they remain dreams. Once you step outside of time, you realise that what has been achieved, what may be achieved and what never will be, mean more or less the same thing- “what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.”

My second choice is in effect to leap from the mountain top where I stand right now. In terms of reality, this means stopping dead. Stop writing, stop thinking, stop hoping, stop trying. Not necessarily to die but to go into suspended animation, a living death of the soul. This is tempting. I’ve done it before. A numbness descends, and while pain exists, it’s muffled. But joy too is absent and many other things that make life worth living.

The third choice is a stranger one yet.

Many years ago, when I was being prepared for confirmation, the vicar who was doing the confirmation lessons touched on the state of being where loss of faith occurs and what to do when it happens. I am sure he said WHEN and not IF. The advice he passed on, which was given to a clergy wife of his acquaintance (I am sure it was actually his own) was to carry on acting as if everything was the same, even though you know it is not. At first this seems hypocritical. More pretending. But it’s not. Everything inside is different; you know, even if no one outside your head does, that nothing is the same.

So the third choice is to carry on, knowing that all I do and try and dream about is simply made up of illusions.

The irony of all this is that even as I write, illusions come flooding back, trying to take over and with them, the knowledge that they are illusions and the pain this brings in its wake. I am aware that this is probably one of the most important things I have ever written and that despite this, and the feeling that this is something people need to read, only dozens or maybe hundreds of people at best will ever read it and the whole sense of me being important comes crashing back down again. I’d laugh, if I weren’t already crying.

I am tiny and insignificant and without importance. And yet, something in me will not lie down and accept this. This has been my story, over and over and over since I was six. I don’t know right now how this story will end.

That’s all.        

A meme of seven ~ lucky for some!

A meme of sevens ~ lucky for some.

I’m not one for the memes that go across the blog-o-sphere but Gordon Bonnet tagged me in one that intrigued me somewhat.

The idea was that you go to page 77 of your current work in progress, or most recently completed story (or page 7 if you prefer) and you go to the 7th line and then cut and paste the next 7 sentences, or paragraphs. Then you tag another seven writers whom you’d like to find out more about their work.

Now the trouble with this is that while I know a lot of writers I don’t want to put upon them by tagging them. So consider this an open invite to use the same meme. You can do it here in the comments, or on your own blog, or even both.

The following extract is from the novel I’d like to release next. I would have had it out for Easter but I can’t seem to get a cover sorted for it. Provisionally titled Square Peg (but I may change this) the novel is the story of Chloe (best friend to Isobel from Away With The Fairies; she appears about half way through the story and the girls team up to fight back with disastrous consequences) and her struggle to get through three years at theological college where her husband is training to become a minister. Brought up by her unconventional grandmother, her arrival at the college is shortly after her Gran’s death, and Chloe finds it very hard to cope with the very narrow and stifling atmosphere. In this extract she is going through some of her grandmother’s most treasured belongings; they have just found a crystal ball and a set of Tarot cards. 

Well, you know she used to help out with the travellers from time to time? Stitched up wounds and dug out shotgun pellets and said nothing? That sort of thing. She used to get me up in the night sometimes when I was little, when someone had come to the door at the dead of night asking for her help. She couldn’t leave me at home on my own so she used to pack me up in the car with blankets and sometimes I’d get out of the car and wander around the camps. I loved it, actually, and they were always kind to me. Anyway, this old lady, I think she was a real gypsy, a real Romany, called my Gran out to see her. She wouldn’t go to the hospital, obviously, but she needed help. Apparently Gran told her exactly what was wrong with her; which is what she wanted, not someone lying to her with hopeful lies. So she told Gran that she didn’t want any of her special things going to the wives of her sons; she didn’t like them and they’d gone into brick anyway, that is left the travelling life. So she gave Gran her crystal ball and her cards and that was that. She died about three days later. Gran said the ball had been in the old lady’s family for hundreds of years; she’d been worried about accepting it on that account, but when she met the daughters-in-law she realised the old woman was right. They’d have sold the crystal and binned the cards.”

Chloe took the crystal from him and gazed into it. The room was reflected back to her, upside down, but her vision was drawn deep into the rock, following the tiny flaws and rainbows, till she felt almost dizzy as if she’d been gazing down from a great height.

It is really beautiful,” she said. “It does sort of quiet the mind looking into it. Odd.”

Let’s have a peep at the cards, then,” Clifford said, and Chloe unwrapped them and they looked through them in fascination.

After a while, Chloe sighed.

I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” she said. “I can’t understand why there was such a terror of this sort of thing when I was hovering on the fringes of the CU. They’re just pictures; interesting pictures. I think they’re archetypes, like Jung wrote about. There’s nothing sinister here at all.”

She sounded disappointed, and Clifford laughed at her.

Anyway, if you fancy playing along and sharing, please feel free to do so! It’s also my birthday today so knock yourselves out and have fun!

Green Willow

Green Willow

The astringent smell of wet willow leaves filled the air as she pounded along the tow path, and danced in and out of the puddles. The cold spring rain lashed against her face and dripped off the peak of her running cap but the pounding of her feet and the drumming of the rain failed to drown out the music in her ears. Volume up as high as she dared go, she’d set her mp3 player to random and had let fate choose whatever songs it dared on this day. Let the music decide what she did. The one good thing about running in the rain was no one could see that her face was as wet with tears as it was with rain.

Pushing herself to run faster and harder than she liked, the miles added up and while her legs and her lungs begged her to stop, she couldn’t stop running till she finally stumbled and fell.

The fall knocked the breath from her body, and drove grit and filth into her hands as she tried to protect her face from hitting the ground. The chill of the day delayed the onslaught of pain and for a shocked second or two she lay still, face in a puddle, until both the blood and the pain started to flow. That was the point when a steady stream of tears became a torrent and she curled up and howled at the empty canal and beat her bleeding fists on the path.

In a movie, this would be when a kind passer-by would stop and comfort her and take her home, tend her wounds and help her heal. But there was no one, not even a solitary dog-walker, collar turned against the rain, and she sat in an icy puddle and sobbed till her throat was raw. She’d kept all the pain inside, never speaking of it, never allowing it to reach full consciousness and that morning, it became like a ghostly elephant, a ponderous foot pressing ever harder down on her heart. Her usual morning run had already been extended by significant distance and when she dragged herself to her feet, she could feel she’d pulled various muscles and strained her left ankle when she fell. There was blood oozing through her running trousers where the fall had gashed her knees, and her hands were pitted with gravel and dirt. Slowly she turned and started limping homewards, energy and hope spent.

There was no way she’d get to work on time, and she decided that as soon as she got in, she’d ring in sick. She’d run a hot bath and lie in it and…..Her mind wandered to whether it was possible to detach the blade from ladies’ razors. The fall had just released the pain she’d not wanted to acknowledge and like a shattered window there was no way of restoring that barrier between her feelings and her conscious mind any more.

And that would have been the end of that, a body found in a bathtub, friends and family horrified and totally mystified (“She was such a steady girl; what on earth made her do it? No-one can understand it!”) but for two things happening within moments of each other.

The first thing was the wind getting up and slapping her in the face with a slender branch of newly-opened willow leaves, knocking her backwards in shock.

The second was her mp3 player choosing that moment to start playing an old song:

All around my hat,

I will wear the green willow

All around my hat

For a twelve month and a day

And if anyone should ask me

The reason why I’m wearing it

It’s all for my true love,

Who is far, far away

Fare thee well, cold winter

And fare thee well, cold frost

Nothing have I gained,

But my own true love I’ve lost

I’ll sing and I’ll be merry

When occasion I do see,

He’s a false, deluding young man,

Let him go, farewell he!

The other night he brought me

A fine diamond ring, but he

Thought to have deprive me

Of a far better thing!

But I being careful,

Like lovers ought to be,

He’s a false, deluding young man

Let him go, farewell he!

With a quarter pound of reason,

And a half a pound of sense,

A small spring of time,

And as much of prudence,

You mix them all together,

And you will plainly see

He’s a false deluding young man

Let him go, farewell he!”

The wet leaves seemed to have a life of their own, and caught in her hair and her hat, and she struggled for a moment to free herself from the branch. It felt more like a briar than a  willow and she had to break the longest twig to free herself from it.

Staring at the shining brilliance of the new leaves, she felt a shiver starting and as the song thundered on, a queer little tugging began somewhere in the back of her mind. With a rapid twisting, she made a rough wreath of the willow twig, tucking the ends in. She didn’t expect it to stay in the oval circlet but it did and she took off her hat so she could arrange the wreath on that.

Grunting with a weird sense of satisfaction she put the hat back on her head and started to hobble more briskly homeward.

Making it to the very top ~ success in stages

Making it to the very top ~ success in stages

I’m scared of heights. Really scared, actually. It’s not logical at all but it’s powerful and paralysing at times. It’s not so much a conscious fear but more an experiential one. There are sensations I experience when in high places that are very unpleasant. Vertigo and nausea for a start. Sweating. Shaking. It’s not a pretty picture at all.

Two years ago, I was forced to confront the fear at work. I work as a courier/tour guide for my second job, and I take groups of English kids to Europe for educational visits. I’m the one on the in-coach microphone, giving a commentary about wherever we are. No trip to Paris is complete without a trip UP the Eiffel Tower, but until two years ago, I’d somehow managed to be the responsible adult who stayed on the ground with the couple of kids who didn’t feel they could go up. Two years ago I did a trip where the teacher in charge deemed that EVERY kid had to go up, whether they were scared or not, so I had no option. I went up, shaking and sweating, on the very brink of a panic attack the whole time. But I stayed in the enclosed capsule at the final stage and didn’t climb the final dozen stairs to the highest point the public can visit. I was unable to set a foot on that iron stairway and make it up.

Last week, I took a group who have so far never gone to the top. It’s always been closed for maintenance when the group usually visit Paris. Last year we went to the second floor. When we got there this time to change to the smallest lift, one child became so unwell with fear, a member of staff had to take him back down. So the die was cast and I knew I had to go to the top again. The final lift is quite small compared to the first one which holds about fifty people so my group and I packed in and held on. I shut my eyes. Stepping out, I was relieved to be there but knew going down is worse. The kids wanted to go to the final stage and I had no choice but to go as well. Reaching the circular gallery at the very top, I felt the full force of vertigo hit me, and I tried to dig my fingernails into the metal walls. Breathe. Just breathe. After a moment or two, I was able to steady myself and move, walking slowly and shakily round before descending again once another member of staff was present. A kind American girl took my photo so I have evidence that I finally made it to the top.

Many things in life are like this. The tip-top is so far away, we think we can never reach it, it’s like shooting for the stars. But if you break down a massive task into discrete, achievable chunks, each to stand alone as a powerful monument to your abilities, then you have an option of building on them and slowly but surely reaching the top.

After all, there’s only one way to eat an elephant: bit by bit. 

Tales of the Wellspring part 2 ~ the origins

Tales of the Wellspring part 2 ~ the origins

I’ve always struggled with community, with being among people constantly. It’s always made me feel as if there is something horribly wrong with me that after a couple of days I start to feel irritable, angry and then finally desperate. The first time I began to get to grips with dealing with this and understanding both myself and the feelings was when I was seventeen.

During my teens I belonged to a church youth fellowship group that became quite central to my life. I had a few friends from school but really I didn’t have a social life as such because I hated the usual disco/pop/clothes/boys conversations that dominated most groups of girls my age. The fellowship group tended to delve rather deeper into things that did interest me, though I’ve never been fussed about Bible study!

Easter 1983 meant a week’s trip away as a group, and we headed from the East Anglian town where I grew up all the way across England and into Wales via Snowdonia before finally reaching our destination in the hills of the isle of Anglesey. Two mini bus loads of us, packed with people and provisions arrived at the entrance to a narrow muddy lane that had ditches either side of it and took very careful driving to negotiate to reach the cottage. It was a tiny cottage, with only two bedrooms, one bathroom (without toilet) and an outside loo. There were seventeen of us. Each bedroom had a double bed and a single bed; we also had a trailer tent, another tent and the cottage had a caravan to the side as well. The living room had a double bed that folded away. By the time tents had been put up and people had claimed beds, I discovered there was nowhere for me to sleep.

The only place left was a chaise longue in the central area that acted as hall and dining room. So that’s where I dumped my rucksack and unrolled my sleeping bag. Chaise longues are ridiculously uncomfortable things to try and spend a night on, specially as I ended up with my feet up a wall. It’s also impossible to sleep in a passageway. Kitchen, bathroom, stairs and front door all opened onto this space. I had no privacy whatsoever.

Well, I coped for a few days. Then I started to get grumpy and unhappy. Everyone else seemed to be having a wonderful time; I felt excluded from much of the conversations because people were forming close bonds with those they were sharing their sleeping space with and I was sharing my sleeping space with the hearthrug by this point. Mid week and I was going mad. I hated everyone. I wanted to kill people for being inconsiderate. I hated the fact that even the bathroom had no lock on the door and washing was nerve-racking. With only one outside toilet, you couldn’t even go and hide in there without someone banging on the door and yelling at you to hurry up.

I began plotting escape. Or mass murder. I’m not sure which now. Thankfully for everyone, I ended up breaking down in tears and after some discussion and more support than I’d expected, the girls in the bedroom upstairs shifted their belongings so that I could claim a bit of floor space there so at least I could sleep without feeling as though I was sleeping in a motorway service station. It also meant that during the day, I could find a room where I had a small chance of being alone.

The weather had been wet and muddy till this point too and it suddenly changed and became sunny and mild. We were encouraged each day to take some “quiet time” after the morning session of Bible study, and up to this point, it had been a nightmare to find a place to do so. Now the weather was cooperating I decided to find somewhere outside.

That’s when I found the spring.

It was there all the time. I’d seen it but I hadn’t really seen it. The cottage was supplied by a well that was fed by the spring, but the spring itself was at the bottom of the garden by the beginning of the muddy lane. A rock formation that you had to climb down formed a sort of tiny amphitheatre round a stone bowl where water welled up from the ground and spilled over and was the very source of the stream that then ran all the way down the mountain we were half way up. I’ve never seen anything like it since but at seventeen I never realised just how special it was.

It took many years for that place to be distilled into the Wellspring of Strangers and Pilgrims:

Look,” she said and pointed ahead.

As the mist swirled and twined like steam from a cooking pot around the rocks ahead of them, Gareth heard the chuckle of water cascading over stone, quite different from the sound of the stream in its earth bed. The heavily weathered rocks, probably left by a retreating glacier, formed a series of pools and basins spilling one into another and as he got closer to the waterfall he saw that the source was a pool the size of a small garden pond. The rim was worn and slippery where the water endlessly spilled over into the lower pools and then down into the stream. Beyond it, there was nothing but barren rock, damp with rain and mist but nothing more.

I think we’ve found it,” he said and they walked closer.

From that point on in the Fellowship holiday retreat I spent an hour each morning, sitting by this spring, with my Bible open but unread on my lap as I listened to the water bubbling up and running down the hill and I felt such peace as I’d not felt before. I learned then something vital about myself. I need time and space to be alone, so that I have a chance of maintaining any sort of equilibrium, and moreover I need time in nature too. I am drawn to water, I gravitate towards it but the sound of running water, the feeling of sheer beauty and mystery that a spring provokes in me is numinous and necessary. There is something deeply magical about water emerging from rocks and from the earth and no matter that I know the mechanisms of it, I am always mesmerised by the experience of it. But from that spring on a hillside in Anglesey was born my love for such things and over the years that came next, I have sought such places and found them to bring me peace that nothing else can.

I’ll tell you about some of those another time.

For part one go to: Tales of the Wellspring 1

“Power is the ability not to have to please” ~ selfishness versus selflessness

Power is the ability not to have to please” ~ selfishness versus selflessness

A few years ago I bought a small pendant shaped like a stylised goddess figure to hang from a leather thong; on the reverse it said, “Power is the ability not to have to please.” It was a kind of motto for me for what proved to be a very tricky year at work, and I wore the pendant under my shirt most days to remind me that I could do what I was paid to do and that I didn’t have to try to please people I worked with or for. It was oddly liberating to be able to tell myself that I didn’t need to go the extra mile just to try and please people. It didn’t matter if I pleased them or not.

The need for approval is something that unconsciously drives a lot of people and it can be what motivates many to do things. For many people there comes a partial awakening to this need and it seems to go through various stages. At first, you realise, as I did, that the need to please is a powerful force that can make you do things for that reason alone. Analysing it further, you begin to see that this need is rooted in a desire for love and acceptance. So you wake up to see that your actions are based on a form of placating others: if I do this for them, they will love and accept me.

There is a form of transaction going on, unseen and unobserved. We notice it most at gift giving times like Christmas. I’ve watched over the years how people will often be upset when a gift is not met by a reciprocating gift. Indeed, within ancient Celtic society, a gift HAD to be met by a gift in return; many legends have this as a central driving force. This form of reciprocal transaction is what underpins both relationships and economies of nations.

Being aware of this tends to affect people in different ways. It’s easy to start exploiting it, by playing the game of “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours”. You see it everywhere on social media and among communities online and offline. It’s not intrinsically wrong but it can become a form of tribalism, of forming exclusive cliques. Tightly knit groups will turf out a member who fails to reciprocate in the exchange of energies(whether real or virtual)

Some people when they realise that they are drive by a need for approval respond by deciding they will only do what they WANT to do and to benefit themselves only, regardless of whether this hurts others. I’ve heard someone tell me, “It’s time to be selfish and I don’t care what anyone thinks of me for it.” The resulting actions caused quite a lot of hurt.

To be able to step back and weigh our actions in the light of probable results is a difficult thing to do, because we are guessing at outcomes. Sometimes we have to make decisions that will hurt others, but not caring that you will hurt another is not the way forward. It is inevitable that some of our decisions will displease others, even cause them serious harm at times. But not caring? That is the ultimate selfishness. “Me first” might take you to the top quickly, but as has been seen many times, if you use others as a stepladder to get to the top, then expect little or no help when you come down again. Human beings are primitive, unenlightened creatures when hurt; and we like to see people get what we feel they deserve. There is very little sympathy for high profile people who have used and abused others, when they are finally outed and put on trial either by a court or by the media.

But that little pendant holds more. The words can be read another way. Power comes when I know I don’t have to please someone but also when I choose to do so knowing that I am at liberty not to. To choose to help someone who has no means of reciprocating is a massive step forward into unselfishness. To please someone for nothing more than the satisfaction of making them happier for one small moment, with no thought that they may one day return the favour, is real power. It’s real power because it takes the  very human need for approval and makes it into something almost divine.

To give with no thought of a return, simply because it is the right thing to do, lifts us from our grubby selfishness, makes us better people and when more people start behaving this way, it makes a better society all round. But how do you deal with the people who chose a life of selfishness, who prefer to look after number one at the expense of others? Perhaps the first step is accepting that anything you might do for them is not even going to earn you thanks. It may well earn you a kick in the teeth in some form: you’ve held up a mirror to them and they don’t like what they see. It’s your choice then whether you step back and leave them to it. It’s not easy if they are a family member or a close friend, because you are bound to them by love. But love sometimes has to say no, and leave them to it.

Living selfishly may get you what YOU want but it’s the Dead Sea Fruit when you get it and turns to ashes in your mouth. Living selflessly may get us ALL much further.