Hey Babe, take a walk on the wild side ~ with Walker by Jane Alexander

Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side ~ with Walker by Jane Alexander

Over Christmas I downloaded a book I was not sure I would like. When I was a kid, the genre YOUNG ADULT barely existed, if at all, and I’d have run screaming from it, as the condescending marketing ploy from publishers it surely is. However, Walker by Jane Alexander has been placed in this category because the main character Hunter is only fifteen. So, I swallowed my doubts and began reading.

Now, due to my depression I often find concentrating really hard and unless fiction is exceptionally well written, I can give up within pages. I finished it in about two days, either side of the festivities.

What hooked me most was the presentation of a hidden world, that lies in and alongside our own, a world I see glimpses of from time to time. I’ve done some shamanic work and while it may seem really “woo” it gets results. Many psychotherapists use soul retrieval techniques to heal serious psychological traumas so going back to ancient basics with the original techniques has become very popular.

The story is so finely written, I soon forgot my doubts. I was transported to Exmoor (which I had visited a few months previously) and to a landscape that is ancient and powerful. I’ve walked the hidden valley of Kitnor, and let me tell you something: despite it being a sunny day in early September, not a bird sang; the air throbbed with unseen power. This is the blurb from Amazon:

Hidden temples have always protected the Earth. But now they are dying. Concrete is spreading over the valleys, pollution hangs heavy over the cities: greed is consuming the world.
Deep in the heart of England, there is one last hope. Kitnor, a remote Exmoor valley, could be a new place of power. But it is young and vulnerable to attack. The guardians, ancient keepers of the land, have to find the new temple and bring it to its full power. But their mission is failing and time is running out.
One teen, Hunter McKenzie, survivor of the car crash that killed his parents, is a shaman, a walker between worlds. He alone could find Kitnor. But Hunter doesn’t know his power. He doesn’t believe in shamanism. He doesn’t even believe in himself.
Help comes from unexpected quarters. Rowan is another teen shaman with her own ‘power animal’, a black panther called Comer. Rowan, however, has her own problems, her own potentially fatal Achilles’ heel.
Hunter meets many strange beings on his quest – the Ferish (cruel fairies who hate humankind); the punkies (souls of dead babies and young children); ancient warriors, Tibetan lamas and, above all, his own powerful animal spirits. Some will help, some hinder. Some are not what they seem.
Walker is a magical eco-quest. It is based on the ancient practice of shamanism, in which the shaman ‘journeys’ into other realms with the help of power animals and guardian spirits, to find wisdom and power. Shamanism holds the earth and all its creatures as sacred – the shaman’s duty is to protect the earth and honour everything in it.
While the story of Walker is pure fiction, the shamanic practices used in the tale are all based on fact.

While the story is filled with mysticism the young hero is filled with doubts, not only about himself but about all that he experiences. Not brought up to this kind of thing, it is utterly alien, but seeing it through his eyes aids the reader understand the practises and beliefs involved.

This book ought to be a rallying call for eco-warriors young and old alike. My only caveat is my personal concern about this being considered a YOUNG ADULT book. It might put off people who do not fall into this demographic, as it almost did me. I also worry that since the techniques are real and can be dangerous, ill-advised attempts might be made by children to reproduce the experiences, but since generally shamanic power comes either by long training, hard knocks and often near-death experiences, I suspect that all that would really happen is a few terrifying nightmares at worst. There’s enough information out there on the internet freely available after all.

From my own perspective, this book reminded me of the work I have already done to explore the Otherworld, and encouraged me to continue it, in my own way. Being an eco-warrior is about more things than recycling and acknowledging the hidden world and working with it is as important as more mundane and accepted practises.

At less than you’d pay for a decent cup of coffee, I can’t see why anyone interested in both beautifully written adventure tales and environmental matters wouldn’t buy it. What’s that you say? You don’t have a Kindle? Well, you can download a free app to your PC, Mac or tablet, or even your phone, and then you can buy Kindle books and enjoy them without shelling out for a Kindle. And if this book sells well enough as an e-book, I’m hoping the author will consider producing a paerback as the cover art is so beautiful it deserves more than an Amazon thumbnail!

UK link

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Walker-ebook/dp/B006J74FX6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335696148&sr=1-1

US link

http://www.amazon.com/Walker-ebook/dp/B006J74FX6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335696148&sr=1-1

“I know you can fight. But can you stand, lads? Can you stand?” ~ a bit of Sharpe wisdom

I know you can fight. But can you stand, lads? Can you stand?” ~ a bit of  Sharpe wisdom

When it comes to films, or TV, I’d generally far rather watch war than romance. I read most of the Bernard Cornwall Sharpe books and have seen all the films. It’s not that I’m into war, but I do think that conflict can show someone’s true colours far more graphically than romance. People put under intolerable pressure are somehow more interesting and war does that. “Sharpe” is set during the Peninsula war against Napoleon and follows the adventures of Richard Sharpe as he rises improbably through the ranks to reach first Lieutenant, then Captain and finally Major. Born illegitimate and of low standing, Sharpe is cunning, resourceful and brave. Not to mention astonishingly lucky, given some of the scrapes he lives through.

There’s an episode in the earlier films where he is obliged to train a bunch of raw recruits in record time to face battle. Guns at this time were still muzzle loaded muskets, with rifles being the province of the sharp shooters, highly trained and highly prized “Chosen men”, and one of the requirements to be a good soldier was the ability to fire three rounds a minute while under fire yourself. It’s far from easy. The process requires great discipline and training to perform a sequence of fiddly tasks mechanically, until it becomes completely automatic and second nature. Usually it would take weeks and weeks of intense drilling to transform recruits who’d never fired a gun before into efficient soldiers, but Sharpe has only days to do it. Needless to say, all his soldiers come up to scratch.

It’s his pre-battle speech that has always inspired me. As he and his little regiment wait, listening to the drums of the approaching French army and the heart stopping chant of “Vive L’Empereur!” he tries to give them that edge of courage with a rousing speech. He tells them they’re good soldiers already because they can all reliably fire 3 rounds a minute, and that they’re all good lads. Then he talks about the approaching battle, and how they must wait till they can see the enemy and even smell the garlic on their breath. “I know you can fight,” he says, “but can you stand?” Can they stand, and hold their position, and not break and run away, in terror, as the enemy fires at them and they see their friends falling, gutted or heads blown off? Can they stand, waiting for orders and maintain their ranks, even when they have pissed themselves in fear and carry on with their firing three rounds a minute? That, and not the three rounds a minute is what truly makes a good soldier.   

I’ve never been in a battle situation and never will but I know how hard it is to stand when it feels like the unseen enemy is firing at me, and I do not know what is coming next. The feeling of needing to bolt, to run away is huge and yet, it’s probably the worst thing you could do. Like retreating soldiers in a rout, we are at our most vulnerable when we flee in blind panic. You make decisions that are based on fear and nothing more concrete than the desperate need to get away.

A year ago, I felt the beginnings of a dreadful change, before it happened, and the fall out from that is still with me in terms of a very real grief that never quite heals. I’m feeling another change coming, like very distant drums, beating miles away, approaching steadily. I can’t see yet whether those are drums to announce an enemy or whether they are drums to dance to.

I know I can fight. But can I stand?  

Devas, fairies, and the unseen worlds ~ why there are more things than we ever dream of

Devas, fairies, and the unseen worlds ~ why there are more things than we ever dream of

I’m a mass of contradictions, me. Like Lewis Caroll, I can believe ten impossible things before breakfast and not think it strange, and yet, some things I simply cannot accept. Of all the disciples of Jesus I most identify with, I think Thomas is the closest to my heart. Dear old Doubting Thomas, who demanded to put his hands in Christ’s wounds before he could fully believe in the resurrection. I’m like that; I have to experience certain things before I can accept them. So for all my scepticism, there are things that I believe in that mark me out as one of the fruit-loop brigade. I have enough crystals to set up a business, and while I cannot begin to explain why, I know that using them has had benefits for my health. You may dismiss it as placebo, or something as simple as appreciating them for their intrinsic beauty, but I’ve always found something uplifting, soothing, calming or energising about certain rocks. I can’t explain it, nor can I really justify it, and I’d be very hesitant about attempting to offer the kind of recommendations I see and hear of crystal healers giving. The complex pseudo-scientific rationales about how crystals work actually annoy me.

The same goes for stuff like fairies. I know damn well I must appear crazy to believe in the existence of otherworldly beings, Tinkerbells and the flower fairies, not to mention things like angels and elves, and dryads and the rest. And yet, crazy or not, I think they are real and on occasions interact with humans. I’ve seen and experienced things I cannot dismiss as tricks of the light, visual disturbances, psychotic hallucinations and the products of a vivid imagination.

But I still have no explanation for what these beings are, what they history is and where they come from. I could waffle on about many dimensions, space-time continuums, parallel universes and the like but it would be pointless. I just don’t know.

What I do know is that when I have aimed to work with these unseen beings, things flow in an almost magical way. Gardens bloom with greater vigour, and my home has had an atmosphere of welcome and kindness that people notice the moment they walk in. There is a school of thought that calls the beings that work with the natural world Devas, a Sanskrit word meaning shining ones and the depictions of them correspond to the occasional glimpses I have had. The Victorian idea of flower fairies being pretty winged children of minute size does somehow diminish them, in my view. Devas can be any size they choose to be; in fact I don’t think size has any meaning.

Isobel in Away With The Fairies found that the unseen beings around her became more insistent that she pay attention to them. In her isolated holiday cottage, where the modern world intruded less into her life, she was plagued by odd events. Doors refusing to stay closed, even unlocking themselves, small items of value vanishing and then reappearing where she’d looked ten times, strange fairy gifts of woven twigs and leaves appearing and disappearing; scary and unsettling sounds, electricity faltering and failing.  Her sense of self had been vanishing, her unique identity being eroded by the mundane grind of living a life that wasn’t fully authentic to her creative self. I’ve found the same. So I’ve decided to start paying more heed to them. That’s not to say you can cart me off to the funny farm just yet. In my defence, every year there are discoveries made that overturn previously cast-iron theories. Science is constantly obliged to re-evaluate itself. There are far more things in this amazing world of ours than we knew about even ten years ago. Who is to say that what we know in another ten years will not supersede even that?

My gift to myself this weekend, using hoarded birthday money was this pendant of a deva, in silver, to remind myself that there truly are things beyond imagining, and to re-connect with my own experiences of such things. I may be mad, but I think I am harmless. I’m going to start accepting that my experiences are real, and that there truly are other beings, composed of quite different material to us, dipping in and out of this world, and which wish to work with us and not against us.

Desert Journey

Desert Journey

In the wild places, life loses its confusion

And shines instead with the brilliant clarity

Of fresh-hewn crystal, sparkling with light

And edges so sharp they would draw blood.

The final tent is lost in a shimmer of heat,

Long miles behind me in the sand;

I cannot see my destination

Though mirages try to distort my vision

And lure me from my straight path.

I lay the compass on the baking ground

Follow where the arrow points me

Even though I can see nothing ahead

But sand, sand and yet more sand.

It will be cold tonight, surely,

The ice glittering in the moonlight

Mirroring the hard stars in velvet sky

Singing with high voices like distant angels.

Tomorrow, the sky will be too bright

But I will remember the stars

With their haunting piercing songs

I shall walk to that rhythm

Till I reach the other side.

Chinese menus, books, Harvey Wall-bangers and our lost sense of adventure

Chinese menus, books, Harvey Wall-bangers and our lost sense of adventure

When I was growing up, Chinese food was considered really rather exotic and adventurous but these days, most people consider it almost a mainstream part of their diet. The small market town I grew up in had a single Chinese restaurant and it was an exciting occasion to go and eat there. Looking back, it was fairly westernised, but to the kid I was then it was utterly unfamiliar and a little bit scary. Now that same town has countless Chinese takeaways and many other food emporiums offering a vast range of food. Where I live now there are many, with long lists of dishes. One of our locals was surprised and delighted when I ordered a dish that they said hardly anyone ever ordered. I’d seen it, thought, hey I’ve never tried that and decided to order it. When I was a student in Liverpool I ate at various places in China Town, where authentic dishes were served, and attempted to try something new each time.

A few years ago, I saw a TV programme(it had the lads from Top Gear in so, perhaps not a terribly serious effort) that suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: risk takers and consolidators. The acid test as I recall was whether you loved or loathed roller-coasters. Now I loathe them, which in theory makes me a consolidator, yet when confronted with choice between repeating an experience I enjoyed or trying something totally unknown, the chances are I will opt for the unknown one.

When I met up with my friend Andrew Meek, last October, in York, we spent a very agreeable few hours in The Evil Eye cocktail bar, and my husband, Andrew and I worked our way through a number of cocktails. I’ve tried a good number of them in my time; got hopelessly drunk on the utterly deceptive Harvey Wall-Banger and pina coladas. The bar has a booklet of all the cocktails it does, and the list is organised by various criteria, and colour coded for ease of exploration. We went through and picked ones we’d never heard of before but which appealed. The barman started grinning when we rolled up to the bar, because it turned out we were ordering things that people seldom did. The vast majority ordered what they’d already tried. My problem was twofold: expense and the fact that after a few, my legs and my head appeared to have become disconnected.

I’ve never been conservative when it comes to food and drink; I will try more or less anything (not snails, though. We used to have a Giant African land-snail as a pet and frankly, it would feel wrong) and have enjoyed a good 85% of what I have tried. Of the other 15%, I’d guess 10% evoked a meh response, 4% a dislike and 1% the sudden urge to vomit profusely and scrub my mouth out. I dislike shellfish and offal  but virtually everything else, I will eat without protest. But when I travel with school groups, I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of school kids who refuse to even try what is on their plates. If it doesn’t look exactly like something they’ve eaten before, forks go down and nothing gets touched. Some can be coaxed to try before they reject the food, and of those some find that they like it. I’m sad to say that those who refuse to try at all are a fairly large group.

In my teaching job too, I find that there are groups who come back each year and insist on precisely the same excursions, the same everything and get very upset if for some reason it’s not possible to do it. I hear of people who go every single year to the precise same holiday destination and do the same things. I understand when this is because the place is so special and you always love it, but it worries me slightly when people don’t entertain the idea of once in a while trying something different.

When it comes to food or drink ordering something unfamiliar may result in an unpalatable meal and a waste of money, but is that such a terrible thing every so often? A holiday somewhere unknown is a bigger risk, because it might be a step down from the places you love and know, yet it might bring another fabulous destination to your experiences.

And then there’s books. I’ve spent a few hours recently reading reviews of books. Not often books I have read or intend to read, but a fairly random selection of books by many authors, both indie and traditional, even some real classics. And I noticed something interesting. There are people who preface a 4 or 5* review with the words, “This is not the sort of book I’d usually choose to read but…” and then go on to explain why they turned out to enjoy it. There are also people giving 1 and 2* reviews saying the same thing, and then saying they didn’t like it (or thought it was a terrible book) because it wasn’t what they’d usually choose to read, or because it turned out differently from how they thought it should. I’ve had some laugh out loud moments reading these. One 2 star review of an action adventure fantasy complained bitterly that there wasn’t enough sex in the book and went on at some length explaining how they’d been left high and dry by the premise that the hero was a dominant type but was actually a sub, and the heroine a dominatrix and how disappointed the reader was that the writer never wrote these S&M sex scenes she felt the novel needed to contain!! Other higher starred reviews of the same book mentioned how they felt there was slightly too much sex…..

I’ve begun to wonder if we choose books based entirely on them bearing a more than passing resemblance to books we’ve already read and enjoyed, and then feel cheated when they turn out not to be. At Christmas I was gifted with two classic books I am reading now, but which have no blurb or back matter to guide the reader into any expectations of what the books are about. It’s quite a disconcerting feeling because often I am used to knowing beforehand what the book is about and now I am having to work it out myself. I’ve got lazy. I’ve got used to expecting a book to follow certain templates and patterns and it’s not doing me any good. I need to simply focus on the narrative, not my expectations of the narrative. 

When I turned forty, I made a decision to stop saying no to things that scared me, and apart from driving which still has me paralysed, I’ve mostly managed to do this. I’ve had a try-it-and-see mentality most of my life and I consider it has opened me to a host of experiences I’d otherwise have missed out on. But many don’t. Many don’t want to try anything different. When it comes to reading, especially in this time of incredibly cheap books (e-books for the price of a newspaper or less) it’s astonishing how few people are willing to take a chance on an unknown author and stick rigorously to their tried and tested genres and authors. Yes, I know money is tight and time too is a precious commodity, but why not once a month or so try something new, either a book or a cocktail or a dish or anything?

Step a little beyond the comfort zone; there may be dragons, but you know what? Where there are dragons, there’s also treasure, sure as eggs are eggs, my precious.    

Chanctonbury Ring

 

Chanctonbury Ring 

  They built this place long ago,

 Carved it from the chalk-lands

 With antler pick and leather bucket

And waited with anxious eyes

For the enemy to come

 By dawn or dusk’s dim light,

Crawling up the bare hills.

They fled this place so long ago

 I cannot feel them here at all,

Cannot hear the clash of weapons

 Nor smell the sweat and dung.

But then, I am a stranger, Child of the wild raiders Who crossed the cold seas

To gain this fertile pleasant land.

I am not of this tribe;

The bones of my fathers

Do not mingle with the chalk,

 Bone white and crumbling

As an ancient cloven skull.

This rolling green corner

Of this much-invaded land

Holds no graves of my kin.

 I must go further and deeper

To find my own bloodline,

Touch the soil my ancestors tilled.

 And yet, while this land seems

 To stand still, we ebb and flow

 Like some slow sea, washing

The very shores of time:

The long march north from African plains,

The trek back across mountains of ice

 As the cold closed the lands,

 And the slow migration north again

 As glaciers shrank like salted snails,

 These journeys, these tides of people,

From the dark-skinned early tribes

To the pale ones of northern lands,

Tell me that even here,

Where I seem a stranger,

This is my land, my tribe.

“The Secret Garden” and the way children’s literature can shape our hearts and minds.

The Secret Garden” and the way children’s literature can shape our hearts and minds.

When I reach a low point I find concentrating extremely hard, so the kind of reading I normally do is beyond me. I recently bought Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, finally accepting that the promised copy from a former friend was never coming my way, and the book sits reproachfully in the to-be-read pile, glaring at me. I have a mountain of books, both real and digital waiting to be read, and in some cases reviewed, and yet, I can’t read.

I’ve downloaded a number of classics to my Kindle recently, books I have loved in the past and wish to have digital copies of for when I am travelling. The other night, flicking through the list of books I know I need to read, I found myself opening children’s classic “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett and read almost halfway in a short time. I read it first when I was about 8 or 9, and many times later. I read it to my daughter when she was little.

It sounds a total cliché but it was like meeting an old friend I’ve not seen for years. For those of you who have not read it, the book tells the tale of Mary Lennox, orphaned when a cholera epidemic kills her parents in India and she is shipped home to live in the home of her reclusive uncle on the edge of the North York moors. Mary is an angry, independent and unhappy child, used to being waited on by native servants and getting her own way in everything, and arriving in the cold, blunt North of England is a massive culture shock. Turned out to “play” outside in the extensive gardens Mary slowly comes alive and is enthralled by the idea of one of the walled gardens being shut up and locked for ten years. The huge manor house is full of secrets and mysteries, and Mary sets out to solve several of them, most importantly to find her way into the “secret” garden her uncle had locked when his beloved wife died. The lonely, somewhat unattractive child finds herself fascinated by the idea of growing things, as the spring starts working its magic on the land and she asks her uncle whether she may have a “bit of earth”:

““Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realise how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr Craven looked quite startled.

Earth!” he repeated. “What do you mean?”

To plant seeds in- to make things grow- to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.”

I think this book may be responsible for my love of gardens and of nature and of that feeling of nature holding wonderful mysteries, a kind of magic. Rereading the story woke me up to something, the power of words. The whole book is written in lovely evocative lyrical language, such that both a child of nine can relish and an adult too.

It inspired me to ask my father for my own patch of garden and to learn as much as I could about the natural world. I spend my pocket money on books of trees and flowers and wild animals, and I went shopping with my father to choose seeds each year, to plant in our walled garden. I spoke to robins (I still do), and would spend hours sitting watching the hares boxing in the spring.

I still crave a truly secret garden of my own. One where I am not overlooked by others, and where I can tend the earth in my own way, without reference to what others think a garden should look like. Honeysuckle trailing up trees, roses filling the air with sweetness, daisies starry-white in shaggy grass, all slightly dishevelled and un-manicured but rioting with colour and vibrant life. Where bird and animals can come and feel safe and at ease with humans.

I guess I want my own Eden.