Oh ye of little faith ~ Doubting Thomasina faces immense changes

Oh ye of little faith ~ Doubting Thomasina faces immense changes.

My favourite of Jesus’s main men was Thomas. He and I have a lot in common.

Doubt, for one thing.

I have shockingly little faith, really. I can’t get on board this “The Universe will provide” kind of stuff. The Universe is probably sublimely unaware of my sorry existence. More than that, the concept that somehow the very fabric of space and time will shift to bring me what I want is outrageous. As for God, well, I have trouble accepting that he/she loves me, let alone cares what happens to me. That’s my problem, probably not God’s. It’s lack of self-worth, in all likelihood, and a very clear understanding of just how very small I am in the grand scheme of things.

Thomas and I need evidence. He needed to touch Jesus to accept he was truly there, alive and yet pierced with wounds that were mortal and dreadful. I need to feel as though, small cog in a grand old Galaxy as I am, I actually have a place, that I am not one of those odd bits of metal that you find,and stick in a drawer somewhere because you daren’t throw it away in case it is something crucial for something. It’s a mark of this aspect of my psyche that means I collect these stray bits and pieces, and store them just in case. My plan is one day to gather them and turn them into a work of art.

So I live in a state of constant existential conflict: the need to believe I have a place, at odds with the fear that I probably do not.

I think Thomas and I would have been good pals. I’d like to find a icon of him, or a statue, to position at the entrance to my new house.

Oh sorry, that’s the news. I’m moving. Not till September probably, but after a couple of weeks of uncertainty about whether saying yes to the change was a good idea, it appears that the die is cast. Thunderbirds are GO!

This is not just moving house, which is hellish enough. The distance from our current location means my teaching job will end. I’m ambivalent about my job anyway, for various reasons, but generally the actual teaching and tour-guiding I enjoyed a lot. It gave me a slightly greater sense of self-worth and a small addition to the family finances. And after the massively reduced summer school in August, there will be no more work till March 2013.

After almost six years working as a scientist in a secular job, my husband is returning to full-time ministry and we as a family are returning to living in a rectory. When we left our last one, in October 2006, I had found a measure of peace with the pressures and aggravations of that life. If you have read my novel Away With The Fairies, the scenes from Isobel and Mickey’s rectory life are no exaggerations. I chose not to include any of the more extreme scenarios we experienced of being spied upon, pestered, phoned in the middle of the night, or any of the breathtaking liberties people took assuming that we were public property and our home equally public. It had taken me since my husband was first ordained in 1994 to learn to cope with it. Ironic that just at that point, the diocese we lived in made decisions that made it impossible conscience-wise for my husband to continue working there and we left. We carved out a new life, here on the coast, and despite the fears of being both homeless and penniless, we achieved a great deal. House, jobs, and a totally new way of life for me.

I’m six years older now. Six years older. That makes it that bit harder for me to find employment. I’m flexible and adaptable, maybe more so than people half my age. But my age is something that goes against me because of simple, unconscious prejudice. I don’t want to do nothing outside the home. I NEED to work. Not merely for the money but for the other benefits of bringing new experience to my life, of meeting other people, of exploring the world outside my window. My travel job will continue, as that is not location dependent, I am thankful for that. But it is intermittent and sporadic and I cannot make any financial decisions based upon it.

During the five and a half years we’ve lived in this house, I’ve found it desperately hard to write. Non fiction has come much more easily than fiction. The room I have as a study is a small, rather cramped room that doubles as a guest room. I cannot look out of the window as I work. The new house is much larger and lighter and I am hoping that my writing mojo will come home properly. It only visits for short spells, like a fickle lover. In all honesty, now would be a wonderful time for the wild magic of a book going viral to occur for me. It would give me some sense of a future for me. The last two months, I have seen exciting growth and a significant rise in sales of my books that gives me hope that I might just make it as a writer. But even successful writers need their day-jobs, for more than just the money.

Now when it comes to belief, I do not believe in anything to do with the law of attraction. It’s a nonsense. My thoughts do not create reality; my wishes and desires do not draw their fulfilment to me. Thinking positively is a good idea, because it makes you look for opportunities and helps you stay cheerful and optimistic, but it does not make things happen. That’s both illogical and egotistical.

Right now, when I try and look into the future, I can’t see anything. Perhaps blind panic is obscuring my inner vision. Perhaps, as the future is not fixed, things are still in motion. Perhaps, and this scares me most, I don’t have a future at all.

That’s where Thomas comes back to comfort me. I’ve stood in this position a good few times, standing on the edge of a dark abyss where nothing is settled or certain, and things could go horribly wrong. I stood there almost six years ago today, when it became clear to us that our position was untenable and we’d have to make a leap of faith into the unknown, and just hope that it would work out.

I’m forty six. I’ve leapt into the unknown more times than many in my life so far. And so far, it has worked out.

Thomas demanded evidence. When I demand evidence, I am directed to look at the past and review it. Each and every time I’ve made that leap, I have survived. In some cases, I have even thrived and made huge strides forwards as a person. I know the next few months are going to be so stressful I’d like to go to sleep and wake up in mid September with it all over bar the shouting. But Thomas tells me that if I cannot believe in the future, I can believe in the past and let that be my guide.

Oh and if you’re a praying kind of person, I’d appreciate a few on my behalf. Thank you.

Fifty Shades of Worried ~ meme or Zeitgeist?

Fifty shades of worried ~ meme or Zeitgiest?

You’d have to have been living under a rock or otherwise out of touch not to have noticed the phenomenon that is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Selling roughly a copy a second and inspiring both adoration and vociferous loathing, the last total sales I saw was at over ten million sales. Ten million.

Yes.

You read that right.

~interlude while people pick their jaws off floors and struggling writers like me attempt to paint our faces to cover the fifty shades of green they might have become~

Ten million and counting.

Astonishing.

This is a Black Hole book, the sheer mass of which creates actual gravity to suck in incautious readers. The reviews on Amazon, both the 1 star and the 5 star ones are peppered with people saying, “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.” It’s why I have chosen not to include any links whatsoever, because this book has sufficient gravity already.

No, I haven’t bought it. I made that particular mistake with Twilight. I was trapped in a French hotel room with only that book for entertainment, all because I felt I ought to see what the fuss was about.

But I have skim read it in Tesco’s, just to see for myself. Suffice it to say that I laughed out loud and put the book back on the shelf.

I’m not going to discuss the bad writing, because a dozen and more bloggers have already done that, better than I could. I’ve been amused by one who is devoting a series of reviews, pulling it apart in sequence. I’m up to part six. Bad writing or good writing, it makes extremely little difference to WHY this book is selling quite so amazingly. If you read through the reviews, you will find people on either side of that battle. It’s irrelevant. The Da Vinci Code was pretty badly written, but millions bought it and loved it.

I’m not going to discuss the sex. Sorry to disappoint you. It simply doesn’t interest me. I’ve heard enough people refer to it as BDSM-lite. Even if it were BDSM-heavy, it wouldn’t interest me. Other people’s bedroom choices simply don’t, whether in film, fiction or real life. I’m usually the one who gets bored by erotic scenes in films. Erotic writing has to be outstanding to make me read it rather than skipping it. Yeah, I know, I’m weird. Each to their own.

I’m not even discuss the implications of this tale starting life as a Twilight fan fiction.

What I do want to explore is quite why this book has become such a phenomenon and what the implications are.

Ignoring the fact that once a cascade effect takes place, in literary terms, it becomes impossible to differentiate why THIS book did and THAT book didn’t when they effectively contain exactly the same ingredients. A recent survey of self-published authors revealed that romance and erotica are the two genres where success is much more likely for a self-published author (did I mention that Fifty Shades started out self-published?) than other genres. Literary fiction comes pretty low on the list. But a rapid scan of the virtual shelves of Amazon reveal a mind-boggling proliferation of romance, erotica and erotic romance titles.

So why this one when there are so many others that cover the same ground, and probably with better writing?

I’ve been puzzling over it for weeks. Not because I want to try and emulate it. I couldn’t write erotica if you tickled me with a feather for a month. I couldn’t write romance however much someone wined and dined me. I just don’t have it in me. But I could write a detective novel of sorts or even a thriller if it came to me; and this conundrum has been niggling at me for a while.

So I’ve been wandering around, eavesdropping on various blogs and finally, a comment on a friend’s blog made me prick up my ears. I am not linking here, for various reasons, but the gist of the comment was that they had adored the book because it fed into every woman’s dream of finding a damaged but gorgeous man and fixing him with love.

I stopped dead in my tracks at that point, and if it had been a film, I’d have crumpled to the floor shaking. It was horrible, but it rang true. Other comments I read confirmed a similar feeling. Escapism was mentioned a lot, and when I’ve asked about why people like romantic fiction that’s often quoted as a reason.

Every woman’s dream to find a gorgeous but damaged man and fix him with love.

It’s been many women’s nightmare to try this and find that it doesn’t work. Given that gorgeous men are in relatively short supply, most settle for ordinary-looking men.

Oh, fairytale romances.

I love fairy tales. Bluebeard is quite a wonderful one. He even has a secret room of pain. He’s based on a real life socio-path, serial killer Gilles de Rais  (please don’t check this link if you are of a sensitive disposition)

I’m sure some of you are muttering, “Drama Queen!” right now and you may be right. We are talking about a mere book, after all, one that millions have enjoyed. I’ve read a number of comments about it spicing up many marriages; some hardware stores in the USA have seen a surge in purchases of a certain kind. I’m confidently expecting a rise in the UK of admissions to Casualty Departments coupled with a lot of entirely unconvincing stories about how people came about certain injuries….

Joking aside, it is a mere book and maybe it is itself harmless. Enjoyable if that’s what floats your boat. But if the concept of why it is massively successful is down to women wanting to fix damaged men, then it worries me.

Been there, got the scars. I KNOW it doesn’t work. Women wind up dead. I’m not going into personal details, but I know this is a dangerous path to follow. Lots of women do but many continue in the mistaken belief that they are the magical “ONE” who can heal this poor misunderstood chap. A shred of hope will be clung to like a holy relic. The more glamorous the exterior, the more lavish the occasional gifts of goods or affection, the greater the belief that somehow their love can transform the damaged soul within the object of their love. It’s seductive and powerful and very isolating. No-one understands him like I do.

I’m trying to figure out whether this is a meme or a Zeitgeist. Bear with me as this is important. The term meme  was coined by Richard Dawkins to cover how an idea or style can spread from person to person within a culture: A meme ( /ˈmm/; MEEM)[1]) is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

It’s analogous to a kind of thought virus.

A Zeitgeist  is a little different. You can describe a Zeitgiest as simply being the spirit of the times; it’s fixed in its time and place, unlike a meme which replicates, spreads and mutates. A short explanation is thus: Zeitgeist (German pronunciation: [ˈtsaɪtɡaɪst] ( listen)) is “the spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age.” [1] Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.

Both memes and Zeitgiests are revealing of the societies in which they originate. In the West, where we have supposed (relative) freedom of speech, and far greater equality for women than even our mothers knew of, there is crisis at a very deep level. At almost every level of the psyche, both individual or collective, in fact.

I’m genuinely unsure which it falls into, meme or Zeitgeist because both possibilities are worrying. If it is a Zeitgeist then it says a lot for our lack of real progress as people and as society that this seductive myth is still inspiring people to believe in a nasty fairytale. If it is a meme, then how far will it spread and how much will it change?

Just as the pandemics happen in the world of viruses and bacteria, so too can pandemics of memes.

The only known memeicide is critical thinking. Time to get thinking.

Monday Meditation ~ Vanilla, for innocent sensuality

 

Vanilla ~ for innocent sensuality

 

Did you know that true vanilla is the second most expensive spice, the most expensive being saffron? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanilla Obtained from the cured and processed seed pod of a tropical orchid, true vanilla is one of the most widely used and well loved of flavourings.

It’s also well used in aromatherapy because of its varied and powerful benefits: http://theresaann.hubpages.com/hub/the-benefits-of-using-vanilla-essential-oil-in-aromatherapy

It’s a powerful antidepressant, has anti-oxidant effects and is used to promote relaxation, better sleep and is also said to be an aphrodisiac.

Vanilla gets a bad press, really, and despite being a popular flavouring is often regarded as bland and boring. It’s also used (somewhat ironically given its anecdotal evidence as an aphrodisiac) as a synonym for unadventurous sexual activity.

Perhaps it is because of the ubiquitous nature of vanilla products that we have lost our true appreciation of this wonderful spice. Most of us grew up with vanilla essence being used in home baking, but sadly most vanilla essence bought in supermarkets does not come from the vanilla orchid. Artificial vanilla is made from vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry, and while the signature sweet ice cream scent is present, vanillin is only one of the 171 separate aromatic compounds present in true vanilla. There is no substitute for the rich, complex aroma of true vanilla so for this meditation I strongly suggest you use either a fresh vanilla pod, a high quality extract or essential oil. The essential oil is not too expensive when bought pre-diluted in jojoba oil.

For this meditation you may also like to use a recording of waves on the seashore for background and to add to the ambience. You can use the oil on a smelling strip, or if it is diluted, on pulse points. If you have an extract, you can add a few drops to hot water, or to the reservoir of an oil burner. You can even put a drop or two onto a cold light bulb and then turn it on; as the bulb warms the scent will fill the room. Once you have arranged how you diffuse the fragrance, take a few slow deep breaths, and settle into your chair. Let the scent fill you and feel its calming arms holding you.

 

*

 

You are standing on a quiet beach, with a warm wind flowing off the sea ruffling your hair and caressing your skin. The sky is blue, and almost cloudless, except for a few fluffy white cotton puffs high above. Look at your feet, buried slightly in the softest pale golden sand imaginable. Move your feet a little, as if treading a deep pile carpet and enjoy the sensation of the sand massaging your soles. The sound of the sea is soothing, and you can see the little waves breaking on the shore, so go closer. The water sparkles as if there are diamonds in it, and beneath the foam you can see the sand beneath shining golden, studded here and there with smooth pebbles that look like jewels with their brilliant colours. Take a few steps into the water. It’s cool but not cold and it feels intensely refreshing and exhilarating. Feel the waves touching your ankles as they break on the shoreline, and start walking slowly. The rounded pebbles embedded in the wet sand give the most wonderful massaging effect as you walk upon them; there are no sharp or rough ones. The sun on the sea lights up the water, making it a pure crystalline shade of turquoise, through which you can see to the sea floor. Strands of seaweed float with little fishes and other small creatures darting among them. Above you, seagulls soar high and let out the occasional cry.

Enjoy walking in the waves for as long as you want. When you start to feel tired, leave the water and walk a little inland. The beach is bordered by dunes of marram grass and wild-flowers, and where the grasses start to grow there is a little hollow that shelters you from the wind. You will see there is a brightly coloured beach towel laid out, and a huge beach umbrella in rainbow colours. Go and lie down on the beach towel. It’s very soft and feels brand new and plush. The velvety fabric is lovely to touch and there’s even a little pillow to rest your head on.

It’s warm in this hollow, and the sun on your skin is like a blessing, but don’t worry about burning. Here you cannot get sunburned, but if you feel too warm, move into the shade cast by the beach umbrella. Feel the delightful warmth of the day ease any aches and pains and let the tensions of being an adult seep away into the sand.

Near you in a brightly coloured heap are beach toys: buckets and spades, in lots of shapes and sizes, and moulds for making shapes, and little flags. There’s even a bucket filled with shells and stones of every size and colour that someone has collected specially for you. There’s a big bottle of sea water to wet the sand if you wish.

It may be many years since you last made a sandcastle, or this may be the very first time you have ever had the chance, but the sand and the toys draw you to start playing. It feels strange at first but after a few minutes it feels like second nature to scoop up bucketfuls of the sand, pack it tight and turn out castles. Enjoy decorating your castles with the shells and stones and flags. Let yourself be a child again.

Just as you are putting the finishing touches to your castles, you sense someone is approaching and you look up. Coming up the beach is someone you love very much and they are carrying something. Go to meet them. Whoever your visitor is, here they are very welcome and they are bringing you a small gift.

Your visitor holds out to you an ice cream cone filled with the best vanilla ice cream in the world. You can smell the aroma from a few feet away and you accept their gift with joy. A few drops of ice cream are already spilling down the side of the cone; in this sunshine, it will melt fast so do not delay your enjoyment of this sweet treat. Walk with your visitor along the seashore as you both eat your ice creams. You can talk if you like but if you prefer to, you can enjoy the beach and the ice cream in silence.

When you crunch the last of the cone, it’s time to say goodbye to the beach and to your visitor. You can come back any time you choose but for now it is time to go back to your normal reality.

Let the beach fade away as you return, but let the relaxation remain with you, and any insights you may have gained. You are back.

Be sure to eat and drink something before resuming normal activity and also make some notes of what you saw and experiences.

 

 

Kindness, selective blindness and what pushes our buttons ~ how to stay calm when the internet intrudes

Kindness, selective blindness and what pushes our buttons ~ how to stay calm when the internet intrudes

 

The internet is a wonderful thing ~ it brings all manner of things into our homes

The internet is a dreadful thing ~ it brings all manner of things into our homes

Both of these statements are true. You can’t deny the impact that the internet has made on almost every life, even those who choose not to use it. Social media is something that divides people into very different camps; some refuse to use it at all, and others are pretty much addicted. The opponents claim that people are living their lives too publicly and that they ought to be more discreet, and that internet friends are not ‘real’ friends. Those who love Facebook, Twitter and the like claim that they are careful what they put up and that internet friends have been more caring that their so-called real life ones.

It’s not a subject they’re going to agree on any time soon.

One of the things I have noticed recently is a rather interesting phenomenon. When a person on a social media site does or says something that another person disagrees with, a number of things often follow. The first is a real humdinger of an argument, where the offended party tries to make the offender retract their position. Others wade in and if this were Saturday night outside a pub, fists would be flying very quickly. The other thing that usually follows (either before a fight starts or immediately after) is an unfriending, unfollowing or a blocking. The reason usually given that they don’t want to see THAT sort of thing/person/opinion on their page/time-line.

The most common reason for this sort of spat is ideologies (religion being a prime one) conflicting. I found myself hovering over the hide button on Facebook when someone I know only slightly was constantly posting about militant vegetarian issues. Then I stopped and asked myself why I wanted to NOT see what she was posting. Answer: because it made me feel deeply uncomfortable about my occasional meat eating. It reminded me of an existing conflict that I had been trying to ignore.

I read a couple of blog posts recently about writing that wound me up. Someone used the metaphor of the Build-a-Bear franchise for how to write a novel, likening the process of creating your own unique teddy from pre-designed components to the process of creating a novel. It made me shriek with outrage, and then I found myself laughing at my own anger. If that’s what works for someone else, fine, let it work for them. No one is forcing me to follow that method, or directly castigating me for not using it. It simply doesn’t matter that another writer has a very different method of being creative to my own. It doesn’t matter if they declared their method to be the only valid method. I am allowed to disagree. This might sound incredibly obvious but it’s quite meaningful for me to say this, because it shows to me that I am beginning to allow that I am allowed to have an opinion that may be counter to everybody else’s; that my opinion has value, whether or not anyone agrees with it. So I didn’t launch into a comment on that blog, explaining patiently how wrong they were. I moved on. Progress, for me, anyway.

Twitter is a place where opinions abound, as do arguments, but I hear quite often the line about unfollowing someone because they are clogging up your time-line with their stuff. This, I confess, baffles me. I have about 1.6k followers/followees. They’re a diverse crew, from many nations and walks of life. Some I follow because I simply find what they say funny or thought-provoking or interesting or sometimes downright rude (and funny); some don’t follow me back, which is fine. I interact with probably only a relatively small number because a good half are in the USA or elsewhere in the world and time-zones away. Among them are a good number of writers. One of the commonest reasons for an unfollow is what is dubbed shameless self-promotion. Now, I see another writer has the right to use Twitter as they wish, so I’ve learned to tune out tweets of this sort, unless they are about books I’ve read and loved, or by an author whom I like and respect (and may have read but not always. Some folks write in genres I cannot bring myself to read, but I know them to be good writers nonetheless) in which case I may well retweet their promotional links. However, what will get me annoyed is someone who follows me, and when I follow back, sends an automatic direct message trying to get me to buy their book. This to me is just bad manners and poor business practise. Depending on mood, I may reply, pointing this out. If there is a response, I base my decision whether to unfollow on that. If they’re humorous but apologetic I may continue to follow; if they ignore my message, I unfollow. If they argue I unfollow. These days, I am very cautious about following other writers. Many collect followers but as soon as you follow them, they unfollow. I also am reluctant to follow back anyone with a vast horde of followers on the principle that I strongly suspect they have no interest in me as a person but rather as a possible customer. Reading their time-line shows whether they chat with others or not, and how.

There is a lot of unkindness in social media, and that saddens me. There is also a great deal of kindness and care, for folks one has never met and never likely to. Sometimes this kind of cyber kindness can make a massive difference to people who are unwell, isolated, lonely and in pain. I’ve met some wonderful people who have been unremittingly kind to me, but I’ve also met plenty who push my buttons. There was one guy, a self-styled guru, who made a claim that depression doesn’t exist. That blog post got so much flak he was eventually obliged to take it down. He’s still out there, with over 80k followers, gaining a flock. I got so angry about the things he was saying, I made an exception to my own rules and unfollowed him. On one occasion he was exceptionally rude and nasty directly to me; I saw him say callous and unkind things to others on many occasions. I considered whether I had a chance of making any sort of difference by opposing him and realised I didn’t stand an earthly hope of it, so stepped back. There’s only so much crap I can take. But I am aware of the buttons he pushed in me and maybe I learned something.

When someone does or says something on social media that upsets, disturbs or enrages me, I’ve begun to learn that there are stages I need to go through. Step back, is the first one. Then I try to understand my reaction and ask myself if there is something I need to learn or change; this is tough because it rides that fine line between compliance to others and authenticity of self. Then I need to decide if I must take any action. By this, I mean, is a response required; would doing or saying nothing be more appropriate? For some, unfriending on Facebook is a small thing but for me, it’s a huge one. If someone does it to me, it hurts. Usually, after much thought, I realise that very little is required. Often nothing at all, in fact, for a good reason: it’s not really about me at all. Other people’s stuff is, well, their stuff. I am allowed to turn on my own selective blindness and ignore it. If I find I can’t ignore it, then it’s time for some deeper soul searching to find out why .

A haunting house ~ how setting for a story matters

A haunting house ~ how setting for a story matters

 

Have you ever read a story where the setting makes as big an impression on you as the characters or the plot? Where the place of the story is as vital a cast member as the main character? One such novel is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca where the rambling beauty and luxury of Manderley and its grounds take precedence over the mousy, insignificant and never-named narrator, the second Mrs de Winter. Or The Far Pavilions where India during the Raj is displayed in mesmerising detail. These are rare novels where the place the story takes place is perfectly balanced with the rest of the components of the story, and combine being perfect backdrops with being almost an entity in their own right. Fantasy novels create entire worlds for the story to unfold onto, and Middle Earth springs to mind instantly, the Shire as home for hobbits especially contrasting with the ruinous splendour of Minas Tirith and the horror of the land of Mordor.

I can’t count myself in the same league as any of these writers. I’m much smaller in scope and in vision. Much of both Strangers & Pilgrims and Away with the Fairies (see their separate pages at the top of the header if you’re curious)  is set in small cottages, isolated from community and located in the English countryside. As Jean Raffa commented in her review of Strangers & Pilgrims, it’s quite clear how much I love the land I live in by the way I write about it. I can’t say I’m never going to write about an exotic far off land, but the balance of probability is that I won’t. Advice I was given as a teenager by a moderately famous writer was to write what you know about best. While imagination is a grand tool, I’m too limited as a person and as a writer to write solely from what my mind alone constructs and so places especially are always drawn from my personal experience. I’ve never once named the locations of stories, leaving readers to decide for themselves roughly where a book is set. I’ve also avoided intricate descriptions of interiors unless there is a good reason for doing so.

That doesn’t mean I can’t myself visualise clearly what a place is like. I can. I’d just rather not bog down a reader in too much extraneous detail. I’ve written about two cottages (Isobel’s cottage, for those interested, appears in two more novels) in books already released, and there’s a third one to appear in a book later this year (I hope) but there’s a reason why I find the cottage such an appealing setting. It’s cosy and intimate and lends itself well to both intense dialogue and to introspection for the characters. It’s cut off in some way from the hustle and bustle of a community. It also has history and stability. Isobel’s cottage is old, and a little run down and lacking in modern amenities. It emphasises the time out aspect of her needs, and the isolation from everyday concerns.

There’s also a few vicarages in my books. I’ve lived most of my adult life in one, though for the last five or so years, I’ve lived in an ordinary private home. Again, write what you know, but for many people what goes on inside a rectory, vicarage or manse is unknown and a little mysterious. There are pressures that most folks do not understand or imagine. Isobel’s experience is far from unusual and she copes better with it than I did. Her vicarage is a composite of the ones I have lived in or visited, and the constant barrage of phone calls etc is accurate to my experience of it.

The novel I am most proud of and hope to release this year has several settings. There is a cottage, and a vicarage but there is also something quite different: a large, rambling old mansion:

Once she got up close to the house, she began to think hard. She walked round the outside of the building, counting chimneys and windows, stared at the extent of the grounds. She gazed at the house with an historian’s eye, saw the elegant melding of eras in the large house, saw stonework that must be mediaeval and timber framing that must be Tudor. She looked at it with the eyes of an estate agent and she saw a fortune.”

Now since I wrote my first novel at ten, this house or a version of it has been in my mind, growing and changing as my understanding and imagination also grew and changed. As the story emerged that I named The Bet, the house in which much of it takes place also emerged, vivid in my mind to the extent that I can see the rooms clearly:

When they got into the old nursery, Jenny was speechless for all of a minute, staring round with amazed eyes. It was a huge room, the floor polished boards covered with another ancient but probably priceless Persian carpet, like something out of the Arabian Nights. One entire wall seemed to be tall windows with leaded panes, a radiator underneath. The original furnishings from Ashurst’s brief childhood here were still exactly as they had been then, more or less untouched since he’d left, asleep in his father’s arms after his brush with death he still didn’t remember.

Bloody hell, it’s freezing,” she said and she went across and put her hand on the radiator. “Stone cold. We’ll need better heating in here for a start.”

She went over to the carved crib, touching it in disbelief.

This is practically medieval, this crib thing,” she said, running her hand along the smooth wood.

Jacobean,” Ashurst said automatically.

Christ,” said Jenny. “Still I bet any toxic substances have been slobbered away by generations of little Ashursts, so it should be safe enough with a new mattress and stuff. Oh, what a lovely rocking horse. No wonder you’re so spoiled if this is what you started life with. What’s the little room at the end?”

During my life, I’ve visited many old houses and have made mental snapshots that I have stored in my memory to use as building blocks for images. Dreams only ever use things stored in the memory for their visual images, producing intricate composites of hundreds of details and the finished dream is a new product. It’s the same with settings for stories; we use hundreds of tiny details and create something new and unique. At the weekend, I visited Strangers’ Hall in Norwich and was struck by how similar the house is to the one in The Bet. The Hall was first begun in medieval times, dating from the twelfth century and was added to and altered constantly. There’s a great hall, and leaded windows looking down on knot gardens.

The biggest of the bedrooms on show is strikingly like the one in my story, down to the four poster bed with reproduction curtains.

 “The big bed, a Tudor four-poster, much restored with modern mattress and reproduction curtains was full of shadows. He knew that if he opened the drawer in the oak cabinet next to the bed, he would find his father’s reading glasses.”

Of course, the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail. I talk about faded and worn Persian carpets but I don’t describe the colour or the pattern. I can see it in my mind. I don’t describe the layout of the house, but I know my way round. It’s a maze of rooms and corridors and little staircases, far too big for one lonely traumatised young man to live in alone. In the first chapters, he wanders constantly round from room to room, trying to find somewhere he can be at peace, and failing; I wandered with him, observing as he stumbled up steps, stood at doorways and stared into darkened rooms.

The house in this story is integral to both the plot and the main characters but I hope that readers can construct their own mental version of it from what I chose to include. Constructing a setting for a story is a tough job, trying to balance between too much detail and not enough, but to achieve the goal of making that setting as haunting as the story is something I hope I have managed to do in all my stories. We’ll see later this year if I have managed to convey how much this house that has haunted me since I was about ten can haunt readers too.

( http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bet-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_4/279-2597452-2296320)

or USA: http://www.amazon.com/The-Bet-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_4/279-2597452-2296320

Emotionally investing in a condition AND its treatment ~ something to watch out for

 

Emotionally investing in a condition AND its treatment ~ something to watch out for

 

I’ve suffered from depression off and on since I was a child. For much of my childhood and teens this was not acknowledged or treated, but as a student at university it became much more acute, and even life-threatening. Now as a middle-aged woman, I write about it extensively. I still don’t talk about it much, in public. The relative distance that the internet provides means I am able to discuss it with people from every walk of life and from anywhere in the world, and this astonishing freedom of sharing is a life-line at times. More and more people are not only admitting to suffering mental health problems, but many are identifying themselves with the condition before even job or gender. This is an immense leap forward in the face of continuing stigma and ignorance, but it carries a possible side effect that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

My own respite continues, making the new challenges we’re facing not as daunting as they would be, but while not being continuously and acutely depressed at present is a wonderful novelty, it has made me think about things differently. Why do some people become depressed and others never do?

Evidence is emerging that suggests that tendencies to depression may be genetic. It certainly does seem to run in some families, like noses, but standing back a little further, I started to ask myself that if it is something genetic, what purpose does it serve in terms of benefit to the species? Trawling around I found an article in Scientific American that explored this very question:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=depressions-evolutionary

 

To précis the article, it would seem that the tendency to chew over problems deeply, even apparently insoluble ones, is of powerful value. Becoming bogged down for weeks or months on end, may not seem advantageous from the outside (or even the inside, to be frank) there is little doubt that many breakthroughs have come by someone tenaciously plugging away often for years to find a solution to a problem. I also have a very subjective feeling that few inventions have come about because people have been happy with the status quo. There is a desire in many people who suffer from depression, to make things better. The cry I hear is “There’s got to be a better way to….” . I wonder if those with depression have this cry somehow embedded in their genes….

Now the article had an odd effect on me, after I’d read it. Somewhere deep and hidden inside myself, I sensed a growing nugget of pride. Not the good sort either. The sort that medieval theologians would have considered something of a mortal sin. I found myself wondering whether this theory meant that I was somehow a better human being because I’d suffered so much with this condition. That was when I realised that I am to some extent emotionally invested in depression. It’s become a badge I wear with pride. Of course, I needed a bit of a slap for that but one of the things I’ve always wanted is that my struggles have some benefit, not merely for myself, but for others. It’s one of the reasons I write about it. But discovering I’m more heavily invested in it than I thought was a nasty shock. To walk the tightrope between being me with an illness and identifying myself by that illness means sometimes I stray too far to one side.

Having found various strategies where I am feeling mostly OK, I have begun to work more deeply with my dreams and with my awareness of the world. Now those strategies are ones that are working for me. I have no idea who would benefit from them, but I’d mentioned them before in case that information was useful to someone else. I’d opted not to take medication the doctor would have prescribed, and while I am aware that they work for many to alleviate symptoms I felt sure from experience they were a blind alley for me. If you discuss depression anywhere online, it becomes swiftly evidence that what works for some doesn’t work for others, and that includes traditional medicine and holistic modalities. This week a study was published that set tongues flapping:

http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/2012/06/07/exercise-doesnt-help-depression-experts-respond/

or

http://jezebel.com/5915870/exercise-doesnt-really-help-depressed-people

 For years it’s been the advice to folks with depression that moderate exercise alleviates depression. Personally, I have only ever found the benefit to be very minor, and have noticed many who have become addicted to the endorphin-high vigorous exercise brings. There have been days in deep depression where the idea of taking exercise of any sort is horrifying and frankly impossible. Energy levels plummet to such a low, getting out of bed is often a huge effort. There’s always been a sense of worthlessness brought on by the exercise advice. I’d never want to go to an exercise group of any kind, well or not, because I’m not someone who enjoys group activities at all. But for those of a more sociable bent, perhaps simply being with other people is what lifts them, not the exercise.

That said, exercise is beneficial, if you can manage it, to your general health. But it’s not the answer to depression by itself. Nor are pills. Or massage. Or any one single thing. There is no definitive cure/healing for depression that will work for everyone.

And yet, there was a deafening outcry online from people who were furious that the idea that exercise IS the answer BECAUSE it works for them, has been cast doubt upon. There have been similar outcries when studies about the efficacy(or lack of it) of anti-depressants have been published and even louder ones when evidence has been shown of the serious, dangerous and even life-threatening effects of medication.

Over the years I have come across a good few times something I find very upsetting. It’s when you are communicating with someone who has had an illness that is similar or the same as yours, and the person tells you that they got better by doing/taking X. It matters little what X actually is, because if you admit that you have tried X and it didn’t work for you, the person can become agitated and often angry. You get told you didn’t give it long enough, or try hard enough, or you did it wrong, because X works, full stop. I had a taste of this last week when someone buttonholed me at an event to tell me precisely how they’d found a cure for an illness their daughter suffered from (the same as that suffered by my daughter). I was at the time too focussed on the event to really engage with this, but I do wonder if I had explained that yes, we had tried this method and it had made little difference, would I have become the enemy?

In the end, I believe that depression itself is a symptom of a deeper malaise that itself, and each time I treat the symptom and not the root cause, I delay finding true and lasting healing for my own self. But in doing that work, I must remember that I am not my condition and that my journey is only mine. To become heavily invested in both illness and cure is a distraction from that journey I alone can take.

 

Monday Meditation: Honeysuckle for deepening the connection with nature

Honeysuckle Meditation

(written as part of the Meditating with Aromatics project)

 

For this meditation you will need either a sprig of flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium) or a few drops of the essential oil. The flowers that give the best scent are those of the wild honeysuckle that grows extensively in woodlands, but many garden varieties are beautifully fragrant too. The essential oil is expensive, and usually only available pre-diluted in either coconut or jojoba oil. I have a bottle of the diluted absolute that I use as a perfume, especially during the winter when the quintessentially summery aroma can lift the spirits when summer seems an age away. If you use the oil, dab a little on wrists and other pulse points and let the fragrance fill your personal space. If you are using the flowers, this meditation is best done at dusk or after as most of the scent is released at night to attract the pollinating moths. You will find that your room fills with the scent especially if it is warm.

Settle into a chair, keeping your back comfortably straight and take a few slow deep breaths to ground yourself. Close your eyes if you wish to.

*

You are standing at the start of a path that enters ancient woodland. It’s beginning to get dark and the light has become that shimmering blend of the final rays of sunlight and the softer, silvery light of a rising full moon. The trees are like vast pillars with fissured bark and leaves that quiver in the evening breeze. You touch the ones on either side of the path and their bark feels nicely warm from a day of sun. The path is chalky white and dry, and it gleams invitingly so you begin to follow it. The air is still full of the day’s heat and also the scent of a million green leaves and moss and fallen wood, but as you walk you catch another smell.

It’s quite different to the verdant rich smell of the forest and it comes and goes. One moment it is there, a bright and enticing perfume, then it is gone. It seems exotic and familiar as childhood all at the same time. As you follow the shining path, the scent becomes stronger and more focused and intense.

The path ends rather abruptly with a clearing in the forest. A meadow of rough grass surely only ever cropped by deer and rabbits stands before you. The change is dramatic as you step into the open and look around. The moon has just crept above the tree-line and its light turns the meadow into a sea of silver grass waving in the light wind. The clearing is entirely surrounded by oaks and other tall trees, all gnarled and ancient, and climbing up most of them are the vines of honeysuckle and you know now where the heavenly perfume was coming from.

At the centre of the clearing is a fallen tree, slowly decaying into the grass. It must have been a true giant when it lived because the fallen trunk must be more than six feet high as it lies amid the meadow plants. Honeysuckle has grown up around this too, embracing the branches and twining lovingly round the upturned root ball. A gale must have felled this tree years ago, but as you approach the tree you do not feel sad at its death. It must have seen centuries of life and as you climb carefully onto the trunk, you can see in the crevices the movement of small creatures, insects and wood-mice who have made this their home.

Sit now on the trunk; it’s wide enough to sit quite comfortably. Tendrils of honeysuckle flowers wave softly in the breeze, their pink and gold petals catch the last rays of the sunset, while the white ones become luminous with moonlight. At the sun finally sets, the flowers become bleached of colour but the white becomes almost fluorescent. They glow with an unearthly brilliance. As they bob, their scent fills your mind almost to overflowing. It’s a deep perfume, with many layers, but it makes you feel extraordinarily happy and relaxed.

All around you, you can sense movement in the forest beyond, and in the sea of grass, and you feel a sense of excited anticipation. From the eaves of the forest, you see the shining of many eyes and it makes you take a deep breath almost of fear, but not quite. As you watch, from the trees there emerges first one deer, then many. They’re all females with fawns, and they step warily into the open. They stay close together but as they relax, the group spreads out and begins to graze.

You can see also many other creatures here and there, from rabbits to voles, all going about their nightly business. They’re aware of you but unconcerned. They know you are no threat. Closer to you, a moth is exploring the funnel-shaped flowers with long, elegant proboscis, tasting and enjoying the sweet nectar.

As you sit surrounded by nature, you feel more a part of the natural world than you have ever done before. You feel warmth and love towards all the animals and the plants that are around you and you sense that they extend a cautious welcome to you. While you enjoy this feeling, ask yourself what you can do to serve the natural world better. Without nature, humans would starve, so how can you make a difference to your slice of the world?

Let the thoughts not conflict with this growing feeling of oneness with nature, but rather let the two complement each other.

After a time, the deer seem to melt seamlessly into the forest again and it is time for you to go. Whenever you see or smell honeysuckle again, this experience will return to your mind and both comfort and motivate you anew. Walk back to the path and follow the way it leads back to the edge of the forest and back to your day to day world.

When you are back, be sure to make some notes of what you experienced and felt, and also eat and drink something to fully return to your normal reality.

(Diluted honeysuckle oil is available from here: http://www.amphora-retail.com/honeysuckle-diluted-10ml-p-561.html )