The Man in the Darkness ~ meet the Shadow Muse

The man in the darkness ~ meet the Shadow Muse

I’ve long been a little baffled by the concept of The Muse. I hear other writers and artists talk about this being and become more confused than ever. For some, The Muse is an actual real (often living) person who inspires them. Great poets had their muses, often unobtainable distant beauties. Yeats had Maud Gonne as his Muse, Dante had Beatrice.

Some of these are people they know closely, wives, lovers, parents, friends, who are Watson to their Holmes, nudging them ever closer towards greatness of expression.

Others refer to their Muse as some sort of archetype, a being who lives in the world of the psyche and the unconscious, whispering inspiration and delivering ideas and brilliance to the grateful writer(artist, poet, whatever).

The Muse, however you view one, appears in the works of people who aspire to be creative. Study a poet, for example, for a while and you begin to see the Muse often more clearly than you see the persona of the poet.

For a long time, as well as being baffled by the whole thing, I felt sure I had no such thing, either living, archetypal, human, literary or whatever. There’s no gentle but firm hand that nudges me towards writing, softly dictating the words for me to transcribe. There’s no demi-god I appeal to when ideas are scanty. There’s no literary giant who encourages me by their achievements to keep going with mine.

No Muse for me, I thought, and felt ever so slightly inferior. Not that I’d really want to have one, I thought. Capricious things, from all accounts. No sirree, thank you Ma’am. You can keep your Muses.

Except today I realised I do have Muses. A large number of them, actually, coalescing into a small army of warriors of the psyche. They populate the hidden corners of my mind, skulking in the memories I’d rather not share with anyone else. They wait. They’re not like the Muses others talk about. They choose their moments to show up, never mine. And they’re always the worst moments, when I am least able to deal with what they bring me.

I suspect they do this on purpose. Wrong-footed by shock, I look and keep on looking at what they bring me. Can this truly be mine, these images and ideas, these dark and dangerous imaginings? Yes, they can indeed be mine. They can be no one else’s.

Fermented from wrongs, real and imagined, personal and global, the Muses bring me a heady brew, steam curling from it in violet wreaths of ghostly breath.

The man in the darkness… who stands just outside of time, outside of my line of vision and hearing. I hear his footsteps, see sometimes the words he has left in the dust on my mantle-piece. His is the face I can never see, for it is made like a police photo-fit of all those who have damaged me in my life. I call him a man but he’s sexless really, like a dark angel beyond androgeny. He’s the bogeyman adults never quite admit to being scared of; he’s the lover who wronged us all. He’s the boy who broke my clay wolf in the second week of my first term at school. He’s the boss who made my life a misery for years with snide gibes and deliberate lack of support. He’s the ordinand who attempted to perform an exorcism on me, trapped on a bunk-bed with no help within calling distance.

He’s that dark space at the centre of my soul I refuse to look at because the velvety black void tempts me to throw myself in and drown in it.

He’s the ambassador for my Shadow and he brings me the gifts of the Shadow-world. It’s no good wishing he’d bring flowers. Or chocolates for that matter. These are gifts that last longer, touch deeper, cut to the bone if truth be told.

And they are my gifts. Would you like to share them?




Wood-smoke blowing in writhing sheets

beneath grey skies laden with impending rain

The ground gritty with fallen, gnarled acorns

And the outer shells of horse chestnut,

The shining conkers lying shyly among leaves

Fallen first from the laden boughs.

A smell of spice, illusory and fleeting

From the foliage turning slowly golden

Crisping slightly with autumn suns

Too brief to warm the earth much

Beyond the surface of the soil.

Birds tug at berries, peck at brambles

Seeking sweetness they cannot taste.

The rain comes at last, changing the scents

Filling the air with petrichor and promise.

We hunker down, collars turned

And make for home and hearth.



The Undercover Soundtrack

A month or two back, the lovely Roz Morris asked me if I’d consider doing The Undercover Soundtrack, a series she runs on her blog where writers share the music they write to.

I agreed( I almost bit her hand off!) and this is the result. Hope you enjoy the music and find it revealing too.

Ebbing and Flowing ~ Tides and Seasons of the inner worlds

Ebbing and Flowing ~ Tides and Seasons of the inner worlds

As I sit here, I can see the big oak tree beyond my garden and see the golden yellow of some of the leaves as they begin the process of changing colour and then falling. Many are still green but the chilly nights and the shorter days are inescapable evidence that the year has turned and it’s now Autumn for real. Winter follows hard on its heels, but then there is Spring to come.

I’ve heard a lot of folks fretting that here in the UK, we didn’t get much of a summer, and as a bee-keeper I saw that there were fewer sunny days than I’d have liked. The apple crop in this part of England has been very poor. I’ve heard (and I have noticed too) that sloes are scarce too. This for me is one of the exciting, unpredictable aspects of the natural world. No two summers are ever the same; each year, Spring is a bran-tub of discoveries. Each year I wonder whether we’ll get snow at Christmas, and I run amok collecting conkers and filling my face with blackberries when the hedgerows reach ripeness.

And yet, I desperately want my inner world to be always summer. Always full of sunshine and mown grass and hot, sultry nights to sit out and count the stars. To have the golden waving fields of wheat rather than the raggedy stubble awaiting the plough. To have the bloom on the peach and never the untidy decay of the fallen unwanted fruits. To have the long lazy days at the beach rather than standing at the door looking at leaden skies filled with unromantic sleet and freezing rains.

I don’t want to endure the winter storms that threaten to destroy much loved trees, and the flash floods that wash away familiar landscapes. I want the cheeping baby birds all fluffy and new, rather than the old, exhausted king stag waiting to be ousted from his kingdom by a fatal wound.

This is normal to want this. Most of us do. But without the changing seasons, the world would become static, stagnant. I remember a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the librarian Giles sighed about it always seeming to be perfect, sunny weather and how it depressed him. I’m not sure how many agree with him, but on reflection I do.

It’s not just merely about contrast, of needing to know hard times before you can enjoy good ones. It’s something more mysterious, more holistic. And it’s not just relevant to the physical seasons. The ebb and flow of my mental, emotional and spiritual life embraces some extremes. When things are bad, I find that all I want is relief from it (and no surprises that I feel that way) but last night I began to question whether this feeling is not directly as a result of an inability to accept that like the tides, my inner life ebbs and flows. And I also wonder if it is made worse by the cultural pressure to be only ever happy (or keep schtumm if you’re not) and the myriad ways in which this is manifested through medication, consumerism, positive thinking etc.

I have also wondered if we have begun to see a state of perpetual sunshine as our right and our due. To be happy is a great thing. But to be always and only happy? To expect always to be happy puts vast but vague pressure on people.

I’m quite low at the moment, that is to say, today(and for a few days recently). I’m consolidating all the recent stresses (good and bad) and trying to process them. My body is telling me I need to be quiet and still, and my mind says the same. Just like the creatures who are beginning their preparations for winter and winter sleep, I need to listen to my instincts about what will nourish and heal me. I need to just accept that I don’t feel chipper and lively, and optimistic, and it’s OK to feel that way even if others think I’d somehow lacking in moral fibre because I can’t just push on regardless.

It’s Autumn, and time to retreat, hide away, tell stories in the long-house, whittle wood into childrens’ toys. It’s also time to accept that it can’t always be summer and that the other seasons, inner and outer, have their powers and their gifts too.

“For all my relations” ~ are we sitting shiva for the world?

For all my relations” ~ are we sitting shiva for the world?

When a Native American enters a sweat lodge to pray, the words uttered are, “For all my relations.” This has never meant a person’s blood relations but rather every living thing (and in that culture, the rocks are sometimes referred to as The Stone People) so the breadth of meaning for living is much wider than you might expect). The overall spirituality of the many tribal groups we refer to as Native Americans sees the interconnectedness of everything, all of us linked by invisible but powerful webs. You can see a parallel in Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious , but for me the “we” is much more than just us upright apes. It’s the sparrows who bathe so exuberantly in the margins of my pond, and the tiny froglets now settling to winter sleep, and the hedgehog who prowls the garden at night hoping for cat-food. It’s my friends halfway across the world whose faces I’ll probably never see in the flesh. It’s the whole of consciousness, human and otherwise.

I heard recently the phrase “Misery loves company” applied to how on social media you’ll often find that people rally round someone in distress. It’s one of the things that I like about social media in that while there can be great cruelty there can also be great kindness too, but for me I think there is another reason why those in mental distress will often band together.

It’s because there’s an unspoken understanding, a fellowship if you will, among those who suffer this way. You’re unlikely to get told, pull your socks up, or that you’re choosing to be miserable etc, by others in similar distress.

And believe me, there can be a lot of judgement that goes on. Believe me, I am aware that next to someone in the slums, I’m living the life of Riley and ought to be bloody grateful for it and ought to be happy.

I’ve also noticed something else too among the loose community of those who suffer with this sort of distress(depression etc) and that is it’s getting worse. People who thought they’d found strategies for coping, or even a cure, are finding their methods aren’t working so well. The medication seems to have lost its edge, the mantras seem hollow, you have to exercise to damaging levels to get the same effects, the longed-for holiday is forgotten within 24 hours of the ‘plane touching down. These are good people. They’re not ungrateful wretches who are greedy for more consumer goods or whatever. They’re people like me who in the midst of our wonderful First World Life are finding themselves crying for days and not really knowing why. They’re finding that the gaps between down times are getting shorter and shorter, and the up times feel tinny and empty. Success might be sweet but it feels short-lived and hollow. We’re finding that this persistent sadness pushes through loving families and supportive friends.

And it won’t ever quite go away.

I woke up today thinking about it all and wondering why.

I’d also read a tweet in the small hours reminding me that there are only 50 months to go before we as a planet reach the tipping point where the environmental changes are(supposedly) irreversible. I’d tried not to see it but I saw it and that was that.

Now I know that I personally have not been responsible for any of the decisions over the last two hundred or so years that have created havoc with the environment. I know I’m not the one hunting rhinos to extinction and pouring crude oil into the oceans. But I belong to a people who have done these things. I belong too to the people who will be blamed if there is a posterity. I probably won’t live to see the damage. There’s a Native American saying that sums it up. “We do not inherit the earth, we borrow it from our children.” I doubt they’ll thank us for it.

So, why not eat, drink and be merry because it’s not my problem? Vast amounts of people seem to be able to do just that, shrug it off saying that it’s not their problem and they’ll be long dead before it all happens.

I can’t. Remember, we are all connected, through time and space too I believe.

Whatever the physical causes of depression might prove to be, trauma is also implicated. Grief often leads to profound and prolonged depression. Some days I wake and I feel as though I have suffered a huge loss but cannot remember it, just feels the pain. I strongly suspect many folks will relate to this feeling.

I also woke with a phrase in my mind. Sitting Shiva. This is the formal mourning process, ritualised to some degree practised by Jews across the world. I first heard about it when I was a student. I cannot remember when or where now but one thing struck me was the collective part of the process. People come and respectfully sit with the mourners, often in silence, to comfort them. They share stories of the deceased, too, if initiated by the mourners. Once, many years ago, I saw my cat Watson go through a ritual of grieving, when his companion William was killed on the road. He wailed, and refused to eat for several days, and lay on the grave in the garden for a week. We sat with him, sometimes, silent or talking depending on his lead, and grieved with him.

I’ve begun to wonder whether those of us who feel this persistent, unconquerable sadness (depression if you will) are in a strange way sitting shiva for the world, for the living planet and her creatures, human, plant and animal. If this is so, then let us talk, let us comfort each other with words and stories, and be respectful of the unspoken, unknown griefs another may be feeling without being able to articulate it.

Silent All These Years ~ Freeing the Story Within

This post first appeared at the Eight Cuts Gallery


I’ve long been haunted by this song by Tori Amos. It seems to encapsulate so completely the agony of not being able to speak what is inside us. There’s a saying that everyone has a book inside them. I disagree. Everyone has a story, or many stories but that’s not the same as a book at all. Plenty of people write books but who don’t ever tell the stories within them.

I don’t mean your life story or a memoir.

I mean stories that inhabit every corner of your being, the ones that unconsciously drive your every decision. On a larger scale there are stories that drive cultures, and even when the true origin of the story is lost, the power of that myth still drives that culture, often like a hidden rip-tide that can pull people under. When an individual takes on a wider story as their own, the results can be powerful and unpredictable.

Within British culture there are a number of all-pervading stories that everyone knows about and which seem to speak to virtually everyone. The first of these is Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s very hard to get at the real core of the story, so many accretions and additions have been made over the centuries by poets and writers, songwriters and film-makers. But the core seems to be this: as the Roman legions withdrew from Britain in the fourth century, a man rose to the top of the many warlords and chieftains and for a time held back the start of the Dark Ages. All the subsidiary stories about the sword in the stone, the Holy Grail, the Green Knight, Lancelot and Guinevere are secondary to this. One man, standing against the darkness, succeeding for a while before he too is swept away, lost to the darkness. Yet the story tellers chose to leave a tiny glimmer of hope in the form of the legend that Arthur was borne off to Avalon to be healed there and to sleep until the Nation truly needs him again. For me, that seed of hope when all seems hopeless is the key to the story, because it means the story has never quite ended.

The second story every Briton knows is Robin Hood. The truth of the story’s origins will never be found because the legend is so pervasive, but the likelihood (sorry) is that there were several men who used the title Robin and so over many decades the stories were joined together and became attributed to just one man. The core of the story is one man rallying many to fight a corrupt government and to restore justice to a land crippled by debt and wars.

There are others. Yet, while we may know our culture’s stories, do we know our own, those shadowy ill-defined legends that somehow define and underline our core being?

Children are bombarded today by more input in terms of story than ever before. Disney has re-imagined traditional fairy-tales and subtly(and not so subtly) twisted their core. We are seeing a crisis in both male and female identity, in my opinion, as a direct result of this twisting by popular film and television. Girls are reverting to a pre-feminist standpoint, choosing to focus on ambitions like motherhood and being housewives. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, yet, often they choose them out of a sense of finding something simpler and more readily achievable. Girls are fed a diet of Disney-esque princesses from babyhood but over the last twenty years those princesses have morphed from being damsels in distress to be rescued while remaining beautiful, to superwomen who can fight like men, are clever and resourceful and STILL look beautiful. This may seem a progression but I feel it is as undermining of girls as the original dumb damsel needing to be saved. It’s all too much to ask. It’s setting an impossible standard and it’s about time we fought back. I cannot speak for men, but the expectations for women have become an impossible ideal. Much of it is unconsciously expressed, but I feel this retreat from the achievements opened up by thirty years of hard graft by feminists is a direct result of these unreachable goals.

I failed dismally to have any sort of career, largely because a serious and long-term episode of clinical depression hit me at the time when I ought to have been finding my feet in the world of work. I had at the time a small child, complicating things further, but plenty of women go back to work when they have children, yet I failed to do so. My own psyche seemed to betray me, making it impossible to have held down a job even had I got one.

And yet…..

I found a way to speak my story.

My story, that tale distilled by countless idiots speaking sound and fury and yet signifying nothing because no one was listening, became hidden in other words. Fiction that holds more truth than I knew when I wrote it. Somewhere deep inside my mind, amid lost memories and hidden pain, something alchemical goes on and transmutes those shreds of ancient story that make up my story into tales than others can read and find a way of freeing their stories.

In some ways the song holds a key to explaining quite why it is so important to find and speak your story. “Years go by, will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand… years go by, will I choke on my tears till finally there is nothing left,” tell of the awful isolation of not being understood and valued, of being alone with our experiences, our thoughts. If another human soul understands us, our story, then perhaps we are not freaks, not outcasts and perhaps our story has value.

Some are decrying the ease with which a person may publish a book, either as an e-book or as a hard-copy or both, citing the wave of dross emerging and drowning the more worthwhile works in a sea of millions of words. I don’t agree. Yes, there are some pretty dire books out there. Mine may be considered among them, by some. Yet the chance to have your story seen and understood by another human soul is unprecedented in human history. Ordinary folks, without publishing connections and opportunities can have their story read by people who might otherwise never hear of them. Yes, it makes it harder for good books to be found, yet, for a long while I’d found the offerings by the traditional gatekeepers of publishing bland and oddly homogenised, at a greater remove from the author’s original vision of what their story was to have been. Yes, self-published books often seem to need an editor, or at least a better copy editor. They’re not perfect, and nor really should they be expected to be, just as us ladies are not modern Disney princesses capable of everything and anything and with PERFECT nails. Just as Disney has sold us a lie and we have swallowed it whole, so too has the publishing world. There is a template we’ve started to believe makes a book perfect and when we recoil from a book because it doesn’t fit that template, it’s time to start asking questions why.

The chance to free your story, and have it heard or read is one of the most healing things imaginable. I’m not talking about cosy Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries or thrillers or whatever written with more than half an eye on the commercial potential. I’m meaning those quirky, awkward to place, genre defying oddities that have been springing up here and there, those brainchildren of inventive, questioning, often tormented minds.

Those are the stories I want to read and write.