Hiding from myself?


I was going to write about addiction then realised it was too fraught a subject. Then I thought about obsession, and thought the same: too dangerous. I didn’t want to have a torrent of words aimed my way telling me I know nothing about either of those things.

Once upon a time I had a friend who was a heavy smoker. He gave up smoking several times a year, usually declaring this time it was for real, he’d done all the research and this was the way to do it. As a lifetime non-smoker, my opinion about it was somewhat savagely discounted because, as a non-smoker I could have no possible idea of what nicotine addiction could be like. Of course I couldn’t. Only direct experience of it would mean that my thoughts on it had any value.

But I’ve wanted to a long while to explore the why of addictions. Bear with me as I blunder through.

Addictions, compulsions, obsessions and all the behaviour that comes with them are complex, deeply personal experiences. While various programs exist to help people escape their addictions, and many with great success, for me it seems the question boils down to this: what does the addiction do for you that you can’t do without? In the case of substance addictions, the answer might seem simple, because once your body has become addicted to a substance and the experience it provides it’s obvious precisely what you cannot do without. Your physiology and your psyche adapts to fit the substance into themselves, and it can become a virtually fixed part of who you are. I cannot address this, because I have no expertise or experience in this field.

But other non-substance addictions and obsessions are equally powerful. Gambling. Shopping. Sex. Power. The list is endless. Some seem quite trivial to an outsider, yet it’s the inside that is what holds the power.

Imagine some thing, some activity that you enjoy, to the exclusion of all others. Now how would you feel if I said you can never do/have that again? Think about it.

Most of us have a good few of that sort of thing, and the thought of never being allowed to do them any more might well have made you feel ever so slightly sick or panicky. That doesn’t mean you have an addiction, though. It means you are human and you like something, a lot.

For me, that kind of liking can become a way of hiding from myself. Compelling obsessions distract me from…well, from what?

That is the question. I don’t know the answer, really. Sometimes the fear of that answer seems to lurk like the ghost at the feast, unseen to all but bringing a chill to the proceedings.

I’ve thought a lot about the methods people use to try and bring some relief from depression and anxiety. Medication. Exercise. Therapy(of a million varieties). Shopping. Sex. Alcohol. Recreational drugs. Religion. Science. Frantic busy-ness & overwork. Holidays in the sun. Art. Music. Blogging. Writing.

I’ve written several million words. Some of them are quite good. I’ve explored the lives of fictional characters who have become closer to me than living folks, in the shadows of the night when the unwelcome thoughts intrude. I’ve lived those lives like a petty god, controlling and directing and watching. There are a lot of stories on my hard drive. They’ve been my way of trying to make some sense, not of my own life, but of life itself. I’ve created stories where justice of a sort exists, the random unkind accidents have meaning, where people reach a form of personal equanimity through their sufferings. I’ve lived vicariously through them, the way probably all writers do, but now I find I cannot write (whether a short term thing or long term or even permanent I do not know) I realise I cannot lose myself in the telling of tales and it hurts. There’s a persistent, nagging aching emptiness at the core of me, familiar to me from finishing a book, but it’s growing. Like an alcoholic needs booze to feed that hunger inside, I feel the need to write, and yet there is nothing there. Ideas that seem fabulous when they first flare, fizzle out and become rags of the robes of ancient kings, hints of past splendour but reeking of decay.

It comes down to this: is writing, my obsession/addiction for over forty years, a means of hiding from myself or a means of finding myself?

When the song falls silent ~ disconnection and disorientation

When the song falls silent ~ disconnection and disorientation

I was chatting with Madison Woods on Facebook the other day, and discussing a post she’d written about the three kinds of music. And the fourth kind.



This is what she says:

Instrumental music is the music most people will think of when the word ‘music’ is used. It’s the kind you hear with your ears and tap your foot or sing along with. Music of the spheres is the sound emitted by celestial bodies as they move through space. I have heard of this and even listened to recordings made from outer space, but it wasn’t something I’d connected with when I first heard about it. Music of humans is the musical harmony between the souls of humans. It is this one that struck the chord with me when I heard about it for the first time this morning.

This music between souls of humans explains a lot about why some people just don’t get along from the get-go, and why some click and resonate so well from the very first time they meet. It adds to the explanation of the phenomenon of soul-mates. Until I met Rob, I didn’t believe in soul-mates, by the way, so I’m a relatively newly converted believer.

And now I remember how this had to do with the marketing. It is from this place of harmonic resonance that the connections between people arise to make the kind of marketing Lynn talks about in her book possible. It’s about forming communities and tribes (a well-used, maybe over-used, buzz word in the online social marketing arena) of others who share your world-views. Its not necessarily about forming mono-cultures of those who are pursuing the same goals as us (i.e. writers grouping with writers… satisfying on a personal level, but perhaps not a good marketing strategy). In a village full of bakers, who’s going to shoe the horses or till the ground?

The thing I haven’t mentioned yet that excites me most of all about this whole music business is a fourth kind of music – one she didn’t mention, and I haven’t seen referenced anywhere, but I have heard. It is the between music. I know some of you hear it and just don’t know what it is. I feel it between myself and the earth, and I actually hear the earth humming at night sometimes. I sense between music while walking in the woods beneath the trees. Certain plants, certain animals, particular rocks and certain seasons all resonate with me in ways that can be explained by this kind of music I can’t define except as between.”

I confess it brought up some powerful thoughts in me, because I knew exactly what she was talking about. It’s almost impossible to describe in ordinary terms and for those who are sceptics, then I suspect you have plenty of explanations for what I have felt and heard. The best way to illustrate it is via my own fiction; the following are two excerpts from The Bet, where the main character is trying to understand a number of things about his life and is sent on a long walk on the North York moors to try and get his thoughts straight.

So he walked, obediently, and found himself getting higher and higher into the hills and this breathtaking silence and crystalline air. When he’d gone as far as he dared and still be able to get back before dark, he stopped. He was on open moorland, scarcely a tree in sight save low scrubby birch and rowan. There was snow on the ground up here, frozen hard and untouched by the bright winter sun, and the sky was like an immense dome of icy blue glass. He felt as though he could almost touch the sky; it seemed so close and solid. Tufts of heather showed black through the snow here and there, and large grey boulders, lichen-stained and worn by weather littered the ground. His breath hung around him in white clouds, and he could feel the sweat from the steep climb drying and cooling on his skin. There was a curlew calling somewhere, but he couldn’t see it however hard he tried. He cleared a rock of snow and sat down cautiously and let his breathing slow and quieten till all he could hear was this great empty moorland. There were lots of small sounds, once he was himself quiet enough to hear them. A thrush was breaking open a snail, halfway down the valley it must have been but the sound of shell on stone reached him so clearly it could have been only a few feet away, such was the clarity of sound. A grouse clattered somewhere behind him; its call of “go back go back”, reminding him he would need to turn round and go back soon. After he had sat for some time, he fancied he could hear something beyond the small noises of animal and bird life, or the occasional aeroplane, or distant car, or even the soft soughing of the wind among the heather and stones; a kind of gigantic pulse, soft and deep and very slow. He was aware he had got very cold, that his bum had become numb with sitting on the cold unyielding rock, but still he listened, entranced.

A fox called harshly somewhere in the distance, making him glance up. The sky was still light but the sun was gone.”

Later he is attempting to explain his experiences:

““It felt as though something very large was alive up there, that was what it seemed like,” Ashurst went on. “So large I couldn’t see it. Am I making any sense?”

Perfect sense. I go up on the moor quite often; it’s a very clear place. No illusions up there.”

So I wasn’t imagining it, then?”

Good God, no. I feel as if I can see into forever from up there.”

Yes, but it was something else too.”

Go on. Don’t be afraid to say whatever you felt.”

Ashurst hesitated, trying desperately to arrange words, which wouldn’t stay where he put them. Finally, he said, simply,

I felt as if the whole world were actually alive and I could feel its in-breath and its out-breath.”

The old man smiled and poured more tea.”

During much of my life, I have been able to still myself and feel that giant in-breath and out-breath, that deep, silent pulse of life, often up on mountainsides or by the ocean at twilight. I’ve been able to feel it in a busy London park, hearing the sublime, silent songs of the beds of flowers and the towering plane trees. I’ve been able to hold a wild mouse in the palm of my hand, meet the minute eyes and hear the song of that little creature. Many times I have pressed by ear to the trunk of a spring-time silver birch and beneath the river of rushing sap I have heard the voice of the tree itself. I’ve sat in Quaker Meeting and felt and heard the collective song of the community, humming softly beneath the sound of ticking clocks, rasping breath and gurgling stomachs.

But lately I feel as if I have gone profoundly deaf. Worse, as if the song never existed and that I have been deluded to think it did. Yet reading Madison’s post reminded me that if I am deluded, then not only is she also deluded but vast numbers of people have also been, and I feel a measure of comfort.

I have no answers to this yet, beyond the knowledge that the disconnection and disorientation I feel may be just a part of the journey, a passage through silence and perhaps into a deeper faith and a deeper relationship with the mystery that is life.




Where dreams & reality meet, imagination is born ~ what inspires a writer?

Where dreams & reality meet, imagination is born ~ what inspires a writer?


(This article originally appeared at http://www.osierpublishing.co.uk/ and I reiterate the trigger warning put there. The following article contains brief but potentially upsetting references to neo-natal death, still-birth and maternal death)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s a question most writers get asked, and if they’re anything like me, the usual result is a shuffling of feet and a slight awkwardness. The chances are, if you can explain where a certain idea came from, it’s not going to be easy to get from that kernel of inspiration to the finished product without a great deal of narrative.

But often that narrative can be as extraordinary as the story it inspired. One review of my latest novel The Bet expressed some concern about where certain parts of the storyline came from, and the reviewer was worried for my well being if any part of it was from life experience. She’s someone I’ve known only through the internet, but for quite a considerable time, and she’d seen no traces in my publicly expressed self of some of the traumas depicted in the novel.

The Bet opens with snow, and a numb, traumatised young man making a journey to hospital to visit his wife and newborn son. For reasons that become clear by the end of the chapter, he chooses to bypass protocol and smuggle the baby out of hospital to take him home. His guilty flight through snowbound, frozen countryside on foot is obviously not something I ever did myself but it has a strange, rather powerful story behind it.

It comes partially from a dream, but that dream was probably the product of experiences my mind never got a proper chance to process at the time.

When my only child was born in the late 80s, I was living in the north east of England, a long way from my own family. The birth was a rather tough one, and I only found out later by a chance conversation with a midwife that it was only because of their skills I had a live baby to take home. The cord was wrapped twice round the baby’s neck; without expert assistance my child would have died during birth. I was quite ill following the delivery, with a severe kidney infection that left me unable to do anything much other than breastfeed (I’m a cussed, determined sort) and sleep. Much of the care for the newborn was done by either staff or by my husband when he visited, or the occasional friend who came. As my health improved I slept a little less and watched and listened a little more.

In British hospitals giving birth is seen as a pretty safe thing, or at least that’s the perception that was around at the time. However, the week that I spent on the maternity ward was a remarkable one. In those seven days there was one still birth, one maternal death and one neonatal death. The effect on the marvellous staff, from doctors, midwives and nursing staff was profound. On a maternity ward, tears and emotional storms are seen as normal, but that week, staff were seen weeping in each other’s arms, drying their eyes and moving on. As a longer stay patient, I got to know some well, and they told me things. Like their outrage that about twenty people had come to view the still-born babe, even though they were only remotely connected. “Ghouls,” said one midwife to me. “But if the parents have said yes…how can we stop them?”.

On my fourth day, I was woken in the middle of the night by the arrival of a girl who’d gone into premature labour. At a more civilised hour, we met properly and talked. Her baby, born at just 27 weeks was in the Special Care Unit. She showed me photos. I held her hand, feeling guilty for my healthy newborn. She was moved later than day to be downstairs in the SCU, and came back up a few times to talk to me. Then the next day, the chaplain came round the wards. He’d been called for an emergency baptism. The baby died shortly afterwards.

Spin forwards about 18 months. Snow on the ground, a house without heating and a hyperactive toddler worn out by playing in the snow with a friend’s kids, I got a chance for a daytime nap. Under duvet and blankets, I slipped into deep, disturbed sleep, and into dreams that felt too real, too uncomfortable. I was not me; I was young and male and very confused and numb with emotion and cold. I was hiking through deep snow, with a baby in a papoose against my chest; I was desperate to get home before the baby awoke and needed feeding. Scared and in frozen distress, my mind was playing horrible tricks on me, and I wanted skis so I could go faster (I didn’t ski for the first time until more than twenty years after this dream) and make sure I wasn’t caught. I woke, with the dream blazing in my head and the certainty I had to write a story out of it.

The dream became a short story, which months later started to develop into a novel. That novel was my first foray into the publishing world but though it got a long way, it never made it to publication and never will. A long hiatus from writing followed, after a second novel almost made it but caused me a near-fatal illness. But the seed of that story lay dormant, and when circumstances changed, it began to grow. It grew in a very different direction, and it grew very fast. Before I realised it, disturbing but compelling scenes started to fill my mind when it idled when walking or running or washing the dishes. It became more and more clear that I simply had to write this story, or go mad trying to repress it. Since chasing a publishing deal had nearly killed me once, I chose not to think about that. I chose to sit down and write like a woman possessed, until the story was OUT.

It had taken years to fully gestate and now it was not willing for me to take a long time over bringing it to birth. Showing my ‘offspring’ to a wider world would take a good deal more time, but now it’s out there.

I’m aware this novel deals with painful, difficult themes. I can’t pretend it doesn’t. I’ve done my best in my life not to shy away from the less than sunny side of living but what I believe I have done with this novel is to leave the reader with more than a sense of hope. This is a novel that is ultimately about redemption and understanding, of integrating the inevitable tragedies that happen (undeservedly or otherwise) into a greater pattern. The main character’s father tells him a quote from the German philosopher Goethe: “That which we understand, we do not blame.” The Bet is a journey towards that depth of understanding that leads to forgiveness and wholeness.



Heaven-Haven ~ the life and works of Teresa of Avila

 In all my rummagings and unpacking I found various things I thought long lost. This is one of them. It’s a talk I gave at St. John’s college at morning prayer somewhere in 1993, I think. I remember I ad-libbed quite a few extra bits and all the words by St Teresa herself I delivered in as broad a Yorkshire accent as I could manage. She seemed somehow more northern than Spanish.

I have desired to go

Where springs not fail

To fields when flies no sharp and sided hail

And a few lilies blow

And I have asked to be

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins “Haven Haven ~ a nun takes the veil”

These are the words I think of when I consider the enclosed religious life, a view from my generation where to choose the cloister is a considered, much thought-out decision, from a deep inner call that cannot be put aside. And yet Teresa of Avila did not willingly become a nun. In sixteenth century Spain only two options for a respectable life were open to the women of rich and noble families: marriage or the convent. Marriage frightened her, having seen her mother, worn out with child-bearing, retreat into a fantasy world of romantic make-believe. Having no other real option, Teresa took herself to the convent at the age of twenty one, to a life which on the whole bored and depressed her, and was, despite romantic images of enclosed piety, really rather shallow.

At forty three, the idea of reform came to her and she left to found a convent, St Joseph’s. She was to found seventeen convents in all. For an enclosed nun, Teresa spent remarkably little time living the enclosed, contemplative life, a fact which irritated many of her contemporaries. She strikes me as an intensely practical woman, both in her actions and in her spirituality. She wrote, “Do not imagine that one should never think of anything else – that if your mind wanders, all is lost.” (Interior Castles)

Her most well known saying, emblazoned on many tacky little plaques and spoon-rests, is, “God walks among the pots and pans,” (which always explains why guests in my kitchen don’t go down with food poisoning) is often misunderstood as setting up ‘active’ life as superior to the contemplative life. She writes, “If contemplation, mental prayers, vocal prayers, caring for the sick, serving in the house and working at the lowliest tasks of all are all ways of attending the Guest who comes to stay with us, eats with us and relaxes with us, then what matter whether we do one task or another.”

And yet the practical woman had her mystical side, not welcome really but rather the opposite at times. In one of her letters she writes, “I’ve had the raptures again. They’re most embarrassing, several times in public – during Matins for instance. I’m so ashamed I simply want to hide away somewhere.” She wrote much sensible advice on assessing mystical experiences and was rather humorously sceptical about the experiences of others. Of one of her nuns, she wrote, “If I’d have been there, she wouldn’t have had such a while of experiences.” Teresa also had an amazing understanding of the physical and emotional causes of some experiences: “Isabel de San Jeronimo will have to be made to eat meat for a few days and give up prayer. She has an unstable imagination which makes her believed she actually sees and hears the things she meditates on.”

Teresa seems a woman of paradoxes:

An enclosed nun who spent much of her life travelling.

A great writer on prayer and the spiritual life who admitted freely to her brother Lorenzo that sheer pressure of work had made prayer, in the formal sense, impossible.

A mystic who saw visions and yet who treated such things with sense and caution, “Though some such phenomenon may be genuine, I am sure it is best to regard them as of no importance…even supposing they are genuine, nothing will be lost.”

A great saint, who wrote six years before her death, “I beg you, Reverend Father, to ask God to make me a true nun of Carmel! Better late than never.”

A human being in touch with God and with the earth: “WE are not angels. We have bodies. To want to be angels here on earth is absurd, particularly if you are as much a part of the earth as I am.”

These words were found in her breviary after her death:

Be then by naught perturbed

of naught afraid

For all things pass

Save God

Who does not change.

Be patient, and at last

Thou shall of all

Fulfillment find.

Hold God

And naught shall fail thee

For he alone is all.

A prayer:

Teach us to love the paradoxes within ourselves

Teach us to love the inconsistencies of others

Teach us to love the complexity of creation

And to accept the simplicity of God