Janus, the two faced god ~ looking backwards and forwards at the same time

Janus, the two faced god ~ looking backwards and forwards at the same time

Anyone who knows me even a little knows how interested I’ve always been in Roman culture; indeed, that love of all things Roman led to me doing a joint honours degree, one half English, one half Latin.

Janus is of course the Roman god who gives his name to our first month of the year, January, and while I don’t want to dwell too much on the past it’d be a good thing to have a quick look at what 2012 brought me. I’m also not one for resolutions but in the spirit of Janus, I would like to take a peep ahead too.

In many ways, the year was a maelstrom of changes and of seeming chaos. March-time my mental health broke finally and for some weeks I was incapacitated and unable to face leaving the house alone. The trigger for this was a trampled bunch of daffodils but the reasons, the causes so much deeper. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the darkness those poor flowers revealed. What I told my GP a day or two after the meltdown meant he made me an emergency appointment with the mental health support team. I’m not going in to much detail but I feel disappointed in the process. In theory moving house ought not to have made any difference, but in fact, relocating meant that I lost my place on a waiting list for some help, and had I chosen to go to my new GP to restart the process I would have been obliged to go back to the very beginning and restart the whole thing from scratch. I’ve chosen not to do so (yet) simply because at present none of the options I may be offered would actually be of any benefit to me.

I was resistant to the idea of returning to a parish, hostile even, yet there were clear signs along the way that it was the right thing. We moved here in September, and I’m still finding my feet. I’ve left my teaching job behind, as it’s too far to travel back when work comes in for the money offered. A new job has yet to materialise, though I’ve been looking. I even had a careers interview which was very helpful in identifying my key skills, and suggesting looking for work in mentoring. I can only hope that something comes along.

Writing-wise, this has been a year of surprises. I’ve put out two new books this year. The Wild Hunt came out in February on Kindle, and The Bet came out in late September. My two previous books, Strangers and Pilgrims and Away With The Fairies had been ticking over, selling both on Kindle and in paperback, but from May onwards, sales saw a steady then meteoric rise, and from May both started to appear on several of the best-sellers lists for Kindle. Strangers has been consistently in the top 100 for personal transformation and often also the top 100 for self-help/ spirituality. The highest it rose to was 8. Away With The Fairies nudged its head onto the top 100 for women’s literary fiction a few times since its release but from May it landed there and has stayed there ever since, getting as high as 14 a few times. The Wild Hunt has in the last 3 months begun to climb steadily, getting into the top 100 for fairy tales and myths, consistently, then slipping off again. The weekend I launched The Bet, it shot into the top 100 for psychological fiction, but it didn’t stay there. I believe it will start to rise soon, judging from the pattern of the other books. I don’t write this to boast but rather to encourage other writers who may read this blog that if a book seems to be dead in the water, things can and do change. Word of mouth from readers seems to be vital, and also patience. Money is tight for everyone, and any sensible reader will download a sample, take time to read it before deciding to buy. Sometimes the gap between sample and buying is many months. I know it is for me. I have been told by some who downloaded the sample of The Bet that by the time they’d finished that, they hit the buy button. Modesty aside, it really is that good. I’m intending to do a paperback copy of that and The Wild Hunt quite soon, but as I want to try Createspace instead of Lulu, it may take a little while.

Next year, I am hoping to start a few more projects. I said last year I wanted to put out a book of poetry and one of the most useful essays here, and some short story collections. Poetry is not a big seller but enough people have asked and I’d like to have paperbacks too. My biggest worry for this is getting the Table of Contents for the Kindle version right. I go blank even trying to figure out the process. Likewise for a book of essays. But I’d like to try. I’ve got a squad of themed shorts lined up for another short story collection.

But real writing, the way I’ve been unable to do, to tackle a long project of a new novel, that’s been on hold for over 18 months is something I really want to do. I had a plot arrive in my head a few weeks back and I’ve been making notes and letting it brew every since. I have 3 other works at various stages of completeness too, that need digging out and kick-starting. I think subconsciously I have been hesitating, for those 18 months (or even 2 years, now I think about it) because I knew at a deep level our life would be changing dramatically within a certain space of time. The friendship I lost last year was a factor too as I can see now it was inhibiting me, as was both my location, my job and various other things. I feel more like myself in this house; I have a lovely room at the back of the house and a view I find pleasant. I also have more time and mental space.

So next year, I will spend more time on writing than I have for many years, unless a full-time job comes along. I still have my travel job, but that is sporadic and I have long spells without work. I’ve beaten myself up continually for my inability to use my down time for writing, but I’m going to try and quell that tendency. Writing takes a great deal more time away from the page; there’s a good deal of thinking, pondering and dreaming involved, not to mention the less easy to describe process of fermentation that alchemically transforms dross into gold, without the conscious mind being able to follow the deep and very hidden journeys the pain of experience can take. I’ve long wondered how I could work through and heal through the ordeals and betrayals of the last few years, and it’s a slow process. Yet I think the time is approaching when I will be able to do this through writing, to cauterise wounds that still hurt and break open.

Wishes for next year? Many. The Bet on not just the Kindle best-sellers lists but once it’s up in paperback, to see it sell well there too. This is a book that I love deeply. It’s got two sequels, written already but just needing the same process of getting a cover etc. But the themes of the novel are deep, powerful ones; you can’t read it without being moved and also, inspired. The reviews in so far have confirmed my own feelings about the book; I’ve been touched and delighted by all the book reviews that have come this year. I’d like to see the others continue to grow and reach a wider audience, especially the USA. I sell few books there but I do not know why. I guess I’m a very English writer. I’d also like to get back into my stride of exploration of my imagination and actually feel creative again. There is so much bubbling away inside me; to learn how to channel it effectively again is a real challenge. I think a lot of my creativity got siphoned off by the teaching job. Now I need to focus on words, both poetry and stories again, not on finding ways of teaching English that is fun and effective.

Health-wise, there’s other things. I’ve realised that neither medication nor the ubiquitous CBT would be at all helpful for me, and potentially both are harmful. I’d like to find a soul-friend locally who has the experience and training to help me work through things, a kind of free-range psychotherapy that cuts both ways, so that neither participant is client. It’s something I talked about in abstract with the friend who I lost, but never found a context to explore it further. I have no idea how to go about this but it seems like an important idea I can’t let go of. My involvement in the Dandelions and Bad Hair Days project, a book about mental health, has taught me that there are many, many ways of living with mental distress and each person needs to find their own.

Anyway, I have rambled a great deal. Time to stop and just say:

May 2013 be for you a wonderful year that brings more joy than sorrow.

The Journey Home Begins With ‘Sorry’ ~ on reconciliation and relationships

The journey home begins with “Sorry” ~ on reconciliation & relationships

I’m a great procrastinator when it comes to Christmas things. I object to anything remotely Christmas themed until at least advent and I’m seldom in the mood for festive frolics till mid month at the very soonest. This means that the majority of my preparations are crammed into seven to ten days. I count myself ahead if I have managed to get the tree up by the 20th. The thing I procrastinate the most about is the cards and until this year I wasn’t sure why. Usually I finish them and think, why did I put it off so long?

This year, as we moved in the autumn I needed to do a round robin letter (never done one before) to give our new address and a brief resume of the year. I don’t mind other people’s round robins, even though there’s a general loathing of them that gets expressed through the media (and social media) and apart from one that began, brace yourselves I’ve got leukaemia and went downhill from there, they’re usually nice to read. So equipped with a sheaf of printed letters I opened my address book and found my reason for hesitation.

As I leafed slowly through, I realised it was full of people, not merely names and addresses and some of them were no longer in my life.

Some had passed away. Those made me sad, but I had good memories of them.

Some have drifted away. That’s normal. Not all friendships are forever; they have their moments, a shared experience, and they decline. You have good memories, a smile when you think of them and usually a card at Christmas. Sometimes those are rekindled, and it’s as if nothing has ever happened.

And some are sundered from me.

Not many. I’ve been lucky generally that I don’t make enemies. But in most of our lives there are people who hurt us. Those who can hurt us are generally those we let in, and trust, and care about. And in turn, we too hurt others. Either inadvertently, or deliberately.

I’ve seen a good deal of discussion lately via social media about cutting people out of lives, both from those at the hard end of the cut and those wielding the knife. There’s a school of thought that has it that we should remove from our lives anyone who is seen as being negative or not what we need/want. I’ve heard of people recently who have been told they are being ‘let go’ by friends. It’s horrible, frankly, doubly so at the Christmas season of goodwill. We do not really know what another person has been going through, and to judge someone else as negative and needing weeding out of your life is bad enough, but to tell them so in such terms… To me, that is needlessly cruel and desperately selfish. This year I had two people do it to me.

But when it comes to broken relationships, ones where the hurt still smarts, the last words echo in your memory, even years later, what of those? You may think, their loss. Imagine then you find one day they have died. If you find yourself thinking, I wish I’d…., then perhaps there’s unfinished business left.

Some there is no way back with. You have no idea where they are, or how to find them. These are ones you have to leave in the lap of the gods. I have a few of those,and for those I may have hurt or who have hurt me, I can say simply, “I am sorry. I wish you well in your journey. I am here if you want to talk,” and hope that somehow those words may carry on the wings of quiet hope. There is great, unseen power in such prayerful words. Someone hears them, even if we speak them silently.

But others, we look at their names and we think, they must hate us, they’d never let me back in. It doesn’t matter which side of the hurting you were on, there is fear in an approach, a fear that our overtures will be rejected, opening the wounds again. Perhaps this time of year is the safest. One may send a card, knowing that if they tear it up you will never know. But it may pave the way towards a little dialogue later, the proverbial olive branch.

I do not wish to live in conflict with anyone. I would make my peace with all, and offer my ‘Sorry’ as a hand towards any soul with whom I am not in harmony with. Sorry for my part, for every relationship breakdown has two sides(or more) and no party is completely innocent.

May your Christmas be filled with peace and harmony.

Sunrise on the Solstice ~ the view from the Cave

Sunrise on the Solstice ~ the view from the Cave

The embers of the fire are barely visible as I crawl from my bed, eyes still gummed from sleep. Heat emanates from the fire-pit, but it’s lost its strength, and I’m aware I’m only just in time. The long night has chilled the cave to almost freezing, and the ashes in the fire-pit have scarcely any life left in them. I take a handful of finely split kindling, and I place a tiny piece on with great care, blowing softly to try and coax the dying fire back to flaming life. The cave is almost completely in darkness, only the reddish centre of the fire-pit gives any light. I banked up the fire before I settled to sleep, and before I lay down, I deliberately blew out the flame in the rough clay oil lamp that is usually left to burn all night. Only the fire was left, hidden under slabs of peat, an act of faith that it would stay alight through the longest night.

I blow, my face close to the warm ashes, but I can feel the heat dying away, and my heart sinks. If I cannot rekindle the fire, I may freeze to death. The fire is what keeps me alive, warms my body, cooks my food and scares away predators for whom a lone woman high in the mountains is a convenient meal otherwise.

I scoop the final whitened sticks that have some heat yet left in them, and scrape them together and lay more of the kindling onto the heap and blow. My breath raises ash, and I want to cough but I must keep blowing, steadily.

Just as I realise I cannot blow any more, the wood begins to glow read, then silently and softly explodes into flame. I cough, finally, and find I can breathe more easily now that the new wood is catching. I watch intently as the fire leaps from twig to twig, and at the right moment I begin to pile more on, bigger pieces steadily until the blaze is crackling away and I can sit back on my heels.

In the new light of the restored fire, I can see my own breath curling in the air in thick clouds. I am just in time, for the cave was becoming desperately cold. Beyond the cave entrance I can see the stars still, but they are fading and I know it is time. Dragging my warmest clothes around me, I pick up the cold lamp, and using a taper, I light it. The oil is animal fat, rendered until it is almost clear, and I have tried to mask the smell by adding pine resins.

Outside it is colder still. There’s a wide area beyond the cave mouth that is a half-moon of soft pale sand, but it’s lost under a layer of snow that crunches as I walk to the outside fire-pit. I have kept it mostly free of snow, digging it out, and a few days ago I dug out both snow and old ashes, and covered the area with pine branches lopped from trees near the path. There is a layer of snow on top of the deep green pine needles but I take care it does not fall into the circle of stones as I lift the branches away. Last night, before the final rays of sunlight were lost in the forest below, I laid a fire here, ready to light, and covered it again. I watched the light die in the sky, and felt my eyes become dark too.

The stars are going out as I watch. One by one they vanish until only the North Star is visible, her light fainter by the moment. At the point when the last star’s light is gone, I can see that the sky has become empty. The wind blows, edged with ice, and I glance at my oil lamp, set on one of the stones that surround the fire pit. The flame wavers but the wind does not extinguish it. The forest below is silent, except for the wind in the branches, and it is as if the whole cosmos is waiting. I can see an owl, waiting, perched on a branch high up, watching me but she is silent and still. Nothing moves.

My feet are becoming numb, encased in thick boots that keep the snow out but not all the cold, but I do not stamp them. Like the owl who keeps sentinel, I remain still and silent.

At the far eastern edge of the forest that spreads out below me seemingly without end, the sky has become paler. Pearlescent, with an icy pink glow, the horizon seems to warm, and the rose gives way seamlessly to deep red then orange, and as I take a deep breath, the very first rays of light beam across the frozen dark of the forest, and I kneel in the snow, touching the flame from the lamp to the kindling in the fire pit.

As the fire catches with a scent of pine and snow, the light reaches the semi-circle in front of my cave, and for a single moment, the flame of my fire and the flame of the newborn sun are one.

The sun stands still this day, and all else pivots upon it but I have lit my fire, against the long dark that is still to come. This day will endure and pass but all that come after it will be daily that tiny bit longer as the light grows and summer begins her journey back to the land. I go inside to tend my fire and to wait.

Bullying, practical jokes and the abuse of power

Bullying, practical jokes and the abuse of power

There’s been a lot about bullying recently and I’m both glad and sad that this is the case. Glad because it needs bringing out into the open, sad that it should need to be addressed at all.

When I was a kid bullying was seen in very black and white and utterly simplistic terms. A bully was a figure of almost comic book stereotype, the brute who menaced others with fists and overt physical strength. Bullies were easy to spot in those days (I jest a little here) because they were seen as big, rather stupid and easily dealt with by applying a bit of detention, the judicious use of martial arts and running away very fast. So it was not until I was in my thirties I really began to understand that bullying is not the simple thing depicted during my school days. It took even longer to accept that my own youth had been made pretty damned miserable by a subtler, less obvious form of bullying.

You see, back then, things like name calling, merciless teasing and the like were all part of the jolly japes of learning to get on with people. Girls teased other girls because that’s what girls are like, or because they were a bit jealous….and it was all seen as part of growing up. You were told to “just ignore it” and do your best to placate the popular girls(and boys) so you could be a part of the gang. If they weren’t hitting you, it wasn’t bullying. If they weren’t extracting money from you by menaces, it was all part of the rough and tumble of school life. If they were reducing you to tears most days, then it was your fault for being a softy and you should know they don’t mean it or you should be less thin-skinned. Constant exclusion meant you weren’t trying hard enough to fit in. You get the idea.

In the end, I ran away. After a particularly difficult morning I left school premises at lunchtime, supposedly going home for lunch as usual and never got there. I walked for hours, toting both my hated athletics kit and the mangled looking fruit flan I’d made in home economics. I wasn’t to know till later the alarm had gone up and the police were out looking for me. I was 13 at the time. I finally phoned home and was collected in a police car. I stayed off school for a week after that; my form tutor came to see me. I think he knew what had been going on, but you didn’t tell teachers unless you could show actual bruises. He arranged for some of my class mates to come and see me before I came back. He thought he’d chosen my friends but he wasn’t to know that all but one of the girls he brought round were the very ones I’d been in conflict with. Looking back, I am sure they didn’t realise that their behaviour had been making me that miserable. How could they? They, like me, were just teenage girls trying to make sense of the world and keep their own heads above water. Three years later, one of the worst of the bunch cracked up under exam pressure and attempted an overdose in a phone box. She did eventually sit 3 of her O levels, but not the expected 9. I never talked to her about what happened, and I’ve not seen her for more than 30 years. I wonder now if her constant bitching at me for being a swot was as a result of her being terrified that she was not as clever as her older sister, and since I was an easy target, she vented her insecurities on me.

However you define bullying(and believe me, the definition is much broader and more sensible now than it was when I was a kid) bullying is about power. It’s not about lunch money or anything tangible. It’s about someone who feels the need to make themselves feel powerful by making someone else feel powerless. Whether in the workplace or the home, at school or at college, or even on social media (where bullying is rife and impossible to pin down) bullying is a form of terrible emotional abuse that needs fighting.

I’m maybe going out on a limb here but something that I feel falls into the bullying camp is practical jokes. I know plenty of people may disagree with this and tell me I have no sense of humour but the vast majority of practical jokes are about the exercise of power of one person over another. Even the crude, basic ones like the whoopee cushion are about someone reducing another person to a figure of fun, to be jeered at. They’re often about the humiliation of the victim. Just as rape is not about sex, practical jokes are not about humour.

Practical jokes tell the victim: you’re not as smart as me or you’d never have fallen for it. They tell them you’re stupid and gullible and worthless. If you get upset about one, the recourse is the same: you’re stupid because you don’t have a sense of humour and you take yourself too seriously. Practical jokes are generally about an exercise of power, an abuse of relationship. The more elaborate the joke, usually the more venom is behind them.

During my school days, I was a part of a couple of practical joking campaigns, swept along by the will of a whole class led by a few ringleaders. One was against our German teacher, who, while being a nice person was, indisputably, a very poor teacher. The will of the class was to try and get rid of her so we could have a better teacher. The other was against a history teacher who replaced our previous inspirational and much admired teacher. It was a war of attrition, of undermining his tenuous authority, by lessons where a subtle hum was started that continued almost subliminally for over an hour, despite his increasingly apoplectic shouting. Each lesson some new trick was tried, until he could cope no more and called in the head of department who we were all genuinely scared of.

I am to this day ashamed that I did nothing to object to these campaigns against people whose only crime was to be less than brilliant teachers. My German teacher moved schools. My history teacher left teaching. That’s what bullying can do, even when it is hidden under the guise of practical joking. At the time, aged about 15 I was uneasy but I did find it funny. Some teachers were seen as the enemy, and oddly enough it wasn’t the strict ones who we were scared of. I wish I could apologise to the two people we hurt. The only excuse I can offer is we were all too young to really know better.

Maybe I am a humourless, over-sensitive sort of person but to me practical joking is too often a way of getting away with bullying another person and buoying up a very skinny, undernourished self esteem by making someone else feel small.

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

I can tell when Christmas is coming not by the increase in advertising on television but rather by the escalation of my shouts of protests at the content of those adverts. Or for that matter by the degeneration of my vocabulary and my reduction to a spluttering rage. I’ll leave much of the fury alone as it’s the same old frustration at blatant consumerism. I’ve said it before and others have said it better, so the overall feeling of exploitation is worth noting but not exploring. Christmas is so much more than an orgy of consumer spending after all. ‘Nuff said.

But the ads that really frustrate and puzzle me are the fragrance ones. They baffle me. How can you sell a perfume via television or the printed page? Very occasionally I buy glossy magazines; I only do so when there is a free gift attached that is worth more than the magazine. Once in a blue moon a full page ad for a perfume comes with a tiny vial or a sachet. That makes some sense to me. Try before you buy.

If you’ve caught any of the ads they tend to follow various themes and memes. Impossibly beautiful men and women, dressed in exclusive, sky-rocket expensive clothes, glaring arrogantly at the camera from eyes enhanced by every cosmetic trick known to mankind, striding confidently around oozing so much sex appeal that one feels instantly so much less of a man/woman. Crashing waves, glittering diamonds, fashion shoots, high heels, messed up satin sheets, fields of flowers under immense stormy skies. When I am in a good mood, I can admire the artistry. But usually all I can think is, “Huh?? So, what does it smell like??”

Perfume advertising is almost totally divorced from the actual sense of smell. It’s all about image, celebrity endorsement, aspirations and a lot of other things that have no smell at all. The ads are simply there to get you to the store and buy. By the time someone has got that far, become seduced by the brand, there’s a very good chance they’ll buy because they’ve subliminally and subconsciously identified with the iconography of the ads. Unless the perfume smells like horse piss, they will probably buy it anyway.

Perfume is something that is seen as an indulgence by many and I can understand that. Good perfume isn’t cheap. It shouldn’t be, if it’s made from hard to produce essences, and blended by trained and highly skilled ‘noses’. Yet so many wear perfumes they don’t (deep down) like and which don’t enhance their personalities. There’s a concept of a signature scent, something by which you are recognised. I’ve heard of women, daggers-drawn at parties on discovering another woman is wearing ‘her’ scent. A single notable perfume is chosen to define the self. It’s this mentality that aids and abets the marketing machine. What does this fragrance say about a woman? Cue the crashing waves, the sculpted cheekbones and the designer dresses.

It’s clear that a person’s own unique fragrance, that is to say, how they smell without perfumed products, is implicated in the process of sexual attraction. Pheromones are present in our skin, our hair and our secretions (sorry!) and they are probably among the first things that people respond to. It’s an unconscious reaction and often instantaneous. It may even be the most vital ingredient in that phenomenon, Love at first sight; it might well be love at first sniff.

Do you know what you smell like? Could you recognise your own scent? Do you actually like it? Perfume is not about covering up one’s natural scent but rather about enhancing and complimenting it, of deepening that vibrant signature of the self. Like a pen and ink line drawing your natural scent is the bare bones of that identity. Adding to it is like taking a preliminary sketch and filling in the colours. The sensual awareness of the self is a very powerful thing, a part of learning to love oneself perhaps. Being aware of the texture of one’s skin, the feeling of the hair, the grace of movement, are deeper ways of knowing the self than that gaze into the mirror that tells us what we look like but not who we are.

To seek a scent of self is perhaps to also find a sense of self, a dimension that we sometimes lack. If you were to seek a perfume, don’t look for the things the advertisers want to sell you, but rather seek blindly, using other senses. First sniff is the start. Instant recoil, step back and see how it makes you feel. Memories maybe long hidden may be at the root of dislike, but also it may simply be anathema to you, incompatible. Try a few, follow your instincts. Ask yourself: is this perfume ‘me’? Does it fit you? Take your time. Try it all day, try it at different times of day. There may be just one or there may be many. You may love one for years, then one day, it’s no longer you. That’s OK, you’ve changed (and it might also have changed too. Manufacturers do change formulas).

But explore. The soul is a magical, evolving being, and knowing and understanding it may be the key to truly loving the self. And it’s vital we love ourselves, because that’s when we can really start to love others.