You gotta search for the hero inside yourself ~ why I write what I do.

You gotta search for the hero inside yourself ~ why I write what I do.

A long time ago now, or so it seems, I wrote a paragraph in my walking notebook. I carry a notebook everywhere, even to hospital. I recommend the practice to every writer or thinker. You can lose so much by not recording those apparently passing or random thoughts. This is what I wrote, sitting on a winter beach under grey skies in a town that I felt would never welcome me:

I look for you in every stranger’s face I see. Sometimes I think I see your eyes, your hair, your mouth. I wait to hear your voice when the phone rings, or see you across a crowded café. Hopeless. You’re not real. You don’t exist. I created you, your world.

And yet. And yet I feel you out there, alive and real as the stones, the shingle that crunches beneath my feet, or the waves that roar and sigh as they hit the shore. I made you up, and yet you haunt me. Yours is not a tale told by an idiot. It’s real. Somewhere, somehow, both you and your world are real. I’m looking for the door so I can step in and join you. So far the only door is my computer screen.

What are these insane longings for things that can never be?”

At the time I was in the process of incubating a third book in the series that began with The Bet. During this incubation time, I feel often as if I am on the very brink of dying. Melodramatic, I know, but that’s how it feels. It feels as if I need to commit some huge act of personal violence, some vast enactment of the turmoil inside that shows no sign of ever coalescing into anything more orderly. There’s a sequence of internal combustions inside that resemble more closely than anything a probable rapid descent into madness.

I don’t like myself very much; I think that much is clear from how I often wish to negate my own existence. I’m not who I think I am, not really. At some deep level I feel myself someone utterly other than who I appear to be. It’s this conflict of self that may drive a good deal of my depressive illness, this inability to square these images and blueprints of myself and be at peace with them all.

So I write.

Every character in every novel I’ve written faces the same dilemma, this same insoluble puzzle. All six of the main characters in Strangers and Pilgrims  tries to square who they think they are at core with who they manifest as in real life. Their distress at the apparent impossibility of this task is what drives the opening chapters of the novel. Isobel in Away With The Fairies  feels that her real identity is being swept away, subsumed and even wiped away by the life that has come to her; her distress when the two worlds she’s trying to live become impossible to maintain drives her inwards to seek her answers.

The most heartbreaking of them all (so far) is Antony Ashurst, the main character of The Bet, whose attempt to reconcile his distress ends in tragedy and a complete destruction of who he believed himself to be. Isolated by circumstances and by misunderstandings, he reaches breaking point and yet does not quite break.

You gotta search for the hero inside yourself

Search for the secrets you hide

Search for the hero inside yourself

Until you find the key to your life

I’ve written before about heroes  ,  the bond between heroes and the writer  and villains, / and I even used to teach a TEFL lesson on the subject. (though alas the students always leaped first to the idea of the superhero!) but I suspect that it may cause some controversy if I suggest that many writers (I cannot say all) do indeed put a lot of their selves into the heroes they write. My old blogging friend Barb used to ask in her author interviews whether the writer had put themselves into their stories. While I cannot speak for anyone except myself, I believe that I do put a considerable amount of myself into the characters of my novels.

It’s not escapism that makes me do so, though for the duration of the writing I do escape from some of the pain. Rather it’s a part of my own search for a key to my life, as the song suggests. Searching the hero inside myself may sound like a somewhat grandiloquent statement but I believe it’s true and it may be what gives me courage to carry on when I’m ready to give up and die inside.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge ~ a review and an homage to the continuum of life.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge ~ a review and an homage to the continuum of life.

They say you should never look back, that you should never revisit your past.

I’m never sure who the ‘they’ are in these sayings but I’m telling you, they are wrong. Perhaps you ought never to try and dwell in the past, live there or claim it as yours, for the past shifts as much as the future does. But to look back, to peer clear-eyed into pivotal moments in your life can give great clarity in understanding who you are in the present moment, and clues to who you may become. And these things blur and bleed into each other, like rain-washed ink in a journal left out in a sudden summer storm.

I’m being confusing. I’m sorry. I’ll try harder to make myself understood. I’m never good at doing the standard book report style review, and given that the book I am writing about was first published eight years before I was even born, there’s little urgency involved. It’s not as if my words are at all crucial to the author, for she passed on only a few years after I first read the book in my mid teens. And yet, even in writing this, having just read the book again after more than thirty years, I know from the book itself that perhaps my words may well matter to her for time is not constrained as we think by the immutable laws of physics: Time past and time future, what might have been and what has been, point to one end, which is always present.

The Scent of Water is not a book of complex plot; in fact, outwardly very little happens at all. Given my liking at the time for detective novels, I am unsure why I picked it up and read it. I almost didn’t, because my mother suggested I read it, telling me it was a beautiful book. You can sum up the plot fairly quickly: a women inherits a cottage in a quintessentially English village and gets to know both the inhabitants, herself, and the dead cousin who left it to her. Yet this does not do justice to the sheer richness of the characters, the depth of experiences or the prose which haunted me for many years after I loaned the book to a teacher and never got it back. Images and ideas from the book have underpinned much of my inner life, unacknowledged. The central character Mary Lindsay undergoes a form of renewal and a connection to her cousin whom she met only once in childhood; the journal of the cousin (also Mary Lindsay) provides poignant insights into her life, apparently blighted by serious mental illness and the stigma and isolation that would have followed in the early part of the twentieth century. At the time, I was starting to know what these storms of the soul meant, yet at fourteen I could not begin to look at the idea that they were more than tumult of the teenage years. Reading the book again at forty six, I wish I had known more about my self.

There is a theme throughout the book of renewal, and of time overlapping and touching. Past and present interlink; the cottage Mary lives in was once the infirmary chapel of an Abbey. Visiting children hear singing, the echoes across time of the monks chanting. Things return to their proper places; a carved chest that held significance for the elder Mary is found in an antique shop by her heir, and restored to its place and function in the cottage, where its maker had once been infirmarian. Round and round, links across time and space, seasons passing and yet things remaining. There is such benevolence in this book that reading it is like drinking a glass of spring water on a hot parched day. The prose is kind, drawing in your senses and filling you with the beauty of an England that is at once long vanished and yet is eternal.

The village of Appleshaw in the book bears resemblances to the village I have moved to. There is a sense of solid Englishness, a quality one might be foolish enough to call quaint. Yet I feel I have always known this place. Several years ago, I dreamed of this house, of being inside it. This was during a time when it remained impossible that we should ever return to the clerical life and I woke weeping for a home that didn’t exist, couldn’t exist except in a dream. When we visited during the interviews, we were not allowed to see the house (for various reasons) so we did not see it until after my husband had accepted the position. The dream did not influence the decision(that was influenced by a swarm of bees greeting us at the oldest of the churches here, and an appeal for help in the street) but has informed my own belief I am somehow in the right place. Another dream, from last winter, has done the same. I dreamed I was walking along a narrow lane in late summer, twilight on a hot day, and on one side was a buttressed red brick wall, over which hung branches laden with fruit. Behind the wall was a kind of orchard, with gnarled trees heavy with great oranges. The lane as I saw it exists, less than five minutes walk from my home, but I thought the trees did not. Talking to someone the other week who has lived here her whole life, it turns out that garden did used to have a fertile orchard, the apple trees bearing fruit so large and orange-coloured you would think at first glance they were indeed oranges. Perhaps I was seeing not just how the village is now, but also how things were once, as a part of a multi-layered tapestry of times present, past and future.

Just as Mary Lindsay found renewal in her new home, a new faith from withered roots, at once a part of her heritage as a woman with deep untapped roots in the land and a part of her inheritance from her cousin who sensed her across time and prepared a place for her, I hope that I took will experience a renewal. I suffer with the dark storms the older Mary Lindsay endured and finally found meaning and purpose in. In her journal she writes of a chance meeting with an elderly clergyman who came to give cover while the vicar was away. It’s one of those meetings where you know so much of significance has happened and yet others will dismiss it as trivial. The old man has himself suffered badly in the same way as Mary and when they part he tells her something I’d like to end by sharing with you:

Then he abruptly let go of my hand, turned his back on me and stumbled down the steps that led from the front door to the drive. At the bottom he turned round again and looking into his face I noticed that when he was neither eager nor alarmed his eyes had the most extraordinary quietness in them. ‘My dear,’ he said,’love, your God is a trinity. There are three necessary prayers and they have three words in each. They are these, ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands’. Not difficult to remember. If in times of distress you hold to these you will do well.’ Then he lifted his hat and turned round again. I stood at the door and watched him go. He had a queer wavering sort of walk. He did not look back.” 

The Scent of Water is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback

The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

Hey, you there?

Yes, you.

I know you can hear me, but you know what? I’m standing right in front of you and you are barely aware of me. My voice might well be the sound of the wind in the trees, always there and yet never truly listened to.

I should really say, OUR voice, because I am not one but many. Many. Countless and timeless, we’ve been invisible for a very long time.

You protest perhaps, declaring that women are not really invisible. They’re everywhere. Half the planet’s population even. I would simply ask you why then do we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the world’s wealth? You might wave a newspaper in front of me, pointing to grainy photos of women, or direct me to the internet news. Women everywhere, you say.

Well, yes. But do you SEE them? Or do you merely look at them, taking in curves and synthetic smiles and enhanced features, polished and tanned and oiled for your pleasure? Young, slender women, barely even out of girlhood and constantly harking back to its simpler demands of beauty and silence.

You point out older women, who you say are very good examples of beautiful older women. Or to women who have climbed a corporate ladder or that of government or leadership. But do read also the comments, about their clothes or their figure or their skin or sex appeal. You rarely get comments about anything else. Many of these are the women whose childhood was punctuated by the cries of relatives male and female declaring, “She should have been a boy!”

Feminism? I do not know what feminism is. I only know that at a certain age, we all begin to fade from view. That is what fuels the industry of anti-ageing creams, you know. It’s not fear of death that worries women most, I think; it’s the fear of becoming invisible, and ultimately inaudible too. You can still hear me because I am shouting now. I was brought up to be quiet and polite and not to put myself forward, so it takes a lot for me to be shouting now. I’d grab your arms and shake you, but that would be simply so rude it would throw me into that other darkness of age and madness. Another mad old woman, babbling insanities, to be shut away and ignored. Kinder to kill such folks, that’s the next thought. God forbid that they be heard and listened to.

When do we become invisible? I do not know. I think it varies. Some of us were never terribly visible in the first place. If you are not blessed with something outwardly apparent to catch the interest of the world, you remain a mouse in the wainscotting, there but easy enough to ignore. It takes a lot of mice to wake up a whole house. For those who were blessed with outward beauty, the fading of it is bitter because we cease to be seen, slowly, like a long death. That’s why Snow White’s stepmother went down the route of bitterness, you know. She sensed she was being eclipsed, and soon her image in the mirror would become grey and dim and then gone. Every young mum has a moment where the admiration expressed towards her infants hits a harsh note, like a wisp of sun over the clouds. We dress our daughters up and parade them, repeating what we knew in the unconscious hope that her loveliness will not fade and we will not see her becoming slowly invisible.

So we do other things to try and be a part of the world. We seek roles of kindness and service, often, because we are thwarted at the Front from real combat because the only way of being seen for long enough is by relinquishing our femininity. Or at least the outward trappings of it. We wear business suits, cut for our curves, but in essence the same uniform as the men. Without such armour how can we even enter the Lists?

Those whose academic gifts carried them far into their path bear also a harsh burden. It’s not enough to succeed through your brains alone; enter the public consciousness via the media and you will be judged not for your work or your soul but through your outward appearance.

It’s enough to make a woman weep, but even tears are seen as weakness and not the healing balm they truly are. Cry, and you get labelled with one of the cruellest, most impossible of labels: the hysterical woman. The source of our femininity, the womb, is cursed as the thing that makes us weak. And yet, when that womb starts its journey towards the quiescence of menopause, we are not welcomed either but dismissed as worthless now we can no longer bear children. We become useless and repulsive, as if all our worth was invested in being breeders of another generation, and once we are retired, we become invisible sexually.

I do not offer answers; I only offer questions, and yet more questions. I do not ask to be answered, except with the courtesy of being listened to. I am a warrior but the first lesson of any war is to only choose the battles you have a chance of winning. My battles are by necessity are the small ones, as I learn what my skills are.

You walk away, shaking your head. That’s all right. You listened, even if you did not truly understand yet. One battle at a time, that is what I promised myself. I fight not with a sword or with other weapons that bear an edge but with words that can be sharpened or softened and can shape the listener’s perception so that maybe, for one moment of blinding clarity, they too may see things from the other side.

Four Years on…Celebrating Blogging.

Four Years on…celebrating blogging.


Today is a special day for this blog. Four years ago today I made my début into the world of blogging. I’d been feeling a sense of stagnation in my online life, which at the time consisted entirely of the internet forum for Sacred Hoop magazine, to which I’d belonged since ’99. So in the autumn of 2008, I made a decision to step back from it and see what came to fill the void. By the Christmas of that year, I’d realised that blogs were a medium I’d hitherto known nothing about, and in the January I became part of a co-authored blog Café Crem. By the end of the month, I knew I wanted a blog of my own, and Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking was born.

Blogging is a way of connecting, for me anyway, and of sharing the thoughts and observations that come to me. It’s been a way of meeting extraordinary people, too, and while one or two have proved to be men or women of straw, the vast majority of the folks I’ve connected with have been people I am proud to call friends, even if most of them will never be sitting in the same room, enjoying a coffee with me.

The general focus of this blog has always been about trying to find a sense of balance in life, especially when challenged by mental and emotional distress, and I am always deeply moved when I receive feedback to remind me that while I often feel I am typing into a vast empty void, there are people reading and who find my words and experiences resonate with theirs. If I do nothing more in my life, knowing that I have offered comfort, reassurance and inspiration to others with my words is something I can hold onto in my darker days.

I’ve long wanted to do a collection of blog posts, rounded up and licked into shape as an e-book(or even a paperback) but the scale of the task defeats me. There’s over 700 posts here now. Some are like this one, words for a moment that will pass. There’s poetry (yes, and I keep promising to do an entire book of poems, but am discouraged by the knowledge that so few people read poetry, as well as the fact that I have no clue about creating a table of contents for an e-book of any sort) and there’s fiction. There’s dozens of essays about grief, depression, and spirituality, and even a few humorous ones too. I’ve announced the release of my novels here, and also of life changes too. I try to answer all comments but sometimes I just can’t. I sit and stare at the comments sometimes and I cry, because they’re often so kind I don’t know what to say. Sometimes I can’t answer because I have nothing to say. But I appreciate each and every comment, even the occasional critical one.

The last year, I have posted less often, aiming to post weekly rather than more often. This is simply because I have limited energy these days. I’m trying to conserve it, and use it as wisely as I can. I’ve covered vast areas of subjects and some posts receive daily traffic even years after they were first posted. Some posts seem to slip by without anyone noticing. It’s baffling. I’d love to write one of those posts that goes viral and gets read by tens of thousands but in honesty, it’s probably not going to happen. That’s often down to luck but also to appeal. I write about things that are not really terribly fashionable or appealing, and I know that it’s not a popular cup of tea kind of blog. That’s OK, really. Like with my novels, I write primarily to please myself, to let the being who dwells inside me have her voice (and Monday’s post is about her, the Invisible Woman) and though sometimes I moan about the relatively low number of people who read my stuff, I am content that I do not change who I am and how I write to chase a market that is as nebulous and changeable as the British weather. Writing for a market is a dangerous choice. If I write for myself, then there is one person in the world guaranteed to be pleased with it.

Anyway, I am glad to have all my readers along for the ride, so thank you all for taking the time to read, whether once in a while or as regular thing. Without readers, we would all be just talking to ourselves in the darkness, and without connection we would all be dreadfully alone. Some days I feel so alone, and then I remember that perhaps I am not.


Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Ever heard of embodied cognition?

No, me neither till the other day when an article in Church Times caught my eye. Don’t underestimate this paper because of the title. While some of it is inevitably the dull warblings you might expect, they have some very intelligent columnists who turn out some excellent articles. Here’s some snippets from the one I read by Mark Vernon:

But what if faith is not primarily about facts and theories? They may come, but only after time spent exploring a way of life, committing to practise. …[redacted] But surely most people are likely to find faith because one day, perhaps by mistake they walked into a holy place or were helped by a Good Samaritan or were caught by a visceral experience of love or loss. Thinking about what it means is vital, but belief rests on, and stays alive because of the embodied experience.

A new area in science suggests these intuitions are right. It is known as ’embodied cognition’ which roughly translates as: what we think, feel and do depends not only on the brain but also the body. We are not brains in vats. ‘It is not the brain alone that gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is grounded or contextualised in the body,’ says psychologist Canon Fraser Watts.”

I’d love to reproduce the article in full but there are copyright issues at stake. However, the ideas had chimed with things I’ve been pondering.

As many of my readers may know I have very long hair. It’s long enough to sit on, and I started growing it when I was in my mid teens. For the first year or two while it grew long enough to play with and try out myriad different styles, I used to use a dressing table with winged mirrors that meant I could see the back of my head. Not to style my hair (because that’s incredibly confusing in mirrors) but to view the results. It’s probably thirty years since I did this now. I get asked by folks whether it’s hard to style your own hair and the answer is no, not really, once you have done it a number of times you can see with your fingers. Recently I watched a video of how a very ancient hairstyle was probably done. A comment thread developed on Facebook and most people were dubious that the style could be done by the woman herself. It looks incredibly complicated (and it is, fairly) but actually, I feel sure that those Vestal Virgins may well have done it themselves, with perhaps a friend to hold an end from time to time. I know this because when I was about twenty, I recreated a style very similar, to try and imitate the style Roman brides wore (which is pretty much that of the Vestals). I’d intended to perhaps have it for my wedding. But the results were not pleasing and I didn’t go ahead. After many years of French plaiting and other apparently fiddly styles, my hands and my fingers and my senses could perform tasks without being able to see visually what they were doing.

We do not have the five senses we are accustomed to thinking; there are over twenty senses accepted by science, and others less well accepted such as the sense of being stared at (also a book by Rupert Sheldrake, whom I met last year )

It would appear that belief is not merely an intellectual thing, but something that becomes viscerally real. Like memory, which it is becoming increasingly clear is not stored exclusively in the spongy matter of the physical brain but also within the muscles and even the guts, belief is lodged deep within the physical matter and the experiential layers of the human being.

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This excerpt from T.S Eliot’s Little Gidding (from The Four Quartets) illustrates this well. The act of kneeling in a sacred space creates or recalls embodied experience, links to things deeper and more ancient often than we realise.

Even words, those things were throw around so carelessly, carry this embodied cognition in a way. Check out this article. Brains viewed under MRI scanners have been shown to light up in the same areas when certain words are spoken as light up when the actions those words represent are performed. Thinking the word SMILE, for example creates the same effects in the brain as actually smiling.

I’ve been pondering about the concept of therapeutic literature. That’s to say books or poetry that have a measurably beneficial effect on the reader. I’m not talking about books that are all sweetness and light and which steer clear of dark topics, but rather ones with an indefinable something that triggers a change in the reader. It might be infinitesimally small but cumulative. I’ve always found poetry(not all poetry but some) to do that for me, where the sound of the words is like a balm on sore skin, and some novels have been an authentically beneficial experience. Do you have any books that do this for you? I’d love to find more. I want to explore the experience of letting words take me places but without the imposition of heavy handed directive narrative because embodied cognition is something that takes place in the body, not in the bright, shallow, brittle thought processes. I can talk myself out of benefits of ideas but not out of the feeling of them, and it’s the feeling that speaks longest and loudest when the darkness draws in and intellect falters.