Tumbling through life ~ a survival guide

Tumbling through life ~ a survival guide

I have a small confession to make.

I love rocks.

Rocks, crystals, gemstones, fossils, pebbles. Any size, any shape. I’ve been passionate about rocks since I was a kid. I started collecting tumble polished semi-precious stones when I was about ten years old. The sight of a quartz point the size of an Aga in the natural history museum in Frankfurt when I was fourteen made me a lover of crystals. I’m not bothered by precious stones for their value, or even their alleged beauty because to me sparkling diamonds are not terribly interesting. Properly cut gems seem oddly homogenised and for all the glitter, rather dull. Until you get to the jaw-droppingly massive ones, they all look the same.

I have an eye for fossils too; take me field-walking and I’ll probably find you one within the hour. A trip to a beach usually results in me finding at least one or two small ones.

There’s something sensual about polished stones that I cannot resist. The recent popularity of so-called palm stones, (that is smoothly shaped and slightly flattened rocks, polished to a high sheen and often with a shallow indent in the middle that just invites the thumb to caress it) meant that larger numbers of beautiful stones became available for quite reasonable prices.

Natural crystal formations draw me too; I have a lot of clear quartz points in many sizes and shapes. I have jewellery made of stones, some I have made myself.

I’m a bit of an addict or obsessive when it comes to the mineral kingdom. There is great beauty in even the simplest of stones, and one excellent way to ground the jittery nerves is to hold and meditate on a rock.

Ten years ago I was given a stone polisher. This is a very basic device of a motorised pair of spindles that turn a small drum you fill with a mixture of different sizes of stone along with graded grits and polish and water, to mimic the polishing action of the sea. I’ve not used it a great deal, even though I’d always wanted to have one. It takes weeks of tumbling to turn rough rocks into smooth, shining ones; weeks of patient inspecting, changing the level of grit, topping up water, washing away the sludge. You also have to select your stones very carefully. All the stones need to be of about the same level of hardness on Moh’s scale.

This is for a good reason. Put a softer stone like amber in amid quartzite and you will destroy the amber without benefiting the quartzite in the slightest. The stones tumble and churn against each other, and the motion along with the water and the grit are what smooth each stone. Put one stone in alone and it will probably never polish; it needs other rocks to rub against. Put all the same size in and the polishing is uneven. But the key seems to be a mix of stones of the same hardness but of different sizes and shapes.

And some stones must never be put in a tumbler. Amber, opals and various other stones that have a high water content that make them soft are destroyed by the process and must be polished by hand.

It occurred to me that this is a metaphor for the growth of a human soul, its progression through life. Some people are energised and refined by the rough and tumble of life with lots of others around them, becoming polished and smoothed by the interaction with others. Some only thrive if those others are of the same resilience as themselves. Others, like diamonds, cannot be affected much by the rubbing and tumbling of others around them. Diamonds in the rough are unremarkable stones, despite their extreme hardness; their nature is such that they will crush others while their own surface remains untouched. Only by being split open with immense skill by something of the same or greater strength can reveal their shining facets. Some people however are only ever going to be damaged by constant unremitting tumbling around with others.

I think people are like this. Introverts are like amber or opal, needing gentle individual care to bring out their beauty without crushing them to useless powder. Extroverts are like jaspers and quartzes, needing a mix of others to polish them and to polish others in return. And there are some who, like diamonds, need to be fractured, cut and polished by very individual attention to show the world the beauty hiding behind unprepossessing faces.

What kind of rock are you?

In the night garden ~ musings by starlight

In the night garden ~ musings by starlight

The grass has cooled now and feels pleasantly moist against the soles of my feet. During the heat of the day I could not walk here, barefoot or otherwise, for fear of treading on the many bees that buzz among the thousands of clover flowers. The texture of the grass is scratchy, reminding me how dry it has become. The flower heads are soft white, and even they are beginning to wither.

There are flowers that have become magically altered by the darkness; blue and white Canterbury Bells seem luminous, the blue ones almost fluorescing in the limited light. The sky has still streaks of pink and gold at the far horizon, but otherwise is deepening to indigo very fast. The last of the swifts flew over some time ago and I am watching now for the arrival of the first bats, as the night shift takes over.

The pond is now dark, the golden globes of the water soldier flowers shut tight, and the hum of bees collecting water is silenced. If I stand here a while, a goldfish will surface for a moment, then disappear into the depths again. The first water lily flower is still closed, screwed up like a puzzle, but it will perhaps open tomorrow.

The sky is now deep blue, and has a clarity about its darkness that is surprising. The first of the stars glimmers and then twinkles; within a few moments there are more visible than I can count, diamond white against the velvet backdrop like gemstones being shown off by a jeweller.

A soft breeze shakes the leaves of the trees, still warm from a hot day, and with it comes an intoxicating scent. It’s the fragrance of the summer nights I remember from twenty years ago in our first garden, crushed grass, roses and night-scented stocks that I sowed in every gap amid perennials and between paving slabs. Rich, but ethereal, the perfume transports me back to another hot night, when I was still young and full of hope and life seemed a little simpler than it does now. I was not happier then but I had poured much of my energy into creating a garden that held magic.

At the end of the garden I have put a bench, beneath the sheltering canopy of leave of a cherry plum tree. There’s a trellis near on each side, up which grow well established old roses. One is named Alchemist and this pleases me. The scent is comforting, and mixes with that of the jasmine and honeysuckles we have planted to complement the roses. The border near my seat has other scented plants too that give up their aroma at night. Night-phlox, which my brother grows for me each year, has starry white flowers touched with deep blood-red maroon markings, and its scent is powerful. It smells like a mixture of Refresher sweets from childhood and expensive French perfume.

I sit on the bench, feeling a few dried leaves crunch beneath me and I look up. I have a line of plain fairy-lights, solar powered, that like tiny globes of white fire, like stars strung out on a line like beads, and these are trailed through the lower branches. The sounds of the town go on around me but I don’t hear them much. I feel insulated from it all, I feel a million miles from here.

Somewhere close by, the hedgehog is beginning her nightly rounds, and will stop at our garden for a supper of dog food and a drink of water from the birdbath. I wait, feeling the first bite of a mosquito, and wishing I had brought citronella oil out with me to fend them off.

There is a moment where everything is held in perfect expectation, a breath away from realisation; the transformation of a mundane suburban garden into a world where beings from beyond this reality might step blithely into this world and I into theirs and where it’s eminently possible that a unicorn might begin cropping the starlit clover.

A cloud passes over the stars and the moment is lost, and I get up to go inside. At the back door I pause and the scent of the night garden washes over me and with it, the hopes and the dreams I once had flicker like fireflies around me. The past and its memories are here, too; they’ve never gone away, but have been waiting, like dormant seeds buried deep, for the right conditions and the right time to start to sprout.

What will these forgotten seeds grow into?

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

I’ve been fretting about writing this for some time. It’s churned and turned and roiled and boiled inside me for ages and I’m never going to get any peace if I don’t try and sort my thoughts into order.

The last two years have been a very interesting ride. In that time I have published three novels, two short story collections and a non fiction book of meditations. I’m not counting the eighteen months where Strangers and Pilgrims was available as a paperback, because I had little or nothing to do with that side of things. For me self publishing began when I put that novel onto Kindle. As self published authors go, I’m doing quite well, I guess. Still mid-list, which is what you can generally expect for the kind of vaguely literary fiction I write. I have books consistently in the top 100 for their category; I have some excellent reviews. And I’ve had some fun.

But the last six months or so something has begun niggling at me, and the niggles have become more than occasional discomfort and have begun to really cause me some distress.

It’s this: the constant pressure to do better.

I don’t mean write better. I like to think I work hard at that anyway. I mean, to sell better. I spend a lot of time on social media, and I follow links and I read articles and it’s making me ill.

The nub of it is that self-published writers still generally wish to be taken seriously, to be counted as the equals of those who have a contract with a legacy publisher, and to sell as well and to live the so-called writer lifestyle. To do so, there is endless discussions about what you must do to compete with the Big Guns. Professional covers, formatting, editing, proofreading, book trailers, book tours, signing tours, being on every available e-reader format, having a professional website (God forbid you use a bog standard WordPress blog!) There are sites that shame amateur looking book covers. I won’t go on. I’m sure you’ve seen the same kind of things if you’re a writer. This constant pressure to show you are as good as a ‘proper author’. And in doing so, there’s a trap that’s become more and more obvious.

Equal and identical are different things. In the rush to prove we’re as good as authors who have a publisher, we’ve missed the point of the revolutionary nature of self publishing. We’re trying to do what the Big Guns do, reproduce the same sort of books, the same sort of covers, and sell at the same level. And get paid a substantial amount more for the work we’d have had to have done anyway in terms now of the promotion every author is obliged to do. (unless they’re Stephen King etc).

So, this has been getting me down. It’s been interfering with my creative flow like a bloody great dam. I can’t write now without the ghost of a thought of, “Will this sell? Will this be the one that tips the balance into making me a massively successful best seller?”. It seeps into the whole process, and I’ve only just pinned it down.

It’s not wrong to want to sell lots of books, make a living from them. It’s not wrong to want to share your words with thousands of people, entertain and inform them.

But surely it should not be that energy that is unconsciously directing my writing? If there were a formula to what will sell, and how to do it, believe me it would be a closely guarded and very expensive secret. There isn’t and there can’t be because it’s something so nebulous that it’s even harder to predict than long range weather forecasts for Britain.

When self publishing first began to be a phenomenon, there was a great deal of excitement about it. You might do anything, publish anything. Niche books. Experimental books. ANYTHING at all. There were endless possibilities, all waiting for people to leap in and try them. What has changed it is the need to sell, to make money, to make back what you shelled out to produce a work, to be compensated for the time and tears it took to produce a book. We all have bills to pay, debts too, and day jobs that can be stultifying and depressing; the dream that someday you may earn enough from writing to quit the day job is very seductive, and the thing that can make that dream a reality is MONEY. So morphic resonance kicks in: the path of self publishing has been set now to be like publishing but without the publishers. The lists are chocka with excellent and not-so-excellent books that are in the main, pretty like the books you might find in a book-store packed with the latest blockbusters, must-reads and the latest from your favourite mystery authors.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this; please don’t get me wrong. But the whole drive for independence was originally about freedom. Freedom from the constraints of genre and of commercial viability, so there would be new worlds to explore.

I read with increasing dismay and depression the exhortations to be professional, to do things a certain way. To see writing as a business. To have five year plans and to keep to them. And all the many articles covering these subjects all end with the veiled threat that if you do not follow these paths, then your work will never sell, and you will never achieve your dream of leaving the day job behind. You’ll never be interviewed on breakfast TV with your latest runaway best seller; you’ll never mingle with the great and the good in the world of literature and books. You’ll never win prizes and accolades and be lionised as an example of how a self-published author can prove the nay-sayers wrong.

Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers. It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to chase a dream someone else (some tens of thousands of others in fact) seem to think I ought to be chasing. Even thinking about it is getting in the way of writing. And that’s all I am: a writer. I’m not an entrepreneur, nor a business woman nor a graphic designer or a marketing guru or any of the other things it seems one has to have some skills at. I write. I write stories that come to me, or which I chisel out of the bedrock of my being, and that’s it. To try and transform myself into this superwoman figure is wrong on some many levels. I was given gifts, which I have worked hard at honing and honouring, and they’re gifts that (without being immodest) many would sell their souls for. It’s entirely churlish to demand that somehow I turn my back on that, demand that I transform myself into another animal.

One of the most moving and powerful things in my life is the feedback I get from people about my writing (whether it is the books, the poetry or articles here). I know that my writing has made a difference, changed people’s lives in some ways, and the reason it can do that is because I’ve kept a hold of who I am and what I do. But the last six months I have felt my grip loosening, the compulsion to conform becoming almost unbearable. I imagine some might read this and think, “Oh poor dear, she thinks she’s a speshul snowflake!” . To those, I will say simply, yes, I do think I am a speshul snowflake and the reason I think it is because this is MY life and I get one chance to live it the way I choose to.

So I am choosing to live it (and to write) according to my own definitions of integrity and being true to myself and my gifts.

Star Pilgrim by Simon Small ~ a journey like no other

 Star Pilgrim by Simon Small ~ a journey like no other

I’m not a book blogger but occasionally I like to review books that come my way that I think that others will enjoy. Linda (who I met on Twitter) told me about this book and I am indebted to her for doing so. I’d been looking for a book that drew me in and lifted me up, but one which was not filled with what I can only call schmaltz. I am struggling to find books which are unflinching, well written and do not conform to genres or types but which have a beneficial effect that seeps into you as you read. Star Pilgrim is such a book.

This is my Amazon review:

Star Pilgrim by Simon Small ~ how deep truths need to be wrapped into fiction.

Since my decision to read things that are outside the usual run of books, I’ve come across some extraordinary tales. I’ve had my antennae up for unusual stories and I was recommended this book by a Twitter chum. The odd thing was neither the title, the cover nor even the blurb appealed logically to me at all yet I felt a pull to buy and read it. I bought a copy, and when it arrived a few days later, I began to read within a few minutes. I spent most of the day reading it, so compelling was the book.
I’m not going to give any spoilers but so many elements resonated within me, from the innate spirituality of the main character Joseph to the wonderful character of Leola, whose nature and approach reminded me of a very dear friend of mine.
Simon Small has done a very haunting job of weaving a tale full of profound truths and mysteries and questions into an entirely readable novel, so that the process of approaching those deep matters does not become dusty, dry or dull.
I suspect that this is a book that ought not to be read by someone without at least a bit of spirituality or with antipathy to such but you do not need to be a believer, or a Christian to find the story poetically well-written and with a dramatic flow that sucks you into the plot, and deposits you gently back into reality at the end, changed in ways you might not expect.


Sehnsucht ~ a word for when words have failed me

Sehnsucht ~a word for when words have failed me

English is a fabulous language but sometimes we simply do not have a single word for a complex concept. That’s when we need other languages to express some of these ideas succinctly.

I’m going through a lot of very abstract thoughts right now and I’ve been able to fall back on German for one of these thought-streams. The other word is an old Celtic word and in my ponderings the two are linked (but we’ll get to that later in another post) Big thanks to Wiki for the definition.

The first word is Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a Germannoun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”,or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”. However,Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state.

Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.

It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home”. In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be, and the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for. The experience is one of such significance that ordinary reality may pale in comparison, as in Walt Whitman‘s closing lines to “Song of the Universal”

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.


My own personal experience of Sehnsucht can perhaps be expressed using a passage I wrote on a beach some years back, when I was battling with the need to write the third book in the series begun with The Bet. Apart from the fact that at the time I had no idea of publishing myself, it seemed a huge waste of time writing a second sequel, so I couldn’t bring myself to even start to write a book that no one might ever read. I was at a low ebb.

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?”

So, currently I am being bothered by the intensest of Senhsucht, and I’m fighting hard to fathom just what I am longing for. I’m haunted by some images, some nebulous, will-o’-the-wisp ideas that vanish the moment I try to look more closely. I see a book, a magical, mysterious old book, bound in leather, hand made and chunky, the contents of which I cannot quite see or guess. Is it a book I must find? Is it a book I must read?

Or more worryingly, is it a book I must write?

Why trees make good friends ~ confessions of a unrepentant tree-hugger.

Why trees make good friends ~ confessions of a unrepentant tree-hugger.

Many years ago, (or it might be the blink of an eye), I worked on a nature reserve as an education officer. It was my first job after university, apart from one working in a primary school as a lunchtime assistant. It’s still a job that holds a special place in my memory because it meant I got to spend much of my working day in woodland. Not merely woodland but ancient woodland with a variety of habitats from rare yew woodland to coastal dunes. I spent most of my childhood scrambling up and down trees, (not to mention falling out of them) so being paid to work in a slice of primal forest along a glacial river valley was an unexpected joy. Oh, I had to conduct educational tours for visitors, mainly school children, but there were many afternoons where I and my colleague assisted the survey team mapping out the flora and fauna of the reserve. I was privileged to spend time among a tribe of badgers; I got pelted with pine-cones by the resident cheeky red squirrels.

But it was the trees that opened up to me the most. You see, trees are full of surprises. When we were conducting tours with children we did a number of exercises to try and share the wonder of the natural world with kids who spent virtually no time in the open. One such exercise is to place an ear to the trunk of a tree and listen to the sap. It’s like a heartbeat. That changed forever how most saw trees. From seeing them as odd architecture, those kids saw trees as living beings. In the blink of an eye, the world looked different.

I’ve had many special trees in my life. A tree never wriggles or looks uncomfortable when you tell it secrets, pour out your soul. You can cry with a tree and they’ll never try to make you stop. They’re the best company when you’re sad, because they have more time. They take things slow. So when you spend time with trees, you slow down too. Your concerns are put into the perspective of a being that might live hundreds of years (or in some cases, possibly thousands). And if you can slow down enough, trees will talk back to you.

We’re not talking about Disney-esque conversations here, with Grandmother Willow morphing into human form. This is subtle. Slow. Gentle. Deep. You have to let yourself be still. Very still. You go into that quiet, peaceful space inside where you begin to notice things you’d normally never notice. The way the branches dip and sway. The scent of the leaves and the touch of the bark. The sound of the breeze and the creak of the trunk as the wind tries to bend it. The way insects move along twigs. It’s a language without words. But sometimes the words pop into your head. Sitting under a stand of birches one September, one said to me very distinctly, “Winter’s coming.” Just that. Simple but profound, that’s the closest trees come to small talk. The birch was passing the time of year with me as a human might pass the time of day.

To get to know a tree takes time. Our lives are short to them; to a yew we are mayfly, ephemeral and insignificant. Some tree species we are drawn to, others we are repelled by. Some take a dislike to us. I’ve been poked in the eye by more than one yew tree (but oddly only ever female yews) and those trees that disliked me I saw touch my husband with a tender leaf-laden branch, patting his shoulder fondly.

Trees are individuals. Each is different, even those in a grove of the same species. Get blindfolded and have someone lead you to a tree so you have to discover it using senses other than sight. I’d be willing to bet you’ll find your tree again even among a hundred of the same species. Each curve and dip in their skin is unique. On a sunny spring day find a thin-barked tree, perhaps a birch, or an apple tree, and lean against the trunk. Feel it move with the breeze; press your ear to the bark and hear the rush and rumble of the sap pumping, like the blood and digestion of a great beast.

Make friends with trees and they’ll change the way you see the world. They’ll teach you things no human teacher can ever show you and they let you take your time. And once you’ve got to know one tree, the whole world will start to change. You’ll start to see that everything that is, is alive and vibrant and needs to be cherished and valued. And in the end, you may see your own part in this great web of life, no greater but no less than any other creature.

Tree Gods

They wait, these trees.

Slender children of older gods,

Mighty as towers but long gone,

Fallen to ruin and leaf mould.

They wait, these trees.

Winters pass like melting snow;

The glades grow dense, with brambles

Hiding their burrowing feet.

Moss-furred stumps,

The bones of their ancestors

Remind them of past glories.

They wait, these trees.

Summers pass like blooming flowers.

The dells ring with song

And deer run in hidden paths

Of dappled sun and shade.

They wait, these trees.

The tiny child grows up,

Grows old and passes on,

Houses rise and houses fall

Towns boom, towns bust,

Kings and queens come and go.

The trees alone remain.