Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast

Spring, you sexy beast, you’re back!
Blowing hot and cold again,
From pheromones and feathers fluttering,
Pistils and stamens at it,
Hammer and tongs,
To nights that end in ice,
Frosted grass and ruined plants
Pricked out too soon, too tender.
You’re so full of juice
You might explode with green.
Stiff new leaves, quivering catkins
Open-mouthed flowers
And frantic frogs, a-courting,
Birds, oblivious of envious eyes,
Bill and coo and shag.
That’s a bird, too, right?

Stop homing in on flaws and start focusing on the bigger picture

Stop homing in on flaws and start focusing on the bigger picture

I’ve been reading a lot of interesting things on social media about the pervasive culture of self-loathing, largely among women. There was an excellent video from a former body builder you can listen to here; her overall message was that we need to be less critical and more loving towards ourselves.
A few years ago, I did a review of a fantastic book called Grow Your Own Gorgeousness by Bethan Christopher (review is here. You can now buy it from Amazon here) which works with the same idea of learning to love our bodies, with all their imperfections, and to see that those imperfections are perhaps not imperfections after all but simply our own unique being and body.
If you were to ask almost any woman if she is happy with her looks, the chances are she’d say no. The majority of us want to be slimmer, taller, with bigger/smaller boobs, longer legs (fill in the blanks) but ultimately, we want to fulfil some strange idea we have in our heads of what will make us beautiful. This odd undefined template is something that is going to break not only us as individuals but us as a society. We are passing our loathing of ourselves onto our children and grandchildren and it’s getting into the very bones of even our science. Fat has become a hot topic, and we all believe that to be fat reduces our probable life expectancy. If you start looking past the first layer of scientific research that is available on the internet, you will discover that it’s a far more complex issue than X amount over the correct BMI means Y numbers of years off your life. In fact, the latest issue of New Scientist has a graph where it’s clear that only the extreme ends of BMI (from underweight to severely obese) have any direct evidence for shorter lives. The graph suggests strongly that to be somewhat overweight per se has a beneficial effect on life expectancy.
Fat has become an issue that is nothing to do with health but about a weird kind of belief that thin=beautiful=good, and so those carrying extra weight tend to get the whole package of denigration of fat=ugly=bad. If you find you can’t easily find nice clothes in your size, the result is that you feel worthless and ugly (sometimes) and also weak and pathetic.
I cannot stress enough how mad this is, and yet I do it to myself all the time. I have put on weight due to illness and I feel like Godzilla, lumbering around being huge and clumsy and an object for derision. I saw my physiotherapist last week and she was so good; I was told to stop beating myself up over not bouncing back immediately from my illness and my surgery and that losing weight wasn’t my primary concern at all. Regaining health and fitness is my goal.
When it comes down to it I am more than my appearance. I have a lot of excellent features but why is it that I only ever seem to focus on the ones that seem to be to be ‘bad’? I believe it’s a malaise that has crept into the overall consciousness. I’m going to use an example from a very different area to try and illustrate my point. On Facebook and Twitter I see daily memes about errors: typos, misspellings, grammar faux pas and so on. The usual approach is ridicule and sometimes worse, caustic and bitter recriminations heaped upon the luckless soul who confused their with they’re or similar grammar atrocity. Woe betide an author whose book has a few typos in or whose choice of British English over US English has infuriated readers. I’ve known people who consider that a single typo in a book renders the entire book worthless and the author ought to be beaten with sticks and never allowed to write another word (I’m not exaggerating here). I had a review of The Bet pour scorn on the book (and me) because of a few typos (and who then himself made a rather obvious and cringeworthy typo in said review. I love karma.). It’s as if not being perfect is a reason for burning the entire book and blacklisting the author. I’ve seen typos in some big name authors’ books published by the major publishing houses.
Those who focus so much on a few tiny flaws in a work seem to take delight in feeling superior. To be able to read and write, to have had a decent education that means you have the capacity to evaluate and spot mistakes is not that big a deal these days. Worldwide, it may be rarer to have had those privileges but in the rich west it’s uncommon to have been denied those opportunities. I don’t believe that it gives anyone a moral superiority over another person who has never grasped that “could have” is what they ought to be writing instead of “could of”. There isn’t a one among us who doesn’t make mistakes, believe me.
It’s the same for our physical forms. Not one of us is perfect. We all have parts of us that are defective, worn out, ageing, broken, scarred, too this or too that, to meet the criteria for perfect beauty the media and the fashion and beauty industry dictates. Do you know why it dictates these things? To make you buy stuff. Simple as that: to make you feel you must rectify the flaws lest you be cast out into the howling darkness.
So a suggestion for dealing with others (because how we treat others becomes a reflection of how we treat ourselves). Start by looking for the good that is in others that is not based on fashion influences, whether that’s observing how someone has kind eyes or that they have a smile that lights up a room. See things a bit differently; see that lines are from a lifetime of expressing feelings, and they’re not blemishes at all. Cut people some slack about the things they get wrong; remember that everyone makes mistakes and a typo or two in a novel is not an excuse to despise the author.
Look for the good. It won’t stop you seeing the not-good, but it will stop it being so important that it gives an excuse to exclude another person. Look at the bigger picture: a woman might be beautifully dressed, coiffed and made-up but have a corrosive bitter soul that emerges every time they speak. A man might be dressed in a thousand dollar suit but be morally bankrupt. Look deeper. That person has had an interesting life and has given more to the world than you’d ever guess from looking at them. One book might have sold a million glossy copies but has made no difference to a single person who read it beyond a few hours of entertainment; another book with a less perfect cover might have brought comfort and hope to a few thousand readers who re-read it every year.
Cut the world some slack and yourself with it. Give yourself permission to be less than picture-perfect. Maybe the two are so deeply connected we’ll never know till we all wake up to how connected we all are.

Dear Diary ~ Life without Dexter (six weeks on)

Dear Diary ~ Life without Dexter (six weeks on)

It’s been a little over six weeks since my throat was cut, leaving me with a seriously impressive scar that looks like I got bottled in a bar fight, and the parathyroid tumour removed. Dexter (as I named it) had been creating total havoc with my body and mind, and despite being technically benign, the effects were anything but. Given time, Dexter was going to shorten my life by a considerable chunk, probably by something like a stroke, or heart attack or possibly by breast cancer, all conditions that hyperparathyroidism can often lead to. I’m going to be very vigilant for a long time to come because I have no idea how long it takes for those health risks to be reduced now the tumour is gone.
Dexter was about the size of an olive, which doesn’t sound big until you realise than normally a parathyroid gland is slightly smaller than a grain of rice. The last months before the op, I could feel it by pressing through the skin and muscle of my throat and if I lay on my back, I would wake coughing.
The first couple of days, I felt a considerable change, which was ruined by the onset of a roaring urinary track infection that left me washed out and unwell for a lot longer than you’d imagine. I also had tingling in the hands, initially feared to be the results of a calcium crash. It took me a while to figure out the tingling was the feeling coming back into my hands. I’d not realised by increased clumsiness (and terrible handwriting) was the result of nerves being messed up by random excess calcium, so I had lost sensation and dexterity in my hands. Hand to eye co-ordination was also shot to bits. That’s coming back too.
Other things:
Bone pain: It had become so bad I’d been on slow release patches of strong medication. Every few minutes, a pain not unlike the one you get if you bash your elbow, would shoot through the core of bones, mainly arms and legs, but sometimes other places like hands, wrists and even skull. That has now stopped. It stopped within a day or so of the operation; hard to be sure as I was doped up.
Muscle weakness: again, like the sensation in my hands, something I’d not really taken on board. A year of regular gym going had resulted in NO extra muscle, muscle tone or any improvement at all, which had made me despondent and miserable. Now, I am starting to regain muscle mass, slowly, and slightly painfully. I can only thank my work, hard but unrewarded at the time, that meant I slowed the muscle degeneration enough that I’d not lost all strength.
Thirst: I had a permanently dry mouth and a need to drink, partly because my kidneys had been affected and had become hyperactive. Now, normal levels of thirst prevail. In the past, it was physically painful to be thirsty, becoming distressed if I needed water and was unable to access any.
Kidneys: less over-active but there’s a problem still going on. I see the consultant later this month; I suspect that my body is doing its best to get rid of any residue of calcium build up and I think it’s possible there may be a significant amount of gravel and sludge in my kidneys that is causing UTIs as it passes. I’m going to follow this up because it’s getting to be a problem. I had one heavy duty course of antibiotics and the subsequent UTIs have been less severe and dealt with using traditional methods. But they keep on coming.
Sleep: better but not good still.
Depression: different now. I am back with my base-line melancholy, and not with the paralysing, blank, dull misery Dexter gave me. I’m a lot less irritable and a good deal more mellow; my hair trigger temper seems to have gone.
Memory and cognition: massively improved. I’m rarely stuck for a word. I used to find I could start a sentence and by the time I was half way through speaking it, I’d be struggling to remember what I was going to say. The short term memory storage issue seems to be almost gone; I’m retaining things so much better. I think I’m also getting my French back; the long delay between brain and mouth seems to have shortened and I will be able to test that next month and see if I have improved fluency of understanding, speaking and vocabulary. Too soon to see if my German is coming back. I’m having to try and refresh my memory of where things are by (for example) scanning bookshelves to see and remember where books are. I used to have a near photographic memory.
Pain: muscle pain much reduced, but as my body recovers, I’m getting a lot of stiffness after exercise that is quite uncomfortable. Headaches are getting less frequent, too.
But this is where I need to also say that the pain in my left side/flank is getting worse. This has never been fully investigated, and was initially put down as possible kidney stones. Yet an ultrasound didn’t reveal any stones (though stones of smaller size may not show up, so gravel won’t have been spotted unless it had reached a certain size). The consultant also suggested broken ribs as a result of bone loss, yet my bone density proved to be fine. The pain is consistently getting worse, especially at night, and there’s a constant sense of pressure. I’m seeing the consultant in a fortnight or so and I am determined not to be fobbed off about this. It doesn’t seem to be diminishing and since it’s been there over a year, there’s something wrong.

The Joy-Stealer

The Joy-Stealer
One of the most misunderstood things about depression is that it’s not the feeling bad that’s the worst thing about it (though that’s bad enough). Rather it’s that sometimes you feel nothing at all.
Two years ago I was given a diagnosis of bi-polar 2. If you know anything about the condition, you’ll know that instead of the see-sawing between the black pit of depression and the fizzy excited energetic peaks of mania, you see-saw between that same black pit and a very different form of mania. Instead of euphoria, you get dysphoria. You become agitated and anxious, strung up and easily de-stabilised. I chose not to accept and “own” that diagnosis, and I also chose not to take medication for it. I stand by that choice. For me, I have managed my life reasonably well despite this debilitating condition, and the severity of symptoms generally hovers at the manageable end of the spectrum. Throwing medication into the mix is a bit futile at present; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
Yet at times I become aware that as hideous as the depressions can be, as unsettling as the dysphoria can make life, it’s the grey numb deadness and the inability to feel anything is what can be hardest to live with.
On the 1st of May I officially launched my newest novel Square Peg, hitting publish the day before so it would be available without hitch on it’s birthday. I ought to have been happy. I ought to have been turning cartwheels. Except I wasn’t. I felt…nothing.
It seems a bit ungrateful to feel that way. I’d had such support and help from others and yet at a crucial point after the book had gone live, I was considering taking it (and all the others down). I just couldn’t see the point of any of it.
There were three triggers for this. They’re nothing much in themselves and none are responsible for how I felt, as such. The first was a brief conversation on Twitter that brought home to me that while self-publishing has come a long way, there are still a lot of folks who intrinsically believe that it is a lesser option than having gone through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. You are seen as being less worthy because you have not been chosen by someone else. You’ll never be eligible for the kind of book awards and prizes and accolades that authors with a “proper” publisher are able to aspire to. Most of the time I don’t care about any of that, but at one time I did care far too much about that sort of endorsement and validation. I’ve got some astonishingly good validating reviews, feedback and messages from readers, yet there is still a tiny, vulnerable part of me that still cries because I was not chosen for that path. Most of me is glad; I have complete control over my own books and I earn a decent percentage of any sales. It’s that tiny vulnerable part of me that still needs healing.
The second trigger was a 2 star review that came in on UK Amazon for The Bet. Now, I’m unconcerned as a general rule about negative reviews. They add something to a row of 4 and 5 stars: credibility. People apparently find all good reviews somehow suspect. But The Bet was and is very dear to me, and the whole meh tone of the review was unpleasant to read when I was already vulnerable. That’s the third time I’ve used that word and that’s telling. It means I’m open to being wounded. Writers need to be tough, we are told and I still think that’s bunkum. I think we need to heal fast, though. Dripping wounds make a nasty mess and they also become a target for other attacks.
The third trigger was about the book itself. Square Peg is entirely fictional but it came from a period in my life when I was fruitlessly bashing my head against publisher’s doors. I was getting led on, with lots of encouragement and praise, then (because this would be another story if it weren’t so) being turned down. At the time I was a square peg myself in the community we lived on the edge of, and I’d been diagnosed with severe depression. Many times I didn’t feel I wanted to live. The main character of Square Peg reflects a LOT of me, more so in many ways than Isobel from Away With The Fairies (who is in the book too, a good few years younger and newly married), and especially the person I was then. So, if people didn’t like her and empathise with her, it’s going to hit harder than you’d imagine. She’s going to be a polarising character; she’s a bit gruff, abrupt, rude, even. She doesn’t make things easier for herself and she does things that are just not sensible. And she’s got good reasons for being the way she is, and doing what she does. Nevertheless, I started worrying that if people hated her and hated the book it would be a massive blow.
So despite lots of excited comments, I went to bed, feeling low and dreary and hopeless and above all, feeling guilty for feeling that way. I should be happy, I should be delighted. It seemed that I was incapable of feeling those wonderful emotions of satisfaction and achievement and hope. Nada.
That’s the work of the Joy-Stealer, depression. All the other things, the factors and the triggers are just its minions who can only work for it when it has its talons firmly in your soul.
Today as I write, I am feeling that numbness and I am choosing to ignore it. Logically, everything is all right, and I’m doing fine. The way in the past I have coped with these phases is to ride it out, to allow myself to feel or not feel but to take no radical actions, to make no important decisions until the greyness has passed. I have my own mechanisms and strategies and in the end, they’ve always worked before. So there’s no reason to suppose they won’t work now. I turn back to Dame Julian’s words:
All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
And so they shall.

Never Take Yes for an Answer


dan holloway

Yesterday was May Day, and the wonderful people at Oxford’s Old Fire Station arranged Soap Box City to celebrate, giving 144 people 5 minutes each to talk about anything. There was some truly inspirational stuff, and they let me speak on a subject close to my heart, the creative life. I gave a pared down version of my article Never Take Yes for an answer. You can read the full thing here, but it sounds better than it reads!

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Square Peg arrives

Square Peg arrives ~

It’s taken far longer than I thought it ever would, but Square Peg is now out there, winging its way around the globe.
The last two years have been quite tough, with health challenges and life being uncooperative and awkward. I’ve struggled to keep going, keep writing and keep working at getting my back catalogue out there. The book market is not an easy place and I’d become more daunted by the difficulties than I was inspired by the possibilities. A good deal of that was down to Dexter, my former parathyroid tumour, sucking the life and joy out of me, but a month after his exile to a path lab somewhere, I’m rebuilding my health and energy.
So it is with great joy (and no little trepidation) I can tell you that Square Peg is now live. Here’s the blurb:
“She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her.
Chloe is a square peg in an increasingly uncomfortable round hole. Brought up by her wildly unconventional grandmother, she’s a true free spirit and has never learned to pull her punches. She’s just married trainee Church of England clergyman Clifford, and is living at the theological college and trying to figure out what’s going on around her. She’s had very little connection with formal religion, and has a talent for stepping on all sorts of emotional land-mines with the wives of the other ordinands. That would probably be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that her grandmother has inconsiderately died, and left her a house full of exotic souvenirs of her days as a travelling doctor, instructions to track down her father and sister, and what everyone else regards as a really bad attitude. She’s also lost her job, her temper, but not the will to live.
Chloe’s life begins to unravel in ways she could never have imagined as she tries to understand her own background by setting out to find out what became of her sister and father. But trying to integrate her uncompromising approach to life brings her into escalating conflict with the other women of the college, leaving her isolated and friendless. In Clifford’s final year of training, Chloe meets the arty, anarchic Isobel and together they concoct a plan whereby the irrepressible Isobel becomes the mole amid the college wives and they start to undermine and sabotage the status quo with a series of practical jokes and psychological warfare that has terrible consequences for Chloe when things go horribly wrong.”

Chloe’s a bit of a misfit, hence the title. She finds people difficult to deal with, and finds the wives at the college baffling. She’s had an unusual up-bringing by her Bohemian grandmother, and because of her less-than-ordinary role model, she struggles to relate to others. To her, faith is a matter of wonder and exploration and not rules and regulations. She works in a male-dominated profession and she’s cultivated a tough, no-nonsense approach that really doesn’t go down well with the women of the college.
Some readers are going to love her; some, I fear, might well hate her. But by the end of the novel, I hope all will empathise with her.
(For those who loved Away With The Fairies, Isobel and Mickey Trelawny appear in the book around two thirds in. If you loved Father Peter in The Bet, well, he’s Chloe’s uncle by marriage and is there also. (All my novels connect with each other at some stage.)

Cover design is by D. J.Bowman-Smith