A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

How are you? I mean, really HOW ARE YOU? Be honest, if you have the strength to be, because it really does take strength these days to express your real feelings.

I’m OK. Not always. Not every day, and not through the entire day either but at this precise moment, I’m OK. I’m having nights where I cannot sleep. I get up, go down and sit on the sofa and read. I’ve sat outside with the dawn chorus blazing around me, as the sky is streaked with the rays of the rising sun, and I’ve slept until mid morning having crawled back to bed around 5am. I’ve had a few nights where I’ve slept a decent amount, though never unbroken. My weighted blanket helps, though as the weather gets hotter it becomes harder to use it as it traps heat; I can’t regulate my body temperature well at the best of times so the summer can be a real endurance test.

The last three months have been such a strange time; we’re encouraged to see things in a different light, and yes, for sure there have been some benefits of lock-down. I dearly hope that some of these benefits will be nurtured and encouraged. I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s BBC Springwatch series: three weeks of nature and focus on the beauty and the wonder of the natural world. It was a balm to my soul. So has my garden, and the life within it.

The chances are that despite restrictions being lifted I shan’t be travelling anywhere very far off this summer. My own understanding of the pandemic is that lifting restrictions is premature and that by and large, people will not be sensible. Even if most people are, with a virulent virus around, it doesn’t take much to raise the R level.

I am restless, though. I want to go and see friends and family; I want to go to some of the beautiful places that nurture my soul. Just because we’re allowed to do a bit more does not mean flocking in droves to locations of desire (cough Barnard Castle cough). One of the places I’d hope to revisit this summer was the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, and the White Spring a few yards away; there is peace there I can never fully describe. They’re recently restored the lid to the well itself, replacing the wood that had begun to disintegrate and they have restored the stunning metalwork design, revealing many details long long under layers of paint and varnish. I’d really love to see that this year. But I can’t. In the end, I ordered myself a gift from the shop at Chalice Well: a little pendant, of reinforced glass, filled with water from the well, topped by a vesica piscis, and decorated with a garnet gemstone. 

After I ordered it, I realised what it reminded me of: Galadriel’s gift to Frodo, a vial of water from her well, imbued with the light of a star. She described it as a light where all other lights go out. Frodo tucked it in a pocket and more or less forgot about it as his journey through terrors and trials took him to the edge of Mordor and the not-quite-secret entrance. It was only in the pitch black of Shelob’s Lair that the vial was remembered and brought out. The light drove back the ravenous monster, enough to try and make an escape.

I haven’t checked whether my pendant glows or emits light. The chances are it doesn’t and if it did, I’d worry. The idea of a sacred well becoming radioactive enough that the water glows is a horrible one. But it does emit hope, and in wearing it I feel a connection to a place where the barrier between the ordinary world and the world of deeper connections is thinner than in many places. It’s only a little thing and only a symbol of something greater; it’s a potent reminder of the light that can never be extinguished. And that gives me the comfort I need for the darker days that are ever present.

What are your comforts, your symbols that support you in this time?

The Extraordinary Animal That Is Grief

The Extraordinary Animal That Is Grief

I thought I knew about grief. I’ve written enough about it, after all’s said and done. I thought I understood it.

But I realise that like a child who paddles on the shores of a vast ocean, sometimes venturing in deeper to swim, I only knew what had so far presented itself to me. Oh I’ve maybe snorkelled a bit; sailed out into the open on a calm day; watched the storms from the shore; read books on the subject.

This spring has been a spring like no other. In the first week of the UK lock-down, my mother passed away, less than seven months after my father. Amid that shock came the immense changes to daily life and the sudden ramping up of the baseline anxiety I experience most of the time. Friends lost beloved relatives and friends to the virus; the whole of my social media has been dominated by the pandemic. The usual rituals and solaces for coping with stress have been denied to most of us. Church buildings have been locked; church services have gone to a totally different level and have been done virtually. Places I would have gone to spend time grappling with my feelings are not accessible.

I’ve had even more problems sleeping. It’s not been unusual to fail to get to sleep in the normal manner; I go downstairs, make a hot drink, curl up on the sofa with a book, a heated blanket and sometimes the cat, and try to get past the racing thoughts, the emotions I cannot quantify or express but which make my body and mind spasm with pain. Other nights I wake in the small hours, overwhelmed; a dream may have brought me squarely in the face of the losses and I wake sobbing. The sofa, a book and the cat again become my companions. The thing with grief is you experience it alone; it’s a unique experience that only you can go through. Had I an identical twin, their journey through this loss would be different from mine. We might be companions on the road, but our journeys would be radically different and radically similar all at the same moment. I compare notes, sometimes, with friends, and there’s comfort in recognising that reactions, behaviours and emotions are normal.

I’ve done a lot of staring into space, unable to focus on a book. Only familiar much loved books are my reading fodder right now. I’ll try and read something new but in most cases, I’ll find my eyes slide off the page and I’ll lapse into silence and empty thoughts that are soon replaced by the same litany of confusion, unplaced and unembraced emotions, and a vicious shouting chorus of Furies.

The collective grief of a nation where probably a good 60k(and rising) people have died as a direct result of the virus (official death count of confirmed deaths due to the virus is getting close to 40k) and the restrictions associated, is a silent scream on the ether, a white noise that enters my waking mind as much as my sleeping one. The anger at mismanagement, at the flouting of rules by some, the knowledge that other nations have managed it so much better, make me grind my teeth at times. I am powerless, voiceless. I have written to my M.P, emailing my letter and sending it to his local office and his Westminster office. I have not received any sort of reply. I probably won’t. He’s sitting pretty in a safe seat; he doesn’t need to bother. No one who should care seems to care. I avoid watching any of the briefings now, catching up with various précis later.

I have mentioned staring into space; I’ve been unable to write, draw or do anything very much. The creative urge is drowned by intense sadness. The kind of exercises that are suggested for kickstarting creativity are torment. Brain fog is like being stuck in a sort of mental pea-souper. I know it’s probably temporary but it’s horrible. I’d barely begun the grieving journey for my father, scarcely got a handle on it. Now my mother also is gone. This grief is a different animal, one I cannot yet fathom. It’s a new species to me. But that’s the thing. Every loss is a new experience of grief. If it were truly an animal, I’d observe it. I’d study it. I’d maybe draw it, or write about it. I might seek images or representations of it. Season by season, I’d learn a bit more. And it would still manage to surprise me, shock me, by what I still didn’t know about it.

That’s how grief is: a new species each time. Maybe it is closely related to existing species; maybe this one is new to science and therefore harder to understand. But it cannot be classified, stuck in a box or a book and forgotten; it’s a living thing that changes, evolves, interacts, surprises and sometimes shocks.

Beltane at the Cave

Beltane at the Cave

The sky is darkening, from an intense pale blue to a darker but equally intense and clear blue, flecked with clouds the colour of doves’ wings and that faint blush pink of a linnet’s breast. It has rained off and on all day, bringing the final April showers after a dry month. From below the wide ledge of clean, white sand that is the entrance to my cave, scents rise from the forest below. Resinous aromas from the many firs and conifers of all kinds, the fainter scent of blossoms, and the pungent odour of wet earth and vegetation, all mingle as I wait for the light to fade past a certain point.

I kneel, the sand wet under my knees, and bow towards the setting sun, my head almost touching the earth. A shiver runs through my whole body. The evening songs of the birds falters, then ceases, and I know this is the moment. I lift my flint, and bring it down hard onto the rock, and miraculously, a shower of bright sparks flies out. It lands on the little pile of tinder, and after a moment, a thread of smoke rises. I lean forward, blowing gently, cupping my hands around the newborn flame, blowing, blowing, blowing, until the flames rise like hungry chicks clamouring for food. I feed them, dry twigs and resinous pine needles and they crackle greedily.

I add more fuel, slowly, letting the fire build until I can add small logs, and by that time, the light has faded almost entirely from the sky. When I am sure my bonfire is burning steadily, I fetch a stool so that I can sit by it. The knees of my trousers dry in the warmth that emanates from the fire. A chill breeze seems to roar down off the mountain, making my fire crackle and roar back at it. I pull my blanket around my shoulders, and gaze into the blaze.

There is great sadness, a weight that bears down on my heart, a sorrow that is more appropriate to Samhain than to Beltane, and I sigh. This is the place where I am always alone with my thoughts, where no other human comes to be with me, but this evening, I feel the void. A great change has taken place in my lineage. I have, my default, become an elder. One might consider I am a new matriarch, but it weighs on me, because I have lost my mother. Oh, I know, I know. Nothing is ever lost, they say.

Through the flames I see that my companions have come. Great she-bear who kept me company through the deep winter, Reindeer, and others, shadowy in the penumbra of the fire, sit with me, silent and respectful. I welcome them but I do not speak.

As the last light vanishes from the sky, and the Evening Star glitters into view, I hear one last burst of bird song. It’s one I have not heard for some time, for this bird, once common and little thought of, has become rarer. I see the singer, perched fairly close to me on one of the stunted apple trees at the edge of the ledge. A song thrush, singing so beautifully that tears, healing tears, rise in my eyes and spill over as I remember that my mother’s name means song thrush.

Mending the Cosmic Egg

Mending the Cosmic Egg

Mending the Cosmic Egg

One of the most pervasive of symbols in creation myths is that of the World or Cosmic egg. From the earliest recorded example of this concept in Sanskrit scriptures, right the way through to cosmologists in the 1920’s and 1930s invoking the idea of a gravitational singularity as a cosmic egg, the egg as symbol for the creation of the universe or world has been found across the globe and throughout history. Do have a quick read of the linked article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_egg

Shortly after I moved to my current home (about 7 years ago), I dreamed a strange dream. In the dream, something fell down the chimney, and when I went to look, I saw that a large egg had fallen down, and had cracked. Something was moving within the fragments of egg and after a moment, from the ruins a creature emerged. It was an extraordinary being, a serpent, but with the head and wings of a bird. It escaped from the wreck of its egg and ran away from me, hiding itself within the room and then the house. I recorded the dream, painted it and then, still baffled, I forgot it.

 

A couple of years later, I returned from a work trip abroad; the following morning, my husband admitted that while I was away, an item had been broken by accident. As a birthday present, years before, my brother had given me an ostrich egg. It was a blown one, totally plain and I’d really loved such a quirky item. This had been knocked off a shelf, by a series of improbable events, and smashed to smithereens. The pieces had been collected together and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. I promised myself I would one day mend the egg. I finally accomplished this difficult task a few weeks ago.

If you have ever seen the documentary with Sir David Attenborough about the extinct Elephant Bird https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASJvktzfQ4g you’ll see how tricky it is to piece together such an item. His egg was a lot bigger than mine, and was broken into fewer bits. It took me over a week, allowing the glue to dry between sessions. It was very frustrating, as the more complete it became, the harder it was to get the final fragments to fit. The tiniest of misalignments, measured in fractions of a millimetre, add up. The final piece fell inside before the glue finished setting, making it impossible to retrieve. A few minute scraps of egg were missing, lost when it broke. But the overall integrity was there, and using some gold outliner (originally for glass painting) I emphasised the cracks, the process called Kintsugi. Kintsugi is a Japanese concept, the basic idea being that instead of hiding brokenness, you accentuate and draw attention to the damage, so that an item that has been restored is seen as MORE beautiful because of its history. It’s a very healing thought, that instead of being fit for the rubbish heap, something is held up as having greater loveliness because of what it has been through.

For me, taking the time to piece back together that egg had significance. Something that was broken has been honoured. It is a beautiful thing, and it reminds me that however damaged I feel I am, the efforts I have made to make good that damage, while they can never erase it, and I can never be as I was before, I have become something else. Something that I hope can be of use and joy to others.

We cannot mend the original cosmic egg, but perhaps we can envision a world where the damage is made good. Those visions are the ones I would like to explore. I may be a dreamer, but nothing can exist unless someone has dreamed it first.

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Despite having her writings, we actually know surprisingly little about Dame Julian,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich the anchorite whose hermitage in Norwich remains a site for pilgrims to this day. We don’t even know her original name; she took the name of the saint whose church she became anchorite of. The church and the cell were bombed during the war but later rebuilt, stone by stone, and the place retains an atmosphere of calm and contemplation; the visitor centre next to it offers refreshments, access to their library and a lovely little gift selection. If you go, they also allow you to park next to the church if you ask for one of their parking permits that will ward off the eagle-eyed traffic wardens.

The 14th century was an especially turbulent one, taking in the Black Death (which reached Britain in 1348, ripping through populations weakened by 2 generations of malnutrition), wars, pogroms, The Peasants’ Revolt, social upheavals and religious movements galore. Dame Julian(born around 1342) saw the effects of the plague first hand, both the initial wave and the later wave that had a reduced effect. When she was around 30, during an illness that was almost fatal, she had a series of visions that are the basis for her writings, and which led to her becoming an anchorite after her recovery. While we know nothing for certain about her origins, education or life before the visions, given that she was 30 at the time, many have speculated that the likelihood was that she was or had been married, and may have had children. The surmise also goes that the illness she survived may have wiped out husband and children. Whatever the truth of this, the life she led after this cataclysmic illness and the visions was entirely different from what she must have led before it.

An anchorite was a hermit who pledged to stay in a single location, often walled in and supplied with the essentials of life via a small window. When a person became an anchorite, the service for the dead was performed, and they were then sealed in. However, they usually led productive lives, often making clothes for the poor and acting (via the window) as a counsellor to troubled souls. One of Julian’s visitors was the mystic Margery Kempe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe who wrote of her visit to dame Julian. http://juliancentre.org/news/margery-kempe-who-met-julian-is-remembered-in-the-anglican-church-on-9th-november.html

One of the most famous of Julian’s sayings was “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Sometimes people use this as a means of shutting up others who are worrying about what’s going on around them. Right now, there’s a lot of reasons to worry. Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but it’s a frighteningly infectious and potentially lethal virus, and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Julian would have witnessed not just the Black Death but many other epidemics or pandemics that roared through the populace; mechanisms by which any disease spread were little understood then and it’s hard to imagine the terrible fear most people would have experienced. For many it may have felt like a judgement from an angry god. Even today, there are so-called Christians who are preaching that this pandemic is God’s judgement on a sinful human race; some who see this as stage in the end of the world prophecies that are supposedly laid out in the Book of Revelation. To that I say: utter tosh.

When the door closed behind Julian and she was sealed inside her cell, I wonder what she would have felt. Her faith, both in a good, kind, loving God rather than the hideous vengeful god usually depicted by the medieval church, would have kept her at peace, and her faith in the benefactors and supporters who ensured that she would be kept supplied with the necessaries of life meant that the usual worries and cares would be gone. She could focus on what she was there for: to pray, to work, to support others from her window, and also to write about her visions.

In my previous post I wrote about how pressured many of us feel by having so many reminders of what others (like Shakespeare) have accomplished in their time in quarantine. There’s a massive collective angst and anxiety that fills the air and reaches all of us who are sensitive to it, and many who otherwise would not be. It’s extremely hard to be creative when the world around us is filled with such turmoil and uncertainty and fear. It’s even harder when well-meaning people exhort us not to waste such an opportunity for extra time we didn’t know we had.

As well as the collective grief and fear and worry, there’s personal concerns that almost everyone is affected by; worries about money, jobs, family, the future. After losing my father six months ago, I had had a sense of relief that at least I didn’t have to worry about him getting the virus. The worry for my mother was short-lived, and replaced instead with immense shock and sadness when she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

I wonder how much of the collective grief that Dame Julian bore and prayed with in that little cell in Norwich, how many folks she comforted with her words of a loving God who cared for his children as a mother might. I would love to sit an hour in her cell now, and pour out my soul there, but I cannot. It may be many months before I can go anywhere that is deemed non-essential. But I can sit quietly in my home, and hold like hazel nuts the cares and sorrows of others, just as she did.

No, I won’t be writing my version of King Lear

No, I won’t be writing my version of King Lear

In the light of potential or actual self-isolation, lock-down or general quarantine, there have been a lot of comments, posts, memes and articles about how various historic figures used the time in quarantine to produce masterpieces. Shakespeare, for example, wrote King Lear while quarantined during the Plague. Isaac Newton worked on various theories while Cambridge University was shut for two years for the same reason.

I have seen lots of posts encouraging others to take advantage of the time spent at home quarantined or in self-isolation. Time to learn something new, time to write your next book, or meditate or read those hundred books we’re all supposed to read before we die. Indeed, if you can focus on something like that, I can think of no better use of the extra time. Better probably than tidying and cleaning cupboards.

There’s a reason why dear Will managed to write Lear during that time: he knew he’d need to have something new when life returned to normal because that was how he earned his living. Newton had means to live; he could afford to hole up in a family-owned house and just focus on his work. He also had no wife or children to concern himself with. He will have had servants to do the house work and cooking for him.

If you have lived with anxiety, both generalised and specific, these times are hard. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything. I’d love to be able to knuckle down and continue to write. Maybe as time goes on I will. But the added pressure of somehow now expecting myself to produce my greatest works NOW, simply doesn’t help. Indeed, I cannot but wonder that it might sour the work I produce because of unreasonable expectations.

Here’s my advice. Focus on caring for yourself and those around you; that may include creative enterprises, and since those can be extremely healing and calming, it would be wonderful if it did. But if it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up about it. No one needs the extra pressure of false expectations.

Love to you all.

The questions you can no longer ask

The questions you can no longer ask

(Content note for bereavement and poignancy)

When someone passes away, there’s a lot left behind for others to deal with. Paperwork that could sink the Titanic, funerals, dealing with personal effects and belongings. If you’ve been there, you know or can guess what it feels like. Some of it is baffling (“Why on earth did she keep that?” “What was he thinking?”) and you have to use your imagination to try and understand it. Some is obvious; we found a fabric art picture I did for my father when I was six. It hung on the wall of his office at work and when he retired, it came home and hung on the wall in his study. But sometimes you find things that make you wish you could ask questions. It’s not the big questions, because to be honest, I probably know the answers or could intuit them.

It’s the small things.

We found among my father’s papers a letter from one of the big TV channels. Taped to it was a small flint arrowhead. Dad had apparently sent it to them, so they could pass it on to Time Team, one of his favourite programmes, to find out more about it. The letter was polite and kind, but they couldn’t help and made some suggestions about how he could find out more about it.

The trouble is, I have no idea where he found the arrowhead. No idea at all. I have no memory of him finding it, or mentioning it. He probably did talk about it but amid the events of decades, stuff like that has a habit of vanishing utterly.

It’s a genuine arrowhead. My best guess (from size and type of working) is that it’s Mesolithic. But I can never now ask where he found it and I’ll never know, and weirdly, that hurts more than I would ever have imagined.

I’ve put the arrowhead on my personal altar and it’ll stay there. If I ever get a chance to speak to someone who’s an expert on such things, I’ll ask. But beyond that, I’ll never know its 20th century history.

On the Dominance of Filthy Lucre

On the Dominance of Filthy Lucre

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrases, “Money makes the world go round,” and “The love of money is the root of all evil”. In recent months, it’s become apparent to me that both these aphorisms are becoming more and more the reality, and not only does it annoy me, it scares me.

I’m not sure when I first noticed that the suggested products on the mighty ‘Zon were being steadily replaced by sponsored ads, but I really noticed it when my new book got its own page. Most authors have a look at what their books are paired with, and since I’d chosen (possibly naively) to list Méchant Loup: Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1091667012/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

under the genre fairy tales, I saw that beneath the listing were literally dozens and dozens of sponsored ads, supposedly for products related to my book. When it first came out, the sponsored ads beneath my book seemed to be retold fairy tales by only a couple of authors; books that had either just been released or were on pre-order. I glanced at them out of curiosity but none appealed to me. Méchant Loup isn’t a collection of retold fairy tales or even reimagined ones (with one exception of the title story), and given it’s intended for “sensible grown ups”, some of the sponsored ads were way off mark. Most of them if truth be told. I’d hoped that I might gain some traction in this category but I’d have been better listing in literary fiction. Or perhaps not.

The trouble is not just as an author. As a reader, I do glance at the suggested books under the listings of books I have enjoyed. But now it seems that the complex mathematical equations needed to predict what someone might like have gone terribly awry, directly as a result of the proliferation of paid ads. I suspect that few authors don’t now use paid advertising; from what I have heard through the jungle drums, it’s with diminishing returns. Some authors do not recoup from sales what they spent on advertising. I’ve yet to do a poll, but my gut feeling is that the general trend is spending more and more on advertising and get less and less back.

Being a writer is becoming ever more a mug’s game. The ones (like me) who are creating the content (what a hideous phrase) are not the ones garnering any real monetary rewards for the work. Worse still, it’s becoming horrifyingly common to discover that author mills are churning out books, often scraped illegally from the works of others, altered enough to pass the checks needed to be published, and published en masse, with paid reviews convincing enough to lure in more buyers.

Can you hear me sighing heavily?

It might have been the collective sighs of all of us demoralised writers that created Storm Ciara.

Everyone who can grab a piece of us is doing so. Every day I read of other writers who are being forced to give up doing what they love because they can no longer afford to do it. Don’t get me started on the continuing phenomenon of pirating books. One friend has done something I admire immensely, and has backed away from commercial publishing, and is producing limited edition, hand-bound books, available from her directly.

https://kathysharp2013.wordpress.com/2019/04/11/adventures-in-bookbinding-the-herbarium/

It satisfies the soul, and evades the risk of having your work scraped, pirated or plagiarised. I lack the skills to do so, but hats off to her.

The new book has been out a month and has now 7 fabulous reviews, but the initial burst of sales is dwindling, and I fear that before too long it will, along with all my other books that I cannot pay to advertise and will not even had I the money (because it’s clear authors are the cash cow of various industries), languish with only occasional readers.

I don’t have any answers. I try to pass on news about the books of others when I can, and appreciate those who have done that for me. We live in a world where filthy lucre is the only thing that seems to matter to the vast majority of the population; it makes me more and more want to retreat from it all, and not participate in this orgy of capitalistic nihilism.

World Weary Woman – her wound and transformation by Cara Barker

World Weary Woman – her wound and transformation by Cara Barker

If you were to ask me (I don’t recommend it if you are looking for a cheerful, uplifting answer) how I am, my most common answer is “I’m tired.” It’s a boring answer, and to some, a tedious one. “Oh we’re all a bit tired,” is sometimes what the response is. I gnash my teeth and stay silent. The tiredness of chronic illness, of M.E and other exhausting and debilitating conditions, is not the same as normal tiredness, yet people never believe it. There’s a sense that those of us with these conditions are somehow glamourising our exhaustion, demanding medals and accolades for taking the bins out.

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The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

One of the highlights of last year (which was a truly awful year in most respects) was having the chance to go on a workshop with Caitlín Matthews http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/ Held at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/ , “The Paths to the Grail” remains an island of calm, learning, fellowship and a deep sense of the numinous, and a shining, beautiful couple of days of my life. A true oasis, if you like. I had wanted to go on one of her courses before, but never so much as this one. In the hell of all the horrible, sad events, this gave me respite.  Continue reading