Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

It’s getting to that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, and the heat of only a matter of weeks ago is a memory (thank goodness; I wasn’t coping, especially with the hot humid nights). Cooler, fresher mornings are making me consider putting the duvet back on the bed; we’ve had instead a sheet with a blanket on the top for most of the summer. I’ve brought in the most tender, temperature sensitive plants back into the house after their summer break in the garden; the scented geraniums and the dwarf myrtle will follow soon, once I’ve cleaned windows and window ledges. The two olive trees will come in after that.

After the dry summer, the trees are bright with berries and their leaves are beginning to change colour. In woods we visit, the smell of autumn has been hovering for some weeks. We’ve spotted fungi erupting in all sorts of places. Bird song has altered. Our lawn is littered with more poo from hedgehogs as they forage among windfall apples and snuffle the cat food I put out every evening. The males will be looking for places to settle for their hibernation, while the females and the youngsters continue to feed voraciously to fatten up for winter. We rarely see slugs or snails here, probably because the hoggies and the visiting ducks hoover them all up.

I like autumn, despite the melancholy. The first anniversary of my father’s death has slipped by; I toasted him with a pint of Guinness with dinner. All Hallows and associated festivals lie ahead in October; there is usually a service here to commemorate our beloved dead. Last year it was too raw for me to attend, and this year spaces at the service will be fewer than usual because of social distancing measures. I hope to attend, and remember with love those who have gone.

Over recent years I have noticed the proliferation of items for sale that have the scent or flavour of “pumpkin spice”, and the attending ridicule of women for liking it. It’s largely contemptuous dismissal by men, powered by an underlying unconscious belief that everything women enjoy as trivial and without real value. Pumpkins as Halloween food and décor are a fairly new thing in the UK; pumpkin spice is actually a much older thing indeed, and has little to do with the vast round orange vegetables. It’s a mix of the sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and a few others, traditionally used for baking certain recipes. As a child, trying to get my mother to cook and bake more adventurous things, I got her to buy a variety of herbs and spices. One of those was something called Apple Pie Spice. At home, she opened the bottle and took a sniff; her eyes went misty for a moment and she said one word: “Mammy”. Not, as she explained a few moments later, her mother, but instead her grandmother, who had lived next door. My great grandmother, in fact. That single inhalation of scent had taken my mother back to childhood, and brought a much-beloved grandmother into the room for a moment. Mum was someone who hated nostalgia and rarely reminisced. She seldom talked about her childhood, or showed us old photos but in that tiny breath of mixed spices, she went back, almost bodily. She was back in her grandmother’s kitchen, helping her bake apple pies and other delicious treats. I have often thought that many of her memories from that time are probably deeply traumatic; the roof of their house was blown off by a falling bomb while they sheltered under the concrete thrall shelf in the pantry. Brothers, uncles, cousins, were away at war; desperate shortages of food at times meant that while they probably never went truly hungry, food was doubtless tedious and boring and precious. Mum in her later years talked about never having had teddies or other soft toys; she had a rag doll that someone made for her, but that was it. We gave her a zoo’s worth of cuddly toys, which she loved, but that early lack went deep. I suspect for many that lived through such times there are cavernous wounds, papered over with material comforts in later years.

Spices were once as precious as gold, and their use in food sometimes a matter of conspicuous consumption. Cardinal Wolsey went one step further, using saffron (still one of the most costly of spices) as a strewing herb. In humble families, a pinch of ground cinnamon in a simple apple pie was a way of giving the food an almost magical savour, a pinch of love. That’s why so many of the traditional Christmas foods are heavy on spices, because these were things you could not afford to use every day. They were brought out for the feasts of life, when those you loved had gathered close for that time. They enhanced both the flavour, the fragrance and the properties of the food. Most spices have beneficial effects; cinnamon is anti-viral and many are antibacterial as well. Sometimes added to disguise the taint of food past its best, they protected the health as well as adding to the taste.

In the case of pumpkins, the spice is added as pumpkins have very mild flavour. I’ve made pumpkin pie just the once; we held a Halloween party for my daughter’s friends, some of whom were American (we lived close to a couple of US airbases at the time). The kids looked at it, and because it was unfamiliar to most of the guests, declined to try any. The one American attendee said she didn’t like it anyway. I ended up eating it all myself over a couple of days. I rather liked it. But I think that if they were a vegetable that grew well where I live, I’d feel honour-bound to find as many ways of using it as possible, because of the hungry times in my ancestry. At the moment I am processing as many of the apples from our nine trees as I can, stewing with cinnamon and honey and freezing them for use in the winter when the trees are bare. Last year I didn’t do this; there was too much going on to worry about endless windfalls and waste. But as I add the spice to each batch, I think of the great grandmother I never knew, and of the line of faceless grandmothers going back centuries, and then I think of the younger women daring to have pumpkin spice coffee, defying the (mostly) men who would shame them for liking such a thing, and then I think, “You go, girls. You enjoy that spice. And devil take those who would use it to diminish you.”

Lammas: Replenishing the Life-Well

Lammas: Replenishing the Life-Well

Since the pandemic lock-down began here in the UK, I’ve not spent a night away from home. The furthest I have travelled was a two hour drive to my mother’s funeral, back in April. As restrictions eased, we’ve been to the coast a few times and into Norwich. But we’re not going to be going away for a holiday and I have no idea when I will have my next work trip. I was supposed to have had a couple of Paris or Northern France assignments in later June/early July but obviously they didn’t happen.

At the same time as all this, I’ve had a massive, and utterly horrible increase in the amount of pain I am in, and an equally massive loss of energy. When you can’t sleep because of pain, anxiety, grief, the body has no chance to mend itself, to rest and recuperate and the spirit/soul has no chance to recover from the blows life has aimed at it. I would have loved to have been able to visit various locations and sites that nourish me, but until quite recently that sort of travel was out of the question for normal mortals who cannot flout the law like certain government advisors (and others). Even though many places are now open, at least partially, the limitations and the extra hoops to jump through put me off even trying. I don’t want to, say, go round Norwich Cathedral, following a set path that takes a truncated tour. I want to sit in empty corners and quiet chapels, or stand in the labyrinth and gaze at the sky.

We had a wonderful trip with my brother to a woodland near where he lives; we took a picnic and since he’s a butterfly expert, we got to experience certain examples of lepidoptera we’d not have spotted or recognised. He can identify a butterfly often just by its flight patterns, so this meant we got to see silver-washed fritillaries we’d otherwise not have realised were there; a purple hair-streak butterfly came down from the oak canopy and we were able to get a decent look at it. I’d never seen one before.

Then a few days ago, we went to Dunwich Forest, and had a deeply restorative walk there. We used to take our dog there, and since she died almost ten years ago, we’ve hardly been back. The fluttering leaves of birch, the high fronds of bracken, the deep dark green of planted conifers, and the solid green of oak leaves gave us shade from the intense summer sun; the scent of ferns and moss and the hint of fallen leaves and fungus reminded me of the ephemeral nature of the season. We saw many gatekeeper butterflies, coppers, large skippers, peacocks, red admirals, silver-washed fritillaries (which I’d never have identified if I’d not had my brother show me the week before), and a couple of white admirals too. Dragonflies of many hues and species flitted around like jewelled brooches that have come to life. The sun on gorse seed pods made them crackle and pop and fling the seeds a surprising distance; the few brilliant yellow flowers gave out their toasted coconut macaroon fragrance. Then, because an hour and a half’s walk had worn me out, we drove to the beach and got chips from the beach cafe, and ate them sitting on the shingle while the sea caressed the rolling pebbles at the shoreline.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden; I bought a couple of zero gravity reclining chairs which have proved perfect for lying back in to gaze at the night sky and try to see the comet. Later this month, we’ll watch for meteor showers. We’ve left the lawns uncut this year; closer to the house, they’re kept short by the assiduous efforts of our little squad of guinea pigs but further away, the grass has gone to seed, as have the various hawk-bits, cat’s ears, hawkweeds, and others. That’s brought in squadrons of seed-eating birds like goldfinches. The longer grass has encouraged grasshoppers and crickets, and I’ve spotted wall butterflies (whose larval stage eats grasses) and also clouded yellows (whose caterpillars eat clovers) flitting around and mating. The vegetable plants we’ve cultivated are all producing delicious food for us and the guinea pigs; the self-sown evening primroses draw both butterflies and moths. The flowers are like faery ballgowns of the softest, most vibrant yellow silk, and at night they give off both a gentle aroma and a strange, almost luminescent glow as the colour reflects moonlight and starlight. Bats fly in profusion over our heads as we lie star gazing, intercepting the June bugs and cockchafers that have launched from the lawn most nights during June and some of July, and hedgehogs perform their mating rituals (noisy) a few yards or even feet away from us, before adjourning to the feeding station to crunch up cat biscuits and slurp up the odd over-ripe banana.

Our apple trees are laden with fruit that’s ripening and drawing both wasps and blackbirds to the windfalls. The bees get on with their work and a steady hum of insect life underpins the sounds of bird life and the harsher hum of traffic. New dragonflies emerge from the pond, eye us up and decide we’re too big to eat (apparently they’ll intercept fragments of crisp or peanut flipped into the air, or so my brother has told me) and head off to find something more manageable.

I’ve had very few human encounters face to face in the last months; the few that I have had have been usually very welcome, with people I like and admire. The facility for video chats (many platforms available) has been a sanity saver for me and for many.

All of these things have been replenishing my life-well. It’s a term I have used (I might have coined it) for that deep pool of experiences and thoughts and memories and dreams that feed me at the deepest, most essential level. It’s where the ideas for stories are drawn from, where they sink down into the bedrock and sometimes emerge years or even decades later as part of something complex, and wonderful. Two years ago, we went back to Taize, and though the week(with two days of travel either side) left me so physically drained it took months to recover, the contribution to my life-well was so profound that it will stay with me forever. There was an attempt to get such a trip going from this diocese, and I was part of the meeting discussing it; it didn’t happen, and even had it been planned for this year it would have been scuppered. One of the things I needed to get across was how important that trip had been to me, but also how difficult it had been. The sad thing is how abled people react to information about difficulties in access to these kinds of pilgrimages. The general feeling is, “If it was that hard, why on earth would you put yourself through that to go again?” This completely fails to understand what life is like for the disabled. The idea that if they were in your shoes, they’d just not do anything difficult or painful is absurd; life is already constricted for those with disabilities, and the opportunities to replenish your life-well are also restricted. It’s the life-well we draw on in dark days, in days where getting out of bed let alone the house, is a major challenge and can be nigh-on impossible.

Having a life-well is important, vital even, to living a full, well-lived life rather than just enduring an existence. This extraordinary year I have heard friends talk about watching for hours as a spider spun her web, of books read they’ve long intended to read but never found the time for, of local walks where some kind soul has chalked the names of plants on the pavements, of meeting life-minded souls via Zoom, of taking virtual pilgrimages, of being still enough that wild creatures draw closer. I’ve heard nothing of holidays on exotic beaches, of sightseeing in distant lands, of the long-awaited family wedding, because the experiences that fill our life-wells this year are different. Some have been bitter, dark and filled with sadness and horrors. Some have been laden with home-made bread, bird-watching in back yards and reconnecting with much-loved old friends.

This is my Lammas wish for you: that your life-well this year be filled with unexpected riches that will carry you into the colder, darker months and give you joy and wisdom to draw upon as the year turns.

Blessings to you all.

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.