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?

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.

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.

Continue reading

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

Méchant Loup Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups

Méchant Loup

Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups

Time for a big announcement.

New book!

Yes, finally. When I was glancing through the files for this one, I saw that the start of the collection as such began around five years ago. It’s been a long five years, to be honest, and 2019 seemed to last for at least ten years.

Méchant Loup (which means big bad wolf) has been a labour of love. It’s also been one of uncertainty and no little fear too. Fear of abject failure, if I am honest. I spent a lot of time lurking online and frankly, the books that sell well right now tend to be cosy murder mysteries, paranormal fantasy, romance of all kinds, police procedural and crime thrillers. Not books of fables and fairy-tales. Nonetheless, here it is; I’ve sensed a need for this kind of reading, though and I hope that it hits the spot for many, many people.

Here’s the blurb:

For those of us who loved story-time, who knew that stories are not just to entertain for a few minutes or a few hours.

For those who know that story is a living thing that can live inside us, grow and change, and change us too.

For the dreamers who dream with their eyes wide open.

This book is for all of you.

The wolf-whistle cut across the cool evening air, shrill and insistent but the girl in red did not respond…”

From Tall Poppy Syndrome and the dark side of therapy, to New Age flim-flam and con artistry, through the battle against depression and burn-out, through the seductive and sinister side of libraries and books, and joining the fight against harassment embodied by the #Metoo movement, these modern fables and fairy tales will take you on a magical journey of discovery, enlightenment and wonder. Thirteen is a magic number. You’re never too old for story time. Are you sitting comfortably?

These stories weren’t written with the intention of creating a themed collection; each tale was written as it emerged, blinking in the light of day. Some I shared on my blog, some have languished quietly on my hard drive, read only by a few good friends. Each tale sprang from somewhere deep inside me and some surprised me by quite how strange they were. Gradually, I understood that they were fables, fairy tales and parables, rather than simple pieces of fiction written solely to entertain. Each carried something else with it, something I found hard to define.

During my exploration of the works of first generation Jungian authors, such as the inestimable Marie-Louise Von Franz, I started to understand that fairy tales and fables carry the weight of our collective unconscious. Far from being stories for children, they contain powerful truths for adults and for our evolving societies. Research based on various aspects including linguistics have shown that some tales may have a core that is many thousands of years old, some potentially dating back to the last Ice Age. These stories change and evolve over centuries, with the peripheral details often varying enormously; if the core remains relevant to the human condition, a fairy tale will endure and continue to speak to us.

I also discovered that while an individual cannot truly create a new myth or fairy tale, they can sometimes channel such a myth. In my heart I feel that with some of the stories in this book, I may have done just that. I have heard something speaking deep inside me and I have listened to its voice as attentively as I could and written it down. There are thirteen of them, a number which is magical for so many reasons.

Fables, fairy tales, myths and parables are often written in simpler language and concepts than we are now familiar with; they carry a kind of child-like purity, a throw-back to listening to stories as a small child, a memory almost lost to time. Some of these stories have elements of that spirit of storytelling; some are more modern in their telling. Some carry the energy of the cautionary tale, meant to warn and admonish. I have entitled the book as modern fables for sensible grown ups because I wanted to ensure that they reached the right audience. They are not written for children, (which is what the word ‘fable’ is usually held to mean), though I think some are eminently suitable to be read to children. I avoided using the word ‘adult’ for obvious reasons and I hope that the use of the word ‘sensible’ speaks for itself.

I’ve included the links for the UK versions below, which, in due course will become one link when they are joined together. Other Amazon stores can be accessed either by searching for the book by name or by changing the dot co dot uk in the URL to dot com or whichever store you usually shop at.

Reviews are far more important than folks think, even on books that have been out for a long time, because it gives the book more visibility by keeping it current. For new books, they’re especially important as (it is believed) the more a book accumulates, the more the mighty unnameable might choose to promote the book. This is not an exact science, alas, so if you can review a book you have liked (or loathed) please do.

UK Kindle version: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B083HGHSRB

UK paperback version: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1091667012

Brand new year – same old me

Brand new year – same old me

I’ve never quite understood the hype of New Year. The changing of the calender is, in modern times, quite arbitrary. It pays no heed to celestial events like solstices, or to celebrations of saints’ days or gods or goddesses. Yet every year there’s big parties and declarations of intent for the coming year.

I was glad to see the back of 2019. It contained more trouble and trauma than it did joy and gladness. Yet despite the arbitrary nature of when we start a new year, I found myself looking forward to the change of year. It’s good to start a new daily journal, for example. I’ve gone for a larger sized journal, A5 instead of A6, and have used a Moleskine I’ve had in my stash for a few years; my dad gave me a John Lewis voucher a couple of years ago, and one of the things I got was this journal. It seems fitting that something my father (indirectly) gave me be used for the first year that no longer contains his living presence. I’ve done a daily journal since 2014, and it’s a good discipline for me to have to write a few lines at least before I go to sleep each night. It helps put the day to bed as well as give me a chance to record my impressions of the day. Choosing a significantly larger size means I have greater scope for those impressions. I began also a new bullet journal for recording things done and things planned. Last year’s got abandoned around August when events and health crises conspired to make sure I had insufficient energy to keep it up. I stopped writing down the books I read along with a short review and rating, because of the same reason, and because I stopped caring about keeping going with such things. They seemed futile. I considered starting a new notebook for my book records but as the old one was only a little over half way, I decided to draw a firm metaphorical line under last year and start afresh. The first book completed this year was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection of Professor Challenger stories (three novels including “The Lost World”, and several short stories of dubious merit, and copious notes on spiritualism)

Last year’s reading and favourite books I may come back to another time, as I am aware I read some superb books that deserve a shout-out as well as a proper review in the appropriate places. In my haul of Christmas presents were two books by authors who both deserve greater fame. “Meeting Amalek” by Gev Sweeney, and “The Immortality Clock” by Richard Pierce are sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me to finish reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”. I read it years ago, not long after it came out, and only had a library copy. I’ve enjoyed it far more this time, for some reason.

Shortly before New Year, I did the final set of edits on “Méchant Loup – Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups”. I need to do a last read through to ensure it’s all as perfect as I can make it. Then I need to dredge up the courage and resolve to do the upload and publishing parts of the process. I’m so afraid of it sinking into the void unnoticed. I’m also fighting a terrible sense of futility and of uselessness. The year has begun with terrible fires in Australia and the USA doing more than rattling sabres. I’m being deliberating cautious about what I say about that. I’m also doing my level best to try and focus on good news stories and not be sucked into the mire of bad news. I spend some time each day in contemplation, one might even say prayer. Even if there is no one listening (I wonder this more and more as I get older) it does me some good. I am baffled by the unkindness, hatred, stupidity, intolerance, bigotry and so on that goes on daily, unremarked. I feel unwanted in my own country, one I can trace ancestors back a good four hundred years.

Oops. Almost went down a very dark rabbit hole there. Anyway, it’s a new decade too. Not that it means very much either. Not in the grand scheme of things. Whatever it may bring, may it bring for those of us who need it, hope, and better times ahead. I am reminded of lines in Luke’s Gospel, https://biblehub.com/luke/1-53.htm . The rich have already had their reward.

Aiming for the stars

Aiming for the stars

The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landings is rapidly approaching. It’s set me thinking about various things, but I’ll stick to one or two here. I am old enough to remember the event, though I was a very small child at the time. My father insisted we be woken to come down and watch it on the television (black and white and a very grainy image) because to him it was so momentous; my mother believes to this day that it was all a fake. It set in train my love of astronomy, an ambition to become an astronaut and an enjoyment of sci-fi that endures to this day. Dad is also responsible for my love of Star Trek, allowing us to watch it when my mother didn’t think it was suitable. Thanks, Dad.  Continue reading

“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.

I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.

I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interrupted-Life-Diaries-Letters-Hillesum/dp/095347805X/