The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The sands of time are trickling to the bottom bulb of the egg-timer of 2017. I’m not sure if it’s hard-boiled or burned-out, yet, so I am trying to do a review of the year. It’s worth remarking that this will be a rambling sort of post as I have a nasty chest infection, the kind that’s meant my ribs hurt from coughing and I’ve pulled some muscles trying to clear my lungs. I’ve also got a slight temperature, but that said, at university, one of my best ever essays was written trying to stay warm and stave off a similar illness, by drinking ginger wine. I was three sheets to the wind by the end but it earned me an A-. I can only conclude my professor was equally drunk when he marked it.

During the latter part of the year, we lost first a much-beloved guinea pig, and then, heartbreakingly, our ancient but mostly spry cat. He was eighteen and a half. I’m still so numb I cannot manage to articulate much on this; I still look for him on the Ikea chair we bought specially for him. The losses seemed to cap what has been for me quite a tough year. There have been some amazing things (family stuff that I don’t share here) but overall, the word, difficult seems to sum it all up. My day job has been affected (like most of the travel industry) by the continuing instability caused first by ongoing concerns about terrorism and second and more pervasively, by the insanity of the Leave vote. I can barely bring myself to mention this, because I rapidly become mute with anger and frustration.

In terms of writing, it’s a mixed bag. I managed to release three books this year. Two volumes of poetry and a novel. The poetry was a matter of collecting thematically poems I’ve written over a considerable period, and arranging them in an order that seemed pleasing. Hallowed Hollow has garnered 5 excellent reviews but sadly, A Box of Darkness hasn’t a single review to its name. It took a LOT of effort to get Little Gidding Girl out. I made daft mistakes with the formatting that I fought to correct, but I did eventually manage to get the book launched for midsummer. It was launched with what’s called a “puff quote”, from Caitlin Matthews, an author I had admired for (literally) decades before social media brought us into contact. Like any author, I hoped it would soar but it has not. It has, however, got 20 reviews since its launch, all but one of which were glowing. I sometimes feel that either my work is crap or it has such limited appeal that reaching the few folks who is would suit is a monumental task I no longer have the energy to attempt.

In terms of actual writing, apart from blog posts and some poetry, I completed a novel for the first time in over 4 years. This was such an achievement, I marked it by buying a perfume I’d been craving for several years. After sitting on it for a while, I sent it to a few beta readers. I’ve had little or no feedback and can only conclude one of several things: first, no one has had time or inclination to read it (which is fine, as we’re all busy) or have and have either forgotten to give feedback. Or they’ve read it and hated it, but didn’t like to knock me back by saying anything. Whichever it is, I cannot disguise my sadness. But as Locke would say, it is what it is. The novel will probably now sit on my hard drive and gather dust.

As well as the novel, I have managed to write some short stories, most of which are longhand in various notebooks. My levels of confidence in my writing is now so low that it seems better to go back to basics and write a first draft where no one but me will ever see it. I’ve done four or five in my proto-collection of fragrant fiction, short tales inspired by famous perfumes, and a few others. I did get as far as collecting and fiddling with an array of short stories that are basically modern fables for grown ups; I asked for a few volunteers from friends (largely on Facebook) to have a scan. About half of those who offered to read got back to me, and overall the collection passed muster, with some very helpful and uplifting feedback. My next task is to implement some small editorial changes before proofreading and the rest of the process of getting them published. It’s reminded me that I’m very good at the short form, even if short stories are not what people (apparently) want to read in collections from one author. Like poetry, like the literary-ish fiction I specialise in, it seems that another of my skills is in something hardly anyone wants. In a market that is totally saturated, getting noticed is now pretty much impossible unless you have a lot of money, time and energy to throw at it, as well as luck. My best plan is to continue to write what comes to me and therefore, one person is happy. The wonderful folk who read and enjoy and even review my books, may also be happy.

I often sit in awe at the people who write numerous books each year, and get them out there. I’m more than aware of the hard work and discipline involved. Bum in chair, social media disconnected, are but two of the steps needed. I’ve tried. Oh believe me I have tried, this year, to be more productive. Ideas flare, like matches in the darkness, and splutter out in the wake of “oh what’s the point?” It feels as if everything’s already been done, and done to death; I know that each author approaches an idea with their own voice. But I cannot overcome the inertia of the terrible feeling of pointlessness, when my own voice seems to die on the wind. Ill health (both mental and physical) and the invisibility, the sense of irrelevance of self, that seem to accompany middle age, have taken all the oomph out of me. I doubt that I have anything to offer the world, and increasingly, that there’s nothing the world can offer me, any more. Forgive me if this sounds depressing, but this is my reality at present.

I watch the world around me, and find that the microcosm of my back garden has brought me more joy than the wider world. I can barely watch the news any more. Yet seeing a charm of goldfinches bathing in the pond, or hearing the love songs of frogs on a spring night, or smelling the sweet fresh scent of hyacinths blooming in a forgotten corner, remind me that while wars and rumours of war go on, nature battles on, with beauty and sorrow balanced in an eternal cycle. When I go out, last thing at night, to put out food for errant hedgehogs and for the feral cat who lives at the bottom of the garden, I look up at the white stars twinkling in a frosty sky, and the vastness of the universe presses down on me, yet I can still say, “I endure. I am here, for a little while.”

I cannot make predictions for 2018. Or promises or hopes or ambitions. It will be whatever it is, whether I hope or don’t hope. But I wish that for you and for me, it may bring joy and meaning, healing and fulfilment, and understanding and forgiveness. All the rest is fluff that blows away on the winds of time like dandelion clocks when the seeds have been eaten.

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X is for X-rated

X is for X-rated

Not so long ago, I shared a very interesting post about writing to a Facebook group for Christian writers; the post contained some strong language and I put up a content note so that people could avoid if they chose or to read it later as it was something one would call NSFW (not suitable for work). I’ve never had much of a beef with strong language; the use of so-called swear words is for a writer a fine line between realism and personal sensibilities. For someone of faith, it would seem it’s the biggest, most heinous of crimes, judging by the reactions I saw then and at other times. I’m not going to go into the theology of it; that’s not my bag and despite what people say, the evidence that the use of strong or even foul language is forbidden in the Bible, is weak, flawed and based on simplistic thinking, poor understanding of the texts and ambiguous translations.

Words are just words. The use of culturally taboo words in our society serves a very valuable function, when used wisely. If you are not someone who peppers their speech with “rude” words, there is a powerful endorphine boost if they are used in moments of extreme need (pain, grief, shock etc) that is diluted if you are habituated to using them; it’s the breaking of taboo that gives that rush that will relieve pain, give sometimes a rush of energy (to lift the car off your foot) and allow feelings that have become blocked and frozen to flow again.

What are truly obscenities in this world are not the f-word or the c-word, but rather the abuses of war, rape, famine, cruelty, political greed, alienation and a hundred other things that in my book are far more to be recoiled from than the occasional ripe phrase ripped from an honest, hurting heart.

U is for Utopia

U is for Utopia

I’m coming rapidly to the end of this run-through the alphabet and some of the last letters are somewhat problematic. I considered Useless (that’s how I feel a lot of the time) and also Unknowing (the older I get, the more I know I don’t know) but settled on Utopia, because there’s so much Dystopia-stuff around.

The person who coined the term (it actually means No Place) was Sir Thomas More in his fictional piece of the same name. Curiously enough, he was inspired by Plato’s writings on Atlantis. I’d urge you to read more about both works, because More’s ideas of Utopian society included such things as slavery, severe punishments for pre-marital sex, and communal living. The book addressed issues of its day and the blue-print for a utopian society he depicts is anathema to what I consider a perfect world.

We use the word Utopia to mean a perfect society but when it comes down to it, the origin of the name tells us everything. It is No Place. It cannot be. To be the ideal living conditions for one segment of society, it does so at the expense of others. For many, our current society is Utopia as it stands; this is why, in the run up to a General Election in the UK, those at the top of the ladder will fight tooth and bloody nail to keep things as they are, because that suits them very well indeed, thank you very much. To create a society where every member is valued and has a basic and decent standard of living is impossible in a culture that is essentially venial and selfish, where the rich wish to get richer and richer at the expense of the poor, where luxuries beyond imagining become common-place for the lucky few, and people starve and freeze on the streets.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis

L is for Lists

L is for Lists

I like a list, me. Not useful ones like shopping lists where each item is carefully inscribed onto the back of an envelope; no, most of us know what we need when we go to the supermarket. You know how it goes: bread, milk, cucumbers, cat food, loo roll... the same old same old. I only tend to make lists now for things that are not bought each and every time a grocery shop is done: hot pepper sauce, Gentleman’s Relish, wet wipes for the car, shoe polish, memory stick.

When I am packing to go away, I make a list of the things that need to be included, the things that it would be disastrous to forget: underwear, sufficient changes of clothes, medication, phone charger, passport. You know the drill. When we used to go camping on a regular basis, I’d make lists in the run up, of things that needed to be done before we left, clothing to be laundered, or equipment that needed to be disinterred from the loft, then when that list had reached a certain size and half of the items/tasks were ticked off, I’d make a second list (List, son of list) and repeat the process. We usually got to great great grandson of List by the day of departure.

Some folks have a To Do list. I often do this but one important thing that is very useful if, like me, you are not 100% well. Make sure that the first items on the to do list are things you have already done (get up, shower, brush teeth, drink tea) because there’s a lift to be gained from ticking several items off the list before the day has really got going. You’re more likely to do some of the other tasks if you feel you’ve already accomplished something that day. On a bad day, seeing that you’ve ticked off four things on a list of ten, can sometimes make the difference between going to bed beating yourself up and going to bed feeling you did something that day.

Which brings me to the next list. This is the Ta Dah* list. Instead of making a list of the things you have to do, make one of things you have done. You can do it daily, weekly or whatever. Just as a To Do list accumulates masses and masses of things as you contemplate the enormous mountain of stuff you feel you have to do (believe me, it becomes a snowball rolling down a hill, the way it just gets bigger and bigger), so to does the Ta Dah* list. If you find yourself feeling despondent about how useless you are (I frequently feel this way) a Ta Dah* list soon puts it into perspective. A couple of years ago, I started making a monthly spreadsheet where I filled in each day how far I’d walked, how many minutes at the gym doing which exercise, if I’d done any writing, or other creative activity. It gave me a bit of a shock after a few months, because even when I thought I was doing nothing, it turns out I was doing rather a lot, and far more than I gave myself credit for.

I’m not going to do Hit Lists…we’d be here all day.

*Ta Dah is meant to be said with a flourish and an exclamation mark and that gesture with the hands that goes with magicians extracting weary tame rabbits from top hats.

K is for Kindness

K is for Kindness

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

The saying is attributed to Plato but almost certainly comes from much later in time ( http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/29/be-kind/ ) Nevertheless, whenever it was coined and whoever coined it doesn’t matter.

The Dalai Lama’s equally pithy quote, Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/dalailama378036.html takes us further.

Kindness is not mushiness, a sentimental thing, though some see it as weakness. To be kind is to be mindful that everyone is liable to be struggling even when we cannot see the evidence of it.

Random acts of senseless kindness are often ways of being kind to strangers and letting the winds of fate decide where the benefits may fall.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_act_of_kindness

Though one should beware of the temptation to play God in these circumstances, or of taking control of someone else’s life by these acts, or even of the whole thing backfiring because of thoughtlessness and a lack of planning (see the negative effects in the wiki article).

Just.. be kind.

F is for Failure

F is for Failure

I considered a much stronger F word for this post but thought better of it as I am tired of people pontificating about the use of strong language. I don’t like being on the receiving end of a ticking off, especially when I disagree fundamentally with the stance the other person is taking; it’s a waste of energy getting that angry about something I cannot change.

For the record, despite these daily posts following (how original…) an alphabetical order, I am very much not doing any challenge, I am not linked up, affiliated, attached or otherwise part of anything that IS doing such a challenge. I’m not even sure that writing a daily blog post for 26 days can be considered a challenge and I don’t want a nice little sticker for my blog calling myself a “survivor” of such an enterprise. So apologies to anyone who thought I was unaware of such things and needed instructions on how to do it properly, induction into the rules and regulations of taking part and of the benefits of using certain tags and of the greater numbers of visitors I’d enjoy if I did. After a significant time floating around the blog-o-sphere, I have seen dozens of similar initiatives come and go; the so-called blog awards that were no more than a combo of popularity contest and chain letter seem to have died a death, thankfully.

I have always failed at being clubby. Like Groucho Marx, I’m suspicious of any club that would have me as a member. I don’t understand the need for many of the things that go around the world of blogging. When I first began blogging in 2009, there were (and probably still are) lots of communities of bloggers who obsessively followed each others’ blogs, collected comments like stamps, and for whom reciprocity was an iron-clad rule. The obligation that if someone has liked or subscribed to your blog, or commented, you must reciprocate in all particulars has always bothered me. If I like a blog, I like it. End of. I don’t expect the blogger to come and like mine, add it to their blog roll, subscribe to each post or anything else just because I did it for theirs. I did it because I wanted to. Not for anything else.

Some years ago I briefly belonged to a group on FB, which had the stated aim of authors helping each other. It was (I soon learned) rigid in its requirements, Pharisaical even. You were obliged to share blogs and tweets of books, regardless of whether you had read them, let alone liked them, if you wanted the same done for your work. There are not hours enough in the day to read even the samples of the numbers of books produced by the members of that group; some put out new books every few months. As for reviewing…well, don’t even go there. I started to feel that I was something that crawled out of the oceans and these shining gods were more than human; not only could they write a book every month or two, they could read dozens and review them, and tweet them and …well, they had feet of clay. Because they didn’t do all that, obviously. I left. I flounced, actually, with a somewhat self-righteous farewell note that I don’t regret. I felt (and feel) that to have got any benefit out of being a part of it I would have been selling my soul in small slices, with a side order of integrity.

The real reason I began doing these daily posts was because I need to be able to say to my soul, you tried; you tried the helpfully offered suggestion of “writing prompts to cure blocks”, you tried free-writing to cure being blocked. I can write almost without thinking about anything; these posts are not deep or meaningful or even very demanding to compose. They’re the bread-and-butter of being a writer, nothing more. Following an email from a stranger who (I believe was well-meaning) explained that I was doing it wrong, I thought, frell it all, what is the point of this? I considered abandoning it, feeling shamed by the fact that I was doing it all wrong in the eyes of the clubbable bloggers.

But here I am, up to F, a day ahead of the official schedule, make of that what you will. I am a failure in so many ways, but perhaps I’ll stick with the term free spirit, instead.

C is for Cat

C is for Cat

C is for Cat

There is a theory that people are either dog people or cat people. Personally, I think this is mostly rubbish. I’ve lived with many animals, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, snails (yes, really) and would love a small menagerie of my own. Each animal is an individual and therefore expresses that. We’ve had more cats than dogs, admittedly. Our last dog often behaved in a more cat-like way, but that was because from puppy-hood she was brought up by several cats.

Cats were once worshipped as divine (ancient Egypt, obviously) and I suspect they have never quite forgotten this. People who don’t much like cats often say they are merely mercenary, and regard us as food providers at best but recent research suggests otherwise (http://time.com/4714823/cats-very-social-study/) and I’d agree.

The purr of a cat is a very soothing thing, but it’s also thought to be healing. http://www.dailyinfographic.com/the-healing-power-of-cat-purrs-infographic Our newest cat has the loudest purr I have ever heard; she sounds like a distant chain saw.

Other research has concluded that having a pet enhances life, and may even extend it; pet owners apparently live longer than non-pet owners of the same socio-economic group. Cats are a relatively easy pet to share a home with; they don’t require taking out for walks, though some take to leads well. Our late Watson used to go for walks with us, (sans lead) and used to walk as far as the primary school my daughter attended, wait at the school gates and then walk back with me.

One other snippet: cat actually means dog. The word catulus in Latin means little dog or puppy (according to QI anyway) http://old.qi.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=16080&view=next&sid=21e3c60a74f8d4d0dcbb06a4f7d60500