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

A is for Amber

A is for Amber

In my life, I’ve had a number of ongoing obsessions. One of those has been with rocks, gemstones and crystals. I began collecting when I was at school, finding a few tumble-stones of tiger’s eye, and then when I went to Germany on a school exchange, we went to the Natural History museum in Frankfurt and that was when it really began. The museum had a collection of rocks and crystals like nothing I’d ever imagined; a quartz boulder the size of a small car, things that sparkled and glowed and called to me. I bought a rock crystal pendant in the gift shop that I still wear.

But the gemstone that I wear most is amber. Amber is not technically a rock; it’s the petrified remains of tree sap. It’s something that is truly a delight to wear because it is light and it is warm and living to the touch. There’s a lot of mythos about amber; the price sky-rocketed in the aftermath of the first Jurassic park films too, making it suddenly much more expensive than it was, and for a while beyond my reach. My first amber beads came as a result of a small sum of money that came to me with only the proviso to buy myself something lasting and just for me. In my late teens, three close friends of the same age died suddenly in the space of six months and my father, like many parents from the school, took out a sort of life insurance investment policy for me that matured when I was 27 (and hadn’t died!). The money that it made was given to me, and I bought an amber necklace with some of it. The beads mean a lot to me; they remind me of my friends who never made it beyond sixth form and they remind me that I lived.

(The following link is to an article that relates to amber, that I wrote about three years back. Do go and have a read)

https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/tales-of-amber/ 

On this day in 2009…

…I posted my very first blog post.

I’d had the idea in mind for the blog title itself before I even knew blogs existed, but Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking took a while to come into being. I joined a co-operative blog, Cafe Crem, first, and after a month, I was ready to go it alone.

When I hit publish for this post, my stats will tell me I have done 970 posts in the eight years since I began.  There have been almost a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of comments, likes, shares. It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s where I began to reach out and meet people who (I hate the term) are my tribe. I’ve met a few wolves in sheep’s clothing too, got burned, got hurt. I hope I have touched lives for the better. There’s even a little book, intended as a part of a series using the essays in this blog collected thematically. The first book is on depression. There will be more (one day). There’s posts about my books, stories, poems, rants, paens, authors I love. So much here.

So, wish Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking a happy 8th birthday. Having seen many blogs begin, flounder, die, and disappear, I know that keeping going is quite an achievement and one I ought to be rightly proud about. Blogging is not longer what it was, as Facebook has taken the place for many, as a forum for sharing, but I will persist and hopefully, you will too.

Bless you all (in the true sense, rather than the wonderful passive-aggressive semi-curse of the American south) and thank you.

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

If you have ever had guinea pigs, you’ll surely have encountered rumble-strutting. It’s a behaviour cavies have for when they are annoyed, put out, cross, pissed off or just plain angry. Rumble-strutting consists of a rumbling burbling noise, quite loud, followed by the animal stalking off, stiff-legged and furious.

I’ve been doing it rather a lot myself lately.

There are so many things I’m angry, pissed off, furious and annoyed about that I can’t do anything about and a good old rumble-strut is the only thing that stops me exploding into a million sharp fragments like a sheet of ice being dropped from a great height.

You’d have to have been living in a cave not to have noticed the UK referendum and the continuing fall-out from what I consider to have been an ill-advised vote to leave the EU. I have seen many instances already of how this vote (and we haven’t left yet) has already impacted on life here. I work in the travel industry; the complications would have turned my hair grey if it wasn’t so already. It’s my opinion that the vote is a disaster, yet I (and many, many thousands who voted Remain) have been dubbed Remoaners, told to shut up, put up, stop being a sore loser….

RUMBLE-STRUT

More recently, the US elections. I’m almost beyond words on that one. I’m not going to call names or anything…but

RUMBLE-STRUT

NHS cuts. School budgets cut.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Endless, awful wars, millions of people displaced, disparaged, dismayed, dispossessed.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Dreadful right-wing rags purporting to be newspapers, so filled with vitriol they’re not even fit to wipe your bum with in case the acid burns your tender nether regions.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Pain. My pain, physical and mental, and no end in sight. No plan that works to ease it.

RUMBLE-STRUT

The lost, the invisible people, those no one listens to.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Rich, privileged politicians pontificating about how we must all tighten our belts while they guzzle vintage champagne and gobble caviar.

RUMBLE-STRUT

There’s a lot I’m angry about and I’m angrier yet because I’m pretty much helpless against almost all of it. I’ve signed petitions, I’ve donated to causes, I’ve raised my voice where I can, and I’m tired because it feels like that ruddy big rock that poor sod in Greek myth kept pushing up hill only to have it come crashing down over him for all eternity.

RUMBLE-STRUT

But in the end, there is only one thing I can do (apart from RUMBLE-STRUTTING.)

and that’s this:

dsci0046

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she could not have predicted how popular the book would still be two hundred years later, or that she was quite wrong about Emma herself being unlikeable. Critics of the character complain of her meddling and her lack of true self awareness, but the reality beyond this is that in Emma, Austen created a female character that many of her readers envied. Wealthy, attractive, and with sufficient leisure to pursue her own interests, Emma was a woman of substance and relative independence. I say relative, because at that time, truly independent women in Georgian/Regency Britain were few, far between and entirely demonised. Emma was a safe compromise in many respects; Lady Susan, in the incomplete novel of the same name, was much more of the kick-ass who would suit more modern tastes, and was considered entirely a rotter.

Since the 1970s, there have been great strides made for equality, yet in the last few years, I’ve seen indications of backwards movement. In the USA, a worrying number of states have legislated in ways that affect women: some have now not only made abortion illegal, but have given parental rights to men whose victims of rape have carried their babies to term. Birth control, miscarriage, abortion, all seem subject to legislation that very much reduces women to incubator status. Leaving aside employment issues, it feels as if much of the hard work of feminists for the last century is being eroded at such a fast rate.

In literature and in film, the need for strong role models for young women and girls, could not be stronger, yet we get Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the original books, surely neither of these is remotely the kind of role model I’d want for a daughter of mine? Thank goodness for Hermione Grainger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Black Widow, and a host of other kick-ass women who didn’t wait for anyone else to save them!

There’s a whole other post involved in analysing those famous strong female characters, not least discussing why it is that they’re all pretty women and those who don’t fall into that category are disparaged for it, like Brienne of Tarth   (who is described as being pig-like.) But what is also interesting is the reactions of others TO strong female characters; it’s not uncommon for readers to intensely dislike such a female (as Austen expected people to loathe Emma) because the character somehow flies in the face of what is expected of a woman in their society.

Chloe from Square Peg (and to a smaller extent, Isobel from Fairies) has divided readers. The majority see her as fiery, take-no-nonsense (I’d use kick-ass for the third time this post) and strong. But on occasions a number of people have said they don’t like her; they see her bluntness as rudeness. Women of my generation in particular have been brought up to somehow sugar-coat things, to be polite when rage is the only sane reaction, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Chloe’s grandmother (whom I hope to write more about in the sequel, provisionally entitled Rough Edges) grew up in harder times, lived through war and loss and being a single parent when that marked her as a fallen woman; her upbringing (plus some probable Asberger’s) meant Chloe doesn’t mince her words. But put Chloe’s words and actions into the mouth and hands of a man, and you get a very different feeling. It comes down to this: people often see a strong female character as one who highlights and calls attention to the basic inequality that underpins much of our so-called modern society. If a man can say or do it, people still have a problem with a woman saying or doing the same thing.

Joss Whedon, creator of many famous strong female characters, was asked why he still writes strong female characters. His answer? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

http://genius.com/Joss-whedon-on-strong-women-characters-annotated 

( Square Peg is on a Countdown offer this week; for three days it will be just 99p, then for another three £1.99)

End of Year Report 2014

End of Year Report 2014

It’s been a year of huge contrasts, has 2014. As I come to the last few days of it, I look back and think, actually, a good year overall. I’ll have a brief run through the various high and low lights of it, but if you’ve been following this blog, I’d like to say simply a big thank you: for all the support, comments, shares and generally for being there.

Health: I began the year with hyperparathyroidism, which was rapidly worsening. Caused by a tumour that had turned one of my four parathyroid glands into a monster I called Dexter, the illness affected every aspect of my health from mental health to virtually every area of physical health. Over-active kidneys meant frequent(sometimes half hourly) loo trips were needed and I was constantly thirsty; the danger of kidney stones loomed as a constant. Brain fog, memory blocks and a general malaise meant I could often start a sentence but sometimes (often) got to the end without remembering what I was saying. For a writer this is unbelievably upsetting; to write anything was exhausting in the extreme. I had pain in my bones (caused in theory by tiny bleeds in the bone as calcium leached out; I was lucky to have very dense bones as the damage was minimal when I had a bone scan) that was like the pain you get when you whack your elbow. By February I was using slow release patches of opiates just to get by, knowing that the operation was scheduled for April. The operation was brought forward to the 29th of March, and I asked for photos so I could look at my enemy afterwards. Dexter turned out to be around the size of an olive, a huge change in size as a parathyroid is normally around the size of a grain of rice. Recovery after the operation was slower than I liked as I got a kidney infection. My scar still hurts, but it does look impressive, around three or four inches.

Nine months after the operation, I am forced to accept that my Joint Hypermobility Syndrome is going to be very hard to live with. Dexter had also caused muscle loss, and that has had consequences for my JHS. I’ve had a year of physio and of OT, which have both helped, and I use a local gym to try and build muscle and fitness, but the muscle pain, fatigue and general weakness are debilitating and demoralising. There has been some spinal damage from the JHS, nothing serious as such, but two areas I need to be careful about protecting. So, despite not enjoying gym work, I go regularly to make sure my core muscles are worked on. I have around 20 minutes of exercises from the physio to do daily as a base-line workout.

That said, I’ve had a year of relatively good mood. Dexter did cause depression, and after he was excised, I think mood generally improved. I’ve had sufficient crises though during the year to know that an illness persists, despite my best efforts, and that I will need to do more work (probably forever). On the advice of my lovely physiotherapist Helena, I contacted the local Well-being services but have been very dismayed by their lack of professionalism, compassion and common sense. I’d been led to believe that it might have been possible to access some level of support via either phone or email, but the process proved to be beyond complex and obfuscated and in the end, downright impossible. I bought myself a book on CBT and having read it (snarling slightly all the way) have concluded that the essence of the thought behind it is anathema to me. Long story, which I may elaborate on some time. There may be techniques that could be of use, but the overall theory is something I cannot accept.

Travel: thankfully, quite little this year. I did a two day Paris trip in March, about a fortnight before my operation. It was utterly gruelling, but due to the opiate patches, a lovely group and the fact that Paris that weekend had worse pollution that Beijing, I coped as no-one was rushing anywhere and frequent rest stops were needed for all of us. I spent much of the following week recovering. I had a trip to Bologne in June, which went very well, and it revealed the extent to which Dexter had wrecked my command of language. My French had been terribly halting for some years, and until I’d got the diagnosis I’d put this down to stress etc. That trip was fabulous because my French came flooding back and so too did my confidence; I felt so much more able to talk. Next year I have a number of trips already booked in, including Austria in February; I’m working to get my German a bit better before then.

Writing and Publishing: This year I managed to get some of my projects underway. I got The Bet out in paperback, published in both paperback and Kindle a little collection of poems called Accidental Emeralds. Emeralds made it to the number one spot in women’s poetry, something that amused me massively. My old friend the Mad Priest keeps telling me to give up the day job (novels) and concentrate on the poetry, but alas, poetry does not sell and nice as it was to get to number one, it didn’t take many sales to get there! In May I published Square Peg, in Kindle only so far. I have done a paperback but it’s not on sale yet as it needs some adjusting. It’s done quite well, has garnered 8 reviews (would love more) and I am making some notes for a possible further book focused on the main character Chloe. Away With The Fairies made it to number one in two categories this year: metaphysical literary fiction and metaphysical and visionary fiction. This was much more of a feat and I was very proud about this. Overall, sales have slumped dramatically, not just for me but for many authors and unlike others who are seeing this as a sign of the apocalypse, I think it’s simply the effect of a saturation of the market and a corresponding dip in individual market share. The sheer number of books out there makes it harder to find any level of visibility. It does depress me, though, so every time a new review pops up for any book, it gives me a lift as it means someone I don’t know found my books and liked them. I have been low enough to consider packing it in, pulling all my books and walking away. There are a few things that stop me: the fact that I do have loyal readers is a big one, but also, what else would I, could I do?

I also published The Hedgeway, a short novella, which was published for Hallowe’en, and which did nicely. Other books sell in fits and starts. My first novel to be published, Strangers and Pilgrims, still sells, but in lower numbers than before. I’d love to see the number of reviews increase; it’s stalled at 35, nearly all of them five or four star. I am making notes and writing scenes for a possible sequel for that too.

The Bet gathered some astounding reviews this year, something else that has given me a reason to carry on; to see that people got the book to the extent they did gave me hope. The only negative review it has so far gathered is actually quite funny. I have two sequels already written, the first needing a good cover and a polish, the second needing to have some level of communication with someone who knows a thing or two about how UK court cases are run (if you are such a person or know one, please get in touch).

In terms of new writing, obviously it’s been limited because of my illness. Dexter meant I was really struggling because my brain no longer had the facilities needed to write longer fiction. The Hedgeway was only 17k words long, and that was a struggle. My mind is clearing still, and I have been plugging away at a novel I began almost two years ago. It’s at around 50k words and I did hope to finish it this year but I’ve not managed that. I’m having to let myself work at whatever pace I can. The long term project begun as Lost, a serial, goes on when the right mood arrives, and is around 30k words long. Another stalled project is on my hard drive, from a good few years ago, before Dexter got his claws into me. As I said earlier, I have begun writing bits and pieces for the sequel to Strangers and Pilgrims, but that could be a while as I am finding it a slow process to let my writing return. There’s some ideas and notes for another book featuring Chloe and Isobel, but nothing more than rough writing in my free-writing notebooks.

I began doing some free-writing in September, the idea being to take any sense of pressure off myself. I can write whatever comes, whether scenes from stories yet to unfold, poetry, ranting, just ideas or phrases. It’s a good way to get a few things down to play with. I’ve always had this underlying belief that once I begin something “properly” it’s hard to change it, often impossible, so this makes any new project much harder because of the pressure to get it perfect first time. A free-writing draft notebook is proving very useful in letting ideas out without them getting set in stone. I’ve got a lot of Moleskine notebooks in readiness for this becoming more a part of my daily life.

Next year: well, I don’t like making resolutions. Book-wise, I have a second and longer collection of poetry being readied. A Box of Darkness will have 66 poems in. I’m still trying to find an easy way to construct an interactive table of contents for Kindle, which is slowing a lot down. I have also a collection of modern fables for grown-ups, provisionally entitled Méchant Loup ~ fables for grown-ups, that needs a cover and a polish. I’ve also put together a collection of essays from this blog, on depression, which needs a title (I have been playing with a few) and a cover. I intend to use some version of the picture I’ve been using here as a banner, and for this book to be part of a series of books of essays from this blog. There’s too many essays here to make a single book, and it’s got so large that any reader won’t easily find what they might need. So the first of the collections will be coming out as soon as I can manage it. Novel-wise, I want to release the first of the sequels to The Bet as plenty of people have been asking for it. I also want to finish the novel I began two years ago; I’ve got tired of it, really, because it’s been there unfinished too long and in some ways I began it for all the wrong reasons. I want to get myself to a point where I can say, there, it’s done.

Commercial success as a writer seems less and less feasible right now. There are undoubtedly things I could do to improve the odds, but most of them are either against my ethics or unaffordable, and one of the things I have learned this year is that I owe it to myself to be able to keep an easy conscience. There are a good number of authors out there who will use anyone and anything to claw their way to the top. I got blocked by one such on Facebook after I’d remonstrated about being added to groups without my permission; instead of apologising, she first insisted she’d done nothing untoward, and when I argued, I found myself blocked. Several years ago, the same author had used a private conversation between us as a basis for a blog post, so none of this surprised me. Some people have no sense of decency. So in regards to promoting my own writing, there are things I just won’t do. If that means my books languish in the doldrums, then so be it. There are far more important things in life than selling books and having a clear conscience is one of them.

Thanks: to all my readers, for everything from reading and commenting on this blog, buying and reviewing my books, sharing on FB and Twitter, and for being there. At times when I write here, or in my books, I feel very alone, as if I am hurling words into a void, but sometimes a voice comes back and then I know I am on the right path. Bless you all and may 2015 be wonderful for you all.

Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.

Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.

Most days I walk down to the stream in the village a mile or two from where I live. I walk through fields farmed for mainly arable crops, though one large field (I’d estimate around a hundred acres) is currently planted up with roses being grown for the garden centre trade. Each walk is slightly different even though I take the same route; the daily changes and the seasonal changes mean it’s never the same twice. I stand at the bridge and I watch the water; sometimes if I am lucky I see a kingfisher or a dipper. Sometimes, if I go later in the day, I see barn owls and bats.

I live in a country that is deeply beautiful and historic. It’s jam-packed with legends, stories, myths and mystery. There have been humans here since before the last Ice Age and the evidence is everywhere, from white horses (“It’s an ad for mead; they don’t call them the Beaker People for nothing”) carved into hillsides, through medieval churches right the way to tower blocks and factories. Dig anywhere and you will find something. I sometimes field walk, for fun, and in half an hour in an average field, I’ll find a dozen items. Most are trash but some are not.

More than this, I am so immersed in the mythos of the land I live on, I can feel the presence of those who came before me. I feel the tug on the tiny web of threads that connect us. When I see the kingfisher flash upstream in a blaze of brief glory, I think of the Fisher King, of the Grail, of Arthur and his court, of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, trying to scrape at the layers of the years to reveal the origins of the modern Wasteland; I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, battling his own demons of existential angst and trying to make peace with who he was. When I see a gathering of oak and ash and thorn, I think of Kipling, of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, and of all the ancient tree lore of the druids of old.

When I visit a city, I see the clues to the past among buildings and parks; sometimes lost completely but perhaps a ghost of a memory locked into a street name. I look upwards in old churches and cathedrals, seeking the faded residue of once-brilliant paint, and I look in hidden corners for masons’ marks and sneaky graffiti. I look for the past reaching into the present, holding out hands of loving connection.

Amid a wild landscape, I can see the phantoms of what once was there. I lived once in a village where a ruined village, abandoned in the time of the plague, hummocked and hidden, lurked just beyond the bounds of the modern village. I can look at the under-storey in a wood and I can tell you whether it is original ancient oak woodland or whether it’s modern plantation.

Why does any of this matter?

The living land is an ever changing thing, always moving and shifting, but it is the past that gives it permanence. What once was is always there, if only as post-holes and scorched flints. When an artist, a real artist like the old masters, not dilettante dabblers like me, painted, they painted in layers that meant the work in progress looked nothing like what they were painting. Layers of paints, piled one upon the other, produce a depth of colour that is impossible to reproduce with a single layer of what is technically the same colour. There is a richness, a power, that cannot be produced by short cuts.

It’s the same with a land. The older the land, the deeper and richer the history and the surer the foundations. If you try to sweep away the past, whether personal or national, you sweep away what makes it strong.

Oh England, my Lionheart, with your stories and your landscape etched and carved and eroded and forgotten corners, with your heroes and your kings and queens, and the fair folk and the winding roads the Romans hated so much and then fell in with: you are what made me, and I love you.