Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

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They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

I look out of the window to see that a black dress or long shirt has been laid out on the lawn, much in the manner of old, where laundry was dried on grass for the bleaching and cleansing effects of sunshine and grass on cloth. I think, the day is drawing to a close so I better bring it in before it becomes damp with the falling dew. As I look I see birds landing; two black vultures and two ravens. They approach the garment, and after looking at it for a moment, they ceremonially start to fold it up, and I see that there is something lying inside the fabric. It looks like a white dog or pig, but I cannot see its head or feet to be sure; it may be a lamb. The birds wrap it as if they are putting it into a shroud for burial, much as I have done with beloved pets on their deaths, wrapping them in their blanket or a towel.”

This was my dream a few nights ago, and I have been haunted by it ever since. While I was away in Austria, I saw my first ever raven in the wild, flying across the valley, kronk kronk kronking as it flew. The village where I was staying has a raven in its coat of arms, a raven holding a diamond ring, from a folk tale or legend of the area, and the book I was reading while away, Marie-Louise Von Franz’s Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, mentioned ravens several times. Both raven and vulture are associated with the Shadow, and with death, rebirth and other themes. But even knowing this, I am baffled by this dream and deeply disturbed to the point that I am scared.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Life as a journey is a bit of a cliché, really. I said once, “If life is a journey, then any short-cut is a death trap,” and I stand by it. My own journey has been an odd one. A long time ago, I looked at the metaphysical map and I saw that at the margins, around the edges, away from the established paths and well-known routes, there were areas marked “Here be dragons,” and I thought, I’d like see dragons. Ever since then, I’ve made forays into those areas of the maps that the map-makers couldn’t fill in properly because too few people had been out and explored them and come back with useful information. Most came back babbling about strange things they didn’t quite have the language for, and travellers’ tales that defy belief and rational understanding.

About ten years ago, I really set off in earnest, leaving behind any adherence to defined paths. You cannot step off a path without stepping off it, if you know what I mean. Real adventures do not come with a guarantee of ever coming home, or of safety or security. It’s hard to explain why I did it; I imagine that you’ll either understand or you won’t. I could talk about calling, vocation, daemon, destiny until the cows come home. Initially there were constant signs and hints and hunches and intuitions. I’ve long had an affinity for the phenomenon known as synchronicity. A week or so ago I finished a book on it, which irritated me. Synchronicity by Chris Mackie was heavily hyped as being a guide to synchronous living, but the author had become bogged down by a fascination with the phenomenon itself (despite being warned in no uncertain terms in a synchronous meeting with someone who really understood the matter) and lost his grip on the purpose of synchronicity for him. It’s absurdly easy to become fixated on the method of delivery rather than on the message itself, because it’s one of the things that can be mind-blowing when you first encounter it. There’s a saying that when a wise man points at the moon, a fool looks at the finger.

As my exploration took me further and further from known landmarks, I have been obliged to rely on my own inner compass. I have a decent sense of direction, not infallible, but solid enough for most things. But like any explorer, you need to get your bearings, take soundings and check from time to time that you’re not going the wrong way. Once you leave the beaten path, finding signposts is unlikely. You have to start relying on other senses, and other knowings. Sometimes you see traces of someone who’s gone ahead of you, a bent twig, Indian-fashion, a note left in a tree-hollow, cairns of stones carried up mountains by other pilgrims who’ve gone this way. On occasion, you see the bones of those who have died en route.

The further you go, the fewer the signs are until you can find, as I did, you are in a wilderness, a barren, mountainous land and there is no evidence that anyone else has ever come this way. There’s no obvious way to proceed, and when you stop to rest, you lose all sense of direction.

This is what happened to me. It began about five years ago, this nagging sense of unease and of disquiet. The questions began, and so did the doubts and then the fears. It’s reached desperation point, painful and unpleasant. What if I’ve gone the wrong way? What if all I have been exploring is a waste of time and energy? What if all my cherished beliefs and principles are all moonshine and bullshit? Should I go back? Should I give up and die, here, amid the empty lands, the wastelands?

Round and round the questions fly, never letting up, never letting me just move on. I read last year of Jung’s descent into his own personal hell, of a breakdown that became his breakthrough, and his insight that he had to do something and it didn’t matter what. His explorations using active imaginations started from mundane things, and no matter how humble the starting point, each led him deeper into the matters of true importance. I did a fair bit of active imagination work last year and yet, I have still found myself asking, am I doing the right thing, am I going the right way?

The problem is there is no one to ask, who is able to give me a clear subjective answer from a point of understanding, of having been to the same places I’ve been. Jung recommended working closely with someone who has been through the same sort of journey, and while I have good friends in the same line of exploration, they’re all folks who live half a world away, and whose kindness I could not presume upon, except as an occasional event.

So I am alone in the wasteland, unable to proceed because of fear that I am going the wrong way (which then brings with it the whole host of agonising extras, like has my entire life been a waste, and other such delights). I’ve recorded and worked with dreams, journaled, painted, drawn, meditated, played, sat in nature, done everything from the mundane to the ridiculous and yet, I am so bogged down by doubts and fears that I cannot move.

Then yesterday I went somewhere. It’s a place I’ve never been to, despite growing up not far away, and driving through the dank winter fields of Cambridgeshire, with the vast skies and the tiny winding roads hemmed in by hedges, past tiny stone built churches that date back eight hundred years and more, amid villages that have dwindled to almost nothing.

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There was a pair of buzzards calling when we got out of the car, and bird song that held the first notes of spring, though it was still early January. The ground was wet as an old bath sponge, rich with moss and algae, and the unprepossessing facade of the church did not hold much promise.

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Inside, it felt more like a college chapel, with pews face to face rather than facing the altar. I walked round, feeling the stillness, the moment of time that seems held like a drop of amber that holds millennia within its shining core. I took photos, I read the embroidered banners. There is a small room just off the sanctuary, a vestry originally but now a sort of inner room. I went in and looked up in shock at the window. Vivid stained glass, quite old, but simple and striking. One side held a quartered circle, a cross made of ears of wheat, in coloured glass; the other side, in another roundel of glass, some words:

It is the right, good old way you are in. Keep in it.”

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

Wild Imaginings

Wild Imaginings

The other night, I had trouble getting to sleep. This isn’t unusual. It’s horribly common for me to lie awake, despite being exhausted, and yet unable to drop off into a refreshing slumber. In this case, it was a strange mood of unaccustomed but also unspecific optimism.

I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist; I’d term myself a realist with a dash of hope. I don’t automatically expect either a good or a bad outcome for events; however I am good at seeing where things are going, which makes me a terrible person to watch a film with. (NB, with friends and family I now tend to watch complete with metaphorical duct tape over my big mouth)

I’ve spent the last years as a self published author observing and monitoring trends, tropes and movements and given the freedom inherent in self publishing, it’s all the more remarkable how rapidly the whole thing has become tied up with mimicking the mainstream in every particular. It’s seeped into my unconscious and conscious mind and it’s filled me with nothing but dread and sadness. There are tens of thousands of blogs devoted to how we must all pull up our big girl (or boy) panties, embrace the business model that sees out books as products to be hawked, and chase the dream of being able to live off our writing. It’s usually followed by masses of advice, of business plans and links to sites that will advertise your books for a small (or huge fee).

Well, the other night, my soul (which is a better judge of these things than my mind) took a big sideways step and said “Bubbles to all that!” Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing remotely wrong with wanting to achieve financial success from writing. What bothers me is the actual costs of doing so. I’m not talking about fees for services (whether advertising, formatting, or any one of the Boomtown businesses that have sprung up to aid authors) but the esoteric costs.

Yeah, I’m going to get airy-fairy, hippy-dippy on you. What do you expect from a writer like me?

I’ll tell you what the pursuit of financial success has cost me. My joy in writing, for a start. My innate belief in the power of imagination. My hope that people are seeking to connect with their own souls. Yeah, I know. None of these things pay the bills and we all have bills. But the odds are so far against any individual writer that it’s occurred to me that the various things we all do to try and bend those odds in our own favour are a total waste of energy. You actually have more chance of winning the Lottery than of somehow making it as a big time successful writer.

On Boxing Day I visited my parents. Dad and I were talking as we did the lunch and we got onto talking about science fiction, his favourite genre (I bought him Lifeform Three by Roz Morris for Christmas) and one of the things we discussed was how science fiction has been one of the driving forces of science. “If no one imagines it, no one can seek to discover or create it,” he said. I was struck by this. Everything that we have built or discovered started first in the mind, as a wild imagining. The kind of thing people think, “How absurd. That’s not even possible,” but some people think, “I wonder if I can make it possible.”

All movements, all revolutions, start the same way, with a huge What if, and then people hold that shining vision of what might be, and work towards making it what is. This is what kept me from sleeping the other night, this vague but shining vision of something entirely different from what I’ve been chasing before. It’s too easy to get repeatedly bogged down with the question of how do I sell more books; I’ve been foundering in that quicksand for long enough. There’s probably NOTHING I can do to create greater sales. I know that my work appeals to a very select bunch of people and because Philippa Rees commented about imagining an audience, I’ve begun to think about that audience.

DSCI0342This is where my Wild Imaginings begin.

The magic ink is out-of-stock

 

Sometimes our dreams offer a lot more than mere rehashing of a day’s events, and give us valuable clues to what is going on deep in our unconscious. The following dream may well be of interest:

I dreamed I had gone to an expensive and swish sort of hotel for some sort of conference. One of the first things I managed to do was lose the key to my room; one of those, “I’m sure I put it in my handbag” moments of frantic rummaging around, until it seemed unimportant so I went through to the main conference room. It was like the vast dining rooms you see in Oxford and Cambridge colleges and it was filled with tables laid out with all sorts of wares for writing, from marvellous machines, exquisite journals and notebooks, pens of a thousand thousand kinds from the usual Bic biros to fabulously expensive Mont Blancs, and quills and dipping pens of many types. I knew I had come to find the most exclusive inks in the world, also the most expensive, but as I searched table after table, it became clear I was too late and they’d sold out. I found a sheet of creamy white paper, the kind that is made by pulping cloth, and looks rather like parchment, and a quill pen, and started trying to write, but no matter how many times I dipped my pen in the ink, the page remained resolutely blank because the ink was not the magic ink I’d come to find.

Regular readers of this blog will know (and perhaps share) my obsession and love for stationery, and may well be familiar with my long struggle to overcome something that is generally referred to as Writer’s Block (but before anyone starts kindly suggesting exercises or websites or, God forbid, apps, the term is used very loosely and it’s something deeper and darker than what the term is usually applied to).

The dream speaks of my fear that I have somehow arrived too late at the table, despite the fact that as I went round table after table looking for the ink, I was almost the only person present. In terms of the writing/publishing industry, I wasn’t first at the feast but I jumped in reasonably early in the day, with the first (paperback only) edition of Strangers and Pilgrims being published early in 2010, and the first (and flawed) Kindle edition about a year or so later. But the magic of those early days is gone, heaven only knows where, if it ever truly existed at all. With it has gone my confidence of creating anything worthy of the fine paper I tried to write upon in my dream.

Anyway, I’m going to keep on trying. Confidence is a thing easy enough to fake; I’ve been doing it my entire life. I’ve always said that in certain ways the I that is conscious is not the writer of the stories, but the unconscious I is the real creatrix. When I draw upon the deep, dark, hidden levels, that’s when the stories start to flow, dipping into my own veins to use the inner ink.

Starting with full storehouses ~ harvest and new year blessings

Starting with full storehouses ~ harvest and new year blessings

If I said to you today Happy New Year, you’d think me mad, perhaps. But at rise of the new moon today, a new year begins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosh_Hashanah and I can’t help thinking that starting a new year at harvest time with full storehouses makes much better sense that doing as our calender does, and starting it in the bleakest of deep mid winter when the worst of the weather is still to come and the joys of Christmas are past and forgotten as you pack away the tinsel, and in the not-too-distant-past people would worry whether the stores would last them out till the following year. Starting at harvest time means starting with optimism and a sense of achievement.

Autumn is a beautiful season in this country, filled with colour and changing scenes as the various harvests are brought home. Wheat and barley are gathered in, and the many other crops are either in or on their way. Wild harvests of nuts and berries will go in as the days shorten, and the apples on our trees are ripe and ready to bring in. There aren’t as many this year as the trees got a much-needed pruning and a lot of manure was spread about their roots. But I’m thinking now of other sorts of harvest, the kind you don’t stack in stooks or boil to make jam.

I have terrible tendency to think little of my achievements. I often forget that with less-than-perfect health, I’ve got a lot done in the nine months that have already gone by of this year. There’s not a lot to show for it, though, because most is unfinished works-in-progress. I’ve done around 30k words since April, long-hand, of a sequel to Square Peg, and I’ve added lots of words to other books. I’ve written some poetry, and I’ve done a LOT of journal work. I’ve also been working with dreams, so my dream journal and my active imagination journal have been busy. I’ve done a fair bit of painting for my Jungian exploration. I’ve put out the new book. And so it goes on. I must fight with myself to accept these things as powerful, valuable matter to go into my personal metaphysical harvest, as achievements to build upon during the coming winter, the coming year and onwards. Just as my apple trees need feeding and pruning, so too does my inner life if it is to see continuing harvests in the future.

My blessings to you on this special day.

apples and chalice

apples and chalice

The Grand Dame’s Legacy

The Grand Dame’s Legacy

On the relatively rare times when I sleep long enough to dream and to remember it, I have been making a point of recording the dreams and later working with the content of the dream using a form of Active Imagination. I’m sharing this dream because there are elements that baffle me and also because it is clearly an Archetype Dream; those I believe do not belong solely to myself alone.

I have inherited the property of an old lady who has passed away; I do not know her name or who she was but I am going through her belongings. There are many very fine blouses in a wardrobe; each is hand made, hand tailored and of fine material like silks and satins, embroidered and hand stitched with seed pearls etc. When I look at them, I see they are made for a slender, well shaped lady and though I would like to wear them, I would destroy them by the wearing. Each has a matching scarf that hangs with it. They are shot through with silver and gold threads like the blouses. I also feel they are too good for me. My impression is that the woman who owned them was what I would call a Grande Dame, a great lady, and I am just a peasant by comparison. I do not know why she has left her things to me, or who she was, or what to do with it all.

I find also a large clear quartz crystal, very fine, which has one of the best phantoms within it that I have ever seen. I want to hide the crystal, protect it, so I start wrapping it in a purple scarf. But the crystal seems to be getting bigger, stretching like a magician’s wand, and the scarf does not cover it, just wrapping like a ribbon decorating it. I feel anxious and want to put the crystal wand away, hide it back in the wardrobe where I found it. It is by now very large and I don’t think it will fit. Then it seems to crack, so it is possible to fold it up; the crack seems to be a sort of hinge.

The dream moves on; we are at sea and the boat is in trouble and a life boat has been sent. The sea is wild, with huge waves but as I travel on a smaller boat like a surf board or torpedo, I feel no fear even though I am deluged and thrown around.

Now, the lady herself never appears; I see only her clothes, her wardrobe and the crystal. Yet from those I have gained an impression of a woman of great taste, ability and poise as well as wisdom. What bothers me is that I know she is dead. Do archetypes die? I don’t know. If they do, I have been made inheritor. I am unfit for it. I am too bulky for her delicate, finely made clothes, though I do admire them very much. The style of the garments is not of this time but rather of a mixture of elegance from much earlier eras. Some seem to date from Regency fashions while some are Victorian and some are the kind worn in the 1920’s. Each is unique and has a quirky style that appeals to me; some are decidedly sexy and risqué though in excellent and understated taste. But nonetheless I recoil, feeling they are all too good for me.

The same goes for the crystal. It’s one of the finest specimens I have ever encountered, yet I am not able to simply accept it and keep it and use it. I feel compelled to hide it, to secrete it away somewhere out of sight. The growth of the crystal bamboozles my hopes of concealment; it becomes vast, long and impossible to hide.

I feel, as I try to analyse the content of the dream, abandoned. The great lady is gone, and I cannot contact her. I have been left with things I cannot use because I do not know how to use them or what they are for. I feel unworthy and really quite useless.

Contrast this with the final part of the dream, where though the sea is huge and threatening and I am leaving a sinking ship to be rescued by a lifeboat, I am confident of what I am doing, that the raging of wind and wave cannot affect me. I have the ultimate sea-legs and ride the smaller boat that shuttles us across, as if I were born to it. Though the boat pitches and tosses, and we are engulfed in waves like mountains of water, I remain unshakeable as if I were the carving on the prow of an old three master.

So, who is the Grande Dame, and what has she left to me?