The Unicorn in the Walled Garden, The Thermal Springs are Frozen

The Unicorn in the Walled Garden

The Thermal Springs are Frozen

I’ve been having some powerful dreams again lately; ones that somehow defy the usual noodling that is the brain doing its filing. In a bid to try and understand them a bit better, I’m writing them here, and hope that the contents might resonate with others too.

First dream begins as a familiar and recurring dream that borders on the nightmare territory. I am trying to cope with an influx of people into my home that I am obliged to allow into the house and I have to offer hospitality. But they will not remain in the designated area of the living room and I begin to feel panic-stricken as the guests take huge liberties by wandering all over my home and into areas that I do not wish them to be in. Constrained by politeness, I urge and entreaty them to go back to the living room and to stay there, saying I will bring refreshments to them. In vain I try to police their incursions, and the final straw is seeing a series of people coming out of my kitchen bearing bowls heaped high with ice cream they have helped themselves to. I am standing in the hallway trying to decide what to do when someone asks me about the area behind me, which contains stairs going up into a tower. “Oh, that’s where we keep the prisoners,” I tell them before finally fleeing. I go outside into the garden to escape, having given up the attempt to protect my space, and I see the garden is an old-fashioned walled garden, somewhat wild and overgrown, with traditional features like an orchard, a kitchen garden and other such things. I feel some relief to be out of the house and away from the melee, but the relief is short-lived when I see that a unicorn is approaching me, head down so that its sharp horn is level with my heart. The initial burst of fear is over with quickly, replaced with a feeling of relief that it will all be over with finally, and I don’t mind dying like this. But as the beast comes closer, I cry out, “You cannot kill me; I am holding a baby. You cannot kill me while I am holding a baby.” I am indeed holding an infant in my arms. The dream shifts and I am inside, having taken the baby upstairs and have laid it at the door of the room where its mother is staying. The baby’s name is Flora and she really needs to go to bed.

For context, I am not “into” unicorns and this is the first time I have ever dreamed of one.

The second dream has a muddled start that I did not remember once I woke but continues thus: I am in a hotel in a very cold place. Outside is thick with snow and ice and I decide to go outside into the garden. There is a large rectangular pool almost completely lost under the ice; it looks like a sort of outside swimming pool. I know that it is fed by a spring but it seems to be completely frozen over. The ice and snow over it is frozen in a kind of wave pattern, as if the water had been rippling when intense cold descended and turned it to ice. Someone seems to tell me that this was a thermal spring and I see that a small area is emitting steam and I see that where the steam is rising is clear of ice. I want to touch the water but am afraid to, because I think it may be boiling hot, and that if I lean out too far I will fall and break the ice and then be trapped under it as it refreezes. It looks as if it has happened before as great chunks of ice are trapped in the mass of snow that has been frozen. The chunks are a beautiful shade of deep emerald and of aquamarine, like huge slabs of gem stones. I want to go round to the other side of the pool to get closer, but there is an ice bridge across and I worry it will break. Someone else crosses it ahead of me, jumping it so they put no weight on it; I take a few steps and feel the ice creak under me. I want to touch the water but I wake before I can.

There are obvious ideas about what messages these dreams hold for me, but I am struggling to understand their full import.

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Psst…wanna escape from the world and into a book?

I’ve not done a Countdown offer for some years; this works by starting low (99p usually) and rising in installments. I’d opted out of the Kindle select programme that allows such promotions (for a lot of good reasons) but have tentatively enrolled Away With The Fairies again just to see what happens. It can also be borrowed if you are with the Kindle Unlimited programme; I get paid by pages read rather than by purchase if the book is borrowed.

So, here it is: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/

From today it’s 99p, and goes to £1.99 in three days, before returning to its original price three days after that.

Needless to say, shares, tweets, Facebook shares and so on would be greatly appreciated, especially if you have read it already and would recommend it to others. It’s got a few new reviews recently but because of the mysterious ways Amazon works, they give greater prominence to new reviews. If you have read it and enjoyed it, more reviews can keep the book fresh and current in the weird algorithms Amazon uses. Thank you to all who have reviewed it; the overall rating is 4.6 which is pretty damn good. It’s been a Kindle bestseller several times, in a number of categories, especially in the metaphysical and visionary category.

Here’s the blurb:

Irrepressible artist Isobel has survived most things. She’s coped with everything from a sequence of miscarriages, her husband’s ordination, the birth of two small and demanding children, and finally the recent death of both her parents in a bizarre suicide pact. She’s managed to bounce back from everything so far. A sequence of domestic disasters finally signals to Isobel that perhaps things aren’t quite as rosy as she’d like. With her half of the inheritance, Isobel buys an isolated holiday cottage where she hopes to be able to catch up with some painting, as well as have the occasional holiday.
The cottage is idyllic, beautiful and inspiring, but odd things keep happening. Doors won’t stay shut, objects go missing and reappear in the wrong places and footsteps are heard when there’s no one there. One of Isobel’s new neighbours suggests that it is the fairies who are responsible, but Isobel is more than a tad sceptical: there’s not a hint of glitter or tinselly wings or magic wands.
Isobel’s inner turmoil begins to spill over into her daily life when she hits a deer while driving back from the cottage. Her family hold crisis talks, deciding that she needs to have time alone in the cottage to get over long repressed grief and to paint it out of her system. As she works at a frenetic pace, the odd happenings begin to increase until even Isobel’s rational, sceptical mind has to sit up and take notice. And that’s when she gets really scared. Up until now, her motto has been that there’s nothing in life that can’t be made better by a cup of tea and some Hob Nobs. This time it’s beginning to look like it’ll take more than even chocolate biscuits to make things better.

(I’m hoping that this offer, going on for a week, may give a boost to this book, help it reach new readers and may also boost the other novels too.)

How To Eat An Elephant, writer-style

How to Eat an Elephant, writer-style

You probably all know the answer to this riddle, don’t you?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

It sounds silly, really. If you are a member of the !San people https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_people, the method for eating an elephant (generally one slain by others) was to get every family you know together and commence an eating marathon (see the film, The Gods Must be Crazy 2 for this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy_II but as I am sure you realise, I’m not talking about a real, literal elephant.

So many things in life feel overwhelming and unachievable, and the classic way to face them is to break the task down into a series of smaller, more achievable stages (bites!), and it’s a good way, as long as you can just keep “eating” away. When I began learning Tai Chi, a little over three years ago, I got very, very frustrated because we’d spend what felt like over half the lesson on warm-up exercises and on Qi Gong exercises (largely Eight Pieces of Brocade), and very little on learning the form, which was what I (and other members) had come to learn. It took more than a year of weekly lessons before I began to cotton on that I was learning Tai Chi; I hadn’t really understood that the form was only one small part of Tai Chi. I’d focused on what I saw as the cool bit, the graceful, disciplined sequence of moves that everyone thinks is Tai Chi; I’d not understood that all the exercises we’d done were to improve our chi, aid our balance and strength and to build us up so we could incorporate it all in the form. (After two years, we lost our regular instructor and have been without a regular teacher ever since; but we’d learned enough to persist, helping each other, and getting the benefit of this martial art. We have a new instructor coming later this year.) Each stage built on the ones previous and slowly, very slowly, I learned and am still learning.

In the list of overwhelming things for me, housework and gardening are close to the top. I have limited energy and I’ve been learning the hard way how to pace myself: do a task but stop before I start to feel tired or things begin to hurt. I used to be a great gardener and it did me good, mentally, physically and spiritually, but my hands and my back (oh, who am I kidding?) EVERY bit of me hurts when I do much in the garden. So I decided that I would aim to do no more than ten minutes at a time; that way, if done every day, that ten minutes adds up over a week to more than an hour. But it’s frustrating; I have to leave tasks unfinished, messy and I don’t like that. If I just finish this bit… usually results in a lot of pain and reluctance to tackle anything again. So I’m setting myself a limit. I’ve recently begun to explore how using the concepts from bullet journaling can help me, rather than make a rod for my own back.

Bullet journaling has become a big thing, with blogs, articles, videos on You Tube, Instagram and so on leaping on the bandwagon. I read a couple of dozen articles and got cross; none of them, despite saying they were going to make it easy, made it easy. There was a lot using bright markers and stickers and so on, and happy little designs that made me cross because I’m not 12 any more and I was never one of the hangers-on for the girls with the nice handwriting*. I don’t have time to plan things out like that and I certainly don’t want to ruin a journal by getting it all wrong **. So I didn’t buy a dedicated bullet journal but a Rhodia Dot Pad with perforated pages so I could work out how I wanted to use it without making a pig’s ear of it. More on that perhaps another time.

* You know the ones; they had lovely neat handwriting that always got gold stars at primary school.

** This is one of the most gutting experiences a stationery lover can have when it comes to journals. I had it happen last year when I bought a lovely Leuchturrm journal to work through the exercises that came with a book on the Enneagram. After a few days I realised I could find nothing of value in the book, tore out the few pages I’d written in the journal, and felt horrible.

But writing is not like eating either a literal or metaphorical elephant. That’s the problem. There’s lots of advice that goes along the lines of WRITE EVERY DAY WITHOUT FAIL OR CTHULU WILL DEVOUR YOU. You are exhorted to write, even if it’s only for ten minutes each day because it will all build up. Except that’s rubbish for many of us. It’s rubbish for me. I do write every day. Every. Single. Day. I have kept a daily journal for some years; I write in it just before I go to bed, recording my impressions of the day, even if it is just about the weather, what I ate or how terrible I feel. It doesn’t amount to anything but a rather banal account of each year that is occasionally useful for checking what I cooked for guests so I don’t repeat myself.

In the past, when I had a work in progress rolling along, I’d work on it every day, almost without fail. But that was when I knew where a story was going, roughly, or sometimes precisely. I can’t do that at the moment, for all sorts of reasons. I have an uneasy feeling about even trying, because it seems as if it’s too likely to take a book in a direction it ought not go in, solely to advance the word count or the flow. It would become a book that is somehow off-kilter. I can’t explain it very well; if you write a book to a well-established template, there’s a clear path forward. But I don’t. I write the strange ideas that bubble up, and the knack is recognising where those strange pieces fit and whether they actually fit in the story I am writing or in another one as yet unstarted and perhaps at that time, even undreamed. So you can end up using an idea, an event, a character who belongs somewhere else entirely.

I’ve had to go much more slowly, because I’m not longer confident of my ability to know without too much soul-searching where a story is meant to go. If you know anything about morphic resonance, you’ll know that when a new compound crystalises, it may take any of the possible crystal formations but once it takes a particular form, it can’t take another. That’s how it feels about writing a book of the kind that’s lurking in my unconscious, my subconscious, and sometimes, quite powerfully, in my conscious mind.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=W14oDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT106&lpg=PT106&dq=morphic+resonance+crystals&source=bl&ots=DKLXqAkBnr&sig=FTtNhxdKdZzdVIQH8tvILyfgBtI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVxPir_-HZAhUDJsAKHUCYCwQQ6AEISjAD#v=onepage&q=morphic%20resonance%20crystals&f=false

I don’t want to eat my elephant in the wrong order but I can’t swallow it in one go, not now. So I have to sit and let the pieces sort themselves out while I work on shorter things, things I can produce in one go, and hope that one day I’ll be able to create what’s nagging away in the background. I might tell you a bit about that another time.

“The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

Everyone likes a bargain, don’t they? When I was browsing the reviews of another book on the brain, a negative review of that book suggested that readers would find more of real use in Dean Burnett’s “The Idiot Brain”. Since the kindle version was on offer at that point (I recall it was 99p but I could be wrong), I snapped it up. You can read my Amazon review here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Idiot-Brain-Neuroscientist-Explains-Really/product-reviews/1783350822/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_ttl?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&sortBy=recent#R2IXXQ0TD557Y0

I found it a light-hearted, easy read that was heavy on the humour (to the extent I guffawed out loud despite being in the process of slogging away on treadmill or static cycle) and relatively light on complex technical matters. There are enough of those to give the book credibility but not so many that you get bogged down trying to remember terms. For a broad overview of the complexities of the human brain this was a book that intrigued but did not frustrate; however, as with many such things, the areas that caught my especial interest were dealt with in too few words. Not the fault of the book, but rather the fault of the reader here, I suspect.

Around three quarters through the book, I found something that had me tripping over my own feet with the realisation that it described something I see on an almost daily basis. Having explained that the brain has an inherently egocentric bias, Burnett goes on to explain that part of the brain is dedicated to correcting this bias (largely an area called the right supramarginal gyrus) towards one of empathy. This area can be disrupted, and can be confused if a person has insufficient time to think about the issue. Data from various experiments show some of the limits of this correction mechanism and how it can happen. Using the method of exposing pairs of people to tactile surfaces that vary (they had to touch something nice or something gross), the experimenters showed that two people experiencing something nasty will be very good at empathising correctly, recognising the intensity of feeling and the emotions of the other person. But, if one is experiencing pleasant things while the other is experiencing the opposite, the person experiencing pleasure will vastly underestimate the suffering of the other person. Burnett concludes that, “So the more privileged and comfortable someone’s life is, the harder it is for them to appreciate the needs and issues of those worse off. But as long as we don’t do something stupid like putting the most pampered people in charge of running countries, we should be OK.” Did I mention that Burnett is also a stand-up comedian?

I am sure you have witnessed this sort of blindness, especially if you are affected by one of the many conditions/illnesses which have no obvious visual marker, the so-called invisible illnesses. On a personal level, it’s bad enough, but on a national and international level it’s catastrophic. Witness in the UK the number of seriously ill and suffering people that the DWP have decided are fit for work. Burnett has just explained, though, how this level of atrocity can take place, especially in people who would ordinarily consider themselves decent, compassionate people.

Related and equally insightful is Burnett’s exploration of the brain’s other cognitive bias, called the “just world” hypothesis. It argues that the brain assumes that the world is fair, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. There are social reasons why this idea has evolved; it aids in the smooth running of communities. Indeed, various apes and monkeys have been shown to adhere to this hypothesis (though Burnett does not mention this). It’s seen to be a motivating factor, for if you believe that existence is random and all our actions are meaningless, it’s going to make it hard for you to function at times.

Of course, the world isn’t fair or just. Bad things happen to good people, as we’ve all observed, and bad people get away with bad things. This sets up a dissonance in our brains, because the fair world hypothesis is deeply ingrained, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, our brains come up with one of two things: first is the idea that the victim of something nasty must somehow have done something to deserve it. The second is that the world is cruel and random after all (something I am tending very much towards.)

Burnett also goes on to explain that people are more inclined to blame a victim if the victim is someone they can potentially identify with strongly. There’s complex reasons for this but in essence it boils down to fear. A fear that if someone who is essentially the same sort of person as you can have something that horrible happen to them it must be their fault in some way, because if it could happen to them (ie, random chance) then it could just as easily be YOU.

In my experience, this has been something that faith groups are very, very prone to; the idea of secret sin, of someone actually deserving to be punished by horrible things occurring to them, is one of the most damaging and hideous things. The tendency to blame the victim is so common among various wings of the Christian church, I suspect it’s one of the reasons many walk away. At university, a close friend’s mum was dying of cancer; the family church accused the family of some undisclosed sin they needed to repent of, and when she died, they told the two sons that they had not prayed hard enough for her to be healed.

At the end of this chapter, Burnett concludes with this rather scalding paragraph: “It seems that, despite all the inclinations towards being sociable and friendly, our brain is so concerned with preserving a sense of identity and peace of mind that it makes us willing to screw over anyone and anything that could endanger this. Charming.” It may seem unduly pessimistic but I can only agree with him that the human brain is flawed. It’s the spirit and soul that must mitigate against these flaws.

On the toxic effects of secrecy and secret groups

On the toxic effects of secrecy and secret groups

Shhh…this is our little secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all.”

How many cases of abuse, of both children and adults, begin with words that use that basic format?

They’re usually followed by threats, both veiled and actual. I remember being threatened with death by the kid who abused me when I was around 8.

I don’t like secrets and secrecy; it makes me quite ill to even think of these things. For clarity, I don’t mean privacy. Everyone has a right to privacy and to keep their own counsel. Once you create a secret, though, the dynamic changes. Human psychology is prone to this. We want to feel special; we want to feel we are trusted and part of something exclusive.

Years back I was added to a secret group on Facebook, for writers. At first I was flattered to be included, but it became clear that the secret nature of the group was not for a good reason but rather to fly under the radar of various strictures, and I’d been added because I might be a good little foot soldier for promoting the work of others. I left. I flounced, actually.

Nobody knows how many secret groups exist on Facebook. I’m sure a large amount of them are intended simply to protect the privacy of their members, especially if those members are vulnerable in some way, or if like many, they don’t want to chat in the open.

But some groups are intrinsically toxic. If there are consequences of leaving them, that’s toxic. It makes people feel uncomfortable at best, trapped and frightened at worst. They can and do have rules that are arbitrary and enforced without chance to appeal. And some exist for very sinister reasons; witness the British MP (who will remained unnamed) who was outed as belonging to a group that is secretly trying to bring back such horrors as the Workhouse.

Secrecy and secret groups encourage an unhealthy state where remaining safe and secure as a member becomes the priority; to speak up against abuses within the group means being expelled from the safety of the group, of being ostracised and ignored and vilified. You risk losing friends and allies and possibly even status (if you had any to begin with!) and any benefits the group may have offered. Over time, those benefits become more important than the ethics they may conflict with.

Some groups have secrecy as a condition for good reasons but it depends heavily on moderators to ensure that this secrecy does not become toxic, and it’s too common for mods to become quietly victims of a form of Stockholm Syndrome and be unable to be dispassionate or reasonable.

The other thing that bothers me is recruitment. In these times when our secret services actively (and openly) recruit at university careers fairs, how do secret FB groups find new members, for if the first rule of Fight Club is you never talk about Fight Club, how come Fight Club became so big? It’s clear that people do talk about Fight Club… but with the whisper in the ear, that begins, “Shhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all!”

Do Not.

Do Not

Do not tell me

What I am,

What I can do,

What I must think,

Who I must be,

In order to be

A good person,

An acceptable person

A sound person

A person you might like.

Do not tell me

That I must conform

Be like others

Be like everyone

Be like you,

Be positive

Hide my faults

My failings

My pain

And my griefs,

Just so I fit the slot

You have so kindly

Allocated for someone

A little like me.

If

If

If there were railings I could lock myself to,

I’d be there, rattling my chains like Marley’s ghost.

If there were a horse I could accost with a ribbon,

I’d brave those thundering hooves in an instant.

If there were a petition that mattered a good God-damn

I’d sign and share till the cows come trundling home.

If there were a politician whose interests extend beyond

Feathering their own nest and feeding their ego

Then I’d be banging down their surgery door,

Sitting down to thrash out a series of proposals.

But there isn’t. There’s all of us, bamboozled

Bewildered, bolshie and battered half to death,

Trying to keep our own heads above water

And fighting for a place on the life raft.