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.

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

It’s been weeks since I was able to blog; in the years since I began this blog (in Feb 2009 FWIW) it’s been rare to let weeks and weeks slip by without a post. I’m more and more reluctant to share any original material; my drafts file here contains more than a few short stories and poems. But I don’t hit publish because it’s become a worry to me that work can so easily be stolen from a blog for all sorts of nefarious reasons.

As 2016 draws speedily to its end, I had this dream:

I am in a big empty wooden building, like a barn or a log cabin. It feels like it has once been full and is now devoid of everything but two things. On the wall hangs a set of ornamental shelves, for books or for objets d’art. The only thing on the shelves is a single large natural sponge, and when I lift it, it is feather light because it is bone dry; not merely wrung out but dried out.

That’s how I feel: empty, drained of all life, light, creativity and potential. It’s not merely that I don’t want to write: it’s more that there is nothing left inside to bring out.

This time of year is quite grim for many; I spoke of the very real concerns for the world generally in my previous post (Rumblestrutting) and those concerns are growing rather than declining. And in addition, there is the loss of light that is a purely natural phenomenon as we approach mid winter.

Mid winter is seen in a positive light as a time to rest, withdraw, recuperate, hibernate and husband our energies, but there’s aspects that we too easily forget that our ancestors may have better understood.

Amid the darkness of mid winter is another layer of darkness, a kind of residue of things unfinished, thwarted plans, hopes, dreams ambitions, a silt of the soul that leaks into the wider world. It’s full of the anger and the sadness and the disappointments that are all part and parcel of being human, sloughed off because we are not well equipped to integrate the side of human nature too often dubbed negative. It has to go somewhere so it oozes around, like the gunk you find accumulating in sink outlets and drains. Not evil exactly but unpleasant, smelly and completely undesirable. Like slime moulds, this residue has a kind of unexamined sentience; it can seem that it knows what it is doing (slime moulds are fascinating things, by the by; do go and look them up) and it has an unerring tendency to gather in the unlighted corners both of our psyches and our environments, seeking to be acknowledged, expressed and released.

You know the much-talked-about Christmas Day fights so common in most families? That dark residue is probably the culprit, nudging existing intolerances and tensions and putting a match to the blue touch paper.

There are many, many ways of dealing with this residue; too many to count, among all cultures that have at some level understood it. Lighting candles, burning sacred smoke of a hundred types (white sage, Frankincense, cedar and so on) banging drums, gongs, pots and pans, prayers of all kinds, dance, song, and a thousand other things, all help to defuse the end of year residue, and in the still moments of the turning year, they help to welcome the slowly returning light as the sun seems to stand still, poised on tiptoes, before beginning the long climb back towards spring time and the light.

The Wave

The Wave

The Wave

Damp air filled with the tang of salt.

The light is grey, dead, heavy with storm.

Wind rising, beating the water,

Driving spindrift to shore.

Gull feathers & seal bones

Litter the strand-line,

Tangled with leathery weeds

Stinking with rot and mussels.

I feel the wave before I see it;

A huge pressure on my aura

Rearing like a stallion

Maddened by lust and fear.

The sound, a hundred trains

Condensed into one deafening roar

When I see it, it’s too late to run.

A mountain of water a mile high

breaks over my head

And I drown, crushed first

To a handful of pebbles

Rolling along the beach.

Shadow pebbles

Shadow pebbles

I wrote this poem over a year ago; the feeling had begun building back then and it became almost unendurable. You can interpret this however you like but for me, world events are at the root of it.

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

Just like Christmas, #WorldMentalHealthDay comes around faster and faster as I get older. I have a theory that the days are actually getting shorter, but that since clocks and all means of measuring time belong to the same universe where time is speeding up, no one can tell except older folks who everyone dismisses. That aside, here we are again, a day set aside to raise awareness of mental health issues.

I wish I had something good and exciting to say about the mental health provision in my own country but I don’t. Despite various campaigns and internet noise from organisations like MIND, Time to Change and The Samaritans, I can’t see that there has been any improvement at all, either in providing useful care or reducing stigma. A number of police forces have been considering suing the NHS because they feel it is entirely inappropriate that they have had to put vulnerable people in police cells for their own safety; locally I know of NO mental health beds available for suicidal or near suicidally ill people. On the last occasion I spoke to the Samaritans, the predictable question came up: have you spoken to your GP? I resisted the temptation to reply with asperity, but I did convey the complete pointlessness of seeing a GP when you have been bouncing around the system for much of your adult life, and that at present, all my GP would be able to offer would be medication I’d refuse and the possibility of going on a waiting list for CBT (which I would also refuse). The waiting list (last time I checked) was a good six months.

For someone who has struggled with mental illness all her life, I have come to a point where I could be described as high functioning depressive. I have never found medication to be helpful, though I must acknowledge that for some it is a life saver. I have only found it to make things worse. I have a low opinion of CBT for anything other than quite simple issues; it’s also become clear that while it is being used as a panacea for everything (it’s cheap) it’s very much contraindicated for a good number of conditions, including PTSD (something that is far more common and pervasive than people think, since it is usually associated with a single dramatic event in a person’s life, yet can be the result of long term stress, constant fear and so on). For long term serious conditions, much more is needed than simple therapies that are rolled out as cure-calls, usually with time/session limited courses of often no more than six sessions. But, we are told, there is no money.

Concerning stigma, I’m not convinced that’s reduced either. I read on the screen at the gym today some commentary on Tyson Fury’s mental illness, that trotted out all the usual guff about how he has everything to live for blah blah blah. It’s an ILLNESS, doofus. There’s been a subtle change that has in essence re-stigmatised mental illness. There are wide-spread ideas that are being spread via the internet, that it is possible to cure mental illness by maintaining positive thinking, smiling more, avoiding negative people, eating well, taking exercise and even by being consciously grateful for the good things in your life. All of these things may well benefit a person in the grips of a bit of glumness. But just as they won’t cure serious physical illness or injury, not will they cure mental illness. They’re coping strategies for staying well, no more than that. Yet it has entered the collective consciousness and the change is a very insidious form of stigma; people get told these things and if they fail to do them, or they try and nothing helps, it gets thrown back on them as being their fault for not trying harder or for whining or whatever. There’s a hidden attitude that actually depressed people deserve it, they’ve brought it on themselves by not trying hard enough to get better.

I’m also far from convinced that bringing in celebrities as Poster Boys and Girls for mental illness awareness is a useful thing. Many of those who have espoused the cause are, like me, high functioning depressives (other conditions are available…) and often don’t look like they’ve ever suffered a day’s blight in their lives. Then, when their lives implode periodically (for whatever reason) there’s mixed messages: first, so much for them being able to live well with the condition, blah blah, second, well if he/she can’t live with it with all their advantages in life, what hope is there for ordinary folks.

But I and my allies will fight on, as much as we can. There’s irony that depression robs you of the energy to fight for better care. I’ve made my book of essays, Depression and The Art of Tightrope Walking, only 99p (or whatever that is in other world currencies) worldwide, for a short period of time, to help raise awareness of mental health and mental illness. A recent review said that it would help others to understand what it means to live with such illness, and on a day like World Mental Health Day, I can’t think of a better thing for people to understand. The book will be at its lower price for a few days so please, please, please let others know about it, and if you have not already grabbed a copy, grab one now. Any reviews are very much appreciated too; the last time I looked there was nothing quite like it in the charts for mental health. Most books there are either self help books of some sort or celebrity mental health memoirs; mine is neither.

Whatever today brings you, I wish you all well.

(I have only added the UK link; for other Amazon stores, please enter the book title and my name into the search facility, or replace the dot co dot uk in the URL with whichever prefix is used for your local store ie dot fr, dot com etc)

Other blessings

Other blessings

Other blessings (29th Jan 2015)

Anoint me,

But not with the oil of gladness.

Let it be with a darker oil

That carries the bitterness

Of myrrh and aloes.

Direct me

But not with the map of easiness.

Let it be with a harder path

That leads me into the darkness

Of strangers and pilgrims.

Remind me

But not with a mind of blindness.

Let me be a stronger spirit

That seeks to find light

Amid the darkest days.

Touch me,

But not with empty, unsoiled hands

Let it be with blackened ashes

That mark me as humble,

Repentant and contrite.

Bless me,

But not with an easy happiness.

Let it be with a deeper soul

That seeks the sweetness

Of fishes and loaves.

Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

I’ve long had a fascination for rocks; indeed, I considered studying geology for A level. I’ve been collecting rocks, fossils, crystals and gemstones for a long time now. I started when I was about nine or ten, becoming entranced by the cat’s-eye effect (chatoyance) of the semi precious stone Tiger’s Eye, and buying several pieces of the polished gem, one to wear as a pendant I still wear occasionally today.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen and was visiting the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt that I really got hooked. One exhibit was a piece of rock crystal that was about the size of a small car. I remember walking round and round the massive rock, astounded that such a thing existed. The museum gift shop sold cheap gemstone jewellery and I found myself a piece of polished clear quartz set as a pendant. I have it still.

The Greeks thought rock crystal was ice that had frozen so hard it could never be thawed; in a way, they were right. Quartz does start out liquid, deep in the earth, but it’s only over time that it solidifies, growing into fabulous forms that are exquisitely lovely.

For me, any rock is a wonderful mystery: where did it come from, what is it made of, how did it get where it is today? I can walk almost any beach and find you a fossil. I pick up stones everywhere, and it occurred to me that I’m probably looking for the philosopher’s stone. I’ve dreamed about stones doing magical, wonderful things, and I meditate with them, often placing certain crystals on my forehead and holding them in my hands as I contemplate deep and impenetrable matters (I often fall asleep, to put that into perspective!). On one occasion, somehow or other I caused a crystal balanced on my forehead to light up from within, witnessed by one reliable source.

I’ve got boxes of rocks, ones that friends have sent me from special places they have visited, and dozens of crystals of various sorts, sizes and colours. There is something innately pleasing to me, at the very least, in the order and beauty of crystals; the fact that they form, either over aeons or spontaneously in milliseconds (no one is quite sure; some have been seen to grow slowly, others leap into being) regular, geometrically perfect solids is a sort of comfort to me. When I go to Austria, the hotel I usually stay at has a cabinet of fossils and rocks for sale; I’ve bought several, including a trilobite now named Josef after the hotelier. Like any collector, my collection is never going to be complete. There will always be something different to look out for.

I’ve not mentioned much the whole “woo woo” factor, because while I do believe there is something to it, it’s not something I really want to go into here. There is too much room for ridicule. Suffice it to say that I believe that rocks can be a source of healing.

Anyway, on a day trip to Ely a month or two back, I visited a stall on the market there that I’ve known for many years. She usually has unusual things, and isn’t extortionate in terms of prices. I spotted a couple of nice little things and one reasonably sized double terminated* quartz piece ( *it comes to a point at both ends), and liked it. It had a brilliant clarity and beauty that drew me. A few weeks after buying it, I spotted something very unusual indeed.

Inside the crystal was a bubble of liquid that moved when you turned the stone. Enhydros are quartz (and other stones) that contain water (or other liquids) from the time when the stone was forming. Sold as such, they’re fairly pricey; not precisely rare but unusual. A magnifying glass has shown there are other bubbles within the matrix of the rock; imagine the moving bubble of a spirit level and that’s not dissimilar.

Given the level of frozen-ness of my inner spirit and my life, and the fear that all the bubbling-over of images, ideas and stories might have dried up, finding this tiny reservoir of ancient, forgotten water deep inside a rock, is to me a symbol that perhaps buried so far down that I can’t even feel it, the water of life still shines.

DSCI0239

DSCI0238

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Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-out, and other things

Burnt-out.

Conjures images of forests devastated by wildfire, of cars reduced to shells of blackened metal and puddles of melted rubber and plastic, of electronics smouldering and going “pouf” before expiring in a spiral of evil-smelling smoke.

In the case of a writer, it’s often nothing visible. They just go very quiet. Or they become very noisy, bouncing around social media being terribly cheerful. But there’s a brittle nature to the good cheer, hiding an edge they’re often aiming to conceal at all costs. The edge is a sharp one, a foot sticking out of a shallow grave, ready to trip you up and reveal a horrible secret: you can’t write any more.

People suggest tips to get you writing again. Writing prompts, courses, a break away from writing, a holiday, time spent reading instead.

I’ll let you into two secrets. The first you may have guessed: I can’t write any more. The second: I don’t think I want to, either. It’s the second that’s the killer.

I stopped writing once before, stopped it dead in the water, in 1995. Following the stress of (among other things) trying to do rewrites of a novel for one of the Big Six (as it was then), I became almost fatally ill. Something inside my brain said, “Blow this for a game of soldiers!” and popped. When I recovered enough, I finished the rewriting as requested, waited, and after a committee discussed it, it was dismissed and that was that. Contrary to what I have believed in the years since, I don’t think I made a conscious decision to stop writing. I just…stopped. It became a memory, part of my past, something I didn’t do any more. I think now I shut down the vaster part of my psyche, because I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face the inevitable failure and loss of hope.

You see, me and stories go back a long, long way. Pre-literate me wrote stories, in my head, and used my father’s typewriter to try and get them onto paper. Didn’t work, obviously, but full marks for trying, eh? My whole childhood and teens, I worked on stories. I didn’t do anything much between going to university and becoming a mum, but that was as much circumstances as anything else. My first round of trying to get published, I was in my late twenties. My second round, late thirties. There wasn’t and won’t be a third round. I still believe that self-publishing is the only route for someone like me; on a practical note, now I am in my fifth decade, publishers aren’t generally interested anyway. Youth is what interests most of them. I’m not sure if it’s because a young author has decades of writing ahead or whether they believe they can mould a younger person.

But my God, I am TIRED. Tired of trying to do things that I’m not cut out to do, of trying to understand things that are beyond me, and of the entire landscape. Books are mere commodities, nothing more. Or so you’d believe. I don’t. I believe that a book is a holy, sacred thing, a wonder of the civilised world, a joy and a gift. I’ve loved that the e-book means I can carry a whole library round in my handbag, but the down-side is that there are now millions and millions of books out there and no way to easily find ones I might value. It means that good books and great books whose authors (whether self published or not) are not able to do the right kind of hustling, schmoozing, and generally selling of one’s assets now required to get a book in front of potential readers, fail, sink and disappear without trace. Heaven only knows how many beautiful, life-changing gems have gone unseen, their authors losing heart and finally faith. My own did well at first but have started to sink and disappear and the only thing that has even a tiny chance of raising them is to put out more books. I’ve got more books on my hard drive, written in the productive frenzy ten years ago that followed the unexpected return of my mojo. Yet the process of polishing, of editing, of producing a cover, blurb, publicity and so on, daunts me more than it did, because it feels futile. I can’t kid myself that this one might be THE ONE; I’ve done so for each and every book I’ve published, and each time the results have been poorer than the last. The market is saturated and making an impression sufficient to not only generate but also to sustain sales is now impossible for me. I know I have wonderful people who buy and read and love everything I’ve ever put out. It should be enough. But it isn’t.

At this point, some are going to be thinking, just take a break, stop for a few months, do something else instead. These are things I have tried. Writing is not only part of me; it’s who I am. It’s so interwoven with my essential being that I will break if it is taken from me, even by my own hand. The picture here is of what happened when I stored a long thin vase inside a bigger one; when I came to need the smaller one, the glass had shifted ever so slightly, (glass is a strange thing) and it no longer slid out. In removing it, the bigger vase shattered in my hands.

Big vase little vase

Big vase little vase