God 1

God 1

I do not want your slot machine god

Powered by caprice and uncertainty.

Nor do I want your vending machine god:

Pop in a prayer and out pops a reward.

I want the untamed god

Unknowable as the badgers

Deep in ancient yew woodlands,

Wild as the flight of goldfinches

Bathing exuberantly in a forest pool.

In one glimpse you see more of eternity

And the vast untouchable sweep

Of a deity too broad

To be trammelled by walls and words,

Yet tender to his creatures who

He holds cupped in his wounded palms.

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

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Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.

A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on the lost manuscript of Julian of Norwich. I’ve long been a fan of Julian and her work (see my blog post here) and I watched with great interest. The programme itself was a tad irritating (largely because the presenter made too many assertions that simply don’t bear closer scrutiny), though it did have some great sequences filmed in and around Norwich, which is one of my favourite cities in Europe (and only about 25 miles away), but it revealed some facts about Julian’s book I hadn’t known before. The manuscript itself was suppressed and hidden, going underground (so to speak), because its contents were liable to be seen as potentially heretical and certainly revolutionary (a loving God who was seen as our Mother and who cared for each and every human and written by, shock, horror, a woman? Gosh.). Its route to the mainstream was a strange one; copies of it were held in various monastic libraries, like that of Walsingham Abbey, but it’s unclear how many and how widespread they were. At the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, many of their libraries were confiscated and countless bookish treasures destroyed. The Revelations of Divine Love disappears, only to have a copy resurface amid the books taken to France with nine young Englishwomen setting out to found a new Benedictine Order in the early part of the seventeenth century. The book was copied by the nuns and perhaps dispersed until the French Revolution intervened, and such orders attacked and destroyed. When their Carmelite sisters were sent to the guillotine, the English sisters expected to follow, but the terror came to an end, and they were allowed to return to England (taking with them relics of their martyred Carmelite sisters, and whatever other things they’d saved). The order still exists, in God’s own county, at the abbey they founded on their return, Stanbrook Abbey. But they didn’t have Julian’s book, either copies or the original.

Fast forward to the early part of the twentieth century and the era of the suffragettes, and a determined Scottish woman comes to the British library in search of a copy of Julian’s book, aiming to find the original or as close to that as possible, to make a new translation of the original. Mis-shelved under witchcraft and magic, and mis-titled in the catalogue, a copy made by those English nuns turns up, no one knows how, and is the closest to the original fourteenth century text that anyone knows of.

The book has dipped in and out of biblio-history, escaping the bonfires of fanatics and the vagaries of time itself, championed largely by women, and emerging time and again when women need it. At the end of the programme, a professor of medieval literature says that it’s eminently possible that the original manuscript itself might one day just turn up somewhere; he comments that rare books do this all the time.

Books are fragile things, subject to the forces of time and the forces of nature, and yet they endure. If you have read Umberto Eco’s brilliant book, The Name of the Rose, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the idea of a lost book, hidden and suppressed yet passed on secretly and lurking on the shelves of libraries or even bookshops, is a seductive, romantic (in its truest sense) and obsessive notion. If you have read the Discworld novels by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, you will be familiar with the concept of L-space: the theory that the sheer weight of books creates a kind of kink in the space-time continuum, whereby all libraries are connected and all librarians are mystical custodians of L-space. The librarian of the Unseen University, whose name has long been forgotten, is an orang-utan (the result of a spell cast but since the shape proved to be more congenial to his job, the Librarian resisted all offers to restore him to his original human form).Wandering the darker recesses of old and rambling libraries, where a poorly-plotted route through the dusty stacks on a winter evening when the night falls hard and cold outside and the interior is cosy and warm, if fuggy, can result in getting lost in areas one didn’t know existed, and one can not only believe in L-space but it becomes the only thing that makes any sense of how books can disappear for centuries, and reappear in unexpected and improbable places, hardly aged, but bearing the faint traces of the odour of bananas.

A Vessel of Ashes

A Vessel of Ashes

I’ve been in a grim place for so long it feels like there’s been no end and no beginning. It feels like this is all there is and all there was and all there ever will be. Needless to say, it feels horrible. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all and failing, and trying again and failing again. The results of the referendum have left me devastated, repeatedly; there seems a massive disconnect and breach between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. One side cannot understand the other and the vitriol hurled has been… caustic and damaging beyond belief. I have given up trying to explain why it is all so hurtful but the consensus of rejoicing Leavers is “Suck it up, suck it up,” and I have left it at that. The utter powerlessness I feel is probably felt by millions and we are told, that’s democracy.

So I have disconnected from the stream of life that flows in front of my eyes, in the form of social media, because I could no longer bear the hurt I see. I’m still around, but I am emotionally distanced. I’ve already lost one old friend from college days because I refused to allow him to pour his opinions all over my Facebook wall; he did not take it gracefully.

I have, however, been dreaming again. Having had a spell where I was unable to either dream or to recall anything of the dreams I did have, to have dreams coming through again is something of a relief.

I’d like to share a few with you now. The first is from a few days ago.

I am at a party I don’t really want to be at. I don’t feel I know anyone, but here I am anyway. I make my way outside into the garden, which is untended and unkempt, and walled by high brick walls. I am shocked to see that our old round table is out there, left out to rot; I look closer and I see that the table is broken, split almost down the middle as if by an mighty axe blow. It’s not quite perfectly in half, but it looks beyond anything but very skilled repairs. The chairs that go with it lie on the rough grass, with tufts of weeds growing through them, left where they fell when pushed back by those who had sat upon them. I feel sad and a little sick, and move to go back inside. As I walk back up the steps, there is a small child there, a little boy of somewhere between one year and three. He speaks to me, and I answer, and though waking I cannot recall what he said, only that it was words and themes so far beyond such a tiny child, I know I reply with complete seriousness and great care. He speaks again and then laughs and it is like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and I am filled with sudden joy (in waking life, I dislike small children) and I want to hold him up. I put my hands on him to lift him but find he is far too heavy for me to lift, heavier than a full grown man by far. I realise quite suddenly that I am not to do this, not to treat him as a tiny child, and I step away and apologise for overstepping the mark. But he laughs joyfully again and I know I have not offended (for how could I have known?) and then the dream ends.

The next dream is from the small hours of this morning. I’ve spent much of the day pondering on it.

The first part of the dream I am visiting an aquarium belonging to a friend; there are lots of huge tanks filled with marvellous fish and sea creatures and we walk among the tanks (it’s like a Sea Life centre). But she’s packing up intending to leave and the fish know and are upset, even though she says I am to look after the fishes when she is gone. There are commotions in many of the tanks, as the fish become disturbed and frightened; one tank we see that a sea snake has become so upset it looks as if it is trying to swallow one of the bigger fishes, so we intervene. Hauling it out and uncoiling it, I see that it’s not a sea snake but a big Burmese python and it has its own tail in its mouth, as if trying to swallow itself.

The dream moves and shifts, and I find myself outside a sea shore cottage. In the dream, it’s a building I have seen and admired many times but in waking life, it’s not one I recognise. The cottage is built on a ridge very close to the sea, alone and with no other buildings nearby. It belongs to a nun, an anchoress, who invites me in to see the house. The inside is Spartan, and neat in a quirky, somewhat Bohemian style, and there is little furniture. I go to the window to see the view; it’s open and I see that the sea is alarmingly close to the house, and huge waves are crashing on the shore. I try to shut the window as the biggest wave yet hits the shingle, and some spray gets through before I managed to get it shut. I am asked to go and fetch water; the cottage does not have mains water but gets its water from a spring outside. I ask what do I collect the water in, and am shown at first a wide shiny steel serving platter, like a concave mirror, but that seems silly to me as it will not hold more than a few drops, and I rummage around and find a glass vessel, like an amphora, that I carry outside.

The spring itself is a very odd thing; it’s a sort of strange fountain, like it has been grown from volcanic mud or worn out from a termite mound. Water comes intermittently from different spouts, but never much and never with a lot of force. It will take patience to collect water here. I start, only to see that the glass vessel is mostly filled with ashes (I think they are human ashes, as if from a cremation) mixed with small stones, grit and sand. It won’t shake out, so I start adding water to it, to try and rinse it out. The ashes are packed down tight and need a lot of water to loosen them. I wake before the vessel is emptied or cleaned.

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.

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Another one for under the blankets. Or the sun-lounger. You choose!

Another one for under the blankets. Or the sun-lounger. You choose!

Doesn’t feel much like summer where I live; feels like March in fact.

This week, Strangers and Pilgrims celebrates its fifth anniversary since publication and I’ve dropped the price for the first time in ages to mark the occasion. Initially it was UK only but then I thought, rest of the world, why not? That’ll be the price for a week or so, so if you haven’t got it already, now’s the time.

But I also decided to run a promotion for The Bet as well. From today it’ll be just 99p in the UK, going up to £1.99 a couple of days later, and a few days after that, back to its usual price.

It’s my own favourite book that I’ve written, and apart from one rather meh 2 star review, the reaction of almost everyone who has read it has been along they lines of “Wow, what a ride!” One reader has expressed (alas not in a review) that it’s one of the best books he’s ever read. Perfect whether you’re huddling under a blanket or sitting out in the sunshine. The sequel sits on my hard drive, written but not polished up for publication and lacking a nice cover.

Anyway, happy reading whatever you do, whatever the weather where you are.

 

 

On losing faith

On losing faith

Faith is a strange thing; it’s almost impossible to explain precisely what it is. The various dictionary definitions do not help much. The Oxford English Dictionary has faith defined thus: 1) Complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Or 2) Strong belief in the doctrine of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof:

( http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/faith)

Neither of which really captures what faith really is; it presupposes an instinctive understanding of the concept because it uses synonyms (trust, confidence, conviction).

I’d say I’ve been a person of faith for a long time, with pockets of total loss of faith. Some might say, Hurrah, she’s finally coming to her senses, but in reality it’s like losing a sense or an ability. Let me explain a little. Other than the workaday modern English I speak and write every day, I’ve studied in some depth another six languages to varying degrees of competency. Of those six, two are modern, living languages. I can’t call myself fluent in either, but I’m intermittently articulate in French (I can read it better than I speak it, and understand better than I speak) and stolidly, unimaginatively practical in German (I can ask the way to the library, order a pint of beer or a cup of coffee, make small talk about whether it will snow). To lose one’s faith is like discovering that one can no longer speak a word of a language one was once fluent in; there’s a sudden, gaping, aching void where the skill used to be. It feels akin to what I imagine certain kinds of brain injury might feel like; a leg, an arm, half your face, no longer at your command. The emotional pain of such a loss is not unsubstantial, and the frustration is vast.

Here are some ways I have lost faith:

I’ve lost faith in myself.

I’ve lost faith in humanity.

I’ve lost faith in the divine.

The loss of faith in myself is complex and painful. If I can use an example from my writing history to explain what I mean, it may help, but it goes beyond writing and enters every area of my existence. I’ve written most of my life and have never felt the desire or the need to “go and do a course.” In honesty, I am far from convinced they are a good idea, but I shall keep my more inflammatory opinions quiet. Whenever I began a book, I had a deep inner certainty that somehow or other, the book would write itself; I just needed to get out of the way and let it flow. I had no doubts that my own unconscious was capable of producing the story and the characters would be close to what Robert Holdstock called “mythagos”, that is archetypal beings that are shaped by both the narrator and the narration. If I had concerns about where the story was going, or how it might end, they seldom lasted; I trusted the process, that the story itself knew where it was going and how to get there. I believed in myself as a writer.

But that belief, that faith, has ebbed away under the sheer weight of confusion brought about by the intense and competitive world of writers jockeying for position. There are thousands of articles, memes, Facebook posts, courses, blogs, and even books, on How to Write, on what good writing is (or isn’t) and so on. I stopped reading them quite a while ago, sometimes giving in and checking out articles because, frankly, FOMO* (* Fear of Missing Out) but the damage is done. The worms are in my head, gnawing away at my self-belief and shitting doubt everywhere. It’s futile to say, Good writing is writing that YOU enjoy, when there’s a million other interpretations and opinions. I’ve always had trouble keeping strong psychic boundaries (most empaths struggle this way) but it’s caused me paralysing self-doubt that no amount of reassurance seems to be able to stem.

Losing faith in humanity is not hard to understand; to have access to a television or to the internet is enough to leave one weeping in despair. I will not list the things that we, as human beings, ought to be hanging our heads in shame for, because they are too many and too depressing. The single fact that a certain troll-like US business man with a terrible wig, has even been considered as a candidate for president, is in itself proof that humanity has not reached adulthood; the British equivalent, the former major of London, proves that this is a world wide thing. I could throttle people who say, “Oh I like Boris, he’s funny and he’s entertaining.” He’s not; he’s a man who veers closer to true (but hidden) evil and laughs in our faces for falling for the buffoon act. History may show quite how mistaken people have been.

Losing faith in the divine is something I ought to be used to by now but I’m not. It feels more like the death of someone close and very dear to me, than a cessation of belief. I’ve never been orthodox in my beliefs, nor yet comfortable with the simplistic set of beliefs that seem to be the norm. I used to find that in silence and in solitude, the sense of Other became clear to me. Now there is just a resounding silence, an echoing void of nothingness. On the odd occasion I attend corporate worship, the sense of void is even greater, and it underlines how alone I feel. For those who dismiss God as “an imaginary friend”, often said with contempt (citing various biased studies that suggest people of faith have lower IQ than atheists) I can only suggest that however imaginary that deity may be to you, it was very real to me. For without that sense of Other, I cannot find a way to live than does not leave me lost, alone and frightened, without purpose or meaning or future.

I do not ask for advice or sympathy here; understanding would be pleasant. I’ve been frustrated by my inability to express the depth of the pain of no longer being able to write; I cannot, as one commenter suggested in a previous post, just write for myself, or move on and leave the whole thing behind, go and do something more fruitful instead. I’ve begun to realise that perhaps, like with the concept of faith, losing faith is not something you can really grasp unless it has happened to you; the metaphors and similes can only reach so far. Experience is the most ruthless of educators, and much as I wish for understanding, I would not wish the experience needed for that onto anyone.