Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.

R is for Response

R is for Response

The more depressed I get, the harder it is to respond to anything. Words dry up. I might be able to say or write something but it can take so much effort that when someone replies, I cannot find more words or thoughts with which to respond.

Imagine a game of tennis played by two people, one of whom is extremely good at tennis and the other who has gone on court only because they think they should or hope it might do them good or because someone has talked them into it. The reluctant player serves; it takes all their skill and energy to hit the ball over the net successfully. Often it hits the net, or goes screaming over the head of the opponent and gets lost in the bushes behind the tennis court. Or they miss. When the ball does finally reach the other side, the other player leaps gleefully forward and lobs it back neatly. They know their opponent is not a keen player and they’re kindly trying to give a nice easy shot so they can start a satisfying volley. Or they don’t know or care what their opponent’s level is, and they return the ball with a fast, skilful slam that only a veritable athlete has a chance of returning. So the reluctant player has barely a chance to see the ball whacked back before they realise they cannot get to it. They stand there, feeling like a failure, while the keen player makes noises about, oh bad luck old girl, let’s try that again.

The game goes on.

And on.

And on.

By the time it’s game set and match to the keen player, the reluctant player has been annihilated, and when their opponent leaps the net in a mock victory parade, they slink off, humiliated and defeated.

Some days, when I try to speak of things close to my heart and soul, my throat closes up. It’s like the aftermath of a throat punch. It’s painful and quite frightening. I find writing things down less painful, but even then, it can take a lot of energy to get the words out. It seems to take forever. Then when someone responds, (either face to face, or via the comments or a tweet or a thread on Facebook), I’m often unable to reply. The original statement has taken all the energy.

So I apologise for the times when I don’t reply to comments here, in particular. I read them and I ponder on them but sometimes, and it’s been almost all the time lately, I cannot manage to respond, not in any meaningful way. I reply in my head. But something stops it going any further. I am sorry. Must do better, eh?

J is for Jerusalem

J is for Jerusalem

I will never see Jerusalem

Or walk its ancient streets

Thronged with crowds

Shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna”

Flinging down palm leaves

And following the donkey

Plodding unconcerned by

The weight of the world

And the coming of changes

Borne upon her back.

I will never see Jerusalem,

Or hear the maddened crowds

Whipped to a frenzy by hysteria

Shouting, “Crucify, crucify!”

Spitting and cursing

And following the man

Bowed down by the weight

Of the rough unpolished wood

Stumbling and falling

As he walks out to his death.

I will never see Jerusalem

Lit by flickering candles

Placed in windows along the way

To light our progress home.

Heads down, spirits broken

Hopes destroyed and gone,

Trudging through the city streets

It’s over,” we say,“What now?”

We run or hide. We weep.”

No. Now we wait.

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

Many of us have heard or are subliminally aware of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as postulated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross‘s famous book On Death and Dying. The book was published in 1969 and was the result of her work with the terminally ill.

Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, they are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model)

As a result of this misunderstanding, people seem to feel that grief is both a linear and a limited process that can be “got through” in a set amount of time; it then seems to legitimise the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people encourage those grieving to move on, to put it behind them, and to cease grieving.

There is no hierarchy of grief. Some will grieve for losses that others consider negligible. The loss of a beloved companion animal is as painful for some as the loss of a parent; it all depends on the relationship and on the circumstances. Having seen others say, “It was only a dog/cat/guinea pig; get over it!” I can testify to the cruelty of such speech. We all feel grief in different ways and for different things.

Every one of my novels is about grief and grieving in very different ways and for different people. Antony in The Bet is buried under a heap of grief, so unable to process it that he has become numb and detached and so lost and vulnerable in his need for comfort that he mistakes the attentions of the predatory Jenny for affection and love, and so descends into a further hell. His journey back out of that hell is the story of one journey through multiple griefs. Strangers and Pilgrims focuses on the journeys of six people through loss, grief and unhealed hurts. Square Peg starts with a funeral and the loss of the only stable, loving person in much of Chloe’s life, just at a time when the loss of her previous way of life and the start of a new and very alien one has destablised her and left her at risk from loneliness, grief and confusion. Away With The Fairies is primarily Isobel’s exploration of the loss of both parents.

Yet grief has a single unspoken component that Kübler-Ross’s work points to, that all grief returns to a single point, that of our own mortality, best summed up by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant poem Spring and Fall, which I tend to remember as Goldengrove (another G)

Spring and Fall

(to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

( I blogged on this poem before:  https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/endings-and-beginnings-why-you-need-to-grieve-for-the-past-before-you-can-begin-anew/ )

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.