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.

U is for Utopia

U is for Utopia

I’m coming rapidly to the end of this run-through the alphabet and some of the last letters are somewhat problematic. I considered Useless (that’s how I feel a lot of the time) and also Unknowing (the older I get, the more I know I don’t know) but settled on Utopia, because there’s so much Dystopia-stuff around.

The person who coined the term (it actually means No Place) was Sir Thomas More in his fictional piece of the same name. Curiously enough, he was inspired by Plato’s writings on Atlantis. I’d urge you to read more about both works, because More’s ideas of Utopian society included such things as slavery, severe punishments for pre-marital sex, and communal living. The book addressed issues of its day and the blue-print for a utopian society he depicts is anathema to what I consider a perfect world.

We use the word Utopia to mean a perfect society but when it comes down to it, the origin of the name tells us everything. It is No Place. It cannot be. To be the ideal living conditions for one segment of society, it does so at the expense of others. For many, our current society is Utopia as it stands; this is why, in the run up to a General Election in the UK, those at the top of the ladder will fight tooth and bloody nail to keep things as they are, because that suits them very well indeed, thank you very much. To create a society where every member is valued and has a basic and decent standard of living is impossible in a culture that is essentially venial and selfish, where the rich wish to get richer and richer at the expense of the poor, where luxuries beyond imagining become common-place for the lucky few, and people starve and freeze on the streets.

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

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

I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I considered making I for Introversion but given the small wars that break out over the introvert/extrovert issue, I decided to side-step the whole thing and go for Imagination, as suggested by my pal Nick. That said, I think that our innate neurological bent (innies or outies) may have some bearing on how imagination works for us and how those of us who were daydreamers as children may well often discover themselves to be raging introverts as adults.

Imagination is the factor that every creative artist relies upon. It’s the machine that takes a scrap of inspiration plucked from the ether like a feather falling from the sky, and turns it into something greater. It’s the whole, “I wonder if…” that keeps us moving forwards, keeps us discovering both inside our minds and in the world beyond. Used well, it is what gets a writer to the end of a project.

But it’s a two-edged sword. The imaginative spark that gives plot twists and character flaws in a novel is the same thing that takes a noise from downstairs in the night, and turns it into a home invasion (human or otherwise). Lived subliminally and unawakened, imagination is the engine of anxiety. It takes all the what ifs there ever were for a potential future, and shoves the really, really nasty ones right in your face and makes them appear ALL IN CAPS, blood-red and furious.

One tool on the path towards healing is Active Imagination, a term coined by Jung for something mystics and visionaries have used (probably) for thousands of years. The process is a complex one and needs great care, for it gives a medium for exploring the dark caves within our psyches.

Active imagination is a cognitive methodology that uses the imagination as an organ of understanding. Disciplines of active imagination are found within various philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions. It is perhaps best known in the West today through C. G. Jung‘s emphasis on the therapeutic value of this activity.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_imagination

People unfortunately seem intent on using the name for a process of creating their own scenarios, and controlling very carefully what occurs within them. This is folly, in my opinion, as the extraordinary benefits of truly bridging the gap between the unconscious mind and the conscious, are inestimable.

Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung’s approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one’s desired changes. One would then respond genuinely to these changes, and report any further changes in the scene. This approach is meant to ensure that the unconscious contents express themselves without overbearing influence from the conscious mind. At the same time, however, Jung was insistent that some form of participation in active imagination was essential: ‘You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real’.

I’ve been exploring Active Imagination for some years now; it’s harder work than you might imagine (haha) and very tiring. You’d think that someone with a good imagination would be a ready-made expert, but you’d be wrong. I’m used to controlling (subtly or not so subtly) where story-lines go, and letting go completely and letting them just go where they want to is difficult and frustrating. It may also explain why I’ve found fiction so difficult in recent years; the processes are close but yet worlds apart.

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.

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.

DSCI0169

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.