Normally I tend to write a post, then copy it and paste it here. For once, I am writing directly into the blog. Continue reading
A Living Nightmare of a Decade?
There’s been a thing going round. One of those things. Posting a picture from ten years ago and one from this year, to illustrate the changes in a decade. Another thing has been to list your achievements in the last decade. Both have made me shudder. I couldn’t find a picture of me from 2009 that I wanted to share and when I have compared to now, it’s clear the decade has aged me. But ten years ages everyone, so no surprises there.
“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum
These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.
I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.
I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.
An Epiphany, of sorts
Today marks Epiphany, the festival that for most marks the end of all things Christmas. It commemorates the arrival of the Magi, coming to pay their respects to the infant Jesus, though much of what people think they know about the Magi is a much later medieval addition. The bible does not give names to the visitors, nor does it state that there were three. That aside, it’s a charming addition; it personalises these shadowy visitors and gives them flesh and human attributes, as well as the gifts they brought, which were largely symbolic ones. I am sure that the holy family valued the gold; it probably got them through lean and difficult times. Frankincense was at one time worth the same ounce for ounce as gold and myrrh not far behind. I burn both during the Christmas period and I usually burn some beautiful incense called Three Kings after I take down the Christmas decorations (though the crib scenes remain until Candlemas).
But that’s not the epiphany I am talking about. The word has come to mean a sudden, dramatic and powerful revelation. During a recent episode of extra-nasty depression (that general base line for me is just fairly nasty and the extra-specially nasty was paralysing and unbelievably destructive) I had an insight I have had to sit with to see if it may be true, and that insight is the epiphany I’d like to explain. Continue reading
The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books
As a card-carrying depressive, I’m not someone known for being an optimist. I’m sometimes like the love child of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Eeyore. It’s hard to not feel that the world is currently going to hell in a very large hand basket. I take breaks from the internet on a regular basis, hoping that the world beyond my small bubble will have improved by the time I go back; I retreat into the world of books and seek what solace I can find there.
I’ve recently finished reading a biography of Elizabeth Goudge. Beyond the Snow by Christine Rawlins is an exhaustive, and inspiring account of the life and faith of this most beloved of authors, and I didn’t want it to end. She had an interesting and sometimes very difficult life, though cushioned somewhat by her privileges of birth. Though she does not write much about it, it is known that she experienced severe mental distress and even breakdowns; this is reflected very much in certain books (such as The Scent of Water that I have blogged about here) and echoes in many others. There is compassion and bravery in her decision to write happy books.
Critics sometimes dismissed her books as “pretty pretty” and as light romances (they’re not) but the public bought them in their millions. She does not shy away from the difficult things, like death or loss of faith or suffering, but she offers a vision of hope, of redemption and of atonement too. The books are full of havens: places where people go to be healed, to rest and recover their strength and to go out again to continue their work in the world. There is faith, but it is built into the woodwork and rarely centre stage. There is kindness and care and hope, even in dark times. People make tough decisions, ones that reflect a code of ethics that is now rare.
In these dark times, I know that I am avoiding fiction that seems to revel in darkness and hatred. I’m trying to find books that are trying to be beacons in the dark, to be rallying calls to resist the lure of what Hopkins calls Carrion Comfort. I’ve read a few recently. I reread Sir Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, my favourite of his Discworld novels; though it looks evil squarely in the face, it fights back. I have recently read a couple of novels by Jane Davis too. My Counterfeit Self https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Counterfeit-Self-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B01KTY22R0/ is an excellent and immersive tale of a woman who stayed true to her own beliefs and who fought for justice and social changes. The fact that the main character is a poet just adds to the charm for me. Smash All The Windows https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/ is a powerful (and sometimes very disturbing) account of a major disaster on the London Underground; the survivors and the families of those lost face huge difficulties in getting at the truth of what happened, and even greater challenges of transforming the grief into something that shines beyond all the pain and sorrow and loss.
In non-fiction, I recently read another book by Robert McFarlane, The Old Ways. It’s about walking and about the power of paths. I’d highly recommend it if you are someone who loved walking but whose health does not allow longer distances or more difficult conditions. There is great beauty and evocation of all the senses in McFarlane’s writing, taking you out of yourself and into another world of experience.
All of these books offer beauty and hope and truth without ever scuttling into whimsy and unrealistic withdrawal from the world. They’re books that strengthen your soul; they put shining steel into your limbs and the gold of optimism into your soul.
As for my own writing… Well, I’ve been limping along with several projects and having read Beyond the Snow, I have become convinced that to keep going as a writer, I must commit myself to writing books that are filled with beauty, truth and hope, however unfashionable, however bourgeois and some might say, naff, such a concept might be. My existing novels, all available from Amazon, are already books that I believe offer a haven and a support to battered souls. Despite the fact that it feels like the world has become so focused on capitalism that unless you pay for advertising, I do believe that people will find my books even if Amazon is steadily erasing all the opportunities that once existed for unknown independent authors to become known. I’m not sure how, though. I have less than three thousand followers on my Twitter, less than five hundred likes on my official Facebook page and around five hundred subscribers to this blog.
But that, perhaps, is not my business. My business is to find that beauty, hope and truth and let the stories weave themselves. That’s all I can do right now.
Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source
“Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away” says the old hymn.
And its daughters too, though we still seem to be seldom mentioned, despite being, on average, a good fifty per cent of the world’s human population.
Whatever your gender, time is an inescapable force, and no matter how you resist, it passes, slipping through your fingers like water, and you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s so many years since…”
More than a quarter of a century had passed since I went to Taizé
A lifetime ago, really, yet the memories were unfading, holding my heart in ways that you’d not imagine a single week could. I found the photos shortly before we set off; was I ever that young, really? I’d gone in a highly stressful time in my life; we were about to set off for a new life (I’d have called it an adventure back then but the reality proved to be quite crippling for me, in so many ways) and we’d left keys to our house with the estate agents, hoping they’d sell it before we got back. I’ve written about that visit here. If you’ve read that post, then you’ll know what stayed with me most was the chapel of the well-spring: a little wooden structure built over an actual spring that was directed into a shallow stone trough. You could feel something even before you saw the water or stepped beneath the shingled roof of the shrine; a presence, a sense of the numinous, something otherworldly and deep. Continue reading
The insidious perversion
You know how sometimes a sentence or a few words or an event can set of a train of thought that goes into some sort of underground tunnel, rumbling away unseen until it pops up into the light with revelations?
This week there’s been three ingredients that have set in motion a sort of Salmagundi of thought. The first was a tweet from an old friend:
“The objectification of self. Everyone is a brand. The biggest and most complete and insidious perversion of capitalism” from Monica https://twitter.com/EquanimityNow_
I read it and got the shivers.
The second (catalytic) event was the revelation that a romance writer has trademarked a common word and has been sending out cease and desist notices to any author using that word in book titles. I’m not going into this in detail because it’s been written about a lot since it came up, but because it focuses on a very heavy-handed protection of the concept of “BRAND” it also chimed very much.
I have written before about my objection to the notion of author-branding, being told on occasions that I wasn’t understanding it and that in essence it was simple: I am my brand. My books epitomise the brand, and each book is recognisable as mine. I have always felt deeply uncomfortable with this notion, not because there isn’t a strong element of truth to it (see Hopkins’ poem As kingfishers catch fire: “What I do is me: for that I came”) but because it aims to both petrify a moment or a period in my soul’s journey and also to set a price on it.
There was a third ingredient but it was a quote from James Hillman and while I can recall it was about mining the soul for various processes, including raising our consciousness and of the problems of capitalism, I cannot find the quote to save my life. The nearest I can find to it is this:“What we hold close in our imaginal world are not just images and ideas but living bits of soul; when they are spoken, a bit of soul is carried with them. When we tell our tales, we give away our souls. The shame we feel is less about the content of the fantasy than it is that there is fantasy at all, because the revelation of imagination is the revelation of the uncontrollable, spontaneous spirit, an immortal, divine part of the soul, the Memoria Dei. Thus, the shame we feel refers to a sacrilege: the revelation of fantasies expose the divine, which implies that our fantasies are alien because they are not ours” James Hillman (The Myth of Analysis, p. 182). https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf
“When we tell our tales, we give away our souls.” Or in the case of authors, we sell them. I’ve struggled with not being able to write, with having lost the connection to the stories I knew (and still know) were inside me. I have felt hollowed out, empty and bereft. In some of my journeying I have followed many trails, from daydreams and night dreams, stories and songs and poems, and found scraps of clues. Here is one:
“For a nun.
Like your Hopi pottery bowl,
hollowed out, open, beautiful,
you’re being hollowed out by God
not to be filled but to embrace
the sculpted space itself, empty,
yet filled with what you almost see;
intimate poverty’s body.”
Murray Bodo OFM, from the book “Song of the Sparrow- new poems and meditations.”
Am I empty? Or am I simply open, filled with things not seen (and therefore perhaps not valued). I have told many stories. I have others still inside me but I cannot bring them to birth like I once did, naturally but not without great pain and cost to myself. I have become acutely sensitive to the great and terrible turmoil of the world around me, insulated though I am by privilege and accidents of birth. I am caught in a paradox: a need for action and an equal need for withdrawal for self-protection. A need to write my stories (and share them) and a repulsion for the mining of my own soul with those stories. One might say, write them and burn them (as I know one friend, fellow poet Deborah Gregory, has done http://theliberatedsheep.com/food-soul-animus-diet/ ) or write them and keep them hidden. Yet just as one would not bear a child and keep it hidden for its whole existence, I cannot write and keep it all locked away in darkness. Yet to publish becomes a connection to the worst of capitalism, the worst of a pervasive, perverted system wherein a writer can lay claim to a common word, seize it and trademark it AND GET AWAY WITH IT (it’s being fought and perhaps will be overturned)
In my scouring of the internet for those words that were the third ingredient, I found the following, part of the essay I shared a bit of further back in this post. It brings me some comfort, but not answers (as you will read). Perhaps I have not become completely lost.
“Kenosis seems now the only political way to be—emptied out of certainty…Kenosis is a form of action—not masochistic action, vicitimized, crucified…[but] empty protest: I don’t know how to do the right thing. I don’t even know what’s right. I have no answer. But I sure smell something wrong with the government…‘empty protest’ is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the hopeless frustration you feel, the powerless vicitimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, if they come, when they come, to you, to others, but do not fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest!…[An empty protest] doesn’t have an end goal…Empty protest is protest for the sake of the emotions that fuel it and is rooted not in the conscious fullness of improvement, but in the radical negativity…Not only will you be seen as stupid because empty, but you will be also alone,…So empty protest for me is really a kenosis–giving up both the vanity of being admired and the surety of a sound position, and doing it in public” James Hillman (ibid., pp. 103-107).
Post scriptum: this article is very much worth reading. It’s Hillman’s exploration of How the Soul is Sold.