An Unmerry Christmas Book.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Actually, for many, it absolutely ISN’T. I’m not a fan of Christmas; I don’t get starry-eyed and enthusiastic about getting the tree up. I get quite morose about it all. And if life is distinctly unwonderful anyway, the whole Christmas thing is often a way to just rub it in.

Anyway, if you feel anything like I do, you may need an antidote to the sugary, sentimental side to the festive season. I’ve dropped a quid off the price of my own favourite novel, The Bet. Here’s a nicely gloomy extract to whet your appetite.

“In the days after the funerals, Greville worried endlessly about his assistant. The Christmas season seemed indecent with its tinselly colour and insincerity, and the old man’s heart contracted with pity watching the boy decorating the foyer, and to see him arrive every morning on time and go through each day like a man sleepwalking. He watched him working with school children on educational visits, wanted to applaud him for sheer determination when he saw him speaking with a shadow of his old energy. He found him asleep in the midst of the basement chaos, or head pillowed on arms on his desk, or once, sitting on the stairs, resting his head on his knees. Greville touched his shoulder to wake him.

Sorry,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I just sat down for a moment because I couldn’t remember what I was going downstairs for.” He stopped a few steps down. “I still can’t.”

Doesn’t matter, whatever it was. Go and make us some coffee, boy.”

Ashurst turned on the stairs and headed back up to the tiny kitchen, Greville following. He stood behind him while he filled the kettle, washed out the cafetière and mugs.

Not sleeping, eh?”

Not much, no. I usually get to sleep around three, if I’m lucky.” He didn’t sound as if he were complaining. “I’m sorry I’ve been dropping off here. I do try not to.”

Couldn’t sleep for weeks and weeks after my wife died,” Greville said awkwardly. “It does stop in the end, the insomnia.”

The boy didn’t say anything; he’d been very economical with his speech lately, none of the impertinence that Greville had been used to and had grown to enjoy. He made the coffee with almost exaggerated care; Greville had noticed his hands shaking any time he’d actually got him to talk, even a bit. He was stirring the coffee now, slowly, as if he were counting how many times the spoon went round.

I keep remembering,” he said softly.

That’s good. That’s important. We all need to remember,” Greville said, putting an awkward arm around him briefly.

You don’t know what I’m remembering,” Ashurst said, and walked out.

Grief. Art. Writing

I was honoured to be a guest on Jane Davis’ blog yesterday. You can read it here:

https://jane-davis.co.uk/2018/06/20/an-exploration-of-art-in-fiction-part-3-grief-art-and-writing-by-vivienne-tufnell/

I’ll be writing later this summer about the various books I’d recommend for a non-beach read, and Jane’s recent book Smash All The Windows will be among those I’ll be suggesting for immersing yourself in excellent fiction rather than sand, sea and suncream.

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/ )

Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer

Fuel from the unconscious ~ why dreaming is vital to me as a writer

One of the other less obvious effects of insomnia for me is the absence of dreams. I simply don’t seem to dream “properly” when I am suffering with sleep problems. Some people never remember their dreams but I’ve trained myself to recapture the key images and experiences of a dream and mull them over during the day. If I can, I write them down. I have notebooks with scribbled dreams dating back years and some dreams from childhood still haunt me. I work over old dreams, aiming at uncovering information from deep inside my psyche. I’ve been trying to do a lot more of this yet lately it has been rare for me to dream and remember more than a few tattered fragments the next day.

The sheer tiredness has meant I’ve not been able to do much creative writing at all, and no less than three novels are sitting on my hard-drive in varying stages of completion. There are other reasons why my creative drive seems to have gone AWOL but I’m not going to focus on those now because once I get sucked into that particular nightmare, it scuppers all reasonable thought.

Without the input of my dreams, I feel as if I am writing blindly, without any inner vision to carry me forward. It’s a nasty feeling, like driving with your eyes half shut and I find that those who advocate just forcing yourself to write when feeling blocked perhaps are asking(of me at least) something impossible and undesirable.

It’s the inner vision that carries any artist forward in their work, that shining thread of something that drives the work forward. I have little drive without the impetus that dreams bring me.

I’d like to share two passages from Away With The Fairies. Both illustrate scenes I experienced in dreams and was unable to forget in the light of day. They also show the power of the unconscious working its way to the surface and to consciousness in the mind and life of an artist. Isobel has suffered two serious bereavements and has failed to express her own grief; the paintings she produces are to some extent extensions of her inner workings to try and embrace death and dying.

From p74:

Can I see what you did today?” he asked, eagerly and silently Isobel unwrapped the board and held it up for him to inspect.

He was silent long enough for her to become uneasy.

Don’t you like it?” she asked.

I’m not sure I understand it enough to like or dislike,” he said, thoughtfully. “It’s amazing but you must admit it is a bit, well, disturbing.”

She shrugged, and said nothing.

Well, it is,” he said defensively. “I mean, have you had a proper look at it?”

What do you mean, have I had a look at it? I painted the bloody thing, I’ve been looking at it all day,” she said crossly.

Have a good long look at it now,” Mickey said. “Now you’ve had a bit of time to detach from it. Look at the shape of the mound and the way you’ve got the interior showing as well as the exterior. What does it look like now?”

Isobel stared at the painting for some minutes, blankly, until with a reeling sense of shock that she had not seen it before, she finally saw what Mickey was trying to show her. Even though it hadn’t been at all what she’d painted, she could see now that the entrance to the tunnel and the shadowy depiction of the cavern inside had the look of great hollow eye sockets, and the bare pale frost covered surface of the mound had the look of ancient bone, weathered and scarred by time. With growing horror, Isobel saw that what she had painted had the look of a skull, an ancient flensed head, crowned with monstrous trees that writhed and wriggled their roots down into the skull like burrowing maggots or worms.               

From Page 143

Loneliness and isolation were both swept away once she set up her easel and began to work. She was drawn into her own visions and only when she was in actual pain from cramped muscles and complaining bladder did she stop to rest and look at what she’d done.

Standing on the mound, surrounded by the smooth boles of the beech trees, was a stag, fine and strong and unafraid, the shape of its antlers echoing the barely seen branches above. The ground at its feet looked more like skin than earth, and in places it seemed to have ripped or cracked open, the crevices showing what lay beneath the surface. Closest to the surface the cracks showed heaps of carcasses of deer, piled up and rotting, some newly dead, others in advanced decomposition. As the eye was drawn down to deeper layers, the cracks showed bones and skulls, the antlers still attached and as the very deepest layers were revealed, the bones were crushed, by time perhaps or by simple weight of the corpses above, till at the very bottom, only bone powder remained that blew out of the crevices in clouds like the smoky vapour from an autumn puffball. Above it all, the stag stood proud and alive, and unaware or uncaring of the horrors below it.

Bloody hell,” breathed Isobel when she saw what she had produced. She had been so absorbed by the work that she had been unable to see the whole, the complete picture till now. Obviously she had seen it but she had not taken it in, had not registered the finished images.

Now Isobel is in some ways a powerful alter ego of mine, and a character I identify with strongly; tying my night time visions into her experiences was very natural process of letting my unconscious mind direct my conscious one. Words flowed like spring water, easy and a plot unfolded without having to stretch and strain at contriving one.

Without this resource I am pretty much a hack writer, good with words maybe but useless at reaching anything deeper. And without that deeper expression, there is little point in me writing until that returns or is proclaimed missing presumed dead.

I’m not giving up hope yet. I’ve been taking a supplement called 5htp and it seems to have been helping me sleep a little better and even dream too. If I can get decent sleep, then maybe my dreaming will return. 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

I’ve always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry but the following poem was recently brought back to my attention by a musical version of it by Natalie Marchant.

Spring and Fall:

to a Young Child

 Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as 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 will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow’s springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

For those of you that are not poetically inclined, the poem is addressed to a young girl who is distressed that the leaves of her favourite woodland are falling. For a child, the seasons have not yet become predictable and the certainty that we as adults may feel that the spring will come and the trees with again be crowned in green is not present. The grief of the child is palpable in the words Hopkins writes; she is too young to have the assurance of spring. And yet, Hopkins does not dismiss this. Indeed, he says that even though as she grows older and becomes more hardened to such things, she will still weep for such things because the origin of the sorrow will always remain. Essentially a poem about the grief our own mortality can bring us, it is one of such compassion and understanding of a particularly sensitive child that I felt it speak to me personally.

Death has become the last great taboo in our culture and the thing that divides us most. People would rather not think about their own mortality at all and those who do are labelled as morbid or negative. Yet the fact remains that we all die. How and where and when are the great unknowns. And what comes next, if anything, is the greatest mystery of them all. Unlike children who learn by experience that after the great unleaving of the trees in Autumn and the cold, cold days of Winter, the Spring returns without fail, we cannot discover by experience and rest easy in that knowledge.

So the smaller deaths in life, the partings and the endings, become focuses for our anxiety and need for reassurance. Moving house, as I have done many times, becomes a grief beyond the mere hassle. So much of my life has been bound up within those walls. Changing jobs. The death of others close to me. All these endings. They’re hard to bear. Really hard to bear. And the temptation is to leap ahead for comfort, to try and see the future where things do not hurt. To know that the Spring will come again.

And yet, this is something that denies the reality of the moment. The death of a friend even when you are sure in your heart that death is not the final curtain but a change of state, should hurt. It needs to, because it returns you to a state of innocence, that of Margaret in the poem, where you grieve in a pure state.

In our busy society, without time or inclination for either rites of passage or time to grieve, to be allowed to grieve is a blessing. It allows healing to happen. If you cut that time short, you cut yourself. And the longer you defer or postpone or refuse that grieving, the more you may find waiting for you later.

  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve, because in some ways, you are grieving for yourself as well. 

Dealing with grief: a personal perspective

 

Dealing with grief: a personal perspective

I wanted to write this before I lose courage to do so. This is not a post that is even going to attempt to be scholarly or give helpful links; there are plenty to do that.

I was blind sided this morning by grief. Doing some tidying up, I wanted to put a box of beer away in the cupboard and realised that the cans of dog food were still there, taking up room. No one has got round to moving them. I suspect no one had the time to do it but today I did. There was a couple of weeks supply of cans, a bag of mixed dog food unopened and the teeth cleaning chewies Holly used to love so much at bed time. I’ve piled them all up in a bag to take over to the vet’s later where there is a box for donations for local shelters. I can’t bring myself to do it now until I get my emotions back into order. I found myself crying, you see.

I didn’t expect to feel quite such acute emotion now, nearly five weeks later. I’ve slowly begun to get used to her not being here, and I felt I was recovering. But this makes me realise the feelings are still quite raw. Not enough time has passed. The normal every day things I have begun to accept, like not having a walking companion trotting along with me, or letting her out first thing in the morning. But seeing her food, that she’ll never eat now, well, it set me off again.

Grief is a strange thing. It’s both complex and simple. And it has no official time scale. You can’t say, it’s been a year, I ought to be OK now. Every journey through it is different. The basic stages as I have seen are: shock/denial, anger/guilt, emotional storm, acceptance, regaining of perspective, the beginning of healing and finally a deepening of our capacity for love. In my experience, the passage through these stages is not linear nor is it easy. It depends to some degree on the nature of the loss, the closeness of the bond and personality. When a death is expected, the shock is usually less, but not always. Human beings “cannot bear much reality” and even when you know death is coming, you continue to hope beyond hope that it won’t come. Anger and guilt also depend on the relationship. When a relationship is flawed or fractured, then it’s logical that the time spend in the anger/guilt stage may be proportionately longer; for this reason, it’s better to try and heal relationships in life, if possible.

I’m not a weepy person. I don’t cry very easily when I am in a stable state, but when I am low, I shed tears easily, but hold it back. Tears are as healing a thing as any I can think of. Weeping produces certain chemicals in the brain that are closely related to opiates; if you’ve ever cried enough, you may have experienced a sense of calm and even peace after a long crying fit. I hate crying. I hate anyone seeing me cry. And yet, I know it’s probably the best thing to do to help heal emotional pain.

I should tell myself: let yourself feel and let yourself weep. I should tell myself: give yourself time. But then I never listen to me, so here I am telling you.

Give yourself time. Be gentle to yourself in grief. Let the journey unfold as it needs to. Let tears flow if they need to. Talk to someone who cares. Don’t be alone if you don’t want to be.

And finally, it will pass. Every day it becomes a little less painful. The first anniversaries can be hard, but even then, with time, they become bearable. The deepening of our capacity for love is usually a sign that the journey through grief has been a successful one and yet so often people who have endured a lot of grief in life are often bitter.

I aim not to be one of them.

Stillborn Dream

 

Stillborn dream

 

Last night I dreamed I bore a babe,

Born twenty weeks too soon: and dead.

I grieved awake as much as if

I’d truly born a child that day.

The day went on, I soon forgot

The heat of loss, the chill of grief.

But underneath the wound was deep

And I’m still weeping in my sleep.

 

We’ve all had dreams like that where we wake and feel awful for the whole day afterwards, the contents and the mood of the dream putting a heavy downer on the day.

A few nights ago on BBC2 Horizon, the popular science programme,  devoted a whole programme to dreams and dreaming, focussing largely on why we dream.  I’ve always believed that dreams are vital to us and in many ways and the new research backed this up.

Until quite recently it was thought that we dream only during REM sleep but it has since been discovered that we do dream in nonREM sleep too. They found this out by the process of wiring people up and then waking them during different sleep phases and asking them if they were dreaming! Now the clever part of the experiment was that when people were woken from both REM and nonREM sleep, they were asked to immediately fill in a questionaire that consisted of completing words for which only the first three letters were given. A lot of number crunching went on and it was discovered that those woken from non REM sleep generally produced words that were positively rated and those from REM sleep, chose words that were negatively rated. For example a REM waker would complete INT as intolerable and a nonREM waker the same letters as interesting. I don’t recall the exact figures but I seem to remember that 80% of the REM wakers’ responses were negative words, and about 20% of the nonREM wakers’ words were negative. 

Now, this is the part I got quite excited about!

They continued the experiment and incorporated volunteers who were suffering from depression as well as those who were not. Because they could study people in sleep, it was discovered that those with depression had more periods of REM sleep than those without; the cycle of REM/NonREM was totally different and usually ended with a REM cycle immediately before waking.

I was staggered by this. If they could find a way of rebalancing the cycles, then surely the depression would ease? My own experience of the kind of questions asked by psychiatrists to assess depression is that they always ask whether you wake in a low mood and then get slowly better or vice versa. If clinical depression (that is non reactive depression) is caused by an excess of REM sleep(and dreams) then this would account for the fact that in the last fifty or so years, there has been a steady rise in cases of depression at the same time as a steady drop in the average number of hours we sleep. Maybe we need more sleep and less alarm clock calls, to let our bodies reset their natural pattern.

It’s worth thinking about.

 

by Viv