Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Despite having her writings, we actually know surprisingly little about Dame Julian,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich the anchorite whose hermitage in Norwich remains a site for pilgrims to this day. We don’t even know her original name; she took the name of the saint whose church she became anchorite of. The church and the cell were bombed during the war but later rebuilt, stone by stone, and the place retains an atmosphere of calm and contemplation; the visitor centre next to it offers refreshments, access to their library and a lovely little gift selection. If you go, they also allow you to park next to the church if you ask for one of their parking permits that will ward off the eagle-eyed traffic wardens.

The 14th century was an especially turbulent one, taking in the Black Death (which reached Britain in 1348, ripping through populations weakened by 2 generations of malnutrition), wars, pogroms, The Peasants’ Revolt, social upheavals and religious movements galore. Dame Julian(born around 1342) saw the effects of the plague first hand, both the initial wave and the later wave that had a reduced effect. When she was around 30, during an illness that was almost fatal, she had a series of visions that are the basis for her writings, and which led to her becoming an anchorite after her recovery. While we know nothing for certain about her origins, education or life before the visions, given that she was 30 at the time, many have speculated that the likelihood was that she was or had been married, and may have had children. The surmise also goes that the illness she survived may have wiped out husband and children. Whatever the truth of this, the life she led after this cataclysmic illness and the visions was entirely different from what she must have led before it.

An anchorite was a hermit who pledged to stay in a single location, often walled in and supplied with the essentials of life via a small window. When a person became an anchorite, the service for the dead was performed, and they were then sealed in. However, they usually led productive lives, often making clothes for the poor and acting (via the window) as a counsellor to troubled souls. One of Julian’s visitors was the mystic Margery Kempe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe who wrote of her visit to dame Julian. http://juliancentre.org/news/margery-kempe-who-met-julian-is-remembered-in-the-anglican-church-on-9th-november.html

One of the most famous of Julian’s sayings was “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Sometimes people use this as a means of shutting up others who are worrying about what’s going on around them. Right now, there’s a lot of reasons to worry. Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but it’s a frighteningly infectious and potentially lethal virus, and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Julian would have witnessed not just the Black Death but many other epidemics or pandemics that roared through the populace; mechanisms by which any disease spread were little understood then and it’s hard to imagine the terrible fear most people would have experienced. For many it may have felt like a judgement from an angry god. Even today, there are so-called Christians who are preaching that this pandemic is God’s judgement on a sinful human race; some who see this as stage in the end of the world prophecies that are supposedly laid out in the Book of Revelation. To that I say: utter tosh.

When the door closed behind Julian and she was sealed inside her cell, I wonder what she would have felt. Her faith, both in a good, kind, loving God rather than the hideous vengeful god usually depicted by the medieval church, would have kept her at peace, and her faith in the benefactors and supporters who ensured that she would be kept supplied with the necessaries of life meant that the usual worries and cares would be gone. She could focus on what she was there for: to pray, to work, to support others from her window, and also to write about her visions.

In my previous post I wrote about how pressured many of us feel by having so many reminders of what others (like Shakespeare) have accomplished in their time in quarantine. There’s a massive collective angst and anxiety that fills the air and reaches all of us who are sensitive to it, and many who otherwise would not be. It’s extremely hard to be creative when the world around us is filled with such turmoil and uncertainty and fear. It’s even harder when well-meaning people exhort us not to waste such an opportunity for extra time we didn’t know we had.

As well as the collective grief and fear and worry, there’s personal concerns that almost everyone is affected by; worries about money, jobs, family, the future. After losing my father six months ago, I had had a sense of relief that at least I didn’t have to worry about him getting the virus. The worry for my mother was short-lived, and replaced instead with immense shock and sadness when she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

I wonder how much of the collective grief that Dame Julian bore and prayed with in that little cell in Norwich, how many folks she comforted with her words of a loving God who cared for his children as a mother might. I would love to sit an hour in her cell now, and pour out my soul there, but I cannot. It may be many months before I can go anywhere that is deemed non-essential. But I can sit quietly in my home, and hold like hazel nuts the cares and sorrows of others, just as she did.

On the Dominance of Filthy Lucre

On the Dominance of Filthy Lucre

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrases, “Money makes the world go round,” and “The love of money is the root of all evil”. In recent months, it’s become apparent to me that both these aphorisms are becoming more and more the reality, and not only does it annoy me, it scares me.

I’m not sure when I first noticed that the suggested products on the mighty ‘Zon were being steadily replaced by sponsored ads, but I really noticed it when my new book got its own page. Most authors have a look at what their books are paired with, and since I’d chosen (possibly naively) to list Méchant Loup: Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1091667012/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

under the genre fairy tales, I saw that beneath the listing were literally dozens and dozens of sponsored ads, supposedly for products related to my book. When it first came out, the sponsored ads beneath my book seemed to be retold fairy tales by only a couple of authors; books that had either just been released or were on pre-order. I glanced at them out of curiosity but none appealed to me. Méchant Loup isn’t a collection of retold fairy tales or even reimagined ones (with one exception of the title story), and given it’s intended for “sensible grown ups”, some of the sponsored ads were way off mark. Most of them if truth be told. I’d hoped that I might gain some traction in this category but I’d have been better listing in literary fiction. Or perhaps not.

The trouble is not just as an author. As a reader, I do glance at the suggested books under the listings of books I have enjoyed. But now it seems that the complex mathematical equations needed to predict what someone might like have gone terribly awry, directly as a result of the proliferation of paid ads. I suspect that few authors don’t now use paid advertising; from what I have heard through the jungle drums, it’s with diminishing returns. Some authors do not recoup from sales what they spent on advertising. I’ve yet to do a poll, but my gut feeling is that the general trend is spending more and more on advertising and get less and less back.

Being a writer is becoming ever more a mug’s game. The ones (like me) who are creating the content (what a hideous phrase) are not the ones garnering any real monetary rewards for the work. Worse still, it’s becoming horrifyingly common to discover that author mills are churning out books, often scraped illegally from the works of others, altered enough to pass the checks needed to be published, and published en masse, with paid reviews convincing enough to lure in more buyers.

Can you hear me sighing heavily?

It might have been the collective sighs of all of us demoralised writers that created Storm Ciara.

Everyone who can grab a piece of us is doing so. Every day I read of other writers who are being forced to give up doing what they love because they can no longer afford to do it. Don’t get me started on the continuing phenomenon of pirating books. One friend has done something I admire immensely, and has backed away from commercial publishing, and is producing limited edition, hand-bound books, available from her directly.

https://kathysharp2013.wordpress.com/2019/04/11/adventures-in-bookbinding-the-herbarium/

It satisfies the soul, and evades the risk of having your work scraped, pirated or plagiarised. I lack the skills to do so, but hats off to her.

The new book has been out a month and has now 7 fabulous reviews, but the initial burst of sales is dwindling, and I fear that before too long it will, along with all my other books that I cannot pay to advertise and will not even had I the money (because it’s clear authors are the cash cow of various industries), languish with only occasional readers.

I don’t have any answers. I try to pass on news about the books of others when I can, and appreciate those who have done that for me. We live in a world where filthy lucre is the only thing that seems to matter to the vast majority of the population; it makes me more and more want to retreat from it all, and not participate in this orgy of capitalistic nihilism.

The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales

One of the highlights of last year (which was a truly awful year in most respects) was having the chance to go on a workshop with Caitlín Matthews http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/ Held at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/ , “The Paths to the Grail” remains an island of calm, learning, fellowship and a deep sense of the numinous, and a shining, beautiful couple of days of my life. A true oasis, if you like. I had wanted to go on one of her courses before, but never so much as this one. In the hell of all the horrible, sad events, this gave me respite.  Continue reading

Brand new year – same old me

Brand new year – same old me

I’ve never quite understood the hype of New Year. The changing of the calender is, in modern times, quite arbitrary. It pays no heed to celestial events like solstices, or to celebrations of saints’ days or gods or goddesses. Yet every year there’s big parties and declarations of intent for the coming year.

I was glad to see the back of 2019. It contained more trouble and trauma than it did joy and gladness. Yet despite the arbitrary nature of when we start a new year, I found myself looking forward to the change of year. It’s good to start a new daily journal, for example. I’ve gone for a larger sized journal, A5 instead of A6, and have used a Moleskine I’ve had in my stash for a few years; my dad gave me a John Lewis voucher a couple of years ago, and one of the things I got was this journal. It seems fitting that something my father (indirectly) gave me be used for the first year that no longer contains his living presence. I’ve done a daily journal since 2014, and it’s a good discipline for me to have to write a few lines at least before I go to sleep each night. It helps put the day to bed as well as give me a chance to record my impressions of the day. Choosing a significantly larger size means I have greater scope for those impressions. I began also a new bullet journal for recording things done and things planned. Last year’s got abandoned around August when events and health crises conspired to make sure I had insufficient energy to keep it up. I stopped writing down the books I read along with a short review and rating, because of the same reason, and because I stopped caring about keeping going with such things. They seemed futile. I considered starting a new notebook for my book records but as the old one was only a little over half way, I decided to draw a firm metaphorical line under last year and start afresh. The first book completed this year was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection of Professor Challenger stories (three novels including “The Lost World”, and several short stories of dubious merit, and copious notes on spiritualism)

Last year’s reading and favourite books I may come back to another time, as I am aware I read some superb books that deserve a shout-out as well as a proper review in the appropriate places. In my haul of Christmas presents were two books by authors who both deserve greater fame. “Meeting Amalek” by Gev Sweeney, and “The Immortality Clock” by Richard Pierce are sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me to finish reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”. I read it years ago, not long after it came out, and only had a library copy. I’ve enjoyed it far more this time, for some reason.

Shortly before New Year, I did the final set of edits on “Méchant Loup – Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups”. I need to do a last read through to ensure it’s all as perfect as I can make it. Then I need to dredge up the courage and resolve to do the upload and publishing parts of the process. I’m so afraid of it sinking into the void unnoticed. I’m also fighting a terrible sense of futility and of uselessness. The year has begun with terrible fires in Australia and the USA doing more than rattling sabres. I’m being deliberating cautious about what I say about that. I’m also doing my level best to try and focus on good news stories and not be sucked into the mire of bad news. I spend some time each day in contemplation, one might even say prayer. Even if there is no one listening (I wonder this more and more as I get older) it does me some good. I am baffled by the unkindness, hatred, stupidity, intolerance, bigotry and so on that goes on daily, unremarked. I feel unwanted in my own country, one I can trace ancestors back a good four hundred years.

Oops. Almost went down a very dark rabbit hole there. Anyway, it’s a new decade too. Not that it means very much either. Not in the grand scheme of things. Whatever it may bring, may it bring for those of us who need it, hope, and better times ahead. I am reminded of lines in Luke’s Gospel, https://biblehub.com/luke/1-53.htm . The rich have already had their reward.

A Living Nightmare of a Decade?

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.

Continue reading

“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

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.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interrupted-Life-Diaries-Letters-Hillesum/dp/095347805X/