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.

Grab a paperback of “Away With The Fairies” on a special price

Grab a paperback of “Away With The Fairies” on a special price

For reasons best known to itself, the Mighty ‘Zon has lowered the price of “Away With The Fairies” to £6.65 (UK, not sure about US). There’s no way of telling how long this is for, so if you’ve been wavering about grabbing a paperback copy, maybe best to get it now.

Might make a great Easter present (to yourself, even) or a Mothers’ Day gift. Or hide it till December.

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

With the New Year came a plethora of articles and television programmes, basically with a new year-new you theme. The tidy fairy aka Marie Kondo has taught people to fold t shirts and declutter their homes. I’m not a fan of the whole decluttering lark, because it tends to actually create anxiety in many, because we are social animals and can feel pressure to conform and seek approval from our peers by following the trend even when we don’t really want or need to. And much of it is aimed at people who are financially secure enough so that getting rid of an item that still has use in it isn’t a problem if they suddenly discover they do need it six months down the line. They can just buy a new one. Nor am I am a fan of the idea that everything you own must spark joy. I’m more a fan of the William Morris adage: “Have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Continue reading

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.

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

(Warning: serious gloom ahead. Just letting you know.)

Just like Christmas, World Mental Health Day takes me by surprise each year and leaves me just as disappointed (I’m not a big fan of Christmas either) as previous years. More celebrities opening up about their struggles, more empty rhetoric, more pleas for ending stigma. And what changes? I can see few changes since last year. In my own country, provision for serious mental illness has declined still further; what is offered to people coming in with mental and emotional distress is extremely limited and chances are, you’ll be on a long waiting list just to be assessed. I’ve heard whispers that the government is appointing a minister for suicide prevention.

Continue reading

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

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

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

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