“It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

When I wrote Little Gidding Girl, the world was a different place. We’d only just got broadband internet, and compared to dial-up (remember that and shudder) it was lightning fast. Each member of my family owned a mobile phone but smartphones were not yet on the market. We all had a computer but mine was deliberately not connected to the internet; if I wished to go online I had to wait till the computer in my husband’s study downstairs was free. Looking back, I can see how many hours I spend a day just noodling around online and not being productive at all. I wrote six novels like that, without being distracted by googling goats or otters or weird symptoms.

Another thing that has changed is the way that female main characters are portrayed. There’s been a significant rise in the feisty, fiery, sassy, outspoken and kick-ass heroine; they existed before, obviously, but it would seem that writing women has become a problematic matter if they are anything less than the template that various tropes and memes depict. Isobel from Away With The Fairies and Chloe from Square Peg both have qualities of that template; they’re women who are generally confident of who they are and of their own value. It’s the shaking of that confidence that provides some of the tension and the driving force behind their stories. Jenny from The Bet falls fairly and squarely into the strong woman camp but she is also venial and exploitative and selfish; she qualifies more as a villain than a heroine, but it’s not these qualities of self-belief and self confidence that make her so. Rather it’s her lack of ability to see others (especially the hero Antony Ashurst who definitely qualifies as a quiet one…) as people rather than things, that twists her into an outwardly attractive character whose heart is pretty nasty all round.

I wrote Little Gidding Girl immediately after all three books mentioned and Verity, the main character, could not be more different. She has little confidence and her self-esteem has all but vanished, but to my mind, she more than qualifies as strong. She endures without crumbling a variety of life situations her adult life brings to her: a dead-end job with a bullying boss, a set of parents who abrogate their responsibilities to run away from debt and failure, an unplanned pregnancy that scuppers her and her husband’s plans for joint careers in teaching, and the passing of a grandfather who was mentor and rock to her during a critical phase in her younger life. But though she does not crumble, she does not thrive either. She goes inward, thinking the things that Isobel or Chloe would have said, loudly and with utter confidence. Her rebellion towards her hectoring boss Juliet is silent and unspoken; her acquiescence to her old school friend Carla is only nominal and superficial.

Yet for all this passivity, she’s not actually passive at all. Under the surface, deep currents are stirring and rising, becoming steadily more inexorable as a better equilibrium is sought for her life. I can’t help thinking that many of us will find this both restful and exciting, because we’re constantly exhorted that if we don’t grasp our futures with both hands, nothing will ever come to us. It’s exhausting, that sort of philosophy, and it’s infiltrated everything in the years since I wrote the book. It’s the complete opposite of the idea that what is meant to happen will happen without us needing to lift a finger. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, but at the moment, the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that many of us feel worn out and defeated by the demands on our time, intelligence and interests. It’s no longer enough to simply enjoy a hobby like knitting, or jam making or even writing or painting; we are badgered to make it pay, make it into a business or high art. Sometimes I think this may be the dark root of why I have found writing so hard in recent years, this constant internal and external pressure to be the best, to sell the most, to be (I have begun to hate both word and concept) professional about it all.

It’s when the quiet ones rise up and stand firm that the world will quake, because in my estimation, there are more of the quiet ones than there are of the other sort. The quiet ones are the ones who conform to every request from employers who have leaped into the gap made by the Dunning-Kruger effect, until one day, enough is enough and they say NO, and walk away or resist. When the quiet ones find their voices, the mouse will roar and the lions will cower.

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Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.

Z is for Zen

Z is for Zen

A quick scan of the internet shows that the definition of the word Zen is a troublesome one. The most basic, factual one is this: a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.

Urban dictionary comes up with a nice one: One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

Sun is warm, grass is green.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zen

The Cambridge dictionary’ s version is pretty poor: relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change:

Don’t worry about doing the right thing with your baby – be more zen about it and you’ll be happier.

I tend towards the Urban dictionary version and it’s pretty much what I felt when I began this blog. Walking a tightrope is a powerful metaphor for the way my life is; ages back, someone suggested just letting myself fall. It scared me; it still scares me. My collection of essays from this blog, Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, is my account of my discoveries and explorations of a life dominated by depression; my recent collection of poems A Box of Darkness is intended as a treasury of what I have found in that darkness.

I thought of the blog title several years before I began blogging; it sprang to mind instantly. There have been a number of blogs using Zen in the title; many are using it in a very different way. Some reflect the philosophy of Zen and the Art of Archey, some Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (reviewed here). But I am proud of my blog. This, by remarkable coincidence, is my 1000th post here. Z is indeed for Zen, and it’s also the end of this A-Z not-a-challenge. I hope you have enjoyed my meanderings and excursions.

<departs left, pursued by a bear>

Y is for Yes

Y is for Yes

The year I turned forty, my life was turned upside down and inside out with a change of career and of pretty much everything for my husband (and by default, the whole family). After the shock of it wore off, I made up my mind to say YES to things that scared the living daylights out of me. Owing to poor mental health and starting a family, I’d never managed to launch a proper career and returning to the workplace was a frightening experience, one that I am not sure to this day that people ever understood that I was utterly terrified by everything asked of me. I think I did a lot of something that verged on disassociation, a constant pretence, a wearing of a mask that meant I could do my job even though much of me was screaming to be allowed to run away. I used to joke, in fact, that I kept an invisible mask in my desk drawer at work that I would take out at the start of the day and put back at the end.

As well as mental health issues, I was also coping with severe endometriosis, so much so that much of the month I was in pain and for about a week, I was in agony. But I still said yes: yes to the teaching, yes to the tours and the airport and station and port pick-ups of students. I said yes to another type of tour, one that took me into the heart of Europe, often to places I’d never been before, to be a tour guide.

Later, I said yes to self-publishing, even though I’d always in the past felt it wasn’t for me (that was based on an understanding that came from the original self-publishing model that was in fact, vanity publishing) and while the first attempt and all the mess that created (someone else did it for me, something I now regret quite bitterly) wasn’t perfect, I learned from it and improved.

I said yes to my husband returning to his ministry, despite fears of being betrayed again, and I have no regret on this score. I live somewhere now I feel comfortable in and I love my home.

But saying yes to everything is not a good thing. I need to learn to say no more. Not just NO to the massive social injustices and world problems but also to the demands of own little world. I need to say yes to more compassion towards myself; to say yes to taking care of me, rather than always putting others first. I’ve never liked myself much and I sometimes fear that I may seek the approval of others so that the approbation and admiration they might feel towards me might make up for the lack of those things in myself.

X is for X-rated

X is for X-rated

Not so long ago, I shared a very interesting post about writing to a Facebook group for Christian writers; the post contained some strong language and I put up a content note so that people could avoid if they chose or to read it later as it was something one would call NSFW (not suitable for work). I’ve never had much of a beef with strong language; the use of so-called swear words is for a writer a fine line between realism and personal sensibilities. For someone of faith, it would seem it’s the biggest, most heinous of crimes, judging by the reactions I saw then and at other times. I’m not going to go into the theology of it; that’s not my bag and despite what people say, the evidence that the use of strong or even foul language is forbidden in the Bible, is weak, flawed and based on simplistic thinking, poor understanding of the texts and ambiguous translations.

Words are just words. The use of culturally taboo words in our society serves a very valuable function, when used wisely. If you are not someone who peppers their speech with “rude” words, there is a powerful endorphine boost if they are used in moments of extreme need (pain, grief, shock etc) that is diluted if you are habituated to using them; it’s the breaking of taboo that gives that rush that will relieve pain, give sometimes a rush of energy (to lift the car off your foot) and allow feelings that have become blocked and frozen to flow again.

What are truly obscenities in this world are not the f-word or the c-word, but rather the abuses of war, rape, famine, cruelty, political greed, alienation and a hundred other things that in my book are far more to be recoiled from than the occasional ripe phrase ripped from an honest, hurting heart.

W is for Woman

W is for Woman

I am woman – hear me roar,”

is what I hear so many say.

I do not roar,

I sometimes squeak

Or squeal or even growl.

At times I even purr.

In truth, mostly I am silent,

Unable to find a voice

Or words that fit

The needs that change

From day to day.

Sometimes I whisper

Into the void

Until my throat is sore,

As much as if I’d screamed.

It is not this lioness who roars.

(edited to clarify: have changed the to THIS. I know lionesses do actually roar. )

V is for Vivienne

V is for Vivienne

We’re a rare breed these days, us Viviennes (or Vivian, Vyvian, Vivien etc). The name, never hugely popular, has become unusual. If I come across another person (I say person because the name is unisex, with variations on spelling) with the name, I find we tend to greet each other with some glee. A couple of years ago, the attendant at the top of the Tour Montparnasse in Paris was another Vivienne; we spotted each other’s name badges and grinned spontaneously. Once I’d got the group inside, we stopped to chat, bewailing the decline of a great name. Mine is the French spelling but the origin of the name is probably Latin, from the adjective vivus, meaning alive.

Famous Viviennes include the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legends, though there are many versions of her name. I rather like the idea of my name being that of such an entity. Other Viviennes include actress Vivien Leigh, designer Vivienne Westwood, and cricketer Viv Richards. Fictional ones include Vyvian from comedy series The Young Ones and Viven Ward in the film Pretty Woman. Here’s a link to Wiki’s page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivian_(personal_name) on Viv-type names. Alas I am not on it. Yet.

There are several saints with the name, from an early Christian bishop (male) to two female saints in 3rd and 4th centuries https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Bibiana The fourth century saint (you may be wondering about the Bibiana rather than Viviana, but Bs and Vs shift over time and are often interchangeable) is listed as a patron saint of such various things as: epileptics, hangovers, headaches, insanity, mental illness, mentally ill people, single laywomen, torture victims. I find this…comforting, though her death was hideous and her life (according to various hagiographies) difficult and painful. There’s a certain symmetry to sharing my name with such a lady.