U is for Utopia

U is for Utopia

I’m coming rapidly to the end of this run-through the alphabet and some of the last letters are somewhat problematic. I considered Useless (that’s how I feel a lot of the time) and also Unknowing (the older I get, the more I know I don’t know) but settled on Utopia, because there’s so much Dystopia-stuff around.

The person who coined the term (it actually means No Place) was Sir Thomas More in his fictional piece of the same name. Curiously enough, he was inspired by Plato’s writings on Atlantis. I’d urge you to read more about both works, because More’s ideas of Utopian society included such things as slavery, severe punishments for pre-marital sex, and communal living. The book addressed issues of its day and the blue-print for a utopian society he depicts is anathema to what I consider a perfect world.

We use the word Utopia to mean a perfect society but when it comes down to it, the origin of the name tells us everything. It is No Place. It cannot be. To be the ideal living conditions for one segment of society, it does so at the expense of others. For many, our current society is Utopia as it stands; this is why, in the run up to a General Election in the UK, those at the top of the ladder will fight tooth and bloody nail to keep things as they are, because that suits them very well indeed, thank you very much. To create a society where every member is valued and has a basic and decent standard of living is impossible in a culture that is essentially venial and selfish, where the rich wish to get richer and richer at the expense of the poor, where luxuries beyond imagining become common-place for the lucky few, and people starve and freeze on the streets.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis

R is for Response

R is for Response

The more depressed I get, the harder it is to respond to anything. Words dry up. I might be able to say or write something but it can take so much effort that when someone replies, I cannot find more words or thoughts with which to respond.

Imagine a game of tennis played by two people, one of whom is extremely good at tennis and the other who has gone on court only because they think they should or hope it might do them good or because someone has talked them into it. The reluctant player serves; it takes all their skill and energy to hit the ball over the net successfully. Often it hits the net, or goes screaming over the head of the opponent and gets lost in the bushes behind the tennis court. Or they miss. When the ball does finally reach the other side, the other player leaps gleefully forward and lobs it back neatly. They know their opponent is not a keen player and they’re kindly trying to give a nice easy shot so they can start a satisfying volley. Or they don’t know or care what their opponent’s level is, and they return the ball with a fast, skilful slam that only a veritable athlete has a chance of returning. So the reluctant player has barely a chance to see the ball whacked back before they realise they cannot get to it. They stand there, feeling like a failure, while the keen player makes noises about, oh bad luck old girl, let’s try that again.

The game goes on.

And on.

And on.

By the time it’s game set and match to the keen player, the reluctant player has been annihilated, and when their opponent leaps the net in a mock victory parade, they slink off, humiliated and defeated.

Some days, when I try to speak of things close to my heart and soul, my throat closes up. It’s like the aftermath of a throat punch. It’s painful and quite frightening. I find writing things down less painful, but even then, it can take a lot of energy to get the words out. It seems to take forever. Then when someone responds, (either face to face, or via the comments or a tweet or a thread on Facebook), I’m often unable to reply. The original statement has taken all the energy.

So I apologise for the times when I don’t reply to comments here, in particular. I read them and I ponder on them but sometimes, and it’s been almost all the time lately, I cannot manage to respond, not in any meaningful way. I reply in my head. But something stops it going any further. I am sorry. Must do better, eh?

P is for Poetry

P is for Poetry

P is for Poetry

Or possibly, predictable.

Come on, you didn’t expect me to use P for anything else, now, did you?

Sorry. This whole A-Z thing is inherently predictable, after all.

Anyway. Poetry.

I wrote my first poem (I’ve probably said before) at infants’ school, so somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8 (when I went up to junior school). My memory suggests 6 or 7 as the age; the title of the poem was Blue. It extolled the virtues of my favourite colour. There’s no copies of it anywhere, for which I am sure you are all profoundly grateful.

At school I was one of the few who enjoyed both the reading and the writing of poetry. Yet after the school days were gone, I seldom wrote any. There’s a few tucked away; angsty, angry ones from university days but I think the sheer wall of hugely brilliant poets I’d studied rather impeded the idea of actually writing anything myself. Even my fiction dried up at uni; it was not until my daughter was a baby that I started tentatively to write again properly, having spent my childhood and teens scribbling.

Why poetry? What’s the point of it, is a question I’ve heard too often. Poetry says things in ways prose cannot and will not. It’s not about flowery language but about finding a way to express something (often deep and hard to articulate) in a manner that transcends age, culture, and sometimes even language itself. The brevity of some forms is like an expert ink drawing that captures a moment so perfectly, it never needs the colour adding. The longer forms tap into our unacknowledged need for rhythm and draws us in, with repetition and with something older and more arcane than the familiar story-telling of a novel.

As a mature* adult I’ve written more poetry and have found some sense of calling in writing it. It’s been published in assorted small journals (some now extinct) and more recently in national newspapers (I’ve had some in The New European). My first collection of poetry Accidental Emeralds https://www.amazon.co.uk/Accidental-Emeralds-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B00LM890TG/ several times reached the sweet spot of number one in Love Poetry. My second Hallowed Hollow https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hallowed-Hollow-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1544615779/ made it to four in the category Religious and Inspirational poetry. It got its first review the other day and glowing doesn’t come close to how enthused the reviewer was (proud moment!)

But stuck in the pipeline was another, longer tome. A Box of Darkness stalled at the last minute. I’d got some proof copies and then realised I’d messed up the table of contents, and couldn’t figure out how to do it properly. I’d also used a quote from American poet Mary Oliver and I realised that this was unethical. Despite the quote being all over the internet, I couldn’t use it, either inside the book or on the cover or blurb. So I had to think again. Two years on, I was still thinking. Then a couple of weeks ago, I dragged myself back to it, and did it. A recent purchase of a traditionally published book of poems gave me a clue of how to present the contents page without having to jump through hoops.

A Box of Darkness (like Hallowed Hollow) is only available as a paperback, as I don’t feel a longer collection fits digital format There’s 60+ poems in it, so at the current temporary release price of £5.00 (or local equivalent) that’s extremely good value, but it will go up very soon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Box-Darkness-poems-darkness/dp/1505904285/

Subtitled Poems from the Darkness, the theme is obvious. The blurb is as follows:

Sometimes we fear to go into the dark places that depression and mental distress can lead us into. Yet as many mystics and seekers over the centuries have found and spoken about, those dark places often contain the treasures we did not know we were searching for. These poems are the results of my walking into the darkness and bringing back the beauty and wisdom that is hidden there. Some painful, some humorous, but all poignant, I hope you will find these poems inspire and encourage you to seek your own treasures in the darkness.”

Poetry is an important but under-valued art form; there’s a lot of baaaaaad poetry about too. But there’s a lot of very good stuff too, and I think mine falls into that camp, not the other.

*however you define mature, I’m using it to mean over the age of 21.

All links are to Amazon UK but it’s in other Amazon stores if you look under my name and the book title.

N is for Newt

N is for Newt

N is for Newt

When I taught English as a foreign language, playing word games was a nice ten minute filler at the end of the lesson. Going through the alphabet and finding a word for a series of categories was a pretty standard exercise but the letter N always stumped students when it came to the animal category. There really aren’t many animals starting with N. I usually ended up supplying the word, either Newt of Nuthatch.

Newts are (as you all know) amphibians. Contrary to popular belief this doesn’t mean they spend most of their time in and around water; newts like damp places for certain but the only time you’re likely to see them in your pond is during the breeding season. Our pond has at least once species of newt that breeds in it (as well as frogs and toads), and they’re utterly delightful to watch.

This one was caught when we were weed-clearing last year and was returned immediately after the photo opportunity.

L is for Lists

L is for Lists

I like a list, me. Not useful ones like shopping lists where each item is carefully inscribed onto the back of an envelope; no, most of us know what we need when we go to the supermarket. You know how it goes: bread, milk, cucumbers, cat food, loo roll... the same old same old. I only tend to make lists now for things that are not bought each and every time a grocery shop is done: hot pepper sauce, Gentleman’s Relish, wet wipes for the car, shoe polish, memory stick.

When I am packing to go away, I make a list of the things that need to be included, the things that it would be disastrous to forget: underwear, sufficient changes of clothes, medication, phone charger, passport. You know the drill. When we used to go camping on a regular basis, I’d make lists in the run up, of things that needed to be done before we left, clothing to be laundered, or equipment that needed to be disinterred from the loft, then when that list had reached a certain size and half of the items/tasks were ticked off, I’d make a second list (List, son of list) and repeat the process. We usually got to great great grandson of List by the day of departure.

Some folks have a To Do list. I often do this but one important thing that is very useful if, like me, you are not 100% well. Make sure that the first items on the to do list are things you have already done (get up, shower, brush teeth, drink tea) because there’s a lift to be gained from ticking several items off the list before the day has really got going. You’re more likely to do some of the other tasks if you feel you’ve already accomplished something that day. On a bad day, seeing that you’ve ticked off four things on a list of ten, can sometimes make the difference between going to bed beating yourself up and going to bed feeling you did something that day.

Which brings me to the next list. This is the Ta Dah* list. Instead of making a list of the things you have to do, make one of things you have done. You can do it daily, weekly or whatever. Just as a To Do list accumulates masses and masses of things as you contemplate the enormous mountain of stuff you feel you have to do (believe me, it becomes a snowball rolling down a hill, the way it just gets bigger and bigger), so to does the Ta Dah* list. If you find yourself feeling despondent about how useless you are (I frequently feel this way) a Ta Dah* list soon puts it into perspective. A couple of years ago, I started making a monthly spreadsheet where I filled in each day how far I’d walked, how many minutes at the gym doing which exercise, if I’d done any writing, or other creative activity. It gave me a bit of a shock after a few months, because even when I thought I was doing nothing, it turns out I was doing rather a lot, and far more than I gave myself credit for.

I’m not going to do Hit Lists…we’d be here all day.

*Ta Dah is meant to be said with a flourish and an exclamation mark and that gesture with the hands that goes with magicians extracting weary tame rabbits from top hats.

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/ )

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

Just like Christmas, #WorldMentalHealthDay comes around faster and faster as I get older. I have a theory that the days are actually getting shorter, but that since clocks and all means of measuring time belong to the same universe where time is speeding up, no one can tell except older folks who everyone dismisses. That aside, here we are again, a day set aside to raise awareness of mental health issues.

I wish I had something good and exciting to say about the mental health provision in my own country but I don’t. Despite various campaigns and internet noise from organisations like MIND, Time to Change and The Samaritans, I can’t see that there has been any improvement at all, either in providing useful care or reducing stigma. A number of police forces have been considering suing the NHS because they feel it is entirely inappropriate that they have had to put vulnerable people in police cells for their own safety; locally I know of NO mental health beds available for suicidal or near suicidally ill people. On the last occasion I spoke to the Samaritans, the predictable question came up: have you spoken to your GP? I resisted the temptation to reply with asperity, but I did convey the complete pointlessness of seeing a GP when you have been bouncing around the system for much of your adult life, and that at present, all my GP would be able to offer would be medication I’d refuse and the possibility of going on a waiting list for CBT (which I would also refuse). The waiting list (last time I checked) was a good six months.

For someone who has struggled with mental illness all her life, I have come to a point where I could be described as high functioning depressive. I have never found medication to be helpful, though I must acknowledge that for some it is a life saver. I have only found it to make things worse. I have a low opinion of CBT for anything other than quite simple issues; it’s also become clear that while it is being used as a panacea for everything (it’s cheap) it’s very much contraindicated for a good number of conditions, including PTSD (something that is far more common and pervasive than people think, since it is usually associated with a single dramatic event in a person’s life, yet can be the result of long term stress, constant fear and so on). For long term serious conditions, much more is needed than simple therapies that are rolled out as cure-calls, usually with time/session limited courses of often no more than six sessions. But, we are told, there is no money.

Concerning stigma, I’m not convinced that’s reduced either. I read on the screen at the gym today some commentary on Tyson Fury’s mental illness, that trotted out all the usual guff about how he has everything to live for blah blah blah. It’s an ILLNESS, doofus. There’s been a subtle change that has in essence re-stigmatised mental illness. There are wide-spread ideas that are being spread via the internet, that it is possible to cure mental illness by maintaining positive thinking, smiling more, avoiding negative people, eating well, taking exercise and even by being consciously grateful for the good things in your life. All of these things may well benefit a person in the grips of a bit of glumness. But just as they won’t cure serious physical illness or injury, not will they cure mental illness. They’re coping strategies for staying well, no more than that. Yet it has entered the collective consciousness and the change is a very insidious form of stigma; people get told these things and if they fail to do them, or they try and nothing helps, it gets thrown back on them as being their fault for not trying harder or for whining or whatever. There’s a hidden attitude that actually depressed people deserve it, they’ve brought it on themselves by not trying hard enough to get better.

I’m also far from convinced that bringing in celebrities as Poster Boys and Girls for mental illness awareness is a useful thing. Many of those who have espoused the cause are, like me, high functioning depressives (other conditions are available…) and often don’t look like they’ve ever suffered a day’s blight in their lives. Then, when their lives implode periodically (for whatever reason) there’s mixed messages: first, so much for them being able to live well with the condition, blah blah, second, well if he/she can’t live with it with all their advantages in life, what hope is there for ordinary folks.

But I and my allies will fight on, as much as we can. There’s irony that depression robs you of the energy to fight for better care. I’ve made my book of essays, Depression and The Art of Tightrope Walking, only 99p (or whatever that is in other world currencies) worldwide, for a short period of time, to help raise awareness of mental health and mental illness. A recent review said that it would help others to understand what it means to live with such illness, and on a day like World Mental Health Day, I can’t think of a better thing for people to understand. The book will be at its lower price for a few days so please, please, please let others know about it, and if you have not already grabbed a copy, grab one now. Any reviews are very much appreciated too; the last time I looked there was nothing quite like it in the charts for mental health. Most books there are either self help books of some sort or celebrity mental health memoirs; mine is neither.

Whatever today brings you, I wish you all well.

(I have only added the UK link; for other Amazon stores, please enter the book title and my name into the search facility, or replace the dot co dot uk in the URL with whichever prefix is used for your local store ie dot fr, dot com etc)