O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

When I taught English as a foreign language, one of the lessons I did covered the subject of Love. Inevitably it had to touch on romantic love ( and Romeo and Juliet: yuck!) but there was a short poem I used too. I can’t recall the poet offhand, as I’d seen the poem only in a collection of poems from Penhaligan’s (they did a range of scented books, of which I had three) that had a theme of LOVE. The poem was these few lines:

Same old slippers

Same old rice

Same old glimpse

Of Paradise*.

I wanted to get across the power of the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, in a relationship. Too much emphasis is put on the initial stages, on falling in love and that heady experience that too often leads to heartache and not to real, deep love. People talk about the glow going out of a relationship when in fact, they are settling into the deep reality that does not rely on romantic gestures to be truly nourishing to each partner.

In much of life, novelty and unfamiliarity are seen as the epitome of what we must seek, whether it’s in relationships, experiences or in what we look for in our entertainment. And in the pursuit of the new, the exciting, the different, the exotic, we lose sight of the ordinary beauty and wonder around us. Simple things like sparrows become invisible. Yet a sparrow is intensely wonderful. We just don’t seem to see them, and flock instead to see the fire-crest, blown off course and lost.

Same with plants. A spring time verge in this country is golden and glorious with dandelions, as lovely as if they were planted, yet we overlook their beauty (and use, too) for things we have to nurture and protect to get them to bloom.

Seek the wonder in the ordinary. Enjoy a cup of coffee in your own garden, back yard or balcony, breathing in the scent and wonder at how such a brew came to be in your hands. Take a peep at the wild flowers and birds around you, and see them with new eyes. Embrace the ordinary, and it will hug you back.

*I looked it up: William James Lampton.

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I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I considered making I for Introversion but given the small wars that break out over the introvert/extrovert issue, I decided to side-step the whole thing and go for Imagination, as suggested by my pal Nick. That said, I think that our innate neurological bent (innies or outies) may have some bearing on how imagination works for us and how those of us who were daydreamers as children may well often discover themselves to be raging introverts as adults.

Imagination is the factor that every creative artist relies upon. It’s the machine that takes a scrap of inspiration plucked from the ether like a feather falling from the sky, and turns it into something greater. It’s the whole, “I wonder if…” that keeps us moving forwards, keeps us discovering both inside our minds and in the world beyond. Used well, it is what gets a writer to the end of a project.

But it’s a two-edged sword. The imaginative spark that gives plot twists and character flaws in a novel is the same thing that takes a noise from downstairs in the night, and turns it into a home invasion (human or otherwise). Lived subliminally and unawakened, imagination is the engine of anxiety. It takes all the what ifs there ever were for a potential future, and shoves the really, really nasty ones right in your face and makes them appear ALL IN CAPS, blood-red and furious.

One tool on the path towards healing is Active Imagination, a term coined by Jung for something mystics and visionaries have used (probably) for thousands of years. The process is a complex one and needs great care, for it gives a medium for exploring the dark caves within our psyches.

Active imagination is a cognitive methodology that uses the imagination as an organ of understanding. Disciplines of active imagination are found within various philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions. It is perhaps best known in the West today through C. G. Jung‘s emphasis on the therapeutic value of this activity.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_imagination

People unfortunately seem intent on using the name for a process of creating their own scenarios, and controlling very carefully what occurs within them. This is folly, in my opinion, as the extraordinary benefits of truly bridging the gap between the unconscious mind and the conscious, are inestimable.

Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung’s approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one’s desired changes. One would then respond genuinely to these changes, and report any further changes in the scene. This approach is meant to ensure that the unconscious contents express themselves without overbearing influence from the conscious mind. At the same time, however, Jung was insistent that some form of participation in active imagination was essential: ‘You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real’.

I’ve been exploring Active Imagination for some years now; it’s harder work than you might imagine (haha) and very tiring. You’d think that someone with a good imagination would be a ready-made expert, but you’d be wrong. I’m used to controlling (subtly or not so subtly) where story-lines go, and letting go completely and letting them just go where they want to is difficult and frustrating. It may also explain why I’ve found fiction so difficult in recent years; the processes are close but yet worlds apart.

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

H is for Heresy

Long ago (and perhaps not so very long ago) I’d have been burned as a heretic or hanged as a witch, because my expressed beliefs do not conform to the required norms of Churchianity ( a term I believe was coined by Dion Fortune, who was a devout, if unorthodox, Christian herself)

I’ve always been drawn by the numinous, since quite early childhood. I remember making a shrine in my bedside cabinet when I was about six or so, using a Christmas card with a nativity scene on it as a kind of altar piece, and surrounding it with things I felt to be beautiful or holy, like flowers and stones and so on. I learned the Lord’s prayer around the same time. We weren’t a church-going family so I am not sure where this interest came from. I conducted a funeral for my beloved pet mouse (when he died, of course) that involved holy water and flowers and so on, despite knowing nothing about funerals or ritual. But when I did start attending church by myself, aged 11, I can only say I found it dull, bound by rules and by unspoken assumptions about life that I had no clue about. There was nothing of the hidden glory that I felt existed beyond the mundane, which was the whole reason for my search.

The journey to find that glory has been a difficult one, and I’ve found it, that shining, singing, wonder, in places that are far from cosy fellowships and regulations and restrictions. It’s found in birdsong, rain falling on dry earth, the rustle of a mouse in the hedgerow, and in the flash of electric blue as the kingfisher flies downstream at dawn. It’s found amid the ancient stones, forgotten bones, and the trees that bud and bloom, and at the graveside of ancestors and avatars. It’s found in the wordless keening of grief, and at the joyful song of celebration. It’s found in the endless silence, in the light between the worlds, and in old books.

I’ve begun to understand that my aversion to fellowship is perhaps neurological; introversion is not a crime but in organised faith, it is often misconstrued. It may be why anchorites and hermits chose to go far from the madding crowds, because so few accept that one can be alone and be filled with the numinous. One is seen as stand-offish at best. The truth is that being among people can become physically and emotionally unendurable at times, yet to admit this risks having the admission taken personally and as an offence. It’s seldom seen as acceptable to be alone within a busy society; our culture does not understand it, and perhaps never will. So the erstwhile hermits suffer or they go away into the distant, quiet places, where they can hear that silent song, and see God within the creation and not in the works of human hands.

Yet the creation itself is at risk, under immense pressure and threat from those human hands. It’s treated as a commodity to be plundered and despoiled for our convenience and gain. As humans relentlessly pollute, destroy and desecrate the natural world, we also damage our relationship with the divine, immanent in every living thing, and every stone, grain of sand and soil, on this planet. The often forgotten fifth mark of mission of the Anglican church is to: To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx .

So perhaps my heresy is only such when viewed from certain quarters. I’d rather not burn or hang for it, but I’m already suffering.

F is for Failure

F is for Failure

I considered a much stronger F word for this post but thought better of it as I am tired of people pontificating about the use of strong language. I don’t like being on the receiving end of a ticking off, especially when I disagree fundamentally with the stance the other person is taking; it’s a waste of energy getting that angry about something I cannot change.

For the record, despite these daily posts following (how original…) an alphabetical order, I am very much not doing any challenge, I am not linked up, affiliated, attached or otherwise part of anything that IS doing such a challenge. I’m not even sure that writing a daily blog post for 26 days can be considered a challenge and I don’t want a nice little sticker for my blog calling myself a “survivor” of such an enterprise. So apologies to anyone who thought I was unaware of such things and needed instructions on how to do it properly, induction into the rules and regulations of taking part and of the benefits of using certain tags and of the greater numbers of visitors I’d enjoy if I did. After a significant time floating around the blog-o-sphere, I have seen dozens of similar initiatives come and go; the so-called blog awards that were no more than a combo of popularity contest and chain letter seem to have died a death, thankfully.

I have always failed at being clubby. Like Groucho Marx, I’m suspicious of any club that would have me as a member. I don’t understand the need for many of the things that go around the world of blogging. When I first began blogging in 2009, there were (and probably still are) lots of communities of bloggers who obsessively followed each others’ blogs, collected comments like stamps, and for whom reciprocity was an iron-clad rule. The obligation that if someone has liked or subscribed to your blog, or commented, you must reciprocate in all particulars has always bothered me. If I like a blog, I like it. End of. I don’t expect the blogger to come and like mine, add it to their blog roll, subscribe to each post or anything else just because I did it for theirs. I did it because I wanted to. Not for anything else.

Some years ago I briefly belonged to a group on FB, which had the stated aim of authors helping each other. It was (I soon learned) rigid in its requirements, Pharisaical even. You were obliged to share blogs and tweets of books, regardless of whether you had read them, let alone liked them, if you wanted the same done for your work. There are not hours enough in the day to read even the samples of the numbers of books produced by the members of that group; some put out new books every few months. As for reviewing…well, don’t even go there. I started to feel that I was something that crawled out of the oceans and these shining gods were more than human; not only could they write a book every month or two, they could read dozens and review them, and tweet them and …well, they had feet of clay. Because they didn’t do all that, obviously. I left. I flounced, actually, with a somewhat self-righteous farewell note that I don’t regret. I felt (and feel) that to have got any benefit out of being a part of it I would have been selling my soul in small slices, with a side order of integrity.

The real reason I began doing these daily posts was because I need to be able to say to my soul, you tried; you tried the helpfully offered suggestion of “writing prompts to cure blocks”, you tried free-writing to cure being blocked. I can write almost without thinking about anything; these posts are not deep or meaningful or even very demanding to compose. They’re the bread-and-butter of being a writer, nothing more. Following an email from a stranger who (I believe was well-meaning) explained that I was doing it wrong, I thought, frell it all, what is the point of this? I considered abandoning it, feeling shamed by the fact that I was doing it all wrong in the eyes of the clubbable bloggers.

But here I am, up to F, a day ahead of the official schedule, make of that what you will. I am a failure in so many ways, but perhaps I’ll stick with the term free spirit, instead.

A is for Amber

A is for Amber

In my life, I’ve had a number of ongoing obsessions. One of those has been with rocks, gemstones and crystals. I began collecting when I was at school, finding a few tumble-stones of tiger’s eye, and then when I went to Germany on a school exchange, we went to the Natural History museum in Frankfurt and that was when it really began. The museum had a collection of rocks and crystals like nothing I’d ever imagined; a quartz boulder the size of a small car, things that sparkled and glowed and called to me. I bought a rock crystal pendant in the gift shop that I still wear.

But the gemstone that I wear most is amber. Amber is not technically a rock; it’s the petrified remains of tree sap. It’s something that is truly a delight to wear because it is light and it is warm and living to the touch. There’s a lot of mythos about amber; the price sky-rocketed in the aftermath of the first Jurassic park films too, making it suddenly much more expensive than it was, and for a while beyond my reach. My first amber beads came as a result of a small sum of money that came to me with only the proviso to buy myself something lasting and just for me. In my late teens, three close friends of the same age died suddenly in the space of six months and my father, like many parents from the school, took out a sort of life insurance investment policy for me that matured when I was 27 (and hadn’t died!). The money that it made was given to me, and I bought an amber necklace with some of it. The beads mean a lot to me; they remind me of my friends who never made it beyond sixth form and they remind me that I lived.

(The following link is to an article that relates to amber, that I wrote about three years back. Do go and have a read)

https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/tales-of-amber/ 

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.

And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.

And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.

Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.

I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.

So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.

I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.

People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.

So. Watch this space.

On this day in 2009…

…I posted my very first blog post.

I’d had the idea in mind for the blog title itself before I even knew blogs existed, but Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking took a while to come into being. I joined a co-operative blog, Cafe Crem, first, and after a month, I was ready to go it alone.

When I hit publish for this post, my stats will tell me I have done 970 posts in the eight years since I began.  There have been almost a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of comments, likes, shares. It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s where I began to reach out and meet people who (I hate the term) are my tribe. I’ve met a few wolves in sheep’s clothing too, got burned, got hurt. I hope I have touched lives for the better. There’s even a little book, intended as a part of a series using the essays in this blog collected thematically. The first book is on depression. There will be more (one day). There’s posts about my books, stories, poems, rants, paens, authors I love. So much here.

So, wish Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking a happy 8th birthday. Having seen many blogs begin, flounder, die, and disappear, I know that keeping going is quite an achievement and one I ought to be rightly proud about. Blogging is not longer what it was, as Facebook has taken the place for many, as a forum for sharing, but I will persist and hopefully, you will too.

Bless you all (in the true sense, rather than the wonderful passive-aggressive semi-curse of the American south) and thank you.