No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

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On Visiting With Old Demons

On visiting with old demons

We all have them, those issues and problems that we think we’ve dealt with until there’s that metaphorical knock at the door and there they are. Again. They’re so familiar that they cease to be an enemy but never quite become a friend. We see it’s them and we say, “Oh it’s you. What do you want this time? I suppose you’d better come in.”

Letting them in is better than slamming the door, hiding in the cellar or behind the sofa (done that, in reality, more than once) until it gets bored and goes away. At least this way you are face to face and it can’t sneak up behind when you are least expecting it.

I had a visit from one of mine recently. It masqueraded as “righteous indignation” until I whisked the mask off and realised it was Envy instead. I’ll talk you through the background, just so you know how it came to be there.

A friend gave me a book for my birthday and it rose to the top of the to-be-read pile and I duly read it. It’s a bestseller. My friend had it signed by the author too. But I growled and grumbled as I read it because it trespassed into a world I know really well, and the author (hark at me!) didn’t. There had surely been acres of research done but this is something where an outsider really, really doesn’t see things as an insider does, and there were things WRONG. Badly, catastrophically wrong, in fact; so badly wrong it marred the book for me. I’m not giving the name of the book because I have discovered that authors are an insecure bunch and a mere mention of their name or work on, say, Twitter, can result in a stern ticking off.

Oh I growled, and I growled and then, suddenly, I realised why. I was deeply, meanly, jealous. The book was just another opening for my old frenemy, Envy. I envied the success of the book and of the author, because I’ll never, ever achieve even a fraction of that success (probably).

Little Gidding Girl (when it’s out) will not (I am almost 100% sure) sit on the shelves of Waterstones, or proudly bear the coveted BESTSELLER badge on Amazon (except possibly in the tiniest of niche categories, if I am lucky) and I am still secretly raging that this is so. Everything is stacked against it. I am a realist, a pragmatist. I know that my absurd dreams are just those things: absurd and dreams. And hope is a terrible thing. I caught myself thinking, “It’s got GIRL in the title. Books with GIRL in the title are really selling well,” and I was angry with myself for that hope, because hope is a cruel thing that deludes, sometimes (often or even always.)

The GIRL thing? Yeah. I would like it to be known that I wrote the novel perhaps as much as a decade before the phenomenon (GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON A TRAIN and so on) took fire. I have no clue why this one word in a title seems to attract attention, let alone why including it might, potentially, trigger a book going viral. I didn’t choose it for that reason; the title came before the book, and before the phenomenon.

It’s a good book. Having spent more time with it lately than I anticipated, having had to rewrite the last 20% to remove all quotes, and then to do a few last final proofreads, I came away thinking, yes, it does deserve to see the light of day. Lots of people will find the themes resonate with them, and I hope it will also help.

Having recently completed that WIP that I began 4 years ago, finishing the rewrites for Little Gidding Girl, and getting it uploaded to Createspace for paperback, I wanted to reward myself for it. I’ve already found that punishing myself for being slow or ineffectual doesn’t work, so perhaps a reward might help. This time, not perfume. There’s nothing wheedling its scented fingers into my vulnerable psyche at the moment; I might well have satisfied that type of craving for a while. I’ve always loved soft toys and I was looking for something special that “called” to me and I found her in the form of a bunny. Many of us have always known that teddy bears and their cohorts of other creatures defend us from demons and monsters, and while my demons might not be hiding under my bed, I think I need some help defending myself against them. So soft and so sweet and timid-looking, she’s become my companion and supporter; beyond that I won’t explain. You’ll either understand or you won’t.

I am envious at times of the success of others. It’s pretty hard to admit that, because it’s not something to be proud of. Breaking it down, though, I make myself understand that perhaps their success has come at a price I would not be willing to pay. In this case, contractual obligations of writing a series that has been extremely popular (I anticipate a TV series for this one) might well have meant having to produce books when there was no real inspiration for them and perhaps when the last few books have had plenty of reviews calling them pot-boilers. I have the enviable freedom at present to write or not write what I want. I can go in directions diametrically opposed to the paths I’ve already trodden and there’s no one to stop me. I’m not going to get angry phone calls from an agent, demanding to know about the manuscript I promised three weeks ago.

Hear that? That’s the sound of the door slamming as Envy storms off, for the time being, realising they are no match for a girl and her bunny.

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.

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.

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.

Permission to rest?

 

Permission to rest?

It’s almost the end of January as I write this; Imbolc/Candelmas will be upon me in a few days and I was thinking, I ought to write something. I ought to do another Cave post. I ought to celebrate the slow return of the light and the changing of the season. But I’m not going to. Not today, anyway. I may change my mind in the mean time but right now, I’m not going to do it.

It occurred to me that it’s nearly six years since I last completed a full-length novel (the third in the Ashurst series) and since then I have limped along with a number of works-in-progress. One is over 60k words long. I had hoped/intended to finish it last year. But every time I thought about opening the document to work on it, I had this sinking feeling and I thought, “Why bother?” and couldn’t find the impetus to start. It’s the same with four other projects.

I am so tired, so bloody tired, and I can’t let myself rest. I keep thrashing away, trying to recover my inspiration and energy for writing; I write the odd short story, essay, poem or add a few thousand words to one novel or another. I’m doing corrections for the new novel, after the first proof reader has gone through it; I’ve done around a hundred of the three hundred pages. It’s like squeezing blood from a stone (well, not quite like that; the blood comes from injuring your hand, not from the stone. Maybe a better metaphor than I thought). I keep feeling that if I stop entirely I will never get going again and all the hard work I’ve done to create a writing career for myself will be for nothing. If I let go, do I stop being a writer because I stop writing, or can I be like an actor, who spends time doing other things and calls it resting? And what would I do, what would I be, if I did?

I want to rest but I cannot seem to be able to give myself permission.

Comfort Literature ~ the new trend for 2017?

I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.

One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.

In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.

I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.

If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.