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.

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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.

Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation

Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation

No, you will be relieved to know I am not touting the skin cream that uses snail slime as its main ingredient. Continue reading

The Insidious Perversion

The insidious perversion

You know how sometimes a sentence or a few words or an event can set of a train of thought that goes into some sort of underground tunnel, rumbling away unseen until it pops up into the light with revelations?

This week there’s been three ingredients that have set in motion a sort of Salmagundi of thought. The first was a tweet from an old friend:

The objectification of self. Everyone is a brand. The biggest and most complete and insidious perversion of capitalism” from Monica https://twitter.com/EquanimityNow_

I read it and got the shivers.

The second (catalytic) event was the revelation that a romance writer has trademarked a common word and has been sending out cease and desist notices to any author using that word in book titles. I’m not going into this in detail because it’s been written about a lot since it came up, but because it focuses on a very heavy-handed protection of the concept of “BRAND” it also chimed very much.

I have written before about my objection to the notion of author-branding, being told on occasions that I wasn’t understanding it and that in essence it was simple: I am my brand. My books epitomise the brand, and each book is recognisable as mine. I have always felt deeply uncomfortable with this notion, not because there isn’t a strong element of truth to it (see Hopkins’ poem As kingfishers catch fire: “What I do is me: for that I came”) but because it aims to both petrify a moment or a period in my soul’s journey and also to set a price on it.

There was a third ingredient but it was a quote from James Hillman and while I can recall it was about mining the soul for various processes, including raising our consciousness and of the problems of capitalism, I cannot find the quote to save my life. The nearest I can find to it is this:“What we hold close in our imaginal world are not just images and ideas but living bits of soul; when they are spoken, a bit of soul is carried with them. When we tell our tales, we give away our souls. The shame we feel is less about the content of the fantasy than it is that there is fantasy at all, because the revelation of imagination is the revelation of the uncontrollable, spontaneous spirit, an immortal, divine part of the soul, the Memoria Dei. Thus, the shame we feel refers to a sacrilege: the revelation of fantasies expose the divine, which implies that our fantasies are alien because they are not ours” James Hillman (The Myth of Analysis, p. 182). https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf 

When we tell our tales, we give away our souls.” Or in the case of authors, we sell them. I’ve struggled with not being able to write, with having lost the connection to the stories I knew (and still know) were inside me. I have felt hollowed out, empty and bereft. In some of my journeying I have followed many trails, from daydreams and night dreams, stories and songs and poems, and found scraps of clues. Here is one:

“For a nun.

Like your Hopi pottery bowl,
hollowed out, open, beautiful,
you’re being hollowed out by God
not to be filled but to embrace
the sculpted space itself, empty,
yet filled with what you almost see;
intimate poverty’s body.”

Murray Bodo OFM, from the book “Song of the Sparrow- new poems and meditations.”

 

Am I empty? Or am I simply open, filled with things not seen (and therefore perhaps not valued). I have told many stories. I have others still inside me but I cannot bring them to birth like I once did, naturally but not without great pain and cost to myself. I have become acutely sensitive to the great and terrible turmoil of the world around me, insulated though I am by privilege and accidents of birth. I am caught in a paradox: a need for action and an equal need for withdrawal for self-protection. A need to write my stories (and share them) and a repulsion for the mining of my own soul with those stories. One might say, write them and burn them (as I know one friend, fellow poet Deborah Gregory, has done http://theliberatedsheep.com/food-soul-animus-diet/ ) or write them and keep them hidden. Yet just as one would not bear a child and keep it hidden for its whole existence, I cannot write and keep it all locked away in darkness. Yet to publish becomes a connection to the worst of capitalism, the worst of a pervasive, perverted system wherein a writer can lay claim to a common word, seize it and trademark it AND GET AWAY WITH IT (it’s being fought and perhaps will be overturned)

 

In my scouring of the internet for those words that were the third ingredient, I found the following, part of the essay I shared a bit of further back in this post. It brings me some comfort, but not answers (as you will read). Perhaps I have not become completely lost.

Kenosis seems now the only political way to be—emptied out of certainty…Kenosis is a form of action—not masochistic action, vicitimized, crucified…[but] empty protest: I don’t know how to do the right thing. I don’t even know what’s right. I have no answer. But I sure smell something wrong with the government…‘empty protest’ is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the hopeless frustration you feel, the powerless vicitimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, if they come, when they come, to you, to others, but do not fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest!…[An empty protest] doesn’t have an end goal…Empty protest is protest for the sake of the emotions that fuel it and is rooted not in the conscious fullness of improvement, but in the radical negativity…Not only will you be seen as stupid because empty, but you will be also alone,…So empty protest for me is really a kenosis–giving up both the vanity of being admired and the surety of a sound position, and doing it in public” James Hillman (ibid., pp. 103-107).

https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf

Post scriptum: this article is very much worth reading. It’s Hillman’s exploration of How the Soul is Sold.

https://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/23/magazine/how-the-soul-is-sold.html

The reality of a loss of faith

The reality of a loss of faith

There has much been written over the millennia on a phenomena known as loss of faith and I’m going to add to those many millions of words with a few of my own; those readers who are atheists might well be rubbing their hands with anticipation of a new recruit, but I think they may be disappointed in what I write now.

The first issue is about what one has faith IN. A Christian might say they have faith IN Jesus, for example; take Jesus out of that equation and what might you have left? Probably quite a lot: a divine architect, perhaps, and maybe also a general feeling of faith in the overall goodness of humanity and of creation, and a sense of one’s own rightful place it in. I have heard on many occasions people who are self-proclaimed atheists speaking of a belief in the Universe, that it has some sort of plan for that person right down to finding parking spaces at critical moments. There is essentially a great deal of unspoken baggage that goes with a faith of any kind, whether it is one of the three Abrahamic religions, or a faith that is born of reading books like The Secret that gives rise to a system of so-called laws. The baggage infiltrates every aspect of a person’s life, influences all their choices and decisions, and activities. For example, a belief that each person has a destiny in life will influence (often unconsciously) everything from profession to life partner to hobbies and ethics.

If the central core of faith disappears, everything else is suddenly on shaky ground. It’s like the whole framework of life has woodworm and is liable to collapse. It’s like you have pulled a loose thread in a tapestry and discovered too late that it was the warp and ran through the entire piece https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warp_and_weft .

I have always believed that faith is a gift, not something obtained by effort or determination. You cannot get faith by trying. I have had friends who wanted more than anything to have a faith, seeing the comfort that it gave to their partner or parent. They were good people who lived the tenets of faith that underpin many of our cultures, while being unable (but not unwilling) to grasp that elusive will o’ the wisp that is faith.

I have never believed that those who have faith have less intelligence than those who do not, as many metrics attempt to prove. However, certain faith groups often consist of people who have had less education and perhaps have little critical ability and inclination to discern subtleties because of that and this is often what shows. Atheists are not inherently morally or ethically superior because they choose to lead decent lives without a fear of punishment from a god if they don’t.

But if you lose your faith, what then? For me, it has created a cascade of events. It’s meant a loss of faith in myself, in my own right to exist, in the belief that I have gifts and abilities that were meant to be used for something special, whether right now or later in my life. I’m not sure I am even expressing this devastating series of unravelings well enough for someone else to understand what it feels like. The closest is best expressed by a story from when we were at college (he was learning to be a vicar). A friend with children the same age as my daughter was going through some very difficult stuff because she’d discovered in her late thirties that she was adopted; every single thing she believed about herself had become undone. She said to me, “It’s like waking up and finding that both your arms had been ripped off years ago and you never realised until that moment. Everything is destroyed and I don’t know that I have the strength to rebuild.”

Almost everything I own has a deeper meaning attached to it, whether it is a statue of Our Lady, a crystal point, a plaque of the Green Man, or even my choice of duvet cover (it’s got beautiful flowers on it, with their Latin names on). Every book I cherish points to the numinous and the divine. Every piece of jewellery contains some symbolism. I am told my home has an atmosphere of sanctuary and of peace. I garden for wild-life, because I have always believed that each and every plant, animal and rock has a right to live peacefully and that human beings have wrecked the earth and mined it for their own greed, and that if a tiny patch of earth can be kept safe for the non-human denizens, then I can do that much at least. But even there, I feel the futility of it, for I have no sense of better times to come, or that I am somehow maintaining a small ark for those better times. Even the mundane aspects of living a decent life feel futile: what has been the point of all my efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle when the oceans are choked by plastic debris?

Faith in the end is more than a belief in a deity or deities, so much more that I cannot begin to express. The world has become a much darker place in recent years; the hope that the darkness will lift has gone from me, though I cannot stop doing what I have always done to hold back the outer darkness. Yet the inner darkness is engulfing me; I feel like one of those poor seabirds in an oil spill, and while the oil coating my feathers might be washed off, in trying to clean my own feathers I have ingested so much of the poison I am dying from the inside out.

How To Eat An Elephant, writer-style

How to Eat an Elephant, writer-style

You probably all know the answer to this riddle, don’t you?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

It sounds silly, really. If you are a member of the !San people https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_people, the method for eating an elephant (generally one slain by others) was to get every family you know together and commence an eating marathon (see the film, The Gods Must be Crazy 2 for this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy_II but as I am sure you realise, I’m not talking about a real, literal elephant.

So many things in life feel overwhelming and unachievable, and the classic way to face them is to break the task down into a series of smaller, more achievable stages (bites!), and it’s a good way, as long as you can just keep “eating” away. When I began learning Tai Chi, a little over three years ago, I got very, very frustrated because we’d spend what felt like over half the lesson on warm-up exercises and on Qi Gong exercises (largely Eight Pieces of Brocade), and very little on learning the form, which was what I (and other members) had come to learn. It took more than a year of weekly lessons before I began to cotton on that I was learning Tai Chi; I hadn’t really understood that the form was only one small part of Tai Chi. I’d focused on what I saw as the cool bit, the graceful, disciplined sequence of moves that everyone thinks is Tai Chi; I’d not understood that all the exercises we’d done were to improve our chi, aid our balance and strength and to build us up so we could incorporate it all in the form. (After two years, we lost our regular instructor and have been without a regular teacher ever since; but we’d learned enough to persist, helping each other, and getting the benefit of this martial art. We have a new instructor coming later this year.) Each stage built on the ones previous and slowly, very slowly, I learned and am still learning.

In the list of overwhelming things for me, housework and gardening are close to the top. I have limited energy and I’ve been learning the hard way how to pace myself: do a task but stop before I start to feel tired or things begin to hurt. I used to be a great gardener and it did me good, mentally, physically and spiritually, but my hands and my back (oh, who am I kidding?) EVERY bit of me hurts when I do much in the garden. So I decided that I would aim to do no more than ten minutes at a time; that way, if done every day, that ten minutes adds up over a week to more than an hour. But it’s frustrating; I have to leave tasks unfinished, messy and I don’t like that. If I just finish this bit… usually results in a lot of pain and reluctance to tackle anything again. So I’m setting myself a limit. I’ve recently begun to explore how using the concepts from bullet journaling can help me, rather than make a rod for my own back.

Bullet journaling has become a big thing, with blogs, articles, videos on You Tube, Instagram and so on leaping on the bandwagon. I read a couple of dozen articles and got cross; none of them, despite saying they were going to make it easy, made it easy. There was a lot using bright markers and stickers and so on, and happy little designs that made me cross because I’m not 12 any more and I was never one of the hangers-on for the girls with the nice handwriting*. I don’t have time to plan things out like that and I certainly don’t want to ruin a journal by getting it all wrong **. So I didn’t buy a dedicated bullet journal but a Rhodia Dot Pad with perforated pages so I could work out how I wanted to use it without making a pig’s ear of it. More on that perhaps another time.

* You know the ones; they had lovely neat handwriting that always got gold stars at primary school.

** This is one of the most gutting experiences a stationery lover can have when it comes to journals. I had it happen last year when I bought a lovely Leuchturrm journal to work through the exercises that came with a book on the Enneagram. After a few days I realised I could find nothing of value in the book, tore out the few pages I’d written in the journal, and felt horrible.

But writing is not like eating either a literal or metaphorical elephant. That’s the problem. There’s lots of advice that goes along the lines of WRITE EVERY DAY WITHOUT FAIL OR CTHULU WILL DEVOUR YOU. You are exhorted to write, even if it’s only for ten minutes each day because it will all build up. Except that’s rubbish for many of us. It’s rubbish for me. I do write every day. Every. Single. Day. I have kept a daily journal for some years; I write in it just before I go to bed, recording my impressions of the day, even if it is just about the weather, what I ate or how terrible I feel. It doesn’t amount to anything but a rather banal account of each year that is occasionally useful for checking what I cooked for guests so I don’t repeat myself.

In the past, when I had a work in progress rolling along, I’d work on it every day, almost without fail. But that was when I knew where a story was going, roughly, or sometimes precisely. I can’t do that at the moment, for all sorts of reasons. I have an uneasy feeling about even trying, because it seems as if it’s too likely to take a book in a direction it ought not go in, solely to advance the word count or the flow. It would become a book that is somehow off-kilter. I can’t explain it very well; if you write a book to a well-established template, there’s a clear path forward. But I don’t. I write the strange ideas that bubble up, and the knack is recognising where those strange pieces fit and whether they actually fit in the story I am writing or in another one as yet unstarted and perhaps at that time, even undreamed. So you can end up using an idea, an event, a character who belongs somewhere else entirely.

I’ve had to go much more slowly, because I’m not longer confident of my ability to know without too much soul-searching where a story is meant to go. If you know anything about morphic resonance, you’ll know that when a new compound crystalises, it may take any of the possible crystal formations but once it takes a particular form, it can’t take another. That’s how it feels about writing a book of the kind that’s lurking in my unconscious, my subconscious, and sometimes, quite powerfully, in my conscious mind.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=W14oDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT106&lpg=PT106&dq=morphic+resonance+crystals&source=bl&ots=DKLXqAkBnr&sig=FTtNhxdKdZzdVIQH8tvILyfgBtI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVxPir_-HZAhUDJsAKHUCYCwQQ6AEISjAD#v=onepage&q=morphic%20resonance%20crystals&f=false

I don’t want to eat my elephant in the wrong order but I can’t swallow it in one go, not now. So I have to sit and let the pieces sort themselves out while I work on shorter things, things I can produce in one go, and hope that one day I’ll be able to create what’s nagging away in the background. I might tell you a bit about that another time.

“The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

Everyone likes a bargain, don’t they? When I was browsing the reviews of another book on the brain, a negative review of that book suggested that readers would find more of real use in Dean Burnett’s “The Idiot Brain”. Since the kindle version was on offer at that point (I recall it was 99p but I could be wrong), I snapped it up. You can read my Amazon review here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Idiot-Brain-Neuroscientist-Explains-Really/product-reviews/1783350822/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_ttl?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&sortBy=recent#R2IXXQ0TD557Y0

I found it a light-hearted, easy read that was heavy on the humour (to the extent I guffawed out loud despite being in the process of slogging away on treadmill or static cycle) and relatively light on complex technical matters. There are enough of those to give the book credibility but not so many that you get bogged down trying to remember terms. For a broad overview of the complexities of the human brain this was a book that intrigued but did not frustrate; however, as with many such things, the areas that caught my especial interest were dealt with in too few words. Not the fault of the book, but rather the fault of the reader here, I suspect.

Around three quarters through the book, I found something that had me tripping over my own feet with the realisation that it described something I see on an almost daily basis. Having explained that the brain has an inherently egocentric bias, Burnett goes on to explain that part of the brain is dedicated to correcting this bias (largely an area called the right supramarginal gyrus) towards one of empathy. This area can be disrupted, and can be confused if a person has insufficient time to think about the issue. Data from various experiments show some of the limits of this correction mechanism and how it can happen. Using the method of exposing pairs of people to tactile surfaces that vary (they had to touch something nice or something gross), the experimenters showed that two people experiencing something nasty will be very good at empathising correctly, recognising the intensity of feeling and the emotions of the other person. But, if one is experiencing pleasant things while the other is experiencing the opposite, the person experiencing pleasure will vastly underestimate the suffering of the other person. Burnett concludes that, “So the more privileged and comfortable someone’s life is, the harder it is for them to appreciate the needs and issues of those worse off. But as long as we don’t do something stupid like putting the most pampered people in charge of running countries, we should be OK.” Did I mention that Burnett is also a stand-up comedian?

I am sure you have witnessed this sort of blindness, especially if you are affected by one of the many conditions/illnesses which have no obvious visual marker, the so-called invisible illnesses. On a personal level, it’s bad enough, but on a national and international level it’s catastrophic. Witness in the UK the number of seriously ill and suffering people that the DWP have decided are fit for work. Burnett has just explained, though, how this level of atrocity can take place, especially in people who would ordinarily consider themselves decent, compassionate people.

Related and equally insightful is Burnett’s exploration of the brain’s other cognitive bias, called the “just world” hypothesis. It argues that the brain assumes that the world is fair, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. There are social reasons why this idea has evolved; it aids in the smooth running of communities. Indeed, various apes and monkeys have been shown to adhere to this hypothesis (though Burnett does not mention this). It’s seen to be a motivating factor, for if you believe that existence is random and all our actions are meaningless, it’s going to make it hard for you to function at times.

Of course, the world isn’t fair or just. Bad things happen to good people, as we’ve all observed, and bad people get away with bad things. This sets up a dissonance in our brains, because the fair world hypothesis is deeply ingrained, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, our brains come up with one of two things: first is the idea that the victim of something nasty must somehow have done something to deserve it. The second is that the world is cruel and random after all (something I am tending very much towards.)

Burnett also goes on to explain that people are more inclined to blame a victim if the victim is someone they can potentially identify with strongly. There’s complex reasons for this but in essence it boils down to fear. A fear that if someone who is essentially the same sort of person as you can have something that horrible happen to them it must be their fault in some way, because if it could happen to them (ie, random chance) then it could just as easily be YOU.

In my experience, this has been something that faith groups are very, very prone to; the idea of secret sin, of someone actually deserving to be punished by horrible things occurring to them, is one of the most damaging and hideous things. The tendency to blame the victim is so common among various wings of the Christian church, I suspect it’s one of the reasons many walk away. At university, a close friend’s mum was dying of cancer; the family church accused the family of some undisclosed sin they needed to repent of, and when she died, they told the two sons that they had not prayed hard enough for her to be healed.

At the end of this chapter, Burnett concludes with this rather scalding paragraph: “It seems that, despite all the inclinations towards being sociable and friendly, our brain is so concerned with preserving a sense of identity and peace of mind that it makes us willing to screw over anyone and anything that could endanger this. Charming.” It may seem unduly pessimistic but I can only agree with him that the human brain is flawed. It’s the spirit and soul that must mitigate against these flaws.