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.

 

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

DSCI0169

On Invisible Fish

On Invisible Fish

On invisible fish

I’m lucky enough to have a large pond in our garden; we’ve never had a pond before we moved here and I’m not sure I’d do without one now. There’s something deeply attractive aesthetically as well as environmentally about a pond; the two are intertwined as the pond brings a lot of wildlife into our sights. My heart sings (albeit briefly and its own rather quirky out-of-tune song) to see flocks of goldfinches coming to bathe, and the many other denizens of our garden coming to drink, bathe or possibly admire their own reflections.

And there are fish. We’ve put in several batches of goldfish, because they are beautiful and graceful and to me, a symbol of the soul. At the weekend, I was gifted with a bucket of fish from an old colleague whose mother’s pond had become too crowded. There were a dozen fish in the bucket, mostly golden ones, some with fan-tails swishing out behind them like gauzy scarves in a breeze, and as well as one lemony fish, there were two green fish. Identical in form to the golden ones, these two vanished like ghosts into the deep green waters; their colour makes them hard to see unless you know they are there. When we feed them, the green ones rise with the others and gobble up their pond sticks, before vanishing again. They are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

But I know they are there and I keep an eye out for them, feeling something resembling joy when I spot one amid their flashier, more in-yer-face comrades. It’s made me think of those humans who have become invisible fishes; there, yet ignored mostly, because they lack the bright colours that are deemed essential to being noticed and admired. I think that as I age, I am becoming an invisible fish too, becoming unnoticed whether in so-called real life and in the virtual world too. Humans are drawn by the bright, the new, the shiny, and by bling; we look for innovation in our lives, and are driven to seek it by the unconscious pressures of the media, of our peers and of our own desires to be popular and up-to-date.

Yet the good old things, whether art, or literature, or music, or simply people do not go away because we turn away from them to chase the new and shiny things. Like the invisible fish in my pond, they remain themselves, unseen and unheeded perhaps, but still what they always were. You just need to know they are there so you can keep an eye out for them. I’ve often listed writers here whose work has dropped out of favour, or which has never hit the heights of popularity it deserves but I’d be interested if those who read this would like to share artists, writers, musicians and others whose work they love but who have become (or have always been) invisible fish.

golden fishes

golden fishes

A Vessel of Ashes

A Vessel of Ashes

I’ve been in a grim place for so long it feels like there’s been no end and no beginning. It feels like this is all there is and all there was and all there ever will be. Needless to say, it feels horrible. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all and failing, and trying again and failing again. The results of the referendum have left me devastated, repeatedly; there seems a massive disconnect and breach between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. One side cannot understand the other and the vitriol hurled has been… caustic and damaging beyond belief. I have given up trying to explain why it is all so hurtful but the consensus of rejoicing Leavers is “Suck it up, suck it up,” and I have left it at that. The utter powerlessness I feel is probably felt by millions and we are told, that’s democracy.

So I have disconnected from the stream of life that flows in front of my eyes, in the form of social media, because I could no longer bear the hurt I see. I’m still around, but I am emotionally distanced. I’ve already lost one old friend from college days because I refused to allow him to pour his opinions all over my Facebook wall; he did not take it gracefully.

I have, however, been dreaming again. Having had a spell where I was unable to either dream or to recall anything of the dreams I did have, to have dreams coming through again is something of a relief.

I’d like to share a few with you now. The first is from a few days ago.

I am at a party I don’t really want to be at. I don’t feel I know anyone, but here I am anyway. I make my way outside into the garden, which is untended and unkempt, and walled by high brick walls. I am shocked to see that our old round table is out there, left out to rot; I look closer and I see that the table is broken, split almost down the middle as if by an mighty axe blow. It’s not quite perfectly in half, but it looks beyond anything but very skilled repairs. The chairs that go with it lie on the rough grass, with tufts of weeds growing through them, left where they fell when pushed back by those who had sat upon them. I feel sad and a little sick, and move to go back inside. As I walk back up the steps, there is a small child there, a little boy of somewhere between one year and three. He speaks to me, and I answer, and though waking I cannot recall what he said, only that it was words and themes so far beyond such a tiny child, I know I reply with complete seriousness and great care. He speaks again and then laughs and it is like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and I am filled with sudden joy (in waking life, I dislike small children) and I want to hold him up. I put my hands on him to lift him but find he is far too heavy for me to lift, heavier than a full grown man by far. I realise quite suddenly that I am not to do this, not to treat him as a tiny child, and I step away and apologise for overstepping the mark. But he laughs joyfully again and I know I have not offended (for how could I have known?) and then the dream ends.

The next dream is from the small hours of this morning. I’ve spent much of the day pondering on it.

The first part of the dream I am visiting an aquarium belonging to a friend; there are lots of huge tanks filled with marvellous fish and sea creatures and we walk among the tanks (it’s like a Sea Life centre). But she’s packing up intending to leave and the fish know and are upset, even though she says I am to look after the fishes when she is gone. There are commotions in many of the tanks, as the fish become disturbed and frightened; one tank we see that a sea snake has become so upset it looks as if it is trying to swallow one of the bigger fishes, so we intervene. Hauling it out and uncoiling it, I see that it’s not a sea snake but a big Burmese python and it has its own tail in its mouth, as if trying to swallow itself.

The dream moves and shifts, and I find myself outside a sea shore cottage. In the dream, it’s a building I have seen and admired many times but in waking life, it’s not one I recognise. The cottage is built on a ridge very close to the sea, alone and with no other buildings nearby. It belongs to a nun, an anchoress, who invites me in to see the house. The inside is Spartan, and neat in a quirky, somewhat Bohemian style, and there is little furniture. I go to the window to see the view; it’s open and I see that the sea is alarmingly close to the house, and huge waves are crashing on the shore. I try to shut the window as the biggest wave yet hits the shingle, and some spray gets through before I managed to get it shut. I am asked to go and fetch water; the cottage does not have mains water but gets its water from a spring outside. I ask what do I collect the water in, and am shown at first a wide shiny steel serving platter, like a concave mirror, but that seems silly to me as it will not hold more than a few drops, and I rummage around and find a glass vessel, like an amphora, that I carry outside.

The spring itself is a very odd thing; it’s a sort of strange fountain, like it has been grown from volcanic mud or worn out from a termite mound. Water comes intermittently from different spouts, but never much and never with a lot of force. It will take patience to collect water here. I start, only to see that the glass vessel is mostly filled with ashes (I think they are human ashes, as if from a cremation) mixed with small stones, grit and sand. It won’t shake out, so I start adding water to it, to try and rinse it out. The ashes are packed down tight and need a lot of water to loosen them. I wake before the vessel is emptied or cleaned.

Other blessings

Other blessings

Other blessings (29th Jan 2015)

Anoint me,

But not with the oil of gladness.

Let it be with a darker oil

That carries the bitterness

Of myrrh and aloes.

Direct me

But not with the map of easiness.

Let it be with a harder path

That leads me into the darkness

Of strangers and pilgrims.

Remind me

But not with a mind of blindness.

Let me be a stronger spirit

That seeks to find light

Amid the darkest days.

Touch me,

But not with empty, unsoiled hands

Let it be with blackened ashes

That mark me as humble,

Repentant and contrite.

Bless me,

But not with an easy happiness.

Let it be with a deeper soul

That seeks the sweetness

Of fishes and loaves.

Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

I’ve long had a fascination for rocks; indeed, I considered studying geology for A level. I’ve been collecting rocks, fossils, crystals and gemstones for a long time now. I started when I was about nine or ten, becoming entranced by the cat’s-eye effect (chatoyance) of the semi precious stone Tiger’s Eye, and buying several pieces of the polished gem, one to wear as a pendant I still wear occasionally today.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen and was visiting the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt that I really got hooked. One exhibit was a piece of rock crystal that was about the size of a small car. I remember walking round and round the massive rock, astounded that such a thing existed. The museum gift shop sold cheap gemstone jewellery and I found myself a piece of polished clear quartz set as a pendant. I have it still.

The Greeks thought rock crystal was ice that had frozen so hard it could never be thawed; in a way, they were right. Quartz does start out liquid, deep in the earth, but it’s only over time that it solidifies, growing into fabulous forms that are exquisitely lovely.

For me, any rock is a wonderful mystery: where did it come from, what is it made of, how did it get where it is today? I can walk almost any beach and find you a fossil. I pick up stones everywhere, and it occurred to me that I’m probably looking for the philosopher’s stone. I’ve dreamed about stones doing magical, wonderful things, and I meditate with them, often placing certain crystals on my forehead and holding them in my hands as I contemplate deep and impenetrable matters (I often fall asleep, to put that into perspective!). On one occasion, somehow or other I caused a crystal balanced on my forehead to light up from within, witnessed by one reliable source.

I’ve got boxes of rocks, ones that friends have sent me from special places they have visited, and dozens of crystals of various sorts, sizes and colours. There is something innately pleasing to me, at the very least, in the order and beauty of crystals; the fact that they form, either over aeons or spontaneously in milliseconds (no one is quite sure; some have been seen to grow slowly, others leap into being) regular, geometrically perfect solids is a sort of comfort to me. When I go to Austria, the hotel I usually stay at has a cabinet of fossils and rocks for sale; I’ve bought several, including a trilobite now named Josef after the hotelier. Like any collector, my collection is never going to be complete. There will always be something different to look out for.

I’ve not mentioned much the whole “woo woo” factor, because while I do believe there is something to it, it’s not something I really want to go into here. There is too much room for ridicule. Suffice it to say that I believe that rocks can be a source of healing.

Anyway, on a day trip to Ely a month or two back, I visited a stall on the market there that I’ve known for many years. She usually has unusual things, and isn’t extortionate in terms of prices. I spotted a couple of nice little things and one reasonably sized double terminated* quartz piece ( *it comes to a point at both ends), and liked it. It had a brilliant clarity and beauty that drew me. A few weeks after buying it, I spotted something very unusual indeed.

Inside the crystal was a bubble of liquid that moved when you turned the stone. Enhydros are quartz (and other stones) that contain water (or other liquids) from the time when the stone was forming. Sold as such, they’re fairly pricey; not precisely rare but unusual. A magnifying glass has shown there are other bubbles within the matrix of the rock; imagine the moving bubble of a spirit level and that’s not dissimilar.

Given the level of frozen-ness of my inner spirit and my life, and the fear that all the bubbling-over of images, ideas and stories might have dried up, finding this tiny reservoir of ancient, forgotten water deep inside a rock, is to me a symbol that perhaps buried so far down that I can’t even feel it, the water of life still shines.

DSCI0239

DSCI0238

DSCI0243

On losing faith

On losing faith

Faith is a strange thing; it’s almost impossible to explain precisely what it is. The various dictionary definitions do not help much. The Oxford English Dictionary has faith defined thus: 1) Complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Or 2) Strong belief in the doctrine of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof:

( http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/faith)

Neither of which really captures what faith really is; it presupposes an instinctive understanding of the concept because it uses synonyms (trust, confidence, conviction).

I’d say I’ve been a person of faith for a long time, with pockets of total loss of faith. Some might say, Hurrah, she’s finally coming to her senses, but in reality it’s like losing a sense or an ability. Let me explain a little. Other than the workaday modern English I speak and write every day, I’ve studied in some depth another six languages to varying degrees of competency. Of those six, two are modern, living languages. I can’t call myself fluent in either, but I’m intermittently articulate in French (I can read it better than I speak it, and understand better than I speak) and stolidly, unimaginatively practical in German (I can ask the way to the library, order a pint of beer or a cup of coffee, make small talk about whether it will snow). To lose one’s faith is like discovering that one can no longer speak a word of a language one was once fluent in; there’s a sudden, gaping, aching void where the skill used to be. It feels akin to what I imagine certain kinds of brain injury might feel like; a leg, an arm, half your face, no longer at your command. The emotional pain of such a loss is not unsubstantial, and the frustration is vast.

Here are some ways I have lost faith:

I’ve lost faith in myself.

I’ve lost faith in humanity.

I’ve lost faith in the divine.

The loss of faith in myself is complex and painful. If I can use an example from my writing history to explain what I mean, it may help, but it goes beyond writing and enters every area of my existence. I’ve written most of my life and have never felt the desire or the need to “go and do a course.” In honesty, I am far from convinced they are a good idea, but I shall keep my more inflammatory opinions quiet. Whenever I began a book, I had a deep inner certainty that somehow or other, the book would write itself; I just needed to get out of the way and let it flow. I had no doubts that my own unconscious was capable of producing the story and the characters would be close to what Robert Holdstock called “mythagos”, that is archetypal beings that are shaped by both the narrator and the narration. If I had concerns about where the story was going, or how it might end, they seldom lasted; I trusted the process, that the story itself knew where it was going and how to get there. I believed in myself as a writer.

But that belief, that faith, has ebbed away under the sheer weight of confusion brought about by the intense and competitive world of writers jockeying for position. There are thousands of articles, memes, Facebook posts, courses, blogs, and even books, on How to Write, on what good writing is (or isn’t) and so on. I stopped reading them quite a while ago, sometimes giving in and checking out articles because, frankly, FOMO* (* Fear of Missing Out) but the damage is done. The worms are in my head, gnawing away at my self-belief and shitting doubt everywhere. It’s futile to say, Good writing is writing that YOU enjoy, when there’s a million other interpretations and opinions. I’ve always had trouble keeping strong psychic boundaries (most empaths struggle this way) but it’s caused me paralysing self-doubt that no amount of reassurance seems to be able to stem.

Losing faith in humanity is not hard to understand; to have access to a television or to the internet is enough to leave one weeping in despair. I will not list the things that we, as human beings, ought to be hanging our heads in shame for, because they are too many and too depressing. The single fact that a certain troll-like US business man with a terrible wig, has even been considered as a candidate for president, is in itself proof that humanity has not reached adulthood; the British equivalent, the former major of London, proves that this is a world wide thing. I could throttle people who say, “Oh I like Boris, he’s funny and he’s entertaining.” He’s not; he’s a man who veers closer to true (but hidden) evil and laughs in our faces for falling for the buffoon act. History may show quite how mistaken people have been.

Losing faith in the divine is something I ought to be used to by now but I’m not. It feels more like the death of someone close and very dear to me, than a cessation of belief. I’ve never been orthodox in my beliefs, nor yet comfortable with the simplistic set of beliefs that seem to be the norm. I used to find that in silence and in solitude, the sense of Other became clear to me. Now there is just a resounding silence, an echoing void of nothingness. On the odd occasion I attend corporate worship, the sense of void is even greater, and it underlines how alone I feel. For those who dismiss God as “an imaginary friend”, often said with contempt (citing various biased studies that suggest people of faith have lower IQ than atheists) I can only suggest that however imaginary that deity may be to you, it was very real to me. For without that sense of Other, I cannot find a way to live than does not leave me lost, alone and frightened, without purpose or meaning or future.

I do not ask for advice or sympathy here; understanding would be pleasant. I’ve been frustrated by my inability to express the depth of the pain of no longer being able to write; I cannot, as one commenter suggested in a previous post, just write for myself, or move on and leave the whole thing behind, go and do something more fruitful instead. I’ve begun to realise that perhaps, like with the concept of faith, losing faith is not something you can really grasp unless it has happened to you; the metaphors and similes can only reach so far. Experience is the most ruthless of educators, and much as I wish for understanding, I would not wish the experience needed for that onto anyone.