“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.

I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.

I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interrupted-Life-Diaries-Letters-Hillesum/dp/095347805X/

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

With the New Year came a plethora of articles and television programmes, basically with a new year-new you theme. The tidy fairy aka Marie Kondo has taught people to fold t shirts and declutter their homes. I’m not a fan of the whole decluttering lark, because it tends to actually create anxiety in many, because we are social animals and can feel pressure to conform and seek approval from our peers by following the trend even when we don’t really want or need to. And much of it is aimed at people who are financially secure enough so that getting rid of an item that still has use in it isn’t a problem if they suddenly discover they do need it six months down the line. They can just buy a new one. Nor am I am a fan of the idea that everything you own must spark joy. I’m more a fan of the William Morris adage: “Have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

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Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away” says the old hymn.

And its daughters too, though we still seem to be seldom mentioned, despite being, on average, a good fifty per cent of the world’s human population.

Whatever your gender, time is an inescapable force, and no matter how you resist, it passes, slipping through your fingers like water, and you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s so many years since…”

More than a quarter of a century had passed since I went to Taizé

A lifetime ago, really, yet the memories were unfading, holding my heart in ways that you’d not imagine a single week could. I found the photos shortly before we set off; was I ever that young, really? I’d gone in a highly stressful time in my life; we were about to set off for a new life (I’d have called it an adventure back then but the reality proved to be quite crippling for me, in so many ways) and we’d left keys to our house with the estate agents, hoping they’d sell it before we got back. I’ve written about that visit here. If you’ve read that post, then you’ll know what stayed with me most was the chapel of the well-spring: a little wooden structure built over an actual spring that was directed into a shallow stone trough. You could feel something even before you saw the water or stepped beneath the shingled roof of the shrine; a presence, a sense of the numinous, something otherworldly and deep. Continue reading

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 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.

“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.

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The sands of time are trickling to the bottom bulb of the egg-timer of 2017. I’m not sure if it’s hard-boiled or burned-out, yet, so I am trying to do a review of the year. It’s worth remarking that this will be a rambling sort of post as I have a nasty chest infection, the kind that’s meant my ribs hurt from coughing and I’ve pulled some muscles trying to clear my lungs. I’ve also got a slight temperature, but that said, at university, one of my best ever essays was written trying to stay warm and stave off a similar illness, by drinking ginger wine. I was three sheets to the wind by the end but it earned me an A-. I can only conclude my professor was equally drunk when he marked it.

During the latter part of the year, we lost first a much-beloved guinea pig, and then, heartbreakingly, our ancient but mostly spry cat. He was eighteen and a half. I’m still so numb I cannot manage to articulate much on this; I still look for him on the Ikea chair we bought specially for him. The losses seemed to cap what has been for me quite a tough year. There have been some amazing things (family stuff that I don’t share here) but overall, the word, difficult seems to sum it all up. My day job has been affected (like most of the travel industry) by the continuing instability caused first by ongoing concerns about terrorism and second and more pervasively, by the insanity of the Leave vote. I can barely bring myself to mention this, because I rapidly become mute with anger and frustration.

In terms of writing, it’s a mixed bag. I managed to release three books this year. Two volumes of poetry and a novel. The poetry was a matter of collecting thematically poems I’ve written over a considerable period, and arranging them in an order that seemed pleasing. Hallowed Hollow has garnered 5 excellent reviews but sadly, A Box of Darkness hasn’t a single review to its name. It took a LOT of effort to get Little Gidding Girl out. I made daft mistakes with the formatting that I fought to correct, but I did eventually manage to get the book launched for midsummer. It was launched with what’s called a “puff quote”, from Caitlin Matthews, an author I had admired for (literally) decades before social media brought us into contact. Like any author, I hoped it would soar but it has not. It has, however, got 20 reviews since its launch, all but one of which were glowing. I sometimes feel that either my work is crap or it has such limited appeal that reaching the few folks who is would suit is a monumental task I no longer have the energy to attempt.

In terms of actual writing, apart from blog posts and some poetry, I completed a novel for the first time in over 4 years. This was such an achievement, I marked it by buying a perfume I’d been craving for several years. After sitting on it for a while, I sent it to a few beta readers. I’ve had little or no feedback and can only conclude one of several things: first, no one has had time or inclination to read it (which is fine, as we’re all busy) or have and have either forgotten to give feedback. Or they’ve read it and hated it, but didn’t like to knock me back by saying anything. Whichever it is, I cannot disguise my sadness. But as Locke would say, it is what it is. The novel will probably now sit on my hard drive and gather dust.

As well as the novel, I have managed to write some short stories, most of which are longhand in various notebooks. My levels of confidence in my writing is now so low that it seems better to go back to basics and write a first draft where no one but me will ever see it. I’ve done four or five in my proto-collection of fragrant fiction, short tales inspired by famous perfumes, and a few others. I did get as far as collecting and fiddling with an array of short stories that are basically modern fables for grown ups; I asked for a few volunteers from friends (largely on Facebook) to have a scan. About half of those who offered to read got back to me, and overall the collection passed muster, with some very helpful and uplifting feedback. My next task is to implement some small editorial changes before proofreading and the rest of the process of getting them published. It’s reminded me that I’m very good at the short form, even if short stories are not what people (apparently) want to read in collections from one author. Like poetry, like the literary-ish fiction I specialise in, it seems that another of my skills is in something hardly anyone wants. In a market that is totally saturated, getting noticed is now pretty much impossible unless you have a lot of money, time and energy to throw at it, as well as luck. My best plan is to continue to write what comes to me and therefore, one person is happy. The wonderful folk who read and enjoy and even review my books, may also be happy.

I often sit in awe at the people who write numerous books each year, and get them out there. I’m more than aware of the hard work and discipline involved. Bum in chair, social media disconnected, are but two of the steps needed. I’ve tried. Oh believe me I have tried, this year, to be more productive. Ideas flare, like matches in the darkness, and splutter out in the wake of “oh what’s the point?” It feels as if everything’s already been done, and done to death; I know that each author approaches an idea with their own voice. But I cannot overcome the inertia of the terrible feeling of pointlessness, when my own voice seems to die on the wind. Ill health (both mental and physical) and the invisibility, the sense of irrelevance of self, that seem to accompany middle age, have taken all the oomph out of me. I doubt that I have anything to offer the world, and increasingly, that there’s nothing the world can offer me, any more. Forgive me if this sounds depressing, but this is my reality at present.

I watch the world around me, and find that the microcosm of my back garden has brought me more joy than the wider world. I can barely watch the news any more. Yet seeing a charm of goldfinches bathing in the pond, or hearing the love songs of frogs on a spring night, or smelling the sweet fresh scent of hyacinths blooming in a forgotten corner, remind me that while wars and rumours of war go on, nature battles on, with beauty and sorrow balanced in an eternal cycle. When I go out, last thing at night, to put out food for errant hedgehogs and for the feral cat who lives at the bottom of the garden, I look up at the white stars twinkling in a frosty sky, and the vastness of the universe presses down on me, yet I can still say, “I endure. I am here, for a little while.”

I cannot make predictions for 2018. Or promises or hopes or ambitions. It will be whatever it is, whether I hope or don’t hope. But I wish that for you and for me, it may bring joy and meaning, healing and fulfilment, and understanding and forgiveness. All the rest is fluff that blows away on the winds of time like dandelion clocks when the seeds have been eaten.