Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Despite having her writings, we actually know surprisingly little about Dame Julian,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich the anchorite whose hermitage in Norwich remains a site for pilgrims to this day. We don’t even know her original name; she took the name of the saint whose church she became anchorite of. The church and the cell were bombed during the war but later rebuilt, stone by stone, and the place retains an atmosphere of calm and contemplation; the visitor centre next to it offers refreshments, access to their library and a lovely little gift selection. If you go, they also allow you to park next to the church if you ask for one of their parking permits that will ward off the eagle-eyed traffic wardens.

The 14th century was an especially turbulent one, taking in the Black Death (which reached Britain in 1348, ripping through populations weakened by 2 generations of malnutrition), wars, pogroms, The Peasants’ Revolt, social upheavals and religious movements galore. Dame Julian(born around 1342) saw the effects of the plague first hand, both the initial wave and the later wave that had a reduced effect. When she was around 30, during an illness that was almost fatal, she had a series of visions that are the basis for her writings, and which led to her becoming an anchorite after her recovery. While we know nothing for certain about her origins, education or life before the visions, given that she was 30 at the time, many have speculated that the likelihood was that she was or had been married, and may have had children. The surmise also goes that the illness she survived may have wiped out husband and children. Whatever the truth of this, the life she led after this cataclysmic illness and the visions was entirely different from what she must have led before it.

An anchorite was a hermit who pledged to stay in a single location, often walled in and supplied with the essentials of life via a small window. When a person became an anchorite, the service for the dead was performed, and they were then sealed in. However, they usually led productive lives, often making clothes for the poor and acting (via the window) as a counsellor to troubled souls. One of Julian’s visitors was the mystic Margery Kempe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe who wrote of her visit to dame Julian. http://juliancentre.org/news/margery-kempe-who-met-julian-is-remembered-in-the-anglican-church-on-9th-november.html

One of the most famous of Julian’s sayings was “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Sometimes people use this as a means of shutting up others who are worrying about what’s going on around them. Right now, there’s a lot of reasons to worry. Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but it’s a frighteningly infectious and potentially lethal virus, and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Julian would have witnessed not just the Black Death but many other epidemics or pandemics that roared through the populace; mechanisms by which any disease spread were little understood then and it’s hard to imagine the terrible fear most people would have experienced. For many it may have felt like a judgement from an angry god. Even today, there are so-called Christians who are preaching that this pandemic is God’s judgement on a sinful human race; some who see this as stage in the end of the world prophecies that are supposedly laid out in the Book of Revelation. To that I say: utter tosh.

When the door closed behind Julian and she was sealed inside her cell, I wonder what she would have felt. Her faith, both in a good, kind, loving God rather than the hideous vengeful god usually depicted by the medieval church, would have kept her at peace, and her faith in the benefactors and supporters who ensured that she would be kept supplied with the necessaries of life meant that the usual worries and cares would be gone. She could focus on what she was there for: to pray, to work, to support others from her window, and also to write about her visions.

In my previous post I wrote about how pressured many of us feel by having so many reminders of what others (like Shakespeare) have accomplished in their time in quarantine. There’s a massive collective angst and anxiety that fills the air and reaches all of us who are sensitive to it, and many who otherwise would not be. It’s extremely hard to be creative when the world around us is filled with such turmoil and uncertainty and fear. It’s even harder when well-meaning people exhort us not to waste such an opportunity for extra time we didn’t know we had.

As well as the collective grief and fear and worry, there’s personal concerns that almost everyone is affected by; worries about money, jobs, family, the future. After losing my father six months ago, I had had a sense of relief that at least I didn’t have to worry about him getting the virus. The worry for my mother was short-lived, and replaced instead with immense shock and sadness when she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

I wonder how much of the collective grief that Dame Julian bore and prayed with in that little cell in Norwich, how many folks she comforted with her words of a loving God who cared for his children as a mother might. I would love to sit an hour in her cell now, and pour out my soul there, but I cannot. It may be many months before I can go anywhere that is deemed non-essential. But I can sit quietly in my home, and hold like hazel nuts the cares and sorrows of others, just as she did.

An Epiphany, of sorts

An Epiphany, of sorts

Today marks Epiphany, the festival that for most marks the end of all things Christmas. It commemorates the arrival of the Magi, coming to pay their respects to the infant Jesus, though much of what people think they know about the Magi is a much later medieval addition. The bible does not give names to the visitors, nor does it state that there were three. That aside, it’s a charming addition; it personalises these shadowy visitors and gives them flesh and human attributes, as well as the gifts they brought, which were largely symbolic ones. I am sure that the holy family valued the gold; it probably got them through lean and difficult times. Frankincense was at one time worth the same ounce for ounce as gold and myrrh not far behind. I burn both during the Christmas period and I usually burn some beautiful incense called Three Kings after I take down the Christmas decorations (though the crib scenes remain until Candlemas).

But that’s not the epiphany I am talking about. The word has come to mean a sudden, dramatic and powerful revelation. During a recent episode of extra-nasty depression (that general base line for me is just fairly nasty and the extra-specially nasty was paralysing and unbelievably destructive) I had an insight I have had to sit with to see if it may be true, and that insight is the epiphany I’d like to explain.  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

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.

On the toxic effects of secrecy and secret groups

On the toxic effects of secrecy and secret groups

Shhh…this is our little secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all.”

How many cases of abuse, of both children and adults, begin with words that use that basic format?

They’re usually followed by threats, both veiled and actual. I remember being threatened with death by the kid who abused me when I was around 8.

I don’t like secrets and secrecy; it makes me quite ill to even think of these things. For clarity, I don’t mean privacy. Everyone has a right to privacy and to keep their own counsel. Once you create a secret, though, the dynamic changes. Human psychology is prone to this. We want to feel special; we want to feel we are trusted and part of something exclusive.

Years back I was added to a secret group on Facebook, for writers. At first I was flattered to be included, but it became clear that the secret nature of the group was not for a good reason but rather to fly under the radar of various strictures, and I’d been added because I might be a good little foot soldier for promoting the work of others. I left. I flounced, actually.

Nobody knows how many secret groups exist on Facebook. I’m sure a large amount of them are intended simply to protect the privacy of their members, especially if those members are vulnerable in some way, or if like many, they don’t want to chat in the open.

But some groups are intrinsically toxic. If there are consequences of leaving them, that’s toxic. It makes people feel uncomfortable at best, trapped and frightened at worst. They can and do have rules that are arbitrary and enforced without chance to appeal. And some exist for very sinister reasons; witness the British MP (who will remained unnamed) who was outed as belonging to a group that is secretly trying to bring back such horrors as the Workhouse.

Secrecy and secret groups encourage an unhealthy state where remaining safe and secure as a member becomes the priority; to speak up against abuses within the group means being expelled from the safety of the group, of being ostracised and ignored and vilified. You risk losing friends and allies and possibly even status (if you had any to begin with!) and any benefits the group may have offered. Over time, those benefits become more important than the ethics they may conflict with.

Some groups have secrecy as a condition for good reasons but it depends heavily on moderators to ensure that this secrecy does not become toxic, and it’s too common for mods to become quietly victims of a form of Stockholm Syndrome and be unable to be dispassionate or reasonable.

The other thing that bothers me is recruitment. In these times when our secret services actively (and openly) recruit at university careers fairs, how do secret FB groups find new members, for if the first rule of Fight Club is you never talk about Fight Club, how come Fight Club became so big? It’s clear that people do talk about Fight Club… but with the whisper in the ear, that begins, “Shhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all!”