Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.



They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

Raven & Vulture perform the funeral rites

I look out of the window to see that a black dress or long shirt has been laid out on the lawn, much in the manner of old, where laundry was dried on grass for the bleaching and cleansing effects of sunshine and grass on cloth. I think, the day is drawing to a close so I better bring it in before it becomes damp with the falling dew. As I look I see birds landing; two black vultures and two ravens. They approach the garment, and after looking at it for a moment, they ceremonially start to fold it up, and I see that there is something lying inside the fabric. It looks like a white dog or pig, but I cannot see its head or feet to be sure; it may be a lamb. The birds wrap it as if they are putting it into a shroud for burial, much as I have done with beloved pets on their deaths, wrapping them in their blanket or a towel.”

This was my dream a few nights ago, and I have been haunted by it ever since. While I was away in Austria, I saw my first ever raven in the wild, flying across the valley, kronk kronk kronking as it flew. The village where I was staying has a raven in its coat of arms, a raven holding a diamond ring, from a folk tale or legend of the area, and the book I was reading while away, Marie-Louise Von Franz’s Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, mentioned ravens several times. Both raven and vulture are associated with the Shadow, and with death, rebirth and other themes. But even knowing this, I am baffled by this dream and deeply disturbed to the point that I am scared.

A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

You probably know the term a curate’s egg and if you know its origins in a very old cartoon of a much-downtrodden young curate attempting to eat a boiled egg that is clearly so far past its sell-by (if they had such things when the cartoon was drawn) and saying in response to his employer sternly querying whether the egg was bad, “No, sir, it is excellent in parts!”, then you’ll also know that it’s about making the best of a bad job. 

Personally, 2015 wasn’t a bad year, though. It was excellent in parts. The trouble is that the excellent bits don’t quite make up for the bad bits. The other trouble is that being honest about the bad parts tends to make people switch off. The whole positivity bull has become so engrained that a bit of plain speaking is dismissed as negativity and is demonised. So I’m in a quandary: if I write of the good things without mentioning the bad ones, I’m being dishonest to myself, and if I do mention the less than stellar bits, people dismiss it as moaning. I’m going to try to have a brief run through of some of both.

Good bits:

Books: I managed to get Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking (first in a series of themed collections from his blog) out. It took far longer because I’ve been in the grip of depression this year. It’s got some wonderful reviews and feedback but so far hasn’t reached as many readers as I believe it needs to. Other books have garnered more reviews, though sales have been fewer than previous years. But I am still selling, if slowly.

Travel. I rarely blog much about my travelling job, for a variety of reasons. While most trips go very smoothly and the people I work with are smashing, sometimes things don’t go as well; personality clashes happen, though it’s extremely rare. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and on extremely rare occasions things can go wrong. It would be unprofessional of me to talk about this type of thing. I often chuckle to myself that no-one would believe some of the things I’ve experienced and seen on trips, anyway. It truly is a job of absurd extremes. Needless to say, I make mental notes of it all and perhaps things might filter through in fictionalised form one day. This year I have done a goodly number of miles for the day job. Admittedly, it’s stressful and exhausting but it can also be fun. I go to interesting places and I meet interesting people. Some are absurdly demanding but charming. Some are kind, lovely people I’ve made friends with, like the lovely lady in the small Austrian town who gave me her finger-less gloves when I admired them. There are some truly fabulous people in this world.

Home. In the wake of losing Tiko the Magnificent, tiny tyrant of the kitchen (our guinea pig who loved watching costume dramas on the TV with us. Poldark will never be the same again) we adopted first Blackberry (a year old female guinea, an unwanted pet) and then babies Rosehip, Cinnamon and Anise. They have become possibly the best of mood enhancers, just as Tiko was.

Writing. I have managed to write at least 70 thousand words of fiction this year. Thirty thousand longhand for a sequel to Square Peg, about another thirty thousand for another work in progress, and perhaps ten thousand in short stories. I’ve done perhaps another five to ten thousand on another piece but since that requires me to be in a state of trance, I haven’t done that much. I’ve also published over 70 blog posts this year, according to the WordPress stats monkeys.

Bad bits

Health: despite my best efforts, I’ve been gripped by low mood virtually all year, sometimes paralysed by depression so entirely that simply staying alive has been a huge struggle. I’ve also been in a lot of pain, and fatigue has been crippling. I’ve done my best to stay fit and active, attending the gym several times each week, and having a weekly class of Tai Chi and doing as much walking as I can manage. There is no sense of improving fitness despite doing all this (as well as daily physio exercises) which is frustrating. I have replaced the core muscles I lost because of the parathyroid tumour (removed in 2014) which has been helpful, but I’ve had four quite bad injuries this year because of my wonky joints. I did my ankle on New Year’s Day, wrist in March, shoulder on April Fool’s Day (of course) and I damaged my hip doing the splits on a slippery floor (by accident I should add). Each injury took a long time to recover and caused a lot of pain. Fibromyalgia pain is debilitating at the best of times, and injury adds to it.

Writing: yes, I know I put this in my good bits. I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I feel I have lost faith with myself, lost the ability to just trust my own inner processes that had served me so well in the past. I have lost connection with the me that basically says, “let’s see where this goes, shall we?” and charges off on an adventure, and is rewarded by a flood of narrative that sweeps me away. Part of the reason for this is I am no longer naïve about the publishing side of things; I’ve seen what sells and what doesn’t and it has seeped into my consciousness and has nibbled at my confidence in my own talent to the extent that I now doubt it entirely. There is an immense ocean of books out there that grows daily so why, oh why, does the world need more? I should add (to pre-empt comments about writing for myself etc) that I have never regarded writing as a hobby, a pass-time, or even a career, but as a kind of vocation, a raison d’etre, something that comes from beyond me as well as from within me. I harbour the probable delusion that my stories matter, that they are more than simple entertainment or diversion, and in this sea of books, what hope is there that mine might find homes? I might add also that my faith in there being a purpose, a destiny, in all this, has also taken a battering. My faith generally has never been at a lower ebb.

Family: seeing family (and close friends) with health issues that are crippling and horrible to live with.

The World: what can I say? There have been many, many terrible things this year that will never mend, never heal.

That’s enough to be going on with, though.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Five

Day 5

Winter bus ride

Blue sky with scudding clouds, pink tinged by the morning sun but dirty with threatening rain. Bare trees casting long low shadows across fields like the rib bones of some enormous extinct beast lying fossilised in the landscape. The bus chugs up hill, climbing out of the river valley- Norfolk is not pancake flat, there are some small hills. The road winds, except a few straight stretches that would gladden to hearts of those poor Romans who found our ways so baffling. But these are narrow country roads with passing places, and water-logged ditches on either side, so on occasion cars coming the other way have to reverse hundreds of yards back up the road to let this bus through. The driver is cheerful but determined not to back down, and after a short stand-off, we are on our way again. Ploughed fields gleam with standing water that reflects the sky, and the silions look like the ridges of chocolate icing on a Yule log cake.

The way is lined with sparse villages, houses dotted sometimes half a mile from the village proper; ancient cottages that might be five or six hundred years old stand side by side with bungalows built in the last ten years. Place names are evocative; we pass a hamlet called Silver Green- is that not charming? Each village has a church or two, depending on your choice of flavour; the original old one is usually flint built, the foundations probably Norman at least, if not Saxon. Some of these places have had a church on the site since the eighth century. The workmanship on some is breath-taking and the skills lost. No one can fathom how some of it was done; no one can knap flint like that now. We pass through one village that dates its own founding from 894AD.

We pass my favourite field, home to a flock of rare breed sheep, kept as pets, black sheep (though there is a single white ewe). The adults who were sheared in the spring have coats that are darker than the unsheared lambs, now fully grown; they are a rich shade of chocolate rather than the dusty black of the older sheep.

Further on, the earth ramparts of the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum come into view, along with a small amount of stone work. Most of the stone was robbed out, and some is used in the church that stands within the long fallen walls. I often wondered if it stands on the site of the temple of Mars that all Roman forts and towns had, along with shrines to local deities. The Iceni worshipped Andraste, a fierce warrior goddess whose totem was a hare. I have looked for hares today but have seen none; they are surely lying low amid the winter wheat and in the hedgerows rich and heavy with fruit like rose-hips and tiny sour wild apples and crab apples. The place hardly remembers the Romans, for the town lasted only a few hundred years at most and when the people left they took everything of value they could carry. They went probably to where the city of Norwich is now, and I know that I am not far from journey’s end. Other passengers sense this too, and conversations seem to change tone, to excitement and expectation. Most, like me, are going in to shop for Christmas; some are getting another bus to go elsewhere. It’s been an interesting hour or so of observing the countryside but now I must get ready for the crowds of the city.

*Cities that never sleep*

Cities that never sleep

Last week I went to Paris.

Whenever I say that the reaction is almost universally, “Lucky you!” and I concede that I am grateful that I get to go but I’ve never quite figured out why people get so excited by cities, however famous, beautiful or supposedly romantic those cities might be.

Since I was heading out on an early Eurostar train, I’d been billeted in a hotel next to Euston station in London. I got there in plenty of time so I had a little walk down to the British Library and down to St Pancras also, before heading back to wash my hair, eat my dinner and get an early night. I’d hoped to find some ear plugs but failed. I regretted it. The window in my room was defective and wouldn’t shut properly. It wasn’t a cold night, but the noise never abated to anything less than a dull roar all night. I got up at around 4.30, unable to snooze more than an hour at a time. It’s not so much the noise as the continuous low level vibration. Everything shakes ever so slightly, ALL THE TIME. I suspect you get used to it if you live there. But for a visitor it was unsettling. I felt all the time as if I were shaking, and it made me more nervous and uneasy.

When I left the hotel at 6am, London seemed to be already in full motion. The night buses had been replaced by the normal day ones, the pavement shook with the rumble of underground trains and the constant passing of traffic. There were more people visible on the streets at that time than I see normally in the course of a week or more. At no point did the city ever seem to sleep.

Paris comes to life at night too. As the sun sets, the lights come on everywhere, and people head out. Going up the Butte of Montmartre for a meal at the artists’ square, it was still quite quiet. By the time we came out to do some sight seeing, the place was heaving. The steps in front of Sacre Coeur were filled by people sitting enjoying the view, the company and a drink or two. Inside the basilica, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, the nuns were about to sing the office of Compline, the last office of the day before sleep. But Paris too never sleeps. Even in our quiet hotel at the edge of the city, traffic thundered past most of the night.

I’ve lived in a couple of cities in the past, sometimes close to the centre, sometimes in the suburbs, and while the amenities and so on are great, I’ll never forget when we first moved to deep countryside, miles from anywhere. We’d brought sleeping bags and a few bits with us, ahead of the removals van, and that first night, without a plate or fork to our name, we walked through fields to get to the next village and the nearest pub to get our dinner. The sun set as we ate, and when we got back out, full of dinner and a few drinks, we headed out confidently to follow the little paths back through the countryside to our new house. Half a mile on, it dawned on me that it was VERY dark indeed. There were no street lights in our village at that time, and the fields and copses were utterly black. Above us, the stars shone like diamonds on a jeweller’s velvet, and a sliver of moon. We found our way home, cautiously, and when we crawled into sleeping bags, and lay down to sleep, I realised that with the window open, it was almost silent. It was quiet enough to hear the wind blowing the half grown wheat in the field behind our house. The sound of owls, and once or twice the guttural cries of foxes, and very, very faintly, the occasional car passing. and then close to dawn, cockerels, were the soundtrack of almost every night after that.

I learned to walk the woods and fields in almost total darkness, using the glimmer of starlight on the tip of my dog’s tail as a guide, or the bright white glow of moonlight. I learned to tell different sounds apart, so that the call of one owl was different to that of another of the same species. I listened to nightingales singing, and heard the huff of distaste when a deer came upon my scent in the middle of the night as I walked alone but for my dog.

Some people are city people. Some people are country people. I wonder if you can guess which I am.


The Magician’s Nemesis

The Magician’s Nemesis ~

I have a very special knack of getting things wrong sometimes. Really, really wrong. I sometimes unconsciously pick up on the underlying currents of relationships and somehow come out with the precise remark that was either in the mind of the other person, or the very thing they would rather never hear. I do it a lot, and sometimes it’s a little spooky and sometimes it seems to be enough to topple a whole house of cards. I’m working at becoming a bit more conscious and censoring it long enough to consider what I am saying. But when I get tired, ill or stressed, it seems to happen even more and things can go wrong.

I also have a knack of being in completely the wrong place at the wrong moment. At school, I was a great fielder at baseball and rounders because I kept getting hit by stray balls. Over the Easter weekend I was at Phantasialand near to the city of Cologne for work. The group I was with all loved roller-coasters and rides, so it was quite a lonely day for me. Added to which it was so cold and snow kept drifting down, and I was suffering with an ongoing migraine attack that meant I was hazy and unfocussed, and the cold had got to my kidneys(which are somewhat scarred after infections), making them ache like crazy. I loathe roller coasters; they make me ill and I simply cannot see the point of them, so there was no way I was even going to go on any. I’ve tried enough in my time to know I’m never, ever going to enjoy them and I’m not going to do something that will make me ill just to prove something.

But one thing I did really want to go and see was the magician. I love magic. Even knowing it’s all fake makes no difference. I love watching even when I know how it’s done. There’s something so incredibly clever about it all. Christian Farla’s Sieben show was superbly Gothic, with elements of steam-punk and delicious costumes. I was a little late, and was the last person into the theatre, scurrying to the back where I thought I’d seen a spare seat. But when I got there it wasn’t spare at all, so I sat on a box at the back that I thought was probably something to do with storage. Almost as soon as I sat, the show started.

Mesmerised, I watched. But about halfway through I was startled to find a man in black coming down a ladder next to me and informing me (in German) that I wasn’t sitting in a good place, and needed to move, now. I shifted off my box and sat on the floor, feeling horribly embarrassed. Ten minutes later, the escapologist act that involved a giant, steam-punkish scorpion and a circular saw showed me why I had been sitting in entirely the wrong place. The box was where Mr Farla descended from the gods once he had escaped from the fatal scorpion. Had I not been moved, he’d have landed on me. I felt a complete idiot. Perhaps I am.

Or perhaps I am simply The Fool. That person who does and says the things that exist behind the serene surface of what we think is reality, that dark underbelly that most are oblivious of. That person who taps into what’s really going on and like the small child in The Emperor’s new clothes, actually blurts it out to the horror of all who would prefer to keep a lid on it all. That person who instinctively knows that things are not as they seem and somehow manages to blow the whole illusion sky high, showing all the naked flaws and ugliness beneath the masks.


10 Days in Nicaragua: Lessons in Human Nature

 Some times you come across someone whose ideas and ideals resonate with your own.  This guest post from Jonathan who writes the Serving Others blog is from very much such a person. Over to you!

10 Days in Nicaragua: Lessons in Human Nature


by Jonathan Lareau


“The greatest risk in action is the risk of revelation, and that is also action’s greatest joy. No one can know us fully, not even ourselves, but when we act, something of our inner mystery often emerges, and it can shock or delight us when it does.” –Parker Palmer



I knew it would be a challenging experience, but I could never have imagined the extent to which it would push all of my boundaries, and how it would ultimately expand my mind and soul.


From March 9-18, 25 people—from various parts of Ontario, Canada—travelled to Nicaragua to work in Granada, of the poorest neighbourhoods of the capital city of Managua. Ten adults and 15 teens coming together for a common purpose.


The trip was led by, a social enterprise that improves the lives of the people there. In 10 years, more than 1,000 participants from Canada, the US, and beyond have made this trip to Nicaragua, still one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere with most people living on less than $2 per day.


In the six months leading up to the trip, our group talked about what to expect. But nothing could have prepared us for the complete assault on our senses that would occur, challenging our reality and everything we were accustomed to. Young kids sleeping on the street. People living on garbage dumps. Barbed wire everywhere. The heat. The smells. Most people live on next to nothing, on dirt floors and in tin shacks. Natural disasters, corrupt governments, and wars have torn this country apart over the last 40 years.


We were divided up into groups of three or four and hosted by various Nicaraguan families, interacting with our hosts mainly over meals. Despite the language barrier, we managed to communicate, with lots of effort on both sides. We were divided into smaller groups and assigned specific jobs in Granada, based on our experience and how we could best contribute. Some were put on house-building teams. Some taught English. Some painted huge, colorful murals. Others went to work building a security wall around the school—digging trenches, mixing cement, laying stones, and building reinforcement bars.


After short stints chipping stone, moving rocks and debris, and building re-bar, I finally found my niche—building book shelves and room dividers with Jack, a retired minister and experienced carpenter. We all worked alongside local Nicaraguans. They—and we—were somewhat guarded, skeptical, and distant at first. It is human nature to distrust and fear what you don’t know. But within a day, once we got to know each other, the language and cultural barriers just melted away. It didn’t take long before we were laughing and joking together, and making real progress on all fronts.


Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire trip for me was when we first arrived at the school on the first work day. All the school kids, families, workers, and teachers were gathered to greet us. As I sat with these people—the bright-eyed school kids smiling up at me, fascinated, watching my every move, trying to connect—it really hit home why I was there. I felt love and goodness in an almost dizzying way, unlike anything I have ever known.


The schedule was intense and relentless—between the job site, group outings, discussion, preparation—we were on the go for 15 hours a day. I would discover that the total cultural immersion and letting go of “my” ways of doing things would lead to incredible growth.


On the fourth work day I decided to stay late to prep for the next day, when the local workers began to congregate around me for some reason. Against my usual nature, I forced myself to stop planning, and simply be in the moment with the others, and just hang out with them. Turned out to be one of the most communal and connected moments of the trip as we let off steam, laughing and joking with one another as if we’d been friends for years. It’s amazing what happens when you are present and paying attention.


Although both cultures seem so different at first, once you scratch the surface I discovered that there is a commonality that binds us together. We all respond to love, kindness, enthusiasm, and smiles. The more you put yourself out there, the more you get back. If nations and governments were to put the same kind of effort into listening and understanding each other, perhaps the world would be a different place.


At the end of the final work day, we toured all the projects to see the progress that had been made. Three houses had been built and about 400 feet of the security wall erected. Two beautiful murals had been created. Six shelving units and four room dividers were completed. But most importantly, a whole lot of love and respect had grown between two very different cultures in a very short time.


When it was finally time to say goodbye, it was an incredibly heart-wrenching experience and it hit me much harder than I expected. In a few short days we had become so close with these people. Lots of tears all around.


On the final night with our host family, they threw a goodbye party for us. A simple and modest affair by our standards, but they all make such an effort and are so proud. It is not what they have, or how much they have, but rather the people and relationships they value the most. Unlike North Americans, this culture values living in and for the moment. They have so little, and have been through such hardship, yet they seem happy and hopeful.


After the group left, I ended up staying another week to see more of the country. But how empty, self-indulgent, and meaningless it all seemed, sitting on the beach or walking up a volcano, compared to the intense and rewarding time I had with my co-workers at the work site. Paradise, no matter how beautiful, is not a place, and can only be found in your heart, through meaningful interaction.


A few other things struck me during this trip.


In North America, time seems to move very quickly, days and weeks merging into the next as we go about our routines. But 10 days in Nicaragua felt like two months. The continuous assault on my senses, with nothing routine or predictable, seemed to slow everything right down. I felt like I was squeezing every last drop of life out of every day.


We spent a lot of time driving through the streets of Managua, to and from the worksite and other locations. If you think driving in North America is bad, a few hours on these roads makes our drivers look like angels! Yet not once did I see or hear anyone honking in anger, or giving someone the finger! There was patience, understanding, and peace amidst the chaos.


I travelled thousands of kilometres to help a small community in need. But there are so many people in need everywhere, it’s almost paralyzing as I think about where to start. It also makes me wonder if I am doing enough for those who need help closer to home. The simple lesson for me is to become involved in some way, any way. Separation breeds indifference, unity produces compassion. And when I serve others, I do not hurt them.


I know these experiences will fade, but I also know that I have become more conscious—I cannot simply slip back to life the way I knew it.


While I was in Nicaragua, I felt hyper aware and in the moment. I have never felt so incredibly alive. I know I brought the best version of myself on that trip, as well as openness, enthusiasm, and a willingness to stretch way beyond my usual comfort zone.


And above all, I will remember the incredible power of people coming together for the common purpose of doing something positive.