Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue

It’s getting to that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, and the heat of only a matter of weeks ago is a memory (thank goodness; I wasn’t coping, especially with the hot humid nights). Cooler, fresher mornings are making me consider putting the duvet back on the bed; we’ve had instead a sheet with a blanket on the top for most of the summer. I’ve brought in the most tender, temperature sensitive plants back into the house after their summer break in the garden; the scented geraniums and the dwarf myrtle will follow soon, once I’ve cleaned windows and window ledges. The two olive trees will come in after that.

After the dry summer, the trees are bright with berries and their leaves are beginning to change colour. In woods we visit, the smell of autumn has been hovering for some weeks. We’ve spotted fungi erupting in all sorts of places. Bird song has altered. Our lawn is littered with more poo from hedgehogs as they forage among windfall apples and snuffle the cat food I put out every evening. The males will be looking for places to settle for their hibernation, while the females and the youngsters continue to feed voraciously to fatten up for winter. We rarely see slugs or snails here, probably because the hoggies and the visiting ducks hoover them all up.

I like autumn, despite the melancholy. The first anniversary of my father’s death has slipped by; I toasted him with a pint of Guinness with dinner. All Hallows and associated festivals lie ahead in October; there is usually a service here to commemorate our beloved dead. Last year it was too raw for me to attend, and this year spaces at the service will be fewer than usual because of social distancing measures. I hope to attend, and remember with love those who have gone.

Over recent years I have noticed the proliferation of items for sale that have the scent or flavour of “pumpkin spice”, and the attending ridicule of women for liking it. It’s largely contemptuous dismissal by men, powered by an underlying unconscious belief that everything women enjoy as trivial and without real value. Pumpkins as Halloween food and décor are a fairly new thing in the UK; pumpkin spice is actually a much older thing indeed, and has little to do with the vast round orange vegetables. It’s a mix of the sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and a few others, traditionally used for baking certain recipes. As a child, trying to get my mother to cook and bake more adventurous things, I got her to buy a variety of herbs and spices. One of those was something called Apple Pie Spice. At home, she opened the bottle and took a sniff; her eyes went misty for a moment and she said one word: “Mammy”. Not, as she explained a few moments later, her mother, but instead her grandmother, who had lived next door. My great grandmother, in fact. That single inhalation of scent had taken my mother back to childhood, and brought a much-beloved grandmother into the room for a moment. Mum was someone who hated nostalgia and rarely reminisced. She seldom talked about her childhood, or showed us old photos but in that tiny breath of mixed spices, she went back, almost bodily. She was back in her grandmother’s kitchen, helping her bake apple pies and other delicious treats. I have often thought that many of her memories from that time are probably deeply traumatic; the roof of their house was blown off by a falling bomb while they sheltered under the concrete thrall shelf in the pantry. Brothers, uncles, cousins, were away at war; desperate shortages of food at times meant that while they probably never went truly hungry, food was doubtless tedious and boring and precious. Mum in her later years talked about never having had teddies or other soft toys; she had a rag doll that someone made for her, but that was it. We gave her a zoo’s worth of cuddly toys, which she loved, but that early lack went deep. I suspect for many that lived through such times there are cavernous wounds, papered over with material comforts in later years.

Spices were once as precious as gold, and their use in food sometimes a matter of conspicuous consumption. Cardinal Wolsey went one step further, using saffron (still one of the most costly of spices) as a strewing herb. In humble families, a pinch of ground cinnamon in a simple apple pie was a way of giving the food an almost magical savour, a pinch of love. That’s why so many of the traditional Christmas foods are heavy on spices, because these were things you could not afford to use every day. They were brought out for the feasts of life, when those you loved had gathered close for that time. They enhanced both the flavour, the fragrance and the properties of the food. Most spices have beneficial effects; cinnamon is anti-viral and many are antibacterial as well. Sometimes added to disguise the taint of food past its best, they protected the health as well as adding to the taste.

In the case of pumpkins, the spice is added as pumpkins have very mild flavour. I’ve made pumpkin pie just the once; we held a Halloween party for my daughter’s friends, some of whom were American (we lived close to a couple of US airbases at the time). The kids looked at it, and because it was unfamiliar to most of the guests, declined to try any. The one American attendee said she didn’t like it anyway. I ended up eating it all myself over a couple of days. I rather liked it. But I think that if they were a vegetable that grew well where I live, I’d feel honour-bound to find as many ways of using it as possible, because of the hungry times in my ancestry. At the moment I am processing as many of the apples from our nine trees as I can, stewing with cinnamon and honey and freezing them for use in the winter when the trees are bare. Last year I didn’t do this; there was too much going on to worry about endless windfalls and waste. But as I add the spice to each batch, I think of the great grandmother I never knew, and of the line of faceless grandmothers going back centuries, and then I think of the younger women daring to have pumpkin spice coffee, defying the (mostly) men who would shame them for liking such a thing, and then I think, “You go, girls. You enjoy that spice. And devil take those who would use it to diminish you.”

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Three

(Note: In the light of the government decisions to bomb Syrian targets, I wondered whether I should stop doing these daily posts. They seemed trivial. But after much thought, reflecting on my part in the world and my own lack of power, I decided that to post pieces about the good things I am thankful for, and the beauty that exists in the world around me, was one of the ways I can contribute to comfort and support those who read me. There’s a Chinese proverb: better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. This blog is my candle.)

Being clean.

We take it for granted, the chance to be clean and fresh each day. Most of us start the day with a quick shower, or at the very least, a comprehensive wash. The long hot soak in a tub after a hard day is a huge pleasure. Our first house as a married couple had an unheated bathroom, with a bath but no shower; baths were tricky to negotiate in the depths of winter because there came a point when you had to emerge from the swiftly cooling water into a room that would soon hover only a few degrees above freezing (we lived in the north east. Think Winterfell with pits and ports). We put in a special light bulb that gave off some warmth, but I learned to dread winter. The house we moved to after that had bath, shower AND central heating of sorts, and felt like a massive move up in the world.

I’ve written before of the power of water to wash away more than physical dirt, and being able to step into a shower is a privilege and a pleasure. To smell fresh and clean every morning, to face the day feeling refreshed and ready is a great and often under-rated joy.

Out of the Red Tent ~ thoughts on womanly things

Out of the Red Tent ~ thoughts on womanly things

(This is primarily a post for women but men are more than welcome to read too.)

Two of the defining moments in a woman’s life are when she starts her periods and when she stops them, though the latter is seldom a single moment. In fact, it’s usually a protracted, messy, annoying and ill-defined time that women have grown to dread.
I had trouble more or less right from the first ever period, which arrived without preamble when I was barely ten. I’d learned about the existence of such things that very day; sex ed in the seventies consisted primarily of being shown a TV show called Living and Growing. We’d watched the episode about periods that morning and I’d given it very little thought as I thought I was still too young. I also harboured a belief that there was some mistake and I’d magically turn out to be male. So the arrival of The Visitor that day was a nasty shock on every level. The first year of periods was an awakening that was beyond my years to cope with. Mood swings, greasy skin, managing sanitary towels while still at primary school were the least of it: the pain was dreadful and I got little sympathy at home or at school. It was thought I was making a fuss about very little. More running around was the answer, you see, plenty of fresh air and exercise and don’t dwell on it. Every woman gets them, every woman puts up with it, stop complaining.
Medical help was rubbish at the time (and still is) and consists of the most basic of advice that we all figured out for ourselves, or being put on the Pill. My teens consisted of a roller coaster of weepy moods, acne, pain and anxiety and depression. If you grew up in those days, you’ll also know that sanitary products were much less reliable and pleasant to use; you might even have used those sanitary towels with loops you hooked onto an elastic belt that was far from comfortable or discreet. The stick on ones came in but weren’t that sticky and to get the kind of protection from leakage on heavy days, you’d often use two. It was like shoving a double duvet in your knickers. The shame of P.E when you had your period was doubled when the athletics season came around and the “cake frill” P.E skirt was discarded for bare legs and navy blue knickers. No wonder the day I ran away was the day I had double PE after my other bug bear, double domestic science (cookery).
The mood swings became so bad that the doctor prescribed tranquillisers when I was 13. Some Valium blend, they knocked me out so badly I stopped taking them. By university the pre-menstrual syndrome was so bad I know it was one factor that led to a suicide attempt; I started my period lying in an emergency ward, having overdosed.
After my daughter was born, I expected respite. Breastfeeding usually suppresses menstruation but despite my baby being a voracious feeder, within four weeks of birth, my periods were back, arriving like an unwelcome guest every single month. And the pain slowly got worse and worse. By thirty, I was in agony every month. The diagnosis was endometriosis, a condition where shreds of womb lining set up shop elsewhere in the body and every month, they too bleed and cause massive internal inflammation within the areas they inhabit. Mine caused appendicitis, and a further look-see with a tiny camera showed what my consultant described as “not THE worst case I’ve seen but up there in the top ten.” My abdominal cavity was a horrible mess, looking like several unshelled Daleks had been beamed inside, squidged up and blended with ovaries and other organs, and compounded by adhesions sticking things together. I collected fibroids and ovarian cysts too (I had a delightfully named chocolate cyst that had to be drained; left to burst, it can cause intense pain, life threatening shock
and septicaemia). The endometriosis was pretty much untreatable. The surgeon took one look and put his laser away; it was too extensive to touch. I was offered a hysterectomy, which was pointless as the endo was OUTSIDE the womb, and removal of ovaries to stop the hormones also removes your natural protection against several cancers and osteoporosis. I took the option to tough it out and wait for the onset of menopause; I had the best I could get as far as pain relief was concerned. What I didn’t realise was that I’d also managed to grow a sub-mucosal fibroid; that’s to say a fibroid that doesn’t grown on a stalk but grows in the womb lining. Every month I bled what felt like gallons of blood and every month I more or less passed out with pain. It turns out my poor body recognised the fibroid as a foreign body and was trying to expel it by going into labour. Yes. Bodies do that. It’s a way of trying to make sure that a miscarried foetus is removed from the body before it kills the mother.
It took two operations to get that fibroid. The first op had to be stopped because I started bleeding uncontrollably and the hospital didn’t have a cauteriser to hand big enough. Post operative infection led to my worst ever Christmas and I spent New Year on an IV drip. The second op, done six months later, also managed to remove more than 60% of the womb lining, a kind of default ablation I was very angry about. While I had no plans to have more children, I did have hopes that I might have a few years of NORMAL periods. I wasn’t terribly sure of what that might mean but I think I meant the kind that women advertising tampons have. Ones where you do cartwheels and go surfing and dance till dawn on the beach. Seriously, I wanted to experience the menstrual cycle as a spiritual experience, spending time being quiet and inwardly focused on the concept of my body’s natural cycles.
It didn’t happen. The continued existence of the endometriosis meant that while I had light periods because I had virtually no uterine lining, I still had pain. To make things worse, hot flushes had also turned up. Initially they were a sensation of just being a bit too warm a few times day, they became increasingly intense and frequent. If you want to imagine was a full-blown hot flush feels like, imagine walking your naked body through a ring of fire while your skin is dowsed in alcohol; the heat rises from your knees (or lower sometimes) and takes from between three and thirty seconds to reach the crown of your head, by which time you are sweating profusely and in a very unbecoming way. For me a flush is preceded with a feeling of lurching nausea and dread, like I would the last second before a roller coaster plunges down a vertical drop. By the time the heat stops, you are wet with sweat and then usually go icy cold. I’ve had my teeth chattering with cold before now. Now if this happened once a day, that would be bad enough. At its worst for me, it had occurred up to 20 times per hour. Yes, I said per hour. It’s impossible to sleep and almost impossible to do anything at all. When it was that bad I showered about 6 times per day just to remain even half way fit for company.
Take HRT I hear you scream. Well, duh. I did consider HRT but the remaining endometriosis would have been triggered into new furies by it, and HRT holds significant health risks of its own. More than that, HRT uses the most horrific practices to obtain the hormones from pregnant mares’ urine and I cannot in all conscience justify that suffering to alleviate my own. I have tried a number of herbs, changes in diet, exercise, supplements, natural progesterone and meditation. Very little of it has worked for me but the combo that I am currently taking is: 5htp, sage tablets and wild yam cream. That’s got the flushes down to a range I can about live with (that’s to say, between 2 and 4 an hour on a bad day and every few hours on a good one).
I haven’t had a period now for almost a year. It would surprise you to hear that I miss them, but I do. I miss the sense of cleansing that came after I began to bleed, the sense of relief that “oh that’s why I was feeling so unsettled” and the sense that I was connected to all other women. I don’t miss having to travel with enough sanitary products for a whole girls’ school, or the pain and fear that I’d pass out while at work. I still wish I’d had a few ordinary periods that I could have spent in a kind of metaphysical Red Tent, connecting to the spirituality of being a woman. I’m hoping that the sheer misery of the menopausal symptoms will continue to abate and that at some point I will be able to declare myself a new crone and that perhaps the journey I’ve had through the harsher side of being a woman might be of some value to some one. I know full well that mine has been a pretty extreme set of experiences, perhaps not the very worst a woman may go through, but it’s way beyond what most experience and for that I am glad. No woman should have to go through hell just because she was born with one set of chromosomes and not the other. But too many do. It’s time it changed.

Stop homing in on flaws and start focusing on the bigger picture

Stop homing in on flaws and start focusing on the bigger picture

I’ve been reading a lot of interesting things on social media about the pervasive culture of self-loathing, largely among women. There was an excellent video from a former body builder you can listen to here; her overall message was that we need to be less critical and more loving towards ourselves.
A few years ago, I did a review of a fantastic book called Grow Your Own Gorgeousness by Bethan Christopher (review is here. You can now buy it from Amazon here) which works with the same idea of learning to love our bodies, with all their imperfections, and to see that those imperfections are perhaps not imperfections after all but simply our own unique being and body.
If you were to ask almost any woman if she is happy with her looks, the chances are she’d say no. The majority of us want to be slimmer, taller, with bigger/smaller boobs, longer legs (fill in the blanks) but ultimately, we want to fulfil some strange idea we have in our heads of what will make us beautiful. This odd undefined template is something that is going to break not only us as individuals but us as a society. We are passing our loathing of ourselves onto our children and grandchildren and it’s getting into the very bones of even our science. Fat has become a hot topic, and we all believe that to be fat reduces our probable life expectancy. If you start looking past the first layer of scientific research that is available on the internet, you will discover that it’s a far more complex issue than X amount over the correct BMI means Y numbers of years off your life. In fact, the latest issue of New Scientist has a graph where it’s clear that only the extreme ends of BMI (from underweight to severely obese) have any direct evidence for shorter lives. The graph suggests strongly that to be somewhat overweight per se has a beneficial effect on life expectancy.
Fat has become an issue that is nothing to do with health but about a weird kind of belief that thin=beautiful=good, and so those carrying extra weight tend to get the whole package of denigration of fat=ugly=bad. If you find you can’t easily find nice clothes in your size, the result is that you feel worthless and ugly (sometimes) and also weak and pathetic.
I cannot stress enough how mad this is, and yet I do it to myself all the time. I have put on weight due to illness and I feel like Godzilla, lumbering around being huge and clumsy and an object for derision. I saw my physiotherapist last week and she was so good; I was told to stop beating myself up over not bouncing back immediately from my illness and my surgery and that losing weight wasn’t my primary concern at all. Regaining health and fitness is my goal.
When it comes down to it I am more than my appearance. I have a lot of excellent features but why is it that I only ever seem to focus on the ones that seem to be to be ‘bad’? I believe it’s a malaise that has crept into the overall consciousness. I’m going to use an example from a very different area to try and illustrate my point. On Facebook and Twitter I see daily memes about errors: typos, misspellings, grammar faux pas and so on. The usual approach is ridicule and sometimes worse, caustic and bitter recriminations heaped upon the luckless soul who confused their with they’re or similar grammar atrocity. Woe betide an author whose book has a few typos in or whose choice of British English over US English has infuriated readers. I’ve known people who consider that a single typo in a book renders the entire book worthless and the author ought to be beaten with sticks and never allowed to write another word (I’m not exaggerating here). I had a review of The Bet pour scorn on the book (and me) because of a few typos (and who then himself made a rather obvious and cringeworthy typo in said review. I love karma.). It’s as if not being perfect is a reason for burning the entire book and blacklisting the author. I’ve seen typos in some big name authors’ books published by the major publishing houses.
Those who focus so much on a few tiny flaws in a work seem to take delight in feeling superior. To be able to read and write, to have had a decent education that means you have the capacity to evaluate and spot mistakes is not that big a deal these days. Worldwide, it may be rarer to have had those privileges but in the rich west it’s uncommon to have been denied those opportunities. I don’t believe that it gives anyone a moral superiority over another person who has never grasped that “could have” is what they ought to be writing instead of “could of”. There isn’t a one among us who doesn’t make mistakes, believe me.
It’s the same for our physical forms. Not one of us is perfect. We all have parts of us that are defective, worn out, ageing, broken, scarred, too this or too that, to meet the criteria for perfect beauty the media and the fashion and beauty industry dictates. Do you know why it dictates these things? To make you buy stuff. Simple as that: to make you feel you must rectify the flaws lest you be cast out into the howling darkness.
So a suggestion for dealing with others (because how we treat others becomes a reflection of how we treat ourselves). Start by looking for the good that is in others that is not based on fashion influences, whether that’s observing how someone has kind eyes or that they have a smile that lights up a room. See things a bit differently; see that lines are from a lifetime of expressing feelings, and they’re not blemishes at all. Cut people some slack about the things they get wrong; remember that everyone makes mistakes and a typo or two in a novel is not an excuse to despise the author.
Look for the good. It won’t stop you seeing the not-good, but it will stop it being so important that it gives an excuse to exclude another person. Look at the bigger picture: a woman might be beautifully dressed, coiffed and made-up but have a corrosive bitter soul that emerges every time they speak. A man might be dressed in a thousand dollar suit but be morally bankrupt. Look deeper. That person has had an interesting life and has given more to the world than you’d ever guess from looking at them. One book might have sold a million glossy copies but has made no difference to a single person who read it beyond a few hours of entertainment; another book with a less perfect cover might have brought comfort and hope to a few thousand readers who re-read it every year.
Cut the world some slack and yourself with it. Give yourself permission to be less than picture-perfect. Maybe the two are so deeply connected we’ll never know till we all wake up to how connected we all are.

Square Peg arrives

Square Peg arrives ~

It’s taken far longer than I thought it ever would, but Square Peg is now out there, winging its way around the globe.
The last two years have been quite tough, with health challenges and life being uncooperative and awkward. I’ve struggled to keep going, keep writing and keep working at getting my back catalogue out there. The book market is not an easy place and I’d become more daunted by the difficulties than I was inspired by the possibilities. A good deal of that was down to Dexter, my former parathyroid tumour, sucking the life and joy out of me, but a month after his exile to a path lab somewhere, I’m rebuilding my health and energy.
So it is with great joy (and no little trepidation) I can tell you that Square Peg is now live. Here’s the blurb:
“She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her.
Chloe is a square peg in an increasingly uncomfortable round hole. Brought up by her wildly unconventional grandmother, she’s a true free spirit and has never learned to pull her punches. She’s just married trainee Church of England clergyman Clifford, and is living at the theological college and trying to figure out what’s going on around her. She’s had very little connection with formal religion, and has a talent for stepping on all sorts of emotional land-mines with the wives of the other ordinands. That would probably be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that her grandmother has inconsiderately died, and left her a house full of exotic souvenirs of her days as a travelling doctor, instructions to track down her father and sister, and what everyone else regards as a really bad attitude. She’s also lost her job, her temper, but not the will to live.
Chloe’s life begins to unravel in ways she could never have imagined as she tries to understand her own background by setting out to find out what became of her sister and father. But trying to integrate her uncompromising approach to life brings her into escalating conflict with the other women of the college, leaving her isolated and friendless. In Clifford’s final year of training, Chloe meets the arty, anarchic Isobel and together they concoct a plan whereby the irrepressible Isobel becomes the mole amid the college wives and they start to undermine and sabotage the status quo with a series of practical jokes and psychological warfare that has terrible consequences for Chloe when things go horribly wrong.”

Chloe’s a bit of a misfit, hence the title. She finds people difficult to deal with, and finds the wives at the college baffling. She’s had an unusual up-bringing by her Bohemian grandmother, and because of her less-than-ordinary role model, she struggles to relate to others. To her, faith is a matter of wonder and exploration and not rules and regulations. She works in a male-dominated profession and she’s cultivated a tough, no-nonsense approach that really doesn’t go down well with the women of the college.
Some readers are going to love her; some, I fear, might well hate her. But by the end of the novel, I hope all will empathise with her.
(For those who loved Away With The Fairies, Isobel and Mickey Trelawny appear in the book around two thirds in. If you loved Father Peter in The Bet, well, he’s Chloe’s uncle by marriage and is there also. (All my novels connect with each other at some stage.)


Cover design is by D. J.Bowman-Smith http://djbowmansmith.com/

Tales of Amber

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I would write an article for Women Writers, Women’s Books

It took me a week of letting my mind go blank, letting it off the lead before it came back with the ideas for the article. It’s combined my love of the semi-precious material amber and my love for writing (and reading)

Do go and have a read, pass it on, share it and if you would like to comment, do please leave your thoughts on the article.



Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Last week I went to see an exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum:


The subtitle of the exhibition was ‘Arrival of the modern mind’ but more or less as soon as I stepped inside I questioned this. The first of the pieces were also the oldest, some forty thousand years old

I found that my reactions were of awe at the sculptures and irritation at the explanations. The irritations were simply because the small snippet of text for each artefact used both simplistic ideas and simplistic expressions; none of which does justice to the artefacts.

The idea that suddenly there was a leap of massive proportions from brutish empty-minded cavemen to exquisite primal artists annoyed me. The concept that human beings had gone from no art to fully formed and finely tuned creations is ludicrous, but in essence that was what the text in the display cases suggested. To be fair, the multimedia guides one could pay to use, and also the book that accompanies the exhibition may well go into much greater and more subtle explanations, but the impression someone would garner solely from the explanatory labels is that ‘as if by magic’ human beings learned to create art overnight.

Art of any sort is a process of long hours of practise, on top of generations of other artists’ work. All art is derivative of earlier forms. So the Ice Age art here is not the first art at all, but the first art that has survived for us to see. I imagine a great deal of early human art was ephemeral: body art, drawings in the sand, patterns with flowers, dance, song and so on.

So what made the difference? Why do we have such tangible art remaining from artists whose bones have been dust for tens of thousands of years? The answer: enforced leisure time.


This remarkable sculpture is thought to have taken around 400 hours to change a mammoth tusk into a figure that even today holds immense numinous power and visual impact: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_man_of_the_Hohlenstein_Stadel

But it cannot have simply leapt into the mind of the artist one day when he or she picked up a piece of ivory. The figure existed within the mind first, perhaps borne of legends already ancient, of myths already lost in time and drawn back for the tribe by a clever carver. Perhaps it was a familiar face, drawn on the sand in front of shelters since time immemorial. We’ll doubtless never know, but whatever it was, it mattered enough for someone to spend hundreds of hours creating it from raw ivory.

The Ice Age was a time of enforced inactivity and stillness. Long winters around the fire, with the same people, with little to break the monotony, meant that, as the saying goes, people had to make their own entertainment. You had to keep busy in some way or go mad So a project that might take all winter would be something to treasure. A reason to keep going when the snows piled higher and higher and when it felt like spring would never come.

Art is what brings hope. Whether it’s art that you can see, or art that you experience in other ways, art is what keeps us going, whether we know it or not. It may also be something that is crucial in retaining our humanity during tough times both personally and tribally. Both the creation of art and the appreciation and participation in art lift us out of the mindless fog we can easily slip into when winters literal and figurative drag on and on.

One of the pieces that moved me the most was not a depiction of a person or an animal but rather a possession. A flute crafted from the leg bone of a griffon vulture drew my eyes. It held the fine patina of an instrument polished by continual use, by perhaps generations of fingers that played tunes for others to listen to, or kept a lonely wanderer ‘s spirits up during dark cold nights. It made me wonder about its maker and its owner. Was it buried when the owner died, did it fall out of a pocket on a journey? Was it passed from generation to generation.

Art is cumulative, tribal, personal and above all, vital. Without art in our midst, civilization itself begins to crumble and vanish.


I’d like to end with a snippet of a work in progress, currently entitled Tabula Rasa. It’s something quite different from other work I have done but hopefully you will enjoy it and find it interesting.

“The men make bold figures of reindeer, wolf and whale from their scraps of bone, antler and firewood, and I watch carefully their craft. They seem to be freeing the creature locked inside the solid substances, finding clues to what lies within, and then whittling and carving till the shape becomes evident to everyone. They must sharpen their knives at times for the bone and antler especially are harder than they look. My guardian’s son sees me watching and decides to show me how to carve, taking my hands and directing them. I am still weaker than I ought to be, but I learn the techniques and when I find a piece of knotted root among the firewood, I can see within it a shape.

It takes me some weeks to free that figure from within the hard old root, and once I have found that shape and refined the lines, the sight of it brings a whistle of admiration from both the men.

You have the right sight, girl,” says the younger man. “That came out well. Now you must polish and finish it.”

They show me how to smooth the wood by rubbing it with sand, finer and finer until the grain begins to gleam. Then I must rub it with a mixture of fat and charcoal to darken it so that the wood appears ebony black and shines slightly. The figure is small enough to hold and almost cover with one hand, a kneeling woman, her head bowed and her hair falling in an arc over half her face. When it is completely finished, and every inch is polished to a soft black shine, the family admire it.

That is beautiful,” sighs my guardian.

I place it in her hands, and I bow my head so that my hair falls as that of the statue does.

It is yours then, Mother,” I say and when I lift my head again I see the glitter of falling tears.

I will cherish it,” she says and after an awkward moment of throat clearing, we all begin with our tasks of settling down for the night. There are dogs to let out, reindeer to be tended. But as I climb into my sleeping skins, I see that the figurine has been placed in the niche at the back of the cave where my guardian keeps a light burning even when we all sleep. The light dances on the soft sheen of the burnished wood and as I fall asleep I see that somehow out of that unnoticed root I had carved a facsimile of my own form.”


The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

Hey, you there?

Yes, you.

I know you can hear me, but you know what? I’m standing right in front of you and you are barely aware of me. My voice might well be the sound of the wind in the trees, always there and yet never truly listened to.

I should really say, OUR voice, because I am not one but many. Many. Countless and timeless, we’ve been invisible for a very long time.

You protest perhaps, declaring that women are not really invisible. They’re everywhere. Half the planet’s population even. I would simply ask you why then do we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the world’s wealth? You might wave a newspaper in front of me, pointing to grainy photos of women, or direct me to the internet news. Women everywhere, you say.

Well, yes. But do you SEE them? Or do you merely look at them, taking in curves and synthetic smiles and enhanced features, polished and tanned and oiled for your pleasure? Young, slender women, barely even out of girlhood and constantly harking back to its simpler demands of beauty and silence.

You point out older women, who you say are very good examples of beautiful older women. Or to women who have climbed a corporate ladder or that of government or leadership. But do read also the comments, about their clothes or their figure or their skin or sex appeal. You rarely get comments about anything else. Many of these are the women whose childhood was punctuated by the cries of relatives male and female declaring, “She should have been a boy!”

Feminism? I do not know what feminism is. I only know that at a certain age, we all begin to fade from view. That is what fuels the industry of anti-ageing creams, you know. It’s not fear of death that worries women most, I think; it’s the fear of becoming invisible, and ultimately inaudible too. You can still hear me because I am shouting now. I was brought up to be quiet and polite and not to put myself forward, so it takes a lot for me to be shouting now. I’d grab your arms and shake you, but that would be simply so rude it would throw me into that other darkness of age and madness. Another mad old woman, babbling insanities, to be shut away and ignored. Kinder to kill such folks, that’s the next thought. God forbid that they be heard and listened to.

When do we become invisible? I do not know. I think it varies. Some of us were never terribly visible in the first place. If you are not blessed with something outwardly apparent to catch the interest of the world, you remain a mouse in the wainscotting, there but easy enough to ignore. It takes a lot of mice to wake up a whole house. For those who were blessed with outward beauty, the fading of it is bitter because we cease to be seen, slowly, like a long death. That’s why Snow White’s stepmother went down the route of bitterness, you know. She sensed she was being eclipsed, and soon her image in the mirror would become grey and dim and then gone. Every young mum has a moment where the admiration expressed towards her infants hits a harsh note, like a wisp of sun over the clouds. We dress our daughters up and parade them, repeating what we knew in the unconscious hope that her loveliness will not fade and we will not see her becoming slowly invisible.

So we do other things to try and be a part of the world. We seek roles of kindness and service, often, because we are thwarted at the Front from real combat because the only way of being seen for long enough is by relinquishing our femininity. Or at least the outward trappings of it. We wear business suits, cut for our curves, but in essence the same uniform as the men. Without such armour how can we even enter the Lists?

Those whose academic gifts carried them far into their path bear also a harsh burden. It’s not enough to succeed through your brains alone; enter the public consciousness via the media and you will be judged not for your work or your soul but through your outward appearance.

It’s enough to make a woman weep, but even tears are seen as weakness and not the healing balm they truly are. Cry, and you get labelled with one of the cruellest, most impossible of labels: the hysterical woman. The source of our femininity, the womb, is cursed as the thing that makes us weak. And yet, when that womb starts its journey towards the quiescence of menopause, we are not welcomed either but dismissed as worthless now we can no longer bear children. We become useless and repulsive, as if all our worth was invested in being breeders of another generation, and once we are retired, we become invisible sexually.

I do not offer answers; I only offer questions, and yet more questions. I do not ask to be answered, except with the courtesy of being listened to. I am a warrior but the first lesson of any war is to only choose the battles you have a chance of winning. My battles are by necessity are the small ones, as I learn what my skills are.

You walk away, shaking your head. That’s all right. You listened, even if you did not truly understand yet. One battle at a time, that is what I promised myself. I fight not with a sword or with other weapons that bear an edge but with words that can be sharpened or softened and can shape the listener’s perception so that maybe, for one moment of blinding clarity, they too may see things from the other side.

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

I can tell when Christmas is coming not by the increase in advertising on television but rather by the escalation of my shouts of protests at the content of those adverts. Or for that matter by the degeneration of my vocabulary and my reduction to a spluttering rage. I’ll leave much of the fury alone as it’s the same old frustration at blatant consumerism. I’ve said it before and others have said it better, so the overall feeling of exploitation is worth noting but not exploring. Christmas is so much more than an orgy of consumer spending after all. ‘Nuff said.

But the ads that really frustrate and puzzle me are the fragrance ones. They baffle me. How can you sell a perfume via television or the printed page? Very occasionally I buy glossy magazines; I only do so when there is a free gift attached that is worth more than the magazine. Once in a blue moon a full page ad for a perfume comes with a tiny vial or a sachet. That makes some sense to me. Try before you buy.

If you’ve caught any of the ads they tend to follow various themes and memes. Impossibly beautiful men and women, dressed in exclusive, sky-rocket expensive clothes, glaring arrogantly at the camera from eyes enhanced by every cosmetic trick known to mankind, striding confidently around oozing so much sex appeal that one feels instantly so much less of a man/woman. Crashing waves, glittering diamonds, fashion shoots, high heels, messed up satin sheets, fields of flowers under immense stormy skies. When I am in a good mood, I can admire the artistry. But usually all I can think is, “Huh?? So, what does it smell like??”

Perfume advertising is almost totally divorced from the actual sense of smell. It’s all about image, celebrity endorsement, aspirations and a lot of other things that have no smell at all. The ads are simply there to get you to the store and buy. By the time someone has got that far, become seduced by the brand, there’s a very good chance they’ll buy because they’ve subliminally and subconsciously identified with the iconography of the ads. Unless the perfume smells like horse piss, they will probably buy it anyway.

Perfume is something that is seen as an indulgence by many and I can understand that. Good perfume isn’t cheap. It shouldn’t be, if it’s made from hard to produce essences, and blended by trained and highly skilled ‘noses’. Yet so many wear perfumes they don’t (deep down) like and which don’t enhance their personalities. There’s a concept of a signature scent, something by which you are recognised. I’ve heard of women, daggers-drawn at parties on discovering another woman is wearing ‘her’ scent. A single notable perfume is chosen to define the self. It’s this mentality that aids and abets the marketing machine. What does this fragrance say about a woman? Cue the crashing waves, the sculpted cheekbones and the designer dresses.

It’s clear that a person’s own unique fragrance, that is to say, how they smell without perfumed products, is implicated in the process of sexual attraction. Pheromones are present in our skin, our hair and our secretions (sorry!) and they are probably among the first things that people respond to. It’s an unconscious reaction and often instantaneous. It may even be the most vital ingredient in that phenomenon, Love at first sight; it might well be love at first sniff.

Do you know what you smell like? Could you recognise your own scent? Do you actually like it? Perfume is not about covering up one’s natural scent but rather about enhancing and complimenting it, of deepening that vibrant signature of the self. Like a pen and ink line drawing your natural scent is the bare bones of that identity. Adding to it is like taking a preliminary sketch and filling in the colours. The sensual awareness of the self is a very powerful thing, a part of learning to love oneself perhaps. Being aware of the texture of one’s skin, the feeling of the hair, the grace of movement, are deeper ways of knowing the self than that gaze into the mirror that tells us what we look like but not who we are.

To seek a scent of self is perhaps to also find a sense of self, a dimension that we sometimes lack. If you were to seek a perfume, don’t look for the things the advertisers want to sell you, but rather seek blindly, using other senses. First sniff is the start. Instant recoil, step back and see how it makes you feel. Memories maybe long hidden may be at the root of dislike, but also it may simply be anathema to you, incompatible. Try a few, follow your instincts. Ask yourself: is this perfume ‘me’? Does it fit you? Take your time. Try it all day, try it at different times of day. There may be just one or there may be many. You may love one for years, then one day, it’s no longer you. That’s OK, you’ve changed (and it might also have changed too. Manufacturers do change formulas).

But explore. The soul is a magical, evolving being, and knowing and understanding it may be the key to truly loving the self. And it’s vital we love ourselves, because that’s when we can really start to love others. 

Heaven-Haven ~ the life and works of Teresa of Avila

 In all my rummagings and unpacking I found various things I thought long lost. This is one of them. It’s a talk I gave at St. John’s college at morning prayer somewhere in 1993, I think. I remember I ad-libbed quite a few extra bits and all the words by St Teresa herself I delivered in as broad a Yorkshire accent as I could manage. She seemed somehow more northern than Spanish.

I have desired to go

Where springs not fail

To fields when flies no sharp and sided hail

And a few lilies blow

And I have asked to be

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins “Haven Haven ~ a nun takes the veil”

These are the words I think of when I consider the enclosed religious life, a view from my generation where to choose the cloister is a considered, much thought-out decision, from a deep inner call that cannot be put aside. And yet Teresa of Avila did not willingly become a nun. In sixteenth century Spain only two options for a respectable life were open to the women of rich and noble families: marriage or the convent. Marriage frightened her, having seen her mother, worn out with child-bearing, retreat into a fantasy world of romantic make-believe. Having no other real option, Teresa took herself to the convent at the age of twenty one, to a life which on the whole bored and depressed her, and was, despite romantic images of enclosed piety, really rather shallow.

At forty three, the idea of reform came to her and she left to found a convent, St Joseph’s. She was to found seventeen convents in all. For an enclosed nun, Teresa spent remarkably little time living the enclosed, contemplative life, a fact which irritated many of her contemporaries. She strikes me as an intensely practical woman, both in her actions and in her spirituality. She wrote, “Do not imagine that one should never think of anything else – that if your mind wanders, all is lost.” (Interior Castles)

Her most well known saying, emblazoned on many tacky little plaques and spoon-rests, is, “God walks among the pots and pans,” (which always explains why guests in my kitchen don’t go down with food poisoning) is often misunderstood as setting up ‘active’ life as superior to the contemplative life. She writes, “If contemplation, mental prayers, vocal prayers, caring for the sick, serving in the house and working at the lowliest tasks of all are all ways of attending the Guest who comes to stay with us, eats with us and relaxes with us, then what matter whether we do one task or another.”

And yet the practical woman had her mystical side, not welcome really but rather the opposite at times. In one of her letters she writes, “I’ve had the raptures again. They’re most embarrassing, several times in public – during Matins for instance. I’m so ashamed I simply want to hide away somewhere.” She wrote much sensible advice on assessing mystical experiences and was rather humorously sceptical about the experiences of others. Of one of her nuns, she wrote, “If I’d have been there, she wouldn’t have had such a while of experiences.” Teresa also had an amazing understanding of the physical and emotional causes of some experiences: “Isabel de San Jeronimo will have to be made to eat meat for a few days and give up prayer. She has an unstable imagination which makes her believed she actually sees and hears the things she meditates on.”

Teresa seems a woman of paradoxes:

An enclosed nun who spent much of her life travelling.

A great writer on prayer and the spiritual life who admitted freely to her brother Lorenzo that sheer pressure of work had made prayer, in the formal sense, impossible.

A mystic who saw visions and yet who treated such things with sense and caution, “Though some such phenomenon may be genuine, I am sure it is best to regard them as of no importance…even supposing they are genuine, nothing will be lost.”

A great saint, who wrote six years before her death, “I beg you, Reverend Father, to ask God to make me a true nun of Carmel! Better late than never.”

A human being in touch with God and with the earth: “WE are not angels. We have bodies. To want to be angels here on earth is absurd, particularly if you are as much a part of the earth as I am.”

These words were found in her breviary after her death:

Be then by naught perturbed

of naught afraid

For all things pass

Save God

Who does not change.

Be patient, and at last

Thou shall of all

Fulfillment find.

Hold God

And naught shall fail thee

For he alone is all.

A prayer:

Teach us to love the paradoxes within ourselves

Teach us to love the inconsistencies of others

Teach us to love the complexity of creation

And to accept the simplicity of God