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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab a paperback of “Away With The Fairies” on a special price

Grab a paperback of “Away With The Fairies” on a special price

For reasons best known to itself, the Mighty ‘Zon has lowered the price of “Away With The Fairies” to £6.65 (UK, not sure about US). There’s no way of telling how long this is for, so if you’ve been wavering about grabbing a paperback copy, maybe best to get it now.

Might make a great Easter present (to yourself, even) or a Mothers’ Day gift. Or hide it till December.

O Christmas Tree!

O Christmas Tree!

(a slightly cynical short tale)

What am I bid for this lovely set of vintage, nay, antique, Christmas tree ornaments? Who’ll start the bidding at £10?”

She was never sure why she chose to bid that day; perhaps it was disappointment that the items she had been after had gone beyond her limit. Perhaps it was the chill outside and the few lonely flakes of snow drifting down; maybe the holly and the ivy dotted around the auction house put her in a festive mood. It may even have been the softly twinkling bauble that the auctioneer held up, twirling on a wisp of thread. Whatever it was, she found herself determined to buy something that day, and though she spent more than she intended, once she’d looked at the ornaments, she realised she’d got a bargain. Continue reading

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.

Do Not.

Do Not

Do not tell me

What I am,

What I can do,

What I must think,

Who I must be,

In order to be

A good person,

An acceptable person

A sound person

A person you might like.

Do not tell me

That I must conform

Be like others

Be like everyone

Be like you,

Be positive

Hide my faults

My failings

My pain

And my griefs,

Just so I fit the slot

You have so kindly

Allocated for someone

A little like me.

Caterpillar soup

Caterpillar soup

Caterpillar soup

Some years ago I came across a rather curious theory, suggesting that caterpillars and butterflies (or moths) are somehow two different animals in one. You can read about the theory here:

https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/08/01/157718428/are-butterflies-two-different-animals-in-one-the-death-and-resurrection-theory and while there’s no conclusive proof that this is so, I find it oddly an oddly compelling way of dealing with the frankly rather amazing life cycle of such creatures. One day perhaps there will be a definitive answer to this question but for the time being, it’s almost a philosophical issue. Continue reading

My Reading Round-Up of 2017

My Reading Round-Up of 2017

According to my notebook that I use instead of Goodreads (which I loathe, more of that later) I read 78 books in 2016. I’m coming in a bit behind that this year. At the time of writing, it’s 73 completed, but as I am close to the end of a number, there’s a real chance the total will go up a bit before midnight strikes and I turn into a pumpkin. Oh, sorry, wrong fairy tale.

Around 30 or so of those titles were non fiction, some of which were poetry, some of which were part of my journey into Jungian thought and some were to do with health and on natural history.

Of the fiction, I’m not going to talk about the books that I read and didn’t enjoy, or the ones I gave up on. It’s too common for disgruntled authors to take umbrage and offence if a reader mentions they didn’t like a book; it’s one reason I avoid Goodreads as a reader. As an author, I avoid it because there are plenty of readers who can be extremely mean and unkind when a book has failed to live up to their expectations; it’s also quite difficult to be thick-skinned about seeing a fellow-author give a low star to one of my own books when they’re someone I’ve chatted with on social media etc and been quite affable with. While almost all writers I know are wonderful and supportive people, I’m sure we have all come across a few who would take your breath away with how nasty they can be to other writers. I heard a tale recently of one author who tweeted a picture to another author, of that other author’s book in a remainder bin at a cut-price book shop.

I stepped out of my comfort zone too, and I read two novels that fit very much into the fantasy genre and one science fiction. Early in the year I read and very much enjoyed https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mountain-Darkling-Chronicles-Sophie-Tallis/dp/1909845973/ White Mountain by Sophie Tallis; it has the unique aspect of a main character being a dragon and a “goodie”. It took me out of myself during a tricky time. The second fantasy novel was https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Ice-Lord-Parallels-Clement-ebook/dp/B00L72RTY0/ Song of the Ice Lord by J.A Clement; I found this a fabulous read, not only because of the beautiful and compelling descriptive writing but also by the sensitive way Ms Clement handled various relationships. Another bonus was the little green bird who became a beacon of hope in the story. Also by the same author is a wonderful seasonal novella/longer short story A Sprig of Holly: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sprig-Holly-J-Clement-ebook/dp/B00AICTQSM/ which is free to enjoy.

The science fiction title was Running Out of Space by S.J Higbee. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Running-Out-Space-Sunblinded-One-ebook/dp/B076BV5LS8/ I found this a refreshing reintroduction to sci-fi, something I used to enjoy very much but abandoned in my twenties when it became too mysogynistic and entirely male-dominated. Depicting a somewhat dystopian future, this fast-paced novel entertained me while slogging away at the gym.

I revisited my old favourites, acquiring a variety of secondhand paperback copies of some classic Agatha Christie mysteries, some of which I had not read for decades. It was good to read them again and understand quite how much she created the genre of cosy mystery.

Not quite cosy, but still very compelling, was another departure from my comfort zone, in the form of Ailsa Abraham’s Attention to Death https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attention-Death-Ailsa-Abraham-ebook/dp/B01MRBTYLX/ . A murder mystery set among military police, with the two main characters trying to conduct a discreet love affair (very much against protocol, in all sorts of ways) this contains one of the grimmest of murders (be warned, not for the faint of stomach) and does not flinch from revealing inherently homophobic attitudes among many of the characters and institutions. A good, if somewhat grim at times, variation on the classic murder mystery. I’m not a fan of romance, gay or otherwise, but I didn’t find that aspect of the story intruded unduly.

On the same sort of genre (but not precisely) I read my way through two box-sets of the Charlie Parker mysteries, by John Connelly. Of the eight books that I raced through, some I found better than others, and more than half were superb. Quirky, veering into the supernatural territory, they’re a real treat if you like detective novels that challenge the norm and subvert the genre. Another novel that comes under that heading was Thea Atkinson’s Grim. Billed as a Young Adult novel, this was another nicely diverting read for my gym torture. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grim-Reapers-Redemption-Thea-Atkinson/dp/1543087876/

One of my Christmas presents last year was Caitlin Matthews Diary of a Soul Doctor https://www.amazon.co.uk/Diary-Soul-Doctor-Ashington-Casebooks-ebook/dp/B01N94TS3M/ . I had to make myself read this slowly, because I wanted to make it last. In the same genre (whatever it might be) as Dion Fortune’s Tales of Dr Taverner, this collection of linked tales is a highly diverting and intriguing exploration of the esoteric using (as Fortune did) fiction as a medium. I also read Matthews’ non-fiction Hundred Steps to the Grail, about the process of researching and writing a book about a book on the search for the Holy Grail https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hundred-Steps-Grail-Writers-Diary-ebook/dp/B01EXKSNDS/ and as a writer, I found the details of the process fascinating and revealing.

Among the non-fiction were a couple of excellent natural history books. Peter Wolhlenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Life-Trees-International-Communicate/dp/0008218439/ kept me from my fear of flying when I went to Austria in February, and was a deeply enjoyable and informative book. Fiona Stafford’s The Long Long Life of Trees covered a very different aspect of tree lore but was equally interesting, though I felt at times it tended towards a journalistic skimming of the surface rather than a deeper exploration. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Life-Trees/dp/0300228201/ . I also very much enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Places-Robert-Macfarlane/dp/1783784490/, though I did find at times a certain sense of irritation at the apparent assumption that the things the author did and the places he visited are open to all (when they aren’t), regardless of ability or status. But that’s only a slight cavil and speaks more of my own growing frustration at my health challenges.

Roz Morris’s Not Quite Lost (travels without a sense of direction) was a good read, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-Quite-Lost-Travels-Direction/dp/1909905925/ There’s a sense of great British-ness about this travel memoir that is infused all through the text like the scent of tea.

One novel I got to read this year I cannot give a link to. Philippa Rees asked me to beta read a novel she entitled Acer and I am not sure quite what genre is falls under. Magical Realism might do, but it veers almost into science fiction. One of the premises of the tale is on human-plant hybrids, which makes it sound clinical but it’s a very tender tale of what makes us human and what parenthood is really about. I hope that she makes a decision to stick by her guns and the original vision of the story, and publishes it (and another novel I read last year). Perhaps the world is ready for the visionary and metaphysical works that Philippa has hidden on her hard drive.

In addition to these I read a number by Marie-Louise von Franz, acolyte, pupil and colleague of Jung’s, and a whole range of books on alchemy, psychology, Arthurian myths and legends and the grail. I’m around a third of the way through Jung’s own book on alchemy, but am unlikely to finish before year’s end, as it is much to think about and digest.

Having read all that, you might think I didn’t have time to write, but you would be wrong. I’ll save that topic for another post.