Dandelions and Bad Hair Days ~ a very different book about Mental Health

On World Mental Health day on the 10th of October I traveled to Taunton for the launch of a very special book put together by the wonderful Suzie Grogan.

Dandelions & Bad Hair days is a collection of essays, prose, poetry and photographs by people affected by mental health issues. Some are carers for loved ones affected by it, and others, like me, are sufferers of various mental health challenges. The profits from the sales of the book are going to two mental health charities, SANE and OCD in action.

It was a powerful experience to be there; a number of contributors were there and we read some of our pieces. Even though it was an evening about a serious subject, it was actually enormously good fun.

I was honoured by the fact that the essay I’d offered for the collection gave its name to the book. Lots of folks have said it’s the best title for a book on mental health and depression they’ve heard of, and I get a little glow of pride at that but the real work was done by Suzie in finding it a publisher and getting it up and out there.

If you’re curious about it, then do check it out. I know I am biased because I have two essays and a poem in it, but it’s a brilliant book. There’s so much of raw honesty and hope and humanity, it’ll warm your heart and it might just change your mind about mental health issues . There are a couple of ways to buy. You can buy from Suzie herself  here or you can go to Amazon here for the UK or here for the USA

Also, if you have already read it, please consider leaving a review as this helps to make a book more visible for searches, as does tagging a book appropriately.

If I don’t post again here before Christmas may yours be filled with light and joy, whatever your beliefs.

 

 

The Gardener and His Apples

The gardener and his apples

Behind the high walls of crumbling red brick a garden was tended with immense and loving care by a man who knew every plant and stone and loved them all. The garden was one he had tended much of his life and his father and his father’s father before him. The garden was what you would call a working garden, and a greater part of it was a market garden. Once his father had grown potatoes and carrots and the usual array of vegetables but only a small plot was used for that now, and its produce was for his own table.

The gardener mainly grew the things the supermarket buyers wanted him to grow: soft fruits like blueberries, raspberries, red currants, and unusual and fashionable vegetables. He grew enough of such premium food to make a quiet living on top of his other part time job, and he was content with his life but for one thing.

That one thing was the orchard.

Now the orchard was a beautiful place, half an acre of mature trees that had mainly been planted by his grandfather. The trees were a mixture of fruit trees and the majority of them were apple trees. Not just any old apple trees but the glorious old varieties that you hardly ever see any more. Every spring time a local bee-keeper came with hives and while the apples bloomed fragrantly the leaves were filled with the contented hum of a million bees. A few jars of honey always came his way for this and he always looked forward to it. The problem had become the apples themselves.

People had become accustomed to only certain types of apples being considered to be apples. The varieties he grew not only tasted quite different to normal apples, they looked different too. Some were smaller than usual and had a colour that seemed different to the shiny green or red that the shoppers preferred. Since he never used any pesticides, or anything unnatural, most of the crop had at least a tiny blemish or mark on their skin. The apples refused to grow perfectly round and to a specified size. And their taste was far stronger and richer than most shop-bought apples ever were. So little by little demand for his apples dropped away until the last two years he’d been unable to sell any apples at all. The previous year’s crop had gone to feed pigs.

Now this year, as the September sun ripened his apples, he stood watching his beautiful orchard and wondered if it was time to chainsaw the whole lot and replant with modern varieties that the public might want to buy. The song of the birds soothed him and as he watched both the birds and the busy insects and saw the thousands of faces of flowers looking up from the grass beneath the trees, and smelled the rich fruity smell of the first windfalls fermenting in hidden hollows in the grass, he thought, not this year.

Pondering it over a quiet beer with his old friends at the pub, one of them suggested that rather than let them all just rot or be composted, he ought to fill up crates with them and leave them at his front gate with a sign telling people to help themselves.

People love getting things for nothing,” said his friend. “It’ll encourage all those kids who walk past your place every morning and afternoon to eat some proper fruit.”

What a good idea, he thought, and when he got home, he hauled out a wooden crate and filled it with some of the first apples that had ripened. The smell rising from them made his mouth water, and he wrote out a sign saying Free Apples and put both out by the front gate and went to bed.

The next morning, he watched from an upstairs window as the usual parade of uniformed school children trooped past. He saw heads turn and glance at the sign before rushing onwards. Of course, first thing in the morning perhaps apples aren’t what you want, he thought and got on with his busy day. As evening came he went to refill the crate with more apples and when he got to the front gate he almost dropped his basket. The crate was empty.

Excellent, he thought. The children love my apples.

For the next two or three days he filled the crate up every morning but then he noticed something when he went for his usual Friday night pint at the pub. All along the road were smashed apples. They’d been kicked to pieces, used as footballs, as missiles to throw at the ducks in the duckpond. There was no evidence that anyone had ever set tooth to a single one.

Well, then suggest a donation and put out an honesty box,” suggested his friend. “But leave it a few days to let the kids forget they used to be free.”

The following Monday he began again with a fresh batch of apples, a new sign and a cash box with a slit chained to the gate. The sign read, “Please take an apple, and make a donation if you enjoy it.”

Again he watched from a distance as people passing, not just children, stopped and read the sign and at the end of the day he came back to find some of the apples gone, and only a few littering the road. A core had been placed on the cash-box, but when he opened it, it was empty. The following day, the same outcome, except for a badly spelled note in straggly handwriting pushed into the cash-box, which read, “Your appels tast like shit.” And on the third day, he went to pick up the crate only to discover the apples were all wet; someone had urinated on them.

Discouraged, he took the sign and the cash-box down and threw the remaining apples into the compost.

As the rich September sunshine ripened more and more apples, he decided to have one more shot at it and this time he filled a few bags up with apples, put out the cash-box again and wrote yet another sign. This one read simply, “Apples, 8 for 50p. Put money in box; I am watching YOU!”

At the end of the first day he came to find the crate empty and the cash-box rattling. When he added up the money and the number of bags, it didn’t tally exactly. Undoubtedly someone had taken a bag of apples and not paid for it. But the next day, he filled more bags and set them out and so it went on.

One morning as he was setting the crate of apples out a schoolboy stopped.

I don’t have fifty pee,” said the schoolboy, and the gardener looked at the boy curiously. His uniform was clearly second-hand, probably a hand-me-down from an older brother and his face looked pinched and a little pasty. Poor kid probably needed some decent food in him, thought the gardener.

Tell you what,” said the gardener. “I’ll let you have some for nothing if you do a bit of tidying up for me out here. Come by after school and we’ll see.”

The boy’s face brightened, and then brightened some more when the gardener opened one of the bags and popped an apple in his hand.

You munch on that on your way to school and the rest’ll be here waiting for you later,” he said and the boy bit into the apple and began running to catch up with the rest of the gang of kids.

That afternoon, the gardener waited near the gate, weeding the path, until the school boy came back.

Hey mister, that apple was lush,” came the voice and the gardener got up from his kneeler and came to the gate. “What do you want me to do?”

The gardener had thought about this. He produced a big bucket of water and some cloths and a fresh piece of white card with a packet of coloured pens. Then he brought round a new basket of apples and some clear plastic bags.

You can make my apple stall look a bit nicer,” he said.

So he watched for a while as the boy washed, dried and bagged up apples and he went inside for a cup of tea. When he came back, he found the boy had not only finished bagging the clean apples, he’d made a good start on a new sign. He’d sketched out new words and was busy making each letter a work of art. They were like the letters in an illuminated manuscript, with little drawings worked into them.

Can I finish it at home, please, mister, me mum’s going to go spare if I’m not home soon?” asked the boy and the gardener nodded and handed the boy his promised bag of apples and saw him scurry off down the street with school bag, sign and apples all clutched in his skinny arms. 

The following morning, as he watched from an upstairs window, the gardener saw the children rushing by and he saw a familiar mouse brown head pause at the little stall before rushing on. Curious, he went to see if the boy had brought the finished sign. People were stopping to read as he got to the gate and he waited till the rush of school kids was gone before going to see what the final version of the sign said.

The sign, among the drawings of apples and bees and butterflies, read:

These are not just apples; these are carefully tended, specially washed and utterly delicious apples. Eat one and never crave Golden Delicious again.”

In smaller letters it then read:

8 for 50p but feel free to pay more when you buy some more

and in smaller letters still it said: I bet you will, too!

By the first frosts, the gardener had sold every single apple but for the ones he’d set aside in his shed to save for the winter, for himself and his helpful young assistant.

  

What I am and what I am not

What I am and what I am not

I’m not a teacher, as such, and I have nothing to teach you. But we might learn together.
I don’t have any answers, not the definitive big answers to the big questions. I just have more questions. But my new questions might inspire you to ask some of your own.
I’m not enlightened; I can make no claim to such a thing being sometimes so lost in my own internal darkness that I extinguish my own small light while thrashing around. But sometimes that tiny pearl of light might be enough to guide a soul home.
I’m not awakened; I live in that shadowy penumbra of the world between worlds, caught in the trailing edge of dreams. But sometimes we may be dreaming the same dream and can compare notes.
I’m not a guru and I don’t want disciples or followers. But I would like friends and fellow travellers. I will carry your load for you while you build your muscles to full strength and I hope you will sometimes carry mine for me while I am weak.
For I am not strong. I stagger and fall and break into a million shining fragments. I can be brittle, like untempered steel. You may see the shine of polished metal but it’s only through repeated forging that true strength comes. Being beaten on an anvil is painful and I try to avoid it, and yet, again and again, I land in the furnace and the forge. One day I may be a worthwhile tool but not yet.
I’m not a saint but I may yet be a martyr, for the drive to perfect integrity takes us to strange and dangerous places where the choices we make under pressure are not always ones that are good for us as individuals. But those choices may be of greater worth for mankind than for the poor soul who makes them.
I am just an imperfect human being trying to understand who I am in this world. I make mistakes, I get things horribly wrong, and for this I ask patience and forgiveness from those I may have hurt on my journey. I have gifts but I am flawed and broken and sometimes I do not use those gifts as well as I might in a perfect world.
I’m no angel, but I may be a messenger. I stand with one foot in either world, amphibious, between the world of the soul and the world of the body, never quite sure from one moment to the next where the messages are coming from.
I’m an empty vessel, being filled by the living words of my soul, and letting them pour out and flow onto parched lands. If they water your soul garden, I am glad; if they swamp your first shoots then I am sorry and will try and channel the flow elsewhere till they have grown taller and stronger.
I am a child, looking at the world with tired eyes and sometimes a heart that is coated in jade, that is so easily broken. For all my childishness, I am older than you know and in my ancientness I see further and deeper than I should and for that I will avert my eyes if you wish me to.
I’m not a leader. No one should follow me where I am going, but I would welcome the company if anyone is going the same way. Sometimes we all need a hand to hold in the darkness.

Guest post ~ the grit at the heart of the pearl

If you have ever wondered how a book came to be written, this is my account of how one of mine did:

http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/mid-may-guest-blogger-at-gonzoink-vivienne-tuffnell/

Pain Woke Us ~ a triple-part poem for sleepy sheep

What makes a person wake up and start to become aware?

What sends them back to sleep?

I wrote the following poem initially with only one of the stanzas and then played around by changing the voice speaking from first to second then to third person.

Pain woke you

 

 

Pain woke you,

Prodded you from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped your slumber dead.

You tried to mask it

Tried to distract yourself

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

You tell me without words

Life feels good, you say.

Sweet dreams, I say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

I’ll take the night-shift

And watch over your sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be me.

 

Pain woke me,

Prodded me from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped my slumber dead.

I tried to mask it

Tried to distract myself

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

I tell you without words

Life feels good, I say.

Sweet dreams, you say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

You take the night-shift

And watch over my sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be you.

 

 

 

Pain woke them,

Prodded them from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped their slumber dead.

They tried to mask it

Tried to distract themselves

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

They tell me without words

Life feels good, they say.

Sweet dreams, I say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

I’ll take the night-shift

And watch over your sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be me.

 

 

 

What am I worth?

 

 

What am I worth?
 
What am I worth?
Five K a kidney?
A snip, if you’ll pardon a pun.
Bargain bin good looks,
Reduced due to store damage
And some slight fading.
A cheap sense of humour,
Tending towards blackness
But not quite sick, not yet.
That must be worth a bit.
A Lucky Dip of hidden talents;
Go on, have a gamble.
Even I don’t have a clue
What’s hidden deep inside.
That bland tub of sawdust
May hold mysterious gifts
Awaiting your longer reach.
Go on, I dare you:
Make me an offer.
How much? You’re joking!
No way, no sale, pal!
I’m worth more than that, I think.

Snip

 

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010