New Year Thoughts

I posted this on my main blog Zen and the Art of Tightropewalking first but bears sharing here too. Happy New Year, my wild sheepy friends!

Low resolution, high resolution ~ New Year thoughts

 

I considered calling this article, The Last Post, because it will be the last one to appear in 2013, but then I realised that this might sound as if I am giving up blogging. This year has been a huge struggle to keep going with lots of things and I confess that making sure I post a new piece once a week has sometimes been quite a challenge.

That makes me wonder who I am blogging for and why.

Blogging is almost by definition confessional, personal and yet very public. I share my thoughts because I believe that they are worth sharing, that those who read what I write may find it interesting, helpful or challenging. At times the conviction that this is so is shaken; a former colleague made various attacks on me on Facebook indicating that she found my outpourings tedious. It upset me more than is reasonable and made me question the worth of my writing, especially my poetry. In the end, I chose to ignore that viewpoint based on the torrent of support I received.

I wasn’t sure I had anything I could offer today as a hope-encrusted gem, making the best of the year gone by and projecting desires and wishes for the year to come. I don’t generally do the whole New Year’s resolution thing, not since teenage years when it usually consisted of one muddled wish to be thinner. Yet, here I am in middle-age, fatter than ever. Nothing ever works out quite how we desire it to.

2013 has been a hard year for me. I had to fight to get diagnoses of two conditions, one life limiting, the other life limiting AND life threatening. I knew there was something very wrong, and yet getting through to medical professionals with it has been terribly tough. I can’t help thinking that had I not been who I am, I might well be looking at a grim future and an early death. While I accept that neither condition is easy to diagnose or well-known, it seems criminal that blood test anomalies had been ignored and glossed over probably for some years. I have now seen my enemy on an ultrasound screen. 8mm by 5mm doesn’t sound that big but given that the gland the tumour grew from should be no bigger than the head of a pin (or thereabouts) it’s colossal. I’m hoping that the removal of it will give me new life. I’m sick of pain, sick of the fogginess and memory fuzziness, the feeling of being significantly impaired, of being woken 8 times a night because of the polyuria, of having a permanently dry mouth that means I need to sip water to stay hydrated. I’m tired of being tired, and of all the other nasty symptoms that doctors were originally ascribing to depression. I’m fed up of being sad and being unable to feel good about things. My real hope for 2014 is that I can start to live again.

The writer’s block I have wrestled with for as long as I’ve been blogging may well turn out to be a direct result of the malfunctioning parathyroid. It’s hard to carry ideas, plots, characters, dialogue, settings and descriptions when your short term memory is peppered with tiny holes. Much of my writing is brewed in the subconscious layers of my mind, but is filtered through the conscious strata and ordered by the logical, methodical processes that are affected by the illness. The continuation of writing during this long illness is something I feel I should be proud of, yet I fear that perhaps I’m actually a crap writer who’s burned out all her good stuff years ago.

I did some of the things I aimed at doing this year. I published The Moth’s Kiss, got it and The Wild Hunt out in gorgeous peachy-skinned paperbacks. I reviewed and re-uploaded the Kindle version of Strangers & Pilgrims, cleaning it of the typos that had marred it. You perhaps cannot imagine how very difficult and painful that was for me, or how cathartic it was. I spoke at the TAP conference in March. But I didn’t get The Bet out in paperback, and I didn’t put together the book I intended to release of the top posts from this blog, or the ones I wanted to do of my poetry.

I began a new novel in January, which has been hard work to write and I think I am roughly half way. I’m about half way through the story I began originally here as a serial, Lost. I’ve written some short stories, some poetry, and I’ve managed to blog here at least once a week, all year. It’s none of it been easy.

Things I want to do next year include delving ever deeper into the Grail lore I’ve been studying and writing about, mostly privately. I want to write more for myself. I’ve realised that while I have a niche for my writing, and I have a lot of wonderful readers, I’m not going to ‘make it’ as a best selling author, selling tens of thousands of books, or even millions. To have even one person read, enjoy and benefit from my writing is success. I’d rather stay small and stay myself than be lured into chasing the will o’ the wisp of commercial success. I can remain resolutely amateur and while I wish to present my work in as accessible and attractive a manner as possible, to invest money I don’t have in let’s say,cover art that aims to seduce the potential reader (and other stratagems) I’d rather be original and myself and risk being deemed ‘unprofessional’.

I do want to get my poetry out there and also the compilation of the best posts from this blog, but I don’t want it to be something to pressure myself with. I know now I am quite ill and the last thing I need is to stress myself with foolish self-imposed deadlines. I’d rather have the pleasure of using my clearer moments to write things, and enjoy writing, than spend the time on things I don’t enjoy. If my hopes for this illness are borne out, then once I begin to recover, then tasks I have hitherto found as hard as tap-dancing in quick drying cement, may flow more readily and take up less energy.

There’s books on my hard drive ready to be polished up for publishing; I’m about half way with Square Peg so if there are any of you who fancy being beta-readers or proof readers, I’d be happy to hear from you. There are two sequels to The Bet. And several other tales I’ve maybe never mentioned before, as well as the incomplete ones (two of which I have mentioned already, and another two I haven’t), and a longer short story I’d hoped to have out for Christmas and failed.

Anyway, I have meandered and muddled along through this article and I need to wrap it up by saying a huge thank you to everyone who has read this blog, either as a regular thing or as an occasional dip-in. I’d like to thank those who have bought and read my books: you do not know quite how much that means to me.

May the new Year of 2014 bring you blessings and challenges in a balanced measure, enough to grow and develop and also to have much joy to counter the sorrow that is woven through all of life. 

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.

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.