Goodbye old friend

Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.

Rest in peace, Samwise.

Blocked

An enormous tree, branches gnarled and clawed, lies in the road like a fallen dragon. I stop the car; my journey in this direction is at an end. Uncertain what to do, where to go next, I sit admiring the felled beast. It is a handsome giant; an old ash, probably wracked with dieback, unable to withstand the power of the morning’s stormy winds. A few minutes earlier and perhaps it would have come crashing down on the top of the car, crushing me under metal and glass. I breathe a sigh of relief at my lucky escape. How many near misses do we experience in our lives? I am reminded of how fragile and precious life is. We don’t know how much time we have so we should make the most of every moment.

The tree in the road reflects my current mind state. I am blocked; unable to decide in which direction to go. Should I continue with the new job I’ve started, it’s worthwhile working with vulnerable adults but limited in scope, or pursue the teaching career I worked hard to qualify for, and am good at, but left behind long ago to home educate? Should I give up work altogether to focus on my writing and creativity (currently struggling under the weight of fresh responsibility and doubt)? Or is there some way to manage all the options? I’ve said we should make the most of every moment, but at what cost? I want to enjoy stillness too; quiet periods in the place I’m in, room to breathe, space to appreciate beautiful things.

An impatient blast of a horn jolts me from my reverie. In the rear-view mirror, a cross-faced man directs me to move my car out his way so he can reverse and turn around. My journey must carry on. I have to decide which road to take. Where will I go?

Remember your inner child

I wanted to share part of a letter from the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) to his 24-year-old son, Nicholas.  This letter speaks to my heart. It is a long extract but worth reading. The final lines are a lesson for us all and a statement to live by.

 

“Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

A walk in Seville

I walk under an azure sky in sandy, crumbling heat. A round, fierce sun beats on my neck; burns like standing too close to fiery flames. The light is bright; clear, bold, everything sharply defined. Colours shine; shades of gold, red, orange and blue. Tiled surfaces glint in jewelled patterns; mirrors reflecting. Smells of garlic and frying fish, of dry, dusty earth, of sour, cloying drains catch in my nostrils. Here, no fresh, cooling rain washes away dirt and odours.

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Everything is alive, vibrant, noisy. Musical chatter of Latin voices lisps and slides through the air. Cars beep and roar, mopeds hum and mew. In market displays, baskets of cherries, peaches and pineapples topple and overflow; a painter’s palette. Sweet, ripe smells mix with metallic rust of bloody sheep heads, eyes glazed and sightless. A string of rabbits hangs, sad and lifeless. Here, life and death coincide.

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In the gardens, spiky palms, aloe, and agapanthus stand in symmetrical rows. Orange trees drop plump fruits. Strange, enormous trees offer shade; pods drooping like alien lifeforms. Above my head, emerald parakeets squawk and argue. Eurasian swifts dance and sweep through towers and turrets. Here, I am many miles from the soft, green of Welsh countryside.

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Exotic buildings hide in narrow, shadowy streets; graffiti artists have been busy sprawling works of art. Faiths and cultures intermingle – Moorish, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Spanish. Melding together to create awe-inspiring architecture. Domes, carvings, arches, bright ceramics and rounded terracotta roofs rise into fresh blue. Here, I am a wanderer in a different land.

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The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sitting in the grey and slate reception of a plain, somewhat dowdy, office building in lovely, ugly Swansea, I wonder what it would be like to be a receptionist. I have no idea what the role actually entails. I assume one would have to welcome people, organize appointments, do administration of some kind, talk on the telephone, tap on a keyboard, look at stuff on a computer screen, be smart and smiley.  This one is friendly and helpful. She has made me a cup of tea while I wait for my interview, which is running half an hour late.

It’s a worrying problem deciding what you want to be when you grow up. I envy people who are driven. As a child, I sometimes pretended to be working in an office. At the dining room table, I would sit, toy phone, typewriter, notepad and pen by my side: “Mr. So and So will see you now.” My father, on being told I was clever at school, said to me, “You can be whatever you want. You can be a secretary!” I had bigger ambitions. Enjoying telling stories, I dreamt of being a writer and journalist. Travelling the world, I would search out and share exciting tales.

My second ambition was to become a vet. I adored the James Herriot stories. Once qualified, I would publish hilarious tales about my antics. This, however, did not come to pass. On a work experience, aged fourteen, at a local veterinarian practice, my mind was changed by the old, head vet who told me of his experiments on calves as a student; transplanting their livers into their necks. Despite his assurances that it was pioneering work, allowing successful organ transplants in humans today, I was horrified. I wanted to be a vet to help, not harm, animals. That same vet had me wash his car too!

As for journalism, I went off that idea when I got bored in typing classes: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How could I be a successful writer if I couldn’t touch type? Instead, I became a teacher, sharing my love of books and writing with others. In fact, that is why I’m waiting in this reception today. I have an interview to join a teaching agency. After fourteen years of home educating my children, I’m going back to the world of paid work. It’s a scary thought, especially as I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, despite supposedly being a grown up!

The scribbling has always gone on though. I’ve continued to create stories and scenarios in my head. If I get some teaching work with this agency, I fully intend to keep writing and working on poems, short stories and my novel. One letter tapped on the keyboard at a time.

I’m getting braver about sharing my work, so I mustn’t stop now.

‘Tis better to have loved…

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H, spoke from the heart about the loss of his friend and the grief he felt.

On Boxing Day, we had a car accident in a surprise snowfall. My husband lost control, despite driving at a sensible speed for the inclement weather, and the car skidded. As we danced a graceful pirouette, a full 360 degrees across to the opposite side of the country lane, time seemed to elongate. I watched in horror, completely powerless; thoughts of dread that my son or daughter might be injured or killed filled my mind. “It’s all right…Hold on everyone!” I said aimlessly. I braced myself against the seat as the car returned to the correct side of the road and landed with a gentle bump against a fence post. When we stopped, the relief that everyone had escaped without harm was immense. Walking the three miles home through freezing sleet, feet slopping and slipping on the wet snow, I felt protective of my two children and husband. I led the way, torch in hand, fussing about our insufficient coats and footwear. I needed to regain some sense of control. It felt as if I had nearly lost everything that mattered to me, everything that I loved, and that shook me far more than the accident.

When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare. I stood watching as my parents and brother descended an escalator straight into a sheet of plate glass. Every time I had this dream, I would awake crying and shaking, believing that it had happened. I was alone; I had lost everything. Since having my children, I regularly experience anxious dreams. A multitude of horrible images where they have been maimed or killed in all number of horrific incidents. When they were babies, I would imagine falling down the stairs with them in my arms. These nightmares leave me feeling drained and afraid. There is nothing I can do. I have opened myself up to this vulnerability; I have no control over what may (or may not) happen to my children. I love them and this involves the risk of getting hurt.

A few days ago, my lovely old dog had a funny turn. My husband and I returned home from searching for a replacement car and he ran excitedly to greet us, then collapsed trembling and letting out a long stream of urine over the carpet.  As we bent down to help him, he looked up at us with confused, frightened eyes and we both burst into tears. We thought it was the end for him. He is nearly sixteen; his weak heart makes him pant continuously and he stands on shaky legs, often falling over. Miraculously, it was not the end and he recovered, carrying on much the same as before. I realize this cannot continue forever, of course. Every day, week, month spent with him is a bonus.  Soon, we will have to face the heartache of losing him. We made the decision to get a dog; to let him become part of our family. We allowed ourselves to love him and must suffer the pain that is to come.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why choose to have partners and children and bring pets into our homes? Why do we allow ourselves to love when we know it will mean pain and loss at some point? Would it be better to protect ourselves from this pain; to avoid love?

Quite simply, to love is to live. Life is about having relationships with others; to make connections. I have had many moments of fun and laughter with my dog. My children have enriched my life and made it more worthwhile. If we do not allow ourselves to love through the fear of being hurt, then we do not truly live our lives. Having relationships and loving others helps us to grow and learn. It gives us meaning and purpose. There will be times when it brings us pain and loss, but living a life alone and afraid would be unbearable. Life is difficult, we must share it with others – family, friends, neighbours, pets.

I have found somebody who explains it more eloquently than I am able:

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”    Henri J M Nouwen

Resolutions of a writer

As the end of the year draws near, it is time to take stock and to think about what lies ahead. We remember the year that is passing – its joys, sadness, successes and failures – and wonder what the new year will bring. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, when we open the back door to let out the old year and the front door to let in the new, hopefully, we let out any regrets, bitterness or disappointment and welcome in positive thoughts, forgiveness and love. It is up to us to decide what to take into the future and what to leave behind in the past. The past is gone and cannot be undone. We can only move forward. The new year provides fresh opportunities. Our lives are wiped clean to begin again.

I have been thinking about my resolutions as a writer for next year. I may not have achieved all my writing goals this year but it is time to start anew. I will forgive myself and carry on.

 

Here are my resolutions:

 

Write every day

 

Take my notebook everywhere and write in it

 

Get on with writing the novel

 

Write first and edit later

 

Just write!

 

 

Do you like to take stock at the end of the year? Have you any writing resolutions?

Christmas sickness

This time of year is one of mixed emotions for me.

In many ways, I love Christmas. I enjoy the traditional activities: bringing out the advent calendar; making and choosing gifts; filling the house with pretty ornaments we’ve collected over the years; brightening the dark days of winter with carols and shining lights; finding a tree to decorate; baking the naughtily alcoholic cake and mince pies. It is not a religious festival in our house but a special time to spend together; playing games without the everyday rushes and having to be elsewhere. A chance to say thank you to loved ones at the end of the year.

The difficulty for me is that Christmas is also a time of greed on a massive scale. It brings out the very worst of consumerism. The shops are brimming with cheap, useless trinkets that nobody really needs. The adverts encourage us to spend, spend, spend. People get themselves into debt to provide the perfect Christmas for their families. In my nearest large town, a Hawkin’s Bazaar has just opened selling ready-filled stockings – the epitome of thoughtless excess.  Many of the presents bought at Christmas will end up at the rubbish dump. Food will rot and go to waste.

A few years ago, I found the experience of doing my Christmas shop at the supermarket – where I saw a family with three trollies of food, one of which overflowed with sliced bread – so overwhelming that it left me feeling sick and dizzy. We are using up the planet’s resources at a shocking rate to make this throw-away stuff. It may please for a short time but, a few days after Christmas, it will be forgotten and discarded. What has brought us to this? We have become disconnected from what is important, from the message of sharing love and caring for others at Christmas. We have lost our way. Something needs to change. We must stop buying stuff and be more satisfied with what we have.

Although I have always tried to do a small-scale Christmas, we still have far more than we actually need. We end up on Christmas Day bloated on delicious food and wine. We are spoilt for choice. So, Christmas is a time when I feel sick with guilt too.  I am lucky to have done well in the lottery of life; of being born in a country with a democracy, safe from war and famine. At Christmas, I think of the many people with nothing – the homeless, the refugees, those living in war-torn countries like Syria and the Yemen. So many with far too little whilst the rest of us have far too much.

This is a time of year when I can feel despairing, so we try as a family to contribute in a positive way. We choose various charities to support at Christmas. We have given up buying lots of presents and sending out cards in an effort to be less wasteful. Money saved goes to those who need it more than us. We show our love by selecting or making one or two special, useful gifts, something genuinely wanted. We plan what we will eat so there is no food thrown away. We take part in community events. It seems inadequate; I would like to contribute more and in the new year I want to explore what else I can do.

Last year, I wrote this poem to express how Christmas can make me feel.

 

Christmas sickness

 

I’ve got Christmas sickness,

guilty, weeping conscience

pressing on my chest,

heart about to burst.

 

So, what

do I do about it?

 

Engulfed by greedy consumerism,

frenzied buying madness, I

hang twinkling lights while

Aleppo burns,

engorge cupboards with festive feasts while

Yemen children starve,

stuff stockings with unwanted gifts while a

refugee child dreams of tomatoes.

 

Bury my head in the sand of Bethlehem.

 

 

 

How do you cope with Christmas excess? Are you trying to buy less and get back to the true meaning of Christmas?