Be grateful for the small things

I have just returned from visiting my daughter at university. It was wonderful to see her and I felt extremely proud at how well she is coping; living independently and managing the demands of her degree course with confidence. She is adapting to city life, although she misses the quiet and fresh air of the countryside.

Cities tire me out nowadays. It is a long time since I lived in one, or even in a town, so I find the change dramatic and difficult. I feel worn down and frayed at the edges after only a couple of days. My nerves jar with the constant noise, the bright lights, the flow of busy, pushing people. The air chokes with traffic fumes and the pavements are squalid with the grime of vehicle exhausts, chewing gum, dog excrement and dirty litter piling in corners. Heaped up, like the rubbish, are the homeless, pitiful in the freezing weather, wrapped in sleeping bags and inadequate blankets. My daughter finds this the hardest thing to face every day – the growing population of dispossessed individuals, so many victims of austerity.

In cities, far away from my peaceful country existence, I begin to feel desperate and hopeless. I am reminded of the vast mechanisms we humans have created – the buzzing shopping centres, the traffic networks, the huge housing estates and business developments; the concrete, tarmac, plastic and metal. I think about our debt creating consumerism, the easy-come, easy-go, throwaway habits, the pervasive, cynical advertising and longing for a celebrity lifestyle. In cities, I become fully aware of the enormous levels of resources used and waste created. Our disconnection from what is important, from our roots in nature, seems vivid.

Back home, sitting in a café overlooking a pretty little harbour on this bright, cold winter’s day, I think I must be one of the luckiest people on Earth. Reflections ripple on the sea, green like a gull’s egg. The vast sky is baby-blue with perfect fluffy mountains of cloud. Pale, winter sunlight casts clear light over hills that stretch for miles around the coastline, folding into mist in the distance. Earlier, I stood on the harbour wall and watched a pod of dolphins feeding in the bay. Darting arcs of darkness in the water, then flashes of white and pointed blades of tails slicing the waves as fins disappeared into the depths. Gulls tumbled and called sharply above betraying the visitors. An awe-inspiring sight, a glimpse into another, unknown world, and rare for me to see them so close in.

As I sit with my pot of earl grey tea, the realization overcomes me that I am privileged to witness these wonders. I am lucky to live where I do, to have the time and enough money to gaze at this picturesque scene. Not everyone has the opportunity and I worry that I have been a snob; smug and patronising in my attitude towards city life. I think I have been too hard on cities and their occupants. It’s easy for me, tucked away on my smallholding, to be negative about cities and to extol the virtues of the countryside with its space, peace and clean air. Yes, cities highlight the problems we humans have created but the countryside is not a total idyll either. Perhaps the truth is that I’ve hidden myself away from the realities of life. The countryside has its issues. Looking around me, I see other customers engrossed in phone screens, unaware of what they have around them. People here have become disconnected too; they have the same obsessions with quick, fake news stories and social media. They are wrapped up in the mundane, every day of their lives. There is litter here, I pick it up with growing irritation as I walk my dogs. Farms cause environmental problems with their abundant use of fertilizers and pesticides. Animals are often treated as commodities in the countryside, not living creatures deserving our respect. There is homelessness and poverty too, though it may be less obvious. Last week, I bought a copy of The Big Issue from a young woman who has recently started selling it in my nearest small town.

When I feel despair overtake me, I try to stop and be positive. Yes, we humans have made a mess of some things but we are capable of great things too. I try to remember these great things. They may be small but they are there, in the cities and in the countryside. People are inherently good. It is up to us, no matter where we live, to put things right. Steps are being taken in our communities by caring individuals. Those small steps make a difference; a slow but continuing change for the better. Visiting my daughter in the city, I saw evidence of these good things: a young man giving money to a homeless man and having a conversation to show someone cared; a food bank project for those in poverty, my daughter collecting unwanted items from her student friends to donate; a nature reserve in the middle of the city mayhem; a vegetarian restaurant with Hindi temple, education centre and hostel; an allotment project for those who have experienced homelessness, drug misuse and mental health problems. Here in the countryside too, people are working to make life better: my nearest town is a fair-trade town; there is a permaculture centre up the hill from me; organic and local food initiatives are growing; the vegetarian café is running a Christmas shoebox scheme for the homeless.

We must be glad of these small steps. We can find hope in them. In our crazy, chaotic world where sometimes our lives can seem pointless or we can feel powerless, we can make a difference. I’ve come to the conclusion that life isn’t really about striving for a purpose or about making or achieving great changes in the grand scheme of things, though of course there are those that will. The point is, we all can make some difference by living our lives in the best way we can. We must be kind, loving and caring. We must treat all living creatures and our environment as we would wish to be treated. We must make the most of every day and look for the good things. We must live simply and not selfishly. Yes, at times it is hard – the bad stuff that goes on will hurt, my experience in the city left me feeling bruised for a while, but I think we must keep spreading, communicating and sharing our feelings, our beliefs and our love. That way we can make a difference in some way to the world, and that is a special thing to achieve.

The wind calls for you

The recent windy weather has awakened memories of childhood. Looking out of my window at the raging gale tossing the trees and pulling at the hedge, I am transported to my old room. I am a girl, hiding under the bed covers, terrified of the wind’s mournful cries. Fueled by bible stories at school, and my own interest in Greek and Norse mythology, I was convinced some incensed God was metering out punishment for a sin committed. Although a fairly well-behaved child, I often felt guilty; any mischief or misdemeanour would burden my mind for days. I still have a tendency to overthink things.

 

 

Today the wind howls

from the heavens,

thumping roofs,

bending branches groundward,

sending clouds scuttling

across an insipid sky.

And I am lying in bed;

a child again,

fearful, enshrouded in nylon

sheets prickling static.

Ears strained for parental voices; a

muffled reassurance below.

Am I alone listening to the

wail and roar? Blustering

divine judgement crashes

around me. A

monstrous anger gathers

as I await retribution.

 

 

What sends you back to your childhood?

 

 

We must speak out

Nearly every day, a new story of sexual harassment or assault comes to light. In politics, in the media and in the film industry, people are coming forward to claim they have been abused by those holding positions of power. These brave individuals, willing to tell their very personal stories, are changing an unacceptable situation that has gone on for too long in our society. Women, and men, will finally feel they can speak out without fear of reprisal. The culture of shutting up and putting up; the idea that this is just something that happens or is to be expected, especially if you are a woman, will no longer be tolerated. New mechanisms will be put in place in the highest establishments to ensure complaints are taken seriously and action taken. This will filter down into all walks of life. There have been complaints of witch hunts and unfair accusations, and indeed all claims must be investigated, but highlighting this issue will ensure disgraceful behaviour of this kind will not be ignored in future.

I welcome these stories. I want my daughter, and son, to live in a world where they can feel safe in the workplace, or on public transport, or in the street. I want them to know they can speak out with confidence if an incident occurs; that it will not mean the loss of their job or reputation and that they will be listened to. I want the perpetrators of such abuse to understand they cannot get away with it. The issue is out in the open. People are talking and sharing experiences. These stories have given me courage. We must always speak out about such behaviour.

 

Unexpectedly,

his hands are

on my shoulders; I

tense as his fingers

probe bone and

skin. An

unwanted intimacy,

discomfort spreading, he

casually says, “You’re

knotted up.” He has

tied them tight; they

cannot be undone.

Inside I scream,

“Don’t touch me.”

My flesh crawls and creeps,

awkwardness seeps

from my pores, as

his thumbs press and squeeze; I

suffer silently,

ashamed that

no words pass my lips.

Some absurd sense of

politeness prevents me;

indignant in

mute humiliation when the

shame is all his.

A meeting in the garden

Recently, I have returned to a childhood favourite, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My copy is tatty and falling to pieces as I’ve read it many, many times over the years. I remember receiving it for Christmas when I was ten, and being very excited. It was my best present that year. As a child, I devoured books and was always in need of something new to read. Both my children enjoyed the book as their bedtime story when they were small, so it is special to me and my family.

Revisiting The Secret Garden is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I know the story so well I can relax completely into it; comforted in the familiar. I meet up with old friends and reacquaint myself with their personalities. There is Mary, spoilt and selfish, with a tragic past. There is Martha, with her sunny disposition and optimistic outlook. There is Ben Weatherstaff, grumpy and cross, with a hidden, soft heart. There is Colin, crippled by his heart-broken father’s rejection. There is the bright, beady-eyed robin, intelligent and all-seeing. Finally, there is Dickon, a breath of fresh, untamed air, bringing nature and wild things with him.

For an ordinary girl, living on a dreary council estate in the 1970s, an isolated manor house set on a beautiful, unpredictable moor provided the perfect backdrop for the story. The idea of a secret, walled garden opened exciting, romantic possibilities. My own life, with worries about school and growing up, could be forgotten for a while. I think I fell a little bit in love with Dickon.

Now, turning the yellow pages of my ageing book, I am reminded of days sitting reading for hours, immersed deeply in the story, unaware of anything going on around me. Although I still read as much as possible and get lost in other worlds, it is rare for me to abandon reality in the carefree way I did as a child.

 

Which old favourites from childhood do you enjoy revisiting? Do they stir any memories?

The wait is worth it

Being a parent to teenagers seems to be a process of waiting. Certainly I spend hours every week waiting for my son. With coat and shoes on, keys in hand, I wait for him to be ready to leave the house. In the car, windows fogged, radio on, or scribbling in a notebook, I wait while he has a piano or guitar lesson, or for him to finish work, or for his college bus to arrive. Breath bated, I wait for him to make a decision (about anything – he likes to think things over).

Whenever I begin to feel impatient or frustrated about the time I spend waiting, I stop and remind myself that this won’t last forever. Each stage of parenthood is a fleeting moment on a whirlwind train journey; each station passed in a blur. We have our children with us for such a short time before they head off and make their own way. Once, I waited for nine months, nervous and excited, for my babies to arrive. Today, I can barely remember what it felt like to hold their warm bodies in my arms; tiny, vulnerable and needing only me. As I paced the bedroom floor every sleepless night, humming lullabies and rocking my restless little ones, I would never have believed I could forget; then it was all-consuming, now I miss it sometimes.

So, I am thankful for these moments of waiting for my son. I am happy he is still here for me to enjoy his company. I make the most of the time we have together before he is off, like his sister before him. Waiting provides me with an opportunity to think, to listen, to observe and to create. The radio is an intelligent companion and suggests many ideas for writing. Looking out of the window, I observe interesting characters passing by. I watch the changing sky and the swooping birds. The pages of my notebook fill up. Great chunks of my novel have been jotted down as I sit waiting.

Waiting is worth it.

 

 

 

 

October in the Library

October is here and autumn has arrived in full force. Everywhere are signs of decay: the fallen leaves turn mushy on the wet grass, fungi grow puffed and swollen along the woodland paths, branches creak and tumble in the howling wind. We leave the house in darkness and return in darkness. We begin to look towards festivals that mark the end of the abundant summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.

This is the time of year associated with death. When the divide between the living and the dead becomes a thin veil and spirits may cross easily into this world. For our ancestors, winter was a difficult and dangerous time. On the night of Samhain, they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth; some to cause mischief. They lit bonfires to keep away evil spirits, left offerings of food to appease the Gods and held feasts for dead kin, in the hope that they would make it through the coming darkness.

Soon, many families will celebrate Hallowe’en. Children, and some adults too, will enjoy dressing up, grotesque party food and scary stories. Although the shops are full of tawdry, plastic trinkets, unpleasant costumes and cynical commercialism, these activities are the evolution of ancient traditions. For that reason, I find the end of October a special time. The dark, chill nights are filled with the melancholy of seasons passing; the year is heading towards its end. There is hopefulness too, standing by a roaring, hot bonfire; the flames spread light into the moody, black sky. I think about past days, people I have lost, people I have forgotten. I remember my childhood; I enjoyed a good scare then, as I do today.

I remember one particular day in the school library…

Everyone was surprised when I wasn’t made a Prefect in my final year at Junior school. Pupils were usually awarded the role as a reward for academic or sporting success. I didn’t mind, though. In fact, I was relieved. Prefects stood in the corridors telling other kids off for running instead of walking. They were unpopular; bossy and rude teacher’s pets.

The teaching staff chose to make me a Librarian instead. Being a Librarian meant staying in at break times. It meant avoiding the playground with its noisy, rough games of Bulldog and Tag. It meant sitting in the quiet hush, organizing, labelling and cataloguing books, checking records, tidying shelves, making displays, and best of all, when the library was empty, which it often was, reading. Those teachers knew what they were doing.

One lunchtime, I was in the library with my friend, Dean. We had just finished creating a display of new adventure stories. We sat satisfied with our work, laughing and chatting in subdued voices about the myth of the ghost that haunted the library. Like all schools, there were many tales of ghostly happenings. The fact that the library was haunted was well-known. Stories of strange bumps and scrapes, chills down the back of the neck and shifting, shadowy shapes were shared with giggles and gasps between classmates. Exactly who or what haunted the library was unknown.

Certainly, the library had a special atmosphere of its own. Entering it was like entering a different world, far removed from the hustle of school life. It was cool and peaceful. The lighting muted. The outside world muffled as if it might even have ceased to exist.

Dean and I didn’t believe in the ghost nonsense. For us, the library was a place where we felt comfortable and safe; unthreatened amongst the neat rows of books. As we shook ours heads and tutted scornfully at the silliness of our fellow pupils, a book fell violently, in fact almost flew, from a shelf in the furthest corner. We looked at each other in bewilderment. Dean got up and went over, a little cautiously, to pick it up. Then, he yelped and dropped the book as if it had bitten him.

“What is it?” I asked in surprise.

“The book.” he said, pointing to where it lay on the floor.

I walked across to see what he was talking about. There sat the book on the dusty, grey linoleum. Its title: ‘Ghost Stories.’

 

Have you ever had a strange, other-worldly experience?

 

 

 

Talking to yourself is a sign you’re a writer

I am never alone. I have multiple personalities inhabiting my head. A throng of people, of varying genders, sizes and ages. Sometimes these people talk; they whisper, shout, argue, cry and laugh inside my mind. Sometimes they burst out into the real world. They escape on to paper; become stories and poems others can read. Sometimes they break out as words; fragments of conversations spoken into the air where others can hear. My husband and children are used to my odd behaviour. ‘What did you say?’ they ask and I reply, ‘Just talking to myself’, or ‘Just thinking about a bit of my novel.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, they carry on. When it happens around other people, it can be embarrassing.

The first time I remember, was as a small girl, in a supermarket which was rather dull. I was making up a story to relieve my boredom. I’ve forgotten what it was about. In the middle of an involved exchange with some imagined character, I looked up and noticed two shelf-fillers had stopped what they were doing and were listening to me. They had broad, entertained grins on their faces. Reddening, I turned and hurried back down the aisle.

Since then, I have had many experiences of being overheard. My mind gets carried away, the characters come to life and out the words come, normally hushed under my breath. It can happen anywhere; on buses, trains, walking the dogs, shopping. I have had people ask if I am all right or if I am speaking to them. I have had people laugh or sneer. I have had people edge away awkwardly, concern on their faces. Mostly, I am met with bemused amusement. I feel a little foolish but it does no harm. In fact, it even does some good. The listener gets a good chuckle and something to talk about, while I develop my story lines.

It is acting with me taking every role. Playing out different scenes and characters helps me work out the plot. I become that person for a while; think, feel and respond as them. I decide how they would behave in each situation. It is part of who I am; I cannot imagine my life without the company of these others. Once, it worried me. I thought perhaps I was too caught up in a fantasy world; I was a bit kooky. After all, they say talking to yourself is a sign of madness. I am no longer bothered by it; I am aware where reality ends and the stories begin. It turns out that talking to yourself is a sign you’re a writer.

 

What do you think, fellow writers? Do you talk to yourselves too?

 

 

 

5 things my goats teach me about writing

Anyone who knows me, knows I love spending time with my goats. Every day, their affectionate and funny antics make me laugh. I am happy and relaxed in their company.  My gingerbread boys help me think about myself as a writer. They provide inspiration and encourage my creativity.

Here are 5 things my goats teach me about writing:

1. Be on the look-out

Goats are always alert. No matter what they are doing, one ear is pricked listening, senses heightened, observant of any action taking place in the vicinity of the house or garden. Any passing vehicle, any person opening a door or gate, any animal or bird, wild or domestic, is noted with interest. Heads pop up, eyes bright and intelligent, to assess the situation.

As a writer, I must be observant. I must be on the look-out in my environment, searching for new ideas and experiences. An idea may come from anywhere. I must be open and ready. My own senses heightened, aware of sounds in my ears, smells in my nose, tastes in my mouth, colours, shapes and images in my eyes, feelings and sensations on my skin. I must use these sensory experiences to inform and improve my writing.

2. Be curious

Goats are intelligent and eager to learn. They constantly explore their environment. Anything new needs closer investigation. At first from a distance, looked over thoroughly with calculating eyes. Then, if considered safe, a close and rigorous sniffing with velvety, wet noses, and tasting with soft, malleable lips.

As a writer, I must be curious and eager to learn. I must go out and explore my environment to find material. Where necessary, I must research new topics to add interest, realism and depth to my writing.

3. Have fun

Goats enjoy life. They love to play; skipping and leaping around the paddock, butting and scuffling with one another, climbing logs and fences. They find pleasure in everything they do. They test out any object discovered, experimenting and turning it into a game.

As a writer, I must have fun. I must be playful; unafraid to experiment with different ideas.  Trying out new techniques, will empower and develop my writing abilities. It will help me find my voice as a writer.

4. Be sensitive

Goats are gentle, empathetic creatures. Just as they are aware of their surroundings, they are aware of other’s emotions. They can sense a person’s mood; giving a reassuring nuzzle or bounding up for a game depending on what is needed.

As a writer, I must be empathetic. I must be aware of the emotions of my characters and deal with them sensitively. I must also be aware of my reader’s emotions and experiences which will influence the way they read my novel. Understanding how other people feel will help me write more effectively, touching upon the realities of other lives.

5. Persevere

Goats never give up. They are determined, stubborn animals; spending time plotting and planning their moves. Once a decision is made, like jumping a fence or breaking into the vegetable plot, they will not stop until they have achieved their goal.

As a writer, I must never give up. I must be stubborn and determined; planning, plotting and writing my novel until it is finished. I must face rejection and still keep going until I have achieved my goal. I will not stop.

 

So, I believe we can learn a lot from the way our animals behave. What do you think? Has an animal inspired or helped you with your writing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding my voice

Today, my body is jangling; nervous excitement bubbling within. At regular intervals, when I’m making a cup of tea, or feeding the cat, or hoovering the carpet, my mind falls upon the approaching evening and a thrill of fear ripples through me. I take a calming breath, tell myself it will be fine and try to get on with my day. Sometimes I wonder, why do I do this to myself? Why go through this self-imposed stress and worry?

The tense build-up of anticipation, the pacing, nail nibbling and sudden lurching in my stomach is completely my own doing. Tonight, at a local venue surrounded by people who know me, I will sing.

I love to sing. It gives me great joy; a sense of peace and well-being. At home, I sing all the time. To my husband, who says I have a song for every occasion, to my children, to my chickens, dogs, cats and goats. I think my singing probably drives them a little crazy (the humans not the animals; they adore it and often ask for more). I don’t care, I sing anyway. Often, I wish life was a musical.

The problem was, although I sang non-stop at home, I never sang anywhere else. As a child, I was in a school choir, and I busked a bit as a teenager, but nothing since. Singing was, much like my writing, a secret, private thing. Recently, I began to feel that wasn’t satisfactory. We only get one chance at life and mine was moving on at a shocking rate. I decided to attend a local singing group. The first meeting was terrifying. ‘Are you a soprano or alto?’ they asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘I just like to sing.’ It didn’t matter, I could join in and see where I felt comfortable. As the piano began, I was shaking. What if I loved singing but sounded like a frog with influenza?

There was no need for concern. From the moment I opened my mouth and sang the first note, I knew I belonged. My spirits rose, soaring into the sky to mingle with our voices. My confidence grew and I realized that I had been missing out. Being too shy, too afraid, I had prevented myself from getting involved with singing before. I had waited until I was nearly fifty. Now I had found something special and I wanted to waste no time catching up.

So, how did I get from one singing session to waiting with trepidation to perform this evening? Well, at Christmas, our group performed a carol concert. At the venue, there was a chap playing the fiddle and I commented to a friend (rather stupidly it turned out) that I’d love to sing some folk tunes with him. The next thing I knew, he approached me and said my friend had told him I’d like to sing with him. It was like being back on the school playground and I blushed as crimson as I did those long days ago. Despite the embarrassment, I agreed and we have been practising determinedly.

I am ready for tonight. After all these years, I have found my voice.

Hopefully, I will find my voice as a writer too. There’s a huge amount of advice out there. We should be concise. We should have rhythm. We should appeal to our readers. We should write what we know. We should observe the details. We should paint clear pictures. We should read other’s work. We should be ourselves. It can get a bit overwhelming; like a singer in front of an audience, the fear and doubt can make us dry up. We open our pens and nothing comes out.

I think I’m going to concentrate on enjoying myself and being true to myself. Like my performance tonight, I’ll focus on one word at a time.

 

Do you think you’ve found your voice yet?

 

 

 

The hand is willing but the brain is weak

How can a mind be empty and full at the same time?

This is the problem I have been struggling with this past week. Uninspired, unable to put pen to paper, my brain has battled with an army of niggling worries instead. Each time I’ve attempted to sit at the keyboard, my focus has disappeared and my head has felt it will burst from the pressure of unhelpful thoughts building behind my eyes.

This week was going to be the start. My son was off to college, I would finally have time to get on with my writing. Every day I would work on my novel, chipping away at the chapters. I have failed. The words have not flowed, the ideas have deserted me. Even re-reading and editing has been beyond my capabilities.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what is wrong. Yes, there is anxiety. Will my son be happy in this new phase? Will my daughter be safe on her travels in the US? Will I be able to get my novel written? Yes, there is anticipation. Won’t it be great when my daughter gets home next week? Won’t it be a relief when the barn is rebuilt? Will anyone want to read my novel? Yes, there is concern. Should I get a job? Will my daughter settle happily at university? Will I be able to get my novel published?

So, I abandon my desk and escape outside. I breath in the cool air, let the rain freshen my face and the wild wind tangle my hair. My shoulders relax as I walk in the garden. The swallow family are preparing to leave us; the young swoop joyfully above me, chattering like monkeys. The bracken is turning from bright green to shades of copper and gold. A wood pigeon flutters in the hedge, greedily gobbling up elderberries. My goats bleat, happy in my company. I feel a sense of joy to be in the open. Under the wide grey sky, my thoughts settle. Here in this moment, I am composed.

Perhaps I’ve piled on too much expectation. Writing isn’t about having the time. Writing is a state of being. We must feel  the need or desire to write. If we lose the compulsion, then it is time to withdraw, take a break. I must give myself some space to calm my mind and recharge my imagination. Tomorrow is another day and I will try again. Writing is about doing the hard work too. A professional writer gets down to the task. I will not panic. I will listen to some useful writing advice:

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” — Hilary Mantel

“Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” — Barbara Kingsolver

What do you do when unable to focus on writing?