The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

Lockdown, languages and me. (Warning: much failure, a little success…)

As a writer, I’m blessed with being able to work from home and I’m so lucky to have a job I enjoy, that I return to each day with energy and enthusiasm. Lockdown is a difficult time for everyone in their own way, but some people have real problems in managing to get by in these strange times. There are furloughed people, those who have no jobs, those who are missing people they haven’t seen for so long, and those who are medically compromised, and I whole-heartedly wish them the best.

Not long ago, I heard a celebrity recommend on TV that those who had no jobs or prospects during lockdown should take up a course or a hobby. I didn’t think he was being glib or facetious: I think it was a genuine attempt to turn a difficult situation into a positive one and to suggest that people spent the time they had on their hands trying to acquire new skills. I mentioned this to my daughter and she was immediately on the case, starting to learn Japanese, German and Irish.

So, to support her, I signed up for a few languages and I have to say, it is a daily source of total comedy.

My French is good but, on my phone, I couldn’t work out how to access the advanced level. Instead, I spent each day working through basics, hoping I could get to a level where I’d be able to stretch my skills. Then I discovered how to leap forwards and now I enjoy practising tenses I’d long forgotten and brushing up rusty pronunciation. So far, so good.

My Spanish isn’t bad; I managed to fly through the first few levels and eventually accessed the right questions for my skills. I’m recalling things I’d forgotten, although I’m having to translate the English from US to UK before I try the Spanish: I’m given words such as bathroom (which means toilet), purse (which is a handbag) and store (which translates as shop). These words threw me more than they should have at first. But now I’m fluent in US English too, which is perfect.

Then there was German. I can do basic German, ask for food, chat a bit, but I spent the first six lessons asking Ms. Merkel if she was the chancellor and Herr Schmitt if he was a lawyer. Then I had to ask Heidi Klum if she came from Sweden. After hours of this, I managed to switch my skills to a level where I was making mistakes. Now that was what I needed to do in order to improve: there was no point in getting everything right.

And then there was my decision to learn Romanian. I speak a few words of Romanian, not much… Te iubesc, Noroc, Țuică, Multimesc, that sort of thing. So, naïvely, I thought: rock and roll – what can go wrong? My daughter was steaming ahead with Irish and Japanese: surely I could manage a fairly easy romance language from Eastern Europe? Think again.

First of all, I kept getting everything wrong because I hadn’t uploaded the Romanian keyboard to my phone and couldn’t access letters such as ă and ţ. So everything I wrote in Romanian was a mistake. Once I’d accessed the ability to type in Romanian, I then encountered a problem with the definite article, which took me a week to work out. For example, a boy is un baiat, but the boy isbăiatul. A woman is o femeie but the woman is femeia. It took me ten mistakes to work that one out. Then there’s the exercise when a cross-sounding lady says something quickly and you have to write it down although you haven’t a clue what she’s just said. Then there are the sentences that you would just never ever say: ‘the goose, the chicken and the duck eat the sandwich and drink the water,’ for example which, for reference, is ‚gâsca, puiul și rața mănâncă sandvișul și beau apa’. It fills me full of happiness that one day I might be able to waltz into a shop in Constanța and say that line. (Constanța, by the way, is a beautiful place on the Black Sea – I recommend it highly!)

Then there is the awful sense of failure, which happens when you are steaming through the lesson, which lasts about ten minutes, you achieve 100% throughout until you arrive at the last two hard questions, then you fail abysmally and are greeted with a descending trumpet sound which would normally accompany Laurel and Hardy getting it wrong, and the words ‘You tried hard, but better luck next time…’ Why ever did I need learning languages in my life?

The answer is simple: it’s the chance to communicate, to learn, to improve, and when I get it right, it will be a great feeling. I dream of a time I can sit in a café in France or Spain and chat easily to the locals, or saunter into a biergarten in Munich and order something delicious. I may even one day be able to have a conversation with someone in Constanța about something that isn’t a farmyard animal and at least I can already ask for a sandwich and water.

And, of course, there’s always the chance that perhaps the next lesson will teach me the word for wine…

The Last Day of Term

This is a true story from a Drama lesson that took place several years ago, when I taught theatre in a secondary school. I loved my job and it enabled me to do something I really believed in and to have great fun at the same time. I have so many fond memories of so many wonderful people.

I send my best wishes and respect to teachers and students everywhere.

(All names of real people have been changed…)

It was December 21st, the last day of term. The hard bite of the air and the hunched backs against the cold foreshadowed Christmas, as did a few of the dull, beer-fuzzed heads in the staff room, and the broadening grins of the students.

I was teaching Hamlet to a GCSE group; I knew the themes of death and revenge would spark a lively response in the enthusiastic sixteen-year-old students, who had a strong sense of moral justice and loyalty.

The students put on costumes and set the space in the classroom for ‘The Mousetrap,’ the play Hamlet stages in order to expose his Uncle’s guilt. This is the big scene, where Claudius reveals that he has killed Hamlet’s father.

Claudius, played by Danny McCormick, was seated by the full-length window next to his new wife, Gertrude, Cheryl Egan, who gazed at him with disgust – he wasn’t her favourite choice of husband. Danny, however, was kingly material, spreading out his legs and stretching his arms behind his head in a triangle, a perfect praying mantis. Hamlet, Gertrude’s moody son, was Gary Gornall, cast because he displayed a natural condescension in his facial expression. ‘Do I get to kill Danny in this scene, eh, Miss? I mean, I am the boss, like.’

I explained that Hamlet would expose the king’s guilt in front of the entire court and Gary was even happier when I said that he could flirt with Louise Jackson as Ophelia: the idea brought an immediate expression of manly pride to his scowl.

There was a scuffling above us, from the library on the first floor. Friday period one always meant that Gordon Fishwick, tall, bearded and erudite, was teaching 5C in the library. I was used to the noises which occurred during their study time, usually accompanied by a regular booming demand for ‘Silence in my library’. To cover the noise, I used Queen’s song, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ as backing music for the mimed ‘dumb show’. The rest of the class, in role as courtiers in the audience, cheered and applauded as the villain killed the player-king and the player-queen’s histrionic gesture sent her falling to the floor in a faint, the villain brandishing a ruler as a prop.

Gary launched loudly into an improvised verbal attack on King Claudius. ‘Hey Uncle -.yer big meff – is there anything you wanna tell me? I know you been wit’ me ma – is there anything’ else you wanna confess though, pal?’

The king rises,’ yelled Ophelia, word-perfect, bang on cue. The class caught its breath as one. Then the singing started above us.

          ‘While shepherds washed their socks at night in front of the TV…’

‘Oh, Miss!’ the entire class sighed and rolled their eyes upwards as the carol singing from the library increased to the volume of a football chant.

‘Shall I go and tell them to shut up?’ offered Hamlet graciously, waving a fist.

The play’s the thing…’ I prompted with a grin, and the action recommenced.

Hamlet leapt towards the indignant Claudius, his face furious.

 ‘Who’s guilty now then, pal?’ he asked, his brows knitted in filial obligation, ready to revenge his father’s foul and most unnatural murder. 

‘Leave your uncle alone, Hamlet.’ screeched Gertrude, suddenly protective. ‘Or I’ll give you a good talking to!’

As if to foreshadow the next piece of action, a loud rumbling sound like thunder came from the library above. We all turned in unison to see books flying past the window, and an erupting groan from 5C above signalled their unanimous disapproval.

‘Hey, Miss – they are ruining our play. We can’t work in conditions like this.’ moaned Hamlet, gesturing in the air with despair.

‘Go and sort them out, Miss.’ Gertrude suggested, folding her arms in annoyance.

‘Let’s carry on,’ suggested Ophelia. ‘The King rises!

What? Frighted with false fire?’ grunted Gary Gornall, now embodying Hamlet in all but school uniform.

‘Oh, no – look at that!’ gasped the loyal Horatio, Billy Beer, as we all saw the library curtains descending from the skies in a flourish of flames.

Lights! Lights! Lights!’ yelled Polonius, his glasses reflecting the leaping conflagration. The class applauded; the spectacle of Shakespearian theatre was alive in the room.

Hamlet was whirling around, full of antic disposition, his face shining.  ‘Marry, this means mischief.’ he told the audience with a wide grin.

At this point, Mr Fishwick himself made his entrance behind the widow, head first. His glasses slipping down to his brow, his mouth a spherical silent scream, he was being lowered from the gallery to the stalls by his ankles, quickly whisked back up into the air and lowered again, screaming.

The class cheered in unison; Act 3 Scene 2 could not have ended with a better fanfare.

The bell rang. The cast of ‘The Mousetrap’ went off to Geography and I went up to the library to make Gordon Fishwick a cup of chamomile tea and remind him that the Christmas holidays were just a few lessons away.

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

dried maple leaves

How can we change patterns of behaviour through practising self-nurture?

Much of what we think, feel and do, I suppose, is acquired or learned, nature or nurture, and goes a long way to make us who we are, to make us happy or sad, to define us in some small way. Along life’s paths, we acquire some good patterns of behaviour and some we’d be happier without.

The first step to changing behaviour patterns that are entrenched in our normal practice is to identify them: the second step is to want to change. I’m going to try doing this in a small way, as an experiment, to give it a go.

I’m going to start with something seemingly insignificant, which I think I can change. If it works, I can step up to bigger challenges and change huge things that have affected me since childhood.

So, starting small and identifying the problem, I have a habit of skipping lunch when I’m by myself. I might eat a rice cake or a handful of nuts. This doesn’t seem like a bad habit: I’m not consuming vast amounts of bad calories although it may mean that I fancy a slice of toast by four o’clock or that I justify a big meal at six.

But if I examine the underlying factors, the following points come to light: I miss lunch because I’m alone. I can’t be bothered to cook something just for myself. Probably, I don’t think I’m worth the trouble. If I had a guest or family or friends, I’d push the boat out. But if it’s just for me, nah, why would I bother?

Having three light nutritious meals a day is better than what I’m doing now. Breakfast is at half six, usually oats or wholemeal toast and beans or cereal. Then I eat in the evening: vegetables, protein, grains, fruit. For twelve hours in between, I graze on walnuts, a piece of toast, grapes. I will change this.

So, on day one, after scrambled tofu on toast at six, I decided that at one o’clock I’d cook something or at least make something that would be tasty, healthy, good for me, that I’d enjoy. In fact, I’d make myself something special. So, I made a lime-dressed salad of walnuts, pear, mixed leaves and vegan cheese followed by roasted courgette and garlic soup. And, in all honesty, it felt good.

I sat down properly at the table as opposed to munching a hand full of nuts at the laptop. I used a favourite bowl and presented the meal well and I ate slowly, enjoying every morsel. I know I have learned bad behaviour from childhood – wolf it down before someone else gets it, so I tried to savour every mouthful. It was great.

The result was that I felt a bit special, a bit looked after, cherished, important. And nourished too. I hadn’t eaten a lot – calorifcally, it wasn’t a hearty lunch and it was balanced protein, a bit of carbs, good fat. But I left the table satisfied, not just in terms of no longer feeling peckish, but my eyes and taste buds had enjoyed a feast too.

It’s not my general pattern of behaviour, to put myself first, to feel that I’m important. My mum served herself last at mealtimes with the left overs and it’s engrained in me to do the same. If I’m the least important member of a family, then why would I bother making lunch for just myself? And, of course, the knock-on effect of lowered self-esteem is to believe that I’m not worth cooking for.

But all that has changed. Or rather, it is changing: I’m currently working on it. Small things first, then bigger self-esteem things.

It has to be said, most people who know me wouldn’t think my self-esteem was low. I’ve even been called arrogant once, although I think that was a long time ago and probably unfairly, simply a euphemism for being a confident female who, in the view of someone with even lower self-esteem, needed taking down a peg. (That phrase was used too, as I remember…). But as women, as older women, as people, as human beings, don’t we all have occasional problems with self-esteem?

I do think self-image might become worse as we get older and, dare I say it, more invisible. Nowadays, I manage on photos and videos to look like the worst possible version of myself. It won’t ever get any better. I don’t edit or think about lighting, so the results tend to be very careless and random. I recently made a video of myself reading an excerpt from a novel, with lockdown hair and poor lighting. It was just ugh! While other people tell me the photos are ok, I think they are horrendous and assume the other person is being kind or not really looking. It’s about perception, yes, but it’s also about self-worth.

So, on day two, I made celery and onion soup. It was simple and tasty, and I added a seeded roll that I’d baked myself. On day three, I made a raw salad dressed with sesame and miso. Day four, I had a buddha bowl with nuts and quinoa. It seems to be working … I feel a little more valued by myself and, of course, if we value ourselves then others are more likely to….

I’m going to try to continue this and to find ways to extend the good practice of self-nurture. It’s having a positive effect on my mood: I’m feeling cared for. I’ve a long way to go before I start treating myself to  holidays and designer footwear. That’s not really me – I’m a two-hours-in-the-gym-a-day person then I loaf around in shorts or leggings and a tatty t-shirt – and post-Covid, who knows where or when we’ll be able to travel, so perhaps holidays are not likely to happen. To some extent, the uncertainty about the future is part of the current anxiety we all share. But, for me, living in the present is the answer and so that means treating myself well and with respect each day.

I still have changes to make but starting small is a good way to begin. Let’s see what happens at the next mealtime…it certainly won’t be toast and marmite.

 

CSC_0561

A message for everyone suffering from Lockdown Blues

This morning I heard on the news that stress, anxiety and depression in lockdown times was a real issue shared by so many people. And a few days ago, I noticed a message on my Facebook feed that asked friends for tips about how to cope with mood swings and depression. I was surprised to see that there had been 169 responses and I read each one as I was interested to find out what people recommended. In every case, the responder agreed that they felt low and depressed at the moment, and the advice was pretty much as you’d expect: be kind to yourself, try to meet up with friends if you can, get plenty of sleep and lots of exercise. One man wrote ‘I cope with depression by being cynical about everything. It works.’ Suddenly, I understood every cynic I’d met in my life a lot better.

The impact of lockdown on people’s lives has been quite devastating: things we took for granted, like meeting friends for a coffee or going to the gym, were not possible for a while. Isolation, one of the biggest problems when we are trying to be cheerful and positive, became commonplace. Many people couldn’t go to work and socialise, they couldn’t meet friends and families, they couldn’t have a social life. All the things that cheer us up, hugs, conversation, sharing, were suddenly a luxury or out of reach.

Uncertainty contributes to anxiety. When you’re not sure when you will be able to find work, embrace your relatives, meet your friends, go outside or buy toilet rolls, it is normal to feel fretful. We all know that wearing masks in public places and social distancing are important, but it feels unnatural to be around people who look like bandits and who move well out of the way when you pass them in the street. We’ve had to get used to a lot of change very quickly, with uncertainty about jobs, rules, safety, health and what will happen in the future. Already a second lockdown has been forecast: I can understand how the cynical person on Facebook survives by expecting the worst.

For me, however, it became important to notice the negative thought patterns that arrived with lockdown. Anxiety about friends, family and health were soon followed by negative thoughts about so many other things. Practical worries such as shortages of pasta or how the family will afford the next meal or if family and friends who are key workers will be safe soon metamorphose into a state where anxiety becomes the new normal way of being.

So, I’ve thought carefully about the way forward. The advice on the Facebook post holds good: eat well, be aware of basic safety measures, take regular exercise, all these are all very important. But perhaps there are other ways of keeping ourselves safe too.

In a way, we may now be grieving for the past, for times not so long ago when shopping was a chore and meeting friends was routine. Now these things are treats, opportunities, even fun. Once they were boring and normal. Now we long for the normality before everything changed and now, we embrace tasks we took for granted as being real pleasures. But that in itself can’t be bad…

First of all, I think it’s important to identify any negative thoughts, especially those that are frequent visitors that refuse to shift. That voice in our head that whispers that we are not good enough should be listened to only in order to identify that it is there and then we can try to find ways to neutralise it. When does it happen and how can we change the pattern? Thoughts that tell us that we are responsible for mistakes, that we are hopeless, we are not interesting enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, nice enough or even just enough need to be questioned and opposed. We are enough. Past mistakes and past troubles are in the past. Yes, we are human, we get things wrong; we learn from them, we are better because of them, we apologise, we move forward. We are not defined by the past; we are here now, in the present. We have a future.

So, how can we change omnipresent negative thoughts when we have been so willing to listen to them, to believe them? Why will we listen to a voice that tells us that we are failing rather than one that tells us we can succeed? It’s probably all to do with past habits, but we are in the present now and, COVID-19 or not, we can do more than survive, we can be happy and spread our happiness to others. We are enough. We are more than enough.

Firstly, doing yoga, meditating, taking exercise will get our bodies moving and make our minds calm. That’s a good place to start. Not everyone likes to go out for a run or a bike ride, but going outside, being in a quiet place, walking, dancing to loud music, simply stretching muscles: it all helps.

Telling others how you feel is useful. For some, a confidential counsellor is important, being able to tell someone you don’t know who will listen empathically is so helpful. To say to a friend or a family member ‘I’m struggling with this…’ can be a step forward. A good cry, even letting off a bit of steam, can be a catalyst for change. The important thing is to know that negative thoughts are simply our minds telling us our worst fears and kidding us that it’s reality and perpetuity. Then perhaps we can start to throw a few of the unhelpful thoughts away. We can change our minds and listen to a new voice, one that tells us we’re ok, we’re better than that; we are respected, liked, nice, able to move forward. We’ve got this.

Solidarity is important. We are all going through similar things. Some people have it very tough now, working in key roles where their safety is constantly under threat. Others have no job at all, or they are furloughed, or they have been separated from loved ones for a long time. Others are very worried for their own safety or that of someone they love. Many people have lost their livelihoods, their hope for the future has been shaken. We need to stand with those people: they are friends, family, neighbours, people in the community who have businesses, people we are yet to meet.

There are friends and family members who will put on a brave face to hide the anxiety they really feel and we can reach out to them; a chat, lunch, a smile, sharing feelings: we need to find ways to make others happy too. After all, we are the same; we share the same anxieties; we are all in it together. By being there for other people, we are often there for ourselves.

We don’t know when this current weirdness will end or how it will end. But we are here now, together, and we are doing our best. Suspicion, feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts about ourselves and others won’t help us to move forward. It’s natural to experience negativity, ups and downs, caution and mistrust, but we can keep ourselves safe and others too. At this time when so many things are not as we’d like them, it is important to keep mind and body and soul together and to stay safe.

It won’t be like this forever. And perhaps we can all emerge from COVID-19 stronger, happier and ready to revel in the wonderful things the world can offer. Why not?

 

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How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

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It’s a time of surreal and vivid dreaming…

Many of us might have noticed that we are dreaming a little differently in these strange times. These dreams are often surreal, often presenting the most unlikely scenarios. They are very vivid and packed with detail. These have been called ‘pandemic dreams’ and the reason we’re experiencing them is because the situation we find ourselves in currently is very different to what we’re used to. 

Basically, we are now experiencing more REM sleep (our eyes move more rapidly) in the second half of the night and REM sleep gives us more emotive and visual dreams. It is good that we’re able to dream this way, apparently. It is because we are reverting to our natural state: we seem to be more relaxed and unstressed, something which makes it more likely that we will have vivid and powerful dreams.

I used to write a blog called ‘Dream Catching’ under a pseudonym, in which I interpreted other people’s dreams (or sometimes my own). People are very interested in having their dreams analysed. Often dreams can be powerful experiences and they sometimes influence our moods when we wake up in the morning.

People are fascinated by the content of their dreams and many think that their mind has not just simply thrown out some random combination of  subconscious thoughts and waking experiences. Instead, people believe that a dream reveals something meaningful from their psyche and they will often hope for an interpretation that includes a message or some sort of prediction.

The idea that dreams are full of symbols is a popular one. I’ve heard people suggest that a house may symbolise the heart or contentment; that shadows may symbolise death. My mother used to say that dreams were an inversion of reality: if you dream of death, there will be a birth announced soon, that sort of thing. There are many thoughts about why we dream. 

Dreams may represent some people’s hopes and fears; other people may think that their dreams can be visited by others: that if you dream of someone, they are sending you some kind of astral message. Some people think dreams help us to cope with life’s stress; other people assume that a dream is a random jumble of thoughts we have during sleep.

My starting point when I’m asked to interpret a dream, having listened to the person offer me a description, is to enquire about the overriding emotion of the dreamer during and after a dream. If you dream that you are falling from a great height, it will mean something different if you are feeling afraid in the dream or if you are laughing. 

Some dreams are clearly based on anxiety. Something like the dreamer’s  teeth falling out implies that normal waking worries about any sort of thing from meeting deadlines to disapproval may still be lodged in the mind. These anxieties infiltrate dreams. Context is everything, as is emotion experienced during and after the dream.

Those people suffering from the worst stresses of Coronavirus – being jobless, concerned about managing money, family stresses, loneliness, working long hours, feeling unwell – are less likely to enjoy the benefits of these vivid dreams. In fact, they are more likely to suffer from sleepless nights and periods of restlessness.

While many of us are experiencing wild and whirling dreams and are benefiting from the best sort of sleep, many other people are wide awake, keeping the rest of us safe and well. I wish them safety, good health and I send my thanks that, while we are all enjoying the peace of vivid dreams, they are out there, allowing the dream of returning to normality to become possible again by keeping us safe in the interim. To selectively quote Hamlet, my favourite Shakespeare play, “What dreams may come… must give us pause.”