Tuesday 29 March 2016

Sit here. Read.

The Time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self... 

from 'Love after Love'.  Derek Walcott

I learned something about myself recently: something I've known all along, from childhood, yet allowed myself to set aside in the 'maturity' of adulthood.  Reading is lifeblood.  How could I have forgotten?  

I have never stopped reading, never lost the excitement of seeing a stack of books waiting to reveal their secret worlds, but I had let myself define it as an indulgence, something to earn, something to feel ever so slightly guilty about...

When I read Derek Walcott's poem, Love after Love, I smiled.  The journey of life often feels like coming back to yourself.  To me, right now, the first line of the second stanza reads:
'and say sit here.  Read'.

Sheer pleasure.  This is the reason to read.  It makes me happy.  No other justification required.  Yet reading is beyond entertainment.  To delve into literature is not mere distraction, it's a journey into what it means to be human.  It's also beyond intellectual, it's visceral.  I remember myself, a twenty one year old French student, basking in the sunshine on the Plage de la Chambre d'Amour near Biarritz, Le Rouge et Le Noir in hand and feeling 'this is me' and yes, the beach was beautiful and love was in the air, but it was all about the reading.

Recently, in a fabulous short course Literature for Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing, I have been exploring some of the great things literature does for people.  The course has turned me into an aspiring bibliotherapist.  My favourite fictional bibliotherapist is Monsieur Perdu who lives in Nina Simone's wonderful book 'The Little Paris Bookshop'.  Monsieur Perdu is a 'Literary Apothecary'. He prescribes novels for 'the hardships of life.'

For me 'bibliotherapy' is a relatively new term.  I hope my personal practice of it will involve the sharing of magic and the exploration of that visceral need to read with all the amazing benefits it brings.  I am working on my first 'bibliotherapy' project right now, inspired by the course, and am super excited about it. I'll tell you more as it unfolds.  

The Reading for Wellbeing course is divided into six topics: stress, depression and bi-polar, heartache, grief, PTSD, and dementia.  Reading lovingly selected texts, many of them poems, and sharing heartfelt reflections with course contributors and fellow learners set me alight. And I came right back to that thing I knew all along: reading is lifeblood.  At all times of life poems, novels and plays, full of the stories of humanness, can be the friends that lead us to the heart of ourselves.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Turning dragons into peacocks

When I was on the road to recovery from a depression over a decade ago, a friend sent me some spirited words of encouragement:

"And sometimes when our fights begin, 
I think I'll let the dragons win ...
And then I think perhaps I won't,
because they're Dragons and I don't"

He repeated them every year in Christmas cards as a kind of rallying call to face down any lurking demons.

Only recently did I wonder about their provenance.  They are from 'Knight in Armour', a poem in the children's collection 'Now We are Six' by A.A. Milne.  You can read it or listen to it here. 

The poem suggests two approaches to dragons: fight them or let them triumph.  It's classic win or lose, fight or flight territory, and faced with a green fire-breathing monster the latter  - run away as fast as possible - definitely sounds like a good option.  But how about metaphorical dragons?  At a storytelling yoga workshop recently, led by Claire Murphy, I was presented with a third option for dragons, demons or beasts of this persuasion: transform them into a peacock.

Claire told the story of Skanda, son of the Hindu God, Shiva, who volunteered to 'deal' with a many-eyed monster after countless others had run away or failed to slay it.  Skanda took a different approach.  He captured the beast, a behemoth really, and, being a deity, transformed it into a peacock, every eye the brilliant centrepiece of each of the bird's iridescent feathers.  Then he rode around the heavens on the peacock's back.

I love the story, love the invitation it offers to see things in less black and white terms and be more creative with challenges.  Instead of slamming into them like an American footballer or trying to escape them, can I work with them creatively?  This is a softer, more compassionate approach and work I've been doing recently with Mindfulness is helping me to see that metaphorical dragons might respond in interesting ways when offered this kind of treatment.  I've decided to try more of the 'peacock' approach to get around the obstacles I think hold me back.  Many of mine, as you might have guessed, are around writing but 'dragons to peacocks' could work for any field.  So I'll be stroking, tickling and pampering my dragons - giving them the chance to show their soft belly - to see how this works for me.  When it comes to the real, fire breathing variety though, I'm still with A.A. Milne: bring me my sword, helmet and breastplate!

Postscript.  After I had finished writing this post, we found a tiny peacock feather underneath the sofa.  I'm sure we collected it once upon a time but my husband - he promises - has vacuumed there regularly and never found it.  I like to think Skanda dropped the feather in a moment of divine playfulness, but I really don't know how it got there. 

All of the wonderful photos on this blog are by Andrew Holman

Tuesday 15 March 2016

A birthday gift - one wild and precious life

Tell me, what is it you plan to do,
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver

It's my birthday today.  Happy Birthday to me!

I am 51 years old - something I never thought I would admit in public yet something which, increasingly, I consider immaterial (work out that contradiction if you will), except that I could not be the person I am, writing here this morning, without the half century of personal experience that has gone before.

In my mid thirties I suffered a depression;  my second confession in as many paragraphs - I have dear friends who have no idea.  It threw me, painfully, out of the tidy, successful and conventionally prosperous groove I had expected to travel along.  It stole confidence and instilled shame.  Then a lot of 'stuff 'happened, and I use that word not to diminish its significance but because the 'stuff' was sad and difficult and now is not the time.

As my fifties loomed closer I began to look around me and see that the world was full of people who were not living the lives they had hoped or doing things that made them happy.  I was, of course, using them as a mirror for myself.  Had I, I wondered, left it too late to be me?

I come full circle: without the half century of personal experience that has gone before, I would not be me.  And, having understood that 'is it too late?' is never the right question, my fifties are turning into a real renaissance. I am beginning to embrace opportunities (which pop up when you open your heart), and starting projects about which I feel passionate and, most importantly, which make me happy.  My life is getting wilder!

Every birthday is a renaissance and I love to use Mary Oliver's words to remind me of this:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?

They have become something of a mantra.  While the temptation might be to use them as an exhortation to pick experiences from a bucket list, in the poem from which they come Mary Oliver has been lying in the grass watching a grasshopper.  It is this simple and personal experience of a summer day which leads her to ask us the question.  

"I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields"  

"Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do,
with your one wild and precious life?"

I have been asking myself why I am sharing all of this (the delete key is calling, believe me).  I think it's because I know how it feels when the wildness goes out of life and you are left wondering how to get it back. You can try too hard to find it and look in all the wrong places.  In the end, it seems to me, you have to come back to your very own wild and precious life, no one else's will do.  For me things started to change when, finally, I began to let myself do the things that make me feel idle and blessed and I began to open up my heart to what came along.         

Happy Birthday to me and my newly wild and precious life.   

Read the whole poem 'The Summer Day', aka The Grasshopper here

Listen to Mary Oliver read her poem 'The Summer Day' here

All of the wonderful photos on this blog are by Andrew Holman

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Using my voice on International Women's Day

Lichfield Cathedral had turned its back to the lashing rain.  Gulls were careening along the river as if they would catch the raindrops before they merged into the flow.  Funny how moments become encapsulated in the mind.

Perhaps it was because my breath had clouded the window or perhaps it was the steam climbing from my bowl of mussels, but when my father-in-law asked why I had stopped blogging, I replied that I feared what I had to say was simply a lot of hot air. The world is already too full of it, I said, as if sending my words out into the ether were accelerating climate change.  This is, I believe, a common fear amongst writers;  their words being only so much hot air, that is.  Climate change is a pressure too far!

I've had a change of heart.  I have a voice, and I have decided to use it.  It was Tony Benn who said that the greatest gift you can give is encouragement.  I'm very grateful to my encouragers, chief amongst them my husband and father-in-law, who have convinced me to get back in this seat!

International Women's Day is a fortuitous and fitting day to exercise my voice as a woman.  There are people all around the world today, men and women, who are suppressed and unable to use theirs but it is a fate still more commonly that of women.  When I look back only a generation into parts of my own family, I see plenty of women whose voices were not heard, who, through lack of education and confidence, hardly dared to raise them.  This is not my fate.

More personally and poignantly, both my mother and my sister were robbed of their voices through illness: my sister as a result of a subarachnoid haemorrhage, my mother as a result of her ongoing dementia.

Using my voice has come to symbolise something important for me.  

The question now is: what will I tell you?  That's what I'm looking forward to finding out.

I plan to be here most often on Tuesdays.

All of the wonderful photos on this blog were taken by Andrew Holman