Remember who you are

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I am beginning to remember who I am.

I have skills, but they are not who I am.

I have circumstances, but they are not who I am.

I have possessions, a history, relationships, qualifications and work experience but they are not who I am.

I am the quiet moment before dawn, a wind-blown leaf dancing in the air.

I am the slow swirl of the river’s ripple, the slide of shingle shoved by the tide.

I am the glimpsed silver slip of the new moon winking and the bee-blessed hum of a sun soaked afternoon.

I am the flickering flame under a sky of stars.

The half-remembered dream of possibilities.

A Writer’s Life

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It’s 5.30 a.m. and I’m sitting in the cabin.  This is my study.  A sofa covered in an old blanket, a pre-loved writing desk and folding chair.  A shelf of books.  Assorted tarot decks.  Herbs drying from the ceiling.  I’m wearing a dressing gown and pink plastic garden shoes and sipping chamomile tea.

Morning pages.  My pen flies across the page, words uneven, jumping over each other in their desire to be free.  I fill three pages before I stop to fetch more tea and some toast.  Later I will sit down to work on a novel, I might make a blog post and I will do some research.

For such a long time I thought “being a writer” meant how you made your money.  Just like “being a teacher” meant getting a job in school and marking books with a red pen.  You weren’t a writer unless it paid you.

I wanted to “be a writer” from around sixteen y ears of age.  I imagined sitting in an attic room, pen scratching across the page, light seeping through a grimy skylight, like Jo March in Little Women. I have always loved books and as an English student my study of Virigina Woolf reminded me of my dream.  I would be the woman in the oversized cardigan hard at her writing, in a room of her own.

In 1992 I meet the author Catherine Aird.  I’m caring for an elderly lady in a nearby village as my summer job and she is a friend.  She comes for tea on a few occasions and one day tells me what she does.  I, as any aspiring writer might, express my desire to write.  “If you write two hundred and fifty words  a day for nine months,” she says, “you’ll have a full length novel.”  For the first time this seems like it might be somthing I could do, though it will take nearly thirty years before I begin.

Early marriage and motherhood made me feel my dream was “unrealisitc” at the same time a passion for religion pulled me into church ministry and for a long time the dream got lost, left on a shelf like an old photograph, gathering dust and cobwebs, fading as the year passed.  Occasionally I’d start something, a story perhaps, a poem.  But I allowed my inner critic too much voice and she usually told me it was no good and anyway it wouldn’t put food on the table and better to be sensible and find something that would pay.

I trained as a teacher.  The lessons I loved most were those where we made books.  Each child would contribute a picture and a scrap of writing (in generous five-year old script). We would glue them to sugar paper and sew them together with wool and add them to the book corner, in pride of place.  I have them still.

Time trickles onwards.  Mid life approaches.  Life shifts with some storms and everyday tragdies.  I begin to hear about the “creative life” to learn that it is possible to be creative for its own sake, to allow this part of the soul to sing freely, in our everyday lives.  I begin to discover that creation is its own magic, the spirit of the universe dancing through the flesh-wrapped frailty of humans.

I start a blog to write about the life I’m living, the path I’m exploring, the enchantment which is finding me and whirling me to unexpected places.

I read The Artist’s Way.  I read it and I get up everyday and do my morning pages and I keep my artists dates and something changes.

I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creating.  That done is better than good.  That you have to make sacrifices and choices to get to your dreams, to create, and that you only have one life.

I see all my lives laid out before me, wife and mother, teacher, minister, healer, counsellor, gardener.  I see all the paths I have tried and tested.  All the ways I have sought to find my home in this lifetime.

It is not what I thought.  A writer’s life, like an artist’s life, or an actor’s life, is made not given.  It is crafted, woven, chiselled, from the raw material of our lives. It takes conscious choice on a daily basis.

There are still bills to pay, food to fetch, weeds to pull.  This is the same for all of us.

It is 9.25 a.m. I am sitting in the attic, fingers flying across the keyboard, listening to the sound of traffic outside leaking through the open skylight.

This is a writer’s life.

 

Lot’s Wife

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But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. Genesis 19:26

“You can’t go back.” She says, with her usual certainty. I am irritated by her strident conviction.  I want it to be untrue.  Her confidence is abrasive and I feel smaller next to her.  Later I will debate this with my then partner.  Of course, we will say, you can.  You just go there, visit the place, rejoin the company.  You can go back if you want to.

Today I am struck, though, by the truth of this.

For the past two months I’ve been wrestling with challenging mental health, fighting to stay alive when all I want to do is escape my body, which tricks and troubles me at every turn. I have been running a litany of loss in my head, coupled with a generous dollop of self-criticism.  Pull yourself together.  Get your act sorted out.  What on earth have you got to worry about? Don’t you know how lucky your are?

I live with perpetual demons of anxiety and panic, beings determined to limit my life choices and opportunites, fixing to disable me and tie me down, imprison me and block off all escape routes.

Until today.  When they took off their masks and revealed themselves as friends.  Angels.

They counsel self-compassion.  They counsel self-care.  And more than anything they gently remind me that I cannot continue to do things the way I used to.

There is no going back.

I have been Lot’s Wife.  Looking backwards, regretting, revisioning, what-iffing the past.  And desperately trying to re-route life back to the place I knew.  Somewhere safe and familir.  Somewhere I knew my way around.

I wonder about the pillar of salt, a pure white column of unshed tears.

Cry me a river.

My anxiety angels show me that the path is before my feet, and it goes ahead of me, into the shadows.  They show me to walk it gently, feeling my way forward. They whisper that all the things I once believed essential may not be so. They ask me to rest a while under the trees, shelter in the shade of wild blackberries, allow the moon, sun, wind and rain to kiss my skin and ease me back to wholeness.

And not the same wholeness as before.  This is snake-sloughed new wholeness.  A fresh being here now, raw and screaming into life.

They tell me to ask for what I need, and that this is allowed.  They tell me to take my health seriously, and to be kind to myself, just as I would to another feeling as much as I do right now.  They tell me that my body is my home and holds its own wisdom.  They tell me to allow this rather than going on the offensive.  They promise that there is nothing wrong, this is exactly what is needed.

They ask me to trust in the next breath, to claim my place as a child of the universe.To walk bravely into the new world.

There’s no going back.

 

 

Wordcraft

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A kind of magic

Seeping into your brain as you

Twist the verbs around your index finger

And paint a storm;

Adjectives, lightning sharp, on the page,

Biro scratching out the echoes

Of thunder.

Whisper them,

spells, in different combinations,

Sentences, sibilant sorcery,

Conjuring your creation

Casting the charm which sparks

Another’s imagination.

Word witch,

wonder and enchantment,

the wicked torture of

weaving, bending, stretching language

Into new life, the monster waking, ghosts walking,

Life providing the meat which feed the

Dragon-fire at my finger tips.

Women’s Work

I wrote in my last post about leaving my day job. It wasn’t an easy decision.

What comes afterwards though is, always, more difficult.  After the initial shock passes I begin to second guess myself.  I “What If” for a while, trying to negotiate a solution.  Then I start to berate myself.  I tell myself that “other people” can do this so why can’t I?  I blame myself for not being more resilient or strident.  I begin to feel my self-worth slide.

This morning I decided to walk to get the shopping, rather than drive.  As I walked past the line of commuter cars and roadside mugwort plants taller than me the swirling waters in my mind cleared.

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I have been a mum now for over twenty-two years,  I have been living here as a carer for my mum for the past year or so.  These roles challenge me daily; how best to support, how to grow a child from infant to adult, what to say, how much to help and when,  how much to expect and when.  How to create a healthy and happy environment for someone who some days doesn’t know you as their daughter, to keep them physically safe while not making them feel a prisoner in their own home, to care for all of their needs while maintaining dignity and personhood.

These are roles with mental, emotional and physical demands.  They require long hours, wakeful nights, constant attention.  They require strategy, diary management, a good knowledge of Microsoft software packages, budget management, responsibility for purchasing, strong communication and inter-personal skills, an ability to be flexible and work on initiative.  They need you to get out of your comfort zone on a daily basis and there is no annual leave entitlement.

While this is all true, and I can see this more and more as I type, I have railed against the fact that in my “career” I have not achieved the level I would have expected by now.  I have bemoaned the fact that society does not value “women’s work” while at the same time, I realise, not valuing it myself.

Rather than seeing these vital roles as valuable and important, both emotionally and spiritually, and also in terms of social capital, I have mentally side-lined them in order to focus on the perceived “real” work of employement/business.  I have waited for external validation (that old chesnut) rather than claiming these as valid and worthwhile choices.

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In a culture of ever-expanding choices and options, where social media constantly presents a raft of exciting possibilities, doing something as “traditional” as being a homemaker can seem old-hat.  But I feel that I need to give myself permission to be just that.  This is not an easy choice.  It means letting go of ideas about what I thought I wanted, or “should” be doing.  It means getting comfortable with claiming this and saying “no thank you” to all the other shiny options.  I do not know how it will evolve.

I imagine myself digging up an old, overgrown shrub.  This is the collection of ideas and narratives I’ve been living with until now.  It is way past its sell by date, twiggy, dry and unproductive.  What might grow in the bare soil it leaves behind?

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Plot twist!

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I read today that when something unexpected happens in your life you should shout “plot twist!” and move on.

In the opening scenes of our movie we see our heroine preparing for the school summer break.  She has worked hard to settle into a new work role and is enjoying the variety and joy of working in a primary school.  We see her speaking with colleagues about plans for the new school year, enjoying the end of term play, celebrating with students moving on to new schools.  Leaving work on a Friday afternoon she is smiling, happy to be here, driving home through ripening, golden wheat fields she is counting her blessings.

Plot twist!

Changes in mum’s health mean that this weekend I resigned from my job.

I still have to take a deep breath as I type that.

I had grown to love this work; my colleagues, the countryside I drove through to get there, the space to focus on one thing, to be a part of something, to build community, support learning.  I’m still getting choked when I see feathers, because I had created a game with the youngest pupils where we would release a down feather and see how far it would fly…little moments of magic and joy.

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On some level I knew this day was coming.  It is now over three and a half years since my mum’s diagnosis, closely followed by a stroke, which knocked her even further down the rabbit hole into dementia.

The knowing, though, doesn’t make it easier to accept, and doesn’t stop the sadness at what I am releasing.

This was the last hurdle.  I’ve been holding on to various things over these years, things which on some level I see as “me”.  The thing that is “mine”, scraps of identity to cling to.  I have given up my home, but I still have my business.  I have given up chunks of my business but at least I still have some strands. I have given up self-employment altogether but at least I still have a part-time job…

I know this is a first-world attitude.  I am very fortunate.  I have a roof over my head, a reasonable level of health, caring friends and family with whom to laugh.

I guess I like working.  I like going to work, the morning rituals. I like having colleagues.  I like being able to offer someone a helping hand, or work with others to find a solution.  I like earning something, to contribute in some way to the household.  I like to feel like I have a place.

This is going to be very different.  It is over seventeen years since I have been a full-time homemaker.

The funny thing is that in some ways I have been seeking this opportunity.  I wanted space to write and create.  What if this is that space? What if the time to grow my writing and magical work is here, now, suddenly jumping out of the cake with an explosion of glitter and sequins?

The shock of the new…

What if we see our heroine dry her eyes, get up off the couch, tie back her hair and look, full of determination, out into the dawning day.

To be continued…

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Thrift witch

When I started down the woodland path of magic I bought a lot (a lot) of stuff.  After decades in mainstream Christianity I wasn’t feeling confident in my practice and I felt like to make it “proper” I needed things made by “genuine” witches.  It took me a while to realise that the moment I put my foot on the path I was a genuine witch too.

Over the past two years, though, as I’ve grown into my practice and, more confident in my craft, I’ve begun to seek my own resources.  This is firstly of necessity, my work-life has changed and the need to count pennies is greater, but, more importantly, something I create has more of my own magic in it.  For me this is the energy of baking for someone rather than a shop-bought cake.  I am the first person to admit there isn’t always time to bake, but when I can there is something of my love, my actual physical energy, in that cake that isn’t there with one I buy.

It’s the same with magical goods.  In the creative act – choosing materials, crafting magical tools or ingredients, writing a spell – part of myself enters into the process, an invisible added ingredient that isn’t in the things I buy from someone else.  Over the past few months I have made myself a small broom to clear energetic space from birch twigs gathered in the garden, wands from wood collected on walks, I am stocking my herb cupboard with the garden’s harvest and creating my own road-opener oil.  I’ve been searching through boxes and finding shreds of ribbon and string, buttons, shells, acorns to weave into spells and charms.  It has been a time of joy to re-connect myself to my practice in this way, and I find refreshment and pleasure through these acts of “sacred play”.

This spell is offered as a framework for you to try out.   It’s not a good idea from a safety perspective to leave candles burning long-term, so a jar candle is a long-term project, maybe even taking a few weeks to complete depending on the size of your candle!  Spend time with your candle when it is lit, pouring in your intention.

Suggested adaptations:

For a money spell – a coin, a bay leaf, tarot card copies of the Nine of Pentacles, the Empress, the Sun.

For love – a paper heart you colour and cut out, rose petal, tarot cards such as The Lovers and the Two of Cups

For healing – A paracetomol (!), lavender, The High Priestess, The Magician, Strength, The Queen of Pentacles.

This is the heart of everyday magic.  Grab what you can and get creative.  Watch your magic come to life with woven threads and garden stones.  It is yours to claim.

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Paper Dolls

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I used to love those paper dolls.  You bought them in a flat packet, containing sheets of card. You pressed the doll and her outfits out of the card stock, and folded tabs to “dress” the doll.  I loved all the different outfits, how she could be in a party frock, or ready for horse riding…anything was possible

It seems to me that I’ve been living life like a paper doll for a  long time now.  Trying on different costumes to see if they fit, struggling to keep them in place (those tabs never were very reliable).

But then over the past seven years or so something happened.  It was as though I began the slow transformation from two to three dimensional.  Like a balloon or inflatable billboard blowing up, I filled out, and in the process all the clean lines of two-dimensional living disappeared.

I feel like a creature woken from sleep.  Everything is too much.  Too loud.  Too painful.  Too bewildering.  So beautiful it hurts.  It makes no sense because on one plane of existence it is all exactly the same, in the same place, with the same people.  Yet on another all the shrink wrap has been pulled off and I can feel.  All of it.

When I went to church, in my early teens, I was “born-again”.  This was an ecstatic spiritual/ religious experience, suddenly removed from my own body I could see life from a different perspective.  This feels akin to that, coming to the place of re-birth, re-visioning, evaluating what matters, feeling one toe at a time forwards, gently, carefully.

Shedding skin like blossom petals, whirling along the ground in delight, floating on the breeze and out of sight.

 

Don’t panic! – Part 2

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It’s the next day.  My plan is to see a doctor.  I feel like this will help.  I hope for reassurance that I am not going insane, that given high levels of stress this kind of response is “normal” (why the constant desire to conform?) and to check what else I can do to “manage” my mental health.

I avoid coffee and take two Kalms and a mug of herbal tea with breakfast.  I listen to music.  At 8.30 a.m. I phone the surgery.  The line is busy.  I expected this.  It usually is.  Ten minutes later it is still busy and I can feel my heart pounding.  Twenty five minutes, and over one hundred calls later, I get through.  They have no appointments left.  I am tearful and feel hopeless.

It occurs to me that I can’t be the first person in the world to be anxious and to have powerful reactions. These responses are the body’s way of protecting me.  Get out of danger! Run away! Hide!  While civilisation has come a long way in the past twenty thousand years I don’t believe we have “evolved” biologically that much during that time. I am essentially, as Desmond Morris writes, a naked ape.

How would it be if I decide to manage this condition without conventional medicine.  I do not believe I am in danger.  I do not have thoughts of harming myself (that would mean I would seek medical intervention).  How would it be if I treat myself gently, like a scared creature which needs the help of the rational self…I may add to it as the weeks progress but this is my self-care prescription:

  • Get good sleep; a “night time” tea before bed, reducing screen time in the evening and a well ventilated room will help.
  • Hydrate, dammit, water and herbal teas in preference to caffeine.
  • Get out into nature – walk, do the gardening.
  • Move your body – dance in the kitchen, get the hoover out, climb the stairs.
  • Listen to music – I love Adrian Von Ziegler for music to daydream with.
  • Eat well; avoid comfort eating as much as possible 😉
  • Use herbal remedies (as advised on the package) – Kalms and Rescue Remedy to start with.
  • Buy (and read) self-help books.
  • Take a bath.
  • Laugh.
  • Speak about it.
  • If woo woo stuff helps do it: crystals, pendants with totems, divination, whatever helps you find a path.
  • And whatever else don’t take yourself too seriously, it is uncomfortable, painful and terrifying but it is not the end of the world…

It’s a start…

 

 

Don’t panic! – Part 1

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Anyone familiar with Douglas Adam’s knows that these are the words printed on the front of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  And you won’t have failed to have notice the huge range of “Keep Calm and carry on” style merchandise just about everywhere.

They are also the worst words to say to someone who is actually panicking, and that’s what I wanted to write about.

This weekend just gone I had a meltdown. I’ll talk about that a little here, and in Part 2 (the anticipation) write about next steps…

Like everyone else, life is complicated.  Parents with health needs, being a part-time carer and full-time mum, adult children seeking work in difficult climate, managing jobs and a blended family, finances, peri-menopause.  You get the picture.  Everyone has this stuff going on, everyone is dealing with something.  It isn’t unique.

While I know all this, I have also been experiencing vertigo, anxiety and panic attacks over the past two to three years.  This roughly corresponds with mum’s current ill health.  These have, so far, made me a little wary about going to crowded places and avoiding too much stimulation as I get easily overwhelmed.

This weekend was a different kettle of cucumbers.

There’s a road tunnel about an hour’s drive away which goes under the Thames.  I have passed through this before and while never really enjoying the experience and occasionally getting a little breathless I’ve always managed it. Not so this time.  I won’t go into the symptoms of a panic attack, but if you don’t know what it feels like you can read about them here.

I made my husband stop the car.  We were on the last, tiny slip of hard-shoulder before the approach road.  Lorries and cars streamed constantly a few feet from the car. At first I want to get out of the car and run.  He persuaded me not to, though I couldn’t see how dangerous it would have been at the time to be walking by a four lane highway.  Then I froze.  A tiny part of my brain was telling me this was stupid. “All I had to do” was just get back in the car and go through the tunnel.  But I couldn’t.  I knew that if I tried I would lose control.  Maybe that is part of the fear.  The primal.  The fear of falling into a screaming fit, lashing out, “behaving badly.”  After a while, which felt like hours, he called for help.  A Highways Agency patrol car came and took us through the depot and away from the motorway. My husband dropped me off at the local railway station to carry on by train.

Eventually I made it to our destination.  Simon picked me up and we went to the meal with family as planned.  I was still on edge and disconnected, but managing to put the face on.

Usually for me, that’s it.  One episode and then I’m reasonably ok.  Normal service is resumed.

The next day I woke at 4 a.m. full of fear.  I couldn’t work out how to get home.  Whichever way I chose to go there would be tunnels.  As I had other symptoms too we decided the train would be best.  I set off at 8 a.m. on a train to London.

It was, thankfully, only an hour’s journey.  I could feel my heart pounding the whole time, stomach churning and limbs tight but I made it through that first leg homewards.  Next I crossed the road to St. Pancras.  There is a fast train which gets me home in an hour.  I buy the ticket and board the train.  Immediately I am overwhelmed.  The air is stuffy and the whole vehicle is sealed, there are no windows to open.  I feel my head begin to float and my stomach churn dangerously.  I get off quickly.  I will walk two miles to another station for a local, slower train.

When I arrive at Charing Cross I buy a bottle of water and head for another train.  Same problem.  I speak to the guard, who is very helpful, but there are few windows and he can’t control the air-con.  I am feeling floaty, like my mind has detached from my body and drifts above me like a balloon.  I take myself to a bench to ponder.  The main difficulty is feeling closed in, the sense, or fear of the sense, of suffocation and not being able to get out…I ring home and my dad suggests a taxi.  But the taxi also is sealed, no windows to open.  “It’s ok,” I tell the driver, “I’ll walk.”  He advises Westminster Bridge and down through Southwark to the Old Kent Road.

Off I go, Google maps directing me at the junctions.  Through Southwark, past the Imperial War Museum (once the Bethlem “Bedlam” hospital – ironic).  My ballet pumps aren’t up for serious hiking and my feet are beginning to blister but the movement calms my nerves and the action, the decision, the direction soothe me.  I pass Elephant and Castle and head into Bermondsey.  I’ve covered about six miles now.  If I keep walking for another twenty hours I might make it home…

My family are on the end of the phone, and good friends send Whats App messages to cheer me on.  There’s a Tesco’s where I stop and buy strawberries and, with the help of a wonderful pharmacist, some herbal preparations to support me.  I have phoned my son and he’s going to drive the sixty miles to fetch me.  At this point I don’t yet know if I’ll manage to sit in the car, but I figure one quandary at a time is enough for now.  There are a group of homeless guys arguing loudly by the trolley park and I think about how they might have ended up there, how thin the veil is between coping and not.

Forty five minutes later I need to move again, the acid burn of fear in my stomach and limbs is threatening to overwhelm me again.  I walk another half mile to a McDonald’s and wait for Jon.  When he arrives he gets lunch, I steal two fries, and sip a diet coke.  The longer we sit the greater my fear.  I feel I’m about to throw up.  Walking out to the car I’m in a glass cage, the whole world a strange dream.

Windows down we set off.

And it’s ok.  Snaking our way out of south London, across Blackheath with its kites, ice-cream vans and weekend dog walkers.  Down through Eltham the road widens and is lined with trees.  The windows are down and Jon drives slowly, talking all the time about his job and the things around us.  I check in with my body, my legs ache, muscles overly tight and my feet are sore, but I am feeling ok. Soothed by the fresh air and familiar company; I am going to make it home.

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