Pre-post-apocalyptic Ponderings: View from a Pandemic and Hoping for Hope

(Stages of grief as described at Recover from Grief: 7 Stages Of Grief – Going Through the Process and Back to Life at https://www.recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html 

So here’s the usual ‘oh I haven’t written anything in my blog for ages’ disclaimer: I haven’t written anything in my blog for ages! I just checked and it was May this year, and during that time I’ve felt about as creative as a brick wall (apologies to brick walls if they’re offended). My mind has largely been blank, even when I’ve been doing things, and heavy, so heavy, overstuffed with the constant feeling that most of us are probably experiencing: that we’re in the midst of a life-changing human crisis event. Note that I don’t say ‘middle’ because middle implies it’s halfway through and who the hell knows how long there is to go before this is under real control, if it ever will be?

The past months – MONTHS! – have been spent in a kind of haze of unreality, almost surreal in its quality. When I left the university building for home-working in March, I didn’t imagine that we’d still be here in August. If I’d known I’d have brought back all my books with me from the office – although it would have taken numerous trips because I don’t drive and couldn’t stick them all in the back of my non-existent car. If I’d known, I might have been able to prepare myself mentally for what this all might mean, for the reality that I wouldn’t see my daughter until June, that I still haven’t seen my son almost five months later. If I’d known, I might have been able to prepare myself for the fact that I would feel trapped in a town I still don’t think of as home after over thirty five years of living here, that my life would be reduced so much. All of us would done things differently, I guess, if they’d really known. I mean, there were obviously signs that things weren’t going well. Increasing case numbers all over. Lockdowns in other countries. But I guess it just didn’t seem real. And then it was, and now it is.

Every single person in the world has had to deal with this. It’s life changing, in far too many cases life-ruining. Life-taking. We all, by now, know someone who has had Covid. Too many of us know someone who has been seriously ill, or almost died from Covid, in my case one of my dearest friends. Far too many people know people who have died from Covid. I talked in one of my previous posts (April 11th) about how one response to this situation is a kind of grief. I’ll talk about it again now. Has it changed, for me, at least, since then? I appreciate that others will feel differently. Experience it differently. It’s something I’ll probably revisit from time to time, to track progress. Or not. We’ll see. 

Stage 1: Disbelief/denial. I STILL can’t believe this is happening. I STILL can’t believe that that this thing, this novel virus, has swept around the world, a tsunami of death and destruction. I STILL can’t believe how badly our government has handled this. I REFUSE to believe that this couldn’t have been handled so much better, that so many people have become ill, and died, because it wasn’t. And that our most vulnerable have been hung out to dry. That it’s been made abundantly clear that they don’t (seem to) matter. 

Stage 2: Pain/guilt. That these months have been horribly painful is no surprise, and I don’t deny it has been and still is. Sometimes it’s like a physical pain, like something tangling my guts into  knots so I feel sick with it. It’s a sickness in my mind, and I’ve been vomiting it out in words like this, and still am, and I don’t know how to stop it, or even if I should, now I’ve started again. Self help books would tell you to let it all out, that it’s healthy to let it go. But the thing is, I don’t think there are any self help books for surviving in a pandemic. And that’s where guilt comes in. Because I am (so far) surviving it, although a huge part of me still expects not to. I shouldn’t feel guilty for being alive but sometimes I do. And I feel guilty for feeling guilty, for feeling all this pain and fear when I’m alive and physically if not mentally healthy. I even feel a bit guilty for writing this.

Stage 3: Anger/bargaining. I am SO ANGRY much of the time. This is kind of a new thing for me, which may be a sign I’m evolving into a new Lesley life form that I don’t like very much (and which I’m pretty sure is very unhealthy and unhelpful). I’m pretty indiscriminate in my anger, directing it at anything I deem to be even slightly irritating. I’m angry with people who won’t social distance or get out of the way. I’m angry with people who won’t wear masks (obviously not those who are exempt). I’m angry with people who gather in large groups and risk spread. Yes I was angry with the BLM protesters, even though I know their cause was and is hugely, vitally important. I’m still angry with the institution I work at because there’s pretty much been no support or care for us, and I don’t think there will be in the autumn when we’re supposed to go back. I’m angry that I might have to go back at all. It’s anger which is disproportionate, inflated by a sense of powerlessness, of feeling like I don’t have control of my life. Except I know that I can control how I feel about this, and how I respond, and yet I’m choosing this. And that makes me angry with myself. This is maybe the hardest thing so far. I guess that a good thing is that I can get myself out of it with a good walk, with watching the nature around me – surprisingly there’s a lot of natural spaces around my local area that I didn’t even know about, which is a bit shameful really. But it helps the balance of my mind. 

Stage 4: Depression, reflection, loneliness. Well, I’ve been depressed before. I will be again. It’s intrinsic to me, I’ve learned, and I accept it. There have been times during this so-called ‘lockdown period, which has never been a true lockdown (anger creeping in there!) when I’ve despaired and thought there could never be anything like any kind of normality again, when I believed I would die before ever seeing my children again. Sometimes I still believe some of those things. That so-called normality is gone forever, replaced by that bloody awful, and dreaded term, the ‘new normal’ (I could cheerfully murder the person who invented that saying!), the conditions of which are still being written and rewritten as this situation goes on. I reflect a lot – who doesn’t? – on my life and what I’ve done with it, and know that I’ve wasted so much time and energy on doing things I don’t want to do, squandered my creativity and talent (and I have enough self-worth to acknowledge that yes, I have a talent for writing) on things that haven’t been good for me. I’ve reflected on these things and know I have to change, and that I have to believe they will. I’ve made some decisions recently – at the age of 63, I have to take control. It’s well overdue. Because all this reflection has helped to me realise that no one will do it for me. As for loneliness, well, again I guess everyone has felt this from time to time during this time, some more than others. A pandemic is a lonely place to be. It removes you from friends and family, makes you more insular. That’s horribly sad. I am worried about the casualties of that, about the mental health fallout. It could be worse than the disease we’re isolating ourselves from.

Stage 5: The Upward Turn. I’m treating the stages of grief like they’re linear, but anyone who’s ever suffered a profound loss will know that the stages can happen in no particular order, and/or all together. That’s why I can say that this stage is real progress for me, even while I’m still experiencing the others. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve seen my daughter Kat, and that was a precious experience. I’ve kind of accepted that I won’t see my son Andy and his fiancé Emma until the end of this month, and that if things change, and there are more restrictions imposed because of the slowly upward (re)rise of infection rates, I might not see them then. It’ll break my heart, but I think I can deal with it. I’m enjoying going out and, as I say, learning about my local area, learning its nature and how it has changed through the turning of the seasons. I’m starting to feel more motivated to write, to create, although much of that is still nascent, still in my head, a tiny spot of light in the fog that smothers it. I’ve started to feel grateful for small things, like a glass of wine outside in a pub garden (although I feel guilty I’m doing that too, and afraid I’ll be infected/cause infection if I’m asymptomatic). Grateful for birds and butterflies and growing things. For my children and their love and help and support (but maybe a bit guilty for not helping and supporting them enough), and likewise for my partner who is more patient with me than maybe I deserve. For the fact that I can afford to eat well, even though I’m abusing my body with sometimes not very good food and (probably) too much alcohol. For the books and writers who’ve unknowingly helped me to escape into other people’s heads and spaces. For everything good that I have. As you can see, they’re all tinged with the other stages. But they’re there, and I’m grateful for that too.

Stage 6: Reconstruction and working through. Yes, I’m attempting this. Starting to feel ready for it. Understanding that even if this pandemic wasn’t a reality, there have to be changes in my life. That Life Before wasn’t the best life, and Life After won’t be either, unless I change my attitude. Maybe this is the hardest stage, rather than the anger stage, because it requires action, and I’ve never been good at that. My self-esteem and confidence have always been low. Some days now, it’s better. Some days I even believe I’m good at some things. But I’m not good at self-realisation, or growing myself. Self self self. All those words prefaced by ‘self’. It seems so indulgent, but is caring for yourself (self) indulgence or survival? I think this stage will be the longest, and like I said, the hardest of all. 

Stage 7: Acceptance and hope. I haven’t arrived in Acceptance Land, yet, not by a long way. But I might have arrived in Hopeville. I’ve accepted this situation, even though it’s still weird and surreal and I hate it. But I know it’s ongoing, that it’s not disappearing any time soon, that maybe it’s here to stay. But I hope there’ll be a vaccine. I hope there’ll be therapeutics that can help with severe illness. I hope (accepting that there’s no real chance of it happening) that this joke of a government will be held to account for their terrible handling of this. I hope for a lot things. But most of all I hope we’ll all learn from this. That we’re fragile and flawed and selfish and all those things that make us human. I hope we can be better. I hope for hope.

On Death in Dreams, and Visions of a New Life: an interpretation of a dream

So last night I dreamed I was a serial killer. I’ve never had a dream like that before. I’ve dreamed about being chased by dinosaurs, being hunted by some unseen evil. I often dream about being lost, and the map function on my phone not working. But I’ve never dreamed about actually doing the chasing or the stalking. Or the killing. 

This dream was pretty graphic, like something out of a horror movie, complete with blunt instruments, knives, saws, and plastic sheeting. But it wasn’t a scary dream, not for me, or for my victims, who, interestingly were all women. Women who had once been friends or lovers. Women who seemed reluctant to let me kill them, but allowed me to do so anyway, without protest. Sacrificing themselves. It was weird. It was unsettling. But as I said, it wasn’t scary, and I felt little or no emotion while I was doing it, just a determination to get it done.

At one stage of the dream, I was in Sainsbury’s (for those not in the UK, a huge retail grocery chain), with a trolley buying things that might help me do it (don’t know why a grocery shop would have the necessary items, but there you are!). And I’ve just remembered, as I’m writing this, that I was searching for my mother too. Crying for her, which I’ve rarely done since her death twelve years ago. And I couldn’t find her. That still disturbs now, at this time of writing. Why can’t I connect with my mother’s memory? Why does that connection still elude me? For I have never grieved for her after her death. Maybe I did it all before, during the long drawn out years of her dementia and chronic lung disease. But I digress, so back to the dream. 

I think I killed three women in total, but during the last killing, something happened to disrupt it. I was in a light-filled room overlooking a sun-drenched garden leading off to open fields beyond. The room was warm and calm, and so, strangely, was the act of death, and this time there was no blood. But all paused as two beautiful goldfinch-like birds, clothed in gloriously coloured feathers, and two beautifully marked butterflies appeared, and I stopped. The woman I was killing stopped dying, and we both stared, entranced. In that moment, I knew I had to get these amazing creatures out of the room before I killed them by accident. When they had gone, flying out of the window, out into the open sky to freedom, I understood that this was to be the last time I needed to make the sacrifice.

Obviously I have made this into a coherent narrative, for dreams often have twists and turns that go unremembered, and unresolved, but the overall sequence was as I’ve written it, and so were the images and events. And the reason I’m committing this to writing is that I’ve rarely had a dream – and I dream a LOT – that felt as though it really meant something real. That felt so symbolic, dare I say prophetic. Not that I’m going to be a serial killer of course! Dreams aren’t that literal. So what might this mean to me? 

Dreams fulfill different functions, according to different schools of thought. In ancient times, oneiromancy, the interpretation of dreams was used as prophecy and divination. More recently (in relative terms) Freud’s opinion, put in very simple terms, was that dreams represented the unconscious thoughts and wishes of the dreamer. Jung, again very simply, believed that dreams compensated for underdeveloped parts of the psyche. Others say that dreams are a reflection of waking life; or that they are part of our cognitive process. I am absolutely no expert, but this is what my dream said to me, as much oneiromancy as a statement about my psyche, my unconscious or whatever interpretation psychologists, Freudian or Jungian or other, might suggest.

Looking back, I feel that the dream, despite the violence and the killing, is one of hope. That the killings were calm, that I felt little emotion and certainly no anger, I take to mean, if we can ascribe meaning, that they were something that needed to be done, methodically and properly, and perhaps most of all, objectively. That the victims were also calm, that they accepted themselves as sacrifice, seems to me that they also saw that this needed to happen. My thoughts are that these are all aspects of myself. No surprise there, of course. But it fits with my growing feelings – rather, my absolute knowledge and conviction – that in order for my self to survive, let alone for it to grow and thrive – I have to make sacrifices. I have to remove those things that are ‘bad’ for me, holding me back, to ‘kill’ them, if you will. That’s why the murders were so calm, so quiet. They were accepted acts towards self-growth. 

As for the birds and butterflies, well butterflies have long been said to represent growth and metamorphosis. This from the Butterfly Insight page: ‘Butterflies symbolize change and transformation in general. Dreaming about a butterfly can often indicate that you’re going through a major transition or transformation in your own life.’ (At https://www.butterflyinsight.com/butterfly-dreams-symbols-dreaming-of-butterflies-meaning.html). 

Bird dream meanings are often more specific, according to the type of bird you dream about, but in general, this is what dreaming about a bird might mean: ‘To see birds in your dream symbolize your goals, aspirations and hopes. To dream of chirping and/or flying birds, represent joy, harmony, ecstasy, balance, and love. It denotes a sunny outlook in life. You are experiencing spiritual freedom and psychological liberation. It is almost as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.’ (At http://www.dreammoods.com/dreamdictionary/b3.htm)

These are very traditional interpretations, and I guess not really based in solid psychological theories, but they kind of satisfy what I feel about the dream. That the birds and butterflies were symbolic of the me that wants to grow, that wants to take flight from the things in my life that have been stopping me from achieving what I know I can achieve, these things being, amongst others, little to no confidence in myself or my abilities, constant imposter syndrome, no courage to act on opportunities, previous difficult relationships, gas lighting, no headspace, etc. etc.. 

The beautiful creatures that graced my dreams had to be saved, for they are the facets of myself that need to grow. The killing had to stop so that I didn’t damage them by accident. They flew into the garden, to the fields beyond, a symbol of escape and hope. And resurrection, for both butterflies and birds are also symbolic of spiritual rebirth. And the final death, when it was completed, was meant to be the beginning of a new life.

Crystal Palace Diaries. Day 1. Saturday August 22nd.

Part one: The Journey, Meeting with Family, and Being in London for the First Time in Months.

So my partner and I will be cat sitting next week until Thursday for my son and his fiancée while they visit a prospective wedding venue in Devon, having had to cancel their wedding this May because of Covid. Everything that’s happening or not happening right now seems to be ‘because of Covid’. I haven’t seen them for over six months ‘because of Covid’, or been in London either for all that time. So contemplating a trip into London now seems weird. I’m both excited and terrified at the same time. I’ve been terrified all week ‘just in case’ I caught Covid, or one of them caught Covid, before this weekend, and we had to cancel.

Well, none of us catch it, including my daughter, who we’re also meeting, and who I’ve seen twice since this all went down. We’re all meeting in a restaurant in Kings Cross, and it’ll be their first time on trains since this happened. I’ve been on trains a few times to local towns, no more than twenty minutes from Luton, where I live, so I don’t mind so much, although this journey is twice as long. But it’s cool in the empty carriage we travel in, and wearing the now obligatory mask is fine by me. It’s become almost normal, except when I think about it and it freaks me out a bit. Sometimes it freaks me out a lot.

It’s weird wandering around the Kings Cross area. It’s all so normal, yet it’s really not. It’s a strange paradox – it all looks the same, the same shops are open, people are eating in the same restaurants, yet the experience is so different. Please wear your mask to come into the shop. Please use this hand sanitiser before and after you enter the shop. Please wait here to enter the restaurant. Please stay two metres apart. We overuse the word ‘surreal’ I think, but this really is surreal, like I’m dreaming it all. Like, I’m seeing it, know I’m living it, yet all too often, it’s as though I’m watching it happen through someone else’s eyes. A dissociation. An inability to really immerse myself in an experience because of the ‘other thing’. The thing that has changed all our lives irrevocably and completely in a few short months. 

So we get to the restaurant. The others are already there. We all smile at each other. It’s so natural. It’s unnatural. Do we hug? Do we just continue smiling? In the end, we all hug. It’s the first time I’ve hugged either of my children since early March. I love the feeling. But is it too much? Is all of this too much? What if…? I can’t think like that. I can’t help but think like that.

There are no menus. It’s all online, accessed by QR code that takes you to the menu. But first it takes you to a track and trace questionnaire. What’s your name? What date did you attend the restaurant? What are your contact detail. As I enter the information that sense of dissociation hits again. How on earth did we come to this? In these short six months we have all been reduced to potential carriers or potential victims. In the words of our inglorious ‘leaders’: Anyone can catch it. Anyone can spread it. Catchy, right? If you’ll pardon the pun. When I think about it, I can hardly bear it. It’s almost unthinkable. But we have to bear it. We have to think it.

Anyway we order our food. A reduced menu, but that’s okay. We even order some wine. We begin to chat away, to catch up. Thank goodness we’ve all kept in touch during these six months, phone, text, WhatsApp, FaceTime, so at least we don’t have to try to tell each other six months of news. We all settle into the conversation, but ‘it’ is still there, the viral ghost at the feast. Of course there is news, or at least expansion on news. My son’s wedding next year. His fiancée’s new job. My daughter’s progress in her newly formed and so far very successful business. I announce my own intentions for the future, all while thinking, is there a future for me in a year’s time? And then dismiss this. I spend a lot of time trying to imagine a year’s time, and what that might look like. But although I know exactly what I want to do, I can never fully see myself doing it ‘because of Covid’.

During the meal I get up to go to the toilet. So far, I’ve felt pretty safe in the restaurant, although it’s busier than I’d thought it might be. The toilet is quite busy too, but there’s a free cubicle. After I’ve finished I come out and wait to wash my hands. All the sinks are in use. This all feels too close. I don’t like it. I feel exposed. There’s a young woman just standing there, in front of the mirror, brushing her hair, brushing her hair, brushing her hair, completely oblivious to everyone else. I hate her. I mean, I really hate her. She’s right in the way and I feel really vulnerable, like every breath she expels is sending infected droplets into the air. She continues to brush her hair. I loathe her. A sink becomes free. I wash my hands far too quickly because I want to be away from her. I cast her a death glare as I leave but of course she’s oblivious. Brushing her hair, brushing her hair, brushing her hair. When I get to our table I feel quite shaky. The others ask what’s wrong. I feel both a sense of outrage and shame because I’m upset about one selfish young woman who wouldn’t move because her hair was clearly more important than anything else.

We eat. We enjoy each other’s company. We pay the bill. We get up. We leave the restaurant. Decide to walk to London Bridge, a long walk but no one wants to get the tube. As we walk through London, we chat, swapping over talking and walking companions. It’s a long trek through many familiar areas. Yet again, it’s all so weird. So surreal. We get to London Bridge and there’s the Thames in all its glory. I love that river so much. It’s my lifeblood, and I’ve missed it so much. To my left is Tower Bridge, its bascules raised (I later discover they were stuck open because of a fault!), and I’m really excited to see it because you don’t see them open often. Ahead of me is the Shard, a great glass tower spearing the sky. I’m aware that some people object to the Shard, but it’s one of my favourite London buildings because almost everywhere you go in the city you can see it. 

We disappear into London Bridge station, where our train has just arrived. Maybe this is the most surreal thing of all. Watching everyone get off the train – it’s the end of the line, and there are a lot of passengers. They all wear masks. Of course, it’s mandatory to wear a mask on public transport. An offence that can bring about a fine if you don’t comply (unless you’re exempt for some reason). But seeing all these people – easily over a hundred at a guess – all wearing masks is so odd I almost freak out. Inside I AM freaking out, my head is spinning with the weirdness of it, like watching some kind of half-faceless army coming through the barriers. Of all the strange things I’ve seen during these past strange six months, this maybe hits me most, because it drives it home what this virus has brought us to. No longer able to show our faces in so many situations. Not able to touch other people, sometimes not even family. So many things, little individual things, that were once so natural, that we can no longer do. We now live an unnatural existence, and things like seeing so many masked people, I don’t know how we can bear it. If I can bear it.

We chat on the train about how weird it is for us all be wearing masks together. My daughter says that when she got off the train at Kings Cross, before lunch, she had to go outside the station and get some air because she felt a bit panicky. I feel so bad for her, because she’s usually so together, much more so than I’ll ever be, and realised that this thing gets to all of us in different ways. My daughter gets off the train a few stops before us, but soon enough we’re in Crystal Palace and the new part of the adventure – because weird as this is, coming to London has taken on the feel of an adventure, with companions, new experiences and, yes, that sense of background danger too – begins.

Bara Rida (word count approx 3050)

*So I thought I’d post a few short stories here, just for a change. Here’s the first, a dark fantasy version of The Little Mermaid.*

Wild. The coast of the North country. Untamed. Inhospitable. Never silent, never still. Wind screams a constant shriek, echoing in dark sea caves, the cries of the damned drowned. Foam-topped waves taller than ships crash against towering basalt cliffs, bringing ruin to long-ships, bringing death to the men who crew them. No beaches here on this cliff-tall coast. No landings but those hewn from hard rock by the seafaring people who inhabit this unforgiving place. People as wild and unwelcoming as the terrain itself. Untamed and ferocious as Great Mother Sea.

Ragnar stands on the prow of his long-necked wave’s steed. Watches the wind-whipped waters, an insolent smile stretching his lips. Ragnar, Mother Sea’s son, favoured in her watery eyes. Hair the colour of sun-ripened wheat whips and flails about his face. Salt-sodden strands sting his half-closed eyes. He tastes the birth water of his turbulent mother on his tongue, savours it, and shouts to his hard-labouring crew to hold the damn sail in place, my brothers, urging them on to row, row for their lives, his voice competing against that of the howling wind. Row the serpent. Bring it down the icy stream. Fly us home. 

He cannot afford to lose the plunder they’ve fought for, risked their lives for, spilled blood for, died and murdered for. Bolts of silk, treasure chests brimful with coins from all lands. Ropes of milky pearls, droplets from the oyster’s breast. Single black milk-beads, more valuable than gold. Jewels. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds the colour of Kara’s eyes, sapphires the colour of his own. Fragrant treasures reaped from foreign far-flung Aesir. Much as he loves her, Ragnar will never willingly surrender them to his demanding mother. He yells a curse against her that he would rather die than be so dishonoured, and feels himself swell with the excitement of his challenge, with the possibility that today, his mother’s favour may finally desert him.

Mother Sea knows his arrogance. Hears his defiance. Up until now, she has spared her most favoured son her terrors, the son so beautiful he will not allow a beard to hide his features. But now, furious with his mutiny, she sends another of her sons against him. Squall becomes Storm, screaming out warnings, pouring rain and hail down upon the sea-dragon and its proud riders. On its young master. Waves lash against the slender wooden hull, saturate the snake-emblazoned sail. Timbers groan. Men cry out with fear. Heave their oars in desperation. Pull, you bastards. Pull. But the waves toss the ship like a wildcat tosses a rat. Ship pitches and falls. Pitches and falls. The water-peaks rise higher, the troughs dip lower. Ragnar feels his stomach rise. And fall. Rise. And fall. Clings tighter to the guard rope, tries to keep his balance. Shivers in the teeth of icy North Wind and, refusing the unmanning of terror, laughs, defiant in the face of death and…

Losing control. Oars snap. Timbers gape. The sea-dragon falls apart. Again, Ragnar shouts an order, but his words are lost in the screams of his mother’s fury. Now he feels fear invade him. Now he must join the poor bastards he’s condemned. Must die amongst them, his warrior-brothers. But he will die an honourable death, a sword-reddener’s death in his mother’s arms. Not standing here, frozen in emasculated terror. He abandons the guard rope, lurches as the ship plunges. Cries out as a wave, fiercer and greedier than any other, engulfs him. Knocks him off his feet. Sends him down into the watery depths of his mother’s furious lust for her once-favoured son.

Dead. He knows he’s dead. Images of his homeland run through his mind. The village at the end of the deep sea fjord. The ring of high mountains that protects it from invaders. Mountains that always have snow on their peaks, even in high summer. The meadows where the short-horned cattle and white-fleeced sheep graze on sweetgrass. The sound of gulls wheeling overhead, screeching at the catch of fresh fish. He sees the sky above him, clear and blue. Feels the deep heat of the brief summer sunshine. Sees people. His father, an older, flawed version of himself, the massive scar that seams his face creasing livid with laughter. Sigurd always laughs at his own jokes, no matter how bad they are. And he sees his flesh-mother, care-lined, her body bent from working too hard carrying for her wayward husband and eight strapping sons. Yet her eyes – sky-forged as Ragnar’s own – twinkle with wry good humour and love. 

And Kara. Flame haired emerald-eyed Kara. Skin the texture of the white samite he stole from a Southern trader two days past. Nipples that taste of milk and thighs that taste of sweat and woman musk. When he left her she was big, distended with his child. Long wished-for boy-child. Must be a son for Ragnar, who will be the father of many sons, and this the first, with the strong legs of a warrior kicking inside Kara’s belly. Bunched fists punching against her womb, waiting to hold an axe or an iron short sword, eager to conquer the world his father has created for him. Never to see that boy-child. Because Ragnar is dead. Drowned in the birth-fluid of his vast mother’s sac.

When he opens his eyes he knows he’s arrived in the Otherworld. A place of holding where souls await judgement. A cavern in the depths of the earth-mother, far away from the brief summer sun. Far, far away from the too-brief lives of men. No warrior long-house for Ragnar. He sits up; his aching body, clothes ripped away by the storm, protests; his chest heaves, and he coughs up great gouts of sea water. Pukes it up until his guts hurt and his lungs are consumed with fire. Surely death does not feel like this? Surely his heart should not beat so wildly, wild like the drumming the elders use to summon the spirit-gods? Surely his every movement should not feel like a torture? Slowly he understands that he’s not dead at all. But if he’s not dead, then where is he?

After he has finished spilling his guts he tries to rise. Screams out involuntarily as agony sends him crashing back down. His new world whirls around him. Sight blackens. Sweat, hot and cold, pours from his brow, his sodden body, clammy with fear and faintness. He feels himself unmanned, reduced to a whining dog. Biting his lips, he looks at his legs. The left is black with bruising, probably broken. But the right… the right is a bloody mess of bone-rent tissue. Destroyed and useless. Probably forever. Ragnar pukes again and bites back another agonised howl. Blinks back tears. A warrior does not weep, no matter the pain or the torment. It’s only water from his hair that runs hot down his face, only the salt of the sea that he tastes on his lips, in the back of his gulping throat.

With a huge effort of will, he gains control of the pain, proves to himself he is no whining cur. Rises on his elbows and peers around him. Sees that he is stranded in a basalt cave lit with phosphorescence and glinting mica, hears the gentle lapping of water. No storm here, but a wyrd lull that seeps into his bones and almost unmans him again. Scent of amniotic salt rises from the sea pool that half-fills the space. Scent of fresh fish-catch and rotting fish-flesh. Scent of something unfamiliar. Scent that sends him back to puking. Quivering in terror, he curses himself and his weakness.

She watches it. Bara-rida, the wave rider. Elliptical pupils in yellow sclera open and close, open and close, capturing the vision. Paints it on the retinas of her slanted eyes. Gills in her neck open and close, open and close, capturing air. Something stretches her thin silver-scaled lips. Some might call it a smile; some might call it hunger. All would call it terrible. Something like longing beats in her many-chambered heart. Her catch is beautiful. They are all beautiful, the land-walkers, even the old ones, the ugly ones. Beautiful in the way they carry their bodies. In the way they move, with long lower protuberances so different from her fish-scaled tail. Her inhuman mind searches for the word, and her thin mouth stretches again as she finds it. Legs. Marrow-halls she longs for but will never have. 

She cares nothing for the threats made against her. Bara-rida has been following this feeder of war-gulls for many moons, and refuses to give it up. Attracted by the paleness of its flesh-cover, its sunlit scalp-cords, and its strong lean bone-house, she has yearned for many moons. She, who has sought the most favoured of the land-walkers, the sons of earth, now owns it. She, who has prayed endlessly to the sea-gods for this prize, in saving it, has finally been rewarded. True, its legs are damaged, and the scent of its wound-sea drives her hunger relentlessly forward. But she has desired it so long, she must heal it, keep it for her own. Surely, she will not be punished for accepting the gift that the gods themselves have given her? A thought, clear and strong, passes through her mind and lodges there: I will not tell.

Bara-rida watches as it ejects salt-water from its mouth, scents its terror as it understands that it’s injured, and watched by unseen sight-paths. Strange, associating terror with this creature, this sea-warrior. But humans are superstitious, stuffed full of tales of spirits and demons and mythical beasts. Living on the edge of death as they do, it is easy for them to believe in such things. Bara-rida knows the truth that men can only guess at, for is she not part myth herself, she and her race? Hasn’t she been told tales by the elder-kin of how her kind are harpooned and killed by the land-locked ones? Of how they are hunted by the fish-eaters, the chase considered sport, and their murdered flesh a rare delicacy? Yes, she has heard. And seen. But it makes no difference to her. Bara-rida claims this one as her prize, as her trophy, and she will not be denied.

Who’s there? Ragnar’s voice echoes around the glistening basalt walls, comes back to him, high and helpless. Who’s there? There…. there…. Show yourself. Show yourself. Yourself… yourself…. He hears a splash in the centre of the sea-pool, feels the pressure of a gaze upon his prickling skin. Strains to raise himself up higher. The pain of his shattered leg descends the black veil over his eyes once more. For a few seconds he writhes on the cave floor like a landed fish, gasping, sweat pouring from every pore, then, still gasping, raises himself on his elbows and sees it, the source of the splash, the sensation of being watched. 

Water ripples and splashes, ripples and splashes. Something – a fin? several? – breaks the surface of the water, disappears again. Breaks again. Rises. Rises higher, revealing the humped back of… of what? Ragnar watches, horror-struck – whatever it is, it has almost reached the lip of stone – propels himself backward on his arms to the basalt wall of the cave behind him. Shudders and whimpers. Whimpers and shudders. Sees what his Mother Sea has sent to him and wishes he had died. Or maybe this is Hel.

For this is what he sees: female. It is female. Or at least, on its fish-scaled torso, it sprouts swellings that resemble breasts, centred by chitinous nipple-peaks. Its mouth is a shark-toothed, flat-nosed nightmare set in a triangular face, from which lidless eyes the colour of fresh bile watch him intently. What that intent is, Ragnar can only guess at. And none of the guesses bring him comfort. It raises itself up on armoured arms, at the end of which knife-claws erupt from webbed fingers, scrape-scraping on the wet-stone floor as it tries to gain purchase. Briefly, he glimpses a pulsating opening where her cunt would be, were she a woman, and tries not to puke again. As he takes this nightmare in, watching now the slow opening and closing of the gills in its neck, Ragnar can already feel his guts spilling from his body. Wonders if his next breath will be his last.

With effort, she hauls herself out of the salmon’s hall and slithers out onto unfamiliar land, watching as her prize scrabbles away. Why does it try to escape her? Bara-rida is considered a rare beauty among her kin-kind, sought after by many suitors, and has rejected them all. No spawning for her; her mind has been fixed on this sword-blade’s messenger, this tree of gold. Awkward on land, she propels herself toward it on her arms, and approaches, dragging her tail behind her. Reaches out a four-knived hand and clasps it around its wrist.

When he feels its touch, cold and hard-scaled, he thinks he’ll faint. Strong, he realises as he struggles to remove its grasp, this thing has more power than he, weak and enfeebled as he is. With its bile-yellow eyes, it stares at him, bares white fangs, the likes of which he’s only ever seen on the great sickle-sailed sea-fish his people sometimes catch, and snake-like, it susurrates air from its mouth. Its exhalations carry the stink of rotting sea-water, decaying fish and death. Ragnar prays that death will be quick. Closes his eyes. Waits. But the bite doesn’t come.

Warm, its soft body-covering. Warm and soft with skin-fur. Bara-rida, who has never felt the casing of a land-walker before, hisses softly. Brings her mouth down to a pale five-branched arm-appendage, extrudes a long black tongue and runs it upward, tracing a rapidly beating blood-river. Salt. It tastes of salt, familiar and beloved. Bara-rida hears the sound of its breath, panting in the sea-hall, echoing off its walls, and more salt floods her mouth. The water comes hot from its skin, and with it a rapid increase of the beat of its heart. Bara-rida feels something swell inside her, and names it desire.

At the touch of her tongue, Ragnar hitches in a breath and howls. He howls like the wolves howl outside his village at night. Louder. Ululations rip from his throat, and he writhes in his desperation to get away from this monstrous female. His legs twist beneath him, bones grating against each other, and agonised, he howls louder, feels warmth run from the wounds, knows he is bleeding again. But his mind refuses him the blessed unconsciousness he seeks, and now, he wonders if his death will not be the quick release he wished for, but one slow and lingering. A coward’s death. Please, not a coward’s death, he prays, howling louder. Let me fight and send me quickly to the gods’ house, the storm-shrine of glory. Let me be a man one last time.

Why is it making that noise? Is it from pleasure? Pain? Bara-rida of the Silent Ones, has never heard its like, and the desire to spawn, fresh and new and strong, explodes inside her, races through her, a roaring ocean-swell. Gripping her prize tighter in her excitement, she presses a clawed hand hard against the slender column that supports its head, and pushes its body back against the cave’s wall, balancing herself on her tail. Looking into its face, she sees a blaze of blue-stones that burns her, and now she understands, for she has seen that expression before, in the catch-wounded ones of her own kind, of opened lung-cages, of guts spilling out into the birth-fluid of Mother Sea.

On him. She is on him, and he cannot move. Constant pain in his legs evokes a continual stream of screams from his mouth, and his sight is failing from blood loss. Dying now. He knows he is dying and no longer fights it. Thoughts of glory desert him, and his mind conjures more images of his homeland to comfort him. Wrong. He was wrong. The stench of decay becomes the scent of woodfire and wild flowers, and this is no monster reaching for him. Tearing at him. This is Kara, ripe and swollen and beautiful, opening her arms, beckoning him, touching him. Making him hard despite the pain of his shattered legs and his slow-pierced throat. And he’s in her and she’s hot… and she’s cold… and he’s moving in an ice cavern lined with knives… and it’s agony… and when he bursts inside her he feels himself ripped to shreds… and the screams become whimpers. And now silence. And now darkness. And now. Nothing.

Bara-rida feels warmth flood inside her for the first time in her life, feels pleasure flood inside her, and her spawn-sacs burst open, releasing eggs to meet the deposit it has left. She tastes its corpse-sea in her mouth, and chews the gobbets of meat she tore away in her frenzy. Swallows, savours the taste. In her grip, it hangs useless, and she knows that now it has become fish-food. Another strange emotion pervades her mind, her soulless form. It makes the chambers of her heart heavy, painful, and she cannot name it, for she has no words. But it lasts only a moment. Then she adjusts her prey in her arms, crawls to the edge of the sea-pool and splashes into the water. As she descends into the depths with her catch, a gift to her kin-kind, a wound-wave of red trails above them, before it dissipates into nothingness. She wonders what its seed will grow inside her, and knows that that will be the best gift of all.

Auto)biography: musings on the who-am-I-now(?); and who-might-I-be(?) in the afterdays.

(Auto)biography: musings on the who-am-I-now(?); and who-might-I-be(?) in the afterdays.

I have read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that we are all (auto)biographies in the making. We are constructed and constructing on a continuous basis. Some of that construction is conscious – how we present ourselves to others? Do we dress up? Do we dress down? If I say this, will I have an affect on that person? If I take this decision, what will be the consequences? All  these and more are conscious decisions, we have to think about them. Other processes are not, generally, under our control. They happen anyway. The functions or otherwise of our bodies are the most obvious example. Our bodies happen to us. Of course we can make decisions that can help or hinder those processes, but they happen, one way or the other.

But I suppose, like so many of us now, I’m trying to take stock. I’m not a philosopher, or a psychologist, but I’m trying to work out, in these times of uncertainty, some things about myself. Yes, more navel gazing, it’s true, but I have always been (far too) prone to introspection, always examining my thoughts and feelings. Hyperaware. And I’m hyperaware now, of all my thoughts and feelings, of every single little change in my body. I ask: is this it? whenever I have…. I’m not sure I can call them symptoms exactly, but feeling a bit hot and cold, having a bit of upset stomach, just really feeling off and unwell – that I’ve noticed occasionally. The tight chest has been the worst, a feeling of a constricting band and a kind of what I can only describe as a deeply unpleasant ‘itchiness’ at the base of my lungs for around four weeks now; it’s getting much better, but just when I think it’s gone, it comes back. Much less than before, but just sometimes reminding me it’s there. Probably all psychosomatic, but it feels very real. Every time I go into a shop, which I’m also doing much less now, I think – have I caught it? And I’m nervous for days afterwards. I’m trying really really hard not to think like that. Trying to remember my CBT teachings about ruminating, catastrophic thinking, assuming the worst. But part of CBT counselling is about perception – is this threat as bad as you think it is? And these days, the answer is ‘yes’. Because as we’re constantly told, ‘Anyone can catch it…’ 

I’m trying to stop my mind going into overdrive. Trying not to be overwhelmed by everything I see and hear. But it’s hard, and I know I’m not the only one to feel overwhelmed by it all, by the enormity of living through an event that will change us irrevocably. How can it not?

I was talking to my partner yesterday on our daily walk. The sun was shining overhead in a cloudless sky. The grass on the hill where we walked was green and lush. Birds were singing their songs oblivious of the human crisis unfolding around them. For a while, walking in the open air, with hardly anyone else around, it was almost possible to believe that life was normal again. After all, a walk filled with sunshine and birdsong can’t ever be anything other than something beautiful. And it was. But then I began to think about the impossibility of anything ever returning to what we call normal again. That nothing will ever be the same again. That we will never be the same again. We had a conversation about it, and we differ in our views on that subject. That’s okay. His view is much more… I’m struggling for the word… maybe pragmatic. He says we will go back to how we were, that he really believes that. I wish I could. I mean, I guess on that pragmatic level, it’s logical that we will return to a kind of normality. We have to. We can’t sit in our homes forever more waiting to become ill or die. But I guess for me, I just can’t envisage it. Or maybe I just dare not. 

I’ve read a lot of articles about how many of us are feeling a kind of grief. There’s an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review by senior editor Scott Berinato ‘This Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief’ (https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief) that resonates with me, that describes the stages of grief: the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the sadness. What’s  added here is something Berinato calls anticipatory grief. I know that all too well in the context of my parent’s’ illnesses and subsequent deaths. I lived with that for too many years as they both, eventually, succumbed to dementia. But this is different of course. Hard though it was to deal with my parents’ conditions, I expected their deaths. Almost welcomed them at the end, because they ended the suffering. But now wonder if we will lose someone we love to this new disease, lives cut short. Will we lose our own life? Is our old way of life gone forever? This kind of anticipatory grief, the article says, is actually anxiety. Even for those who don’t have an anxiety disorder, things are tough now. For those of us who do…. Well, you can imagine where our minds go. And it’s hard to call them back.

But the article offers hope with the last stage of grief: ‘And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.’ So yes, how to proceed? How will I get to the afterdays? And what do I want to learn from this? I’ve been here before, kind of, this time last year, when I was off sick with depression and anxiety. Then I just wanted it to go away. But then, as now, it wasn’t that easy. Nothing ever really is, right? It wasn’t easy. It was and is ongoing. I’ve accepted that those two things will always be part of my life, and that’s okay because even when they do come back, I’m better at dealing with them. I’m stronger than I was last year. That’s acceptance, and that’s healing. So what do I want from this situation? Well of course I want it to go away, but it’s not going to until there’s a vaccine, or antibody therapy, or whatever else our wonderful scientific and medical communities can come up with. So I have learn some more about myself, learn even more resilience. I have to relearn techniques that I’ll admit I’ve let slide a bit. And I will try to take comfort in blue skies and birdsong and my partner’s pragmatism and certainty that things will be okay. Personally I want things to be better than okay, that we’ll really learn some deep lessons from this, but until then, okay will do fine. 

In the meantime, I’ll let the article have the last words, because they’re compassionate and helpful, and I will endeavour to remember them when my mind feels overwhelmed, because I don’t want my (auto)biography to be one built entirely on fear:

‘Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.’

Signs

Signs

The writer is a sign-maker, inscribing the wall of the blank page with sigils and symbols, black on white. A graffiti artist in letters that are supposed to mean something when they’re put together, that are supposed to send messages that can be interpreted by knowing eyes. But how do we make signs for the previously unheard of signifier? How do we define what we cannot understand? I don’t mean in a nominal way. We know its name and shake before its horror. Coronavirus. COVID19. Virus. Symbols of sickness and death. Symbols of lives cut short. Of a pandemic grief. Of a world that can never be the same again in ways we can’t yet imagine, maybe dare not imagine.

I’m talking about how we express it, on a human level. A humane level. I’m just one of billions of people trying to express how I feel about it. And the truth – or part of it – is that other than the constant dread that sits inside me, I don’t think I can. Not really. I can only write these unstructured, spontaneous ramblings and hope that with each word, something might become clearer.

I’m surrounded by many voices (we all are), some of them in my head, all speaking many things. Who do I listen to? Reporters at the BBC telling me the latest figures, reducing human beings to infection rates and death tolls? The Guardian health editor, and her clickbait, irresponsible headline about a US study that claims there will be 3000 deaths per day in the UK, while the actual article presents an opposite opinion on trajectories? Do I listen to people in the Twitterverse telling me that our government are murderers, that this (mis)handling of the crisis is eugenics, and that they are rubbing their hands together in glee because the old and the poor are dying? These are awful things to read, to hear, and they are damaging people (myself included), almost as much as the virus is. And really, how are they helpful?

I ask myself these things hour after hour, sometimes minute after minute, my mind unable to make sense of it. I know we need to be informed, and I know people have the right to their opinions. Just like me, they are trying to make sense of a situation that doesn’t seem to make any. They are venting their anger, their sorrow, their frustrations, in a way that perhaps helps them in the only way they know how, shouting in the echo chambers with other hurting people who feel the same way. Places of safety in what we now perceive is an unsafe world. And as I said in my post before, although this is very early days, there seems to be no ending to this situation, because the virus isn’t going away. Until there’s a vaccine, or a treatment that’s useful, or the so-called herd immunity takes hold, the risk will remain. It may lessen, but it will be there, the virus, waiting to regain its hold on vulnerable, non-immune populations. So for now we wait for the flattening of the upward curve. We wait cowering in our houses, afraid to go near other human beings in case they are A Carrier. We listen to the news in hope, to have the hope dashed at another report of rising death tolls. We listen to idiots spouting conspiracy theories about 5G and alien invasion. We have no idea of what or who to believe. We watch the signs and cannot interpret them. Or I can’t, anyway. 

I wonder what fall out of this extended crisis will be. I’m lucky to be able to do my work at home; it’s not the best, but it’s better than not being able to do it at all. I’ll still have a job to go back to (I hope, unless higher education crumbles like an eroded cliff in the meantime, which I highly doubt). But many won’t have jobs. Have already lost them. Our wonderful overstretched NHS will be on it’s knees and people will continue to suffer the consequences. I have my own prediction that parts of it will for sure be privatised now, maybe paying for non-urgent GP services that are now taken for granted as free; or being fined for missing an appointment without a reason. More services cut back because there aren’t the staff or resources anymore. A grim picture. 

But maybe some things will be better too. Pollution is already clearing. People are showing amazing kindness, support and humanity to others. I hope we come out of this more considerate of others, and with more respect for the amazing world we live in, although a small, cynical part of me can’t quite believe that will happen, given some of the stupid selfish behaviour I’ve also seen in recent days. But we have to hope, right, because without hope, there’s nothing.

Personally I’m trying to take pleasure in the small things. The heart-moving joy of listening to the fluting calls of blackbirds singing the dawn chorus, and piping in the evening. I’m taking joy in the flittering of newly emerged butterflies. Yesterday I saw a large white, an orange-tipped white, and a common blue butterfly shimmering in sunlight. The sight of spring flowers emerging from the earth, bright and beautiful. Signs of new life.

Signs that we can interpret simply, because we need those simple signs of hope right now.

Meanderings

 

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t have anything to say that can possibly be any different from what other, more articulate, people have already said better than I can say it. I don’t have anything inspirational to say about this awful situation. I can find no inspiration. My mind is blank except for this constant and overwhelming dread. And now I sound like some B character who’s about to die an unremarkable death some B movie. Forgettable. Undefined. Completely unimportant in the grand scheme of this pandemic horror show that’s playing out in front of our unbelieving eyes.

And yet today, when I’m really struggling, when I can’t stop weeping, I feel the need to write this down. To expel it, vomit it onto the page in the hope of bursting the abscess festering in the pit of my stomach. I’m a writer, aren’t I? Someone who’s supposed to live through words. Not this fraud who’s forgotten what words are, who lives, right now, in a maelstrom of useless emotion. So I’m writing. It may not be my best writing, but I’m writing for now, because now is all there is. Cliche without the accent. Words without meaning. Meaning without… meaning. Besides, when I was having counselling, my counsellor advised that writing it all down would concretise my thoughts. Give them shape. And ironically, before this, I’d wanted to work towards helping others through writing, become a writing therapist. So let’s try it on me, shall we? I’ll try to be my own therapist and see if it helps. A little.

My mind has gone blank, so I’ll write through it. I’ll write a list of what I miss. It’ll be a list, in no particular order, and it’ll be a list of things, no doubt, that other people will miss too, depending on their own circumstances. 

I miss…

Seeing my children.

Hugging my children.

(Those two things are in fact top of the list because – to be brutal – I’m afraid that… I can’t put that into words. Read the dots as you will.)

Socialising with my wonderful colleagues, who are also my friends. 

Eating tapas in a tapas bar.

London (yes it’ll still be there when this is over, but I miss it now.).

Work – or at least going into work, having the face to face interaction with students instead of this facsimile of a sham of online teaching that feels so sterile, so… unsatisfying (but yes, I know there’s no choice, and it keeps me busy!).

Shopping for trivial things that are, in all honesty, meaningless. I realise, at least, the difference (now) of want, not need. I guess that’s a Good Thing. Check my privilege, right? 

Going to bed at night without the dread of closing my eyes because of the things I imagine in the darkness of my brain.

Going birdwatching, especially to RSPB Rainham Marshes, with its wonderful vistas. Soon chicks will be hatching. I wish I could see that.

Decent chocolate. 

Going shopping in a big supermarket.

My imagination – or at least the part of it that dreams up fiction and wants to write it. I do not miss the part of my imagination that tells me that there will be no end to this. Ever. Because that’s still there, louder and more vivid than ever before.

Enough of that for now. I feel the abscess tensing. Not quite yet at a head. Not yet ready to burst. 

So let’s make a gratitude list. Because despite it all, and under all the pain, there is gratitude. I know all too well how privileged I am to even be able to write this at all. That knowledge doesn’t always help. But it’s there. So the list, again in no particular order.

The love I feel for my children, and the love they feel for me. I’m lucky to have that.

Talking to my children on the phone, on FaceTime, via WhatsApp, on Instagram. Knowing that although they’re not with me physically, we are together virtually, and bound by something stronger than touch.

My partner, who abandoned his own home without a second though to move in here with me when the lockdown went… down. 

My friends, who are all, in their own way, coping with this in their own ways. Unity in hardship, in difficulty, in pain and, importantly, again, in hope and love.

That I have enough food. That I can afford to buy food.

That I still have my job, that I’m still being paid to do it.

Books. Without books I couldn’t stay even slightly sane.

Food TV. Thank god for shows like Masterchef, Great British Menu, reruns of Rick Stein and the Hairy Bikers.

Beauty YouTube. My safe space.

My own home, with no mortgage.

(So far) my physical health. People I know are ill from this vile disease. May they recover soon.

Sunshine and fresh air and being allowed, for a short time, to be out in it. At a safe social distance of course.

Those are the things I can think of for now. Of course there are more. I will discover them, I hope, these lights in the darkness. 

I don’t know if this has helped me (or anyone else), but it has indeed put the sucking whirlpool thought in black and white. Given them form, rather the formless chaos they were before. In fact, writing this felt like an act of self-preservation, the page a place of safety. So I guess more words are needed.

Love and hope to all. 

 

Styling Style – Musings and experiments

The discussion in the classroom today is about literary style, and trying to find definitions. No one in the room seems to know, and we discover that it’s much harder to define than simply that literary style is about the way a writer presents their thoughts. It is more than the way we use word choice, more than description, or the way we create character. More, even, than syntax. Style varies according to the writer, and according to the subject matter. Style is everything combined together. So is it the writer’s ‘voice’ that we think about, when we think about style? That thing that defines someone’s writing, so we can tell – sometimes at a glance – who wrote what. The question also arose: should a writer be versatile and able to adapt style/voice? I thought I’d try, and below are some experiments that came out of the seminar. It’s my own work, but influenced but students and my co-teaching partner. So thanks to them too.

Do I have style? Do I have a voice? Am I drowned out by all the other voices out there? Am I lost in the language I have learned, too far away from the language I have yet to learn, isolated from the innumerable languages I will never learn? Am I asking too many questions? I always ask too many questions. I question everything and everything is a question. And the question is complex, complicated and almost incomprehensible. When I discuss style, I discover so many things from so many people. Every one an individual. Every one the same. Different definitions from different people. Different styles. Different people. Hyper-reality of stylistic decisions. We are having a discussion now, about this very thing. We still cannot define it. Style is the question and there are too many answers. We may forever question: Do I have style? What is my voice? And who want to listen?

i am asking too many questions. style. say something. say it again (sam. or whoever. you all clamour. voices. voices. voices). innumerable languages crowding me out. excluding. we say style we do not mean. lost in a language too far from the language we have learned. everything and everything is a question. does a style mean? and if my style is avoiding rhetorical questions, how to version something that has seven is a problem. to have a style that is not a voice that someone wants to hear.

The title might have been ‘Alice Through the Glass’. But it feels as though something is missing. Oh, we can see her, this little girl, this little brat of a girl, because she’s here. She’s here right before you, or at least it feels like that. But she’s just words, a mirror facsimile created by the power of language, a reflection of the world of words you wish to create. Your language? Your language is a myth. Oh, it’s style, says Alice, you’ve used description with a flourish, you’ve created clear images, your pace is just so, and your plot is perfect cause and effect. But it’s all a lie, because she is a lie, and she’s not there. She is a spectre, a ghost that emerges from the absence that you fill with inadequate words that create the image of the little girl, this brat of a little girl. Language forces us to see her, but we cannot approach her, for she is never truly revealed.

The book fell upon the glowing grave dirt, beneath which thick white worms squirmed and writhed and ate their way through the stories written there. One of the worms became a queen and tore through the words to rule over the cemetery, issuing edicts with a wormtongue. Another worm grew to be a crown and wound its way around the queen’s head and blinded her; pierced her eardrums, and deafened her; ate her wormtongue and silenced her. Yet another became a sword that slithered into her hand and she wielded it blind and deaf and mute. She bent and felt for the book that had created her, felt for the wordworms and they crawled all over her, writing their stories, for they each had a story, they each had a style and that style had a name, and they all clamoured for her attention in the queen’s deaf ears and blind eyes and . She became the queen of writ(h)ing insanity, and she ruled the world, and the wordworms ruled with her.

This is a description of an exposition. The writer is writing the words. Her job is to write the words. She has always written the words. She is a wordsmith. She types the words one letter by one letter. An O. An N. An E. A B. A Y. Another O. Another N. Another E. Her fingers move rapidly across the keyboard, which is slightly grubby and needs cleaning. She hasn’t cleaned her keyboard in weeks, and the keyboard holds imprints of her fingertips, is covered in her DNA. Her fingers are half covered by grey fingerless gloves that need washing. She wears the gloves because her office is cold, breeze blowing through cracked seals and flaking pain, which once was white, and is now dull brown with rust. Her desk is covered with books of fantasy and horror and language and writing and myth, and papers and pens and pencils and highlighting pens and scissors and wet wipes, and there are several packs of board markers sitting on a pile of books, red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. On her right hand side is a telephone and a pair of headphones. A set of red and pink box files containing all her lecture notes sit by the telephone on the right hand side. A reusable water bottle, half-full, sits by her left hand. She wonders why she’s typing, for her mind is as disorganised as her desk, running in loops and down rat-runs that are unlit and full of dead ends. This is the end of a description of an expostion.

The characters, who shall not be named, except by X and Y, wind their way across the blank white landscape. Their steps are slow. And. Faltering. They look across at the wide expanse of space unpunctuated by any description of the terrain they are trying to traverse and they feel daunted at the miles and miles of empty page they are expected to cross because there are no marks for them to follow no evidence of page markers just a meandering nothing. And then. And they, they find themselves at the edge of a great ravine and X loses their footing and they….

fall

down

the

page

onto another. Above them they hear Y screaming. Screaming loudly on the edge of the precipice. There are sounds of a scuffle, more screaming. X cranes their head up but they cannot see anything. All they can hear is screaming. Then a blur of shadow, and Y lands beside X with a thud. A crunch telling X that Y… that Y is hurt. Hurt so badly. This character will soon cease to exist. Already Y is fading into whiteness, blending with the blank page. X is suddenly alone. X feels as though Y never existed. X has always been alone. X turns to face the white page.

And, alone again, begins to walk.

On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

World Mental Health Day

So it’s World Mental Health Day, and I’m watching a video made by a colleague for their students, explaining how they themselves live with anxiety/depressive disorder. It struck me as an act of bravery – the university as an institution would no doubt frown upon this act as being ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too personal’. I put these words in quote marks because I can imagine them being spoken by managers – and maybe by other colleagues too – who see our function are purely providing a service which does not involve too much personal involvement. And I can understand that. As lecturers, we are not counsellors. We cannot give advice, as such, because we are not trained to do so. We are, on a pastoral level, there to direct students to support services who can advise. But we can listen, and we must listen. If you feel listened to, if you feel that you can talk to someone without judgement, without bias, but with empathy and understanding, then surely you’re more likely to be able to build a bond of trust with that person. Perhaps, through that bond of trust a person who otherwise would not have sought help, will. Empathetic listening will, just possibly, save a life. And that is why I feel my colleague has made a big step over a line that the institution may see as something we maybe shouldn’t cross. But if we can help, maybe save a life, then that is worthwhile. And it’s why I believe that everyone in professions like ours should be helped to learn that most valuable skill.

For myself, someone who also lives with anxiety/depressive disorder – note I don’t say ‘suffering’, because although I do suffer, in periods of non-suffering, I’m still living with the condition – I am also open with my students. I mean, I don’t announce in class, ‘Oh hi, I’m Lesley and I have mental health issues!’ because that would be totally inappropriate, but if a student comes to me to discuss an issue, then – again, if appropriate – as well as listening mindfully, I can also reassure them that they’re not alone. That I have, in some way, experienced what they might be experiencing, or at least can understand their pain.

Empathy.

Despite this, I have wondered – sometimes worried – if I am too open (examples would be keeping and sharing this blog with anyone who wants to read it, having honest discussions with students on other occasions, posting on Twitter and Facebook) but watching my colleague’s video – a true and honest account of their own condition – has helped me to understand that actually, I’m a human being sharing my humanity, my story, and my experience and understanding. And in a time where as a society, we’re trying to raise awareness about mental health in the contexts of maintaining good mental health and helping others and ourselves to cope when we’re having issues, surely I need to be part of that on-going conversation. It would be wrong of me, immoral of me, a person who communicates for a living, not to participate in that conversation. And so I will.

I will say openly now that I’m struggling quite a bit. It’s an adjustment to a stressful time at work, which hopefully will begin to settle soon. And I’m trying to remember to use the techniques I learned in therapy sessions. Reminding myself that the world isn’t going to fall in if I don’t do something perfectly. Learning not to catastrophise. To make the most of the moments of peace that I do manage to find. It’s really hard now, but I feel I’m recovering a little quicker than I was before. And I’m going part-time too, to address the work-life balance.

I’m looking towards a future that might be better than the past few years.

The charity Mind has some great ideas about talking to people who may be vulnerable, or people you may be worried about. The ‘Ask Twice’ campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/asktwice/) for example, is worth taking a look at. People often ask, ‘are you okay?’ to which the answer may well be ‘yeah, thanks’. And people often are okay. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they may feel they can’t open up. Shame, fear, social stigma, not wanting to be a burden, and many more factors can stop us from expressing what we really want to say.

So today, on World Mental health Day, and then beyond, for those of who are able, let us join in the conversation about mental health issues. Let us use our humanity and develop compassion so that we are able to listen, learn to empathise, not just sympathise. Let us be open with people so that bit by bit, we can erode the stigma that’s still there.