Category Archives: core practices

The Confundus Charm

sussex churchHusband arrived home today after his annual walking holiday on the First World War battlefields with his mates.  And I breathed a sigh of relief.

Not because he managed to come home without stepping on unexploded ordnance, though of course there was that.

Its just that since before Easter, there has been a continual series of appointments on the calendar, friends visiting (which I love, btw, don’t get me wrong), elder care visits to make (emotionally as well as physically exhausting) and illness.  And I’m not very good at times like that.

When the diary fills up, or like this week, is forcibly emptied by the need to lie in bed and groan, I sort of go AWOL on myself.  Do you know what I mean?

Today I read this article by Meghan Genge, and thought:

Yes.  That is where I am too.

I’ve forgotten who I am.  I’ve forgotten me.  I’ve forgotten what I do to be me. The core practices.  The core feelings.

When I’m busy, when I am rushing around from appointment to appointment, or looking after others, its not just the little things that get forgotten, like shaving my legs and flossing my teeth – no time, no time!

I forget where I put my soul.

So now His Lordship is home, I have a small window of a few weeks between elder care visits to remember.  I’ve finished the hurdling for a while.  As I’m recovering from a nasty virus which has knocked me flat for the last week, I plan to take things gently.  But I’m going to pick up my journal first, because whenever I need a compass to find myself and my creativity, thats what I find in my hand.  Pen and paper.  And it never fails.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Word of the Year 2015

sussex churchI am quietly resting tonight in the post New Year’s Eve Exhaustion space. You know the one. Everything hurts, you’ve had very little sleep, you’ve eaten far too much rich food, your jeans are cutting you in half (didn’t they fit just right this time last week?), and tomorrow you will fall into that Chasm of the Unknown which is 2nd January when there are no more excuses, the holidays are over, and you have to get back on the bike of normality.

Yeah, you know what I’m saying.

(I wouldn’t mind so much, either, but I don’t even drink! Husband did all the booze last night, and I woke up with his hangover. It’s just unfair, especially when he is all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and bouncing around the house with our god daughter, teaching her how to be Gandalf stopping the balrog in the mines of Moria – at 10am? I mean, puh-leeeeeze!)

This is that annoying time of year when all the bloggers on the interweb seem to trot out their reviews of 2014, with accompanying pictures of their glamorous lives, glamorous friends, glamorous spouses, glamorous homes etc etc.

I can’t remember much about what happened in 2014 because I am still recovering from it.

It was a tough one. Christmas especially. It has been dominated by the stress of caring for two very elderly, very frail parents-in-law, one of whom has stage two dementia, and at a distance. There have been the falls, the hospital visits, the fights over carers, the distressed phone calls. We’ve been learning new nursing skills, dealing with social workers, pharmacists, medical practitioners, and a national health service that seems weirdly incapable of taking account of the needs of those with dementia, even though the elderly are their primary client group. All this, trying to keep our own lives running, expanding the Husband’s business, and managing my own ill health.

The last two years have been periods of extreme growth. My word for 2013 was REVOLUTIONARY. My word for 2014 was DARE. Both pretty heavy-duty action words. I felt like I needed to step up to the plate, to make big changes. But after all those revolutions and fear-facings, I am just utterly exhausted and drained. I need something gentle this year.

So my word for 2015 is EASE.

I want to be at EASE with myself. I want to get to know myself better, to feel authentically me, to feel more settled and confident in myself instead of constantly pushing at the edges, as I have been.

I want to be at EASE in my creativity, not to be forcing it, but rejoicing in the work I make, whether it is a new story or novel, or a piece of needlepoint, or a favourite recipe. I want my work to be rich, jewelled with the unusual, and deeply infused with peace and contentment.

I want to EASE into my life more, to spend more time nurturing myself, working out what I need to get through what will undoubtedly be another tough year. I need to be gentle and compassionate with myself.

I want to have more EASE in my life – less pain, more comfort, and a more comfortable environment. There will be nesting, creating, new healthy eating recipes, yoga and pilates (gently) and lots of mindfulness. And, hopefully, a holiday.

Most of all, I want to be at EASE with and in the present. I want to accept where I am right now, at this turning-point.

This year, Husband will turn 50, I will continue my journey towards menopause, and we will likely be saying goodbye to those we care for in some form, whether it is completely through death, or mentally, as a beloved parent passes into the mist where she will no longer recognise us in any meaningful way. I want to be able to support Husband as he midwifes his mother through this endtime. I want to help us move into this second half of our lives with optimism, health and peace of mind. I want us to EASE into this new phase with hope and positivity. I want us to have something beautiful and vibrant left after this time of caring is over, not simply wreckage and exhaustion.

I can’t say I relish the prospect of 2015, as elder care eats more and more into our lives. But I intend to do what I can to see that it is as much an enriching process as it can be in the circumstances. I look forward to exploring myself, my spirituality and my creativity in the face of these ongoing demands. I don’t know what will come out of it, but I know that it will be something deep and wise.

I wish you a happy, creative and fulfilling 2015,

EF

Journal Friday: Bear Time

Rose Quartz for healing and a bear for intuition.  I keep this stone by my bed to remind me what energy I need in my life right now.

Rose Quartz for healing and a bear for intuition. I keep this stone by my bed to remind me what energy I need in my life right now.

Norfolk is hunkered down under leaden skies these days, waiting for the bitter northerly winds to blow in from Scandanavia.  They’re late this year, as everything is.  The weather is unseasonably mild.  We still haven’t had a proper frost.  As a result, nature is confused.  A delphinium is still flowering under my window.  The last of the trees to drop their leaves, the oaks, are finally strewing the garden with dulled copper, a month overdue because we haven’t have a gale to tug them from the boughs.   More than ever this year, it feels like the land is holding its breath.  Normally, it would be in anticipation of Spring, but right now, it feels like we are being held at the Gates of Darkness, keeping vigil.

We are entering Bear Time.

It is hard to feel creative when the weather is so dour.  If you, like me, are subject to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), you will no doubt relate to the desire to snuggle up under the duvet until March.

Lots of people channel their creativity into the preparations for Christmas, decorating the house, planning parties, conjouring an endless stream of fancy food for their guests. I put up some twinkle lights in my bedroom the other day.  It was just a simple little thing, but it makes me feel snug and cosy when I settle down to bed at night, and often when I wake in the morning.

Midwinter has always been a festival of lights, and it is important to remind ourselves with candles and twinkle lights that the sun will come back.  As I settle down in my ‘bear cave’ for the winter, I find myself needing to remember that more than usual.  Its been a tough year, one way and another, but this is a time to go down deep and reflect on what I’ve learnt, a time recognise what I have achieved this year, and to think about what happens next.  While we are still submerged in caring for our elderly relatives, and will be for a long while yet, it is easy for everything else to be subsumed.  So I am taking this time to submerge myself in quiet time, put the annual shopping marathon on hold, and take care of my own needs.

I cannot look after others if I don’t look after myself.

This is true of all of us, not just those who, like me, have a chronic illness.  I find myself surrounded by people who are chronically stressed and harrassed, many of whom have gone through major life-changing events this year, and who are about to dive into the Christmas Rounds without taking a moment to stop and be still, to take care of themselves.  The result of this will no doubt be a round of really nasty illnesses on the other side of the festive season, when we all fall into the chasm of January!  I for one don’t want to go through the misery of the last two years again, when I lost two or three months at the beginning of each year, first to influenza, and then labyrinthitis!

You can use your diary to slow down and take stock.

Journal Exercise:

Plan yourself an evening alone.  Send Husband out to the pub, get the kids to bed, pour yourself a glass of wine, light a candle and sit down with your journal.  Some gentle music might help.  Take some time to reflect, enjoy the stillness, and then write what you need to get out of your system:

Where are you now?

What is going on inside your body right now?  Any aches or pains that need tending to?

Are any emotional issues niggling away that need to be talked over with the person concerned?  (Don’t leave it, because its bound to blow up during the Christmas season, making you and everybody else miserable.)  Can you write this person a letter in your diary, saying all the things you want them to know?  (This way, you can be brutally honest, knowing they will never see it.)

If you’ve been through a tough time lately, maybe you could take some time to write about the good things in your life, to focus on something positive instead of pain or loss.  Even if you feel so bereft that you can’t see anything good, maybe just writing down a simple list of basics – having a roof over your head, food in your belly, the freedom to write a list and say what you think, the chance to be able to learn to write at all – could help.

When writing out your feelings, express the first words that come into your head, because they are invariably the most authentic.  Even just making a list of words can help.

You could channel how you feel into a drawing, painting or collage.  This could be especially helpful if you feel that the emotions you currently have are ‘unacceptible’ or ‘bad’.  Perhaps you feel angry, jealous, hurt, self-pitying, and that these are not ‘allowed’.  The fact is, though, that:

Everything is allowed in your diary.  There is no need to judge yourself. 

Instead, express your feelings, even if those feelings feel hard and scary, and you will find that you move through them far more quickly.

The only way out is through.

Take the time to honour where you are right now, no matter how hard that feels for you.  It is important to experience our emotions rather than bottle them up, otherwise they always come back to bite us when we least want or expect them.  And you can take my word for this because I am an absolute PhD in it!

I hope that as we head towards the Christmas melee, you can find some time for yourself.  I hope that you are able to nurse your wounds and nurture yourself.  I hope that you can use your journal to practise self care.  Because self care and creativity go hand in hand.  And creativity is the beating heart of human existence.

Happy journalling,

EF

 

Help will come

Life Org kit I was working on my Life Organiser last night for the first time in a couple weeks (it’s been a hell of a couple of weeks), and the quote at the top of the page for Week 43 in Jennifer Louden’s book just jumped right out at me:

A thunderbolt illuminates your heart: it isn’t your job alone to fulfil your dreams and give birth to your yearnings. You can relax and ask for help, and help will come.

It was that last sentence that jumped off the page at me.

Help will come.

Help will come.

All you have to do is ask.

Lately, I haven’t been asking. Actually, let’s be honest here, I have the greatest difficulty in asking for anything, ever. It’s one of the hardest lessons I have had to face with chronic illness. Sometimes, you just can’t be perfect and do it all. Or maybe, do any of it. You have to ask for help.

Whether I need to ask for help cleaning the house because I’m too exhausted to push the vacuum cleaner, or I need help from my Muse because frankly, ain’t nothin’ goin’ on in my storyworld, it is really, really hard to admit I need help.

Usually, I do the passive-aggressive woman thing of wearing myself out, reducing myself to a stressy heap of tears and vitriol, and then Husband put his hands on his hips and says in a despairing tone: ‘well, you only had to ask.’

I’ve been feeling really stressed for the last few days, and not very well at all, and if I was one of those organised bloggers who writes their posts weeks in advance, I would have had a bunch of spare posts backed up to cover me for the times where my brain goes blank. But I‘m not. I’m a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kinda gal, and I really like being able to write what I need to write when I need to write it. I need my posts to feel current for me, otherwise they come out creaky and preachy. Or at least, I think so.

So I didn’t write on Monday. I just couldn’t.

Instead, I had a bit of a meltdown.

On Tuesday, I decided to trust to the Muse. You could say that I asked for help. I trusted that some inspiration would come along. I listened. And while I was listening, I got down to a few other things, including my Life Organiser.

Bingo!

The action became the lesson. Trust. Ask. (Keep busy while you are waiting.) Help will come.

And it did.

If you are struggling with your creativity right now, ask for help.

Maybe you just need Grandma to come and look after your baby for an hour so you can write or read a book by yourself. Maybe you need someone to hoover the carpet, which will give you enough time to do something for yourself, something creative.

Or maybe you need to ask the Universe for help, to look up to the sky and say ‘Please could you send me some inspiration, because right now, I’m a bit blank.’

Then listen.

(The listening part is the important bit.)

As I mentioned in a recent post, silence helps.

If you can’t find silence, do something that will allow your Muse to speak. Morning pages; perhaps, a walk around your neighbourhood with your camera; a few writing exercises. Do your Life organiser, or read a book. Allow yourself to be open. Make peace with your temporary stuckness, but act in a way that will allow whatever message your Muse has for you to come through.

Help will come.

Your job is to be gently open to it.

Happy Creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Silence

pat oxburgh b&w

Husband sitting in the partially ruined church at Oxburgh, Norfolk

I was reading the chapter on silence in Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Practise’, and it immediately rang bells for me. I have a particular reason for this. Let me explain:

One of the symptoms of the chronic illness with which I live, ME/CFS, is sensitivity to noise. Some days are better than others, but there are everyday sounds in modern life that can create physical agony for me. And no, I’m not kidding.  I mean, I get actual pain. A cold electric current feeling up and down my spine and a nauseating icy pain in the back of my skull. Unpleasant to say the least.

For the first three years of my illness, I couldn’t listen to any music with a beat at all. Every thud of bass was like a knitting needle jabbed into my neck. No pop radio, no rock, no hand jiving in the car to the Stone Roses or the Pet Shop Boys. No Elvis.  No Beatles.  Nothing.

I couldn’t listen to anything much. Mozart and Bach worked, a little Handel mixed in. Beethoven proved too noisy, as did anything after him, although I did find I could handle some Vaughan Williams. Opera was right out, so goodbye to my favourite tenor, Placido Domingo. I just couldn’t bear to listen to him anymore.

Most of the time, though, any kind of noise was painful.

So for three years I avoided places where the music was piped, and had to ask friends who listened to music perpetually to turn down their stereos, which was mortifying because they just didn’t understand.

I adjusted to a world without music.

I learnt a different way of listening.

I listened to the birds, the ones that make pretty sounds, and the ones that don’t. I learnt I could set my watch by the rooks in the tree opposite the house. (They all get together and start shouting at one another at 3.30pm, no matter what time of year it is.) They’re funny, like one of those noisy markets where everyone is shouting about their wares.  I’m rather fond of rooks now.

I learnt to hear the vegetation around me too, the creaking trees and rustling shrubs, the fresh new spring leaves and the rattle of the dried autumn ones.

And the animals. The scuttle of mice in the undergrowth, the mewling squeaks the rabbits make, the scrabble of the squirrels on the roof tiles. The buzz of the mason bees under the window in the summer, the drone and thump of the hornets throwing themselves against the window, attracted by the light, in autumn.

I came to realise how much noise pollution we endure, day after day, the constant onslaught of a life lived with continual racket, the radio, the TV, the iPod, the piped music, the slot machines, even the roar of conversation echoing in the cavernous, sound-reflecting spaces of shopping malls. And how much we use recorded sound to blot out our minds, to stop us thinking too much.

The Christian mystics said that prayer is talking to God, but it isn’t much use if you don’t listen for when He speaks back. To hear the Divine, we have to be in silence. This is just as important when the voice that speaks inside us is the big, blousy, shriek as when it is the almost inaudible whisper. The practise of creativity demands that we listen. Sometimes, we have to listen hard, and without distractions.

When did you last spend time in silence? Do you make space for a little quiet time daily? Do you relish that moment when the kids are in bed, and you can sit down at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and just listen to the noises the house makes around you as it settles for the night? Or do you fill every waking hour with a constant cacophony to drown out the voices inside your head that are telling you the life you are living is not fulfilling you?

Out of the quiet comes not only spiritual fulfilment, spoken of in all religions, but human creativity. Out of silence come the stories we tell, the fantasies and day dreams that grow into novels, plays, paintings, films, concertos and ballets.

When we cultivate stillness, when we listen, we give our brains space to breathe. And yes, sometimes we then have to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our lives. But often, we have the opportunity to tap into wells of creative inspiration previously unknown to us. Our Muse’s voice can be heard.

You don’t have to take a vow of silence to benefit from stillness, and I’m not saying you should give up the joy of music. (I’m back on it now, and believe me, its one of my greatest inspirations.)

Listen to yourself.

What I am suggesting is that you take time daily to be in stillness. To listen to the sounds of the world around you instead of filling the void with canned synthetic noise. To listen to yourself. It may only be ten minutes, or the time you spend in the bathroom every morning, or half an hour before bed without the telly on. You don’t have to meditate, although that is good too. No, this is a different idea, a way of being quiet with ourselves, a way of listening for the inspiration to come. I know you lead a busy life, no doubt, and that quiet in a city is hard to find. But I assure you, it is there. You can find it. And when you do, immerse yourself in its balm, as often as you can, and allow it to feed your creative life.

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Returning to the Journal

VW desktop

This time of year (autumn) is always a time of new starts for me. Husband is a University lecturer, which establishes a certain kind of seasonality in our house – we live according to the academic year, just as we have since we were kids. And on top of the usual stationery-buying frenzy I get at this time of year, I find myself stopping to reassess where I am too.

In truth, its always good to stop off on the seasonal journey to think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go. Life coaches encourage us to do this on a quarterly basis, and to be quite frank, I think it’s a good wheeze. It is hard enough to find time in a busy life to stop and think, but like the prayer bell in the monastery that reminds the inmates to focus on God at regular intervals, the seasons are an automatic prompt to stop and take stock.

This year has been a time of huge shifts for me, changes in my role as wife, care-taker, aunt, friend and woman. I have felt new currents in my creative life starting up, the drive to take my photography more seriously, the sense of a new mission, a new message in my work. It is a time of change, of departures.

Pagan theology tells us that autumn is the time to reap the harvest of what we have sown during the productive seasons of the year – not only of Spring and Summer, the active months, but also of the deep, dark percolation of the Winter that preceded them, before we go down into the dark once more, into that time of thinking, rest and meditation. We need to think about what we have achieved, assess the fruits of our labours, celebrate them, and prepare to settle into a time of productive hibernation during which we can incubate our hopes and dreams for the future.

Well, hooray for the journal, then!

I have been taking time to settle back into my journal-keeping, and to use it in a more constructed way. I have never really used the technique of guided journaling before, by which I mean writing from prompts designed to explore the psyche.   I’ve always been more of a ‘stream of consciousness problem solver’ kind of diarist. In the midst of upheaval, especially during the summer months, I find it hard, therefore, to keep up such a regular journal commitment, because it often takes time to write and write until you’ve found the answer.

Recently, though, I have decided to be more conscious about what I am doing with my diary. I have set out to explore myself and different aspects of my life in a structured way, in the hope that it will guide me to new paths, and help anchor me through the current storms. I’m using visual means too. Nothing fancy. (I’m still pretty blocked about my drawing.) I’ve been collaging instead. Gala Darling’s ‘Radical Self-Love Bible’ Programme has been invaluable with this, a plethora of prompts and eye-candy to help you explore yourself on paper, through collage and writing. I’m not much good at discipline, of course, and though I am half way through the programme now, my ‘bible’ is pretty lightweight. I tend to fall back on my familiar old notebook on a day to day basis, but Gala’s approach is challenging me just enough to make me think about where I am going with my diary, and that’s enough right now.

Journal Exercise:

This weekend, I am planning to retreat to my journaling practise and do some conscious assessment. I’m going to take time to recognise the enormous changes I have gone through, and the achievements I have made so far this year. I am going to consider my intentions for the coming dark months, and work on an emotional strategy for handling Christmas, which is always a difficult time for me. I mean to use my journal to ground myself in who I am, and who I want to be. And to think about where I am going.

If it proves a productive, positive exercise, I ‘m going to repeat it on a seasonal basis.

Would you like to join me?

Why not take this weekend, or some time during it, to sit down in a quiet place with your journal, and think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go.

  • What have you achieved in the last nine months?
  • What ‘babies’ have you birthed, literal, creative, emotional or otherwise?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How are you feeling right now, physically and emotionally?
  • How would you like to feel?
  • What small, achievable steps can you take to move towards these intentions?
  • What flashpoints can you identify in the coming three or four months? Can you explore why they affect you? What could you do to ease your path through them?
  • How can you celebrate yourself at this point in your life?
  • What creative voices are calling you right now?

If you find the idea of a more conscious journaling practise interesting, you might like to explore Tristine Rainer’s seminal book, The New Diary.

If you want more guidance about deciding where you want to go in life, take a look at Danielle LaPorte’s The Firestarter Sessions, and The Desire Map.

Kate Courageous’s wonderful website is full of rich wisdom and worth exploring.

Happy Journaling,

EF

 

The Book List

Some books here are waiting to be read.

Some books here are waiting to be read.

The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.

So far so good.

But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?

My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.

So here is my list (verbatim):

“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”

I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other.  I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett?  The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.

And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.

And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.

I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!

There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)

Writers must read.

It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.

“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”

Virginia Woolf.

When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)

I need to do the same again.

This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.

So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.

Happy Creating,

EF