The Source

It’s too easy to let things slip, to think ‘I can come back to that,’ or ‘I’ll have time tomorrow for…’. Yet, when everything seems important, imperative or imminent, little feels rewarding.

In my very small garden is a tub of red geraniums. The petals, robust flags of red, clump comfortably together, the blooms, unhurried in their blooming, are languid in their display.

Elixir is nothing like my red geranium. It has not bloomed in my mind or heart for several months. It has failed, unlike my strumpet geranium, to grab my attention, and so I ask myself, ‘Why did I start Elixir? What did I want to achieve? Why, indeed,  write a blog?’

In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise de Salvo asks,

…what if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? p6.

writing-as-a-way-of-healing Elixir started as a blog about therapeutic writing. Then it changed and, perhaps, lost its way. What kind of blogger loses control of her blog?

Hauling Elixir back to its original premise, a blog about the power of writing to heal, feels right. It feels simple and significant and necessary and it feels like Elixir has returned to its source:

My interest has never been in end results, but in the process of creation and expression…(*)

What have you resurrected lately?

(*) Judy Clinton, in Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops, p. 217.

 

Gateway

2017 is almost done. Some of us may already be preparing for Christmas, others will be looking forward to the holidays and warmer weather (here in the Southern Hemisphere anyway) and many of us will start to reflect on the achievements and lessons of 2017, and the promises and challenges of 2018.

Normally I spend the final days of December reflecting on the past year but I’m starting early.  It has been a good year, mostly because of the trip to Europe. Everything about where my partner and I went, what we did, who we met and the adventures and misadventures we experienced, was exceptional. I have suffered, however, middling health for most of the year. A cough I developed on the first of January lasted around eighty days. I hurt my back six weeks before we travelled to Europe and in recent weeks an as yet undiagnosed condition has dogged me. None of this dimmed the joy we experienced while away but for most of 2017 I’d have preferred to lie on a couch, read a good book or doze.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing, let alone had the energy to sit in front of a computer. Elixir, Concise, my novel-in-progress and numerous drafts of short stories have been ignored, apart from the odd moment when I lifted my head from my book, felt guilty about not having written anything then hastily turned the page and read on. This adds to my usual struggle with sticking to a writing routine so I decided, not long after we arrived home from the trip, to return to notebooks to jot down ideas, record my thoughts and even use coloured pens and pencils to highlight and illustrate my musings.

I went back to pen and paper because writing was no longer a pleasurable activity. Despite my best intentions, blogging became a process of second-guessing my readers and how they might judge what I write. In other words, I stopped writing from my heart. Going back to basics, writing by hand and playing with coloured pencils helped me rediscover the joy of writing. It seems that poor health was really a gateway to a under-developed creative path.

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What does this mean for Elixir and Concise? I cannot maintain two separate blogs, which is why Concise will be retired and the flash fiction stories from that blog will reappear on Elixir, on the page once labelled ‘Sparks’ and now relabelled ‘Concise.’ I will continue to post pieces of flash fiction but as an adjunct to Elixir.

Elixir itself has changed appearance and will be more of an occasional blog rather than something that must be attended to every two to three days.

I recently turned sixty-five, which in Australia was once the age when one officially retired from the paid workforce. I don’t feel old in heart or mind. The insecurities of youth and the challenges of maintaining harmonious relationships still hound me. I also play games with my granddaughter, which means getting down on the floor or kicking a ball with her in the backyard. This year my body has sent me several strong messages; instead of spending hours in front of a computer I need to exercise more, meditate and eat regularly, and get enough sleep. That way, after spending time with the people I love, I will have the energy to write.

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What is your experience? Do you have a habit of reflecting on the past year? Is November or December the best time for you? How do you stay healthy so you can do what gives you joy?

Knots

Back in late September, when I shared Ben Brooker’s blog, Kate’s Words, I suggested Ben give me a word and I’d try to ‘refresh my writing muscles’. The suggestion is I write for thirty minutes, musing on the word – which in this case is knots – and share what emerges. Okay, here goes …

… R D Laing published Knots in 1970. I tried but failed to read the book in the middle seventies, when I was first married. I failed because … well the text tied me in knots and my life then – as now – was rather knotty anyway, so I felt unable to see the book through to the end.

I wrote a poem a decade and a half later, titled, I think, ‘Rope’. It alluded to the ribald habit ropes have in snapping at your ankles and tripping you up. Maybe I’ll go back to it later this month and turn it into a Flash Fiction, which is something I’ve done with several of my old poems. This is cannibalising one’s writing and has little to do with knots, though it might explain why some of my Flash Fiction lacks a distinct narrative.

Free writing can get knotty too, because when you let the mind wander  – the purpose of free writing – the mind, like a rope, can turn in and around on itself, twisting neurons and crimping axons, leading to nowhere or worse, allowing it to form its own connections, risking aberrant, gratuitous or self-destructive thoughts, like ‘Why am I doing this, I am usually so structured and planned? I don’t like this …’

… See what I mean?

Have you ever tried to undo a knot in a gold or silver chain? It’s not easy (see what I did there?). When I cleaned out my mother’s jewellery drawer I found most of her chains tangled into a ball. The week I cleaned the house, the week my father joined my mother in the ‘Aged Care Facility’, was unseasonably hot at well over forty degrees Celsius. I remember sitting on their bed and looking at the tangled ball of gold and silver and wondering how on earth I could separate them. That the ball symbolised my often difficult relationship with my parents was not lost on me and perhaps I applied myself to the task  because of that; by separating the chains maybe I could prepare myself for my parents’ inevitable demise, something that happened only three years later, in my father’s case, and eight months after that, in my mother’s. I only ever managed to untangle the ball of chains, I could never address the disarray that was our relationship.

I kept some of those chains. I wear them occasionally and admit I am, like my mother, careless when I remove them and put them away. Will my children have to untangle my necklaces when it is time for me to move on?

From the knotted peculiarity of Laing, to my early poems, to the gnarled vagaries of my mind and on to my mother’s tangled, sometimes twisted hold on me I have come, perhaps inevitably, to my own demise, to the day when I must untie the knot that secures my hold on life. Maybe I should find a copy of Knots? Perhaps, at my current stage of life, I will understand it better than I did when I was a callous, untried girl?

Afterword: I could not help myself – I edited this piece but only so I could eliminate any convoluted sentences.

 

Worth the Risk?

Four days ago I posted the last of twelve pieces of flash fiction on Elixir’s sister site, Concise. I enjoyed the exercise although I gleaned only a few more followers for Concise. Attracting more readers was not, however,  the point of the exercise. My purpose was to (re)establish a daily writing habit. Risk Writing01

The abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand what I need: willpower; a room of my own; the cognitive, emotional and psychological space needed to write; and the self-belief necessary to shut the door on my partner, my family and my friends. I also need to combine the above with imagination, knowledge of craft and technique, and a vast reading history – because good writers read for pleasure and to learn from other writers. It’s all about commitment, really, and to commit is to ‘join, practise, entrust,’ and to ‘expose to risk. ‘ (OED).

To write, particularly to write and publish (in whatever form) can be risky. Is it acceptable, for example, for writers risk their relationships when no one reads what they write or don’t like the writer’s work?

I wonder how many writers have lost sleep over that question?

On the other hand, I read, many years ago, that if writing is hard then not writing is harder. Writing, like any art, always carries with it a degree of difficulty. The hours can be long, the loneliness alienating, the editing debilitating and the lack of financial return demoralising. Writers are known for ignoring their loved ones, compromising their health, and agonizing over book sales or their blog’s statistics.

But the alternative – not writing – is to risk losing your soul.

I committed to writing late in life. I tried and failed for years to avoid the truth of my obsession with stringing words together. So, yes, writing and posting twelve short, short stories has been worthwhile, not only because it helped me re-establish a regular daily writing habit but because it helped me reflect, once more, on why I enjoy writing, and it has nothing to do with gathering vast numbers of readers or followers.

In writing, a ‘theme’ is the underlying significance of the story or novel, its relevance, how it relates to life in all its manifestations. I was wrong when I said, above, that the abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand now that the underlying theme of my life has been avoiding risk.

This reminds of my favourite quotation, one I’d print out and display in various office spaces I worked in over the last thirty years:

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Katherine Mansfield
New Zealand author (1888 – 1923)

Mansfield’s quotation gradually helped me ignore my fears; I am a writer because I enjoy, most of the time, the complex and often troublesome task of communicating my ideas. I have also found that acting for myself is worth the risk. Risk Writing02

What is the ‘theme’ of your writing life? What do you give up in order to write?

A Journey, a Memoir: The Secret Ideology of Tourism Part I

My relationship with travel and tourism is complicated. My parents never expressed a desire to travel, I cannot remember waving farewell to extended family members heading overseas holiday, so the idea of travel was not part of my childhood. There’s no question that my recent trip to Europe was a powerful, pleasurable and deeply important experience but while writing the last few posts about the trip my discomfort with the politics of travel has rekindled. This is the first of two posts reflecting on tourism as a phenomenon. I intend to look outside my personal experience and examine the impact tourism has on the planet and on individuals’ lives.

I understand the human need to peek over the back fence, peer around the next corner or look past the horizon but when I read recently that everyone wants to travel I had to disagree. Some people like to travel, others are vagabonds for whom settling in one place is an anathema, but there are many who refuse to traipse around the world because they find planes, railway stations and sleeping in a different bed every night a challenge they cannot face.

Since my trip I fall into the crack between the two; I enjoyed and I disliked the experience at the same time. I believe this is normal. I also believe there are many ways a person can learn about the world and most of them do not require stepping past the front door.

A tour is ‘a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited,’ but tourism is ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’. (OED) Despite the obvious distinction, tourism – visits to celebrated cities, art galleries, museums, sacred sites and geographical wonders – is usually described as a moral ‘good’ and ‘tourists’ as benign consumers of the world’s bounty. But is tourism always for the good?

Australians, in particular, feel the need to experience the wonders of the Northern Hemisphere. From the late fifties through to the seventies droves of Australian Baby Boomers made an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the United Kingdom and Europe. Many, who despite being born in Australia, declared they were ‘going home’, if only for a visit.

What are the personal and cultural advantages of wedging oneself into a plane and leaving the comforts of home for exotic, unfamiliar or ancient sites? I believe there are three main claims to support tourism:

  1. Tourism exposes us to different cultures, beliefs, food, customs and ideas and creates a more informed, rounded individual. Travel enhances education and exposes us to different values, all of which leads to a better understanding of the self and of diversity
  2. Humans need a holiday. They need to escape from the pressures of life, to relax and have someone cook and clean for them. This is tourism as a mental health break, something to anticipate and, more importantly, to earn
  3. Tourism enhances the economy of a country or city. If tourists stop traveling, economies will suffer.

What counter claims can be made to the above?:

  1. The idea that tourism is a form of education is all very laudable but it risks objectifying the ‘other’ as, different, odd, cute, or even strange, thus confirming the tourist’s superiority and belief that their way of life is ‘better’ than the one they witness when away from home. Is this the origin of many an Australian tourist’s comment, upon return from an overseas holiday, that, ‘We’re the lucky country, all right, you’ll learn that when you go overseas.’ Does tourism reinforce racial prejudice, commodify other cultures, and risk imposing white Anglo-Saxon lifestyles on others races, cultures and classes? The notion that, ‘you’ll be a more rounded, better informed, less insular person once you’ve traveled,’ makes me wonder how and why travel per se grants entry to the august club of ‘travel improved citizens’? If overseas travel were truly educative, why the need to advertise it? The claim that travel exposes us to other cultures begs the question, ‘What really drives a desire to travel? Is it self-enhancement or a form of cultural prestige? An airline ticket merely confirms that tourists have the skills to plan and organise a trip, the good fortune to work in an industry that provides vacation pay, and the means to afford an overseas holiday. It doesn’t automatically grant the individual an open, curious and reflective attitude to the countries they visit
  2. A mental health break is certainly important but who caters to tourists’ needs while they escape the tribulations of everyday life? This question is better addressed by examining the third claim: tourism enhances the economy of the areas visited
  3. Is the claim that travel is motivated by benevolence justified? Who actually benefits from the injection of tourist dollars into the economy? Is it the person who picks towels up from the hotel bathroom floor? The manager of a cheap resort in Bali? Or is it the company that owns the hotel chain? Does the tourist dollar go to the wait staff in a French restaurant or the Travel Agency who planned and managed the traveling experience? Does a visit to Thailand include considering the resort hotel’s impact on the local infrastructure and environment?  Where does the rubbish left in hotel garbage bins end up? Next to the hotel, or in the rubbish dump behind the hill alongside the village where the hotel cleaner lives? And what about the carbon footprint incurred flying millions of tourists across the world?

While writing this post, I read that residents in Venice and Barcelona have declared they have had enough. The unrest incurred by tourism seems to be spreading, and may not be just a reaction to terrorism.  In the next post, I will examine why some citizens of  Europe are wary of the current state of the tourism industry.

A Journey, a Memoir: The Cyclist

Journeys imply place: visiting a specific location; experiencing different landscapes; discovering a new perspective. But journeys are also about people. During our trip, we avoided large hotel chains and opted to stay at Bed and Breakfasts or Airbnbs and as a result met several fascinating characters.

After coming off the M5 and, given Google Maps, enduring the uncertainty of England’s narrow country lanes, we were eager to see our first Bed and Breakfast, a classic Georgian home near Exeter in Devon.

It had two storeys, a large dining room and a parlour, all decorated in heavy, late Victorian age-thickened furniture and densely woven drapes in glowering reds and greens. I don’t have a green thumb, but I am sure there was an aspidistra standing in the corner of the parlour. We arrived hungry, tired and in need of somewhere to dine but our hostess was nowhere to be seen. We stood in the wide hall and coughed loudly, opened and shut the unlocked front door several times and eventually called out, to no avail. We could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere but could not identify which direction. Eventually, after our calls became louder, a door opened and the television’s babble momentarily flooded the hall above us. A male voice called, ‘Coming,’ and we looked towards the stairs to see a thin man with collar length, wispy hair plastered to his scalp and a welcoming smile punctuated by uneven, and in a couple of cases broken, teeth. His manners and upper-class speech were, however, impeccable. He took a piece of our luggage in each hand and ascended the steep staircase saying as he did so that the lady of the house would be back soon. He swung open the door to a room swathed in primrose coloured wallpaper with sheer pink curtains filtering the afternoon sun. We deposited our luggage, which had taken on a pink glow, and he showed us the powder blue and white shared bathroom, handed us the key and told us to make ourselves at home.

Our hostess appeared later and carefully dropped into the conversation that the man who greeted us was not her husband, only the lodger. We met our hostesses’ husband a day later when we almost let their dogs out on to the busy road and only just avoided a doggy tragedy. Our hostess, however, was unfazed; she was a cheerful, hard-working no-nonsense woman who ran several businesses and admitted to us the day before we left that if we were looking for accommodation akin to ‘Fawlty Towers‘ we’d come to the right place. In many ways, it was a little chaotic but we found everyone there, including the lodger, charming and helpful.

In County Clare, Ireland, a conversation with another landlady went amusingly wrong. The decor on this occasion was more muted, but the welcome just as warm. One morning at breakfast I spotted a large battery charging in the corner and commented on how impressed I was with the number of electric powered cars we’d seen in the UK and Ireland. I also described the public electric vehicle (EV) charge points we saw at the Motorway Service Areas (MSA) in England and that we needed more of them in Australia. Our hostess, a competent, bustling woman with an engaging Irish accent, looked a little confused, but the conversation continued amicably. It was only later when I was going back over our discussion that I realised it was not her car that was electric, but her golf cart (which I call a golf buggy), and certainly not something you’d drive along the M5 to have recharged.

Kilchreest Cemetery, Ballynacally, near Ennis, County Clare, Republic of Ireland.

In terms of the rich and famous, we had only one encounter, though sadly not with the real person. At yet another essential ‘comfort’ stop, this time while driving between Dublin and Limerick, we discovered an MSA named after the 44th President of the United States. The Barack Obama Plaza contained a petrol station, food court, toilets and a visitor centre detailing information about Obama’s Irish connections. We didn’t have time to visit the visitor centre or take our photos with the life-size cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the main hall but we were chuffed with finding this little bit of America in the middle of Ireland.

Finally, my favourite ‘character’ of the entire trip was another hostess in Ireland, this time in Galway. I promised to keep her identity a secret so I’ll call her ‘Kathleen’ and like all our hosts she was warm, friendly and helpful. She also had an energy and attitude I immediately warmed to. An hour after meeting her I felt like we’d been friends for years. On the first morning after arriving she described the easiest walking route from her home to the centre of Galway and wished us well.

We spent the day visiting several of Galway’s famous Celtic jewellers, locating the best pub for a traditional Irish lunch and Guinness, watching the local buskers, searching for an art gallery that, sadly, wasn’t open, locating Nora Barnacle’s home and unexpectedly coming across Charley Byrnes’ Bookshop, heaven for any bibliophile.

Charlie Byrnes
Charlie Byrne’s Book Shop

After a long day, we trudged back to our lodgings and were halfway there when we both heard a loud, vaguely familiar voice. We looked up to see a woman in a pink puffer jacket holding, with her right hand, her mobile phone to her left ear and steering her bicycle with her left hand. She was followed by a string of cars, reduced to travelling at her lazy speed. It was Kathleen, happily oblivious to the traffic trailing in her wake. When I later described the scene to her she smiled and said she had no idea who’d do such a thing. I agreed, promised I’d not tell her husband and asked if I could please share the tale as long as I never revealed her identity; and I never will. Kathleen, may your rides through Galway remain safe and true and thank you for making our stay the delight that it was. You and others like you helped me to understand that where place and character meet, memories and stories are made.

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A Journey, a Memoir: The Peace of Unknowing

I wrote barely a word during our recent trip to Europe and four days after turning the key, for the first time in nearly two months, in our front door, I struggle to write about our time away from home. I am determined, however, to share the best and worst of our seven weeks, so I have decided to create, over the next few posts, a memoir of our journey. Somewhere, buried in the image-album of my mind are scenes I want to share; still resounding in my brain are the sounds of unfamiliar but welcomed accents and greetings, tastes I registered, impressions I stored, sensations  I preserved. These and the vast, impromptu, barely stage managed theatre that was my journey across the world, are my sources. I hope I can do them justice. What I record in the next few weeks may not be chronological but grouped into themes: the characters we met; how we travelled from country to country; the delights or otherwise of using Airbnb; the food we tasted; even the places we longed to visit but had to miss; my reflections on what we saw, did and enjoyed.

We travelled, during seven short weeks, to Scotland (briefly) England, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. We stayed in seventeen different towns or cities, some for only one night, others for up to six nights. We had accommodation in twenty different Bed and Breakfasts or private homes (Air B&Bs) and one hotel (after I insisted, we leave the accommodation we had arranged and relocate to cleaner, more pleasant premises.) We travelled on a ferry to and from Ireland and again when we were in Greece, to and from Hydra. I cannot count the number of trains we waited for and travelled on but we took to the air, once in Europe, only once. This means some of my impressions are fleeting, while others seem to impose themselves on me as I go about unpacking, opening weeks old mail and choosing how to live the rest of my life.

Let me just say this; I did not like flying to Europe. I liked being there and I hope these posts will share the joy.

Glastonbury and  Cilwen

These were two of the first places we visited and among my favourites, although crossing the border from England to Wales meant we faced another long drive along the motorway. Despite the rain and dark clouds, I was surprised by the complex pull of Wales, the home of my paternal great-great grandparents and my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t a sense of ‘home’ or even a return; it was something deeper, something primal.   The folded green hills, grey skies and road signs bearing unfamiliar, consonant rich Welsh words above their English equivalent helped make the miles slide by. The sense of attachment increased later when I heard inflexions and rhythms of speech of the people I passed in the street.

Before entering Wales, however, we stopped in Glastonbury, Somerset, a half an hour’s drive off the M4. Steeped in legend and befuddled by controversy, Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly the burial place of King Arthur. Some archaeologists believe Chalice Well, at the foot of the Glastonbury Tor, has been in use for two thousand years. The water from the spring contains iron oxide, giving it a reddish hue which, like the hot springs in Bath, is said to have healing qualities.

We parked the hire car and headed for the tourist information service to purchase tickets for the Well; unfortunately, we didn’t have time to climb the Tor. As we located the well and climbed the hill above it, I didn’t know what to expect. I read and studied the myths, legends and spiritual beliefs of the ancient Celts decades ago but my studies often lead me to poorly researched material, misinformed conclusions and occasionally blatant fictions about the ancient beliefs of the first inhabitants of this area. We sat above the well for a short time. The hills were quiet and light rain fell. When it stopped we decided to descend to the well and sit on one of the nearby benches. All was silent and so we did not speak, awed by more than just the beauty of the place. I wasn’t searching for a message or revelation, I didn’t want to impose my confused feelings and beliefs on the peace we had found but as I sat I felt an inner wisdom uncoil: 'I cannot know', I thought or heard or perhaps understood, 'what I think I know, because at the end of all knowing is only mystery.

 

Knowledge dissolves and words uttered or written fade in the presence of a mystery older than human memory. As we made ready to leave, I pondered the ‘message’ and what it meant to me, who so values learning and knowledge. In the following weeks, during the daily routine of catching trains, finding our lodgings and places to eat that was my life, I occasionally reflected on and welcomed this new form of ‘unknowing.’

 

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Two hours later we arrived at Cilwen, a place of delicate peace and beauty created by two gracious men dedicated to making their lives simpler and sharing that simplicity with others.

 

Both Somerset and Wales will remain places where I learned the importance of sitting and letting go of expectations and anxieties. By nestling into the stillness of sites sacred to thousands of generations, and refuges built from love, the silence of simply being reveals new understandings and kindles old memories.

Goldilocks on the M5, and Down the Lane.

By tradition, Goldilocks is a golden-haired child prone to wandering off alone and intruding on others’ space. In fact, she was originally ‘Silverhair’ a cantankerous old woman who took umbrage when her new neighbours, the Bears, neglected to invite her to tea. In the tradition of adaptation, my Goldilocks is neither a crotchety old woman or a mischievous girl but a mature aged adventurer with feminist leanings and, as mentioned in the last post has metaphorically ‘accompanied’ me on our trip to Europe to shore up my wavering confidence.

The twenty-two-hour plane trip and the first night in Glasgow was as exciting as my partner and I thought it would be as was our train trip from Glasgow to Bristol via Edinburgh, passing, among other places, Newcastle, York and Birmingham. Our journey provided tantalising glimpses of the English countryside, as well as factories, parking lots, back yards, an odd castle or two and numerous railway stations.  DSC_0044 It also gave us a chance to meet several passengers who, as they alighted the train greeted us, chatted amicably and, when they disembarked, wished us well on our journey. Once in Bristol we collected our hire care and headed for the city of Exeter.

That was when we were confronted, finally, by difference, by peculiarity and by our foreignness; the M5, even the M4, is not a place for the faint-hearted. Australia’s population is over 24 million, which is about 3.1 people per square kilometre, though we tend to cling to the coast so traffic can be frantic and confronting, particularly in the eastern states. Britain’s population is 62 million, or 255 people per square kilometre, and on the day we drove to Exeter it seemed double that number wanted to pass us as we tentatively motored through Devon. Every other motorist was familiar with their destination, the road rules and the road signs. Even Google Maps chiming in every so often, telling us to ‘leave the roundabout, take the third exit to the A4976’, a location we had not heard of but a destination Gaynor Google-Maps (as we later dubbed her), assured us would lead to our Bed and Breakfast, left us perplexed and wary.

We misunderstood several of Gaynor’s instructions and misread road signs. My partner, who’s doing all the driving, countervailed my (and Gaynor’s) instructions, accused her of confusing him, or me of wilfully misinterpreting his questions. When we arrived at our first Bed and Breakfast we were shaken and exhausted.

The next day more ‘fun’ was had finding the magnificent Exeter Cathedral – or, in fact, a free car park nearby – and the following day, Powderham castle, which has been in the same family for one thousand years and houses the young earl, his wife and their two small children.  P1030294Both these and other venues were more than worth the hassle of locating them and even though English country laneways are narrow and lined by high hedges, we quickly learned how to pull over when confronted by a car coming in the opposite direction and the correct form for acknowledging drivers who needed to pull over for us. The lanes are no less discombobulating than the M5, but are certainly more stately in terms of speed.

In the meantime our holiday has begun, Goldilocks has returned to the land where her story first appeared and we cannot help but agree with William Blake; England, despite the M5, is a ‘green and pleasant land’, and her people are charming, generous and kind.

(This blog was written in the full awareness of the tragic events in Manchester and, more recently,  London. Our thoughts and sympathies go to the families and friends of those whose lives were tragically taken and we bear a deep respect for the spirit and valour of the people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. May peace come to all citizens, residents and travellers who love this verdant land.)

 

Travelling Goldilocks

When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth. 

Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.

Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.

Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.

And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.

As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.

These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.

But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.

When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.

I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.

I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,

Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.

By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.

Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).

 

Imagination: Why I love to Write, Part 4

Imagine is an ancient word, borrowed from the Old French, from the Latin ‘imaginari’, which means, ‘to picture oneself’ although imagine currently means to form a picture in one’s mind.

To write is to imagine, not just an image but an idea, thought, impression, place, even a feeling. Can you imagine being present when the words below were first uttered or written? What or who do you imagine prompted them?  What happened next?

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

Henry David Thoreau

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

J. K. Rowling