31. July 2018 · Comments Off on Midsummer synchronicities · Categories: Uncategorized

Is it my imagination, or is my life turning full circle? Is the universe conspiring with my soul to tie up a thousand and one loose ends in readiness for moving on? And where do Ibiza potatoes fit into the scheme of things?

Silage being cut in the far meadow on June 21st

With a predicted long hot summer snapping at our heels, it seemed a meeting in London’s Notting Hill (http://www.lifelines-uk.org.uk/) provided a good excuse for extending it into a midsummer break.

My now Canadian daughter and grandson were here for the solstice. On the afternoon of the 21st, they paddled around Clunie Loch with Piotr Gudan who just a few weeks before, had been addressing the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh about the need to conserve this country’s unique environment through responsible tourism rather than slapdash and ruinous development. (https://www.outdoorexplore.org.uk/lochsriverssea)

Buffy, Piotr and Max paddling off to outdoor explore; note the lifejackets!

Seems we had to have a man in charge back then also: my father. If he had known I took the leaky boat out alone, he would have been very cross; no health and safety measures back then, so I guess he had a point!

As I watched them dip and splash off into the distance, I remembered how on my first visit to Forneth House in 1951 (my aunt had just married the laird), I had explored the loch by rowboat. I was eleven, my grandson Max (67 years later) just one year older. At that time there was no-one to tell me about the local wildlife, and the remarkable history of the area. Thankyou Piotr for two and a half hours of informative fun; apparently it was a high spot.

The next day, the three of us travelled to Edinburgh, while Akii stayed home to cat sit. I took the train onwards to Kings Cross (four and half hours of scenic bliss) while Buffy and Max signed into the Haymarket Hub Hotel; they had an early flight back to Toronto the next morning.

London is always a shock of the system these days. Funny to think I lived and raised my family there for 20 years and took so much for granted. Now it seems crowded, fast and very young. Maybe it always was, but then such things are always relative.

Very conscious of a new knee and far-too-large-a wheelie case (note: must buy something that is inbetween a weekender and six-week round-the-worlder) I arrived in Brixton and exited the station into chaos. In the 1960s and 70s, the population was largely Caribbean (where the Windrush generation had settled). Now it’s mixed beyond measure, and so loud. Very friendly though, and everywhere so helpful. Towards the end of my trip, I counted up half a dozen young-ish men who had carried my case up stairs at different points north and south of the river, each one saying “If I hadn’t, my mother would never have forgiven me.” (Still trying to work this out…)

Jack has spent the last couple of years collating memorambilia to donate to various organisations and institutions. Much her mother’s ‘stuff’ is now lodged with the Fife Archives in Kirkaldy. The Issey Miyake outfit (with provenance), made from fabric that she painted and helped design in the 1960s, was bought at auction by the Manchester City Galley. Such clearances have allowed her and Tony to move into a minimalist phase of lifestyle that is both easy to care for and live in (and refreshing for someone who lives amid clutter!)

I stayed three comfortable and relaxed nights with Tony (https://tonyrickaby.co.uk/) and Jack (http://jacqui-mclennan.com/) in the terrace house they have lived for over 40 years. I have known Jack since 1960, when she was a student at Coventry Art School, along with Roger Jeffs (who I subsequently married) and John Bowstead (who initially married Jack but [after she moved in with one of his students, Tony] I later lived with for near on a decade.)

Time for Jack and I to share memories and fill in the gaps in timelines … (and another trio for Sunday breakfast, with their friend Judy!)

It was a tangled web we wove in our youth, but amazingly we are all still in touch, and remain very fond. Jack and I spent many hours trying to fill in the gaps in our memories. For example, who was the Canadian student, a painter called Gary-something, whom they brought along to my 21st birthday party in Cheylesmore, Coventry, in May 1961? Gary Nairn, Jack recalled.

On the Sunday, after breakfast at Borough market, Tony drove me to Battersea, where I visited a friend from my Queen’s Park days. Maggie was one of several women I knew there, who all – including me – married their lodgers. Now nearing 80, she has Alzheimer’s, and Andy (20 years younger) is her self-appointed carer. While not remembering exactly who I was, she took my hand when we walked to the bus stop three hours later, so allowing me to believe there was a recognition on some level.

When I went to Japan in 1986, Maggie was my most loyal correspondent. I still have all her letters, those being the not-so-long-ago days when people still put pen to paper. She wrote in a tiny but beautifully clear hand, describing her day-to-day in minute detail… It’s a cruel condition that disallows such activities and memories…

On the fourth day I crossed London to Euston to take the train to Coventry. This is where I grew up (in what was then more a bomb site than a city), and after completing the required probationary year as an accredited teacher, was so relieved to leave in 1962. More recently though it won the bid for City of Culture in 2021 (https://coventry2021.co.uk/) so there is a quite a buzz.

I took a taxi to St James church in Styvechale. This in itself was a huge time-slip, passing Cheylesmore’s Quinton Pool, which in my childhood was a puddle around which rubbish was tipped. Now it’s a place of beauty, with waterbirds, and fringed with mature willows. I was driven past roads where primary school friends had once lived… past the end of the road to the croft where I grew up… past John’s own childhood home…

No-one is there of course; rituals are for the living, not the dead…

At the church, closed but basking in sunlight, I spent some time at the stone – a piece of granite, chosen by my mother to cover my father’s ashes after his death in 1962. Now she is there too, together with my sister; both died in 2007 within months of one another. I had carried a miniature rose bush from Euston, along with my case and shoulder bag, but decided to plant it in the garden of remembrance rather than close by the stone; no room among the leaf litter.

Place names so often take me back…

Then a bus to Pool Meadow, where the bus station always was, and still is, if much improved. There was even a very welcome gelateria outside one entrance! (It was so hot.) Waiting for the bus to Stratford-upon-Avon, another passed by heading for Nuneaton via Bulkington. This is where Roger grew up, with memories of his mother saving scrupulously all rubber bands and bits of string, and his father in the garden, teaching me about fruit and veg.

The route to Stratford was disappointing. I had hoped the bus would follow the route to school I took morning and evening, along the Warwick Road (past King Henry V111 grammar school where John, Mike and Rick went), past the stables where I learned to ride, past the convent where my sister was sent to school, past Canley Woods (birthday picnics) and on through Kenilworth, and so to Warwick. Instead it seemed mostly to hurtle along a motorway.

We did get to Warwick, but via Leamington Spa, looking very spruced up and smart: the Jephson Gardens, where my parents took us every summer to see the illuminations, preceded by an iced bun at the tearoom, and the bridge over the River Avon were so much smaller than remembered, but then they would be, wouldn’t they.

Crossing the bridge over the same river into Warwick again transported me into the past, and one that I could remember rather more clearly. So much of my early days are blurred beyond belief, with huge gaps in recollection.

There was the castle. There was my school (http://www.kingshighwarwick.co.uk/).

And not so much time after, there was Sarah. Crossing the road from her car (four door, with a clutch!) as I waited on the steps of the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.

Sarah was one of my best friends at school. Others thought her whacky, eccentric… to me she was heroic, brave and subversive. She pinned up copies of Old Masters over sports fixtures, stayed behind after hours to take up floorboards and crawl under the hall floor to rescue a cat that our headmistress, Miss Hare, had decreed would find its own way out or meet a deserving natural end. Being a rather shy and fearful child, which is probably why I liked acting, putting on masks to hide insecurities, I thought her wonderful. And still do…(https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/jun/09/charity-writers-room-of-ones-own-woolf)

Her parents and my own were also very much known to one another. While her mother was a sculptor, her father, Hugh Hosking, was head of Coventry Art School. Not only did he give my own mother a job at Hillcrest, a facility in a different part of the city, teaching fashion and dressmaking, but he was also in charge when Jack, John and Roger (and Gary Nairn) were students, seeing them off to the Slade and Royal College of Art in London with some old-school bemusement, scepticism even; were they really all so good? It was the time when Pop Art ruled rather than classicism.

It was Hugh Hosking who, having seen me onstage in various school plays, told my parents that they ought to send me to stage school. Sarah remembers me in ‘Matilda” as being “utterly charming”. Maybe he saw me instead in ‘The Winter’s Tale’? I rather hope so. As a seventeen-year-old, the role of Paulina would have been far more challenging.

Sarah and I each remembered meeting one another just once since 1957. I recalled visiting her in a cottage with a lot of cats (she still lives in a cottage with lots of cats, but in a different part of the country), with a pale callow youth lingering behind her chair. “Aha,” she guffahed, “that must have been when I was thinking to marry a curate.” (She never did, never married anyone.)

She then asked if I remembered bumping into her on north London’s Kilburn High Road in the 1970s. She was doing a course with the Arts Council. I was a young mum but also working for an American syndication company, Transworld Feature Syndicate inc. of NY, in Holborn: “You were wearing a long dark brown PVC mac, tightly cinched at the waist. “(Good to know that after two babies I still had a waist!)

Her studies at the Arts Council stood her in good stead when she set up a charity to help older women writers. (She’s had quite a career: academic, author, property developer and now philanthropist.) While I was in Japan, she was giving time, space and money to over 100 women to work on the widest array of literary projects imaginable. So impressive. (https://hoskinghouses.co.uk/wp/)

Walking back from dinner in town – a splendid vegan restaurant that looked after us very well, she being a well-known local figure – we passed the cottage where the current tenant (a poet) was watering the garden…. We then strolled down a path into the dusk, past Sarah’s chickens, to the River Slough, where a small rowboat was moored: another facility to be enjoyed by scribers seeking inspiration or simply relaxation.

Elemental dear Sarah…

Sitting out in Sarah’s lovely tangled garden as the moon rose above the roof of 22 Duck Lane, with dog Daisy at our feet, the cats strolling around, and more than a hint of Shakespearean magic in the air, I thought it the perfect end to an extraordinary day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling to Somerset the next day was a doddle until the train got to Westbury, where it decided to go into meltdown. Yes, the track and points ahead had so expanded in the heat that we could go no further. Staff were apologetic and after much hand-wringing got taxis organized for the nine of us bound for the stop ahead: Castle Carey. Here poor Sandy had been waiting for me for over an hour…

I stayed four nights with her and John (a demographer about to leave for India) in their beautiful home – a sixteen-century manor house with five acres in the Vale of Avalon – purchased a decade before with the proceeds of the sale of a terrace house in Shepherd’s Bush, West London.

Another haven of calm and peacefulness… I feel truly blessed to have have such good friends in                     such lovely places…

My time there culminated with a lunch party for nine at which I found myself sitting next to Delia da Silva whose husband Peter Allen was chief technician at the RCA at the same time Jack had been there studying textiles and print. The poor man had just been told he could no longer drive, as his eyesight failing, so that burden also falling onto his already stressed-out wife.

It was a jolly bunch in the main. Swiss-Peruvian jeweller Solange Zamora I had met before, at the dinner party she had thrown a few nights earlier in her garden, with a distant view of Glastonbury Tor in moonlight under a starry sky.

Another local, American artist Candace Bahouth, was sharing an exhibition in Bath with the designer Kaffe Fassett. When Sandy and I knew him in the mid-1970s, working together on the book Wild Knitting, he was a knitwear and (like Candace) tapestry designer. (Sandy subsequently edited his most famous knitwear book.) Now he has a 101 creative fingers in as many creative pies, with a multitude of makers to support and implement his interests and talents. By contrast Candace works mostly alone, showing in this instance some of her marvellous mirrors with intricate mosaic surrounds. (mosaicbahouth.com)

Frances and Jamie Howard have a bookshop in Glastonbury. (Sandy and I had popped into The Gothic Image the previous day while shopping, but she had been elsewhere.) He organises tours of ancient sacred sites, largely in Scotland, so providing us with the possibility of much to talk about. But they all knew one another very well, and were much enjoying catching up. I was the outsider, and quite tired after a morning of helping prep the occasion. But it was fine; I was quite happy to sit back and speak only when spoken to.

No wailing women here, only Delia, Sandy and Solange, happily at lunch…

 

Fifty six years ago… I wonder whatever happened to Trevor, whose body stocking and fig leaf fitted him rather better than my own fitted me…

It was on hearing the word Coventry at some point that Delia sat up and announced: “Oh yes, I was in the Coventry Mystery Plays in 1962, when the new cathedral was inaugurated. I played one of the wailing women.”

“Good heavens,” I replied, “I was in it to, I played Eve, (in a pale pink body-stocking loaned from the RSC’s wardrobe in Stratford).”

We could not remember one another (in the cast of hundreds), but she easily recalled the name of the director, Neil Stair (whose surname was another I had forgotten), while I have always been able to summon up that of his partner Rex Chell. What an amazing coincidence, she remarked, quite astonished. To which I stayed quiet, believing there is no such thing as coincidence, only synchronicity.

Much more truly amazing was the river view from the apartment in Canary Wharf, back in London, where I spent my last night.

Another dear Sarah, waiting for the phone to ring to get her own new knee…

Sarah – another Sarah, known since our babies were small in Kilburn, and who had also married a lodger – had only recently sold her house in Queen’s Park and now divides her time between the Isle of Dogs and a casita and orange grove in Spain. Adrian was back there while she waited for a knee replacement operation in London. (We are all at an age when our bodies are complaining, even giving up on us…) Obviously in a lot of pain, the misery of which I could remember all too well, time was passing slowly…

There’s a knack to knowing the right time to leave any party…

I’m not surprised however they felt no need for a TV! There was a fairground at Greenwich, and watching the river traffic kept us amused until late… tourist boats bustling to and fro, commuters heading home on river busses, a beautifully restored barge, and after dusk, a convoy of corporate party boats, with video screens, pulsing lights and synchronized reggae beats, accompanied by screams of laughter and (presumably) enjoyment. We were even able to swiftly report a fire – billows of dense black smoke – on the south side, and hear engines racing to the rescue; the remembrance of Grenfell Tower was too painful to do otherwise.

On the back north I say beside a woman travelling to Inverness with her husband. They were potato farmers on Ibiza.

“Is Ibiza big enough for potato farming?” I asked in a state ignorance, prejudiced by media reports of hen parties, stag dos, and partying as if there is no tomorrow.

“Oh yes,” I was told. “The mahem is pretty localized. Of course the island is more built up than it used to be, but there are still pockets of agriculture. Like the Jersey potato, the Ibiza potato is much prized.”

(Ibiza, pronounced by British tourists as Ibitha, was originally Catalan Eivissa, from the Arabic yabisa, from the Latin erebus, from Phoenician and meaning ‘dedicated to the gods’.)

It was amazing, we agreed, that earlier that morning she and her husband had been mucking out and feeding the animals before heading for the airport for the flight to Edinburgh. How small the world was. How crazy – how rooted in fantasy – the concept of Brexit; what was the UK thinking? How breathtaking it was for them to see such open vistas, such expansive landscapes. How beautiful was Scotland.

I had a lot to think about when I finally arrived home, having dedicated my journeying and safe return to the gods.

I am still thinking about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

09. July 2018 · Comments Off on Incidental wisps of summer · Categories: Uncategorized

The Egyptian born and raised Italian-American writer and academic Andre Aciman, once wrote: “Rituals are the buildings blocks of life, my way of cobbling an entire summer together from incidental wisps.”

 What follows could be described as incidental wisps of my own as this summer cobbles itself together in unexpected but welcome fashion.

EARLY SUMMER: LETTING GO

I took John’s advice (from my previous blog). Crossed the new bridge that Akii had built (an old ladder laid to rest). Sat under the newly planted willow by the burn side on an upturned log. Invited my mother and sister to join me, moved mind, body and spirit into spi-ritual mode.

I touched my face with sage, placed sprigs between my toes.The sun shone thin but clear. A breeze blew, gentle and comforting. Water ran over pebbles and around rocks, creating music of a kind.

I told my dears how much I missed them (in a way). Asked their forgiveness for not being kinder and more supportive throughout their troubled lives. Prayed for us all to move on, leaving behind all blame and resentment, relinquishing my sadness and guilt.

I waited, breathing in the aroma of the herbs as I dabbled my toes in the water. Then, throwing the sage into the burn, to be carried away on the current, their voices came on the wind.

NO NEED, I heard.

BE LOVED.

LET US GO.

So I did. Let them go to continue their journeying in other worldly states, while I more freely and lightly continue my own in this…

Later I walked the labyrinth in beautiful evening light, stopping occasionally to pick up branches and twigs blown from overhanging trees during the gale of the night before. And what did I hear? CLEARING THE PATH. To what I am now wondering… To editing my new book, for sure. But maybe the new and unexpected? After months of slow recovery, you have no idea how good such words sound.

 

03. May 2018 · Comments Off on The spiral staircase · Categories: Uncategorized

This famed spiral staircase, designed by Gustave Eiffel, now restored to its   full breathtaking beauty. St Pancras Rennaisance Hotel/ Railway Station,                          London

Not my own title, I must quickly admit. Rather lifted with respect from Karen Armstrong’s second book, which memoirs her journey from seeking God via the Catholic church (which broke her as a novitiate nun) to writing her way back to health, a belief in God and the freely unstructured rewards of an active spiritual life. These in turn became the underpinnings of her career.

I first read The Spiral Staircase in Japan. Thinking my copy had got lost in the move to Scotland, I was surprised and delighted to be handed it back by a new friend made here in 2014, to whom I had apparently lent it. Liz had subsequently become ill and disappeared from my life until this month, when she resurfaced, much better, and with a pile of books and DVDs to be returned with thanks.

She had found this title especially very moving, the symbolism of T.S. Elliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, published as a foreword, offering great comfort. So I have taken a second look at Karen Armstrong’s memoir, and found an interesting connection. A message, if you like.

The concluding paragraph of my last blog (www.angelajeffs.co.uk) reads as follows: Basically, I’m ready to go… but not necessarily eastwards, rather onward and upwards. Or even sideways, preferably putting one word in front of another towards completion. Then – my latest manuscript having been drafted in 2012   – I can really move on.

But could I? How? And then I made the connection. Or rather a connection that seemed helpful.

Eliot’s poem is both clever and moving, spiralling upwards from one state of mind (depressed, stuck) to another (purposeful, hopeful). But he had stairs. He was climbing a spiral staircase: a symbolic spiral staircase that enables the reader, without really realising it, to move around and around ever upwards into the light of recovery mode.

In my last home in Japan I had stairs with sharp turns, up and down. The photograph on page 65 of Household Stories/Katei        Monogatari, print to order from     Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk

In my last home in Japan I had stairs with sharp turns, up and down. They kept me fit and lively, helped sharpen my mind, kept me on my toes. Here I have none. The croft is single storey, which I thought a good thing initially, but now I am wondering…

I have the labyrinth – that’s a spiral like no other – but being described in turf, it’s on the flat.

Now I know why having to negotiate stairs in the outside world – shops, restaurants, anywhere with flights of stairs to negotiate – I am so troubled. My new knee especially does not like them; it’s unpractised.

So yes, I need to do something about this, on both a physical and creative level. And quickly. With another birthday looming, there’s no time to waste.

I have become unpractised in my spiritual journey. I read articles written for Jacinta’s website (www.embracetransition.com) between 2011 and 2016, and am astonished at the speed at which I was travelling, not only going forwards, but upwards -spiralling skywards –  and downwards, ever deeper. What happened? Why did I stop?

No point in blaming our home for not having stairs. Time to get fit some other way…

I think the health of my physical body suddenly took precedence. As mobility decreased, my focus shifted. My concerns were more mundane and everyday: at the most basic level, getting from point A to B without falling over. But however careful I tried to be, I still found balance immensely challenging.

I fell three weeks before surgery in December last year. Then I fell again six weeks after. My confidence fell to an all time low: I was less my Self than I had been in many years.

Time then to reclaim my Self, which has been relegated to misery and fear. Time to stand up for my Self, dust it down and give it a good polish, so that I can see clearly again.

Needing some tools (other than a good clean cloth and some muscle power) I messaged John Black, who facilitates Celtic medicine, makes Celtae drums and manages a Sacred Stone retreat in Portugal. With John’s work is nature based, could he, would he suggest any shamanic rituals I could practise towards making apology.

My feet had become bad towards the end of April, making walking very painful, excruciating even. Having been making such great progress with my knee, this really brought me down again. Was I never even going to get back to normal, normal meaning being able to work in the garden, walk down the road to see neighbours, complete my exercise programme, etc.

What it raised from the past was memories of my mother’s own problems with her feet. I remembered pushing her hard in Japan to walk ever farther because I so wanted her to see everything, while knowing at the time that she was in agony. She tried to please me, but I gave little to nothing back. Some 80th birthday present! Where was my sympathy, let alone empathy?

It was the same with my sister. How did I respond to her severe disability, her life severely challenged from the age of 16 by rheumatoid arthritis, and wheelchair-bound for years at a time? I was irritated. Why could I not have had a normal sister? The childishness, even nastiness of this does not escape me. Simply makes me feel terrible, sad, and very very sorry indeed.

The beauty and power of water: A wonderful         photograph from 1950s Japan...

Celtic John replied: In making any apology, it is always our own feelings of guilt and shame we are dealing with. No-one is perfect; nobody can always say and do the right thing. Also, karmically speaking, maybe what we have said and done is actually the right thing, enabling the situation to move on. What I find best is to sit
next to water – water is the cleanser. Bless your Self with natural water, allow your feelings to express themselves. Take sage with you. Breathe this in too, allowing whatever words that come from the depths of your being to rise to your lips… Feel the forgiveness for your Self, and send it to whoever it is, or whatever the situation is that you are apologising to. The best ritual arises from within; it’s not fixed but flows free from the heart. Hope this helps. 

Leila, who is a herbalist in Kirkmichael and studying to be a shaman, also offered advice in the form of two useful online links (I have no problem in asking for help): http://www.shamanic.net/on-forgiveness/
If you feel that you need a guiding hand then you may be interested to contact Brian Anderson in Methven: http://www.oakenleaf.co.uk/

I feel blessed to once again have so much wisdom made available, and now sense many kindly hands leading me forward. I shall start this weekend. Limp down to the burn. And sit on the bridge that Akii built. (Not bad for a Tokyo city boy who with woodworking skills limited to what he learned in school over 50 years ago, has never made anything practical in his life.) Then with a bunch of freshly picked sage in hand, I shall dangle my feet in the cooling water and wait for whatever bubbles up.

12. April 2018 · Comments Off on A long hard winter · Categories: Uncategorized

Mid-March: Akii grimaced this morning, as he read that it was 4 degrees celsius in Tokyo, and not a petal of pink in sight. Tourists are pouring in from the world over for hanami (cherry blossom viewing time) and shivering from head to foot, poor things. They had packed for Spring, and Japan is not the only place where this lovely season is far behind.

February into March the snow just came coming… Being in a valley we are protected to some degree; not so far away roads were impassable and neighbours and friends snowed in for days. And not only in Scotland!

This time last year our land was awash with golden daffodils. This year the buds are just above ground, and the snowdrops still hard to tell from the white stuff that until just a day or so ago continued to fall from ominous clouds from the east. Weather people say the jet stream is returning to flow from the West, and they ought to know. Note that I use the word ‘ought’ rather than ‘should’; the latter is a word I am attempting to banish from my vocabulary. There are no ‘shoulds’…

Thanks to Barbara Bayer, who posted this beautiful shot of a famed shidare-zakura (weeping cherry) from where she lives north of Tokyo. The sakura map that appears on Japanese TV throughout the cherry season, shows buds opening in Tohoku, northern Honshu. But this fine specimen is at its peak of perfection, with petals just beginning to fall… Japan’s best-loved symbol of impermanence.

Mid-April: Not that much has changed, except that Japan is now awash in pink. Here the snowdrops are fading but still looking fresh in hidden pockets of garden. As for daffoldils, they are about to pop. But when?

Time to move on from weather, because Nature does its thing in its own good time. Let’s look to the positive in this moment.

I’m feeling better. Stronger. More grounded. This after a fall in late February that left me looking like a zombie from The Living Dead.

I am shocked by how much my confidence has been rocked by this most recent fall. Whatever next, I wonder, which makes me tentative as never before.

What happened? I was trying to get back to normal, whatever ‘normal’ is, or was back then, recovering from the knee surgery in mid-December last year. Hard to remember now, and why bother, except to clarify. I know I was reaching to water an indoor plant and lost my balance, twisting as I fell to save the knee, and so crashing into the hearth, fire-irons and wood-burning stove. I found some blood on the corner of the wall the other day, so am guessing I hit that too.

What else? After two spouse visas of two and a half years each, Akii being granted residency in the UK, six weeks after putting in his application to the Home Office. (He was told it might take six months!)

Once again it was stressful beyond belief, for him that is. I had reached a point of accepting that if denied – and he would have just four weeks to leave – we would return to Japan. He would go first and I stay to sort out and pack up, the opposite of how we left Japan. Judging by my reaction when the letter arrived, there had been a part of me hoping that it would be bad news … though not for him, because he loves being here: no stress, he claims. Now we have choices, I wrote on Facebook. But the truth is I’m not good with choices; it’s why I hate shopping. Having the choice to go back to Japan is different from having to. What a surprise to learn after so long that I prefer things to be more cut and dried.

What was the plan if we had no choice but to return to Japan? Maybe to live in Wakayama Prefecture, where there is an Ueda-family house we could potentially move into on Koyasan, a sacred mountain with some 60 Buddhist temples. Akii get a job as a tour guide; his English is certainly good enough after five years in the UK, with life in Scotland enriching his language skills with words like burn, and bonnie, and cringe-worthy colloquialisms like lang may your lum reek, literally meaning ‘long may your chimney smoke, but the best way to wish fellow Scots a long and happy life. I say ‘fellow’, because as Abby (who grew up locally but now lives and works near Aberdeen) commented on Facebook: “This is fantastic news? You must be all so relieved. Akii: our new and permanent resident Scot!”

Me in Japan? Do what I do here, but in a renewed mindset. Beyond that, maybe simply be.

Anyway, here we are, with no plans beyond today:

The burn running with snow melt to sweep away winter detrius, and our septic tank appearing to begin naturally unblocking. (Crossed fingers on this one.)

Healing. My knee, that is, so feeling more grounded, and more mobile.

Rowan (from Edinburgh), Kelly (Essendy), Jane (Spittlefield), Fiona (Glasgow) and Marion (Meigle) met to write their minds alive (Proprioceptive Writing) on February 3.

With March 3 cancelled due to snow, three chose to meet on Easter Saturday, with Anneke travelling from Grantully, Wendy from Balbeggie and Gordon, Crieff. All three found their WRITES covered very similar areas of interest and concern.

My published book and monthly writing meets are moving along nicely. As for my new book, it’s in its own blocked pipeline: first draft done but progress halted by I know not what! But I know that I shall get back to it when the time is right, which will also come in its own good time. In the meantime, I busy about with this and that, trying not to fret.

Basically, I’m ready to go… but not necessarily eastwards, rather onward and upwards. Or even sideways, preferably putting one word in front of another towards completion. Then – this manuscript having been drafted in 2012 – I can really move on.

01. February 2018 · Comments Off on GOOD LUCK! · Categories: Uncategorized

 

They are an odd collection. An accumulation of small objects grouped together in no particular order on the base of my Muji lamp to the right of my computer. This in turn stands on the old headmaster’s desk (rescued from a private school being demolished in London’s NW2 in the 1970s) that I write on.

Some of the objects are relatively new. A few have been here quite a while, having made the journey from Japan to Scotland in 2013.

All, I suppose, are associated with luck. The good kind of luck, not the bad, which I would not wish on anyone.

It’s a phrase we use without too much thought, a kind of useful tool to help others on their way, in the everyday, in life itself: Good luck!

Every culture has its own form of similar encouragement. In France, a near literal interpretation: Bonne chance.

In Spanish-speaking countries, Bueno suerte.

In Swahili, Bahati njema.

In Japan, it’s more complicated. (Most things are.) Never use the phrase Kouhn wo oinori shimasu face-to-face, and only when addressing a stranger or acquaintance; it’s too polite for common usage. People would laugh, I’m told.

Address a friend about to take an exam, Gambatte kudasai. If calling to a parent off to start a new job, Gambaryro! Neither imply luck of any kind, but rather are an encouragement to endure difficulty. Typical Asian pragmatism.

The English word luck is defined as fortune, good or bad. Not physical fortune (ie a pile of gold coins), but one rooted in the metaphysical. It’s connected to fate, destiny. We reach out into the unknown and, touching wood (something I do near instinctively), pray for the best. (I’m trying to keep hope out of my vocabulary, having a dubious and even negative context.)

I will never know who FS was, initials carved into the desk long before it came to me. I used their ‘appearance’ as the basis of a short horror story back in October last year, a project set for members of The Clunie Roses, a private writing group on Facebook founded after my last course. 

I asked my Japanese husband if he believed in luck and he said no.

Why?

“Because it’s silly.”

But Japan is a very superstitious country…

“Yes, but only because we learn to be, from education, from our family…”

His mother, aunt, uncle, grandmother were all superstitious, he said, wasting so much time and money on palm-readings, clairvoyants, talismans and charms.

“They relied on them in life. None of them took responsibility for their own good fortune, made something of their lives. They were all disappointed.”

An extreme? Maybe. But with a good point. That maybe we need to make our own good luck, rather than expecting it to manifest via unknown, unseen forces.

Or maybe there is a balance to be found: that middle-ground again.

It has taken a while to find my own. I grew up with a mother who was so other-worldy that she found it hard to ground herself in reality. My father was the opposite: by staying in the safe zone of practicality, he missed out on swathes of possibility. Yet he was the one who wanted to take advantage of the government’s £10 passage scheme to Australia in the 1950s; she was the one who said no, fearful of risk and losing the little security they had. They were a complicated couple.

When my father wanted to cut down a rowan tree, planted as a sapling in the back garden, my mother went berserk. Rowans protected against witchcraft and enchantment, she insisted. Cutting one down would be bad luck.

I wonder if she also knew (on some level) that in Nordic mythology, it was the tree from which the first woman was created. (https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/rowan2/)

Siding with my father through childhood, as daughters often do, I put aside such thoughts and raised my own children not to be superstitious. Or so my own daughter told me the night I flew to Buenos Aires from Toronto in 1999. It was Halloween, which Canada (having jumped on America’s pumpkin train) celebrates big time.

I was freaked, spooked, not liking flying very much anyway, and embarking on a trip that was as much about chasing my grandfather’s ghost as being rooted in any sensible rhyme or reason. I write about this experience in Chasing Shooting Stars (Amazon.co.uk), published in 2013.

But back to my desk, which has always served me well. I wonder if the initials carved into it have made their creative mark over the years? Or is it simply that I have always tried to put the desk to good use. Respected it. Loved it. Good energy is – and creates – good energy.

As for the objects, let me remind myself of how they came to be here, where they came from, how they help, if that is what they do – or I choose to believe they do.

The black ammonite – the fossilized spiral shell of an extinct sea creature – has (by far) the longest history… Azzah gave it to me years ago, after one of her visits to our house in Zushi.

(You can read about her in Chasing Shooting Stars, and Household Stories/Katei Monogatari (www.amazon.co.uk) published late last year via Amazon’s print-to-order self-publishing facility, Create Space. If in the USA, order from www.amazon.com; if in Japan, www.amazon.co.jp

If there are other links being used, it would be good to hear of them – Europe, the Antipodes, etc.)

Quite often when beginning to write, I hold this cool object in the palm of my hand to bring me, what? Luck, I suppose. As in a positive connection of some kind that will encourage my words forward…

Often I add the grey stone bearing the image of a raven, sent me to me by my Aunt Jo for Christmas one year. It was such an unlikely gift for a pragmatist; she despised superstition and dismissed mysticism as fanciful. (The exact opposite to her sister, my mother.) The following year she sent a similar stone bearing an insect. How I wish I knew her mindset at that time.

There is a smooth crystal that I think James gave me. An equally smooth blue stone heart from Julia, with a small blemish that sparkles. (Julia often brought me bits and pieces she picked up around the house, on the beach.)

Where the pale pink and pale blue stones came from I have no idea. Very un-me. And yet, here they sit, claiming their space.

There is a piece of stucco, picked up from a pathway winding its way around the Temple of the Sun just outside Mexico City. I would never have pulled away a piece from the actual structure, but it was just lying there… inviting me, I like to think: (http://guanajuatomexicocity.com/mexico-city/Pyramid-sun-teotihuacan.html)

The tiny flying duck is from a broken brooch. (I have three 1930s ceramics on the wall above the doorway, all broken, all glued back toegther.)

The pill box and ceramic Mandarin duck were gifted by Akii at Christmas 2016. He gave me a whole box of things, all related, and as he he explained), to help inspire me to return to the story I had drafted before leaving Japan.

In late 2017, Cassie made me these fingerless gloves, all from recycled materials, and on request, added a heart, a CND peace sign (down near the wrists) and towards my fingertips, these mandarin duck heads. She said the birds on my hands would encourage my fingers to fly forward in my story-telling… 

The most recent token is a small metal hand holding what I assume to be a crystal ball. I was in Dunkeld last autumn, parked, when a woman rapped on the window. She was in her sixties, with wiry hair and a weather-beaten face. I don’t know why I knew instinctively she was Roma, which she was, and proud to be.

She knew a few things. That I had a daughter across the water. That my son had been ill as a child. That I had lived in the ‘Orient’. That I had never really every had a proper job (that’s very true!) but made my own way.

“You have had a great life”, she said. “You have been brave, made many changes, been very lucky. I see even greater years ahead, lady, so keep challenging…” And so saying, she placed the hand in my own.

My belief in talismans and omens as such, is not to be tested too deeply.  But I do believe in signs, in part because twenty-six years in Japan did leave me more open to possibility than I had been in the UK. Actually I think I was open, very open, but often found it difficult to defend myself against my father’s scepticism and dismissal of anything that could not be proven by science.

Rooted in Shinto-ism – Japan’s animist nature-based religion – its culture and people are deeply superstitious. Most shrines and Buddhist temple have a kiosk or shop selling good luck charms and talismans, and the largest and most popular are hugely affluent as a result. I know, because my husband used to have a major shrine as a customer, and reports vast sums being processed, especially at New Year – priests running to and from bearing sacks of cash.

New Year (O-shogatsu) is when you buy arrows to symbolize shooting into the future for good fortune. You tie white papers inscribed with wishes and hopes onto the branches of trees or specially erected frames. You draw numbered sticks to discover how the year ahead is going to pan out. And you throw in a few fervent prayers, just in case…

So deep is the Japanese belief in the occult, that there blessing ceremonies for just about everything, from babies to new cars. And if you don’t believe me, just watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf6B-_tp6gM

All this I saw as fun rather than to be taken too seriously. In the main it did no harm, except empty personal coffers. But there is always a dark side: for many people, it was serious and tended to affect future actions, reactions, hopes and fears.

Reading my pack of Angel Cards at the turn of the year, the word OBEDIENCE challenged my natural inclination to break rules and ignore advice. In this situation, however, it was just what I needed.

On December 11, 2017, my left knee joint was replaced at Perth Royal Infirmary, and while the operation itself successful, there were subsequent complications that that left me weak as a newborn…

So (once allowed home just ahead of Christmas) I needed to obey the instructions of the nursing staff: eat, drink, rest, medicate. I needed to do the physio exercises that would get me back on my feet. I needed to unscramble my brain, affected by a whole battery of drugs. Most of all I needed to listen to my own body, and rebalance in sensible fashion.

I returned home on December 20, and pretty much stayed quiet until the new year…

This has taken awhile, and why I am late in wishing you a happy new year, and – of course – the very best of luck…

But now here I am. At my lucky desk. With my lucky charms needing a dust but at the ready to do their job.

When I get started, that is.

09. November 2017 · Comments Off on At last, a new book · Categories: Uncategorized

It was clear on the proof copy that the cover needed rejigging; missing the top of the toppermost character(kanji). A new PDF was supplied, and now all is well. PS It’s quite interesting, seeing a design sideways…

I began writing my latest book in 2010, finished the first draft in 2011, and then moved to Scotland the year after. The ‘manuscript’ then stayed in my computer until this year, when I felt ready to move on.

For four years, completing a book about my life in Japan was the last thing I could handle; remembering our home and the life we led within its walls was just too painful, too sad. Every time I opened it up and began to read, I began to cry.

Being a book written in the present in the past (or is that in the past in the present?) it took much of the earlier part of this year trying to sort out the timeline.

Our home in Japan, 2002-2012. The house in the background and, upfront, Kobayashi-san pruning the trees on his annual visit…there’s a close up of him at work on page 205. 

But now here it is in my hand, the first copy of Household Stories/Katei Monogatari (in Japanese) courtesy of Amazon’s CreateSpace, the site that allows independent authors to publish their books print-to-order.

The upside of CreateSpace is that it’s free. But only if a writer is prepared to design and layout a book’s interior and cover; since I am a writer and not a designer, I paid for help. Or rather I allowed an old friend  who happens to be a graphic designer (we worked together in publishing in London in the 1980s) and now lives in Canada, to pay off a debt by utilising his creative skills.

Also since personally I find it hard to edit my own work, I sought assistance there too. A friend made in Japan in or around 1989 – we met a wedding, I seem to recall – she is now moved back to her native New Zealand.

Having published my first book in 2013, I knew the drill. But as I replied to a contact in Tokyo asking whether the process was easy, it’s easy – or easier – when you know how! Basically you need to supply a PDF for the cover art, and another for the interior. A matter of going step-by-step… and it has to be said, the staff at the other end are terrific, answering any enquiry within 24 hours.

The last hurdle that I needed help with was in pricing my work. This is difficult in any activity that requires creativity and craft to be costed in the same way one might cost the manufacture of a biscuit. Sending out mails to all four corners of the earth, asking how much friends tended to pay for books, was no help at all. Some refused to pay anything above £7.99; others were happy to go up to $30 for a book they really coveted. So, the middle-ground…

From my perspective, the main downside of this new print-to-order system is that once Amazon has posted availability online, authors are on their own in terms of mainstream distribution and promotion. And since most writers are more interested in moving on to their next project – I include myself here – this is tough.

Mostly I rely on platforms like this, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. So be a pal, will you? Order online and share links with your own networks.

Thankyou.

 

Back cover text

Love, life, loss … most of us experience it all. Yet this is not a relationship between two lovers; nor even two people. “A love story with a difference” is about an intense relation ship … with a house. A house in Japan. 

Here the author describes in intricate and loving detail the years she spent in the Eastern-Western-style house that she made her home. She leads you on a fascinating and increasingly urgent journey through the interior, and the life lived within its four walls. 

“Because we may not be here much longer, and even if we stay in Japan, life is shifting, the world in transition, and I want to remember. Remember it all.” 

12. September 2017 · Comments Off on The meaning of things · Categories: Uncategorized

After words (http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/whats-in-a-word/), things. But what do I mean by things?

An open antique market in Essex, where things include a vintage train carriage, garden furniture and great skyscapes. But is sky – the sky – a thing?

A few weeks ago, nearing the completion of a book I had been working on since New Year, I was on call in my local charity shop. As usual, I checked the book shelves, and once again a title jumped out at me: A.C Grayling’s The Meaning of Things.

 It was the word ‘things’ that caught my eye. Because my own book is also essentially about things. But as I was to discover, one person’s idea of things is not necessarily the same as another’s definition and understanding of the word. (Or maybe it’s even more complicated than that.)

Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari is about a house, and the things (with all their associated tales) that our house in Japan contains, or rather contained. (We left in late 2012 to move here.) So a book largely about material objects that could be regarded as relatively unimportant: possessions, furniture, books, plants, etc.

Grayling’s book (Applying Philosophy to Life) is about how life is enriched by things that ‘matter’: “values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata” (Latin, desired things) “both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life.” (An impressive paragraph in itself.)

Always interested in how a book is constructed, he offers short essays under three main headings (as in three parts): Virtues and Attributes, Foes and Fallacies, and Amenities and Goods.

It was under this final heading that I found writings most relevant to Household Stories: Art. Leisure. Peace. Reading. Memory. History. Travel. Privacy. Family. Age. Gifts. Trifles.

I suppose this is because HHS (as it has been headed in my documents file since 2011, when I completed the first draft) describes a fair amount of art, quite a few gifts, and to what a reader may appear to be any number of trifles.

And here I have to laugh. Because compared to a book on philosophy, I suppose my book is trifling in its concerns.

But that is for the reader to decide, and those concerned in its production have found it quite the opposite. So I am comforted.

Yes, HHS is a book about things. But it is also a physical and spiritual journey through time and space to the point of accepting the relative unimportance of physical things. Which leaves us with the spiritual, which is of course what Grayling’s book is mostly about.

But wait. While the Foes and fallacies of Part 2 initially left me cool to cold, I do now find Faith, Miracles, Prophecy and Paganism more than a little interesting. And some of the Virtues and Attributes of Part 1 move to warm the cockles of my heart, because HHS is also about Love, Happiness, Hope, Courage, Sorrow, Tolerance, Civility, Perseverance …  so much more than mere ‘trifles’.

Lee and Sue’s garden in Basildon, Essex. Also full of things: plants in pots, mirrored washing on the line, and Buddha. A statue of Buddha is a thing for sure, but Buddha himself?

Now I am not only comforted. I am encouraged.

By the time I next blog, Household Stories/ Katei Monogatari will be available via Amazon.com. So expect an enthusiastic and 100% unashamed sell.

 

05. July 2017 · Comments Off on A garden with burgeoning personality · Categories: Uncategorized

In memory of Gwendoline Edna Loader (nee  Price), September 1910 – July 2007. 

When my mother moved here in the early 1960s, the cottage was a newly renovated croft sited on a roadside amid a sea of rubble, a derelict landscape.

Once it had thatch, a tenant in the barn (now our bedroom), a cow in the byre (in my mother’s day the coal shed but now a utility room), and water was collected twice daily from a spring down at the burn. It must have been a tough life.

I know all this because soon after moving in in late 2012, I was working outside when a car halted on the road, drove on, backed, drove on again, backed again, and finally came to a halt.

A man emerged and, introducing himself as Peter Symon from Errol, shyly asked if he could take a photograph of Burnside, as it has been called for at least a century, if not – as old maps indicate – far longer.

Of course, I replied, but why?

It turned out that his aunt, Agnes Smith, had lived here until 1950.  She used to make pancakes and large scones on the range, and relatives would set up a bell tent outside in summer for holidays. Also bee hives were transported to and fro.

It seems there were Smiths at Burnside for well over half a century…

Agnes in front of a very different-looking Burnside. In the 1901 census, it was described as a croft with – excluding the byre – four rooms and windows. A decade later, the census of 1911 counted three rooms and windows. Very odd. Today it has seven (some very small) rooms and eight windows. This archival photograph, from the personal collection of John (Jack) Joiner of Errol Village, Perthshire, was scanned and mailed to me in 2012, which in part explains the quality. 

After Agnes died, the building stood empty on Forneth Estate until my uncle Charles Speid and his wife, my aunt Jo, decided to make it a home for her widowed sister, my mother Gwen. (So the two sisters, separated as youngsters by the death of their parents, could be reunited in middle age.)

But they only redesigned and fitted out the croft. The ground outside, rolling down towards the burn and with open views across the Lunan Valley, was for my mother to make her mark.

In the beginning… her view from the front door: Lunan Valley in the wild

Then came a bird table, some standard roses and shrubs, and to the right, the beginning of a rockery… Beyond, wild grasses wait in innocent bliss to be tamed for a lawn…

Early days for my mother, transplanted from city life into the most rural location imaginable, where she had to start anew in her mid-50s. I know she was lonely, felt isolated. But she never gave up. 

And she did indeed make her mark over the years, planting first rambling roses around the door, and then in borders, choosing plants and shrubs that were equally as scratchy and painfully punative.

Winters must have been so hard. With only wire to protect her plantings from ravenous deer…

I could never work out why she made such choices? Was she trying to barricade and protect herself against the world, like the Sleeping Beauty of folklore, or was it a childlike mean streak? Knowing what I know now about her internal confusions, a bit of both I suspect.

She created a lawn, fenced against rabbits and deer, and called this her ‘garden’.

Down below the fence, the land was left to do its own thing…

To the side lies a triangle of land along the roadside that is still planted with ancient but once again magnificently fruiting redcurrant bushes. She tried to raise vegetables, but everything was against her: the wildlife, which ate just about everything, and the bogginess of the ground, flooding as it did back then on a regular basis.

At some point in the late 1980s, an enthusiastic neighbour came down and planted trees: rowans, elder, oaks, hazel and wild cherry. He insists to this day that he asked her and she agreed. She insisted to her dying day that he went ahead without agreement, that he “just did it”. Nowadays there is a limited view to the other side of the valley in winter, and none at all in summer.

Another huge change was the demise of the raspberry field.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, mother rented the tract of land across the burn (that had been gifted to her for her lifetime) to a local farmer. The area around here is famed for soft fruit, and he planted canes and cropped the fruit through the summer.

Shot from the top of the raspberry field, with staked canes and the hut down by the burn very much still in business. See the small evergreen to the right of the cottage? That was one of my mother’s Christmas trees. It is now higher than the oak tree seen behind, and still growing…

As he and my mother grew older together, to the point he could no longer work, the field returned to the wild, and is now a mature copse of mostly sycamore, nettles and willow herb.

My children remember running up and down the lines of canes in the 1970s, and in later years making a bonfire of the derelict hut on the burn side that had once stored equipment. Now my son harvests the copse, a tree at a time, to feed our log house and – once dried out – our wood burning stove.

By the time my mother died in 2007, ten years ago almost to the day, her ‘garden’ was a mound of weeds (plants in the wrong place at the wrong time), and her land reclaimed by nature. I had done my best every time I returned to see her from Japan, but really it was a losing battle.

Since moving here, we have worked hard and now the three parts of the ‘garden’ all are gaining and regaining their own identities. Nearer the cottage, the borders are slowly filling out, and the roses healthily under control.

She coped by coping… love the hat!

Along the fence that separates us from neighbours, a hedge is slowly becoming a wind break, alive with colour, texture and birdsong; how my mother coped with bitter winters and ferocious gales I cannot even begin to imagine!

Along internal fences, shrubs and flowering perennials mix with soft fruit – gooseberries, blackcurrants, goli berries, raspberries, blackberries… We have apple trees, hardy Scottish varieties.  Even green tea bushes. And a lot of herbs.

Through 2014, we turned the boggy triangle into a labryrinth, for quiet reflective walks. The rest is planted with a crab apple, walnut, and most recently, a fig. In January it is a sea of snowdrops. Then come the daffodils. And in May, bluebells. (Currently, it’s nettle pulling time!)

This year, we have turned our attention to the field below the anti-rabbit fence. It’s a work in progress, obviously, and will be for some time. But already there are more fruit trees (Victoria plum, damson, nashi or Asian pear), mown paths (as there are around the labyrinth), a huge mown circle, with a bright pink ornamental cherry planted in the centre, and some rhododendrons finding their place around the edge…

We also have two benches. And a small pond.

This is located at the far end, towards the slate bridge over the burn, and where we erected a lintel from my aunt’s cottage, during its own renovation. (You can read about this in a blog from 2015: http://www.angelajeffs.co.uk/the-old-and-the-new/)

Alongside Akii planted a Yoshino cherry, to remind him of Japan, and several varieties of iris. Ironically he was in Japan this Spring when they all flowered.

The burn, running the length of the long side of an isosceles triangle? Almost invisible in mid-summer, overhung with ferns and brambles, with only the music of its coursing after rain to remind us that it’s there. It needs clearing again, but that’s a job for autumn into winter, so soon enough. (http://embrace-transition.com/2013/12/07/east-and-west-clearing-the-burn/)

Because the septic tank and lie of the land mean drainage, and intractable sedge grass, we decided to try and make a feature of its damp nature. Liam, who mows the lawn, slope and paths for us, offered us a small pond liner that he had “kicking around”, and dug it in for us at the backend of last year.

Now it looks thoroughly at home, overhung with ferns, with pond plants for aeration, a water lily, and more than a few baby frogs.

All very satisfying.

Now we are eyeing a far larger area, and thinking big. Liam is quite excited, it seems, and so are we.

The sycamore off centre to the right will be coming down in August, to open up this side of the burn even more.

The whole area of what we loosely term ‘the garden’ (about one and a third acres in total) is now green, healthy and blossoming. Even the copse is opening up, with a circle of cut log seating, a circle of stones for a bonfire, and deer as regular visitors.

It’s not easy to keep on top of, and I feel great frustration at not being able to work in it as I used to. How long we can hold on, I have no idea.

For the moment, however, it is pure joy to see its personality developing and broadening. Responding so positively to care and attention and love, it is full of birds, bees and even butterflies. (Initially there were very few.)

I choose to believe my mother is very pleased.

 

And yes, I have always loved red geraniums…

23. May 2017 · Comments Off on What’s in a word? · Categories: Uncategorized, words

Friend Judy Whitfield (we shared a flat in 1962 in London’s NW2) created this artwork as part of her degree at St Martin’s Central School of Art in the late 1990s. A copy now hangs above my mantlepiece, serving as a constant inspiration…

She began in the centre with the single word SPACE, and then began adding by association… Plucking out two of three words at random and working them into a paragraph at the beginning of a writing day works wonders at getting the             creative juices flowing…

Having just sent off my latest book for layout, I find myself positively astonished that yet another 60,000 words – 60,313 at the latest count – have somehow manifested.

Manifested… now there’s an interesting word.

To me it implies words having somehow, as if by magic, (and by implication, meaning) made their way from brain to screen, just as in the old days they made their way on to paper.

But what does manifested mean by accepted definition?

Good lord, not what I was imagining at all: when used as an adjective, clear or obvious to the eye or mind, and (as a noun), to show (a quality or feeling) by one’s acts or appearance; demonstrate.

And yet on some level, my reason for writing was clear and obvious to my mind, my eye. And I was most definitely demonstrating a feeling, an emotion… After all, I was writing a love story. A love story about a house. The house that was our home in Japan from 2002 until we left to come here in 2012.

Still the word, manifest, means more… to me, at least. When students write something that astonishes, even blows them away, many having never written before, they all say the same thing: ‘Where did it come from?’ And my reply is always the same: ‘Well, there’s the mystery, the magic.’

Apparently the Hindu word for meaning is “breakthrough, release”. I like this very much.

Talking and writing about what an individual may have broken through to, psychologically or emotionally, or what they may have released, inevitably leads on to a discussion about imagination and the meaning of that particular word: imagination, a noun used easily in day-to-day conversation, but without any real consideration as to its origin and inherent explanation or interpretation.

We use words so casually, especially in these days of instant communication. This is why dashed off e-mails and twits/twitters get so many into so much trouble.

When all communications had to be hand-written, time was different: longer, quieter, less dictatorial. There was time to think, to consider, to reflect, to re-consider… Words were more carefully chosen, sentences crafted, pages discarded for not reflecting the writer’s intent or emotion.

When did you last delete an e-mail and re-write, having realized it might be mis-construed, even cause the reader pain? (We are all at fault here, SEND-ing without even checking spelling and construction, let alone the emotional consciousness or un-consciousness at the heart of the message.)

I remember some years ago now a man mailing about a course I was about to run. Did he have to bring anything, apart from his laptop? When told that students would be writing by hand, and that all he needed to bring were a candle (for Proprioceptive writing sessions), a pen or pencil that he liked to work with, and an open mind, he near had a fit and accused me of being a dinosaur. Needless to say, he (being just the kind of person who would benefit most) did not sign up.

If he had come, I might have suggested at some point that he begin a PW WRITE by asking himself what he meant by accusing me of living in the past, if this was indeed what he meant or was implying. Because the question used in PW to explore our thinking and reactive habits more often than not leads into previously unexplored territory. This is how we learn, move on… how transformation occurs.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY DINOSAUR?

An extinct reptile? Someone living in the past? Jurassic Park? An archeological site of ancient remains. What else… where might such a question lead?

A quick google of the question, what’s in a word, brought up Michael Hoey’s five questions for learners (of English as a language, I am assuming) and linguists.

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. What word or words does it associate with?
  3. What meaning does it associate with?
  4. What grammatical function does it associate with?
  5. What position in the text does the word favour?

Questions 1-3 I have time for. But I admit to never thinking about 4 and 5. This is in large part because my writing courses are holistic rather than academic in approach. It also reflects how personally I write.

I rarely “think” (too much) about what I am writing, and am in no doubt that there is (at such an admission) a great throwing up of hands, many a wry cynical smile, and maybe even a few, “Well, that explains everything!”

Rather I am like a fountain that mostly flows full and freely, sometimes less so, and only very occasionally runs dry. An empty page, a blank screen never stays so for long. There is always something to write about. Words spill out of me… and usually in the right order. An order that maybe I alone understand, that is. But that’s okay. While writing to communicate with others, in large part I write to explore my Self, to raise my awareness, deepen my consciousness…

Or for fun. Donna (Murray-Trail) sent me this card, not because she thought I needed persistance (or rather persistence, which it appears I have in abundance) but because she thought it might make me laugh… which it does! 

On one level I admire those writers who spend a day crafting a sentence, following Michael’s five questions to the letter. On another, I think it must be hell. But that is because I am who I am (led by intuition and an ongoing search for authenticity), and they are who they are (lodged in academia and seeking perfection in logic and rationale).

The need for success seems to loom large for many. Appreciation by their peers. Recognition. Admiration. Zillions of sales. Money in the bank.

All very nice, some of it at least. But is that why I write? Not really. I write because it’s who I am, what I do. Do the words I produce define who I am? No. But they keep me off the streets and happy.

And to be honest, that’s enough.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY HONEST? Mmm. Maybe need another rainy afternoon to see where this leads.

Excerpt from HOUSEHOLD STORIES/Katei Monogatari (now in production) – from the chapter My Room:

I love this room. How many thousands — millions — of words have been written in here? How many trillions of thoughts have chased through my endlessly chattering brain? How many breaths have I taken to live through each and every day? How many deliberate slow breaths have I taken trying to enter stillness and silence, or to consciously allow energy to enter my body and heal the various parts that at one time or another scream for attention? (There are really parts of this ageing thing I could well do without.)

I no longer practise yoga, which I had done on and off for many years, and miss it terribly. I dream of being in lion’s pose, it is — was — so comfortable.

But I do sit.

And sometimes I dance.

My room in Japan (2002-2012) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The room where I am writing now…  Remember: a  word is simply a label, meaningless in itself. Meaning less than what? Now there’s a thought… 

21. March 2017 · Comments Off on Up close and personal · Categories: Uncategorized

I love trains. Always have. They must have figured in my childhood, except that in those days, in impoverished postwar Britain, there was not much long-distance travel. So I’m guessing the love affair began in 1953, when my parents put me on to the Royal Scotsman steam train, to travel overnight alone from Birmingham to Edinburgh.

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Just last week we took the Scotrail train up from Dunkeld to Inverness for the day. We wanted to see the last of the snowfall on the Cairngorms, and so we did…

As I write in my book Chasing Shooting Stars:

     Was it a sign of the times that they could be so trusting? Maybe they assumed me a well-seasoned traveller since I went to school daily on the bus. For they simply asked a couple with a dog – an old smelly spaniel with long, ragged ears – to keep an eye on me. I remember feeling sick with excitement (not fear). And going to sleep with my head on the dog’s soft but solid rump.
     At some point during the night I wake to find the compartment full of soldiers, drinking, smoking, playing cards and singing. I think, this is the life, and with a sense of pure contentment, return to my slumbers.

On a train just like this…

I was met in Edinburgh by my father’s elder sister, Catharine, who drove me to her home in Inverness. A former PE teacher, and a cricketer who played both at County level and for England, she was working for the Scottish Council for Outdoor Education, and had just published a book.

Published in 1951, with her own  photographs, and the poem below         (found on a bothy door, author unknown) that echoes my own love of    the journey from Euston to the                              Highlands…

These MEN OF TOMORROW are now my age, if     not older…MEN OF NOW, or even MEN OF                             YESTERYEAR….

I was thinking about this trip not so long ago, travelling down to London from Edinburgh on a Virgin train, for my first-cousin Genevieve’s cremation and the gathering at her home afterwards.

Gen’s mother had died in 1953, which is apparently why I was sent away, in complete ignorance, so that my father could help handle the immediate family crisis. His younger sister Elizabeth (Betty) had died in childbirth, and there was a inconsolable three-year-old (Gen), her distraught father, and a newborn to care and plan for.

My parents were also, I suspect, trying to protect me… protect me from death. But I think they were wrong. Maybe they thought me too young and sensitive to deal with it. In this I know they were wrong. Maybe the reaction was rooted in the Victorian mores in which they had grown up. Who knows now, for they are both passed on, and now that my own mother’s younger sister is no longer with me, there is no-one to ask.

It is an odd feeling. There is no-one now alive on either side, my mother’s or father’s, who can share my childhood. My memories are mine alone.

 

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My father as a young man…

My first up close and personal experience of death was at age 21, when my father died; he was 51. His body lay in our front room for several days before the funeral, with my mother wailing as if the world had come to an end. Her own had, apparently, which is why she spent the next fifty years as a “professional’ widow. So sad, such a waste.

 

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Samuel Robert Loader (1911-1962). Here not long before his death, old before his time… He always loved water, the sea.

What do I remember of his death?
It was late November, and icy cold. A corpse that my mother insisted I kiss. The look of him, and a sickly sweet smell that was nothing remotely to do with the father I loved. Also a sense of rage, that he would leave us all in such
a mess. We had parted badly, he and I, and all I could think was, Did you die because you thought that my leaving home meant I didn’t love you, didn’t care? How foolish was that!

I have no memory of any wake, either before or after.

I still miss him.

In Japan I was witness to three Japanese Buddhist-style funerals. I say Buddhist-style because Japan has a habit of taking on cultural imports from abroad and after some home-grown tweaking, making them their own.

The crematorium: imagine a long bare room with ovens down one side. Being (I have recently learned from DNA testing) that I am one per cent Western European Jewish, they still give me the shivers.

The body is wheeled in on a trolley, the priest recites sutras (prayers), the family members say goodbye, the trolley is pushed into the oven, the doors clank shut, and everyone goes off to a side room for green tea and chat.

Around an hour later, the family is summoned to return. The oven doors are opened and the trolley is wheeled out, revealing what is left of the corpse: ash and bones. Relatives then pick out the bones with chopsticks and –  to one side, in a semblance of privacy – place them inside an urn in logical order from feet to skull cap.

The first time I experienced this, I thought I was going to faint. But then I thought, hold on: this is something to really think about, consider…

By the third funeral I was as pragmatic as the rest. Saying goodbye to a corpse, treating remains in this way, is simply a ritual of respect. It has nothing to do with the ‘person’ (personae) or their life essence, which (to my way of thinking) has long gone.

I have had many discussions and arguments on the subject of funerals, in particular in relation to the open coffin. In Japan, this is normal at the wake, or otsuya (lit, ‘all through the night’) on the evening before a cremation. Once again, a ritual that initially seemed alien and distasteful, frightening even, became one that I can honestly say I came to love, in part because of the love displayed towards memory and the physical body of the deceased, which at this stage were intertwined.

I first experienced an open coffin at a friend’s funeral – one I had forgotten about, so four – but in this instance I attended only the otsuya, and not the kasou (lit. ‘funeral by fire’, or cremation) that followed on.

As a single mother, Tomiko had left her daughter an orphan, and it was immensely moving to see how she said goodbye to her mother: placing Tomiko’s make-up bag in the coffin, together with her favourite operatic CD, and a photograph of them together. She then invited everyone to surround her mother’s face with roses, while an Italian aria of great beauty filled the space left behind, and our hearts.

If only I had grown up with such personalized celebrations! Instead I was left baffled and dismayed by the body of the man who had in part created me, lying skeletal, yellow, cold and decaying, with the house full of whispers and denial. Where had my father gone? He was not there for sure. For the first time it made me consider the mystery of the separation of the physical and spiritual once the energetic life force/soul/atman has left the shell, but there was no-one to discuss it with.

My cousin Gen – her poor body ravaged by MS (multiple schlerosis) — was carried into the crematorium in a beautiful willow-woven casket. A simple bouquet of white flowers lay on top. There was music – a string quartet, a song from a group of her son’s friends (all professional singers), a Shakespearian sonnet, a tribute from her best friend from long-gone school days. Then – Gen having gone ahead to leave behind years of pain and suffering – her body was returned to dust and ashes, and physically she was gone.

And yet, her smile is still with me… it feels as if she’s not so far away. Maybe just across the mountains to the north?

Maybe I ought to take a train.

Not a romantic but slow and essentially filthy coal-fuelled train from the 1950s.

Not a narrow Virgin train in which there is hardly room to swing a cat, the toilets are stuffed, and the tea tastes of dusty tea bags.

DSC_0416Not the stunning new state-of-the art shinkansen bullet train that we rode on in Japan last year between Akita and Tokyo; glory hallelujah for just about everything: comfort, speed, bento box, lunches, green tea.

And not the next one either… just another one, soon .