All posts by lesley

Review of ‘A Wizard of Dreams’ by Robin Chambers

A Wizard of Dreams-cover

Not since reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books have I so much enjoyed a novel written for children of all ages, especially those who have managed to preserve the infinitely curious magical child in their heart. In his ‘Myrddin’s Heir’ series Robin Chambers masterfully brings magic right up to date, while exciting the imagination about its long reach of influence in the past.

So far I have only read the first book, ‘A Wizard of Dreams,’ but am eagerly anticipating continuing the adventure throughout the rest. He prefaces the novel with this sound advice: ‘Love Learning; Respect Difference; Protect Your Planet.’ These tenets are firmly yet tenderly embedded in the heart of the book, the message always soundly delivered with the lightest touch.

We join Gordon at the beginning of his life, and know from the first enticing paragraph that this is an extraordinary boy. At the same time we are introduced to the mysterious Zack. Is he imaginary friend, alter ego, guardian angel, spirit guide? You will keep wondering and guessing. Zack is as integral to the plot as Gordon himself, and equally real. We come to love them both.

They – and all the characters in the book – are so skilfully drawn that they take on a life of their own. We follow Gordon and Zack through his time in nursery and primary school right up to the day when he starts secondary school, just after his momentous 11th birthday when he discovers in an incredible encounter with the legendary past the extraordinary destiny lined up for a boy blessed with his extraordinary powers.

Prior to this, as we join Gordon on his everyday adventures through a boy’s young life as well as his more mystical journeying, we learn on the hoof a vast wealth of information about dinosaurs, the planet, language, literature, and magic.

Robin Chambers writes in a way that inspires a delight in learning and whets the curiosity, with a trail of reminders after each chapter, which lead to extensive notes at the end of the book offering elucidation for those who want to learn more.

I quickly grew fond of Gordon, and some of the descriptions of his experiences brought tears to my eyes. For me, one of the essential marks of a good writer is that they arouse empathy for their characters. Why else would I go on reading unless I cared what happened to them, and were in some way touched by them? The issue of bullying was particularly poignant in the way that it was handled by the author. We are shown the reasons behind it as well as Gordon’s response to it, and towards the end of the book there is a resolution for the bully himself that again moved me to tears. Yet there is nothing mushy or sentimental about the story. It’s an adventure that spans space, time and other dimensions, which for a whole generation of children (including me – old enough to be Gordon’s grandmother!) is what we have come to expect. Brought up on Dr Who, Star Wars and Harry Potter, we are hungry for more magic and are ready to soar with Gordon to wherever the flights of the author’s imagination dares to take us.

I have been careful here to give nothing of the actual story away, because I want you to have the wonderful experience of reading it, to follow the sparkling threads of narrative along the magical paths that lead to the brilliantly inspiring and suspenseful conclusion… Except, it isn’t the conclusion, and as the final chapter ends we are left breathless on the brink of Gordon’s next adventure – nothing for it but to do as I did and immediately download the second book! I know already I will be entranced by the beautifully composed language as well as the twists and turns of narrative created by this most accomplished author.

Robin Chambers

You can read more about Robin Chambers and all the books in the ‘Myrddin’s Heir’ series at his website: myrddinsheir.com

Tiptoes the Elf

Elf child

A long time ago in earthly years, but the merest distance of a dream away as far as the Fairy world is concerned, there lived an elf child called Tiptoes, who was the beloved of his many brothers and sisters, and of the Elf Queen and King who ruled over Elfdom with wisdom and love.

Tiptoes had a special gift, as all elf children do, and since there are so many magical gifts to go round it isn’t difficult for each to be unique. Tiptoes had the gift of weaving rainbows, one which made him especially popular – because everyone is touched by rainbow magic, whether they see it in the eye of a crystal or peeping behind a rain cloud or shimmering in a summer waterfall. And Tiptoes could weave the kind of rainbow that would circle your heart like the softest of gossamer, bright and beautiful and sprinkled with hope.

One day, the Elf Queen came to Tiptoes where he was dancing in the forest, and she gently drew him to one side, her large iridescent wings quivering as she spoke: “Tiptoes – it is nearly time.”

“Time?” answered Tiptoes, curious because until now time had not been of particular significance. Days began when light filtered through the green canopy of his tree nest, and ended when his eyes grew heavy with the dusk. Time trickled like the bubbling stream on the forest floor: it flowed and flowed, and would always flow. There was always time: time enough, time to spare, plenty of time. And now the Queen was telling him it was nearly time. For some odd inexplicable reason that phrase filled Tiptoes with a feeling he had never felt before: he had no words to describe it to himself, but it crept with cold and left him suddenly with a vision of himself as separate.

Elf Forest

A word formed in his mind, as if he had always known it somewhere, but just forgotten: alone. Somehow he understood that what it was nearly time for would cause him to be alone.

“Oh, Tiptoes,” sighed the Elf Queen, who heard and felt all her elf children’s thoughts. “Yes, it is time for you to leave us, as we all have to leave at some time.”

“For ever?” said Tiptoes, this new idea of what always might contain settling in him like the coldest of winter water, numbing his heart.

“No, not for ever,” reassured the Queen, touching him lightly with the tip of her nearest wing, so that Tiptoes felt the tingling warmth ripple through him and free his heart again.

“Then how long?” he asked quaveringly. “And why?” To a little elf, happily engaged in play and merriment, this exile made no sense.

“Well, Tiptoes,” explained the Queen. “This is how it is with us: when elves reach a certain age they go to be a life companion to a human. It’s an old agreement we have with humankind.”

“Humankind…” Tiptoes repeated in an awed whisper. He had heard myths about humans, but had never really believed they existed.

“Yes,” said the Queen. “For humans need us. They would die away completely without our magic. Their lives are so full of sorrow and suffering. They have chosen the hard way to learn, the way of what they call Reality.”

“Reality?” said Tiptoes wonderingly. All these new words, bringing strange feelings along on their tails, like kites fluttering in the wind… This felt like a very heavy word.

“You’ll understand when you’re there,” said the Queen. For a moment she looked sad, then she lifted Tiptoes on to her knee and kissed his brow gently. “You’re a brave little elf, and a strong one, and I know you’ll be just fine. Let me tell you how it happens…”

Elf Queen

Tiptoes snuggled up to her as her silvery voice explained to him what until now had been a secret mystery, far beyond the imaginings of himself and all his playmates.

“…You join your human right at the start of their life in Reality,” said the Queen. “They can see you then, because they’re still a baby and they haven’t been taught the ways of the human world. But in a few years they learn not to believe in you any more, and…” Here the Queen sighed and curled the edges of her wings around to make a warm shawl for little Tiptoes.

“I’m afraid that when they stop believing in you, you will feel yourself grow very faint and it will be a hard time for you to endure. Our task is to endure, Tiptoes, for their survival depends on ours. And we have found a way of succeeding with our mission. When you eventually become invisible you will feel yourself grow very tiny, and you will discover then the way to still reach your human – from inside their heart. Because from then on, that is where you will live. And, Tiptoes…”

The Queen could see the expression on her much loved elf child’s face, and feel the surge of his resistance… “I know how impossible that seems to an elf, loving freedom as we do, and for that reason we have devised a way to make it bearable. It’s called Forgetting.”

“Forgetting?” echoed Tiptoes, once again with quizzical awe.

“Yes,” explained the Queen. “You will forget your self, forget your separate elf self, and be so close to your human you will believe you are part of them.”

“And will they believe in me then?” asked Tiptoes eagerly. “Will they see me inside them?”

“Sometimes,” sighed the Queen. “It’s a struggle for a human to see the elf inside them. And yet our task is to keep on nudging them, to find ways of reminding them, to reveal our self to them. I can’t pretend it will be easy.” As Tiptoes’ face dropped, she added: “But you know, when they do see you, when they recognise you, when they come to love you – well, that’s wonderful!”

“Will I be lonely?” asked Tiptoes, this new word coming to him with all the chill of that other word alone. He felt his tongue tingle with another new sensation: fear.

“I’m afraid you may be, sometimes,” said the Queen sadly. “But in spite of your Forgetting, a part of you never forgets, and will always recognise another elf when you see it in a human. And they are truly magic moments, Tiptoes, when one awake elf meets another and they make contact through their human hearts. You’ll always know then, even if you Forget again, that you’ll never really be alone. And one day, of course, you’ll come back here, and be with your brothers and sisters again.

“And will everything be the same then?” asked Tiptoes.

The Queen shook her head slowly. “Ah, Tiptoes, nothing can ever be the same once you have dwelt inside a human. We change each other with our connection. You’ll be a grown up elf then, when you come back. A Wise Elf. You’ll have a different place in the Elfdom then. So far you’ve only seen the nursery, the forest garden. It’s a much bigger world than that.

Tiptoes knew that what she was saying was the truth: already he felt different, just by knowing that his life would change.

“How soon will it happen?” he asked.

“Soon enough,” replied the Queen. She lifted him in her soft, gentle arms, kissed him tenderly, and put him back on the ground. He stood in front of her, scuffing his toes in the bracken, for the first time feeling an ache in his chest that he supposed was to do with the thought of missing her – another strange new concept. She smiled at him and Tiptoes felt the warmth of her smile surround him, like sunlight in the woodland clearing. He looked up to bask in it as she spread her Elf Queen magnificence in all its full glory.

“Go back to your brothers and sisters now,” she said, touching him lightly on his shoulder with her outstretched fingertips. “In a while, one of the Wise Elves will come and explain more of the details to you. For now, enjoy your freedom as you play.”

Elf Passage

Tiptoes wandered slowly back to the place he had known as home for as long as he could remember. It was odd to realise that there was a bigger world outside it, that beyond this forest there was a larger Elfdom, and somewhere beyond that, he supposed, the human world. And what other worlds might there be, that he had yet to learn of? His head felt full of new words, and all the peculiar feelings that came with them.

As he walked, he absently wove a rainbow scarf that trailed behind him, winding about his shoulders as if to protect him from the breeze. As he noticed this, he became aware of a Stranger Elf, who had approached through the trees and was walking alongside him. There was something in his bearing that made Tiptoes realise this was one of the Wise Elves of whom the Queen had spoken. This elf was clad in green, like Tiptoes, but was taller, older, with a kindly smile and a mischievous gleam in his golden eyes.

“That scarf is a perfect way of using your rainbows, Tiptoes,” he said. “You take your gift with you, you know. And not just to share with the humans – although that’s the most important part – but to protect your elfness, too. Even when you forget where it came from, your gift will go on working. It comes from the place where all gifts are bestowed, and must be used, in order to go back to its source. It’s a kind of recycling process. It has an energy of its own, that will stir you even in your deepest forgetting.”

“Protect me from what?” asked Tiptoes, searching in the golden eyes of his companion for some clue.

“From humankind,” said the Wise Elf. “Just as they need protecting from themselves, from the curse of their disbelief and fear of magic. And from that other kind – more like us than the humans, but with a very different King and Queen to rule them.”

Tiptoes gulped. “Other kind?” he said.

“They live in the Land of Darkness,” said the Wise Elf, putting his hand on Tiptoes’ arm to steady his trembling. “Don’t be afraid, little elf. It’s a battle for the Wise Ones, not one you will have to fight alone. You have a different part to play. You are a young elf, a rainbow weaver. That will be your work.”

Elf-Dark

As suddenly as he had arrived, the Wise Elf left, and Tiptoes found he had reached the place under the Biggest Oak where the Elf Queen had first come to him that day. There were his brothers and sisters, still playing in the sunlight, laughing and calling to one another, jumping up to catch the breeze on their gossamer wings, letting themselves drift with the warm air currents to the lowest branches, rolling over and over as they went, chasing the butterflies.

Innocence – the word came to Tiptoes from somewhere deep inside him. Had there been another Forgetting, at some other time, from which he was remembering these strange words now?

Tiptoes was thoughtful as he went to join the others, no longer feeling able to join in their games in his old, careless way. He was aware now of a different way of seeing them, of seeing himself in relation to them, and of another new concept: Last Time. He felt an odd ache inside him. He stood on the edge of the group, watching them, wondering when his next summons from the Elf Queen would come. He knew what it would mean. Or would it, he wondered, be the Elf King who gave the final call?

But he was not an elf for brooding over-long, and soon he was joyfully up to his usual tricks, living as always in the perfect golden moment. Sitting by the stream next morning, dangling his toes in the gurgling water and teasing the darting multicoloured fish, he caught glimpses of his reflection in the broken surface.

Suddenly, he saw another reflection dancing beside his own, and turned to see a beautiful elf wearing a shimmering gown of luminous rainbows. Just looking at her made him want to weave yet more colours to adorn her. He could tell at once that she was another of the Wise Ones, sent to instruct him, and immediately a thousand questions formed themselves inside his mind.

She laughed at his eagerness. “Oh, little one, you must be patient!” she said. “Some questions only you can answer for yourself. You’ll see… In the meanwhile, let me show you something of what is ahead of you…” And she bent forward and dabbled her fingers in the stream until there were no more fragments of images, only the pattern her fingers made.

Mother

And there, in the water, a picture formed, as clear and still as if it stood beside them on the bank. It was the figure of a young woman, barely more than a girl, who smiled a secret smile to herself and seemed to stare out at them as if she could see them, although Tiptoes knew that she was very far away from this elfin grove. Although he had never seen one before, he could tell at once that she was a human. His heart seemed to skip a beat, and he gasped, breathless with the strangest new feeling of all.

“Oh, she’s beautiful!” he said.

“She’s waiting for you, even though she doesn’t know anything about you,” said the Wise Elf at his side. “She is an important part of your mission. She needs your rainbows more than anyone. Her elf is hurt, and already very sick, and it’s possible he may slip into a long, long sleep to protect himself. This sometimes happens.”

“How can I help her?” asked Tiptoes, prepared to leave in that instant to rescue this lovely maiden in distress. “How do I reach her? What can I do to restore her elf to health?”

“You’ll know,” said the Wise Elf. “When the time comes. Dear Tiptoes, we Wise Ones can see a lot further ahead than you, and far further than it would be good for you to see. Your mission won’t be an easy one, you know. And there will be many others who need your rainbow weaving to make them well. For when their elves fall sick, their humans too are not themselves, and they often ail without ever realising it is the elf in their heart who needs reviving.”

“I don’t mind how difficult it is,” said Tiptoes. Since the day before a change had come upon him. He was already an older and wiser elf, if only by one day. “Just let me know how I’ll find her.”

“Oh, you’ll find her,” said the Wise Elf, smiling. “She is to be your mother.”

“Oh,” said Tiptoes. “Mother.” Another new word, and one which belonged to that strange, full feeling in his heart. A wonderful word. He spun round in the air with delight.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” he cried, brimming with joy at the splendid adventure ahead. How had he lived only for play, without knowing the glorious passion of having a mission?

“And the child?” he asked. “The human baby I’m to be companion to?”

“Why, she’s just a twinkle in her father’s eye,” said the Wise Elf. “You have to join her right from the start, you know.”

“Her?” repeated Tiptoes. “A girl!” Somehow it had never occurred to him that he would have to spend most of what amounted to a human life inside a girl. He wondered how it would feel, and whether his mother would spot him there. And then, just for a second, the enormity of his task seemed to crush his vibrant energy. The Wise One understood.

“To make it easier, we’ll send on two special elves to follow after you, and help you remember your elf nature when you need to. You won’t have too much trouble recognising them when they arrive, since they’ll be so wide awake, and you know them so well.”

“Sunram and Moonfish?” asked Tiptoes, hardly daring to believe this might be true. For these were his favourite brother and sister, and already they had shared so many adventures and games in their forest home.

elves-2

“Yes,” agreed the Wise Elf, smiling at his delight. “In earthly years, it will be quite a while before they come to join you – in fact your human will become a mother herself in order to get them as close to you as they could be. But Forgetting helps to take the edge off waiting, Tiptoes, and once they’re with you they will never leave you, and your mission will get easier with their help.”

“And they are both champion rainbow weavers, too!” cried Tiptoes excitedly, thinking of all the fun they’d had together, inventing new colours and spinning them into the world.

“Would you like to go and say goodbye to them, before you go?” said the Wise Elf gently. “The Queen has already explained to them both by now. I expect they’re eager to make plans with you for when you meet again.”

“Goodbye…” said Tiptoes wonderingly, tasting the feel of it. It was a word none of them had needed until now.

When they met beside the Biggest Oak the three elf friends hugged one another, and chattered about the times they would have in the human world, and the even better times when they were back together in this magical place they knew and loved.

“Oh, I feel such a pain in my heart!” cried Moonfish, a silvery tear falling down her cheek. She touched it, then lifted the wetness to examine it with awe. There had never been a cause for tears before.

“That’s missing me,” said Tiptoes, who had always been the one to invent and explain words.

“It’ll be excellent fun – what a laugh!” said Sunram. He was the boldest of the three. But even he looked uncertain at the prospect of the Great Unknown.

“You will make sure of waking me, won’t you, if I’ve fallen asleep by the time you come?” said Tiptoes, suddenly anxious.

“You’ll always know us by our rainbows,” said Moonfish.

“And by our laughter!” added Sunram. “From what the Queen said, those humans aren’t a merry lot!”

“It will be all right, won’t it?” said Tiptoes. He knew it was almost time, he could feel the future coming through the forest to meet him. And then he remembered mother and the beautiful achy feeling he had experienced, just looking at her.

He knew he would be transformed by his time with the humans – a word the Elf Queen hadn’t used, but the only one that would do. He also knew that it was the way of things, the ancient way, the way that as a young elf he couldn’t expect to understand, but that already he accepted.

An elf had to do what an elf had to do. And there would be rainbows.

Rainbow-1

© Lesley Hayes 1990

You can read more stories and link to my books on kindle at Amazon at my website www.lesleyhayes.co.uk

Truth

truth

“I liked your blog post,” My daughter said. “The one about onions. But you weren’t entirely honest, were you?”

“I wasn’t? I made reference to the less than golden childhood – wasn’t that honest enough?”

“Not that,” she said. “All that stuff about lasagnes. You didn’t admit to cooking us fish fingers and baked beans a lot of the time. It was hardly a gourmet diet we were on. Although the cake bit was correct – except it was gingerbread, not flapjack, I used to trade for someone else’s tuna, sweetcorn and mayonnaise sandwiches.”

She was right. I had never been exactly innovative on the sandwich front.

“Anyway,” she went on, as ever infinitely forgiving about the past. “What’s your next blog going to be about?”

“Truth,” I said.

Truth has been a pervasive theme throughout my life. When I was a child lying was synonymous with betrayal of a mysterious code laid down in a history that preceded mine. There were an awful lot of rules that simply had to be obeyed, and questioning them wasn’t really much of an option. My mother convinced me that she could read my mind and knew my every wrongful intention, and it took some years before I realised that was about as factual as the tooth fairy. As a ploy for keeping me in line it worked pretty well, however, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a skilful parenting strategy.

As a result of this, perhaps, (or maybe just another part of the inescapable genetic blueprint) I reached adulthood with a passion for truth-telling and truth-seeking. I also, somewhat naively, assumed that everyone else shared it. It took even more years before I realised that the rest of the world hadn’t been trained according to the often baffling family code that had been my birthright. Truth and trust are so bound up for me that I struggle to regain trust in someone if they lie to me. Respect and trust are so bound up for me that if I can’t trust someone then I lose respect for them. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.

On the other hand, much like my daughter, I am infinitely forgiving, so if I’ve lost respect and trust for someone then I work very hard within myself to rebuild it. Loss of respect is one of the near enemies of love, and I feel deeply uncomfortable keeping anyone out of my heart. After all, judgement kicks aside compassion, and one small lie is so often not so much a moral lapse as a face saver or an attempt to sugar an unpalatable pill of truth. And even big lies may carry with them a whole dossier of justifications. We can be just as evasive with ourselves as with other people.

I know this because I have been guilty of telling lies myself. Sometimes tiny social ones to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to sidestep a clash of opinions that can only lead to unnecessary drama (see what I mean about justifications? We’re really good at them.) But at certain times, throughout my life, I have told whopping great lies, slippery lies of omission, left hand not admitting to right hand what it’s doing kind of lies. Not often, and never without the agony of lingering guilt, but nevertheless, since I’m being honest now… might as well fess up. So at those times, the whole loss of trust and respect thing has turned me against me. It’s an interesting process, rebuilding bridges between parts of your ambivalent self.

Truth, as I’ve observed over and again, is something of a shape-shifter. My truth is not necessarily your truth. There are times when this can become an issue, times when it’s better to let it go. If I allow your truth to take precedence over my truth, and in doing so compromise my integrity, then I am betraying my true self. If your version of events and mine don’t tally simply because we were standing at different places and saw different things, then I can go along with that. But if you tell me that what I saw was not what I saw, and insist that the only correct perspective is yours, then my self-belief is swallowed by the black hole of your certainty, and I am lost. This is one of the fundamental elements that constitute abuse, when your lie causes me to doubt the reality of my own experience. Those are the worst lies, in my book – the ones that mess with someone else’s head in the service of another person dodging the consequences of their actions.

We are strange creatures, us human beings – supposedly the top of the tree of evolution, but I definitely doubt it. We have way to go yet for our spirituality to catch up with the complex depravities of our self-interested nature. We lie to ourselves and each other about our motives and values and collude with the vast industry of untruth that is advertising, because our ego says more and better even though our heart may be sickened and our soul has curled up in despair. We know how to lie, and so we do. We begin as early as the moment that we recognise that your brain and my brain are capable of holding differing realities.

We love trickery, and we like being fooled – as long as it’s all a game and everyone agrees the rules. When the stage magician saws the lady in half we squeal with horror, because we know it’s an illusion and we’re buying into it. It’s one of those circumstances where we love having the wool pulled over our eyes. But when you say you love me and you mean “for now” and I believe “forever” is that a lie you’re telling me, or one I’m telling myself? If we agree to believe a lie one of us is telling is that sometimes a necessary collusion? We see the flaws in one another and blink to make them disappear, hoping it works both ways. If we promise one thing and deliver another, does that constitute a lie, or is it simply our innate capacity for raising expectations we can’t fulfil?

I am wary of anyone who says they are 100% reliable, or 100% anything. And don’t get me started on that 110% thing. That’s worthy of a whole blog post to itself. So when it comes to The Truth I tend to be cautious. That sounds like a dead end to me, or something that’s been neatly fitted into a conveniently portable box. I have always been curious. You show me a box and I’ll want to take the lid off to discover what’s inside. Like Alice in Wonderland, sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Especially now I have facebook and twitter to keep me abreast of the news.

What I have found is that although certain things feel true, I can only with any real certainty say that they are true for me. That love is the glue that holds the universe together feels like truth, but maybe it’s only the glue that holds me together. Once the world was definitely flat, now it’s definitely roundish – who knows whether any of this is real anyway? Black holes and Multiverse theory and quantum physics have inspired, confused and awed me. We live in exciting times. Mysteries abound. Not least, for me, is how does any of this amazing technology work? I don’t even know how my body works. And my brain, or anyone’s brain… do scientists actually understand much of what’s going on there yet?

So I remain appropriately humble on the subject of Truth. I respect yours, and will always be fascinated by how you arrived at the beliefs you’ve come to espouse. Did you unpick the truths you were offered on a plate as a child? Did you examine them and re-examine them and only accept them when you found evidence to back them up? Did you commit to the truths embedded in one particular political party or religion because it made sense with your head or resonated with the feeling in your heart or your gut? Do you stand by the truth you believe in to the extent that you refuse to acknowledge any additional data that might cause you to question it? Are you grounded enough in what you think to be true that you can say with confidence: “I know” rather than “I believe”?

I know that I am here in this moment, and that you – whoever you are – are there in your own private bubble of selfness. This much is true. As far as I can tell. But the ultimate truth of who ‘I’ am, and ‘you’ are is open to conjecture.

Living in the moment

fleeting time

One of the books that affected me deeply many years ago was ‘A year to live’. In it Stephen Levine poses the question: “If you only had a year to live, what would you do differently?” On his deathbed, Socrates said that dying was the highest form of wisdom, and Levine decided to experiment with living for a year in that state of immediacy, consciously living each day as if it were his last, to see how it changed his perspective. The book is about what he learned from that, and from his interviews with the terminally ill. It might sound like a sombre read, but for me it was powerfully affecting, inspiring, and heartening, and I’ve shared the ideas in it with many people.

That question has never gone away for me in the twenty years since then. A couple of times I’ve been ill enough for it to feel much more compelling, although evidently I’ve survived to tell the tale. We live in a society that is largely in denial of death, as if it’s a battle with the grim reaper that must be won at all costs. Of course, the death of a child or anyone in the early part of their life with so much potential still to be fulfilled, feels all wrong. But for the most part we expect to stride agilely towards an old age, the boundaries of which are ever expanding. Scientists tell us that our grandchildren are likely to live healthily well into their hundreds. Medical advances are conquering many of the diseases that were once inevitably a death sentence, and making great improvements in drug and gene therapies, to alleviate the suffering associated with progressive, terminal illnesses. All of this is a good thing, I agree, but it now seems an affront when we hear of someone’s death, whatever age they are. How could this have happened, we ask? They were full of life last time I saw them, they had everything to live for, it was so totally unexpected…

It always is unexpected. It’s the paradox with which we sit uneasily throughout our lifetime. We know death happens – but it isn’t quite real. We fictionalise it, we dramatise it, we sensationalise it, we scare ourselves and each other with stories about it, we even joke about it – secure in the knowledge that it doesn’t apply to us, or anyone we love or know… not yet. Until one day it does. None of us is going to get out of this alive. Am I a little bit crazy to find that a comforting thought? When I was a child I became terrified at the notion of non-being, round about the age my ego starting noticing that I was separate in my beingness. Now, so many years later, I have exchanged that concept of a cold, empty, vast eternity of loneliness which haunted me at the age of 4 for one of ultimate connectedness. As I said, none of us is going to get out of this alive, and we are all in this together. If so many people that dropped out of this level of consciousness before me managed to do it, then it must be as relatively simple as the transition from womb to birth.

I have never been able to achieve the high degree of focused awareness that Stephen Levine describes in his book. I am restless when it comes to sitting meditation – which is why I advocate mindfulness in daily life: in speech, thought, actions and interactions. I don’t always remember that today may be the last day of my life, as well as the beginning of the rest of my life. Sometimes I get caught up in the detail and forget to pay attention to the bigger picture. Sometimes I am so busy thinking about me that I forget to feel how connected I am to everything that is not me. Sometimes pain, or fear, or any of the old familiar ego states, shrinks the universe into this miniscule world within the world that is me. I am always happiest when I do remember, when I let go of me and find everything beyond that in all its immense beauty.

I remembered Stephen Levine’s book when I was having tea the other day with an old friend, an artist with a shining soul and a sharp insightful mind. Our conversations have always soared headily when we talk about psychology, metaphysics and different levels of reality. He was describing his ongoing worsening anxiety. He’s been depressed and anxious for most of the 30 years I’ve known him, which fills me with such deep compassion. I love him like a brother, and if I could lift the burden from him I would. We were discussing getting older, and all the challenges that brings – no longer having the confident belief that comes so naturally in youth that ailments are transient rather than likely to be incremental. For the person already proficient in anxiety the later years are a minefield of easily triggered concerns about health and survival that can verge on the obsessive. There’s so much that’s bound to go wrong with the body. We’re genetically coded to disintegrate. Like an old car that has managed numerous times to just about pass its MOT we are now at the age where the mechanic looks us over and shakes his head ruefully.

I’ve never minded about getting older. Perhaps it will suddenly hit me at some point, but since I only feel about 35 in my head (an optimum age in my opinion) and rarely look in the mirror, I can dwell safely in the knowledge that I’m only as old as I feel. This works just fine, except on those days when my body feels a lot older and complains about its various malfunctions. Sometimes this is a state to be pushed through, and sometimes there’s a case for just listening to the inner moaning and love bombing it with gentleness and compassion. There are times we need just to stay where we are and get to know and understand and accept the place. The one sure thing is that everything changes, and nothing lasts. Listening to my friend, I remembered all those times I’d needed to listen to myself and just be kind about my own suffering. But I also wanted to offer him some simple recipe that might enable him to move beyond his endemic death anxiety. So I started telling him about Stephen Levine’s book, and what I’d learned from it.

He was very receptive to the concepts of mindfulness I described, although he pointed out that since his every moment was filled with anxiety, this was probably not going to work for him. Doggedly, I persisted, hoping he might have one of those magical experiences where our perspective shifts from foreground to background, like those weird optical illusions that you don’t get until suddenly you do.

“If you knew for sure that no amount of bargaining or avoidance would influence the outcome, wouldn’t that change how you felt about things?” I said. “If you could see there was an end point, and all the worrying in the world wasn’t going to delay it or make it go away?”

“That’s like living on death row,” he said, gloomily. “No change there.”

“But wouldn’t every minute you had left be really precious, and not worth wasting on anything except being here?” I could feel my eyes glowing the way they tend to do when I get all passionate and excited about something. Having had times when I’ve been where he was that day, I was also aware that a person with glowing eyes speaking fervently about being positive when you feel down can be a real pain.

“Maybe,” he said. “But you know, a year is a long time to have a death sentence hanging over you. Even though there are days when I’m not sure I’ll last that long anyway.”

“So maybe it would work if you reduced it to six months?” I said. “We’re talking about an experiment, after all – living ‘as if’.” Although what was I thinking, really? Who was I so confidently to advocate feeling the fear and facing it anyway? It wasn’t my fear, but my friend’s. Stephen Levine might have managed to sustain a year’s worth of daily minute-by-minute practice, but however much I agreed with his ideas, I struggled to be that present to life all the time.

“But I may only have three months,” said my friend. “For all you know or I know, I could be dead by then anyway. I don’t have time to do all that living in the moment stuff.”

My urge towards evangelism suddenly skittered to a halt. It was my perspective that changed, not his. Here we were, in our blessed bubble of deep affection, knowing one another so tenderly in our hearts, rapt in each other’s presence – he in his part of the dance, me in mine. Did we really need to be any more in the moment than this?

Onions don’t make me cry

cutting onions

Years ago, when my children were small, I used to enjoy cooking for them. Tales are now told of the unremitting packed lunch treats of homemade flapjack that would be surreptitiously exchanged at break-time for KitKats and crisps. Innocently unaware of this quietly rebellious subterfuge, I continued to provide a daily smorgasbord of healthy snacks, and not entirely because of the maternal instinct to nurture. I just loved cooking. Cooking and writing were my two favourite ways of spending a day. My house was dusty, but I hardly noticed that, poring over recipes in my tiny kitchen, creating delicious cakes that always rose and painstakingly concocted curries, lasagnes and pies. I loved the way the house smelled when things were cooking. I would then set the oven timer and retreat to my dusky pink writing lair – a friend recently reminded me that I used to call it my writing womb – and sink with deep satisfaction into whatever my latest writing project happened to be. One of my daughter’s memories of that time is of playing at the end of the garden and looking up to see me sitting at my desk in front of the window, typing away, quite oblivious of her waving at me. One of my son’s is of hearing the sound of the typewriter – a constant reassuring backdrop indicating that I was there, while also not there, engrossed in the alternative world I was creating on the page. It’s all so long ago now… the days of typewriters and their far from golden childhood.

When my children grew older and we came to live in Oxford I lost much of the incentive to cook. They were off doing their own thing a lot of the time and I was busy remaking my life. Cooking became much more of a simple necessity rather than a creative pastime. For a while I did have the occasional lunch or dinner party, where the wine and conversation flowed with copious extravagance, but then life got much busier and I didn’t have time for all the preparation and the aftermath. It became easier to eat out and be spared the wreckage of the clearing up next day. Washing up while beleaguered by a hangover is at best a surreal experience, and at worst a severely depressing one. Like the days of my roseate writing womb, this period in my life is also a long time ago now. It was before I trained to be a psychotherapist and became a rather serious person. Just kidding. I don’t think I ever could be entirely that.

Time went by, as by now you’ve probably gathered. Much water passed under the bridge – an appropriate metaphor for a life lived in such close proximity to the River Isis that flows so dark and deep beneath Oxford’s Magdalen Bridge. But this isn’t intended to be a memoir so I won’t go into details. Instead I’ll return to the subject of cooking – my theme for today. When my joy in cooking resurrected in more recent years it came as something of a surprise to me. It started in a sneaky way, with a return to baking cakes. Once again, the house filled with the variously comforting odours of allspice, orange zest, lemons and ginger – and then eventually I rediscovered the art of making perfect chocolate brownies. In fact, it’s amazing how many variations on a theme there are when it comes to cakes involving chocolate. Well, anything involving chocolate, really. But again, I digress… I actually wanted to write about soup.

One of the many things I learned during those formative years between the glory days of my hungover post-party renovations and now was the practice of mindfulness meditation. It came inevitably with the territory of psychotherapy. It began with sitting meditation, and then walking meditation (which had me collapsed in fits of giggles the first few times I attempted it, until I stopped thinking of the Ministry of Funny Walks and got the point.) And then, after a while of it, I realised that everything can be a meditation. Standing at a bus stop, eating an apple, drinking a cup of tea, filing your nails, washing up, cleaning the kitchen floor (when you share a house with a cat there’s an awful lot of that.) In fact, more or less everything you do can be done mindfully: paying attention to your breathing and to each small step of the process, being utterly present to the moment as it passes effortlessly into the next. But there are two such mindful meditations that for me are the happiest – one is gardening, and the other is making soup.

I realised the first time it happened what an incredible blessing it was, this simple and yet somehow profoundly miraculous process of culinary creation. It begins with choosing the vegetables (ideally organic ones, at best from your own garden, but otherwise from the market.) The colours have to be right, to complement one another as they sit on your kitchen counter waiting for the knife. Don’t vegetables have the most amazing colours? I love the way the butternut squash and sweet potato glide softly through the orange spectrum to meet their match with the carrots. And the pale buttermilk cream of the parsnips offset by the cooler white and green of the leeks. And there, snugly nestling between them are the purple skinned red onions, glossy and bright, with sweet fire in their belly. No soup would be complete without them.

As I peel and chop the vegetables, I enjoy the gentle rhythm of the knife against the board, observing the steady transformation from one state of vegetable being to another… the unclothed, diced vegetable has a quite different character from the jaunty one wearing its protective skin. My thoughts are all focused on this one operation, my breathing steady, my mind quiet. I and the vegetables are as one, although I am not the leeks and onions gently melting in the virgin olive oil, nor the colourful cascade of other vegetables that follow. Nevertheless we are engaged together in this business of making soup. As the heat rises through the stock and bubbles away, humming to itself a song that promises future nourishment, the wonderful smell of all these elements mingled together is like a heavenly choir of aroma. Or am I being fanciful? By now hunger is leaking round the edges of my mindfulness, but I can be mindfully hungry. Even that can be a meditation.

Eventually, the concoction has simmered long enough to be ready for the next part. This requires a potato masher and a strong arm. No, I don’t use a blender – or a food processor. They would ruin the whole thing. This is an organic process, from start to finish. Me and the vegetables and my nascent appetite. We don’t want anything mechanical getting in the way of that. Finally, we are ready. The soup is done. I transfer just enough of it to my favourite bowl, the one just right for eating soup. I spread a slice of Irish soda bread with butter. I sit with my spoon ready, anticipating the first mouthful, marvelling as I always do that this is what food is all about – the wonder of turning simple ingredients into something that fills the belly with gratitude and love.

So this is my soup meditation. Life is beautiful and all is well.

Father’s Day

Father

This Sunday is Father’s Day in the UK, and ever since my father died in 2004 it has been a day that brings up mixed feelings for me. And for the last ten years, each time it comes around, I think what it might be like for others who have lost a father, one way or another, or never had one they knew and felt loved by to begin with.

My son once referred to such specially marked out occasions as “Hallmark Opportunities” and I admired his refusal to be dragged headlong into a morass of mawkish sentimentality. He has a point, although I realise that for many people having an opening to express their thanks in a card is welcome. Not all of us find it easy to write what we feel or are lucky enough to have the convergence of right time and right place that makes it possible to tell someone how much they mean to us. I’m not against the sending of cards per se or the marking of one significant day assigned to a particular relationship. It’s just that when that person is no longer around or never manifested in your life in your good way, it’s painful to be reminded of the loss. Not everyone has had a positive experience of being fathered. For some the celebratory hype around the day may feel like salt being rubbed into an already gaping wound.

I was fortunate, in that I had a long and incrementally empowering relationship with my father. When I was forty I realised that I’d only ever had a semi-detached relationship with him, always overshadowed by my relationship with my mother. It was one of those grasping the nettle moments in my life, and I determined to know him and have him know me. The years that followed were deeply enriching for us both, so that when he eventually died it felt our relationship was equal and complete.

The first year after his death I wrote him a letter, just as if he had travelled to a far distant country where no other communication was possible. In it I described how it had been for all of us since he had gone, and how I had discovered inside me all the gifts he had left behind. I hadn’t realised before how much like him I was, and what a blessing that had turned out to be. That first year I also went out and bought a Father’s Day card. I wrote in it, but didn’t post it. There was nowhere it could be posted.

That was the part that hurt the most – the realisation that there would be no more chances to tell him and show him how much I loved and appreciated who he was. It wasn’t that I hadn’t already done that, only that when it comes to love there is always more and it goes on growing, and we need to put it somewhere outside of us so we can see how beautiful it is.

I feel so sad for anyone who has lost their father way too soon, without the opportunities to know him that I had, or who look at other people’s fathers and wish they had been able to have that experience of being fathered well. Absent fathers, abusive fathers, controlling fathers, avoidant fathers – fathers who say, as mine used to: “I’ll fetch your mother,” whenever you ring up – they all in their way shape who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to the world. We each have to come to terms with our relationship with our father, whether or not he is in our life.

This year, as every year since 2004, I see the cards in the shops and the advertisements urging me to make the day special, and even receive promotional emails telling me what amazing gifts I can get, and I am torn between insult and injury. How tactless, I think, to remind me of my sacred duty as a consumer to buy more stuff to mark the occasion. But then I let it go. I have learned to let a lot of things go, because life is short and there isn’t enough energy to spare that’s worth spilling over what’s unimportant.

My father had a stroke the week before he died, which made his speech difficult to understand. Nevertheless, he fought with his usual quietly indomitable spirit to regain what he could and make himself understood. The last time I saw him conscious he was being fed by my mother in the hospital, and he started laughing at the absurdity of it. We stood around him, joining in. His laughter was always so infectious. And then he said: “This is all that matters – laughter, family, love.” That’s what I’ll be remembering on Father’s Day.

LAST FLIGHT

(This poem, written in February 2007, was a long time in gestation – a tribute to my father who died in August, 2004. He was my teacher, my fellow-traveller, and my friend…)

“Where are you?”
is a question I have been asking you
from that final day I urged you onward,
your outspread wings broken by such suffering.
I never said: “Don’t leave me…”
or “What will become of me without you?”
The answer to that has unfolded in the creased cotton
of the winding sheets that since have wrapped around me.
In one of those last conversations your blue eyes
snatched at my heart with the same old tender complicity,
cradling me with your courage, even as you were dying:
“Don’t be frightened…” you said…
Were you frightened? Was there a moment
between the last breath and the no-breath
when you teetered awestruck on the brink of everness
remembering parachutes that didn’t open,
wondering whether yours would after all?
Once you held me high on your shoulders
bounding along with your young man’s stride
the safest place in all creation and me
younger than words but laughing as the world
rocked and bounced beneath me.
You were such an immovable presence in my universe.
Many years later when I was grieving
for all the unlived life and unmet love,
tears leaching the fractured rock of my protected heart,
you held me as I wept, your chest a citadel,
and said: “I know that place. I’ve been there too.”
You were frightened that time we climbed the mountain,
and it was my turn then to be the guide for you,
leading you towards your joyful peak experience,
your happiness a song inside my heart.
It was only after you left I needed to ask the dark sky,
the empty room, the silence of your remembered voice:
“Where are you now?”
Was it you who answered me that night
unknown hands tucked me round with an invisible blanket
so gentle it was like a consecration?
Were you letting me know that you had safely landed?

© Lesley Hayes 2014

You can read more of my poems on the ‘Poems’ page of my website Poems

The conundrum of invisibility

Invisibility - blog

I never wanted to be famous. I’m an introvert who learned early on to habitually fake extroversion convincingly enough to fool some of the people some of the time. I sank with relief into my more natural introverted intuitive self when I embarked on my career as a therapist. It was a role that allowed me to express my authentic self and connect with clients from that place. One-on-one is a comfortable relationship for me. Triangles are also possible. I was the only child of parents who clung to one another on a life raft of unsociability, so three-way relationships, despite carrying their own perilous dynamics, are familiar territory. Although I’ve managed to hold my own in groups of anything up to ten people (and have even run therapy groups) that really is about my limit. I realise, on the far shore of my mid-life career as a therapist, that mine is a perfect psychological mind-set for a writer. I’ve always written with ‘you, the reader’ in mind – that’s you, the single you, raptly hanging on my every word, delighted with each turn of phrase, each nuance, each skilful metaphor, just as I have delighted in putting them on the page. I work my socks off for you, to keep you entertained and to do so in a lyrical style that will entrance you with language as much as I myself am entranced. I don’t imagine a roomful of you, an audience enthusiastically clapping and whistling, shouting for an encore. No, it’s just you and me, snugly curled up together wherever it is that you read me – once it would have been in a book; these days it’s more likely to be on a kindle or tablet. And the beauty of it is I’m completely invisible.

I relish invisibility. It’s something of a paradox that as an integrative psychotherapist I eschewed the blank screen persona of the traditional psychoanalytical therapist. I believe in genuine engagement requiring the therapist to be as much a part of the process as the client, not simply a witness and stubbornly speechless observer. And yet there is also no requirement to spill your own beans when listening to a client. In fact, it’s one of the cardinal rules that you don’t. It’s bad enough for most people having their own stuff out there in the room without adding yours into the equation. So in that sense the therapist remains unknown, almost but not quite anonymous. Visible but also invisible, able to hide behind the role while at the same time giving the most important part of who they are prominence – authentic self rather than crazy mixed up ego. Yes, however sorted we are, or aim to be, we therapists still have our issues, and don’t let anyone pretend to you otherwise. It’s not that we lie about it – it’s just that it isn’t relevant. Or at least, we hope it isn’t relevant, and if it looks as though it might be in danger of becoming so we take it to our supervisor or our own therapist.

But so much for the invisibility factor in therapy. Let me fast-track you now (‘you, the reader’) to my return to the magical inner world of the writer… that mysterious realm somewhere between imagination and what we might loosely term ‘reality’. As a writer, the idea for the novel either bursts or sidles its way into your consciousness and kicks aside all other considerations. The muse grabs you and shakes you into submission, so that you daily kneel at her altar, a mere acolyte to the process until the work is finally completed. It’s like being in love. You never doubt that this is the best thing you’ve ever written, or that ‘you, the reader’ are going to agree. You lose yourself in the welcoming arms of your muse for however long it takes until the madness eventually subsides. Your invisibility factor increases exponentially as your identity merges with and shifts between your characters. You forget where the edge of ‘you’ is, and come out drunken and giddy with bewilderment each time you escape temporarily from your writing bubble. Yes, it is entirely like being in love. You even go through a grieving process when it ends – as end it must. And all the way through you have lived inside the world inside your imagination without ever having to emerge fully into the cruel, cold, starkly-shadowed realm of ordinary reality.

And as you crawl your way out of your cocoon into the harsh light of day, you realise that in order to actually find ‘you, the reader’ there is yet another process to be endured – the agonising process of becoming visible. It isn’t enough these days to toss your completed manuscript into the waiting arms of the midwife agent who along with a supportive publisher will bring your book to birth. This was my own personal wake-up call. I observed how the wind had radically altered course in the years since I was last published, and made the brave decision to embrace change and leap into the unknown via kindle self-publishing on Amazon. That was challenging, but also interesting. It’s good to have a project. But the next stage was unexpectedly problematic. It required me to take my ego down from the shelf and dust it off – even polish it up a little bit. I had been through ‘somebody training’ in my youth and had since found a happier me through ‘nobody training’ during my years of practicing therapy and mindfulness, and now I needed to become a ‘somebody’ again. A person with a face, and a ‘voice’ – a person who proclaims themselves as the author behind their books, strutting their stuff on facebook and twitter, and here in my blog (although of course it’s still just me and ‘you the reader’ really.)

It feels like an awesome responsibility. Now that I have a product to sell (that’s the way I have been told to look at it now) I need to learn how to market it. But it seems that in the years since I was last writing books the product has become very much the author. The cult of personality has gathered momentum and in the self-publishing world I am but a miniscule drop in a vast ocean of voices and faces that in my nightmares seem like a sea of baby birds screaming to be fed. Am I one of them? Surely not? That doesn’t sit well with me at all. And here’s the conundrum: I want my books to be read, which means I have to be visible. ‘Becoming visible’ is the advertising strategy that is pushed by everyone involved with internet marketing. But I resist. I am not that person. I want ‘you the reader’ to find me and feel richer for the experience, but I’m reluctant to shout in your face and demand that you buy my books. On the other hand, if I lurk coyly in the shadows hoping to be found, I’ll be a long time waiting. It’s still work in progress finding out how to be visible to ‘you, the public’ in a way that employs no bullshit, whilst remaining securely invisible, like a ghost flitting between the pages of my books. Will I get there? It remains to be seen.

This, by the way, was absolutely not the blog I intended to write. I’ll have to return to other issues related to invisibility another time. That wretched muse – see what I mean? She made me write it. It’s all her fault.

THE DROWNED PHOENICIAN SAILOR

Image

My novel The Drowned Phoenician Sailor takes its title from a passage in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland.’ It’s a reference to the Tarot card the Ten of Swords, signifying the darkest hour before the dawn, which shows up in a Tarot reading made for Fynn early on in the novel by her mother. But the title came much later, and it wasn’t what inspired me to begin writing the novel.

I had that itchy feeling writers get, like a place somewhere you can’t reach that nags away at you. I could hear my muse calling – well to be honest it was more of a shriek. The kind of shriek that wakes you up at night, wondering what on earth is happening. Is it a fox hungry for love? Or one of those werewolves other writers write about? Oh no, it’s just a dream – something really important although you can’t remember a word of it. Adrenalin starts pumping, and your heart beats faster, and then your mind begins racing. It’s not the most comfortable of states to be in, but it’s familiar enough now that I know what it means. Some alchemy has been at work in my psyche, and is desperately trying to push the results into my conscious mind.

What this means in practice is that I start noticing things in a different way, and making inspired connections – not necessarily where they are meant to be. I find myself getting excited by certain concepts, playing the “What if…?” game with myself. And it was exactly this process that brought into being the first rough draft of The Drowned Phoenician Sailor. I remember seeing two unrelated newspaper reports from two entirely different sources, each of which fired my imagination. Neither of them had anything remotely to do with the story that evolved and ultimately became the finished novel. But they set me thinking about assumed identities, deceit, the aftermath of grief, and what it might be like to have died with unfinished business. Out of this grew my list of ‘what ifs’. I am intrigued by cause and effect, both short and long term, and the way that ripples spread out from seemingly random events, and I have been asking questions about what happens after we die since I had my first attack of existential death anxiety at the age of four. These two elements combined to create the first creative glimmerings of my story.

One of the Amazon reviewers of the novel asks whether the cat was really necessary to the plot. This was a question I asked myself as I began writing it, but it soon became obvious to me that Morpheus was an essential ingredient. That’s something you either get or don’t as a reader, and without peeling back the layers (I always feel it’s a mistake to analyse a book to the extent of taking away the mystery) I promise you that the cat is as important a character as the rest. I enjoyed describing his personality – in its own way as complex and revealing as Fynn’s. I had no data about any of them when I began it, and the characters arrived on the page and wove their complicated dance of interaction with a logic that defied much intervention from me. I had an idea of where we were going, but wasn’t entirely sure what form the journey would take. But then it became clear to me that although I hadn’t set out to write anything remotely resembling a romance, the two main protagonists – Fynn and Jack – were destined to develop a relationship, despite Fynn’s reluctance and Jack’s denials. The concept of destiny occurs in a number of my stories. Is life utterly meaningless, apart from the meaning we attach to it, or is there some larger and grander plot behind the scenes? I know I’m not the first writer to wrestle with this notion. An existential interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ is a great example.

There was something immensely freeing for me as a psychotherapist to begin the novel with the death of one. It was no coincidence that I began writing The Drowned Phoenician Sailor at the same time I made the decision to retire from practice. Paul became in some ways my alter ego, released from the constraints of the role, no longer confined by boundaries and able to bring more of himself into his relationship with Fynn. He remains to some extent something of a mystery, and yet some might say he is as much a main player in the novel as either Fynn or Jack. You as the reader will come to your own conclusions about whether or not he is objectively real in his ghostly form. The same applies to Fynn’s sister, whose regular visitations were the cause of Fynn seeking out a psychotherapist in the first place. If you believe there is a continuation of life after death then the ghosts in the novel will be satisfyingly plausible in their remarks and actions. If you take a more psychological viewpoint, there is an equally satisfying explanation about the powerful effect of grief. Does it matter? Perhaps it matters to you. But you won’t be disappointed, either way.

I romped my way through writing The Drowned Phoenician Sailor. I had enormous fun with the characters, and fell in love with Phoebe – Fynn’s mother – as soon as I started writing about her. Someone has suggested that I write a prequel to the novel that sets out to tell Phoebe’s story, and I’m tempted. But then again, someone else has said they want to know what happens next, and can’t I write more about Fynn and Jack – especially Jack, whose story seems in some respects to be just beginning at the end of the novel. But that’s part of the point of a novel, I believe. You don’t see the edges of the picture, only the piece that exists within the frame. You are left to join up the dots with your own imagination and make the experience of reading the story your very own. It has touched you uniquely, in whatever way it has managed to do that. It speaks to you, in the end, with your own voice.

If you haven’t already read The Drowned Phoenician Sailor then perhaps this all seems rather incoherent to you. The best advice I can offer is that you try it for yourself. (Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?) I am interested in your opinion, dear reader, and will welcome any reviews.

The Drowned Phoenician Sailor is on kindle at Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1511444789 If you live outside the UK this link should take you there: http://bit.ly/1KAT1X1
More details can be found on my website: www.lesleyhayes.co.uk

A FIELD BEYOND TIME

FRONT COVER FINAL

I took the title of this novel from one of my favourite quotations from the poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” When you’ve reached the end of the book, I think you’ll understand just why I chose it.

The novel was a long time in gestation. It began for me with Daniel’s story, his account of his time in India when he was in his early twenties. In the book this is revealed piece by piece in his journal entries, but for me it came with all the hurricane energy of a tormented soul desperate to be heard. When I began to write for Daniel it seemed to come from somewhere else: a voice that demanded to speak, to tell every last detail of the truth he needed to share. It took me over, and wouldn’t let me rest until he had said all he needed to. And after I’d finished telling his tale I was left still wondering just who this Daniel was. I needed to write the rest of the novel to find out.

I hadn’t entirely shed my own role as a psychotherapist when I embarked on writing it. It’s a moot point whether it’s a role that can ever be entirely shed, as it’s so much more than the work, and an intrinsic part of my personality. It seemed inevitable that Daniel would be a psychotherapist, and not just because I know what it’s like to sit in a room with someone else and care more for their suffering than my own. He is a wounded man, and has used his understanding of his own tragedies to find the way in to helping others to heal. It was important for me when I wrote about Daniel in the present that however much he was haunted by his past, he would be freed ultimately by facing it. What this turns out to mean for him you will need to read the book to discover. No spoilers here!

When I am writing there is a curious process that occurs, much as there has been for me when working as a therapist. I fall in love with the characters, the more real they become. And the more I fall in love with them, the more of themselves they reveal to me. When my characters first walk through the door of my mind to join me on the page they have yet to give away their deeper motivations for coming. By the time I’ve got to the second or third draft we are old friends, and I’ve reached the stage of never wanting to say goodbye. Although, much as it has been with clients, the time comes when the rest of their lives will continue elsewhere, no longer between the pages of my book. Hopefully, with clients, we have both been changed by the experience of our meeting. I always hope that this will also be the case for you, as a reader.

A number of elements came together that inspired me to write this particular novel, otherwise it might simply have remained as Daniel’s story: a narrative that had no context in which to place it. Events in my own life made me think deeply about the effects of childhood trauma, and the identity that evolved as a result. Some people believe that our identity is fixed from the moment of birth – before birth, in fact – and dictated partly by our genes and partly by some mysterious element that we might call ‘soul’ or even ‘karma’. Another view is that whatever the blank canvas is that we start out with, life experience, environment, parental and societal influences, all contribute to painting the unique portrait of the person we become. Perhaps there is something of both in forming our identity. We seem to develop a script about what life means for us very early on. We absorb the messages we receive from those around us and from the universe that presents us with our experience, kindly or unkindly, and we soak them up like the eager little emotional sponges that we are. What we learn intellectually is nothing compared to the life lessons we receive, good and bad, that make us decide where we stand in the greater scheme of things and whether we ourselves are good or bad.

There are underlying themes in the book which touch all of us at some point in our lives. Betrayal is one of them. There are some betrayals that are obvious, but how subtly and sometimes unconsciously do we otherwise betray one another – and can those betrayals be forgiven? We first meet the main characters in this novel as sudden turmoil begins to turn their safe, known world inside out. In different ways both Daniel and Mira are trying to make sense of who they are, and heading for possible destruction. Daniel and his wife Callie are faced with choices about whether to trust, and whether to hold on to secrets that if uncovered could risk their relationship. They are all three complex, confused human beings, confronting truths about themselves.

The truth is a theme that arises frequently in my stories. Its slippery, shape-shifting, often perplexing nature taunts me as I examine my own life and that of other people. Is what we believe to be the truth all there is to know? Doesn’t our perspective change as we draw back from close up and see the bigger picture? And yet discovering and claiming the truth is often what fires us into action and forces us to make judgements. Mira is a valiant and determined torch-bearer of a truth she holds as the fulcrum of her identity. I wanted to explore with her, as with Daniel, just what had shaped her into being the person she has become, and to question how possible it might be to bring about a change of heart.

I was discussing the themes in ‘A Field Beyond Time’ with a friend who had just finished it. He said he had sat up till 2 a.m. reading because he couldn’t put it down until he had found out what happened at the end. What was it that had kept him gripped? “I had to know if Daniel would find the resolution he needed,” he said. “From the point in the novel when I started reading his journal entries I was hooked. His story was so compelling.” Well, obviously I’m not going to give the game away here, but it was interesting to see that it wasn’t just me who felt in some way possessed by Daniel and his plight.

I hope you will be as touched by the characters in this novel as I was while writing about them. I came to love them in their flawed, imperfect human beingness. Did they all find the resolution they needed? Whether or not the novel keeps you up till the early hours, I hope you too are spurred to find the answer.

‘A Field Beyond Time’ is published on kindle at Amazon

www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00K3Q9FDE

It is now also available in paperback

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Field-Beyond-Time-Lesley-Hayes/dp/1514159902

It is also available in both kindle and paperback format at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Field-Beyond-Time-Lesley-Hayes-ebook/dp/B00K3Q9FDE

Friendship

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I didn’t really understand the true value of friendship until I got into my thirties. I was an only child and for various reasons always felt like an outsider when I was at school. The friends I made there were similarly not part of the in-crowd. For mysterious reasons that ultimately served me well as a writer I was always drawn to the offbeat, the dispossessed, the possibly slightly unhinged, the ones that looked as though society shunned or misunderstood them. My mother despaired when, having been sent to a private school at age four, my best friend of choice was Sally Sullivan, the girl whose cardigans never had any buttons on and whose hair looked like a bird’s nest in a hurricane. What her story was, I have no idea, but I do remember admiring her wild and devil-may-care attitude.

There have been many Sally Sullivans in my life in the years since. At secondary school I was, if anything, part of the out-crowd, if there is such a thing. It was a small select group. In fact, I don’t think the word ‘group’ could realistically be applied. I wasn’t unpopular, and I wasn’t bullied, but I was a bit too clever for my own good. I wanted to talk about philosophy, preferably in French. Well, that was just a passing phase, of course, and unbearably pretentious. But you get the picture. I used to ask witty questions of the teachers, which raised a laugh but didn’t endear me to anyone. I was never teacher’s pet. More like teacher’s thorn in the side. When I left school at seventeen, flying in the face of all the hopes, dreams and intentions of my parents and my teachers, my headmistress said: “I wonder what will become of you?” I lost touch with my chums from school and moved into what seemed much more colourfully to be The Real World.The stuff of which my autobiography, if and when I get around to it, will be filled. But for now, let’s skip quite a few years during which an awful lot happened but none of it particularly relevant to the theme of friendship.

I suddenly discovered what I now think of as real friendship in my early to mid-thirties, as my second marriage began crashing melodramatically into a heap of predictable rubble. Plenty of grist for the writer’s mill there, for which I have been glad. It’s always good to observe the silver lining and make the most of it. Prior to that friends had been ‘our friends’ or increasingly ‘those weird dungaree-wearing women with butch haircuts that you hang out with’ (his definition, never mine.) I discovered how supportive women could be of one another, how brave, how bawdy, how honest. I found how important it was to share feelings, however shameful and irrational they seemed, (especially the murderous ones,) and how good my women friends were at listening without judgement or without doing that very manly thing of ‘fixing’ the problem that you already know is tragically unfixable.

For the first time since the days of Sally Sullivan I risked getting closer to other women. Having never had sisters I really didn’t know the rules. These new friendships were not social ones, where we went out and partied (I’d had a number of those) but deeply intimate exchanges of our thoughts and desires and sorrows. We understood one another’s disappointments and weren’t afraid to laugh at ourselves. Women are particularly good at that. By the time I had swept the last of the marriage rubble into a corner of my mind I rarely noticed any more, I had embarked on a very different chapter of my life.

As I entered my forties I really got the hang of friendship. By the time I’d completed my psychotherapy training my inner world had been transformed, and my outer life reflected that. I didn’t give up being witty entirely (wordsmiths mostly just can’t help themselves) but I valued increasingly the importance of kindness over cleverness. The friendships I made during this period of my life proved to be enduring and supportive and life-changing in ways I never could have imagined. I guess that’s the nature of experiences that change your life.

Most of the friends that I made then were also psychotherapists, or therapists of other kinds. People intent on healing – which meant they were inevitably wounded themselves. The obvious fact is that we are all wounded. It’s what you choose to do with the wound that makes the difference: flaunt it, wear it like a badge of identity, make it worse, blame the world for it, seek revenge for it, invite more of it, deny it, cover it with layers of disguise… there are plenty of ways to not do anything to heal it. But then, if you face up to the fact that the wound is there, and begin to understand how it happened, you are one step towards the process that ultimately heals. The people who came into my life as friends in my forties and fifties have all been on that pilgrimage towards healing, one way or another. We speak the same language, have the same priorities, struggle with many of the same issues, and breathe in the same life-giving air of truth.

The best friends I’ve known, and still know, are the ones who never duck from careful self-examination, and recognize that blame is futile. When you stumble into the potential minefield of disagreement it’s a waste of energy to point the finger either towards the other person or yourself. However much we all love to be right (and don’t we just!) friendship thrives on the willingness to make that less of a priority than understanding one another. To be understood is one of the greatest blessings, and to offer that understanding to another person is such a gift.

As you get older your perspective shifts so radically. It really isn’t something you can comprehend in your youth, the way that the equation shrinks in terms of percentage of life expectancy yet to come. You start making statements like: “Life’s too short…” about an increasing number of things. Life’s too short to spend time doing this or that… where will it end, I sometimes wonder? Will I eventually think life is too short to get up in the morning? I suppose it could happen. You do begin to value the things you have, the more you see slipping away. And friendship is top of that list.

It gets harder to make new friends as you get older, even in this age of facebook and twitter where ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ take on a whole new meaning for those of us not born into this age of instant and often unstable hellos and goodbyes. Sadly, the older you get, the more likely it is that some friends will leave before you, and partners are more likely to be lost through death than divorce. Which gives “Life’s too short…” a completely other spin. Life is too short not to enjoy every moment of connection you can, to imbue it with meaning and authenticity, even if it’s a tweet or a facebook post. I’ve had a number of relationships in my life (in case you were thinking it all ended with the rubble of my second marriage… oh no, dear reader, that was but the start of a whole new set of adventures…) and some have not been possible to sustain beyond the breakup drama. Sometimes the kindest thing is to exit stage left from someone’s life, or to wish them well on their onward journey. But in a few cases a deepening friendship has been the outcome, and for that I’ve been grateful.

In my own experience, true friendship has been what has nourished me, enlivened me, healed me, and inspired me. When I think of my friends, as I am doing now, I feel humbled with gratitude for all that they’ve meant, over the years, and all that they’ve given me, freely and without expectation of any return. These days I include four lovely men among my dearest friends. I think of them as brothers, although none of them know each other and they each come from very different backgrounds. And my much loved women friends – you know who you are. Some have been in my life for longer than others. All are beautiful, strong, courageous women who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

The picture at the top of this post is of me with my friend Sheelagh. We met twenty-five years ago, and have been alongside each other ever since through so many changes in both our lives. She is the closest I will ever have to a sister, and our experiences and challenges have so often run on parallel tracks. There is such a profound sense of being held in a friendship where you know and accept each other not just for the positive stuff but for the shadow that lurks beneath. Friends forgive. They don’t judge, although they give you sound advice when they think you need it, even if it’s something they suspect you won’t want to hear. They do it in such a way that you know they love you anyway. Tears come to their eyes when they feel your pain, and they don’t hold back from sharing their own, so that the friendship always feels grounded in equality.

They feel joy at your successes, and do everything they can to help you make them happen. And when life’s inevitable disappointments come, they give words of comfort that come straight from the heart. On days when you feel that nothing is possible, after half an hour with them they can make you feel that anything is possible. They aren’t combative or competitive – except perhaps at Scrabble or Uno. And they really enjoy sharing a good moan or a rant about what’s wrong with the world. Plenty to choose from there. It’s a conversation that can run and run. So, anyway, today these are my random thoughts about friendship. As I said in a previous post, I have been told I have a friendly face. But there’s a lot more to being a friend than that.