Tuesday 26th November 2019
I wonder if you have a favourite book?
I love books – above everything they are my go-to habit that I have a perpetual weakness for. I have more than I can possibly read in my lifetime, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to own just one more.
I’ve recently realised that I have summer books and winter books, in that there are books that I am compelled to re-visit and read over and over again, but only as long as the meteorological conditions are suitable. Right now, I’m spending my winter evenings with The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. It’s a wonderfully dark collection of a re-imagining of fairy tales.
In each story, the female protagonist, always wise beyond her years and not in need of a prince or dashing pirate to rescue her, confidently and competently rescues herself instead. Among the collection is the short tale, The Company of Wolves – possibly one of Carter’s most well know stories which was made into a movie in the 1980’s and is a candid observation of the challenges faced by young girls as they journey towards woman-hood.
My latest find is a 1942 publication of short stories by Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth. Through the joy that is the internet, one click and it was parcelled up and flown across oceans from America to its new custodian.
I say custodian, because I have a philosophy that there are very few things that we ever truly, absolutely own – maybe other than the teeth in our heads. So most things we posses are more-so looked after by ourselves; and then eventually handed on to the next caretaker. Such was, and is, the book.
Opening the brown paper wrapping, I held my face close to the yellow edged paper and inhaled, breathing in over seventy years of its absorbed history, I tried to imagine the life of the book, its own history beyond the story. There are multiple coffee-mug stains on the cover, so it’s fair to assume that if it hasn’t been read in recent years, it has at least been given a purpose – if only to serve as a glorified coaster.
Inside the book is an inscription in looped, copper-plate handwriting with the message: “To George with love from Ma, London 1942” – I wondered who the boy or man George was, or maybe George was short for Georgina? Son or daughter, it was given as a gift from a mother to her child during uncertain times in the middle of WW2, maybe it was given as a talisman to a soldier son, and served as a reminder of home?
At some point it had magicked its way across the Atlantic, only for in old age to be summoned back home again. So I get a sense of something coming ‘full circle’ and feel content that it will spend its dotage sleeping quietly on my bookcase..
Someone asked me once if I had a favourite book. I still have frown-lines on my forehead from the effort required to answer that particular question; I think I managed to narrow it down to my favourite twelve, or thirteen, give or take half a dozen… maybe? – which wasn’t really the point of the question.
Recently however it has quietly occurred to me that I do have a favourite book after all. It’s a very old, very well-read book of Norwegian fairie tales given to me by my Grandmother for my seventh birthday, East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen.
I’m always bewitched by the brilliance and lantern-bright glow of the images hidden within the pages. This has always felt like an enchanted book, Nielsen’s illustrations shimmer with a radiance as if illuminated by sunlight. The written words on the opposite page become almost unimportant, because staying close to the Nordic oral tradition of storytelling, these tales were never really meant to be written down, but instead passed through the generations by the spoken word.
Not for the feint hearted child, these are frightening tales, of trolls who stalk the forests at night and witches who steal sleeping baebes from their cribs, of forbidden rooms with locked doors and gods of the North Wind that can be summoned with a whistle.
It also served as a springboard for my fascination with classic ghost stories and the uncanny, thus my love of M R James and Edgar Allen Poe may never have been ignited had it not been for this one book.
Of all my books, it is the book that I would rescue, Desert-Island-Disc-Style, if I had to choose but one. It’s not lost on me that it is in essence a classic transitional object and represents far more than the sum of its parts. It conjures memories of sitting next to my grandmother whilst she sewed lace poppets for my sister and I, and retold us stories of her own childhood. It represents home and safety, closeness and warmth, but most of all it symbolises love.
There are moments when I wonder if George took comfort from the book that was given to them all those years before, that beyond the pages there was the memory of home, and a reminder of their place amongst things.
I truly hope so.
The Death of the Moth by Virginia Woolf (1942)
“It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the Summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience”.
From The Death of the Moth & Other Essays
Woolf, V. The Hogarth Press, 1942 (London)
Thursday 11th April 2019
A home-spun mantra that I offer up for consideration, within and outside of my therapy office is that, “we work better when we have choices”. It’s something that I strongly embrace – maybe it’s more a reflection of my occasional predisposition to be contrary, but when I take a moment to contemplate on events when I’ve felt compromised or limited by a situation and sense that I’m about to drown in panic; throw me a life-raft alternative, and within a blink I’m adamant that I no longer need rescuing. Nope… but thank you, “high five”, in fact, I rather quite like it here now. The notion that I have a choice is all I need to keep my resolve stitched tight.
That said, the learning-curve of life isn’t ever quite that simple, is it? Sometimes situations evolve, and decisions are made, the consequences of which have a iceberg-like definition on the final outcome. The iceberg metaphor is a cliché, I know, but it’s the only way I can explain what I mean by how a choice will sometimes have no alternative but to run, arms flaying, to its natural conclusion. Ultimately, the results will remain largely unseen to others, but to owner of that decision there are unchartered depths and a rigidity to the sequence of events that unfolded by the roll of that particular dice.
Robert Frost wrote about the impact of choices in his poem The Road Not Taken, a solemn reflection of decisions he made when he was younger. He muses over whether he should follow the well-walked pathway in the foot-steps of others, or take the road less travelled by. At the end of the poem, he sighs, and as the reader, we don’t really know whether he’s expressing the content life he enjoys because of wise choices or if he’s quietly swallowing his sadness and lives with regret.
I’ve always cherished this poem and have thrust copies of it to clients, friends and family over the years. I still find it thought provoking and puzzling, and always ever so poignant. Maybe there’s a hint within Frost’s words that the choices we make today are the right ones for where we are at this very moment – and (to coin an American phrase) to ‘give ourselves a bit of slack’ because it’s part of the human condition to forever wrestle with regret and melancholic nostalgia.
Whatever big decisions you’re about to make, remember these are your successes and failures to make, and we will always, always learn from both – they each have value. So take a deep breath, inhale until you can feel hope growing ripe in your belly and remember, this particular chapter may be already written but you are and always will be the author.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Monday 29th October 2018
It finally feels as if autumn is arriving, at last. I know plenty of people who feel sad as the season shifts and the weather becomes noticeably cooler, but I’ve always loved this time of year.
As a big foodie, it means that the salads of summer are to be traded for the more comforting and filling fare of stews, roasted meats and steamed puddings and the inevitable ‘muffin top’ will in a few weeks need to be disguised beneath thick jumpers and woollens.
I’ve told people before that I can almost smell winter approaching. Not in the same way that you might smell perfume or old books, but in a very primitive sense that something is happening, and this is confirmed by the change in the colours of the landscape, the trees as they begin to drop their leaves in earnest and the days as they become steadily shorter.
This Autumn I have been surfing new changes. My child, now grown up into adulthood began University and left home. The buzz of excitement which followed in their wake made it difficult for me to feel sad, but I have been especially nostalgic over the last few weeks. I’ve found myself re-visiting old photographs –their first steps, the joy of learning to ride a bike, the last day of playgroup and the first day of school. Line them up and there’s a little photographic archive of change. Some that we can’t fail to notice because of their seismic importance and others that at the time went unnoticed but that are now regarded as a defined stepping-stone from one phase to another.
The other week as I packed the last bits into the car on the day we set off for University, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of change in the air. Grabbing the keys, I heard an unfamiliar noise and looked up to see wild geese flying over-head. They are always a sign of change but this day it seemed especially symbolic – flying the nest, literally. They symbolise the nature of things and the rhythm of life itself.
I was reminded of Rachel Field’s poem, Something Told the Wild Geese. She speaks about situations where we need to acquire the ability to flow and trust our instincts – we may wish to stay in the relative discomfort of where we find ourselves rather than face the fear of change, but she gently reminds us that the snow is coming regardless.
It is in the very nature of things and like it or not, living is ultimately all about change.
Something Told the Wild Geese – by Rachel Field
Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Leaves were green and stirring,
But beneath warm feathers
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,—
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.
Wednesday 26th September 2018
When clients begin therapy with me, I always suggest that they start to keep a journal so that they can begin to record their thoughts and feelings. It serves as an archive of their progress through their journey towards self-awareness but it can also be a useful tool for helping them to gain more insight into a problem, thought or feeling.
In this Blog, I intend to record my own thoughts and musings and just maybe some of the things I share may be useful or helpful in some way to others – (or not! – either way is fine). I’ve always found writing therapeutic – it provides a space for a different way of processing words and sentences. When we speak, we can throw words away without thinking, yet when writing, the pace is sometimes slower and this can provide ‘head-room’ to be more articulate and creative – to under-pin what we want to communicate with real meaning.
I didn’t know until recently that Blog actually means Big Load of Gossip… mine is a big load of something – no matter – the point is, I’m going to enjoy writing it.
Bye for now