The Ethic of Belonging

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. “(David George Haskell,  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

I’ve always loved the majesty of trees. I think I inherited it from my great aunt Ida, who was disabled and lived alone in an upstairs flat. Few people visited, despite her coming from a huge family. As a child she was locked away in her bedroom if any visitors called and she never got to go to parties, church, or anywhere else outside the house, such was the shame of having a disabled member of the family in those days. She had no sticks, no wheelchair, and to get around inside the house she swivelled on a ‘crackit’ (stool). And in the rare event anyone did call, she had to bump up and downstairs on her bum to open the door. In her eyes, the outside world was a frightening alien environment. Until my dad bought a car.

He was the only son of one of her sisters and the only member of the family that I know of who visited regularly. The car was bought in 1956 and Dad used to bring Aunt Ida to our house for Sunday dinner then take us all out for a ‘run’ in the car afterwards. She was terrified of the traffic and yelled at cars, ‘Get away home!’ but the things that really blew her away were the trees.

We lived in a mining community of back-to-backs, cobbled stone streets, back yards and outhouses, so trees were a luxury only seen in parks, or further afield in the countryside. In the car Ida used to repeat, over and over, ‘Oh, the trees. The trees!’ lost in her own little world of reverence. Trees connected her to a nature that was not part of her home environment nor seen from any of her windows. And in these living networks of trees, birds, insects, squirrels and sky she melted into a relationship with the divine.

It is no coincidence that I live in a forest park, that I walk in the woods for inspiration for my writing or that I feel a spiritual connection to the life evolving around me. There is harshness in predatory killings, in sudden frosts and flash floods, but there is also gentleness in whispering breezes, the unfurling of ferns, the song of a blackbird. The cycles of life and death are unsentimental dances, their beauty cast in webs of environmental responsibility. And we each have our part to play in the music and the dance.

 

 

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Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

Who Knows Where The Time Goes

It’s the last day of the month. It snowed yesterday, large, fat flakes covering dying snowdrops and new shoots of crocuses and daffodils, death and birth co-existing just as we sit on the cusp of a new month, the old one falling away from us. In six weeks I will celebrate my sixty-seventh birthday.

Last week I looked after my grandson here during the school holidays as I have done since he was small. He’ll be twelve soon and old enough to stay at home on his own, so my time with him is so precious. I doubt I’ll be able to compete with the pull of spending time with his friends, with him wanting to be on his own, independent, able to do what he wants in his own time. But a new generation are growing up and hopefully my twin grandsons will be comfortable enough to spend the school holidays with me. For a while at least. Until they, too, grow up.

Life is an ever-constant state of forward motion and sometimes as we get older we want to hang onto things the way they are, not give in to changes, keep things exactly the same. So when changes do occur we are filled with nostalgia, howl at the moon and want the old ways back. Our bodies age, we’re less able to bend physically (and also metaphorically) to the different circumstances in our lives. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t learn how to accommodate the changes in our bodies, to sit and breathe quietly, to accept that we’re just small pieces in Nature’s jigsaw, then our last days will be filled with anger and not lived to the full.

I have been so angry for a long time. At my weakening body , at politics and the world I knew that seems to be disintegrating around me, at world leaders who cause immeasurable suffering to people and the planet, at my own ineffectiveness. But looking at the snow this morning as it melts, revealing the new growth of spring flowers and the remains of the snowdrops, I feel more at peace, more reflective. That’s not to say I don’t still feel concerned or intend to stop campaigning against those things that are happening. It just means that I’m seeing it in a wider perspective and know that this too will pass.

I came across Nina Simone’s recording of Who Knows Where The Time Goes on YouTube yesterday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXeh742_jak. Her introduction and the song has resonated with me since then.

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

I’ll leave you with the lyrics but please check the recording out and enjoy the beauty of Nina Simone, 21 February  1933–21 April  2003.

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

The Power of Words

Why Diary of an Invisible Woman?

I’ve been asked that question a few times and there’s a couple of answers I give:

  • I’ve reached that age when I’ve become sexually invisible to men and can’t remember the last time I was asked out on a date
  • I drive the invisible car that everyone cuts in front of, disregards when it comes to road safety, and doesn’t see at crossings or traffic lights

But the real reason is:

  • I’m rendered invisible by generic language

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when terms like ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘mankind’, ‘chairman’ etc knew nothing about gender scrutiny. When I married at 19 I was earning twice as much as a civil servant than my husband who was still an apprentice. We had to wait till he finished his apprenticeship before we were able to get a mortgage because only 10% of my wages were taken into consideration.

He worked away from home and I managed the house, our finances and then the children when they came along. Yet when the boiler broke down the plumber wanted my husband present because I was obviously too thick to understand what he was telling me. When I wanted to buy a new settee on HP the salesman wanted the ‘head of the house’ to sign the contract, and that, according to him, wasn’t me. If my husband wasn’t available, didn’t I have a dad who could sign for me?

When we got divorced I didn’t revert to my ‘maiden’ (yuk!) name, I kept the marital name because I didn’t want to have a different surname to my children. It was the norm for the woman to have to change her name to her husband’s and in those days there was no way to officially keep your own name. Unlike today. Resentment and emergent feminism made me take the title ‘Ms’ because I wanted to be known as a woman, (like Mr denotes a man) not as someone whose status was dependent upon whether or not she was tied to a man in marriage. However, to work colleagues, new acquaintances, older family members, the title meant ‘divorced’ and someone not to be touched with a barge pole.

I’ve recently started to learn Italian. The word for ‘son’ is figlio, for daughter ‘figlia’ , the plurals being figli and figlie respectively but the word for ‘children’ (rather than ‘babies’)is figli, whether that’s all boys or a mix of boys and girls. And it’s not only Italian that does this. All over the world, in lots of small, seemingly inconsequential ways, girls and women are eroded, rendered invisible by their language.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is something my mother tried to get me to say to myself when I was in trouble for fighting. My family moved a lot because of my dad’s job and I attended nine different schools in total. I was bullied mercilessly and punished viciously by teachers for fighting back, (corporal punishment rules OK) thereby gaining a reputation that followed me to each school. The words they used as they punished me were, ‘GIRLS do NOT behave like THAT!’ as if the word ‘girl’ held some sort of code of behaviour that I had to ascribe to. I can still feel the stick on my fingers.

My best friends were all boys, and possibly the reason why I was bullied so much by the girls in secondary school. One of the things we did was to look up all the ‘dirty’ words in a dictionary. But when it came to a word I didn’t understand, I carried on and looked that up, found another and looked that up, and so on in a word chase that lead me to strange places and stranger-sounding names.

Which I suppose is why I became a writer. I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound they make when mixed with my breath, the meanings they have. And as a writer I get to choose the words I want, control my literary situations, manipulate the emphasis and meaning of texts. And avoid using generic language.

Identity and Truth

Seneca writes:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long by Maria Popova

I recently embarked on a memoir writing course and have been trawling through the various stages of my life, the events that took place and the hold they have over me. On paper my life looks rich in source material—plenty of births, deaths, significant changes, angst, loss etc—but what does it all add up to in terms of Seneca’s definition? Have all the failed relationships, mistakes, disruptions, lack of control, blind alleys, nervous breakdowns and self-sabotaging been a waste? I don’t think so. They have forged me into who I am and the writer in me uses these experiences to inform my work, create ‘real’ characters and situations, empathize with them and hopefully enable readers to understand their motivations and flaws.

David Foster Wallace puts it perfectly in: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write:

“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

So what is my Truth? And what does it have to do with identity?

When we create characters we need them to be identifiably different from the others and use various techniques to do this—‘voice’, what they say, what they do, what is said about them, what they wear, what they carry and so on. We create a back story for them, invent life events, family members, mannerisms, education, likes and dislikes, music preferences etc, anything that will fix them in our minds so that we can psychologically motivate them. Most of that stuff never appears in our stories but we need it to create a ‘truth’ for the character. By providing an identity and personality for them they become real to us. We know them intimately, they speak to us, take us in directions we didn’t think we’d go, fall in love with unsuitable people and start to have a life of their beyond the pages.

When I was creating the character of Grace in my first novel I was drawing on an event that had stuck in my mind when my children were small. A two-year-old boy was abducted on the island of Kos when in the care of his grandmother and I wondered how the child’s mother could ever forgive her own mother. This ‘what if’ became the starting point for the story and the character of Grace was created through my own experiences; she was about the same age as me, had a difficult relationship with her daughter and had mental health problems. The similarities ended there but were a springboard for other ideas until Grace lived with me and even slept with me at night. Drawing on deeply personal experiences I can vouch for the ‘truth’ of her, but she isn’t me; I am me.

Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897) says:

 “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Looking at my life experiences it may seem as if I have lived a life of wasted opportunities but in Seneca’s terms, writing is a way of me having a long life because I now know “how to use it”.