Different Voices

As a writer I like to explore different characters in order to use voices that will differentiate them and be in keeping with the psychology and personal history I have created for them in my novels and short stories. I spend a lot of time listening to people speak, talking to them, asking their views/opinions on issues etc, and I research other countries, cultures and speech patterns. However, one area of life that I’m less familiar with is LGBTQ.

I will be 70 in April and have seen a lot of changes during my life regarding people who don’t fall into the heterosexual binary category. But it was only during a discussion with friends last weekend, about the BBC progamme ‘Seahorse’, that I realised, to my horror, how outdated and ignorant I am. This week I set about trying to educate myself.

I am aware of the cisgender/trans-women issue that raged on Facebook for months but I never engaged with it. My personal feelings at the time were that classifications aren’t necessary and whatever anyone wants to present themselves, whatever pronoun they wish to have, is fine by me and I will do my best to respect their wishes. However, I now realise it’s much, much more complicated than that.

In order to educate myself, I picked up a book originally belonging to my daughter Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are by Declan Henry (Squirrel Publishing 2016). The blurb on the back says:

“This book gives an important, valuable platform to many divers trans voices. We must listen andlearn from their experiences and concerns; and act in solidarity with their human rights struggle.” (Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation)

Perfect. However, as I read through I began to panic.

As an ex-teacher I’m aware of different kinds of learners and used to employ various strategies to help my students find their most effective methods of learning. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I learn by doing something repeatedly – new technology is a good example. If someone tells me how to do a certain thing on the computer and I don’t have to do that action again for several weeks, I forget how to do it; I have to write it down and refer to it again when I need the information. As I’ve got older, my ability to retain new things is slowly decreasing, and when faced with lots of new words, despite being a writer and words being my ‘thing’, I feel like a poor speller who’s struggling to determine the differences between ‘Their’, ‘There’ and “They’re’.

Back to my panic. I never knew there were so many words, so many categories or terms that explain all the different physiological and psychological experiences, states of mind/identity, and trying to remember them all overwhelmed me. I had to keep flicking back the pages to the various labels in order to understand differences between gender-fluid, gender-queer, gender-non-conforming, and gender-variant, to name a few. To be honest, I’ll still have to look them up as my brain can’t quite accommodate so much information overload. However, labels aside, what I loved about the book were the personal voices of the many people Henry interviewed, and the breadth of their experiences in transition and what it meant to them.

In these disturbing times we live in I am always greatly encouraged to hear stories of not only survival and courage in adversity,  but also of compassion and empathy. I have never before lived through such hatred and divisiveness in society, bombarded by the media and encouraged by politicians. It is therefore a breath of fresh air to read about and hear the voices of so many people who, despite the difficulties of health systems, familial rejections and public prejudices, have emerged to become the person they really believe they are. I feel humbled.

I set out to read the book in order to educate myself, but in the process found out about myself, the extent of my ignorance, and a whole new world of experiences I have never really considered in any depth. Thank you.

Storytelling

“The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Forgive me, it’s been a long time since my last confession. Ill health, disappointment and depression have been the main culprits behind that, but then one of those strange little random moments that life throws at us completely changed that, revitalised me and guided me back on course.

 

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I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop and discovered The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler. It is the biography of a C17th Danish scientist whose curiosity and intelligence was to lead him to fame as an anatomist in the Medici court in Florence, and it was here that he made his most significant discoveries, became an anatomist of the earth and determined the Four Principles of Stratigraphy still used by geologists today.

Born Niels Steensen, his name was Latinised at university to Nicholai Stenonis, but the world knows him simply as Steno, the father of geology. Immediately I felt inspired to tell his fascinating story. I decided to attempt a poetry sequence and a friend suggested the haibun form, a melody of prose and haiku championed by Japanese poetry master Basho.

Basho used the haibun for essays, diary entries and travel accounts so the idea of a journey began to form. Steno travelled extensively but he also underwent a spiritual journey from Lutheran scientist to Catholic bishop and I felt the haibun form would enable me to tell that story. However, when I started researching background information to understand the science involved in Steno’s discoveries I realised that this story was much bigger than just Steno and his Four Principles of Stratigraphy; it was the story of the earth itself and the evolution of life upon it.

The first problem was how to tell such a vast story? I decided that it would be a sequence of voices, each telling part of the story, and the whole sequence would be divided into four sections, each section metaphorically related to one of the Principles as determined by Steno. Another problem was the various theories involved in the story of evolution and history of humankind, so I plumped for one and ran with it, weaving together science and history. Like fairy stories or folk tales there may be other versions but we choose the one we’re most comfortable with. I make no claims to be an expert, but I hope the versions that I have chosen are consistent.

Having made these decisions I applied for, and was fortunate enough to be awarded, funding from DG Unlimited to undertake research in Florence and to engage the excellent support of mentor, Jim Bennett, poet and creator of online poetry services The Poetry Kit. (www.poetrykit.org)

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(photo by Mabel Amber, Still Incognito – Pixabay)

With his help I recently completed Ancient Anchors, the title taken from Ovid – Metamorphoses Book XV (8AD)

“Seashells lie far away from ocean’s waves and ancient anchors have been found on mountaintops”

and I’m now looking for a publisher. Enter the old disappointment about UK poetry publishing houses who are few and have a backlog of 3 years’ worth of books to publish therefore they’re not accepting any new submissions. However, there is always the option of self-publishing so watch this space…

 

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.

 

 

Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.