Home is where the heart is?

I’ve been away for the Xmas break staying with my family in the NE of England. I lived there for most of my life before moving to Scotland 10 years ago, so Newcastle has been “home” for a very long time. I holds memories that are the threads of my life, stitches that have held me together through adversities, cloth that has kept me warm and offered protection from harsh winter nights. Whenever I travelled south on the train my pulse would quicken as soon as I saw the Tyne Bridge, or if I travelled by car, when I passed the Angel of the North. But things are changing. Or maybe I’m just getting older.

When I was young we moved around a lot and I went to 8 different schools. At first leaving friends was like having my heart torn open but gradually I perfected growing a leather sheath over it that could be repaired. “Home” became a ghost, a concept that lived in the realm of consciousness but had no definite substance. Later it became something I carried around inside me. Then everything changed. I had children.

Determined my kids would never have to leave their friends and familiar surroundings, I stubbornly stayed on in the house we bought just after we were married. But I yearned for freedom, to travel, to experience. It was only when my babes were all grown up and had left to make their own way in life that I went off to work in Nepal. I had such grand ideas of career changes, working in developing countries and “making a difference”. But like a lot of my grand ideas this one didn’t work out either.

The illness that had dogged me for years reared up again and I was sent back to the UK for treatment. Unfortunately I got a diagnosis that would not allow me to continue working in developing countries. I was bereft. But at the same time, all the things I’d taken for granted before going away suddenly had their colour volume turned up. The streets were clean, traffic didn’t have foul black smoke belching out of exhaust pipes, and there was an order to driving on roads. And of course, some of those roads led me back to the Tyne Bridge and the Angel.

In Nepal I had contemplated on rooftops waiting for the Himals to appear, back in England I sat in parks. In Nepal the breath-taking beauty of snow-peaked Himalayas spoke to me in air that was fresh and soft and stupas expanded my appreciation of the spirit. In Northumberland I looked at castles and churches with different eyes, seeing in them people from the past, my people, whose lives were just as hard as modern-day Nepalis and Tibetans. The grass and forests and rivers or Northumbria became sacred to me, places that nourished my soul and where I found temporary peace from my fears that I would die never being good enough or do anything that made a difference to anyone. I was wrong about that as well.

Shortly after I moved to Scotland a former teaching colleague invited me to the Sixth Form Reunion at one of the schools where I used to work. I wasn’t well enough to travel so sent my apologies and thought that was then end of it. However, after the reunion she got back in touch with me to say that several students had been disappointed I hadn’t been able to go but one lad in particular wanted me to know what a difference I’d made to his life.

David had been in my A level literature group and was someone who had been bullied a lot. He had  a wandering eye, was very quiet and overweight. We were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’d asked the group if they’d like to do a Geordie version of the Mechanicals play for assembly and perform to the rest of the school. They were a bit dubious but once we got underway they started to be excited. I asked David to play Bottom, the lead part. He kept suggesting other students for the role so I told him that if he didn’t want to do it, that was fine but I thought he’d do a good job of it. He did. When he came to the reunion it was let me know he’d played Hamlet at university and had just appeared at one of the theatres in Newcastle as part of a nationwide tour with a theatre company. Coming back ‘home’ to perform had been one of his greatest pleasures and seeing me would have been another. There was a write-up in one of the local evening newspapers of the play David had been in and he was quoted as saying “It was all down to my English teacher. She was the only one who believed in me”.

I left teaching for a lot of reasons but other than the pleasure I have derived from my own children it was the next best. I miss the freedom I had to explore texts in whatever way I saw fit, to take the ‘bottom set’ students to the theatre and see their eyes shine, to take them on outings and socialize them, to make assignments real and not just fabricated exercises with no cause or effect. But most of all I miss their youth and their honesty –

“Poetry? What the fuck use is that?”

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Can’t buy me love

It’s New Year’s Eve and thoughts automatically turn to a review of the past year and what has been achieved. On the writing front I’ve been really busy and had several poems and a short story published. My second novel, which is still to place, has been critiqued and I’ve started a third. I’ve been actively sending my work out, shrugging off any rejections and feel a lot more grounded in self-belief. There will always be areas I can improve but I’m pleased with my progress and the fact I don’t let criticism destroy me anymore.

My home life keeps me on my toes and my health, apart from a dodgy hip, is probably the best it’s been for years. I’ve been able to have more work done on the house to make it warm this winter and have replaced a couple of old settees to enhance my comfort. It’s all been good. So what’s missing?

When I worked in Nepal and on my travels in developing countries I was always impressed by the incredibly happy outlook of people who had nothing. They never worried about whether their clothes matched some fashion dictate, or whether their body shapes were in vogue. They didn’t seem to agonize over whether their partner loved them or if they were worthy of love. I suppose when you are stripped to basics and survival is your main concern, then those other things are luxuries you can’t afford. Now I’ve got a new career going, have a home I can be safe, warm and comfortable in, I’ve no more excuses; it’s time to look at the area of my life I do any displacement activity to avoid addressing. Love.

Those who have followed my blogs know that I haven’t been particularly successful in that area and that the way I deal with being unsuccessful is to either bash away with my head, or run away. The latter is easiest. I’ll take lots of risks with my body but am a real wuss when it comes to my heart. I’d rather give up desire than risk rejection so have settled into a very pleasant ‘safe’ existence where I can and do anything I want without having to explain myself or make compromises. It always seemed a win/win situation to me. And yet…

Lately the old yearning has surfaced, that feeling of desire for intimate communication between bodies and souls, where connections are forged that can take me to the realms of the divine. The heat and static on skin that electifies the slightest touch and can take me to another dimension. The meeting of minds that seems to expand intellect yet at the same time makes space for the trivial minutae of life, recognizing it’s implicit importance in the great scheme of things. There is so much more than I am currently experiencing. It may be blasphemous, but for me meditation can only provide so much. I’m having a human experience that is enhanced by contact with Spirit but perhaps it’s another human being who can be a more successful channel to that contact. And maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I remember reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at university and loving his portayal of Satan and Adam. His Adam is not the gullible soul sometimes portayed in anti-feminist religious writings. He knows what Eve has done is wrong but his love for her is so strong that he chooses to follow Eve and be damned with her rather than live in Eden without her. I’m not good at deferred gratification so I would choose like Adam for the ‘now’ of Eve rather than the ‘later’ of what life might be like without her. Love is one of our strongest motivating emotions and to live without it is limiting. With 2014 approaching it’s time for resolutions so I’m send out to the Universe my desire to be open in mind and heart to all opportunities and I’ll see where that takes me. Wherever it is, it’ll be an exciting journey, with or without a companion.

 

Birthdays

Today is my ex-husband’s birthday; he would have been 64. I keep a daily journal and have been remembering him, remembering the people we were, our relationship, what went wrong, what went right and what I learned along the way.

I was 17 when we met. I was going out with his cousin and was introduced to him at a disco. He was shorter than his cousin and looked much younger and I partonized him quite a bit. When he asked me to dance I obliged, feeling I was doing him a favour. However, when we got onto the dance floor and I saw how good he was, I viewed him differently. We were married when I was 19, after our engagement had been broken off for a while when I found out he’d been sleeping one my friends. That kind of set the tone for the whole of our relationship.

We broke up for a while when my first child was less than 2 years old but got back together again amidst all sorts of promises. Then, when I was 5 months pregnant with our second child he was promoted and started working away from home. I physically became a single parent although emotionally I’d felt one for a long time. The ineveitable happened and he found someone else, we divorced and went our different ways. But we had children together and that changes everything. He was a man driven by principles, but aware of his shortcomings, was active within the Labour Party and a shop steward. We shared political beliefs but differed on how to express them. However, when it came to our children we made a pact to always do what we felt was best for them, not us, and agreed never to rubbish the other in front of them. We kept our bargain, difficult as it was at times.

Over the years I grew to love and respect him in new ways. He never reneged on any child maintenance payments, was always there at the end of a phone to talk to about the children, and took them at holiday times to give me a rest. His work took him all over the world for months at a time but he kept in touch and when his boys were born our family extended. Things that had driven me crazy during our marriage – “No wife of mine is going to work in a bar”, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, bonnie lass”, and “If you want to go out, I’ll take youi” –  I realized were just his way of trying to ‘be a man’ in the culture of the day. His sense of duty and resposibility were later the very things I valued him for when around me my friends’ ex-husbands were petty and vindictive during and after their divorces.

Every Mothers’ Day I received a huge bouquet of flowers to thank me for our children and that continued for another 30 years after our divorce, right up until his death. He cheered me on while I struggled to get my first and post grad degrees  and always called to see how I was getting on, particularly after my diagnosis of MG. However, he himself fell ill from working with asbestos and other substances. His illness wore him out and his family begged him to retire but true to his principles and work ethics, he carried on working until the end. He  also had another reason for carrying on – if he died ‘in work’ then his widow got a lot more from his work insurance.

I wrote a poem just before his funeral and want to share it with you. He was never completely comfortable with ‘strong’ women and always found it difficult to express his emotions, so we were completely incompatible as lovers/spouses. But he was always there, in the background, offering support wherever he could, and I miss him.

 

The Light 

 

The light has gone out early.

I thought I would have gone

 

first, but here I am

 

sitting in the dark, remembering.

 

 

 

He blew into me one day

 

like he was the edge of the wind

 

bringing new ideas

 

from the low rattle of a storm.

 

 

 

His laughter warmed me, like a room

 

filled with sunshine, but too soon

 

it disappeared,

 

blown out with the light.

 

I shiver in the dark.

 

 

 

Intuition and Perception

As a writer as well as a woman I often rely upon intuiton to guide me. Not often enough, however, because sometimes when I ignore it, I only have to return to it later when it has proven to be correct. But what, exactly, is it?

I came across an article on Brain Pickings online newsletter entitled “How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Intuition. In it Daniel Kahneman looks at how the brain works and he ascertains that it learns more by making mistakes than by getting everything right. No surprises there. He then goes on to assert that:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.”

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

I don’t know about you but he lost me at the word knowledge bit. The article is very academic, as you’d expect from a Nobel prize winning psychologist, and I’m sure, since his book has been rated one of the best psychology books of 2012, that it’s well researched and informative. However, for me the distinction between intuition and perception is to do with something that is integral and something that is learned.

Migrating birds don’t seem to have ‘word language’, nor turtles hatching out of eggs and making straight for the sea, or salmon swimming upstream in the rivers of their birth. By all accounts they have a signal inside them that provides instruction and direction that isn’t imparted by anyone else, they’re born with it. I know this kind of intuition is different from what Kahneman was talking about in his ‘intuitive thinking’, but it’s easier for me to understand how my body/mind can tell me something is wrong before it happens if I think about turtles. It’s all about survival.

Perception, on the other hand, seems more to do with value judgements or ways of looking at something. In an art class I attended there was a huge bowl on the centre of the table in the middle of the room, filled with flowers. Each sketch from the students was different, based on their unique styles, artistic temperament and also their positions around the table. For me, perception is like that. We each see something differently based on our past experiences, expectations, and knowledge/understanding. So how does this affect my writing?

When I write poetry I first rely on my ‘intuitive inner voice’ to help me feel the words, decide on line endings, hear the cadences and movement of the poems. I then use my ‘critical inner voice/friend’ to unpick the ideas, check them against what I know/have read/learnt/want to achieve to help me decide what needs to be changed. My ‘intuition’ gets me started, my ‘critical friend’ helps me to review and refine until I’m happy with the results. When someone reads my poems they may like or dislike them but not really know why, which is probably an intuitive response, whereas those who like or dislike and can give reasons are proabably using perception.

As Kahneman says, they’re both linked and to know one we need to understand the other. I love the intelligence, vocabulary and passion of people like him, and I do try to read academic works. However, for my purpose here I like the simpler analogies of turtles, salmon or swallows.

 

Revenge

My new novel is about revenge and how betrayals and broken dreams can turn someone into a killer. I’ve been watching a lot of crime programmes here in Holland on the ID Channel and have been noting how many of the murders have been motivated by revenge. One particularly horrific case was about a mother who killed all four of her children to get back at the husband who dumped her. That shocked me much more than all the men who killed their wives because they either thought, or they were, cheating on them. Maybe I have low expectations of men and believe them much more capable of heinous acts than women, which says a lot about my conditioning. Women are expected to be the caring, nurturing partner, the men the hunter-gatherers, so when a woman commits a murder she is judged much more harshly than a male counterpart.

Myra Hindley is a case in point. There have been men who have committed the same sort of acts that she did but she’s remembered because a) she’s a woman b) because as a woman she was able to lure the kids to their deaths c) she was the first female serial killer to be ‘discovered’ and was the subject of so much media attention. Obviously she wasn’t motivated by revenge and what she did doesn’t bear thinking about. But she shocked us into accepting that women are capable of committing those kinds of crimes.

Revenge is an act usually conducted after some time stewing over jealousies. It is cold and calculated but I wonder what, once the act is committed, what the revenger feels. I’ve had spats with people and secretly wished them ill. I’ve never acted on my feelings except when something bad happened to them I had a smug sense of ‘Serves you right’. But that feeling is short-lived and I can never hold onto that smugness for very long. Feelings of revenge that lead someone to murder are obviously much more powerful and I wonder whether once the act has been committed whether there’s any real satisfaction at all. So much time and energy has been invested in planning and executing the revenge, there’s a focus and purpose that drives people forward, so when that is no longer there, do they feel deflated rather than elated? I don’t know the answer to that and for my character in the novel I’ll have to use my imagination.

Earlier this year I worked collaboratively with my son, Elliot Nichol. He’s a fine art photographer living in Malta and a fine art exhibition in St Julian’s Bay. I used the images from the exhibition and wrote poems to accompany them that were on a Greek myth theme, which we then published in a book. (See http://www.elliotnicholphotography.com.) Here are two of them. The first is about Amphitrite who was Poseidon’s wife. Being a king he had lots of consorts and she had to put up with that.

Amphitrite’s Pool

Wild fruit of the seas,
the wash of tides covet her beauty.
In the lift and creak of the ocean
her power is beyond appearances
beyond meaning.

Here in the weft and weave
of water she waits
splinters of coral in her eyes,
stabbing pain of longing
for the ecstasy of being his.

She understands the language of the sea;
flutes of currents through shipwrecks,
folding dark echoing against rocks
clotted with smells of seaweed
and sea-bleached sand.

Yet the weeds of her mind are cruel;
incandescent imaginings
scurry like crabs across trust,
unfurl an anger brittle as bone.
She threads storms to make a blanket,

catches the first breath of deceit.

The second poem is about Medea who gave a poisoned wedding dress to her lover’s bride; it burst into flames and killed her. She also killed all her children to get back at him.

Medea’s Revenge

The love you gave me
blisters my skin with lies.
You have betrayed me.

The gown I gave her
incinerates like passion—
she will not have you.

The children I bore you
scorch my eyes with memories.
Killing is easy

Moving to Scotland

It was the breakdown that did it. One minute I was just about coping, the next I was wanting to hide in cupboards. Then the tears came. Not a good idea in front of a class of arsey Year Elevens on a Friday afternoon.

I had been trying to explain to the class that whilst they might find baiting and bullying the teacher great fun, I didn’t. Trying to appeal to their better natures I said that as new member of the school they had no history with me so this could have been an opportunity for a new start. With my extensive experience and knowledge I was in a position to help them, but instead they had prevented me from doing my job, one which I was passionate about. Then Suzy started to smirk.

‘You find this funny Suzy?’ I asked, my blood pressure rising again. I knew that I was desperately near the edge and only hanging on by my fingernails.

‘No, Miss. I feel really sorry for you,’ was her reply.

That was it. Her unexpected sympathy was more than I could take and the floods of tears forced me to withdraw from the room and I sat sobbing at the top of the stairs. I could hear nervous laughter, the sounds of chairs being knocked over and tables pushed around the room but I was beyond caring. In the six months I had been at the school I’d been spat at, accused by a gang of Year Nines of hitting a girl, had rucksacks, books, and a table thrown at me, my car vandalized and every lesson was like entering a war zone. And now I’d lost it in front of the biggest bullies in the school. Great!

I was eventually taken to the staffroom by a passing member of staff and the Head was informed. Once I’d calmed down enough I was sent home and the weekend lay ahead of me. As I drove out the car park I never wanted to go back but I’m no quitter. I gritted my teeth, told myself to stop being a wimp, and went home to shut the door, drink a bottle of wine and listen to loud music.

My grandson’s birthday was the following day so I set off, doing breathing exercises and trying to think positive thoughts. Nothing worked; I dissolved into tears as soon as I arrived at his house so immediately turned around and drove back home, much to the consternation of the family.I already had been diagnosed with MG, which is exacerbated by stress, so maybe I needed to see the doctor? If only he’d give me something to calm me down, or even a few days off, I’d be fine and my physical symptoms would improve. Unfortunately on the Monday I couldn’t stop crying enough to tell him what was wrong. In fact, I couldn’t stop crying, period. An appointment with a CPN followed and on an assessment of 1-10, 1 being suicidal and 10 being happy, I scored 2. Not good.

At the time I was living in a house I would have died for, in a small village on the Cumbria/Northumberland border. It had a huge mortgage, which seemed worth it at the time – who needs clothes or food for heaven’s sake? Living alone has its advantages, one of them being you can survive on the basics and spend your money on what you really want. Not the healthiest way to live but at least I had a beautiful home to be depressed in.

After six months and very little progress I was about to go on half pay. Either that, and get in debt, or go back to work. The latter option panicked me so much I sold the house (in 10 mins after the sign went up!), paid off my debts and bought outright a small, cheap house with lots of work to do on it in SW Scotland. This was my salvation. Without threats of having to return to work or make enough money to cover a mortgage my anxieties lessened and my physical well-being improved. I even had enough to go on holiday with a friend to Hawaii and San Francisco and that brought the laughter back into my life. Now I have a lovely home that is still a work in progress but I’m inspired daily by the beauty of the area. Since retiring I now have time to write, travel and be involved in lots of community activities and projects.

When people hear my accent they often ask, ‘What brought you here?’ I’d like to say ‘Divine Intervention’ but an easier answer is ‘To write.’ Whatever winds blow us around or gnawing darkness seeps in I believe that we all have a journey to undertake. Some roads are easier than others, some are motorways, others meandering country roads, and then there’s mine, littered with potholes. But we’re all where we are meant to be at any given time and all experiences are eventually for our higher good/character building/lessons in disguise or whatever you believe in. I use my experiences to inform my writing and draw on the past, people I know and people I have been, to create my characters and poems. You can check some of them out on my website http://www.krissnichol.co.uk. I’d like to leave you with a short poem that was commended in The Federation of Writers (Scotland)

A Breeze of Restless September

I remember standing by the loch,
an underside of light flickering up from the water
fretting over shoreline rocks

bordering dark fields of night,
where hollows fill with mist and call to hillocks
covered in coarse pelts of grass,

and a breeze of restless September
blowing across my face in the grey before dawn,
where time belongs to no-one.

Life here is watercolour wastes
of sky, sweetness in the air, music of swollen rivers
and the feeling of being home.

Stories

The Universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

The above quote comes from the introduction to a fabulous travel book I have just read, entitled ‘Kite Strings of the Southern Cross’ by Canadian Laurie Gough. In this book she weaves her magic storytelling around the unsuspecting reader’s soul, enabling the reader to see, feel, taste, touch and bring forth those things that have been hidden inside us all since primeval times. A wonderful ‘must read’ if you like travelling, love sensous writing and muscular language.

For the last two weeks I have been staying with my son and his partner in Malta. This is my first visit here and some of the time I have spent working with him on a book we have produced together. He is a fine art photographer with his first exhibition here and we have taken those images from the exhibition and put my poems, which are interpretations of Greek myths, alongside them into a book. The images themselves were taken here in Malta and he calls his exhibition Between Lands, which is a translation of the Latin mediterranean, and he also, being from the UK, is between lands himself.

His story is a search for self-expression and the realization of dreams, mine is about finding words; words that have meaning, colour, depth and texture. By virtue of the fact we’re related our stories have naturally intertwined, coincided and been on many a collision course. But we have also separated, blown free like dandelion seeds, settled temporarily, then blown away again, bringing us to this point in our histories.

My story as a mother is very different to that of me as a single person, that of me being young is different to the story of me that is retired. Yet all these stories are facets of us in the same way that petals, stamens, leaves and stems are all part of the same plant. In the interconnectedness of our lives our stories wrap around the essences we are made of singing us all into being and providing us with a rootedness that keeps us attached even when we are at our most displaced.

All stories, like rainstorms and revolutions, must begin somewhere”; the interesting bit for me is unravelling where my story starts and then letting go to allow it to carry me through to the ending.