Thursday, 21 November 2019

Writing and typing

Do you ever watch Murder She Wrote on the telly? The excellent and unfailingly elegant Angela Lansbury's character, Jessica Fletcher, is often seen hard at work in her occupation as a writer of murder mysteries. A frequent joke surfacing in the series is about insensitive interruptions and intrusions into her work. In an episode I saw this autumn, the sister of the local sheriff ran into personal difficulties and arrived at his office. The sheriff was naturally heavily occupied with his professional duties, so he had the bright idea of dropping his sister off with Jessica Fletcher, who was clearly doing nothing in particular. This is a writer's joke, and it certainly has a foundation in reality. It applies pretty much to everyone who works from home. But we the viewers knew Jessica should not have been interrupted. She was writing a book and had a deadline to fulfil. She was hard at work. At her typewriter. She had to stop typing to look after the sheriff's sister.

Some years ago I had a regular duty manning the premises of a sisterhood in a nearby town. At one point I excused myself from fulfilling this obligation, explaining that I was writing a book and had a deadline looming.

The sister to whom I explained this was puzzled. She asked me, "Can't you just bring your laptop and write it here?"

This is Jessica Fletcher syndrome, in which writing = typing. When someone is writing a book, they're hard at it, industriously typing. If they aren't typing, either they've finished or they're slacking or procrastinating.

I suppose everyone is different, but certainly in my life this is not the way writing books works at all.

Just at the present time, I am writing a book. I finished the last one in September or thereabouts, and started on this one in October. It's a short, devotional volume, not a massive tome, so only about 30,000 words. My deadline is the first week of January; my editor wants it on his desk when he comes back from his time off at Christmas.

I am never late with a manuscript, because I have a good grasp of how tight publishing schedules are, and how much pressure it puts on the editor and copy editor and marketing people and pretty much everybody if a book comes in late. Somebody has to absorb the hassle, so I try not to generate it. Besides, they've paid me.

So my aim is to have this book all done and dusted a month from now; sometime in mid-December or so. I'm well on track to achieve this.

And every day, since October, I have been writing this book. What does that look like? If you came in to the room where I am, would you find me assiduously typing, fingers flying across the keyboard as I sit in ferocious concentration at my writerly desk? If I have been writing it every day since October, surely I'd have knocked out about a hundred thousand words by now?

But writing, of course, is not like that at all. The well-worn metaphor of the iceberg will do just fine. Typing is only the very tip of the iceberg. Submerged below the surface where nobody can see it is the main body of the thing. Because by far the most time-consuming aspect of writing is thinking.

This book I'm writing has got to be good quality; that's what the publisher was expecting when he approached me to take on the project. Like all my work it's spiritual — Christian. It's written to bring to life, in the reader's imagination, the wisdom and truth of the gospel; to deepen and enliven faith. It won't do that if it's shallow tripe written in a spare moment off the top of my head. 

So what I've been doing since October is going down deeper . . . deeper . . . deeper . . . into the reflective process, immersing myself in what I am creating, like someone going down into a mine.

I concentrate and focus and burrow down into the thing, searching and feeling for the right words, for ideas, for the right feeling. What I'm shaping has to ring true, to move you and surprise you and challenge you and sometimes make you smile. There's no formula or convention for it, nothing tried and true; it is in every sense original material. That's been the trademark of my work.

And during this time, there are moments when I've got it! When the thing I want to say and the way I want to say it all come together into something fresh and alive — and if I don't get it down right then, it goes stale, goes off like manna, and I lose it and have to patiently start over again. That's when the typing comes into the process; at such moments I need to be able to get to my laptop and really concentrate until I've got it down. Sometimes that's all of one day, sometimes it's eleven o'clock at night — but it's very often at three or five o'clock in the morning. I move out from sharing sleeping accommodation with my husband when I'm writing a book, because the writing process doesn't stop during the night. The subconscious mind, which is the dreaming mind, is where books come from, so often the most vivid thoughts and expressions occur in the middle of the night.

So that means, from October to mid-December I'm drifting, thinking, drifting, thinking, avoiding people and keeping a discipline of solitude. I never go far from my laptop, so that when an idea comes together I can get it down. But often I'm just waiting and questing and exploring. I play a lot of solitaire, watch a lot of short YouTube videos — things that keep me there and available but that can easily be dropped and left.

So I am using the keyboard a lot of the time — so much so that I've semi-frozen both shoulders and I'll be heartily glad when I've got this done. I'm also very tired — from thinking, concentrating, holding my focus in place. It feels like treading water but high up in the air; maintaining an orientation of thought. Quite similar to being bored or exhausted.

I'm just over halfway through, and it really is not easy. I find it's got harder as I've got older — harder to maintain the focus and the immersion, almost like holding your breath or something. Or stalking an elusive prey.

It's not the same as typing, anyway.

Toast of New York

Do you wear lipstick?

There are varying opinions about it in our family. My daughters, for the most part, quite strongly dislike the feel of lipstick. 

I personally like lipstick a lot. Low energy and low blood pressure combine to give me a strikingly deathly appearance at times, and in my opinion lipstick cheers things up. Aye, and blusher. Though I've long since retired defeated from eyeshadow and mascara, having lost my eyes beneath hooded folds of skin some years ago.

If you do wear lipstick, what colour suits you?

I look best in either brown reds, or berry colours. 

I have one lipstick — this one (sorry, I see I should have combed my hair) —

– that is a favourite, not initially because of the colour (though happily I like that too) but because of the name. It's an American lipstick, so I didn't get to try it on before I bought it — I got it online. 

It's called Toast of New York. As soon as I saw that, my inner foolish child had to have that lipstick, would not sit down and shut up until I pressed "Send" on a purchase, and waited eagerly for the postie to bring it along to our house.

Sometimes if I'm feeling blue and looking mauve, if life feels less than attractive and so do I, then I apply a lavish helping of Toast of New York, and tell myself things have never been better and I'm probably the happiest woman who ever walked the earth.

It sets this song off, playing in my mind. Not that I have any desire at all to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep, or be top of any heap — I'm entirely happy with where and what I am — and plus I have mixed feelings about Frank Sinatra but, that aside, what a tune, eh? And what a band!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

What does God expect of us?

In my quiet time this morning, I prayed for my family, and for you, and for some folks going through especially challenging times just now, and for our church leaders.

I suppose I should have prayed for our country, coming up to a general election of government but, I'm sorry Lord, I forgot.

I prayed for myself, too, and this I always find puzzling. I know what I want, but I'm never quite sure what I can ask. In humility anyway, and accepting that life is full of the unexpected and challenges come as well as joys, here follows what I want and what I asked God for.

First and especially I prayed about the end of my life (I pray this fairly often). I asked for a quiet and unexceptional death, for a way of leaving this earth that will not distress those who love me. That I will leave before I become a nuisance to them, so they will not be heartily glad to see me go, but that I may lay down my life in such a way that they see life can be trusted, that they can live with confidence in providence and goodness. 

Then I prayed for responsibility; that God will provide for me to pay my bills and buy my food. I prayed that I may have enough money to realistically resource involvement in society so I may keep my body active and well in old age. I asked that I might be responsible in financial management and household management and the management of nutrition and health, and that I might fulfil my responsibility of kindness and generosity to my fellow human beings who are suffering and in need. I asked for continence and lucid sanity right to the end of my life.

I asked most fervently to live the remainder of my life on earth in quietness and peace. I know that around the world many people live with war and hunger, with domestic violence and addiction, fear and anxiety, sexual violence and the scourge of ill health. I asked to be spared these things so far as possible, and I offered my life to work to eliminate these evils from the world in the small sphere within which my light shines.

I have planned conscientiously to resource and support the life of my body on earth; our eternal souls live in a physical world, and we have to manage this responsibly, realistically and advisedly. It is not sensible to throw caution to the winds. But I also know — even from personal experience — that you can plan as carefully and diligently as lies within your power, and even still the earthquakes and avalanches come that upset the fragile mandala you have made of your life. You lay the pattern, and then someone comes along and kicks over the entire board. How else would we learn courage and patience and forgiveness? 

Then I pray for wisdom and intelligence to live with such slender simplicity that there is little to set to rights when my life is thus upset — that what I have and am is flexible and easy to rebuild.

I ask for quietness and peace, for the space and tranquillity to delight in the companionship of those I love, for means enough to supply my own need and help others too. 

And I give thanks for the beauty of the sunrise, the freshness of the morning air, the wonder of stars and frosty nights, the comfort of the fireside and a hot water bottle in my bed and a cup of nettle tea — not just any cup, either, but a beautiful ceramic cup made by an accomplished potter.

My life is blessed, and may it be a blessing. But what does God expect of me? I don't know. Will God grant me the peace and the quietness my soul craves? Is it enough to live responsibly to the best of our ability, or does he want more? Is it enough to do my best to develop kindness and understanding, to remember to relieve the needs of others and provide wisely for my own commitments? Is it enough to walk the small and hidden track of my choosing, and to weave the best words I know how to do, to share and unfold the beautiful gospel of Christ? Will God allow me to spend my life gently and simply and well? Or does God expect of me the courage and endurance to face terrible things and deeper refining? I ask for peace, and a nook out of the wind's way; but I confess I do not know what God expects of me, and my times are in his hands.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

A snatch of poetry

I've been chasing an elusive quotation from William Langland's Piers Plowman. Searching with the phrases I remembered brought me no luck on the internet and necessitated a purchase in the end. Having reunited myself with it, I found it as beautiful as when, at seventeen years old, I first read it.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Astonishing apartment

Wow! Look at that! What a brilliant design.

Front and back

Macrobiotics practitioners say "every front has a back", and nowhere is this more true than in our body tissue.

Health is another word for balance: life is fluid and dynamic. If we reach a condition of stasis, we're dead. The nourishing of life is primarily about the creation and maintenance of balance (spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, communal). Giving and receiving, breathing in and breathing out, consuming and eliminating, acquiring and letting go, beginning and ending, giving birth and dying. My all time favourite quotation (Toinette Lippe), "Problems arise where things accumulate", applies.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the body and its balancing pairs — two ears, two eyes, two arms and two legs, two lungs, and so on. Even the bones in our spine divide like wings. The pelvis, the rib-cage — the body is a complete set of balanced halves. 

In our time of foetal development, so I've read, there comes a point of tissue division that gives rise to the nervous system and the gut. Now, I suppose at that early stage of development there's a sense in which everything comes from everything else and all of it comes from the fusion of egg and sperm, male and female, creating a fundamental balance of opposites in our beginning. Even so, the gut and the central nervous system have a particular balancing reciprocity. They emerge from the same foetal tissue at a particular point of development, and are connected by the long vagus nerve that runs down between them. This is why the gut has so many neurons in it, and is the seat of much of the process we give the name "thinking".

And if you visualise them, you can see that the central nervous system and the gut remain a balancing pair, front and back.

The central nervous system, held aloft by the bones of the spine and skull, runs in a line up the back, like a flower or a gourd on a stem. Similarly, the gut is a long line, the intestinal wall in sections as the bones of the spine are in sections, the lumen of the gut encased within the intestinal wall as the cerebral tissue and fluid are encased within the spine. As the spine flowers into the brain (or is the tail of the brain, depending which way you look at it), so the intestine is the tail of the stomach. I have a feeling that the direction here is also a matter of balancing opposition – that energy flows up the spine to the brain and down the gut from the stomach, but I'm not sure about that. The gut of course is folded and cradled within the musculature of the abdomen, the back and the perineum, and nestled into the pelvis, just as the central nervous system is held within the spine and skull. Another opposing pair; soft and hard.

Along the spine is located the invisible system of energy vortices known as "chakras", and they correspond to the soft organs stationed along the body pathway — (leaving aside the top one) eyes, breathing apparatus, digestive organs, reproductive organs and eliminative organs. That last one connects everything up, because the root chakra that sits at our perineum is about nourishment as well as elimination, so it brings us back to the mouth where the cycle of nourishment begins.

The crown chakra at the top is where our dependency from heaven passes — our string to the sky that keeps us grace-full and upright. In infancy it is open and soft (the fontanelle), and even in old age we keep the crack the light shines through and are nourished by the light of heaven. Physically this is expressed in the pituitary gland, responsive to the waxing and waning of the light, governing the all-important endocrine system that determines the directional flow of our health (eg, slowing or speeding up, getting fatter or thinner, masculinising or feminising, waking or sleeping etc).

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Every front has a back, and this is so throughout the whole natural world — even in aspects we think we have made, like politics and economics and religion. It breathes in and breathes out, gives and takes, fills and empties; and if it stops doing that, it dies and subsides to nourish new life.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The tape measure

Growing old is measured in losses, some agonising, some simply remarked and some just casually passing.

This morning in my quiet time I thought back to 1994 — 25 years ago.

In 1979 when I came from York to live in Hastings, this town on the foot of England, I was married to Rog and carrying our first child. Straight away I sought out our local branch of the National Childbirth Trust — a radical organisation back then, that transformed the practice of childbirth. The Hastings branch was just beginning. I became its treasurer and made friends with Carole, who was expecting her second baby and training as a breastfeeding counsellor. Then, the years went on.

In 1994 —fifteen years later —I was still firm friends with Carole. We had passed the age of babies and the youngest of my five children was seven years old. I had made many friends in Hastings and was training for ministry. Some of my special Hastings friends were Kay, Freddie, Steve, Charles and Chris. I met up with these friends often; we ate together, shared our hearts together, went deep. I was also training for ordained ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course in London, an Anglican foundation that trained Methodists too. Formation for ministry is powerful and transformative; it digs down to the roots of your soul. I made some special friends on that course, whom I loved with all my heart — Giles and Paul and Michael. They and I spent weekends together in their home or in mine, they got to know my children and my husband Rog. They were so dear to me. I also loved dearly the principal of the course, Martin Baddeley, and he too came to visit this town by the sea, to offer training to our Local Preachers, whose tutor I was back then. And so my London friends and my Hastings friends and my family wove into one fabric of love. Meanwhile, up in Liverpool, Tom Cullinan was living a beautiful discipleship of faithfulness and loving care of the earth, which taught me so much at that time and meant so much to me. I loved him.

Perhaps my dearest and deepest friends were Giles and Kay. My thoughts about baptism had evolved over the years and, while my first four children were baptised in infancy, I left my youngest child to make that decision herself. In 1994 she decided to be baptised; Giles and Kay were her godparents. That's a special relationship, isn't it? One you imagine will last for ever. Giles's involvement with my life even extended to my family of origin — he bought my father's racy little MG car. My father loved his cars.

It was a time so vivid with life and hope and purpose. Relationships that went so deep. A sense of mission and dedication. I was working in hospice chaplaincy and prison ministry and preacher training. I spent a lot of time with people dying and in bereavement, and took many, many funerals — weddings too. I preached twice most Sundays. I was writing books and raising a family. So much going on.

Now here we are in 2019, twenty-five years later. My father died at the age of 82, a sudden and merciful death — a main blood vessel to his heart split. I gave the address at his funeral. My friend  Kay died of cancer a few years ago; I took her funeral, as was her wish. Tom is dead. Freddie is in his eighties now, and we keep tenuously in touch — a card at Christmas. It's the same with Chris. I saw Steve for the first time in years just recently — we bumped into each other at the opticians. He is still as kind and loveable as he ever was. We had lunch together and promised to keep in touch. But . . . maybe . . . 

My husband Rog left me for someone else. We are still friends and our paths cross occasionally. I don't know if Michael is alive or dead. He drank more alcohol than he ate food, and always did live close to the edge. Giles and Paul I never see, though I look them up on the internet sometimes, to see how their lives and ministry are evolving. My youngest child lives far away now. I don't have the money to visit her, nor she me. We keep in touch online, and we love one another. Martin Baddeley is dead, and I have no idea where Charles is. 

I married again, and my second husband Bernard died in 2004. I took his funeral.

I've written twenty or so books (lost count), ceased to be a Methodist minister, no longer take funerals, married Tony in 2006 — then my publisher of twenty years — and I'm writing what I think will be my last book.

But Carole, who was my friend before my children were born, before I trained for ministry or ever wrote a book, is still my friend. When we meet every now and then, it's as though time has stood still. We see each other's soul in the same way we always did, you know? We recognise one another.

So much changes. You lose what you thought you would keep forever. One of the things lost is the sense of self — few of us arrive at old age feeling proud of ourselves. Certainly not me. The sense of one's mediocrity settles in at some point in middle age, and takes root. The main thing I feel these days is gratitude. For every day my body doesn't hurt, I have a home that's safe and dry, I have food in the fridge and enough money to buy it, I can pay my bills and pick up clothes cheap on eBay — I am so grateful. I think of people who make shift in tents and hostels and refugee camps, people who are raped and starve, whose legs are blown off by land mines, people who are overtaken by diabetes and cancer, by Alzheimers and auto-immune conditions, the scourges of our time — and oh, my God, I am grateful. I live so quietly, I barely disturb the air; but here at the heart of my life the ember of gratitude burns and keeps me warm. I am blessed. I know I am blessed.

Time passes. What abides? So little, but some things do.