Somehow a few weeks went by, and then it was a year since I last updated this blog. How remiss of me.
Despite this apparent wilting of creativity, the writing side of life has been trundling along nicely, with articles of mine appearing in the Scottish Review (if you haven’t had a look, the SR comes out every Wednesday and is just a brilliant thing).
But the poor blog! The neglected blog. Then we hit late September and the first cold breeze of autumn curled around me, and I remembered: what is this blog if not a place of unkempt frivolity? It is a place where only nice things are allowed. I guard the gate against too much reality (there’s plenty of it elsewhere, if you like that sort of thing) and write about joie de vivre, baguette et fromage, and other saucy things.
Especially, I like to write my way through the bad weather. It’s now October, which means we have embarked on phase one of Scottish Winter (it’ll wrap up by April or thereabouts). It’s rough, is it not? By the time we get to the other side, we’re putting all our energies into suspending disbelief about the sun. Little sun orphans, in denial, wearing thermals at Easter. ‘It’s coming back’, we reassure each other desperately. ‘I saw sunshine! It was on the telly a few weeks ago, somewhere continental’.
If we’re going to get through the cold months, we need a veritable armoury of good, lovely things to keep us going. Here’s my little pamper hamper of nice things (yes, say it with me: pamper hamper. No need to feel silly).
Autumn is here. Buckle your seat belts, it’s time for mittens and mellow fruitfulness.
In the heat of summer, when I was able to contend with dark thoughts, I was reading books about out-of-control technologies and totalitarianism. Which was, eh, not as cheery as it sounds.
I know it’s important to read about all the sides of ourselves, especially the bits we don’t like to look at. It feels like facing monsters instead of running from them – and I think that’s a good thing to do. For a while… while you’re able.
Then I found my mood starting to dip. There was a queasy feeling that all was not well. Dread trailed through my thoughts when I read the news. The idea of the world as an evil kind of place was settling in. I’m sure, in 2019, that’s a normal feeling we’re all dealing with, but I also know that this state of mind is a kind of paralysis, a deadening of the spirit – and what’s more, it’s not really accurate. I don’t believe that people are all self-serving and vicious. In fact, I know the vast majority are given to acts of generosity, quiet kindness, curiosity and playfulness. See: the humans are adorable meme, which I believe *adjusts spectacles* you can find while surfing the World Wide Web (‘humans are not an aquatic or even amphibious species, but they flock to bodies of water simply to play in it’).
When the evenings started to get darker, I thought uh oh. It was time to do some responsible reading. I needed books that would bring life back in, in all its nuance and joy.
I began with Fludd by Hilary Mantel, which is about a soggy, depressed Catholic town in England, and the arrival there of a priest (or a man pretending to be a priest) called Fludd. He slowly works his sinful magic, persuading people to give in to fleshly desires, giving them permission to enjoy life, and miraculously healing their wounds. It’s a riot. Some see the devil in him, while for others he’s a saviour. Here’s a young nun, under Fludd’s influence, who is on the brink of giving up the convent life that she hates, to run away with a man:
‘Around them was an argentine brightness, solar and lunar, unearthly and mercurial, sparkling from the dead branches, flickering in the ditch, glinting on the cobbles before the church door. The convent windows were washed with brightness, the grimy stonework glowed; high on the terraces, fireflies seemed to dart.
All my life till now, she thought, has been a journey in the dark. But now another kind of travelling begins: a long vagrancy under the sun.’
While I was reading it I kept having to stop and re-read bits, it was so beautiful; and now I know that I, too, would like a long vagrancy under the sun.
After that flirtation with the devil, I was in need of something else with as much life in it, so I got tucked into The Break by Marian Keyes.
‘The thing about personal growth, I’ve discovered, is that you rarely get any choice in it. It only ever happens as a side-effect of some loss or trauma.’
If you want to remember why you love reading – want a book that’s going to flood in to your life and knock you down, and fill up your head and your heart (like a new romance, but without the risk or the awkward texts), then this is the book for you. Marian Keyes has been one of my favourite authors since I read Last Chance Saloon in the 90s (a classic) and I keep a stack of her novels on my bookshelf for emergencies. Keyes’ books have carried me through the rockiest of times. Her books contain that rarest of things: utterly real human experience, put in to words. So few books have characters that ring true the way they do in Keyes’ novels. The darkest parts of life are laid bare, with a sensitivity and honesty that always – always – has me in tears. But, good tears. Momentous, lovely, in-the-moment tears of recognition and empathy. I have caught myself, years after finishing a Keyes book, wondering what the characters are up to these days.
The Break, then, came with high expectations, and it gloriously exceeded them. I went a bit mad, is what happened: racing through the pages, ignoring Netflix, reading while cooking, reading in the bath, surreptitiously picking up the book whenever there was a lull in a conversation with my partner. I turned my back completely on real life, and reader, it was magnificent.
The book is about what happens to Amy (that’s the name of the protagonist, I haven’t veered into creepy third-person confessions about myself) when her husband of 17 years declares that he needs a six-month break from their marriage; or as she angrily calls it, ‘a six month sex holiday’. Then the book delves in to all that happened leading up to the six-month-sex-holiday plan, and your sympathies switch back and forth and all over the place, from one chapter to another. Meanwhile, Amy’s three daughters, and a host of peripheral characters, get up to all kinds of things, and life goes on, as life is wont to do.
When it was all over, I was bereft. Rather than wait for Keyes’ new novel to come out (although, fear not, it will be with us in the world soon) I immediately ordered another book, because I wasn’t ready to return to chilly October feelings. So this is my last feel-good recommendation: the wonderfully titled How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. For a taste, you can read online the transcript of a talk she gave in 2017, which appears, in adapted form, in the book.
Odell’s writing is lucid and somehow spacious – there’s room to breathe. The book is, broadly, about how to reclaim your attention from social media (and other addictive aspects of the internet) and reconnect with your own body and thoughts, and the physical world around you. She argues for this as a political act of resistance. What struck me, straight off, was her heart-breaking description of the way that online communication robs us of the important physical experience of conversation. Here she speaks of this problem, as it occurred to her after watching social media after the 2016 US election:
‘What was missing from that surreal and terrifying torrent of information and virtuality was any regard for place, for the human animal […] I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force; I’m lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next’.
I was fascinated by her description of how very much physical, tangible information is lost when we talk online. At the basest level, it’s easy for idiots to fire death threats at people across Twitter when they’re not thinking of the recipient as an actual person with a body and feelings.
With these three books, I felt my sense of hope and wonder about the world enter a much-needed process of repair.
And now, here, a word about ‘self-care’. The phrase ‘self-care’ has been awfully trodden on by Gwyneth Paltrow and her bath-oily, goopy acolytes, but it really shouldn’t be a matter of unbearable smugness and lashings of cash. Self-care is about resting, and being silly sometimes, and having fun. I’ve written previously that having fun doesn’t mean you’ve turned your back on the world: it’s the shield that keeps you in battle. In the words of the phenomenal Audre Lorde, originator of the whole notion, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’
You know, I strongly believe that you need time to chill, so you’re able for the rest of life. Even writing that quote above, I’m thinking, well, yeah, obviously Audre Lorde had the right to rest, but I’m not doing admirable activist work, so I shouldn’t really be doing the whole blanket-cocoon-and-Strictly thing myself. Dour, Northern guilt always finds a loophole, doesn’t it? But consider: it’s drizzling outside. It’s freezing, it’s miserable. The balance has tipped: now, in October, it’s reasonable to stay inside. Wrap up, drink spicy hot chocolate, and watch a lot of silly telly. You know what, you’re also saving money by staying in, so really, I don’t know why your guilt thinks it should even be part of this conversation.
Sink in to the blanket cocoon now and then; put on Strictly. And on that note…
Autumn brings with it the very best candle ‘flavours’ (is that the word?). I always feel the summer fragrances are a bit judgy – it’s all fresh laundry smells, and exotic fruits, which is suggestive of the kind of rigorous, healthy lifestyle the candles think they’ll be included in. In the cold months, though, candles smell of gingerbread, cinnamon, and all the festive, edible things. Confusingly, some autumn candles make a bid to say they smell like cashmere or sea-salt, both nice things that don’t really smell of anything. Never mind, as long as they’re not judging me, they’re welcome in my home. Right now Home Bargains are doing the very best candle range out there. Above my writing desk (I have commandeered our spare room as my ‘writing room’ so now I have a ‘writing desk’) is the Warm Apple and Cinnamon flavour. I light it in the morning when I’m beetling away at writing, and it is vaguely alarming how much joy I really do get out of one little flickering flame and the smell of pies wafting over me.
Mornings in autumn and winter are icy and cruel. The alarm goes off and it still feels like the middle of the night. You haul yourself awake, and every part of your body is begging you not to leave the safe, warm nest of the bed. Already, you have a battle on the go, between your good upright self, which has to go to work, and your slumbering, resentful body. I’ve been strategically placing things everywhere to try and soften the blow of early mornings. Along with the lovely smell of pies coming from the candles, I’ve also installed a beautiful little sheep’s wool rug next to the bed. It sounds so small, so insignificant, but when my bare feet land on that fluffiness in the morning, it makes everything just slightly better and easier. These tiny nice moments mean everything at 6am. I implore you to fill your house with fluff and pie-candles.
A daylight therapy lamp
Last Christmas (alas, it’s not time for Wham Christmas songs just yet, more’s the pity) my mum gave me a daylight therapy lamp. A complete game-changer. I took to carrying it around the house with me and setting it up wherever I landed. I fretted that it might be a placebo effect, and come January (the bleakest month), misery would win out. But – GADS – no, it works. It really does work. It works so well that I think my cat was also getting something out of it. He took to sitting right in front of it, soaking up the rays. I imagine he told the other cats about it, on his rounds in the neighbourhood, when they asked why he was looking in such good health. If the s.a.d’s are a familiar and unwanted guest, I implore you to try beaming fake sunlight directly in to your eyes.
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
Lastly, my favourite of all things, a picture book by Shaun Tan called The Red Tree. Each time I open this book I find something new in the artwork. It’s a work of mystery and brilliance, and, like Marian Keyes’, he has a genius for presenting human emotions that makes you think, I know that feeling exactly, I just couldn’t describe it, until now. The Red Tree is a sensitive and very tender look at how hard life can be, but, by the last page, it has my heart soaring. If candles and fluff won’t even make a dent in your Wintertime Feelings, I’d also like to prescribe this book.
Books, pies, and bright lights. We’ve got this.