I’m almost a week in to my crowdfunding project and things are going well. Funding is coming in slowly and it seems like there will be enough interest in the book for it to go to press.
I’ll be honest, this is hard. It’s so much more than a book of poems I suppose. It’s a stage of grief – I won’t say final because I suspect it never ends. It’s part of my goodbye to my brother and part of my learning to live with the jumble of shame, sadness, anger and guilt that weaves through the very real fact that I don’t have a brother any more.
I have spent the last week wondering if I’m doing the right thing, if I should just do a sponsored run (!) whether that would get more money. It probably would. But this isn’t just about money. .
Until we start talking about suicide, about the impact on those left and the things that lead people to decide the world will be better without them then this will keep happening. The work I’ve written is honest, brutal and suffused with love. These are poems that will start conversations. Framing this work as a fundraiser places this work firmly in the poetry with purpose category. And I suppose this is another way of absolving the never ending “if onlys” that pepper my thoughts each day. It’s difficult to revisit all those feelings, but the support and care I’m getting is so helpful. Thank you.
Over the next few days I’ll be writing more about the charities, and about the look and feel of the book. In the meantime to find out how to support the project financially head over to my crowdfunding page.
I’ve had so many kind responses to my last post – it’s very much appreciated and heartening to know how many people want me to keep writing. The critical voice is strong (does that sound a bit Star Wars?) and the downside of increased socialising means she has so many more things to pick to belittle me about. Tools and tricks are there to be used though and I’m going back to basics in terms of managing my mental health. One of these days I’ll learn to take care before it reaches this point.
Writing is a big part of this of course. Other than gardening and cooking it’s the only thing I know – the only thing I feel right doing. I wish I felt more certain about my skills, but I guess, unlike gardening and cooking, writing is incredibly subjective. I know if I’ve cared for a plant well, because it blooms, sets seed and continues its life. I know if I’ve cooked a meal well because it pleases my taste buds – and hopefully those of others. I deal with failures in gardening by learning how to do it right next time, I deal with failure in cooking by learning how to do it right next time. I don’t feel torn up, distraught or as though I never want to cook or garden again. Why so?
The simple fact is that it’s really hard to know if my failures are because I’ve made a colossal mistake, or just because I’ve not tickled the metaphorical tastebuds of the editors or competition judges. There’s no-one saying – “oh it’s so close but a bit under seasoned” or “what the blazes made you put chilli oil in the rice pudding?”. It’s a simple thanks but no thanks and on you go. This, of course, is no fault of the many long-suffering lit mag editors. Many decline work in the kindest, fullest way possible. A few give what reads as a very formulaic response, but hey, these are busy, unpaid people wading through a colossal amount of work to find the perfect fit for their magazine.
I’ve realised I need to wean myself off the dopamine rush of having work accepted. I love the thrill of opening that email, expecting rejection and reading that my work will be published. I love shouting about it all over the socials and getting the flurry of interest and interaction. It feels nice. It feels like I’m worth something. And it’s as addictive as all the other addictive things.
I planned today as a poetry day. This is a luxury I rarely afford, and something I usually crave, like a warm bath, or a hot buttered toast. A poetry day usually makes me feel better. Today – oh how I wanted to roll over and ignore the alarm, How I wanted there to be some ad hoc freelance work that was just too good to miss. I felt scared. I felt as though I was setting myself up for more failure and more sadness. Today I sat and looked at my work and wondered why the heck I actually do this? Is it to make people like me? Is it to give myself status? Is it to justify my place in the world? Yes. Of course it is. But writing can’t only be about these things. It can’t only be about making myself feel better about not being who I feel I should be. For me, writing has to be about making a difference. It has to be about forging a connection and showing a way for people to feel less alone. It has to have a purpose beyond my personal vanity.
So this feels like a point of maturity. I intend to step away from the submissions treadmill for a while and work with the work I have produced over the last few years. I’ve spent time today looking at the themes in my work (sadly there isn’t a strong theme of fluffy bunnies) and intend to spend a little more time with the poems, redrafting and wrestling them into a series of pamphlets, before approaching some of the people who showed interest in being a mentor to me and my work. Above all, I’ll spend more time reading and listening to poetry, more time absorbing and enjoying, and less time listening to that critical voice. Honest.
My news feed is full of folk feeling joy at “seeing off” 2020. I get it. The year has oscillated between terrible and banal, frustration and despair. People have lost loved ones in a way none of us would choose. Teachers, healthcare workers,retail staff, hospitality teams are all working to keep things running so we can keep feeling “normal”. The year has been hard, and the things that keep us going have, well, gone.
For me – it’s not been so very different. Being trapped at home is my “normal” and in many ways not feeling the pressure to socialize (one of my biggest energy sappers) has created a sense of calm. I miss people terribly, but I realize that the round of events I rope myself into does need to be managed more closely when we emerge from the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
We’ve had fun stuff too. Lockdown birthdays with Llama bunting, livestreamed gigs, a visit from friends complete with exciting trip to get a sausage roll from our local café. It’s been a year of thinking small, and learning what I really love.
This considered calm has meant more writing. I’ve developed so much this year. I think I’ve had more publications, including my pieces in Popshot and Paper Swans Press, I’ve launched my own bespoke poetry business and dipped my toes back into flash fiction. More than this, I feel like something has shifted – I feel like I understand that I’ll never understand,that I’ll never feel like the world’s best writer, that my work may never be declaimed from the rooftops. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I write, what matters is that I think. I end the year feeling that small quiet strength that carries me through so many changes and challenges.
The final gift of 2020 came a few days before Christmas, when we learned our neighbours are planning to build a large house directly opposite our bedroom window. This means we may be facing a house move. This in turn means leaving a community we’ve been part of for twenty years, and losing the support, safety and calm I enjoy and rely on for my mental and physical health. It’s a blow, and has caused some distress during an already fretful Christmas,but I’m trying to keep my positive hat on and see this as an opportunity rather than a loss.
Sending hopeful wishes and thanks for your support over what has been a most unusual twelve months. Here’s to more love, kindness and empathy.
I was very poorly at the start of the year, which meant I spent most of January trapped at home, and a couple of weeks in one room. My biggest mistake was forgetting to pay attention to my mental state. This kind of isolation is something we’re all likely to face over the coming weeks, with added elements of fear and uncertainty to make things just that little bit tougher. Therapy last year has made me mentally more resilient, and I’ve been able to identify what I’d do differently next time so I thought it might be useful to people in the same situation. I didn’t think I’d have chance to test it quite so soon….
Create a routine
This is the most important thing, not so much if I’m really ill and all my body wants is to sleep, but for the times when I feel a bit better but can’t do loads. Over the last seven years I’ve learnt that having a rhythm to my life keeps me balanced. In an ideal week I get up as I would if I was going out to work and keep set hours. I can’t “work” for a full eight hour day, but I can do a couple of hours of something (writing/reading/gardening etc.) over the course of the day. I have a lunch break, and I “finish” in the evening. I try to keep my weekends as some semblance of a weekend, so that’s the time for lolling on the sofa, or eating a fancy dinner. A routine helps me feel in control and keep a leash on the panic, so I can cope when things don’t go to plan
Treat yourself well
The worst thing about being so poorly is not being able to wash and be clean. Other than my scheduled rest days or if I’m crashed, I always try to get up, shower and dress. I have work clothes (thankfully not orange owl printed crimplene anymore), and I have nicer clothes that I wear at the weekend. I’m not swishing about the house in a ballgown (often) but I’ll put on some make-up and perfume if I fancy. It all makes me feel a bit more like me, if that makes sense.
Do different things
If there’s anything good about all this, it’s the raft of online resources that are popping up. There’s ways to visit a gallery, take a trip to the zoo and loads of online courses available for free. At the moment social distancing feels like a great time to do nothing but watch box sets and eat pizza. This is a wonderful activity, but it gets dull really quickly, and dullness leads to boredom which leads to apathy and suddenly getting off the sofa is a lot harder than it should be.
Talk to people
This is a biggie, and the single most important change I’ve made in the last year. Some weeks I see my partner for about ten minutes a day – his having to work late and me being ill in bed makes communication hard, and it often gets to the point where the sound of my own voice is alien to me – like listening to a recording. This makes me nervous to speak, which feeds social anxiety and becomes self-perpetuating. I hated talking on the phone and relied almost exclusively on text and social media to talk to anyone outside my own four walls. Since about September, I’ve been having regular phones calls with my dear friend, and this has made so much difference. We schedule a time, so I don’t have the panic that usually accompanies an unexpected call and spend about half an hour just chatting about everything and nothing. I’d really recommend doing this, even if you’re not usually a phone person, there’s something about the twists and turns of conversation that can’t be replicated by typing.
Being well enough to cook is tricky, and it’s easy to slip into eating nothing but toast. I’m not going to repeat all the stuff about fruit and veg (but yes, eat fruit and veg), especially when these things are hard to get. I tend to keep “easy” foods in for ill times, so for me that’s ready to eat rice, chickpeas, tuna and eggs. It’s all stuff that takes minutes to open and eat as gives me good quality nutrition. I also fail completely and trough the packet of biscuits I was saving for if I have visitors, which feels wonderful for about six minutes and six minutes only.
All those Italians on their balconies have the right idea. Even if I’m not up to walking, I try to feel fresh air on my face as often as I can, even if that’s as tiny as putting my head out of the window. Being outside takes me out of my own head somehow too. I’m lucky enough to have a small garden, and even a short time sitting watching a bunch of ants doing ant things or listening to blackbirds showing off about who’s the best blackbird ever, helps me put distance between myself and my thoughts.
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. Reality is that our culture of repressing emotions, the much adored stiff upper lip, is bad for my mental health. Squashing stuff down gives it power, and sometimes that power becomes too much to cope with – cue tough times for my mind. It’s hard to ask for help, but harder to live without it. If you’ve got a friend you can trust to listen, then get in touch. At the end of January, I sent dear friend a scared email saying how I was feeling, and the impact of hearing someone say “it’s ok, I’ll help” was huge. It’s taken me years to get to this point, but I’m glad I have.
I know not everyone has their own “dear friend”, but there is still help – Samaritans and Mind are invaluable resources with trained listeners who will help you work out what you need.
That’s it for now, I hope it’s helpful. I’m hoping my brain will have stepped out of panic mode soon so I can write creatively again. If you’re lucky (?!) my next post might be called Odes to Corona.
Stay safe, wash your hands and if you can, please stay home xxx
I’m at the start of my third year of writing “seriously” and my seventh year of having M.E.. I feel less than terrific about both of these things. If I compare to this time last year, when I was merrily writing travel pages, and confidently submitting here, there and everywhere, things feel considerably less buoyant. I feel considerably less buoyant. Sinkable, in fact.
I’m trying to muster positivity, but the bare fact is M.E. is limiting my life. It feels kind of good to say that out loud.And kind of awful. I try to downplay the impact and try to “be positive” but my reality is that I have about four useful hours each day. I frequently go over those, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through guilt, and very occasionally because I’m having too much fun to stop. Then my body makes me. No option. I’m on day five of my post Christmas crash. This year’s festive period was particularly tricky, and I’m not surprised I’m so ill. I’m just sick of being sick. There’s so much I want to do, and so much that needs to be done to try to make things better, lying at home feels both privileged and pathetic.
How to regain hope then? I’m struggling to find the answer. I’ve a nagging feeling that I need to calm down, stop pushing and start enjoying the minutes of wellness that I have. Ha. It’s impossible. I love the ups and downs and adrenaline. Recognising what is important is the hardest thing. Perfection is subjective, and my lens changes every five minutes. Mostly I need to rest, but while body has a way of just “stopping” my mind won’t quit, and I can’t even divert myself by reading or watching a good film. Or a terrible film. Even Gone with the Wind has failed to distract.
I usually end these moany posts with a flash of perkiness, but in all honesty I haven’t got one. I am writing again. I just need to regrow my skin.
Thanks for reading, and any hints and tips are gratefully received x
It stops me doing stuff. Sometimes, it’s because I’m too ill to get up. Sometimes it’s because my brain won’t work. Sometimes it’s because I’m in too much pain. Sometimes it’s because the sheer effort of planning enough rest before I take part in anything, and the fear of consequence, is overwhelming. I deal with these things every day, and have kind of come to accept them.
This month, a new obstacle has raised its head. I’m going to have to step down from my role as poet in residence. Not through lack of skill, or lack of interest from the talented people in Secret Severn, but because I can’t manage public transport on my own, which means I can’t get out to see the artists at work in their studios.
An invisible aspect of M.E. is brain fog. Brain fog feels as though someone has reached in to your mind and twisted up all the normal paths of thought. This happens when I overload and it’s pretty unnerving. I get confused and can lose track of where I am. This means using public transport alone isn’t safe for me and I have to rely on taxis for getting around. Taxis cost money, and purse strings have been pulled, so there are no longer funds to support my role. I’m incredibly sad, frustrated and unsure what to do next.
Undoubtably, the work has taken it’s toll. Producing good posts, editing photos and seeing folk takes time and energy and I’ve been ill since my last visit. The thing is, I’ve loved stepping up to the challenge of meeting so many new people, and even enjoyed my spell as an emergency steward in the gallery. The positive feedback from everyone was a tremendous boost, both as a writer, and personally.
Sadly, any future visits to artists studios have had to be cancelled, as well as my fledgling plans for plunging in to giving a reading or two and running a workshop as part of next year’s trail. Having to lose all this for the sake of a few pounds dispiriting.
There are still poems to be written, based on the work I’ve done so far, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to continue working with the lovely people I met. Right now, this change of plan, as well as the general low that comes from being ill is tricky to deal with. My confidence is pretty dented, and I’m finding it hard to find resources for rebuilding.
Sometimes it feels like it’s time to stop trying.*
* I pride myself on positivity, and am an expert blessing counter. I am having a day off today. Normal service will resume shortly. I hope.
As well as my Secret Severn research, I’ve been polishing my competition submissions. I’ve had to pare back my entries this year, partly because of cost, and partly because I’ve tried to adopt a more intelligent approach.
When I first started entering and submitting, I was so nervous I just pinged poems to every publication that came up. I had some success, but this year I’ve tried a more measured approach. I suppose I’m seeking quality over quantity. I’ve also got over that first rush of excitement about having work published, and moved back to being focused on creating work that I feel proud of, and that I need to write.
I’ve been struggling to write anything new, partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because my brain is having one of its tired phases. I recognise the signs now and know that it’s just the M.E. rather than anything else. Now I’ve got my submissions off, I’m taking a week or so away from it all, before refocusing on Secret Severn for the rest of September and into October. It’s time to read my favourite chilled out writers, maybe dip in and out of some new poetry I’ve got on my bedside table, and spend a bit of time in fields listening to new music.
As ever, getting people to engage with what I write means a lot – if you’ve read this far thank you!
I’m so excited, I’ve had a poem published in the autumn issue of Mslexia magazine. Since I’m currently in the middle of a field (again) at End of the Road festival, I can’t give lots of detail but suffice to say I’m thrilled.
I’ll do a longer post when I get back, but I couldn’t wait to tell you all.
Thanks as ever for your support, both on person and online. This is a small step forward and hopefully first of many. Most of all it proves I’m doing something right, rather than a fanciful.
It’s not. It’s for the sensible and measured, neither of which are natural to me. I love a good list, but only so I have a target to beat.
I’ve foolishly (joyfully) undertaken two festivals in two weeks. Dafter than daft in many ways. I’m lurching from delight to despair and then hopefully to recovery. A lot of the physical side is helped by the Attitude is Everything organisation who work with event hosts to make things more achievable. Accessibility measures mean no queuing, no endless walks from the car-park and provision of viewing platforms where I know I’ll be able to sit. It all makes a huge difference. I’ve a lovely group of friends who subtly take care of me, as well as a wonderful husband who takes on the lion’s share of prep and practicality, under close supervision of course.
I have built self-care in to the weeks in-between. I’m ignoring the mess of the house, and food is simple but high in nutrients. Another part recovery is taking a break from writing. I’m still scribbling the odd thing and have a small copywriting project but that is that’s all at the moment.
Essentially, two weekend festivals mean taking a two week break from routine and that’s ok. My occupational therapist has almost given permission to have these foolish times by helping me see that life will be like this sometimes and all I have to do is figure out how to make it work.
This isn’t ideal and I’d rather be able to do all the things that need to be done (my wilting tomatoes make me sad) but it’s not possible. I’m learning to inhabit the middle ground, a most unnatural state, but it means for these two weeks I can spend time in my favourite places, discover new music and gather new thoughts.
Whilst all is quiet for writing at the moment, there is exciting news on the way. In the meantime I shall continue to admire my sparkly docs, and to enjoy sitting in various fields.