Sleepwalking

Each night she walked a little further. She didn’t know she was doing it at first.

It started in the bedroom. She knocked over a lamp, and in the morning the cat got the blame. She whispered sorry.

The next night she went downstairs and tried to make a cup of tea, which unsurprisingly didn’t end well. Her husband entered the kitchen the next day and stared at the broken mug, the spilled milk. He didn’t shout or get angry, only said her name softly.

On the third night she made it out to the bottom of the garden and sat in the flowerbed, not feeling the damp earth underneath her. She looked up at the stars, looked back at the house.

The next day she heard the slow approach of a car and took the longest steps yet. She walked down the path, and joined herself in the back of the hearse.

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Hands

His hands are like mine. They were chubby and used to have wrist-rings, but these have unfolded as he’s grown. His nails grow at an alarming rate and with the strength that comes from youth and drinking all your milk, so they say. He prefers to eat with his hands but will use a knife and fork if there is gravy. His fingers move deftly over computer keys, gaming controllers, mobile phones, but it’s not so long since shoelaces were a fumble. He folds over the pages of books to mark his place, he picks up conkers and plucks blackberries in the park, he grips the handlebars of his bike, pedalling easily up the hill. 

He strokes the ageing cat with great tenderness, strokes my hair sometimes, too, and he will still, every now and then, slip a hand in mine when we cross the road.

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Writing is good for you…

In 2015-2017 an All-Party Parliamentary Group found that engaging in the arts is good for your mental health, and there has been widespread research since the 1980s on the value of expressive writing in helping to heal trauma. Writing groups exist now in prisons, in care homes, in hospices, as well as the educational establishments where you might more readily expect to find them. And in therapy, creative writing can be a powerful tool.

As well as being a writer, I trained a few years ago as a hypnotherapist and counsellor. Although I haven’t always consciously used writing “as therapy”, in recent years I’ve come to personally appreciate its benefits in that respect. So I brought together my two interests, writing and self-development, and now run classes in writing for wellbeing in a couple of different settings.

Why writing for wellbeing?

Writing is relatively accessible, inexpensive, and requires very few tools. It can enable us to order our thoughts (how many of us derive satisfaction from making a list?), view our experiences in a new, possibly more detached and rational way, or give us a safe opportunity to vent difficult emotions like anger without anyone else necessarily being affected. There seems to be a physiological effect on people who write therapeutically, too; studies have found that participants who regularly engage in expressive writing make fewer visits to their doctors.

So given all the apparent benefits, why don’t more people write?

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Common fears and barriers:

o “I can’t spell / what I write won’t be good enough”. A creative writing for wellbeing exercise should be focused first and foremost on self-expression, with no expectation of great literary merit, or even spelling and grammar. There is no right or wrong way to do it, no red pen or grade scheme. Good writing is subjective, anyway. Think of the best book you’ve ever read, the most widely-acclaimed prize-winning novel you can think of and look it up on Amazon – there will be plenty of one-star reviews! And while we’re on the subject, that brilliant book or poem didn’t fall out of the author’s head fully-formed; it started as a few words on a page – and most of us can muster that – and went through many iterations and months or years of work before it became ‘good enough’.

o “What will other people think?” Nobody else needs to see or hear what you write, unless you choose to share it with them. You can put it away somewhere safe, read it to someone you trust or send it to them to read, or you can destroy it. Sometimes the act of whatever you do with the writing later can be almost as therapeutic as the writing itself.

o “I might uncover something painful if I start to write about emotions”. Tread lightly. There is therapeutic benefit in writing just for fun, in being playful for its own sake. Even if you want to write about difficult feelings or experiences, the chances are your own protective subconscious mind will only let you write about what you feel ready to address. Don’t use creative writing to try to ‘uncover’ things you think might be repressed; work with issues you are aware of in the here and now. And if something feels too difficult to write about – don’t!

 

How to start: free writing

The simplest way to start is just to start. A fixed period of time can be helpful; try 5 minutes to begin with, and maybe 10 minutes next time. The only rule with free writing is you must write for the whole period and you mustn’t stop. You write anything and everything that comes to mind, it doesn’t have to ‘make sense’, it doesn’t have to be true but it doesn’t have to be fiction either, it can be anything. If you get stuck you can just write ‘I don’t know what to write’. The idea is to keep the pen moving and get your writing brain warmed up. It can sometimes be quite surprising what emerges.

Some exercises to try:

  1. Free writing with a prompt: set a timer as above and complete the following phrases: ‘I am…I think…I want…If only…What if…’
  2. Reflective writing – for gratitude: make a list of things you are grateful for, under 3 headings: the wide world, your surroundings, yourself. As an example you might choose ‘sunshine’ or ‘the internet’ (!) under list one, list two would be more about the things and people in your immediate life e.g. family, pets, something in your home that you’re thankful for. List three is about YOU so maybe there are things you are grateful for that are physical (like your heart that beats, your feet that carry you around) or in your personality (e.g. your sense of humour).
    1. Try to put at least 5 things in each list.
    2. Choose one, from any of the lists, and write a letter to it / them saying thank you and telling them why.
  3. Creative writing – for fun: write the letters of the alphabet down the left and side of the page. Go down the list and quickly write a word (the first one that comes to mind) beginning with each letter. Write a story including every single word. It’s up to you if you have to include them in order! Sometimes this works best if you set a timer e.g. 10 or 15 minutes – and try to get to Z.

 

Above all, try to enjoy the process and if you have a go at any of these prompts, feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

(photo credit: helloimnik, Unsplash)

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Distanced

 

It would be so easy. To reach across the picnic blanket, to brush your hand.

It’s a hot day. There is no ice-cream van, no music from the bandstand. Some children splash and fish in the water, nearer to the ducks than to each other. The playground remains closed.

Our voices carry the forced jollity and lightness that seem necessary just now, while we all buck up and count our blessings and keep on keeping on. We say only the things we don’t mind others hearing, not the things we would say quietly if we were nestled into each other.

I watch your face as you speak, entranced by the movement of your jaw, the soft lines of your lips. I am suddenly grateful for contact lenses, without which you would be a blur.

The blanket is warm on my back and beneath it, the dry grass scratches at me. I feel everything. I am a pandemic princess on the pea. My every nerve is alert to the impossibility of your hands, your mouth.

I consider the extreme circumstances in which you might touch me. If I turned my ankle while we walked, would you drop to your knees and cup my foot in your hands? If I fell in the river, would you wade in and scoop me out? How long would I need to submerge my face in the cloudy water before you would drag me to the bank, hook your fingers inside my mouth, seal your lips to mine and breathe into me, press your rhythm into my heart?

I don’t do these things. I lie still, let the sun kiss me, let the breeze lift my hair. Touch you only with my eyes.

An invisible six-foot chaperone lies between us, a stretched-out body, inert, not breathing.

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The Night Woman

Earliness is next to godliness, was the most common decree in the new state, even though the idea of a celestial god had long since been done away with.

The gods you had to concern yourself with were very much of this earth, in palaces and parliaments, and of course on patrol, in the form of their footmen.

Dorothy felt she could probably train herself to be early for appointments, or at least on time, which was usually sufficient to escape the footmen’s cosh, but the early mornings were proving more of a challenge.

She had always been an owl; her mother, when she was still alive, said so. She said that even in the womb Dorothy would tap-dance and fist-bump and turn somersaults only once the light disappeared and the world fell quiet. Come the dawn, she always lay still again.

She wondered what would happen to such a foetus now. Its mother would not be free to joke about it, would have to fake daylight twinges and kicks, because in the new state not even the yet-to-be-born could escape moral judgment on their timekeeping.

Larks were virtuous. Larks were winners, leaders, embracers of the day. They were clean in their habits and clear in their ambition. The piercing alarms that flooded every street, lane and cul-de-sac in the state at 5am every day, followed by the stamping of the footmen’s boots, were designed to remind you: early was good.

Late was lazy, and lazy was bad.

Dorothy was not lazy, never had been. She worked in three different jobs to pay her extortionate rent. She should have gone to sleep earlier, maybe could have, if only the 2am stillness were not so alluring to her.

She loved the dark blue blanket of the sky; the still, empty streets; the uninterrupted whistle of an occasional breeze. She loved the aloneness and the cover of the night. It felt easier to breathe, to believe, to be.

She would risk even the footmen’s force to only stay in that place.

When the morning came, offended by its brightness and clamour, she would roll her head under the pillow, her eyes sticky and stinging and refusing to open, as though they were afraid, every new day, of what they would wake to see.

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Washing the car with my son

He skipped to the jetwash down the road; I drove the musty Focus, opening the windows for air.

We slid anachronistic coins into the machine, and took turns wrestling with the lance. The bonnet was spattered with colour, a Pollock of bird crap and tree sap.

He sprayed me, laughed at my wet feet; I was glad of relief from the heat reflecting off the car’s black husk.

He learned: wash up, rinse down. I felt like Mr Miyagi. Next we vacuumed up sweet wrappers, stones, leaves.

‘Look,’ he said, showing me his open palm; from the footwell, a seashell.

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When I See You

I’ll hang my hair out of the tower

So you can climb up to my bower

They’ll have to pull us apart with pliers

And put out all the sparks and fires

With a cold shower.

 

I’ll point my compass in your direction

I’ll make you the object of my affection

I’ll tell you you’ve pulled, so get your coat

If you canvassed me you’d get my vote

In an election.

 

As soon as current lockdown teeters

And we can get closer than two metres

I’ll drive straight over (on the assumption

I’ve reduced my daily wine consumption

By two litres).

 

Here’s what I’ve learned from seven weeks’ abstention:

Life is short, no re-runs or extension.

So when I see you, I’ll hold you and adore you,

Hug you, bug you, nag you, shag you, bore you,

Until I get my pension.

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What Was Lost

I wasn’t born like this. I had it, to begin with, and I didn’t really pay attention. I cared only for things I could see, and touch; I wanted the solid, the knowable nature of things. I grew up to paint and create, in the messiest ways possible: fingers plunged in colour, hands caked in clay. I was happiest in the garden, always, on my knees in the soil. I wanted to be close to the earth, to make and grow things. I paid scant attention to the scent of magnolia on the high dancing breeze. I stayed low, let earthworms and spiders crawl on me. These were the ways I felt part of the world.

Then, I became ill. I don’t need to tell you with what, because that’s a bore, and now you will know all about it. You will know, on the other side, the things we didn’t know at the start. You will know about the loss of smell and taste. And that for some people, they never came back.

I did taste things again, eventually. I regained salt, and umami, first, sucked at a bottle of soy sauce trying to absorb all its earthiness, its richness bringing me back to life. The sugar came later, but I was no less grateful for it, cramming my mouth with parma violets, chocolate mints, wine gums.

But Taste is poor without its closest relation.

I put my nose in the grass: nothing. I breathed deeply over the heads of new babies, trying to be discreet, trying to conjure it back, the scent and the essence of life. I fried onions and garlic and brought my head so close to the pan it almost burned. I recalled a time, long before, when I’d received a parcel of second-hand clothes in the post from my mother. When I opened it, the whooshing smell of her assaulted me, a mix of washing powder and perfume and cleaning products and, somewhere in the low notes, sweat, somewhere in the high notes, icing sugar.

I sat on the kitchen floor, in the sterile flavourless air, and wept.

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Hope is an elastic band

I bend, but I don’t break. I can be stretched to the point that I am thinned out, made tense. You might even see me shudder. But I can only stay in that state for so long. I will always spring back.

Sometimes I am slack and motionless and appear to be not of much use. There are things on this earth that are bigger and more powerful. But used well, I can be more. I am the force behind a child’s catapult; I can hold your hair from your face when you’re hot, or sick; I keep things together and in order.

It is worth having me to hand.

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Ode to home

Let’s all meet up in the year 2000

we said, a good few years before the song,

outside McDonalds, it was supposed to be,

6th April, 12 noon, I think. I often wonder

if anybody showed up. I know McDonalds

is still there. So, too, are the lions,

and the elephants, I believe.

I am making it sound exotic.

 

Hill town, mill town, a home in.a bowl,

surrounded. Pennines on the side.

Reflections in puddles, the town hall clock

graced the credits of Coronation St. Its gunnels and accents

made me homesick, but not sick enough

to go back. C&A, BHS, gone now.

Some of the chimneys, too, brought down

brick by brick. It’s dangerous work.

 

Barm cakes and naan bread, not a place

to do the Atkins, to be honest.

It seems we spent childhood eating things in vinegar from paper cups:

cockles, pickles, black peas – no-one down here knows what they are.

Also pea wet and scraps, treacle toffee,

burnt baked potatoes on Bonfire Night, parkin, pasties.

All is music or food, and fireworks set off in the back streets

of terraces. Catherine wheels, rockets.

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