Sunday, 30 May 2021

'You Need a Creative Outlet'

 


‘You need a creative outlet.’ How simple and straightforward a sentence. Five little words, delivered in a normal voice. Not accompanied by sweeping orchestral music, not delivered on a beach in a raging storm, waves crashing dramatically against the rocks. Not even said at midnight, under a full moon. It was around 12pm. In Bridgend. In a leisure centre. But, and here’s the point, those five words have stuck with me for years. They changed my life in a small way. They are the reason you are reading this post.

 

Back all those years ago, I was floundering. My head was in a spin, by this time a mum, but still pretty directionless. I was a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. But who the fuck was I? The irony is that I had a similar conversation with a work friend, going back probably eighteen years. She sat crying in my office, as I gently pointed out that she was giving her all being things for others, and leaving nothing for herself. Who are you? I asked her. She cried even harder. Sorry.

 

I wasn’t crying in the leisure centre, that would be an appalling song title, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I wasn’t crying, but I was struck by the accuracy of those words. I’d like to tell you I raced home and acted upon them, that I bought a shed and turned it into a creative sanctuary, that I did ANYTHING WHATSOEVER. But I didn’t. Not then. But I did in 2017.


I finally plucked up the courage to do my master’s degree in Creative Writing with the OU (@theopenuniversity) and, thanks to their incredible efforts to find financial support assistance, went and got myself a first! Astonishing. I had amazing people along the way, reading my work, critiquing sentences over and over, until they were sparkly gems, and without them I wouldn’t have stuck it out. But, without the lady who spoketh the very first sentence of this post, I probably wouldn’t have got further than wanting to do my masters.

 

Her name is Francine Davies (@frantotalimprove), her work can be found here 👉 @francinedaviesart and here 👉 @theworldofogs and here 👉 www.francinedavies.art She is brilliant. And lovely. And, though I haven’t seen her properly for years, I think of her as a friend. What a gem 💎


Life is full of things that happen and affect you, that you have absolutely no control of. If you're living with health problems, you know that sometimes you can't even control your own body. It can feel so frightening to be out of control, but if you have a pen, or a brush, or a sewing needle, or ball of clay, or whatever, then you have something you are in complete control of. Magic.

 

What’s your creative outlet? You know you need one.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Shame

It's #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek but this is actually an overdue post from another awareness week. I won't say which, as that's kind of the point of the blog. Anyway, it applies equally to Mental Health problems of all kinds.

One of the very worst side-effects of a long-term illness/ disability/ condition is the stigma that comes along with it. And the very worst thing about that stigma is that it is another word for shame, and the person suffering is the one who causes it.



Imagine that a friend, relation, colleague, anyone really has found themselves ill. It most likely isn’t their fault, they didn’t do anything to cause it, they don’t deserve it. If they confided in you, you wouldn’t shun them, would you? You wouldn’t eradicate them from your life, make a disgusted face and shake your head, rush off and wash your hands, tell them they should, or, shouldn’t have done such and such. No, you would be sympathetic, even if you didn’t like them all that much. In no way would you tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves, and harangue them for burdening you with their problems. But they would. They do just that every single day.

Clearly, I’m talking about invisible illnesses, the ones people can exhaust themselves covering up almost all of the time. That pretence, that’s one of the most debilitating symptoms of any invisible illness worth its salt. Suffering already? Well, congratulations! Take this extra shit-shower and make everything worse. It's like permanently drowning. As with any pretence, any secret or subterfuge, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to own up to. And I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy, or tell you that you should be honest about it – it’s your dirty little secret after all, do with it as you wish – but know that it’s probably the only thing you are in control of, and the only bit of daily pain and horror that you can rid yourself of. Be brave today, be kind to yourself, see what happens.

One day I may tale my own advice. 

Friday, 16 April 2021

Crazy hair, no one care!

What the hell is it about having a new hair cut/ new shoes/ flashy clothes, etc, that simultaneously delight and mortify us? Why, when we know we look good, are we then so embarrassed to show our new self to the world? Crucially, why do we still act like this in the 5th decade of our existence, when we know damn well that nobody care?

My example today is my hair. Firstly, it's very different (as far as I'm concerned) to my usual lank and shambolic wind-swept shag. Secondly, it's a perm. 
Now, I must have missed the memo that said perm's had been relegated to the past, along with having to get up at 1:30am to watch wrestling, because your TV couldn't record it, and public information films designed to put the fear of god into children regarding electricity pylons and open water (not open water!) As far as I was concerned, it was as normal as the last time I had one, though admittedly that was in whatever we refer to the 2000-2009 decade as. 

I was vaguely aware of Emma Stone having one done, and if it's good enough for her, then... I politely asked a friend - trained hairdresser, who refuses to dress hair as it's 'too stressful' - how I would get a mermaid wave, rather than an old-lady curl. See, I was trying to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, and I really did. Hadn't I scoured Google/ Pinterest/ Instagram for tips and inspiration? Her response was surprising. She practically recoiled backwards through her kitchen wall at the mention of the P word. It was as though I had asked her the best way to dispose of 17 bodies currently hidden in my attic. Not that I have 17 bodies hidden in my attic. I can't get up there. Anyway, she acted as though it was no longer a thing that any sane person did. 

Fine, I thought, she doesn't like hairdressing and is probably just trying to ensure I don't enlist her for help. I'll go buy a perm from the many shops that stocked them all those years ago. Long story short, where the fudge have they gone??? Tracked one down with a very unpromising photo on the cover of a horrified looking lady standing in front of an oxblood red wall. No problem, it's all in the winding, isn't it? Had to order the curlers from Amazon, and they came with a free afro comb (!) and a wonderfully bad-English instruction sheet and thank you slip - printed with the legend: 'Than gyou'. So that filled me with confidence.

Regardless, perm was done with relatively little confusion (barring a 2 hour heated debate with my mother as to how to wind the curlers to make me look like a mermaid (I really do believe I will look like different people with a perm. First time, I thought I would look like gorgeous Rose Byrne, in Troy. Nope. Second, even more ridiculously, I thought I would look like renowned curly-girl (!) Taylor Swift. Because having a perm would Benjamin Button me by 12 years, wouldn't it? So, mermaid really wasn't that far-fetched.)), and I really like the result. 


That's not to say I wasn't cacking myself at the prospect of the first school-run with my new doo. Not that ANYONE noticed! Really? That shouldn't have been a surprise though, should it?

We all torture ourselves over what others will think of us. How short/ tall/ fat/ skinny/ pale/ dark/ hairy/ bald/ add your hang-up of choice here---. But the reality is that other than a few perfect arseholes, everyone else is far too busy worrying about what others are thinking of them to care. We are all obsessed with our flaws and weaknesses, ignoring the obvious paradox to this obsession. EVERYONE IS THE SAME, EVEN THE GORGOUS AND PERFECT PEOPLE WE WANT TO LOOK LIKE. Sorry for the capitals, but it's crucial we remember this the next time we blush beetroot at having to strip off on the beach or in the Doctor's consultation room. We are all, to quote the great Marge Simpson, 
                            'As vulnerable and beautiful as any of God's creatures.
And we are all far too busy worrying about ourselves to notice your new shoes, large necklace, or Medusa inspired hair (she was a mermaid, right?)

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Tadpole - short story picture

* Because what's a short story for, if not to infuriate all who read it? Hopefully not you, though; you are not that odd, are you? *






Vixen - poem

                  


                                         

I smell dog. 
I smell cat. 
I eat meat.

Look left, look, right, listens hard
See movement, 
I disappears.

Jump up on wall, shy not sly
I still too bright in the half-light,
Need to feed, cubs to feed.

I see bag, slinks along wall to bag
Look left, look right, listens hard,
Jump down - I make no noise.

I nose bag, sniff stinking food, beautiful food,
I rip bag, find chicken bone!
I get chicken bone, feast for us.

Jump up on wall, slinks small as spider
I am rusty shadow, furry dream,
MAN. MAN SEES ME.

Jump down to ditch, run with chicken bone
I hear voice say 'Lovely fox! Come back, Fox!'
That mean me; I am lovely fox.

Run past wall with dog-smell. Dog smell me
I hear stinking dog say 'Ruff, ruff!'
That mean me; I am ruff, ruff.

Heart beats too loud, hear it all way home
I slinks down small, closes eyes,
I disappears.


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Elizabeth Day - short story

* Inspired by the very lovely, very real, Elizabeth Day *


As was the case most Sunday afternoons, Shelley and Bea were to be found in their shared lounge. Copious cups of tea (Bea) and coffee (Shelley) had been imbibed, and the Sunday papers studied until they bore not the least resemblance to the rectangular oracles the papergirl had earlier shoved through the letterbox. Bea was a great one for the magazines, Shelley not so. There was no deep and meaningful reason behind this, no personal protest at the lack of real news within the glossy pages, no deep-set mistrust because the magazines had been printed earlier that week, and therefore could tell Shelley nothing she didn’t already know. No, far more mundane, her avoidance of this most sought-after Sunday section was down to a remarkable ability to receive paper cuts from anything remotely sharp. As a consequence, Shelley was unfamiliar with the regular columnists and contributors who were a part of most people’s day of rest routine. Which is why the following happened.

 ‘Oh, look, it’s Elizabeth Day! What a lovely shimmery blouse she has on this week, it looks like fairies spun the silver themselves from moonbeams and children’s dreams! Ooh, did you hear me then, Shell? I went all poetic.’

           Shelley’s attention was currently focused on attempting to read a back-page interview with a snooker player, no mean feat as the paper was upside-down at the time. As a result, the only word she heard was her own name. ‘What?’

            ‘I said, it’s Elizabeth Day, and—'

            ‘It is? Oh, happy St. Elizabeth’s day! I had no idea, is it on the calendar?’ Shelley squinted over at their Kitten calendar. A ginger kitten with eyes an impossible shade of cornflower blue sat in a watering can, crowning a month of disappointingly empty dates. The only one so far filled in was to remind Bea of her smear test. So, not a great month. That day, however, did come with a pre-printed date. Shelley leant over to read the tiny writing, ‘Assumption of Mary. Assumption of Mary. Would that be Holy Mary Mother of God? I assume so. Is that the assumption part? Or did somebody important assume something? Maybe it was Mary, poor love, assuming that nobody would be so cruel as to nail her son to a cross. Pretty safe assumption to make, isn’t it? No St. Elizabeth’s day though, Bea, are you sure it’s today? I wonder what she’s patron saint of? Blue veils? Donkeys?’ She gave a little nod to the kitten, and modestly crossed herself in honour of Mary – so she wouldn’t feel left out.

            Now, most people in Bea’s position may have reacted scornfully towards their friend at such an error, but most people weren’t as careful to cultivate a reputation for benevolence as Bea was. She merely smiled and shook her head, ‘No, St. Elizabeth’s day is in November, and she’s the patron saint of all sorts of downtrodden gynocentric causes. It’s big in Hungary.’

‘And how on Earth would you remember that then?’ Shelley asked, suspiciously.

‘We did it in school. We had a foreign exchange student over when I was twelve-ish, you see. Not that anyone went over to Hungary, so it wasn’t really an exchange, just, you know.’

‘Hmm,’ offered a clearly unconvinced Shelley, ‘and what was her name then, your little Hungarian friend?’

‘Why, Elizabeth of course. Anyway, Shell, this Elizabeth Day, see? Elizabeth Day, the writer.’ She held up the magazine for Shelley to see.

            ‘Oh, I see. I’m a little disappointed, truth be told. I had visions of us celebrating all the famous Elizabeth’s, in honour of the Virgin Queen. I mean, don’t get me wrong, your Elizabeth seems very pretty – particularly the Bambi eyes – what did you say she was? A food writer?’

            ‘No, just writer. Well, not just a writer. Presenter, podcast, umm, podcaster – is that the correct word? Anyway, she does loads. I don’t see why you’d be disappointed, Shell, I really don’t. You never even read—’

            Bea continued her special gentle blend of ticking off, unheard by Shelley, who had embarked on a wonderful delve into her memory, opening mental filing cabinets and extracting the Elizabeths within. When she had finished, her inner self was carrying an impressive pile of files, Bea had left the room to brew up, and Rick Stein was doing something to a fish on the TV. ‘I’ve got an idea to liven up next week,’ Shelley called through to Bea, ‘so don’t just dismiss it like you usually do. It will be fun, especially if you have a go on Thursday.’

            ‘My smear test,’ Bea shouted back, ‘can’t do anything else that day. Remember last time, that rough nurse? I bled all day, remember? She was in a rip about Dr Cane retiring, and took it out on my poor cervix with her swizzle stick. No, I’ll be straight to bed with a hot water bottle and a stiff drink afterwards.’

            Shelley smiled at her friend as she came back in with two steaming mugs, ‘That’s the beauty, Bea, you don’t have to do anything, other than get gynocentricly dressed in the morning. You weren’t planning on going naked, were you?’

            ‘Of course not. Come on then, out with it. Your eyes are shining amber again, so I can see you’ve been inspired.’

            ‘We celebrate St. Elizabeth’s day, and, no, don’t interrupt, I know that isn’t what you meant, but just listen. We celebrate for a full week, pay homage – is that the right word, homage? – to all the Elizabeths we know, dress up like them, have dinner themed to them, become them, for a full week. Just think, Bea, things to write on the calendar! Us!’

            Bea’s mouth opened to let her friend down gently, but the more she thought about it, the better it seemed. And, just think; entries on the calendar! Them! She smiled at Shelley, and nodded. ‘Alright, but on one condition.’

            ‘Name your price,’ said an elated Shelley, ‘it’s yours.’

            ‘I get to be Good Queen Bess on Thursday. That will teach Nurse bloody Rough Hands and her speculum. Navigate that farthingale, while I lie serenely back, all ruffs and pearls. When she tells me to flop my knees apart, I shall insist she calls me Gloriana! Shell, this is by far your best idea. Who shall you be first?’

            Surprisingly enough, given that it was her idea, Shelley found herself overwhelmed by a mob of Elizabeths and all her derivatives, all pleading that she pick them. There would have to be rules, that was clear. ‘Well, they have to be an Elizabeth, that’s a must. No Bessies, Besses, Bets, Bettys, Betsies, Beths, Ellies, Ellas, Lizes, Lizzies, Lizas, Lisas, or any other variation. Only Elizabeths allowed.’

            Bea sat transfixed, listening to her friend rattle through the names. Almost in alphabetical order, unheard of for Shelley. She had the ‘mind of an artist’ as she liked to put it, Bea thought that ‘cluttered’ was a better term, but here was her friend, alive to possibilities and details. Incredible.

            ‘Next,’ Shelley continued, caught up in her own thoughts, ‘they must be real people. No fictional folk allowed. That means no Ms. Bennets, Swanns, Lemons, Lavenzas, Poldarks, or any other imposters. No, only the existent Elizabeths will do.’

            ‘Doesn’t 'existent' mean still existing?’ Bea asked, ‘I mean, if we do that, then I can’t be Elizabeth I. And I’d rather not be Elizabeth II yet, I’m far too young! I suppose I could do a young Elizabeth Taylor, with furs and a black wig – do we still have that Halloween wig? I could cut it short I suppose. The rug in your room could double as a fur stole if I folded it in half. Shall I try it out?’

            ‘Dead.’

            ‘Me? If I fold your rug up, Shell? Dead’s a bit much, don’t you think?’

            ‘No, Bea, Elizabeth Taylor is quite dead. Besides, you know I run a mile from confrontation, I’d hardly murder my best and oldest for the minor infringement of folding my floor furniture in half, would I? I suppose I could allow existed Elizabeths, too – if you like?’

            Bea nodded, ‘who will you be first, Shell?’

            ‘I might be that one, if you don’t mind,’ Shelley replied, slyly eying the magazine on Bea’s lap, ‘the food writer. Now, what was her name again?’

Ignorance is Bliss


'On a dark summer night without a hint of breeze, they watched her moving from the trees.

On a dark summer night without a hint of breeze, ignorance is bliss.'

Phew, what a bloody awful cold-open. I wrote that (three pages of that) when I was eighteen, and thought it the very best horror opener ever to be written. Ignorance is bliss, isn't it? Knowing what I know now, and being very much older, I can see how overblown yet formulaic it is, but back then, my ignorance allowed me to think myself brilliant. Oh, to be young and foolish (which is a nice way of saying, pig-ignorant).

This blog is about the gift of ignorance. Of all the things I've lost, I miss my ignorance the most. Being ignorant makes the world a simpler place, a far more enjoyable place. The fact is, the more you learn, the more you realise you don't know shit. If this post were being written by the boys and girls over on Sesame Street, it would be brought to you by the letters M & I. The I is for Ignorant. I can't remember what the M was for. Seems fitting, given the theme.

Approx. 150,000 people die each day. Every. Single. Day. Every single person of that 150,000 figure leaves behind real people, whose lives have been torn apart by their loss. Every single person - no matter how famous of infamous - is a fragile human being, with a real, private life we don't know about. But the bits we do know of make them real to us, make us mourn for them when they die, make us grieve for their family and friends left behind, consumed with guilt at a cross word, an unreturned phone-call, at not kissing them goodbye the last time they parted. Universal feelings, no matter how young and poor, or old and rich the person was. They died, we grieved. Friday, April 9th 2021 claimed the lives of three particular people, each death sad in it's own way.

One died old, having lived a wonderful life, at home, with his loved ones around him. A wonderful end. Sad for those left behind, but not a tragedy by any means. My interest lies with the other two people, the ones that expose ignorance in far too many.

The first is DMX.

Overdosed in 2016, rehabbed at least three times, overdosed and had a heart attack earlier this month. Life support switched off on April 9th. Would anyone be surprised that a man who had lived that way died at only fifty years of age? Unlikely. No great loss, always going to happen, he made his bed, etc. No, that's too easy. That response is ignorance at it's finest.

Bipolar, abusive, broken childhood, introduced to alcohol at seven by an aunt, sent to a children's home at ten, homeless and addicted to crack at fourteen. Fathered fifteen children, in trouble with the law throughout his life, jailed thirty times. In spite of this, he was a successful rapper, songwriter, actor. He made history on the Billboard 200 charts, sold over 74,000,000 records, made a success of his life.

Read that start again; mentally ill, abused, introduced to alcohol as a little boy, homeless and on crack cocaine by fourteen. Repeatedly tried and failed to kick his demons away from him. Bipolar isn't just a case of having mood swings, it's deep depressions, highs that can cause psychosis, elevated risk of suicide, elevated risk of self-harm. Add to that already established drug use from a horribly young age. Addiction isn't a lack of self-control, it isn't being weak-willed or being too lazy to change. It is a compulsion, a form of self-harm, a disease. It isn't just an indulgence, it is an illness, and in a person with other mental-health problems, it is deadly.

The second is Nikki Grahame.

Nikki died aged thirty-eight. She had suffered from anorexia nervosa since a chance remark in her gymnastics class when she was just seven years old. That age again: seven. Known for being manic as anything on Big Brother in 2010, typical of someone clearly nutty to ant to be thin and just not eat. Was always going to happen, some people just don't want to be helped, do they? They love the drama. No, too easy. Again, that response is ignorance and then some.

Through her life, Nikki was admitted to at least twelve psychiatric hospitals and clinics, in an attempt to help her break the cycle of self-harm that anorexia is. She tried to commit suicide several times, suffered with OCD (which is not having to straighten your tins out in the cupboard, as some stupid people cheerfully believe makes them OCD, it is an horrific disorder which ruins lives) and terrible depression and loneliness. Nikki was a qualified beauty therapist, actress, and author of two books on anorexia. 
Anorexia isn't not eating because you want to lose a bit of weight. It isn't something that can be switched on an off. It is a compulsion, an addiction, it is a mental illness. Don't believe me? Reread the previous paragraph, it was psychiatric facilities Nikki had to go to for treatment, not fucking Weight Watchers or Greggs.

So, what is the point?

Ignorance is the point. The ability to have passed through life so blinkered, that you can view these two deaths as being their own fault, the they made their own bed philosophy. How does someone get to adulthood without being confronted with mental illness, whether their own or a close friend or family member? How do they stay so dumb to what others are going through? How?

I grew up ignorant, delightfully so, seeing black and white, and castigating others for their faults and failings. Some were evil, some irritating, some overly-dramatic, some miserable, drunks, liars, idiots, you get the idea. I remained ignorant until I was around twenty-five, when I discovered that my sister wasn't just a typical miserable, strange teenager (having been one myself), but one suffering with a whole Smörgåsbord of serious mental illnesses. How stupid was I? (And please don't think I had had an idyllic upbringing, I was badly depressed (brushed off by a GP as just being a teenager, I'd grow out of it), self-harming, isolated, and very, very bright. Yet clearly also dumb as a bell.) But I started to learn, and the more I learned, the more ignorant I realised I was.

It's an odd fact that the more knowledge we contain, the more aware we are of our short-comings, but there we are. I became aware of mental health problems that I'd always thought of as character weaknesses, including addiction and eating disorders (and I barely ate for many of my teenage years, among other reasons it being another way to control and punish myself), and stopped sneering at those suffering from them. I tried to always be patient, to always be kind.

I became alert to the looks, the words, the eyes of those struggling, and saw that that personal terror was everywhere, people struggling and desperately hanging on everywhere. And I wish I was ignorant again, wish I could just dismiss, and not be haunted by this newfound knowledge, of how afraid they must have been, of how helpless their loved ones felt, of how aware we all need to be to others and ourselves.

Ignorance really is bliss.


'You Need a Creative Outlet'

  ‘You need a creative outlet.’ How simple and straightforward a sentence. Five little words, delivered in a normal voice. Not accompanied ...