Reflections – A Year of Grieving

Flowers in the Water

Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mum’s death. It’s been 366 days since I last saw her, spoke to her, heard her voice, felt her arms around me. 366 days versus the 10,688 I was blessed to have her in my life. I have felt her absence on every one of those days and it still doesn’t feel real that she’s gone.

Last year we scattered her ashes in a river where she had spent many happy summers as a child. We returned there yesterday and threw some flowers into the water. It was a calm day so the current wasn’t strong. Most of the flowers flowed gently downstream and became lodged at the tops of the small stone dams that produce tiny waterfalls along the length of the river.

Two of them, red roses, became separated from the others and floated over to where I was standing on the riverbank. One rose was in full bloom, beautiful and vibrant, but the other had tipped over, its stem reaching for the sky while its petals languished in the water beneath it.

The ripples of the river caused the flowers to slowly circle each other. They remained in each other’s orbits for a few minutes, the light breeze gradually pulling them apart until, with gentle grace, the open rose floated away from the other and headed downstream. The remaining rose, kept off balance by its upright stem, bobbed in place for a short time, before the current pushed it underneath the riverbank into the dark where I couldn’t see.

When my mind is overwhelmed by difficult emotions, it seeks meaning in metaphor and symbolic interpretations of the things I perceive. As I was watching the flowers – one with petals open, floating serenely; the other, upturned, petals obscured, drowning – I couldn’t help but see the effect my mum’s death has had on me.

Though decades too soon, my mum accepted the finality of her diagnosis and came to the end of her life with grace and serenity. Like the rose floating from the other’s side, my mum slipped away from me quietly, peacefully, leaving my life turned upside down and pushing me into a darker place where I couldn’t make sense of anything.

My mum ended the first of the five letters she left for me with the words, ‘nothing stays the same’. As I was watching the roses floating together, I knew they wouldn’t stay together. Their separation was inevitable. The river’s current would pull them away from each other just as the passage of time pulls people apart. We only share our lives with our loved ones for a finite period of time before they, or we, have to move on. It’s an undeniable, and often heart-breaking, fact of life.

I didn’t stay long enough to watch what happened to that upturned rose but, as sure as I am that time will continue to pass, I’m sure that the current will eventually bring it back out into the sun, petals facing the sky, and guide it downstream.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does teach us how to live with them.

 

The Need to Write

I love to write. I always have.

When I was a child, I would scribble endless stories on scrap pieces of paper and staple them together as little books.

Inspiration came from all sorts of places.

The animals in our garden were sentient creatures that would go on fantastical adventures among the overgrown trees and shrubs.

The lovebirds we looked after while my grandparents were on holiday were on their own vacation and would break out of their cage at night to socialise with the wild birds.

The ornaments on the shelves would come to life in my imagination and go on all kinds of adventures in the outside world, (my favourite of these was ‘The Pig That Lived in the Wild’ which I illustrated and recorded as an audiobook).

Once, I wrote a story about a squirrel that went into outer space in his squirrel-sized spacesuit. I have no idea where that one came from!

As I got older, my writing turned inward and rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of my journal pages. Severe depression and crippling OCD inspired poetry and introspective monologues that eventually helped to restore my emotional equilibrium. The mental health centre where I was treated kept some of my writings to help other patients, and ever since then I have believed in the power of creative expression to overcome emotions that would otherwise be suffocating. You can read more about those experiences in one of my previous posts.

Years have passed since then and my life is much busier now, to the point that sometimes I don’t realise that I NEED to write. The words force themselves through though, one or two lines at a time, until I have no choice but to notice them.

Sometimes, I dream about a dark room with a single spotlight shining on an easel holding a large sheet of white paper. As I watch, words appear on the page written by the invisible hand of my subconscious to form poems or extracts from stories. When I wake up, the words are still vibrant in my memory, and I make sure to write them down before they disappear again.

Other times, I find myself with a pen in my hand, idly scribbling words and ideas that won’t leave me alone unless I express them. Like this one that has been with me for the last few weeks:

Quote

It’s been a stressful start to the year, and I think these words are an expression of how I respond to emotional upheaval by taking refuge in writing. Those are usually the times when the words are at their most insistent and will run riot in my mind until I write them down.

I’m not sure where this blog post came from, but recently I’ve been feeling the need to write something, and this is what appeared when I sat down at my laptop.

I feel better now.

Reading, Writing and Resolutions

2016 Reading Resolutions Image

This post is coming a bit later than I wanted, but it’s been a busy start to the year!

I’ve been reflecting a lot about the past year and what I want for 2016. My main focus is buying my first house, which is obviously a huge decision and will take up a lot of my time and energy once the ball gets rolling, but I definitely want more reading and writing to be part of this year.

I’ve come up with a list of goals that I’m hoping will help motivate me. Maybe some of these will inspire you too, especially my fellow bibliophiles!

  • Goodreads Challenge: I’ve never done this before but I wanted to this year so I could track how many books I read and give myself a target to aim for. I’ve gone with 45, which is approximately 4 books per month. Hopefully I can manage that! I’ve read one so far, Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine, which I’ll be reviewing soon.
  • 2016 Reading Challenge: This year I’m taking part in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge, which is to “read 12 books in 12 different categories in 12 months”. I’m looking forward to diversifying my reading and finally tackling some books I should have read years ago. I wrote a post about it here.
  • Writing Competitions: Last year I entered a competition run by Almond Press to write a short story with an apocalyptic theme. I’m delighted that my story was chosen to be published as part of their anthology which will be released later this year. It’s made me feel more confident as a writer and I’m keen to enter more competitions this year.
  • Memory Jar: I’ve wanted to do this for years but have never gotten around to it. Memories JarI’m a very nostalgic person and love to look back on things past, so having a memory jar where I can keep note of significant events and milestones feels like a great idea. I got mine from Pretty Pink Toes via Amazon.
  • Blog Posts: I don’t post here anywhere near as often as I would like and I want that to change this year. Along with book reviews and general posts, I really want to feature more projects like the Future Library Project that I wrote about in 2014. It was one of my favourite and most popular posts and I love hearing about creative ways of sharing the reading experience, so I would like to share them here too.
  • Literary Events: I already know I’ll be going to a couple of book festivals and publishing conferences this year, but I would also like to attend more events like literary salons, book launches and author events.
  • Writing, Writing, Writing: Above all, I want to write as much as possible. I have a novel idea which is slowly being fleshed out and I would love to do some solid work on it this year. I’m never happier than when I’m writing, so I want it to be a constant theme of 2016.

I hope you’re all having a great start to the year and that it will be a good one!

Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born with Teeth’ and the impact she has had on my life

Born With Teeth CoverI was going to write a regular review of Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir, but then I read it, and a simple review is not enough to express how I feel. This will be the most personal post I’ve ever written and I’m very nervous about it, but it feels like the right thing to do.

If you know me or are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have been a fan of Kate and her work since I was 8 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which she played Captain Kathryn Janeway. I’m 27 now and my admiration and appreciation for her has grown exponentially over the years. She is an exceptionally talented actress; a wonderful orator; incredibly gracious towards her fans (I speak from experience); and a true joy to watch in any role she plays.

She is also, as it turns out, a beautifully gifted writer. Her lyrical eloquence weaves a tale so vivid and engaging that I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were a movie. Kate lays out in unapologetic honesty a life filled with adventure, grief, trauma, and, above all, a tremendous passion for her work and her family. As she shares the intimate details of the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, surviving a rape, losing two sisters and the kind of heartbreak only true love can bring, we are also treated to riveting stories of romance, travel and the drama of stage and screen. Kate is an astute observer of human nature and she uses this skill to craft dynamic and colourful depictions of the variety of interesting people she has encountered throughout her fascinating life.

Being the massive Star Trek fan that I am, the chapters about Kate’s time on Voyager were a real treat and I’m certainly delighted that she included them, but even if they hadn’t been there I would still have absolutely loved the book. At times intensely passionate and at others desperately sad, this was a memoir that had me completely hooked from beginning to end and left me with a profound sense of gratitude towards, and a greater understanding of, a woman I have admired for most of my life.

I love and look up to Kate for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but there is one other reason that I have never spoken of because it was too painful and I didn’t think I was strong enough to give voice to it. But then I read Kate’s memoir, and the courage and bravery of her words gave me the confidence to find my own, and reminded me that there are some things which should not be kept hidden.

I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me at a time when I was far too young to deal with it. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, that my family would fall apart. I’m from a rural area in Scotland where there are few resources for special needs children, and with such little support our lives became subject entirely to my brother’s needs.

Eventually, the situation became untenable and my brother was moved to a specialist residential care facility where he could have the quality of life that we could not provide. By then I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends. I was already a huge fan of Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway was my favourite character. To help with my anxiety I took a Janeway action figure to school with me. It made me feel protected and gave me courage to get through the day; a tangible reminder of the strength and fortitude of the character herself.

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

A few years later I started to develop health problems. It’s a long and complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain I had been feeling for years and eventually it all got too much. One night, while I was watching an episode of Voyager, as I often did to make myself feel better, I was sitting with a pile of prescription medications and my mind started to wander.

What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?

I have heard many people refer to suicide as a selfish act. It’s not. It’s an act of pure desperation. You don’t think about the devastating impact it will have on the people who love you. All you can think about is making it stop, about silencing the storm inside you, because how can life be worth living if every day, every second, feels like this? How can you possibly be of any use to anyone? There is no hope in that moment that it will ever get better, there is only the crippling fear and pain which has brought you there.

I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were, little pink, innocuous looking things, and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:

“In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.”

It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, (‘Parallax’, the second episode of Season One), Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to “keep it together” as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.

When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD and I soon began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

As well as supporting me through my recovery, the psychologists there helped me to realise that creativity was the means by which I could find my way back to myself. I discovered that I could write poetry, and over the months that followed I crafted a path for myself made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight. When I came to the end of my treatment, the lead psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help the other patients, which I very happily agreed to.

Now, 12 years later, I have a job in the industry I love (publishing), two university degrees, and, most importantly, wonderful relationships with my hugely supportive family and friends. I write as often as I can and also run an online support group for siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome, in an effort to provide the kind of help I so desperately needed when I was young.

In 2012 I had the incredible experience of meeting Kate at a Star Trek convention in London. Living in Scotland and finding travel quite a challenge I had assumed that I would never get the chance to meet her, so when I did it was like a dream and I still feel so happy whenever I think about it. My mother kindly made the trip to London with me to give me support and said that she had never seen me as happy as I was after I met Kate, who was as kind, gracious and generous in person as I had always imagined her to be.

Kate and I

Whenever I find myself dealing with difficult emotions, trying to adjust to the side effects of a new medication or struggling with the physical pain and fatigue that are my constant companions, I see Kate as Janeway standing on the bridge of Voyager, telling her crew that sometimes you just have to punch your way through. And I do.


Kate now stars as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and she’s absolutely terrific, as is the show itself. You can read my review of the book the show is based on here.

The following are links to some great interviews and reviews of Born with Teeth. Read it. Seriously. Kate Autograph 1

The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

LA Times

The Mary Sue

CBS interview

One last thing, a shout out to my dear friend Stefani, who very kindly sent me Kate’s book across the Atlantic from Mississippi to Scotland. She has an awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed that I would encourage you to check out if you love books and nerdy things!

Bookish Memories for World Book Day!

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day and to celebrate I thought I would share some of my fondest memories related to books. In the UK we had World Book Day on March 5th, but I’m greedy and want to celebrate twice!

  • When I was about 8 my mum accidentally gave away my favourite book, The Moondreamers (I think it was this one) to a charity sale. I was so upset that she went down to the sale and bought it back for me. It made me so happy!
  • As a kid I used to cut up sheets of white paper, staple them together and write and illustrate (badly!) short stories about animals, particularly robins and pigs.
  • The first bedtime story I remember being read to me was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m pretty sure it inspired my love of reading before bed.
  • I loved audio books as a kid and once a week my mum would take me to our local library (where she used to work) and I would choose a new one to listen to at night. My favourites were Super Gran, Krindlekrax and Girls in Love.
  • The first poem I ever learned to recite was called ‘The Unwise Owl’ which was published in a Rainbow annual. It became a bit of a party act because I had a cute lisp back then which, coupled with my enthusiastic inflections, made for a pretty funny recitation! I’ve kept that poem for over 20 years and I still smile whenever I see it.
  • When I was younger and wanted some time to myself or a quiet place to think I would sit in front of the big bookcase in the spare room and imagine all the different worlds the books contained. When I got older I started reading them and found some of my favourite books there.
  • This isn’t something I actually remember, but my parents have told me that when I was a toddler, all they had to do was put a book in front of me and I would sit quietly for hours. Apparently, even the Yellow Pages provided me with entertainment!
  • During school holidays on sunny days I would make a fort out of a pop-up tent and blankets and sit in there all day with books and snacks until I was called in for dinner. The ones I read in my little fort the most were Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series. I think there might have been some Nancy Drew in there too.
  • I used to go to car boot sales with my grandparents and while they were looking for antiques I was hunting for books. The best find I ever had was a book I had been searching for for ages (this was before online ordering was an option) and I was delighted when I found it. It was Star Trek: Voyager – Pathways by Jeri Taylor. I still have it and still love it (along with everything else Star Trek related!)

How are you celebrating World Book Day? Do you have any bookish memories you want to share? Let me know in the comments! I’m off to read now. 🙂

Liebster Blog Award (2)

liebster-award image

I’ve been nominated for a second Liebster Award by the lovely Phoebe over at Thoughts on Books. Thank you, Phoebe!

I have to admit that I haven’t been spending much time in the blogsphere lately, so it’s been awhile since I discovered any of the new and wonderful blogs I’m certain are out there, so I won’t be making any nominations this time around.

You can find my original award post, along with the rules, here.

Facts about me:

Since I’ve done this before, I thought this time I would try and give you 11 facts about me which are purely book related, so here we go!

1) When I was about 18 months old I had this really weird obsession with the Yellow Pages. I would take each wafer-thin page between my tiny fingers and delicately turn them over one at a time. According to my parents I used to get really excited whenever I got to the taxi pages, but it’s a mystery as to why, I don’t even like cars!

2) The first book I ever remember being read to me as a bedtime story was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We had a beautifully illustrated hardback edition which my mother read to me. It was around that time that I realised I would rather stay awake and listen to stories than fall asleep to them!

3) I had a voracious appetite for audiobooks when I was younger. I listened to them all the time on my portable cassette player (I’m showing my age now!) My favourites were the Harry Potter series, Jacqueline Wilson novels, Philip Ridley’s Krindlekrax (which always really creeped me out but I loved it anyway) and Forrest Wilson’s Super Gran.

4) One of my favourite books when I was a kid was a story based on The Moondreamers cartoons. I carried it everywhere and it meant a lot to me. One day, it accidentally ended up in a box of things to be sold at a car boot sale. I was devastated when I realised what had happened, so my mum went down to the sale and bought it back for me. I still remember being so happy when she brought it home again.

5) Around the ages of 10-11 I was obsessed with Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven stories. In the summer I used to set up a pop-up tent in the garden with a pile of snacks and a blanket and sit there reading for hours.

6) I’ve loved writing stories since I was a little girl. My favourite subjects at that age were animals, usually birds (particularly robins) and squirrels (who for some reason liked to have adventures in space). I used to cut up sheets of white paper, staple them together and then fill them with stories and illustrations of the animals off on their adventures. My family assures me they were funny and cute, although I think they might be a bit biased!

7) I am lucky enough to have a large bookcase in my room with six tall shelves. From top to bottom: Spiritual; Favourites; Star Trek (reference books and memorabilia); Photos and Ornaments; Star Trek (novels); Textbooks and Anthologies (Literature, Politics and History).

8) My favourite place to read is in bed. It acts as a barrier for me between the events of the day and a good night’s sleep. It’s also my way of getting through nights of insomnia. If I start to fall asleep but want to keep reading (which is 99.99% of the time), then I close one eye and keep going!

9) I don’t own a Kindle or any kind of e-reader, and I currently don’t ever intend to (unless it becomes the only way to read books in the future, perish the thought!) I don’t have anything against them and I’m glad that e-books allow more people access to books, but they’re just not for me. You can read more about my feelings on this in one of my earlier posts here.

10) My ideal job would be working for a university press, preferably in Arts and Humanities journals. I would be very happy spending my days editing articles about literature, politics, history etc. I would also be delighted to work for a fiction publisher. I think it would be awesome to be in that kind of dynamic and exciting environment with people who are as enthusiastic about books as me. That being said, I currently work for a publisher specialising in the shipping industry. Although it’s not where I thought I’d end up, it’s a fantastic place to work and I feel very lucky to be there.

11) As much as I love reading and couldn’t imagine not having a book on the go, I definitely didn’t inherit it from my dad. He has only read FIVE books in his ENTIRE life, and those were the ones he was forced to read at school (or by my mum as she tried in vain to convert him). I don’t really understand how that’s possible, but he’s just not into books. He’s still an awesome dad though. 🙂

Phoebe’s Questions for me:

1) Do you still live where you grew up?

Unfortunately, yes! I live in a small town in the Scottish Borders and although it’s a beautiful place and will always mean a lot to me, I don’t want to settle down here. While I did my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I lived in cities, which I definitely preferred. I’ll be moving on again as soon as I can.

2) What is your favourite aspect of book blogging (or blogging in general!)

I like having a little creative space online where I can share my thoughts and love of books with anyone who feels like stopping by. It’s a really nice thing to be able to do and I also love being able to drop in on the creative spaces of other bloggers and find out about the things that are important and interesting to them.

3) If you could pick one scent to smell for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think I would have to go with lavender as I’ve always loved that scent.

4) Are you a morning or evening person?

I’m a night owl all the way. I don’t really become fully mentally functional until sometime after lunch, and I’m always at my most productive when it’s dark outside. During the summer months while I was doing my undergrad, I used to love opening my bedroom window at around 4am and watching the sunrise after a productive night of studying.

5) If you could bring back one person from the past who would it be?

My Grampa, definitely. He passed away in 2011 and I miss him all the time. Along with my Granny he helped raise me when I was a child and we stayed very close even after I grew up. He was a man of few words but those words were always worth listening to. I would love to see him again.

6) Favourite subject at school/college?

English, without a doubt!

7) Have you ever had any pets?

Yes, since I was about 18 months old. We’re a major league dog-loving family and we used to breed Labradors. The most we’ve had at one time was four black Labs, and our dogs are usually related in some way. Currently we have father and son duo Diesel and Basil, who are just lovely. I also had two guinea-pigs for about 4 years while I was in high school, and a couple of goldfish who unfortunately only lasted a week!

8) Ever broken a bone?

Not so far, which is lucky since I’m such a klutz!

9) Favourite app?

I’m not much of a techy person to be honest, so I don’t use many apps apart from for social media, but I do love Angry Birds and my Memo Pad app.

10) Dog or a cat person?

As I said above, I ADORE dogs and don’t know what I’d do without them. I quite like cats too though.

11) Describe your dream house.

When I picture my dream house, my imagination can’t seem to get past the library I want to have, so I’ll describe that. It would have floor to ceiling shelves, preferably made of aged oak, stuffed full of books all organised by genre (because I like to organise EVERYTHING). There would be a really comfy armchair in the corner and a desk. There would also be a child-sized plastic table and chairs set so that I could help my children practice their reading. It would have a skylight and a view overlooking the countryside.

Thanks again for this, Phoebe! I’ve enjoyed doing it. 🙂