Category: Writing and wellbeing

The river lies north

The past twelve months have been full of change, disruption and uncertainty. Writing has not come easily, and there have been times when words have deserted me. Writing is the one thing that keeps me sane, and deprived of that outlet, things have been hard.

What has been different from other bad spells, when I carried on writing through the worst of times, and about the worst of times, is the shifting of the very walls and ground that hold me, like a slow earthquake, with cracks developing beneath my feet, and dust from the tremors falling all around. Of late, these cracks, this dust, moved from metaphor to reality, as we moved to a new house, and channels were gouged into the walls to run wiring to replace that which had been in the house since it was first built, in the early 1960s. Phenomenal dust rose, settled, was wiped away, then more settling and wiping in a cycle that seemed to last forever. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock, so my damp cloth worked each day, only to see more thick grey deposits the next morning.

It is hard to think, to write, to give space to creative thoughts when living with dust, noise and builders; with your precious things still packed in boxes; when the walls around you and the roof above you are not those you have lived with; when the view from your window is not the one you have woken to for the previous eight years. And when the certainties of your life for the same number of years have been shaken: a dear cat companion declining and dying; a husband rushed to a cardiac unit in an ambulance, sirens blaring; financial difficulties forcing a move of house.

Writing and publishing is a long game, however, and there have been cheering moments when poems and stories have been published several months after submission, and an even longer time after they were written. Reminders that you can write words that others want to read, that the one thing that keeps you well is still below the surface.

This summer will see the publication of an illustrated pamphlet of my poems, There are Boats on the Orchard. These were some seven years in the writing, and for the past six months I have seen the orchards and poems recast in wonderful drawings by Sara Fletcher. It’s a bittersweet project, since I no longer write in a shed overlooking an orchard. In fact I had no permanent place to write for a couple of months, when one house was sold and another had not yet been secured. Then the struggle to find a space amongst dust, builders, and too-much-stuff that fitted in the old house but not in the new. But now I have a desk and a space in the house to write.

P1000072 cropped smallInstead of an orchard, I now have a view of the River Medway from my bedroom window, plus a view over the dips and rises of hilly Gillingham. There is a road, houses, and a factory that makes Jubilee clips. In the middle of the river there is a strip of land, Hoo Marshes, and on the other bank I can see the spire of the church at Hoo St Werburgh. It’s a moving landscape, as the tide comes in and goes out on the estuary, and small boats pass – sometimes larger shipping. The lights of the factory come on at 6.00, and people arrive by bicycle, in cars and vans, and on foot. The traffic climbs and descends Danes Hill all day. The landscape moves, and I remain still, as the floors and walls beneath me settle and stay.

Beneath the floorboards, raised by Dan the Sparks and John the kitchen fitter, there were packages and a yellow cash tin, hidden by the previous owner of the house, who lived here for 46 years. Amongst the documents and mementoes was a compass in a brass case. I opened the case and oriented myself in the house: the river to the north; the front of the house facing east; the back facing west.

Returning to the house after a week away, I first went to the bedroom to look at the river, my constant north. When my three-year-old granddaughter visits, it’s where she heads, too, calling to everyone, ‘Do you want to see a river?’ She dashes to the other rooms, to see if there is ‘another river’, but there is only one.

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

How can you help?

A man goes to see his parish priest in rural Ireland during the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s or 40s. The man has too many children; he cannot feed them all.  He travels to work in England and sends money back home, and still there is not enough money. He asks the priest if there is anything the church can do to help. The man’s eldest child comes home from school a few days later to find that some of her siblings have been sent to an orphanage, several miles away.

An extreme example of help, of charity, gone badly wrong.

I have not ever been in such extreme need, but there have been times when money has been short, I have been (and am) too sick to work, and things have seemed grim. The state has provided, through welfare benefits. I have been able to keep my home and to feed my children at times when I feared I would lose everything. The generosity of others has also been both a lifesaver in emergencies, and has added some colour to a very black and white existence.

When funds are low, it can be difficult to keep hold of your dignity. And pride can get in the way of accepting offers of help. How that help is offered, in a way that allows a person to accept or reject offers, and so that it does not appear patronising or pitying, is very important. Here are a few good examples from my own experience.

I have a friend who has offered me loans over the years. I have often declined, sometimes accepted. In a recent emergency, I asked if the offer still holds, and she happily sent a cheque with a cheery note saying that there was no rush to pay it back. She has also given me money in the past, a small amount to pay an unexpected bill, for example. It has never affected our friendship. I have paid back loans, or gratefully accepted funds given.

Christmas past - Biscuit inspects the presents

Christmas past – Biscuit inspects the presents

Some years ago, a friend took me with her on a day trip to France. It was close to Christmas, and she knew that I had very little money to buy presents for my children. We stopped at a service station on the way home, and she turned to me with an idea for a gift that my children would love, and would make a big difference to our household. ‘I have a mad money fund,’ she said. ‘It’s for money I don’t really need, but it’s for splurging on treats. I’d like to give you enough to buy a Freeview box.’ She would give me the money on condition that I didn’t tell my children where it came from; the gift would be from me. My children may be reading this now, and this will be the first time I have made them aware of this act of kindness. It was done in a way that preserved my dignity, and literally it added a little colour to a pretty basic existence at that time. And my children, big as they were at the time, squealed with delight when they opened the gift.

I have friends who invite me to lunch and lightly say it’s their treat. People who will buy a drink knowing that I cannot buy one in return. They know that funds are low, or that I just need cheering up.

I am writing this today because some people performed what they saw as an act of love, an act of kindness. It was done without asking, arrived unannounced, and although this was not their intention, it has offended my dignity. It feels like an act of charity, pity even, not an act of love. Love is not something you do at people, it has to be with their consent. I still love those people, but I do feel that my wishes have not been considered. Life has been difficult recently, things feel out of control. People in my position need to feel that they have some control over what happens in their lives, to be given choices.

Going back to man who went to the parish priest at the beginning of this post. That man was my grandfather. His eldest child was my mother. Things done in the name of charity can be wonderful, can give people an element of control over their own destinies, can help people get back on their feet during hard times. Or they can be like what happened to my granddad, to my mother, to her brothers and sisters who were sent away.

 

Chin up – counting on things getting better

The school hall was wood-panelled, with one wall adorned with the names of past head girls, a list of gold-leafed lettering. There were high windows along one side, and a stage with a table and a high-backed chair where Miss Collins, the headmistress, sat during morning assembly. At one time, I knew how many wood panels lined each wall, how many windows and windowpanes there were in the hall. I knew because I counted them every day.

Counting was a way to keep me safe. There was a lot to be anxious about back then – not only homework, exams and the ups and downs of friendships, but also that I did not always feel safe at home. Counting was, and is, a bit like stepping on the cracks in the pavement. Terrible things might happen if I didn’t count or if I failed to step over the cracks.

Today is the first day of October. My first words were to the cat, who has developed a habit of pulling her water bowl into the middle of the kitchen floor, for me to kick or trip over as I walk through to the bathroom without turning the light on, so I don’t wake up too much, giving me a chance of getting back to sleep after the 5 o’clock wake up. I may have sworn. I neglected to leap out of bed saying, ‘White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’, which would have protected me from anything bad happening this month. There is, however, still time for ‘Pinch, punch, first of the month,’ which might just cancel out the bad luck.

We all have rules, routines to keep us safe. Some of us take this to greater lengths than others. I’m not claiming to have OCD. I would not belittle those that are slaves to their compulsions. But sometimes my obsessions become too much to handle. At times of distress, the counting takes over. I add up the numbers on car registration plates, the digits in dates. If they add up to multiples of 5 they are good. 21 and 22 are also safe numbers. Today, 01/10/2015, is a safe day, a good day. I count the number of letters in newspaper headlines. I can calculate quite fast. During very bad times, I add up the number of letters in sentences I hear spoken, seeing the words in my head. My head can be a very busy place. It’s no wonder I have trouble sleeping, relaxing, with so much counting to do.

When I was very ill, with severe anxiety and depression, I was advised to use scheduling. This is a method whereby you plan what you will do in a day, even as simple as ‘have breakfast, shower, get dressed, clear breakfast dishes, listen to radio, try to step outside the front door.’ The last of these was because I was terrified of everything, including leaving the house and staying in the house. Scheduling imposed structure and rules that were more helpful than my personal rule of counting everything. If I did get to step outside, I would feel like I had achieved something. I was told that if I kept doing it, taking small steps, that eventually it would not be so hard, I could get back to doing some of the things that I used to enjoy. Support was a factor in this recovery. I used to think that I had to do everything myself, a belief built on having a shaky start in life, where I wasn’t kept safe or made to feel safe. I learnt that a few good friends were pleased to take me out for very short outings, to take me home again if I started to panic.

I have another good rule, one I invented myself. I call it internet-free Sunday. I’ve been practising it for the past three years, I think. I shut down my laptop by six o’clock on a Saturday (I also have a daily curfew on internet use – none in the evenings), and don’t open it again until Monday morning. It’s a break from mental overload, from always being available, from the temptation to check if there are any more Likes on my most recent witty Facebook status. It’s how Sundays used to be, only less boring.

I guess the point of this post is that rules can be tyrants or liberators. And that even the good rules are made to be broken. I once had a text from my son-in-law, suggesting that I might want to break internet-free Sunday to see a video of my granddaughter having her first taste of solid food. That was a good enough reason to break my internet fast early.

I’ve been counting a lot in the last couple of weeks. It’s one of those times when one bad thing after another has piled on. Sometimes bad things happen in spite of counting, in spite of it being a good date, numerically. I don’t feel in control of some of the things that are going on. The counting has not helped. Writing has. Writing has saved my life many, many times. My notebook is my friend. I can tell it anything – it does not judge, it doesn’t say I’m overreacting or being silly. It doesn’t tell me to pull myself together or to look on the bright side. As I fill the pages, I feel the tension leaving my body for a while. I feel ready to face the world.

I am sure that readers of this post will have advice for me – mindfulness, walking (yes, that does work for me), keeping my chin up. The chin up thing worked for me yesterday. I had been trying to regain control. Exhausted from lack of sleep, from feeling tense all the time, from the goddamned usual symptoms of chronic illness, I stepped outside into the garden and looked up. A buzzard was hovering overhead. I see buzzards from time to time in our area. I like to think it’s the same bird I see each time. It reminded me of the last time I saw it, just a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautifully warm September day, dragonflies were flitting over the vegetable patch, three sunflowers were nodding their yellow heads at the edge of the garden. My husband Bob had lifted up our granddaughter so that she could see the sunflowers close up. She was running around on the grass, wearing Bob’s sun hat. The day was already perfect, and then I saw the buzzard flying over the orchard that backs on to our garden. It made my heart soar. Seeing the buzzard again, yesterday, brought me back to that perfect day, reminded me that happiness is not so far away, even when things seem bleak, unresolvable.

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