June 11, 2013
It just occurred to me, why I'm mentally ill. I like how I don't dress that reality up, too.
I'm reading The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (author of International Bestseller The Historian) and this passage here is the thread that has started my thoughts a-weaving:
“It was not illness to let another person – or a belief, or a place – take over your heart. But if you gave away your mind to one of those things, relinquished your ability to make decisions, it would, in the end, render you sick – that is, if your doing that wasn't already a sign of your condition.”
I have a lot in my head. If the things contained in my grey matter were transformed into a three-storey house, I would without a doubt be one of the people on reality shows to do with hoarding. They'd probably have to film through windows and send in fibre optic cameras on account of not being able to gain access.
I read regularly and on account of having studied Social Sciences, focussing on philosophy and politics for my degree, I have many questions wandering my neural pathways. I also have hundreds of random thoughts and feelings. I have dreams and ideas, stories and scraps, fantasies of other lives; a pile of broken hearts for characters that I've psychologically loved and died over (Robb Stark, anyone?) during my fictional adventures.
I guess most people pick a few things and drown the rest out. I'm not special for having all of this, plus more, crammed – suppressed – in my bottomless memory. But what sets me apart from most people is the same thing Kostova has described: stories have taken over my heart and I have given away my mind to them.
I came to this conclusion at 1am this morning, laying awake after a midnight stint of writing because my brain wouldn't let me rest until 500 words, no matter how bad, had been pulled into existence. The fact that I turfed myself out of bed at midnight to make a coffee and then go into another room to write instead of sleeping is indicative of me giving myself up to writing.
Before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), I blind myself to reality and embody the story. Kind of like Will Graham from Hannibal but without the corpses. I tend to work forward too, then rewind whereas Will traces everything back to profile people. But that's besides the point. What I mean is that I erase everything around me and then superimpose the fictional world I'm building on the remains and become the main character.
I experience everything I design for them, because I am them. I am walking through their environment. I have quit being Sam and become …
Writers do this, they must do. Some must do. It's a beautiful way of building an authentic world. I draw particular attention to my personal approach however because I give myself up completely. I did it the other day, during a stroll, and when I came back to the world around me, I was in a different place without any memory to tell me that I had arrived there. And then I quickly assessed which version was real: the place I'd returned from or the place I'd returned to.
Part of me wants this 'slipping' to calm down so that I may become grounded and lead something of a normal(ish) life. A bigger part of me is prepared to give up even more to be lost. I believe the only thing that prevents me from going the way of Robert Oliver, Kostova's suffering artist, is that I'm not 100% dedicated to writing. I'm not at that stage, yet.
And if I get there? I'll have a choice to make, I guess. What do I want more? Complete immersion or not? Do I want to give away that last bit of myself to the thing I'm obsessed with? Or, can I find a balance. Can I develop a way to be immersed and valued at the same time for being devoured by all of the things that are held in my brain.
Who will look at me and see a person in need of support, patience and love for life. I think those will be the things I need, the things I need now in fact, in order to survive the mental illness I now recognise as twin to my obsessions.
Photo by Paul G
February 10, 2013
I'm a scatty writer. I have around 150 words on a sheet of paper at the moment, a piece of flash fiction under construction for a competition. My bid to fulfil a promise to myself this year: get some fiction published. Anywhere.
I'm not lacking in opportunities.
What gets at me is that when it comes to sitting down to write, I dedicate myself wholeheartedly to doing so. But then I end up doing this – distracting myself with some other medium – instead of focussing on the goal.
It's no mystery and nothing to worry about. What I'm doing is simultaneously discovering and destroying the self-imposed myth that writers sit down and write, like a river cuts a path and flows, unrelenting. Now when I get into a groove, the words come quick, but most of the time I start off doing something I imagine to be the staple of most writers: staring into space.
It's my bread-and-butter, watching everything and nothing in my peripherals whilst fragments of what I'm writing float about and join up, decide they're not right for each other and break up. Between those thoughts are other things: this post; which vinyl album I'd next like to invest in; whether I've messed up a quest on Skyrim; how can I connect two elements of a story to make them symbiotic; I'll email about that short course to give me a leg up; what should I write for this bit now that I can't identify anymore rogue thoughts.
And whilst all of that is drifting and colliding, the story I'm working on is fermenting. I don't believe that procrastinating (as I am now) is detrimental to my writing. I think, without it, I'd write a lot more crap than usual.
It's a trick though, to find the balance between procrastinating and doing nothing.
I blame a lot of my inactivity on my health. It's true: some days are just nasty and those are the days where I need to pea-bug in order recover and prevent myself from getting worse. That sort of behaviour becomes tattooed onto me and results in days where I 100% believe that I can't lift a pencil, that doing so will be pointless because whatever I put down on the page will be empty and worthless.
'Pea-bugs', by the way, are what I used to call wood lice when I was a kid because they curl up and look like peas when threatened.
No writing is worthless. All writing, whether it grows and is sent out into the adult world of scary, discerning readers or is screwed up and tossed away after five minutes, has value. It has value because of the effort it contains, the thoughts that have happened around it and the decisions that have been made about its future. These are all essential processes with which, at least for me, writing would be dead without.
I welcome distraction but am vigilant against despair. One stops me from being too serious whilst the other makes me so serious, it disables me.
If there is one thing I can do, it's find a pencil and a sheet of paper, and commit acts of words. That ability is open to the elements of life, like everything else, which is why I always take the time to follow a stray thought, avoid the issue at hand and spend some time exploring so that the creative brain in me can bubble unconsciously.
Watching a kettle boil doesn't make it boil any quicker or better.
June 15, 2012
I’ve decided to go with something a bit more challenging for the next part of this series. The last article on knitting was a bit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for all of us.
So what makes this one so tough? You have to go out. Amidst people.
As with the last post, I’m not going to go into the technicalities of the craft. Trust me, I’m not a guru gardener; I’ve killed (without intention) more plants than I can count.
But the rewards from this activity are numerous and better than, in my totally unprofessional opinion, any group therapy with bells on.
What I’ll be doing, as with the knitting article, is explaining why gardening is so important to me and how it could become a life-saver for you. And the planet.
You don’t have to be an Agoraphobiac or a tree-hugged by the way. Neither do you have to have hectares of land for wild deer to frolic across.
A concrete box, surrounded by brick walls and urban noise can become a haven for shadow loving plants. Dress it up with some outdoor lighting (candles, string lights, solar lamps) and there you have it.
How about a traditional six foot stretch backing onto a railway line? It needn’t be all lawn. Veg and flowers will prosper in the right conditions.
I can hazard a guess that some of you may live in a flat; get hanging out of that window (safely please…) and install a good-sized window box.
The best bit though is that gardening needn’t be restricted to out doors. I have a growing collection of plants that I tend to indoors. Admittedly plants that don’t always need a lot of attention due to my forgetfulness, but plants nonetheless.
This is one of my Phalaenopsis orchids. They grow happily indoors as long as they’re kept out of direct sunlight and watered properly. A bit like me.
You can pick these up at pretty much any supermarket now but I’d recommend heading to a decent garden centre. If there’s a Dobbies close by, I’d recommend them. And no I’m not being paid to say that or getting any freebies. The place is just awesome and worth the effort/terror of stepping out your front door. Which brings me to the pep-talk.
This is not an easy task. By all means, you could order bulbs and seeds from the Internet the same way you could yarn, but I’d like to show that by pushing your boundaries by the slightest amount, you can stop your fears from ruling your life and create a space to be proud of, even if it’s just a flower in a pot on your desk.
Rules. With this task there must be rules.
- Don’t do it alone. Garden centres, particulary at this time of year, are nightmares incarnate. There are people and kids everywhere, all scurrying about and cramping up the joint so the last thing you want is to be in that situation on your own. Take a trusted friend of family member. I go with my Dad.
- Make a trip out of it. Looking for plants and materials like soil, wood, feed and chippings (to help prevent soil dehydration) isn’t a death sentence; it’s a chance for you to take control and find pleasure in a new habit. One of my favourite things to do when I go with my Dad to Dobbies is to seek out lavender or other rich-smelling plants, bury my face in them and take as many deep breaths as I can before he says that people are staring.
- Plan ahead. I can’t stress this enough because of the stress. Don’t go on a whim and don’t go when you’re stone broke. You need good health, a good frame of mind and a good bank balance if you’re going to do this. Planning also allows you to think about what to do in the event that you start to feel uncomfortable or freak-out. Neglecting planning will lead to a negative experience which means you’re less likely to do it again.
So why gardening? What makes it indispensable to me? I’ve grown up in and around greenery, trees and flowers. These places were a haven of peace and solitude for me, just what I needed when I felt the need to escape coming on. The sanctauray of the garden is more important for me now than it ever has been.
Gardens come with two sides to them, forming a paradox. They force me to go out and be social but then they draw me in and shut me off from the rest of the world.
When I’m done with the hustle of the over-populated garden centre, I return home and rest for a while. Maybe a day or two. Then I turn my attention to the plants themselves; I plan how and where I’m going to put them, prepare the soil so that their roots have a good place to start their new life. I ready the watering can with warm water. Yes – warm water. It’s better for the plant, particularly seedlings, as it’s not as shocking as cold water. You wouldn’t jump into a freezing shower, would you?
When everything is ready, I tease the plants from their plastic containers and loosen their roots. This is beneficial for the both of us.
Loosening roots, particularly if there are masses of them, gives the plant space to breathe in its new home whilst allowing me to subconsciously untangle any stress that’s under my skin.
Contact with soil makes us happy. Check out that link and see what it says about the benefits of getting your hands dirty in the garden,
It’s not the only source which plugs (if you’re already a keen, green-fingered fool, you’ll get that joke) the benefits of creating and maintaining green spaces. Go ahead and google ‘benefits of gardening’ and you’ll be inundated with thousands of results which all say pretty much the same thing: gardening is good for you.
It helps lift depression, gives your body a work-out and releases stress.
It doesn’t matter how much you do in my mind. I recently planted a blue daisy-like plant called ‘Felicia’ in some old pots I found in the churned mud of the riverside where I live.
The plant was split into three to accomodate the size of the pots and to leave part of it to place in one of the boxes outside. Not bad for £1.25.
I’m at my happiest when I’m around plants. I can be the biggest ball of stress going and all it will take is fifteen minutes with some soil and some seeds to transform me into a different person. A calmer person, a softer being.
You can be as committed as you want to this activity; visit the garden centre once a month, twice a year if you like. Have as few or as many plants, trees, flowers, vegetables, fruits as you like but keep in mind that they will need your attention and care.
I’m deciding whether or not to grow tomatoes and cucumber again this year because I have already have a fair bit on the go: herbs, carrots, beetroot. At the moment, I’m not sure I could manage any more along with my non-eating plants. Gardening is as much about responsibility as it is pleasure. You have to take care of yourself and your green friends or both of you will suffer if you go over the top.
Speaking of responsibility, it’s down to us to do something about the problems that our only home in the entire universe, faces.
Creating green spaces with bee and butterfly friendly flowers is one of the easiest and happiest ways to do this. Imagine if everyone gardened, everywhere, anywhere. What would our world look like? How would people feel with soil under their fingers?
Now, enough of my hippy dreams. You need resources! I haven’t given you much in the way of gardening tips but I can show you where to find some.
Alys Fowler has to be my favourite gardener because she practices something called permaculture: the art of throwing out formalities and inviting in a smorgasbord of sustainable methods of planting that encourages a self-sustaining Eco-system.
Her books aren’t just how-to guides; they’re a collection on independence, filled with ideas on how to recycle bits of scrap, go skip-diving for materials (without upsetting anyone), how to use the world around you to nurture your garden, and what to do with the things you grow: jams, cakes, soups, pickles. Yum.
You can breathe a sigh of relief because you don’t have to go to a bookstore to get them, or any other book on gardening, unless you want to of course. I recommend taking a look on, wait for it, eBay and AbeBooks not just for Alys Fowler but pretty much any gardening book. I have several volumes that I’ve found over the Internet that are no longer in print but offer some timeless and excellent advice on how best to tend to your plants, what pests and diseases to watch for and how to treat them, and also design advice if you’re looking for a particular theme.
You can also order plants online if you’re not feeling ready for the garden centre just yet, but you can also find particular plants that you may not be able to get so easily, like my Witch Hazel on the left.
I got this from an online stockists last year for £15 which is a bargain considering it was out of season and the same plant would have probably cost twice as much at a specialist centre. Plus I didn’t have to go out.
What arrived a week later from Holland was a stick in a box. I soaked the roots, talked to it as I prepared its pot. Yes, I spoke to a stick. Talking to plants is very therapeutic for speaker and plant alike; the plant listens and the speaker gives carbon dioxide in return. If you believe in that of course.
The Witch Hazel was planted in mid October and remained ‘dead’. I watered it, spoke to it, even gave it warm herbal tea. It broke my heart a bit. Then in January, it blossomed. Bright red flowers sprouted all over the stick, lasted through until March and then died off. I thought I’d killed it until the leaves came.
This might seem a bit of an irrelevant anecdote, but it all adds to my belief that gardening is one of the best things an Agoraphobiac can do. When people aren’t your cup of tea, plants can be.
They’re beautiful, good for you and the planet, and prevent the growing isolation caused by The Fear. It prevents it because every time you look at you garden, your chilli plant on the kitchen side, your rock garden trying to establish itself, you’re looking at one of your biggest achievements: creation brought about by attention, dedication and love.
And this is what folk who are scared of the big wide world need themselves, right?
If you’re one for Karma, sending out the goodness you need will bring it back to you. Gardening is a great thing and can be done anywhere. You never know, you might even grow a few human friendships at the same time.
Just a quick note: All of the photos featured in this blog have been captured by yours truly. Apt considering I’ll be exploring photography next time.
If you use any of my photos in your own blog or link to them, I’d really appreciate it if you stated that they’re my work. Thanks very much!
March 17, 2012
Knitting. I love it. My Mum used to sit all day and night, glued to the TV or the phone, weaving any number of blankets and baby garments without looking at what her hands were doing. She’d occasionally refer to the pattern she was following but otherwise, what she did was sorcery.
I tried and failed as a kid. Mum didn’t have the patience or time to teach me properly.
Two decades later I read Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas and become bewitched by that same sorcery. I owe a lot to this book for seducing me with the prospect of pulling off one of the most difficult garments to knit: socks.
I felt that if Meg, our heroine doomed to failure and an endless universe, could apply herself to something as complicated as knitting with four needles, in rounds, and thus creating socks you just can’t find anywhere in our consumerist society, I could bloody well do it too.
And I did.
But not before learning the basics.
I’m not going to spend my time here trying to explain how to knit but am instead going to provide you with resources to set you on your way to creative freedom. First of all though, I’d like to describe what knitting has come to mean to me, and describe what I’ve accomplished through learning this skill.
As I said, Scarlett Thomas gave me the spark. I went out, purchased some yarn that I liked the look of, a set of 5mm bamboo needles and used the Internet to learn the basics of casting on, making knit stitches and purl stitches.
I was clueless. The first thing I knitted was a case for my Kindle, complete with a large fold-over flap and pocket, and lovely wooden buttons. I knitted it way too big, dropped stitches, creating the odd hole in the final product, but when it was finished and stitched up, I couldn’t have been happier.
This sleeve has since become the place where my iPad lives when I pack it away.
My first project had released me from a saturated accessories market, taught me the basics of a valuable skill, helped me express my creativity, kept me occupied when I was feeling low, and had most importantly, opened up the path to knitworking: connecting with other knitters and those who appreciate the craft.
Since that first, imperfect Kindle case, I’ve knitted a multipurpose shawl, scarves, hand warmers, a bra (yes, a bra!), a jumper (which took a month to complete),and to my complete satisfaction, socks.
My first pair were well made but a disaster size-wize; they were meant to fit my size seven feet but ended up being more suitable for someone with size ten feet. I quickly learnt that needle size and yarn weight is very important: always check your yarn for what size needles you need and then use them.
What was so important about my first pair of socks is that I knitted them over my first Christmas alone. I was to scared to leave my home with my Dad to visit my family in the west of the UK, so I had the house to myself for a few days.
Great right? Almost.
I needed something to distract me from the fear of being isolated for three days, so knitting socks to carols on Classic FM became my saving grace. They’ve since become lovingly known as Troll Socks because of how huge they are.
Since then, I’ve gone on to knit several more pairs for friends but mostly for myself because they make me feel secure and they give me something to do when I’m down in the dumps or need my manic mind distracting for several hours.
Knitted for a friend
Knitted for me: Slouchy Socks of Awesome Mark II
So for me, to round up (you’ll eventually get this terrible joke if you’re not already a knitter), the art of knitting is a way to focus my mind, express myself, liberate my tastes, encourage my creativity, and make things for people I love.
Knitting need not be solitary; stitch and bitch groups are on the increase and they’re a mine of knowledge because the odds are, most of the people in the group will be Grandmasters of the Needles.
I’ve personally chosen not to attend such groups but if you’re feeling bold, go for it. You’ve everything to gain and knitting is such a useful skill to have under your belt.
If you’re not in to big social groups, you could buddy up with a friend and teach one another, spreading the yarn-love far and wide. And even when that’s too much, there are online communities.
Ravelry.com is an amazing site where you can find plenty of patterns and resources to help you on your way. You can take on projects, updating your progress for people to see, and join groups in their efforts to create innovative items that go beyond dodgy jumpers, though dodgy jumpers are back in fashion courtesy of Sarah Lund.
As for books, I highly recommend buying The Ultimate Knitting Bible to get you started.
This book explains all of the basics with clear pictures and references and I’ve found it to be indispensable; I refer to it every time I need to learn a new skill or if I’ve forgotten methods I’ve not used in a while.
I’d also recommend taking full advantage of YouTube alongside this book, purely because seeing someone cast on i.e. create the first row of stitches from which all others will follow, can give you the guidance and confidence that the book might not be able to. For example, I used YouTube to help me wrap my brain around creating stitches i.e. increasing, because the pictures weren’t clear enough for me.
Now, where to get your kit from. Don’t be afraid of secondhand stores, gloomy looking stationey-come-post offices for needles and yarn; if you’re a beginner, you pick up some good deals without breaking the bank and if you decide knitting isn’t for you, you’ve not just spent a wad of cash on something you’re never going to use again.
But wait. That involves going out…
But wait again; the Internet! eBay is a fantastic place to find yarns and needles for good prices and you can often pick up bulk yarn supplies for a lot less than buying from a store.
I’ve spent many happy hours gawking at all the pretty yarns and seeing as I’ve gone pro in the sock department, I’ve invested in these fine Symfonie Needles, an investment that I am yet to regret in spite of their price.
So there you have it. Even if you think you’ll never get the hang of it, still give it a bash. Start with a basic item like a scarf and go on from there. An entire world of creative possibility is open to you, along with a warm and welcoming community , and you don’t have to go out to do it.
But the best thing about knitting is that it might just give you the courage to take the next step, visit a local craft shop, pick an attractive yarn, and strike up a conversation with a fellow knitter.
My life is richer for having knitted.
February 24, 2012
I set myself far too many tasks last week. Or was it this week? I forget. Anyhow! I made a promise in an earlier post to write a series on Creativity for the Agoraphobiac, that is, anyone who struggles with going out and being around a lot of people.
As I explained, this condition is a nightmare to live with but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the activites that more socially able people enjoy.
I’ve chosen a selection of creative activites to write about in the coming weeks, activities that I find fun, educational and theraputic. The best thing is of course, you can do all of these things within the safety of your own haven and invite close friends to join you if you’re feeling sociable.
Each post will focus on one of the following and (hopefully) provide my own examples and wisdom for you to draw on:
- Drawing / sketching
- Cooking / baking
- Letter writing
I think this is a fair list for now but it may be added to in the future. Look out for the first installment, Creativity for the Agoraphobiac: Knitting, in the next couple of weeks.
Forgive me for making you all wait so long if you’ve been hanging around for these posts; I’m not feeling my best at the moment. I’ll do what I can, a little at a time, as anyone should when they’re under the weather.