Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween special: My biggest zombies

I kid you not. My fear of zombies is so great we’ve had to stop watching ‘The Walking Dead’ in our household.

I am that scared.

It’s not even especially because of what happens in the shows, though the ‘he’s behind you’ adrenaline buzz does tend to last a fair while after the credits roll.

It’s the really bad dreams I have.

In these dreams I am the only one in the house who has any comprehension of the danger we’re in.

The other people laugh and chat. They mosey, even.

I alone hear the moan of the approaching hoard.

Rigor mortis

One is in the house already. I hide and try not to breathe in the foul, sickly-sweet stench of its rotting flesh. It moves away and I relax and begin to move, a moment too soon. Spotted I run. Upstairs. It stumbleruns behind me, determined. I grab the ladder to the loft crying and am almost up when its hand, cold, reptilian-ridged, grips my ankle. Rigor mortis.

I wake up. But actually that’s little comfort. In the darkness I am confident there’s a zombie in the house.

And, it’s my fault the zombie is in the house, because I’m the one imagining it in the house.

"I’m scared I’m not good enough or about to fail in a massive and tragically impactful way"

You see the really big trouble is I have this childish belief that I can imagine Things into Being. Scary stuff.

I have normal fears too. You know the run of the mill ones. The ones where I’m confident that I’m going to let people I care about down; where I’m scared I’m not good enough or about to fail in a massive and tragically impactful way (maybe by not alerting you all to the zombie apocalypse in time….).

Big Magic

But, as Elizabeth Gilbert points out in her new book BigMagic, Fear is really really BORING.

Everyone has Fear and it has one job, which is to shout STOP STOP STOP really loud, until you realise the danger you’re in and, well, do as you’re bid and STOP whatever crazy, creative, or even just plain normal activity you are about to embark on.

"I can kind of spot that it’s Maureen from my internal Anxiety Department..."

The trouble is, when that Fear pops up, say at work, I can kind of spot that it’s Maureen from my internal Anxiety Department and that’s she’s dropped her Catastrophising Files all over my desk again.

And I know that Maureen is very lovely and works very hard but has absolutely no perspective whatsoever and that this isn’t really the calamity that she’s claiming it to be.

However I still have to clean up the mess that Maureen’s created. And that’s exasperating.

Sensible, fully-functioning adult 

And because I’m a sensible and fully-functioning adult I have to excuse her and demonstrate to those around me that really ‘I get it, she’s just being silly and of course I know it’s all going to be all right really.’

But here’s what I’m starting to think the lovely Maureen does. Sick to the back of her neat white teeth (brushed for exactly the right amount of time each morning and evening) of always being ignored or told that’s she silly, Maureen bides her time.

"...she’s letting me use the Really Sharp Kitchen Knives without even a mutter of caution.."

At home, probably whilst I’m happily chopping vegetables and listening to the radio, Maureen is pacing the depths of my internal Anxiety Department. She’s abandoned the filing (in fact, given that she’s letting me use the Really Sharp Kitchen Knives without even a mutter of caution, it looks like the kid has gone off duty for the day to all intents and purposes).

Terrifying costume

But far from it. Maureen is in fact rooting out the most terrifying costume she can muster. Gone are the 1950s librarian glasses. Gone the neatly coiffured hair, tied back in a powder blue bow. Gone the beige silk blouse, pencil skirt and sensible shoes.

In the passing of a simple evening, Maureen has transformed herself into the most gruesome and believable zombie ever and is currently making her way towards the Dream Department.

So, it is in fact her grim determination I can feel gripping my ankle as I fail to ascend the loft in my dream. And here is the answer as to how I can have a raft of zombie dreams despite the absence of all scary TV input!

Firm but fair

Now I’ve never done this before to be honest with you. Stood far enough, and playfully enough, back from fears to give them a personality, until today.

But back to Big Magic - Gilbert is very clear on the importance of seeing your fear as a real person. Moreover, she recommends having a full on conversation with your fear. Firm but fair is her approach.

She says, absolutely invite Fear along on the road trip of life, but be clear that Fear must sit in the backseat, and she must not at any point take the steering wheel, set the direction of travel or even change radio stations.

Because your fear will always be there. She has a really important job to do – namely to ensure that you survive. That, in fact, you have survived this far along the evolutionary trail is thanks in part at least to your fear (thanks Maureen!).

Now, I don’t know if taking this personal approach to my fears will really help (though in fact I can already hear Maureen twittering away about the ridiculousness of it all which has to be a good sign).

I do know though that just telling myself my fears are ‘just silly’ and that I am silly for having them hasn’t previously been an effective way of managing them. 

And besides, I’m almost looking forward to my next zombie dream when, Scooby-doo style, I can unmask my zombie attacker for who she really is and have Maureen say “Darn, and I’d've gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!”

Almost looking forward to it….Happy Halloween y’all!

#bigmagic #halloween #fear #anxiety #zombies #thewalkingdead

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Why I hate ‘grief memoirs’

I’m not a fan of grief memoirs as it turns out. Which is ironic as I flirt so often with the idea of writing one myself.

I recently heard an interview with Cheryl Strayed. I liked the sound of her no-nonsense Midwestern approach to life and writing so I looked up her book ‘Wild’.

The blurb told me that in 1995 she’d walked along the west coast of America single-handedly as a way of dealing with the grief of losing her mother and the break up of her marriage.

‘Urgh’ I thought, ‘of course you did’ and clicked off the page in disgust, with no further wish to read her writing.


Last month I read ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald.  I read the book to the end but quaked with irritation through the sections devoted to Macdonald’s experience of grief, preferring those parts about the life of TH White or the progress of Mabel the hawk.

I don’t know what it is about grief memoirs that makes me so uncharitable.

When I was sixteen my best friend’s mum died. I went round to ‘pay my respects’ as soon as I heard the news with my mum and dad. Whilst they burbled their condolences to her dad in the other room I remember standing in front of my friend.

“I’m so fucking sick of everyone telling me they’re sorry,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

She was standing in the corner of the room. The late evening summer sun behind her reflected off the garden wall and in through the window.

I nodded, as though I understood, but all I really got was a sense that grief was personal, that you couldn’t touch it or get close to it, not even if you really loved the person who had died too.

Spirit of friendship

When my own mum died, almost sixteen years later, another friend gave me a copy of Joan Didion’s ‘The year of magical thinking’, a grief memoir that Didion had written during the year immediately after husband died.

 “I think you’ll find this helpful,” said my friend with confidence.

I hated that book. I threw it across the room a couple of times whilst reading it, only to retrieve it later feeling guilty, as though I had betrayed the kindness and spirit of friendship in which the book had been given to me.

But here’s the thing.

What these memoirs have in common is that they are written in the context of someone stepping out of their every day life for a year to deal with their grief by taking a major hike or training a goshawk for a year.

I’ve known a lot of people who’ve lost people they loved.

And in all cases, life demanded to be carried on.

And so their grief is lived in the getting up and the going to work even when nothing makes any sense. The insomnia they suffer means another day of numbed reactions, mistakes, slowness and a sense of disjointed, unbelonging. Their grief is a weight carried around that shifts and kicks likes an inverse, never ending pregnancy, varied only in the frequency and potency of attack.

I have, it turns out, read grief memoirs, however unknowingly, looking for these heroes, the people I have had the good fortune to know in my life. Inevitably, then, the selection that I have read so far can do no other than fall short.

That does not, of course, in any way undermine the pain that the authors felt or the routes they took to manage and self-medicate their loss. It does however point  the way to the kind of thing I would most like to write, if I were to pursue the theme…

Thursday, 15 October 2015

How Poland is responding to the Syrian refugee crisis - and why....

Poland goes to the polls in 10 days time and according to an article I heard on Radio 4 last night, the election debate is dominated by the migration crisis.

The political right wing do not want to take in Syrian refugees, especially not in line with any suggested European quota and there appears to be a good deal of support in the national population for this.

Poland is, according to the article, Europe’s largest monoculture and many of the people interviewed last night – including a half Syrian woman who runs a charity to help refugees – are adamant that they do not want a large influx of people coming into the country for fear that it would have a negative impact on Polish culture and religion.

The article said that the rhetoric in Poland has been likened to that of the Nazi’s in the Second World War. Strong stuff then.

'What the West accepted'

But I’ve been very fortunate to go to Poland a number of times in the past few years (Gdansk/Gdynia/Sopot, Warsaw and most recently Krakow) and this isn’t the Poland I’ve experienced.

So this morning I contacted one of my Polish friends to find out how much of the story is true and how much is filtered through the media’s need to make a story interesting and clear-cut, eschewing all grey areas.

“Imagine that 70 years ago 80% of England was destroyed...Noone in the generation of your grandparents had a university degree.”

His feedback was, as always, fascinating and insightful.

“Absolutely we are a monoculture” he said, “95% Catholic, 99% Poles. But this wasn’t our choice. This was a result of what the Nazi’s and Soviets did and what the West accepted.”

Even stronger stuff then.

“Before World War II it was 60% Poles and the rest was a mixture of Ukrainians, Germans and Jews. And they managed to get on together.”

“Imagine that 70 years ago 80% of England was destroyed. 90% of people with higher education were killed or in exile.  Noone in the generation of your grandparents had a university degree.”

“Then follow that up with 40 years of communism that effectively discouraged any entrepreneurship, development and openness. How on earth can we expect grandsons of peasants to act as a normal Western society?”

Different Polish tradition 

He paints a vivid picture. And yet this isn’t and hasn’t been my impression of Poland or of the Polish people that I’ve become friends with over the years.

There are many remnants of a very different Polish tradition that exist and are exercised in the country today, that I’ve experienced first-hand, and that are at odds with the anti-refugee sentiment.

Firstly, and perhaps most famously, is Polish hospitality. I have travelled to a number of countries and the vivacity of spirit, the sense of sociable adventure and desire to ensure that you have a good time, you eat well, you drink well, you are warm and well cared for when you are with Polish people is second to none.

And this dates back and back – read Norman Davies God's Playground: vol. 1: A History of Poland if you want to reference it.

(My only caveat to this welcome is be prepared to deal with the most gruesome hangover of your life the next day. Also you need to know from the get-go that you can’t handle vodka a) like a Polish person can and b) that vodka is seriously tricksy and will make you think you can handle it like a Polish person can. Double danger…..You have been warned!)

Secondly there is what I would describe as a real European intellectualism in the country. There is a passion for story, for sharing with you the riches of the nation’s history, its culture, its traditions.

Technicolour vision

History for many Polish people is a lived thing. Most of my friends were kids when communism fell and in some senses that makes their stories ever more poignant – there is a before and an after, and it is remembered through the technicolour vision of a child’s eye.

The child who remembers not knowing for when she was little that oranges were orange because Polish trade agreements meant items were only imported from fellow communist countries and so their oranges came from Cuba and were more green than orange.

The child who remembers the first MacDonald’s opening in Warsaw and despite everything they know today about the downside to the fast food industry – the environmental and health impacts – they still struggles to not see those golden arches as indicative of a better, more open and free way of life.

"We lack a class of public servants that would think of their responsibility towards the republic and its people"

The adult who even today will read something about the events that took place in the Second World War and be surprised because they were taught an entirely different and at times blatantly inaccurate version of history. There is a jolt, a shock as they experience worlds colliding that they had thought they had reconciled.


I ask my friend if he would consider going into politics, if he would be part of making the change he feels is needed in Poland today.

“I wouldn’t think of going into politics. Ever,” he says.

“It’s currently more based on serving the party rather than the state. It’s very tribal and this is actually what I think needs changing.”

“We lack a class of public servants that would think of their responsibility towards the republic and its people. We have only party members and people serving closed communities.”

He jokes about ending his rant, but it has been a revelatory conversation. I believe Poland and the Polish people have so much to give to the world,  especially as they are so central and have such an acute sense of being part of the continental landmass of Europe – something that we seem to be intellectually, emotionally and spiritually severed from in the UK.

I can’t help but hope my romanticised and idealised version of Poland is the one that breaks through this crisis and that it becomes the best it can be – a hospitable, welcoming, intellectually engaged and engaging nation that moves beyond the tribal and the self-serving to embody older and newer traditions of inclusion and refuge and a place of solidarity and hope.

For more information on….

The Polish Parliamentary Election 25 October 2015 click here

For more Polish history read:
God's Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 1: The Origins to 1795 (Volume 1)

God's Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present (Volume 2)

What makes these books fascinating if you’re from the UK is that we’re so used to thinking and learning about events from (understandably!) a UK centric version of history. In the history of Poland you get a history of Europe and the viewpoint is dizzyingly and stimulatingly different.

If you want something a little more literary then you can’t go far wrong with the beautiful magical surrealism of Bruno Schultz – Street of Crocodiles

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Grace of Unconditional Love

This is me procrastinating (or trying not to not). Reginald is curled, sleeping in the crook of my legs, head cushioned against my calf, heat pouring out of the pads on his perfect little feet, paws pushed against my other leg, not pushing me away, but keeping me close, for comfort.

His eyes crack, a slit of frustration at my every movement. I am, however, allowed a notebook, held firmly against my hip bone, allowed the gentle vibration of pen across page. Moreover, I am in love. And. I am reminded, directly, of the first time I ever experienced unconditional love.

I was ironing. My mother lay sleeping on the sofa just in front of me. The house held in the late afternoon quiet of early June: children ensconced in schools; parents avidly earning their keep at desks, depots, in front of computer screens and customers. The gentle moseying of pensioners and young mums, breathing in a space, a baby snoozing respite, a point in the day that momentarily demanded nothing of them. An unconventionally magic hour.

The dust snowed rhythmically in the sunlight, refracted and dancing through the net curtains. The iron sighed and steamed; creases desisted and clothes became hot and smooth and all at once, listening to the catch of her breath, my body became love. I was the dancing dust, the dappled light, the steam, the silence, the sigh of the occasional lazy car sliding past the front room window. I was the sleeping mother and the love-filled daughter; the turning earth, held, momentarily, in perfection.

"There is nothing I cannot, nothing I will not do for you" I breathed to the sleeping mummy. And for that moment there were no limits, only capacity which in turn made way for more capacity. I was the expanding, expansive universe.

It was a grace that carried me through the tumble and rumble of the next few weeks, of sleeping at the foot of her bed in the hospice, dog-like and determined she should not now, nor ever whilst so long as I continued to breath, feel herself alone, feel fear at the hands of strangers.

I crashed onto the rocks that were her death. Naked, unprotected, unprepared, like Milton's Satan I fell through the heavens, through the earth and kept falling. My lake of fire the burning sensation of having to continue, to be normal, to be.

Tonight my kittenish cat sleeps snuggled up to me. He fidgets a bit but is mostly a warm furry ball of heart beat and I love him and I'm grateful for this time we have, for his love. This is my procrastination as I wonder how to tell the tale of my relationship with my mother, through fantasy and fiction, wonder if, how and why I am compelled to share it.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Grief, or, things I normally avoid blogging about...

Grief is such a peculiar creature. She doesn't behave at all how you'd expect her to. Like today, just over four years since my mum died and boom, I had to run to the ladies and have a cry because a dear and wonderful friend text me to say she's going to run a coffee morning to raise money for Macmillan nurses and would like to do so in memory of my mum.

Such a nice, thoughtful thing to do, so why the tears?

Reading the word 'Macmillan' in relation to mum my memory jumps, split-second, to attention.

Flash one: the image of the first Macmillan nurse who came to visit us, a kindly blonde haired lady who misunderstood the extent of mum's illness and thus wove a beautiful tale of a future we wanted to believe in, with my mum, sister and I taking trips to the coast, where we wheeled her up and down the promenade, poorly, yes, but happy to be out and together. We wanted that reality so much.

Flash two: an image now of the second Macmillan nurse, a blonde haired, tanned gentleman, who quickly sized up the situation we were existing within, foresaw that we could no longer continue in her little devon terrace without the necessary equipment (a hospital bed, a wheel chair and walking frame) and knew he couldn't get us those things as quickly as he could get mum a place at the hospice. "It's just for a few nights Mrs Megson," he said, and we were reassured, grateful. "Just till we get all the furniture in here and have it all nice for you."

With breakneck speed the cancer ate her all up, faster than the oncologist predicted, faster than Macmillan could've known, faster than the hospice expected. Less than a week later she inhaled for one final time.

And my grief reminds me, in flash backs more often than not, that quietly, in the background of existence, I am still waiting for the exhale, for the moment where we can pick up from where we left off.  I've so much to show her, so much to share.

Because you see that's the oddest thing, the thing that makes grief the most peculiar creature: there has almost certainly never been a time in my life when I have been happier, more contented, more delighted and more grateful for the world I find myself living in and yet.....And yet happiness is no foil for grief. She stalks the sunny days as much as the dark nights; laughter and high jinx are no protection from the sharp claws with which she'll knead you.

And cat like, this pain is one borne out of love, a kittenish throwback of shocking flashbacks and a deep deep harrowing knowledge that life is finite and once gone won't ever come back.