Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.

The end of the story

Other people’s words about … writing

April has never really known loneliness until now; she has had all tastes of its dregs, like cold milky coffee curdled at the bottom of the cup, but she has always had faith in the fact that it would pass. Now, she is not so sure. And this loneliness is entangled with her failure as a musician, another certainty in her life that seems to have gone.

Most days, she tries to write.

She sits by the window with her guitar and picks idly at notes, strumming chords underneath, humming to herself as she does so. But nothing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter.

from ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I did something I had never expected to do this week: I stopped working on the book I’ve been writing, on and off, ever since my last novel was published in 2010. Actually, I stopped writing fiction altogether, at least for now.

The novel I’ve been writing all these years has gone through many, many permutations: I’ve written it as a ghost story for young adults; as a reworked ghost story for middle-grade readers; as a love story for ‘new’ adults’; as a coming-of-age story for women my own age. I’ve written it in the first person and in the third person, and in past tense and in present tense. I’ve written it using pen and paper, and Microsoft Word, and Scrivener.

I’ve written it. And written it. And written it.

All the time I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve been telling myself that the doubt I feel in myself, and in my ability to write a third novel — this third novel, anyway — would pass. But it hasn’t. Sometimes it’s quietened down for a period, but then it’s flared up again. And over the years, like April, the sense of inner loneliness I carry with me — which is in part an aspect of being me, Rebecca Burton, and in part an aspect of being me, a human being — has slowly become ensnared with the doubt I feel about my writing. [N]othing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter. Yup. Yup. Yup.

Ever since I wrote my first novel and it was accepted for publication, I’ve believed, with all of my heart, that writing books was something I would do for the rest of my life, because that’s what writers do, right? It’s what they want to do. It’s their privilege, and their gift. Or so the story goes.

But I just don’t think I believe that particular story anymore. That’s what I finally realised this week, after all this time. I don’t think — as April thinks, in this passage which I have loved so much for so long — that I am a failure as a writer, or as a person, if I stop writing, for a while, or forever. I think the world is bigger than that.

I don’t know what the future holds for me if I’m not a writer anymore — for now, or for a while, or forever. But you know what? Unlike April, I want to find out.

It’s a big, big world.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘They’d ended up sitting on the beach,
the sea a great black heaving beast,
sighing and rolling under the white light of the moon.’

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I don’t have any photographs to accompany this post because I still haven’t yet managed to get the hang of the craft of night-time photography. But isn’t that a wonderful image of the sea at night? — that great black heaving beast, sighing and rolling. It makes me want to go for a night-time walk on the beach right now …

Snatched phrases (on terror)

In the actual moment, you do not have a choice.
Grace finds you.
Acceptance hunts you down.

From ‘The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End
by Katie Roiphe

Forgive me, but I’ve pulled Roiphe’s words out of context here. She is talking, specifically, about death: her fear of it, and her admiration of the way others face it. I don’t have the same preoccupation with death — or not yet, anyway: not in my mid-forties. I like to hope I have some way to go before it crosses my path.

Still, sometimes I think that fear is the great equaliser. Maybe you get through the terror because you have to get through the terror, Roiphe writes. It’s the same with all great fears, isn’t it?

Grace, acceptance, resilience, surrender — these are all things I’ve touched on before on this blog (here, for example, and here). May they come to you, too, in your moments of greatest fear: may they be your companions along the way.

Words unfurled

Other people’s words about … paths

This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling … Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s native aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.

So stories are travels and travels are stories.

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

Last year, a theme I returned to often on this blog was paths. I had decided not to make a New Year’s Resolution for once: instead, I thought, I would learn to find, and then follow, my own path. Paths became a metaphor for me; once I began to look, I found them in the most startling and beautiful moments. There were paths in the sea, paths across the sky, paths to the horizon, paths trodden by other creatures than myself, making their way through the Scrub.

Path through the sky
Path through the sky

Perhaps it was a theme painfully obvious in its metaphors. Less painfully obvious is the metaphor Rebecca Solnit employs in the passage above. To consider one’s job as a writer to be the task of carving a path for one’s readers to follow: what a wonderful thought. What an honour.

The sun's path over the sea
Path of the sun

I was interested in Solnit’s comparison with the songlines of the First Australians. In these days of serious debate about cultural appropriation, I considered long and hard whether it would be appropriate to include that part of the quote. In doing so, I found an explanation which seemed genuine and made sense to me. You can read it here.

Path across the sea
Path across the sea

Landscape as narrative. This is something I have long believed in, right down to my core. When I wander through the Scrub, observing how the seasons have wrought changes on it — how rain brings forth wildflowers, for example; and how those wildflowers differ in variety and in abundance, depending on that year’s rainfall — I believe that I am following a narrative which is both part of me, as a creature on this earth, and also greater than me. Songlines are not mine to appropriate, but the sense of a story, and the sense of the sacred, is everyone’s to share.

Other creatures' paths
Other creatures’ paths

But story as map: that’s something I hadn’t considered before. I am both both a reader and a writer, and I am intensely aware, in both roles, of the contract between the two. The writer makes a promise; the reader holds the writer to it. I like the idea of viewing this contract as a map. It explains the sense of awe I feel as a reader, and the sense of humility I feel as a writer.

Path across the sand
Path across the sand

In the end, we each tread our own path across our own landscape,
using our own map.

But it is nice to know there are guides along the way.

Tread your own path ...
Tread your own path …

Happy new year, everyone!

When you can’t eat anything

Other people’s words about … IBS*

We’ve all been there. There are some days when it seems like everything you eat triggers an IBS attack. This is not your imagination; when your IBS is raging, your gastrocolic reflex can be so sensitive that simply drinking water can trigger dysfunctional colon contractions and IBS symptoms.

When this happens, you need to give your body a rest and stick to the safest foods and drinks possible in order to break the cycle of IBS.

from Help for IBS
a website by Heather van Vorous

* IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Honestly? The acronym definitely sounds better than the full name!

A long time ago, I promised you that I would never publish a recipe on this blog. Today I’m breaking that promise.

I’ve talked often about how much I love to bake and eat cake. These days, I enjoy every part of the process — stirring, whisking and beating the mixture; smelling it cooking in the oven; eating it afterwards. Sharing it with my partner. Setting aside slices for my parents when I next see them. Eating a sliver after dinner each night. I’ve come to believe that these things are, contrary to what one might think, healthy things to do.

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The older I get, the more I believe in these rituals, at least for me. For most of my late teens and twenties, and even during my early thirties, I was stuck in a pattern of abstinent eating, though my abstinence varied in its severity and compulsion, and definitely waned as I moved beyond late adolescence. At various times, I have been low-fat, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free, wheat-free, bread-free, red-meat-free, dairy-free.

In the early days, the reasons for my restrictions were purely about trying to keep myself at an artificially low weight, though I would never have admitted this then, either to others or to myself. Later, the reasons for restricting my diet were less about my weight and more about my health. When I was diagnosed with IBS some years ago — which was an explanation, at least, for some of the weird ways my digestive system behaves — I obediently tried the Low Fodmap diet, as my GP suggested. (It didn’t work. I felt worse.) When I had glandular fever with persistent fatigue some years later, I tried a grain-free diet, on the advice of various paleo enthusiasts on the internet. (Uugh. This was a disaster. Never again.)

I discovered Heather van Vorous’s website and book some years ago, and found it more helpful than anything I’ve ever come across. She is not a doctor or a dietitian or a scientist: she is someone who has suffered from severe IBS all her life. Her suggestions read a lot like the dietary advice we were all given in the 1980s and early 1990s, and so run counter to the current prevailing dietary guidelines for people with health issues. In essence (and I’m massively over-simplifying here), she advocates regular and frequent consumption of foods containing carbohydrates and soluble fibre — particularly simple, starchy foods like white rice, pasta and bread. Meanwhile, she suggests reducing or altering your pattern of consumption of foods high in fat, like avocados and coconut, along with foods high in insoluble fibre, like lettuce and prunes. She also recommends reducing or altogether omitting consumption of red meat, dairy products and alcohol. I don’t follow her guidelines all the time, particularly the omission of those last three things, but when I am experiencing a bad bout of IBS, I find her guidelines both effective and comforting.

In the end, we are all individuals: our bodies react individually to whatever we put in them, and to the environment around them. There is no one perfect diet for good health and longevity. Health is a complex beast, referring to our physical and mental wellbeing, genetically inherited tendencies, life events and personal belief systems. Doctors and dietitians — and internet health gurus, particularly — would do well to remember that.

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What does all of this have to do with cake?

First, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that restriction and abstinence, in whatever form they appear, will never be healthy practices for me personally. They may make my body temporarily healthier, but my mind and my mental wellbeing suffer. And that’s no longer acceptable to me. It hasn’t been for years.

Second, when I’m sick, or experiencing a bad case of IBS, sometimes cake is the answer. That may sound counterintuitive, but, truly, there is a cake for every occasion. The recipe below is what I call my ‘comfort cake’. Even when my stomach is wobbly and uncertain — when cauliflower and bananas are no-go zones; when, as Heather van Vorous puts it, even a glass of water can trigger symptoms — I can eat this cake. Perhaps it’s the spices in it, most of which are carminative and some of which also have anti-emetic effects. Perhaps it’s the starch. Perhaps it’s purely psychological. Whatever the reason, this cake settles my stomach; it calms my system down; it’s safe. At the same time, it tastes good and it feels like a treat. I’d go so far as to say it’s my own particular everyday cake.

This may be the only recipe I ever post on my blog. I’m posting it here because it represents something that has become a core belief for me during the time I’ve been writing this blog — which is to say, the importance of finding, and sticking to, your own kind of wellness, no matter what anyone else says, even (especially?) the experts. I’m posting it, too, for those of my readers who have a wobbly stomach like me but haven’t found anything that eases it. (You never know — this might.)

Most of all, I’m posting this recipe because I hate that saying ‘have your cake and eat it’. Why would you have a cake and not eat it?

Chocolate comfort cake

Note:
This recipe is based on an original recipe by Heather van Vorous, although I have altered it, over the years, almost beyond recognition. If you make substitutions to it, please know that it may not turn out as you expected or as I have suggested. In particular, this cake does not work well if you make it with solely gluten-free flours, due to its lack of eggs and its low fat content.

Ingredients:

1 x 410 g can pears in natural fruit juice
2 cups spelt flour
2 small teaspoons bicarb soda/baking soda
1 tablespoon of almond flour or coconut flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa, sifted
1/4 cup oil

Instructions:

  1. Blitz the pears in their juice in a blender or a nutribullet until they form a smooth puree. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients until they are well combined and lump-free. Either almond flour or coconut flour works well in this recipe, depending on which flavour you prefer. The coconut flour will make for a slightly lighter but also a slightly drier cake.
  3. Add the pear puree and oil and stir well to form a smooth batter. Don’t overmix, as spelt flour has some gluten in it and over-stirring here will develop the gluten, making the cake tougher.
  4. Spoon into a greased and lined loaf tin and bake at 170 degrees Celsius for one hour or so, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean or with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
  5. Leave to cool in the tin for at least 20 minutes or until completely cool, as this cake, due to its lack of eggs and fat, is crumbly when still warm.
  6. Enjoy a slice or two with a cup of tea. If it is a sunny day and you have a balcony or a garden, go and sit out there and bathe yourself in sunshine while you eat!
  7. When your stomach is feeling stronger, this cake is good spread with a little coconut butter, butter or tahini. It is particularly nice shared with a friend.

First person

Other people’s words about … writing

Back in my room, I put down my bags, undressed, wrapped myself in blankets, put on Christmas music, and watched the snow fall outside my window, a picture-perfect postcard winter scene, wide lawns of white, thin black arms of trees holding up the white sky. I thought of writing. But what would I have said? I’d long since stopped writing, real writing, my own writing. No words ever came anymore. I’d lost the sense of first-person, the sense of being in the world that writing requires. I guess I had nothing to say for myself. I turned my face into the pillow and slept.

from ‘Wasted’
by Marya Hornbacher

It is a strange thing, but the words above — which form part of Hornbacher’s memoir about anorexia — speak to me as much about writing as they do about starving.

(Let me pause here to say, in passing, that Hornbacher writes about anorexia better than anyone else I have ever read. She writes with a vividness and intensity that is rare and moving and unforgettable. At the time she is describing in the passage above, she was at her lowest weight, close to death. She could not work, or eat, or read, or sleep. Of course she could not write.)

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I don’t know if you could call what Hornbacher is describing here ‘writer’s block’, although certainly she is describing an inability to write. I don’t even know if writer’s block exists. I do know that, like many writers, I have experienced times when I have been unable to write anything I deemed meaningful or worthwhile. For me, like Hornbacher, that feeling is powerfully tied up with a sense of despair, of loss. The despair comes first, and then the inability to write — not the other way around.

We like to tell ourselves that there is a link between depression and genius, between suffering and artistic ability. (Mozart, anyone? Van Gogh? Plath?) But most writers who have been through a period of depression will tell you that they write despite their depression, not because of it; and that they write their best material after a period of depression, not during it. Even those writers who choose to write specifically about their depression — like William Styron in ‘Darkness Visible‘, and Andrew Solomon in his particularly fine book ‘The Noonday Demon‘ — do so after the fact.

Is despair a different thing from depression? In the clinical sense, I guess, it is. Whatever its cause or pathology, it can certainly affect a writer’s ability to write. It can certainly keep her quiet. I’d lost the sense of first-person, Hornbacher says, of her own encounter with illness and despair: the sense of being in the world that writing requires. And that is how it feels.

The corollary of this, for me at least, is that when I write — when I can, when I do — it comes from a good place. Because here’s the thing: to have a sense of being in the world is to have a sense of belonging, of groundedness, of being alive. It is to have a sense of joy.

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I will leave it to Matt Haig, another writer who has chosen depression as the theme of one of his books, to close this post:

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

Those are words that can keep you alive, if you let them, though they will not keep you quiet. I want. I want. I want.

Quietness, anyway, in my opinion, is overrated.