Thursday, 29 December 2011

Under the Same Sky

This reality thing… How is it that so many of the people I am closest to are those I have never met in ‘real’ life?  What is real life?  Adrian laughs at me when I talk about my online friends, my ‘tribe’, my ‘family’, my whatever.  ‘Have you actually met this one?’ he says.  And I frown. Because, really, unreally, I don’t see it matters.  And I have this suspicion that the internet has a deeper purpose – of putting back in touch people who are geographically disparate but connected in far more important, yet subtle, ways. 

You’ve already met quite a few of my people but today I’m going to introduce to another. Genevieve Graham.  I met Genevieve on Authonomy – she had posted her book Under the Same Sky and the moment I started reading it, I just knew it was a winner.  It’s the story of a girl, Maggie, gifted with ‘the Sight’.  She dreams of a boy she calls Wolf and – oh my – he also dreams of her.  As they grow up, she in South Carolina, he in the Scottish Highlands, their dreams become clearer, turning into visions that bring them comfort, love and inspiration.  Even life-saving protection.  They yearn for one another but, slight problem, they’re on different continents. And, even more problematic, this isn’t the era of bucketshop airlines. It’s 1746 and – if you know your history – you’ll know it isn’t the best time to be a young guy in the Highlands.  After war ravages his home and his family, Andrew (Wolf) sets out on a journey to the New World to find the woman he has always loved.  But she isn’t living an easy life either.  Under the Same Sky may look like a bodice-ripper (my one gripe is the cover that Penguin have chosen for the book).  Appearances are deceptive…but I’ll let Genevieve tell you about that.

Anyhow.  Under the Same Sky is poised on the verge of publication so I figured it was time to talk to Genevieve about her book.

EJ: Where did you find the idea for this book?  Did it spring into your head fully-formed or did you start with an image, an idea?
GG: I had a rough idea in my head that I wanted to write an adventure. How’s that? Oh. A little more info, huh? Okay. I’d read Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series four times, and I’d just watched Colin Farrell in “The New World” for the umpteenth time, so I was definitely in that frame of mind. I love sagas, stories about journeys. I wanted the plot to stretch out for the duration, not knowing within the first couple of pages who will be doing whom.

EJ: How do you write? Are you a plotter or do you let the story unfold as you go along?
GG: I’m a … what’s that term? Pantzer. I write by the seat of my pants. At some point I put my foot down and figure out the general direction, try to figure out what the plot actually is, but my favourite thing is writing whatever’s playing out in my head, then going back and not remembering actually writing that part.
EJ: Why Scotland?
GG: It started with the “Outlander” books. Those growling Scottish burrs and grungy kilts got it all going for me. Scotland’s a place I’ve always wanted to experience. Lots of people say Scotland “calls to them”, and I’m one of those people. So, since I haven’t been able to go physically, why not travel in my head and on my keyboard?

EJ: Grungy kilts eh? J And why 1746? Why was it important to set your novel at this particular time?
GG: Again, Gabaldon’s books influenced that. Until I read that series I’d had no clue about Scottish history. I didn’t really care about history at all until then, and now I’m amazed by all of it. 1746 was not only an exciting time period, but it was a monumental year for Scots. That one day on Culloden Moor wiped out their entire way of life, meaning they had to create a whole new existence.

EJ: Maggie and Andrew have visions of one another, can see and hear one another on another dimension. Have you experienced anything like that? Are you psychic in any way?
GG: I love the world of psychics and have some gifted friends. I’ve experienced “things”, and I definitely believe in it all. I’ve been told I am psychic and just need to learn how to listen, but so far all I can do is read what my characters are saying. My husband and I know what each other is thinking most of the time, for which we’ve coined the silly phrase “psychicivity”.

I saw a psychic about four years ago, and she had no idea I’d written anything. She was reading tarot for me and said every card she turned over screamed, “published”. Good thing she didn’t see something a little less … happy.

EJ: Why do they have this link? You don’t explain in the book why they are so drawn to one another.
GG:  I suppose you could say it’s destiny, a destiny they can fulfill because of the strength of their individual psychic gifts. They say we only use 10% of our brains. What’s the rest of it doing? If we were all that gifted, if we all could feel like they could, maybe discovering our destiny and finding our soulmate would be just as clear. Just imagine.

EJ: Under the Same Sky is marketed as ‘historical romance’ but it feels more than that to me – how would you describe it?
GG:  Though the cover definitely suggests romance, I shy away from that term. I was very fortunate that Berkley/Penguin saw it that way, though. I call it ‘historical adventure’ with strands of fantasy woven throughout.

A little note about the cover: When an author is fortunate enough to be published by a major publishing house, they rarely have input into their covers. The cover of Under the Same Sky is absolutely beautiful, its imagery and colours eye-catching. Unfortunately, it’s not representative of the story. This book is not a “bodice ripper”, as many people say the cover suggests. It’s not a stereotypical romance.

EJ: Inevitably I loved the shamanic aspects of this book – tell us a little about how you researched the Cherokee. Why did you pick this particular people?
GG: I loved working with the Cherokee. Truth is, I had absolutely no idea there were going to be Cherokee in that book until they burst out of the trees that day. Most of the research I did about both them and the Highlanders was through historical re-enactors, who are passionate about all things in “their” time period. I met them online. The man with the insight to the Cherokee (who I chose because they were the prevalent tribe in that area at that time) was Iron Head Vann. I found him through his terrific website, Iron Head (also known as David) is the great-great-great grandson of ‘Chief’ Rich Joe Vann of the Old Cherokee Nation. He is hugely knowledgeable about all things Cherokee and has been very generous with that knowledge.

EJ: Tell us about your publishing journey? You went the traditional route of finding an agent first, yes? Any tips for would-be novelists on getting published?
GG:  Yes, I queried for an agent for a while (felt like forever), and, like most authors, I almost gave up. Everywhere I posted the book it was met with compliments, but most agents replied with something like “No one’s buying historical fantasy genre crossovers” or “Nobody’s signing debut authors right now.” Then I joined where I met so many terrific authors, including both you and Gemini Sasson, author of Isabeau and many others. Gemi generously referred me to her agent, and he decided he wanted to represent me and my book. I am tremendously lucky to be represented by Jacques de Spoelberch, a well-respected agent with an incredible reputation.

My #1 tip for writing has to be that writers need to write from the heart, not the head. Let the story take you on a journey. That way readers will want to take the voyage with you.

EJ: Are you going to be doing a lot of publicity for the book?  Will people be able to meet you anywhere for signings etc? Point us in the direction of your schedule maybe?
GG: Authors these days—especially debut authors—have to do a lot of publicity on their own. I’m doing what I can, through a full blog tour this month, through facebook, through my newsletter … I’m always open to ideas! I’m also doing readings and signings at two libraries in Nova Scotia as well as in a couple of other places. Here’s my schedule.

EJ: Tell us about your next book, Sound of the Heart – which is being published in May.  And what are working on now?
GG: Sound of the Heart was a surprise to me. When Berkley/Penguin US contracted me to write Under the Same Sky, it was with the request that I write a companion novel as well. I don’t want to give away anything in the book, but I can say the story occurs in the same time period and begins in Scotland. The hero in Sound of the Heart is a Scottish warrior. He is forced to join the very army he despises in order to search for the woman he loves.

So, there you have it.  And what are you waiting for?  Go buy Under the Same Sky (yes, you can pre-order) rightaway!  Huge good luck, Genevieve…my as yet unmet friend… J

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Anyone for rejuvenation?

Right now I’m missing my favourite forms of exercise.  Classes close over Christmas; so does the gym.  No Zumba, no kettlebells, no supersets.  I love exercising with other people – it makes me work that bit harder; it pushes me; it gets my competitive edge going.  But, hey ho, needs must and if I’m thrown back on my own devices, so be it. 
Way back I said I’d talk about yoga and I will.  In fact, let’s start with Tibetan yoga.  Five deceptively  simple exercises that promise to give you vitality and wellbeing; longevity and rejuvenation. Nice huh?   I discovered them way back when and did experiment with them but never made them a regular part of my regime. Then MaSte talked about them in the Labyrinth, said he did them every day, and so I dug out my old book and had another go. They’re good; they’re damn good. Actually they’re damn tough to begin with but you can take them at your own pace and gradually build up to the recommended 21 repetitions.

Sooo.  What’s the story?  Legend held that a hidden monastery deep inside Tibet zealously guarded a secret of everlasting youth and remarkable rejuvenation.  Then, in the early part of the last century, a frail and elderly retired military officer, named Colonel Bradford, journeyed to Tibet in search of the rumoured “Fountain of Youth”.  He found the monastery and was surprised to find that the magical rites were no more than five simple exercises, based mainly on yoga.  They were easy to learn and only took only around 15 minutes a day to perform.  But the effects were incredible.  When Colonel Bradford returned to the West his friends simply did not recognise him - he looked half his age. 

How can such a simple routine prove so effective?  Esoterically speaking the five rites are based on balancing the chakras, the seven  swirling vortices of  subtle energy located roughly along the spinal column. They are also connected with various glands in the body. The first (lowest) chakra centres on the reproductive glands; the second on the pancreas; the third on the adrenal glands; the fourth on the thymus; the fifth on the thyroid; the sixth on the pineal and the seventh and highest on the pituitary gland.  The five Tibetan rites stimulate the flow of energy throughout the body and encourage the chakras to function at peak capacity.  Mind and body are brought into harmony.   When we are young and full of vitality, our chakras all spin at the same, very high, speed.  As we get older, stress, unhealthy lifestyle choices and emotional distress all take their toll and the chakras no longer work in harmony but start to spin out of synchronisation, eventually causing disease, decay and other symptoms of ageing.   The five rites are designed to persuade your chakras to click back into gear once more. 

But hey, even if you don’t believe in chakras, even if you’re making those little whirling circles with your forefinger round by your head (which, incidentally, is giving your crown chakra a mini workout) there is little doubt that the exercises would still have far-reaching benefits on both body and mind.  They provide the body with a programme of deep but gentle stretching that can help keep both the spine and its supporting muscles supple. 
They cost nothing to do and you don’t have to stir out of your living room.  Yes, some are tough to begin with but start off slowly and gradually build up strength and stamina.  However if you have a bad back or serious health problems, check with a qualified yoga teacher or physiotherapist before embarking on them.  They are pretty challenging for the back so take it easy until you build up strength.

Ideally, perform the five rites first thing in the morning as they are highly energizing.  Wear loose comfortable clothes and work on a yoga mat if you can.  Eventually you will perform each exercise twenty-one times.  However to begin with, aim for ten or twelve repetitions of each move.  Make sure you breathe fully during each exercise.  Allow yourself a few moments in between each rite.  Simply stand quietly, with your hands on your hips and breathe in, through the nose and out through the mouth.  Repeat and then move on to the next rite.
Once you’re comfortable with the rites you can perform them two or three times a day if you wish.

THE FIRST RITE:  Spinning.  Simply stand erect with your arms outstretched, horizontal to the floor.  Now, spin around until you feel slightly dizzy.  Make sure you are spinning clockwise, from left to right.  Don’t be surprised if you can only manage half a dozen spins to begin with - with time you will be able to build up your spinning.
Tip: before you begin to spin, focus your vision on a single point straight ahead.  As you begin to turn, hold your vision on that point for as long as possible and then refocus on the point as soon as possible.

THE SECOND RITE:  Lie on your back with your palms resting on the floor.  Inhale and gently pull your chin towards your chest (as if you were doing an abdominal crunch), at the same time as you point your toes and lift both legs straight up, keeping your lower back pressed against the floor.  Now exhale as you slowly lower your legs and head to the starting position.  Rest and then repeat. 
Tip:  this will be difficult unless you have very strong abdominal muscles.  Try lifting your legs in a bent position to begin with.

THE THIRD RITE:  Kneel  with the balls of your feet on the floor and your knees about four inches apart.  Place your hands behind you with the palms resting against the tops of your legs, just below the buttocks.  Keep your back straight, and allow your head to drop forward so that your chin is resting against your chest.  Now, inhale through the nose and arch your back, pulling your shoulders back, and lifting your head up and back.  This will open the chest.  Hold for a few seconds and then exhale and return to the starting position.  Repeat. 
Tip:  take in as deep a breath as you can, to expand your lungs fully.  Be careful and take it slowly.  Don’t overstretch or strain.

THE FOURTH RITE:  Sit with your legs in front of you, your palms on the floor and your fingers facing forward.  Rest your chin against your chest.  Inhale, and lift your buttocks and let your head drop back so that, in one smooth move, you’ve straightened your body from shoulders to knees to make a table.  Your feet should be about six inches apart, your knees bent at right angles and your chest and abdomen parallel to the floor.  Your arms are straight.  Contract the muscles in your legs, buttocks, and abdomen and hold for a few seconds.  Exhale, return to the starting position and repeat. 
Tip:  Keep your breathing steady and relaxed through this movement.  If you feel out of breath, stop and rest.

THE FIFTH RITE:  Lie face down, and push your torso up so you’re supporting yourself on your hands, as if you’re in an extended push-up/cobra position.  Both hands and feet should be about shoulder-width apart.  Only the palms of your hands and the balls of your feet should be touching the floor.  Tilt your head back and arch your back so that you’re looking up and ahead.  Now inhale and lift your hips straight up so your legs and spine are both in a straight line and your body forms a perfect triangle with the floor (downward dog).  Hold for a few seconds, then exhale and return to the starting push-up position and repeat.
Tip:   If you have back problems try a modified version:  start in the push-up position and then move your buttocks back as you inhale until they are almost resting on your heels.  Lower your head towards your chest and keep your arms straight. 

Actually, there is also a sixth rite.  But it’s all about transmuting sexual energy and I think we’ll leave that for a later date, eh?  There’s enough here already to be going on with… J

For more information read Tibetan Secrets of Youth and Vitality by Peter Kelder (HarperCollins)
There are plenty of demonstrations of the Tibetans on YouTube. Some (like the example below) are very fast and energetic. I have always performed them quite slowly, meditatively but I guess it’s up to you. This video shows them clearly but the chap demonstrating isn’t terribly aesthetic – though, of course, he’s not doing badly for someone who’s 150!   
If he’s too off-putting, try her instead… J  The stretches inbetween help a fair bit…

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Do you know where you're going?

We are in the Other days, the Omen days, the days outside of Time. According to Celtic tradition, this is a time of signs. Each day, from Christmas Day until Twelfth Night, holds an oracle for the year ahead.  Thus Christmas Day governs January; Boxing Day February and so forth.  So be aware - what attracts your attention? What flirts with you? What catches your eye?  Inside or out, it doesn't matter. So I ask myself the question. What is catching my eye today?  And the answer is: mandalas. Oh yes, we're right back in Labyrinth territory. 

Of course we never really left it.  There is no One Way. And really, it's not a case of leaving the mundane behind but rather of dancing between the two - between the practicalities of everyday life and the mysteries of the life within/without/beyond.  Truly All is One.
Are you meditating yet? Have you found a way of tuning yourself into Everything?  Did sound not work for you?  Maybe try image.  It doesn't matter; it really doesn't...there are a million ways into the's just a case of finding the one that lets you slip past the siren calls of the mundane and allows you to slip sideways (sidheways) to the sun...
I love mandalas. I always have. I have made them in nature. I have scribbled them on the covers of my schoolbooks. I have run my finger around them in the crocheted blanket that still sits on my bed. I have painted them. I have stitched them. I have danced them. I have dreamed them. I have shaken them in a kaleidoscope. I have sung them.  I have meandered through them on the earth and in my mind. Perpetual motion combined with perpetual rest.
The mandala is a map of the cosmos. Limitless space. Wholeness. Unity. Gateway to the divine. Circle. Nierika. The face of God. Your own face. Look out into space and there are mandalas - universes dancing.  Look into the tiniest speck of creation and there are mandalas - universes dancing. Oh yes there are. Infinity.
You can use the mandala in so many ways. You can draw your own as Jung advised his patients to do. Finding yourself in the circle; figuring out your place in the world.  You don't have to be an artist. You can draw it with your eyes shut if you prefer. Just the motion of a hand circling is sweet balm to a troubled soul.
Or you can use other people's - either ancient or modern - gazing calmly, reflectively at the centre point - or just allowing your eyes to wander where they will. Tumble into the rabbit hole if you dare...who knows where you might end up?  If you look on YouTube you will find a myriad of mandalas - moving meditations. I will leave the right one to find you...
There are mandalas in pretty well every tradition - Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Bon, Tantra, Kabbalah,  shamanism... how could there not be?  One of my favourite mandalas is the one at the top of this post - it comes from the eighteenth-century, from Rajasthan and takes the form of a labyrinthine swastika - the path  the initiate must walk to Oneness.
Look around you and you will find mandalas in nature, in shell and leaf, in bark and snowflake, in a circle of pebbles on the beach, in the ripples of a lake in the centre of a forest or in an inner city puddle.  Blink at the sun; gaze on the moon; smile at crop circles; tumble into fractal geometry.
You can feel mandalas inside yourself, your spinning chakras, your own cosmos within... The mandala is not only a cosmogram but a psychocosmogram. Or should that be psychosomatocosmogram? *smile*
The mandala can also be an astral doorway, a link to other places, other times, other dimensions... sometimes you should tread carefully, very softly... Do you know where you need to go?  Do you know whom you want to meet?
A mandala can be a springboard...a key...a seal...a promise...a gateway. No, those elements do not contradict one another.  Will you use the key? Will you break the seal? Are you sure? Are you sure you're sure?

"Leave the past behind; leave the future behind; leave the present behind. Thou art then ready to go to the other shore. Never more shalt thou return to a life that ends in death." The Dhammapada.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Those magi...

Christmas Eve. Magi travelling. Those magi fascinate me, they do, they really do…priests, warriors, interpreters of dreams, seekers, bearers of prophetic gifts.

I can't travel. I have no camel or horse. And, anyhow, this kind of journeying is not done in the physical realm. So this is a contemplative, inward day for me. Yeah, yeah, I know – you’re all racing round like headless chickens doing a ton of cooking and preparation. Ah, the bliss of a simple Christmas, huh?

James and I might bake a few mince pies later. I have also promised a cheesecake (a proper baked one) as nobody here likes Christmas pudding and, seeing as it’s only the three of us this year, well, we suit ourselves. But it’s hardly arduous. So that leaves…time. A fire, of course. Rosemary in from the garden – for remembrance of the dear ones who won’t be with us (Mum enjoyed last night btw, when friends dropped by unexpectedly and said hello to her). Tiny lights sparkling. Frankincense winding tendrils through the house.

Shall I go to midnight mass? Probably not. More likely I’ll just muse and meditate and think about journeys…about magi…

One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my father singing We Three Kings in his deep brown bass voice. This is a Celtic instrumental version which I rather love…

Now then, The Three Kings (from Persian Lands Afar)… We sang this carol at school and it always chokes me. I can’t find a version that really encapsulates the spine-tingling quality of this. But this isn’t bad…

And my other magic Magi song…

Yeah, you know my Christmas message alright. Don't you?  Love.  And magi... (of course). 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The wolves are running...

Solstice day. Shortest day. Midwinter. The dark is at its height, the wolves are running, the shadows looming.
And what do we humans do when the dark gathers around us? We light fire. We retreat to our caves. We hang in there. We dream.

Sometimes this time of year can feel so hard. It can feel like everyone is out there, partying, playing, spending, smiling. And then it’s easy to beat yourself up if you’re not feeling like the life and soul of the party. Yet, hang about. Solstice, Christmas, Yule, was never originally about drunken bacchanalia – that was saved for the warmer festivals! Getting shit-faced is certainly one way of dealing with the dark, but it's not the only one.

You know, Christmas wasn’t always about marketing and hype; about stuffing your face and wrecking your credit cards. It wasn’t about rigid rituals and drear duty. Once upon a time, it was about getting through the dark days; about cosying up to the hearth; about celebrating the people we need to survive – not necessarily the people we like!
Yes, there are fights. Tell me about it. This week it seems like every evening ends on an argument. However hard you try, misunderstandings arise. But that’s part of Yuletide too. In the old days, Yule saw a ritualized combat between the King of the Waning Year and the King of the New Year (the Holly King and the Oak King). Two men would strip to the waist and fight with swords or bare hands while the women…drummed. And doubtless admired their muscles.  Rows and arguments are as natural a part of this season as the holly and the ivy.

For those who say bah humbug to the lot of it, it’s worth remembering that humans have celebrated this turning point of the year for millennia. Remember Mithra, the ancient god supposedly born in a cave at this time – surrounded by the zodiac (and attended by snake, bull, lion, dog). The concept of a god born in midwinter is common throughout ancient religions of the world. What is our Yule log but the World Tree, the Tree of Life. As far back as 2,000 BCE, the ancient Mesopotamians decorated trees with ribbons in honour of fertility and life.

I don’t really go to parties any more. I let the guys go down the pub alone. I prefer the fire-side. I love to sit with just the light of the flames, watching them jump and dance and flicker, see stories in their salamander colours; watch the shadows they throw up around the walls of my cave. Usually I sit in silence – for the sound of the fire is music enough, isn’t it?

What am I saying here? I dunno. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel ‘Christmassy’? Don’t feel guilty if the thought of your relatives descending makes you want to murder? Ditch the idea of perfection because it don’t exist? Or maybe, just maybe, just stop for a moment or two in the hurly burly – listen to a flame (a candle if not a fire); breathe; just be.

I wish you a peaceful solstice, a merry Yule…light in your darkness. Love.

Oh and a couple of posts I've read recently on this theme - here and over here...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Ritual wars?

My heart, my glacial heart

Rituals. We all have ‘em. Even more so at festivals like Christmas.  When I was small, Christmas always began with my mother choosing a colour theme.  She would buy two or three packets of crepe paper, cut them into strips and make the most bizarrely inventive decorations by stringing them into vast complicated cat’s cradles across the ceiling of our living room.  The letter to Santa was always sent up the chimney; the same dog-eared decorations would adorn the home-made cake; the same lights and baubles would be reverently hung on the tree. There were presents in a pillow case in the morning and, come evening, teeny tiny ‘tree presents’ – a bath cube, a tiny plastic figurine, a tin of tomato puree (don’t ask me why, I had a thing about tomato puree).  ‘Snowballs’ made from advocaat and lemonade (dear God!).  After Eight mints seemed the height of sophistication.  My father went down the pub and there was usually a row at some point (timing variable). J
stained glass and alchemy
When my mother married the Viking, the presents became bigger, the rituals ever more complicated and extravagant. There were no rows because we were all too sozzled to care much about anything. It seemed like every hour of the day was marked by some kind of booze. Buck’s Fizz with bagels for breakfast; Brandy Alexanders (of course) plus liqueur coffee for elevenses; champagne and various wines and ports for lunch… Dear gods, after that it was all we could do to stagger to the sofa and burp drunkenly at the afternoon film, before realizing with horror that the carol singers were due and we hadn’t got the wine mulling and the mince pies heating and…. Aaaghhh.  One year we turned out all the lights, hid behind the sofa and pretended we’d gone away. Yeah, right…
It all got a bit much, truth to tell, and so, when my parents died, we had a ritual cull.  Cos rituals are important but you have to make them your own and you have to know when to shift and adapt them. If they become rigid, if they live beyond their sell-by date, they run the risk of becoming atrophied and even sour. You gotta know a good ritual from one that’s gone a bit mouldy round the edges.
shamanic moose
Good rituals are comforting and children, in particular, love them. They mark the passage of time; they show that things are in their rightful place, that all is well in the world.  Even now James is 13 he will still cling fervently to the rituals of his childhood.  ‘This is when we…’ and ‘It’s time to do…’ 
And we do. We get the tree the weekend before Christmas and we decorate it together, he and I, to the accompaniment of medieval carols.  We take out each decoration and bauble (discarding, with a sigh, the ones that the mice have gnawed past recognition) and remember its history, its provenance. I love them - with their mix of symbols from a huge number of traditions, they represent all manner of wonderful things.  Each year we usually buy one new decoration for the tree and, over the years, James has chosen some crackers – including his totem fox and, bizarrely, a jeweled shoe.  But most of all I love the ones he made, when he was very small – various disintegrating angels which I stroke fondly while he rolls his eyes.
One of James' angels
But anyhow. Some rituals are gone. We no longer cut down our own Christmas tree. I no longer make garlands and wreaths. I no longer bake puddings and cake. We no longer track Santa. And I wonder if, this year, we will still leave out the sherry, mince pie and carrot on Christmas Eve. Things change and really, that is inevitable.
I always remember a conversation I had with a friend whose husband was adamant that present-giving happened in the late afternoon. The presents would sit, winking enticingly, under the tree until lunch had not only been eaten but digested and the dishes all cleared away.  Then, and only then, with due ceremony, were the presents opened, slowly, one by one.  Which was fine, my friend said, except that by this time their young daughters were climbing up the walls in small whirling frenzies of frustration.
Baroque bauble & broken-winged butterflies
‘Surely you might be a bit flexible while they’re so small?’ I suggested. 'Even if they just had one present to tide them over?'
‘You tell him,’ she snorted.
So…foolishly… I raised the issue.
‘Absolutely not,’ he said, his face like fury. ‘That’s the way it is always done in my family.’ Ah, in his family... See there's another thing - when families come together, whose rituals do you follow? Do you suffer from ritual wars?  
So. Rituals. Good, bad? Carved in stone or bending with the wind?  Do you go through the motions or love each and every one?  Do you follow someone else's rituals with gritted teeth? Or tell me.  

Friday, 16 December 2011

Astral cookies

I have decided to shift the focus of my life to the dream world. Really. It’s much nicer there and, major plus point, it’s warm. Last night I spent the majority of my time splashing around in the Pacific and running down waterfalls. It was heaven. Okay, so there was the small matter of all the dead/sleeping people littering the boats by the cliffs but hey… Then I wake up and there is ice on the inside of the window and even the dog is shivering. But no…this isn’t going to be a post about astral travel and lucid dreaming…not quite yet…

Adrian comes in and stands at the foot of the bed looking revoltingly cheerful.
‘I’m off then…’
He’s going shooting. Not some big fancy shoot, I hasten to add, just a bunch of mates.
‘Looking forward to it?’ I say, just eyes and nose visible over the four duvets, still shaking off the turquoise waters in my mind.
‘I dunno,’ he replies. ‘Seems a bit weird to be looking forward to killing something…’

Huh? Don’t tell me the vegetarianism is catching? He has been eating a lot less meat lately. And going to the gym. Last night he even had a cup of tea instead of another beer. Hmm.

But then, when I drag myself out of bed and creep to the kitchen there’s a slab of Sherman’s bacon defrosting on the top (no, it’s not really carved from Sherman’s haunches – not much meat there, come to think of it – but from one of his ex-pigs). And Hugh F-W’s MEAT (you gotta like the open honesty of that title, huh?) cookbook is open on the page for pork pies. Ah well…

Anyhow, his departure leaves me and James home alone… again. The poor boy is in the wars… again. He’s injured himself…again. Policeman’s foot apparently (plantar fasciitis). ‘He’s the youngest person I’ve ever seen with it,’ said the doctor, with that gleam of eye that medical people can’t quite suppress at something more interesting than piles and flu.

‘Yeah, well he’s got form,’ I replied. ‘He was the youngest person to have Bell’s palsy too.’
‘So he was!’ Dr B’s eyes light up even more. ‘Maybe he’s a medical conundrum.’
James wasn’t remotely impressed. He didn’t want to be a conundrum; he wanted the magic wand of medicine. He wanted to jump up and walk out cured, like the guy in the Bible. Dr B would make a cracking Jesus, come to think of it – he’s got the bone structure and does a good line in pithy comments. But he’s not hot on miracles. Instead he told James exactly what the apostle St Google had already told me – do the exercises, rest, get some orthotics.

It’s tough though. When you’re thirteen and your greatest joy is to run, to play rugby, to play squash, to play football, to do anything really that involves getting out there, being physical, hurling your body around cos, like a puppy, you have way too much energy. Yes, he reads; yes, he plays on the Xbox; yes, he watches TV; yes, he chats on Facebook but still…

So, don’t laugh…we’ve been baking, he and I. Well, he’s been baking; I’ve been nicking the cake mix. Cos, though food in general doesn’t really rock my boat, I’m a sucker for cake mix. And – of course – baking involves ovens and oven involve…heat. Delicious heat.

Marbled chocolate brownies; raspberry muffins; festive nibbles; spicy cocktail biscuits… Sheesh, no wonder people put on weight – these things are made of slabs of butter and crateloads of sugar and not much else! Favourite so far? Peanut cookies. Oh yeah. Seriously, butter AND peanut butter – your arteries probably wince just at the name but boy, are they good.
So good, in fact, that you should try them. I suppose you could argue there’s protein in there, eh? Vegetarian protein at that.

Peanut cookies 

1 cup/225g butter
2tbsp/30ml crunchy peanut butter (if you prefer a smooth cookie, go for smooth peanut butter…doh!)
1 cup/115g icing sugar
½ cup/50g cornflour
2 cups/225g plain flour
Unsalted peanuts (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 180C, 350F or Gas mark 4. Lightly grease two baking sheets.

2. Beat the butter and peanut butter together and add the dry ingredients. Mix like hell…If you have a mixer this will probably be easy. If not (like me), you’re best off kinda giving up with the spoon and just kneading it with your hands… It’s a very dry mix so keep going. Squish every last bit in.

3. Grab a bit of mix and roll it into a ball. This recipe will make around 25 normal sized cookies – if you like giant ones, go bigger. Place the balls on the baking sheet leaving plenty of room for them to spread out and make themselves comfortable.

4. Press the tops of the balls flat using the back of a fork. If you like (I do, James doesn’t) press a few whole peanuts into each cookie.

5. Bake for around 15 minutes (depends on your oven) until lightly browned. Then the usual stuff about letting them cool a tad (or they will crumble apart) before putting on a wire rack. Then just see if you can stop yourself from scarfing the whole lot in one sitting.
Yeah, they don't look any great shakes but...

In other new book Walker (available for Kindle only - it's an eco-adventure so couldn't really justify the trees!) got a plug in the Telegraph today. Feel free to make my Christmas merry by downloading a copy to your Kindle. Click here for the US and here for the UK.

My anti-guru has been off on a brave quest for the Light recently so he could probably do with a boost to the coffers his books right here and now. 

And for those who roll their eyes at all this shamanic and spiritual stuff, you can still order Adrian's book Great British Pubs and still get it in time for that astral pub crawl at Christmas... 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Buying books

Does Christmas panic you?  Don’t let it.  Times is tough and anyone who expects the whole perfect full-on malarkey this year is living in cloud cuckoo land. As regards presents, when in doubt, buy a book.  Because I’m all heart (no, really, you should see my heart chakra glow – I don’t need no Christmas lights!) I’m offering you a list of books for absolutely anyone. Now, of course, in an ideal world you would go to your local bookstore to buy them and if you can possibly support this endangered breed, then please do so.
For the sake of speed, however, I'm linking to Amazon. Not because I like Amazon for, to be honest, I'm not so wild. But, hey, needs must.  If you can find them elsewhere, then fantastic. By the way, just how bloody STUPID is it that a gift voucher for Amazon can’t be used across the various sites? My lovely brother has just given me one but I’m going to have to order from the States and get stuff shipped over here. *eyeroll*.
Anyhow, without further ado, my guide to books that might solve a few present crises. Some are cheap as chips – look hard and you’ll even find some freebies!  I confess freely I haven’t read them all…quite a few on this list are on my own to-read list.  Oh, and yes there is Total Rank Nepotism going on here – these are all written by people I know… some out there in the mainstream, some resolutely indie...
For armchair boozers: Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones (yes, he's my husband but hey, it's a really good book. Well, the Financial Times thinks so and who am I to argue with such a bastion of the system?) 
For smart romantics: Marriage and Other Games by Veronica Henry (Ronnie lives not too far from here and is just damn nice as well as one seriously smart writer. Don't fall into the trap of thinking her books are 'just' sirree. 
For intelligent Goths and supernatural SF addicts:  The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I don't really *do* sci-fi but I make an exception for Jon cos he's just a truly fabulous writer with a wicked imagination. And now he's written about vampires - what's not to like?
For imaginative teens who dream of having superpowers: Invisible Justice by Kim Jewell.  My son, James (13), loves Kim's writing and he's not the only one. If you're buying a Kindle for teens this Christmas, load up her books.
For those who dream of a summer of love: The Villa Girls by Nicky Pellegrino. One of my oldest friends (no, she's not that old; just that we've known one another for way too long). Nicky's books are always a feast for the senses. She makes me feel warm just thinking about them. 

For bloodthirsty crime lovers: Burn Baby Burn by Jake Barton. Okay, I don't really read crime but those who know say Jake's books are the real deal.  And by the look of his sales he's obviously doing something right. 
For sensitive souls: Daisychains of Silence by Catherine MacLeod.  One I'm looking forward to reading. I loved the chapters I read of this on Authonomy and have no doubt that the rest of the book delivers...  

For deep thinkers: Quintessence by Andrew Meek.  Andrew always makes me think - he is a lover of science but has, to my mind, the soul of a mystic. Another one I'm looking forward to reading.
For old dope-heads with a sense of humour: The Beauregarde Affair by Brian Talgo. Another book I loved on Authonomy by a smart funny guy. 
For spiritual James Joyce lovers: SymphonicBridges by Marek Stefanowicz.  Well, you already know I love this book. Sure it ain't to all tastes but if you love language, are interested in New Age thinking and have a penchant for Joyce and Syd Barrett, well...
For mystical mavens: Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims by Vivienne Tuffnell.  Vivienne is another author I can't wait to read - I adore her blog so am pretty sure her fiction will be just as good.  
For lovers of dark Japanese homoeroticism: Shinobi by Sessha Batto.  Well, you've all got a few of those tucked away in the family, haven't you?  Sessha certainly has pinpointed (so to speak) her market.  Lovely warm woman with a deeply dark imagination. 
For donnish Inspector Morse types: The Company of Fellows by Dan Holloway.  Crime again but highly literary this time from the delightful Indie writer/performer, Dan.  
For bipolar princesses: My Kind of Crazy by Janine Crowley Haynes.  Just one of the best books I've read on the whole 'mental health' thingy.  Janine is a stunning writer and a warm, brave and all-round lovely human being.   
For sceptical would-be mediums: A Sceptical Medium by Lorraine Holloway-White.  I'll be honest, I have never been to a medium or spiritualist church. Yes, I talk to dead people but they're family and friends, for pity's sake - not any old strangers! But for those who wonder, take a look at her books. 
For those who loved the romantic bits in Star Wars, Avatar etc:  The Iron Admiral by Greta van der Rol.  Like I say, I don't really *do* sci-fi but I love Greta's writing and she don't half tell a yarn.
For starstruck young girls: Olivia's First Term by Lyn Gardner: Guardian theatre critic Lyn also has daughters so she really knows her stuff.  Perfect for young girls into ballet, acting and circus skills.
For anyone who loves fishing, cooking or Exmoor: Fishing for Life edited by Ceri Keene. I've yacked on about this before - the cookbook produced by a local friend in aid of a breast cancer charity.
Oh gawd, I've missed tons out, I just know... But that should keep you going for a bit, eh? 

My friends

Ah Christmas.  It’s a strange old time of year for me.  I go inwards at Christmas, more and more each year that passes.  Anyhow. It’s crept up again, as I was looking elsewhen.  Usually I splurt out a Christmas Gift Guide on the blog, in memory of the days when I used to trawl the shops for newspaper or magazine guides.  And, actually, I started popping images into a file a while back. Yet, funny thing, as I look in the file this morning, I find they are all of the same thing – friendship bracelets.  Those little strings that started out as childhood or teen tokens of bonding.  And I smiled…
What is a friend? How many friends have you got? How many friends do you feel you need?  Does it upset you when a friend leaves you, abandons you, walks away?  I’m not talking about lovers here but friends, just friends. 
In the last week two very different people said pretty much the same thing to me: ‘If you stick with me, you’ll lose your friends.’
And my response?  So be it. Because I know full well that I would never lose the people who really count. As for the rest? Let them walk. Because, see, I truly believe that if you can’t be who you are with people, if they can’t accept your true self, then that friendship is over. I am fiercely loyal to my true friends and I expect no less in return.
I think people come into our lives for reasons; I truly do.  Yeah, even the crappy people (as discussed before).  Friendships however come in many forms and I think that often we mistake the nature of some of them.  Sometimes people come into our lives very briefly, just to give a message. Others stay around for longer; sometimes burning very bright and then vanishing – almost in a puff of smoke.  And others are for life. 
Recently I thought I’d lost a life friend. And that hurt. I tried to rationalize it. Let’s be honest, I haven’t been an easy-to-be-with friend this last year.  Living half in other worlds, reneging on social niceties, absconding from the usual pleasantries.  And yes, I’ve lost a fair few friends but, to be honest, that was just fine.  It meant I didn’t have to keep justifying myself – why should I? Is that harsh? No, I don't think so. So often we keep up with friendships from habit; from expectation; from social mores, even when they have long passed their sell-by date. We grow out of clothes, we change our hair style, we move houses, we shift jobs - so why on earth should we keep friendships static, in aspic? 
But this friend?  Oh yeah, this one hurt. I could remember the first time we met, so so clearly. I needed a flat-mate and someone at work suggested her. For reasons too complicated to go into, I was expecting to open the door to a seriously trendy black DJ or musician. Instead there stood a small, very conservatively dressed, very small, very white lawyer. We shared a house for years. I screwed up her love life with a spell that backfired quite spectacularly – but she never blamed me. We laughed, we cried together; we mopped one another up after the usual life disasters. We used to joke that, when we were old, we’d share a house again and be mad bad witches again.
But then…silence. Long, long silence. And I figured, hey. Why would she still want to be friends with me?  She was hugely successful; her career trajectory had soared in reverse proportion to my crash.  But so be it.  Anyway, what could I do?  You can’t force people to be your mates, can you?  Sometimes you have to let go...
And then, just a few days ago, when I was at a very low ebb indeed, an email. Oh. And I replied saying, softly, 'I thought I’d lost you.'  And she replied:
“Baby I will always be here. Friendships like ours run so deep that nothing changes that. Nothing.”
And I smiled. And cried. And the world felt a little warmer.
You don’t need tons of friends. I suppose, if one is being brutal, you don't need any. But life is far nicer if you have a few people in the world who *get* you.  Or – and this is the clever bit – you have people who don’t remotely *get* you; who haven’t a clue what you’re about…who shake their heads and mutter “bloody woman is  barking nuts” but love you nonetheless.  And I have a fair few of both varieties, so I am truly blessed.
Will they stay forever? Who knows? If they do, it is meant. If they don’t, it is meant.  But for now, I’m saying ‘thank you’ to those who have stood by me and loved me even when I’ve been a very hard person to love.  You know who you are…no need to name names.  And so here’s my Christmas Gift Guide…a whole line of friendship bracelets. J