Friday, April 20, 2018

For Good

20th April 2018

Apart from showing up at my desk every morning these days for a writing session in the interests of turning out a new book, I am following the news cycle like a maniac. I just have to believe that good eventually wins the day, that right causes do prevail, and so my eyes are glued to every development in this "forest fire" of a presidency to see if water is going to eventually put it out.

I have a dog in this fight, which is my belief in a moral universe, not a universe that adheres to the laws of Moses, but just a sense that all our striving and fighting for causes is heading us in a good direction, that there is such a thing as "the good" at all.
People argue with me, the secular humanists, the new atheists, claiming that, No, there is nothing good or bad except that we make it so. Thank you, Will, from four centuries ago - I do know it applies for the most part: you can cross yourself all you like and go to church and join the moral majority, but it's only because you were told to.
But if you push people like Sam Harris, or Yuval Harari, there would be some thing they would have to admit was just good in and of itself. Yuval Harari cares a great deal about gay and animal rights - would he want to say that the good in those things is just a figment of his imagination? No, some things, maybe only one or two things, we hold to be self evident  - that all men, for instance, are created equal; that beings who are loved move in a more positive direction than those who are not.  I don't know where in the universe lies the value that makes those truths the case, and always the case, but, contrary to the secular humanists, we have come to know very very little about "the universe."

Scientists can attest to 4% of the universe being atomic and thereby perceptible. But the rest is divided between dark matter and dark energy, and no one, not even Sam Harris - God, I loathe the arrogance of these people! - knows what that is or could possibly be. It might be God for all they know. I'm not going to go that far, but I think there is a moral value in this space/time continuum we inhabit a teeny weeny corner of.  Some things, though not much, are just self-evident. Gravity, for instance - science hasn't figured out what it is, though we can recognise its effect in space/time events.  Sam Harris is married and has children. Does he love them? Where does that love reside? In the grey matter between his ears? Really? No surgeon has ever found it there?
I suppose I am a Taoist in the end, because I believe that the universe flows in a certain direction and you can either go with the flow or resist it. I hope it is in the flow of things that the corrupt inner circle of a corrupt government will finally implode. I don't need God for that hope. I just need it to be self-evident. And for this reason, I am hanging on the news for dear life, waiting for the sun to come out over the hill.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Building Writing Muscle

13th April 2018

I have lately been helping a person I have known for many years who has just now decided to learn how to write. It is taking me back to a time in my life, when, done with academic writing, I was trying to embark on something more creative. I just didn't know where to begin. In those days, the flow that ended up in my pen (when they were a thing!) began in my brain. The pathway of heart to page hadn't opened up yet. It was like a blocked fallopian tube - no matter how much sex you have, you just can't make it amount to a conception. So I have sympathy with my friend, but these days after decades of literary writing, I am like the aged ballerina with a beginner ballerina class, not able to understand how these little fledglings can't get up on point. In both cases, it is a question of muscle, and muscle doesn't just happen, you have to build it.

But not that much muscle. Just enough to get the blood flowing through that fallopian tube.
This is not just true in writing but in any venture. If I were asked to sing a solo on a stage, I would be mortified. In my life, I have only sung with others, usually with my son who happens to be a more than competent guitarist. I just don't believe I can do it, and so I would have not just one editor, but a  roomful of critics sitting on my shoulder.

What I am discovering in teaching writing to this person is that the first obstacle is to silence your resident critic, the editor's voice that says you're not up to the task. You have to manually take this voice out, get rid of the judge altogether. Don't worry, that voice is always going to start talking again whenever you let it. But carve out a little space, a vacuum in which the voice cannot be heard, and then just as an exercise start by transliterating any thought that pops into your head, no matter how inane or stupid. Remember, you are just trying to flex that muscle a little.  Imagine if someone gave you the task of writing down all the dialogue in a movie, except that the movie is you.
 If, like Our Lady of the Biceps above, your goal is to pick up a dumbbell, it makes sense to stretch the muscle a little first. Start out by picking up something that weighs nothing at all and build up to the weighty stuff.  At the beginning, you just want to get the writing muscle moving, and then later you can start managing the content.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Up And Running

6th April 2018

I am writing again. I have made the announcement to friends and family that my mornings are blocked off for the foreseeable future. Don't call. Don't ask to go out on a walk. Don't invite me  out for coffee. I won't answer.  I recently got a new computer which is connected to the interent, a new thing for me and one which is helpful insofar as when I have a research question, I have immdediate access to the answer (what did we ever do before the internet - was all this information at the library?) But the problem is, I have email access, too, and also that dark dark hole called Twitter. I have yet to come up with a stratgey for Twitter - it's like the hypnotic effect of the voice from beyond, drawing me like in a horror film sleep-walking towards the edge of a cliff. The hypnosis puts your fingers into automatic pilot: just one more scroll up, and the reward will present itself.

So, no email, no twitter, while I'm working. Just that sideways stare at the carpet beneath my feet, that pause that makes you look to the observer as though you are doing nothing at all. It makes you susceptible to the question: so how many pages have you actually written? It's the writer zone that stops the pendulum and steps into the timeless, the creative flow that is not ecstatic, but deathly quiet. That's where the writer or any artist must go, and, I suspect, that's why you have to take yourself bodily, pry your fingers off the latest newscast or any other procrastination that is so much easier than stepping into the waiting room of the creative process.

But it's answering the call that makes of the writer an artist - it is both the sentence and the great reward. It is the monitoring device around your ankle that for the entire period of the writing, however long it takes, is on and buzzing and and is designed to make escape impossible.
I'm not complaining, and I do not mean to romanticise it. I am in the process of it now, so give me my mornings. I may look as though I am doing nothing. But leave me be. 

Friday, March 30, 2018


30th March 2018

I was rifling through a stack of my work inch-thick in dust the other day, when I came upon a series of short stories I once wrote as an attempt to put a narrative behind the lovely images of certain poems, like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I was trying to capture the feel of the poem in more of a story form. A local producer for public radio took each of these works and recreated them on air with actors and music and sound-effects. It was called "Aspen Stage on the Air." It was twenty-odd years ago, and the producer has long since shuffled off his mortal coil,
I was younger at the time and not yet a published writer. In fact, reading through the pieces, I am struck by my energy and unabashed enthusiasm, unworn by the uphill trudge that the writing life has proven to be since.
One of these pieces, the lengthiest, wove a story around Dylan Thomas's poem, "Fern Hill;" the shortest of the collection, taken from WB Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus," was my attempt to redo it from a woman's perspective. I am going to reprint it here, because it shows me in my first flush, with an ardency that has probably and regrettably become jaded over the years.


                                  (Based on Yeats' s "Song of Wandering Aengus")

     I went out to the hazelwood because a fire was in my head. Because sleep could not claim me, I ran like the wild night, dark like the deepest pit of me, ran because behind me the open windows snarled at me, the sleeping house tore at me, the man, the child, wailed for me. 
     I went out to the hazelwood because there was no hope for me except where leaves awoke to me, the sap ran down and danced to me. And so I ran through the shades of garden, the cut grass, the swing immobile as a frozen smile, to the moss-thick wall and the black earth seething with wheat and life. I ran till the smell of walls bled back and the wind drove its hands through my hair.
     The crickets awoke in droves, the stars bellowed and moaned in my dress, and I lowed like the cows tongue-tangled, greened and foamed in the deep-sea grass, ran with the scream of feet, numb as a clod, till the house retreated to a stop.  
     As the spinning sky lifted off and the sides of the world came down, I stopped by a steam where Rowans grew and the berries sang in the breeze. The moon was laughing, its head tilted back, laughing till it made me smile, for the folly of life crammed in moats and walls, for the death of the dance in the stall. 
     I broke a wand from a hazel bush, crushed berries in my hand, and talked to the fish till the sun went down, and Undine, the nymph, drew me in by the hand. Her song was cool as rivulets, her breath ice on my brow, her fingers warm on my loveliness cut deep in the marrow bone. 
     Laughter danced on her tilted head, like the tilted moon at my head. 
     She said, "Tie a sting to the hazel wand, then fix a berry to a thread."
     I dropped my line in the singing steam, hoping for a fish, but a man climbed out, Aengus by name, water the cloth on his skin.   
     White moths flickered by his face while moth-like stars blinked out, and I a waif in a nightdress fell like a leaf to the ground.  Only the moon, the unclouded moon, stayed out to watch the play of lips that warmed from kiss to kiss, of heaving blood and flesh on flesh.  He smelled of blossom and deep dank earth, he smiled as he lapped my breast, for the milk of the child ran into his mouth, and my heart played drums in my dress.
     Among the hazel trees we ran, and kissed and touched and fell and ran, all milky run and failing breath, and the drum and the drum and the drum.
     The morning rose easily like a touch of paint on the hill, and I did not see, as he blazed in the dawn,that only his shadow now ran with me. By the time the sun poured soft on the land, only his voice could I hear. Sweet Aengus vanished in the brightening air, and the morning full of wings.
     Though I am old now, a brick for a heart, skin weathered and curled, I wander still through hill and vale and turn my back on the world. My eyes turned in, I do not see the hazel wood turned brown; with stick and berry I wait by the stream for Undine to come around. I wait, though the world may cough its last, I wait for the sound of the moon, for I will find where he is gone, and he will reach again for my hand. 
      And there on the bank in my old crone's cloak, my breast will run with the man. And we will walk in dappled grass, though I am old like a stump, and pluck till time and times are done the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.    

Friday, March 23, 2018

Lying in America

23rd March 2018

Right at the beginning when I first came to America, I had never encountered anything like the National Enquirer, and so I would repeat their headlines like Baby to be Born to Human Mother and Ape Father. After all, what would be the point in reporting news that was clearly, well, not news? "Fake news," otherwise known as journalistic bullshit, was a whole new concept for this unsuspecting Scot, and I'm sure for anyone else who had grown up in a developed country of reasonably intelligent citizens. There's a reason Fox News didn't last very long in Britain
But dig a little deeper into American history, and you'll find that describing a little conceptual bubble and climbing into it, is something European settlers have done from the outset. Back up a little and you smash right into the principle on which this country was founded: Manifest Destiny.
If ever there was a dirty lie, this one is the apotheosis: We're Here Because We're Here Because We're Here. Amen. 

These times of "fake news," in which we find ourselves, with a pathological liar in the White House, are just the logical conclusion of this kind of bubble-building. For instance, it is simply part of the American creed that this country is the greatest example of democracy on the planet. You hear this across the spectrum from mindless nationalists to left-wing pundits.  The effect of founding a country on the lies of manifest destiny, and if that weren't enough, on genocide and slavery, is that the collective bullshit detector registers consistently lower and lower.
It has long been recognised how children brought up in this kind of dishonest environment grow up to have a similar recognition deficit.  If you have to spin Daddy's drinking until you believe he is simply a connoisseur of spirits, then your ability to detect that flaw later on in a potential partner, is going to be significantly damaged.
Entire nations do this.  Let's call Daddy in this case Uncle Sam, and he needs you to go along wth the family secret.

Of course, Brits believe a fair amount of political bullshit, too, spooned out to them by politicians in Westminster, but a Donald Trump would get nowhere there. In fact, he has got nowhere there: he has built his golf course, of course, but when he went before the Scottish parliament to try to stop the building of offshore wind farms in his view, he was told to hop it.

Bullshit builds on bullshit, until you have an unholy steaming pile of crap.  That is exactly the stink we are living in now. We have been holding our breath for so long, that nothing really sinks in anymore. Last week, it was reported by the New York Times that the Russians have hacked into the actual controls of America's nuclear reactors. But the news somehow got lost. Everyone just turned the page and thought about Stormy Daniels instead.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Out Of The Mouths of Babes

16th March 2018

I have got myself into a tangle with this blog, because of making it about various subjects instead of just one: when I talk about writing, I lose followers on the political bench; when I go on about my poilitical beliefs, the writers press the snooze button; when I talk about feminism, it's the male majority clicking "Unfollow." Consequently, my "Followers" have been hovering around the same number for years. If you want numbers, you just have to step into one bubble or other and not try to dance between them. But, anyway, I'll keep doing just that, because lots of things interest me, and I have to talk across the spectrum, otherwise I am liable to drop off to sleep myself.
Yesterday, the youth of America, to the tune of 185,000, left their desks in high schools all over the country and protested against the National Rifle Association's control of American politics.  "The right for us to have lives," they said, "tops the right of lunatics to carry guns." In response, the trully evil NRA tweeted a picture of the exact kind of automatic weapon that killed seventeen high schoolers in Parkland, Florida, just a month ago. So, it gets you in the heart, this upswell of hope that voices can make a difference, especially the unbroken voices of twelve-year-olds and children who are yet to grow into full stature.

On the same day, some organisation positioned 7,000 pairs of shoes on the lawn of the Capitol in representation of the kids that have been killed by guns since the unspeakable tragedy of Sandyhook elementray school where  twenty six and seven-year-olds were massacred.
It ought to shame us all into deep deep levels of conscience that this is what the adults in the room have pushed our kids into taking up arms against.
And yet it brings hope, doesn't it? Young people are always under fire for having their noses in their phones, and yet here they are, the only voice of sanity anywhere to be heard.
Yesterday, too, a graphic appeared on my Twitter feed that shows a similar upswell of youth in my home country of Scotland.

The young people of Scotland are clearly for a country that governs itself and is not in servile gratitude to a master government that even as we speak is trying to reduce the power of its parliament. It's only a mater of time until the unfettered conscience of the young bubbles to the surface. It voiced its outcry in the Civil Rights Movement, in South Africa against apartheid, in the USA against Vietnam and now about the dark hole in which politics has come to reside.
In other cultures, we would be taking in the wisdom of the ancients, but the old ones in this culture have little of that. The old ones have given in to conditioning and the directive that they have nothing to contribute. At best they are apathetic, at worst sychophantic enablers.
So, it's to the young ones that we must turn our ears. Hopefully, time will let them tell. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Emotional Burkas

9th March 2018

The blog I wrote right after the Golden Globes ("Women In Black," January 12th) called out women celebrating freedom and then playing the male fantasy game in their attire. Frances McDormand gave a rousing speech for women at the Oscars this last weekend in her strange (knitted?) dress, but all this argument brings women like me, who push pens for a living, still trying to formulate what an evolved woman would actually look like; what a society led by a women-council might look like. Late in my Veil Of Time trilogy, I deal with just this question, but for now that trilogy is moving at glacial speed along the publishing highway....
I acknowledge with gratitude those pioneer women who back in the nineteen sixties started to shift the woman paradigm. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes. It was a great first step, with many more steps on the horizon to go. But I think we have come far enough along it to ask this question: to what extent is the entire game rigged by the way the rules were set in the first place?
One of those rules draws a distinction between what I once overheard a fellow karate mate, a handsome muscular fellow, define as "woman versus babe."  Women are having a hard time getting out from under the "babe" paradigm.
The TV series Friends has had, and continues to have, enormous social impact, but some of its lessons have not aged well, especially around this issue: one of the most endearing men on the show, the funny one, gets cajoled into marrying a young woman who far outmatches him in terms of physical attractiveness, and yet he still keeps up, and is enabled in, his lifelong fascination with the "babes" of pornography.
Part of the conditioning through all the centuries since religions run by male hierarchies have given woman "their place" is to make her gauge her worth in terms of her appeal to men. If you have spent any time in the Middle East, that fact hits you right in the face (your attractive face, of course.) It is a profoundly offensive sight, the burka-covered woman. Everything in me cries out for the female person hidden within, the smacking down that has had to take place for woman to accept this.

But we in the West have our own cultural burkas, and they are equally hard to see out of. Here are no  religious police enforcing them, but the best police force is one that has moved from the outside and chatters away now on the inside.
As I worked on my last book in that trilogy, I realised that what I was up against was something akin to Stolkholm Syndrome, a psychological condition in which captives take on the identity and values of their captives. I think the first step towards a new paradigm of woman is to identify the actual structures that were put in place to keep woman in a role that benefitted men. These structures go much deeper than we imagine. We are way past realising that women actually do possess sexuality (thanks, DH Lawrence), but not way past seeing this in terms of adolescent male fantasy.

The first wave of feminism in the 1960's raised the spectre of women being equal to men. But this wave has yet to get us past seeing ourselves as versions of men. Our mantra is still, "We are equal and can do exactly what you do." We have to question very deeply here: I'm not even sure if the "Women in the Workplace" step isn't still playing the male-game, since this notion of "the work place" is written around the rules of hierarchy, a thing men favour much more than women if given half a chance.
Women and sexuality has always been at the crux of the matter because much power lies there (thank you Freud, but we knew this of old, and so did the religious hierarchy, which is why it has always sought to undermine it.) But women taking themselves back here does not mean staying in this arena of  perpetual emotional adolescence. We can do so much better than mimicking men in closets with their pornography.
What we have to move towards is a female sexuality that comes from a much more intuitive and integrated place, one that encompasses the whole spectrum of feeling, fertility and nurturing. What we lost at the behest of the Abrahamic religions and what we have to get back in our sights, is the power and evolution of the whole woman.

Disclaimer: I acknowledge the many evolved men in our midst and wait for them to become the majority.