Loss and Grief as Mindfulness Practice


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This post was first published on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, The Broad View.

Glendalough Mist 6

[Photo from author’s personal collection.]

Many years ago, distraught and devastated after a miscarriage, I turned to literature for solace and comfort. So when my dear mother died just six weeks ago, I went searching for memoirs written in an attempt to decipher the overwhelming effects of death on those left behind. Consequently when I stumbled across the memoir, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, the story of a woman who struggled with unbearable grief after her father died, it sounded just about right, albeit a little too close to the bone, my flesh still flayed raw by funeral corteges, my soul seared by heartrending hymns singing my mother’s soul back home. Was it too soon to try to understand, to unveil one of life’s greatest mysteries?

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s taken from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.”

Wham! A gut-wrenching, heart-piercing, bolt of fire hurled from the gods above, hit their mark with absolute precision. I was winded. My spirit felt as if it had been severed from my body, arms and legs and, oh so heavy head, drowning, submerged, pushed, held under water, limbs like rocks dragging me down to the depths. Such heart pain leaves its mark; scar-faced channels of grief cut, sliced, engraved into deep, barren ravines.

Mum’s gone.”

“Gone where? It’s midnight!”

“No, you don’t understand. [How could I? It didn’t make sense.] She’s had a heart attack. The medics have stopped trying to revive her.

Since that horrendous night, it feels like I’m stuck in that moment, the phone call playing out repeatedly in my mind, over and over again, like a wound up gramophone which won’t shut up. Like Groundhog Day. Time seems to have altered, its shape and sequence forever changed. But not just time, meaning too. Before that night, Mum was an anchor, a force, a raison d’etre. I have lost the one person in the world who was always, without reservation, on my side. My advocate and principle cheerleader is gone from this world. This vast, empty space where the bitterly cold Arctic winds blow without ceasing, will never feel the warmth of early morning sun again. Standing in this abyss of grief I feel not just lost and lonely, but as if my very moorings have come undone. It is simply inconceivable that life will go on. And yet it must.

What does one do when one is left drifting, floating on a river of despair which seems to follow no known pathway, meandering in and out of gloomy gullies and desolate deltas, pursuing its own course with a reasoning and logic all its own? I can neither control nor outmanoeuvre its trajectory. But I can give it room to roam. I can open a space within and without which would allow the force of this overwhelming grief to flow, not just in tears, but in memories too, remembrances of times past.

There is a place I go to whenever the world and my walking in it threatens to overcome me with its bustling busyness, too noisy and wearisome for a fragile soul. An ancient monastic site where the earth continues to hold in safe keeping the memory of its distant past. Steep slopes, deep lakes, and dead trees dot the scrub hillside surrounding the lakes. The veil between the natural and the supernatural is thin here, in this place where monks lived and moved and had their being, where they prayed in the darkness and again at dawn, and many times throughout the day, in the ‘big hours’ and the ‘little hours’ too, shivering in the damp and cold which seeps up from the sodden earth below. They must have stood by the edge of the lake and stared out over the still twilight, reflecting the sky and clouds above, just as I do when I return here to think about my mother. Their robes would have blown in the wind which always sweeps down from the gap between the mountains, the valley left behind when the glaciers moved through, sculpting the land aeons ago. I crave the spaciousness, the vast openness which only this landscape can offer.

Here in this numinous space, walking on this sacred earth, I can feel my mother hovering close by, as if the very air I am breathing is filled with her presence. The cold wind blowing down the valley makes my eyes well up, tears fall, dropping black stains on the grey stones by the lake shore. My gaze embraces the wider landscape, the white blasted trees which have all the appearance of sentinels, or mummified centurions keeping watch over all that lies below, including not just the monks’ graves from long gone, but me also, and my mother’s spirit joined now as one with the voices of the wind and the water, all the ancient ruins, cells and chapels, stones too, still carrying traces of chanted psalms from long ago – nothing can drown out the songs of the past. The past and the present, and the future too, are all of a-piece.

This is the womb knowledge I carry back home with me when I return to the suburbs where I live and where my mother lived her entire married life, after moving up to the city from the country. And so when I stand at an opened kitchen window, or stroll out into the garden, I hear her sweet tones in the breeze which caresses my cheek, I feel her tender kiss in the first fall of a gentle summer’s rain. She hasn’t left me after all. I simply need to learn to adjust my vision, to recognize the new shape of her being, hovering as it does between heaven and earth.

-Writing this has almost been unbearable, a heaviness in my chest like someone has punched me so hard I am left winded, flying backwards through the air, back and down, down, down, down, free falling into a bottomless pit of despair. And just when I think I can’t breathe anymore, a little wisp of air blows gently from the blackened crevices, and I breathe it in gratefully, knowing that yes, I can go on.

Writing prompt:

I asked above what one can do in the attempt to make some kind of sense of death and loss and grieving. The only answer I can offer is, as Rilke tells us, “to live the questions now”, and if you are a writer, to write. For if you are like me, and I presume you are if you are reading this, then you make meaning of your life through the practice of writing. While the subject of death is far too enormous and mysterious to ever be encapsulated, codified and tamed through the act of laying words upon a page, like letting a diaphanous shroud drape gently over the embalmed body of our loved ones, still words are all we have at our disposal in the attempt to somehow understand. And maybe they are enough. At least for now we can practice seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

Write about the death of someone dear to you. Approach it any way you want – begin with the facts, if that is your best path into the mystery, the agony of your tangled memories. Be prepared for the onslaught of emotions which will surely take you by surprise. Be kind to yourself. This is mindful writing in its rawest form. Witness well to what emerges from behind the veil.

At Seventeen



Note: This post was first published over on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, The Broad View.

Lotus Series 01

For a long time I have kept and maintained, admittedly sometimes sporadically, two very different kinds of journals – the first the repository of my daily writing practice, the other a kind of on-going commentary outlining my thoughts and musings about everything to do with writing, both my own and that of others, a writer’s diary if you will. Recently I have turned this practice into something a little more focused. I begin by choosing an event in my life, something from the past which shimmers a little around the edges, the light reflecting upon the waters of my sometimes still, sometimes turbulent mind, and while all that glitters may not be gold, still it is usually worth exploring. And so I dive in and mooch around a little, first in this spot, then in that, and if I am lucky, if it is a ‘good’ day for writing, I might discover something new, something that might reward sifting through the sieve of mindful interrogations. Of course ‘good’ by its very definition is a relative thing, so what might be treasure today may, on the morrow, be nothing more than sand slipping through spread-eagled fingers, offering no gifts worth grabbing on to. But that is tomorrow’s problem. Today, this moment, is all that concerns me now.

That this moment extends beyond the limited expanse of my habitual quotidian and paltry vision, stretching the eternal now upwards, and inwards too, to the furthest frontiers of space and time, transforms the experience into time beyond time; it is all there ever was, or can be. Herein lies freedom, the spaciousness of mind which carries me above and beyond the petty shenanigans of a life hardily lived. Even my dreams are beggarly in comparison, for I fail to dream big enough! But if I dig and delve, if I am not afraid to dive in, take a deep breath and jump, trusting that there is something much bigger and grander and a whole lot more powerful than me out there ready to catch me, call it what you will, who knows where my curiosity might take me?

To prepare myself for these big adventures, first I sit and meditate for 15 or 20 minutes, just breathing, following the breath however it is in the moment. Then I take up my pen and start writing. When I am done, and I always know when I have said all that needs to be said, for now anyway, I walk away from my writing desk for about 10 minutes, just enough time to make a cup of tea and carry it back to my desk, sipping it as I re-read my own words. Next I pull out my writer’s diary, and I begin to ponder what it was I was trying to express. What exactly was I trying to say? What did I mean here? And what of this word there – is there another which might better express, more accurately, what I am attempting to articulate? I become my own first reader.

Invariably this part of the process opens up multiple possibilities, an almost endless stream of themes to consider and explore. I pick a few, the ones which appear most pertinent to me in this moment; they would be different at another time – it is this specificity I believe which makes this kind of writing ‘mindful’, for here I am focusing upon the treasures, the gifts of this moment in time without thinking about the future, or worrying about the past; I am simply open and receptive to what lies in front of me now, unfurling, unfolding at my feet.

Today I wrote about an incident that happened to me when I was 17, desperate to escape from the shackles of a life I believed was slowly strangling me. I wanted so much more than what I had, but the wanting itself, the yearning was the impetus, the motivation, the trigger to do something, to change. All I knew was that I wanted to run as fast as I could, believing that the freedom I experienced in my fantasies would be borne out by lived experience far away from home. Sometimes I still hear the siren call of this dream of another way, something different and new, something elusive and ephemeral, beckoning to me, whispering my name, calling from across vast swathes of time and space, inviting me to walk on from the mist of memory into the sea of possibilities, to not be afraid, or rather to release the fear, to breathe deeply and to feel that breath seep down, lower and lower, slipping past shoulders and chest, tight with unresolved pains, down, down, dropping down, behind my belly and it’s fluttering knots, sliding across sore sciatic nerves of dis-placed hips, the price of a rushed birthing a very long time ago [what was the hurry?], slithering over sore knees and swollen ankles, too painful to take any weight. But the breath itself is magic, and as if I am swooping downwards in a kamikaze leap, I leave my fear behind, and become all breath, until by the time I reach my toes I am free, utterly free. Feeling my feet, I am flying!

So why couldn’t I then, and why can’t I now, just be happy, content with this, just this? Why must there always be this yearning for something more? What is this yearning, this burning desire to find something anyway? What, for God’s sake, do I think is out there? And why is it always writing, only ever writing, which seems to touch upon this inexplicable impulse to stumble upon meaning, to track down and ferret out the significance of the events set down and laid out like the living dead upon the slab of the microscopic gaze? What is it precisely that draws me back so relentlessly, eating me up and spitting me out, and still I crawl back, over and over again, incessantly chasing the dream that this time, today, I will write my way back home, wherever home might be? And just for the record, it wasn’t where I landed when I was just 17! Still, though that soon-to-be young woman didn’t get it all right, she did intuit a thing or two worth re-visiting. Good to know my writing can take me back any time I feel inclined to mine her-story again.

What’s in a name?


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[This post was originally published over on SCN Telling HerStories: The Broad View]

As long as I have been writing I have struggled with the challenge of defining what exactly it means to write ‘mindfully’. In this post I thought it might be useful to attempt to tease out some of the differences between writing practice, mindful writing and journaling. At various times I have appended any one of these labels to my writing process. At various times I have been perplexed as I have tried to figure out which label best described my practice. My mother always said I liked my ducks in a row, and when I was younger I had no idea what she meant. Now I know! Perhaps it’s a touch of OCD, perhaps it’s an attempt to pin down and force meaning upon the chaos of words, or perhaps it’s simply an attempt to understand and grasp what exactly it is I am trying to do when I sit down to write; in other words, why I write.

One of my favourite personal essays is On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion. In this inspiring work of creative non-fiction, Ms Didion muses upon her reasons for writing in her journals, the explanations not always readily evident when re-reading past entries, many of whom remain a mystery to the author herself, as she wonders what on earth she meant by words and phrases which obviously struck a chord when first she wrote them down. In the end Ms Didion suggests that it’s not what the words recall in themselves, but rather what they evoke in the author’s imagination, the memories they stir, the associations they generate. The words we write bring it all back, so that it is as if we had returned to times past. With our words we can re-live previous experiences, not always in a direct relationship to the facts of the event per se, but rather as conduits of their emotional undercurrents, traces of shadows still lingering, echoes of the past. Keeping a notebook is one form of journaling, that is, a method of capturing moments in time, painting life as it happens in the raw with, hopefully, the sensuous imagery of richly evocative words. Is this mindful writing? Yes, if it is written with attention, and a deep listening with the inner ear, lingering languidly over the nuanced newness of the moment as it unfolds. Of course, some journaling is a simple noting of a few pertinent facts and no more. Then the only mindfulness required is in the initial noticing.

So much for journaling! What then of the difference between it and mindful writing? Mindful writing incorporates more than the seizing and word-capturing of an event, the apprehension of an episode or an encounter. When we write mindfully, we don’t always have a thought, (though we always have an intention, more about that below) initially anyway, with which to begin. So the writing itself is the practice, the words spin out from the initial desire to sit still, in silence and solitude, and simply write.

But what do we write? Ah, now at last we are coming closer to the heart of the matter. Herein lies the difference between writing practice and mindful writing. Though they are related, they are not quite synonymous. In writing practice we open our notebooks and set down whatever is stirring our minds at that precise juncture. We don’t edit or re-read; we just keep writing until the timer goes off, usually 10 or 20 minutes after starting. And then we stop. Writing practice, like mindful writing, is best embarked upon after a period of sitting meditation, for then the mind is open, spacious, and free; thoughts, ideas and sensations have latitude and license to rise up from the murky depths below. All of which sounds very similar to what we might reasonably expect from the practice of mindful writing.

But still there remains an important distinction. Mindful writing differs from both journaling and writing practice in one essential element – intention. Thus, before beginning our mindful writing practice, we have normally decided what our focus in any particular session is going to be, that is what the bedrock of our writing shall be, where we shall direct our concentration and attention, whether we plan to pen a haiku, or respond to a specific writing prompt, or some such other.

Is this splitting hairs? Perhaps. Perhaps too it doesn’t matter what we call it, nor even what our particular approach might be on the day, so long as we write. For it is the act of writing, the process of transferring our wild thoughts to the page that generates the alchemy, playing with the elements which serve as the foundation for future creative works, whether these manifest as transformed and transforming works of creative non-fiction, memoirs, short stories, novels or personal essays.

Each form shares one important detail in common – raw writing which awaits transfiguration through the alchemical shaping of craft. As Alice LaPlante writes in her seminal book ‘The Making of a Story’, first “immerse yourself in the intuitive creative process. That you may then take these raw, early pieces and shape them into something meaningful…”. [p. 25]

Journaling, writing practice and mindful practice then are the ‘process tools’ through which we discover what it is we wish to say. Which brings me back to the beginning – why I write. Ultimately I write to discover who I am. Mindfully.

Why do you write?

Mining the Unbliss of Motherhood

[This post was originally posted as a guest blog post over at MotherWriterMentor.]

“…looking back on those earliest days of motherhood un-bliss…if only I could have offered myself the same level of compassion, acceptance and most of all, patience, which I gave freely to my children…”

Mostly I just remember the frustration, laced with irritation, that undermining sense of futility, the quiet, low-lying thrum of a self-pitying voice whining in the interstices of rare silence which seemed to shimmer with possibilities freely offered to everyone else, but denied to me. Mostly I felt locked in the cage of my mind, the steel bars gathered so closely together that they hardly let any light through. But sometimes a chink did manage to pierce the darkness and the enervating fog which hovered and enveloped my inner being, leaving me gasping, wheezing for breath. And oh how bright that light seemed to shine, its radiance reflecting and bouncing off the edges of the murky mist. And how it danced, twirling, spun by the gentle breeze which rocked my cage. I used to imagine that all my favourite female saints and mystics, those dead fore-sisters from the paeans of my Catholic childhood were rushing past me, brushing my lips, my cheeks, my hair with the vestiges of their silent presence. Then I felt as if I was flying, soaring through the skies of my imagined paradise, floating on a magic carpet across the mountains and valleys of my soul landscape. Sometimes, if the babe in arms was sleeping, I rested with them, closing my eyes, allowing myself to let go, surrendering everything to a sense of something bigger, greater, grander than who I was at that moment – a wearied, worrisome mother of five, who desperately wanted to give her children all she could, but who was also cursed to carry a yearning to express some one thing which seemed to have haunted her all her remembered life, and even before that, intimations of sadness and grieving from time immemorial. But how to live a life that gives full expression to two competing and, seemingly, contradictory desires?

For years and years I believed that I had failed, miserably. I grew increasingly exhausted with what held all the appearances, to me anyway, of a battle, an internal war which raged and wouldn’t abate, between my wish to be a good-enough mother, and a writer, (but a writer of what?). But now I am not so sure. Recently I have begun to wonder whether all those painful and pained moments, those days when it took everything I had not to open my mouth and scream (I was afraid that if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop), were not in fact necessary after all, might indeed have been the preamble to what would happen next, that what followed couldn’t have occurred without the chaos which came before. Cause and effect, if you like, though that sounds far too prosaic for what felt, and continues to unfold, like a spiritual journey.

Of course, mothering is no longer quite so intense any more, the babies have grown, the youngest fledgling is a brand new teenager now, so there is more time for reflection and musing. It is not so much that I have ‘achieved’ anything, that there is a single ‘product’, say a novel or a memoir, that I can point to and say, ‘look, this I have done’. And still, there are many bits and pieces which I have scribbled and posted here and there, even published, nothing momentous or vaguely life-changing, but when taken together, when held and raised to the light, albeit a prism which scatters shiny little illuminated fragments across the darkened blackboard of my mind, when I look at these, and find the thread that runs through them, then I know that I had in fact already begun, that all through those long years of despair and frustration, I was already working at my life’s work, I was already writing, that I was, in fact, a writer, even then, even when I was weeping and wailing and howling at the unfairness of it all. It doesn’t matter that few of those words will ever be transcribed from notebook to published writing, it doesn’t matter that all those exhausting exhaustive meanderings through the crevices of my shattered mind will lie hidden in desk drawers gathering dust upon dust, neglected, unheeded. That they were written is enough. The words may never be reproduced, but still something deeper persists, a trace of lamentation, an echo of a life deemed unlived, yet which in that very moment of deepest desolation, paradoxically trembled with aliveness.

It seems to me now, looking back on those earliest days of motherhood un-bliss that if only I could have offered myself the same level of compassion, acceptance and most of all, patience, which I gave freely to my children, perhaps the journey through the years mightn’t have been filled to overflowing with such vast swathes of existential angst. Perhaps not, but then again perhaps this very angst was the soil from which my words were seeded. Perhaps the plants would never have come to fruition had they not been watered with the many tears I cried. Perhaps sometimes our most creative endeavours must needs be raised in beds of darkness. In the end, we know as writers that we can only write from our own experiences, that we can only speak with our own unique voices, that there is no-one, absolutely no other writer who will write from our perspective, seeing life (our lives) as we see them, and that it is precisely this which makes our words differ from everyone else’s.

No, I wouldn’t go back in time; I wouldn’t choose to re-live all those dreadful moments of frustrating impotence. But I can appreciate and acknowledge that they have shaped me to be who I am today, just as my experiences now are laying the groundwork for who I may become tomorrow. Cheryl Strayed advised a young wannabe writer to “write like a motherfucker”. I think only a mother can truly understand what that means. I have a feeling that this will become my new mantra!

-About Tania Pryputniewicz, who commissioned this blog post:

Tania Pryputniewicz is the co-founder of Mother Writer Mentor (MWM) and has blogged since 2007 at Feral Mom, Feral Writer where she muses on the art of raising children and surviving marriage while writing. Pryputniewicz has an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been teaching creative writing since 1992. She teaches poetry workshops for MWM and Transformative Blogging courses for MWM, Story Circle Network, and A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO). Her debut poetry collection,November Butterfly, was published by Saddle Road Press in 2014. Poetry, fairytales, dreams, tarot and collaboration across forms remain favorite pursuits. She is newly transplanted to San Diego, California with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Siberian Husky, and two tubby housecats bearing identical sets of stripes.

Mindfully Mining Memories



[This post first appeared as part of an on-going series on mindful writing, on Telling HerStories, The Broad View, Story Circle Network’s blog.]

Memoirs are a strange, unpredictable beast. They cover the gamut from straightforward linear autobiographical writings, to carefully crafted works of creative non-fiction, where impressions are gently set in shimmering juxtaposition, like grace notes, suspended between intermediary paragraphs of glistening prose. Memoirs such as these necessarily border fictional re-creations of past events hardly remembered, except perhaps, in the lingering echoes of the lithographic pressings which weightless remembrances lay down, like feathers, upon the susceptible sub-conscious mind. The best memoirs, or at least those I favour, combine a sense of truthfulness not always co-extensive with actual factual events. Sometimes there is more truth to be found in the lies, or imagined re-constructions, than in the quotidian details of the happenings themselves.

Is it not precisely this which we do when we dive in deep to the subterranean depths of our murky memories? I mean, of course, that we lie, if lying it is to try and understand, to impose meaning upon the unfettered chaos of the past. The best, the most potentially fruitful of these reminiscences are the ones we cannot quite grasp or understand immediately. Before we can even begin to penetrate their meaning, we must first wipe away a little muck here, a dirty mark there. We brush and burnish, shine and polish, until the insignificant stone reveals its precious bejewelled kernel, irradiated with suggestions of symbolic significance.

Mining memories takes time, lots and lots of what Brenda Ueland called ‘moodling’, resting in the moment, sitting in silence and solitude, waiting and not-waiting, still, yet simultaneously alert to the inner rumblings of possible internal volcanoes. Mindfully mining memories demands oodles of time from its devoted practitioner, what the ancients called ‘kairos’ time, the non-ticking clock of eternal time, that ever present moment which our most assiduous words transport us towards, allowing us to hover above the chasm, an invisible border between perceived chaos and imposed order. Now and then, mindful writing simply drops us into the furnace, that place of mystical burnishing from whence we re-surface altered, a little transformed, not enough that anyone might notice, but carrying traces of another way of being, of see-ing, shifting our vision just a little off-centre. Yes, we might forget what we experienced, but never really fully. We always emerge from our pilgrimage through the meandering, labyrinthine corridors of our minds a little different from before. Bit by bit, like snails and mosses and the soft, contemplative contours of Japanese bonsai , in ever expanding circles of slow time, we begin to intuit the way back home. We follow the path we knew, and not-knew, was always there. And in our knowing, and even more in our not-knowing, we begin to understand what it means to write mindfully.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories

[This book review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]
The Persephone Book of Short Stories was published to celebrate the 100th title in the Persephone Press canon. An independent publisher, Persephone Books specializes in re-printing the largely forgotten and neglected fiction and non-fiction works of women who wrote through the middle 20th century years. Perceived and marketed as “middlebrow” fiction, each book in the series is carefully chosen to offer a fresh and new perspective on themes of particular interest to women readers. Their books are neither so “high-brow” as to be deemed “literary,” nor are they what might be termed “commercial” writing, a sometimes pejorative label applied accusingly to books deemed to belong to the “chick lit” or similar category.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories covers a wider range of writing stretching from the year 1909 up as far as 1986. This handsome volume comprises thirty short stories, including the works of well-known authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Irene Nemirovsky, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald. A works of a host of other lesser known women writers are also to be found within its pages, beautifully bound in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey jackets, the “fabric” end papers taken from roller-printed and screen printed cottons representative of the decades marking the earliest and latest stories in the volume.
These stories all share something in common—they focus on the quiet, quotidian lives and events which mark a woman’s life. Essentially each of these writers describes a very ordinary life, steeped in domesticity and so-called normal daily living, the details of which are mostly forgotten. But not by these authors. Perhaps their greatest achievement is just this: to recall to mind and imagination features of times past, whose circumstances still resonate in the lives of contemporary women, albeit in the tones of the times when they were first written.

In fact, what struck this reader was the surprising relevance of many of these tales to modern life. From wearied and harassed mothers to fed-up wives and abandoned lovers, this volume covers the gamut of female relationships. Indeed, the cohesive threads which binds and gathers these stories together are the very relationships which, even now in the 21st century, still tend to demarcate much of the lived experiences particular to women. As a woman, I could identify with the humiliating and demeaning ordeal the author Georgina Hammick described in her story “A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit” (1986), when her ankles were strapped up, and her legs stretched outwards, like a crucified figure hanging upside down, her most private parts open to the scrutiny of a bevy of male medical students.

Following the publisher, Nicola Beaumam’s, advice to “compare and contrast,” I next turned to Susan Glaspell’s “From A to Z” (1909), a penetrating glimpse into the nature of altruistic love, a chastened and chastening emotion which evokes a kind of tender pain leading in time to a “blind, passionate desire” to watch over the beloved’s well-being. Previous interests and minor dalliances can be as nothing when held up against a canvas such as this love greater than all loves. Our hearts ache for the heroine as she watches “a panting human soul sobbingly fluttering down into something from which it had spent all its force in trying to rise….a mist which she could neither account for nor banish was dimming the clear hazel of her eyes.” Unanswered questions are scattered through this tale, musings mostly about what it means to love, to not love, to live a life chosen for oneself, or subjected to the will of another.

But not all the stories describe scenes from a daily life. Some, even after so many years, still send shock waves through the reader. Take, for instance, Norah Hoult’s “Nine Years is a Long Time” (1938), a tale of prostitution with a twist. Or, even more shocking, try Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) for size, and see whether you don’t need to sit a while to recover. Short stories can serve as thunderbolts from the blue, blasting pre-conceived ideas and most especially, nostalgic reminiscences viewed through rose-tinted lens, into smithereens at the reader’s feet. They seem so small, innocuous, innocent almost, when first you pick them up, unaware of the grenade hidden in the white spaces between the words. Beauman is to be applauded for including these subversive stories in her collection as a reminder that in so many ways, we 21st century readers are not so different after all, from our former female compatriots.

As a publisher of books written “by women, for women and about women” (from their website) Persephone Books shares much in common with Story Circle Network. Indeed many of the books in their canon are memoirs and non-fiction titles. As portals into the lives of women living in England from early to late 20th century, these books are an invaluable resource for those of us interested in finding out more about how our foremothers lived, what our fore-sisters thought, and the dreams and desires our fore-grandmothers yearned to behold, not just for themselves alone, but for their daughters and granddaughters too. I cannot imagine a more pleasant way of whiling away an afternoon than sitting in a sofa curled up with a collection of women writers such as are found within the pages of The Persephone Book of Short Stories.

Reading Women: The Baily’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015


Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something,, become a better person. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

-Nora Ephron

Image result for irish times poster of irish women writers

Last weekend ‘The Irish Times’ published a keepsake poster of 12 Irish women writers, having narrowed down the selection chosen by 40 writers and academics who were asked to nominate their favourite female author. They were also asked to explain the reasons for their choice in 180 words or less. In total, 62 short articles on the theme of Irish women writers have been published on their web site, irishtimes.com. Apart from the importance of highlighting the literary standing of many of our major female writers, and thus hopefully enticing those who have neither heard nor read their works yet, there is also the interest generated in the wider world of women’s writing in such a project as this. The importance of such initiatives cannot be underestimated.

BAILEYS Women's Prize for Fiction

One other such initiative of significance is The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Previously known as The Orange Women’s Prize for Fiction, the longlist was finally published on 10th March. Speaking about the longlist, which unfortunately doesn’t contain any Irish women writers this year, the Chair of judges, Shami Chakrabarti, says,

The Prize’s 20th year is a particularly strong one for women’s fiction. All judges fought hard for their favourites and the result is a 2015 list of 20 to be proud of – with its mix of genres and styles, first-timers and well-known names from around the world.

The following 20 titles now need to be culled back to a shortlist of six, which will be announced on 13th April. The overall winner will be announced on 3rd June 2015.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guest

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

Doubtless we all have our own personal favourites which have surprised us by their omission. Mine is Lila by Marilynne Robinson, the long awaited sequel to Gilead and Home.

And if you’re interested in joining in the discussion of this year’s nominated novels, check out The Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel 2015. Expect it to be lively!

Have you read any on the list? Which are your favourites? What do you plan to read next?

Right now I’m currently reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and hope to post a review of it very soon!

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Picador, 2014 (translated by Eric Selland)

The Guest Cat

Though a work of fiction, The Guest Cat reads more like creative non-fiction in its tone, and even its structure, with its unannounced switching of settings, often from one paragraph to another. And yet, it works. Chapters are presented as gathered glimpses of moments in time, as if the narrator is holding up a mirror to the simple, quotidian events in his life, focusing now here, now there, each glimpse more like a vague, half-formed intuition that this might, maybe, harbour some sense of meaning greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the narrator, an author, ever intimates that he is seeking some over-arching grand scheme which might impose a kind of meaningfulness upon his daily life. This author simply wants to do what he feels increasingly called to do, or rather to be – he wants to write; he wants to forgo all paid employment and devote his time and energy to the pursuit of expressing himself through the medium of word smithing. And so he does. His wife agrees to his proposal, not because she believes that it is either wise, or financially prudent, but because she doesn’t really wish to disagree with him. Or at least so the author tells us. We only ever get to know his wife through his eyes. She is an intermittent presence throughout this short novel, making her appearance for an occasional word painting, but more background shadowy figure than fully fleshed character. And yet the sense of her constantly hovers through these pages.

Still it is the Guest Cat herself, Chibi who is the main protagonist in this tale, the one who determines the unfolding sequence of events in the story. Chibi is the driver of the plot, the force field which determines what happens next. The narrator names her ‘Lightening Catcher’ to delineate her true, wild, cat-like nature, the mystery of her being. As well as the narrator, his wife and the cat which doesn’t belong to them, there is also a big house, and a small guest house (for rent); an old woman (the landlady) and an old man (her sick husband), and a miniature garden with a view of the neighbour’s zelkova tree, symbolically the centre of the tale. Most of the action takes place in this enclosed setting where the mood is “so isolated from its surrounding as to produce an almost otherworldly atmosphere” – p 106]

There is a kind of hushed reverence, a graced simplicity, trailing through the chapters of this book like the be-ribboned clouds which cast their long white fingers across the canvas of the blue sky in its opening lines. And though the tale is told in a straightforward linear fashion, yet this reader was left with a sense of spinning outwards, as if each new event, each tiny telling of an apparently innocuous occurrence, spiralled towards a mysterious unknowing, instilling a felt sense of something good and deep and even, perhaps, holy. We sense the writer laying his language down carefully, gently, upon the waiting page. There is no sense of hurry or urgency left hanging as a distraction, or as a dimly dark presence hovering like a dark shadow behind the words, beneath its quiet sense of being. The writer moves soundlessly through his pages, leaving little trace of his self behind. His book wanders, trailing through the seasons, like the be-ribboned clouds which greet our inner eye when we follow the poet-writer over to his window, when we peep from behind his shoulder and see what he sees.

The effect of this book on the psyche and emotions of the reader can only be truly and deeply experienced if the book is read more or less in a single sitting. But this is not hard to do. For one thing, the book itself is hardly more than a novella. For another, each time you place the book down, something inside, something instilled by the sense of the presence of the book, the story, the words, calls to the reader to pick it up again. What happens next, the reader wishes to know, though the chapters in and of themselves seem to be little more than descriptions of the scene viewed through the eyes of the narrator. And yet, underneath the stream of events, the turning of the seasons, something is happening, changing, unfolding. Ultimately this little novel is less about a cat than the subtle events in our lives which gradually change and alter our perceptions. “When the cat stopped coming, it seemed as if the garden had changed into something dreary and drab.” [p. 95]

There are some wonderful scenes described within these pages, scenes which beg to be marked and read and re-read, over and over again. One such scene, reminiscent of a similar blustery billowing in The Great Gatsy, is painted on pages 22 and 23. The narrator opens a window in his little house

“and the wind came in from the south like an avalanche of snow. Then, one after the other, I opened all the other windows in the house. The window over the kitchen sink of course, and the glass lattice windows in the two bedrooms on the east side, followed by the bay window in the dining room and then the bathroom window. The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through.”

These few sentences capture the essence of this gorgeous tale, which weaves it magic through the suggestively lyrical and poetic undertones, laid lightly on top of ordinary, daily occurrences, nothing forced or over-stated; on the contrary everything here is muted and quiet, easily missed if read in a rush. This book whispers its story, and the only possible way to hear what it is telling us, is by quieting our souls and listening with the ears of our heart. Then we can listen with the narrator when he first happened upon the guesthouse, noticing the calm atmosphere of the district:

The first time we entered the silence, a strange feeling of peace came upon me, as if a loving hand had placed itself gently upon my chest.” [p.18]

But perhaps, more than anything else, it is the fragility of humanity heard in this cry from the narrator’s heart which reaches out and resonates with the reader’s heart, this deep longing, an utterly intolerable yearning, which tears through the fabric of every reader’s soul, laying bare the losses each one of us has lived through.

But not only that, just by moving away, we also would be joining sides with those who forget – this was simply unbearable.” [p. 114]

And then there is the gift of the final pages of this beautiful and mesmerizing novel, but to share them with you now would be to give too much away. Anyway, to fully appreciate the gifts the author bestows it is necessary first to set out upon your own journey of reading. Bit by bit, detail by detail, the writer brings his readers to a new understanding of what it means to remember. Read this novel and experience the peace and tranquillity, as well as the pain, which only a true poet can bestow.

Writing True



[This article was first posted on Telling Herstories, The Broad View, Story Circle Network’s blog.]

Mindful writing is not always easy. Sometime the mere thought of sitting down and trying to find words to express the inexpressible, is impossible, a task beyond our very human, utterly broken capabilities. I am not talking beauty here, I am not referring to those moments of near mystical experience when we try to capture a glimpse of the ineffable in rarefied language. No, I mean when we really cannot write. Those moments and hours, sometimes running into days and weeks, and G*d forbid months, when the words simply refuse to come, when language is like a sea of stormy waves roaring in our ears, a tsunami of terror threatening to overwhelm and drown us. How do we write then, when one word clangs as loudly and as meaninglessly as another? And if the words do come, they come crawling from a heart heavy with fear and dread, arriving stilted and still-born. Lifeless images collapse in a heap around us, burying us in the signs of our own ineffectuality.

So what do we do on those days when we feel as if we cannot write anything, when the Muse refuses to grace us with her presence, when in fact the Muse seems like nothing more than a silly daydream, the fantasy of former imaginings? Is this what is known as ‘writer’s block’? Perhaps it is, though it feels more like trying to scale a frozen wall of ice, no foothold on which to hoist ourselves up.

These walls, which seem to rise spontaneously, relentlessly, coming and going as they see fit, are part of who we are, they are those sides of ourselves we like to try and forget, or at least ignore, and our best attempts are our most favourite mindless distractions. Depth psychologists call these shrouded parts, our ‘shadows’. If we are writing mindfully as a daily practice, it won’t be long before we are forced to face these scary and hidden sides of our natures.

But how to write them into being if the words refuse to come? How do we acknowledge their presence if we can do little more than sit, stuck, staring at the blank page which blinks back at us accusingly, mocking our feeble attempts at openness and truthfulness?

Perhaps this is the point where our practice of mindful writing truly becomes a practice. Certainly it doesn’t feel like we are playing a game anymore. The veil of pretence is lifted. Now the work grows serious and deep, and scary too. The gloves are off. And so we do the only thing we can do. We go to our writing desk, pull out a sheet of paper, lift our pen, and begin.

Can we listen to ourselves in the silence? Can we sit and wait for the whispers of our souls to come creeping, slowly, falteringly, letter by letter, through our pens? Can we allow our truest selves to tell their stories through the gateway of broken language, a stuttering love poem to our deepest being, that part of us which we feel most intensely on the other side of feeling nothing, numbed by the weight of existence? What a paradox this life we wander though is, what a charade, a carnival of masks, a ballet where the dancers laugh and mock at us, and yet just there, just beneath the surface, pick at it and it will start to bleed, and in the bleeding will come the words, the agony, the truth, but only for now, only for what it is in this moment of mindfulness. Catch it before its gone, capture it in a jumble of letters, and when you’re done, screw it up and throw it away. Another day of practice is over.

We that are left by Juliet Greenwood


Honno, 2014. ISBN 978-1-906-78499-7.

[Originally posted on Story Circle Network Book Reviews]

We That are Left is Juliet Greenwood’s second novel set during the tumultuous years of the Great War, in a small village in Cornwall. Elin, the principle protagonist, is married to Hugo, a major in the British Army who suffered deep psychological wounds after serving during the Boer War. Though he may once have loved Elin, she can no longer find any vestiges of his love in her lonely life. But then, on a beautiful sunny day in August, a biplane piloted by an adventure-seeking young woman, paradoxically called Mouse, makes an emergency landing close to the manor, Hiram Hall. Elin not only makes a new friend on that portentous day, but is drawn ever more deeply into the intrigues and dramas of Mouse’s wild life and ends by making a new life for herself.

Juliet Greenwood is a rather unique author, one who succeeds in combining a variety of elements I enjoy in a novel. If she needs a label, or a shelf to be placed upon in the bookshop, I suppose her genre is romance, or perhaps the more all-encompassing genre of “women’s fiction with romantic elements.”

But being British, Greenwood has no need to worry about attempting to fit her novels within certain definitions, narrow or otherwise. The remit for English authors has always been wider, and deeper, than that, allowing (even within the confines of “genre” writing) for deviations and multifarious interpretations. In other words, an author generally has free rein to roam where her imagination might take her—although finding a publisher might take a little longer.

Juliet Greenwood is a quintessential English authoress. I use this word, not in any pejorative sense, but to acknowledge her long and illustrious heritage found within the covers of her novel-writing ancestors, many of whom are currently in the process of been re-published by small independent publishing houses, such as Persephone Press. Common themes in early 20th century women’s writing include strong female characters cast in an engaging socially-oriented fiction, elements much in evidence in Greenwood’s novels also. Like her forbears, Ms Greenwood is a mistress of storytelling. Her novel pulls the reader in from the very first page and drags her through a kind of potted history of women’s emerging consciousness and evolving dreams of freedom from the shackles which have long held them, and their mothers, and their mother’s mothers, in thrall to a destiny not of their own making.

Setting the “Prologue” aside for the moment, the story begins on August 1st, 1914. This tale, of almost epic proportions, opens with a sentence suggesting the devastation which can lie hidden beneath the apparent sweet innocence of the most delicate day in a rose-tinted English summer: “It was the day of raspberries and champagne, the day the world changed.”

Yet though the novel reads like something akin to a long film biopic, most of the action takes place over the few short, but terrible years, from 1914, when World War 1 began, to the summer of 1919. The book is flanked by a preface and a conclusion, both set in 1925. The preface is a setting for a protagonist returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, filled with a mixture of emotion encompassing both sorrow and regret, liberally laced with relief and a kind of hopeful anticipation. Indeed, the preface succeeds extremely well in setting the emotional undertones for the novel which is to follow. Juliet Greenwood is obviously a woman who watches without judging, a compassionate person who sees with a vision wider and more open than many of her contemporaries. Her novel reflects her deep consideration of many of the thorny issues which plagued not just her female characters in the story, but which continue to haunt many of her female contemporaries.

Throughout the novel, Greenwood throws a variety of difficult conundrums at her cast, and to her credit as a storyteller, she never allows herself to sink into the realm of authorial clichés. Her characters’ problems are often of a deeply moral nature, yet she never shirks from her responsibility to treat them with the deference they deserve. Over the course of the novel, Greenwood explores issues such as domestic violence, rape in times of war, the difficulties of procuring a divorce for a woman, the limited options for women before the First World War and the assumption, for many of a certain class, that all would return to the way it used to be once the Great War ended.

If you have a fondness for writing in the tradition of English women authors; if you enjoy romance but without the usual clichéd plots normally associated with the genre; if you treasure novels based upon well researched archives of women’s social history in the early 20th century; and if you love English period dramas made for television (such as the superb “The Crimson Field.” also set during the Great War and aired on BBC in early 2014), then I have no doubt whatsoever that you will simply adore Juliet Greenwood’s latest novel. I know I did!

After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet Greenwood worked in a variety of jobs, from running a craft stall at Covent Garden Market to teaching English.

Juliet began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years. Juliet always says that M.E. was the worst, and the best, thing that ever happened to her. On the positive side, it made her a writer. As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes stories and serials for magazines as “Heather Pardoe.”

When not writing, Juliet works on local oral history projects, helping older people tell their stories before they are lost forever. Visit her web site.