Tag Archive: grief


I am standing on the seashore….

Hi all:

Bit of a surreal day today. Went to a funeral which was held in a natural burial place; not a graveyard, but a very beautiful stretch of woodland sloping down to the sea. There are no grave markers, though you can see the mounds for a few years till the soil settles a bit, and as we walked down the path to where the grave was, at first it’s a bit disconcerting, seeing all the mounds under the trees, some more recent and others barely discernible. Most were covered in woodland flowers and undergrowth – not as if they were unkempt, but as if they were being reclaimed by nature.

The coffin was made of wickerwork, and the bouquets were simple cut flowers, no oasis or cellophane. The grave was under the canopy of a most beautiful beech tree, with other trees closely around. I looked up during the service, and was fascinated by the moving mosaic of leaves, layer upon layer of them. The sun glowed through the higher leaves, and now and then there was a blink of blue sky as the branches shifted and whispered in the breeze. It was really lovely, actually, and looking around at the other grave sites, I really liked that slowly, the mounds settle back into the ground and become part of the woodland. They’re tall and proud at the beginning, when you need the marker, but gradually as the sadness of grief fades and the happiness surfaces, the mound also fades and the woodland stops being background to grief, and comes back into focus as a place of peace to sit and be thankful for the good memories.

That really appeals to me. For me, a quiet, sunny space filled with leaf-whisper and the dappling of sun through the leaves is perfect for dealing with grief; not lonely silence, but filled with enough sound and movement to keep your brain occupied while your heart quietly breaks, and quietly mends itself, though it takes a long time.

One of the moments during the service that made me wobble a bit was the readings as they used one – sometimes called “What is dying?” – that we had at my Dad’s funeral. He died last year, just before our wedding. That reading was one I first heard at the funeral of the father of a good friend. It talks of dying as standing on the seashore watching a ship carrying cargo which disappears over the horizon. It’s lovely: have a quick look at the link above (the rest of this blog will make a lot more sense if you do!)

I loved it. I sent it home to my parents as my mum plays the organ at a lot of funerals and my Dad’s choir used to sing at them, so it’s always useful to know these things in case the family are having trouble finding something relevant. My Dad had always loved sailing and the sea, so he really liked the reading too. It always makes me think of him, and certainly it did today. I miss him, the old bugger. I found myself standing at the funeral for one person and crying for another, which was also weird. 
My Dad found school very difficult as a child, and that included reading. He said once that he read maybe five books from the time he was a teen to that point (his early seventies, maybe?) But at that point we went on a mission to get him reading. I had persuaded my Mum to read Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. She didn’t like fantasy until she read Hobb and discovered it wasn’t like she had thought, and she was sure that my Dad would enjoy it too, but he was an awkward one and not necessarily inclined to oblige. So we left it on the table, slightly in the way. When he came in, he looked at it and read the blurb and said “What’s this?”

“Oh, sorry, is that in your way?” I  moved it onto the side. “It’s the book I just finished reading.”

“Is it good?” 

I shrugged. “I think it’s epically good,” I told him, and went off  burbling about it being really exciting and gripping and all the stuff I thought might appeal. “But you wouldn’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I know you’re not right bothered. Anyhow I lent it to Mum and she loved it so I’m going to see if (my sister) wants to read it.”

I left it at that and wandered off, and sure enough when I went back into the kitchen a couple of hours later it had mysteriously gone. He loved the book, of course, and was up till all hours reading it several nights in a row. Less than a week later I caught him sneaking into the other room to see if he could find the second one in the bookshelf… and he did read the whole trilogy. 

After that, there was a rather lovely thing where he would come and ask my Mum rather hesitantly what she thought he might like next. Mum, having been a school teacher, is pretty good at judging that sort of thing, and he went from kids books like Stig of the Dump, which he loved, to James Herriot and Nevill Shute, and by the time of his death he was part way through Oliver Twist. To me, that is just the most amazing thing, to suddenly discover the joy of words so late in life, and I’m so proud that he stuck with it all the way up to Dickens (I know the classics can be a bit Marmite, but I love Dickens’ use of words, so it’s amazing to be able to share that enjoyment with someone discovering it for the first time). I am so proud and pleased that he did start, and kept going nearly to the end of his life, when his Parkinson’s intervened. He gained so much pleasure from it until then; I love that that was a gift we were able to give him. It feels like a real privilege.

I don’t think he ever read any of my books apart from one short story, The Black-Eyed Susan, which had a sailing ship in it. He  really liked it and wanted to read Song of the Ice Lord after, as it also involves ships and war, which were two things he was quite interested in, but sadly his illness intervened and he never got that far. Whether he would have enjoyed it or not I can’t tell you, but I think he would have liked the shipspirits.

What are the shipspirits? In Song, the warrior/sailor tribes that make up the Skral people have a complex relationship with their ships, to which they attribute a sort of benificent awareness, and when each ship becomes too old to repair, the tribe haul them to a very secret and sacred place, the ships’ graveyard, where they are laid to rest in honour. Maran and Lodden, a bard and a engineer of sorts, travel across the island where Maran’s people live. Lodden, who comes from a far country, is awed to see the row upon row of ships along the hillside, the older ones crumbling into flat, shapeless mounds while the newer ones stand high and stark.

…Sound familiar? 

As I looked around the burial ground today, with the grave-mounds unmarked and settling into the earth, it felt as if someone had taken the pictures in my head and made it real, just on a smaller scale (and with less snow!). That’s why it was doubly eerie when they started reading the poem; Song is dedicated to my friend’s father, at whose funeral I first heard the poem that gave me the idea of the shipspirits- but that poem, the poem at my Dad’s funeral, was the very same one they read today.

Today, the combination of the burial site and the reading made me shiver, though not in a bad way.  Song of the Ice Lord is about grief and loss, but it is also about coming to terms with losing the people you love, and understanding that while we remember them with love, they never really leave us. 
I will leave you with the last part of the poem in the version we heard today, as the soul-ship disappears over the horizon and is lost to sight:

And just at the moment when someone at my side says

“She is gone!”

there are other eyes watching her coming,

and other voices ready to take up the glad shout

“She is here at last!” 
Take care, all.

JAC.

– – –

NB Song of the Ice Lord is quite randomly on a 99c deal at the moment, if you’re interested. Oddly enough, we organised it weeks ago before there was any question of a funeral at all. Synchronicity is a weird, weird, thing.

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Hallo all;

this week we have a treat for you: a guest post by the lovely Vivienne Tuffnell, whose latest book Little Gidding Girl has just released – and last time I looked, all the reviews were 5*….

Having read it myself this very afternoon, I loved it – it’s a very well-written, intriguing story with finely-crafted characters you can really identify with (or really dislike, depending on which one we’re talking about!!). Modern lit is not really my thing but Little Gidding Girl is excellent, and well worth a read.

I asked Vivienne to tell us a bit about her novel for the blog, and here is what she had to say about it.

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Coming of age or mid-life crisis? Little Gidding Girl is both and neither.

In trying to place my new novel Little Gidding Girl into those nice neat categories and genres that Amazon offers, I realised that it won’t fit into a convenient box. It has that in common with every other book of mine, too, of course, but I’d had some hopes that with the Holy Grail of having GIRL in the title, it might be a little easier to place. No such luck, eh?

The word GIRL is itself problematic. Many years ago, when I worked for the Nature Conservancy Council (now Wild Britain), I had a colleague who was a very inspiring woman, about fifteen years older than me. She’d served her time at the Greenham Peace Camp and had campaigned on a variety of things to do with conservation, social justice and nuclear disarmament. Indeed, I suspect that I may have been thinking of her when I wrote Cathy (Red Cat), Chloe’s sister, from Square Peg. I remember her frustration and increasing fury when our boss referred to us as GIRLS or worse, LADIES. “We’re women,” she’d declare, and would correct him every single time until he got the message. At 22, I was barely out of girlhood, really, but I was already married, and then pregnant in the second half of my contract, so I agreed and made a mental note that the word GIRL was problematic in so many ways.

But at what point does a GIRL truly become a woman? It’s a tricky question. It’s not got an easy simple answer. In theory, the moment a female enters her majority (in the UK, that’s anywhere between 18 and 21; one can vote at 18 but many other activities are limited to 21 and over), she becomes a woman. In some cultures, it’s at menarche or at first pregnancy, and in some, never in any meaningful legal way.

Verity, the main character of Little Gidding Girl, is 35 when the book starts. She’s married, and mother to a child verging on her teen years, but there’s something extremely youthful about her. Her hair retains the white-blonde colour of youth, and she’s pale to the point of transparency. Her plumpness is more like puppy-fat than middle-age spread and she’s in the process of losing it. She struggles with keeping her daughter in order, and is a bit of a pushover. Her job is one that any recent school-leaver might do, or indeed one that would appeal to a student, and she’s pushed around and bullied by her boss, a woman she was at school with who has become a shrewd and cut-throat business owner. She remains, in essence, a girl, unformed and a strange shadow of what she might have been. She’s frozen in a moment in time that has long gone, yet she herself has not managed to move on with it and become a woman in any of the truly meaningful ways that have nothing to do with voting age or getting into night clubs.

The mid thirties are when the first signs of mid-life can manifest, often as restlessness and dissatisfaction with how life has turned out. The average age for the classic mid-life crisis (in men, characterised by the cliché of buying a sports car or getting a new, younger, trophy-type wife or girlfriend) is 42, coincidentally also the number chosen as the meaning of life (if you’re a fan of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). At thirty-five, Verity is a little young for such a crisis but her world has changed, tilted on its axis by the death of her grandfather. Since he was the constant, rock-like figure in her life, his loss is surely a factor in triggering the change in Verity; she and her little family move into his house, left to her, and that too catapults her unconsciously into reviewing her life so far.

The novel is the story of how a girl might become a woman, when the passage of years has done nothing to bring about this change, because the flow of life that should have heralded that coming-of-age, has been dammed up and time, in a strange sense, has stopped. In the opening lines of Burnt Norton from Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot talks speculatively about the nature of time, postulating that if all time is eternally present, time is itself unredeemable. In effect, Verity’s exploration of her life and how it stalled, is a process of disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves. Yet the echoes created by her searching unconsciously become more and more real and more and more disturbing as the cracks in time start to reveal a life she never lived.

At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.

Little Gidding Girl

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Many thanks to Viv for coming out to play on the blog today. Little Gidding Girl is available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon, and having read and thoroughly enjoyed it myself, I can heartily recommend that you go buy it now!

Other than that, all progresses this side as ever, which is to say: slowly. Holly & Ivy is due to go out for betaing any minute, with hopefully a view to publishing in the next month or so. Flight is on hold till that is done and Wolf stuff cued up after that.

New Dog is being just as obstructive as he can, though he has a splendid habit of bringing me his favourite watering can at any moment when it is highly inconvenient. I have stopped putting water in it now…! With which image I shall love you and leave you.

Now go and buy Little Gidding Girl, quick – you’ll want the weekend to binge on it!

J.

 

My heart has joined the Thousand….

So. Two and a half months of silence. I should explain that, really.

There’s a quote from Watership Down:

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”

That.

This is Jack, our beloved lurcher. Such a happy picture, isn’t it? We were on holiday and he absolutely loved exploring new places with the security of his pack around him.  For an old dog he was very young at heart; such a happy soul.


About a week after my last blog, he was taken ill with a ministroke while we were travelling and had to be put down pretty unexpectedly. I won’t go into detail but he passed away in comfort, relaxed in a familiar place surrounded by all the members of both our families. It was the best it could possibly be for hom, and we are really grateful for that – but for us, it was an awful shock of grief and loss.

Everything stopped.  Writing, editing, reading; watching tv, even; everything stopped.

We returned home to an empty house, with his toys all over the floor and the water still in his bowl. We hung up his lead, and put away the toys. We washed the blanket on the sofa, and put away his bed and bowls, and we missed him with every breath in and every breath out. Pets make up a huge part of your routine and your thoughts, and when they are torn out of your life the hole they leave is huge and raw. 

The following week we had a death in the (extended) family – not entirely an unexpected one, but still to be dealt with. 

The week after that was the first anniversary of my Dad’s death.  

And apart from trying to deal with all that those events involved, at every point there was no dog to comfort us, and distract us, and make us laugh; just memories everywhere, and more loss, each grief tangling with the others until there was no area of our life that was not tinged with loss, no part of our hearts that was not raw and sore. Your chest becomes tight with it, as if you have been holding your breath ever since it started.  You are heartsick and heartsore, and tired to the bone.

No dog meant no walks to walk the grief away, and work through the emotions, and for me that had been a huge part of the way I coped when my Dad died, just a few weeks before my wedding. After a while I started going on the walks by myself anyway. The first walk was hard; the first time in the park without Jack, in the cornfield where he bounded along the path with such joy, the little pathway where he loved to snuffle amongst the leaves. He was everywhere, so vividly that I could almost see him; and he was nowhere. The walks helped, and I was determined to take the sting out of being in those areas, for when the time came to get another dog, but it took a while. I had a lot of help though. There is a really supportive little community of dog-owners here, and Jack was very popular because he was so friendly and engaging. They are really good when someone loses their pet – they put the word out so you don’t have to tell people. So many came up to say how sorry they were and how they would miss him; it was lovely that he brought enjoyment to so many people, and it did help, though generally I ended up weeping all over the place.

But even so, everything had stopped.

The problem is that for me, at least, writing is an outpouring of exuberance and creativity that requires excess nervous energy. I can write angry, nervous or stressed as well as happy – but I can’t write through grief. For me grief, whether for my Dad or for my dog, is like walking a tightrope over shards of glass. With a bit of stillness and quiet and a lot of concentration, I can make it to the other side. At first I’ll be wobbling all over the place, and that’s okay, but as time gets on, I think less about the fall and more about what’s ahead, until finally I realise there is no more glass, and the tightrope is just skimming the surface of the ground. And then there’s no need to concentrate so much any more, and no need to walk the tightrope, and you can just get on with things again. But grief is strange; it’s so draining, even if you’re not doing anything more than getting through the day.

It’s taken a while, but we’re nearly there now, not quite back on the ground but nearly there. We have worked really hard to let the sadness go, and to revel in the joy that Jack brought us, and because so many of our memories are glad, funny, joyful, we’re getting there. It will be a long time before we can let go of the sadness entirely, of course,  but that’s only right and fitting; grief is the footprint of love, and the love he brought us was huge.

In the meantime, we have an empty sofa, and our little pack is missing a member. We have got to the point now where we are ready to invite another dog into our lives. After much searching and negotiation, we are going to visit a rescue centre and, if all goes well, will be welcoming a new character into our lives really soon. We still miss Jack and we always will, but we are not replacing him so much as expanding the pack further, and we know he would have loved that. It’s a little poignant, and a little daunting, but mostly it’s really exciting and we are looking forward to meeting New Dog with so much anticipation.

And all of that has its effect. On the writing front, the deadlock is easing up; I’ve been doing a little editing, and I can feel the words starting to bubble up again; sooner or later, writing will happen again. It’s not going to be right away, because getting a new dog settled is a lot of work at first, more if they are not housetrained or have the other sorts of issues you are likely to encounter from a rescue dog. All this energy will be needed at first to form the bond between owner and dog, to find out how to communicate with them best, to get it settled and comfortable in the new routine of days at home and days at work, and walks, and visits to the extended pack in the form of both families, though that will be a little further along the line still.

But that sort of busy – good busy – whirs away in the brain creating the energy I need to really make my characters live!

So the plan is, look at launching The Holly and the Ivy for Midsummer’s Day or thereabouts, then finish the edit on Flight. It’s not the moment right now for the Wolf books – I think that will come further along in the autumn, but there’s always The Mother To finish and this year’s submission for the Christmas anthology and who knows what else to be getting on with. It’s not that there’s always something, it’s more that there isn’t the time in the world to keep up with writing the stories I’ve thought of, even made notes for… 

Sometimes that daunts me, but right now it’s starting that good old feeling, the one where my mind is simmering with low-level excitement. It starts low and slow, but it builds and it builds and the point will come where it tips over from a simmer to a rolling boil, and the words will start to bubble up madly, and I’ll be typing like a demon, and three months later there’s another damn book to add to the queue for sense checking, and I really need to start scraping money together for the edit and the cover, and we’re off to the races again!

But in the meantime, let me get back by dribs and drabs to my rewrite on Holly, and the cover’s all ready to go, so it’s just a case of sorting everything out in time for release day… A nice easing back into it, you’d have thought, only these things never are, and I have some new strategies to try this time. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes. But, cautiously, I’m hoping to be in the vicinity a little more often in the weeks to come. No promises, mind, but watch this space, eh?

Anyhow. Right now I’ll sign off. There’s dog stuff to assemble and pack for bringing him /her home, and so many other things to be done before we set off.

…Wish us luck, peeps! 

JAC.