2014 – MY YEAR OF LIVING MINDFULLY
January – HOPE versus OPTIMISM
Happy 2014 to all of you who take the time to drop in here. I do appreciate your time, feedback and loyalty. I now have two hundred posts under my belt and the blog has grown and evolved since I began it at the beginning of January 2010. 2013 saw me trying put this new monthly magazine format. I’m still not entirely sure if it works better monthly rather than weekly, but I’m going to let it run like this for a wee while yet.
This is a packed issue of Put it in Writing. So what can you expect?
Well, it’s January, the two-faced month that looks both backwards and forwards, and so I’ll be doing a bit of that.
For me, 2014 is going to be a Year of Living Mindfully. By that I mean I want to slow down and pay attention. I want to be much more aware of life as I live it and not to be forever anticipating, planning and, more often than not, stressing. Over the coming months I’ll be reporting on how I get on with mindful meditations, mindful walks and simple mindful moments. To get me started I’ve just read a book lent to me by my friend and fellow blogger, Catherine. Do check out Catherine’s engaging and informative blog . The book Catherine lent me is called ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ and it’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a great introduction to mindfulness. And, also by way of getting in the zone, I’m taking part in Satya Robin’s, January Mindful Writing Challenge, which you can find out more about at her Writing Our Way Home website . I’ve posted my first six little ‘stones’ of mindful writing below and I’ll be posting subsequent stones, in sets of six, as interim posts for the rest of the month.
Also at Satya’s prompting I’ve chosen a ‘motto’ word for the year.
The word is PRESENT.
Present in the sense of the here and now – trying to live a bit more mindfully and in the moment
Present in the sense of a gift – of kindness to myself and others
Present in the sense of show – show the world the real me
I hope the word will keep me focused on my goals and plans. I prefer the terms goals and plans to resolutions. I suspect resolutions are all about ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’. And I’ve lived more than enough of my life being a slave to that evil threesome. From now on, I’ll strive for ‘wants,’ ‘hopes’ and ‘desires’. I want to slow down and pay attention. I want to try new things including different types of reading material, new foods, a new way of living. I want to stop giving myself a hard time and to be more tolerant and forgiving of others. I want to be more fully myself.
Another extra this month is a piece I’ve written in response to an invitation to take part in the My Writing Process blog tour.
There will be a bit more, too, on politics as I continue to look at what is going to be a significant year for Scotland’s political future.
This month’s book review is of a guide to memoir writing, Old Friend from Far Away, by that wonderful teacher of writing, Natalie Goldberg.
So, get yourself a cup or glass of your preferred tipple and let’s get started.
As with any year, 2013 had its ups and downs.
My first writing highlight was back in January, when my entry in the National Library of Scotland’s/Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel competition was shortlisted. Other writing highlights included completing my second novel which is scheduled to be published in the next couple of months; and finishing the writing, re-writing and re-writing of my first novel for children. This latter book will soon be going off for professional editing and then on to publication later this year. I also continued writing my contributions to the bi-monthly writing magazine Words with Jam. Taking part in Writing Our Way Home’s 31 days of Joy writing challenges back in May proved enlightening, inspirational and was also very enjoyable.
In my teaching life, I took up the challenge of piloting a new way of delivering support to children presenting with very difficult behaviour and whose learning was severely compromised by that behaviour. This has involved working intensively with three children, aged nine and ten, every morning, (leaving afternoons free for me to work with other pupils with special needs). It is proving very successful. Everyone seems to agree that these pupils have really turned things around and, for me, this is turning out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my thirty-five year teaching career.
However, as to the future for my life in teaching, 2014 will be the year I retire. I’ve made what I see as a very big decision but one that is full of hope and faith in the future. I’m taking early retirement in August. It will be good to end my career on such a high note. I won’t miss all the form-filling, box ticking and endless ‘initiatives’. But I will miss all my pupils and the daily engagement with children.
Retirement from teaching will not mean retirement from working. The decision is not a negative one but is one fuelled by a desire to change. I want to be able to devote much more time and energy to writing. I want to be truly professional about it. I’m very much looking forward to my new job.
In my family life, 2013 included my thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, something me and the old fella have still to celebrate, once his two-year long battle with ill-health is finally over. And we’re very hopeful that his return to full fitness will be accomplished by the Spring of this year after two more operations.
My own battle with anxiety, stress and mild depression continues, but it’s one I feel I’m winning. In fact the title of this issue of the blog, Hope versus Optimism, arises out of that battle. Optimism is a concept I’ve long had a problem with. Well-meaning people will often say ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘everything will be fine’ or ‘you’re worrying unnecessarily’ or ‘things will get better’. They are trying to offer a distressed person comfort but, it seems to me, what they’re actually doing is not really listening and suggesting a passive response to real difficulty. Hope is a much more constructive attitude, both for someone who is troubled and for someone trying to help. Hope offers positive possibility and can prompt positive action to attain a positive outcome. For someone who is fearful, anxious or upset, a supporter offering hope, rather than bland platitudes, is much more helpful. It shows that the problem has been listened to and its significance has not been dismissed.
What I’ve come to see is that finding hope in all situations is key to survival and peace of mind. It doesn’t mean glossing over challenges and putting a sort of quasi-trust in a benign fate. What it does mean is looking for the possibilities for change, for growth, for progress and taking small steps towards these possibilities. Hope gives me control. Optimism leaves too much to chance. Hence, for example, the decision to quit my stressful teaching job and to become my own boss doing something creative and something I love.
I also continue to delight in every moment I spend with my wee darling of a granddaughter and I love being her ‘Manma’. And I’m looking forward to the arrival, in February, of my daughter’s second baby. Yet more delight in the life of our family came with was our son’s engagement, at long last, to his lovely girl. We all look forward to their wedding in 2015.
So lots of good stuff to anticipate and hope for in 2014.
My Writing Process Blog Tour
I was invited to take part in this tour by Kate Blackadder who is a fellow member of the Edinburgh Writers Club. I’m a member at a distance, but Kate is a very active committee member of the club. Click on her name above to visit her blog. Do visit it if you can.
So, to the My Writing Process interview questions and my responses:
What am I working on?
I’m putting the finishing touches to Displacement, which is my second novel.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m not entirely sure what genre my books fit into. Broadly speaking, it’s commercial women’s fiction and there’s a strong element of romance in my writing. But it’s unusual in that the main characters are people in their late forties and fifties, so it’s not chick lit. There are also other themes, apart from romance, running through both my novels. For example, I’ve included the themes of bereavement, politics, nationalism and serious illness in my work. I like to think it’s multi-layered and that it will appeal to intelligent, mature women.
Why do I write what I do?
I definitely fit into the category of writing the type of books that I would want to read as a fifty-something. Middle-aged women can sometimes feel a bit invisible. It certainly seems to be the case in fiction. So I want to write about menopausal and post-menopausal women who are still vibrant, passionate and have lots to contribute. There is life, and dare I say it, sex, post-fifty and I think our literature should reflect that.
How does my writing process work?
As I’m still working full time as a teacher, I write in the evenings, at weekends and in the holidays. I ‘diary-in’ my writing slots even if I can only manage half an hour and I keep these appointments with my word-processor. I also plan my writing long-term over a year or more, so I know when I need to be finished a first draft, the redrafts, the professional editing process and when I plan to launch.
So there you have it.
And next on the tour:
On January 13th it will be the turn of Jill Marsh to answer the Writing Process questions. Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.
Now based in Switzerland, Jill is a founder member of the Triskele Book collective, forms part of the Nuance Words project, curates litmag The Woolf and is a regular columnist for words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes.
Find out more about her European crime series by clicking on Jill’s name above. I can highly recommend her books. All of them are great reads. And don’t forget to look in at her website next week to see her answers to the above questions.
January Mindful Writing
As I said above I’m taking part in the January Mindful Writing Challenge set up by Satya at Writing Our Way Home.
Here are my first six ‘stones’:
January 1st – Small body. Curved, a perfect blend with mine. Grandchild seeks comfort. Me overwhelmed by love.
January 2nd – Bridge-crossing. A place to a place. A time to a time. Wheels turning. Engine droning. Transporting me home and back to life.
January 3rd – Mopping the floor. There’s comfort in the rhythm and swish, pleasure in the shining, satisfaction in a job done.
January 4th – Breakfast. Sweet, blackcurrant jam on warm, buttery wholemeal toast, mug of hot Earl Grey, me solitary, eating, sipping, thinking, robin singing outside.
January 5th – Laundry. Floral scents, cool cotton, warm wool, crack of shaken linen, a nod towards the pleasing, folded pile.
January 6th – Back-to-work, back-to-work. My steps reconnect me to the world and beat out my inner chant. Air damp, streets slick with rain, sharp wind and a grey, grudging light. Ready-to-go, ready-to-go. The heels of my boots click on the playground gravel. Anticipation rises. School door slams behind me. Let the new term begin.
At the start of this new year, things look hopeful for Scotland. There’s the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Homecoming Scotland, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and, of course, the independence referendum. None of these events have been left to blind optimism. They all involve a lot of planning, a lot of faith and a lot of a hope. They include hopes and plans for action, for economic benefit, for challenge and achievement, for national pride and for change.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum in September, Scotland has a chance at last. A chance to show we have ideas for a better way of life, a fairer, more caring way of life, and Scotland also has a chance to show off and be seen at her very best. That is my hope.
However, the official, political script on all sides offers only one dimensional optimism. The smallest signs of improvements are exaggerated. Promises are made – and believed – that everything will be bigger and better in the future. We’ve come to expect material growth as if it’s a law of the universe. Our politicians wilfully ignore past disasters such as the 2008 economic crash. They keep us ignorant of all obstacles and we go along blindly, telling ourselves things will get better because they have to.
It’s time we, the electorate, were more proactive. To have real hope we must engage. We must educate ourselves on the realities and familiarise ourselves with what’s going on beyond our own near horizon.
As the journalist, Gerry Hassan, wrote in the Scotsman newspaper on the fourth of January 2014, ‘Many of the great campaigns of humanity have been defined by hope. Think of the campaigns against slavery, for the welfare state and against the hardships and degradations of Dickensian Britain, of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement, the anti-war movements on Vietnam and Iraq, and the anti-apartheid movement.’
For these campaigners there was no scaremongering, no talk of ‘strivers and shirkers’. Rather they sought cohesion and fairness, they asked awkward questions, made difficult demands and they worked to realise their dream.
So here’s to involvement, change, and hope for a better society for all.
This month I’m reviewing ‘Old Friend From Far Away’ by Natalie Goldberg. It is a guide to memoir writing. Memoir writing is something I’d like to do in the future, but I realise it’s a form of writing like no other. I recently re-read this excellent book.
Find your voice and tell your own story.
Memory isn’t always reliable or objective, but, when writing memoir, reliability and objectiveness are not prerequisites. Indeed they are not even desirable. A memoir should be a meditation, a deep consideration of what mattered and why.
About twenty years ago, one of the first books I read on how to write on was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I loved it. I found the short, sharp writing exercises prescribed by the author to be both enjoyable and useful. Writing was presented as a muscle that requires frequent exercising. The approach was very much a ‘just do it’ one. Working through the book, I felt for the first time that I might be able to write stuff that others might actually want to read.
Natalie Goldberg is a poet, writer and teacher of writing. Old Friend From Far Away is about how to write memoir – and oh, so much more. The author has written three volumes of her own memoirs, so she is well placed to offer advice on that basis alone.
Anyone contemplating doing memoir writing would do well to read this guide. It’s crammed full of exercises and suggestions. It’s also got lots of examples of how others have tackled the form. And it’s reassuring too. Memoir is a subjective form of writing. It’s not a scientific or forensic examination of a life. It is rather a reflective response to that life by the one who has lived it.
Indeed, Natalie Goldberg makes it clear at the start that memoir is not a ‘chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life’. A memoir presents subjective accounts of selected episodes. These accounts are not necessarily organised linearly and are not necessarily wholly accurate. But they are an attempt to make some sense of a life lived and to speculate on its meaning.
The book’s chapters vary in length – just like those in life. Some are only three lines long. The longest are three pages. They are all memoir writing prompts and Goldberg encourages anyone writing memoir to approach it sideways. She advises ‘using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are. A bit of brooding, pondering, contemplating but not in a lost manner. I am asking you to make all this dynamic. Pen to paper gives muscle to your deliberations.’
Exercises include: ‘Tell me what your biggest mistake has been; Tell me about someone’s hands; What do you no longer have; What have you waited a long time for.’ All are accompanied by the command ‘Go. Ten minutes.’ All get you thinking sideways about events in your past. There are other types, such as one on weather. The suggestion here is that, for example, while writing about your brother, include how it was raining the day you realised he was always going to be better in school than you; or in writing about your grandfather, describe the big flakes of snow that were falling the last time you saw him.
The book ends with a very useful list of guidelines and suggestions which summarises all that’s gone before. And there is a list of recommended memoirs to read.
All in all, whatever your preferred genre, this is one of the best writing guides around. Even if memoir writing isn’t your thing, I can just about guarantee it will get you writing something, – and that can’t be bad, can it?
Old Friend From Far Away is published by Simon and Schuster.
In January 2011, we had a heavy snowfall here on Skye. This winter is a much damper and dreicher affair and not nearly so pretty. So I’ve decided to post a couple of photos taken in our garden three years ago.
Robert Frost said: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’
Be brave, dare to hope.