Monday, 30 September 2013

BJ's SOLSL: Author Tylluan Penry on Creativity and Spirituality

 So, next up in the neverending storrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry of BJ’s SOLSL (Season of Late Summer Love – very late now, what with all the leaves on the ground…) is a very down to Earth author, who has been chatting to me kindly on Facebook.  Who says Facebook is good for nothing?  I read her book Staying on the Old Track, a while back, as I was (as usual) feeling that my own little brand of paganism and spirituality was failing me a bit (which is more about my personality I think, than my ‘path’).  I found many helpful suggestions and new ways of looking at the issues in her book, and would recommend it to anyone who feels that they are getting stale in their practice or thinking.  She’s a kind and calm person, and I’d recommend her other books too.  I got her to give me a little intro to herself, so that I don’t give her the same silly idiosyncratic treatment I gave my friend Ryan and his poor beard, so here you are.  Please be welcome, Tylluan, thankyou for the piece – and please, My 3 Loyal Lovely Readers, enjoy!

Tylluan Penry is a solitary pagan witch who lives on the side of a mountain in the South Wales valleys with her love of many lifetimes, Mr Penry.  Together they have many children and grandchildren, pets, plants, the Gentle People and a House Brownie. She has written six books dealing with various aspects of paganism, witchcraft and magic, all of which can be found at   Her seventh book, Sacred Shadows is due out at the end of this year.  She has also published three children’s e-books under the name of T.P.Penry.  She will be one of the speakers at Witchfest International at Croydon in November.

Creativity and spirituality

At first sight there may not seem to be much connection between the two.  Creativity has had a rather mixed reception over the years.  To be called ‘creative’ has sometimes been a euphemism for lazy, because it implies drifting about in a dreamy, vacuous state rather than getting on with the hard business of life.

Actually, creativity can be very hard work.  Great ideas might come to us on the breeze, but putting them into operation, actually creating that poem, sonata, work of art etc., can be very hard work.  I often joke that I could earn considerably more from washing dishes nine to five than I ever could from writing.  But the satisfaction I get from my work is priceless.  And no amount of washing dishes could every provide me with that.

And it’s this rather nebulous sense of satisfaction and delight that links creativity with spirituality.  Creativity has a numinous quality, a sense that we are somehow in the presence of something far greater than ourselves.  It makes us reach within and without.   It can push us to our limits, and we may never receive any recognition for what we’ve achieved.

Spirituality does very much the same things to us.  We become aware of something greater than ourselves – though it doesn’t have to be a deity, some people might prefer to think of it as  intellect or spirit instead – and it makes us reach deep within ourselves, and also outwards.  It can certainly push us to our limits and unless we aspire towards being some sort of tele-evangelist or something, we’re unlikely ever to get any recognition for our efforts.

Spirituality and creativity are also linked in other ways.  Creating something beautiful (and few people actually set out to create something completely foul) enriches us.  It can enrich others, too.  The other day I came across an old, boarded up building.  Usually the boards become the target for the local graffiti crew, but this one was different – it had been carefully stenciled with real leaves fallen from the local trees, and then painted with an airbrush.  It looked absolutely beautiful.  And as I walked past, it lifted my spirits no end.  Because someone had taken time there.  They had made an effort to create something beautiful out of something very ordinary.  And it had brightened that small corner of my town not just for me, but for anyone who saw it.

It’s the same with music.  Playing a short tune or singing a verse or two of a favourite song may last just a minute, but who is to say that the song does not continue on the airwaves, lifting the spirits of those it passes?  We know that radio waves for example, are all around us, and if only we switch on the radio we can hear them.  So why not a song?  Instead of radio equipment we have our ears, our souls of spirit.  Who is to say that at some level, deep inside, we don’t hear that song?  And if we do, then surely it could explain those odd moments where we feel inexplicably uplifted or even emotional?

Personally the reason I think creativity and spirituality are linked together is because both can take us to a different level of consciousness.  This isn’t pretentious claptrap – most people reading this probably remember feeling the odd moment when they ‘drifted off’ forgetting the real world and entering something that seemed to take them far away.  When I was young this was often dismissed as daydreaming – which is again another way of saying that I was being lazy by refusing to attend to the real, hardworking world.  Yet I found these moments of reverie recharged my batteries, and I could work far better and more productively afterwards.

 Both spirituality and creativity have much the same effect, but on a bigger scale.  And even if you don’t feel you’re particularly creative, you can creative something.  Patterns of leaves or shells or even beer mats.  A snatch of song or whistling a tune.  Planting seeds and experiencing joy when they start to grow, or when you pick their flowers or leaves months later.   Write a verse of your own – just two lines if that’s all you can manage  - in a greeting card instead of relying on a shop-bought one. Yes, it’s all creativity.  And once you start to experience it for yourself, you’ll find it’s a bit like rolling a snowball down hill.  It just gets bigger and faster. 

Because creativity seems to shift the way we think and feel (which is basically what a shift in consciousness means) it also helps us become more spiritual.  I don’t mean that it makes us religious – far from it.  But it makes us think about spiritual things.  It makes us aware of our own mortality for example, it helps us think about our place in society, the world, the universe.  Unlike creativity, spirituality is slow and thoughtful.  It has no physical outlet like song, dance, writing or art.  It operates purely within, on the soul, mind and spirit.  We cannot quantify, measure or evaluate what is happening.  Others cannot see it either. 

So... if you feel that you are stalling on your personal spiritual path, whatever that happens to be, then I often recommend a bit of old fashioned creativity.  Start small and be realistic.  Don’t make the mistake of judging your artwork, music or writing by what other people do.  This is your path, your creativity.  Be kind to yourself.  It may be that the best you can manage is to dance a few steps in your kitchen, but so what?  You have still produced something beautiful.

At this point some people may roll around the floor laughing.  Me?  Dancing?  Beautiful?  Well, yes.  Anything you do with real love is going to be beautiful.  True creativity requires love and even passion.  A few steps clumsily performed with real love are far more beautiful to the universe than a perfect performance done by someone more concerned with appearances than anything else. 

So what I would suggest for the coming twenty four hours, is to try doing as much as possible with love.   Eat your breakfast with love.  Feel love towards small things in your life, towards plants in pots, birds on your windowsill.  It will only take a moment or two of your time, but the rewards will be quite startling.  Twenty four hours may not sound like much, but to engage with self awareness for a whole day will be quite taxing.  You cannot do it all day and every day because you would probably go mad if you tried.  But for a few minutes every day, yes, that’s possible.

And then, after a week, begin your creativity.  Do it with love.  With passion.  Think about the choices you make – which song to sing, what words to use in your poem or blog, what colour to use in your painting.  Think about how beautiful these choices are, and be proud that you made them.  You can always try out alternatives another day – nothing is written in stone.

As your creativity takes off, you will also find that your spirituality will change too.  It’s as though by making room for the one, you make room for the other. 

Don’t be afraid to be inspired...

Saturday, 21 September 2013

BJ's SOLSL: My friend Ryan on Science, Polytheism and Dualism

Ryan and I connected as a result of Facebook.  Unlike loads of people I know, I’ve had mostly only good experiences with Facebook when it comes to meeting people.  I was chatting away to authors I had been reading, and looking for neo-pagan groups of interest and suchlike, when I noticed Ryan’s comments kept coming up in threads I was finding interesting.  He was always reasoned, erudite and calm.  Very readable.  He also had the most amazing head of hair and for a man with a beard, seemed astonishingly rational (yes, I have made a long term generalization that I don’t know many men with a properly ambitiously grown beard who can think clearly; this is merely my personal opinion!!).  So Ryan and his beard and I started a conversation which is still going now.  He is a Heathen, a modern follower of the Norse pantheon, and a thoroughgoing student of the mythology and history associated with the Norse and Germanic countries.  Any of his blogs will show you his level of commitment to his study – we’re talking footnotes, people, proper research.  He’s also unashamedly lefty in his political leanings, which are anarchistic (in the proper political sense, go and look up, don’t just think of the connotations of the word in pop culture). 

He did a massive trip over to Europe earlier this year before going back to university to do postgrad work and continue with his political activism (he's way braver than me), and lots of us who had hitherto only appreciated his coolness in debate and argument on politics or religion got to meet him in person.  Fluffhead and I had a good afternoon in a local playground with him, where Fluffhead swung contemplatively on a swing for ages, while Ryan and I chatted.  It turns out this really brainy and scarily good arguer is, in person, gentle and quiet, and just as articulate.  I was sad I had promised to *not* take home any Nutters I Had Met On The Internet (caring friends had made me promise), so I couldn’t be properly hospitable (as a Heathen would have been, to me).  But next time he visits, I have promised him cake, so who knows, he may just come back.  In the meantime, here is a specially written piece for this blog, on something he’s been musing a while – and also, since he is aware of my idiosyncratic introductions, here is his intro to himself too – way more succinct, huh?  Thankyou for this blog post Ryan – as usual, making me think…

Ryan is a graduate student, activist, long-time Pagan, and practicing Heathen in San Francisco.  When not in class, causing trouble, working in the Heathen community, or unwinding between all of the above he likes to write about a lot of things although most often questions of spirituality, philosophy, and how they intersect with society and our place in the world.  If you're interested in reading any of that his sporadically and unpredictably updated blog can be found at

Science and Polytheism: not a contradiction

In modern society there is an automatic assumption that science and religion are polar opposites.  According to the mainstream narrative in the United States it is becoming a knock-down drag out fight to the finish with yearly rituals like the March for Life and the alleged War on Christmas.  Hand in hand goes the narrative of progress; the driving idea behind modern industrial civilization.  Progress argues any movement forward is automatically an improvement, no matter what that movement actually is, and that which was in the past is in some way or another automatically inferior.  After all, if it was worth doing it people would still be doing it as argues the story of progress.

The whole mess is a product of the influence of centuries of dualistic thinking in European civilization.  These attitudes would have a profound impact on how the consciousness of modern science developed and these ideas would be carried along with the methods when they were exported to the rest of the world during the waves of European colonialism, imperialism, and continues with modern corporate colonialism.  While scientific thinking sought to break free from the constraints of religious dogma and lock-step orthodoxy the influence of Christian dualism remained a pervasive element.  This most strongly manifests in the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality.  

From a polytheistic perspective the question is a very different one.  As is shown the world over in a number of animistic polytheistic cultures from Pharonic Egypt, Viking era Scandinavia, and classical Greece to the Mayan city-states, Great Zimbabwe, and Sengoku Japan animistic polytheistic peoples had no problem living in a world where science and spirit worked side by side with no real conflict to speak of.  This is thanks to their radically different approaches to cosmology and philosophy.  In a polytheistic setting there is often a broader struggle between cosmic order and cosmic chaos but this does not take on the tones of the Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian black and white battle of good and evil.  

In the world of a polytheist not only are things not black and white or shades of grey, they're shades of every color imaginable.  Issues, circumstances, and explanations can be complex and multifaceted.  It is very likely there will be unsolvable ambiguities.  All of this is perfectly OK in the polytheistic context in a way that is not in the monotheistic, dualistic context.  When you have multiple mighty but limited powers each of which are complex entities with their own motivations, drives, pitfalls, and goals it is very possible for more than one thing to be true about them at the same time.  Rather than arriving at a single, infallible answer to each question to the polytheist issues and questions are examined, tested, and evaluated based on multiple perspectives, possibilities, and levels.  What is true on the level where science operates is equally true as that which lies in the realm of spirituality.  For one to be true does not mean the other is automatically false or vice versa.  To say the Rain God brought the storms that watered the crops does not mean the measured and proven explanations of meteorology are wrong.  For the polytheist both are equally valid answers because they approach the question in different ways.

It is the same with the alleged conflict between spirituality and science.  When you apply the multifaceted approach of the polytheistic mentality to this question the dilemma fades away like morning mist.  From this perspective the scientific explanation describes an event, thing, or process in terms of the how, what, and why based on what science is capable of discerning and measuring.  The spiritual explanation covers that which lies outside of the capabilities and purview of scientific tools and discoveries.  This doesn't mean one abandons reason in the process of shifting from one to the other; far from it.  Rather what it means is there is acceptance that two explanations can be equally valid based on what they are explaining, why, and how.

There are also the interesting moments where mystical insight reaches conclusions later affirmed by scientific inquiry.  The first that comes to mind is the age-old belief that all living things have some form of energy which cannot be seen or touched but is present in all life.  Whether it is called ki, chi, or ond there are several places where such an idea emerges and is commonly accepted.  On its face this seems preposterous and at odds with scientific research.  If everything had some kind of energy that we could sense and manipulate it certainly would have been quantified by now.

Except it has.  Meet electrophysiology, the study of the effects of electricity on living forms.  The foundation of electrophysiology lies in a very simple truth which has been proven by modern medical science.  Throughout our bodies tiny strands of nerves carry information and instructions between different parts of living beings.  Whether you're talking something as simple as a slug or as complex as the human brain this system is found in all animal life-forms.  These instructions, known as nerve impulses, are carried by tiny electric currents that run along the nerve fibers.  Without these nerve impulses life as we know it would not be possible; not unlike mystical theories of chi which posit this intangible energy is essential for and present in all life.

Another example is the existence of alternate planes of reality.  In many polytheistic, animistic cultures there is a belief in some kind of existence beyond that which we are familiar with where the great powers of the universe reside.  Many also include stories of other worlds where people go after they die.  Yet like the theories of energy in all life-forms these are unproven ideas which many dismiss as superstitious nonsense.  It's rather ironic that a similar idea, multiverse theory, has risen to prominence in the last hundred years and seen very vigorous debate and discussion in many intellectual circles.  Even then it's still just an unproven theory, food for thought if you will and nothing more.

In 2010 Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford and Vahe Gurzadyan at Yerevan State University in Armenia excitedly announced they had found something rather interesting during their many surveys of the night sky.  According to these two researchers they observed what they described as possible "cosmic bruises" from other universes bumping into ours.  These findings were later verified by Stephen Feeney at University College London.  While the astronomers have admitted considering the massive amounts of data they're working with such anomalous readings are a near-certainty these findings are rather interesting.  Is it possible these alternate universes are the homes of places like Asgard, Olympus, and other divine abodes?  Could these be the residing places of the dead after they have passed on?  While these findings at this point are not conclusive again it brings to question how off-base mystical insight and examination really is.

And of course there is the example of mystical experiences ranging from meditative states to possession by ancient spirits.  Many of these are dismissed as the consequence of primitive minds attempting to grapple with altered states of consciousness which at the end of the day have a psychological or physiological explanation.  Set against this is a well-publicized body of research into the brain activity of Tibetan monks in meditative states.  These studies have found the brain behaving in ways which were previously inconceivable and totally unknown to science.  In many such studies the results have found parts of the brain being optimized in ways that are almost completely unknown in any other state.  One can debate whether or not there is a genuine mystical experience going on but there is no question something is definitely happening.  

The assumption of conflict between science and spirituality is the leftover baggage of centuries of intellectual domination by dualistic, orthodox-obsessed ideologies.  As has been discussed such a conflict is completely unnecessary and only possible if it is assumed that truth is singular and infallible in nature.  As polytheistic practice and the scientific method argue in day to day life this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Answers are arrived at by examination, observation, testing, and experience with many leading to more questions and exploration.  In a universe rich with possibility and new horizons there is too much out there to limit ourselves to whether or not one specific method is the one, true method that all should use at the exclusion of all else.  Keeping an open mind, exploring all possibilities, and examining ideas on their context and merit is far more rewarding.

Monday, 16 September 2013

An Interview with Kate Orman: Dr Who Author, and SF writer

Kate Orman is an Australian feminist and science fiction writer. She has written a few of the more notable Virgin Doctor Who New Adventures  (and was the first and only woman to do so) and some of the BBC Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures.  As well as loads of other things.  Here is her website, so you can see what else she’s been doing, and a list of the Who novels she’s written.  Also, it’s a brilliant commentary on her mind, her website – she is always posting fragments of thoughts, bits from books she’s reading and reactions to theories, news, sociology, anthropology etc.  I can get lost there a while – and I encourage you to, as well!  In the pic above, she is with her husband, Jonathan Blum, with whom she has co-written several books.

I’ve been reviewing, in my rambly way, lots of Dr Who books over the past year.  One day I reviewed one of Kate Orman’s, not for the first time – but she stunned me by replying in the comments section and starting a conversation.  What a nice woman!  I then got a bit ambitious and big headed, and asked her for an interview…she stunned me again by agreeing.  I had masses and masses of nosy questions for her, and she’s answered quite a lot of them here. Hope you enjoy reading the answers as much as I did.

Did you always want to write, or did you have train driving or Prime
Minister ambitions etc first?

My vague plan, from the age of twelve onwards, was to become a geneticist and cure cancer. Looking back, it's obvious something else was bubbling up - I didn't just study science in high school, but English Literature as well. I coasted through university, and was hopeless in a laboratory. In high school I was attempting my own science fiction stories, and during university lectures I was often taking notes in one folder while writing fan fiction under the desk in another.

But it wasn't until Virgin Publishing announced the New Adventures that I made a concerted, organised attempt to get something published. Probably the first concerted, organised attempt I had ever made to
accomplish anything!
Was science fiction always the home for your writing, the best way to express what you wanted to say with your stories?

It was certainly always what I was interested in writing (and reading, and watching). Well before I started scribbling Doctor Who fanfic during lectures about DNA, I was writing stuff pinched from Larry Niven, and from anything set in a stringently ordered futuristic society.
Are there authors you find stay with you for decades, you can re-read their work and it always says something new?  Or do you find your taste constantly changing and adapting as you grow?

I've been very deliberately reading more widely in recent years. I never studied history or politics, or anything outside my own little window of interests - science, SF, some ancient civilisations. So now, when I read a novel set in, say, India or Nigeria, everything about it is new and exciting. I just have this immense gap in my understanding of the world to try and fill.

Were you a Dr Who fan from the start, or was it something that crept up on you?  What other science fiction TV do you like - then or now?

I didn't discover Doctor Who fandom until the late eighties, when I was in university. But I grew up in that blissful era when Doctor Who was on TV most of the time - that is, Australia in the seventies, when the ABC (our version of the BBC) could be relied upon to repeat its small store of Third and Fourth Doctor stories at least once in every year.

Childhood and teenage favourites included Blakes 7, The Tomorrow People, Star Trek (especially James' Blish's adaptations of the original and animated series, and Next Gen), Knight Rider, and The Real Ghostbusters - I can still watch and enjoy all of these. (But I can only take Battle of the Planets in its original form of Gatchaman.) Later, there were shows like Star Cops and the original Twilight Zone. I'm currently watching the anime of Gantz (I prefer the movie adaptation). If we widen the field to include the more fantastical, the list would include Sapphire and Steel, The Prisoner, and Death Note; and I've just finished watching Fullmetal Alchemist.
When you were writing for the Dr Who New Adventures and then Eighth Doctor Adventures, were you allowed much leeway, or was there very strict continuity to follow?  How free did you feel to explore themes you love?

Major events, such as the arrival or departure of a companion, were decided by the editors. Every so often we'd get a document outlining the upcoming run of books, typically giving us a rough idea of those big events, and perhaps asking us to pitch books which would contain those events, or which would fit into a broad theme. When new companions were introduced, we'd get a description of their characters, so that we could include them in our pitches. Other than those landmark events, though, the editors were relying on us to come up with ideas!
Do you find your feminism always plays into your stories, the Dr Who and your other work?

There is no better genre than science fiction (and its inseparable companion, fantasy) for exploring feminist ideas. Feminism, like any progressive movement, is about imagining the world as it could be, rather than just accepting the status quo.

The original science fiction I'm working on right now is this sort of book - the biotechnology involved lets me play around freely with sex and gender. (Although I've been able to do all the fun world-building sciency stuff I enjoyed so much as a youngster, such as in Niven's "Known Space" stories.)

Feminist ideas crop up even when the subject isn't a feminist one, of course. My most recent sale was ‘Skull Time’ (published as ‘Head Case’ in Cosmos Oct/Nov 2011), which was about neurobiology, but involved a woman trapped by both technology and by a violent husband trying to get a call for help to the outside world.
And what would you say to those young women (I've met quite a scary few) who feel the battles of feminism are all won, its over, and there's something ...ugly and strident and unattractive - and uptight, about still calling yourself a feminist? (Grrrr, is my articulate reaction.)

I suppose you could show them a collective photograph of the local House of Representatives, or college board, and ask them how they feel about all these old white men making decisions about their lives. Especially their sex lives. ;)
Do you feel your philosophical/religious notions inform your work too?  I read on your blog that you feel there was no beginning to everything and there will be no end (I totally agree).  Is there more room to play with and express these sorts of ideas in science fiction than other genres do
you think?

Mythology shares with science fiction that larger, freer canvas for telling stories about the way the world is, was, could be. I trawl through myth, religion, and anthropology looking for ideas about the universe and our relationship to it (also a major topic of SF) which I can use in my writing. For example, "Skull Time", the story I mentioned above, was inspired by a Hittite ritual.

My characterisation of the Doctor is partly drawn from the Wiccan male deity, the Horned God, who falls only to rise again - much as the Doctor "dies", only to regenerate. My understanding of the God is as an alternative masculinity: full of energy and passion, caring and protective; not domineering or tough; more likely to use a joke or a trick than to reach for a weapon. It's a set of characteristics that suit the Doctor well.

Thankyou very much indeed, Kate Orman, and sorry this post took me a little while to get up!  And more Doctor Who books reviewed soon, and more of Kate’s work too.

In the meantime - back to the Guest Season next post.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Next bit of the Dr Who books/short stories Read This Year - Part 5

Just a small break in the BJ Guest Season, to get back to a topic I am being a bit surprisingly consistent with this year.  It’s also a little primer for the next post, which will be a BIG treat for lovers of the Virgin New Adventures books, in particular.

As always with these rambly reviews: SPOILERS ON ALL BOOKS VERY LIKELY!!!!

And a note on order.  Target Originals are not read in order of publication, but in order of each Doctor.  And I jump about in terms of which Doctor I read at any given time.  But each Doctor’s individual stories will be read in order of broadcasting on TV.  The Virgin New Adventures for Sylvester will be read in order; as will the BBC 8th Doctor series (as though they had been on TV, see?  I’m trying to get an arc flavour).  The BBC Past Doctors series and the Virgin Missing Adventures are simply read in terms of which one I fancy next, as they are stand alone adventures slotting in-between the TV ones.

  1. Doctor Who: Time and the Rani, by Pip and Jane Baker (Target Original)
    (Hmm.  I don’t mind this one at all on TV [despite a lot of others seeming to hate it], but the workmanlike writing let it down.  There was little pace, and little feeling for the characters.  I was seeing it all in my head, but I was watching a repeat of the TV prog exactly; there was nothing added in terms of feeling, by the tie-in.  Not that there necessarily needs to be, but I felt unmoored and unplaced while reading this.  The sacrifice of Beyus, near the end felt oddly nothingey.  Unlike the Ark in Space which I read the same day, where the sacrifices felt like heroism, unremarked as such, no fuss: but …there was soul to the tie-in of Ark, and finishing this one on the same day really showed up the contrasts between the two.  I don’t think it was as simple as the era, though Time and the Rani felt distinctly more juvenile than Ark did – the Tom Baker era did feel more grown up for all its tomfoolery sometimes.  Then again, Sylvester’s era becomes more serious later on, so I’ll have to judge it as I progress.  Ikona came across marginally more sympathetic in the reading here.  But overall, despite the Doctor’s amusing misquoting of proverbs [which I don’t find annoying as Stanley does], it felt just a bit flat.  And that was down mostly to the blankness of the writing; not the paucity of the actual plot and subject as I know some others feel.  Bit of an unfortunate beginning for one of my favourite Doctors, really; did him no favours.)
  2. Doctor Who: The Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (Target Original)
    (Heroism and tight scrapes abound here.  Sarah and Harry don’t feel like subsidiary characters, they feel integral.  Tom Baker needs the bounce off they provide.  I enjoyed this when I wasn’t expecting to, as Alex likes this one a lot and we had watched it to death on DVD.  I thought I would be bored – but no, I read it in a day.  It rattled along, Ian Marter doing very well at capturing the feel of it.  He also succeeded in giving Vida more of a real presence than I felt her blank face had on TV.  The sacrifice of Rogen and then Noah, at the end, were typical of Dr Who of this era, it felt to me.  Understated but noted.  Like the end of Inferno – which could have been a sentiment fest and was not written that way at all.)
  3. Dr Who: The Nameless City, by Michael Scott (BBC 50th Anniversary e-book short story series)
    (2nd Dr and Jamie: A small and perfect gem of a story: well structured, well paced, and whilst the fact that the very chemical elements the Dr needed  to restart the broken Tardis turned up most fortuitously right at the end, it shows the strength of the writing that this came off ‘neat’ rather than ‘contrived’.  I liked the way the Master was described but not named; just a cameo of trouble causing and off he went.  I liked the books, the Charing Cross Road setting – the tone of the whole piece was pleasing.  Enjoyed very much.  ON KINDLE.)
  4.  Dr Who: The Macra Terror, by Ian Stuart Black (Target Original)
    (I got a real feeling for Troughton’s Doctor in this one.  And Jamie.  In a way I am glad this story is mostly lost for the TV screen, as I can imagine how badly the crablike creatures could have been portrayed given the budgets and other constraints of the era [not to mention the Hampsted AmDram acting still so prevalent at this period!].  As a book this worked so well – I should imagine it works really well as audio also, which would give the extra dimension of being able to hear the happy happy colony work songs creepiness.  The story was well done: the sense of the Dr arriving and being under siege, as much so as the colonists themselves who have no idea why they follow Control and pipe gas endlessly ‘for  the good of all’; really none but the crabs, the Macra.  If you really think on it, the story doesn’t 100% stand up; but it’s written so joyously and fluidly, it stands up quite well enough to coast you through it.  I was laughing out loud at the silly bit of Jamie dancing away doing a Highland Fling while trying to escape – just the kind of silliness I associate with this period, and I wouldn’t have thought it would work in a book, it seems so visual – but it was fine.  Enjoyed this one very much indeed.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  5.  Dr Who: Something Borrowed, by Richelle Mead (BBC 50th Anniversary e-book short story series)
    (6th Dr and Peri: This one was good too.  A small but simply plotted story, full of the rambunctiousness of Colin Baker and the weary sarcasm of Peri.  The Rani had a guest spot as the villain trying to steal indigenous technology from a race that have modelled their marriage ceremonies and planet after 20th century Las Vegas.  It sounds stupid.  It sort of is stupid.  But it definitely worked as a story.  The pterodactyls also helped! So far I’m impressed by these short stories the BBC are putting out for the anniversary. Small and well formed. ON KINDLE.)
  6.  Dr Who: The Faceless Ones, by Terence Dicks (Target Original)
    (2nd Dr: I enjoyed this one, I wish most of it wasn’t lost, as I’d like to have seen it.  For a story taking place in a very limited setting [an airport, mostly], it had no feeling of limitation or claustrophobia in a bad way.  It felt full of forward momentum, and I was fascinated with the idea of the blobby face stealing creatures.  I enjoyed the subsidiary characters here: Jean Rock, the Commandant, Captain Blade [what a name!].  The Dr was very dynamic in this, but the one who was really proving himself was Jamie.  He showed courage and honour and was built up well for the departure of Polly and Ben, back in London of 1966 and happy to be so.  When the Dr and Jamie leave at the end, they are seamlessly into their next adventure.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  7.  Dr Who: Drift, by Simon Forward (BBC Past Doctor Adventures)
    (4th Dr: This was interesting.  It wasn’t just the cold weather snowy setting but I felt many echoes of The Thing here; not in the mimicking aspects, not at all, but simply in the claustrophobia of snow, and in the way the ice creature flailed about when trying to absorb people – reminded me of the scene in The Thing with the dogs changing.  This book was on the whole, very cinematic indeed.  I keep seeing it very clearly in my head; plus its characters [and there was a rather confusingly large cast of interchangeable soldiery types] had lots of tics that would have translated so well to film.  This was an extremely visual novel, which was maybe why some parts of its conversational character led sections felt a little bit forced. 

    There was a great effort to project a very all American atmosphere, people loading their guns ‘nice and easy’ and lots of slow drawling and cowboy type reflexing.  That was about the only annoying thing in the book…I never know whether the attempt from English writers to produce an American atmosphere works with Americans – are the writers relying on TV shorthand from years of US TV fed to us here?  Or have they properly visited America and done their research and actually heard people talk, watched them move?  Not having been myself I often worry at the multitudes of clichés…but I have no idea how many of them may be true to a degree.  I can only go on English TV shorthand about England; and the way Americans do TV shorthand about us – both of these attempts are usually incredibly screwy and I don’t recognise much of an approximation of reality at all.  It looks ok sort of, but it feels wrong, the voices are wrong.  So I worry it’ll be the same for English writers trying to force an American atmosphere…

    The Doctor was done extremely well, I heard him talk in my head as I read the …script I keep wanting to say, it was that cinematic; and I enjoyed Leela: I always enjoy Leela [‘I can’t hit a woman’.  ‘Then that is your weakness.’  Exit man, clutching gonads.  Go Leela!].  Adored the bit where the Dr told her at the end to leave behind the gun she had been holding a fair while: ‘they can be habit-forming, put it down, there’s a good girl’ – that was delivered very well indeed; it felt very much like Tom Baker.  ACTUAL BOOK.)

Saturday, 7 September 2013

BJ's SOLSL: My friend Hystery, on...a number of matters

Ahhhh, Hystery.  

Hystery and I have never met.  One day I was browsing blogs and following links from one blog to another the way you do.  I was following neo-pagan and Quaker links that day.  Wishing there was someone who was both, so that I would feel I wasn’t the only one.  (I have a nominal Quaker bit, from attending meetings for a few years – it’s the only place I ever felt comfortable, that was a sort of, more or less, organized religious setting.  But eventually I wandered off due to disagreements on ways of doing things, hypocrisy, conflict resolution, that sort of thing. The sort of issues that can arise anywhere, even in places and within idea frameworks you love.  But I still have a Big Soft Spot for Friends, Quakers.  So I read some Quaker blogs sometimes.)

So, one day, doing that, I found Hystery – Plainly Pagan, a bittish paganish, a definite bittish Quakerish.  All fey and odd and moody like me. I read and read, then I ‘followed’ so I could read more when she wrote more.  She seemed to be having a mood dip that was lasting a long while (goodness, like looking in a mirror)…about similar things to me: role in life, purpose of writing, how to Be a Good Person, How To Make a Difference, how to live with family, how to understand the world, how to cope with a job that could be so much but felt like so little.  She was having a problem with feelings of down-ness, cynicism, disillusionment with politics.  The more I read, the more I realized I was reading a kindred spirit from far away over the sea.  I admired her – she was really principled – way more than me.  She walked her talk, she lived her ideals.  Yet I felt encouraged by her troubles and her example, not undermined, the way I sometimes feel reading about people similar to me yet somehow managing better in worse circumstances.

When she is quite sad, she writes almost apologetically, for which I want to bonk her round the head with a frying pan, as there is nowt to apologize for when you write this well; when she’s less down, just discouraged, a force of personality shines through that I know could change the world, were she to be able to harness it, if she had the time.

Eventually I started to comment on her posts and found her one of those people who actually reply to comments and seem happy to have them.  On starting this season I bravely thought – ‘I’m going to ask Hystery!’  Now, there are 2 bloggers I regularly read that I really admire that I asked to contribute to this season.  One declined as I thought he would (I shall pretty please him again next time maybe), and one that said yes.  That’ll be Hystery.  I haven’t missed a post she’s done in over 2 years.  I’m always so happy when they pop up, because she speaks to my soul and my mind.  When she’s hopeful, I feel it; when she’s sad, I feel it.  When I read her – I don’t feel alone.  That’s good writing.  I have no idea why she's not published.  I suspect she thinks she's not good enough and may not have tried.  Foooofle!

Now.  I have switched the order for this entry.  It was supposed to be something neutral.  But I have been very stressed and very sad this week, and Hystery’s writing speaks to my soul more than normal.  She writes of visions, of religion, of sadness, of what ‘God’ might be.  Things I think about.  So I give you my soul’s Sister from America, far far away, to take you from here.  Her tone is my tone.  That heaviness she feels, mine.  But not alone.  With good writing, two minds are never alone…

Dear Sister,
Thank you for asking me to write.  I have been in the midst of a stubborn writer’s block for so long, that I thought I might never become unfrozen.  Your invitation set me down at my keyboard and this is the result.  It is too long and not well-organized.  I apologize for this.  I do not think that it is necessarily worth sharing on your blog, but I offer it to you as evidence that your confidence in me lifted some of the weight that was keeping me from work that I love.  My beacon stone, here in New York, also belongs to you.  Perhaps, now that I’ve begun, future efforts will have more merit.  In any case, I offer this with my thanks.

The Beacon Stone
It is the kind of rock that fits nicely in a human hand.  Oblong and smooth, it is about the size of a chicken’s egg.  There is a nice heft to it so that when my hand closes around it, I feel a satisfying sense of its weight against my palm.  The color is unremarkable.  It is the soft grayish-brown of lake-worn sedimentary rock.  I feel a little guilty taking it away from the shore upon which it has tumbled longer than human notions of time can reckon.  But then the sense of loss I feel at the thought of leaving it behind nags more loudly than my guilt, so I drop it in the pocket of my ratty sweatshirt jacket.

I turn away from the lake shore, away from the sailboats in the blue distance, away from the cobbles and pebbles and stones that were, a minute ago, the perpetual fellows of the stone in my pocket.  Past the blackberry bush and the driftwood, I climb back up onto the grassy yard surrounding the old stone lighthouse and make my way up into the gardens.  Late summer flowers are almost as brilliant as those of midsummer, but not quite.  Already, there is a hint of the end of the season.  The colors are just a little duller.  The edges of the green world are starting to show the wither and rust of fall.  The stone in my jacket pocket bumps against my hip, and I think to myself that the stone is my beacon stone.  It is light-filled and steady and the days are getting darker. 

I do not like to speak of it and much less to write about it, but I’ve been having a difficult time lately.  My body hurts in my joints, and in my veins, and in my muscles.  It feels as though neither blood nor energy courses efficiently.  My sleep is restless, and I often awake in panic.   My body feels foreign and heavy as if does not truly belong to me, and I am often in pain.  My memory is also not very good.  The darkness of my moods is more difficult to ignore and more difficult to dismiss.  I am word-weary.  My sentences lie about in fragments, and I retreat into silence.   

It has been an anguish for me to feel my sense of mastery fading, but perhaps there is something ultimately good in it.  When I do not clutter my thoughts with knowing, I begin to settle quietly, albeit gloomily, into not-knowing.  It is in that state that I feel the strongest pull toward the Ineffable.  This pull, this tide, always strongest when I am least confident, terrifies me.  In my middle-age, an adolescent existential angst plagues me.  At least when I was a younger woman I had the confidence to frame my fears in grand theories and pretty words.  Back then, I secretly harbored a belief that I might best the gods.

Home again, I take the rock out of my pocket and set it on the bathroom counter.  I do not mean to keep it there, but I am always tired and this is where it rests for now.  Perhaps later I will set it amongst my other sacred things.  For now, I pick it up again where I set it next to the lotions and oils I use to fend off my years and almost without thought, I place its cool, smooth weight gently against my forehead.  My head does not hurt, not now anyhow, but my brain feels troubled.  I want to stop the misfiring, the funny sad thoughts and the tumbling emotion.  And then again, I don’t want to stop them because, though they scare me beyond measure, they also bring me joy beyond measure.  It is through our scars, through our worries, and sorrows that the Holy Ones speak.   This has always been the way.

I live in a Universe populated by souls.  I can feel them all around me in the wood and the stones and the clay.  I can feel them in the palm of my hand and the tips of my fingers.  I can sense them in the breeze and in the light.  I feel them moving in my heart and my brain.  Especially in my brain.  They have been with me all my life.  Mostly they brush softly against me.  Mostly they tickle my consciousness.  I do not hear or see them distinctly.  A vision is not a film in my head.  It is nothing like the silly dream sequences of science fiction or fantasy.  There is no booming voice above my head telling me to do or say remarkable things.  I am not a puppet or a cliché of insanity.  But still, I am not quite sane, I think.  How do I describe my messages, my visions, my dreams, and my callings?  Sometimes they are merely a sense of a sense or the memory of a memory.  I have strong feelings of déjà vu that draw me up short.  I have been here before.  I have felt this before.  I know what comes next if only I can remember…

But at other times the visions overtake me more profoundly.  They are so powerful that I have found myself on my knees in their presence.  As a young mother, I was overtaken by an image of divinity that I cannot explain except to say that the image moved both inward and outward in Infinity.  It was a vision of limitlessness and boundlessness and absolute, perfect Unity.  I had heard, and had espoused the idea of “Unity” all my life, but before that vision, I had spoken of Unity as a woman expecting her first child speaks of “motherhood.”  I tried, very hard, to describe it for others, but I have never been able to succeed.   I could only describe something that looked like a sphere with many branches all connected at the roots that could rush inward infinitely and outward infinitely at the same time. But that was not quite right.   It was really nothing like that.  Not really at all.  

There have been other times when I have experienced these kinds of visions (if “vision” is the right word).  I don’t often speak of them because they make people uncomfortable.  I understand.  I am not very comfortable with them either.  Long ago, the doctor told me that I have seizures that probably resulted from a high fever in my infancy.  Such seizures are associated with hyper-religiosity and emotionalism.  Maybe the scarred tissue of my temporal lobes has filled my head with spirits that are merely expressions of that injury.  I am a rational person.  It is tempting to dismiss all my experience as nothing more than the effects of neurological vulnerabilities. 
But maybe the scars are like a gateway to a reality that exists whether or not those with undamaged brains can see it.   William James challenged the notion that identifying religious revelation as a function of the brain diminished its significance.  If that were true, he said, “...none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of the possessor’s body at the time…”  (Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902).
I could agree with those who would tell me that my visions and sensations are mere delusions and disorder, but I do not see the logic or righteousness in denying any human being the dignity and worth of her own experience.  I could agree with other folks who say that to locate the source of my revelations in brain tissue is to trivialize religious revelation.  But to me that confuses the vehicle with the Source.  If a candle sputters and fails, I do not stop believing in Light.   I choose instead to believe that we are all expressions of divinity even (and especially) in our flawed and failing human forms.  I choose to see my body and brain as vehicles of experience, as potential channels of Light.    And why not?  In this embodied life, how else is Light expressed through us than through the form we are given-- scars and all?   I like the idea that I am “touched” and that it is our weakness and not our strength that draws us closer to our Source. 
The Apostle Paul, they say, also struggled with an unruly brain.  From the midst of his pain, he too called out, and the answer Paul received gives me some comfort.  “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
If power is perfected in weakness, then I have a head start.  I am at times painfully shy and socially awkward.  I have learned to teach and perform in front of others with some grace, but many simple things are beyond me.  I am a collection of phobias and anxieties.  I startle and cry too easily.  A child or a waterfall or a beautiful insect fill me with so much wonder that I can barely stand it.  The countryside around me home makes me weak with joy.  Colors and textures and sounds can seem too marvelous to tolerate without tears.  And yet at other times, I am accused of being too reserved.  I grow rigid and hide my feelings.  It gets me through the public work that I do for a living, but the cost is high.  Away from my audience or my class, I relax into exhaustion and melancholia.  I suffer headaches and anxiety attacks. 
Sometimes, my weakness makes me selfish.  It makes me bitter and tired.  But sometimes, in spite of myself, my weakness makes me a better friend.  Perhaps because I am so weak, so flawed, and so tender, I can sense others’ pain as well as celebrate their beauty.  My weakness helps me magnify others.  It helps me care about them and rejoice in them.  Sometimes I can see someone’s pain before they disclose it to me.  In the midst of their laughter and bravado, I can sense their tenderness so I am never surprised when they pull me aside to tell me their story. They tell me, “I have never said this before…”  But they have said it before.  I heard it as soon as they walked in the room.   
It makes me tired to tell my stories and it makes me tired to hear the stories others have to share.  But I have to keep going “out there” because, whether I wanted it or not, I cannot recall a time when I have not believed that I was called to serve, though who has called me I just can’t say.  When I say “God”, I’m not quite sure what I mean except that it has something to do with gentleness and mercy.  It has to do with compassion.  It has a good deal to do with love.  But not just love.  Love is too small a word for what I mean.    Be that as it may.  I am called to serve rather than to define Divinity.  And the Great Commandment tells us that we cannot serve God without serving each other.  We are called to Love. We are called to be midwives of each other’s souls.  Each of us, in our own way, is an instrument of our brothers’ and sisters’ songs. 

I hold the rock, cool and smooth, in the cradle of my palm and lift it again to my forehead.  By the open window of my bedroom, I rest and pray wordlessly. Maybe the rock is just a rock.  Maybe.  Maybe the Universe does not sing to me.  But I think it does.  I think it does.  It sings of many things, you know, but mostly of love.  No, not love.  Something even more than love.  Love is too small a word and the song is too great a song to be heard with my ears.  Whatever it is, I hear it with my whole life.  It is there, all the time.  It is a pulse, an essence, and a wave.  It is an abundance, a loss and a longing.  It is the sorrow that catches joy by the tail.  It is more terrible than words can say. I feel as though I could simply hand the stone to another soul and without words passing between us, the revelation could be shared.

I wish very much that I could say it better.  I wish I could hand you the stone and make it all clear.  I guess this is the best I can do.    I offer all of this because it offered itself first to me.  Others may judge if my visions and fancies are earth-bound or spirit-driven.  I cannot know.  Maybe I am crazy.  But I’ll tell you what the spirits tell me and where the visions lead me.  I’ll tell you what I feel called to do.  I feel called to be tender enough to hold others’ pain gently. I am called to surrender to a writer’s daemon so that I cannot stop the words and then again to falter and mourn when no words will come.  I am led to court the stories of others with reverence and wonder and to take all feeling where the roots are quick and too close to the source.  I am called to struggle in fear and doubt but to tell my story anyway in hope that I might make others brave.  I am called to feel wholly inadequate, entirely without merit, and to know all the while as the Mystic of Norwich told us that scarred and imperfect, fearful and unknowing we can trust that, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” 

Texts that visited me while I wrote this:
James, William.  Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
Julian of Norwich.  Revelations of Divine Love (1413).