The Truth About Fleas

 

Just in case you are not aware – the flea is one of the most elegantly constructed creatures on our planet.

It is so brilliantly designed as ‘fit for purpose’ that I often find it sad that it has such a terrible reputation with humans, who rarely consider its finer aspects when they come across it (or more frequently ‘them’) and seem to harbour no reservations about wholesale slaughter of the little beasties.

If you’re thinking this is a strange way to open a blog about writing, you may be right, but some interesting correspondence this week has drawn my attention to the occurrence of ‘the flea’ in many early writings drawn from cultures that seem to have held a different view from our current one of utter abhorrence.

The flea, you see, is the perfect proponent of the creature who avoids capture, damage or annihilation.  As anyone who has shared a house with dogs or cats will know, fleas are impossible to eradicate. They are also, apparently, a wretched nuisance and an irritant to those on whom they choose to make a home. The flea is the perfect parasite.

That, of course, is the accepted view. You might guess that I come at it with a different perspective.

First, a long time ago, I studied entomology. Fleas were one of the groups of insects that we looked at in detail. They are, biologically, exquisitely-designed creatures. They are practically flat, with a hard exoskeleton, making them almost impossible to crush and extremely efficient at scooting away from danger through the hairs of their host’s body.

They are also capable of performing the most unbelievable acrobatics; despite their minuscule size – only 2 or 3 mm in length – their hind legs enable them to jump 50 times their own body length. The only other animal capable of such a feat is the froghopper, another insect, met most commonly in the form of the spittlebug. Again, this demonstrates their ability to get out of difficult  situations with ease.

Second, the flea has astoundingly powerful qualities when considered shamanically – as a power animal. Its ‘annoying’ presence tells us when we need to address something we’d rather not, when we need to clean up our act or look at something that is irritating us but which we are choosing not to see.

Symbolically, the flea teaches us how to be resistant to others’ attempts to eradicate or rubbish us, how to hide or run away when appropriate, but how to just be ourselves when that’s more appropriate. It shows us that our own exterior should be enough to repel any onslaught.

And the vampiric aspects? The flea draws our attention to the importance of our blood heritage. Our secret knowledge and personal wisdom is dependent on our connections with our ancestors, our blood history; and our resilience is a result of knowing who we are ‘in our blood’ – and not as others want to define us.

Thirdly, for me, personally, the flea represents an extraordinary accomplishment of biological engineering, and the beauty of small. That incredible ability to systematically and resolutely be oneself in the face of attack and discomfort, be that criticism, judgement or small-mindedness.

I find I am reminded by the flea of ancient and authentic power, the reality of chi and the feasibility of flying without wings. It gives me real hope because it is such an unbelievable creature yet remains successful against the ravages brought down on it. It is, ultimately, a creature that brings about harmony by pointing towards truth.

You see, we don’t have fleas in our house anymore. I worked really hard last year to learn to admire them and to build up our resistance – mine, the dogs’, the cats’. We ditched convention (there’s a surprise) and used as many alternative strategies as I could uncover, so as not to harm or kill the fleas themselves, but to enable my household not to be ‘susceptible’.

The fleas have left us now, and as long as we take care to be healthy – in every way – they will not need to return.

What has this to do with my writing? The flea has taught me how to be authentic, resilient, connected, efficient, uncrushable, self-preserving, effective, clever and, best of all, to recognise the power of the one small thing.

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What We Did On Our Honeymoon

Every so often, I like to do something a little different. So this week’s offering is a short story. And in the spirit of adventure, it’s not the kind of story I’ve written before. I had a go at writing something specifically for a given brief – hence the title. I hope you enjoy.

What We Did On Our Honeymoon

As the taxi came to a halt outside the pretty, floodlit hotel, I could see the concierge waiting on the steps.

Henry reached across to kiss me, and I allowed the light to catch my new ring as I placed my hand in his.

‘Ready, darling?’ he whispered.

I nodded, and he circled round the vehicle to open the door.

‘Monsieur. Madame. What a pleasure to welcome you to our little paradise.’

The short, balding man came down the steps towards us, a silly black moustache wafting gently in the breeze, keeping time, it appeared, with his constantly flapping hands.

‘Everything is ready for you. Just as you asked. Please follow me and Auguste will bring in your bags.’

The building was as exquisite as the brochure had suggested, its beautiful landscaped gardens illuminated discreetly by hidden lamps, its ornate façade creating mysterious shadows on the walls. The entrance was bright and welcoming.

‘Come in. Come in. Let me show you to the Bridal Suite.’

 

The evening meal was as sumptuous as the hotel rooms.

I sat back in my chair, feeling replete. Smiling at Henry over the porcelain coffee cups, I unwrapped a delicate mint-chocolate and raised it to my lips. ‘They’re over there.’

‘They’ve arrived?’

‘Yes.’

Henry had his back to the elegant couple being shown to their table, but I had a clear view of the Prince of Monaco and his glamorous wife, Princess Grace. The ring on her finger was almost as spectacular as mine.

 

We retired to bed at a respectable hour, and I lay in the darkness, reviewing the day. My ring was now securely housed in the hotel’s safe. We’d been insistent on our arrival that Monsieur La Forge show us he had adequate security, and he’d obliged by opening up his office to demonstrate a very substantial, if old-fashioned, Fichet-Bauche.

‘We have used it for decades,’ the man announced proudly. ‘And never a problem.’

When I heard the local clock-tower chiming two o’clock, I could wait no longer. I crept downstairs in slippers and silk robe, and made my way along the silent corridors to the manager’s office. Pulling two kirby grips from my overnight bun, I carefully slipped the lock open and –

An alarm went off somewhere in the distance. I burst into tears.

The concierge came flying out of a door and flapped his way towards me, his moustache looking even more ridiculous as one side had been squashed against his face while he slept.

‘Madame, Madame,’ he cried. ‘What is going on?’

‘I just needed to know my ring is safe,’ I sobbed. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb anyone. I just thought I could check …’ I trailed off.

‘How did you get in?’

‘The door was open, Monsieur.’

The man’s face went white, and he charged into the room, manoeuvring his hands all over the outside of the cabinet.

‘Please, Monsieur. Tell me it’s still locked.’

Henry’s voice reached my ears. ‘Eleanor, what’s wrong? What’s happened?’

‘There may have been a break-in.’

We held hands as Monsieur La Forge worked the tumblers. I could feel Henry’s fingers tapping against my own. The door opened, revealing my ring nestled securely in its box, alongside the Princess’s.

‘Thank you. Thank you so much,’ I effused, as I was shuffled back upstairs by my ever-attendant partner.

 

 

We spent the next day touring in a hired Mercedes. Sunshine, sparkling seas, delicious food. All was just as it should be.

We arrived back at our hotel just in time to allow Monsieur La Forge to lock away my ring for the night.

‘See, Madame. It is perfectly safe. Right next to the Princess’s own ring.’

 

This time I managed to wait until the clock struck three before I ventured out of bed.

I picked the lock on the office door, the alarm went off, I switched on my tears and the concierge appeared – a trifle less anxious than the night before.

‘Madame, Madame.’ He moved to my side. Seeing my face, he put out a hand to pat my arm. ‘It really is safe, Madame.’

‘Please,’ I begged. ‘Just let me see.’

He huffed a little sigh and bumbled across to the solid strongbox, as Henry arrived behind me.

‘Darling, you can’t keep doing this. I promise you, the concierge knows what he’s doing.’

Once more, we stood and listened carefully as the bald head in front of us quietly mouthed numbers to himself.

 

On the second day, our car was an Aston Martin. The views were as fabulous, the food even more glorious. Our arrival back at the hotel was earlier than the day before so we could eat in the dining room.

As I handed over my ring once more, the concierge smiled, a trifle impatiently.

‘Perhaps, tonight, you will sleep better, I hope?’

 

At two-thirty precisely, Henry and I padded silently down the staircase and tried the office door. It was open. No alarm went off. The concierge had learned his lesson.

I stood at the entrance to the tiny room, as Henry swiftly worked his magic. In a few minutes, the safe door swung wide, and I joined him to fill the satchel with a plethora of treasures – including the Princess’s ring.

We left through the rear entrance, sliding gracefully into the divine leather seats of the loaned Jaguar, which purred almost inaudibly down the driveway to the main road.

As we roared away from the scene of the crime, Henry turned to me and smiled.

‘Did you pick up your ring?’

‘What? That worthless piece of junk?’ I laughed.

It’s Only Logical

This time last week, I had spent most of the previous forty eight hours trying to buy a car.

My neighbour wanted to sell his and I wanted to buy it. A simple enough equation, you’d think. But the reality is, of course, never that straight forward. Sorting out tax, insurance, scrapping my old car, moving the magical dog gate from my old car to the new one, changing spark plugs when the rubber ring off the end of the lead has disappeared down a six inch shaft and wedged itself round the spark plug in such a way that neither can be removed …

And everything to be brought to a conclusion by midday yesterday when my current MOT ran out, without leaving me car-less!

I was tired, frazzled and manic. And not because I’m no good at this stuff. Admittedly, the spark plug malarky had me beaten because it’s not my field of expertise – but even there I was able to come up with suggestions to rescue the elusive piece of rubber.

No, it is precisely because I have an innate ability to decipher and deliver administrative detail that I ended up as I did. This is what dismissed me from the world that many people inhabit in the first place.

Because I can hold sixteen apparently disparate facts in my head, project-manage half a dozen not-yet-coordinating personnel and bring about acts of synchrony when they appear impossible but necessary … in short, because I’m good at admin, I get too easily sucked into it.

And then I can’t get out again.

I get fired up, excited by the possibilities, self-congratulatory at the results, delirious with the successes – and hooked on the adrenaline. And then I can’t function well as a human being because I’ve lost contact with the friendlier part of my brain, the part that takes time to smell the flowers and to care about people’s feelings, including my own.

And, it turns out, the part that enables me to write.

This is not a surprise. I know this stuff. I’ve learnt the hard way. But somehow, even now, after everything I’ve been through, after structuring my life so carefully that this is not a pit I fall into, after building an idyllic existence where I have space to dream and time to be – somehow, I found myself last week caught up in the crazy world of ‘logical mindset’, of logistics and operations and of straight-lining.

I know that the human brain has two distinct halves that function in two distinct ways, and for years, I’ve been careful to develop my right brain functions more deeply. Imagination, creativity, intuition … At one time, these functions were beyond my grasp. I had allowed my life to become one long round of meeting deadlines, organising timetables and planning strategies, all complete with their own paperwork. And it made me very ill.

I was fortunate, at that stage, to be exposed to a number of people who knew there was more to life than left-brain activity, more to be experienced than merely doing things. I began to learn about how to live, and how to live well, and I’ve never really looked back.

So it came as something of a shock last week, when life dictated the need to engage my logical brain to its fullest extent, to make something happen in a very short period of time, only to discover I couldn’t – literally, couldn’t – sit down and write!

I had presumably removed myself so far from the gentle brainwaves that enable creativity, and speeded up my rate of thought into action, all directed along those old logical pathways, that the newer, subtler neural connections declined to work in the face of that onslaught.

It took a determined withdrawal and shutting down from the frenetic activities I’d been engaged in, and a positive slowing of both mind and body function, to allow my previously connected way of being to return. The adrenaline-fuelled frenzy of the previous few days had totally disconnected me from the measured, careful pace of truly being in the world.

I am a fan of the Slow Movement. Whether it is slow food, slow travel or in my case, slow knitting, the purpose of the enterprise is to allow connection, a real opening up of experiencing the moment, and this is brought about by allowing a beneficial change in brain function.

If one wants to ‘live long and prosper’, this slow approach to life is the only way to do it. It’s only logical.

Getting It Just Right

I’ve had an interesting writing experience this week. I wrote a short story – a little under 1000 words – to match a given brief. The story was our required ‘homework’ at a writers’ group I belong to. My response to the suggested title received universal approval.

I tell you this, not because I’m trying to prove I’m a good writer – and not just in my own opinion! But because the fact that everyone in the group appeared to like my story is crucial to the ideas I’m about to explore.

Whilst it was highly gratifying to receive only compliments for my work, it was also disturbing. Now, I’m not talking about any inability on my part to hear and accept praise – I grew past that particular hurdle a long time ago.

I practised for a while simply smiling and saying ‘thank you’, silencing the other voices in my head that wanted to tell me I didn’t deserve it, etc. etc. etc. After some time, the smiling and thanking became second nature.

Then, I started to believe that the people speaking actually meant what they said and were not being sarcastic. I gradually began to hear what they were saying, and to be able to listen carefully to the detail. And to enjoy the acclaim.

This was followed by a short period – when my book was published – of a few glorious occasions of sheer congratulation. Groups I attended regularly actually broke into applause at the announcement, and I revelled in that for a while. I thought I had finally ‘arrived’.

Foolish woman. It did not take me long to realise that such intense esteem does not last, cannot last. I knew this already, of course, as an intellectual theory, but the emotional reality of it was one I had yet to experience. People’s memories are short, especially if they already know you in another context; not to mention that no-one has the energy or the desire to keep telling someone else how brilliant they are.

And even if they did, the repetition would soon pale. On both sides of the interaction. The plain fact is that unless you feel that self-esteem for yourself, no amount of external verification is going to provide it for you. Yes, there were a few magnificent moments that I’ll never forget, that made up for a lot of childhood ‘crap’, but in the end, if I can’t get out of bed every morning feeling happy to be me, I’m onto a loser.

So back to the story for my writers’ group. I enjoyed the challenge of writing to a brief. I was pleased with the technical standard I produced. I took pleasure in the fascination of the editing process, searching for replacement words so that the piece never became repetitive, and so that it flowed gracefully from one section to another.

I revelled in my ability to remove extraneous phrases, odd bits of text, unnecessary script, making the story economic in its telling and using every single word to its maximum, since I had so few. I even enjoyed reading the finished item to the assembled gathering (I can be quite a performer when required). And I’ve already expressed my delight at the response.

The problem was that this story wasn’t actually that good.

Technically sound? Yes. A neat little tale? Definitely. A delightful piece of fun? I would say so. But did it really say anything that was worth saying? Did it have any part of my soul in it? Did it carry anything close to a deeper meaning? Absolutely not.

It was, as far as I’m concerned, a mere piece of frippery. An academic exercise. A trivial slice of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that per se. Sometimes, I enjoy reading that sort of stuff myself. No, the problem was that it didn’t deserve the praise it got – at least as far as I was concerned.

I used my nicely-honed skills of accepting compliments without objection, and was pleasantly surprised by the group’s reception of the piece, briefly feeling quite pleased with myself and enjoying the accolade.

But underneath that, I came to a new realisation. However much I may (or may not) be celebrated for writing superficial ‘stuff’ – and even if it earned me gazillions – I could never make it my main enterprise. It would feel dishonest. As if I was cheating, somehow.

I know that if I consistently work at ‘lower’ than the best I can do, I will always feel I have deceived myself, and my self-esteem will reflect that. For me, there will always need to be a deeper picture, a touching on the profound or the spiritual, a revealing of some essential truth.

Will this put some people off reading my work? Of course it will. But will it be the right thing for me to do? Of course it will. Because if I ignore this inner perspective, I’ll be ignoring the essence that drives me to write, and the energy that gifts me the stories. I have to be true to myself in how and what I need to write.

If I’m not, to slightly misquote Kirk, the cost will be my soul.

Back To School …

There’s a gorgeous reassurance about September. A delightful sense of things both ending and continuing, coupled with a feeling of invitation to venture into pastures new. My word – I’m definitely a romantic at heart!

I love September. I love the harvesting of fruits and vegetables that have taken all year to grow – or not, in my case. I seem to have had a particularly bad year in terms of being organised enough to bring my allotment to fruition. Fortunately, there are enough people on the plot who are willing to share their excess.

In June, it was my turn. I shared as many strawberries as I could rescue from rain damage, as my plants were the envy of all who walked past. Now, I’m being offered sweet peas and tomatoes in exchange. The beans are actually mine.

I also love September for its ‘start-of-the-academic-year-ness’. Having spent a large portion of my life associated with education, I still retain that flutter of excitement at this time of year, with its opportunities to study something new, or to dive deeper into something you’ve already started learning.

That’s my current writing book above, with some of my second novel, begun last year, and now approaching the halfway point, I think. I don’t always know. It’s the way I write. Like September, I pick up and go with the flow, incorporating what has happened, what needs finishing and what needs to be revealed.

Each morning, I sit down to write. I read what I’ve written the day before, see if I like it, use it as an inspiration to go forwards with the story. I listen for what I need to write next: who is in the scene? what will they say? or think? where will the plot go?

It’s very exciting to be inside the detectives’ heads as they unravel the clues and build their theories. I always feel as if I’m listening in to their conversations and their musings. Often, I don’t know where the story will lead, any more than they do.

This second novel has proven to be a real challenge so far. It was easy to start, right off the back of finishing the first. I had my chief characters established, and their ways of working and thinking. I decided to leap straight into action and began with the discovery of a dead body. Up on the Isle of Skye, where one of my detectives lives.

Then I shifted focus, to London – venue of my second detective. Suddenly, he was called out to a dead body, too. And both bodies are unidentifiable, but with lots of interesting facts about them – the way they were both killed, the strange news report that named one of them as the person they thought they’d found at the other place …

I found myself following new characters for inexplicable reasons. I had no idea whether they were ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Then they would disappear, only to surface again in a different context, driving my detectives mad with their lack of tangible consistency, the absence of useful identity, the inability of tracking them down …

Great fun! Until I realised I’d teased the reader enough and needed to start putting some semblance of order into the story. But it’s so important not to reveal too much too soon. Just as well, as I didn’t have a clue myself how it would all resolve. I spent the summer in a fog, tip-toeing my way from one scene to the next, as bemused as my characters.

I love September. Everything starts to resolve. Previously laid plans come to fruition, old plots get revisited and reworked, new directions beckon, things start to make sense. As the spiders start to create their webs, and the trees begin to paint themselves in magnificent colours, there is a general reassurance that all will come good if we let it. We just need to honour what has been so far, let go off what we no longer need and welcome what comes to replace it.

Engaging With The Void – My Own Personal Eclipse

Most of you, I’m sure, will know that America experienced a total solar eclipse last week, hot on the heels of a total lunar eclipse, only a couple of weeks previously. Whatever your take on the skies – whether astronomical, astrological or simply aesthetic – something very special was going on.

An eclipse has always been considered by human cultures as highly significant. Various peoples down the centuries have clothed the event in meaning – personal, apocalyptic, scientific … There can be no denying that the temporary shutdown of the primary source of energy for our planet, and the consequent plunge into utter darkness, is a dramatic and moving experience, at the very least.

For me, the disconnection with my known world is a profound and deeply spiritual adventure, though rarely comfortable, and the presence of a physical replica to match my private journey is more of a ‘stage-prop’ than a cause. I have, you see, suffered (is that the best word, I wonder?) with depression for the largest part of my life.

It is a great joy to me that this is no longer a place I have to frequent. Though I recognise the importance of having inhabited it. And actually, would not swap my experience with anyone else’s because of what it taught me. Now that I understand what this weird and painful sojourn is about, I can, if necessary, begin the pilgrimage early before it becomes unbearable. That way, I have my ‘weapons’ to hand because I am in charge of the navigation.

However, a while ago, I got caught out. Because this time, the disconnection from the structure of my life came about as a result of an illness. What most people would call a ‘bug’. (Personally, I am not a great fan of blaming our microscopic friends for everything we don’t like, or are afraid of, in our lives. That feels very species-ist to me.) Suffice it to say, I obviously had a need to negotiate this particular passing package of energy, and found myself completely wiped out for the duration of over two weeks.

The language I’ve just used has not escaped my notice. It was as if everything I thought I knew about myself was negated, rendered unavailable – even irrelevant. I am, these days, a very healthy person, rarely being laid low for more than a day or two at a time, albeit I remain careful about how I use my energy. So to be out of action for such a long period was a trial. And to be unable to find my way back, even more so.

I found I had to adopt a strategy I’d learned many years ago – in the days when my illness stretched from days to weeks, and eventually, years. Acceptance. Surrender. Honouring. Words which are unusual, not to say unpopular, in our present culture, with all its talk of fighting, rights and power. In the face of a total eclipse, a confrontational stance will merely leave you vulnerable and empty, whereas embracing the opportunity has the potential of enlightenment.

How rare it is, given our way of life, for any of us to step into nothingness – to allow the release of everything that holds us in place, to relinquish stability, to let go of security, to look willingly into the void beyond the constructs that usually shape our days – just to see what might be there.

Do we fear to explore because there might not be a way back? Or because we might not like what we find? Or because we might love what we find? Probably all three.

One thing I know for sure: moving forward with your life, striving to achieve your dreams, is not possible if you insist on taking with you everything you have now. Ever seen Up? You have to be willing to let go, to leave some things behind. And you have to be willing to clear out old thoughts and emotions as much as the jumble in the attic.

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a while now, about creating new neural pathways. The human brain is capable of so much more than many of us demand of it. I’m often fascinated, as well as frustrated, by the way people give up on trying to learn something new. ‘I can’t do that’ seems to be sufficient justification. It is, of course, a lie. The truth would be nearer to ‘I can’t do that, yet’.

To learn anything unfamiliar involves the laying down of a new network in the brain, a delicate and increasingly complex pattern of interconnecting neural pathways – starting with the simplest unaccustomed thought, rehearsing that enough times to make it secure, then allowing another to gently link with it and spark off a third. It takes both practice and patience to make this work but it is perfectly possible.

What we often fail to realise, however, is the necessity to put up ‘roadblocks’ on the old, familiar pathways that we have used for decades previously. Otherwise, the new initiative will simply be lost by dissipating through the well-practised routes. And what is the most effective mechanism to block access to the traditional way you’ve established of doing things?

The word you’re looking for is ‘eclipse’.

Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days …

Last week was a very happy week. I haven’t eaten and talked so much in ages. Last week was the week when I officially launched the novel – complete with champagne!

My two readers – Claire and Kayren – and I had talked for a while about getting together to celebrate the completion of this amazing project, and we finally managed to coincide with dates and aspirations and put together the perfect idea.

Claire travelled ‘up North’, accompanied by a bottle of ‘fizz’, Kayren transformed the conservatory and baked like fury. I made a chocolate cake and burnt it! (That’s not like me.) I then went on to burn the icing! (I didn’t think that was possible.) I believe I may have been a trifle excited.

But finally we were all able to get together, along with a husband and two dogs, to join in the most perfect fantasy English tea-party. Here is what greeted us as we arrived:

The food was incredible: pretty, delicious and ethical! Mostly vegetarian or vegan, as well as gluten-free.

The cakes were extraordinary: chocolate, lavender and rose flavoured.

The sandwiches were finger-thin and intermingled with crostini.

 

There were magnificent delicate fruit tarts.

And all served with beautiful pots of earl grey tea and carafes of fresh spring water,

with traditional table dressings

and beautiful flowers.

And just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we lit the candles on the celebration cake and popped the champagne.

And toasted the book’s success.

And even Rosie decided to join in.

A big thank you to everyone who contributed to such a fabulous day.