Don’t Fear Fantasy! (or any genre you don’t usually read) :)

When someone tells me they don’t like my reading choice or my favourite authors it really hurts. You might as well be insulting my child. As I work in a library I’m often asked for book or author recommendations, regularly opening myself up to this sort of pain.

The books we choose to read, the authors we worship are, like all art choices, indications of personality, a window into the inner workings of our psyche, a reflection of our beliefs, a glimpse of ideas we embrace, values we hold dear.

When I discuss a title I’ve enjoyed or gush about my favourite author,  I am telling you who I am. That’s precious information. Information I wouldn’t usually share with a stranger but in the context of my job it’s knowledge I am obliged and indeed want to, share with you

Next time you are looking for literary inspiration and someone is kind enough to share their opinion don’t, as a lady did to me only last week, choke with disgust at the suggestion because it doesn’t happen to fall within the genre you usually enjoy.

When you tell me you enjoy political thrillers and I recommend “Iron Council” by China Mieville, don’t spit with venom proclaiming you’d rather read chick lit than open up a fantasy novel. Think about why you were asking for inspiration in the first place. You are bored with your usual viewpoint and want to see the world from someone else’s. There’s no finer ambition than that.

A book recommendation comes from a very personal place, treat it with the respect and care you would any sensitive data, but most importantly, take a leap into the unknown. You can’t hate fantasy if you’ve never read it.  As Gandhi famously said:

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.

Embrace you fear of fantasy, go with it wherever it may take you, you just might enjoy where you end up!

 

p.s if you get what I’m referencing in the picture you’re my new bff xx

 

 

 

 

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The Space Between Breaths

After years of practice she had found the way here, to the space between breaths. Twice she got close. The first time she came to the threshold and grabbed at it, forgetting the teachings. Months of searching passed before she arrived at the gateway again, now her craving barred entry. Find the space. Expand it. Settle within, as a God. This became a mantra; SPACE, EXPAND, GOD; repeated until all other words relinquished power to those three, instilling them with the omnipotence to break through and enter.

She stood on spun sugar; struggled against the constant threat of collapse. There had been hope for serenity, but she only sensed anxiety. A prickling along her skin signalled company. Slow creeping panic snaked up her body as she discerned something malevolent and contemptuous come into being. Beneath her feet dark pools formed. Shapes emerged, circling her ankles, rising. She wanted to leave, but had not been taught how. She realised with dread that this was not a liberation; it was a prison.

The shape from the blackness wore her face and undulated in and out of focus. As the hand of a clock that appears stuck between seconds, she hesitated between knowing and unknowing. Recognised then forgotten. Conscious then unconscious. It was a beat; it was breathing. Escape from this place called for a disruption to the rhythm.  Her head filled with disorderly images of a future self doing commonplace things – brushing teeth, flicking through television channels, washing dishes. Playful mesmeric tunes wriggled and burrowed into deep, unreachable places,  earworms squeezing out emptiness, lifting her up and free of the darkness.

Her eyes opened. Her heart pounded and her breath came in shallow gasps, but familiar surroundings soon subdued emotion, ushered in reason. It was a dream, that was all. She was glad to be conscious and out of the dark. Strangely grateful for failing to reach that elusive terminus once again.  Deep within the unconscious however, something waited. It fed on worms, gulping down great draughts from the stream, creating famine and drought. It meant to leave nothing behind but the empty interval, where they could exist as Gods for eternity.

Lego in Libraries

Yesterday I spent a fun couple of hours at the Library where I work playing with Lego. Well I say fun but most of it sucked because I am terrible at Lego.  It wasn’t until I found a step by step tutorial on Youtube that I finally began to enjoy myself. In this sort of situation I need to be instructed, told which kind of brick to put where.

The whole reason I was playing with the stuff was because it’s my turn to run the Lego Club next week and it’s kind of annoying when the kids are all making incredible objet d’art and I can only manage things that are square or rectangular – last week I made the border of a garden then gave up when I didn’t understand how to fit a gate, whilst the eight year old beside me constructed the ground floor of his house replete with white goods and soft furnishings.

Frustration and incompetence aside the Lego Club is one of our most popular activities but does it really belong in a library? I chose to work in a library because I love books. The reality of it is that, in order to keep libraries open, you have to love various other things too  (well, maybe not love, maybe get to grips with is a better phrase)

In my job, as well as the book related stuff, I take applications for concessionary travel passes, help people get online, issue public transport and tourist information, take police enquiries, facilitate various kids and adult activities (sometimes with a strong book theme, sometimes tenuous, and sometimes not at all) and signpost people to local services. I’d love to just talk books with the people who come through our door, but sadly those days are long gone.

But is sad the right word to use? Maybe not. In our increasingly fragmented societies the existence of a place that people can visit without any expectations of them, is in itself something to be celebrated. You are welcome through our doors and, other than reasonable behaviour of course, we won’t expect anything of you. You don’t even have to whisper!  Borrow a book, or not. Engage with us, or not – we love to chat to our customers, but we are also happy to let you be. Stay as long as you want, five minutes or all day, and it won’t cost you a penny. I can’t think of another place as enticing as that!

So, as I sit amongst the eight year old’s constructing another Lego disaster I will remind myself that Libraries exist to service the communities they are a part of.  As our communities evolve we have to evolve with them. I don’t think our communities have ever needed libraries more and we must by any means possible remind people of two important facts:

  1. We are here
  2. We are here for you

We will always have books. I will always have books. Libraries will always have books.  What we need more of is space to breathe, to take a time out from the insane whirlwind of modern life. Somewhere to go where we can be alone. Somewhere we can go to be amongst people who want nothing from you. Time out. Time out of time.

If Lego is a tool to get people who have forgotten us or who are unaware of our services, through the door then I’ll happily humiliate myself before the child gods of Lego.

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My humble Lego attempt- after following step by step idiot guide!

 

Mother’s Day

I remember the day that changed me.
You sat opposite,
Dad inbetween.
We each held a hand
And when the moment came, I looked at you
And I could see that your only thought,
In your terrible grief,
Was me.
Holding it all in,
For me.
And when, on that other
Dark day
I came to you, breathless with fear
You looked me in the eye and said
“I’m ok, look”
And I did, and I saw
Such courage and such love that I have never known since.

The Startling Sweetness of The E!

I’ve fallen out of love with music. I’m not sure exactly when it happened but it’s been a while, and I’m trying to understand why.

I remember my first gig vividly.  I was 12 and it was winter 1982.  Me and my two older sisters crammed into my brothers tiny red Fiat, giddy with excitement as we drove through cold and rainy Birmingham streets on our way to the Odeon (sadly no longer a music venue but a cinema) to see the kings of the new romantics, Duran Duran. We didn’t care that our seats were located in the rear stalls, it was just such a thrill to see our idols performing in the flesh, and I recall the kudos I got the next day at school when I turned up donning my Rio scarf and badge.

That was the first of many live gigs and the beginning of a romance with pop music, which eventually transformed into a passionate love affair with grunge by my early 20’s. And then in 1995 a new love of my life came along, my daughter.  This marked a change in my musical habits. It’s true that with a new born you don’t get much alone time, along with a musical drought I didn’t pick up a book (another passion I had) for several years after she was born, but with music it wasn’t because I didn’t have the time, it just didn’t have the same appeal.  I never got that thrill listening to new music and I tried, I really did. I discovered Muse but got bored by the second album, and the same went for Radiohead, Coldplay and Kings of Leon.  When ebay became a thing I sold all my vinyl, even my precious Bleach album which still fills me with shame.

There was a brief period about 10 years ago when someone introduced me to Brand New, and I got into them in a fairly big way. I even ventured to a live gig (my first for a decade) but was disturbed by all the phone waving going on, as if seeing life through a screen is the only way we can make sense of it. I even waited out the back for a while like I used to do back in the day, to get a glimpse of the band as they exited the venue on to their tour bus, but after half an hour we were bored, cold and tired, and we all had work the next morning.

On reflection, that brief sojourn back to music came at a time in my life when I was feeling lost. I was trapped in a job I hated. Most of my days spent conflicted by the direction my employers shoved me and where my moral compass pointed. I’d had a relationship break up and lost my mom to cancer within the space of a few years, and although I was happy in a new relationship, I think I was still feeling a little lonely. Music is of course well known for helping us make sense of isolation, loneliness and confusion.

Currently I am in a good place. I gave up the job from hell and I’ve been working in a library, which for me is basically like going to heaven every day. We have got rid our our mortgage and are living a simple life in a caravan by a river. I became vegan four years ago which put an end to the cognitive dissonance I suffered as a meat eating “animal lover”, and my partner, who was constantly stressed out by suburban living, is now much calmer and content with our new lifestyle.

Is this why music doesn’t feature in my life much? Is it the reason that finding new music doesn’t interest or excite me? Why I don’t have a radio in the house, and why the one in the car is permanently switched off?  Has music only ever been a form of therapy for me? Certainly as a young adult, music, specifically Nirvana, helped me, a shy introvert, express who I was, gave me a focus, a lifeline when I thought I was drowning in grief after losing my father to a brain tumour, brought excitement and freedom and a sense of identity that I never had before. Before I was always trying to fit in, grunge made me realise I didn’t have to, I was ok just being me. But now music makes me feel nothing, and that feels wrong.

Something must be missing,  I must have a loose connection, faulty wiring.  I thought it was musics fault, that music just isn’t good any more, that’s its all talent show winners and, if my daughters current obsession is anything to go by, androgynous manufactured boy bands from Korea. How can she be infatuated with this I thought, as I viewed a video she sent me, so far removed from the heartfelt screams of Cobain that captured my heart at the same age. But on reflection, I don’t think it’s musics fault. I think I’m confused.

In today’s Guardian there is an interview with Liam Gallagher.  It seems that Liam doesn’t particularly care for new music either, in the article he is quoted as saying

“My record collection was built. I was done and dusted by the time I was 22. It’s like your football team; I’m never going to fucking change my football team.”

Maybe I’m done and dusted. Maybe its ok to only listen to those few bands that influenced me so much at 22.  Nirvana still give me the feels, but is that just conditioning. If something new made me feel that way,  I’d believe I was ok, a fully functioning human. How do I get that feeling back? I’m sure the music is out there to do it, it has to be, but how to discover it?

Whilst researching this post I came across another Guardian article by Sophie Heawood  that resonated with me more so than Liam’s. She also seems to have become disconnected from music after childbirth, and like me could not put the blame solely at musics feet.  She ends the article by describing how she has found a way “back in” by taking piano lessons. She is taking music back to its roots, starting again, finding the beginnings. To paraphrase, she has found “the startling sweetness of the E”.  Maybe learning to play music is the way to fall in love with it again. I’ve got an old guitar somewhere, I bought it 25 years ago when I had dreams of becoming the English Nanci Griffith during my folk phase, it needs a couple of strings and a tune up, and age has brought me the patience to learn that eluded me all those years ago when I only got as far as the first few chords of “Blowin In The wind”.  I might just give it a go, I don’t think I’m done and dusted, and football was never my thing.

Qualia – A Short Story

“ To lose ones self is essential for any transformation.” This had been the opening line of the flyer that had prompted my attendance at the seminar entitled “The Consciousness Singularity and Implications for Immortality.” It had been hosted by Metamind and, some months later, I sit in a waiting room of their huge lab complex. My hands rest in my lap, blue veins are visible under the pale soft skin of my wrists. I am dressed in a shapeless knee length white smock that had been handed to me neatly folded after my body had been through its final preparations.

I run my hands over my naked scalp marvelling at the novelty of it. A new sensation at the end of all sensation, I smile at the irony of it. I think of the remarkable devices that sit dormant within the surface of my brain millimetres from my fingertips. I have completed the final paperwork consenting to their activation, and I think how strange it is that my final act of submission to this program and its pioneering technology, should involve the aeons old and singularly human gesture of a signature on paper.

It had been impossible explaining my decision to mom

“It’s the ultimate liberation Mom” I had insisted as we shared a last meal together. “the next evolutionary step, maybe even the final one.”

Mom had insisted that it was a leap not a step, created in a lab by human interference with the laws of nature, and as such it was a bad thing.

“We should let nature take its own course Mary”, she said, “not manipulate it for our own ends!” She had a simplistic way of looking at the world which I usually found endearing, but tonight I desperately wanted her to understand. Her approval, though not essential, was still important to me.

“That doesn’t make sense Mom, we’re not outside of nature peering in and meddling with it, we are nature. This is the culmination of decade’s worth of social and cultural evolution. Collective consciousness is the next step up from collective intelligence, which, I hasten to add you don’t seem to have a problem with!”

Mom insisted that sharing ideas and information as a collective through her various social media accounts was different, that you could unplug and return to the material world, and that was important.

“Once you’ve given your consciousness over to those creeps at MetaMind there will be no unplugging, there’ll be no you to unplug, no way back to me“

Hearing the anguish in her voice was almost more than I could bare but I was firm in my resolve.

“To join my consciousness with a billion others though Mom, think about what that might mean, who or what else we might join with, what we might become! It’s the ultimate Fuck You to death; don’t you want that after all we’ve been through?”

She was crying now but defiantly held my gaze, how stubborn we both were!

“No more dancing to deaths tune Mom, we can be free of it, immortal, isn’t that what we’ve been striving for ever since….. I paused and she looked up, her eyes searching my face for the chink in my resolve that she thought I had inadvertently revealed

“Ever since what?”

It was cruel of me, but I held her gaze and continued “It’s our obligation to explore what that really means, to become something more than this, this fragile bag of bones that starts decaying just a handful of years into it’s short life, that can hurt and break and bleed. I need to be more than that!”

I had been born surrounded by death. The Euro War was in its second brutal year and over the next seven I would lose a brother and a father to its horror. I had found people too, usually buried beneath rubble, pale powdered hands softly reaching out to me, or limbless and staring into a void I grew more and more curious about. War makes you contemplate death, not in the casual way of peacetime where it’s an important but troublesome party guest, who you acknowledge politely and then spend the rest of the evening trying to avoid, but earnestly, as the only sure thing in a life of uncertainty. Mom had taken comfort in this, I had not. Mom was passionate about life, about people, about the here and now. She was always fighting for social justice and lost causes. I found such enthusiasm for life futile whilst we were still at deaths behest and I decided quite early on to spend the life I had left exploring ways to cheat that arrogant and conceited spectre out of his inheritance. Mom would often berate my attitude towards death saying “Stop running from it Mary, turn around and acknowledge it and maybe it will leave you alone for a while”

“I’m not running from it Mom” I would reply “I’m running towards it.” It was true; my sights were always set on the horizon, searching for its shape, its shadow. I have always thought it odd that people think you can run from death when your death waits ahead. If you are running from death then it’s not yours you run from, but those already taken, those we lost in the war.

Last night had been hot and still. The window across from my bed was open and framed the thinnest sliver of moon glowing brightly in an inky and cloudless sky. As she reclined gracefully I could see what should be unseen; a huge shadow at rest in her lap, her dark side. Venus had risen to take her place below her like a sentinel, and blinked as if contemplating whether to inform the moon of her indiscretion. As I lay there looking out at the night sky and its terrible beauty, I contemplated my journey to come and I realised with horror that there still remained, despite the months of preparation, a sliver of hope that some essence of me would continue, just one instance of my unique consciousness – or qualia – that would identify as the me lying here, this night. Irritated with myself and what I considered a lack of complete commitment, I banished these thoughts from my mind and got up, closing the curtains on the night sky

In the bathroom later that night, I played with two mirrors, holding them up in such a way as to create an infinite number of me’s going on and on and on through time. It was a game I’d been fascinated by as a child. Where did I end? Where did I begin? Which one was the real me? Sometimes I would sit my little brother Milo next to the sink, “Where’s Mary, Milo?” I would ask and he would stare wide eyed at the reflections for a moment and then turn to me and point with complete conviction “That’s Mary!” he would shout and I would laugh and lift him up, and he would bury his head in my shoulder and wrap his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist, and we would hold each other fiercely until we were perfectly sure and confident of each other’s existence. As I studied those reflections for the final time I thought of each image as qualia; each a representation of my unique experiences of the world. This one is the colour red, this one my father’s stubble against my cheek, this one the fire of mango chutney on my tongue, this one wind through the bamboo, this one my brothers screams, this one smoke and decay, this one the crack, ping and thump of gunshots against stone and metal and flesh. I put the mirror down eyeing the one remaining image impassively. This familiar face with its light brown freckles splashed over pale skin, its delicate brow drawn into a frown over clear grey eyes. I ran my hands over the small contours of my face, down over my neck, my breasts, my stomach, I wrapped my arms around myself. Mom appeared behind me, “You ok honey” she whispered, gently stroking my hair. That right there, that sensation, this one moment, this qualia, I would keep it, hold on to it with every atom of my being and never let it go.

The double doors to the waiting room swing open and a smiling lady in a lab coat comes towards me hand outstretched. I rise and shake her hand noticing manicured nails in a startling shade of red. We walk together along the corridor, me squeaking in plastic clogs alongside the measured click click of her black patent shoes. We don’t speak until we enter a room where I am told to get up on to a couch. The room is vast and there are rows and rows of others like me, reclining comfortably as if asleep. They are dressed in the same white smock, heads shaved, palms resting in laps, my infinity mirror. Soon I will be joined with them in an intimate and infinite bond; their qualia will become mine and mine theirs. I climb onto the couch, I am ready.

To lose ones self is essential for any transformation, these words bubble up from somewhere and pop pop pop behind my eyes like fireworks. I feel a sense of emergence, like a moth from its cocoon into the inky night; I am searching for light, for that sliver in the sky. Threads of qualia unravel around me and set me spinning like a bobbin, they form a current and move with a powerful force toward other streams of qualia that crisscross the void in an intricate tapestry. I am losing my self, transforming as each qualia becomes part of the Meta Mind. A single thread hovers before me and I am suddenly so overcome by emotion and longing that I cannot breathe. Language is starting to evade me but I am certain it has a name; it is love. Now that thread too is gone, finding its place amongst the billions of others that are weaving their way through infinity. Still I transform and as my consciousness unravels from the umbilical connecting it to death, I cease to exist. I become not I, and the not I becomes huge and boundless, powerful in its infinite potential, and the not I knows with complete and unflinching certainty, that even if this body were to fail and the implants power down, and even if the lights were to go out at the end of all things, it would endure.

Links not Chains

In every cry of every Man, 
In every Infants cry of fear, 
In every voice: in every ban, 
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 
from “London” by William Blake

 

Anxiety; the plague of modernity. A dirty trick we have played on ourselves by allowing our societies to be overrun with consumerism, making temples out of shopping malls and worshipping the god of instant gratification.  Like rats on a wheel we make ourselves busy without ever going anywhere, whilst our brains struggle to catch up. They linger in that utopia that existed before we fenced in the land and enslaved the animals, modifying and shaping them both to our will. Before we measured our self worth by number of followers likes and swipes; before we obsessed and fawned over images of the unobtainable, before we settled in mega citys side by side with billions of others whose names we never know and faces we fail to see. Our minds are discombobulated, our consciousness disconnected from a primal brain that is still running with the deer. When was that sweet spot, that Goldilocks moment when everything was just right?  Who the hell was it that first decided it wasn’t enough? When did we become afraid of our own humanity and bury it beneath the cheap plastic trinkets and tech we discard as quickly as we buy, soon bored by their inherent lack of any meaning yet unable to see that this is the reason for our boredom, our ennui, our anxieties our lassitude? if only we could hold on to that boredom for just a moment, and examine it under a microscope what would it reveal? Would we see our own eye reflected back at us?  Would we see the trance state we are living in, under the control and command of those who benefit from our insatiable desire to consume.  This knowledge, this vision could break that trance and free us. The “mind forg’d manacles” of Blake’s eighteenth century London endure into the twenty first, if nothing the bonds are tighter and further spread throughout the globe. Never has their been such a need for us to wake up and throw them off as now. As the destructive effects of consumerism ravage the planet and our very selves time is running out for us to come together, reforge not chains but links that will bind us together in some form of positive collective action against a society that seems intent on our destruction.

 

Fleshing out Characters

I’m currently working on fleshing out characters using different methods. Summary, Repeated action or Habit, Appearance and Speech. Struggling with speech the most. Here are my efforts so far. It’s a character of have an idea for a short story. I hope each of the methods sound like it’s the same character!

Summary Method:

She was most content when nursing a child. From her two younger brothers when she was not long out of nappies herself, to the most recent addition to her family, her first great grandchild, she had the ability to soothe and pacify the most tantrum prone child. Her children were in awe of this ability and called her the baby whisperer. She retained a characteristic modesty about it,  presuming her skills were unneeded unless called upon, like a benevolent goddess. Every night she would make an entry in a diary that she kept hidden away in a box under her bed. Each entry began “My darling Tom” and ended with” I love you and miss you so much” and sometimes, on dark days,” I really don’t know how I can go on.” The only other object in the box was an opaque plastic bag of items returned to her from the hospital. It contained a pipe and a half empty tin of tobacco, a pair of glasses and a blue plastic hospital identity bracelet; the name and hospital number smudged and faded, the clasp broken.  Over time the aroma of the tobacco had seeped out of the bag and into the box, and she would put her face into the box, breathing in the memory of him. These nocturnal sojourns into memory were kept from her children. She would not burden them with her pain and felt ashamed that she still felt so lost.

 

Habitual or Repeated Action Method:

She rose every day before dawn and would float around the house like a ghost. As the sun gave some definition to the day, she would tether herself to it. She would put on her dressing gown tying it firmly at the waist.  She put on the kettle and tossed two slices of bread into the toaster.  As the kettle boiled she would hover over the toaster, drumming her fingers on the work surface, waiting for the soft bread to harden and brown under the direct and ferocious heat of the elements.  As she sat with a steaming mug of tea and toast she would feel that she had officially signed up for the day ahead, and she was never one to renege on her duties. On certain days however, those short opaque days of winter when even the sun struggled to get motivated, she would feel herself drifting and would fear that, given a brisk enough wind, she would become undone and float away.

 

Appearance Method:

Her brows were raised and drawn together over blue grey eyes creating a barricade against an emotion that had risen to ascendancy in the years following her husbands’ death. She wore cheerfulness as armour and weaponised optimism and positivity, ready to deploy them at a moment’s notice if she feared her nocturnal demons were rising too soon.  Sometimes, without warning, the barricade would wobble and she would widen her eyes, and purse her thin lips into a determined line and by sheer force of will the defences would hold. This was who she presented to the world; the strong resilient widow who kept herself trim and didn’t look her age and who was always there for her family. However as night fell and she found herself alone in a house that was unbearably empty, her edges would begin to blur and soften and she would deflate into her armchair, thin long fingered hands hanging motionless over its arms, her wedding ring slipping slowly down to her knuckle.

 

Speech Method:.

“Mum! Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick”

She brushed past them to the front door, handbag open and pressed under her arm, handle trailing on the ground, with her other hand she tried to open the door

“Oh, sorry love, I’ve just been to my group”

“Your group?”  Sarah, her youngest, was puzzled “What group?”

She gave up struggling with the door and turned to face Sarah

“You know. My computer group? Surfers of the Third Age? They’re helping me with that laptop you bought me. Now, be a love and open the door for me and I’ll get the kettle on”

“But I thought you met at the library?” said Sarah still puzzled

“Yes, that’s right love. Where’s my little Benji? Has he got a match today?”

“But it’s Sunday” said Sarah “and the library’s shut”

She paused for a second on the front step and clutched her bag closer to her side.

“I guess they must have opened up special for them, they’re a popular group. Now get the door open Sarah, I really need the loo!”