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On politics and kindness

Does anyone else feel disconnected from politics and political debate at the moment?

I don’t write overt political fiction. I used to be an activist and it’s a condition akin to a long term illness, periods of remission and infection but I’m much better at the latter, in so far I’ve focused on improving my self and making my art, but I still care. I was a socialist after a fashion, campaigned locally and was quite outspoken online, which is as pathetic as it sounds now. Self righteous and outraged, which hits the brain in the same way cocaine does and yet the stories aren’t as good.

I used to be a true believer, that if we instituted equality of outcome, then people’s innate goodness would bloom like flowers in spring. History tells us otherwise, and I was guilty of the sin in believing if ‘my version’ of socialism was implemented, it would be perfect. I used to consider myself a feminist, and wondered why I was anxious and angry, all the time, made to believe being a man was somehow a broken path through identity.

It’s not true, but it’s a controversial statement to say it aloud, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with being a man, any more than there is being a woman. It’s the individual choices we make, whether they come from nature or nurture and whether we accept the responsibility of their outcome. That is a subject for another time, because I have a lot to say in that regard and probably won’t because it riles people up, and I prefer to think out loud without it being seen as a provocation.

I don’t consider myself to be any one thing politically. I get why people believe what they do, even the worst things make sense to us, if we sit down and really look into ourselves. It’s part of why I write, because in the dirt of ourselves, we find the real treasure. What gets me about politics now is it is insular, with the same sins on both sides – the left have gone all in on intersectionality, where they’ve stopped empowering people to be anything other than victims whereas the right don’t come out and say ‘fuck you, I’ve got mine.’ I think the truth is somewhere between the two, but the debate is getting insular and shrill, and I watch it the same way I watch sumo. Two fat guys trying to slap one another of the ring whilst we all suffer, regardless of the outcome.

I got approached to run as a candidate once, and rejected it wholly which was the beginning of my move away from political activism towards art and working on being a better person. There are those who will say I have a long way to go in the latter, but I keep working towards it through my actions and art.

My politics, such as it is, is sourced in common sense and kindness and evidence. I don’t think someone’s origin defines who they are, but I can see how it hurts or helps. I think both sides ignore class and economic disparities because telling someone the colour of their skin or who they sleep with means they’re hobbled before the race starts is easier than trying to look at how resources get allocated and what opportunities are available. Poverty is corrosive and the scars run deep, but the left focus on nurturing a hierarchy of oppression hurts more people than it helps. I don’t believe a white male has anything close to inherent privilege. If you disagree, look at the homeless population and the suicide statistics. I think virtue signalling hides flaws which are better addressed through contemplation and therapy.

On the right, they could benefit from more empathy and listen to everything Jesus said, and I mean everything. I don’t think bombing everyone helps although the left governments are as excited about war as the right wing ones.

You get the idea, I like freedom of speech for everyone, because if someone puts an idea out there, we can talk about it. We debate or have dialectics because we are civilised and don’t have force of arms, but we hurt one another emotionally instead and wonder why nothing appears to get better.

I don’t have the answers, I used to think I did but I can do is think about how and why I behave, why I feel about certain things and issues, and vote. In this country, it’s a dismal set of choices to make come election time.

The writer Michelle McNamara, late wife of the comedian Patton Oswalt said something which makes sense to me. It applies to all points on the political spectrum.

‘It’s chaos out there, be kind.’

Raam Dass said something which I quote a lot.

‘We’re all just walking one another home.’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pacifist or passive, but I prefer civilised discourse over violence and direct action. I loathe antifa as much as neo-Nazi activity because all it does is hurt and frighten people. An adolescence of comic books and mythology has taught me we are capable of being better, without a power ring or a radioactive spider bite, there are millions of good people doing good things to improve the world. Shit, Mr Rogers said something which I will end on, because it’s beautiful and it sums up how I feel better than another few paragraphs.

‘Look to the helpers.’

We’re all in this together, surrounded by miracles and horror. I write stories and poems which qualifies me towards nothing and I read a lot of books, trying to synthesize together all the information into some form of knowledge. I mispronounce words I’ve read but not exclaimed aloud, but I laugh at myself about it because it reminds me I’m human and as flawed as the rest of you. We make our own heaven or hell, and sometimes I can’t choose between horns or the halo, so I have fur and friends instead.

We all want to love and to be loved. It’s an elegant idea but difficult to express in action but we try.

Thank you for reading.

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Knowing

Feel me

Until your surrender

Arrives

Relax in the direction

Of my attention

I am as aroused

By your dancing anger

As by your giggling joy

I remain willing

To crack the shell

Of closure

Lick my love against

The soft heart flesh

Inside

My breath is full

My body strong

I enjoy your anger, your tears

Your silent hardness

The world ever gives me that

I do not analyse

I encourage

You who must follow

Heart’s white rabbit

I allow you to go mad 

With love

You must be the ocean

Not the ship that

Waits, tied with fraying rope

To proprietary dock

Oh how I know you

As you know me

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Two Pages (08/10/16)

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I’ve now hit the 238 page mark with Lawful Evil, the voice is there, I’m following my story grid so there’s less incentive to meander and I’ve been surprised by the diversions that I have taken, but have not yet been lost within the book. It feels like a focused progression for me and each day that I return to it, I do so without that nagging fear of failure that used to haunt me. It’s not entirely absent, but it’s been turned into a tool in my armoury.

So, if you’re a long term reader of the blog, then you might be aware that I am interested in spirituality. I’m not a magician or anything like that, but I do take an interest in certain philosophies, mainly Eastern but I do appreciate stoicism and have been reading Marcus Aurelius and Seneca but the one set of tenets that I do return to quite often is Buddhism. I like it’s rooted in human behaviours, that there’s no external deity to worship and I draw comfort from the attempt to aspire to an ideal. There are buddhist bigots out there, Myanmar is a sad example of such but nothing and no one is perfect, which Buddhism allows for. I also like Taoism and Zen as well, most religions are fascinating to me, and there are rich seams of poetry and sensuality within each of them.

So, I have been listening to an audiobook by Jack Kornfield which talks about The Ten Perfections, virtues of the religion, all delivered in his soft, warming voice, interspersed with parables, jokes and illuminating stories. I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of faith because there is a lot you can learn from considered and informed voices without a dog in the fight.

I thought about how it would apply to the practice of writing and how they might be intertwined with the Ten Perfections. Here are five or so, that might be interesting.

  1. Equanimity – A balanced, even mind applies in respect of how you portray your characters. If you can understand that no one considers themselves a villain, that ‘good’ people are flawed and duplicitous without diminishing their goodness. Establishing and practicing this is a good way to achieve depth in your stories.
  2. Compassion – Unsentimental is the caveat here. You show your love for the characters by making them suffer, setting them challenges between them and their goals. Their reaction, their desire is what fuels the engine of your story.
  3. Generosity – To yourself, in terms of caring for you, physically and emotionally is a form of generosity. When you’re giving everything away, be sure to keep something for yourself in order to maintain and empower yourself. In terms of your writing, take delight in what you are creating, it’s the cheapest form of entertainment to tell yourself a story and yet the most powerful. Be generous to your characters in how you tell their story, protagonist and antagonists alike.
  4. Morality – Your passion and genuine emotion are what will draw the reader in and keep them there. We can forgive clumsy writing, inconsistent plotlines and bad cover art if we sense that we are reading something genuine and heartfelt. Your morality informs your writing, either in opposition or consolidation. Explore that on the page – write about a homophobic nurse forced to care for a dying gay man, or a white nationalist who finds themselves working alongside a Puerto Rican. Depending on your point of view, try to explore different viewpoints with the same passion and insight that you would confirm your own.
  5. Renunciation – I characterise this as the fear of missing out or chasing trends in writing. Renounce the voices of others only when you have found yours, be the best version of you on the page that you can be. Don’t be JK Rowling or Stephen King, they’re already out there and they got there through hard work , luck and determination. Be the best version of you. It can also refer to the discipline of a writing practice, or making sure that you read more, and to do so consciously.

So, they probably are a bit of a reach, but I own that about myself. My confidence is in how I go about the business of being me, and no one else. I think about how I go about my business and my art with a large degree of passion but it seldom translates into arrogance. I’m successful at being me, and I want reality to catch up to that, but along the way, I learn so many wonderful things about myself.

Thank you for reading. Please leave comments below.

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mix tapes and a blanket fort

 

you don’t normally

listen to this sort of thing

angry girls with guitars

juliana hatfield

liz phair

you sing along with sullen girl

and it makes me want to pick you up

and carry you away

build you a blanket fort

but you want to know what i like

what moves me

How my animal tenderness

Finds new ways

To offer new healing

so you listen

to bass that upsets your biorhythms

but you gain a sense

of who I am

beneath proprietary armour

and the tender beast

underneath

 

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Animal Vs Angel

When the black eyed angel folds it’s wings

Around me, I would tear them,

Root and stem

Unmanned, and in my divine rage

Dash it’s ugly skull into the concrete

It is not an action fuelled by violence

In the palace of my skull

Wanders an animal

And it knows not love nor hate

But survival

And it is that,

A compulsion that blesses

The places where the world wounds me

It screams it’s hate into my face

But I remain inviolate,

I have work to do,

And armoured in that

I face the legions that follow it,

Bleak envoys that tied me to darkened rooms

Silenced me but I have many allies,

Beautiful, brave, bold and quick

Set against

These monstrous shadows that claim so many

Dumb pawns invigorating them with the phrase

‘Pull yourself together’

But I have triumphed before

I carry it’s memories in my veins

And I will win again.

Wash the blood off my hands

With the sweetest love

I’ve ever known

 

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Ghosts of Celluloid

He sits at the back of the theatre

Recalls how it was all new

Once

No colour, no computer generated effects

Not even sound.

He looks at people hunched over their phones.

People move so much faster

He doesn’t get why people

Wear their hair the way that

They do

Why the news is always bad

He knows that the day he wakes up

Without pain

Will be when he’s dead.

Stopping to make conversation

But there’s no time for that

People too busy

He looks out

Wishes not that he could go back

He treasures every precious mistake

Nor does he seek to disappear

No, what he asks for,

As the music swells

Is that things slow down

To the point

That we could all stop

See one another

And start to talk

She moves from the screen

From a time before

The world broke her spirit

Her lips press against his cheek

Not caring that his hands shook

Too much to shave

His chest grows tight

And he follows her

Leaving everything behind

Missing every frustrated second

As he lets the world go on

Without him.

 

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She Leaves By Degrees

She leaves by degrees.

I potter around

Offering up trinkets

That she used to celebrate

But now smiles

Politely says thanks

We use the words ‘I love you’

When really we mean

‘I’m scared, not that you’re leaving’

‘But you’ve already left’

I read through a million books

Write a million poems

And they all say the same thing

That I gave everything

And that you can still do everything right

And lose something irreplaceable

Some feelings too ugly for speech

And the bed is so cold

Too large a wasteland to wander alone

Showing me affection

But no passion

We made a ghost

That haunts us both

You never quite leave

But you never quite stay

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Raise your shield high

Silence has a weight

Texture

A rock worn smooth

By time

A delicacy as raw silk

Sliding over my rough, dark hands

Inside,

The screams – outrage, pain disguised

As signals of virtue

I stand askance

My path takes me through

These places

Once walled gardens of enthused discourse

Now the flowers drip blood

I hold my own counsel

Keep making my art

As though casting a suit of armour

Against the fragile, vicious beasts

Within

Without

My silence is my shield

And I raise it high

I raise it high

 

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Synopsis:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations.

Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America.

This book serves as a delicious mixture of the intimate and the epic. There is the sweep of history, and it’s made intimate by the lives and the passions of the characters. There is a rich and compelling humanity on display here. There are no villains twirling mustaches, but simply people and their secrets, those that they keep from others and those that they keep from themselves.

Cal, the narrator, takes us back in time and intersperses those stories with his own experiences. He captures the poignancy of life lived as someone who is borne outside of gender norms, but it is not something that you are bludgeoned over the head with. Eugenides draws upon a disparate and dizzying array of influences and events to bring this book to life. I found myself involved from the start, and the deeper I got into the book, the more complete it’s hold over me became.  There is life, death, sex, rioting, incest, blackmail, food, mythology, egotism, hubris and history all within these pages.

I loved this book, it’s depth and power do not undermine it’s entertainment value, they enhance it. The prose is exquisite, the insights that come from each development are startling and for all of it’s weighty matter, it’s warm and funny with it too. You grow to love these people as Cal loves them and I loved Cal, for his integrity, his willingness to pursue and be himself. It’s a story that has dead ends and incomplete events but it serves to add to the reality of the story.

The trick with literature that wins prizes isn’t that it’s pretentious, it’s just not simple and clean cut. It’s humane and expansive, it teaches you about how people are, not as you would wish them to be. Some of it is pretentious, but even then you’ll learn something from it that makes for an interesting conversation, stops you being an asshole in person or online (okay less of an asshole) but still it’s a really good book and I think you should read it.

 

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Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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Synopsis:

Unusually for Dickens, Hard Times is set, not in London, but in the imaginary mid-Victorian Northern industrial town of Coketown with its blackened factories, downtrodden workers and polluted environment. This is the soulless domain of the strict utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind and the heartless factory owner Josiah Bounderby.

However human joy is not excluded thanks to ‘Mr Sleary’s Horse-Riding’ circus, a gin-soaked and hilarious troupe of open-hearted and affectionate people who act as an antidote to all the drudgery and misery endured by the ordinary citizens of Coketown.

Macaulay attacked Hard Times for its ‘sullen socialism’, but 20th-century critics such as George Bernard Shaw and F.R. Leavis have praised this book in the highest terms, while readers the world over have found inspiration and enjoyment from what is both Dickens’ shortest completed novel and also one of his important statements on Victorian society

I had a cultural awareness of his work and had seen adaptations of it on television and at the cinema, but this was my first experience of reading Dickens. His shadow reaches across the centuries, he’s buried at Westminster Abbey and he’s a cultural icon.

After reading his work, I get it now.

The language and craft are impeccable, entirely of their time but still in possession of a clarity and insight that makes the subjects timeless. There is woven within the delightfully realised descriptions and interactions, a great deal of genuine anger and insight. He never stinted at going after the big issues – class, education and character. His plotting is superb, the story develops and reveals true character, whilst holding to a wonderfully terse and delightful story that shows the virtue of being true to oneself.

In the political and social novel, the tone can sometimes veer towards preaching but Dickens made informed and cogent insights without forgetting to be entertaining. Even his choice of character names are reflective of their respective characters and have a deliciously rich and ridiculous power to them. One of the teachers has the surname of M’Choakumchild and the rigorous, logical father has the surname of Gradgrind. On every level, Dickens puts together a story, an argument as delicious and delicate as a string of pearls.

Language has changed, culture has changed and yet Dickens shows us that human nature and desire has not. He makes an argument not for a particular political party or idea, but compassion and honesty in our dealings with one another. He shows the damage that a focus solely on education as repetition without the development of character and heart can cause, personified in the odious yet logical progression of Blitzer and in the Gradgrind children themselves, but how they overcome this serves the story.

Hard Times was wonderful and I would recommend it without reservation.