After Butterflies- Drifts and Snippets

  The first question I get after a new book has been out a little while is ‘What’s next?’ Usually the answer to that is clear- it will be the next book in the series interspersed with a shorter work along the lines of Spindrift or Bare Knuckle. This time I was certain it would be Yevgena’s book, and that once that’s done I’d figure out where to head next–a possible continuation of the series which is not really quite part of the series–it’s not as confusing as it sounds, it’s just how I ‘see’ it in my head. The writing right now is coming in drifts of imagery, or snatches of dialogue and nothing feels too cohesive yet. It’s not Yevgena who is talking to me just now though, it’s Kathleen strangely enough. I thought if any of the children were going to speak to me, narratively, it was mostly likely to be Conor, but thus far that’s not so.

What follows are a variety of ‘drifts and snippets’ of what I’m working on.

   Daddy had taken her and her siblings to Gleann-na-neGault in the summer, and they’d all had a drink at the spring. The place had long been a site of pilgrimage for those whose heads weren’t quite right, though Kathleen wasn’t entirely certain what that meant. Tobar na neGault was over an hour away though, and she didn’t even know if there was a bus she could take to get near enough to it to walk the rest of the way. So for today, this wee spring would have to do. Legend had it that a queen had come here long ago for a cure, had arrived mad and left perfectly sane. She’d asked Daddy about it and he’d said there was likely some truth to it, and that legends and the places from which they’d sprung, often had a factual basis.

   “It’s thought some springs have a special chemical compound, making it likely that drinking the water does have some medicinal benefit.”

   The foliage was thick and heavy here, the small spring little more than a bubbling pool at the bottom of the incline. There was a large stone to kneel on and a few faded offerings of jewelry and bits of cloth, set adrift on the cold breeze which had suddenly sprung up. It had rained heavily the night before and the trail was mucky, causing her small canvas sneakers to sink and stick each time she took a step. There was garbage around the spring, empty bottles and a few cigarette butts. She knew some of the local teens came down here to drink sometimes, and do other things–what she didn’t know only that Conor had told her not to come down here alone. His voice echoed in her head, his face serious as he spoke.

   “Don’t go down there alone again, Smidge, there’s rough sorts who hang about, an’ while they may not hurt ye, it’s best not to take the chance of it.”

 Also Pamela has had some interesting things to say, which make me a little worried about where the story is headed if they do tell me enough to make their various threads become a cohesive story. So far most of what she’s saying, though, is merely observation, which allows me as a writer to ground myself into the scene and place, and to start to get some idea of what this project might turn out to be. Wherever this all leads, I’m always happy to spend time in their company and it has been a comfort to get back to writing, even if it is just drifts of words here and there. It’s hard to feel like I have much of worth to say in the times we’re currently living through, but it’s what I know how to do, so it’s what I’ll continue to do to the best of my ability.

The firelight and the flickering of the lantern, which Conor had left lit, cast a gossamer web of warmth and cozy security over the room. It lit upon the round of the blue bowls, making them glow like lapis lazuli, and turning the bottles of sloe gin, still upon the counter, to blooms of deep rose. It kindled the bright gold in the red of Kathleen’s hair, cast drifts of peony petals into the flush of Isabelle’s cheeks, and settled softly lambent over Conor’s eyelids which drooped slightly with exhaustion. Daniel was curled up on the floor at her side, fast asleep, the light only touching his edges and the sparks of blue and green in the whorls of his curls. Pru’s head was bent over Abby’s, as she encouraged her to eat her vegetables, the light turning mother and child into a painting, one without lines or borders, like they were wrapped in a fine veil of smoke-gold. Sfumato, the Italians called it, that fine blending of colours to create an image without edges, something elusive, which changed a little each time you viewed it, in the manner of smoke and mist. And then her eyes turned to the head of the table, where her husband sat. No sfumato there, but the clean, clear lines of chiascuro–light-dark, bold lines in bone and strength, dark of hair and eye, even his presence edged upon the air, as if someone had inked him in with a well-sharpened pen.

   He looked up and smiled, aware of her regard. He looked weary, and she thought–judging by the lines at the corners of his eyes–he had one of his headaches too. There was a tincture she made for him, when the pain wasn’t quite so bad, but this one looked as though he might well need his pills or the rather more exotic medicine he sometimes took, provided by Aine.

  I’ve been working a little too on a shorter piece– something novella-sized is the plan right now. The working title is City of Dreaming Spires, and it’s centred around a very young Jamie during his time at Oxford, when MI6 first makes their approach to recruit him as a spy.

   “The boy has a fierce amount of energy to him, could be it would be a good thing for him, focus his mind, bleed off some of his mischief.”

   “He’s also reckless at times, which is not a good quality in a spy.”

   Mordecai tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. “Isn’t it? He’s brave but not stupid. The bottom line here, James is that if I don’t train him, Felix will–is that what you want?”

   James sighed. There were times he forgot how wily Mordecai could be if he truly wanted something. And he clearly wanted Jamie for this business in Morocco. Jamie was a grown man, even if he would always–to some degree–be that beautiful little boy with the mind of fire to his grandfather. It wasn’t for him to say yes or no anyway, Jamie would have to decide for himself.

    I’ve also been jotting down bits and pieces on Bare Knuckle 2.0 as I’m calling it for lack of a better title at present.

Pat shrugged. “He doesn’t love her though, Da. What if he moves to Texas with her an’ gets stuck there because of bein’ stubborn?”

   “An’ how is it ye’re so certain he doesn’t love the girl?” Brian asked, turning from his task to face his son. Patrick’s words bothered him, because it was entirely possible that Casey’s stubbornness would carry him all the way to Texas out of sheer cussedness.

   Pat shook his head, dark eyes serious in the thin face. “Because he doesn’t look at her right, an’ when he talks about her his face doesn’t look like someone who’s talkin’ about the girl he loves.”

   “An’ just how should a man’s face look when he talks about the girl he loves?”

   Pat looked at him steadily, the way the lad always did when he was about to dish out some honesty.

   “The way yer face used to look when ye talked about Aibhlinn, that’s how.”

   “Oh, I see,” Brian said, feeling like the boy had landed a solid blow to his middle. It was one of the things he loved best about his youngest–his no-holds-barred honesty, but when it was directed at his personal life, Brian found it a little harder to love.

   “Why don’t ye see her anymore, Daddy?”

   “Ah, that’ll be my private business,” Brian said, “a man has to have somethin’ he keeps to himself, no?” He kept his voice light but he could see his son wasn’t convinced in the least.

   “Only I wondered, because ye don’t seem all that happy since ye stopped, that’s all.”

   Brian swallowed back a splinter of pain in his throat. He ought to have known his boys would see the truth of it. He likely wasn’t hiding it as well as he’d believed he was either.

And last but never least, Yevgena’s story which I thought would be the narrative demanding to be told. However, the pandemic has really leached my creativity and I’m only starting to feel the stirrings of its return.

    The deck was in a small velvet bag, tucked under all the blankets in the chest which formed a seat for the small table at which she took tea, and made her herbal potions. I slid the cards out, a shudder of revulsion running through me as the deck dropped into my hands. All the cards were disturbing but none more so than the Queen of Spades. She sat on a throne made of twisted rose briar, holding a spray of arrows in her hand, drops of blood falling from the tip of each finger. A rose cane grew up around her arm, and then wrapped around her throat, a drop of blood visible for every thorn. The dark queen, as old as time, she who stood at the crossroads of time, fate and chance, she who roamed in graveyards at night and ruled all men regardless of their power and passions on earth.

   “Put the card at the door, Zhenya.”

   A distinct tremor of fear rippled through me. To place the card at the door was to invite the Queen of Spades in, and while this might all be grand theatre on another night, tonight it seemed all too possible to summon a dark queen from the depths of this forest.

       I put down the card, not looking at that chilling Queen of Spades with her black eyes and knife-edged sceptre. The card sat, small and flat, on the floor, and yet it seemed to pulse with a malign intent.

   “You must put the chair by the door for her, or she won’t feel welcomed.”

    “Zuza, I don’t think—”

   “Zhenya, just do it,” she said, harshly, her dark eyes pinning me to her will.

     I sighed, uncertain how far I should humour her. After a certain point I knew I was opening the door to darkness with this. Nevertheless, I pulled out the small camp chair which Zuza used by the fireside most nights. With each step in the ritual the hair on my neck rose a little higher.

    “And now you must open the door.”

   “I can’t open the door, Zuza, we’ll both freeze.”

   “Just for a moment, that’s all she needs—just a moment to come in from the cold.” Zuza had pushed herself up onto her elbows, a look of desperation printed across the fine-lined face. “Open the door, little dove.”

   The old endearment startled me. Zuza hadn’t used it since I’d married Mihai. I would open the door, but only for the briefest second, just enough so she could feel the cold on her face, and know I’d obeyed her.        

      The wind pushed the door in so swiftly that I had to jump back to avoid being hit. It was keening now, like a woman who’d lost the love of her life, and for a moment I thought I saw something in all that blowing snow and darkness—a form, a woman, tall and haggard, wrapped in a tattered shawl. I grabbed the door and pushed it back, creating an eddy of snow whirling down through the candlelight. Small, cold mice feet skittered down my spine, and I could not squelch the feeling that something had just slid past me into the vardo.

***

   On the business side of things, I had an author coaching session with a literary agent (he doesn’t rep books anymore just coaches authors on how to find representation) which was interesting, though I don’t know that I came away with any big epiphanies. But sometimes it’s enough to have your thoughts on things confirmed. I’m writing commercial grade fiction (I knew that before), my sales figures are good enough to tell him there’s something organic going on with the spread of my books, and that he thinks it’s quite likely I should be able to find mainstream respresentation for my books. While that was encouraging, he also mentioned that if I make that leap and the books don’t sell any differently than they do now, I’d be losing a lot of money. It would be the difference between getting 70% of the profits and getting 5-10% of the profits. His summation was I’d need to sell really well to make the jump worth it. So that leaves me a little uncertain as to what’s next.

Here’s the thing, I’ve been cursed with a fair bit of ambition. I am always happy to sell books and I sell some every day–some days a lot and some days only ten or twelve, but still I sell every blessed day. I can’t help but wonder with a push from a professional marketing team, with reviews where people see and read them, just how far these books could go. I know every person who writes believes their book is a piece of magic, and when you create something it’s hard to extricate it from your heart and soul and to see it with any sort of objectivity. Frankly, I do not think we’re meant to view our own art with any objectivity, though. But I still feel like these books of mine could make the jump and become big sellers for some publishing house out there. Readers say it all the time, and people connected in other ways to the industry believe it too. The gatekeepers, however, have kept the door firmly locked to me and my work– why, I don’t know and some days that’s the most frustrating thing of all. Maybe I’m naïve, but I still believe in my books. I believe there’s a hell of a lot more people out there who could fall in love with Casey, Pamela, Jamie and company.

And on a more positive note for those who follow along here but maybe don’t follow me on my FB page, the books are under option right now with the hope to have it developed into a tv series. So cross your fingers for me!

All excerpts copyrighted 2020 Cindy Brandner Sea of Stars, City of Dreaming Spires, The Long Road and Bare Knuckle 2.0

Walking on the Thin Crust of the World

(I’m going to give you fair warning, I write my blog for myself in a way that I don’t even write my books. This is where I write whatever is in my heart and soul, and I don’t worry about whether people will like it or not. So proceed at your own risk.)

I read something this morning that pierced me to my quick.

‘No. I am going to avoid building any arguments. I am going to refuse to stake a claim, to build a case and then defend it. The minute you circle the wagons you are vulnerable. What if you didn’t even want to defend that territory? What if it was not worth dying for? Everyone is picking fights out there. In the streets at night, on the feeds when they should be working, in 140 characters with borrowed opinions and impossible levels of anger. I can’t do it, not anymore. It’s all wasted energy, the flaring of a billion daytime candles. Why light them? What do they illuminate?’

I admit I have done all of the above. Built my arguments, defended them, tried to do so from a place of information, articles I had read from recognized and reliable sources, books from experts, etc. In the end, though, I have come to see that what’s more attractive to people is to latch onto whatever appeals to their own stance, to react from a place of emotion and their perceived tribe whether that stance is backed by understanding and knowledge or not. People want to be angry, and as the quote above says, they are angry at impossible levels. People like that don’t listen, can’t hear, don’t care, they just want to be angry. I’ve seen this all the way from the international stage to the community pages for my own little town on FB. People want to bathe in anger the way a pig bathes in mud. And to slightly misquote Isaac Asimov, people truly believe their ignorance is every bit as valid and valuable as someone with years of study and knowledge and understanding. It all makes me very, very tired. Soul tired. Sick of humanity tired. We are our own worst enemy and the sad thing is we think we’re the most important thing that ever happened. Mother Nature is pretty good at showing us how very wrong we are, and she’s in the process of putting us in our place right now. She really isn’t interested in the colour of your skin, your bank balance or whether you’ve done good works. She’s sending her message and it’s up to us whether we can receive it or not. Right now, I swear I can feel her taking in a deep breath and having a bit of a rest, because we’re not out there messing her up on our usual level. Here’s the thing, we need her, she does not need us, we tend in our great hubris to forget that.

I am not a fan of unchecked, rampant capitalism–and in truth I think we are witnessing the collapse of it now. Just as a balloon cannot keep on growing without finally bursting, neither can economies–and even if they could there is always a terrible price being exacted for it–on the planet, on the poor, on other species, on other countries. Our solutions need to be small, need to be local, need to come from investment in our communities. They need to come from understanding where our food comes from and what the price of that is. They need to come from a place of remembering that nature is not something we take a day trip out into, but something we are an intrinsic part of.

 I have had my blinders ripped off these last few years, and they weren’t really helping me a lot before then, but these last few years have really been informative in a very ugly way. I have an innate mistrust of tribalism in its current forms, well in any form really. I have seen family members post hateful screeds from white supremacist sites, and when I gently pointed out where they were posting from, got blocked, banned etc. Yet they’ll gush over pictures of my half-Chinese grandchildren, while celebrating white nationalism in a country where they have all the advantage anyway–and they don’t recognize the irony of that for a single second. And let me tell you, if you are cool with flying that flag, I have nothing for you. We fought that war in the ‘40s and the right side won. I wonder what those men and women who sacrificed everything to put down a monster, would think of the people storming the streets with their swastika tattoos, AK-47s and placards saying ‘I need a haircut’. This isn’t left or right, this is about being a decent human being, and if you’re out flying a Nazi flag and screaming in the face of a healthcare worker who may later be the person standing on the line between your life and death, you’re not a decent human being, full stop.

A few weeks ago, here in my own country, a man took a rifle and went out and shot and killed 22 people, some random strangers, some not. And the question I was left with after is the question I am always left with after these horrific tragedies–why are people so bloody angry? I’ll be honest, if he decided he wanted to take his own life and leave it there, that’s ultimately up to him, though of course that kind of action leaves terrible pain in its wake as well as questions we can never answer. When I was very small I lived next door to a family with two little girls who I played with all the time. Even after they moved to another city, they would pick me up in the summers and I’d go stay with them for a week or two. Their dad was fun, and he played with us and made us laugh and tucked us into bed at night after telling us wild and wonderful stories. I thought he was magical. There are things you don’t understand as a child, though, like that the dad drank too much, had a temper, etc and that the mom was always balanced on the knife-edge of trying to keep some sort of equilibrium in the household for the sake of her children. Eventually she left him, and one day when she returned to their house to pick up some things of hers and the girls’ he was waiting there for her. He shot her, and then he turned the gun on himself. To this day, I wish for her sake and the sake of those two little girls, that he’d simply shot himself and called it a day. He orphaned his children, who I have no doubt he loved, and yet he still took their mother from them. And to this day I ask myself why he was so bloody angry, so bloody despairing. I see those tides of anger, those high levels everywhere these days, and there are times it makes me want to never leave the house again.

 So during this slow time, pandemic time, I’ve been reflecting a lot. On myself, on what I’m doing with my time on this beautiful planet of ours, and on why people are so angry. One answer that keeps coming to me is that we’re detached from spirit, both our own spirits and that of the world we live in. We’re detached from the rhythms of the seasons, we’re detached from reason. We’ve been fed a myth that we must progress forward like we’re just cogs in an engine, an engine that will eventually eat the world and, of course, us. Yes, I understand people need to get back to their lives and their livelihoods and that most small businesses operate on a very narrow margin of profit–profit that feeds their families and keeps a roof over their heads. Profit that they also put back into their communities. Because when any of us are seeking donations it’s almost always the small business owners we go to–and they rarely fail us. Those are not the people I’m talking about. I’m talking about the corporations who use us up and spit us out like we’re nothing, regardless of all the bullshit they spin about being a family, etc while we drudge for them day in and day out.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that he thought of ‘Civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths’.  We are all walking on a thin crust and we’ve known it for a very long time. We bury that knowledge under daily tasks–cleaning house, going to jobs, holiday gatherings, writing books, planting gardens, raking leaves, painting rooms, but it’s always there and we know it with every breath, with every step we sense that crust is getting thinner and when it breaks we fear it will throw us into utter chaos. I think the crust is breaking now, I think many of us are in lava up to our knees, if not our armpits. Civilizations fall, this is an inevitability that history has shown us again and again. It’s possible ours is falling now, and that is scary, that causes fear, frustration, anger. People feel betrayed when they are stripped of the things they believe are their birthright. After the fall, there is chaos and then perhaps beyond that is what truly matters–whether we survive, how we survive and how we once again find meaning in our lives. We have all lived in a bubble for a very long time, a drug-induced stupor where we could believe action did not have consequence, and that we could stay at the banquet until long after the candles guttered out and still not have to pay the piper. But now we either pay the piper or we’re going to get banned from the castle permanently. And when I say castle I mean the earth as our home.

Humanity has to find its soul, and it can’t be based upon the myth of riches– because there’s never enough of it and it has caused more bloodshed and pain than we can possibly calculate. We’ve run up a terrible debt, and now the bill is due. And it appears no one wants to pay, no one knows how to pay it. We have to recognize the terrible pain we’ve caused in the name of endless growth, endless profit and we have to figure out how to begin to heal that. I don’t have the answers to that but I do think that’s the question–how do we stop before we get banned from the castle forever? How do we find our collective soul before we’re damned beyond redemption? How do we stop being so bloody angry? That thin crust is breaking, is broken, so do we sink or swim?

A Home at the End of the World

A question that keeps coming up on my Facebook feed of late in relation to my series of books is- Will this be the last book in the series? The answer is a bit non-committal in that it’s both yes and no.

From the time I could first read books have been a place of refuge in my life. They still are and I suspect will be until I can no longer lift up a book or see the print on the page. My own books have– through the act of writing–become that as well. A place of refuge.

In Where Butterflies Dream there is a chapter titled ‘A Home at the End of the World’. I realize what I have created for myself within the pages of this long and winding tale is my own home at the end of the world. In some ways Pamela, Casey, Jamie et al are more familiar to me than people I see on a regular basis. In short they are family to me and I often understand their feelings and actions better than I understand my own.

One thing I have always promised myself is that I wouldn’t write these people beyond the natural arc of their story. In other words, I need to be hearing them loud and clear in order to write them properly. I don’t ever want to be manufacturing their story or phoning it in, so to speak.

That being said–are they done with me? No, I don’t think so. Right now I have plans for a novella set during Jamie’s years at Oxford, another short piece about the Riordan men, sort of the next set of chapters on from Bare Knuckle and quite possibly a post-series book featuring Conor and the rest of the children when they are older. But there’s another book drifting about in my head, one that’s barely more than tendrils of mist right now, though that’s often how my books begin for me. Pieces slowly emerge showing me a bit here and a bit there until I start to see a larger picture and the potential for an overall arc and the smaller story lines which exist inside that arc. I have to see the arc clearly though in terms of history. There’s plenty to choose from though the arc is maybe not quite as clear and stark as the one which led from where the books began to the Hunger Strike of 1981. But there’s the whole peace process and the ‘90s were a time of great turmoil in terms of the Troubles, so there is a great deal of fodder for story there.

As far as this ‘misty’ book goes I have a prologue, an ending and a title– so I have a notion of what it might look like and it would definitely be part of the main series. I have to be certain it has strong and defined story lines though before I commit to writing it. It could even be that book is the one based more around the next generation–Conor, et al. and Pamela’s voice is speaking through it like a ribbon of narrative– because whatever else the book becomes, it begins and ends with her- that much I do know.

   I feel like I grew up with Casey, Pamela, Jamie and Pat in some ways. I’ve been writing about them in one way or another since my late twenties. They have been my daily companions in thought even on the days when there wasn’t time to write. So the thought of not ‘talking’ to them every day is a very daunting and rather sad thing. I’m excited to begin working on Yevgena’s story but I suspect I’ll find myself writing bits and pieces from their lives as well, just to stay in touch with them and what’s going on. If that becomes a book–if it’s compelling enough to be a book–then I’ll let it become what it wants to be. Perhaps if people are interested I’ll occasionally share some of the ‘news’ from their world.

Things are so strange right now with the pandemic situation that it’s hard to focus enough to map out a clear path writing-wise. I’m having a hard time focusing enough to read, never mind write and usually I am a person who writes her way into clarity. That’s just not working for me right now. It’s hard to feel like a story matters when the world is so unstable and abnormal. But eventually I know I’ll return to my old patterns and hopefully write my way into clarity. I’ll find it in the rolling wheels of Yevgena’s home, or in an ancient wolf cave high in the hills of Ireland or by the shore of the sea with a woman having trouble sleeping one particular night.

The dream was an old one. She’d had it since childhood, a dream of the sea and a ship which never found a horizon. It always started in roughly the same fashion—her setting out on a voyage, the lone woman on a big wooden ship with sails like a drift of blue chrysanthemum petals.

   There was never an understanding of where the ship was headed, nor why.  She was the only woman aboard, and not a welcome one. The sailors looked sidelong at her, with distrust, and she could hear their mutterings in her wake. A woman aboard ship was considered ill luck, this she knew, but still the ship was the only way for her to get to her destination. Where that destination was never seemed clear, though she thought she would know it when she saw it…

If Miss Pamela is still seeing fit to relate her dreams to me then I suppose it’s possible she has much more to say. I hope so, I’ll miss her far too much if she simply walks off into the west of Ireland sunset.

I’m going to append an odd little note here at the end but you’ll see why as you read it. About a month ago someone sent me a message via my website. In it she stated that she’s a long time reader and then said she’d be happy to volunteer to be tested to be a living liver donor should I ever need such a thing. I tried to email her back but I keep getting a ‘Unable to deliver mail’ message in return each time I attempt to send it. I suspect she may read my blog though, so I’m going to take the opportunity to just tell her thank you so much–that offer was unbelievably kind, and I admit I teared up when I read her words. So RM if you see this–thank you, you reminded me of how amazingly selfless humans can be. Thankfully I don’t need anything like that just now, but it’s good to know that if I ever should, the offer is there.

The Stories That We Tell

As a writer I am always happy to hear from readers and it has occurred to me more than once that what I love best is the fact that so many readers share their stories with me. Often they do this because something in one of my books has touched a chord in them–that of memory, that of love, that of pain. I realize what a privilege it is to have people share in that way, to tell me of something personal, of something which has impacted their life deeply, echoing into the present day. We are all an accumulation of stories. From our first breath to our last, we tell of our experiences, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams and our sorrows. And while we often feel our story matters only to us and those who love us, it’s really not true. There are times our story will help another through a difficult time or allow them to see a bit of hope somewhere on the horizon. We have to be willing to be vulnerable though, to have story tell truth. I think we need to be willing to lose something, to give some part of ourselves away with the understanding we may get nothing in return–or we might get everything, for that is the risk of telling your soul in story.

  And so what is story? Story is the collective experience and the deep buried truths of being human. I mean the really old primordial truths, the ones which come clothed in fur and long teeth, flashing with razor-sharp claws and ancient scales. Story is loss, renewal, pain, joy, hope, disappointment, grief as deep as the sea and every bit as wide.

  Story is heat, it is fire–the old one, the flame of the ancient mind, the place where we huddle when all the world falls apart around us. Story is a well, where we are drawn down at the end of a creaking rope into deep waters–those of the unconscious, thick-dark as ink, glowing with the beginnings of life.

Story is comfort. It keeps the night at bay, so that we might shelter for a bit from a world that often seems too fast, too ugly, too concerned with the matters of commerce, disconnected from that of spirit. It is the lantern at the dark forest edge.

   This is a time of intense vulnerability. A time that will long be part of our story, both the personal and the collective. It is a time to sink deep, reconnect with our inner landscape, find our old touchstones, to warm ourselves by the flame of collective experience, of story passed from grandmother to granddaughter, to breathe upon the embers of soul and re-ignite the fire of deep time thought.

  At times I imagine this sheltering in place is a time to dwell within the crone hut of the mind, the way back mind, the one deep in the forest of subconscious. The crone knows all the old stories–the dark ones with blood upon the ground, where all is lost only to be found again at the end. On her table is a scrying stone of darkest obsidian, where we can see our reflection–the true one which is that of soul. It is here we get old time instruction from the crone, which are the things of the earth and our place within it. We have forgotten that, but she has her ways of reminding us.

   To tell story is to plumb the depths of our pain and to mine the gold of our joy–to tell story is to warn, to heal, to guide. We all do it, every day, in all the small tales that we spin and speak. It is to bind our brokenness and move forward with our cracks in the knowledge that all is as it should be.

   This time will long be part of our story, both the personal and the collective. Story is useful, particularly those of people who have lived through this sort of thing before, even if it’s only written down somewhere, like tracks in the winter snow that we can follow until we find our way back to spring.

   And that is what we are all doing right now–huddling by the fire of story, hoping to escape the worst of winter’s cold and find our way out to spring. So what I am saying is this– keep telling me your stories and I will keep telling you mine. Story matters, story is who we are.

Letting Go

Last night I woke in the wee hours with the insistent drumbeat of two words thrumming in my head– Let Go, Let Go, Let Go. Let go of what, I found myself asking as I woke again far too early– one AM this time. On my better nights I make it to 4:00 or if I’m really lucky 4:30. Those hours of the night are good for doing a whole lot of thinking, or roaming into some dark terrain, which I call ‘white night’ wandering.

Mostly though, I’ve been relying on the comfort of books, while curled in the nest of blankets and pillows, window wide open to the night and its noises–the occasional car, the susurration of night breeze in leaves, the occasional hoot of an owl, or the cry of a distant fox. As it turns out, there is company to be had even at three o’ the clock. Sometimes if I can’t read another word, and I just long for sleep the way I long for a hearty meal these days, I’ll take some potion which opens that back gate into the Land of Nod. There are a variety of these–some prescribed, others truly in the realm of magical thinking, as though breathing in strange rhythms will take away my thoughts.

All my literary company has been in the pages of non-fiction books, settling in around a campfire with myth-tellers and manic depressives, with the yarn spinners and the slightly mad. As it turns out, they are tremendously good company. During the day I keep company with my own people- both the corporeal and the ones of imagination, though in truth I think the latter are very real too, and they sustain me in such wonderful ways. They have become another family to me, built through long years of acquaintance and love. I forget disease, I forget sorrow, I forget uncertainty and live in their world with all its sorrows, troubles, joys, love and beauty. They have been such a blessing and a sanctuary for me this last while.

Over these last few months, I have felt alone, not necessarily lonely, just alone. This journey now has a lot of uncertainty built into it, which is by turns, terrifying and exciting. Normally I am a person who has a very strong sense of self, even as a small child I did, maybe it was because I lived so deeply in my imaginative world (yes, even then) that I didn’t need too much of the constructs of the outer. I’m still that way, though being a rather hermit-y sort of person doesn’t make the journey of disease any easier.

It’s a strange time of life, feeling neither kith nor kin in some ways. Out of place, alone, uncertain. And yet, none of these things feels inherently negative, just a bit discombobulating with a strong sense of skinlessness, porousness, as though I have no shield between myself and the world- it pours through me–both the beautiful and the sad. Some days I’d like to be able to shut it out, but I don’t think that’s what this time of my life is meant for, so again I let go of what I think I want, and try to be with what is.  

For the first couple of months after my diagnosis I felt haunted by my auntie. I now have the same disease which killed her. Of course then, no one knew what it was and there was no diagnosis for her until an autopsy was done. My aunt raised me for the first six years of my life, and I stayed with her and my uncle and cousin every holiday after that, and always for several weeks of my summer. Her home was home to me, that place where you are loved and accepted and can just be. And now I have an inkling what that last while must have been for her. We thought she had the flu, but then she got terribly confused and didn’t know where she was, and so my dad- her brother- took her to the hospital, by that night she was in a coma, from which she emerged for one brief day a week later for an afternoon. By that night she was once again in a coma, from which she never again emerged. I now know why–she had hepatic encephalopathy, which is basically a toxicity of the brain caused by the liver cancer no one knew she had. So she was confused and probably very afraid. She was also only thirty-six years old, and leaving behind a seventeen-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old niece, who looked at her as her mother. She knew that, and asked to see me on the one day she emerged from her coma, but the hospital said no, because I was not her actual child, even though I was in all the ways that mattered.

I have the clearest picture of her from that last night, just before she was taken away to the hospital; she was on my grandmother’s couch, and the sun was setting. It was this time of year, in fact the anniversary of her death just passed last month. She was haloed in the light, sitting in a pool of red-gold, and she looked so tired and terribly distant, as if she’d already gone into a far land where the rest of us could not follow. It is a picture I have carried with me for forty-two years now. I have always hated August since then, it’s just a month I put my head down and get through. I feel relief when September arrives. But this year, I don’t mind it so much because I feel kith with my aunt, and in a place of understanding. The woman I am now, wishes she could cross that space of my grandmother’s living room floor, and simply take my aunt in my arms, and tell her how much I’ve missed her all these years. How much I wish she had known my girls, my husband, my books (oh how proud she would have been of my books. She was a reader like me, a book always on the go, and several more waiting. I’m pretty sure she would have loved Casey too.:)). I write in part for her, whose life was cut so short, who loved words and escaping between the pages of novels. I write also for my grandmother, her mother, who was never the same after my aunt died–because you never can be once your child is lost.

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go. Let go of what, I ask again. And the answer comes to let go of the pain of loss, let it be an old friend, but don’t let it steal your breath, and tighten your chest as though your heart is the weight of a stone. Let go of the expectations of your life, which even though you told yourself you didn’t really have, it turns out you did. My life was a fairly straight road for a long time, now I think I’m on a meandering cow path, bare-footed with a tongue stained with blackberry juice. There are hedgerows all around, and I can’t quite see over them into the next field, but that’s all right, the view will be all the better if and when I crest that hill, turn that next corner and see what’s ahead.

And so I open my hands, one finger at a time, and let fall the things which are no longer mine to hold.

Just Where It’s At- Book Five, That Is. :)

I like to provide a bit of an update when I’m entering into the final six months (or less) of working on a book. That’s where I’m at with Where Butterflies Dream right now. My hope is to be done by the end of October, or November at the latest. That will give me time to get the edits done, get it out to my formatting guy, and get it back in time to release it for St. Patrick’s Day- that’s the dream at this point at least.

Parts one and two are done, part three only requires finishing one chapter. Part four has a few chapters to complete and it needs some re-structuring and sorting so that it fits better with the flow and timeline which precedes it. Part five is a bit of a mess currently, as is part six. Part seven is the final section of the book and is nearly done, barring one scene in the final chapter. The last lines are written though, and I hope when you read them you get a good shiver, or maybe even cry a little.

A lot of what I do at this point has to do with seeking balance within the story itself, weighing one story line against the next, interspersing chapters so that there aren’t too many emotionally heavy ones all clustered together, nor too many political/historical chapters weighting one section too heavily. Each of the main characters needs their story told, though some storylines get combined if two characters are both affected by events. And of course there are new characters, or rather ones you glimpsed very briefly in Shadows, who now take centre stage for a bit. Trying to find balance also means getting rid of scenes I really love, but which now just don’t fit the overall flow of the story.

Size is, of course, also a consideration. Being an indie author I have constraints on just how large my books can be, and In the Country of Shadows was right at the edge of the limit. The ms. for Shadows clocked in at 322,500 words, and Butterflies is already sitting at 238,500 and I’ve got two major storylines to wrap up, and a third I will have to remove and save for another book. Keeping it under the limit is probably the biggest challenge I’m facing as I head into the home stretch here.

So in summation, I still have a lot of work to do, but I believe it’s doable to actually still bring the book in on time. Health allowing that is- I’ve already lost six weeks to not feeling well. I do think the worst is behind me though- at least I really hope it is, and that I can spend the time I need to for concentrated bouts of work. So onward and upward- and hopeful for an October/November finish!

Life, The Thing That Happens

Last week, my husband lost his job of 25 years, and I was diagnosed with stage two non-alcoholic liver disease, all within 48 hours. Emotionally, I’ve been all over the map for the last seven days. Optimistic one minute, crashed to the bottom of a pit the next. This morning I am definitely in the pit. My husband’s job was one of those new bosses coming in with a big broom and getting rid of old management situations. I saw it coming about six months ago, but I also didn’t. My husband tends to be fairly positive and optimistic, and I’m the cynic in the relationship, but because he thought things would be okay, so did I. We believe what we need to believe in the moment, I suppose.

The liver disease came as more of a shock. I’ve had pain under my ribs for years, but I always thought it was radiating from a vertebrae I have which isn’t quite in alignment with the rest of my back. I don’t drink (I might have four drinks a year, but inevitably it makes my head ache, so I tend to avoid it), don’t smoke, and usually eat a fairly decent diet and get regular exercise. This disease, as it turns out, is probably what killed my aunt (who raised me for the first six years of my life, and whom I have always considered my first real mother). She too didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, but unfortunately did have a great deal of stress in her life. She died of liver cancer, which is where this disease lands if it goes undiagnosed for too long. I did have it all checked out five years ago, and all my tests were clear. Still, I wish I’d gone in earlier—this time I’ve ended up with jaundice and bruising on my abdomen—I didn’t know you could actually bruise from the inside out, but yes, as it turns out, you can.

Either of these things would have sent us for a tailspin. I guess like Wile E. Coyote, we don’t see the anvil poised over our heads until it lands on us. Well, it landed with a thump last week, let me tell you. My husband did nothing wrong and they didn’t even give him a reason for letting him go, they just did it. He gave 25 years of his life to them, and always went above and beyond, including thousands (literally) of unpaid hours for them. Companies all seem the same in this regard these days—they simply have neither heart nor soul. We’re not exactly spring chickens, and he was only three years out from early retirement, so this has been such a blow to him.

I don’t know what the future holds, and while none of us do, currently mine seems completely blank—I can’t see a picture of it at all. I’m struggling to make huge changes to my diet, at a time when we have to cut right back on any and all expenses. Eating well is not cheap, as I’m sure most of you know. All of it feels exhausting, and I find myself truly overwhelmed. Other times I buck up and think of the people in my life who have had far worse things happen to them, and managed to get through it, or at least learn to live with it, despite what must often go on inside of them. In other moments I simply want to get in bed and pull the covers over my head for a few days. I have generalized anxiety, and of course it has shot off the charts this last week, and with my liver, I can no longer take my meds—so I stress about what the crazy anxiety is doing to me physically as well. And yes, I’m exercising, but it’s only taking the edge off right now. I think I’d need to run a marathon before I could bleed of this much anxiety. Stress always turns to anxiety for me, it’s my body’s default setting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it’s simply how I’m wired chemically speaking.

I’m not sure what all this will mean for my writing as we move forward. I don’t make enough money as a writer to sustain a household—not even close. So I may be looking for outside employment, which will put an end to writing much of anything for a while, I suspect. This is a really hard and bitter pill for me to swallow—writing is like breathing for me, I don’t function all that well when I’m not doing it. Unfortunately, I just have never hit that plateau where the books sell themselves, and I’m coming to grips with the fact it’s not likely I ever will. I’ve always had to advertise, which of course costs money—so at present, ads are something I can no longer sustain either.

I know often people don’t understand this—because the comments are said to my face—but writing is really hard work, which requires laser focus in order to do it well. I never want to put less than my best effort forth, and of course in times like this when my brain feels scattered it’s that much harder. And my self-esteem takes a hit, so I look at the book and think it’s a big horrible mess which will get terrible reviews if it ever sees the light of day.

There’s so much other stuff swirling in my head—it’s quite possible we’ll have to move and I hate that. I love this town, I love living here, my parents are getting older and starting to need more help, my girls are here or nearby, as are my grandbabies. I don’t like cities, and don’t want to live in one. I hate the thought of someone else living in my house, maybe ripping out the trees and roses I’ve spent years growing—it literally hurts my heart just to think of it. The world probably sees my type as a fool—an overly sensitive fool who loves the small things and wants to take care of them. I feel like so many of the people who succeed (in the way we seem hellbent on defining success in the West) are not good people, not kind, and not caring about what or who they destroy. Please note, I did not say ALL people who succeed, but a good number of them these days.

For now, though, I’m going to put my head down—once it stops spinning— and finish Butterflies (book five of the Exit Unicorns series) but until I have a better idea of how things will play out for us financially, I’m not sure I’ll be able to actually produce it for sale come March, or whenever it is done and edited.  I know many of my readers don’t realize that I don’t have a publisher, and therefore any and all expenses for production of anything—physical books, audiobooks, bookmarks, etc comes out of our pocket. So if the money isn’t there, there’s nothing much I can do about it. It might be there by then, but it’s quite possible it won’t be.  I’ll try to let you all know closer to the time, if I’m going to be able to put the book out for sale or not.  It’s not that I wouldn’t make my money back, I would, it’s just whether I can front it at the time.

Fortunately, the book is mostly written and I know working on what’s left will become a place of refuge for me—I love being in their world, because I totally forget about mine when I’m with them. I think I can still finish it by the end of this year, but if I’m not happy with it once it’s done, I will take the time to rework it until I am happy—or as happy as I ever am with my work.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy, by the way. When I’m upset, I tend to write it out, and that’s how I begin to sort it out in my head. Right now, my thoughts keep running in unproductive circles, so this is my attempt to start getting my head in some sort of order and hopefully begin to move forward in a less manic fashion. Also, I’m going to ask you really nicely not to tell me that change can be good, etc. I’m not in a place where I want to hear that right now.

I will find my fighting Irish spirit soon, I’m sure, it’s just taken one too many body blows this last while.

Building a Chapter

These last few days, as I was writing, I thought a lot about what goes into each chapter, how each one is a singular thing which also must fit within the overall arc of where it’s placed within the book and also within the book itself.

I’ve been slowly stripping out bits and pieces which don’t belong in the book, or simply aren’t necessary to the narrative. One thing I’ve had to fight with myself over is taking a step back and realizing that not every chapter needs to be a work of art, some chapters are simply bridges which connect two other pieces of the story, or further the narrative.

I often write upside down, starting in the middle or even at the end of a chapter and working my way backwards until I arrive at the beginning. This latest chapter was one of those—I started in the middle and worked my way out and wrote the opening last. Sometimes I know how a chapter ends, but I don’t know where it starts, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.  This was one of those ‘workman’ chapters where I need an introduction to events that will unfold throughout the book. These are often the most difficult chapters for me to write. I know what needs to be done, but no lovely bit of prose is there to start me off, or some chunk of dialogue that tells me what’s happening; it’s just a blank screen and necessity. 🙂 So I know the information I need to convey, but the chapter also needs to have life in it, as well as fitting into the flow of what comes before and after.

I begin by asking myself where the chapter takes place, and the answer is clear—Pamela’s home. So then I ask what time of day it is, and when I stand inside the house and look around it’s clear to me that it’s early morning. No one is in the kitchen with me though, so I go up the stairs. Pamela’s asleep with baby Kathleen tucked in beside her. It’s a peaceful morning, and even Conor and Isabelle are still asleep. There’s someone downstairs though—I know it’s the nanny who works for Jamie, she’s sleeping in Lawrence’s old room. So a peaceful morning which is then shattered by a knocking on the door—and now I understand how the chapter will play out structurally. I know who is at the door as well, even though I’ve never seen him before.

  It’s early in the book so I know I have to remind people of what has happened to Pamela in the previous book, so that they know why someone knocking on the door would cause utter panic in her, and that’s a matter of balance—too much and it could become a long exposition of the history from the previous book, too little and people may not remember exactly what she has been through. I need to build in the effects of what has happened to her—and show it on the page. She’s worried not only for herself, but also for her children who have also been traumatized by recent events. So I know in this chapter I have to touch on her panic, her fears for her family, and also have a dialogue between her and the man on her doorstep that introduces the story line which will run throughout the entire book. This is both the centre and main purpose of the chapter—why is this man in her home and what does he want? This dialogue matters because it will set the stage for so much that follows. So I need to establish enough of who he is to give readers a sense of him. Dialogue is often a good starting place for me simply because I find it fairly easy to write- I can almost always tune into a conversation between two characters and the chapter can be built out from there.

Then of course the question becomes how to wrap it up? I like every chapter to have a closing line which feels like a closing line, not merely the last sentence on the page before we turn the page to a new chapter. It should feel complete so that the reader is ready to go on the next chapter as something fresh, though also connected to what’s come before. But of course you have to build to that closing sentence within the space of a paragraph or two. So then I have to consider what Pamela is feeling now that the man has left and she’s got a minute to breathe and think about things. Often chapter endings are a good way to summarize feelings and add in a bit more detail about where the character is at emotionally and mentally. So internal monologue often works well to end out chapters—this is one of those things I know in a logical fashion, but that I rarely think about when in the actual process of writing.

***

*At times it felt that her life was no longer known—like looking into the face of someone who’d once been beloved, and finding that she did not recognize them. And so she had made the conscious choice to love that which was no longer familiar. One had to choose to love the stranger’s face each and every day, and this she would do, because quite simply, there was no other choice to be had.*

***

And now it’s time to write the opening paragraphs and to immerse myself in that feeling of being deeply asleep, and having someone suddenly pound on your door—with the addition of already being very jumpy and prone to panic because of what happened to you in the last book.  What does that feel like and what are the mechanics of getting down the stairs with a barking dog and a little boy and toddler underfoot while juggling a newborn? Then there is, of course, that all important sentence to open the chapter, every bit as important as the final sentence closing it out. I agonize over opening sentences the most of anything within a chapter; the sentence needs to be fresh, and I have to decide what it’s going to do. Is it merely descriptive, is it serious, is it humorous, or is it meant to convey specific information? In this case I wanted something to convey the general feeling of the household, but more specifically from Pamela’s POV, because that’s the lens through which this chapter is told.

***

* SLEEP BEING—at present—a more precious commodity than gold in the Riordan household, Pamela found herself feeling rather homicidal toward the person who had the temerity to knock on her door early one morning three weeks after Kathleen’s birth.*

***

  Last I read through it to make certain it makes sense, has a nice flow to it and that I haven’t repeated details—something that is often an issue when you write out of order. I get rid of anything awkward, and touch up the details—the way a character appears, expanding on a bit of description and fixing any dialogue that doesn’t sound natural. I re-read the opening and closing few paragraphs, making certain the entry and exit of the chapter make sense and have a unified feel. In this particular case I couldn’t figure out the chapter title until it was completely done. Sometimes I’ll have a chapter title to start and then the chapter flows from there, but mostly I sift the chapter once it’s done and find that little nugget which suggests itself as the obvious title.

Last week I finished up a chapter which was purely descriptive of a passage of time in the characters’ lives—there’s no dialogue and the action is at a distance, we’re observing rather than participating. I use chapters like that to let the readers take in a deep breath, and because often all hell is about to break loose in the chapters that follow. So I need a resting place just for a beat of the story, and descriptive, narrative passages which cover a bit of time, work really well for that.

***

   *May swept past, June dawdled a little, and July was a glorious sweep, bringing long hours brimming with simple joys—a wild apple tree loaded with fruit, a pair of kits who travelled tumble-drunk with new life, following in the wake of their mother, a patch of wild strawberries, sun-warmed and sweet, and the utter happiness of watching the children flourish in the deep, summer light.*

***

So eleven pages, 3266 words, three days of writing and I have another completed chapter, and I’ve just established the groundwork for the trajectory of an entire story line.

And people wonder why big books take so long. 🙂

copyright 2019 Cindy Brandner Where Butterflies Dream

Immersion, Obsession and FAQ

The final year of working on a book is always a strange one. I often feel that I live in an alternate universe most of the time, emerging to make and eat meals, do laundry, walk dogs, and cram in the occasional visit with family. For the most part though, I live and breathe Belfast and all the other locations the book visits, and live the lives of Pamela, Casey, Jamie and company. It’s always a bit of a jolt to come out of my reverie at day’s end and realize I have to cook. It’s going well right now though, as I’m in that zone of immersion and obsession with the story. I could probably tell you more right now about a little cottage hidden away in the woods, than about what my (incredibly messy) office looks like.

So on to a little housekeeping here and answering questions that people have been asking.

Will Bare Knuckle or Spindrift ever be in physical format?

The answer is yes—eventually. This last year has been really production heavy— three audio books with all the attendant work that comes with that—editing the master files, as I always like to take the opportunity to fix things I missed with the books on the previous edits. Also the first three books being put out in hardcover versions, which also requires re-formatting, etc and all the fees that come with any new editions we choose to put out. This year will be incredibly busy with writing, if I’m to finish Butterflies by my self-imposed deadline of November. I think I can do it, as things are going along quite well at this point. But that means I can’t take on too much extra with producing different formats of previously released books.  I understand and appreciate that not everyone does digital books, but it’s simple for me to put out my shorter works in just that one format.

Part of the problem in producing all the various formats lies in the fact that people often think they want these additional formats, but when it comes right down to it, they don’t buy them in the end. I have to at least be able to make back my set up fees for the various formats, and unfortunately that’s not a given. I really have to weigh whether each story, and each edition of said story that I publish will be able to pay for itself.

The next question that I know will be asked once ‘Flights of Angels’ is out in its audio version will be, ‘When will ‘In the Country of Shadows’ be out in audio?’ It’s a fair question for which I don’t really have an answer just yet. It’s hugely expensive for me to have these produced. They are long books and good narrators like mine don’t come cheap—nor should they, by the way, lest it seem like I’m complaining. This last year I finally filed for my withheld taxes from the IRS, and used that for the bulk of paying for the production of the audio versions. I also ran a GoFundMe with perks, which so many of you were kind enough to participate in. However that was a lot of work and of the $6600 that was raised, I managed to keep roughly $2400 once the hardbacks were paid for (my cost on them) and the shipping on all the various books and prints was totalled up. Still, it was a big help in paying for the production of ‘Mermaid in a Bowl of Tears’, and it was fun, as well as pushing me to get the hardbacks produced. I’m all set for ‘Flights of Angels’, but alas that’s where the well runs dry financially speaking. I’m still tussling with the IRS over one of the years of withheld taxes, and it’s due to an error of theirs, but so far I can’t seem to get that straightened out with them. If I can get them to see the error, and they release the money, I will be able to fund Shadows at that point.  I will eventually get all the books done, but I don’t really know when at this point.

Right now I also need to consider the production costs for Butterflies—formatting, setting it up with the printer, and the cost of that initial run of books with the printer. I know this is all rather boring talk, but I try to be transparent with the reasons I can’t always get things done in a timely fashion. It generally comes down to two things—time and money. Which is true for so many things in life. On a side note, I plan to have both the hardback and softcover available from the get go with ‘Where Butterflies Dream’.

‘Where Butterflies Dream’ is a bit of a sprawling mess right now, but so was Shadows at this point in the process, so I’m not letting myself worry about that too much. Chunks of the book are in place—by that I mean runs of chapters and sections that are pretty much done, which means while it’s still a sprawl, it’s one with good supports in place. If all goes well, I’m looking at another St. Patrick’s Day (St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 just to be clear)

nature orange butterfly silver bordered fritillary

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

release, or the closest Tuesday to it, as Tuesday is release day in the book world.

One thing I can tell you about Butterflies is that if you cry as much reading it as I have in the creation of it, you’d best stock up on your tissues in preparation.

The Underpainting of Pain

The dictionary defines underpainting as ‘paint subsequently overlaid with another layer or with a finishing coat.’ For me, this has become a very apt metaphor for chronic pain. For the last five weeks or so, I’ve been on a bit of a journey, all because of an ad I saw on Facebook. The ad was for an app called Curable, and as it was a slow, grey Saturday when I stumbled across it, I didn’t scroll past with my usual rapid FB perusal. I clicked on the link to go find out more about what it was. It might be one of the smartest (albeit unknowing) clicks I’ve ever made.

At first I wasn’t certain what I thought about the app, it seemed a little too airy-fairy to me to be something that would actually be useful. You see, I’ve had chronic pain for a little over three years now. Even before that, going back many years, I had it on and off. On the rare day when I wasn’t experiencing some level of pain, I would feel ‘off’ and it would take a bit to realize it was because I had no pain. It’s amazing what we get used to, and what becomes our ‘normal’. Recently though, it had gotten to a place where I couldn’t manage more than ten minutes in my chair in front of the computer before I had to get up and try to find a way to bring the level of pain down. I was beginning to fear I’d never be able to finish my work-in-progress- book five of the Exit Unicorns series. Fear is a small word actually for how I was feeling- I was terrified. Because I love writing, I cannot fathom my life without it. Just the thought that I might not be able to write loomed like a big dark pit in front of me.

Over the years I had tried everything, and I should probably pause here and clarify- my pain was in my back but had migrated around the front of my ribs to the extent that my doctor was doing all sorts of tests on my liver, wondering if there was something dreadfully wrong with it. As I said, I’d tried everything- yoga, stretching, wheels, therapeutic massage, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, pain patches etc. It had gotten to the place where anything I did, including massage, was only providing temporary relief- as in a few days, and then the pain was back (no pun intended) with a vengeance.

Anyone who experiences chronic pain can tell you that it grinds you down, and it starts to really limit your life. I was starting to weigh activities based on how much I was going to pay for it in pain dollars a few hours down the line. I’m fifty, and the thought of what my body might be like at eighty was scaring the tar out of me. Pain grinds you down mentally as well, so that depression- when it’s not setting up house in your head, is at the very least, hovering at your elbow making tea and planning on a lengthy visit. So, when I read the testimonials about Curable, I figured I had very little to lose, other than the money for the app.

Curable is really based around changing your ways of thinking around pain, and building neural pathways in your brain around dealing with that pain. One of the ‘education’ sessions (the lessons are divided into ‘Education, Meditation, Expressive Writing and Brain Training) led me to a book called ‘Mind Over Back Pain’. As I read it I began to think I now understood what was behind my back pain, and it wasn’t the car accident I’d had years ago (a four car pile up in four lanes of Vancouver traffic, and my seat belt didn’t catch until my face was about a half inch from the dash) nor was it the bad fall I took on ice years ago. It was something called TMS- Tension Myositis Syndrome. As much as this seemed a little crazy to me, I saw a lot of my symptoms in the stories the doctor who wrote the book related. This is all about the mind body connection and how emotions that we don’t deal with (even from years ago) can cause us very real physical pain. It’s how the mind protects us from all those messy emotions, it gives us physical pain as a distraction- and wow, is that an effective system. Really rather miserable, but effective.

There were two things the first lesson on the Curable app taught me, which have become a bit of a mantra for me. The first was ‘recovery is not a straight line’, which I remind myself of when I’m having a bad day- because when your body’s default setting is a high level of pain, it wants to go there every chance it gets. The second thing is, ‘the pain is not your fault’. There is always a level of blame that comes with back pain that doesn’t have an actual structural abnormality as one of its components- that somehow you’re doing something wrong- wrong chair, too many hours in front of the computer, bad posture, wrong shoes, bad attitude, you name it, because the list is endless, and I’ve had pretty much every item on it directed at me over the years of seeking help. If you start from that place, it turns out there’s no good destination, other than a lot of money spent on a fruitless search for a better chair- I even sat on one of those dang exercise balls for several weeks, only to learn that bouncing like a manic Tigger is not conducive to getting a lot of writing done.

I’m a fairly emotional being, so the idea that I wasn’t dealing with my emotions was rather startling to me. But, I think I was dealing with them on a very superficial level, and then rushing on without really accomplishing anything. As it turns out meditation (not something I’ve ever been good at, the staying still in one spot or the trying to create a blank canvas in my mind) is super effective for making you deal with your emotional detritus. It’s a little like opening a closet filled with years of junk, most of which you thought you’d lost somewhere along the way, and others that you’d forgotten you ever had at all. And it falls on your head, basically, sometimes one item at a time, and sometimes a bunch at once.

I will be honest, this has been the toughest route on the pain path that I’ve ever trod. But it’s (like all the hard things) the most effective. I’ve had two full weeks with minimal pain, and my Advil consumption has gone way down. Not every day is great, and there are days I do NOT want to deal with yet another level of anger/shame/guilt/sadness but I’m always glad that I took the time later- it might be two days later, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve even taken up talking to my brain in a stern fashion, and checking in to see which emotion is topmost when the pain starts  up- and it attempts to start up every blessed day. Sometimes just internally lecturing my brain does the trick, I just have to catch the pain before it gets over that first hurdle.

Now, I think of pain as the topmost painting, the one the world sees (though to be honest, if you met up with me, you wouldn’t know because I don’t talk about it a lot, because really I felt there was no point, it’s not like talking about it ever relieved it) and this painting is in some pretty dark colours- slashes of red, showers of black, glints of iron, corroded edges of copper. The underpainting though is the emotion, all the years of it shunted to the side, not dealt with as I kept moving through life- because of course you can’t do that work everyday- there are children who need attention, houses that need cleaning and an artist’s work to be done. But I’d finally hit that wall where the pain was bad enough that it forced me to look deeper. I’m pretty damn glad that I did, even though I know this path is going to be rocky and that it will sometimes turn back on itself, and I’ll lose sight of the destination.

For now each day, I’ll remind myself that recovery is not a straight line, and that the pain is not my fault.

The one exercise I haven’t done yet- expressive writing- go figure. 🙂

The image below is a rather beautiful example of underpainting, and that’s my aim- to have that emotional tapestry below the surface become a beautiful thing, even if I’m the only witness to it.

 

underpainting