We are all Myrtle the Purple Turtle

From the beginning, it seems, I was always going to be different.  I began life upside down, and from then on, I struggled to find my place in the world.   At times, the difference was visible: the splint I wore as a young child to correct what was then called ‘clicking hips’; the Bells Palsy that for a while paralysed half my face; the period when I made myself stand out with black make up and spiked hair.  At times, the difference wasn’t as obvious: a period of childhood deafness; my sexuality; the feeling that I didn’t quite fit.  So when, in high school, I was targeted by bullies, I was never sure why.  I could only assume there was something wrong with me.

Like many kids, I endured the casual but brutal name-calling so endemic in schools; the name-calling that spotlights any sign of difference.  But I was also targeted by an older group of girls for no reason I could fathom.  Bullying is a brutal process that kids unwittingly play along with of shaping each other into what is acceptable and what isn’t.  It tells us that we are too much of this, not enough of that, stripping us of our uniqueness and telling us that we aren’t good enough as we are.  And there is a shame attached to bullying.  If there is something wrong with us, then it must be something to be ashamed of.  I told nobody I was being bullied.  I still have a clear memory of the intervention of a friend, who realised I was hanging back later at school so that I wouldn’t encounter my bullies on the way home, and made me report it to a teacher.

When Cynthia Reyes’ daughter Lauren was bullied for having a black doll, she began to leave the much-loved doll at home.  She felt that there was something wrong with her that made her different.  To help her feel less alone, Cynthia wrote a bedtime story – Myrtle the Purple Turtle.  Myrtle is a heart-warming story about what it is to feel different, how we try to change to fit in, and ultimately that our differences make us special.

At times, we are all Myrtle.  Sometimes other people make us see difference in ourselves and tell us it is bad.  Sometimes, on comparing ourselves with others, we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough.  Often, it seems society is conspiring to highlight and demonise difference.  Bullying has a long term impact on individuals.  It made me adept at hiding my emotions.  It transformed me from a self-confident little girl into a shy, depressed teenager.  Some of us will emerge stronger.  It will give us insight and compassion for others we may not otherwise have had.  But the effects are long-lasting, and some will not come through it at all.

I wish I’d had Myrtle when I was younger.  I wish someone had told me that I was special as I was.  Myrtle is an important story, helping children to accept and love themselves just as they are.  And today, when the pressures seem even greater, and the methods of bullying have expanded with social media, it is more important than ever that children learn that difference is good, that our unique traits make us special and that self-acceptance and acceptance of others is important.

And now we can all have Myrtle.  Myrtle the Turtle will be available very soon as a beautifully illustrated picture book.  Gentle, funny and uplifting, with a powerful message told in a way that will engage young children, Myrtle promotes the importance of loving the shell we are in.  It strikes me that in many ways this blogging community is like Myrtle’s pond.  We are from a myriad of countries, races and religions, of all ages, differently-abled and from varying backgrounds.  We all have a unique shell that we present to the world and we gather by the pond together and appreciate each one.

Myrtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia Reyes is published on 9th October.

Visit Cynthia’s blog here and learn more about Lauren’s story here.

Take part in the campaign #loveyourshell

 

A harvest from the deep

  

We gather on the Sunday following the autumn equinox, that moment of balance between light and dark when we celebrate the completion of the harvest.  Our efforts are over for another year; whatever we sowed in spring and nurtured through summer has already borne its fruit and soon we must begin the cycle again.  The sun spreads a silver skirt on the river and a light mist softens the landscape.  The tide is low, laying bare the rocks that have wrecked many ships and a kaleidoscope of pebbles and empty shells.  Gulls mewl from the breakwater and a cormorant sweeps upriver.

This town is built on river, rock and sea.  Its motto messis ab altis means ‘harvest from the deep’.  Emerging from a handful of fishermen’s huts in the 13th century, it went on to harvest not only fish, but coal and salt.  That there is a town here at all is a result of what has been harvested from deep within earth and ocean.  But in this time of gathering, we come together as a town to remember those fishermen who lost their lives to bring in the harvest.  Today, a statue will be unveiled as a memorial to all those fishermen who never returned from the sea.

The air vibrates with local songs of sea and river and the statue is unveiled to a fanfare of ship’s horns.  His name is Fiddler’s Green.  Fiddler’s Green is an old fisherman’s legend, a version of heaven where the fiddle never stops playing and the rum never stops flowing.  He is positioned so that he will always gaze out to sea, recollecting those that are still out there.  And greeting those that return safely.  We absorb his grave features and the stories they represent, as a sweet voice conjures a rendition of the old Fiddler’s Green folk song, before the blessing of the memorial with the seafarer’s version of psalm 23.

The Lord is my pilot; I shall not drift.
He lights me across the dark waters. He steers me through the deep channels.
He keeps my log. He guides me by the Star of Holiness for His Name’s sake.
As I sail through the storms and tempests of life I will d:read no danger; for You are near me; Your love and care shelter me.
You prepare a haven before me in the Homeland of Eternity;
You quieten the waves with oil; my ship rides calmly.
Surely sunlight and starlight shall be with me wherever I sail,
and at the end of my voyaging I shall rest in the port of my God. 

It’s easy to forget how important the harvest is and what it costs to bring it in.  Fishing is the most dangerous peace-time occupation in the UK.  After the unveiling, we wander back along the fish quay, thronged with people enjoying a lunch of fish and chips.  Perhaps today more than any other they will understand the price of the harvest and give thanks for it.

This year in my small back yard we have grown some vegetables in pots.  The broccoli did well, but in late August, I rounded the corner to a couple of Brussels sprouts plants in pots, to find them no more than skeletons.  Crawling on every remaining stalk and leaf were caterpillars.  Because I don’t rely on these for food, I was excited by seeing so many caterpillars and that a butterfly had chosen to lay her eggs in our yard.  But at this time of year, it was also a reminder of how easily the harvest can fail.  What would my ancestors have felt if their food was wiped out by insects?  And what hardships would they have faced to feed their communities?

But the harvest isn’t only about remembrance and acknowledging hard work.  It is also a celebration.  There are many kinds of harvest.  While I always give thanks for the food harvest at this time of year, my personal harvest is a creative and personal one.  I look back over a year in which I struggled with my creativity and expect to find little worth harvesting.  Yet there were moments worth celebrating: an invitation to the first Write Now event in London, a story published in an anthology and being an editor’s pick on Discover.  And then there were those experiences that fed my creativity: a glimpse of a kingfisher, the hush of Christmas day, the birth of spiderlings, a walk to an overgrown bridge, the discovery of a rare flower…

We all have a personal harvest to celebrate.  Three years ago, I held a harvest festival on Harvesting Hecate in a shared celebration of creativity.  Since then, I’ve also gathered a whole host of new blogging friends, some very recently.   So, please join me in a harvest celebration.  In the comments, share the creative achievement you are most proud of since the last autumn equinox, big or small.  For those of you in the southern hemisphere, who are just moving into spring, what do you hope to achieve?  Most importantly, leave a link to your favourite of all the posts you’ve written this year.  The harvest isn’t about celebrating alone, it’s about celebrating as a community.  So as well as leaving a link, please also follow at least one, to a blogger you’ve never met before and perhaps a fruitful new relationship will begin.

Settling – part II

Part of feeling at home is finding familiarity in a place.  Recognising the way the sunrise blazes over the brow of a hill, or the path the setting sun takes as it gilds the land.  Knowing that when the sky turns a certain colour and there is a taste of rain in the air, the rainbows will appear like spotlights on the hills.  Hearing the excited bray of Wilbur and Eddie in the morning because it is time for breakfast.  And it is knowing that you are recognised as part of the landscape.  When the songbirds in the garden no longer mind your presence and fly around regardless.   When the song of the wind moans a familiar tune.

But it isn’t only familiarity that makes me feel part of a landscape.  To find my place I have to travel into the heart of it.  To follow an uncertain path to see where it will take me.  To study a map to find its layers of history.  To feel the lay of the land beneath my feet and breathe its scent into my nostrils.  The land requires effort and in that effort I find some of its secrets.

A stile bathed in sunlight leads me into the woods.  There is meant to be a footpath here, but there is no evidence of it.  No groove of earth worn bare by feet, no disturbed vegetation where others have passed.  This place is overgrown by brambles and bracken, the trees moss-crusted and damp.  A rudimentary wooden bench is rotting in the midst of the trees.  If there is a path, it is well hidden, so I make my own, downhill through the undergrowth, steadying myself on the trees.  I hear the burn before I see the peaty brown rush.  And there, in the middle of this forgotten wood, on this forgotten stream, a waterfall spills its secrets to the trees.

Walking back uphill, crackling twigs and rustling vegetation, I disturb a hare.  It gazes at me for a moment before tearing away through the bracken.  I don’t really feel comfortable here.  I’m too noisy, too obtrusive.  I return to the wooden bench.  Too far gone to sit on, but I lean against it to rest.  The rush of the waterfall persists.  Sunlight spears the canopy.  And perhaps because I’m now still and no longer being a disturbance the wood seems to come to life around me.  A veil lifts and suddenly there are clouds of insects dancing in the sunlight.  The wood shimmers with the movement of tiny beings.  When I leave it behind and rejoin the more trodden path, I feel like some small thing has been given to me.

I begin again at a crossroads, those most magical of places, protected by Hecate herself.  Here is a more well-trodden path.  Grooves of worn stone where vehicles have passed, a stripe of grass in the centre.  Drystone walls on each flank.  Past fields of cattle and sheep that regard me with eyes full of challenge, until I reach a gate, held shut by turquoise twine.  An unremarkable threshold of metal and frayed string.  But snaking downwards the path beckons, guarded by hawthorns laden with haws and rowans beginning to turn.  Wizened and windswept, encrusted by lichens, trees that must have guarded this hedgerow for generations.  I ask for safe passage as I descend the steep path.

At the bottom, the path branches left and darkens.  A tangled wood and the faint sound of the river.  A track of uneven cobbles.  The scent of damp stone and rotting vegetation.  Unexpectedly there is a cottage here.  The crossing cottage.  A remnant of an old railway line that once passed through.  It is tucked in a fork in the track, shielded by trees.  A lonely home, inhabited but with little sign of life.  A home not easy to reach or to leave.  A home on the edge of things, or perhaps in the heart of them.

And then I am at the bridge I have been steering towards.  There is no fanfare.  Only a small wooden marker pointed the way.  I walk onto it without knowing, at first, that I have done so because it seems almost to grow out of the land.  A hump-backed bridge that has been enfolded by nature.  The grey stone is whitened by lichens, the floor of the bridge carpeted in grass.  Trees grow out of its cracks.  Another forgotten place.  A gate with a rusted chain bars entry to the track on the other side.  A stile leading down to the river has collapsed.  The bridge is the end of the line.  Below, the river is majestic, a giant sibling to the forgotten burn, but today, I can’t reach it.

It is difficult not to think of layers of time, layers of place.  Does anyone ever cross the bridge anymore except the farmer who works the land?  Does anyone ever stand here and gaze the length of the river?  Once, trains passed nearby daily and the adjacent fields were quarry lands.  Once, this might have been a well-travelled route.  And I wonder if this is why this landscape feels like a challenging place.  The hills are crossed with many paths a person could take and relatively few people to take them.  No wonder many of them seem forgotten.  But if this bridge is forgotten, it is not unwelcoming.  The moment I passed through the gate, the path willed me down towards it.  Rather than feeling like an end point, it feels like a destination, where you are welcome to pass some time.

Now the hills are behind me.  I have returned to the landscape I call home.  A place where the skies aren’t so wide, the land not so open.  I will remember the comfortable face of the hills: rainbows, donkeys, the song of the wind.  But I’ll also remember the forgotten places.  They don’t need my attention to exist.  My absence means nothing to them.  But the memory of them will persist, because in its hidden spaces, a landscape is truly itself.

Settling

This is a place of rowdy winds and gaping skies.  There are few trees on these scoured hills so the wind howls and moans unfettered across the landscape.  The sails of wind turbines peek over a nearby hill, spinning in the current.  It is a place where footpaths appear to lead to the sky.  A place of cloud-shadow, where giants throw their shades on the hills like cast off skins.  When it rains, the sky glowers gunmetal and the hills fade into a blurred mist.  In the darkness, the moon is a huge orange globe.

What are the spirits of this place? A brooding horse, forged from horseshoes, guards the threshold and the horses in the fields are aloof, showing no interest in passers by.  Blackbirds lurk in the hedge, furtive with unseen fluttering.  A quiet chirrup comes from something hidden in the long grass.  Sheep complain in the distance.  This seems a lonely place.  A place where the inhabitants are reluctant to reveal themselves.

It takes time to settle into a new landscape.  I had hoped that I would arrive and feel myself exhale into glorious isolation, away from the cares of the commonplace.  But I should have known better.   I’m unsettled, uncomfortable – not physically, but because I don’t yet fit.  My first night is haunted by sleeplessness.  I watch the moon become smaller, higher and brighter as it scales the sky and I long for dawn to come.

In my impatience to leave the world behind, I forgot that you must feel yourself into a place.  It isn’t about the prosaic dos and don’ts.  Those things are necessary, but they aren’t what’s important.  What’s important is to come to terms with the essence of a landscape.  We often assume our right of belonging.  We may dislike a place, but we tell ourselves that is the fault of the place, not us.  But there are places in which we don’t belong at all, and some that make us work hard for that belonging.  I will be here only a short time, but it is only after I open myself up to it and let it know my intentions that it will decide if I’m welcome or not.  I must meet it on its own terms to feel at home here.

Eventually, the land will begin to reveal itself to me.  To give a hint of insight into its secrets.  And it’s then, after a few unsettling days, that I discover this is a place of rainbows.  Huge rainbows at the bookends of the day, that spring vibrantly from the land and span its hills.  Thresholds of sorts, allowing a way in to the landscape.  I discover that this is also a place of swooping swallows and chattering songbirds – the whirr of feathers and bob of tails.  Where a robin serenades the dusk from a nearby willow and the bray of donkeys vibrates the morning.  It is a place where the sky is lit up by a billion stars and where the wind sings an elegy through gaps in drystone walls and across the hills.  This is not an easy landscape, but if I listen I will find my place in it.

The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.

The Return of the Courtesan: a guest post by Victoria Blake

The Venice of my imagination is a mysterious place.  A place of watery reflections, swirling fog and twisting canal-ways.  I have visited twice, both times in summer, and I didn’t find this Venice.  But fortunately, there are other versions of the city, more like those of my dreams.  One of these is the Venice of Victoria Blake.  Victoria’s novel: The Return of the Courtesan (published previously in hardback as Titian’s Boatman) has just been published in paperback.  The story weaves together the lives of an intriguing array of characters in 16th Century Venice, modern day New York and London.  The Venice depicted here drips with atmosphere: plague-ridden but opulent, beautiful but corrupt. Its characters are as well-drawn and evocative as the city.   I can’t recommend this book highly enough and encourage you to read it.  If you like history, art, Venice or just a good story well told, this book offers it.  So I’m very pleased to welcome Victoria Blake with a taster to whet your appetite. 

Now over to Victoria to introduce the courtesan of the title…


In the sixteenth century, Venice was notorious for its courtesans. So notorious that when Shakespeare had Othello say to Desdemona, “ I took you for that cunning whore of Venice,” everyone, from the groundlings up, would have understood the allusion. In the early part of the century there were said to be roughly 11,000 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people and the writers of the time were obsessed with them. Here is Tomaso Garzoni in 1585: ‘More menacing than a lightning bolt, more horrifying than an earthquake, more venomous than a snake …’ That’s an immense amount of power to hand over to a working woman! But it also clearly shows male fear of women’s ‘unbridled’ sexuality.

My courtesan Tullia Buffo is modeled on the real life courtesan Veronica Franco. She was a woman who single-handedly supported three children, a large extended family and a household of servants. She was a respected poet and member of one of the leading literary salons of the day. She was a great supporter of other women and she tried to encourage the authorities to set up a refuge for women fallen on hard times. She was a cortigiana onesta an “honoured courtesan”. Thus the source of her income was arranging to have sex for a high fee with the elite of Venice and the many kinds of people who passed through the city which included a king, Henry III of France.

The fact that she could read or write at all was in itself remarkable. In Venice in the 1580s literacy amongst women was only 10-12 percent. Her intellectual life began by being privately tutored with her brothers and then continued when she was taken up by the patrician and celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, who ran a literary salon at his palace, Ca’ Venier. He not only encouraged her he also published her and by her mid twenties she was well known as a poet.

Her prominence however generated great jealously from Venier’s nephew Maffio, who in 1575 wrote a series of misogynistic verses, mocking her: ‘Your mouth is as foul as rotten mud…your breasts hang low enough to row a boat on the canal…Your eyes bulge out of your head as if a priest were exorcising you of all your sins…’

Oh, Maffio, really!

But Franco refused to be shamed or silenced. These outrageous slurs spurred her on and she came out all guns blazing, challenging him to a poetic duel. “I now challenge you to single combat: gird yourself with weapons and valour. I’ll show you how far the female sex excels your own. Arm yourself however you please and take good heed for your survival …”

What a wonderful response! This is not a woman who would have been driven off twitter by trolls.

In the aftermath of the plague of 1575-1577 she was put on trial by the Inquisition. She survived – just, but her reputation was damaged. She died at the age of 44 in a poorer part of Venice. But through her poetry and her letters she comes down to us, dignified, combative, witty and flirtatious. In an era where women in the public eye are often vilified for how they look there is a lot we can learn from Franco’s verses.   I like to think she would have been out there taking part in the Women’s March earlier this year, proudly wearing a pink pussy hat.

Although I used Franco as the basis for Tullia Buffo, the courtesan in my book, I give Buffo a much happier ending. One of the rewards of fiction is having the ability to re-write history. I wasn’t going to have Tullia die in a poor part of the city. I hope Franco would approve. And I very much hope you enjoy reading my book.

https://victoriablakewriter.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/VM_Blake @VM_Blake

https://www.facebook.com/victoriablakeauthor/

 

Thank you for your visit Victoria.  The Return of the Courtesan is easily available to buy on Amazon, including Amazon UK here and Amazon USA here and you can visit Victoria at the links above.

 

Brief delights

Summer is a season of brief delights.  Tiny beings on gossamer wings cloud the air for fleeting moments.  Meadows undulate in an abrupt dazzle of colour.  Birds swoop in from their long journeys to a frenzy of feasting and breeding.  It is a season where things appear like magic, before vanishing as though they were never there.  Where do they come from – the flies and the beetles and the butterflies?  Where do they go to when their season has ended?  They appear and then they fade, leaving behind traces on the air and the memory of wings.  Summer’s long, light days can seem tantalisingly slow, and many of us remember treacly summers of our youth that were never-ending.  But summer’s delights are ephemeral and the season rarely seems to linger in the way the dark, raw days of winter do.

In the long, slow turn of the seasons, I see the pattern of a writer’s life.  A cycle of hope and despair, of tunnelling inwards to find a nugget of wisdom and reluctantly re-emerging to display it to the world.  But if the writing life is a long game, then summer is those brief, dazzling moments of success.  It is the moment when you write ‘the end‘; the competition prize or commendation; the moment when you see your words in print; the pleasing comment or review.  For most of us it isn’t a best-selling novel or Pulitzer Prize, it is a series of brief delights, that dazzle us temporarily, before we head once more into the doubt doldrums or the hard work of putting one word after another.  Sometimes these dazzling moments seem far apart, like midwinter yearning for spring.

Summer is a season of expansiveness.  A time to use the long hours of light and warmth to replenish us for the winter ahead.  In this season, I feel the hope of sending my work out into the world.  The stories jostling for a home will find one; the manuscript waiting for an agent won’t be discarded.  That hope and what it may bring sustains me as a writer, just as the memory of summer comforts me when the light is low and the cold chatters my bones.

Of course summer’s brief delights don’t appear from nowhere, and nor do those of a writer’s life.  They are the result of months, even years, of preparation.  The larvae creeping through the mud, waiting for wings.  The seed incubating in the earth, waiting for petals.  The story percolating in the mind, waiting for its words.  Their magic is that of toil and transformation.  So it is no wonder there is delight when they finally emerge.  No wonder summer has a frivolity lacking in all the other seasons.  It is a time to bask in these transient delights.   We will bid them farewell soon enough and move towards the bittersweet dark.  And as we do, perhaps we will cast a wistful look behind us and remember the dazzle of the light.

Many thanks to James Clark for recommending this post to WordPress Discover.  James is very generous in highlighting the work of other bloggers, why not pay him a visit at https://jamesclarkthenextiteration.wordpress.com