The girl I was

She offered me distant cities, food that I had never tasted and the echo of words in alien tongues, but I chose terraced streets, white satin and packed lunches.  I see her still, shivering in a print dress, the lake reflected in her eyes.  ‘I could be your muse,’ she said, as I snapped the sketch book shut, capturing forever the hope and challenge in her face.’ 

The Girl I Was – Andrea Stephenson

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I wonder what the girl in this photo is thinking.  She’s around four years old, on holiday in Blackpool, secure in the grasp of her father’s hand.  I suspect she’s not really thinking at all, but simply enjoying the moment.  Just look at those snazzy sunglasses, that colourful dress, the celeb pose, one leg in front of the other.  She’s carefree and unselfconscious.

This girl is too young to know that others have dreams and expectations for her.  In her pose, there’s not only contentment, but also freedom.  She doesn’t yet have a concept of who she is or who she will be.  She hasn’t made any important choices or compromises.  She’s the girl that existed before should replaced could.  Before the opinions and actions of others made her question whether she was enough.  She’s the girl before disappointment, responsibility, grief.  Before life is mapped out to a destination.

She’s the girl I was.

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I’m fascinated by the lives I might have led.  I believe that in some other place a clutch of other selves live all of our possible lives.  I believe that every moment we have ever lived is still happening, somewhere.  I suspect that one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I’m captivated by just this: who we are and might have been; the choices we made or didn’t make; the paths taken or ignored.  Within all of these many possibilities, I think there is a childlike but steely little soul for whom any of these lives would have been the right one.  The trouble is, that powerful little being is easily buried.

As I get older, I move backwards, becoming closer to the girl I was.  No longer so distracted by forging an identity in the world, I can look back at myself with a sense of compassion.  I can accept that I’ll never get to do this all again differently and know that I wouldn’t want to.  I’m slowly re-connecting with the hopeful, confident little girl I was then.  And one day, I hope to be able to nod my head in wise agreement with Maya Angelou, when she said ‘wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now’.

The Girl I Was is my most recent published short story.  It was a finalist in the Aesthetica short story award and is available now in the 2015 Creative Writing Annual, which you can buy here.  It’s a story about the lives we live and the way we lie to ourselves about them.  This story is very different to Reckoning, the last story I had published, but both are concerned with the path a life can take.

In this new year, I’d like to propose a different kind of resolution: remember the girl (or boy) you were before you became who you thought you should be.  Embrace her.  Re-connect with her.  And live as she would have lived.

The unexpected year

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As a new calendar year approaches, we wonder what to expect in the months to come.  For me, this year has been an intense brew of the predictable and the unexpected.  But then, when I look back, isn’t this always the case?  Yes, some years seem to plod on, with nothing much of note happening, so that we wonder where the months went.  Some years meander, as we drift, out of focus, along different paths.  And then there are those years that we look back on as our turning points, when the unexpected happens and turns the year on its head.

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The crew of the Donald Duckling weren’t expecting to spend Christmas moored in the north east of England.  And as we approached the port on our Boxing Day walk, we weren’t prepared for this hulking, rusting cargo ship to be docked there.  The ship has been detained at the port since late November, not permitted to leave until urgent repairs are carried out.  It’s crew, who are mainly Romanian and Filipino, had to resort to fishing from the side of the ship when their food ran out on the last voyage, and to cooking the fish on the deck as the galley wasn’t working.  The crew are far from home but have been supported by the local fishermen’s mission, who have given them phone cards, access to the internet and to their kitchen.

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And yet on this calm day, when the low sun bounced off the side of the ship, life asserted itself as though there was nothing unusual about the scene.  The gulls took advantage of the mooring ropes to claim a safe river vantage point.  Families and dog-walkers enjoyed the tranquil pause between the rain and gales.  And this is the point.  Life goes on, good or bad, as we prepare to celebrate a new year and wonder what it will bring.

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This year I’ve been amazed by the way my creativity has burgeoned, the way I’ve found inspiration in unexpected places.  I’ve revelled in the seasons as never before and in the every day enjoyment of cherishing time with my family.  I’ve found succour in the woods, the sea and a small terrier called Winston.  I have connected with a multitude of fascinating people across the world.  Yet I’ve also been saddened by the loss of a loved one much too soon.  This year hasn’t plodded, or meandered.  It may well have been a turning point.

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And so, as I write this, surrounded by the roar of the renewed gales around the house, I want to leave you with some of my favourite posts of the year.  I hope you’ll take some time to follow the links and read them and explore the blogs that go with them.  These are only a very small selection of posts I’ve read that have made me laugh, cry, think or just enjoy.

The season of the floor sun by Laurie at Travel Lightly is a moving account of the loss of a summer ritual after the death of her dog Juno.  Laurie also writes beautifully about nature, landscape and spirituality.

Britt Skrabanek at A Physical Perspective, recently started an inspiring series called The Life Enthusiast Chronicles, which is all about people who, using the example of their own lives, inspire us to live ours.  I’d also recommend Britt’s book ‘Beneath the Satin Gloves.’

The word is create by Marylin Warner at Things I want to tell My Mother, describes the objects created with love through generations and how they become legacies for those who come after.  Marylin’s blog is in the form of letters to her mother, a writer herself, who suffers from dementia, and her posts are warm, touching and insightful.

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Sherri, at A View From My Summer House shared a powerful post about her journey as a writer, in The power – how has writing changed you.  In her blog, Sherri shares warm, funny and touching stories of her life in the UK and the US that have been a pleasure to read.

One of the first posts I read on WordPress was by Zen Doe at The Wind Horse Blog.  Captain, My Captain is the touching story of being chosen by a horse while grieving for another, that had me in tears.  She hasn’t posted for a while as life was getting in the way of writing in a good way, but you won’t be sorry if you spend a little time in her world.

I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing the ups and downs of the writer’s journey with archaeologist and writer JM McDowell over the past year.  As well as posting on writing in general, JM has shared some wonderful fiction with us.  Meghan Bode’s Wintry Tale part one (there’s a link on the page to part two) is just a taster of some of her writing, that I hope you enjoy.

Gemma Hawdon is another fellow writer that I have loved sharing the journey with this year at Top of the Slush Pile.  Gemma has shared many great tips and observations about the writing life.  The imagery in Writing the dark and twisted has particularly stayed with me.

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Ron Scubadiver shares wonderful photos of landscapes, people, street life, the arts scene, abstracts and more at The Wild Life of Ron Scubadiver. Volcanos National Park has some of my favourites.

Karin Vandenbergh at Ruby Slippers and the Yellow Brick Road often seems to look into my mind and I find we often write on similar themes.  Into the darkness is a beautiful exploration of the power of the dark.

Gabriela Blandy, at The Sense of a Journey, has also been missing from WordPress for a while.  I miss her rich, thought-provoking pieces, with some wonderful titles. What happens when a character’s skirt gets hitched in her knickers is an exploration of characterisation.

Unpeeled, by Helen White at Scattering the Light, is about limitation, self-judgement and the tensions that can appear around the autumn equinox.  Helen is an artist and writer who writes beautifully of her spiritual and creative journey.

I’m constantly amazed at the ability of Scott, at Kindred Spirit, to produce so many pieces of enjoyable short fiction each week, as well as more general posts.  He’s recently started posting longer pieces featuring Carolyn and her struggles in a zombie-infested world, which I’m really enjoying.  Keeping Watch is the first of these.

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Jenny Pellet at Characters from the Kitchen shares some wonderful and amusing thoughts on life.   The imperfection of memory is about how we remember things, sometimes not in the way they happened.

Sarah Potter shares wonderful haikus, inspirational photos and more.  Sun Haiku #2 is an example of one of my favourites.

Kourtney Heinz has generously shared her journey with us as a new author on the promotional trail.  This post is a trailer for her book, which I would highly recommend you read: The Six Train to Wisconsin book trailer.

Jack Flacco writes about zombies, strong women and a miscellany of other things.  So if you’ve ever wondered how you’d survive a zombie apocalypse, try one of Jack’s ‘what-if’ posts to see how you’d do: Zombie what-ifs.  Also check out his new book ‘Ranger Martin and the Zombie Apocalypse’.

I only read The necessity of beauty by Valerie Davies today and it is such a beautiful story that it makes a perfect end to my selection of favourite posts of the year.  Valerie writes beautiful posts that also always include fascinating information and insights.

Thank you to all of these bloggers and all of those I regularly follow but haven’t mentioned here, for making my world a richer place this year.

What my dog teaches me

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The world is a different place when you have a dog.  Strangers approach to talk.  People greet you and smile.  Walks are punctuated by stops for conversation and new encounters.  A whole community of fellow dog lovers opens up and welcomes you in.  You are no longer invisible to, or isolated from, your fellow humans.  The presence of the dog draws you together, a reason, or an excuse, for contact.

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Dogs have always guided us.  In mythology, they are liminal creatures, guarding the threshold to the home or the borders to other worlds.  Hecate is accompanied by dogs as she escorts us on our journey from this world to the next.   Dogs represent companionship and loyalty, but they are also the untamed, howling creatures that attend the fearsome wild hunt as it tears across the countryside.

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I’m a different person when I’m with my dog.  Up at dawn, into the still-slumbering world, I’m able to see the town as it’s tinged with sunrise and hear the morning calls of the birds.  I rediscover my neighbourhood, walking streets and open spaces I haven’t frequented for years.  I fully experience the changing of the seasons, as darkness gives way to light, flowers begin to pepper bare grass and barren branches burst into blossom.  My favourite beauty spots are seen anew, through the eyes and nose of my puppy, as he discovers grass, beach, sea for the first time.

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My dog lives fully and in the moment.  When he wakes, he is completely awake and excited to meet the day.  He is curious about every sound, every smell, every view.  He greets places we visit every day with the same enthusiasm as if he’d never been there before.  Everything is a potential toy, whether it’s a ball or an old sock.  My dog is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover.  Every person, and every dog, is a potential friend, including those that I would be tempted to avoid.  He doesn’t know what a grudge is, greeting everyone in the same excited way, even if they’ve ignored or snarled at him before.  Every morning and every time I return home, it’s obvious how happy he is to see me.  And when he finally gives in to sleep, he surrenders to it entirely, twitching and mewling and barking through his dreams.

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When I’m with my dog, I don’t worry about the usual things that concern me.  When I’m with my dog, I don’t dwell or plan, or become anxious.  When I’m with my dog, I’m focused on nothing but him and the environment we’re in, watching him play, or sniff, or discover new things.  Being with my dog is like a walking meditation, when the world becomes clearer and more present.

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Since our dog came to live with us, seven months ago, he’s given me the gift of acceptance.  He dispels the need to be more, do more, have more.  Since he came, I’ve changed almost without noticing.  I’m content simply to be with him, to experience life with him.  He helps me to value simple pleasures.  No matter how tired or pressured I am, I’m forced out of bed, or off the couch and out into the world.  My dog refreshes me, giving me a break from the person I sometimes have to be.  He encourages me to do more than exist every day.

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To live like a dog is to start each day enthusiastically and with curiosity.   To find pleasure and excitement in every simple thing, whether or not you’ve done and seen them before.  To accept and embrace friends and strangers alike, without pre-judgement.  To live with a dog is to walk alongside a creature who can teach you to recognise that life, at its simplest, is about being where you are and cherishing it.

Through a glass darkly

When I want to make sense of my life, I write.  I write lists to organise the thoughts in my head.  I write plans to determine the way in which I want my future to unfold.  I write about big ideas to forge my opinions.  I write about my life to understand my history and my present.  I write stories to experience other people and other lives.  And when I don’t know how I feel or what I want, I write and see where it takes me.

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This week, I attended the funeral of a woman I knew fairly well as an old friend of my mother, but whose personality I didn’t connect with and sometimes found unpleasant.  I went to her funeral out of duty rather than affection and so the sense of grief I’ve felt at other funerals was absent.  The morning was bright and full of spring.  As the crematorium was filled with traditional Northumbrian pipe music, I became transfixed by the window above the altar.  The window is arched and leaded but made of clear glass, so the light that shafted in was white and clean, casting hatched shadows on the wall.  I thought about the cemetery outside that I’d walked through on my way here.  Daffodils in full bloom, crows hopping grave stones, collared doves foraging and magpies squawking through the trees.  I felt calm and curious in the crematorium as I listened to the summary of this woman’s life.

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I struggled to begin this post.  Although I have many prompts for future writing, none of them seemed to reflect my current feelings.  Since we returned from the forest, I’ve been unsettled and dissatisfied, yearning for some kind of escape.  My creative ideas have stalled.  I’ve found it hard to focus on reading and my concentration wavers.  Attending the funeral made me reflect on the direction of my own life.

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Eventually, I decided to write without a destination in mind and see where it led me.  And what I kept returning to, was my belief that it’s through the act of creativity that I can come to understand my life.  Life, in my view, is about exploration.  I believe that the reason we have so many unanswered questions about why we’re here and what will become of us, is because if we knew, there would be no reason for curiosity.  Because I think our true purpose is to discover – to learn about ourselves, our universe and what it is to be alive.

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And to do this, I think all of us are furnished with certain gifts or skills, which are the lens through which we really see the world.  My gift is to create through art and writing and through these I’ll eventually find understanding.  Others will view life through science, or religion, or physicality or caring and learn those lessons they need to learn.  I see life as a vast web of energy and I believe our discoveries feed that web, spinning new threads and making the universe a wiser (though not necessarily better) place.

Copyright - Mandy Bland

Copyright – Mandy Bland

We become lost, I believe, when we look at the world through the wrong lens – that is, the wrong lens for us.  If we don’t recognise our gifts, or fail to use them, or we’re prevented from doing so by circumstance, that’s when we go wrong.  Of course, even if we do use them, that doesn’t mean there won’t be sadness, or insecurity, or terrible experiences.  But we can see the truth of the bad as well as the good through the lens of our own gift so that we can come to terms with it and learn from it.  And if this is true, it doesn’t matter if we never get published, or sell a painting, as long as we use our abilities to see our lives more clearly.

What is the gift you use to see life clearly and how has it helped you to learn?