In Sync

On day three of having to work from home, my team gave up video-Skyping in favour of audio-Skyping. The argument was that everyone’s broadband was struggling but I suspect most of us preferred to talk from behind our smart profile pictures rather than reveal what we really look like in our spare rooms or at our kitchen tables. This is fine by me as I’m approximately six years younger and half a stone lighter in my profile picture than in real life, and in real life, my hair is about to go out of control so I’m on the verge of looking like Captain Caveman or Cousin Itt. 

The risk of being seen less than groomed is only one problem for current video-Skyping. The other is when the team-member has young offspring, since all the schools are shut. A child suddenly appears with something which to them is far more important than any coronavirus-related crisis which their parent is trying to deal with and then, faced with the horror of complete strangers cooing at them from their parent’s laptop screen, go very shy and lip-wobbly. 

Life is very peculiar just now isn’t it?

I’m lucky that I can work from home and maintain some sort of structure to my week. 

I’m sort of glad I’m not also home-schooling my children as I’m sure that I’d be going quietly bonkers by now, but all the same I’m sad that mine aren’t still small enough for me to be doing keep-fit or making dens or playing games or doing craft everyday as some of my colleagues are. 

When my own children were little, although I did those sorts of thing, it didn’t always work out the way I intended of course. Once, my three-year-old son and I copied art from TV using paint and old toothbrushes. We were disappointed at the result until we looked up and realised that while the paper was nearly blank, we’d made a lovely spatter pattern on the wall and … also on my baby daughter who was asleep nearby.

They’re now no longer small enough to want or need me to entertain them and I’m not sure either would want to make a big creative mess like we did when they were small even if I asked them.

But there are advantages to them being older now.

Last weekend, when the impact of coronavirus was making me feel disinclined to try anything new, or indeed, do anything at all, I was invited to join an online group in which members were encouraged to live-stream themselves reading a story.

 I thought ‘Blimey.’

Now: I’m capable of talking (as many will testify) and I’m more than skilled at making a fool of myself, but I don’t usually record myself doing either.

I thought about it for a bit and asked my son for advice. Most of what he said went over my head but having got the general drift, I chose a story and practised videoing myself.

I observed a number of things:

  • Everyone is right about me talking too fast and too quietly.
  • My face is even more asymmetrical than I’d realised.
  • I need to do my hair.

The following day, I decided to be brave.

I did my hair to the best of my somewhat inadequate abilities and I read ‘Dust’ from ‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ as a live-stream, even remembering to have a piece of vacuum cleaner as a prop. Immediately after, while I was in the ‘zone’ I live-streamed it on my author Facebook page too (although I forgot the piece of vacuum cleaner). My face didn’t really stop burning for an hour afterwards.

I definitely got a real buzz from doing it even though I found my lips weren’t quite in synch with my speech. (I sort of assume that was my technical incompetence rather than that’s what I’m like anyway.) And so naturally, going off at a tangent, I then pondered about whether I should start a YouTube channel (with videos rather than my face) or do pod-casting (which wouldn’t require anything to replace my face). 

All of this of course, took my mind off the fact what I’m supposed to be doing in my free time, which is edit a book. What with one thing and another, most of it out of my control, I’m a long way behind and having decided I needed to re-write some of it hasn’t helped. 

But this weekend, my daughter came into her own. In a general chat about creativity and the psychological impact of the current situation, I told her I was finding it hard to get on with the edit and she said she’d been blogging about PROCRASTINATION and shared her conclusions to me. They made a lot of sense. 

She put up with me making one more excuse, then repeated the key bit of advice and sent me went off to get on with the editing. I’m still not there, but I’m near enough to feel like I’m getting somewhere at last.

And going off at a tangent again – I intending to write this blog about something else entirely but writing about doing the live-stream made more sense somehow.  And while my consciousness was streaming as I wrote, I thought – why do you need a small child to do messy craft with? If the weather’s good enough and you can find some paper and some paints – go in the garden and make a fool of yourself. No-one need ever see the result but you’ll feel a lot better and maybe your daughter will come and join you.  

So do you know what, I think I shall.

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. Image copyright 2020 Zoe Harmon. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

If you’re looking for things to do while socially distancing, here are some links:

Closed Visitor Gardens Virtual Tours

The Guardian – Best Virtual Tours of Worlds Natural Wonders

Paint with Alice May

Wheels on Fire

I’d prefer my husband to kill me with kindness, but no, he decided to drag me on a 22 mile cycle in temperatures hot enough to melt iron instead. 

OK so it was probably only 25°C, but I’m British of mostly North European descent. Allow me some pity. There was housework to do but there’ll always be housework to do  and the day I choose it over anything else is the day you ask ‘who is this woman masquerading as Paula?’ 

So in the absence of a proper excuse not to go, I went. 

Hard as it is for my husband to believe, I did a lot of cycling once. 

The Christmas before I was five and before anyone decided such traditions were a choking hazard, I found a sixpence in my Christmas pudding. This was very auspicious and with eyes tight shut and hand clasping the tiny coin, I wished and wished I’d get a bicycle. A few weeks later when we went to my grandparents’ for my birthday tea, there was a bicycle and it was all mine. 

That’s pretty much the only time I’ve had a wish come true but it was worth it. 

I can still recall learning to ride it without stabilisers. Dad raced behind holding onto my saddle and an excited dog ran alongside me barking its head off. And then Dad let go and I was flying along under my own steam! Me – a person who could (can) trip over her own shadow! (I think the fact I was terrified of dogs and worried about what would happen if I fell off helped a little.)

Almost all the kids in the various places I grew up had bicycles. By the time I was eight, my family had settled on the side of a small south Welsh mountain. The road which started as a 1:4 gradient with two hairpins became straight and flat after a while and beyond our house there were, in those days, very few cars. I and the girl on whom Ffion in The Cluttering Discombobulator, The Advent Calendar and Kindling is based, cycled up and down acting out one of our narrative fantasies which involved super-hero cows and a rallying cry of ‘Geronimooooo!’ If the other kids thought we were very weird already (which they did), this just confirmed it. 

Cycling sort of petered out for us girls when we reached eleven/twelve but when I went to college at eighteen, I bought an old wreck of a bike and did it up – wire wool and everything. (My husband refuses to believe I could be this practical despite photographic evidence but I was.)

Thereafter, I once cycled from Chichester to Southampton along the (terrifyingly busy) A27 to see my then boyfriend (I suspect I got the train back). I would regularly cycle from my village 11 miles down the valley to Swansea or 11 miles up the valley to visit said boyfriend and barely got out of breath. On a better bike a bit later, I undertook a cycling/camping holiday from Fishguard to Aberystwyth. 

I lost what little wild abandon I had when I flew over the handle-bars on a hill and skidded along a gravel road using my left cheek as a brake. My hideous face frightened small children for a week afterwards and a bit of gravel got permanently embedded in my shoulder. I still have the scars from that and also from several years later when my daughter, sitting in a kid’s seat on the back of a much later bicycle, tipped herself sideways pulling it over resulting in the pedal digging a trench down my heel.

Suffice to say I’m neither as keen nor as proficient a cyclist nowadays. Nor as fit. But I did manage 22 miles today and am not yet dead.

Where’s all this going you might say? Well, one of the good things about this sort of exercise from my point of view is that there was a lot of thinking time, especially when my husband shot off ahead and left me ambling along looking at the scenery.

One of my thoughts was ‘how hard would it be to learn how to cycle as an adult?’

I can’t imagine it at all. Most of what people perceive in me as confidence is actually a belligerent refusal to be told what I can or can’t do – but I have learned my limits. If someone were to have asked me as a child to unicycle or tightrope walk, I’d probably have tried it out. Nowadays I’d automatically think of the potential injuries/humilation and feel life is too short. I can’t imagine having the courage to get on a bicycle and trust myself to be able to balance enough to ride it if I didn’t already know how.

In the Caster & Fleet series, Katherine and Connie learn to ride bicycles a great deal clunkier than anything I’ve ever had, while wearing much less accommodating clothes and at a time when the whole idea of women doing such a thing was a more than a little suspect. When Liz and I wrote them, we thought about the objections they might face as two nice middle-class girls doing something quite shocking and worse – becoming so independent. What I hadn’t really thought was how hard it must have been to do something so physically difficult at the age of 25 and 23. (Book six – The Case of the Crystal Kisses comes out soon – bikes included.)

Obviously Katherine and Connie are fictional (although it doesn’t quite seem so to me and Liz) but plenty of women in their day did learn to ride bicycles as adults. It can’t have been easy, it must have caused arguments in any number of homes but how much freedom they had as a result! The bicycle, along with railways and higher education for women must have expanded worlds that were so desperately and mind-numbingly narrow.

So, on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve probably had too much sun, is there a moral to all this? 

I often meet people who are worried about doing something new – for example, sharing something they’ve created or sharing something about themselves which no-one else has realised. Often they feel too young to feel they have gravitas or they feel so old they’ve missed the boat. They’re afraid of falling or of looking stupid.

If you’re one of them – try not to feel that way. I felt exactly the same until the day I just thought – I’ll risk sharing this story and a bit later, I’ll risk reading aloud this other story.

It was infinitely more terrifying than learning to ride a bicycle but it didn’t kill me and moreover I found a whole community of people ready to hold on to the saddle and not let go until they knew I could fly. I can’t say how glad I am to have taken that risk. It may not sound big to some people, but it was big to me.

Give it a go. Whatever it is (morality, legality assumed here) give it a go.
Whether it’s showing someone something you’ve created or whether it’s doing something difficult when there’s a risk of failure or doing something you once did often but have lost confidence to do again – try it anyway.

Mostly people are much more supportive than you fear. If they aren’t – try someone else.

Meanwhile – I’m telling my aching muscles they’ll be fine tomorrow and more importantly replacing some of the 1221 calories my fitness app says I’ve used. 

After all, one doesn’t want to get scrawny, does one?

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Everything at Once

‘Yes,’ said the consultant. ‘Everything points to your son having ADHD.’

My lovely seven year old was at that point torn between prodding the consultant’s computer and running toy cars backwards up a ramp. My heart sank. Not because I thought it was the end of the world, but because I could imagine what people would say.

The ones who’d been telling me so for years would smirk. The ones who thought it but never said would sneer. Close friends and family would go into denial. My father would probably buy a book about it.

I had been in denial for a long time. My son’s playgroup had hinted it. His first school told me to take him for assessment. I wasn’t happy with the school and chose to ignore them, although terribly upset, I rang to tell a friend, leaving a message on her landline phone. She didn’t pick up the message for weeks by which time my distress had been replaced with belligerence. 

A year later, we moved a hundred miles and he’d changed schools. The new school couldn’t have been better. But as sitting still became harder, concentrating more important, my lovely happy child lost his self-esteem and confidence and finally his joy. When this school suggested an assessment, I listened. 

Is it my fault? It never ever occurred to me to blame my husband, but I certainly blamed myself.

Was it because I’d eaten red meat, shrimps, nuts and had the odd glass of wine during pregnancy? Was it because I’d craved cheese and ate it in almost any format? Was it because I had what seemed – for a first time mother – a rather traumatic if fairly quick childbirth? Was it because an hour before he was born and they said ‘the baby is getting distressed’, I thought ‘what about me? I’m distressed. Am I invisible?’ None of that made any sense. 

Was it genetic? The consultant said it was often hereditary. I am a natural fidget and daydream as is my husband. But discipline at my home and school was fairly rigid and I long ago learnt to daydream with 90% of my brain while the other 10% appears fully engaged in whatever boring thing I’m supposed to be concentrating on. I struggle in a lot of social situations because I’m trying to listen to every single conversation around me regardless of whether I’m part of it or not. I am very easily bored. I try to do everything on my to-do list at the same time but I do get through it eventually.

My son wasn’t like that. He didn’t seem able to concentrate at all, unless it was something he was absolutely absorbed by. Oddly, this wasn’t always what was deemed ‘important’ by school or society. He found it easier to listen if he wasn’t looking at someone. If he was looking at them, he was concentrating on their face, their mannerisms, their mood rather than their words. Did people understand that? No. Of course they didn’t. He just got into trouble.

Was it because I didn’t discipline him strictly enough? I was conflicted on that one. I demand good manners and an interest in knowledge but I also want openness. I don’t want my children to be hung up, to be afraid to express an opinion or afraid to be honest even when they knew I won’t like their opinions or their honesty. I want them to come to me if things go wrong without fearing I will judge them. I want them to have the space to make stupid decisions knowing I am there to catch them if they fall. 

‘Sleep when he sleeps’ my friends with children said when he was born. My son barely slept in the day and didn’t sleep through the night till he was nearly seven. I went back to work part-time when he was six months old and had to learn a new role but still found it more relaxing than managing a child who didn’t know how to rest. Changing nappies and bath time were activities easier done by two. He rolled over at six weeks, was running by nine months. Trying to get used to managing on a reduced income, I remember sitting with him on my lap trying to read a bank statement and work out where the money was going. He flipped the paper over and I started to cry – and I don’t do crying. He was utterly exhausting. Somewhere around this point, the health visitor gave me a questionnaire. She must have been worried about my mental health and she was right. It was a whole year before I woke up and realised I felt ‘normal’.

Forget all those stereotypes. We don’t eat junk food except on occasion. I was rigid about early bedtimes and a regular routine (if not for my children’s sake, for mine.) My son is not and has never been deliberately rough and rarely angry (although now, as an adult, perhaps righteously so over injustice and political stupidity). He does not always ‘get’ people but he’s sensitive and kind. If he has ever been violent it has generally been through exuberance rather than out of any desire to hurt. (Quite possibly this does not always extend to his little sister but she gives as good as she gets.) I am proud that he knows how to be polite to others and equally proud that he is honest with me and has opinions he’s not afraid to express. 

‘His brain is wired differently,’ explained the consultant. ‘We think it can’t stimulate itself, and so it’s constantly looking for external stimulus. It’s actually concentrating on everything simultaneously and can’t work out what’s important. Medication may create stimuli that his brain can’t so that he can concentrate on what’s necessary.’

I chose to accept medication for him. This involved a battle with the extended family. They said I was labelling him, drugging him, that I just needed to discipline him better. We used it for school alone. On holidays and weekends, we didn’t use the tablets at all. At school, he regained his confidence and started to do well in class again. When he was called ‘ADHD boy’ by another child, my son put his head up and said he was proud to be an ADHD boy. The one time I took both children (both under eleven) to London on my own and decided to medicate him, I regretted it. Who was this quiet child who wasn’t trying to run in three directions at once and asking a million questions? He was easier to manage but was he enjoying it as much? I still don’t really know. When he reached sixteen, the decision whether to take medication was left to him. He took it for his academic subjects but didn’t for music and drama. ‘I need my mind to be free to be creative’ he said.

My son is now an adult and he sometimes uses medication and sometimes doesn’t. What have I learned about ADHD? I realised that everyone has it to some degree, the majority only at a very low level. I look back at my own school years and wonder if some of those ‘naughty’ but intelligent children might have made something of themselves if someone had realised that their brain was wired a different way. I wonder what opportunities for them were lost. I realised my father probably had some form of Asperger’s syndrome and this helped me understand him and become less frustrated with some of things he said and did.

People say that ADHD didn’t exist before the modern western world got too soft. I think this is utter nonsense. People are just people. There have always been people who have very clear thought patterns and people who think about lots of things simultaneously. We need both. We need people who can make straightforward unemotional judgements. We need daydreamers. Perhaps in industrialised cultures there is less respect given to the dreamers. In our culture we want the output – the film or music or jet engine but don’t realise space needs to be given to the wild idea that leads to them. Our culture doesn’t always appreciate a person who walks to a different beat.

As a small child, yes, my son was exhausting. But he was fascinated by everything. He laughed, he was happy. Sleep was a waste of time when there was a whole world ready to fiddle with. He danced in my womb when I sang in a concert and as a pre-schooler, he danced in our small front room to a CD of classical (sorry – Baroque) music. He was full of joy. I bought him a tiny toy keyboard in a charity shop for £3 and all by himself he learnt how to play Silent Night at the age of three. He was the only child in playgroup who could sing in tune. He is a musician. 

He is now a delightful young man full of passion and ideas and creative energy. I don’t always agree with him but then I am his mother and older, why should I agree with him? And he is young, why should he agree with me? Hopefully there is plenty of time for both of us to find out when to bend and when to stand firm.

If I had ignored that diagnosis or tried to discipline him out of ADHD would he be as creative and have as much potential now? Or would he be frustrated, angry, rebellious, bitter? 

I suspect the latter. I know which I’d prefer.

If you’re a parent struggling right now, find someone to understand and don’t be afraid. There will be someone. If your child had asthma, no-one would query your need for help or theirs – ADHD is no different. 

If you think you may be attention deficit and/or hyperactive – it’s a good thing. But again, seek support.

If you don’t understand – do some research. Many highly successful people have ADHD. A diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined, unnurtured, badly nourised, violent or useless.

Whoever you are, be kind to yourself. 

Whoever or ‘whatever’ you are, the world needs you.

BBC video – the joys of ADHD

A Winter Forest at Night by Matthew Harmon

The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service

NHS information

Information for adults with ADHD

UK Support Groups

a thousand connections

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

This is a post about the writing process and about perseverance. Or at least, my experience of them.

About seven years ago or thereabouts, I started a short story and then stopped after about three thousand words. It was one of many put aside because I couldn’t find the time to finish it and because the muse seemed to have upped sticks somewhere around the time I had my first baby in 1999 and she wasn’t around to tell me how to finish it.

I can’t even remember what the original inspiration was but it started as a sort of star-crossed romance as seen by the hero’s widowed sister. They have recently moved to a house in the middle of nowhere, because he has become chronically ill and she is the only one who knows what’s wrong. His illness means that he is incommunicado for twenty-four hours every month. It is during one of these periods that the sister is visited by both a sinister local busy-body who asks too many questions and by a complete (and very odd) stranger who says she’s in love with the brother but can only visit while he’s sick, which means they are never going to meet face to face and communicate again. You have probably gathered that the brother is a werewolf. I called it ‘Reverse’ for reasons which made sense at the time.

So that’s as far as I got. Along with most of my other writing, ‘Reverse’ just gathered pixel dust on the hard drive of the laptop.

In 2015, I stopped waiting until I had my perfect room and/or could give up work. I just started writing again. My muse must have been hanging out on social media, because she returned via Facebook and hasn’t left me alone since. Perhaps she didn’t like small children. She certainly doesn’t like housework as it’s pretty much a choice between it and her and so far, she’s winning. I wrote the majority of the stories for ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’ in the summer and autumn of 2015 and somehow managed to complete a fifty thousand word first draft novel in November for Nanowrimo. I still don’t know how I managed it.

After getting ‘Kindling’ and ‘Advent Calendar’ ready for publishing in early 2016, I dusted off ‘Reverse’, wrote another thousand words, then put it back to one side again. Come October 2016, someone asked if I was going to do Nanowrimo again and towards the end the month I thought, ‘well I did it once, I can do it again’. I’d left it rather late, but I thought that I might as well finish ‘Reverse’ (which I thought would total twenty thousand words) and then start another project to make up the other thirty thousand words of the target.

I didn’t even get close. I started all right, but perhaps having recently begun a new role within my organisation didn’t help. By mid November I realised that (a) ‘Reverse’ was going to go beyond twenty thousand words whether I wanted it to or not and (b) I wasn’t going to even write that many by the end of the month.

I carried on through winter and early spring, writing bits and bobs when I could and when I realised that booking a week off to spend with my teenage children during their Easter holiday was pointless because they preferred sloping off with friends instead, I decided to spend the week writing instead.

To cut a long story short, I finally wrote the last of nearly one hundred thousand words at 4.50pm last Thursday. I actually shed tears. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not usually an emotional person.) My husband got home from work early to find me dewy eyed and more illogical than normal.

‘It’s finished!’ I said, ‘I feel all tearful.’

‘Why?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll pour you some wine.’

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that it had taken so much longer to write than I’d expected, I felt a greater sense of connection with the characters and a huge sense of loss when I’d finished than I had with the previous novel. When I finished ‘Reverse’, I felt bereavement or longing, what the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, for a completely imaginary place and set of people which is only now starting to ebb.

My son and daughter are creative and sort of understand. My husband isn’t and thinks I’m marginally insane, but I couldn’t have done it without their support and encouragement.

For me and ‘Reverse’, I think I wasn’t in the right place (mentally) to finish it in 2010. There was a lot going on: the security of my job and my husband’s job was very uncertain, my father was very ill and I had yet to realise that I was never going to stop feeling frustrated until I started writing again. ‘Reverse’ was never supposed to be a classic werewolf story. The werewolfism was simply a means to create the inner tension and (odd as it may seem) some humour, since the story was supposed to be vaguely comic.

It started as a love story seen from the perspective of Rose, a protective third person watching from the shadows. Sometime in the last seven years, I’ve changed and so has she.

The story is now predominantly about Rose herself, about dealing with grief, about starting again, about siblings, about friendship, about rekindling dormant creativity, about ceasing to be the passive observer and choosing to control one’s own destiny, about hope and faith. The fact that her brother is a werewolf (and sometimes a bit of an idiot) is just one more thing to overcome. It’s hopefully not without humour and mystery, but I want it to convey about being caught between worlds, whether mental or metaphorical. Whether it’s any good or not, of course, is another matter.

‘Reverse’ is still in first draft and I am not sure when I’ll edit it or what it will be called. Three days after putting the final full-stop (am owning up now, I did a bit of tweaking on Friday), I am still half visualising (imaginary) Rose’s (imaginary) view from her (imaginary) house and wondering what she’s going to do today. But I have to put it to one side and let it brew. I still have November 2015’s nanowrimo to edit and that’s a completely different story in more ways than one.

Meeting a lot of local authors at a fair on Saturday was like therapy because I could tell them (even though they were all strangers) and every single one knew what I was talking about.
All of them struggle with juggling other commitments: children, work, caring responsibilities. All of them have had to put writing on hold at some point until one day, they had to pick up a pen or explode and found that the muse was waiting to whisper again.

So I’d just like to say to anyone out there who’s struggling to find the time or the energy to write or to follow any other dream for that matter: it can work out. It may not be today, but that doesn’t mean it will be never. In 2010, I thought I would never finish a story ever again, but I was wrong.

Don’t give up.

keep swimming

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Unhidden Room

Do you dream?

I am a vivid dreamer. If I don’t quite remember a dream, I can still ‘taste’ it for hours. Wonder, panic, laughter, fear, anticipation, guilt, joy, anger, pleasure, mourning; sensations seep into my consciousness and colour my day.

Mostly I remember dreams. I have made stories out of some. Other times when I feel as if I’ve dreamt the perfect plot, either it dissipates before I can write it down or I start to write it down and realise it is total nonsense. Mostly, I put off transcribing, thinking the dream will be impossible to forget and then… forget.

As a teenager, I was fascinated with dream interpretation, but the book I got tended towards prophecy. It said that dreaming about bras meant I’d be coming in to money. I’m still waiting.

So it was with some scepticism that I half-listened to something on the radio when driving home one day. I had left work earlier than usual and the person was dream-interpreting. A caller rang in to say that they frequently dreamt of finding a room they didn’t know they had.

My ears pricked up. This was a dream which I had so often, I frequently woke up convinced the room actually existed. Sometimes, the room was off the attic, sometimes off a downstairs room. I usually had to crawl through some narrow opening to get to it. Sometimes a room, sometimes two floors, sometimes virtually a whole other house was hidden beyond the chute or corridor or hole. Sometimes the rooms were in disrepair, sometimes they were sumptuous and elegant. “Come on then,” I said to the radio, “tell me something ridiculous, I could do with a laugh.”

The dream interpreter said simply that the house represents the self and that finding a room which is hidden means there is something about yourself which is not being expressed. Usually, it means your creativity is suppressed and the dream is an expression of frustration.

I think hearing this was a sort of turning point for me. At the time, I was mother to two children still in primary school. I was also working part-time. My life seemed to consist of being late, running between school, work, clubs, swimming lessons etc. When I wasn’t doing that, I tackled the Sisyphean task of trying to keep on top of housework, laundry, shopping etc. At work, my husband and I, having signed up several years earlier into a career in a “job for life if you want it” organisation, were both having to reapply for our own jobs or similar jobs as that organisation restructured into something where a “job for life” was a distant memory. (This exercise has repeated itself almost every eighteen months since.) In terms of creativity, pretty much all my outlets had dried up. My watercolours were lost in the attic; sewing was restricted to responding to emergency requests for costumes (“oh, didn’t I tell you that I have to be the Queen of Sheba tomorrow?”); writing was reduced to emails which intending to be funny, mostly indicated a high level of stress and encroaching depression. OK I still cooked, but cooking for children is always more about the anticipation of rejection than applause.

So my hidden room dreams meant I had submerged my creativity? Was this the root cause of my fundamental unhappiness? If I found time to paint, sew and most importantly write again, would the feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction recede? Would I be a nicer person to know?

It was a slow process from then. I still didn’t have much time. I was afraid I had no ideas any more. But I got some new watercolours and painted a picture of our son and daughter gathering shells for my husband’s birthday. My husband bought me a laptop and I started to write again. What if I had no ideas? I started to write anyway: a story about two children who discover only their grandmother can save the world. I challenged my father to writing competitions. (Dad never let anything stop him from writing and was even doing it in hospital the day before he died, when too weak to do much else). Little by little, I widened the entrance to that hidden room.

It’s been a long time since then. Now I work full-time and chase round after teenagers. I am still running slightly ahead of the redundancy monster. In the story about the alien grandmother (not finished) the children are eight and six. How strange: mine were that age at the time I was reading it to them. They are now nearly eighteen and sixteen. I have learnt a lot about writing and a lot more about giving myself permission to be creative and let the housework pile up. I am happier, less frustrated. I hardly ever dream about hidden rooms and when I do, I know it’s because I’ve got the balance wrong again.

But this doesn’t stop me from dreaming vivid, often narrative dreams. Certain people appear when I feel a certain way. Sometimes I dream something awful has happened to someone I love and I have to ring them to check they’re all right. Someone used to turn up when I felt guilty, until it occurred to me that they didn’t deserve to be put into position of judge by my subconscious. More to the point, it occurred to me that because I might be contemplating something that one person would not approve of, didn’t mean it was actually wrong. In fact, worrying about certain people’s approval was one of the things which had been holding back my writing for years.

I got a more sensible dream interpretation book. This makes a lot more sense. The house represents the self. Animals represents emotions. Exposure represents anxiety.

One night I dreamt about teeth. In fact I was dreaming that two fillings (one which doesn’t exist) fell out. I looked in “The Top One Hundred Dreams and What They Mean” by Ian Wallace and it said “losing your teeth indicates something is challenging you and causing you to lose confidence in your ability to deal with it…. a loose filling suggests you are no longer filled with confidence.”

This part of the dream followed on from one where I had to find a toilet at an event I was going to be running the following week next (and, you’ve guessed it, about which I felt zero confidence). Apparently “searching for a toilet shows you are looking for some way to tell someone what you really need”. (What I really wanted to tell everyone was that I needed another job).

I’m not sure it means to have to use the toilet once found (even though the door is inadequate and you’re about to be discovered) but I think it’s fairly obvious. The toilet dream is fairly recurring and is my equivalent of dreaming about being naked in public. I dream it when I’m feeling unconfident and fed up. I am not sure why my subconscious needs to reinforce this. Similarly, I don’t need a book to know that dreaming about reversing a car which turns into a bicycle, with no lights or brakes in a snow storm onto a motorway at night means I’m feeling just a little stressed.

Occasionally I dream about my Dad, who died a few years ago. He is usually bringing lots of clutter and a certain amount of chaos (which was pretty much what he did). He is usually silent (which is uncharacteristic. Ask my mother: he couldn’t even sleep in silence.) I don’t know what this means for me. It quite possibly means I need to dig out all his writings (which he left to me, only fifty percent in digital format) and do something with them.

On the other hand, you can only interpret things so far.

The other morning I dreamt I met a demon sharpening his teeth on a road name sign. That’s not in the dream book. I have no idea what that might mean.

It’s nice to know there are bits of my subconscious that is unfathomable. It makes me feel enigmatic.

hidden-room

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

My Father’s Eyes

They changed as you read; narrowed for villains, opened wide for victims and frowned for determined heroes.

You made us giggle by waggling your glasses and eyebrows.

You blinked as you marched us on sunny fossil-hunts, you peered into books and squinted at handicrafts you’d start but never finish.

Your eyes grew tired, old. One day, your eyes smiled love as we said goodbye but two days later, though they blinked, you were no longer there. Then they closed forever.

But I will only remember your eyes, sparkling as you told stories, bringing the characters alive, twinkling with love.

dad-in-pizza-express

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Prompted by Thin Spiral Notebook

The Truth, The Partial Truth and a Little Bit of Nostalgia (with explanatory notes at the end)

Yesterday, I wrote a story. I sent it to a friend for input and she said “why am I always convinced your stories are true?”

Well, the fact is that there really was some truth in that story.  In fact, there is a lot of truth in most of my stories. Some of the twists and turns may be imaginary; some of the characters and creatures may not exist; but somewhere in them is something that’s real.

Answering her question though, brought back a lot of memories. The story starts with two girls and their little sisters carol-singing round the neighbours’ houses, hoping for money. The girls have put a lot of effort in, but the local boys, without putting effort in at all, got to the neighbours first and received all the spare cash anyone was willing to give. The boys had done exactly the same thing with “penny for the guy”* a month earlier. This part of the story was pretty much true.

My friend and I were very creative. The good thing about my house, from her perspective, was that my mother absolutely didn’t care how much mess we made, whereas her mother absolutely did.  I made papier-mâché headed glove puppets and together we put on puppet shows for my sister’s birthday parties. The puppets acted out our versions of fairy tales scripted with some under-parental-radar naughtiness. Sadly I can’t remember any of them now.

She and I also organised a bunch of girls into putting on a play. The script was in rhyming couplets and had allegedly been written by another girl’s mother.  It was a classic drama with an evil villain, a swooning heroine, an elderly mother and a swash-buckling hero. We performed it for anyone we could round up, taking milk bottle tops as payment which we then sent to the Blue Peter** appeal which was raising money for guide dogs for the blind. Dad (who probably wished he could have joined in) even bought us stage paints to make our faces up with. The only lines I can now remember are the heroine’s, when faced with the choice of eviction or marriage to the villain:

“Sir Jasper, don’t be such a creep;
The snow outside is six feet deep!”

We always had our doubts that the other girl’s mother had actually written it, but on the other hand, she may have.  I wish I still had a copy.

I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when, in the absence of anything else to do, children were outdoors, unsupervised, whenever it wasn’t raining. There were few cars in our village and we could run and cycle and play tennis in the road or venture into the wilds. I grew up within five minutes’ walk of woods, old quarry workings which we called caves, mountains, two rivers, a canal and a waterfall. In the woods there might have been elves; in the mountains there might have been giants and dragons; in the caves there might have been witches; somewhere under the bracken was an old Roman road and we might meet a centurion’s ghost. It was always worth trying to find out.

If I count up the ways in which I could have died or seriously injured myself, ambling about, often alone, in all of these places, I run out of fingers. One of the local boys nearly did die, almost hanged while messing about with rope in the trees, but he survived, and so did I. The greatest danger I think I faced was when two of the nastier boys grabbed me when I was on my own and bundled me into one of the caves.  I remember being very frightened but also angry. At that moment, an older girl called out for me across the woods. Even though I was being threatened to keep quiet, I shouted back “here I am!” and the boys let me go. It was only many many years later, I realised what might have been in their minds.

Our village consisted of two roads which led off a main road. They started at the bottom of the hill and immediately parted company.  I lived on the steepest road which twisted in narrow hairpins towards the chapel and then straightened up just as you passed the big black and gold notice board with “whosoever” on it.  I loved that word.

We moved there when I was eight. The old school house was redundant and was in the process of being turned into a dwelling. There simply weren’t enough children to keep it open and we went by bus to school in the next village. Houses ranging from semis to terraces to miners’ cottages lined the road. On one side was an upward slope which led into the woods. On the other was a field which led down to the river. (The field was, much to our disgust, later turned into a housing estate.)  The river led down to the waterfall and then joined a bigger river which ran alongside the newly renovated canal.

We’d sometimes have picnics at the canal, and Dad would send us with a bottle of home-made ginger beer which he made from what he called a “ginger-beer plant”. There is another version, using a lot more fresh ginger, but this is the one he made. The resulting liquid looked utterly disgusting but was sort of nice and nasty all at the same time. I have just looked this up and this is how it’s made:

Ingredients for the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:

Half a teaspoon of dried yeast
1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water
Making the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:  Mix ingredients in a jar and cover with a piece of muslin. Secure with a rubber band. For the following week, add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger daily.

Apart from a few teenagers (of no interest to us), in the village there were, as far as I can recall about ten girls and about ten boys under twelve.

One of the girls used to pop in to see her grandmother on the way to the school bus because the grandmother would open a drawer full of sweets and select something for her to take to school against starvation. Candy was discouraged in our house, so I was always jealous. On the other hand, the poor girl subsequently spent most of her teens trying to lose weight and going to the dentist.

Many of the boys were trouble.  Some of them were motherless, which might have been why they were so wild, but even so, they were a horrible bunch. They stole our apples. They set their dog on our cat (although she got her own back by slashing it across its nose). At Hallowe’en they would chuck eggs at doors and torment people by placing leering Jack O’Lanterns along their walls.

Of the nicer boys, I remember that one said he saved time at breakfast by putting his toast and marmalade on top of his cornflakes and poured his tea over the top so that he could eat the whole thing as a sort of mush.  This always appalled me, because chaotic as my house was, table manners were rigid.

As we grew out of childhood and into our teens, we spent less time outside, found friends from other places and discovered other pastimes. Our secondary education was fragmented and split us up. We attended one school in a village a bus ride away between the ages of  eleven and twelve and then another, a mile’s walk away, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At sixteen, if we wanted to go to sixth form or college, they were in a different town altogether. At eighteen, those of us who went on to university, mostly moved away and never went back.

The point of all this nostalgic rambling is that just looking back at being eight to twelve years old, I have plenty of fuel for my imagination. So yes, a lot of the stories are true, just not entirely true.

Apart from the dragons of course…
JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW:
* “penny for the guy”. I haven’t seen this for a very long time. When I was a child and where I lived, not much was made of Hallowe’en. We’d never heard of trick or treating. My husband who is the same age as I am, says he does remember it. But then he lived in a city and I lived in the west about twenty years behind. However, we did celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire or Fireworks Night. Nowadays not many people do this at home as fireworks are expensive and people are more safety conscious. Except in a few places, the taste for making a “guy” (an effigy named after Guy Fawkes who, in 1606, was caught in an act of terrorism and subsequently executed) and setting fire to it, is also less popular, especially because of the sectarian implications. Back then however, children (who couldn’t care less about the political or religious aspects, but just liked the chance to get some cash) would make a guy out of old clothes and cart it round the neighbours’ houses. If you were lucky, they’d give you some cash. Sometimes you got sweets. A month later, we went round carol-singing with the same aim in mind.

** “Blue Peter” is a long running BBC TV children’s programme. It runs an annual charity appeal, giving children the chance to raise money in simple ways. I like to think we contributed to training perhaps a paw of a guide dog.

dragon
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon (pottery dragon bought many many years ago in Neath, West Glamorgan, South Wales.  I would credit the maker if I could!). All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

A Fine Mess

Clearing out a wardrobe in middle years is an exploration of hope over reality. I wish I was tidy. I quite enjoy the catharsis of taking a massive bag of clothes and books to the charity shop. I take pleasure in polishing when there’s a clear surface to dust. But I really wish someone else could magic away the clutter.

This suit, yes it made me look elegant and corporate but…. I bought it eleven years ago and haven’t been able to fit into it for eight. Why is it still there?

And the lovely party dress bought on a whim online. In the wrong size. There it hangs, six years later, forlorn and unworn waiting for me to regain my once elfin figure (and also for a party invitation).

At the bottom of the wardrobe was my dissertation, unread since it was handed in. The cover is stained from where it got damp once. It was rescued when I cleared out my parents’ shed in 2013. I try to visualise me as an earnest young undergraduate stabbing away at a typewriter. I can’t remember how her mind worked, but I can remember the agony of producing every word, even though most of them now make no sense (the average goldfish bowl is more profound). Still back in the wardrobe it goes, because the only other place to put it is an overloaded bookcase.

Somewhere in my system there must be at least one tidy gene. Unfortunately, it has been mislaid in the chaos of all the untidy ones. I do like a neat working environment for writing, drawing or sewing.  But the reality is that if necessary, I will have to turn my back on anything out of place elsewhere in the room (I’d never do anything creative otherwise) and for example right now I am tapping in my little writing corner while behind me are four piles of clean laundry and outside the room…

On the other hand, the plus side of having been brought up in a house where a clear worktop was just wasted space is that I can cook in an area the size of a side-plate if necessary; a skill which makes me able to cope with the catering side of camping with nonchalance.

Personally, I blame my parents. One of my earliest memories is of a room, floor to ceiling (or at least above my three year old head) with stuff. I can’t now recall what stuff although books featured significantly. However, I do remember a glass case with a stuffed red squirrel inside. It had fascinating shiny eyes. There was also a musical box which had real butterflies pinned to little rods which danced up and down when the music played. They were very pretty, but I was sad that something so free should be fixed so permanently. “Are they dead?” I asked. “Afraid so but just as well.” Dad answered. Sometime between then and when we moved to the next house, both the squirrel and the musical box were sold. They had come with my parents from their first home, a flat in Hendon which had previously belonged to my father’s aunt (who conveniently died sometime before the wedding). As far as I can gather, my father thus accumulated a number of her books (which covered a range of the early 20th Century equivalent of New Agism, e.g. Theosophy, British Israelitism and so on) and several odd items she had either inherited or collected, including dead animals in cases. Recently, friends took us to find that flat where my parents started their married life and where I lived until I was eighteen months old. It is fundamentally a maisonette. At the time when I was born, my parents lived in the top floor and one of my father’s other aunts lived on the ground floor. I took some exterior photographs to show my mother and then did an internet search to see whether we could find any interior shots from the last time it was sold or rented out.

“The bathroom looks a bit different,” said my mother in some surprise, slightly affronted that it hadn’t remained the same for fifty years, “and the sitting room never looked as roomy as that when we were living there.”

“That’s possibly because it’s tidy now,” I pointed out.
“You might be right,” conceded Mum.

After moving from Hendon, we moved to Dunstable, then to Wokingham, then to Winnersh then to Neath in South Wales. This was all in a space of seven years. If the proverbial rolling stone gathers moss, my rolling father gathered stuff. There is no other word for it unless you know a collective noun that covers books, half finished projects, paperwork which is in no order whatsoever and may have become irrelevant twenty years earlier, items inherited or handed down by relations who presumably didn’t want them and knew my father was a sucker for that sort of thing, random bits of china and souvenirs etc etc. Stuff. What we had most of was books of course, thousands of them. When we moved to the house in Wales, we put the majority of them up in the front room on bowed bookshelves. Some of the villagers were incredulous. “What they want all them books for?” they said, as if this was stranger than keeping baby alligators, which was what the adjoining neighbours did in their front room.

Eventually, my father and another neighbour moved the bathroom from downstairs into a bedroom upstairs and what had once been the bathroom became what we called the study. Only my father was capable of “studying” in there. Everyone else was in fear of being crushed to death by something falling off the tottering piles of books and papers. Whenever my sister or I had a birthday party, or some masochistic relation came to stay, there was a frantic shoving of clutter into the study. If you subsequently wanted anything, it was an exercise similar to finding a specific geological strata in a range of mountains and probably more dangerous. After my ninth birthday party, the bully at school made nasty comments about our disordered house which made me hate it; but on the other hand, when I reconnected with an old friend a few years ago (a girl who came round regularly, not just when we’d shovelled a room clear) she told me how refreshing it had been to visit a home where you could paint, sew, write, cook and no-one cared about the resulting chaos.

(Incidentally, the study finally became too constricting even for my father to write in, so, after trying to work in the attic but finding it too dark, he constructed a room within the airing cupboard where he could put his electric typewriter and eventually a computer. Really, you’ve just got to believe me on this.)

It’s hard to imagine how my father turned out this way. Or maybe it was a natural reaction. My paternal grandmother was the archetypal housewife and kept her home streamlined and immaculate. My paternal grandfather was a prototype minimalist and couldn’t bear mess or pictures at an angle or things on windowsills or dust or crumbs. He didn’t show any evidence that small children playing caused him any pain, but we did have to tidy up after ourselves, which we virtually never did at home. My grandmother kept some decorative, feminine, pretty ornaments in her room where they wouldn’t annoy him but they were still kept very neat.

What my mother’s excuse is, I have no idea. My maternal grandfather died before I was born but my maternal grandmother also kept a tidy, if arty, house and she too made sure my sister and I cleaned up after ourselves when we stayed. A recent TV programme showed young girls in the 1940s and 50s being chained to the home, training up as housewives. My mother just laughed. “Never happened to me!” she said cheerfully.

So I assume that my mother had either not picked up any wifey skills before her marriage at twenty-three or lost interest in the face of my father’s consequent refusal to do anything except horde and live in chaos. Possibly a combination of both. He wasn’t a man to be argued with, and I speak as one who tried. Dad regarded any sort of tidying, cataloging, organising or (heaven forbid) reducing the volume of stuff as a dark art. When I mentioned the fact that I was doing my biennial book sort, culling the ones I didn’t want and putting the remainder back into some sort of order by genre and author, he visibly shuddered, as if I was describing the slaughter of kittens with a pickaxe. Mum did try. She once took a mass of long unread science fiction books to a charity shop only for my father to buy them back a week later because “I seem to have lost the ones I thought I had.”

She didn’t pass on many home-making skills to me or my sister either. Both of us regard housework as a sort of Sisyphean task which has been set to punish us for something. On the other hand, Mum and Dad between them showed us how to be creative. There were story competitions and painting and papier-mâché and lino cutting. Every holiday Dad would try out some new craft with varying success: corn dollies, soap carving, pottery. There just wasn’t much time for nonsense like dusting or vacuuming.

Long long after my sister and I had left, my parents finally moved from the family home and into a bungalow, manfully trying to force nearly forty years of stuff into somewhere half the size of the place they were leaving and pretty nearly managing it, if you didn’t mind the fact that there wasn’t much floor. Recently, the old family home came up on the market and we looked in astonishment at the interior shots on the estate agent’s website. It was impossible to recognise anything, including my old room, where latter owners had put a spiral staircase into the attic which was now a light filled spacious room rather than a dark glory hole reminiscent of a junk shop.

In 2012, when my sister and I stayed for the last week of Dad’s life as he lay unconscious in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, we reorganised some of the stuff just so that I had somewhere to sleep and tried to create some sort of sense out of the remainder. We felt like traitors and we would have given anything for him to wake up and tell us to stop interfering and that no reasonable person needed more than six inches of horizontal surface visible at any given time.

He died without knowing that we’d started organising the mess and boxing up things for charity or to put into storage. Ruefully we laughed when we found half a five pound note in between two dusty books, saying it was our fitting inheritance. We never did find the other half. A little under a year later, my mother moved out of the bungalow to be near me and this time, the decluttering, which had been slowly progressing for nine months, had to be finished in the space of two weeks. There would be no room in the flat at the sheltered complex.

That was three years ago and I still feel scarred by the experience of disposing of so much so quickly. My mother’s flat is now tidy in an untidy sort of way and most of the retained boxes of stuff are in our garage, although periodically she kidnaps one to rummage through. She misses the clutter of fifty-one years of marriage to a hoarder.

In the process of helping her move from bungalow to flat, I unearthed a tin (yes a tin) of furniture polish from the kitchen and said to my mother, “er… isn’t this the same tin you had when I was a little girl?”

“Probably,” she said. “The thing is,” she added with much wisdom, “there’s always something much more interesting to do than housework.”

mess2

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Gold Within Clay

And man said let me create

And God said I will set some of you apart as dreamers
And some will make hollow out wood
And stretch skins and manipulate metal
And they will make music.
And some will look at the world
And wonder “what if”
And wonder what is over the hill
And how they can commemorate the things
The heroes have done or might do
And how to explain the light and the dark
And they will tell stories.
And some will take ugly rock and hard stone
And resistant wood
And fashion beautiful things
And they will be craftsmen.
And some will wonder how to make their hard life
And the hard life of their children bearable
And they will be inventors.
And some will see unfairness and hurt
And they will speak out
And they will not be silent
And they will argue for justice.

And sometimes others will laugh or scoff
And sometimes the creators will be reviled
But if their work is true, then one day
It will outshine the doubters.

But beware when dreamers are imprisoned.
Where minds are closed,
Dreamers will be silenced,
Music will cease,
Dance will be called sin,
Stories will be labelled lies,
Craft will be called frivolous,
Invention and Inquiry will be halted.
Beware when people say
They speak for God,
Yet their words destroy,
Their words create fear of creativity.

Beware when the music is stopped.
Because that is the work of the evil one
And the earth will bleed
And the heavens will weep.

Beware when dreamers are silenced,
Because without them
Who will look for gold inside the clay,
Common ground inside difference,
Love inside fear,
The friend inside the stranger?

lion snake

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission