New Beginnings Everywhere

The sparrows have returned to our garden from wherever they shelter over the winter.

From what started as four sweet little birdies a few years ago, a small army of spadgers now congregates each morning on one of the trees to eye up our house. They’re clearly ready to start roosting again which involves a lot of lewd or violent behaviour right in front of us on the fences and decking; a fresh brood of chicks yelling for food from dawn to dusk every few weeks; general clattering and bickering. What’s not happening on the decking, happens in the eaves of our house, where they periodically pull out the nails which hold the tiles in place (presumably they don’t go with their desired decor) and from which they occasionally get into the loft.

Tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of The Water Tiger, and the day after is Candlemas. In some countries, they don’t take their Christmas decorations down till Candlemas Eve, after which the new year really starts and in others (in a throw-back to pre-Christian traditions perhaps), Candlemas involves pancakes (or more accurately crêpes) whose round, golden shape symbolises the return of the sun as spring approaches. (I like this idea – one can never have enough pancakes, crêpes or galettes and I was wondering what to cook for dinner on Wednesday.)

So even though January is ending, there’s always a chance for a new beginning.

Have you ever made a fresh start that started out draining but in the end worked out empowering? Or do you need to make one and it scares you?

As a teenager/young person, I’d expected that writing would be my career, but life didn’t work out that way. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I ever think I’d pick up that abandoned ambition? No. For a long period, it seemed impossible, and every time my dreams were nearly in my grasp again, something would take them away.

Back in 2005, my youngest child was due to start school. I was working three days per week and despite being a team-leader, had almost secured an agreement to continue that working pattern after September. Finally, I was going to have two whole days to myself to start writing! I didn’t really know what I’d write – I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Then… my husband became seriously unhappy at work and the chance to move into another role in Dorset rather than travel back and forth to London from Gloucestershire presented itself. He’d always wanted to go back to the south coast where he’d been a student and the job was right up his street. I quite fancied an adventure. I said ‘yes, let’s go’.

Initially however, I found the transition much harder than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss my support network and how hard it would be to make a new one. I hadn’t realised quite how hard it would be to establish myself in a new role and gain respect (especially since the one I’d been given – just after a merger of two parts of my organisation – was unpopular) while still working part-time and not knowing anyone at all. And to make things worse, I couldn’t keep my proposed working pattern. I had to rush between school and work, being at work, and then as chief child carer rush the children to and from various after school activities. Any hopes of time to myself were knocked firmly on the head. 

This was a very low point in my personal plot. I wrote something about trying to explain to the post office about forwarding mail while we were selling one house, buying another, and renting an interim one. It was read aloud on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. But that was it. Otherwise, I kept writing ‘humorous’ emails to old friends, one of whom got in touch as she thought I was losing what few marbles I had. At some point, I wrote down in the third person a story encompassing what I was going through and how it made me feel. It was cathartic, but only a few people have ever read it.

But… it was a while before I realised that from a creative point of view some things had changed for the better and that this had given me a new starting point.

With the move, I’d also left behind some of the things that were hindering me – other people’s views on what I should write in particular. And I’d learned a lot about the world and myself since I was a teenager/young adult. A kind of freedom from what other people thought made me begin again.

Around 2010, I started some stories, planned out some novels. One lunch break, I wrote down a paragraph from a possible Roman murder mystery. My dad (still living in Wales) and I started a little contest between ourselves writing silly stories. When he died in 2012, an old school friend with whom I’d lost touch turned up at his funeral. She was the kindred spirit from the school year below, with whom I made up stories and acted them out, who had the same mad imagination, who had also been a little ‘odd’. 

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

It turned out she hadn’t stopped. As we rekindled our friendship, she encouraged me to start again and ultimately enter a local writing competition in 2015 in which I was short listed. After that, I joined a local writers’ group.

And one evening on the way home from work, I heard someone talking about self-publishing on the radio, and I bought his book and thought ‘I could do this’. 

Then I discovered a Facebook writing group. I had no idea these existed but and after a while I worked up the courage to join and share little bits of writing.

This was now 2015, ten years after that traumatic move. What happened next was a like popping the cork on a bottle. All that pent up, frustrated creativity came pouring out. I pretty much wrote Kindling and The Advent Calendar in the space of two months while also doing Nanowrimo. Now I admit, that that particular Nanowrimo novel is still in a cyber drawer, but the following year, I published the two collections of short stories and the year after that The Cluttering Discombobulator and the year after that the Roman murder mystery paragraph I’d written in my lunch hour came out as Murder Britannica.

And it wasn’t only having the courage to write which made the difference, it was also making writer friends through the writing group and online. Friends who encouraged me, and in many cases became more than ‘virtual’ and in the case of two of them, became co-writers and very close friends indeed. Liz Hedgecock asked me to co-write The Caster & Fleet Series and Val Portelli suggested we pull some of our short stories together into an Weird & Peculiar Tales.

What does the future hold? In the immediate sense, the publication of the third Margaret Demeray book later this year I hope and maybe a longer sequel to The Good Wife. And after that on maybe not too distant a date, I’m hoping the writing shed will come into its own and I won’t be distracted by a demanding day job, but who knows… 

After all – since it’s National Story Telling Week, if you click on the link below, you’ll hear me on YouTube, somewhat hesitantly reading ‘The Familiar’, one of the first stories I wrote for ‘Kindling’. It may be a little sad as a story, but it too is ultimately about a new start. Would I have believed I’d do anything like this in 2005? Not in a million years.

So I’d like to encourage you at this new time of new beginnings, whether you’re a writer or not. If you’re stuck, or don’t think ‘it’ will ever happen (whatever ‘it’ is) please don’t give up. The time might not be ‘now’ but when it comes, it’ll be the right time somehow and ‘it’ will be the richer for it. And also, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not and things are bogging you down – consider finding a creative outlet. You don’t need to share the outcome, but writing, drawing, sewing, crafting, photography cooking… all of them are massive boosts to mental health – a way of expressing things it’s hard to say out loud.

Go for it – it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image of cats.

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.


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