A bird in the hand

In my hand (well, trapped between the keys of my computer) is the equivalent of a new-born spring chick – the completed manuscript of my first book. Key words to note: completed and manuscript. After a gestation period longer than that of an elephant, my book made its first appearance mid March. Since then, I’ve fed and watered it, burped it, changed its nappy and passed it around a few people for admiration, validation and reassurance at my ability to be a responsible parent.

Over the last couple of months we’ve grown together, my book and I, and I’m now faced with the terrible realisation that I need to send it out there, into the world, to find out if it can make it on its own.

spring chickOkay, that’s more metaphor than enough for one blog post. The reality is this: I’ve written a memoir based on the sixteen days I spent on the urgent transplant list, waiting for a new heart. Sounds morbid? It’s anything but. I won’t lie, there are dark days but throughout, the narrative sparkles with joy and laughter. Above all it’s a love story, not only mine with Mr D but also the one with my friends and family. For sixteen days I waited, on the brink of death, for someone else to die. Difficult both physically and emotionally. I didn’t wait alone. On Christmas Day, my donor and their family gave me a gift more precious than any other. My own friends and family made sure I was (and still am) able to receive and make the most of it.

book birdBut I digress. This post isn’t about the content of the book, it’s about how to set it free. How and when do I release my Caxton bird-in-the-hand skywards in the hope that it can fly?

To get to this stage, the first edit was easy – read-through and correct all the obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Next, kill, or at least mutilate, all my darlings (at least most of them – the ones I missed were culled by a couple of ruthless editor friends). Follow this with reading for continuity, flow and cadence. And then the hard part.

Close reading and editing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, until my eyes crossed and watered. This stage, in my experience, is the trickiest. Get too up-close-and-personal with the narrative and you run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture: maybe it’s okay to use that verb again, perhaps there is no better word than this one. It’s difficult but worth it. Which leaves me with the shiniest and most robust version of my manuscript.

champagne uncorkedLike every anxious parent (I’m wringing the last droplets from this metaphor), I’ve equipped my fledgling with all the survival skills at my disposal, what happens next is out of my control. It’s time to leave the nest. To fly.

If I succeed in publication I’ll celebrate, likewise if I don’t. A manuscript, complete, is an achievement in itself and should be celebrated. As the saying goes (I think), I’ve come a long way to get this far: time to pop the bubbly!

Now, what to do with the empty nest.

Immortal Memory

Still on the theme of literary firsts, I had been invited to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns’ Supper, organised by F, a friend of mine, to raise money for the Fife branch of the Scottish Green Party. To be honest, although I’ve been to a couple of Burns’ Night celebrations, I wasn’t really sure what the Immortal Memory involved so, in my naivety and because it was for a friend, I agreed. After which, and the key point here is in the word after, I decided perhaps a bit of research would be helpful. So I googled, panicked, asked a few friends and began to hyperventilate. A lot. For quite some time.

indexWords such as big responsibility, key-note address, significant, well-researched, lengthy, humorous, were used. I decided to lie down in a darkened room. For quite some time. And then I remembered one other phrase that cropped up: personal tribute. That, I thought, I can do.

I am, by birth, a Yorkshire lass – born in Barnsley but uprooted at an early stage to the Scottish Highlands, where I was schooled before being let loose on the world at large. Yet, even in my earlier years, I was aware of Scotland’s national bard. My grandfather was a Scot from rural Perthshire on whose bookcase, in the corner of his living room, several books of Burns’ poetry rubbed spines with, amongst others, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Often, before dinner (or tea, as it was in those days) he would recite The Selkirk Grace – or ‘the poem about having meat, grandad’. On other days, for no fathomable reason, he would stand me and my brother and sister up and stack us, oldest to youngest, behind him, whereupon he would march us around the house singing Scots Wha Hae.

Through school, in Yorkshire and Scotland, and university, in Scotland and America, I studied and grew to love and appreciate many of Burns’ poems and ballads. That he wrote more than 550 in his short lifetime, leaves me breathless with awe: as well as the wide range of themes he covered. With so much to choose from, I am sure that anyone willing to delve into his collected works, would find something to suit their tastes and sensibilities.

As for the language; my first experience of reading, as opposed to hearing, Burns was in primary school in Doncaster, where we studied To A Mouse. Did I understand the language? Not a bit but oh how I loved the way the words felt in my mouth, how they rolled off my tongue: sleekit, cowrin, bickering brattle, sleety dribble, cranreuch cald. I may not have understood each word, I didn’t need to, I could feel them. With his description I shrugged off my own skin and slipped inside that of the mouse; felt its heart beat, fast and furious. And isn’t that the genius of any writer, to be able to lure their reader deep into the depths of the story, of the character, to make us believe, to care.

Tam o ShanterFor those of you who love Burns, I’m sure you have a favourite. I have two (because, as we’ve established before, I’m not so good with the definition of the term favourite) – the first is Tam o’ Shanter. In my second year of university, I spent a semester in America and this was one of two Burns poems we studied, the other being To A Louse. Reminiscent of my primary school encounter with Burns, I struggled to get a grip of the language with the rest of my classmates but loved the imagery: ‘Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’; ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flower, its bloom is shed’; ‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast; / A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,’. The rhyme and metre, the change of pace, the tension:

Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

                                    From Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns

F pipingThe real appreciation of the poem came much later, performed by F at another Burns’ Night celebration. That’s when I really understood the brilliance of the language. The poem came alive in the telling, not least because F, who comes from the same part of Scotland as Burns, really inhabits each and every line. He was brought up on the bard – his father performed at many a Burns’ Supper, as did his grandfather. By a quirk of fate, his father also died on Burns’ Night, which seems somehow appropriate.

The other favourite of mine is A Man’s a Man for a’ That. It reminds me again of my grandad; of his socialist ideals. It reminds me of the sort of world in which I’d like to live, where riches come not from material possessions but from friends and family, from a sense of community. A more equal world where we all watch out for each other, where we care of for those less fortunate and for our environment. Idealistic, maybe, but isn’t it a world worth hoping for? A world worth working towards?

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;

A Man’s a Man for a’ that:

For a’ that, and a’ that,

Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

                                         From A Man’s A Man for a’ That by Robert Burns

When my grandad died a few years ago, the family asked that A Man’s A Man be played at his cremation. ‘Reet you are,’ said the Barnsley undertaker, ‘who’s it by?’ On being told, he agreed to sort it out. A couple of days later, my uncle visited the funeral parlour to check on arrangements:

‘There’s been a bit of a problem,’ said the undertaker.

‘Oh right, what’s wrong?’ asked my uncle.

‘We couldn’t findt Robert Burns version oft song you asked fo so we got this un by Ewan McColl instead. Will that do?’

‘Yes,’ said my uncle with a wry smile, ‘that’ll be great.’

IMG_1321At Saturday’s celebration, F performed Tam o’ Shanter, Mr D played and sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That and I gave the Immortal Memory.

We ate haggis, drank whisky and had fun. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to our National Bard and a good way to remember two other Scotsmen no longer with us.

Time Well Spent

The lack of activity on my blog is, I’m glad to say, primarily due to the fact that I’ve been writing. Yep, you read right, I’ve been boosting the word count and piling up the pages. And no, before you ask, my LPoW is not yet finished, but it is beginning to fill out pretty well. Even better, I’ve finally settled into my writing groove and am enjoying that liberating sense of timelessness that comes from losing yourself in something you love.

But you know what they say: all work and no play …

IMG_2696A fortnight ago, Mr D and I loaded up Happy with champagne, chocolate, walking shoes and my parents, and headed north in convoy with our friends F and L in their campervan, Sunny. Findhorn-bound, we stopped off half-way to picnic in the sunshine and kick start the holiday with leftover quiche and cold potatoes.

Two hours later, we tumbled out of our campers and set up home in an old fisherman’s cottage with a free-standing bath. We were joined by more friends the following night and, when Sunday dawned and promised to live up to its name with regards to the weather, we spilled out onto the beach.

Friends and food at the seaside: the very essence of bliss. There were games and laughter; a curious seal; ebullient dogs; bird-watching; paddling – swimming even! We took photographs (including a rare one of me with my best friend), traded stories, told jokes, and sat side-by-side watching the sea as it kept on coming. The world was huge, time limitless, and as the sun began to pack up for the day, we followed suit and headed back to the cottage, a weave of arms and rolled up trousers and sun hats and dogs.

IMG_2716The rest of the week was quieter: opera in Elgin town hall; pummelled by rain on Burghead promenade; Berghaus bargains in a Nairn charity shop; fresh vegetables bought from the side of a path through the Findhorn Foundation; huge plates of Buckie fish; and the impish greens of the Northern Lights.

On our penultimate day, B and G visited with strawberries and truffles and told us of Pluscarden Abbey, the place where B told me she had gone when I was in hospital, to ask the monks to include me in their prayers. We arranged to meet her there later, where we listened to the Gregorian chanting of the monks during Vespers, the last wisp of sunshine trickling through the stained glass, fragments of blue and pink and green scattered across their hooded heads.

A quiet calm accompanied us on the journey home in Happy.

When time is tight

There’s a truth, widely acknowledged, that the more time we have at our disposal the less we get done.

time-warpTime is a glorious trickster: look here, it says, holding out minutes, hours, days, this is all for you, time is infinite, an abundance, no need to panic, everything will get done, just sit back, take a load off. Look, here’s sunlight trickling along the windowsill, spilling over the carpet, come on over, lie down, let the warmth ease the creak out of those bones.

Listen, says time, it’s your favourite song on the radio, close your eyes, stretch out your arms, feel the heat. You’re on a beach, or in a meadow running through wildflowers; singing. Feet on grass. Sizzle of wet sand between your toes. Beach. Meadow. The Meadows. University. Ah. Remember – tequilas and dancing on tables? Tequila shots. St Patrick’s Day in Chicago. Green river. Remember? See, no need to rush.

Plenty of ti –

Bugger, bugger, bugger. I’m late. I should be at the hairdresser’s right now. Got to run. Damn you time. Damn you.

And so it goes.

On the flipside, the less time for us to play with, the more we achieve. Or at least it’s been true for me over the last few weeks.

Take your place at the pinball machine, pull back the lever and…

Go.

Glasgow. Frippery of festivals: West End and Mela. Cardamom, cumin, cerulean, crimson. Glasgow put your hands in the air. Hip-flicking, toe-tapping. Burnt sugar taste of summer. Twenty points. Ding.

Ball drops down and off to the right: Edinburgh. Another twenty points. Sun-drenched cocktails, chocolate torte and William Trevor. A gaggle of giggles and espresso. Lights flash. Onoffonoffonoffon.

Quick sideways spin to Dunkeld. New campervan, new friends, new hearts. Art, food, afro-ed dogs and gulls with attitude. Cheeky ten points. Easy.

Rolling south towards Stranraer. Campervan comparisons, wayward chickens, travel envy and warm hugs home from hotter climes. Bonus points: radial heat from a harbour wall with brine-washed seaweed seasoning. Ding. Ding.

Flick of the wrist and bounce back up to the right. Perth and the longest day. Guitar bands and fiddlers – punk trumps trad. Over-priced vegans and under-sold vintage. Blue. Rose. Code. Bang your hand on the machine. Jump around. Fifty points and bonus ball.

Coastward to Elgin. Non-forgotten faces and dogs and beaches and cake; lots of cake. Shared histories of the times of tequilas and table-tops. The other me. Familiarity breeds laughter and unfinished sentences –

Winner!

And here’s the curious thing, I’ve written more in the last few weeks than I have in the preceding year. I now have several completed chapters and lots of descriptions of senses, memories, ideas and characters – vague recollections half remembered. When I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about writing. Or scribbling overhead conversations, observing character traits: that smell, where am I? Where does that song take me? Is the colour of that flower the same as – ?

Jellyfish Janice GallowayWhich takes us to last weekend at the Solas Festival near Perth. Mr D and I, saturated with music, turned our attentions back to literature and Janice Galloway. One of my favourite writers, Janice was at the festival to talk about and read from her new short story collection, Jellyfish. Attention to detail and nuance in everyday life is what, for me, makes a story sparkle: being able to imagine the extraordinary from the ordinary.  Janice, along with my other well-loved writer, William Trevor, has an incredible ability to do just that; and make it seem effortless. Jellyfish is my new bedtime absorption.

The best piece of advice I ever heard on writing was also from Janice Galloway who, on another occasion, said (and I paraphrase): the only person who cares if your book gets written or not, is you. No-one else. Just you.

Over the last month, amidst time’s bag of conjuring tricks, I discovered that I really do care. I care very much indeed.

* Jellyfish by Janice Galloway is published in Glasgow by Freight Books and is sure to be in a book shop near you. If you don’t read it you’re missing out. Trust me.

Friends for Life

The reason, in case you’re wondering, why you haven’t heard from me for a while is that I’ve been writing – yep, you heard correctly, and most days at that! The structure has finally come together and the LPoW now has a shape I can work with. The most recent chapter included a section about friends and that, combined with a recent art exhibition I attended, inspired this blog. Let me explain.

Just over a week ago, Mr D and I travelled to Glasgow to meet one of my fellow transplant patients and visit his art exhibition documenting his remarkable story. ‘The Shared Heart’ features portraits of many of the hospital staff, painted by B from photographs he took whilst still in intensive care. His wife is also an artist and she had, with his permission, photographed his period of recovery beginning immediately after his operation whilst he was still unconscious and ending a month later when he left hospital. In addition, several of her sculptures were on display, representing her own emotions through their difficult time.

I’ve met several people who’ve had heart transplants and each of them has their own incredible story to tell but what has always struck me is the positivity and resilience that radiates from them. Some of them I know a little better than others: P, a woman whose baby was delivered prematurely by emergency caesarean section so that she could be put on the list for an urgent transplant, has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen and never fails to lift my spirits; C, a man who received his new heart just hours after being listed, whose optimism for the future is addictive; and B, whose story includes over 3 months in intensive care, kept alive by an artificial heart, and getting married on what was believed to be his death bed.

untitled (5)These are just outline sketches of their stories because they are their stories and theirs alone to tell. What I have in common with these people (other than our second-hand hearts) is the understanding that were it not for the love and support of our family and friends we would, most likely, not have survived.

In ‘The Shared Heart’ there were two pieces that I found particularly moving. The first was one of the sculptures – a glass bowl filled with water featuring a face looking up from the bottom. It represented the times when B’s wife, so overwhelmed by the situation, would swim in the pool of the hotel attached to the hospital and sing under water to release her emotions. The other was B’s portrait of his wife; the lingering haunted expression behind her eyes, visceral and raw, captured in the way only someone that knows her well could do.

And here’s the reason I wrote this blog. Friends.

The love of family and their concern for your well-being is oftentimes a given; they’re part of you and you of them. Friendships are courted and nurtured; some become something more and, if you’re lucky, some last a long time. And I am lucky. I’ve mentioned them in my blog before but writing about my transplant experience made me really appreciate the value of true friendship. Seamus Heaney, one of my favourite poets, captures it with grace and eloquence in his poem ‘Miracle’.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all along

And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked

In their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable

and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those who had known him all along.

To my friends: thank you.

Feel the fear…

In the last couple of weeks, Mr D and I have made our spoken word debuts; both of us taking part in The Front Room in Alloa, and Speakeasy at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh. In Alloa we gathered in an artist’s studio – one of several in the artist collective based at Marcelle House (part of the Maker’s Village). Around 30 people cosied in, straining the studio at the seams. Confidence skittish, I entered the room holding Mr D’s hand a little too tightly, an extract from my LPoW tucked in my pocket, my fingers returning to it again and again as I sat, summoning up the courage to add my name to the list of readers. Mr D, a seasoned performer in another incarnation, signed up, sat back down and struck up a conversation with two poets sitting in front of us. I decided I’d wait until after the first half before committing to make the transition from voyeur to participant.

A sticky camaraderie bound the room together: poems, short-stories, nerves, laughter. Mr D crested the first half, a wave of applause depositing him back beside me. He’d seemed so confident but when he folded his notes I noticed his hands shaking. Decision made. If he could do it despite the nerves, then I could too. So I did. In the second half. I scanned and read, editing as I went along. I looked at no-one and everybody; shook and smiled, and sometimes I remembered to breathe. At the end I returned to my seat and Mr D stroked my hand. I was glad I’d done it. Surely it would be easier the next time.

Speakeasy posterFast forward a fortnight and I’m standing to the side of the stage, about to be introduced as the first act in the Speakeasy. There’d been a brief sound-check earlier in the evening when, freaked out by the microphone, I’d decided against using it in favour of projecting my voice. I’m considering the wisdom of that decision. Then there’s my name, and I’m on stage. The lights are down, it’s silent, peaceful, welcoming. This time I begin with an extract from my writing, before talking a little about my experience; the latter is the more daunting. There’s a point where I think I might not get the words out – I pause, collect myself and though my voice wavers, I manage it. The dimmed lights make it impossible to see anyone other than the front row of the audience but I know they’re there, my friends, rooting for me, like they’ve always done, lifting me, spurring me on. I finish with another extract. The audience gasps at the end and then, applause. It’s over. I smile, say thank you, and wonder how on earth I’m going to manage to make it back to my seat without my legs buckling under me.

In the break several people come over to talk to me, to tell me they enjoyed it, to ask me more about my transplant. I’m moved and humbled by the response. Friends hug me and one hands me a glass of red wine: wine on an empty stomach! By the time the second half begins, my hands have stopped shaking and I’m basking in alcohol’s warm embrace. Mr D rounds up the evening with stylish ease (only I know how his hands shook before taking to the stage).

Ten minutes on stage but several days of preparation. I am in awe of those that do it on a regular basis. Not only were all the other performers amazing to watch, they were also fun, reassuring and really great people – several confessing to being nervous before every show. It was a fantastic to share the experience with them. Later, in the pub, I was asked if I enjoyed it. On balance, yes. Would I do it again? Buy me another glass of red wine and we’ll see.

For those of you interested, you can read the extract from which I read here – the full extract is about to be published in the Next Review.

To book tickets for next month’s Speakeasy visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Learning to surf

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pressing either rewind or fast-forward on my life. It’s a new year. It’s tradition. In the last 12 months the highs have been plentiful, the lows difficult but worth the effort. As for the next 12, who knows? I have intentions; who doesn’t? But when I look back to this time last year and see how far I’ve come, I realise that the best part was in learning to just live – that realisation is my biggest high from last year and it is my main intention for this one.

There were other highs worth a mention: the feel of fresh air on my skin after two months in hospital; being able to climb stairs; a prolificacy of rainbows; the kindness of friends old and new. The chance to say yes to two important questions made the year more memorable than most, as did the privilege of working with established author Karen Campbell as part of the WoMentoring Project. There was dancing, campervanning, music, laughter, singing, comedy, cycling, star-filled nights, extraordinary views and not nearly enough writing.

There was a proposal. Up a tree. And a referendum. Both of which I answered YES to. One brought a weekend (and beyond) of untold happiness, the other disappointment. It was a year of recovery, a year of fun and, when it came to writing, it was a year of procrastinating like no other.

It’s time. Time to stop procrastinating and start putting key to keyboard. I began this blog to inspire me to write and also to help me keep a record of my writing progress. It hasn’t been that. Cathartic, yes, and probably necessary but not what it set out to be. Like life I guess (cliché alert) – it doesn’t always go the way we want or how we envisage it but that’s not to say it isn’t right for us at that time.

perfect waveI am lucky to have an eclectic mix of friends and what I’ve noticed most over the last year is that the happiest people I know are the ones that have learned to roll with it. Whether it’s recovering from illness, dealing with bereavement, travelling around the world or simply enjoying the simple things: cups of tea in a proper teapot, patterns of snowflakes, the sound of the waves through an open window, a shared joke, the ability to lose yourself in a song or dance, the feel of crisp cotton bedclothes against your skin.

One of my favourite quotes is from Jon Kabat-ZinnYou can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. 2014 was all about learning to surf – this year my intention is more of the same with a little practice at steering the surfboard, particularly where my writing is concerned.

Happy New Year and good luck on finding the perfect wave.