One week, six days, four hours and thirty three minutes booze free.

It’s nearly two weeks without a drink. I am missing it sometimes, other times not so much. I am sleeping better than I think I ever have, but evenings without a gin and tonic or a lovely big glass of cold, delicious wine are quite hard. There’s all this time to think, now,  and I don’t like it very much. In fact I’ve felt a bit down, to be honest, a bit lost. A bit empty, moods are up and down and there’s no where to go, now. There’s no where that I can go where I am not thinking. But perhaps that is the thing, perhaps now is the right time to start opening those doors and walking into the rooms in my head, pulling off the dust cloths and confronting stuff. Or maybe all I need to do is just be alive, be in the moment, be in the world and everything will sort itself out.

I am meditating better and for longer. I am finding that I slip easily into it, I go through the stages of meditation easier. But at other times I have no patience, I am ratty and cross and things take on a bigger significance than they should. I seem to feel intense love for the world, and intense anger at the world, flip flopping emotions. I am concentrating better, though the first week my head was all over the place and I felt like I had no energy at all. The second week involved lots more energy, lots more enjoyment of things I’d forgotten I liked. I got my big pro SLR out and started taking photos again. I think it’s probably been a few years since I used it. I do have an Instagram account,  I’ve always used my iPhone as a camera for the Instagram account, it’s so easy and simple and quick. And the iPhone is a pretty good point and click camera. But I want more. I want more substance.

I post a lot of food pics on intsagram, I post a lot of day to day stuff. I like it because it’s a form of social media that is instantly creative, I use it like a sort of diary, a non verbal diary that captures the little moments. I might start loading up the big camera photos, or I might start printing them onto canvasses or framing them for sale or…who knows. Maybe this is just for pleasure, just for me.

When I realised I needed to think about Embracing Plan B, which seems a long time ago now, but actually isn’t, I think I needed to think about the life I wanted to live, about what was important to me. I find visualising a great tool for motivation, and always the image of my life involved early morning walks, getting outside, going to places, experiencing things. Taking photographs, being in the world, not observing the world from a distance. Though, technically, I guess that’s what photography is.  I want to experience places, people, emotions, relationships, poetry, weather, writing, literature, art. Goodness, but being booze free is doing that. The extra thinking time is often the time that I use to get away, go out, go see things. I have a Nomo app on my phone which tells me how long I have been booze free, how much money I’ve saved (£65.99) etc. I have titled it ‘Lucid Living’ as I think that best represents what I’m aiming for. I think eventually I’d like to aim for sobriety over abstinence, but I’m not entirely sure if that’s something that is possible. The fact that I have no guilt spending money on books because of the money i am saving through not drinking is a bonus, and I find myself cooking more new recipes, trying new non alcoholic drinks and teas. Last Saturday I was on the beach at eight am with the dog, I saw a deer, it was so close I could see its eye lashes. And I wish I had had the camera so that I could catch that moment of absolute beauty, the deer stepping its needle tip feet to the earth, swan bent neck, smoke eyes, eyelashes, I wish I could have caught that moment of poetry. That’s when I decided to get the camera out again.

In everything else I am plodding on, a bit behind, waiting on decisions for projects, not much writing. But when I do write it feels like it’s not being wasted, it’s not empty. I am trying to get some funding or raise some money that would enable me to spend a few months cutting back on running the business so that I can start working on the next, next collection. But for now I am working on edits for Gifts the Mole Gave Me, which is hugely exciting. I am also making headway into a bit more freelancing work, which is great too. And uni work is ticking over slowly with me reading endless papers on language and poetry.

I am really looking forward to a holiday.

Featured heart ‘Choose Love’ image is one of my own, please do not use it without consulting me

 

For Manchester

Manchester, 2017

Wendy Pratt

 

I

Right now I don’t know

how to have a heart that isn’t broken.

The sea is still turning over

on Filey beach, the sandpipers are dipping

and running back. At five am

the world is distilled to my phone screen.

There’s no distance between my beach town

and your city.

 

II

A girl is letting go of her pink balloon

and running and running, on repeat.

 

Outside my window

a starling mimics the sound of my printer,

the cat is a puddle of black, the dog whines

in the kitchen.

 

A girl in a pink cowboy hat has dropped her bag

and is looking back to it, unable to tell

what is important to hold onto,

and what is not.

 

III

I message my friends, post

a status on Facebook, cry in the car,

frown at other drivers. At the traffic lights

we shake our heads in unison.

 

I share a link to the centre

where they ‘re taking blood to help

the survivors. This moment of hatred

has taken your blood. What can we do,

except offer our own love back,

fresh, as if  from a wound.

 

 

 

Keith Bennet

Yesterday the TV news kept circling around the death of serial child killer Ian Brady. There was the usual media feeding frenzy, interviews with lawyers, relatives, anyone who might have seen him in his last dying hours; everyone wondering what his last words were. It seems at the point of death he still managed to manipulate the crowd, sucking at the attention that he desperately wanted. I came across this incredible poem by award winning poet John Foggin, which says everything I wanted to about Winnie Johnson and the victims here, the non celebrities, the real prisoners. Do check out John Foggin’s Blog which is infinitely absorbing at any time.

The moors murders are so much a part of our shared cultural history, shared cultural pain, particularly in the north. Every time I go over saddle worth, crossing to the other side of the border to partake in readings or visit friends, every time I see that road sign to Saddleworth moor, those children are in my mind, particularly Keith Bennett. My heart breaks for Winnie Johnson. I wrote this poem years ago, it’s in my first full collection, Museum Pieces, published by Prolebooks, 2013, which can be bought directly from me, if you’re interested.

Over Saddleworth Moor

 

In the night, the lights

of houses are stars; villages,

constellations; the moors a deep

peat sky, the colours fused.

 

We have driven for hours, senseless,

the Pennine pass climbing

back to back with Manchester,

we brush the vertebrae unknowingly.

 

Only a signpost to Saddleworth;

a fleeting blink of a ghost pulls

the dark into my head. And for miles

I squint through my own reflection

 

to search dim verges, the blacker

moor shapes hemming the rising sun,

searching for an image of a child; daylight

glinting off his round spectacles, his smile

 

indelible as the landscape.

His small life and all the games and fibs,

tooth losses and tears, the real boy

in a world of terraced houses

 

and bread and tea is lost beneath

that photograph. But even this

image is papered over, lost, by one

of slut-heeled boots and she

 

crouching with a little dog tucked

into her coat. Crouching over a shallow

dip in the earth, down cast eyes

lying to the world about womanhood.

My Not So Brief History of Boozing

Seven years ago today I was burying my daughter. The weather today is not dissimilar: a warm breeze carrying blossom petals through the village, patches of sun as the clouds scud quickly across the sky, the smell of oil seed rape. I rarely think about the funeral. I do think about it when I’m up at the grave, I think about the procession to the grave, carrying her coffin to the hole in the ground. I think about the sudden and unexpected humour of my heels sinking into the soft ground and almost going over backwards. I think about the way I kissed a pink rose bud and threw it onto the white coffin lid, and how the ground closed over her and she was gone. Afterwards I went back to my mum’s with the small gaggle of funeral guests and we had tea and cake. Well, they all had tea and cake, I hit the wine like a train and then went to the pub with my dad and brother and husband and got wrecked. I was already wrecked.

Today I’ve woken up horrendously hungover, again, after an evening in which I drank far too much, far too quickly, before I’d had my tea. I’d wanted to watch the Eurovision song contest, but this morning it’s all a bit hazy and I have a bruise on my elbow that I have no idea how I got, and am staggering about in my dressing gown with the curtains closed, avoiding the neighbours because my lovely husband and I had a blazing row about something really silly, and the whole street must have heard. They’re out there now, like normal people, washing their cars and walking their dogs. And I’m here feeling rough as a badger’s arse and wondering why I do this to myself.

Since we gave up trying to have a baby, since we accepted childlessness my outlook has changed. I have worked hard to embrace a new life. I am really proud that I have found ways of completing myself, that I can look at my life and be extremely joyful. I’ve worked my way through my problems and have eventually found a way of liking myself, of loving myself. I have found a way to lift the weight of never having children, of the events of my child’s death. I will never not feel grief, but I can accept it as part of myself and feel happy again. I can let go of the longing for a family that has kept me trapped in a cycle of being triggered and trying to fight it. All brilliant. But there is one area of my life that I have not managed to address. And that’s booze. I CAN drink responsibly, I don’t drink every day. But always, always and without exception, once I have one drink, I want more. It’s like one drink is an invitation to a party, and if I can’t go to the party and I have to limit myself to just imagining the revelries from the other side of the door, then I become frustrated. This is something that nothing seems to change. Partly I think that it’s just the nature of booze, alcohol changes the way your brain works, so in a bit of a catch 22 the changes reduce your willpower and your ability to see that actually you enjoy being sober, or you enjoy being tipsy but you don’t enjoy making a tit of yourself and feeling utterly awful the next day. You remember all the good things, boozy lunches with friends, a cold, cold beer on holiday, a glass of clear, crisp Suav Blanc whilst cooking. But those nights when you were mean, or emotional or sweary or…insert awful booze memory here… get wiped out with that first drink.

I don’t remember the first drink I ever had. I remember tasting the foam on my dad’s pint. And I know it was awful. But I don’t remember my first drink. I remember drinking with my brother and sister, I remember going to a nightclub with them once, aged fourteen and getting stoned and/or drunk. I remember being drunk on a family holiday when I was maybe sixteen. I was so sick. I was so hungover. But while I was drunk, I felt attractive. While I was not drunk I was consumed by anxiety.  I couldn’t open my mouth because I was so anxious, I was a girl with hunched shoulders, not speaking to anyone, being so acutely aware of what other people might think of me, being so very anxious I couldn’t go into shops etc. When I was drunk I saw myself differently. It gave me confidence. It changed me into someone else. By the time I was seventeen I was drinking drinking. I could go on and one recounting awful substance abuse stories, booze stories but what would be the point?

These days, booze, on the whole, is not the big issue it was. But I do spend an awful lot of time planning booze drinking, waiting for my first drink, imagining drinks. Most things I do have a booze element attached and I have to say the majority of photos I have of myself include a drink of some sort. I think probably it’s not the issue it used to be, or rather I use it less as a tool to make myself feel better/different because, as I said earlier, I worked through my problems, I had a tonne of therapy, I came out the other side of my daughter’s death, having rebuilt myself and my life almost entirely. Her loss exploded through me. But now I am happy, on the whole. And then and then and then, this happens.

I think it’s time I addressed my ‘friend’ alcohol and really dealt with it. I’m going to start by seeing what life is actually like without it, setting my mini target as four weeks. Then I’m going on holiday, and I’ll see how I feel then.

I’ve done this before, it’s not solved anything, but perhaps this is the turning point. I gave up smoking about six months ago, and haven’t looked back. I no longer crave them. They served a purpose for a long time but now they don’t. perhaps booze is a similar thing. Perhaps it’s served it’s purpose. We’ll see.

Thought Fox

 

I recently read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, and was completely blown away by it. It is an incredible and unique work, funny and moving and just brilliant. I then went back to a bit of Hughes and Crow which felt like revisiting an old friend. It was one of the first poetry collections I read. It felt strange to be looking back to the place where my love, my obsession with poetry started. It was always there, I think, or the desire to write has always been there, but it didn’t appear fully manifest itself until that first handful of books I read. feathers made me feel like that again, it is that good. Back then I didn’t know what to do or where to start, only that I wanted to write. I took an OU introduction to poetry course, really I just wanted to find a way in, and after that I couldn’t stop. Fast forward a few years and here I am, trying to transition into a full time freelance poet and writer, and it’s taking a lot of work and a lot of perseverance. The arts are not very well funded under this government and there are not that many paid opportunities. Teaching jobs too are scarce with everyone applying for the same jobs. But I figure the right thing will come up at some point, if I just keep trying. In the mean time I run my little business and remind myself to be happy with what I have, to ‘want what I have’. In Buddhism the source of pain is desire, it’s the desire for things that causes pain. Being frustrated and grumpy about feeling over worked is really born out of a desire to move forward and get further with my writing career, but that’s moving forward with me doing exactly what I am doing, it’s just a slwo process. I’m trying very hard not to stress. I had a bad day yesterday which ended with me accidently dropping a bottle of wine on the kitchen floor and smashing it and crying about it, which seems a bit silly but was probably what I needed.

I’m having quite a full on work period at the minute. I have been working long hours on the business and averaging between ten and thirteen miles of walking every day as a dog walker. On top of that I’ve had a lot of horse Faecal Egg Counts coming in and I have taken on some paid mentoring, which has been the best bit by far.

I love the mentoring process. Each person I help with their writing is different, every one has different needs. Sometimes a mentee will be quite far on in their career but will be finding it difficult to make the next step without someone to guide them. I find lack of confidence to be the biggest stumbling block between a writer writing poems and sending them off for potential publishing. Sometimes it’s straightforward critiquing, perhaps a writer is at the point of having enough poems for a collection or a pamphlet, but wants help with content, proofing, ordering. Sometimes a writer is struggling to find their own voice, and being able to offer exercises that help them find their own poems and their own style is a great feeling. I get a lot out of it. I’ve been lucky enough to have benefitted from mentoring and guidance from some amazing poets, and I like passing some of that on.

The only problem with such a busy workload is that I am not getting the time to write my own stuff. I’m catching up with uni work at the weekends, and applying for lecturing jobs too. Ideally I’d like to start reducing the amount of time spent dog walking and replacing it with more freelance work, teaching and mentoring, but until something regular comes along I will be out in all weathers picking up poo and walking dogs of various obedience. I do love being outside, in fact I plan my PhD work while I’m out walking, I write poems in my head, I take photos, I explore the local area, I watch animals, birds, but I’d still like to start scaling that part of the business back. I have spent thousands of pounds on my education, and fourteen years studying to get to this point. Admittedly, four years of that was doing my BSc, part time, for my previous career as a pathology biomedical scientist, but you get my point. By the time I finish my PhD I will have been studying for nineteen years. Fifteen years of which I will have been studying English literature, creative writing and poetry. It’s probably about time I started doing something with that. What’s holding me back? Partly it’s a confidence thing, that little voice (not so little sometimes) which yells FRAUD! or YOU’RE GOING TO COCK THIS UP or WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? or YOU’RE TOO WORKING CLASS FOR ACADEMIA holds me back. I end up rushing applications for things because I can’t bear to think of myself putting myself forward, I’m embarrassed to think that I might do something I love and perhaps be paid to do it, because I might be talented or educated etc. It’s quite exhausting to live with low self-esteem and self-doubt. However, one thing that never ceases to thrill me is filling in the higher education section of a job application form. I go all twinkly and the little negative voice inside shuts the f*ck up for a bit and is replaced with one that says I DID THAT and I WON THAT and I’VE BEEN PUBLISHED THERE and that’s the voice I listen to.

You have to find your own way to where you want to be. There’s no right or wrong way to go about becoming a poet or a writer. I think if you’re going to be a writer, like being an artist, you will just be it, you won’t learn it. You’ll learn tools and skills and learn about the giants you’re standing on, but you won’t learn the thing that comes bubbling up out of your chest, like ectoplasm, desperate to form itself on the page. That’s the thing that can’t be taught. Ted Hughes famously abandoned his English literature degree because he felt it was stunting his creative writing. I have felt like that at times. But I think I have too much of a working class mentality to assume that I will make money from writing, and yes, shock horror, I want to be paid for my work. I must have a back up plan and that is lecturing, teaching, mentoring and that’s what my education has bought me, something on paper that says I am qualified to do this. The negative voice can’t argue with that very well. And I love it, I really do. I love learning and I love teaching, especially one to one. But I never forget Hughes and the Thought Fox, and that decision to rely on his wits and on his talent, and I find it reassuring, because the lad did OK, didn’t he.

Here’s Hughes talking a little about the poem, and reading it. He’s a story-teller and a half.

The Thought Fox

 

A Blackbird’s Skeleton

A couple of weeks ago, after a few stressful non stop work weeks, I decided to take a full weekend off and do some gardening. It was beautiful weather, I wore shorts, I wore sandals. I stayed out in the sun and dug over a veg bed, planted some withered looking potatoes, planted cauliflowers, carrots, corn on the cob, all the C plants. I cleaned out the rabbits really thoroughly and planted some pansies in the back and then came around to the front and started weeding, viciously yanking the wick-weeds up and out, sweating in the sunshine and feeling the warm earth under my hands. I think of myself as a person that is close to nature. I feel much more comfortable with my tongue pressed to the roof of my mouth, not speaking for hours at a time, walking on tussocks and stones and watching the life around me, than I do being with people. I can’t live in a city, I can’t live in a town. I did try, but felt like I was too far away from a circulatory system. I live in a little village with no through road. It is quiet. During the day when everyone is at work it is even quieter. Having been a dog walker and small animal boarder for three years (and a writer, of course!) I feel like I have found a way to  be inside nature. Even more than just enjoying it, I feel like I am a part of it. I know my area very well, I know my walks well and know when the plants will be changing, minutely, season to season, though I couldn’t tell you what they are. I know when spring is just turning, I know when the air starts to smell different, when the sun starts to have warmth, I swear I can smell the green, I can smell the plants growing. On my gardening weekend I reduced the knots in my back to strings, then replaced them with more knots, the sort you get from being absorbed with planting.

As I was grasping and pulling and turning the earth with my trowel I discovered this tiny skeleton lying just under the hedge near the front window. It’s a blackbird skeleton, entirely intact, no flesh on it, but held together with magic. Or sinew. Who knows. I know it’s a black bird skeleton because it had a single blackbird feather attached to the tail. It was a female, that smokey brown colour gave it away. It stopped me in my tracks. I picked it up, carefully, on my trowel to look at it, turning it to see the beak and the eye hole, I took a photo to show my friends and my mum. Then I laid it down again. It’s still out there now. I haven’t decided wether to put it in a box and keep it with my nests and egg shells and thornback ray vertebrae. Part of me wants to just leave it there, bleaching in the sun,  because it feels like it means something to me, it feels like a reminder to me. I keep seeing it as I’m walking out to the car, or walking out with the dog, or coming back with my shopping. My life is whisking on around it and it stays there, perfectly composed, the inside of a thing that trilled and flew and disappeared back into the ground, efficiently destroyed, except for this collection of brittle remembrance.

There were several things that struck me upon finding it. The first was how long a birds legs are, how they are bent up and all we see are the bits from the, I guess you would equate it with the heel, to the toes, bent. What looks like a backwards facing knee is not. The knee is tucked up in the feathers, in the body. If you have ever seen an x-ray of a penguin’s knees you will get what I mean. Shocking truth: penguin legs are not just feet.

The second is how utterly tiny it is, how intricate and elaborate and complex the tiny mechanisms beneath the bird exterior is. How brave a bird must be to go out into the world at all when all there is to you is miniaturised liver and spleen, a tiny blob of a heartbeat, lungs like sugar puffs. How does a thing so tiny emit a song so sharp and so loud that it wakes me on a morning, through the double glazing?

The third, how human it is. How same. Look at the picture, it is like a Saxon burial, crouched foetal like, the curve of the skull facing down, as if the world is at its back and it is protecting itself. It’s strange and strangely stunning to know that my skeleton, my big brash solid skeleton, follows the same basic design features as this palm sized flutterer. That, indeed, my heart beats in the same way, my brain sits in my skull in the same way. I am bird. We seem so keen, as a species, to put distance between ourselves and the animals. You’d think it might have changed over the years. I’m currently looking at Darwinism and the Victorians as part of my PhD, looking at how we position ourselves and how we look at other animals. I’m looking at how poetry speaks about us as a species, how this language of emotion tells us about ourselves. I have to look at context, what has shaped our mindset, to do this. When Darwin came along with On te Origin of the Species it shook us the hell up. We had bumbled along being God’s ambassador on earth, in charge of all the animals, and then suddenly we were just another arm on the evolutionary tree, cousins to the apes, just another animal. We have always fought to be above that, we have always differentiated ourselves, as if different equates to less than. A pig has the same emotional capacity, the same ability to fear and feel pain, the same, or even more, intelligence as a dog. But one is on the inside, and one is on the outside, and the thing is, neither of them know. A bird is a bird is a bird, anything with a skeleton is playing snap with each other on the inside, and no one can see it, because all we seem to see is colour and shape. Feathers, fur, dark skin, light skin, religion, difference. How exhausting.

Still, it’s easy to have kind thoughts about the blackbird, they’re lovely, aren’t they. I love seeing them with their beaks full of worms, heads cocked, assessing the risk you pose, before carrying on with the task in hand. Perhaps it’s not as easy to feel kindness towards, say, a lizard, or a flat fish, or anything that frightens or repulses. But isn’t that what it’s about? Thinking higher than the response, being kind because rationally we know we all share a skeleton? I don’t know what the answer is, but the blackbird skeleton makes me want to be kinder to everything. There is a finite amount of material in the universe. We have all already been a blackbird and a pig and a chair and a tree. We just can’t remember the reincarnations.

Poets are drawn to skulls. We want to see ourselves in death, we can’t quite imagine that there really is a skull underneath the fleshy face, the tendons, the rigging, the pullies controlling our movements. We can’t believe we have a mechanism at all until we see it. I’ve come across a few skeleton poems lately, but this is such a good one: Robert Hull’s Deer Skull.

 

Enjoy

Deer’s Skull

 

 

Poem for my daughter on her birthday

Seven

I take a stiff bristled brush
to scrub the green
from the gold letters of your name,

take the miniature fence down,
cut the grass back to an acceptable length.
I remove the bird bath,

the terracotta dish of daffodils,
the tiny Buddha statue.
The tall, plastic plant holder I lift out,

from where it’s half buried to keep it upright
and look down into the hole it leaves.
Something has laid white pearl eggs

in the dark. I would reach my hand
down into the earth and fish further,
worm it right down through the clay

until I’m up to the shoulder
and feathering a fingertip touch
to the corner of your coffin,

feeling for the smooth round
of the edge. It would be like holding your hand,
reassuringly. I’m still here, I’d say,

don’t worry, I love you,
you are not forgotten.