I’ve always wanted to write and I’ve always suffered from writer’s block. I picture it as a large oblong block of wood, or sometimes concrete, filling most of the space but leaving just about enough room round the edges for the writing to sneak past it. Despite having published three books of poetry and written three novels – none so far published – as well as short stories, autobiographical pieces, children’s stories, skits and sketches and a substantial number of these blog pieces, there’s still something in me that says I can’t do it, I shouldn’t be doing it, and why would I want to do it anyway?

For the past few months I haven’t written very much, apart from a few poems, because my head has been full of students’ essays and dissertations and other kinds of work – or at least that’s my excuse. Behind that, though, are all the fears and disappointments that make up the block, and that solidify more when I don’t write. I love writing; something in me comes alive when I’m doing it that’s missing from my life when I’m not. And it’s the hardest thing I can possibly do: it brings me up against all the edges and uncertainties and painful places I’d rather ignore (or part of me would rather ignore) as well as all my limitations in feeling and imagination, as a person as well as a writer.

So why do it, then? asks the insidious voice from the block. Why not just give it up and do other things instead? Easier things, things that are more useful to other people, things that don’t demand so much of you? If that was all the block was saying, it wouldn’t be so hard to get past it. But ‘why bother?’ is only the surface layer. Deeper inside the block, ingrained into it, are other fears: that I really can’t do it and am only kidding myself I can; that I’ve got no imagination and there’s nothing there anyway; that writing will bring up terrible feelings I won’t be able to handle; that spending time writing is simply being self-indulgent, fiddling while Rome burns. All of them have some truth but none of them is a reason to stop writing.

I know I’m not, and will never be, as good a writer as I would like to be, or as good as many of my writing friends and acquaintances. On a bad day that can put me into a state of crushing envy and utter despair. On a better day I can simply acknowledge it and go on writing to the best of my ability. For many years I was inhibited when I tried to write by the fear that I would be ‘wasting my time’ – meaning my writing would never be good enough to publish and was in all probability laughably bad. For a long time writing classes were torture because criticism, however kindly meant, seemed to justify that fear. It wasn’t until I had my interview for the MA in Creative Writing and a highly respected novelist said she liked my work that I began to realise this was something I could actually do – that I might in fact be the writer I thought I was.

I’m not so afraid now of having no imagination and nothing inside, but the fear has been with me for much of my life, right from primary school days. When we had to write something in class, the other children would all start straight away, while I was left staring at the paper until suddenly, if I was lucky, a burst of inspiration would come and I’d race to finish the piece in time. I always believed my imagination wasn’t as vivid as other people’s – though I don’t necessarily think that was true – and I was deeply ashamed and disheartened to find that many of ideas I’d had were based on things I’d read or, later, heard on the radio or seen on TV. I didn’t know then that this happened for other people too, particularly children who don’t yet have that much experience of their own. Despite the above, the primary school headmaster was impressed with my writing; I found out later he had kept some of my ‘compositions’ in his desk drawer.

The fear of nothingness goes deeper, though, and dates back to a time in my mid-teens when, for reasons I won’t go into here, and which may never become totally clear, I cut off from my body, my emotions, my imagination and went into a state of profound and frightening inner emptiness – a void that I felt physically in the solar plexus. All that seemed to be left was a thinking mind that contained nothing but words – words largely devoid of reference to the outside world. But that wasn’t all it was: amidst the emptiness was a profound hatred and contempt for myself and – though I didn’t like to acknowledge it – other people who I thought resembled me, a lack of ability to connect with anyone or anything in the way I had before, a despairing inability to believe in the future, and a loss of the sense beauty and goodness. If that sounds extreme, it was. It was diagnosed as depression, and for a time I was given anti-depressants that intensified the blankness and utter inanity. I remember writing ‘boredom is a disease’ in my school notebooks. If I’d ever thought I could write, I knew now I was entirely empty.

Since that time, my whole life has been a journey back towards finding myself again – the person I lost when I left myself all those years ago. Along the way I have written – I can’t seem to help it – and some of what I’ve written has been finished and put out into the world. Writing is one of the ways I’ve had of reconnecting with myself. More than twenty years ago I wrote a book (unpublished and largely unpublishable) as my project for a personal development course. I wrote in the introduction that the project was about ‘remembering and re-membering’, and one of the strands in it was a revisiting of that time in my teens when I seemed to have lost everything. It included extracts from an autobiography I’d written for my first therapist when I was twenty-four, a turgid rumination shot through with vivid scenes from that terrible time. Writing about that time, many years after, brought back the horror of it and took me again to those blank places inside me – places where I still didn’t dare to go. In the book I also confronted my doubts and fears about writing, and to some extent allayed them. I was writing, seemingly I could write, and several people said the book was ‘beautifully written’ – I’d never thought beautiful writing was something I could do.

Although the block became less intractable after that, it’s never wholly gone away and I’ve still been seeking that ease and fluency of connection with myself that I hoped would spill over into my writing. Over the years I’ve worked with writing in different ways: morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), Natalie Goldberg’s Zen-influenced writing practice – writing short, spontaneous pieces on particular themes – and keeping a personal journal, which isn’t ‘writing’ in a public sense but can certainly open things up. I can go to poetry workshops now and produce some sort of writing, even if it seems dreadful at the time (though sometimes less dreadful afterwards), and I can write pieces on this blog, which sometimes helps to get the writing flowing.

Slowly, slowly, through therapy and Focusing and meditation and simply through living my life – and of course through writing too – the reconnection has gone on happening. I have far more of myself now, as a person and a writer, than I had in my twenties. I can’t be sure – there have been many false dawns – but it feels to me as though at last I may be finding again the person I lost back then in my teens, and may be able to meet whatever it is in myself that I’ve so long been afraid to face. I don’t know, but if not now, when? Whether being in closer contact with the person I once was would affect my writing I can’t say, but I’d like to think it might mean the block wouldn’t be so intractable.

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Giving it up

I never thought I’d choose to stop being a psychotherapist. I imagined I’d go on doing it till illness or old age prevented me and would then give up regretfully, wishing I could have carried on. But here I am, still able to continue if I want, knowing that at the end of this year I will stop seeing all my clients – not that I have very many – and some of my supervisees. I’ll go on seeing a few supervisees who are still students until they graduate next summer. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘supervision’ means support, consultation and what’s known as ‘externality’ –  helping the therapist/counsellor to see, for instance, where they are getting caught up in their own agendas.)

I first started seeing psychotherapy clients in 1995, a good quarter-century ago. It took me a long time to gain confidence and my practice was slow to build, but I stuck with it. For quite a while I had other work too, and in those early years I also trained as a Focusing practitioner and teacher.  Sometimes the balance of my practice has swung more towards Focusing and running workshops, at other times more towards psychotherapy and supervision. For a while, when I first moved to Devon, I did very little work of either kind, which meant I wasn’t earning much money to supplement my pensions. I had more time for writing but didn’t enjoy the nagging worry about money. Gradually the psychotherapy started to build up again and things got better financially. I ran a few Focusing courses and took on more work for my training institute, marking essays and tutoring students for their dissertations. All of which meant, of course, that there was less time and headspace for writing.

Back in 2009, when I decided to apply for an MA in creative writing, I’d got to a point where I felt most of my time was devoted to being there for other people. This included helping them express their creativity, whatever form it took. It was rewarding but it left me with little time or emotional energy for my own creative work. Not, of course, that psychotherapy isn’t creative. Many psychotherapists see it as the main outlet for their creativity, and it would have been much easier if I could have done so too. However, something in me has persisted in wanting to make something of my own, especially in the form of writing. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that doing something primarily for myself, which I may or may not be any good at, isn’t as valuable as doing something which is manifestly for the benefit of others. How can I justify – in other people’s eyes or even my own – spending time writing a novel that may never get published, or a poetry collection that only a handful of people will read? The logical conclusion from that way of thinking is that while I can encourage other people to be creative for themselves, it’s not OK for me. But if a psychotherapist is meant to model living the kind of fulfilled life the client hopes to lead, there seems to be something not quite right here.

In the real world, I know of course that it isn’t either/or. Quite a few of my psychotherapy colleagues are writers or artists or musicians, and they don’t feel they have to subsume all their creativity into working with other people. It is juggling act, though, stepping out of one way of being and into another. Most of the time I’ve loved the work of psychotherapy and been absorbed by it. When I look back at the clients who’ve come to me, a significant number have found their sessions helpful, even transformative, and there’s a sense of privilege, as well as profound human connection, that comes from being alongside someone in their deepest, most vulnerable and most open places. I’ve always loved listening to stories and learning the story of someone’s life, however similar to or different from mine, is endlessly fascinating.

There are other aspects of psychotherapy that aren’t so easy: being there regularly, week in, week out (apart from agreed breaks), showing up even when the client doesn’t, carrying the difficult feelings and areas of trauma that a client may not yet be ready to feel; sitting in stuck places that can feel never-ending, weathering times of missed connection, being on the receiving end of anger or rejection or contempt. It’s hard work, even if all this can change and often does.  It’s hugely rewarding to see someone becoming more confident, more open to life, more in tune with who they are and what they want, and being a psychotherapist has changed me too. It’s given me more steadiness and patience and a greater tolerance for being with whatever comes. It’s a training in developing a wise mind and a compassionate heart and in not taking things so personally, trusting in the wisdom of the process and the greater love and holding that extend beyond the personalities of client and therapist. At its best it’s a beautiful thing to do, and I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do it. But I know I’ve had enough.

Perhaps it’s been working online for the last eighteen months or so, rather than in person, that’s tipped the balance. Although good work can still happen, seeing a head and shoulders on the screen isn’t the same as being in the room with a real person and often it feels more draining, even though I’ve got used to it. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’ve come to the end of my need to do the work. For most of my life I’ve carried things emotionally for people, one way and another, and now something in me is saying ‘No more’. It feels like taking off a heavy coat that I’ve been wearing for so long it’s almost become part of me. Life without it may be lighter, but undoubtedly I’ll miss it.

I’m not giving up altogether. Apart from seeing the students I’ve mentioned, I’ll still be doing some marking and dissertation tutoring, and some Focusing work. Although Focusing works with inner sensing and can reach some very deep places inside us, it isn’t psychotherapy. A Focusing client can book a session as and when they want, which may be every week or at much longer intervals, and the understanding is that they will look after their own process in the meantime and take it to therapy if they need to. Someone doesn’t need to be with a trained professional in order to Focus effectively. (I’m using the capital letter to distinguish it from ‘focusing on’ something in the usual sense.) When I teach the skills of Focusing, the expectation is that people will then be able to use them alone or in a reciprocal partnership. They may still want to have a session or sessions with a professional, but that’s up to them. When I run workshops I usually find I get as much out of it as the participants, and I come away feeling more expansive and more in tune with myself. The workshops I’m planning to run will be on themes that I want to explore and share with others, and there’s an interest and excitement in that.

So here I am, reinventing myself again as I’ve done several times in my life, pointing my compass in a different, albeit similar, direction. And what about writing? Yes, I’m wanting to make more space for it and find, at last, what I really want to write – which of course changes and evolves all the time I’m writing and even when I’m not. I’ve now published three books of poetry, two collections and a pamphlet, and I’m finishing a novel which I hope may get as far as publication – though that’s always a lottery. I’ve got ideas for more writing too, and after a period of relative stagnation I feel I’m beginning to move on again. Beyond my own bubble there’s the wider world and all the terrible things that are happening now, and inevitably the question: what can I do? The challenge, as in the rest of my life, is to do what feels alive and authentic and necessary, and not lapse into what someone once described as a ‘hardening of the oughteries.’ I’m giving up psychotherapy but I’m not giving up on life, however long or short a time I may have left.


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In Competition

The poetry world is surprisingly competitive. Hardly a week goes by without a deadline for one or more competitions – for single poems, pamphlets of different sizes or full collections – and if they are so inclined poets can spend a lot of money on entering them. It seems paradoxical that this should be so, when the nature of poetry is that it can’t easily be graded or classified and one person’s spine-tingler can be another person’s what’s-all-the-fuss-about. Nevertheless poets enter them in flocks, or droves, or anthologies, or whatever the collective noun for poets is. Everyone wants the kudos of having won one, or preferably several, especially the bigger and more well-known ones. It helps when submitting books for publication and it looks good on the back-cover biography. And it tends to raise the poet’s work in other poets’ estimation – or at least in their awareness. ‘Oh yes, Emily Splodgett. Didn’t she win the Cricklewood last year?’ (I do hope there isn’t a real Emily Splodgett or a real Cricklewood prize.)

It isn’t hard to see why there’s such a plethora of competitions. Poetry festivals, of which there are many, can’t rely on ticket sales alone to cover their costs, and in these difficult times poetry publishers, most of whom operate on a shoestring, may well need to boost their income by – in effect – charging people to submit their work. But neither the costs nor the benefits are all one way. A big single poem competition, which may attract several thousand entries, will pay not only substantial prize money but a hefty fee to the distinguished poet who judges the entries – and if there are that many entries it’s likely there will also be fees for the readers who select the poems to be passed on to the judge. A poet who wins a pamphlet or collection competition, i.e. has their book selected for publication, will usually be rewarded with a smaller or larger number of free copies which they will then be able to sell. Even if the poet doesn’t win a prize, being named on a longlist or shortlist, or better still commended or highly commended, is a reward in itself – certainly more of a reward than simply being turned down by a publisher who chooses not to publish your book.

Not all competitions are equally prestigious. There’s a broad range from the little local ones and the niche themed ones to the major national and international ones. The best-known of the latter are the T S Eliot Prize (the poetry equivalent of the Booker), the Forward prizes, the Costa Poetry Award, the National Poetry Competition and the Bridport Prize, the biggest of the festival competitions. Work has to be nominated for the first three of these, so even to get a nomination a poet’s work has to be pretty exceptional. I know people who have had poems nominated for the Forward single poem competition and one or two who have won it, but I wouldn’t put my own work in that league. There are no restrictions on entry for competitions like the Bridport and the National, both of which I’ve entered without success. I know people who have won prizes in them, though, and again their poems have had something exceptional about them, although – without in any way denigrating these poets’ work – I could name quite a few other poets whose work has seemed to me exceptional but who haven’t won a major prize. According to a friend of mine who is a selector for one of these big competitions, the majority of entries are not from people who have much knowledge of contemporary poetry or much skill in writing it, which makes the job easier than it sounds. What the judge has to do is decide which of the remaining poems, which will range from good to outstanding, deserve serious consideration.

I’ve never won a prize in a single poem competition, though my work has sometimes been longlisted, shortlisted or commended. Until recently I’d never won a competition for a collection or pamphlet either, though again my work has been shortlisted or commended. Perhaps part of the reason is that I haven’t entered enough competitions. This time round I entered a pamphlet for four publishers’ competitions – more than I’d done before. It got nowhere in three of them and I hadn’t heard from the fourth, which was not a good sign. I entered it for a different competition run by one of the first three publishers and then was surprised to hear I had won the fourth. Having agreed to its publication by this publisher, I heard soon after that it had been shortlisted in the other publisher’s competition. It didn’t win, so I wasn’t faced with the dilemma of having to choose which publisher to go with, but it did feel a bit like the bus stop effect.

I’m not arrogant enough to think that my pamphlet was any better – whatever that may mean – than anyone else’s on the shortlist. I know competition judging is by its nature subjective. As I’ve said above, different people are bound to like different things. I recognise my work just happened to fit that particular publisher’s brief at that particular time, and I’m grateful for it. It’s given my confidence a boost – so much so that I’ve decided to enter a new pamphlet for another competition, run by the publisher who shortlisted the previous pamphlet. Of course I’d love to win this competition too, but there are some excellent poets entering whose work deserves to win at least as much as mine does. I know luck is not something to be taken for granted, and having had some success it seems greedy to expect more. I’d be absolutely delighted if this pamphlet won and was accepted for publication, but if it doesn’t succeed there are other publishers I could try, who might publish it without my entering a competition – except that submitting work to a publisher is always a competition: inevitably there are winners and losers.

If you are a poet and have entered work for a competition, I hope it does well. My new pamphlet, Last of the Line, will be published by Maytree Press in October this year.

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In March I launched my second collection of poetry, I never think dark will come, published by Oversteps Books. Here’s a picture of the cover, designed by Oversteps editor Alwyn Marriage with artwork by Devon artist Anne Pirie. I think it looks rather fine.

The launch was online, of course, which meant that friends from different parts of the country were able to be there and the number attending was a lot higher than it would have been in person. I was delighted to see a quite a few people who would never normally go to a poetry reading and to reconnect with friends from different times and areas of my life, including an old schoolfriend whom I’ve known since I was eleven. As well as my own readings I invited several guest readers: Alwyn Marriage, a poet in her own right as well as a publisher, Caroline Carver, Gill McEvoy and Alasdair Paterson, who were kind enough to write endorsements for the cover, and four good friends: Helen Evans, Jennie Osborne, James Turner and Sue Proffitt, whose beautiful and heart-wrenching new collection The Lock-Picker has recently been published by Palewell Press. The whole event had the feel of a party, even though it’s hard to chat naturally to people in their little on-screen boxes, and I came away with a warm and satisfied feeling at having brought everyone together.

I’m still new enough to getting published for the publication and launching of a book to feel like a rite of passage, though perhaps not quite such a major one as publishing a first collection. If I’m honest, there was a bit of me that thought, ‘Well, if I’ve published one I ought to be able to publish another one.’ Nevertheless, seeing the book born in physical form, showing it to friends and fellow poets like a proud parent, reading the words I’ve written and saying to people, ‘Yes, this is me. I wrote this’ has been a real coming out – an affirmation that somebody thought my poems were good enough to be made public in the wider world. So here I am with two collections behind me, enough to call myself a proper poet.

In contrast to my first collection, which was mostly about family, love and loss, this one is more of a mixed bag. The subjects of the poems range from death and spirituality to Cricklewood and my living-room curtains, taking in – among other things – the Holocaust, a mermaid and a dead mouse on the way. There’s a bit of an art in putting poems together so that they follow on naturally from one another, and I was quite pleased that on the whole the poems in this collection seem to do this, despite the varied subject-matter. The book begins with poems on house and home (hence Cricklewood, where I lived for many years) and ends with a different kind of homecoming:  ‘Coming home/to the rise of breath/the dark space behind thought/the feel of feet on ground.’

Once a book is out there, of course, the next thing you need to do is try to sell it. A lot of poets buy copies from the publisher at a reduced price – some publishers specify a number of copies – and then sell them on at full price. In the days before everything was online, poets would give readings to different groups and put out real books for sale on a real table, which meant you could sign a book there and then and physically hand it to the person who’d bought it. Online readings tend to be fewer and farther between, and selling books means putting details in the Chat for people to save or write down – which of course most don’t – and then, if orders do come in, packing them up and posting them. Poets and publishers have always relied on postal sales as well, but there is a satisfaction in that person-to-person exchange. Never mind. Even with the plethora of poetry collections that have come out during lockdown, some kind people have already bought copies of my book and I’m hoping more will, though I’ve still got a long way to go before I cover my costs. As I say to my novelist friends who still expect to get advances on royalty, there’s no money in poetry.

If you would like a copy of the book, please email me

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The a-word

It was hard writing my recent post about my own unacknowledged racism – and there’s obviously more that I didn’t write about. I edited it far more carefully than I’ve edited most of the pieces here, trying to make sure the language I used wasn’t in itself patronising or covertly racist, and I don’t think I succeeded: the hidden racism goes too deep. But at least it was a start. I don’t want this post to be racist in its turn by highlighting the oppression of certain white people at the expense of Black suffering. But an extraordinary documentary, Meeting The Enemy, made by a young Muslim woman who courageously got to know a number of white supremacist men, has left me in no doubt that Jews – and homosexuals, come to that – are hated by these groups as much as Black people are.

It’s difficult to write about antisemitism, not only because of Black Lives Matter but also because of what’s been happening in the Labour party. I’m not going to talk about that, but it seems clear to me that antisemitism exists on the left as well as the right. And of course there’s the whole thorny issue of whether and to what extent criticism of Israel is antisemitic. I’ll say more about that perhaps in another post, but for the moment I’ll talk about my own experience.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I come from a Jewish background. My family wasn’t religious (my father was an avowed Marxist and my mother lost all faith during the Second World War), but we were culturally Jewish, and more so when I was younger. I grew up knowing we were ‘different’, and there was both a superiority and an inferiority in that difference. My auntie often said the Jews were God’s chosen people, but beyond our extended family and the synagogue – to the extent that we belonged to it – I was aware that not everybody seemed to think being Jewish was a good thing. I certainly felt uncomfortable about it at primary school, and found myself taking part in the Christian assembly for a while because I was too shy to say I didn’t belong. I always knew I was different from the ‘English’ children (as my parents, second-generation immigrants, still called them) but I don’t remember being picked on because of it. I believe my brother was, though. At my secondary school there was a sizeable number of Jewish girls and we had our own separate assembly – as the Catholics did – taken by one of the older girls. We’d then join the main assembly for the notices, Jews and Catholics huddling together at the back of the hall. We didn’t have any Jewish teachers, but I didn’t have a sense there was any anti-Jewish feeling.  Nor did it seem to be an issue at university.

In the 1980s and early 90s I worked for what was then Age Concern in the London borough of Camden. The area had a large Jewish population, most of which divided into two halves: those whose families had come from Russia and Poland in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and those who had arrived here as refugees from Germany and central Europe in the 1930s. There was a marked difference between the two groups. The more recent refugees tended on the whole to be richer, better educated and – those from Germany in particular – less culturally Jewish than the people who were more established here. There was snobbery, and even antisemitism, on the part of the German-Jewish people towards the eastern Europeans, especially if they spoke Yiddish or identified with Yiddish culture. I sometimes heard people say, “I don’t speak Yiddish. I speak proper German,” and I remember an elderly German-Jewish woman, a retired research scientist, who found the befriender she had been offered “too Jewish”. At the time I let it go – I doubt I would now. From some quarters there was also anti-German feeling against the German Jews. A colleague of mine at Age Concern was all too happy to tar them with the same brush as Germans who had supported Hitler.

The antisemitism I encountered was often so much taken for granted that it passed unnoticed – and at the time I didn’t challenge it. An elderly Englishwoman who lived in a rather posh block of flats once remarked to me that many of the residents there were not “people like us,” adding that they were Jewish. I said nothing and didn’t even let on that I was Jewish too. I still wish I had. On another occasion I told an elderly Russian woman, a retired opera singer (I really did meet all sorts) that my grandfather had come from Odessa. “Oh yes,” she said dismissively. “A lot of Jewish people there. They didn’t speak proper Russian.” Again I said nothing – but I did provide her with a Jewish befriender, who as it happens got on with her extremely well. Even though I enjoyed mixing with the Jewish clients, I found myself slipping into casual antisemitism too, or letting things I said be taken as such. I once said to one of our day centre workers that the women at the Jewish day centre were rather awful – having a certain affection for their particular kind of awfulness – and my colleague quite happily took it to mean I thought they were more awful than our day centre members, some of whom could be pretty poisonous at times.

Looking back on it, what strikes me is the casualness of it, the assumption that of course those Jews are different from ‘us’ and somehow not quite all right. Not to mention the equation of  being ‘Jewish’ with being mean, or the unpleasant jokes that poke fun at Jewish people (I can’t think of an example) and are very different from Jewish jokes  within the community. Later on, in a different job, I began to see how antisemitism is often played down as a form of discrimination: the subtle assumption that Jewish people, who are supposedly privileged, don’t deserve the quite the same amount of sympathy as other white groups, such as Irish people, when they are discriminated against. I recently listened to a talk on white privilege by a white psychotherapist. She listed, with sympathy, some of the white groups who have experienced discrimination but significantly – I felt – failed to mention antisemitism in general or the Holocaust in particular. I’m sure this again came from the sense that the Jews are privileged, and perhaps the notion that they have somehow brought it on themselves in a way that other groups haven’t.

In the context of racism as a whole, it is difficult. Most Jewish people in this country are not people of colour, and it’s possible to conceal being Jewish – as I’ve said above – in a way that it isn’t possible to conceal being Black. The Jews, though frequently persecuted, have not been enslaved in modern times, and among the Jewish population there are many who are publicly successful and financially comfortable. But the discrimination still exists, in both subtle and less subtle ways. It isn’t that long since many golf clubs, for instance, covertly or overtly banned Jewish members.

Antisemitism tends to be at its most blatant from the far right. When he worked in a south London library, my brother was asked by a member of the National Front, “Why do you have so many books by Jewish authors?” The creeping spread of Holocaust denial, the resurrection of the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which outlines a supposed Jewish conspiracy, the notion that Jewish finance is behind many of the evils of the modern world, all feed into the picture of Jewish people as ‘other’, the unpleasant racial stereotypes existing side by side with an imagined sinister power. These ideas have been adopted by the far right but there are those on the left, particularly those who support the Palestinian cause,  who subscribe to them too, or at any rate don’t challenge them. Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to see the stigmatising Jewish stereotypes in the mural he praised and his infamous remark that ‘they don’t share the English sense of irony’, which he said referred to Zionists but could equally well have been about all Jews, show at the very least a blindness to the reality of antisemitism. The distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is often blurred – in both directions – and I won’t say more about that thorny topic now. Jewish people who support the Palestinians are sometimes described as ‘antisemitic Jews’, and that’s another whole issue in itself.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve become more aware of my own discomfort at the subtle antisemitism that I’ve experienced and have often accepted and barely noticed, or even colluded with. If Black Lives Matter has brought to society as a whole an awareness of the depth and breadth of discrimination against Black people, it has also brought a greater awareness of the many forms of discrimination in our society. Antisemitism is undoubtedly one of them.














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Belated writing

These days I don’t write on this blog very much. At one time I kept it up quite regularly, two or three posts a month, but, like so many things in my life, it lapsed. I self-published a compilation of my blog posts and sold all of 20 copies, and then it dropped off. Now it’s just the occasional post about something I’m interested in or concerned about or shocked by. Less about writing, since on the whole I’ve been doing less of it and have had less belief in it. My second poetry collection will be coming out next year – I don’t yet know when – and I’m making slow but steady progress with the first draft of a novel, but somehow the myth I had of myself as a writer seems to have faded. Yes, I can write and am moderately competent as a poet and I think as a prose writer too. Yes, I still want to write, and I feel better and more alive when I do it than when I don’t. Yes, I still care about the craft of writing and want to write as well as I can. And yes, sometimes I actually feel I have something to say. But at the moment it’s as though the magic has worn off. Perhaps it’s Covid-19 and the lockdown, perhaps it’s that the world situation seems so utterly dire – not just the pandemic but global warming, species extinction, the alarming shifts to the far right, all of which are connected – or perhaps it’s that I’m going through a period of disenchantment in my life, a time for reassessing things now that I’ve reached threescore and ten – I still can’t really believe I’m that old – and letting go of what’s no longer sustainable.

But writing… What is it that keeps drawing me back to it, even when I believe I can’t do it and it isn’t worth trying? Why don’t I just walk away from it, maybe write the odd poem if and when I feel like it, say I’ll never manage to publish a novel (which may well be so, given the state of publishing as well as my difficulties with novel-writing) and go back to being a therapist more of the time – unless I decide to retire, that is? Much as I love my work, that feels a little dreary. Although there’s certainly creativity in my work, and in teaching Focusing, which I love too, writing has always been something different; I don’t do it for other people, I do it because I want to do it, even though it would be dishonest to say other people’s response doesn’t make a big difference. If people like what I’ve written, especially people whose opinions I value, I feel buoyed up to carry on. If they don’t, it’s all too easy to see what I’ve written through their eyes as mediocre and uninspired. The challenge then, of course, is to carry on even if that is how it seems.

How many times have I said those things to myself? How many times have I found myself in the kind of slump I seem to be in now? How many times have I felt like giving up and then somehow, from somewhere, found new energy and creativity? It’s the same story, again and again. Finding and losing and finding, and not being able to hold on to what I’ve found because ultimately nothing is solid or permanent – not me, not anything I feel or do or believe, not the world itself. It’s been like that in the whole of my life, not just my writing: times of touching into real beauty and meaning and other times of feeling I’ve lost the plot completely. And getting to those rock-bottom places and then discovering a deeper joy and energy within them. It’s been like that in microcosm on meditation retreats, and sometimes from day to day in meditation and Focusing practice at home. Maybe a lot of people live their life on a more even keel, but I know as a therapist that a lot of people don’t. It would be easy to pathologise myself and say there’s something wrong with me, but this is what’s been given to me to work with. There is deep pain and grief and loss –  in one sense life is an accumulation of losses – and there is love and connection and a knowing that everything is inexpressibly precious.

Some spiritual traditions say that in order for us to awaken our heart needs to be broken – broken open to our own and the world’s pain, and to love and connection with all beings. It’s when I hold tight to the pain that I’m mired in depression and it becomes all about me. When I can let it flow freely, like a river bursting its banks and carrying away the debris, then it has its own life and in fact is less painful: it’s just what is, and when it’s flowed through the water becomes clear and still again. There is so much suffering in the world and so much beauty, and if I want to live fully it’s not possible to know one without knowing the other. If I want to live fully, and if I want to write fully, with all my being. Writing is craft, and graft, and inevitably sometimes the river bed will feel almost dry. The same is true of spiritual practice: sometimes the cultivation seems to lead to not very much and the joy isn’t forthcoming. The alternative is to turn away from the pain of the practice and live in distraction and superficiality – which I do more of the time than I’d like. But I can’t kid myself that’s satisfying, or that I’m really happy not being in touch with what’s deepest in me.

During the lockdown it became more obvious to me that the best way to stop myself disappearing up my own arse with all this is to spend time in nature, whether in my garden or out on walks. There’s a little wood near my house that I often walk in – there seems to be something particularly healing about being in a wood – and I’ve been for some beautiful walks, on my own and sometimes with friends, by the sea or on the moor. Being near water is healing too. A wood that has a river running through it is a special place, and being close to the sea always feels like a blessing. Human contact is of course important, especially with a real person in a real place rather than a head and shoulders on a screen, but trees and plants and animals and insects have such beauty and are a reminder that my human life is only one small part of the spectrum of living beings. But being in nature means remembering how we’ve caused, and are causing, the extinction of so many of these beings who have every bit as much right to exist as we have. And that brings back the pain. How can I open my heart enough to grieve for all that’s being lost in the world? Unless I let my heart be broken by the grief and the love, how can I even begin to live fully in myself? How I can even begin to write about it is another huge question. Perhaps this too is part of the struggle to know what and how I want to write. At the moment all I can do is write what I can, and keep being open to what may come.







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Who do I think I am?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? I love hearing the surprising, sometimes improbable, sometimes deeply moving stories that are hidden in people’s families and that seem to be discovered with such ease by the participants and the team of experts enlisted to help. Like a lot of people too I’ve had a go at tracing my own family tree, but it hasn’t been as easy or as fruitful as it looks on TV, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand.

During the lockdown I decided to take an ancestry DNA test. For those who haven’t done it, it involves spitting rather a lot of saliva through a small funnel into a plastic tube – taking care, of course, not to contaminate anything while you’re doing it. You then send it off and wait a long time for the result. I was hoping very much that my test would come up with a mind-blowing surprise – maybe an ancestor from Africa or perhaps some DNA from a country in Europe that I thought my family had no connection with. Not a bit of it. My test came back as ‘99.9% Ashkenazi Jewish’, which I didn’t wholly believe. (‘Ashkenazi’ refers to Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe.) I was, and still am, fairly sure that somewhere along the line at least one or two of those good Jewish ancestors must have married a Russian or a Pole – hence the fair hair and blue eyes in my mother’s family. However, it didn’t show in any obvious way, in this company’s test at least. Different tests often seem to come up with different results, and the reason I chose this particular test was that it had ‘Ashkenazi Jewish’ as a separate group among all those from Europe. My maternal haplogroup (a word I’ve now learnt, which means those who have a common ancestor) encompasses 5% of Ashkenazi Jews but also a smaller number of Eastern Europeans, so it is possible that some of the DNA may have come from a non-Jewish source. (Or, of course, that those Eastern Europeans have some Jewish ancestry.) However – again according to this test – it looks as though the amount was so small and/or hard to distinguish that it couldn’t be positively identified. Ah well. In that way at least I seem to be who I think I am.

What the DNA test has done is to rekindle my interest in genealogy. I’ve tried two or three times before to trace my family back beyond my grandparents but have never succeeded. As I’ve said above, there are some good reasons. Firstly, the records that you can find online may not be complete, so that even though I know for certain that my grandparents arrived in London by sea, I haven’t been able to find any record of their arrival. This is partly because I don’t know the exact years, but partly also because I don’t know how their names were written down when they arrived. Spelling isn’t always a strong point in these documents. In my maternal grandmother’s family, for instance, the surname was written at various times as, among other things, Rebetsky, Rebatsky, Robitsky, Rubitsky, Ribitsky and Robotsky, and perhaps also Ruvnitsky. My paternal grandfather’s name was anglicised to Taylor (he was a tailor), but whether it was originally Schneider – which means ‘tailor’ in Yiddish and is a pretty common surname – or whether it was, as my father’s sister claimed, something like ‘Telja’ (less likely, I think) I have no way of knowing. This means that tracing either family back to their origins in Poland is a lot harder. There is a Jewish genealogy website but I seem to have drawn a blank there. Another difficulty is that although I know or have identified the places in Poland where my father’s parents were born, I’m not absolutely sure which of them came from which place. One of them came from the same town, Płock, as my maternal grandmother, which is perhaps how the two families came to know each other when they arrived in England.

But that’s conjecture too. Failing any sort of lead into my grandparents’ families – though I know from my mother’s parents’ marriage certificate that my grandmother’s father was a wholesale draper and my grandfather’s father was said to be a farmer (for ‘farmer’ read ‘peasant’?), I’ve been looking up some of the lateral branches of both families. In fact I think it’s true to say I’ve succumbed wholeheartedly to the genealogy bug and have now obsessively been trying to build a family tree, or trees. I hadn’t seen before just how compulsive it can become, especially when many of the people I’m trying to place were known to me in my childhood: my mother’s aunts and uncles and their offspring, my father’s cousins, my own first cousins who were twenty or thirty years older than me.

And there are mysteries I’d like to unravel. Did one of my father’s sisters really die from threatening to drink jewellery polish, and then actually drinking it, when she found out her husband, who was a jeweller, was having an affair? Did my father’s brother’s first wife – who was said to be mad –  commit suicide? Was it by accident or again suicide that the same brother was killed while apparently repairing a gas stove? I can find some of the answers from their death certificates, of course, and can identify the people in the family photographs that have been passed down to me, but there’s so much I can never know. I have one letter from my father’s brother to their surviving sister, dated 1936, which seems to have been written in a sanatorium in Vienna and alludes to the ‘terrible time’ he has been through. I have no idea what this refers to. He remarried in 1927 and from what I remember his second wife was a nice, ordinary woman who wouldn’t have caused any trouble to anyone. In the letter he warns his sister and my father, their much younger brother, not to have anything to do with their father. Again I have no idea why.

Then there are the intergenerational anomalies, notable but not so puzzling. My father’s surviving sister married one of my mother’s uncles. There wasn’t that much age difference: my grandmother was younger than her husband and she seems to have been older than most of her siblings. Another anomaly is that one of my grandmother’s brothers married his niece, my mother’s cousin – not forbidden in Jewish law but decidedly iffy in English law, I would have thought. She was deaf and he promised to look after her, which he did. They never had any children and I don’t know what kind of marriage it was. I met them a few times when I was a child and remember that she didn’t speak in a way I could understand.

Comparatively recently I discovered a brother of my grandmother’s whom I hadn’t known about before. I knew that three of her brothers had stayed in London and a fourth had emigrated to Israel – again I don’t know exactly when – but when I was going through the family photographs with my aunt, my mother’s sister, in the late 1990s, she pointed out someone who must have been another brother, whom I’d never heard of. The photo is of him in what I’ve now identified as Polish army uniform, and as it’s beside one of my great-uncle/uncle by marriage in World War 1 British uniform I assume it was taken at much the same time. I’ve tried writing to the Polish army records office (having got an online translation into Polish) but unfortunately my email bounced back. I’m intrigued by him, though. I don’t know whether he ever came to England – I think he must have done as my aunt seemed to have known him – and, if so, why he was sent back to fight for Poland when his brothers were in the British army. I don’t know what happened to him or whether he was killed in the war. Note: After I’d written this piece I discovered that the uniform postdates the 1914-18 war. Poland didn’t become an independent country again until just after the end of the war. This raises yet more questions about him.

I could go on, and will probably continue researching if it doesn’t get too addictive. The fascination is in all that’s unknown, and in putting names and dates and places to people who until now were only vaguely there in the background. When did X marry Y? What was their name? When did they change it? (Quite a few did, from something that was obviously Jewish to something that sounded more English.) Did they have any children? If so, are the children still alive? And so on. Part of me says it’s a complete waste of time when I could be doing something more creative, but part of me is driven by the desire to know, even though there’s so much I can never know. In some way these people matter, even if I hardly knew them, and they are alive in me, aspects of who I am.

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The r-word

I’m sure I’m not the only white person to be asking myself at this time: am I racist? Is there hidden racism lurking in me? Are there racist assumptions I don’t recognise I have? Despite my long-time liberal credentials, my having worked in multi-racial organisations, my commitment to meeting everyone from a place of shared humanity, despite the diversity training I’ve had, I’m ashamed to say that at times the answer is yes.

First of all, the easier bit. There have been times when something I’ve said or done has been taken to be racist, when I didn’t think it was. A Black associate at work told my boss I must be racist because of my accent (Oxford overlaid on suburban London). She didn’t give any examples of my racism – she hardly knew me – and in that case I didn’t believe her assumption was fair. I could see why she might think it, though, as accent can imply class and privilege and therefore certain attitudes – can, but not necessarily does. But there have been plenty of other times when I’ve inadvertently blundered, not seeing how someone who had experienced racism might interpret something I said or did as racist even if I believed it wasn’t meant in that way.

I once asked a Nigerian Christian colleague if Nigeria had any particular Christmas customs. I was genuinely interested to hear how Christmas was celebrated there and failed to see how, with his post-colonial heritage, he would take it to mean I thought Nigerians weren’t as ‘civilised’ as people in England. He told me in no uncertain terms that they celebrated Christmas in the same way as we did, and why would I think differently? I tried to explain what I’d meant, but the damage had been done. I was sorry that he’d been made to feel Nigerians had to imitate English people in order to be acceptable.

On another occasion I was standing in a crowded bus and was pushed up against a woman in African dress. I hastily drew back, with a very English “Sorry” – I don’t like having my personal space invaded and assume other people don’t either. The woman of course took it that I was recoiling from touching a Black person. Nothing I could say convinced her this wasn’t so. Seeing myself through her eyes as yet another racist white person was hard, but at the very least my behaviour had shown a lack of awareness.

When I first moved into my flat in London, back in the 1980s, I had a friend to stay for the weekend. We were  kept awake all night by loud music pounding out from the neighbouring flat. At 7 am the music was still going on. Prompted by my friend, I went round to the other flat, in my nightie, and told the occupants angrily that if they didn’t shut up I’d call the police. They replied, “You’re only saying that because we’re Black.” I’m afraid that at the time their response just made me more furious, especially as they didn’t turn the music down. Now, of course, I can see why they reacted in that way. I really couldn’t have cared what their ethnicity was; I just wanted the noise to stop and would have said the same to anyone. However, I didn’t pause to think that to a Black person any suggestion of the police was bound to come across as a racist threat.

At a training course in the 1990s, I met a young woman who seemed to be of Asian origin but had an accent I couldn’t identify. I’m always curious about language and accent so asked her, very misguidedly, what nationality she was. I still cringe when I think of it. As far as I know I didn’t mean it in a racist way: at that time I worked with a lot of Asian people and had great liking and respect for them. Back then I hadn’t realised the word ‘nationality’ implied a racist stance, and I was shocked when she told me forcefully that it wasn’t OK to ask. As I remember, she soon realised my lack of awareness and explained why it wasn’t OK. She was then willing to tell me that she was Pakistani and had grown up in Germany – hence the unidentifiable accent. Her response made me aware just how sensitive an area such questions are, and I was grateful she took the time to enlighten me.

I think all these examples show how easily the language, assumptions and behaviour of a white person can have racist implications, even when the individual doesn’t believe she is being racist. There have been times, though, when I’ve caught myself out in racist thoughts or reactions, and I’ll own up to some of them here. Not that long ago I organised a workshop for a poetry group that I’m part of. As people came in I checked their names against the list. Devon, where I live, is not known for its multiculturalism and it’s comparatively rare to see a Black person, so when a Black woman gave me her name – a very English name that I’d pictured belonging to a certain sort of white woman – I didn’t manage to hide my surprise. She picked up on it and must have known the reason for it. Although I was as welcoming as possible and got on well with her, so far as I know she didn’t come to any more workshops – and I can understand why. It’s something I still periodically feel bad about.

Some years ago, when I was living in London, I bought something in a charity shop and paid for it with my debit card. Not long afterwards I discovered the card was missing. I went back to the shop but it wasn’t there, and I realised someone had been using it to draw out money from my account – which meant they must have seen me enter my PIN. I had to report it to the police, who asked me if anyone might have brushed up close against me and taken the card when I paid for my purchase. Unfortunately the only person I remembered being close to me was the shop manager, a Black American woman. I mentioned her and must have described her, and my covert accusation was quickly discounted. I wasn’t consciously aware that I might have seized on her because she was Black, but I felt uncomfortable afterwards as that was obviously how the police had seen it. And I couldn’t be absolutely sure that on some level her ethnicity hadn’t been in the mix. I still feel bad about that too.

Another way I’ve been conscious of my subtle racism is when watching TV dramas. In the recent adaptation of His Dark Materials, which I’d read and loved, I noticed myself thinking about several of the characters, ‘But he isn’t Black’, ‘But he wouldn’t be Black’, even when the actor concerned was playing the role well and there was no compelling reason why the character shouldn’t be portrayed as Black. As with the woman at the workshop, my white imagination had pictured the characters as white. If a contemporary drama has a Black actor playing a character who could equally well be white, I don’t have a problem with it. Nor do I have a problem with, say, a Black Hamlet or a Black Julius Caesar: Shakespeare’s characters can be interpreted in all kinds of ways and none is better than any other. But in the books I read for myself, my default imagining of the characters is that they are white unless described otherwise. I don’t like admitting it because I think it shows precisely how for a white person being white is taken as ‘normal’ and being Black is seen as ‘other’, however subtly so and however little overt racist intention there may be.

I don’t have any easy answers for changing these barely conscious attitudes. Not all my friends are white British and neither are all the characters I write about – though in both cases white people predominate. I’m also Jewish, which complicates things since the Jews have been on the receiving end of racism and have also been seen as privileged. That’s a whole other topic in itself. For now I just need to acknowledge that, along with many white liberals, my anti-racist credentials aren’t as pure as I’d like them to be. And I want to do better. George Floyd’s death has brought home to us the awful reality of Black people’s lives, both in America and here, and we can’t allow ourselves to be complicit in it.

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It’s all different now

On 16th March I came home from a two-week solitary retreat without phone, internet, radio, TV or newspapers. For those two weeks I was either struggling with my internal demons, not to mention mud and rain and hail and freezing winds and damp firewood, or else in a state of peace and joy and well-wishing for all beings. In neither of those states was I thinking about the coronavirus. I knew it was happening, but it didn’t seem to be affecting us down here in Devon.

When I got home I rang an old friend to tell her I was back. Instead of wanting to hear about my retreat, she more or less brushed it aside with news of what was going on now: more and more people getting sick, the rest of us being advised to stay at home (the lockdown wasn’t yet in force), almost everything we’d taken for granted becoming a threat. “It’s like the plague,” she said. I had to believe her, but for the first day or two I was walking around in shock , not knowing whether to carry on as normal or hide myself away. Like everyone else, I started thinking I’d better stock up in case I couldn’t get to the shops again. I made sure my food supplies wouldn’t run out for a while but I didn’t quite understand the great toilet paper rush. Having shopped, and then shopped more online, I started to prepare myself for the long siege.

It was odd, driving around the lanes and quiet streets near where I live, to see how ordinary everything looked. The fields were still just fields, the hedgerows were full of violets and primroses, the cows and sheep were grazing on. The few people I saw looked a bit more hurried and worried than usual, but that was all. At that stage it was hard to take the whole thing seriously, and the day before lockdown I went for a walk in Dartington gardens with a friend. We did our best to stay 2 metres apart but I confess we didn’t always manage it. And that was that. The rest, as people say, is history.

Now, nearly three months and over 40,000 deaths later, like many people I’m still living most of my life on Zoom: psychotherapy work, meditation retreats, Qigong classes and much more besides. Not long ago I read at a Zoom open mic. I forgot that if I held up the paper in front of me people would be able to see what was written on the back – in this case a ten-year-old bill for renting a psychotherapy room. Some people found that more interesting than the poem. Of course Zoom has its limitations: faces freezing or disappearing, distorted sound, noises off when people forget to mute themselves – whoever muted themselves in ordinary conversation? – the inescapable fact that a two-dimensional image of someone’s head and shoulders can never be the same as the person’s real presence in the room.

I’ve got used to talking to neighbours, if I meet them, from somewhere in the middle of the road, and I dodge away from people who walk past me in the woods as though it was something I’d always done. People are probably more friendly than they were, but is the physical distance subtly alienating?  I’ve seen my friend a couple of times but each time studiously avoided our normal hug, so the only proper physical contact I’ve had since March is with my cat. I’m fortunate have him, of course, but a bit more human proximity would be rather nice. There’s also a part of me that for much of the time really doesn’t mind – in fact enjoys – being on my own and doing things by myself. I’ve lived alone for many years and on the whole it’s worked. But I’ve seen how, for me and many other people, the coronavirus situation has brought to the surface any underlying loneliness or fears of being alone. And conversely, for people not living alone it may have brought to the surface the need for space and solitude.

We’re assured now that the outbreak is abating – at least for the time being – but two hundred deaths in a day is still far from nothing. We don’t know what will happen as people start to go out and mingle more, and we certainly don’t know how badly we’ll be affected again come the winter. As everyone has said, we’re not returning to normal as we knew it, nor should we be, given the uncertain level of risk. I’m at an age where I need to be careful, as are at least some of my friends, and I don’t want to find that all our care and distancing have counted for nothing. I’d love to see more people and go out to more places, but as far as I’m concerned caution is still the name of the game. The virus hasn’t gone away, and until we find a vaccine or it runs its natural course, which could take years, it isn’t going to go away.

So here we are, about to venture, masked and gloved, back into the world. The tranquillity and slow pace of life that many of us have valued in these last months will begin to be intruded upon. The lucky ones who have work will get busier again; others will struggle with the cruelty of the economic situation and the lack of support available. Black people will have to go on fighting for their rightful place in society. Carbon emissions will rise, adding to the climate crisis. Brexit will go ahead, whatever the consequences. Meanwhile people will probably continue to die of Covid-19, albeit in smaller numbers while the warm weather lasts. Everything has changed, except what hasn’t changed.




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Cognitive dissonance

This Christmas the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ keeps coming into my mind. Why are we sending each other pictures of snow and robins as though this is what Christmas is, when we know it’s likely to rain the whole winter and robins are becoming scarcer every year? Why are we decorating our streets and our houses with sparkly things and celebrating at all, when the climate situation is so unimaginably dire and this country is being subjected to a far-right takeover? I feel as though I’m believing two incompatible things at the same time: that it’s sort of OK to go on doing just what we’ve always done – buying presents people don’t really need and wrapping them in toxic non-recyclable paper, consuming more food and drink than we actually want, indulging in things that we wish afterwards we hadn’t indulged in and calling it ‘joy’  –  and that the world has changed irrevocably and the future we used to take for granted, even if we were afraid it might be blasted by a nuclear bomb, can no longer be relied on to be remotely the same. So on one level I’m enjoying my relatively modest Christmas preparations and as usual sending cards to wish people a happy whatever they celebrate, while at the same time I keep catching myself thinking: What on earth am I doing? What is all this for, and how can I justify it?

This probably makes me sound like a puritanical misery-guts. Why not enjoy a few nice meals with friends and give a few presents to people I care about? What’s wrong with sending cards or e-cards to other friends I haven’t had a chance to catch up with for a while? Why not enjoy a few programmes on TV (which I do anyway)? And of course there’s is nothing wrong with any of that in itself. It’s just that the context has changed and we can no longer pretend, in the way that we could, that the world is going to continue as we knew it. As I write this I keep remembering that I haven’t yet made my Christmas donation to the food bank. Not that many years ago, food banks were unheard-of and the idea that large numbers of people in this country wouldn’t have enough to eat would have been shocking. Now we take it for granted, just as we’re gradually learning to take it for granted that refugees (I refuse to call them migrants) will be treated without humanity and in America children will be detained in what amount to concentration camps and left to die if they are ill. And that vast swathes of the natural world have been and are being devastated in the name of corporate profit. And we sort of believe, although we don’t, that the changes in our climate which are already having such catastrophic consequences will magically go away or aren’t really happening at all.

We still continue with our fiction of  ‘Christmas’, though the majority of people in this country are not Christians and large numbers don’t even know what the Christmas story is about. We can’t kid ourselves we’re celebrating a religious festival: that faded into the background a long while ago. Nor can most of us say we’re celebrating the Solstice and the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth, or at least not consciously. I’ve never had a problem, though, with the idea that we need a festival to celebrate regeneration and renewed hope at the darkest, coldest time of the year. But when I look at my garden now and see the winter jasmine already in flower and the remains of the last rose still on the bush, I can’t see the festival in the way that I did. The hope, it seems to me, has to come from people who care about what’s happening in the world joining together to do  what they can (and I could do far more, I know). The other side of Christmas is that it is about community, not just in separate family units but all of us together. In Christian terms, Christ came to bring  love to all. Christmas is a terrible time for many people because it reminds them of their isolation, but we aren’t only isolated from each other. It’s been increasingly easy for us to become isolated from the natural world and forget that it isn’t just there for our use or even enjoyment. We’re part of it, and our separating ourselves from it is what’s caused so much of our current predicament.

This is in danger of turning into a cross between a rant and a sermon, and I imagine that for most of the people reading it I’ll be preaching to the converted. I don’t want to put anyone off enjoying their Christmas/Solstice/other festival celebration and I intend to enjoy mine too, while at the same time holding in mind the reality of what’s happening in the world. I don’t think the cognitive dissonance will go away – what is happening is too big and frightening to hold in mind all the time – but I need to see how I can best carry on doing what I’m doing while recognising that things have changed irrevocably.

I wish you all the best for the festive season, whatever you celebrate or if you decide not to celebrate at all.

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