Sensitive is the New Strong by Anita Moorjani

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh World

Another excellent work from Anita Moorjani, who had a life-changing experience that gave her a heart-based perspective of reality beyond the three dimensional, externally focused world, we inhabit. Leaving that story aside, she now shares more insights that assist those who already relate a little or a lot to this perspective.

I have read both her previous books Dying to Be Me and What if THIS is Heaven? and I have listened to her speak, it is here where she is fluent, spontaneous and highly relatable, her most authentic and resonant. I love her books, but listening to her YouTube series Tea With Anita (this episode on empaths) and this one on Forgiveness, has for me, been life-affirming.

Become Aware, Develop Appropriate Resources

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh WorldHere, she focuses particularly on the experience of those who are empaths, no matter where on the spectrum of empathy they sit. It explains and supports how they feel, expanding awareness and helps them understand how to cope with certain situations and why it is important that they play a larger role in our societies.

Having listened to her speak on the subject, I’m aware there are different categories of empath, depending on certain characteristics. Some people are highly sensitive but may not be as affected by the energy of other people in their presence, or some may have already learned coping mechanisms.

Anita Moorjani shares her experience, which is unique and sees the gift in being this way, identifying some of the ways to mitigate the negative effects of what an empath absorbs and suggests ways to focus on their own well-being.

She writes of appreciating the gift and beauty of our sensitivity, seeing the strength in it, recognising the responses and behaviours in our society that may have contributed to it being devalued.

The Beauty of Your Sensitivity

“Your sensitivity opens up six sensory world. It’s connected to the other side. If you block your sensitivity, you block what’s coming in from the other realm. The thing is to be aware that you’re giving your power to the outside world, and to start giving it to your own inner world or to your higher self.”

And the consequence of suppressing it:

“It’s when you give your power to the outside world that you lose your connection to your inner sense of knowing, and your life starts spirally downward.”

To make the most of the gift of sensitivity, and to develop one’s intuitive capacity, it is necessary to quiet the noise coming from external sources.

Dealing With Sensory Overload

Sensory overload quiet the mind

Photo: Taryn Elliott, Pexels.com

Each chapter provides a short mantras and a meditative text that specifically address the aspect encouraged in that chapter, so that it becomes not just something theoretical, that we read and understand, but something with a practical aspect, an action one can take, something that many who are inclined to read this, will no doubt already be practicing.

“The outside world is loud and demanding so the first step in honing our powers is learning to deal effectively with sensory overload. We have to identify and manage the things that jam our inner guidance system. And that involves turning down the volume on the outside world so we can hear what’s going on inside.”

There are also practical ways to protect one’s energetic body, to recognise the impact  negative influences have on it, and a variety of ways to protect it. This is something I encounter frequently talking with other practitioner’s, how to proactively protect oneself from unwanted energies, and in a case where we have absorbed something, what to do immediately afterwards to remove it and to remember to prevent it in future.

Protect Your Energetic Body (Aura)

1. Carry black tourmaline with you.
2. Smudge your aura with white sage (especially after being in and around groups of people)
3. Strengthen your aura by using colour and learning how to expand and contract it, learning to contract it, helps avoid picking up unwanted energies.
4. Keep your body healthy – drink plenty of water, exercise, go outside (clears energy, centres you)

Connect With the Web of Consciousness

Creativity the Souls purposeOne of the best rewards of dealing with the imbalances and disequilibrium is the creativity that awaits expression, something that is there within, buried beneath layers of issues that once addressed, reveal potential.

“As with Michelangelo finding his angel in the block of marble, we need to strip away these layers and chip away at the false beliefs, thought patterns, fears and unnecessary pressures that jam our internal radar and hinder our connection to our inner mystics.”

Ego and Conscious Awareness

Ego often gets a bad rap. Anita Moorjani puts it in context by considering it one of two elements required in balance, ego and conscious awareness – that it is only when one or other are out of balance with each other that problems arise. If the ego dial is on high and conscious awareness is low egocentricity results. Likewise, raised conscious awareness with little or no ego, results in an ability to act or change. A healthy ego and conscious awareness aligns us with our  purpose and brings meaning into our lives.

“Ego serves a huge purpose. It offsets a tendency to second guess oneself or give power away.”

Imagination Unveils a Calling

“A clue to finding one’s purpose is to use your imagination. When I set my imagination free, I connect with something that is exciting and beautiful: for me, it’s my sixth sense, my intuition, and my higher self.”

Giving the example from her own life experience, from within one of the cultures within which she was raised, she shows how each culture puts upon us a set of differing beliefs, that are often in conflict with each other, which adds to our confusion. And shows how suppressing one’s inner guidance and giving our power away to an authoritative cultural figure can have a detrimental effect.

“Death taught me that I had to recognise my own divinity first before I could be or do anything of value to others.”

Being Your Authentic Self, Empowered Within

“Good teachers help you believe in yourself, rather than cultivate a belief in them. They teach you to connect to the divinity within you.”

There is so much I highlighted throughout the book that I could share. If any of this resonates, I highly recommend reading it, the messages are reassuring, it’s a book I have already passed on to another with whom I have discussed these issues.

One way empaths deal with the effect of this characteristic is to share stories and methods to resolve the associated dilemmas we face, to empower each other, to overcome the obstacles, because the reward of being able to use that quality as a strength is not just beneficial to oneself, but to all we come into contact with, a quality we need more of in this world.

“Accept that your inner world is real. It’s real and you have to empower it.”

Anita Moorjani

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War The Balkan TrilogyI’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).

This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy. 

The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.

Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.

Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability

Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.

Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.

It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.

Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory

She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.

The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.

Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.

They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.

It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver

Shakespeare Foretells All

Shakespeare Troilus and CressidaThe novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.

The Balkan Trilogy The Great Fortune

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.

Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.

Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.

The Great Fortune is Life

As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.

When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.

They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?

Harriet responds:

We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’

It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.

Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)

Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.

The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.

N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

yield, bend the feet, tread, as in walking, also long, tall – baayanha Yield itself is a funny word – yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from land, the things he’s waited for and gets to claim. A wheat yield. In my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things. It’s also the action made by Baiame, because sorrow, old age and pain bend and yield. The bodies of the ones that had passed were buried with every joint bent, even if the bones had to be broken. I think it was a bend in humiliation, just like we bend at our knees and bow our heads. Bend, yield – baayanha.

Review

Indigenous Literature Aboriginal Australia

Though it took a little while to fall into the rhythm of the book, once I did and realised what it was doing, preserving a language and sharing a culture, while telling the story of one who returns, having been separated from it through travel (and a non-inclusive education), I thought it was brilliant.

The Wiradjuri Aboriginal people, of which the author is a descendant, are a people and a culture that have been dispossessed, yet in some respects and from an alternate perspective, can also be said to have thrived despite the setback of colonialization.

The Yield is an acknowledgement of what was, a perspective on what it is to straddle dual cultures and a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling and cultural identity, one that will endure.

Known as the people of the three rivers, Wiradjuri people have inhabited modern-day New South Wales, Australia for more than 60,000 years. At the time of European colonization, there were an estimated 3,000 Wiradjuri living in the region, representing the largest cultural footprint in the state.

A Triple Narrative, Of Voice, Time and Style

The story is told through three voices, in three narrative styles, across three time periods, that I have come to think of metaphorically as the past, present and future of Aboriginal culture.

The Future, reclaiming one’s culture

Brolga, Australian Crane, Photo by Luke Shelley

The first person narrative is the voice of Albert (Poppy), the grandfather of the fictional Gondiwindi family. He is no longer living when we read his granddaughter August’s account of her return from England to Australia, he is the reason she returns, for his funeral.

He has written down important words that populate and are interspersed throughout the entire novel, the mystery of them revealed as the narrative moves forward.

English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to say. Her poppy used to say the words were paramount. That they were like icebergs floating, melting, that there were ocean depths to them that they couldn’t have talked about.

Nothing like your average dictionary, Poppy’s entries are an accessible rendering of words in his indigenous language, his descriptions or meanings are anecdotal stories of an oral tradition, ensuring we understand. More than mere words, they preserve a culture, they are evidence of a civilisation. They are the future, a key to the longevity and respect of his people’s lineage.

ashamed, have shame – giyal-dhuray I’m done with this word. I’d leave it out completely but I can’t. It’s become part of the dictionary we think we should carry. We mustn’t anymore. See, pain travels through our family tree like a songline. We’ve been singing our pain into a solid thing. The old ones, the young ones too, are ready to heal. We don’t have to be giyal-dhuray anymore, we don’t have to pass that down to anyone.

The Present, a return to one’s culture

The Yield Tara June Winch Wiradjuri

Photo by Catarina Sousa on Pexels.com

The second person narrative is the present day account of August’s return, of her discovery that her grandmother Elsie is being forced to leave the family property because of a mining company claim and the way it has been presented to them, is as if they have no right to or compensation for the land or buildings.

Elsie isn’t prepared to fight, but August becomes aware of her grandfather’s project, of what is required to potentially save the land and reinstate their existence. It is a time of reckoning as she allows events of the past to rise, and rather than run from them, can make amends.

There is also the presence of outsiders, activists on the hill, ready to intervene if necessary. These people are something of an enigma to August and her family. In challenging one of them, she highlights that aspect of humanity – that there is always someone whose call is to agitate and prick the social conscious of the other, that it’s often not those to whom the injustice is being done.  When Mandy warns August to be careful and to conceal herself, she tells her she’s nobody anyway.

“You are somebody. But these days we can’t do anything as somebody, we can only do something as nobody. The nobody of everybody.”

August thought for a moment. “I don’t get it.”

“When something is important enough that it’s personal to everyone,” Mandy added.

The Past, overriding one culture with another

old handwritten letters

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A third epistolary narrative, is a series of letters written by a British/German Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf who lived in the area in the late 1800’s and wrote an account of his attempt to build a mission. His few letters are spread across the novel, recording his intentions, his observations and his responses to all that he witnessed.

It is here we read of the past treatment of people, the struggles, the behaviours, the results, the small successes, the failures and the reminder that anyone can become a future victim when the allegiances of a nation turn.

respect – yindyamarra I think I’ve come to realise that with some things, you cannot receive them unless you give them too. Unless you’ve even got the opportunity to give and receive. Only equals can share respect, otherwise it’s a game of masters and slaves – someone always has the upper hand when they are demanding respect. But yindyamarra is another thing too, it’s a way of life – a life of kindness, gentleness, and respect at once. That seems like a good thing to share, our yindyamarra.

The Many Ways to Preserve a Cultural Heritage

The entire novel is a monumental endeavour, encompassing as it does, this one language of the hundreds that existed and have either become extinct, or are under threat of becoming so.

The way the words and language create a bridge of understanding of a way of life and thinking is indeed a celebration. The thought of one man spending his latter years in pursuit of this, of sharing all that he knew, so he could pass it on, in the way of the coloniser – using the written word and not the oral stories of the past that risk dying out – is remarkable and uplifting.

It’s Never to Late to Be An Inspiration

One of the inspirations for the book was the work of Wiradjuri elder Mr Stan Grant Senior, whose contribution has since earned him an honory doctorate for his life’s work to reclaim the Wiradjuri language.

With an anthropologist, John Rudder, Mr. Grant has breathed new life into the language. They worked together on a revision of a long-neglected Wiradjuri dictionary, “A New Wiradjuri Dictionary,” almost 600 pages in length, as well as a collection of small grammar books. – extract, New York Times

I love that stories like this are being written, helping to preserve a much wronged culture and people, and that a new generation of writers are using literature to further develop empathy and understanding.

Highly Recommended, a future classic!

“I was told when you revive a lost language, you give it back to all mankind,” he said, sitting in his kitchen, not far from where the kingfishers darted across the Murrumbidgee.

“We were a nothing people for a long time. And it is a big movement now, learning Wiradjuri. I’ve done all that work. I’ve done all I can.” Stan Grant Sr

About the Author, Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri author, born in Australia in 1983 and based in France. Her first novel, Swallow the Air was critically acclaimed. She was named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist, and has won numerous literary awards for Swallow the Air. The novel has been on the HSC syllabus for Standard and Advanced English since 2009 and a 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2016.

In 2008, she won a prestigious mentoring scheme and was mentored by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka who introduced her to a whole new world of reading; for the first time, she began making links between Greek tragedies, biblical myth and Indigenous dreaming stories.

There’s a wonderful video interview of the two of them in Nigeria available online.

Soyinka chose Winch to be his protégée because of her “sure hand [and] observant eye”.

The Yield, was first published in 2019, to commercial and critical success and took out four prizes including Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Voss Prize, and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It was shortlisted for The Stella Prize.

Further Reading

The Guardian Interview: I had to be manic’: Tara June Winch on her unmissable new novel – and surviving Andrew Bolt by Sian Cain

Article New York Times: An Heir to a Tribe’s Culture Ensures Its Language Is Not Forgotten by Michelle Innis

ABC News: January 26 is a reminder that Australia still hasn’t reckoned with its original sin by Stan Grant, 27 Jan 2021

N.B. Thank you to Harper Via, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to publishing extraordinary international voices for an ARC (advance reader copy) provided via Netgalley.

Purchase A Copy at an Independent BookStore (US)

Purchase A Copy at an Independent BookStore (UK)

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

It is an interesting situation to have read an author’s work of creative nonfiction before reading either of her two novels, so I come to Sara Baume’s novel, knowing her as a sculptor of birds, an acute observer and thinker about bird migrations.

From Handiwork to Imagination

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature

I know she is someone who spends her mornings at her writing desk and her afternoons and evenings working with her hands, accumulating and gathering things around her, writing about objects, thinking about people, what they said and did, making things, a ponderer who crafts with their hands.

So when I meet the 57 year old man in Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it takes me a while to think of him as that man, because seeing through his eyes and listening to his inner conversation with OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog he has just adopted, I see how this character too, has been sculpted with as much care and detail as one of the many birds in Handiwork.

I have to remind myself the narrator is an older man, not Sara Baume, because she is so present, looking out through her character’s eyes, all-seeing. Her rhythmic style of storytelling, the repetition of words are all giveaways. I love it.

Handiwork was such a sliver of a book, it was over so quickly, small morsels, often only a paragraph to a page, it was a delight to go on a fictional journey here, once she was able to get her protagonist out of the house.

She does so, by his act of taking in a homeless dog. We don’t know at the time how out of character that is for him. The dog gets him in trouble and they are coming for him, so he flees, but little do we know what he is really escaping.

Stream of Consciousness, Second Person Narrative, The Unreliable Narrator

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume Dogs in Literature

Photo by Laura Stanley on Pexels.com

What great characters, what eccentricity gently portrayed, what clever use of the first and second person narrative, what a revelation, what tension, what joy that finally here is a relationship of unconditional love, even if it causes him such anxiety for much of the time.

I was wrong to tell you you were bold. I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.

A stream of consciousness first person narrative morphs into a second person narrative, the anxious man-child thinks and speaks in his mind to himself (I) and the dog OneEye (you). He even begins to dream he is a canine. This inner conversation cleverly hides his denial, rendering him an unreliable narrator.

Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that’s in me. It’s in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It’s in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I’ve given you for granted. My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.

One Man and his Dog on a Road Trip

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume

Photo by Ali KarimiBoroujeni on Pexels.com

The road trip is unsustainable, the two of them experiencing a kind of freedom they’ve not known before.

I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.

He thinks about his father sometimes, but has no memory of his mother.

I’ve never looked through his stuff and I can’t explain exactly why it is I’m so incurious. I suppose there are clues about his life there in the shut-up-and-locked room, perhaps even some traces of my mother, but better to be content with ignorance, I’ve always thought, than haunted by truth.

The presence of the twist comes as a surprise, we hadn’t realised this was a mystery, its literary qualities create the expectation not to have expectations. The element of surprise when it comes is genuine.

The title, which is also the structure is brilliant, only a lover of words and perhaps a scrabble player or reader of the dictionary or thesaurus could have come up with four words that represent the four seasons and almost begin with same two letters,  suggestive of what the four parts of the book represent. Signs of the philosophical mind and playfulness of the artist at work.

An Irish Times review suggested “the Becketty title is a worry, because it begs to be misremembered”, but once I see that Spill  = Spring, Simmer = Summer, Fall = Falter, Wither= Winter and I think about the four parts of the narrative, I can never forget the title. It’s like playing a word game, remembering it, the author having fun with her readers, well – some of them.

In total awe.

Further Reading

My Review of Handiwork (2020) by Sara Baume

Irish Times Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume: Greatness already evident by Joseph O’Connor

Handiwork by Sara Baume

My first read of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, I decided to read her work of creative nonfiction before trying her fiction (she has written two novels Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking).

I stumbled across this after reading the excellent A Ghost In The Throat published by the same independent Irish publisher Tramp Press, so I bought it hoping for a similar experience.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds review HandiworkHandiwork is a pure joy to read, it’s a small book, with often only a paragraph on a page, it has a beautifully thought out structure, referencing a number of different texts that the author, who is an artist, a craftswoman clearly holds dear and memories of her father and grandfather, as family members who worked with their hands.

Overall, it is an exploration of her process and influences, charting a daily practice, working with hands, expressing her creativity.

In The Craftsman, Sennett is a little grumpy about the prospect of confronting the question ‘What is art?’ Instead, he sets out his inquiry as: ‘We are trying to figure out what autonomy means – autonomy as a drive from within that impels us to work in an expressive way, by ourselves.’

After travelling Europe, she returns to her parents home and is greeted in her old room by a cacophony of objects she had assembled over many years, re-conceptualised out of available fragments, collected from her material environment.

a practice that Charles Jencks in the early 1970’s designated ‘adhocism’ – a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand.

Now she lives in a house with Mark, structuring her day between the mundane repetitive tasks of living, mornings dedicated to writing, and afternoons of making.

She considers herself a disciple of William Morris, artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist, who:

blue songbird Sara Baume Handiwork creative nonfiction

Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.

This text is a place of reflection, aided by quotes from the various authors she refers to, relating to her own experience and insights and to the memory of her father and grandfather, one who worked with wood and the other with metal.

From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Her medium is plaster and her subject – she is making, carving, painting and mounting birds. While reading about bird migration. And trying to entice local songbirds she sculpts to a feeder in the garden.

It is like a songbird itself, a small book that sings its tribute to those who craft and create and follow the intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

We must begin, William Morris said in his lecture ‘Useful Work v. Useful Toil’ to the Hampstead Liberal Club in 1884, ‘ to build up the ornamental part of life’

Highly Recommended.

‘This little book is a love-child of my art and writing practices, or a by-product of novels past and coming. It’s about the connection between handicraft and bird migration, as well as simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house’. – Sara Baume

Further Reading

Article: New book is a love-child — of my art and writing says Cork author by Colette Sheridan

Read An Extract or Listen on RTE – Handiwork by Sara Baume 2 May, 2020

You Don’t Look Adopted by Anne Heffron

Adoptee birth trauma adoptionAnne Heffron tells us it took her 93 days to write her book, but really it took a lifetime and she is to be commended for being able to complete it.

Being an adoptee and trying to write about the experience and the double edged sword of searching, is like choosing solitary confinement as a self help therapy. You go in thinking it would be a good idea and it can’t be all that hard just to recount your story, and then that being confronted with yourself, that isn’t your self, or is it, thing happens.

Writing is hard. Writing when you are adopted is even harder. If you think your voice is dangerous in its ability to hurt the ones you love, you learn to keep it quiet.

And then the real trouble starts.

It’s therapy without the therapist, so most will abandon it, that’s something adoptees know a lot about, abandonment, often without even realising it.

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

Heffron’s book is a narrative of threads woven together over those 93 days, but it is also a collection of anecdotes and reflections, she allows herself to digress and share experiences that have given her insights, that might disarm the reader who is looking for a chronological tale, unlikely if you are an adoptee.

Every adoptee’s experience is different, but there are common elements and sharing the experience and making it available like this is an important resource for other adoptees.

Adopted people aren’t much different from people who weren’t adopted, they just live with more questions. They are the human experience intensified.

Much of the book is about the relationship with her adoptive mother, the strong bond they shared and the utter frustration and anger she often felt towards her, the shock of realising that though she was her only daughter, she was a mother to her brothers as well.

MY HERO

prince charming white horse fantasy

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

A few years earlier my half-brother, whom I had never met, got in his car and drove down from his temporary work site in San Francisco to come meet me.

He may as well have come cantering up on a white horse. Having someone claim you is the bomb.

Thoughts on adoption arrive unbidden, so it is understandable that this is a narrative of fragments, and yet put together as they are here, they provide a sense of the whole, not only an incredible achievement, but proof of existence.

Further Reading/Listening

Seven Reasons I Love Anne Heffron by Claire at How To Be Adopted

Adoptees On Podcast – adoptees discuss the adoption experience

My Reviews

A Girl Returned by Donnatella di Pietrantonio (fiction)

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cuming (memoir) – a daughter (art historian) researches her mother’s disappearance

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson (memoir) – raised in Sweden, a Brazilian adoptee returns home

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer (memoir) – born in Ireland, an adoptee searches for her birth mother and looks into the Irish treatment of young unwed mothers

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley (memoir) – an Indian boy lost on a train, adopted to Australia, retraces his journey to find his family

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton (nonfiction) –  adoptee, counselor and adoption-reform advocate

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (memoir) – an adoptive mother reflects

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson (creative nonfiction/memoir)

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (memoir) – poet, adoptee of English/Nigerian parentage, raised by Scottish communists

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy tr. Aylmer Maude

The Kindness of Enemies Shamil ImamI read Hadji Murad because it was referenced in the last pages of Leila Aboulela’s excellent The Kindness of Enemies and is set in the same location as the historical part of her book, 1850’s Caucasus. Aboulela’s book centres on the kidnap of A Russian Princess and her time in captivity under the protection of the Highlander Shamil Imam. He wishes to trade her for his son, help captive by the Russians for more than ten years.

Tolstoy was in the Russian army for a time and clearly witnessed many missions. One of the events he had knowledge of and wrote about, though this novella was published post-humously by his wife, was the defection to Russia and subsequent killing of one of Shamil Khan’s chieftans, another Highlander, Hadji Murad.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the classics, there are some exceptions and I did enjoy Anna Karenina, however having read Aboulela’s version which really brings the characters alive and highlights their dilemmas so openly, I found it hard to connect with Tolstoy’s tale, which rarely touches on lives other than the soldiers and noble decision makers.

Hadji Murad Thistle Leo Tolstoy

Photo by nastia on Pexels.com

The opening scene though is brilliant, the ploughed field, bereft of life, everything turned over, leaves only one sturdy thistle, half destroyed but for that one stalk still standing tall, the flower head emitting its bold crimson colour.

The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… How many different plant lives he destroys to support his own experience!” thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

It is the scene that brings back the memory of this man Hadji Murad and compels him to write out those pages, perhaps purging himself of a ghastly memory.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

It does make me think that he had intended not to publish it, that perhaps it was written for another purpose altogether. Particularly as, at the time he wrote it (1896-1903)

he was spending most of his time writing his virulent tracts against the art of fiction and denouncing some of the best writers in the world, including Shakespeare.

In conclusion, it highlights to me the importance of reading various perspectives of history, not just one side or the other, but also across gender. It is refreshing to read a female historian’s fictional version of an age old conflict, inhabiting characters who observe from positions of lesser power, of oppression, for their powers of observation are that much stronger than the privileged, it being one of their necessary survival instincts.

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela (2015)

Earlier this year I read my first book by Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019), a wonderful novel about three immigrant women, born in different countries but living in Scotland, setting off on a holiday in the Highlands, to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I really enjoyed it for many reasons, confirming I wished to read more of her work, thus I chose The Kindness of Enemies as her next book to read, one I have had my eye on for some years, having refused to buy earlier because of the dreadful cover. That may sound whimsical, but I think that earlier cover does this book a great disservice, the way it turns readers away.

Being Muslim and an Academic in 21st century Scotland

Hadji Murad Tolstoy Leila AboulelaI was completely drawn into the dual narrative story and loved both parts of it, modern day Scotland and mid 1800’s Russia and the Caucasus.

The contemporary story centres around Natasha Wilson (born Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, themselves the product of a Russian university education, her name is changed when her mother marries a Scot). A university lecturer in Scotland, her research concerns the life of the Caucasian Highlander, Shamil Imam.

Natasha is friends with Malak, of Russian/Persian parentage; her son Oz, is in her class and they possess a historical artefact belonging to Shamil Imam, due to an ancestral connection. Natasha is in their home when Oz is arrested for downloading  materials related to jihad and she too comes under suspicion, her telephone and laptop seized.

“I was seeing in these awkward composites my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan, her father whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying and there is pressure for her to go and see him, along with feelings of resentment and ill-will, demanding her to stand up for herself and her existence, a daughter of mixed heritage, living a life she has created for herself.

“It was an effort formulating this summary, explaining myself. I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties.”

Being Muslim and a Caucasian Highlander in the 19th century

Interwoven between chapters of Natasha’s story, we are transported to the Caucasus territory in the 1850’s, to a period during the conflict between the Highlander mountain men lead by Shamil Imam who were resisting Tsarist Russia from expanding into their territory.

Shamil Imam, the Chieftan of Dagestan, led an armed resistance for thirty years, he appears in Leo Tolstoy’s classic posthumous novella Hadji Murad.  Through imagination and historical fact, Leila Aboulela enters his territory and home, bringing us a view from the spaces women and children inhabit, not just that of men, as Tolstoy does.

Caucasus Pricess Anna of Georgia kidnap

In earlier years, to settle a conflict, Shamil was only able to negotiate peace by surrendering his son Jamaleldin, who for the next ten years or so was raised as part of the Tsar’s family (as his godson). Now Shamil’s men have captured the  Russian Princess Anna (previously of Georgia – her grandfather Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, ceded the territory to Russia), her French governess and two children Alexander and Lydia.

“Nothing has caused me so much pain as treachery. If the Russians would fight me honourably, I would not mind living the rest of my life in a state of war. But they tricked me; in Akhulgo they treated me like a criminal, not a warrior, and they sent my son far away to St Petersburg.”

The Kindness of Enemies follows these stories and although one carries the heavyweight magnitude of a well-known story of significant characters in history, the foreshadowing of it by a modern story, brings to light the many aspects of the past, whose threads might be seen as being current today.

Kindness and Empathy, Another Perspective

Much of the literature of the Caucasus in the literary imagination is told from the Russian perspective, by grand novelists like Tolstoy and Pushkin, whereas Leila Aboulela, by setting this historical period during the time of the Princess’s capture, takes us on that journey, re-imagining events that took place, understanding better the complicated and mixed sympathies of Princess Anna, a young mother, exploring her loss and how those eight months in captivity might have changed her.

The Kindness of Enemies Leila Aboulela The Queen's Gambit

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Pexels.com

She also presents the perspective of young Jamaleldin in another light, how his childhood memories lie dormant yet present, his mixed feelings of the return, his strange and estranged reality of feeling part of himself belonging to both worlds, the Highlands and to St Petersburg.

There was a time when it had all been much simpler. He rescued from the wild, Nicholas the benevolent godfather. He the pet, Nicholas the mighty. He the puppet, Nicholas the conductor, the thrower of crumbs, the arranger of roles, the changer of destinies. Jamaleldin the chess piece, and now Shamil had changed the rules of the game.

In the contemporary world, Natasha experiences something of the same, born of culturally different parents, spending her childhood in one country, her adulthood in another. She must create her own sense of belonging, to find peace of mind somehow. Being neither one thing or the other, having no one place called home, hers, by necessity is a spiritual journey, determined by the need for the soul to find home, rather than body or mind.

“I said that I was not a good Muslim but that I was not a bad person. I said I had a brother that I wanted to keep in touch with. I said that I wanted to give up my share of the inheritance to him. Apart from my father’s Russian books and Russian keepsakes, I wanted nothing. I said that I did not come here today to fight over money or for the share of a house. I came so that I would not be an outcast, so that I would, even in a small way, faintly, marginally, tentatively, belong.”

Highly Recommended.

My Reviews of Interest

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina tr. Lisa Hayden

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Further Reading/Watching

Interview: Leila Aboulela Discusses The Kindness of Enemies The Arab Weekly

Review: For the Joy of Reading: The Kindness of Enemies by David Kenvyn

Documentary: Mountain Men and Holy Wars – film-maker Taran Davies traces the life and legacy of Shamil Imam

Article: Why do we Continue to Use the Word Caucasian? by Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands