A short story of the ones left behind

As part of my writing course we looked at a poem called ‘A Short Story of Falling‘ by Alice Oswald and were asked to write a poem following her structure. I don’t normally write rhyming poems, let alone rhyming couplets so this was a challenge for me. It took a lot of work and tweaking and editing but I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone.

DSC_0653
Rugged rocks standing in the tide

A short story of the ones left behind

It is the story of the ones left behind
between ebb and flow of tide

As waves retreat, new worlds emerge
fleeting glimpses, soon submerged

Black rocks gleam, spray kissed, like jewels
stand tall between impermanent pools

Acorn barnacles cling tight
to mussels’ pearly blues and whites

Conical spirals of periwinkles
littered through the seaside shingle

Bladderwrack entangles limpets
cigarettes and fishing nets

Crab’s hermitage, a bottle cap
first cosy home, then prison, trapped

Translucent sea jelly
tentacles of vermicelli

Bag for Life, or Bag of Death?
suffocating final breath

This is the story of the ones left behind
by sea, and, by humankind

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Limpets and barnacles cling to black rock

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Work in Progress

I remember the twisting landscape on the way to the jetty. Leaving Ullapool, overshooting the destination only to loop back on ourselves via the loosely drawn roads. The land ahead was flat, behind was hill littered, and you could see the tarmac snaking through like an S. The coast line still obscured but pulling us closer and closer to the shore.

This was a land of snaking s’s, shores and sand and scenery and the Summer Isles… scaling feelings and mountains came together for me, then. I was scrambling my way out of an eating disorder, a mix of some progress and some back sliding. Following an inner S road, twisting and turning, destination life, or death. Starvation or survival.

On the island, I was sharing a home with strangers who asked their questions – would you like some toast? Some cereal? Something? And noted when something was nothing. Strangers who walked, by torch light, home with me for that week. Toads calling, stars glimmering, paths slippery. And wished me a good night. One like I was his daughter, unaware he was seeing me as a toddler in those fleeting exchanges, but I held that sentiment close. The other, like I was her teenage daughter, concern spilling over. That week, they spoke with such care and concern for me.

That week with strangers was a salve. 

***

On my way up to Scotland, on my way up to the Summer Isles, the train journey wound from York to Northallerton to Darlington, Durham to Newcastle.  Then picked up the fracturous outline of the north east coast. At Edinburgh I switched trains, not too much lingering then a list of train stations to wrap your tongue around;

  • Haymarket
  • Inverkeithing
  • Kirkcaldy
  • Markinch
  • And Ladybank

Heading further north, the autumn haze glossed over the land, golden fields and the sun highlighting the dust that hung around the purple heather. The vast tall sky, stretched up reaching for the heavens, but it’s aspirations were squashed by heavy grey clouds. The dark air that pressed down on the land had been pressing down on me for so long. Oppressing my lungs, making living, breathing, an effort. My blood was treacle and my heart hurt with the effort of pumping it. I had been living with anorexia and depression for so long that I couldn’t remember another way of existing.

At Perth, another change. So many changes on the journey north. So many changes needed to find my true north. Suspended raindrops blurred the land with sky. Wispy clouds clung to highland rocks as we wove our way through the Cairngorms to Inverness. Purple and gold hillscapes flickered past the train windows. White houses. Green forests. Grey rivers. A landscape of texture – soft ferns, prickling pines, hills undulating, rocks protruding. Ruins pull you into memories, yours and the memories of the ghosts who haunt the land.

A ruined stone building, grass and fern in front and heather in the background

Inverness brought with it a bookshop trip. A treasure trove of second hand books, my safe place. If nothing else, I always know I can enter a bookshop and buy myself a brief moment of groundedness. The certainty that knowledge brings. The feeling of being surrounded by information, research and other people’s stories would help me feel a small glimmer of hope that my story, my book, would have it’s own ending. Unclear whether the ending would be happy or not didn’t matter, just that this drowning would end. Sadly my bag was full so I left with a couple of postcards instead.

The bus from Inverness dropped me at Strathpeffer, where I sat, hoping that I’d planned the journey right and the next bus would turn up as the timetable suggested. My mind already planning what to do if not. Anxiety running riot. But it did, no emergency plans were required. Finally I arrived in Ullapool. A long day of travel had taken me 420 miles from home, and ended with another bookshop. I would be staying opposite this particular bookshop on the overnight pause in travel.

Wild Words: Place & Environment Writing

Because I’m not already ridiculously busy, I thought I’d start a writing course in January. It’s called Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing and is going to be a mix of considering texts and writing our own responses to the topics. We’ll be considering ideas such as nature, dwelling and wilderness and ahead of the course, we’ve been asked to reflect on any previous reading which relates to place and environment.

A close up photo of a grassy meady with flowering heather and unidentifiable yellow flowers

Any long term readers of this blog will probably have realised I have done a lot of this. I spent a year or so following my own loose curriculum around nature and writing and reading formed a large part of that.

There was Tarka the Otter which captures animal calls so well, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us which is a great example of her ability to translate potentially difficult, scientific ideas into a language of poetry, and there was the incredible book from Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – which makes the everyday experience of illness seem so much more inspiring.

It is hard to choose just a few as I have read so widely about nature and place and environment over the last few years. And so many different kinds of books as well. There’s the question and answer format from Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation which offers agony aunt (or should that be ant?) style help to different creatures. There’s the wonderful series from Reakion which looks at animals predominantly through a human lens and considers how we have integrated them into our cultures and beliefs.

Of course poetry has featured in my reading, including Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, The Lost Spells from Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane, and Basic Nest Architecture from the lovely Polly Atkin.

I read books about nature writing itself, and eco-criticism, and how to guides.

And diary style formats as well – such as Mile’s Richardson’s Needwood – and collections by different writers such as The Oxford Book of Nature Writing which also takes you on a journey across time.

I read articles such as Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? by Mark Cocker, and a responding article from Robert MacFarlane, Why we need nature writing. There was also a post about the two articles considered together.

And I read myths and legends. And magazines. And journals.

Essentially, there’s been a lot of reading, about different aspects of nature and environment, and I love the variety of forms and approaches. I love the many different topics that are covered, the passion of the authors and the new ways of seeing that they introduce me to. I hope that each one leaves a trace of itself in my creative mind, a glimmer of a snail’s track, and that I can weave some together to create my nature writing. Whilst I love and admire many different writers, I aspire only to be myself, to be my voice.

I am not vulnerable. I am Helen.

During the pandemic there was been a lot of use of the word vulnerable… And many of us don’t feel it’s the right choice of language.

“One of the most pervasive and damaging myths in modern liberal societies is the idea that disabled people are ‘the most vulnerable’.  This is a by-product of a culture that still widely associates disability with tragedy and perpetuates an individual analysis for something that is fundamentally structural… Disabled people, truth be told, do not need to be vulnerable… Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives.”

Frances Ryan, Crippled

It brings with it connotations of pity and helplessness and makes it seem like it’s our fault if we die, rather than the societal inequalities around us. As Baroness Campbell said, “We are not vulnerable people. We are in vulnerable situations.”

But the word has been used in link with disability for much longer and it comes with an innate power imbalance between the vulnerable and those who are “helping” us, and that in turns allows for control and abuse to occur, or keep occurring. The word vulnerability brings with it an, often unspoken, idea that someone needs to rescue the person in question. It takes away the opportunity for self empowerment and is generally a regressive, outdated way of thinking about disability.

“The word ‘vulnerable’ is not consistent with the social model* in that it suggests that the disabled person is inherently and inevitably inferior. It is a use of language that locates the essential problem within the person with the impairment, and, in doing so, removes attention from the role played by the socio-economic structures of the system we live under in putting disabled people in situations of risk.”

Ellen Clifford, The War on Disabled People

(*For more about the social model of disability, watch a short video from Scope)

Labelling us as vulnerable is to emphasise the disabled person as being the problem, not the systems and contexts that are creating the vulnerability. And this in turn means the systems that can make us vulnerable aren’t challenged and the power imbalances remain. It also takes a large population with diverse needs, impairments and characteristics and reduces us to a generic population. In short, it erases us.

It can also affect outcomes. When we are labelled as vulnerable, it creates a culture where decisions can be made on our behalf, for our “best interests”. Measures are put in place for a sweeping population of so called ‘vulnerable people’ and in missing the nuance, you end up with a situation that rarely fits anyone. Such as some of the measures we’ve seen implemented around the pandemic.

Using the word vulnerable creates a culture where are lives are deemed to be a small price to pay for the greater good. Our deaths can be excused because of our ‘vulnerabilities’ and, because vulnerable suggests a fixed state, work doesn’t need to be carried out to move us out of the vulnerable category.

In her book about how society treats disabled people, Katharine Quarmby asks why disability hate crimes get missed or categorised as something else:

“One of the key reasons has to be that the victim is labelled as vulnerable.  This labelling does not happen with other forms of hate crime.  By failing to see the motivations for disability hate crime, the attitudes that underpin it, and by putting the responsibility onto the victim by describing him or her as ‘vulnerable’, we are letting those responsible for hate crimes continue t get away with it… By confusing vulnerability with targeted hostility towards the victim – we do not see the crime for what it is.”

Katharine Quarmby

More broadly, by speaking of us with the sweeping term vulnerable, it affirms the idea that we are of lesser human value, less human, and therefore less entitled to our human rights.

Further, such sweeping generalisations reduces us to objects, affecting the way we are treated and reducing us to one characteristic – we are no longer a mother who’s also a keen swimmer and helps out at school, we are now just vulnerable, not even a vulnerable person.

This fixed and blanket way of seeing us also means that the nature of vulnerability is obscured. It misses the fact that vulnerability is as much about the environmental context as it is the individual context. That is to say, you can be vulnerable in one setting, in one context, in one way, and resilient in a different setting or context or way but by calling us vulnerable, you miss these nuances. You ultimately miss our strengths.

Calling us vulnerable denies us our agency and can impinge on our self esteem and sense of worth, which are often already dented as a result of living in a capitalist society which doesn’t value disabled people.

When talking about the word vulnerable and relating it to yourself, Jasper from Wheelie Queer said:

“It reminds me of when you’re getting ready to go through PIP assessments, and things like that and suddenly you’re having to look at yourself through this new lens as weak and all the impairments that you have. It can be quite difficult to associate yourself in that way when you’re used to showing your strength, adapting around the issues that you face.”

Jasper, Wheelie Queer

Further, when we are being described as vulnerable, it becomes harder to feel proud of who we are. It is harder for others to see us as resilient and it reinforces the idea that to be disabled, to be vulnerable in some way, is inevitably a negative experience.

Big Green Bookshop Book Club

I recently signed up to the Big Green Bookshop Book Club. Once you’ve paid your subscription, they send you a very interesting questionnaire. It’s not too long but it really made me think. Essentially it helps them get to know you and your reading tastes and with that information, they then choose a book for you and pop it in the post.

I’m always up for finding new books and new authors and supporting independant shops, especially independant bookshops! So I thought I’d give it a go. I chose to start with the 3 month option and see how I found it (so far I’m loving it, except for the moment of panic when a parcel arrives and I think I’ve forgotten I ordered something!).

So far I’ve recieved two books; Lanny by Max Porter and Feeding Time by Abam Biles. I haven’t read Feeding Time yet but I’ve just finished Lanny and what a book! I don’t tend to reread books but I think I probably will with this one as there’s so much you can pick up on the second time round.

A paperback copy of Lanny by Max Porter

On the surface it tells the story of Lanny, a boy who lives in a village outside London, with all the odd characters you find in books about village life! And of course, those characters have lived in the village for generations, making Lanny and his family very much outsiders.

But Lanny is no ordinary boy, and this is no ordinary village. This is the village of Dead Papa Toothwort who has woken from his slumber in the woods….

And that’s all I will say about the plot and the characters, you should read it for yourself and enjoy the wandering rhythm of the story being revealed.

What I do want to say is how wonderful the language is and how poetic this book is, and how astute the observations are:

“He slides across the land at precisely the speed of dusk…. English seasons roll out of bed… we nurture things slowly and we kill things quick… I’m waxed leaves and hard flint, storing tomorrow’s sunshine in my bark, invisible…”

Max Porter

How beautiful is that?! How soul nourishing and gorgeous?!

At one stage, Lanny is building a bower, like bowerbirds do, and filling it will the best stuff he’s found. And I wondered to myself, what would I put in my bower?

A bower must be decorative, with a carefully arranged display of objects; a dowry.  These objects include shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, bones, berries, plastic, glass or anything else the male bowerbird may find. And it’s not a rough and ready affair.  The male spends hours arranging his display, truly dedicating himself to the task.

I am looking around my flat and thinking about what I am drawn to… my bower would be feather lined, adorned with seashells and pretty bits of stone. There would be gnarled twigs and fairy lights. A space for precious, well thumbed books and well loved teddy bears. Another for photos and sentimental jewellery. Lines from poems and phrases from poems yet to be written. Bubbles, the kind you got as a kid, often in a party bag, and the scent of lemongrass. Tufts of wool retrieved from branches and conkers still with their shine.

My bower would be filled with treasures from nature, memories and words.

What would you put in yours?

Dear blog…

Dear blog,

I am sorry I have so rudely abandoned you in favour of other endevours… Please trust me when I tell you I think of you with fondness and longing and will return to you one day, hopefully one day soon, brimming with words and love!

I hope you will indulge me whilst I tell you what I have been focussed on… Please do not be jealous. I have been writing for the local paper and taking flack in the comments section. I have been building a website for York Disability Rights Forum, including (do I dare tell you…?) writing blog posts for it. I am so sorry my dear blog… I have also been helping with social media for the Forum and meeting with people and writing so many things that at the end of the day there are no words left to rush out of my fingers.

There was also the endometriosis operation and, once again, my feeding tube fell out… There have been new carers to meet and begin training… And in between all of this, I have squeezed in meetings with my poetry group and tried to spin thoughts into poems.

There was the disability and sex conference which was great and I really want to tell you all about it, hopefully soon.

For now dear blog, please do not hate me for my absence, I still love you and wish to be back with you soon,

Helen

Sexual health testing and disabilities

I’ve written before about some of the barriers that disabled people face when wanting to check on their sexual health. Whether it’s inaccessible buildings, unsupportive care teams or clinics that don’t have hoists, there’s a lot of barriers.

Well, Enhance the UK have paired up with SH:24 to provide 900 FREE test kits to disabled people.

It’s a simple process to sign up, they take some basic information from you and then send you out the kit in the post. Mine arrived in discreet packaging so could be kept private – my carers always open my post for me by default but I’m also very open with them so wasn’t concerned.

Inside mine was a vaginal swab and a blood test. I’m going to say that what you get depends on who you are etc!

I have severe vaginismus so was somewhat concerned about the swab – it has to be inserted 5cm into your vagina for 15 seconds. But, whilst I wouldn’t say it was comfortable, it was fairly managable for me. For people who can’t reach down there themselves, I’d say if you have help putting in a tampon, this will be fine. If you are sexually active, ask your partner to do it if they can.

For the blood test, you get three finger pricks and a small vial to drip your blood into. My body doesn’t like giving blood so I made sure I was hydrated and warm before hand, both things that help with blood flow and hence blood giving.

Top tip: Place your finger in a warm cup of water for a while first to get the blood flowing!

Once you’ve done the tests, you pop them in the provided envelope and send it off.

After three weeks I got a reminder text that asked if I needed any help – I didn’t as I’d actually just sent my tests back but it was a nice, friendly message. I had ended up waiting a while to do my test because I was on my period. They do say you can do the swab whilst you’re on but my periods are so heavy that I didn’t want to.

Three weeks and one day, I got a text saying that my tests had been recieved and would be turned around within 72 hours. A day or so later I got another text saying it was a little delayed. But then, not long after, I got my results by text.

My test had checked for chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis. The first two were negative and the third was unknown as the blood had clotted and the test couldn’t be completed. I was able to text back to request a new blood test kit.

When I signed up, one of the questions was about sexual assault or rape. As someone who has experienced historic sexual assault, I ticked the box. That evening, a few hours after I’d completed the form, I recieved a text with a link to find my nearest Sexual Assault Referral Centre for support. There was also the offer to text back and arrange a time for a phone call.

Throughout the process, I found it easy, friendly and accessible. It was simple and hassle free and felt like I was being supported. I would definitely recommend it.

Being published!

When I was little I used to make my own newspapers and would go round trying to interview people and write articles. There was the attempt to implement a newspaper in primary school and another attempt to do the same when I was a Guide. None of this stuck but I loved the writing involved.

This makes it very exciting that I was recently published in the local newspaper!

(That’s all for now – writing the column, doing York Disability Rights Forum, staying alive during a pandemic and the darkening days of Winter’s approach are all taking a lot out of me. But I miss my blog and I do hope to get back to it soon!)

An untitled poem about autumn

Her Midas touch
turns all to gold:
                the light
                the leaves
                the conker’s sheen.
All honeyed under rich veneer.

Palette of pumpkin spice
               and kicking leaves
               in smoky air.
A mask.

Cracks in the façade reveal
threads of decay,
and Autumn’s truth.

She’s Winter’s catalyst.
The cog that turns
warmth cold,
bright dark,
hope harsh.

Sets the stage for
Winter’s empty monologue.

Gardening

As of a few weeks ago, the couple I share a yard with finally ‘let’ me have half the flower bed. Admittedly, I am entitled to half of it but they aren’t the best neighbours and if it’s taken them four years to finally accept me then I’m going to take it.

Small flower bed filled with herb robert

It was a mess. Heavily covered in Herb Robert and a massive bramble.

Rosebay Willowherb fallen over and taking up a lot of space

And Rosebay Willowherb, also known as Fireweed, had fallen over on the paving slabs.

But I also knew that there are some welsh poppies and daffodils hidden away somewhere and, as we removed the Herb Robert, we discovered a buddleja! I love their purple flowers and they are so great for attracting butterflies so that was exciting.

I am keen that the space I have will a) be easy to maintain as I do have a disability and most of my carers don’t really garden and b) wildlife friendly. I already had one bird feeder attached to the fence so I got myself a second.

Flowerbed, mostly filled with soil and a couple of plants. Next to it is a tall fence with two bird feeders attached.

Sticking with the eco-friendly theme, I wanted to reuse materials as much as possible and led me to The Reclaimed Company which is also based just outside York so less fuel use as well! I chose myself some green welsh slate, some roof tiles and a chimney pot.

Welsh slate leaning against a brick wall

This beautiful slate was laid on the soil so that it’s easier to reach the bird feeders, especially in winter when it’ll be all muddy.

The Rosebay Willowherb and Buddleja have been staked so they grow vertically not horizontally! A fantastic sage plant has been added, along with a fern and a couple of hostas.

I have bulbs that will go in over the next couple of weeks – more daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses.

Corner of a flower bed with a buddleja and rosebay willowherb and a chimney pot turned into a bird feeder.

The chinmney pot has become the base of a bird bath and it was very exciting to see the birds discover it. I have also laid some roof tiles on the soil to make stepping stones to the bird bath so it’s easier to clean. As I have to rely on carers for some of these jobs, I want to make it as easy for them as possible.

I’m looking forward to finally having a bit of garden space and am so glad I hung onto my garden tools for all these years!