August 2011

As usual, I am posting the list of books read in August. Though at Sarah’s suggestion, I will also list a ‘things made in August’, which will perhaps explain why this month’s reading list is a bit smaller than previous months’:

  1. Sunchild (beta). Hanna C. Howard.
  2. A Conspiracy of Kings. Megan Whalen Turner.
  3. When We Were Orphans. Kazuo Ishiguro.
  4. Serenity: Better Days. Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, and Will Conrad.
  5. Fire and Hemlock. Diana Wynne Jones.

Best new read: Sunchild.
Best (only) reread: A Conspiracy of Kings.
Best disappointed read: When We Were Orphans.

Though Sunchild is still a WIP, it was still very enjoyable to read and I am honoured to have been one of those privileged to have read it as a beta reader. Even if A Conspiracy of Kings had any competition, those who know me would also know that it would have won that category hands down. As for When We Were Orphans, I found it the most disappointing of the books I have read by Ishiguro (and I loved Never Let Me Go). It felt like he only has one way to tell a story, and as interesting as that story may be, the form and technique with which he tells it was unexciting. Anyway.

Things made this month (and why I watched an inordinate amount of television and film via BBC iPlayer the past month):

— Gifts from Aunty Chera —

My best friend’s first baby gets preferential treatment: my first ever baby blanket, hat, and mitts are all gifts to my soon-to-be-born nephew Isaac. Since I have yet acquired the skill of being able to read while knitting or crocheting, I have watched iPlayer in lieu of reading as much this month. I still have another baby blanket for another little one to go! But fortunately I also have quite a bit plane traveling, so I’m sure I can squeeze some books in for September…

Travel woes

It seems that every other time I want to make a transatlantic flight, the first leg of my journey is canceled. Last time, it was the Great Snow of 2009 that stranded me in the Edinburgh airport. This time, it is because of Hurricane Irene. Fortunately, I found this out before arriving at the airport — thank goodness I just happened to be checking my flight status online during breakfast. I phoned my mum (it was only 11.30 PM her time, so early was I awake) because I couldn’t find any UK numbers to call. She phoned United customer service, and after being on hold for nearly two hours we finally were able to talk to someone. The woman who took our call was very helpful — the exact opposite of her airline’s website! — and I have been put onto a different flight tomorrow morning, flying into a different, non-East Coast airport, and arriving only 24 hours later than I would have originally. Not bad. We still need to confirm the first leg of my new flight, but the woman said that shouldn’t be a problem. At one point during the call we realized that our conference call (for we had her on speaker phone and she could hear me via skype) was covering Scotland, Texas, and Hawaii. Technology still amazes me.

So, faced with an unexpected free day, what do I do?

…thus using up 9 of the 12 courgettes I picked yesterday. There was also various sundry, lots of skyping with my mom, and watching the new Doctor Who. New Who! I actually watched it ‘live’ on my computer. It was fun. Now, to go to bed way early so I can wake up at 3.00 AM for Take 2 of my American Holiday.

Vague pacifists

The Vague Activist Fairy has made a convert:

The Valiant Knight only jousts and fights in tournaments — none of this crusading or ravaging the land business. Only where there are, you know, rules and codes of honour. He’s not a complete pacifist after all — only a vague one.

(I did introduce him to the Wonky Dragon when I first brought him into the office, but that didn’t go down very well. He wasn’t a vague pacifist yet and, well, the dragon can be quite incendiary. The Wonky Dragon has a pile of books all to himself now.)

(Yes, I am a very serious PhD student. Most of the time.)

My Ebenezer

A year ago my best friend told me I needed help. She was right. Nothing could make me smile anymore, not even seeing baby ducklings in the Kinnessburn. So I went to my GP and was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, and immediately started taking antidepressants.

Last winter was the worst six months of my life. All of my emotional and mental energy went to teaching, meaning that the rest of the time I spent lying down in my office staring at the wall. After two and a half months of seeing a therapist, she told me she wasn’t qualified to deal with my problems. I then took a more pragmatic approach and told my GP I wanted someone to help me cope with anxiety specifically, and was assigned to a self-help coach in the spring. That went better, but was only for three sessions. All the while, my GP and I kept increasing my dosage.

Even so, it wasn’t until Easter that I discovered joy again, and it wasn’t until June that I was able to live with that joy. I have been depressed at least since I was 16, and have had anxiety for even longer. How I feel now is revelatory, revolutionary. If this is what ‘normal’ really is, then what have I been missing the last decade of my life? I have always striven to make the most out of life, claiming the promise that Christ gives life abundantly. And so I marvel at the prospect of finally, finally, being truly alive.

I never really wrote about having depression on my blog, though I did allude to it occasionally. I was seriously and severely ill, and I am still recovering. I’m still on medication, and yes, I am harbouring fears about what this winter will bring with its long, dark, cold nights, and of when I eventually come off the medication. But I am in a place now where I am better able to cope, and I still have the promise of my good Lord Christ, and so it will be okay. If there is anything I have learned, it is that God is Faithful.

It is strange, looking back. Only now can I see just how bad off I really was — and how I had been for a while. Last night I tried on a dress I wore at a best friend’s wedding four years ago, which took place the summer before I moved to Scotland. I was quite bad off then, too. The dress still fits, but differently, and isn’t nearly as loose at it was — which is saying something, as it is a size 2 (U.S. sizing). For the first time in my adult memory I have an appetite again, and a metabolism to keep up with it.

Like my rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety and bouts of depression are an illness, occasionally a debilitating one. Even if I seem okay, I still take medication to keep the worst effects at bay. I recognise the symptoms, know the triggers that can make it worse. I know I may be preaching to the choir here, but I have to say it: people who are depressed can’t just ‘snap out of it’ and become ‘normal’. It takes longer than a couple of months to be ‘okay’ again (especially, in my case, it’s been so long that I didn’t know what ‘okay’ felt like, let alone ‘good’). It’s taken me months and months to reach a point where I could even write this post, and I’m still not convinced that now is the right time. I have lost friends along the way. I have also gained friends, and a sense of self-confidence I never had before. But the point is that it takes time, and for me it will take some more time yet. There is still the winter ahead.

I almost didn’t publish this post. I’m feeling better, but I don’t want to jinx it. This post is not at all saying that I’ve ‘made it’, that I’m fully well. Instead, this is a reflection of the past year, an update on the journey. And so this post is to say, more or less, ‘Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’ve come’. Now, onward and upward…

Our Garden, Part 10

Right now, my Victory Garden is mostly taking care of itself. The pumpkins are spreading their vines as far as they can across the garden and I’m hoping the small fruits that are forming will be big and orange and ready for Halloween. The sweetcorn is valiantly growing in Scottish weather, and even a few cobs are forming, sticking out their creamy tassels to flutter in the wind. I’m disappointed that on the whole the sunflowers haven’t been as successful as I hoped, but I did get one good, beautiful sunflower. When I look at this sunflower, my heart is glad.

And then there are the courgettes. Lots of them.

That’s only the bag from today’s harvest. I’ve given bags of courgettes away to friends, colleagues, and even my supervisor. Ros and I have been putting courgettes into whatever we cook for dinner, and we’re still not going through them fast enough.

Just a few things I have made with courgettes:

As well as, you know, tossing courgettes into whatever other concoction I might be making, be it pasta, rosemary chicken with tomato sauce, chicken coconut curry, Scotch broth, or my own spicy red lentil soup. On the list of things to do with our cornucopia of courgettes is to make quiche, chutneys, and blanch some to freeze.

Any suggestions for what else can we make with courgettes?

Our Garden, Part 9

The past couple of days I’ve been working on a flower bed in our back garden. Some time ago I discovered that the front part of the garden, closest to the house, used to have a flower bed, but over the years it had grown over with moss and weeds. I’d been meaning to reclaim it, and when it came apparent that my roses needed to be planted into the ground after all, I thought I would finally get around to doing just that. And this time I even remembered to take before and after pictures.
 

I’d like to add mulch and a border, but that will be work for another day. In addition to the roses I planted two fuchsia plants. But the real treat will be in the spring when the daffodils and, hopefully, a few hyacinths come into bloom.

Turn of the year

Sun shining, the sky bright and blue and clear like the inside of a bowl, birds singing, and a chill in the air. The first breath of autumn. It will be a while yet till the leaves change and the pumpkins are ready to harvest and the nights draw in dark and cold, but already the year is turning. I do not mind the autumn, only we have not had much of a summer this year.

I intend to savor the remaining green in the trees. In my garden the sweetcorn and pumpkins are still growing, and there are plenty of courgettes to harvest. Next month the blackberries will be in season and I can harvest those, too. The days are still long and the air, though cool, is not cold. It is only the first breath of autumn, after all.

Giants, dragons, & bears…

A friend of mine asked to hear more about my creative writing and another asked me to write about how powerful medieval literature is. Here is an attempt to answer both, quoting the illustrious Helen Cooper:

‘[Romance motifs’] quality as memes, with their generous capacity to latch onto the mind and replicate, is wonderfully caught by one of the last authors to use medieval texts in an unbroken line of transmission, John Bunyan, in the later seventeenth century. He misspent his youth reading cheap prints of romances, not least the perennial favourite Bevis of Hamtoun: a work that owed much of its popularity to its density of the simplest and most colourful of such motifs, dragons and giants and grim prisons and healing balms. […] Bunyan realized that a good story composed of motifs that are already familiar is the most mind-engaging form there is, and that romances are the very best such stories. It is no coincidence that the authors who kick-started the modern equivalent of the romance, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, were two of the leading medieval scholars of the mid-twentieth century.’ (The English Romance in Time, pp. 3-4)

As I continue to read The English Romance in Time I find more and more quotes I would like to use from Cooper, but I shall refrain. The romance genre — not to be confused with the modern romance novel — was the most popular form of secular literature for at least five hundred years. Though there is family resemblance across these texts, no one definition fits all of them. But their popularity lies in their appeal to the imagination and to entertain, their relevance to current society whilst being placed ‘far far away, long long ago’, and their use of familiar motifs and ideas — and not only the faithfulness to various motifs, but their adaptation of them. The beautiful woman met beside a fountain might very well be expected to be a fairy, but in the case of Melusine, the fairy becomes all the more compelling because she loves her husband, raises many sons, and desires a mortal, Christian life instead of a life with other fairies. Romances were not only used to entertain, but also to educate, and opened themselves consciously, and sometimes not so subtly, to debate the actions, motivations, and morality of the characters. In short, medieval romance is exciting to not only read but also study because in addition to the giants, dragons, quests and adventures, they are also mirrors through which we can glimpse the preoccupations, concerns, desires, and ideals of medieval society, albeit darkly.

And so it should come as no surprise that I find myself writing ‘modern medieval romances’, fairy tale retellings in the mode of medieval romance. The Pooka novels make use of motifs found in fairy and folk tales, Classical myths, and medieval romance. The knights and princess go on quests, encounter strange creatures, and have many adventures along the way. Like my medieval predecessors, it is not only the appearance of standard fantasy and fairy tale motifs, such as dragons, a damsel in a tower, etc., that make my stories fun to read (or so I hope), but the reworking of those motifs, the blending and reinterpretation of them into something familiar, yet unique.

This is, of course, a rather poor answer for a very rich subject, and yet I hope it has proven interesting…

Observations

The Lammas Fair has come and gone. For five days every August the town is transformed into a fairground. My housemate hates it, but I’m always amazed at how these massive rides can fold out of the backs of lorries. I love how for a brief while our medieval town is full of incongruities. Rides, games, vendors, fortune tellers, various traveling merchants selling their wares, there really is a bit of everything. I’m sure I would hate it, too, if it stayed any longer — but as it is, I enjoyed walking around it, eating fair food and gawping at the ferris wheel, carousel, and other rides that swing and spin perilously close to buildings.

Otherwise not much has been going on beyond the usual work routine. My evenings have been spent knitting instead of reading as it becomes ever closer to certain little persons’ birth dates, which means I’ve been watching more than usual on BBC iPlayer. More recently, however, Ros and I have been watching the news and checking Twitter about the riots spreading across England. It’s completely baffling. These aren’t protestors, but opportunists, looters. What is even more baffling to me is that the repeated phrase seems to be that the rioters are striking back against the rich and showing them and the police that they can do whatever they want. That, as the lower class, unemployed, or marginalized, they are tired of being put down and ignored. But by destroying and looting local shops and businesses they are only disenfranchising others in their own communities, thus perpetuating an unequal system.

But that is easy for me to observe, being some hundred miles away, in the very privileged position of being able to pursue what I want in life, a PhD in such an esoteric field as the concept of ‘fairy’ in medieval romance, especially since I also am now among the ranks of the employed, having applied, been interviewed, offered and accepted a position at a museum in Town. (More on that later once I actually begin working, which will be in a few weeks.) I am glad that social networks like Twitter are also being used to organise clean-ups in the targeted communities — a huge, standing ovation to #riotcleanup and to the police who, despite the criticisms against them, I’m sure are trying their best. And I’m sure we can all agree that we hope this madness ends soon.

Our Garden, Part 8

Last night Ros, Charly, and I heard that it might be possible to see the Northern Lights, so around midnight the three of us went out to the end of the long pier. It was mostly cloudy, and though there was a suspiciously bright patch of cloud over the bay, and an oddish colour blue between the clouds to the north, we mostly saw the northern lights of Dundee from across the Tay. But it was not a venture wasted. Dark as it was, we could see ribbons of white and silver on the tips of the waves. Between the patches of clouds were swaths of stars, so rarely seen in summer when the days are so long. I was mesmerised by how far light can reach in the darkness: a flash of headlights sparkled on the waves from a car turning down a road across the bay, a bonfire at the base of the castle cliffs where someone was juggling fire, and even Jupiter cast a faint gleam on the sea.

This morning, after a much needed lie-in, I was grateful that it was another sunny day. After brunch I went out to work in the garden. The task today was to clear up the area around the blackcurrant bush and apple tree so that we could get to them more easily. One thing I appreciate about gardening in Scotland is that I need have no fear about getting amongst it in weeds and bushes, because I don’t have to worry about spiders that can kill me. I always forget to take before and after photos of my renovation work in the garden (renovation is the best term for it, since we inherited the garden with the house and it has suffered who knows how many years of neglect). But here you can see how our fruit area looks now.

Of course, having now made the blackcurrant bush easier to get to, I then promptly stained my hands purple harvesting a bucketful of fruit.

One of the first time I encountered blackcurrants was when I was traveling around Britain with a group from OBU, and I poured myself a glass of what I thought was grape juice one morning at breakfast. After that first misadventure, I was wary of blackcurrant flavoured things. Then I tasted blackcurrant jam, though, and it’s been a good relationship since.

With my very own blackcurrant bush, I can make my very own blackcurrant jam. Just look at that bubbly, fruity goodness. Blackcurrants, like most native British berries, are really quite tart. But add just enough sugar and it becomes a delicious, delightful jam. I was pleased to end up with four jars as the fruit of my labour. (I know, the tray behind them says cherries. But I like it.)

Of course, one must always have a piece of toast with the left over jam in the pot.

I spent the afternoon attacking the weeds around (and beneath) the courgettes and the pumpkin plants. Imagine a garden where it gets just the right amount of sun, good fertile soil, and lots of rain, and then let it be neglected for three or four weeks. Yes, I have quite a lot of work ahead of me.

In other news: C is for Courgette: