Archive for October, 2012

I’m labouring under a bit of a cloud again – in fact I can’t seem to find any open water at all this year. I’m conscious of the fact of course that once you let the darkness in it colours your emotions, so you can’t look anywhere without feeling unsettled, like you’re waiting for something awful to happen all the time. I don’t like feeling this way. It’s unfamiliar, and usually I can see life from the sunnier side,  but sometimes one’s optimism becomes  weighted down by events and, like an overloaded lifeboat, becomes sluggish, difficult to steer, and in danger of capsizing, in danger of tipping you into the black depths of despair.

The passing of my mother in the spring is an event I’m still adjusting to. It’s a fact of middle aged life – this passing on of our forebears. We all have it to face and deal with, each in our own way. When you’re in the thick of such events though, there are so many practical demands placed upon you, you can’t always digest the emotional issues as well as you’d like. You have to put them on the back burner, deal with them in slower time, and I think that’s what’s been happening progressively this year. The darkness leaked in early on, and I’m still searching for a way back into the light. My eldest son leaving for university has also punched a hole in things, and that’s something else I’ll be a while getting used to.

With this back-story in mind, if I analyse the tormentors foremost in my consciousness at the moment, they boil down to an upcoming overseas business trip, and another aged, much loved, relative in a hospital far away, which makes visiting as much as I’d like very difficult. Oh, and my sense of smell – which had begun to return only a week ago, has disappeared again.

The business trip is a pain in the arse to be frank, and I just can’t see beyond it at the moment. If I told you I was going to Paris, you’d wonder what I was complaining about, with all that ooh la la and the Tour Eiffel and the Moulin Rouge, n’est ce pas? But business trips are business trips; all you see are the internal details of the transport systems that deliver you from one grey concrete and glass building to another, always at the expense of a great deal of fatigue and personal time, your only respite being an hotel room probably next to a dual carriage way, and a pillow you can’t sleep on. Other than that, you could be anywhere in the world.

I’ll feel differently when it’s over, and the weekend will put a different slant on things for sure, but for now it’s a hurdle to be crossed, a trial to be endured and understood. As for my aged relative, well, I’d rather be spending time with her than swanning off for three days on a trip I’m viewing as nothing but a monumental waste of my personal time – but hey, I know I’m lucky to have a day-job, and I’d be as well to just quit whining and get on with it. As for my sense of smell, it’s a short term relapse, and I know I’ll get over it.

But where’s all this going?

Well, I’m conscious of late of having been drifting, philosophically, my personal writings having thus far led me along the well worn path of alchemy and Romanticism, only to run into sterile territory where the intellectual pickings have been slim, yet where there’s also many a beguiling fool similarly run aground and spouting nonsense, and I fear I’m in danger of becoming one of them.

The wordcount is rising with two novels on the go – one of them tritely erotic, the other intellectually pretentious – but I’m making no progress on the inner, psycho-spiritual level at all, which is really the whole point of things for me. The wordcount is neither here nor there, and when I’m done with those novels, squeezed them dry for all they’re worth, I’ll just give them away like all the rest.

At such times as these, times of doubt, you have to let go of course, you have to sit back and subject yourself to the tides of the world while looking for signs, and thinking symbolically. And for me the arbiter of my fates, the dealer of the cards, is always a woman, and the most powerful of these women is never a real one.

Yes, sorry dear reader, but she’s still haunting me. I’m talking about the goddess again.

In male psychology, she comes to us in dreams as an unknown woman. In part, she’s the female half of our bi-sexual nature, the part we swallow down when our physical gender crystallizes in the womb, so we can never really escape her, any more than a man can ever escape himself. I’m not blessed with a mature approach to my goddess. I see her everywhere. I over-literalise her, and I allow her the upper hand too often, so she tips easily from being a truly inspirational creature, to the infamous belle dame sans merci, tormentor-muse of the more tortured of our poets.

As a younger man, she had me falling in love with one stranger after another, a relentlessly rocky trail littered with the wreckage of many an unrequited pining. I’m safely through that phase now, but she manifests in other ways, equally beguiling, and is no less obsessive in her possession of me. What other daemon could make me so reluctant to voyage from hearth and home but the goddess manifesting as an “anima obsession” – or in other words a woeful reluctance to leave the tit and simply go find myself out there?

I was thinking about all of this yesterday while sitting in the beer-garden of my local pub, my good lady and I enjoying the autumn sunshine while sharing a quiet drink, and watching the crowds go by. We live at a time when casual or even grungy fashion is de rigueur – a very relaxed era to be sure, so it’s rare on Sundays to see anyone in their Sunday best – it’s a thing that’s passed into the history books, along with those times when the whole of England would attend church, before sitting down to a roast dinner.

So I spotted her a mile off, this woman in the green dress, flitting in and out of the crowds, teasing my imagination. The dress was tailored and it fit this woman to perfection, accentuating her form and her movement – the turn of her hip, the elegant poise of her body. The world was in its rags and she, the catwalk model, in her finery. I never saw her face, but I recognised her at once, and with a faint grimace, as the goddess teasing me with her impenetrable language, pretty much like she does in dreams, always challenging me to make sense of her.

For some men, the challenge is simply to wake up to the fact of this woman’s inner presence, then she’ll reward them with a greater sense of peace than they’ve ever known. But it’s a difficult transition for a testosterone-pumped, macho kind of guy, and it generally only comes with age and the waning of one’s hormones, if it comes at all. But if you’re not that kind of guy to begin with, if like me, you’re not macho, if indeed you’re a girly kind of guy, she can take over your life and make you believe there’s nothing, psychically, beyond her at all that’s worth a damn. She will hold you snug to her bosom, hold you tightly there and in perfect rapture as a willing captive from the world, instead of setting you free, so you can live like a man.

All enquiring men (and women) are ultimately searching for the wisdom of the ages. In male psychology, this manifests itself, symbolically, in dreams, as the wise old man, the Gandalf, or the Merlin of literature. Yet, beyond an elusive awareness of this archetype, I feel I have no connection with it, either in my dreams, my imaginal ramblings, or my writings. But this is the guy I should be seeking out; he’s the Daoist hermit holed up in the caves on Wudang Mountain; my Lao Tzu; my inscrutable Kung Fu master; or – in real life – even a wise, living father figure. It’s the role of the goddess to introduce me to him, to subordinate herself to his greater influence, but in my case either she’s a bossy britches, or I’m just not ready yet.

Meanwhile the woman in the green dress flits through the dappled sunlight of imagination, teasing me with promises of the spiritual delights of union, if only I could catch up with her – while making me dread the wrench of parting from hearth and home, that I should be robbed of her warmth and certainty even for a moment.

But I’m also reminded the spiritual path is not a straight line, more a spiral centred upon the core of the Self. If we are tenacious in our quest, we orbit slowly, seemingly making the same mistakes, rediscovering the same old ground time and time again, as if by the turning of the same seasons, but each time with a little more clarity, a little more genuine understanding.

Come to think of it, I did meet him once, that wise old man. It was in the gate-house to a fine old city he was quitting in despair. He gave me a copy of the Book of Changes, before riding off into the sunset on the back of a mighty water-buffalo, in the company of a dancing girl.

I turn to the Book of Changes now, blow the dust off it, and ask what this upcoming trip might mean for me – not so much what might literally be in store, because that’s anyone’s guess – more psychically – how I should align myself, how I should be thinking in order to make the best of it and meet the future in the most advantageous and optimistic way.

And it says:

Hexagram 57, otherwise known as Gradual Influences, or Adapting to One’s Environment. Rather a predictable response to be honest. The keywords here are adapting, fitting in, going with the the flow, or subjecting oneself to the experience, all with a view to the longer term. The message is to go with an open mind, and an open heart, and just fit in as best I can, all of which makes perfect sense to me. But that’s it with The Book of Changes – eventually it creeps inside of you, and you no longer need to consult it as slavishly as you once did, because you already know what it’s going to say.

So, Paris here I come.

A bien tot.

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The short answer appears to be yes.**

I’ve been anosmic (no sense of smell) getting on for a couple of years now. Before that my sense of smell was intermittent to put it mildly – sometimes sharp, though mostly non existent. But to lose your sense of smell completely is a hell of a thing. Yes, it’s insignificant compared to going blind or deaf, because you can function quite normally, and the only danger in it is you might not smell the presence of life threatening things like gas or smoke. But for the sufferer, the world becomes a very bland place indeed.

Our sense of smell touches us in subtle ways, triggering memories, or adding immeasurably to life’s experience. To walk over a peaty moorland or through a rose garden and not smell it is to take away so much of what the world has to offer, disengaging you from it emotionally – because a sense of smell does connect you intimately with life – arousing you, comforting you, warning you, or even sometimes repelling you. And to take all that away? Well, you have to be without it for a while to understand what that means.

I’d reached the stage where I was thinking I was going to have to get used to it. My local GP was unable to offer me anything other than a steroid based nasal spray that made me ill. So, I decided to visit a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who rather spookily turned out to be the spitting image of a character from one of my books* – we’ll call her Doc Lin**. I’ve had TCM before for a bout of tinnitus. That was a very positive experience and quite an education, so I wasn’t going into this blind – any skepticism I might have felt regarding TCM had already been banished during that earlier episode, some five years ago. I knew TCM worked for certain things, but would it work for anosmia?

Doc Lin reassured me that, yes, TCM could probably help – that she had helped others with anosmia and it was certainly worth a try. I’d need around 12 sessions, she reckoned, one each week. It would cost me £350 if I paid up front, then there would be herbal concoctions to pay on top – maybe another £100. Of course when you’re used to free healthcare, you balk at the cost of paying for treatment, and wonder if you’re being spun a line by someone more interested in your money than your health. So yes, it was a risk, but it’s not every day you meet a character from one of your books, so I gave the gal my card and I signed up.

The sessions involved an exam of tongue and pulse and some diagnostic questioning, then thirty minutes of acupuncture, followed by fifteen minutes of massage. I’ve also been taking a liquid mixture of Ginko Bilboa and Ginseng. I’m eight weeks in now. I’d found the sessions very relaxing, and energising, but my sense of smell had remained stubbornly absent.

Until a few days ago.

It was a jar of coffee beans. I flipped the lid off it and was overwhelmed by the scent. It came as such a revelation, I was quite emotional for a while. But alas, the experience was all too fleeting. Indeed, by the time I’d stuck my nose in the jar for another delicious whiff of it, I was back to my old anosmic self. However, these brief glimpses of a world restored to all its glorious scented completeness have been recurring with increasing frequency. I’ve smelled both strong odours, like coffee and camphor and tea-tree oil, but also what I’d describe as more delicate things like camomile tea, and toothpaste. I was also walking in the hills at the weekend and smelled the earth for the first time in years. It drew me up, and made me gasp with wonder at it.

As I write, it’s gone again, so my recovery is somewhat fragmentary and tentative but, even such as it is, I’m very grateful for it, and for once I feel I have some good news to tell Doc Lin when I next see her. I’m sure things can only improve further from here.

If you’ve lost your sense of smell, and western medicine has been unable to help you, it does seem possible that TCM, however it works, can achieve the  impossible, and restore it. So don’t give up, don’t resign yourself to a textureless world. Go and talk to a practitioner of TCM.

*If you’d like to meet Doc Lin, you’ll find her in my story “Push Hands” here.

**Update July 2013. It didn’t last. It was a glorious scented interlude, but all too brief – disappearing after only a few weeks. After that I tried the ENT department of my local hospital where I was diagnosed with nasal polyps and had more luck – all be it temporarily but for much longer, with a course of antibiotics and corticosteroids. That acupuncture worked was immensely satisfying, but that it worked for so short a period, was also disappointing. See my other blogs pieces on anosmia for more updates on my intermittent journey back to a scented world.

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Our financial institutions are having a hard time at the moment, having brought the world closer to ruin than all our terrifying stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons ever did. I’m not sure I understand where the money’s gone, who’s got it, or indeed if it ever existed in the first place and, like the cold war, wasn’t in the end some kind of monumental bluff. Anyway, the banks and building societies are at least conscious now of a deficit in terms of their public image and seem to have been taking corrective action, but in ways that, for me at least, backfired spectacularly recently, and had me thinking only how much we’ve lost over the decades. I’m not talking about money here, but something far more vital and it concerns our sense of what is real.

For most of us, our contact with these financial institutions is through the front line counter staff. The women on those counters are the most human face of the “industry” (and they are mostly women). We know them. They are our wives, our sisters, our nieces, and they are the girls we knew at school.

Cue my little story:

There was this girl. We’ll call her Chrissy. At school, Chrissy was a lovely young woman, pleasant, easy going, very pretty, and I don’t mind admitting I carried a bit of a candle for her. But, you know how it is? Being a shy kind of bloke I never did get around to, well,.. so much as speaking to her as it happens. We left school in 1977. She went on to college to do her A Levels, while I got myself an engineering apprenticeship, and I lost sight of her for a bit, but then, quite unexpected, some thirty years ago, I spotted her working behind the counter of the building society in my local town, and I thought to myself – I wonder if she remembers me? If she ever serves me, I thought to myself, I’ll say: “We were at school together, Chrissy.” It wasn’t that I wanted to make a big thing about it – we’d both moved on romantically, and I’d simply thought it would be nice to see her smile, or even to struggle to remember me – it made no difference. It was the touching base with some point in my distant past that seemed to be the important thing here.

Now, I don’t go into the building society very often, but when I do, I take my turn in line, and I have a one in five chance when it comes to drawing an individual cashier. And would you believe it, in thirty years I never drew Chrissy once? The fact she’s still working there is no small miracle in itself, but it seems even more incredible to me that not once in thirty years did she ever update my passbook. I’d watch her from the corner of my eye as I stood in line, and I was always impressed by how little she seemed to have changed. Indeed for a woman of 51 she still has a very lovely look about her and is instantly recognisable from the old form photographs I’ve kept of those olden times. She has something, at least for me – embodies something. But it’s complicated.

Fast forward to the present day:

One evening, recently, I had a call from someone doing a survey on behalf of that building society. They were checking up on the customer “experience” and how I rated it, having recently used the branch. Had the counter staff addressed me as “Mr Graeme”? Had the counter staff, on conclusion of the transaction asked if there was anything else they could help me with today? There was a lot of other useless guff as well. I answered in the affirmative, whilst thinking to myself the poor b@$t@rd$ – they’d all been sent on a course on how to speak to customers, how to be human, and present a caring face! I gave them a top score because in this respect, and as a fully paid up member of a trades union we’re all brothers and sisters and it’s us against the ever present spectre of the hare brained management type bastard gurus and their fiendish plots to outwit us.

Now, I was in the branch again, last week, and I drew Chrissy. At last! For the first time since 1977 I was standing in front of her, and thinking to myself $h1t, what do I say? I mumbled something about a passbook update, and she spoke so efficiently to me, handled that passbook like it was greased, and before you knew it I had it back in my hands, and she was smiling her dismissal at me while at the same time asking if there was anything else she could do for me today, “Mr Graeme”. It was a polished performance. Perfect, and as human as a machine.  And I thought,… where had Chrissy gone? The building society had once had a real treasure there – a charming, personable lady, efficient at her job, loyal to the branch, having been there all that time, and they’d replaced her with an effing robot.

So I said nothing about having known her at school – that little balloon I’d carried all those years had been suddenly popped.  I and walked out, feeling a little disappointed, a little thoughtful, and I sat down in the coffee shop and I wrote about it.

We are each of us human, obviously, but how an institution can come to believe it presents a more human face by imposing a scripted “behaviour” on its front line staff beggars belief. To be human is to be spontaneous, to smile sincerely, to listen to the irrelevant aside of the lonely old lady, to take that bit of extra time with people because we are all people and do not make good machines. You cannot script that kind of “behaviour”. And the last thing we need as human beings is to worry constantly as we’re doing our jobs that there’s some phantom cold caller ringing up your customers and asking them to score you for the scripts you’ve used, and that if you get less than perfect performance you’ll have a suited moron taking you to one side for a bit of behavioural correction. That’s not how you build a more personal face, nor an efficient organisation. That’s how you break people.

Anyway, you most likely wouldn’t have known me, Chrissy. In 1977 I had hair down to my collar and a rather goofy, naïve expression. Now I’m follically challenged and grizzled and occasionally grumpy, but come to think of it still pretty naive, so maybe you’d’ve have recognised me after all. But what I’d really like to say here under the veil of total anonymity is that I do still think of you, and when I see you I think of the times we shared, and though they were pretty chaotic in their own way, they seemed a little more human, a little less “scripted”,  a little more “real”.

I’d also like to say that in my book you’ll always score 10 out of 10.

Graeme out.

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