On Reading Romance

I have been resting this afternoon, although I'm never very good at accepting the importance of doing so. I've been reading a charming book by Mary Balogh, and I refuse to call it lightweight even though it's a romance. In my youth I disdained the very idea of reading romance novels, because I was an intelligent liberated woman, but now that I've settled more deeply into real feminism, I enjoy them a great deal, for I've come to understand that "women's literature" is just as valuable as any other. The histories of so many romance novel characters are quite tragic, and their struggles to find inner peace and happy relationships make worthy plots which no doubt would be more admired if they were written in artful prose by male authors.




It's also true to say that, when I was younger, I was an independent creature - I had relationships with others, but I was mostly focussed on myself. As I aged, that changed, and I discovered how centering my interest away from myself enriched my life indescribably. My reading preferences changed along with this. I saw that the truly ripe stories and biographies were to be found within an exploration of relationships rather than just the narrated experiences of one person, or the telling of what happened instead of to whom it happened.

I now personally believe that the most important thing in life is relationship - which is to say, relationship with other people, with nature, the environment, animals, ourselves, and Spirit. Romance novels unabashedly explore relationships not only of a hero and heroine but often of their families, their communities. And they're almost always interested in how happiness is reached. I've never been willing to read a novel with an unhappy ending (and yes, quite often I will read the back page first, just to check.) Apparently this makes me of lower intellect. I don't care. I choose joy.




Of course, most of my own stories are romances, although I present them as fantasy tales.

I would love to see more "women's literature" adapted to the screen - more relationship stories, romances. I think they would gain large audiences. No, I don't mean Outlander, the vulgarity and violence of which I find distasteful. I mean tv series and films which charm, uplift, and invite us deeper into our own tenderness and desire for contentment.

This post has become very long! I'll stop now, leaving you with a link which shows that smart and liberated women can like romance novels. 


The Woman in the Dark Valley

Once there was a woman who lost her light while walking, and entered into a dark, cold valley. She could not find a way out, and after a long time came to believe there might indeed be a way out, but not for her. And so she wandered aimlessly, thinking of all the beloved things she had left behind, all the wishful things she would never achieve. And she wept until her tears grew so cold they turned to silence.

One day, almost by accident, she came across a flower. In the damp bitter shadows, a tiny, lovely flower. The woman knelt down in fragile wonder. It was only pale, but it was beautiful.




The woman left that flower, for knowing something beautiful existed in the gloom was enough for her. But overnight the stars did not shine, and her heart seemed to shrink into a knot, and the icy shards of her grief blocked her throat so she could barely breath. It was as if seeing that beauty had made her see even more clearly the misery she was trapped in.

The next day, she could not help herself - she picked the flower. She held it against her cheek, against her breast. She felt its gentle fragrance ease her breath. All that day she carried the flower like a talisman. Guilt troubled her for having picked it - but, you see, picking flowers in the dark valley allows more to grow. Some time later, the woman came across a mouldering stone that blocked the only dry path. And there beside it was another tiny flower. She took it with her, and began to search in earnest for more. And with every flower she picked, others grew. One day she had a whole bunch of delicate daisies, and wove of them a crown for herself. She held her chin up to keep the crown steady on her head, and because of that, because her face was to the sky, she saw a small white bird.

The woman followed the bird, and in a while she came to a meadow of warm light and a thousand wild flowers. Amongst those flowers were her beloveds, and beyond them were open horizons. The woman wept freely now, all of a sudden - grief becoming joy. She ran towards love. And when her family had her in their arms at last, they asked her how she found her way out of the darkness. She said, I believed in flowers.




Another woman lives in that valley. She knows there is a way out, but doesn't believe she has the strength to take it. She spends all her days walking until she finds a tiny flower, and then she lays down beside it and looks up to the dark sky, where she sees one star that burns for her. She thinks, tomorrow I will. And maybe one tomorrow, that shall come true. Regardless, there will always be a tiny flower somewhere for her. There will always be a star.

Another woman lives in the beautiful meadow, but part of it is dark and cold as if it is that valley too. She never wishes to go there, but sometimes does so, despite herself. When this happens, her beloved stands at the edge of the darkness, holds out his hand, and sings for her. And by his song she finds the way out, and with his hand she has the strength to take it.

And there is another woman. She lives in a beautiful garden. Once a week she takes seeds from her own lovely flowers and walks into the dark valley to plant them.


I Wish the World Was Run By Young Women

I wish the world was run by young women. The ones who carry poems around in their pockets, and draw dresses and flowers in their school books, and dream of kisses in the long slow shimmer of afternoon light as if this would be the best life could give them.


elif sanem karakoc


I wish the world was run by young women with fierce minds and fragile memories, who practice how to laugh so it seems everything is all right. The breakable women, the women for whom life can sometimes feel too much. I wish the world was run by the frangible, the tender-souled, the ones who bury tiny fallen birds, and stop for every dog along the street, and hug books to their hearts.

I wish I could give the world over to the girls who love dark angels, Byronic heroes, boys with haunted eyes who buy them roses, but only in books; girls who love everyone else in real life, because they know how good being loved feels. Girls who are at the top of their class or most popular in the office but make friends with the bullied. Girls smarter than their teachers but who read silly romances. The hopeless cases. The poets who would rather sell shoes or wait tables than make money which might keep them from poetry. The dreamers who can not bear to entirely wake up.


Arundhati Roy


If only the world was run by young women who want just small things - friendship, someone holding their hand, pink flowers on cupcakes, the scent of old books, vintage dresses, babies, quiet hours in the library, trilogies, grace, being left alone, being folded into warm arms, peace. Imagine a world where they gentled us, made us dream of romance, made us care for animals and flowers; a world where we all did what we could, going so softly, to protect their innocent vision of beauty.

Metaphors for Living


I used to write poems, but now I live them. Not
a gentle lyric of the garden, but a wrack of words against silence,
a striving for punctuation. For that last full-stop on which all
the sentiments rely for their gravitation and their hope -
that resolution, that peace. The poem ends and ordinary begins:
weeding the garden, walking in search
of flowers. Until the next poem falls like rain,
or outright thunder. Or unexpected gossamer sheets of sunlight
for many stanzas of idyll, and then, then, I want to leave the last line open,
or with a dash, so that ordinary becomes beautiful.

I used to write poems about doing the dishes, but now
my hands just get wet.

This is why, you see, I'm bashing away at a novel, even though
it's slower than my heartbeat and harder to find - pressing against
veins, wishes, requirements, for words and structure. I need to remember
there can be a narrative that falls and soars, breaks
with chapters then regroups, wallows
in all kinds of weather and water in sinks,
until the heroine is utterly soaked with life and still on she goes,
trailing thread to find her way home, although she never will, after all,
because her heart will grow wheels and her eyes fill with rising suns,
and the thread will ravel into knots, snag on things,
just like old dreams always do, so that there is looseness for the new,
and she shall learn the peace of understanding her own full-stop
will be followed by a sequel.

And I am learning the secret wisdom of all the wild writers -
the ones who do not sign books deals but leave letters
their children find, and compose poems that they scatter
like seeds for the sake of the eventual surprise
(the whorled leaves or sudden colour that arise from dirt
when you least expect it, because three months ago
you read something and thought you forgot it)
the mother-writers and cheque-writers and dreamers of stories
which never make it to paper; the award-winning composers
who get their medal from the only person they tell their tale,
the self-published and unpublished and one-day-I-will people -
they all know it, or should know it, should be uplifted and validated by it:
whatever you write (however you do it) is the sound your heart is making
pressed against the warm body of life.



20 gentle books and films

I have been asked to list my favourite gentle-hearted stories. It is a little difficult because I am very narrow in what I read. I don't like modern literary fiction, for example. Also, as I began composing the list, I realised that I kept wanting to list different books by the same author.

I decided to list instead authors whose books could be relied upon to enchant a reader - ie, be engaging, lovely, and probably also provoking but without the use of brutality against the audience. In addition, they might have shadows, but not the cruel sort which will blemish your mind. I don't equate gentle with insipid.





Twenty Gentle Hearted Authors



Louisa May Alcott
LM Montgomery
Anne Bronte
Connie Willis
Jane Austen
Patricia McKillip
Sharon Shinn
Robin McKinley
Megan Whalen Turner
Julia Quinn
Beverly Lewis
Elizabeth Gaskell
Rebecca Shaw
Terri Windling
Sarah Addison Allen
Erin Morgenstern
Richard Bach
Terry Pratchett
Charlotte Bronte
Charles Dickens







Twenty Gentle Hearted Films


Emma, the BBC version starring Romola Garai
Persuasion, the BBC version starring Sally Hawkins
Ever After
Ladyhawke
The Princess Bride
North & South
Cranford the tv series
The Taming of the Shrew starring Rufus Sewell
Sense & Sensibility BBC version
A Room With A View
Bright Star
Anne of Green Gables series starring Megan Follows
Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender
The Secret Garden
Memoirs of a Geisha
Ondine
Babe
Up
While you Were Sleeping
Cyrano de Bergerac



What would you add to these lists?


even more than the moon and the stars

And then maybe there comes a time when you decide you're worth it. This doesn't have to mean being brave enough to actually stand in front of someone and say so. Accepting your own worth has nothing to do with strength, and everything to do with compassion and tenderness. But maybe you will be able to quietly care for yourself in gentle ways, because you deserve it. And maybe you will stop making excuses for other people, because whatever they did (or didn't do) actually hurt you, whether they meant to or not, and it's alright to feel that hurt. Your emotions are valid and you are worth it.




Your hurt matters - perhaps not to anyone else, but to you, and that is enough. The thing is though, if it matters to you, it matters to the universe. You are one of the threads in the great weave of Life. You may think your thread is small, pale, insignificant, but without you, the weave would unravel. So I hope the time comes for you to shout, whisper, trace silently against your skin, I am worth it. And when it does, you will prove it to yourself by taking care of your hurts, needs, sorrows. The universe will surely thank you for it.



art by vladimir volegov
it looks rather like a scene from Deep in the Far Away, don't you think?
emma dreaming at the window ... although her hair is longer in the story,
and I suspect the hat is ever wider brimmed than this one :-)

The Value of Protecting Gentleness


This week Polyvore closed down. It happened without warning, and only a few were lucky enough to download the artistic work they had created and saved on the site. When I saw the closure, I was deeply sad. For me, Polyvore was a place I could be who I would have been when I was young, if that had been possible at the time. It was also a place to develop visions of story characters and support my personal quiet within this overbearing world. I felt silly about all this, until I saw how many other people were experiencing the same sorrow. Polyvore was a refuge, a therapy tool, a community of dreamers, a place for visions of all kinds.

For those of you who don't know, Polyvore allowed people to build sets of imagery mostly based on fashion. Many wonder sneeringly how fashion has any claim to being therapeutic. Of course, this is the sort of response women are used to hearing about their arts, isn't it? For me though, the key issue is not that a place for mostly women has been lost (as the successor is also aimed at women) but that a place for a certain kind of woman has been lost. A place for gentleness, tenderness, dreaming.

I see it all around me: this rejection of softness. It's in the stark and minimalist lines of architecture and interior design. (I myself love the clean feeling of minimalism but in moderation). It's in the sparse style of modern literature, in which all adjectives and adverbs are disdained. It's in the scraping away of our everyday vocabulary, and the brusque simplicity of fashionable clothing, and the streamlining of services everywhere. Cosiness is no longer valued. Gentleness is something to be mocked.

I have been thinking a lot lately about all the issues that are important to me. There are plenty. Climate change, the disintegration of democracy, poverty, gender wars, Palestine, the institutionalisation of childhood. But I've decided finally that the issue I want to focus on most is the protection of gentleness. I believe it is when humankind devalues gentleness that we see so many awful troubles. I also believe that for a very long time women were the keepers of gentleness (and we could discuss forever if this was a fair thing or not) and that now woman are breaking free of their terrible chains, there is no one left to be custodian of gentleness. Ideally, we all should be, regardless of gender. I don't see how it will come about, though. I see humanity striding purposefully into a cold shadow. But the least I can do is speak gentleness myself, try to be gentleness, honour it and promote it whenever I can.


The Crippled Writer On the Side of the Road

Today I read a beautiful article about writer's block by Hannah Tinti. She credited a poem by TS Eliot for saving her creative practice. I wish I could tell you the poem inspires me as much as it inspired Hannah. But there are places in the dark forest where, no matter how many words you dig from the soil and pull from the trees, you receive no sustenance. At times like these, all you can do is knock on the Old Woman's door and ask for a bowl of soup, even knowing that you really can't trust what she'll put in it. For some, she stirs in poetry. Others I guess are not so lucky.






I have been writing, but none of it goes anywhere. One of my works in progress is about a girl who runs away from home; she gets as far through the forest as she can before her blistered feet, inside old thin boots, will carry her no further. I look at her sitting on the ground and don't have any idea how to make her get back up. Just as I have no idea at the moment how to make her story, any story, move forward past its inspired start.

If this was a piece of narrative therapy work I was doing for myself, I would spend as long as it took describing the place where I sat, because of course the story is there, in that place, in the not moving forward. But I already know this. And all I care about is that my feet hurt.

I wonder what people would like to read from me. What kind of story, what kind of book, the mood, the genre? Do people like best my fantasy, poetry, real-life tales? Do they want old witches or young queens? I'm sure they would answer, whatever you want yourself. Which never helps.

TS Eliot advises the crippled writer to wait without hope. I can't agree. To me, that's just poetry; in real life, it would be despair. Or perhaps it is despair to fail being inspired by poetry. As I sit here watching other people dance along the road, I wish someone would stop and give me a hand up. I don't expect it, though. And I think that's the worst thing about being a writer. Everyone assumes you can get yourself up and back on the road. It's a lonely job, that's the cliche. But I suspect many readers are comfortable with the writer's loneliness because it seems that in the solitude, the stillness, comes magic. No one wants to think about blistered toes and aching hearts, aching hours, tears wept over unravelled words. That takes away from the enchantment.

For me, the true magic of writing sparks during a conversation ... watching people together ... after an argument ... around a dinner table ... within someone's arms ... sharing a glance across a room - in the living and the loving. Otherwise, it's all just words. We don't want lonely writers. We want them to be strong-footed, daring the road, encouraged. We readers, friends, family, lovers, are their enchantment.  

a vocabulary for a woman on the rugged shore


when words and not-words
have scraped the gentleness away
and she feels like sand - her bones and dreams
pulverised, then aggravated by endless tides,
all the softening of lace and tea and quiet books eroded -
when this has come about, as it does to everyone no doubt,
she will go to green, remembering that remedy -
to meadows and overgrown lanes, to willow trees
that share benevolent poetry with the wind, and
sanctuaries of wildflowered grass, cosy places where the sun
falls mildly through leaves, where she can sit peacefully,
and just be;

and if she can not get there, because of weather,
or schedules, or the ache in her ungentled bones,
then she can go softly, go kindly, through the
half-forgotten pathways of her waking dreams -
she can sit on a sofa, holding cushions to her heart,
or on a doorstep with bees drifting past in search of flowers,
and she can lift herself with compassion, and carry herself
with care, into the beautiful places of her own soul,
where love, and remembered tranquility, and wishes,
and hope - always that fragile tender blossom of hope -
will weave a new gentleness from the inside out,
and heal the scrapes from a rough-edged world.



we can have everything we need inside ourselves but we have to be mindful to put it there.



the inspiration of a simple woman

My nana and I used to wander the morning away along little hill roads and down to the sea. She didn't teach me anything on these walks, we were just together in old-fashioned quietness and a deep gentleness that came from her being a simple woman and me wishing to be one. A woman who found what she needed from wandering roads and being with her loved ones.




There have been many amazing women in the history of the world. Hypatia, Boudicca, the sister queens Mary and Elizabeth, Maya Angelou, Ursula le Guin, Emma Gonzalez, to name only a few. All have been inspiring in their own way. One of my own greatest inspirations was my nana. A simple woman. A gentle-hearted woman who never said a bad word about anyone. She knew the world did not admire her. She knew her ambition to be a homemaker and mother was not much valued. What did she do about that? She went on loving and loving, knitting for newborns, making scones for neighbours, waiting for visits from her family, living a small and simple life with a heart that was bigger than the universe. Like millions of mothers like her, she would count for nothing much in the historic annals of our civilisation.

But if I could choose between talking to Hypatia, getting writing advice from Maya Angelou, dancing in the Elizabethan court, or walking a dusty sunlit road with my nana, I would not hesitate for even a moment to choose the latter. To me, the most valuable inspiration of all is love. If women like my nana were upheld as powerful, wonderful inspirations; if they influenced our culture with their example, what a beautiful world this would be.


the good girl

There once was a girl who cared about giving people what they wanted. She had been told this was wrong, but she could not see the reason for that. So long as it didn't hurt her, or take away from who she was, why not meet people where they wished to be? If it was in her benevolent power to give them something that would make them happy, why not?




Very few people understood her. They looked out of their castles, over their moats, watching always for dragons and other creatures that might take advantage of their carefully guarded goodwill. The girl fed dragons. She got a little singed sometimes - and sometimes she got actually burned. But the dragons were hungry (they ate lemon cake and old poetry) and helping them was a thing she could do. It didn't necessarily make her happy; it was occassionally dirty, achy work. But it did make her happy to see the dragons contented. And she got to hear wild stories, sad stories, beautiful moon-drenched stories, of flying beyond the world.

I would like to tell you the girl married a prince. Maybe she did, maybe not. There are plenty of girls who miss out. But regardless, she was a princess. I know you've read the old stories (or seen the films). A princess is a girl who does good. 

I would also like to tell you that the girl is me. Truth is, though, I'm not particularly good. If I saw a dragon I'd probably run screaming. But I can tell when blog readers prefer posts with pictures (stats are good for some things) and that's easy enough to give.


the child of pine and midnight sheds her lamplit skin

There is a pallor on the night horizon that makes me think the dark is haunted by dawn. There are crickets in my garden. I wish it was colder, with a wind going through. Autumn smoulders. It remembers summers in its vast golden moons.

I love those moons. And I love the night when it forgets the dawn, when the streets breathe silence and I can walk them alone, just me and the wind and the watchful nameless things behind hedges, behind stars. Honestly though, I don't love the daylight here. The beach, the buildings. I've been trying to, because we should love the place where our feet are, right? We should look for beauty everywhere. But I miss missing the wild.

I've also been trying to love the beauty in the stories I ought to write. The ones I know people want to read. And I can see the charm of wild-haired women with earth-stained hands and earth-stained old songs - that kind of story, drawn out of a cauldron, or echoing a bell at the threshold between worlds. But the best wisdom I ever heard about writing is, write what you know. That doesn't mean write what you have done in your life, it means write from your self. When you aren't listening to your own inspired, dreaming voice, you too easily get caught up in the voices outside - you get charmed, but there's no real magic going on.

There really is beauty everywhere. There's always something wonderful to excite the eye. But until you've held wonder within yourself and made it part of you, so much so that you can speak with its voice ... the whisper of leaves in cold starlight, the endless boneless sound of tide ... unless you are looking out from the inside of it, you've got nothing. It's got you, and any moment it can just let go.

It's easy enough to appreciate the beauty around you. But I don't think appreciation should equate to empathy. Presence shouldn't automatically mean home. When you lose your longing for your true home, you lose a bit of your heart. It's like settling for a good enough marriage, an okay job. It's like letting yourself write about a vision instead of writing your vision of it.

Maybe it's time I stopped looking for beauty everywhere around me, because to be honest it's cluttering me up with junk. It's inspiring my eye, but not my heart. Maybe it's time to honour fidelity of vision, fidelity of love.

drinking wine and moonlight in the wild garden

The moon last night rose almost as bright as a dawn. I sat on my doorstep and watched it until I could no longer bear such gold. A wild-hearted cat kept me company, its eyes full of moon. When I went back inside it was still early - we're on real time again, the clocks finally having fallen back into sychronicity with nature, with woman-time, farmer-time. I think if more people sat to watch a moon rising in the eyes of a cat or a poet or a wondering child, there would be less call for daylight savings.

I'd been to church earlier in the day, but the moon did more for me. The vicar had a lovely voice but he lost me when he gently mocked Mary for supposing Christ was the gardener. It's always seemed clear to me that Mary was not mistaken, and in that moment she truly witnessed Christ in all his divinity, as the raiser of seeds, the lover of earth, the carer of the garden. That's what real, true-hearted power looks like, isn't it - so gentle, so simple, and maybe a little lonely.  I am not alone in my impression. When I complained about this on Facebook, a kind person sent me this poem.


by Fred La Motte
EASTER MORNING - A POEM FROM MY LITTLE BOOK, 'WOUNDED BUD'

"We seldom notice how each day is a holy place where the
Eucharist of the ordinary happens." ~John O'Donahue

Out beyond Christianity
Magdalene and Jesus are dancing

in a garden where things grow wild,
where things grow into what they are.

Many paths lead here, not one,
and the gates are always open.

Over each gate there's a sign:
'Wanderers Welcome.'

Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener,
and he is.

They drink the wine that turns
temples into bodies again.

She reaches out to take his hand:
he lets her.

There are three rules here:
Yearn, Risk Everything, Connect.


Easter is over but the sacred never ends, so long as love is present. It is love that makes anything holy, otherwise we're just washing dishes and driving to work in the glare of morning light or sitting at night beneath an illuminated rock in the sky.