or, The Thumb of Self-Compassion
The world is full of tracks and paths and routes, many invisible to our eyes, currents brushing the face of things, whispers, yesterday’s wind across the earth below. As I write, I am beneath one of these hidden roads, the exodus of birds heading south to Africa for the winter vast and, mostly, unseen. Much as I would like to, I cannot spare the time to sit on the balcony, binoculars in hand, watching for bird after bird, whether solitary, or in huge sweeps like the swallows, or the veritable melee of martins we keep receiving, day after day.
One early morning in late September, I looked outside to see perhaps three hundred swallows frantically feeding, ahead of coming rain, swirling low and hurtling past the window, snatching insect after insect. Our swallows had already departed, bar some of the rebellious young, perhaps twenty or thirty of them, and I knew the migration from the north had begun in earnest. The previous night, the temperatures in Scotland had dropped to their lowest for September in around twenty years — no wonder the birds had gone. On twitter I saw tweet after tweet, each mentioning their swallows, a fixture on the wires for weeks, had departed, vanished in the night. I knew where they were; they were here in Alentejo, feeding up, then resting upon our wires, in the trees and the bamboo, waiting for the rain to pass before they were gone again, next stop, potentially, north Africa.
Our nights are cooler, the land breathing mist as moisture returns after the months of dusty summer. The days are still hot, with temperatures approaching 30°C (86°F). As the moon waxed to full, the owls began holding a parliament, calls from every direction, with several species represented. The sky is bright planets, the moon painting clouds with silver filigree and making ghostly, magical shadow puppetry irresistible. As she wanes, the stars shine ever brighter, distant furnaces funnelled through unimaginable time and distance, to appear as pinpricks to our eyes, decorate our dark skies with heroes, legends, and beasts, cast a skein above, a net to guard us while we sleep, strands and knots connected by imagination and our position in a vast whole.
On the 25th of October, before your next scheduled newsletter, the clocks fall back an hour. Without Covid and Brexit, this would have been the last time this happened in Portugal, as the clocks were scheduled to stay on summer time after changing next March. However, this has been postponed, for now, as the EU deals with these other issues.
Throughout this, unknowing and uncaring, the birds will continue to fly, using the sun, using the earth’s magnetic field, navigating their way via invisible track-ways in the sky, stopping to feed in this insect-rich corner of the continent, where the plains and ocean meet the ancient hills and forests.
It is good to be reminded, good to remember — we are all linked by invisible bonds, secret ways between places, paths between time, more threads tying us together than anything trying to pull us apart.
It is autumn, here in the northern hemisphere. In Scotland, the roaring will be underway, the red deer challenging and battling, the glens ringing with their clashing antlers and deep, full-throated calls. The trees here in Alentejo are principally evergreen, cork and holm oaks, olives, eucalyptus, citrus, but there are sporadic others which are doing their best to remember it is autumn. However, given the long, rainless summer, they are already mostly brown and ready to fall and colours are muted.
Instead of deer, or colourful leaves, autumn here seems to be the occasional day of rain, cooler winds, and, most of all, that influx of birds fleeing south for the winter.
As it has been across the globe, it has been a strange year. The plan had been to explore Portugal (check!), find a new home (check!), find ‘our’ people, a community (no check!), make friends and invite others to stay (no check!). We have only had the one set of guests, in July, when Aurélie’s parents came to visit. This was delayed from March, when they had been due to come pick up their campervan we had borrowed for the exploration of this nation. Since then, we’ve (carefully) visited France, but have had no further visitors.
Many of the other slowly-nomadic, travelling types I know, or follow online, returned to their home countries back in late February / early March, just as we were signing a year-long contract for our apartment and moving in. A lot of them, and the huge majority of travel bloggers, moved back in with their families as, I suspect, many people around the world have done. Makes a lot of sense. To move to a new country at the start of lockdown has given an odd perspective on place, on people, politics, and, indeed, on my own mind.
I do feel — as a UK citizen abroad in the EU at this time — something of a peculiarity, trapped in a befuddled limbo. I am registered as an overseas voter for the last constituency I lived in, up in Caithness, Scotland. My bank account is registered to an address in France, but there is a chance it might be closed, seeing as the Westminster government has made pretty much no progress on agreeing, well, anything at all associated with leaving the EU. Due to Covid, I have not been able to register myself here in Portugal as I had intended. Truly, a strange time.
This time of year, autumn, is always the time when I am reminded of my months spent alone in the woods (and, along with spring, when I most want to head out to wild places). Which then reminds me of how much I have learnt since then, about nature, about bushcraft, about myself. When you know you can find water, process it to be safe, make a fire, a shelter, find food and materials to keep living, and living well, it does things to the psyche, provides a confidence I never felt before I tested myself with those months alone.
In recent months, despite not being out in the wilds, this confidence has been useful and provided a curious sense of self throughout the months of pandemic. Strange times indeed, for us all.
This is the point in my newsletter where I share the good news about what free stuff you can download for your e-reader, tablet, or phone. When I sign up to a group promotion, I always look at the other books and authors taking part, and I always find something I like the look of. This month, over on StoryOrigin, there are around 40 books to choose from, including Only One Death, by yours truly. Simply follow the link to see what is available!
The final edits of the third novella are just about done, but there is still a bit more work to do on the bonus tale attached to it. Other work has taken a bit of precedence over the last weeks, but it is getting ever-closer to publication. It is definitely outwith novella limits too, hence, perhaps the extra time needed to tell the story. Or two stories, seeing as there are two strands woven together here. It is good, tense and breathless, fast-paced and, throughout, full of fear.
For French readers, the translation of Death and Taxes, which is still not-entirely-titled, is nearing the stage where it shall be sent to the beta-reader team. The translation of Dust and Death (in English: the free bonus novella for Only One Death), entitled Mort et Poussière, is complete and shall be released very, very soon.
It’s been a while since I shared a few of the things I’ve been listening to, so here’s a brief list:
Danheim, Wardruna, Heilung — I have found these three to be perfect background for the nearly-finished third novella which might just be called Harmony of Death. Or Death in Harmony. Maybe. Or maybe something else entirely. It features a performer, an entertainer, and the ambience created by these bands is spot on.
Various Hits of the early to mid 90s. Nostalgia and memory and weirdness. Some of these I’d totally forgotten, some I still hate and some I love perhaps more than I did then. I guess that’s what 25+ years will do. The early 90s, in my mind, is when songs became intrinsically tied in with videos, stories being told through song and sight. Remember Tasmin Archer and her cobwebs, blaming you for the moonlit sky? (Always seemed a little unfair.) Or, similarly, a hammy Meatloaf doing anything for love in his cobwebby castle? Cobwebs abound. This nostalgia-fest also inspired me to listen to Shakespear’s Sister, Annie Lennox, and The Crow soundtrack.
The Prodigy — mostly during my workouts, true, but also when I want to pick up the pace of my work.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — because, Nick Cave.
Fever Ray — this has been a staple listen for some years now, especially her first album.
Nick Drake — also a favourite for many years, the guitar work is still fresh and truly outstanding. A season of Nicks.
Flogging Molly — I still think Within a Mile of Home is their best.
Rob Zombie/White Zombie — again, this is often a workout/exercise soundtrack, which works rather deliciously.
The Cure, especially Disintegration.
Fleetwood Mac — definitely a season of Nicks.
The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack or, more correctly, some of this, on repeat. See Danheim etc.
Currently listening: EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring
I shall have to share what I’ve been reading and watching at some point soon, too, I find these lists quite interesting and telling for myself, showing patterns I often miss from the entries in the tracker in my journal.
I like to think things through. It doesn’t really matter what the thing is, I like to have time to allow the thought process to weave its magic, to let the subconscious do much of the heavy work. This is true for my fiction, certainly, as disparate ideas and seemingly-unconnected strands are pulled together in one surprising moment of ‘Oh! Yes, of course.’ I have had several of these moments recently, where problems on a story-to-come have presented a perfect answer, without me having to do very much at all, merely think about it from time to time. The key is to record these solutions when they appear — as soon as they appear — lest they fly away again. Seeing as many of these thoughts appear when in the shower, or about to fall asleep, the writer best be prepared for note-taking wherever they may be. This act, the habit of noting things down when they flash across the brain, of sketching ideas and musings, is often all that is needed to form connections and pathways leading to new ideas, new art. All too often, we rush into things and forget that our brains can operate on other levels, that they can do the work for us through the subconscious, if only we let them.
Similarly, I have several other projects — projects I have been thinking about for a long time. As I’m sure you know by now, I like being out in nature, sometimes for very long periods of time, and I like moving through the wilder places as a part of a whole, rather than neon-clad and far too obvious. I want to see the animals and birds, I don’t want to scare them off. As such, I have now spent rather a long time learning outdoor skills in order to attempt to achieve exactly this: as silent and unobserved a footprint on nature as possible.
The first and primary part of this is the knowledge and practice of skills. Too many bushcraft types like to discuss expensive knives, the very latest equipment and the shiniest of gear. I prefer to learn a skill with whatever I have at hand at that time, and I like to consider other ways to do the same. Knowledge, resting in the mind and the muscles, is weightless and, I would argue, is actually a form of anti-gravity — you travel much lighter, knowing you can improvise, or use natural materials wherever you go. I also count skills in nature identification as crucial to bushcraft — if you know what something is, you know how to ID it, know its properties, then you are already far advanced on those who only really have their expensive knives.
However, that’s not to say I do not like collecting pieces of equipment I deem worthy, I really do. I listen to those whose voices I trust, sometimes simply watching what they use, and do not advertise, and I think things through. For a long time now, I have been gathering materials to make a selection of pieces of equipment and gear, mostly belt-kit, all in a matching style. I finally began this project this month, a project which will combine leatherworking, sewing, carving, and several other skillsets.
When I remember, I keep taking photos of the process, so I can illustrate this for you in the future. Each of these pieces, whether the knife sheath, axe mask, or possibles pouch, will be decorated. Again, I intend to use a variety of arts to do this, whether beadwork, kolrosing, pyrography, or embroidery, for example. I have, over recent years (and before, although my access to these things is currently limited), gathered a wide variety of things I will add to these projects, such as owl and jay feathers, shells, seeds to make into bright and shining beads, stones, flintwork or pottery pre-manufactured thousands of years ago, or bone, antler and seaglass, to name but a few. During my travels I have also bought, or received as gifts, some other items to add, such as jade, or tiny charms.
This is my winter project, something I intend to make and use and keep for the decades (assuming I have them) to come. Sure, I already have pouches and bags and sheaths, for example, but they were not made by me, exactly as I want, with things I have gathered. Personalising things is crucial to me, altering them to make them mine, make them fit me better, and this will be an excellent expression of this — it’s about time, the percolation period is now over. Watch this space for updates.
I have other projects ahead, things percolating or currently growing unseen. Examples include birch wood laid down to season and carve a kuksa, birch bark to make some containers, and a perfect ash log, out of which I intend to make several self-bows. I have a pile of clothing I am currently altering, as well as further outdoor equipment to modify. I also have a wealth of things in boxes in Scotland, which will one day become projects of their own. Lots to make, alter, and mend — this is a good way to live and be, a counterpoint to the buy buy buy message we have been fed for far too long.
Finally, I think there is much to be said for working with the hands, for making things to last, using a pattern you devise, refine, test, and retest. It is a wonderful way for my brain to form paths too, as my hands and eyes are coordinated in creation, the mind is often free to work on the subconscious; it is a balance to the hours of screen time, the thousands of typed words which cross my vision every day.
I think compassion, being good, and kindness are crucial to life — something I keep mentioning, and should not really be up for debate even though, apparently, there are those who believe it is. More fool them. This year has been extraordinary for every nation on this planet. It has been a time of learning and watching, caring and, indeed, by some, uncaring.
We can only continue to be kind, to find what works, to listen and care. The problem for those who think power is to be achieved through grasping, lying and cheating, is that, when it is earned by others, fairly and through hard work, kindness and listening, they simply assume they must have somehow cheated too, only better than they did. This is a sad thing — imagine being caught in a spiral of mistrust, of deceit and cruelty, where you can never achieve your goals, never achieve the greatness you care so much about, simply because of your own actions and the inherent doubts they bring.
Much better to be kind. Kindness is strength in itself.
Which leads me to this final point — if you haven’t achieved as much as you’d hoped this year, I truly hope you are not giving yourself a hard time. An extraordinary, difficult year, for everyone, remember? At times like this, I find it is wiser to dwell on what you have achieved, rather than what you have not. As we approach the waning of the calendar, it is natural to start to make a tally, to see whether it has been a good year or bad. How we all approach this, with an incredible variety of methods and thoughts, is something I’ve always found fascinating. I suspect the end-of-year lists, editorials and blog posts for 2020 will be very different indeed.
I hope to see that people have given themselves a break, have accepted that, if events are to try and pull a scale one way, it is easy enough to hold the thumb of self-compassion on the other side of the scale, and tip the odds in your favour. This is, admittedly, a terrible metaphor, but I’m leaving it here, as I think the Thumb of Self-Compassion is an amusing and easy way to remember the point — give yourself, and others, a break. You’ve made it this far, and that is no mean feat.
(And, yes, I am also talking to myself here — I planned for my third and fourth novellas to be published this summer, after all!)
FINAL FINAL NOTE: At the time of writing, this newsletter goes out to 299 of you, which is quite exciting, for me at least. I am hopeful that I’ll hit the 300 point within a matter of hours. Then we can, err, all stand together at Thermopylae.
The photos for this piece are a further selection from those taken ten years ago, when I went a bit wild for a time and, maybe, met a phoenix.