Stoicism for writers and healers

I’ve been reading some basic books about Stoic philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and describes a path to a good and happy life lived in harmony with others and with nature. It has much in common with other systems and many of the ideas were already familiar to me from Buddhism, Christianity and modern psychological therapies, but it is refreshing to have them presented in clear practical terms. Here are a few thoughts from a novice student of Stoicism.

One of the principles stated by Epictetus (50-135 AD) resonates strongly with me. He wrote that “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us”, so it follows that we are well advised to focus only on what is within our control – which includes very little except our own judgements and behaviours. This may sound simple and obvious (and the “serenity prayer” of St Francis, which I have heard so many times, says something similar) and yet I am certainly not alone in having wasted much futile effort and distress over things which I have no power to change. Applying this principle would avoid many of the hassles of daily life, such as frustration in a traffic jam or irritation with an untidy workmate. It is also relevant to both the two fields – writing and medicine – in which I have spent my career.

As a writer it is up to me to make my books “the best they can be”, to choose whether to submit them to traditional publishers or to publish independently, and decide how much time and money to spend on marketing. But whether people want to buy my books, and whether readers like them, is not up to me. So there is no point in getting upset over rejection letters, lack of sales or negative reviews – in theory. In practice, overcoming the desire for external validation and becoming more tolerant of criticism requires mental discipline and training.

Turning to the medical field, again there is a dichotomy between what is “up to us” and what is not in relation to physical health. We can make choices about many aspects of our lifestyle and behaviour, such as diet and exercise, in the hope of preventing or recovering from disease. But there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful, and nor can we change some of the other factors such as our genetic susceptibilities, exposure to pathogens in the environment, the inevitable deterioration of our bodies as they age. The dichotomy between what we can or cannot control is not always acknowledged. Some put all their faith in external treatments with drugs and surgery, and ignore what patients can do to help themselves. Others advocate total personal responsibility for health, and risk making patients feel guilty for being ill. Both extremes are potentially dangerous.

There is of course much more to Stoic philosophy than this and, having enrolled in the annual online event Stoic Week which is about to start, perhaps I will write more blog post(s) on this subject.

Expat blues

Even though I’ve been very happy living in New Zealand for the past twenty years, I expect England will always feel like home. I’ve been fortunate to be able to return for a short visit every summer – until now. I had booked to fly to London next week but my trip has been cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

Earlier visits involved a joyful, if exhausting, whirlwind of activity – travelling round the British Isles by train and plane, staying a night or two in several different places, often having lunch, tea and dinner engagements with different people on the same day. The itinerary has gradually become less demanding, as I realise I can’t see everyone every time, so recently I’ve just stayed in London and done day trips. I always try to see my closest friends and relatives, and visit some favourite places – Oxford, Malvern, the countryside of Kent and Sussex – which hold special memories or are featured in my novels. I also like to visit one or two tourist attractions such as Blenheim Palace or the Tower of London. And I always buy something from Marks and Spencer.

The change to a less hectic pace is partly my own choice, as I don’t have so much energy as I used to, but partly because my circle of friends – mostly in their 70s and 80s – is shrinking. Six of those I knew and loved have died in recent years. I was able to visit all of them in the last months of their lives, but because of being back in New Zealand was unable to attend any of their funerals. Several of my surviving friends are unwell at present, and one of the hardest things about being unable to travel this year is not knowing when and if I will see them again.

Apart from that, I don’t mind staying home. I have my memories and photos of England, and the internet has made it easy to keep in contact with people at the other side of the world, even if not all of them can accesss Zoom. I’m glad not to be parted from Brian, the cats and the dog. And Auckland is a lovely place to be, even in winter, with the weather reasonably warm and many flowers in bloom.

***

Jennifer Barraclough’s latest novel You Yet Shall Die, set in Kent and Sussex, is available from Amazon.

Letters from the past

Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.

One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.

The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

Writing in lockdown

For the sake of all the people round the world who are suffering real hardship linked directly or indirectly to Covid-19, I do hope the epidemic will soon be over and the lockdowns can be eased. For myself the restrictions have caused nothing worse than frustration, and as far as writing goes they have had their positive side. No longer able to have coffee with friends, go to the cinema, sing with my choir, do my own shopping or volunteer at the SPCA, I am largely confined to house and garden. Domestic work is only satisfying to some extent, and Netflix only enjoyable for limited periods. The highlight of the day is the afternoon walk with Ireland, my dog-share Labrador, but there is plenty of free time.

Ireland ready to go home after his walk

Having this time has motivated me to resume two writing projects that had been flagging lately. On a friend’s recommendation I downloaded the Scrivener programme and am very glad I did so. To learn to use the system I needed some documents to work on, so was stimulated to make a start on the new novel for which vague ideas had been floating round in my mind for some time. I am not the sort of writer who can summarise the whole structure of a book in advance, and work through the chapters in sequence from beginning to end. For a novel I tend to start with a general sense of the theme, setting and characters, writing fragments as they occur to me, before putting them together to form an outline of the plot, which will probably change when I fill it out in more detail. Scrivener, using templates for both fiction and non-fiction, is ideally suited for this way of writing because it enables everything – draft chapters with notes and summaries, character sketches, links to relevant websites and images – to be seen at a glance and arranged in any sequence.

My other project has been the editing of my husband’s memoir about the early years of his life, 1933-65, mainly focused on his psychiatric training at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Collaborating with each other on this book has been a long process, sometimes fraught. However we both agreed on the final version, which will be published shortly – details in my next blog post. The book may appeal to those with an interest in medical history, and to anyone who knows Brian or used to work with him.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.comand other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).

Biographical writing

I am editing my husband’s memoir, to be published shortly, covering the years from 1933 to 1964. It is compiled from various essays that Brian, with his vivid memory and fluent style, has written over the years. Focused mainly on his medical career, the book contains first-hand information about the history of psychiatry in New Zealand and the UK. It also includes sections about topics of general interest such as being a patient in a TB ward, having a bad trip on LSD, and tramping in the Mt Cook region (photo by Florian Schulte on Unsplash).

Working on Brian’s book has made me think about biographical writing in general. I doubt that I will ever write my own autobiography, although I have often drawn on personal experience for my novels. I have forgotten a lot about my earlier life; many of the things I do remember would reflect badly on myself or others if they were published. And as I haven’t achieved anything remarkable, or had anything remarkable happen to me, I don’t think the content would be of interest to anyone else.

One reason for autobiographical writing is of course the wish to understand and come to terms with one’s past, a sort of do-it-yourself psychoanalysis. To quote from the finale of the musical Candide: “And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life.” However the lyrics of the same song, Make our garden grow (which I enjoyed singing in a New Zealand Opera workshop last year), go on to imply that longterm satisfaction is best sought from simple domestic activities – easier than writing autobiography.

***

Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.comand other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).

Cat poems

Watching the movie version of Cats prompted me to look out the few pieces of doggerel (catterel?)  that I’ve written to various feline companions over the years – not up to TS Eliot’s standard, but cat-lovers may enjoy them.

THE GINGER TOM

This is dedicated to Orange Roughey (O.R.) who was rescued as an aggressive stray living wild on the mountain behind our house, and after a long and tumultuous period of rehabilitation turned into a cuddly domestic pet.

The ginger tom is curled up on the bed
He dreams of catching bird and mouse and rat
He purrs when loving owners stroke his head
A life of bliss for the domestic cat

Orange Roughey cropped

FOR FELIX

This is a sentimental poem written after Felix, a much loved black and white cat, died from an undiagnosed illness.

We loved one another for fourteen years
Remembering you now brings back my tears
You came as a fragile rescue kitten
As soon as we met my heart was smitten
Although you and I were perfectly matched
Other admirers would often get scratched
I was the mother that you never had
Nursed you with care when your health became bad
Although the vets were so clever and kind
They could not help as your vigour declined
Why you were so sick nobody could say
Sadly I watched as your life ebbed away
One night when I lay awake on the bed
A cold breeze told me your spirit had fled
I laid you to rest in a garden tomb
Where irises and sweet violets bloom
Passage of time will perhaps dim the pain
Till on the Rainbow Bridge we meet again

Felix on flowerbed

TRIOLET TO RESCUE KITTEN MAGIC

Magic, also black and white, was abandoned under a hedge as a young kitten and came to us in a fragile state. A triolet is a short poem of eight lines, containing two rhymes repeated in specific places.

Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade
Once left to die out in the cold
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Now you live safe within our fold
No need to be afraid
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade

Magic in box

HAIKUS FOR THREE CATS

Daisy is no longer with us, but Magic and Leo are alive and well. The three-line haiku format originated in Japan.

Magic soft as silk
Black and white ballerina
Light as a feather

Magic on cyclamen bed

Leo chunky boy
Loving his cuddles and play
Mackerel tabby

Leo on flowerbed

Tortoiseshell Daisy
Sleepy purring dowager
In her sixteenth year

Daisy with flowers

***

I think my novels are better than my poetry and the latest one You Yet Shall Die (available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers), a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, features several cats.

Beating post-publication blues

One of the sections in my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers draws some fanciful parallels between writing a book and having a baby. There may be feelings of depression following publication (“birth”), and a time interval before being able to conceive another book (“child”).

Some writers manage to avoid such problems by keeping two or more books in different stages of completion on the go at any one time. I have never managed this myself, preferring to focus all my energies on a single project. I felt quite euphoric after my latest novel You Yet Shall Die had been published and received positive reviews. But my mood slumped after the initial peak of sales had subsided, because I did not have another novel in mind.

However, knowing that the best remedy for post-publication blues is to keep writing, I asked my husband Brian if I could edit some of his autobiographical essays and collate them into a memoir. So that is what I am working on now. Brian grew up during the 1930s in what was then a downmarket seaside settlement on Auckland’s North Shore. His ambition to become a doctor was inspired by an inpatient stay in a tuberculosis unit when he was 18. He graduated from the University of Otago, and having decided to specialise in mental disorders, obtained a training post at the Maudsley Hospital in London. During his three years there he worked for some of the most eminent psychiatrists of the day, and had experiences ranging from daily psychoanalysis to taking LSD. After leaving the Maudsley, Brian joined the Medical Research Council’s unit in Chichester, to study the clinical and epidemiological aspects of suicide.

Another remedy for the post-publication blues is to take a break from writing and do something completely different. Outdoor activities here in Auckland are a pleasure now that spring has arrived; the flowers are in bloom, and it is (just) warm enough to swim.

marigolds

Two brave women

My list of non-fiction recommendations for 2019 will include two biographical books about women who sustained life-changing injuries in middle age. By coincidence, both books arrived together from my local library last week, and I noticed several similarities between their subjects: both were born in the late 1950s, grew exceptionally tall and athletic, worked as journalists for the Times newspaper group, and were injured as a result of their chosen activities. But the nature of their traumas, and their ways of coping, were very different.

My former medical career brought me into contact with many people recovering from serious illness or injury. Emotional responses varied tremendously. Initial distress usually resolved, being replaced by the capacity to accept and cope even with longterm impairment, often including some positive changes in attitudes, beliefs, relationships or way of life. But not everyone was able to adjust, and some were left with ongoing psychiatric symptoms. Given the complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors unique to each case it is unwise to generalise or to predict individual responses, and blanket advice to “think positive” or show a “fighting spirit” can be unhelpful. The stories of the women in these two books illustrate this diversity. 

Melanie Reid (1957 – ) was thrown from her horse in 2010 when he refused a cross-country jump. She sustained spinal fractures which rendered her tetraplegic apart from having limited function in her right hand. Her memoir The World I Fell Out Of describes the months she spent in hospital, and subsequent years back at home with her husband. The practical limitations of being largely confined to a wheelchair mean that the mundane essentials of living – washing, dressing, toileting, eating and drinking – require assistance, and occupy a large part of each day. The inability to move, the bodily disfigurement, the loss of sexual attractiveness, being deprived of the sense of touch, have a huge emotional impact for patients themselves and for those close to them. To a healthy person all this might sound so horrific that it would inevitably lead to deep despair and the desire to end it all. Spinal cord injury is in fact one of the few medical disorders shown to be associated with a raised suicide rate (Harris and Barraclough 1994). Melanie Reid does make brief reference to considering a one-way trip to Switzerland, and to taking antidepressants, but on the whole her mood stays upbeat. With tenacious determination to work on rehabilitation, her physical function improved much more than her doctors predicted. She was eventually able to drive a car, and even return ride a horse until she was thrown off again and suffered further injuries. She has overcome this setback, and continues to channel her mental energy into writing. This book, and her “Spinal Column” in The Times, contain frank and often darkly humorous accounts of life following her accident.

Marie Colvin (1956-2012) lost the sight of one eye after being shot in the face and chest by snipers in Sri Lanka in 2001. In Extremis: the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, written by her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum, gives a comprehensive account of her life and complex character. Described as brave, passionate, driven, intellectually outstanding, beautiful, glamorous and generous, she has been hailed as the greatest war correspondent of her generation. Yet quotations from her diaries reveal an inner insecurity and her personal life was tumultuous, marked by heavy drinking and smoking and a succession of doomed love affairs. The optic nerve injury, though not the main focus of the book, was a watershed. Her blind eye had been preserved and looked normal from outside, but she always covered it with a large black patch: “part of me in a way, something that would make a clear division between life before and after”. She also replaced all her clothes with those of a more “architectural” cut than her previous “lacy or flowing styles”. As soon as she was physically fit she resumed assignments in the Middle East but worsening nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and depression eventually forced her to take leave and undergo psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. Over the next few years, while her intrepid forays into war zones and graphic dispatches brought international acclaim, her private life became increasingly miserable and chaotic. She was killed by a rocket attack in Syria in 2012.  

Inevitably, reading such stories makes me wonder how I would cope with a life-changing injury myself. And it could happen to anyone, even someone like me who is neither athletic nor adventurous and is not attracted to extreme sports or situations. My most demanding activity is dog-walking and even this can be hazardous – I have already had two bony fractures due to being knocked or pulled over by excited canines. Both injuries have healed perfectly but I know they could have been much worse, in which case I very much doubt that I would have been able to marshal such courage and determination as that shown by Marie Colvin or Melanie Reid. But none of us can predict how we will respond if faced with a health challenge of such magnitude as theirs. 

 

 

Diary: Happy Sunday

This post about a day in my life was written mainly as a record for myself, and may or not be of interest to anyone else.

Daylight saving in New Zealand ended yesterday and so I got up even earlier than I usually do on Sundays, to catch the ferry into downtown Auckland for choir rehearsal before Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was going to be a full day, as I had been asked to give a reading at the SPCA‘s annual Blessing of the Animals service at St Matthew’s in the City in the afternoon. And then, if I was back home in time, go to a tea party at our neighbour’s house.

I had had a migraine the day before; not the terrible kind I used to get when I was younger, confining me to bed with a bursting headache and repeated vomiting, but bad enough to make the simplest tasks seem like onerous burdens. Every cloud has a silver lining and, after recovering from one attack, there is always at least a week before the next. So despite missing an hour’s sleep, I was migraine-free on the Sunday and able to enjoy all the activities planned for the day.

Choir promised to be a challenge because along with two traditional items from our repertoire, Almighty and Everlasting God by Orlando Gibbons and Jesu Thy Blessed Name by Douglas Mews, we were to give our first performance of Oh For the Wings of a Dove by Felix Mendelssohn. There are only three of us in the alto section and our part is not very easy. But if we did make any mistakes I think they would have passed unnoticed by the congregation as they listened to the beautiful soprano solo and organ accompaniment of this piece.

Mass finished quite early so I had time to sit outside in the spring sunshine and eat my sandwich lunch before walking up to St Matthew’s.

The Animal Blessing Service used to be an even bigger event than it is nowadays, preceded by a procession up Queen St and including larger animals such as donkeys, goats and once even a black bull. Now it is confined to the church itself and dominated by dogs of all shapes and sizes, all apparently having a good time and some barking their heads off. The few cats in their cages kept very quiet. I was unable to bring my dog-share Labrador Ireland, but he would no doubt have caused chaos with his enthusiasm for jumping on top of other dogs and “helping” with my reading.

Animal blessing St Matthews

Besides the prayers and readings we heard three sweet songs from a children’s choir, and a wise and witty address from SPCA’s regional manager about what we could learn from dogs. They never cease to find joy in familiar everyday activities and things, and to show curiosity about new ones. They know the value of long rests, and are not governed by to-do lists. They are free of expectations and blame; if their owners come home late they are simply delighted to see them. They have an endless capacity for love.

After two afternoon teas, first with SPCA colleagues and then with the next-door neighbours, it was home to cook the supper and watch the final episode of Hitler’s Circle of Evil on Netflix. This may sound an incongruous choice, but it is an excellent series which has helped to expand my knowledge about the history of World War II, relevant to the interviews with Bomber Command veterans that I am currently carrying out for the IBCC and will describe in a later post.

2017

I sometimes regret not having consistently kept a diary during my life. But, better late than never, perhaps a blog is the next best thing. I started blogging a few years ago now and for a while I had several sites devoted to different categories such as writing, health, Bach flowers and cats. This became rather cumbersome so, even if it meant having fewer followers, I decided to combine them here. Most of my blog posts, while inspired by some recent experience of my own, aim to provide a brief overview of a topic that could be relevant to others. This present post summarising my past year’s activities is a more purely personal one, written as a record for myself and possibly of interest to a few relatives and friends.

The outstanding feature of 2017 was exploring the Irish side of my family. With the help of FinderMonkey, AncestryDNA, Rootschat and some extraordinary coincidences I discovered two half-siblings I did not know about, and had successful meetings with them both. To respect the privacy of those involved I won’t give any further details here, but it has been a remarkable experience.

Meanwhile life back in Auckland has continued on an even keel and I am happy to report that Brian has maintained a good recovery from his major cardiac surgery of 2015. He remains active physically and mentally, usually beating me at online Scrabble. My own less serious health problems are under control and I have kept up my fitness regime of Zumba Gold classes and daily cold water swims. Rather than move into one of the retirement villages that are proliferating around Auckland, we have decided to stay in our old Victorian villa with its large garden, ideal for our three cats, and pool. Following the sale of my mother’s house we have undertaken some repairs and improvements, so the inside is now ​warmer and more comfortable​, and renovation of the exterior woodwork will take place next year​.

I continue my involvement with SPCA, helping to raise funds for a Satellite Centre to care for abused and unwanted animals on the North Shore, though with regret I have given up doing regular sessions at the Animal Village because increased traffic congestion has made the commute so long. I am currently exploring other volunteer opportunities with the Heart FoundationInternational Bomber Command Centre and DogShare Collective. I ​am ​still in the alto section of St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir​,​ and attempting to sing soprano in a “Pop-Up Chorus” with NZOpera. I also see a few Bach Flower clients and recently had some success treating an anxious dog. ​

Inspiration for w​riting ​has been somewhat lacking since I published my short memoir at the beginning of the year, though I have made a tentative start on a new novel. Sales of my existing ​books trickle along slowly. Much as I dislike the marketing aspect I know I need to make more effort to stand out from the hordes of other indie authors, and have updated my profile pages on Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
I am planning to visit England again in 2018. Brian no longer enjoys long haul travel so won’t be coming with me, but we have booked to go to Australia together for a medical conference and a trip on the Indian Pacific train.
A Happy Christmas to all my readers.

JenniferBarraclough-17