Tit Willow

Last night we attended a vibrant performance of The Mikado at the Torbay Theatre on Auckland’s North Shore. The Mikado is among the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, and I’d certainly seen it a couple of times before, though that was a long time ago and I couldn’t recall details of the plot. So I didn’t understand why I seemed to know all the songs by heart. They were familiar almost note-for-note and word-for-word.

Afterwards, I remembered once being told that the first thing I ever said was “Tit Willow”. This sounded rather unlikely and I supposed it was some obscure family joke. But when I asked my mother this morning she said “Yes, that’s true – your Uncle Geoffrey taught you to say it.” (Uncle Geoffrey being the WW2 Spitfire pilot who wrote Geoffrey Guy’s War). She explained that when I was a baby her own mother, my grandmother, had bought a record of The Mikado which I liked very much. Apparently, as soon as I was carried downstairs in the mornings, I would wave at the gramophone demanding that it be played over and over for as long as the adults could bear to listen.

I don’t recall any of this, but it seems to prove that early childhood memories are indeed retained in our subconscious minds, and can surface many years later in the right setting.

For a Youtube video of the song, please paste this link into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoAmmiTzliI


Life imitating art

Not long after publishing a series of novels with a medical theme, and my previous blog post about the portrayal of illness in fiction, I was overtaken by some real medical dramas. Both my husband and my mother required emergency hospital admissions followed by major surgery, and I developed some health problems of my own. All this reminds me of the saying about “life imitating art”. This is attributed to Oscar Wilde, although I don’t think he meant it in quite the literal way I am using it here.

The similarity between the content of my own writings and the events in my family was too general to be truly remarkable. All the same it was perhaps an illustration of the Law of Attraction: the idea that continued mental focus on a topic, in this case sickness, will result in its practical manifestation.

There have been other much more striking instances of fiction seeming to predict future events. One example is the novella called “The Wreck of the Titan” which foretold the sinking of the Titanic in considerable detail. Some readers dismiss this as coincidence, others believe in a metaphysical explanation.

There is also a saying about “art imitating life”, which means that creative work can be inspired by true events. Certainly, most writers do base their stories to some extent on personal experience. But whether the traumas of recent weeks will provide material for my own fiction in future is too soon to say. Some aspects  – for example the responsibility of having to make life-or-death decisions on a relative’s behalf, the complexities of the mind-body connection, the pitfalls which can delay the diagnosis of a serious disease, the search for meaning in illness – could certainly be woven into an interesting plot, though it would require a more skilled writer than me to do them justice. But dealing with long-term illness in the family also involves a lot of sadness, worry, waiting, tedium and hard work – which hardly make for interesting or uplifting reading. I shall try to find more cheerful subject-matter for my next book.

Do cats go to heaven?

The Rainbow Bridge is the name of an anonymous poem, probably written in the 1980s but based on a much older myth. It describes a beautiful meadow for pets whose earthly life is over, where they play happily until their owners come to join them and they cross the bridge into heaven together. I don’t think I had read this poem when I had a dream about one of my other cats, Floella, a few years ago. In my dream she was flying over a deep valley before coming to rest in a beautiful meadow full of flowers, sitting upright and looking content. Remembering this was a great comfort when she died a few months later.

The following story was told to me by a trusted friend, so I can vouch that it is genuine. Here is a shortened version of the letter she sent me:

My cat was snow white, aristocratic, a prince among cats, fairly haughty. You had to deserve his respect and he was never cuddly. I loved his independence and obvious self-esteem. The only time he jumped into my lap and put his paws on my shoulders was when I was sitting in my kitchen, being deeply unhappy and at a loss what to do. He sensed it. At other times he didn’t allow anybody to pick him up.

Unfortunately he suffered from a genetic weakness which snow white cats sometimes have – he developed a terrible eczema all over his back. Our local vet was a saintly animal lover who did all he could to help, but nothing worked and my cat obviously suffered. Eventually it got so bad that the vet suggested euthanasia. I felt terrible, having to play God, but eventually, with enormous heartache, I agreed.

I then cried for a week. A friend suggested that I visit a deeply spiritual clairvoyant, to find some solace. So I went to see this lady and as I entered her beautiful drawing room, she said “Hello – that’s a beautiful white cat that came in with you!”

 So I cried some more. Yet at the same time I also felt comforted.

Companion animals sometimes feature in the personal accounts from survivors of near death experiences which can be found on the internet.

I continually picture Felix still around: patrolling the garden, sunning himself on the grass, curled up on a chair, purring when I pick him up. I think these images are wishful products of my own mind rather than of spiritual origin, but who can tell the difference? I do believe in metaphysical forces, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that, of the several hundred songs in my iTunes library, the first two which came up on the Shuffle function while I was thinking about Felix were Don’t Fear the Reaper and Time to Say Goodbye.

Coping with the loss of a cat

For animal lovers, grief over the loss of a much loved pet can be just as severe as that which follows a bereavement in their human families. I know this not only from my personal experience, but from what I have heard from friends and clients who are mourning the death of feline or canine companions. It is also backed up by published research. However, the death of a companion animal is not always recognised as the major trauma which it is often perceived to be. What can bereaved pet owners themselves, and those around them, do to ease the pain? This post outlines some things which I have found helpful since Felix died.

The support of family, friends and veterinary staff: I have been greatly comforted by all those who have sent a sympathetic email or card, brought flowers for his grave, or offered healing therapies. I expect there are some who cannot quite understand the depth of my sadness, but everyone has been kind, and noone has trivialised my loss with comments like “it was only a cat” or “you can always get another”.

A funeral ceremony and a marked grave: It felt right to hold a small ceremony for him, and to bury his body in a secluded part of the garden which I can visit every day – although, as one perceptive friend said “You’ll never be able to move house now.”

Expressing feelings through talking and writing: Many bereaved pet owners benefit from talking with an understanding person, whether in a formal counselling setting or in everyday life, and I have a number of friends with whom I have been able to talk about Felix. For me, writing is the best medium for self-expression. I initially created this blog just as a private site where I could store photographs of Felix, but writing about a few cat-related topics has proved quite therapeutic, and drawn a few messages of support from strangers round the world.

Happy memories: I remember many happy times with Felix. There were also some worrying ones, because he suffered several episodes of serious illness during his life, but I can honestly say that I always looked after him in the best way I could.

Other cats: I am glad there are other feline presences on our property. Our female cat, Daisy, seems quite pleased that Felix is no longer around and Homer, a male cat who officially belongs to me but decided to move next door, has been making more return visits here. It would be impossible to “replace” Felix and I have no wish to try, though maybe I will fall in love with another black-and-white kitten at the SPCA one day.

Bach flower remedies: I took Star of Bethlehem, which is the main remedy to be considered for shock or grief. Other remedies could be suitable in certain cases, for example Pine for owners who feel a sense of guilt or self-blame, or Sweet Chestnut for those in deep despair. Remedies from the Bach series can also be useful for treating emotional distress in animals themselves.

The passage of time: Life goes on, and though I will never forget Felix and always miss him, it is getting easier as the weeks go by.

Where do ideas come from?

All new projects – whether in the arts, the sciences, business, domestic or personal life – originate from ideas. Where do these come from?
Some just seem to arise out of the blue – transmitted, it is widely believed, through vibrations of energy from ‘the Universe’ or the collective unconscious. The observation that several people who are not in contact with one other can get the same idea at around the same time would be in keeping with this. This can also happen with animals, as with the ‘Hundredth Monkey’ effect in which several groups of monkeys living on different islands learned how to to wash potatoes. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake made extensive studies of such phenomena while researching the concept of morphic fields.
Fully-fledged ideas sometimes present themselves through dreams. Well-known people said to have found creative inspiration through this channel include Frederich Kekule (chemical structure of the carbon ring), Elias Howe (invention of the sewing machine), Robert Louis Stevenson (plot of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Paul McCartney (composition of the song Yesterday).
Experiences during waking life – not just the major events, but everyday incidents such as a chance conversation with a stranger, a visit to a new place, seeing an unusual car numberplate – are a frequent source of ideas. I must have encountered many potential instances during my medical career, and though I never took most of them any further, it was the story of one particular patient which started me off on the research project about ‘Life events and breast cancer prognosis’ which was to occupy me for several years.
As another example, I once read a case report in the British Medical Journal which for some inexplicable reason stuck in my mind, providing the inspiration for the short novel Carmen’s Roses which I have finally published ten years later (I can’t say what the case report was about without giving away the plot). Many other writers of fiction have also found medical case histories to be a valuable source of material. The best-selling novel Everlasting Love was apparently based on a report in a psychiatric journal – though its author, Ian McEwen, later admitted that both the report and the journal were fictional too, which is perhaps just as well given the importance of respecting confidentiality where real patients are concerned.

Bach flowers for depression

The word ‘depression’ can refer to many different states of mind, ranging from understandable sadness to life-threatening mental illness. Sometimes depression arises in reaction to adverse life events, especially those which involve some kind of loss. Sometimes it is due to a physical disorder – for example underactive thyroid, Parkinson’s disease, the unwanted effects of prescribed medication – impacting on the function of the brain. Sometimes depression develops for no apparent reason, and this form often has some genetic basis.

For mild depressive states, Bach flower remedies can work well on their own. In more severe cases it is always advisable to seek professional diagnosis and care, but the remedies can still be helpful as an adjunct to other forms of treatment and support. There is no one single flower for depression, but several different ones which could help to relieve various forms of the condition, for example:

Gentian for those who feel disappointed or disheartened in response to a setback, or who tend to have a pessimistic outlook on life in general. This remedy helps to restore faith, hope and certainty.

Gorse for those who, perhaps after a prolonged experience of illness or difficult circumstances, have abandoned all hope of improvement.

Mustard for the type of depression which comes and goes for no apparent reason and is often described as like a ‘black cloud’.

Sweet chestnut is the remedy for heartache, anguish and despair.

Other remedies might also be helpful for associated problems, for example Elm if there is a sense of being overburdened with responsibilities, Pine if there are exaggerated feelings of guilt and self-blame, or Willow for those who cast themselves as victims and harbour resentment and self-pity.

Up to six remedies can be combined in the same course of treatment. Please visit the Bach Centre website for details of the system and how it is used.


When I came home last night I found an unfamiliar jug being soaked in the kitchen sink. It was white, decorated with swirls of blue and orange, and had Made in Italy written on the bottom. After being cleaned up it proved to be in perfect condition. My husband had picked it up from the pile of rubbish awaiting the annual ‘inorganic collection’ from the pavement of our street.

Besides feeling delighted to have such a beautiful jug, I was amazed. A few days ago (unknown to my husband) I resumed editing the short novel which I hope to publish next year, and had been wondering where to find a cover image featuring the Italian jug which is a key part of the story and is painted in just the same colours and patterns as our own new acquisition.

This is an example of synchronicity – often defined as ‘meaningful coincidence’. As described in the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, this phenomenon suggests the presence of a deeper order of things, a spiritual framework organising and connecting all aspects of life.

When researching my ebook Life’s Labyrinth I was surprised by how many of the contributors described synchronous events which had turned out to be important in shaping their personal destiny. Such incidents might include apparently chance meetings or opportunities which changed the course of a life, or financial windfalls which equated precisely to the sum of money needed at the time. In recent years I have experienced several instances of synchronicity myself. One somewhat disturbing variant, which has happened on several occasions, is seeing a photo of an old friend come up on my computer screensaver on the day that they died.

Not all these incidents appear to have any future consequences, for example it may not be technically feasible to use a photo of our new jug on the cover of my forthcoming book. Perhaps the purpose of ‘synchronicities’  is just to remind us that there is more to life than we can understand from our limited human perspective. Or perhaps, as skeptics affirm, they represent nothing more than random chance and we exaggerate their significance because we are biased to notice things which confirm our preconceptions, and to seek for patterns and meanings where none exist. 

Pendulum divination

Until recently I had would have agreed with the conventional scientific view that seeking answers to personal questions by asking a pendulum was a ridiculous idea. Now I am not so sure.

A couple of years ago I visited a colour therapy clinic. The assessment did not include any questions about my presenting symptoms and medical history, but was carried out with a pendulum and a set of multicoloured threads. It came up with some remarkably accurate statements about my past and present health.

The treatment involved having wires, coming from a machine in the next room, attached to my body via bands around my neck and wrists. Sitting on a comfortable chair for several hours, with nothing to do except read a book or look through the window at the pleasant view, was relaxing if a little dull.  During a quiet afternoon when I was the only client present, the therapist offered to show me how to use a pendulum. I was skeptical, but agreed out of politeness and to pass the time.

He gave me a key on a string and told me to hold it with one hand above the palm of the other, and to ask ‘Please show me a YES’. To my surprise it started to sway from side to side and then, when I asked ‘Please show me a NO’, it swayed in a direction at right angles to the first. The pattern of movement varies between individuals and is sometimes circular, for example clockwise for YES and anticlockwise for NO. The next step was to confirm the system by asking questions to which I already knew the answer, for example ‘Is my name Jennifer?’ and ‘Is my name Margaret?’. It gave correct results.

I was intrigued, and soon afterwards I bought a small crystal pendulum to experiment further. It almost always gives me an answer to ‘Yes or No’ questions ranging from the trivial (‘Is it safe to eat that curry?’) to the serious (‘Is it a good idea to move house this year?’). Many critics would say that its answers merely validate decisions I have already made, but I am not sure this is so; some of them have surprised me and they have never turned out to be ‘wrong’ as far as I can tell.

Googling ‘pendulum divination’ or ‘pendulum dowsing’ yields many articles and videos from intuitive and psychic perspectives, for example this one from Helen Demetriou which emphasises respect for the spiritual context. There is very little objective research about whether pendulums work, and if so whether the mechanism is physiological or supernatural. Theories range from subtle changes in muscle tension resulting from subconscious thoughts and feelings, to the influence of angels or spirit guides. This is a field of study in which the attitude of the investigators could easily bias the results, and most writings on the subject come either from committed believers or from cynics determined to debunk the whole thing.

I am sometimes asked whether I use a pendulum in my Bach flower practice to help choose the most suitable remedies for my clients. The answer is no, because this would go against the Bach Foundation’s code of practice, one reason being that such an aid could bypass the process of interview and self-inquiry which is an important part of the system developed by Dr Bach.

And what about the colour therapy? Again, there has been limited formal research. I met some other clients at the clinic who had been diagnosed with major physical diseases and said they had benefited a great deal, but whether it had much effect on my own various minor ailments is difficult to say.

Pendulum divination, colour therapy and Bach flower remedies are just three of the energy-based modalities which are well established in alternative circles, but are largely ignored or dismissed in orthodox ones.


I’ve always taken care about the choice of names. Whenever a new cat comes into our home I spend many happy hours deciding what to call it. I sometimes also give names to inanimate objects such as computers or cars.

Names can have a major influence in many spheres of life – the development of a child’s character, the marketing of a new product, the psychological impact of a medical diagnosis. For each individual, the significance of a name will depend on its cultural associations, whether it sounds pleasing, and how it looks when written down. I can ‘see’ certain names in different colours with my mind’s eye.

But the idea that names can have any metaphysical significance, or predict the future in some way, never seemed credible to me until I started thinking about a couple of my experiences.

When I moved to New Zealand 12 years ago, I needed a new email address and chose the username of ‘Starflower’ simply because I liked it (though I no longer have it now). It was not until two or three years later that the ‘flower’ part acquired significance, when I began studying the Bach flower remedies and found that one of these, Star of Bethlehem, is also known as Starflower. And about ten years later I developed an interest in astrology, so that completes the ‘star’ part.

Another example: ‘Bach’ is an unusual name where I come from, and one that I would rather avoid because I find it difficult to pronounce, however my two great enthusiasms in recent years have been the flower remedies of Edward Bach and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Maybe just a couple of trivial coincidences, or maybe a little glimpse of esoteric patterns we do not understand.

The symbol of the butterfly

Over the past several weeks we have been watching the slow transformation of the caterpillar on our swan plant as it became a chrysalis and then, today, opened to release this beautiful Monarch Butterfly.

Today we also attended the funeral of a much-loved family member, and I remembered that in many traditions the butterfly represents the freedom of the departing spirit. In Ancient Greek the same word, psyche, means both butterfly and soul.