Category Archives: Novel
As I’ve shared in previous posts, the heroine of my novel is told, when everything’s fallen apart, to ‘get up from the floor and go to Beckery’. It’s the same place that she’s been dreaming of going to for a long time, but the circumstances have completely shifted.
She thought she’d be going there as the heroine, bringing the Sacred Flame to the nuns (she’s come from Ireland with more than twenty lanterns, so you’d think she might have had a chance at success…) and winning the patronage of the King. Instead, she gets there in a complete and utter mess, covered in blood, and without a single lantern.
All she’s got left is the memory of a few encouraging words from her pilgrimage guide, who’s now several hundred miles away and doesn’t even have a phone.
Doesn’t have a phone? At all? What sort of a weird, improbable scenario is THAT?
Welcome to Anglo-Saxon England – whoops, sorry, Wessex. (I’m sorry to break this to the English nationalists who have been making a big fuss about me marrying an African guy, but in the seventh century, there was no such place as England.)
Needless to say, things can only get better – at least for a while. This isn’t A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Although I do love those books!)
When Brianna finally arrives in Beckery, she embarks on the long process of recovery, with the help of an underground movement that offers hope and healing through the so-called ‘Nineteen Songs of Reunion’. The secretive Fellowship is deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, and its members are liable to be burned, along with their manuscripts, if the Bishops discover their existence. One of the reasons is that, just as the real-life Gnostics and Essenes did, they spoke about the need for balance and equality between the Sacred Masculine and the Sacred Feminine.
It’s not just about the equality between men and women in a literal sense, although that’s one crucial element. It’s also about the need for balance between Heaven and Earth, giving and receiving, light and darkness, sun and moon, focused action and gentle nurturing, courage and compassion, God and Goddess, Sacred Masculine and Sacred Feminine. And, most radically of all, it suggests that if we reach that point of perfect balance, we can all become Christ-like.
It might not sound controversial to us now, but at a time when women weren’t even allowed to speak in front of men in the Church, the importance of the Sacred Feminine wasn’t a message that a lot of people wanted to hear. And the seventh-century clerics, like the Inquisition leaders who followed them several centuries later, certainly didn’t want people thinking that they could find the Divine spark in themselves without the help of a priest to forgive their sins.
The message of the Beckery Fellowship is that you can’t just love the light and hate the darkness. (That’s what we now call ‘spiritual bypassing’, although they wouldn’t have used that term!) You can’t go through your whole life looking up to Heaven, and forgetting about the Earth that you walk on, and expect to be made whole. You can’t love summer and despise winter; you can’t celebrate the new growth in spring without also celebrating the fall and decay of the leaves in autumn.
Compost matters. The Earth matters. Dark moon matters. Women’s menstruation matters. Night matters. Rest matters. And sometimes you have to wander in the wilderness for a while, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, in order to find your true source of courage, hope and healing.
As the Song of the Wilderness Wanderer explains it:
The path I walk is a path that is waking me,
Stung by the nettle, scratched by twig and thorn:
The path I walk, I don’t know where it’s taking me,
All that I know is new dreams are being born.
With open eyes and ears I wander the wilderness,
Losing myself until I find the One who knows…
We can’t make major changes in our lives without doing the groundwork first. Getting out into nature is a crucial first step, but it isn’t the only thing that we need to do. We also need to unblock our creativity, build a strong and supportive community around ourselves, and then, slowly and gently, start turning to face own emotions…
When I was at my lowest point, I consulted a spiritual counsellor, and she advised me – among other things – to start walking the Sacred Land. To go walking, by myself, and seek out amazing places: ancient stone circles, holy wells, sacred springs, yew groves, and deep forests with vast oaks.
I’m pretty sure that piece of advice saved my life, or at least my sanity.
The path that I started walking didn’t just lead me to Avebury, Glastonbury, and other sites that have now become my ‘go-to’ places for hope and healing.
It’s also led me, after several years, to revive a long-held dream: writing a book, which is precisely about reconnecting with the Sacred Land (and lots of other stuff).
But, just like Brianna, the protagonist of my novel The Reluctant Flame-Keeper, I’m not arriving at my dream destination in the way I planned – with the love of my life by my side, the Sacred Flame burning bright, and an important person waiting to shake my hand and give me lots of money. Instead, I’m doing the 21st-century equivalent of pitching up in an ox-cart, covered in blood and dust, and lying on top of a sack of barley. Erm, it wasn’t supposed to be like this…
It’s not the triumphant memoir that I mapped out in 2004 – the literary equivalent of putting two fingers up to the ‘It’ll Never Last’ brigade, showing them how wonderful it was to be married to a Maasai warrior and raise kids in Africa and help people rediscover their Indigenous knowledge even while escaping FGM, and we would all live happily ever after, thank you very much. (I couldn’t get a publisher for that book anyway, because they all rejected it as ‘too naïve’. Memoir readers aren’t stupid. They know that life isn’t really all sunshine and red hibiscus.)
Writing this novel is raw, messy, and bloody painful. It’s forcing me to reveal aspects of myself that I was very happy to keep hidden. That’s because it really is my story, at least to some extent – and it’s not just about the mud huts. Not all of it is ‘true’, of course – but there will be surprises.
I’ve had to start, slowly and painfully, letting go of who I thought I was and what I thought I ‘should’ want, and admitting who I actually am and what I really want…and letting new dreams start to emerge from the broken places.
The Reluctant Flame-Keeper is emotional fact dressed up as historical fiction, and I can already imagine the field day that the right-wing press are going to have with it. It’s controversial. It’s going to shock some people, infuriate some people, disgust some people, and probably cause a a few people to decide that I actually am the Antichrist. I’m anticipating trolls and some serious hate mail. And that’s nothing, in comparison to what’s going to come at me when I eventually publish the prequel.
But the point is: it’s my sacred task. So I’m showing up for it, instead of hiding from it. And arrogant as I am, I believe it’s going to change lives, hopefully for the better.
It’s just as well I’ve already had a bit of practice in dealing with trolls: three messages so far, in the midst of a lot of lovely supportive ones, in which people have been vile and offensive about my choice of marriage partner and about our beautiful daughters. If I can get that kind of abuse just for marrying someone with a different skin colour, I’m really curious to see what’s going to start getting thrown at me when the book comes out. At least this time I’ll be prepared for it, and make judicious use of helpful buttons like ‘Ignore’, ‘Block’, ‘Delete’ and ‘Report’, instead of wasting my time trying to respond to the haters…
And it’s no accident that it’s at precisely this point, when I’m working on the final edits of the book, that I’ve been putting time and energy into creating a new mini-course called Doing the Groundwork: Getting Ready for Major Life Changes.
Okay, confession time. I was going to write a full-on, high-end, super-duper e-course called Face the Fear and Chase the Dream. But, um, I’m not ready yet. Did someone say I’m too much of a wuss? No, no, no, that’s not it at all. I have GROUNDWORK to do first. And judging from the responses to my first few Discovery Sessions, I’m not the only one.
#FaceTheFear and #ChaseTheDream just sound too… well, scary. Especially as, where I am, it’s already getting on towards autumn. When the days get shorter and the nights longer, it really doesn’t feel like the time to go out chasing dreams, or indeed, chasing anything at all. It’s the time to sit at home by the fire, weaving yourself a beautiful, strong safety net with three strands: nature, creativity and community. Then, when February or March comes around and you’re feeling ready to spring into action (pun intended), you’ll know the Universe has your back. Or your front, if you’re unlucky enough to land in the net face down. (Knowing me, I probably will…)
People say if you want to learn something quickly, you should set a date to start teaching it! So here it is: 21st September 2017. More details will follow shortly.
Oh, and on a similar topic of showing up in a slightly less shiny and sparkly way than originally planned – and trying not to freak out because, guess what, I’m not perfect – I am getting around to my New Moon Newsletter, which I promised for the 23rd. It is still New-ish Moon, and I will figure it out within the next few days. Honest. Keep watching this space, and with any luck, a pop-up saying ‘Subscribe Now’ will be popping up sometime soon…
“You told me that I was strong, and had the power in me to bring all my dreams alive: the very opposite of all the things Aedan had been telling me for so long. He called me a poor child: he was always pitying me, and telling me that I was small and weak and helpless, and that’s just what I became.”
“Of course you did,” Aelfric says. “Aedan was cunning: he wanted to use you for his own pleasure, and he knew you’d never stay with him if you were in your right mind, so he set out purposely to destroy all your self-belief.”
“But when you told me with such authority that I had to become the Sacred Flame, and get up and go to Beckery, I found the strength to do what I needed to do,” I go on. “I changed out of my clothes that were soaked in blood, and tore up my old dress into rags for the bleeding, and even had the sense to bring out our two pottery bowls to trade them for a ride in an ox-cart, although in the end the man wouldn’t take them. I was still so dreadfully unwell: I blacked out again on the journey, and bled all over that poor man’s barley sacks. But you made me believe in myself, so I was able to do all those things, even in that condition.”
“Whatever we believe about ourselves becomes our reality,” Aelfric tells me. “It’s true: you are the Warrior Maiden, my Brianna. You’re strong and brave and powerful, no different from Brigid herself. And you’ll always be the Flame Keeper and the Sacred Flame, just as long as you remember that’s who you are. I’m just grateful to the Lord and Lady that you listened to my voice in your dream, and were led to the very people who could help you see that again, after Aedan made you forget your own light.”
There are so many people out there trying to spread fear, hatred and division. We notice the violent ones, who make grand gestures and kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but we often don’t notice the ones who work in more subtle ways.
Much of today’s politics is based on fear. Fear of those people who don’t look like us, or that culture that doesn’t do things the way we do them, or that guy who wants to change the system, or that group that calls itself by a different name and seems to be worshipping a different kind of Divinity.
That’s because fear is a natural human emotion. It’s evolved to keep us alive, which is usually agreed to be a good thing. So it’s easy for politicians to exploit it – to appeal to our primitive survival instincts, rather than our higher consciousness that keeps trying to wake us up and tell us the truth: There is no ‘us and them’.
As I wrote in a poem when I was a teenager at the Drielandenpunt, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet – countries that were once at war, but have now turned the site into an international peace park:
And should we speak of ‘them’ at all,
as ‘them and me’, or ‘them and us’,
or should we speak of us and us?
Why all this fuss?
A name is just a name…
And as one of my characters has explained it more recently in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion:
“Although the fluttery feelings don’t go away, they’re easier to dismiss when I’m in the middle of a story. It’s after the others have gone to bed that I feel the anxiety most, and wish hardest that I could be with Aelfric, and wonder what’s happening and whether he’s in terrible agony, or might even be dead.
But then, in an instant, I remember the great truth I learned on the night when Aelfric was attacked: that the remedy for deep fear is Deep Love. Instead of fretting, I give myself over to praying, letting myself be caught up and held and embraced by the Love that has no beginning or end – the Love beyond all names. It isn’t about my love for Aelfric any more, as a soul in a body; but love for the great Soul that rises in Aelfric and in all of us.
I sing new songs and pray new prayers that the world has never heard before, and Terithien wakes from his sleep, and stares at me with wide eyes. He shakes Orla awake and begs her to light a candle and take up her ink-pot, quill and vellum – for he can’t read or write – and capture all my words so that he might learn them by heart.”
This is my prayer for all of us affected by people’s attempts to spread terror: that we remember, as the members of the Fellowship learn to sing in `The Song of the Healer’, You are the Love beyond all names.
God, Goddess, Allah, Mungu, Engai Brahma, Jehovah: these are just our feeble human attempts at naming something which is far, far bigger and more beautiful than we can ever dream of.
Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Druid, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, spiritual wanderer, or whatever other names we might come up with: we are all seekers, chasing sparks of that Divine Love and trying to fan them into flames.
We can’t let ourselves be distracted from our quest by people who don’t understand it, and think that ‘those people’ over there are ‘the enemy’. A name is just a name…
We were all created to create something amazing.
We all have the potential to become artists, pilgrims, pioneers, visionaries, revolutionaries and world-changers. This power isn’t just in some of us: it’s a Divine gift that’s been granted to every single soul.
We all have that Light burning within us, but most of the time, we hide it. It’s too scary to shine that brightly.
Whatever it is that we’re dreaming of… we tell ourselves it’s crazy, or too weird, or too ‘out there’, or it’ll never work.
Or we kid ourselves we’re too small, too unknown, too young, too old, too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too dumb, or too unknown to make it work.
Or we insist we don’t have the right education, the right training, the right skills, the right background, the right contacts, the right car, the right shoes, or the right handbag.
What I loved about Tanzania in 1999 was that none of that stuff mattered.
I was part of a group of 19-22 year olds with a dream of building a Peace Village – a place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. We didn’t let anyone tell us we couldn’t do it. We raised money, bought a plot of land, registered our own arts and culture organisation, and started building huts.
It got burnt down, so we adjusted the dream, grew the big crazy vision even bigger and crazier, and started again.
You can’t build that there, people told us. Whatever are you thinking of? You’re insane.
It’s a barren patch of bushland. There’s no infrastructure. There’s no water. There’s no electricity.
What you’re trying to do has never been done before. There’s no path.
So we created the path by walking it.
Within five years, we had our place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. But it wasn’t just a Peace Village. It was the beginning of a secondary school for underprivileged youth.
Those aren’t classrooms, officials told us. An octagonal timber-frame building can’t be a classroom. Classrooms are rectangular and built from concrete blocks. They measure 9 metres by 7.2 metres and have three windows.
You don’t have to demolish them. Just use them as store-rooms, or whatever. But go away and build us some classrooms.
So we did. And two staff houses, and toilet blocks, and a laboratory, and dormitories. All in accordance with the officially recognised plans.
Those aren’t students. You can’t be a student in a secondary school if you’re wearing Maasai robes. Make them all buy shirts and trousers, or skirts if they’re girls.
Ouch. That one hurt. We thought about giving up at that point. But we knew school would come to the village sooner or later. We figured it was better to have one that honoured the Maasai traditions as best it could, and showed young people the power and the beauty of indigenous knowledge by bringing Masters and PhD students from overseas to study it… and let them wear their robes on special occasions, if they wanted to. (Some of them didn’t, which was also fine…)
I won’t say it was all 100% benefit and no costs. Nothing in life ever is. But since our first graduation in 2008, more than 300 students – most of them from low-income families who’d never have been able to afford an education – have graduated from Noonkodin Secondary School with a Form 4 certificate – the equivalent of GCSE or tenth grade.
Many of them are now teachers, nurses or business owners. And one is the Headmaster.
So if you have a dream, however wild and crazy, don’t let anyone put you down. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too much, or that you’re not enough.
You are enough.
We are ALL enough.
We are big enough, smart enough, brave enough… even when we aren’t feeling it.
In this week’s blog series, I’ll be sharing my own insights about how to face your fears. I’ll introduce you to Daman, the crazy dreamer from my new novel The Nineteen Songs of Reunion, who’s all fired up about crossing the Irish Sea with a lighted lantern to win the patronage of the King… and to Brianna, the heroine of the story, whose spark becomes a flame when she falls in love with Daman and discovers new dreams of her own.
And I’ll be telling you about my new crazy dream, which you can join in- a powerful initiation for Summer Solstice, held at the ancient sacred site of Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa), to help women awaken the fearless Goddess within and start living those dreams!
One of the greatest tragedies of the West is that we’ve lost the magic of song.
In the Maasai community, singing is part of everyday life. People sing to praise God, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or followers of their own indigenous spiritual tradition (where ‘Engai’ is actually translated more accurately as ‘Goddess’).
People sing to preserve their memories and histories, most of which are still unwritten. All the rites of passage have their own songs associated with them, including weddings, ceremonies to bless unborn children, child-naming ceremonies, initiation into adulthood, and the transition from warriorhood into elderhood (although the latter doesn’t have an equivalent for women), and funerals.
Songs are used to welcome important visitors, to launch projects, or – as in the photo above – to entertain parents at the school Open Day. Crucially, they can also be used to open people’s minds to the possibility of change: in our project to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM), we started every seminar and workshop with a performance by a women’s commuity choir.
Yet, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve created a culture in which most people are afraid to sing.
Shows like ‘The X Factor’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where harsh criticism of people’s vocal performance is seen as entertaining – certainly haven’t helped. But a bigger issue is that, with the decline in church attendance, most people just don’t have a space in which they can sing freely without being criticised or judged.
When I recently started attending my local Baptist church in England and the very first song we sang was one that I recognised from an international church that I used to attend in Tanzania, it felt like coming home. But traditional church services don’t appeal to everyone, and despite the vast amount of content available on YouTube, a lot of people – whatever their religion – wouldn’t know where to start looking for inspiring, uplifting, soul-stirring, life-changing, motivating songs that can support their own personal journey to reconnection and wholeness.
That’s why I was inspired to write ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I’m a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s book Sing You Home, which has a downloadable soundtrack. I LOVE those songs, especially ‘Ordinary Life’ – a cry from the heart for LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination – and the title track, a haunting song dedicated to a child lost through miscarriage. So, inspired by this, I decided to go a step further and write a novel in which the song lyrics are actually woven into the text and form an integral part of the plot.
‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’ is a story of transformation and healing through song, and I’m starting to explore ways of recording the 19 songs – which include, among many others, The Song of the Sacred Land, The Song of the Wilderness Wanderer, The Song of the Pilgrims, The Song of the Midwife, and The Song of the Artist – with a Celtic harp and chorus.
I’ve already posted some excerpts, but will be adding more in future. And please keep watching this space for more details of my Transformational Song Healing workshops, and the role of song in the Travelling Light program…
When I first had the idea of writing a book, the obvious thing was to assume that it would be a memoir of my time in Africa.
This is the book I nearly wrote:
I started from the beginning, as most people would – my very first trip to Tanzania in 1999. I got so caught up in writing about the first man I ever loved that I found I had reached my 50,000-word goal – it was a National Novel Writers’ Month 50k challenge – and barely even mentioned Lesikar, let alone the projects that we did together. In trying to write memoirs, I found myself focusing on the parts that were easier to write, either by virtue of being further back in the past, or because the story was just more straightforward when I was only 21 and had no dependents.
But in trying to write memoir, either about my relationship with Lesikar or my earlier relationship, I was so upset about the level of racism in the world already that I felt I couldn’t say anything even remotely negative about any individual who’s ethnically African and living in Africa, in case it fuelled people’s stereotypes. There’s that whole ‘it’ll never last’ mindset: the idea that Africans and Europeans are fundamentally so different that they can never have a successful marriage, which is utterly ridiculous. Some of the comments on the YouTube video were just disgusting, and it was a huge wake-up call to realise that even now, in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still people for whom the colour of someone’s skin is such a big deal that they think a black man who marries a white woman doesn’t deserve to live. Duh.
I was in a position where I didn’t want to say anything at all about Maasai individuals or the Maasai culture that wasn’t 100% positive, and of course nobody and nothing in the world is 100% positive, and we’re always projecting our own issues and insecurities on to other people anyway. I think that’s the reason why, when I first started trying to write memoirs in 2006, I wasn’t succcessful in finding a publisher: there was just too much sunshine and roses, or rather sunshine and red hibiscus, to be interesting or convincing. So, having successfully created this 50,000-word memoir, I decided not to publish it.
My new book, ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, has given me a safe space for me to work through some of the emotions that I’m still processing, but to do it in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one individual or on the Maasai as a society. All the characters are fictional, although obviously they have to be based on something and come from somewhere. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that Lesikar `is’ one of the three male leads in the story, or that any episode in the book is an actual replica of something that happened in my life. It isn’t that at all. But there were certainly aspects of the story that mirror some of the emotions that I went through in Tanzania – not just with Lesikar and with my first boyfriend, but in other situations as well, all sorts of different interactions with people. So one thing that really did exist in a variety of situations was the challenge of trying to work out who people really are, how much is their true face and how much is the mask – the image that they present to the world. And, on the other side of it, whether they really saw and loved me for who I was, or if it was more of a transaction – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that’.
So, if not Africa, why 672 AD? Why not modern times?
There’s the superficial level, of course, which is that I know far more about what it actually feels like to live in a mud hut than most people who might decide to write a novel set in the Anglo-Saxon era (or the Early Medieval period, as it’s become known in relation to Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, which were all separate countries with a similar culture). That’s true enough: but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Setting my novel in a familiar place and an unfamiliar time has actually been enormously healing for me. It gives me the chance to imagine a setting in which I could be all of myself. It allows me to envisage a way of living what might be termed a ‘Maasai-style’ life (based on a strong sense of community, a deep connection to the land and to Spirit, freedom from the stress and overwhelm of modern Western society, and the opportunity to be creative) but doing that within the sacred landscapes of the UK, places that I’ve come to know and love all over again since I came back from Tanzania. And I’m hoping that this is something I’ll be able to share with my readers, and maybe inspire them to make some changes in the way they live their lives: to start reconnecting with some of those things for themselves, and discovering a healthier and happier way of being. Not that I’m trying to suggest that Maasailand is a utopia; but there’s a lot we can learn.
I have a deeper ‘why’, too. But that will have to be another blog post for another day. Work is beckoning…