“Out of Love” by Hazel Hayes

I am a sucker for stories told out of chronological order, so Out of Love caught my eye a while ago.

I don’t know why the concept appeals to me so much. I think it’s something about examining cause and affect, playing around with what the reader knows and when, that somehow suits my sensibilities.

A hardback copy of “Out of Love” by Hazel Hayes sits on a table. There is a mug of hot coffee to one side. On the other, in a small decorative bowl rest two wedding rings.

Out of Love is a great example of this. The story itself is about a breakup, and on its own it would be just another doomed love story. But by playing it backwards Hayes manages to show a side of this tale we might not have seen otherwise.

Instead of a doomed romance, instead we see each part of the relationship in context to what would come next. We see the fallout from the breakup, then the breakup, then the signs of the breakup, back and back until we get to two people meeting for the first time.

Yes, this story probably resonated with me as I’ve recently gone through a big breakup myself. What this story was about, essentially, is how complicated relationships are, and how even the ones that end bring so much to us. We start at the end, seeing how broken and miserable Hayes’ protagonist is. But as we go back we slowly see how much good the relationship did her. How no matter how bad things seem at that point, the growth and the support she gained have left her in a much better place than when it began.

Essentially, it’s a story about how a relationship ending doesn’t mean you’re not better off for having been through it. Growing as a person isn’t necessarily easy or fun.

But this still had the potential to have been a rather dull book. A failed love story isn’t the most original tale, despite the reversed order. What made it grab me was Haye’s writing. There’s a sweep of Irish poetry in her style, lyrical and philosophical. While the story may be universal and well told, the way she tells it touched something deeper.

What made me love this book was that it helped me break through my own issues. I’ve found it so hard to read and write recently, but having made my way through Out of Love suddenly I found myself wanting to throw myself back into those pleasures. Somehow, her character being someone who wrote inspired me to pick up a pen and start working again. Once I finished this book I was able to pick up another without a struggle to make myself do it.

Reading Out of Love was a catharsis for me. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected me as much if I hadn’t been in this particular point in my life. But then maybe it would have.

My Need for Structure

A screenshot of the productivity and planning apps on a MacBook desktop. They are in focus at the front of the image, and gradually lose focus as the image progresses.

Do I need structure, or do I need freedom? 

I’m used to structure in my life. School had structure. University had more freedom, but there were still lectures and deadlines to build around. Then work, with its times to be in the office, scheduled meetings, to-do lists, etc. 

When Lockdown started and I was put on furlough I tried to keep up a sense of structure. I was worried that, if I let myself relax completely, when everything went back to normal it would be too much of a culture shock. 

So I got up in the mornings, and gave myself set times each day for writing, working on the podcast, meditating. And, for a while, this was great. I was getting to choose what I did with my day. 

Disruption

But then “everything” happened. Suddenly my life wasn’t as simple as it had been. 

I still tried to keep up with my self-imposed schedule. My entire life had been shaken up and thrown around, and I felt holding onto that structure would at least allow me to have some element of control. 

And then my therapist told me to give myself a break. To let go, and free myself from this self imposed appointments and timeframes. That rather than using them to keep control of my life, instead they were shackling me and refusing to let my soul breath. Refusing to let myself relax and cope. As I had no responsibilities right then, I needed to use that opportunity to just let myself be

And it helped. I let myself do nothing, just doing what I felt like. Watching TV. Reading. Playing computer games. And, when I felt up to it or had no choice, getting on with all those grown up responsibilities that built up. 

But now things are a little more under control, I wonder if I need to find that structure again. 

My need to be productive 

I am terrible at relaxation. I have this need to be productive. It’s always been a joke at home that if I ever call in sick to work they know it must be serious, as the only reason I’d not some in is if I literally can’t walk to the door without collapsing. 

There’s nothing stopping me relaxing and spending a day doing nothing, and I’ll do it when I need to, but I can guarantee by the evening my brain will be listing all the things I could have got done that day and I’ll be desperate to get up and cram them all into the final hours of the day. 

Sometimes even when I know that I’ve been productive, when I can look at empirical evidence that I’ve got things done, my brain still tries to insist there was more I could have done.

Isn’t the human mind great?  

I think structure helps me combat this. If I’ve had a plan for the day of things to get done, and I’ve followed that plan, it reassures my subconscious that I’ve used my time productively. 

That I’ve been useful. 

The need for utility

I recently had a minor breakthrough. Reaffirming my believe in the importance of art, and that computer games are an art form, this breakthrough came while playing a game called Spiritfarer

(And on a brief side note, if you’ve not played this game I highly recommend it).

The concept it raised was the connection between meaningfulness and utility. We all want to have meaning in our lives, especially to other people. To be important, to be wanted, to be valued, and to be remembered. And how the quickest way to gain this is to be useful. 

If you are useful to people, you’ll have meaning to them. 

But usefulness, or utility, is only shortcut to value. And once that utility is gone, the value it granted is gone. If the only value you have to people is you are useful to them, they’ll have no need of you once they no longer need you. 

I’ve realised that this idea has been a large part of my personality for a long time. If I’m productive, if I’m useful, then others will value me. 

Therefore, if I’m not spending my time getting things done and proving that I’m productive and useful, people won’t see any importance or value in me. 

Productivity isn’t a bad thing

But this doesn’t mean being productive is bad. 

It’s a good thing to be driven. To be productive, and useful to others. What’s important, I feel, is to be careful why you want to be productive, and when. 

I’m proud of my achievements in life, and a lot of those achievements where only achieved because I pushed myself. As much as I recognise I’ve striven to be useful to people so they’ll value me, I also value that drive in itself. If I’m doing something, I want to do it properly. I don’t like people who sit back and expect the world to just happen around them, either expecting other people to do everything or just not bothered about things changing. 

I don’t like that in other people, and I don’t like it in myself. 

So where’s the balance

If I still want to be productive, how do I recognise when I’m doing it in a healthy way or not? 

And if I give up on structuring my life, what happens when I go back to work? When I have no choice but to go back to a life of calendarised meetings, office hours, and to-do lists? 

There’s a reason I became a project manager. I enjoy planning things out. And I’m good at it. I get inordinately excited about learning to do new things with a spreadsheet, and there is no greater joy than ticking things off a to-do list. 

But am I letting that structure stifle me? Cutting me off from my creative side. Preventing me from growing? Or from fully embracing life? 

And if I do let it go, what stops the feeling of life, unshackled, fluttering around untethered, a chaotic whirlwind. What happens when I no longer get anything done? 

So, structure or freedom? 

Am I using structure as a cage to hide myself from new possibilities that might be scary or hard? Am I using it to give myself a sense of utility, and therefore meaning to other people? 

Or is this how I get things done. Will I be able to achieve anything without it. Maybe it’s just who I am, and I need to have order in my life otherwise I let myself drift without meeting my potential. 

Yes, I know the answer is going to be something along the lines of “A Little Bit of Both”. But how much of both? And also, there’s no good in simply changing things up, trial and error, without getting to the root cause of why this problem exists for me. 

Reading and Writing are hard

Reading and writing are hard. 

They shouldn’t be hard. They’ve never been hard before. Why are they hard? 

What do you do when the things that make you the happiest become so hard to do that you begin to wonder if they are worth it?

A pile of books in different genres and sizes sit in a pile on a bedside table. In front of them is a smaller pile of notebooks, their covers closed. there is pen on top of the notebooks.

Who I am

I’ve been a reader all my life. Compared to many people, I’ve devoured books. My childhood was spent in a house filled with them. In my teen years I would spend entire family holidays ignoring everything with my face in a book. Not a room in my childhood home, other than the bathroom, doesn’t have at least one bookshelf. 

I wrote my first book in Year Three. It was about a child in a haunted house. I’ll admit there followed a bit of a gap in my career, then on my 25th birthday I was given the gift of a Moleskine notebook and decided it was far too nice for random notes. So I started writing what became my first attempt at a novel. Since then holidays, lunchtimes and free weekends were dedicated to writing. I booked expensive writing courses. It was how I wanted to spend my time. 

What I’m trying to say, is that reading and writing have been an integral part of my life. 

The battle to read

For the last few months, each night has been the same fight to try and pick up a book rather than Instagram or YouTube. And when I did read, focusing on the words was next to impossible. I’d read a page and take nothing in, or find my mind wondering away from the story.

When I arrived to stay at my parents last month I started rereading some of the older Terry Pratchett books. The Discworld books were the first real grown-up novels I read, and the full collection of Pratchett’s books take up an entire shelf in my old room. The earlier ones are so familiar they are essentially the comfort food of literacy. I thought these, if anything, could let me sink back into reading, it would be them. 

Yet I just couldn’t get into them. It was the same battle to pick them up. The same battle to stay focused. 

The lack of creativity

I haven’t written anything, other that notes from therapy sessions, for weeks. In the first month of furlough I managed to finish the first draft of my current WIP, and put it aside for a break. Since then the entire idea of brining it out and getting to work on revisions seems alien to me. 

I’ve managed a couple of blog-posts on books I’ve managed to get through, but they’ve felt more like filler than anything self. Something I could put up in an attempt to prove to the world I still existed. 

Or maybe to convince myself I still existed. Maybe if I posted something, anything, it would be a sign I wasn’t completely lost. 

Free time, wasted

In lock down, without a full time job, part of my brain keeps yelling at me that I should be making the most of having so much free time. Yes, I need to spend a good chunk of my days job hunting, and training, but those still leave me plenty of hours in the day. And without a 9 to 5 I can decide what I do and when. 

I should be filling it with the things I want to do while I have the freedom to do so. I should be throwing myself into my writing. When has there ever been a better time to hide from the world? To recharge the soul my losing myself in the pages of a book, and then using that energy to build worlds of my own? 

I don’t want to be looking back at this time, far in the future, and feel like kicking myself for not doing all things I won’t be able to do in the future when I’m back to work. 

Last time I was unemployed, seven years ago, I spent entire days writing. It was bliss. Why can’t I have that again? 

Loss of small joys

Is this why reading and writing have become so hard? Are they so intrinsically linked to my happiness that my depression wipes away any connection I have with them? Is this what makes it impossible for me to loose myself in those things that give life colour? 

Or maybe I’m just being dramatic. 

Will these skills, these joys, be something that will come back to me in time? Do I simply need to be patient and wait out the storm. Wait for the depression to lift to lift in its own time, and there they will be there waiting for me? 

Or do I push myself. Force myself to read. Make myself write. Do I look to trigger that joy by feeding it, reigniting the fire, and letting it slowly grow and banish the darkness?

What do you do? Accept and wait, or push and encourage? 

My life, right now, is not great

I’m depressed. 

I keep telling myself that I’m better than I was. That the last five months have been a slow but steady improvement and I just need to keep pushing.

But that’s not true. I’m still just as bad as I was then. All that’s changed is I’m learning to cope better, and I’m accepting there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

What’s been going on?

For those not caught up, let’s do a summary. 

  • In June, after a year or so of shifting affections, priorities, and life choices, my marriage came to an end. 
  • So we put the house on the market to sell up and go our separate ways. 
  • Of course, then I was made redundant. No salary, no mortgage. 
  • So I’m staying with my parents while we sell the house, and then for the foreseeable future until I can get a new job.

So here I am. Depressed. 

A selfie of my head and shoulders. I'm wearing glasses, and am a little unshaven.

And depression sucks. It’s left me doubting my friends actually want to see me at all. Passion has drained from my life, leaving me feeling empty and dull. I have no energy, and it takes so much effort to start the simplest tasks. I want to use this time to write, but my brain has lost the ability to create to the point where I find it hard just watching new TV or films over stuff I’ve seen before. I rarely sleep well, and having learned about Revenge Bedtime Procrastination makes it no easier that I can’t drop off until 2am. Some days my emotions are so not in check I find myself on the verge of tears over the simplest things. 

Coping, not curing

I have coping mechanisms, but the thing is they don’t fix anything. Just make it a little easier to get through it. 

I have a good enough redundancy package to keep me going for a decent while, but that doesn’t make me okay. I have loving parents who are able to let me live with them indefinitely, but that doesn’t make me okay. I have a girlfriend who has been a rock and whose patience seems unending, but that doesn’t make me okay. I have friends checking in on me, but that doesn’t make me okay. Compared to millions of other across the world right now my problems pale into insignificance, but that doesn’t make me okay. 

Understand that I’m not belittling any of the things I’ve listed above. I’m so thankful for all of them and wouldn’t give them up for anything. 

But I’m still not me. 

I miss Me.

I miss Me. The person I know I was, and keep telling myself I will be again. Someone with energy and passion. Creative and driven. Someone in control of his own life. 

I don’t know how long it will take. Or whether or not something else will happen in my life that makes everything even worse before it has a chance to get better (isn’t 2020 great?). All I know is that each time I’ve felt better, or managed to start a new habit or routine that looks like a sign I’m on my way up, I have a bad day and everything falls apart again. 

Moving forward

Please don’t take this post as a cry for help, or wallowing in self pity. Rather, this is me trying to work through things. 

I did some therapy back in July and August, which helped me handle the worst of the situational effects. Once I became official unemployed and lost my health insurance this had to end, but I had got what I needed from that bout. Now I’m in the process of finding a new therapist for some longer term work to help me find Me again. 

I’ve also be scribble down notes on what I’m feeling as I go, and this point is an attempt at putting these thoughts together. Partly catharsis, and partly in an attempt at trying to get myself writing again. Sitting and typing these thoughts out has been the longest I’ve written anything in months, and I have really missed that. 

So there will – hopefully – be more posts like this. So sorry if you’re not interested in my mental health, but this is for me. And a little bit for you to keep up to date with where my head is it. I’ve wanted to be a bit more personal on here for a while anyway. I just wish it hadn’t been a depression that made that possible. 

Maybe at some point it might help someone else. I don’t know about that, but it’s a nice thought. 

And who knows, maybe this might unlock my creative brain and get me writing properly again. 

Recommendation: “Learning from the Germans” by Susan Neiman

Every country has racism. But is that something we need to face, hold up, and forever atone for? Or something to move past and forget? (Spoiler, it’s the first one).

Neiman, as a Jewish woman who grew up in the American South in the ‘60s, and has since lived in Berlin in the ‘80s, as well as Israel along the way, has a rather unique perspective of how different cultures dealt with their legacies. 

I read about this book and the premise immediately put it on my reading list. There are a lot of books about racism out there, from a lot of point of views. In Learning from the Germans, Neiman presents an analysis of how racism embeds in a culture by using comparison between how America has refused to deal with the legacy of slavery and how Germany has turned to face the legacy of the holocaust. 

I’d go into it in more detail here but I’ll end up writing far more than can fit in one blog post, and far worse that Neiman puts it herself. Simply put, it’s a fascinating philosophical discussion on how the human mind doesn’t like to face and accept its own hand in past evils, and without being forced to face the truth will embed itself into a culture of self denial where it can never learn. 

What I loved about this book is how well Neiman writes. I’ve read books like this before where the only way to describe them is a “slog”. Yet Neiman’s writing is so easy to read that it’s never a chore. That’s not to say I didn’t need a break every so often to take it all in, but that was the about of information to take in.

I really recommend picking this up. While it discusses American Slavery and the Nazi Holocaust in detail, the conclusions are universal. The English are no strangers to evil history, and when the fact that our past “glories” came balanced on the backs of the oppression of other cultures is ignored… well let’s have a look at our current political leaders, shall we? 

We all need to face our past. We may not be personally responsible for our ancestors actions, but we have grown up on the foundations those decision set out, and when you take an honest look at them its horrifying how many of the same values and cultural blindness have played a hand in who we are. 

Review: “Pyramids” by Terry Pratchett

With all the… well, everything… is going on in my life right now, I feel a little comfort reading is in order. In that vein, expect a few Pratchett’s to appear on here. Especially the earlier books which, I feel, are his best.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett’s earlier Discworld books had more character than those that came later. The world feels like it has more texture, and less polish. That’s not to say that any of his books are bad. Come on, this is Terry Pratchett. But all my favourites of his are probably from the first fifteen or so in the series.

On my last visit to the office – oh yes, I got made redundant – I decided the one thing I had to do was make a purchase at Brooks in Pinner. So I picked Pyramids and dropped over to pick it up.

I’m going to really miss having such a good, independent bookshop close by. It’s a rare thing nowadays, and Brooks is particularly good. The staff are great, the coffee and cakes are great, and they’ll always have something interesting to find browsing on the shelves.

I hadn’t read Pyramids in ages. I tend to really enjoy Pratchett’s one-off books. The ones that didn’t become a series. I enjoy the recurring characters and series, but sometimes it’s nice to have characters and places that came in, did their thing, and then went away again.

Opinions? Does everyone agree the early books are better, or am I in the minority?

Review: “Opening Up” by Tristan Taormino

Finding books about non-monogamy is tricky. When you’re polyamorous, one of the things you notices about popular culture is how must it simply doesn’t get what polyamory is. A lot of resources out there are trashy, focusing on nothing but the sexual aspect. Others seem to have decided that they have worked out exactly what polyamory is, and make you feel that if you don’t want exactly what they say you want then you’re doing it wrong.

This is why meeting people in the scene is so important, as it means to get recommendations. (It’s all about the networking, people!)

(I was recommended Opening Up by my girlfriend. For the record, she is amazing a finding useful resources on numerous subjects. She’s smart like that. You should also read her blog. It’s really good.)

What Taormino does with Opening Up is present their work as an introduction for those with little or now knowledge of the lifestyle. It doesn’t seek to tell you the answers, but present you with information and case studies which allow you to take in information and make your own decisions. It leads you along a path and encourages you to determine what you want, rather than telling you what you should want.

For me, this is the main appeal of this book. At no point does Taormino claim they have all the answers. Or even that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to life a non-monogamy life (like some resources I’ve encountered). Opening Up recognises that not everything is for everyone, and that the first step into the world is to determine what you want out of it and build on that.

So if you’re exploring non-monogamy is any way, or know someone who is and want to learn more about it, then this is a definite go-to read.

Recommendation: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

When he was a child, Zachary Ezra Rawlins found a door drawn onto a wall but didn’t walk through it.

Ten years later, the discovery of a mysterious book that somehow describes in detail the day he didn’t walk through the door leads him to meet Mirabel and Dorian, and a strange subterranean set of tunnels filled with an impossible collection of books and stories. However, even as he tries to make sense of this new world he must come up against those who are willing to sacrifice anything in order to protect the library.

Now Zachary must find the truth, and make his way deeper into the library to the Starless Sea itself.

After The Night Circus jumped straight up until my favourite books, and lingered on my mind for days after reading, I was very excited for Morgenstern’s follow up.

This is a story about stories, and it is intricate and woven around itself. But as beautifully written as it is, I will say I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her debut. That’s not to say this isn’t a great book, just that my personal tastes lean that way. This is a very cleverly crafted story about the nature of story itself, and as can sometimes happen this cleverness detracts from the act of enjoyment.

Morgenstern intersperses each chapter of the plot with a short interstitial story that either expands the backstory or explores elements of the plot. By the end of the book all of these come together in an intricate pattern, but by the half way point I did feel they led to some sagging in the pace. I was hooked at the beginning, and the ending literally caught me tightly so I finished the book in one three hour sitting as I couldn’t put it down. But in the middle I began to find it harder to keep up my engagement.

But don’t think there was any point I didn’t want to keep reading, and boy is it rewarding to get through. There was a point where I worried the plot would lean to far toward “literary fiction”, and make the grave but all too common error of confusing unnecessary complication for smart writing, but instead everything came together in a beautiful finish that managed to answer enough questions to satisfy while leaving the perfect amount open ended.

There’s a reason why I finished the book in a single three hour sitting. It’s been a while since I was so satisfied to be exhausted the next morning after reading until 2am.

The Wheel of Time Reread: Lord of Chaos

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS AND OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt
Book 3: The Dragon Reborn
Book 4: The Shadow Rising
Book 5: The Fires of Heaven

Book six done, and we’re almost halfway through the series. In the last book, The Fires of Heaven, it felt to me as if Jordan was taking a breath before setting up the next round of story arcs. Now, with Lord of Chaos, things start to get moving again.

Let’s start with the two big events that occur in this book. 

First, the Healing of Logain. Wha’s big about this moment is that we are far enough into the series that established elements seem just that; established. Nynaeve’s attempts at Healing Logain feel like little more than a distraction that must surely go somewhere else, but suddenly she succeeds. And with that, the established world is turned on its head! 

Parallel to this, I love how we start to see the Aes Sedai as real people, rather than omnipotent superwomen. This is a group that has spent literal millennia constructing their image. But now we see inside, and how while to all those on outside the Aes Sedai will always show a united front, within they have the same insecurities and internal politics as anyone else. 

The second, and even bigger, event is Dumai’s Wells. This is still one of my favourite moments in the entire series. 

Up until this point the Asha’man have been shown as a half-trained group. Something Rand has created in a desperate attempt to have another weapon for the last battle. Then suddenly they burst onto the scene as a super powerful fighting force. 

This battle significantly changes the world. Firstly, the existence of the Asha’man changes every power existing power dynamic. They are a military force that can use the One Power that one one saw coming. And considering attitudes to men who can channel, we know the Asha.man are going to terrify the entire word. Secondly, both sides were made up of groups not traditionally aligned together. We are no longer in a world where Rand is working with what came before, but mixing everything up. Just as has been prophesied he is breaking everything that came before. 

The events Dumai’s Wells also crystallise who Rand is becoming. 

After sort of taking a back seat for a while, the character is now showing himself to be taking hold of his destiny. He knows who he is, what he has to do, and what will happen to him afterwards. But to do this he is forced to cut himself off from his own desires. 

It’s easy to forget that Rand is meant to be more than 20 or so. This isn’t a man confident in his powers. He is barely out of adolescence and desperately trying to live up to be the man who he has to be. And the way he is tricked, and then the abuse he suffers before he is rescued, permanently damages him. How can he trust anyone, after he allowed this to happen? 

Everyone in the world has their own agenda they want his to follow. To a greater or less extent, they all want to use him for their own ends and the kidnapping shows just how far some of them are willing to go. From now on he feels he can’t afford to trust anyone

On to the actual writing. 

I seem to do this with every book, but once again I’m going to pour praise on Jordan’s skill at foreshadowing and world building. The way he uses Matt’s memories to fill in the history of the world. The way Elayne and Nynaeve spending time in the rebel camp allows us to see the Aes Sedai as more human. The way a Pedron Niall dismisses a series of reports that seem unbelievable as they don’t fit his worldview, while we the readers know some of them are correct. The way the kidnapping scene is set up, with subtle elements of preceding scenes setting up points so that Rand would not suspect anything before it was too late. 

I also want to highlight that at one point one of the characters has a Foretelling, and literally spells out the end of the final book, but in a way we won’t know until afterwards. That’s book fourteen! Jordan may not have meant there to be that many books in the series, but it really shows how much he had planned so far ahead. 

I’m excited for A Crown of Swords. So much is set up in Lord of Chaos to be fulfilled in the following book. Unfortunately, one of those is going to be very Elayne heavy, but that’s just something we need to live with. We’re still in the first good arcs of the series for the dip around book ten, so I’m currently excited to keep going.

Review: Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman

After spending two years in jail for giving a false alibi to her abusive boyfriend, Charlie has fled to Cornwall to make a new life. Unsure if she even deserves it, is it possible for her to make a new life for herself? Especially when she doesn’t know how or when her past will catch up with her, only that it can only be a matter of time.

Jo Jakeman’s debut, Sticks and Stones, was about facing the truth about your life and how you free yourself from the shackles that hold you down. Now her second book is about the next steps: trying to create something new in the shadow of your past.

Safe House is a story about trying to take control. Our protagonist Steffi/Charlie is someone who has never had control of her own life. After a life of emotional manipulation by her parents and boyfriend, followed by two years in prison, she’s finally ready to take control of her life.

But how do you do that when you’re not sure if you deserve it? Or when you know it’s only a matter of time before your past catches up with you?

This isn’t as much of a thriller as Sticks and Stones was. There’s less action, mainly being focused on Charlie’s internal world. And we’re missing any real wild emotional ups and downs. Until the end there’s no real antagonist other than her own paranoia.

I will say I think the ending is a little too neat. I like a story to have a few untied threads, giving me a feel that the world will carry on once the plot finishes. Without wanting to give too much away, I felt things were all wrapped up a little too well.

But other than that I can’t really fault it. Definitely worth a read.