Here and Now

This time two years ago we, and by we, I mean humankind, were teetering on the brink of a global pandemic, and we in the UK, were on the brink of first lockdown. A year later, still restricted, the new lockdown measures in the UK felt different to me, harder to swallow in the aftermath of the first year. Also, at that point, in our family, elderly relatives returned home from hospital totally dependent on us younger family members’ perpetual care, so the days of isolated writing and creating and being in cyberspace with likeminded minds was well and truly over. Today, a year after that, as the war in Ukraine descends into something that feels so much worse than any world event I’ve personally lived through or watched play out, I can’t believe I find myself looking back almost nostalgically to those first quiet, isolated days of lockdown when days yawned long and unchartered, but which now seem to have flashed by – like dreams between alarm reminders when you live a thousand lifetimes in five minutes.

These new times, this current crisis seems crueller and madder than the days of the virus. This senseless war feels that much worse because it feels so avoidable. Seems bleeding obvious to me at least that power corrupts the human consciousness – it’s happened so many times throughout history – men (and it nearly always is men because they nearly always hold the power) from Julius Caesar to the whole Kim clan in North Korea – morph in the grips of absolute power, start to think that they can do no wrong and that ordinary moral compasses don’t apply to them because they are the chosen ones on superhuman missions. Makes me seriously think that democracy is a must if humans are ever to get past wars. I’m not saying that democratic governments are the be-all and end-all, ours is flawed and often not really a democracy at all when the choices on offer are so piss poor and the electoral system so ridiculously adversarial – but at least democracy means that power and its corrupting nature is not super-concentrated in one pair of hands, and the machinery of democracy at least means that those with most power can have it removed even when they don’t want to let go of it.

Seems bonkers to me that what looks like one man’s war has been engineered by a single human consciousness. Humankind really needs to see this because it’s bonkers that one mind, a mind at terrible risk of delusion and grandiosity because of the toxicity of the concentrated power it holds, can bring death and destruction that no-one else genuinely seems to want, and without any system of breaks or balances to check the devastation. The older I get the more I reckon humans need to big up on balance. Too much of anything just doesn’t seem to work. It’s just as bad, if not worse, as too little. And surely, as a species, we need to move into a stage of learning how to live in peace and not replicate war in everything we do. The legal system, adversarial – why? Why can’t it be two sides both trying to get to the truth? Politics, adversarial – why? Why can’t politicians hold different ideas and work together to make things better for everyone? Counties and borders – there to keep the enemy out rather than to manage the entry of potential friends. This being the way I see things at the moment, going to try and balance up the negative energy in here, with only positive news for the rest of the blog. I haven’t written in here for ages for loads of reasons – been busy with the ever-dependent older family members, been mentally banjaxed by the awfulness of stuff and shit – repeat readers of this blog will  know I write by way of therapy, to put overwhelming emotions on the page and not in me – which I have been doing even when things have been terrible, but loads and loads of really lovely stuff has happened too so here’s my list of lovely things:

List of Lovely Things

My sis, R Les, the one who put up with me writing about her in my memoir-in-flash, The Naming of Bones, bought me a forever birthday and Christmas pressie, and that pressie was Nolly the pup, who is bringing such fun and joy to the whole family. The housebound elders especially love her. She’s become their unofficial pat dog. Nolly (short for Enola) won’t ever replace my dear ole Boo, but already she is as much beloved.

On the writing front I wrote a feature for Lapidus – the writing for well-being community. They recently relaunched their membership magazine which includes my piece entitled The Long and Short of Flash Fiction, about writing my memoir and how doing so improved my mental health and wellbeing. Here’s a link to Lapidus if you fancy googling what they do. I also had a piece of flash published in Retreat West’s tenth birthday anthology, Ten Ways the Animals will Save Us, which you can buy here. I am so very grateful to Amanda and Gaynor at Retreat West and I felt very moved when I was asked to provide a story. Haven’t subbed to mags or zines at all recently and entered virtually nowt, but did manage to edit a wee micro for the National Flash Fiction Day comp…and it won! Here’s the link to all the winning micros which really are something. I Was especially glad to share the podium with Sherry Morris my feedback buddy. Her micro is so, so brill. I wrote my micro in one of Matt Kenrick’s workshops on how to write lyrically. Here’s a link to his site in case you’d like to find out about doing one of his brill courses which I can highly recommend.

But as is traditional, I’ve saved the best till last. Clears throat and sounds a fanfare…my wonderful daughter-in-law Karolina and eldest son Bob welcomed their new daughter, Leyla, into the world on 18th February over in Reda, Poland. Cannot wait to meet her in May when I go over for a huge family celebration when I hope beyond hoping this war will be over. Here are a few pics of Layla’s absolute gorgeousness. I’ve been so heart-warmed to see how welcoming the Polish nation has been in these dark times, and feel very proud of my Polish family for so many reasons. Seeing people having to flee from their homes and lives, really drives home that being a refugee is not what you are, it’s something that happens to you, and in a world where potentates like Putin can make such mad bad decisions unchallenged and unchecked, it really does make me see, it could happen to anyone. I hope now the UK has opened its doors to Ukrainians escaping this madness that we will be as warm and welcoming as our European neighbours. In the meantime just going to stare at the version of the future that is my wonderful grand-daughter and thank all the moons and stars and seas and rivers that she’s safe and loved and healthy and here.

Season of Mists that have Started to Clear

Haven’t blogged in forever because life’s been a wee bit all-consuming over the summer – what with renovations, caring duties and so much to worry about/organise. But things have been shifting and easing for a few weeks now and this morning at 8 when I took George to work, the weather seemed to be making a point.

The view that met us as we stepped out of the front door and onto the steep grassy bank where our cottage sits, made our jaws drop. The fen that usually yawns its way out to the lazy River Ouse had disappeared. I say fen but its more floodplain than fen, and has been since before humanity started controlling the local landscape, draining fens, sluicing and staunching the water, and building houses in places they shouldn’t. Nowadays water from as far afield as Bedford is channelled down here in wet weather, to protect houses and infastructure at risk of flooding. As as a result of this, we flood several times a year. By we I mean the people who live in the cottages on the riverfront, where the, lets-call-it-a-road (really unmarked track) gets covered in 6-12 feet of water on a regular basis. By flood I don’t mean the water comes into our homes, it stops about 4 feet below. As the water never comes into our houses, and as we all have common law rights to leave carts, coaches and now cars at the nearby pub, none of us really mind this, and we quite like it when the river ‘goes’ and our houses stand on the edge of a vast grey lake. Anyhoo, as me and George went out this morning, the road, the fen, the river the floodplain – all were gone, totally invisible, lost in the deepest greyist autumnal mist that I’ve ever seen here, and I’ve see a fair few over the years.

Usually when the mist falls, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, it hangs low and you can still see out over the fen because it stops about 6 feet off the ground, hovering in a sheet that only exists in a shallow layer. And sometimes, it’s much less thick, and you can even see through it, to cobwebs draped in smoky wisps over rushes and grasses that some mornings seem to have been spun overnight and cover every living thing as far as the eye can see. And sometimes when the mist is thin like that, the cobwebs catch tiny droplets of water and sparkle even in the darkest light. But not this morning. This morning there was just thick grey, impenetrable mist and even the car, just ten feet away on the road below, was a barely perceptible ghost. George looked down, at the cobwebs on the grassy bank under his feet and said what a shame it was we couldn’t see the fen cobweb display – on what should have been the first of the autumn.

I agreed, but feeling not very whimsical, commented that I hoped driving visibility would be better when we got out of the village because it would be like navigating through Granny Dot’s mushroom soup. He said it would be better once we got away from the river which he reckons makes everything damper/cloudier and therefore worse visibility wise. He was wrong. Everything was soupy all the way there, and for me, all the way back again. Which got me thinking.

In the summer, as I’ve tried to navigate my way though the mushroom soup of having two vulnerable, sick and/or dying relatives to care for, who don’t necessarily always get on and who can be quite cruel to one another and the people around them, I’ve found it impossible to see any further than a few feet/days ahead. I think that has been because I sort of know what’s coming, and haven’t wanted to really look any further, because it scary and upsetting and a bit of a nightmare. So I’ve kept my thoughts reigned in and uber controlled, kept my imagination under lock and key. Which has been a total block to writing. I guess I’ve been afraid of where stories might lead me. But not seeing something, or not looking at it doesn’t mean its not there, as this morning’s mist illustrates, and maybe gearing up to dealing with difficult, even heart-breaking problems is about staring them in the face, not obscuring them in metaphorical mist.

Writing for me, since I started doing it in 2015, has been a solace, a therapy, a safe place, so I guess even in the days I was most afraid of doing it, I knew I had to get myself re-engaged sooner or later. I guess that’s why I signed up to attend the last day of the Flash Festival event this year. I’d attended none of the others but decided I really should screw my courage to the sticking place and rock up. And I’m so glad I did. It was packed full of guided writing opportunities which I did with trepidation at first, then something like gusto, and over the week that followed, I polished the three stories I’d written, to enter into the festival Bake Off comps. A week after subbing, I was delighted to find out I’d won one comp, and come second in another, which meant both stories would be published in the festival anthology and that I’d won two free entries into the Bath Flash comp. Not wanting to miss out on that, and feeling not too scared by the flashes I’d written at the festival, I started drafting a flash for Bath too, and, just like that, my self-imposed writing block was a thing of the past.

But back to the mist. I haven’t really written here about the worst of what the summer held for my family and friends because it’s still on-going, and its not time to tell those stories yet, and some of them are not my stories to tell, but what I’ve realised is that I don’t have to stop writing entirely to keep my emotions at bay. I can keep some things cloaked in an autumnally misted part of my mind whilst I write about something else.

As I sit here tapping out these words in my safe, writing place, the sun has burned away the last of this morning’s haze and the horse chestnut and copper beech trees are standing clear and bright in all their autumnal technicolour whether I want to see them or not. I know that’s a metaphor for summat or another, so I’m going to drink it all in as I post this photo of me, Dad and R Les, who I love through the mist and back. I took it when I went home to Bolton a couple of weeks ago. I love my Bolton family and I’m so grateful for how they received the publication of The Naming of Bones, my memoir-in-flash that features them all. For anyone who’s read The Naming of Bones, this was a bit of a Waltzers moment for me. I’m posting it here as a happy happy memory that I can gaze on again and again and again and again, whether I’m in full-on mist mode, or sky-bright sunshine.

Laptop Adventures and the Passing of Bones

Been mostly offline for a few weeks and haven’t managed to write very much due to the following confluence of events:

The garden sprang into life.

My laptop died taking passwords with it. It did very generously flicker back into life just long enough for me to retrieve most of my passwords, then passed away completely. I was quite sad. Me and that laptop have been on a right journey together. It was on that laptop that I started my creative writing odyssey, penned every flash, poured out my emotions, finished my MA. Wrote myself into better mental health. It brought me so much positivity that wee collection of metal and silicon, so RIP my worn-out friend.

My husband turned 60 and I organised a few little separate celebrations for him, as due to restrictions we couldn’t all meet at the same time.

Had to wait for cashflow to improve before getting new laptop – husband’s pension kicked in so I knew the money was coming.

Had loads to do with new caring duties now both elderly relies are back from rehab and settling into life at home post stroke and hip breakage. This has been ALOT of work. For example – this bank holiday weekend mum-in-law fell on Friday morning, banging her head and alerting her alarm service who, as well as despatching me round to sit with her, also triggered an ambulance which took 4 hours to turn up. She was then taken to hospital where she stayed for 3 1/2 hours and when we phoned to ask how she was (we weren’t allowed to go with her due to covid restrictions still in place) the hospital computer system had gone down and they couldn’t locate her with any greater detail than she was no longer in A&E. As she can’t speak very well, has limited movement on her left hand side and is doubly incontinent we were very keen to ascertain her whereabouts ASAP. After several increasingly strident and desperate calls from us, they found her and told us there was no transport to take her home so she’d have to stay in for the night. We of course collected her which was no mean task because she’s very heavy having put on loads of weight in rehab, and can’t walk more than a few strides and has only been in the car once since she came home (and then with 2 physios and me and husband to help her). By 9pm she was finally safely back in bed at home – and that was that for Friday. On Saturday morning another call. Dad-in-law had had an accident and could I go over. Three hours later after stripping bedding, aquavaccing carpet and remaking the bed, situation resolved. On Sunday we took Mum-in-law out for a long-promised drive as a reward for doing her exercises all month. This took most of the day if you include getting her ready, getting her in, doing the drive, getting her out and safely back in her riser recliner. Then on Monday, in a completely unrelated incident youngest son on his first trip to Leeds to see uni friend for his birthday, was in a 7 car pile up on the M1 on his way home. He wasn’t driving and no-one was hurt but it was very worrying and once he got back home, we all sat in garden having a glass of wine, toasting all the goddesses for his safe return, when the phone rang – mum-in-law had fallen again. Cue us all getting into Harry’s car (he doesn’t like wine) to sort her out and get her back into bed. (She wasn’t hurt). And all this is on top of cooking and freezing their meals for the week (they wont eat shop-bought ready meals); and doing their shopping (they don’t do online and even if they did they couldn’t unpack it, we’d have to do that). This weekend was particularly bad, but you get the picture – this new regime is very time consuming, emotionally draining and not conducive to writing . It’s like you’re always on stand by, waiting for the proverbial to hit the fan, so you can’t really relax or focus on writing. My brother-in-law is down now, staying till this evening so neither me or grumpy husband are on call should the alarm trigger again. This being the case grumpy husband has gone fishing and I am doing a live Q&A with lovely Gaynor Jones from Retreat West on Twitter about The Naming of Bones.

Everything about the Naming of Bones has gone really well, the launch, publication day, reviews and I’d like to say a huge thanks to everyone who bought, read and/or reviewed it so far. The feedback I’ve seen has been really heartening, and reading it all has given me such joy and a bit of a break from all this perpetual caring.

Anyhoo, if you fancy asking me any questions about The Naming of Bones, writing as therapy or anything else, I’ll be on Twitter from 6.30pm. In the meantime here are some photos showing the moments of fun I’ve been having offline.

Grumpy husband at Wells-next-the-Sea
Weeded bed and coppiced willows
Grumpy husband with hammerhead log

The Anxious Potager

Ramsons in our garden

Last year, during first lockdown, grumpy husband planted some wild garlic. I’d been banging on about how much I miss it, being an expat Lancastrian, and how when I was a kid you could gather buckets of the stuff from practically anywhere between Bolton and Ramsbottom where it grows in pungent profusion in cloughs and shady glades. It’s so widespread in Lancashire, places are even named after it. Like the aforementioned Ramsbottom, which according to my gran (who knew loads about this sort of thing) was named not after the nether-regions of male sheep, but for the masses of wild garlic growing there, or ramsons, as we say in a Lancy twang. Grumpy husband’s a proper bread-head, who bakes sourdough every week, and baguettes and pizza bases so when I told him you can make pizza toppings and flavour your bread with ramsons and that they’re totally delicious made into pesto and served on sourdough, he planted some under the walnut tree in the leaf and branch cover to see if it would ‘take’ in the dappled light. There’s been miles more rain here on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens in recent years, and as ramsons love damp as well as shady places, it seemed like a good bet.

Fast forward a year, and it’s done quite well. So last Thursday, on publication day for my memoir-in-flash, when I was feeling a potent mixture of excitement, anxiety, exposure and pride (the kind that comes before a fall my worry-warting thoughts were thinking) I absented myself from everything to do with writing and attempted ramson and walnut pesto. To be fair I’d never actually tried ramson pesto in my youth because pesto hadn’t made it to 1970s Bolton, but I had seen a recipe in cyberspace. So, as we still had a few walnuts left over from last year’s glut, I reasoned project pesto would feed three birds with one metaphorical peanut: use up some walnuts, do what I sort-of promised grumpy husband a year ago and act as a distraction/avoidance from the emotional maelstrom of publication day. This is what I did.

  1. Picked 30g ramson leaves (you could do this in miles bigger batches if you live in Ramsbottom but I didn’t want to stress the first year plants by taking too many leaves),
  2. Whizzed up 50g shelled and toasted walnuts with the juice of half a lemon. I just used a hand whizzer, not a fancy food processor or anything, then drizzled in some local rape seed oil still whizzing until it looked like pesto consistency.
  3. Halved the mixture and added 15g of parmesan to one batch and 10g yeast flakes to the other, (to make vegan and veggie pesto). I then seasoned with salt and pepper, and voila!

Here’s a picture of a wee bit of pesto popped onto a slice of sourdough for your visual delectation. Wish you could smell and taste it because it really is very pungent and delicious. After I took this photo, I sterilised a repurposed jam jar were I reckon the pesto will store for several weeks kept in the fridge. Grumpy husband was well impressed and enthused that it was one of my best garden preservations ever. Next year, if the ramsons have spread like they do up north, I’ll make bigger batches and see if it freezes okay.

I’ve always found preserving what we grow and forage for, calming and rewarding, which is just as well, as pickling, jamming, freezing and drying are a really important part of making the most of a potager garden like ours, where gluts and dearths are continual. Last year in early summer, for example, when the sour cherries were ready to pick, for a brief moment, cherries were everything. We had poached cherries on porridge, glistening red cherry compote on toast, tart and zingy sour cherry summer pudding, cherry buns, cherry bread, cherry couscous salad. Then suddenly we reached cherry saturation and never wanted to see another sour cherry again let alone put one in our mouths. We decided to leave the rest to the birds. But as weeks went by and summer tipped into autumn and we stuffed our faces with everything blackberry, the remembered cherries wove a wistful memory, and after Christmas, when we were sick and tired of wintry things, we found ourselves nostalgic for the sharp tang of early summer. If only I’d dried or frozen some of the wonderful cherries, I thought, or made them into long-lasting jams, or jellies or gin. A valuable lesson for this year coming (though the birds will still get their share.) And there it is – right there – why it’s mindfully positive , growing and preserving your own – it makes you think about the future not in an anxious, everything-is-bound-to-go-wrong kind of way, but in a what-can-we-do-to-make-the-most-of-it-next-time sort of way, a future where you learn from mistakes, not avoid them.

It makes me think about more existential things too, not just the positivity of impermanent things but the fickle nature of transiency too. Like publication day for The Naming of Bones. Unlike the cherries, that will never come back, and as I write this three days later, I’m wondering what on earth I was worried about, because, of course nothing bad happened. In fact I’ve been floored by the support from the wonderful on-line flash community. I’m so grateful to everyone who Tweeted and sent messages of support, and who bought the book, and my wonderful writer buddies too, who over the last couple of weeks in particular have provided such incredible support and wisdom. I so need to remember that if my novella that’s currently longlisted with Reflex Press makes it out into the world. But anxiety is a phantom shapeshifter, that gives not one hoot for fact or logical reasoning, that’s built from imaginings and inner whisperings that echo awful nightmares that will never come to pass, most like, that clag you in a non-existent miasma that you can’t see through, so the reality beyond it disappears. And it’s physical too, a physical dread like stone butterflies in your stomach.

It’s the on-line launch of The Naming of Bones tomorrow evening, something I’ve longed for for ages, something that really should be just a moment of joy, but even today when I’m excited and anxious in equal measures, the anxiety is rising. I wish I could simply look forward to it, especially having just harvested a bumper crop of positivity the day after publication. I keep telling myself I’ve got brilliant back up from writing buds who won’t mind if things go wrong, and that all round superstar and wonderful human being Gaynor Jones is overseeing the actual event. But anxiety is a shadow that needs neither form nor light to cast it, which is why I’m writing this, I suppose, using writing like I always do nowadays as distraction, as exorcism, as therapy, and because there’s something powerful about un-secreting fear, about calling it out and naming it. Thanks so much for listening anyone who is, because I feel a bit better now. Going to bake myself into staying in this moment, by harvesting and cooking the rhubarb.

The Naming of Bones

To keep my pecker up in the darkest days of lockdowns one, two and three, I did what I’ve done since 2015 when I started writing – I wrote. Stories. Bad stories, good stories, scary stories, happy stories, angry stories, short stories, micro stories, stories based on fact, stories based on wild flights of imagination, stories written in different shapes from usual stories, and all of them spilling out my emotions onto the page or into the laptop, so I didn’t drown in the feelings that so often overwhelmed me before I started my writing journey. That’s what creative writing is for me. Therapy. Exorcism.

It’s not overstating things to say that over the last 6 years, writing has saved my life, and that in the last 12 months it has saved my sanity. I’m very pleased to report therefore that in addition to keeping me sane (ish) during the last six months when, in the real world, my 87 year-old mum-in-law had a stroke, my dad-in-law broke his hip, my mum-in-law then caught Covid in stoke rehab and my youngest son had Covid at Uni and had to cope on his own, I wove some of my shortest stories into a novella-in-flash, and that novella has been long-listed for the Bath Novella-in-Flash Prize, which I’m well made up about.

I’m also made up to be sharing the longlist with two of my best feedback biddies (this was meant to say buddies but the typo made me smile so wide, I couldn’t correct it.) So, Michelle Christophorou and Ali McGrane, feedback biddies and flash writers extraordinaire, both have novellas on the Bath long list too, and having read both their works, I’m pretty sure mine stands not a cat in hell’s chance of making the short list. (Making the shortlist is important in this competition because it brings an offer of publication from Ad Hoc Fiction.) But I genuinely won’t mind if mine doesn’t make it – not if theirs’ do – because both their novellas are important pieces of work that really need to be out in the world being read. I can’t say what the titles of any of our novellas-in-flash are, as everything is still being judged anonymously, but it’s all wonderfully encouraging that our collective works have made it through the first stage of selection.

But even that’s not my best writing news this month. Now, as lockdown 3 stutters toward something like relaxation and both my in-laws are home and safe, and new normal is predicated on us all knowing that shit does and will happen, I’m totally stoked (and scared and happy, and anxious and elated) to say that my memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones opened for pre-orders on Tuesday, and that the response has been really wonderful. If you ordered a copy thanks so very much, and if you posted support on Twitter, thankyou thankyou. If you haven’t ordered one yet, you can do so by following the link below. I can genuinely say that, thanks to the beautiful cover created by Triona Walsh, and the care and diligence taken by Amanda Saint at the wonderful, award winning Indy press, Retreat West Books, it is a thing of real and exquisite beauty. If you follow the link you’ll be able to read what it’s all about and decide if you’d like a copy or not. If you live overseas and would prefer a paperback copy rather than kindle, you can contact me direct here, or DM me on Twitter @jankaneen1. I have a few copies reserved that I can cost for overseas posting and fulfill myself, taking payment by PayPal.

When the pre-orders went live on Tuesday I was so emotional. Writer buddy and all round insightful good egg Gaynor Jones gave me a heads up this might happen, but I still had no idea that I’d feel such a strange mixture of joy, terror, exposure and relief at the prospect of my story having a life outside my head. I’m still feeling all these things right now as I write this. But I guess that’s all part of the therapeutic journey I’m still very much on, so I’m going to say thanks again to everyone who’s bought and will buy a copy, and to everyone who reads it, then I’m going to screw every atom of my courage to the sticking place, hold on tight and hope for the best.

All Our Yesterdays

So that’s me back in the Hobbit hole then, which feels so different to the first time I came up here to shield last March – like going back to square one somehow.

This time last year just before Covid hit I was about to start what I thought would be a year dedicated to travel. This started with going to Wells-next-the Sea for my birthday then North Sweden to see the Northern lights then to Manc to have coffee and cake with writing good buddy Gaynor Jones, then oop to Bolton to see my sis, dad and nephews and nieces and go to a concert in Manc, then off darne sarf for a Writer’s Retreat with other writer buddies Ali McGrane, Sherry Morris and Amanda Saint, then off to wales for a week with Booboo pug to write in a wee cottage in Llan-non. Me and grumpy husband were then going to go to Italy to visit bessie-mate Kat who moved to just outside Milan in Dec 2019, then Poland to visit my son who lives near Gdansk with his lovely fam, then we were off to Havana and Las Vegas for the trip of a lifetime which of course didn’t happen.

As I look back to this time last year – so much has changed – people I loved have passed away, my pet sidekick too, close family have (and continue to be) be seriously ill. My mum-in-law had a stroke, was in hossie for weeks and weeks then in rehab miles away where on Sunday it was confirmed she has contracted Covid. We can’t visit and as her speech has been effected by the stroke – phoning is not easy. My dad-in-law, who has just about every medical condition you don’t want in a Covid situation – level 6 kidney disease, diabetes, heart failure – had a fall in November and broke his hip. He came back home last night after we’d spent the Christmas break working like furies to get the house adapted, bed downstairs, rising chair borrowed from friends, everything cleaned and cleared – then as we were waiting for him to arrive home last night the news that we are all going back into lockdown. Feels a bit overwhelming if I’m honest. Never have I needed my writing crutch more.

Some in-print books I’ve been in in 2020

I look back on 2020 as a very difficult time in most lights but writing wise, with having had more time to give to it, I actually had my most successful writing year – I won the Segora short story comp, Flash 500, Write from the Heart micro comp, came second in The Fountain essay comp, third in Bath Flash, was a finalist in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Awards, Comma Press’s Dinesh Allirajah Award and Fish Flash Fiction Award, and was published in lovely places like Fictive Dream, Ellipsis, Molotov Cocktail and Reflex Fiction’s A Girl’s Guide to Fly Fishing. And that is what I have to build on as we enter the dark days of January 2021. Its weird I was so looking forward to waving goodbye to 2020 just a week ago. It didn’t occur that 2021 might turn out to be even more challenging. But I have to remember there are bright lights on the horizon – doing Matt Kendrick’s flash course next week (my Xmas pressie from grumpy husband) and Retreat West’s flash course in Feb with the uber talented Amanda Saint (birthday pressie from the fam) and then the launch of my memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones on 22nd April. So I really need to give myself a talking to as I move back into shielding. I’m so lucky to have a safe place to retreat to, a family around me, and a writing passion to distract me from thinking those thoughts that think themselves. My lovely kids made a wee book for me as a Christmas pressie. (see above).They scoured the internet for my flashes then set them out in this lovely book. I was soooo moved and I love the picture on the front too. Last summer there was a butterfly that visited often. I put garden flowers on the table outside the hobbit house and it came back again and again and sometimes landed on my head or arm and one day when it did Paulina took this photo. It’s another blessing I need to remember to count.

Anyhoo in the spirit of dredging up some positive thinking – here’s my micro from Writing from the Heart. It feels hard taking my own advice at the moment but as there’s nowt we can do but roll with the punches, I thought I’d post it here just in case it helps anyone anywhere.

It’s my birthday on the 12th which is a crap time to have a birthday at the best of times – right after Christmas with decks all packed away, freezing cold, when everyone’s skint and sick and tired of eating and drinking, which is why I celebrate half birthdays in summer when we can eat out or walk by the river and sing in the garden in drunken bad harmonies. I really hope we will get to do that this year. Happy 2021 blog readers – here’s to the coming summer – when this lockdown will be over, the kids will be back at school and uni, online mates will be meeting up face-to-face, and we’ll be going to concerts and museums and libraries and sitting in cafes watching the world go by, and by midsummer 2021 mass vaccinations will be done and dusted, elderly relies will be well and home, my best friends and family will be sitting round the fire dish in my garden having just stuffed their faces and drunk too much red wine singing Don’t Look Back in Anger at the top of their football crowd voices like there’s no tomorrow, like there was no yesterday.

Yo-yos and Rollercoasters

Brains are weird. They sort of house who you are – your personality, your emotions, your lived experience – but they also sort of navigate you practically through time and space in a way that’s both primed to change in the event of new data but which is also predicated on what has gone before, especially on things you do every day in a kind of default setting way. Let me explain.

Me and Boo-boo down the pub after the first lockdown ended

Before I had the kitchen revamped in 2011 I’d had the bin in the same place for nine years previous. When the kitchen changed, and the bin moved, I found myself launching apple cores, screwed-up crisp packets, orange peel toward the empty place the old bin had been. I did it for months before my brain re-wrote its new bin placement data and for the ‘bin has moved’ default-setting/auto pilot part of my brain to catch up. Until it did, I was in bin limbo.

Today, (and for the previous three weeks) to get to the point I’m trying to make here, I’ve been in beloved-pug limbo, Boo-Boo limbo, constant-companion-through-first-lockdown-who-passed- away-on-the-14th-October-after-a-devastatingly-short-illness limbo.

Don’t get me wrong, October 2020 was one of the most up-and-down I’ve ever loved through (this should have said lived and is a typo, but when I edited I quite liked it and thought it was more appropriate so decided to leave it be). So to re-iterate. October 2020 was one of the most up-and-down I’ve ever loved through, the following being things that happened in addition to Boo-Boo passing away: my mum-in-law had a stroke (and is still in hossie where she’s not allowed visitors because of Covid and waiting to be transferred to the stroke rehabilitation unit but doing as well as can be expected); my youngest son had (and recovered from) Covid whilst away at uni in Nottingham); my eldest son who lives in Poland, got married at a tiny wedding ceremony at the reg office in Reda, Poland which I attended and am now in 14-day isolation after coming back into the country from; and I won third prize in the Bath Flash Prize.

Booboo just back from a walk in Llanon Wales in Feb 2020

So true to say that Oct 2020 has been a yo-yo rollercoaster, and yet my Boo-Boo limbo still persists. Every morning I wake up and my first thought is – must let Boo-Boo out for a wee; every time I answer the door, I think I must make sure the inner door is closed to BooBoo doesn’t run out; when I’m writing or day-dreaming, random Boo-Boo related thoughts pop into my mind – is Boo-Boo’s water fresh? Where shall we walk to today? Oh look at the crow on the lawn, I must release Boo-Boo to chase it away.

I know this Boo-Boo in-my-brain default setting is not indelible. I know that one morning I will wake up and sip my brew before I think of her. I know one day I won’t think of her even then, and that my default setting will have moved on to other habitual musings. But for now I’m just going to go with the flow and feel the pain of Boo-Boo’s ghost still triggering my thoughts, because that pain is a symptom of the love I had for that very small, yappy-with-an-attitude (if you were a crow or squirrel), adorable, loving bundle of life.

Her real name was Boudica, queen of the Iceni (though of all the names I called her it’s the one she didn’t come to). She was Boo-Boo, Boo-Boo Baby, Mrs Boo, All the Boos in all the World, The Booster and I will miss her so terribly until the terrible day I don’t.

Here are some photos of her, including the one I took just before we set off to the vets. Bye Boo. I loved you very much and though one day I know the auto-pilot thoughts I have of you in the most ephemeral parts of my brain will re-write themselves, the gratitude I feel for having shared the planet with you for ten short years, will stay in my heart of hearts for as long as I have any capacity for feeling.

Lots of Lasts

Been a wee while since I last blogged and in that wee while Harry has gone back to uni for his second year, Bob and Karolina have decided to get wed asap (third week of October) so that’s us back to Poland if we don’t get locked down, and I’ve grown (or is that groan) and eaten way too many courgettes and marrows, loads of apples, shed loads of plums, four pears, gazillions of tomatoes, many, many beans and lots and lots of lettuce. But now autumn’s here and it’s time for the last of all these veggies to be boiled, frozen, pickled, dried, preserved etc in all the usual ways. Here’s some pics of the last of the summertime flowers and crops.

But as is always the case with the circle of life, there’s still loads of stuff growing and being sown, the pumpkins are swelling nicely, the spuds are getting bigger and the winter chards are ready to plant out. And nuts. Don’t get me started on nuts. This is the hand of someone who’s been hulling walnuts for a week in order to wrestle some from the squirrels. The green hulls stain your fingers making them look proper filthy and no amount of scrubbing shifts it. You just have to wait for it fade. Anyhow, once the walnuts are hulled they must be dried or they rot, so I dry them for two days by the burner then when they’re light and rattly and sweet as a – well nut – I put them in my suspended, breathable nut storage unit (i.e. my bag from last year’s flash festival) thus uniting my two passions – writing and growing our own.

And there we are, back to the writing. The route was circuitous but we got there in the end. And I have very good news indeed. One of my stories is included in the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list this year (known as the Biffy 50). Very pleased about this. Here’s the link to all the listed flashes which are free to read including mine.

I’ve also got stories published in print in the Bacopa Literary Review and Molotov V neither of which are free. You have to buy copies but here are links to both, just in case.

This month I also did a flash fiction workshop with flash guru and all round excellent egg Ken Elkes, which I found brill at freeing up my writing mind in these strange and unsettling times. I wrote several drafts following prompts and suggestions, and ended the week with three drafts I like a lot. If you get chance to do one of his courses I would. Well I did. Here’s the link to his website which gives all the deets.

And finally…saving, as is traditional, the best til last. Trumpet fanfare, drum roll, moment of dramatic pause…

I have a publication date for The Naming of Bones, my debut memoir-in-flash.

It’s 22nd April 2021!

Lots of work to do between now and then editing wise, but so looking forward to working with the amazing Amanda Saint and Gaynor Jones at Retreat West. As soon as there are any announcements I’ll post them here.

Winner, Winner Nut Roast Dinner

It was my step-dad-in-law’s 82nd birthday yesterday and we all went out for a socially distanced Sunday lunch to celebrate. The pub we went to was really excellent at organising a safe space for the gathering of our familial bubble and we sat behind a Plexiglass screen on an outside balcony at a safe distance from everyone else and drank beer and prosecco and had a right laugh. Here is the birthday boy ordering just the one Irish coffee as he tucked into his caramel waffle. I was particularly grateful to get out and raise a glass with him, the boys, Paulina, my husband and mum-in-law because I had something brilliant to celebrate writing wise.

It was the perfect end to a particularly writerly week to be fair, I’d been sent the proofs of the Fish Winners’ Anthology 2020 so I could do any corrections to my included piece; Retreat West had published a video of me reading ‘Sour’ on their You Tube Channel as part of their August Summer Spotlight series which you can watch by following this link, You+Tube+Jan+Kaneen&docid=608029921567969020&mid=FAFB7138CD81D0AB08F0FAFB7138CD81D0AB08F0&view=detail&FORM=VIRE – and I’d just WON the Segora short story competition 2020. The announcement was made on that very Sunday morning – here’s the link to it

You can read my winning story by following the link and clicking on the title. I’m so delighted to have won this comp and am very grateful to the judge and organisers for the opportunity it affords, especially as they donate part of the entry takings to the brilliant charity Médecins Sans Frontières. Having won such a fab prize, I feel ready to properly polish my short story collection and get it sent out to potential publishers.

On the downside, it is a little bit disappointing to miss the presentation/workshop weekend that was planned by Segora before covid-19 hit, but they are going to resurrect it next year when it’s deemed safe to do so. The launch of the Fish Anthology, which was planned to take place in Ireland, has also been cancelled, as was the winners’ party for the Comma Press short-listees at the Northern Short Story Festival in Leeds in May – so it looks like I seriously chose the wrong year to start subbing my short stories if going to gatherings, and meeting other writers was what I wanted to do!

But I won’t let that wee cloud darken the blue-sky feeling I’ve got at the moment. I just need to thank my lucky stars and wonderful feedback buddies for the little slew of success I’ve had recently, and also Grandpa Bri – for having a perfectly timed, wonderfully sunny, deliciously boozy 82nd birthday!