I do love a good bit of serendipity, those rare moments where everything falls into place as though you’d planned it that way. Last week we took delivery of some new yarn bases, British sourced & spun BFL & Wensleydale (each skein comes with its own little certificate so that you know you are getting British wool), and you are going to love them. They smell so…….. sheepy. I got a little high inhaling them. More on that later this week (the yarn, not the sniffing).

Then I was given the opportunity to preview a new book, and to participate in a blog tour reviewing it. The book is Pure Wool by Sue Blacker . I love it. Looking through it, I swear I can smell that woolly scent all over again. There’s just something about natural wool yarns, something cosy and homely and comforting, and Sue has managed to capture that same feeling in this lovely book. It’s a treat to the eye, from the lovely matte paper to the many, many photographs.

Woven throughout the book are the stories of each breed of sheep, which I loved. I had no idea (to my shame) that there were so many breeds, such diversity (Zwartbles, have you ever heard of them?!). I think it’s terribly sad that we’ve become so narrow in our choices, and I applaud Sue’s efforts to revive interest in some of the lesser known breeds through this book. She is well placed to champion this cause, since she runs the yarn company Blacker Yarns, and The Natural Fibre Company, a specialist wool mill in Devon.

The book is very well planned, with the stories of each breed alternating with patterns designed for those yarns. I think I would have been a bit daunted if they had chosen to put all the breed information together in one lump, and then all the patterns afterwards (as I’ve seen in other books), and would have ended up skipping past the stories to get to the patterns. There is so much information in the book, but it’s so well presented that you find yourself enthralled, rather than feeling like you’re being educated.

There are some great patterns too, erring on the side of classics (not always a bad thing if you ask me, since they are timeless instead of trendy), and definitely designed to make the single breed yarn the real feature of the project. I loved the Wavy Cable jumper, the Sanquhar cushion, and the Climbing Vines cardigan. The patterns have all been knitted in Sue’s yarns, but there is an excellent chart to help you choose suitable substitute yarns if you prefer. A nice little feature is that there is a profile of each knitter who knitted up the design – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before, and it is a very gracious nod to those hard workers.

There is a lot of work being done now to promote British wool, a campaign that is backed by Prince Charles, and I am delighted to see the profile of British wool rising among crafters, designers, dyers, and manufacturers. I hope that Sue is very proud of her book – she should be. It is published by Bloomsbury Books in the UK and Stackpole Books in the USA (a last twist of serendipity, since Stackpole is the next village over from us!). You can buy it directly from Blacker Yarns (£12 plus p&p), through Amazon, or directly from Bloomsbury or Stackpole ($19.95).

The next stop of the blog tour is Annie Modesitt’s blog, so do drop by there tomorrow for her review of the book!

Announcing The Demise Of BookGirl

I’m trying to come to terms with a massive shift in myself lately. I’m still processing. I’ve got as far as acknowledging the truth of it, but not quite as far as calm acceptance.

I don’t like to read books any more.

Oh boy, passthepaperbag, would you?

This is the girl who would get through 10 library books in a week. This is the girl who filled half her luggage space with books when going on holiday This is the girl with the serious Amazon addiction. This is the girl with well over a thousand books in her teeny tiny cottage.

Here’s how it happened. When I was really really ill, earlier in the year, I couldn’t read. Nothing made sense, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t even choose what book to read. That beautiful, easy escape from reality was closed to me. For three months, or so, I didn’t read. Then, as my concentration started to improve, I began reading again, but only non fiction. Diaries, collections of letters, biography, that sort of thing. Not very enthusiastically, but I made myself. ‘Gotta get back to normal’, I told myself. But I still couldn’t concentrate enough to follow a plot, or remember who the various characters were, so fiction was out.

Once properly better, I tried fiction again. Nope. It wouldn’t stick. The characters still got muddled in my head, the situations didn’t ring true, I struggled through a book, and felt relief once it was over. ‘I must not be quite better yet,’ I thought. I gave it more time.

In the meantime, I stuck to non fiction. And at some point, I realised, this can’t be a concentration problem, because I don’t have any problem reading a book now. I zipped through one travel book in a matter of a few hours. I just don’t like fiction any more.

I think that it’s lost its magic. When I needed to step away from my reality the most, it didn’t work, the door was closed. The enchantment has gone. And in any case, I don’t want to escape reality any more. I did enough of that over the years, and it didn’t do me any good. Nowadays I’m working very hard to be present, to be in the moment, to fully experience life, instead of hiding away with my nose in a book. This makes me very nervous – it’s like walking on a tightrope without that safety net beneath you – but it’s what I need to do. I’m getting the hang of it.

In addition to all of the above, I don’t want to give the time to reading that I used to. I want to be doing, not reading. I want to be productive, creative. There are so many things I’ve interested in, so many projects I want to make, so many skills to learn. This is how I want to spend my leisure time.

So, the very little reading that I do now tends to be instructive. I’m working through the Self Coaching book I told you about last week. I have some modern quilt books on order. I dip into the occasional biography or diary (although rarely). And of course, I read lots online, tutorials, forums, blogs. The only fiction I get through is in the occasional audio book, which I can listen to while doing other things, and drift in and out of without really paying much attention to it. A soothing background noise. Mostly of books I have read many times in the past.

It’s all a bit strange and unsettling. But then, any kind of growth is an uncomfortable process, right? 

Self Coaching

I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read on anxiety, depression, etc etc etc. A hundred, maybe? A hefty proportion of the books out there, anyway. Some are good (the classic How To Stop Worrying & Start Living), some not so much, but none of them have had any lasting effect on me. Neither has the three lots of therapy that I’ve had. Well, that’s not entirely true. The therapy has made me much more self aware, more enlightened as to why I am who I am and why I do the things I do. Unfortunately, therapy on the NHS is highly abridged – we’d only just got to the roots of my problems when the course had to end. They cut you loose, to sink or swim. I usually sink……. 

So then I turn to books, in a desperate attempt to continue my own therapy, but it’s hard, so hard, to see yourself objectively and to know how best to get yourself out of your own mental pitfalls. Like someone floundering in quicksand, trying to pull themselves out.

But when it comes to reading, I’m an eternal optimist. Tony laughs at me, because my first reaction in any given situation is to go buy a book about it. Hence the 1000 books crowding us out of our tiny home. Anyway. I bought a book, and read it, and re-read it, and worked through it, really worked, with a notepad and pen and exercises and everything, and this is the first time I’ve ever done that, ever been inspired enough to actually work along with a book. And the result?


Yes, really, go and buy it. Here’s an Amazon UK link, and an Amazon.com link, and it’s also available on Kindle and Audible. The title is Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression: How to Heal Anxiety and Depression by Joseph J. Luciani Ph.D. I’ll wait for you. Go on!!!!!

Ok, you got it? Good. Now I’ll tell you the drawback. Yes, I know, but I wanted you to buy it before I changed your mind.

First of all, some context, for those of you who haven’t been slugging through my depression with me for the last few years. My story in a nutshell: anxious/depressed child, anxious/depressed adult, culminating in a good old fashioned nervous breakdown 3 (or was it 4? I’m losing count) years ago. Short periods of relative wellness interspersed with recurrent breakdowns since then. With a particularly bad one at the start of this year, with all kinds of medication horrors to complicate it.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I have been utterly, completely, passionately convinced that depression is a clinical illness, brain chemistry all wacko, something I’m going to have for the rest of my life, like diabetes, etc etc etc etc. If you’d suggested otherwise to me, I would have brained you with the nearest blunt object. Which makes me wary of saying this out loud, for fear of upsetting or angering my readers with depression, but……..

This book is built around the premise that anxiety/depression is not a clinical illness, but something we do to ourselves……..

I know! I KNOW!!

Don’t shoot the messenger. Just take it from me, if I can be convinced by the reasoning in this book, anyone can. I would have fought to the death to defend the clinical illness theory, trust me. No one wants to think that they are bringing that amount of suffering on themselves by choice. Well, it’s not that simple. It’s an involuntary choice, and the idea of the book is to give you back the power of choice, so that you can steer your way out of the darkness and back into health. As far as I can tell, the exercises are cognitive behavioural based, but they seem to go deeper than anything else I’ve read, or done through CBT counselling.

I should clarify: the book acknowledges that depression is a brain chemistry problem, and that medication can be useful, and for some people, vital (that would be me). BUT. It theorises that the brain chemistry problems are the result of years and years of stress, anxiety, panic, insecurity, fear, worry, and all the other negative emotions that make us go rigid in the face of life’s problems and strains. That our coping strategies are developed when we are children, and that we just carry them into our adult life, where they are no use to us at all, but just drag us down into the quicksand of depression and chronic anxiety.

What I found so amazing about this book is this: it combines some of the best explanations for why depression/anxiety strikes some of us, with strategies for beating it. Hmm. I didn’t put that very well. You’ll have to read the book, then you’ll see what I mean. Suffice to say, nearly every page was a lightbulb moment for me, which is saying something considering the many, many books I’ve read on the subject. I was able to very quickly identify patterns that led up to each episode of depression, and I promise you, not one of them was external, they were all thinking patterns, internal reactions to external events. This blows my mind. I never ever thought I would believe this, but I do. It makes the most perfect beautiful logical sense when you read through the book. 

I’ll admit, it’s scaring the crap out of me. It’s seriously scary to face the fact that your happiness and well being is squarely in your own hands. Scary but incredibly exciting. In equal parts. But the book makes so much sense to me that I’m trusting it, and working through the exercises, and taking one little step at a time. So far, it’s working. It’s working GOOD. It’s two steps forward, one step back, of course, because ingrained thinking habits do NOT like being disturbed. But progress is progress, however slow. This post has been hard to write, partly because I don’t want to offend anyone with what is a pretty out-there idea, contrary to what I’ve said in the past, and partly because I have this stupid feeling that I’m jinxing myself by saying out loud, this is working for me.

But, there it is. Give it a try. Be open. Maybe you’ll have your own lightbulb moment. Maybe.

Journals, and Diaries, and Letters, Oh My!

(Apologies for the lack of links in this post, but you can find all of these books on Amazon.)

The last few months have been a dry desert when it comes to reading. One of the stabbing pains of depression, for me, is the inability to lose myself in a book. I grew up reading. I always had my nose in a book, always. To me, it is the ultimate panacea, to be able to open a book and lose yourself in another world. And especially when you are sick, or sad, or life seems stale and dusty. You can go anywhere, do anything, be with anyone, just by diving into a book. But major depression affects your cognitive processes so severely, that it is impossible to concentrate on anything. Even the gentlest plot, such as you might find ina classic childrens book, becomes too tortuous to follow. It’s distressing and demoralising.

That’s when things are at their very worst. But time passes, and you start to make the long, slow journey back up from the depths, towards the surface again. Reading is now difficult, but not impossible. You can slip between the covers of books that you’ve read so often that you know them almost by heart. You can read gentle little books that don’t tax the imagination or the intellect. This is the point at which I rediscovered the joys of diaries & letters.

For a start, there’s no plot to concentrate on. You can slip into another world, a different time, someone else’s life and thoughts and heart. That is escapism at it’s best. In diaries you get to see intimately how other people think, when they let their guard down, the real them. This is extremely interesting, and comforting too, because it puts your own problems and feelings into the perspective. Humanity’s history has been filled with people who are just like you and me, even if they only showed that to their private journal.

L.M.Montgomery is a case in point. Judging by her books, you would think her to be a dreamy, optimistic, fun-loving, romantic soul. In actual fact she was tortured by years of depression, anxiety, and suffering. She had the most prosaic attitude to love and marriage, and freely admitted that although she was fond of her husband, she was not, and never had been, in love with him. She tended to be gloomy, and rather dramatic. And for someone who was so talented at drawing character portraits that lived and breathed in her many books, she certainly disliked people! She shrank from company, and found socialising exhausting and trialsome. She was obviously very effective at hiding her real self from the outer world, but her extensive journals were her vent, a place where she could be alone and truly herself.

Some of the diaries & journals that I have been reading, or am about to embark upon reading, are:

L.M.Montgomery; Fanny Burney; Anna Cabot Lowell Quincy; Virginia Woolf; Alison Uttley, Beatrix Potter; Barbara Pym; Joyce Grenfell; Louisa May Alcott; Lucy Peel; James Milne-Lee.

Reading collections of letters is a pleasure of a slightly different sort. I’m not so keen on the collections that include letters from two parties, such as Joyce Grenfell & Virginia Graham. I like to stick with one writer’s voice, and really get inside their head. Letters are less introspective but more entertaining. Some of the ones that I have read, or have on my to-read pile are:

Emily Eden; Sylvia Plath; Virginia Woolf; Joyce Grenfell; Emily Dickinson (she is utterly charming – how can you not love someone who writes to a friend: Always I have a chair for you in the smallest parlor in the world, to wit, my heart.

When you add to this the fact that diary and letter collections tend to be fat juicy volumes, you can imagine how large my current reading list is! I’ve had to make room for a whole new shelf, just to hold them all. This is the problem when life forces you to take a reading break: you tend to go on rather a binge afterwards to make up for it. If you have any recommendations to add to my list, do let me know!

I still have a huge pile of Anthony Gilbert mysteries to work my way through as well, but those will have to wait until my brain is functioning a little better than it is at the moment. Until then, you’ll find me dipping in and out (another plus, you can have several volumes on the go at once, and not lose track of plots or characters!) of other people’s worlds and lives. It’s fascinating stuff.

And it’s inspired me to start writing regularly in this blog again. I used to love writing my blog, I wrote it almost like a private journal, talking about whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. But then, during a time of trouble, I became aware that people in my personal life were reading the blog, and analysing and criticising it, and that took away all the joy of creativity, and made me feel stifled and uncomfortable. I tried to continue, but more circumspectly, but as a result, my words withered up and eventually died.

But I’ve come to terms with it now. I know that I’m something of an oddity. I am fierce when it comes to protecting my privacy in reality, and yet I’m happy to share my deepest feelings and thoughts in writing. I suppose that the act of writing gives me a sense of distance. But then it makes me uncomfortable when real life acquaintances speak to me about what I’ve written. That feels intrusive. Which it isn’t, since I’ve voluntarily opened up my soul in a public place.

What can I say, I’m a complex thing!

But when it comes down to it, I’m only truly happy and at peace when I’m writing. I’m able to express myself far better in written words than even in private thought. The act of writing seems to unlock my deepest thoughts, and I’m often surprised by realisations that emerge as I write. In my darkest moments, when the depression has such a tight grip that I am literally unable to speak a sentence, even to Tony, and my thoughts are a black hole of whirling nothingness, I seem to be able to access sense and articulation only by writing. So it is essential to me to write, I can’t exist without it.

As you can tell by this week’s splurge of posts, my blogging mojo is back, and then some. I am determined to be true to myself, to speak authentically without fear of criticism or analysis. As well as blogging, I have decided to start a private journal, for no one’s eyes, not even my own (meaning that I am resolved not to read back over what I have written – the thing that has sounded the death knoll for every journal I have started and lapsed with in the past). I am letting go of all my preconceptions for both journals, the private and the public. I will write what I want to, when I want to, how I want to. A journal is a creative thing just as much as any other written form, and should be allowed to grow and falter and change, as we do ourselves. Don’t you think?

New (to me) Books

I’ve made some good book discoveries lately, and thought it was about time I passed them along.

Firstly, I thought I had pretty much exhausted the Golden Age whodunnit range of books, but hadnt really looked at many American ones, because I’m not a fan of the hardboiled or P.I. style of mysteries. But then I stumbled across an absolute goldmine – Elizabeth Daly. She wrote a delightful series of mysteries, based around a old book expert detective, Gamadge. I have been gradually working my way through them all, and I’m very sad to be getting to the end. The books are clever, witty, and really exciting too. Highly recommended.

I’ve also been exploring some of the Greyladies range of books – old books that have been recently republished. Twice Dead, Death on Tiptoe, and Murder At The Flood are all excellent. On a less murderous theme, The Other Miss Perkins is a charming book that reminded me of Miss Pettigrew Lives For The Day (although not as good as that). I’m looking forward to seeing the D.E. Stevenson books that they are publishing in May 2011.

Finally, on a recommendation from one of my friend’s from the Posh Knitters Ravelry group, I bought Four Hedges, a gardening book from the 30s, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts. I’ve been rationing this one, it makes the perfect bedtime read. It has really woken up in me a desire to start working on our garden, and plans for that are afoot. More on that later in the year…….