Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Friday 5 August 2022

Affirmative Action: the AA for life's travels

A healthy bank account, lots of woollies, a resurgence of my youth’s social anxiety, and not much writing: the end result of my lockdown. 

 I knitted a lot. And worked loads – as a counsellor specialising in trauma. I lived alone, my house paired with someone 75 miles away (though this turned out to be a godsend). To be fair, I finished writing an almost-finished novel then wrote a short sequel/extension, but it was like pushing a car through a swamp, mostly. A huge part of me resisted any kind of expansive thought or creative activity. 

This is not unhealthy. We were in emergency mode, so physiologically we were primed for fight, flight or freeze. When our bodies talk survival and fill up with adrenalin, we don’t have the wherewithal for the subtleties of ‘The Zone’ or ‘Flow’, a state partly defined by being so engrossed in something you are unaware of your surroundings. So the 2 year hiatus in this blog seems natural and right. 

As soon as regulations allowed, I saw counselling clients face-to-face in a designated room in my home. After lockdown, there were other reasons for not finding a new workspace, so my isolation continued and, in a sense, my lockdown, and my social anxiety. 

Anxiety is bad for creativity and acts as an inner censor. Likewise, encountering your singular writing voice, your essence in its most naked experience and expression, is the perfect anxiety prevention strategy. Similar to coming home, there is a sense of safety in submersion in something uniquely yourself but simultaneously universal. It’s like tapping into the common all pervasive life force, yours and the rest of the world’s, and in so doing losing awareness of immediate danger. We allow ourselves more easily into deep sleep when another person sleeps with us and instinctively we are each other’s guardians. Journeys inwards, forgetful of the world outside our bodies, requires security. 

So until recently, much of my anxiety was channelled into the meditative safety of knitting. This is essentially acting out someone else’s creative moment. It also satisfies the human need to sort, another healthy response to the chaos that is covid, Brexit and climate catastrophe. Knitting is fine, especially if you like watching variable colour yarns make interesting tone combinations in your fingers, as I do. Plus you get something squishy to wear or give. 

But when the world is in a dangerous uproar and people find themselves writing tortured poems like THIS ONE, or are being actually tortured by other humans, surviving flash fires or floods, or with bombs raining down, art feels a little more pressing than simple craft. Yes, people in war zones (and those suffering most under the current vicious UK regime) need blankets and jumpers, not to mention actual safety and homes. Political art is vital, difficult, inspiring and necessary, but so is the art that moves us every day in large and small ways: colours that dance in our gaze, shapes that send our eyes round eddies on the canvas, audible textures that appeal in ways we can’t quite grasp or form words to express, words which make pictures in our heads and sensations in our bodies. These bring various kinds of pleasure in themselves. As well as also moving us to action in all sorts of subtle ways we may not even be aware of and thereby segueing towards art as therapy and eventually potentially merging with political art, art is deeply reassuringly human.

So in a grand act of throwing the table over, I have sold my house and moved to a little cabin in a remote spot near 2 small conurbations. I remake a kind of vow here, though I’m not sure exactly what mien it will take, to re-find, feel, sense, touch and foster the connection to the unspeakable wonders between words, the visceral response to colour, light and sound, and to the vital common relatedness of all life. 

Big talk. In practical terms, so far this means getting up early so I can listen to the burn at the back of the cabin, watch the thrush family pick breakfast bugs out of the grass, and glimpse the feral cats’ kittens play in the undergrowth. And going to bed early so I don’t waste my eyes with electric light and can see the blue night sky through my window. Recent research* tells us three days of no electric light returns us to our natural circadian rhythm. It feels like washing out my brain ready to notice what else is in there, or ‘out there’ and what’s happening in the world around me, and gets those beautiful cognitive cogs whirring again. 


 *University of Colorado Boulder

Monday 4 May 2020

Lockdown Hunger

A poem from lockdown, a place where I run the gambit of all feelings humanly possible.
Audio version here

Lockdown Hunger

Lockdown hunger:
A feeling in need of another feeling
but without the knowing of
what either feeling is
or how to get from the one to the other.

I ate last night’s pizza
cold, straight from the fridge.
Then the biscuits, every one,
peanut spread on bread with gorgonzola,
dial-in dopiaza, stir-fried rice and nan,
aromatic dumplings with custard and cream.
Wine. Pies.
But yet this hunger persists.

Strange unsettling thing,
it swarms around me
smirr-like, discreet,
shapeshifts with the moment,
lures me sidelong into swamp,
stumbling as through midges and warm rain
towards a misty horizon,
with no certainty of arrival
or of knowing when I’ve arrived,
and no sensing of the great stone walls
rising in my path.

The hunger whispers: stay.
Hold still in this place.
Stay hungry,
love me, the hunger,
learn to love the hunger,
love not knowing, not seeing,
just feeling, something, somewhere,
without knowing where, or what.

This hunger exists, perhaps not in the body,
but lurks in some other sense,
a haze, around me, through me, without form.
A shapeless moving mass of feeling,
clothed in drabness if I could see it,
phlegm-like, suffocating,
and I must learn to love this
shifting, fuzzy damp thing that
morphs and keeps the light out.

Ah, the light, now distant,
now close, diffuse, unclear,
now a vibrant brilliant shock.
These flashes give a glimpse of
other things, real possible things
like tasks, people, memory, paths, accomplishment,
then swiftly throws a veil
and all disintegrates to
spectres of suggestions.

Time must be traversed
yet no time marks itself
but ticks its static tock.
The clock hands twitch,
the battery tries and tries again
with no strength to move them.

Yet in this temporal seepage
the pulse goes on,
now fast, now idling,
with accents of a jazz beat,
pause and crash, insisting:
This is no time for listening.
Run from the tiger,
face the tiger, or hide.
I peer through the fog,
instinct tells me to,
then lift the pen, my weapon.
It freezes in my hand
and falls on scrappy paper.
I replace it with a meat knife
and carve the wrong letter
through the notebook.

The radio sends news.
The tiger is large and small,
its visitation long or brief.
I’ll know it by its spots or stripes
its hacking cough or growling tum,
but not to worry.
I’m not a chosen one so,
with all this fluid time,
can re-write Shakespeare’s works,
invent a new type of clock
or, on a screen, fall in love
with someone I may never meet
and who is perhaps not real.

Maybe none of this is real
except the gnawing certainty
that hunger can’t be met,
and that the bright clouds will move
across the brilliance of the sky,
throwing shadow blankets
for split seconds
on those of us who dare
to risk their life for company.

Lockdown hunger:
When a person is in need of another person
but there is no knowing for either of them
who they miss or for what,
what it is each person feels,
or that such a feeling exists,
and no way to get from the one to the other.

Copyright (c) Sue Reid Sexton 2020

Friday 21 February 2020

Showing Off

This week, I had a lovely message from a happy reader which she was kind enough to let me share. It is always good to hear from people who have read your work because otherwise writers have no way of knowing how it has been received. Thank you, reader.

"Just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your book 'Writing on the Road'. I finished it yesterday, sadly, as I didn't really want it to end. It was completely absorbing, and I could not put it down at times. Even though I live in the beautiful Lake District, I have fallen in love with the Western Isles. I usually stay in self catering accommodation, in Scotland, but I have now purchased a vehicle that will enable me to go camping more. So, after reading your book, it has now given me the confidence, to hit the road on my own. This will enable me to have more trips to the places I love, without having to find holiday companions all the time. I can't wait! Thank you for being an inspiration Sue."

Sunday 24 November 2019


(audio version here)

There is a place you belong.
It sits beyond the houses,
roads, fields, factories and fences
and is miles and miles and miles long
and turns back to meet itself.
The laws there are immutable
ancient and inescapable
but generally benign,
if you respect them.
It is advisable to go barefoot
or wear stout boots,
warm clothes or none at all.
Keep your ears open for the pounding
slow-mo syncopation
or the road-like roar
or the shoosh, lazy, hush.
Let your hair be ruffled,
your body shoved about.
Meet the locals, those in fine feathers,
and don’t be alarmed
when they set off the warning system.
Make space for imaginings,
rememberings, connectings.
There is enough room for them all
if you stay long enough.
And when the light fades
there may be no dark,
only less bright
and air that is more precise.
You belong here.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sue Reid Sexton (as per usual)

Saturday 16 November 2019

Old Candles

A poem, hot off the press, which can be read any way you want. Not about 'old flames' but could be. Not about reclaiming the past, but could be. Might just be a sensual memory of finding lost candles when I really needed one. Might have been a metaphorical necessity, or a real one.

Yours to do with as you will.

Old Candles

Those candles
the dirty ones
the bits of them
the finding of them
in the backs of unused drawers,
in cubby holes and lost corners
my cold blunted fingers on the wood or concrete
pleased by the soft oiliness
or the grit imprinted on them,
dust guttering
as the pink match top sparks into blue,
praying the wick will hold,
the flame grasp it
and the room be reborn
from darkness into gold.

Monday 19 August 2019

Not sleepwalking

Sheltering at the back door.

My last post was a bit show-offy. I made it sound like I’m living a fantastic creative life like that other On The Road guy, whatsisname … Jack Kerouac, and being a Really Serious Writer who is prolific at the drop of a proverbial diphthong. This is not the case. While there have been moments of dizzying progress, this has not been the norm, and is probably nobody’s norm, which is what makes these creative instances so enticing. I’m guessing there’s dopamine involved here too, so often a culprit (see the chapter entitled ‘Can You Fix It?’ in Writing on the Road.) These moments certainly keep a writer going, but chasing after them is like trying to catch soapy bubbles in the wind. Writing is often fun and daft, gripping and otherworldly, but also gritty, painstaking, annoying and, well, ordinary and daily-grindish.

The secret road I looked back on.

Neither can I deny that in this wandering life there have been moments of excruciating personal pain, frustration, self-loathing, doubt and fury. I’m fairly sure this is not how people imagine life in my little van and that everybody believed my last post, didn’t you? And were you jealous? Aren’t I leading the idyllic life of a perambulatory writer? Don’t I have uninterrupted time to focus, uninterrupted vistas, uninterrupted dreamtime? Beach walks, the absence of deadlines and responsibilities, wheels to remove me from unpleasant situations/views/noise/smells/people? So how can it be awful? And, frankly, why don’t I just go home if it’s so tough? Nobody’s making me do this. There isn’t even anyone telling me to go home when I’ve had enough. Or to stop whinging.

But this is partly the point. I’m not just wandering geographically or even imaginatively, though obviously I’m doing both. I’m also wandering about in my gut and connecting that gut to the natural life of the place that I’m in. And the natural world is cruel beyond belief. Life is cheap. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re a goner. And there are no second chances. But it’s also constant. Have you noticed the way the sea is still raging at 2am. No? Raging. In the dark. I can hear it from the cliff top at night, or the layby, or the carpark, or the campsite. The wind is still roaming around the planet too, fuming one minute then just hanging around to see what we’ll do the next. Everything is being conceived, rotting or dying with no regard to night-time or the need to rest. And I am no different. I might be asleep but my lungs are still on the go, blood moving around, cells deciding what’s poison and what isn’t and directing molecules accordingly, and thoughts, images, ideas, possibilities all being put through the sifter that is my brain. I never stop either, and neither do you. I bet some of the thoughts you have are as dark and scary and not nice as mine. And alone in a campervan when I’m writing about the horrible things we humans do to each other, this can be extremely useful and productive, but also quite difficult. And like I say, there’s no-one but me to tell me to stop, or show me how, or distract me.

Restless in perpetuity.

Someone asked me at the beginning of this years’ extravaganza of campervan trips (I’ve actually lost count - I may be up to eleven since April now) why I need to keep moving. People often ask me this and I rarely have the same answer twice. I guess every trip is different. Today’s answer is that I want to experience everything I see, do, think and feel, and everything I hear about or encounter directly and to the greatest degree so that I can get closest to the truth (if there is such a thing), understand it better and write about it accurately. Both inner and outer. I therefore have to minimise input and be selective. I can’t hear the voice of the modern-day slave in my story if I’m listening to Boris barbarities. Boris Johnson is not in my book. He is therefore, on these trips, an irrelevance (and arguably elsewhere too). I can’t hear the boom of the waves if I’m lost in the petty dramas of my own family life (sorry guys). But I can write the very real dramas of my imaginary characters if I can temporarily swap their anguish for a booming wave, a grand vista, or a clump of swaying grasses, and thereby calm myself enough to go back into the dark world of torment I’m creating for them (or indeed my own dark world of torment – we all have one of these, don’t we? Do we?). This is the closest I’ll ever come to living through what I’m doing to these imaginary people. Being able to move regularly from one experience to another and back again seems to allow me to go deeper into every encounter, thought, feeling or happening, or to notice when I don’t and wonder why.

Dusk falling before the storm.

The natural world is the leveller, the constant, the reassurance that while everything always changes, the laws of nature don’t appear to. The seas may be rising, but they’re rising in accordance with the straightforward rules of the behaviour of chemicals, energy, temperature and life, and the interaction of all these. The perpetual nature of this is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and so is its expression, for instance the giant waves here outside the van on the beach in Kintyre as the storm gathers, the bees still bumbling with apparent ease amongst the purple knapweed, the gulls, quiet for once, hanging out peacefully together at the shoreline, the vast ever-changing sky.

I do love my life at home, and I love my work as a therapeutic counsellor, but after a while I notice I’m tired, physically and emotionally, as if I’ve shrunk or at least my battery has. Then I get homesick for what I would call the ‘real’ world and feel I can’t sustain the depth of my engagement with the life around about me, or in my writing. I need the sea, and some impenetrable brambles, and a sky that hides the islands it shone brightly over five minutes ago, and I need the existential nature of all this and myself in order to avoid sleepwalking through life and to be fully present with myself and clients and writing. Here at the shore or in the mountain, where there is less human interruption, I can have that experience of being present to the fullest I am able, including those people I do meet, without shielding or filtering. This would be overwhelming in a city but is nevertheless a way of being I need to hold close and bring home with me.

P.S. I do have friends, family and a social life and respond well when spoken to, so if you see my van, stop in for a cuppa.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Update - Upgrade - Upended world.

This little beaut is Hot Water Tracy, so named for her number plate, which I guess I’d better not tell you. HWT has not caused any hot water situations so far unless you count the trial first night in March this year when I discovered how easily duvets fall off narrow benches in the middle of very cold nights. Otherwise all is spectacularly well.

For those of you who’ve read Writing on the Road and seen the pictures or were lucky enough to climb aboard at events or by the roadside, HWT has the same basic layout of two benches and a kitchen area as Vanessa Hotplate, my thus far most beloved campervan, another Romahome. But HWT’s interior feels more spacious because it is open to the cab. No more fumbling along the outer flanks to reach the back door. Just hop between the seats and keep the heat in.

I have opted for luxury now and routinely turn the benches into a bed the width of a kingsize and the length of the width of a kingsize. Such comfort, as long as I sleep diagonally. (There is a foot extension thing stored at home for insisters on parallel lives.)

And it turns out dearest Tracy is made of magic. In the four months since my first proper trip at the beginning of April, I have been on nine writing trips. This is extraordinary. To put you in the picture, the last van was simply not suitable, not an office on wheels with a convenient scullery kitchen, but a cramped space in which something always had to be moved before you could get at something else. It even had bars at eye level between windows and no toilet (gasp). Consequently, there were few trips and even less satisfying, writing-focussed ones. Add to that a temporary but extremely demanding day job and you can see why a psychological thriller full of human atrocities was not getting written. But bless my previous employers, they fired me (for all the right reasons). So I was left with lots of time on my hands, a perfect van and a novel to write.

Nine trips later and I finished the first draft, then the second draft. And lo, I looked and much of it was good. There have been poems, several, often written while writing the novel. Simultaneous writing. There’s a new thing. Weird. Perhaps I have two brains after all. Some of it was good. Some not so good. Often hard to tell which was which. More on these later. Phew!

But boy does this writing on the road malarkey work.