Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, and I have to talk to myself to tell those people we’re all okay in here…
In my inner self, I’m fine.
Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, and I have to talk to myself to tell those people we’re all okay in here…
In my inner self, I’m fine.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.
Liver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)
Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).
My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.
I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism.
It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.
I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.
I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.
I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.
If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here. It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Today is six weeks since my assessment for PIP, and still not a word from The Department for Work and Pensions. It seemed my benefits had been withdrawn when less money than usual went into my bank. Strange (or just plain rude) then that no-one had the decency to tell me. It’s been playing on a primal human fear within me: that of the unknown. I was grateful for the wisdom of the mothership, telling me to slow down.
Mothership by ShahabAlizadeh
My mum pointed something out which gives me a glint of hope: It could (just about) be, that my last period of benefits (two years) ended, while DWP are still considering my re-application. It’s a faint glimmer, but it’s a small light at least.
It could just be that someone has found some inner humanity, and decided not to put me through the social cleansing machinery. It’s more likely to be weeks of making calls, waiting 20 minutes to be connected, then hung up on as soon as someone can’t answer a question.
I’m usually the optimist – despite having chronic depression – my reasoning that neither the optimist nor the pessimist can affect or predict the outcome of something unknown and beyond their control, but the optimist has a better time while not knowing. I must admit – because a government department is involved, and a Tory one at that – the pessimist is more to the fore of my mind at the moment.
But even if I have been declined, I know what I have to do now. I can’t fully relax like I would if I wasn’t facing the tribunal appeals process, but now I have the knowledge, it helps. So much so that I’ve started writing some new stories.
There’s one I’m particularly excited about, but too much reveal would be spoilers. It’s a science fiction yarn, about plastic pollution on Earth, a way in which aliens might communicate with us which hasn’t occurred to us to look for before, and a message in a plastic bottle. The central idea is not one I’ve seen used in fiction before, and it needs a bit of explaining, but I can do that in fiction with show-don’t-tell and with dialogue. It’s a rare departure for me into long-form short stories (I’ve written a few before), of anywhere between 6,000 and 12,0000 words. The kind of length which could be made into a feature film.
I don’t even have a working title for the story yet, but I feel compelled to record my intention to finish it, lest any DWP shit sandwich arrive in the post and throw a spanner in my brain’s workings. There’s a lot in there, troubling me, including (but not limited to) the end of the world and of human extinction.
Now that I’m getting back to writing, perhaps I’ll deal with the rise of the right, their invention of fear with a rhetoric of unseen outside threats, placing a protectionist dome over their captive audience as they repeat lies with such frequency they become the truth. I’ll use the coping mechanism of the keyboard to write of the hacking of democracy, and the various ways humanity may commit mass suicide or save itself. One story will see humankind in a new paradigm, one in which extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, a common new actor uniting previously hostile human factions. The arrival of a mothership might force all humans to slow down and take a look at themselves, just like my mum, who gave me this computer, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” When I first started, it was for therapy.
I’m busy on the typewriter: The laptop computer which actually sits on a desktop, where a desktop was always really a ‘Floortop’. There’s an analogy, perhaps for more fiction, of computers placed as though by a superior intelligence on ever-higher shelves as it brings up kids. A technological Tower of Babel. A protectionist mechanism, telling us not to grow up too fast.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Just as humans seem to be waking up to the crimes they’ve committed on our home world, I’m dealing with the self-harm I’ve recently inflicted upon myself. Being one of the many, prompted the individual. While humans have a moral responsibility to clear up their own mess, I owed it to myself to address mine: The fall of the wall.
We’ve been here before, and it’ll happen again, when I’ve taken a mental knock in life and fallen into a ditch. With my brand of depression, it’s difficult to get over things which others might shrug off. When I’m personally invested in something and it goes wrong, I have a tendency to blame myself and dwell in a pool of guilt and self-doubt.
It’s an irrational internal brain blame culture, which extends to the problems of my fellow species on Earth. When I look around at what we’ve done, I wonder if I could have done more to prevent it. But could I have stopped Brexit, or the election of Trump? No more than I could make my dad better, or promise my kid sister she’ll live happily ever after as a matriarch.
Forces beyond my control are frustrating, just as all that we don’t understand is the greatest human fear. Unseen agents wresting control from me, have been the roots of past medical diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): being robbed at knifepoint, triggering an alcoholic decline to the end of a marriage, and another PTSD diagnosis.
Further trauma followed in the years I was homeless, and they all carry memories and regrets which fester in the repentant mind. At the last count, I had five or six entries for PTSD on my medical file, each compounding its predecessor. My dad’s health and my sister’s life hereafter are holding, but each could lead to a further dive into my own sense of self-worth, as I wonder if there was more I could have done.
I realise that if I’m to be in any way effective as a carer, helper, adviser and counsel, I need to get over myself; I have to keep going for other people’s sake despite myself, yet the only person I have to speak to about that is in the mirror, or on this page.
There was much in life which was outside my control, and no individual human can be held personally responsible for their species’ misdeeds, but we can work together to repair the damage. When I was still in London, I had an excellent psychologist who’d let me spill my thoughts on the floor, then go through them with me. All I can do now is spew up on a screen. Not all of this might make sense, but it helps to write it.
I’d forgotten I’m a writer and became more myself, and I don’t like that. It was writing which saved me from myself and pulled me back from the gutter, and it’s been self-help for the solitary anxious depressive ever since. Once the words are flowing, nothing else matters so much. The feel of keys beneath my fingers is my pulse. Even if I’m churning out pulp, eventually I’ll find decent prose, like the infinite monkeys writing Shakespeare.
I think I’ve done enough now, to apologise and make good all that I can. To dwell further is to hold others back, and myself. I gave up apologising to those who can’t find it in themselves to forgive. I prefer resolutory debate over conflict or a simple refusal to engage, but I’d rather walk away from a wall I can’t get over than talk to it. I only had myself to talk to, and I got over it.
Guilt is a wall as high as you build it. It will always be there as a constant reminder, but provided you’ve paid it sufficient moral respect, you can climb over it, walk around it, or simply go through it, rather than keep bumping into it and having to talk to it. When the lights go out at night and I’m writing, walls come tumbling down.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.
A poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.
I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.
Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.
I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).
It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.
Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.
It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.
I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…
I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.
“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”
“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”
“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).
“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”
“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.
“What about you?” I asked.
“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”
“It’s not like I can stop you.”
“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”
“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”
“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.
“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”
“So you’re haunting me?”
“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”
“In Cyrus Song?”
“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”
“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”
“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.
“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).
“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.
“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.
This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.
As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
I did a lot of thinking while I was waiting for news of my dad and not writing much, and I let myself go a bit, mentally. I got fed up with being the only person around here who cooks, does the shopping, pays the bills and cleans the place. I live alone, but still…
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life, 2015
The sole occupant of a life can have a tendency to over-think things, especially when so many other people inhabit their mind. When that person has mental health issues, those can become self-pollinating. And when the person’s a writer, some might think that makes things easier. It does and it doesn’t, because writers think more than average, they have a reputation to maintain in reporting those thoughts, and the more they think about the right prose, the more they’re obliged to think. It’s the proverbial vicious circle and yet another paradox in the life of the writer with depression. Sometimes I feel I should just go out and meet people. Then I remember, I don’t like many people and I don’t enjoy going out. My life, in a box, which I decided to take a look around.
Writing is a very lonely game anyway, more so when you’re someone with many different people in your mind. Some might think a writer with depression is a sadomasochist, but when you have anxiety too, it’s the only way to live. If I’m to keep living, I have to keep writing. It’s a self-propagating paradox.
I thought I’d found some kindred spirits in a few Facebook writing groups, then the one I favoured closed down because of an admin’s family bereavement, and paranoia tells me everyone I touch turns to shit. It’s a reflection of my real life, where I erect barriers to prevent anyone getting too close. Sometimes I let the barriers down but end up kicking people away, when they subsequently invade my personal space, inadvertently because they’re on my mind.
Some of the writing groups were challenge-based, and I’m stuck for words as often as I have too many to put into decent prose (very much the manic depressive, bipolar writer). Sometimes I set my own targets, and have nowhere to put them, so they go here. When I’m working freelance, I’m in charge, and with so many people in my head, it’s easy to find one to boss. Other times, I’m lost for words, let myself down, and simply lost in life.
I wouldn’t return to drink, as I never found myself there, only when I dried out. As well as losing all that I did before (and more, and on a more permanent basis), I’d lose this whole new brain function I’ve found, but which sometimes drives me to distraction or to switch off. I do have a drink to hand (I’m a functioning alcoholic), but I prefer a nice cup of French coffee and a croissant, sometimes with a cannabis joint, and I think some more. Sometimes, good fiction will arise, and others a full-blown existential crisis. My life in the mirror.
I’m 48 this year, which means I’ll have caught up with Douglas next year. I was born in May 1970, and it occurred to my reflection that in 2020 I’ll be entering my seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, married the noughties, and finally found myself in the teens. It was 2013 when I found myself on the streets, before becoming counsellor and friend to all those young strays who found the squat.
Last time I checked, there were only two or three people who truly understand real me: My kid sister, Courtney, and a couple of the young girls who adopted me in lieu of a father figure in their lives when I was on the streets. These are the ones the plastic police and defective detectives used to wind themselves up about, as they imagined what went on in the squat (if they’d bothered to come in themselves, like the real police used to, they’d be wiser). Those were mutual adoptions, which have proven symbiotic since. We remained friends, because I let my barriers down and didn’t feel a need to raise them again. These are friends I trust, because they placed so much trust in me, and who can read me as I can them. Courtney can listen to a list of perceived issues I have – A, B, and C – then suggest option D: That I’m being paranoid, and invariably she’s right. Those girls can somehow get me to look inside myself in a different way to my everyday.
There are barriers, of course, even if what we were once suspected of is legal now the girls are older. They’re still young girls, so it’s a one way street: I give a shit about them, but I don’t intrude on their private lives unless they bring them to me. It’s a life of ‘Do not disturb’ (I’m disturbed enough already), but I welcome the odd disturbance.
In writing, my peer groups are reflective of real life too: Never a core member of many things, but on the fringes of many more. Cyrus Song was me reaching out, when every day of guilt laden sobriety might cause a less occupied person to lapse. It’s a good job I have writing, but I need people to read, so that more might understand me and help me understand myself. All writers hope that what they do is worthwhile.
Barring another wobble, I have a lot lined up, if I can keep my mind on the job. I’ve got some short stories planned, and some already drafted or in process; I have a list of research projects for later blog posts; and now that dad’s on the mend, I can get back to the family history book, albeit now with a revised publication schedule.
I’m still a bit lost, in life and in writing, but both are the same, just as my real and virtual lives blur and merge. So I carry on in my writer’s life because what other is there? I seem to thrive in captivity, like a snake.
I was interrogating Captain Mamba, as I’m plotting Cyrus Song II as well. We discussed the snakes’ future plans for humanity, and as today is Valentine’s, we discussed snake and human birth control. We agreed that we both already employ an effective method: Being who we are as people.
The mind is a many-mirrored room when you look around it, then just write it down as you see it and read it back.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
There are simple ways to look at complex issues. For example, all human conflict is rooted in an inability to see others as alternative versions of ourselves. We are all human after all, and everyone is host to a ghost, shadow self, where thoughts are suppressed, because we know those thoughts are wrong. At my age, I’ve seen plenty, including my hateful drunken ex-self, and a rebellious teenager.
As I continue to work my brain out, with reading and writing (while sometimes smoking weed), I’m realising things, only now that I have the time to think in solitude. I can see how that’s sometimes a self-perpetuating mechanism to greater insanity, but I did hit a proverbial wall this week.
Writing my family history book, I was thinking about how I became a writer (via the catalyst of an alcoholic breakdown), but more wondering why I hadn’t found it earlier and not wasted all that time. Since my illness, I’ve been on a journey of discovery, very much like being a teenager again.
With a nearly-teen son of my own, and the shelter and counselling I gave those stray youngsters at the squat, I’m perhaps more in touch with those feelings than I was when I myself should have been learning about the world. And that’s where it seems to have gone wrong, through no-one’s fault but by a combination of me and the system.
Aged five, I’d sit in class and daydream, and many were the times I was summoned back to the room I was already sitting in by a teacher. A few teachers and subjects aside, and despite the efforts of my parents to get me into grammar school, neither primary nor secondary education engaged me. I excelled in maths, English and the sciences, but I neglected other subjects, including history, which now engages me a great deal. And the syllabus was so linear, there was little opportunity to explore beyond it and link things up, as I like to do, to better comprehend them in a larger context. Of course, we were sans internet then.
At primary school, I’d already earned the name, “Ponder: a small Laker that thinks a lot,” as that teacher put it. I was more into visual art at primary school, drawing and painting. And again, I showed promise.
I remember one class project, just after we’d returned from a day trip to London. We’d seen the changing of the guard and we’d been asked to draw a picture from our day. I drew a line of horses, with guards mounted on them, with their feather plumes and so on. And I drew the back view: a line of horses’ arses. Truth is, I couldn’t draw horses’ faces, but when I was asked why I’d chosen my particular angle, I explained that everyone else was drawing the fronts of the horses round the other side, and there was no room for me. That’s quite deep for someone who’s six. But then, to this day I won’t walk between a street artist and their subject, for fear I end up photobombing a drawing.
It’s far from acceptable for a teenage boy to be playing video games in a leisure centre, in full view of the rest of the class running around in the fields outside. But Tehkan’s Bomb Jack was far more my thing than football. My rebellious teenage self levelled this as concentrating on something I excelled at, rather than wasting time on something I hated. Although I was generally a bit of a twunt, I can’t help thinking I had a point.
To their credit, I had many fine teachers at both schools, but they were also bound into a system: one which conditioned children in preparation for entering the world of work, either in a factory or an office. And that, is where the system went wrong, with me (although granted, I helped) and many others, and it still goes on.
I spent 11 years with no aspirations greater than wearing a blue or white collar. I didn’t have pushy parents, and the honest, modest jobs they did allowed them time with us kids. So I worked in print for 25 years, a mostly enjoyable time and certainly with many fond memories. Becoming a writer was logical, making all those things which could be printed and shared. However it happened, I’m glad it did. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m in a place I never realised I wanted to be, but I like it here.
My children and those around them are hopeful that the Tories will be consigned to history soon, so that my kids and many others might enjoy a free higher education. They get that human jobs are being made redundant by technology now, just as they were by machines in the industrial age. Young people need to be able to fill the remaining jobs, the ones AI can’t do (yet), but that’s a long-term vision, something right-wing politics seems blind to.
For whatever reason, my children admire their radical writer old man. On the one hand, anything’s better than what I was a few years ago. But on the other, although not everyone approves, I’m really proud that they’re interested in writing, especially because their dad can write so many things, from bedtime stories to surreal whimsy and horror.
As a many-hatted writer, I’m either doing nothing at all or everything at once. So despite my resolution to break from other genres, I’m finishing my second anthology alongside my family history book, with the latter a constant while I write the last few short stories for what will now be called ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’. The fictional agency is a theme cropping up in a few of my stories, and although none of the 17 in the book will be incomplete, the title is perhaps a statement of intent: I will not stop writing, when it’s my life and that’s one I enjoy now for the most part (with anxiety, depression and their mates along for a chat while we ride life’s bus).
There are two more short stories published over the next couple of weekends, and the remainder may remain unpublished outside the new book. At least one is the kind of story which has no market or home, except in my own volume. The running list of stories is looking good, and part of the reason I place importance in the titles of my tales:
The office of lost things
Reflections of yesterday
The difference engine
Of mice and boys in 1984
A young captain plays it safe
Are ‘friends’ electric?
Diary of a teen in the woods
So long and thanks for all the animals
The long now clock
Quantum entanglement in hamsters
The girl with the snake scarf
A girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook
Plus three more, and possibly some bonus tracks. Some of the stories are retained on this blog and may be revised, while others have been previously published elsewhere. Like The Perpetuity of Memory though, I’ll curate the newer stories into a bigger whole, so that it’s a collection of short stories within a longer narrative.
There are simple ways to look at complex issues, and one piece of advice I’ve given all those young people I’ve met and still see: Be the best that you can be, at the thing you enjoy the most. Then you can give the most back. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be simplified, but by transcending them, you can make them easier to understand.
I’m on a permanent guilt trip anyway, but it’s a guilty pleasure while my former teenage self haunts the current one and they both realise what they’re supposed to be doing.
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