12 brilliant books to take on holiday - plus snakes, shedding and acceptance
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (16th July 2023)
What we learned at the Wasing Retreat last weekend
So last week at the Hampstead Ladies pond I had a genuinely new experience: I swam with a snake.
I watched it for a few moments before realising what it was. It came scooting across the pond fast – like the top of a brown stick. I wondered if it was the head of a cormorant, the body hidden below the dark water. Or if it was a weird fish, with a raised head. But then it came closer and I could see its body in S-shapes under the water, moving faster than a duck right in front of me. It was definitely a snake, probably an adder.
I swim there all the time and I have NEVER seen a snake before, or even heard of one being there. Weirdly – another first in my fifty years of visiting the Heath – I also saw a snake in an adjacent meadow to the pond a few weeks ago, slithering across the path in front of me.
Both times I was slightly surprised by my reaction. Historically I am scared of snakes. Phobic even. When I went to a pal’s hen-do and one of the women wrapped a white python round her pregnant stomach I wanted to be sick. When someone suggested I touched it I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
But over the last few years I’ve changed. Rather than being scared by the snake in the pond I was intrigued. I didn’t get a frisson of fear, or a ‘get me the hell out of here’ reflex, more a curious sensation of seeing something ‘wondrous strange’. And again, when the snake appeared in front of me on the path, I felt lucky; like it was trying to tell me something.
I am a big believer in the idea that if some natural creature crosses your path it has a meaning. So I looked up the significance of snakes, particularly snakes in water, and it turns out that snakes always signify inner transformation, shifts, the shedding of skins and the divine feminine (Eve anyone?). But coupled with water, the snake’s transformational qualities are even more magnified ; so my snake in water, if you go for this kind of thing, signifies massive renewal and healing.
I was thinking about this because on last weekend’s Queenager Noon Retreat at Wasing we encountered a deer as we walked across the park (meaning: safety, unconditional love, protection). It looked at us all and just waited watching, emanating calm. We were on our way to our Noon Circle which was all about transition. That is often the case. Noon is a new tribe for those who need it. And pretty well everyone is there because they are in transition; something is ending, or has been taken away. Something new is beginning, although it often doesn’t feel like it that early in the process.
We were talking about ‘letting go’ – terrible phrase…. It makes shedding a big part of your life sound as easy as letting a satin ribbon slip gently out of your fingers. In my experience ending something, shedding it, starting a new chapter is more akin to having an arm ripped off or a tooth extracted – agony and leaving a big hole which bleeds and which you can’t stop running your tongue around in a kind of masochistic reminder to yourself that it is really gone, that that chasm, that painful absence, is real.
I think of that phase of that early phase of transformation, the period of loss, as more akin to a pruning: having your now extraneous tendrils, once loved and carefully grown, hacked off. It is painful, and sad; they are ripped away. It hurts. You want them back. It’s brutal. But once they are gone there is space for strong green shoots to grow again. We get stripped back to our essence. So we can regrow and eventually thrive.
Some of the women spoke about the battle for Acceptance. How hard it had been to accept that a beloved spouse is dead and not coming back. That we’ve been made redundant. Or a marriage is over. Or it is too late to become a mother. Or for some of us now, that our children are grown and flown, and no longer need daily tending; mine have been thousands of miles away for a few weeks now. It feels odd, a new chapter. Not unpleasant. I miss them and it was weird to have two weeks of just me and my husband (made easier by being in beautiful Provence) but that’s also good. We had seven years together before we had kids; it’s like we’re back there going – ‘oh, it’s you! I remember this. We like hanging out together, don’t we? Hmm. Yes. We always did!’ When one thing in your life goes it creates space for something else.
Some acceptances are harder than others. There was a great sense in the Circle that Acceptance is a better way to think about coming to terms with our new reality than the limpness of ‘letting go’.
I would go further and say beyond the acceptance, or maybe as a part of it, is letting in the unknown. I remember when I was at my most anxious about what the future might hold, in the beginning of my transition, that there were days when I could feel the fear and uncertainty about what was to come physically pulsating through my body. What helped them was to look that fear straight in the face. To dare it. To lie back and rest on it. To welcome it in. When I did that I could feel its newness and its sense of possibility as well as its terror.
As my transformation has continued and the future has felt less scary and some of the things I dreamed of have begun to manifest – running retreats, writing a Queenager book, building an audience for these newsletters. I’ve found myself doing less active welcoming of the unknown. But weirdly the day before I saw the snake I had done exactly that. I am part of a meditation group that meets every Monday morning and the leader invited us to open up the backs of our hearts and summon in the unknown. That very day I had a transformational conversation with a therapist in America who practices something called Eidetic Imaging. It is based on the latest neuroscience about how our brains store images, and how the minutiae of the pictures we carry say of our parents when we were small, reveals huge amounts about the emotional context – and baggage – that we have carried with us. During a very simple exercise of being asked to picture my mum and dad, she unearthed a block in my psyche. We rearranged them in my mind, moving them to different sides, playing around with the images – and suddenly I felt a huge rush of love; like a sluice gate opening, or a flood breaking the banks. It was a huge tsunami of love from my dad which had been blocked because of the fallout of my parents divorce when I was very young. It just sloshed in, accompanied by a host of memories I had lost.
It was very emotional.
I wept, not out of sadness but out of a deep gratitude for all that had always been there but which until now I could not feel. It made me feel so different, like my internal compass had shifted to where it was supposed to be. I feel solid in a way that I don’t think I ever have before. It felt like a significant step on this long journey, this reckoning with everything that I am at this point in my life.
And the next morning I saw the snake in the pond…. transformation, inner healing, the shedding of pass personas, skins that no longer serve us. It was like the universe saying – ‘Look!!!!!’ ‘See!!!!’
Today I went to swim and immediately bumped into a dear, new, friend. I’ve been her ‘burn out big sister’ – we met when she had just left her big job, unsure what to do next, in flux. I felt I’d met her at just the right time. She’d taken up cold water swimming to help with her shift. We met at a poncy women-leader’s lunch, and travelled back across London together, then started to work with each other and now swim together often. She is a great new friend. We are close. Today she was talking about the end of a long-term friendship. How hard it is to come to terms with the end of a relationship like that. How losing a long-loved friend challenges your sense of self. Takes a bit of you with it. I know how hard that is; agony. But it is also another kind of shedding. Necessary. Self-revealing – it shows what aspect of that person we once hold dear no longer serves us, is no longer necessary.
We talked about the snake, and acceptance. And it made me realise anew that when something dies in our lives it leaves a clearing in which something new can grow – if we let it. If we give it a chance, if we notice. And that also the key to finding what that new thing is is always to follow the joy; to go back to what makes us feel alive. The thing that makes us forget everything else and just be happy. For me that is swimming and it has led me to so much renewal, friendship and revelation.
But it is also books – so since I keep being asked for suggestions for you holiday reading. Here are my book tips for summer. All things that have kept me happily turning the pages recently:
So here goes:
1. The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore – remember if you are a Paid Subscriber you can get a free copy of this book if you sign up on the Google Form below the pay wall on this email TODAY as she is our book club author for September. It’s a great beach read, packs an emotional punch about sisters growing up in the Isle of Wight during the seventies, born to bohemian parents in the decade of the divorce Olympics, I’m sure many of you can relate to that! I can!
2. My favourite book of the year so far is The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman – a wonderful romance conducted against the backdrop of Shakespearian London, a bit Hamnet (also a great book if you haven’t read it) a bit Shakespeare in Love but better than both of those. Glorious descriptions of Elizabeth’s court and the London of plagues and straw roofs, bear baiting and actors – and LOVE.
3. I also loved Elif Shafak: The Island of Missing Trees…. Don’t be put off by one of the narrators being a fig tree, this is a beautiful, magical tale of Cyprus, love and war and what we do to survive but also epigenetics and how trauma is handed down not just through trees but through people
4. Three Graces by Amanda Craig – essential Super-Queenager reading about three nearly eighty year olds and how they haven’t given up on life and how they are in turns moved and irritated by the cast of characters that tip up in Tuscany for a huge family wedding. I love all Craig’s novels, which are all loosely interlinked. Try also The Lie of the Land (a family saga in Devon but taking in caravan parks as well as the second home classes)
5. Fire Rush by Jaqueline Crooks – you can smell the spliff and feel the bass! Exciting, edgy novel about black culture in the London of the eighties and nineties. The aftermath of grief, revenge, why we put up with things we shouldn’t – and a wonderful denouement in Jamaica
6. Some poetry now: Kei Miller The Cartographer tries to Map His Way to Zion – easy to read, about who owns the land and its stories and how they are told
7. Being by Ram Dass – if you’ve been reading these newsletters you have probably guessed that I am on a bit of a spiritual recce. I find a lot of esoteric writing about revelation totally unreadable. It’s all ‘when you know, you know’ – Ram Dass started out as Professor Richard Alpert, a Harvard Academic, professor of psychology, before he met Timothy Leary and started taking acid and psilocybin and then went to India and met his guru and became an enlightened being. This is his autobiography, though it reads like a thriller. I LOVED it, because he is one of the few writers who manages to communicate about eastern mysticism with some academic rigour and silky prose
8. YOGA by Emmanuel Carrere – Carrere is a French non-fiction essayist and hipster a bit like a French Geoff Dyer. This is the riveting account of how he set off to do a Vipasna meditation retreat in the middle of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and his subsequent breakdown. Fascinating. (Suggested to me by my great friend Johan Hari whose own book Stolen Focus is also well worth a read)
9. Sunlounger fun: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Hiller and in a similar vein if you haven’t read it I Know Why the Crawdads Sing and The Change by Madeleine Miller (TOP thriller about menopausal women taking revenge).
10. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach might well be my favourite novel of the last five years) and her newer book The Candy House is also a good read.
11. Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld – LOVE Curtis, anything she writes is genius, but this one is about a kind of Saturday Night Live writer, a woman, who is sick of all her unattractive male co-writers copping off with Celebs, and then in lockdown finds herself falling in love with one herself. A joy.
12. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – great Queenager ‘it’s never too late and you are never too old’ book about a woman who sets off on a crazy quest to the middle of nowhere to find a Beetle. BET you cry!
Not a book but my top tip for your TV viewing: Amazon Prime from this Friday. It’s called Fifteen Love, starring Poldark, AKA Aidan Turner. Twisty brilliant thriller about a tennis coach and his relationship with his protégé… was it dodgy or not. From the producer of VIGIL…. I LOVED it..
Lots of love
Below the paywall are the details for the Noon Circle on Tuesday at the flat, and the form for signing up for your free book (both are only for Paid Subscribers)
The Queenager with Eleanor Mills is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscribers £6 a month, can come to Noon Circles and get free books! A bargain, less than a cocktail!
ps Form for getting your free book for the Noon book club To get your free book every quarter for the Noon Book Club please fill in your name and address on this form https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd_qiRFQV6vwrEe6sTwnlBC-NOKFwm4DnAO0GbQ7tfJewGmog/viewform?usp=sf_link.
Queenagers who were signed up for books before but haven’t signed up in the last couple of months please can you fill your address in again as we have changed publishers for the book club to Harper Collins and for GDPR reasons we can’t just give them the old list of addresses. So if you are a paid subscriber who hasn’t got a book recently please fill in your address again. If you can’t make the form work for some reason (it happens!) then email firstname.lastname@example.org and she will add you to it manually.
Pps Noon Circle 7pm on Tuesday at the Soho Flat for paid subscribers, a special one with Sally Jackson the divorce coach and Sandra Davis from Mishcon de Reya, the top divorce lawyer in the business, explaining what you need to know if this is anywhere on your horizon. Email me if you want to come email@example.com or join on zoom here.
IF YOU ARE COMING IN PERSON: 7pm at Floor 7, Flat One, Stirling Court, opposite 50 Marshall Street, Soho, London w1f 9bd call me on 07836537842 if any issues getting in.
If you’d like to come email me firstname.lastname@example.org so I know how much wine and pizza to lay in.
JOINING THE CIRCLE ON ZOOM: Also this time we will have a Zoom link for Sandra Davis’s talk if any of you would like to join by Zoom Noon is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting which will kick off at 7.30pm to allow everyone to get settled and last till 8.30pm
Topic: Noon’s Zoom Meeting
Time: Jul 18, 2023 07:30 PM London
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 848 1120 4805
Form for getting your free book for the Noon book club