Thanks to YouTube, I've discovered the joys of Slow TV. Over the past couple of weeks, I've been experiencing a driver's eye view of the 9-hour train journey from Trondheim to Bodo in northern Norway.
Originally filmed for Norwegian television, it's an epic without a word spoken - where the only drama is when the sun breaks through the clouds. (Having said that, the train does skip a few red lights, so I suppose there's always the possibility of a head-on collision - though five hours into the journey it hasn't happened yet.) I simply sit. And watch. And enjoy the stunning winter-wonderland scenery without worrying about the destination, or how long it's going to take to get there.
Programmes like this - or the two-hour reindeer sleigh ride I watched over Christmas - are an invitation to slow down, take a deep breath, and forget for a while the stresses of fast-paced modern living.
At work, there are usually 101 things to do, and I find myself having to cut corners, to accept 'good enough' when my instinct is to be thorough. From what I gather, it's a similar story in most workplaces. Even in the so-called caring professions, doctors or counsellors are asked to see more clients in less time. As they battle to meet targets, how present can they be? How much time is allowed for them to stop to listen to their clients' needs - spoken or perhaps unsaid? How much loving attention can they give?
Outside of work too, there's a danger in us taking on too much - in filling our leisure hours with so many activities and responsibilities that we're always dashing from one to the next, and never fully present where we are. Rushing seems to me like a subtle form of violence. How much consideration do we show to others when we're so focussed on our never-ending lists of tasks and goals? Is there a risk that we'll end up like the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan - both busy men on important errands, no doubt - and pass by on the other side?
I'm now discovering that 'less can be more'. That one unhurried conversation with a close friend nourishes both of us more than any number of rushed chats. That joy is not related to the number of things I do or to how many places I visit, but is a function of my inner state - my being present in the moment whatever I'm doing and wherever I am.
So I take a break. Board again the slow train to Bodo. And let myself enjoy the views.
What makes an amazing story? Rounded, believable characters, certainly. An intriguing plot with sufficient conflict - which can be outer or inner, or ideally both. Descriptions which engage the senses, drawing readers in to the characters' world and bringing the tale to life.
Another ingredient I look for is transformation. Do the characters grow as the story progresses? How do they find redemption, or become kinder people, concerned about others and not only themselves? Perhaps they experience a spiritual awakening and end up more aware than they had been at the start of the story, which reflects in their outward choices and behaviours.
Visionary fiction is beginning to be recognised as a genre in its own right. It covers stories where growth in consciousness is a central theme, driving the protagonist or other important characters. It brings forth gems of wisdom in story form. Examples range from Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, through James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy to books where the spiritual component is more subtle, a gentle but integral undercurrent flowing through the story. Recently I enjoyed the Course in Miracles-inspired Dreams of Dying by Shaman Elizabeth Herrera and The Guardian Angel's Journal (Carolyn Jess-Cooke).
Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love - an amazing read - and The Shack (William P Young) are also transformative books. They are written from a Christian perspective however, whereas Visionary Fiction as a genre is universal in its scope and not aligned to any one religion.
At its best, visionary fiction inspires its readers. It prompts them to reflect on life's bigger questions and may spur them on to make positive changes in their own lives. But (as with good Christian Fiction) it needs to do this in a way that doesn't come across as preaching, or make the story appear forced.
The Visionary Fiction Alliance aims to raise the profile of the genre. You can find out more by visiting its website.
"The dreams you think you like would hold you back as much as those in which the fear is seen. For every dream is but a dream of fear, no matter what form it seems to take..."
(A Course in Miracles, Text, Chapter 29, IV, 1.)
These last two weeks I've felt very excited, having accepted a contract to have my novel published. (It's due out in early 2016. Watch this space.) Writing a book, as I'm beginning to discover, is just the beginning of the hard work. Now comes the daunting prospect of marketing the novel and all that entails... seeking endorsements, planning social media campaigns. I've even set up a Twitter account in anticipation.
My initial enthusiasm began to wane as I seemingly hit a brick wall. An endorsement from a famous published author or other well-known person would be great to put on the back cover. But how does a first time novelist get such a thing? I don't know any A-list celebrities (or B or C list ones either, come to think of it!). And the thought of cold-calling someone I've never met to seek an endorsement fills me with dread.
What about Oprah's Book Club? She's into books with a spiritual message at their heart. Sadly, "for legal reasons", her web-site doesn't accept unsolicited submissions.
A friend of a friend with contacts in publishing wanted to help, but conceded that people in the industry would likely be too busy to read a novel which already had a publisher.
All a bit frustrating.
Which is when I realised my ego had taken over. I'd become attached to getting a celebrity endorsement, to encourage people to buy the book so it reaches the widest possible audience.
Why that attachment? I didn't write the book for money or for status, for fame or for fortune. (If I had done, I'd have been barking up the wrong tree. The proportion of writers who earn a decent living from selling their books is discouragingly small. It seems I've almost as much chance of my Premium Bond number coming up!) I wrote and crafted the book - over many years - because I feel I have something to say. A message to share. A message of hope.
And then I remembered words that came to me a few years ago. Words that encourage me to "let go and let God"...
"If my aim is to make a contribution by giving people back to themselves by reminding them who they are; if I am coming from Spirit rather than ego, I won't be concerned if they come to the realisation through me or through some other means. I am here to serve them, not my own ego. I am here to offer help. The moment I try to force a belief or a philosophy or a way of life [or my novel!] onto someone, in that moment I am stepping out of alignment with Spirit and it is I who needs to learn."
Love is our Reality. By being loving, we express ourselves – we express who we really are. If our lives seem to be without meaning, it may be because we are not fulfilling our purpose: to express God’s Love.
Ask yourself two questions. Set aside quiet time to reflect on them; in silence and in stillness, ponder them in your heart. The first question is this: How can I show love for myself? The second question is: How can I show love for others; for the Whole?
You may notice that your responses to the questions are similar. We are encouraged to ‘Love our neighbour as ourselves’. When we show love to ourselves, we can show love to our neighbour. When we show love for our neighbour, we are loving ourselves. The two questions are two sides of the same coin.
Now sometimes there will be times when we do not feel loving. What are we to do then? Act with kindness – to ourselves and to others. At least, refrain from doing anything that would harm another or ourselves. This is why we have human laws. Children need rules for their own protection. However, when we live consciously with Love, no human laws are required.
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer, A Course in Miracles student and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)