from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 10 February 2011

one foot in front of the other

The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green earth,
dwelling deeply in the present moment
and feeling truly alive.
Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been thinking, again, about the three conditions that I consider crucial for a writer (actually for a human being) to develop (I'm sure there are many others, but these three occupy me). The first is the cultivation of mindfulness; the second, the practice of living more deeply; and the third, walking.

Mindfulness, in the way in which I use it here, means the practice of paying attention, of noticing, of awareness; of being with the whole of oneself in the present moment: alive to how it – everything – is, and also alive to all the undercurrents, invisible qualities and imaginative possibilities of which ‘now’ consists. It’s a constant movement and exchange between inner and outer worlds.

Mindfulness is an end in itself: to me, the practice and the process are more important than any notion of ‘arriving’ somewhere – although for a writer the chances are that the more this quality is cultivated the better the creative ‘product’ will be.

It is also a vehicle for writing more deeply. This, in turn, will reflect my willingness to engage with, and courage in, living deeply – my emotional capacity for being with every aspect of how things are; my acceptance of shadow as well as light, loss as well as love; the cycles of things, their ebb and flow; what Clarissa Pinkola Estes has called the life/death/life nature.

There’s something here about being fully human requiring us to embrace all the paradoxes and pairs of opposites in our lives and the world around us. When I am in the rain, can I fully stand in the rain without sacrificing my ability to recall sun? When I am in summer, am I willing to remember winter without that thought shaking me out of myself, out of my life, out of the present moment? In the middle of an argument, can I be with my anger without losing love? Can I love without looking ahead to its potential loss?

It seems to me that both these qualities – of mindfulness and of deep living – are brought together in the act of walking.

At a certain stage in the creative journey, I find myself instinctively getting up and going out for a walk; a freeing process that comes prior to sitting at the table putting pen to paper or cursor to screen. It happens when I’ve ‘gone into labour’, so to speak: when an idea is pushing below the surface but has still to emerge. Suddenly I find myself standing up abruptly and turning away from writing implements at just the point where words are starting to form themselves. It’s as if something in me turns away, paradoxically, from language and into the body to free the words.

Below (and some of the above) is an excerpt from a chapter in my book Writing the Bright Moment.

Today is a wild April day with torrential rain storming at the window, and a wind that has more than a bite to it – clawed and fanged. I’m in a remote spot on a Hebridean island, and it’s been cold enough throughout the day for me not to want to wander far beyond the front door. Besides, I’m up here to work on this book, so I’m quite pleased that the weather isn’t especially seductive. Yesterday in sunshine I had an especially inspiring day in the lochs – otter-watching – and mountains, finishing with a visit to a gallery, a sculpture garden and the green waters of the local bay, so I should be well fuelled-up. I need to make the most of that store of inspiration.

However, at the edges of my consciousness there is the glimmer of an impending poem. I have been pushing it away, as there are only a few days here and I have much other writing to do. I am also aware that it is time I found a new poetic voice – the old one is becoming husky with repetition. This poem promises to deliver more of the same – landscape and landscape. And landscape alone – even this wild dramatic landscape with its Neolithic sites, its bardic overtones and its rugged, sad and tumultuous history of Clearances – is not enough in itself to make the threatening poem interesting. So I resist it.

But I need to go out. Just before dusk there’s a small break in the clouds; a scrap, too small to make even a patch on the Dutchperson’s trousers, but just enough to remind me how immense the sky is here over the ocean; immense and purple and black and indigo, save for a small brilliance blazing away in the west.

So I huddle into jumpers and scarves and waterproofs and squelch up the track, setting a flock of redwings up from the mud, and a single buzzard. A hooded crow on a fence post eyes me. I can hear the sea crashing on the point ahead of me; below at the foot of the cliffs to my right the breakers churn. It feels good to be upright and moving, the rhythm of walking.

I stand at the point and do nothing. I’m not thinking – for once; just watching, paying attention, looking at the land, and the sea, and the sky.

Walking the mile or so back I’m thinking about supper; realising it’s hours since I ate – a good sign. I’ve been immersed – a satisfying feeling.

As I’ve been walking I’ve occasionally let my mind dwell on the next chapter, in between watching the wheatears and hawks, and the way the light is winking on wet rocky outcrops on the hillside or catching the water fanning out on the boulders in the burn. As far as I know I haven’t thought about the poem that’s pushing at the door. However, as I turn the corner to the front of the cottage two lines suddenly spring complete into the forefront of my awareness. And they’re two lines that will lift the poem – whatever it is – out of the ‘landscape groove’. As I walk in through the door the rest of the poem slides into view – rather like a ship entering harbour stern-first and turning out to be fully-rigged and ready to go. Five minutes later I have the first draft down.

It’s the walking that released it; and while my conscious mind was busy with what I was experiencing outside, and the material for the book, my unconscious was being primed by the physical rhythm and mental freewheeling of walking.

Writing the Bright Momentinspiration & guidance for writers, Roselle Angwin and others (Arts Council//FITH 2005)

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