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

Friday, 18 November 2011

the waters of the world

Death is the elephant in the room, isn't it – that Great Pretender. In our culture we don't easily talk about it. And now, the Friday after the Sunday before, I have what I've craved for a fortnight – an hour alone simply to sit with my loss, my feelings about it all, about my mum.

What's been hardest about the last few days is my father's enormous desolation. He's devoted the last four years to my mum's care, and now of course feels there's no purpose to his life. But what has been dreadful for us is his needing to ask every few minutes since last Sunday where my mum is (her lack of memory due to Alzheimer's has been mirrored in his own memory loss, but in his case due to a stroke. Oddly, there have been upsides to this strange symmetry.)

So I think again about suffering and the fact that life necessarily involves it, and what matters is how we relate to it. And here I am this morning thinking that maybe all those years of meditation have, so far anyway, at last paid off a little – I haven't gone to pieces, we haven't lost patience with my father despite the acute pain for us all of telling him over and over of my mother's death, I can still appreciate the skylarks and the cirrus clouds and the great spotted woodpecker visiting the feeder; appreciate having celebrated my mother-out-of-law's 90th birthday briefly with her yesterday, despite knowing that my mum can't now ever make 90; can still appreciate my and my sister's ability both to comfort and gently to tease my dad now and again, and seeing him manage a laugh.

I notice that the two local wells in the lanes near us, possibly holy wells once upon a time, have reappeared now the thick summer foliage has withered. I find this comforting and uplifting; I love these wells, and I love the symbolism of 'the waters before and the waters after / now and forever flowing' (the Zenrin).

I've been seeking out more of Roethke's poems. These (scattered) lines from 'The Far Field' touched me:

My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.

The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

The luxury this morning of ten minutes to myself to eat toast and read a book. I picked up a gift from a dear friend, a book by David Whyte – seems like years ago that I started reading it. I opened it on a page in which Whyte wisely speaks of an 'essential human experience... anxiety'. Worry is our common relationship to perceived difficulty, and this of course exemplifies what the Buddha meant by the first of his Four Noble Truths: 'life involves suffering'. 

'Worry is the daily faint echo of our transience and mortality', says Whyte. 'Whatever we hold in our hands will eventually slip away.' This reminds me of some lines in my poem 'Wild Garlic': 

Everyone we love will leave us eventually, or 
we'll leave them. That's what the wise vicar said 
at that wedding blessing all those years ago.

Whyte continues: 'We may [for instance] pursue or waylay a mate, but then... having created a longed-for relationship, we carry worries... to a high art and build elaborate constructs around fidelity: constructs that can be gone over at great length while we are alone, constructs that are further reasons to stay up at night... to plot revenge or to run away, hurt and saddened.'  He speaks of the fact that anxiety, or worry, might have served our ancestors well as a survival strategy, but 'it also gave us the ability to sit beneath a magnificent sky and not see a single star, to sit by ourselves and not have an inkling of who that self is, to spend most of a life providing for a family while neglecting to spend the time with them that is an expression of the love that all the providing is supposed to represent... Perhaps', says Whyte, 'our development of a sustained ability for mental and emotional worry was the very apple into which we bit... expelling ourselves from the garden where we unconsciously felt at home.'

Siddhartha, whom we know as the Buddha, 'would get to the answer [to the problem of suffering] through watching his thoughts and being utterly present. He would watch those thoughts disappear as a primary means of identifying himself and see something more immediate and quite extraordinary take their place. 

'You could say that meditation or silent prayer is the practice of dwelling in this underlying un-anxious all-seeing all-appreciating un-defensive self that does not care whether it lives or dies, while not taking our eyes off the world...' [Siddhartha] stayed with 'a fierce kind of attention in which he refused to ascribe names to what he saw until he came to realize that, in effect, he wasn't this self or this otherness he was witnessing, but a living constantly changing conversation between the two.'

And this is the way of freedom, perhaps: reclaiming our commonality, our non-separation, our ability to stay with pain, with paradox and not-knowing without needing to grasp on to this 'me' and push away the suffering that is also this me – our ongoing participation in a dialogue with all-that-is.


  1. Beautiful post, Roselle. So sorry to hear about your loss. Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat (may the bodhisattva of compassion be with you).

  2. Fiona, thank you very much for this, and for introducing too a reminder of Kwan Yin in her various guises. Rx

  3. Dear Roselle
    How lovely to see your name on Fiona Robyn's Facebook page this morning. You and I met at a past Lapidus conference (Leicester?), you were a towering inspiration then and I continue to Write the Bright Moments as a result of that inspiration.
    But I am saddened to see that the reason I saw your name mentioned was occasioned by the death of your mother - for which I send my most sincere condolences. Your writing above is beautiful - written from within grief, not in external, battling opposition to it. Thank you for your wise observations.
    I send this John O'Donohue poem - that I love - to you, with my love appended xxx

    On the Death of the Beloved

    Though we need to weep your loss,
    You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
    Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
    Your love was like the dawn
    Brightening over our lives
    Awakening beneath the dark
    A further adventure of colour.
    The sound of your voice
    Found for us
    A new music
    That brightened everything.
    Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
    Quickened in the joy of its being;
    You placed smiles like flowers
    On the altar of the heart.
    Your mind always sparkled
    With wonder at things.
    Though your days here were brief,
    Your spirit was live, awake, complete.
    We look towards each other no longer
    From the old distance of our names;
    Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
    As close to us as we are to ourselves.
    Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
    We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
    Smiling back at us from within everything
    To which we bring our best refinement.
    Let us not look for you only in memory,
    Where we would grow lonely without you.
    You would want us to find you in presence,
    Beside us when beauty brightens,
    When kindness glows
    And music echoes eternal tones.

    When orchids brighten the earth,
    Darkest winter has turned to spring;
    May this dark grief flower with hope
    In every heart that loves you.
    May you continue to inspire us:
    To enter each day with a generous heart.
    To serve the call of courage and love
    Until we see your beautiful face again
    In that land where there is no more separation,
    Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
    And where we will never lose you again.
    -John O’Donohue (from Benedictus)

  4. Roz, your kind words and J O'D's poem moved me to tears. Thank you so much.

    With love



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