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.
Monday, 31 October 2011
Saturday, 29 October 2011
I've just cleaned and hung up the birdfeeders in the courtyard – somehow the traditional applefest weekend coupled with the clocks going back seems like the right time to start. Two hours in and the tits have discovered the nuts already. I'm looking forward to seeing if the spotted woodpeckers have successfully raised this year's young, to learn about finding a free picnic in the rigours of winter.
Taking The Man to the station this morning a sparrowhawk, mobbed by a magpie, swooped out in front of the car, pigeon in claws. I hate seeing any sentient being suffer, but I recognise that the hawk has to live, too.
OK that's made up for a couple of days not writing about birds!
What good news that the new Irish President is a much-loved poet and peace campaigner and champions an intellectual culture of the arts! How wonderful if a few more Heads of State professed values that weren't driven by pure materialism.
On the Today programme this morning they spoke of a list of the 20 commonest ingredients for happiness. The two they listed were getting into bed with fresh sheets (I admit that that was not what I expected to come after 'getting into bed with'), and finding a £10 note that you'd forgotten in a pair of jeans. I didn't know whether to smile or tear my hair: the former because as I age I realise what pleasure the little joys can bring; the latter because is this all, is this really all, we aspire to? Can't we do better than that, in terms of meaning?
I'm reading inspirational poet David Whyte's book on the three marriages (love, work and self). He says, in effect, forget the work/life balance: that merely increases our sense of pressure to 'get it right' (and I would add buys into the 'either/or' philosophy); and he points out too that the word 'balance' is anathema to a poet and a poet's way of working. What he says we need is to find a new way to relate to each of these 'marriages', and honour their differing strands in our lives each in its own way and to the extent to which it needs honouring; then we might integrate our relational lives, our working lives and our connection with the self via 'conversations' and synthesis. What he's talking about, of course, is making the relationship with each more conscious and less driven.
And talking of consciousness: here in Totnes a Professor of Consciousness offers a 'consciousness cafe' regularly. This last speaker was Jay Lakhani, Hindu philosopher and physicist. He was an inspiring speaker and a lovely and charismatic man, a good raconteur, but didn't take it far enough. The audience in Totnes knows a lot about this stuff already: shaped by Dartington there's been a great deal of cultural, spiritual and ecological innovation here over the last century. I guess a visiting academic from an urban university comes in, glances round the upstairs room of the Barrel House and decides to pitch it easy – ie low. But we're self-selected: if we're there, it's because we already have an interest in the subject on offer. TM was twitching away in suppressed frustration in the corner (actually that's an exaggeration; he was leaning back with his eyes closed, radiating disgruntlement). But out of Lakhani's talk came a wonderful metaphor (this is my paraphrase): 'It's as nonsensical to imagine that consciousness originates in the brain as a small boy imagining that electricity is generated by the light switch.'
'We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.' Alain de Botton
Till next time.
Friday, 28 October 2011
Thursday, 27 October 2011
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
Following the path of the ‘eaux dormantes’
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
|window in the Argyll Hotel, Isle of Iona|
Rona probably has had cycles of habitation and cycles of desertion over a few millennia. She's generally seen as uninhabited now. So I was astonished, googling 'images of isle of Rona', to find a site of photos by a Bill Cowie, who in 2010 anyway had been living there since 2002, and photographing her.
I have a huge pull to islands (I have written about this in relation to my creative writing retreat, 'Islands of the Heart'*, that I lead each year on Iona – see entries for this March). I love the sense of being surrounded by the fluidity of sea and sky. I love the co-existent sense of serenity and inspiration that infuses me the minute I step ashore. I love that they are like little points of consciousness in the sea of the unconscious; I like that they are punctuations in space; I like that they are a stillpoint in the turning world.
I have much more to say about this, but for the moment I want to share with you a paragraph in the wonderful book Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (R thank you so much for the loan of this book).
Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie spent a fortnight on Rona mapping the island with a naturalist and an archaeologist. This is part of her luminous essay:
'Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing... Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here, and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sea or a rainbow**, and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.'
* Islands of the Heart 2012 takes place 21-27 April, in the Argyll Hotel on Iona, as photo above. There are currently 3-4 places left.
** Earlier, Jamie tells us that Martin Martin in 1695 recorded in a travel journal that the people of the island were gone, and that we knew little about them other than that the Rona people 'took their surname from the colour of the sky, rainbow and clouds'.
Monday, 24 October 2011
Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Sunday, 23 October 2011
A friend has asked me if I know more about Keats' notion of negative capability, as mentioned in my blog of the other day. Well, no, I don't know more about what he personally had to say about it.
But the concept of staying with an unclear situation, sitting at the fulcrum, stillpoint, of the creative tension between two apparent contradictions without forcing a decision, is a familiar one to me. I think about it a great deal, in fact, as it seems to me that our habitual ways of dividing the world into polar opposites is responsible for a great deal of the suffering in the world, our own and others'. This is a book-length thesis – and indeed there are many books out there on this subject in the fields of psychology, spirituality and philosophy. I can't possibly do justice to this in a brief(ish) post, but what lies behind this concept seems so crucial for the evolution of consciousness of our species that I can't let it pass without a few words.
We tend, at least in the West, to think of everything as pairs of opposites: good/bad, right/wrong, masculine/feminine, love/hate, this/that, thinking/feeling, your views/my views, duty/pleasure, work/play, sex/celibacy, and so on. Typically we grab on to one pole and push the other away. We're brought up to imagine that one pole is the 'correct' pole and the other inferior, unthinkable, or even downright wicked.
Something in us believes that we have to cling on to one pole or we'll go under, incur disapproval, be wicked people, be punished, etc. From this pole we then judge or condemn not only ourselves and impulses which seem to belong to the other pole (if we are aware of them at all), but the rest of the world. This becomes, sadly, sanctioned and then calcified in State, or State Religion, in which 'our' views are the only correct ones, and we are duty-bound to stamp out the infidels in their heresy – whether the 'infidels' are those who don't share our political views, our skin colour, our religion (which of course is the only 'true' religion), our gender, or our relationship to sexuality. History is a catalogue of such atrocities.
What happens in us when we push away one of the poles? Split off like this from our conscious mind, it constellates energy in our individual or collective unconscious and becomes a neurosis. If it gathers enough energy to itself it can be a force for huge harm, acted out in the world.
The saddest thing is that that which we most revile in another is a split-off part of ourself. How would we be – how much wholer would we be, how much more tolerant, loving, compassionate would we be – if we could bring that part home, name it, take away its sting? There are many examples of this repression acted out every day, but a recent one is that of a not-insignificant number of members of the Catholic priesthood so recently called to account in Ireland and in America for raping young boys/girls entrusted to their care. In a religion that places so much emphasis on chastity – and that judges homosexuality – what happens to the sexual impulse if it's repressed for long enough? It has to burst out somewhere eventually. (And, conversely, what does the promiscuous person do with their unrecognised need for sexual containment?)
Doing the work of retrieving our split-off parts, lifting the projections of them off others, claiming our own darkness, partiality, harmful impulses, might seriously take us a long way towards changing our society; indeed it might be the only thing that will.
However, if instead of seeing things as polar opposites and feeling we have to align ourselves with one pole or another, we choose instead to see them as paradoxes, and our task as being to bring them together ('both this/and this' rather than 'either this/or that'), something completely different is made possible.
Being able to stay with paradox – similar to Keats' negative capability – requires the maturity to recognise that we do not, actually, live in a black-and-white world in which everything is certain and clean lines are drawn, but one in which everything ultimately is part of everything else. In this, I can recognise as co-existing within myself my ability to love and my ability to cause harm; my need to be right and my awareness that there is no one right way. I can see that thinking without feeling is arid and dangerous but feeling without thinking is flaccid and, in a different way, also dangerous. I know that as a woman I have a masculine component, just as a man has a spark of the feminine in him. (You will recognise the yin/yang symbol in the crop circle image above: this is the elegant symbolic expression of the fact that every apparent pole contains the other within it.)
I can choose to look at the coin of the whole rather than get fixated on one side. What's more, everything cycles, and in getting stuck on one 'pole' we miss the bigger cycle that is inclusive.
Holding 'both' aspects of an apparent contradiction simultaneously results in an immensely creative tension that can bring the birth of something new, if we realise that the apparent duality is our perception, and our job is to synthesise the poles, recognise all potentials within ourselves and transcend the dualism.
Our true state is one of wholeness.Our work is towards unitive consciousness.
This is what Zen Buddhism speaks of in its emphasis on non-dualism – it's not about choosing one pole over the other, but in recognising that seeing the world in terms of pairs of opposites is not a helpful viewpoint, or 'skillful means': that this is a relative choice, and that looking directly into the nature of everything, perceiving the whole interconnectedness, allows us to see that these are arbitrary distinctions that we make, and that we have a choice about whether we buy into them, or whether we choose to work to bring the poles together in ourselves and thus in the world.
The Middle Way. Both/and. This is the way we move beyond brokenness.
|the triskele symbol occurs in various traditions, notably the Celtic. Here the 'third' is the result of the marriage of the 'two', all within the circle of spirit, or wholeness|
Saturday, 22 October 2011
Now, this morning, east wind setting horses and sycamore leaves skittering. On the Atlantic seaboard maybe the waves will peel away clean in the offshore wind, egg-white peaks lifting. (I want to use the word isinglass here but think it doesn't fit. I like it though.)
Flights of redwings and fieldfare. A primrose. A last foxglove. Two wild strawberries.
I never expected to feel such jubilation at the simple sight of a dog lapping water unaided from the brook.
I'm thinking again about how love should be and is never straightforward – these needs, these fears, these desires; this wanting a fusing that is not at all about humanness. Wanting permanent transcendence
Friday, 21 October 2011
My beautiful hound has had a sore and inflamed eyelid for months. We didn't know the cause. As I use almost exclusively natural remedies (my daughter was brought up without ever having antibiotics or any allopathic medication) and know a lot about medical herbalism, that was the obvious route for treatment. No response. I succumbed after a few months to a vet visit and antibiotics – mostly because it was troubling her, and because we needed to know it was nothing contagious – eg ringworm – as she was going to be staying with my daughter with a friend with dogs. No result. Six months on, no nearer its clearing up, we gave her another course of antibiotics and then added in topical steroid cream – I wasn't happy, but was feeling desperate (had tried everything natural I could think of by then).
A few days later (and incidentally unlikely to be the allopathic meds, though a bit of me would of course like to blame a reaction on the pharmaceuticals), something changed in her face – she looked old, suddenly, kind of caved-in, and her eyes weren't right.
Next symptoms were her pupils became hugely dilated, and then her mouth started to hang open. At first it was only a centimetre or two, then four or five cms, and that's how it's been. Her eyes became extraordinarily red and one nearly closed. (I see she's acquired a small crescent of blueish pigment in her brown irises, at the bottom, too.) At this point she stopped being able to drink, and mostly also to eat – her tongue worked but since she couldn't close her mouth she couldn't get food back into her throat, or chew it, against gravity.
It's been a challenge. Two vets looked at her and both were baffled – the symptoms didn't add up to anything immediately recognisable. A. said 'I wouldn't normally suggest my clients do this, but you might try googling the symptoms.' So I did: 'trigeminal neuritis' came up. Both vets investigated further and agreed that was the most likely cause. (It's rare.)
Basically that's an inflammation or disturbance in one of the main nerves that serve the face; this one affects both jaw and eyes; and therefore the muscles that control both. I don't know for sure, of course, but my sense is that the inflammation in the eyelid travelled back up a nerve.
The prognosis is mixed. In many cases it follows trauma to the head (maybe her eye counts); sometimes it's a symptom of an underlying disorder; sometimes it's idiopathic. Sometimes (rarely) it's permanent. Often it can start to clear between 2-4 weeks after its onset. We're on day 13, and for the first time today she managed a handful of small biscuits alone. Drinking's still an issue, but I suspect this is partly psychosomatic: when she found a day or two in that she couldn't lap up water (she prefers puddles, flowerpots, stream water even though we're on a borehole) she avoided going near it at all, so won't try.
I can't pretend it's not been a struggle. I've found myself at midnight squatting beside her in tears (after a time in which a lot of work pressure, lack of sleep, and worries about health issues for my mum have stretched me to my limits) as milky porridge flies around the cloakroom in which she sleeps, splattering The Man's coats, the floor, my face, her coat, her new bed; struggling with a tiny syringe to get a teaspoonful of water down her while she reacts traumatically, burying her head and shaking. It's a huge effort to get even a quarter litre of water down her each day – the minimum I guess she needs not to dehydrate.
I've learned some strategies. Hard food she can't manage. Liquid food ditto. She can manage finely chopped raw chicken – because of my ethics I've been buying expensive free range organic (so guess which vegetarian's been living on spuds this week?) – and cooked fish. I can get cold lumpy porridge down her by hand, tiny lump by tiny lump, if it's not too wet. Today she shared my apple and cinnamon bun from the guys in the market.
I've never bought pork in my life before, but she liked the sausages produced by our neighbour from his free range pigs that we pass each day (well, not these exact ones as they're still alive) (incidentally perhaps you know that most pigs are intensively farmed in appalling conditions, sows dropping piglets through the metal bars of a farrowing unit onto a conveyor belt, for instance, and shut away for their whole life from grass, and rooting, which is what they do? We fuss about battery hens – quite rightly – but who hears the same pressure for changes in the conditions of these most intelligent of animals? – Make some pigs happy and insist on free range... Where are you Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall? Or have you got there before me?)
Anyway. Someone said get a turkey baster for water. (Being veggie I don't have one – didn't know what they looked like. Found a Bodum one for £10 – glass tube, brush on end; glass/brush no use, and much as I love my dog £10 for that was beyond the call of duty.) A friend suggested a sponge, to wet her lips and mouth and drip it in too. This helps a little. Ice cubes, suggested my vet. Brilliant. I use heart-shaped moulds – not because I'm sentimental about the dog! – but because there are fewer sharp edges. A piece of cheese, half an ice cube; piece of cheese, half an ice cube; bung it in, tilt head up, gently close the hatch. YES! And I can incorporate healing herbs into the cubes too; or honey, thin soup, or yoghurt to counteract the antibiotics.
And I bought some agar agar – I'm feeding her meat but can't quite bring myself to buy gelatine (cows' hooves etc) – so I can turn healthy stews into jellied cubes which, again, she can manage.
Meantime I'm soothing her eyes with a mix of cold tea, slightly salted, plus witch hazel, tincture of calendula and of eyebright. That at least is clearly helping with the soreness of her eyes and they're no longer red.
Back to literary stuff soon...
ADDENDUM for those of you searching answers in relation to a dog: Ash recovered, by the book, after a fortnight, in that she started to be able to drink and eat unaided.
However, a few months later she started to spasm - very heavy 'jumping' in the place between her eye and ear (her temple, I suppose) which is clearly excruciating - sometimes she whimpers, sometimes she howls. This has continued, though it rarely happens more than a few times in a month, and never for more than about 5 minutes, during which time she wants to hide her head in eg my armpit, so I let her, and then as the pain recedes I gently massage the area (I try and remember to do that a couple or three times in a day anyway, if I can, to help relax the muscles). This is distressing for both of us, clearly, but better than her not being able to work her jaw of course. And the area above her eye, sunken during the crisis and after with muscle atrophy, has filled out nicely again.
Don't give up!
I hardly dare think this, but Ash hasn't had a spasm in 6 weeks (it's now 17th January 2013). They may not have gone completely, but certainly this is longer than before.
She's been wearing a magnetic collar since early December. It's possible that this has helped - I'd recommend considering it once your dog has recovered from the initial acute phase – however, I'm not a vet, and this is only anecdotal evidence – but they seems to be useful for many ailments, human and animal. Worth checking out online.
Thursday, 20 October 2011
Default preoccupation: psychology/philosophy/ecopoetics/ecopsychology
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
And of course the Buddha's teachings on suffering were specifically to do with losing ourselves – that is, sight of our true essential nature – in our attachments or aversions to whatever comes into our life. The skill lies in engaging deeply without buying in to the need to grasp or reject. (Sounds easy, doesn't it??)
branches curve back
walking on acorns -
even this old oak
is in with a chance
I'm done with words
for the day - the trees
are what they always were
I'm surrounded by books, ranged and stacked on shelves, quietly leading their uninterrupted bookish life. I could open any one and begin a journey that might last an hour, a day, a life. A chamber with so many doors leading to so many paths - which key to turn? The hornets in the nest under the eaves are paper-makers: they feed on willow, digest bark and pith, adding page after tiny page to their dwelling place - a paper-house:
words/ paper/ flight
exits and entrances
Water flowing past knows no boundaries
I fight regret to learn what it could mean for the present
Mottled leaves of family hide in the wings
Strange bonds cannot be cut yet endlessly become thinner
How can I make them smile?
Yellowing tree leaf
Dead runner bean stick
Nausea in my belly
Green tea in the pot
Bitter first cup refreshes
Second drains empty
Contrail across sky
Bare tree below
My view behind glass
Lurk beyond shadow edge
Why pursue their harm?
Many green hues hill
Dissected by muddy paths
Walking boots under table
Fly sticks to window
Invisible barrier to freedom
I wait for lunch
my father forgets
his children’s names
the Buddha looks on
waiting for me to catch up
trees line the horizon
a crow rustles
in tangled foliage
& I’ll drop mine
& we’ll find the full moon on our shoulders.
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
The hills towards Dorset start to heave up towards that pinnacle of Golden Cap. The broadleaf woodland is just on the cusp of turning. Here I am travelling towards Lyme Bay, planished gold too in the glimpses I catch between the spurs and scarps of the Devon/Dorest border, to do what I love: a poetry workshop for the third day running. Sunday was poetry and Zen mindfulness here at home; yesterday was an intense session on the poetry of James Wright in Exeter, and today I'm working with 13-year-olds on writing creatively about the Jurassic Coast, to form a chapter in a book on the JC.
A flock of motorbikes passes me, all the riders wearing nylon jackets into which the wind has puffed until the men look huge. The ostriches and alpacas (yes, this is England) in a field next to the road swerve away in alarm.
As I crest the steep hill down to Lyme Regis a trawler's coasting in with its entourage of gulls. Even though I'm vegetarian and I know the seas are overfished my heart does a little – ok not quite pirouette, but at least a little twirl of pleasure that there is still a small local fishing fleet (fishing's in my ancestry).
At the end of the day I'll head towards Monmouth Beach (presumably named after the Duke of, during the flight of was it errr Charles 11?) at the foot of the Undercliff with its millions of years of history. The dog will love it enough as to forget she's ill; the flints under our feet will tinkle sharply, like dense glass, and may also conceal an occasional fossil and a holey 'hag-stone', and I know that with the light the way it is the sea now will silver over towards evening, as the wind from Cornwall just fingers the surface. We'll sit, dog and I, and breathe the good sea-air, with no agenda, no rush; we in our brief moment, the cliffs in their long dreaming.
And if I hadn't dropped my mobile in a stream I'd post you a photo - amazingly almost all of the other functions are still working, but I'm having to find creative ways of scrolling, I can't actually switch it off (which I prefer to do when not actively using it), and nor, sadly, at the moment does the camera still work...
Monday, 17 October 2011
The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together...
When I was training to be a counsellor, a friend mentioned that a good psychotherapist needs also to be a gardener.
Something about that conjunction delighted me. At that time, though I was partly responsible for a large garden, my time spent tending it was more theoretical than actual, with a partner, a young family, a number of animals and a part-time training. Oh, and a full time business. This meant that the garden, its borders blurring into a wood on the edge of Dartmoor, was an untamed riot – which actually I have to admit to loving.
I’ve known forever that a major source of inspiration for me is being outside amongst plants, animals and birds in the particular alive silence of a garden.
When I moved, my garden was smaller, though still backing onto woods – in this case a little copse. As my situation changed and my responsibilities decreased, so the time I spent in the garden increased slightly. Both those gardens were home to a variety of creatures: flycatchers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, goldcrests, buzzards, an occasional roe deer. In the second one, I had a compost heap and a small vegetable patch; an apple and a cherry tree; herbs and a wonderful hand-made wooden chair under the willow tree where I could sit and read, write, dream, and watch the tits and warblers picking the buds and insects. Across the lane was a stream which tumbles into a pond; in summer I’d take a sleeping bag and fall asleep to the sound of water and owls.
I’ve moved again (and again since writing this); and now, though I’m surrounded by a large and lovely garden, it’s not mine. I like to think, then, of the whole world outside my door as being my garden; I step onto a bridlepath which takes me – again – through woodland, down to the estuary. And I have no responsibilities for maintaining the garden surrounding my cottage*; and I’m not silently reproached by weed-encroachment when my working life is too busy. My landlords are generous about my using their garden. All of the benefits and none of the work, you would think.
And I am struck by how much it affects me, this not having a garden that I can call my own. At the risk of sounding like a spoilt prima donna, I would be tempted to tell you the truth – my writing suffers because I no longer have one.
Writers need gardens, even if they’re only a square yard or two in size. For a start, there’s the need, prevalent amongst creative ‘space cadet’ types, to keep oneself in one’s body, bare hands in soil and dirt; a counterpoint to all that head stuff.
Secondly, a garden helps remind you of the cycle of things. All that digging and composting; then the planting of seeds and the waiting while nothing appears to be happening (although actually there’s a frenzy of activity underground, out of sight); then the joy when the first spikes of garlic appear, and the fragile shoots of new beans, turning so quickly into robust pod-bearing plants. Weeding and hoeing; harvesting; recycling of the nitrogen-rich haulms back into the soil. Leaf-fall. Then the fallow period: not dead, but resting, incubating.
One of the worst things for a writer is that period after finishing a creative project and before new ideas have started to seed themselves. There is that sense of panic: perhaps that was it; the wells have dried up forever. A garden reminds you that spring does return, and that the resting period is not in fact a sterile time, but a time of regeneration and renewal. (Was it Hemingway who said that a writer needs to allow the well to fill up again?) A garden’s a good lesson in trust; all you have to do is wait, though you can help things along by preparing the ground.
Gardens need a balance between containment and chaos, between borders and blurred edges, between weeding and leaving alone, between cutting back and letting nature do her thing.
Writing too is a balance between the wild excesses of the imagination and the taming instincts of the editor. Passion and restraint; engagement and objectivity. A lot of people start with thought; I prefer to start with imagination, which comes from a place other than the intellect. So in my own work and in my workshops, I emphasise giving the imagination its head at first; only reining it in after it’s starting to slow or go off-course. I think in writing as in gardening it helps to pile on the manure and be over-generous in the sowing. You need to allow for seeds that don’t germinate, and the tithe to the birds and animals of the unconscious. Weeding is a more satisfying occupation than trying to force plants out of barren, underfed or simply the wrong soil, and you can be selective in the thinning out process, as well as in what you choose to harvest.
Of course timing’s important. To return to my original metaphor, we all know how easy it is to kill a plant by digging it up before it’s grown strong roots. And I would rather have a garden that’s a riot of scent and colour and exuberance, complete with nettles and butterflies, than a poor caged municipal-straight creature. Clearly I concede, though, that it helps to be able to walk in the garden, see the plants and pick the fruits, and that choosing, shaping and pruning all have their season. Nonetheless in a culture that does not cultivate imagination, most writers will have come up against the squeezing tendencies of the critic and editor, internal or external. The best thing you can do for yourself is to close the gate, fortify the walls and get on with the growing process, only letting the critic in for serious pruning and weeding after the garden is well-established.
Gardens are sacred places. The walled garden is traditionally watched over by Hermes, the mercurial god of communication who is intrinsic to the alchemical process, and the guardian of contained spaces (remembered in a diminished form in our phrase ‘hermetically sealed’). Here imagination blooms. Let it flower freely!
Sunday, 16 October 2011
ash trees already bare
inside I am still summer
sleepy wasp at the window
candlesticks awaiting flame
I too can be fire
robin's song from the willow
inside the dog's soft whining
and this and this
hands soft on the reins
feeling my mind steady and still
like a horse
my daughter's dancing tango
with a man she could perhaps love
here it's me and my pen
sun through mist
crackle-glazed sheen on the morning
I'm one with dog, mist, sun
yesterday a hot air balloon simply dissolved into fog
today a plane's contrail extends the cloud
my flightpath right now is
in the town traffic
stops starts stops again
in my mind traffic
somewhere in the night
there is a turning
moon gives way to sun
owl to wren and blackbird
so too in me
thumping against the glass
wind on waves
light on water
all those years
to be this acorn –
months in moist dark soil
reborn into light
the Beenleigh Brook
night swimming she says
we were drinking
moonlight she says
salmon in the pool
has swallowed moon, trees, sky –
how can he be thirsty?
the man speaks of trout
of river of the Troubles
I see the brave boy
yes and again
all my rivers
at the noon heart
of the day
the nasturtiums shout
meeting the day
with all of ourselves
and in the end
we can hold on to nothing
not even love
Saturday, 15 October 2011
This dawn's owls were joined by a cronking raven, very close by.
The hornets are swarming near the front door. This doesn't feel quite as manageable – especially with a dog who even though she can't properly close her jaws has not been deterred from snapping at buzzing things – as when they're one by one going about their business. But my vows are to try not to harm sentient beings, as much as possible – so I try to reframe my attitude to so-called pests, recognise their place in the order of things. Hmmm. There are times when it's challenging – like at night when the courtyard becomes a sluggy rave, with scores of huge fat slimy black and brown ones, heading for the veg patch. But I know we've at least one toad who'll be feasting, and the thrushes are back from migration, as long as they wake up early enough to do the business (also helping the slugs out with the windfall apples – those we haven't had time to get to first).
Priceless moments, here in the autumn sun. The Dalai Lama points to our crazy human condition – we work like mad to raise money, and make ourselves ill worrying about not having enough, then we spend it on making ourselves better from illness caused by the stress of overwork. How did I, choosing to step sideways from that cliché, the rat race, get so sucked in to a life in which, though I know how essential silence and stillness are, I find so few moments in which to really dwell, freewheel, do a Thoreau? I deliberately removed myself from a life that was chained simply to the need to earn money, but it is so hard to escape 'the system', especially when you work all the hours there are for less than the minimum wage – and have less time than someone on a decent salary. I guess perhaps this is the price one pays doing work one truly loves, feels one is here for; when one insists on structuring one's own working life rather than having it dictated; and where one chooses meaning over material security.
Each life is precious, and each life will in the end be dissolved.
The dog sips teaspoon by teaspoon. In a book on sacred geometry I read this morning that every molecule of water is a corner of a pentagon.
Five is the number too of Venus.
And three: self, other and the relationship between.
Friday, 14 October 2011
This is Keats' 'negative capability' – being able to stay with an uncertain situation without forcing a resolution before its time. Quite sussed psychologically and philosophically, that thinking.
As I ponder whether I absolutely have to get up (I do) and what to do first, The Man comes in. He's been checking The Guardian online. 'You'll be glad to know,' he says, 'that Roy Harper agrees with you.' (Remember him? Singer/songwriter?) 'In what way?' 'He too feels that our downfall came with agriculture in the neolithic.'
I could get on a rant on this one. I'll try to contain it, a bit, but it has long seemed to me that capitalism as an ethos began in the late neolithic and early Bronze Age, in Europe. The nomadic hunter-gatherer started to settle down, make enclosures, keep livestock, call land 'mine'.
I'd say that it's our need to acquire territory, to possess land, to increase that territory, to keep others off, to turn it into a 'resource' and a 'commodity', to make it produce as much as possible as fast as possible, that is not only the basis of our capitalist economy but is also of course the reason why we find ourselves on a completely unsustainable trajectory, especially with population explosion and a changing climate.
One of the big problems with capitalism is that it's entirely predicated on limitless resources for limitless growth – and that's simply not how it is on our little planet. (Another big problem of course is that it cannot support an equal and fair economy – it works on exploitation of the have-nots – human or non-human – by the haves. A third, related, is that on the whole the system requires acquiring and taking, and the giving-back doesn't get a look-in.)
Last night I was guest reader at The Language Club in Plymouth. I did my first-ever public poetry reading – all five minutes of it! – on the open mike at The Language Club's predecessor, maybe 24 years ago, so it was great to be back. One or two friends who attended my last guest reading there several years ago now came, which was warming (thank you; you know who you are). It was good to air my recent collection of largely prose-poems, Bardo (Shearsman), in public; and to try out poems from next year's All the Missing Names of Love (IDP). Good too to hear some old friends on the open mike.
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
The dog's 'holding her own', though not her food; I hand-feed her as I do my mother in the care home when I visit. (Unlike my mother the dog throws gloop around the room.) I can be distressed at both situations; or I can see this attention-giving as a kind of prayer.
Israel's released 1000 Palestinians for a young Israeli soldier; let's hope that helps relations.
In Sweden Kurdish refugees facing deportation to Iran have sewn their mouths shut in protest. Iran is executing people at an average rate of two a day (see change.org)
How to speak of this? There are times to shout; times when words don't go far enough, when only silence will do.
Tuesday, 11 October 2011
When you first start to meditate, you think there's somewhere to get to. Or at least, I did – for maybe 20 years. And I never seemed to get 'there', wherever 'there' is.
Maybe the penny drops, one day. I'd read and heard any number of times that in the Buddhist way, or at least the Zen way, of mindfulness there is nowhere to get to – I understood that intellectually but somehow I still harboured this secret belief that one day I'd get there: be a better person, learn unconditional love, have a sorted and stress-free life, radiate serenity, be a perfect friend/lover/mother, accept transience, suffering and loss, dying and death... oh the tyranny of idealism!
Gradually, I realise, over a very long time a truer truth has crept in. This is that here really is where I'm needing to be (and that perfect human being is not even a distant dream), but it's my relationship to it that matters. Nothing is going to take away the fact of our living, the fact of our dying, and the fact that we and our loved ones will suffer in between. And being alive, just being alive, with all this – what a miracle! And really waking up to here and now – that's what it's about.
If you are reading this and are unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings, a word here: Buddhism is not a religion, and certainly not a 'revealed' religion. It doesn't require belief. There is no 'God' and doctrine around God to be bought into. We do not worship the Buddha – images of him are simply reminders that he taught a very simple truth: how to wake up, how to stay awake. The Buddha, after his own struggles, identified the things that keep us suffering, and spoke of a way that we can put into practise and see for ourselves reduces the sum of suffering in the world. That's all. The Man would say (though I don't entirely agree, and he's not a Buddhist) it's not even a spiritual path, more a psychology and a methodology. That's true; but to me, it also has a spiritual component in that it moves us beyond the petty concerns of ego into a view of interconnectedness, a felt sense of belonging to and within everything that is, (no inside no outside), and within that there is potential for transcendence.
What it means for me is that I meet over and over my demons – they don't go away, but over time I have started to change my relationship to them. I see that they're not 'real'; I see that they're primarily fear-driven responses to the world. Having identified them, developing an awareness of how they present and in what circumstances, and exactly how far they can run with us if we're not paying attention gives one the possibility of freedom. ('We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains', to paraphrase Rousseau.)
In Zen meditation there is no goal, no object. What we are doing is bringing our awareness to how things are – and how we habitually relate to them. That's waking up. We're watching the tricks the mind plays. There's the surface level of the water, which is normally disturbed, to put it mildly. Simply sitting, bringing one's attention over and over to the breath, and noticing where one's 'monkey mind' scampers – as it will – is the practice. Sometimes one can still the surface of the pool, and then a deeper level of practice becomes possible: the mind becomes a clear mirror and a deeper truer picture arises, something of essential nature. Perhaps we experience our sense of a separate self dissolve. Over the years, it takes less time each time to access that.
Or at least, that's the theory. Sometimes I manage to still the surface thoughts (clouds gliding across the blue, and I observe but don't hang on) and really drop somewhere beyond space, time and reactivity. Often I simply don't manage it, but instead spend the whole time chasing after monkey mind. That's just how it is. And of course the work really starts when we get off our cushions – when deeper mind is continually challenged by the world and our habitual reactions kick in.
So yesterday morning I wake with a lot of emotional pain: for the 'state of the world', for five years of personal losses one after the other, for my mum who, on top of her Alzheimer's has recently had a diagnosis of cancer, for my much-loved dog who has just, literally overnight, developed a life-threatening illness that is baffling vets; for my insubstantiality in the face of it all.
I'm sitting on my meditation cushion, doing a quick body-scan to relax, and then visualising, as I do to start my practice, myself as a locus between the above and the below, with the Great Wheel of being and the four directions doing their thing around me, sending what I can of goodwill and love to the beings who share the wheel with me in all four directions (and those in between). Then the axis that passes through me, above to below, is suddenly pulled so dramatically off course it is as if I've entered a different gravitational field – which I have, that of fear.
The image comes to me of a Red Dwarf planet (I know that astronomically speaking they're stars, not planets, but hey) exerting a pull bigger than my will – have you noticed how fear can hijack everything of your awareness? The trick with transient states of mind/emotions is not to identify one's whole being, one's Self, with them. 'I am not my fear' is a good reminder.
What's useful for me about this is that the Red Dwarf is a small discrete ball of energy a long long way away, and I'm not living on it – or in it. Nor do I have to – I have a choice. I notice the planet, its shape and size and distance, a small thing in a huge sky, and bring my awareness back to the present moment: this light rain on the skylight; the dog still breathing, and quietly asleep right now; a robin's song. The insubstantial but present fact of my body, my own breath. The miracle of being alive.
Saturday, 8 October 2011
(No, I know this isn't a wren; it's a young starling that was bold enough as to fly onto our table this summer at Slapton.)
Today there's a wild and exhilarating wind. Around us there's a lot of ploughing going on - an iconic autumn thing in the rural year – and one field has a very clear belt of red soil in its middle, where the shilletty seam meets the red sandstone corridor from my childhood North Devon coast across to the East Devon coast. Here we're at the edge of the sandstone (and off my beloved granite of the moor).
A wheatear is flipped across the path in front of me. It's flocking season as well as ploughing season: finches, and some thrushes, probably migrants. (I suspect if I counted I'd find that a bird appears in most of my blogs, I realise.) The hedges are thick with berries, and with the cerise and orange spindle flower-berries. I gather some mazzards (bullaces) – they're like a cross between sloes and damsons – to put into a crumble with apples. The rest of the beans need to be harvested and frozen – a big job – but I'm having a day off today, and tomorrow I'm reading with Chris Tutton and Lawrence Sail in Exeter from Deborah Gaye's anthology Of Love and Hope in aid of breast cancer (3.30pm in the Central Library).
In the hedges there are a number of lilac and pink flowers still: herb robert, knapweed, campion, periwinkle (from which one of our foremost cancer drugs comes), crowsfoot. The yellowy-creamy ones are still here: honeysuckle, meadowsweet (like willow, it contains salicylic acid, or aspirin), white dead nettle (also medicinal), toadflax. Lesser stitchwort shows its little starry face, too. The meadow is sprinkled with yellow-orange fungi. I eat a number of wild mushrooms but am not sure what this one is.
I forgot, when I was blogging yesterday, what started off my cante jondo trail. It was a line by the wonderful Galway Kinnell from his poem 'Why Regret?': 'Think of the wren / and how little flesh is needed to make a song.' Isn't that beautiful? There's no song that is too small to be essential to the symphonic whole.
And speaking of poetry: I am so pleased that at last the Swedish poet and psychologist Tomas Transtromer has taken the Nobel for literature. He's long been a favourite poet of mine, and The Guardian yesterday reprinted my favourite of his poems 'March 1979' (a favourite anyway, but the more so because March 1979 is the month and year of my daughter's birth):
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow.
Language but no words.
(Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton from New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe Books, 2011)
Transtromer had a stroke 20 years ago, and although he continues to write, speaking isn't so easy. He intends to accept his award with a piano solo instead of a speech.
And at last John Burnside, one of Britain's very finest poets, has taken the Forward prize for the best collection. He's been shortlisted any number of times. His work is extraordinary and difficult to categorize. For me, the fact that he can speak of – or at least gesture at – the numinous in an original and unsentimental way makes him exceptional. I've already mentioned his Black Cat Bone, a new collection, in a recent blog. His work always hovers at the edge of light and dark; if you don't know him, I'd recommend starting with The Light Trap perhaps.
Best first collection at the Forward was Rachel Boast's Sidereal. I don't know her work; I do know she studied or studies at St Andrew's, where Burnside lectures.
And finally on poets: Dylan Thomas' exquisite 'Fern Hill' (a set poem on my correspondence course) will be on Poetry Please on BBC radio 4 tomorrow, Sunday, at 4.30pm. This will be worth hearing for the cadences, the sheer musicality, alone; apart from the fact that it also has two or three of the best DT lines in it.
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