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, 30 January 2012
chill on the moorland's
even the rooks are sulking
this wet no-horizon day –
at the window
scribble of beech twigs
vowels of rain
here in the hall
we are a storm of leaves
blown on the music
this present moment –
on the dancefloor
of the heart
there are no exiles
Sunday, 29 January 2012
When I wake this morning I'm thinking about something Alain de Botton said in his essay in the little Guardian booklet on time (see yesterday's post).
He mentions that in a religious culture, time is routinely given to the soul. This, no matter how brief and informal, is a kind of ritual practice that lifts us above mundane preoccupations and reminds us of something of the eternal, whatever one considers that to be.
I think of Islam, and how when the muezzin calls prayer from the minaret five times a day the faithful simply stop whatever they're doing to pass some moments, or minutes, reconnecting with eternity, or the sublime, or the divine – in any case, with the spiritual world. It's a gesture towards the transcendent that reminds us that we are more than simply lumps of matter, and more than our thoughts, emotions, reactions, work, and the getting-through-the-day consciousness that can so bog us down.
De Botton contrasts that with our Westernised secular culture where our ritual involves, perhaps, a cup of tea and the news. Nothing wrong with that, and an awareness of current affairs is arguably essential in this interconnected world of ours. But is it enough? What happens to soul in this picture? How might we tend it in order to be aware of collective issues but be able, also, to remember that, no matter how pressing, how challenging, how disastrous, they are still all transient? How can we live in this world and still participate in Big Sky Mind?
It's easy to let our horizons shrink to the scale of our own troubles. We all need a frequent 'petit moment d'éternité' to stand between us and oblivion, or immersion in the demands of making our way in the material world –
|bluetits in the courtyard; photo Francis Jones|
– to catch a whisper on the breeze, share a hug, close our eyes and breathe, stand and gaze at a tree, the birds in the courtyard, read a poem, lift ourself like a buzzard free of our petty daily concerns.
We need to remember to wake up, which is what the muezzin is calling the faithful to do. We are spiritual beings living in a material world, and there is a need for a homecoming to something bigger than ourselves, bigger than tending the ego.
This is, in effect, the territory of mindfulness. Mindfulness is life with full attention to this here now and to all that is. It involves a kind of paradox: in being completely given over to the present moment one is also freed by and from it, as one is freed from the distracting mental or emotional tugs of both past and future. Then the sky at last opens up above us. This too is a way of bringing eternity into the present.
A Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose talks I sometimes attended used to speak of practising over and over painting with brush and ink a simple circle on paper. Then maybe someone would knock at the door, and he'd use that as an alert to full attention; and in that split second, as they say, of being taken back outward from his focused engagement he would go fractionally deeper before surfacing into 'everyday reality', and find that he'd drawn the perfect circle.
Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of using the telephone as a bell to mindfulness: counting to three, being fully present with that counting, before he answers the phone. I like to do that, when I remember.
I also like to use the practice of watching my breath with full attention, coming into and leaving my body; remembering that the air I breathe is breathed by all other living beings, a shared air; and within it are molecules of air circulating from all time, inhaled and exhaled equally by the bloke down the lane, a migrating goose, Martin Luther King, a prisoner at Guantanamo, the horses in WW1, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, the Buddha, an ancestor in the Basque Ice Age refuges, and on and on throughout time.
As I think about this I remember that I have forgotten, lately, my practice of gratitude (my 'Attitude of Gratitude') with which I used to open and close every day: simply thinking of three things for which I'm grateful can open me up beyond my prosaic troubles and daily concerns. And no matter what one's situation (within reason), there is almost always something to be grateful for. In this moment I feel no fear. In this moment a primrose is blooming in the bank. In this moment a nuthatch comes to the feeder. In this moment I have enough to eat, am warm enough and have a roof over my head. In this moment I'm grateful for the friends I have. In this moment I am filled with gratitude for the fact of being alive.
|photo Francis Jones|
Saturday, 28 January 2012
Friday, 27 January 2012
I predict that somewhere else there will be heavy rain.
Somewhere else again you might need to expect hail/snow/blizzards (delete as necessary).
Somewhere they say there is sun.
There again, cloud cover is possible, in all, any or none of the above.
I predict weather, basically...
All of these differentials will be, in due course, losing their identities*.
* I love it when the shipping forecaster says this
You need to read this article to make sense of the above: George Monbiot, The Guardian 26/1/12 (the comments are worth reading too): http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/jan/26/weather-forecasters-daily-mail?INTCMP=SRCH
What a little beauty, huh? Yep I'm still stuck on snails (see the brief book blog post on Intimacy of a few days ago).
And from that gorgeous book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating here is a small and rather lovely fact: a snail has a heart, one lung – and a brain that, depending on species, has between 5,000 and 100,000 giant neurons. What's more, it seems that snails have been observed helping other weaker members of their genus to find food sources.
Think twice, dear gardener...
Thursday, 26 January 2012
Psychology suggests too that we notice in others traits, both positive and negative, that are our own (and often unrecognised) traits. That's a whole other blog, or few hundred.
So it's the case, too, that when one is going through the mill, it seems that everyone else is as well. There may be an element of self-selection at work: one gravitates to others who will understand and offer support because they know the deal.
I meet in the course of my work a great many people who are deeply aware of the uncertainties and troubles in all our lives, globally, and who themselves are facing huge upheavals in their personal lives, and actively searching for more sustainable ways forward, both politically and in terms of lifestyle choices, and on a personal psychospiritual level. (TM would say that is because these people are self-selecting in that it is a certain 'type' of person, often, or someone in a certain type of circumstance, who will be seeking out the work I do [which is quite a lot more than 'simply' teaching people to write]. There is also the demographic, here, near Totnes – alternative capital of the southwest [with Stroud and Glastonbury], and a place that draws many people looking for a philosophy not entirely rooted in consumerism based on exploitation, material gain and status. It's not a coincidence that this is the birthplace of the Transition Town movement, currently growing exponentially.)
As many before me have said, we live in a time of unprecedented and massive change: climatically, economically, culturally, socially, spiritually. As far as we can tell, some of the challenges facing us may well be unique in detail and ramifications to our highly-technologically-developed culture.
If we don't want to destroy our species, let alone other species and the planet, we need to adapt, and fast; and if you take the worldview of interconnectedness that I do, what affects the one (individual/family/business/culture/nation/species) affects the whole. We are not isolated little units; everything we do has a consequence.
Times of great change require a strenuous response, and dedicated effort to effect the shift in consciousness that these times are requiring of us; and it is my belief that if we turn a blind eye the response needed will grab us anyway. It makes sense to go willingly, consciously, if we can.
I don't speak often about such things here as I'm wary of accusations of New Age triteness; but what can we expect from a time where the beginning of a new century and a new millenium coincides with a New Earth Age in the 2000-year cycle of earth ages? The last two thousand years, connected with the Christ, have been, some say, about learning to love and its shadow: the unleashing of hatred and aggression (the 'spiritual' warrior and the 'ego-oriented' warrior). Now, the Age of Aquarius demands a playing out of humanitarian values on a global scale, with an ushering-in of a more inclusive political and spiritual perspective.
Of course there is turbulence as the old and the new clash. Of course we as individuals will find collective issues mirrored in our personal lives, and vice versa. Of course those of us who are most sensitive will be conduits for collective issues (well, we all are, clearly; but the sensitives often pay the price). Of course how we handle all this will have a ripple effect.
And of course, we're not alone.
Wednesday, 25 January 2012
Just proofing for the last time my new collection All the Missing Names of Love (IDP April 2012), and this is in it:
At first they come singly, specks of dark spume
kited up from their rafting on the tranquil green-glass
sea; then in their twos and threes.
We hold our breath, let the slow
swell of the great Atlantic stretched to all
the directions breathe us.
On the western horizon a speck of dust
is a trawler; and below, the wooden boat rounds
the bows of the island and vanishes.
They crash land like parachutists with
their orange feet, webbed as penguins’,
asplay; rattle their wings in April air,
and one by one saunter closer, clumsy,
comic, their airborne elegance absent
here among the blond grasses.
On the cliffs, above the plaint of fulmars,
the puffins’ low chuckles creak like
antique hinges. They gaze at us
where we lie inches away, we who cannot
fly; they gaze from their strange exotic triangles
of eyes beneath gelled quiffs, black brows
crowning white cheeks; they with their stubby
rainbow beaks against our landbound drabs.
None of us moves. It’s in these moments
that we remember the truths behind words;
and recover an ancient longing; and our
kinship, our covenant, with wild.
© Roselle Angwin
|puffin on Staffa: Beatrice Grundbacher 2010|
Monday, 23 January 2012
Worst, as a mother, is knowing there is nothing I can do to help protect my daughter other than accompany her as best I can, and preferably without letting her know how fearful I am.
In deep gratitude for my friends, human and otherwise.
Friday, 20 January 2012
At a cost; mostly to others. Does that therefore negate it?
Or does authenticity score higher than keeping others safe (but in the dark) at the cost of being truly truthful?
What does compassion mean in these circumstances?
I'm talking of course of Kureishi's Intimacy.
Can I say, truthfully, myself, that it's better to live a lie and protect others, than be truthful to oneself at all costs?
'To thine own self be true,' said WS. 'Thou canst not then be false to any man.'
'Everything you want is at the other side of fear,' said someone called Jack Canfield.
Letters to Ukraine – 12
What do our commercials say about us? Imagine yourself an explorer from another galaxy, stumbling across Earth. For technical reasons, you can stay for several minutes only. You’re beamed down, by freak coincidence, in front of a TV during a commercial break, with no one about. Naturally, you assume this prominently located box must be an important information dispenser. You watch, assessing humankind’s primary concerns. [Do that, today, with the first commercial break you’re exposed to. Here are my own results: hairspray, computer equipment, cars, car sales, insurance, sweetly fizzy caffeinated drinks, comparative insurance, financial services, broadband, rail travel (first class).] Decades later, you return across space on a full-scale diplomatic mission. Earth is now practically dry of petroleum and drinkable water; nations are riddled with conflict, famine, disease. Many of its inhabitants are hairless from pollution and radiation exposure. But you’ve brought an offering, based on the research of your previous visit. No cancer cure, high-tech water purifier, or strain of wheat resistant to drought and toxins; no irresistibly peaceful, egalitarian philosophy. Instead, you insist on meeting the first-class humans, to whom you present a package of interplanetary insurance, intergalactic shares in electronics, and a cornucopia of petrol-driven cars, fizzy drinks and hairspray.
In some ways it's a brave book, and the above doesn't stop me being engaged.
And the dilemma is not about solitude vs intimacy – that was my spin on it. It's more about the intimacy of monogamy with one specific person vs the so-called freedom to have intimate sexual relationship with another or others.
It's also a thoughtful meditation on what makes one person rather than another person special to us.
And it seems to me that the narrator is not capable of intimacy with anyone other than himself – but at least he has the latter. And Kureishi's writing is intelligent, sensitive, insightful and at times moving and profound. And quotable:
'I know love is dark work; you have to get your hands dirty. If you hold back, nothing interesting happens. At the same time, you have to find the right distance between people. Too close, and they overwhelm you; too far and they abandon you. How to hold them in right relation?'
Thursday, 19 January 2012
Each book, in its own way, is about intimacy; one is a novel, one a poetry collection, one non-fiction.
Many years ago now when I thought I was going to marry for the second time, my fiancé told me about a vicar who said at a wedding he (the vicar) was conducting and T was attending: 'I want you to remember that, as you commit to each other now, there will be a time in the future when one of you, without doubt, will leave the other. Whether this is through divorce or through death, it will happen.' It seemed to me then, as it seems to me still, that this was a very wise vicar.
No, it's not gloomy and pessimistic. It's not that it's 'realistic', either. It's simply a very profound reminder, to me, that others are only ever 'on loan': that nothing is permanent, and we need, perhaps, to remember to make the most of this: of each relationship in our lives, and every passing moment. We can do this by committing ourselves to deep intimacy with the process, in its transience.
'In my beginning is my end.' It is not possible to have a beginning that won't lead to an ending, eventually; and each ending introduces a new beginning. That is simply how life is, in its cycles and phases. How much energy we expend, though, wishing it to be different!
Is there any one of you out there who can say with complete and total honesty that you have ever been in a relationship without considering the possibility of leaving it? Life, as I experience it anyway, is a perpetual balancing act of intimacy and solitude, with the balance in perpetual motion too (and we so often forget that intimacy with ourselves has to be cultivated before we can truly be intimate with another).
Anyway, all that's a preamble to Hanif Kureishi's book Intimacy. I'm 3 pages in, and hooked. A reviewer says it's about the 'dissection of male sexual restlessness'. It's primarily about the narrator's leaving of his marriage (maybe not the right book for you if you're feeling vulnerable at the moment; it's described as 'controversial'; 'coruscating'; 'excoriating').
Maybe I'm a masochist: I really enjoy reading about relationship, and I don't mind reading deeply painful and intimately honest accounts of hard things (though I can't stand violence and cruelty) – I loved Dan Franck's Separation, and McEwan's On Chesil Beach, bleak though they both are. One of my big favourites is Dunmore's Talking to the Dead. (One of the reasons I go to literature is to do with relationship: how other people do it; how processes in the human heart are brought to resolution, and if not, why not; how the human spirit is strengthened by facing up to stuff; how we triumph over disaster.)
The blurb says: 'Intimacy speaks to, and for, a lost generation of men: those shaped by the Sixties, disoriented by the Eighties and bereft of a personal and political map in the Nineties.' And it speaks to me, as a woman, interested in men: how different we are, how similar we are.
In the post this morning was Nina Bogin's poetry collection The Winter Orchards (Anvil). Good poetry, for me, is always about intimacy, though not necessarily in the obvious ways; more the way in which we as humans learn to pay deep attention to everything we encounter, and then recreate the sense of entry into that intimate encounter for a reader. Bogin is intimate with everyone and everything she encounters: human, horse, deer, plant, rock. She maps it all. I didn't know her work, and I'm captivated. Here's one:
Black that means rock.
Moss that means comfort.
Lichen that means stone.
Path that means passage.
Rock that means shelter.
Nest that means warmth.
Hoofprint that means flight.
Turd that means food.
Feather that means battle.
Bone that means death.
Snow that means north.
Stream that means thaw.
Fern that means marsh.
Flower that means light.
This one is wonderful, wacky, exceptional, completely compelling. If you're into natural history and its little particular intimacies, you'll love this. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Green Books) is exactly what it says it is, and I am smiling all the way through. It's by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, whose constant companion throughout a serious illness was – yes – a living woodland snail. It's a moving record, too, without any self-pity, of the severe confinement and introspection that comes with illness, and the questions and insights it can reveal.
I've always quite liked snails in an impersonal sort of way, and am gentle with them when they eat my veg, admiring their perfect spiral homes, removing them carefully and putting them over the hedge. But no, I would never have imagined that a book about a snail – a personal memoir, as well as a wide-ranging scientific study of a gastropod – would so engage me. I love it. Must be my age.
Here's what it says on the jacket: 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an affirmation of the healing power of nature, revealing how much of the world we miss in our busy daily lives, and how truly magical it is. A remarkable journey of survival and resilience, TSWSE shows how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our own human existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.'
In its smaller way it reminds me of that wonderful book by naturalist Richard Mabey: Nature Cure, another 'must read' for those interested in the therapeutic power of the natural world.
Wednesday, 18 January 2012
last night, moon on the hill
how many times before
have I been bird, leaf
single blade of grass?
tonight, a small mist followed
This made me smile: 'You are a divine elephant with amnesia trying to live in an ant hole.' (Hafiz)
Amnesia's doing fine. Divine elephant gone absent without trace. Ant hole's a tight fit this morning. Royalty statement for 6 months' sales: £9.31 (yep – no not a mistake with the decimal point, sadly). Rude words. That's for the novel, out last March. The poetry, out last May, hasn't earned any royalties yet – come to think of it, I've had no contract either... And both have had good reviews on amazon.
I say that: Imago has had 8 excellent reviews, 1 good, a couple of iffy ones, and a negative one (someone who didn't seem to have either got the point or maybe even the book itself... and perhaps had a hidden agenda...?). There's a rash of tickbox negatives on the positive reviews, if you get what I mean: '0 out of 1 people found this review helpful'. Tourette's sufferer? Since the negative review didn't have any rating, is there a connection between this critic and the rashmaker? Very interesting that all of the 5-star positive ratings bar the latest on the poetry collection, Bardo, have attracted the same '0 out of 1 person found this helpful' tickbox compulsion. Well, can't please them all. Stick head above parapet, etc.
I think people have this romantic image of the Writer chewing pen, swigging absinthe, pouring words like fire onto the page, selling work, swanning around gazing out of windows or over wondrous landscape, hands in pockets, 'don't interrupt me – can't you see I'm working?', taking long holidays in exotic places awaiting inspiration, etc.
The reality of course is that we write because we're passionate about it, because nothing else fills that place, because it's as crucial as breathing; but it's a really hard graft with long and unsociable hours and continual chasing of the next little piece of paid work in some erratic and uncertain writing-related field (or at least, that's how it is for me).
My accountant used to suggest I ran more courses, as they brought in more money. I did, and they did. Now they don't (it's a recession and too many institutions offer subsidised certificated courses). In 2009 he suggested I thought about supplementing my pitiful income by book-keeping (me?? Has he no soul?? Plus I failed my maths O level twice!). In 2010 he suggested I'd do better on the checkout at Tesco. I responded not. This year he didn't make a single suggestion. Am well beyond the pale (or is it 'pail'? Remind me what it means?), well-broke, irredeemable, dogged, pigheaded and sheer bloody-minded about doing it my way.
And – grit teeth – am not giving up. I love what I do. But I say to myself 'Don't give up the day job, girl.' Oh wait – this is the day job!
This is info from the 2000 Society of Authors' survey of UK writers' earnings:
- 75% of authors earned under £20,000 in 1999
- The average writer's annual income was £16,000
- Only 5% (82) of authors polled earned more than £75,000
- Only 3% (51) earned over £100,000.
- Although the national average wage was £20,919 when the report was compiled, 61% of the writers polled earned under £10,000
- 46% earned under £5,000, of whom 123 said that writing was their main source of income, while 14 had no other source of income at all. (My italics)
The level of advances is dropping. The majority of advances are under £5,000. Only 51% of writers said that more than half their works earned out their advances (advances are what they say they are: advance on estimated royalties. In other words, you get zero dosh after the advance until your book sale royalties earn more than the advance you were given). My first advance, in 1993, in the low 4 figures, was higher than any since, and the last 5 books have had no advance at all. Hey ho.
Lots and lots of stress lately. Bad news on the blood pressure front. Good news though is that the understanding nurse went off to make a cup of coffee for herself while I took five minutes to meditate in her room after the first high reading. After just these few minutes I'd dropped the systolic – top – reading by 20 points (bottom diastolic remains worryingly high). 'That's exceptional!' she said (of the reduced systolic).
OK. Time to get a grip. OK healthy wealthy world here I come. After I've made a cup of something disappointingly caffeine- and absinthe-free, looked out the window at the wondrous view, booked that exotic holiday on my earnings, and slouched around a bit more waiting for the Muse to descend... There again, I'm free to go for a walk whenever I like. Maybe now?
ADDENDUM: just had the library lending statement (PLR) for 2011. Hey! I earned £15.55! Enough for flour for 8 or 9 loaves! (Well, half a dozen organic spelt flour ones, anyway.) Or might it stretch to a bottle of absinthe?
Tuesday, 17 January 2012
The Eliot prize this year has raised some ethical issues. The Poetry Society, embroiled as it was last year in internal strife, has had its Arts Council funding cut (imagine here a long rant on the fact that £8m of the Arts budget has been diverted to the grrrrr Olympics). This means that the award, funded for the last 15 years by Valerie Eliot, will now be funded by Aurum, a 'dirty money' hedge-fund issue for some people (me included), like BP's major-gallery funding. I can see the other argument: that money earned in what some of us see as unethical ways can, so to speak, be absolved of its origins via patronage of the Arts. I just personally don't buy it, and I admire the stand taken by both
the poets who removed themselves from the shortlist on ethical grounds.
'Alice Oswald, nominated for Memorial, a retelling of the Iliad, pulled out, saying: "Poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions." She was followed by the Australian poet John Kinsella, nominated for Armour, describing himself as an anarchist, pacifist and anti-capitalist, "and hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism".' (Guardian, 16th January 2012)
Controversy notwithstanding, I'm over the moon that this still-little-known poet has taken the award.
Burnside's liminal territory is unique in the contemporary English-language canon. It's not that Burnside could be described as a 'champion of the soul' – that would suggest self-consciousness, a deliberate attempt to import soul into his writing. It's more that soul, if that is the correct word, is a given in his territory; it infuses everything he writes, as breath infuses the body.With Burnside, you are standing at the edge of a forest, unsure whether the poem, and therefore you as reader, are canted towards the darkness of woodland or moving away, towards the light. But ultimately you get the sense – or rather I get the sense – that the poems' task is to take one deeper into the woodland in pursuit of – what? A glimmer on the wind? A truer light? A revelation that nothing is ever exactly, or even approximately, what it seems to be? An invitation to live deeper, knowing simultaneously that what we seem to seek will not be found in the form in which we think we seek it?
When reviewers speak, as they do (cf The Guardian, yesterday), of Burnside as a poet of the numinous, the immanent, they are right – and he is one of the few. But this is not fluffy New Age transcendence, but more an essential attempt on the wholeness brought about by marrying light with dark.
Reviewers have spoken of Burnside's latest, the T S Eliot prizewinner Black Cat Bone, as being a departure from the others. I don't think it is; rather it's a necessary progression, development or continuation of the territory that always engages Burnside: the mysteries of love and death, and the mystery of finding a thread to follow in the tangled forest that is, so often, our lives. This book may be more overtly 'accessible', though that seems a poor word to use in relation to this work, but if so, only because the narrative thread is slightly more on the surface than some of his poems allow. Slightly.
This latest, like its predecessor The Hunt in the Forest, has an archetypal quality to it, and Burnside uses to some extent the language and imagery of myth, fairy tale, magic. This one seems also to carry more liturgical references than some of his others; no surprise then to find that he was brought up, like me, a Catholic; as they say, one never manages to really leave the enclosures of the Church; one is only 'lapsed', not 'ex'.
In Black Cat Bone, as always, he offers the most un-self-consciously quotable lines: 'The only gift is knowing we belong / to nothing.' (From 'Creaturely') ; and 'I live in a separate country, white as the snow / on rooftops and stained glass // windows, the still of the woods / at furthest noon the only thought I have // and morphine skimming my mind, like the first / swallow in the courtyard...' ('Dope Head Blues').
Poignant haunting lines abound: 'the buds we wreathed in silk, for wedding nights, / discarded now, a summer's lease of green // gone back beneath the frost while, nonetheless, / alone in the furthest wood, a night bird sings //.
A personal favourite is 'The Soul as Thought Experiment', which opens:
Some days, it's enough to stand your ground.
Wind on the road and that coal oil and mackerel sheen
on everything you see; the wet
leylandii turned in the rain...
and closes with:
...where you cannot help but think
of kinship, at that point where snow begins
on some black road you thought was yours alone,
made bright and universal, while you listen.
I can't recommend this collection highly enough; although if you want an easier introduction to Burnside's work, start with The Light Trap (Cape, 2002)
Monday, 16 January 2012
Neither from nor towards;
But neither arrest nor movement.
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither ascent nor decline.
There would be no dance,
Friday, 13 January 2012
('The White Birds')
Wednesday, 11 January 2012
My friend Joe calls my huge hairy deerhound lurcher a 'part-time dog'. Joe's Dimpsy, a border collie, is permanently awake, alert and ready for action – manic, in other words, as collies, intelligent working dogs who need a lot of stimulus, so often are. Keeping a hound is a very different matter – all she does, really, is sleep; if she weren't so big you'd barely notice her there in the corner. She does love walking (loping, in her case), and also plays; but as long as I'm somewhere nearby she doesn't seem to need anything except a bit of affection. I've never lived with a dog so quiet, so easy, so gentle (though none of the ones I've shared a house with before have been anything other than 'kind' dogs either). And she's not terribly bright – takes a long time for messages to travel from synapse to limb.
Until last year I barely knew she had a voice. Then, as you might remember if you've been reading this blog a while, I had cause to exercise my own voice extremely loudly in the service of protecting a little trio of hare from a few dozen hounds and huntspeople. There aren't many things that anger me, but cruelty is one. I didn't know I had a voice like that, either – apparently people nearly half a mile away down the valley heard me, and my dog, too, who discovered a very deep and persistent extraordinarily loud bark.
We have nearly two acres of north-facing land on which (with some difficulty because of the steep slope and minimal sun on that aspect) we grow most of our own veg. The field has a woodland margin and a small orchard, which provide between them a sanctuary, and windfalls and berries, for wildlife. I'm very protective of the badger setts and fox earths here, and the hare flash through too at times.
Hunting with dogs (with more than two dogs, anyway) has been illegal in the UK since 2004, under a ban introduced by. the then Labour government. Since that time though the number of organised Hunts seems to have grown, in defiance (and the current basically Conservative government has promised to overturn the ban). Each pack has a minimum of 20 hounds, often many more; and can be followed by at least the same number of people on horseback. As one of those who campaigned for a ban I was jubilant when it went through, distressed when it was obvious that hunting was going to continue, if anything with more vigour because of the ban.
It's justified on the grounds of being 'tradition' (so was slavery, and children as chimney-sweeps, and wives-as-chattels), and in the interests of – ha! – 'conservation' of wildlife (despite the fact that UK numbers of eg hare are down). With foxes, it's easy: 'Look at all those lambs/chickens lost by farmers to foxes' (yes, some; and some loss is down to poor husbandry, bad weather, rampaging domestic dogs, corvines taking weak lambs etc).
We are not talking about hunting to eat here. We're talking about a kind of bloodlust. Anyway, suffice it to say that I feel strongly about imposed cruelty in the name of sport.
Yesterday I didn't have a very good day. It started with someone's graphic news in relation to a particularly horrific act of cruelty to a horse. The images in my head have really disturbed me. Plus I'm still reeling a bit from some unfair accusations from someone I love last week; then there's been Probate for my mum and some calls in relation to my dad's wellbeing from the Care Home, not to mention any number of calls from him asking about my mum. I had an aggressive email from a stranger yesterday morning, and news that an apparently-minor health issue of my own that I believed had cleared up needed further potentially invasive treatment. I have deadlines unmet.
So you can imagine that a pack of hounds pouring up the drive, followed by mounted huntsmen, having torn through a neighbour's field and traumatised the pregnant ewes, did not fill me with delight. My dog, Ash, alerted me long before they appeared – her ears are now finely-tuned to the hunting horn over many miles. My voice seemed to come to the rescue once again.
And then, as I was coming back home hours later in the dusk, a small elderly bitch whom I'd seen earlier trailing about half a mile behind the rest of the pack, was clearly lost, exhausted and ravenous, wandering around hours after the Hunt had gone, in the lane. Well, of course I brought her back and fed her, and shut her in while I tried to track down the Hunt (she trashed my studio, but that's another story, and it is clean-up-able).
My mum used to say 'Condemn the sin but not the sinner', which – even if you don't take to the word 'sin' – is good advice, on the whole, psychologically speaking. (Let's say instead 'The act but not the perpetrator'.) I've tried to follow this through my life, but we all have blind spots, don't we? One of mine is a certain prejudice against 'people who hunt' – even though I have a couple of very dear friends who do – if you are brought up in the English countryside it has often been part of the picture of rural life. They know that I have in the past been involved in disrupting hunting activities – and I suppose my actions last year, placing self and Dog between hounds/huntsmen and hare count as that. I know that they hunt; and we still love each other.
But The Hunt in general terms I suppose I do see, at some level, as being composed at least in part of people who have little concern about animal welfare – hounds and horses are pushed pretty hard too – and therefore it must contain a number of brutes. This is, I hasten to add, subconscious, largely; I am very well aware of the dangers of demonising groups and individuals, and do challenge it when I see it.
I quite enjoy being forced to confront my prejudices; having them squeezed into the open. Then you know what work there is to do, still, don't you? And when one of the Hunt members came to collect said hound, he couldn't have been nicer – and I don't mean smarmy. He was grateful that I'd found the dog, communicative, good on eye contact, engaged with a smile, apologetic for the earlier intrusion here, keen to listen to and respect my (quietly-voiced, at this point!) position ('Thanks for coming to collect the hound. I do need to tell you though that we're not willing to have the Hunt in our field, and we know for certain that these particular neighbours share our views'), understanding of why I might feel as I do, and gentle with the hound.
I came away smiling, feeling we'd built some bridges. My position on hunting hasn't changed, but if I met him in a pub I'd probably share a drink with him.
Tuesday, 10 January 2012
'Our practice is to meet life exactly as it is and to notice whatever fear, anger, or doubt gets in the way of direct intimate contact with this moment, bringing attention to that as well. Rather than changing something or seeking to get somewhere we imagine we should be, practice is about seeing clearly exactly how things really are and how we relate to them. Practice thus becomes an increasing intimacy with life just as it is, and there is nothing—including the ideas that we should be getting something or somewhere—that is unworthy of the clear, nonjudgmental attention we call mindfulness.'
Douglas Phillips, from Tricycle: the Buddhist Review
Monday, 9 January 2012
and across the valley in the quickening January light I see that the little rammed-earth roundhouse with its arched hobbit windows and its not-quite roof, a dream built block by hand-made block and abandoned when the marriage broke up has, in the last days of torrents and gales, completely
And here we are, third planet in line from the one-of-many suns; I could weep for the terror and beauty of impermanence, and the dreams we offset against it, and this laden speeding-up small planet spinning through the forever sky, and we with our little lives clinging so tightly to the wrong things, the ones that can never save us from
Sunday, 8 January 2012
I come from a family of volatile Celts. Our emotions – or perhaps I should say rather our colourful father's emotions – were all too visible when we were growing up, and I learnt two things: when someone is expressing their emotions at least you know where you stand; and, counter to that, emotions are dangerous things.
We all experience anger – it's part of the human condition. It's also a useful alert to the fact that something is threatening us, something needs changing. (I find it useful too to consider that beneath anger is usually pain.)
What we do with it though is key. Some of us learn to express it only too easily – 30 years ago, as a young thing, I was one of those who too could express her negative feelings at full pelt, given a particularly volatile relationship I was in at the time. Others stuff it, when it tends to go inwards and manifest as depression, or somatise in certain types of illness. Others, damaged perhaps as children by another's frightening anger (and yes I am also that type), don't even recognise anger when they feel it; they 'numb out'.
So in my late twenties, when my anger was triggered, as it often was (in that same relationship), by an emotion so strong that it overcame the numbing out, I learnt to be good at lashing out. Since then, frightened by the force of my own anger, I have tended to repress it, and in the beginning, once I'd realised what I was doing, it would be days, or on occasion even weeks, before I recognised that the emotion dogging me was anger. I consider that I've made huge strides forwards in now only taking a minute to recognise anger; sometimes a second; sometimes I can name it immediately. I've learnt so much about myself and my experience of the world through watching my reactivity.
So far, so good. What happens next though is what's really important, isn't it? The received wisdom is to count to ten before expressing it – helpful advice.
But it could go further. Both Buddhism and the psychotherapeutic world – and I've been a Buddhist practitioner now for over 35 years (albeit with fluctuating actual commitment), and involved in one way and another with psychotherapy for 28 or so – suggest that the wise way to deal with anger is to 'own' it rather than project it – ie deal with it consciously, exploring it, noticing where and when it arises, experiencing it in the body, noticing and if necessary challenging the impulse to hit out, to blame another, examining the precipitating incident and our part in it – and what it might be stimulating in us, maybe painful past memories that have little to do with the current situation and the 'at fault other', in reality. Then we might also see what needs to change.
Then there is kindness, and compassion. 'My religion is kindness,' says the Dalai Lama. Buddhist practice is focused on developing loving kindness: when we understand that anger usually arises from pain, it is so much easier to empathise with another's situation. As I posted here a few days ago, Plato reminds us that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. When we remember this, we can use the arising of anger as a reminder to look deeper into our pain, or another's; to remember our shared humanity, and our vulnerability.
Buddhism too specifically reminds us that 'we are not our emotions', and that identifying our whole being too closely with them is shortsighted, and, worse, potentially damaging to both self and other. (And of course there is a shadow side to that too – thinking that we're 'overcoming' our emotions by simply sliding away from them, transcending rather than integrating them, is a danger; in other words detaching, rather than practising non-attachment, which is a very different animal: noticing our emotional reactivity while remaining still engaged and choosing not to throw the shit at someone else is not the same as simply suppressing, and pretending a serenity we don't feel, or over-rationalising.)
The breakthrough, for me, came in said passionate and volatile relationship, when one day my partner remarked 'All we do is react to each other'. Up until then, I hadn't even considered that, in any way.
Taking responsibility for our own 'stuff' and choosing how we respond to a trigger is so empowering. Once we see our anger for what it is it no longer has a hold over us. Psychology suggests that the situations in which we feel the biggest emotional charge are the situations in which we are most likely projecting on – seeing in – another stuff that is rightfully ours. The idea, too, is that claiming one's shadow parts, the bits we blame on another but don't really see in ourselves, frees up enormous psychic energy; and, more, we don't continue to ignorantly cause even more harm than we all already do in this fractured world of ours. (Oh so easy to say, hey?)
And of course that's not to say, in this view, that we shouldn't ever express that anger. If someone violates my boundaries I have a right to say 'enough'. But I can choose to do it in a way that's non-blaming, non-harming, and kind. (I'm talking about normal circumstances here, not eg situations of one-sided abuse, clearly). Of course, we – I – mostly don't. But we have a choice. And yes, of course lashing out can feel so satisfying – briefly. And then, for me anyway, in rushes the guilt, the sense that I've not been my 'best self', the divide created between self and other which is not 'skillful practice', as Buddhism calls it. And for me, as I already have high blood pressure, fuelling myself up on anger is not a helpful response.
What psychotherapy promotes in addressing issues in a non-inflammatory way is taking-responsibility-'I' statements rather than blaming-'you' statements. Saying (eg) 'You're such a selfish shit; you never think of anyone but yourself' is not helpful; but 'When you do x I feel afraid that my needs don't matter to you' is honest, and skillful, and can open a dialogue. So: statement of fact ('When you do this'), followed by 'I feel', followed by expression of ideal scenario: 'What I would like is...'.
I have also taken the Buddhist precept that requires that I 'make every effort to resolve all conflicts, no matter how small'. So I do my best to extend myself, I do try, to sort out tension and difficulties. But I can't take responsibility for another's response to the situation – thank goodness I recognise that, too, these days.
Over the last few years in a time of deep family trouble and much change personally and interpersonally, there have been plenty of opportunities for dealing with anger – mine and another's.
Leaving aside my most intimate relationships in which the work of making conscious goes on, day after day, whether one feels like it or not, I've noticed a pattern emerging in which I see myself making attempts, often seemingly unilateral, to resolve things before feeling there's nothing more I can do other than walk away.
I hate disharmony and conflict. This can make me at times over-accommodating and over-adaptive. Nonetheless, I'd rather go the extra mile than be too proud to reach out, and I've never found 'sorry' hard to say. This week I've had cause to notice that I also, these days, recognise my own limits: I will extend my hand to someone in the service of healing a rift 3 times before walking away if my hand's not met. In the past, I'd have tried and tried. But taking responsibility doesn't obviate the need for self-respect, nor does it mean being a doormat; and also other people of course have a right to react to their own emotions in whatever way they see fit, and it won't necessarily fit mine. But I don't have to be, as Susan Jeffers so poetically puts it, a butterfly dancing near an elephant's arsehole.
And lest I now sound unbearably self-righteous, let me tell you how much, sometimes, I want the sheer crude simple reactivity of hitting out, metaphorically speaking, and walking away with no further thought about it all. Trying to be 'conscious' is so b****y exhausting! The simplicity, the seductiveness, of that blind instinctual F*** o** response to the apparently uncaring world in which we so often feel so lonely, so hurt.
Thursday, 5 January 2012
creating the year you want
one-day intensive retreat
nr Totnes, Devon, Saturday 21st January 10am-5pm
Directions on booking
Fee £35 by cheque if postmarked on or before 12th January; £40 thereafter to arrive before 21st, £45 on the day (but I need to know you’re coming)
Bring a veggie dish to share; pen and paper; indoor shoes; an extra layer (though the woodburner will be lit in my garden studio); an open heart.
See website for booking and details
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