from BARDO

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

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

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

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

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

from the cailleach hills

As some of you lovely regular readers know, I'm currently leading two very intense courses back-to-back up here in Scotland: I closed the 'Islands of the Heart' retreat on the magical Isle of Iona on Saturday last, and drove up here to the hills near Inverness where, ringed by snowy mountains (two of which take the supine shapes of the Cailleach, the old wise hag-goddess of Celtic story), I'm co-leading with Sharon Blackie a women's retreat: 'Singing over the Bones: Women Writing the Wild'. How might we, as writers and as women, address the state of the natural world in our 'care' today? How might we respond to the destructions and extinctions?

Course participants and landscapes are very different; the groups are extremely intense in different ways, and the Iona course and group is particularly heartful each year – such a privilege to work with people who are willing to bring all of themselves to an experience, and share it.

I've led the Iona retreat for 13 years. Here at the Moniack Mhor Arvon centre though this is the first course of this nature for both Sharon and I, and we hadn't met before. We're not long in to the course so it's finding its way, as we are.
Here we're all women; it's good to have a range of ages from 30 to mid-60s. We're on the third day now, and there has been such an abundant cauldron of laughter, tears, joy, rage, despair, hopelessness and distress at our subject matter and what it stirs in us. We're interweaving a mix of the warp of land and its beings, our place in and responses to land (and of course sea and air), and the fabric of myth and story that is also the weft we as humans weave on place and inhabitant.

And then there's the writing. What we're exploring is how we might write in a way that reflects our relationship with the land, our place in the web of things, our dwelling in the natural world, and how to shape that; writing that in some way issues from the felt core of our experience, rather than writing in a remote and detached way 'about' nature.

Both Sharon and I as tutors bring backgrounds in psychology and psychotherapy. I think it's true to say that we both believe that, for lasting and positive change to occur in the outer world, we need to be willing continuously to challenge and change our inner worlds: the stories that keep us stuck, the unhealthy patterns, the distorted beliefs. Perhaps the one can't happen without the other?

Sharon is editor of EarthLines magazine, and as I say we'd never met; the course was Sharon's instigation, and we have communicated intensely over so many months that we were sure it would work. Looks like it is, though I had one of those moments driving up to the cottage of: this is like an extended blind date and people are paying us to make it work. Relief: we like and complement each other well. Just as well, for the course dynamics!

I find it hard to write about something like these courses at the time when they're actually unfolding; it's partly that the courses are so very rich and complex, and people bring so much of themselves, and partly that, to be honest, I have had little free time in which to do anything other than catch a keyhole of rest, and I'm utterly knackered – very short on sleep, and it's also intensely demanding, emotionally and mentally, to 'hold and contain' the processes of a number of people and retain in my head the vision that overlights the course. Plus I have very severe backache right now.

But don't get me wrong – I SO love this work; it feels like what I am here (was born) to do. How many people can take such pleasure from their work? It makes me laugh, weep, smile, open up; and it feels like good work, work with soul.

And, apart from the people I work with, the depth of heart and vision that unfolds during the week, and the amazing places in which I work, there are the little-huge bonuses like the puffins on Staffa some of the Iona people take a boat out to see during the course (

And last night, in the dusk as the banshee wind, howling at us for the entire 72 hours I'd been here, quieted itself to a murmur, I took a break from the crucible of both process and kitchen where three participants were whipping up an imaginative and delicious vegan meal, to wander outside: marsh marigolds in a ditch, two curlews bubbling in the field, and overhead, one of the very few remaining hen harriers left in the UK.

Late, my daughter texts me from the Isle of Skye, where she's gone ahead (I shall join her and dogs on Saturday) to say she'd been watching a pair of otters playing on the shore for 2 hours... they are still here, these animals who accompany us through the journey of our lives, if we look, bring our silence.

More from Skye!


  1. I never know which of the myriad ideas in your posts to comment on, which mostly explains why I don't. Here's one though on “bringing all of yourself to the experience”. I was quite tickled by your suggestion that all of your course partcipants' disparate parts might be available and willing at any one time to come to a workshops. Heaven forbid all of mine would respect something as bourgeois as an appointment. Beyond the fact that if mine were all to turn out to order, you'd have to call the emergency services, I have enough trouble just keeping track of them. Most of the time, they just wander off without warning and don't bother leaving a message or letting any of the others know where they are. And forget about asking permission.

  2. ;-) Karen, what can I say but 'bring the rebels too'? Hasta la revolucion!


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