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.
Wednesday, 23 September 2015
At dawn the air is dense with contrails almost not-there,
yet meadow, hedge and sky are all a-glitter: the time of year
when small migrating spiders launch their bodies into space
on less than a breath, and mesh the light. They can’t know
where they’re landing or even if they’ll arrive; but autumn’s
glow is richer and the day brighter for their risk. Microscopic,
their trust in life is one that we can’t have, with our
knowingness, the way we lumber through our years;
and oh what I’d give to rest this body on space and sky
like that, not caring where I’m going, if my fragile tensile arc
will lasso the future, if I’ll ever get there, or who comes with me.
© Roselle Angwin, 23 September 2015
Sunday, 20 September 2015
Of course, like any novelist I am a storyteller; and in fact I seem to remember crucial aspects of story more accurately these days as an infrequent teller. I just do it better on paper, or 'paper'.
I also don’t think of myself as a short story writer, but looking back over more than three decades now I see that I’ve written quite a lot of short stories, and that most of the ones I’ve sent out into the world have been published or won awards or prizes.
The stories of mine that have stuck in my memory tend to be the ones that are riffs on archetypal or mythic themes, and these too tend to appeal to others. At some level we recognise eternal human themes that speak to our own lives. Many of these have magical elements.
So my contemporary story about Merlin won the Geoffrey Ashe Award from the Library of Avalon many years ago; my story about a selkie, or seal-woman, won a prize in a QWF competition in the early 90s; a new telling based on the Mermaid of Zennor, the playing out of masculine and feminine principles in our culture through various mermaid and/or melusine tales, took another prize. But all this was last century, so it’s with some pleasure and surprise that I find myself picking up that thread again.
Storytelling has been part of our cultural history for many thousands of years; it’s how we make sense of our lives, explore purpose, understand meaning and remind ourselves that we are not alone.
The reason I’m mentioning this is because my telling of the White Hind tale, another magical and recurring motif that, like the seal stories, combines an archetype for the feminine and the soul with a relationship to a specific animal, has now come out as a small booklet (maybe 15 pages) with several beautiful illustrations by Alexi Francis, who’s also designed the whole thing.
This is a tale that recurs over and over in the folk mythology of Britain and other northern European countries, and (as someone who has twice encountered white deer) I love it. The deer, as in many animal tales, is a kind of go-between: a shamanic helper, or shapeshifter. In the case of my story, as a white deer she is representative, perhaps, of the abundance that comes into a masculine-oriented person or culture if the feminine principle can be not only respected, but also incorporated.
The telling in this booklet incorporates a resolution that I hadn’t come across before hearing it from the lips of a Dartmoor storyteller, Mavis Hewitt, some time last winter so, although the story is not uncommon and the way it unfolds archetypal, there is a particular twist in this version for which I should credit Mavis.
You can revisit the story here, and buy the little book for £4.50 including p&p (GB only; £5.50 the rest of Europe) via Paypal (enter my email address into Paypal to buy it; the usual email format for roselle [at] fire in the head [all hyphenated], and it’s dot co dot uk at the end). Please make sure you add your land address.
Everyone who’s seen it loves it; we think it would also make a great stocking filler.
We are talking about a series. A boxed set maybe even? Watch this space, as they say.
Friday, 18 September 2015
Each year, for several years now, a group of baccalaureate students from a Swiss school comes over to work with me outdoors on Devon and Cornwall's moors and coasts. The idea is that such places will provide inspiration for writing, and as usual with the many of my courses in which land and sea feature as star players, inspiration is best provided, I believe, through immersion in the experience.
For me, creative inspiration is deeply intertwined with environmental awareness; and there is, though I don't mention it, a therapeutic benefit to simply being immersed in the natural world, on its terms. It changes the way we relate to the rest of nature.
We begin at Dartmoor's Merrivale, an early Bronze Age megalithic site on which I've blogged a number of times.
The good thing about this work is that it happens no matter what the weather. The bad thing about this work is similar.
Monday morning brought us the worst forecast in quite some time: serious southwesterly winds, gale force, and very heavy rain. Dartmoor can be dangerous in poor conditions. I feel a twinge of anxiety.
Leaving Totnes, there was some sun and just a drop or two of rain. I felt more optimistic; teenagers, especially coming from a town or city in a country in which this summer seriously high temperatures have been the norm, tend to come equipped with not much more than a T-shirt, despite my warnings, and the exposed site of Merrivale can be truly freezing, even in the summer, and especially when we're walking into a gale.
By the time I arrive at Princetown, though, any hopes I have of a more relenting weather system dissolve as all visibility goes and the shoulders of the granite tors are black under their blankets of fog. As the students pour out of the coach and into the little contained old school yard with its single one-time Christmas tree for my initial words I can see double disbelief: one at the content the sky is throwing at us, two at the notion that once, way back in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age the climate here was drier, sunnier, and suitable for growing crops.
We make it as far as the stone circle (above, believe it or not), before the teachers' resistance gives out, and we decide to leg it to the pub for a hot chocolate before heading up the prehistoric drovers' track to a wooded tor for more writing.
This is the photo I took of the menhir near the circle just as we left:
Yes, I couldn't make it out afterwards, either. I think it must be my hair. It WAS a gale force wind.
However, the pub, despite the declaration on its website, is closed and remains closed.
We decide to go back to the hostel where the group is staying so that they can dry out and we can actually do some writing; completely impossible on the moor today.
I'm amused by a notice in the loo at Bellever Hostel: 'Please don't put sanitary towels, nappies, gum, unpaid bills, unwanted underwear, your ex's favourite T-shirt, or your hopes and dreams down this toilet. Bins are provided.'
In the relative warmth, utter dryness and with the comfort of a cup of something hot, we write for a couple of fruitful hours, and to my amazement almost all the students say that they loved the morning.
Just as I leave the heart of the moor, the sun comes out.
One of the wonderful things about the work I do is that I love it. It's also, I think, unique. One of the difficult things is the latter: there simply is no one who can replace me if I go sick, and I can't go sick anyway because there is no income if I do, and in this case anyway the week is immovable and has been fixed for a year. These students have come over specifically to work with me in this way.
But I'm ill. I had to have a tooth out last week, and my whole body went into shock, so that I'm working – outdoors, in the rain – with a temperature, badly swollen glands and tonsils, and a headache. I badly need to be in bed.
The weather gods relent a little – quite a lot, in fact – on Tuesday, when we go to Branscombe. Almost all day there is sun, with just a passing cloud, though the sea shows how much storminess has churned at the base of the sandstone cliffs to our west, here on the Jurassic coast.
And the students love it.
The writing flows.
Except when it doesn't.
The students, shy at first and unsure that they really wanted to be here, in the wet British countryside, have really engaged with the work, and are keen to read it out too. We hear their final pieces in a small courtyard out of the wind.
Usually, we head off to one of the little 'garden rooms', as above, where I tell them the story of Tristan and Isolde, long associated with this place and the court of King Mark of Cornwall. This time we stay in the stone courtyard; the students, however, are so immersed in the story that they don't notice the passing tourists and have forgotten they're cold, and we are at least out of the wind. What's more, I remember all the details of the version of the tale I tell (not always the case).
One of the students, the noisy one who seemed the least engaged and interested in the work, the places and the writing, holds back until everyone else has said their goodbyes. Then she comes up to me quietly and tells me that she had arrived 'full of prejudice' about these days, but was leaving delighted to have written, to have experienced the days we have, and to have seen the sea for the first time in her life. I will never forget this, she says, and asks if she might give me a hug. I think we might both be crying, just a little.
And the sun comes out again as I drive home.
Friday, 11 September 2015
September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
It seems so long since I wrote a blog – or at least so much has happened since then, including returning to Devon, and welcoming back my daughter, who has spent the summer in the Outer Hebrides in her van, weaving and songwriting. (see www.theseisles.co)
My own life is still in some state of uncertainty – but then, uncertainty is the human condition, and actually it's an impossible task to try to protect ourselves from that.
I was thinking about this as I stood on the little (probably prehistoric) clapper bridge above, so like some of ours on Dartmoor, on my last full day in Brittany recently. (I shall return; I intend to lead one of my holistic writing retreats nearby next autumn.)
I love the symbolism of bridges; the way they span two land masses, connect things, people or states of being that seem disparate or disconnected. (Gaston Bachelard wrote an inspiring and erudite essay on bridges in the esoteric periodical Sphinx a few years ago; and my dad was a bridge builder of the literal sort.)
In the case of the clapper bridge, something ancient and relatively unchanging – granite – spans something forever changing and fluid (water). There are ways of resting in some sort of permanence even in our transience, a theme that, in relation to the notion of our 'ground of being', preoccupies me.
We need rites of passage in our lives. It's with some sense of poignancy that I arrive, being a September person, near a significant birthday, as they say, and prepare too to take a couple of months for deep retreat: I need to create a ritual for myself for my own sense of time passing, and to immerse myself in this; and I need solitary time out from my habitual life experience and its many demands to be with the grief of the many losses of the past few years, in order to honour those who have passed, and in order to give myself pause and creative renewal. This is my bridge between past self and present self.
And linear time is of course a human construct. It is perhaps not helpful to think of it, as Louis Macneice also observed, as a 'waterfall abstracted from a river'. We can stand in the river and experience how there is no beginning and no end; we can stand on the clapper bridge and observe how there is no beginning and no end. We can do both. Each day, in Devon, the dog and I stroll to the brook, and stand in it together. In Brittany, I often did something similar each morning. It's healing. It's also a way of staying in touch, for me, with the feminine principle.
Atlantic coast, wells & chapels
|Photo: B Grundbacher|
On the way back from a long empty beach we passed this holy well in a field adjoining a C15th chapel, which had stunning wooden carvings inside near the roof, to the left. B had the foresight to take a photo before the incumbent – if it was he – shooed us out as they were preparing for a concert.
The well had its back to us, but when we went round to the front it was somehow shocking to see that the statues (of two healer/doctor saints from the C4th) had both been decapitated, presumably during the French Reformation. This happened to so many of the statues in GB, too, of course.
As with most holy wells, I assume this one had its origins in the pre-Christian era.
The path of Dharma
Thinking about transience and spirituality (or religion in the case of the well and chapel above) brings me inevitably back to Buddhism.
Linking Buddhism, psychology and deep ecology for me has been a key to my own Dharma ('path' or 'way'). All three, alongside shamanic practice in the British tradition, inform my personal and professional life (for they cannot be separated)
I feel that what serves the C21st is a spirituality – that is, (for now, here, anyway), a quest for meaning and a sense of a more numinous, enduring and transpersonal consciousness than that provided by the isolated individual ego alone – that goes hand-in-hand with psychological insight and commitment to social and ecological justice.
It is not enough, it seems to me, to 'believe'; this can simply act as a consolation. How one lives one's life is more significant, in my view, than what one believes to be true.
Buddhism requires no belief. There is no revealed Godhead, no set of commandments to follow. The Buddha suggested simply that we might like to try out his ideas on the path of liberation ourselves.
Zen Buddhism, the branch that I have incorporated into my life since my teens, doesn't offer a set of theories about the world and/or an afterworld. It is a methodology rather than a religion. It suggests that freedom comes from cutting through all the belief systems and habitual patterns of thought that keep us bound in order to experience the clarity of the pure creative void, unadulterated by our needs and theories.
What matters, perhaps, is our own experience and how we relate to that, and from that to the world. Are we motivated to examine our thoughts, our actions, our deeds and what they add to the project of evolving human consciousness? Can our spirituality help us to live a more aware, kinder and more compassionate life? How can we minimise the harm we cause simply by being alive?
My wound, my healing, is bound up with all others' and the world's woundedness and healing. To the extent that I deal with my own shadow, my own woundedness, I give back a degree of healing to the world's woundedness. We can't separate the two, ultimately. And who isn't wounded, who doesn't suffer? – There is a great deal I want to write about this; much of which I have also already written (here and in my first book Riding the Dragon and in various essays), so enough, for now.
But from immersion in Buddhist practice and nature-wisdom traditions coupled with a study of psychology and its application comes, for me, a sense of profound interconnectedness to All That Is.
Dharma teacher Ken Jones
I have never followed a guru. I have, though, and have had, a number of teachers, human and other-than.
One of these is, or was, Ken Jones, founder of the Network of Engaged Buddhists whose humour and rigour brought many insights to many of us, all delivered with his characteristic dry Lancashire ex-Marxist wit.
NEB, alongside a bardic/druidic network, is the closest I've come to a Sangha, or spiritual community, solitary that I usually am.
What marks NEB out is its commitment to active and non-violent involvement in social and environmental justice. Engaged Buddhism is not a form of navel-gazing personal escapism; rather it's a commitment to the liberation of others as we work to liberate ourselves.
Ken died on 2nd August this year, and I have thought a great deal about him since. He was the same age as my dad, in his mid-80s, when he finally succumbed to the cancer that had been stalking him for years.
Always gaunt as he was, I remember how ill he looked the last time I took a retreat with him on Dartmoor. And yet his commitment to intensive meditation practice and his Dharma Talks on Buddhist Psychology never flagged. He was always the first onto his zafu, meditation cushion, in the early morning.
Two things in particular stay with me when I think about Ken. One was his habit of spending a few days alone on a regular basis in his tiny tent, well into his seventies and early eighties, on his beloved sacred mountain of Plynlimon, in Wales, staring, as he told it, his death in the face.
The other was a moment on the last retreat. We were all waiting for a meditation session to begin, and Ken was away for an awfully long time.
When he eventually returned, he grinned at us all sheepishly. 'Been waiting outside an empty loo,' he said. 'There you have the whole of the Dharma.'
Wednesday, 2 September 2015
Once, decades ago, a friend and I wild-camped in the Massif. It wasn’t until the next morning we realised that we’d pitched up within the ruins of an old monastery. We breakfasted on ripe figs from the little tree growing against a south-facing wall.
We drive through the volcanic lands of the Auvergne. I can’t pass through here without remembering ‘Songs of the Auvergne’, a vinyl record my mum bought me, way back before her Alzheimer’s, after I’d come back through the Auvergne from the Pyrenees as a young thing.
I’d hitched back with a record of Catalan protest songs that summer; sadly, the record didn’t survive being tucked into the back of my A-frame rucksack, where it fell prey to the heat of the in-cab lorry engine on which it had rested, and for all my attempts with hot water etc it remained as curved as a soup bowl.
Now, as we near the remote Cévennes mountains, especially on the last 100kms or so of dramatic switchback roads, something in me starts to lighten, to prepare to fly free once again. The hot southern light brings a clarity to the day, and the car is filled with the backdrop of cicadas, with an occasional intervention of wind-in-trees or river-over-rocks. The scent of hot pines drifts into the car.
We’ve passed three red kites, and what is probably a short-toed eagle is overhead as we begin the descent from the high limestone causses down through chestnut and holm oak towards St André de Valborgne (near which Robert Louis Stevenson would have passed with his poor overburdened little ass on his Travels with a Donkey, when these mountains would have seemed impossibly remote and probably still teeming with wild boar and wolf, not to mention the odd bandit).
I’m experiencing the usual mix of a kind of wild joy of anticipation coupled with the slight nervousness, or perhaps rather adrenalin rush, that accompanies my travel towards one of the weeklong courses I lead in Europe’s more remote places.
This is the third year of my writing retreats here in this remote sunny place where Sharon and Alex have created something beautiful.
I think of this week as ‘the mountain retreat’, the other end of the summer from ‘the island retreat’ which takes place on Iona in the Hebrides. From next year, I’m adding ‘the forest retreat’, in Brittany.
I always find it hard to describe the content of these weeks without sounding pretentious. Writing, of course, is prominent, and this week the 14 women (it happens) who share inner and outer lands here with me and each other will create a number of strong, beautiful and sometimes very moving pieces of prose and poetry. They will also create a potent and kind group dynamic. It’s a good mix of people who’ve been before, who know what to expect, and newcomers who will be initiated into the Gardoussel experience.
We write from imagination, from observation. Each afternoon, I lead a feedback/crit session.
And/but writing is also a kind of shamanic tool; a tool for deep exploration, for reflection, for discovery, for bringing back the pearl beyond price. This is soulwork, and I dare to call it that. Some – albeit unnamed – ‘soul retrieval’ is involved. We establish a community of enquiry.
Very early, a kind of almost magical deepening happens, and the group swiftly becomes a safe, supportive and bonding place. From New Zealand via Oman, America, Denmark, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Holland via England (and also from two miles down the road from me in Devon) women bring their trust to tell stories of old griefs and angers, vulnerabilities, sorrows and joys, hopes and desires, and especially their warmth and laughter to the process that unfolds.
We’ll sit in the dappled light of the Buddha Garden, or walk under the grape-slung arbour to the upstairs group room to dream, remember, imagine, write. We’ll walk barefoot in shared silence. We’ll laugh over wine after an intense day’s writing. We’ll sing and tell stories around the fire. We’ll share our work. One night, we’ll dance the Five Rhythms ‘Wave’ on the yoga deck down by the river under the stars and the nearly-full moon. In the afternoons, people will head off to the sun-warmed rocks and the waterfall pool, or a hammock.
Over and over we come back to this present moment. Gradually, something transformational happens. In this space we switch between outer and inner worlds: exploring, uncovering, enquiring, healing, deepening. And from the pens flow vivid expressions of different ways of seeing, being.
And it’s hot. In fact, too hot. The mid-30s is intense. For yes, I have the old dog with me, whose tail was amputated a bare two weeks before, and who has now succumbed, with perfect timing, to such severe d&v that I fear she may not pull through (not to mention my fear for the bedroom and group room – luckily she's far too well-mannered). Dear B, who drove me down from Brittany and back, allowed her smart car to be festooned with towels, rugs and Indian throws like a travellers’ vehicle in an attempt to keep the sun off Hairy Mutt – who by rights, at her age, shouldn’t still be with us, but has a strong bright gentle spirit that has pulled her through so much. We had the air conditioning at full blast; a luxury my old campervan, for all its roomy depths and good insulation against both cold and heat, couldn’t have offered.
The dog’s illness is a distraction for me, but the group is kind, she has much loving care, and she manages not to disrupt the sessions. I’m short on sleep, strained from too many personal traumatic events too close together, of which the dog’s are simply one slim current, and am glad my professional self is able to keep going when my personal self is flagging.
I’m so grateful for having learned this ‘balance of attention’ which, after so many years of Zen meditation and psychotherapeutic work, allows me to be (mostly) fully immersed in this present moment – the only one we have – whilst not denying the other realities alongside. It’s a tool worth possessing, and something I teach during such a week. It can make the whole difference between swimming and drowning.
But this is not (just) a serious week. I suspect that what most of us will take away is the memory of laughter, so much of it; some of it at sheer silliness like the jokes around the fire, one of which was about tarmac and cyclepaths and which I didn’t ‘get’ for hours, but laughed at anyway. And I’m still chuckling with delight at B’s ‘praying mantra’, by which of course she meant ‘praying mantis’ – the latter found one night in her bed.
And now, the end of the week has come, Dog has pulled through, and we are heading north again. The heat is still intense, the mountains and French countryside so beautiful, but something in me is elated, almost ecstatic, as we cross the Breton border into – le brouillard, fog; it lifts, and the clouds carry the threat, or promise, of rain. The land is wooded and lush. And then the Forest, and Dog and I stand in the pools of the little gold stream, and Dog is better and B has again been a hero with such a drive.
And here is the little cottage – my home, perhaps? – and later rain, yes rain, just like being back on Dartmoor.
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