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

Sunday, 27 December 2015

the passage

In our current society, the period between Christmas and New Year can be a bit of a nomansland. If we're lucky, we spend the time with people we love, get some time to rest and relax, do fulfilling things we don't easily find time for otherwise. 

And maybe we also finish up the Christmas cake, determine to swear off alcohol (at least till New Year), vow we'll lose weight, spend Christmas vouchers, hope to find a bargain in the shops, or go back to work for a few days between what have routinely become two consumerfests.

For many people, there's still the sneaking sense that despite all the busyness there's been an absence of meaning

What's missing – unless, of course, you're a practising Christian – is a sense of a rite of passage.

I wonder if this sense of lack is also partly connected with the fact that our current calendar appears to have nothing to do with macrocosmic cycles and genuinely significant dates? In the old pagan Celtic calendar the turning points of the year – the quarter dates of solstice and equinox, and the cross-quarter dates exactly halfway between each 'station' of the sun – made sense by recognising the earth's attunement to the greater movements of the heavens, and bringing human celebrations into harmony with this.

It's also true, of course, that Christmas with the birth of its god just four days after the midwinter solstice with the birth of its god as we move from the nadir of darkness back towards the light reflects (more or less) those greater cycles, but New Year is in effect completely arbitrary as a date. Those of us who follow the Old Ways have already had our new year, at Samhain, October 31/November 1.

If we can take the time out, however, we can make this week into a passage through meaning too.

Just as the shedding of leaves in the forest means that the architecture of wood and tree is once again visible, I find that once we have passed the solstice/Christmas Day, I can achieve a greater sense of perspective on my life, and the more significant personal patterns of the solar year just gone can become more apparent. (As of course the greater political/collective patterns can also be brought into relief, from the comparative 'distance' of the other side of Christmas.) From this point of view, dividing the year up into 'before' and 'after' makes some sense.

The practice of scanning the year just gone is invaluable, but requires time out for introspection and solitude, and a willingness not only to try and remember and note the details of the months just past, but also a willingness to explore our part in the pattern of our lives.

I like to take this time out with a brief meditation, a notebook and pen (not a keyboard), a candle, incense, some greenery and maybe some quiet music. I like to include on the table or shrine before me some water, a pebble or pine cone and a feather, to add the other three elements to the candle's fire.

I might also note down some intentions for the new year, and spend a little time determining what I need to let go of. Before and after I might take a brief and silent walk. This is my way of marking ritual space.

This done, I have more clarity as we come up to that entirely arbitrary date of 31 December, and a greater chance of determining the kind of year I am soon to enter. 

If I let my mind relapse into this kind of quiet focus in between social times and activity during the period between 25 and 31 December, I feel as if I've completed a small rite of passage. That has to be more satisfying than rushing off to the sales; at least, to me.


There's an opportunity to experience this rite-of-passage in a warm and supportive group early in 2016, if you'd like. Every year for something close to 20 years now I've led 'THRESHOLDS – this wild and precious life', a day for focus, reflection and exploration in relation to what's past and what we'd like to invite into our lives in the coming year. In 2016, the day workshop is near Totnes on Saturday 30 January.

This day is a self-contained part of my 'IMBOLC – the inward flame' retreat weekend, held to celebrate the cracking open of the earth for the first shoots of new growth and what that means for our lives at this potent 'fire festival' date in the Celtic calendar.

There are places available on both the day course and the whole weekend at present.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

a belated midwinter solstice poem (2015)

Midwinter Solstice 2015

The old god has gone down in the forest
the birch trunks of his legs
his antlered canopy
the greenwood resounds ragged
to the rasp of his breath breaking.

We shut up the hounds of the Wild Hunt
bake the bread and cakes for the funeral
keen as the forest returns only our loss
to us. The earth’s midwinter standstill
brings just this great crashing hush

where we quiver at our midwinter hearths
stir old ashes with colder fingers
make our long vigil at the long nights’ side
then the third dawn three geese fly east
and the first shout rises –

He is come! He is come!
and even in our mourning we allow ourselves
to see the first faint glimmer –
hope sparking the waymarker stone
at the edge of the wood

even in our grief we cannot resist
the pull of the east, first light, birth –
year after year blinded
by the shock of the new
the return of what we thought lost.

© Roselle Angwin 2015

Thursday, 17 December 2015

stories from the villages of the world on market day

I'm gearing up to leave Brittany; arm nearly healed, 30,000 words written, and now a severe case of labyrinthitis. As I pack up, today's blog is from my daughter who's been here with me, in her home-come-weaving-studio van which is travelling the 'Celtic crescent' for inspiration and wildness.
Once upon a time – in fact, twice upon a time – I made my living with my hands. (Long story.) Now she's doing that, with much passion; and today she's talking about a topic which, for many people, is deep-snooze-material: 'marketing'. Not a word that crosses either her or my lips very often. But read on – it's more interesting than you might think...

‘Marketing’. Possibly the least sexy word in the world, or so I’ve always thought. But ‘market’ on the other hand: hustle, bustle, banter, barter; great smells, bright colours, good food; local people, local produce, universal concerns; growers, makers, merchants and buskers, sharing stories, jokes, grudges, favours, rain.
I don’t sell in physical markets much any more, after little financial success in them with my old dressmaking business, but I natter animatedly online with both customers and weavers afar as we bounce design ideas off each other, and glean snippets about each others’ loves, families and work. The communicative ones feel like new friends and colleagues.
I’m getting clever on Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade where I sell my wares. Growing out of the child-in-the-sweetshop who makes ‘treasuries’ of pretty things she likes, I’m starting to be strategic, network (uurgh) in a focussed way. I make a treasury of handmade shawl pins to show to my customers, and invite the jewellers to also display my weavings to show off both our complementary wares. I make a collection of other people’s beautiful scarves to remind my ‘followers’ that they need one with this new cold, and as I do it I admire their photography, am inspired, and learn. I make a ‘Rugged’ collection of landscape photography, ceramic and metalwork to show the backdrop of the creativity of so many of us. I make a steampunky ‘Castleweartreasury, to give shape and context in both mine and my potential customers’ eyes to my posher range of weavings. How can I improve them? What might you wear with them, and where, and how might you feel, and what do your dreams look like?
Gudrun Sjoeden is an enchantress at this: a leaf through a catalogue of hers is like a trip with an artist to Mongolia, Moscow or Madagascar. Never mind the artefact: it’s the story that counts.
I strike up a virtual conversation with a kiltpin maker, Alastair, of Callum Kilts Jewellery. I admire his and his father’s unaffected Scottish and Pictish designs – so often twee, but here, not. Their modest online shop reminds me that whilst the first thing to attract me to Scotland is a glamourised and romanticised view of their folk traditions, the thing that keeps me compelled is the humble and austere reality of them. A brief late-night chat about austerity with Julie Fowlis (‘only’ the fiftieth most influential woman of Scotland) has stayed with me all year as I’ve enjoyed the bleak Lewisian levels and barren scree; the clutters of kit-built bungalows that flank abandoned crofts; and old folk singing old songs in ugly pubs and community rooms in the Western Isles and the Westcountry.
Here in Brittany in an ugly community hall in a run-down village, some lively local women and three bands, including Soïg Serberil, ‘the best folk guitarist in France’, and Nostrad, a fantastic traditional dance band from Brest, got me up on my feet learning some hypnotic Breton steps late last Saturday night.
Our good friends, a gardener and a folk musician/storyteller, make a weekly pilgrimage to the market. Sometimes they help the fishmonger arrange his coquilles de Saint Jacques. They know his story, and that of the wholefood shop man, and those of many others, I’m sure. Though they don’t eat meat, they know whose farm to send me to for free range, healthier creatures. They do their errands early, and, all done, meet every week at 1030 in the same bar for coffee with whoever else is also that civilised.
Meantime, in the best cafe in the best woods in Finisterre (‘basse Bretagne’, where they still speak Breton), the work of local artists, craftspeople, producers, foragers and musicians is showcased in weekly events and ongoing displays amid an eclectic collection of erudite left-wing literature – a little hub of resistance.
Back online, I have another conversation with a Canadian jeweller, Amy Newsomwho, after a very good season, offers to send me three lovely silver and copper shawl pinsshe’s made in exchange for photos of them with my weavings that she can use on her upcoming website. I am taken aback and delighted by the generous spirit that makes so much business sense for us both. Maybe I will weave some little samples to offer to jewellers to display their pins on, until I can afford to make larger pieces of cloth or even give away whole shawls.
The kiltpin maker says he may open a shop and would happily stock my wares too. We natter and laugh about minority politics, and another Scotsman’s words return to me as I recall Dick Gaughan in concert addressing the referendum issue. ‘England stands to lose a very grudging tenant and gain a very good friend’. I know what that feels like.
And so ‘marketing’, when one puts one’s cards on the table and grins, can be collegiate, and even friendmaking (the specifics of England/Scotland economic relations are beyond my sphere of knowledge, so back to my little story for now). I am no window-shopper – or even much of a shopper. Etsy ‘treasuries’ could be a marketing gimmick, a cynical hard-sell, but they call the treasurers ‘curators’. As someone who scribbled all over her history exercise books at school and fainted with boredom in airless museums, I am starting to understand the intrigue of history and anthropology and the excitement of archivists and collectors. I am gestating more authentic treasuries: ‘A History of the World in 12 Objects: real Scottish Islands’, or deepest Brittany, or highest Dartmoor, and looking forward to my next encounter with my insightful archeologist and museum curator friend, Nicola.
Who knows what doors will open. Funny, the many faces of Capitalism.

See Eloïse's work here.

Friday, 11 December 2015

woods in winter

You may have noticed my blog posts are a little thin on the ground, as the leaves are against the sky. Three reasons: one, it's hard work doing anything much with my left hand alone, and I'm using my newly-liberated right arm as much as I can already. 

More significantly, I'm very immersed in writing the new book which is mostly about here, the stories of the land, and being here ('here' still being Huelgoat in Brittany). And I'm also planning my next year's programme of courses and retreats (the two websites are nearly though not quite updated: here and here).

Also we ('we' being my daughter and myself) have been gallivanting: Breton music and dance events, excursions with friends, lectures and exhibitions in a wonderful venue I'll write more of anon.

TM has earned himself a big brownie point for wanting to come to fetch me back to Devon for Christmas (I still can't drive and the campervan is heavy on the steering), so my time here is coming to an end.

Look what clambered over the threshold into the (dirty – using the excuse of a useless arm) porch the other night, late:

I love salamanders. I remember how they used to appear en masse in the Pyrenees on woodland paths after the lightning flash-storms that occur in summer. They're supposed to be both born from fire and able to survive fire – a motif I use in my first novel, Imago, partially set in the Languedoc.

It's a joy as always to walk in the woods: almost trance-inducing, and as always some of my best creative ideas emerge here.

Each season has its own quality, of course, and in this subtle season (so far) with its mild weather, and after the leaf-fall, the architecture allows the differing limb-shapes of beech, birch, oak and chestnut to show themselves, and the rocks to rise up into our consciousness, as it were; reclining at the sides of paths like great hibernating animals from another age:

So many paths.

Below is a poor photo of the large and intricate 'Grotte d'Artus', Arthur's Cave. 

Looking for the stories behind the stories in this forest, I'm excited to be uncovering deeper layers of 'truth' in the many myths and legends (more on this in the book I'm writing).

And this little pool with its perfect combination of water, tree and rock is as beautiful in winter as any other time.

It will be hard to leave.

Monday, 7 December 2015

guest blog: Victoria Field on pilgrimage

I'm pleased that friend and colleague Victoria Field has agreed to writing a guest blog for me. Victoria's also a sometime participant on my Iona and Gardoussel writing retreats, both of which have a quality of pilgrimage to them (Iona more overtly). Thank you, Victoria.


Pilgrimage is a bit of a buzz word at the moment.  I live in Canterbury, a World Heritage Site where there is a constant flow of people passing through and, for a few hours a week, I volunteer at the Cathedral, answering questions and sometimes acting as a sounding board. Some visitors are traditional pilgrims – they carry rucksacks and are walking from Winchester, or to Paris, or even to Rome or Santiago.  But what of those who come on buses, in their own cars or simply wander in during their lunch hours?  If we take pilgrimage in the sense of any significant journey, then they too are pilgrims.

The NAWE conference in Durham this November was a pilgrimage for me. I’d never been to Durham before and have always wanted to see the Shrine of St Cuthbert, having visited Lindisfarne and his tiny cell on Inner Farne. The Farne Islands are famous for their vibrant bird populations, so that visiting requires vigilance above and below – to avoid treading on puffins and being dive-bombed by Arctic terns. In contrast to Canterbury’s Thomas, with his political nouse and legalistic concerns, Cuthbert is close to nature, the elements and non-human creatures. His cold feet were warmed by ‘sea otters’, an eagle brought him fish, a horse found him a loaf of bread found hidden in a barn. Like Francis, Cuthbert had an affinity with birds, especially eider ducks, known in Northumberland as Cuddy ducks, after the saint.

NAWE is the National Association of Writers in Education and the conference, the first I’d been to for a decade, attracted people from Australia, Europe and the States as well as all over the UK.  Like Chaucer’s medievals, we exchanged stories, slept in unfamiliar beds, broke bread together and then went our separate ways, somehow changed by the journey and its encounters. The conference coincided with the Lumiere Festival so the city was en fete, closed to traffic and its major buildings, squares and even the river, lit up in ways that inspired wonder and awe.

I love conferences and choose sessions by instinct as it’s impossible to know from the descriptions where connections might be made, what’s going to be alive and what not.  I attended workshops and presentations on performance and dreaming, boundaries and theatre, voice and work in art galleries, all of which were nourishing and heartening. My own slot was shared with Caroline Carver’s work on poetry in the Marine Institute in Plymouth where the fact that a whale heart is the size of a mini has stayed with me. I talked about my residency in Blean woods and afterwards attended a wonderful session on the imagery of birds, led by Robyn Bolam, Joan McGavin and Rebecca Smith.

In my own session, we made group poems using post-its, which later fell from the windows onto the carpet like autumn leaves.  We explored the grief of extinction by bearing witness to the nature words now missing from the Oxford Dictionary for Children, and listened to the spring song of a nightingale in a Kent woodland, now in peril because of drought in Africa.  As in all the sessions, we used language to make connections.

On a pilgrimage, at a conference and in writing, it seems everything can stand for everything else, the detail for the whole, the moment for a lifetime.  On the Saturday morning, we learned of the bombings in Paris.  Inner and outer. Our selves as individuals and as members of a world community. Our planet in peril.  The wonder of it all.

Here is a poem on that theme by the Swedish Nobel Laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly:

Victoria Field works as a writer and poetry therapist. Her memoir on pilgrimage and marriage, Baggage: A Book of Leavings will be published by Francis Boutle in 2016.

She is co-teaching a new online course Introduction to Therapeutic and Reflective Writing for the Professional Writing Academy beginning in January 2016.

Further details on 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

heroics & Syria

Today's debate in the Commons feels like a big one. Although I stand with Corbyn (as, it appears, does a very high percentage of the British public), I've been interested to listen at some length to all the considerations put forward by different politicians and commentators. I don't think this is a clearcut issue, and there is no 'right' answer.

Of course we need a concerted effort against ISL. I just believe we should at the very least be genuinely seeking multi-nation political and diplomatic solutions, and be looking immediately for ways to check the flow of arms, money, and oil revenue towards ISL (not to mention addressing as a matter of urgency the radicalisation of young people).

Is there such a thing as a just war? If so, what are the criteria, and who decides which situation fits?

I can't imagine how the current proposal can do anything other than provoke even worse situations, and the number of civilian casualties is bound to be grotesque, given ISL's embedding within towns and cities.

Does anyone really believe that such an intervention will result in jihadists saying 'OK then, you win', and walk away into subdued lives of quiet desperation?

And after the bombing – what then?

And why is nobody incorporating the perspective put forward here?

Mostly, the discussions between opposing factions of parliament have been civil and reasonable. Cameron's exhortations to MPs to come over to the dark side, though, hit a very different note when he resorted to calling Labour members 'terrorist sympathisers'. Suddenly this looks like comic-book politics, though there's nothing either funny, trivial or light about what's at stake.

What I mean is it's suddenly a case of the 'blood being up', as they say, along with the testosterone levels: Cameron wants, or at least has tunnel-vision vis à vis war, and bombing, and what was a perfectly well-argued case seems to have morphed, or rather degenerated, into Boys' Own heroics and name-calling.

Mr Cameron, you may just have done yourself a big disfavour. Let's hope.

Gandhi's words about an eye for an eye being a terrible way to blind the world are as relevant to the bigger picture, of course, as ever.

George Monbiot is, as always, a passionate and intelligent voice on this:

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