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

Thursday, 12 May 2016

blackbirds, adrenalin and writing workshops

4.45 am. My current waking time. Much earlier than I want, or need. Consolation: the blackbird belting out its joyousness (or joyousness to my ear) from the nearby buddleia for the next two or three hours, by which time of course I'm long up, and encouraging the old dog to come up into our orchard. I open up the greenhouse with its Jack and the Beanstalk bumper crop of speedy seedlings of the tasty and prolific pea-bean which fills our winter freezer with its crop of protein. Last year, the big old Bramley apple tree over the hedge, the blackbird's habitual singing-post, was toppled by storms; I miss picturing the blackbird in such a fine tree, thread to Avalon (which comes from the Brythonic Celtic word for 'apple').

Each morning and evening a couple of wild geese, Canada geese, fly over; close enough for me to hear that their deep honks are actually three-tone notes at intervals – is this correct technically? – of fifths. That's even more pleasing.

And we're perched right on that cusp of near-springness, just before everything has unfolded into fullness. How can I not love this threshold moment, this breath-held time of year?

Every year two swallows check out the courtyard and the barn. TM converted the barn 16 or so years ago. For us, that's fortunate. For the swallows, perhaps not so: I can't help imagining that these are descendants of descendants of descendants who nested in its rafters every year for perhaps decades, and the race memory, encoded in their DNA, brings them fruitlessly back to where they can no longer nest. We've installed swallow and house martin clay cups specifically made for these hirundines tucked deep into the roof of the open-fronted woodstore, but so far all they've garnered is a good crop of spiders.

I'm rejoicing at the fact that the trackpad on my Mac is working again. For the last few weeks working on the laptop has been a very hit-and-miss affair, and at times neither the trackpad nor the mouse have allowed me any kind of access into all my work. Tie this in with an almost-non-existent internet access – it's half a megabyte on a good day, and the last few months a great deal less than that – and a downhill decline of both the day I got back, and much of the last week has been a blur of simply trying to open up documents or get online, often fruitlessly, while falling badly behind with work commitments such as mentoring, prepping imminent workshops (see below), and publicising the summer programme.

This is the price of living in the sticks. We're at the end of the line, as BT keep telling us. My daughter, who's been here with us for part of the winter running her weaving business out of her van, walked past a couple of BT engineers installing new fibre optics a few months ago about half a mile from us. 'We're giving you high-speed broadband,' one of them smiled to her. 'You mean broadband?' she responded, but the irony was lost. Oh and surprise: the superfast broadband didn't reach us.

My leaving for Iona, and the amazing experience of being in the islands for three weeks and working with a couple of dozen lovely creatives over two of them was subject to a last-minute high-stress situation. Not only was my ancient dog ill again, off her food and with severe diarrhoea (she barely ate in four weeks, though undoubtedly did better overall staying here with my partner and my daughter and her dog than she would have done with the trip north – not the best way for her to occupy an hotel room up there while I was working, either) but the head gasket had gone on my campervan, essential to part of the time away, and I woke up the day before I was due to drive north with a severe case of labyrinthitis, the third in four months. There was no way I could even lift my head from the pillow, let alone think of driving 600 miles. So I changed my plans and caught a train early the next day, and, usefully, didn't vomit nor lose my balance and fall backwards down the escalator with my heavy rucksack and kitbag. And felt better after 48 hours.

So Iona was sandwiched between two high-stress situations.

And now, back, three of the stress-inducing situations are behind me. I had three single-day workshops to lead in a period of five days. I love this work; find it enriching, stimulating and rewarding. But when I can't get onto my computer to access handouts and sort out the preparation, let alone collect emails in relation to the courses, it's a different matter.

The workshops themselves make me feel like I'm flying.

I remember the very first time I stood up before an 'audience' of workshop participants to offer my first-ever workshop, booked by a visionary Adult Education programmer. This was a course named 'Personal Mythology: myth as metaphor', in which we explored the power of the myths to which we were individually emotionally most drawn, and how they might have shaped our lives and beliefs. It was 1991 and I was fresh from my psychotherapeutic training and brought the passion and zeal of the newly-converted to my newly-created set of workshops (this formed the basis of my book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner Journey, which was commissioned as a result of the editor seeing a flier for this workshop). 

It was a peak experience for me, and I have never forgotten the hit of conviction that this, this, was what I was born to do that flooded my whole being with a shot of blissed-out adrenalin-like endorphins.

And, 25 years on, I still have this feeling as I begin a workshop. I consider myself truly fortunate, blessed, to do work that fills me with joy and is in its way a small contribution, I hope, to good, focusing on freeing the imagination to bring the power it has to transform lives and enhance compassion.

This past week I've led three different workshops. One, here at home in my garden study by the greening courtyard, buzzards wheeling above, on the cusp of spring, was the monthly continuation of the work I've been doing with a number of poets in a closed group that goes back almost as far as that early myth workshop. Writing, here, is depth exploration, soulwork, creative mining and intimacy of the finest kind as we focus on pulling the 'best words in the best order' out of the darkness of our subconscious. In so many ways we each, in this group, know aspects of the others that almost no one else will, and the poetry seems to deepen with each session.

Two days later I drove up onto the moor, over the Dart and into the heartlands where blackthorn blossom, chrome-yellow gorse flowers and acid green beech leaves frame distances, coloured in with hazy drifts of pale lilac on some hillsides – the arrival of the moorland bluebells. 

This workshop I'd named 'Presence: haiku, haibun and englynion'. There's a different focus in a poetry workshop where you are using a particular form as a container for language, and given that haiku and haibun are, for me, inextricably linked with Zen ideas on present-moment dwelling, the paradox of transience and its beauty when backgrounded with notions of permanence or ceaselessness, and a continuous and intentional awareness of the interaction between inner and outer geographies. This invites a different kind of depth: a stillness, a waiting for some lines to arise from empty fullness.

I realised straight away that the englyn, the early Celtic bardic form, didn't really fit with the Zen spirit of the day, and besides needs a workshop to itself. Still, it too emerged in a small way from the echoes left hanging in the air from my lovely deep-throated Tibetan singing bowl (which – big mistake – I'd neglected to take to Iona, where it was sorely missed).

Would you like a haiku/haibun lesson on here? 

Then yesterday I had the pleasure of driving into Cornwall, my homeland. I facilitate on an occasional basis a group of writers who have mixed literary interests: some are writing novels; some enjoy short fiction and general creative writing; some like poetry, some don't; some are interested in the therapeutic aspects of journalling, something I've taught a lot in the past.

My heart rises as I drive parallel with the Tamar over towards Boscastle, then turn left towards Port Isaac and the sea. The group meets in each others' houses, and this time H, who makes the best cookies in the world unfortunately for my half-hearted weight-loss regime, is hosting us in her lovely glass-rich upstairs room at the farmhouse – which she assures me has wonderful sea views. Trouble is we are deep in fog, all day. Never mind. 

Working with this group, too, is a joy. I'd cooked up a concoction of exercises that might, I hoped, appeal to everyone, with the possibility of their taking aspects into their own personal creative direction.

I like this mix: freeflow writing, reflective practice, making fiction ('You find a half-written letter. Write it and its missing half') and therapeutic writing ('Write that letter you needed to write to a particular person and never did; you probably won't send it.') Some of the results – delivered with laughter and tears and met with knowing and sympathetic nods – will find their way into books now.

And as a bonus, I was able to write That Letter myself; and very freeing it was too.


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