© Roselle Angwin 2016
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, 31 August 2016
© Roselle Angwin 2016
Sunday, 21 August 2016
One of the best things about loving and being loved is that sense of belonging. Accompanying this is the sense of being seen, being affirmed for who one is. There is nothing like it.
But if we assume, as I do, that part of the 'purpose', the 'meaning', of life is to do with growth of consciousness, then sometimes the most loving thing another can do for us is to shake us up and out of our complacency, our habitual grooves. That doesn't mean it's fun; but it may be necessary.
Luckily, we don't need to try too hard to do this: if we're being honest with self and other and are trying to live with depth and intimacy, it'll be an inevitability in our personal relationships.
In my novel course I remind would-be novelists that no one (as far as I know) goes to a novel to read about contented characters who live lives in which nothing ever happens. Why would we? What we want is to see them pitted against something or other, whether that's in the outside world or in themselves; to see them face difficulty and come through; to see them change and survive the transitions. We want to see them grow and transform. We want to see how other people do it, this life business.
I was thinking again this morning about the challenges we meet in our relationships and how, as I've written elsewhere, our personal relationships, as one of the Jungians wrote, can be a fast-track to consciousness, if we let them teach us. (This doesn't, of course, have to be a primary relationship; it can be the case too with friendships, colleagues, family members.)
I am now in a happy and rewarding primary relationship. But it has been, and still is at times, bloody difficult; by which I mean I've had many 'opportunities' to look at myself and my unconscious habits and patterns.
This is not, I think, navel-gazing or egocentric (although of course it can be both those things). It's simply living 'an examined life' which aids psychological health and hygiene: in learning more about myself and how I react rather than respond to the world allows me choice, and bringing these things to consciousness allows me to grow and to judge others less harshly – at least in theory.
Jung said: 'We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.'
This kind of shadow-work is, I think, indispensable.
It's good to notice what gets us going in another person; what presses our buttons. According to the psychotherapeutic notion of projection, often what most annoys or irritates you, upsets you, makes you most threatened, insecure or angry, what you most dislike, hate or fear in another is possibly a mirror of that very same quality in yourself; just hidden below the level of consciousness.
Similarly with the positives: noticing the people to whom we're most strongly attracted (not necessarily sexually), or that which we most admire, envy, or project as a positive quality onto another tells us what positive attributes may be under- or undeveloped in ourselves; what positive qualities in our own being are hidden below the threshold of our conscious mind. Look at what people project onto celebrities (and noticing where these projections fall, personally and collectively, tells us quite a lot about our values).
So, while the world and our consciousness are of course much bigger than the merely personal, it's a positive step to allow the world also to be a mirror for us.
Here's a practice, if this might be your thing, and should you want to give this five minutes' attention, perhaps at the end of each day for a week: note down exactly what has got you going, pressed your buttons, positive or negative today – whether it was a personal encounter or something you read or witnessed. How might this offer you a mirror of what's going on in your inner world? Of what might need bringing forward, or acknowledging?
And if you're a writer: how might this enrich your writing?
Thursday, 18 August 2016
Please please please spread the word.
Wednesday, 17 August 2016
There has been so much in my imagination to write about that I've achieved zero writing lately; too much choice can be a tyranny, I've decided. Although I seem to be working hard (as usual) my energies have been a bit scattered.
One thing I have achieved though is a whole half-day where I put down my concerns for the world and simply enjoyed the sun, in the courtyard, with a book, with TM also reading beside me. This is a very rare event; partly because we've two acres, some of which is a big vegetable plot, to look after in our 'spare' time.
And at last the garden is producing, after a slow, cold sluggy start to the year. I'm so proud of my 4th generation squashes, rouge vif d'etampes, that you can see in this photo of the 2014 harvest – they're the huge orange ones. They do, however, run triffiding all over everything else.
I led a reflective writing workshop at my friend Carrie's in Cornwall a few days ago. As I arrived, Carrie came round the corner with a very small mallard duckling poking its head out of her top. It had been mauled by a cat, and she hadn't expected it to survive.
After some fairly intensive nursing on her part, including giving it swimming lessons several times a day (its right side seemed to be damaged, so it swam in circles, and couldn't walk upright), she's released it back with its family, and so far it's survived, albeit in its lopsided way.
I tell you this to share a small joy of something being right in the world.
Another small big rightness is that 14-year-old Lucy Gavaghan has been campaigning determinedly to get Tesco to stop stocking eggs from caged hens. Finally, they plus the other major supermarket chains have agreed (though it won't happen for a few years). Her current petition to take this further is to the Secretary of State for DEFRA, Andrea Leadsom.
A not-so-rightness is Ms Leadsom's stance on badger culling (go for it), and on foxhunting (repeal the ban). I walked the two mile loop round here this morning, dog-less (of which more in a minute – I'm only just now learning how to walk without a dog!). I know every single badger sett and its many entrances. I'm heartbroken to see my farming neighbour has blocked them all up with rammed earth and stone, beyond my ability to clear them alone.
There is so much ignorance and demonising of others in our world. And the trouble is some major Tory party supporters, deeply in favour of foxhunting and badger-culling, are landowners of huge tracts, which are either used for intensive animal farming/monocrops or 'cultivated' for eg grouse-shooting. With Brexit we are of course losing the EU subsidies, and while our own government has promised to continue subsidising landowners, guess who they're going to subsidise? Yes; and the smaller farms which contribute so much more effectively, on the whole, to biodiversity, and struggle to survive, will not receive subsidies.
They – the affluent landowners – and the pharmaceutical companies are responsible for so much trashing of the rest of the natural world. Yet another report has come out damning neonicotinoids for their effect on our pollinators; Big Pharma, of course, is disputing the conclusions reached in the new research. Grrr.
It feels like a transitional season. I know it's only August, but there's a whiff of that early-autumn – what is it? – plaintiveness? Yearning? Nostalgia for that which isn't yet passed? ('even in Kyoto / when I hear the cuckoo / I yearn for Kyoto' ~ Basho) Melancholy? Wistfulness? The heart-quality of slant light? Hiraeth? – that.
There's an early-morning rivermist, the first leaves are goldening, and the rowan berries are rouging up a treat against their mountain ash leaves. What a privilege to lie in bed first thing (which is a demanding 5.45am) and hear nothing but the brook, the rooks and jackdaws in their all-day flocking (which also feels autumnal) gathering, I imagine, gleanings from the barley harvest locally, and the pair of bullfinches in the buddleia beyond the window; watch the big slow heron flapping past.
And the creeper's leaves on the wall are turning red now.
The world is so beautiful exactly because of beauty's transience, don't you think? Some days everything cuts the heart. That's why poets write. We want to be cut like that; we don't want to be desensitised, detached, numbed or even content, no matter how much we protest at the pain.
And transience gives us so much trouble, too. I've spoken (frequently, doubtless) here of Buddhism's commentary on the human condition: how we are jerked from dwelling in equilibrium – our own and others' – by liking this, disliking that; craving this or pushing away that; not being at peace with simply how things are – which is transient.
I started formal meditation practice (which I've blended all my adult life with my own personal druidic/British Mystery Tradition path and training in psychotherapy) at 18, with a bunch of hardcore scary male Soto Zen Buddhist practitioners. Later, I saw how a certain kind of person, wishing to escape the world and its demanding relationships and messy emotionality, would be drawn to this use of meditation practice as a kind of evasion.
Since then, my own path has been to sink more deeply into this life, this world and its river of moments, while attempting not to get stuck in attachments that can only be transient, or evasions which tell us more about where our work needs to take place. Not to yield to being taken over by fear and anxiety; not to be toppled by wanting what is not mine to have. (As if we could 'have' anything into eternity.) It's a kind of bifocal thing: seeing through to the subtle realms without discarding this miraculous sensory world.
Time after time I'm tested on my acceptance of this, and time after time I fall through the holes in my own net into a pit of anxiety ('they' say there are three default negative states, and we all tend to succumb to one above the others when down: anger, depression and anxiety).
So my big stumbling block, my own issue, and no doubt many of us feel this, is how I get stuck in my fear for or of another's suffering; my inability to assuage it, and also fear of the loss to me of that other.
If you've been reading my blog over a little while you'll know of my deep love for and attachment to the beautiful hound, She Who Wears Her Grey Matter On The Outside (TM's moniker), Ash, who shares my life and is also my 'spirit animal', daemon. (Non-dog-people alert: the rest of this might bore the pants – I use that noun advisedly – off you.)
She's already had 50% more (average) lifespan than her breed, the deerhound type, is supposed to have. We've been lucky; her strong bright spirit has pulled her through so much. But since 2011 she's had so many crises. As my mum was dying, I was also tending Ash after her jaw and one eye simply collapsed; stopped working.
Then she had a potentially-critical reaction to an anaesthetic after she had an op to remove a fist-sized lump from her back.
Last year, she had to have another op to amputate her tail, when a second massive lump burst.
Not long after that, she accompanied me and my friend B down through France to the south for a course I was leading in the Cévennes, where she succumbed to heatstroke after a very long journey, poor animal, and I have fairly awful memories of tearing out of my room in the middle of the night, every night, sometimes several times, without a torch or shoes to rush behind her up a narrow rocky path with a chasm on one side in order to prevent messy diarrhoea being distributed around the grounds in which we were working.
The latest has been copious blood, frightening dark-red thick blood, instead of pee (hope you're not squeamish about such details). For several weeks, she's been losing blood at an alarming rate, and has been very agitated – of course – barking and waking us all several times a night. (Good news coming! – hang on.)
I have been sure that this time it would be it; and either I'd need to make a decision now, or leave a decision to my daughter and partner for the three weeks I shall be away, again in the Cévennes, from Monday next. (No, she's definitely not coming.)
She'd been on prescription canine painkillers for her back pain, rather against my instincts, as I tend to only use herbs for us all, but I was convinced that that level of pain wasn't OK. When she'd seemed to worsen, I upped the dose in discussion with the vet; she'd worsen again, and so on.
My lovely vet, who has given advice and help way beyond both the dutiful and her fees, all this time, and who supports my natural approach mostly, suggested that it might in fact indeed be a reaction to the medication, so we stopped it to see (some dogs don't do well on some drugs).
Ash was almost immediately significantly better both in herself and in her physical symptoms (such as temperature and very rapid breathing), AND she stopped barking at night; but was still bleeding heavily right up until late last night – when her other symptoms all returned. I have been thinking 'I've poisoned my dog. I've poisoned my dog.'
Overnight, sleepless (again), I prepared myself for what seemed the inevitable; gave self pep-talks about non-attachment and transience; remembered what a great nearly-13 years we'd had together.
During the day yesterday, in a last-ditch attempt, I reminded self that I do know about herbal medicine, and remembered the power of plantain and marigold, both of which grow freely in the garden, as soothers and healers; plantain particularly as an anti-haemorrhage herb, and especially good for kidney and bladder problems; marigold also as an anti-infective. So she had the fresh chopped herbs at every opportunity through the day in a variety of forms and mediums.
Plus I gave her the first of a course of the strong antibiotics my vet had left me with, just in case.
Braced myself this morning.
I don't remember any time in my life when I've imagined wanting to 'dance and sing and praise the Lord and Lady of creation' (who am I misquoting?) for – 100% clear urine. 100%. Not a trace of blood.
Who knows what did it – 1 dose of anti-bs, herbs, distant healing from my prayerful lay Franciscan sister, or simply Ash's own clear strength and my firm loving attachment (and hers to me), but – I didn't know I could weep such tears of joy at clear pee.
Give me transience, but just not yet.
Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Well, since I came back from all that silence and solitude and writing time in the Forest I've stepped into an accelerator machine – it's been frantic, with courses to design, prep, advertise and lead, admin to do, the veg, bee and herb gardens at their peak and needing a lot of time, two elderly and slightly senile animals taking up many hours of care, and a full household with much bread to make to keep us all going.
Then there's political stuff, with Green, Progressive Alliance and Labour Party/Momentum meetings to try and make sense of the mess that is Britain right now (and as for the climate change fiasco: see here).
In between, I've been redrafting The Book, which is itself a ragbag needing much sorting, untangling and stitching back together.
So today's is a ragbag blog that is basically a brief summary of 4 books I've read recently (in addition to the ongoing pile of non-fiction that doesn't seem to diminish). I feel embarrassed about giving you Amazon links, but at least you can read the blurb and any reviews and then order the books elsewhere!
Oh and I'm going to be opportunistic and ask whether, if you've read any of my books, you might write a short review on Amazon – it makes a massive difference to sales, and given that most authors earn a pittance from their booksales that's very welcome indeed. Indeed.
The first is At Hawthorn Time, by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury). Set over the course of one month, a May, this subtle novel unfolds with the life-stories of the protagonists spooling out against lyrical and exquisitely-observed detail of the natural world and its cycles of change. Harrison knows her plants, and a brief litany-like list of plants and weather heads each chapter. (Pay attention to these, as they offer symbolic insights into the phase of the story.) Some reviews complain that 'nothing happens', which is not true; but the plot is slow and the inexorability of the collision of four lives very subtly handled. The ending shifts the narrative into something else; it made me want to go back and read it all again.
The next is a beautiful thing: Hidden Landscapes of the South West Coast Path (Halsgrove), in full colour (the photographs are atmospheric). The author, Ruth Luckhurst, was the recent official writer of the guides to 500+ circular walks on the 630 miles of the SWCP commissioned by the South West Coast Path association. In the writing of these, she of course walked many hundreds of extra miles. This hardback book scoops up all the detail that Luckhurst had to leave out, and her passion for her subject enlivens the book's detailing of the prehistory, history, social history, natural history, geology and legends that have shaped this long distance walk from Minehead to Poole around the edges of the land in Cornwall. If, like me, you are an aficionado of the coastal walks of the Westcountry, this one's a keeper. (I have, however, to declare an extra interest in that the author is my sister.)
My fascination for all things Camino, as well as for the therapeutic values of walking in general, and my acquaintance with Victoria Field and her writing meant that I was awaiting the publication of Field's latest book, Baggage – A Book Of Leavings (Francis Boutle) with enthusiasm. Field's straightforward and intimate style is such that you are drawn into the story immediately, and it is one of those books that led me to feel bereft at its closing. What she's achieved with this book, which details her walk over the last section of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, is a perfect intermeshing of the sensory and inner-journey aspects of such a walk with the outer experience of people and places met and then left behind; but more, with the unravelling of her marriage to an older and well-known author. The book reads as a much bigger journey than what was, in fact, for her less than two weeks on the track. Her own sense of spirituality soaks the pages but is never offputting, and because she's a poet she describes even little things with such attention that you are there with her.
Jill Paton-Walsh was one of my favourite writers of pony books when I was a child. When she wrote Knowledge of Angels, she couldn't initially find a publisher for it, perhaps because she had made her name as a children's author. Then she self-published, and was shortlisted for the Booker (disheartened novelists out there take note), and picked up by Black Swan. I've had the book on my shelves unread for many years. I can't think why I hadn't ever read it before: perhaps the first page didn't engage me and I judged it on that day and a small dose of ADHD on my part I guess. I've recently finished it and – wow. What a coup. It's a beautifully-conceived novel of ideas. Set in the Middle Ages on a fictional Mediterranean island, it revolves around a good plotline, and a central philosophical debate which, in the end, because of dogma, faith and doubt, and good men with flawed beliefs simply being human, will involve the Inquisition and tragedy. I was completely absorbed in it. I shan't tell you the story, except that it is two storylines that come together: that of a wolfchild and a castaway. This one will stay with me.
Meantime, if you are a novelist, whether novice or experienced, and need a bit of a shove, I'm offering a non-residential Novelists' Bootcamp weekend of intensive work-in-progress critical feedback in Devon in October, based on a course I've been leading since 1998 (The Guardian gave the first course a whole-page feature, and Robert Hale commissioned the book of it). The course is limited to six places, of which two are taken.
Monday, 1 August 2016
As the song tells us, John Barleycorn must die today, Lughnasadh. We're exactly midway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox, and it's the time of the first harvest. As TM and I strolled – actually TM never strolls, so I should say 'strode' – through the sunny lanes with their views across to Dartmoor the first combine harvesters were indeed shearing the barley at the top of the hill, so I took a handful from the spill slewed across the tarmac for our fire celebration yesterday evening.
This time last year I thought TM's and my relationship was done, but – like John Barleycorn – it rose again, and stronger.
So we had our fire ceremony, with fine food – the first significant harvest – from our vegetable plot. And I cast the handful of grain into the fire as a libation to the fire god Llew, or Lugh, and in the knowledge that phoenixes rise from the ashes of the old.
Here's a reblog of my Lughnasadh poem from 2012:
On the hill, the barley is dancing.
Heart, make your first harvest:
extend your arms like rays of the sun
to gather in all whom you love
and all too who feel themselves unloved:
the broken, the lost, the abused –
shadow-dancers all. Gather them in –
give them all bread. Give them
cause for laughter, for love.
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