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, 27 October 2016

ragbag: spiders, samhain, burnout, our poor world, fallow times & writing tips

It's my deceased dad's birthday today. Two years ago we celebrated it in hospital, with my dad hooked up to various machines but – I've a photo, which I've marked 'Sharpshooter Angwin' for my sisters to whom I sent it – wearing my black fedora at an angle, rakishly, with his dressing gown, and those Scorpio eyes making it look like he'd never never give up; and still the old all-seeing sharp humorous quirk to his eyes and mouth. He never made it out, though.

October's the time of mists and spiders' webs, and in the valley this morning the mist backlit all the drapes and nets. One small spider had thrown itself across the path from gorse bush to gorse bush – a distance perhaps as far as across a Scottish loch to us.

We're coming up now for Samhain, the thin-veil time, and traditionally the beginning of the Celtic New Year. In our time, its power disregarded, it's Halloween; All Saints and All Souls, in the church. In Cornwall it's known as Calan Gwaf (Kalan Gwav, the 'first day of winter'), or Nos Calan Gwaf (eve of the first day of winter). Like all the Celtic festivals, the day begins the night before and takes place over the 24-hour cycle.

On top of a decade of exhaustion and stress with family problems and deaths, relentless work demands, personal crises, and the associated burnout, I've managed burnout again this year. My forty-year-long midlife crisis is having its own midlife crisis, I think.

The wise Oriah Mountain Dreamer once said that although she was good at estimating how much time a piece of work (eg a course) needed, she was bad at estimating the cost to her energy levels. I resonate very much with that.

I'm terrible at it. Truth is, I take on far more than I have energy for. I'm passionate about what I do, I'm buzzing with new ideas all the time, I love the work I do solo on my own writing and I love equally the time I spend with creative others, in groups. (Besides, and not least, self-employed in the arts all my life I've had to work all hours to make ends meet.)

I try now to bear in min Oriah's words. It's only very recently I've realised just how essential rest and downtime are, especially if you're overwhelmed by the world and its problems, as I definitely am.

I was really shocked to hear on the 6am news (what a way to start a day) that we've lost nearly 60% of our wild vertebrates since 1970. Yes. Big ones, too, like the African elephant whose population is down (from memory) by two-thirds in that time.

I think of the unaccounted-for or now homeless child refugees at Calais; I think of the bombing of schools in Syria (also on the news); I think of the bigoted idiots who, on learning that their area – eg my lifelong (nearly) home county of Devon – is going to host refugee children, say 'Send them home'. (And then I remember that their prejudice is outweighed by the care of others.)

I'd say that a mark of a civilised (in the good sense) culture is one that puts the welfare of its children, sick and elderly and, equally important, its fauna and flora, as top priorities.

Have I ever felt more helpless? We live in a culture that is dismantling its healthcare systems and welfare funding, doesn't seem to give a **** about its children, and wild animals don't even figure, seemingly - and I won't even start on intensive animal-farming and slaughter.

A disaster of a wasteland indeed - and all at our hands.

What to do? For me, keep on plugging away at the tiny things I can do: keep talking about it, keep leading courses that address our relationships with each other and the other-than-human...

Keep remembering to notice the candles that are lit, and to tend them.

And remember the importance of allowing replenishment.

As a writer and course leader, I've known for a long time that one cannot keep expecting to draw from the same small well and its water table without allowing it time to refill. No matter how fulfilling it is, it's draining, working constantly with the imagination, the feeling nature, the life of the psyche/the subconscious in addition to the intellect, whether it's one's own or others'.

The scarcity of these blogs is partly because my well is in the process of filling, and throwing up too many little silver fish for me to keep count of. Some of them – mixing my metaphors – will make it out to sea, and then arrive to spawn back in the hazelnut pool where I frequently land my biggest most exciting ideas, perhaps next year. I'm constantly reminding myself that I don't have to track every single minnow, each smolt; I need to let some swim on past me.

I remind my course participants, too, that there are cycles in these things, as in everything, and we all need to allow fallow time. If we're working in the creative fields, it's utterly vital to enable that process. It will happen anyway, so we might as well not be surprised, and turn our attention for a little while to other things: walking, gardening, music, art, friendships, reading, inspiring places and conversations all help.

The waters do tend to fill our wells back up, if we can simply wait. For me, strolling along by the brook in the valley each morning and evening with the dog is well-filling time. (And usually where my best ideas arrive: I had an insight yesterday morning that dropped a significant piece of the puzzle in place in my 45 years of exploring and studying the Grail myths; watch this space.) And I act it out literally: I always stand in the brook alongside the dog, letting the actual and symbolic qualities of water replenish the dry, over-cultivated parts.

Some things have come to the fore in my course programme this year, and I'd like to spend a few lines talking about them.

One is that I'm increasingly unwilling to separate out how we write from how we live; I mean the holistic and soulmaking aspects of my courses are more and more central and prevalent. (I make an exception to this with my Novelists' Bootcamp; but still the mythopoeic creeps in; and therefore, facets of our own life journeys.)

As always, I notice how courageous course participants are in signing up for weeks or weekends knowing that they will be challenged, and risking the kind of self-exposure that's needed to write deep. I notice, too, that I can be more and more overt about the eco-spiritual aspects of my work (see The Wild Ways) and, rather than scaring people off, it seems to make them hungry for more. I'm excited by new ideas, but am reining myself in a little as 2017 already has a very full course programme (

Other things, details of how to write, that I've been reminded of in the courses: 

POETS: the commonest mistakes are

  • too many fine-sounding abstractions (especially if they include words like 'infinity' or 'eternity'); 
  • too many adjectives; 
  • pedestrian verbs and an overload of adverbs (eg 'he walked slowly'); 
  • a lack of concrete images.

    What we remember after reading or hearing a poem is an image, accompanied by the feelings it set up in us.

    I love one or two abstractions, ideas, dropped in to a sensory poem; Mary Oliver is a genius at this. (Mary Oliver is a genius, full stop: I spent an hour with my mother-out-of-law the other day just reading Mary Oliver poems to her; such a simple thing, and it brought her such joy.)

FICTION WRITERS: well, on the Novelists' Bootcamp, I have to say that, despite people's anxiety about Not Being Good Enough (women at least almost always bring this concern), everyone's story was engaging, interesting, and didn't succumb to what I'm about to mention.

Generally, though, a common issue is a stream of narration unbroken by action, dialogue or sensory descriptions. We need all four of those aspects (along, of course, with memorable and engaging characters and a strong plot).

Narration is a washing line. On it we peg the plot ingredients of interesting (even if not always likeable) characters, scenes, conversations, interrelationship, dramas.

Behind it is the setting, which we need to be able to picture as if we could walk out into it.

Here's mine, for you: Dog is snoring gently on her bed on the tiles. 'My' robin is standing, head cocked, eyeballing me, about 20 cms from the glass door by which I'm sitting. I've fed him or her three or four lots of crumbs this morning; he spends all the time he could be eating chasing off the shy dunnock which doesn't resist, but foils the robin briefly by creeping back in from behind a stone trough where the last of the nasturtiums blaze still.

The sky is that veiled motionless cardboard white, against which my herb pots, the last of the red geraniums, and one red and one golden acer are still jubilating. Behind them is a nearly-bare ash sapling full of long-tailed tits. To its left, my 'Autumn Bliss' raspberry canes have a blackbird throwing itself up to snatch the last, high hidden fruits of its 2-month long crop.

Behind it all I look across the valley to where the huge oak is wearing a redgold crown.

Close by, I'm boiling some chestnuts to add to a mushroom and leek gratin tonight, with baked potatoes. In a moment, I'll head up the slippery path to collect the last of the apples and kale from the garden to add to it.

Beside me is a steaming cup of lemon verbena; the last cut before harvesting the rest to dry.

If I open the door, I can hear the stream, swelled by torrents the last few days. A few migrating redwing flew over my head earlier, and I can hear more of their kind's shrilling notes now.

The air smells of water.


  1. Between the shadow and soul
    Samsara rises.
    Sit! See the cherry blossom!

    (Acknowledgement to Pablo Neruda who inspired the first line)!

    Deep Gassho,and thank you for your beautiful and wise posts.

  2. What a beautiful and wise poem, Mo! Thank you so much for your kindness in sending them. Lovely.

  3. Mo, that should read 'it'! (I erased 'words'.) Blogger won't let me edit it...


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