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

Saturday 30 April 2011

tasting the seven seas (zen)

I have a beautiful book on Zen, called simply that. It's published by Duncan Baird, text selection and intro by Miriam Levering, and foreword by the scholar and translator Lucien Stryk.

Stryk says: 'Mostly we lollop around the universe, scarcely knowing who we are... we slither between savagery and love, calamity and calm, indifference and pity, unsure of the Way, trapped in our own makings of ourselves...' What Zen offers is a potential way out of this; though my experience is that it is a continual process – I say that in awareness of my continual lolloping around in the universe! (I remember Susan Jeffers speaking of the idea we all have that once we see the need for growth it will be straightforward and upwards from now on; she uses the analogy of a transatlantic flight, in which, contrary to our perception, the plane is in a continual zigzag motion of correction/overcorrection/correction/overcorrection. I find this heartening! Simply being aware of all this is the [continual] next step...)

Later Stryk speaks of a Zen koan (koans as you might know are phrases that to the intellect sound like paradox; they're part of Zen teaching methods) given to his friend the poet Shinkichi Takahashi (the author of the Shell poem I posted a few days ago) by his teacher: 'Describe your face before you were begotten by your parents'. The aim of a koan is to break through the rational limitations and the notions of either/or imposed by the intellect into a more subtle and inclusive level of understanding.

Stryk describes Takahashi's breakthrough in relation to this koan: 'After a period of intense meditation, and many failures, suddenly [the words of the poem below] came. He saw that face as if for the first time, was overwhelmed, realized he had looked for a lifetime without understanding, and felt liberated.'

This is the poem:

Time oozed from my pores,
Drinking tea
I tasted the seven seas.

I saw in the mist formed
Around me
The fatal chrysanthemum, myself.

Its scent choked, and as I
Rose, squaring 
My shoulders, the earth collapsed. 

Shinkichi Takahashi

If you are interested in finding out more about the general principles of Buddhist thought in action, this might be a useful link:
and at the bottom of the page on The Basics, under the Principles button, you'll also find a link to an article of mine.

Friday 29 April 2011

margins - the practice of writing

I’ve previously posted two of my past columns for the MsLexia magazine slot ‘Writing Your Self’: ‘rainforests and fishing lines’ and ‘reeling in the fish’. The column looked at the relationship between inner work and writing, and also writing practice as a discipline. The columns I’ve posted looked at entering ‘the zone’, the place in which creativity is allowed to emerge. I spoke of the importance of freeflow writing (often known as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing).
   I need to say that simply the practice of this kind of freeflow writing is enough in itself. Like any other discipline – scales, meditation, yoga, running – you will in any case see long term benefits, and these increase with the doing anyway. What’s important is the process, and the showing up for it, as Natalie Goldberg says.
   However, in my groups (in which I almost always use this freeflow technique at the start of the day) I choose usually to take this work further, often with astonishing results.

There are three stages to what happens next. The first part involves applying some reflective questions to the passage you’ve written (and I need to acknowledge here some thoughts on which I’ve built from a conference workshop by Kate Thompson some years ago).
   Here’s a way forward, if you want to follow this – even if you’re not a writer it offers useful insight. Assuming you’ve a reasonably substantial chunk of freeflow writing, maybe from a creative journal, if you keep one, or prose reflections from a notebook – say a couple of pages – first take a moment to read it back. Then jot down these three questions, and read it through again slowly, responding to each question in turn:

What do I notice in the writing?
Are there any surprises?
What am I really writing about?

At this point you might want to take time out – make a cup of tea, walk the dog. When you come back to the writing, the third question in particular may have opened a doorway.

Now comes the second phase. Take a highlighting pen and mark out any strong words, images or phrases – strong because you like them, because they hold an emotional charge, or because they work poetically.

For phase three, you might choose to use some of the marked phrases, or you might find that you don’t use any of the words in the original piece (in fact this last stage may appear to have few obvious connections with the original freeflow. That’s OK.) The brief here is to write a tiny poem – and it’s important that you keep it short. I’m really strict with my students about this: they are allowed a maximum of 30 words (no, not even 31). It concentrates the mind wonderfully, and you will find that with so little room for manoeuvre you really focus on what you want to say. I find that some extraordinary writing comes out of this. I hope you do, too.

Here’s a little 30-worder of mine (plus title):

To margins

and nameless places

to that twig quivering
where the bird

to the tilt of our lives
and away from
each other

to words
and to
speaking without them

– Roselle Angwin (this poem prefaces the anthology Pendulum: the poetry of dreams, ed Deborah Gaye)

Thursday 28 April 2011

how to love hornets

(No, not the Larsson book...)
   When I was training to be a therapist 25-odd years ago, my then-partner repeated to me something that writer and therapist John Rowan, I believe, had said: ‘A good therapist needs to be a good gardener.’ I think of this a lot; and I substitute ‘lover, partner, friend, parent – and writer’ for ‘therapist’ too. It’s about the faith of planting dormant seeds in tended soil; it’s about trusting incubation and germination; it’s about being aware of the whole interdependency of an eco-system; it’s the patience to be aware of seasons and cycles and not force things; it’s an awareness of the conditions needed for growth: nutrition, sun, timely rainfall, attention, healthy neglect or at least knowing when to hold back. And isn't it important also to resist digging things up all the time to look at the roots? (I say this, in its metaphorical context, with some wryness.)
   And I think another important point is the significance of wildness, wild margins, weeds ('flowers in the wrong place', as someone so succinctly characterised them); not being in a hurry to tidy, to clear everything up, but to allow too chaos, shambolicness, lack of clarity, contradiction, uncertainty. These wild margins, literally and metaphorically, of course, are often host to the most flourishing, vital and surprising growth.
   Thinking about all of this reminds me of something a farmer neighbour said to me a year or two ago on the Bere peninsula, where I then lived, where we were both leaning over a gate looking over his land which dropped to the beautiful Tavy river: ‘They don’t make this any more. Tell that to the planners and developers. And, you know, everything depends on an inch of topsoil and timely rainfall.’
   I think about that often, too.

I’m a committed (if sporadic) gardener. It’s such a primal joy, eating your own food (though I also forage for wild food – always have). I want to share with you my joy at witnessing the effectiveness of the completely chemical-free mini-ecosystem in and around our veg garden. Two years ago we installed a bird-table by the lower veg plot. The placing of it was more by accident than design: there was a space, and I can see it from the kitchen window.
   My sister tells me that it’s imperative to keep feeding the birds through the spring and early summer, rather than stopping after the winter, as brood-size is determined by the perceived local food-supply. So we did; and for the first time we lost no brassica at all to caterpillars, as the tits, dunnocks and robins simply hop from the feeder to the veg plot. In addition, the slugs and snails that plague us because of the old stone wall have caused minimal damage this year – I assume because of the thrushes and blackbirds at the feeding-place (though I do surround vulnerable seedlings with builders’ sand, as of course slugs don’t like roughness).
   More, we’ve experimented in co-habiting with hornets and wasps, swarming in their hundreds around the willow tree near my study in the garden all last summer. In case you’ve ever wondered what wasps actually do other than wreck a picnic, I discovered that like bees they pollinate; and both wasps and hornets devour blackfly etc. On closer inspection, I noticed that several of the willow branches were sootily black with larvae; totally coated, and that that’s what the wasps and hornets were eating or taking back to their young. AND not a single sting was had by any of us all summer, with the exception of our friend Francis, who closed his hand on a drowsy hornet that had come inside and was lounging on a curtain.
   The downside of hornets, though, is that they can prey on bees. Last year the billions of blackfly on the willow seemed to keep them occupied, however. And they do seem to be less aggressive than wasps.

We now have built three more big raised beds in the ‘top’ garden, which is a reclaimed field. The field garden is a north-facing slope, though reasonably sunny for a lot of the day, and because it was once adjacent to the farm on whose land The Man converted the barn in which we live, there is a big flat horseshoe-shaped area that was once a silage pit.
   One rounded end I’ve kept for a one-day sacred garden; at the moment there’s a small firepit in it. Otherwise we (that is, TM) have been building beds out of local larch. I didn’t want to use treated timber of any sort, and I figured that since they build boats out of larch it should be reasonably weather-resistant. So we have one down to garlic, onions and leeks, one which will be brassica (cabbage tribe, for non-gardeners) as we have the peas, beans, sweetcorn and courgettes now in the smaller bottom beds near the house, and as of yesterday we have the topsoil for planting our more-than-chitted (chut?) potatoes – 120 plants, which should see us through. I have a bath full of salad veg, some of which has overwintered, and I’ve dotted a few globe artichokes into flower beds. If everything works we will be mostly self-sufficient for veg, and the sweetcorn gives us some protein, as do peas and beans (essential if like me you’re vegan; pretty much so if you’re vegetarian, as is TM).
   We’re trying to move (well, I’m trying to move us) towards a permaculture system based on forest gardening. We have a little margin of woodland, amongst it some nut trees; and a small orchard. We’ve added more fruit trees, and in the edges of the woodland, where I’ve planted narcissi, I’ve also put comfrey for green manure and a few tiny currant bushes. It’s hard work and we don’t always stay on top of it with our other work, and family. And we are so lucky to have this ground. And if you are a gardener, you will know that there is little to beat the joy of the first broad beans, the new potatoes, the constancy of courgettes…

And if you live near Totnes in the UK and need some wild/bird cherry seedlings, we have any number of self-seeded ones needing to be replanted.

OK, back to tending the work of bringing forth others’ writing…

Wednesday 27 April 2011

(poem) everything there is wild and tender

I got a bit tired of the sound of my own voice there. So of course the remedy is more of my own voice! But a prose poem from the forthcoming Bardo (Shearsman May 2011) at least takes us away from the recent reason/intuition dyad, which is, like all dualities, in my view a false schism anyway...

everything there is

I can make you words from mud and rain, from bones and the ache in the blood

words are an easy currency – their shiny sides tessellate neatly on my tongue

but this is not a poem

if it’s a poem you want better to ask the four winds, or get down on your knees on damp earth in ashes and entrails

flailing, your own heart piercing your ribcage like a bird of prey

see the way a poem pushes its head even through tarmac, roots cracking stone; lurks in unlit bus shelters with the stench of piss, the fallout from five-in-the-morning doorways and broken glass

or ask autumn: shedding shoes and clothes and wading out ankle-deep in leaf-fall beneath the sweet chestnuts

with everything there is wild and tender pulsing at the soles of your bare feet

- Roselle Angwin

PS to (Kant) reason & intuition (& take 2)

Postscript next morning: OK this is one of the downsides of winging it and not checking facts. I have got over my hubris from yesterday, as TM pointed out - over morning tea no less - that the reason (no pun intended) that Kant arrived at his conclusions was very different from mine. As many of you will know, and The Man has told me before and I'd forgotten but should know, Kant denied the faculty of intuition in the human; whereas of course it's central to my perception and observations, along with the 'channel' of human imagination.

A little later: leaving home this morning I realised that probably the above is about as clear as a mug of milk. No doubt you have already got there - the 'yes and?' moment in relation to the above (and my hubris has gone into minus figures and is heading towards severe nutritional deficiency now!): what I am trying to say is that Kant considered – I gather! – that reason couldn't go the distance in terms of comprehending the nature of essential reality; but since he thought that humankind doesn't have the faculty of intuition, we by definition can't perceive the metaphysical realm/essential nature at all. I think.

This suggests to me that The Man's views and mine are closer than he sometimes thinks: we both consider that there are ways in which we humans can perceive/experience the metaphysical realm; we simply differ in the detail or labelling of our own experience of and relationship to what is loosely called the spiritual.


I think I've exhausted that one for the minute. More of other things soon. Promise.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

me & Immanuel Kant

The Man points out that, unlike me, he has actually read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; he does actually know what he's talkng about. He has great respect for Kant's philosophy.

I would like to point out very smugly that, despite not having read CoPR, I nonetheless by virtue of associative thinking entirely free of any contamination by educated or informed logical deductive analysis and judgement have arrived at the same conclusions as Kant: ie that reason alone cannot go the distance.

TM admits that Kant arrives at the same conclusions as I put forward in my mythos logos post.  It's just that he doesn't agree with Kant's conclusions; or, needless to say, my methods.

But the fact that I arrived at the same point as the great thinker (Kant not TM in this case) is enough to make me want to put a smug smiley icon here. I am just about resisting it.

When I have got over my egotistical self-satisfied inflation fit, I will post something altogether less smug. And maybe more in keeping with the Very Important Issues I have spent the last three hours at a Green Party meeting discussing, like how on earth we're going to achieve electoral reform, let alone save the planet.

Zen, credo and nothingness

If I look at shaping features/values of my life, I'd come up with something like this:

  • I believe that the universe is a unified field
  • I believe in inclusivity
  • I believe that both/and is a more accurate perception of and relationship to the world than either/or
  • I believe that attachment to the dualistic either/or, on an individual level or globally (me/you, us/them), is single-handedly responsible for more aggression than anything else
  • I believe that interconnectedness is essential nature/reality; and that it also needs to be a felt experience in order for us to truly recognise the ultimate non-separation of self and other.

BUT what is a belief other than a deeply-held opinion, sometimes and sometimes not apparently borne out by experience?

Of what value is a belief - unless it helps one to live with more kindness, more compassion, more input into the collective project of evolution of consciousness?

And Zen would of course have one ask, in order to gain insight into the nature of ego: Who is it thinking 'I believe'?

For 35 years I've espoused a spiritual path that in essence is simple. Its aim is to lead one beyond the appearances of things, beyond attachment to things being permament, and beyond identification with ego as a substantial separate and all-determining entity. Its focus is the development of metta: loving kindess, or compassion. And it is so hard to live according to this. And if you read yesterday's blog you will know how much time I personally spend defending one view (one ego's view) of the universe against another. Either/or. Over and over the practice, of course, is to move beyond this; and of course one draws to oneself experiences and situations that will show exactly where life pinches, and test one's truths.

Eh bien.

As a reminder to self to cultivate the 'so what' of the attitude attuned to transience, here's a little Zen poem I share with you:


Nothing, nothing at all
is born,
dies, says the shell again
and again
from the depth of hollowness.
Its body
swept off by tide – so what?
It sleeps
in sand, drying in sunlight,
in moonlight. Nothing to do
with sea
or anything else. Over
and over
it vanishes with the wave.

Shinkichi Takahashi

Saturday 23 April 2011

(poem) the circle of the world

you do what you do
            & the world keeps turning
                                                            by itself
            you take one step, & another
breathe, keep breathing –
                        flicker of light, cloud-shadow, larksong, rain –
                                                the whole of it 
                       there in its radiance 
           you're alive
If you have been paying attention or, rather, managing to get to the end of my longer posts, you might recognise the snippet above. As so often happens, a few words lifted are much stronger than the impact of the same words embedded in another mediocre few thousand...

Friday 22 April 2011

poem: a geological hour, by Rebecca Gethin

It must be time for another poem from our new Confluence anthology... And this time it's Rebecca, whose collection River is the Plural of Rain (isn't that a great title?) came out last year. The poem I've chosen is a favourite of mine (and I've also seen its various metamorphoses into this form), although it's not necessarily typical of Becky – whose style is again changing at the moment, as deeper darker threads creep in (and I think that's a strength). Becky lives on Dartmoor and the natural world is strongly reflected in her poetry. She works part-time with creative writing at Dartmoor Prison – superfluous to say that it's a challenging environment. Her first novel is coming out this autumn, with a Cinnamon Press award.
   As usual, being copied and pasted it will probably be in a different type/size.


They buried their dead so high
the graves are specks on the cliff-face.

They imagined ancestors watching
over their comings and goings.

Fingers pointing upward they'd name
great-grandparents, sensors of daybreak's first impulse,

approaching weathers, who now voiced thoughts
in thunder, directed lightning, conducted stars.

Inside the crevices a puzzle of bronze bracelets, shell beads
circling what was clavicle, axe heads clinking on metatarsal.

To reach a geological hour all they had to do
was lie still, while rain seeped through limestone. 

Rebecca Gethin

Thursday 21 April 2011

mindfulness take 2

It's almost unbearably beautiful here in paradise. I've been meditating most mornings sitting on a boulder in the little sunlit oak grove with its strewing of bluebells; this morning I found a different boulder mid-stream on which to sit, the waters of the Pila Brook splitting round me and a pair of dippers displaying and – well, dipping – just downstream. The dog's quietly sitting beneath an elder, already budding with blossom (the elder); snapping (the dog) at an occasional fly, which she chews up and spits out (she snaps at bees, too, but as far as I know hasn't yet been foolish enough as to bite one).
   At Huckentor already the bilberries - 'whorts' as we call them in Devon – are hanging out little pink Chinese lanterns. The berries will be even earlier than usual this year; maybe June, and no doubt I'll forget again.

here - photo Beatrice Grundbacher

Meditation and I have a longstanding, turbulent and at times dysfunctional relationship (though I admit the turbulence and dysfunction are all on my side). As a young hippy growing up in a pocket of surprisingly alternative rural North Devon – early Earth Fairs, squats and music, wholefood shops, small festivals and ashrams – I came across meditation as a teenager. It seemed to me to legitimise what I already did so well and at great length: daydreaming, only with a candle and/or mantram as focus I could call it 'spiritual' and feel nicely virtuous for doing what I loved doing.
   My experience with Zen meditation came as a huge shock to me. As an undergraduate I rather timidly asked to visit the local sangha and join the zazen sesshin. First session: 6 or 8 very stern-seeming, serious and sober men, older than me and terrifyingly composed (never my forte), plus the most wonderful roshi, the Rev Hofuku Hughes who came up from the London Zen Priory every week to run a session. Hofuku, a full time monk, nonetheless worked part-time in a local car factory, was enormously insightful, and had a bellydeep laugh and a vast sense of humour. Because of him, I stayed for a term, but it was hard. Zen meditation as practised by that group involved 45 minutes to an hour of silent meditation, facing the wall, eyes open, and guided to do nothing other than follow the breath. This was followed by walking meditation, kinhan I think the term is (never been good at the labels), and then more open-eyed sitting.
   This was a long way from my gentle visualisations.
   I continued with my own path, a kind of mishmash added to by other spiritual practices, for many years on an erratic basis. Although by now I had realised that actually meditation wasn't just daydreaming and relaxation, I still mostly used a visualisation practice as the heart of it all. Then I started to feel that this was another way (for me) to avoid the core act of simple and unadulterated presence. I know that it's different for each of us, but for me I need a way that involves a kind of emptying to the present rather than filling; and for all these long years Zen has sat behind everything I do: saying nothing, not being exhibitionist or drawing attention to itself; simply being (of course).
   When I came across Jon Kabat-Zinn's teachings on mindfulness I knew that here was also a homecoming. Kabat-Zinn, a doctor, uses mindfulness practice in his work (and has spawned a school of MBSR: mindfulness-based stress reduction; it has been shown over and over to be enormously effective in health and wellbeing). This is a very important aspect of it. 
   But also I need a practice that is more than simply tending my psychological wellbeing – that for me is a bonus, not the goal. It's something about the integration of the spiritual with the psychological. I need too to touch the ground of being behind everything: to slip the traces of the 'I' and its struggles; to attempt to move beyond our dualistic perceptions of 'self' and 'other'. So finally I have found a practice that works for me in returning to the simplest of Zen teachings, partly through Zen poetry and sometimes through its prose writings (I have a wonderful book by roshi John Daido Loori, late abbot of the Mountains and Rivers Monastery, sent me by a dear friend: Zen and Creativity, which is a luminous practice text), which I couple with mindfulness of this moment and the world of the senses, to stop me flying off into daydreaming, and I open and close my meditation sessions with teachings from the British pagan tradition with its visualisations and awareness of the elements, the four directions (plus the above and the below), the natural world, and the interconnectedness of all beings. All these teachings are linked by the centrality of the development of compassion.
  But there are two key things for me: one is that the heart of it all is simply learning how to be, with my breath,  with what is, without losing myself in dreams and regrets from the past, or hopes and fears for the future; and the second is that the real work starts when formal meditation time ends.

And of course, after all these years (30+), I still struggle (or at least I would, had I not decided to give up striving a few months ago, partly as a result of a conversation with said friend – thank you, Susie). One thing that's gone is my beating myself up if I don't meditate every day (I simply don't do it every day). And rather like with writing: once I give myself permission to meditate on only five rather than seven days a week, and just for ten minutes if that's what I feel like, it works, and I want to do more. So what happens now is that I meditate most days: sometimes I touch the ground of being where self and other dissolve; mostly I don't. AND THAT'S OK.
   What made me think about all this this morning is being aware, once again, how hard it is simply to keep my attention on my breath, coming in and going out, which is usually the starting focus in Zen practice. Over and over my attention wanders; like training a young horse, I gently follow it, gently bring it back. It is so simple; and it is sooo hard. I read the other day that the average American adult attention span is 18 seconds (I don't suppose it's very different here), and that shocked me into being aware of how difficult it is simply to be fully present with, and only with, my inbreaths and outbreaths to just a count of 10! I count and breathe slowly but was still shocked at myself, at how my mind wanders. So my challenge now is to prove to myself that I can.
   And here, just to finish off (if you're still with me) is Kabat-Zinn's rather lovely (paraphrased) definition of mindfulness: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

'to poison a nation, poison its stories'

It's a lovely thing when someone quotes you back when someone else has quoted you to them! I don't experience that very often. But someone by email told me of an internet interview she'd come across that spoke of an essay of mine. In Writing the Bright Moment I'd written about the importance of story; or rather the importance of the kind of story we tell/write/read in this seemingly unravelling world. 

It seems to me that story, like poetry, might be a means of saving your life. And if our diet is that of disasters, unhappiness, catastrophe, war, brutality, violence, rape, torture – and of course I could go on – whether that is through the media or in the books we read and the films we watch, there is a price we pay at the level of the heart and soul, and in what we feed back into the collective. And more, it colours our vision of how the world is, or might be.
Yesterday I was invited to attend as an honorary member lunch and a session at a writers' group I set up nearly 20 years ago. Afterwards, some of us were talking about the nature and place of violence in film and literature; and it was heartening to hear others, too, voicing their concerns about the wisdom, or otherwise, of continual exposure to brutalising scenes, whether through watching the news or in film and literature, and what it means to us as writers – let alone as humans.
The email I received quoted this (apologies if it seems boastful):  'Roselle Angwin is inspirational. I drew much strength from the extract from her book Writing the Bright Moment — inspiration & guidance for writers — which was published by Lapidus Cornwall in Prompted to Write. In this essay she quotes Ben Okri: “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.”'

So I went back to my essay, and found some words from my favourite essayist, Barry Lopez: 'If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope… I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns… Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part…’ 

These words are behind my thinking for most of the work I do. How we keep heart in heartless time? What stories do we need?

I concluded the essay like this, and I guess my thinking hasn't changed: 'At the end of my first book, written in 1993, I asked this question. Of course, I am still asking it. How would it be to read books and stories that support us in being more fully and compassionately human? Ones that give us tools to grow and change; offer us models of functional, healthy patterns of relating – whether to ourselves, to each other, to the wider human sphere or to the planet as a whole, rather than narratives that merely underline how grim ‘reality’ is, and how untrustworthy and self-seeking people are, thus confirming our view of the world and the human condition as basically beyond hope? 

'Surely we need now stories that offer us healing, offer us the potential of wholeness, of coming through in the end. Empowering stories. Stories that show us human being at its best: its most courageous, generous, kind, loving, compassionate, wise, funny. Stories that celebrate the earth, wilderness, the diversity of nations, the diversity of species. Inclusive stories that allow us to imagine a new world order based on empathy, co-operation, kindness, discussion, negotiation, fairness, equality. Stories that celebrate what is green, what is vulnerable, what is innocent, what is childlike, what is wise, what is feminine, what is masculine; stories about co-operation and harmony rather than competition and conflict; about people making wise choices. Stories that celebrate magic, mystery, miracle. Stories that help restore some sort of faith, whatever that may mean for each of us.'

(poem) how hard it is to speak of happiness


when paradise comes in its
long brief moment
you have no words for it
save those givens, labels
from the senses: so
this April sun, the surround of birdsong
(lark tit swallow cuckoo finch)
a light southeasterly in this
setting-sail blue day, the tors sharp
and the path lined
with gorse, bluebell, stitchwort
and the wagtail skipping
from the rock near yours in this
clear furrowed peatygold water of
the moorland brook
the dog lazing beside you
and the little old mare
come through another winter
and you (mother daughter friend
sister lover beloved)
with some hours
to linger to wander to dream

and the earth still turning

- Roselle Angwin

Begin Anywhere, Begin Somewhere

On writers' block This is part of an essay that appears in my Writing the Bright Moment book. Listening to friends and fellow writers, the issue of writers' block is always relevant. And I'm lifting it from the book as I have A Task ahead: I'm at my daughter's still, in sunshine and solitude, with 3 days to myself just to write – which given that theoretically I'm a full-time writer might sound odd; but in fact like 95% of writers I find that writing alone simply doesn't pay the bills, and so much of my work involves facilitating others' writing (a joy) and doing all the groundwork of organisation, admin, promotion etc behind the scenes (extraordinarily time-consuming and unrewarding). So this is a treat: about a dozen poems waiting to be redrafted and typed up, and a third novel picked up from where I left it lying roughly 6 years ago; and so I'm back to it now.

For a long time, I stated – ad nauseam – to my students that there was no such thing as writers’ block. I quoted Peter de Vries’ words when asked whether he waited for inspiration before writing: ‘Yes, and I make sure that I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.’
I really believed that such a phenomenon as writer’s block was a delusion, a failure of confidence, something that could be willed away. Mind over matter and get on with it – stop being such a prima donna. (I don’t actually say this, but it has been my attitude.) Just sit down and write the first sentence. Then another; and another.
Over the years of course I have written probably billions of sentences in articles, stories, poems and reviews and a number of published and unpublished full-length manuscripts, with never a moment’s hesitation. I’d never found myself unable to write.

Now I understand. I’m no longer quite so cavalier. Partway through my second novel I hit Block. Big block. For weeks, even months, I felt as if my tongue and my hands were tied. The worst of it was that that book had become so ‘forefront’ I couldn’t do anything else either.
I don’t know how it is for others – you – but maybe it’s always the same: it wasn’t that I didn’t like what I wrote; it wasn’t even that I didn’t know what to write next. I had the plot all worked out in my head, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown (sort of) on paper. It was just that I couldn’t actually make myself get the words down.

I am learning, now, to be gentle on myself (I’m much harder on myself than I am on my students).
The truth is, there are times when I simply can’t write. That’s how it is. There may be any number of reasons: times of personal crisis or change; times when the ideas are not ‘ripe’ enough, when you need to write something else, something different; times when you’re too tired, or distracted, or stressed; times when what you really need is a treat, or a rest, or a walk or some input from something or someone else. Or when something else is more pressing than writing. Maybe, as Hemingway (was it?) said, the well needs to be filled up again before you can draw anything off. Maybe – as I explore elsewhere in this book – you are simply still somewhere else in the creative process, incubating.
And sometimes you have to just sit and do it anyway. The wisdom, of course, lies in differentiating between states.

It’s a bright December morning, and I’ve cleared a day to write (this year, this has been a relatively rare occurrence). Because I need space to think, away from admin, phone and family, I treat myself to breakfast in the local wholefood café by the church, where I can see trees and sky and jackdaws. The café’s warm and the coffee’s good and the light slanting in is of just the right quality and intensity, and the lunchtime quiches and cheese scones are steaming temptingly and my folder is sitting weighty and promising on the table beside me. There was a stimulating programme on the radio as I drove in – Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, exploring the connections between language and thought and identity, something which interests me greatly. So as I sit down my head is full of ideas and I can’t wait to get back to the next piece for this book, which is today’s agenda.
I’ll just have a look at the newspaper, I think; I don’t get much time to read papers at the moment. Just five minutes with my coffee.
But the paper – of course – is back-to-back disasters: too many to process. It seems to be worse even than usual at the moment: an unmitigated picture of grotesque murders and senseless cruelties. And five minutes in and already I’ve lost it, unable to wrench my mind away from the news, and unconvinced that anything we can do, even anything creative, can stand between us and some of the grimmer aspects of life. How can writing do anything to tackle unnameable pain and fear and torture and injustice? And if it can’t, then is it just a comfortable bourgeois indulgence? And if that’s the case, where does that leave me? I’m full of fear and dread suddenly for this world we live in; for all of us, all our fragile lives; for another young local girl who’s gone missing so soon after the last tragedy; for my own daughter; for Iraq and Palestine and Israel and numerous other countries; for what today seems like an insuperable excess of the clashes of violence and powerlessness in our species; for my own helplessness.

Right now, once again where it leaves me is with my hands tied and my mouth stopped. There. That’s how it is. So after an hour of not writing, I get up and go out; look at the bare trees, the Christmas lights, people’s faces, the traffic, the moors just visible beyond the town. And I drive home: east wind, mud on the lanes, cattle in the dunny winter fields.
And I can’t write a word.
Q: Do I let it go, or push on through?
A: Today I really want to write.
OK. So how to find a way in?

Peter Redgrove’s essay on ‘Work and Incubation’ that a friend has sent me sits in my folder. I scanned it through again just now; and here is Rodin, answering a younger artist’s question: ‘What do I do when I can’t work?’ ‘Work at something else.’ Anything, actually, will do. Keep a folder of ‘rainy day ideas’ that you can pick up and put down. Edit yesterday’s work. Wash the dishes. Bake some bread. Make or play some music. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Be gentle with yourself. Go look at the bare winter trees. Write about them. There’s always more to observe in this world than you will have energy or time to write about. Remember you’re a writer. Write something. Write anything. Begin somewhere. Write about what’s stopping you. Write yourself through it.
Begin somewhere.
As I think this I think about the many times I’ve said (perhaps not so brutally, but the gist is there): ‘I don’t care if you don’t feel like writing. You say you’re a writer. Sit down and do it anyway.’ Easy words.
Time for my own medicine. Write yourself through it. And there’s my gap. Instead of ‘forcing’ myself to write the chapter for the book, I write to a friend of how distressed I was at this morning’s news, how it’s affected the rest of my day. (So often the problem and the solution arise in the same place – reading words ‘blocked’ me; writing words about not feeling able to write, and about those read words, frees me.)
And now, here I am: writing something; writing about what’s stopping me, about that whole process. And – see – here’s what I needed for the book.

For the truth is writers write. It’s what we do; it’s how we make sense of the world; it’s how the world speaks to us; it’s how we answer, and how we question. It needs no justification and maybe value judgements are anathema. We may not stop the world or change the world or even speak to one other person. But still we write. ‘The real writer is one / who really writes,’ says Marge Piercy. ‘Work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.’

Tuesday 19 April 2011

(poem) walker between the worlds

For a variation, and because I'm too tired tonight to be original from scratch, I've been through my poetry files to see what I can find you. And here's a little triolet of mine in the style of the British shamanic tradition – really just because the form's a neat container. If you don't know it and would like to give it a go, there are some notes below it.

Walker Between The Worlds

I am the god who fills the head with fire.
My blood is ancient as the blood of stone.
I walk the cusp where darkness turns to light.
I am the god who fills the head with fire.
My tongue’s the language given by the nine.
I speak the wildest waters, the song of bone.
I am the god. Who fills the head with fire?
My blood is ancient; is the blood of stone.

Roselle Angwin

Triolet: AbaAabAB

13th century French form that emphasises rhyme and repetition. 8 lines with only two rhyme schemes, notated as A and B: AbaAabAB. Where the letters are capitalised, this is a repetition of the entire line. Where they’re lower case, you are repeating the end-rhyme but using a different line.

To be effective, the refrain needs to sound natural rather than contrived, of course. This means that you need to choose a strong line for the refrain (rather as you do in a villanelle), which is repeated in its entirety three times. You also need to find a way to slightly alter it, primarily by altering the punctuation, in its final repeat in the penultimate line.

In mine, I’ve also altered the last line, which is also repeated in its entirety.

Monday 18 April 2011

kayaks, cusps, peak experiences & the canto hondo

For some months now there has been a memory resurfacing for me as a recurring image: it's dawn, summer, the kind of cuspal stillness that can happen before day picks up (have you noticed how dawn and dusk are so often exempt from wind, no matter what's preceded them?), a light hazy mist over a river tributary and me, alone, sixteen or seventeen, in my long sharp pride-and-joy yellow kayak, paddling so gently that barely a drip touches the water and I glide in silence towards the river estuary. As I paddle the mist burns off, and I'm sliding on the water's surface as if on silk, and the fat sun of summer rises, the swans barely cease from their underwater feeding as I pass them, and gradually the banks come into focus; the bullrushes, the yellow flag irises, clumps of marsh marigold and kingcup.
   The bank to my right borders and contains Vellator Marshes with their herds of placid Ruby Red Devon cattle. Here my father used to take us as children to net the little stickleback that we'd take home and keep in a vast glass tank; and tadpoles. It was here that I'd cycle lonely as a – no, not cloud; as lonely as a romantic teenager with poetic leanings can be; and ride on the foal-grown-to-ponyhood that I'd bought straight from Dartmoor with my £25 Post Office pocket money savings; and here I'd bring friends and, later, boyfriends to walk the 3 miles to the idyllic 3-mile long beach.
   It was here that Henry Williamson of Tarka the Otter fame (written about the stream that ran 100 yards from our house) set his most magical book, The Pathway, about a conscientious objector, and with a little story within a story, The Star Born, which so caught my adolescent imagination. Williamson was a contradiction, and, like many of his era, made some to us unimaginably crass-seeming and unthinkable decisions: himself disgusted with war after being conscripted in WW1, and determined to do all he could to prevent Britain and Germany going to war again, he in WW2 joined the Fascist Party. But I try not to hold that against him as his nature writing is excellent (and that raises the old old question about whether art stands alone or whether one has to judge the artwork against too the integrity of the creator. I can't easily answer that for myself: I want to say the latter, as I always hope idealistically no doubt that there will be congruence between the two. And yet we have work like T S Eliot's 'Four Quartets', to my mind some of the most extraordinary poetry produced in the C20th – and he was reputedly anti-semitic. And our literature would have been that much the poorer without. So.)
   But that was a diversion. What I wanted to say, have been thinking about, is that that memory – and although I experienced similar (and occasionally a great deal more dramatic) trips a number of times, it's that one in particular – seems to me to encapsulate the enormous sense of wellbeing, happiness, that comes when one is living truly in one's own skin and also within the deepest song of the universe, no matter how brief the moment, with no separation. A 'peak experience', or moment of transcendence, I later learned it might be labelled. In Zen we'd call it a moment of satori. And I guess after a moment, or moments, like that we spend the rest of our lives repeating or trying to repeat that experience – or deadening ourselves in order not to feel the pain of not experiencing it...
   And for me that is the measure, I guess, of whether my life serves me and I serve my life; and whether I then serve the greater purpose, whatever that might be, of life itself; whether I can close the gap between 'self' and 'other' being one expression of it, perhaps.
   And the second thing I have been thinking of, related, is how one digs down through the layers to restore the canto hondo (or cante jondo as Lorca had it): the 'deep song' that might, if we let it, sing us. As I think about this I think about reclaiming that which is deeper than ego and the ego's desires and connects us into – well, everything; and how much work, a life's work, maybe more, it seems to take to reclaim that part of ourselves. (Or maybe it's a continual and ceaseless process. Yes, of course; that's more like it.) I go in search of Clarissa Pinkola Estes book here where I'm horse-sitting for my daughter; I'm not sure she's read it but I know she has it, as I gave it her; and no doubt, when she's ready she'll read it (always a mistake to give to your children the books that are important to you!). I look up canto hondo and she says very little about it; but she does say this, which is lovely: 'When we think of reclamation it may bring to mind bulldozers or carpenters, the restoration of an old structure... However, the older meaning is this: The word reclamation is derived from the Old French reclaimer, meaning "to call back the hawk which has been let fly"... to cause something of the wild to return to us when it is called.'
   Yes. That's the work that excites me. That's calling the canto hondo.

Sunday 17 April 2011

already more on mermaids

I was going to follow my last post with two things: one was the story of how the Mermaid of Zennor apparently lured young Mattie Trewella to his death; and then, when I could summon the energy and time, some ideas from the perspective of archetypal psychology on the myth/story – crudely and simplistically Disneyfied (grrrrrr) in the C20th  – of The Little Mermaid.

But from left field and synchronistically comes this from my sister:

(poem) to go beyond: Bridget Thomasin

What with flu, leading the writing retreat on Iona, driving back nearly 700 miles in one hit and then early the next day off again to my sister's wedding (violins yet?) and then straight into the piled-up and toppling piles of work undone (OK two violins would be fine here, thank you), the fact that I've been posting a weekly poem each time from a different contributor to our new Two Rivers anthology Confluence completely slipped from my mental grasp.

So here belatedly is a poem by Bridget Thomasin. There's no one I know who's like Bridget. There's a quality to her that reminds me of Dartmoor itself: timeless and unchanging, and like one of our granite standing stones there's something about her that marks moor-time in its uprightness. Bridget lives very simply, tucked into a remote corner of the moor. Her poetry reflects this quality of uncluttered lack of pretentiousness; as does her subtle and beautiful artwork.

No Through Road

Taking time
to go beyond
the end of the no through road

shoes whitening with dust and pollen

a scrambling of tumbled walls
dry leats and beech trees

crickets and clover filling
a grey day with summer.

Following the undefined
over white fields of wind
each step the crossing of a boundary.

Taking time to explore
the beguiling network
                           of small journeys

little fields of celandine and stitchwort
and in the hawthorn’s shadow.

Taking time to touch
                          the edge of everything.

Friday 15 April 2011

of mirrors, mermaids, the past and the future

Last night I caught some of Neil Oliver's BBC2 programme on the Celts. I was struck by his mention of the grave of a woman from I think the C3rd BCE. The excavations showed that she was a woman of note from the Iron Age; buried, extremely unusually, with her chariot and chariot fittings. Near her lay what seemed to be a mirror. Neil told us, however, that this was not a mirror in the sense of a looking glass for vanity, but rather – my paraphrase – a medium for scrying: in other words, a tool for peering into the past in order to communicate with ancestors.
   Scrying is a magical practice that allows one to slip time. It's usually undertaken in a trance state – indeed the act of scrying can induce trance – and the medium used is usually reflective, translucent or luminescent. Often clear crystal balls were/are used; sometimes smoky quartz, or obsidian; glass, water, fire or smoke are all also common media. (You will probably know yourself how easy it is to slip into a semi-tranced state simply by gazing at fire, or at a body of water.)
   In 2009[update] the Ganzfeld Exeriment, a form of sensory deprivation experiment inspired by scrying, provides the best known evidence for 'psi' abilities in the laboratory. 
   The visions that appear to arise with scrying may be initially prompted by variations or gentle and sometimes rhythmic movements in the medium. 'If the medium is water', says Wikipedia, 'then the visions may come from the colour, ebb and flow, or ripples produced by pebbles dropped in a pool. If the medium is a crystal ball, the visions may come from the tiny inclusions, web-like faults, or the cloudy glow within the ball under low light (e.g., candlelight).'
   What I assume happens is that, as with writing 'in the zone', one's conscious mind is engaged with the sensory experience and one's imagination is freed into the sub- or superconscious and is able then to travel beyond the limits of perception dictated by normal waking consciousness. Whether one then accesses what Jung called the collective unconscious, or what some New Age thinking calls the Akashic Records, and/or whether one simply slips the consensual notions of linear time, what seems to happen is that one taps into what we might ordinarily call the intuition via the imagination. In this frame of consciousness one naturally 'thinks' associatively and connectively.
Wikipedia says: 'One method of scrying using a crystal ball involves a self-induced trance. Initially, the medium serves as a focus for the attention, removing unwanted thoughts from the mind in the same way as a mantra. Once this stage is achieved, the scryer begins a free association with the perceived images suggested... This process culminates in the achievement of a final and desired end stage in which rich visual images and dramatic stories seem to be projected within the medium itself, or directly within the mind's eye of the scryer, something like an inner movie. This process reputedly allows the scryer to "see" relevant events or images within the chosen medium.'
   One of the most famous scryers in history lived in the 16th century and was known as Nostradamus. He used a bowl of water or a 'magic mirror' to 'see' the future while in trance. Famously, Elizabethan alchemist John Dee had his scryer (whose name I can't currently remember); and there were many others in mediaeval England.

This set me thinking about the famous carving (many hundreds of years old) of the Mermaid of Zennor in the seafarers' church of St Senara in West Cornwall. She is portrayed with what have been described as symbols of her vanity: a mirror and a comb. Even as a young girl I knew this was wrong, but it took me many years to find alternative explanations. Mermaids are a symbol of the soul, of the feeling nature, and also a variant on Aphrodite, goddess of love. So I discovered much later that the 'mirror and comb' might actually represent the moon – of course also symbolic of the feeling nature and the feminine principle – and the zither or lyre, beloved of the gods. Others have suggested that the 'mirror' was actually a quince – the love apple, again associated with the goddess of love.

Robert Graves in The White Goddess, an utterly iconic book on prehistory, mythology, poetry, the Bardic mysteries and druidry, has this to say about mermaids: 'A familiar disguise of ... Marian (Robin Hood's Maid Marian) is the merrymaid, as 'mermaid' was once written. The conventional figure of the mermaid – a beautiful woman with a round mirror, a golden comb and a fish-tail – expresses "The love-goddess rises from the sea"... The round mirror, to match the comb, may be some bygone artist's mistaken substitute for the quince, which Marian always held in her hand as a love-gift; but the mirror did also form part of the sacred furniture of the Mysteries, and probably stood for "know thyself". The comb was originally a plectrum for plucking lyre-strings. The Greeks called her Aphrodite ("risen from sea-foam")...'

And more, some time, about all this.

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