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

Wednesday 31 August 2011

more for dharma

At 7.30 this morning the sheep in the meadows below Totnes Castle looked as if they'd been Photoshopped from a Samuel Palmer painting. The hills towards the coast were ringed with mist, with soft nearly-autumnal light sifting down slantwise. They reminded me of early-morning visits to Glastonbury, where the Tor seemed to float in a sea of cloud, as once it would have been an island ('Ynys Vitrin' – 'Glass Island') surrounded by water, in which the little lithe neolithic (I believe) people of the Summer Country would pole their boats. (These then-Celtic people were apparently noted and valued in warfare as exceptional bowmen.)

I walked the four miles back from the Post Office with the dog along the Harbourne to where it meets the Beenleigh Brook, then headed off across the fields (calves tucked up tight in soft warmth and silage out in the water meadows; bulrushes; a pair of dove; raucousness of jay) on the footpaths towards home.

I need to confess that the last two posts, and this one too, have been hurried. Hopefully it'll be a little more spacious next week. I'm a bit stretched this week – more than usual even, as it's the week when I'm returning the first assignment to my new intake of poets on the correspondence course, and I allocate between half a day and a day per poet, but actually always take longer. Then too my mum, who has Alzheimer's, needs to go to see a consultant tomorrow for a possible carcinoma, and the logistics of this are tricky: I'm driving, and there's some distance to go, and with my mum's lack of motor function, and my dad's confusion post-stroke (he'll need to come too), it will be a full day.

I've had a lot of responses to my 'love' post – thank you all, and I'm glad you found bits of it helpful. I have much more to say about this, and I'm aware how hungry we all are to understand love in all its complexities, shades, textures. Several of my friends have been going through it lately; and my daughter; and it's something I think about a lot anyway.

But for now, I thought I'd follow up on yesterday's post and show you the version of the Dharma poem that was eventually published. It's quite different; much tighter, and although I regret some losses, what I omitted was on the whole hyperbolic, I think. If you're reading this, and are a poet or read poetry yourself, compare the two if you're interested and see whether you agree with my decisions...? I'd be delighted to have comments.

I've pasted from Word, below – Word always messes up when copied to here.

Three For Dharma
for Jack Kerouac
On The Road
You died just before I met you.
Not much changes. America, Vietnam. America, Iraq.
Guantanamo. Sadism, ‘cleansings’, Rwanda.
Here we are still sitting,
still praying, those of us who are alive,
like Desolation Angels at the hem of apocalypse
as the earth spins in its dance through space in this
accelerating universe of stars and black holes.
Same diet: hopes, dreams, fears.
Tending the fires. What else is there to do?
Why I  live where I do
Seeking freedom
we still live in chains
civilisation gets in the way
fills up the cracks where It
might slip through, sweeps
it all too clean.
What liberate
are these correspondences:
ocean mind, heart speaking to heart,
to be intimate with
To travel
beyond the names of things.
That we should be here at all
That we dare to cross these divides -
all that stands between us -
risk shipwreck, falling, drowning
over and over to save these separate selves
from separateness.
                        That we dare.
Tending the fires. Still; what else?
(from Looking For Icarus, Roselle Angwin, bluechrome 2005)

Tuesday 30 August 2011

seven for dharma

In my 2005 collection Looking For Icarus I had a sequence of poems dedicated to that great Dharma Bum, Jack Kerouac. It was called 'Three For Dharma'. On my Mac I've found an ancient appleworks file with the early version of that poem – I'd completely forgotten it. Though I think that the later pared-down published version was stronger, it's always interesting to revisit first drafts and in this case my much younger writing self.

Seven For Dharma

On The Road
for Jack Kerouac

You died just before I met you.
Not much changes. America, Vietnam. America, Iraq.
Sadism, ‘cleansings’, Rwanda, Kosovo.

Here we are still sitting,
still praying, those of us who are alive,
like Desolation Angels at the hem of apocalypse

as the earth spins in its dance through space in this
accelerating universe of stars and black holes.
Same diet: hopes, dreams, fears.

Tending the fires. What else is there to do?

You ask why I live where I do

Seeking freedom
we still live in chains
civilisation gets in the way
fills up the cracks where it
might slip through, sweeps
it all too clean.

What liberate
are these correspondences:
ocean mind, heart speaking to heart,
to be intimate with
To travel
beyond the names of things.

A morning for

talking all night
in love with everything

a morning for being up high
tracking the flight of birds

letting it all run off you
back into the sweet dark earth.


Mapping our geologies, scrawling stories
through the fluid galactic brew where this star globe
sails onward, serene with its circling moths of debris,
its cargo of volts, spilling light into gloom
as unimaginable as forever

that we should be here at all
shipwrecked on the shores of our separate selves
each saving our lives each day by just a thread.

Where the moment detonates

All these go-between miles
and the sea like a question
never quite answered

Where you’re beached
with these half-shaped words
that never quite make your lips.

Back into the sweet earth

All night voices, the lapping of water
and when dawn comes striding
across your wild garden
it breaches an ancient tideline –

ancestral memories, or promises not yet come to form
calling like snow geese, come in
after their long migration
shuffling the air with their sighs.

That we should be here at all

That we dare to cross these divides -
all that stands between us -
risk shipwreck, falling, drowning
over and over to save these separate selves
from separateness.
        That we dare.

Tending the fires. What else is there to do?

Roselle Angwin

John O'Donohue on intimacy

'In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, 'relationship' has become an empty centre around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging. Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul, and the soul is reserved.'

Sunday 28 August 2011

the art and confusions of love

I'm woken this morning at five by a squirrel chattering somewhere nearby (outside!). There's a light breeze on my face through the open window. Cloud-shadows come and go across the blinds. From somewhere I can hear a buzzard, and wood pigeon. It's Sunday, so we don't need to leap out of bed at 5.45.

Not that that makes much difference as I can't go back to sleep. My thoughts default, on this early morning, as they do a lot at the moment, to love – its meaning, purpose, complexity, demands and gifts; and the responsibilities it brings with it. Learning to love is such a big journey; because of course the exploration of love is also the search for wholeness and meaning. I have written much on this before in various books and articles, and am working (theoretically anyway) at the moment on a book on love and consciousness. One of the Jungians – and it may have been Jung himself – spoke of the impulse to love as being misguidedly seen as a search for personal happiness, but actually its purpose is to teach us of wholeness.

Sitting at the top of the meadow by the treeline on a handmade bench in the sun prior to meditation, I'm pointing something out to The Man, and a wood fritillary butterfly lands, and stays, on my hand. This is a tiny moment of grace; and I think again about love and the small-huge gifts of grace it brings.

I'm convinced that we need to be willing to put ourselves open-heartedly in the crucible of love, over and over. With all its demands and responsibilities and the grief and pain and brokenness and mistakenness it will bring us as well as the joy, love is an essential spiritual path, if we are doing it to learn and grow rather than simply to feel good and be loved.

Love is not, as we like to think, something cosy and reassuring (though it can be that too). Love is an act, and an active verb, which concerns itself with growth, with affirmation, and with wanting the best for another, extending ourselves past the narrow kickback range of egotism, as we support their and our own search for meaning, wherever it takes them and us in relation to each other – even apart.

And of course that is the ideal; something to do with unconditional and un-self-interested love: seeing the Other as they are, and supporting them in being that with no regard as to whether we like it or not.

And yet that doesn't mean we don't have limits, nor responsibilities to ourselves and our needs and our journey too, of course. There's something here about if we can't love ourselves we also can't really love another. I no longer confuse being loving with being always unselfish, as my Catholic upbringing would have me believe. This can be a great manipulation, a great avoidance of responsibility, a 'selflessness' that means I consistently ignore my own wellbeing, integrity and authentic life for the sake of another – which makes the other feel indebted, dependent, claustrophobic, resentful.

So what does it mean if my daughter, whom I love to the extent that I would do almost anything for her, even die, wants something from me that I don't feel I can reasonably give and keep giving without cost to my sense of fairness and justice, and therefore something of my integrity? What if my partner needs loving in a way I can't do it without compromising something of my essential nature? What if a friend needs me to support her in what I see as a lie?

What if my heart often doesn't behave as I'd like it to, neat and corralled and clear about black and white, but breaks out wildly, chasing the flight of a bird through a summer sky? If that enriches my life and another's or others', but goes against conventional mores, is that wrong?

Of course there's a lot of confusion in us all about what love is or isn't. Erich Fromm in The Art Of Loving makes a stab at a list of types of love:
  • brotherly love (mature love between equals)
  • motherly love (the protective sort which nurtures the vulnerable)
  • erotic love, which smashes the ego-boundaries and gives us the taste of union that we all crave but that cannot belong to or with a human other, and that can be intensely creative but brings us over and over to a crossroads where we either follow the intensity which may burn us and itself out, or 'settle for' something less intense without that huge buzz, that incredible high that is so rarely experienced elsewhere in our materialistic culture
  • self-love, which is a healthy self-regard, and not the same at all as self-seeking love 
  • and finally there's what Fromm calls the love of God, which by any other name is that deep transpersonal existential urge for transcendence, for union, for moving beyond the separative confines of the ego, experienced for instance perhaps through mutual deep love or intimacy with another as a doorway; through creative expression; through hearing sublime music/dancing/art/poetry; in meditation; in moments of huge risk in, say, mountain-climbing or in facing tragedy; through relationship with the natural world. This one takes us out of ourselves and our petty egoic concerns; give us a taste of the transpersonal, the transcendent.
But love, of course, is never black and white. Love doesn't have neat borders and intractable rules. I can know, with Fromm, that there are some basic categories of love; and I also know that there are many many subtle sub-divisions and much flux between the categories, and just when you think you've pinned it down it emerges somewhere else in an unexpected form and teaches you something new. And that – that – is exactly one of its joys.

It seems to me we need a new category that includes the whole world, its interconnectedness, and is practised and fine-tuned in our most intimate relationships.

This is my thinking, and it's notional – but what about an experiment in love that brings all these separate categories above together, if only in moments, in our human and most intimate relationship with our significant other, and mutually: brotherly, motherly, erotic (eros meaning alive, vital, passionately mutually creative), self-love and transpersonal love, a magnetic exchange in a 'mature' love based on a commitment to exploring being true to oneself, in honesty and openness, in creativity, mutual respect, 'nurturing and protecting each other's solitude' as Rilke has it, caring and wisdom for a purpose other than simply self-gratification and that extends to our attitude to the world, because there we have it: ultimately love is a choice, an attitude, an intention, and is always about enlargement.

Ask me in a couple of lifetimes hence how I'm doing with it.

Friday 26 August 2011

never too late to repent (science for artists)

How I wish I'd paid more attention to my science lessons at school. Biology consisted in low-level stand-offs between me and the somewhat eccentric Sister Consuela (with whom I got shut in the catacombs in Rome once – another story, full of terror, trauma and shudderings; life has never been the same since), when my radicalised 11-year-old self refused in a quiet well-mannered Good Catholic Girl way to dissect frogs, mice, and bulls' eyes. 

Chemistry was a blur of boredom once broken by a minor explosion. 

Maths: well, I never really got the hang of it, and in fact failed my GCE O level (twice), unlike my younger sister who's a bit of a mathematical genius. But I love the patterns in maths; the excitement of its appearances in, say, phi, the Fibonacci sequence to which the Golden Section in art and architecture conforms, and which lies behind the spiral forms of fiddlehead fern, a pine cone, a nautilus shell – even the breeding patterns of rabbits! (And now as a creative writing tutor I can offer poetry sessions in maths classrooms and work in the Fibonacci sequence...) 

Physics was a different matter – I didn't always get that entirely, either, but how I loved some of the concepts, and I didn't do too badly in my O level exam. And a beginner's enthusiasm for quantum reality has inspired many poems; as has the occasional conversation with my friend Mario Petrucci, himself a poet and physicist.

So here I confess to being a poetry traitor – some of my work is adulterated courtesy of the New Scientist. You can't read novels or poetry all the time; not even right-on heavyweight non fiction books. If I want to relax, it's Asterix. If I want to be stimulated in small soundbites it's the less intense news pieces in NS. And sometimes some of the things I learn find their way into my poems. And this week there were some interesting little snippets, in Michael Brooks' Science column in the New Statesman, which I'll share with you here this wet Devon Friday morning:
  • Researchers think that earth was formed dry and water arrived on meteorites
  • Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms make up more than 90% of your body weight
  • The gas cloud Sagittarius B2 contains roughly a billion billion billion litres of alcohol at 200% proof – more alcohol than human beings have distilled in their history... the bad news is that filling a single glass would involve trawling a volume roughly the size of earth, Brooks cautions those minded to head off for a space party...

The poem below, from my 2005 collection Looking for Icarus, was inspired as it says by a crash course in an aspect of physics:

Physics Lesson

Optoelectronics: you scribe the tongues
of lithium, niobium - molecules
which rearrange the fabric of us all
as surely, as improbably as love.

I’m picturing tectonics: grinding plates
of continents beneath the heaving oceans
meshing in uneasy shifts beyond the reach
of light, of all our knowing.

This spinning planet’s wild arcane interior,
throbbing secret lives, drawn briefly
down to this: this triangle on paper, captive
atoms whirling in their disenfranchised

orbits, knocking on the sides, against each other
in their frenzy to be free  and glyph-less –
these fish-tanks, when what they wanted
                                                            was the sea.
© Roselle Angwin 2005

Thursday 25 August 2011

Staying Alive

Staying Alive is the name of the first in Bloodaxe's trilogy of inspiring poetry anthologies. I use it as the only set text in my poetry correspondence course; and this autumn and winter I'm delighted to be tutoring for The Poetry School and using this book as the heart of the course. Here's the programme blurb:

'How might a poem give us a high voltage jolt to the heart, allow us to see the world in different ways? What makes some poems fly, and others not achieve lift-off? Through close reading, discussion, writing and feedback we’ll explore these questions. Weeks will alternate between investigating a poem in some depth and then using it as a springboard into writing, and feedback on our own work. These two terms will be stimulating for both novices and experienced poets. The Bloodaxe anthology Staying Alive will be our inspiration; so you’ll need to bring it to each session.'

The sessions will be ten a term, beginning in October and then January, on a Monday evening in central Exeter. If you'd like to come along I'd love to see you.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

this moment

And this is how it is:
dazzling moments of sun
the puzzle of cloud
a darkness of rain
then slowly, slowly
one by one the wayside
flowers bloom.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

sutras, suffering and transience

So to continue on with this theme from earlier in the week about suffering: in Buddhism, basically, suffering stems from our attachment to our cravings or our aversions. Something turns around once you realise that nothing here can be permanent, and that empowerment comes from understanding that.

I posted before that wonderful quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn: 'You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf.' Easy to say; but we want THIS wave, not that one, and we want it now and forever.

Surfing means riding lightly, catching the wave – or not – and letting it go when its time to go comes, not hanging on for dear life (though I did a great deal of that when I was learning to surf in the outer world of 'real' sea – I posted something of that a few months ago).

It means accepting transience.

I found myself singing this little Buddhist chant from the ancient Diamond Sutra over the weekend (not sure if someone else has created the lines from the DS or whether a version of that sutra presents them like this? If you know, please tell me!):

Oh have you seen this world –
a drop of dew
a bubble in a stream
lightning in a summer cloud
a phantom
and a dream...

And to leave you, for today, with a little sutra from my book Bardo:

air sutra
the particles in these atoms
spell out buzzard 
the rest
is wind and sky

© Roselle Angwin 2011

Monday 22 August 2011

'IMAGO' opening chapter

In celebration of finally getting round to picking up the abandoned 3rd novel I began to write in 1997, I thought I'd post here the opening chapter of Imago, my 1st novel, that came out earlier this year. (Yes of course I'm hoping to tempt you into buying it! Link to the right...)

PS Later: it's a strange thing seeing your creative work in this medium. Looking back at this chapter this evening, I see that this is a shocking opening – and want to reassure you (if you're like me, anyway) that it's atypical of the book in general – though there is some hard stuff later, too, with the Cathar persecution, admittedly.



It didn’t start as a love story. It started with an ending.

In the chasm between waking and sleeping, life and death, she relives it over and over, unable to pull herself free.
  There’s the still May evening, fat-bellied moon sliding inauspiciously across Pluto’s trajectory, and in the distance the murmur of the Torridge; or maybe it’s the light wind rising in the birches. An east wind, its skirts full of unease and conflict, billowing up from nowhere suddenly, setting the horses in the neighbouring field skittering, the hares leaping through tight bronze fiddleheads of bracken.
  The air suddenly green with fear, then pricking with hate, ready to combust.  
  Anger. Her words, each one poison-tipped, aimed at the heart. Greg’s eyes, glittering under the moon, pale as frogspawn. His fingers yanking at the sleeves of her silk summer dress, tearing.
  The car accelerating out of the drive in second gear, spitting gravel, away from the little white town, away from the party, roaring up the hill back towards Exeter.
            The dress gaping like a wound and Annie’s hip aching from half stumbling half being pushed into the car, banged against the jamb. His cheek swelling and a sour odour coming off him. Her hand stinging. She can’t believe this is happening, this conflict; can’t believe it. Once there was love. Once she loved him; they loved each other. How long ago?
            There’s the briefest comfort of horse sweat through the open window, then the saltmud tang of estuary; then only diesel and burning rubber. The engine shrieking.
            Truck lights around a right hand bend and Greg swerving.
            In its moment of unfolding the present becomes the past and, as history, is always fiction. So later she questions, over and over, did she imagine it? What is real? Because here, in this present moment, terribly, terrifyingly, Greg seems to throw the car to the right, straight at the offside corner of the lorry’s bonnet.
            The instant before the impact stretching on and on, dreadful, soundless, tunnel-dark, empty, eternal.
            The moment exploding around them.
            She thinks she hears his neck snap, a sound like distant gunshot, chilling; then his face fading away as she slides beneath dark waters; but his mouth pursuing her, open, in shock, in agony, in triumph even.
In the hospital bed her broken body convulses and she cries out; and again, as she will later in the camper van in her lover’s arms; then alone on a frozen March mountainside, suspended between centuries; and as she will, again and again, in the lonely ebb of l’Estang des Sangliers, where the square stone house fills up night after night with voices, trapping her in its unending darkness like one of the haunted boggy bottomless pools high on the Dartmoor of her childhood, in which she fears she may drown.

© Roselle Angwin 1994/2011

Sunday 21 August 2011

autumn courses: writing, mindfulness, meaning and transience

So many people have responded to my last blog posting that included these words: ' much of our suffering is self-inflicted, through our identification with our emotions, and therefore our reactivity; and because of wanting what we can't have and not wanting what we do have (whether that's a job or relationship or house or status or state of mind...). This is how we throw away our freedom.' 

Thank you! And what it's done is kickstart me into thinking once again about incorporating more of this kind of work into my course programme. 

In fact I started, way back when (in about 1991) with workshops addressing, loosely, personal growth and human potential, usually through the lens of myth, dream, astropsychology and archetypal psychology; gradually these morphed more and more into writing workshops as I do this for a living, and in rural Devon it's much easier to fill writing workshops than ones that focus more specifically on the inner life and our search for meaning. (I do very much love the writing courses, too; and in fact all my workshops have deeper questions at their core.)

So I'm going to start to include a wider range of courses again. There are three broad areas about which I'm passionate, and although they are constantly intertwined in my work, for the sake of clarity I'll try and separate them a little here. 
  • First there are the creative and reflective writing courses that I lead under the title of Fire in the Head
  • Then there are courses that focus on environmental awareness, using writing as a tool alongside slow walking, attentiveness, silence and stillness outdoors on the land; I think of these as ecobardic workshops, and call them Ground of Being. (Unique courses, such as 'Islands of the Heart' on the Isle of Iona, draw together both the above, with a sprinkling of the below.) With Michael Fairfax, I also offer Littorals: a day workshop that is land-based and includes land art as well as writing, but without the same focused stillness and silence of the GoB workshops.
  • The ones I'm coming back to now used to be called Myth as Metaphor. However, more and more I'm using tools from Buddhist thought (don't worry, you don't have to 'believe' anything!), such as mindfulness and an awareness of the present moment, to inform this work. And yes, we will also be looking at what causes suffering, how to let go of it, and how we might more skilfully address our relationships; whether with ourselves, each other or the wider world. So I need a new title; but for the minute these too will come under the Fire in the Head logo.
Most of us feel we could lead richer more fulfilling lives. The work I do is around questions to do with creativity, meaning and ‘living your own life’ as a journey. My approach uses writing as a way of identifying themes in your life, and blocks to a richer life, as well as a means of focusing on areas in your life that need attention. The aim is to increase creativity in every aspect of your life. This approach uses the tools I speak of above.

I believe we all have the resources and wisdom to feel whole. Whether we're working by email, in a face-to-face group or one-to-one, I walk alongside you through prompts, questions, inspiring poems or prose passages, reflective practice and feedback, with the intention of encouraging you to uncover your own answers.

The skills I bring are those of an awareness of myth and archetype, the humanistic approach of my transpersonal training in counselling, and psychospiritual techniques gleaned from a number of sources including bardic/shamanic practice, alongside the Buddhist use of mindfulness. Always I'm looking at how we situate ourselves in our environment and the natural world; and what gives us meaning.

Right now, the day workshops I'll mention below will take place near Totnes, in Devon, UK. I shall be working through the winter on developing e-courses too; and one-to-one tailor-made in-person or email sessions will be possible. You can email me through my profile if you'd like more info, and my website ( will offer more detail soon.

Saturday 15 October: Fire in the Head creative writing: day of inspiration
Sunday 16 October: Writing the Bright Moment: bringing mindfulness into our writing and exploring haiku and haibun 


Saturday 20 August 2011

swimming against the current (or not)

'Someone asked the Dalai Lama what surprised him most. This was his answer: "Man (sic). Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die and then he dies having never really lived..."' (Svitlana Akhalaya)

Tide sliding up; then slowly dropping. Trees on the cusp of turning. The dimpsey – cusp between night and day. Flotilla of duck heading downriver. An egret flaps past silently, then another; heading for the lightning-tree roost. Fadeout. An owl starts up across the creek, in the woods bordering the Dart. We're breathing side by side, sitting outside the pub together.

I'm thinking, as so often, of the need to swim against the current – the tide of received opinion, convention, Establishment values if they don't reflect one's own in order to live a life of meaning and authenticity. It seems particularly prevalent amongst the artistic community as a modus vivendi – new ideas and original creative thinking seem to require this. And to live a life with a spiritual underpinning, whatever that means for each of us, always demands an upstream effort in a materially-oriented culture.

And I recognise in my self a pathological tendency to swim perpetually against the current, like the salmon; exhausting myself. I've written of this before. 

As always (being a Libran), I'm looking for a point of balance.

What I do know is that so much of our suffering is self-inflicted, through our identification with our emotions, and therefore our reactivity; and because of wanting what we can't have  and not wanting what we do have (whether that's a job or relationship or house or status or state of mind...).

This is how we throw away our freedom.

Friday 19 August 2011


First whisper of autumn, just a breath, faintly discernible, carried on air. The Man says it's always like this in Devon late August; and it surprises me every time. I don't expect the first whiff of autumn till around my birthday on the equinox in September.

Having seen hardly any swallows this year (except one lone one, singing every morning on my neighbour's chimney aerial), I'm delighted to have spotted about 15 young with 3 or 4 parents on the wires nearby today (delighted that they exist; not so delighted that lining up on wires presages departure). So someone somewhere close must have enough open barn space still, thank goodness, for them to nest; that'll be the Pateys, one of the few local farming families left in the area. And since last night I heard a barn owl very close, there must be an owl-shaped space somewhere nearby to nest. This makes me absurdly happy. And so – this might sound odd – does the fact that the wasps have nearly completed their new and beautiful home, after something (my friend Michael says a badger) destroyed their last one (though if that's the case, rather counter-intuitively they've built immediately adjacent to a badger track). (Why would a badger destroy a wasps' nest? They don't make honey – do they?) And the other bit of good nature-news is a flock of about a dozen young greenfinches.

Going to France was quite cathartic for me. It's been a hard hard few years, and I'm exhausted. Nothing's changed in my life; but my attitude to it has changed. I'm not fighting it so much, or struggling all the time. That makes all the difference! I mentioned before in another blog Jon Kabat-Zinn's great quote: 'You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf'. I've known that quote since I was 17 – quite a long time. It's one thing to know it, quite another to practise it. Oh yes I know I've also been practising meditation a similarly long time. You expect to get sorted, be sussed – but actually it's always 'beginner's mind' – same lessons over and over till finally you recognise them coming, see the way the mind plays tricks, notice its default grooves. It's simply about showing up and doing the work, really. Yes, over and over. And not being attached to what happens (or doesn't).

Breathing. It's still a struggle to keep my attention entirely on my breath for 10 counts up and 10 counts down, which is a good starting point for meditation. Sounds easy? Try it!

We've got to deal with the internal chatter that passes for thought; engage with monkey-mind and say 'not now, ok?' sometimes if we want to get into the deep places of the still small voices... the ones we really need to hear, beyond negativity, fear, grudges.

Thursday 18 August 2011

The View From Here

is that ‘day’ includes the sky
the wind the house martins
the laughing woodpecker
the breeze that stirs the oleander
that old lilac 2CV on the road below
the river’s brilliant eddies
wisteria leaves stirring
the cicadas the collared dove
my friend’s footstep creaking the stair
the French girls’ voices
passing the gate

is defined by the absence of ‘me’
except as observer and maybe then co-
creator (oh and I forgot the perceived
centre of the universe)

but this world is nothing if not flux
and in fact the ‘me’ that thinks
it’s the whole picture, the whole
great gobsmacking heart of everything
makes only a fistful of ash
out of its particles that are also

the rest both more and less
is what the wind blows through
passes through this world
on a wingbeat
or the way a cloud does
not static not fixed forever
breaking up and reforming
breaking up again.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday 17 August 2011

zen mindfulness & creativity

My life, in which I include my work, has been underpinned since I was a student by my Zen practice of meditation and mindfulness. I've written something of this elsewhere in my blog, but as I include the word 'Zen' in my subtitle for this blog I thought I'd pick up on this a little today, partly as a 'way back in' to here, wherever 'here' is – inner and outer home, I suppose I mean; of which blogging forms a part.

This has partly arisen because I have been thinking about my programme of courses for the winter, and had been intending to run the postponed 'Zen and poetry' weekend. Instead, I find myself thinking again about single days focusing similarly on mindfulness and creative writing. In the past I've led a number entitled 'Writing the Bright Moment' (which became the title of a creative writing handbook I published in 2005); and I find myself wanting to focus more on these. So I'm putting one in place (Sunday October 16, near Totnes in Devon, in case you might be interested); and I'm thinking about how I might offer this as a regular meeting.

Zen practice as mindfulness powerfully locates one in the present moment. In this, it teaches us to really see (and hear and listen, and sense and smell and taste); it teaches us that this moment is the one we have, the only one we ever really have, and how to pay full attention to it. It teaches us, cliché though it is, to be. Just to be with how things are.

It's about cutting through surface perception, habituated thought patterns, behavioural 'tics' and expectations to perceive and experience essential nature; and to dwell in it, freshly, as if for the first time. 'So much of what we hear' (substitute see, smell, taste, touch, think, feel etc) 'is what we expect, and we tune out the rest', said someone wise (wish I could remember who).

For me, this connects so powerfully with creative expression both as a process or container for and result of the art of truly paying attention.

Thinking about all this this morning it's natural for me to turn to a book given me by my friend Susie: The Zen of Creativity: cultivating your artistic life, one of the five treasures that live on my bedside table. John Daido Loori, erstwhile Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, and founder of the Mountains and Rivers Zen order, offers so much wisdom in this book. (Loori died last year, and is greatly missed in the Zen community.)

Loori summarises the relationship between Zen and creativity clearly in his intro. He tells us that during the Sung dynasty in China around 1000 years ago poet-priests and painter-priests broke tradition with all the previous forms of religious and secular representational art. When Chinese Zen (Chan) travelled to Japan in the C13th, it thrived in a ground within the Taoist tradition that had been fertilised already by an artistic legacy, developed largely by courtesans in Japan in the previous few hundred years, that naturally and easily transmuted into what is now the Zen aesthetic. The spontaneous verse developed by these brilliant women, as Loori describes them, put down the roots of haiku.

The Zen aesthetic is specifically about pointing to the nature of reality, and becoming aware of our place in the universe.  It implies a new way of being and seeing that takes us to the heart of being fully human and fully alive. 'Zen art, as sacred art,' says Loori, 'touched artists and audiences deeply, expressed the ineffable, and helped to transform the way we see ourselves in the world.' These Zen arts don't exist primarily as art, but rather as a method for opening the creative process, training the mind, living our lives and communicating spiritual insight.

The Taoist roots combined with the Zen poetic express a deep appreciation of the natural world, and an awareness of impermanence. Qualities that have become synonymous with the Zen aesthetic grew out of this period (the Heian, 795–1185), says Loori. Here we see the emergence of four key ideas – wabi: solitude (and sometimes expressed as loneliness or a sense of disconnection); sabi: the 'suchness' or 'isness' of things; aware, which is a kind of yearning or nostalgia; and yugen: mystery, the hidden, the ineffable or numinous.

So these Zen training methods, the 'artless arts', offered 'ways in' to essential nature. Zen painting is visual communication, designed to point to 'essence'; Zen poetry uses words to point to that which is essentially wordless. But this is not an abstract experience. We start with being right here, right now, in the present moment and in the body, living within this beautiful universe as part of the natural world; but not that alone. The approach is whole-body-and-mind, moving beyond either/or ways of thinking to try and live and express that living in a free, generous, spontaneous and what Zen calls 'unconditioned' way.

Over and over we re-experience this one long moment: its simplicity, its mystery, its spontaneity, its suchness. The joy of it. And in this immersion everything changes, and nothing changes. 'Before enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water,' goes one of the teachings. It's all, and only, about waking up.

'Only that day dawns to which we are awake,' says Thoreau.

Tuesday 16 August 2011


'Be kind; for every one you meet is fighting a hard battle.'  Plato 

'My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.' The Dalai Lama

Monday 15 August 2011


From the old chateau ruins with their long spear of a yew tree and ripe figs just out of reach we watch a pair of swallowtail butterflies chasing each other at boy-racer speeds, twisting and turning in swift parries and jinks.

The church beside the site of the castle is a hotchpotch of styles and ages, from what would be the Dark Ages here in the UK but is described in France as the high middle ages (between C5th and C10th) to a much later render over the ochre limestone. The tower's apparently dramatically shorter than it once was, and inside the stonework is stitched with narrow red regional bricks. The Romanesque doorway is striking.

Later, heading towards the river, we're walking in wild boar trotter-prints. Down here there's a big old house standing in maize fields for sale, along with its huge and beautiful barn in old oak and stonework (all the barns and woodstores are built like this, topped with the pan-tiles), with a village-sized bread oven attached to what might have been a small mill, its foundations in the moat-come-millpond. Next door to the barn is a big pigeonnier – a huge tower-dovecot (many of the bigger village houses kept pigeons to eat), big enough to make into a two- or three-level studio.

The wide slow Lot, when we reach it, by the bridge, is warm and inviting. We step in, on little white cockle-shells. The old church clock in the adjoining village chimes tinnily and crazily, apparently at random.

Around our feet are dozens and dozens of tiny fish, and other larger fish, stippled like trout, jump. 

Something skip-jumps repeatedly across the surface, and then another – later we realise they're little frogs.

Now, back on the terrace, a few swifts have come down low to join the martins – maybe the promised storm.

Eloise is cooking a mushroom stroganoff with the rest of the ceps. In the same mushroom market in Villefranche we watched an elderly man tramp in with a handful of clearly handmade rugged and delightfully asymmetrical baskets, maybe five of them; plonk them down, stand around for ten minutes and then rather sulkily stomp off again after no sales to the villagers and visitors haggling over boxes of wild-gathered mushrooms. I followed him as he flung the baskets into the back of his old Peugeot and bought one for such a small price I thought I'd misread the label. They're all made, he told me, from local chestnut and willow, with a little extra handle-binding of old clematis lianas. He's 85, a farmer and forager, and has been making baskets 'toute ma vie'.

Down on the southwestern side of Cahors my friend Johnny is building what he calls a 'hut' down in his orchard by the stream, for friends and visitors. We dropped in en passant before coming up here. The 'hut' turns out to be a little house, built sturdily of reclaimed old oak beams, with a decking balcony, a mezzanine sleeping platform and solar panels. Oh and wild boar – I've spent many evenings watching for them with him among the wild orchids – snorting around the meadow at night.

Now, here at Calvignac, thunder rolls around the valley, and the river, earlier ruffled, looks menacingly still. A flock of about twenty snow-white geese or maybe even swan head south along the course of the Lot.

First lightning away to the south. The martins have suddenly gone out.

For about five or six hours the storm rattles on, a continuous exchange of fire and its sound-shadow thunder, circling the hills in sheets and spikes of light. Then at about two in the morning the sky gives in and throws down a little shower, before closing its mouth on a last clap of thunder.

Sunday 14 August 2011

apres les vacances

Well, here I am back in soft and hazygrey Devon – and I think my cursor may be a little rusty.

Sitting here I can see through my loft window now at late dusk the August full moon rising over the hill, and the sky washed those rather indescribable shades of translucent harebell and mallow. The little smoke of bats has begun to drift past the window.



It took me about two minutes in France to work out that I'd need to abandon all my ideas of blogging by blackberry – the keys are so small that even a very short post (for which I am not noted) would be frustratingly time-consuming. So I turned my attention to having a break from things electronic. Instead I spent uncountable hours on the terrace of a 14th century house in a tiny hilltop village above the woods, lush plains and wide slow loops of the River Lot – that is in between the pools of conversation over the long lunches and dinners, and punctuating the writing, reading, walking, kayaking, river-swimming and visiting, again, the immensely inspiring painted prehistoric caves of Pech Merle, about which I've written before.

Before I abandoned the attempt, though, and before the urge to turn my pen to matters poetic had kicked in irresistibly, I'd made some notes; which as a way back in to my blogging self I copy for you here.

The last few miles are alongside the river. Embedded in the tall cliffs bordering the Lot are buildings dating from the Hundred Years War between England and France that straddled (my history's a little shaky) the C14th. We cross a small bridge and turn right, start winding uphill.

Dusk and we pull up on the tiniest of narrow slopes opposite a tumbling and many-pieced roof, all eight centuries of it (I'm excited to realise it would have been built not long after the period I write about in Imago, after the persecution of the Cathars and the fall of Montsegur. I'm also excited, later, to find indoors a book on the Cathars I haven't yet read).  

The pan-tiles are old deep red terracotta, now dulled and darkened by age and dusk, and skirted with the last of the day's whirring house martins with a couple of dragonflies buzzing among them like officious guards (if that's not tautology). As we emerge the martins are gradually replaced by bats, and an owl begins to hoot in the thick oak and chestnut woodland – and listen, the green woodpecker's still yaffling off in the distance... 

Tiny wooden gate. Step through onto the thick-stemmed-wisteria-topped oak-beamed terrace and oh the view of the wide slow river glinting below winding between the limestone gorges and lean over the terrace to catch a dusky glimpse of the lush river valley and its borders of woodland. A green pooling of daylight seems to linger below. This land is described as a 'pays de lumiere', and even at dusk everything seems to glow. 

I'm here with my daughter and two much-loved friends who have treated us both to a holiday. This area is the national park of the Causses du Quercy in the Lot ('quercy' coming from the Latin quercus, meaning oak; it's very lush, very green and wooded – mostly oak and chestnut, with the fertile river borders thick with sunflowers, maize, tobacco and fruit and nut trees, and a huge number of colourful wildflower meadows; and right now very hot).  

The Lot is a treasure: further south, rural, relatively undiscovered, almost completely unspoilt and in my view more beautiful than its better-known neighbour the Dordogne. Almost all the little houses – quirky, varied and tumbling over each other in a way that reminds me of the little fishing villages in my native Cornwall – in this small hilltop village are mediaeval, and even the few new ones are built of the local golden limestone topped with red tiles.

The family names here, often Occitan rather than French, have been associated with this land for centuries. Who knows how many of the inhabitants are descended from the people who painted the underground rock walls in this region with such sophistication so many millennia ago? Imagine the miles and miles of caves in the gorges; picture the prehistoric art created 25,000 years ago in the cavernous bellies of these hills: flickering silhouettes of horses, bison, mammoths, antelope, bear and auroch drawn in assured sweeps of red and yellow ochre, manganese and charcoal two miles below the surface. Picture the red ochre and charcoal 'negative' handprints, clear as your own. See the footprints of those two adolescent boys preserved in mud...

I rest my arms on the balcony and breathe in the oleander and thyme from the secluded little garden. I can hear nothing except the owl and an occasional cicada; the dogbark and tractor have both been switched off. A light in the faraway castle comes on. The river gleams up at me. The ochre walls are radiating the day's sun. We've a huge basket of ceps from the mushroom market to cook for supper. In a minute I'll go and chop garlic, begin an omelet. I think this and then Francis comes out with a glass of wine for me. 'I'm making a cep omelet,' he announces. 

I breathe down at the river in the darkness. Think about nothing other than being here, than the gleam of water, the bats, the warmth of the old oak balcony. 

And for a few blissful days even the Middle East, the London riots, the American debt crisis and, closer to home, the five young calves belonging to a negligent farmer whose welfare (or otherwise) has occupied a great deal of my waking time and what ought to be sleeping time also until finally the RSPCA took it seriously don't even approach my consciousness.

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