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

Friday 30 September 2011


when I wake
the weight of this
whole fractured earth 
comes and drums on my chest –

this pain that is 
mine, and yours, everyone's –

and yet and yet 
too there is nothing 
more beautiful than this fragile web
against the mists of morning

Thursday 29 September 2011

to love or not to love, this is the question

All our lives, like all our religions, may be riffs on the theme of being able to love – or not.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

the news from here in 200 words

'A good planet's hard to find' (bumper sticker). And now they've found one they'll concrete it over, make the water undrinkable, air unbreathable, slaughter the wildlife, starve the already starving. (Oh and keep paying the money-lenders and cutting welfare for the poor.) BUT here the sun still breaks through haze, the equinox spring tide's high and beautiful on the Teign and Exe estuaries, the egrets and herons plentiful, the dunlin flipping and circling as one spectacular, the black swan in the flock of twenty white like a grace note in a piece of music, the fallow deer under huge oaks dreamy and dozing in morning river-mist. And I'm on the train travelling through this paradise, alongside the sea, to do one of the things I like best: running a poetry workshop, for the visionary Prince's Trust (he gets some things right), the aim of which is to take arts to children who might otherwise never feel able to enter the world of words, music, theatre. And it's hot, now, late September; and if I keep my eyes on the water I don't have to look at the thick sash of fine-particle pollution, aka smog, squatting on the hills over Exeter.

Monday 26 September 2011

epona's grove


 My Ground of Being days take place on the Sundays closest to the equinoxes and solstices throughout the year; these solar turning-points, waymarkers, or stations, which we can use to pause and reflect on the meeting-places and relationships between light and dark, masculine and feminine, sowing intentions and harvesting manifestations. It's useful to look back from the autumn equinox to the quarter just gone, between the zenith of fecund summer and the harvests, inner and outer, that have resulted, as it is also useful to look back over the whole cycle of the four seasons, as we now turn back inwards, towards the Dreamtime on the Wheel of the Year.

This year though I miss the equinox GoB day, as this vertigo virus still has me and is shaking me around like a rag-doll (or perhaps corn-doll – the traditional icon made from the last of the golden straw to celebrate the harvest, and remind us in dark times of the returning cycle of the sun).

So Sunday comes and I can't even get out of bed without falling against the walls, knocking over chairs, and generally feeling out of it. I have to try and get hold of people, outdoors in the rain as there's no mobile signal indoors where I'm staying, propping myself against the wall and hoping I won't throw up. Three people, I know, have come from over 100 miles to do this day – but there is nothing I can do – and I'm not good at feeling helpless, let alone at resting. So I'm interested that I have no option but to be still, when I am so longing to be out there on Dartmoor leading some quiet and some writing time. (I remember too being ill at the vernal equinox, though it didn't stop me doing the day.)

The space was marked though – one of our members did the day alone, as he did when I was iced-in at the December solstice – so the trail has been met with footsteps.

This morning, I managed to walk out towards the heart of the moor and the morning. Here are some photos, and a poem sequence from last autumn equinox.

Deer track
There are times when love seems a rare beast –
pangolin, or griffin – mythic at the edges
of vision, visitor from a world unvisited

the glimpse a benison for all that might yet be
and whose knowing might undo us completely
if we could but let it in.


Leaves, falling
Later, in the mist, rowanberries glimmer like fireflies;
up here at Four Winds I am unstrung,
the beads of me scattered to all directions.

The equinox, my birthday and a full moon
bringing, at last, a closure to the turbulence
of this solar cycle. In this high rush of air

the ancient beech shivers off her leaves,
and, heedless of motorbikes, trucks on the road,
the yellow house, the currency of thought,

the moon lifts her owl-bone-white rim
over the moor’s horizon where we sip
at the autumn dusk, let it all remake us.


The full moon hangs in the pale sky like a revelation
awaiting its time. There are times when I know that
love might mean beginning over and over

and again. And how I’ll do that.


Near Merrivale
Once, in the future, I knew my way back.


The light beyond the forest
On the hill, dusk is the colour of violets.

© Roselle Angwin 2010

PS 'Epona' – blog title – is the horse goddess

Saturday 24 September 2011

apples, time and poetry...

A minor miracle has happened. The Man, for whom (like a large proportion of the English nation according to polls) nothing touches Kipling's 'If' (though he concedes that T S Eliot's poetry is 'quite good'), has discovered his Inner Poet.

We were lounging in autumn sun under a huge oak on the banks of the Dart yesterday celebrating my birthday. I glanced at him and caught a sober face. 'You feeling sad? Or just thoughtful?'

He reflected a minute. 'All thought is longing for the infinite,' he said. 'So thought has sadness deep within it.'

What can I say? – Except that rhyme is catching... And given that little problem with Time's Arrow that I mentioned in yesterday's post, who knows which of us (Kipling, me, TM) caught it from whom?

Friday 23 September 2011

the problem with time, and the equilux

The dog and I lie side-by-side in the courtyard (though I'm on the bench) in weak sun. We're toughing out the hornets buzzing us from their nest two yards away (I am; she's cowering behind my bench); this is an exercise in not knee-jerk killing. Two seasons they've shared our space; so far so good, no one's been stung, and they've eaten our blackfly.
    I've got some viral vertigo thing: today the world's spinning a great deal faster than it ought to be by rights (and I don't think it's just because I'm a year older tomorrow); and in the opposite direction from the way I'd like it to go, so that when I walk against its gravitational pull I fall over or throw up. Solution? Stay lying down.
   So that's the space dimension. The time one seems a bit problematic, too (though not to a poet), for physicists now that they've found some neutrinos that travel faster than the speed of light – what does that do to time's arrow, then, hey? And a Prof from Oxford says it means that all the foundations of science that we base our comtemporary worldview on (at least in terms of relativity) will crumble. (The way TM reported it to me was that the Prof said 'that ****ers up causality', but that might have been TM being unusually loose with the info.)
   I could've told them that linear time is an illusion anyway (but they might not have believed my credentials I suppose).
   So that really might make a mockery of our notion of ageing... 


That was yesterday; the day after they also put Troy Davis to death in Georgia USA, despite the overwhelming likelihood that he was innocent (and 7 of 9 witnesses recanted). Imagine being for 20 years on death row, and so close to possible reprieve.

Last night I lit candles for him and all like him. A poor pathetic gesture, but what else is there to do, other of course than keeping on shouting for justice, and fairness, and compassion, rather than simply taking it without protest?


And yesterday, too, we lit the first fire of the season, the autumn equinox fire, with the oak that came down last winter: the oak king's final blaze. The Dreamtime's approaching now with its inwardness and reflection; its gathering-in of all the harvests of this summer and the turning solar twelvemonths, or thirteen moon-months.

On Sunday I shall walk out on the moor with others who want to share this equinoctial turning time with me with words and silence in an ancient place; the time of balance, of the creative tension of complementary poles where sun and moon hold steady, symbolically, as day and night are of equal length. ('Equilux', I'm told it should be called; though whether you emphasise equal night ('nox') or equal light you're still buying in to one or the other, surely, when at this time of equipoise maybe neither should be the 'default' title.)


I find myself writing poems in a voice quite unlike my usual voice at the moment, inspired in some way by my visit to the Witchcraft Museum, and mythic in focus – I write a lot about myth and archetype in prose but it doesn't find my poetry often. What's more, I'm writing in rhyme some of the time. This is a worrying turnabout – is it my age?? (Oh er I forgot, there's that little hitch in our notions of time so I can't blame it on that.)


More soon. I wish you a fruitful equinox and a rich harvest.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

stone heart

This morning: sun after several wild days. There's a young buzzard high up in the thermals, and two ravens playing. A young fox cub stepped onto the track in front of me and the dog, just yards away, paw lifted, sniffing the air. When the hunt comes, illegally, cubbing next month, I hope s/he is nousy enough to hide, or fleet enough to outstrip the hounds. And if I'm here when the hunt comes, I hope I'll be brave enough once again to stand between them and the hunted, should it be necessary.


In the state of Georgia, USA, a man is due to be executed today for a crime he probably didn't commit – despite the evidence, despite the international outcry and the tens of thousands of signatures on the e-petition. How can our hearts be big enough to hold all this, to grieve for who and what is lost, to carry on fighting injustice and oppression, to insist on being heard? And petitions do change things; let's not forget that the voice of the people, ultimately, is what changes governments and policies. Margaret Mead said: 'Never doubt that a group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that does.' There's still time to take action tonight, Wednesday, in the UK till midnight.  You can sign a petition – even this late – here:


When I go offline for a few days one or two of you sometimes write/s to ask how/where I am. You know – that is so appreciated! A huge compliment, to know that one's words are being read, and even maybe being missed...

And I'm mindful of the fact that each day so many trillions (and whatever is bigger than that) of words are being generated every second, all over the world. It's an odd thing, language; a word can change the world. Words are dangerous flammable beings. The Nazis burnt books.

I think of the Dhammapada (was it?) again: 'Better a single word that brings peace than a thousand useless words.' In a poem, every word has to count. In our lives? Well, in mine, anyway, I know that the wordmill is churning out so many billion per day, none of which is truly essential – in both senses of that word. And I spend most of my daytime time alone!

A friend posted this on facebook:

Pythagorean theorem: 24 words 
Lord's prayer: 66 words 
Archimedes' Principle: 67 words 
Ten Commandments: 179 words 
Gettysburg address: 286 words
US Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words 
US Constitution with all 27 Amendments: 7,818 words 
EU regulations on the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words.

Interesting, our priorities, huh?


The last three days I've been out in wild weather on the moors and coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Sometimes I can't believe my life: being paid to do what I love best – taking people (in this case a group of Swiss baccalaureate students) out onto the land to write poetry.

Sunday was Dartmoor: we walked from Widecombe to Bonehill with the shifting light, wild wind and stormy clouds, and a fine moorland mizzle, and the sun came out long enough for us to eat our lunches and write in the lee of Honeybag Tor with its fine views away to Haytor, and beyond it towards the invisible ocean...

Later we're walking with Liz from the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust through Bellever Forest to see if we can spot one of the rare herds of that endangered creature, the true (purebred) Dartmoor pony, native to this land for thousands of years. (The ponies one sees on the moor now are usually crossed with Shetlands, for their smaller size and sturdiness as pit ponies for the mining and quarrying.)

We do (spot a little herd of five):

And Liz takes us to a new-to-me small area of megalithic activity (the moor has about 5000 scattered megaliths or megalithic sites, from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age).

Lakehead Hill has a stone circle or two, a couple of kistvaens (Brythonic Celtic word, meaning stone grave, or cairn) and a reconstructed stone row (rather inaccurately; our prehistoric ancestors built their monuments with extreme precision, whereas the Victorian reconstructionists managed to give what should be a dead straight row a kink to one side, curving like a weighted ball). The old Lychway also passes through here.

On Monday we went to Slapton Ley, from where the stone heart photo came. I loved watching 9 teenagers grouped around the heart they'd put together, arms around each other...

And then yesterday was Boscastle harbour and the Witchcraft Museum, followed by Tintagel (or 'Dyn Tagell') Castle, a seal, and a High Tale of Love and Death... but that's another story...

Saturday 17 September 2011

cricket, satori and the Baie de Morlaix

TM takes me to the pub on Bow Creek for supper. He's not a pub man, but is beginning to get that I like to go out sometimes in the evenings, and it doesn't always have to be cultural or worthy.

The Maltsters is right on the creek (we ended our canoe trip there in July; I wrote about that; and it's where I go when I want to treat myself to water, walking, solitary away-from-home-and-emails writing, and a snack – they do a generous, excellent and cheap vegetarian mezze platter).

Tide's high and in the dusky light the water coming up from the English Channel's storminess is murky. A single swan, struck mythical by moonlight, floats hopefully towards the swaying pontoon where my shadow falls.

Inside there's no window table to watch the changing face of the river as dark falls. TM tries hard and fails not to look delighted that the only table is in the rather downbeat unambient back room – where a large screen is relaying the cricket. (A number of men during the evening sidle this way, briefly, abandoning partners to watch other men on adrenalin getting excited about balls, wooden sticks and much running and falling over – each to his own, I guess...) I try for a minute or two to take an interest, but my qs are clearly so obtuse that TM's patience is stretched at the thought that anyone could be so ignorant about the arcania of such a noble sport. He laughs at me and I laugh at him and secretly I'm pleased, too, that he'd rather watch the cricket than explain it to me (of course): there is a poem straining at the birth canal somewhere in me; I can feel a little kicking.

I've learned enough about my creative process to help it along by not focusing on it during this phase. Instead I let it unroll under its own momentum, unmediated by the conscious ordering intellect, and distract my 'surface' mind.

I stand up and look at the framed navigational charts on the room's walls. Lyme Bay. And its opposite number in Brittany: the Baie de Morlaix, Ile de Batz.

Something, an old memory, blasts through my surface thoughts and through the birth process of the poem, too; and I'm arriving late at night with my then lover (and his cello) in Roscoff, fresh off the ferry, and we're needing a room for the night.

We find one. It's dark, obviously. So standing up to open the shutters in the morning I am totally unprepared for the blast of sunlight, the intensest most blue-cobalty-blue stretch of sea right outside the window, and punctuated only by the white dots of egrets and a handful of small islands. There's a sudden almost-painful moment of entry into pure essence, where 'I' am 'not'. This is the depth beneath that cliché of losing oneself. Something of me steps through that window, never coming back.

'To save your life you must first destroy it,' declares the Zenrin. Those words over which I puzzled years, whole decades even, until suddenly I got it. What I take to be real is not. The view of 'self' and 'other' as being essentially separate is false. The eternal hides in the cracks of the transient. Dragging out the hard way that all that I perceive is both essential nature – and not. At once.

Zen is specifically about moving beyond the dualistic nature of our Western rational mind that sees in terms of either/or. And in the Zen way, contrariwise, paradoxical, there is nothing to get, no 'I' to strive to get it. This is the shadow-self flickering on the walls of Plato's cave, this illusion of separate ego nature.

Hard, yes? And so simple, too.

For long years a bird in a cage, says the Zenrin. Today, flying along with the clouds.

Friday 16 September 2011

from Babeny Tor

I've lived on the south, east, north, west and now again south prospects of Dartmoor – that wild hinterland of 365 square miles, microcosm of the Celtic granite uplands of Britain – for a total of 30 years. It's not quite but is nearly a substitute for the long, empty (in the winter, anyway) beaches of the Atlantic of my youth.

Crossing the moor is like a tryst with a lover. Something of my ego dissolves, and out here in everything elemental and of the earth, still I can slip the ties that bind me to earth for a little while. So driving across the beautiful snaking road past megalithic sites with the moor's heather and gorse, rowan trees, shaggy black Galloway cattle, hardy sheep, wild pony herds and space I am in paradise, and every time it's different.

And now, a weekday evening, with a huge wind coming up from the west and an autumnal chill, I need to get out with the dog and storm up Babeny Tor, be stripped by the wind and this wild light of the shadows I carry, of the white noise in my head, of going to visit the shadows that are now my parents. My heart in a very un-Buddhist way is raging at the seemingly-insoluble nature of our relationship to the four entrapping truths that the Buddha identified. (His journey started when, as a privileged prince, he met for the first time, out in the world, suffering, sickness, old age and death, the four primary conditions which we all try to resist and which cannot be resisted.)

In ten minutes nothing of 'the human condition' has changed, but my relationship to everything, briefly, has: the winds of the world can now blow through me rather than dragging me off with them...

Thursday 15 September 2011

karma: our life is the creation of our minds

There are times in all our lives I suppose when we stop and do a quick recce: Where've I come from? If I carry on on this path it'll take me where it's going – is that where I want to go? 'Forest' or 'threshold' moments, I think of these times as being, crossroad times, when there is perhaps some confusion and darkness, perhaps a sense of being a little lost; when we see other possible paths diverging away from the one we've been set on pursuing (perhaps more unconsciously than otherwise – out of habit, need [our own or another's], fear, or in pursuit of what we think might bring us happiness).

Various phrases, so common as to be clichés, have been chasing each other round my head the last day or two: Lennon's 'Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans'; 'To thine own self be true' (this is fine as long as you can define which own self!); 'If you do what you've always done you'll get what you've always got'. Then there's the pagan ethic 'An ye harm none, do as you will'.

I think a lot about these things; and I have also been thinking about them on and off, for decades in relation to the idea of suffering (the cause of suffering and the ways out of suffering lie behind the Buddha's teachings, which is why I mention it here in relation to my title).

I've been thinking about them too in relation to how ill-health manifests in an individual or a society; in relation to mind and body being so interlinked that there is an indefinable place where mental habits become so much part of 'us' that they have no chance but to manifest on the physical plane, often as chronic patterns of behaving/holding on/being ill.


I think a lot too about how the world's spiritual traditions share a view that a way forward for us as individuals (and us as a whole) has to be both true to what one holds dear at the level of the heart (rather than simply the grasping greedy ego), and one that takes into account one's affect on others.

Maybe you see where I'm going with this.

'Karma' is a much misunderstood word in our society, I think. But I also think it's a hugely important concept. Its 'meaning' is defined differently in Indian and Oriental cultures; in ancient Buddhism and in the modernist take. Many people understand it to mean that one 'pays' for past-life activities in current suffering and hardship; and many people, not finding themselves able to accept the notion of past lives and reincarnation, see it therefore as an outmoded and rather archaic concept.

And there are difficulties in the perception of the teachings on karma, now and in the past. Contemporary Buddhist thinker David Loy in his insightful book Money, Sex War and Karma says: 'Karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps and everything else. Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one's actions and one's fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it's already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. It will all balance out in the end...' This view he sees as being dangerously fundamentalist.

For me, I think it's useful to see karma as a wake-up call to be mindful of the fact, right here, right now, that my thoughts, words and actions all have consequences. If, as science is increasingly showing and mystics as well as Buddhists have always affirmed, everything in the universe is intimately interconnected, clearly it makes sense to be aware of the consequences of our being in the world.

Zen thinking, which I find clear and uncluttered as a mountain stream, as well as socially-engaged Buddhism and some of the more traditional forms of Buddhist thought, emphasises that we are implicated in everything we see around us, and that our current society as well as our individual lives is shaped by the collective sum of our thoughts. If this is so, then what we bring, however minimal, might change everything – a concept which is also implicated in so-called chaos theory: 'Somewhere a butterfly stamped and suddenly everything changed.'

Some thinkers have suggested karma is like a garden: we choose the seeds we plant, we create good conditions for them to grow, ensure enough water, we tend the garden. (This is akin to St Theresa's ideas on Christian meditation in the C16th.) Intentionality is important here, too.

Another of the books (I've mentioned a few before) that made an impact on me when I was searching for a path, as a teenager, that I could follow without having to profess things I simply didn't believe, was the Dhammapada. This is a collection of Pali aphorisms compiled probably in C3rd BCE, illustrating the Buddhist ethical path, or dharma. It's another of the bedside books (yes I do also read fiction, and escapism, and other non-spiritual texts!). The profound simplicity in its teachings is memorable; says it all really. This is Juan Mascaro's translation, and the opening sentence:

'What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.'

What freedom in knowing this! And what a hard task, implementing the sowing of the 'right' seeds...

Wednesday 14 September 2011

fire in the head

I was planning to write today about the experience of watching someone very close to me close down, bit by bit, with Alzheimer's; and the questions this raises about meaning, and caring, and loving, and about how we live our lives. I have been reflecting for months now about documenting this, and something is stopping me. Is it because she is still alive? Is it because I feel so deeply about it that I can't quite bring myself to do so? Is it because there is so much to say about all of this, and I would want to do it with great care and thoughtfulness?

In addition to those possibilities, I have been saved by the fact that I really do have to focus on making a living, marginal as it always is if you don't buy into mainstream values; and because of that I'm going to use this blog post instead to tell you of the autumn programme of courses and readings I'm offering here in the UK. Most of them are in the westcountry, but there is a chance of leading a workshop next year in Sussex, so do please let me know if this would be of interest to you.

The title of my course programme, Fire in the Head, as you'll perhaps know, comes from the W B Yeats poem 'The Song of Wandering Aengus' - Aengus being the god both of love and of inspiration, or the shamanic fires of transformation. This idea – the fires of inspiration and the ability of the word to transform – blazes away quietly behind all the work I do. So below are some examples.

I blogged in March or April of the retreat I lead ('Islands of the Heart') on the magical Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides every year. It's already half-full, but if you need the restorative powers of a very special island in the company of a group of people all of whom turn out always to be special, and with much fertile ground of inspiration (not to mention much laughter, some tears and some very good food – oh and the odd seal), check out my website for Islands of the Heart, April 2012. And if anyone thinks they might be able to raise a group of enough people to pay me to lead a workshop en route to and from Scotland/Devon, let me know – I'm always happy to consider new projects (I work right through the age groups from 8 to 100). And I neglect my own work sometimes – so please do consider me for a reading, too, if you can think of a venue.

Please see below for details of the various courses; I'd love to meet or see some of you on some of them; and note too the poetry readings I'm giving in Exeter and Plymouth. 

And forgive me this blatant plug.


As we approach the autumn equinox with its harvests it’s time to turn inwards a little again. This is a ‘dreamtime’ in our calendars – a threshold where inner and outer might meet.

At these threshold times there’s a kind of restlessness I recognise in me: part turned outwards, part thinking of moving inwards, towards lighting fires – whether the one in my study or the ones of new creative projects, the inner fires of the imagination.

If you’re gearing yourself up to focus on your creativity now too (why do we do this? Is it because of the habit of the school year starting here in the UK or is it a seasonal thing that keeps us in tune?), let me offer you a feast of possibilities in terms of courses etc below.

Below you’ll find my autumn programme. There are new things in the shape of

  • four one-day workshops, all bringing outer and inner worlds together, in my study near Totnes, in Devon; and discounts if you book more than one;
  • there’ll be a weekly Monday evening session in Exeter for the Poetry School;
  • I’m doing two readings, one in Exeter and one in Plymouth this autumn;
  • and if you like working outdoors, celebrating the cycle of the year, in silence and with words, and don’t mind a bit of weather, see my Ground of Being details on the website under Courses - Course Details.
  • Islands of the Heart on Iona is a retreat course unlike any other. It’s April 21-27 2012.

If you live in or near the southeast of England, I’m thinking of offering a weekend course in Forest Row next spring. If this might interest you I’d be grateful if you’d let me know.

I am once again offering mentoring and coaching from this autumn on, in person or online.

As always, more details on my website (address at bottom).

As always, I’d love it if you maybe signed up to follow my blog; joined me on twitter or facebook; and also if you forwarded this to anyone you think might be interested.

Oh and bought my books!


Fire in the Head programme 2011/12


Of Love and Hope
: I'll be reading from Deborah Gaye's anthology of poems in aid of breast cancer charities as part of the Exeter Poetry Festival, Exeter Central Library, Sunday 9 October, 3.30pm (+ Chris Tutton & others). Entry free but donations to breast cancer charities invited

Language Club, Plymouth:
I'm the guest poet at the public poetry group where I possibly read for the first time ever at an open mike more years ago than I like to think. Please come if you can! Thursday 10 November 7.30 - 10.00, Plymouth College of Art, £4, £2 concessions for unemployed and OAP (Students free with Student Card)

Courses and Workshops

Ground of Being
Dartmoor outdoors: re-imagining the world: poetry, land and silence, solstices and equinoxes. Sundays: September 25th, December 18th.

Poetry School sessions
I'm going to be leading a weekly reading/writing/discussion group ('Staying Alive') on a term-time Monday evening in Exeter for the Poetry School from October 3rd; and again in January (

Fire in the Head creative writing: day of inspiration: it doesn't matter whether you're a novice or experienced writer; this is simply to light the fires of imagination and then hopefully channel them down through your fingers onto the page... As always, it's the process, not the end result, that we'll roll with. Near Totnes, Devon Saturday 15 October, 10-4

Writing the Bright Moment: a Zen approach to writing: exploring attention to the moment, haiku and haibun. Near Totnes Sunday 16 October, 10-4

'In a dark time the eye begins to see.' Poetry and story are tools for healing. We'll look at the stories of our own lives through this lens. This day took shape from my re-meeting the quote 'What use are poets (mythmakers, storytellers, writers in general) in times of need?' And I think again about how one of the most important aspects of poetry and story is their capacity to heal. Today we'll explore the losses and fractures in our lives as a way in to working with transforming them into a quest for healing. Near Totnes Sunday 20 November,10-4

'If nobody speaks of remarkable things' The art of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the joy as well as the despair of being human at this time. Although this day is self-contained, it also follows on from the November day on the uses of poetry. Today, we'll be remembering the remarkable things about being alive, and celebrating our place in the family of things by writing about the unique gifts of our lives as human beings at this time. Near Totnes, Sunday 11 December, 10-4

Please see website for more details on all these: Courses then Course details, scroll down. There is a discount on the four one-day workshops near Totnes if you book for two or more.


Poetry School 'Staying Alive' cont. From January in Exeter

Islands of the Heart creative writing retreat on Iona
Saturday (eve) April 21 to Friday morning April 27.

Zen and Poetry, weekend residential, Barefoot Barn, Chagford, Devon (tba; with Martin Pitt)

The Grail of the Heart (ongoing group to begin)

Further day courses in progress:

The Pairs of Opposites

Riding the Big Waves

Ongoing courses

Elements of Poetry
6-month correspondence course; next one begins January 2012 

6-month intensive novel writing correspondence course. You can sign up for this at any time.

Monday 12 September 2011

Elements of Poetry Part 11: poetry & soul

Was it really back in June that I said I'd be offering two follow-ups to my post on Part 1 of elements of poetry? We've had a summer since then (of sorts)!

Now it's September, and here's Part 11. These thoughts, below, come from the Introduction to my poetry correspondence course (the next 6-month course begins in January).

* * *

The territory of the soul 
Rooted as it might be in our own experience of our own lives, poetry is also more than simply personal emotional expression. Poetry has cultural and spiritual implications as well as political or social aspects. In my opinion, one thing poetry also does is reactivate, or emerge from, the soul; and in that way it can be transpersonal, communicating to others, acting as a connecting thread between people and also between the realm of the personal, the wider realm of the collective, and more subtle realms of being, tapping into something universal and larger than what one generally thinks of as personal consciousness.
          It can also be a profound force force for healing.

In our twenty-first century world, there is a soul-deficiency in the culture. We also live in a ‘poetically underdeveloped nation’, says Robert Bly, where what we have is the dryness of materialism and the jingles of the advertising agencies. ‘…Without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There’s a lack of spirit, of vision. The loss in the heart appears as a loss of heart…’ he continues (my italics).
A good poem points at something less tangible, a different reality, behind or beyond the form of the combined words. It is as if poetry might allow entry to the numinous in some way. Within our British culture at least, a poet in the past was charged with the role of bard, seer, diviner, healer, visionary, shaman, repository of ancient tribal wisdom. ‘Poets were specialists in liminality’, says author Michael Dames, ‘they operated at the thresholds, between categories of space, time or identity, in dangerous, ‘frontier’ conditions, among uncomfortable truths. These they shaped into harmonious knowledge on behalf of the community.’ (Scottish poet John Burnside is a good exemplar of this.)

I should say this is not a widely-held view in the contemporary poetry scene, some aspects of which inevitably reflect the reductionist values of our consumer culture. The ‘popular’ poetry movement demands that poetry espouse a kind of easy sloganism that offers itself in a humorous sound-bite form. Some academic poets, and those concerned with the social implications of language, are aligned with notions of the ‘politics’ of language (as opposed to the politics of current affairs/international relations) as a force for reinforcing or subverting social mores. There is also generally a movement away from the ‘language of the heart’ in favour of a more cerebral approach; and again, the very opposite: an easy emotionality that verges on the sentimental.
Each of these approaches has its place and its aficionados; it’s just that I’m not one. I suppose that I am drawn to the skilled use of the multi-level lyric/imagist poem (although as an eco-poet I do also feel strongly that political poetry, in terms of drawing attention to and challenging environmental crises, oppression, injustice, cruelty and so on has an important role).

Having said what I did about the numinous, I don’t mean to imply that the role of poet inevitably includes pretentiousness, a sense of being ‘special’, a kind of divine messenger; nor that poetry needs to be ‘spiritual’ in order to count. Much of the best poetry, after all, proceeds from our experience of daily life in all its aspects; and speaks to the very humanness of and in others. And the most effective poetry is usually very rooted in the sensory or concrete world; and yet reaches beyond that. Seamus Heaney is an excellent example of someone whose work goes to the core behind all poems, and yet he does this very much within the context of the everyday, the human, the concrete; and with humility and modesty. What I’m seeking is a life behind the poem, not simply the one that’s obvious on the surface.

Many of us still feel that poetry occupies a place unfilled for the most part by other aspects of life, and possesses a quality not easily found elsewhere. Many of the better-known poets of the late twentieth century acknowledge that a poem has to do with two things in particular: consciousness and its transformation, and expressing or attempting connectedness, which we could also express as inclusive consciousness. ‘Poetry is not a luxury’, said the late Audre Lorde. ‘The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing on the product which we live, and the changes we hope to bring about through those lives.’
A poem is also a means of conveying complex ideas in a way that is more immediate, holistic, or multi-dimensional – and a good deal less dry – than philosophical treatises. It also, if it’s a good poem, exemplifies a kind of synergy: the whole assumes a quality that cannot be explained through the component parts.
But while a poem may comfort, it's not, nonetheless, necessarily comfortable, nor intended to be. It needs to speak to us but at the same time it needs to stretch us. ‘Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives,’ said Adrienne Rich.
A ‘good’ poem should illuminate aspects of the ‘human condition’, offering new insight and understanding at the same time as it addresses our own experience.
Peter Abbs, Professor of Poetry at Sussex University, says: ‘The poet has to engage with the contending ideas that inform our understanding of time and matter, of biology and consciousness. We cannot disconnect poetry from philosophy, science and ecology, nor the historic moment which it is our fate to live.’ 
This doesn’t mean that you need to be an authority on current affairs: simply that a poem, if it is to work, needs to contain, hint at or point to more than simply an anecdotal record of your personal life (or at least it needs to shed some light in some way on universal experience through the personal). It needs to offer us a threshold of some sort between the inner and outer worlds. Wendell Berry speaks of ineffective poetry where the speaker is present and the world is absent, or the converse: world present, speaker absent (this is a bit of a litmus test).
The perceiving, thinking, feeling human stands like a two-way lightning conductor (a ‘locus-of-experience’) at the intersection of the visible world (our experience in the environment) and the invisible world, as mediated, at least in part, by our inner world of imagination, memory and feeling. Arguably, one task of the artist is to bring the two into dialogue through creative expression, mapping the two terrains. Both artist and audience to that artistic expression may experience within themselves a shift of vision, insight and understanding as a result.

Poetry, though often sidelined, is crucial to the life of the soul. It is not an exaggeration to say, as Adrienne Rich suggests, that poetry might save your life. It is also true to say that once you have befriended poetry, you will notice its absence if you stray too far.

the news from here in 100 words

Our stories: riffs on coming through, coming home, becoming. Riffs on fragmentation. On redemption. Riffs on love loss death. On staying alive. The search for power security status money drugs sex even violence all about being loved, being loveable, being able to love – or not. (Intimacy distorted makes killers of us all.) Outside the window the buzzard lifts off, tilts wings into the cloud. Here the hound lifts her muzzle, reads the wind, drinks only rainwater clotted with silt from the old terracotta pot. In Kenya a woman’s terrified for her life and there is nothing we can do. 

Saturday 10 September 2011

'this much I know is true'

Bow Creek and Charleycombe wood

~ tide retreating unhurried, mouse-bit blewitts, earthstars, chanterelles, first wild autumn cyclamen, oak king ageing but the new hard green nodule-nipples of acorns for the new gods standing clear of their cups, shiny new conkers irresistible to the palm to the tongue, woodpeckers, holly berries red, a raucousness of duck and the gulls' flurry, mudflats slack, trees on the cusp (green fire ambering red), sheep pink, Friesian cattle pink and black from this red sandstone belt that connects this incursion of English channel to the wide Atlantic

lean as always to smell the vinegary heartwood of this old sweet chestnut tumbled and cut across the path (odour more fish-and-chip-newspaper than oak tannin), run fingers over the raised footpath arrow carved on its once-secret marrow

~ the wild dance of the seasons chasing each idea through my chest

a head full of fire and foxes (self to world returning)

once again I disappear
in going out I come back in
meet self in other
in everything

~ and this leaf: I can speak of its cherry-ness, of xylem and phloem, of the shades of lemon to leather-tan to chrome-yellow to gold to carnelian to amber to russet to crimson, of its marks and stains, of its serrated breeze-surfing edge, of its kidglove smoothness against my cheek my lips, of its red stem

and the tree that closed off its food supply

of the starstuff rain light humus atoms idea of itself that made it

but who can speak of LEAF?

~ 9/11/11 and ten years on
the bodies falling and still falling
in this fireball air

there is no truth that can be spoken here
except that we are all still falling

~ I am
the one who jumped the one who fell the one who burned screaming the one who saved the one who didn't save the one who phoned his wife the one who couldn't save her daughter the one who flew the plane
and the fire

~ and closer to home
the body in the woods
the cattle on the railtrack
the toxic runoff in this bright stream
that poisons the fish

~ still we bear witness
how do our hearts not break?

~ In a dark time the eye begins to see (Roethke)

~ love loss death loss love

~ in our beginning is our end

~ and the opposite too is true

~ 'Beer brekkie big screen rugby final' says the hand-scrawled chalkboard outside the pub. A truly ancient rusty black Morris Minor chugs past me going uphill, Mozart at full belt from the open window.  

And this; and this.

~ 'What use are poets in times of need?' (Holderlin/Heidegger/Moriarty)

~ What can we do
but speak the heart's wild music,
hold these twin truths (death and birth)
speak of remarkable things
speak of ordinary things and see them anew in the speaking
for speaking too can be healing
what can we do but this

~ and am I still in love with the world?
and so it goes


Thursday 8 September 2011

autumn journal

Autumn is a poet's season. I can't pretend I don't love the melancholy, the wistfulness, the dreaminess, the inwardness trailing in autumn's slipstream. The quality of nostalgia and yearning are also friends to the Celtic soul. And I love times of transition, borderlands, thresholds, cusps (and in fact was born on the autumn equinox). Times of ambiguity and paradox; of misty blurring of edges.

Just after the equinox I shall gather with those who like to celebrate the year's turning points as I do, leading a workshop I call Ground of Being up at the megalithic site of Merrivale on Dartmoor, where we will ask the questions of ourselves, and in relationship to the land, that will provoke reflection, creativity, depth, connection. This is a way of creating sacred space, time out from our driven lives in a materialistic culture.

Right now I'm enjoying the soft drizzle that is such a Dartmoor weather. I love the sun, too, and I love being outside, but I confess I find summer in Devon quite demanding; or August anyway – 'Get a life!' it shrieks. 'Get out there! Fight for your centimetres of beach-space and your cubic centilitres' (how do you measure photons??) 'of sunlight' – with all the thousands of others doing the same thing... Having said that, sunny Augusts seem to be a thing of the past in the UK.

Now the hills and uplands of the moor though are eclipsed. In the fields above the house the last silage cut has been plastic-wrapped and moved. Flocks of gulls (Totnes is tidal) are paddling the ground in that two-step dance designed to mimic rain and bring worms to the surface. A low-flying dragonfly buzzes past me and dog, then buzzes back straight into my face. (I believe in the First Nation Amerindian culture dragonflies are visitors from the Dreamtime.) A single bumblebee clings fast to the pistil of a bindweed flower, milking it in a sea of tossing westerly gusts. A few honeysuckle blossoms garland the hedge-tops, but the blackberries now are soggy. On the wire are two young swallows, long tail-feathers not yet grown. The others have all departed, recently, in plumes and ragged bunches, southwards. Yesterday a handful of martins skimmed the hedges. Those 1000s of miles ahead of them all, storms in the Atlantic today too... Something, something indefinable, of me leaves with them, as always. And it's a closing of a cycle – I saw the first swallow of the year on the Isle of Iona in early April.

Poetry visits thick and fast, as they say, with the mists and the dreaminess. For me, anyway. And to be here, right here, right now, in this patchwork life – I begin again and again. With gratitude. The dreamtime of September.

And thank you, Louis MacNeice, for being a poet of autumn. Here's the opening of section iv in Autumn Journal. Although this erudite and moving collection occupies itself primarily with war and the political tone of its time, 1938, section iv in my opinion is also one of the great underrated love poems of the world; I'm only giving you the first few lines here:

'September has come and I wake
   And I think with joy how whatever, now or in future, the system
Nothing whatever can take
   The people away, there will always be people
For friends or for lovers though perhaps
   The conditions of love will be changed and its vices diminished
And affection not lapse
   To narrow possessiveness, jealousy founded on vanity.
September has come, it is hers
   Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
   Trees without leaves and a fire in the fire-place...'

Wednesday 7 September 2011

the layers of ourselves

There are many places I go if I need inspiration. Some of them – many of them – are actual outdoors places. And many of them are inner places: other people's hearts, thoughts, dreams, imaginings (and also of course my own).

One long-term inspiratrice of mine is writer and Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg. If you are a writer and don't know her books on writing you're missing a treat.

Here's this morning's dipping: 'Style in writing is not something glib–oh, yeah, she has style.It means becoming more and more present, settling deeper and deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us; all of who we are is backing our writing. Hemingway said if a writer knows something, even if he doesn't write it, it is present in his work.'

(from Wild Mind)

Tuesday 6 September 2011

rain, the poem as a bus, & more on love

I wake with a migraine, so lie listening to the storm overhead rather than getting up.

One of my correspondence course participants said in her last assignment: 'I like writing in the mornings, and when it's raining.' I relate to this so well. And right now I can feel an embryonic poem pushing against my skull – rather irritatingly, as a migraine and reading or writing are incompatible. But it's hard to ignore this urge, as you'll understand if you're a writer. Easy to think you'll recall it later; but you don't.

I reach blindly for the notebook in my bedside drawer and pull myself more or less to a sitting position. I get as far as:

storm of rain on the roof
ashes on the hill taking sail
in the apple tree squabble of magpies
one sparrow cheeps on the sill

and The Man comes in with, thoughtfully, a cup of tea (takes a lot to put me off that) and a hot cherrystone pillow. (My sister gave me the pillow one Christmas, and it is the most extraordinary thing – it really does help a migraine, headache, neackache like nothing else.)

TM looks at my pen and notebook in surprise. 'What are you doing? I thought you were ill!'
'Well, when a poem needs to be written it needs to be written...'
He looks at me sideways in exaggerated but also actual incomprehension. 'I thought a poem was like a 73 bus? Miss that one and there'll be another behind it very soon...'
I muster the energy to glare at him in mock scorn. 'It's not like that –'
'Well, OK, it might not have the same numberplate, but it'll still be going to the depot...' he says to wind me up.
And I laugh; and the poem's gone, but it doesn't really matter actually, as it'll make a better haiku than a poem anyway.


Now, later, having walked the dog in heavy rain, the storm is easing and drizzle is blowing around the courtyard in arcs and vortices.

I am still thinking about love, loving, this whole business of relationship. Something's been bugging me in relation to what I wrote about based on Fromm's thinking in one of last week's posts on love. The 'categories' (as if one could really categorise such a huge and encompassing state) have, I know, not gone far enough. Off on the horizon of my mind somewhere there's a memory of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach, but I can't remember who wrote about it in the way I (don't quite) recall.

I pick up Jungian James Hollis' The Eden Project – in search of the magical other. It is a deeply significant book in the field of love relationships, I think, for this is the area in which perhaps there is the greatest projection, confusion and trouble in our personal experience, and the one too where we may make huge leaps in personal growth. (How different things might be if we learned this stuff as adolescents – or at the very least as young adults. But youth too of course needs its illusions and fantasies, to feed the soul.)

(I'm asking myself why it is I want so to untangle the different aspects of love, apart from a personal interest. I think it's because the whole field of human relationship is so fascinating; and I think it's also because it's so easy to confuse states and therefore levels of love; and this confusion causes a lot of trouble and pain. Anyway, that's where my thoughts are going.)

Yes, Hollis here names five 'types' of love, which he attributes to the ancient Greeks: eros, caritas, philos, storgé, agape. He doesn't unpack these, so I stumble through the categories with only a little understanding.

I co-opt TM, an eco-builder, whose outdoor work today has been called off for the moment, to help with definitions as he's a classicist, and like me enjoys etymology and the excuse to get out his Greek dictionary (each to their own!).

'Caritas', TM points out, 'is Latin. But 'charis' in Greek means what we call "charity". But all those words mean "love", really.' 

I refrain – actually that's not true, I don't – from pointing out that I know that, and it's the subtle variations I'm looking for.

Charis or caritas is translated in some versions of the Bible just as 'love'; and I'm struck again by the fact that the word 'cariad' in Welsh (and a similar word in Cornish) is a term of endearment, meaning 'beloved'.

TM, who now realises what I'm after, says that 'charis' also brings with it the sense of 'due tending', almost as one might a shrine, devotionally.

OK so we know about eros – even if in our culture it's seriously demoted to either a cute little fat cherub (yuck) or to mean the purely sexual. Hollis says 'Defined elementally, eros is the desire for connection.' It's deeply intimate, and sits behind any form of intense feeling that brings with it vitality, passion and/or creativity, all of which can be described as means of achieving depth of connectedness. Plato suggests that eros helps the soul remember knowledge of beauty.

Agape is an ideal or high form of love that is founded in personally-disinterested and unconditional love that is not grasping or self-seeking. I believe the ancient Greeks saw that as a kind of recriprocal expression of love to and from the gods (and later, God).

I resort to the internet. And here's C S Lewis – ah yes, he elides charity and agape. He defines agape as 'the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance'.

Storgé, it seems, is natural affection, as between parents and children.

And philia is that love shown to close friends and family, 'brotherly love'. Aristotle suggests that it includes loyalty to friends, family, lover and community, and requires virtue, equality and familiarity. It can also include the pull to certain activities and interests,

So is that any clearer? Does it add to Fromm's ideas? No, not really, but it does add a Greek tag to eg 'motherly love'.

And it gave me another excuse to not get on with what I should be getting on with: updating (ha! struggling to try and sort out the mess that is) the website and preparing a mailing for my autumn programme (note to self: must include a day on types of love!).

Monday 5 September 2011

dharmic practice: the truth is this simple

morning sky clearing

the truth is this simple –
dew on the last bean flowers
water from the well
enough fresh bread

these friends

The moor wears her autumn colours; after a misty start, rust-reds, purples and chrome-yellows emerge. I'm travelling to my old favourite-nearest-moorland town, Chagford. Yesterday was the meeting of my regular poetry group here at home, a rich and much-anticipated monthly feast. Today I'm off to catch the tail-end of a retreat I attend, usually in its entirety: the Network of Engaged Buddhists' annual retreat and AGM.

Ken, 80 now, ex-Marxist, Zen teacher and political activist, has come down from his Welsh mountain to lead several days of questioning designed to dig deep into our ways of being. He greets me warmly; a little gaunter, still smiling, still playful, still meeting the world with all he is.

And here in this woodland garden: autumn breeze coming up stronger from the west, still a few swallows not quite gone south, Tibetan flags tattyrags in the swell, a waterlily on the point of bursting, rowan berries cusping. And there in the arbour the wooden Buddha, hand raised in blessing, decaying back to garden, like us all.

I have just missed one M, but hug four other Ms, two Js and a(n) H – all of us very different, all of us joined by our conviction that the best way to change the world is to change ourselves, and then get out there and do it. And there are some new faces, including some younger people people keen to get involved in the work we do as activists and spiritual practitioners.

So these old dharma friends with whom I sit in meditation year after year: here we are asking the difficult questions as usual, trying not to strive too hard to be certain that we have the 'correct' answers – just the ones that will enable us to live more mindfully, seeing every moment as a chance to wake up.

Just before we enter the morning groupwork, Ken gets up and disappears. He's gone for a while. When he comes back, he's smiling wryly. 'Queuing up outside an empty loo,' he says. 'That just about encapsulates the whole of the dharma.'


Later, I have some time out in fine moorland mizzle with the dog by the river. Between the pink exuberance of Himalayan balsam a dipper flashes briefly.

The river flows on, in continual conversation with itself.


My life is underpinned by a spiritual path which is my own personal combination of transpersonal psychology, Western Mystery School teachings (in the shape of nature-based bardic and druidic practice) and Buddhist, specifically Zen, thought and practice (following the 'dharma', 'the Way').

What these two paths have in common is an awareness of interconnectedness as being fundamental, an awareness that our thoughts, speech and actions have an effect on the world, and (Zen being rooted in Taoism as well as Indian Buddhism) a recognition of the importance of the natural world.

What neither path involves (and this is partly what appeals to me) is a belief in 'God', or adherence to a dogma.

For me, the focus is on inner work to support my outer practice – or inner practice to support my outer work. This way my life, hopefully, has congruence. The particular Buddhist path, or dharma, that I follow is that of 'engaged Buddhism': that is, we don't feel that we best serve the world only by focusing on our own growth (though we do that too), but also commit to non-violent action in support of confronting injustice, inequality, cruelty, harmful activities and oppression in all external spheres.

In our way of working, the changes start with oneself and are put into practice in challenging established external ways of being, in ourselves and in others, that cause harm (a central tenet of Buddhist teaching is exploring the ways in which we cause self or other to suffer).

Each of our members in the network is involved in some way with global change, whether by attending climate camps and demos, protesting at arms fairs, promoting causes for human or animal rights, doing hands-on work with poverty and starvation in Africa, or being involved in UN or various other bodies working to bring peace to situations such as the Middle East. Some people are Green Party councillors; some are involved in global Buddhist groups tackling social injustice. Others teach mindfulness and meditation, or give talks and lectures.

At the AGM we are discussing, as usual, the future of our forum, the Network of Engaged Buddhists, and exactly what we mean by that term, as it seems useful to continue to examine what we exist in order to do.

Our views on what the network is about, gathered through a few sentences that we pen privately and then share are, thankfully, all very similar. We still share the vision, which is, loosely, that the Network of Engaged Buddhists exists to promote information about and education in mindful action for radical socio-political change, and support those who wish to combine spiritual practice and inner work with activism in the fields of political, social and environmental change and sustainability.

AGMs can be stimulating, infuriating and occasionally challenging, and this is no less so in a Buddhist context. (But there is a also a lot of laughter.) Here we have heard some members of the current executive speaking of feeling worn out and stale, after in some cases 30 years of involvement with this forum. An hour later, though, we suddenly have some fresh blood on the committee and some exciting new ways forward. (There's a noticeable shift in the energy levels of the group, and I swear it's coming from the enthusiasm of the new members, not just the fact that it's nearly supper time!)

Ken, sitting in with his eyes closed and listening in his own inimitable dharmic way, suddenly lifts his head and grins. 'There was I fearing the old boat was holed below the waterline,' he says, 'but instead I find myself in a bloody great speedboat!'

Friday 2 September 2011

travellers, the killing industry and letters to ukraine

Quite apart from the various global environmental catastrophes, there are the challenges faced by us all within our nation state. Here we're facing health cuts, education cuts, benefit cuts. Meantime Basildon Council is spending £9M to bring in bulldozers and bailiffs to move on 400 Irish travellers, a huge extended family, in effect, from Dale Farm in Essex, ground they've occupied peacefully but illegally, in that the council has repeatedly refused planning, for 10 years. There are no plans to offer them alternative sites, and inevitably they will be broken up as a community and offered social housing instead. They have some sympathetic campaigners, thank goodness, and also a few heavy duty public figures fighting for them (and Joan Bakewell, in the Torygraph, of all papers, attacks our prejudices and injustices regarding eg travelling people).

More shocking, and global in its imperative, is the world defence budget – not news, but the figures when put in context are frightening: in 2010 the world spent $1.61 trillion on the killing industry (let's call it by its true name).  We in Britain are the largest arms exporters in the world, after the US: in four months earlier this year we exported £30,499,379 worth of arms to the Middle East and north Africa. Our defence industry here in GB is worth about £35 billion per annum. Think what that would do if freed up to support peaceful projects to enhance lives and the planet.

'Not harming ourselves or others,' says Tibetan nun Pema Chodron 'is the basis of enlightened society. This is how there could be a sane society. It starts with sane citizens, and that is us.' She goes on to suggest that fundamental aggression and harm, to ourselves and thus to others, is 'to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.' 

How might we live if we didn't constantly fear others, constantly need to defend ourselves and our interests, constantly be on guard against some unspecified imagined threat to our egos, our possessions or our pride?

My friend Mario, who published a book-length sequence of poems on the experiences of the people of Chernobyl in the aftermath of the reactor meltdowns there (Heavy Water), writes a regular short column now for 'The Day Digest', Kiev. With his permission here's his 'Letters to Ukraine 7':

'How might our modern relationship with ecology seem, to an advanced alien race?  Like someone selling their home for a few dollars to rent a tacky room overnight.  Like a frog soon to be boiled alive in slowly-warming water, where the frog itself set up the experiment.  Like a surgeon crudely opening a patient’s skull, hoping that the sophisticated instruments required to complete the operation have just been invented.  Like a tourist allowed to burn the Mona Lisa in his portable stove, so everyone can enjoy a few chips.  Like the expanding circle of a biological culture in a Petri dish, moving towards its future by consuming it.  Like a split mind that reveres great poets (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”), playwrights (“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”) and philosophers (“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”), yet organises society to be incapable of responding to them. Like a creature that defends its children from terrifying predators, then relaxes by eating the grandchildren. Like the final moments on a juggernaut hurtling towards a cliff, whose occupants heatedly debate whether they are doing 95 or 105 miles per hour.'

copyright:  Mario Petrucci 2011

Thursday 1 September 2011

the lives we live & the ones we don't

Many people have written to me about my novel Imago – thank you; you know who you are. And a question people often ask – and don't we all, of novelists to some extent – is how much one's novel is autobiographical.

This is a hard one because fiction, although belonging to the imagination, can only be convincing if in some way it parallels our experience of life, though this might, perhaps, be more relevant to the ideas we form about life as a result of living it than to the actuality of lived events.

It seems to me that one function of writing is to record, explore and maybe manage the meanings of events in our lives, and to try and understand important ideas about the world from this exploration. So yes, we are maybe trying to make sense of our lives on this small planet hurtling at speed through space and time, whatever those two concepts mean.

But also we are living out lives we haven't lived – doing things differently, taking different paths, crossing other thresholds, exploring other ways of being, having other people, other events, in our lives, shaping our future differently in some ways (and of course because we bring ourselves with us maybe not as differently as we sometimes imagine).

So this is the 'what if?' aspect of our lives, that question so loved by novelists (well, me, anyway) – that we play out in our imaginations and which, at times anyway, can certainly be as compelling and maybe more so than the actuality of our daily lives. (And I don't think this is a 'sad' thing, or that it suggests we live sad lives – I think it's a kind of inwardness that our soul perhaps needs us to explore to enrich our life.)

It is certainly a way of working things out, at least on paper; and finding a solution, some resolution, or a different way of managing our urges and impulses, and the dilemmas and paradoxes of human life. I know, for instance, what it's like to be pulled between the apparently contradictory poles of intimacy and solitude – living with another or living alone (this is a big one for me). I think of the difficulty of holding head and heart together. I recognise that there's part of me that wants to be settled, forever, with one person, living a rich life, growing our own food, and with all the commitment that entails. And part of me simply wants to be off following the flight of a bird, or birds, nomadic at core, going where the winds blow me, even to the edge of the world; doesn't really give a stuff for external security or material wellbeing – never has.

I have been betrayed, and I know what it's like too to betray. And I know, too, that the heart can beat in more than one place simultaneously, and hold contradictory impulses very deeply; and it can love more than one other, for love comes in many colours. And I know how these contradictions in the outer world can make for a lot of distress, in oneself and others, as one attempts to make choices, stakes everything on them, lives with the consequences. And I see, looking at my fiction (three novels under my belt; one with IDP for publication next year or 2013) that the twin themes, overtly contradictory at times, of love versus responsibility, or following one's heart versus doing what one 'should' do, are big ones for me.

So yes, these are questions I raise and explore in my fiction.  In Imago, some of the present-day events didn't actually happen for me (for instance no partner of mine has shown me the physical violence in the opening – nor vice versa! And no partner of mine has been killed, and gods willing, never will be.)

And in that book, much of me has gone into the male protagonist, Alex – and he is of course also in some ways (or was then when I wrote the book in my late 30s) my 'fantasy man' – in Jungian terms my animus, representing the masculine principle in myself. Although others also see me in Annie, the female protagonist, I see much less of myself in her – she is cooler, more inward, more remote, more poised than I am. But yes in her struggles in the seeming conflict between self-determination/following one's own path and loving another, deeply, which at times seems to compromise her own empowerment, I recognise my own struggles, and that I think of many contemporary people, especially women. No, I didn't run away to the Pyrenees with a married Alex-figure – though actually it's only recently that I've realised there's a bit of Alex in the man I did go with (and I came back here later with someone else; but that's another story and I wasn't my best self in some aspects of that).

But yes I did have my first 'out-of-body' experience in the Pyrenees, in my young teens and over the border in Spanish Catalonia – I was very seriously ill for three days. And then later, in the French Pyrenees, several more – there are places where the veils between worlds are thin. I also encountered in Ariege in the Pyrenees for the first time Cathar history, and the arcane truths that are still alive there in some pockets. These things had a very profound and lifelong effect on me.*

So autobiographical? No. But yes, a little.

And the ending is significant for me and my own journey: how to be able to truly live alone and relish it, whilst choosing to live with another out of love, not dependency.

So there we are. Thank you for 'listening'!

* See also my three blog posts on the Cathars and the Pyrenees from February and early March

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