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.
Saturday, 31 December 2011
Wednesday, 28 December 2011
It's an oddly liminal space, too, these few days between Christmas and New Year. In some ways it's not easy, though I'm not sure why. Christmas is a time for friends and family; so is New Year, but in between I feel introverted and solitary. It's a hiatus, a line-break. It works if I'm away somewhere solitary, say by the sea – preferably on an island – but it's not an easy time, for me, to be with others. (Perhaps many of us feel that, if we're honest.)
I've had no time for solo freewheeling, for reflection and introversion, for a small descent to the Underworld; relevant to this time (in fact necessary to the season, symbolically and psychologically speaking), and especially relevant to me this year, with the recent death of my mum and a number of personal tumultuous events. It seems important to make time to process stuff as one goes, and I haven't yet been able to; so rather like Odin (in a less godlike and grandiose way, of course!) I still feel suspended from the World Tree.
But in my suspension my mind defaults to its continual preoccupation: what is love?
I think of the many shades of love. I think of how easily we confuse co-dependency, lust and ego-massage with love. I think of the kind of love that requires being in pain. I think of what my teacher Joan Swallow said, when I was 30 and really didn't want to hear this: 'All romantic love is a projection'. I think of what Scott Peck says, in The Road Less Travelled: Love is an act of will. A verb. I think of what whoever it was said: 'Love' [ie romantic love] 'is an image focused through the lens of the mind onto whatever screen it fits with the least distortion'.
Cynical? No. Just that our desire to desire and be desired is of the ego; and that kind of passion, unknown as it seems to have been until the C12th in the Western World (yes – really; more anon), at least as a basis for marriage, until then (and that's still the case in the East), is amazingly heartstoppingly wonderful; a true peak experience – and not enduring; or at least not enduring if comsummated. I think of how we put on another – a human other – our desire for transcendence, for union, for the 'divine', or the sacred.
What is it that the soul needs?
I think of passion, and how necessary it is to live with fire. Seems to me that passion is what gives rise to creativity, via yearning – but passion comsummated goes quiet till the yearning arises again; an endless cycle of need and fulfilment. That's one significant and essential facet of love. But is it actually 'love'?
And I think of other quieter types of love. What is 'steady-state' love, for instance?
This more solid love, the love I have recently been musing on, a less obtrusive and glamorous love altogether, has I suspect more to do with extending oneself for the sake of another over and over, without recognition; quietly, unassumingly, gently, compassionately. It's about wiping up the shit, about not telling everyone that you just did, about stretching yourself further than you thought you could bear, beyond limits, without being a martyr. It's about learning new ways, maybe. It's not about ego-fulfilment.
I say this because I recognise that the strain involved in telling my dad, over and over, with immense non-patronising patience so as not to humiliate him, the same thing several times an hour but as if for the first time – that yes, my mum is indeed dead; that yes, he was in the bathroom to brush his teeth; that yes this is where I live and he doesn't but we're very glad to have him, that yes it's Christmas, that yes it's hard for us all, that yes he does indeed need to put his T-shirt vest on underneath his shirt, that yes – this once, twice, even several times throughout the night – yes, the bathroom is just there, across the hall – all this is closer to love than all that eros and yearning and restless desire and unrequited suffering stuff fixated on another to gratify my own needs that my younger self liked to put herself through.
And in thinking about all this I have, this Christmas season, thought over and over about Oriah Mountain Dreamer's wonderful 'The Invitation', with its wisdom; a shaping spirit for me the last 12 years or so.
I have been thinking too about how essential it is to live authentically, to live from the heart.
Here is her invitation to me, to you, to us all (and just so you know, when she speaks of 'faithless' she is speaking of the ability to be faithful to oneself, to follow one's own star, no matter what the cost):
'The Invitation' by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon...
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.
Saturday, 24 December 2011
I have been trying to find a suitably profound, original or unusual thought to post for this western festival of the returning light (here in our largely Christian culture symbolised by the Christ), but there is too much to say, and too little.
My memory though has kept returning, the last few days, to a little phrase of Plato's I believe that I posted earlier in the year, and it seems as good a reminder as any, to me, for me, this Christmas, of 'right relationship':
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
And just for the craic, the above is a photo that I'm sure I've already posted too, and I'm posting again because I like it, because it's a personal reminder of good and magical times, because of its resonance as a threshold place, and because even when it's crowded with tourists Dyn Tagell – Tintagel Castle – still partakes of something of the liminal, poised as it is between earth, sea and sky, like us all.
So to you all, I wish you blessings of the many worlds at this gateway time.
Friday, 23 December 2011
Christmas, like the winter solstice, I think, may be about the joy of the Light returning but is also about absences and loss: in order for the new to be born something of the old order has to die. These absences, private sorrows, are an undercurrent for many I think at such times of collective celebration – they may not affect our ability to 'have a good time', outwardly, anyway, but they are like the Bad Fairy in folk-tales: they too need acknowledgement, a little space to themselves, or they wreak revenge, these Winter Ghosts. I think we should each of us have a little solo time built in, for reflection, between now and the early New Year.
The Man and I have worked well together the last couple of days towards this, our first Christmas together. Nonetheless, as we stand together against the radiator near the Christmas Tree (a lopped top from an evergreen in our little woodland margin), I'm aware of how people pull away from each other as well as together, and aware of his sadness – his children, who usually join him for a huge family Christmas in London, are in Australia this Christmas, where they live. Instead we will have my father, distraught, short on memory and grieving, and needing a lot of support. My lovely daughter will be here in between trekking back across the moor to feed animals. My mum won't.
So I stand here reasonably warm at the kitchen window, watching the woodpecker at the feeder, and instead of focusing on my loss make a decision to return to a moment of gratitude that I'm not sleeping under a bridge, holed up in Guantanamo, looking for missing relatives in flood zones, scared for my life in a war zone. How easy I have it, and how easy to let a sense of disgruntlement or sadness take over all perspective. How blessed, how fortunate, how loved I am.
Poetry is a small consolation for myself, with this first cup of tea, now alone in the treelit kitchen. I pick up David Whyte's book The House of Belonging, and turn to the prefacing poem, a favourite of mine, by David Wagoner. Exactly as I read the line 'No two trees are the same to Raven' a pair of said birds swoop low over the roof of the house and flip towards the valley, jostling, jouncing, mock-fighting, all the time uttering that wonderful deep-throat cronk.
Do you know what I mean if I say there are times when we are really in tune with everything, when synchronicities abound, when harmony is what shows itself, we're in 'the universe zone'? I mean when you know what's going to happen next, what someone's going to say next, who it is telephoning before you answer (even though you've not thought of or spoken with them in months or even years); when you know that conjunction of event is going to follow conjunction of event.
My belief is that truly living in accord with essential nature, given sufficient mindfulness practice, we could more or less dwell in this zone; but who of us is sufficiently alert/aware all the time? I'm aware though that there are periods when I notice this more than at other times: it's a mirroring of that quantum reality, perhaps, where photons – do I mean photons? Electrons? Neither? Linked particles? Anyway, sub-atomic particles – have an instantaneous/simultaneous effect on each other, ultimately indivisible.
This is C G Jung's 'acausal connecting principle' ('synchronicity'); so my waking dead on the dot of the moment of exact solstice yesterday morning, coupled with, for me, an unusually high level of telepathy alerts me to recognising the frequency of such experiences. I notice that for me these periods where conjunct events tumble over each other in my awareness happen for between 3 weeks and 3 months at a stretch, and I am not sure what it is that creates that heightened sensitivity in me (I say that as I imagine these events are happening synchronously anyway; sometimes we simply don't notice them, though of course we can train ourselves to).
But I wasn't going to talk about that, but about poetry. In fact I was going to let the poetry speak for itself, so here are a couple of stanzas from David Whyte's 'What I Must Tell Myself'.
Watching the geese
go south I find
even in silence
and even in stillness
even in my home
without a thought
or a movement
I am part
of a great migration
that will take me to another place...
When one thing dies all things
die together, and must live again
in a different way,
when one thing
is missing everything is missing,
and must be found again
in a new whole
and everything wants to be complete,
everything wants to go home
and the geese travelling south
are like the shadow of my breath
flying into the darkness
on great heart-beats
to an unknown land
where I belong...
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
First you need to shed all you know
or can name
then you need to step out of
your shoes, your shadow, your own
light, and your home. Strip
naked as the four winds
and forget being upright
unless you want to dance, and then
dance the stone row to the stone circle
and allow the sky to take your voice.
This is the season of yew and periwinkle
of Persephone's descent
to the winter god.
Watch for the barn owl
and Hecate at the crossroads
and prepare to hang from the World Tree
until you are sobered by silence
and stillness, and the great
white unending song of the spheres.
Kneel on the earth until
you become a reed, a snail, a fox,
another word for truth.
Be the berry in the dark stream
that the water bears away.
Transformed into all
you may be, step forward and cross
the threshold, gateway to gods
and ancestors, to what will endure
beyond all that you can imagine
of the play of particle, of wave –
take the hand that's offered, step through
this gateway to the light that burns within
which now you’ll never lose again.
~ Roselle Angwin
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
However, in the pagan Celtic Wheel of the Year, the period between Samhain, the Celtic New Year's beginning, on November 1st, and Beltane, May 1st, is the period belonging to the earth goddess (as opposed to sky god) – an inward time of descent and darkness and rest.
Friday, 16 December 2011
Times when life is so intense, joy and despair are so close together it's hard to tell them apart. Big loss, like big love, blows your heart open, doesn't it, and then the distinctions between feeling states become not just blurred but almost irrelevant. You realise that they're not just 'two sides of the same coin' but they are the same. And still feelings are only – and what a big 'only' – the way we humans navigate this wonderful terrible world of ours, map our place, register the impact of the fullness and the richness of it all, register our being in relationship to it all, engaged with the delights, engaged with the suffering. They're our natural human response to impermanence, flux, uncertainty. And maybe what matters is not whether we're happy instead of sad, but whether we can let all this take us deep, hold the doors of our heart wider open.
So this morning my response to everything is happy and sad at the same time – and that's ok. I can occasionally remember in moments that I don't have to identify the 'I' of me, whatever that means, with my labile emotional responses – though of course I do, unless I remember the irrelevance of the microscopic dot of 'me' on the face of this one small planet, and remember too that my emotional response to the world is only one part of my wholeness.
How it is today: the lull of a clear high sky for an hour. Then a deep wash of slatey-indigo rushing up from the west, eclipsing the moors; a handful of seagulls flung pristine white against the darkening sky. A rainbow bridging the lane. Brief and insistent smell of the sea, inland as we are, lifting my heart and tossing it out to the breakers. A wild and sudden deluge of hailstones, drenching dog and me. A small residue of hurt from someone's reaction to some words of mine. A residue of hurt for that person, too. A memory of the robin, yesterday, flying to my hand in the Zen garden at Dartington where I sit for a while after the radio show. My fleeting pleasure at the gentle order – raked waves, rocks, shrubs – in front of me, in the face of my own shambolic lifestyle. The kindness and generosity of friends. An alert from a course participant of a poem by Jorie Graham that I didn't know (www.poets.org, search for her name and 'Embodies' – she's reading it). Some texted poetry jokes that make me chuckle. A half hour's lucid and upbeat conversation with my dad – almost like the 'old days', pre-stroke, pre-bereavement; and we laugh. And oh yes another little wild strawberry, and the new gorse flaming yellow in the hedge. A breakout of jewel-red little mushrooms, edible. My mum's handwriting, a small note with the words for 'thank you' in Irish, from years ago. Breakfast with an old friend, he with whom I've shared many journeys. Yes, and the woodpeckers each morning at the feeder... in all these moments I make my home.
Thursday, 15 December 2011
Isn't this one of the criteria by which we recognise military dictatorships in the more brutal regimes?
'"It's something so radical that it would have been considered crazy had it been pushed by the Bush administration," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "It establishes precisely the kind of system that the United States has consistently urged other countries not to adopt. At a time when the United States is urging Egypt, for example, to scrap its emergency law and military courts, this is not consistent."' (The Guardian)
Plus ca change...
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
Mystics have always said, and science via quantum physics is validating this, that everything is relationship, from the grandest cycles to the smallest imaginable organisms or events. Everything. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and everything has an effect on everything else.
This is so elegantly demonstrated in particle physics where two particles can be charged with interaction with each other, and the one can be shown to change the other instantaneously, even 'if they have travelled to opposite sides of the universe' (Michael Brooks in The New Statesman, more another time).
You'll see the thread I'm following: one I keep coming back to in these posts. This particular thread for me connects not only to Zen and pagan/arcane spiritual practice, but also to my days of studying myth – initially at university (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic; my focus was on the body of Welsh and Irish mythology), and then later in my transpersonal psychology training, rooted in Jungian and archetypal thought.
A determining, even epiphanic, moment for me in my early 30s was a blinding revelation in relation to my own personal history and the way some mythic stories addressed aspects of this.
Myth embodies in story form the truths of humanity, and the wisdom of a culture, and offers us solutions or resolutions to the dilemmas and crises we all meet. I fell on the Grail mythos (much of which I'd read in various ancient languages at university, where the struggle was simply on translation and the content slipped by!) as others turn to the Bible, and then read all the Jungian books in relation to the deeper symbolism of the Grail stories (which, as we know them now, were adapted during the later Christian era from a body of much older knowledge, sourced probably in ancient Egypt and ancient Europe/Britain).
Meantime – this is in 1990/1 – I was building on my own personal inner work to create a series of workshops called 'Myth as Metaphor'. The rest as they say (as they say) is history.
OK I'm wandering a bit. Focus, girl.
If the ego seeks gratification, the Self seeks transformation and unity. (Here I'm using the 'Self' as Jung used it – the larger 'higher self' that is not focused on gratification of the hungry little ego, but on growth and potential for consciousness and the wider requirements of the collective.) We are all part of much bigger cycles, and as Dr Guirdham said, in a very real way 'we are one another'. But if you're anything like me, your tendency too will be to view everything 'out there' as if it's separate from you (me, us). Then our world becomes dotted with fragments of disconnected 'its' that we push around as if they were dead, to feed our appetites.
If we make our work though that of reclaiming the journey to the Self something changes. This is what so many of the Grail myths exemplify – the journey from the self-seeking nature of the immature person to the perspective of the mature adult who can form relationship that at least some of the time is not toxic and completely driven by the need to 'get' something from another; and in which evolution of consciousness and service play a determining part. I suppose that's the journey from 'love' to Love, too. At least, that's the theory!
Reclaiming our 'stuff', taking responsibility for our shadow, the unevolved bits of ourselves that we project out there and see in or dump on another but are blind to in ourselves seems to be the fundamental starting point. Rather like (I imagine) lancing a boil, there is such relief in reclaiming this stuff, pain notwithstanding (or maybe I'm simply a masochist!) – so much energy is locked up in all this projection!
Of the many books on all this that I possess or have read, one I come back to over and over is James Hollis' The Eden Project – in Search of the Magical Other, 'a Jungian perspective on relationship'. I can't help feeling this should be on the curriculum in all secondary schools. I want to tell everyone interested in relationship – that is, everyone – to read this book!
I have been using this work as a kind of guidebook/handbook/map for many years now, and it has come into focus again this year as I work through it more intensely as part of an important (to me) and significant (ditto) collaborative project.
There are a series of questions that Hollis raises that now underpin my journalling. In case any of this resonates with you at all, I'll copy them out. What I put down below is a very slightly adapted form of JH's questions.
The fundamental question
'What am I asking of this Other that I ought to be doing for myself?'
'What am I doing for this Other that s/he ought to be doing for him- or herself?'
(I think this is mine rather than JH's, though I may have misremembered – this is a big lesson for me, being both stubbornly independent and also over-responsible)
Other necessary/related qs:
Where do my dependencies show up in my relationships?
How do I repeatedly constrict myself through my historically conditioned attitudes and behaviour patterns?
Am I taking on too much responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of the Other? Am I taking on his or her journey at the expense of my own?
Am I living my life in such a fashion that I will be happy with the consequences of my choices? If not, when do I plan to start? What fears, lack of permission or old behaviours block me from living my life?
In what ways do I seek to avoid suffering?
AND: in what ways do I avoid intimacy?
'The way we live our days is, of course, the way we live our lives.' Annie Dillard
Tuesday, 13 December 2011
Thursday, 15 December, Wordquest FM
10:00 to 11:00am A discussion with Devon writer Roselle Angwin
102.5 FM in the Totnes/Dartington area or live on-line at www.soundartradio.org.uk <http://www.soundartradio.org.uk>
If you miss the live or on-line broadcast then download the podcast here:
along with podcasts of previous programmes.
This is the last Wordquest FM broadcast until Thursday, January 12. Thereafter it resumes, weekly, on Thursday mornings from 10am to 11am.
Last night we brought food to share and our favourite poem from the anthology, and I opened the session with a more playful way in.
I spoke yesterday, partly in relation to Andy Brown's blogpost, of my continual preoccupation both as poet and poetry tutor with the way we use the details of the concrete world, as perceived through the senses, to convey the abstract.
One of the things poetry can be very good at is enabling us to see experience in a fresh and different light, out of a different pair of eyes, and recognise it as our own.
Often it is the element of surprise that enables us to see something afresh, as if for the first time; and in poetry, as in jokes, it is often an unexpected juxtaposition that suddenly seems so right, so apposite, that brings the 'aha!' moment. That's why Douglas Adam's title above has the resonance it does.
An exercise I do with groups as play has this undercurrent of serious intent. I ask people to make three lists: one of concrete nouns ('doorframe', 'woodpecker'), one of abstract nouns ('grief', 'transience'), and one of either verbs to be used as adjectives, or adjectives themselves. I then ask people to combine them into phrases with an eye to surprising conjunctions and juxtapositions.
Often the phrases are just nonsense; but sometimes they really illuminate something. While the results in themselves are often too blowsy to be usable in a poem, they can prompt writers into extending the range of the metaphors they use, and to think more consciously of the impact of words in conjunction.
Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head examples:
the dusty drains of disbelief
the withered bough of grief
the scuffed patina of the afternoon
the peeling lacquer of pretence
the cracked lacquer of despair
the snug jumper of friendship
the pouting squalls of superficiality
the leaking ink of insincerity
the grimy vat of jealousy
the narrow vault of despair
the unadorned wimple of apathy
the scented bower of early love
the mean corral of emptiness
the hardy arbour of belief...
Monday, 12 December 2011
Thisness and Thusness: Thing Theory
In the writing classroom I regularly find myself discussing the central aim of poetry to make something that is absent become present. It seems to me one of the most basic concepts to understand in writing a poem. How do we make what is not there, appear as though it were?
Saturday, 10 December 2011
In the valley, after all the rain we've had, the stream is having a number of different conversations, each at its own register. Walking the footpath I see that several hazel are stretching out new leaves alongside the catkins – they must have had a shock last night with heavy frost.
Simon's cut back an elder – oh no! – I had a few words with it as I brushed past yesterday, reassuring it of its longevity (it was admittedly blocking the path, and a few skidmarks in the slopey mud suggest people have been going past on their behinds as likely as their feet). The local smallholders tend on the whole to leave nature pretty much to do its own thing, and Simon works conscientiously to keep to minimum impact while still tending the land – coppicing, steeping, harvesting the pruned wood to make hurdles and heat his house, leaving the land always looking cared for but in harmony with its environment. He'll never cut a tree unless he feels it's important to do so. I thought the elder was safe. In ancient Celtic times it was a serious crime to fell an elder – a most sacred tree.
Which brings me obliquely onto what I want to try to talk about. I was going there yesterday with my blog on karma but stopped short – partly because my braincell hadn't quite mapped out the scope of the terrain I want to speak of, and partly out of cowardice, as it involves speaking of personal and potentially, for me, painful stuff.
Here's a first foot into that landscape...
I'm thinking of the aboriginal concept of bone-pointing. It was commonly accepted that if the tribal medicine man, or an elder vested with such power, or simply an enemy, 'pointed the bone' at you you were dead. In our European culture, the equivalent is being cursed. This is the black side of magic (where white magic is used to heal, black is used for harm).
Yesterday I touched on the concept of belief – how a belief, a thought-form, will shape our life; and how much more dangerous that can be if that belief is not made conscious. If a culture supports a particular belief system, individuals in that culture will also, subliminally or more consciously, tend to hold those beliefs, at least unless they're aware and bold enough as to challenge them.
What is interesting is that 'bone pointing' or the equivalent doesn't seem to rely only on the fact being conveyed with the victim's conscious knowledge; in other words, it seems to work even if the victim hasn't been told that they're being cursed.
I don't know the scientific materialist's view on this, but anyone who is not the most emotionally detached hardline materialist, philosophically speaking, must be aware of the fact that information can be conveyed to another person not just verbally nor just via body language, but wordlessly via the emotional nature. This realm, the emotional, psychic or astral realm, is a collective place: C G Jung called it the collective unconscious. Our emotions do not respect the boundaries of the individual physical body. Messages are transmitted through this dimension via a kind of intuitive perceptive ability, telepathic at times in its scope. Some people (those with a high level of imagination and empathy, often) are more skilled in receiving and transmitting in this realm than others, but we all (I believe) have this faculty, and it can be developed through meditation and other practices.
I assume that 'cursing' someone makes use of this mode.
That is a digression really from what I wanted to speak of, and deserves a great deal more attention than I can give it here. But coming towards what I want to speak of, I'm thinking here of Gavin Maxwell's belief that his former lover, the poet and mystic Kathleen Raine, cursed him on the rowan tree behind his house on the hill at Camusfearna (Maxwell wrote the wonderful Ring of Bright Water, a book on his time living with otters on the West Coast of Scotland – a book that shaped my childhood and later life, and the epigraph to which, a few lines from Raine's poem that titled the book, determined me, aged 11, that I wanted to be a poet). After that time, Maxwell's life deteriorated dramatically, culminating in a fire that destroyed his home, and his later cancer; for which Raine held herself responsible.
OK, so this is the hard bit to talk about. As you'll know if you've followed my blog, my mum died four weeks ago. I have been thinking for the last six weeks about an incident in the late summer.
My mum had Alzheimer's. One of the implications of this is that someone with that condition is very easily disorientated; there are few, if any, points of reference, and she found it hard to be separated from my father and taken out of the home where they lived. However, the GP felt that a large mark that had appeared on her forehead needed investigation, so referred her to the hospital as an outpatient, as she feared it was a carcinoma. One of my sisters and I took her.
My mum had had a lifelong terror of hospitals. (She herself was almost never physically ill, but two of my sisters had life-threatening illnesses in their childhood; one of them to the point where she was in intensive care.) We had developed a habit of rather protecting my mum from the world, as in many ways she was quite childlike, and the more so with Alzheimer's.
Anyway, we took her, and the whole trip was quite traumatic; but as nothing compared to the trauma of the way the young female surgeon shocked my mother. Rather assuming my mum was deaf – which she wasn't – the woman examined the lump on her forehead and brought her face close to my mum's, making eye contact. 'You've got cancer!' she bellowed – hardly a skillful way to tell anyone, least of all someone as sensitive as my mum, who was, of course, deeply shocked and upset.
The reason I mention this is because, 10 days before she died, we discovered that my mum was very seriously ill. Even those of us closest to her had no idea. As I say, she has always been more than robust physically, if not so much emotionally. We decided that it wasn't in her interests to hospitalise her for further investigation/ops which she might not in any case have survived, and where she'd have to face it alone amongst strangers; more especially since it became obvious very quickly that this was terminal, and she'd be much more peaceful dying, with my dad beside her holding her hand, and us, and a great deal of love and care from the care staff, in the suite of tranquil, light-filled rooms looking on to the garden, in which they lived. It seemed important to give her continual family company, and her beloved Mozart on in the background, and low lights. But the doctors thought, from the severe and sudden significant blood loss, that my mum must have had cancer, internal cancer. And none of us knew; there had been no sign of any prior pain or discomfort of any sort. The journey from that point to the end was swift, and more or less painfree. I also know that it was the right thing for her, and that it happened exactly as it 'should', and the timing was, at some level, her choice. It was undoubtedly the best thing in the circumstances; and despite our sense of loss I still knew that at the time.
When it is one's time to go it is one's time to go, however it happens. There is no avoiding death.
But it does cross my mind that if someone 'in authority', in a position of power, speaks with enough conviction, a vulnerable and impressionable person might internalise that message and manifest it.
Who knows? 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy', says the great man.
And you will understand that I'm not attributing blame; the young surgeon was doing her job, was acting in my mum's best interests, she thought; and if she was emotionally clumsy, or ignorant of people's sensitivities, perhaps – well, so are many people. My mum was particularly sensitive. It's also quite likely impossible that any serious illness can be manifest in a matter of a couple of short months; though it might well have been accelerated (and given where Alzheimer's takes one, and my mum's gradual but inexorable deterioration, I suppose there is a case for saying that might not have been the worst thing imaginable). As deaths go, even in the middle of grief I can see that this was a 'good' one.
So I might be adding one and one and arriving at 42; or, maybe, to quote one of my mum's favourite phrases, perhaps it was a straw in the wind.
Friday, 9 December 2011
Underneath all our ecological and economic crises lies, it seems to me (and I'm not by a long way the first to articulate this of course), the urgent need for humankind to take a leap in the evolution of consciousness. If we want to survive as a species, and if we truly care about whether or not we take down the rest of the planet with us in our thrashing and posturing destructiveness, we need to change, and fast, in terms of our awareness and the outcomes of the choices we make: looking at our greed, our megalomania, our potential for hate, our fear. Staring it in the face, individually and collectively, until we really know the shape of it. Everything else is sticking a plaster on it.
One of the great contributions this last century to consciousness has been the pyschotherapeutic movement. It seems to me that the integration of psychology into our spiritualities – and vice versa – offers us a potentially huge way forward, and this is happening in some areas.
What this conjunction offers is an engaged way of living in the world, where we learn what it means to take responsibility for our movement through it and the consequences of that on self and other. I remember too those words of Jung's: that with increased rights come increased responsibility. This doesn't seem to have hit home really, looking at the way we humans are in the world.
One of the things that has appealed to me always about Zen is the potential for bringing awareness to each moment, every moment, and how we relate to it (this is common throughout Buddhism but shines clearly in the stripped-down-ness of Zen). In emphasising as it does the interconnectedness of everything (as does modern paganism, which has also influenced my life through shamanic and druidic practice) it reminds us that every personal thought/word/action has a consequence – again at least potentially – in the collective, in the way (this is an image frequently used in Buddhist thought) that the ripples from a pebble in a pool spread out. As in good poetry, the personal also opens out into the universal.
One of the many things psychotherapy brings to this is an increasing awareness of our patterns and habits, our beliefs. Once we bring these subliminal conditioned patterns of being into the conscious mind we have some choice; whereas as long as they reside unnoticed in the subconscious they continue to drive us and, in their relative automony, can wreak havoc.
And to karma – a widely misunderstood term in the West, it seems. Karma is simply the consequences of actions: harvesting what we sow, in other words. It is not merely a kind of balance sheet of good actions/bad actions for which we'll reap reward or be punished at some unspecified later date – or at least, that is only a crude representation. What it is is an awareness that everything we do has an effect; and the consequent notion that the more awareness we can bring to our way of being in the world the more liberated we (and others affected by us) will be.
Implicit in karma is that our thoughts and beliefs about the world really do shape our experience of the world. This is of course a self-perpetuating cycle – 'the wheel of karma' applies here too. This is relatively easily empirically tested; and there are a number of studies that show the way this may work in relation to others. I'm thinking here of the well-known experiments where a teacher was given an unfamiliar class of pupils and told that they were underachievers. Whether or not this was actually the case, the pupils all underachieved in the tasks they were set. A different teacher was given the same group of pupils and told the opposite – that they were all exceptionally gifted. Guess what?
So if we believe – or are told enough times – for instance that we are powerless, that is the tone we will tend to attract and manifest in our lives, putting it crudely. The reactions of the world to this will reinforce the belief. If we believe that the world is 'dog eat dog', that is what we will see, that is what we will buy into and enact and that is what will appear to happen to us too. If we live by the sword, etc. (I know this is crude as well but it will do for now.)
One of my bedside books, falling to pieces now as it's lived there for more than 30 years, is the Pali text The Dhammapada, a little collection of aphorisms incorporated into the Buddhist canon some time before the Christian era.
Here's its opening aphorism (in Juan Mascaro's translation):
'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.'
So simple; so revolutionary. I have to remind myself frequently never to underestimate the power of thought.
Thursday, 8 December 2011
It reminds me too why I so wanted to loosen the grip on my psyche of those tragic romantic tales with which I was brought up (we all are in the West). It made me feel grateful to do the work I do, live the life I live, be loved as I am, have the minimal comforts which at times I despise.
Work has been relentless. My father's distress at the recent loss of my mum has been relentless – exacerbated by his loss of memory. My own sense of loss has been very unrelenting too, and I have felt pretty close to the edge recently myself, and this afternoon was supposed to be a spontaneous Treat to Self – a way of focusing on something other than the heaps of undone work, my dodgy financial situation, and what on earth we are going to do about my father.
Can I recommend it to you? I don't know. Yes, I think, as long as you are not feeling emotionally overwrought in your life, though I do have psychological and ideological reservations about the wisdom of (sorry, that word again) unrelenting, unmitigated darkness and unhappiness.
Am I glad I saw it? I don't know. (I nearly left partway through – the fact that I was hemmed in and that I was also hoping for some kind of resolution made me sit it out.) I like being challenged; I love story, film, and so on; I like intense, deep, arty; I don't mind dark. But I do hate brutality; and I also have a hyperactive imagination and am very impressionable visually. This will haunt me.
I might have been better going with TM to Chagford, a pretty little market town on the moor where I have a lot of friends, for an easy and undemanding cup of coffee and a swan around some arty shops, plus that wonderful drive across Dartmoor – the wuthering heights without the graphic violence.
My accountant rings. 'I have a word for you,' he says, in his Welsh accent. My immediate reaction is delight – sometimes friends and I do this for each other, to take our poetry off in a new way. 'Prevarication,' he offers.
Gob not connected to brain here. Naivety wins out over cynicism, as usual, too (plus in my defence I am immersed in something creative). I have already started to say 'Oh I'll see what I can do with a poem about that –' when the penny drops.
'Can I leave you with that then? And by the way when are you going to come to that rugby match?'
'When you come to a poetry reading, Steve.'
Yes, my accounts are well overdue. He's good, Steve, and we know each other well.
During my longish time living alone with my young daughter, two men became very significant in our fiscally-impoverished (but very rich in terms of lifestyle, interest and soulfood) lives in a rented wooden thatched house up a boulder-edged, beautiful and remote lane facing Dartmoor, quite a long way from a town, and a few miles from the nearest village: the mobile mechanic, Mike, who sorted out for very small sums my succession of interesting and impractical old Citroens, 2CVs and vans; and my accountant, without whom I wouldn't have been able to get by – in those days there was a Welfare State, and my lone-parenthood plus very low income from handmaking garments and footwear and no other kind of financial support qualified me for Family Credit help to feed and clothe E, and help towards the rent; but only on presentation of self-employed accounts from a bona fide accountant. The help much more than paid his bills.
In those days I had to drag in from the adjoining woodland and saw up my own logs before there was any heat in the house; and as I was working all the hours that my daughter was either at school or in bed that meant that it was an endless chore, and, this being Devon, the wood was usually damp. (However the beautiful thing about a Rayburn is that we did all our cooking on it, it heated the water, dried the clothes and the wet logs, allowed the dough to rise and warmed E's bedroom above it.)
Later, when I moved into part of the old farmhouse on the Buckland Abbey estate (long story), I added to the list of Essential People (obviously topped by friends and family) the local couple who logged and brought us wood, also cheaply; and the farrier: we'd acquired a small pony for E, and my friend Ian swapped hoofcare for human footwear, as I was then making my living through shoemaking.
Even my accountant swapped figures for boots, as did the friends who made my furniture, crockery and some of my clothes. (My doctor bought my shoes, too.)
I love the barter economy. It's not the same with poetry (although my vet did recently swap a treatment – she's also an acupuncturist – for the two new books).
A lot of my work behind the scenes is unpaid – promotion, admin, enquiries, chasing work, booking, planning, advertising and preparing courses and paying non-refundable deposits on venues never being sure that the course will fill enough as to be viable, submitting poems, essays and manuscripts, and giving feedback to/doing favours for other newer writers.
People tend to think, too, that if you're lucky enough as to be able to do something you love doing, full time, and it's something that doesn't have any obvious commercial value, that should be its own reward; so I am asked a lot, as no doubt many other professional poets and writers are, if I could 'just' look at this manuscript, these poems, give this reading; with no expectation of a fee.
So if I sound grouchy it's because I have finally overcome the prevarication and done my accounts. Depressing. Steve has been telling me for years that I'd be better off on benefits; and, more, that I'm going to be a very poor old lady. (Of course I have no pension, insurance, security, ability – should I wish to have one – to raise a mortgage in my own name; plus anyway my native Westcountry has mostly been sold to people with London incomes.)
I guess it's not surprising in a recession that my earnings are down for the third year running, though I am working as hard as I ever have – often 6 days a week, certainly. Sadly, the expenses, legitimate business expenses, are not down. In fact the two sets of figures are almost identical. The Man looks at the two columns in utter disbelief. 'How on earth did we manage to eat this last year?' (The deal is he pays most of the utilities bills in the house – I do my garden studio bills – and I buy the food.) The answer is entirely courtesy of a very good friend; she who has sponsored this blog this year. Thank God for friends.
Despite media attention on 'success stories' like J K Rowling, and prize money such as that of the Man Booker, a Society of Authors survey showed that almost all professional authors, in the UK anyway, earn less than £20K per annum; and somewhere between 75% and 90% of those less than £10K. I'm one of the latter. Royalties on my several books that are in print, coupled with those books of my own that I sell at eg workshops, bring in a total that usually doesn't quite make four figures.
The rest is courses and mentoring, an occasional (paid!) poetry reading.
Thing is, I don't really value money, so don't pay it the dues it might need to grow. What I value is living somewhere that inspires me, and living simply with as little impact as possible (which is just as well), doing something I was born to do; something I really love, that feels authentic and true to my vision and values; whose worth isn't measured against dosh in the bank – wrong 'language'. What's more, feedback seems to suggest that this work, in its small way, is valuable; and it also doesn't add to the sum of harm on the planet. But this is not part of the capitalist ethos.
Each year I come to this same place: how is this sustainable? Will I still be giving workshop in my 60s, my 70s? Will anyone come? Will schools want an elderly woman giving supposedly-inspiring workshops on poetry and the environment? Can I continue to get by on so little?
And then is the thought: what anyway is the alternative (short of writing the bestseller – but my interests are too non-mainstream, and I also know I'm not a top-flight author)? I have few marketable skills, and am, after all unemployable after 30 years of this!
So here's to the strange kind of freedom of the self-employed. My English A level teacher once yelled at the group of 17-year-old boys messing around at the back of the class: 'What you don't realise is that when you leave here you'll be finding, one way or another, that life will imprison you. What I have is the thankless task of at least trying to give you the means to choose your own prison!'
Mine's pretty good, thank you Mrs W. There are fields and birds and trees through the window; and if I choose to get up now and take the dog out into the wet gale and enjoy it, and make up for it later, there's no one standing over me and watching the clock. And – you know – I think I might just, pressure of work, grief over my recent bereavement and lack of money notwithstanding, take this afternoon off to go and see 'Wuthering Heights' before the arts centre cinema stops showing it. I could do with a treat; and right now its dark moodiness will do me fine.
A plea: support an author, or poet, this week – not necessarily me – and buy a book! And if you do want to buy a book from me (Christmas coming up and all that) I have a special deal at the moment – see back to the Fire in the Head programme post a few days ago. And then there are those courses – buy a loved one a bit of a course? :-)
Wednesday, 7 December 2011
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
Sunday, 4 December 2011
where I put a word down
and then another
where night and day
amount to the same thing
where 'no beginning/no end'
makes as much sense
as anything else
where the boulders take the hit
of photons with
all of themselves
where rain and sun marry me
to earth air water
where I give up my name
where I am another glyph
*Alasdair Paterson's new book on the governing of empires has each poem title beginning with 'on', a motif I borrow for the title of this one.
Friday, 2 December 2011
A swirly blanket of ice on the car this morning; the sky translucent and beautiful. Bright berries decorating banks, filling ditches; apples bobbing at the lip of the leat. From the woodland margins flocks of migrating redwings take off with a harsh chattering clatter at my approach. I don't think I've ever seen so many fungi as this autumn, and have found myself with a new caution – I used to be so confident at identifying edible species, and have had so little time to forage the last few years that I now doubt my eye.
And now again storms and gales...
It's nearly a year since I started this blog. I've loved the journey. Walking the dog this morning I was asking myself why I started it; why I write it. Answers are numerous and tangled: it's a creative journal; it's a discipline; it's a practice; it's a way of communicating; it's a way of working things out; it's a way of sharing and making connections with like-minded others; it's a way of expressing myself; it's a way (let's be honest) of also bringing more people to my work, which is crucial when you make your living in the arts.
It's a way of remembering, when snowed under (ie 95% of the time) with admin, prep, promotion, emails, enquiries, tutoring, mentoring, writing references/blurb/reviews of friends' and students' work and one way or another facilitating others' writing, or seeking commissions/contracts/publications/future workshop opportunities, that I too write... and some days it is the only 'real' writing I do. So yes it's a way of remembering.
And mostly it's for the same reason that I write anything – because I have to: because nothing else fills that writing-shaped gap; because I feel ill, or - not quite fraudulent, maybe inauthentic – or dislocated, disenfranchised, deracinated somehow if I don't, on a psychic or spiritual level.
It's been interesting to see what things have caught my attention. I expected to write a lot more about myth and psychology, about writing poetry and novels. I didn't expect that birds would make an appearance so very often; nor that almost each post would contain nature notes. I didn't expect Zen to be as prominent.
I knew it would be addictive. I didn't quite know why. I had no idea of my audience; and I had no idea of their (your) loyalty. I had no idea when I started how much pleasure writing this would give me; nor the fact that blogging is different from other writing activities; nor how much I'd love reading others' blogs.
And I have been so touched by the kindness and generosity of so many people, commenting on the blogs here or emailing me to speak about them. A big thank you for your participation in this year – it really does make it feel like a shared conversation, a joint project, collaboration almost, and you have enriched my life.
I hesitate to start to talk of this because I'm not sure I'll stop; but otherwise it's the elephant in the room.
I am only just beginning to glimpse what it is to lose one's mother. Because my father's grief has been so huge, and because a stroke took his short term memory out five years ago which means that he rings one of us (myself or one of my three sisters) or even all of us several times a day to ask us endlessly what's happened to our mum, there has been no space to grieve ourselves (though clearly having to face it all over again many times a day means we've had to let some grief in, grief for him as much as for us). There's also, of course, all the practical stuff to do after a death.
So I haven't really let it in properly, yet; but one part of my mind is pretty constantly preoccupied with it, even as another part notices the quality of light, the buzzard in the oak tree, focuses on what needs to be done; can still laugh, still engage.
My mum had Alzheimer's. Over the last eight or so years we watched her gradually withdraw from the world. She'd had a brilliant brain; had trained as an engineer, also been a pianist and artist; was a member of MENSA; always loved language and etymology, and not long before she succumbed to the more damaging progression of Alzheimer's she completed each day, and once won, the Times crossword. Even recently she still managed to keep some aspects of her connection with language going.
It's the little things that hurt, of course: reminding myself I have to speak or think of her in the past tense; not being able to tell her one of her favourite little jokes ('Where did Napoleon keep his armies?' 'Up his sleevies') to make her smile, or listen to her making a pun or wordplay; putting back on the shelf the little treat I've just automatically picked up for her in the shop – some fudge, maybe, or some blueberry-yoghurt-coated raisins; some handcream, a magazine. Just now I picked up her address book, and the list of our names with Christmas present ideas beside them in her handwriting that fell out dealt me a blow in the solar plexus as excruciating as if it had been physical.
But really she'd already let go. Though she and I had always adored each other in a simple warm relationship, the truth is I guess she stopped being my mum some time ago.
There were compensations. She was peaceful; she lived in a constant 'now' – in her more lucid moments when she apologised for her memory losses, I'd laugh and say that she seemed to have achieved effortlessly what I'd spent all my adulthood in Buddhist practice trying and failing to achieve, and she'd laugh too. And she and my father the last few years, ironically for the same reason (memory loss) caused by different illnesses, found a happiness that would have seemed inconceivable when they were both fitter and younger, their relationship then being so turbulent and so seamed with incompatibilities. This has been the greatest gift of the last five years, in among a great deal of difficulty and pain. Never too late to have a happy marriage.
And when one comes to die, how better than with minimal suffering, at home in a peaceful room, having just seen all your family, and with your spouse holding your hand, telling you how much he loves you and how beautiful you are?
Thursday, 1 December 2011
I listen to the tides of blood breath brain; remember John Cage in his an-echoic chamber expecting utter silence and hearing instead the high whine of his central nervous system, the deep hum of his blood.
I am slowed back into three dimensions, borne up on my own tides. Simply to rest in the ground
Sister owl sounds the night – one pure long white note – and I ride it until I am home, again, everywhere
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