from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Butterfly at Samhain (poem)

Today, stacking oak and cedar for the winter fires
I found at the very bottom of the store
two black butterflies, alive and tight-clinging
in the darkness, for their winter rest

Last year, driving my dad back across the November moor
after my mum had died, there were voices
in the car, high celestial singing that both of us
heard with an inner ear, and I knew then

that the ancestors live so close, awaiting our notice;
and today with the veil between worlds

this slender, as I feed the robin I think
how it is my mum is so present I could almost

reach out and take her white hands that stayed
so much softer, always, than mine. Some people
think of the soul as a butterfly; and now
I think that with all the pain in the world

and the losses we sustain, still the heart's
small candle burns in the darkest places
and the soul has its own resilience.

© Roselle Angwin October 31st 2012

Monday 29 October 2012

the light as it falls towards us, and saying yes

 Have you noticed how the light as it falls towards us is most beautiful at the edges of storm?

The soul has its own purpose, its own agenda, its own momentum, whatever the ego or our emotional nature think. We just have to learn how to listen, how to get out of our own light. Or maybe – how to step into it.

In dance this morning, Kay said: 'Even if what is going on in you is NO, says yes to it...' and I smile and soften to my exhausted aching heart.

Here, now, later, someone mentions something in relation to one of my blog posts from November last year. At random I open this one, from nearly a year ago, just after I'd lost my mum. I smile at the synchronicity. It's relevant, maybe, to me right now; it's relevant, maybe, always; so I repost it and invite you to consider if it is also in any way relevant to you:

'I am thinking today about the areas in my life where I say "no" to a process that needs my "yes". How is it we vote to keep ourselves small, to allow fear to lead us? Reading David Whyte on this – how refusing to participate in a process that your soul calls you to "is actually corrosive on the personality and character". So many of our great writers emphasise this need to submit to greater purposes than our little ego wishes to, in its search for safety and certainty. Blake speaks of this; Goethe addresses it; Rilke too – "No more things will happen, No more days will open / and even the things that do happen will cheat him." We turn away from the possibility of change, from the necessity of transformation to enlarge us and our lives. We stay nose to tail in the line on which we've been put, like chickens placed on a chalk line who freeze, fearful of falling off. 

'We need to fall in love again with life, with all its demands; to submit to the inner processes. How many times today might I say "yes" when it would be easier to say "no"?'
The best gift we can offer to ourselves, I believe, is to say yes to everything life brings our way, over and over. What makes the difference, of course, is not what happens to us but how we relate to it.
The year has tipped and I am now, just, a little closer to the Isle of Iona in 2013 (my "Islands of the Heart" retreat begins on April 14) than I am to this year's course, last April. (The photo above is from the boat on the way to this year's course.) Some of you know that I measure my year from Iona to Iona, and I know I'm not alone in this.  
Again, at dance, Kay played Mike Scott's track that includes these words:

Peace of the rested mind
Peace of the glad heart...
Peace of Iona.


Sunday 28 October 2012

inspirational poetry: Mary Oliver's Red Bird

There are poems for academics, there are poems for poets, there are lyrical poems for a broad swathe of the population, there is experimental poetry for a few, there is formal verse, and there is the poetry of the heart, known as ‘inspirational poetry’.

I like them all, and my own personal preference is for poetry that speaks to mind and heart alike, integrates and transcends them – in other words, poetry in which mystery still vibrates, but without the crude sentimentality of the confessional overly-emotional spewing. Yet, if a poem has no heart, it doesn’t do it for me. Scottish poet John Burnside is perhaps an example of an excellent poet who fulfills those two criteria, and has the poetic skill lacking in so many who attempt this.

But today I’m thinking about the place of inspirational poetry.

And while it may not always ‘tick the boxes’ of the more rigid values of ‘good poetry’, there is an important place accorded inspirational poetry, or the ‘praise-song’, in a culture. It’s a way of keeping soul alive in a materialistic reductionist time. What it does is bring together matter and spirit through the medium of the higher feeling nature. The language is often simple; the vehicle shouldn’t get in the way.

So I’m thinking Rumi. And David Whyte. And John O’Donohue. And one of our best-loved contemporary inspirational poets is Mary Oliver, the American poet living on Cape Cod.

I’ve loved her poems for as long as I can remember. One of the things I like about her work is that she knows that the beautiful and terror co-exist, and that we need to make room in our hearts for both. Even more significant, we have to find a way to love the world despite, or rather with, its terror. Look at this:

How I linger

to admire, admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –

roses in the wind,

the sea geese on the steep waves,

a love

to which there is no reply?

(from 'Heavy')

And 'Gannets', below, a personal favourite, says in one poem what I’d say the whole body of my own poetry is attempting to articulate:


I am watching the white gannets

blaze down into the water

with the power of blunt spears

and a stunning accuracy –

even though the sea is riled and boiling

and gray with fog

and the fish

are nowhere to be seen,

they fall, they explode into the water

like white gloves,

then they vanish,

then they climb out again,

from the cliff of the wave,

like white flowers –

and still I think
that nothing in this world moves

but as a positive power –

even the fish, finning down into the current

or collapsing

in the red purse of the beak,

are only interrupted from their own pursuit

of whatever it is

that fills their bellies –

and I say:

life is real,

and pain is real,

but death is an imposter,

and if I could be what once I was,

like the wolf or the bear

standing on the cold shore,

I would still see it –

how the fish simply escape, this time,

or how they slide down into a black fire

for a moment,

then rise from the water inseparable

from the gannets’ wings.

From NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1992 by Mary Oliver.

I haven’t yet bought her latest collection but, as I’m not well at the moment, I’m giving myself an hour on the sofa in the afternoons. This is greatly enhanced by poetry, so I bought myself as a treat three books of Oliver’s that I didn’t previously possess.

Swan, a new collection, was the first I dipped into. I have to say that I was really quite disappointed; it feels to me like a ‘makeweight’ book – a bit slight, overly simplistic, too slender in terms of quantity (which wouldn’t matter if each poem sang, or enough of them did) – and at times annoyingly patronising and didactic (I’d give you a quote except I’ve managed to lose the book). Oliver is in her seventies now, and the book feels as if it’s been born from the pressure of needing to publish.

Thirst I have yet to read.

Red Bird (Bloodaxe 2008), though, is gold. Many of the poems made me shiver, and there is a more directly personal presence here – Mary Oliver declaring love – in addition to her praise-songs for the natural world. This feels like a genuine drawing-together of her lived life and its depths of immersion in the human, as well as the not-human, world.

In some of her later work, including in this collection, she uses the word ‘God’, which is not so comfortable for some people, I imagine; and to the extent that it’s a monotheistic term, I’m one of them. However, I read it as not so much an ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ term as a general way of describing a metaphysical world, the world of pure energy, spirit. It’s hard to find words for this when they are often so tightly bound to a particular structured religion, and therefore come with a lot of baggage. ‘Great Spirit’ is a possible term, but clumsy, of course. We could say ‘The One’, meaning whatever it is that transcends the individual ego and holds us all together in union. But in truth there is no easy term, and ‘God’ is a simple way of expressing the Creative, whatever one considers that to be.

That apart, many of these poems do vibrate with a felt sense of living both in and beyond the physical world, and that sits easily for me.

I said above that Oliver doesn’t flinch from the darker places even as she praises the light. I value that. There is a poem which enjoins us to ‘Love Sorrow’, speaking of the presence of sorrow in a life as a small child whom we need to care for:

‘Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must

take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her

into her little coat, hold her hand,

especially when crossing a street...’

I found that image and injunction quite moving, and also useful personally.

The Red Bird of the title is the subject of the opening poem:

‘... perhaps because the heart narrows

as often as it opens –

I am grateful

that red bird comes all winter

firing up the landscape

as nothing else can do.’

As an archetypal psychologist, I resonate with that image: birds being of the air element, the mental nature, symbolically, and red being the colour of vital (in both senses) elemental earthy and heartful passion (as well as of sacrifice) there is a lot that vibrates behind this symbol.

Red Bird also closes the collection:

‘“Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow

and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was

only the first trick

I had hold of among my other mythologies...

...If I was the song that entered your heart

then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,

and thus wilderness bloomed there...”’

In this collection are too Oliver’s environmental and political concerns: industrialisation, desecration, the Iraq war, ice-floe meltdown. (At times there is an echo of another great American poet, Jane Hirshfield.)

Perhaps the most moving sequence though is the cycle of love poems at the core (‘heart’) of the book: ‘Eleven Versions of the Same Poem’. Some lines at random:

‘I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes, open

your hands. I have just come

from the berry fields, the sun...’

‘I am the pledge of emptiness

that turned round.

Even the trees smiled.’

‘Now comes the long blue cold

and what shall I say but that some

bird in the tree of my heart

is singing.’

Apt, for the first frosts here in England.

Thursday 25 October 2012

a few words from here

The distances have closed in – so many days of mist have brought a stillness to the valley. Around us the harvests are mostly in, and the fields now ploughed, and drifted with flocking birds. The piglets in Malcolm's field are no more.

Walking the dog: crimson spindle leaves, lipstick-pink and orange flower-berries; and the stop-get-ready-go berries of bryony. A single dog violet. The horses cluster at the gates. I rest my hand under their manes on the warm necks; the grey gelding puts his head close to mine, and we breathe the day together.

As I shimmy the car through the narrow approach to Staverton Bridge the misty October light is resting milky on the river, face now pocked with leaves after the sudden gusts of last night's winds. A single white egret is perched in an alder. The Canada geese have gone, though later a flock of maybe 30 veed over the hedge in front of me.

This weekend I'll gather the rest of our beans for winter freezing: borlotti, flageolet.

In the yoga house under the sudden gusts of wind last night there was a strew of fallen almond-shaped leaves on the skylight like a Japanese haiga, like a subtle question, fading as the daylight receded and dark took over.

In the softly-lit yurt, the newborn baby murmured in the woodburner's glow.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

the snake and the frog

(from September, in France)

I'm sitting here on this sunny balcony high above the lush alluvial plain of the river Lot. There's the sound of a tractor and a distant dog, a woodpecker, the chittering martins jinking and jiving at eye level the other side of the wisteria, an occasional French voice. In the distance plumes of water sucked up from the lazy loops of the Lot are irrigating fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers.

The local market on Sunday was rich with the harvest from the region: soft fruit, a huge variety of veg, honey, goat's cheese, mead (honey wine), and local wines. They all say that because of the recent heatwave they've had a bad harvest – The Man and I look at each other and smile slightly wryly; this is a bad harvest? In relation to ours this year (for the opposite reason) they're in a cornucopic paradise!

Yesterday we walked the high crescent ridge above the limestone escarpment between Calvignac and the Chateau de Cenevieres, parts of which date to the C12th. (Within, is one small well-preserved C16th practising alchemist's chamber, complete with frescoes and iconography composed of images from myth and archetype.)

Unfortunately, we missed a little of the spectacular scenery due to falling into one of our Patterns. You know – how couples can press each others' buttons and go off on one.

There are in most relationships I imagine, even when both parties have agreed to 'work on it' – rare enough in our culture – and/or to hold fire on tricky subjects, one or two 'default' grudges that can kick in at flashpoint moments and hijack not just the relationship but our better natures, our goodwill, our fine intentions... recognise this? They represent, basically, unsolved conflicts, ones that maybe cannot be resolved in an either/or way, and ones which – assuming a certain level of goodwill is present and not too much game-playing takes places in that relationship – may represent certain deeply held values, interests and needs that are not shared by the other; or that we perceive as not being respected by the other.

Once one steps over the threshold of a flashpoint, there's no going back. What's more, the debates tend to loop round and round in a closed system, a voie sans issue.

Ours this time was about our differing needs for space.

In order to 'hear myself think', my life as a writer and sometime painter requires regular solitude. This to me is 'normal and natural'. TM doesn't share my requirement, and asks quite reasonably why, since he's hardly a noisy intrusive type, I can't do that thinking and writing in the same room he's in. I could speak of a woman's more diffuse awareness, as opposed to, stereotypically speaking, a man's more focused attention; but actually no matter what the reason I simply can't. I find it hard to immerse myself in my writing if there's anyone else in the house, even. (I'm not alone in this – any number of professional writers I know rent extra space somewhere else when they're writing. Many go away for months at a time. It's just how it is, but it is probably hard to accept if you're not primarily a creative type.)

Soon of course we're galloping down the pained and grievanced road. I have a brief moment when I determine to take the quiet unruffled Middle Way and simply not react – and an equally brief moment when I don't want to be That British Couple shouting at each other through the tranquil French countryside, and then we're both gone, polarised in moments into The Differences: My Position, Your Position and why they're irreconcilable.

Trouble is, as long as we're both wanting a) to be right and b) to be seen to be right (ie having the other concede to our take on reality) we're fighting an unwinnable lawsuit against How It Is.

How it is is that he's how he is and I'm how I am; they differ, and they're both OK. And ultimately, like everyone, we share the same needs: to love, and be loved; to be seen and respected for who we are; to exhibit and be shown a reasonable level of goodwill and kindness; to be both separate and connected; to fullfil our own individual sense of purpose and to be supported in our quest for that, as well as to be able to create a joint vision. What's so hard about this?

I guess the fear is that if we are are too different, either one of us will feel ourself in danger of being subsumed into the relationship at the cost of our own authenticity, our own path; or our paths will be so divergent, so destabilised or destabilising, that we will end up splitting up.

So the Pattern kicks in.

Walking back below the sheer cliff face on which, 70m above us, the castle is perched, and next to the river, where we're still engaged in being irritated and offended, I'm struck by something. On the hot tarmac between verge and verge, a mature grass snake, maybe 60cm long, is squashed utterly flat, hinged jaw locked open. Just out of reach of that jaw, centimetres ahead of it, equally flattened, is what was presumably its intended prey – a large frog.

It strikes me that this is how it is when one gets locked into such a pattern: we become so obsessed with whatever it is we're pursuing – our appetites or momentary desire, our need to justify who we are or what we do and say, our fixed sense of identity, our opinions masquerading as The Truth, our need to be right – that we don't even see the bigger picture; don't notice that we're about to be overtaken by a much weightier, graver and altogether less negotiable truth that will obliterate us, argument and all, if we don't look up from our obsessive focus, don't let go. Our attention to the micro eclipses the macro; or rather we allow the small picture to become our universe, our means of identity. And thus our attachment to ego eclipses the cosmos.

We're not really seeing how things are. We're seeing them how we are. We're seeing the Other, and the world, through the lens of our own unconscious motivations, our needs and expectations.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer says: 'At best, actions based on an inaccurate picture of what is are unlikely to create the change we desire. At worst, they cause greater suffering.'

In our case, it's something to do with an unwillingness to allow the other to be who they are whether or not it suits us. Human enough, but scarcely loving. This is coupled with an unwillingness to listen, to really listen, to what is being voiced beneath the words of the other, and to listen to the movements of soul rather than the clamour of ego. We know this, but the heat becomes such that we give into it because we're unable to stay still long enough with how things are, without reacting. It's a compulsion, an addiction. It's fear.

Saturday 20 October 2012

heart medicine

1 the sea, the sea (photos from Bantham, 21st October)

2 poetry

from 'The Haw Lantern' (Seamus Heaney)

'The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them than that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination...'

– because the hawthorn is a magical tree, a sacred tree, and iconic here on Dartmoor. This year, despite the failure of the apple crop, the haw berries hang the trees like ruby fairy-lights, thick and warming. (Also I think I might be learning at last not to burn quite so fiercely myself, or insist on blinding people with my own take on illumination. Becoming quieter, and probably easier company for it...) And:

3 the hawthorn tree
because it is an unsurpassed and completely safe medicine for the heart; the berries and leaves are regulators and normalisers of blood pressure and the heartbeat, either way round; and they also strengthen the heart muscle. Yep, it's one of the herbal tinctures I'm taking...

Friday 19 October 2012

badgers, granny bashers, baths

The badger cull. Oh, the badger cull. I guess if you live in GB you might have heard that, despite licences being issued over the last few weeks in Gloucestershire and Somerset, it seems the Government is not yet wholly committed to going ahead. Turns out there are more badgers than they estimated, and the body-bounty will be too expensive. And – just in case you ever wonder if all those e-petitions that cram your inbox actually make a difference – yes, they do. 150,000 people signed the anti-badger-cull one, which means that at least and for the first time there will now be a debate on the matter in the House of Commons. Let's not give up!


We didn't have TV when I was growing up, and I didn't have one either as an adult till moving in with TM, and we've watched it maybe half a dozen times in the four years I've been here. Somewhere along the line though as a family when I was young we all watched Monty Python, and it was just wonderful to spend half an hour the other day with my dad (and my sister, who's just moved reluctantly down from Scotland to be nearby – the nearby wasn't reluctant but the leaving Scotland was; and who then on arrival promptly broke her right, driving and writing, arm), who has vascular dementia, all chuckling (and sometimes roaring) with laughter at the DVD I'd found to play at his place: the Pet Shop sketch (remember the ex-parrot, 'shagged out after a long squawk'?), the Lumberjack Song and Hell's Grannies. (Now there are some role models! There are the motorbikes [yeah], and there is the anarchists' symbol graffitied alongside the slogan 'MAKE TEA NOT LOVE'...)


Please indulge me for a little longer while I bang on (ha! Sad pun!) about my heart. Once I'm through the tests and the dilemma of What To Do re all the allopathic medicines I'm being strongly invited to take, and have stopped being driven by the kind of fear I spend my life counselling others not to be driven by, and have, of course, recovered by all the means I counsel others to try: good diet, herbs to strengthen and support and relax, acupuncture from my dear friend, rest, things to make the heart smile, scented candle-lit baths, yoga and meditation (naturellement), no stress etc – once I'm there I'll shut up, I promise. Oh and I meant to add to that list 'extra exercise'. Do you think that, in addition to dog-walking and dancing, a new commitment to that rare activity, vigorous cleaning of the bath, counts as 'brisk exercise'?

Wednesday 17 October 2012

slug love and the heart's candle

OK, I know that slugs aren't cuddly. They are also not our friends – this year we've had to replant up to 5 times each our beans, brassica, courgettes and even leeks. But look at this. I know nothing of slugs' reproductive behaviour, but I guess that's a little ball of slug babies. I know that the conventional view would be to stamp on it all, quick. But – call me nuts, but doesn't this touch you just a tiny little bit?*

Here lost tribes of corn marigolds flag field margins. New honeysuckle blossoms; and my outdoor potted jasmine has put forth some flowerbuds, possibly first time ever. Redwings are torn across the sky; above my head in Simon's field a pair of buzzards lift off in sync.

Devon-based Hilary Mantel has just won the Man Booker literary prize for a second time, with her Thomas Cromwell sequel. She's the first woman and first Briton to win it twice. Go, girl. Will Self was a favourite; an 'outsider', debut author Alison Moore with The Lighthouse from that small indie press known for its poetry, Salt, was also on the shortlist.

I'm learning the art of rest. Can't think why I haven't tried it before. In the night my blood pulses in my ears like the too-fast crash of waves on shingle. My heart slams against the walls of my chest like a loose shutter at a window, or a night-bird throwing itself repeatedly at glass. Over and over there's a question that I'm not getting, and one that I cannot answer. I'm shielding my heart like a candle from this wind that makes the trees whisper in Ash, Sycamore, Willow.

* See also 'How to Love Hornets', a blogpost from 2011

Monday 15 October 2012

let it be enough

Most of the time, I have no doubt as to the value of the arts. They are what feed our hearts, our soul-life, our being human; what make or celebrate meaning, as well as the best of our journey here; what make a culture. Sometimes, though, like no doubt most of us involved in the arts, set against the 'big picture' of war and famine and flood and disaster they seem to me – well, if not exactly superfluous, at least almost insignificant or irrelevant; even a bourgeois privilege. 

Then I remember how it is that, say, a poem can bring exactly the comfort, or compassion, or the insight, or the opening to the numinous, or the breaking-open of the heart that leads us to the best we can be in the face of our own or the world's tragedies. And a poem can be too a kind of communion with others, humans, other species, living or otherwise, frail and brave, like us all.

I'm dipping into a loaned book: Lifelines, a collection of poems chosen by well-known people, accompanied by their letters in relation to their choice of poem put together by pupils of Wesley College, Dublin, under the tutelage of their English teacher.

The volume I have is 2006. The project was initiated in aid of famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and is prefaced by forewords from Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan and Eavan Boland. I borrow here some words from Heaney: '... individuals still continue to recognise that some part of the meaning of their lives is lodged in the words and cadences of cherished passages of verse.' He continues: ' has been said, for example,  that it would be worth a poet's while to spend a lifetime at work in order to leave behind one limerick that might distract somebody walking the last few yards to the electric chair.'

Durcan picks up: '[We must not] lose faith in the power of art and surrender to despair. In his beautiful poem "The Harvest Bow", Seamus Heaney quotes Yeats, who was in turn quoting Horace: "The end of art is peace".
     'Only in what we call art lies our salvation... Art is the last repository of humane values... In the West our consumerism has caused a spiritual famine... Only in art have old, perennial humane values survived.'

We need something to set between ourselves and the daily dose of ugliness and brutality served up on our TVs, in our media. Art is a way of reminding us that we are more than this. 

And poetry, as Adrienne Rich has said and I've quoted here, can save your life.


Let It Be Enough Some Mornings

High tide, a wild morning, wild and stormy,
and you take the leaf-deep stony path
above seal-grey waters
                        where the geese are dragged
through the sodden air like ripped-away prayer flags
in a crazy disordered dance, and the waves
slap hard on the mudflats’ flanks,

and for once questions like
what use is poetry, if you’re starving, or a refugee
squeezed between torture and war, or bleeding alone
in some dark alley
have momentarily flown, though left you unguarded;

but bent low over the creek the damson tree
drops unremarked a cargo of fruit
on the water–

mornings like this
grey and green with straggled leaves
and the rain storming the opaque sky

let it be enough now to hear this one curlew keen,
to have one last bedraggled swallow skim the thick air
over your head, see the inkcaps’ effortless
overnight arrival,
                                    to winess one small flower–
samphire, or a late marsh marigold–
struggling through black mud on its journey upwards

against gravity, pointing the way–
let each day be a small triumph, let it be
two fingers to death.

© Roselle Angwin, from Looking For Icarus (bluechrome 2005)

Saturday 13 October 2012

the holiness of the heart's affections

Nothing like a physical shock – say a heart condition – to wake you up to how uncertain life is, how unpredictable, how transient. I'm lucky in that generally speaking I have few problems with the notion of uncertainty: it rather suits my character and the way I have chosen to live to not have things too tightly pinned down, mapped out. Rather, when I was younger anyway, I feared that too much security or certainty would deaden or dull my creativity and spontaneity. I do still think that can be the case, but I am less black and white in my thinking these days.

Anyway, the upshot is that on the whole I roll with it. It's one thing that has really impressed itself upon me after all these many years of Zen practice, too: that we do better, we suffer less, if we accept that life really does offer few things of which we can be certain.

But a strike at the heart is – well, to the real core of things. Without a healthy heart function, life itself is in jeopardy. I'm clearly not meaning in any way to diminish other more serious conditions, but the heart under threat really does feel as if it undermines our very survival; and in my case the more so because the 'episodes' are unpredictable and my heart is erratic. This brings fear with it.

A few weeks in, though, and with some strategies – acupuncture (thank you my lovely friend, you know who you are), medicinal herbs, a very good diet, rest, relaxation and some interventive medicines on hand in case of need, I feel optimistic. Add to that list paying attention to the inner needs of heart and soul and I feel well supported.

And I have been thinking a lot about uncertainty, as I often do. And about what the heart needs – which in my view is not certainty, but care of the soul. I'm with John Keats – and if I'm repeating myself, apologies for my preoccupation:

'I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination.' 

Thursday 11 October 2012

zen on the edge and saying yes

Rain and more rain – water dripping down our quarry-face, loitering in the courtyard, flooding the lanes. Punctuating it are moments of brightness, like the flocks of rose and lilac outdoor mini cyclamen, clustering around tree roots, and the amber and green swarms of fallen leaves on the road, and the brilliant scarlet berries of that magical tree, the rowan. Driving across the moor on Thursday with its strong southwesterlies jackdaws were playing with and hawks and falcons hovering on the wind. The sky that day was nearly clear, with wisps of mare's tail clouds hovering above the tors, and the sea was visible at and south of Plymouth Sound – a smear of silver.

Floods everywhere. The last stragglers of swallows and house martins – late or second broods – flip through the air any time there's a brief let-up in the deluge in search of the few insects also braving the elements. The adults left a few weeks ago – the young swallows and martins will need to make their own way across the continent and ocean, at just a few months old.

I've resisted the great tits congregating pointedly in the courtyard on the fallen-over-in-the-flood buddleia next to the seedfeeders – it's earlier than I'd normally start feeding, and it seems to me there are still seedheads around, but they are pretty insistent.

The witch hazel's yellowing. This year, our apple harvest has been – nil. Too much wind for the blossom, too much rain and cold for the bees, too many wasps and slugs for the pathetic handful of apples that one of the ten trees produced.

There are hawthorn berries everywhere: a sludge in the lanes, half-eaten by squirrels on tops of gates.

A blaze of marigolds and nasturtiums still lights the kitchen garden. There's a ghosting of Michaelmas daisies – rather sad, outriders of summer that they are.


Well, that resolve lasted a couple of days. The feeders are installed and the tits, finches and nuthatches are back, though the woodpeckers may have given up on me.

Days of deep mist and rain; the valley is softly autumning.

Next door, the usual three elderly and creaky black-faced lop-eared rams are consorting with the flock of ewes: each year they get wheeled in; all of them hobbling and lame, they alternate between bursts of very focused and fast, albeit limping, activity, and lolling prone by the stream, completely, shall we say, shagged out to the extent that they can't even graze.


My mum has been dead for 335 days. Each day I think of something else I long to tell her.

And my heart stutters these weeks – it is, of course, years of over-riding my physical and heart-nature needs. I am shocked but not surprised. ECGs show up a condition that is not in itself life-threatening, but increases my risk, added to my high blood pressure, of heart attack and stroke (my dad has had both).

The French, with their instinct for subtlety and nuance, call it a crise de coeur, a 'crisis of the heart'. I notice how a cri de coeur – a cry from the heart – is almost the same phrase. In English we call it a 'heart attack', or 'cardiac arrest' – as if it were an assault from outside us.

This is indeed for me a 'cri de coeur'. I know this. I am lucky to have kept going this long without stopping or taking notice of my needs. There has been so much loss, so much stress, so little rest over such a long time for me – and as I write this I'm grateful for the fact that I'm not in a war-zone, not in danger of starvation, not oppressed, or frightened for my life (well actually in A&E twice lately I have been, a bit) &c.

But our condition is one of living with joy and sorrow both – that's simply how it is – whatever our circumstances; and we do best to say 'YES' to it all; simply YES. It's the resistance that brings the suffering.

So there has to be a YES to opening my heart over and over to the dharma, which is simply the Way – the journey; in this case right here right now, to what my heart is telling me.

And here on my meditation stool this morning, having decided at last to give myself rest, so a lazy start to Bach on the CD player and a gentle breakfast by the courtyard window, here on the stool I meet those old friends, the 'five hindrances' of the human condition, according to Buddhism: craving, aversion, apathy, anxiety, doubt.

I've been doing this for decades. They don't go away, these old friends; utterly loyal, we meet each other over and over. The good news is I don't fight them so much any more – not quite. I nod, and let my attention rest again in silence. And again. And again. Yes, that's progress!

'We all dread the helplessness of losing control, and yet real freedom lies in recognizing the futility of demanding that life be within our control. Instead, we must learn the willingness to feel—to say yes to—the experience of helplessness itself. This is one of the hidden gifts of serious illness or loss. It pushes us right to our edge, where we may have the good fortune to realize that our only real option is to surrender to our experience and let it just be.' (Ezra Bayda, "The Three Things We Fear Most"; from Tricycle Daily Dharma)

Zazen, Zen sitting meditation, is one of the toughest practices, it seems to me. When sitting, you simply – SIT. How hard is that? When I was a teenager muddling my way towards some sort of path that was spiritual but not 'religious' or monotheistic I learned all kinds of lovely soothing meditation practices with candles and mantras and mudras and visualisations and substitutions of positives for negatives and 'bringing in the light' and chants and prayerbeads. Dreamy trancey stuff.

Then one day I decided I'd give 'proper' Zen meditation a go. Boy, was it tough. Bearing in mind I was a romantic young thing, into poetry, music, New Age stuff and a little experimentation with soft drugs, Zazen shocked me awake.

One austere white room. Half a dozen scary-looking austere silent men, all much older than me. Two forty-minute sitting sessions, facing the white wall, eyes a little open. No movement. No mantra. No guidance. No distraction, not even a candle. No words. Twenty minutes silent slow walking in between the two forty-minute sitting 'sesshins'. My mind, cartwheeling, freefalling, bored, running amok, disliking intensely this confrontation with – itself, no distraction.

Zazen is also perhaps, it seems to me, one of the most courageous meditation practices. You don't attempt to fill the emptiness that arises when we're no longer distracted. You simply watch the mind – its games, its addictions, its evasions and duckings and divings, its endless babble. You watch it. This is how it is. You don't need to hang onto any of it, though the mind will try and try.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you break through this chatter and you fly free, for a little while – 'free of the false, free of the true' as the Zenrin has it. Free of all our conceptualisations, as well as our preoccupations. 'Me, you, these walls, these books, all gone like a waterfall over a cliff.'

I have other spiritual practices besides, mainly on the turning dates of the year, that draw on my transpersonal, druidic/pagan/esoteric, Western Mystery Tradition values, but Zazen is core. It's like the movement from a very beautiful very elaborate celebration in an ornate temple (the pagan-type work) to a very simple hut in the woods. How little we need, not how much.

Zen is a practice to do with cutting through the games of ego. It's integrative rather than transcendental – and as someone who craves transcendental experience it's been really useful and grounding for me to stay with something unshowy and simple and direct. The aim is to enquire, to see clearly, into the nature of reality by becoming aware and slipping the bonds of the things that keep us stuck: our fears, our anger and resistance, our greed, our dislikes, our cravings; and seeing them all as ways of distracting ourselves, as reactive constructs of the ego-mind that sit between us and All That Is.

Yep, it's still as hard, sometimes, as when I was a teenager. Sometimes it's not. I'm learning not to resist or judge. And I have discovered that Zazen is the candle. And my heart likes this spaciousness that opens up if I can just sit with everything exactly as it is, without needing to change it or move away or towards it.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

'mind is clear light' poem

sky sutra 
(‘mind is clear light’ – Dalai Lama)

mist followed me up from the river but always ahead of me the sky gleamed sapphire and I thought of how it was when I flew into winter Geneva, skimming the mountains and lurching through thick dank cloud, stepping out into sleet and knowing all the time that just a few hundred feet above was pristine blue, sunset chinking prisms off every cloud snow-peak, a milk of cloud-lakes silking the flanks of real mountains and a whole nation of rainbows
                             a kind of private lightshow for the hell of it that those below us couldn’t see and that made everyone on that plane gasp – for disbelief and amazement and joy not fear of turbulence and the proximity of rock – as we plunged bucking through that fog-blanket into such a different world

and how easy it is to forget


 ~ Roselle Angwin, from Bardo (Shearsman 2011) 


Monday 8 October 2012

'beachcombing – bits of blue plastic'

As a holding post, here's an essay from my book Writing the Bright Moment. I hope you find something useful in it...


Beachcombing – bits of blue plastic

Crow spraddled head-down in the beach-garbage,
     guzzling a dropped ice-cream.
Ted Hughes

Every writer I know has a bulging tinderbox of one sort or another stored away somewhere in their imagination. In here are crammed tiny pieces of flammable or fissile material that we’ve collected over a lifetime. These scraps are sparks-in-waiting.
The imagination is like a magpie, and every writer is a kleptomaniac. We gobble things up, or squirrel them away; nothing is too dull, or too difficult, or too sacred, to save for a day when we need a little fire – because we’re arsonists, too.

I talk elsewhere in this book about the fact that the writer inhabits a kind of twilight or threshold zone much of the time; that territory which sits between conscious and unconscious processes. Norman Jope speaks of the writer as a kind of psychopomp, whose task it is to move, and mediate, between different realms. This is, amongst other things, the realm of the imagination.
I think of this threshold zone as a tideline. (Like Andy Brown in his chapter ‘Shifting Arenas’ in this book, I find shorelines, real and metaphorical, endlessly intriguing.) On a beach, even a privately owned one, I believe that the area known as the ‘no man’s land’ between high and low water is recognised as being beyond human ownership. It’s a shadow zone; marked at its (changing) upper limit by the tideline, repository of all manner of flotsam and jetsam.
Just as the tideline itself changes on a daily basis according to the moon and the varying heights of tidal ebb and flow, so do the deposits on it: some objects are reclaimed by the sea, new ones wash up. Haphazard amongst the bits of rope, single flip-flops, ring pulls, condoms, Coke cans, rubber gloves, washing-up bottles and garish bits of plastic are sea-glass, mussel shells, cuttlefish, limpets, gulls’ corpses, sea urchins, winkles, dead fish, faded driftwood, spars from boats, kelp, bladderwrack, mermaids’ purses of empty egg-cases (whelk? Dogfish? Whichever I want them to be.). On my childhood beach in North Devon we would occasionally meet with a whole storm of spider-crab shells, or a fleet of jellyfish, thrown up after wild weather; both species inviting, curious and slightly menacing in their quantity and unfamiliarity, as well as their spines in the case of one and stingers in the case of the other. My elderly and eccentric childhood-next-door-neighbour was a connoisseur of tidelines: he and his wife spent most of their days beachcombing, and their house (and garden) was an Aladdin’s Cave of detritus. As a child I was fascinated in a slightly ghoulish way by the sheer quantity of unexploded mines, left over from WW2 that he found. (Although these didn’t end up in his garden, the bomb disposal people practically lived in his house.)
The tideline is unchoosy; and so, to some extent, is the writer. There’s nothing we like better than to pick through disparate fragments in the jumble sale of the mind. I suppose we are looking both for harmony and for the means of disrupting it; for order and chaos; for patterns, contrasts and random felicities.
The imagination is caught more by juxtapositions than by the expected. This is what sets light to the tinder: the roughness created by difference rather than the smoothness of the predictable.
Though, as a lifelong country dweller, my own imagination turns most easily on the natural world, everything in a tideline holds my interest. I think it’s important, when you’re beachcombing, whether that’s literal or, as in this case, metaphorical, to sift through without too many preconceptions about what makes beauty, what has potential. So although I might be more discriminating about what I bring home – or work up into a piece of writing – initially I try to let everything have a voice.

Friend and workshop participant Julie-Ann Rowell writes lucid, sinuous, delicate poetry that runs through my veins like whisky. She has a strong innate sense of the power of imagery; the magic that ‘ordinary’ objects hold. Coupled with this, I think, is the awareness – conscious or otherwise – that too much harmony may be aesthetically pleasing but does not, in the end, hold a reader’s attention in the way that something that jars that harmony a little might do.
She has two instincts in particular I admire: one is the willingness to bring together light and dark; the other her assured use of concrete detail. In her poem ‘Crossing The Dart’, you will see the undercurrents and transitions of which she is speaking; the movement, apart from anything else, away from the world of childhood towards the darker waters of the adult world.

            Crossing The Dart

            The black tongue of the river
            lured, and we tumbled to it
            losing our blue beaker in the gorse.
            The wind scalped, we plunged on,
            a rabble of dirty-faced kids
            blind to the zinc-white sky, down
            to the lip of the rapids that gorged
            through granite. We attempted to cross
            roped together by our hands
            and we might have been lost
            but achieved the virgin side
            we wanted to trample, conquer,
            raise our flag, plant our emblem.
            It was me, the youngest,
            who stumbled upon the dead lamb –
            my first carcass, ribs extant,
            eyeless, splayed, wool rotted,
            fly ridden. I was nudged to turn
            its skull with my toe, a trophy
            on the dead side of the river
            I wished we hadn’t crossed.
This poem has many things to say, and all of them skilfully handled; but for me, somehow, that ‘blue beaker’, with all that it doesn’t say, makes the poem; and is the image I remembered for months after Julie-Ann first read the poem out in a workshop – even more than the felt shock of the dead lamb, which is somehow more expected, given the geographical and emotional territory.

I’m also thinking about an afternoon I spent with a group of writers with whom I was working on Port Ban, a wonderful crescent of white shell-sand on the Hebridean island of Iona. Port Ban is known for its swarms of miniature shells – tiny cowries and mussels, minuscule yellow periwinkles (or are they whelks?), miniature flakes of lacy coral.
As a break from writing, we were playing. Actively working with the other senses nourishes a writer’s creativity, so we were collecting and assembling these minute shells, and backing them onto double-sided sticky tape on strips of card – a neat way of making patterns as well as a record of a place and a time (an activity I think originally devised by Earth Education as a ‘learning about nature’ creative tool for children).
Most of the group members were sitting patiently and obediently collecting the most beautiful shells and sticking them, completely immersed. Maggie, however, who is a champion of the art of irreverence, was wandering alone at the tide’s edge. When she eventually joined us, she said (being Maggie), ‘I can’t be bothered with that kind of arsing about’ – and simply dunked her cardboard strip upside down in the sand, then plonked a shard of bright blue plastic at random about a third of the way along the strip. Well, while Maggie’s was not the most beautiful strip, it had a vigour and vitality that none of the others had, due not so much to the lack of patterning but rather to her instinct for the surprising, the unexpected: the incongruity of the juxtaposition of that small acid-blue jagged bit of plastic with the natural objects.           
So allowing oneself to be surprised, to be nudged or thrown into unexpected directions by allowing those disparate objects from the tideline in your imagination to rub up against one another seems to be a good prescription for creativity.

And let’s not forget Crow in all this. We’re scavengers. We may love things of beauty, but we don’t mind riffling through rubbish bins, either, getting our hands dirty, mixing ice cream drips and beach-tar. We’re not fussy. Everything’s pepper to our grinders; and we’ll feed our imaginations in any way we can. Ted Hughes has us down pat: after the majesty of the eagle, and the delicacy of the song of the curlew, and the grace of the swallow, and the shyness of the bullfinch, and etc etc, comes crow, spraddling, scavenging.

Starting point

A well-used household object, such as a mug, soap-dish or teapot
Something ‘natural’ – a stone, or shell, or feather, or lump of coal, a twig
Something very ordinary that you would normally throw away: a used postage stamp, a tin lid, a plastic carton
Something belonging to/originating from someone else: an item of clothing, or a letter they wrote you
Something you associate with yourself in some way: your toothbrush or pen or reading glasses, even a shopping list
Something at random: something you had forgotten or to which you pay no attention
A phrase that you like, or that moves you – yours, or someone else’s. Don’t be afraid to lift it from a song, a book or a newspaper (but do remember to credit it if used in the final draft).

A couple of lines on each: follow your imagination and its first promptings, no matter how apparently absurd and disconnected; and do allow in specific associations or memories.

Find ways of interleaving some of these lines and ideas, looking less for smoothness of ‘fit’ than for things that will throw others into relief, and offer surprise

Then, adding and subtracting as necessary, work this into a new draft, with no agenda for the outcome. Allow the subject and associations/relationships to suggest themselves and the writing to be bizarre if that’s what happens.

What is this piece of writing really about? Find a way to title this obliquely rather than face-on.

PS: after posting this I thought: 'Oh, that looks like quite a good exercise; maybe I'll try it some time!' OK, maybe I did, but it would have been many years ago, when I devised it. If you do it and are pleased with the result feel free to add a comment or a piece of what emerged...

Thursday 4 October 2012

guest blog: 'Beauty in Limitation'

From the website comes, with permission from Nimue Brown, this inspiring blog. Thank you, Nimue.

Beauty in limitation

One of the concepts that runs through John Michael Greer’s recent Mystery Traditions book is the way in which it is limitation that both defines a thing and gives it its power and beauty. Without limits, he points out, we would be nothing more than sludge. The limits of our biological structures both define us, and give us life.

One of my favourite poetic forms is the haiku, which is the perfect expression of this concept. Three lines, with a tight syllable structure, a thought has to be perfectly crystallized to be expressed in this way. I like flash fiction, where again the tiny form requires total precision of language. The same could be said of blogs. I aim to write under a thousand words each time, so that these make good bite-sized reads, and that structure helps keep me on topic and focused down to one specific concept. There is, after all, a great deal that can be written about, and it is in the creating of shape, form, structure and limitation that formless everything becomes the meaningful something.

So, where else can this way of thinking be applied? Almost everywhere, I think. I’m very conscious of the relationship applications. I spent a number of years in a polyamorous situation, where fidelity was not a feature of my primary relationship. The reasons for this were many, but that primary relationship was not with someone who considered monogamy valuable. In my experience, humans generally aren’t that good at monogamy, it’s not as natural or as easy as our social structures prompt us to assume. To fail on this one is to be very human indeed. But when a relationship has the strength and depth to demand all of your attention, when it has the richness to invite total dedication, then fidelity becomes really powerful. I’m not talking about martyrdom or any kind of suffering here. Having been for some years now in a totally monogamous relationship, I have no desire for anything different and I don’t find it restrictive, but that focusing on one person is only viable when that relationship, in and of itself, is enough. In this way, the beauty of the thing and its limitations actually feed each other.

If the limitation does not result in beauty, or in something discernibly good, then it can readily be identified as a not-good limitation. The limitations that create a poem are very different from the life sapping limitations of abject poverty or crippling disease. Not all limitations are a good thing, although many limitations can be made to work for us, if we are determined to harness them.

There is also that which we choose to give up, or do without, as part of our spiritual dedication. Anyone who chooses limitation in order to be greener and more responsible is also choosing a path of beauty. There can be no choices without letting something go, giving up certain of our options, and it is out of these choices and renunciations that we have the scope to bring beauty into our lives. I really like this idea. Many aspects of modern thinking take us towards, more, bigger, faster in our desires. To seek less, to focus down, is to make what we do more intense and more powerful. Limitation can be a gift in this way; one that we bestow upon ourselves. It also helps define the edges, the boundaries, and once you know where the edge is, you also know where the liminal is, and that’s a whole new adventure.



Monday 1 October 2012

the dark forest

The path at first is wide, curving gently onwards to an unseen horizon that promises more of everything easy: joy, love, belonging... There are many branches and meanders, and mostly it's sunny. Sometimes rain comes in, makes the cobbles glisten; sometimes the wind keens in the trees like winter's voice, but soon enough the sun slides in again.

Eventually, of course, as in any fairy tale, we start to notice the far-off forest. On the horizon it's merely a shimmer, a shadowy mirage that maybe spells trees, and coolness.

One day, inevitably, it's a little closer; and then closer still. And now, frighteningly, the path fades out. Oh, how we party then, faces averted, looking back like Lot's wife to the sunny valleys and lush plains.

And again inevitably, later if not sooner, we arrive at where we had always been going by doing what we habitually do.

'Let us not speak falsely / For the hour is getting late', my friend Brian reminds me, from Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower'.

And here is where the journey starts.

When our lives become too small, or our lies about who we are (whether to ourselves or to others) no longer hold, when we can no longer pretend we like what we don't, be what others wish or expect us to be, when can no longer live without what we need – in other words, take false trails (and who doesn't?), or stay with ones that merely lead in circles – then we will arrive at the very edge of the forest.

We're scared. What to do with a forest, a wilderness, when we fear it, or don't understand it? We torch it, we chop it down, we sell it off; or maybe we pretend, for as long as we can, that we haven't seen it, and turn back the way we came.

But actually there's only one way to deal with a dark forest, and that is to make a trail for ourselves, make our own way through it. We can look for an animal of the night, an owl or a fox, to guide us. We can put out a call to Those Who've Gone Before. But we still need to do it for ourselves. This is what makes us heroic; and how eventually we earn our own lives – to live rather than merely survive.

And the gift is that there in the heart of the dark forest is the treasure: the pure gold of our own soul.


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