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

Monday 30 December 2013

letting go

The year's turning: who doesn't glance back, notice the gains that and loves who have accompanied us, the losses and disappointments too. The friends who've entered our lives; those who've left; the events and situations that have pushed themselves into consciousness and become significant... Some of them clear continuations, some of them unexpected. All of them gifts, one way or another, that have brought us to here, right where we're meant to be.

A snatch of a poem from Mary Oliver followed me home many years ago. It's the end of her 'In Blackwater Woods' poem, and this is it:

'to live in this world

you must be able
to do three things –
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.' 

As a Buddhist and also a follower of the old pagan and druidic ways, part of my practice is exactly this: trying to hold everything and everyone I love to my heart with a fierce passion, without holding on to it/them. Paradoxical? Not really. How to love deeply and wholeheartedly, and how to love open-handedly, too, is the path. Easy? Well, no. Of course not. (The process is the product, the journey is the destination, etc.)

Holding on – clinging, craving, attachment – is one of the causes of suffering, says the Buddha. But it's not the opposite, complete detachment, that's the answer, but rather a way of both cherishing and holding the world lightly, knowing that everything's transient and that nothing really ever belongs to us: not our houses, our possessions, our children, our friends, our bodies, our thoughts – all on loan, precious temporary gifts that arise from and will return to the cosmos. I guess this is scary; I guess that's why we make a fortress of the ego: 'I, me, mine' and defend it against – well, everything, basically, as 'everything' is both uncertain and constantly changing.

We need, over and over, to let go: of our need for things to be other than they are, for people to be other than they are, for our need for things to be unchanging and to our liking. We need to let go of our emotional reactivity when we do, or don't, like how something is; we need to let go of our opinions, of our certainties, of our attachment to our rights. We need to let go of our need to be right, our need to be understood, our need to justify, our need to explain.

We may be called to let go of a friendship – that person may, as someone said, be part of our history but not of our destiny. We might be called to let go of our health, of our children, of our parents, of our attachment to a certain place, a certain job, a certain role, a certain view of ourselves, a certain identity. We will, undoubtedly, one day, be asked to let go of a loved one, and then of life itself. All the rest of it is practice.

And underneath all that is simply a relaxation into how it is, right now, exactly how it is.

In some schools of Buddhism, notably Tibetan and some Indian sects, we are taught to practice this letting go of our attachment to life through meditations on death. Some saddhus meditate in graveyards and charnel grounds. You are recommended to meditate on your beloved as he or she actually is, in physicality, anyway – a lump of flesh decaying back to earth. This helps us loosen our hold on the material plane, allegedly.

To us in the West, this all sounds abominably gruesome. But the wisdom behind it is about loosening our grip; recognising the place too of death, of the wholeness of the life-death-life cycle that Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of: a way of accepting the whole package just exactly as it is.

So when one of my Buddhist friends, on hearing that I've been in bed for 3 days with flu and a temperature, emails me to say 'have fun with flu – good practice for death' I can chuckle.

Letting it be, at this turning time, exactly as it is; resolving not to hang on so hard next year to making things happen the way I think I want them. Like the reeds, blowing with the wind; like the water, letting the riverbanks, currents and pull of the open sea direct my course; and, who knows, maybe with a little less ego each passing year... who knows.

Perhaps there is only one question that matters, each time we hit one of these seasonal turning points: what have I made of these opportunities? Have I learned to be more, or less, loving?

Saturday 28 December 2013

grief and gratitude

The moor in winter has a dark and commanding grandeur that is entirely missed by the summer trippers; winter suits it. It feels bigger, somehow, and more feral. I’m always amazed, too, how when you look, even though the amethyst of the autumn heathers has gone, its apparent sere uniformity is in fact a subtly dramatic palette of ochres, fox-reds and rusts, acid greens and peat blacks, linked by the white rush of one of the leats or brooks. Sometimes, in winter, coming out early into weak sun, a whole hillside will be winking  – sheets or ragged patches of ice where bogs sit, or where rills have left gloops of themselves as pendula, ice chandeliers, at their margins.

Winter is a time for the buzzards and kestrels and sparrowhawks; sometimes a peregrine or merlin speeds across your vision. Single ravens cronk from the tops of tors, and the foxes come down lower to hunt or scavenge, appearing even in daylight in the lower fields or on the shoulders of the tors.

So it's no hardship to travel across it, as I have done so many times since I moved in with TM this southern side of the moor nearly five years ago. The road I choose to take is one of the most beautiful in the universe, and every moment, every day, every mile is different, with fast-moving weather fronts gathered here on the hills between coast and coast, though there are also constants.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse, a silver smear, of sea in the distance. Sometimes the hills and tors of Bodmin Moor are visible as blue silhouettes. Sometimes a canny mist sits just feet above the road and it's impossible to know where you are unless you know each kink in the road as well as I do.

Always, always, it blows my heart open – which means I can bring more of myself to the heartfulness needed to deal with my grief about my mum's death two years ago, restimulated each time I drive from Ashburton to Tavistock, two of the bigger moorland towns near our individual hamlet/village respectively, by the memory of travelling across the moor most days to see her in her last few weeks, the double-edged-ness of gratitude for being able to see her, and knowing she was slipping away – as of course she had been with Alzheimer's over the previous few years. I had a very warm easy relationship with my mum, and I don't know if my sense that one never gets over the death of one's mother, not really, is because of that or if it's a general experience. I have of course learned to live with it, and I know that accepting death is also part of saying YES to life.

This all has another edge now that I travel to see my dad only, and to let myself absorb the pain of his stroke-induced dementia, the enormous unusual polyglot/polymath intelligence dampened, though still sparkling in a smile, or a self-parodying grimace, from time to time – adding extra poignancy as well as allowing us all to laugh.

Despair, sadness, grief – all just the other side of the coin that allows us to feel joy, hope, love. May I keep saying YES.

I'd so much rather this than numbing the feeling response to life. I think of this when I read Joanna Macy's quote in my inbox this morning: 'The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche. . . Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as this deadening of our response.'

May my feeling response to the world never be deadened, but may I not be dragged hither and thither by transient minor emotions either. I wish that for me for 2014; and for you too. And for the wisdom to know how to hold it all lightly, too...

Tuesday 24 December 2013


How would it be to know
that I already have enough
or more than enough
and that happiness lies
in knowing, and sharing,
the plenty in my heart?

And when I have given you
all I have to give
then at last I am free
to love you.

~ Roselle Angwin

Sunday 22 December 2013

christmas cheer and baba yaga

– Well, you know. Christmas has its down side as well as its up. There's a lot of pressure. (Is it fourth on the list of stress-making factors, after war/death/serious illness, divorce, housemoves?) Ms Nice and Reasonable here can spit and snarl too, she has found after all these decades of Trying To Be Good, and despite all that solstice and Christmas sweetness and light (or maybe because of), and all those decades of 'working on myself'.

Gotta invite the Bad Fairy to the feast or she'll eat you up anyway. That's where the king and queen went wrong in the fairytale – was it Rapunzel? Or Snow White? Or...? – The one with the spinning wheel.

In Jungian thinking the Bad Fairy is the Shadow – all the bits of ourselves we're not conscious of, or don't like, or Someone In Authority when we were little didn't like, or an institution like the Church didn't approve of, etc. They're all the bits that we think make us unlovable (if only we knew!). Robert Bly says we spend the first 20 years of our lives stuffing all those bits away into the subconscious, the realm of the Shadow, then the rest of our lives trying to pull them out again. Thing is, in keeping them buried we also suppress a great deal of our life-force, our vital energy. It takes a lot of energy to hold these things down out of sight so we won't hurt, offend, displease or disappoint another, or our own internal judge, or Good Father/Mother.

What's more, it stops us being authentic – with ourselves, with another; and holds up the process of our integration, our journey to wholeness.

As some of you know, my physical heart, always steady and reliable (and so we count on it being), told me in no uncertain terms towards the end of last year that my life had to change.

Just after that, around this time last year, I was also presented with a major fork in the road. Path A was to follow the raggle-taggle gyspy who's always lived in my heart, has sometimes manifest itself as a 'him' out there in the outer world, and one way and another has mostly directed my path, which has been exciting and adventurous, fulfilling and inspiring, and utterly-burnout-exhausting.

In this case, Path A would have meant out there again to the edge, the unknown, the precarious but exciting, and probably the West of Ireland and a lifestyle that more closely fits my own natural predilections with a special someone who shares many of my deep interests and where our means and dreams would be closely matched. That path sang to me so very strongly.

Path B would take me to a digging-in of myself more firmly here, my lovely partner's beautiful self-built house, where I have a difficult but rewarding relationship with increasing amounts of laughter and tolerance with an unusual man, a great deal of affection and, for the first time in my life, a modicum of security and cushioning against the living-on-the-edge that has become my norm, and where we have established a green lifestyle and can share the work of tree-planting and veg-growing that is essential to us both. The downside is that it's in a house that will always belong only to him and his children. (While that's reasonable, it's tough if you are as independent and autonomous as I'm used to being.) And we're very different people, and don't always 'get' each other, even if we share a lot of love.

The added tug to putting roots down more firmly here, this time last year, was that I had the chance of buying a very beautiful and magical small piece of land adjoining our home, made possible with a small inheritance from my mum. As the universe would have it, simultaneously I was offered for just a bar of a song a very beautiful chestnut Arabian horse – again, a massive magnet for me, horse-person that I've been all my life. The land and the horse (and whatever companion I found for him, such as a Dartmoor hill pony), would allow me to bring into the world the other aspects of my dream in relation to my eco-psychology work with horses as collaborators in a stunningly gorgeous just-right private location that would be mine, but next door to His.

The tension between the two choices nearly broke me, at a time when I was already more stretched than my heart could take.

The story is mine but not just mine, and the rest of it is private. However, I let myself gradually recognise that my place, at least in the foreseeable future, is here, meeting the challenges wholly. As it happens, I lost all the other options, horse and land as well as Path A; but what unfolded brought me to where I need to be.

There's a consolation in knowing, deep knowing, that both Path A and Path B are 'right'; each takes us where we need to be, but by different routes, with different gains and losses, and similar challenges, ultimately, since we bring ourselves with us wherever we go.

I increasingly found that my heart needed to challenge everything I thought I knew about myself, and all the ways in which I was letting myself be over-ridden by another's needs, by being too nice and understanding, by not standing my ground, by not even knowing what was reasonable as regards my rights. (This took shape in several areas of my life, by the way, where I was not standing up for myself for fear of rocking the boat too hard, upsetting another, experiencing too much conflict; and in allowing my head to be understanding while my heart was feeling betrayed and therefore being split, ambivalent, unclear, etc.)

On the way, I started to lose sight of my true values.

What's hard to admit was recognising in myself a certain predisposition to let the universe/fate/destiny/the gods/karma/coupledom/the other determine my direction and response in a way that wasn't always helpful, and allowed me not to take responsibility (me, Ms Responsible, couldn't see how I could possibly be doing that, for a while, but I sensed I was, and it was a revelation when I did see).

On the other hand, I needed to let go of constantly having my hand on the tiller in an unhealthy way. This is and was a difficult balance, and is really about ego being strong enough to weather the storms of the psychospiritual journey, and knowing when it's time to put the ego in the service of the soul and Higher Self.

Over and over we come back to what it means to live with integrity, authenticity, congruent with one's values.

Relationship therapist David Schnarch speaks of the fact that any long-term relationship will eventually bring you up against what he calls a 'two-choice dilemma' (yes of course that's tautology; he emphasises the 'two-choice' bit deliberately). One choice is to bury your needs and who you are for the sake of the other and the relationship. The other is to be who you need to be, whether or not Other likes it. In other words, to choose between being authentic, and being so accommodating of other we lose sight of ourselves.

Ideally, of course, we'll be able to bring the two together, but not without some bumpy patches. Well, this year I've embraced the bumpy patches; mostly by discovering my inner Baba Yaga, Kali, Inanna, Bad Fairy. She growls. She snaps. She knows how to nip. She's not above wiping her nose on another person's sleeve. (Well, OK, maybe she is – but only just.) She knows about boundaries, which is very healthy indeed. She knows now what's OK and what's not, and she'll shout about it if she has to. Even if it's Christmas.

And my resolution for 2014, should you wish to know, is to carry on being authentic, and carry on learning how to love another, and others, wholeheartedly. I wish it for you too.

Saturday 21 December 2013

winter solstice poem, 2013

Just now, in the full night of midwinter’s night
over the traffic and the cop-cars and the late shoppers,
down at the bottom of the hill in the car park
where the red dogwoods flame, a robin started up
her strong ribbon of song in the lee of the storm, and as I
drive up the hill, window open to let in the dark,
a second tunes in, and then on the brow another,
each singing its loud hymn to the night and the cloud
and the brimming tapers of stars between, and this,
this, must surely be grace, a moment’s inbreath, in our
onwards rush, on this northern side of this lost-in-space
the-light planet, our home star.

© Roselle Angwin 2013 


Wednesday 18 December 2013

extinct is forever

Crossing the moor to see my dad yesterday I caught Benjamin Zephaniah on radio 4 reading his poem about not eating turkeys for Christmas. For the last couple of weeks, I have been having an intense discussion on veganism and animal rights on an internet forum, so the topic is even closer to the forefront of my mind than it usually is. A friend on the forum said that if suffering took the shape of a cloud, the weight of animal suffering at our hands would envelop the earth – a poignant image, especially coming up for the season of goodwill which we celebrate by eating so many of our fellow inhabitants here on this planet. 

Hearing BZ I was heartened to remember just how many poems there are that celebrate animals and their lives, that draw attention to their treatment by us, even though at times it seems as if so few people care.

This one, by the wonderful W S Merwin, breaks my heart every time I read it.

For a Coming Extinction
Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important.

W S Merwin

Tuesday 17 December 2013


How hard it is to love someone
with all my heart again;
the love letters I write these days
are to the wind and rain.

≈ Roselle Angwin

Monday 16 December 2013

this wild and precious december day: birds, and a small ra(n)t

Inside: candle, Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and Mnemosyne, lunch. Outside a flurry of tits and a woodpecker at the feeder, bands of rain like twisters over the valley, a buzzard's mew in mist, and a huge slew of starlings like a 3D fractal, moving, morphing, inside-outing – each bird in tune with 7 of its neighbours. This precious life!

I love the way the valley's colours are deep-saturated with winter and rain: ochre, peat, umber.  On the A377, the road I would take for so many years to my old family home up near the coast, the willows will be blazing red and gold now, in December.

I move outside. The buzzard with its mew has called to it a mobbing crow, then another. Their harsh shrieks call up, in dozens, other corvines – maybe 100, all harrying one buzzard – straking, strafing. This is hypocrisy – the buzzard's own diet consists of fewer young chicks than the corvine family's own diet; and it's not nesting season. I pause to watch, rather wishing I could call them off, like dogs – I so love the way buzzards simply yield rather than fighting back aggressively – tilt and flip gently, evade, duck, dive. I have learned so much from buzzards over many years now; not least since I have visited buzzard medicine, or even 'become' buzzard in shamanic/trance journeying over decades. I can feel the thrust and lift of air in my armpits, know how to tilt my wings to catch the thermals, sharpen my vision to pick out what's important, know that my strength lies in being able to attack and choosing not to.

I have a soft spot too for the corvines (Ted Hughes caught crow so well in his poem-sequence of that title: there's quite a lot of info online). There are the enigmatic ravens with their deep bark, high above; the carrion crows, glossy and alert; the rooks, strutting around comically; the jays with their wonderful plumage, the 1000s of acorns they bury for winter and their phenomenal memory of where they've buried them, and their by-far-the-loudest-and-most-raucous voices in the woodland; the delightful cheeky jackdaws with their blue eyes and acrobatic enthusiasms for playing with the wind; and the magpies have the most astonishing and very tender range of pillowtalk conversations up in their nests. Then there's the rare and elusive red-billed red-legged chough, emblem of the Cornish nation – my own – cliff-dwellers, on the edge in every way but not yet given up.

I was devastated to read in Saturday's Guardian that barn owls in England are down to 1000 breeding pairs, only, instead of the expected 4000. Multifactored reasons, of course, as always: loss of barns for nesting; poor weather; masses killed, especially youngsters, hunting alongside roads and rails on verges. What I didn't know was that 91% of corpses examined showed up rat poison (young rats being one of their food sources, but of course voles, mice etc are quite likely to pick it up too). This makes me so angry, so sad. It will of course be partly agricultural, but it will also be domestic. 

While I know that rats, like many creatures, carry disease, SO DO HUMANS! And yes I know that they take chicks – so do humans. And TM told me this morning that it's quite likely that the bubonic plague in England in the C14th was only in part down to rats (I believe it's a kind of race memory that drives our dread of rats in England): it seems that actually it was at least in part brought by the Genoese traders, who themselves had been infected by Mongolians in an early incident of germ warfare: the Mongolians apparently catapulted their own dead, who had died from the plague (and yes, originally infected by a burrow-dwelling rodent in the area), into the Genoese invading parties. The Genoese, when they left, carried it with them to Europe. (TM told the story very well and quite amusingly, but it's too long to reproduce here.)

Anyway, what I was wanting to say is I am so distressed at our human need to condemn and kill wholesale whatever is inconvenient for us. I hate the demonisation of other species. I remember leading a workshop at a spiritual establishment (where one might imagine people would have known better) where there was sudden hysteria because a rat had been seen near the compost heap in the very spacious grounds. Yes, and?? There's a rat, so it goes, within two yards of each of us – and when did you last contract bubonic plague? I don't mean to completely underplay the role of rats in disease-carrying, by the way, but simply to remind us that as a species we're causing rather a lot more harm to the rest of the planet than any other vertebrate I can think of. Who's killing us off? Well, we're doing it very effectively ourselves...

I was in a position to challenge this by setting an exercise to write from the rat's point of view – after having given a little lecture on the Shadow, which in Jungian thinking is our own over-reactive projection of our own feared, disliked or simply unknown aspects of our own unconscious. (It's always a good key to look at what really gets you going in another – clue as to what needs to be made conscious in ourselves. Here, I suppose self-honesty makes me say well, for me, it's the prejudiced demonising rat-hater, I guess!)

Rant over. And I suppose I should say, in the interests of self-promotion, much as I hate to even mention this name, that my newest novel, The Burning Ground, is available between now and 19th December online to you Kindlers @99p. Sob. Only 99p! From that Mammoth Online Bookseller:

Sunday 15 December 2013

the isness of this

Rain and night in my hair, my face, the fieldgrasses. In my mind over and over W B Yeats' words 'I'm looking for the face I had before the world was born.' Above the wind in the leaves I hear it, in my head, with the wonderful melody and arrangement by Mike Scott on the Waterboys' Yeat's album.

There is no more that needs to be said than this insightful little phrase, akin to a Zen koan, the teaching riddles that Zen masters ask their pupils to meditate on: 'What did you look like before your parents conceived you?'

Isn't that what we all seek, all the time – some sense of timelessness, permanence, behind the appearances of things, behind change and transience? And isn't that, too, what a good poem might give us*, or point to; for which we go to poetry, art, music, dance – or love?

dusk falls on the trees
the blackbirds' thrushes' redwings'
small songs wake the stars

looking everywhere
for love – forgetting we're all
already one

this small wind
coming to rest
on my face

© Roselle Angwin December 2013

* not suggesting these little haiku do, mind!

Saturday 14 December 2013

A Certain Hush: What's the Time Mr Wolf?

From my sister's blog. Clever neph - please support!

A Certain Hush: What's the Time Mr Wolf?: Introducing my younger clever son's latest app for Windows phone, just released by Microsoft: Mr Wolf Simple, elegant. Free to ...

Friday 13 December 2013

'If on a winter's night'

Last night I had the pleasure of reading some of my poetry at an event in the lovely little moorland town of Chagford, alongside my publisher of River Suite, himself a poet, Chris Waters; and two others: Dartmoor poet Bridget Thomasin, for many years a member of my Two Rivers group; and Chris Fogg, a northerner now living in Dorset. Our four voices are very different, so as far as I can tell it was a varied programme for the people who came in from the wet, and we were able to donate a good chunk to Médecins sans Frontières, our charity of choice. (And even TM, not a great poetry aficionado (unless it rhymes), thought I was good, so that was a bonus.)

I feel so nostalgic back in Chagford. The north side of the moor has quite a different feel to it, and Chagford is a proper moorland town with much of the arts, culture and counter-culture found in Totnes but without the hype. Once upon a time I lived five miles away, in a little green wooden thatched house surrounded by trees on all sides except for the front, which faced south over the moor. You know how it is that you leave part of your heart in certain places, as with certain people? – like that. That little house, with its puppies and its bantams and bees, its wild garden, and the woods at the bottom of the garden, will always be my home, despite the fact that I have lived in other places longer, and I left it – what, 25 years ago. In Chagford, I still know more people that I have known in either Totnes or Tavistock, each my 'local town' for many more years than Chagford was.

Here's a prose poem I read last night (hope I haven't posted it before) about the house, Tanglewood:


From the road you can barely see it, there in the trees, its green wood walls and ancient thatch true as winter wheat in moorland soil, a waymarker for walkers, fox and woodpecker, the lane narrow and rocky, steep and curved.

Descend the steps to the green door and open it

onto light, as if you could walk right through to those southern hills. Place your foot over the threshold and – go on – lift the great key to the grandfather clock and start it. Jolt its heart.

Then take the chopper and that dry log and split the Yule kindling. Spell midwinter. The ring on the hearthstone will waken the house. Begin it. Call your name to the corners, to all the directions. Waken the ones who lived here before. Shout it out.

Open windows and doors for the smoke and put a match to the wood. Then press your ear to the inner skin of the timber walls. Can you hear it, that thrum, distant hum, like the sea in a shell? The swarm that blessed the house?

Are they still here, then, those bees with their promise of summer, and honey, and the drowsing of flowers, and love, bare-skinned and languid in the garden, beneath the thatched eaves, under trees? The promise of summer, and love?


© Roselle Angwin 2011 (from Bardo)

Wednesday 11 December 2013

'don't just do something, sit there'

... is a phrase that I've remet twice this week: once in Jungian Robert Johnson's captivating autobiography Balancing Heaven and Earth, that I've just reread; and once in one of my favourite books that I'm always rereading, living as it does by my bed: Wherever you go, there you are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

That's a timely reminder, as I have found myself back in my old habits of working very long hours again the last couple of weeks; and I have paid for it – again – with a recurrence of a heart problem that started at the end of 2012. So here I am, at the end of a year when I've had to challenge my perpetual addiction to 'doing'.

It seems like forever that I've known the wisdom of balancing doing with being. It's just that I don't actually do – 'be' – it. It's for the best of reasons, as far as I'm concerned: I love this world, I love engaging with this world, and am passionate about all there is to know about this world. I also live by the fruits of my imagination, one way and another, about which I'm also passionate, and there seems to be no end to what there is to explore and uncover. There is so much that inspires me.

Once upon a time – I tell you this a little embarrassedly, because I'm the first to voice to others my right-on dislike of objectification– I used to chuckle quietly to myself, nodding away (inwardly), on hearing the tongue-in-cheek phrase 'so many men, so little time'. Nowadays, I'm driven – yes, that is the right word, though the Buddhist in me deplores it – by the much bigger picture: 'so much cosmos, so little time'.

Having decided very early in my adult life that I wanted to live by my creativity and not compromise my values, I've chosen a very hard, albeit very fulfilling, route to earning a living. For most of my adult life, I've never known from where the rent money at the beginning of the next month would come – I was cavalier, or trusting, as it always did come in in time, but being a single parent with a daughter and no other financial help I did sail a bit close to the wind, and although my daughter tells me she had a wonderful childhood, full of adventure and wildlife, woodland and moors at our doorstep, and animals and creativity, something in her, I am sure, must have been sacrificed to the insecurity. 

And although it took decades to manifest more seriously, it certainly took its toll on me. The adventurer in me didn't mind, too much; in fact s/he quite liked this living on the edge that became my habit (I say s/he because I think it was the masculine, or animus, part of me that drove like this: each of us, of course, containing a transsexual unconscious part, if Jung is to be believed). The human being, though, the intensely sensitive vulnerable even frightened bit that I was used to putting into a box marked 'later', paid the price. Of course, it caught up with me.

When we are committed to a vision, it's easy to over-ride both our instinctual natures, the ones that know about rhythm and rest and recharging, as animals do, and the associated needs of our bodies for said cycles of doing and being.

Or when we live in Western society. I'm not telling you anything new when I mention the pull-quote at the top of Steven Poole's article in the current issue of New Statesman: 'From footballers' work rates to the world of Big Data, the cult of "productivity" seems all-pervasive – but doing nothing might be the best thing for your well-being and your brain.'

In GB, we work the longest hours in Europe. I used to think nothing of doing a 70-hour week, starting my working day again when my daughter was in bed, and/or getting up in the very early morning if I needed to, routinely.

One of the poets from my regular group is a hospital doctor. He mentioned on Saturday that he'd gone part-time. 'That's excellent news!' I said. 'That means,' he responded, 'only a 46-hour working week now.'

Just a few weeks ago said guy could barely walk. Some infection had taken hold of his system and temporarily knocked out his immune system – so that it started to turn in on itself, creating agony in his joints. He'd been expected back to work as soon as he could stand – and expected that of himself, too. He has a partner and three boys under 5, as well as the makings of a small smallholding, so his 'free time' is fairly busy.

What are we like, as they say?

In summer 2012, in a kind of prescient moment, I took a week's solo retreat in a beautiful converted hayloft in the wooded grounds, complete with river pool, of a C17th manor on the edge of Dartmoor, courtesy of an acquaintance. I knew I needed silence and solitude more than anything, and I was breaking a lifelong pattern here by putting my own needs first. 

It was the first time in maybe 7 years, maybe 37, that I started to feel something really unfurl in me. For the first time in my life I started to take short rests, usually hanging out watching dragonflies, damselflies and herons down by the pool. Otherwise, I wrote and read and strolled. It was also a very creative time, and I had deliberately gone, like Thoreau to his pond, to be silent and learn something of stillness. A blog I wrote from then (I wrote several blogs about this week in early August 2012) says:

Lots of writing, lots of reading. Books are such good company! In a good one you'll find answers to questions you didn't even know you wanted, but now covet madly. I do know that without books my time here would be harder – they stand between me and myself, or my recent history, I'm aware, as well as being such a rich source of Mind. So in a way I'm cheating – full silence would mean too silence from others' thoughts, which is also an addiction of mine. They can run interference, as the Americans say, between oneself and How It Is. There are things, like the swathe of recent family deaths and the changes and reorientation they bring, that I'm not ready to face full-frontal, so to speak.

Oh and there are the little issues, like how do I want to live the rest of my life?

Jenny Diski says in
On Trying to Keep Still, my first piece of reading matter, from the bookshelves here, that there is 'essentially only one question. It is "What is the point?" and in some form or another it is asked over and over again by those of us who have failed to mature enough to stop asking it.' She follows this by a list of people – writers, philosophers in the main – who exemplify this. I can't remember the others but I remember Nietzsche.

This makes me smile. Isn't this exactly why we write, one way or another? And maybe why we read, too?

And she says: 'Another question is what is it like when something or nothing happens? Something or nothing happens all the time.' I like this too. Except that I think that it might be something AND nothing, because I think they're perhaps ultimately the same thing; it's all in how you relate to it and whether you can buy paradox, or whether you prefer everything all lined up and neat and tidy in two distinct rows. This. That.  

Anyway. This week's solo retreat for me is all about sitting in the middle of the quiet thrum of life that is somethinging and nothinging all the time within me and around me, and see how it is to share in that something and nothing and nothing and something without being driven to fill every moment with ways of not sitting here in the centre of... Everything. Nothing. In the heart of each moment. The Vast Abundant Emptiness, the Fertile Void. (And without being driven mad by eyeballing said vast emptiness.)

My motto for the week was 'il bel far niente' - the beautiful 'doing nothing', of which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks in her Eat, Pray, Love (quite an uplifting book, I found, despite having resisted reading it for years because of its popularity in New Age circles, and my own snobbishness about that).

That week brought me many poems, and a bone-deep sense of restoration; which was just as well, as about a month after that I was suddenly really quite ill (that's why I say 'prescient'). That's all too boring to go into, except to say that it was (still is, a bit, if I do too much), a heart issue – yes physical heart but yes what a great symbol – symptom as symbol – of a failure to look after my over-committed, over-caring, over-responsible worn-out heart and its needs. (From a holistic perspective it is always, always, worth looking at illness as metaphor, as symbol – its type and location may give us insight into more subtle needs and protests.) Seven years of intense and very serious family illness, on top of thirty years of ignoring my body's needs, coupled with my own expectations of myself to step in, put my needs last, sort out what needed sorting out, drive two hundred miles at the end of a working day to visit a sick relative first in hospital and then back at home but vulnerable – Ms Superwoman thought she could do it all.

How can we be any use to others if we cannot even look after ourselves?

So I look back over the last year, and see how far I've come. I'm much quieter. I'm letting myself be the introverted recluse that I have always been, and denied. I'm more sober. I've learned to stop – though even as a meditator of 40 years I find it near-impossible to stop the torrent of thoughts, though at least I'm aware of them and their seductions. 

And I no longer believe I can and should do everything for anyone who asks or who seems to need it. (That's an important lesson, especially for women. In the myth of Psyche and Eros, one of the very last tasks that Psyche is set on her journey to love [wholeness, in effect], is to carry on with her own journey despite the many hands clawing at her for help. She's warned that she won't be able to come back from the Underworld if she doesn't focus on her task here, which is a single-pointed commitment to her own journey. Many of us, including in my experience very many women, find this almost impossible.) 

This year, I've had to learn to say NO, and sometimes to say it loudly: to others, to myself. It's about saving my soul, saving my heart – and letting go of the childhood Catholic in me who thinks that to be true and good means putting my own needs last instead of first, or the misguided Buddhist who basically thinks it's ego calling the shots if I sometimes turn away another in favour of my own wellbeing (of course I have known the false assumptions behind these two states of mind for decades – intellectually. Letting myself challenge them from a sense of their emotional weight of misinterpretation is a different matter.)

This year, I've learned how very good it can feel to take what feels like a ridiculously indulgent hour 'when I should be working', up in a hammock slung between an ash and an oak.

This year, too, I've learned how to accept the generosity of others without feeling I have to earn it, deserve it, or pay it back in full. I've been able to let myself lie on the sofa now and then in the daytime with a book – unthinkable before this year. Doing (almost) nothing! 

I have survived financially (and maybe even physically, given the warning signs), during a year when I've had to cut my work, only courtesy of the kindest most generous friend, and also with the emotional support of TM; I've been able to have acupuncture, which has really started to make a big difference to my health, courtesy of another dear friend. And I was given a grant to explore my dreams, creativity and the life of my psyche and its promptings – psyche always knows what we need, if we're willing to listen carefully – with a Jungian analyst. 

What a universe we live in; how expansive and bountiful and all-providing. And what treasure 'beyond all price', as they say in the myths, a true and good and generous friendship or two. And what wisdom, albeit a few decades later than it might have been, to hang out on a stile in late sun under the ash trees without being driven endlessly by all the 'must do' messages – even if only for 5 minutes. And, at last, what a gift to have been able to learn to love, or at least direct care towards, myself, knowing that without really knowing how to do that I can't possibly love another.

Friday 6 December 2013

Sometimes a Wild God

For all of you who know that this is how it is, and how it needs to be, Dartmoor poet Tom Hirons' amazing poem for you, today. (And for those of you who didn't know but do now, and/or are wounded and need to weep – well, drink deep!) This poem has now 'gone viral', with 10,000 views in a week on Tom's blog and elsewhere. It's been keeping my heart warm since I first read it – what, maybe 18 months ago? Keep it safe; somewhere you won't lose it. Feast on it often.


Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

He will not ring the doorbell;
Instead he scrapes with his fingers
Leaving blood on the paintwork,
Though primroses grow
In circles round his feet.

You do not want to let him in.
You are very busy.
It is late, or early, and besides…
You cannot look at him straight
Because he makes you want to cry.

The dog barks.
The wild god smiles,
Holds out his hand.
The dog licks his wounds
And leads him inside.

The wild god stands in your kitchen.
Ivy is taking over your sideboard;
Mistletoe has moved into the lampshades
And wrens have begun to sing
An old song in the mouth of your kettle.

‘I haven’t much,’ you say
And give him the worst of your food.
He sits at the table, bleeding.
He coughs up foxes.
There are otters in his eyes.

When your wife calls down,
You close the door and
Tell her it’s fine.
You will not let her see
The strange guest at your table.

The wild god asks for whiskey
And you pour a glass for him,
Then a glass for yourself.
Three snakes are beginning to nest
In your voicebox. You cough.

Oh, limitless space.

Oh, eternal mystery.

Oh, endless cycles of death and birth.

Oh, miracle of life.

Oh, the wondrous dance of it all.

You cough again,
Expectorate the snakes and
Water down the whiskey,
Wondering how you got so old
And where your passion went.

The wild god reaches into a bag
Made of moles and nightingale-skin.
He pulls out a two-reeded pipe,
Raises an eyebrow
And all the birds begin to sing.

The fox leaps into your eyes.
Otters rush from the darkness.
The snakes pour through your body.
Your dog howls and upstairs
Your wife both exults and weeps at once.

The wild god dances with your dog.
You dance with the sparrows.
A white stag pulls up a stool
And bellows hymns to enchantments.
A pelican leaps from chair to chair.

In the distance, warriors pour from their tombs.
Ancient gold grows like grass in the fields.
Everyone dreams the words to long-forgotten songs.
The hills echo and the grey stones ring
With laughter and madness and pain.

In the middle of the dance,
The house takes off from the ground.
Clouds climb through the windows;
Lightning pounds its fists on the table.
The moon leans in through the window.

The wild god points to your side.
You are bleeding heavily.
You have been bleeding for a long time,
Possibly since you were born.
There is a bear in the wound.

‘Why did you leave me to die?’
Asks the wild god and you say:
‘I was busy surviving.
The shops were all closed;
I didn’t know how. I’m sorry.’

Listen to them:

The fox in your neck and
The snakes in your arms and
The wren and the sparrow and the deer…
The great un-nameable beasts
In your liver and your kidneys and your heart…

There is a symphony of howling.
A cacophony of dissent.
The wild god nods his head and
You wake on the floor holding a knife,
A bottle and a handful of black fur.

Your dog is asleep on the table.
Your wife is stirring, far above.
Your cheeks are wet with tears;
Your mouth aches from laughter or shouting.
A black bear is sitting by the fire.

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine
And brings the dead to life.

© Tom Hirons:

Wednesday 4 December 2013

december ragbag

The migrant thrushes, blackbirds and redwings are feasting on berries in our field with its woodland margin. As I walk the dogs up to the top of the field it's as if any number of heavy curtains are being drawn, one by one, as small flocks take off and whush the air above my head. Lapwings semaphore black-and-whiteness across newly-ploughed fields (I learned the word 'sillion' the other day: Gerard Manley Hopkins' word for the shiny cut-side of an earth-slice turned up by the plough's tines). 

Leaf-fall patters like rain. The beeches flame brilliant orange and gold as I cross the Dart at Holne onto the moor, piling into the river like those tinfoil wrappings for copper and gold chocolate coins.

Winter is flocking season. Jackdaws play with the wind: flipping, rolling, tumbling, paragliding. A little posse of starlings – much rarer than they used to be – struts near Laughter Tor as I drive by.

Later, just before dusk, my sister and I walk my dog and my daughter's down by the creekside near where I used to live, at Bere Ferrers. The tide is flooding (close to new moon so it's a high full tide) and silk-smooth-still under the gloaming sky. No waterbirds to be heard: often there are curlews and wild duck; today only the flock of Canada geese is close by.


There's a small carnivore skeleton newly-appeared in Simon's field: young fox, or badger. I can't quite make out where it's appeared from: it's almost completely clean so is not very recent, but it definitely wasn't there, on that patch of earth where there'd been a bonfire, last week. I feel suspicious – Simon is a wildlife enthusiast, like me, and a champion of such animals, so it wasn't him.

Now that the utterly-ineffectual and barbaric badger-cull in its trial phase in Gloucestershire has finished (having failed spectacularly to meet the Government targets), many farmers have vowed to kill their own badgers (illegally, of course). Such is the effect of demonisation – rational argument and scientific fact carries no weight in such emotional reactivity. What's just as appalling is the fact that the badgers' carcases aren't even being tested to see if they were carrying bTB – you would think that this would have been a logical thing to do, no? – given that the rationale for killing at all was because the badgers were/are suspected by DEFRA, the NFU, etc of being bTB carriers in large enough numbers as to pose a real threat to dairy farms... (see also

But we can't rest: the Government insists it will continue with the cull next year, probably in Dorset and Devon. Please do keep adding your names to petitions, etc.

And meantime, the illegal foxhunts are still out in force. However, my local MP, Sarah Wollaston, assures me that there are no plans in the Government to repeal the ban; that, at least, is good news; not that it's made much difference, as the police, with plenty on their plates, turn a blind eye to the hunts; and in any case, they could only be prosecuted if a kill could be indisputably proven.


 If any of you lives close enough to come, can I mention a poetry reading taking place in Chagford next week? 'If on a winter's night' showcases the work of four local poets: myself (reading from River Suite); Chris Waters, poet and publisher; Bridget Thomasin, Dartmoor poet; and Chris Fogg, with whose work I look forward to becoming acquainted. Tickets are £5 on the door, include a glass of wine, and proceeds will be donated to Medecins sans Frontieres. 7pm, Endecott House, Chagford, Devon, Thursday 12th December.


I don't quite know what this means, yet, but I'll let you know when I find out. My publisher says: 'We have enrolled the kindle version of your book in the Kindle Countdown Deal*. This runs from 16th December until 22nd December. Your book may be purchased from 16th at 99p:  from 19th at £1.99: and back to normal price after 22nd.' Sounds like good news, doesn't it? – But please still buy the paperback copy from me or the IDP website (or heaven forbid I mention that Online Bookstore again!) - as well, for your Christmas presents! It's hard to wrap a Kindle version for a stocking, surely? ('wink').


I was going to regale you with tales of the woes of 'sustainable' salmon fishing (but OH have you seen 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' yet? Nothing to do, really, with conservation issues, I do have to say; but what a great film), of organophosphates, mercury in teeth and yet more eco-stuff; perhaps it's lucky that my well-overdue tax return is beckoning, forcibly, due to gentle but unyielding pressure by my long-suffering accountant. (Writing this is nice prevarication; and a substitute for that brief siesta I've learned the meaning and pleasure of this year.) But I'll be back...


*OK, have discovered. It's THEM, that online bookstore. At the moment it's regular price; but watch this for a 99p offer between 16th and 19th December. Gulp!


Sunday 1 December 2013

the inward flame: residential Imbolc workshop in Devon

Imbolc: the inward flame  
ecosoul residential writing weekend
Friday January 31st (6pm) – Sunday 2nd February (4pm)
Fletcherscombe, Harbertonford, Devon, UK
(lifts may be possible from Totnes mainline station)

In the deepest reaches flames flicker into life;
The earth is turning sunwards, and day displaces night.

Those who walked the Old Ways knew that our lives and our wellbeing are intimately tied up with that of the land. Everything is relationship, and our life is dependent on our connectedness with the land and the harmony and creativity of that relationship.
At this phase of the turning year – Imbolc, or Candlemas, is one of the Celtic fire festivals and perhaps the most feminine of them – the Great Goddess, as Brighid of the Land, patroness of fire, creativity and new life, is renewing herself, from Crone to Maiden, and the earth is cracking open with the first flowers of spring – the snowdrops, the green and white flames of them. Imbolc is the beginnings of the movement away from the ‘stillpoint of the turning world’.
This is a chance to take breath, be still, and re-imagine our lives. 
As well as what this season might mean for our reflective, creative and inspirational life, we’ll be looking too at the feminine principle and how it manifests in our lives through the feeling, instinctual and intuitive natures and our physical presence on the earth. As always we’ll spend time outdoors as well as in, so that the other-than-human may also teach us. This weekend is also about celebration, ceremony, renewal and deep companionship. Expect some laughter, too!
The workshop incorporates aspects of my Thresholds New Year workshop that I led annually for about 18 years, so we’ll also look back at what this last year brought us, and explore what we want to let go of and what to welcome in this year, both individually and as a species, and we’ll celebrate this with a fire ceremony.
Fees: all-inclusive single occupancy of a double room: £295.
Shared twin room: £255 per person.
Early-bird discount of 10% off the total if you book and pay your deposit by December 21st.
Please bring a contribution towards a shared veggie lunch on the Saturday. All other meals will be included in the price but cooking and washing up will be shared activities.

NB: this is a residential weekend. However, once the rooms are filled, there may be availability on the Saturday to attend as a one-day workshop the THRESHOLDS component. (Sunday will be a closed group to work deeply on the core aspects of this weekend.) Day attendance with a contribution to a veggie shared lunch will be £45, to be booked and paid in advance.
The weekend will take place in a beautiful converted barn in a lush (though not so much in early February) Devon valley. We might be able to accommodate a well-behaved dog or two!
The maximum number of beds is 9, so early booking is advised.
I need a non-refundable deposit of £125, plus address and contact details and choice of room – contact me for ways to pay. The balance is due on arrival.

Friday 29 November 2013

snake medicine

minoan snake goddess (from

Snake medicine has reared its head for me a little recently. In my postings on Mercury/Hermes lately I mentioned the very potent symbol of the caduceus wand, and I've spoken there or elsewhere on my blog (probably several times) of the bad press the snake or serpent, one symbol of the Goddess and also of wisdom in the Old Ways, has received under Christianity and the patriarchy. 

There's the shedding skins thing, too. Then there's kundalini, and the fact that the Buddha is portrayed sometimes with a cobra rising above his head: sign of the initiate, one who has transmuted the grosser aspects of being into the transcendent function, thereby opening the crown centre of realisation, or enlightenment.

In symbolic systems of thought, specifically in relation to shamanic practice, if an animal Other 'appears' to you three times, it's worth taking notice (I should say that clearly this doesn't count with domesticated animals whose viewing will be commonplace!).

A friend has just spoken to me of her experience with 'snakes in the grass'. 

Another friend last week told me a Hindu story about dealing with anger:

One of the gods called Snake to account for biting some people. 'This is not OK,' said the god. Snake slithered away, crestfallen.

Shortly after, some people beat snake to within an inch of his life (etc). Snake simply lay there writhing, letting it happen. After, he dragged his broken and bruised body slowly and painfully back to the god. 'Now look at what's happened,' said Snake, 'when you told me not to bite.'

'But I didn't tell you not to hiss,' exclaimed the god.

As someone who struggles with anger, my own and others, this was extremely helpful to me. I hate conflict, hate hurting others (and also took when I was in my late teens a Buddhist precept on trying my best not to hit out at others), and will almost always take the route of giving someone the benefit rather than lashing out, if I can. Fairness is extremely important to me. (Also I want to be able to look back and be proud of how I handled certain situations, too – and then there's the issue of karma!)

Sometimes this has been misguided and naive: it's left me too wide open (as I am beginning to realise there is such a thing as being too wide open), landed me in hot water because I don't stand up for myself when I should, and can become a doormat, bruised and battered without retaliating (if that's not mixing my metaphors too much). Sometimes, because I tend to swallow and say nothing, others don't realise the hurt they've caused me – and of course my own resentment builds, which isn't helpful to either them or me. 

It takes an awful lot to get me to red-hot anger (usually because I don't recognise my own anger), and I don't relish arriving there as I have a very sharp tongue; luckily, probably, it's only emerged a couple of times in my life. I also, fortunately, have some very good friends who are open and self-aware enough as to look at their own shit rather than simply hitting out, knowing that I'm doing the same; this is so useful because it provides a safe and trusting environment in which to explore difficult issues. In any difficult exchange, I will always examine my part in it; it seems the only compassionate and wise response. I so value people who will do the same. Sometimes, of course, I get it wrong; too often, that's unfortunately in the other's favour in cases where, for instance, my instinct tells me something and I over-ride it with rationalisations. But all this is how we learn, isn't it; and hopefully we don't cause too much harm en route – though I accept that sometimes we all will, too, and we so need to then forgive both self and others. We're all in this together.

Another little revelation for me, coming from  a Buddhist monk lately, was a teaching on forgiving. 'But we don't have to forget,' he said. That took me aback. Surely that was also the wise kind thing to do? But the more I thought about it the more I realised what he meant: that forgetting the causes means that we fall over and over into the same trap. Forgiving means stopping beating ourselves and others up and letting go of the grudges; not forgetting  means avoiding putting oneself into the same situation over and over; rather, learning and moving on.

So, as you might have gathered from a few posts lately, I'm learning to hiss; belatedly, perhaps, but better than never. It's also about self-respect.

So, given the 'appearance' of Snake three times in a week or two (I'm including my Mercury blogpost snakes), I thought I'd remind myself of its symbolic qualities.

In the native/first nation American Medicine Cards of Jamie Sams and David Carson, card number 6 is Snake. Here's the opening, in case it's of interest for anyone else out there:

Snake: Transmutation

Snake medicine people are very rare. Their initiation involves experiencing and living through multiple snake bites, which allows them to transmute all poisons, be they mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional. The power of snake medicine is the power of creation, for it embodies sexuality, psychic energy, alchemy, reproduction, and ascension (or immortality).
    The transmutation of the life-death-rebirth cycle is exemplified by the shedding of
Snake's skin. It is the energy of wholeness, cosmic consciousness, and the ability to
experience anything willingly and without resistance. [My italics, as it's also relevant to Buddhist thinking on not craving or pushing away any experience.] It is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, integrated, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind.
    Thoth, the Atlantean who later returned as Hermes and was the father of alchemy,
used the symbology of two snakes intertwining around a sword to represent healing. Complete understanding and acceptance of the male and female within each organism creates a melding of the two into one, thereby producing divine energy.
This medicine teaches you on a personal level that you are a universal being. Through accepting all aspects of your life, you can bring about the transmutation of the fire medicine.

(The keynotes are to transmute all poisons, shed the skins of the past, and honour the change in progress.)

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