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

Thursday 28 February 2013

'to poison a nation, poison its stories'

One of the things to which I return over and over is the importance of story. We carry the wisdom of the human race, and our ancestors, in story – long before the written word storytelling was one of the things that bonded us, allowed us to 'live right', as some indigenous elders have described it.

I'm reminded of this again this morning by a post from the wonderful Oriah Mountain Dreamer over at The Green Bough

Oriah says:
'Here’s a question to consider: Is the story I am telling – in the beliefs I espouse and how I live my life – heart-opening or heart-closing?' Heart-closing stories are those that separate us, that create inner and outer splits, she continues.
‘To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself’, says Ben Okri.
At a time when all we seem to hear about are the terrible things happening in the world, and dysfunctional relationships, I want to remind us again of stories that empower, that celebrate, that value diversity, that (re)connect us with others of all races and species, that are green and holistic, that illustrate what healthy relationships look like, rather than dysfunctional ones.
How, as humans, do we go through loss, fear, grief – because of course if we deny the darkness we can’t recognise the light – and yet still remember how to laugh, how to play, how to love, how to keep sight of bright moments? Dark times too are opportunities: ‘in a dark time the eye begins to see’ said Roethke.
‘If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope… I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns… Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part…’ These heartful words of Barry Lopez are behind my thinking for most of the work I do. How we keep heart in heartless times?

We all inhabit layer upon layer of story; concentric rings of stories lapping outwards as well as inwards. 

'A story is like the wind,' records Laurens van der Post of a Bushman's words: 'it comes from a far-off place and we hear it.'

There are our own personal stories – maybe the perfectly ‘ordinary’ events of our daily lives (which of course are also extraordinary). These stories are a continuation of our collective histories (and herstories!), so fall deep behind us, and stretch towards the future; they also overlap with the stories of our families, friends, lovers, and so become wider.

Then there are the stories of our neighbourhood and community.

Wider again than these are the folk tales and cultural narratives of our society.

Add to these the stories that we call ‘current affairs’ – the national and global events and tragedies and joys that ripple through all of us living at this time.

Further back, deeper down, are the metanarratives and archetypes that are inherent in the human race, across time and across borders – they are human story rather than cultural story. (Anyone who has seen the painted prehistoric caves of France and Spain, the pyramids, the aboriginal art of Australia or of the native Americans will know what it is to stand in front of these pictorial stories and recognise that we are linked across millennia with the creators of this art.)
So stories are who we are. Story can shape what we think and believe, and how we live. Of course the opposite is also true: the lives we live influence the stories we accumulate.

Barry Lopez talks about two landscapes – one outside the self and one within. He suggests that the inner one is shaped by where one goes, the people one meets, the stories one encounters as well as one’s moral, intellectual, spiritual and I would add emotional development. He also says that the purpose of storytelling is to achieve harmony between the two landscapes.

What stories do we need? At the end of my first book (Riding the Dragon), written in 1993, I asked this question. I asked it again in 2005, in Writing the Bright Moment. Of course, I am still asking it.

How would it be to read books and hear stories that support us in being more fully and compassionately human? Ones that give us tools to grow and change; offer us models of functional, healthy patterns of relating – whether to ourselves, to each other, to the wider human sphere or to the planet as a whole, rather than narratives that merely underline how grim ‘reality’ is, and how untrustworthy and self-seeking people are, thus confirming our view of the world and the human condition as basically beyond hope?

We need now stories that offer us healing, offer us the potential of wholeness, of coming through in the end. Empowering stories. Stories that show us human being at its best: its most courageous, generous, kind, loving, compassionate, wise, funny. Stories that celebrate the earth, wilderness, the diversity of nations, the diversity of species. Inclusive stories that allow us to imagine a new world order based on empathy, co-operation, kindness, discussion, negotiation, fairness, equality.

Stories that celebrate what is green, what is vulnerable, what is innocent, what is childlike, what is wise, what is empowered feminine, what is empowered masculine; stories about co-operation and harmony rather than competition and conflict; about people making wise choices. Stories that celebrate magic, mystery, miracle. Stories that help restore some sort of faith, whatever that may mean for each of us. 

© Roselle Angwin
This has been excerpted partly from Writing the Bright Moment (see sidebar) and partly from my essay in Prompted to Write, edited by Victoria Field and Zeeba Ansari (fal 2007).


Wednesday 27 February 2013

it's Lent! – eleven things to give up in relationships

Here are some things that commonly block our ability to give and receive love. Giving them up can only make you happier!

The idea that your partner or anyone else is here to make you happy and to meet your needs. Your partner is here for his or her own journey on this earth; if you can support each other in your journeys and adventures then you have a chance of real happiness.

The view that you and your partner sail in the same boat. You are, always have been and always will be in two boats*; the choice is whether you steer side-by-side for the same open sea, or shore, or not. What you have in common is the ocean.

The need to merge or fuse with your partner. True union isn’t possible except when two individuals are clearly differentiated, knowing themselves and their partner as distinct entities. Work instead on knowing who you are, and seeing clearly who your partner is. That way, there’s a chance of real love and interdependency rather than co-dependency.

The need for that Other to be like you and to agree with you. Showing another who you really are and engaging with who the other is is an act of love; needing their agreement and approval before you can be who you are can be narcissistic, egotistical and insecure.

Controlling, whether by fault-finding, withholding, blame and coercion – or by praise. All are manipulations, and driven by fear. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t appreciate, out loud, who your partner is, nor ever express something that's pissing you off – it's more whether you are co-opting this to serve your fears. (There's an associated issue here: that of self-disclosure. This is a prerequisite for intimacy, but it's important to be aware of whether we use this as a manipulation to have the other reveal him- or herself to us, or as a genuine desire to share who we are with that Other without necessarily expecting reciprocity.)

The association of love with mind-reading: ‘If you really loved me you’d know without my telling you what I need.’ Instead, commit to knowing for yourself what you really need, and be willing to show that to your partner. Equally, learn from him or her what s/he needs.

Expecting the other to always ‘be there’ for you. It’s simply not possible when the other has his or her own life and journey, and s/he is not your mother/father.

Taking everything another says or does personally. While you may be offering him or her a 'hook' to hang their stuff on, another person's 'stuff' remains their stuff, and probably says more about them than about you.

Reacting. Instead, learn to respond. What this means is denying yourself the momentary satisfaction of blowing the other out of the water with emotional heat (you might feel it, but that doesn’t inevitably have to lead to exhibiting it), instead seeing clearly what the situation needs from you.

The need to blame – self or other. Instead, take responsibility and change a pattern for the better. We’re all human and we all get it wrong sometimes as we learn, and that is simply how it is. Learn to love yourself; then you can love another.

Struggling – with yourself or another – to be anything other than who you/the Other really are.

But you don't have to believe me; just try it for yourself... And no, of course I don't manage it myself all, or even much, of the time! And this list clearly could go on and on, and no doubt at some stage it will.

Roselle Angwin

* The boat image is from David Schnarch's book Passionate Marriage.

Monday 25 February 2013

a small brown bird

The joys of technology. It happens that to get the internet, I either have to come out into my freezing garden shed-study, which I can manage for about ten minutes before my hands numb out, or wait till one of us is using the phone when, for a few brief seconds, I can download emails but not get onto a website or compose an email. Seems we have the wrong kind of wind currently.

Well, it should be good for my writing not to be distracted by the web, but in fact we have both been very distracted by trying to sort the problem out for the last week. (So much for thinking we're people who don't 'do' addictions...) But if you're expecting an email from me, that's why you haven't received one. I'm in the shed now, where I've downloaded 200-odd emails – but am going to simply write this quickly and go back in to light the fire.

In the final straits of the poetry competition judging. Right up until when I woke this morning I thought I knew the winner – from the very beginning, in fact, but at roughly 5.45am I woke with a different poem in my head, so the outsider and the original are now neck-to-neck. Then I have to work out which of the 23 remaining yesses can go.

The red sandstone band of bald soil the Torbay side of Totnes has a sprinkled fizz of new green follicles in a couple of fields. A stand of silver birch has burst into a glory of warm goldgreen catkins and new leaves.

Speaking of leaves, I have remembered from my health journalism days that oleuropein extracted from olive leaves has a good record of success in all sorts of bacterial and viral conditions. Never mind the antibiotics; I fully expect powdered olive leaves coupled with topically-applied propolis from bees (this vegan is letting herself off the hook, from time to time, if there seems no alternative), also anti-bacterial, to do the job that the dentists haven't.

Here in the valley, a trio of egrets sit clean white and eye-catching in the very top limbs of a big old oak.

I've been sad to see that our newly-acquired pair of house sparrows seems to have been reduced to just the male. It's possible that the female is incubating eggs, but the other female finches and dunnocks appear regularly. Who would ever have thought that the iconic and ever-present house sparrow would be endangered? Seems that they're dissuaded from nesting and therefore breeding by radiation from cordless phones (and it may be that ours appeared as a result of our switching back to a corded landline – I can't remember the chronology). We do have a sparrowhawk who sweeps and stoops in a mad rush of ripped air through the courtyard, taking a small bird and exiting in less than a second – maybe that little burst of feathers a couple of weeks ago was the female sparrow.

One of the poems I always remember is this one by Joyce Woodward. This appears in the North magazine online, published by them in 1990; but I've known it for a very long time. (The version I know is slightly different from the North's version.) You'll see why it's relevant:

What I Know 
(after Sujata Bhatt)

That Wednesday is the middle of the week.
That they might have found the crater of the meteor
which buried all the dinosaurs.
You need ammonia to keep marble white.
The dumb cannot speak.
You can clone from any living cell.
We break up our cells so that in seven years you have changed entirely
so now you could meet that cloned self of seven years ago
and need to be introduced.
How firmly would you have to turn your back
not to know that person.
It takes only five years to tip the seesaw of the climate
into an ice age.
The American Indians had civilisations which stretched from the Arctic
to the Antarctic; they are now seen as ineducable.
Camphor held tight in airless cupboards keeps silver
almost permanently bright.
Rosemary is for Remembrance.
Six million Jews were murdered in World War II.
Hiroshima had not been bombed before..
Tuesday isn’t the beginning or the end of the week.
Peace is indivisible.
One church sees abortion as a mortal sin.
Scientifically speaking a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly.
We exhale CO2. Trees inhale CO2.
The American colonists killed two million Indians
to farm the empty West.
Once there was one continent from which the others split.
They said Malthus was wrong about population,
then the Green Revolution.
Now we just wait for the numbers of people to double
and double.
There is a small brown bird the last of its species
calling every spring for its mate.
Threequarters of a million children die of preventable
At our galaxy’s edge black holes devour stars.
Marble doesn’t grow on Yorkshire hillsides.
They call the white flowers Moonpennies.
Doncaster will be by the seaside
at the turn of the century.
Lithuania wants to be independent.
You need to keep your grass short
to be thought respectable. 
Joyce Woodward 

Friday 22 February 2013

once more into the nude, dear friends, once more

Where I'm directed to sit in the maxillo-facial corridor of the Outpatients' Department of Torbay Hospital there's a huge red and blue sign above my head:

                           MESSAGE FOR STAFF
This department practices naked from the elbow downwards.

I'm not sure which is more worrying – this, or the third question from the receptionist (after address and date of birth) as to whether I've agreed to donate my organs.

As far as I know, I'm only in here for the soft palate of my mouth to be looked at, as there's been for two or three months now an infected swelling that my dentist can't explain.

I don't know whether to be disappointed or relieved when my consultant turns out to be a fully-clad woman. I have the same mixed reaction when, after several more X-rays than I'd have liked, she tells me with the kind of air that seems to suggest I'm a hypochondriac or someone with too much time on their hands (I wish!) that she can't find anything.

OK, I sound off about prophylactic use of allopathic medicines, including antibiotics, on any occasion when I get an opportunity. I used to be smug about the fact that my daughter, who never had antibiotics as a child, also hardly ever missed a day of school, while friends' children who seemed to be put on them at a sniffle were always away from school. I know this. In this case, though, I say to both my dentist and the consultant that all I need is a dose of anti-bs: I have less than a dose per decade, roughly. Neither takes any notice. Two hours and a bit more radiation later I'm back out on the street none the wiser. Who would choose to spend a morning getting to, hanging around in and getting back from a city hospital ('English Riviera' in February) when they didn't need to?

I've seen the inside of a hospital more times in the last 9 months than in my whole life put together (though it's true I have also fractured a number of bones in my life, often though not always as a result of my foolhardiness with horses, and therefore have had more radiation than I'd like). Carcinoma inspection, carcinoma op; heart misbehaviour = Accident & Emergency x2, and now this – all since last June. Anybody'd think I'd had a lot of stress and/or am getting old. Come to think of it…


A bonus is, of course, Radio 4 in the car. At home, I like either silence, or to actually listen to – as opposed to have on in the background – music.

I should qualify that by saying 'that is, when there is no good conversation forthcoming'. In our household, that 'good conversation' mainly takes the shape of my apparently having unknowingly thrown down the gauntlet, or toga – or whatever the ancient Greek equivalent is – with an innocent and passing comment on something relatively innocuous, as far as I can see – and stepped inadvertently into the debating forum and Socrates' line of vision, and a full-scale round of what feels like gladiatorial combat, in which I lose my marbles, my equilibrium and usually the argument. Er – 'debate'. You'd think I'd have learnt by now. And I never thought I would crave the kind of argument  that goes something like 'It's your turn to do the dishes!' 'Oh no it's not – I did them last night!'; or 'You wouldn't know a vacuum cleaner if it tripped you up' (which, should TM say it to me, would be self-evidently true and therefore justifiable). Anyway, there are other times – that's what I was getting at – when I might also perhaps choose some soothing classical music.

This morning, a programme on emotions, specifically the art of weeping. I learn that 90% of people interviewed admitted crying at certain music. 60% said the same in relation to poetry. Many fewer responded with a 'yes' to visual art, sculpture or architecture. (It's true that it's been a long while since I passed anyone weeping at a building. Especially in Torbay.) They mentioned film and theatre, but gave us no percentage.

Here's a nice little detail: chickens, when played a snippet of Mozart, seemed unaffected, but the same hens all ruffled their feathers in unison in relation to an excerpt from Pink Floyd. (The composer told us this, and forgot initially to mention it was chickens he was speaking of – I thought 'ruffled their feathers' was a peculiarly English euphemism to use for crying.)

And yes, of course, far more women than men admitted to tears. And both boys and girls cry equally until about ten or eleven, then boys on the whole stop. This seemed to cause some mild puzzlement. Nature or nurture? they asked. Well, I'm not a scientist, but a combination of the production of testosterone and its connection with increased aggression at puberty coupled with a society which still says 'Only sissy boys cry' might lead to that outcome, yes…

I think the research was all undertaken in the UK, and the rationale for all the above is that our culture doesn't encourage weeping, especially not in public. Well, that's a surprise. Unsurprisingly, though, both the psychologist and composer interviewed said that they felt music had an important part to play in the catharsis of relaxing suppressed emotions – and apparently the beneficial effect is more marked if released in public.

Has weeping a survival aspect? Quite possibly. I don't want to think about how they managed to ascertain this, but researchers say that mouse tears contain pheromones. So the Prof heading that research collected up a few thimbles of human tears to test them too. Seems that volunteers sniffing someone else's tears, when measured (the volunteers, not the tears), showed a drop in testosterone and also in sexual arousal (one wonders what stimulus they were given before?). The provisional conclusion is that tears, in this context, have the effect of toning down aggression in another.

I think I missed the segue, because suddenly we were talking about speech, valves and membranes (that's 'they', not really 'we'). Perhaps it was a different programme; I had after all got out to look at a few camper vans in between. This time, another Prof said, in relation to language, that it's not obvious why we use our mouth for making sounds to communicate with another rather than, say, our butt instead (he was American). Both, he said, use a valve and a membrane. Well, I can think of several answers, but one might be that as two-leggeds we more often find ourselves face-to-face with another than butt-to-butt. Speaking personally, of course. Plus maybe faces on the whole are more expressive? – Ditto.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

islands of the heart retreat

Two places have recently unexpectedly become available on this rather special writing retreat on the Hebridean Isle of Iona. If you think it and you might suit each other, please get in touch.

Islands of the Heart 2013
creative writing retreat 
with Roselle Angwin
on the magical Isle of Iona (Argyll Hotel)
Sunday April 14 (eve) – Saturday April 20 (morning)

And we like migrant birds blown in to here
Where all our stories meet…

An island is both a physical point in space and metaphorically a place where we might bring ourselves home. Iona is one of those places where, as the Celts describe it, the veil is thin. It has probably been a place of pilgrimage for 1000s of years; it was a Druidic teaching centre before the arrival of Celtic Christianity.

Here, surrounded by the seas that both connect us and keep us apart, is a good place to start the quest for the heart.

For nine years I led a weeklong retreat on Iona with my friend, fellow author and poet Kenneth Steven. The many people who attended, some of whom return every year, know what a unique, life-affirming and frequently transformative experience these five days offer. This year, I’ve added an extra day, for deepening.

In 2010 I launched the Iona event as a solo adventure for me. I kept the spirit of our shared venture: the ambience and format: the wonderful Argyll Hotel, right on the water; the walks; the warm gatherings; the workshops, discussions, talks, poems and readings; the daylong pilgrimage to St Columba’s Bay gathering silence, green stones, and the voices of the air; looking for seals; the boat trip to Staffa (weather permitting). This is a place to bring your stories and poems, your joys and sorrows, your laughter and your open heart.

In addition, I’ve added an extra focus: the theme of ‘islands’ as a starting point and medium for thought, creative expression, writing, and reflection.

Booking and accommodation arrangements: choose a place to stay to suit your budget: a tent for the truly hardy (farm camping, showers and loo, £7ish a night or so) or six nights in the wonderful Lagandorain hostel (around £20 a night, ditto), to a local B&B. Of course, nothing will beat the Argyll Hotel: a single garden room overlooking the ruined ancient nunnery at the hotel is about £56 a night B&B; the spectacular sea-view doubles are £119 per night for the room (bring a non-participating partner, or share a twin room with a friend?). It does of course make a difference to the experience to be all under the same roof; so if you choose the hotel, I’d advise very early booking.

See http://www[dot]argyllhoteliona[dot]co[dot]uk, and under their ‘essentials’ button you’ll find a link to island accommodation. You will book the course itself with me, and make your own arrangements for accommodation and travel (see details on my website and more info on accommodation on the Argyll Hotel website). We’ll be at the Argyll for all the indoor sessions (morning, late afternoon, and evening) and dinner will need to be taken there, as part of the group. We think you can eat really well, on the fine Argyll fare, for between £15-£25 per day (excluding drinks), assuming you have breakfast wherever you’re staying. Frugal people can of course probably improve on that!

Practical info: please check my website (fire-in-the-head[dot]co[dot]uk 'courses>course details', scroll down) for details on travel, clothing, etc. You need to know we do a lot of walking and outdoor time.

Fee: this is in two parts: my fee, and the accommodation. My fee is £250; you will need to send £100 to me as soon as possible, please (give me a ring/drop an email to check whether there are still places). The balance of my fee is due by March 1st, so if you're signing up now then I'd ideally need the whole fee. Please note that if for any reason I cancel the course, your fee is refundable. If you do, at this stage refunds are not possible. You might want to consider travel insurance.

The Hotel or other accommodation needs to be booked and paid for separately. The hotel needs your bookings immediately, but will tell you about deposits and refunds. Please note that the Hotel and some other places have twin rooms, which will bring the individual cost down if you’re coming with a friend or are willing to share a room with a soon-to-be-friend other participant.

Prices do not include the optional boat trip to Staffa, which will be around £30 – and it’s more than worth it.

Booking: I'll need a deposit asap. Please email me: roselle[at]fire-in-the-head[dot]co[dot]uk

Timing: the course starts at 7pm with dinner on the evening of Sunday 14 April, and finishes late on Friday evening, 19. We leave after breakfast on Saturday 2o.  Please don’t sign up unless you can stay the whole course.

Bring: some writing by another writer that means a lot to you; and/or a story, poem or song…

Poetry will be an important aspect of this course, but this does not in any way exclude prose writing and prose writers. It’s not about being ‘good at’ something, but about exploring the inner and outer worlds, and words, their richness and their edges. I’ll look forward to being with you (again, in some cases).

It’s the glass-blue day
It’s the way light inhabits the creases,
smears colour that steals your breath.

It’s the sand so pale it might be grains of light.
It’s the big Hebridean night that opens its arms
and drops its creels of stars towards our upturned faces.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday 19 February 2013

the hospitality of the senses

A few years ago, one bright blue windy April day, my friend fellow poet and author Ken Steven and myself huddled in a sheltered corner of the ruined nunnery on the Hebridean Isle of Iona, speaking into a microphone held by a man with a strong lined face and wise, intelligent and somewhat sad blue eyes.

Ken and I were partway through leading a creative writing retreat we ran together for ten years (I now lead it alone). We'd come outside to speak to the interviewer who was recording us for – I think it was – Radio Scotland, and we were speaking on islands, creativity, imagination and spirituality, and what place poetry might have in a metaphysical world view.

The man was once Bishop of Edinburgh, then become head (I think) of the Scottish Arts Council: Richard Holloway. At the time, I didn't know much about him except that he'd been a bishop. I remember speaking with him about my difficulties with the whole monotheistic thing with which I, along with most others of us in Europe and America, was brought up. 'I lean more towards panentheism, if anything at all,' I said – my own commitment being towards the practice of Zen meditation and mindfulness 'to help me live right', but underpinned with immersion in the druidic and bardic teachings that form part of the Western Mystery Tradition.

He looked at me with those wise farseeing eyes. 'I lean towards non-theism,' he said. Later, I bought his inspiring and courageous book, Looking In The Distance. He has a new book out, which I shall also buy. (I'm interested in others' takes on this 'what's it all about?' question, especially if it's clear the thinker has really thought; and in the process questioning and expanding what I take for granted myself; along the way somehow my own practice deepens. The path I'm on feels right, and my commitment is unwavering; but as Buddhist teacher D T Suzuki said to his students: 'You're perfect just as you are, and there's always room for improvement.' Read also 'inclusivity'.)

The reason I'm remembering Richard Holloway is because he has written an excellent and insightful review of philosopher John Gray's latest book in this week's New Statesman (15-21 February). The best reviews, of course, tell you at least as much about the reviewer as the book reviewed; and when they're really good they're punctuated with the kinds of thoughts you wish you'd articulated first. And only Holloway, ex-theist, could make Gray's atheism into something spiritual, poetic and uplifting without any seeming contradiction – or, there again, maybe Gray's book does that.

Maybe I'd better read that too; the case Holloway makes for Gray's take on the consciousness of animals as non-dual beings because they have not used language to invent abstractions (my paraphrase) piques my interest.

As a writer, I'm equally intrigued with, agree with, and resist the notion that our point of separation from a state of wholeness – symbolised by the Fall in traditional Christian teachings – was the invention of writing which, according to Gray, 'gave humans the power to preserve their thoughts and experiences from time. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality. The development of writing has enabled them to construct philosophies in which they no longer belong in the natural world.'* Gray concludes that both monotheistic Christianity and secular humanism fall prey to the myth of the abstract as being more 'real'. This, he suggests, has been the illusion on which the great monotheistic religions were founded.

The trouble, as I see it, with this is that we tend to posit matter and spirit as separate, one 'good', the other 'bad'. What we need is a synthesis that allows us to respect and value both.

There is a short discussion in the piece about the power of myth; I think it needs to go further than Holloway takes it, as I believe that myth and the oral tradition can bring us back to some sort of wholeness. And, of course, I personally believe that writing can do that too. After all, it's a servant, not a master. But I also understand his thesis; Holloway too partly agrees with Gray and partly suggests that 'it [writing] is our greatest invention because through it we can have communion with other troubled souls'. Both Gray and Holloway suggest that this function is better handled through the arts than through theology and philosophy.

Anyway, all the above is also a lead-in to this beautiful little poem by Norman MacCaig with which Holloway closes his review. I hope you like it too.

A Man I Agreed With

He knew better than to admire a chair
and say What does it mean?

He loved everything that accepted
the unfailing hospitality of his five senses.
He would say Hello, caterpillar or
So long, Loch Fewin.

He wanted to know
how they came to be what they are:
But he never insulted them by saying,
Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do you mean?

In this respect he was like God,
though he was godless. – He knew the difference
between What does it mean to me?
and What does it mean?

That’s why he said, half smiling,
Of course, God, like me,
is an atheist.

Norman MacCaig

* from The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. John Gray

Sunday 17 February 2013


Roselle Angwin 2008 – earth 1

Two days of gentle sun. You can hear the earth creaking back into active being. At the top of the field already the hawthorn leaves are out, and we gathered our first crop of wild garlic today.

More, we actually did some work on the veg plot, until recently saturated. The garlic's come through strongly, and almost all the onions we planted in the autumn, too. At last I got my winter-planting broad beans in, after TM had barrowed a few loads of lovely friable compost up the steep field.

At long last the purple sprouting is – well, sprouting. In recent years we've put in three varieties: a very early one that fruits in July or August, another that comes through in November or December, and the third in spring. Last year, almost all our sowings were obliterated by slugs, and even our leeks are still pencil-thin. TM finds it most ignominious that I am talking about getting a Riverford organic veg box each week to tide us over the 'hungry gap'.

Talking of Riverford, we had perhaps the best lunch I've ever had at their field kitchen near Dartington today. I'd never been there before, and it's booked up weeks in advance. You're seated at long shared tables, and it's a set menu (luckily with a veggie option) of their own organic produce, imaginatively cooked and plentiful, with huge bowls passed around the table. (I won't even start to speak of the puddings.)

The guy I was sitting next to turned out to be a painter and sculptor. He had a portfolio with him – exquisite abstracts, rooted in landscape, in deep warm vibrant colours. He paints entirely in earth pigments that he collects locally to him (in Cornwall, with some forays into Devon and Cornwall). Oh, and soot. Ditto.

I too have collected earth pigments for painting, from the coasts here and also from Southwest France – the same pigments that our prehistoric ancestors used in their awe-inspiring (to me, anyway) cave art. Once TM put himself in grave danger stepping out onto a cliff near Golden Cap in Dorset, 100s of metres above the sea and crumbling, to bring me back a handful of lovely burnt sienna soil when we were first together (comment from TM: 'Factual inaccuracy. It wasn't Golden Cap; wrong county. It was between Branscombe and Beer, the Devon side of the border, and it wasn't HUNDREDS of metres, but maybe 100 or so.'). Whatever, I haven't found the range of shades Huw had. The painting of mine at the top includes some, but I have also used bought Prussian blue and white paints in it. (It's tiny, in reality; I can't help feeling it needs to be massive, maybe a metre squared.)

This one is also mostly earth pigments:

Roselle Angwin 2008 - earth 2

Later, back in our little orchard in the dimpsey, with the half moon rising, we collected up all the apple tree prunings, perhaps for kindling, as one of the local buzzards cruised overhead.

The wind dropped, as it does so often at twilight, and above the brook's chatter the jackdaws and rooks started up their great noisy pre-roosting flypast.

I love swinging the axe and splitting logs. (It's a wonderful counterpoint, too, to so much time spent on my computer – I now keep it off from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, mostly; sometimes all weekend, even.) Just as I split the last log two owls began hooting close by, with a third yipping somewhere off in the trees. Venus slowly glimmered into life alongside the moon. Now dusk releases bosky scents from the valley (or we smell them better when the visual sense is eclipsed a little in duskiness) – the earth smells as if she's properly waking.

Saturday 16 February 2013

heading for the hills (and the sea)

One of the joys of my younger life was taking off in our campervan for the coast. Waking up early by the sea, having a walk/surf/swim and then writing, kettle on the hob or slung over an open fire, became a way of life.

My then-husband and I, and later plus our tiny daughter, would also take off down the Atlantic coasts of France and Northern Spain in the winters in our van, following the surf and living wild, earning what we needed as we went. One autumn in the low dense woodland of Les Landes in Southwest France we lived almost entirely off the land for the best part of two months: nuts, berries, mushrooms, and shellfish for those who would eat them (not me).

I'm on the hunt again, 20+ years on, for a small, clean and environmentally not-too-juicy-and-low-emissions campervan. Seems like an impossibility on a limited budget; and only older ones will run on a fair degree of recycled chip oil, but older ones (OK I can't afford a newer one anyway) inevitably come with higher maintenance costs.

I'm someone who takes notice of my nocturnal dreams. I write them down – that way I pick up recurrent and long-distance themes, and have found that paying attention makes a big difference to my orientation and the 'steering' of my life, and adds depth and insight. I make a conscious effort to attempt to incorporate into my life the messages I glean from the psyche that way.

I've been having dreams lately involving water a great deal. Water in various traditions (eg the shamanic, the Jungian) is usually identified with the feeling nature. In one of these, recently, the young woman in brightly coloured hand-made clothes, barefoot, whom I identified as my younger self, was curled up on her side, on a headland near water – dead. The dream wasn't in itself scary, but it woke me up to the fact that something of my younger self, her vibrancy, vitality, creativity, freedom, carefreeness and independence, urgently needs resuscitating.

Flashback: my big dilemma at new year (I hinted at it here) came from the fact that I was offered an utterly magical small piece of land right next door, on which I could realise my dream – dream-dream not night-time dream – of creating a sacred garden, with space for a cabin/yurt to offer retreats and courses, and orchards already partly in place for developing permaculture systems. I could keep bees, goats, bantams. Most exciting of all, there was a barn with a flat area perfect for how I want to develop my ecopsychology work with groups and individuals: into the realm of horse-collaboration for mindfulness and horse-assisted therapy. The whole was, I thought, just possible with my small legacy from my mum. (I should say that I've never owned, nor even co-owned, property – oh save for a very short but very romantic period in my life, in Brittany – my 'capital' is my library – so to buy something like this would be a huge step for me.) Then, same day, I came across the perfect horse, for sale at a price I could just about do.

Well, I dithered for weeks. I so wanted both – this side of me is very strong – but had not envisaged long term not living near the sea or in a Celtic/moorland area. Plus, as some of you might know, I had heart issues last autumn that haven't left me entirely, so the timing felt 'off' – extra responsibility seems like a bad plan to one who has been overwhelmed by responsibility to the point of being quite ill the last little while. In the end, I put an offer in on the land – the most I was willing to offer – and it was immediately rejected. No land, no horse...

So – well, a campervan – and I've hankered after one since I finally drove the old one into the ground and couldn't afford to resurrect it in my 30s – might be nearer the mark anyway. This side of me, the nomadic, is pretty strong too. It would give me the freedom to go where I need to be when I need to, space to write solo in inspiring landscapes, and it would allow me more time in my beloved Hebrides each year either side of the courses I run without it costing for accommodation. I can run my laptop off a solar panel, and sit gazing at the sea writing (and with tea-making facilities right there to hand). Who knows, I might even be able to persuade TM that he'd really like that lifestyle on occasion.

But so far it's proving elusive. I have a hunch that what will work for me into the future is taking routes that prove to be easy, in contrast to my deeply-engrained past that has had me in every area of my life swimming against the currents, upstream. If it doesn't unfold simply and easily, I am learning to walk away from it, like today's campervan that I viewed.

This, though, below, is the one I really want (sadly, I don't believe it's for sale, and I think it's also in California). It's built by a guy named SunRay Kelly, on top of his 1984 Toyota camper. If you see one, let me know.
Meantime said daughter, 30 years older now, is looking for a gypsy bowtop – like this little beauty, perhaps  –
Or this one (thank you, Eloise). Build your own campervan! Well, and –

And if anyone has any associations (I mean imaginative responses/connections) with the words in this email address I'd be interested to hear too – it came from the same dream:

reedy[at] I haven't yet tried the email address to see if there's a bona fide 'real life' recipient.

There's Pan in there; there's Donovan's song about Leda and the Swan, there's Robert Graves' association of Reed with the month of Scorpio, according to the old Celtic ogham alphabet. Any more offers?

Thursday 14 February 2013

V-Day, loving & metta

Valentine's Day – when the wild birds traditionally choose their mate.

And today also is the 1 Billion Rising event worldwide to draw attention to and show solidarity with the of vast numbers of women and children who are raped, abused and killed each year. Later today I will join my local dancers in the town.

The emailed quote from Tricycle Buddhist mag is I think worth posting today ('metta' is lovingkindness, or compassion):

'The practice of lovingkindness is, at a certain level, the fruition of all we work toward in our meditation. It relies on our ability to open continuously to the truth of our actual experience, not cutting off the painful parts, and not trying to pretend things are other than they are. Just as spiritual growth grinds to a halt when we indulge our tendency to grasp and cling, metta can’t thrive in an environment that is bound to desire or to getting our expectations met.'

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, 'Commit to Sit: Metta'


Given that Valentine's Day, even when we know it's primarily a consumerfest, still sets us and our loved ones up to fail through expectations, I want to add to this post Oriah Mountain Dreamer's 6 points to bear in mind around this whole thing of romantic love, from her Valentine's Day blog:

Here they are:
First lesson: Coerced expressions of affection don’t mean much (whether by ourselves, another or by eg consumer/public/personal/interpersonal expectations – my addendum)

Second lesson: Don’t expect others to read your mind. If you’d like something, ask.

Lesson three: Do not assume the other wants you to do for them what you would like them to do for you. When in doubt (again)  – ask!

Lesson four: Never underestimate the power of small gestures to help bridge the times when life’s challenges may dampen passion's spontaneous combustion.

Lesson number five (which took me a decade to really get): When someone shows you who they are and how they live their life, believe them.

Final lesson: Love is precious and life-sustaining. Don’t quibble. Celebrate it wherever and whenever you can – even on Valentine’s Day.

So, folks, here's to love – that great and necessary imponderable...

Tuesday 12 February 2013

new lambs, and 350 poems

Bitterly cold, and here are the first new lambs of the year (that I've seen), black and white both, staggering around learning to lope after the ewes. How long, I wonder, do they keep their memory of the warm nourishing uterine darkness from which they've so recently emerged? At the heights of their field the soil is sandstone-coloured and terraced by centuries of sheep feet circling the hill; tangled protruding roots of oak and ash and beech, knotted like fairy-tale roots, hold the banks together. Below, the water meadows bordering the Avon alongside the old Primrose Line branch railway are thickly drifted with snowdrops.

No-one's unmoved by new lambs. Seeing them, though, for me as a vegan is always touched with a poignancy – their destination being the table, and I find it really hard that we in England are so sentimental about new lambs, and so effectively and hypocritically dissociate them from the plastic-wrapped lumps of anonymous flesh on which we feast. I can't help feeling that far fewer people would eat meat if they had ever visited a slaughterhouse.

The way we humans relate to animals has long been a source of great distress to me; and the best we can usually manage is the Judeo-Christian stewardship model, which doesn't go far enough for me, anthropocentric as it is and founded in the view that other species are here to serve our needs. For me, we're all in this together, and 'do as you would be done by' is as relevant to our treatment of fellow species as of other humans.

'The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.' (Alice Walker)

There is one huge book to be written about all this, and one of the reasons I don't write more here about my own deeply committed ecocentric approach to the world – one that considers other beings to have the same rights as humans – is because there is so very much to write about this – in effect an alternative history – or bible – of the Western world (in fact I have a vegan friend who is doing just this). (I am not saying it's only the West that is anthropocentric – clearly that's not true – but I can't reliably speak of a culture other than my own; and ours has a particular history, from the Greeks on and fertilised nicely by the Age of Reason, that perpetrates and perpetuates that belief.)

OK, rant over.


Back to reading through the box of around 350 poems I'm judging for a competition. This is an interesting process – poetry being as personal as it is it's hard to reject people's work, and yet I have to pick a winner. At this stage I'm primarily looking for ones that I can pretty certainly disqualify (because I have to).

As long as I make myself be ruthless, the 'no' pile isn't too hard. I do have to include in it poems that are OK but are not outstanding, as I have to start somewhere. Into it must go the ones that mostly consist of clichés, those that use rhyme in a rather stilted and contrived way (I'm happy to read rhyming poems, but the rhyme needs to be unostentatious and 'fit for purpose'), ones in which the grammar and spelling let the work down, ones that read as prose, ones that are overly sentimental, ones that don't go far enough, ones that might work for a C19th audience, or are slight and trite or doggerel, ones that 'tell not show', ones that are derivative. (Does that make me sound fierce?)

As in most competitions, probably, there's a huge range, and some poems that won't make it into the shortlist are still very moving. Some are startlingly original in their approach but don't quite open up from the personal to cast light on something more universal. Others are fine at face value but don't resonate in a deeper way than that. Oh – this is hard.

What I'm looking for, of course, is something that sets a poem apart from the merely 'acceptable', something that makes it really original, surprising, multilevelled, outstanding. I want a poem that will make me think, move me, give me a new angle, make me see things differently; one that will haunt me as I read the rest. It will probably also conjure up a sensory picture. It will for sure 'deliver' more than it would seem to at the beginning. I like, too, to be surprised by a title: one that offers a different or lateral or deeper view is always good to find.

Because it's also subjective, I personally am also drawn to poems that speak of the human relationship to the natural world; and while I don't mind – actually to some extent require – dark (the juxtaposition of dark and light can add substance, depth and dramatic tension to a poem), I do mind nasty.

I have a suspicion I have already met the possible winner; we'll see.

The 'maybe' pile grows almost as fast as the 'no'. The 'yes' pile is small, but I know from experience that by the time I finish a second or third reading of the 'maybe' and 'yes' piles there will be a long longlist that will be hard to whittle down.

I'll of course be considering all the things that work to create a good poem: originality of voice, subject, style, a marriage of form and content, cadence and musicality, the subtle use of 'poetic' devices – chiming words, alliteration, assonance, metaphor, imagery, scansion, diction, strong verbs and so on to scaffold the poem, an awareness of the need for the poem to appear fresh and spontaneous while also having clearly been worked, subject matter beyond the merely personal and emotional, etc. It's fairly obvious, fairly early on, too, which poets are readers, familiar with a range of poetry, which does matter, given that we don't work in a vacuum.

In the end, though, although I will have noticed subliminally or otherwise all the aspects above that create a strong poem, the winner will be the one to which my heart and mind in tandem instantly say YES.

Monday 11 February 2013

remade by the play of season and weather

I always forget how stunning, how dramatic, Dartmoor is in the winter – a season that one would think drab. There's something about the moor and the time of year and its weather that bring out the best in each other, like a good working relationship. The ochre grasses, the deep sootblack of the peat, the pronouncement of the rocky tors, the ruffled pools, the shining strips of leats and waterfalls on the hillsides, the last of the fox-red bracken, the toning ponies, and the sage-green rushes – all of them uncorralled, a kind of stream of consciousness that resists paragraphs and full stops.

I'm kicking myself for forgetting – again – my camera for the play of light and cloud - always so much more interesting than straight sunshine.

I'm thinking about the many times I've made this journey in the 30 years I've lived in the vicinity of this peat-and-granite country with its wild miles, its legends, its stone rows and circles and cairns and kistvaens and hut circles from the Bronze Age, and some earlier; its bogs that can swallow you whole.

I'm listening to poems about snow on the car radio; so longing to hear Frost's 'Stopping by Woods' or Louis MacNeice's 'Snow' – both would suit this afternoon, even though here in the southwest it's a gentle day, unlike in parts of the rest of the country.
I'm thinking, too, about how it is to get older, and how little things like a rare Sunday lunch with my sister and daughter and failing father, followed by a stroll down by the rising tide of the creek with its translucency of rainbow in the February mizzle and its single high-stepping egret can mean so much – partly because they mean so much to my once-solitary and nonconformist dad now that my mum has died.

I come up over the rise with Hameldown away over yonder, and the fat-bellied sulphur-yellow clouds are pouring shadow on its flanks, and down across Laughter Tor. The little road ahead of me, shower-slicked, snakes switchback into the distance past North Hessary. I think that long ridge I've never known the name of must be Royal Hill; or perhaps its Down Ridge.

I've come up Long Ash Hill, and passed the megalithic rows of Merrivale with its cargo of memories, present and ancestral, marked in the granite uprights. On the quarter dates, four times a year, I'm in the habit of spending what one might call ceremonial time here with writers who, like me, are in love with the conjoining of land, words, silence. These stones have been sitting there for at least three and a half thousand years, maybe more – storing, since they were erected, who knows what of our thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears in the piezoelectric quartz, used of course as this crystal is for receiving and transmitting (think radios).

The sky beyond the last hill is a strip of torn paper, jonquil-white, down which rain-smeared tufts of cloud trail. What is it about the horizon, a non-place, so soon replaced with another and another, and yet which so calls to us? It's I guess something to do with the unknown, the not-as-yet revealed – and it's about time and possibility, change, as well as space (as I know very well what physically occupies the space over each horizon that I'll encounter on this drive). Too easy, perhaps, to say it's about the possibility of losing oneself, being newmade, finding something different, somehow... But of course each view is new, is itself remade by the play of season and weather, and by what I bring myself each time, too.

Right now I could drive forever, even into those clouds, and keep on driving.

Friday 8 February 2013

teachings from Dog & Wolf

A sutra is an ancient Indian wisdom teaching. It's normally fairly short. 

I take the view that everything can be our teacher – if we take that view. So when I go out, I pay attention to the lessons brought in the shape of other beings, human and non-.

My book of poems and prose poems, Bardo, includes some (if you click on the cover icon to the right it will take you through to the publisher's site and, with any luck, my page and some sample poems).

Here's a teaching from the Canus tribe!

dog sutra

sky is a permanent question
gods come in thunder and lightning

every trail has two possible endings

anyone you meet is a friend until proven otherwise

nonetheless, do not trust where you land up until you’ve seen a winter, met those who consider it theirs

on the path a stray, your alter ego, follows you home under the stars


wolf sutra

even in this wastelot of a pen, this wolf is a poem: all claw and sinew; at rest, utterly relaxed; otherwise alert and muscular, ready to leap and spring; lean and fit and even in play fully awake, no superfluous weight or unnecessary action

Thursday 7 February 2013

both singular and plural

'World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural,' says Louis MacNeice.  'I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.' (from 'Snow')


Right now, this morning, walking mindfully to compensate for missing meditation, I meet World

through my eyes
through my ears
through this sharp air on my face, the touch of bark and lichen, the dog's rough coat
through the plural scents of countryside and animal, the continents this wind has crossed

the taste of this thawing ice-drop on the thorn twig

through my feet on this good frosty soil, grass spiked white
through all of my skin, clad though I am

through this mind that knows about transience, delusion

through my heart

through my breath that connects across time and space

all this

regardless of my judgements, my evaluations, my distinctions and separations, the stories I tell myself of myself


World just is

Tuesday 5 February 2013

overwhelm, wakefulness & non-doing

I guess you will know the illustrative 'boiled frog syndrome'? Grim though it is, this is such a graphic representation of how we live our twenty-first-century lives in the Western world. The idea is that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will immediately attempt to leap out. It probably won't survive, whether or not it escapes. If, however, you place it into a pan of cold water which you then slowly bring to the boil, the frog doesn't even notice that it's boiling to death until it's too late, if ever. (Not to be tried at home, children.)

We live like that. We think it's 'normal' to experience the levels of stress, busyness, tension, exhaustion, adrenalin and full-on-ness that most of us inhabit most of the time in this accelerating world, further rushed into over-stimulation all the time through the range of e-communications to which many of us, myself included, are addicted, and with which we increasingly feel we need to keep up, almost as if to prove we are alive and connected. We cope because we have to; and, maybe, by dissociating ourselves from our deeper needs. I've lived like that.

Then one day we hit burnout – something in us gives out. It may start with something minor: perhaps it's one of our children kicking off at school; perhaps it's our partner asking that we spend more time together and less time in front of our individual or joint cyber-lives and the relevant screens; perhaps we're jolted by a moment of road rage, our own or another's.

Perhaps we take days instead of hours to recover from a tricky phone call, weeks instead of days to recover from a cold, or a work-related stressful incident. That depletes us, a little, more than we expect, perhaps, but of course we knuckle under and carry on.

The stress isn't dealt with, just left behind. We get used to living on adrenalin.

It may become a bigger issue the more we ignore it until, maybe, it becomes serious – our marriage falling apart, an accident, a serious health concern.

That latter is how it was for me after ten years, more perhaps, of ignoring the serious signs of burnout.

And so, with any luck, we wake up. That's the hidden blessing in something more serious, more tragic, or simply more inconveniencing. We start to cherish the day, the little things in our lives (a slow walk, a snowdrop, the first spring thrush-song), the time we have with loved ones – if we take notice.

We simply can't live at optimal wellbeing without addressing this being dragged by busyness into overwhelm, nor without stepping back from our continual bombardment with information, and with, too, environmental 'toxins', whether they're the level of global bad news that seeps daily into our lives, our own negative beliefs and habits of thought, or the pollutants we eat and drink and breathe.

Then there are the assaults from human-made and natural radiation, greatly increased by radio and mobile phone masts, mobile phones themselves, and computer rays on our nervous systems and the subtle body of our individual etheric field, the electromagnetic shield that protects and modulates our wellbeing on both subtle and dense planes.

No wonder we feel so overwhelmed. And we keep going because we have to and we have to and we have to; we learn how to over-ride our instincts to stop and rest; we become used to inhabiting overdrive. Then we hit our own personal wall, as some of you know happened to me last year, and I haven't quite climbed up off the floor just yet. The circuitry's in for repair, the system has crashed, the motherboard's wrecked. (I use those images quite deliberately.)

Do I ever allow myself to not have an agenda? Do you?

There is no alternative to time out. Here is the wonderful Jon Kabat-Zinn, in an excerpt from Coming To Our Senses:

'To maintain our sanity in such an era, we may have to become intimate with stillness, every one of us. Stillness and quietude may no longer be luxuries, if ever they seemed to be, nor experiences only suited to monks and nuns who have renounced the worldly life, or to adventurers in wilderness, or vacationers in national parks. I am not talking about leisure time. I am talking about non-doing. About spending deep time resting in pure wakefulness, outside of time, with the mind spacious and open. If it is healing for us when faced with life-threatening and chronic diseases, how can it not be healing for us in the face of the dis-ease of feeling totally and chronically overwhelmed and bereft, that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.'

Blog Archive