from BARDO

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

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

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

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

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

inspirations & gratitude – four extraordinary women

As we come up to this year's turning, I find myself revisiting in my mind some of the non-fiction authors who've had a major impact on me in the past. It's something about gratitude, paying-back, I suppose. There are many many I could name, but I'm going to restrict myself to mentioning just a few, four women authors; those whose inspiration and influence have continued to resonate at a deep level over the years and decades.

Moving beyond fear

Firstly, Susan Jeffers. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway shifted something in me in my early 30s, and I've retained it.

After I closed the shoemaking business on the basis of one commissioned n-f book (Riding the Dragon - myth & the inner journey) I launched into freelance journalism. I'd already written a few articles, but needed to pitch higher and wider than reviews in poetry magazines and longer articles in small-circulation journals. So for a couple of years – until pitching to bored editors in London on topics I was staying abreast of by the seat of my pants brought unmanageable stress into my life, despite the best income I've ever had (that's not saying much, by the way) – where was I? oh yes – I wrote for mainstream newspapers and magazines as well as New Age ones on environmental issues and holistic matters: psychological and physical health.

One article I wrote for a women's magazine was on confidence, and Susan Jeffers gave me a generous dollop of her time long-distance on the phone.

Two things I took away from her book: one is that true courage is nothing to do with not feeling afraid, but in not letting fear stop you. The other is that the way to overcome fear is to remind oneself that it's usually not the focus of the fear, the thing itself, that is frightening, but the fear that we may not be able to handle it. Remembering the latter, and that it's a choice, reminds me of the dictum that we can't stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.

Of wolves and women

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian, anthropologist, and storyteller. I had just finished writing Riding the Dragon when her wonderful book Women Who Run with the Wolves came out. It's a magnum opus of passion and wisdom and insight; empowering, inspiring and illuminating. There is nothing like it, and if I were Education Secretary it would be, along with its equivalent for men, Iron John, by Robert Bly, compulsory school reading for every teenager. (The third and complementary book I'd put on the curriculum would be Jungian James Hollis' The Eden Project – the search for the magical other; that way we'd restore in our culture a vision of what love really is, or could be, and lift the burden we all unknowingly place on the Other, who is tacitly or even overtly expected to meet our needs and make us happy 'in the name of love'. I have said here and elsewhere that the best thing we can do for this poor fractured world of ours is to make our relationship with ourselves more conscious; this book expresses and articulates further this idea with great eloquence and depth, as well as with disarming wryness.)

Forget the horse whisperer
More recently, I've devoured with passion and delight Linda Kohanov's book The Tao of Equus. As a lifelong accompanier of horses (along with my daughter) I was over the moon to find that someone had started a worldwide movement that exactly echoed the way in which my daughter and I have intuitively always related to horses: not as possessions to be dominated, coerced or expected simply to do our bidding, but partners in a kind of co-evolution of conscious relationship.

Perhaps you need to be into horses to get it; but it's more about the way in which we in the so-called 'developed world', anthropocentric as it is, relate to other species in general, and about what happens when we objectify, through a reductive viewpoint, aspects of our intertwined co-arising life. Yes, there's a mystical element, and I don't apologise for that.

If you read this blog often or know my work you'll know that my big thing is about revisioning our relationships not just to human others but to the other-than-human, as a matter of urgency. Kohanov's book dosed me up with such excitement I could barely sleep; she articulates so beautifully and from her own personal and professional experience what more and more of us sense.

The ecological revolution
Finally, for the moment, a big inspiration for me over many years now has been Buddhist and deep ecology scholar, social and environmental activist, and general wisewoman Joanna Macy, who founded the 'Work That Reconnects' network, and in relation to where we are as a species right now and the possibility of a tipping towards critical mass for major change, gave us the term 'The Great Turning' (the ecological revolution).

The vision behind my own work, clearly on a much smaller scale, echoes her work in many ways. One of my sisters had the inspiration to buy me Macy's most recent book, Active Hope, for Christmas – exactly the injection of energy and optimism I needed when I have so nearly myself been overwhelmed recently to the point of helplessness and despair and then inertia at the dire state of the world – like so many of us.

One thing Macy brings so well is the prompt to remember the sheer energising power of what she calls active hope. She identifies three common patterns of behaviour, 'three stories', in our relationship to our current environmental and social crises. (She points out that by 'story' she doesn't mean a work of fiction but rather the way we make sense of situations and events.)

The first is a denial of the scale of the problems; 'business as usual'.

The second, what she calls 'The Great Unravelling', is a kind of despair at the magnitude of the problems, and a pessimistic feeling of powerlessness. This can lead to a sense that our individual drops in the ocean are too small to count; so alarmed and helpless we too can default to 'business as usual' (this story is putting us on 'a collision course with disaster', as we most of us do know, even if we'd rather not know).

The third, 'The Great Turning', is a recognition that together we can make a difference: 'The third is about a groundswell of response to danger and the multifaceted transition to a life-sustaining civilization. Recognizing that we can choose the story we live from can be liberating; finding a good story to take part in adds to our sense of purpose and aliveness.'

In the story of The Great Turning we make a commitment 'to act for the sake of life on Earth, as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so'. She also reminds us that this isn't too far-fetched now: Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, suggests that there are over one million and maybe more like two million organisations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice. Not so few drops in the ocean, then.

She reminds us that whatever situation we face, we can choose our response. This echoes Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning: 'When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves... Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' 

We can live in denial – the comfortable way. We can live in despair – in some ways, also an easy, even indulgent, option, uncomfortable though it is.

Or we can elect for change, and challenge what keeps us stuck in old destructive patterns. This requires active hope. Here's Macy again: 'Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we'd like things to move in or the values we'd like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction... Since Active Hope doesn't require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on intention and let it be our guide.'

(Some of these ideas are relevant to my next one-day workshop, Thresholds, here in Devon, with relationship both to our individual lives and what we contribute to the wider world.)

So I guess the best thing to wish you all for 2015 is active hope, and the courage to live your beliefs and visions regardless of what the tide of popular opinion is doing.

'See' you here next year...


  1. Thank you for your blogs during the past year. I've found them encouraging and inspirational.
    A happy new year! love Marg

  2. Hello Marg - lovely to hear from you, and thank you. A happy and creative new year to you, too.

    I'm finally compiling a book of the most popular blogs - perhaps it will be ready for NEXT Christmas, once I've finished the current book of essays! – Hope your writing is still flowing...?

    Love, Rx

  3. Oh, yes. 2 poems were published in Orbis, I won a keg of draught beer for Sitting with the Bear which you helped with and A Time for Peace should be published by 2016 by Cinnamon Press. So my work is beginning to be seen by more than local groups. xx

  4. MARG! You kept very quiet about all that! HUGE congratulations! Deserved, and about time. Rx


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