Today is a writing day, my second this week but it’s gone 11.00 am and so far beyond some rambling scribbles in my journal, there is nothing written. However, my brain is whirring and I can feel ideas lining up. Characters sit in the waiting room, patiently waiting to be written. One is particularly keen to have her moment and she may well be the main focus of the day – when I get going.
Yesterday at the poetry cafe we touched on procrastination and the workings of the unconscious. The value of procrastination is subject to debate. I think of it as periods of composting, when ideas break down and become rich, fertile soil for growing new work. However, too much of it and you really are just staring out of the window at nothing.
There have been some gentle moments of joy this week, as fleeting as the imprints in the sand shown in the photograph above but captured in the psyche.
Teaching singing is a great joy, whether with the wonderful choir on Monday nights or in schools and workshops. On Wednesday three of my Year 6 girls took me totally by surprise with their entirely serious and thoughtful choreography to a song we were learning. They simply decided to do it and I didn’t interfere.
This afternoon at the poetry cafe, writers came together and all produced some new work out of a workshop exercise I presented. The words were funny, touching and profound and it was a privilege to share that experience.
Other gentle moments this week have occurred in connection with others; a lovely taxi driver who made me laugh; an overheard conversation on a bus between a young man and his carer looking forward to their tea; a chat in the pub with an earnest and beautiful woman shining with the love of her God; a hug from a friend; the blue eyes of my best human looking deep into me and knowing me truly.
Gentle moments in a world that can be everything but gentle. Precious indeed.
It’s been a strange time with the weather. The bone cold brought a deep chill that stilled and stopped everything. There’s nothing like snow to remind Britain of its multiple frailties. Walking in the snow last Tuesday I felt frozen to the marrow, colder than I’d felt in longer than I cared to remember. Those few days of standstill brought some time for rest and quiet but they created a strange unease as well.
This morning when I woke up, my mood was in the thrall of the prevailing cold and unease. I awoke feeling strange to the world and it looked like the mood had me in its grip. Unwilling to lose a day to gloomy introspection and gazing into the impenetrable oddness that prevails I decided to kick it into touch and shift myself into a better frame of mind. This took an effort of will. I was cosy in my melancholy and felt it closing in on me with a soothing, there,there, accept this, for this is how it is.
Reaching into nostalgia and brighter thoughts I grabbed my twelve inch dance version of Bowie’s Absolute Beginners – I know, far from his finest – and wha-wha-wha-oohed my way through it with moderate dancing – it was only 8.45 after all.
It was a joyous 8 minutes, made funnier by the fact that something is slowing my turntable so the song varied in speed as it went, giving it a lovely wonkiness.
The little rush of endorphins from this indulgence powered me into work mode and just as I was sitting down with coffee and doggo company, the sun came out.
I am still in my wilderness period, still following myself into the deep woods and so I expect sadness to walk with me. But not today. Perhaps the clearing is closer than I think.
Winter blows in its last hurrah today bringing that wicked cold that cuts bone. The last vestiges of illness cling to lungs and throat and steal energy. But there are snowdrops and crocuses, the days are lengthening and the light is getting in.
In my period of reflection and withdrawal during Lent I have been working on my resilience – hard to do when you get chopped off at the knees by illness. An idiom that keeps coming to mind is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the idea that when a person has had enough and finally breaks, it is often a minor thing that is the tipping point. On more than one occasion over the past nearly two years, I have shouted, either to myself or someone dear, that’s it, I can’t take any more.
Of course, you can shout it all you like but shouting makes no material difference. You still have to live the day you think has broken you. What amazes me in my most broken moments is that somehow and from somewhere I find strength. We do have deeper reserves of courage, strength and resilience than we know and only when these are tested do they reveal their quality.
Like an overladen camel or any beast of burden, we carry a lot through our lives and sometimes it is hard to keep moving and seemingly impossible to lighten the load. I don’t have any answers to this, only my own experience, and I know I’m lucky. I’m not homeless, I’m not fleeing a war, I’m not facing a life-threatening illness or situation. I am able to count my blessings as well as my burdens and to have the certainty, that is more reassuring than anything else, that all things pass.
I had a dream when I was about seventeen in which the most beautiful music was playing. It was the song of the morning and I could not recall it when I woke up but I knew that song connected me to everything that lived. In the dream I was in my favourite place in the world, the river Tamar looking out towards Landulph and into Cornwall. The sun was bright, the Tamar Bridge and Brunel railway bridge were there, sturdy and strong.
But as in all the best and most memorable dreams, the landscape was both familiar and unfamiliar. The bridges stretched for miles and miles into the distance, and a train was standing still, not on the track, just on the hillside, packed with brightly dressed animals all wishing me well on my long journey ahead.
I was travelling far away, deep into the heart of the countryside, a long way from everyone and everywhere. I knew in my dream I was walking from one reality to another, one state to another and that I had to say goodbye to everything I thought I knew in order to make that journey. I was not afraid or excited, just peaceful. With the song in my head, the good wishes of the strange animals in my heart and the beauty of where I was going to guide me I was ready for what was to come. At the time of the dream, I believed I had glimpsed heaven.
That dream is what Wordsworth called a ‘mansion of the mind’ in his sublime poem Tintern Abbey. Mansions of the mind are interior places to visit when they are needed. They are to be recalled in loving detail and held in reverence. I visit my dream when I need to, when I am thinking about bridges, about transcendence, about the unfamiliar and the familiar. Once again today I tried to hear that music but it is gone, only the trace memory of it remains. And oddly, that is enough.
It’s Day 3 of Lent, post pancakes and ash and into the real business of the wilderness. I don’t do the ashing because of my position as sceptic and it would be hypocrisy to take part in rituals I am wrestling with.
I’ve been wrestling with the words of psalm 51,
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
and the whole notion of penitence. It’s not a comfortable place to be. The wrestling will go on for some time.
In my state of wilderness I am seeking what is mine to own and what I should leave for others. Some of this is clear, some is not.
I have this recurring image of deep darkness, the depth and darkness of the abyss and of standing in it. Far above my head is a light, just the faintest show of it. I can see no way to climb out of the abyss and I think of a ladder. One appears. But it is in fact not a ladder, it is a hand and it is within my reach. However, I am paralysed by the abyss and I cannot reach for that hand. Rather than disappearing, the hand remains and I feel in my heart that when I am ready, when I reach for it, it will assist me in my climb.
Today is the first day of Lent and for the second time in my life I am making a serious effort to use the forty days and nights to undertake a journey into the wilderness to gain greater insight into myself and my life. Last year I emerged with a powerful realisation of the significance the grieving process has to our existence and how important it is to not pathologise it but to simply live it.
This year, I walk into that inner wilderness much more self aware and with a greater understanding of the importance of inner journeying. To undertake it fearlessly and with commitment is the first challenge. My other challenge is to stand and face whatever comes and to look square at it unflinchingly.
During Advent I subscribed to the Church of England’s daily reflections and found them enormously helpful as the approach of Christmas became increasingly difficult to manage. I would describe myself as a devout sceptic, constantly interrogating faith and exploring spiritual matters with an open mind. I’ve subscribed to the church’s Lent reflections and on this the first day, the focus is on the light that always comes out of darkness.
Speaking of light, the one thing I always take into the dark of the psyche is a candle. Even if its light is low and flickering, its presence is reassuring and it is something to follow when the dark becomes threatening or overwhelming.
I am peaceful at the start of this process and full of optimism that whatever the outcome the process will have been worthwhile. If you are undertaking your own journey, then keep a light with you as you go and walk safely.
Although I am more airy than fiery I find myself increasingly drawn to fire and its properties. Having an open fire in my current home gives me the opportunity to rekindle my relationship with this core element. I enjoy the ritual of sweeping out the hearth in preparation for building a good fire.
I build with paper, kindling, small logs and firelighters, if there is resistance, letting heat build gradually, watching with patience and care as my grate becomes a small furnace.
The dark dankness of this January week has given me the impetus to focus on fire and on using it not just for warmth and comfort but also to stir deep memory while simultaneously burning away that which is past.
Tonight the fire burns with serious intensity. Remnants of Christmas crumble to ash and will go out tomorrow into a pile at the bottom of the garden in readiness for mixing in with compost for the garden later in the season.
Watching the glowing and splitting veins of coal I remember winter nights with my grandma, watching her fire burn low and imagining myself a creature of fire, able to walk through the crumbling walls of red and orange coal, a fire city full of fire people.
The flames and heat are reassuring to me. I can conjure my grandma’s face, her warm eyes, the coo of her Devonshire voice and all the furrows on my brow smooth, my heart eases and I feel safe.
The flames consume the last ghosts of Christmas along with pieces of the past year of which I need to be rid.
To the power of the fire I give up old hurts, wounds and worries and let the flames take it all. Fire is older and more powerful than me, before and after me and my time on this good green earth. I am grateful to the fire and as it burns itself out I breathe out into its heart and feel something dislodge from my heart and surrender itself. It feels peaceful and good.
I was going to call this blog post Spirit of Jazz in recognition of the fantastic CD The Spirit of Trane by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble because the band had me and the rest of the audience in rapture last night at Grimsby Jazz’s final gig of 2017. But actually it’s spirit I want to write about because it has been a week of feeling spirit in so many lovely ways and although last night was the apex there have been some fantastic moments of community and togetherness that I want to try to capture.
When we talk about spirit what do we mean? I think it’s a word that is myriad in its meaning and probably context specific. There was a spirit in the room last Friday when the community choir performed at Cambridge Court. There was a sense of shared purpose and fellowship which I think is captured in these pictures.
I know I talk a lot about the power and the value of singing together but it comes home when we go out into the community and perform. The choir’s spirit is immense; big-hearted, generous and welcoming. Monday evenings at St Mark’s should be available on prescription.
Last night’s gig at Grimsby Jazz was just spectacular. Gilad Atzmon is a genius and I would never use that term glibly. When Gilad plays Euterpe enters and something transcendent happens. The Orient House Ensemble is a stunning band. Each musician plays from the soul and inhabits the music so completely. It was an immeasurable joy to be lost in it. It was a poignant night as well because it was Gill Wilde’s swansong gig. But what a finish. My best human remarked that it was one of the best gigs he’d ever been to and I have to concur.
I woke up thinking about jazz this morning and its glorious defiance as a musical genre. It is so free and so revolutionary and it challenges you as a listener to really engage. I started going to the jazz in Grimsby years ago because I wanted to be excited by music and musicianship. I’ve had such an education and such revelations and have immersed myself in jazz as a writer and performer. I want more of it all the time.
Back to the ordinary world today and the second Riverhead Coffee Poetry Cafe. What a rich afternoon. The participants bring so much, not just writing but themselves. It’s evolving as a place to consider the nature of ourselves not just as writers but as beings, existing in a time and a place. Today there was such a wealth of shared narratives and everyone left with an uplift.
And spirit is the thing that unites this experience, the spirit of people coming together to do what they do; to talk, make art, share ideas, perform, give. It’s something spectacularly human and wonderful and the stuff of living. Long may it happen.
Most of my posts are about what I’ve been doing but this morning I am thinking about being. The nature of being, of our existence is both simple and complex. Here we are, hurtling through space on a rock living with the inevitability of our own death and that of everyone we know. That is the simple bit. The complex bit is what we do with the time we have and how we are for ourselves and others. This takes some work. You can choose to never think about this of course and to just get on with it. For me, just getting on with it is not an option. How I get on with it and how I am in my existence and in my relationship with others is of paramount importance.
Being with others is not always easy. Often it is painful and challenging and when there is hurt, misunderstanding or deliberate unkindness and cruelty it can be hard to envisage any kind of positive relationship with those responsible.
When I was practising Buddhism I was intrigued by the dharma of Maras. Maras are those who harm us. The dharma teachers that these individuals are a great asset to our lives because they bring us the most valuable lessons, the ones that enable us to grow the most. Having had a great many Mara lessons of late I now understand the wisdom of this. Growth comes from adversity, from challenge and from facing it, even when it is overwhelming and completely exhausting.
Once a storm passes, the air is clearer and it is once again possible to find some peace. Today, after the storm, I have some peace and I also accept the inevitability of more storms because that is how life is.