The Ethic of Belonging

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. “(David George Haskell,  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

I’ve always loved the majesty of trees. I think I inherited it from my great aunt Ida, who was disabled and lived alone in an upstairs flat. Few people visited, despite her coming from a huge family. As a child she was locked away in her bedroom if any visitors called and she never got to go to parties, church, or anywhere else outside the house, such was the shame of having a disabled member of the family in those days. She had no sticks, no wheelchair, and to get around inside the house she swivelled on a ‘crackit’ (stool). And in the rare event anyone did call, she had to bump up and downstairs on her bum to open the door. In her eyes, the outside world was a frightening alien environment. Until my dad bought a car.

He was the only son of one of her sisters and the only member of the family that I know of who visited regularly. The car was bought in 1956 and Dad used to bring Aunt Ida to our house for Sunday dinner then take us all out for a ‘run’ in the car afterwards. She was terrified of the traffic and yelled at cars, ‘Get away home!’ but the things that really blew her away were the trees.

We lived in a mining community of back-to-backs, cobbled stone streets, back yards and outhouses, so trees were a luxury only seen in parks, or further afield in the countryside. In the car Ida used to repeat, over and over, ‘Oh, the trees. The trees!’ lost in her own little world of reverence. Trees connected her to a nature that was not part of her home environment nor seen from any of her windows. And in these living networks of trees, birds, insects, squirrels and sky she melted into a relationship with the divine.

It is no coincidence that I live in a forest park, that I walk in the woods for inspiration for my writing or that I feel a spiritual connection to the life evolving around me. There is harshness in predatory killings, in sudden frosts and flash floods, but there is also gentleness in whispering breezes, the unfurling of ferns, the song of a blackbird. The cycles of life and death are unsentimental dances, their beauty cast in webs of environmental responsibility. And we each have our part to play in the music and the dance.

 

 

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Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.

Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

Time Out

“The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.” (Frank Ostaseski The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully)

We all need time out to reflect, to look at where we’ve been, to decide where we want to go to, to examine the meaning in our lives. It’s been six months since my last blog and in that time I’ve been out of action for several reasons. I had a wonderful month holidaying in Canada followed by a writing week in a bothy in Scotland, then I was debilitated for almost four months from an infected dog bite. My focus during those four months was to get well and resume my life, but I found I was floundering trying to pick up the reins again. Always one for a bit of travel I decided to go to a writers’ retreat in Crete run by life coach, Emotion Code and Body Code practitioner, Vanessa Westwell,  (https://writersretreatcrete.com) to reflect on where I am and where I want to be.

The retreat is on the third floor of a very pleasant, light and airy apartment in the market town of Agios Nikolaos in East Crete with stunning views from the balcony over the town to the mountains and sea. The weather was perfect, between 25-28°C, with azure-blue skies and warm winds, just what I needed to unwind and shed all the stress of the previous months. Walking next to the sea, around the harbour and lake, admiring the sculptures and sitting in cafés drinking coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice, I could feel the knots loosen.

The retreat has a private writing room ajoining the bedroom and a private balcony connecting the two rooms. October is quiet, there are fewer tourists but still plenty of things to do. There is the old leper colony on the island of Spinalonga just a short boat ride away, an olive farm nearby where they make their own olive oil, grow their own herbs, make their own cheese and honey, run cookery and pottery classes. Just a few kilometers away there are ancient villages with white sugar-cube houses higgle-piggled on the mountainside, archeological sites, museums, galleries and for the more ambitious, hill walking and climbing. It’s an area rich in history and the Cretans are rightly proud of their heritage.

I decided to take the full board option and despite me being vegetarian and wheat intolerant, Vanessa rose to the occasion, furnishing me with delicious meals and snacks that made my stay so relaxing and enjoyable. I came home refreshed, buzzing with ideas, and more able to deal with life’s events that sometimes cause me to become unstuck. I can honestly say that a retreat in the sun can give your soul wings, and having a host as kind and caring as Vanessa is an added bonus.

“Success in life is less about what you do and more about what you allow yourself to become” (Clare Josa, Dare to Dream Bigger)

I’m allowing myself to become more relaxed and connected to my creativity in ways that enhance who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to live. Fully.

A Suggestion of Bones

Last week saw the launch of my new poetry pamphlet A Suggestion of Bones. It mainly comprises of individual poems published in small press magazines, anthologies or online and the over-riding theme is of things hidden, not being what they seem or lurking just beneath the surface.

The title comes from the last line of one of the poems At Birdoswald, a ruined Roman fort three miles from where I used to live in Gilsland, Northumberland, which is a village on the Roman Wall that stretches from Wallsend in Tyne and Wear across Northumberland and ends at the other side of the country in Carlisle in Cumbria. When I lived there I used to walk a great deal in the surrounding countryside with its spectacular views, craggy hills, deep valleys where clear ice-cold water gurgled and splashed, and Roman ruins hunkered down in the grass. At those times, I used to imagine what it would be like being an Italian soldier banished to these outposts in Britain, living in inhospitable weather and keeping the marauding hordes of Picts and Scots at bay.

A few years later I went back to visit my old stopming grounds. I needed to touch something familiar in my soul, to resolve some of my indecisions, and this poem came out of the visit.

At Birdoswald

There’s iron on the wind.

Sunset gasps from the horizon,

dusk circles like a cloak of feathers,

light flees the amassing darkness

and each breath hangs

like a ghostly membrane

 

promising a night of stars and stories.

 

After days of disquiet

I feel surrounded by tinder, fear

the burst of a match on shavings

of my soul and embers fanned

by the darkling wind. But here,

amongst the squatting ruins,

 

my crowded mind stills its chatter,

 

descends deeper into the landscape,

transcends time. I feel the scratch

of memory, smell the woodsmoke

of regret, touch the bruise of fear caught

between cracks of then and now,

hidden in the hillocks around me

 

like the suggestion of bones beneath skin.

A Suggestion of Bones is available from Amazon ttps://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=a+suggestion+of+bones&sprefix=A+suggestion+%2Caps%2C268&crid=2CW

 

Fireflies and Haibuns

I’ve started working on a new collection of poems and decided to try my hand at haibun, a form I’ve never used before.

Haibun is a poetic form that focuses on nature and landscape and creates the sense of a journey, which can be internal or extrernal. A haibun is the combination of two poems, a prose poem and haiku, and the form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

Generally, a haibun consists of one or more paragraphs of prose written in a concise, imagistic haikai style, and one or more haiku. The prose part of the poem usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Meanwhile, the haiku follows the typical rules for haiku and usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of thinking about the haibun is as a highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey that ends with a kind of murmur.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections. However, there may be considerable variation of form.

In Robert Wilson’s series Vietnam Ruminations, a collection of individual haibun, each haiku begins the poem and the following prose is a piece of reportage or explanation:

Fireflies
on the water’s surface –
a house of mirrors.

Standing guard in the wee hours of the morning on the bow of the repair boat barge I was stationed on, was eerie, to say the least. You could never relax. Stories were told in the chow hall of Viet Cong frogmen who traveled across the small bay we were moored in, using hollow bamboo reeds to breathe through. Like ghosts, they appeared when a soldier’s guard was down. The only sound during this watch was the faint lapping of waves against the barge’s hull and the steady thump thump thump of my heart. In the distance, gunships sprayed the horizon with machine gun shells laced with tracers that lit up the sky. More than once, I saw my reflection in the water. At that time of the morning, at nineteen years of age, a variety of thoughts and questions danced in and out of my mind; some deeply introspective.

Whereas Stallion’s Crag by Ken Jones is a seamless collection of  haibun with the haiku at the end of the prose, as demonstrated in this extract:

The black tarmac strip comes to an end. The motor disappears back into the mountain silence. Down by the stream is a reception committee.

Three crows in a bare tree

proclaim the meaning of life

                            as usual

I give them a wave.

 

Ahead lies a broad valley. Great hills rise on every side, the grey bones of the mountain showing through their flanks. Here and there fans of scree spill down the slopes, and boulders litter the brown bogs. This is now a vast sheep walk, roadless, ruined and depopulated — a tumbled world of mist and bog, of looming and elusive shapes. There was once a notice at the farmhouse of Eisteddfa announcing that “The Notorious Hill of Plinlimmon is on the Premises and will be shown to any Gentleman Travellers who wish to see it.” All the literati who took up the offer seem to have had a bad time; Thomas Love Peacock, for example, wrote in 1855 about getting lost and soaked to the skin. And all this despite repeated warnings from the guidebook writers. One declared that “The Voluptuary will find little in this region to detain him.” And Benjamin Malkin, in 1804, warned that “it affords little food for the picturesque enthusiasms of those who venture on the laborious perils of the ascent”. He added that “it is the most dangerous mountain in Wales … and should not be attempted without a guide, whose attendance is very precarious.”

I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement.  Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. On Pumlumon it takes longer. Half a century in my case.

Back on the mountain

my grey beard

soaking up the mist

 

Here at the road’s end there’s a keen wind blowing. Cold and rain are kept out by closely woven cotton, over finely spun lambswool, over Welsh flannel, over Japanese silk, over mortal skin. Dyed field grey, head to foot, and lightly waxed. Buckled snug down to the hips is a well worn backpack, with five days of green tea, frankincense, midge repellent, and much else, but not a word to read.

Contentedness

of mist and bog

miles of trudging solitude

I love the freedom that prose gifts to you and also enjoy the demands and constraints of the haiku. To combination these effectively will be a serious challenge, but then, life is all about change, of moving out of your comfort zone and going places you’ve never been before. To do otherwise is to stagnate.

Wish me luck.

 

Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn