Lost Words

A while before Christmas, I was with a dear friend in my local bookshop The Suffolk Anthology and we were looking at books by Robert McFarlane such as Landmarks and Holloway. I mentioned that I loved The Lost Words, the book he made with artist Jackie Morris. My friend remembered, and at Christmas-time she surprised me with it. What a gift for me; and what a gift the book is to the world.

As is well known, a few years ago there was a furore when a new edition of a dictionary for younger children dropped words like acorn, adder, bramble, and fern, and replaced them with words to do with computers and the internet. The editors said something, I believe, to the effect that a dictionary is descriptive, and records the language actually in use. And so Robert McFarlane begins The Lost Words thus:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

He calls the book “a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words” and hopes that it will be read aloud, and “unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” Jackie Morris’s beautiful illustrations of birds and plants complement the “spells.” Their combined magic evokes what happens when we really look at the natural things around us.

The bluebell picture is especially lovely, and exactly captures the delicate native bluebell with its drooping curve, “arched down like a cutwater drawing itself back from the line of the keel,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his notebooks. He loved bluebells, gazed intently at them: The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape…He experienced them with all his senses: drawing his fingers through, so they struggle with a shock of wet heads; smelling the faint honey smell; and tasting the sweet gum when you bite them.

But this is easy, he says; it is the eye they baffle. They give one a fancy of panpipes…..He seeks to describe that curve like a shepherd’s crook, and notes how the flower holds itself differently when you put it in water from the way it looks when growing. Over and over he tries to capture that arch of the bluebell: what with these overhung necks and what with the crisped ruffled bells dropping mostly on one side and the gloss they have at their footstalks they have an air of the knights at chess.

It’s still January, a while off bluebell season, but The Lost Words has conjured it. The book reminds me to look closely at the ordinary but infinitely precious bluebell, bramble, conker, fern. But while adults have praised the book, it is made to give children the words. I wonder if they are reading it, or having it read to them? Will these spells do even more powerful magic than evoking the natural world, will they send the children outside so they can see and touch these things for themselves, and learn their names?

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from  Lost Words  by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)

Wintry Mix

A New Year, a new intention (“resolution” is too scary!) to write more frequent Scrips…

After many grey mornings, today I’m watching the sun come up into a patch of blue sky zigzagged by the golden streaks of aeroplane trails. It’s a small patch, and the clouds are approaching, but its brightness is a moment of solace in wintertime.

I’ve learnt to find more of these moments recently, especially since I’ve been back in England, where everything doesn’t die away as brutally as in the north-east USA. Yesterday I saw roses, and a tree anticipating spring with pink blossom. Daffodil shoots are spiking the roadside verge, and you can see the slight bulges of their flower-buds. But still, it’s cold, and there’s bad weather coming, I hear.

A dear friend gave me a lovely card-book, The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel, illustrated by Angela Harding (Candlestick Press). This writer doesn’t minimise winter’s harshness, especially for the wildlife:

“No birds sang. A solitary tree creeper searched an alder’s bark, in much the same way a caretaker will check under the auditorium seats for rubbish after a concert…How dismal the jay’s nest looked against the blank sky…a wren, small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

On alder and briar he notices the evidence left by rabbits and deer nibbling and scraping for survival. But there are glimpses of brightness: the holly tree, the same one his grandfather cut Christmas sprigs from, stands vivid with berries; the vixen glows red in the falling snow.

Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours is a collection of prose and poetry in which she’s not presenting “a formal persona, as my books of poems certainly do,” but “revealing, a little, my private and natural self.” The title essay begins:

In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing.

Oliver lives in New England, where winter is not for the faint of heart. She evokes her winter day, beginning in darkness, and her work of writing poems, when she tries to set aside ego and intention, and listen:

“…almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community….”

She says, “I could not be a poet without the natural world.” But she isn’t an environmentalist, lamenting human misdeeds—not that she doesn’t recognise them, but “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing…” Oh, I want to quote all her clear, lovely words, about the “flame of appreciation that shoots from my heels to my head” when she notices some small but ravishing movement of leaf or insect; about how “Living like this is for me the difference between a luminous life and a ho-hum life.” And also: I am sensual in order to be spiritual.”

She writes delicately, seriously, of her search, at this time of her life, “past reason, past the provable, in other directions.” She is attentive to “the spiritual side of the world” and her own “spiritual state,” and by spirituality she means “not theology, but attitude.” “Unproven but vivid intuitions” count most for her now; she sees “a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else.”

She speaks of the soul; of a soul in everything. But paraphrasing her words takes all the mystery and power out of them; you must read for yourself the paragraphs leading to where she says attentiveness to the grass, the sky, the floating bird, is like prayer, and ending:

“I too leave the fret and measure of my own life. I too dip myself towards the immeasurable.”

As I work on my new book, I’m finding that the idea of the soul is continually arising out of the material; “unproven intuitions” fascinate me, as I explore the nineteenth-century struggle to find something real to hold on when all the Christian dogmas began to fall away. Wintry dark, Oliver’s “sprawling darkness of not knowing,” seemed intensely threatening.

Is seeking the immeasurable like learning to find colour in winter? I tried to do that in a poem, “Looking at a Painting: Wintry Mix” (in Sudden Arabesque). “Wintry mix” is what, back in Pennsylvania, they call the snowy-sleety-icy precipitation of the round-freezing mark. The poem says—so truthfully!—how I’ve always “loathed the winter’s long austerities,” but the painting showed me that even in winter there’s colour, if I look:

….shadowings of blueness, of maroon,

purple and indigo, dove grey

and mauve, reveal their subtle shade

in winter, if I open my eyes, whose irises,

like everyone’s, change colour as the light comes in.

I was assigned, in a painting-poem match-up by Pocono Arts Council in Stroudsburg Pennsylvania, years ago, to write a poem in response to this painting by James Hannan, entitled Wintry Mix. This is a photo of a folded photocopy of an email, apologies to the artist…

I was assigned, in a painting-poem match-up by Pocono Arts Council in Stroudsburg Pennsylvania, years ago, to write a poem in response to this painting by James Hannan, entitled Wintry Mix. This is a photo of a folded photocopy of an email, apologies to the artist…

light in the dark

Twice recently, I’ve walked through the darkness that descends in late afternoon and pushed open the door of my local bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology. I go there often anyway, of course; but these visits were prompted by requests, on two separate days, for a replacement copy of my poetry book Sudden Arabesque, because, mirabile dictu, two different people had bought one! This heartwarming news meant I could brighten the winter’s evening by a visit to the bookshop. *

And what a delight it is to do this! Books everywhere, displayed standing, and shelved, and spread out on the central table of new arrivals. You can pick them up and handle them and turn them over in your fingers and leaf through the pages. There are so many beautiful cards as well, with all sorts of art; not to mention coffee and cake for those who want to linger. Of course I always come away with a book, or a card, a treasure of some sort. As so many bookshops close, any bookshop represents great courage if it has opened in recent years, and endurance if it has been there a while. I want to support this—and of course, it’s easy, as I love what bookshops offer!

Those two lovely unknown people who bought a copy of my poetry book have therefore supported (and I mean this is a wider than monetary sense) the bookshop, and also the poet; as well as the artist of the book’s cover, Ruth End, whose work I first saw on the walls of this very bookshop, where you can still see it now. And when we buy books published by a small poetry publisher, we validate the labour of love that such publishing entails.

In my bookshop you can find the work of many other local writers, and local as well as nationally-known writers do readings and signings there; writing workshops happen there too. So a bookshop becomes a cultural hub as well as a place to find books.

A bookshop is a light in the dark.

*An explanatory note in the unlikely event you wonder why I take Sudden Arabesque to the shop myself: it is published by Oversteps Books (that’s a clickable link) and anyone wanting a copy can order online directly from the publisher. Bookshops can also obtain it easily too. But, for my local bookshop, it’s quicker and easier to get replacement copies from me, and of course I love an excuse to stop in.

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Love: Medicine Unboxed

These scrips were meant to be more frequent….sorry to anyone who’s out there. My excuse this time: I’ve been away.

Last weekend, immediately after my return, I was lucky enough to attend the tenth and final Medicine Unboxed, or at least the final one in the format it’s taken for a decade.

Medicine Unboxed is, or was, an annual two-day event in Cheltenham, curated by writer-oncologist Sam Guglani, blending medicine and the arts. Its presentations featured poets, doctors, dancers, novelists, scientists, and artists. Because I found out about it late, it’s always conflicted with Thanksgiving when we often go back to the States, and in latter years it sold out instantly, I have only gone twice; but I am so grateful to have been at what David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) calls “one of the most remarkable exchanges of thought and ideas that I’ve ever been privileged to attend.”

This is an event that my physician husband and I can both find interesting; it explores the areas of overlap between medicine and art. And unlike festivals where you choose between concurrent speakers, there is only one thing at a time, so everyone is experiencing it together. Each presentation builds on the last; a doctor talking of medical practice might refer to a poem heard earlier; a speaker on near-death experience might echo the medical content from before. As the day goes on, the intensity builds. The emotions deepen. The second morning, everyone arrives already enriched and awakened; the sessions are even more compelling. The event itself is a piece of art.

Each year, a different theme—Death, Maps, Wonder, Voice—and this year’s was Love. We returned from Heathrow during the morning session, but in the afternoon we heard Iona Heath and Raymond Tallis (“Medicine is a calling, not a contract”) on the current practice of medicine; woodworker-oncologist Sean Elyan, who makes solid things as a counterweight to the stress and uncertainty of his job; writer and bee-keeper Helen Jukes, led by Sam Giglani’s skilful questions to explain why working with bees is so fascinating (“contact with creatures that see the world differently”); Satish Kumar on ‘Ahimsa,’ unconditional love for oneself (“not selfish, unless it is more than the way we love others”) and for all creation; and triple amputee and palliative care specialist Bruce Miller speaking, via video from California, with such an incredibly vivid force that we almost wept as he told how he nearly died, but eventually found gratitude in being alive, even in feeling pain, in feeling anything. “Patients want to feel alive, more than be alive.”

We needed the break. It was followed by captivating performances from Jon Webster (harmonium, textiles, more); Stella Duffy (novelist, breast cancer twice, in a raw performance, body and soul); Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers, reading from his forthcoming book); Eley Williams (Attrib., brilliant short disquisitions, unpickings of love and awkwardness, coruscating verbal gymnastics); and finally, Nina Conti, ventriloquist, who with the brilliant Monkey wrung howls of laughter from our emotionally overwhelmed hearts. And that was just the first day.

Through the whole event, every poet (for example Liz Berry, Jo Shapcott), cartoonist (Daniel Locke), novelist (Will Eaves), singer (Sarah Gabriel, Melanie Pappenheim), other writer (Jessie Greengrass, Havi Carel), film-maker (Jason Barker), every musician and performer and speaker of whatever ilk, gave us something thought-provoking and moving and demonstrated once again the power of the arts to enrich and enlarge and mourn and celebrate our lives.

Alas, we couldn’t stay (unavoidable engagement) to hear the final session from Richard Holloway (once Bishop of Edinburgh; Leaving Alexandria). I wonder if he spoke about his recent book Waiting for the Last bus: Reflections on Life and Death. Near the end of it, he quote a bit of Louis McNeice that ends: “ ‘…The Stranger in the wings is waiting for his cue,/The fuse is always laid to some annunciation.’ ” He says, “The poet tells us to be open to the strangers in our midst or we’ll miss their annunciations, the good news they bring us. I get that. What is harder to get hold of is the idea that the stranger who is myself might also bring a gift if I welcome him home. How am I to understand that and act upon it? The clue lies in six words from those lines from Derek Walcott: ‘..give back your heart to itself.’ ”

Holloway counts himself among “those of us who have spent much of our lives wanting or pretending to be someone else,” and reminds us that the “desire to be a different person: someone better looking or cleverer or holier or purer or braver—anything other than the self we were” is one of those cravings which, as the Buddha tell us, are the source of human misery. Says Holloway: “Say ‘Yes’ to the stranger you were. He’s been in the wings all your life, waiting for his cue, waiting to be invited onstage. He doesn’t mind that you’ve left it till the curtain is about to fall.”

Medicine Unboxed was something “you had to be there” to understand. I can’t convey what it was really like. But I want to say ‘Thank you’ to Sam Guglani and his team, and to all the performers, for helping remind me of the power of art, of intuition, of what has been called the soul; and of how I might “give my heart back to itself,” before it is too late.

A Peak, a Trough, and now.....?

October already….This is the season of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, a fixture in my calendar. It’s increasingly focused on media personalities, but there are still many excellent literary writers reading from and talking about their work. I’ve heard, among others, the brilliant Sarah Perry, who has published two books about the 19th century since I began my still-in-progress one; and Geoff Dyer, whose genre-straddling work I very much admire. In his talk, Geoff Dyer, who grew up in Cheltenham, mentioned Bob Beale, the English teacher who inspired him to become a reader (and thus later a writer). This name is haloed for me: two boys in the art club I belonged to as a teenager were at the same school as Geoff Dyer, and said that once in class Bob Beale read out, and praised, a poem of mine! The poem had won a local contest, which is how, at fourteen, I’d learnt about this club where we sat around in blissful nerdiness talking about poetry. You can laugh; but it was life-changing. Now, after Geoff Dyer’s talk, at the very end of the questions, I saw an elderly man near me raise his hand, too late. Somehow, I knew who he was, though my (admittedly unreliable) memory says I never met him before. Indeed, it was Bob Beale, and he said he’d actually judged that contest, which I don’t think I ever knew; so I was able to tell him how grateful I was that he chose my poem, all those years ago. He still remembered the boys in his class back then. Apparently Geoff Dyer has kept in touch all this time and gives him a copy of each new book.

This encounter was, obviously, a peak, small, but significant to me. Then, a couple of days later, yesterday in fact, I was strolling in the Festival area, which is in one of the town’s prettiest parks, and found that the historic bandstand has been turned into a comfy space to sit and read, with sofas, and shelves of books. Lovely idea. Examining the titles for something to read as I rested, I saw one I recognised: Inscription. My book. Nearly three years ago, I’d applied to the festival to be included among the local author presenters, and had dropped off a copy. Of course I understand why an unknown book published by a small foundation in the States might not have been picked; in their place, I wouldn’t have picked it either. Now, they’d donated unneeded books to this charming spot. Fair enough. But it was a bit of a blow to see, still tucked inside, my own letter of application, there for anyone to find, complete with home address, email address, phone number, and my rather cringemaking attempt to explain why my book and I should be considered worthy. That I should come upon this letter seemed a wittily cruel stab of Fate: a reminder, as if I could forget, that our writerly fortune is borne in the frailest of barks. I doubt the letter was ever read, far less the book, which I left there: maybe someone will dip into it. (Hope springs eternal).

That was the trough. But. I’ve been looking at my notes from things I saw in Italy that connect with my new book. I’ve been working on the novel’s structure (an elusive and essential quarry, for me). I’ve heard more writers—this field of language is so rich to work in. Perhaps, under the sunshine of this new October day, I can hope for an upswing.

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Almost September...

Almost September…..but not yet. Let’s not rush it. This is still the last day of August. So often, I find myself looking forward to what is coming next, rather than dwelling in the now.

Today I went to a poetry reading at my local library. The monthly series, with a featured poet and open mic, is at lunchtime, with no charge and no need to book ahead, so people can easily drop in. As one woman said today—she’s new to Cheltenham and was there for the first time—it’s so good to have a library in town and to be able to attend events like this.

These readings are especially meaningful to me because, decades ago, when I was 14 and myself recently arrived, I discovered through this very library a club where young people could explore drama, art, and poetry. It was run by an amazing person called Elizabeth Webster under the aegis of the library, and it changed my life.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    And so today, before reading a poem at the open mic, I said all this—not for the first time, so please forgive me if you’ve heard it before. But emphasising the importance of the library in my life mattered more than ever today. The Cheltenham library has been short-listed for the David Vaisey Prize. This recognises a Gloucestershire public library initiative that “demonstrates the power of reading, leading to more borrowing, reading, and discussion of books.” One of the judges was there this afternoon, and I wanted her to know how much this library, and its support of writing and writers, means to me.

The poem I read today is about a bright September afternoon in North America, where I lived for many years. (There was a wonderful library in my town there too). I loved those vivid September days in Pennsylvania; yet I missed the muted hazel and umber of my rainy native landscape.

Admittedly, in choosing that September poem I was rushing ahead to tomorrow. But really poems are outside time. A poem can telescope years of growing up, can look back, or forward, and yet slow down the present moment. A poem can make us simultaneously fourteen years old and forty; can make past things fresh, as if they are happening in an eternal now. 

Events like today's support local writers, and bring people together around words and books. Thank goodness for libraries, and for the power of reading.

The Abundance

I’ve been away, and came back, but failed in my intention to post a new Scrip immediately on my return. However, I haven’t been completely idle; I have been trying to stitch myself back (to continue, and mix, the textile metaphors!) into the warp and weft of my new book.

But I still dip into other people’s books. Recently I looked into Annie Dillard’s essay collection, The Abundance (Canongate, 2017, foreword by Geoff Dyer).  I’ve loved her work for many years, her wild, detailed, surprising, poetic voice. I am sure I’ve mentioned her before, probably quoting from her book The Writing Life, but she can bear mentioning again and again, until you read her, because the flavour of her writing can’t be described, only experienced.

I read the last essay in the book, “An Expedition to the Pole.” This blends polar exploration with church. She attends a Mass with one shambolic moment after another, and a motley singing group, The Wildflowers. “Alas, alack, oh brother, we are going to have to sing the Sanctus.” Dillard is very funny describing the stumbling ways we try to encounter God, clumsy as dancing bears. But then somehow the most ludicrous church gathering is at the same time a “search for the sublime,” like the search of polar explorers for the austere beauty of the pristine land, the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Others might draw this parallel, but her genius is making it come alive in the details, so one minute you are crunching over ice, and the next you hear mismatched voices struggling with foolish hymns.  The ideas too sweep from the sublime to the ridiculous, and back. And then it all overlaps: “We are clumped on an ice floe, drifting in the black polar sea. Heaven and earth are full of our terrible singing.” 

There is so much more, such richness in this essay, and the brilliance of her lucid, free-wheeling, beautiful writing simply can’t be conveyed. At the end, I felt breathless, ravished, wrung out, and limp with admiration and gratitude.

Making things

It’s high time I explained that one of the inspirations for these Scrips was a friend’s blog.

Here's the link:

Julia's creative year

In her introduction, Julia describes how she wanted to try a year of exploring “different ways of being creative.” She wanted to learn new skills, “and relax, and hopefully develop my creativity along the way.” After the year was up, she kept going, and from the start she chronicled her adventures in a blog, an illustrated conversation with her readers.

There’s a lovely openness, in Julia's posts, about the mistakes and successes of each project. She makes many different things, some for the first time—crocheted scarves, watercolour paintings, fabric bags and skirts, felted pictures, jewellery, and more. The blog sparkles with the excitement that comes from creating, especially when you start off doubtful that you can. And she doesn’t hide her struggle with perfectionism. On June 17th she writes about making a book (one of my favourite posts, of course!) using Coptic stitching to bind the pages. She didn’t start off with enough thread, so had to tie on more. Now, there is a knot where there shouldn’t be. But she laughs about it; she’ll just have to plan better next time, she says; and, " Oh well, it’s a good job I'm getting to be less of a perfectionist in my crafts!"

This honest dialogue with readers, this reminder that creativity is play, and that it’s fun to make things, as well as to enjoy what other people make, all of it prompted me to start writing these little scrips. I'm trying to be less of a perfectionist myself in them, and not to worry about any visible knots.


The Gambrels of the Sky

"The Gambrels of the Sky"—wonderful line! It is from Emily Dickinson's poem beginning "I dwell in Possibility..." and I am reading it in the introduction to this book I have just bought:

The Splash of words: believing in poetry by Mark Oakley.

I have only just skimmed the introduction but I know already that I will love this book. (And wish I had written it). Oakley conveys his enthusiasm with such brio; he wants to light up something for a reader who has neglected poetry or who has never read it much. If you have read quite a bit of poetry, there is also much richness here. The book is a collection of poems, some of them my own favourites, which makes me love the book more, and some new to me. A short essay follows each poem in which Oakley responds to it.  

In the introduction, Oakley says: "when we start talking about poems we are talking about a soul-language, a way of crafting words that distils our experience into what feels like a purer truth."

He looks at the connection between poetry and religious faith. As I read on, I want to quote so much. But I'll end with this:

"Attentiveness, said Malebranche, is the natural prayer of the soul. Poetry is a form of attention,a literal coming to our senses, a turning aside from convention and memory. Our attentiveness will make us more alive by the time we die." 



Old Blog and New

I am currently consolidating all my blog posts here on my website, on two separate blog pages. I'm shortly going to delete the old blog from blogspot so it will no longer exist there.

This transitional message is on both blog pages of my website, 'current blog' and 'first blog.'

All the JUST A MOT posts are now saved here as a separate blog page: "first blog: JUST A MOT."  You can still read there about my linguistic adventures as I rediscovered French during my three years in the lovely city of Lyon.

If you followed me on blogspot, thank you!  I'm sorry that there isn't a similar "follow" function here yet. It should be available soon. In the meantime, do please check back regularly (my current blog has more frequent posts, or so I intend!).

I do so enjoy the conversation blogging affords! Thank you for being here. 

Accepting my flawed self

I’ve been reading Real Love: The art of mindful connection by Sharon Salzberg, an expert in Loving-kindness Meditation. It’s about how we are much more able to have loving-kindness for others if we have accepted ourselves.

Of course this is hardly a new idea. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (says Jesus; the implication being that both halves of this command are equally important). “If you truly loved yourself, you’d never harm another.”  (The Buddha). But it can be so hard to overcome an innate sense of unworthiness. Salzberg reminds us that it happens slowly, and you can love others while still learning to accept yourself.

I struggle with perfectionism when I write. (These Scrips are partly meant as practice in writing quickly, standing lightly to the work, letting it go). I realise it’s to do with being unable to accept and forgive my own flawed-ness; fearing that the world will see, and judge. Sharon Salzberg says:  Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. It is unforgiving and rife with fear.

Reading such a statement, despite knowing its truth, my knee-jerk response is usually:            Hold on a minute, shoddy work isn’t to be encouraged either. Does this person saying ‘stop being perfectionist’ understand the importance of crafting something to a high standard?

Sharon Salzberg does:                                                                                                            “….pursuing excellence is not a problem. In fact, focusing on what we most care about, whether it’s our work, our relationships, or collecting butterflies, can be a genuine act of self-love, but only if we’re not fixated on the outcome of our efforts or on perfecting ourselves.”

Only if we’re not fixated on the outcome…”  As I’ve written before, Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic is brilliant on this paradox of caring enormously about doing one’s work well while at the same time relaxing about the outcome.  (I haven’t learnt how yet!).

Salzberg continues:                                                                                                                              when we relate to ourselves with loving-kindness, perfectionism naturally drops away….we may realise we’ll never sing an aria at the Met, but we can continue to love opera, follow our favourite singers, and perhaps join a local chorus. There’s no frustration, bitterness, or self-criticism in this kind of loving acceptance….whole-hearted acceptance is a basic element of love, and a gateway to joy.

“A gateway to joy.”  That is a gateway worth finding.

Salzberg shows that self-acceptance, far from encouraging rampant egotism, actually leads to freedom from the ego’s grip. This is a different slant from a lot of the religious literature I read when young, which held up self-castigation and self-abnegation as the model. Here’s a related piece by Lynn Underwood about “humble self-love,” Trappist monks, Charles Williams, and a contemporary abbot who stresses self-acceptance as part of humility.


Of course reading is one thing: practice another....

Blue Flower, Book of Fish

Maybe some scrips follow on from the one before. After yesterday’s about Penelope Fitzgerald, I’m delighted to see, in today’s Guardian Review, Claire Messud: “I dislike a lot of historical fiction. But then I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, her masterpiece, and was amazed.”

Or maybe other scrips arise from random connections: next to Penelope Fitzgerald on my shelf is Scott Fitzgerald, and then Richard Flanagan. Flanagan has also written books set in the past and totally unlike the ‘traditional’ historical novel. I haven’t yet read his Booker-prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North; but I love the one before that, Wanting, about Charles Dickens and Sir John and Lady Franklin and their adopted daughter—though like so many of the books I love, what it’s “about” can’t be summed up. The first book of his that I read was Gould’s Book of Fish, which is, sort of, about nineteenth-century Tasmania. It’s a magical, hallucinatory, incantatory, poetic, and unique creation. Looking at the first page makes me want to read it all over again. It begins like this:

“My wonder upon discovering the Book of Fish remains with me yet, luminous as the phosphorescent marbling that seized my eyes that strange morning; glittering as those eerie swirls that coloured my mind and enchanted my soul—which there and then began the process of unravelling my heart and, worse still, my life into the poor scraggy skein that is this story you are about to read.”

Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald

A couple of days ago I read an article about one of my favourite writers, Penelope Fitzgerald: brilliant, and an inspiration because she didn’t publish her first book until she was sixty. (Writing Magazine, July 2018.)  Some of her novels are set in the past, but, Tony Rossiter writes, “as Julian Barnes has pointed out, they do not really feel like traditional historical novels…..the reader almost feels as if he is reading them in the time they are set. That’s an unusual experience and one that’s difficult to explain.”

Difficult indeed, though Rossiter comes close here: “She was somehow able to combine a microscopic focus on specific detail with a panoramic perspective which leaves the reader to make connections and draw conclusions.” But that analysis is necessarily abstract; you can only appreciate her by seeing how the details work as you read, so you feel the lived life.

I found myself drawn into Gate of Angels again, her novel set in the Cambridge of 1912. Here’s an example of her delicate skill, though it may not be the same teased out of its context within the deceptively tight-knit work: “In the field next to the station fence an old horse, once grey, now white, moved a few sedate steps away. This was a token retreat only, it was many years since the train’s approach had given warning that it might be required to pull the station fly. The fly mouldered away now, its shafts pointing upwards, in the corner shed. On the horse’s hollow back, as it came to a standstill, the elder flowers fell gently.”

There’s so much here: the tiny elder flower florets falling from their large umbel onto the horse’s back, white on white; the moment of stasis; horses yielding to the motor car; time moving and time standing still…..

Blog Refreshed: SCRIPS

Today, a new slant. I want to write shorter (and, I hope, more frequent!) posts. Each piece will spring from a line or two in something I’ve been reading that day.  They will be snippets.

I want to share the excitement or wonder provoked by good writing. And I want to remember. Even a powerful response evaporates when the next good thing comes along.  I hope to capture them before they dart away, as my children used to snatch fireflies out of the air, closing a gentle hand around the glow, holding it for just a moment….                                      

I’m now calling my blog: SCRIPS.


…a small piece or scrap (of paper, usually with writing upon it); …a small scrap of writing

That’s from the Oxford English Dictionary. “Scrip” meaning small piece of paper apparently comes from “scrap” and “scrape." The change from “a” to “i” may have been “expressive of smallness.” “Scrips” therefore fits my blog as I will try (a challenge for me!) to write short bits. The "i" was probably also due to influence from the word "script,“ so "Scrips” resonates nicely with my novel Inscription and with some of my recurring themes.

Other OED definitions include:

A small bag, wallet, or satchel, esp. one carried by a pilgrim, shepherd, or a beggar.                                                                                        Fractional paper currency….A receipt for a portion of a loan….a prescription.

Each of my scrips will be a container, like “a small bag or wallet,” for the quotation that has been its spring-board. But whether they will have value, like currency vouchers, or healing potential, like prescriptions, remains to be seen!

The first Scrip comes from something I read in Writing Magazine about the brilliant novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald.





Tongues of Fire

I have just taken, from the shelf beside my morning chair, a book that has been there a while but that I haven't looked at properly till now: Tongues of Fire: an anthology of religious and poetic experience (Penguin, 1985), introduced and edited by Karen Armstrong. It was published in association with Channel 4 to accompany their television series of the same name, which I'd love to have seen. Craig Raine was consultant and other poets who participated were Seamus Heaney, Peter Levi, Czeslaw Milosz, D.M. Thomas, and Derek Walcott. Karen Armstrong dedicates the book to them "in gratitude for all they have taught me."

What is it about the writing of Karen Armstrong? Reading anything of hers, I feel illuminated, excited, my mind somehow expanded, as if I understand in a fresh way, for the first time. I've felt the same while listening to her speak. She has an extraordinary gift for communicating ideas, and making them somehow ignite with personal meaning for the reader or listener. Her chosen subject, as is well-known, is religion, although she lost the fervent Roman Catholic faith that drew her into a convent when very young.  In 1985 she describes herself as an unbeliever; currently she's promoting the practice of compassion, key tenet of all faiths, and has founded the Charter for Compassion, now an international movement.

In the introduction to Tongues of Fire, she speaks of the religious paths of the Mystic and the Sectarian. The mystic's way is not for everyone, she says; we're not all capable of that dedication to meditation, that ego-denying journey into the "cloud of unknowing." The Sectarian follows a particular religious tradition and takes comfort from its rituals and community. Being Karen Armstrong, she illustrates the possible pitfalls and illusions of both paths, as well as the benefits. 

The true mystic's path is an agnostic one; the deeper the contemplative goes, the more he or she realises that nothing can be known about the divine. This book's brilliant and wide-ranging introduction, with quotations from mystics, Einstein, William James, and the Buddha, homes in on the connection between mysticism and that other realm of unknowing, poetry.  "Frequently," she says, "poets feel themselves possessed by something outside themselves just as the Apostles [at Pentecost] were 'filled with the Holy Spirit.' It is interesting, too, that this 'Spirit' manifested itself in terms of inspired language. The 'something' that appeared 'seemed like tongues of fire.' " 

There are other links between poets and mystics, illustrated In the anthology with poems by seekers of various faiths as well as "poems that are not specifically religious, but which show how closely the experience of the poet mirrors experiences that we usually label religious."  And what wonderful poems, ranging across centuries, cultures, many faiths, and none. Keats, Yeats, Hafiz; Moses Ibn Ezra, Emily Dickinson, Rumi; John of the Cross, Larkin, D.H. Lawrence. 

I should have looked at this marvellous book (which you can still find second-hand, as I did) long before. But then, some books are waiting for the right moment.                                                       

Here's something I have discovered in its pages this morning:

My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are

with mercy

for the greedy

they are the tongue's wrangle

the world's potage, the rat's star.

That's the final stanza of Anne Sexton's poem 'With Mercy for the Greedy [for my friend Ruth who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession].





Cell by Cell

I’ve been reading a brilliant essay in the compilation Write, edited by Claire Armitstead (Guardian Books). It’s by A S Byatt, and it’s about the writing of her novel Possession.

Possession has been, since it appeared, a key text for me—because of its story, its subject, its brilliant interweaving of times and materials. And because of the way it made me cry at the end, touched by the story itself, but also by the frisson of potential the book gave me, a feeling of possibility for and excitement about my own writing that I can’t define. This was one of many streams that, in some invisible underground way, watered the terrain of my first book Inscription.

Something Byatt says in this essay strikes me:  “Formally my novel needed the presence of real poems…..” Her editor, poet DJ Enright, said she shouldn’t use Ezra Pound's poems, as she’d planned, but should write some herself. So she did. “When the book was finished, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled and dubious. They begged me to cut out the poetry, to cut down the Victorian writing…..I wept in the early mornings. Then it won the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, and the Booker prize, and to everyone’s astonishment—including my own—became a bestseller.”

I have the inevitable reaction, not for the first time: “So what do publishers know?!”  (Dear publishers, obviously this apparently blanket scorn does not apply to any astute publisher who is interested in my book!) Byatt was already a well-known writer with a respected reputation when the publishers told her that her instincts for her book were all wrong. What chance for the rest of us?

This triggers a negative whirlpool of thoughts. Instead of being stuck there, I’ll try to take Byatt’s experience as a gift. I’ll add Possession to the heap of wonderful but unusual books that have captivated readers, once a brave publisher took the chance. Books that give me courage. Books that cross boundaries, like those of Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, Eimear McBride….

But there’s another thing. Publishers were scared by the poems in her finished novel, but Byatt had originally intended to write something even more experimental. Then she read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which gripped readers while drawing them into medieval theology. “The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story…."   That strong storyline is probably the reason for Possession’s wide appeal and runaway success.

Since the book I'm writing is partly about the nineteenth century, I should say that, far from aspiring to imitate Possession—and who could?—I'm trying to do something very different. Luckily, the nineteenth century, like Heaven, is a mansion with many rooms. 

I’m trying to grow a book, cell by cell. The cliché of comparing book-writing to pregnancy is a cliché for a reason. As I talk about my project, and think of revealing its working title, I feel the hesitancy of a newly expectant woman who hardly dares mention her condition, far less give the child a name.  Yet like the embryo growing unseen, my book does have, ate least for now, a small life; I pray it will continue to grow, metamorphosing, becoming stronger….

Maybe soon I will be able to speak its name.

Bright Abyss

I’m sitting in my morning chair, on a glassed-in balcony giving a wide view of the sky—intensely blue today, with only a few cloud-wisps. The sun, which earlier I saw rising, gradually strengthening its light, has started to melt the bloom of frost on the rooftops.

Beside me, a book I am reading in small doses, because it is so intense I have to keep stopping: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.  This American poet was editor of Poetry for ten years; he now teaches at Yale Divinity School, and has written other books of poetry and prose. My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is, he says, “a mosaic,” made over seven years, as the cancer he’d been diagnosed with at thirty-nine “waxed and waned.” He didn’t intend to mention his illness, but realised that not including it would be dishonest as the book happened “in that shadow."

The book is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” but, as with all the best books, it can’t easily be summed up. It’s about being, or failing to be, or wondering what it means to be, “a believer,” and it's also about the deepest aspects of living, about creativity. Reviewers have praised its lyrical prose and the new way it approaches age-old questions; Casey N. Cep said "here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...;" Marilynne Robinson called it "very lucid and not at all simple;" Jamie Quatro said the book "unlocked the universe for me;" and David Skeel says if Gerard Manley Hopkins "were transported to early-twenty-first century America, this is the kind of memoir he might have written..." 

Wiman does mention Hopkins (whose writing I love), and also evokes him implicitly, as in the word "thingness" in this passage:

“Some poets—surprisingly few—have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness”  and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass/And hang zigzag on hedges.”......[another example follows].

What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.

Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

The “mysterious resonance between thing and language…that reveals a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see;” the way poetry seems to glimpse “something of reality as it truly is;” such hints and intuitions speak to us profoundly. Wiman gives us clarity at the edge of the ungraspable. 

The sun is passing now behind the three tall trees, so its brightness is less direct, but the sky is still a most lovely blue. And speaking of blue, Blue Planet II is currently on television. This jaw-dropping series, a work of art, an experience, takes us into that other blueness, the ocean. In the second episode, we penetrated fathoms down, where all the blue is gone; there is no sunlight at all, so enormous is the mass of water above. And in the seabed there are ravines, deeper still. Yet in that underwater darkness there is more light, and life, than was ever thought possible: squids with luminous ink, eels sparkling like strings of Christmas lights; a fish with a transparent head, bulbous eyes buried inside it, gazing through the clear jelly.

We saw the sponge coral called Venus’s Flower Basket, a delicate white cup of openwork, with the complexity of lace. Inside its chamber, shrimp are living; as tiny larvae, they were swept in through the gaps, and they have grown there, safe from predators. They are now imprisoned, too big to get out again. However, their young escape through the weave, and so a new generation is dispersed.

This hidden world has been invisible to us until now, miles deep, below the waves. A reality we could not see, until the submersibles, with cameras and lights, penetrated the abyss, and revealed a hitherto unknown and yet real dimension. 


It's been so long since the last post here! I've no excuses, really, except that a trip to the USA in April, which included the marathon task of —yet again— sorting possessions, going through memorabilia, giving away and selling books (agony!), interrupted the rhythm, such as it was.

In the States I also read from my poetry book, Sudden Arabesque, at the quirky, historic Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia (alongside brilliant Philadelphia poet and Pew Fellow J.C. Todd).  A writer I met there came to Oxford for research soon afterwards, and we had lunch together. The writing life brings delightful connections, and we spoke about many aspects of this life, including the way support from other writers helps combat the sense of being alone.

To my astonishment, she said she'd read my previous blog posts, and that I should stop neglecting this space. Sometimes that's all I need: the knowledge that even just one person is waiting for what I'll write.  So, hello again. Since I've been away, as well as doing a few poetry readings, I've been immersing myself in the world of my new book, and I've made a sort of beginning; though of course it may turn out to be a false start, or the middle, or not even part of the book at all.

Even after the success of Adam Bede, George Eliot was afraid she would never be able to write anything again. For all her genius, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. For lesser mortals like me, it's worse. I forget over and over that with my first book I had the exact same certainty that it was impossible, the same knowledge of my inadequacy for the task, as I do for the second. I did—after a long struggle—finish the book I'd so often thought unfinishable. Those who've read it have said they enjoyed it. Only writers will understand, perhaps, that I might resort to printing out these responses, every one precious to me, so I can look at them often—daily if need be! This may sound hopelessly pathetic to those who can't relate to the constant shoring-up-of-confidence writers often need; but the mental voice saying "you're so feeble" is sometimes so overpowering that only drastic infusions of reassurance can begin to drown it out. 

I used the word marathon for my possession-sorting task, but in fact creating a book is even more marathon-like. However, runners must enjoy marathons, or they wouldn't keep doing them again and again. And when I look back on the writing of my first novel, which I've called a "struggle," I have an affection for that time, a good memory of what I felt while in the throes of it; and rather than "struggle," it was a kind of enjoyment, like that of being deep in a complicated puzzle or swimming in the breakers of the Atlantic.  There was pleasure in getting my teeth into the project, making something, being absorbed by difficult work.

Ah, but of course Elizabeth Gilbert says all this so well. After writing the above, I belatedly thought to look back at my own last post. As I'd forgotten saying, she urges us to delight in our creativity, rather than complain that the work is hard. I'm glad I did manage to catch myself in mid-moan, and recognise that I enjoyed the process. 

The writing life is like a marathon, too. Very rarely does achievement come at sprint speed.  However, unlike a marathon, it's not a race, though we may watch with a twinge of envy as another writer overtakes us. Better (though not easy) to be as generous as Matthew Rees, who in this year's London Marathon stopped to help a sinking runner over the finish line.  

We need patience, and we need to pace ourselves; we must learn how to work, how to wait, and how to find the joy. And we need writing friends. In Sudden Arabesque there's a poem about finding the courage to swim in a cold mountain lake: 

The lake's dark plum-skin                                                                                                                                                               must be split;

for past the plunge                                                                                                                                                                           there comes an ease in it....

It was my dear friend Penny who encouraged me to jump into the lake; she has long encouraged me in my writing life as well. We all need cheering on, a listening ear. Now to some work, so I can say I've done something when I go to meet another fellow writer for tea.




I've been inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic. As with a lot of writing about creativity, it's not so much what she says as the voice she says it in, that endearing, intimate, enthusiastic voice that many of us have enjoyed from her previous books. 

One thing that really struck me is this:

 "I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not.....[long and wonderful sentence follows, building up to:]  .....but simply because I liked it."

And she urges:  "So try saying this: 'I enjoy my creativity.' "

Elizabeth Gilbert got me thinking.  As she says, few people speak about creative enjoyment out loud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.  We tend, ok, I tend, to emphasise the difficulty of the creative life. All than pen-gnawing anguish, the myriad drafts destroyed and rewritten, the times of block, the times when you feel no-one will ever read a word of the thing you've been toiling over for so long...all of that.  And yes, it is true. It is hard, quite often. But Elizabeth Gilbert reminds me what I don't remember often enough: I love it, anyway.  I enjoy the challenge, the puzzle, the struggle with that slippery customer, language; I enjoy the desire to make something out of the texture of life, and the attempt to fulfil that desire;  I enjoy the difficulties of making the writing work, even when they are driving me to distraction.  But I so often forget to really inhabit this enjoyment, and own up to it.

Elizabeth Gilbert says she long ago decided to "reject the cult of artistic martyrdom," and to trust that she has been made a writer for a reason. To trust that the work loves her as much as she loves it. She describes, in simple but powerful words I long to quote even unto the breach of every copyright law, how she seeks to be open to inspiration, to believing that inspiration wants to come to her. We all live under delusions, she says, so why not choose a helpful one?

"The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you."

I'm currently wrestling with...hm, there I go again!  Rather: I'm currently working to discern the shape of my new book, and I feel stuck, and frustrated...oops.  (You can see how much I need to hear Gilbert's message right now).  Yes, the book is being slow to emerge; but I do love the stuff of it, the materials I'm gathering to make it with; I love the feel of it, elusive as it is, and so vague; in the last few days I have crept a smidgen closer to its hidden form, like a photographer trying to approach the animal in hiding; and I am trying to be welcoming to the wisps of creative stimulus I might miss, if I yield to panic about how fast time is passing or about the impossibility of doing what I want to do....I am trying, but I do need these reminders. It's humbling, but true, that I can be helped by words like these, or by Anne Lamott in the classic Bird by Bird, or by Annie Dillard, who in The Writing Life says that every work has an insoluble difficulty, but the writer

"....writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he."  (Or she, of course, like the brilliant Annie Dillard herself).  

..."he can do it, and only he."  "The work wants to be made through you."  

However it's said, whoever is saying it, this is the message to live by; but it requires trust, and hope, and faith. And humility—an openness to reminders when they are needed!







New growth

No blog posts since just before Christmas....a disgrace in my own eyes, though I doubt anyone else has noticed!

But here we are, in early spring, and the signs are all around now: I'm seeing crocuses, snowdrops, even the bright flowers of the tiny tête-à-tête daffodils I bought in a pot to have indoors last spring. I planted them outside when they had finished blooming, and now they have come back. This small thing pleases me no end; their little flaring trumpets make me rejoice.

Yes, it has been a cold February, but the flowers are so encouraging; they bring hope....

Spring is also in my mind because I have been editing my forthcoming poetry collection Sudden Arabesque. Not only is the cover a wonderful image called "Easter" by artist Ruth End, there are quite a few poems about spring in it, or really about the impossibility of catching the spring, of rendering that delicate insinuation in the air, that hint of coming growth and green....poems trying to say in a fresh way what has been said before. It's the freshness in the expression of it that matters, I believe, and not the newness of the subject: for it's been well said that there is nothing new under the sun.

I find it a fruitful challenge to try to say in a poem why, not just in spring but in every season, the sight of some quite ordinary thing, or of an ordinary thing seen in a new moment or in a different light, can be so moving. Many of my poems are about what I've seen in my normal surroundings, in the small town of my home in the States, or the larger town I'm in now, walking around, looking at parks and gardens and hills and trees. The transformative moments in every-day life....

Even saying that sounds like a cliché! That's the struggle of poetry, the war on cliché (I think Martin Amis has used this title for a book....which illustrates that other writerly worry about inadvertently saying something in exactly the same words as someone else!).  But the struggle of writing, the meaty work of grappling with the language, building with it, playing with it, structuring and restructuring, knitting a sentence and then picking it apart...that's the work I love.

Only those who also do this work understand the joys of it, and the demands; the difficult tight-rope walk between hope and humility; the long slog, and the sudden shafts of light (all too infrequent).  We should support each other, and encourage each other when it seems too hard.

I wondered whether I would ever succeed in writing a whole novel, and not only did I manage it (after, it must be admitted, a ridiculously long time!) but the book found a publisher and won a prize. Many times a poem, like a sudoku puzzle, has seemed insoluble, but then the answer—though sometimes after months—does come.  I hoped that a publisher would want a book of my poems some day, but was never sure; so I am delighted now that Oversteps Books is bringing out Sudden Arabesque. 

These things have happened to me, so they can happen to other writers too. Onward and upward!