Here Be Dragons

I don’t know if anyone has ever told you, but in case you didn’t know – dragons are real. As in: they exist. OK, you may not be able to see them in quite the same way that you’ve seen a fox or a rabbit, but they’re there all right, living in what psychoanalyst D W Winnicott called transitional space – that space between the inner and outer worlds where art and magic and imagination live. And that of course is their function. They are intermediaries between worlds, creatures of birth and death, and they appear to us at significant times in our lives. Dragons inhabit each of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and they inhabit us, if we let them.

"Dragon" by Angelus (talk) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragon.svg#/media/File:Dragon.svg

“Dragon” by Angelus (talk) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragon.svg#/media/File:Dragon.svg

I’ve been acquainted with dragons for a long time and written several dragon stories. Here are some of the things you should know about them:

  • Dragons will only reveal themselves when the time is right. You may search and search but you will never find your dragons until they, not you, are ready.
  • Dragons are to be respected for the power that resides within them. It is a power of healing and destruction, death and life.
  • You must approach a dragon with awe but not fear. If you are afraid of it, you will not find it even if it consumes you with its flame.
  • Dragons are inconceivably ancient and carry secrets as old as time. And in each moment they make themselves new, beyond your imagining.
  • The treasure that dragons guard is so precious that you are afraid to find it. They will not give it up to you unless you can prove you are its rightful owner.
  • Some dragons have lain hidden deep in the earth for thousands of ages. You can only discover their power by entering the dark cave where you are not.
  • Some dragons live in the depths of the ocean.You must plunge deep to find them and not fear drowning. When they rise to the surface, you will know that their fire has not been quenched.
  • There are some dragons whose element is the air.They fly high above the world, seeing everything. If you meet one, you must soar with it wherever it takes you or lose the vision that you have.
  • Above all the element of dragons is fire. When you meet it, you must be prepared to die from its light and heat. Otherwise you will never know what it is to be fully alive.
  • The language of dragons speaks their ancient power. Dragon speech spurts out in tongues of flame, scorching and purifying all it finds
  • You cannot expect to escape the dragons and you cannot expect to meet them.   When you meet one, you will always have known it and will never have seen anything like it.

chinese-dragon-clip-art-19These days, of course, it’s hard to think of dragons without thinking of Harry Potter. There are some rather splendid – and frightening – dragons in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but they’re not really given a chance to be everything that dragons can be. The most important thing about a dragon is that when you meet it, either it destroys you or else you become it and take on something of its power. If you do, you will find your secret wings and claws and learn to breathe out flame. Becoming a dragon is not necessarily an easy process, though. This is what it may be like:

Transformation
Its talons clutch at my guts, folded wing-points pinion my diaphragm, arrow-head tail flails my entrails, razor-toothed jaw jams into my throat. Its hunger leaves me no room for food. Its breath scorches into my lungs, its heat broils and roils in all my body’s passages. Already I hardly know air from fire. My insides melt, are smelted into scales; my skin is sucked within their emerging armour; my joints are turned inside-out in clawed limbs. Wings unfurling thrust through my shoulder blades, shudder open with a thunder-rush that frightens the sky. My lengthening neck twists and gyrates in its armour plates until my head blazes free. Opening my mouth to its embered depths I fling out my first roar of flame.

I wrote the piece above for the prose poem prompt from the online poetry group 52. I’m not sure whether it’s poetry of any sort, but it’s certainly dragon – a dragon you wouldn’t mess with. And there’s no question that it’s fire and heat.

In the late 1990s I put together a collection of writings (not published or publishable) called Meeting the Dragon. It started as a project for a personal development course and though it contained many other strands of writing, pieces about finding, meeting and becoming the dragon were the thread that held it together. After that I stopped writing about dragons, though they never quite went away. Just recently they’ve been around again. When I told my writing group about the dragon book, they suggested I write another dragon story – mainly as a way of getting back my confidence in writing fiction. I immediately said yes. I have a sense that dragons are moving again in my life, I’m not sure how or when. I haven’t flown or scorched anyone yet, but you’d better be careful…

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Without a shell

Not long ago I had an accident in my car. I’d had a few minor collisions before, my fault or someone else’s, but this was worse. I was driving faster than usual down a narrow lane, and didn’t see the other car coming round a blind corner towards me until it was too late. I braked, but still slammed into the by now stationary bumper of a very nice new-looking Mini. The other driver – who turned out to be a lorry-driving instructor – was understandably furious and told me in no uncertain terms what I’d been doing wrong. Fortunately neither of us was hurt, though the fronts of both cars were damaged by the impact. (When I lived in London, there was a local driving school that called itself the Impact School of Motoring and presumably ran crash courses.)

Once we were off the main track and trying to sort things out with our respective insurance companies, I felt myself wanting to collapse into a wobbly, tearful state compounded of shock, relief that things weren’t worse, recognising how much worse they could have been, and a large dose of shame. The other driver soon got over his anger and was as helpful as he could be, but his kindness made it all the harder not to dissolve in a puddle of unhelpful tears – which I didn’t do. In fact I kept pretty calm, all things considered, and didn’t collapse until I’d got the poor injured car home (fortunately not far away) and finished dealing with the insurers. Questions like ‘Was there CCTV?’ (concealed in the hedgerow, I assume) and ‘Which side was the other driver on?’ (in a lane just wide enough for one car) left me teetering on the edge of hysteria. At least I could phone a good friend afterwards and get, in lieu of an in-person hug, a comforting virtual one. (I got some real ones later too.)

Since then I’ve been both surprised and not surprised at how vulnerable and shaken up I’ve felt. Various other mishaps – which I won’t go into here – haven’t made things easier, but I still find myself buying into the assumption that if the accident has been fairly minor and I haven’t been hurt, I should be able to get over it pretty quickly. At the same time I know perfectly well that any sort of traumatic incident in the present, even a relatively minor one, leaves a residue and also taps into the reservoir of previous trauma that most of us have inside us. By trauma I don’t necessarily mean anything as horrific as violence or abuse or even a serious accident, but circumstances that, whether we consciously remember them or not, have in some way left an imprint of unresolved shock. (For more on this and the way trauma remains in the body see, among other good sources, In An Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine.)

But feeling more vulnerable isn’t all negative. I’ve been more open to the beauty of the landscape, the wild flowers that grow in the hedgerows and beside the little river that runs through the town, the plants in my garden; more touched by friends’ care and kindness; more aware of what’s been going on inside me. The other day I pictured the car as a hard shell that had been covering me but had now cracked and fallen off, leaving me rather like a hermit crab without its borrowed casing. It felt like a relief, as though I was allowed to be myself more directly and openly, even if that self seemed in some ways less grown-up and was less carefully held together. Perhaps many of us secretly long to return to the spontaneity we knew as small children, when pain and delight were equally immediate and there was no barrier between us and the world, so that in each moment we were not separate from the colour of a poppy or the taste of an ice cream.

The Buddha teaches that the sense of a separate (and essentially self-protective) self that most of us carry around with us is illusory. He didn’t say there is no self, since clearly for everyday purposes it exists and gets us through, but if we begin to deconstruct our experiences what we find is that none of them is actually ‘myself”: it isn’t owned by me,  it’s simply lived experience. Discovering this, even for tiny moments while on retreat or in contact with the natural world, is extraordinarily freeing. We realise again that the shell isn’t necessary and in fact holds us back from connection with all things and all beings. And that connection has the quality of love, so that in those moments something as mundane as the moss growing in the cracks of a stone wall can seem infinitely beautiful and precious. But dropping the sense of self in those moments, even partially, can also be frightening. The familiar sense of who I am, what I’m like, how I respond to things, is no longer there as a set of railings to hold on to, and the fear is that without it I might die – though without its restriction I become more fully alive.

It seems to me that the best writing, whether poetry or prose, comes from this experience of immediate and unselfconscious contact with the world. The writing may not be a spontaneous outpouring: it may be worked and crafted and may contain reflection after the event, but if it doesn’t spring from that essential truth then it is in some sense lacking. The truth of the moment may be an ‘inner’ truth – a depth and clarity of emotion – as well as an ‘outer’ truth, and in fact may probably be both, since the dichotomy between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is ultimately a false one. If my feelings and emotions aren’t essentially ‘mine’, then they are simply part of the totality that makes up this given moment and can be perceived with the same clear-sightedness and compassion as everything else. If only I were able to write in that way…

My car is still sitting outside my house, waiting to be taken away for repair. That was going to be done today but has now been postponed until Tuesday, three weeks after the accident. I’ve had time to get over some of the shock and re-assess what happened: how over-confidence and thinking about ‘me’ lessened my concentration on the road in front of me and led to misjudgement. I’ve also had time to enjoy walking and taking the bus, noticing what’s around me in a way that I can’t when I’m driving. And I’ve had to forgo things that I might otherwise have attended, like a choir rehearsal and a poetry performance, because down here in rural Devon public transport is less than adequate and I can’t always rely on lifts from other people. So sooner or later I will start driving again, hoping the accident has been a salutary experience.

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What’s wrong with spring?

I’m sitting at my kitchen table looking out, through the apple blossom and the pergola that I keep thinking I’ll move because it gets in the way of the view, at the mist. That’s all I can see beyond the fence this evening. On a clear day there are green hills, and Dartmoor in the distance. I haven’t written a post here since February and have been feeling the urge, though I’m not sure what I’m going to say. (Perhaps it might be better not to say that, a little voice says.)

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May Day has already gone. Memories of May morning in Oxford: the inaudible anthem sung  at 5am from Magdalen tower (these days they amplify it), bathing (well, wiping) my face with dew from the college lawn, Morris men with bells jingling and concertinas squeezing for all they’re worth. Down here people are quite keen on Beltane, the Celtic festival, though I haven’t heard of any bonfires being lit and in any case today has been seriously wet. In Totnes some sort of ceremony is taking place tomorrow at the Leechwell (reputedly a healing spring). The violets and primroses are still in flower but near the end, and the bluebells are coming into their own. Wild garlic is everywhere, the little white spiky flowers just beginning to open.

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Not long ago I ran a workshop which brought together Focusing and writing. (If you want to know more about Focusing, try Focusing Resources.) I was looking for a theme for a piece of writing and didn’t want to ignore the spring, but it has been done before… What I came up with was ‘What’s wrong with spring?’ It sparked off some interesting poems, exploring the theme either personally or globally and ecologically. For me there was something about spring coming too soon, while I was still wrapped in winter; perhaps the seasons – such as they are – often surprise me like that. The snowdrops out already, then the daffodils, the fritillaries, the tulips, and now the cherry blossom half over and already dropping petals.

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It isn’t only the flowers. The poetry group 52 is almost over and the last prompt has been posted. I joined an online poem a day group halfway through April and that’s over too. I didn’t join 52 till May last year and in recent weeks I’ve fallen woefully behind. I’ve been ‘lurking’, in group parlance, more than I’ve been posting my own work or commenting on other people’s.I didn’t manage a poem a day on the other group either, though I’ve written some. My latest effort was about losing a bar of chocolate – which I did – but I can’t say it was one of my best. 52 was only meant to have lasted for a year (hence the title – a prompt a week) but it was so hugely successful that its life was extended. Some people have continued to write numerous poems a week, as I did for a while, and many have done well in competitions and/or had work published in prestigious magazines.

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This time last year I was just beginning to send poems out and get them published. The excitement of it stayed with me as the acceptances mounted up, outweighing the rejections. Then, like all good things, it came to an end. Towards the end of my round of submissions I had more rejections from magazines. Since then I’ve hardly sent out any more poems, though I have entered some single poem competitions and got as far as a longlist with one. I also keep entering pamphlet competitions, even though the standard is fearsomely high. On the novel front, I’ve been revising the novel I sent out before (once again with valuable input from my group) but haven’t finished it yet. The second one I started has been on hold for a long time but I hope I may go back to it.

I said to my group a little while ago that I seemed to be in the doldrums: not necessarily depressed – though I confess to feeling less chipper than I was – but becalmed and not entirely sure which way the wind will blow next. I keep saying I’m going to do another round of submissions but somehow it hasn’t happened yet. (It will, I tell myself every time I see that other members of 52 are getting work into magazines.) And I’m still not giving up on the novel and may look more seriously into other ways of getting it published, though self-publishing is not easy. A friend of mine who reads many self-published books has said that almost all of them would have been vastly better if they’d had the benefit of a proper editor. Other members of my writing group have had or are having their work published by reputable publishers, but I can safely say their books are exceptional.

Nevertheless I’m still hanging in there. I get discouraged and de-motivated for a while, I think other people’s work is far better than mine (which of course sometimes it is), but sooner or later I’m back in there and having another go. Somehow I don’t give up – at least not for good. If it’s worth doing… it’s worth doing.

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So where do we go from here?

I wrote the title of this post some time ago, meaning to come back to it, and now can’t quite remember what it was I was going to write about. Something, I think, about a different kind of blog post, or maybe a different kind of writing…

The question remains, though. At the start of the year, not long after my birthday, having put behind me – or thought I was putting behind me – the pain and difficulty of the last year, I found myself looking at the shape of this year. Already it’s been different: this time last year I was doped up on painkillers and hardly able to go out because of the excruciating pain in my back. This year getting out and about hasn’t been a problem: I’ve been to Dartington gardens, to the sea and up on the moor, as well as on a writing retreat in rural Gloucestershire. I’m not as miserable as I was then, either, and seem to be getting things done, writing proper ‘to do’ lists and enjoying crossing things off. I’ve edited a newsletter, entered some poems for competitions and begun to plan workshops that I hope will run – though with workshops there’s never a guarantee that people will book. One of them, on Focusing for writers, will definitely run in April, and will bring together the two spheres of writing and self-exploration – not that they have ever been entirely separate.

It’s strange to think that this time last year I had hardly begun to think of myself as a poet, even though I’d been writing poems, off and on, for many years. I was finishing Roselle Angwin’s Elements of Poetry course and just thinking about trying to get some of my poetry published. I hadn’t yet joined 52, which has been such a life-changing experience. Now, a year on, I’ve had poems published in magazines and a couple of anthologies, been longlisted in a couple of single poem competitions and, even better, shortlisted (in a rather long shortlist) in a pamphlet competition. And a poetry publisher is interested in considering a longer manuscript, though not till next year. In other words, I’ve now got some poetry credentials, which I never imagined myself getting. I can say I’m a poet these days without feeling so squeamish about it.

The writing retreat in Gloucestershire was with my lovely prose writers’ group, who got together at the end of the Bath Spa MA and have been meeting monthly ever since. Several of them are now published writers (two were already), one a best-seller, and their standard is formidably high. I felt inspired to do some more work on the novel that I sent to rather a lot of agents, and have been busy recasting it from first person to third, trying to get more distance from the main character. I don’t find editing and rewriting fiction easy – a poem is much easier to rework – but it feels good to be having another go. I’ve thought of myself as a fiction writer for so many years that it’s hard to give up on it, and I still love making up stories and characters. I’ve got another novel started and left on the back burner, and I may well return to that one soon. Whether my novel-writing will ever appear in print is of course another question, as is whether I could manage to be both a poet and a novelist – seemingly some people can and some can’t.

The wonderful 52 – from which I’ve lapsed rather in the past few weeks – is finishing at the end of April. After that I’m not sure where I’ll be going poetry-wise, though the poetry scene is so active here in the South West that there’ll be no shortage of festivals and workshops. And on the prose front I’m sure my Bath Spa group will continue. I’m very fortunate to feel so much a part of these different communities of writers, the quality of whose work inspires me to do the best I possibly can. This year will undoubtedly be different from last year; the ways in which it’s different still remain to be seen.

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Speaking personally

There seems to be a certain etiquette when it comes to blog posts: you speak personally, but not too personally. So I can happily talk about spilling soup over myself or even about coming out – which by its nature is in the public domain – but I’m more wary of talking about feelings of a personal kind. Not that I don’t, but usually I allude to them sideways, or else Adelina does. So she was happy to tell the world that I was suffering from Unrequited Love, but quite rightly kept the details to herself. I’m not about to spill all the beans now, but it’s possible that in the course of this post just a few may drop. If I weren’t so keen to get my poems published in magazines I’d probably do it by posting some more of those, but at the moment I can’t bear the thought of wasting their fragrance on the desert air (I do like a nice quote).

I’m not completely sure what I want to say right now, but it seems to be something about love: what it is and what it isn’t. I’ve been ‘in love’ several times in my life before, usually unhappily. I can’t help thinking of a poor mistaken bird flying into a glass window and hurting itself, and then doing the same thing again…  It hasn’t always been as destructive as that, but perhaps there has been something of the same refusal to take no for an answer. I want this, the emotional logic goes, so somehow I’ve got to make it happen. And surely the other person must want it really, or at least not not want it. Dangerous ground, I know, and what’s painful is the part of me that at the same time sees and feels the rejection, and knows that what I want is never going to happen. And, for various reasons, in the past it’s never been possible to talk about it properly.

What’s happened now has been different. I’ve still ended up not getting the girl, as it were, but I’ve seen something important: that ‘being in love’ with someone and desperately wanting and needing them (or wanting what I think they can give me, and wanting to foist my notion of love upon them) isn’t the same as being in love – in a wider, less constrained field of love – with that person, so that what matters most isn’t what I get from them but what’s best for both of us, whether that turns out to be ‘a relationship’ or not. Not having the relationship is still terribly sad, of course, and the wanting hasn’t been spirited away, but I seem to have understood, perhaps for the first time, more about what love actually is – which means that although I’ve been sad I haven’t been hurt in the way I’ve been before. I can see what the other person wants and doesn’t want, and perhaps why, and I can respect that with all my heart and with care for myself. And maybe because I’ve been able to come to it in a more open-hearted way – and because of the other person’s honesty and generosity – it has been possible to talk about it, and to speak my love without having it thrown back at me.

It took a long time to get there, though. I ‘fell in love’ initially at the end of the year before last. For the greater part of last year circumstances meant that I didn’t see the person, and I thought I probably never would again. I was faced with the pain of unrequited love at its rawest and most immediate. Many of my poetry friends have seen the poems that resulted, the misery and despair in them but also the wry humour that (thank goodness) never quite deserted me. Then, towards the end of last year, the person and I met again and struck up the beginnings of a friendship where we started to discover how much we had in common. Inevitably, though, I wanted more and, for reasons that were partly understandable, thought that more was being offered. Disappointment followed, but nevertheless I’ve ended up seeing the whole process as something of a blessing. My heart was touched more deeply than it has ever been before, and I feel I can start to let go of whatever it is that has driven me into these blind alleys, without doing away with the genuine love I’ve felt. At the beginning of this new year, nearly at my birthday now, I can see a space of new possibility.

The Sunday before last I went down to the sea. I found a secluded cove, with an interested-looking seal bobbing up from time to time, and offered to the waves all the misery and misguidedness of my past loves, as well as the ending of this one. The tide was coming in and the spray sloshed into my boots, so that I didn’t feel separate from the sea. I stayed there for just the right amount of time, between one group of people leaving and the next group arriving, and as I walked back through the fields to my car I felt the peace and lightness that a ritual performed at the right time can sometimes bring. Not that the sadness and longing have disappeared since then, but they’re not all that’s there. On the way back I stopped off at a pub called The Open Arms – a very ordinary little pub – and that too seemed like a blessing. Since that Sunday I’ve been lighting a candle which seems to symbolise both loss and new hope, and I’ve been wishing the other person well.

May all beings be well and happy. May all beings be held in love.

 

 

 

 

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What the Horses Heard by Rebecca Gethin

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 What the Horses Heard, by Rebecca Gethin, a fine poet who is also a novelist, was published earlier this year by Cinnamon Press. It seems timely to mention it now, on Remembrance Day.

It’s refreshing to find a novel about World War I whose main characters are outsiders in the war. The two protagonists of What the Horses Heard are Orion, a conscientious objector, and his sister Cass, who becomes a groom for Army horses and disguises herself as a man. Both of them have been deeply affected by the accidental shooting of their brother, and by his deep love for the natural world. We follow the progress of the two siblings throughout the war, Orion’s survival through humiliating imprisonment and Cass’s journey into the battlefields of France as she tries to stay with the horses she loves. Cass too is incarcerated, though in an asylum rather than a prison. The end of the war sees their sad homecoming and hints at what their lives may become after the events which have changed them and the world around them.

Interested as I was in the carefully researched and well depictions of the war itself, for me what comes over most strongly in the novel are the beautiful descriptions of their childhood relationship with nature and, following from this, Cass’s deep care for the horses she tends. It seems to me that the writer is perhaps at her most comfortable in these aspects of the book. The horses are as much characters as the human protagonists, and Cass’s relationship with them is stronger than that with the people around her, highlighting the difficulties she has in negotiating the human world of bureaucracy and male dominance. Both she and Orion are profoundly isolated and because of what they have been through do not fit easily into ‘normal’ society. However, their return to the childhood home allows them to reconnect with the moorland places that have always been home to them.

Despite the suffering and destruction that have taken place, What the Horses Heard is not a pessimistic novel. It offers some kind of hope that the characters can rebuild their lives and retains a deep love and trust for the sanity of the natural world. I would certainly recommend it as a sensitive, thoughtful and unusual take on the lives of those caught up in the First World War.

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South poem

Here is the poem of mine that is in South, issue 50.  www.southpoetry.org

Gadget

After she died we found it in the cupboard.
‘A gadget,’ we both said, hingeing the metal flaps
to see if we could discover what it was for.
It went into a box we took to the charity shop
along with the pastry wheel and sweetcorn forks.

They told me it was for baking potatoes.
‘Makes life easier’, she would have said, ‘my gadget,’
smiling with satisfaction, trying with all her motherness
to foist one on us as well, as though the best of life
were to only to be found in things that made it better.

In the empty flat I saw her sitting there,
eyes locked on to the television, remote control
easily to hand, tea infuser ready to endow the day
with labour-saving comfort. When we came to visit,
those familiar friends sat closer to her than family.

 

 

 

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