Being English

Another friend, Rachael Clyne, has mentioned the experience of second generation immigrants. Here is a poem, entitled Second Generation, about my parents’ ambivalence towards being Jewish. It was published in my collection A House of Empty Rooms (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2017).

Second Generation
When Pishnoff (or was it Puishnoff?)
became Ellis and Schneider Taylor
the shtetls gave way to London streets.

Yiddish would now be muttered only
among the family, behind closed doors.
‘Oy vay’ was disguised as ‘Oh dear me’.

Longing only to be truly English
my parents disowned their parents’ accents,
their ignorance of life as the goyim lived it.

Yet all that was Jewish in them refused to die:
the Friday night candles, the gabbled prayers
they’d never understood, much less believed in.

In their quiet suburb they were transformed,
Harrele now Harold and Clarushka Clare,
but inside them they still carried the haim.

shtetls – small Jewish towns in eastern Europe
haim – the ‘home country’ their parents came from

 

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Blog to blog to blog: the identity thing

I was surprised and rather flattered that my friend Hazel, in her blog Dancing with Red Fudo, chose to quote from my previous post as a starting point for her own reflections. Although my post wasn’t really about identity – in the sense of identifying with a particular groups or groups – I did mention a few of my identities as I imagined how I might be seen by a possible relative whose identities are a very far cry from mine. It’s easy to become attached to the labels we apply to ourselves and Hazel questions how far the labels I’ve chosen might apply to her and whether her identity – in the sense of individuality rather than identification – can be fitted into such neat boxes. Which then made me question how far I can really put my hand on my heart and say, “Yes, I am this” to any of them.

Let’s do the Jewish one first. Although my mother was Jewish as well as my father, and so by birth I am a real one, I’m not a practising Jew and in fact practise another religion – to the extent that Buddhism can be called a religion. But if anyone asks me whether I’m Jewish I will always say yes, because in some very basic familial, tribal sense that is still where I feel I belong. So many of my childhood memories are bound up with Jewishness, in the family’s culture and in the sense, which I intuited quite early on, of being part of a minority that was both special and somehow excluded from the mainstream. And yet I’m not part of the Jewish community, in that I don’t go to synagogue or keep the customs or celebrate the Jewish holidays, though they’re still there somewhere in the back of my mind.

By the time I started to become aware of my sexuality I’d already had plenty of practice at being in a minority, especially as my father was a convinced Marxist and that was outside the norm too. I’ve always been more equivocal about this identity, though, and less ready to attach to it, partly because in my experience there’s been more stigma involved – there certainly was at school, and many of the work and social situations I’ve found myself in have been, as people would now say, heteronormative. And my relationship to this identity is less clear-cut. Although I now identify as gay, a recent meeting with someone has reminded me that I do feel attracted to men and calling myself bisexual wasn’t entirely a whitewash – though it was that to some extent.

I can’t say I have no sense of identification with the LGBTQ community, but I think it comes second to the identification with being Jewish. It’s interesting, though, how many of the same traits of ‘minority consciousness’ apply. I’m nearly always aware, through their name or looks or accent or turns of phrase, when someone might be Jewish, and I once described this awareness to someone as ‘the Jewish equivalent of gaydar’. In a similar way I usually pick up when someone might be gay, although I’d say it’s easier to get this one wrong. By doing so in both cases I’m looking out for people who are ‘us’, insiders in a world of outsiders, people who share assumptions and experiences and knowledge that the majority don’t share.

Hazel talks in her blog about feeling both English and German. I don’t have the same sense of dual nationality. Unlike her father, who was German-Jewish and came here as a refugee, so far as I know my grandparents arrived in the early 1900s as economic migrants. My maternal grandfather would have come to London from Odessa not very long after the 1905 pogrom, but if he suffered in it the family had no stories about it. My parents were both born here and would be described as English, but like many Jewish people they continued to refer to non-Jews as ‘English’ people – except if they were ‘coloured’, of course. While being ostensibly English, I grew up with an odd sense that I wasn’t the same as all the English people around us. My parents spoke Yiddish at home sometimes and my mother remembered her parents speaking Russian – both languages used when the grown-ups didn’t want the children to understand. I knew that most English families didn’t do that.

I won’t go into such detail with the other labels I mention, ‘left-wing’ and ‘Buddhist practitioner.’ In fact I’ll leave the Buddhist bit for another time, as there’s a lot to be said about it and I’ve said quite a lot in previous posts. But again there’s the same mixture of belonging and not quite belonging.

Given my family’s political background, perhaps it’s not surprising that on some level socialism feels ingrained in me. I’ve never voted Conservative and don’t intend to, but how far left my politics have been has fluctuated over the years. From briefly adopting my father’s communism in my early teens, I became apolitical for a while and did swing farther to the right. During the 1980s, although I worked in Camden, a stronghold of Militant Tendency, I was always slightly uneasy about its dogmatism and intolerance. But though I tried to be mainstream, I could never rid myself of the feeling that Tony Benn talked a lot of sense. I voted Labour in the 1997 election but was more than slightly uneasy about Tony Blair, and I became steadily more so as his government went on. Like many people, I felt a surge of hope when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader: at last here was someone who represented the kind of politics I believed in. But sadly I can’t share the Labour Party’s inaction and passive support in the face of Brexit. So, in common with a lot of people I know, I espouse the politics of the Left without having a tribe or community that I can wholly identify with.

And perhaps that is how it is for most people. I don’t identify wholly and unequivocally with any particular community (interesting how ‘identity’ in this sense is a question of community, not singularity). And yet the identities I have do to an extent define who I am in the world and how I see myself. They don’t sum me up, though, and I try not to use them to sum up other people. Identity in the individual sense can’t be pinned down and, thank goodness, is ultimately fluid. It’s also far more than the labels we attach to ourselves.

 

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Blogging on…

After all this time – nearly six years – I still don’t really know what a blog – this blog – is for. If I read other people’s blogs, I often think: that’s not what I would want to do. Or sometimes I think: I wish I could do that/write like that/come up with that. But this blog has always been a place where I’ve written what’s on my mind, about writing and about me. Not taken all my clothes off, perhaps, but certainly shed a few layers and shown myself without them. And it’s been fine – people have either taken it or left it and I’ve now got 143 followers, though how many of them actually read it I wouldn’t like to say. I’ve self-published a collection of blog pieces which sold all of 20 copies (print on demand, fortunately) and dear Adelina has put in her two penn’orth from time to time. It’s done what I wanted it to do, in other words, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. It’s not what you’d call literary, but I like to think it’s a lot more literate than many of the blogs I’ve read. Sometimes it’s been funny and sometimes serious, but that’s pretty much like me.

So is there a problem? Not really. Just that at the moment I’m feeling a bit tired and stale, not only with my own life but with all the things that are happening in the world: Brexit, which I can’t see will be anything other than a disaster, the mix of horror and farce that’s the current American presidency, the frightening rise of the far right, the increasing tolerance of racism/sexism/homophobia in the name of ‘religion’, the acceleration of climate change and extinction of species (not least because of legislation, or non-legislation, by America and Brexit Britain), and the appalling treatment of so-called ‘migrants’ in so many countries, of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Rohingya in Myanmar – to name two groups out of many, of poor and homeless and disabled people right here in our own country, of farmed animals all over the developed world… Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time on Facebook, where the friends I have are as shocked and outraged by these things as I am and post articles that reflect their/my views. What many of these articles have in common is a concern for humanitarian values and the wider environment, which I find sadly lacking in our current government’s policies. I may be ignoring a wider political spectrum, but to me these values are non-negotiable and, Sixties teenager that I still am, I don’t want to see them trashed.

Not long ago I googled my maternal grandfather’s surname – a fairly unusual one, probably badly transliterated from Russian – and found a few people in America who shared it. One of them happened to be on Facebook and so I sent him a message. How wonderful it would be, I thought, to find another relative after all this time. What I’d failed to notice was that his profile photo depicted him standing in front of the American flag, with the caption: ‘I stand for the flag. I kneel at the cross’. He didn’t reply to my message, so I was spared the discomfort of finding someone related to me who is a member of the religious right.  And of course he was spared the more than discomfort (I would imagine) of having a possible relative who is gay, Jewish, left-wing and a practising Buddhist. My grandfather was Jewish, so if this man is any kind of relative (and given the rarity of the surname, I can’t believe he wouldn’t be) his origins must be less pure than he’d probably like to admit. Ah well, I’ll never know. Another lead in my genealogy quest bites the dust but faces are saved all round. The scenario is symptomatic, though, of the now sharp divide between liberals and conservatives, in America and increasingly here too.

I started off talking about this blog as though it’s something self-contained, but of course it isn’t. I’m affected by what’s happening in the world, as we all are, whether we choose to know about it or turn our backs on it because it’s too depressing and frightening. And the blog is still about my own little life too, and all the things in it that I learn and fail to learn. I hope I can include more of all of it in the blog, and in my ‘proper’ writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The dragon lives

Sixteen years ago in 2002, the year my Auntie Tilly died, I finished a book called Meeting the Dragon. It’s not published, except among friends, and perhaps isn’t publishable: there’s a lot in it that I might not want to share in public. It was written as the final project for a personal development course that was hugely creative and inspiring, a real turning point in my life. The course as a whole had some major difficulties, but it enabled me to come out and declare myself a writer in a way I’d never dared before. The book is a mixture of personal process, memoir, family history, imaginative stories and writing about writing, with the odd poem thrown in. One of the main threads in it, as you can see from the cover, is a gradual progress towards meeting and becoming the dragon – quite a friendly dragon as depicted here, but more awe-inspiring in the stories themselves.

I’ve re-read the book periodically since I put it together and have read much of it again in the last few days. Someone has asked to read it and I’ve needed to decide how much I’m willing to show them – in fact only the dragon pieces. After all this time I still find it compelling. Perhaps that’s just because I wrote it and it’s so much about me, but it seems to me there’s a depth of feeling in it, a willingness to go to dark and frightening places in myself, that makes for powerful reading. And even by my current standards I’d say there’s some good writing in it. I risked being more eloquent and poetic in prose than I’d been before, and on the whole it seems to work – even though at that time I still swore blind that I wasn’t a poet. The book could do with a thorough edit: there are typos, clunky sentences, repetitions and factual inaccuracies, and the pieces need re-ordering as the quasi-random order I was aiming at doesn’t quite work. But overall I think it’s stood up surprisingly well. It has a voice that’s confident and – on the whole – able to engage with the reader, and it seems to me the same voice is present, at least embryonically, in the autobiographical material I quote in it which was written much earlier, in fact as far back as 1974. Why couldn’t I see then that I really could write and just get on with it, I want to ask. But I know I couldn’t get there until I could get there.

I can’t read the book only as a piece of writing, though. One main strand in it is my emergence as a writer; the other is all the processing I did of material right from my earliest beginnings, both literally and imaginatively – and, since some of it is about very early experience, both at once. It was a huge step forward in reclaiming and remembering (in fact re-membering) my life up till that time more fully than I ever had before. Although I can’t claim to have put all the stories to bed as completely as I thought I had back then – themes come back to be processed again, more deeply or in a different way – I’d reached a new vantage point from which to see myself and my relationship to my family.

So, given that the themes remain the same, what has changed in the sixteen years since I completed the book? Apart from the fact that I’m sixteen years older and that much nearer the end of my life, which in itself alters things, and the world situation is in many ways so much worse than it was sixteen years ago? Surely the history is still the same, and surely I’m still struggling with writing and feeling I can’t do it. Well, yes and no. When it comes to personal history, it’s altered all the time by the perspective you view it from, not just the new take on it that comes with different circumstances – I live in Devon instead of London, I’m no longer employed (though still self-employed) and I do now consider myself a writer – but, less tangibly and more subtly, the emotional shifts that change your relationship to it. Of course emotional shifts are happening constantly, and on a bad day – such as today – I can feel just as much caught up in all the angst as I did back then. But on re-reading the book I’m aware that over time there has been a softening, a greater sense of acceptance, more ability to encompass and reconnect with my memories and my younger self. In a word, there’s more love available – for myself, my family and the people I care about.

And what about the dragon? One thing I’ve always known is that the dragon is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’. Recently in a craniosacral session I had an experience of being the dragon more fully than I ever had. (No, I’m not losing the plot. I still knew I was me.) It felt wonderfully freeing to know that the dragon’s energy lives in me and I don’t have to go seeking it. Like a lot of the feelings and qualities in ourselves that we keep hidden, it just needed space and acceptance in order to come out. Perhaps that’s one advantage of getting older, that you care less about what does come out and can be more wholly yourself. If not now, when? So much of the dragon book was about meeting things inside myself that I was afraid of. Maybe the time is coming now when I can face them.

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All by accident (5)

I thought I might finish this in the previous post, but there’s still a ways (as a Canadian friend of mine used to say) to go. If I’d really tried, I might have been able to say it all in a short poem or two. But short poems are not where I’m at right now. I want to be discursive and digressive and talk about meals and toilets and nasty hotels.

The next morning, having extricated myself and my plastered leg from the bed, packed my bags and sat myself ready for breakfast at 8.30, in time for my taxi at 9.00, I discovered the hotel didn’t run as smoothly as it would like to have customers believe. Come 8.45 my breakfast still hadn’t arrived. I rang reception and was told it was on its way. Five minutes later I rang again, and soon after a waitress from the restaurant with a delightful Scottish/Chinese accent appeared with the fruit I’d ordered and two glasses of orange juice – the larger one in case the smaller one wasn’t big enough. She also brought two sets of cutlery, assuming perhaps that because I’d ordered two portions of fruit I must be two people. She said with disarming frankness that she was very sorry but she’d been in the restaurant on her own and had forgotten about my order. She then rushed off to get the cooked part of the breakfast, which I now barely had time to eat: a flabby Quorn sausage,  totally tasteless scrambled egg and some rather good freshly cooked mushrooms. And a plate of toast, cunningly arranged with the burnt side downwards – as I discovered when I bit into it.

My breakfast abandoned – she didn’t charge me for it but that may have been an oversight – I struggled out to the lobby to wait for my taxi. One of the staff offered to carry my luggage but I didn’t think to tell him I’d need someone to open the doors for me. Another staff member helped when she saw me trying to manipulate myself, the crutches and the door all at the same time. It turned out that someone else had taken my taxi, so I was left waiting in the lobby. The nice Scottish/Chinese waitress thought to get me a chair, but before very long I was offered a taxi that nobody else had claimed.

The driver had long hair and a broken nose, and a Weegie accent I could just about understand. He said he’d take me to the drop-off point nearest the airport so I wouldn’t have so far to walk, but when I looked at the distance I knew it was much farther than I’d be able to manage. After some persuading he went off to get me a wheelchair, leaving me sitting on my suitcase on the luggage trolley. He said he’d asked someone and drove off. A quarter of an hour later, when no-one had come and I was still enviously watching all the people wheeling their cases at top speed into the airport, I asked another taxi driver if he could go and find someone with a chair. He too came back saying he’d asked someone and drove off. A quarter of an hour after that, when I was seriously worried about missing my plane and feeling like a small child with nobody to look after her, I managed to catch the eye of an airport employee in a high-vis jacket who looked as though he was probably on his way to check out something mechanical somewhere. By this time I was fairly distraught, and was pleading with him so desperately that he shut me up mid-sentence. Before very long he came back with another man in the same uniform who – to my utter gratitude and relief – had brought a wheelchair. When we got to the disability assistance desk it turned out that the taxi drivers hadn’t enquired there, though I like to think they did perhaps ask somewhere else.

After that I thought my troubles were over. The kind man wheeled me to the check-in, then to Security – still in good time as I’d been very early and the plane was delayed – and up to the departure lounge, from where, he said, I’d be taken by ‘ambu-lift’ up to the plane. The ambu-lift had a tail-lift that took me in the wheelchair into the cab of the vehicle. When we’d driven round to the far side of the plane, the cab lifted up till it was on a level with the plane door. From there it was just a short walkway into the plane. The man who’d brought me – more taciturn and less obliging than the other man – asked me if I’d be able to get along the walkway myself. I could see he was unwilling to wheel me and said yes. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a ledge to be got over in the plane doorway. I tried but couldn’t do it, and got my good foot stuck in the gap between the walkway and the plane door. That frightened me a lot. I asked the man if he would lift me over the ledge but he said, ‘I’m not allowed to lift,’ in a way that made it clear he couldn’t care less. The man taking tickets inside the plane didn’t offer to help either, so I had to beg the first man to take me in the chair – which he did, reluctantly.

Once I was on the plane, the crew couldn’t have been more helpful. I ended up getting two seats to myself and could stretch my leg out, and when we landed they reassured me someone would be coming to take me off the plane. The two men who wheeled me off at Exeter airport couldn’t have been more helpful either. They strapped me into the little transfer chair (which the other man hadn’t done), wheeled me down the ramp – no ambu-lift, thank goodness – put me in a proper wheelchair and wheeled me to the arrival lounge where a friend was waiting for me. But my experience at Glasgow airport had shown me with depressing clarity what life must often be like for people who have a permanent disability, for whom lack of help and consideration, or even awareness that you are there at all, is an everyday reality. The accident and the events that followed were traumatising, of course, but I have to say that in some ways what I went through at the airport was almost as traumatising, playing as it did into primal fears of being helpless and abandoned and horribly unsafe.

But I got through it, and was hugely grateful to the kind friend who took me home from the airport and helped me unpack, even putting all my dirty washing in the laundry basket. I’m grateful to her and other friends for doing bits of cleaning and shopping and washing and washing-up when it was hard for me to do them, and to friends who would have done some of that if I’d asked them. I’m grateful too to friends who’ve been there when I’ve phoned or texted or emailed. I’m more or less independent again now. I can’t get to the shops yet but I’ve discovered online shopping, and most other things I can do for myself. And yet, as I saw so clearly on Iona, what matters in the end is connection. I live on my own and am used to doing things for myself, but we’re not and can’t be isolated units. I need the kindness of others, and I hope that when the occasion arises I’ll be there to offer kindness to someone else.

 

 

 

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All by accident (4)

This account is coming near the end now. I hadn’t intended it to be so long-drawn-out, but these things seem to take as long as they take. That’s one of the blessings of a blog: that you can write as much or as little as you want and people are free to glance through it, read it from beginning to end or ignore it completely. So I’ll continue…

For obvious reasons I didn’t see very much of Iona. On my first full day there I walked up to the north beach, taking in the Abbey (and Abbey shop), passing the Iona pods, which are a bit like solid tents, and meeting some very beautiful sheep.

The beach itself is light  sand and shingle, scattered with dark rocks that reach into the sea. I wasn’t quite the only person there, but it had the clean, untouched feel of beaches on the Scilly Isles. I picked my way among rocks, some grey-green like arrested waves, and tangles of kelp like strands of wet leather. The sea wasn’t particularly rough that day, but I was caught by the drama of water hurling itself against rock time and time again, the ceaseless assault of white spray. I stood longing for each crash and slap as though I’d never watched the sea before. And of course I had to photograph it, both making it a picture and affirming its reality.

That, I’m afraid to say, was more or less the sum total of my exploration, but at least the the hotels and the cottage were within sight of the sea. Below is a view from the lounge of the hotel where I stayed at first, looking across to Mull. When I’m near the sea I can’t imagine how I can live without it, but when I leave it the feeling soon fades. For me as a child, going back our south London suburb after a seaside holiday was almost unbearable. I used to watch the horizon at the end of our road and imagine the sky was about to merge into the sea, just as it did each time at the edge of the Downs when my uncle drove us to Brighton.

At least there was more sea on the journey home: first the ferry across to Fionnphort, then the coastal drive along the Ross of Mull before the road turns inland through the mountains, and then the ferry to Oban. I’m grateful again to Roselle, who very kindly gave me a lift across Mull and off the ferry the other side. Apart from my aching leg, I didn’t have to think too much about being incapacitated while I was in the car. I could simply take in the landscape of Mull and watch the mountains loom towards us, brown with  bracken or a forbidding dark grey, streaked with white by tiny, fast-falling streams.   At one point we faced a sheer rise of dark rock, the water that ran down it glinting gold in the sunlight. Once I was wheelchaired on to the ferry it was a different matter. I was sat in an accessible set near the reception desk. It had a good view of passengers’ comings and goings from the cafe but the window was so high I could barely see out of it and strained for my last glimpses of the sea. I didn’t have far to get to the toilet, but there was an awkward ledge that, as an inexpert crutch-hopper, I found it hard to get over. Other people from the course brought me supplies from the cafe: an apple, an extra-large bag of crisps and a bottle of water – there were no vegetarian sandwiches.

At more great expense I’d booked a taxi from Oban down to Glasgow (and no, the insurance didn’t pay for that either), as I thought I might not be able to manage the train journey. The driver turned out to be the same one who’d taken me from the b & b to the ferry, an elderly man with osteoporosis who had several cracked ribs but couldn’t bear not working. As soon as we left Oban I fell in love with Scotland all over again. More beautiful mountain landscape (when does a hill become a mountain?) , but with trees and more sign of green. To avoid the traffic the driver decided to take the scenic route along Loch Awe and then Loch Lomond. I didn’t take any photographs; I just sat absorbing it for mile after mile, the brown hills/mountains, the greener land by the lochs, the sun on the water – Loch Lomond looks surprisingly muddy in places – and the occasional tree-covered island where it seemed the trees had risen straight from the bed of the loch. I could have gone on drinking it in for the rest of the day, but then came the familiar sinking feeling as the landscape gradually flattened and was replaced by buildings and traffic and the all-pervading grey of urban roads. There was still grass between the roads, but it was urban grass. By the time we reached Glasgow airport and were circling round it trying to find the entrance to the hotel, the disenchantment was complete. We could have been near any airport and it would have looked pretty much the same.

With some persuasion I’d decided – rightly, I think – that the seven-hour train journey back to Devon would be too much, so I’d booked a flight to Exeter for the next day. That was why I’d ended up in one of those big, factory-like airport hotels instead of the quirky Airbnb where I’d hoped to stay. I may have led a very sheltered life, but I’d never stayed in a hotel like that before. A lot of people do, I know, and seem to survive it well enough, but I was still in a sensitive state and struggling on crutches. Not that I would have liked it at the best of times. It had pink institutional carpet of a kind I associate with care homes, music full of crashing guitar chords blared out as soon as the door opened and lurid gaming machines blinked in an alcove off the reception area. I’d booked an ‘accessible’ room, i.e. one near reception, but getting there was about as far as I could manage. Didn’t they have a wheelchair? I asked. The receptionist looked at me as though I’d asked for a pers onal hovercraft and said, ‘Oh, no.’ I couldn’t believe I was the only guest (if that’s the right term in such a place) who had ever needed one. People have accidents or are taken ill – even while they’re in the hotel – and don’t always have a wheelchair about their person at the time.

The room itself, being wheelchair accessible, had awkwardly large spaces to traverse on crutches. Nevertheless it had a comfortable bed, or rather two twin beds together with just enough gap between them to make slipping a possibility. The duvets were warm, though, which was just as well as the room was surprisingly cold. And I could get dinner brought to me, and breakfast too (which is another story). After I’d had my spicy oriental beanburger I settled down to watch the Andrew Scott Hamlet on my phone, determined to be an oasis of culture in the midst of standardised everything. That night I slept surprisingly well.

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All by accident (3)

I hadn’t intended to write as much as this about a relatively minor injury and its aftermath, but the story seems to want to go on being told. So, if you’re still with me, here is instalment no.3, my 101th blog post.

Up till now I haven’t said much about the course itself, except that Roselle Angwin and the people on it were unbelievably kind and helpful. We were a group of fourteen women, fifteen counting Roselle, of varying ages and equally varied backgrounds as writers, from published or about-to-be-published novelists and poets to people whose writing had mainly been of an academic kind and people who hadn’t yet written very much at all. Some had been on the course once or several times before; some had been going to Iona for years and knew as much about the island as any local historian; some, like me, didn’t know it at all but had heard that this place had something special. I’d gone with two intentions: to make more space for writing again and, by doing so, find a new impetus; and to connect deeply with the landscape and the natural world, which for me always means reconnecting with the heart. Others were there for their own reasons, but all of us had come to write, to discover and to share with one another.

I’ve been to many excellent poetry workshops where the focus is definitely on the writing. Personal and often painful material arises, of course – how can it not? – but the understanding is that we’re there to write poems. This course was wider in scope. We were there to write if we wished, or not to write if that was what we needed. We were encouraged to open to ourselves in free writing exercises and, if we wished, to be open with others in the group. The fact that the group was all women seemed to allow a particular kind of safety where people shared not only their writing but difficult and sometimes previously hidden experiences. At the start of the morning and evening sessions we were read poems and pieces that might inspire our own writing, and at the beginning of the morning session there was quiet time for free writing or meditation, as we chose. The understanding was that this process was in some sense a spiritual one – in whatever way we might view the spiritual. Poets like Mary Oliver and Robert Hass and philosopher John O’Donohue set a certain tone, but there was much earthiness and laughter, and some hilarious writing by members of the group.

For the first couple of days after I came back to Iona I was so shaken and traumatised that it was hard to write anything much. What I did manage write was tinged with mortality and impermanence. I’d heard from the lifeboat superintendent, who rang to ask if I’d mind their video of me being used for training, that their previous rescue from Staffa, a young man who fell over the cliff, had not survived. At no time had I been in serious danger, but there was a frightened place inside me that didn’t quite know that. Meditation was what I needed, and the support of being in the group. The fact that everything was so much more difficult and time-consuming than usual made it harder to put mental energy into writing, so all I could do was listen to others as best I could, write my few unfinished scribblings and simply allow myself to be taken care of, a rare experience if you live alone.

After the singing in St Oran’s Chapel, which I wrote about in the previous post, I began to relax again and to feel deeply touched by the kindness around me, in the course sessions and at other times too. My desire to reconnect with the heart had been met not so much in nature but in the company of others. One of the course members gave my ankle some Reiki through the plaster, and I could sense the energy and its goodness. In the final session I sat open-handed and open-hearted, deeply touched by others’ writing (and a little envious that it was so much better than mine), and also touched by the magic of the connection between us all, something that happens in groups only when there is real safety and trust. I had so much to be grateful for, more than I’d ever expected, and I knew I’d come back to writing when I was ready.

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A postscript: There’s one beach on Iona which is famous for its ‘green stones’: marble with deposits of serpentine, which can be any shade from pale lime to deep emerald.  Little flecks of serpentine are known as ‘mermaid’s tears.’ While I was away in hospital the rest of the group had gone on an expedition there and had brought back stones to be made into pendants and necklaces. I was touched that Roselle had thought to bring a stone back for me, and had taken care to choose one that seemed to have my name on it. I’ve worn it a lot since I came back, and it seems to hold some of the goodness I found on Iona.

To be continued, and probably concluded, in the next instalment.

 

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