Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Relationship with Illness

The creative process is a most mysterious thing.

If, like me, you are attempting to cultivate an animist perspective, then you will know that everything is alive. And by this I don’t just mean the beings that we (usually, but not always) consider to possess some form of sentience: animals, plants and trees. I also mean the land itself, and its weather: mountains, rivers, forests, the ocean, stones, rain, wind. But also, and perhaps most significantly, the intangible things that we don’t normally consider to be alive or ensouled at all (or to come from anywhere other than our own human minds): ideas, thoughts, dreams, symbols and stories. 

Thus, when an idea arrives, be it the instigator of a story or poem or work of art, it seems to have a life of its own, wanting to be this way, or that way, and often quite what I’d least expect. I find that forcing things rarely, if ever, works. Instead, I must allow the idea to lead me where it (or should that be s/he?) wants to go, which requires a certain amount of trust—a letting go. 

This means, in my way of thinking, that creativity requires a relationship. It is about connecting with beings that come from elsewhere, outside of or beyond ourselves, that decide to grace us with their presence every now and then. It is about letting those beings speak. Hence, listening and learning to interpret their language(s) are skills that must be developed as part of the creative process (and, when you think about it, it’s just good manners).
Consider, for instance, this extraordinary account of how fully-formed poems came to American poet, Ruth Stone:

As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming...cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, "run like hell" to the house as she would be chased by this poem.

The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would "continue on across the landscape looking for another poet".

And then there were these times, there were moments where she would almost miss it. She is running to the house and is looking for the paper and the poem passes through her. She grabs a pencil just as it's going through her and she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first. (

If you have read my Beginning post, then you will know that I live with CFS, a chronic, though often fluctuating, illness. Accordingly, if I maintain an animist point of view, I have to concede that my illness is itself alive, having agency of its own. I visualised it once as a blacker than black pompom-like ball, alternately soft and fuzzy, or sharp and spiky, though now and then sparkling with an inner light. 

Over the past few years I have been trying to develop a relationship with my illness, to try to work within its boundaries, push them a little, and discover just how far I can go. This is far from easy, for the main (though far from only) symptom of CFS is a lack of energy, which can manifest as anything from extreme fatigue to mild lethargy, and everything in-between. This fatigue can affect people physically, cognitively and emotionally, and makes it very difficult to get things done, let alone cope with the normal responsibilities and pressures that life tends to throw at us. I am very fortunate in that my symptoms are not severe. I am not bedridden or completely housebound; I can go for walks, read, and write sometimes (though my life is still greatly curtailed). Though needless to say, developing and maintaining a relationship with my illness, and with creativity, is a constant challenge.

It has been said that illness is a ‘call from the gods’—a gift or message. If so, what is it giving me or trying to tell me?

I am of the opinion that many, if not most, illnesses today, both physical and mental, are ‘diseases of (Western) civilisation’, such that they would not have existed, or only very rarely, before techno-industrial civilisation spread its way around the globe. This idea may be controversial, but I stand by it. Rather than illness being something that is wrong with us, perhaps it is a way in which our bodies/minds/souls respond to and rebel against the toxicity, destruction, violence, inequality and overall soullessness of modern life. Disease is evidence of our dis-ease with the way the world is. Our bodies/minds/souls intuitively know that this is not the way the world has always been, nor the way it needs to remain.

In a recent article by Charles Eisenstein, which is well worth reading, called Mutiny of the Soul, this very idea is explored: 

What if there is something so fundamentally wrong with the world, the lives, and the way of being offered us, that withdrawal is the only sane response? Withdrawal, followed by a reentry into a world, a life, and a way of being wholly different from the one left behind. (

I can’t help but identify with this idea. CFS came to stop me in my tracks, to force me to withdraw, to shake up my life and encourage a transformation of who I was, so that I could move ahead on quite a different path. Illness itself, therefore, is an opportunity for creativity, in how we respond to it, in how we learn to listen to what it is trying to tell us, and then take action to change how we live. 

As I said in my first post, CFS has become something of an ally for me, an enabler. It has given me the time to read and learn, and what I have learnt has led me to tread a certain path. That path has been dark, winding and tangled with snags, and I have lost my way many times. I still do, often. But I have also come across some wild and wondrous things on my journey, and have learnt a great deal about myself and the world, and for that I am grateful. 

Of course, CFS is still not easy to live with. It complicates matters, for, more often than not, it prevents me from working on writing or art (or life itself) as I would want to. That is where acknowledging and understanding the cycles of both illness and creativity has helped, for those cycles teach a crucial lesson: all things pass. 

Sometimes I need stillness, silence, inactivity. Other times I need to be busy with the gathering of inspiration and influences by reading, journalling and thinking, amongst other pursuits. And sometimes, just sometimes, I am able to create. 
My pile of winter reading
Where does the energy come from for creating? Well, if ideas are alive, sometimes I think they must lend me a little spark of their aliveness, and that is what energises me to grow an idea into a story (or, more rarely, a poem or piece of art). A fruitful idea enlivens and motivates me to get to work, and often won’t leave me alone until the work is done. And that is where my focus on animism is essential, for I believe that connection and relationship with the living earth is the key. I need to be open and willing to listen to ideas when they come, and ready to respond, even if that means pushing myself beyond my limits occasionally. 

If I can embody myself in a animate and ensouled world, learn from it, and create in service to it, then maybe I can find a way to heal myself. 

And if we heal ourselves, then perhaps we can heal the world. 

Monday, 20 June 2016


Autumn was so mild this year (as I spoke of here) that it almost seemed like winter would never come. And this worried me greatly, as it is alarmingly clear that the balance of the weather and the seasons is being shifted ever more by climate change (how long will it be before the world we know is so changed it is unrecognisable?). Yet then, with a sudden cold rush at the end of May, the season of frost and mist was upon us, and the winter woolies were immediately required to warm numb fingers and toes.

Winter is a time for going inwards, when the daylight hours are short (and on a cloudy, grey day, barely even there), and the dark, inside hours are long and encompassing. It is for innerness—both deep personal reflection, and ‘inside pursuits’: for sitting with a hot cup of herbal tea and reading a good book—or dreaming strange and beautiful dreams; for knitting and the making of things—soup, baked goodies, art, and perhaps new life resolutions to be pursued as the year begins its upward swing once more. 

For me it is also a time for writing. It is when I start to feel that stories are waiting in the cold ground, like seeds, or bulbs, waiting for me to find them, to water and feed them, to help them to grow and live and move into the light—since that is what happened last winter.

In May last year I wrote of a woman called May, a mysterious character in a shadowy story I am yet to fully visualise. In June I wrote of love lost, an overcast sky, rain falling and making ripples that pulsed outwards over the surface of a lily-pond. In July I wrote of ‘future nuns’ who dream a wounded world back to health and wholeness. And in August I was engrossed, almost manically, in writing a novella inspired by the Roman myth of the faun Vertumnus and the nymph Pomona, patroness of apple orchards.

It was an abundant time which extended throughout spring and right up to the end of the year. 

And then it ended—for reasons which I may explore here at another time—and I was left in my own season of fallowness, story-less, dwelling with the frustration of a lack of energy and a general sense of unproductiveness. (Though this blog began its life in that seemingly empty time, and Vulture came to me, so I must remind myself that I have been productive, just in other ways.)

Still, over the past month I have managed to write a small, wild tale, about a man and a bird (I leave it up to your imagination whether I mean a woman or a winged one), and perhaps this spells the beginning of another season of stories. Of course, I know that I need to sit down and do the work, for in order to write something I must write it … Yes, I am aware that that sounds completely self-evident. Yet so often I procrastinate, waste time (over)thinking and planning, and not actually doing what clearly needs to be done: the writing itself. (And I don’t think I am the only writer guilty of that.)

I hope, therefore, that this wintertime of bare trees and icy winds and frosty sunshine, will give me what I need—energy, motivation, inspiration—to find stories again, to do the important work of creating my own imaginative realms, making them alive and real. At the very least I hope to learn some lessons, grow my own self a little, and live with more awareness of and love for this changing world. 

All life begins in the dark. What will emerge into the light?

Solstice greetings to all of my readers, whether you are marking the dark southern trough of the year, or the bright northern peak.

And if you particularly wish to immerse yourself in the kind of intense arctic cold and darkness that most of us can only imagine, here are some very wintery reading recommendations:

Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter (2015) – set in early 18th century Swedish Lapland
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013) – set in 19th century Iceland
Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (2009) – about an archaeological dig in Greenland 

I leave you with an apt little song to mark this hinge-day.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Poem: Tree Woman

I think it will become obvious, if you keep reading my blog, or have looked at my art on Redbubble, that I have something of an obsession with trees … and increasingly birds too, but let’s not get sidetracked …

I haven’t written much poetry, but occasionally an idea or image demands to be written in that form, and I can only obey.

This poem was, on the whole, inspired by the Jeanette Winterson quote below. However, as I noted beside the first draft in my notebook, I was also thinking of a sad little Japanese folktale called ‘Willow’, about a man who marries a woman who is the spirit of a much-loved willow tree (found in Collected Folk Tales (2011) by Alan Garner).  

Tree Woman

‘There are plenty of legends about women turning into trees but are there any about trees turning into women?’
~ Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

I saw a woman in a tree.
There was something 
in the curving form of the trunk,
the grace of the branches,
the head-held-high canopy.
She had weeping willow leaf hair—
sunlit green—
welcoming arms,
and a blush of lichen 
on her cheeks.
She cast an elegant, 
if hairy, shadow,
with lush limbs 
reaching out to me,
beckoning me 
to worship below her
(as if at an altar),
and to climb, 
to reach as she does
towards the encircling sky, 
wrapped around the Earth’s orb.

I went to sit in her shade,
to gaze up and admire her beauty
and the way she attracted—
with looks alone—
birds and butterflies and breezes.
What if I could have such beauty, 
such bearing?
Could I turn green?
Could I offer my flowers 
to passing bees?

Such generosity!

If I sit here for long enough 
perhaps I will become 
a small patch of moss,
growing at her feet.
I will grasp her and 
she will embrace me,
two lovers of the green, 
growing together,
held close 
in verdant sisterhood.
A euphoric union 
in the sun and shade,
wind and rain.

White Tree II, 2005

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Secret Names

In a post on the Dark Mountain Blog called The Ecology of Language, Abbie Simmonds writes:

Mythologist Martin Shaw encourages his students to develop a practice of giving twelve secret names to the plants, animals or ‘things’ they encounter in nature and to speak those names out loud. He comments that ‘inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world’ — an enlivening force. And surely it must be seen that those that love and know the land they live upon have a hundred names for snow or twenty different names [for] mud or, at the very least, three different names for the garden robin. In giving something a name, we deepen our relationship with it and in finding many names we find ourselves watching, listening, thinking more deeply about that bird, plant, flower or bug — by engaging through language, we come to know it better. 

Must those names always be secret, though? 

Perhaps sometimes, for they are our own personal way of forming relationships with the Others, and those relationships will often be private, intimate, not to be intruded upon. Our own special connection to the more-than-human world. There is a kind of magic in that.

Yet I have decided to share my twelve names for the eastern spinebill, a little bird who tends to be nearby all through the summer, but who I only really come to see up close in autumn, around March and April.

Whir-Winged Piper

Flight Magician

Brown Honey Sip

Singer of Wing and Throat

Faster-than-Sight Traveller

Slip Through Air Sprite

White-Breasted Flitter

Autumn Friend

Flutter Guest

Marvel Eye

Visitor of My Heart

One I Welcome

I challenge you to come up with some of your own secret names for the creatures and the landscape around you, to speak them out loud, and make your own magic.

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