Monthly Archives: January 2009

Sea as Church

There must be many in church congregations whose paths have followed the same trajectory as mine: Christianity is the starting point, at a stage in life where choice is not an option. Rebellion soon rears its head. (One of my methods of silent teenage protest was to go to church with hair rollers secretly in place under the detested Sunday hat.)

Then unfolds the long, possibly very varied route culminating eventually in a return to the ground where the journey began. In the summer of 2005 my husband and I began attending our local Episcopal church – now it feels very much like home territory.

For this entirely unexpected turn of events, I hold the Dalai Lama at least partly responsible!

In the process of extensively reading and benefiting from Buddhist wisdom, via inspirational Buddhist teachers including Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Pema Chodron, I came across a comment from His Holiness to the effect that if one could find a corner in one’s own tradition, why adopt anyone else’s? After reflecting on this observation for a long while, I concluded that the Dalai Lama was right.

Thus, after a lengthy and complex spiritual quest, I found a spiritual home – open enough to accommodate my belief that all Gods are One – a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from our house.

Since this return to Christian roots, I have been reflecting on whether, over the years, there has been a particular setting to which my soul usually returned to find peace and sustenance. In the absence of Church, what provided a context for the longing for the Sacred? For me it was the sea.

Sea as Church - the Outer Hebrides

Sea as Church - the Outer Hebrides

I was born by the sea. The stripped-down Presbyterianism of my native Hebridean island certainly spoke eloquently to many, but did not speak to my Romantic temperament: it was a form of worship too spare and verbal for a soul whose longing for the Divine needs the engagement of all the senses.

Since attending the Episcopal church, I have often been struck by the evocatory similarities which exist between experiences of Church and of the sea.

The most obvious is the stimulation of the five senses, opening one up to a feeling of union. The serene grace of the ‘liturgical dance’ within a beautiful, atmospheric building saturated with prayer and flooded (on a good day!) with colour from vibrant stained glass windows, can be quite overwhelming. Then there is the heady scent of incense, the rich sound of choir and organ, the physicality and friendship of touching others familiar and unknown through the sharing of the peace and the sharing of the Eucharist.

The remote beaches of the Hebrides are also perfect for communing. In some places no mark of human hand can be seen anywhere. You could be in any epoch.

The endless ebb and flow which soothes your spirit is millions of years old. With the cries of wild birds, and the sound of the wind ( no shortage of that !) the sea weaves music which carries you beyond time. The rich smell of ozone, salt and bladder-wrack is overlaid with a delicate scent of wild flowers. Sea splashes leave salt tastes on your skin. Sunlight on the sea’s surface creates diamond sparks. God is right here.

Natural beauty calls to us, confirming that the Holy Spirit which we sense in nature includes us all. Sand, sea, sun and solitude evoke a sense of our infinite smallness in relation to the vastness before us. Yet there could be no sea without each drop of water, no beach without each grain of sand.

Church on the face of it is very different, being a contained space. But it is a space charged up with collective worship, where the cadences of liturgy and participatory ritual also evoke a feeling of God’s vast presence in relation to our precious smallness.

The mind-calming, meditative facets of sea, and centuries-old church ritual, can lull us into peace, calming the heart and uplifting the spirit. Both sea and Church in their differing ways can restore a sense of the balance and interweaving of matter and spirit – “spirit is a lighter form of matter, matter is a denser form of spirit” –  and provide a reminder that the small, limited, mundane world which we inhabit is set to the compass of Eternity.

(the slightly edited version of an article published in Magnificat magazine(UK) Issue 10 Summer 2006 )

750 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Review: an appreciation of the New Scientist magazine

“Entertain, or else….” headlines the Comment and analysis column in the 20/27 December 2008 issue of the New Scientist magazine. Here, Michael Brooks, a consultant for New Scientist and author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense asserts forcefully that scientists need to make their work more appealing and less boring if they don’t want funding to dry up.

In his hard-hitting article he quotes the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger addressing the scientific community: “Never lose sight of the role your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life. If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing is worthless.”

This challenging comment piece inspired me to write an appreciation of the New Scientist.

Last spring, whilst preparing mentally to transform from techno-dinosaur into cyber-babe via computer lessons to enable me to set up this website, I responded to a magazine insert promoting the New Scientist, taking out a year’s subscription. Normally immune to the blandishments of promotional leaflets, this uncharacteristic impulse has proved to be highly beneficial; my lifelong interest in science – purely as a lay person with no formal scientific education – has been very well stimulated during 2008 as a result.

In sum, I think that the New Scientist does an excellent job in telling us all what the scientific community has been up to, simultaneously weaving global, political, cultural and social issues into its information-giving, never losing sight of “ the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life ”, as Schrodinger so eloquently put it.

I cannot pretend for a moment to read the magazine from cover to cover every week, sometimes only finding time to read the lead article in the Cover Story. But when, for example, that story is From big bang to big bounce (writer Anil Ananthaswamy, 13 December 2008 issue) and is summarised thus:

“What if our universe didn’t appear from nothing, but was recycled from one that went before?” …., going on fully to inform me about loop quantum cosmology, which predicts that the universe didn’t arise from nothing in a big bang, but “grew from the collapse of a pre-existing universe that bounced back from oblivion….” – this provides me with enough mind-boggling reflection to make the one-hour journey to my dentist, across the city on the number 40 bus, fly by in what feels like a nano-second.

Read the New Scientist !

Read the New Scientist !

The latest issue of this brilliant magazine now travels around with me in my backpack, thereby ensuring that any waiting becomes an educative opportunity. I’ve also taken to reading it over breakfast (nobody speaks much in our house before 11am), at times being unable to resist offering gems:
This is amazing! Did you know that a corroded lump of bronze, salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, has turned out to be nothing less than a computer used to plot the motion of heavenly bodies – possibly invented by Archimedes around 200 BC?” (Decoding the Antikythera by Jo Marchant, p36 New Scientist, 13th December )

The New Scientist is most accessibly and clearly laid out, with lots of arresting photography, clear illustrative diagrams and a healthy sprinkling of cartoons. Content is summarised on the very first print page, under these headings: (examples from 3 Jan 2009 Issue)
News – ‘Obama’s dream team prepares for business’
Technology –  ‘polymer bubbles target tumours’
Features – ‘Cover Story “Three Degrees of Contagion” Detox your life by harnessing the power of other people – even some you’ve never met’
Opinion –  ‘Comment and Analysis If more kids are to become scientists, fun and learning must be one and the same, says TV presenter Richard Hammond
RegularsLetters, Enigma (a baffling question set as a challenge to readers), Feedback, The Last Word, and Jobs.

This layout means that even if you don’t read everything, you find out in summary what the hot issues of the week are, thereby gaining an archive which can be looked up eg when a subject comes up in conversation and you think “I’m sure there was something about that in a recent New Scientist….”

The writing is lively, clear, often witty, generally first class. And there is always  – ALWAYS – in every issue something so totally mind-boggling that you go around all week telling everyone about it.
My recent personal favourite(can’t quite find which issue it was in, but I will!) concerned an American woman sitting quietly in an armchair at home when a small meteorite came crashing through the roof, scarring her thigh and narrowly missing killing her. It just so happened that her house was situated across the street from a club – whose promotional neon lighting featured a lightning bolt and a hurtling meteorite….

So – can you survive without a regular subscription to the New Scientist? If you subscribe to the ethos of this website, I think not !!

(this review is now referenced on the New Scientist’s wikipedia page)

800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Here comes Mercury – in reverse!

(NOTE: Mercury Retrograde periods for 2010 included in 25.2.10 update at the end of this article)

Indulge me. Have a guess. Which planet, do you think, might be specially linked to the writer’s craft? Yes, very good. It is indeed Mercury.

Mercury represents the principle of communication in all its facets. Pitching and selling ideas, reworking, appraising, editing; all the activities of the scribe’s trade are encompassed by the Mercury function.

Gorgeous Mercury!

Mercury – isn’t he gorgeous?!

In the spring, summer and autumn/winter of each year, the planet Mercury does something strange. It appears to slow down in its orbital pace, stop, then start to move backwards. This is known as retrograde motion. It is of course an illusion. Otherwise, we’d have fallen off the solar system aeons ago.

However, the effects down here on Earth when Mercury is in its  2-3 week retrograde phases are anything but illusory. For years, I studied this phenomenon in my own life, the lives of family, friends, and astrology students. In sum, communications of all types become strangely awkward and hard to manage during those times.

I learned to look forward to having some rest during Mercury Retrograde, since my referral rate dropped. Normally clients always turned up for appointments, MR periods being the exception. Cancellation rates increased. Once, a client called to cancel because her house had just caught fire (yes, she called the Fire Brigade first!).Two clients often turned up at the same time. Cheques invariably got lost in the post, or clients forgot to bring cash. One summer I moved office during MR, becoming involved in a dispute of byzantine complexity with the telephone company which took almost a nervous breakdown to sort out.

As MR periods approached, I used to entertain my students by looking at their individual horoscopes, which enabled me to be more specific regarding possible MR effects. I told one student, a lawyer, that a female helper in his workplace was likely to have communication problems which would impact on him. His feedback?  His secretary sprained her wrist, and was unable to type during the entire MR period.

Mercurial people, eg writers, are those most affected  by Mercury’s retrograde phase.

What can we writers do to maximise advantage and minimise disruption when Mercury is retrograde? MR is a positive time for going back over all matters to do with communication, and cleaning up.

Some examples: if you’ve been putting off a purge of your filing system, do it now. If your accountant has asked you nine times for your last year’s papers, use this 2-3 weeks to update them. Dig out and finish some of those half-worked articles. Use MR times for reminder letters to editors. If you’ve been writing furiously and the brain/wrist is seizing up, have a break. Catch up with some reading. As we know, fallow time is creative.

The don’ts? If it is not feasible as a working writer to avoid or delay taking new initiatives or completing existing processes, eg sending out new proposals and submissions or signing contracts, leases, etc, try to accept complications or thwartings philosophically. Also – be prepared for delays, eg when travelling, especially long distance.  Don’t sit under the mailbox waiting for cheques. And please, don’t arrange for a phone installation!

“Come on then !” I can hear you shouting as you search for my phone number or email. “Tell us WHEN !”

Just send me a £50 cheque and a self addressed envelope….

….oh, all right. Since this is a writer’s website, I’ll tell you.

The Mercury Retrograde periods for 2009/2010 are: i) Retro 26/12/09, Direct 15/01/ 2010. ii) Retro 17/04/10, Direct 11/05/ 10. iii) Retro 20/08/10, Direct 12/09/ 10. iv) Retro 10/12/10, Direct 30/12/ 10.

Let me know how you get on !

Comments welcome – email, or comments box

(slightly edited : first published in the Women Writers’ Network Newsletter August 2004 – and on this site in September 2008 under the title “Astrological Help for Writers!”)


600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Favourite Quote: “This being human” by Rumi

I thought it would be appropriate to offer a reflective piece of poetic wisdom as the New Year begins : we need all the wisdom we can receive, especially in relation to the dark thoughts, the shame and the malice from which no person is immune – could we but take responsibility for those shadow qualities in ourselves as individuals and nations, refraining from projecting them onto others, the world would probably be less fractured than it is….

” This being human “

The poet Rumi

The poet Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all
even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honourably,
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

from the Persian poet Rumi