Monthly Archives: January 2014

Dust yourself down – Spring’s not far off….

 In my current January mood, as I sit here in my life, grumpy, with a metaphorical blanket pulled over my head, my spirit decidedly in need of dusting, these words from well-known writer, broadcaster and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway speak powerfully to me: I offer them to my fellow January-ites out there, with the thought that the snowdrops are already proliferating cheerfully in our local Botanic Gardens….

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral Window, Orkney

photo: Anne Whitaker

“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioural responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.”

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(NOTE: Having googled this quotation, I discovered that it has got around, and some of the wording varies slightly depending on who is quoting! So I hope Richard Holloway will forgive me any minor errors which may appear in this version, whilst I track down the exact quote, in the precise book in which it appears….)

Richard F. Holloway (born 26 November 1933) is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church. To read more about him and his writing, click HERE

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300 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Richard Holloway 2014
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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That toad, writing: still here after all these years….

Well, it’s clear from a number of emails and a few comments received, that “Why must that toad, writing, squat on my life?– part one –  hit the spot with a number of fellow writers! My favourite story for luring the reluctant writer to the toad-dominated desk was the one about the luscious bacon sandwich, all crispy with lashings of butter on extremely tasty sourdough bread, made the night before and left, wrapped in foil, sitting on the laptop as an irresistible morning bribe. Try it!

( yes, maybe there is a vegetarian option.Just haven’t come up with it yet….)  

My Writing Cave

My Writing Cave

photo: Anne Whitaker

Now, as I was saying….

For the first seven years of self-employment, my writing skills were channelled and honed some more. I wrote case notes for my counselling and astrology client files, confidential reports for GPs and psychiatrists, and endless handouts for my assertiveness training courses and astrology classes. Students were presented in every class with flurries of A4 sheets in a rainbow of colours. Goodness only knows what they did with them all.

“ You should be an English teacher, or a writer, Anne,” said a student one day.“ This astrology lark obviously doesn’t fulfill your literary side!”

“ Thanks for a very helpful and illuminating suggestion,” was my sarcastic reply.

By the early nineties, the writer in me must have decided that hiding her light under a bushel of other professional pursuits was no longer sufficient. In 1992 I had my first submission for many years accepted and published by a feisty new Scottish feminist magazine called Harpies and Quines ( their name briefly got them into a fight with Harpers & Queens!)

Between 1992 and 2001 I had some forty pieces of journalism, articles and essays published in a wide range of magazines, journals and newspapers from The Mountain Astrologer(USA) to Scotland’s award winning newspaper The Sunday Herald. I was the agony aunt in their “Mindworks”  supplement during the summer of 1999.

Then, at the end of 2001 I keeled over completely following a prolonged family crisis which triggered a menopause from hell. My sabbatical was mandatory; for months I could barely get out of bed. Life was a matter of surviving not merely from one day to the next but from hour to hour, racked as I was by acute anxiety, flushes, palpitations, chronic insomnia and exhaustion – all brought on by burnout and a severe hormone imbalance.

Did this shut the writer up? Not a bit of it. For the first six months, as a central plank in my sanity-saving strategy, I kept a daily ‘Gratitude Journal’. No matter how bad the day had been, each night I wrote down six things for which I was grateful, no matter how small.

For nearly two years I kept an imagery journal, to record the astonishing guiding imagery which arose spontaneously without any conscious intention or effort on my part. I still keep a brief daily diary and a weekly perspective journal.

Nine months after collapsing, I felt able to stagger into my office one or two afternoons a week. The very slow completion of my first book over the next year gave me a creative focus, which was a huge help in the protracted process of recovery. The book is titillatingly titled “Jupiter meets Uranus: from erotic bathing to star gazing– but is in fact a research study of the individual and collective manifestations of the 1997 Jupiter Uranus planetary conjunction, set in its mythological and historical context. It was published by the American Federation of Astrologers in April 2009.

I had a variety of articles on various topics published during 2001-7, and spent much of 2007 completing the first draft of Wisps from the Dazzling Darkness: a sceptic’s take on paranormal experience”, a memoir and rational analysis of thirty years’ intermittent (and not very welcome) paranormal experiences. Then came the setting up of this blog, which to my great amazement has now been going for over five years.

I serialised Wisps from the Dazzling Darkness on the blog from 2o10-12. It was so well received and commented on that I decided to publish it as a downloadable pdf. Note: available now!

And then, last year, under the spare bed in my husband’s study gathering dust, I found the manuscript of a children’s poetry book I had written thirty five years ago which was beautifully illustrated by an artist friend, Albert Ennemoser. Then, publishers loved it but said “Sorry, it would be too expensive to publish”. So we forgot about it and got on with life.

Now, thanks to the web – and digital printing –Rumbold Raven’s Magic Menagerie” , eighteen short poems featuring an eccentric, colourful assortment of animal characters: Dorelia the extinct Dodo, Feeble Fred the dozy frog, delightfully dreamy Salome Seahorse, and wellyboot-wearing Tiger Tigbaloo to name but a few, is now published.

Its first well-received incarnation is in pdf form, available from this blog. Hopefully, the print version will be out very, very soon, courtesy of BookViral. I am really looking forward to that! And so is granddaughter Lola, the inspiration for the book’s resurrection, to whom the book is dedicated.

And what next? Well, I have a few ideas bubbling away. The toad is croaking seductively in my left ear, even as I write…..I don’t think he will ever go away…..would I want him to? What do you think?

900 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Why must that toad, writing, squat on my life?

I hope you find this outline/cautionary tale of a writer’s life entertaining. No doubt it will have more than a few resonances for other members of the writing community, whose careers and writing paths have most likely had their own peculiar turns and twists! Your comments/anecdotes are welcome.

That Toad Writing

That Toad Writing

image by Paul F Newman: pneuma@ukonline.co.uk

The poet Philip Larkin asked : “Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?”

How I empathise! That toad, writing, has squatted on my life more or less since I was born.The golden thread of consistent attachment to writing, or writing’s consistent attachment to ME, has run through the whole of my life. I have always been true to it, in my fashion, during the promiscuous twists and turns of my vocational quest.

At school, whilst other kids seemed to dread their composition ink exercises, I looked forward to mine. It was an opportunity to channel into focused black and white the swirling imaginative colours which whirled round my young brain, fed by my six library books a week habit. I read anything and everything.

This voracity had its downside. Victorian novelist H Rider Haggard’s myth-steeped descriptions of his characters’ adventures in Africa last century fascinated me. But da Silva, the Dutch explorer whose frozen body was found centuries after his death in a cave high up Mt. Kilimanjaro, transferred himself from “King Solomon’s Mines” to the wardrobe in my bedroom, on and off, for a couple of years. Getting to sleep was no mean feat with an imagination like mine!

King Solomon's Mines First Edition

King Solomon’s Mines First Edition

My ‘real’ life – eating, sleeping, going to school – was incidental to my inner life which was full of the really interesting questions:

“Why are we alive, where do we go after death, do we live on several planes of existence at once, what is happening in other galaxies, if there are x million Catholics and even more Buddhists and Hindus, how come they are all Wrong and Damned and a few thousand members of the Free Church of Scotland are Right and Saved?

What would happen if you unwrapped an Egyptian mummy? I wonder if I could make a shrunken head like the Jivaro people? Why did people paint pictures on cave walls thousands of years ago? “

These issues, fed by reading, preoccupied me for years. I must have written about them, and my essays were often commended. However, attempts on leaving school to obtain my childhood exercise books were met with a bureaucratic “No”  .

During my twenties, spent in further education teaching, I  had a‘Personally Speaking’ column in a well-known provincial Scottish island newspaper, a copy of which I was reliably informed went to the British Embassy in Peking in China every week.

I also wrote for the local paper in a small industrial town in West Lothian, Scotland, where I had my first English lecturing job in the local technical college. ‘How I was left on the shelf – and found true happiness’ was my contribution to the West Lothian Courier’s Spring Brides Feature one year. “Couldn’t you have been a bit more romantic ?” was the Editor’s only comment.

Harrowed in my mid twenties by the realisation that time was speeding on apace without my having yet written an autobiography, I then began the first of what were to be many bouts of journal-keeping.

In my next college job, I became obsessed with writing handouts on literature and effective language use, inspired by a male colleague who also loved writing handouts for his students. I fell in love with him. My energies moved from sending my work out for publication, to staying in at night and juggling passion with passionate handout composition. The ‘Personally Speaking’ column was stoical in the face of my neglect.

There were other diversions, leading to my final college job before sacrificing all for my art. I was living in Bath in England – where, incidentally, I met a strange little man in a launderette who drew up my horoscope and predicted yet another career, as an astrologer. Hmmmm, I thought….Just before leaving that college to return to my native island to Be A Writer, I had a very scary encounter with a man who might have been a murderer. This became the subject of my first play.

The years in social work honed my writing skills further – writing reports was a central part of the job. Adoption assessments, fostering assessments, Children’s Panel reports, social enquiry reports for the courts: I happily turned my hand to them all, gaining a degree of notoriety amongst my colleagues. They usually hated writing reports. I loved it.

“ Look at Anne,” my  first boss used to say, as I hid out in a corner of our open plan office, trying to find some peace to compose my latest masterpiece. “ She is seriously weird. You’d think she was Franz Kafka, the way she crouches over that bit of paper!”

To be continued….

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850 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Starting the year: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” – a favourite book

This book, a timeless spiritual classic,  is a moving and fascinating account of how the contemporary spiritual journey unfolds, with all the difficulties those choosing such a path must face, whatever the depth of their faith, its religious context, or their position in the world.

During my own ‘dark night of the soul’ period of 2001-8 I returned to this book several times, never failing to derive comfort, support and strength from what author and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield had to say. I continue to feel gratitude for his wisdom. Do read my review, let me know what you think, and give yourself a new year treat of acquiring a copy. And by the way, fellow writers reading this, what a brilliant title, don’t you think?!!

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path

My Review:

How’s this for an image of unity and diversity ? “While helicopter gunships flew by and (the Vietnam) war raged around them, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers….their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling….”

In his first best-selling book on meditation “A Path with Heart”, American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes the powerful impact of his first sight of two massive sixty-foot tall statues of the Buddha and Jesus on a small island of the Mekong Delta. “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” is its worthy and equally inspiring successor.

Kornfield has a deep well of experience to draw from: a Buddhist monk in the late Sixties in Thailand, he has since lived with and taught with monks, mystics, students and teachers from many religious traditions in different parts of the world. He also holds a PhD in clinical psychology and practises as a psychotherapist and meditation teacher.

The book is a moving and fascinating account of how the contemporary spiritual journey unfolds, with all the difficulties those choosing such a path must face, whatever the depth of their faith, its religious context, or their position in the world.

He accounts for the universality of spiritual longing very simply: “There is a part of each of us that knows eternity as surely as we know our own name. It may be forgotten or covered over, but it is there….there is a pull to wholeness, to being fully alive….as surely as there is a voyage away, there is a journey home”…and (quoting the poet Rumi) “Grapes want to turn to wine”.

He makes it clear that there is no separate territory labelled “spiritual” to which the devout may escape; spirituality is doing the dishes and dealing with difficult relatives, as well as moments of winter sunlight illuminating the beauty of a cathedral’s stained glass windows, evoking joy in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Following the spiritual path means making slow peace with the tedious reliability of human imperfection, as we move through the Great Round of living and dying with its inevitable sorrows – and capricious joys.

Many quotations, illustrating the profoundly personal and moving facets of a wide range of journeys from diverse traditions including Christianity, reveal the author’s deep respect for all paths to the Source.

The case material truly makes this book live, letting us see that however unique our particular route may be, the spiritual journey has core stages common to all seekers of all faiths. In our own strivings, he shows us, we are not alone.

It is so heartening and illuminating to read of different seekers’ experiences of the ecstatic: when grace calls forth that sudden falling into radiance, that recognition of indivisibility from Being, or God, or Ultimate Reality, or Emptiness (or the quantum vacuum, if like me you’ve been reading way too many cosmology books of late!).

But there is always the return to The Laundry, that inevitable and often painful coming down to the ordinary, sometimes grubby and unsatisfactory basics of everyday life.

Importantly, he also points out that for many, ecstasy never comes in a dramatic manner, but as a slow, steady deepening of compassion, wisdom and an increasingly peaceful heart – that which is the eventual fruit of sincere and dedicated spiritual practice.

Kornfield writes beautifully, in an honest, open-hearted, humorous and well-earthed way. His book radiates integrity and is obviously rooted in his own long and at times hard struggle to find the spiritual ground of his own being. Just the right degree of personal disclosure makes clear his lack of illusion that being a priest, or a teacher, or a healer of whatever sort, is any kind of vaccination from the pitfalls of the human condition.

Jack Kornfield comes across as a reflective, wise and humble man. Let’s hope that the worldwide success of his books has not changed that! “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” is a timeless treasure, a wonderful companion along the road.

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800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Some wisdom to begin the year: from Welsh poet R.S.Thomas

I am gazing through our wide bay window towards the shadowy hills, as city lights illuminate a cold, rainy early January night. That window, come Monday and Epiphany, will be very bare: our magical nine-foot tree will be no more. Where will all its jewels of multi-coloured reflection go? Back to the ‘Otherworld’, the Romantic in me thinks. Waiting, waiting for another year……

To distract myself from this post-Festive melancholy, I start tidying my workroom – and find a different kind of jewel. In the wonderful poetry anthology sent to me from Zane, the charity which does such sterling work in Zimbabwe, I come across a poem which perfectly fits my mood: a reminder that moments of  transitory joy in life, fleeting as they are, are to be cherished –

Let us not rush through 2014 so much that we forget to pause, to notice, should a fleeting glimpse of the brightness of Eternity come our way….

A fleeting light.....

A fleeting light…..

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R.S.Thomas

(From Laboratories of the Spirit, published by MacMillan. © Kunjana Thomas)

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300 words copyright Anne Whitaker/R.S. Thomas 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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