Category Archives: 01 – new Posts: January 2015 onwards

Poetic beauty at the Winter Solstice

We humans in the Northern Hemisphere, beset by darkness and cold, have from long antiquity needed light and celebration to lift our spirits in the bleak midwinter, no matter how much the grimness of world affairs or the pains of everyday life hold us down. At last year’s Winter Solstice, I published a wonderful poem by Susan Cooper which depicts the history and expression of this need with vivid beauty. Many of my readers have requested me to publish it again this year.

It has become an annual event in our house, as we flick malt whisky symbolically onto our Xmas Tree, the modern version of the ancient Sumerians’ Moon Tree, to read Susan Cooper’s poem aloud. I do hope, somewhere, somehow, she knows this.

Happy Solstice, Everyone!

Our Tree 2015

Our Tree 2015

THE SHORTEST DAY’ BY SUSAN COOPER

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

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In the bleak Midwinter...

In the bleak Midwinter…

Invincible summer – in the chill of winter….

All my life I have loved and been inspired by quotes.

At this dark time of year approaching the solstice, as winter begins to grip, I thought I’d post a couple of special favourites: I hope you find them inspiring! And – feel free to share one of your own in a comment…

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River Kelvin Dec 2010

River Kelvin, Glasgow UK, Dec 2010

photo: Anne Whitaker 8.12.10

“In the midst of winter
I finally learned
That there was in me
An invincible summer”      

(This is a popular quote whose original source I have as yet not traced, but have come across a slight variation ie ‘within me there lay an invincible summer’ – different sites have different versions. Come on, detectives out there! Where in Camus’ writings does this quote appear? Let me know!)

Albert Camus

( Albert Camus 1913-1960 was a French philosopher best known for his book L’Etranger (The Outsider) whose existentialist philosophy influenced a whole post-war generation)

AND

“It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will.Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their lives into shape. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go.”

John O’Donohue, pp 83-4 “Anam Cara” Bantam Books 1999

(John O’Donohue 1956-2008 was an Irish poet turned priest, whose writing merged Celtic spirit and love of the natural world)

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300 words copyright Anne Whitaker/John O’Donohue/Albert Camus/ 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Advent: “a winter training camp for those who desire peace…”

It is Advent. I can scarcely believe the speed with which this year has flown past. Neither can I quite believe – despite all the dimensions of our world which are still positive, creative and hopeful – the quantum leap which our troubled planet seems to have taken this year: into a frightening level of  population displacement with its attendant human misery, and of mindless violence for the continuation of which, it appears, we have to steel ourselves for the foreseeable future until our political lords and masters can come up with some kind of solution. As I write, that solution is not at all obvious.

Advent's Light

Advent’s Light

What can we do about this at an individual level, to help our feelings of pain for the suffering of our fellow human beings, and to make us feel less helpless?  At a practical, outgoing level, we can send donations of food, clothing, money to help ease the plight of  those millions of refugees displaced by violent upheaval.

Advent, however, invites us to pause, be still, go within…The great psychologist and mystic Carl Jung observed that if there is something wrong with the world, then there is something wrong with us.  We can start the process of possible change for the better by looking unflinchingly into our own hearts  – and amending our own behaviour. Writer Edward Hays puts this challenge beautifully:

   “Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare… Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide…

   “Daily we can make an Advent examination. Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search the deep, dark corners of our hearts.

An Advent Examination
Edward Hays, A Pilgrim’s Almanac, p. 196

Readers, do you have a favourite Advent reflection, meditation or poem which has inspired and comforted you? If so, do share it in a comment. 

Advent's Light

Advent’s Light

400 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

“…to deal more kindly with one another…” A Big Picture perspective from the late Carl Sagan

Like everyone else, I have been feeling crushed and deeply dispirited by the dreadful events in France last Friday, and now Mali today. I’ve also been feeling the need to post something on my blog by way of response. Thanks to Robert Bruce over at 101 Books, I found a wonderful quote from the late scientist Carl Sagan which offers a large enough perspective to encompass the horrors currently happening across our beautiful planet.  It was inspired by an image of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometres. In it, our Earth appears as a tiny dot against a background of  muted slanting bands of colour. I have taken the liberty here, though,  of illustrating the quotation with the most famous picture of the Earth ever taken:

Our beautiful planet

Our beautiful planet

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

I took some comfort from this wise statement. What do you think of what Sagan says here? Do you have favourite quotes to which you turn in dark times?

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500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

 

‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ An upbeat ‘take’ on Descent into the dark…

Having just returned from our annual visit to the misty, melancholy beauty of the Scottish Borders in late autumn, I am in reflective mood today. Despite the pattern of intermittent mildness and cold which has heralded the descent into winter over the last few years here, so that one never knows what to wear from one day to another, the autumn is losing its hold now. Light is fading, leaf fall nearing completion. In the vivid words of the poet Shelley ‘…the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…’

Late leaf fall, by the River Tweed

Late leaf fall, by the River Tweed

photo: Anne Whitaker

The first of the early winter storms will soon be limbering up. How clearly I still recall childhood nights in Scotland’s Outer Isles, tucked up cosy in late November, whilst the wind did its best to tear the world apart outside my bedroom window. I loved that wildness – used to wonder what Power  lay behind it…

We need winter. We may not like it much, especially in the frequently wet, grey dreariness of the West of Scotland at this time of year! But we need it, and the darkness that goes with it. A long rest refreshes the earth, revitalises it; new life quietly germinates in the dark, bursting forth in the miraculous renewal of Spring.

We need the dark. Within the year’s natural cycle, the diurnal alternation of light and dark brings restful silence at night and the restorative power of sleep, without which all creatures including us would burn out and die before their time. We are in danger of forgetting this – at our peril – as an increasingly technology-driven culture sweeps the world, creating the illusion that we can live sustainably and healthily in defiance of the ancient rhythms set by the great cycles of nature.

So, this winter, let’s all try and be mindful of the deep wisdom of Nature which brings us this season of  Descent into the dark – the earth needs it, and so do we. I promise to try and remember my own advice, as I trudge miserably through frequent rain, wind, cold, and dark in the weeks and months ahead.

As that great poet Shelley optimistically observed in his Ode to the West WindIf Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’

Melrose Abbey: eerie autumn twilight

Melrose Abbey, Scottish Borders: eerie autumn twilight

photo: Anne Whitaker

400 words, and images, copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

 

Hallowe’en drama: all fall down!

This spooky story is set towards the end of  my restless twenties, a period where I earned my living as an adult education teacher. Here, I learn with my students that many an episode in this life of ours lacks a rational explanation….

Fly-by-Night....

Fly-by-Night….

Ever on the move, I had just given up a full time post as a college lecturer in scenic Wiltshire, England, UK,  to “be a writer”, returning to my native island to do so. However, living with my parents, a mutually unsatisfactory arrangement, was followed by my moving to a small Scottish town that autumn to live with a poet friend who had a creative writing fellowship at the local university. Sharing her house, I hoped, would provide an appropriate creative stimulus. It certainly provided more than a few hangovers!

With my usual facility for obtaining employment in those days, I soon had several part-time teaching jobs including a few hours a week teaching drama, having acquired such experience “on the hoof” in my last full-time job, officially teaching English to A level students. The new drama teacher had failed to turn up at the beginning of term, and my head of department assigned me the job thus:

“You seem the dramatic type, Anne. I’m sure you’d love a weekly Drama class….”

Back then, education was a much more laid back and less regulated pursuit than it is now!

Hallowe’en that year thus found me teaching a Thursday twilight drama class from 4.30 to 6.00 pm in Dundee College of Commerce, a fairly new brick and glass building situated on a hill with stunning views across the River Tay’s estuary. The drama studio was a great space to work in: a clear light empty area with polished wood floors and a couple of heavy, six or seven foot high wooden stage sets free standing at the back wall.

I was sitting in a circle on the floor on the opposite side of the studio, with a class of lively young women in their late teens – working with them was exhilarating and fun. Through the huge picture window we could see the city of Dundee spread out below us, the local river, the ‘silvery Tay’, catching late glimmers of waning light. Outside was a clear night with a hint of autumnal frost. Inside, the studio was quiet, warm and low lit.

Hallowe'en

Hallowe’en

It being Hallowe’en, I decided to set aside our usual programme, asking them if they would like to tell spooky stories instead. They enthusiastically agreed. I no longer recall what order we worked in, nor what the stories were. Most of the girls had a strange tale to tell, then it was over to me.

“Go on, Miss, tell us one of yours !”

I can no longer remember whether I told them one of the chilling stories  handed down by my mother from her side of the family, or whether it was one of my own experiences. But I do recall with vivid clarity what occurred next. At the climax of my creepy tale, both the stage sets fell forward, clattering onto the bare floor of the studio with a deafening crash…..

After we had recovered somewhat from our shock and fright, the students and I went over to examine the stage sets. With some difficulty, since they were heavy and hard to manoeuvre, we restored them to upright positions. They were perfectly stable. There was absolutely no reason why they should have fallen over, none at all. There had been no vibrations, or wind. It was not possible for someone to have come into the studio without our noticing. Had anyone been hiding in the studio and pushed the stage sets over, they could not have got out without being seen.

Subdued and silent, we left to go home in a tight little group, furtively glancing behind us until we reached the comfort of the well-lit streets. I would be willing to bet that none of those present with me that night have ever forgotten it!

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Do you have a spooky story you’d like to share during this Hallowe’en week? Do leave as a comment – should the spirits move you…

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To read more of my ‘weird’ experiences, check out my recently updated memoir “Wisps from the Dazzling Darkness : an open-minded take on paranormal experience” 

wisps-from-the-dazzling-darkness#2

700 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

“I have known autumn too long”: e e cummings captures Autumn’s fleeting melancholy

Today, feeling drifty and pleasantly melancholic as befits the season, I went looking for an apt quote to accompany my two autumn pictures, taken earlier this week on a glorious, cooling, sunlit autumnal walk toward my office at the far edge of lovely Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, Scotland, UK .Here is the quote, from one of my favourite poets, e.e.cummings, born, appropriately, on 14th October. For me, it strikes the right notes of simplicity, power and bleakness.

“A wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away, and the trees stand. I think, I too, have known autumn too long.”

e. e. cummings

Enjoy the photos! Feel free, also, to add a favourite autumnal quote of your own in the comments box, should the spirit of autumn move you to do so…

Sunlit Path

Sunlit Path

Leaf Fall

Leaf Fall

photos: Anne Whitaker

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200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Books, books, glorious books…in praise of Indie Book Stores…

There we were, the 6’5″ nephew and myself, leaving Waterstone’s, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, UK last year without buying a book. What a triumph of willpower over two lots of biblio-addiction! And then –  a title caught my eye: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops”

This book is irresistible!

This book is irresistible!

“Hang on a minute”, I said to the nephew, ” just a quick look. I won’t buy it, honest…”

However, after a fast flick revealed the following gems offered by its author, Jen Campbell : ‘Can books conduct electricity?’ ‘Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?’ ‘Excuse me… is this book edible?’ I gave in. Yes, Reader, you have guessed correctly. I bought it – and went on to have the best laugh I had had for ages, perusing (as one five-star reviewer memorably put it )‘… some absolute howlers from the misinformed beast that is the general public…’

This affecting little tale is offered to demonstrate two things. One, the fundamentally irresistible nature of books to book addicts, in this case the nephew and myself.( It is always a great comfort to share book addiction with a fellow spirit). And two, the importance of having a good bookshop in your local area into which you can stroll any time you feel like distracting yourself from Life’s Onerous Challenges (fill in according to your particular current oppression). If there is also good coffee on offer, so much the better.

The above will explain why I could barely contain my excitement over this summer on finding out that an independent bookshop, ie a new branch of Waterstones,  was returning to Byres Road, Glasgow, about fifteen years after our much loved and lamented local John Smith’s bookshop had fallen victim to the march of regress.

The shop has received a warm welcome from shoppers in Glasgow’s West End. “Almost every single person who has come in has complimented the staff, the store and the fact that we’re here,” reported bookshop manager Xavier Jones-Barlow shortly after the shop opened on 29th August. The following day, I was fortunate to capture a moment of fun and frolic whilst passing by.

No, not Hallowe'en...

No, not Hallowe’en…

 No, I was assured, it wasn’t Hallowe’en in a time warp. It was a book launch. Waterstones has started as it means to go on!

What is the indie book situation where you live? I’d be most interested to know. I found a cheering article from earlier this year on USA’s The Daily Beast, titled Indie Bookstores Are Finally Not Dying , which carried the following optimistic comment: “In reality more bookstores have opened than closed in the last couple of years in the U.S. They have always been and will always be anchors in many communities.”

So – let’s all go out there and support our local bookstores, shall we? And the next time I visit your  friendly and brilliantly well-stocked Waterstones store, Xavier, I promise the nephew and I will buy at least one book each…

Books!

Books!

500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015/”Witches” Photo copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

 

To change the world – start in your own back yard!

We don’t need astrologers to tell us we are living in a period of remarkable turbulence and change. The evidence is all around us: from our teetering and corrupt banking systems, to the declining health of Planet Earth whose dominant species, humans, at current rates of consumption require the resources of three and a half planet earths to sustain us. Amongst many problems greatly on the increase against this backdrop are obesity, social inequality, the social and economic burdens of an ageing population – and fast rising anxiety and depression rates.

Our Beautiful Planet:Facebook

Our Beautiful Planet/Facebook

Apparently the overall index of increased happiness as material prosperity grew, peaked in the mid-seventies, then declined. The rot, it seems, set in in 1976….

However, humans have always been incredibly adaptable creatures and there is plenty of room for optimism in the midst of the current gloom. We are poised collectively on an interesting cusp, which many people see as the pivotal point of recognition that the materialist project which has so dominated all life since the rise of Age of Reason in the 18th Century is crumbling, and a new world order or paradigm is emerging.

Materialism has brought us incredible advances, but is bringing our planet and the systems governing our collective lives, to a dangerous edge.

The new paradigm emerging, in essence, invites us to respect and work with the ecological balance of our home planet. It also invites us to recognise that there are many levels to “Reality” – the material level is just one of these. It is not suggesting that we should attempt to put the genie of progress back in the bottle and recreate a “Golden Age” which never existed.

It invites us to go forward into the future bearing the best that scientific and material progress has to offer, but also the best of what human civilisation has distilled over its six thousand years of social evolution which offers proven nourishment of both a physical and spiritual nature to all life on Planet Earth.

We can see evidence of this new paradigm’s emergence all over the planet in large and small ways. To give just one example, the principles of the “Slow Food” movement which began in Italy over two decades ago have taken root and flourished all over the world.

All of us, at a collective, local, and personal level have a part we can play in this paradigm shift. I have been posting now for several years, reporting the remarkable developments taking place in our local area of the city of Glasgow, Scotland, UK, via The Children’s Wood campaign which promotes outdoor education and community activity  via a precious patch of wild land  – which we are fighting to save from the clutches of developers.

Children's Wood Protest

Children’s Wood Protest

What’s happening where you are?

Drop by. Comment. Do let me know!

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500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015/ ‘Not for Sale!’ Photo copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

As summer ends…the sea, glorious woods, and TWO Buddhas!

The sea, the sea…taken from the window of our train at Dawlish, en route to Totnes, Devon, UK. I love gazing out at horizons. A favourite memory is of sitting at a street cafe in the atmospheric seaside town of Lagos, Portugal, gazing out at a vast, shimmering horizon. Henry the Navigator, in the 15th Century, had boldly gone across that very line into the Great Unknown. It was 1995 – the start of a boldly-going period of human expansiveness. Little did we know then that technology was poised to deliver the Internet worldwide, changing all our lives. And I was poised for an educational adventure of my own..

The sea, the sea!

The sea, the sea!

Here is some local colour out and about round Totnes, Devon, UK where we were running away, hiding from our home in Glasgow’s extensive repainting job. First, cousin Michael’s wonderful flower garden. Second, Buckfast Abbey’s sumptuous gilded interior, after its extensive restoration. And last but not least: Ian doing some hands-on healing on a very quirky stone Buddha. Always the optimist, that man…😜

Glorious Garden

Glorious Garden

Gilded Altar, Buckfast Abbey, UK

Gilded Altar, Buckfast Abbey, UK

Will it work?

Will it work?

We spent a morning walking in the beguilingly beautiful, tranquil Dartington Estate, upriver from Totnes, in glorious autumn sunshine. And found, tucked away, another Buddha. A delightful highlight, complete with sunflower offering from us.

Buddha with Sunflower

Buddha with Sunflower

And now – we are home…but Totnes always seems to call us back...

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250 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015/ Photos copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page