Three Translucent Fans

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

Tripping the Writerhood Switch

With 87 kph winds currently howling through our valley, telephone and internet connections are intermittent. All of us who depend on the web for work are thrown back and forth between a flurry of activity while the connection lasts, and a kind of restless lethargy when it goes off again. Something doesn’t feel right; it’s as though our world comes in and out of focus without our own volition.

And it’s true that something isn’t quite right when work determines the day so powerfully. A prolonged bout of poor health recently obliged me to lie on the sofa for a full day with a fever, devouring the entire Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin.

lf

Turning the last page I was almost completely recovered. I had become ill because of working too hard, rushing about without achieving very much, but it was more the speed with which I was working – not unlike a squirrel frantically storing hazelnuts for a winter that is always immanent – that brought on the illness.

So, taking off a glorious week to lie in bed, read novels again after what seems like eons, crochet water bottle carriers, and potter about in my garden with cuttings and seeds, I’ve been reflecting on how I can square my desire to achieve with my need for a sane pace.

One of the less stressful things I’ve been working on is a writing group for mums, complete with breastfeeding babies, scattered popcorn, felt pens and potties. We get a surprising amount done in the space of an hour and a half, despite all the interruptions; my theory is that mothers have such a compressed urge to write that when they get half the chance it explodes out, filling a very limited period of time as well as an ordinary writer would struggle to fill a whole morning.

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The output is pithy, full of ideas that could later be explored and extended…once the last load of laundry is done and the kids are asleep and the dishes…oh, never mind.

This is the knot I’ve always got myself into with my writerly commitments: I add up all the ‘work’ I do – paid, house, garden, shopping, ferrying around kids, remedying ailments, conflict resolution, advising on deep philosophical dilemmas for small children such as how the sky stays up, etc. – and the time left over for anything I wish to do by myself is as small as a microchip in the neck of the hulking St. Bernard of my day.

So I think: “Well, I can always sleep another time! Like, when I’m dead!” And I stay up until 3am writing at a pace I’d usually reserve for fleeiing dangerous criminals chasing me with nunchucks. Then the predictable results the next day of rattiness, poor communication, conflict creation instead of resolution, bad answers to philosophical dilemmas (such as “You’re giving me a headache”), no laundry done for days, no clean dishes, cat food casserole after food was chosen badly in the supermarket due to eyes being half-open, etc. etc. etc.

There are a few ways to deal with this equation, as far as I can see.

1) Don’t write anything until the children have left home. By this time you may be rocking in a padded cell in Belmarsh, but this will only make your magnus opus more sellable after your death. Everyone loves an insane, dead writer.

2) Miraculously get a publisher to pay you to write, thus converting your funnest activity into your paid work and inserting it into the list of daily jobs, rather than adding to it. (This is the part I am stuck on. Most publishers want to see a finished piece, which is currently impossible to achieve – see above.)

3) Trickle along, catching half an hour here and there to write something which you have no time to edit, which is incidentally great training for writing well the first time around. This process is MUCH easier in company; it’s as if you are in a hall of mirrors and the luminosity generated by focusing your attention on a creative stream is reflected back, multiplied. Thus the benefits of a writing group (see my previous post Creativity Catalysts).

There is another possibility, which is tied to b), that of winning a short story competition, and thus bringing your talent to the attention of readers and publishers and judges, hopefully facilitating the book deal. But first prizes don’t always respond to genuinely great stories; often it has more to do with trends (ugh, the word alone makes me cringe) and the internal politics of publishing, i.e. what will sell.

But the point of writing isn’t to win anything, if we really come down to it. It’s about being right there in the writing, in the moment, lost to everything else for a while. The day I spent reading about the wizard of Earthsea I realised that my ego had been out on a long, fine rope all that time, while I was engrossed in the story. I wasn’t analysing the metanarrative or memorising facts, as I would be with non-fiction or news. I wasn’t planning, or remembering, or critiquing. There was nothing but the story playing out in my consciousness.

And the experience isn’t so different with writing. While the editorial, critical mind is out of the way, and the subconscious blooms out of its usual hiding places, none of the trivial worries of the world matter – for a time.

Lost in Scribblation

Lost in Scribblation

Two things have come out of these past weeks for me. One is that reading fiction is not some idle luxury for people who don’t have anything else to do. It can be a genuine healing for people who have a hard time making time to rest, and whose minds are usually chattering too hard and too loud to listen to the need to do so.

The other is that work itself is not a mode we switch into at will, switching it off at the end of the day, the way my internet is doing at the moment. We don’t put our minds into suspended animation when we clock off, nor do we put our souls on ice when we clock on. Work and living are enmeshed so deeply that it turns us into temporary automata to try and separate them. As Khalil Gibran once said, ‘Work is love made visible’.

We can work restfully, and live purposefully, and the seams between the two can fade to faint topographical lines on the maps we live on. And we can try, if at all possible, not devote any of our creative energy to the fantasy of that miracle occurring, the one with the book deal, and the cleaner, and the entire day to write…for if it did happen, would the writing be such a sweet release?

On One Line

Books have become my butterflies
alive for just one day or less
before the surf of routine comes
crashing down overhead
raising my feet
from ocean bed
helterskeltering along
the pages soaked
and distant.

These beings are reincarnated
every time I snatch
a moment’s
breath
released from their oceanic
suspension
open, new again
the plots and connections
different this time.

Books have become a bus stop
scratched with teenage loves
willing the passerby to want
to flee their own lives for an hour
a day, a night journey
to foreign towns, a round trip
when the back page flips shut –
but I always miss
the transport.

Books have become my hoopoes
trilling some way off, a
flash of black and white
too fluttersome to stay whenever
I approach.
Gone!
Perhaps I’ll catch a feather.

And on one feather I can fly
hit thermals so high even one line
would make me a kite and glide
over terrains no-one will ever see but I.

On just one letter I could ride to
caverns, canyons, cascades
altitude lakes blue as eyes
dry, red-streaked rocks and corporeal dunes
spruce forests so dense sounds
would fight to reach our ears
clearings where stand in moonlight
roundhouses of polished wood
in which I find circles of lovers
of the Word.

They must exist!
And I am going
by any vehicle
necessary
to find them.

Zende Creative Retreat, April 2014

Aside

Most of you are more used to reading my rambles about spooning porridge out of my kids’ hair or a flash of insight had whilst shearing sheep…but I would just like to take a moment to mention a beautiful new project I’m currently working on.

For many years I have toyed with the idea of running a retreat in Spain, aimed at (but not exclusive to) Muslims of a spiritual bent who wish to explore their creative depths in an open-minded, relaxing and enjoyable way.

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A few months ago, a dear sister, poet, writer and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab came to a town near where I live for a writing retreat, and came to stay for a few days afterwards. As well as her beautiful company, her enthusiasm for a poetry retreat in Órgiva got me making some moves on this dream…

…and Zende Creative Retreats was born!

Image

For a small town, there is an absurd amount of untapped artistic talent here. Two master calligraphers, musicians, artists, poets…and in this setting of outstanding natural beauty, where a walk can take you to natural springs, waterfalls, ruined Moorish castles and watchtowers, through gnarled cork oak forests or up green slopes with views of the sea, it is understandable that many people might find this place the scene of great inspiration.

Drawn by the abundance of the natural surroundings, the good food and (very importantly for us Brits) the sunshine, this valley is blessed with seekers from all different walks of life. And as Muslims we find a connection here to a Western Islamic civilisation that brings us a new understanding of who we are. The footprints of Spanish Muslims who lived here barely 500 years ago seem only just beneath the surface of the soil. In the language, the food, the customs, the agricultural traditions – there is still a subtle but tangible presence of Islam here in the south of Spain. Perhaps this is the closest we come to a homeland.

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Yet it is so easy to get lost in nostalgia, in grieving for golden times past. It is clear that this spirit needs to be maintained in something contemporary, something we can relate to, something alive…

Zende, meaning ‘alive’ in Persian, is the gathering that so many of us have been longing for. Zende Creative Retreats are unique in the field of study-abroad holidays, as a primarily creative experience designed to cater to Muslim interests while maintaining a universal and open attitude to all guests, from all backgrounds.

Pommes de Granada

Pommes de Granada

What is it that makes us feel alive? For many of us it can be felt through our spirituality, our search for (and discovery of) meaning in the strange, at times incomprehensible world we live in. When events fall into some sort of order, when we perceive harmony even through our difficulties, a light opens up through the darkness.

But these moments of insight often seem rarer than a pearl in a Big Mac. Surely there’s something we can do, some activity to calm our minds while we dive within to find to pearl we’re looking for?

dscf0625

In our experience, writing calligraphy and poetry do just that, filling us with peace and reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature, in life, in our own selves. So much confusion and pain can be transmuted into a work of art or literature that not only gives tremendous enjoyment to the artist but also to those receiving it.

To complement the brief but packed programme of calligraphy and poetry, led by facilitators Asghar Alkaei Behjat, Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, Ni’mah Nawwab and myself, we have scheduled yoga at dawn, led by highly experienced instructor Monica Poyato, and walks in the mountains with Ahmad Zaruq Summers of the Granada-based tour company Al-Andalus Experience. This offers us a way to leave the classroom and incorporate our physical selves into the creative experience, as well as providing a great deal of inspiration for our work.

Abdal Hayy bio pic

We are blessed to have the poet ‘Abd al-Hayy Moore coming all the way from Philadelphia to speak about poetry and give us a performance of his work. Ebullient, funny and inspiring, ‘Abd al-Hayy comes from the Beat generation of poets from 1960s California, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Western Sufi poetry.

There will also be a chance for retreat guests to perform a few of the pieces they have worked on in the course of the weekend on the last day alongside the phenomenal Ali Keeler and Firdaus Ensemble and some of the workshop facilitators.

To put our landscape into perspective we’ll have a talk on Andalusi history, with particular focus on the great writers and thinkers who have contributed to classical and even modern thought, by Tahira Larmore, who is currently working on a travel guide to Muslim Spain for Turath Publishing. And if you thought that Persian calligraphy was out of place in Spain, this is when you’ll discover just how much Persian influence there was in Andalusi culture!

We’ll also have a Qasida singing workshop given by ‘Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, giving us a rare opportunity to take the ecstatic poems we’ve worked on in calligraphy and learn to sing them.

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The weekend comes to a climax with a visit to the Alhambra palace, one of the great wonders of the world and the site and inspiration of many a poem. Guests who wish to extend their trip can also choose to visit Cordoba before the retreat and/or extend their stay in Granada afterwards.

The programme, bios of the facilitators and details on booking your place on the retreat can all be found by clicking here to visit the website.

From all the Zende Creative team, we wish you a beautiful start to 2014 and hope to see you for some artistic adventure!

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

2012 in review

Flamin’ Nora…what a year! From dying sheep to the dawn of new love, 2012 has been a wild ride for me, one which thankfully involved no Armageddons, zombie apocalypses or Taliban invasions of the Western world. I have to hand it to all of my dear readers, who – to my great surprise – numbered more than the ten people I regularly harass to read my blog, in fact coming from 90 countries all over the world. Yes, that’s right! There are more than 90 countries in the world! I was surprised, too.

It’s been a joy and a test for me to keep writing, sharing even when it is almost too close to the nerve to think about, let alone sending it out for the whole wide world and their auntie Brenda to see; what’s made it worthwhile have been the comments left by my readers, not just agreeing but bringing new facets of a thing to light until it seems at times we are archaeologists digging out the recent past from the mud of the present, brushing it tenderly to clarity, together.

It’s also been an amazing journey reading about what is close to other people’s nerves, the bloggers who have chosen to undertake the same archaeologist’s path, sharing their findings with this virtual community that seems ever more vivid despite being separated by wires, thousands of miles, and the anonymity of avatars. Thankyou kind Cavereaders. May 2013 be a time of fulfilment, beauty, and letting go for all of us. Blessed be.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

This blog got about 6,400 views in 2012.

Click here to see the complete report.

Creativity and the Dervish

I’ve been quiet lately on this blog, in fact ever since being Freshly Pressed (rather a nice feeling, a bit like being squashed through a mangle – perhaps this explains my new juicing craze). But it’s been an interesting hiatus.

I finally got round to reading Stephen Pressfield‘s fantastically insightful ‘The War of Art’, a book destined for people who have always nursed a dream to do some life-defining act of creativity, or make a longed-for enterprise a reality, or take on a spiritual practice – in short, anything that leads the soul from a lower state to a higher one – and yet who consistently find ways to sabotage their own fulfilment. Why, you ask? Because of Private Enemy Number One: Resistance.

Resistance, Pressfield declares, is that part of you that makes up excuses for not doing whatever activity it is that will satisfy the soul’s longing: ‘I’m not ready yet’, ‘I just need to sort out a few things first’, ‘I need to learn more’, ‘People will laugh at me for trying,’ ‘It’ll probably be rubbish’, ‘I have so many other interests, too’, and ‘Just one more click on YouTube’. (The Internet is Resitance’s evil twin sibling.)

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(Copyright M Whiteman, 2012)

Looking around my house, I have discovered that it is in fact a monument to my own Resistance. Instead of finishing the immensely personal novel that I have been trailing around behind me like a liferaft on a rope for the last ten years, I have made ragdolls, clothes for ragdolls, patchwork quilts, clothes for myself and the Cavekids, toy tomatoes out of felt, an unfinished wooden kitchen, an unfinished wooden doll’s house, pillows and blankets for said doll’s house, a panoply of cardboard houses and cars, and umpteen origami animals, paper darts, glue paintings of dried flowers, pipe cleaner people and animals. Even the poems, short stories, articles, and paintings I produce ad hoc are a kind of distraction from the real oeuvre I need to be doing. (Let’s not even mention the blog…)

The core message of the War of Art is that the more you fear doing something, the more you shy away from doing it and find something more pleasant or immediately gratifying to do, the more important it is to your souls’ evolution.

The similarity to Sufism’s call to beware of the nafs (lower self, ego) while on the path of God-consciousness is striking. Pressfield’s theory is based on Jung’s concept of the ego as being a tiny dot in a much larger sphere of consciousness called the Self, which is not confined to the individual but in fact is a part of the collective consciousness. This Self derives its existence from Divine ground.

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(Copyright Pmisak, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

The ego doesn’t like the Self; its vastness makes it feel threatened and small, so the ego reacts by attacking our desire to transcend it, belittling our efforts, convincing us that it is hopeless or stupid to do so, and justifying itself with a catalogue of perfectly rational proofs why.

However, if the soul’s evolution depends upon traversing a path that is sometimes actually torture to carry out, then it becomes clear that there is not always just one path that will yield fruits for the hungering soul. A mother with small children who yearns to complete an artistic odyssey is one example. (Hello!)

Here’s is where it starts getting complicated. Your children aren’t part of your ego. They are an astonishing, miraculous, and frequently insanely testing part of your experience on this planet. We don’t NEED an artistic odyssey to give us this arduous voyage of self-discovery; we have one right here in front of us. It keeps us up all night screaming with teething pain, or pukes all over your nice dress when you are about to go out, or tells you that it doesn’t like the cool recycled cardboard castle you’ve just spent hours constructing for it. Your patience, resolve, ingenuity, wisdom and wits are challenged on a daily basis. Why bother looking for ANOTHER vehicle that will do the same thing on a creative or entrepreneurial level?

The answer, I believe, lies in the experience of the creative process. Opening the floodgates of creativity takes you out of the tiny, cramped niche that your ego sits in and takes you out into the wide open plains of the Self. Insights emerge naturally, as though you are simply a bird flying over a landscape, spotting a fish in a river below.
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(Copyright George Burba, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

This flight is something that every single human being needs – and needs frequently. Once you have a taste for it, you develop a thirst that will see you pushing yourself to your absolute limits of tiredness to return there. How do we get to that state, that supra-individual consciousness? I reckon there are four ways to effect it: spiritually-intended rituals (prayer, meditation), creative expression, orgasm, and so-called mind-expanding drugs.

Let’s think about it for a minute. In a society where the first of these four has all but been banished by consumerist fetishism and rabidly anti-traditional rhetoric, what is left to us? We seek that enlivening expansion in music, in dance, in sex, in drugs. But in each of those phases, another element is added, another bargaining chip for the ego that wants to sabotage the beauty and simplicity of that experience, until in the last one the unavoidable fact of physical addiction and possible destruction comes into play.

There is no avoiding our need for leaping beyond the bounds of our tiny minds and feeling united with all beings, for having a taste of Being itself. My experience of creative writing really is like gliding through in a current of feelings, images, ideas and meanings that seem to come from way beyond oneself. Writing a story feels like teasing it out of the ether and into materiality, through no other talent of your own than some kind of literary mediumship.

But this is a world that needs guides, that requires discipline. Shamans don’t learn their art by a desultory glance at Wikipedia. Dervishes don’t become dervishes by wearing the latest trend in woollen robes. Great artists, those whose egos are eclipsed by the light they transmit from this expansive realm, don’t become great by faffing about on Facebook all day. We live in a society that is so driven by the need to keep people spending, to keep people consuming, to keep people insecure enough to feel they need some new product, that fighting against this tide is in itself a herculean task.

That is why it is so worthwhile. That is why creativity is a poke in the eye for the crushingly hollow culture of shopping and consumption that so strangles us. That is why, even when there are a million and one necessities tearing my attention in all directions, I will stay up late whenever I can and leave the dishes for the morning, to write, to dream, to fly.

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(Copyright Krishgun01, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

N.B. I just watched John Cleese’s excellent talk on creativity and entering the playful, open state of mind necessary for it – it’s well worth a watch.

Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?

Aside

Farewell, Rambinos.

It’s been a pretty intense time on the El Cura ranch. The heat of August soared to 46 degrees centigrade (that’s 115 Fahrenheit to alla y’all), and while some of us were metaphysically dying in the heat, three of the sheep we are looking after on our house farm-sit literally died from it.

The first one I found in the bunker underneath the alberca/swimming pool. It was dusk, and I had left Caveboy with my parents to take down to the Sufi watering hole for iftar (yes, there were actually people fasting from food and water in this heat). Usually I give the sheep food (hay or ‘forraje’, dried herby grass, plus oats and water) at sundown, and put them into their shed to keep them safe from wild dogs.

But while counting them up, I kept trying to make them add up to eight, and getting confused at only finding seven. Cavegirl was meanwhile yawning and rubbing her eyes, hungry and dinnerless, but nevertheless determined to ‘help’ me. I was in a rush to get to the iftar meal, and ended up running up and down the hectare of land looking for the last lost lamb.

Finding the prostrate woolly figure of the poor beast under the swimming pool sent me into a state of total panic. What the heck…?! My husband was away working at a festival in Portugal, I was on my own, my kids needed to eat…in a mad flap I ran about looking for the right course of action. OK, ring the sheep’s owners…and then what? The only sensible answer that came back was to go have something to eat and wait for morning.

Dead sheep number one buried, I thought my turn as sheep-sitter was already looking pretty bad, when a few nights later, just as I had just got my kids to sleep, I heard a tremendous clattering and baaing going on in the barn.

Still in my stripy PJs, with a pitifully small bicycle lamp in hand and a swell of trepidation in my chest, I crept out to see if someone was trying to steal the animals, or a dog was eating one of them alive.

But the most peculiar thing confronted me. One of the lambs (a full-grown ewe, really) was lying on her side, running like a stabbed bull. Her hooves scraped the wooden sides in a hollow, futile gallop; her teeth were grinding, her head thrown back, eyes swivelling up in white-striped terror, foam frothing at the side of her mouth.

Stunned, but strangely set into pragmatic mode, I went back to the house in search of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the only thing I could think of that might calm her down as it has done a hundred times on my tantruming kids. It did the trick; the gallops started coming in waves, interspersed with peaceful lulls in which she panted in a a paralysed trance.

I also did the other thing that comes to mind when trying to calm my kids down, which was to sing them the last few chapters of Qur’an in a lullaby voice. Slowly the gallops became less insistent, the pauses for breath a little more protracted.

I started wondering what on earth was wrong with her; I was reminded of an experiment on cats I’d seen a film of in which scientists had removed the part of the brain responsible for paralysing the body during REM sleep. Sleeping cats were filmed acting out physically all of the actions it was obviously dreaming about – running, biting, hunting. The thought crossed my mind: Is she dreaming? Or is she dying?

Despite the puny LED light shed by my torch, what struck me about the musty, dung-perfumed atmosphere of the scene was its primordial, almost Biblical nature. How many times must this have happened in the past, in exactly the same way? The other sheep were absolutely calm now that their shepherdess was there (oh, how naïve sheep are!) and carried on munching their hay blithely. Meanwhile, her legs became stiffer and stiffer – presumably the root of the Spanish expression for ‘kicking the bucket’, ‘estirar la pata’ (to stretch out one’s leg). Perhaps that’s where’ kicking the bucket’ comes from too.

It was abundantly clear now that she was dying. A powerful peace descended on us, and I was overcome by the sensation of what people describe as an angelic presence, in that way that precedes the verbal formulation of it being angelic. In my tearful, sleep-deprived state I felt almost as though I was witnessing the birth of Jesus, in an anachronistic barn that had landed on the wrong continent in a malfunctioning time machine.

I finally left her to her dying stupor, and somehow the peculiarity of the experience ebbed to the sort of stoical acceptance worthy of a weather-beaten peasant farmer, or even, perhaps, a sheep. The lamb had been born in that barn, so it seemed kind of sensical for her to die there too. Life and death are, after all, both threshold experiences, opposites ends of the roll of film but double-exposed, different panoramas both taken with the same lens.

“Only ewe….”

Now slightly inured to the visceral, animal vision of death – this time, according to the vet, it was caused by septicaemia – I was better prepared (though pretty dismayed) to see another lamb wobble dangerously on his feet as he came down to the barn a few evenings later, collapsing as he arrived. I had to grab him under the belly and hoist him into the shed to be able to close the door, but he stood there in a daze, not rooting around int he boxes of hay like they usually do.

The kids were picked up by their dad at 10pm that night; I had to get him to heft all 50 kilos of the poor beast out of the shed onto the cool ground in the light of the car headlamps before they went (much appreciate it, ex-Caveman). I then put on my gingham lycra campesina superhero outfit and sprang into action, making phone calls and racing into town to find rehydration salts.

En route I co-opted a few friends who gave me packs of salts and sugar, and another who obligingly came down with her son at 11 pm to help lift the lamb’s head up while I shoved a syringe of salty sugary liquids down its throat. Over a litre went down in 40 ml doses, sometimes trickling out straight away as he had lost the strength almost to swallow. His teeth chattered against the plastic of the syringe; a heavy fever had already set in. He lolled his head back, panting, dragging his legs back and forth across the grass, making straw angels in the dirt.

At midnight we all withdrew. There was nothing else to do, short of sleeping on the manure-imbued earth beside the barn to keep watch over him, but I’m afraid I couldn’t muster up the saintliness for that. In the morning I went straight over to see if he was OK, but he was exactly where I’d left him, immobile, eyes dusty and frozen, his oily wool coated in icy dew.

Dramas aplenty for one week, you might think. But no, this is the Alpujarras, land of pirates with green moustaches and hippies selling balls of enchanted mud in the market – anything that can go weird, will!

So two days later, due to various bureacratic headaches, and probably a truck-driver who has just now decided to go on holiday, the carcass of Rambino number 3 is still lying under a plastic window blind on the edge of the land, rotting (I am waiting for the campsite next-door to start complaining of the stench). Yes folks, now is not a good time to come and visit Cavemum.

And to top it all off, in the midst of that bubonic hum, together with my new friend Ricardo – a seriously cool old man from the mountains who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this sort of thing – I helped sheared the remaining five sheep this morning…with my kitchen scissors. Actually he used my kitchen scissors, I used my sewing scissors; I had to wash off the greenish lanolin with Ecover afterwards.

Shearing a sheep by hand is quite an amusing experience. Pinning them down is one thing; one of the feisty mamas carried Ricardo halfway across the land while he clung onto its collar for dear life. Then we had to tie three of its legs (leaving one free so it can still breath alright), and get to work snipping away a two-inch deep layer of wool so dense and encrusted with mud and God knows what else that it seems we were chopping up a very unsavoury hippie’s foam mattress. Twice a sheep protested by spontaneously pooing all over the mounting heap of wool.

It took an hour and a half, during which time we bantered about life and drugs and divorce and farming and Kenya and brain tumours and all sorts. Nothing like a tough physical job and a conversation with a weather-beaten man of the earth to set you right. After a vigorous cold shower (my gas bottle is empty), I left for the market feeling on top of the world,remembering why I was drawn to a life on the land in the first place. It’s real life, in all its shiny, delicious, stinky, hilarious glory.

Well, I have blisters from the scissors on my writing hand, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to make for good material. (Writing material, I mean, not fabric. I don’t think I’ll be washing that wool to make felt with anytime soon.)