Shamanism

Poetry is shamanism
for people who have lost the hang of it
whose bond has been severed
by the glass-shard-sharp
edge of brutality
or lost in
the muddle of
forgetting
abandoned in a frenzy of updating
running as horses do beside a train
never able to keep up, always exhausted
while the metal caterpillar
never gets out of breath.

Poetry is a shamanism
that requires no psychotropic
but curiosity
no bloody sacrifice
but your lacerated heart
no ritual but the rhythmic
scratching of pen or
tap-tapping of keys;
bodypaint is optional.

Poetry could be shamanism
for everyone ashamed of shamans
afraid of soothsayers and dreamings
unnerved by foreign words with
untranslatable meanings
whose minds fight feelings
discard them as they do
vegetable peelings
people for whom the unseen is a
room with a bust lightbulb
who fumble around in it
aching for a light.

But a poem – a poem
gives you ten more hands
a billion more nerve endings
feline eyes that see in the dark
the sure-pawed tread of a lion
certainty that although you do not know the way
it will become clear as you go
and you’ll see glimmering blue eyes
the nightmare scars of horrors
those lived and those handed down
and the poem will name them
give them the recognition they seek
and let them slip away into the
soft, enfolding gloom
that no longer seems a pincushion
of fearful unknowns
but the solace of a mother’s arms:
here, baby, let me take your pain
and absorb it ’til your pen runs dry.

Advertisements

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!

Creativity Catalysts

It’s always more fun writing in a group. The camaraderie, the coffee, the small talk between exercises – and then there’s the tickling urgency of the clock. But something more is shared. Crumbs. Oxygen. Time.

And you get to know people through listening to them read out their writing. Shyly, confidently, sadly, bitterly, laughingly, passionately. I get the feeling that despite sitting at a round table covered in waffly paper, tostadas and cafe con leches vying for space with sprawling notebooks, in fact we are on a boat, each one of us dipping our hand into the water as we speed along, feeling the cool liquid slip over our fingertips, sifting out seaweed, bits of fishing wire, perhaps even a fish.

Rumi once said: ‘In a boat down a fast-moving creek, it seems that the reeds are moving by. What seems to be changing around us is actually the speed of our craft leaving this world.’ With his words in mind, here are a few creative writing exercises to get your outboard motor spluttering into action, so that you and your writing can get out into the open sea.

Raid the Fridge

For this exercise you will need to invite yourself to someone’s house, let off a small remote-controlled firecracker or similar distracting device on their front lawn so they leave you alone in their kitchen for five minutes, and quickly open all the doors in their pantry, fridge, freezer, oven and write down twenty items of food.

Now, when you need inspiration to kickstart your writing, pick a word at random (it can help to write them on separate pieces of paper and pick them out of a hat). Let the smells rush through your nostrils, the tastes enliven your mouth, the image remind you of that Thai restaurant, your university days, an English summer day watching the cricket…(don’t forget to pick up your pen at this point).

Substitutes

Take two short pieces of your own writing or extracts copied from a book. With a coloured pen, underline all of the adjectives in both pieces. (You might want to use different colours for each one.) Now rewrite one of the extracts, substituting an adjective from the other piece for each highlighted adjective you come to. The more different the styles of each piece, the more peculiar and funny the exercise will be.

Photofit

Cut out pictures of people from Sunday newspaper supplements (usually more real and interesting than magazine faces). Keep them in a folder somewhere. When stuck for a character, take out the wad of pictures and one will jump out at you (try not to pee your pants when it does).

Rewrite

Pick a piece of your own bad writing, the worst you can find. Now swap it with a friend’s worst bit of writing, and each of you rewrite the other’s piece, changing it as much as you like. Having something concrete to hack to pieces, without fear of offending, is a great starting point when you’re lost for words.

Style Queen

Brainstorm all the styles of writing you can think of – comedy, horror, romance, fantasy, period drama, chick lit, tabloid, magic realism, futuristic and so on. Write them down on separate pieces of paper and fold each one up. Now write down possible scenarios, such as: child buying sweets from a shop, a teenage girl telling her parents she’s pregnant; a man running over a dog in his car; a politician accidentally using a swearword live on camera; a boat sinking; a couple arguing, and so on. Write each of these down on other bits of paper and fold them up.

Now close your eyes, have a rummage, and take one of each. Write the scene in the genre.

Swap Shop

Each person writes a title for their neighbour’s mini-story (one page or so).

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Make a list of, say, ten proverbs, quotes or hackneyed statements. (Try http://quotes.dictionary.com, or http://www.phrases.org.uk if you get stuck.) Now choose one at a time and create a scene that illustrates the statement without mentioning it explicitly.

My favourite: Chinese Scribbles

Each person begins with a strip of paper. At the top they write something – anything, song lyrics, a strange image, a bit of speech, whatever. The more abstract, or the harder it is to draw, the better.

Now everyone passes the paper to their neighbour, who draws what you’ve written. They now fold over your writing and pass it on to their neighbour, who writes what they’ve drawn. Continue thus, folding over the last-but-one contribution each time. Feel free to fall off the sofa laughing, shrieking with absurd glee and spurting your beverage out through your nose as you see the wildest creatures ever created in Biro evolve from the primordial soup of your communal imaginations.

Unroll the strips of paper when there is no more room to write and read out the Chinese Whispers. (The drawings are usually the funniest bit. Be sure to invite someone who has no qualms about drawing abysmally.)

With that, dear writing readers, I leave you to your beckoning pens, hoping they will moonlight for you as oars.

The Battle to Surrender

Yesterday I felt first-hand the studded battlement walls of surrender. It was a shock; I had always thought I was doing rather well with the whole surrendering thing – I do my prayers, yadda yadda yadda – but now I’ve touched its actual perimeters and seen that no meek and compliant person could scale those walls.

That morning it had been my turn to lead our creative writing group; it went well, after much hassle of finding lifts (my car has kicked the bucket) and printing out worksheets (my printer is likewise pushing up paperchain daisies) and leaving kids in various places to be looked after. The class had gone well, with one person even commenting that I should run creativity retreats (something I have longed to do for many years). I was feeling rather grand.

With all this excitement, pride and caffeine swishing about my brain, however, I was on such a high that when it came time to calm down, return to a mumsier pace and make a meal, I nosedived. The urge to rush about, achieve things, create masterpieces and be ‘on my way’ (somewhere abstract and shiny) rendered the simplest task of welcoming my kids home and cooking something reasonably edible a crippling, outrageous imposition.

Needless to say, things went swiftly downhill. The tofu I’d just opened was so revoltingly off that I had to shower and change my clothes afterwards, the smell was so offensive (I did wonder afterwards if it was in fact a material expression of the interior stench made by my ego putrefying). Caveboy had a yelling fit. Cavebabe peed on the chair. I drizzled a supposedly über-healthy oil on my food (‘rich in alpha-linoleic oil!’) that made the whole plate taste of floor cleaner. I felt like throwing myself onto the floor and having a screaming fit myself.

The classic picture of the mother in Islam is a patient, obedient woman who devotes herself to her children and husband with unflinching self-abnegation. I don’t really match up to that image, and almost don’t believe that they can ever be real. But then I hear astonishing stories, for instance, of my Iranian friend’s mother who not only breastfed him (the youngest of nine), but also three or four other babies in the village. And then went out to work in the rice fields.

To live a life of conscience, one has to decide at every juncture whether some situation must be changed or endured, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to know which one is right. It is a truism passed down over many generations of Muslims (and many others besides) that the secret to happiness is being thankful when times are good and patient when times are hard. Motherhood is the real training ground for these skills; as Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother’ (he might have added ‘because it ain’t a game of tiddlywinks’).

I suspect that the way we have been trained to think in the West has always been in terms of working, fixing, improving things outside of ourselves, developing technology, coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. It’s an approach that is ideally suited to a workshop, an office, a building site. But there are times when striving to make things better on the outside only drains our energy, creates frustration when nothing seems to work, feeds conflicts between differing opinions, and leaves us off-centre and wondering why our efforts aren’t making us any happier.

The answer isn’t to down tools, flop out into any easy chair and wait for the great Pizza Delivery Boy in the sky to bring dinner (well, maybe sometimes it works – think Rabi’a al-Basri and jugs of honey descending out the sky). But I think that it’s this word ‘surrender’ that catches most of us out.

Surrendering to what is necessary and unavoidable is not an easy ride. It might be domestic duties and creative frustrations; or it might be enduring a boring office job, or unemployment, or even going to war. When it is not a matter of ego but of clear need, an obligation made by life and not the command of any dominating authority, there is not need to dither or analyse, or to take pride in personal actions, individual skills, perceived genius.

Finding the clarity to see what needs to be done, and having the guts to do it isn’t ‘surrender’. It’s wisdom made tangible by courage.