“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you,
it will be enough.”
It’s New Year’s morn, and I’m up in Buxton at my brother’s new gaff, which is actually an old Georgian town house – cabin life this ain’t. I was in bed before ten last night – flat out with a bad cold, a seized lower back, an anxious nervous system and a glass of whisky. I think this is my body’s way of saying I’ve been doing too much these last few weeks – too many big emotions, too many parties, too many shocks and delights. Time for some serious horizontalism.
I’ve got a lovely photo from New Year’s day, 2013. It’s of my mum, half-enfolded in a yew tree. We’d both been down to my brother’s – then living in Tunbridge Wells – for New Year before going on a mini-road trip to Pennant Melangell in Wales, to visit the shrine of St Melangell. The yew was in the churchyard, as yew trees often are – or maybe, the church was in the old yewyard... Whether the pagan chicken came before the Christian egg or vice versa, it was such fun larking around with mum in an ancient yew. It was our last carefree time together.
A few days later mum received news that the “cancer markers” in her blood were up. “Probably nothing to worry about,” she said, in typical mum fashion – but we were both concerned. Within a few weeks, she’d begun radiotherapy, and I was able to move in with her, to support her through cancer and dying and death.
One day I’ll write about my time looking after her. It was both beautiful and gruelling – profoundly awesome and profoundly awful.
After mum died, I spiralled down into depression, but didn’t realise it was depression – I just thought I was crap at grieving and crap at life in general. It took me a year to realise I was depressed, and another year to realise that underneath the depression was my old unresolved trauma of boarding school. I spent the next four years both fighting and having a proper breakdown, whilst learning to deal with the uncovering of a highly traumatised system – and the correlating “belief” system that ten-year-old me formed in order to be able to survive the hell of boarding school. I know it’s possible to have a breakdown without falling apart, and it’s possible to face and manage and heal post-traumatic stress without falling apart too. Alas, being a self-isolating boarding-school-survivor English poet with tragic tendencies, I broke open, broke down, fell apart, and fought the process every step of the way. It wasn’t pretty.
But, somehow, I’ve survived. It wasn’t always guaranteed. I just lot my mate James – as I said in my previous blog, there but for the grace of Life and friends go I.
And so today, at the beginning of a new decade, I’d like to express gratitude for all the elements of Life that have held me through these self-disintegrating years:
Friends and family
First up, thanks to my friends and family for holding me in your hearts. I know it’s been an ordeal for you, seeing me suffering, and seeing me self-isolating, but I have always known your deep love and concern for me. I would be dead without you.
The random phone calls, the regular phone calls, the texts and audio messages, the hugs, the resisting the urge to fix, the reassurance, the compassion, the patience, the truth-withholding and the truth-telling, the advice withheld and the advice given, the walks in nature, the little acts of kindness, the little presents, the invitations, the holding me during retraumatisation attacks, the self-education about trauma, the food, the parties, the holding me in your arms and letting me sob out my ancient grief, the medicine of connection offered for my illness of separation, the laughs in the midst of everything... thank you.
During an ayahuasca journey several years ago I was given clear instructions about installing my immediate ancestors within my heart – my mum and her parents on one side, my dad and his parents on the other, and mum’s sister – my auntie Doreen – in the middle. Doreen had Down’s Syndrome and was the heart of both lines of my family – whenever she was present, there was love and kindness and laughter. So, these seven souls are forever in my heart, and when I connect with my ancestors, I imagine my ancestral lines radiating backwards through their hearts – and through the hearts of my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents, all the way back to humanity’s common ancestors, and then back further, through billions of years of life on earth, and sometimes even all the way back to the Big Bang – after all, everything I am now was also present then, quarks and awareness and all.
Whenever I open a new bottle of whisky, I always pour the first dram onto the ground in honour of all my ancestors – especially mum and dad, who both enjoyed a good single malt. Dad used to scoff at this wasteful tradition. I hope he appreciates it now.
Alas, both mum and died quite young (dad at sixty-nine; mum at seventy-three). I miss them both, and, ninety-eighty per cent of the time feel unconditional love for them, and am aware of their unconditional love for me too – I just wish, especially with my dad, I could have shared this level of connection with both of them whilst they were still dressed in mortal form. But the truth is that they loved me as best they could, I owe my very existence to them, and I owe my existence to millions and millions who went before me – what an amazing ancestral mystery to ponder. We’ve all got an amazing pedigree, and remarkable back-up, and I believe that any love and gratitude sent back through our ancestral lines loops back into the heart of my being. Gratitude to my ancestors is a win-win practice.
The kindness of strangers
Oh my, the kindness of strangers – it rarely makes the headlines but sure makes the world go round. As any one who has spent time with me knows, I love chatting to strangers. As a well-seasoned hitch-hiker, I’m happy talking to any Tom, Dick, Harriet or Charlie – it’s one of my favourite pastimes. Quite often it’s just friendly-hearted babble, but I find that the more honest and vulnerable I am with strangers, the more remarkable our conversations. Some times people are so kind, so attentive. Even a gentle smile, or the briefest meeting of human eyes, can linger through a day. Over the last seven years I’ve met complete strangers who have ministered to my soul in ways they could never have imagined. Thank you.
Four years ago now, my mate Annie approached me to see if I wanted to buy into a cabin on the south coast that she owned with two others. Having stayed there once, I didn’t need any decision-making time. I was in. And, since then, it’s been my main home – although whenever I vacate it for my co-cabinistas, I do tidy up, smudge the place, and make it feel like it’s actually co-owned! It was, and is, the perfect English seaside bolt-hole, both comfortable and elemental: mains water from the local stables, a gas boiler and cooker, toilet and shower, wood burner, solar-panel-fuelled 12 volt system (with an inverter), and a million dollar land-and-sea-and-sky view. It’s held me well through over a dozen seasons now.
I’ve even learned some basic DIY skills. Fancy that – an English poet with power tools. You can’t imagine how manly and productive this makes me feel.
And whilst, in the beginning, I disappeared into Cabinland urged on by chronic patterns of self-isolation and shame (at not being able to cope), one of the gifts the cabin has given me is...
The gift of solitude
What are the differences between self-isolation, loneliness and solitude? I wish I had a pithy answer. The thing is – so it seems to me after six years of living out of the way and largely by myself – is that any exploration of aloneness will inevitably involve explorations of self-isolation and loneliness, and of both healthy and unhealthy solitude.
As long as my nervous system is faring well enough and I’m feeling relatively connected, I’m more than happy to spend a week by myself. Maybe that’s it: aloneness can be hell if you’re feeling separate, and can be a quiet heaven if you’re feeling connected. In both cases, loneliness ebbs and flows like the tides – if already feeling separate, a wave of loneliness can make me feel even more separate; if feeling peaceful enough, loneliness rides through me as a sweet and natural and tender sensation. If it lingers, then maybe I need to phone a friend and tell them I’m feeling a bit lonely. Or maybe I need to pause and say a loving kindness prayer?
Of course, there is no real substitute for human hugs and skin-to-skin contact. As for sex – I can count on the fingers of one hand...
Ah, one day I hope I can write poems that express my true gratitude to Mother Nature for holding me all these years. Tears are beading in my eyes as I write these words. Without Nature, I don’t think I would have ever returned from the labyrinth of suffering that I entered six years ago. In the Cabin, I am surrounded by Nature, some of it cultivated – in the English fashion – some of it coastal and raw and wild. Even when I’m having a horrendous day internally, ever-shifting beauty surrounds me, and provides a deeply-humming reality check – I can always see the Divine outside, even if I can’t feel or fathom the Divinity within. Even dull days are never dull – mists constantly shift, light ebbs and flows, the sea never stops lapping or slapping the shore...
Ah, the sea, the sea. These last four years I have fallen in love with the sea. Several days inland and my body and soul begin to pine for it. A week locked within the land and I’m already planning my return. My body and soul can breathe properly and deeply in the presence of the sea.
To go down to the mid-winter sea just before dawn, and to watch the sun rising from its calm depths, first a pin-prick of fiery flame, but very soon a rising orb flinging forth a shimmering, dancing pathway leading all the way from the shore to the horizon...
To follow the sun rise’s annual clock – sweeping out to sea for winter solstice, and then returning over the cliffs and inland for summer solstice...
To go down to the pebbly harbour on a stormy winter evening and to feel the sea’s wild fury and brute strength...
To float around on my back, buoyed by ancient salt water, on a warm and sunny day...
To follow the tides – the Cabin tide time table is as important to me as the kitchen clock – and to find walks and caves only accessible around new moon and full moon – to keep on pushing the edges of my knowledge and exploration...
To watch the morning river mouth pushing out a comic sausage of river cloud several miles long, and then – now far out at sea – for the sausage suddenly lose its internal binding and to dissipate as misty haze...
To dive into a gentle wave with a nervous system on hellish fire, and to emerge seven seconds later feeling like a man reborn...
Cliffs and rocks
And meanwhile, the cliffs stand immutable. And the immutable cliffs they crumble. And a hundred million beach pebbles have their edges ground down daily, and Greenwich Rock Time makes me feel wonderfully insignificant, a mere flea’s fart in the grand scheme of things. The company of rock is solid, enduring company indeed. A quirky pebble is pocketed for the garden, or perhaps for a present. A fresh tumble of rocks has already received the attention of the fossil hunter’s hammer. Tens of thousands of tons of pebbles can be remoulded overnight – a shallow beach one day, a steep climb the next.
And one day, the last rocky outcrop of Britain will finally succumb to the tides of sea water and time...
I realise that I am giving thanks for the elements here: to sea and sky and land and fire – whether the fire of the sun or the fire of the burner. And giving thanks also for that quintessential essence that binds all four. Ameyn.
Ah, my daily creatures. The beady-eyed robin reminding me of my breakfast duties; the liminal wren skirting the edges of the decking on its morning meanders; Cyril – or perhaps Shirley – the squirrel raiding the bird table with cheeky timing; Maggie the mare and her loving indifference; the fearless rooks giving the encircling buzzards a good run for their money; the sparrow hawk on its early evening perch; the gangly-legged foals in spring; a badger bimbling down the lane, lost in uffish thought; the deadly patience of a bedroom spider; a passing dog offering and requesting a moment of love and connection...
The hedgerows, the local trees, the kitchen herbs, the winter rose, the black berries and yew berries, the daisies and the dandelions, the handfuls of sweet grass fed to my neighbourly horses, the snow drops that remind us that the bulk of winter is done, the lonely primrose, the unfurling ferns, the wind-shaken twigs and branches collected for kindling, the slathers of seaweed upon the beach – all this juice and all this joy...
Every autumn is magic mushroom season across the British Isles. Wherever there’s sheep shit, keep your eyes peeled. Nibble one, pick one, nibble one more, see three more, nibble another and, lo, quietly-pulsing hamlets and villages of the blighters begin to appear all round – spiralling you down the rabbit hole of mirth and earth and laughter. Every now and then, a couple in the morning for the health of my system. Psilocybe semilanceata – abundant liberty caps of these isles – thanks for your medicine, insight and entertainment.
Music & dance
The world might be rolling downhill towards the fires of hell in a burning handcart, but it’s the best time ever to be alive for music – we have access to the most amazing ocean of music, past, present and futuristic.
Especially when I was looking after my mum, escaping daily into my music was fundamental to my wavering sanity. Or, rather: allowing music to transport me elsewhere, far away from cancer and looming grief...
Getting a digital radio and discovering BBC 6Music was a joy. Sure, some of the DJs are as annoying as fuck, but the range of new and old music keeps me well entertained, and several times a day I Shazam a new tune that tickles my musical biscuit. I just have to be quick enough to switch off the news when it comes on, because it acts like naloxone against the previous hour’s opiate vibes.
Buying a little Minirig speaker for Cabin life means I can entertain myself and have a cabin boogie whenever I want. It don’t rattle the walls, but it booms merrily enough. Well done, that Bristol crew.
Not to mention all the parties I’ve danced at, or played at, through these dark years. The dancefloor takes it all.
Music and dance seem to be two human activities that we humans do, on the whole, quite well – and without too many destructive side effects. Maybe a few people end up at their local A & E having been elbowed in the face during the Birdie Song, and, yes, there were Nazi swing bands, but on the whole we should be proud of ourselves.
Would I have made it without music? Who knows? Thanks – all you artists, producers, DJs, dance teachers and assorted musical people. More movement and dancing please, vicar, for me in 2020.
Booze is a controversial substance to give thanks for, but it can be a very rapid and effective nervous system calmer for someone with PTSD. The number of times a pint – or a gin and tonic, or a glass of wine – has made me feel human again – not in terms of taking the edge off a stressful day, but in terms of allowing suffering me a welcome hour or two of something passing for soulfulness... It would be churlish not to give thanks for this alcoholic influence. I’ll probably write more about my story with alcohol and drugs – and other forms of addiction – in a later post, but right now I give thanks for the grape and the grain and all those billions of transmutative yeasty beasts. Cheers.
Ayahuasca is also a controversial brew, and yet it’s a medicine that I have profound respect and profound gratitude for. Apart from the first ceremony I ever attended – which was not held very well – all the other times I have taken ayahuasca have been in safe hands, in well-held spaces, and have been times of both healing and insight. These last seven years I’ve been on perhaps a dozen such journeys, and each one has given me jewels. One thing I’ve learned is that any ayahuasca ceremony is not just about the ceremony – it involves good preparation (fasting, intention and prayer setting, an attitude of trepidation and trust), the ceremony itself, rest and digestion, and then doing the “homework”. And the best advice I ever received for the ceremony itself was to constantly give thanks to Grandmother Ayahuasca – whether going through heaven or hell or the purging of purgatory.
I’ve only experienced joy on a handful of occasions during these last few years – oh my, I could cry at how little joy I’ve experienced – and most of these occasions have been during dawn singing following a night of a ceremony. Some of the purest joy I have ever experienced, thus far in my life. These brief joyful hours have given me untold hope – an experience of myself freed from my usual shackles of separation. The Grandmother Ayahuasca that I have come to know is benevolent, precise and expects me to fulfil my “homework” before I return. I give thanks for her intelligence, and for the phenomenal intelligence and bounty of Pachamama, whom she serves, and of whom she is a powerful manifestation. And I give thanks for all the leaders and organisers of these ceremonies. Haux! Haux!
As well as having access to the world’s cathedralic library of music, we also now have access to the whole of the world’s wisdom. If only we know where to look, and how to discern.
The field of trauma studies is a burgeoning field, with new insights and studies and modalities appearing all the time. It can be a bit perplexing keeping up with it all. My entry into this field of understanding was through two early classics: Waking The Tiger by Peter Levine and Ann Frederick, and The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Oh my, everything that I was taking personally wasn’t personal at all – and these people had explanations and maps. This was a revelation. I wasn’t mad. I was just suffering from unhealed trauma.
When I first read Trauma, Abandonment And Privilege by Nick Duffell and Thurstine Basset, it was like finding my long-lost instruction manual. Written mainly for professionals working with boarding school survivors, I’d recommend it to anyone who ever went to boarding school, or who lives with someone who did.
When I came across the work of Thomas Huebl, my understanding of trauma went to another level, particularly of its collective and inter-generational dimensions. Even if you haven’t experienced severe trauma in your personal life, all family lines have unintegrated trauma running through them, and we are all born into traumatised collective fields.
Craig Hamilton – a North American spiritual teacher – and Joy Hicklin-Bailey, a local lass, have been godsends on my spiritual journey.
And, of course, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, aka Rumi, has been a regular companion.
Big shout out too to the irreverend Ken Wilber and the Reverend angel Kyodo williams.
What I’m more and more realising is that, unless a teacher is specifically trauma-informed (either through their own experience, or through self-education), you have to tread really carefully when applying their psycho-spiritual advice to your own traumatised state. Insights into the perennial existential, psycho-spiritual and neurotic tendencies of human being don’t always translate into the fields of trauma – and if you’re not careful you can exacerbate your distress, or soon feel like the one loon in the classroom who don’t get it.
The holy island of Iona deserves its own prayer of thanks. I’ve been visiting Iona since I was nineteen – it’s seen me through my evangelical Christian pacifist days, my militant atheist days, my wannabe mystic days, both haggard days and holy days, and will surely see me through my dying days and beyond.
My brother, sister-in-law and I scattered half of mum’s ashes from the top of Dun I back in May 2014 – and of course a sudden flurry of wind blew the ashes all over us – and every year since I’ve returned to check in with my soul, and with mum. This October I spent a weekend wildcamping on the south of the island, and I experienced a level of connection – to my heart, soul, the land, the Divine – that I hadn’t done in years. A glimpse of things to come, in a place where truly the “veil is thin.”
Iona of my heart,
Iona of my love,
Instead of monks’ voices
Shall be the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.
Although I’m sometimes a crap practitioner, I’ve developed a daily spiritual practice that – when I actually put it into practice – has held me through all manner of weathers and times. On a bad day, I feel like I’m going through the motions, but on a good day, a steady wisdom guides me, and reminds me that I am not just a bundle of self-contraction.
Forgiveness is a remarkable concept, and an even more remarkable practice. One day I’ll explore it in more detail, but suffice to say it is one of my main practices, and a vital part of my healing process. Of course, premature forgiveness can easily send you miles out of your way, but delayed forgiveness keeps you in chains. When genuine forgiveness occurs – and, for me, it’s not about forgiving perceived or actual “wrong”, it’s about letting go of “the bonds that bind” – it’s as sweet as a summer stream on a hot and sweaty day.
Even though my mum and dad made some strange decisions about my life, and inadvertently wounded me very deeply, I know that they always meant the best. Every now and then, when I come across an old layer of, say, anger towards them, I try to allow that trapped energy to move through my system and try to integrate it and release it as best I can, and then try to discern when I am ready for another level of forgiveness. And when a deeper forgiveness arises, I feel it radiating through my ancestral lines, and love flowing even more freely in both directions. Forgiveness is vital for my health and vital for my liberation.
The mystery of suffering
I once came across an Indian mystic – I forget who – who said something like, “You only give thanks for the good things in life, and not the bad, and that is part of your problem.” Except he or she said it much more poetically and profoundly than that.
Giving thanks for the mystery of suffering – wow, that’s a really hard thing to do. But, otherwise, I’m at war with reality, which tends only to tighten the knot.
Maybe one day I’ll look back on these years and give heartfelt thanks for the burning away of falsehood and misperception and false identities and karma. I’m definitely not there yet – I still feel sorry for myself on a regular basis – but every now and then, during my morning prayers of gratitude, I try my best to give thanks for the mystery of my suffering, and the mystery of human suffering in general. Who knows how these things work?
Ah, my heart. My beautiful, wise, protective, loving heart. My heart that closed shortly after my mum died, and only re-opened a few weeks ago, but now – through a couple of recent shocks – has closed once again in self-protection. At times I have felt let down by my heart – who doesn’t want to live their daily life with an open heart? – but more and more I am coming to see that my heart has been holding me all this time. Thank you.
The Divine Heart
As has the Divine Heart at the centre of my mortal human heart, and at the centre of all hearts. I wish I could say that I currently feel in touch with the Divine Heart, but I can't because I don’t. If undigested trauma is fundamentally a dis-ease of separation – and I think it is – then most of the time I feel separate from the Mystery and I envy the mystics, however much I like to quote them – the lucky, lucky bastards.
I have argued countless times with God, and have almost exhausted my concept of a God who one can have arguments with.
One day grace – or exhaustion – will allow me to truly surrender. And then perhaps I’ll see that me and the Divine Heart have never been separate, not even in my darkest days. What's that verse by Rumi?
While he dreams of the pangs of thirst,
The water is nearer than his jugular vein
Thank you, oh Mystery.
(But please can you start using a bit more lube?)
Wow, it’s now midday on Saturday, three days since I began this blog. As they say, you can’t hurry gratitude. It’s been a good meditation with which to begin the new decade. Makes me realise how important a practice of gratitude is. And makes me realise how blessed I truly am, and – despite all my bouts of self-pity and self-attack – how well held I am, and how well loved I am. Which sure ain’t a bad thing to remember.
Peace to you – and all that you love.
Saturday 4th January
Keeping the faith
To open the stove door at dawn
and find some embers still aglow
within their comfy bed of ash
and to build this morning’s fire upon them
and with focussed breath
to burst it into flame
It’s as if some kind old soul
has been praying for me all night long
watching over me
keeping the faith
To peg my shirt and underwear around the warming chimney pipe
and to put the kettle on
to make my morning cup of tea
To clothe my nakedness
in the welcome warmth
of this relay race of grace
To sit by this window
and write this poem
whilst the sun
(from whom all light and fire and flame proceed)
rises gloriously through the morning clouds
to burst upon the sea
a path of such dazzling and inviting light
is the medicine
brings me back to life