While supposedly training for a half marathon, I went out for chocolate and crisps. As I’d been working at the computer for most of the day, I decided to loop around by the old cemetery. Though it was evening, the birds were still singing as I came to the grey stone wall. No doubt they were confused by the dawn-like haze of the road. Beyond lopsided gravestones and the derelict church, the sea was calm and azure.
A stone angel crouched at my left as I cut in through the gate. You know how it is in these places: the limbic system wakes up. You keep a wider field of view. Sounds get your attention more easily. What was I keeping an eye out for? The kind of people who hang out in places like this? Something else? It was getting dark and the headstones made it difficult to spot danger. Is that a person? No, it’s another cross halfway to sinking into the grass.
A white veil was blowing from one of the tall trees, hanging above the path. I gazed up at it. Just bubble wrap. Then a crow shot past, startling me with its yammering. I jumped again, as something howled in front of me. A large black dog started pacing towards me barking, no owner in sight. I took a few more steps and turned on my heel. The gate by which I had entered now seemed distant, and the dog for its part seemed determined to usher me out. It reminded me of the nights when Pablo and I would wander through the woods and over the hills after the pubs kicked out. Sometimes we’d come to the turn-off and look out over the unlit expanse and just get that feeling: no thanks, not tonight. It often happened on a new moon, when everything was that much darker, but not always. Bad juju.
‘Murmuration’ took second place in the Keats’ Footsteps prize. Judge Jennie Osborne said:
I loved the use of language here, its visual nature, its fresh, shifting images that conjure the idea of crow, rather than telling us about crows. It is an impossible task to speak in the voice of other beings, but I think an important one, if we are to try to fathom their otherness.
The reading and prize-giving was a wonderful event, with beautiful readings. I particularly enjoyed Martyn Crucefix talking about his translations of the Daodejing. It was great to rub shoulders with poets and writers again.
I don’t expect they’ll mind if I reprint the poem here. It was inspired by a flock of crows shape-shifting above the valley.
This is no ordinary murder:
thin as rumour; dense in our folds as coal.
A waveform of curling crows,
crow-consciousness, our own idea of crow
smudged above the wounded combe.
Here we come, and fade again, a ghost
pulling itself out of empty air.
A sketch, a fingerprint of crowing,
contorting wing and sinew into scavenger
and funeralist with an actor’s clever-clever.
We’re riders on our own black wind.
We are pure language: ink cannot trace us.
As soon as our shape is there it’s gone.
And pinning us to the page is to see a shape
where, after tricks and turns, there isn’t one.
I’ve had some poems published recently, including three in Urthona: Buddhism & the Arts. It’s a great magazine if you’re into Buddhism, meditation, and literature. Here’s ‘Waiting for Al-Khidr’ from the magazine. Also in the issue are ‘The Pearl’ and ‘How I Became a Prophet’. It’s the current issue so consider subscribing if you’re interested to read them.
‘The Cord’ appeared in Live Canon‘s New Poems for Christmas anthology.
In the co-ordinator’s office of the meditation centre where I’m volunteering, there’s a piece of wood engraved with the following:
A beautiful day. It will not come again.
As a call to appreciation, it seemed more urgent than carpe diem. This came home to me while looking out of the window of a bathroom on the upper floor, having ushered a ladybird from the sill behind the toilet to the ledge outside. I stopped to look at the rain lashing the chimney pots and garden, puddling on the flat sections of roof below. That set of circumstances: the grounds, the rain, me, the people in my life right now, will never line up again in quite the same way.
I took the photo above on another beautiful day, not long ago. The door was on a side street, metres from the shops and harbour of a Cornish fishing town. Afterwards, I had it in mind to start a photography project with impermanence as a theme, but gradually let go of the scheme and decided once again to just get along with life and see what happens. A few Big Ideas have come since, and it’s interesting to see how I grab onto them in response to a need for security, or recognition, for example. Sooner or later the Big Idea passes but hopefully a few, small, good ones will have taken care of themselves.
Beaten and bruised, my brother led me
over the wastes to the foot of the mountain
standing like a broken white tooth.
The red light of the sun had no power here.
Below us, the troubled village.
He led me to the pass, and I faltered.
“Please brother!” I begged. “Do you not trust me?”
“From here you go alone,” he said.
“Or I too will hunt you. Do not come among us for food again.
Or we will feed you feathers and bolts.” And he beat me.
A wolf cried in the sky’s great vault.
Those who can live outside the village,
must live outside the village.
“Where will you go, brother,” I asked,
“who can neither leave nor stay?”
He looked doubtful and said, “to family.”
“Get off this mountain before sundown, brother,” I spat,
“for I am not helpless or alone.”
He parted without another word.
The moon rose above the white broken peak.
The mountain cried as a guttural wind
shuddered in its crags and gorge.
My brother was gone.
I threw my head back,
let the pain inside be
and I howled.
Wood pigeons burble contentment
from the chimney above my childhood garden
as light falls from the sky
burning at an unknown horizon
beyond the oak leaves and fence.
The compost heap buzzes murkily.
The chains of the swing squeak:
each moment lives on this hinge.
My parents will soon call me to bed.
For now, the rush of falling upward.
How blissful not to want even happiness.
Ho ho ho! I have a poem in this new Christmas anthology. Each of the poems is a contemporary spin on the season to be jolly. My perhaps not-so-jolly poem, ‘The Cord’, recalls watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral on TV during the lead-in to Christmas 2013. The anthology was edited and produced by the Live Canon team.
I stumbled on this old productivity post which, ironically, I never did anything with. I wrote it a while ago when I was preoccupied with getting it all done: work, writing, music, life: the full catastrophe. I’m not sure in all honesty how good I am at implementing these strategies. I have a more relaxed attitude now, and try to write when the mood takes me, and time allows. I suppose on a fundamental level I’ve tried to arrange my life so that happens more regularly, but I try not to force it.
On one level, my interest in downshifting arose because I thought it would enable me to increase my focus on writing and other ambitions. It has since become more about appreciating life in the moment, on its own terms. I’m gradually learning to say ‘no’ even to good ideas, to make room for those things that happen almost by themselves. Like anything else, there’s always more downshifting to do…
Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art
In her obituary Maria de Villota, an F1 test driver, was quoted as saying “Life is beautiful. All we have to do is take it slower and enjoy it.” Her career and her life depended on speeding through fractions of a second, and yet she knew the importance of slowing down.
Maria was paraphrasing one of our great philosophers:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller
There’s a lot that we can learn from this as creative-types and people-with-one-too-many-projects. The artist’s job is to be stubborn and slow: to stop and look around at what others have missed. That’s all very well, but for many artists and writers the hours of 9 to 5 are block-booked. As well as our jobs, we have families, friends and community commitments. When will we find the time to stop and look around, let alone finish that magnum opus? Like everybody else, we rush around trying to do more and get more.
Over the past few years I’ve been tried numerous schemes and strategies for balancing work, family life, personal projects, and leaving time to reflect and enjoy life. Here are some thoughts about getting things done in a lower gear.
Dossing days and doing days
The hardest thing is doing nothing. If I’m lucky enough to have tumbleweed blowing through my calendar before I know it, I’ll have spent half a day on a spur-of-the-moment idea (such as this post). Be watchful, and when the urge to do something arises, hit it with the whack-a-mole mallet of rational self inquiry. Do I really need to do this? What would happen to this urge if I tried letting it be? Try having at least one or more days where non-doing is top of the to-do list.
Find out where the bus goes
Creative people often have many things they are interested in and many things they love to make and do. It’s all part of making connections and playing with new ideas. Remember that your time is limited. By all means, try many different art forms and endeavours but be prepared to give a subtle preference to one of your pursuits when it develops beyond the others. Once you’ve guessed the general direction your talents have been leading you in, stay on the bus and find out where it goes. Try to actively avoid working on everything else unless it feels like fun.
Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around. It’s easy to get suckered into the dopamine reward systems of social media and checking your email. Turn your phone off every now and then. Your voicemail will get the calls. Get away from the internet. If you’re a writer, turn the computer off and write on paper once in a while. Jonathan Franzen would approve, and that’s the most important thing.
All artists need to experience deep time: contemplative, empty time. When was the last time you had no idea what time it was? Try to avoid counting the hours when you work. Don’t let the clock decide whether today was successful: judge by the quality of one sentence, musical phrase, or brushstroke.
Disengage to reengage
Many of us have jobs that are, on a basic level, very similar to our passions. We work at computers all day only to open up the laptop when we get home. As far as our bodies are concerned this is no different from working a 14-hour day every day. Going for a run, to the gym, or doing yoga and meditation after work might clear your mind before you hunch over your MacBook in a self-inflicted stress position for another six hours of word-blending.
Graham Greene could only write when ‘absolutely sober’. Despite apocryphal stories, Hemingway didn’t actually ‘write drunk; edit sober’. Be warned: if Saturday morning is the only time you have to work on your passion, a hangover from Friday night is not going to help.
When the mood takes you
While I often wake early, I don’t usually get to jump out of bed and start scribbling. I’m sure that’s a productive thing to do but it’s also good to see what comes naturally. I do try to meditate before I’m mugged by the confusion and bustle of the day, and, if I have enough presence of mind, I’ll try to get the most important things done first while I’m fresh enough to do them well. Having said that, I think much of my early development as a writer came during midnight (and later) sessions when moon and muse were at their apogee. History’s most creative minds were early risers, though, and who am I to argue?
Stop and enjoy life
Chances are you’re impassioned to create because you believe there is something worth sharing or championing in life. Making yourself miserable for your art would be self-defeating. It’s tempting for maniacs like you and I to think of time out as a transaction by which we receive rest or inspiration to fuel another long creative session, but sometimes life is simply for living. Remembering Ferris’ wise words, I think I’ll stop and look around right now.
You can read my poem, Vardøger, on The Poetry School website. A big thank you to them for posting it.