Setting Intentions Part 2

Walking in the city

I hear Our Mother, deep mystery


Vibrating beneath the tarmac

And in the cracks

Of pocket sized woods

The rhythms of 2000 years of human habitation, the river flowing through it.

Appealing to a Crow

One morning, Early Autumn (I am drowning)

Though still listening

Walking by, in Springtime

He appears again, Crow Man against the Grey

Magpie flies past

While Swallow dances on a sweatshirt

Sweet Andorinha!

I may not remember the loving embrace of community built on respect

But I know it, deep in my bones

This knowing has called forever,

Set on the edges of Kalk Bay winter,

Slipping in and out of Alberton false awakenings,

I was scared, but held my breath

Letting go into darkness


And when I woke up

Morning light reminded me that I was…

Still Alive

Infused with this power

Unafraid and willing

To keep Moving

Steady Running

Sometimes Pausing

Always heading to the Source

Sure that in the balance of this light and the darkness that loves it,

I wake up

And become

A shining light

In the World

The Tao of the Bathroom

I opened a random page in the Tao Te Ching, the copy by the entrance to the bathroom of our flat.  Much important reading material gravitates towards bathroom and toilet areas.  Must be something in the water.  I’ve been getting very puffed up with all this lucid dreaming, learning and leaping forward stuff… it’s heady and exciting.  So I got a thrill when I read the first lines:

“He who seeks knowledge learns something new every day”

(That’s me!  I’m the knowledge seeker!)

Then the next line just knocks me, in a kindly un-knocking sort of way:

“He who seeks the Tao unlearns something new everyday”

(Ah.  Right.)

The Tao of the bathroom urges some flushing away of conceit.  A good reminder.

Setting Intentions

It’s hard for me to set intentions.  This is the second time I have been in the South, and again, this struggle with setting an intention.  Like it’s on the edges, but finding the exact words eludes me.  I am grasping at something, not fully formed but waiting to be born.  And I know it is waiting to be born because in the last few weeks I have had recurring dreams where I am heavily pregnant and about to give birth…, but it is not quite the right time yet.

So today was a long session in our initiation circle… sharing the free writing we have been doing around crafting an intention.  My circle partner and I are both tired….  and the session feels like we are circling this thing, constantly ebbing and flowing around cracking it, then doubting it….  I find myself in particular being resistant to pinning this thing down.  A commitment phobia.  We discuss how I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to get this thing exactly right, and that that might be part of the stuckness.  I have the following insight about this which applies to many other parts of life, especially in my writing work:

*In wanting things to be perfect, I prevent myself from completing tasks.

Indeed I can circle them for years at a time, as I have done with my Phd thesis.

So after the group, I take my baby son to the bedroom to feed him.  we are cocooned in Oxytocin.  Both of us tired. Me from wrestling with intentions; him from learning how to pull himself up in his cot and crawl around the flat.  We fall into a deep sleep, but not before I grab this book to look at while I breastfeed.  It’s one I looked at a few weeks ago, and one part stayed with me and is now circling my head demanding to be looked at again.  It is Illusions by Richard Bach, and here is the part that got me.  The part where God speaks direct to the reluctant messiah who wants to give up being a Christ-figure in order to be a mechanic again:

“I command that you be happy in the world, as long as you live…. In the path of our happiness shall we find the learning for which we have chosen this lifetime”

Imagine that!  That all we have to do to realise our purpose is to gravitate towards what truly makes us happy.  Of course, filtering out what we think will make us happy from what actually does make us happy is the life work!

I fall asleep, with my son, warm on my chest.

The sun is out.  First day of spring.  And as I enter a half awake half asleep state, I feel it very warm on my body.  It reminds me what a powerful source of life the sun is, how much we are a part of it.  as i dream, I am repeating the intentions I have crafted out that day, trying out new formations and orderings of the words.  Always inserting into the intention this line about happiness… a path based on joy… realising my purpose not through the hardship and pain which brought me on this, and other, Initiation journeys, but the joy at the core of me that will be what ultimately enables the transformation to live more authentically.  I wake refreshed, with my son.  he immediately rolls off the mattress and gets busy with his purpose, which right now is practicing how to crawl.  I splash my face, pull on trainers and a jacket.  Time for the school run…. taking the warmth of the sun with me… contemplating intentions and a path of happiness.

Sierra Leone, Elephant & Castle

We sit

Chicken and chips

Ketchup, mayonaise

Interspersing our talks of Winnie M, your mother and mine

With pound coins dished out for egg machines

Little people running in and out

To the fruit stall, colours brilliant and beyond beauty

Under the strip lights, across from Tesco

We drink

Coffee, warm milk, sugar

You speak

Jolting stories of escape and hands chopped off

Miracles and coincidences that keep you alive

In Sierra Leone

I nod, dumb tongued, numb, stupid

In between small talk, school run, baby feeding

You speak

Of rape as a passing occurence in this flight

(Our children play in between the legs of shoppers, shrieking with delight)

Security guards glance disapproving at the mess we’ll leave

But this narrative is urgent

Shop man blasts out Bollywood hits and the Black Eyed Peas

We dance, as you do

Time passes via the subways

Heading home

In Elephant and Castle

I Speak, Though Voiceless

I speak, though voiceless

The boat that brought me here carried 300 Armenians, of which 287 survived.  We sell fruit and vegetables on Johannesburg streets.  Mining town grown larger by the second.  The trams rush past, the noise is sense less deafening till Armenian silence is obliterated.  Joseph Silver finds me, young girl, head strong, rebellious in this late19th Century hedonism. Unloved sex in the backrooms of his brothel, under the tutelage of a guard dog madam.  Unloved yes, but exciting to be in the action. I am born in this encounter, though this birth contains the seeds of my death.  Still, I hold rural dreams of marriage, children, land. Early 20th century recession expands our client base. I meet him, young Zulu boy miner, inexperienced but so sweet faced.  First taste of whiskey and his face is retched. It’s love, not so strangely, he being a country boy at heart with the same dreams. The excitement of the action fades so We run away, to the kraal, and certain ridicule.  Our son is born in Durban, far from bitter village tongues.  There is no space for our story in the formation of him, coloured boy to the masses, no history to speak of.  Last taste of whiskey claims husband, and I die young, victim of cholera or some other such disease of the poor.

I speak, though voiceless

My picture taken aged 12 appears, blank faced and receptive to the power around me. A century later, in a textbook. Labelled ‘Armenian Fresh Produce Sellers on Rissik St’.  My spirit lingers in the print.  So I speak, though voiceless.


This piece came out of a response to hearing Nadine Gordimer speak at the Southbank Centre this week.  She had some very important things to communicate about the new Secrecy Bill in South Africa, and the threats to freedom of speech this represents.  I love Nadine Gordimer’s writing.  It is so evocative and succinct, and gets under the skin of the complexity of making sense of identity in South Africa.  I love that she does not separate this writing work from her work as an activist.  What I found jolting in her speech was how she defined white identiy in South Africa.  She linked white claims to an African or South African identity to an association with the Struggle; saying that whites need to earn their place in society through an active commitment to justice.  I agree with this.  Up to a point, because it seemed to me that this definition of whiteness was too narrow; too middle class and educated.  It limits an exploration of the construction and significance of whiteness in South Africa to the parameters of this experience, which is juxtaposed against one other white experience, that of the Afrikaaner.

I wanted to use this piece to explore a little more other ways in which whiteness is enveloped in the unfolding of South African identity, and how whiteness intersects with other identities, both between people and within people.  It was inspired by a photograph I saw in a history book about the Witwatersrand, and a picture of turn of the century Armenian fruit and vegetable sellers in Johannesburg.  It was an older woman and a young girl, wearing headscarves, and sat on the floor, legs stretched out, next to their produce cart.  They looked so different from the ways in which whiteness is imagined historically in South Africa.  This image did not fit with either of the paradigms of whiteness we tend to revert to in thinking about South Africa.  I was also drawn to the fact that these were Armenian women, Armenia being a space and an ethnic designation that sits on the borders of whiteness; not quite white.  Borders are the spaces in which we are able to see the ways in which more solid means of classification are constructed.  They are uneasy spaces, and threatening to the making of timeless and naturalised constructions of self.   Joseph Silver was a real figure in the history of Johannesburg, a Polish-American pimp who came via New York and London to set up a lucrative business in the sex trade in the early decades of Johannesburg’s rapid emergence as a city built on gold mining.  He was known for his brutality, and also his love of money.  The brothels that flourished in the quarter of early Joburg known as Frenchfontein were also not fussy about where their money came from, and ignored the racialised divisions that the city authorities and state attempted to enforce from a moral position based on fears of miscegenation (not to mention a united working class…….).  So when mass migration of black labour from the rural areas to feed the demand for cheap labour in the mines began (fuelled by the imposition of hut taxes and the tightening of colonial authority over so-called ‘tribal’ areas), the brothels were ready to service the new clientele.  I wondered about the ways in which these spaces contained so many untold stories, hidden from view under the blanket of salacious headlines and courtcases.  I wanted to reach out to an imaginary-real story that may have emerged there.

In doing so, I want to articulate the sadness, exploitation, hopefulness and complexity of the ways in which South Africa emerges out of these huge, catastrophic, exciting, tragic global changes of the 19thcentury, changes that set up the world as we know it today, not only in South Africa but most of the globe.  This is why the real figure of Joseph Silver is important to the story.  He epitomises the movement of capital trans-nationally, and the ways in which the desire for wealth, and more than this, power, are implicated in the pain stories and mass movement of lots of different people.  How these meta-narratives are so massive they drown out the intimacy of the human stories that bubble amongst them.  I wanted to fish a story out.  And this one has been in my head since I first saw that picture several years ago.  In the spirit of what I am doing now, writing what is inside and letting it out, even though it may not be fully formed or perfect, I allowed this story to make its way out through me.  I’m not sure what happens next with it.  Perhaps this is where it stops.  Certainly, it needs to be supported by more understanding and research on Armenian migration.  It betrays my tendency to privilege the romantic.

But here it is anyway.   The girl who has been in my head for so many years.

Scraps of Paper and Secret Notebooks

I read a lovely post yesterday all about the angst that can accompany thinking about how we write.  Is it right or OK to find that the easiest places to write are on bits of paper, or notebooks that no one ever sees?  What counts as proper writing?  Why does this cause us angst?  What is so necessary about validation and productivity?  Not that either one of these things is bad.  It’s not about cussing out any kind of production or feedback as inauthentic to the spirit of creation.  It is about becoming as concious as possible about the ways in which these things can begin to act, ironically, to block our creative efforts, rather than encouraging them.

Sometimes we need our secret spaces; those hidden realms where it is safe to explore the terrain of expression.  Sometimes they are as necessary to our soul work as water and air are to sustaining our physical bodies.

Now there’s a big claim!

I remember a long time ago, another lifetime, when I was in a pretty horrible relationship with someone I needed to leave but didn’t know how to.  I was utterly blocked.  Circling myself like a trapped animal, looking for a way out the snare.  I had been a keen diarist, but had not written a word for years.  When the crisis point hit, and I knew that jokes aside, I was fighting for my life, the way I found a crack in the trap was through a tiny notebook.  Really tiny.  Less than the size of my palm.  One of those novelty notebooks you could get in a Christmas cracker.  And it was in here that I wrote my way out, small words spelling out the confession that this was not right.  That I was not OK.  In telling the tiny notebook my secret, I began a process of finding a pathway out of the woods.  It was not an instantaneous liberation, but there’s a big old truth in that cliche that every journey begins with a step.

I think that when we write for our souls, we don’t do so because we may get published or gain great accolades or even 100 likes in 10 minutes.  We do it because we have to.  And that can happen anywhere.  On a scrap of paper, or a tiny notebook.  In permitting this opening, however small, the potential to write in ways that can be shared and resonate with someone else’s experience is also given a gap.  This is the reciprocity that binds us together as human beings.  If we judge ourselves too harshly, or doubt the validity of where our starting point might be, we block all the other things that can flow from that point.  As I write more, I see that this wrestling with our inner judge and critic begins new every day.  And that at various points along the way, if we are stuck, the holes in the fence might be found in the secret places we make out of scraps of paper and tiny notebooks.  Spaces where we are free to be vulnerable and work it out.

What are We Responsible for?

Responsibility is hard.  It’s hard to take it.  It’s hard to know to what extent something is your responsibility.  Over-responsibility is as damaging as taking no responsibility at all.  It’s one of those over-used words too, that tends to lose the substance of its meaning through casual and frequent use.  Click on the link below for an interesting background to the origins of the word:

Yesterday, I received some wonderful news.  After years of searching and asking, I obtained a spiritual and writing mentor.   I was absolutely buzzing, and found that in my writing group discussion and practice that day, I flew through, making beautiful connections articulately.  Truly, this is the flow.  A wonderful thing.

Then when I went to pick my daughter and her friend up from school, I found her friend’s big sister at the school gates.  She seemed subdued for a usually bubbly and talkative 11 year old.  I asked her what was up. and she burst into tears.  What followed was a horrible story about the bullying she has suffered at school.  That day she had been verbally taunted and had her head slammed in a door.  All in front of a teacher who was too intimidated by the rowdy class to do much about it.  It was awful, and really frightening.  In London now, bullying has become even more of a spectatator sport.  Forget the secretive bully.  Kids now film their abuse on their phones and post it on you tube.  It leaves me with a hollow feeling in my heart, like the bottom has dropped out of the world.  Because young people are the foundation.  And the relentless violence that is characterising so many really young kid’s experience of the world, whether bully or bullied, is a deep wound in our collective psyche.

I admit it.  I wanted to run away.  Because it is scary.  You worry that if you take a stand, then you will be targeted.  Certainly, in the heat of the moment, people have died challenging these things.  London is too full of those stories.  I feel them like a silent weight.  Is it my responsibility to find the bullies and punish them?  Punishment and revenge is so often the desire that kicks in first when confronted with injustice.

Those thoughts flashed trough my head lightning-like.   I pause, very briefly because time is short and I am the grown up here.  I take a breath and do what my practice asks me to do.  I deal with what is in front of me right now as best I can.  I am one woman with a lot of responsibility.  And it’s in no shape or form a responsibility to put the world to rights and sort out London’s horrifying bullying problem.   I have an 11 year old in bits, two high energy four year olds and a baby in a buggy to push.  Home is a 20 minute walk away.  My responsibility is to keep all these lives that are in my care right now as OK as possible.  We walk.  the 11 year old is utterly distressed and talking about her experience.  It is violent and scary, and the four year olds are listening.  I take us to the playground.  They play, and the 11 year old can talk.  I try to walk the line.  And I am scared of not being up to this challenge.  Today I have been blessed with a mentor to help me make sense of the big stuff I confront.  Now, I have someone in front of me who needs that from me.  I may be inadequate to the task, but I am required to act.  We breath.  We talk.  I try to reassure without making promises that can’t be kept.  Will everything be alright?  I don’t know.  Can we stop this pain right now?  Probably not.  I am powerless.  I want to cure this, but it is beyond me right now right here.  What I offer are tissues, nasal breathing to steady her nerves and hugs.  Many hugs.  I remind her that she is not alone.  I tell her to look for the things that make her feel good and real and strong inside.  The films, the books, the music that can offer her a better narrative.  I acknowledge the hate she feels, and gently let her know that at some point she will have to drop this barrier if it is not to eat her up.  Am I being too strict?  Too prescriptive?  I don’t know.  We need food and home.  My phone to call her mother.  Today would be the day I left it on the table.

So we do that.  Get home.  Eat.  TV.  Ordinary grounding things.  The kids are all fine right now.  I am in awe of their resilience.  I give the 11 year old a notebook and tell her that writing things down when they get too much has always helped me out when the pressure needs to be relieved.  I speak to her mother, and when her dad comes to pick them up, I write down an account of what has happened.  My handwriting is large and loopy.  For a second I am struck by the power of the written word.  watching the narrative appear on the page as I write, I see how being able to tell this story clearly means that healing can come closer.  Maybe.  I am aware of my ego on the edges wanting to take credit or blame here.  Again.  Back to what is in front of me.  Write down the events of the day, clearly and in a way that can be communicated and understood clearly in order for right action to be taken.  Contact details at the school.  Hand to the parent.

This morning, her mum asked if I would go with her to a meeting with the parent’s of one of the kids who was involved in the assault.  Again I stall.  Is this my place?  I am wary of getting over involved inappropriately and bringing pressures I can’t handle down on myself.  For right or wrong, I decide that it is not my responsibility to rush in here.  I do give the contact details of an organisation that can offer support, and my writing services if any letters need to be written to get the right kind of action taken.

But I don’t stop thinking about this.  How can we, as the grown ups, respond to situations where young people are inflicting pain on each other, and us,  and it all seems out of control?  At 1pm most days, I listen to Robert Elms on BBC London.  It’s an amazing radio show, idiosyncratic and deep without being pretentious.  Sometimes I feel it is a little bit magical in how its subject matter will resonate with whatever it is I am grappling with that day.  Today I turn it on, and immediately hear the word ‘Bibliotherapy’.  It is not something I am familiar with, but a quick google reveals there’s a lot out there about this.  It’s the use of reading particular books relevant to the experience of what any person might be going through, in order to activate a process of identification, catharsis and insight.

I find this on WordPress, an account of using bibliotherapy as part of healing strategies for young people.  One book in particular catches my eye, to get kids who bully, and are bullied, to reflect on their experience.  Hopefully bring them more into presence with their actions and into an awareness of consequence.  To reflect on responsibility, and forgiveness.

And impulsively, I order the book.  If nothing else, I can give it to the 11 year old to read.  And maybe, I can put myself out there a little bit and offer it to the school to use as part of their strategy to deal with the youngsters who are doing this bullying.  Imagine a punishment where you sit in detention and read a book that might change your life.  Or not.  Changing lives is not my responsibility.  Responding to what is in front of me as best I can, treading very very carefully, well, that might be.