Birdsong in the Morning

A mindful time in meditation might mean all sorts. Frequently for me it means trying to look over the shoulder of worries and needs to a quieter place.  Consider the wonderful line in the poem by RS Thomas, The Moor, linked here: What God there was made himself felt. I’m really not very good at it. It’s as if I know the words but can’t fit them to the tune. I know what it means for the “breath to be held like a cap in the hand,” or to “look with kind attention at my distractions” but can’t ever really get it right. There may not be a “right” to “get,” of course…

So it was with some surprise that an early morning in the run-up to Pentecost found me in the garden trying to be mindful, trying not to try, trying not to notice I wasn’t trying… It was, as the poet Rick Greene writes, “earlier than history by an hour.”


And the blackbird flew across the garden, with that wonderful liquid chortle….and a wren hopped about after the chickens’ mealworms, scolding , needle, pin, “sharp-song, briar-song, thorn-song” as Rob Macfarlane puts it.  And then the littler of the two squirrels came across the shed roof and I watched it run along the fence, heading for Jo next door’s bird table. They came, and they went, and I watched them come and go… and I wondered (and wondered so much I thought I’d blog it) if this is what Martin Laird is getting at in his books. Here he is in Into the Silent Land.

The thinking mind that “whirls about” is constantly concerned with thoughts, concepts and images, and we obviously need this dimension of mind to meet the demands of the day, to think, to reflect on and enjoy life. But the thinking mind has a professional hazard. If it is not engaged in its primary task of reason, given half a chance it fizzes and boils with obsessive thoughts and feelings. There are, however, deeper demands, deeper encounters of life, love and God, and there is far more to being alive than riding breathlessly around in the emotional roller coaster of obsessive thinking…This profound ignorance of our innermost depths presents a singularly convincing case. This is the human condition and we have all eaten of its fruit. But this is a lie. It is a lie spun largely out of inner noise and mental clutter.

Maybe my chasing thoughts is just like chasing the squirrel (not something I do) or following the wren as it picks about on the lawn. I let them go: the cool, dark of the garden is the thing, not the scurrying busy animals. Maybe this is another thing we learn from being outside: that there are aspects of our mental states that are mirrored by what we see around us. Maybe, at a deeper level (or a more convoluted metaphor), I need to see myself as a place where thoughts scurry about, when what I came to do was enjoy the peace and the dim calm of the morning.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Language Play

Overheard on the bus, a four-year-old explaining patiently to his mum:

Only dogs are allowed to catch a cat.
And cat is allowed to catch a mouse.

The “play” here is at a number of levels. I really appreciated the repetition, but most of all the slightly ponderous cadences and pulses. I could  have looked at David Crystal’s eye-opening book Language Play, which makes a plea for language enrichment precisely through valuing children’s (and adults’) play with their language.  I could have looked more seriously at Bruner, whose book on Child Language I explored for myself this semester as part of the Brookes module on Practice and Pedagogy. I was drawn instead to a book that suggested to me ages ago (wrongly) that this was what Education research had to look like: the detailed transcripts in Martin et al’s 1976 Understanding Children Talking, and I was reminded of Jason and his life-story poem “I wish I was a raindrop.”  I am struck by what he plays with here in terms of rhythm and structure:

I wish I was a raindrop, a raindrop, a raindrop
I wish I was a raindrop and lived in a cloud
And it would be all warm, all warm, all warm,
And it would be all warm and we’d have a nice cup of tea.

(NB: there are four more verses to this).

I am struck by the rhetorical rhythm the boy on the bus gave to his Dogs and Cats pronouncement, which gave it authority. Martin et al call this “bardic,” which I wouldn’t want to lose as a concept.

The ideas expressed are influenced by the hidden demands of the mode.

and it’s this hiddenness that requires play. We could not teach Jason how to make a poem like this (very like “I’m walking like a Robot” and “Poor Jenny sits a weeping”) but we can allow him room to try out the various structures. As adults we introduce, repeat, maybe reinforce – but it is the child’s playful exploration that makes the creative leap.

Martin et al ask big questions of language, but I’ll end with the challenge of literature:

Are our novelists, poets and dramatists reaching back into their earlier days and, with the added skills of literacy, exploring and extending those same frameworks through which as children they talked out their fantasies?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Take Off Your Shoes

A reflection on the sacredness of an “interior space” has to start (for me)


with a confrontational image of the sacred, something commanding awe and wonder.  Guess which I might choose?

However, I also have to admit that although this is one of those places I have encountered the huge and numinous, I kept my hiking boots firmly on. We are already into the language and symbol and metaphor. With Lud for me the enormity is an understandable link back in time to ponder what “sacred” might mean: is it just about respect, or something rather more complex?

What’s with the shoes?  The taking-off of real or metaphorical shoes is meant to signify vulnerability, maybe.  Certainly the practice is really ancient, and certainly is met with in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible (see this site for a compendium from a Christian counselling perspective, although some of its emphases I am not at liberty to explore here). I don’t have a good photo of my own for a Christian parallel, although this might suffice:

This link should take you to Monreale and this too, and perhaps best of all (but not the easiest to navigate) this –  to the luminous (and somehow ambiguous) face of Christ above the High Altar. It suggests to me a steady gaze at the penitent, the needy: it suggests compassion. The text Christ the Pantocrator holds is “I am the Light of the World” in Latin and Greek. Compassion illuminates.

And that brings me to the Tweet (21st April) from Dennis Tirch cited by Jon Reid:

A good relationship is a sacred space that can safely contain how we think and feel, along with our potentially painful histories + the whole of who we are.

Sacredness is an interesting concept there. We could take this as a metaphor, a bit as Steven Mithen uses Western Church architecture to explore mental structure. We might take a more sacramental view, and without wanting to baptise the temples of another set of beliefs, I want to explore this.

For me, the sacred is not so much forbidden but ungraspable,  attained only by grace.  As Bonaventure puts it:

Ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of understanding…

It is that thing that the earlier hymn-writer puts so beautifully and tentatively:

Expertus potest credere…
The one who has experience of it can believe…

In Tirsch’s soundbite, the sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence. It is a place where one is liberated but contained. As Merton describes in his poem about deep religious experience  Freedom as Experience,

Our lives revolve about You as the planets swing upon the sun…
Imprisoned in the fortunes of Your adamant
We can no longer move, for we are free.

Is this the same as the relationship Tirsch is discussing? Maybe not, but it has some similarities: this friendship allows (to use Christian theological language) the outpouring of grace – of charity, forgiveness, acceptance – that is not a million miles from prayer. It also carries with it the sense of awesomeness, the sense that the unwary word, the nit-picking analysis could “break the spell.” Hemmerle in Rahner’s Encyclopedia of Theology rolls out a wonderful concept:

How is our understanding of being to to justice to the coming and summons of the holy? Not by counting the holy among the topics which it has comprehended, but by submitting itself to the holy.

A sense of the sacred is a sense of the intangible, the awesome: an “I can do this” disrespect takes away something vital. We need emptying,  kenosis, as Paul would call it, not harpagmon, a something to be grasped. When relating to another person we need more than simply respect: we need to set aside a tick-list mentality. It is as true of relationships as of liturgy.

Accounts in the first books of the Bible talk about various sanctuary places, the Burning Bush being one, the hilltop where Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son being another, there are others, too: Mamre, Shechem, threshing floors, High Places. In the therapeutic context that Tirsch proposes, perhaps Jacob’s encounters are the best: Bethel where the ladder of ascending and descending angels helps Jacob understand the renewal of the convenat, and Peniel, the wrestling place where Jacob cannot hope to leave unscathed but in which he seeks (in vain) to know the Name of God. We are called to deal, as Belden Lane writes (Backpacking with the Saints, ch 4), with our own disillusionment, accepting the courage to be imperfect. The sacred ground of the relationship is a special place because the other person teaches us

…that one’s worth isn’t rooted in one’s ability to excel. I can be what little I am, without incrimination. What I accomplish isn’t what allows me to be loved.

The heart of compassion.

Allegory Time. I think it is worth acknowledging that this set of concepts is much more easily represented in metaphor (as with Bonaventure) but that this leaves us to deal with the ambiguity this may bring. We are able to talk of space and landscape (see this post) only while we recognise this is an insufficient language.  A sacred space sounds like an apse, maybe a stone circle, but really it is a set of complex social interactions: from handshakes to hugs, from eye contact to taking to heart what is being left unspoken. We also, like Jacob, may not come away with a relationship sorted: we seek to know the name of the other person when really, as Tirsch points out, we might simply get to hold and contain them in their bleakest thoughts.

The sacred space of relationship requires three understandings, it seems to me:

  • That this relationship is a matter of attentive regard for the other person in a compassionate, non-judgmental way;
  • That we need to be aware of the joy – and sometimes disquiet – of going out beyond our normal boundaries;
  • That this requires respect: both (or all? Are these relationships always dyads?) participants have to regard this relationship as  potentially restorative and dynamic. and yet trespassable and fragile.

Hence the shoes: we have to tread lightly.


As I was inexpertly scribbling the above, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site posted this piece on Thich Nhat Hahn and Love. It says it rather better.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ethics, aesthetics and outdoors

I’m reading for the umpteenth time a really good book on outdoors, the KaplansThe Experience of Nature. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan make some really important points in their book. It maybe didn’t have quite the impact in UK (although such themes are recurring: see here, for example, from Bowler et al., 2010)  as it would have had if it had been published, say, ten years later, and needs outdoor people to come back to again and again. I think that many of the ideas they come up with are assimilated by other, later writers or that others come to similar conclusions. Reading Chapter 6 on Restorative Environments was, when I read it for the first time, a bit like coming home.

The argument – by Ch 6 – is around what they term “mental fatigue” and the potential restorative role for the outdoors, although they admit this does not explain at this point what is being worn down. They come to the conclusion it is a facility with focus, and refine their idea as “Directed Attention Fatigue” in which basic tasks cannot be competently completed: we have less capacity for detailed attention, leading to basic errors, less sensitivity to social cues, less ability to persist. The next section is key:

The struggle to pay attention in cluttered and confusing environments turns out to be central to what is experienced as mental fatigue….One way to achieve this is through sleep… Sleep however has limitations as a way to achieve recovery. Ideally one would provide rest for directed attention during one’s waking hours as well. Achieving this requires environments and tasks that make minimal demands on directed attention.

Ingeniously they then propose ways of “getting away” which in turn are seen as insufficient, until the writers synthesise their arguments and come to their key notions:

  • Being Away
  • Extent
  • Fascination
  • (Action and) Compatibility

It is these four aspects I want to explore really quite briefly and from a set of personal experiences rather than anything remotely challenging the deep understandings that the Kaplans bring out in their book.

Being Away

When in 2009 I called my (?ecocritical) study of Sendak, Butterworth and Childs  ‘Escape into the outdoors?’ (in Deep Into Naturelinked here) I talked about the unwary getting into trouble “out there.”  I was thinking about the ways in which children’s literature encourages a mental escape, but that the space brings challenge. Ida and Max for Maurice Sendak, Charlie and Lola for Lauren Childs, Nick Butterworth’s Percy the Park Keeper all help the reader see beyond the page, behind the bedroom or wherever – even beyond reading in a garden on a sunny afternoon. Mini Grey has some lovely insights here, especially where she states that “books are windows and doors into experiencing being someone else.” Windows and doors to outside. It is not always a nice place (for Ida in Outside Over There it is a “mental and emotional landscape of sibling jealousy and childhood anxiety”) but it is an “away” that brings a different way of being. However, the personal experience of the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project and the simple delight of an afternoon walk in Wychwood Forest suggest to me that the embodied mind needs an embodied escape, an experience of release from the everyday being enhanced by perception of beauty. As the Kaplans propose, reviewing the work of Fly (1986),

…”experiencing nature” or “enjoying the natural surroundings’ received the strongest endorsement…. environments that foster a sense of safety and competence, where a quick assessment leads to the judgement that one could readily make one’s way and could explore without great risk were the more preferred.

What I am therefore to make of my fall from the rope swing (not pictured here but much enjoyed by my students on Twitter)? I suggest it’s complex: on one hand a simple misjudgment of my own capability and a need to belong or impress; on the other, the safety – the lack of great risk – is social/emotional: falling with a friend around to laugh rather than mock is a lesser risk than the fall itself. A pratfall: the humour is in the tumble; the affection is in the humour.

Would I have attempted that swing on my own? Where might the stranger walk? What part does confidence play? Ludchurch on my own was a greater challenge than with Mat and Roger and Jane and Debbie. Maybe the social stuff (see below) is important to me, and “embodied” implies “relational.” Maybe the Kaplans’ notion that social cues are dulled by certain contexts can be turned on its head and that the social aspects of “nature” should be considered. Maybe we need to create spaces for us to be away, or be away with people, to heal, or to sustain our wellbeing.


The view out to the North West from Wychwood Forest in April ’18 (the first shot) was wonderful, the view (here) down the valley from Thoon with Mat in November ’17 was tremendous, enlightening; there may be significance in the fact that they both had far-away horizons. Both encompassed

the imagined as well as the seen…a promise of continuation of the world beyond what is immediately perceived,

It might be possible to see extent as having a powerful pull on the role of landscape in literature, maybe drawing on Romantic notions of Nature – but we would have to admit the claustrophobia of Garner’s valleys somehow: extent might immediately be about vistas, but in play and literature it is also about possible worlds. The Kaplans’ “whole other world” might in fact be literature based entirely: would that negate their argument, or subvert it by suggesting that reading was an effective escape into the outdoors?


A fascinating stimulus is one that calls forth involuntary attention.

This suggests to me that part of the fascination might be that is it in part spontaneous.  That is not to say that some of it isn’t contrived or predicted: sunrises are unpredictable because of the weather, but they always happen; Forest School might always be Thursdays but what happens when you find that weird log to balance on?  The tension around how much “nature,” in England at least, is landscape, shaped land, means that the fascination we feel is always to some extent  contrived: Mat at Alderley Edge is photographing in an area made wild by the Garner family in previous generations, partly to entertain the local landowners and the visitors from Manchester. He is taking pictures of a lovely, autumnal wood, he is fascinated by the potential to Alan Garner and Garner’s readers, but it is in a contrived space.


[Humans] are fascinated by attempting to recognise in instances where recognition is difficult but not impossible.

They are explicit in citing here

scenes high in mystery.

Alderley Edge’s shaped land is just that; Garner’s writings  (quite apart from the stories he draws on) are enough to give it that mystery,  so in coming to an end of a too-brief discussion of fascination, I come to awe and wonder, and hence into the Kaplan’s final category.

I am back feeling whole and dreaming in Ludcruck.

Action and Compatibility

…The natural environment is particularly interesting…in that it communicates a sense of reality…[R]ather than leading to control the wilderness experience leads to a sense of awe and wonder and at the same time relatedness.

Relatedness is interesting if problematic. “The only place you could be a hermit was in the centre of the stage on the Albert Hall,” as someone once told me. I know that the Kaplans are viewing this relatedness as being to “nature,” and Belden Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints sees this connectedness as being as a solitary affair. However, in choosing the photos for this post I do note how much of my experience of the outdoors is social. There are writers who would see spirituality as having a keen social element, so that the discovery of values and transcendence is, as Ping Ho Wong puts it in the article A conceptual investigation into the possibility of spiritual education,  also seen as arising from within a culture. I wonder whether this social aspect needs exploring further? Not only because without Mat I would never have explored the Wild Spaces of Garner Country, and without Jon would not have found the rope swing, but that without Maggie I would not have had someone to sit with in what Rob Macfarlane calls the “blue so deep, sea-deep” shimmer of bluebells above Nettlebed and caught their subtle, Endymion smell.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

You Don’t Know Who You Are

A quick and mostly comic burst of pictures on Twitter show Edutwitter contributors in their adolescence(s) as a curious mix of Addams Family, aspiration  and rebellion. Who do we want to appear to be? Who did we want to appear to be? If it isn’t too convoluted, who did we want to appear to aspire to become?  It is enough to send me back to the self-reflection (or gnawing introspection, maybe) of my previous posts. I am still mulling over those things that marked my Lent and Holy Week and Easter Week around how I “know who I am.” Let’s ponder the outward appearance as discussed on Twitter, in the context of how we appear now and how we presented in a different time. Time is the crucial thing, fundamental to a fluidity of who we might have appeared, how we acted and the motives for our actions.  In the words of R S Thomas

…with our ear to history’s
curved shell we listen
to mixed sounds…

The curve of the shell changes the meaning; to change the metaphor, fundamentally change in time changes the lenses through which the past is viewed.

Here am I, and as a bit of a contrast (but in no way a real comparison) here’s my friend and colleague Jon, both of us 21-ish, but some 20 years apart. Old enough in our twenties to be recognisable, but in crucial ways different from how we are now. I think I can see the Jon I know now – a bit; I guess I can see me in that tweedy boy with the curly hair and wary eyes, but of course I was there, just south of the cloisters in Chichester with friends.  I also know Jon because the picture he has shared fits with the story he tells of himself. These things are easier when they are consistently represented. More detail might add to the story, make sense of the coronet of spiked hair and the straight-into-the-camera gaze, but as Thomas says, the message is already distorted by “history’s curved shell.” One thing I am wary of is the quick diagnostic.

At least I know how I appeared, and remember how I presented: a nice young man, a conformist, maybe a bit scared of the world. Who did I want to become? I’m not sure if I know “who I was,” then, although I can give myself some hasty headlines now, along the lines of “crazy mixed up kid,” although that’s a “quick diagnostic”too.  I know I was scared of being found out, of being known as a shallow imposter. That stays with me.  I know what I lacked toward myself – and probably others – was the word I keep coming back to: compassion.  More baldly, I don’t think then I knew who I was either. I think I wrote something about that time about being a mix of St Francis and the Big Bad Wolf. Dipsychos. Of the two of us, Jon looks to me the wolfier, but maybe that’s just my prejudices.

So here we are now. Something like convergent evolution appears to have taken place.

However, the outward appearances of a growing uniformity are only that: they might only be dress-code deep. Now there’s a phrase that just fell onto the screen!  Only by knowing ourselves and one another do we move beyond the shallow expectations. Jon and I may bring a bit of Country Living to a working relationship, but friendships are not made of tweed, a fragile, passing world, where moth and rust disfigure (Matt 6:20); they are made in knowing the other, and learning about ourselves in the process.

What constitutes “knowing who you are”? How we dress? What we say? What we do? What we read? Our Goodreads account, our Twitter presence? And when do we say ii? This moment? That? A past year, a just-gone moment? A moment still to come?  What will survive of us? Maybe the good we exhibit in our relationships?  We are in Larkin territory – coincidentally, in Chichester, where that boy with the curly hair had his photo taken. This is a good critical reading of Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb and here is my photo and then  here is the text of the poem itself.  Larkin’s cool eye looks at the memorial of a married couple and he comments

Time has transfigured them into

To try and say who I am solely through how I used to look or how I wanted to present myself is misleading, dress-code deep in itself. Fun though this is on Twitter, it is in the growth, the people we grow with, the people we help to grow, that “who we really are” becomes shown; in friends like Jon, and Mat, and all the others at work; in Maggie, in my dad; in Stephen and Robert and all my friends I rarely see; and my kids who live here or visit and call. Larkin is as cynical as I am wary, but I sense he, like me, would like

to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Till We Have Faces

Three voices to follow up on my last post, and anchor it in my reading (because I really can’t stuff any more quotations into that last one):

In Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, one of the young adults caught up in the “sorrows of the valley,” the claustrophobic setting of the novel, challenges the handyman whose story holds the secrets of the recurring tragedies:

You’ve got to straighten yourself out over what you know and what you’ve read or been told. It’s a muddle inside you.

It might be that this (or indeed the character Gwyn from whose mouth it comes) is Garner’s own challenge to himself: it certainly chimes with some of the reflections Garner himself makes of his own life, seeking a unity between his book-learning, his understanding of landscape and his search for personal belonging, that he expresses most vividly (for me in Boneland and Thursbitch). To know that Garner has sat where we took this photo and that from this has come a great work of fiction on myth and ritual,  time and belonging I still find immensely moving. The Matter of Britain as autoethnography? I read much of his work as born from these tensions, and really hope the tensions have not been too painful, the knots too hard to cut – but I suspect this is a fond hope.

Susan Cooper maybe has the keener knife at the end of Silver on the Tree, her final book in the Dark is Rising sequence, when (as I’ve noted before) she takes the task of straightening out the mythic and moral muddle of fantasy and hands it back to the reader:

We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control…. For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.

In an earlier writing period – although not much earlier, really, from today’s perspective, although between the 50s and 70s seems a great gulf fixed – C S Lewis comes very close to this “muddle” in the life-long anguish of regret and misdirected affections of Queen Orual, the protagonist-narrator of  Till We Have Faces,  for me his most moving and clear-sighted novel. Here, towards the end of the book, she challenges herself and the world view that has been disintegrating around her:

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over… I see now why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lost, like my name.

“The trouble is, Nick, you don’t know who you are.”

It’s true. This Lent I have been occupied by a phrase from the letter of St James:  purify [your] hearts, dipsychoi, people with divided souls. Like some kind of fidget toy, I’ve twisted it this way and that, coming back again and again to wondering about honesty, authenticity and truth. The headline challenge from a friend this week came with greater force than the discussion in Confession the weekend before. Three or four, or even more voices and choices have been raised in me and around me, and the nail is hit home with that phrase: “you don’t know who you are.” Dipsychos, a person with a divided soul, and it is friendships, two revelatory friendships in particular,  that have shone a light on that division. This post isn’t about them, really, but is trying to make some sense of this “unknowing” model in terms of my work and my research.

It would be lovely to talk about how being outside clears my head, about “the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys,” but is it just about walking?
When Rob Macfarlane writes, it’s not just about walking; in today’s looking at my relationship with Garner’s Thoon and Ludchurch it seems hardly to be about walking for me at all, but a sort of pilgrimage (that overstates it) towards a personal integration. When I have written about “being real” before  it has been about creating a relationship with place through story; this post, this week’s thinking is about me making sense of me through people, through place, through story but as I attempt it…


Photo from Oct 16 of first visi

…I am back to Ludchurch and the disquiet I felt when I met that dark place, the darkening wood and the disempowerment of the Green Knight in the dusk. Maybe what I turned from there, the thing that chased me from Thursbitch for weeks after our first visit, was a shapeless Big Thing made of what I couldn’t see: an anxiety that I cannot find a self under all the guises  I carry. One of the coats I wear is about the research, the  language and literature reading and thinking and walking I have been involved in, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. I come back to it again today in something of the spirit of Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, where he suggests that walking can be “like gazing into a crystal ball.”   Walking, maybe, and reflecting on that walking – but he also warns that “the imagining and mythologising of nature is an ambivalent process.” So while pressure of work and demands of family mean not much one-foot-in-front-of-another walking has been going on, there has been a lot of (very ambivalent) crystal ball scrying: it   has been a week where time and again, sitting in my office or in my meditation or as I drift off to sleep I have walked from the Gradbach hostel up to the Green Chapel, and as I reflect on this I keep coming back to the blog post and the John Fuller poem I cite often, where in the one I claim I am my own Gawain and in the other Caliban concludes, angrily:

                              … I think it is not good
To be unhappy with your freedom or
My language (learnt, but nothing understood),
Lost like my name within the magic wood.

This Good Friday evening, the first night of Passover, let me add some more thoughts.

Perhaps it is the rhythm of spring and Liturgy in both Christian and Jewish traditions have been (in part) agents of bringing me to a point where I have to acknowledge, as Rob Macfarlane describes it in The Old Ways, “the co-present ghosts of the former and the future.” The ghosts of past relationships and the uncertainty of present ones; the ghosts of past half-finished research so beautifully topped by more able medievalists at home and elsewhere; the hopes and fears of all the years. Maybe “imagining and mythologising [of anything] is an ambivalent process” – solvitur ambulando,  but I feel like I am on a fatigue run, carrying so much. It feels like time to stop running: to change the metaphor, it feels like time to look to the ordering of my life, to make sense of the bits I am carrying, like a hiker rummaging in a disordered rucksack, or a mosaicist faced with the task of creating a picture from random tesserae.

The poet who “got me through” the bleak and beautiful four years of studying and working in Durham, Anne Stevenson, challenges the reader at Easter with the lines

What god will arise and slouch
through this realm of rubbish?

And I think the place I am at the moment is just what she describes in North Easter: a realm of rubbish with real flashes of beauty. That is to say that I am unconvinced by the Olympic myth of “anyone can be what they want to be,” but I am in sympathy with Auden (in lines again I have come to this Lent):

Instruct is in the civil art
of making from the muddled heart
a desert and a city where
the thoughts that have to labour there
may find locality and peace
and pent-up feelings their release…

Let Fuller and Anne Stevenson end this. She complains in her poem A Sepia Garden of creating identity as

the daily irritation,
the cramped frustration of attempting
the jigsaw with pieces missing

and my plaintive joining Caliban in saying

…I framed what syllables I could

because we all create who we are with what we have. The trouble is I’m not sure what the picture I’m creating should look like.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Into compassion-focussed practice

I first met the work of Thich Nhat Hahn in his book Being Peace, which spoke powerfully to me in my first school, as a Reception Class teacher. It taught me that there were oceans of compassion beyond feeling sorry – sorry for myself or (to use the term differently) sorry for the children.  This was professional formation just like the day-to-day stuff from the school that still is with me some thirty years later. I certainly am informed by the difficult relationship I blundered into in that first job, and I continue to ponder somewhere what I feel about the children I worked with, for whom some kind of pity was a misguided (and ultimately pointless) way of looking at my job. I might have learned my craft there, but I also learned I was not there to rescue any more than I was there to squash and squeeze children into a preformed version of childhood or, worse still, some dire, conformist apprentice adulthood accompanied by claxons blaring “the children love it,” and (for those that don’t), “Develop your growth mindset!”

I met compassion in wholly other ways in my first Nursery Head, Lesley Grundy, where her immense concern for the children and families was at the same time empowering and for her team almost engulfing. Admittedly, she was less focussed on her staff – but that was because she believed, I think, that we all followed her vision  in minute detail, that her idea of an inclusive and imaginative curriculum extended beyond simply sunny

Old Grandpont Nursery School from a drawing by Jo Acty

days in the Grandpont  Nursery garden. The school, of course, has a slightly different feel now (several headteachers after her and also a new building), but for me, Lesley roams the Grandpont garden still. I look into the retirement homes that now occupy the site of the old Nursery and see the croci we planted and almost hear her reading in the garden.  A real inheritor of the MacMillan ideal, Lesley’s compassion was practical, focussed on the children and families, and still remained long-sighted and visionary. I felt when I was a Head that I was a long, long way behind her.

I meet compassion rather differently in my encounters with what I see as a new version of compassion – what for shorthand I might call revolutionary compassion – in the thinking of my colleague Jon Reid and others (such as Simon Knight and Tim O’Brien) he works with or meets. This is Jon’s area of expertise, both in research terms and in practice, and in this post I am simply reflecting on what he teaches me.  Here, inclusiveness is a more radical expedition into the unknown again, further into what I (yes, and others better qualified than I am) have described as the tangled roots of a definition of curriculum, into the realm of the ethical practitioner. We come to a recent discussion on Twitter in which one contributor light-heartedly suggested measuring compassion and I brought heavy wellies to the comment, like an eejit. I was worried about measuring compassion having opposed the notion of measuring spirituality – for example, however cute and useful this clip is, there is a touch of the catechism – and adult control – about the acts of kindness and gratitude the children outline.  “Child A has met their mindfulness target…” The idea however that there could or should be some regulation or measurement of compassion has stayed with me, and I am profoundly dubious.

The deeply attitudinal nature of compassion makes it possible to see it more than to measure it. Measuring is only ever going to work for behaviours, and there is the possibility of these atrophying into this or that set pattern: think about the difference between respect and some of the regimented behaviours in the more controversial free schools and academies – free schools with exceptionally limited freedoms, academies where there is no debate unless sanctioned by the adults. I am not a fan of such measurement: if child A gives what they can and it is poorer than child B, then the adults have, I think, a duty to value what the child is giving – not just in the end-of term chocs, but the attention they can maybe muster after an exhausting weekend.

Revolutionary compassion however cannot be confused with letting children (or families) “off” in some way. I remember during my PGCE my tutor coaching me towards an understanding that “you may be the only stability that child has.” David, thank you: that stays with me and often helps me distinguish between genuine active help and simple woolly thinking. However, I don’t believe that confusion is what I see in the good-natured and sometimes hard-won generosity of people who act around me as proponents of compassion. Yes, there seem to me to be effective characteristics of such practitioners, such as an easy-going nature, lots of energy, and maybe a history that informs that compassion, but it is also quite steely; this compassion is deeper than being soft on kids (or students or colleagues). It is not straightforwardly measurable because it is not a set of behaviours that can be ticked off to get your compassion badge.

While I am not advocating a wholesale import of Buddhist ethics, it seems to me that this kind of action-compassion contains a sort of deep appreciation of the kind of interbeing that Thich Nhat Hahn teaches: a mutual interdependence, an understanding that the teacher (or the system) cannot really function without those around them, including the parent and the child. The system supports the learning – and really needs to support the professional adult (another story altogether) – but cannot be the true measure of a teacher. Some element of regulation is possible here, in the setting up of effective, well-funded systems of supervision and training that allows the new teacher to explore what it means to be on the edge of this difficult world where a desire to be empathetic meets real children: hungry for attention, good or bad, hungry for stability, sometimes simply hungry for breakfast… The mindful teacher is not necessarily someone with a candle s/he can bring out when stressed, but someone who appreciates the child, or the parent, or the colleague, in a way that attempts to understand the complexity of the life in their hands, and how we are, none of us, really that different. I think it goes further than that, but that will do for now.  I come full circle, back to Thich Nhat Hahn and his book The Sun My Heart: “We cannot take either side, because we exist in both.”


But while I’m ranting, I’m afraid I have to say that zero tolerance of genuinely disruptive behaviours is not the same as zero tolerance of the wrong shade of grey trousers.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof

What is a ruin? Some initial thoughts on applying Jane Carroll’s topoanalysis to Thursbitch and Ludchurch. 

Whether there are night-ravens or pelicans in one’s insomnia (the psalm commentaries spend some time on the animals in Psalm 102: I think I encounter them both sometimes) there is an undeniable power to the lament over the fallen city that marks the exilic poetry of the Hebrew Bible. It is the definining shock of the kingdom of Judah: the central symbol of trust is smashed into smithereens of hope and despair. The echoes comes down not only into Judaism but into the Catholic liturgy which in Tenebrae sings of the city that sits alone that was so full of people, and then of the destruction of a people and society. It gives us the beauty of the second Isaiah-poet, the wretchedness of Jeremiah: it creeps, too, into the landscape of “bare ruined choirs,” in post-dissolution monastic history and in Shakespeare. Just as it is woven into Judaism, the collapse of Romano-British society and then centuries later the destruction of the monastic presence have woven ruins into English history. The heritage industry feeds on the failing grandeur.

But Thoon and Thursbitch are not such a grand site. Upland clearances and enclosures bring about the same destruction in other, more domestic ways, and I guess the abandoning of the farm at Thursbitch is one of these.  A farm, discernible by a brook, grass meadows, higher hills. I am reminded of the deserted upland farm buildings in Cooper’s The Grey King. Domestic tragedy.

What did we go out into the wilderness to see?

When Looking for Thursbitch became finding Thoon on a windy autumn afternoon, we found last year what we had missed before, a place central to Garner’s Thursbitch, the high seat from which one of the central actions of the book is observed. In this first picture, Mat is looking down from just below Thoon to the green pastures by Thursbitch. If we are looking for Biblical parallels this is one of the unorthodox High Places so mistrusted by the prophets, now peopled, perhaps, only by working farmers, walkers and the curious. The ruin of the farm is poignant, some walls, a sense of rooms and purpose, but little else. Perhaps.

Jane Carroll’s point (in her book Landscape in Children’s Literature) is that a ruin connects as well as divides: “the lapsed topos …provides the strongest connection between past and present”… “by physicalizing the human past, the ruin, like the grave, becomes a memento mori.” She is writing about the Dark is Rising’s young hero, Will, discovering links to the Roman past of Caerleon, and is leading the readers through the ambiguity (I love how my predictive text wants first Mabinogion then LeGuin for my mistyping) of past and present to the powerful vision of a humanist future. Garner is looking elsewhere, not for the Matter of Britain (at least, not directly) but for the Matter of Humanity.  Story becomes the bigger thing, maybe the Big Thing itself, of which the þurs is only a metaphor. Sal and Jack are those who have “wrought that shall break the teeth of Time,” as Yeats has it, and Garner gathers us into this story, here – Carroll uses the idea of “poetry that contemplates the dust,” where death unites across time. For me, her most powerful section in the whole book is where Carroll argues around the ruin ( the cave, the grave) as a site of folkloric as well as physical excavation. It is in Boneland that landscape and memory jumble into so many half-told stories, and for us it was impossible to do more, on our last visit, than choose one path – Gawain – and dig with/travel along it.  In Boneland Garner all but passes (there’s another post to write) Thursbitch and links Alderley, that autochthonic centre of Garner Country with its myths and creations, to Lud’s Church, Ludchurch, that Garner renames Ludcruck. Can a crack in the Rock, the stuff of so many of the high rocks around here be counted as a ruin? It is no Caerleon and no Aquae Sulis this chill, mossy fissure, but when contemplated as the possible site a poet has given to a key encounter in English literature, is it in some way at least the same sort of space, claiming attention as a ruin? Is it possible for a natural phenomenon to move from what Carroll calls a sanctuary topos to a lapsed topos? Or (and this is where I think I’m coming to) can Carroll’s topoi all coexist in one place? Ludchurch, it seems to me, is sanctuary as  Green Chapel, green as a Wilderness and magical Green Space, a pathway (and it certainly has that, both in attaining it and passing through) and the sense of abandonment. Is it possible for a sanctuary to be a ruin? And what of that oddity of pilgrimage, the Camino, the ley, the sacred road?  Not to deny Carroll’s powerful assertions of the distinctions between her topoi, it is as if, as significant narrative elements in Garner, they can be seen as merging into one.

An indeterminate space such as Ludchurch  has a final challenge, the one we find (or look for and miss) when seeking something beyond the ruin. Carroll proposes the past-present-future of the ruin, the lapsed topos as not without hope. For me this is about the spiritual aspect of Ludchurch, centred for me on my final image: even in a damp evening, or (as it must be now as I write) a chill gone-midnight darkness, it still seems to me a place of immense significance, where, maybe “prayer has been valid” (another perhaps), or where at least some sense of transcendence is rooted in the slow fall of rock, the trickle of waters, the challenge the Green Knight gives Gawain to be honest, to grow, to meet Something Big and return wiser. Is there another topos, the place of enlightenment, or is this where Cooper’s Oldway Lane and the Mountain in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and the selva oscura in Dante (and at Gradbach) show their narrative power?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


I wasn’t going to say anything about how wonderful it was being out in the snow at a school on Tuesday. After all, schools and their communities should be able to go about their business without intrusion except in particular and boundaried circumstances.  So, while this post isn’t really about School A and certainly not about Child B or Teacher C, it starts from my sitting on the cold ground in the school’s outdoor area, talking to a small person. She has a small, flaky bit of snow and sand mixture in her palm, and her eagerness to share with me is coupled with amazing patience and delicacy. And I’m mentioning the school, the teachers and the child here as a thank you: thank you for letting me back into the world I love of young people learning.

Hardly a critical incident, but scroll through the zero days of this week to a tweet which alerts me to the practice of a “no touch” policy towards snow. It might have stones in it, it might be dirty, children might throw it… and therefore it stirs me to ask

what do children gain from touching snow?

We could play the Curriculum Game, which goes something like this: we predict or observe along the lines of the current official curriculum system and structure. “Touching snow is about the following three things…” It is like a magnificent game where the children are the callers, the practitioners trying to score against this box or that on a complex and shifting bingo card of language and ideas and physicality. We could play the short game, based on spotting characteristics of effective learning, or the individual long game, based on Child A and their grasp of this or that developmental aspect. Similarly, there’s the predictive game, which starts from snow and guesses where the bingo tokens will come out: what a child can do becomes what the practitioners guess the child might learn.

We could play (insofar as it’s a different game) a Spiritual Game. Not to reduce spirituality (as some writers have done) to another set of learning goals, but to talk about children’s awe, the delight at novelty and uncertainty. It is, maybe, the same “sense of joy and opportunity” that lead medieval writers to think about what Marion Glasscoe has called the “games of faith.” I think this is what writers from Margaret MacMillan on have tried to express when they describe childhood in terms of innocence and freedom: it is the engaged encounters with the unfamiliar that engender delight.

Finally (for now) we might think about a Game of Life.  I have mentioned before, for example, the challenges of working with tactile-defensive undergraduates, whose world is (for me) limited by their ineluctable reticence around soil and mud and moss.  I also know that (quite apart from what the weather might do overnight) with a small amount of snow people talk about not being able to get to work, about a “snow day.” I do know people shouldn’t ignore real danger; I also know, however, that our divorce from nature leads to fear of it. Cold is cold; snow is snow. It is a sort of divorce: not just the split of a binary, but a loss of a whole lot of relationships. Two people break up and this friend  goes one way, that friend another; the music collection goes to one person, the dining chairs go to another. Who wants that vase?  Humanity (uppercase H) leaves Nature (uppercase N) and loses snow as well, and maybe slush and snowdrops. The disquiet I (and others) experience around loss of language and direct knowing of something as simple as snow is part of this schism.   Tragically we become first uncomfortable strangers then we grow unfamiliar, then mistrustful. What goes on when we reconnect is tentative but threshold-like: the snow becomes something we know, welcome or unwelcome as context dictates. This final aspect involves the other two: we learn the “snowness of snow” just as in early Maths we appreciate the “threeness of three,”and then we also see snow as wonder, as a source of fun, of poetry or science or expressive arts: we see it as snow.

What do we gain from touching snow? Maybe we gain some facility with active learning, or some more vocabulary, or skills with moving or handling. Maybe we gain a sense of wonderthat the bright crystal pile in our hands turns (back) to water. Maybe we learn something simple about who we are and how we live.

But very little of any of the three ways of looking at our learning comes from looking at snow through the window or via a video link, but comes from what the first epistle of John says of Christ, that “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment