Monthly Newsletter | March 2023
Remembering our Holy Places
The monthly newsletters are an amalgamation of musings and two poems (one by a published poet and one by me, as per a practice introduced to my master’s cohort by poet Alice Oswald). Please scroll down for upcoming course and event announcements.
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I want to live a life in which soulfulness and beauty are the standard. And when they are lacking, I summon them by imagining my holy places. Let me explain.
If you share the worldview that this is not a godless universe we live in; that we are not alone - the spirits, the gods, the electric song lines quivering everywhere - then places are alive too. They speak. And just like people, some speak to us more than others.
When I feel displaced, when my heart struggles or when I am just tired, I remember my holy places, and I draw power from them. They give me sustenance.
We all have them. The wild, untamed, feral places where the animal in us is fed. Where Artemis rules and there are no straight lines and there is no longer space for existentialist affronts that coax the mind into thinking there is anything other than grace.
Places that are like the difference between eros and amor - eros being everywhere, and amor being specific. That particular tree we climbed as a child when no one else understood us, a certain rock formation or cliff face, a turn in the river where the bank is just the right shape for our tired feet….
To remember our holy places is to remember ourselves, because we are made of everything that touches us. And not everything does… The things that do, I think, require our full attention and devotion. We are indebted to them. And recognising this can begin to heal our relationship - or lack of - with the natural world.
I think we need more specificity. We are products of a globalised culture unlike anything that has ever existed before. And if I learned anything from studying with Alice Oswald, it is precision.
Our holy places are our temples. They house our gods, they shape us and, if we pay libation, we can continue to draw sustenance from them, even when we are far away.
Paying libation to our holy places simply means fully embodying them. Or, fully embodying ourselves. They help us become more of who we are, and our work in turn is simply to be that. To stay loyal to who we are and let everything we do be a transmission of that. There is no greater task or service
So what are the places that come to mind when your heart is weary and your cup is drained? I like the solitary nature of islands. There is one in particular, out in the Adriatic Sea, that like Calypso’s Island, freed me but never quite released me. In fact, local legends and folklore tell of Odysseus landing on the shores of an island nearby. They say that it was once under the custodianship of an old woman who lived as a queen. To this day, lots of markings carry the title “baba” (meaning Old Lady) and there is no concept of private property - everything belongs to Babino (which translates as old lady’s). Perhaps she was the woman who, once upon a time, loved Odysseus.
But my island is some distance from it and stands quite alone. It is on the edge of the story, without a nymph or a queen or a lost man. There are no villages to recall the stories nor tourists to document the modern myth with selfie sticks.
The island is a pine forest, with the occasional olive tree and cypress, a herd of deer, and a white stone monastery hanging off the edge of the sea. It is small, nestled between Calypso’s Island and the mainland of Croatia, and you can walk its circumference in an hour.
It is a sensual place. One that seems to rouse all the senses from their day-to-day slumber and demands their full attention. The scent of pine is wholly intoxicating, lulling the mind and anointing the entire island with a perpetual perfume.
There are coves with white pebbled beaches nestled between lapping turquoise waves on one side, and the gratifying shade of the pines on the other. The pebbles are smooth and hot on the cheek, and laying on them I imagine being pressed on the full belly of the moon. There are velvet black butterflies and the deer are shy. Usually, I see three stags; two young bucks and their elder. They tend to graze in the shade of the monastery and don’t seem to wander further than its small grove of olive trees. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might catch site of a priest emerging from one of the thick wooden doorways with a bowl of fresh lettuce and the deer will feast and fight, the clash of antlers momentarily disturbing the orchestra of cicadas who quickly return to their ballad because they know how it will end; know the old stag will always have the last word.
Sometimes a small boat will dock and the monks will clamber in, equipped with walking sticks and shaking knees, and I imagine scenarios where they might be going. Maybe an excursion to their favourite bakery to satisfy a sweet tooth, or to give a sermon on the mainland somewhere where there are still villages and there is still faith. Maybe the escapades are for forbidden love, someone they knew long ago and that they meet again when the tides are right. Or perhaps it is simply a visit to the barber or the supermarket.
Whatever it is, their black robes against the white stone of the monastery fall nothing short of a Fellini film (I couldn’t help sharing a photograph of one of my favourite scenes from his film “La Dolce Vita” above).
It is a timeless place. Unexpected. An extended moment that our world doesn’t have time for.
I return there often, in memory, to this island of holy things, of pine and priest and stag. And in this last stretch of winter, when I find myself needing sustenance, summoning the scent of tree sap and hot stone under wet skin keeps me steady.
My holy place. It speaks of the berry-stained fingers of Calypso as she weaves the fates of men on her island nearby and the hot wet memory of the god of the wild. Pan. I think of him when I’m there, particularly the story in which he comes across a human man in his forest and longs to understand him. One night, they sit around a fire together and he notices the man blowing on his hands. When he asks him why, the man answers, “To warm myself up.” The following night, the man makes a soup. And Pan notices him blowing again. When he asks him why, the man answers, “To cool it down.” At this, Pan retreats back into the forest, concluding that he cannot trust a creature that blows hot and cold.
In a culture that is evermore soul-less, that favours the global over the local, that speaks a language that makes sweeping generalisations and where we have lots of belongings but no sense of belonging, I think we can begin to find Soul again by keeping our holy places close, by making sure we never stray too far from our own maddening wild, and by running, as Hafez wrote, ‘from anything that does not strengthen your precious budding wings.’
Mary Oliver’s is a good example of this type of devotional relationship with the natural world. Here is one of her poems from her book ‘Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver’.
On Meditating, Sort Of Meditation, so I’ve heard, is best accomplished if you entertain a certain strict posture. Frankly, I prefer just to lounge under a tree. So why should I think I could ever be successful? Some days I fall asleep, or land in that even better place - half-asleep - where the world, spring, summer, autumn, winter - flies through my mind in its hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent. So I just lie like that, while distance and time reveal their true attitudes: they never heard of me, and never will, or ever need to. Of course I wake up finally thinking, how wonderful to be who I am, made out of earth and water, my own thoughts, my own fingerprints - all that glorious, temporary stuff.
Next, I would like to share a poem I wrote when I was last on the island. It is actually where I began my MA online in the autumn of 2021. In fact, it took a journey from the island in the Balkans to revisit my old life in the East Coast of the US to, finally, arrive and anchor myself in the British Isles. One of our first tasks was to write what Martin Shaw called an ‘I am’ poem. This is an old Bardic practice that pays diligence to all the things that got us into the shape we are in; the moments in our lives that made us gasp with rapture, that caused in us what James Joyce would call “aesthetic arrest”. Sharing it with you today feels like a way of closing the loop of that initiatory time.
I Am I am the lemniscatic dance of the bee, the wild mint that intoxicates the river, the child who pleads for her parents to stop the car every time they pass fields of corn so she can run through them. I am the garden of my mother’s dreams and my father’s open road, the panic of an unknown land and a new language that tastes strange on the tongue, I am outsider, I am foreign, I am the neither/neither of dusk. I am the funambulist’s tightrope extended between worlds, the liminal place where land meets sea, the country east of the sun and west of the moon of the lullabies of old. I am the fire of the red dragon of Wales and the ochre caves of Cantabria, the Basque flower of the sun and the hot stone echo of Al-Andalus. I am the lemniscatic dance of the bee, the first swim in the tender sea of morning, the stars that flicker on the black mirror of night, and the absolute need to immerse myself in both entirely. I am the trembling veil, the resonance of church bells in old city streets, the resurrection of morning dew and her promise of new life. I am Lot’s wife’s last glance to the old world in defiance of the angels, the cubic hardness of salt and her dissolution too, the dreaming of the coiled serpent in the navel of the Earth. I am the arsenic in moon blood and Asclepian’s healing cup, the long shadows of midsummer, the solitude of the forest and the old woman who tells me I am tree. I am bark against bare backs and sand between the toes, ripples of leaves fallen from willow trees and the river as she stills. I am velvet and I am silk, the fountain that yields and falls, the gasp of the first birdsong in the calm after a storm. I am midnight, the quiver of skin under hot breath, the honey dripping from the lips of my beloved and the tongue that licks them clean. I am the agony of impossible love, the trusting sail of the lone boat out at sea, the tears of Picasso’s Weeping Woman and the poets’ river of mead. I am the lemniscatic dance of the bee, the scent of cinnamon, wet earth, and that one cupboard at my grandparents house that brings abuelo back to life. I am the dizzying perfume of jasmine and orange blossom that the streets of Granada wear only at night, the dark moon and the sun beam, the spinner and the spindle and the thread in between. I am the lemniscatic dance of the bee.
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Always such a treat to delve into your words. This piece about our connection to land felt particularly touching. And gosh the 'I Am' poem is beautiful!
Thank you, Gabriela. This was haunting and beautiful, reminding me of my holy place and that I must return this year, especially since this is a landmark time for me personally.
I tried registering for "Gnosis" and lost all the details I wrote. 🙃 There is a separate note at the bottom of the registration page to send the health information, et cetera, to you at your email address. Would you be so kind as to tell me which is preferred? Perhaps it's both. Thank you!