I welcome feedback and comments if they are connected to my post, and are polite. And I don't usually mind students of English trying out their skills if they stick to the topic. However, if anyone posting tries to advertise something, even if it's just in the title or email address, then I'm going to be strict about deleting these from now on. So, please don't post here unless you are genuinely interested in the blog, and are not pushing your own wares. Thank you!
Alchemy has always been an interest of mine, its images emerging spontaneously in dreams since I was very young.It was perhaps no coincidence that the first full-length book I was asked to write was on the history of Alchemy. I immersed myself in its complex history, with a tight deadline to meet, and the result was 'Alchemy: The Great Work', first published by Thorsons in 1984. It has been through several editions since, and has recently been republished by Red Wheel Weiser. But what I want to share with you today is a moving account of finding the alchemy of happiness in your work, even when life is throwing the hardest challenges at you. My close friend Erica Witt, a psychotherapist and an accomplished artist, has recently been diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease. But in amidst the hardships that this brings, she finds that 'The Great Work' still works its magic, and happiness is still to be found. Scroll down to read it.
Guest blog by Erica Witt: The Alchemy of Happiness
When I lose myself in an art project, whatever it is, I look up and the world around me has a glow about it, the colours more vibrant, the shapes more defined and fascinating. There's a smile in the air and I am included in the pleasure of it. The moment passes. Or maybe it lingers for a while. What happened? Was it my chemical endorphins that got stirred? How can I call them back? Was this vision a by product of my creative process, an integral part of it, or a reality that is always there and one that I synchronise with at moments. Random. Casual. Unexpected. Or if I expect them, those moments, they are not there. Non rational. There's no direct link. Just moments where the world lights up, and me with it. Happiness, freedom, connection, pleasure, the creative principle. Drops of an elixir in the search for the meaning of life.
To make the analogy with alchemy, there is a pot, a cauldron, a holding, for these moments of happiness. It is ourselves. There is a choice to be made. These moments can disappear in the pot. Become memories or dismissed because they have vanished and cannot be commanded to return. To believe that these moments have an identity and an elusive presence, a recurring value takes careful observation and effort. just like the effort of building up the skills and the artistic techniques, and repetitive practices and endless hours of experimentation and play that go into the mix of creative endeavour. How many years did the alchemists put in, slaving away over a hot pot? How long does it take to hone and polish creative skills, sculpture, painting, musicianship, writing?
Besides the effort and the willpower and determination there are other elements to learn and manage and put to use. Self doubt and hubris to be negotiated. Is what I am making rubbish? It's not as good as I thought. So and so does it better. There's a long line of illustrious forebears and Great Artists and Creative Beings way beyond comparison. Why bother? Why me? And then there are our stories and distractions to be heard, the ones about being discovered, late in the day, as a misplaced genius or a budding wonder.
The moments of happiness don't care about all that. The end product is no business of theirs. But the skills that throw up the spark of happiness also make the pot, the container, the alchemical transformer. Noticing the sparks of awareness, treasuring the moments of beauty and simplicity, creates a responsiveness both to ourselves and the outside world. A recognition of something that is in all the atoms of the universe.
The alchemical pot takes the sludge of our everyday world and shakes and stirs it. What is created in the process is sparks of connection and beauty and love. All the things we Sufis talk about and long for and work hard to create the right biosphere to transform the sludge as best we can.
Perhaps we are playing our part in what the old alchemists called The Great Work.
For me, this is all being tested afresh. Our home is littered with things that I have made, painted, sculpted, sewn. We are getting older. How many of them do I want to keep? Many are half finished or could be taken further. ( i am not a Patrick Heron, or a Barbara Hepworth, much as I would like to be. I am Erica Witt. )
Added to that, I have just developed, the diagnosis is very recent, Parkinson's Disease. Among the various neurological symptoms, over the past six months I have developed an increasingly violent tremour in my right hand and arm. Writing has become spider squiggles. Stone carving is exhausting, painting is fraught with drips and shakes and impromptu squiggles. Frustrating. Anxiety escalates easily and I find myself down the lane marked Why Bother before I have even put my coat on.
What is fascinating tho is how I can call on something other in myself. Sometimes. I slip into the melancholy " why bother " or the illusory, delusory, repetitive realms of anxiety. I believe them both because they have become part, it seems, of the autonomic nervous system, like the uncontrollable muscular spasms of my arm. And then, at a certain moment I remember. I also have a choice. I can open my eyes wider, which involves lifting my head a little and taking a breath in, also an involuntary movement once I have started the process. A spark comes into view, left field. It flashes at me. Remember me. I am your Friend. Go outside. Look at the sky. Smell the air, the autumn leaves, listen to the traffic and the noises of busy lives. Open your heart, be peaceful, phone a friend.
Little sparks of unbidden happiness lighting up my world. Have those moments of beauty looking up from my creative endeavours, coalesced into an inner spaciousness. Time will tell and innumerable provocations will test. May I remember a deeper happiness holding me gently in the palm of the universe. Unbidden. Not earned. Searched for and not forgotten.
This was written for a series of talks on the Alchemy of Happiness: see sufiway.org
Try my word quiz at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/Z9YD8N2 !
I'm not yet able to embed it in this blog page but maybe I'll discover how to do that later. It's a quiz where you have to guess the meaning of archaic words. All of them are genuine, but of course only one of the three definitions given is the right one! No cheating, mind, with online searches....And no worries either - we're not collecting info or following up in any way.
Just to give you a foretaste, you'll be asked what the following mean: Bittiwhelp, kipe, three-thrum and Saturday-stop. Any ideas?
Well, it’s been a year free of blog posts, but all that is about to change! As my book ‘Circle of Nine’ nears completion at the publishers, I’ll be exploring new topics and hoping to entertain those of you who end up on my page. Quite a number of the posts I’ve put up in the last few years have brought in people searching for particular topics – in particular, a student production of Marat Sade in Cambridge in the 1960s had a virtual cast reunion around the blog! And memories of my old shop Tigerlily, selling vintage clothes, also brought back recollections from those who’d bought 1930s dresses and tailcoats there.
But to round off 2017 I’m sharing some festive pictures from my home town of Topsham, in Devon. Festive front doors and sparkly shop windows make it a wonderful place to stroll through at this time of year.
And I wish you all the very best – a happy Christmas, and a peaceful New Year!
I have done many things in my life apart from writing. Singer, childbirth teacher, astrologer and importer of Russian arts are among the more interesting occupations– though I could also name washer-up, pub cleaner, dog walker, secretary, indexer, and market stall holder among the more mundane ones too. But it is the trader in me which has always stirred time after time, and demanded attention. When I looked into my family history I discovered generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family– so it’s not surprise that I love a bargain, and selling on treasures which I’ve unearthed.
My earliest shop venture was called ‘Tigerlily’ – a first-wave vintage clothes shop, on Mill Road, Cambridge. I signed a lease on the building along with a couple of friends in Oct 1974. I had a six week old baby, so it was madness, but my energy was running high. Helen and I took over the large upstairs room for our ‘period’ clothes (the term ‘vintage’ was unknown then, likewise ‘retro’). Downstairs, Paul and Arunee ran their jewellery business, selling gems and fine jewellery from Thailand. One of the first things we noticed was that the walls sprouted a fine crop of fungi, and throughout our tenancy of about six years, we had to call up the landlords constantly with reports of leaking roofs and dripping ceilings. Still, it was cheap. We did excellent sales of granddad collarless shirts, 1940s crepe dresses, 1930s chiffon ball gowns, Victorian nighties and petticoats, Hungarian smocked blouses, deco scarves, demob suits for men and, come May Ball time, old but rather stylish djs and tailcoats. 50s gear was not yet back in fashion, though we risked a few baseball jackets and full flowered skirts.
Sourcing it was fun. I would get up about 3am on Sunday morning and drive down to the Cheshire St area, near Brick Lane in London, where clothes were sold out of bales in old warehouses and derelict shops, and often off the pavement itself. I discovered ‘rag warehouses’ too in places further north, especially Batley in Yorkshire, where the kindly women would save ‘the hippy stuff’ for me. All this required a lot of laundering – my washing machine worked day and night, and we had a paid team of part-timers to help out with the sewing and ironing. At the other end of the scale, I attended costume auctions held by Phillips and Christies in London, and creamed off all sorts of costumes, embroideries and lace that weren’t of interest to the specialist buyers.
Our customers were varied and included students, teenagers, costume dealers, and mums or grannies buying an antique christening robe for a new baby – born at that time in the Mill Road Maternity Hospital opposite. The shop turned a good profit, partly because it cost very little to set up, since we simply acquired clothes rails, a curtain for a changing room, a couple of old haberdashers units with drawers, (bought from a gentleman’s outfitters over the bridge in Mill Road which was closing down), an antique counter and an elderly till. My children, then very young, remember playing hide and seek among the clothes on the rails. It was great fun, and when I’d had enough after five years or so, I handed my side of the business over to a woman called Caz, who’d worked for me. The jewellery business downstairs had moved earlier to new premises in the Burleigh St area, re-named itself ‘Rosecut’, and the Afghan import business (from Cambridge market, I think) took it over for a number of years.
I would love to read other people’s memories of Tigerlily, and to see any more photos. Scroll down to see what they've already been saying on Facebook!
Here’s what they’ve been saying on Facebook:
My favorite shop in my teens. Bought a Chinese silk jacket and thought I was the bee's knees!
I loved Tiger Lilly. Was a brilliant 'alternative' shop!
Loved it! - Lived on Tension Rd at the time so was always peeping in the window. I bought a jewel green velvet jacket from there - was around 14 yrs old at the time, so was a big deal for me -used all my cash but was worth every penny
Tiger Lily, make your own earrings, satin espadrilles, and patchouli oil downstairs and vintage heaven upstairs. Loved it
Tiger lily ... Patchouli, a great second hand airforce jacket with a customised "tail", my first ball gown, a pair of gorgeous vintage winkle puckers,, incense, and best of all .. My black velvet Chinese shoes with black soles ... I loved them .. Circa 1982-5
Yes, I bought two dresses there that have huge memories, one was black satin with cream lace back and diamonte buttons, I wore it to gatecrash the mayballs on a punt, punk era, siouxsie sioux hair, the second was a pale pink cream muslin boned dress that I wore to dance in the streets or Paris
I remember Tiger Lily. I moved to the Mill Road area in 1977, so it looked just like that! I remember the shop as bohemian and a bit hippy. It would probably now trade as "vintage".
I shopped there all the time!
(‘Mill Road History’ Facebook 2015)
I'm honoured to post this blog from Grevel Lindop, poet, author, meditator and lecturer. Grevel and I have criss-crossed each other's paths over the years, sharing an interest in spiritual traditions. The title of the first poem in his current collection, Luna Park, immediately struck a chord with me, since I had once gazed into this weird fun fair frontage, on a visit to Sydney some ten or so years ago.
I have known the beauty and power of his poems for a while now, and hope that some of you reading this will follow his work further - Luna Park is available to buy from Amazon and other outlets, as is his most recent book, The Third Inkling, on the life of the writer Charles Williams - 'novelist, poet, theologian, magician and guru.'
Grevel's poems here also include a tribute to his dance adventures in Latin America, and a beautiful reflection upon the life of his unborn grandchild - the size of an 'apple pip'.
You can read his own blog at www.grevel.co.uk
LUNA PARK AND BEYOND
I’ve never been one to plan my books of poems in advance. I know that some poets conceive a book the way rock musicians of the 1970s and ‘80s used to develop a ‘concept album’, with all the pieces telling a story or centring on a theme. But for me, that would risk the work becoming laboured and losing spontaneity.
But that doesn’t mean that my poetry collections have been random assemblages. Each book – and I’ve now published seven book-length collections – has mirrored a phase in my life, and themes have emerged naturally, connecting poems in an organic way.
My latest book, Luna Park, turned out to be in great part an exploration of the magical and mysterious, with the moon itself, as the title suggests, making several appearances, along with ghosts, dreams, a graveyard yew tree, and a covey of Latin American tobacco spirits. Yet none of this was consciously planned. Somehow it just happened.
Luna Park itself was a derelict funfair I saw on the shores of Sydney Harbour, Australia, some years ago. I was fascinated by it, and longed to get in there to explore the colourful and slightly spooky wreckage of what had been such a happy place. It wasn’t to be; but the place haunted my imagination and at last turned into a poem, whose title neatly suggested the realm of the moon with all its magical associations.
Finding a lovely and curiously haunting painting by Cumbrian artist Linda Cooper, of a woman showing the new moon to her cat (the cat itself almost invisible at the right of the picture) I felt I had the perfect cover image for my book.
But not everything in Luna Park is dark. There are poems from Mexico and Cuba – ‘The Key’ is about going to see my wonderful dance teacher in Havana for a salsa lesson – and ‘The Apple Pip’ is about my granddaughter before birth. It was written after I read an article explaining that an unborn child at six weeks is about the size of an apple pip. A delightful image! As I finished it, editor Liz Gray asked me for a poem or piece of prose expressing what I would say if I had just 99 words left, for her anthology 99 Words. I counted the words, and found that the poem had just 99 words. So I sent it. (It has one more word now – don’t ask me which!)
So Luna Park contains poems of life, death and perhaps the worlds between as well. Something, I hope, for anyone to enjoy, in one mood or another.
Forget the Opera House, forget everything. What I remember
is Luna Park, unreachable behind
chain link fencing and KEEP OUT signs.
The ghost of a funfair, due for demolition –
a landscape of fantasies that would be
nowhere soon. I could see The Bug,
a giant ladybird, shiny scarlet
with black spots the size of car tyres;
The Clown, vast face coloured like an iced cake
with red nose and corrugated ruff.
No hint of what they did or how you rode them.
The top car of the Ferris wheel teetered
as if each moment about to go
over the top, though it was only the wind
that rode there. The roller-coaster’s three cars were stuck
at the bottom of their downward graph.
I stared a long time through the wire. Then
followed the others away. A pale moon
rose over Bondi, whitening empty breakers. Lights came on
along the rocky shore but Luna Park just faded
into blackness until the moonlight
sketched in a few of those thin girders
exposed by fallen plywood. I still hankered
to find a gap in the fence. Here I am
ten years later, like a child with no money,
hopeful, face pressed to the steel mesh.
This time the key comes down in a white sock -
small enough, it looks, for a child. Yesterday
it was a twist of paper, the day before
a spectacle-case, plastic. That’s how you visit
in Havana. Expected, you squat -
hoping for shade—on a doorstep across the street
to squint up at the flaking elaborate
balconies—blistered shutters, washing, bicycles--
waiting for a familiar face to appear.
Or, coming unexpectedly, you stand
on the pavement to yell, and whistle shrilly
with two fingers if you can, until the same face
peers down at you. Then she’ll disappear
to fetch the key, return to choose a gap
between infrequent cars, motorbikes, rickshaws,
and at the best moment toss it down
wrapped in something soft and conspicuous.
You run out like a cricketer to catch it
but never do, it skitters on the warm air,
pirouettes sideways. No, you will always
miss, it plunges to the dust while she leans
over to watch you pick it up and stroll
to the cracked, sun-pitted street door.
Turning the key
this moment, I step through and shut myself
in the cool musty dark by the electric
waterpump and the black serpent-coil
of cables writhing from the rusty fusebox.
I stand to breathe a moment, then start up
the twisting marble stairs, climb the five flights.
She will be waiting by the stairhead
to kiss—‘¿Como estás?’—and take the key,
then slam and bolt the door, slip off her trainers,
choose a CD. Now we shall dance and dance.
THE APPLE PIP
Small as an apple pip, they say,
my daughter’s baby sleeps and dreams
and from the wool of sleep now draws
the new thread of a thin-spun life,
from clouds that catch among the stars,
from ripples in the blood’s dark streams,
from breath and rain, from north and south.
I wooed my love with apples once
and now love plants another root
and unexpected pulls the quiet
around that tiny knot of life,
the seed that grows a labyrinth,
the child within the girl who lies
curled in her bed within the room
within the house, within the house.
In the 1980s I was living on the edge of Exmoor, and often visited Wellington, usually to stock up on food for my chickens from an excellent corn merchant. My mother told me that her family once had a butter-making business in the town, but apart from a vague sense of pleasure that I was coming back to family roots in Somerset, I took little notice. Twenty years later, researching family history, I was amazed to discover that my two times great-grandparents had founded Walker’s Dairy in Wellington, which had become one of the major landmarks of the town. It was still operating under different ownership when I lived nearby, though the only visible sign of the once huge enterprise now is the little estate just off Mantle Street, named ‘Walkers Gate’ in their memory.
I was too late to visit the dairy, but I decided to tease out its story, finding not only a successful commercial enterprise generated between two dynastic trading families, the Maseys and Walkers, but also a startling account of seduction, scandal and ruin. The move over the hill, from the rural seclusion of Hemyock to the metropolis of Wellington sealed the fate of more than one member of the family, for better or worse.
It was really my great-great grandmother Catherine Masey, born in 1825, who was the power behind the dairy business. She learnt butter-making and butchery early in life on her parents’ smallholding in Hemyock. Family recollections of her fierce drive and thriftiness show that she was a force to be reckoned with. She was also known for boiling up the final scraps of butchery to make foul-smelling chitterlings, which she foisted on other members of the family.
In 1844, she married Thomas Walker, son of a local tailor, and they set up in business together in Hemyock. By 1871, this was running as a combined dairy, grocery, drapery, and tailor’s. Many of their twelve children were roped in to help out, and the growing dairy business gradually took over to become the family firm.
All was going well for the Masey-Walker family until one of their sons, Edwin, disgraced himself and hit the headlines. I only found the story when I idly searched on a digital newspaper database, and I’m pretty sure most of the Walkers hushed it up as best they could. Edwin Masey Walker had got a local Hemyock girl pregnant, actually a cousin of his, and then abandoned her. He moved over the hill to Wellington to set up his own business and up his social game. Wellington was, after all, more respectable, more on the map than Hemyock deep in the Devon countryside. Jane Salter wrote to him there in distress. Would he not marry her, as he had promised? Did he not love her after all? He coolly advised her to get rid of the baby, and offered her money to do it. Sidmouth was the place, apparently. She had the child though, and now her mother was suing for damages, for loss of her daughter’s services!
This might have been just another tragic case of seduction and illegitimacy had not Edwin mounted a robust defence. Mrs Salter senior kept ‘an improper house’ in Hemyock, he claimed, and her daughters joined in the servicing of young men there, who kept late hours drinking and gambling. He brought a witness, John Pursey, to say that he and his friend had ‘been intimate’ with the two Salter sisters ‘scores of times’ in their room – the sisters slept in the same bed! The mud-slinging was vicious: but was Edwin a heartless monster or a victim of a brothel-keeper’s wiles? Did he really abandon Jane because his parents had advised him to marry better (preferably to money, the court case stated) or was it a lucky escape to move to Wellington? The jury was understandably confused, and although Mrs Salter was awarded £50 in damages, the case of perjury against John Pursey, the witness, was dropped on the basis of doubt.
In 1870, Edwin Walker was made bankrupt; his business had failed, and he never appeared to prosper again, or to form a stable marriage even though he subsequently had a wife and child. Did the lure of big-time respectability and riches in Wellington prove his downfall? Others in the family succeeded, though. By the late 1870s, Catherine and Thomas Walker had made their own move over the hill from Hemyock into Wellington. They had risen from being country shopkeepers to important dairy owners, and could now afford a villa in Waterloo Road. Two of their other sons, Clifford and Eustace Walker eventually took over the dairy business and both became pillars of society. Eustace became a Justice of the Peace and Portreeve of Wellington, while Clifford built a classy mansion known as the Gables, where the cream of the town gathered for tennis parties on the lawn. They died well-established and wealthy.
There were mixed fortunes, then, from Catherine’s butter-making skills. I feel proud to be a part of such an enterprising family, and at this distance in time can be equally entertained both by their achievements and their disgraces.
Captions l to r : Edwin Masey Walker, wicked seducer - Catherine Walker, queen of chitterlings, Walker's Gate, commemorating the dairy in Wellington, Somerset, once owned by my family.
'Judgment arrives with the sound of the trumpet. Wake up! There’s no time to lose.’
21 The World
And finally: 'The World: the four holy creatures watch the dance of life.'
Judgement and the World. Judgement can seem - well - judgemental. But I think of it as a wake-up call. And The World is an audacious card, putting a semi-naked dancer in the place of a well-known medieval image called Christ in Glory. But, as I argue in 'Tarot Triumphs', this may represent the 'Soul of the World'. A fascinating juxtaposiiton of images in any case, along with the four holy creatures who are allied with the Christian gospels. So - final two cards - Let's wake up and dance the dance of life!
I hope you've enjoyed the commentary on the 22 Tarot trumps - you'll find more about each individual card in the book 'Tarot Triumphs'
This is my last-but-one blog post, in which I complete the comments made on the 22 Tarot cards that I posted on Facebook and Twitter to celebrate the Tarot Triumphs
17 The Star
'The Star – a journey to find the waters of life. Ishtar in the underworld?'
The similarities between the Tarot card of the Star and the myth of Ishtar's journey to the underworld, are extraordinary, even though there may be no direct historical link. Ishtar goes to the underworld to find the water of life which will restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven portals (seven stars), shedding garments at each one, and arrives naked beside the sacred pool. In this realm, birds are the souls of the dead.
18 The Moon
‘The Moon looks down on an eerie landscape, where reality and dream overlap.’
19 The Sun
‘The Sun has been linked to twins since the Bronze Age. Fire, good cheer, energy.’
So here are the cards which include the three 'difficult' images of Death, the Devil and the Tower Struck by Lightning, with only the lovely image of Temperance in this run to lighten them. However, I hope you'll see from the descriptions I wrote on Twitter and Facebook, that there are many positive elements in these cards. The only really unfortunate element here is that this blog page isn't proving very suitable for posting multiple images, so I may have to make do with one or two.
‘The Tarot card of Death is also one of Life. There is new growth here.’
Even I was wary today about tweeting no. 13, the 'Death' card in Tarot. Early packs of Tarot did not name the Death card, and this old superstition can still affect us, I found. The image of the Grim Reaper with skeleton and scythe has its own power to subdue, make us feel apprehensive. However – in the Tarot layout I use all the twenty-two trumps are involved, so Death must appear. Decay and ending are a part of life, and if you look at the Tarot image, there are signs of new life - hands and feet and sometimes even a head or two poking up through the ground, along with sprigs of grass.
Here's Temperance - and I just love her red socks! It's from an early Italian pack, in fact the first known Tarot pack of all, called Visconti-Sforza as it has been assembled from a few incomplete but corresponding packs of the mid-15th century.
‘Temperance - a beautiful, soothing card. Creating the right kind of flow is everything.’
15 The Devil
Today’s Tarot cards are The Devil and The Tower Struck by Lightning. I must admit, they seem rather gloomy when singled out like this, but in the whole set of twenty-two Tarot trumps, they take their place readily, and can just as easily be seen as constructive influences.
‘The Devil may bind us, but can also be defeated by laughter.' Without anything to bind, tether us (the Devil) we might drift; without having to pay the price for what we choose, real harm could be done. The Devil is part of the karmic checks and balances that operate in our lives. And folklore tells us he can be defeated with a merry song, a joke, or cheerful defiance! ‘ The False Knight on the Road’ recounts a meeting between a young boy going home alone and meeting up with a threatening figure, the devil in disguise as a knight. He comes off best by outwitting the devil in a series of riddle questions and answers. I had fun choosing a YouTube version which gives a mix of dancing rhythm but dramatic intensity, and came up with this one in broad Scots. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7O05efjLaA
16 The Tower
‘The Tower can be an escape from prison, a welcome shock.’
The Tarot card of the Tower Struck by Lightning can signify as much a release from imprisonment as a shock or destruction. In many cases, it’s likely to be both.
While researching the history of this card I became fascinated by accounts of real-life towers that were indeed struck by lightning. Seems that it used to happen a great deal, to church towers and noblemen’s towers (as in San Gimignano for instance). If you visit the parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, there’s a whole poem commemorating such a strike back in 1638. Here’s a quote from it:
"On the Lord’s day at afternoon, when people were addrest
To their devotion in this church while singing here they were
A Psalm distrusting nothing of the danger then so near
A crack of lightning suddenly, with thunder hail and fire
Fell on the church and tower here and ran into the choir;
A sulferous smell came with it, and the tower strangely rent,
The stones abroad into the air, with violence were sent.
Some broken small as dust or sand, some whole as they came out
From of the building and here lay, in places round about."
Author of books on family history, relationships, alchemy, myths & legends. Life writing tutor teaching for Universities of Oxford & Exeter. Keen on quirky, ancient and mysterious things.