Ulpia, 8 years and 11 months

I’m reading Guy De La Bedoyere’s “Gods With Thunderbolts: Religion In Roman Britain” (2002). It’s a clear-eyed, rigorously unspeculative text but it’s hard not to “humanise” some of the items from the archaeological record it examines.

Ulpia, whose ashes were buried at York 1800 or so years ago, was clearly loved by her parents. “8 years and 11 months” – each one of those years counted. Her other name “Felicissima”, means “Most Happy”. I wonder how many hopes and dreams were wrapped around this child.

We do our ancestors quite a mis-justice when we assume that they cared for their children less than we do. And, looking at the levels of abuse and mistreatment of children in the “modern” world, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re any better.

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Ofra Haza, Yemenite Songs and Little Elf

Little Elf has a thing for an Ofra Haza album I found in a British Heart Foundation shop. Partly it’s the music, which she loves to dance to (I say ‘dance’ but I seem to do most of the work), and partly it’s the album cover which is understandably fascinating for any Disney Princess obsessed six year old.

Yesterday evening, everyone was back late from Cubs and Woodcraft Folk and I agreed she could sit up and listen to one song (“Oh, alright. Two.”) before going to bed.

Yemenite Songs is a curious beast. Ofra Haza was a Yemenite Jew and the album was promoted as a return to her roots. But the production is a sometimes harsh mix of early nineties digital beats and metallic clatter cut through with traditional string instruments and PCM synths. But Haza’s astonishing voice is at the centre of it, soaring, shimmering, weaving and winding…It’s a gorgeous, passionate set of performances, full of energy, tragedy and hope. I’m not surprised little elf picks it down from the record shelves so often.

This evening, she started asking some of her favourite questions.

“What country is she from?”

“Israel. She’s a Yemenite Jew.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No. She died quite young. It was very tragic.”

“How old was she when she died?”

“Forty two.”

Little elf contemplates this for a moment and snuggles a bit closer to me.

“So she was younger than you?”

“Yes.”

“What did she die of?”

Ah. Complicated and yet not complicated at all. She died of complications brought on by her being infected with HIV*. How to explain AIDS to a six year old? Carefully?

“She was in hospital after a miscarriage…”

“What’s a miscarriage?”

“Well…Sometimes a mother loses her baby at a very early stage…I’m not really explaining this very well…”

Thankfully, little elf changes tack.

“Can I see pictures of her?”

So we get out my iPhone and look at pictures of wonderful, lovely, inspiring Ofra Haza then watch some film on YouTube of her performing at the Montreaux festival in 1990.

“She’s very beautiful,” little elf says.

“Yes,” I say. “She was.”

*There’s a good piece by Peter Paphides about this.


My son, the Mythographer

Little elf: Why is it raining?
Dudelet: Because…Daddy, who was the goddess of love?
Me: Aphrodite.
Dudelet: Afro-thingy lost her lip gloss and burst into floods of tears. She’s the only one of the gods who gets upset about that sort of thing.
Little elf: But what does that have to do with rain?


Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World (Yoga Camp #3)

Yoga Camp was pitched on a gently swelling hillside with a view of Glastonbury Tor. First thing in the morning, as the sun came up, the hills across the glacial plain rose out of a sea of mist. Two thousand years before, the land around Glastonbury was marshy and prone to floods and the idea of a mystical “Lake of Avalon” is not too hard to imagine.

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It also meant that on clear nights in late August, it could get surprisingly cold and a cold night’s sleep goes straight to the bladder of the average middle-aged camper.

So a trip to the squat toilets at two a.m. wasn’t an uncommon thing.

This particular night, I struggled out of the tent to find myself standing in a field full of silence and moonlight.

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book by Emma Restall Orr called The Wakeful World. It’s a deeply thoughtful and deeply thought-through piece of work that addresses the philosophical underpinnings necessary for a coherent practice of animism. It’s a book which is proving invaluable to me at the moment in its provision of a sort of toolkit to think about these issues. In amongst careful expositions of philosophers ranging from Bergson to Empedocles and all the way back again, I find passages such as this:

Every creature, every tree and beetle, every lake and mountain, every atom and galaxy, is its own pattern of being, integrated within the community of its evolving environment. Furthermore, every being is composed of or interconnected with numerous other beings, each of these also existent within its own web of communities, while at the same time, firmly held within the fabric of nature’s universal soul. The animist key is yet again that this fabric of nature is made of interactions, internal and external. In the poetry of animism, we might d

escribe how every community is comprised of the relationships within it, those relationships making up the inner structure of every ecosystem – and, vibrant with energy, those relationships are perpetually humming with communication. (The Wakeful World, p238, Emma Restall Orr, 2012)

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read her book.

What I mean to say is that for ten minutes, I had a gift of being present in the world a

nd the night and seeing it as if for the first time. Perhaps it was a kind of initiation. It was certainly a blessing.


Yoga Camp #2: Morning meeting, routines, a little about power dynamics

By 6:30am, Dudelet is awake in his own tent and eking out the battery on his iPod. Soon after that, I’m awake and check in on him.

“Hi!”

<Grunt>

“Did you sleep okay?”

<Grunt>

“I’m going to the morning yoga class – mummy’s still in bed.”

<Grunt>

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I make the first run of the day to (over-sharing imminent) empty my bowels in the squat composting toilets on the other side of the field. At this time, it’s mostly the camp workers and parents of small children wandering around looking dazed and sleepless, along with people like me who are heading to a seven o’clock class. Supermum isn’t moving from her sleeping bag and little elf is a motionless bundle of Hello Kitty blankets. There’s probably a five year old in there but she’s grumpy when woken early.

I trudge across the main campsite in my wellies (wet mornings) or flip-flops (grass and feet dew-wet) with my mat under my arm, heading for a 7am class. The sun is already long up. The early morning Bhakti crew (the core ideology, though in a completely non-evangelical way, is the Bhakti Yoga path but a rainbow coalition of yoga influenced spiritualities, including the decidedly secular, are present. There’s even a shaman or two hanging around) are already strumming and singing away. The Kundalini fans have been at whatever it is they do since five am in a smaller yurt. I pause for five minutes at the camp fire and chat to whoever is hanging out there. Later on in the camp, that includes dudelet who gets more and more independent and adventurous as things go on. Watching this is one of the joys of such a relatively safe space where everyone is looking out for everyone else’s kids. Wrapped in a blanket, I watch the early morning Dance of the Pawnee Women. I usually mutter in my head about cultural appropriation but keep my mouth shut.

I do a seven o’clock yoga class.

Yoga at seven, under a large marquee with the walls rolled up and on a slightly sloping, bumpy surface, is a wholly different proposition from a studio with a hard, level floor, central heating and a bit of the outside leaking in from a window someone’s left open a crack. Balancing is really balancing. Downward facing dog acquires a whole new dynamic depending on whether you’re facing uphill or downhill. Also, I’m trying out different forms – vinyasa flow, Indian (that was a bootcamp of a session!), spinal etc, so its all a bit of an adventure.

After yoga, breakfast (mealtimes are a whole other post).

Then the morning meeting!

I think about half the camp shows up for the morning meeting, possibly more. It takes place with everyone gathered in a circle round the campfire and gradually acquires a structure and dynamic as the week goes on. There’s also a subtle interplay of influence going on (one is tempted to use the word ‘play of power’ except that the word ‘power’ carries an inference of brute force applied for agenda progression that would be completely wrong here) between the leaders of the camp and the camp founder. The founder, U, is a thoroughly inspirational, thoughtful, charismatic and magnetic woman who has nominally ‘let go of the reins’. Almost. The leaders, who have only recently taken over the huge task of organising and setting up the camp, clearly respect her hugely but also need to be seen to be running things. Because that’s what they’re doing, running things. This isn’t an anarchy. Regardless of Western Bhakti Yoga’s counter-cultural roots, meals have to arrive on time and the composted toilets have to be crowned every morning. Eventually, a kind of equilibrium is set up but U doesn’t hold back in intervening when she feels its necessary.

Anyway, the first thing everyone has to do is say their name and be greeted by the group – “Gabriel!” “Namaste, Gabriel” – and so on round the circle. The circle, by 9:15, is two or three rows deep and people keep on arriving through the process so it can take about fifteen minutes to finish the process. At first, it’s profoundly annoying but as my sense of time starts to dilate and loosen up, it becomes rather lovely.

Then it’s time to announce KARMA YOGA! On the first morning, I volunteer to be a toilet fairy, meaning that every day at lunch time I join another volunteer and clean the squat toilets. It’s a genuinely lovely job (more later). The yoga teacher who eventually takes over facilitating this does an excellent job, chivvying and distributing and taking no nonsense. No meeting closes without every job being assigned.

People announce changes in the schedule (a constant work in process) and therapy that they’re offering. A couple of mornings from the end, I take a deep breath and cross the floor from being a middle class hanger-out-at-the-fringes and offer Tarot readings in exchange for chocolate (another story).

By mid-week, the meetings seem to grow smaller and the leaders send out children to try and drag parents along – possibly more of a festival oriented crowd has shown up. But the morning meeting keeps functioning and gives the camp a heart and a dynamic. Sometimes, thorny issues are discussed – managing the increasingly feral children at twilight or whether they should be able to play with the wheelbarrows. Having these discussions and reaching some kind of conclusion in an environment where many people are committed to a very ‘free’ ideology (to the point where their construction of ‘freedom’ becomes a kind of oppressive force in its own right? – another story) is something of an artform.

Then U closes the meeting. I think this is how she and the organisers achieve an unspoken(?) balance between their roles. U is the spiritual heart of things in a way that is both utterly inclusive and completely uncompromising – a difficult trick. Appropriately, she leads a chant, in English and Sanskrit, that centres on the need for attentiveness to ‘the heart our only teacher.’ It relates to the Bhakti Yoga path, which informs the whole camp. It isn’t my thing but any irritation that might have accumulated (why don’t they ever volunteer? That’s not an empirically verified therapy! Oh for heavens sake – why they cancelled that session – that’s the only reason I came…and so on) is gently but firmly soothed away.


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