Billie and Dinah on a Wet Sunday Afternoon

I am fascinated by the way different artists approach the same song. This afternoon I have been listening to both Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington’s interpretations of I’m a Fool to Want You. They are both great versions – both women are such extraordinary singers – but incredibly different in feel and impact. I love them both.

Billie Holiday’s version is particularly moving. It is a later recording when the ravages of her addictions can so obviously be heard in her voice. I first got into Billie Holiday in my late teens and at that time preferred the earlier stuff before her voice became so ragged. However, as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate more and more the beauty of her voice, even at that later stage. Her I’m a Fool to Want You is deeply poignant and the broken quality only adds to the emotional depth of her rendition. The pain and longing are so clearly felt. Her phrasing is unique – many have copied her but I think it is her emotional truth that rings through in everything she does and this is much harder to mimic because it comes from a soul-deep place inside her.

The subject matter of many of her songs can be uncomfortable; I remember hearing Don’t Explain for the first time and wanting to scream ‘DUMP HIM!!’. Her songs relate much to the personal troubles she encountered in her own life, choosing men who enabled her addictions and treated her horribly. Love for Billie – in song and life – was painfully self-destructive. She sings of unfulfilled longing, of putting up with far more than she should. As frustrating as this might be to the listener, no one quite expresses the feelings of finding oneself in that awful place (let’s face it, we have all been there!) as poignantly as she does. It’s a heart-breakingly vulnerable voice but I think that there is something incredibly brave about bearing ones soul in this way; the honesty of her art really touches me. It is clear that she knows what she is singing about; in connecting to her own pain and channeling that through her art, she gives the listener the opportunity to move through their own hurt. It’s a gift that not many possess; this truthfulness of self-expression – whether it be joy or pain – is for me, the stamp of all truly great artists.

The arrangement on I’m a Fool… is gorgeous – wonderful strings that contrast Dinah Washington’s version which has a beautifully arranged horn section. Dinah is far gutsier as a singer. There is a defiance and strength in her voice, even when she is expressing defeat or hopelessness in love. She is another master of phrasing and it is obvious from her early recordings that she was a great fan of Billie Holiday. Her voice rings beautifully on I’m a Fool to Want You – I find it such a thrilling sound. It is fascinating how each woman’s character shapes the song; taking the same lyric and melody but making it uniquely their own. This is of course what makes a singer special – when something is expressed from the heart and soul; when the voice rings true, we truly listen.

If you find yourselves with not much to do, go check out these wonderful tracks – today they have been the perfect soundtrack to the endless rain!

Advertisements

Gok for Prime Minister!

Ok! I admit it! I have Gok Wan fever!! No, not something to rival swine flu, just a love of that wonderful man on Channel Four’s How to Look Good Naked. Yes, I know it’s just mainstream telly and formulaic and blah de blah but I end up sobbing into a tissue with happiness at the close of each programme. The reason being is that the women he works with/on genuinely seem to have benefited from his attention – they start off feeling awful about themselves and end up, well, glowing; the kind of glow that is not produced by lighting and makeup but something much more profound. I want to build an annex on my house so Gok can come live with me for ever and ever!

For those who have never witnessed Gok in action, he is a fashion stylist who does seem to know what suits and flatters each particular body type. This in itself would never be enough for me (never been that interested in fashion); what I find so moving is that he seems to have a genuine desire to make people love their naked bodies, to appreciate and see their own unique beauty. His has a real knack for making women feel good it seems and I think this comes from his own struggle with weight issues as a teenager. He appears to understand what it means to loathe your own body and so is sensitive to what it takes to heal that in others.

Last night’s programmes had a 72 year old widow who had lost all confidence in her body since her husband died. The thing is, ultimately, it’s not the clothes, makeup etc…that makes the difference –although these are really useful tools –  it is the constant encouragement of someone telling you how beautiful your body is, regardless of age or shape, that works the real magic, so much so, these women end up feeling confident enough to get naked. Once again I was blowing my nose, watching a 72 year old lady walking down a catwalk in some lovely, sexy undies, glowing with joy and confidence, looking beautiful and loving the attention she was being given. Format aside, self-love is a powerful healer and can fill each of us with a light and energy that in itself is beautiful.

Lightning Strikes and Thunderclaps

I I awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of a violent gale and torrential rain. I was drawn out of sleep just at the moment when the strength of the wind and the heaviness of the rain intensified alarmingly. The house rattled and as the noise built I realised that I was holding my breath, waiting for the gust to peak and die back. It didn’t, it just kept on building in strength and ferocity. For one moment, in that disorientating suspension between sleep and wakefulness – the darkness and the cacophony the only reality I was fully aware of – I felt afraid.  

As Pagans, we honour nature in all its forms; the beauty and the terror all have their place and deeper meaning and function, some of which might be at odds with our own sense of safety and happiness or comfort. There is nothing quite like an encounter with nature at it most powerfully raw to connect us to our vulnerability and frailness as humans. It can be an uncomfortable feeling because we might want to embrace the Divine as a loving and benevolent force and such violent upheaval might contradict our notions of such. For me, it all depends on your definition of love and benevolence. I always feel quite comforted that what might appear to human beings as destruction, earth quakes for instance, on a wider scale can be seen as merely the earth stretching and moving like me on my yoga mat, trying to keep the whole flowing and functioning in the most balanced way possible! Sometimes it can bring us up short to realise we are not at the centre of things.

The most intimate and scariest moment that I have experienced with wild weather was a close encounter with lightning in Cornwall. I have always loved thunder storms. A favourite thing as a child was to be wrapped up cosy and safe in bed while the sky roared and brightened. I was actually born during a thunder storm (which might explain a lot!), coming in with a flash and a bang (hope to go out that way too!). I have many great thunder and lightning memories but none as dramatic as my Cornwall happening.

Laurie and I were visiting Duloe which is home to the smallest stone circle in Cornwall. The sky was already starting to look angry and there were rumbles of thunder coming from over Bodmin Moor. The cloud formations were incredibly striking; strata of varying shades of grey, from pale to dark, the patterning giving the sky a hyper-real edge. The air felt ominously still.

Laurie very sensibly decided to return to the car, leaving me alone in the stones. I was very happy, singing to the stones and some rather puzzled looking sheep – there is something quite moving about singing in stone circles! As I sang I became aware that the storm was moving in across the village. The rain had started to gently fall and I became mesmerised by lightning coming to ground, moving across the fields towards me. At that moment, it was possible to perceive the storm as a living presence. As the rain got heavier, I said my farewell to the stones and the sheep and made my way back across the field to the little tree-lined track that would take me to the road. By the time I reached there, the rain was very heavy and so I stood beneath a maple by the field gate. It leaves became burdened by the weight of the rain and it began to drip over me. I moved a few feet down beneath a hawthorn whose smaller leaves seem to create a better shelter from the wet. I didn’t even think for one moment that traditionally the hawthorn is meant to protect against lightning strike!

The rain was by now monsoon-like and I could smell a strange and powerful odour. I had no idea that this was ozone, that the earth was sending up a path for the lightning to travel down to her – a sort of love call; a call to union from the earth mother to the sky father – and I was stood right next to the intended contact point!

The lightning strike and the thunder clap happened at exactly the same time. I have never heard such deafeningly loud thunder – before or since – it was right above me, all around me, felt in every fibre of my body. The lightning hit what I thought to be the maple I had just been standing beneath (but was in fact, on later inspection, the telegraph pole next to it), no more than ten feet away from me. It hit with an equally deafening snapping, cracking sound. My body took over and I ran. It has to be said I am a crap runner but that day I was positively gazelle-like! Running felt like no effort whatsoever. My senses were sharp, acutely aware of the flood of water rushing down the road, the beat of my own heart and the alarms in the church hall, triggered into action by the enormous clap of thunder. My adrenalin was up for hours – poor Laurie had to put up with me rambling incoherently all the way to Falmouth!

It was an awe-inspiring experience, frightening yet incredible. It had a profound effect upon me to have been so intimate with such a vast elemental power of nature, and me, so small and vulnerable in its presence. I clearly felt the thunder and lightning as a vast being that day, an irrepressible energy that I was extremely privileged to have witnessed at close hand without harm to myself; a strange but wonderful gift.

Two gods of thunder whom I feel affection for are the Celtic Taranis and the Norse Thor, both being linked to the fertility of the earth and abundance. It feels very magical to me that lightning actually fertilising the ground that it touches, clearing and freshening the air. Despite the danger inherent in the power of the thunder deities, when we open to their spiritual potential, we can find that their thunder resounds in our hearts as strength; their lightning illuminates our minds with inspiration and their fruitful rain brings spiritual growth and a rich and abundant life – all worth the bit of knee trembling and heart racing that their presence might stir in us.

There is a wonderful poem by Wilfred Owen called ‘Storm’. It is actually about the taboo of a man’s love for another man but I have often thought that it reminds me of my own love of deity and the facing of my own fears with regard to that relationship. The thunder gods can change us in quite sudden and violent ways; they can fry our circuits but they can enrich us, illumine us, fertilise our spirits if we respect their awesome energy and face our fears honestly. If we can be a little like the earth and send up a path for the thunder god’s inspiration to travel down, the land of our being will find itself richer for the blessing..

Storm 

His face was charged with beauty as a cloud

With glimmering lightning. When it shadowed me

I shook, and was uneasy as a tree

That draws the brilliant danger, tremulous, bowed.

 

So must I tempt that face to loose it lightning.

Great gods, whose beauty is death, will laugh above,

Who made his beauty lovelier than love.

I shall be bright with their unearthly brightening.

 

And happier were it if my sap consume;

Glorious will shine the opening of my heart;

The land shall freshen that was under gloom;

What matter if all men cry aloud and start,

And women hide bleak faces in their shawl,

At those hilarious thunders of my fall?

                                     Wilfred Owen.

Happy Birthday!

Yes, today’s the day that my blog is one whole year old! Typically – on a technical level – I still don’t know how to get the best out of some of its functions; quite often my stats make me want to weep; occasionally, I blush at what I have written and wonder seriously if I should be doing this, but on the whole, I am so pleased that I started it. 

Before I began, I was struggling  with the fact that so much of my creative life had been put on hold. I really did feel like vital bits of me were dying, buried by the sadness and loss of recent years. In the old days, expressing myself creatively had helped get me through tough times; I cannot explain how awful it was to feel this inner support vanish. I felt utterly dry, blocked, blank, like a crucial part of my brain had been removed and all memory of how to do what made me happy irretrievably lost.

The urge to start my blog was the first signal that something was shifting in me. No matter how cut off from those vital sources within us that we might feel, they never completely abandon us. They wait patiently for an opening, a moment to emerge.

Sometimes I worry that my writing is not so good, that no one is reading it, that what I have to say contributes very little to the wider scheme of things, that I am too intense and caught up in my own feelings. Fears of narcissism aside, I do love tapping away at these keys and the thought that someone might get a little from what I have written makes me happy. Reading the comments is such a real thrill too. So, here’s to another year…

Been reading Yeats this morning. Here’s two of my favourites:

A Coat

I made my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Song, let them take it,

For there’s more enterprise

In walking naked.         

                                                W. B. Yeats

He Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

                                                            W. B Yeats

 

No Bees – No Us

The winds here have been so strong over the last few days. Living on the south side of the Island, those south-westerly breezes can get pretty dramatic at times. On the seafront the sand has been hurled across the road, the rollers in the bay fiercely white and relentlessly pounding. It is a constant battle to keep the road clear of sand in the winter, drifts of it piling up, the shore moving inland but for the tarmac. Standing on Yaverland Beach is exhilarating, feeling the winds slice around the headland at Dunnose Point, channelled across the water to hit Culver cliff with full force.

I have always loved strong winds but I have found of late that some of this weather makes me feel very uneasy. Perhaps I wouldn’t be quite so alarmed by the winds and heavy rain if I knew nothing of global warming. All weather tends to take on a rather ominous tint now that we have become aware of the changes we seem to be recklessly and wilfully initiating. It might be just my imagination but the wind feels much more aggressive, the raindrops outsized and falling with an intensity that could match the monsoon season.

I saw an academic from Oxford University on TV last night saying that he thought the decline in the bee population was a far greater immediate threat than global warming. He predicted a massive drop in honey bees over the next fifty years leading to a catastrophic decline in pollination and therefore many of our food sources. Without flowers being pollinated, we basically don’t eat. His predictions were grim: mass starvation, war and pestilence on a biblical scale and manifesting much quicker than we could imagine. The bee problem is worryingly world-wide. If we continue to destroy the habitat of our bees whilst also weakening their immune systems with pesticides, we are heading for disaster. In Druidry the bee is said to teach us much about living in community and harmony with each other and the natural world. How apt that the bee should be the messenger that is trying to alert us to the madness of our chosen course. How wonderful if we could heed that message and feel ourselves once again part of the community of nature, striving to protect and sustain the life system we are dependent upon.

One thorny related issue is, of course, population control. It would seem the time has come to re-think our attitudes toward reproduction. There are all sorts of issues that arise when we talk about controlling people’s ‘right’ to have children – it’s a tricky subject – but it would seem that the assumption that it is our right to produce as many children as we wish or desire, no longer feels appropriate for the situation that we now find ourselves in. There seems little point in having an unchecked population explosion that leads to those very children’s lives being put under threat by the social, economic and environmental breakdown we might be courting. It’s a weird one for me because I have never had the desire to produce children in the slightest. I sincerely feel puzzled that many feel such a passion for it. I think that at the moment nature needs more of us to feel this way. Of course, we still need to reproduce but not at the expense of the wider good, be it social or environmental. Children are a blessing and – not to get horribly clichéd about it – they are indeed our future, all the more reason why we need to be increasingly aware of the importance of this issue. I hate the idea of being regulated by some government ruling. It would seem far better for people to be informed of the implications and make sensible decisions based on that information. It’s something that we all need to take responsibility for. The vast increase in population over the last fifty years – one that is still rising at an alarming rate – is not sustainable. It might actually come to the point where some official intervention is needed.

What is deeply depressing is that none of these issues are being properly debated in the wider community. There are groups and individuals at a grass-roots level that are trying to make a difference but the lack of political vision from those officially elected to lead us makes the task so much more difficult, and in many cases actively prevents change from occurring. This leads many of us to tick along in a strange kind of apathy, swallowing the fear and feeling psychologically paralysed and impotent in the face of such overwhelming odds.

We need the bees to live, not only for our basic survival but also to help us envision a better way to be together. The bee is our wake up call; if we ignore them, this foolhardy decision could turn out to be our biggest fuck up of all, condemning us and a great many other innocent species to an untimely demise.

For some heartening proof that there are folks out there who are caring for the bees and trying to bring about a turn around in their (and our) fate,  please check out Adrienne Campbell’s wonderful Blog  100 Monkeys – http://100-monkeys.blogspot.com/.  Adrienne keeps bees and is experimenting with more environmentally and bee friendly methods.

And Finally…

How I feel after both poses (please see last two posts)!

HappyGoLuckyDog

And Now for the Experts!

Please see previous post!

down dog2

Perfect Downward Facing Dog (crazyassplanet.com)

doginupwarddogpose

Moving into Upward Facing Dog (honoluluyoga.com)

Yoga and our Relationship with Nature

One of the things that I love about Yoga is that many of its poses have been inspired by observations of nature. A great many asanas are named after animals: cat, cobra, camel, swan, heron, locust, pigeon, fish, crocodile, rabbit, eagle, lion, crow…to name a few! These poses seek to emulate the strength, flexibility and qualities of that particular animal and it is recommended that you try to imagine yourself as that animal whilst performing the pose. It’s fun and it does help in connecting more deeply to each pose. It also strikes me that there is something vaguely shamanic about it too, in the sense that by encouraging you to physically emulate the animal, you touch upon an inner expression of its nature, and in doing so, seek to express this quality yourself in some way. Done sensitively and consciously, I think this can help to build empathy between the animal and self, much in the way that many modern pagans strive to do in their own spiritual practice with regards to animal totems and guides.

Currently, two of my most favourite poses are named after the same animal: the dog. Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana, to give it its Sanskrit name, and Upward Facing Dog, Urdhva Mukha Savnasana, are both poses that I am deeply drawn to at the moment. As their names suggest, Up Dog is a back bend, whilst Down Dog takes the body in the opposite direction by inverting the head. I don’t see that many crocodiles, lions or cobras on the Isle of Wight but I see plenty of dogs and the deep joy of these poses, is that you can witness the animal doing it in its own perfect way by just popping out and engaging in a little dog watching. Dogs do these two wonderful stretches pretty much without thinking; it always makes me smile to see them doing it with such apparent ease when I consider the time it has taken me to build the strength and flexibility to perform them myself.

I wonder if my love of wolves goes a little way in me being so attracted to these poses. The American Yogi Marlon Braccia calls the slightly extended Upward Facing Dog – where the head is bent right back – ‘Howling Dog’! It’s hard not to feel a little bit Wolf-like when you are doing it!

Nature informs other poses too: the Mountain, the Tree and the Lotus…Many assume that Eastern Philosophies, with their focus on the ultimate transcendence of the physical, might be antithetical to modern pagan understanding, and yet I have found with Yoga that my relationship with the material world – through the intimacy it encourages with my own body – has deepened. I find it fascinating that a proposed route through to ultimate transcendence –which is what the practice of Yoga is intended to be – can actually also be a route though to discovering Divine Immanence – God/dess at the centre of the natural world and our own bodies and beings.

HP_209_UpDog_248

Upward Facing Dog - Yoga Journal

2716-23

Downward Facing Dog - Yoga Journal

Going Inward is Reaching Outward

I have felt a shift in my Yoga practice of late, something opening and expanding. It is often the way when we practice something over years that we witness these sudden unfoldings and a whole new perspective emerges, deepening our understanding and experience. It’s like discovering a secret room in your house that you didn’t know existed; it’s exciting and mysterious; it also leaves you wondering how you never knew of its presence until now. The process is an unfolding; a peeling back of veils, each layer pulled aside when we are good and ready.

I have been feeling very aware of – and grateful for – my body. Daily practice of the asanas over the last eight years has built my strength and improved my flexibility; those areas that had started to become a little rigid have softened, making movement through life that much easier, my stamina improved. We can take our bodies for granted. Unrolling my Yoga mat is a way for me to honour and enjoy just what it is that my body continues to give to me. It has also illustrated that my body truly appreciates movement, thriving on it. It is amazing to think that certain poses that were once incredibly challenging to me are now a joy to execute. With time, patience and gentleness the body opens up. My practice has also taught me that there are moments when movement is not appropriate; that there are times when stillness is the order of the day. Yoga helps me to listen to myself a whole lot better, to know what is needed a little more clearly, although I admit there is still room for improvement here too.

I think that most people start Yoga with their main focus on the physical postures. Like many, I have found that these inevitably lead one to want to explore more deeply pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation. Building a more intimate and aware relationship with my body is enabling me to access my emotional, metal and spiritual selves from a more grounded place. Recently, I have been finding myself looking forward to practising pranayama as much as the asanas. Like our bodies, oxygen is also taken for granted. During pranayama and the breathing used for the postures, I am increasingly aware of how life-giving and nourishing it is. The link between breathe and our state of mind/emotion is a powerful one; when we begin to engage consciously with our breathing, we discover just how wonderful a gift it is to our spiritual development and physical well-being.

A couple of days ago, at the end of my morning session, I was sat practicing the Hamsah (‘I Am That’) Mantra on my mat. I love it because it is simple yet powerful and its rhythm and sounds strike me as intimately linked to the rhythm and sound of our breathing. The sun poured in through the window, covering me with light and warmth. As I became aware of my breathe rising up my spine on the inhalation, inwardly hearing ‘Ham’ riding on its expansion, then following it with the physically whispered exhalation of ‘Sah’- its sighing sound like the deepest release and surrender – I realised that the light was changing and flowing rhythmically too. The clouds passing over the sun meant that, at moments, the vision of my closed eyes was flooded with a deep red. As clouds obscured the sun, this red turned to a dark brown and then shortly back again to red, and so on. The breathing in and out of ‘Hamsah’ and the moving in and out of light and darkness, merged to produce an extraordinary feeling in me of being an absolute part of everything – inhalation, exhalation, life, death, light, dark – each contained within the breathe of the Divine and the song of the world the most magical Mantra of all. ‘I Am That’ suggests this very notion – the sense of separation of our true selves from the Divine, an illusion. We are always at one with that infinite and indefinable source, despite the fact that our ‘little selves’ can so often tell us otherwise. The beauty of any spiritual practice is that it can help us to re-engage with that sense of belonging. We might not find it easy to stay ‘plugged in’ for long but it makes a massive difference to get those occasional glimpses. Finding a practice that we feel comfortable with and that encourages this ‘plugging in’ can make such a difference to our lives. Sticking with it can bring huge benefits (and challenges too!) and we might just find that we touch that magical state of connection more and more often.

For me, it’s a wonderful notion that the Divine stretches with me and flows through me on my Yoga mat; it breathes with me and through me too, its song resonating like a powerful and transformative chant through every cell in my body and being. As I stretch and release tension, I feel as if I am creating a space inside me for it – another unknown room in the house of ‘me’ just waiting to be discovered.