Free for the strangest adventures

Here’s a response to yesterday’s post emailed by a friend who came across it shortly before getting a post notification from a blog long thought defunct.

When I asked if I could blog it they replied they were sure she wouldn’t mind. The accompanying picture (of Virginia Woolf knitting by her sister Vanessa Bell) is out of copyright in many places but not in the UK. UK readers, please do not look at the picture.

“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

From Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse

Fascinating to read this in the above linked Wikipedia article on the book:

To be able to understand thought, Woolf’s diaries reveal, the author would spend considerable time listening to herself think, observing how and which words and emotions arose in her own mind in response to what she saw.

Disclaimer: passionate advocate though I am for knitting it is not the same as meditating. However it is (also) really really good for you.

Who am I?

Who am I?

Of course everything has changed. How could it not. Most of my body has been replaced since that last post (in 2010). There are themes, perhaps, such as the continuing affection for taking pictures of London plane trees and the designs of Kate Davies. I made her Carbeth Cardigan to wear at my wedding. Knitting still happens, a lot.

Yes, being married, that’s a change. The power of a performative speech act is immeasurable. I am so grateful to have Dave in my life. At the party to celebrate our marriage it was my son Joseph who put into words some of what Dave means to me, to us, and the powerful force for change he has been and continues to be. Someday, technology permitting, I’ll put up the video of that speech.

I love my boys men so very much.

Why start blogging again? An interesting question, to me at least.

When I started in 2003 I was very ill and had been off work for a number of months with deep depression. When a friend called up to find out how I was I remember telling her that I didn’t exist. She tactfully avoided asking who, then, was talking to her on the phone. I tactfully avoided telling her that I wished profoundly not to exist, in so far as I could be said still to do so.

In retrospect blogging probably marked a turning point, a reaching out from a safe space of anonymity for some form of contact, a desire to communicate. I felt that whoever “I” had been, a structure envisaged as some kind of edifice constructed from components a bit like Lego bricks, had been smashed apart. It was, therefore, logically the case that “recovery” consisted in collecting the bits and reassembling them, possibly in a different configuration less susceptible to damage.

About two years later the rationale of the re-fortification project began to be challenged by a chance encounter with the meditation techniques taught by Alistair Appleton in a week-long course on Holy Isle.


Other courses and retreats followed.  My personal practice was, at best, intermittent, but occasionally replenished. It became clearer over time that the blocks were in fact stumbling blocks and that the real material behind the frangible armour I’d erected to “protect” it was supple, elastic, resilient. Neuroplasticity became my salvational doctrine of choice.

I’ve recently reconnected with my meditation practice in a very profound way after another Mindsprings retreat with Alistair, also on Holy Isle, concentrating on cultivating bodhicitta. Alistair’s teacher is Reggie Ray of Dharma Ocean who is teaching in the lineage of his teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. The practices are, of course, extremely powerful, but it was this in combination with the method of the practice that I found transformative – the use of awareness of the body as a meditation tool really allowed me to calm the thinking mind and access some profound non-cognitive insights. And this combined with Alistair’s own teaching and deep knowledge of psychology and neurobiology also made those insights and experiences make sense to the “show me your evidence” thinking mind, which no doubt helped in the digestive process.

The big take-home grand prize was the dawning awareness that I wasn’t on the retreat for me… I no longer feel irreparably damaged or flawed, traumatised or fucked up or whatever it was. My life is my life but the past no longer has the imprisoning power it used to. It just is.

In the womb of the island turned toward the light.

In this interview with Reggie Ray I was intrigued by the following observation about depression:

“[Chogyam Trungpa said] depression is the most dignified and realistic of all the samsaric states… depression still is happening within an ego framework… but as he put it himself depression is the closest thing to actual enlightenment that we can experience without actually crossing over. And what he meant by that was that in depression, real depression and deep depression, you see that the usual way in which you spend your time and the usual kind of pursuits that everyone engages in are fundamentally meaningless, meaningless in the sense that they don’t deliver what we’re hoping they will deliver, that’s not what they’re about, and you’re left feeling that there’s no point even being alive. … Enlightened people within the Buddhist framework see the same thing but they don’t have the same response and what makes depression depression is that there is still some feeling that it should be otherwise.”

So in a way it’s a bit of a circle. From disintegration (a very painful experience) to dismantling (which might well be painful, but in a different way). Trying to catch sight of where and how the L/ego blocks of the thinking mind are arranged and through that perhaps allowing that inner material, so long circumscribed by cramping carapace, to expand into the world, the universe, of which it is composed.

A process of ecdysis, perhaps, with the practice and teacher and friends the support against re-hardening.

Holy Island class and teacher of 05 mini reunion. Thinking of you @bwmaness 💚

Thank you so much Alistair, Kirsty and Laurence, thank you.

Difficult shit

After my most recent retreat a lot of us found it useful to “buddy up” as a way of helping each other maintain our practice beyond the extraordinary space of the group and the place and into the quotidian. I’ve found myself emailing my buddy with rather verbose accounts of this and that, some of which I’ll post here.

My meditation today (7.30pm) was spectacularly unsuccessful. I’m sitting there in the dark corner of the room thinking about anything my poor mind can come up with to try to exert control and keep awareness at bay and I’m saying “thought” so regularly that at one stage I realise I’m just repeating it over and over like it’s a mutant mantra even when there are no thoughts to label.

Then elder son knocks on the door (which is open anyway), glances around the room and disappears. I can see him out of my peripheral vision (eyes downcast a few feet in front of me as prescribed). I assume he’s seen me and retired, embarrassed by my hippy behaviour. I label this thought as “ thought”. Along with all the subsequent speculation about what it was he might have wanted.

A few minutes later younger son shouts from his room next door “Mother” (for this is the affectionate name by which I am known) “do you have a something-or-other [insert incomprehensible computer terminology here] cable?” “She’s not in” shouts elder son from his room at the other end of the house. Hmm. So he didn’t actually notice me. (“Thought”)

Younger son bounces in and stands in the doorway. “What the hell is he doing?” I think, carefully labelling the thinking as “thought”. As if in reply the phone next to me makes its text noise, younger son leaps in the air, shrieks and runs from the room. “Oh my god how embarrassing” I hear him say to elder son, “she is in, she’s sitting”.

When I am eventually released from the torment of not-meditating by the timer I go to ask younger son what he wanted. “You almost gave me a heart attack” he says “stuck there in the corner looking like you were having a difficult shit”. “But that was me, touching nirvana” I reply. “Well,” he says, “that’s what most men feel like after a difficult shit.” Sigh.

Lost and Stranded

A knock on the door, the postman bearing a parcel – “Degradamailer” said the pine green plastic package, “The Biothene mailer starts to degrade upon exposure to sunlight and heat”. It’s reusable, too. Presumably before it degrades.

Inside, neatly fitted into the perfectly-sized ziplock bag, was my carefully selected wool from Blacker Yarns which, after much hemming and hawing, I’d chosen (mostly from the current Christmas special offer section – check it out!) to make Kate Davies’s sublime Tortoise and Hare sweater. Shetland Katmogit, Shetland White, Border Leicester (all undyed) and Corriedale dyed olive green. I sat crooning over the sweater-to-be-in-a-bag for some considerable time.

tortoise and hare (in ball)

Placing it carefully on the side of my desk I turned to the keyboard to find, winking from the screen, the news that Kate’s just released another pattern. Caller Herrin’. And then I found (via Ravelry) this post from someone who’s already made it. Seascapes, soundscapes, landscapes, knitscapes, inscapes. Virtual Yarns. I am lost (in the delightful sense of having been found).

I’ve made five hats and a hooded scarf in the last four weeks and still have Christmas knitting to go. But soon, soon I shall be stranded (in, of course, the delightful sense of colour-work knitting).

A short message from my sponsee

Samaritans have been nominated to be the official charity partner for The Football League in 2011.  This opportunity is worth a fantastic £500,000 for Samaritans! 

It is a public vote, so anyone can vote, and it’s quick and easy – please vote for Samaritans now, and encourage everyone you know to vote by following the link below.

Individuals are allowed to vote more than once, – after voting just click the refresh button on your computer.


You may ask ‘why the Samaritans?’:

1) We are the only support available in the UK 24/7, 365 days a year for those going through crisis, whether due to redundancy, debt, bereavement or any other source of distress.

2) The current economic situation means thousands more people are feeling the stress of unemployment, money worries and increased pressure.  Support now is more important than ever.

3) Samaritans helps people in your local community, people from your town, village or city. With 201 branches nationwide, a vote for Samaritans means the money you raise will help those local to you who are desperate for support.

4) A partnership with the Football League helps forge links locally with all Samaritans branches

5) Samaritans is run by 18,500 volunteers and Samaritans turnover is relatively small.  Less than 2% of our income is government funded so we need your support today.

The voting closes on 8th December.

Your vote could help Samaritans win £500,000 and deliver our life saving messages to people at risk across the UK.  

Thank you

PS Arsenal isn’t in the league, it’s in the Premiership so there’s nothing in this for the boys, in case you were wondering.

Sloe gin – part two

So, having acquired some sloes, the next thing to do is get gin. If you see some cheap in the supermarket it’s probably best to check on the volume required before purchasing two one litre bottles rather than the two 0.75cl bottles required for the quantity of sloes in the freezer. When you get home and discover the mistake, console yourself with memories of the deliciousness of G&T and recall how distant those memories are. Tell yourself you have several years of G&Tlessness to make up for.

Next, sort out some containers. It might be a good plan to have some general idea of the volume occupied by both sloes and gin, ie at least a nascent sense that it’s considerably greater than that occupied by the gin alone. About double, in fact. However, once grasped, this concept should be coupled with a knowledge of the volume of the selected container. Should you choose, to take an entirely random example, to save plastic milk bottles for your project, it would be as well to realise they are 2l bottles not 1l bottles before every spare inch of kitchen is filled with ginormous washed-out plastic containers which wobble and crash to the floor with hollow thumps at the slightest move.

Finally – the assemblage of the constituent parts into the aforementioned container/s. Even the most sloe-witted of fabricators will, by this point, have finalised the proportions of sloe : sugar : gin. In this case it required taking a single 2l plastic milk bottle, half filling it with sloes (quickly, if frozen, you don’t want condensation to dilute your nectar-to-be), glugging in a litre bottle of gin and adding about two wine-glasses full of sugar. However the latter part of the operation should not be attempted with the use of an old envelope roughly rolled into a sort-of funnel. The sugar escapes through the edge of the sort-of and ends up on the floor where the delighted dog licks it up and ruins her teeth. Just saying.

It is at this point that you might realise there are sloes left over and it would be a shame to waste them. But their small quantity is entirely lost in the bottom of one of the many other 2l plastic milk bottles and all the devil-may-care insouciance of rustic approximate measurements flies out of the window. Frantic weighing and internetting and measuring are advisable before the sloes thaw into a swampy mush but you might end up with a small amount (say about a quarter of a litre of gin) in the bottom of the huge container which you decide you can give your father for his birthday which happens to fall just when the stuff will be first drinkable. Result! you might think, and make a mental note to find a suitable container (not plastic, about a quarter of a litre in capacity) into which to strain it since a lumpy purple liquid at the bottom of a large plastic bottle might not get top marks for presentation. Oh, and you might try to remember to get hold of a funnel.

Sloe gin (gestating)

Taking to gin

While in Dartmoor this summer the secret of pain-free sloe gin was bestowed on me.

As a child I sat for hours at the kitchen table armed with a pin, an empty bowl to my left and a bowl full of sloes to my right. I was told each sloe needed to be pricked eight times before being placed in the receiving bowl, thus allowing the optimum flavour and the delicious, rich, velvety but bitter juices to bleed out into the sugared spirit bath as the mixture steeped in the dark of the cupboard under the stairs.

Being both methodical and of an earnest disposition I would prick each sloe the required eight times ensuring as far as possible that the punctures were exactly evenly distributed across the oval surface because, I reasoned to myself (privately), the more evenly spread the piercing the greater the volume and efficiency of seepage of the juice. Being merely sad and not utterly dorky I did not hasten to attempt a mathematical or experimental proof of this theory. But the conviction remained that this was the best way to do it.

What it meant, of course, was hours and hours and hours of tedious fiddly work and a fair amount of blood added to the mix. Whilst extremely fond of sloe gin if there’s repetitive fiddly stuff to be done I’d much rather it was knitting. So it was with great delight that I was told there was a top secret method which did not require the use of a pin and took minutes rather than hours.

Intrigued and excited I demanded to know what it was. They wouldn’t tell me. It was, they reemphasised, a top secret. They taunted me with clues – no, not knives, not forks, no piercing involved at all. What about crushing? hitting them with a rolling pin? A food processor? No, they said, no crushing was involved. In fact, they said, they didn’t have to touch the sloes at all. I retreated into a sulk at the sheer improbability of it all and they relented. The secret, apparently known to everyone where sloes grow except me, is to stick them in the freezer for a few days where the experience will split their skins expertly and painlessly.

sloe gin phase 1

Thus it was that, while on a school trip with 2ndSpawn today, the sight of a huge blackthorn bush had me swiftly overseeing a gang of croppers who willingly sacrificed their lunch break to fill various plastic bags with the small purple globes of gorgeousness. While I sat in a pool of beautiful autumn sunlight, supervising, one of the children told me how she makes sloe gin each year with her father and mother for them to drink at Christmas. Lovely to hear the tradition continues even though she doesn’t undergo ordeal by pin since they are already initiates in the top-secret freezer method.

sloe gin phase 2

Turned out when we got home and weighed the haul there was exactly 1kg of fruit which will probably be enough for a couple of pints of gin. But a quick search on the internet for recipes had me stumbling back, blinded by information. Almonds? Vanilla essence? Vodka?? And what’s all this about early straining? No no no. It’ll be the family standard method and none of this newfangled nonsense. Apart from the freezer, of course.

Reasons to be cheerful!

Mood boosters from the New Scientist:

  • Write a diary. Simply writing about a positive experience has been shown to increase people’s life satisfaction, with the benefits lingering for two weeks after the task (Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol 62, p 1291). A further study found that a group of subjects who wrote about their emotions for just 2 minutes a day, over two days, reported fewer physical health complaints four weeks down the line (British Journal of Health Psychology, vol 13, p 9).
  • Dispute negative thinking. This is a technique borrowed from cognitive behavioural therapy, in which you catch negative thoughts as they arise and ask: “Is there really reason to think like this? Can I reframe this in a more positive way?”
  • Meditate. Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that meditation can relax both your body and your mind, with many beneficial effects for well-being and happiness (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 95, p 1045). It’s not easy, however, and you may need some training before you get going.
  • Nurture meaningful relationships with family and friends. More than simply improving your well-being, it might just save your life. “Social resources and ties to groups are one of the key buffers protecting us against unhappiness,” says Fredrickson. A recent meta-analysis of 148 studies on links between the quantity and quality of social relationships and mortality suggests that being socially isolated is about as bad for your health as smoking or drinking excessively, and worse than being obese (PLoS Medicine, vol 7, p e10000316).
  • Beware consumerism. Buying more possessions won’t make you as happy as spending money on social activities or new and exciting experiences (The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol 4, p 511).
  • I’d add knitting and dogs.