Tuesday 17 April 2018

It’s about time too – by Phil Ralph

I have teached. I am officially a person who has teached.

(I’ll cut to the chase for those of you who are pressed for time and say that this will be a blog where I reflect on my recent experiences teaching at Schumacher College and I really hope that you might be intrigued enough by my musings to consider joining myself and Fern for our ‘Practising the Art of Living’ course at the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, mid Wales, from Monday 24th to Saturday 29th September 2018. Full details and how to book can be found by clicking this link.)

This blog is therefore a sort of sequel, or next instalment if you will, from my last blog of 25th January where I looked forward to my first experiences teaching with not a little amount of fear and trepidation. Well, I sit here today as a person who has teached. (I know the correct word is taught but I quite like the sound of teached…) And let me tell you, it was quite an experience…

To briefly precis the last blog (although if you have LOTS of time, you can read it yourself here) I have come to realise that my fear of teaching – of standing up in front of people in a role that offers myself, my thoughts, my experiences and my being in service to them and their lives – was actually a fear of some kind of lack in myself. And, after developing a spiritual practise, having a loving, supportive partner and a teacher who doesn’t allow me to get away with any nonsense, I realise that there is no lack in myself. There isn’t even really a self to have a lack of. All there is, I now realise, is an organic lifeform present on this planet for a short space of time between birth and death with a profound and genuine desire to serve. And, if I really want to follow that desire, then it’s about time I offer whatever I have to others.

And so I did. I have teached. Taught. Whatever.

At the invitation of my dear friend and extraordinary writer, Manda Scott (if you haven’t read her stunning quadrilogy of novels about the warrior queen Boudica then you’ve really missed a treat), I went to Schumacher College at the start of this month to offer two days of teaching on Changing the Frame – The Science and Art of Communicating for Transition. To quote from the course website –

This course provides an opportunity for a deep dive, in the company of internationally recognised scientists, writers and artists in various media, into the science underlying the process by which we make sense of the world and how we can use this knowledge to become more effective communicators in the service of liberation.”

Manda Scott
Manda had invited me to be part of the course faculty late last year and I had not hesitated to say yes since I love Manda and am always swept along by her enthusiasm, passion and creativity. And then, as the date for the beginning of the course grew nearer, I began to be assailed by doubts and fears. Especially when I read the full description of what the course was about and most especially when I read who else would be teaching on the course… A veritable cornucopia of incredibly learned, erudite and experienced people such as amongst others A.L Kennedy, George Marshall, Prof Chris Rapley CBE, Kate Raworth

 And me…

I know comparison is unhealthy and we must never do it. But we all secretly grapple with it, don’t we? And I certainly grappled. I grappled bloody hard. So, I arrived at Schumacher already scared. I was scared because of all the above and, most especially, I was scared because… well, because it was Schumacher…

Schumacher College is the place where I met my teacher, Margaret Wheatley. It’s a place where I can absolutely assure you that my life changed beyond all recognition. And I can say with absolute confidence that my experience has been replicated by thousands of students who have passed through the Old Postern at Dartington in the past quarter century or so. This is a place that changes lives. And here I am – teaching there…
The Old Postern - Schumacher College
The old questions were rife in my mind: Who do I think I am? And why am I doing this now?

But this time was different because I knew the answers to those questions.

I stepped into the Play Room (what a fantastic name for a teaching space!) at Schumacher on Tuesday 3rd April with an open heart and the desire to be of service. I was met there by a group of people from all walks of life and all four corners of the globe. And all ages too. And I shared my life and my experiences with story.

Story has been my life’s work. I have been an actor, writer and storyteller since I was six years old and I have been a professional creative artist for 26 years. It is endlessly fascinating to me how much we as human beings are story making animals. We imbibe story with our mother’s milk. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves every waking moment and our dreams tell us stories while we are asleep. And, right now, as Charles Eisenstein and many, many other people say: We need a new story. Or an ancient story. Or a different story. And we need to learn how to tell this new/ancient/different story as well as we possibly can and as fast as we possibly can because things on this planet are not going well.

I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of my experiences at Schumacher in too much detail because I’ve already rambled on for long enough here. But suffice it to say it was a truly wonderful experience. My fear – totally natural and to be expected – galvanised me into offering myself and my experiences as fully as it was possible for me to do. Myself and the students – alongside Manda and the brilliant, compassionate and kind Jonathan Dawson – talked story and we played in the Play Room.

For myself I learned the deep joy of sharing and, yes, teaching. I learned of how enlivening and invigorating it is to open oneself to others with no hope of anything more than enrichment for all. I also learned of how heady and seductive it is to sit in that chair. To look out at a room and see people staring back at me, hanging on my every word. I learned how easy it must be to go from being a nervous, insecure, fearful person sitting in that seat to being a person who believes they deserve to sit in that seat because they are a natural genius and everything that drops from their mouth is gold dust. I learned how seductive it must be to imagine oneself a guru. And I gave thanks for these revelations, laughed at myself for noticing them and then went back to offering what I have in service to others.

And after I left Schumacher? I learnt to expect shame and embarrassment. They turn up regular as clockwork after every single one of my One Eyed Man offerings and here they were again after my first experience of teaching. Back come the old questions: Who do I think I am? Why did I say that thing? Or this thing? Why did I reveal so much of myself? Why did I go so far? Why didn’t I say that other thing that I should have said but didn’t realise until two days after I’d left? I learnt that these voices always show up and to expect and welcome them. And not to take them seriously. There is always something to learn from every experience, no matter what. But that learning never, ever comes from kicking the shit out of myself for my perceived failings. Failure is only valuable when it is seen as an opportunity to learn. A creative life should be rife with failure or it simply is not a creative life.

I got home, awash with joy and shame, exhilaration and failure, and shared it all – as I do everything else – with Fern. We talked about it all. And we talked about how we can apply what I learned to our course ‘Practising the Art of Living’ at CAT in September.

Fundamentally what we realise is that we are conducting an endless series of experiments in the art of living. We take our inspiration from Prof. Tim Jackson’s quote: “The art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet.” What does it mean to live well? And to practise it as an art?

It means to be open to everything and to learn from everything and to say yes more than we say no. And it means to teach through the same principles – openness, experiment, failure, joy. These are what we practise and this is how we live.

Since the beginning of January when I last blogged, Fern and I have set aside an hour a week to sit together and discuss our practise in preparation for our course. We tape our conversation as a record and to focus our minds. We learn a huge amount by stepping into this space of the unknown together every week. We've just posted the first of our short vlogs about this process.

We’d really love to invite you to join us – both at CAT and at other events and teachings that we will be sharing in future.

The world is in a parlous state. We think it’s time to figure out how to live…

And about time too…


Fern is co-facilitating on a Vision Quest with David Wendl-Berry from 18th to 27th May 2018

She is also running Woman Time with Jenny Archard from 9th to 14th July 2018

Phil is assisting on Margaret Wheatley’s Warriors for the Human Spirit programme from 28th April to 4th May 2018. The programme is full for this year but for more details and to express an interest for next year’s programme visit – www.margaretwheatley.com

And we are both teaching on Practising the Art of Living at CAT from 24th-29th September 2018.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

For the Birds: 12 Women Making Vigil on the 7th of 7 Sundays in Spring...by Fern Smith


A vigil, from the Latin ‘vigilia’ meaning wakefulness is a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance.

A vigil may be held on the eve of a religious festival, observed by remaining awake—"watchful"—as a devotional exercise or ritual observance on the eve of a holy day.

Most likely the best-known vigil is the Easter held at night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

During the Middle Ages, a squire on the night before his knighting ceremony was expected to take a cleansing bath, fast, make confession, and then hold an all-night vigil of prayer in the chapel, preparing himself in this manner for life as a knight.

In Christianity, especially the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, a vigil is often held when someone is gravely ill or mourning. Prayers are said and votives are often made. Vigils extend from eventual death to burial, ritualistically to pray for a loved one, but more so their body is never left alone.  
Source: Wikipedia

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

12 Women made Vigil for 7 hours from midnight on 31st March to dawn on Easter Day, April Fool’s Day 2018 at Capel y Graig, Ffwrnes. This represented the final instalment of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ durational everyday art piece. On preparing to write my usual reflective blog, another form invited itself. It announced itself as needing to ‘break the form’ of the ones which went before. This reflection comes in the form of a poem comprised of 12 sections, each in honour of one of the 12 women who made Vigil.

1st Woman
The 1st Woman put out the call.
 ‘To express and honour the grief and pain
of the world by holding Vigil
from midnight to first light.’
7 hours in all.

The women came. A hard-love call.
7 the number of this game, of
7 Sundays in Lent,
with ‘all the women I’ve ever met.’

13 Women Making,
16 Women in the Woods,
44 Women Walking,
11 Women Remembering,
13 Women Dancing,

16 Souls invoking Isis
and then a final all-nighter,
from mid-night into Oestre/ Easter Day.

The 7th Sunday cracks open
the well-laid, well-made form.
In Capel y Graig we gather.
12 Women making Vigil from midnight into dawn.
Christ is risen with the April Fool.
Happy Easter / Oestre all.

2nd Woman
This dreaded woman has come to 6 Sundays.
She travels by hook and by crook.
Something is making her, breaking her,
calling her to learn the lost art of grief.

She is gifted with a dark night
of the soul.
This, her first Vigil.
The first for most.
She, 2nd Woman is blessed with a companion.
An unexpected one who needs cradling into death.

A Chaffinch arrives at the door
In the hour before midnight.
It will die, we know.
A visitor come to message us, though only few hear.

2nd Woman hears.
Midnight finds her outside the cold Capel
In the warmth and the light of the vestry fire.
She learns how to Vigil,
becomes mother, mourner, midwife into death
of poor Chaff.
She holds its small body.
Its last hours attended.
Chaff dies at dawn, lasting through the night,
gifting tears, giving meaning, to this time.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

3rd Woman
Woman number 3 is all magic.
This too is her 6th Sunday.
She knows there is weaving going on here.
Something not accessible to the logical mind alone.
She can wait.
She sits cross-legged in her many skirts.
She is made for Vigil.
It’s in her braids and in her bones.

She attends her candle, darkening in
its reflected light.
Back, dancer-straight, all poise and patience.
Then like a she-wolf she stirs.
The transition from still to moving is invisible.
She walks the line between the worlds.
Loops the thread back and forth between the two.
She too is attendant of Chaff.
Knows it has come, like a sacrifice.

She moves in the shadows.
Not dance.
More earth than light,
more root than wings.
She knows how to do this.
She has dug her fingers deep into this place before.
Grief is under her nails.
She kisses and blesses it.

4th Woman
4th Woman comes.
She is a woman of the elements.
She knows her directions.
Her manner soft, though
she carries a sword.

This is her 2nd Sunday.
She has danced in the castle at dawn.
And now presents herself to the midnight hours.
The grandmothers come with her.
She never travels alone.

Always the dance.
She is versed in its language.
Articulate words, articulate body.
Brings a knowing of the hands that
shuffle the tarot and the wisdom,
words and the ways of the old ones.

She moves in the dark.
Certain. A prayer moving through her.
She will not sit in silence.
She sculpts the dark-light, half-light,
candle-lit cold of the night-time hours.

5th Woman
The 5th is no stranger to the Vigil.
Her and death are old friends.
She’s been making peace with grief and sorrow
for years now.
Her presence weights this Vigil.

She brings her gentle strength, made vulnerable
with cold.
She sleeps, she wakes, she sleeps, she wakes,
lullabied with song and sound.

Cocooned in her covers, candle close at hand.
She is the circle’s elder.
Brings with her many lives, many circles of
gathered women.
She brings The Magdalene,
making meaning of Oestre, the Goddess
behind Easter time.

She knows her words by heart:
“To live in this world you must be able
to do three things…”
Surrendering into illness, making Vigil
in the way she needs.
Punctuating silence with coughs and sneeze.
She who connects the women past,
to the women present and knows how to befriend the women
of the future.
Wise in her rites of passage between this world and the next.

Vigil at Dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

6th Woman
6th Woman is new to the circle, though she has
been with us before.
Dancing at dawn in her bed, then not present
but present,
And now present, so present.
She stills the air around her by her presence.

I sense she is no stranger to the Vigil.
She has sat with many during the dark hours.
This woman of the dusk and the caverns of the heart.
A gentlewoman who knows her worth.

She brings with her, the language of
the land.
She can speak to this Capel y Graig,
This chapel of the rock.
She can speak in song, and lights up
the early hours with her voice.

She could sing from the pulpit, was born
with an ability to do so, but
has chosen instead to step away,
to leave this place, vacant and open
Its power in the possibility of potential.

7th Woman
Woman 7 is all animal.
Her 4 legs and long hair might distract from her fierce
sensitivity and strength.
She is a woman who can attend the mystery.
An alchemist of the space between things.
She arrives, always last with her twin other.

She will half-Vigil.
Knows she will be present for the darkness.
Knows she will be gone by first light.
This Vigil is her first of 7 Sundays in Spring.
Though her name has been weaved into all.
She, perhaps the invisible thread or
the needle that pulls it.

She is one of a line of women.
Gives herself as witness of
the beauty and the sorrow.
She is all heart.
She is all brain in her body, animal
in her being, presence
in her absence.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen.

8th Woman
Woman 8 has travelled far, to the East and back,
and beyond.
Host of the first of these 7 Sundays, she knows
she needs to be present for this last.
It almost wasn’t so. It’s always thus.
Almost wasn’t but always is.

She is a woman who can Easter and April Fool,
is happy home with either.
An artist to the core, who gives it
all away.
Nomad, at ease in all places.
She glides through the Vigil in restful sleep
and seeks out another when we’re done.
She’s lived through life and death and makes it her
business to keep on doing so.

She finds her place closest to the pulpit,
dream-sleeping with God.
As at home in a capel as a coffee shop.
Soft presence, gentle snores sculpt the night’s light.

9th Woman
The woman of the three-times-three
is no stranger to Vigil.
She comes, celebrating and mourning the tatters of her soul.
Brings her personal to the planetary sorrows.
Has lived the political life, the examined life.
Restlessly questing in service of Earth.

She was never not going to be here, though
it has cost her much.
Making an art of positive disintegration, she holds
a bright candle through this dark night, sings
her full-heart, full-throat voice.
She is moving, introducing herself
to this new land.
Coming home and being received in a life beyond Vigil.
Knowing the full moon darkness lights the way to the
beginning of all things.

10th Woman
This 10th Woman knows the ropes.
Has come from the borders, but
knows this territory well.
She is ready to Vigil and brings her
Priestess ways.
Anointing, blessing, perfuming the dark.

She has been making Vigil alone
these past 7 Sundays and
will continue to do so once Easter has come and gone.
She brings with her the mythic.
Separates the dark from the light,
the water from the land.
Her hands have weaved oracles
and spun shrouds before now.
She brings with her the weight of silence and mystery.
Though new to our circle, she has been here
many times before.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

11th Woman
Woman number 11 needed a rest.
Needed to simplify, do less, but
still she came.
She’d felt the pain of life in her belly since she was 12.
And now it rises again, forcing her horizontal.
She is no stranger to witnessing the grief of the world.
Has brought it with her, been welcomed by it
on arrival.
A fierce humour and dark intellect she carries.
It makes her strong. It cracks her open.

She sleeps. Drifts in and out.
Listens to the poems.
Mary Oliver, Rilke, Wendell Berry.
She’s heard them all before.
She has already walked a hundred miles on her knees.
And knows she does not have to be good.
And still she shoulders the pain.
And now she lets it go, surrenders into sleep.
Sleeps so that the wakeful ones have the gift of watching over her.

12th Woman
Woman number 12 – mother, host, nurse, minister and midwife.
She is custodian of the Capel chapel.
Gently guards the space, communing.
Determines what comes in, what needs to be left at the door.
She lights the fire.
Has dreamt Capel into being, or been dreamt into being by it.
Our Vigil is homed here.
Is offered space and chance to nest.
Woman number 12 documents the proceedings.
Makes it her work to be guardian of the little understood, almost invisible,
not yet born, space between things.
She speaks Vigil. It is her art-form.
She mourns the bird.
It breaks her heart.
It has been broken countless times and shall be again.
It is hard to have a practise of the broken heart.
She tends the bird.
Knows the hour of its death.
Lights the candle.
Buries it, returns it to a dawning sky.
Towards the light of Easter/Oestre Day.

This was a Vigil for many things. In the end, it became a Vigil for a small bird who came to us in the hour before we took our places in the Capel.

Vigils extend from eventual death to burial, ritualistically to pray for a loved one, but more so their body is never left alone.

In the past 50 years in Britain, through the intensification of agriculture, we have destroyed well over half of our biodiversity, and the populations of birds, butterflies and wild flowers that once gave the landscape such animation and thrilling life have been utterly devastated – the figures are there. Most notable is the case of farmland birds, which by the government’s own admission declined by 56% between 1970 and 2015; it is estimated this represents a loss of at least 44 million individuals. The Guardian.

Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'.

Future work includes:
Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)


Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)


For more information see www.emergence-uk.org

With thanks and appreciation to Avi Allen and Capel y Graig  for making us welcome. Thanks and respect to Donna, Gilly, Ailsa, Chris, Christine, Jess, Jo, Janne, Lis and Kelli.