Sunday, 25 October 2020


I reflected last week on the sacred nature of words, and related this to the language of the heart - that is to say, to that organ, which essentially wants as many happy feelings as can be packed into its lifetime.

Inasmuch as it is associated with consecration, the word 'sacred' is loaded with reverence, which can be risky to joy. If there is an excess of respect, barriers of fear pop up like so many mean little picket fences everywhere, and intelligently happy feelings flee forthwith. 

Of all the instruments we have at our disposal to create happy feelings, language is surely one that immediately takes pride of place. Peruse, for example, these acrobatics from one of the most beautiful clowns the English language ever had - 

"In the beginning God created heaven and earth with, it would appear, Irish labour. It took the Lord six days, and on the seventh he rested, during which time speculative builders put up Kilburn. Kilburn High Street runs three miles, that's why it looks 'shagged out'. A walk through Kilburn has left an indelible blank on my mind. The British, it is said, are made up of four races, the best of these are the Derby and the Oaks.
Kilburn was a melting pot, occasionally stirred by the National Front, an extreme political organisation whose election manifesto was 'I'll punch yer fuckin' 'ead in'. The leaders were any of them that could count up to ten without having to sit down." - from 'The Looney' by Spike Milligan

It just keeps getting hilariouser and hilariouser - so, yes: you'll have to get the book.

My point is that there is room in heaven for the Jabberwocky and all the hobbits' riddles, and even the worst limericks (okay, those might be kept under celestial shadecloth, just in case).

Whenever Christ appears to me, He does so playfully, dancingly, full of youthful sparkle, definitely bringing undiluted happy feelings. (Speaking for myself, I've had to admit that my heart simply can't cope with the crucifixion. I am one of those 'sensitive viewers' who only manage repeatedly to weep over that horror story.) 

Yes, language is sacred, but it is not nailed to a cross. It is free to dance and sing all manner of paths it finds to please human hearts in uncountable ways.

Sure, it can be misled. A writer or speaker can be enticed up all kinds of garden paths, including those in Gethsemane. But that is likely to be the subject of another blog. For now, consider yourselves ushered. Towards reading whatever gives your heart real joy.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

Sacred vessels

It's a while now that I've not been attending to this blog as regularly as would fulfil me.

When the blogsite was kindly set up for me, it was announced on my website as

a space where Silke dreams her dreams, speaks her mind, shares her journey and sometimes disappears from - a sign that she's enjoying her solitude.

A lovely disclaimer, "enjoying her solitude".

But my infrequent blogs these months have not been due either to enjoyment or solitude; they have been due to a heavy heart that will not speak.

Way back (nearly forty years ago), a fellow at my old school gave me a note, on which was written:

To understand people, you have to be able to hear what they are not saying. What, perhaps, they will never be able to say.

I did not understand why he gave me the note and I don't remember him telling me why he did. At the time I assumed he was sharing something of his own, painful silence, but now I wonder whether he sensed something about me instead?

There is much focus, in this time, on truth, exposure of lies, on revelations, clearing blockages and festering obstacles on all kinds of levels - economic, political, social, racial, spiritual and psychological.

All through this time now, my heart feels strained, broken, aching, sometimes panicky.

A heart is a place of very few, choice words.

Perhaps the only words that can be at home in a heart are 'I love you', and variations thereon.

Those words and their variations fulfil the purpose of words as cups of mystery, cups filled with the elixir of a kind of pure existence: I am, you are, we be, and how strange and lovely is that.

It may be age, it may be the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - whatever it is, there is great, urgent, profound and uncompromising need, in the heart writing this, to retreat. To be a leaf, melting gradually into its own ungreening.

Writing these words give ease. The metaphor conveys me into the foliage my soul needs.

I am no longer strong enough for any other kind of habitat, other kinds of words.

Living in peace is possible (for me) only when words are respected for the sacred vessels they are.

Painted papyrus by Eva van Belle


Sunday, 20 September 2020

Though every face should scowl ...

Emerging from out of the shadows of my mind during the past month, Yeats' lines from A Prayer for my daughter repeatedly offered a silver lining: 

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
        The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
        Self-appeasing, self-affrighting, 
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will; 
She can, though every face should scowl 
And every windy quarter howl
        Or every bellow burst, be happy still.

The poem is worth studying in its entirety. Consider the third-last of the ten stanzas:

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

What are the key words here?

I would give these:

self-delighting    self-appeasing    self-affrighting    by quiet natures understood

A father's wish that his daughter be "happy still" amid human suffering and discontent, turbulence and hatred amounts, really, in the end to the wish that she be possessed of deep inner security, a zen-like composure.

Essentially it is the wish for her spirit to retain its balance despite antagonistic circumstances.

It is so very simple a wish, a simple prayer for purity and an orderly life:

    How but in custom and ceremony
    Are innocence and beauty born?
    Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
    And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Yeats' plea for honouring the good, which past generations have created and honoured, continues to be a plea worth sounding. For change is natural: it does not require violence.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Her focus remains with me

It was in the Kruger Park, in 2002, maybe? A while back, anyhow.
I woke earlier than the others and footed down to a fenced water-hole, fed by a river, near the camp.
Traipsing around the perimeter, I was alarmed by heavy snuffling and snorting sounds.
In the din of numerous bird calls, wild dog yaps and yodles and, who knows, hyenas? - in other words, the bright summer dawn's natural orchestra - I could not discern the origin of those very close-by, heavy breathing sounds. The water still lay completely in shadow and trees and reeds created dark, secret nooks.

Then, miraculously, as it seemed, I was spotted - targeted by an eye with raised eyebrow, as it felt.

The hippopotamus' large pupils floated peacefully on the silvery surface, keeping focus all the time on me, even as her enormous body slowly turned, now left, now right, balletically below the water.

She - it was a lone hippo and, for all I know, a he ... but I'll allow myself the luxury of projecting my own gender onto him - now that I had identified her, or she me, she breathed her morning bath's utter tranquility into my own heart.

She never disappeared.

I left, eventually, having less time to myself than she did, and she slid into the deep shadows further down the water-course.

But she has stayed with me ever since.

Anne Keating, in her book Wild Voices, gives the word contemplation as key for this animal. She writes:

Hippopotamus is Female, expressing the quality of:
Quiet Retreat 

By contrast, Credo Mutwa, in his book, Isilwane, writes:

The hippopotamus is regarded by African people as a symbol of rebellion, uncontrollability and unruliness.

Furthermore, "it is also an animal of confusion. It cannot make up its mind whether it is a rhinoceros or an elephant!"

The Zulu word for hippo, Mutwa writes, imvubu, can mean 'the mixed-up creature' or 'the creature which is unable to make up its mind what it is.' 

When I used to tune into the spirit of what for me is quite a frighteningly fearless animal, the hippo, I found that the quality of confidence surfaced more than anything else. The hippo's confidence, however, was something I knew eluded me always - at least it did in the uncool human world.

Recently, she has snuffled herself back into prominence in my consciousness. Her beautiful raised eyebrows keep gazing her sensitive intelligence towards my soul.

Mutwa's own praise poem to the hippo speaks to the privilege of my encounter. Here are some extracts:

You, whose eyes see everything
And whose ears can hear the smallest whisper of a lover hidden among the reeds 
[... ]
Your feet can dance where no Zulu can ever dance
And no Venda can ever gyrate 
You dance under the waters
You dance under the lakes
You rejoice among the reeds
You are the light that mocks me as I approach a great lake
You are the great pumpkin of Africa that walks on four legs, delighting those who see you
Oh animal of love
Oh animal of fertility
May your snorting always be heard in the great lakes and the rivers of Africa!

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Gatherings and spillings for the future

All who loved and honoured Norman Morrissey were sad today three years ago to learn of his crossing, at 3:13 on that Sunday morning.

Today, three years ago, it happened, and I no longer have words for it. (The words are all gathered in Greater Matter A Journey of Poems to Death and Beyond)

May I honour the past, in order to let the future be.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Gratitude and your own, mad song

In what were probably some of the darkest times of my adult existence, I was obliged frequently to sojourn in the Eastern Cape frontier town, Grahamstown (privately and helpfully nicknamed Grimsberg during those years).

When in Grimsberg, I must do shopping.

I used to go to a little complex, called Peppergrove Mall. The front of the Pick 'n Pay there is roofed, and a part of the area is marked, by a railing, containing shopping trolleys. There used to be a slender, youngish man there, who wiped the handles of the trolleys for each customer, with sanitising wipes, which he nimbly reached over to pull out of a bucket with a hole in the top.

Not only did the man's helpfulness make the act of extracting a wipe, and sanitising my own trolley handle, unnecessary for me to do. He also wiped my grimy soul, by filling me each time with wonder.

For, on each occasion, without fail, when I fetched a trolley and greeted him, and asked him how he was, he would reply -

"I am alive! I am so grateful to God that I have today, and that is why I am happy!"

His fervour never waned, his line never changed.

When circumstances altered, and I no longer needed to frequent Grimsberg, I made a point of going especially to thank him for so liberally tossing his good cheer into my days. I am not sure that he recognised me, for I had not been coming to the town regularly anymore, and he looked, perhaps, a little nonplussed.

"You made a difference to my life," I told him, "it was a difficult time for me, and your thankfulness for being alive always meant so much."

I did not get the impression that my thanks made a difference to him. I don't think he needed it.

I never bothered to find out his name, or to make conversation with him - he did not exactly open himself up to conversation - and so, other feelings, which I could have had, such as pity for his station; or guilt and shame about the differences between us; or worry about his well-being - none of those feelings stood a chance with him.

Here was a king, as the German folk round sings it -

Froh zu sein bedarf es wenig                                        To be happy one needs very few things
und wer froh ist, ist ein Koenig.                                    and the one who is happy is a king.

One sees many memes, which highly recommend the trolley-handle-wiper's attitude of gratitude in practice. But you have to be wild to do it - wild enough to know your life can be snatched from you at any moment, wild enough to know that all you have is NOW; wild enough to be mad enough to sing your song as wholeheartedly and as wholesomely as you possibly can. And thus, the trolley-handle-wiper's song is humbling and no doubt an example for all to follow.

Hah, and there's the rub!
YOUR song is not the trolley-handle-wiper's song.
Your song is NOT the song of A.A. Milne or Piglet or Pooh Bear in the accompanying, famous illustration below.

Personally, I would have to exercise brute force on myself in order to do for somebody else what that lovely youngish man did for me. The sheer horror of having to tell myself (never mind somebody else) daily that I am happy to be alive is enough for instantaneous gloom to pour itself out within me and spread depression diligently through my system over the next five weeks. Why? Because I would be forcing myself to do something utterly monotonous to my spirit - the words would not spring up naturally out of my heart as they did out of his.

I surprise myself over and again by how fluid I am: how, not seldom, the cornucopia of disappointments and sorrows, which my life has generously granted, seem far too heavy for me to carry. Despite the fact that I am richly blessed with joys AND am grateful for them, I flop UNGRATEFULLY like wet clay back into default position, i.e. flat dust, which not even the wind can whip into a prettty storm, because this thing is way too waterlogged.

That is the moment when you become grateful for tears. Or just for honesty. Or for the teeth you're gritting all over again. And, at last, you really do resolve to make that appointment with the dentist. Tomorrow.

Photo acknowledgment: Saeed Al Jafar from Kuwait in the Masai Mara, Kenya. 'The end of a cheetah yawn'.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Cruelty and sadness

Cruelty is when you banish sad and bad feelings. I would go so far as to say that cruelty requires you to numb your heart to all pain. Your heart becomes so numb, that fear, sorrow, anger, disappointment, humiliation freeze inside you - all those shadow feelings, which are the most diffficult to endure.

If you are unable to bear unpleasant feelings, you become cruel - towards yourself and/ or to other beings. Your compassion withers in the frost of unfeeling. If you have the power to do so, you order or partake in executions. Your conscience and your soul become dry.

If you have little power, cruelty can sometimes be forced on you. This old nursery rhyme describes such a situation -

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do. 
She gave them some broth without any bread; 
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

If I lived in a shoe with too many children, I would probably not even give them broth or beds. I wouldn't have the energy to whip them. I would probably scream at them all in sorrow and frustration and then I would weep - I know I would, I would sob, maybe for the rest of my life - as I chased them all away to find a better parent and better living conditions. How many babies have been found in dustbins, bedded on their mothers' desperate prayers?

If you can weep about a necessary cruelty, there is, perhaps, a chance for hope. Emotional pain - feeling for yourself and others - is your best protection against cruelty and heartfreeze.

Brian Wildsmith: 'There was an old woman who lived in a shoe', in 'Mother Goose. A Collection of Nursery Rhymes' (1964)

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Trees and the earth's lovelinesses

Today 10 years ago two South African poets - Norman Morrissey and myself, for those who know us - made a covenant under a tree - a copper beech, whom Norman had named Guinevere, for her splendid auburn foliage.

Today 7 years ago, we formally tied the knot before friends and family.

When Norman fell mortally ill in 2017, I went to Guinevere and asked her for help and comfort. I took down words, which I felt streamed to me from her, and entitled it Song of healing. I made a crude monotype print, painting the words as a mirror image to themselves (a requirement for hand-printing letters), and used a few of Guinevere's leaves in the design.

Today 3 years ago, I gave Norman the framed picture as a fourth anniversary gift.

He died on the 26th day after that.

I published the song in Greater Matter, my book of poems tracking my journey of grief as a widow.

Norman's love for Guinevere, and for trees in general, built a foundation for me sounder than anything I had enjoyed before.

Is it presumptuous to say that Guinevere's witness to our covenant ensured that my heart be rooted into a love that was greater than our mere selves? A love that helped make me far more whole than I had been before, a love that healed woes and wounds and curses?

I don't know.

But I do know that I continue to live in and by the laws of love. And that love has deep roots beyond my human flesh, it has roots feeling into all the earth's lovelinesses.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The purpose of hate

Many years I lived without hate adding itself to my experience.
At least, I do not remember experiencing it consciously.
It was but a word.

Anger there was a-plenty, for sure - burning, scorching anger, yes. Directed towards me often enough, yes. Directed away from me, towards others, too, more often than I would like to say, yes.

There was mockery I felt. Denigration, humiliation, meanness towards me, yes. And my own meanness, too, I am ashamed to say, invariably towards those I loved the most.

I was granted experience of all those unpleasant things.

Hate remained a word that belonged with Stalin, Hitler and Apartheid, in a somewhat abstract yonder.

Until somebody robbed me of my own agency. That gave birth to hate inside me towards that person.

There were good reasons why I was robbable, why I was vulnerable in that way.

I was compelled to endure the hate. The person who had engendered it had so much leverage on me that I was defenceless. I could neither fight nor flee. I had to endure this person's abuse of their power over me. I knew I was choc-a-bloc with hate, but I did not know what to do with it, where to put it, how to handle it. The hate was simply there. Seismic.

For months I was near-catatonic with disbelief and trauma. I would lie in bed, wanting, intending to rise, but unable to do so - like a person who has had a severe stroke and whose brain is the only part of them still functioning, but with no more muscle power at all. I prayed fervently not to be destroyed by my own bitterness.

After some years, I broke down in such oceans of tears, which would not stop, that my husband (still living at that time) finally bundled me off to a few sessions of therapy. The therapist nearly gave up on me: during one session, my only speech was salt water and sobs.

The poet in me does not wonder that the glaciers are melting, or that the world appears to be halting. My late husband used to say that a woman's primal feelings are not trifles.

While the therapist did help to enable me to continue through each day, somehow, I never had the opportunity fully to process what had happened. Fortunately, the leverage the person had on me disappeared in time and my experience of hating my abuser passed on into the past.

Until Covid-19 came along with its myriad revelations.

Until those poisonous species of mushroom, called Mipo (Minister of Police) and Micoogota (Minister of  Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs), emerged out of the forest deeps.

Suddenly, my hate re-surfaced. Again, my agency over my own life, and private decisions that are nobody's business, were being denied me to make.

I was, this time, given opportunity to examine my hatred. I discovered, interestingly, that hatred was not a fire in me. A sure force, yes, but not a passion that would cause me to take reckless action.

Though it crackled, it had no warmth.

It did not live in the heart.

I paid attention.

I went to 'Head Office' - as retired priest and fellow Ecca poet Cathal Lagan likes to refer to the Divine Being - and asked, "Why, please, protect me from this hate!"

'Head Office', who had lately become somewhat casual with me, replied, "Just note it. Stick with it a bit."

So I did. I wallowed in my hatred. My Beloved endured rants, and a few trusted friends were witnesses via email, in which I freely articulated my most vicious intentions towards Mipo and Micoogota, the poisonous mushrooms. Intentions I could, of course, not fulfil, because ... because why?

The wallowing led to a lovely break in the dam wall of shame, which had contained the hate, and what flowed was illumination.

Hatred, in the way it worked in and on me, is not a feeling. It is a decision. A judgment. It comes from the body in the last parts of the digestive system, that part where expulsion of what is of no use to the body happens.

Hatred tells you not only WHAT YOU ARE NOT, but also, perhaps even more importantly, WHAT YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE.

I NEVER want to be somebody who orders other people about!
I NEVER want to be somebody who abuses her power over vulnerable people!
I NEVER want to abuse my power!
I HATE all that which I DO NOT WANT TO BE!!!!!

Hate is an indicator of what is disposable to your own heart, body, mind and soul. That rejected 'excrement' may be sweet fodder to those whose hearts, bodies, minds and souls are completely different from your own. (There are many people, as we are sadly witness to so numerously right now, who get great pleasure from ordering others about, who get pleasure from abusing their power, etc. etc.) Your hate is simply a sign to YOU of what YOU are NOT.

It is, simply, information about your self.

That, then, is my discovery of the purpose of hate.

PS. I subsequently discovered that in Luke 14:26, Jesus uses the word similarly, to mean not a dangerous passion, but a decisive - the key word is decisive - move away from all the roles one plays on the stage of life, in favour of the absolute priority of serving him, that is to say, serving the power of divine love.

Mushroom images credit to:


Thursday, 11 June 2020

Rather just feel it

A writer can't be squeamish when it comes to emotions.
The 'bad' human emotions all have a place.

I first learned the value of jealousy when I fell in love with the man who would become my second husband.

Prior to that I had, of course, naturally felt jealous, frequently. I was jealous of my sisters when they were born (they were twins, born prematurely when I was not yet 2 years old). I continued to be quite acutely jealous of them every so often, the way that siblings will be, when parents try to be as fair as they can be.

In my 20s, I was jealous of ex-girlfriends, whom my then-boyfriend declared he still loved in his heart. I was passionately jealous, at times, wilfully cutting up photographs, yelling and tossing cups about.
My passions were ugly and violent, and so I felt that my jealousy was wrong and tried to suppress it. The ex-girlfriends were beautiful women, after all. They were innocent - it was not their fault that they were loved.
I visited and even hosted ex-girlfriends with my boyfriend, and later with my first husband, mostly swallowing, or trying to swallow, the terrible feelings I harboured - feelings of possessiveness, which I did not know then were hiding dismay that I was not being treated with respect, that is to say, that I was unable to own my feelings or express them in an acceptable way.
The jealousy made me feel ugly and I did not want to be ugly.
Influenced by the ethics of the hippie era, we were probably many of us trying to deny all 'bad' feelings, all feelings excepting love.

Late in life, I fell in love with an old hippie. (Norman, for those of you who know me.) He was 60, I 44.
We were honest about the fact that we each loved people before we had met one another.
Our love for one another cancelled no other love.
I loved him for having such a big, warm, loyal heart. In any case: I knew I could not love a man who disowned or relinquished the love he had felt for other women - women just like myself.
But my love reached a limit when I realised I did not want to share him.
I knew that the jealousy was an issue between himself and myself, NOT between another woman - who was beautiful and could not be blamed for being loved by him - and myself.
Although we were living apart, I expressed my problem to Norman and he immediately understood, respected and acted on it by committing himself unreservedly to me, notwithstanding the physical distance between us.
This was a completely new experience for me: I was being honoured. My 'ugly' feelings were being taken into account, because I had finally found someone I trusted sufficiently simply to express them.

It was a turning point.
Suddenly my jealousy found its rightful place: its function was to declare a limit, a boundary.
My possessiveness wanted our love in a sanctuary: a paradise, which was closed to all but ourselves.
That is how I made friends with my jealousy.
Now I know better how to guard my heart: when I feel jealous, I always ask myself whether I am maintaining proper boundaries. The jealousy is a warning sign that I am not sufficiently protective of an important sacred space. This can apply to any situation, including my work, my solitude, my very identity.

If you are not friends with your jealousy, it will become a passion and endanger the unlimited love in your heart. It will take control, make you controlling, even violent, and then you can't be free.

Rather just feel it.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Prior to milk and bread

Mariss Stevens' Containment series caught my eye on Instagram. The series is a set of quilted images created over the past weeks. Her latest blogpost, On Containment (22nd May 2020), describes the process from conception to finish, including a definition of 'containment' as holding (holding back) and 'restraint'.

"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self", the poet Ilya Kaminsky recently (14th May 2020) quoted Stravinsky speaking about musical composition, on Twitter - "And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision."

In Mariss' series, vases contain and constrain flowers, which are pulled into captivity by the mouths of vessels, thence to fountain out their blossoms the more -

Containment #3
Containment #7
 Tree trunks operate similarly.

Containment #1
The constraints of format and resources, in this series, expands in the fifth work - not only to flip the orientation of of the work from portrait to landscape, but also beyond inward - house and garden - motifs, to reach quite literally for the moon.

Containment #5
Mariss judges the connection between it and the theme to be "nebulous", but I question that judgment. The series consists of eight works - the number which, flipped sideways, represents infinity in mathematics; and the one that in the arcane realm symbolises balance between heaven and earth. Five is understood to bring chaos and conflict, but also transformation and change.

Mariss' moon in this series is pregnant with the potency of the time-piece, which that heavenly body is, in relation to the earth: determining our calendar, the tides and feminine cycles. The exquisite fabricated image, contained upon the background in its frame and constrained by its position in the series overall, reflects an undertow of truth, which penetrates the boundaries of the lockdown in utter peace.

'Time as a task' during quarantine has recently been found by Parul Seghal - in an essay entitled In Search of Time Lost and Newly Found (19th May 2020) - to be a slippery and bewildering challenge; but these little textile works demonstrate the power of working with time, working within its natural limits. The crafter-artist flowers again and again inside her hours and her works are pollen grains, or little moons, from the hands of her soul.

All our days are numbered, that is to say: limited, but each day contains its own potential. I pondered the practicalities of this mystery in a pollen grain of my own, a blogpost from about a year ago, entitled Time as an organic fact (14th May, 2019).

Time can be felt as "a natural sequence of moments blossoming their opportunities", I wrote, and I still agree with me about this. Too fine a plan or regimen will scorch them; take no action and they will drown.

The hours we are given are our nourishment prior to milk and bread. Eat, drink, enjoy!

I thank Mariss Stevens for allowing me to use images of her works for this post. To see the full set, including the mesmerising process of how she created the moon, as well as the surprise coup of the eighth work, click The Containment series.

- Silke Heiss, 27th May 2020