Listen, says the labyrinth

This is a post in which I not only review a book about labyrinths but show you how to draw one…. so I should issue a little warning – it’s completely addictive. Like counting syllables in haiku, once you’ve done one, your fingers will be constantly itching to circle round and round again.

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I’ve just started back working on campus at the University of Kent, this time not as a visiting lecturer but one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows there. Not only does this mean I get to spend time with students on all aspects of their writing, but I can creep out to visit one of my favourite places of all time. Look at this view (yep, that IS Canterbury cathedral) and I think you can guess why…

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The labyrinth on the University of Kent campus was the brainchild of Jan Sellers, so as I sat on one of the few free benches beside the labyrinth on Tuesday, eating my sandwiches and writing in my journal, I was grateful to her vision and determination.

Jan is also one of the two editors of a recent book about how labyrinths can be used as a learning device, Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education, which I reviewed recently for the NAWE magazine, Writing in Education. Here’s the review, the title of this post is a line from one of the poems by Victoria Field featured in the book:

Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education
Edited by Jan Sellers & Bernard Moss
Palgrave Teaching & Learning, ISBN 978-1-137-39383-8

listen, says the labyrinth,
there’s no here nor there
just the path
one way, an oak tree
the other, a eucalyptus

Fittingly a book that takes the labyrinth as its subject, it’s hard to squeeze this in to a pre-determined academic agenda; as suggested in this extract above from the poem ‘Choice’ by Victoria Field. A different ‘Poem from the Labyrinth’ separates each section of this book which explores the theory and practice of labyrinths, looking particularly at how they are being used in universities and higher education spaces throughout Britain.

I have to admit a bias here as I have taught for several years on the campus of the University of Kent, which, thanks to the efforts of co-editor Jan Sellers, has its own Canterbury Labyrinth. Having watched students use it and walking it many times myself, I have both seen and experienced the benefits first hand. What did surprise me, however, is that there are currently 129 labyrinths on college and university campuses, according to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (out of a total of more than 4700 labyrinths in at least 75 countries.)

This book brings together the views of academics, support staff, students and artists from across the world, looking at how the labyrinth can be used to create reflective spaces in Higher Education. One of the few common factors between the essay writers is both their positivity towards using a labyrinth in this field and interestingly, their own ambiguity when they were first introduced to the concept.

‘Facilitating the labyrinth in a commercially driven environment in which clients paid substantial sums of money for sessions, and expected tangible outcomes, carried significant reputational risks for me and the university…’ writes Alex Irving of Liverpool John Moores University, about her work with the business development team at the University’s Innovation Laboratory.

Sonia Overall at Canterbury Christ Church University, writes a diary account of using the labyrinth with creative writing students:

1.30: The Labyrinth. (Light) rain. I offer encouragement: this is a place for emptying the head, focusing ideas. It’s not a race, I say. Think Sebald, I tell them. Think Borges. The students jump, hop, skip and slide to the centre. Some mime a minatour. They clutch damp notebooks. One of them actually writes something down.

Both of the editors have a distinguished academic history, with an emphasis on good teaching practice. Dr Jan Sellers is a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) and was the University of Kent’s first Creative Learning Fellow. Bernard Moss is Emeritus Professor of Social Work Education and Spirituality at Staffordshire University, and a Principal Fellow and National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. They have both also trained labyrinth facilitators, but the strength of this book is in the practical case studies of how labyrinths have actually been used in many different settings.

Reflect: Receive: Return, these three R’s are how I learnt a labyrinth is most usefully tackled. It’s a structure that we see used in this book by Michelle Bigard of Central Michigan University with first-generation and low-income students as part of a Hero’s Journey Labryinth Workshop. Di Williams reports on how the labyrinth has been introduced to the University of Edinburgh by Chaplaincy Support Services, while Dr Jill Raggett and Steve Terry of Writtle College write about how labyrinths used by an artist in residence Jim Buchanan allowed students to work with the concept of space, collaboration, reflection and aesthetic enjoyment. The labyrinths discussed in this book may be elaborate turf structures, or simple finger models, traced on to canvas, or temporary structures made from sand, candles and even chicken feed. They are used by dancers, design students, midwives, health professionals, creative writers, business executives, artists, counsellors, and lawyers.

‘There is no wrong way to walk the labyrinth,’ write the editors, which of course can prove difficult for the ticks and crosses of most academic evaluations. Although the research element is bravely tackled by John W Rhodes, he admits that ‘the “gold standard” of the double blind research design likely will not be met in labyrinth research.’ Interestingly Rhodes concludes by saying that while the actual uses of the labyrinth (as exemplified in the book) must inform future research, in future the roles could be reversed with research informing the practices of using the labyrinth as a tool for engaging with teaching, learning and researching in higher educational establishments.

It’s a statement that sums up the pioneering feel to this book. Like the labyrinth itself it offers reflections rather than direct answers, but there are more than enough practical examples here to offer inspiration for anyone interested in exploring contemplative, creative and aesthetic ways of enhancing learning. And I defy anyone reading not to try at least the pencil labyrinth drawings for themselves.

End of review.

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But HOW could I possibly leave you, my lovely blog readers with that last line of the review, without showing you some of those pencil labyrinth drawings, so here’s my very professional how-to…

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ENJOY!

On a day so beautiful even the trees danced…

We had a picnic lunch on a log under this tree today, and I looked up to see the branches swaying in the wind, just as if they were dancing, lifting up their skirts like teasing can-can dancers, so lightly I could almost hear them laughing.

And then when we got home, I realised I left my phone on the log too – maybe the trees had wanted to see the video and watch themselves?

Luckily a lovely man called Dan rang me within half an hour of returning home to say he’d found my phone, he’d had lunch on the same log just after me, it seems. I was so pleased that I forgot to ask him whether he’d watched the trees dancing.

And if you’re wondering how yesterday’s herb workshop went, well, we had cake and made haiku bunting and wrote beautiful poems… there’s a write-up here with some of the exercises we did etc… 

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Come and write with me…

Come and indulge your senses with a Herbal Infused Poetry Workshop at the beautiful Physic Garden at Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Saturday 24th September – 11-1pm

Costs £4 (including tea and cake)

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How could such sweet and wholesome hours be reckoned, but in herbs and flowers?

Andrew Marvell

I’m running a workshop in Canterbury designed around herbs – their history, their myths and all the remedies – sensible and gloriously silly – associated with them. Enjoy a morning writing and reading poetry with me, inspired by the Physic Garden. We’ll look at myths, make up new remedies, explore the senses and have fun through a series of practical exercises – all you will need to bring is a pen and paper. This workshop is suitable for all levels of writers, and is a chance to play on the page in the beautiful surroundings of Canterbury’s historic Westgate Gardens.

Sarah Salway is a novelist and poet, and author of Digging Up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England. Find out more at www.sarahsalway.co.uk

Because numbers are limited, booking is strongly advised, please visit http://www.westgateparks.co.uk/events/ or telephone the Canterbury Ticket shop on: 01227 787787. There may be some spaces available on the day.

Contact Sarah Salway, sarahsalway@gmail, for more information.

This event is funded through Canterbury City Council’s Westgate Parks ‘Parks for People’ HLF Project

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Narcissus Garden – a post especially for Sarahs

On a recent visit to Stockholm, we caught an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work, and fell in love particularly with Narcissus Garden.

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Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

What’s not to love? Look at all those me’s! It was originally created in 1966 for the Venice Biennale, and consisted of 1,500 of these silver balls on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. This is the only picture I could find of it then.

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Apparently once the work was installed, Kusama sold the balls for two dollars each to visitors under a sign ‘ YOUR NARCISIUM FOR SALE’. Art as commodification.

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In the gallery, we weren’t allowed to touch, let alone buy, so we just all stood and looked, and most of us took selfies of ourselves reflected again and again. Narcissium in action? Of course, back in 1966, this wouldn’t even have been a thing.

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It got me thinking about one of the events I’ve been part of that still makes me laugh – in that delighted gurgle sort of way. This is the Sarah Party – a party of people invited just because we were called Sarah. We were strangers who didn’t have to ask our names. Behold us in all our glories in a garden….

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The postcard of the Sarah Party, with our hostess, Sarah Pletts looking beautiful in the middle of us all

The Sarah Party was the initiative of two producers (called Sarah) at the BBC, and was open to everyone – so long as you were called Sarah. Nearly 75 of us attended, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. We had badges with ‘hello my name is Sarah’, Sarah tiaras to wear, Sarah food, Sarah games, even a Sarah shrine.

It was even the subject of a 30 minute programme on BBC Radio 4, which was Pick of the Week in the Radio Times (although I do remember the review saying something like ‘maybe of particular interest to listeners called Sarah…!) I have to tell you that even as I’m writing this, I’m laughing to myself. What a wonderfully mad idea it was. A bit narcissistic maybe, especially as we just didn’t care.

Below is the piece I was commissioned to write for the Sarah party, which still makes me smile now. Feel free to share with other Sarahs, or indeed if you’re called Sarah please feel free to share your own thoughts. If you’re not called Sarah, I’m not so interested to be honest.

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Ten things about being Sarah
Sarah Salway

1. Once at the start of a writing group we were asked to tell a story about our names. I told everyone that Sarah meant Princess. ‘That’s so appropriate,’ they all said straight away. I secretly think of myself as modest and humble so I was a little shocked, but when I’ve told other Sarahs this story, they’ve received the same reaction. It seems we can’t always hide the princessy bit.

2. My uncle made a speech at my wedding. ‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘is harass backwards, and she has certainly always been very good at that.’

3. My real name is Sarah Jane. Once when I was being chatted up by a stranger on a train, I told him this. I didn’t think of it as something funny but he started laughing so much that he slapped his thigh too hard and got worried he might have given himself a bruise. Luckily I was able to get off at the next station.

4. Sarah, Sarha, Sahra… how hard is it to spell? Once, after three attempts over the telephone, the man on the other end told me crossly that it would be easier if I’d been called ‘banana.’

5. Ever since that wedding speech, I can’t stop thinking about ‘hairy ass’. Princess, I whisper to myself at these times. Princess, princess.

6. When my children were little, I told them that Bob Dylan had written his song, Sarah, just for me. After that, my daughter kept asking for me to play it in the car. I didn’t feel guilty until she told me that one day she wanted to find someone who would love her as much as Bob must have loved me.

7. French people find it hard to say Sarah. ‘Zhere are..’ they keep telling me and I am still waiting to hear what they are going to say next when I realise they are not just halfway through a sentence but are saying my name. For this reason, Sarahs can often appear suspicious in France. It is as if we can’t always remember what we are calling ourselves today.

8. People are often disappointed when they meet me. They tell me they expect Sarahs to be small, bubbly and blonde, but most Sarahs I have met are dark like me. Dark, brooding and princessy.

9. Sarahs don’t always respond to their name in crowds. There are too many of us. We tend to look a bit wary when someone shouts ‘Sarah’ as if we will be caught out pretending to be popular if we respond. A Mercedes or a Camilla, on the other hand, feels free to yahoo wildly at even the whiff of a ‘Merc…’ or a ‘Cam..’

10. Once when I went into a school to teach creative writing, I spent too long with a little Sarah. She had called the heroine in her story Sarah. ‘Is it about you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, frowning at me very fiercely. ‘Why do you think that?’ I told her I had no idea ‘It’s because it’s the nicest name,’ she whispered to me then, and she put her hand in mine under the table to let me know that this was our little secret.

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A snail eats its way to the stars

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Tonight the world is twisting its face too hard
against my window – a man guns his way
into a room of beautiful people – a friend cries
how it’s inoperable – the politician who lies

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and lies before asking, ‘can’t you take a joke?’
‘Oh’ my friend cries, ‘my children, my children’,
and although the only real answer is ‘your children’,
I lie instead and tell her, ‘they will survive’,

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while outside in the moonlight a snail
eats its way slowly through the English hedgerow,
leaving the trail of surprising beauty:
a silver spirograph, laced leaves.

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We will all survive, the world’s children,
some of us may even leave beauty behind us,
but it’s slow. So slow. And hard to trust
when even clouds have hearts to break.

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Stairway to heaven….

We found the real stairway to heaven recently… and then the day after we climbed it, we read about the court case Led Zeppelin were fighting over the song’s origins. So strange when that happens. And so today, as the court has decided in the band’s favour, I thought I would post about the beautiful valley in mid Wales that supposedly inspired the lyrics.
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We came across it by accident, We’d spotted the sign ‘Artists’ Valley’ and were intrigued. Who were the artists? I imagined a Victorian woman with a bun, watercolours and a flirty-eyed husband in an artistically tied cravat, so it was a bit of a shock later when the waiter in the hotel told us the valley was the ‘real’ Stairway to Heaven. Had we heard of a band called Led Zeppelin, he asked.

Yes, we said. We had. And so the next day, of course we had to climb the path up the hill… and yes, indeed, it was heaven. But what was amazing was how what we were seeing matched so many of the lyrics.  Who knows if this is what Robert Plant had in mind. Probably not,  because nothing is so literal as that, so I hope he’ll forgive me, after all sometimes words (and pictures) have two meanings….

First though, here’s a link to the song to listen to when you feast on all this beauty.
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Luckily birds don’t know they are tweeting…

… because they might stop at 140 characters then.

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And that would be far too short. Turn your volume up and listen….

This clip above was taken yesterday at the RSPB Ynyshir nature reserve in Wales. I was standing there trying to think how I could describe the beauty of the birdsong. And then I thought I don’t have to, I can record it instead and let the birds sing for themselves. Here’s another.

For lots of reasons we didn’t explore the whole reserve, but it does have possibly the biggest bird feeder I’ve ever seen so we sat on a bench and watched the birds come to us.

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Including what are called, I’ve learnt from a friend recently, are a charm of goldfinch… Isn’t that perfect? Here are some of the other birds seen there…

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And this is a first. The first time I think I’ve put up a photograph of a loo sign from the reserve on this website. But just look how she is dancing… bird10

Perhaps not surprisingly. Research shows that listening to birdsong can help mental wellbeing, increase concentration during homework, and when we are feeling worn out and stressed. 

But we knew that instinctively anyway, didn’t we…

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