We got matching yellow hats that day. From Wilko’s I think, plus a hand towel each. Oh, and we dropped by a charity shop, rummaged hastily... ‘There must be a couple here somewhere?’ - emerging exuberant with our finds! One over-sized, simply enormous, fluffy jumper that will swamp her perfectly. A dreadful pink towelled dressing gown for me. No one has been more thrilled with an ad hoc purchase - because now we were ready. We had swimsuits already destined for a chlorine pool. But we had stopped by the sea. That was our only mistake... Because once feet are on sand, once eyes lock on that expanse, once two hearts collude to go in… And yes, it was November. And yes, it was the North Sea. And yes, just over the harbour wall the sea was tumultuous, a giant storm just 24hrs away. The wind whipped up waves and brought them crashing in crescendo, heaving all the way along the harbour wall. Sending waterfalls cascading into our safe harbour - great tears of letting go. Our harbour: for those stolen minutes, That wall: holding the raging water; and our raging tyrants at bay. Two yellow hats, striding purposefully into the deep. hands held, bottoms clenched, while water ascends, biting cold rides up to our beating hearts. Where we are brilliantly alive, bright, and good. Before the rub down and the tea, before the frozen toes and shivers, before the bacon sandwich and dirty chips. But after… After the surging, after the break, after the froth... Hung sea mist, suspended in the wind like dust, hanging on the light already there, casting our own streak of rainbow. Making a private promise, on this side of the tumultuous sea - that we are safe within our friendship walls.
There came a day when I was driving and for no known reason, and rather embarrassingly, I thought of the 00’s song ‘Hero’ by Enrique Inglesias. (https://open.spotify.com/track/24Gxm7Eh7tO83E26LG0CsY )
Or at least a few lines from it. Almost against my better reasoning I put it on.
‘Would you dance, if I asked you to dance?’
Only tears came in response. Because, ‘No, dancing was impossible’. I could not even take a breath, no matter dance. So squashed was my spirit. I knew then as sincerely as I have known anything, that something had to shift, but I could not see a way. So that song became a kind of prayer, ‘Save my soul tonight’, ‘Get me out from under here’.
Fast forward about a month and I could go on no longer. The day my mind was so full, fuzzy and discombobulated. The day there was no more energy to summons. The day my body, which to its credit, had been alarming at me all year, now screamed ‘ENOUGH’.
Back one summer we had gone to the Forbidden Corner, (https://www.theforbiddencorner.co.uk), a quirky extensive place of oddities, eccentrics and nudity. My kids like, ‘everything here is creepy!’ and, ‘why are all these statues naked?!’ Scattered around are lost grandparents utterly baffled, asking into the abyss the rhetorical question, ‘what’s the theme here?’, as they lose their grandchild once again round a corner and down a rabbit hole.
In one section, access to which involves leaping across stepping stones, avoiding water shoots and navigating dark tunnels, leads eventually to an underground room of doors. Some lead to yet more tunnels and doors, some lead to nowhere. Each path brings you out in another part of the maze. Our kids, eager to track down all the items on the map, and me with my fear of missing out, tried all of them. We think. But we’re not sure. No one can ever be sure. We went round this one section 7 times. Then having ran out of snacks, water, energy and ideas, we agreed to pause and to find some lemonade.
Once we had done this.
Once we were outside the maze.
We all agreed not to go round again.
What was an unfathomable mystery would have to remain so. We tried all the ways we knew and we were done. We had some marks on a map of where we had been. We had photos of our perplexed faces. We had stories to tell. We had each other, and lemonade. And that was enough.
I thought of that summers day on the day I had truly had enough. I had gone round 7 times 7. I had tried all the doors, walked all the lonely tunnels, felt baffled, lost and confused. I was stuck in a rabbit hole and it was stifling. There was no dancing and no lemonade. I birthed my way out, my mind, soul and body all in agreement – we would not be going round again.
Image by Myriams-Fotos /
What takes up space in our homes? In our lives? In our time? How do we know when we have run out of space? Or when a little space makes itself known?
From time to time I run out of space and I only realise when a little has been clawed back, when I catch myself singing out loud. I know then that my soul is a little freer than it was before. But is a warning sign too, because I have missed myself singing. Not that I can sing well at all, but that I am horrified that I allowed so much be be squeezed out that I forgot to find time or space to sing.
One way round this is to make sure there is a kind of shrine to music in my home, like a keyboard or a radio, or playlists. This shrine is joined by a few others. Pointers to what is valued most of all. Shrines to house plants and nature. Shrines to art and crafting. Shrines to play. Shrines to books and reading and the imagination. Shrines to comfort and warmth and fire. Shrines to pets and their fun, companionship and care. Shrines to sleep and rest. Shrines to food and creating and sharing. There have been times too when there have been shrines to nappies and blenders and tupperware. Now replaced with shrines to bikes and muddy boots and odd socks and scraps of important but discarded paper.
There are times when I neglect my shrines. I walk past them, I assume they will always be there. This is why I have chosen forgiving house plants. They recover well. We are built for recovery too. Like one of the orchid plants I stripped bare, leaving just a derelict, abandoned twig. I’d been told though to put it with some friends, with 3 other orchid plants in various stages of bloom. So I obeyed and there it stayed on the windowsill in the kitchen, absolutely barren for months, till one day I flicked on the kettle and through my bleary morning eyes I saw it – a tiny leaf. ‘It lives!’. It had been living all along of course, even when it hadn’t looked like it. But I watered and fed it anyway. I let air in through the window anyway. I placed it in the light anyway. I gave it friends. And that morning it gave back to me, a tiny leaf. A shrine to the living. To keep me steady. To remind me that the earth keeps turning. That we are here to nourish each other, to give and receive life, over and over. To be fed and watered and to feed and water. To breath in and out. To hold each other up to the light. To rejoice when we come into bloom.
The view from two inches off the earths’ surface
Eye level now with the determined grass
It’s sweet smell like life eternal
I lay face down
Even as the dusk comes
And the earth grows damp
I let it soak in
The ground is softer than I remember
The blades more gentle
As I rest my face
Against her sweet caress
My own heart beat
Against her chest
If I were to map my footprints they would be in lines drawn thick with repetition my commute to and fro the direction of travel always up down left right straight along back again Daily paths predictable rigid angular I see kids and how they map their day how they travel the world as they run, walk, skip, spangle, jump, hop, throw themselves around with gusto and abandon. Greeting any space without map, without plan no preconceived ideas of 'here first, then there' no list Seeing just trees to dart round boulders to ascend bushes to ambush Their daily lines all smudgy and zigzagged snaking and twirly wildly arranged no pattern except light-hearted dots and dashes demarking their criss-crossed freedom paths.
It is a wonderful thing, to know your place in the world and to fully inhabit it. Very good things stem from taking up your space. I’ve put together some of the people and places who do this so well on my ‘inspired by’ page. To this I must add, Olympians…
In the Olympics this year, and I write this as the Paralympics just has started (so there will no doubt be more to follow), we glimpse from our living rooms the wonder and complexity of humanity. We are witness to triumphs and disasters. Some athletes faced both across the competition. Some athletes had known triumph before but met with disaster now, others had the opposite experience. And faced again the challenge of poet Rudyard Kipling
If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the sameKipling ‘If’
All of these athletes had worked hard to be there, or they would not have got to such a formidable world stage. However most remarkable was how each athlete met with these experiences for themselves and for their team mates. There was enormous power in their encounter. There was no hiding. Their true character came through, and for better or worse, we saw their true colours. Sport is like this, as is art, as is music, and theatre, throwing spotlights on the human condition.
And watching this brought to mind a kind of mantra to add to the treasure trove.
‘What stops you living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the story of an immense pregnancy?’
By Rainer Maria Rilke in his book ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ these lines are contained within a greater paragraph
‘Why not think, rather, that He is the one who is coming, moving toward us from all Eternity, the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What stops you from projecting God’s birth into times to come and from living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the story of an immense pregnancy?… as bees gather honey so do we reap the sweetness from everything and so build God’
Exactly this. ‘What stops you living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the story of an immense pregnancy?’
There are as many responses to that as there are minds that read those words. What stops us?
At the same time no answers come easily because perhaps the question is supposed to be lived.
Nevertheless mindsets prevent this, like thinking too much, or too little of ourselves. Either mindset stops us living our painful and beautiful days by distracting us with either grandiose ideas of ourselves, or belittling ourselves entirely. Ends of a spectrum that are so compelling in how polarising they are and disproportionate in how they come to be valued above and beyond most other human experiences. Misplaced value, for are any of us really entirely defined by hitting or missing a home run?
Of course not. No one ever makes just a singular contribution to the world.
Like they say in the film Cool Runnings ‘if you are not enough without a gold medal, you will never be enough with it’.
The pain and the beauty are held together. As poet Mary Oliver writes, ‘
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
Singer songwriter Pink sings about this too, ‘All I know so far’
I wish someone would have told me that this darkness comes and goes
People will pretend but baby girl, nobody knows
And even I can't teach you how to fly
But I can show you how to live like your life is on the line
You throw your head back, and you spit in the wind
Let the walls crack, 'cause it lets the light in
Let 'em drag you through hell
They can't tell you to change who you are
That's all I know so far
And when the storm's out, you run in the rain
Put your sword down, dive right into the pain
Stay unfiltered and loud, you'll be proud of that skin full of scars
That's all I know so far
‘you’ll be proud of that skin full of scars’. When I first heard the song I mis-heard this line, I thought she sang ‘you’ll be proud of that skin full of stars’, which could be equally true. Skin that will run out and feel the pouring rain, (as my friend will tell you is one of my favourite things), so we know we are alive. Rain and stars and scars that let us know we are part of something much much greater, an immense pregnancy which we cannot see. All that is asked of us is to turn up, live the questions and know our place as full inhabitants of the painful and beautiful day gifted to us.
I could do with some help. I am not good at making things. But I need to make a kite. You see some time ago now words were written and things said that caused me great pain. And I have not known what to do with them and so they sit in a box in the loft. I even bothered to pack them when I moved house 10 months ago instead of throwing them in the bin. I was scared to let them go. No matter that many had come to my aid and defence, I still held them against myself.
I was speaking with a wonderful woman a few weeks ago about these pages and I considered burning them, but that felt too destructive. And then I suddenly I remembered a beautiful scene in the film The Personal History of David Copperfield. There is a character who is troubled by thoughts, images and words about the beheading of King Charles. He spends endless days in a darkened room with tormented thoughts which torture him, scribbling and sketching, surrounded by growing mounds of paper. Until one day the young David Copperfield comes bursting through the door and implores him ‘we can release them, we can cast them to the wind’. And they gather the reems of sketches and words and form them into a kite and charge out of the house into the open field and fly this kite together. The man in amazement exclaiming, ‘The sky is absorbing my words, the higher the words go, the clearer my mind becomes….This is a remarkable day’. His friend David Copperfield watches him saying,’it’s a delight to see you so liberated’ for this liberation gives room for him to remember other gifts he has.
Having remembered this moment I have promised myself I will take down my pages and create a kite. So I need an open field, and the company of a good friend. We will need the wind too, for this wise woman I was talking to asked me where God would be? Without hesitation I replied ‘in the wind’. None of us are flying anywhere without the wind. Divine breath always waiting for us to put our kites to the great expansive sky that has room for our speck of a kite.
And each other of course to help re-make and create our kites and launch them for each other. To watch and run and laugh and wonder together as they dance in the wind.
Resolution, reconciliation and redemption. No matter what I know about these 3 R’s on this day, there will be more to say about them tomorrow. As with most matters, this can only be all I know so far, such is the beauty of time and life – that we may change our minds.
What has helped me come to terms with the 3 R’s has been the website/podcast/app ‘On Being’. I commend it wholeheartedly to you. The references of poet Rilke come from the episode ‘What a world you’ve got inside you’, with Joanna Macy and Anita Burrows, hosted by Krista Tippett. https://onbeing.org/programs/joanna-macy-and-anita-barrows-what-a-world-youve-got-inside-you/
I have spent much of my life seeking resolution. From time to time a matter will resolve. In a ‘this too will pass’ kind of way. But much is left unresolved, so I try and hear Rilke when he says ‘try to have patience with all that is unresolved within your heart and try to love the questions themselves’. Like my friends husband, a fell running addict, devoted member of mountain rescue, who fell 30 metres in April 2020 during a climbing accident. Who spent 8 months with a cage encasing his leg, just an observer of those mountains he loves. But nonetheless alive. He was and is resolutely living with the questions. He takes the approach not of ‘man versus mountain’, but ‘man loves mountain’. As soon as was possible, and for most of us, before what would be advisable, he was up that mountain – cage and all. Not conquering it, but thanking the mountain that held him up and allowed him to climb so high. The earth rising beneath his feet, taking him to where only birds get to soar. My friend reconciled herself too, to months of washing his wounds and bearing housebound grumps, and their young daughters’ care and the financial impact of all this at the start of a pandemic. The future looking different now. She had no choice but to succumb to how this changes that. Rarely does resolution take the form we seek.
Which brings us to reconciliation. It can be hard to reconcile this with that, with a past experience to the hand that is being offered to you. To reconcile, that belief with, this living reality. Reconciliation is capable and robust though in its’ handling of questioning and doubt and can inhabit acres of time.
That said we have to reconcile with what is in front of us right now. For me this means I have to reconcile to living with the tattered tangled mess of past friendships that got lost along the way. And to reconcile that some of the very best people I have known, with whom I spent many many wonderful days now are separated by great distance of one kind or other. How I wish they still were round corner from my home, study or work. We support each other in different ways now. What we were for each other then, we cannot be for each other right now. Instead of mourning I hold out gratitude, deep and endless thanks that against all the odds of two strangers meeting and becoming friends, we got to share some of this life together. They are still my lucky numbers.
And for those relationships which are broken. Maybe Rilke is right, that we are ‘two solitudes that protect, border and greet each other’. Maybe this is as close as we can get – to greet each other at our borders. We do not need to occupy one anothers’ lands. Up until now I have found that most folks, most of the time, when the chips are down, are open to reconciliation. They protect what they need to protect but are ready to come to their border and greet their fellow human.
Back to my friends husband. Oh, for all those actions and words and times we would change. None of us ever meant to fall so fast or so hard. None of us intended to break. Redemption is why perhaps we so often look to a higher power – to do that which is beyond ourselves. To remind us that no matter where we find ourselves, the good earth and our higher power whispers to our souls ‘there is a place for you, with me, here’. And with such a welcome acceptance we can move towards healing. Redemption is an action. Like how I read and write to heal my own soul. Like how 14 months after his accident my friends husband was there by the side of a 999 call to mountain rescue, carrying a fellow fallen human down the mountain to safety. If your soul needs soothing, I offer words. If you are ever stuck on a mountainside he will come for you. Or my friend herself, for she is also a mountaineer rescuer, ready to bring you safely home.
Redemption is an olive branch. Redemption is in recognising the olive branch, is in tracing its contours and wondering how it is possible you have been offered this olive branch at all. It is in seeing the hand which holds it out to you. Redemption is in accepting it rather than turning away. Redemption is carrying it within you as a reminder for those self-doubting and self-loathing moments. Redemption is planting olive branches deep within our souls, allowing them to take root and nourish us from the inside out.
I carry within me two olive branches
one to keep and one to give away
both growing towards the light
that is forgiveness
Not my idea of course. Someday, some time, long ago, some folk gathered the 3 P’s together as landmarks of life, or at least what was life-giving to them. And so were established three pillars of Celtic spirituality. Poetry. Pilgrimage. Presence. I tie my flag to these.
I am pretty sure we find these all around us today. Poetry comes to us in lyrics to songs which we play over and over. Pilgrimage comes in the stories, books, TV documentaries, which inspire us to make our own journeys from here to over there. Even if we don’t know where this will actually take us and what companions we may come across on the way. Presence is something we didn’t take seriously. Then the pandemic took it away. Then gave it back again. So we know better now how to make ourselves actually available to each other.
I am and will always be jealous of those who can draw, or make music, or dance (I mean really dance). These ones have a short-cut to the Divine and to humanity as a whole for they can speak without words. Nevertheless, although it does rely on words and spaces in between words, poetry is a craft, an art form which is why for me it sits contentedly alongside spirituality. Like a portal to some kind of mystical space where truths are told and only what really matters stands up to inspection. Even if it is kind of daft, because it is also true that being funny and laughing raise our spirits and that humour can take the sting out of a great many things.
A poem can speak to something you didn’t know how to say. Sometimes even saying something you did not know needed saying but somehow it resonates and calls out a deep ‘yes’ in you. Finding poems like that are like gathering treasure, to take out and look at as time and need arises. Like some return to liturgy, I return to poems. A sacred gift to which I bow and humbly thank both the author and the hidden source from which they came.
As you walk you are changed, as you travel from here to there, there are other shifts that take place. Some small, some seismic. There are some paths we take and we will never be the same again.
There are times when you absolutely want to give up. This is where the act of walking is powerful in and of itself. Because shoes and souls both get worn down, because both our legs and our hearts sometimes ache. All of me goes into this journey, all of me feels it. And what is life if not some crooked magnificent pilgrimage in the end, to the end, where all things end, because in the end the only thing which is guaranteed is safe arrival.
Being present has something to do with first giving yourself permission to take up space. To be brave enough to inhabit our place in the world and in doing so being expansive enough to welcome room for others. Presence is some kind of emotional hospitality which says ‘all welcome’ – you don’t even have to wipe your feet. Presence – where people make a place sacred by being in it. Because there will be worse days and worser days . There will be roses and there will be thorns. Someone’s hands have to hold both of these. The only thing which makes this possible is that someone else is by their side.
So as you travel and make your pilgrimage may you find poems to tuck in your pocket to cheer you on and may you know the presence of others to smell your roses and bind up your wounds.
Even at the end of a long road, even when I have reached a landmark I am always still hesitant about celebrating. This may be to do with my history of having celebrations sabotaged in some way. But I reckon it is more that I am always looking for the three R’s. For resolution, for reconciliation, for redemption. I find these somewhat elusive. But I lean in towards them nonetheless.
Just recently the three R’s came to me unexpectedly. On a week when I was just trying to get through, in a year when we had not had a sunny May and I had driven to and fro from work in the rain. I popped on my favourite podcast. On Being produce one called Poetry Unbound by Padraig O’Tuama. He read a poem by Li -Young Lee called ‘From Blossoms’. I absolutely cannot read it more beautifully than him so I link to the piece here.
I listened to this on repeat all week. Then at the end, when my work was done, I gathered what steps I had taken for myself, for others and for the earth towards resolution, reconciliation and redemption (and go on then, a little celebration too) and acted. I acted towards myself, I took seriously the biblical words, ‘may your gentleness be evident to all’ – including myself. It was (finally) a sunny May day and I walked myself round the corner to our local line of shops. One had just opened selling Afro Caribbean goods. It was my best bet for fresh peaches. As I walked up I saw the lights on but the sign on the door saying ‘closed’. The opening hours are printed stating it should be open and in the window a single punnet of peaches. I peered in and knocked at the window. The owner jumped up and let me in, he had forgotten to turn the sign. His wife will be cross with him he said. We chatted, I bought the peaches in the window. I took them home, all ripe and beautiful and sat on the grass, next to budding tree and daisies. Eating what was now my peach and listened again to the poem ‘From Blossoms’. It took my breath away. Again. As I played it to myself, this time with a peach of my own. My way today of ‘turning toward signs painted Peaches’.
Resolution, reconciliation and redemption are when we ‘find nectar at the roadside’
Words of such meaning they seep through my skin into my very bones.
‘to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days…’
And the reminder that no matter what our losses are, no matter how much our job means we have to live alongside death of one kind or another. Li-Young Lee reminds us that from blossom comes this promise;
‘There are days we live, as if death were nowhere in the background’
Because the world also grows blossoms and also grows peaches and there are out there some moments of joy to elevate us, for the time it takes to eat a peach, and perhaps…beyond.