We protect what we love

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And then suddenly, the creamy bulk of the cathedral falling back, we are by the river. The tide is high and as ever on this particular journey, I gasp inwardly at the play of light on water, wavelets pushing together as sea and river mingle. Across the other side, in the distance, a familiar silhouette; tracing the ridge with its tree-topping my eyes find the old break in the wood, followed by a stretch of open hill. How many times have I seen that marker of home, and how many times in my life have I stood over there on that flat hill-top, with the skylarks and rough grasses and orchids, and looked out over the river to here?

Something in me lurches with tender joy as I realise how I know this landscape. All my life these have held me; the hills at my back, east and north, the river to the west, snaking and encircling.

Along next to the train track there are small beech trees with last year’s leaves still clinging on. I love this land and what it has embedded in me since childhood – how much it has nurtured me, grown me. As the Earth does. I don’t know what to do, in the face of potential environmental collapse; but I know it starts with deep connection to myself, my body and to the land, with spiritual practice and ritual and re-learning skills of plant medicine and tree wisdom and seasons and animals. With grounding, speaking truth – and love.

For now I am going West, to the sea that calls me; skirting the purple-brown mountains in my father’s land, turning from the river Goddess until She claims me again on an ocean shore, with her embrace of wild power and nourishment. I will return..

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“I picked the primroses a hundred yards from the firing trench..”

For years now, I have had in my possession a box with rolled up family trees, copies of sepia photographs and postcards, my great-grandfather’s pince-nez spectacles, copious notes in my father’s handwriting – and letters. Photocopies of letters, many of them, which I have started to transcribe as the writing is often almost illegible.

My Welsh great-grandfather fought in the trenches during 1915, received a head wound and was invalided home. Over the next nearly three decades this would slowly paralyse and kill him. Very few of my family on my father’s side are still alive, but apparently a fragment of my great-grandfather’s skull still exists somewhere, kept by his eldest grandchild, himself now an old man. My great-grandfather wrote several letters from the trenches to his wife, and many more from the various hospitals he spent time in around the UK. They are full of reflections on the people he meets, his religious faith and preoccupation with that, and his sheer relief and gratitude at being alive. The sentence that always floors me, however, is the one that I have used as the title for this piece. The primroses themselves are long gone; what remains is the juxtaposition of the horror of the ‘rather hot’ day, so briefly mentioned, when he was hit, with the tender inclusion of flowers, picked in a blasted landscape of destruction and sent home to the wife and children, the youngest of whom he hadn’t yet met.

I never knew my great-grandfather but my great-grandmother, who brought up my father as her own, lived into her nineties and held me as a toddler on her lap. Mother of 8, family matriarch, she emigrated to America and back again in the 1900s as well as negotiating pit disasters as a miner’s daughter and wife. My sister and I are named after her and I’d like to think something of her lives on in me. While her husband fought in the mud, she carried her babies ‘Welsh fashion’ tucked in a shawl, and crocheted around them, fine lace edgings for tablecloths.

Remembering is complex. My mother and her family, German, lived through the same world wars but from a rather different perspective. Here, what comes filtering down to me is trauma and horror; my grandparents trying in vain to flee a conquering, occupying army in 1945 – the close misses of the bombs – the brutal stories of that night when the town fell – the days spent with no home, no food and a toddler and very young baby, unsure if any of them would be there the next day, unsure if a desperate request to a soldier for milk would be met with kindness or violence. And then afterwards, the years of guilt and silence, the unspeakable memories and knowledge.

There are so many with similar stories, so many with far, far worse stories.

I don’t think it’s surprising that traces of this still swim in my nervous system. That I project my family’s past terrors into the future and superimpose them on to the world that might be coming. I read about climate collapse and I see visions of an apocalyptic scenario that my children might face. Brutality and horror, society descending into chaos just as it once did around my family.

How do I step back from the brink in my head, without minimising the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in? How do I find the primroses in the wasteland of my imagination?

To remember is to know the loss and the pain. To remember, surely, surely, is to realise that this has to stop? To remember war should only be to ensure that wars do not happen any more. The ‘war to end all wars’ clearly didn’t. And our world faces ongoing human-made destruction through conflicts and environmental damage.

To remember has to begin to imply change – and to find the threads that can be allowed to continue unbroken; the strength, courage and persistence of our ancestors, the acts of kindness, the love. To know that our ancestors would wish for us to be free and safe, to not have to endure what they did, to do it differently.

I know that my intergenerational trauma has to stop with me. I am the break in the line, I am where it gets processed and healed – I bear the cost of that. Every scar and wound I carry is testament to the sacrifice of my healing.

I know that the parenting I have undertaken is radical – to raise my girls differently, outside of ‘the system’, to enable them to question, to know themselves, their integrity, to think, to empathise. To be consciously present to and with them and their feelings in a way unknown previously in my family. To contain my body’s remembering of memories that are not mine. To equip them with resilience for whatever they may face. This is my act of remembrance – remembrance for change. This is my activism. This is my hope.

This morning I marched with other families to raise awareness of climate change emergency. The adults encircled the children and sang “we hold you in our circle, in our love”. This is our call especially as parents; in the face of hopelessness, consciously choosing hopeful love. Hope as a behaviour, not an emotion.

And our ancestors stand behind us in this – we are their hope and dream. From the fire of their lives we came; we are the charcoal – rich, dark, crumbly treasure.

And our children? They are the feathers of the phoenix, rising from the ashes into something new, strong, beautiful and unimaginable.

One of my great-grandfather’s letters, from a hospital on the coast, recounts how he stood on the beach; “the waves come in like great white maned horses and I was glad to be alive this morning to see and enjoy it all”. Here I start, here I stand; in gratitude for those who went before, in gratitude for my life and in gratitude for this beautiful, threatened world. Gratitude mingles with pain to become the thread of remembrance stretching forward towards transformation; the flowers in the wasteland.

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Courage or hope?

“Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending”

Dr Kate Marvel

 

In such a time as this

What words can I call up?

What images haunt my dreams and footsteps

The shadows of the past and of the future

Manifest in our present.

 

In such a time as this

When hope seems dull indeed

What thoughts can I offer?

Nothing of any originality or merit

Or that brings comfort.

 

In such a time as this

Can I break bread

And without any expectation of success

Hold my hands out

To those around me.

 

In such a time, there is nothing left

Other than to be here and open and let the fire burn.

 

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On grief

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Dr Earl A. Grollman

We don’t know what to do with grief. It’s like an old cupboard, possibly inherited from some distant aunt, that stands in a corner of the upstairs landing – when we pass it occasionally we try to remember what’s stored inside, but the door is fiddly to open and what if the moths have got in? Better to leave it and carry on around it…yet it is there, a shadow at the back of our minds even in the brightly lit room.

So better to meet it, then, to fling open the cupboard and let the half-forgotten contents roll all over the floor.

Sometimes, when I walk on the land, the grief rises. Often, when I read the news, the grief rises. When I sit still and quieten for a moment, and the sun slants at a particular angle, the grief rises and buffets the side of my head, taking my breath away. All I can do in these moments is close my eyes and breathe.

So much to grieve and it feels so familiar.

Grief is the flipside of love. To love is to grieve, to open to pain. When we let ourselves love someone, we know there will be grief to come. When we acknowledge the beauty of the world, and the prognosis for our planet, the grief rises chokingly, like panic.

Grief is a journey – the cliche is true. There is no standardised map; inside each of us is the beginning of a path forward and we can not see the twists and turns, the blindsides, the valleys and rocks. Good thing we can’t – we probably would find ourselves huddling in a cave, afraid to even start. And yet, we would miss the mountain panoramas, the star-studded skies, the river torrent. And the stinking bog with tiny precious flowers blooming.

Grief is intense; it can course through your veins, bringing energy and a restlessness. It can, inexplicably, feel like joy.

Grief is mundane; a dull ache, a background dragging weariness, a tint of grey over the world.

If depression is a black dog, grief is a terrier nipping at our heels, a collie herding us this way not that. It will not leave us alone.

Grief is like a coat. We can temporarily lay it aside, hang it up in the hall while we skip through into the kitchen, to create, cook, consume. But it hangs there, and in the dim light at dusk when we pass through holding our last cup of tea, the coat is there, its rumpled shape our shape. When we go out, it is what we fold around ourselves, between us and the cruel world.

And yet, with these inadequate descriptions, do not think for a moment that grief is or renders us weak or powerless or self-absorbed. Grief is tiger-strong. Grief floors us, reshapes us – and then spits us out and up onto our feet again – as long as we allow it to be, to flow, to have space. Grief can shout, grief can know righteous anger, grief can march on the oppressors like an irresistible flood. Grief shines a light on dark places.

Grief is a dance. We may have forgotten it, we may well never have learnt it, but it is there somewhere, in our body memory. And as we tread the steps, we weave around our dance partners and companions, sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes meeting a hand, an encircling arm.

Grief is creative. Strange, that something which howls at us out of loss has the power to make new, to unstop the ink or the paint, to chart new lands. As the sea slowly reshapes the shore, so the salty grief tears sculpt us anew.

Grief takes us by the hand and whispers softly “Come. Come with me. This is what you are here for.”

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The peace of the trees

I love Wendell Berry’s poem ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ and have often drawn comfort from it. I was reciting it in my head while stomping through the woods yesterday. Then these words came too…

Here where the snow lay

Is now wind-whistled dry grass;

The big river lies inert, holding the landscape.

I remember how yesterday I went into the woods

And felt the chestnut tree curve around me

The peace of the trees slowly washing my skin.

When the rumours of despair whip around my ears

And at every turn the emergency alarms bleep and wail

I go and lie down among the trees.

I share with them the grief – they have touched it before and will do so again.

They are not like us. They understand.

For a moment, it all stills. A bird sings. The clouds pass overhead; taking with them profound sorrow and utter joy in their billowing folds.

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Song of rage and compassion – a true fairytale

Something a little bit different today…

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Once there was a girl who cut off her shadow

with a pair of dressmaking scissors

– the really sharp ones –

because she believed them when they said

she should calm down

And after she had bitten holes in a sheet

in desperate paroxysms of silent anger

and learned to swallow even though swallowing meant that

her insides melted coldly, breathlessly, and she felt as if she was dying and her stomach was falling out –

then she perfected her patience and her smile

until the smile became a reflex

and later on, every time she talked about the bad things that had happened

the hammer hit the reflex

and she smiled.

And the shadow, scrunched up small, stayed in the back of the drawer

And instead of a shadow she sewed a shade of shame on to her feet

hole by painful hole

and it dragged behind her.

Once there was a woman who had forgotten how to be angry and could only rage

Once there was a woman who dreamed of getting angry.

She hit and punched and kicked and screamed and murdered in her sleep.

The rage came rising, a toxic river of sludge, leaking out over those she loved, as though bonding her to them through a sticky mess of glue

And so she went in to the forest and slept.

And her hair became matted, and her limbs wasted and crooked.

Once there was a woman who woke up.

Her waking, when it came,

A place of safety, being held and seen

As the creatures of the forest surrounded her with soft claws

And spoke the magic spells which broke the curse

You are whole

You are worthy

We are not scared of you

You belong here

You are loved

She learnt that smiles deserve gladness

That connection requires openness and boundaries

That tears need a channel to carry them away to the sea, lest they cause a flood.

She saw her scars as a map of her escape route to freedom

She discovered the delight of small things.

Once there was a woman who woke up.

Her waking, as it strengthened, was the shift out of the swamp into the free-flowing water

As she found that it is impossible to swim easily with shame sewn to your heels

And she let the nibbling fish chew the threads and agonisingly, slowly, unpick the shade that she dragged behind her.

And when she stood, naked in her body, on the shore in the hot sun, she looked behind her and saw the bold, clear shadow stretching on the grass

Dancing when she danced, still when she was still

Holding the anger and the joy and the sorrow and the gratitude

As she finally learnt to let go,

to uncurl her clinging fingers

and let herself be taken by the currents of her own wildness, compassion and strength.

 

Mindful Photography – Trees

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“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
~ Hermann Hesse

I am held by trees here. When I lie back on the grass they tower all around, vast, billowing, comforting. Mother’s breast and arms. This one right above, sheltering and shading. I don’t know all their names, I only sense their surrounding, encompassing presence. They frame my view and my thoughts. They are even reflected, clear, different, in the still lake-water. I see the ever-present slight movement in them, coupled with the solidity they transmit. I feel like I could love them, know them deeply. They are beings. They are simply here.

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The importance of spelling

‘each word you write or say has power: that is why it is called spelling!’ (- Annabelle Markwick -Staff)

I find myself playing with words and phrases as if they are delicious pieces of chocolate melting on my tongue. Often, walking in nature or sitting over a pot of tea, words roll around my head, seemingly unconnected.

‘The insatiable sky…’ 

I gather them as I do the shells and pebbles on the beach; slipping them into my pocket with a smile, to find a resting place in a bowl or basket at home, until some purpose for them is discovered.

Until the letters arrange themselves on the page, and the magic begins…

With these strokes, these seemingly arbitrary curves and lines and dots

I can weave a web of lies

tell truths welcome or unwelcome

bless or curse

A minor rearrangement of letters, an ‘h’ or ‘k’ inserted

Makes the difference and turns the path of understanding from this way to that.

Words are dangerous

beautiful

can change the world or hide in dense pages

Sing and rhyme and beat and shout.

Words contain words and worlds, build cities, lands, people.

Wrapping around our tongues and dripping into life

Words shake us out of unspeakable stupor

and cut through skin.

Words that are lost leave gaps in the jigsaw puzzle in which we move and breathe; things that once existed fade away.

So I weave my web of words around me, knowing that what draws me is the wordless connection of image and sounds and embodied wording – the words that flow between even in silence and touch. And my paper bag of pick-n-mix words grows rumpled and sticky in my bag, hoarding treasure…

Petrichor; cafuné; hanyauku;*

Sagacity, luminous, meander.

 

*(English) The smell of damp earth after it has rained; (Braz. Portuguese) the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through the hair of a loved one; (Namibia) walking on one’s toes in warm sand

On holding

I have very much enjoyed David Whyte’s ‘Consolations’ – a series of mini-essays, poetic and beautiful, on the ‘solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words’. Inspired by his musings and exploration of words such as anger, joy, beginning and pilgrim, I am offering this on the different aspects of ‘holding’.

There is a kind of holding that holds on – survival, dogged determination, achievement, adrenaline. What if letting go, surrender, free-fall is the calling on this path; will space open up around me? Holding on got us through, this far. 

‘To have and to hold’ we both said. Better, like Khalil Gibran’s trees, to lean into each other’s shade. What does it mean to have and hold another? We need literal holding – we are designed, it seems, to feel the arms of another around us. Does it always then have this shadow of too much holding, or perhaps worse, dropping? The other slipping through our fingers; the having possessing controlling need.

I don’t want to hold so tightly, to cling, to keep for myself. I crave it, yet I know that what is held too tightly, shatters. I want to hold lightly.

To be held…

Malevolent holding, when another puts chains around your ribs – the visceral memory of being held down; the gestures that innocently evoke – the shrug of turning my collar up to hide the back of my neck. These things need speaking, need freeing from the tissues that hold on to them; to be given to the Earth, vomited into the arms of She who can in her vastness, absorb all and support infinitely.

And yet if that is encoded in my body, so is this: that I sat in my great-grandmother’s lap, cradled, held. My cells are entangled with hers in the response of small child to warm soft female presence. My body remembers being held by her and that can only give me strength.

And healing holding. The smell of skin inhaled, the harbour of another; joy and delight at the silhouette of muscle and bone. This holding brings me deep into my self, into my own holding of my being – grounding, satisfying. It leaves an imprint, this time not a scar but a trace of a treasure that was there.

We hold memories, physically encode them for better or worse. Trauma is held in the body wreaking havoc – and holding the good in our minds can change our brain for the better. Taking a thought, an image, and holding it close, absorbing it, the intricate pathways shift and regroup, leading ultimately towards a lighter place.

To be held in mind by another – cradled in their thinking; knowing that we are known and therefore able to exist fully, to take our space and place, to hold our ground. This is fundamental to being human. 

We talk about holding space with different understandings of what this means, why this is important. We sit with another, our arms defining the space around them; the container for their sorrow, rage or grief.

And so holding becomes another dance of human-ness: moving in close; letting go; gently steadying and supporting, without grasping; watching the back of the toddler turning to teenager as they walk away; holding the frayed end of the thread that trails behind them. Clasping the small and frail hand, surrendering to surrounding arms, putting my own arms around my own body and feeling my edges and raw humanity, cupping my hands to hold the clear watery essence of my life that trickles through and trickles through and can never be kept, only washed over my skin like a blessing.

If I hold this out as an offering, will others receive something through it?