Resilient vulnerability

I’ve had this phrase ‘resilient vulnerability’ rattling around in my head for a while now – what does it mean, to develop resilience when we live with limitations, weaknesses, and are ‘vulnerable’?

To be resilient has a sense of some sort of strength about it, bouncing back or perseverance maybe. To be resilient is to keep going, surviving, finding a way. Learning – there definitely feels like there’s an aspect to it of progression, and developing. (I want to say ‘getting better’, but that feels too much of a linear value judgement.) It is not necessarily robustness, which is a quality of sturdiness and solidity. Resilience feels more fluid and adaptable and also more open, more encompassing of emotion and experience.

So what does this mean when combined with vulnerability? Well, vulnerability means openness, not closing off, letting things in for good or bad. To be vulnerable, is to be fully human and to risk all sorts of things to take all sorts of risks. Resilient vulnerability, I think, means an openness to fully accepting our whole spectrum of emotions, patterns and weak points. It means to know our human frailty at a deep level, and to know also that that is where much beauty lies. And to then work within ourselves as well as outwardly to build our own framework of comfort and protection, or physical and emotional regulation, if you like. Resilient vulnerability means to go through the world acutely aware of our pain while also knowing clearly what we need to help us. It means learning to ask for help. It means learning to trust ourselves and our bodies and psyches. It means committing to sustainability, both out in the world and in terms of how we live. Seeking balance.

Resilient vulnerability means that we have a map to remind us of where we’ve been, show us where we are and indicate the way forward. It means having a network of some sort to hold us. It means radical honesty, with ourselves, as well as with that network. It means being prepared to face our traumatic patterns and find ways to change them, acknowledging that we can’t do that alone and that trauma is also collective and sits in a systemic context – and also accepting that there are no complete cures, no magic solutions. It means treading a path of living strongly with our deepest selves. Resilient vulnerability is finding our power, even when we feel weak. It’s about recognising that we may wield a different type of power to the mainstream world.

Resilient vulnerability means recognising that vulnerability is what enables connection, growth and change – and that vulnerability needs holding and safety around it to anchor us and stop us from being overwhelmed.

Baba Yaga and the quilt of memories

A story for you to start the new year…the weight of memories we carry can feel heavy sometimes, especially memories of difficult things, but perhaps there is some help available…

I walk slowly into the forest. Feeling the sounds and smells, the crunch of the snow, rustle of the branches, drip of meltwater and pungent leaf scent. What my eyes are fixed on is the house, indescribable as ever. Somehow both new and unfamiliar – and just as it is in the stories. More sombre perhaps, and yet with an air of joy somewhere.

I sit in the house with her. At some point, I forget when, she takes from an old carved dark wood box needles and embroidery threads. She chooses fabric from a pile in an ancient creaking cupboard.

“Tell me,” she says. “Tell me it all.”

And I tell her. All the memories that come flooding in; the stuff of years, washing through, deep griefs, joys, happenings, experiences. If I can’t describe something, I just name it briefly, and she knows what I mean. She takes these memories and hears them, listens deeply, her eyes burning with fierce love and attention. And as she hears and listens, she’s stitching. She stitches the memories in beautiful rich colours and scraps of fabric, making a quilt – my quilt. The colours of the threads change as I look and as she sews; from gold to silver to red to green to blue.

So I sit and tell her the things, and she nods and stitches another panel into the quilt, and I sit with the fire warmth and crackle and the darkness, and float with my body until another memory bubbles to the surface.

“Oh, and also I remember when…”

And she looks at me again with those eyes, burning with fierce compassion and utter presence. She listens and she hears and her deep loving hearing melts something. I feel myself open up and fall into that total attention. And then she picks up the needle in the fabric and starts to stitch again. When finally no more memories are coming for the moment I sit, curled in the great rocking chair, wrapped in a blanket gazing at the fire, and I feel empty and peaceful. She finishes the last finishing stitch, bites off the thread, puts the needle away and sits back with a sigh. “There. It’s done.”

And there is my quilt. I can’t ever say how big it is. I expect when she holds it up that it would be a normal single bed size enough to wrap around you or snuggle under, but somehow I can’t quite get perspective when I look at it as she holds it up and shakes it out. It could be the size of a handkerchief or it could be the size of a planet.

It shifts, and moves. There it is, in Baba Yaga’s hands. I can feel the lightness in me and see the colours in the quilt that come from all the weight being held by her. There is silence still, and then she stands slowly and moves across the room to drape the quilt over an old wooden bench that stretches along one wall, to join an assortment of other quilts, blankets, cushions and shawls covering the bench…the bench, which seems suddenly to stretch and expand, lengthening mistily. She notices me looking at the other blankets and quilts. And with a half-smile, but fierce eyes, she stops the question rising to my lips.

“Come,” she says, and takes my hand to lead me to the door and for a long moment we stand together. I feel my body’s reluctance to leave – my desire to turn towards the warmth and depth and curl into it forever.

“It is not your time,” she says softly. “These things are safe here. You are known here. Remember that.”

And so I walk out and back down the forest path, without looking back because somehow I know that the house will no longer be there. I am halfway home when I reach into my pocket belatedly wanting gloves, and find the threads. Five lengths of embroidery silk, gold, silver, red, green, and blue. I raise the little bundle to my face and I can smell the woodsmoke scent.

Saturday, 9th May, 8am

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I went out into the garden this morning

To sit on the grass and breathe the soft, sweet, heavy scent of early summer

And watch the starlings landing on the gutter to feed their babies

In the quietness that folds around before the day really begins.

 

I want to inhale

the wood pigeons call,

The first bus of the day going past while a bumblebee hums behind me

The wild garlic and Welsh poppies, and the honeysuckle twining itself around my fear,

The stillness that suggests infinite and impossible possibilities.

 

I want to bottle this and give it to my daughters,

So that in some future time of desperation

They can open the bottle and these things will come tumbling out:

 

The way the wooden fence sighs and shifts in the warmth, while they sleep on, indoors;

The way the geraniums are perfect pale pink against their leaves;

The way each leaf on my tiny rowan seedling is as clearly defined as if someone had sketched it in the air with a pencil;

The way the sparrows fill me with utter joy,

Because I thought they were gone

And yet here they are, prancing on my windowsill

As if they didn’t care about their own extinction.

 

And at the bottom of the bottle, I’ll put a note.

Forgive me my longing for, my dependance on this world-

– it is the only one I’ve ever really known.

Holding on during turbulence

 

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How do we hold such conflicting emotions? Sorrow and grief at the rising high death toll. Anger at inadequate responses and the inequality in our society which brings more suffering. Shame and guilt maybe. Stress or overwhelm triggered by the intensity or busyness of life and all we have to deal with. And, maybe extra peace and tranquility. Enjoyment of the quiet and lack of doing. Gladness at the resurgence of nature. Encouragement at the community resourcefulness and compassion of others. Hope?

This little hazel came home with me from Waterloo Bridge last April, after a tree ceremony I took part in as part of the Extinction Rebellion uprising. Tree of wisdom and magic and the bards, I planted it in front of my house in the autumn, the week after it lost its last leaf –  and it has burst back into leaf enthusiastically in the last few weeks.

Hazel, teach me how to pace myself

Last April, a bit like this one, was a mixing-bowl of states. The exhilaration and inspiration, grief, anger, hope, going through a very difficult situation in the background, an ending, a beginning.

My tendency is to question and reason and try and make sense. And, I know that the only way through this turbulence and the only way to hold such extremes of contrast, good and bad, light and dark, is through anchoring in my breath and body and looking to nature. When the anxiety rises, when I’m in pain, when I stare at a screen too long, when the hope surges suddenly, when I feel content and satisfied and then guilty…Hold on, hold on.

Hazel, teach me how to hold on

The hazel has put down its roots and with the support and sustenance of the soil and water, is just following its natural cycle. Nature keeping on keeping on. Unhurried, untroubled, yet in tune.

Hazel, teach me how to keep being

******

(How blessed, to live where I do and have the holding of nature so accessible.)

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Mindful Photography: Hands – a story

We say it’s the life line, the crease and fold of skin…our hands can tell the story of where we have been, what we have done – a series of self-portraits, an embodied autobiography.

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“These are hands that write..” you said, as our intertwined fingers danced and stroked, enacting a life of their own on the table in front of us.

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These are hands that have created, nurtured, cradled life – found strong sensitivity to comfort and hold. These are hands that have been grasped by smaller, trusting ones, and now long to keep hold as those hands move away…

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These are hands that have played notes on strings, turned pages, with delicate touch opened up and reached out, stroked and explored, clasped others’ hands strongly.

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These are hands that have grasped, hung on doggedly, survived, without noticing what else was hanging on too

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These are hands that know anger, and power, and strength – that have found their limits and boundaries. And hands that have pushed away.

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These are hands that have planted and dug, sinking in to connection with Earth, drawing in the elements, invoking the Goddess of land and soil. Hands that have lit fire, cleaved through water, danced in the air.

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These, my hands, the story of me. An edge where I meet the world. I bless my hands, these easily-overlooked records of my existence.

 

Lots of photos in this post, which is inspired by working with Look Again and practising Mindful Photography – a gentle and profound journey of looking slowly and in detail at the world, of focusing in and taking time to respond to things I might normally look past..

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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