The Importance of Friends

 

I have recently been reflecting on and writing about my experiences during the pandemic – ways in which it pushed me to a sense of being at the edge rather than fully connected and involved with the rest of the world.  I feel sure I was not alone in this as we were all “locked down” and restricted in our interactions with other humans.  Initially, I actually liked it.  I loved the quiet.  I loved not having to do so many things so I could concentrate on writing and being outdoors on my own, something I love.  During 2020 I seemed to keep relatively connected with others online.  But through the whole of 2021 I was ill, first with Covid and then with Long Covid, and was, basically, only interacting with my close family.  This had on-going consequences it has taken me a long time to see, and to then remedy.

It’s taken me so long to see because I have a story about myself that I am basically not very sociable.  The origins of this are found both in my introverted temperament and in the circumstances of my childhood.  Of course, I always knew I needed and wanted to be with others, and experienced intense loneliness for much of that early time.  But the barriers that existed were not all down to external  circumstances.  From quite young, I had stories inside about me being awkward, unable to fit in, never knowing what to say or do in social situations.  Being unsure equated with being unsafe.

I did have some childhood friends, usually only one at a time.  These friends taught me about loss, as all of them disappeared from my life after about a year because they moved, or I moved.  I loved them all, but began to understand that love meant loss – as, indeed, it does.  I determined to keep loving whenever it felt safe enough and possible, despite the inevitable loss, but only began to feel empowered in maintaining friendships as I began to separate from my family when I was 17.  It was then I happened to make a friend who, after 58 years, is still in my life.  That is very special.  Many of the close friends I have made since I still have some contact with.  I know friends are important to me.

But, during the pandemic time, I began to lose any real close contact with friends.  Ato Rinpoche, my first and very lovely Buddhist teacher, said that other people are our mirrors.  We need them to reflect back aspects of ourselves we would not otherwise be aware of.  I know this, but somehow forgot it during the pandemic as I became increasingly isolated.  The only mirrors I had were the people I lived with.  Their views of me, both positive and negative, began to become my view of myself – not their fault, but neither healthy nor enriching.

Once I began to renew my contacts with friends, I became aware again of myself as seen through their eyes.  Initially, I was surprised by how they seemed to regard me, but then I noticed I also began to feel more positive about myself – more kind and generous to myself.  This is something I need to remember, as loss is part of it all.  I have already lost friends to illness and age, and this can only accelerate.  I need to value and stay close to my wonderful friends and also be open to new friends.  This is not optional – it is life saving.

 

Friends

 

I have friends who can hug me so I melt.

I have friends who listen carefully, without judgement,

and share honestly their experiences and insights.

I have friends with fresh ideas that enliven me.

I have friends who love me,

so we can laugh together at our many foibles.

I have friends whose stunning creativity inspires me,

and who generously appreciate my own.

I still have a few friends who have known me so long

they remember my mother and my father

and understand where I came from.

Because of these friends,

I am able to be a friend to myself.

Home in the Unknown

It is now a year since I wrote my first post on the theme of At The Edge.  Last month I presented the poems from this exploration.  I felt that I both experienced and communicated what it was I had been exploring: from the sense of separation and being at the edge during Long Covid, to the aliveness of being at the edge of the woods, to the sense of inevitable change that the edge of the sea brings, to the awareness of the edge between life and death – and finally to the challenges that our world faces at the edge of extinction.  I was asked, “What next?”  My immediate internal response was, “I step beyond the edge.”

There was both fear and desire in this response.  It was so inevitable.  If I am to continue, this is what I must do to stretch my creativity and (as someone recently described it) to grow my imaging heart.  So, in my imagination, I have been sensing what stepping beyond the edge means to me.

I am in a dark and desolate landscape.  The ground seems to be bare, coarse sand, very firm underfoot.  There is a flame in my heart that lights up the space nearby, but beyond this is darkness.  I don’t know where I am.  I don’t know how to proceed here.  I don’t know what will be expected of me here.  Basically, it’s all “I don’t know.” 

I decide to devote, for a while, some time each week to being here and seeing what happens and what I feel.

I am deeply aware that this image is a metaphor for what life is actually like.  I have all that my life experience has taught me – and still I don’t know anything really.  What can guide me?  Can I find a way to feel at home in the unknown?

 

Porous

 

Screaming swifts know the way above.

Dolphins below enjoy connection and freedom.

My porous body breathes air

that is earth, sea, and sky.

When moving beyond the edge

into groundlessness,

angels offer wings.

 

Entanglement

The Edge of Entanglement

Entanglement

The Joy of Entanglement

 

I step into the place at the edge of the woods and climb up into the Ash. I feel my body resting on the limb of the tree – the pressure of it – bones, muscles, squidgy organs, encased in flesh to keep them separate from all this entanglement around me. I close my eyes and listen. Different bird songs weave into a sound tapestry – some human sounds around the edges of this. Air weaves through into me and my cells. Carbon dioxide flows out and into the leaves. It’s a perfect entanglement. I open my eyes to see the trees – colours, shapes, shadows, lines.  Each branch and twig makes a different shape and takes a different route.  There is no replication.  Then I take in the ivy leaves next to me. I notice each leaf is subtly different – unique and entangled.

Unknown to me, my husband, Chris, walks along the path above me – and takes this photo.

I Am Entangled

Blackthorns and Bumblebees

The hedges are covered with the delicate frosting of Blackthorn blossoms.  I love all flowers, but Blackthorn has a special effect on me – a bit like the effect swifts have.  Blackthorn blossom utterly alters the hedges.  Swifts utterly alter the sky.  I feel altered seeing both – opened and raised up.  Blackthorn is an early, and all-too-brief, herald of Spring here, but there is another early herald – the Buff-tailed Bumble Bee.  Both are welcome sights, insouciant of their effect on me in the sense of Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem,”Come Into Animal Presence”.

COME INTO ANIMAL PRESENCE

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

And finally, my own response:

 

Blackthorns and Bumblebees

 

Blackthorns and bumblebees are buzzing and blooming –

vibrations of colour, sound, and smell.

Energy rises from dark, damp earth

through the bones of my feet.

Blackthorns and bumblebees are presenting themselves

to the morning sun.

I am present to this and see them as presents –

gifts to all life around them.

The beauty within blackthorns and bumblebees

shakes my heart awake.

They are not me.  They are blackthorns and bumblebees,

briefly being busy.

Ocean Breathing

Ocean Breathing – a Riddle

 

Storm winds whip water

into giant open mouths

that lick air onto their tongues

and swallow.  Drifting down,

we release our cargo into the ocean

for all that live there.

Sensing land, waves heave high

until they can no longer rise,

then roll into themselves,

breathing out with a sigh.

We sit lightly on the sand

and pop oxygen into the air.

The ocean breathes through us.

We are neither water nor air.

What are we?

(Inspired by the physicist, Helen Czerski, who studies the ocean’s bubbles.)

Glow

Feeling again the blunt edge

of grief remembered,

sensing the sharp edge

of grief yet to come,

I lean against the hard edge

of losses all around.

My body softens –

opens –

spreads out.

I glow

like the sun on the edge of the sea.

Edges on the way – a photo journey

There are some special edges I walk through or past on my way out to the place at the edge of the woods.

This is the edge just before the sycamore grove where a fallen tree has created an environment that small birds love.  I have seen goldcrests, long-tailed tits, wrens, and many others just by standing still here for a while.

Above is the hazel grove that is on my left after I enter the nature reserve.  It’s a wonderful place to fungi gaze in the autumn, and now has catkins.  The dangling catkins have the pollen, but can you spot the tiny female flowers in the photo below?

There is a lot of brambly hedge that grows between the nature reserve and Bowhay Lane, an old green lane that runs along the back of the housing estate.  This hedge is rich in bird and insect life.  Today, a dunnock is singing loudly in the tree at the centre of the photo, while a wren ticks below it.

Now, I am walking along between the hedgeland on the left and the woods on my right.  My entry into the woods is ahead, in the centre of the photo.

Almost at my entrance into the woods.

And here it is.

I climb up on the horizontal trunk and listen.  I notice that the sounds of the birds are beginning to drown out the distant roar of traffic in the city below – definitely a sign of spring.  I gaze at the trunk of the dead ash just downhill from this ash.

And then I see, in front of me on the tree I am sitting in, signs of new life.  This tree is still alive.

Find the place at the edge

Find the Place at the Edge

 

A path is disappearing between paths,

with remains of a wooden step

rotting and sinking into the earth.

 

This place speaks to me.

It says, “Return.”

 

Inside the edge of the woods,

an ash is leaning downhill,

embedded in pungent leaf mould.

 

Below it, a blackbird

skulks in the undergrowth.

 

Find birds by listening,

sensing slight movements

at the peripheries of vision.

 

A hidden place in summer –

now, all is exposed.

 

I am leaning on the friendliness of trees

that offer solitude in companionship,

at the edge –  and immersed.

 

This ash is dying –

others around already dead.

 

More than birds, my presence is fleeting.

What can I offer when everything seems

slowly disappearing downhill?

The Edge of Spring

The dawn is the edge of the day – and it was like this today.

As I walked up the green lane, what first caught my attention was a pair of robins searching in the mud – a pair, not a solitary one.  Throughout the walk, I came across many robin pairs in various places.  A pair of blue tits were flitting and feeding close together among the catkins in a hazel hedge. I heard a great spotted woodpecker lustily drumming down in the woods.  A male great tit shouted its “squeaky gate” song.  Although there was plenty of frost crunching underfoot at the top of the valley, and still many patches of snow on the ground, the silence of only a few days ago is gone.  Here, in the heart of cold winter, spring is edging its way in.

Just a few minutes ago, from my study window, I heard, and then saw, a pair of ravens fly by.  The raven in mythology is a trickster and bringer of change.  Tricksters are edgy characters.  They live on the edge causing mischief and upsetting the settled status quo.  Raven Steals The Light is about the dawning of the first day.  Like all tricksters, Raven does this to suit himself – but it then affects everything.  Tricksters live at the edge – and tip things over the edge.

You could say there are no edges to be found in the seasons or the day really – just the turning – the constant changing.  But there are perceived happenings at the edge of the day and the edge of the seasons – indicators of the changing.  The actual appearance of the sun is when night tips over the edge into day.  With twilight, it is harder to pinpoint that moment of tipping over the edge into night.  The disappearance of the sun is only the beginning of the edge of night.  Will I feel it when winter really tips over the edge to spring?

 

A walk on the cold edge

Water from the last few weeks of rain still flows down the hollow of the green lane, but the edges are crisp with frost.  As I reach the sycamore grove, I wonder how the tiny goldcrests I have been watching there are faring this morning.  They need to eat or die, and there won’t be many insects here today.  I hope they are finding some in the thick bramble hedges.  There are goldfinches dancing and chatting in the big hawthorn.  A wood pigeon sits stolidly on a branch.  Out on the top field, frozen grass and leaves crackle under my boots.  The gulls and magpies are nowhere to be seen – a couple of crows, that’s all.  No dog walkers about.  When I reach the place at the edge of the woods, I stop and lean on a trunk.  Silence is here.  Ivy leaves barely shift in a breath of breeze.  A blackbird briefly crosses my view in the woods below.  A great tit lands in the top branches of the ash tree – hops around briefly – then leaves.  The only sound is the distant, muffled roar from the Exe Bridges roundabout down in the valley bottom.  This is as quiet as I have ever know this place – the icy sleep of winter.

Rilke on being with the hard edges

Normally, I would only post my own poems on this blog, but this one deeply moves me and relates to the, sometimes, unbearably difficult times of trying to deal with a change – a hard edge.  Rilke is so gentle yet powerful here – “…be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses…” –  wow!

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELL TOWER
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

from Sonnets to Orpheus, II:29, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Feeling the edge between being and doing

I woke up in the middle of last night with what could only be called an anxiety.  The fear was one of possibly being overwhelmed.  Since I decided to join Extinction Rebellion last spring, I have stayed at the edge of it – watching, listening, and learning.  I have observed how many of the other local members are really involving themselves in terms of their time and commitment, but not felt I wanted this level of involvement.  I joined the XR Devon Drummers and attend practices most Sunday afternoons, as well as playing with them in a few local actions.  The furthest I have gone with them is to Plymouth.  I still feel at the edge of the band, and am quite happy with this.  It’s challenging enough for me to play a new instrument (agogo) and also understand all the signals, and I am still on a learning curve. I want to be more-or-less confident by the time April comes when I intend to go up to London and play.

But yesterday I went to a meeting with a different XR group – the biodiversity group – and found myself stepping over the edge a bit. The group want to plan something “eye-catching” for Earth Day during the April rebellion outside Parliament that confronts current fishing and farming practices and legislation.  I volunteered to take notes – simple enough and an “at the edge” kind of role – but somehow I began feeling more “involved” and was informed of the need to learn a lot more about how XR communicate and operate. Why should this matter?  After all, I really want to do something meaningful to help protect the wildlife and natural environment.

Central to my enquiry into The Edge is “feeling the edge” – being sensitive and aware about how I respond to opening to and moving in any direction at a perceived edge.  The edge is a place of risk.  Of course, whatever direction one moves in will bring change – but an edge has a sense of some real unknown, some risk.  So, I woke up with anxiety.  I identified the perceived edge here as between Being and Doing.  All my adult life, until I retired, I was mostly a “Doer”, despite the longing to “Be”.  Since then I have been learning to “Be” – giving it space in my life and becoming sensitive to the joys it brings.  It is essential to my poetry, to my whole inner life, and also to my ability to relate.  I still like to do, but work hard to find the balance between them.  For me, it is an edge.  Having both the mini-stroke and then Long Covid taught me a lot about just being, as I couldn’t do otherwise.  There were immense gifts from these experiences.  I am at the edge now, feeling the risk of loss and overwhelm if I go too far into doing.  I want to do more for XR, but fear losing some of the other parts of my life that nourish me: writing, editing, immersing myself in nature, dharma practice, this enquiry…

I was finally able to go back to sleep after making some notes, identifying the fear and jotting down some strategies for handling this particular edge.  When writing about my desire for freedom in Touching the Flame, I recognised a desire to be held or contained as well.  I think this is what is needed at this edge.  I need containers around time and commitment.  At the moment these involve my making a list of what I want in my life in terms of doing and being, and using my diary to put in spaces for each.  We shall see if this is enough to enable me to move and balance at this edge.

Winter Solstice

This is the winter solstice.  Solstice is an edge, a place of change in terms of how the earth is placing itself in relation to the sun.  It begins to gently tip in the opposite direction, each pole slowly moving either towards or away from the sun.  Such a subtle edge, but one that has profound effects on terrestrial life.  I walk to my place at the edge of the woods.  The sun is weakly shining on the northeastern horizon.  Everything is saturated in water, reflecting the sunlight as I walk westwards along the top of the nature reserve.  I avoid the muddy path and instead enjoy the swishing of tall grass around my wellies.

I am opening my own edges to allow a more sensitive awareness of the back and forth flow of what is outside of “me” and what is felt to be inside.  There are the powerful visuals, of course, that can create strong emotion and lead to a lot of inner talk.  But I am focusing more on sound – soft sounds.  Except for the robins loudly declaring their winter territories, woodland birds are generally quieter at this time of year – soft calls to each other or alarms if there is danger near.  “Where are you?”  “I am here.”  “There is food here.”  “Cat!”

I visited my opticians a couple of days ago for a full examination – my first since before the pandemic started.  Except for some small signs of early cataracts, normal in people my age, my vision has not deteriorated.  A scan of the back of my eyes reveals that it is in good condition.  My peripheral vision is good.  It always has been and I hope it remains so.  Peripheral vision is not about detail or colour, but catches movement.  I use it a lot when out walking – peripheral vision and listening.  My hearing is such a wonderful thread between inside and outside.

When I reach my place at the edge of the woods, I stop and lean on a horizontal branch.  Alerted to movement further into the woods, I wait and watch.  A squirrel scrambles down to the ground to search in the leaves.  I muse about how big and healthy it looks, aware of aversive thoughts about grey squirrels as I know that a reintroduction of red squirrels is planned in the Southwest, once they get pine martins re-established.

I end this rumination by opening to listening instead.  The woods are quiet.  I can hear the soft bird companion calls, but don’t bother to identify them – just listen and let them enter through my edges.  I become aware of the effect of them on my inner self.  I feel tender, soft like the sounds.  There is a sense of dropping down into a deeper place inside that I know from meditation.  In the distance, the waves of Exeter’s traffic create a constant backwash.  This place of trees, moss, fungi, soil, squirrels, and birds is as beautiful now as it was in midsummer.

As I write this, I am reminded about a poem that I wrote last weekend.  I had been meditating in our room at the top of the house.  That room has a sense of edge between the outside world and the daily life world of the house below.

Listen Outside and Inside

 

The sharp bark of the neighbour’s dog,

like a needle,

pierces the fabric of surrounding sound

woven of the whisper of tyres in the rain,

percussive gusts on the window panes,

barely there body breathing,

slow, gentle taps of pipes heating and cooling.

The dog is quiet now, and there –

inside –

the faint, high-pitched singing of my cells.

 

What is “The Edge” about?

I have been reflecting on the four enquiries I have undertaken in the last decade.  My first enquiry was into the experience of fear – how it affects my body and thoughts, what fears are “habitual” and what the origins of those might be, how fear can be regulated, and also how one might work creatively to explore fear.  As a direct consequence, I then began an enquiry into the experience of vulnerability.  An outcome of that was the realisation that vulnerability was an essential element in any relationship of true intimacy.  Without allowing my vulnerability, I would be denying myself the experience of intimacy with another.  This includes a sense of intimacy with the natural world, which is important to me.  The more I opened, the closer my embodied connection became.  I think my increased experience of vulnerability opened me to my own desire – to exploring the question, What do I want, in the deep sense?  The enquiry themes have evolved, one out of another.  They are about perceiving, allowing, choosing, and creating connections of one kind or another.  Fear cuts me off from connection.  Learning how to understand and engage with my fear took me to a place of greater openness – greater vulnerability – and that vulnerability brought with it more connection.  In my enquiry into desire, I came to a strong sense of my deep desire for connection – with nature, with people, with my own past and possibilities.

In any journey into inner depth, there are many layers to discover and move through, and all the layers seem to contain resonances, flavours, of the previous layers.  “The Edge” has a frisson that goes back to fear, and to fear’s antidote: curiosity.  It is also about opening to feeling a connection with the unknown.  It’s possible that this enquiry into “The Edge” is about a place of potential connection.  Before I entered any of these enquiries, back in May 2012, I did a Autobiographical Movement workshop with Sandra Reeve that she calls Strata.  As part of this workshop, we did some movement on a clifftop near Charmouth, Dorset.  In my notes taken then I wrote, “Giving way to gravity, so…lovely! Flowing downhill over all the ups and downs.  Then – feeling the DESIRE to see the edge!”  The capital letters were part of the notes.  So, it feels like there are some strong connections driving what I am enquiring into, although I was not aware then where it would be taking me.  I was on the edge of something – a transition was getting underway outside conscious awareness.  Each enquiry seems to have taken me deeper.

“The Edge”, as I am conceiving of it, is one between two quite different places, things, beings, experiences, perceptions – as in between the sea and the cliff top above it, or being asleep and being awake, between life and death, between me and this tree I have my hands on, between me and my loved other.  We are always on the edge of something – given the constant of change in our lives and the sense of self and other that exists as soon as there is sense contact and perception.  There can be a real sense of space between in which to inhabit the experience of being on the edge.  Buddhist Emptiness, Sunyata, reveals that there is no edge – but the meditation practices (the letting go of/ dissolving of clinging) that lead to this require the considerable and repeated sense of spaciousness.

Generally, I can feel myself on the edge of a strong emotion – like anger – before tipping into it.  I know then that I have choice in how I deal with that emotion and that is a kind of freedom.  I might let the anger come into my eyes and look at the person whose speech or action precipitated the anger.  That might be enough.

Some edges are finer and more difficult to experience than others.  I was on the edge of consciousness the other morning – before I fainted.  A thin edge with no recollection of, and therefore no image of, going over the edge.  But over I went – to consciously find myself on my back on the floor, looking up at the ceiling.  No great harm was done.  It was part of my reaction to the vaccine I had the day before.  What I hope to be able to do, in future, is recognise better that approach to the edge of consciousness, and take care of myself in it.

Is fainting practice for dying?  Is falling asleep?  What edges are important to make space in and inhabit?

 

Estuary

I spent this morning at the edge of the Exe Estuary, watching waders with a group led by the naturalist, Matt Collis http://www.devonwildlifetours.co.uk/.  An estuary, and all the life within it and along it, is dominated by the tides.  It is a place of constantly shifting “betweens” that are easy to observe and appreciate.  There is so much going on, yet being at the edge here can bring a sense of inner peace along with moments of intense beauty.

The Estuary

 

The tide turned two hours ago.

Curlews and godwits that have been resting on one leg,

their bills tucked neatly under their wings,

underbellies reflected in the smooth mirror of this backwater,

begin to wake and shake their feathers,

getting ready to fly downstream.

 

Later, I stand on a wooden platform

above the reedbed

watching elegant white egrets

slowly wading in gradually receding water.

To the east the sun is high now.

 

Suddenly, all I can see in front of me

are the dark silhouettes of redshanks

dancing across bright glittering sand,

their wet feet coated in silver.

A rainy morning

If there is perception, there is self and other – that which perceives and that which is perceived. In exploring my theme of being on or at ‘the edge’, I will only occasionally mention the quantum view of there being no edge. Influenced as I am by Buddhist teachings on ‘Emptiness’, I rather take that as read.  There is no edge to be found.   But there is the perception, the experience, of edge. It is here I will explore.

This morning it is raining, so I set out with my wellies and big, black umbrella. I walk up the green lane that begins at Charnley Avenue and finally joins Barley Lane, after making its way along the edge of Barley Valley Nature Reserve here on the west edge of Exeter. This green lane is all that’s left of the old Bowhay Lane, a route west in pre-industrial times.  The lower part is an edgeland between two housing estates.  When I first started walking it, this had been quite a dumping ground, despite the sign forbidding it.  Gradually, I, and others who started to care, have removed the litter and the worst of what had been dumped.

Although actually being surrounded by houses, as soon as I start up the lane I feel a sense of wilderness, of not quite knowing what is ahead, even though I walk this route almost daily.  Except for the sound of my feet and the rain on my umbrella, it is quiet today.  After it crosses over a street, High Meadows, the path slopes up into a sycamore grove.  These trees are large and old, older than the houses that now are only on the left edge, obscured by the verdant growth in the lane itself.  Beyond and above the lane on the right, barely visible, is the nature reserve.  This grove feels very different in different seasons.  In summer it is a welcome refuge from the sun.  In winter, its huge, spreading branches are revealed, creating shapes in the shadows on the ground. Today it is damp, leafy and dark.  The sound of rain echoes here.  As the path climbs out of the sycamore grove, there is a huge, old holly tree on the left.  The bare ground around the twisted, exposed roots of the trunk are a playground for foxes and/or badgers, although I have never found signs of a den here. Several small pathways created by them lead down from the nature reserve. The path continues up and the canopy opens into hazel and field maple. There is a wonderful sound ahead.  When I reach the Magic Tree (a hawthorn that stretches right across the path), it is directly above me.  A flock of goldfinches are at the top of the tree.  The accumulation of all their witterings have become one sound – a choir of birds.  This is part of why I have named it the Magic Tree. I stand and listen to this music of the edge.

Eventually, I continue to the gateway into the reserve.  I lean on the swinging gate to take in the view of Exeter and beyond. I can’t see as far in this weather as sometimes,  but the city, itself, is visible with low clouds hanging over it.  Through the gate, I am at the top of one of the hillside meadows that make up the reserve, along with overgrown hedges and patches of woodland.  Halfway down this hill is an island of scrub, brambles and small trees where, I have been told, the ruins of a WW2 German bomber lies.  I wouldn’t like to try to get in there to find it.

I turn left and walk along the top edge of the reserve, next to a fabulous edgeland between the reserve and the green lane made up of a massively overgrown hedge, hazels and bramble dominating.  This is the haunt of wrens, robins and blackbirds, with the various tits and finches, magpies, wood pigeons and crows as constant visitors, joined by summer migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps.  Very occasionally, I am gifted with a visit from a raven, usually near the top of the green lane, where the open countryside stretches towards Dartmoor.  Today, nothing much seems to be going on.

I reach the old path that leads into the woods.  The lovely bent ash is there – too wet for me to sit on today, so I rest a foot on a place low down where two small branches separate and lift myself up to where I can just lean against the big branch.  It feels comforting.  I lower my umbrella to listen to the sounds of raindrops on the canopy above me.  I can smell the wet leaf mould.  The rain in its restlessness is creating a kind of stillness – in my heart and mind, as well as in the birds around.  There are fewer dog walkers on the path above.  The fallen leaves from the nearby cherry tree shine red against the dark ground.  I know I will walk home soon, but choose to linger in the nothing-much-happening at the edge of the woods.

 

 

 

The place I sit at the edge of the woods

This is a place I love to sit – on an ash tree at the edge of Barley Valley woods.  One of its two trunks goes upright, but the other, larger one stretches out horizontally and then bends down to the ground before rising up again. Behind me is a path that people walk along, often with their dogs. They don’t usually seem to notice me sitting there in a tree, but the dogs sometimes come to investigate. Below me, the land drops down into the heart of the woods where a small stream flows. In this place at the edge there is so much happening – birds sounding and moving about, butterflies and other insects, light and leaves shifting.  The ash feels like an old friend to me now.  It has the dieback, but who knows which of us will succumb first.  We both live at the edge.

 

On the ash
The ash bending

At the edge of the woods

I look up to see the way ash leaves tremble in the slightest breeze.  A wood pigeon lands on a thin branch at the top of an elder bush – then slowly slides down, bending the little branch until it can peck the berries.  Most of the berries are gone now from the top of that bush.  There is such a sense of falling way in this place at the edge of the woods – of slowly being pulled downhill – of slipping, sliding, tumbling – of resistance and insistence too – of reaching up – of pushing through.  Even this ailing, moss covered ash keeps sending up new shoots.

There is no separation here between living, moving, reaching up, bending, crumbling, falling away – a system unself-consciously, with sensitivity, adapting to every push, pull, opportunity.

What is happening on the edge between one place and another?

I have experienced the sense of being on the edge, or being between, neither one thing/place nor another, much of my life.  Growing up, I always felt on the edge in my family and my peer group.  On the edge was the place I could most clearly see what was going on – and thereby keep myself as safe as possible.  But it is a lonely place to be.  My father was English and my mother American.  Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the US, I moved to England at the age of 21.  I used to say it felt like I was treading water mid-Atlantic.  I didn’t feel English in England, nor American in America.  What do I feel now?

On the edge has many meanings, but which is the deepest?

Generally: On the edge of environmental collapse?  On the edge of being in or out of a pandemic?  On the edge of social collapse?  On the edge of global renewal?  On the seasonal edge?

Personally: On the edge of being well or unwell?  On the edge of society in general?  On the edge of old age, illness and death?  On the edge of some deep understanding?

On the edge of meadow and woodland seems to be where wildlife abounds, at least where the most available activity can be observed.  I like sitting down at the edge of the woods, in the grass, on a tree or under a shrub, and waiting.  Beings begin to appear.  I wrote the following poem this summer, while I was still very much in the Long Covid state.

 

On The Edge

 

On the edge between

meadow and hedge,

a glittering golden beetle

rests on a bull thistle blossom,

barely bending its amethyst spikes.

 

A dark brown ringlet flutters

over bramble and briar,

opening its wings finally

on a tender, downy leaf.

 

The earth exudes foams

of grasses that bend

in the breeze, shaking off

small clouds of pollen.

 

Up on a wire a greenfinch

wheezes – over and over.

My breath comes shallowly.

I want to lie down –

resting, opening, being

butterfly and beetle.

 

I cannot know them –

so stumble and dream

along the path,

slowly going nowhere –

on the edge between

being and not being.

Recovery

There is a tree I go and sit in – an old ash just at the edge of a small area of woodland in the nature reserve near my home. It has become an important place to “just be” in a more embedded way in the landscape.

Remedy for Recovery

 

Sit astride the mossy bent limb

of an ash at the edge of the woods.

Breathe in and up

through your head and hair

to the canopy and beyond.

Breathe out and down

through trunk and roots

to the humus and beyond.

Stroke the moss between your thighs.

See how the limb stretches out

beyond you, curving down

onto the ground and up again,

sprouting upright leafy twigs.

Tune into sounds around:

plaintive cries of a young raptor,

squirrels squabbling over hazelnuts,

farewell wheetings of a chiffchaff,

robin song in a nearby tree.

Below, in sunny gaps of

leftover summer warmth,

see insects flickering:

bees, moths, speckled wood butterflies.

This ancient ash is ailing,

as is its neighbour.

The young ones around

are mostly dead.

Share with this gentle tree

the intention to live.

 

Near the base of the trunk can be seen a length of deeply embedded barbed wire, left over from a fence that years ago ran along the edge of these woods.  With grace, it lives and continues to survive – a being of great beauty – carrying and accommodating  what the world has thrown at it.

The Pleasure of Drowning

I heard the dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan, use the phrase “the pleasure of drowning” in a talk he gave recently.  Like an arrow, it went straight into my body/mind as soon as he said it.  For me, it relates to the word perishable but puts a unique and unexpected perspective on it.  Here is my response:

The Pleasure of Drowning

 

In those last few seconds,

fear can become curiosity

and wonder –

letting go of struggle –

all limbs in a liquid embrace.

 

It must be similar

falling from a great height –

the possibility of becoming

totally absorbed – pressed

hard against the invisible.

 

But we are earth beings.

Drowning or falling,

in water or air,

we will be returned

to earth.

 

Let me open myself to earth

with all the pleasure

of falling

or drowning.

 

 

Perishable

More than one person picked out the phrase “perishable beauty” from my What is Left poem, and I have been musing on the term “perishable”.  What does it mean for me?  I talked this through with a friend and we agreed that it had an “earthy” quality to it.  Unlike the more cerebral Buddhist term of “impermanent” – it carries the emotional reality of loss and grief with it and the crumbling, falling away of returning to earth.

Perishable

 

One muddy morning,

shadowed by overhead hazels and oaks,

I notice at the edge of the path

an orchid just opening its purple lips.

I circle it with a ring of stones

as protection from heedless boots.

The next morning I pass

and see the blossom stem

broken off at the base,

its spotted leaves splattered

with mud – and I mourn.

 

I sit on the kitchen floor,

my hands laid lightly

on the soft, grey fur of

a gentle, delicate, slightly clumsy cat

who consented to live with us

for many years.

Her eyes are closed.

At intervals her body shudders –

absorbed with letting go of life.

I pray for the angels to take her.

Eventually they do – and I mourn.

 

I sit in my parents’ bedroom,

where my father’s thin shoulders,

are tense with stoic agony –

his body no longer able

to engage in the simple acts of life.

In his mind, that has followed

elaborate mathematical equations

to beautiful innovative conclusions,

he knows what is happening,

and rides the waves

to the inevitable – and I mourn.

 

I open the window to the blackbird

calling in another perishable dawn.

 

The day after I wrote this poem, my husband called to me from the garden.  There was the blackbird, cowering under foliage near the pond with a bleeding gash along its back.  It did not seem to be able to fly, but eluded our clumsy efforts to “rescue” it.  The following day, I found it dead on the grass – and I mourned.

What is Left? – an experience of Covid-19

I am aware I am “lucky” that my experience of the Covid-19 virus was not worse.  I could have ended up in hospital, on a ventilator, or dead.  Many others did.  But personal experience is relative – not only to the experience of others, but also to one’s own previous experience.  I can easily say that I had never been that ill before.  At one point I struggled to tell my partner how completely helpless and reliant on him I felt – a devastating realisation.  I am someone who could be called fiercely independent.  This has been softening over recent years but is still apparent on an everyday basis.  In the depths of this illness any sense of agency disappeared – almost everything felt like it had gone.  I learned to lie and do nothing, day after day after day after day, except for minimal movements to eat a few mouthfuls, drink and get to the toilet somehow.  I did not sleep much in the day – just stared out of the window.  This enabled me to sleep at night – heavy, black sleep.  There was not much thinking even – just the odd thought passing through now and again.  One of those thoughts was that this was a rehearsal for dying – maybe it was.  Another thought was that everything had somehow changed for me – but in a way I did not yet understand.  As I recovered, I tried to explain this to people who asked me how I was, but didn’t know what I was explaining – just that things had changed in some fundamental way.  My decision to retire from all paid work was a response to this change.

I had a waking vision during one of those strange, empty days lying in bed.  There was an image of being in a city under siege – and I just followed the image where it took me.  Below is a poetic rendition of that visionary experience.  A friend told me that I needed to record myself reading this poem out loud.  So, here it is:

What is Left?

 

The outer defenses have been silently breached.

The gates are open and the enemy pours through

unopposed.

I watch, helpless, as my fortress is sacked,

resources stripped away,

structures crumble –

then I flee to the very centre,

crawl under the floor to

the hidden foundations of my being

and lie in the dark –

listening.

 

The chaos above gradually fades from my awareness.

I listen to my breath coming too fast.

Then, begin to hear again the oracle voice

chanting the song of my being.

Observe carefully to see what is stirring in the hearts of others.

Do not expect to be seen.

Listen and hear what is not said in their words.

Do not expect to be heard.

Love greatly and with passion, especially the small who have no voice.

Do not expect to be loved.

Learn to hold others carefully so they can feel held.

Do not expect to be held.

Never stop trying to understand.

Do not expect to be understood.

The words emanate from the foundation stones

and my bones resonate and know them.

Everything above is founded on them.

 

My cheek presses into the dark earth

and from somewhere,

deeper and darker still,

comes a small, desolate cry.

Trust no one!

 

Slowly, I become aware that all is silent above me.

The hoards have left, taking what they wanted,

leaving it hollowed out and bare.

In time I will rebuild but it will be different,

resting now ever so lightly on these foundations –

some parts maybe floating above,

attached with gossamer threads.

I will rebuild for perishable beauty

rather than endurance.

There will be open spaces for love, playfulness and joy –

and continual loss and letting go –

no expectation

but also no resistance.

And deep trust?

After the first betrayal,

what is left?

 

I still don’t know what is left.  I don’t know how much or what I can trust at that depth – or even what deep trust means for me.  I will enquire.

 

Where is there to go?

Where is there to go?  Where is there to stay?  Going and staying.  What is place?  Can I stay in place? – or must I go?  If I don’t want to go forwards, and I can’t go backwards, and sideways feels like temporary distraction, where can I go?  It comes to me that I can go deeper.  But what does this mean?  Deeper into stillness and silence.  Deeper into thoughts and ideas.  Deeper into the hearts of others – if they let me.  Deeper into imagination.

I am walking along a path, aware of the ground under my feet.  A leathery oak leaf rattles up the lane in front of me.  I am moving in a circle – so going somewhere and nowhere.  I do this most mornings.  I love it.  I pass the same trees.  Are they the same?  Am I moving deeper?  Deeper into place?  I don’t want to appropriate this place – but deepen to it.  There is a place I have found where I might stop and stay – in a forgotten corner of a field where an old oak tree is lying on its side, slowing rotting and giving itself to the earth.  I want to go there – but not today.

Under my feet, under the wet layer of fallen leaves, there is a deeper place.  I have always been afraid of going down into the earth.  Caves, pot holes, mines, tunnels bring out real fear in my body – and I avoid them.  I feel tight in the chest just thinking about it.  I tried to learn to scuba dive once – but my ears became too painful, so I went back to the surface.  And then there is deep, unfathomable outer space, just beyond the thin blue line.  My body does not want to go deeper into any of these.  It could not live there.  I want to live.  And I want to go deeper.

 

The Place

 

Early morning sunlight

scatters silver coins

through quivering birch leaves.

A goldfinch eyes me

from the holly high above,

while the rest of his flock

flutter around him.

Over the pathway

hazel branches shake

as squirrels seek and squabble.

 

Tell me – can the place

where earth becomes sky

actually be found?

Between

We have gone into “lockdown” again.  Since the start of the pandemic, or at least since the effects of it first arrived here, we have been a liminal state – a place between – between before Covid-19 and after Covid-19.  There has been a lot of talk about what “after” might look like, but I cannot imagine it.  I am just in “between”.  There has been suffering in this place for many, but I have not suffered more than I normally would, considering my on-going, recurrent human condition of confusion and reaction, which I work at managing.

I am aware that my friends and family in the US are not only in the “between” of the pandemic, but also between presidents.  They may also feel caught between the many factions, ideologies, identities and injustices that run right through the American “dream”.  Their outgoing president has altered so much in how Americans view themselves and how others view them that they don’t really know where this will lead them to.  Chris and I have comforted ourselves by listening to the American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Songs from Home as she sings to all those who are “in between” from her Virginian home each Sunday.  Her deep humanity, empathy and sanity reassure us.

I have been able to be still enough at times to witness the place of “between” in its potentiality – and it intrigues and inspires me.  I am certainly not always comfortable with it, but sometimes I quite like it.   It is possible to move in this place too.

Being Between

 

I walk along the beach

between tides –

the sand wet but firm.

My feet leave barely a trace.

There is no sense of sinking.

The tide line is drawn

with seaweeds, shells, tangled net

and ever present broken

bits of human litter.

I feel light and begin to move,

opening my body to

being between –

sea and sky, earth and air,

now and later, solid and fluid,

under and over, great and small.

Not caught between –

dancing between.

 

 

 

 

An Ancestor

This year it is 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 to what later came to be called New England in North America.  Here in Plymouth, Devon, there has been a series of events and projects under the title of Mayflower 400 to commemorate this.  My friend, Stephanie Pratt, a local art historian and also a member of the Dakota nation through her father, felt determined to make certain an indigenous perspective would be included, showing the impact of this colonial event on the people already living in that place.  She dialogued with several of the organisers to ensure that this could happen, including the artists of the Speedwell Project.   You can listen here to an inspiring talk with Steph and the artists, Laura and Leonie, about the project and how her input influenced it.

Quite a while ago I had mentioned to her that one of my ancestors, Peregrine White, was the first baby born once the Mayflower reached the “New World.”  She wanted me to somehow be involved – as a Mayflower descendant – in what was happening.  By the time she asked me, the Covid19 pandemic was in full swing and I was not sure I could participate in person.  After some thought, I told her I would write a poem which could be used or not.  She was up for that.

It was quite illuminating doing the research for this poem – and often upsetting.  First, I looked at all that had been gathered by my mother’s cousin, George McNish, who had spent many years investigating the lineage of the McNish family.  He had shared his paper trail with others in the family, including myself, and it had been sitting in a box in the loft for many years.  Finally diving into it, looking for the connection with Peregrine White, I found that his break though in understanding the Mayflower connection was someone called Zachariah Green, described by George in a letter to me as “a highly respected and a distinguished gentleman” who was a Presbyterian pastor who lived from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries.  As a teenager, he fought and was wounded in the Revolutionary War.  His position as an ancestor of the current McNish family is clearly documented.  In the documentation of the time, it states that his mother, Jane White, was a descendant of Peregrine White.  Looking at the dates, I guessed he had been her great-grandfather.  Her grandfather had most likely been his eldest son, Daniel, who had been conceived out of wedlock!

This was interesting enough, but I decided to look more into the actual events around the Mayflower sailing and landing in order to set his birth in some context.  This is where things became disturbing.  I had been fed a diet of Pilgrim Fathers and Thanksgiving Day by my American childhood education.  Although I knew it was not quite like that, I had never really looked into how it had actually been.  Mayflower 400 has made some contact with the Wampanoag nation, the people who the Mayflower pilgrims met when they landed, and who as they clearly state, “are still here“.  It is a terrible story, of plague brought by previous contact with Europeans, and of slavery – there is a reason why the Wampanoag known as Squanto was able to speak English to the settlers.  Peregrine White and Zachariah Green were both referred to in documents as “Freeman”.  This is partly because of the practice of indenture by the early English colonialists – but also because there were already African slaves being brought into North America.  And the peace that is so blithely celebrated in the USA on Thanksgiving Day soon deteriorated into catastrophic violence.

Below is the poem I wrote.  It was well received by the members of the Speedwell Project, but what now happens with it I have no idea, as a second pandemic lockdown has been imposed for the whole month of November when the group were hoping to create a ceremony on the Plymouth waterfront.

Traces:

To the infant Peregrine White, my ancestor – born 20 November 1620, on the Mayflower while anchored at Cape Cod

Born five days before me and

three hundred and twenty nine years,

there is a bloodline thread between us

I can run my finger along.

 

Innocent arrival in this “New World”,

brought into being by your parents’ desire.

Desire for freedom, courage to question

Established Church dogma and decree,

and pure Puritan resolve,

took them onto ominous autumnal seas

in a vulnerable wooden bark

to a land they felt uncultivated and unkind.

Your father died three months later.

Little is known about William White.

 

What did freedom mean to them?

or to you?  Freedom to worship

in your own way is what I was taught.

But your parents brought with them

their own dogmas of fundamentalism,

of patriarchy, of human dominance over

Nature and the unquestioned

rights of European race and culture.

The “New World” was yours to take

regardless of it not being new.

 

Will you question your freedom

when you lie with your love, Sarah,

without sanction of ceremony,

beginning a new birth that

will lead, in time, to my own?

Is it traces of the thirst for freedom

that will rouse your young descendent,

Zachariah, to throw himself in front of

musket balls in 1777?  Will either of you

question what a Freeman implies?

 

Once born, each will struggle, maybe grow,

eventually pass away, leaving traces behind –

some like gouges in the earth,

some like gardens – sometimes both.

I have a thirst for freedom, and question

all assumptions passed unquestioned to me.

Assumptions are deadly – fixed views blinding.

There are no new worlds –

except those of the heart and imagination –

no territories to take and hold on to.

 

May this poem leave traces in hearts

of questions with no certain answers.

Both on the shore and out at sea

there are many ways of seeing.