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 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 Chiff Chaff,

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.

 

Emergence

It has been a long time since I last posted on Going Deeper.  In mid-January, I fell ill with the Covid-19 virus. I may, or may not, write about this experience another time.  It most certainly took me deeper than I have ever been before.  But I am engaged in emerging.  I don’t really respond to the idea of recovering.  The word, itself, doesn’t resonate for me in terms of my experience.  The prefix “re” apparently carries the meaning of something going back to its original state – and I can’t do that.  The experience of Covid-19 altered me, and in that process I entered more deeply into the underworld than ever before.  It was, and was not, an imaginal journey.  To have descended any further feels like my body might not have been able to emerge again.  I experienced the impossibility of separating body, mind and soul.  In descent, it all goes together.

Emergence has been slow, with constant evaluating of what my state is at any one time.  My energy was extremely unreliable at first.  I described it to a friend as being like antique lace, fragile and full of holes.  Now, I rely on my body to tell me when I need to stop.  There is a place, just above my heart and below my collar bones, that alerts me to the approach of energy collapse – a sense of pressure there, telling me I need to stop and rest.

It was a full month before I could get myself outside again and up the lane to the trees, birds and multitudes of life forms that I love – slowly, slowly.  Last Sunday I finally got to do what I longed for – to go into a field on my own and lie down in the grass and just listen.

A Wren shouts and rattles in the bramble thicket.  A Woodpecker laughs in the oak above, then shoots itself over the field, torpedo-like.  A Bumble Bee is searching behind me among the dead branches of the old felled oak.  I can hear a Collared Dove in the valley below.  Woodpecker drumming.  Crow cawing – one flies overhead – so fast with seeming so little effort.  As I settle, more sounds become apparent.  A flutter of wings behind me.  Each sound is an individual.  Great Tit squeaking. Robin piping his varied tunes.  Blackbird chipping briefly.  A Blue Tit has arrived to feed on the willow twigs.  There is a kind of embodied urgency to each sound.  Each must be an important communication, or they wouldn’t use their precious energy or make their position known to possible predators.  Two joggers pass on the path below, chatting as they go – no urgency in this sound.  Have we forgotten how urgent simply being alive is?

Hopes and Fears 2020-2021

I have spent more time and effort than ever in this last year on attempting to understand what is happening to life on this planet and what we all need to be doing to protect and support it.  Trying to make decisions about who/what to give my support to in this.  Trying to understand what I can offer.  I am limited in my understanding – not really able to take in the immensity it all, but not wanting to break it down and reduce it to simply problems to solve.  This is some of what I have learned:

I am not separate.  I am, and I am not, an individual.  All beings, animate and inanimate, on the planet are totally unique and totally interconnected.  The whole universe is totally interconnected.  The wise have been telling us this since always.  Humans are not really able to separate themselves from the rest of nature on this rich and wonderful planet.  It is not our right or even a genuine possibility to dominate the natural world.  This is a dangerous illusion we have been living with too long.  Our efforts to do this have brought us to this point.

Power and control need to be replaced by responsibility and agency. Everything we do has some kind of effect.  We each have some agency and need to take on board our responsibility.  This is an immense shift in view – but possible.  It requires us to do without much of what we have taken for granted as our entitlement.  We must let go of power and control – of any thought of dominance.

It would be dangerous to think that technology can solve things – or economics – or politics.  All of these have hugely contributed and are continuing to contribute to the processes of environmental destruction that are now well underway.  Technology, economics and politics can be helpful, but only if the current views and approaches within them are radically re-visioned.  What is needed is a fundamental shift in how we view ourselves, others and our environment.

People tend to want certainty and simplicity – but will have to embrace uncertainty and complexity.  We will also have to embrace each other – all of us need to embrace all of us – human and non-human.  If this does not happen, then fear will take hold everywhere and I fear a frightening and violent future – global holocaust.   Them-and-us and nationalism need to be replaced by equality and community.  And as the eloquent voices in the Black Lives Matter movement have made it clear, for things to become more equal, those of us who have more will need to make do with far less – less privilege, less convenience, less comfort and even less food.

Nature can recover.  If given the space and able to take the lead, life can proliferate again.  But we will need to take less, make less and discard less.  We will have less of what we have strenuously created and accumulated in the last 400 years or so.  Less will feel like loss – but it will bring more.  Are we prepared to live with less?  Can we manage to open our hearts and minds to embrace what needs to be embraced?

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.

 

There is a gift there

 

This is on a blanket that my mother used to wrap around herself – and I still use when I am wanting warmth and comfort.  The heart stone comes from my friend, Julia, who died a few years ago and who used to collect heart stones – and the rose petals are from roses in ex-husband’s garden, that my daughter now cares for.  She brought them to me after my mini-stroke last year.

What is the gift?

On the 11th May, 2019 – a year ago today – I had a bad fall which precipitated a mini-stroke, leaving me helpless and housebound for almost a month.  It then took me several months more to slowly regain my energy.  A stroke nurse was amazed and fascinated when I told her it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  It opened me up in a way that I have been preparing for, and desiring, for a very long time.  Hallelujah!

A year later – and the whole world is changing through the pandemic experience of COVID19 coronovirus.  I have had to close down in the sense of staying at home – but my practice is still to keep opening.  Opening to death and loss is the theme at the moment.  Two people who have deeply influenced my life in recent years, including this enquiry into desire, have died recently – neither from the virus.  Javanese movement artist and teacher, Suprapto Suryodarmo died in December of heart failure – and Rob Burbea, Buddhist meditation teacher, died last week of cancer after an extended and brave effort to keep living.  Loss is heavy in my heart.  In his last recorded talk, Rob talked about death and dying and said it is not all about loss.  “There is a gift there.”

A gift came my way from my step-son last week.  He is writing an information leaflet on mental health to help inform mental health support workers who have little experience or training and he wanted me to have a look at the draft and comment on it.  In it he wrote that depression was a misnomer – that really it is a “depressive response”.   This slight shift in the way of looking has quite a strong effect – no longer seeing it as some “thing” that arrives and blankets my life, but as a way my psyche is responding.  The “thing” that needs to be understood is more whatever it is that I am responding to than the response.  This is such an empowering difference.  I have suffered depression on and off since my late teens.  There have been times when it has gone on for months and months – feeling like a whole mental landscape, a kind of empty desolation I am marooned in.  There is no desire felt in this place – although, from a distance, I can see a desire coming from the depths of my soul to change and to grow.  In time I began to figure out that my depressions related to having to fundamentally change in some way – and eventually I saw it more positively as some kind of initiatory experience.

In the last ten years, despite the losses and changes, I have not experienced depression in any long term way.  Yes, I can go down low and very quiet for a few days or even weeks, but I don’t seem to get stuck there anymore.  One of the main reasons I gave for my retreating out to Dartmoor for three months in the spring of 2010, after retiring from teaching, was to see if this could alter my usual depressive response to big changes – and it did.  I was proactive in my withdrawal from daily life, opening eagerly to the retreat if not without trepidation, and it was a transformative, beautiful time.  I gave myself a gift.

I have already written in this blog about the gift I received from my mini-stroke experience (Going deeper to be loved).  Now I am waiting, practicing opening, wondering what the gift might be from the recent death and loss.  I know I have already received it and just don’t yet see what it is.  My response, true to my nature, is a depressive response.  What is the gift?

 

 

COVID-19 Lockdown

Perception of time becomes clear.

Everything known is past, except

what is here right now.

The future does not exist.

 

Desire, too, sharpens into focus.

The lessons of Epictetus

never felt more relevant.

“Well, should I not desire health, then?”

No – nor for that matter, anything

outside the limits of your authority;

and whatever you cannot produce

or preserve at will

lies outside your range.

Don’t let your hands go near it,

much less your desire.*

 

I want to unfurl like a flower –

body, heart, soul –

every time I whisper the word,

“Open”.

 

*Discourses, Book IV (Penguin Classics)