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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.

The Chair

The Chair – a teaching on Emptiness (thank you, Prapto)

 

The chair is not one.

The chair is many parts.

The parts are made of tree, but

the tree cannot be found in the parts.

The chair was made, but

the maker cannot be found in the chair.

The chair cannot be found in any of the parts.

The parts are not the chair.

No parts, no chair.

No chair, no parts.

What is the chair?

 

The chair is bodhisattva

offering itself to you

for rest.

 

Falling

Sparrows gather in the roses,

companionable and comfortable

among thorns and perfume petals.

 

A longhorn beetle sensitively explores

with antenna, legs, and mouth parts,

working its way along a blade of grass.

 

A buzzard floats, wide open

above purple and golden grasses,

certain in the air passing its wings.

 

A lone woman looks out at

distant, dark, silver-edged mountains,

sensing both earth and groundlessness.

 

Each one a snowflake falling –

unique, precious, and free –

gone – gone – gone…

 

Mary Booker 22.07.2023

Patterns

Swifts are writing in the sky again,

flinging their strength, agility,

and fragility across the vast page.

I can’t read swift.

I imagine it’s about freedom, life, joy –

but when I listen deeply,

I hear urgency, hunger,

and the need to move on.

Look closely.  Stay awhile.

What can be seen?

A black and silver striped fly

with dark red eyes

delicately walks on its bent legs –

walking and touching –

walk and touch.  Swifts and flies.

What does this say?

What story does it tell about the sacred?

Mary Booker 08.07.2023

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.

 

The Edge of Change

I attend a weekly Qigong class.  Qigong has become seamlessly interwoven into my other practices of Buddhist meditation and Amerta movement to enable me to continue to bring myself into a deeper connection with my body.  Together they help me open and receive what is around me, as well as reflect on my human experience in this complex, wondrous world.  This week we had a visiting Chinese teacher, Yan Cui.  During the hour spent with her, I touched a mysterious sense of edge.

A great deal of what happens in Qigong is around opening and closing, inner and outer.  There is the vast outer universe and a corresponding vast inner universe in each of us.  Sensing this while doing Qigong, or Amerta movement, or during meditation, is a mysterious opening in itself.  Qigong practice uses both body and mind to energetically move between the two of these, bringing them together into a harmonious sense of one.  It is very beautiful, as well as enhancing both physical and mental health.

Yan Cui offered just two practices in the hour she spent with us.  One was to stand facing the large window in the studio that looks out onto a lush garden with flowers, trees, and clouds.  We opened our hands and arms (and our inner being) to the beautiful natural world we saw, and then, with our arms and hands, brought all that back into our inner being .  We just silently did this for many minutes.  The second practice was also simple.  Standing, we bent over, spiraled our hands to “collect” qi, then lifted it up and, using our hands, slowly brought the qi all the way down through our body, scanning as we went for any sense of not-quite-right in the body, lingering in those places to allow the qi to work there.  We did this, too, over and over, for many minutes.  It felt powerfully rejuvenating.

Then she talked to us.  She wanted to tell us what it is that’s actually important in Qigong.  It’s not the movements of opening or closing, up or down, inner or outer.  This is important practice for realising what it is that is really important – which is the transition from one to the other.  That edge of change, she said, is the secret of Qigong.  It was like hearing something I already knew, yet hadn’t quite put into a thought for myself.  I suddenly say to Yan Cui, “This is not a place.”  She smiles.

I once tried to think of this as a place, and found I could not.  I think now about the Wood Pigeons that make such a curfuffle around here.  They flap about in the tops of trees and seem clumsy and awkward, yet they are skillful and beautiful in flight.  They first soar up, and then suddenly dip down in a beautiful curve.  Perhaps they have the secret of Qigong.

Thistle Heart

At the edge of the path,

rising up from cracked, dry ground,

a musk thistle is calling.

As is my habit, I stop for a chat.

“What would you like, my lovely?”

It nods at me as I listen carefully.

“See me, love me, and leave me be.”

I look closely –

tenderly touch the soft heart

of an open seed head,

and move on.

From a distant treetop, a green finch calls:

“Please…!

Leave me…

to be me…!”

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.

 

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)

The Desire to Create

I have a desire to create – to bring into being – give form– to create something.  I had the desire to create this blog – an expression of my general desire to create as well as my desire to enquire and to communicate.  I consider being creative a deep human desire.  There are endless possible ways of being creative.  We are creating in an unconscious sense all the time.  The theories of phenomenology and the Buddhist teachings of Emptiness both insist we are creating our world – our “selves” and all the “things” we perceive.  We are creating our experience through the meanings and interpretations our mind gives to those things. But that is not the creativity that I am desiring – although it rests on it.  Desire itself rests on it.

I don’t know what it is about poetry that inflames my desire.  Indeed, I don’t know where my poems come from.  While I can consciously create the circumstances most likely to let it happen, invite the words and images, and then consciously work to craft them when they arrive, the images and even words themselves seem to come from deeper than, or beyond, my conscious mind.  Countless artists, writers, musicians and theorists have attested to this “inspiration” experience.  The Greek Muses were a mythological personification of this source of creativity, but to me it feels like it is coming out of the same dark place inside that dreams come from.

To create requires desire and a willingness to open to this unknown place of inspiration. It is definitely not something one can grasp at.  It can feel like being on the brink of an abyss – and having to relax and let go – to trust – and then to receive what arrives.

The desire to create makes demands on the maker.  At its full strength, it can push other aspects of life to one side – relationships, daily tasks, even the need to eat at times.  Buddhist teacher, Rob Burbea, remembers someone who came on one of his retreats saying, We are doors for what wants to come through.   This image implies that we open to whatever it is.  Rob has also referred to Henri Corbin’s use of the image of the angel out ahead.1  We think and feel we are forging our own path when, in fact, we have been following an angel all the time.  So, is the desire to create even our desire?  Or are we just able at times to open to the desire of creation itself – or to an angel out ahead?

 

1  Corbin, Henri (1998) The Voyage and The Messenger, Iran and Philosophy; Berkeley, CA; North Atlantic Books.  This image originally comes from Exodus 23:20.

 

 

When desire is not enough

I had a phone call this morning from a dear friend telling me that Prapto, the Javanese movement artist and teacher who has had a profound influence on me in recent years, had died.  During the night before, I could not get to sleep because a poem was insisting on being written, so I kept getting up to write the lines down as they came through.  I looked at it this morning and it made deep sense to me.

When desire is not enough,

when the train has left the station,

the expectant traveler stranded alone

on an empty platform and

the heart says, there is nothing

here for me now,

when there is no possibility of returning,

the desired destination unattainable,

then an unexpected stillness arrives

and opens its doors –

destination uncertain.

Choose to step on board

carrying your open, aching heart.

 

A poem to share (not mine)

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

by Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

from Book of Hours, I 59

Opening the Gates, Part 2

I wrote about Inanna having the gates opened for her to descend into the underworld in my last post.  My own journey through gates has been different, although I can identify with hers at times.  In earlier posts through this past year I have written about many different kinds of desire, and I am noticing a theme in my process.  The word that expresses this theme is CONNECTION.  Inanna was intimately in touch with life, but desired to connect with her sister – the unknown shadow to life, which is death.  My journey has been to dare to open my gates to life, others and the world.  Sometimes, there have been times of being thrust back behind them.  Sometimes an opening has been sudden and overwhelming, leading to a withdrawal, but I celebrate that I have persevered.

I think my desire for connection arose at my birth, due to an experience of separation, impossible to understand and integrate at the time, which I have written about elsewhere.1  Perhaps the general human existential longing for connection begins with the birth experience.  I don’t know, but I think mine did.  Thinking deeply enough about this as a young woman made me passionate about not being separated from my babies when they were both born.  But there is another theme emerging alongside which relates to the desire for connection and ties into my earlier enquiries into fear – the desire to open the gates.  By this I mean the gates inside that defend me from the perceived threats of existence –  defend my vulnerability.  There can be no intimacy, no deep connection without vulnerability.  If any of the inner gates are closed, connection has been limited.  What I see in my own writing is this DESIRE TO OPEN, so that I can touch and be touched.

During the time of my enquiry into desire, I have been influenced by the Buddhist teacher, Rob Burbea.  I was attracted by his way of looking at desire as a positive, transformative force.  At the start of the Preface to his book on Emptiness, Rob maintains, “Curiosity and desire can be the most precious forces.”2   This strongly resonates with me.  I have attended retreats with him and listened to many of his on-line talks, and he keeps asking, “What is it you most deeply want?  What’s the most important thing?”  He also maintains that if you take the time to deeply reflect on this, once you get through the surface desires of the body and the habitual craving of the mind, you will discover that what you most deeply want is already available.  You just have to open to it.  This may sound simple, but it has been a long, challenging and, at times, devastating journey for me.

My gates have protected me when I felt intolerably vulnerable – but they became habits.  Habitual defences are difficult to detect, easier to see in another than in yourself.  If you don’t know they are there, the gates will stay closed.  Finding my way through my gates has been happening since I first felt the longing to connect as a small child.  A sad feeling of separateness is maybe the first clue I had of being closed off – what I am now seeing as being behind gates.  It was all a very instinctive, unconscious journey until, due to recurrent depression, I began looking at this feeling more directly in Encounter Groups during my late 20s.  Through the years I have explored many different approaches to opening my gates, so many I don’t want to list them all here.  It has required me to look at what is unknown and frightening – to risk being vulnerable.  In Inanna’s story, she finally understood complete, ultimate vulnerability – death.

In a few weeks I will be 70 and still, after all this time, my gates are needing to continue to be opened.  The instinct of the soul is to open – to be revealed, to make more and more contact.  Rob maintains that this is endlessly rich in its potential.  The survival instinct is to curl up and hide or run away from contact. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it – but it makes sense to me now.  There is the need to take care of myself – to take care of my vulnerability.  Threats can be real, I know.  But sometimes it is necessary to be vulnerable in the face of real threats – as Inanna was – as climate activists are.  There is no way to defend against the ultimate threat, anyway.  Our choices about this depend on what is really, deeply important to us.  That was why I asked what it was Inanna wanted – even though there is no one answer.  That is why I keep asking myself what it is I really want.  What do I deeply desire?

I want to open more and more.  I want to open my energy body – soften and blur my boundaries, without losing touch with that clear, empty axis within, grounded in earth and reaching up to sky.  I want to open my joints and the cells of my body.  I want to open all my senses, open my heart, open my mind.

I want to touch and be touched by everything, however vulnerable that makes me.  I want to feel connected to it all without losing my sense of being embodied.

Though this connection, I want to feel the uniqueness and beauty of each time, place, being and thing, big and small, gentle and terrible, in and around me, including my own beauty and uniqueness.  I want to open to the complexity of all of this without falling into overwhelm.

I want to be filled with love for it all.  And I want to express and create from this place – to share it and help others become aware of the precious potential of connection.

This is not too much to ask.

 

1Booker, M (2015) Nothing Special, Experiencing Fear and Vulnerability in Daily Life; Axminster, England; Triarchy Press.

2Burbea, R (2014) Seeing That Frees, Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising; West Ogwell, Devon; Hermes Amãra Publications.

Opening the Gates, Part 1

Very early on in my enquiry into desire – 3 years ago – I found myself drawn to the story of The Descent of Inanna to the Great Below, a Sumerian myth written down in cuneiform script on clay tablets about 4,000 years ago.  Sumer, as a distinct land and culture, was already 1,000 years old by then, having emerged over millennia in an area where agriculture began – what is now southern Iraq.    It was able to develop because these people discovered how to irrigate the land.  Although Sumer had two great rivers running through it, the Tigris and the Euphrates, it was basically desert-like.  For drinking water, people relied on deep wells.  Once they understood how to irrigate their fields, increasing the yield of their crops, cities were eventually able to develop and, with them, an elaborate and highly sophisticated culture, including art, music and literature.  It is this culture that is so beautifully evidenced in the clay tablets.  For my understanding of this story I drew on two translations: SN Kramer’s and the University of Oxford’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, both of which you can read for yourself.

But the first stirrings happened when, in the autumn of 2016, I was asked in a poetry class to try to write from the point of view of a mythological character.  Ereshkigal popped immediately into my mind, despite my not having thought of this myth for many years.  The poem (see below) came out as a whole in a 10 minute writing exercise and has not needed to be changed or developed since.  This rarely happens for me.  As I reflected on Ereshkigal’s words, I wondered, “What desire led Inanna into attempting to do such a deadly dangerous thing?”  Inanna was the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the Great Above.  In cosmology she was the morning and the evening star, shining and beautiful.  She was dynamic, passionate and overtly sexual – desire itself.  She was also the goddess of war, fierce in the defense of her people.    At the time Inanna decided to take this journey, she was no longer a young goddess.  She was in the fullness of her power.  Her consort was Dumuzi, the great Shepherd-God, King of Uruk, Inanna’s special city.  She had two grown sons, both of whom were kings in other cities.   She had the love of her people and many temples devoted to her.

The Descent is clearly a myth of the cycles of nature, of the connection between birth and death, reflected in the processes of sowing, growing and harvesting grain.  But, like all great stories, it comes across as more complex than that, with many possible layers of meaning.  It is a shamanic journey, where wisdom is brought back from the underworld at great cost.  It has been given the full Jungian treatment as a story of psychological transformation.1   I, myself, have used it to help a therapy client make sense of her depression.  On yet another level the story can be seen as a family drama.  Sumerian mythology has a family structure and the characters are all enmeshed in close relationships.  Ereshkigal was described as Inanna’s sister.  Enki, who as the God of Wisdom and of the Deep, Sweet Waters is a key element in the outcome of the story, was their maternal grandfather.  Nanna was Inanna’s father and Enlil was her paternal grandfather.  Inanna’s close servant, advisor, companion and friend was Ninshubur, who was a Queen from the East in her own right.  My interest was in looking at the story from the perspective of desire – What did Inanna feel she wanted?  It must have been a deep desire for her to take such a huge risk.  Did she know what it was she wanted? – or was there just a deep “wanting”?

At the beginning of the story, Inanna “opened her ear to the Great Below.  She set her mind on the Great Below”.  Samuel Noah Kramer, who was one of the translators of the tablets, tells us that the word for “ear” and for “wisdom” are the same in Sumerian, and that it can also mean “mind”.  And he says that the word translated as “opened” can mean “set”.  Inanna specifically placed (set) her mind (ear) on the Great Below.2  What motivated her to do this and what she felt about it are not told, although, given the choice of words, the desire for wisdom or knowing seems to have been part of it.  She just determined to go.  The story also speaks in terms of abandonment.  She abandoned her people and her temples.  She abandoned the Great Above.  She left everything behind her to make this journey.

She prepared by taking to herself the seven “me”, her divine powers, in the form of the garments she wore.  Then she called for Ninshubur and together they made their way to the Gates of the Underworld.  There, Inanna told Ninshubur she needed her to wait outside the gates for her return.  If she didn’t come out in three days, Ninshubur was to take on all the attributes and garments of mourning and go to Inanna’s powerful grandfather, Enlil, and ask him to intervene.  If he refused, then she was to go to Nanna, Inanna’s father, for help.  If this proved fruitless as well, then she must go to Enki, because “He knows the secrets” and would know what to do.

Then Inanna knocked loudly on the gates, which were guarded by the gatekeeper, Neti.  He didn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily want to come in and asked her, “Why has your heart led you on the road from which no traveller returns?”  Inanna announced it was because of her sister, Ereshkigal – and because she wanted to witness the funeral rites of her sister’s husband, The Bull of Heaven.  This last seems spurious to me and is never mentioned again, but the first rings true – she wanted to see her sister.  But why, and why now?  Here may lie the family drama.  Whatever the reason, Ereshkigal was not pleased when Neti brought her the news that her sister was outside the gate, demanding entrance.  Basically, she was being put into the position of having to commit sororicide.  She told Neti that he was to allow Inanna through the gates, all seven of them, but he must only lift each gate a little, so that she must crouch down in order to enter – and he was to remove one of her garments at each gate, thus divesting her of her divine powers.  The first time this happened, Inanna was indignant – but Neti firmly told her that she was not to question the ways of the underworld.  It seems to me that it must have been at this point, before which Inanna was every inch the proud and powerful goddess, that she realised the journey would not be on her own terms.  By the time she reached Ereshkigal, Inanna was naked and on her knees.

INANNA

Unlike the burning passion

I know so well –

hot, sticky and raging –

this desire rose cool and sharp

from deep inside me –

to see her, to touch her and know.

It would not let me rest.

 

I knew it would be risky

to go to my sister’s house,

so I left explicit instructions

with the woman I trusted most.

Even if the others refused,

the old man by the water

would not let me down.

 

Pierced through by longing

to hear her dark secrets,

the deeper I went

the less of me there was.

And when I looked up

into her obsidian eyes.

I knew I would know.

 

ERESHKIGAL

She wanted to come –

my beautiful, sparkling sister –

to visit me.

From where she danced in the sky –

kissing the moon –

she could not see me,

so failed to understand.

As much as I loved her, she needed to know

she could not just drop in for a chat.

 

So I stripped her of all her pretty things.

She could have turned back,

but she always was game for a lark –

up for a dare.  Even as a child

she would lead the way –

lifting up latches of doors

we were not meant to enter –

peering into places

we were not meant to see.

 

Here, I am in charge and I know this place.

The mysteries of darkness and death

are in my care –

not for the curious.

When finally she arrived –

naked and expectant –

I pulled off her shining skin

and hung up her dripping body.

She needed to understand her limits.

Outside the gates, Ninshubur waited the allotted three days, and then carefully followed the instructions Inanna had given her.  Both Enlil and Nanna refused to intervene, maintaining that Inanna well understood that going to “the Dark City” was a one-way trip.  It is interesting that in both translations these gods describe Inanna as having “craved” the Great Below – they believed she desired something there.  Ninshubur had to place all her hopes onto Enki.

NINSHUBUR

I did not want her to go.

But when she told me to stand guard –

to hold vigil – I thought:

I am a woman.

I know how to wait.

 

Her father and grandfather

dared not come between

these two puissant sisters.

I saw fear in their eyes,

and felt rage and despair.

 

So to the deep, sweet water

I walked and sat down.

I tore at my hair, called out my grievance.

The old man received me with

kindness and tears – then set to work.

 

ENKI

I heard her pain and grief

long before word arrived –

my skin tightened –

my bones ached.

This dark, solemn sister,

so aware of necessity,

knew she had no choice.

 

I remember them both

in my heart’s mind.

My fingers remember

the touch of their hair –

one like a raven’s wing –

the other, liquid light.

Two hearts beating in time.

 

Long separated –

co-existence not an option –

it was only a matter of time

before the shining one,

so full of possibility,

would seek the other out.

I choose to heal them both.

Enki pulled a little bit of dirt from under a fingernail on one of his hands and fashioned it into a tiny being, with no gender, and he called it a Kugara.  Then he pulled a little bit of dirt from under a fingernail on his other hand and fashioned it into another tiny being, with no gender, and he called it a Galatura.  To the Kugara he gave the Water of Life and to the Galatura he gave the Food of Life.  He told them to swiftly go down to the Gates of the Underworld and squeeze under them.  He said they would not be noticed because they were too small and they had no gender.  When they came into the presence of Ereshkigal, they would find her in great pain and unattended.  When she cried out, they must cry out too.  When she groaned, they were to groan with her.  When she moaned, they must moan too.  Then she would notice them, and she would be grateful that her pain had been witnessed and shared.  She would offer them a reward – anything they liked from all the riches of the world.  But they were to refuse anything she offered, and ask only for the body up on the hook – and she would give it to them.

KUGARA AND GALATURA

We are Enki’s emissaries.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

Like flies we flit to and through the dark gates.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

It’s life we carry – and the old man’s love.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

She’s alone and unaided – we come to her side.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

We hear her cry out – we hear her groan.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

We hear her pain – take her pain as our own.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

She is birthing in death and dying in birth.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

We echo her cries and offer our tears.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

She’s no longer alone – no longer unheard.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

She blesses our presence, gives us the dead.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

Both queens are restored by the water of life.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

Revived to themselves, healed of their strife.

We are not much – a pinch of dirt each.

 

The smallest of gestures can cross deep divides.

It need not be much – a glance or a word.

I’m here and I see you – I’m touched by your pain.

Empathy’s emissaries.

And so Inanna was restored to life by the intercession of Enki’s tiny beings, and she began her journey back to the Great Above.  I want to leave the story there.  What comes next is rich and interesting, but it doesn’t shed any more light on what desire drew Inanna to make the descent in the first place.  I told this story, including reciting the poems, to an audience at Wootton Fitzpaine parish hall.  It was well received and, afterwards, I asked them what deep desire they thought led Inanna to go on such a dangerous journey.  Some answers were along the family drama line, the sister-thing; some along the more shamanic line and many along the line of the need to bring together the opposites of light and dark, life and death.  A child in the audience said she thought Inanna had become dissatisfied with having everything she wanted, and desired to know what it was like to have nothing.  Of course, all of these answers are valid.  Here are my thoughts:

The child is right.  Inanna was filled to the brim with the delights of heaven and earth.  It was what she knew and she felt confident and powerful there.  But she did not know death.  She was aware of death, but had no deep knowledge of it.  She must have sensed the power of it – something she could not get at – could not understand.  This left her with a sense of absence, of lack, and therefore of longing.  The desire for the underworld is about what you want and don’t know, not about what you know and want.  It involves that intense sense of wanting to penetrate something you feel is there somewhere, just out of sight, just out of reach.  It requires going deeply inwards, into the dark.

There are times in life when death reaches out and touches you.  Then the need, the desire even, wells up inside to understand what it really means.  From childhood onwards, it has come up many times in my life – death’s existential mystery.  Sometimes it has been just a soft brushing past and sometimes it has been a hard blow.  Since the death of my parents and then of several friends, mostly younger than me, combined with the undeniable aging of my own body, my awareness of the nearness and elusiveness of death appears on an almost daily basis.

I am beginning to see that my explorations into fear, creativity and vulnerability all have been, to some extent, a response to this call from the Great Below.  But I have also been passionately listening to the call of the Great Above.  I hear it in the song and flight of birds, see it in the soft look in another’s eyes, feel it in the shock of moorland or sea air in my lungs.  Desire is about life and, for me, about wanting to feel fully alive.  I don’t think Inanna wanted to lose her life.  It’s more like she wanted to add death to her life.  I think my bringing together of fear, creativity, vulnerability and desire have been further enabling me to “open the gates” – and these gates have levels of meaning, just like the story of Inanna has.  My deep desires are around feeling fully connected to my place in being.  This includes both death and life.

1Perera, S.B. (1881) Descent to the Goddess, A Way of Initiation for Women; Toronto, Canada; Inner City Books.

2Wolkstein, D & Kramer, S N (1983) Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer; New York, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Sand Francisco, London, Mexico City, Sãn Paulo, Sydney; Harper & Row Pub.

The desire behind the journey

The journey is a much used metaphor for the trajectory of life – as well as for the different phases, aspects or particular experiences of life.  It is a metaphor with mythic potential: the journey of the sun and of the moon in the sky, of migrations both human and animal, Homer’s Odyssey, the Saga of Eric the Viking, the Crusades, Eros and Psyche, the shamanic journey, etc.  Journeys appear over and over again in fairy tales: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the Snow Queen, Jack and the Beanstalk and The Musicians of Bremen, to name a few.  But the journey metaphor also has a deeply personal potential: the journey of one’s life as a whole, a journey of the heart, a journey of adolescent discovery, an educational journey like through university or a professional training, the journey of parenthood, an actual journey to a particular place or places and the way this impacts your life, a spiritual journey, and so on.

Journeys imply time, place and change.  You are not the same at the end of a journey as you were at the start.  I suggest that behind every journey in life or in story, lies desire.  There is something that one wants, hopes for, desires that motivates the action and direction of a journey – the more important the journey is, the deeper the underlying desire.  The deep desire motivating the journey may not always be known or understood by the journeyer.  It may lie beneath many layers of desire that feed the journey.

I am going to share here a particular journey I took in my early 20s – my emigration to Britain, where I have remained ever since. Initially I just wanted to separate from my life as it was in the US.  I wanted to separate from my family, from my former lover and from what I saw as the excessive consumerism and superficiality of Californian life – to have a new beginning.  I had spent a summer travelling around the UK, mostly hitch-hiking, just before my last year at university, and it had given me a sense of freedom, excitement and adventure that charmed me.  I had a sexual encounter that summer, that awoke a deeper physical passion in me than I had so far known, and I felt I wanted more of this. This desire for freedom was, I believed, what mainly drove my decision to undertake my journey.  Of course, as we know, life is not so simple.  I met many challenges, difficulties, and emotional heartaches within a short space of time after my arrival.  I was not free after all, as I had to earn a living, work out relationships, and make important decisions about creating new circumstances in my life.  It was hard.  But I still wanted to stay in Britain.  Why?  I didn’t really know at the time, but at every point where I could have returned to the US, I felt compelled to remain where I was.

After many years, what I have uncovered is my desire to be close to my mother – and to “mother” in terms of the earth that I feel I come from.  This makes my journey seem counter-intuitive, as my mother was American and I left her to undertake it.  But, a bit of family history might help reveal an understanding.  My father was English, and my mother was American.  She fell in love with him in the late 1930s, when she met him in Washington DC where he was a visiting scientist at the Carnegie Institution.  Against the wishes of her father, she married him and headed for England, just as the clouds of war were gathering.  He was returning to undertake the development of radar, which became a hugely important defensive tool during the war.  My mother moved with him from Cambridge, to Swanage and then to Malvern, following the radar research as it moved to avoid enemy detection.  I now understand the psychological romance of wartime existence that affected so many of her generation in Britain, but as a child what I felt was her deep connection with that place and time.  She was in love, during an intense time, in a new place, bonding with others in the same boat.  It remained a part of her own journey that had a kind of mythic aura about it.  When she talked about it, I could feel her sense of connection.  And that kind of connection was something I felt deeply lacking in myself.  So, without consciously realising it, I tried (mistakenly) to reproduce that experience of connection she had found.  What I really wanted was to connect with her – and to find, through that, connection to place, to body, to life.

I did eventually begin to find my own means of connection – but that was another journey, not the journey of migration I made in my 20s.  It took 40 years for me to really deeply connect with this place on earth and with my own body.  Through this connection there is a growing sense of a deeper and ever present connection, which I now experience as having been there and available all along – waiting to be recognised.

 

 

 

 

The desire for freedom – from what? to what?

A strong human desire that is expressed, as far as I can see, in all places and at all times of our history, is the desire for freedom.  That is not to say that everyone prioritises this desire.  Some people place their desire for safety and security before their desire for freedom.  But is this just prioritising the “freedom from” (hunger, uncertainty, pain, fear etc.) over the “freedom to” (move, express themselves, explore, question, develop etc.)?  And then, of course, there is the desire for freedom from desire, as in the Buddhist sense.

When I ponder deeply about the desire for freedom, I go down into my body and feel into a sense of not being free.  It feels immediately tight – constricted.  If I go with this further into the place of oppression, the images are of being bound, closed in, behind a barrier that I can see through but cannot open and go out – no access to the unlimited possibilities of being alive.  A feeling of anger arises at being unfree.  This is an anger that can lead to violence, revolt and war.  It feels powerfully energetic.  I want to burst the chains that bind, break open the gates – and push aside, even hurt, anyone that I feel is linked to my oppression or might try to block my movement to freedom.

When oppression is there – one person or group denying the freedom of another person or group – something needs to change.  How to bring about that change for all those involved – maximise both the freedom from and the freedom to – is a complex social issue that is essential to continue to address.  But it is not what I want to explore here.  I am more interested in inner freedom and, if you like, self-oppression.  The desire is the same, but the solutions are, perhaps, particular to the individual.

I think, for me, the desire for freedom is a deep desire.  It resonates through my body and my heart.  I recognise the feeling of constriction from my meditation practice – and I know that it is a sign of what in Buddhism is called “craving”, something I have already written about in my post “Desire arises from contact – a Buddhist perspective”.  Craving is a particular kind of desire to grasp at, cling to or push away whatever is seen as desirable or undesirable contact.  It is associated with the sense that things are not as they should be, a feeling of dissatisfaction, that in Buddhism is called dukkha.  How to free oneself from this craving is one of the main thrusts of Buddhist teachings.

I have learned, from Buddhist meditation practices and from Qigong, a way of following my desire for freedom that is not about engaging with the constriction through anger and effort.  Both anger and effort bring even more sense of constriction.  Freedom, instead, comes through relaxing more and opening more – becoming more soft and vulnerable, but without collapsing.

Initially, this feels counter-intuitive.  For instance, fear triggers the desire to escape what is seen as frightening and find safety.  In a survival situation, this is essential.  But, if it is not a real, here-and-now survival situation, the desire to escape becomes craving.  The mind and body feel constricted – insisting that you escape in whatever way you have learned to in your life.  I withdraw behind my inner gates and become, by so doing, less free.   I may believe myself to be more free from the source of the fear – but my “freedom to” has been seriously compromised.

An interesting reflection I have had about my desire for freedom is that I don’t want to be free of everything.  I want to be free within a sense of also being held – contained.  There needs to be a balance of some kind.  I can feel more free to move, to create, to express myself, if I feel held.  I think this is just because I am a human being, and we humans always need to feel we are in some way connected to others, or at least another.  This takes me back to what I wrote in the post, Why do I want to be witnessed.  I desire a sense of inner and outer freedom and feel it most when I am also held in open, warm, relaxed connection.  I want both, so there is a need for balance.

Within Buddhism, attachment is seen as a cause of dukkha.  But, to my surprise, I found when I married my husband, 25 years after we first got together, that a sense of great freedom and release came from giving in to, acknowledging and opening to my real attachment to him!  Before we got married, there was always a sense that we could break free from each other, and committing to a marriage has, in that sense, made us less free.  But I feel more free.  Is this just more free from the danger of losing him?  I know that by becoming attached I open myself to the pain of eventually losing him through death, my own or his.  Is the balance in freedom a balance between freedom from and freedom to?

Going deeper to be loved.

When I declared in my Longing is not desire post that I wanted “to touch and be touched by everything”, I knew that this required a degree of openness and vulnerability I had not yet allowed myself.  Was the statement an invitation?  Or is that way of thinking too reductionist and simplistic?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, shortly following a fall in the middle of May this year, I experienced a mini-stroke that rendered me more open and vulnerable than perhaps I have ever been since I was an infant.  I had no energy to resist feeling this vulnerable – I had to just allow it.  My body literally shook for several days at frequent intervals, like a rabbit who has had a near miss with death.  I could do nothing – go nowhere.  At first I had difficulty thinking and speaking.  It was over a week before I could even begin to reflect on what had been happening.  I was open to every emotion in and around me and found myself often in tears.  At some point in this time, the new neighbours across the road had the beautiful tulip tree in their front garden cut down.  I howled in grief and then wanted to kill.  Thank goodness I had no magical weapon to hand.  The swifts did not return when they usually do and I cried whenever I thought of them (some have now come back).  My friend wisely told me to stop listening to the news, because it was upsetting me so.

But the really interesting thing in all this weakness, openness and vulnerability was the kindness and love that washed towards and through me from so many people.  Now, I passionately believe in caring (see Do you care?) and I have been more than able to care for others: friends, lovers, my children, my students and clients and the many creatures we share this world with; but I have had to work very hard to allow myself to be cared for or cared about.  Not an unusual story, I know.  It’s all about vulnerability.  You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to deeply feel the caring of others.  My stroke rendered me deeply vulnerable and the care flooded in.  I hope I never stop crying about this.  Not only am I loved – but I have allowed myself to feel loved.  It took a stroke to get me there.  I wish it had not been so hard.  However, I am very lucky.  It was only a mini stroke, from which I will completely recover – not a full blown stroke.  And this huge lesson is the gift of it.

Why do I want to be witnessed?

I’m exploring here my desire to be witnessed in movement practice and what seems to happen when I experience being witnessed.  I acknowledge that the developmental root of this desire is within the mother/child dyad – the need for the mother’s gaze.  If there is any sense of lack arising from this need, it can lead to a longing for “being seen” – a sense of want based on longing and lack.  I know this longing well, and it has affected my relationships with important others all my life.  But I have already said that I want to take desire beyond longing and lack.  I am curious – is my desire to be witnessed just about longing and lack? – or is it more than this?

It doesn’t feel like a longing – it feels like a desire.  Partly this is because I have increasingly given myself the opportunities to experience it.  There is a sense of the excitement – frisson – about being witnessed when I move.  I know it will be a different experience from when I am moving within a group without having a focused witness.  It is also different from moving within a public context where I am noticed and watched by others.  There is some similarity to when I am performing for an audience – certainly then there is a sense of intensification – but I don’t have to be performing to feel these effects.

Movement practice is not therapy.  It feels very different to me, even if there are therapeutic outcomes that can arise from it.  So, let me try to distinguish having the attention of a therapist from having the kind of attention I am talking about.

As a dramatherapist, I have developed some understanding of the effects of therapeutic witnessing.  There is, of course, the sense of holding, receiving and supporting, which relates to the developmental roots mentioned above.  It’s an important function of the therapist role – to give the client a healing experience of being seen – and this is on-going in both one-to-one and group therapy.  But, in a therapy group, I have noticed something more than this can arise.  What I have experienced when being actively witnessed in a therapeutic group setting (the focus of the group is on what I am expressing) is an intensification in what I am feeling and a heightened focus in what I am doing.  It suddenly feels more “real”.  I believe I become more connected to myself as well as to the context I am in.  I have talked about this in the past with my dramatherapy students, and they have reported a similar experience.

Witnessing, of the kind I desire, means giving agreed, gentle and curious attention from a kind of distance.  The witness has no particular desire to affect the actions of the person being witnessed.  They have no particular agenda for the other within their role – although, just by witnessing, they do affect them.

I had a lovely experience recently of being witnessed in a movement group.  The instructions to the witness were to allow and witness the other’s “complexity” as they moved. I felt the usual “frisson” and also an intensification of my awareness and focus.  But something more than this began to happen – I felt free.  And with this a kind of playful joy arose.  Was it my complexity being “allowed” that enabled this?  Was it the quality of the attention my witness gave me?  Was I just at that place in my own process where this could happen?  Or a complex mixture of all of these?

The context of a group seems a factor in what I experience – whether the witness is another in the group, or the group, itself, is witnessing.  Is this about having a social context? – about the primal group (family)?

 

 

 

Desire as Life

 

It is possible to view, and to feel, desire as an expression of life force: the desire of each alive being to have its own life – the desire to grow, to express one’s being, and to procreate – the desire of life to create more life.  In early spring the desire for the return of the light arises strongly in me and others – for the return of the life that light brings.  When the light is returning, there is a huge energy for life seen and felt all around.

In my life I have experienced several bouts of lengthy depression – some deeper and longer than others.  In that place, desire disappears.  I have never arrived at the point of reaching a true desire for death, but I certainly know the lack of desire for anything at all.  There has always been something that keeps me going – but it never feels like desire.  Eventually, I have learned that depression does not last.  The last time it arose, I saw it and knew it quite quickly – and knew I just had to wait it out.  That was an awareness that took the darkness and fear out of depression – but not the lack of desire, energy, motivation and joy in life.

Over 30 years ago, in my Jungian readings, I came across the metaphor of a mythological journey of descent for depression – and saw that I could view it as my psyche needing time in the underworld.  I couldn’t follow it there – my body was left empty in the land of the living.  I had to wait for re-emergence, and the time needed has varied from a few weeks to many months.  But learning about, and resonating with, the mythological journey to the underworld or Earth’s seasonal cycles, is one thing.  It took more years and further descents for the realisation of this to become embodied and part of my deep knowing.  Discovering the metaphor was a seed of understanding, not the lived understanding itself, which required repeated journeys into depression.  These kinds of insights keep deepening with lived experience.

As shown in the poem below, there can be a kind of longing in depression – but it is not desire.

Turning

 

I have wanted to lie down in a muddy field –

to have rain dissolve my bones and my flesh –

to become earth again.

 

I have wanted my body to be carried by a river

out onto the sea –  shifted like driftwood –

above the deep wet.

 

I have wanted to stretch and thin out –

the wind to blow through me –  my cell walls to open

like wings to the air.

 

Fleeing like Daphne, this longing to shapeshift –

turn away from the fire – has never endured.

I return to desire.

Lemon Desires

Desire is everywhere.  I was recently presented with a number of items and invited to choose the one I desired – I went straight to a lemon.

Lemon Desires

 

This lemon wants to have my attention – and it does.

It wants me to break open its bright yellow skin.

As I do, my desire increases with its

only-possible-as-lemon scent.

Its desire meets and engages my desire.

We are in a mutual desire relationship.

 

This lemon wants its seed released

to germinate, to reach for the warmth,

then the light of the sun.

 

This lemon wants to express its treeness –

to root, branch, leaf and blossom –

to open its blossom, exude nectar and pollen –

to arouse the desire of bees.

The exotic, erotic blossom desires to pollenate

and be pollenated.

 

This lemon embraces the desire of

seed, tree and blossom to fruit –

and requires the whole cosmos

for its fulfilment.

I desire to be a willing participant

in this relationship of desire –

to see, to touch, to hold, to smell,

to break into, to taste –

too sour!

What is Desire?

In many conversations I have had about writing this blog and exploring desire, there comes the question of definition:  What is desire?  I don’t feel any urge to answer this in a definitive way.  I have already said that longing, for me, is not desire – and yet I know it is an important element of some desires.  It just does not equate with desire for me.

However, I am always interested in what others say about this question.  A friend recently sent me this quote, which is from “Abraham Hicks” who is a channelled teacher.  I have nothing to say at the moment about the value or not of channelled teachings, but I found the quote interesting:

We would describe the sensation of desire as the delicious awareness of new possibilities.  Desire is a fresh, free feeling of anticipating wonderful expansion.  The feeling of desire is truly the feeling of life flowing through you.  But many people, while they are using the word desire, feel something quite different. Desire for them often feels like yearning.  For while they are focused upon something that they want to experience or have they are equally aware of its absence.  And so, while they are using words of desire, they are offering a vibration of lack. They come to think that the feeling of desire is like wanting something that they do not have.  But there is no feeling of lack in pure desire.

I recently wrote a “found” poem on desire as a verb.  A found poem is one that is basically something the poet has found, and turned into a poem just by how it is arranged.  This poem I “found” in my much used, very battered paperback Thesaurus, which has been a companion for about 55 years. I have hardly changed what was there on the page and it is still in the same order that it was.

To Desire: Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus, 1963

 

To wish, wish for, care for, affect,

like, take to, cling to, fancy.

To prefer, have an eye to, have a mind to.

To have a fancy for, have at heart, be bent upon.

To set one’s heart (or mind) upon,

covet, crave, hanker after, pine for, long for.

To hope, etc.

To woo, court, ogle, solicit, fish for.

To want, miss, need, lack, feel the want of.

 

Note how Roget finishes with lack.  And there is no inclusion of anything like what Abraham Hicks describes as “pure desire”.  What is this “pure” desiring?  What jumps out for me in the Hicks quote is the word “expansion”.  This word resonates with my own sense of deep desire – that it is an opening to, rather than a closing around, the other, whatever that other may be.  This quality of expansion takes desire out of the realms of craving and of lack.

 

 

Wings of Desire

The poem below is named after a wonderful Wim Wenders’ film from 1987 called Wings of Desire.  Filmed in black and white, it tells the story of an angel whose task is to support mortals in need on the streets of Berlin.  There are many deeply touching moments in this film, but the crux of the story is that the angel falls in love with a trapeze artist and renounces his angelic status to become human so that he can love her more fully.

I have two children, first a son and then a daughter.  I feel utterly blessed in this.  I still remember the powerful desire for children that gripped me in my early 30s.  Each time it was different.  The first time there was a viseral tension in it: must have!  But the second time was different.  As the poem shows, I felt my heart calling out and a definite answer came back.  After her birth, I never felt the desire to have a baby again – although I love babies.

Wings of Desire

For Alice

 

Standing in weak winter sunshine

on the draughty floorboards

of our small tied cottage,

I closed my eyes and silently

called from my heart,

“Are you there?”

 

To my surprise, you answered

with a soft feather touch on my face –

my desire for you touched

by your desire for me –

this body – this life.

 

For days after,

in solitary moments,

I felt you fluttering around me –

and then a great calm.

 

It was no surprise

when the sickness began.

Had you been a boy,

your name would have been

Gabriel.