Poem: Inside, Outside. Lockdown III

This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.

Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.

But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.

It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.

Inside. Outside   Lockdown III

Inside, looking out,
through golden light
to cold grey,
through glass
and warm air
and stillness,
to where the
cold wind shudders the trees.


Outside, the curved seedpods
of the tree peony
drip with ice rain,
glittering

While candlelight
and lamplight
are reflected in the glass,
and glow orange in
the darkening grey garden.

And a tumble of birds
comes, and goes,
comes, and goes,
chattering endlessly
on the feeders
that sway in the sharp wind

And if I hold my nerve,
and hold the gardener’s gaze,
even from here I can see
that fuzz of green
on the ice-furzed soil –
Herb Robert, violets,
the tissue-paper yellow
of wet primroses,
and the soft spears
of bulbs just beginning.
Bluebells.  Cerise gladioli.

Outside seems far away.
A different air.
A different light.
But soon my boots
will be on my feet,
and my coat wrapped about me,
and I will feel that frost,
and the cold wind,
and I will feel
the ice rain again.

To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.

The coming of the Magi – Epiphany

Today, I’m sharing with you an extract of my retelling of the Story of the Magi – the Wise Men. Today is the day we celebrate their arrival, and their gifts. You can read a previous year’s bog post here – where I write of how so many different people came to know about the birth of Jesus in so many different ways. How attentiveness can lead to the joy of finding a King, a hope, even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Today, I’ve been mulling over the ways we can fail to see. In this story, people fail to see – or see and profoundly miss the point. There is Herod, insecure in all his power and wealth, seeing only a challenge to him personally. Unaware, as they all are, of how this is a different kind of king altogether, he responds with fear, and manipulative cruelty. He knew of the birth, but could not see beyond his own enclosing neediness. His sight turns inward. And then there are the experts in the law. They knew, too, in the sense that they pored over the scrolls and could give and answer to Herod’s questions, but they don’t seem to have done anything good with that knowledge. On the contrary, they share their knowledge with Herod, and so contribute to the terrible sequel to this story. They did not seek out the new Messiah as far as we are told – I wonder why not? Were they so caught up with their own study of the scriptures that they did not step outside to see what new work of God was opening so close by? Were they so caught up in the service of Herod, or at least their influence with him, that they could not see outside the wealth and power of that palace? Were they afraid?

We don’t know. What we can see, throughout the Christmas stories, is how God is at work in places and in people you would not expect. And, if we look to the religious experts, and those in power – Herod and these experts in scripture – we find they are so full of their own power, their own position, they are unable to see this glorious new thing.

But let’s not stay in Herod’s court. Let’s journey in strange and wise company, looking to the star to guide us. Let’s enter the house where the child Jesus and his mother are, and lay what we have before this most extraordinary of kings. Let us open our eyes to the unexpected, and look for God to be at work.

Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) chalk and grisaille on paper 58×47 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright
From Visual Grace

They Followed a Star

Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising.  For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before.  They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews.  They saw a sign in the heavens!”  Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame.  What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?”  The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”

“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace.  He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news.  He told them all about Bethlehem.  “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship.  What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more.  And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem.  They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary.  She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.

She unclasped the caskets one by one.  The first shone, it was full of gold.  The second opened to a rich, sweet smell.  “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself.  It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin.  It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing.  Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.

The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him.  They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star.  So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.

From The Bible Story Retold

Lord Jesus,
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.

The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.

The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.

…….

Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.

…….

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him –
give my heart.

Christina Rosetti

From Prayers and Verses

Poem – Dreaming of Flowers, Lockdown III

Here in England we are back in lockdown – I think it’s Lockdown III, depending on how you count the November one. It’s exhausting, and so difficult for so many, with all the chopping and changing. It’s dreadful to watch the numbers of sick and dying rising every day, and to hear of the hardships lockdown brings too. It’s relentless. I am so grateful to the science and health professionals who are working so hard to both tend the sick and find ways of overcoming the virus. I am so grateful for the promise of the vaccines. I only hope we can get them delivered quickly and effectively.

In the first lockdown, I wrote snatches of poems which often started from times of quiet, seeking stillness in the garden. You can read about that here. How much of that I’ll do at this time of year I don’t know. What this lockdown will bring we can’t say. But I find myself drawn again to the gentle changes of weather and season, plants and flowers, as a way of steadying myself, and marking the passage of time, and connecting with something beyond myself which gives glimpses of hope.

In the November lockdown, or circuit-break, I’m not quite sure what name to give it, I indulged the gardener’s delight of ordering and planting bulbs for the spring, and began dreaming of flowers – I found myself waking with planting schemes forming in my mind. I needed something to look for beyond the shortening of the days, the closing in of the weather, and the uncertainty surrounding Christmas. I found it was effective. It was someting within my control, something I could do to introduce an element of hope and change and the promise of beauty. It gave me physical work, too, which in turn helps with sleep.

And yesterday, the notebook came out, and tentative jottings began to emerge.

So I don’t know whether this will become a regular practice, but, as in the first lockdown, I thought I’d share with you whatever it is that comes up, and see if that connects with you, who are kind enough to share your time and attention with me here. I hope we can peep outside, and see something that lifts us. I hope we can receive the gifts this dark season gives, and perhaps bring a few sprigs of green inside. We can plant hope, even here.

So this poem, which might be the first of a new series of Lockdown poems, draws on the earlier planted hope, and receives encouragement and delight from seeing new things spring up. I also wonder – what this time? What might I do during this lockdown? Of course, there is no necessity for there to be anything, it is enough to live in these strange days, but, I am wondering what there might be that is within my scope and power to do, to begin, to dream of….

Dreaming of flowers  Lockdown III

Each morning, now,
as the sun nudges fitfully up,
I do my rounds of the garden,

sometimes under a wide umbrella,
walking with as much grace
as I can muster,
careful not to trample the
sodden, spongy ground.


I am looking for fingers of crocus,
ready to spread,
and snowdrops, grey-green
in the dark soil.
I am looking for what I planted,
and for what has inched
in patient drifts through
the waiting ground.

And there, and there,
I begin to see.
Each day, I hope,
a few more,
and a little taller.

On better nights,
I dream of flowers now,
and wake to think of flowers.
Red and purple
and orange, spread
like velvet, loud with bees.
The hard knots of bulbs
I planted in fistfuls
by November’s shrinking light –
in a fury of hope,
in defiance of the
narrowing circle
of my life, of our lives –
they will awaken.


They are beginning
to do their work now,
this time, within me,
locked down once more,
they are beginning
to push up from the
cold dark depths,
beginning to green
in this faintest, tentative,
stretching of the light.

And what this time?
What will I do that
could push through
the darkness with
green spears of hope,
could fill my dreams
with the scent of life?