Poem – Crows

A few weeks ago we were away, staying near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.  I loved the deep steep valleys full of trees, with farmland and moorland above. I also loved the way we were close to towns, and railways, and the busy life of people. We were near Haworth, Bronte country, and staying at Hardcastle Crags, which some of you may know from the Sylvia Plath poem.  I hadn’t realised quite how close we were to the places where Ted Hughes grew up and lived, and was so excited to come across the occasional little plaque in the landscape referring to this poem, or that. My backpack carried collections of poems, and notebooks, as well as chocolate and water.

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So, I’ve been reading them both lately – Plath and Hughes – as well as beginning to turn some of our walks into poems of my own.  It’s taking a while, but reading Ted Hughes has reawakened my curiosity about the crows who visit our garden.  I remember doing an English project at school on Crow, and have come back to look at that collection again, in all its darkness.

What I noticed about the crows that I have come to know a little, here, is their sociability, their memory, their communication despite the apparent sameness of their cries.  They seem intelligent and sociable creatures, and I have written a couple of poems from here, in my garden.  It helps to pull things together – lived experience, and the inspiration of others – and to add a small voice to the other voices that sing songs in our landscapes.

I have also loved the wonderful exhibition at The Sainsbury Centre, UEA, of Elizabeth Frink’s work.  I have been so looking forward to that ever since I heard it was coming, as I have felt drawn to her sculptures for quite a few years, and wanted to see more.  The birds particularly struck me.

 

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Crows

Now it is winter, the crows have come back
with the north wind, with the darkness.
They land softly, and in number,
at their old roosting place –
what remains the great beech
just there, ahead of us.

And then they rise again, suddenly.
They land and rise and caw,
and land, and rise, and caw.
The branches shake their dry leaves.
Can the birds tell the tree is dead,
not sleeping?
They do not settle,
whatever they know.

They crisscross the sky in dark lines
above me in the garden.
They land first here, then there.
They try the blackthorn,
and the sycamore.
They drench the holm oak
with their dark wings,
and strip it of acorns.
Their sharp black beaks and
shark black claws work and work.

All the time their cawing calls,
they seek a new place,
they keep tied to each other
with these black lines,
with these cries,
as they fly restlessly
to and fro,
to and fro.

 

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I have  recently, and unusually for me, done a day’s workshop in lino cut printing at The lettering arts trust.  It was such an inspiring environment, surrounded by such excellent work.  I reminded myself to be inspired, not daunted! We had a very talented tutor, Louise Tiplady, who shared very generously of her time and talents.

I wanted to experiment with trying something at home.  It’s really satisfying to gouge away at the lino, letting shapes emerge.  The top of these two is the lino itself, and you can see how I’ve printed sometimes in red, sometimes in blue, taking out more as I felt I needed to.  I don’t have proper inks yet – I was using old ink stamps – and that might account for the blurry, grainy texture.  It’s something I’d like to keep trying, seeing if I can capture some ideas visually, as well as in words.

 

Norfolk coast path – a poem about the bus.

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This year is a year of walking.

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Peter, my husband, is doing the Country Walking 1000 miles  challenge. He’s well ahead of schedule, and it’s a brilliant project, doing him much good. I don’t tend to sign up for things that have quite such a big commitment to exertion, but I seem to be covering a great many miles, even so!  I just reserve the right not to, for instance now, when evening walking leaves me too hot to sleep….

We thought we might give the Norfolk Coast Path a go – Hunstanton to Cromer, as it’s not too far away, and flat, and beautiful, and dotted with lovely B and Bs and tea shops and pubs for rest stops….

And we did!  Before the weather got to be quite as hot as it is now, we walked the distance, with breezes and the cool brown North Sea to keep us going.  Taking on such a, for me, long walk was made all the sweeter by the memory of illness recovered from, health restored.  How good to feel the strength of your body, to rejoice in its ability to just keep on going.  How good to let your feet take you over sand, and marsh, and boardwalk, and lane. It felt good to rejoice in being upright, and in seeing such beauty.

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I’m hoping to write up some more of what filled my notebooks as we went, but, for now, I’m just dipping my toes back in with a poem about a key part of the walk, the coast bus, which made it possible.  You can walk one way and get the bus back, or to wherever you need to be that night.  It’s a bus well used by the locals, who are happy to tell you about good shops, and places to see marsh harriers, and other useful things.  It’s cheerful and kindly as community services often are.

One day, we were done as the schools closed, and it was so good to share a few miles with kids who were clearly happy to be on their way home again.  It prompted another small poem, which I share with you now.

 

Norfolk coast bus

Sitting on the coast bus after
the wild open walking,
the huge sky,
the oyster-catchers,
The saltmarsh, and the reeds,
my legs stick to plastic seats,
the sun strikes hot through glass,

But as I breathe and cool, I hear the
young voices all around me,
laughing, wrestling with
musical instruments,
sports kit,
bags of files,
the weight of
home-from-school.

And when anyone reaches their stop,
one boy, near the front,
says goodbye to them,
each in turn,
and the partings ripple
back down the bus –
he, young as he is,
sets the tone.

You see the web
woven between them,
hot in nylon blazers,
and feel the life of them,
the kindness of them,
despite their loads.

For these few miles
I feel I am in community,
connected,
as I take off my straw hat,
and loosen the damp hair
from my head,
as the sound of voices
surrounds me
as the bonds of friendship
surround me,
I am restored.

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Poem – The courtesie of pigeons

Each morning at the moment, I go outside to see what’s happening.  I don’t get up with the dawn, so by the time I go outside, life has been bursting out for a couple of hours – there’s always something beautiful that makes me catch my breath.

I spend time sitting, meditating, or in contemplative prayer, and then I get out my notebook and try to write what I see, what is happening right now.

Our old bench was beginning to rock and sway, especially if more than one person sat on it, so we have a beautiful new one from Genesis, Orwell Mencap  I particularly like the way that someone involved in making the furniture comes to help deliver it, and see where it will be enjoyed.

 

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Sometimes, sitting on the bench, life’s dramas play out before you. This one, with the pair of pigeons who nest in our garden, felt like part of an old chivalric romance, hence the rather archaic spelling….

The courtesie of pigeons

The pigeons, on the roof-ridge,
or on the black line of the
telephone wire,
begin this dance the same
each day.

She, head bowed slightly away,
He, with a deep murmur,
bows low, his beak sinks
to meet the wire, or the tile.
With a tail elevated to the sky,
he puffs up, more than
his full size,
his wings droop slightly.
He rises and bows,
Rises and bows.

My strength, lady,
is yours to command,
is at your disposal
should you wish it, lady.

But she steps sideways,
and again,
and flies, nonetheless,
but, nonetheless,
she cannot always do so,

for each year, come summer,
plump grey squabs sidle
across the lawn,
feasting on its richness.

 

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Photograph by Africa Gomez

 

It calls to mind another pigeon saga…..Nest

Dorset Poems – Scrumping in a Hurricane

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So, here is another poem from our trip to Dorset, when we stayed in this beautiful, remote National Trust cottage.  Like most of the poems, the extraordinary weather plays a part.  This time, the powerful winds and sudden gusts of the remains of Hurricane Ophelia brought an end to the moral dither I was in about apples.

There were many glorious and very ancient apple trees, which presumably were owned by the National Trust, being on their land.  However, it was so remote down our lanes that it was hardly surprising that no-one was gathering them.  I could gather them. Whether or not I had a right to, I was unsure.   On the other hand, to let so much food go to waste is another kind of crime.  Food use versus property rights.  I knew what I thought of that particular tussle, but only acted when Ophelia swept along, and swept the fruit off the trees.

The apples really were delicious!

 

Scrumping in a hurricane

So, here are the old apple trees,
behind a wall of warm stone.
Their branches, their trunks,
are gnarley and twisted,
some drip grey with lichen,
all are heavy with fruit.

They belong to the old manor
where we stay,
a remnant of an ancient hamlet.
So, do they belong to us,
here as we are
for only a few days?

The smell drifts over the wall,
sweet, you can taste the juice
in your mouth.
The apples lie in red,
extravagant heaps in
the long grass.
No one comes to gather them.

And then, storm warnings shake
the branches,
and then, the skirts of the
hurricane brush the hillside,
and as the apples fall,
I go and gather them,
enough for us while we
are here,
and peel them as the
juice flows over my hands,
and cook them with the blackberries
that whip across the path

And eat.  What are they?
No varieties I know,
but they are good, so good,
and good the next day
in porridge,
and good the day after
cold, and purple,
and sweet.

 

 

Dorset Poems – St Gabriel’s Chapel, 1

 

We’ve come back from such a tranquil, peaceful break at a National Trust Holiday Cottage – this one was down a long lane which said “No Cars”, and then we turned off to an even smaller lane where the grass swished against our exhaust pipe.  It felt so safe and undisturbed. I felt myself calming as we slipped further away down these winding lanes. While we were there, we did a lot of walking.  Taking the car out was less attractive than just putting on boots and setting off. And while we were there, the remains of Hurricane Ophelia made her presence felt.

She did great damage in Ireland, but where we were, we felt the effects of a dramatic weather event, without the destructive force.  My notebook went with me as we walked, and I tried to record something of the landscape’s response to the storm.

 

 

St Gabriel’s Chapel

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Walks from the door.

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Seatown beach, with Golden Cap behind.  There is an excellent pub, The Anchor to refresh the weary walker! Portugese man of war jellyfish washed up on the beach.

We stayed near the ruined chapel of St Gabriel.  As I sat to write, my thoughts diverged down two paths.  As an experiment, I’m trying to explore both paths in poems, each path taking as it’s starting point the experience of sitting in the chapel as the wind blew.  This first poem follows a more direct path, the one we took over the cliffs back to another cottage where we had stayed as a family years ago, a place full of memory.  It was so good to retrace such freedom and laughter.  Next door Downhouse Farm runs a garden cafe with delicious food, and we enjoyed resting and recovering there, before turning back.  It was a long walk, taking in Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast, and as we climbed and descended, the sky began to turn a strange red, as the dust that came before the storm filled the air.

 

 

St Gabriel’s Chapel, Dorset,
Storm Ophelia
1

From inside this small, stone chapel,
over broken walls
I can see the sea –
the wild white water crashing
into the cob at Lyme,
the many clouds moving fast,
as one, the sky sliding
against the earth
as leaves
scratch in corners,
tangle in hair.
Yesterday the trees held
more, far more,
when we walked seven
hard miles of cliffs
and troughs,
back to the place
we were
years ago, when
we were
all so much younger,
and we walked, and ran,
with Bessie the dog,
down, down to the sea.
We retraced those steps
more slowly, yesterday,
but look how far
we walked,
look how far
we have come.

 

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Thank you to Peter Skevington for the photographs.

Poem – Cormorant

cormorant Graham Owen

Photo by Graham Owen

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The River Deben

 

I used to walk by our river most days, with a notebook. I don’t know why I fell out of the habit, as it was a good one, but this week, I knew I needed to begin again.
So I walked along the lane, along the quiet creek, towards the bench where I used to sit and write,  when, just behind me, my attention was caught by an ungainly black shape moving fast.
Startled, I felt the emotions I had been seeking to keep under the surface.
The experience reminded me of the last line of Seamus Heaney’s wonderful Postscript

“And catch the heart off guard and blow it open ”

Like the white swans in their wild landscape in Heaney’s sonnet,  this dark bird on my river was some kind of liberation, revelation.

So I sat down on the bench where I used to sit, and wrote this:

 

 

Cormorant

Why is it, this bright morning,
that the sudden sight
of the cormorant
coming to land on the water
takes me unawares,
startles me open?
The tattered black wings,
stretching back,
the rangy sticks of feet,
the head, sharp as a
stabbing sword.

It lands in a single
fluid act, graceful upon
the slippery shining water,
but for a moment
only,
and then the bird
pierces the brightness
with that fine head
and dives
down into
its darkness.

 

 

 

 

Spiders

 

 

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September – such a rich month.  You can feel the year turning. I love the golden light, and the fruit and berries everywhere.  I love the mornings when spider webs are strung with dew, and there is a nip in the air, waking you up.

Spiders – where are they, the rest of the year?
They seem to be everywhere now, including in the house.  I keep reminding myself of the sterling work they are doing eating the flies, which were bothering me last month….

This is a small poem about the ways of spiders, and the power of waiting.  At this time of year, so much slow ripening is coming to fruition.  I find I have forgotten I watched the bees on the raspberries and the apple trees, wondering what the harvest would be.  I have moved on, thinking of something else.

I forget that much I have wondered about, worried about, prayed about, has turned out all right, after all – not everything, but enough.  I am learning the patience of spiders.

 

 

Spiders – September

Now is the time of spiders –
their silver webs spun between
leaves, and twigs, and blades of grass.
Each one has its weaver,
resting its legs
on fine threads,
its many eyes watching.

For now, warm fat insects
drift dreamily on
the September breeze.

The hedges hang
with berries, I cannot
pick the plums fast enough,
first apples bend branches,
and beans lengthen on their vines.

I am learning the patience
of spiders.
It comes.  What you need
comes to you.  Gently,
when you have almost
forgotten that you ever asked,
or wanted, or longed for it –
here, and here, and here..

 

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I have this on my computer desktop. It helps me remember the power of patience endurance, of not giving up.

 

Sunday Retold – The Sower and the Seed 16th July 2017

Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow, with passages from my books The Bible Story Retold and Prayers and Verses.

This week it’s

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23,  the Parable of the Sower

Please feel free to use any of my material that helps you, saying where it is from.

The Sower (van Gogh)

The Sower  Vincent van Gogh

 

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.  So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

 

       “I will open my mouth in parables,

        I will utter things hidden since the

             creation of the world.”

 

Matthew 13:34-35″

I love this small commentary from Matthew’s gospel – it opens up for us all kinds of insight into Jesus’ storytelling.   Things hidden since the creation of the world are spoken out – spoken out in stories.  How extraordinary is that!

Matthew’s reference takes us right back to the beginning – perhaps we can wonder what these things hidden from the beginning are.  Perhaps Jesus is unlocking meaning, and truth, showing us a natural world which is also a mirror in which we see our own experience, and a window into the mind of God.  These parables, parables of the kingdom, reveal things about the nature of God, of the kingdom Jesus tells us is near, very near, and even within us.  Things which have been hidden, up till the moment the stories begin.

Story works, as we know, very differently on the mind and heart from rational argument.  We remember stories, they stay with us, working deep in our imaginations.  Many of us remember this one – the parable of the sower.  It draws from lived experience – or it did, before so many of us ended up so far away from the rhythms of planting, and growing, and eating.  You could even say that the story itself is, in some ways, alive.

Stories reveal their meaning slowly, over time.  The words of God can grow, unfolding within our own hearts, like the secret growth of the seeds.  Not fast food for the soul, but a banquet – it takes time.

But, why didn’t he just say what he meant? we can ask.  Not every meaning can be spoken out like that, for a start.  There are different kinds of meaning. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want people simply to agree with his point of view, or perhaps he knew they weren’t ready to hear…. not all at once.  Perhaps he wanted to hold out a possibility even  to those whose hearts had been calloused by the hardness of life – the possibility they could be transformed by a new way of seeing the world. Metanoia, the Greek word usually translated repent, means to change your thinking – change your mind in a deeper sense than we usually mean it – change the whole orientation of how you see and understand things.  Even if they could not hear the meaning when they heard the story, the story would stay with them, ready to reveal meaning when the time was right.

As we read it, it can help to set to one side what we think we know of what it means – to allow our rational thinking mind to be stilled, for a while, and to respond with the heart, with the imagination.

Stories can help us make sense of our lives, they open us up to a deeper kind of reality and truth.   When we are ready.  It takes time.  Don’t rush to an explanation.

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Once, when Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he told them this story.

“One dry, bright day, when the wind was still, a farmer went out to sow seed.  He took handfuls of grain from the flat basket he carried and, with a flick of the wrist, scattered seed, hopeful for its growth.  But some of the seed fell on the path, where the passing of many feet trampled it, and the birds swooped down and ate it.  Some fell on dry rock.  After the soft rains, it swelled and sprouted.  But then it withered, for its roots could find no water.  Some landed among the thorns, which grew so fast that they soon smothered the tender new shoots.  But some landed on good soil, where it grew up, and ripened. When the time was right, the farmer came back and harvested a crop from it, a hundred times more than was sown.”

After the crowds had gone, and Jesus was left with the disciples, they asked him “What does that story mean?” And Jesus answered:

“The seed is the word – God’s word.  The seed that fell on the path is like the seed that falls in some hearts – it’s snatched away by the devil before it takes root, before those people begin to believe. The seed that falls on the rocks is seed that falls where there is little depth – at first, God’s words bring joy to those people, but there are no roots, and when trouble comes their faith withers away.  The thorny places are like hearts choked up with worry, with riches and pleasures.  There’s no space for God’s word to grow. But some seed does fall on good soil – the word takes root in hearts that are ready, and they hold on to it.  In time, the word gives a rich crop in people’s lives, and they are fruitful.”

From  The Bible Retold

 

So, I don’t want to say too much – just these few things.
I love the way the sower is generous – it is the nature of the sower to scatter the seed.  Seed is light, it lands lightly on the earth.  It speaks to me of an abundant, overflowing God, who gives, but does not impose the gift.

Secondly, I wonder about the soil.  We tend to respond to this parable individually – thinking about the state of our own hearts.  And Jesus’ interpretation points us that way. Maybe, in our communities, we can also ask what things make this soil in this place good, or poor?  Are there rocks we can remove, is there compost we can dig in, are there thistles we can pick before they set seed?  What stands in the way of  people being able to receive – for new life to thrive with them?  Is there anything we can do about it?
And, of course, we can ask the same questions of ourselves, and our lives.
We can engage in soul gardening.

Then, I have been wondering about what this word might be.

What are the seeds that Jesus is speaking of?

What did Jesus mean when he talked of the word, and of Good News?

As we read the gospels, these are good questions to hold in our minds.

Often, Jesus spoke of the good news of the kingdom of God, which is much closer than we think.  If I wonder what it is like, as well as looking at the parables, I often think – it is like the presence of Jesus – what he said, and did, how he lived, what he showed.

Transforming.

Isaiah 55:10-13English Standard Version (ESV)

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall break forth into singing,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
    an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

This is one of the other readings given, to be read alongside the Parable of the Sower.  It is worth spending some time reading it slowly,  meditating on it.

Speaking of meditating, you might like to look at the second of the Van Gogh pictures.

Notice the figure is in darkness.  Who has been a sower into your life?  Who has brought love and hope, new growth, life itself?  Can you thank them, or give thanks for them?
Are there ways you can sow good things into the lives of others – with a light generosity?
Notice the way the sun hangs over the sower’s head – does it remind you of anything? make you think anything?
How do you respond to the use of colour in the picture?
Can the light of love and goodness warm what you do today?
How do light and dark interact in the growing of a seed?

Can you nurture new life in yourself and others today?
Can you connect with living growing things?

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The Sower – Vincent Van Gogh

Help me to be patient as I wait for your kingdom
and your righteousness:
as patient as a farmer who trusts that the rains
will come in their season,
and that the land will produce its harvest.
Keep my hopes high.
Help me to pray to you and to praise you.

The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun, the rain, the appleseed.
The Lord is good to me.
Attributed to John Chapman, planter of orchards 1774-1845

We can do no great things,
Only small things with great love.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta 1910-1997

from Prayers and Verses

 

May the God of growth and new beginnings bless you and all you love today.

 

Poem – Treasure, Hidden. Of perseverance and hope.

 

 

 

 

Treasure, Buried

Each morning I find
small divots in the lawn,
dug neatly, completely.

Sometimes, the squirrel
comes while I am there –
both of us, quiet –
and with an arched back
and a bright eye
she digs.

Does she ever find her
hazelnut?
I don’t know.
I haven’t seen.

I do know I find
a seedling growing
unexpectedly somewhere,
sometimes,
and wonder –
was it her?

I push the divots
back into the lawn.
Each day there are more,
and more.

We value persistence,
the squirrel and I,
we value hope.

Poem – Morning Yoga Practice June 2017

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There has been much grief in the UK this week, met with an outpouring of love, and courage, and kindness.  These sudden losses shock us, remind us of our fragility, and the fragility of those we love.  The moments of national grief catch up our own more private losses, bring to mind what has gone before, and can take us deeper into questions – and the capacity to endure the space between the question and anything like an answer.

After reading Malcolm Guite’s reflections on being so close to the terrible events at London Bridge on Saturday night, I too have had these words of Shakespeare on my mind.

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days?

Asking questions seems a good response to the depths,

I am returning to my practice of writing freely, recording what draws my attention.  This morning it was this.

 

Morning yoga practice  June 2017

I bend on the grass,
look up at the bending gladioli
dancing cerise with their
graceful arches

as June’s north wind
rocks the branches,
as the air fills with
white petals –
blossom, roses –
that fall.

Why is it all so fragile,
this beauty?
why does it all slip
through my fingers?
I stretch, stretch out my
heart, and my love,
sending it both near,
both near and far away.

 
Restore them dear Lord,
Make them whole,
may they see
this life this beauty,
as the petals fall about me
in a cold blaze,
life and beauty ripped away,
yet carried on this June wind,
yet landing softly on this
green earth.